Spring break. While getting drunk in a sunny place would have been fun, I spent the week looking at rocks, sometimes in the sun and sometimes in the snow. A group of us went out west, using Mammoth Lakes, CA as a base for trips to Mono Lake, the Sierras, the Long Valley Caldera, and the mountains of the Basin and Range.
Unable to help myself, I came home with at least 20 different rocks, each one chosen for some reason, either aesthetic or scientific. So that's what this post is about: the rocks.
(1) The first one is a volcanic bomb from Panum Crater, the northernmost of the Mono Craters, a chain of volcanoes that have erupted within the last 40,000 years. Panum is young, only about 600 years old, and is full of interesting textures, colors, and formations. There is jet black obsidian, sharp enough to kill, and frothy, red pumice stones. The rock shown here, a volcanic bomb, is a piece of magma that shot out of the volcano as a liquid, and, by the time it had hit the ground, had solidified into a coherent mass. You can see that it's elongated in one direction, along the axis of it's fall from the sky. I picked this one because it looks like a small man.
(2) Petrified wood from Miocene sediments near Coaldale Junction, NV. Coaldale Junction is not an actual place, consisting of a few abandoned buildings in the middle of the big, empty Nevada desert. The rocks here are amazing, including a unit that contains beautifully preserved petrified wood from about 12 million years ago. There are knotted pieces, branches, bark, many covered with sparkling quartz crystals. I picked the two fragments shown here because one contains a knot, a clearly recognizable tree structure preserved for eternity in solid rock and the other is a dead ringer for a real piece of bark.
Kombucha (or KT) is fermented sweet tea. Anyone can quite easily make it at home, though national distributors sell it for upwards of three dollars a bottle. I've been brewing my own for several months now. Why? Because it's fun, it tastes good, and, based on a cursory review of the medical literature, it is healthy.
This last point is a contentious one. Is Kombucha healthy? Type "Kombucha health benefits" into Google, and one of the top results is a Mayo clinic article advising that it "is prudent to avoid it." However, read the label of any commercially available KT bottle and you'll find an astonishingly long list of health claims including cancer cure, health skin elixir, mood elevator, energy booster.
The history of Kombucha scholarship in peer-reviewed research journals begins in 1928, with the publication of "About the so-called Kombucha" in BIOCHEMISCHE ZEITSCHRIFT (An article for which there is not a readily available online text). After that, there is dearth of publications on the fermented tea until the mid and late 1990's, when a series of scholars publish articles about the potential dangers of Kombucha. For example:
-"Unexplained severe illness possibly associated with consumption of Kombucha tea - Iowa, 1995"
-"Probable gastrointestinal toxicity of Kombucha tea - Is this beverage healthy or harmful?"
-"Cutaneous anthrax associated with the Kombucha "mushuoom" in Iran"
-"Lead poisoning from drinking Kombucha tea brewed in a ceramic pot"
-"Kombucha tea may not be so benign after all."
Ernst, in a 2003 Kombucha review paper, summed up the medical research to date:
"No clinical studies were found relating to the efficacy of this remedy. Several case reports and case series raise doubts about the safety of kombucha. They include suspected liver damage, metabolic acidosis and cutaneous anthrax infections. One fatality is on record. Conclusions: On the basis of these data it was concluded that the largely undetermined benefits do not outweigh the documented risks of kombucha. It can therefore not be recommended for therapeutic use."
However, in the last two years, published articles on Kombucha's health effects have adopted a drastically different stance.
In 2009 alone, the following articles were published:
-"Hepatoprotective and Curative Properties of Kombucha Tea Against Carbon Tetrachloride-Induced Toxicity"
-"The effect of Kombucha on post-operative intra-abdominal adhesion formation in rats" which showed that "intra-peritoneal administration of Kombucha might be useful for preventing peritoneal adhesions."
-"Hypocholesterolaemic and antioxidant effects of kombucha tea in high-cholesterol fed mice" which concluded that "KT had the hypocholesterolaemic and antioxiclant effects."
2010 was another good year for kombucha in the peer-reviewed medical literature...
-"Protective effect of kombucha mushroom (KM) tea on chromosomal aberrations induced by gamma radiation in human peripheral lymphocytes in-vitro"
-"Protective effect of kombucha mushroom (KM) tea on phenol-induced cytotoxicity in albino mice"
-"Effect of Kombucha Tea on Aflatoxin B-1 Induced Acute Hepatotoxicity in Albino Rats-prophylactic and Curative Studies"
The highly critical Kombucha research from the 1990's is diametrically opposed to the glowing studies published in the last few years. Why this sudden reversal? It's the same Kombucha. Is it possible that the increasing commercial value of Kombucha altered the results of scientific studies? Was the 1990's an era of vast conspiracies directed against the fledgling Kombucha industry?
