Vera Rubin: The woman who unwound Dark Matter’s cosmic spindle


Among so many celebrity and A-listers deaths this year, the passing of some less well known (but by no means less important) people has all but gone unnoticed.

Vera Rubin was the American astronomer who first proved the existence of Dark Matter. Initially met with skepticism by the scientific community -mainly because she was a woman-, Rubin would come to be vindicated in later years, as her theories and discoveries proved to be correct.

Dark Matter: The Great Universal Enigma

There is a great universe out there. Ever expanding, all entities contained in such gigantic grain of sand keep moving at a steady pace away from each other.

The 14bn-year-old (give or take some loose millions of years) three- (or fourth-, if you listen to some theorists) dimensional Universe grows and grows in apparently
random directions, and all galaxies, nebulae, black holes, and whatever other space stuff is out there moves at dizzying speeds.

And this is only the observable Universe. In other words, the portion of Universe, however vast, that contains the light that has had enough time to reach us since the Big Bang occurred, all those billions of years ago.

But wait. If we can only see some of the Universe, what’s beyond this visible slice of Universal cake?

And more importantly, what holds the Universe together? Dark Matter, that’s the invisible thread that binds all things together out there.

Now, enter Vera Rubin.

‘As long as you stay away from science you should do okay.’

So an ill-advised school physics teacher said to a young Vera Rubin. But fortunately for the science community, she paid little heed to such cheap negativity.

A daughter of Jewish immigrants, Rubin’s interest on astronomy began when she was 10 years old. She had recently moved to Washington DC with her family, and the stars she saw through her bedroom window held the young Rubin in their thrall.

But Rubin’s path to the stars would not be an easy one.

In 1947, at 20 years of age, Rubin requested a graduate-school prospectus from Princeton University, only to be told by a dean that women were not accepted into the program (females would not be allowed to enroll in Princeton as undergraduates until 1969.)

She was also unable to attend Harvard because she married young, and followed her husband to Cornell University in New York, where he was studying physics. The young bride would go on to obtain a master’s in Astronomy at Cornell.

Undeterred by these artificial barriers, Rubin learned most of what she knew by conducting her own research, away from ‘centers of excellence.’ This circumstance would play against her, as fellow scientists would have a hard time accepting anything outside the norm.

Dark Matter: The unseen force that binds the fabric of the Universe

Let’s go back to that big bad Universe for a moment.

The Universe is full of stuff, that much everyone kind of agrees. Understanding this stuff, well, that’s another matter.

Back in the 1960s, the convention was that galactic mass was concentrated around a galaxy’s bright center. Based on this assumption, it would stand to logic that stars located the farthest from the center would move on a slower orbit, as they would be subjected to less intense gravitational pull.

However, Rubin’s research concluded that the speed at which remote stars orbited the galaxy’s center was about the same as stars closer to it.

This, according to Rubin, suggested that there must be another, yet unseen gravitational force, at work.

The existence of Dark Matter had been postulated as far back as 1933. Technological limitations of the era, and the advent of Second World War prevented any serious research into it, however. Rubin’s work infused new life into the pursuit of this elusive cosmic mystery.

Conducting pioneering work with fellow astronomer Kent Ford, Rubin used our closest galactic neighbour, Andromeda, as an example. The team discovered that the rotational speeds of Andromeda’s stars increased rapidly as they moved towards their orbit’s edges, then levelled off. And these rates did not decrease, irrespective of the star’s distance to the central galactic mass. Rather, they became a constant value.

But what was most revealing was that the star’s rotational curve (that is, the orbital speeds of visible stars) remained flat. This contravened all expectations and accepted astronomic conventions of the time.

Admitting that this might have been a phenomenon occurring locally at Andromeda, she looked at other galaxies. Astonishingly, she observed the exact same behavior.

In layman terms, Rubin discovered that most stars present in spiral galaxies orbit at roughly the same velocity, a concept that would defy the established laws of the Universe.

Vera Rubin’s cosmic legacy

Rubin’s groundbreaking work was met with deep skepticism and mistrust, for two reasons: Her unconventional path to learning, and most of all, because she was a

Galaxies and stars are caught in the thrall of something called dark matter, named so because it remains invisible to the entire electromagnetic spectrum. In other words, we can’t see it, at least current technology can’t.

But thanks to Vera Rubin, we know it’s there, molding and handling entire galaxies into shape.

Rubin died of natural in an assisted-care facility in Princeton, New Jersey, at the age of 88. She had suffered from dementia for a number of years.

D.A. Henderson, the great unsung hero who vanquished smallpox, also died in 2016 – Here’s his story


Though now consigned to vials securely stored in a handful of research facilities around the world, smallpox was once a mighty foe indeed.

