Sunday, December 26, 2010

Coming Attractions

As a widely-respected cultural commentator, people have been asking me, Liam, what's trending in 2011? Actually, no one has asked me this, but if anyone does I have a ready answer: magnetism. Not metaphorical (personal, sexual) magnetism, but actual magnetism--the fields of energy that cause electrons to be attracted to or repelled by one another. I don't pretend to understand the science (Fucking magnets--how do they work?, as the Insane Clown Posse famously mused) but I do know that magnets are very, very important--and becoming more important every day. 2011, and you heard it here first, may well be the Year of the Magnet.

I've been interested in magnetics since early childhood. Idly handling my mom's refrigerator magnets, I'd dream of magnetic hovercraft and wonder why science hadn't harnessed this powerful and mysterious force. Science, I didn't yet know, had in fact been quite busy putting magnetism to use; electromagnetism, considered one of the four fundamental interactions found in nature, is the driving force behind modern life, powering everything from TVs and computers to cars, cell phones, stereos and space ships. Quite simply, life as we know it would not exist without magnets.

But--note to my 6 year-old self--magnets have not come close to exhausting their potential. The young Liam would have been delighted to learn, for example, that several proposals are moving forward, here in the US, for the construction of high-speed maglev train lines. These trains, already in use in parts of Asia and Europe, use magnetic levitation and propulsion to travel at 300+ mph; they travel quietly and efficiently and could play a large role in addressing our fossil-fuel dependence. Plans for maglev service in the Pittsburgh-Philadelphia corridor, the Southeast (Chattanooga-Atlanta) and the West Coast (Anaheim-Las Vegas) have been pushed by the Obama administration; 2011 may well be a watershed year for magnetic transportation.

And science continues to find new uses for magnets. Louis Pasteur discovered in 1862 that magnetic fields affect plant growth, and more recent studies have shown the application of magnetic energy to significantly enhance agricultural yields. In the field of medicine, magnet therapy is a growing (though controversial) field that uses magnetism to treat everything from osteoarthritis to depression, and while the practice may appear a bit New-Agey, many of its claims are backed by hard scientific evidence. Equally intriguing are recent experiments with magnetic implants--one intrepid journalist had a small, rare-earth magnet implanted in her fingertip and has written about it for Wired magazine. While acknowledging that the magnetic fingertip has little current practical application, she talks of extending her perceptual range and experiencing the world on a different level.

Then in March of this year, Science Daily is all like, researchers are using something you've never heard of called transcranial magnetic stimulation to affect people's morality. A magnetic field applied non-invasively to the right temporo-parietal junction apparently disrupts, temporarily, the part of the brain used in forming moral judgments. The implications are staggering; morality is, like, the cornerstone of civilization or whatever, and now we can suddenly disable it with magnets? Break out the magnets already! I know lots of people who are due for some moral reprogramming--and think of the parties! So much cleaner and more efficient than alcohol! No more waiting in line for the bathroom, or vomiting in taxi cabs--you simply leave your moral inhibitions outside the forcefield, which ideally is centered around the dance floor.

In short, the coming year holds great possibilities for the future of applied magnetism, from high-speed transit to neuroscience. Not to mention the sheer beauty of magnets in action--here are a few more magnetic fields culled from google images for your viewing pleasure:

Also poised to make a big splash in 2011: trepanation. A once-popular medical procedure all over the globe that fell out of favor in the 20th century, trepanation involves boring a hole through the skull and removing a small piece of bone. Trepaned skulls have been found dating back to prehistoric times, some with holes the size of a golf ball; these days a carefully-operated electric drill can make a much tidier job of it.

Trepanation enjoyed a small vogue in the 1960s and 70s, when Dutch almost-doctor (he never quite finished his medical studies) Bart Hughes began advocating trepanation as a "permanent high". His theory, developed under the influence of psylocibin, was this: in childhood, the softer skull allows for a greater volume of blood in the brain. As we age and our skulls ossify, blood flow is restricted. Hughes proposed that a hole in the skull would allow blood to move more freely through the brain, returning the patient to a more childlike plane of lucid, enlightened consciousness. As noted earlier I am not strictly a "scientist" but the hypothesis looks sound enough to me. Hughes, for one, seemed to be quite pleased with the results. "I feel like I did when I was 14," he was reported to say years after a successful self-surgery. Then in the 1970s, a British woman named Amanda Fielding underwent the operation on film (the resulting movie, Heartbeat in the Brain, is a hard-to-find cult classic). She later ran (twice!) for Parliament on a platform of free trepanations through the National Health Service (she lost).

Trepanation has failed to take off on any large scale; an estimated 60 people worldwide have managed to have the procedure done since Hughes' day. Medical doctors, in their (pun intended) closed-mindedness, tend to frown on the procedure and write it off as "barbaric". But of the few dozen adventurous souls who have undergone trepanation, I haven't come across a single unhappy customer. Trepanees seem, in fact, almost fanatic in their missionary zeal. The International Trepan Advocacy Group, founded by American trepanee Peter Halverson, promises patients improved mental functions, "for their own well-being and for the well-being of the entire world population."

A study conducted from 2000-2004, involving 15 voluntary trepan patients and reporting satisfactory results, has failed to sway either medical opinion or popular feeling toward trepanation--a stubborn aversion to drilling a hole through the head inexplicably remains. But there are indications of a trepan groundswell in the coming year. People are talking about trepanation, blogging about it, beginning to ask their doctors if the procedure is right for them. With some pretty major Mayan prophesy shaping up for 2012, 2011 is going to be the year to go for it and achieve enlightenment--it could make a huge difference in the coming Transformation.  

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