Monday, August 8, 2011

Golden Fleece

This post will also be found in Tehachapi's The Loop Newspaper

Back in the 70s and 80s Senator William Proxmire (Democrat from Wisconsin) gave out Golden Fleece awards to organizations that he felt were wasting taxpayer money. That is, they were fleecing the taxpayers. Often the awards would go to groups doing research he couldn't see the point in. And there are politicians and pundits (and their followers) today that still try to denigrate science research that sounds like a waste of time and money. Like calling volcano monitoring “wasteful spending”. At least Proxmire was capable of backing down. At least when confronted by a scientist with much more popularity than he had. (That was Carl Sagan.)

But the original golden fleece came from the ancient (really ancient, Homer thought it was old) myth about Jason and the Argonauts. In that story, Jason had to quest for something called the golden fleece so that he could become king of his homeland. As with many myths, people reading the tale look deep into it to try to see what real world events might have inspired the story.

Most of the interpretations seem to go back to the learning of some kind of technology. With many believing it refers to an agricultural technology. With popular contenders being sheep husbandry (the fleece part) or grain growing (the golden part). And both are reasonable possibilities. Personally I like another where it represents sluice mining of gold. Where sheepskins were placed in the sluices to capture the gold dust from the water (both golden and fleece related).

And just recently a astronomy researchers may have brought back a “golden fleece”. In a desire to understand what elements make up a star, or material around a black hole, they looked at how light affected atoms of different substances. And they found some narrow ranges of light (in particular X-Rays) that reacted to very particular elements. Thus they could tell what elements might be in a star by seeing the reaction in their instruments.

Fair enough. Some cool science. But they spent a little more thought on the matter and realized they could generate specific reactions to X-Rays here on Earth with the right materials. Such as gold or platinum. And what kind of use did they come up with for their new knowledge?

Cancer treatment. X-Rays are used in radiation therapy for cancer. But it tends to be unfocused and will still cause damage to healthy cells. But with their new idea, they could get a few atoms of gold into the cancer, and then expose the body to the narrow range of X-Rays that react with gold to generate electrons just in the cancer. And damaging far fewer of the surrounding cells. Hopefully making the treatment more effective and safer.

All too often when we are given a lesson in history, we follow a single narrative through a sequence of events. But that isn't really how the world works. Things are connected in strange ways that might never be expected. So never judge a book by its cover, and never judge the quality, or importance of a scientific work, by the title. It may just end up saving your life.

Some links to check out:

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