Sign of the Times

Sign of the Times

We’re at Waterfront Park, off Colbert Lane, in Palm Coast, Florida. We’re at a covered picnic table, steel-latticed and sealed in brown plastic, set perpendicular to a walkway several feet away. The site overlooks the Intracoastal Waterway that extends the length of Florida. It is 3:34 Thursday afternoon, February 16, 2012. It’s probably 100 feet back to the parking lot from the table. I’m using a walker. I’ve shuffled that distance to get a little exercise, recuperation for a hip contusion. Beverly, my partner in life, is seated beside me, our backs to the table so I can keep a hand on the walker. We’re looking down the Intracoastal toward Flagler Beach to the south and points beyond. We’re halfway through an apple. The walkway extends from the parking lot here two miles north to a companion terminus under the Palm Coast bridge, the toll bridge that transports tourists east across the Intracoastal to Route A1A. This part of the walkway, a mile section, opened just last year. It is a valued addition to the St. Joe Walkway and Linear Park system that circles the section of Palm Coast nearest to the water, on this side of the Intracoastal.

A man our age, mid seventies, is giving his dog a walk up the walkway behind us. The dog, while leashed, is bumptious; she jumps up on the table and gives me a sweet nudge unbeknownst, and befriends Beverly with a like gesture. Bev turns to nuzzle with her a bit. We strike up a conversation with the man, who has the appearance and demeanor of a quiet Alec Guinness. The dog is a designer dog, a Cavalier King Charles Spaniel crossed with a poodle. She is a year and a half old, with curly beige and white hair.  A great dog so far, the man says. He’s retired. He has lived in Palm Coast seventeen years. His house was mostly in a wooded area then. Now it is in a fully developed neighborhood. We love the walkway for biking, when we are able to bike. He loves the walkway for the exercise and for walking the dog. He does so daily. Nice man. We’re about to get the man’s name, and the dog’s name too. But there is an interruption.

A man has risen from his bench, twenty feet away, on the same side of the walkway as we are located, where he has been sitting with his wife. He is walking up toward us, probably, one surmises, to exchange pleasantries. His wife remains seated. He looks to be another senior retiree enjoying his afternoon. He’s younger than we are, perhaps in his mid-sixties. He is dressed in a blue t-shirt, advertising some company or other, there’s a phone number set out on the front, and he wears a blue baseball cap. He looks like a younger us. Somehow he reminds me of Robert DeNiro.

When he comes abreast of the three of us, so that we can all see him, he turns to directly face the man with the dog and addresses him thus:

What in hell is wrong with you, letting that damn dog run all over the picnic table? Don’t you know people eat on that table? Don’t you know that is what tables are for? Do you think people would want to come here and spread out their picnic lunch after that filthy thing has been running all over it? Use your brains, man, if you have any, and get that dog off the table!

That’s how it went down. No preliminaries. No “Could I have a word with you in private?” No “I have a concern I’d like to mention.” No “Pardon the interruption.” No “Don’t take this personally, but I need to get something off my chest.” Instead, out of the blue, from nowhere, total disrespect and a direct ad hominum attack on a stranger. This is reminiscent of Dan Axelrod denigrating Jane Curtin on Saturday Night Live, “Jane, you ignorant toady…” And this attack comes from out of left field from an otherwise nice appearing man who had been watching from 20 feet away.

The dog owner, diatribe ended, says: “Sweetness, jump down from there so we can please this man and make him happy,” to which Sweetness, who had been watching the interloper eye-to-eye from all four feet, promptly sits down on her hind quarters.

“Please me? Make me happy?” the DeNiro character says, as if enacting a scene from the movie Anger Management, and takes two steps straight toward the table as if to deal with the dog directly. “Don’t talk about making me happy, don’t talk about pleasing me, dammit, please them,” he scans his arm so as to indicate the people of the world, “please the picnickers, please the users of the park, please them,” indicating with another sweep the users of the walkway and Intracoastal. “This is only about you buddy. Didn’t you just see that filthy dog sit down just now and wipe his ass all over the table?”

Just then, the wife, as if responding to an understood cue, arrives from the bench she has been sitting upon, having departed apparently when the first salvo was fired by her husband. She arrives just as the “please me?” soliloquy is ending, and just in time to touch his left arm as she proceeds to walk toward the parking lot, without stopping, and without looking at him or at us. He falls in step with her and joins the exit without further threat to man or dog, but muttering audibly as he walks, for the next twenty seconds or so, “inconsiderate fool,” “unbelievable,” “dirty-ass dog,” and the like until they turn from the walkway toward the parking lot and places beyond.

That’s all there is, folks. It had all happened so suddenly and ended so quickly, entirely without our participation, with the exception, of course, of the dog owner’s single sentence to his dog. The mood afterward was identical to that of an audience after a play: “that was shocking;” “never saw that coming;” “what an opening act;” “how about the wife’s performance?” “What a show.”

In this instance, the follow-up dialogue included: “Did you know him?” “No, I’ve never seen him before.” ”Nor her either.” “Is he from around here?” “I have no idea.” “He never even looked at either of you.” “No.” “He knew we didn’t have a dog in the fight.” “Oh, funny.” “He must do these riffs regularly.” “Do you suppose he hates dogs?” “I’d say so.” “I thought he was going to hit the dog.” “Or hit you.” “Yes, I was thinking of lending you the walker.” “I hope he’s still in the parking lot, I have something to say to him.” “What?” “I’m not sure.” “His poor wife.” “Yes, bet she’s seen that act before.” “Probably three times a day.” “Probably directed against her!” “Yes.” “What’s this crap in the soup, or something like that?” “Yes.” “Women are often told by men what they should do,” Bev says, “That’s nothing new.”

