Florida’s Radioactive "Fountain of Youth"

The fountain of youth that Ponce de Leon is said to have searched for 500 years ago could be a radioactive well beneath an abandoned Florida lot. At least that’s what some Punta Gorda locals claim. There, residents have been drinking the legendary water since the late 19th century.

Back in 1926, the coastal town raised money to construct a green-tiled fountain for the aquifer that still stands today. Many swore by the water's mystical properties, and at the peak of its popularity in the mid-20th century, the spigot’s handle was used so often it needed to be replaced every six months.

The frenzy surrounding the Punta Gorda fountain has since died down, largely thanks to the Clean Water Act of 1972. All public water sources needed to be tested for a number of contaminants, and the fountain's tests yielded some alarming results. The water was shown to contain 9.2 picoCuries of radium-226 isotope per liter, exceeding the EPA’s recommended radium limit of 5 picoCuries per liter. The city council moved to plug up the well for good and instead supply the fountain with city water, but public opposition eventually won out.

Despite the well’s concerning—though not fatal—levels of radiation, people are still placing faith in its life-extending properties. It turns out there could be some science supporting this century-old superstition. In addition to radium, the fountain's water was shown to contain high amounts of magnesium, a beneficial mineral that most people are deficient in. The water also contains magnesium sulfate, a.k.a. Epsom salt, a compound frequently added to bath water in order to ease stress and pain.

The fountain may not be as popular as it was in its heyday, but there are still plenty of believers who aren't deterred by the “Use Water at Your Own Risk” notice posted beside it. Some visitors show up with plastic bottles and large jugs to fill up with water and take home with them. One gentleman was known to use the water to wash his car, while another elderly woman claimed to use it to brew her tea. When asked about the water's health risks, Punta Gorda resident Donna Sanford told NBC2, "Well, I'm not necessarily glowing."

This water bibb in down town Punta Gorda made National Headlines, for being radioactive. http://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2013/07/130719-florida-fountain-of-youth-radioactive-magnesium-health/

Posted by The History of Charlotte County Florida. on Friday, October 24, 2014

[h/t: National Geographic

Charles Dickens Museum Highlights the Author's Contributions to Science and Medicine

Charles Dickens is celebrated for his verbose prose and memorable opening lines, but lesser known are his contributions to science—particularly the field of medicine.

A new exhibition at London’s Charles Dickens Museum—titled "Charles Dickens: Man of Science"—is showcasing the English author’s scientific side. In several instances, the writer's detailed descriptions of medical conditions predated and sometimes even inspired the discovery of several diseases, The Guardian reports.

In his novel Dombey and Son, the character of Mrs. Skewton was paralyzed on her right side and unable to speak. Dickens was the first person to document this inexplicable condition, and a scientist later discovered that one side of the brain was largely responsible for speech production. "Fat boy" Joe, a character in The Pickwick Papers who snored loudly while sleeping, later lent his namesake to Pickwickian Syndrome, otherwise known as obesity hypoventilation syndrome.

A figurine of Fat Boy Joe
Courtesy of the Charles Dickens Museum

Dickens also wrote eloquently about the symptoms of tuberculosis and dyslexia, and some of his passages were used to teach diagnosis to students of medicine.

“Dickens is an unbelievably acute observer of human behaviors,” museum curator Frankie Kubicki told The Guardian. “He captures these behaviors so perfectly that his descriptions can be used to build relationships between symptoms and disease.”

Dickens was also chummy with some of the leading scientists of his day, including Michael Faraday, Charles Darwin, and chemist Jane Marcet, and the exhibition showcases some of the writer's correspondence with these notable figures. Beyond medicine, Dickens also contributed to the fields of chemistry, geology, and environmental science.

Less scientifically sound was the author’s affinity for mesmerism, a form of hypnotism introduced in the 1770s as a method of controlling “animal magnetism,” a magnetic fluid which proponents of the practice believed flowed through all people. Dickens studied the methods of mesmerism and was so convinced by his powers that he later wrote, “I have the perfect conviction that I could magnetize a frying-pan.” A playbill of Animal Magnetism, an 1857 production that Dickens starred in, is also part of the exhibit.

A play script from Animal Magnetism
Courtesy of the Charles Dickens Museum

Located at 48-49 Doughty Street in London, the exhibition will be on display until November 11, 2018.

[h/t The Guardian]

NASA // Public Domain
On This Day in 1983, Sally Ride Made History
NASA // Public Domain
NASA // Public Domain

Thirty-five years ago today, on June 18, 1983, Sally Ride became the first American woman in space. She flew on the space shuttle Challenger on a six-day mission. She had previously helped build the shuttle's robot arm, and now she operated it in space. Not only was she the first American woman to go to space, she was the youngest astronaut in space, at age 32.

(As with many space-related firsts, that "American" qualifier is important. The Soviet space program had sent two women cosmonauts into space well in advance of Ride. Cosmonaut Valentina Tereshkova flew all the way back in 1963, and Svetlana Savitskaya in 1982. They also sent various younger people to space, including Tereshkova.)

Ride represented a change in the previously completely male astronaut program. Although NASA had unofficially tested women in the late 1950s as part of the Mercury program, the idea of sending women into space was quickly discarded. NASA policy for decades was that only men would be considered as astronauts. It took until 1978 for NASA to change the policy—that year, six women became astronauts: Sally Ride, Judith Resnik, Kathryn Sullivan, Anna Fisher, Margaret Rhea Seddon, and Shannon Lucid.

Ride and her colleagues were subject to an endless barrage of sexist media questions, curious how women might fare in space. They also encountered institutional sexism at NASA itself. Ride recalled:

"The engineers at NASA, in their infinite wisdom, decided that women astronauts would want makeup—so they designed a makeup kit. A makeup kit brought to you by NASA engineers. ... You can just imagine the discussions amongst the predominantly male engineers about what should go in a makeup kit."

Ride held a Ph.D. in astrophysics, two bachelor's degrees (English and physics), and had served as CapCom (Capsule Communicator) for the second and third shuttle flights, STS-2 and -3. She was an accomplished pilot and athlete, as well as a Presbyterian elder. She was closely connected to Challenger, performing two missions on it and losing four fellow members of her 1978 class when it exploded.

After her astronaut career concluded, Ride served on both the Challenger and Columbia disaster review panels. During the former, she leaked vital information about the Challenger disaster (o-ring engineering reports), though this wasn't broadly known until after her death. She wrote educational books and founded Sally Ride Science. She was asked to head up NASA by the Clinton administration, but declined.

Ride died in 2012 from pancreatic cancer. Her obituary made news for quietly mentioning that she was survived by her partner of 27 years, Tam O'Shaughnessy. Although Ride had come out to her family and close friends, the obituary was the first public statement that she was gay. It was also the first time most people found out she'd suffered from pancreatic cancer at all; she asked that donations in her memory be made to a fund devoted to studying that form of cancer.


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