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Sleep Deficits: Avoid Them!

By Shlomo Maital

 

The December issue of the Association for Psychological Science’s Observer magazine has an article on “the hidden costs of sleep deficits”, written by the staff.   Apparently, nearly 30% of adult Americans sleep 6 or fewer hours a night – an hour at least short of the amount recommended. Just an hour? And what about children? School-age children should sleep 10 hours a night, but there are crack-of-dawn school starts (once common in Israel, now eliminated), homework and video games….

   According to research, what does sleep deficit do to us? * heightened conflict with family, friends and colleagues… * economic costs: workplace productivity declines, and mortality increases… and costly mistakes.. * emotions: sleep-deprived people have more difficulty controlling their emotions.

     One study showed that bosses who are sleep deprived are more abusive, leading to bad outcomes for everyone.

     So – get that extra hour of sleep. Check it out and see if it helps. Chances are, it will.  

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Reviving Nikola Tesla

By Shlomo Maital

Nikola Tesla

Thanks to Elon Musk and his Tesla electric cars, the genius inventor Nikola Tesla and his achievements have been revived.

           Tesla was born and raised in what is now Serbia, in the Austro-Hungarian empire. He was trained as an engineer. After migrating to the US, he worked for a time with Thomas Edison. However, they had an argument. Tesla believes that the future of electricity lay in alternating current. Edison was committed to direct current.

             Tesla left Edison’s shop and went to work for George Westinghouse. There, with Westinghouse, Tesla built an alternating-current electric motor, whose design we employ to this day. It was vastly better than direct-current motors. It did not need powerful permanent magnets.   The AC motor formed the basis of the Second Industrial Revolution.

             Tesla invented many other things. He invented the “logic gate” which became the foundation for semiconductors. He built a robotic drone (“teleautomaton”, he called it). He tried to find how to transmit electricity wirelessly – we’re still trying to do that.

               But Tesla died poor, in New York City, in 1943.   He was never able to truly partner with industrial giants who had the money to finance his inventions. Edison, in contrast, was a genius at doing that, and got J.P. Morgan, the banker, to fund his initial electricity company. (Edison was smart enough to ‘electrify’ Wall St first, and J.P. Morgan’s home).  

               Today we follow Tesla, not Edison. We use AC current, not DC.  

                 There is a lesson here.   In order for creative ideas to be actuated, you need resources. That means, you have to communicate your idea to those who can best help implement it, and then work with them, with empathy. Tesla failed at this. But his ideas did change the world. And so are Munk’s Tesla cars. Thanks, Elon, for helping us remember this genius inventor.

Brain Soup

By Shlomo Maital

Suzana Herculano-Houzel

How do you count the number of neurons (brain cells) in a brain (whether human or animal)?   Dr. Suzana Herculano-Houzel, Vanderbilt University, has found a creative way.

   Previously, the method was to take samples of brain tissue, freeze it, put it under a microscope and count neurons. But this was inaccurate, because neuron density in brains varies widely, depending on the place within the brain.   Using this method we thought the brain had 100 billion neurons. That’s not a lot – elephants have three times more!

   Herculano-Houzel read an old 1970’s study, suggesting, why not measure the amount of DNA in a brain, then divide by the amount of DNA per neuron?   Hmmm… problem is, DNA per neuron varies widely.

   So she developed a new, creative method.   Take a brain.   Puree it using a blender. (Honest!).   Brain soup, she calls it.   Mark the neurons with a chemical dye, then mark again with a red dye to mark the nucleus of the neurons. Neurons have only one nucleus, like all cells. So if you count the neuron nucleuses, you can compute how many neurons there are in the brain.

   Answer?   86 billion.   Or, 14% fewer than we thought (100 b.).

   So why are humans so smart? The key part of the brain, that makes us smart, is the cerebral cortex, that wrinkled outer part of the brain. Because it is wrinkled, it has a lot of surface area, enabling more neurons to pack it.   Turns out we have 16 b. neurons in the cerebral cortex, while orangutans and gorillas have 9 billion, and chimps have 6 billion. (Those are respectable numbers – those primates are clever!).

     And those 16 b. neurons in the cerebral cortex are waht makes us smart, and it is probably where Dr. Suzana got the idea…   Hey, why did no-one else think of it before?

Reflections on Death

By Shlomo Maital

   This blog is about a subject most of us prefer to avoid. How does one react to the passing of a loved one? During the past year, our family lost at least one close friend, close enough to be family.   How does one react to such loss, and also, to one’s own eventual passing?

     Here is what I think.   Our own lives are gifts.   All too little, do we say thanks for the gift of life.   This is why I love Mercedes Sosa’s wonderful song Gracias a la Vida (thank you for life).

     Suppose the Louvre Museum were to call me up one day and say, hey, Shlomo, we’re lending you the Mona Lisa, on long term lease. Hang it in your living room. Enjoy. One day, we’ll ask for it back.   Would I be incredibly grateful? And would I complain when they asked for it back one day?

     No.     And that is how I think we should relate to our own lives and those of loves ones. They are given to us not for good, but on long (and at times, painfully short) leases. They are to be returned.  They are all Mona Lisa’s on loan.

     And when they are returned   —   We should say, thank you, just as you would say on receiving any sort of gift, even one involving a loan.  

     My mother Sally passed away in 2012.   At her funeral, we had family members and friends come up and tell “Sally” stories, many of them humorous. She was larger than life, a woman with a huge heart and sometimes a sharp tongue. There was considerable laughter at the funeral. Afterward, some people expressed deep horror at the levity.   But, I explained, Mother lived to 105! And most of those years, she was in good health, and for all of it, in sharp mind.   What a gift! How can we show ingratitude by complaining! Of course, we miss her a lot. But so would we miss the Mona Lisa when asked to return it.  

         Let us all remind ourselves to say, gracias a la vida. For ourselves, and for loved ones.   Thank you for the wonderful lives we are given. We celebrate them, in life and also in death.   And in doing so, we show respect for life and true understanding and appreciation of life as an incredibly precious gift.

     One of my friends, a career officer, spent years, informing loved ones that a son, husband, grandson, nephew, had alas died during army service. She recounts that it helped people greatly when they could see finality in the death, and recognize the loved ones were gone. Some could not, and daily worked to keep memories alive, perhaps out of guilt.   The strategy of closure was far healthier and better than the strategy of non-closure, she recounts.  Fond memories always remain. You don’t need to work to retain them. They are there. When you say ‘thank you’, I am returning the gift that I received, there is some solace.  

     Many will disagree with this view. For me personally, when my time is up, I hope those I leave behind will celebrate my life, tell stories about it, and express gratitude to the Creator of all life.  

Blog entries written by Prof. Shlomo Maital

Shlomo Maital
January 2018
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