The disease brought down civilizations and changed the course of history in painful and unpleasant ways, killing peasantry and royalty alike throughout its gruesome evolution. Smallpox slaughtered an estimated 300 million people during the 20th century alone.

It took the ingenuity and determination of one man, leading a team of scientists from the World Health Organization (WHO) to take the disease on and eventually vanquish the seemingly unstoppable harbinger of death.

D.A. Henderson, an American epidemiologist, died in the year of our Lord of 2016. His passing was barely noted, among a long list of high-profile celebrities who have passed on this year. He went peacefully, in a hospice facility in the town of Townson, Maryland, at the age of 87.

Yet, Henderson’s passing marks the end of a hugely successful and significant life lived in the confines of the medical world. He steadfastly led a sustained campaign against a terrible and implacable disease that had raged for centuries, killing, maiming, or blinding millions of sufferers.

Smallpox: The sleeping giant

Late in the first decade of the 1500s, Hernan Cortes landed in modern-day Mexico with a detachment of conquistadores. A year later, a second group of Spanish mercenaries arrived, hailing from Hispaniola island in the Caribbean. These men brought exogenous death along.

Cortes fought and defeated this group, but some of his own men became infected with a hidden killer, setting off a chain of events with deadly and far-reaching consequences.

Smallpox soon spread throughout the indigenous Aztec population like wildfire, as they had no natural immunity to such virulent, foreign, never-before-seen disease. In a short time, most of the Aztec army and an estimated 25% of the civilian population had perished.

Smallpox would take an even higher toll on the Incas. The disease ravaged through Colombia first, killing the Incan Emperor, his successor, decimating the top echelon of Incan society. Two of the emperor’s sons survived, soon engaging in a civil war for power that killed even more people. All told, smallpox eradicated between 60% to 90%
of the Incan population.

The disease’s trail of death rode on. North America’s Indian population also suffered a devastating fate. Hiding inside two blankets and one handkerchief taken from a smallpox ward, the virus entered Indian society and killed an estimated 1.5 Native Americans. The items had been given as gifts to two Indian chiefs.

Major smallpox outbreaks continued until the early 1900s, both in the Americas and elsewhere, due to contact with Europen colonists and traders. It arrived in Australia around 1789, bringing the Aboriginal population to its knees.

And so it went on, bringing death and suffering wherever it popped up.

Henderson and the WHO’s efforts

Donald Ainslie Henderson spent a great deal of his career working for the Center for Disease Control (CDC) and the WHO.

During his time in the CDC, where he worked as Chief of the surveillance programs for viruses, he and his team put forward a plan to eradicate a disease that had killed pharaohs, emperors, and kings.

Starting in 1967, Henderson and his field team worked on the ground in smallpox hot zones, fighting a natural monster that had brought death to so many.

The highly contagious disease is caused by the variola virus, and it’s transmitted through close contact with an infected subject, or inhalation of airborne droplets laden with virus. Depending on the disease’s course, the mortality rate ranges from about 30% to fatal.

Henderson and his team worked under stressful conditions at the best of times. The world was engaged neck-deep in the Cold War, for one. And the countries where the courageous scientist and his men were commissioned to work were already ravaged by wretched poverty, political upheaval, or all-out conflict.

But armed with a powerful vaccine in freeze-dried form (so it could easily withstand the highest African temperatures), Henderson worked tirelessly, using a technique called ring vaccination. Rather than vaccinating everyone, he injected the those who had had contact with smallpox victims, and those who had been in contact with these people. Thus, Henderson created a ‘ring of steel’ around those infected, preventing further spread. Smallpox is not carried by animals, which greatly helped to curtail its natural dissemination.

The team’s efforts spanned a decade. A Somali man was the last known patient to naturally contract the disease in 1977. This man would go on to make a full recovery, and passed away in 2013.

The world was officially certified as being smallpox-free in 1980.

Epilogue: A monster vanquished

D.A. Henderson wrote ‘Smallpox: The Death of a Disease’ in 2009. The book chronicled his heroic endeavor in eradicating a horrendous disease that had raged for centuries. The world is now safe from smallpox thanks to this man.

Smallpox is indeed one of only two diseases that have been completely eradicated, the other one being rinderpest, an infectious illness that affected cattle.

Henderson would continue working for many years, serving as an advisor on bioterrorism with the Bush and Clinton administrations, for example.

He passed away due to complications arising from a broken hip on August 19.

Small stocks of viable variola virus remain in existence. The CDC in Atlanta and a Russian facility in Siberia reportedly hold the sleeping monster. Henderson strenuously -but unsuccessfully- fought to have these samples destroyed, stating that any amount of smallpox, no matter how small, is dangerous.

