Friday, March 1, 2013

Popes; Earth's Past; and a High-Tech Eye Implant

Some news coverage of preparations for electing the next Pope are well-informed. Some isn't.

I write about examples of both in this week's 'in the news' post; plus my take on a newly-discovered microcontinent, and a high-tech eye implant.
  1. Respect, Obedience, and Popes
  2. @Pontifex Reality Check
  3. Earth's Past: Another Piece Found
  4. Here's Looking At You: Argus II Retinal Implant

Science and Technology: In a 'Religious' Blog?!

My faith doesn't require me to learn as much as I can about this creation. But I'm not expected to cultivate ignorance, either. We're also told that science and technology can be used to do good:
"...the things of the world
and the things of faith
derive from the same God...
"
(Catechism of the Catholic Church, 159)

"...The beauty of creation reflects the infinite beauty of the Creator and ought to inspire the respect and submission of man's intellect and will."
(Catechism, 341)

"...Science and technology are precious resources when placed at the service of man and promote his integral development for the benefit of all..."
(Catechism, 2293)
I've been over this before. (February 10, 2013; June 9, 2012)

1. Respect, Obedience, and Popes

"Benedict XVI pledges respect, obedience to future Pope"
David Uebbing, CNA/EWTN News (February 28, 2013)

"Pope Benedict XVI surprised the cardinals and organizers of a Feb. 28 farewell ceremony by saying the future Pope is present and that he already pledges his 'unconditional respect and obedience' to him....

"...'...Among you, between the College of Cardinals, there is also the future Pope, to whom I already pledge my unconditional respect and obedience,' he declared.

"The cardinals of the Church usually promise their obedience to the new Pope in the Sistine Chapel after he is elected, making Benedict XVI's words all the more powerful...."
In a way, everything Benedict XVI does over the next few weeks will be a surprise. Although popes have resigned before, it's a bit unusual: and something that hasn't happened for centuries.

That "unconditional respect and obedience" shouldn't be a surprise. That's the attitude all Catholics should have toward whoever currently holds the authority my Lord gave Peter.

As for how news and other media will react to Benedict XVI's statement, I suspect much of it will be as well-informed as Danae in yesterday's Non Sequitur comic strip:
Moving on.

2. @Pontifex Reality Check


(From CNA/EWTN News, used w/o permission.)
"Next Pope can still be 'Pontifex' on Twitter"
CNA/EWTN News (February 26, 2013 )

"The Vatican has dispelled claims that Pope Benedict XVI's 'Pontifex' Twitter account will be shut down permanently, clarifying that it 'will be available for use by the next Pope as he may wish.'

"Monsignor Paul Tighe, Secretary of the Pontifical Council for Social Communications, said Feb. 23 the Twitter account was created for the Pope's 'exclusive use.'

"In a statement published by Vatican Radio, he said the account will be inactive during the interim 'sede vacante' period between the Feb. 28 resignation of Pope Benedict and the election of a new Pope.

"Many media outlets misinterpreted an earlier account from Vatican Radio and reported that the Vatican would be shutting down its ten-week-old effort on the social media site...."
I'm not surprised that "many media outlets" got it wrong. Particularly since the @Pontifex account on Twitter now has no 'Tweets,' as Twitter calls those little 140-character-max posts. I'm a bit disappointed at their disappearance, since Benedict XVI had left quite a few brief observations about our faith.

I gather that reporters and editors, at least in America, are under enormous pressure to get 'news' out as fast as possible. I sympathize with them, and hope that they're learning how to use online resources: intelligently.

Aside from deadline pressure, I think American media unwittingly maintains an old American tradition: being clueless about Catholicism. I've posted about journalism, attitudes, and assumptions fairly often in this and other blogs, including:

3. Earth's Past: Another Piece Found

"The sands of time: Continent 'lost' 60 million years ago found by scientists"
FoxNews.com (February 25, 2013)

"Hidden beneath the brilliant blue waters of the Indian Ocean lies a secret, scientists say: an entire micro-continent that detached itself some 60 million years ago.

"And they found it through a few handfuls of sand.

"The islands Reunion and Mauritius, both well-known tourist destinations off the southeastern coast of Africa, are hiding the micro-continent, a fragment known as Mauritia that detached while Madagascar and India drifted apart during the Precambrian era, scientists said...."
Discovering the Mauritia continental fragment adds more data to the store of knowledge we have about Earth's history. That's news.

On the other hand, knowing that the stuff continents are made of sometimes comes in small pieces isn't news: or isn't new knowledge, anyway. As geologists studied what's under coastal areas, they learned that continents have grown when bits and pieces get stuck to the edges of land masses. (USGS)

By the way, the island Mauritius is where dodos used to live, and that's another topic:

"Subjacent?!"