Bev and I have been talking about this incident ever since it happened. Bev tends to be a “it happened, it’s over” type of person, while I see meanings, portends, trends. “Could this be a sign of the times?” “What do you mean?” “When the ordinary turns into the extraordinary instantaneously,” I opine, “it must be happening at other places.” “Hm.” “I guess that’s silly,” I censure myself, “that would claim that events come only in abundance, rather than singly; that’s just a statement of faith.” “Yes.” “Well,” I continue, “how about these images? Are they in the ballpark? Politician sticking it to an opponent in an advertisement? Sports radio takes and zingers—”deal with it sucker, over and out”? Young punks dissing each other? President Obama being called a liar and worse? Incidents of road rage? Celebrity character assassination?” “Yes,” Bev agrees, “Those are signs of the time, and they don’t help.” “Well, that’s exactly my point: look at the incivility. Everybody is angry, especially men, and it’s always  the other guy’s fault. No one is going to take it anymore. Time to tell the other person off.” “Forget it. Isolated incident. Book closed. It’s over.”

Will Callender, Jr.©

February 28, 2012


Tour of Two Flager Hospitals in Florida

Tour of Two Flager Hospitals in Florida

Henry Flagler was a great man, and most deserving of the memorials which carry his name. The partner of John D. Rockefeller in Standard Oil (himself future first citizen of Ormand Beach), and railroad builder extraordinaire, his Florida East Coast Railway combined railroad station with destination hotel to attract nascent snowbirders to Florida, first to Jacksonville where he brought his sick wife for respite and renewal, and then, after building a railroad bridge across the St. Johns River, to St. Augustine, Ormand Beach, Palm Beach, Miami, and out to the Keys, all the way to Key West. The Flagler name is associated forever with St. Augustine, Palm Beach and Miami. More than a few consider him the greatest of all Floridians. Whitehall, his home in Palm Beach, now a museum, and the Ponce de Leon hotel in St. Augustine, are personal favorites of ours. As snowbirders actualized, we have enjoyed for many years the plays and public lectures at Flagler College in St. Augustine, a fine, up-and-coming, center of the city, liberal arts college, where Flagler’s Ponce de Leon Hotel now doubles as historical site and women’s dormitory.

While some might argue that two neighboring hospitals should not both carry the Flagler name, it seems right, given the honoree’s many contributions to the area, that the primary Hospital in Palm Coast, in Flagler County and West of Flagler Beach, be so named, and no one would question the same choice for the hospital in St. Augustine, in neighboring St. Johns County, After all, the two hospitals would still have 35 or so miles of space between them. Thus, it came to be, the region is today served by two Flagler hospitals.

If you lived in the area, or vacationed therein, as we do, you might wonder in dire situations which hospital to use, which would be best in an emergency. If you lived near Marineland, at the boundary line between Flagler County, to the south, and St. Johns County, to the north, you would be roughly midway between the two hospitals. If a medical emergency were to happen in that radial vicinity—let’s say on I-95, or on Route A1A—the patient would likely find himself in one or the other of the two hospitals. Which should one go to? Who could help us decide? Well, unfortunately, I can. I’ve recently completed the natural experiment of visiting each hospital’s emergency ward under trying conditions. My wife can be informative too, by sharing her experiences associated with my experiences.

Of course it took time, nearly four years, to pull the feat off. In March 2008, after a near faint at breakfast in St. Augustine Beach, I was admitted to Flagler Hospital, St. Augustine for chronic atrial fibrillation, and spent much time there over the next couple of months, culminating in the insertion of a pacemaker in May, before returning to Maine. We were living at the time in a rented condo just south of Marineland in Flagler County on route A1A. It doesn’t matter for present purposes that the pacemaker site became infected and that the device had to be pulled out upon arrival in Maine, only to be replaced in August with another pacemaker, leading to a repetition of the cycle, and ending in an identical result, its extraction in September. After that, it was decided a pacemaker wasn’t needed at all and I’ve been living just fine with natural equipment ever since. A cautionary tale there, perhaps, but I haven’t figured out what it is. The relevant point, though, is that the emergency care was excellent. The unit was organized, ready, welcoming, purposive, appropriate and motivated. A sense of teamwork pervaded the place; tests were organized and conducted in an efficient way; nurses, aides, and physicians worked in concert; communication was timely and clear. People were friendly. Everything that could be done for us was done. We were impressed and pleased with the care. Obviously an assessment of the medical advice that led to the implant surgery is questionable. Overall, though, we found Flagler Hospital, St. Augustine, top notch and I sent a letter to the chief executive thanking the hospital for their excellent care.