And the greatest irony of it all is that since nobody has been infected with smallpox in generations, most of the world’s current population would now be highly susceptible to the disease, if an outbreak were to occur.

The Princess returns to the stars: Carrie Fisher – A life


Aren’t you a little short for a stormtrooper,’ Princess Leia said, in an almost mocking tone, to a stormtrooper-clad Luke Skywalker.

And just like that, the Princess and her savior became acquainted.

Carrie Fisher has sadly passed away today, meeting an untimely end at the young age of 60. She will forever be remembered for playing the part of the wayward Princess Leia, a diplomat from Alderaan who had the guts to face down Darth Vader himself and save the galaxy in the process.

Daughter of well-known actress Debbie Reynolds and singer Eddie Fisher, she made her on screen debut back in 1975, in the almost forgotten movie Shampoo.

But it would be two years later, when Fisher landed the part of Princess Leia in Star Wars, that Fisher’s life would change forever. She was barely 19 at the time.

Star Wars would go on to become a landmark moment in cinema history for many reasons, and the trappings of fame would not always bode positiveness for the cast, and specially for Fisher.

Substance abuse began plaguing the now well-known actor, and behind Leia’s tough facade hid a troubled individual that struggled with what she had become. ‘Drugs made me feel normal,’ Fisher said once in a candid interview.

Fisher was diagnosed with bipolar disorder in 1985, something she made no secret of, and fought hard to remove the stigma attached to those who suffered the disorder. Fisher put her acting career on hold to deal with her mental health issues, and dedicated her efforts into writing books. Wishful Drinking and Surrender the Pink were the outcome of this writing period.

A little later on, in 1987, Fisher published a best-selling semi-autobiographical work, Postcards from the Edge, which would later be turned into a movie starring Meryl Streep.

She would return to acting for The Force Awakens, in which she rejoined most of the original cast from the 1977 classic.

From Hollywood wild child, to teenage pin-up and Percodan-addicted celebrity, not to mention her alter ego, Princess Leia, Fisher was a fascinating force on and off the stage. Later in life, her personal issues somewhat overshadowed her achievements, but one thing is for certain: The Princess has now returned to the stars where she belongs.

The breath of life: International team of scientists develops device that can detect up to 17 different diseases in human breath


Early disease detection greatly increases the chances of survival, sometimes by as much as 70%, specially when dealing with life-threatening conditions.

An international team of researchers has developed a non-invasive device to detect up to 17 different illnesses in a human breath sample.

The idea is hardly new. Hippocrates already theorized about the correlation between breath odors and disease, way back in 400 B.C., for instance.

This new device, which is controlled by an AI program, features a nano-array composed of carbon nanotubes and minuscule gold particles. According to its developers, the program can discern the unique chemical signatures of up to seventeen conditions.

The team, led by researchers from the Israel Institute of Technology, explained that human breath contains over 100 chemicals known as volatile organic compounds (VOCs). It is these VOCs that the new device recognizes and analyzes, as different diseases produce unique chemical signatures in a person’s breath.

A spokesperson for the team said ‘Just as each of us has a unique fingerprint that distinguishes us from others, each disease has a chemical signature that distinguishes it from other diseases and from a normal state of health,’

‘These odor signatures are what enables us to identify the diseases using the technology that we developed.’

Early testing has shown that the device can pick up the chemical markers for chronic kidney failure, two forms of Parkinson’s disease, multiple sclerosis, Crohn’s disease, ulcerative colitis, irritable bowel syndrome, high blood pressure, and eight different types of cancer with an 86% accuracy rate.

If commercialized, the new device may replace unpleasant and invasive procedures like biopsies, as breath testing is simple, painless, and can be repeated over and over.

Serbian air stewardess who survived a free-fall from 33,000ft dies aged 66


JAT Yugoslav Airlines Flight 367 departed Stockholm, Sweden, bound for Belgrade on January 26, 1972.

The aircraft, a McDonnell Douglas DC-9, carried 23 passengers and 5 crew. Among these crew members was 22-year-old Serbian stewardess Vesna Vulovic.

The long-haul flight was scheduled to make two stopovers: First one in Copenhagen, the second one in Zagreb.

The aircraft made it to its first stopover, but it would never make the second. At 16.01, while flying over the Hersmdorf suburb of Berlin -an area which back then was part of the GDR-, Flight 367 blew apart.
Its fuselage broke up in two while flying at cruising altitude, and both pieces plunged to Earth, crashing down on a snowy slope in what’s today the Czech Republic.

All on board lose their lives, bar one. Young Vesna Vulovic.

The stewardess miraculously survives the 33,000 plunge, and is found by a woodsman, who heard her screams.