I love language, and don't mind 'big words.' Just the same, I think whoever wrote this article could have found a way to explain what "subjacent" means: and probably should have. It's not the sort of thing you're likely to hear every day:
  • Subjacent
    • Lying nearby but lower
      (Princeton's WordNet)
    • Situated or occurring underneath or below
      • Underlying
    • Forming a basis
    • Lower than but not directly under something.
      (Dictionary.com)

Sand With Bits of Really Old Zircons

"...A group of geoscientists from Norway, South Africa, Britain and Germany published a study that suggests, based on the study of lava sand grains from the beach of Mauritius, the existence of further fragments.

"The sand grains contain semi-precious zircons aged between 660 million and 1.9 billion years, which is explained by the fact that the zircons were carried by the lava as it pushed through subjacent continental crust of this age.

" 'We found zircons that we extracted from the beach sands, and these are something you typically find in a continental crust. They are very old in age,' Prof. Trond Torsvik, from the University of Oslo, Norway, told the BBC...."
(FoxNews.com)
Why bother about some tiny zircons in beach sand?

Knowing that some island's beach sand includes really old bits of zircon won't help me fill out this year's tax forms, make my teeth whiter and brighter, or tell me who'll win the next World Series.

But studying this creation, including tiny zircons, is important because it's part of what makes us human:
"Basic scientific research, as well as applied research, is a significant expression of man's dominion over creation....
(Catechism of the Catholic Church, 2293)
That "dominion" isn't the sort of 19th century vandalism that gave "development" and "industry" a bad reputation. (Catechism, 306-307, 358, 2402, -2418)

I've been over that before. (April 11, 2012; March 28, 2012)

A Puzzle With Pieces Missing


(from Sci-News.com, used w/o permission)
"Reconstruction of India-Madagascar-Seychelles, Mauritius and other potential Proterozoic continental fragments that constituted Mauritia 750 million years ago (Trond H. Torsvik et al)" (Sci-News.com)
"Geoscientists Discover Microcontinent Hidden Under Lava in Indian Ocean"
Sci-News.com (February 25, 2013)

"According to a study published in the latest issue of the journal Nature Geoscience, the islands Reunion and Mauritius are hiding a Precambrian microcontinent named Mauritia.

"The microcontinent Mauritia detached about 60 million years ago while Madagascar and India drifted apart, and had been hidden under huge masses of lava...."
We still don't have all the pieces to the puzzle of how continents fit together in the past: literally and figuratively. I'll be astonished if studying Mauritia answers every question about continental drift. But I'm also quite sure that the shard from a major continental breakup is worth studying: for geologists, anyway.

Hotspots, Sunday Supplements, and the Bible

"...Such microcontinents in the oceans seem to occur more frequently than previously thought, according to geoscientists from Norway, South Africa, Britain and Germany.

"The break-up of continents is often associated with mantle plumes. These giant bubbles of hot rock rise from the deep mantle and soften the tectonic plates from below, until the plates break apart at the hotspots. This is how Eastern Gondwana broke apart about 170 million years ago. At first, one part was separated, which in turn fragmented into Madagascar, India, Australia and Antarctica, which then migrated to their present position.

"Plumes currently situated underneath the islands Marion and Reunion appear to have played a role in the emergence of the Indian Ocean. If the zone of the rupture lies at the edge of a land mass - in this case Madagascar-India, fragments of this land mass may be separated off. The Seychelles are a well-known example of such a continental fragment...."
(Sci-News.com)
Phrases like "often associated with" and "appear to have played a role" show up in quite a few science articles: those written by folks who understand the material, anyway.

I associate 'scientists now know' statements more with Sunday supplements, than with what the scientists actually say. On the other hand, scientists are human, have been known to make some fairly wild statements, and that's almost another topic.

As we learned more of creation's vast scale, both in time and space, it became quite obvious that the Bible isn't a science textbook. (January 14, 2011)

That doesn't bother me. Like I've said before, honest research can't contradict faith, since God made the universe. (Catechism, 159)

As a Catholic, learning about this marvelous creation is an option. Learning about the Bible isn't:
"The Church 'forcefully and specifically exhorts all the Christian faithful . . . to learn "the surpassing knowledge of Jesus Christ," by frequent reading of the divine Scriptures. "Ignorance of the Scriptures is ignorance of Christ." ' "
(Catechism of the Catholic Church, 133)
I'm also supposed to use my brain:
  1. "Know what the Bible is - and what it isn't. The Bible is the story of God's relationship with the people he has called to himself. It is not intended to be read as history text, a science book, or a political manifesto. In the Bible, God teaches us the truths that we need for the sake of our salvation."
(USCCB, "Bible Is for Catholics")

'You Are Here' Over the Last 280,000,000 Years


(from "This Dynamic Earth," U.S. Geological Survey, used w/o permission)
"According to the continental drift theory, the supercontinent Pangaea began to break up about 225-200 million years ago, eventually fragmenting into the continents as we know them today." (USGS)

The last I heard, exact positions of Earth's continents over the last few hundred million years are still debatable. But the general pattern seems to be fairly well defined.

It helps that Earth's magnetic field reverses on a fairly regular basis, and that we've found quite a few fossils and other deposits that help put the pieces of this puzzle together.