I didn’t know I would have the chance to evaluate the Emergency Room of the second Flagler Hospital, in the City of Palm Coast, until a fortnight ago, on Sunday, the 29th of January. The opportunity came suddenly, quite by accident. My wife and I had just arrived from Maine at the same rented condo south of Marineland—our fifth straight winter there and seventh straight if two other rented condos are included. I was transporting the last baggage from Jeep to cart when the opportunity came to kick the curb and attempt a half gainer. I ended up with my back against the parking garage wall and my right leg feeling as if it might be broken, or worse, an artificial hip, of which I have two fine ones, displaced. So, what to do? Call over a couple of concerned people, one cleaning his car, another walking her dog, request a 911 call, and ask that my wife Beverly be informed. She was until then happily unpacking our stuff in the second floor condo. I was soon on my way to Flagler Hospital, Palm Coast, Florida.

The emergency medical technicians proved skilled and efficient. The unit, attached to the Flagler County Fire Department in Hammock, a small community and subdivision of Palm Coast where we reside, arrived within minutes. They accomplished the necessary analysis and arranged me for support and transport; we were on the way to the hospital within minutes. The technician who accompanied me in the ambulance was particularly impressive. He had done lots of things in his life and was obviously skilled and competent. He reminded me of the student speaker, an EMS professional himself, at our granddaughter’s university award ceremony this winter where both, as student-athletes, were receiving awards for scholarship. The speaker explained that he had returned full-time to the University at age 39 after a successful first career in Emergency Care. He sought to prepare himself for a second profession and career. He was not only on the inter-collegiate wrestling team, but a front-line wrestler, and leader, winning his share of matches. The guy who accompanied me to Flagler would have had similar success, I predict. He was a body builder, a fitness instructor, a former teacher, a football coach, a good critical thinker, and a very nice man. We hit it off. He had my vitals and background information ready for the hospital folks upon arrival. Probably he had called the information in.

There was an evident problem though. Beverly, who had taken my keys, wallet, and phone for safe-transport, had clarified directions with the ambulance driver before leaving. You’re going to Flagler Hospital, is that right? Yes. You’re going via I-95? Yes. Why, after this clarification, she had taken a hard right north on A1A, just after we turned hard south, was mystifying and disturbing. Oh-oh! I watched through the back window of the ambulance as she drove at a speed in slight excess of the Marineland speed limit as the shape of her vehicle diminished and finally dropped from view. When the ambulance door opened at the Hospital, the driver noted, “Your wife went the wrong way.” “Yes, I know.” It turned out that Beverly was unaware of the existence of a second Flagler Hospital. On the other hand, she could draw a detailed map of the St. Augustine hospital from her many visits there during my 2008 hospitalizations. Of course she went there.

You feel it immediately, upon entering the emergency ward, even before the door closes, a palpable atmosphere of isolation, alienation, resentment, mistrust, and carelessness. I’m an organizational analyst of sorts and have made a modest sum of money in such work. I sense work issues and organizational problems at operation behind a scene like this. No one was talking, no one moved. What’s wrong here, my brain is asking as the gurney is parked to the left of the nurse’s station, just beyond the view of the three silent people seated there. Could this be the improbable moment when an otherwise functional unit is caught in a funk? Perhaps. I hoped so. I wanted the place to be more welcoming than this.

As I lay there musing, I note that none of the three people at the desk has greeted the EMTs, who have stepped back around to the front, where I couldn’t see them, presumably to pass on the required paperwork to a staff person there. Silence. It is five o’clock or so on a Sunday afternoon, there are no patients in emergency—zero, none, only myself. There would only be one other during my several hours long visitation, and he and his family weren’t there long. In attendance are the three desk persons, I assume, the EMTs, and me. Silence. Just then I become aware of two eyes looking through glasses behind a machine at the far left of the short corridor housing five or so patient care stalls. What struck me were those eyes; their utter disdain. Oh! Oh! I hope she’s not going to take care of me. A few seconds later, I heard from behind the order, “put him in 9.” The EMTs did that, transferred me to a gurney, and wished me well, with the question: “how you doing?” “Okay,” I said,” but I have to get to a phone.” One technician pulled the wall phone over, told me to ring “9” to get outside, and then the two of them left. I tried to figure out how to reach my wife. Of course calling my own cell phone wouldn’t come to mind! I’m a terrible decision maker under pressure.

Midgette rescued me from the problem. That’s not her real name, of course, I seek to protect the guilty. She was my nurse, that was clear, and she was the one in charge, she announced directly upon entering the room, and as she returned the phone to its rightful position. She had a wristband for me. Oops, there was a problem, my birthday wasn’t the 13th of December, it was the 14th, why had I told them it was the 13th, that was unfathomable, and now it would have to be done again, She’d be right back. That’s the only time my name came up and was spoken in the emergency ward that day.

Why don’t I just summarize the visit? Good news, nothing is broken, no displaced hip. This is determined first by a series of X-rays, and then, as a special concern for the artificial hip, by CT Scan. Hip Contusion is the diagnosis. Although a severe contusion, I can go home with Beverly when she arrives.

The two X-ray technicians had turned out to be proficient practitioners of their art and even allowed questions and suggestions to influence their transport decisions. They were fine, although—under the sway of the general atmosphere, and still reeling from the Midgette experience, and all too soon to be returned to her embrace—I could not help but note what apt choices these two men would have made for an Alfred Hitchcock movie, perhaps as orderlies in a mental hospital scene. They would have been scary if they weren’t so nice.

