Category Archives: Science and Technology

Goodbye and Godspeed, Dear Friend

By Johna Till Johnson

Tom on father/daughter day, 2016

Earlier this week, a man who had become very dear to me and to Vlad slipped the surly bonds of earth.

Tom Marsilje, a cancer scientist, patient, and patient advocate, left this world on Tuesday November 14. I can’t write a better obituary than the one that appeared in the Philadelphia Inquirer, for which he wrote a regular column.

As with Vlad, Tom’s loss is more than personal. He was a beacon of hope and optimism for all of us dealing with cancer, in no small part because he lived every possible role in that experience.

As a graduate student, he became caregiver and patient advocate for his mother, helping to get her into one of the earliest immunotherapy clinical trials (in 1999) and quadrupling her life- and health-span in the process. He went on to co-develop a breakthrough drug for lung cancer. And from the time of his diagnosis in 2012 to his death this week, he experienced the disease “from the inside”–all the while serving as a guiding light for those of us in the same situation.

The loss of that light, as much as of Tom the person, was a real blow to all of us in that world.

And because cancer will strike nearly 1 in 2 of us, and touch the lives of nearly all of us, I’m including here a Facebook post I wrote for my friends in the cancer community (and yes, I hate that there is such a thing, as much as I love the fact that through it I’ve met some of the smartest, bravest, nicest people on the planet).

Tom’s approach is not a bad way to live for any of us, cancer or no.  Life, after all, is a terminal condition.

Some thoughts on Tom, and the impact of his death on me and on us. Some background: Tom and I were friends in real life, as well as on Facebook. We visited in NY and CA. He knew and respected Vlad, and vice versa.

He coordinated closely with Vlad (neuroscientist) and Dan (Vlad’s best friend from grad school, and an immunotherapy researcher at Emory). We would literally strategize together (the four of us) about the most promising treatments. Vlad was the most skeptical (he knew the odds, and also the science).

So to me, Tom wasn’t a superhero, he was a really smart scientist with early insight into how science was turning into cures.

As we all know, he also had that incredibly contagious combination of optimism and humility. Anyone who interacted with him walked away feeling, “Heck, if it can work for Tom, it can work for me!” (or my loved one).

So.

The fact that it did NOT work for Tom is a gut-punch to many folks. I mean, if super-hero-cape-wearing-scientist died ANYWAY, what are the chances for us ordinary folks?

I didn’t have quite that reaction, because I knew him better, and knew the science pretty well.

Here’s the thing.

Tom’s approach was spot on, and it continues to be spot on:

Step 1. Stay alive, and as healthy as you can possibly be, for as long as you can. That means: Build an exercise, nutrition, and treatment routine that works FOR YOU. That could be 5 minutes a day of yoga and a steady diet of Bic Macs to keep the weight on. You don’t have to run triathlons. Do whatever works for you.

Step 2. Take joy in every day, and every moment. Your “joy intake” is as important as what you eat, drink, and do. That new puppy might possibly have the same ability to inhibit tumor growth as the latest radiation therapy.

Step 3. Stay on top of the research. Keep leveraging your network. We are here, and we’re NOT going to stop researching for you. There is going to be an exponential explosion of new treatments over the next 5 years.

I know this. Tom knew this. Vlad knew this.

Some treatments will work amazingly.

Some will keep you alive until the next treatment.

And some will fail.

The stronger you are, the more runway you have, and the more treatments you can try.

And the more knowledge you have, the better able you are to point that runway in the right direction. That’s what Tom did.

And it DID NOT fail him!!

The science failed him, as it failed Vlad, and will continue to fail people we love (maybe even us). Until it doesn’t any more.

That’s how science works. It fails, until it doesn’t any more.

And we are so, close to the science not failing any more.

As awful as it is to say this, if you’re reading this now, you’re already ahead of Tom, because you’re 24 hours closer to that day (very soon now) when the science won’t fail us.

Why am I writing this? Because I know how devastating it is when your magic talisman for the future is lost.

I’ve been dreading Tom’s death less for the loss of the unique and beautiful soul that he is, and more for the fact that I’m afraid it will emotionally devastate so many people that I love, because they will lose hope.

And it does devastate people. I can’t fix that.

The only thing I can say is… following the three steps above is what Tom did, and what he’d want all of us to do.

And what, in my considered opinion as a scientist and engineer, is what is most likely to result in the CURE of everyone dealing with this awful disease.