I put links to several pages in "This Dynamic Earth," the online version, under "Background," at the end of this post.

4. Here's Looking At You: Argus II Retinal Implant


(from Second Sight, via FDA, used w/o permission)
"Argus II becomes first 'bionic eye' to gain approval for sale in U.S."
Noel McKeegan, gizmag (February 18, 2013)

"While the word prosthesis usually evokes images of artificial legs, arms, and these days even sophisticated thought-controlled hands, an entirely new class of replacement body part has now become a reality - the bionic eye. One of the pioneers in this field is California-based Second Sight and the company has now announced that its Argus II System has received U.S. market approval from the Food and Drug Administration (FDA).

"The result of two decades of R&D and US$200 million in public and private investment, the Argus II System began clinical trials in the U.S. back in 2007 and won approval for sale in Europe in 2011...."
The words "bionic eye" show up in quite a few articles. I suppose it's a sort of tribute to "The Six Million Dollar Man." And possibly indicates that the '70s series is still in syndication: which is another topic.

I wrote about about "thought-controlled hands" last week, and whether I think it's okay to use them. (February 22, 2013)

I'd much rather have 'original equipment' limbs, but it's nice to know that prosthetics technology is getting to be further from the pegleg, and closer to replacement parts imagined in "Star Wars."


(from Lucasfilm, Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation, via deathstarpr.com, used w/o permission)

More to the point, the Church doesn't have a problem with organ transplants: and donating organs after death is encouraged. (Catechism, 2296)

On the other hand, the Church says we shouldn't kill someone and break the body down for parts. Arbitrary as that rule may seem, it's consistent with what we're told about human life. (Catechism, 2258)

Second Sight's Argus II isn't a transplanted organ, but I figure the same principles should apply. Provided that folks pay attention to ethics, of course. (Catechism, 2292-2296)

Caution: Creepy Content

"Retinal implant wins FDA approval"
Robert Perkins, USC News (February 14, 2013)

"The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) today approved the Argus II retinal prosthesis system for use in the United States.

"Mark Humayun, who holds joint appointments at the Keck School of Medicine of USC and the USC Viterbi School of Engineering, was a key member of the team that developed the device, which will be available to qualified patients at the Keck Medical Center of USC.

"The Argus II, which received a unanimous recommendation for approval by the FDA's Ophthalmic Devices Advisory Panel in September, restores some visual capabilities for patients whose blindness is caused by Retinitis Pigmentosa (RP), an inherited retinal degenerative disease that affects about 100,000 people nationwide...."
Articles about Second Sight's Argus II generally don't show pictures of the prosthetic eye. Even Second Sight's product pages, although quite informative, seem a bit shy about showing what the The Argus® II Retinal Prosthesis System looks like.

I can see why:

(from Second Sight, via FDA, used w/o permission)
"...The Argus II system uses a camera mounted on special glasses that sends a signal to an electronic receiver with 60 electrodes implanted inside the eye.

"The receiver sends signals to the retina that travel through the optic nerve to the brain, where they can be interpreted as a visual picture. The researchers hope that one day the device can be improved to also help individuals with age-related macular degeneration, a similar but far more common disease....

"...As the Argus II retinal implant is refined, it will be housed in the USC Institute of Biomedical Therapeutics. The new interdisciplinary institute will bring together scientists, engineers and clinicians from around the world to study neural networks to develop bioelectronic solutions for the millions of people impacted by traumatic brain injury, stroke and debilitating eye diseases...."
(Robert Perkins, USC News)
Aside from queasiness about having a surgeon make irreversible changes to one's eyes, I can imagine someone deciding to go blind, rather than get this prosthetic eye.

It's a Start

One resource said that someone using it could tell the difference between light and dark, another that it would allow someone to read very large print. I suspect it would have to be very large print indeed.

According to USC News, the Argus II retinal implant "has 60 electrodes arranged in a rectangular grid" on the patient's retina. ("Argus® II Retinal Prosthesis System Patient Manual" (redacted), Second Sight, via FDA (July 2012)

Those 60 electrodes, 55 of which are activated, with five held in reserve, could form an image, but I think it would be very grainy.

To show what I mean, I made two pictures of the same text. The first one has 147,456 pixels:


That's quite readable.

Here's the another image showing the same text, but with only 64 pixels:



That may be higher resolution than what the Argus II retinal implant provides, or it may not. However, it looks like only really large print would be readable.

Whether or not to sign up for getting this prosthetic would, I think, be a hard decision. On the one hand, it offers the hope of very limited sight to someone who would otherwise become blind. But this device apparently gives very grainy vision.

Someone who is losing vision and meets the rather stringent requirements for getting this implant would have to decide quickly. I gather that the patient must still be able to see a little. Still, I suppose it's better than not seeing at all.

I think it's also important to remember that the Argus II retinal implant is a very early effort at restoring sight with an artificial eye. I hope, and expect, that better devices will be developed.

It seems - unlikely - that we've "reached the end of our inventiveness." January 27, 2013

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