Touching the Unreachable
Posted by Peter Rasmussen on March 6, 2007
Scientists have been finding extra solar planets all over the place lately. The latest “hot Jupiter” that’s been found is so close to it’s sun it only takes four Earth days to go once round it. Its year is over before our weekend. They’ve been using the Spitzer Space Telescope. They have stretched it beyond what it was designed for to the point where they can measure the difference in temperature between the side of the planet always facing the sun and the dark side. They do this by recording the brightness of the star over many observations. When they have enough readings they get a bump or dip where the planet does a “transit” of the star. That is it passes between the star and us looking at it on Earth. In this way they get a lot of information about something that they can’t even get a picture of.
A doctor has been working with patients with “Locked in syndrome”. It’s like a waking coma. They are fully conscious and aware but paralysed so there is no outward sign.
He gives them a stimulus like a repeated sound and does multiple MRI scans of there brain. On close study of all the images from the MRI if a regular patten shows up at the same time as the sound pulses happened he knows the patient can hear. Like the star watching this is information you can’t get in a single shot. It’s the pattern that emerges over time from what seems like chaos.
With a more sophisticated test he talks to the inert patient and asks them to do simple mental exercises like imagining themselves walking from one room in their house to the next. When you do these series of tests with healthy people there’s a clear difference in the pattern of activity from one task to the next.
With a particular “locked in” patient he ran these tests and the brain scans were identical to a healthy person. He told the doctors taking care of him and within weeks the patient walked out of the hospital. The only thing he did not regain was his ability to speak.
I would be surprised if the makers of the MRI machine could have predicted this particular application way back when they were first putting the thing together.
It’s invigorating to see how rethinking the application of existing technology can be used to seek out a distant planet or a distant mind.