She was rushed to hospital, where she was found to have a broken skull, and fractured vertebrae. She fell into a coma for 10 days. Upon waking up, she had no recollection of either the flight or the terrifying fall. All she could remember was greeting the passengers in as they boarded the plane in Stockholm.

Due to her spinal injuries, Vesna became paralyzed from the waist down, but in time, and as a testament of human resilience, she made a near-full recovery. She even went back to work for the airline, albeit in a desk job. She would never take to the skies again.

Vesna became a celebrity around the Balkans and further afield, and many expectant mothers even began naming their babies after her, as they associated the name with good luck.

But today, Vesna was found dead inside her apartment. The cause of death is not immediately clear.

Theories as to how a human being would survive a free fall to the ground from 33,000ft have been put forward throughout the years.

As luck would have it, Vesna was located aft of the fuselage when the aircraft exploded. A drinks cart pinned her against the wall and acted as a restraint, preventing her from being sucked out in the sudden decompression, and keeping her firmly in place all the way down.

Furthermore, the tail section where Vesna was trapped in retained its structural integrity as it plunged downwards, somewhat sheltering her and greatly reducing terminal velocity. And to compound the miracle, the broken fuselage hit a tree canopy first and then slid down a snowy slope, which reduced the impact force considerably.

Conspiracy theories emerged soon after as to how the aircraft came down. The official explanation is that a bomb was planted during the flight’s first stopover in Copenhangen, though nobody has ever been brought to justice.

Nevertheless, Vesna Vulovic’s miraculuous survival stands as a testament to human will and endurance.

Vesna received the Guinness prize for ‘Highest fall survived without a parachute’ in 1985, a record that she still held to the day of her passing.


Doomsday draws nearer: President Elect Donald Trump calls for the expansion of the US’ nuclear arsenal


War is like love, it always finds a way, according to Bertolt Brecht.

The German playwright had a point, for war always does have an insidious quality about it. It is a sinuous beast with a thirst for freedom.

Enter US President Elect Donald Trump, who has now said that his country must greatly expand its existing nuclear arsenal, ‘until the world comes to its senses regarding nukes.’

Back in 1970, the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) came into effect. The NPT called for the prevention of the spread of nuclear weapons, and was ultimately ratified by 191 countries, including a recognized nuclear state, the United States of America. The NPT, which was scheduled to be reviewed every 25 years, was extended indefinitely in 1995.

The current geo-political climate around the globe is one of uncertainty and shift towards pre-war conditions.

Recent events, like the assassination of the Russian ambassador to Turkey, Andrey Karlov, in Ankara, are darkly reminiscent of the killing of Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria in Sarajevo in 1914. This event, remember, led directly to the onset of World War I.

Also, terrorist activity around European soil has given rise to a tense socio-political climate and a deep sense of mistrust against the Muslim world.

It is against this backdrop of gathering storms that the statement made by Donald Trump resonates with echoes of warmongering.

According to Mr. Trump, the US must ‘greatly strengthen and expand’ its nuclear capabilities ‘until such time as the world comes to its senses regarding nukes.’

Mr. Trump’s comments come shortly after his Russian counterpart, Vladimir Putin, spoke to his own advisors and said “We need to strengthen the military potential of strategic nuclear forces, especially with missile complexes that can reliably penetrate any existing and prospective missile defence systems.”

The US and Russia can deploy just over 7,000 nuclear warheads each. This is more than enough firepower to destroy the Earth several times over.

It seems fitting to end this piece with a quote from Jean-Paul Sartre. When the rich wage war, it is the poor who die.’

Russian special forces use robotic weapon system to neutralize tier-one ISIS target


Russian Spetsnaz troops used a robotic system equipped with a heavy weapon to neutralize a tier-one ISIS target.

A man known as Rustam Aselderov was cornered inside a house in the city of Makhachkala, sited on the western shore of the Caspian Sea. Russian troops surrounded the compound and poured fire around the perimeter before sending in the armed robot.

The droid then fired a volley of high-caliber rounds into the building, reportedly obliterating the target and four of his associates also holed up inside.

Aselderov was a high-ranking official in the ISIS leadership, and had been linked to several terrorist attacks in the Russian city of Volgograd and other locations around the Dagestan region. The Russian Government had previously offered a reward for any information regarding the man’s whereabouts. Aselderov was also on the Specially Designated Global Terrorist list.

The use of battlefield robotics has seen a recent upsurge, as technological advances have made it possible to equip drones and other remotely-controlled devices with deadly weaponry.

US forces have used drones extensively to carry out pinpoint strikes. On November 12 2015, for instance, the well-known ISIS executioner ‘Jihadi John’ (real name Mohammed Emwazi) was killed in a highly publicized surgical strike carried out by a US drone in Al-Raqqah, Syria.