The answer is much simpler: anecdotal human patient studies in the 90's and early 00's were replaced with controlled laboratory rat experiments in the late 00's.
Take the study "Probable gastrointestinal toxicity of Kombucha tea - Is this beverage healthy or harmful?" published in 2003 by Radhika Srinivasan in the Journal of General Internal Medicine. The evidence that Kombucha causes "probable gastrointestinal toxicity" presented in this paper is a handful of patients who reported drinking KT and experienced certain stomach problems. One patient was taking thyroid hormone, estrogen replacement, and drinking a form of Kombucha. Age 51, she came into the hospital with vomiting, nausea, and headaches. The other three cases reported are similar in nature: patient with health problems, who also drinks KT, reports health problems.
What's going on with this study anyways? Take a look at the "Kombucha Mushroom" that the authors analyzed using gas chromatography. For anyone who has brewed Kombucha, this is not what a SCOBY typically looks like. A fake SCOBY?
Here's what's going on: Kombucha got a bad rap because researchers were publishing studies like Srinivasan's 2003 paper outlined above. These anecdotal methods don't prove anything one way or the other. As the science improves, and real controlled laboratory studies like "Protective effect of kombucha mushroom (KM) tea on chromosomal aberrations induced by gamma radiation in human peripheral lymphocytes in-vitro" are carried out, the jury shifts back towards KT.
As some of you well know, I've been experimenting with growing Pearl Oyster mushrooms on old newspapers and spent coffee grounds. A month after receiving a syringe of liquid culture, I have successes to report. In other words, I grew mushrooms! Admittedly, the mushrooms I've grown thus far are small. But, the exciting part is that I have grown some using 100% newspaper and coffee.
The first picture is of a small bouquet of mushrooms I picked earlier this afternoon. These were grown on a mixture of Coconut Coir and spent coffee grounds. Minutes later these were in the frying pan, and I'm happy to report they tasted delicious - a rich and meaty flavor.
The following picture shows a larger mushroom growing on newspaper. (It's the New York Times if you must ask.)
I was thinking last night about a book, The Botany of Desire by Michael Pollan. It's a book about how a few plants, Tulips, Potatoes, Marijuana, and Apples, have exploited certain characteristics of humanity to spread themselves around the world. It's run-of-the-mill Darwinian evolution mixed with the complexities of consciousness. It's an interesting thesis, but it's not the point that I want to talk about in this post.
In the chapter on Marijuana, Pollan suggests that drugs work by relaxing our brain's filter of reality. Every day we are faced with an overwhelming wealth of sensory information. If we were truly open to all of the sights, sounds, and smells of the world we wouldn't be able to do anything. We couldn't recognize faces, we couldn't talk, and we certainly couldn't walk down the streets of New York City. So, in response to this problem, our brains have developed coping mechanisms, ways to ignore the information overload, a reality filter. In Pollan's mind, certain psychoactive drugs impair this reality filter, allowing us to see what's really there.
I was thinking about this idea last night, and realized that I don't really agree with it. If a drug like LSD turns an ordinary wall into a colorful fractal, does that mean that the fractal was there to begin with, and our mind had previously been filtering it out? It's a possibility that I can't really accept.
Once I started questioning this particular idea that Pollan has about drugs, I started questioning his entire book. I thought, if he's wrong about one thing, he's probably wrong about something else. There was nothing specifically wrong with his other ideas, just the fact that he had also generated them. In other words, my mind couldn't separate the idea from the author. This phenomenon is everywhere, and I think it's a serious problem.
If we look at the world from the viewpoint of memetics, the close association between human individuals and ideas is severely limiting to the evolution of knowledge and ideas. (In my understanding, memetics is the application of Darwinian theory to the world of ideas. It states that memes, individual ideas or beliefs, are floating around in a world-wide meme-pool, interacting and evolving in a population of minds. The analogy is to genes in a gene-pool.) With this world-view, it's hard to justify ignoring an entire group of memes because they came from the same person. Maybe Pollan's memes have a certain flavor or character to them, but they are still distinct ideas.
At the root of the problem is our culture's individualism. We are obsessed with citing authors, giving credit where credit is due. (Think of the Social Network and the $65 million settlement to the originators of a simple idea.) As ideas and knowledge proliferate, this model may become archaic. Maybe the thinker is much less important than the thought itself.
The point I want to make is that ideas and the people who generated them are not inexorably interwoven. They can be pulled apart, one from the other, and doing so is important, lest we discount a good idea from a bad thinker, or accept a bad idea just because a smart person came up with it.