And a permanent cure is NOT an unrealistic hope for people dealing with this disease. A long shot, yes. But It’s out there, and very, very close.

I know Tom is fighting for all of us, still.

“Photography helps people to see”-Berenice Abbott

By Johna Till Johnson

Photographs by Berenice Abbott

pike_and_henry_street_by_berenice_abbott_in_1936

Pike and Henry Street by Berenice Abbott, 1936

It was one of those Facebook memes that occasionally goes around. “Let’s fill Facebook with art! Like if you want to participate, and I’ll give you an artist to post on your Facebook page.”

The poster, David, is a longtime friend with wide-ranging artistic interests and great taste, so I signed up. Besides, we can all use a little art in the dark days of February, right?

David assigned me Berenice Abbott. I’d never heard of her—though even a photography newbie like me immediately recognized some of her iconic NYC photographs. I spent a delighted evening reviewing her life and work and reading her brief Wikipedia biography. If you haven’t heard of her, I encourage you to do so, too–she was one of the great 20th-century artists of the “realist” school. Her quote about photography helping people to see resonates very strongly with me right now, as I work to develop my eye.

A delightful discovery: She developed several cutting-edge techniques for scientific photography, and in fact illustrated a 1958 high school physics textbook (an article about which appeared in Forbes Magazine recently).

Enjoy!

pennstationinteriormanhattan

Penn Station Interior, Manhattan by Berenice Abbott 1936

blossom_restaurant_103_bowery_by_berenice_abbott_in_1935

Blossom Restaurant by Berenice Abbott, 1935

 

Our Easter Egg Science Project

By Johna Till Johnson and Vladimir Brezina

Easter egg science project 1It was bound to happen.

Take a scientist and an engineer, add a kit designed for children, and you’ll end up with a science project.

A few days ago (on the first day of spring, to be exact), we decided to color Easter eggs. We’re not sure whose idea it was (each of us says it originated with the other), but regardless: There we were with 14 hard-boiled eggs and the same PAAS egg-dyeing kit that Johna remembered from childhood. (In Czechoslovakia, too, a country nominally communist but where Easter traditions were hard to uproot, Vlad had something very similar.)

We set to work. The dye tablets fizzed in the vinegar, the appropriate amount of water was added, and the first six eggs were happily soaking in their colors. And then one of us noticed something:

“Hey, what are those lines?” As the dye deepened, several of the eggs were showing white lines, two per egg, circumscribing the eggs and trisecting them neatly. Why was this happening?

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Up and Back

By Johna Till Johnson

You go on a trip. You come back. Nothing remarkable about that.

Return of Falcon 9

Return of Falcon 9’s first stage (photo by SpaceX)

Unless you’re a rocket,  and you’ve gone up into space and then returned to land upright. Which is what Falcon 9, the rocket launched by SpaceX, Elon Musk’s company, did on Monday, December 21.

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Falcon 9 launch and return, December 21, 2015

Long exposure showing the launch of SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket and then the return of the rocket’s first stage to a landing back at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station (photo by SpaceX)

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Fearsome Sails, Ancient and Modern

By Vladimir Brezina

Sailors have always put fierce images on their sails to intimidate their enemies:

Ancient Greek trireme        … the ancient Greeks

Viking longship

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… the Vikings

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… and now—

... and now

… sailing forth to intimidate, at least, their brand’s enemies.

Tugboat Race 2015

By Vladimir Brezina

Tugboat Race 64

Ah, the familiar first signs of Fall: the first crisp days and chilly nights, trees beginning to turn color here and there, migrating geese honking overhead…

And, of course, the Tugboat Race.

Tugboat Race 49Every year on Labor Day Sunday, the Working Harbor Committee brings together, in the Hudson River off Midtown Manhattan, a collection of New York Harbor tugs—those that can spare a rare half-day off work—to engage in

Tugboat Race 73various feats of tugboat strength: a race, nose-to-nose pushing contests, a line-throwing competition, and, for the kids as well as hyper-competitive tugboat captains, a spinach-eating contest.

We’ve attended the last three years, and written quite a bit about the occasion (in 2012, 2013, and 2014). So let’s go straight to the photos of this year’s event, the 23rd Annual Great North River Tugboat Race & Competition!

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Move

By Vladimir Brezina

Move!

Move 1

No, you move!

Move 2

In NYC, gridlock doesn’t just happen on land…

Move 3

Scenes from this year’s Great North River Tugboat Race & Competition. Many more photos to come!

A contribution to Ailsa’s travel-themed photo challenge, Move.