The CT Scan technician was another matter; I feel lucky to have survived her transport and gurney transfer techniques, to which choices, in regard to gurney transfer, I contributed my successful step pattern suggestion so recently welcomed by the X-ray technicians. “No,” she replied, as if to convey: not here, not now, not ever, that could never work. She took good pictures though, and she was fast. She ran the cart at a speed and pace reminiscent of the skilled luge sledder approaching take off. A shift change coming up, or  perhaps a date, she was obviously in a hurry; she showed what efficiency could mean. As she approached patient care room number 9, my room, where my wife, recently arrived from St. Augustine, now stood in the doorway, the luge-running CT scanner exclaimed: “Get out of the way or I’ll run you over.” My edgy spouse thought it fit to respond to the words of this out of control, younger, and taller person: ” I wouldn’t try that if I were you lady!”

Paul, the Physician Assistant, who did the doctoring work in my case, was a thoughtful, caring human being. He did his job well. He exhibited the behavior and attitudes expected of a health professional. He communicated the test results clearly, conveyed expectations, noted possibilities, and set out the care plan. He welcomed questions, expressed concern about my wife’s whereabouts, and even volunteered to extend the blanket over my cold feet. He had been in my position himself, he said. He knew how it felt. He made sure the nurse beeper system was hooked up so I could contact Midgette, when wanted. I tried it out seeking a glass of water. Failed.

By this time I’d seen Midgette several times: the bracelet; the extraction of my clothes (complaint: shirt is wet! As if to say, “disgusting.”); installation of blood pressure cup and of oxygen monitor (well done; professional, even informed me of the good pressure reading); and, insertion of IV, this just after PA has told me of X-ray results and that I’d be going home. I did not see two professionals working or talking together while I was there, excepting the X-ray guys of course! Otherwise, it was always one person alone, serial care. It showed up in the miscommunication.

“Why an IV, Nurse?” “Doctor’s orders!” “For what?” “Pain control.” “ Pain control, great, but I thought I was going home.” “Morphine.” “Morphine? I told the EMTs twice that morphine doesn’t work for me. I don’t want it.” “Well, it might work this time!”

Later on, me asking question of Midgette: “What did you do with the morphine?” Context: She had put the IV in anyhow, and expertly, despite my concern and questions. Then, she had inserted something into it. I assume now that she had merely flushed the device, but I thought then that she might have given me the painkiller. She hadn’t said anything to me. My question was taken as an insult, as a veiled accusation that she might be up to something with the morphine. Her response. “You refused it. It’s on the counter. Someone will come to get it.” She was on the way out the door. I stopped her: “Nurse, I have a problem.” “What?” “My wife, she hasn’t shown up.” “Missing, is she, well she’ll show up.” Gone. That’s the last time I saw Midgette.

Beverly did show up finally, after first visiting the emergency ward at Flagler Hospital, St. Augustine. Their staff showed all the concern and gave all the help one might expect for a spouse whose husband is in an ambulance and hasn’t yet shown up at the hospital. After some queries were made, they called Flagler Hospital, Palm Coast, established that I was there, and helped her plan the travel route to get there. The helper did note, not so reassuringly, “this is hardly the first time this has happened.” Oh, is that so? Is it wise then to have two such close hospitals carrying the Flagler name?

When Beverly arrived at Flagler Hospital, Palm Coast, close to two hours after her trip began, and while I was about to be whisked away luge racing through a CT Scan, she went to the nurse’s station, or front desk, where the EMTs had presented my credentials earlier. A young man was on duty. He didn’t look up. Beverly introduced herself and said she was looking for her husband, Will Callender, who had come by ambulance earlier. He pointed to a phone and said: “dial XXXX on that phone and they’ll tell you where he is.” He returned to his own concerns. When the number is dialed, Beverly is informed that Room 9 is my room. The room is two doors, fifteen feet away, and in the line of vision of the man at the desk. And, as previously related, I’m the only patient on the floor. But as ridiculous as it seems, he required her to use the phone when he could have just pointed. He could have saved his breath by manipulating his finger. Beverly waited in the room during the CT scan and was in the doorway to welcome us back as the luge runner bore down on her. And so it went!

At Flagler Hospital, Palm Coast, “intake” is completed at the end of an emergency visit, rather than before care is given. I kind of liked that, particularly because Beverly had all of my credentials and cards with her. Thus, there came a time, about 8 o’clock, when Midgette’s replacement, the evening charge nurse, removed my IV, communicated my treatment plan and prescriptions, and presented Beverly and I at a speak-easy or racetrack size ticket window in a wall of a six-foot by eight-foot sized room. A welcoming person sat well protected beyond the small hole in the wall. We shuffled all the right papers back and forth between us, with notable success, paid our deductible, and agreed our arrangement was now completed. The account clerk then joined us from behind her window to take my wheel chair to the street, through a special door for that purpose. At that point I realized that the medical professionals had discharged me from their care at the point they turned me over to the account clerk earlier, so that this egress was in fact from the business office!

The account clerk obviously knew this and therefore parked the chair high on the entrance apron rather than take me to the car, which Beverly was retrieving from the lot as the clerk locked the brakes on the wheelchair. “If you need help,” she cautioned, “have your wife ask the person at the desk inside.” The account clerk then left! “Goodbye.” Bev did go back inside through the front door—in effect returning to the Emergency unit after I had been discharged in order to secure someone who could complete the discharge. A young man came out promptly and completed this task ably and affably. He was along with Paul one of the people who acted like a full human being that day. Somehow I don’t think the stay experience would have been much better if he had been there to greet me on arrival, but it sure was nice to leave to the accompaniment of a happy face.

After discharge, it was off in search of food and an all night pharmacy to fill the painkiller prescription and pick up a walker. Despite multiple missteps and mild disappointments, we found the right pharmacy and filled the prescription; walker couldn’t be had until tomorrow. What to do about food? Answer: purchase an amazing load of comfort food, AKA junk food, at CVS, forty dollars or so worth! While Beverly made this purchase, I called the family back home to assure them that we had arrived safely, and were well, except for the minor boo-boos of an accident. Yes, Mom had to drive 40 additional miles between hospitals after driving 300 miles to get us there that day. Hah! Hah! Hah! No, don’t worry! Why do we find it irresistible to mislead the ones we love? And so we arrived at the condo for our three month stay, food and prescription in hand, and me “walking” through the use of a plastic lawn chair, a walker equivalent invented by the resourceful Beverly.

The next morning Bev went to Publix to buy us some real food, only to find her Visa Card refused; thank goodness she also had a Mastercharge card in the wallet. It turns out that Visa had shut the card off when some late night fool used it to buy painkillers and forty bucks of food at a remote CVS on a Sunday night! Not like us! Who would do a thing like that? Thus we were able to resolve the metaphysical puzzle of how an innocent stumble one afternoon could cause the termination of a credit card by morning without active human intervention!

That’s the end of our hospital tour for now, the tale of two Flagler hospitals. Here is how Beverly told the story of our exciting trip to family and friends via email the next day:

The start of our trip was a little shaky when we gleefully jumped in the car and turned the key to a dead battery!!!  Happily AAA must have been in the neighborhood and was there in no time; the battery was declared fine (we must have left the rear door ajar when we packed the night before) and we were on our way. Except for an hour’s rain in Connecticut, the weather was clear, warmer than usual and for the first time ever there wasn’t a drop of snow from Massachusetts on! We arrived here at the condo Sunday afternoon happy as clams. THAT lasted about 25 minutes. I was unpacking and Will was about to bring up the last load when he jammed his foot on the car curb between Jeep and cart and took a flip. He fell one way—his leg evidently took another route. A very nice, young Dutchman alerted me. Several people had gathered by the time I got to the garage. Someone called 911, the men threw that last load back in the car and put the bikes back on, while I raced up and down stairs getting stuff, forgetting stuff and checking to see if I locked the door. They were loading Will into the ambulance when I skidded to a stop. They told me they were heading up to Rte. 95 to Flagler Hospital and asked me did I know the way? I sure as hell did and I wasn’t going up to 95 to get there! I was in the ER waiting room for nearly a half hour and they kept telling me he hadn’t showed up on the computer yet, when finally some bright guy asked me where they had picked him up? When I told him Palm Coast, he said “Oh, I bet they took him to the other Flagler; let me call and see.” Another Flagler! Is there one? Well, yes, indeed there is, and yes they had taken him there. I was now over 30 miles away!! The good news when I finally got to the right hospital was that the x-rays showed that nothing was broken and Will was about to have a CT to make sure that the artificial hip hadn’t been jarred out of place. It hadn’t. He JUST had very severe contusions, a badly swollen thigh and quite a bit of pain. They gave him prescriptions for painkiller and a walker and directed us to an all-night pharmacy. (It was nearly 10 pm.) Their directions were wrong—that was NOT the all-night pharmacy, but they had new directions for us (about 15 miles away). We were able to get the painkiller, but no walker. We also had no food and even Walmart closes at 10 on Sunday, so we ended up getting as much edible junk as we could and spent the ride back here trying to think of ways to get him out of the car and up to the condo. A combination of the grocery cart and a porch chair did the trick. The final blow was the next morning when I went to buy about a month’s worth of groceries and my credit card was turned down. VISA had shut it down because SOMEONE was buying drugs and junk food late the night before in FLORIDA!! Visa didn’t think it could be us. (Luckily I had a Sears Mastercard that I’d never used before on me.) Needless to say things are looking up a bit. The swelling in Will’s leg has gone down a little and he’s fairly mobile using a walker we rented. We’re hopeful that he’ll be able to discard it soon. The weather has been perfect! Love to all, Bev

Will Callender©

Beverly Callender©

February 17, 2012

Science Anxiety: My Big Problem with the Minuscule

Science Anxiety: My Big Problem with the Minuscule

I have a problem with division. I lose the ability to visualize the remaining pieces after a sequence of repeated operations. I have a similar problem with multiplication, but division will be the focus for now. To keep it simple I’ll use multiples of ten, a standard practice in science. I’m not trying to do math though. My issue is mind management. I’d like to know what I’m doing when I divide. But, I can’t convince myself that I do! I suppose I could just say that infinity puzzles me, both the infinitely large and the infinitely small. I can “see” what I’m doing for a while, but not for long, and not all the way. Infinity, after all, goes beyond “all the way;” in truth, infinity goes on and on and on ad infinitum.

It’s easy enough to know what you’re doing at the start. I take a straight line measuring an inch and divide it by ten. I can see that I have ten pieces 1/10th of an inch in length. Now I divide by 10 again and I have 100 pieces of 1/100th of an inch each. Then I divide each of those 100 pieces by 10 and I get 1000 pieces of 1/1000th of an inch. Do I sense a problem yet? Not really, but I’m starting to feel uneasy. I wouldn’t want to be asked to cut an inch of anything into 1000 pieces, which would get harder still, but not impossible, when the 1000 pieces are divided by 10 into 10,000 pieces 1/10,000th of an inch in length. That step in the shorthand of mathematics is 10-4. 10-5 produces 100,000 pieces 1/100,000th of an inch, and 10-6 results in one million pieces of 1/1,000, 000,000th of an inch.

I’ve tried this exercise with my wife and a few other people. Right about now they say: “Stop it!” “That’s enough!” “My head hurts!” An aside is in order. Lots of people feel that incessant division of this sort is physically and mentally taxing. It’s actually experienced as pain, as an assault on body and mind as well as individual rights. In experimental psychology the concept of “discrimination threshold” or “discrimination limen” refers to a psychological threshold above or below which a difference in a stimulus is noticed. For example, an experimenter increases the weight of an object incrementally until it reaches a level the subject notices as a step difference by saying, “that’s heavier!” Each increase had been heavier, but this increment in weight is the first one noticed. The physical weight perceived as greater is thereafter used to mark the psychological awareness threshold. Such thresholds are important in setting up airplane cockpits, and for the design of congenial machinery. I suspect that a trillion, 10-12, is the discrimination limen above which, or is it below which, I lose faith in what I’m doing when I divide. At that point I find the thought irresistible that the inch has disappeared for good; no way can that sucker be divided into more than a trillion things. It took guts, I tell myself, to persevere this far. My unwilling co-experimenters find that their cut-off threshold is 10-6, a measly million, at which point they get up and leave the room with their heads hurting. The experimental psychologist might be impressed by such threshold differences, but any good high school math or science student will denounce the handwringing, call us all wusses, and announce with disgust that division, we should know, goes on to infinity, correction, goes on infinitely.

That comment leads to another aside. I think I know what happens to smug students here. When mathematics students get to 10-9, or 10-10, they too give up believing that they could do the manual work of cutting an inch into countable pieces. They don’t really think they could cut that inch into a billion miniscule pieces. At some level, at some threshold, they give up understanding division in visual work terms and just pay attention to the math operation. In other words, ten (10) and its exponents (2, 3, 4, and more) are psychologically comforting operations. Once you understand the logic, it’s no more trouble to count 10, 10-2, 10-3, 10-4, 10-5, 10-6, 10-7, 10-8, 10-9, 10-10 than it is to count 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10. No big deal, it is just mathematics. Forget whether you believe it, disbelieve if you want, but really, give up the angst, just do the math.

But I don’t want to be comforted just yet. So, please refuse the comfort blanket. Keep your eye on the inner experience, and continue with the pain. As it happens, 10nth power has a long history and is in such wide use in all sorts of scientific and engineering endeavors that its levels have names that go on—no surprise here—endlessly. For example, 1075 is called quattuorvigintillion in the U.S.A lexicon, but dodecilliard or duodecilliard in the UK system. And 10303 is neatly called centillion in the USA but known awkwardly as guinguagintilliard in the UK. I can’t find the name for 10500th, but I do know that this is the estimated number of universes posited by physicists who give credence to the multiverse theory, the theory that many universes may exist. I find that fact somewhat comforting, that there are other possible universes in such absurd abundance, but why should I feel comforted? Is it that life could go on that way? But how could it, we’re speaking of other universes, and for all we will ever know, we only have this precious one to live in!

Since we’re on the subject, you should know too that 10100th is everywhere called googol, including in the USA and UK, which renders 10googol a number called googolplex and 10googolplex a number known as googolplexplex, and yes, I too am feeling the pain now, 10googolplexplex produces a number known as a googolplexplexplex. Just give me one more and I’ll stop. On the minus or small sizes, a googolplexplexplexminix, I kid you not, is 1/10th googolplexplexplex! Oh, I see how it must work with 10500, of multiverse fame. Wouldn’t that be five googols, or half a googolplex?

So here is the question. What image of the product should I have after dividing our one inch by a googolplexplexplexminex? What do I comprehend if I convince myself that I comprehend that? At some point, I lose faith in the existence of that inch and those pieces. Sand on the beach or specks of milled flour wouldn’t be abundant enough, even though these have been ground rather than cut. Nothing I know of will compare. What, I ask you, would work for you? At some point we decide, do we not, that Zeno must have been right: the hare can’t possibly catch the tortoise in this kind of a divisive numbers game. This is Alice in Wonderland stuff. Lewis Carroll, where are you when we need you!?

But wait; hold on a moment, that argument can’t be right. A distinction must be made between things, actual physical objects, and schemes to measure them. I have been asking about the fate of an inch in an infinite division game using 10nth power. But all I’m really doing is applying one measurement scheme to another measurement scheme, an inch in one to 10n in another. Of course the inch never goes away and pieces remain, no matter the extent of serial division. All that is being done are mathematical transformations. I’m making statements about the durability of a one-inch long object in the physical world on the basis of mathematical possibilities. Such real world objects, say a length of string or wood, will actually disappear after a series of repeated divisions, and disappear at specific points in the series, at points which chemists and physicists would be needed to identify for us. We know as a fact that sawdust results from cutting wood, and that the cutting stops with the sawdust. We may decide to combine, liquefy, and compress the stuff, but we don’t, like idiots, go on cutting the sawdust. Numbers may be infinitely divisible, but objects are not. At some point objects decease into remnants or transform into another kind of object. Substances also transform chemically with heat, from solids to liquids and gasses, and back around again. It requires energy to divide objects. Objects don’t so much disappear as reappear as something else. Given the distinction between dividing things and dividing numbers, a faster runner can pass a slower one, and the rabbit can catch and pass the tortoise, no matter how fervently the distance between them is repeatedly halved.

Perhaps I should pursue my discomfort with the infinitesimal— my psychological pathology with division—in a different way, while continuing in the same general direction. Divided objects don’t usually cease to exist when they disappear. The dividing of objects doesn’t typically end with sawdust. A massive amount of reality disappears with repeated division and doesn’t go away. It is just too small to see. The foundation reality of the world is not only beyond the seen, and beyond the scene, but infinitesimally miniscule. Oh My! So that is why googolplexplexplexminex might be needed! It ‘s needed to apprehend and understand reality.

What’s the smallest real thing in the universe? From what physicists now know, the answer is probably quark or electron; they are about the same size. Keeping things simple, three roundish quarks, bonded in a rough triangle, constitute both protons and neutrons, which, bonded together themselves, make up the nucleus of the atom; this is true for each and every atom, for all atoms. Protons hold a positive electrical charge while neutrons have no charge. When the nucleus is joined through electromagnetism with a circling electron, with the electron’s negative charge attracting it toward the positive charge of the proton, we have the general model of the atom. One electron circling a nucleus of one proton is a hydrogen atom. Two electrons circling a nucleus of two protons and two neutrons is a helium atom. The number of protons and neutrons in a nucleus distinguish the different kinds of atoms in the Table of Elements. The number of protons provides an element’s Atomic Number. The number of protons and neutrons together in the nucleus provides its Atomic Mass Number. Thus, an atom can be visualized as a number of protons joined with an equal or close to equal number of neutrons in its nucleus, and orbited by an equal or close to equal number of electrons.  The radii and diameters of atoms are inexact due to the uncertainty principle, which specifies that the location of a particle cannot be determined exactly without losing certainty of its momentum, and vice versa, the momentum of a particle cannot be exactly determined without losing certainty of its location. You might also want to know that the outer area of the atom in which the electrons circle in beautiful waves around the nucleus, in orbits of varying and increasing energy, one electron for every proton in the atom, is huge compared to the tiny nucleus with its protons and neutrons, both constituted of quarks.

I must stop here for another aside, a confession really, because I feel myself transgressing a threshold having to do with authenticity and professional identity. I sense this violation as I write explanations about the composition of atoms. You see, I know little to nothing about math and physics. I have no credential in either field. I was a lousy student of math and physics, chemistry too, when I studied these subjects in school 55 years ago. I took algebra I three times and passed the course only once, and I’ve never received a grade higher than B in a science class. I started serious reading in these subject areas only a year ago, and I’ve had no professional practitioners with whom to discuss my reading. So you must not believe a word I say. I’m a complete novice. You should check out all of this information with reputable sources. I’ve been doing my own checking, of course, and I have some doubts about what I’ve been saying. So you should too. There, I feel better, if only momentarily.

What I’ve been trying to do in my novice status is establish that the atom, any atom, is beyond tiny, that its nucleus of protons and neutrons is vastly tinier still, and that its quarks and electrons are absurdly miniscule. Yet the particles in this miniscule world are real! They exist, and so do more than forty other particles that are getting splattered around at the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) in Switzerland where streams of protons are fired around in a circle against each other at speeds close to the speed of light. The size of these particles, any of them, can only be described in multiples of ten, and only then with certain scales. You are going to need scales, all stated in multiples of ten, to study and visualize the reality of the atomic world, and, also, of course, to visualize the molecular and cellular worlds of chemistry and biology. And you’re going to need them if you’re going to be a surgeon using nanotechnology. If the word nanotechnology has been sneaking into your consciousness, you might look it up and see how its system of measurement works.

Let me see if I can say this fairly clearly: a human body of 70 kilograms is estimated to have roughly 7 x 1027 atoms, that’s 7,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 atoms, and the smallest particle within the atom, say an electron or quark, is approximately 10-15 attometers (am). Oh, 1 attometer is 10-18 meters (m), one meter is 3.2804 feet, and one inch is .02450 meter (m). A nanometer (nm) is 1 billionth of a meter, that is 1 x 10-9th (m). Dimensions in atomic measurement are often expressed on a nanometer scale. In summary, Atoms are real, infinitesimal, and beyond our eyesight. So is the substance of much of the physical world.

As you’ve learned, I’m having problems overcoming anxiety as I write on this topic, residual, I presume, from my poor record on these subjects in school. Perhaps my dislike and lack of competence in math and science was due to the mental baggage I brought to the subject. Perhaps that is what happens to many American students. Our politicians have made our students’ failures to succeed at science and math shameful, a well publicized national disgrace. Well, shame on them for laying the blame on us.

I think I see my problem clearly now. I was taught by adults to study these subjects for impersonal and external reasons—to pass tests, to get a job, to go to college, to enter a profession, for the good of the country—and I took the cultural message to heart. I thereby burdened myself with duty, and experienced anxiety, terror, and pain. School often made me sick. I didn’t know that the physical world I lived in was my world. I didn’t own the subjects I studied. I tried to master the subject matter, but did not succeed.

It would have been better to learn for personal, internal reasons, as I do now: from interest, curiosity, wonder, surprise, and just plain fun. The spirit of physics and mathematics is most authentically felt when the potent playfulness of the human mind is engaged in the eternal wonders and mysteries of the physical world. We do not often enough invite students to mathematics and science for the puzzles, delights, and paradoxes of the physical world. Rather, we invite them to school as little workers and future producers in an economic world, as prospective employees in the “global economy.” Endless economic callouts to youth can be more than anxiety producing; they can be gut wrenching and soul killing.

I complain for youth, not for myself. I have come to love the peculiar odyssey in which mathematicians and scientists are engaged. I find following their pursuits thrilling, freeing, and nurturing. Even when I can’t fully decode the equations, I feel lucky to have found my way into their fascinating playhouse. I hope that parents, educators, scientists and politicians can concert their efforts to extend a more personal and spiritual invitation to American students. Such an approach is needed to counter-balance and supplement the economic invitation we extend now. Personal engagement is best! Focus, diligence, logic, imaginative thinking, persistence, and hard work are the rest.

Invitation extended, let’s return to the issue of the disquieted mind and the disappearing fragment that nevertheless retains existence and identity as an object dissolves from sight deep into the infinitesimal. What do scientists do when the thing they study disappears? Why don’t they go mad from fright of the unseen?

In answer to the first question, scientists don’t panic, or double up in anxiety, as I once was prone to do, just because they can’t see. Rather they get excited and motivated. The temporarily sightless scientist figures out other ways of seeing, and other ways of measuring what they see. All of the tools of scientists, including the mental and mathematical tools, can be thought of as other ways of seeing. Devices to extend eyesight are built: telescopes, microscopes, electron microscopes, antennae, radio towers, satellites, observatories, colliders, reflection screens, and the like. Scales are designed to measure objects of like size in diminished ranges. Smaller chips are invented to build computers with hugely increased computing power. Clever experiments are devised and conducted. Theories are conceived to unify previously conflicting facts into consistent, testable explanations. Tested theories are used to frame new questions for research. Glimpses of information gathered in experiments, and aided by theory, are snapped into neat and elegant equations. Colorful language, analogies, and metaphors—such as “quark,” “particle zoo,” and the like—are evoked to translate scientific shoptalk to audiences of laypeople. Scientists dream. Scientists scheme. Scientists imagine. Scientists invent clever research tricks.

Understanding physical reality, one might say, is fundamentally a light game, and the most exciting task is to figure out alternative ways of seeing when the eyeglasses currently available no longer suffice. Did you know that visible light makes up only a small fraction of the spectrum of electromagnetic radiation? Radiation—radio waves, microwaves, infrared light, visible light, ultraviolet light, x-rays, gamma rays— is all light!  Radiation is another name for light.

Scientists aim to see using all the light there is available. Think of X-Rays. Think of the radio telescope. Scientific knowledge is, in a real sense, light made visible, a previously unseen world of light brought to light.

Eye metaphors, it therefore makes sense, are central to what scientists do. Listen to them talk. Watch and listen to your own talk. “I see what you’re saying;” “Focus on this fact.” “That’s a good way of looking at it.” “From Einstein’s perspective;” “Taking the frame of reference of Newton;” “From his point of view;”  “She oversees the project.” “He supervises the data collection process.” “Visualize events this way:” “Here’s my vision of how it works;” “Imagine this;” “Here’s an image;” “One shouldn’t overlook.” “Picture this scene.” Do you see what I mean? “ “That’s a great insight!” “Upon reflection.” In hindsight.” “A light bulb went off.” “Here’s a bright idea.” “I saw it in a flash.”

Why don’t scientists go nuts for lack of immediate vision, certainty, and knowledge of the unknown? The general answer, I think, is they pursue questions that entice them and avoid overwhelming themselves with the terrible burden of knowing everything at once. One intriguing problem at a time is good enough to live on mentally, emotionally, and spiritually until its answer educes another interesting question. They don’t fall into the trap of thinking they should or could read and know everything and thereby answer all questions. They don’t pretend to be God. They thrive in uncertainty and in the quest. The scientist is in spirit a pilgrim. One exciting problem is enough to start. Trial and error, experimentation, theorizing, the imagining of scenarios and systems, are ways to proceed. Proving an idea wrong through experiment is progress, as is proving an idea right. One good idea, question, or finding leads to the next, and that one could be more exciting still. Science walks a road of discovery

Children may be bored to death by dreadful courses. They could be ruled over today by the burden of passing all those courses and tests, and of securing those diplomas and degrees. But then tomorrow, presto, the student looks at the sun, her sun, his sun, and asks how it could be that a furnace like that doesn’t burn up in a year or two? How can that familiar orb have been warming this place for billions of years? If that question captures that kid, a life of science and mathematics is well underway! If only we could help our children see that! They will have seen a light to lead them into and through the unknown. I hope they have confidence to think large. I advise them to give up the fear of thinking small. I’m not going to do that anymore, and neither should you.

Will Callender, Jr.©

February 9, 2012