Baseball, Buckets, and Black Holes

Happy Labor Day everybody! Today we, and by “we” I mean mostly banks, take a Monday off in honor of the American working man. Many of you will be commemorating the day by grilling, swimming, and cursing bank employees as you work your non-bank job. One of my favorite American pastimes for today and any day in summer is the American pastime: watching baseball. I’d say playing baseball, but let’s face it, most of us just don’t measure up talent-wise to Venezuelans. Every once in a while though there is a baseball great from these United States whose name becomes synonymous with the game. Whether you’re a fan or not you’ve undoubtedly heard of Babe Ruth, Hank Aaron, and especially lately, Lou Gehrig. Lou Gehrig’s statistics make sabermetrics nuts drool. Everything from his batting average to his seven All-Star selections is incredible. Especially impressive is his consecutive game streak that compiled 2130 straight games and earned him the nickname “The Iron Horse”. Only Cal Ripken Jr., “The Iron Man of Baseball”, played more consecutive games and his career was four years longer. Gehrig would have definitely played more than the seventeen years he spent in the big leagues were it not for one major setback – a neurodegenerative disorder that is now as identifiable with his name as the sport he most loved: Lou Gehrig’s Disease.

Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis, commonly shortened to ALS, also become known as Lou Gehrig’s Disease after his diagnosis and death from it. Like Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s, and Huntington’s, ALS is a disease that damages and sometimes destroys neurons, nerve cells that transmit signals throughout the nervous system. If you speak Greek you might already have inferred that ALS degrades muscle (amyotrophia translates to “no muscle nourishment”). One can understand how this might be a problem to a professional baseball player, or anyone else who enjoys having painless motor control. This occurs because ALS affects the motor neurons in the brain and spinal cord. As these neurons degrade, the muscles of the body are not able to be sent information from the brain to listen to commands like “Move!” so they begin to atrophy, that is to say waste away. You gotta use or you lose it and unfortunately ALS doesn’t let you use it no matter how much you want to. This is why one of the greatest ballplayers of all time had to call it quits (and he did it in the classiest way anyone could).

ALS is a rough disease, making life difficult while living with it because of lack of muscle movement that can lead to paralysis. Not to mention only about 4% of people suffering from it survive beyond 10 years, and most die in about 39 months. Yet while there is no cure for ALS currently, some treatments and therapies have advanced over the years to help people to live with it. A drug called Riluzole is especially helpful in aiding ALS patients and extends their lifespan significantly in many cases. And there is promising research on the workings of neurons and the brain that will hopefully lead to a cure for not only ALS but also for Parkinson’s and other neurodegenerative diseases. However, such research requires funding, and funding for scientific ventures, however noble, is not easy to come by. That is where charity plays a huge part in the big picture and we are in the midst of a seemingly wacky fad that is being a regular Tom Cruise (because it’s crazy but also kind of fun, and it’s playing a big part, huh? Huh?).

Unless you recently descended from your lonely perch of enlightenment in the hills you have seen, heard of, and perhaps even participated in the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge. Having nothing to do with a Japanese game show, the Ice Bucket Challenge possibly originated as just another dumb thing to trick your friends into doing (“No dawg, you gotta stick the whole spoonful of cinnamon in your mouth!”) until pro-golfer Chris Kennedy decided to challenge his cousin to do it to raise money and awareness for ALS, which her husband has. Later, Pete Frates, a former Boston College baseball player with ALS, began to make the challenge a viral sensation via Twitter. In this beautiful fast-paced Internet Age that immediately brings naked photos of Jennifer Lawrence to my computer screen the sensation caught like wildfire-like fire and became a huge hit almost overnight. Now people of all colors, creeds, and celebrity levels are dousing themselves with buckets o’ ice to spread a chilly word of awareness and a little bit of dough the way of ALS research. If you’re unaware of how it works the challenge is passed along by those who are themselves challenged. The challengee then films him/herself no more than 24 hours later and acknowledges the challenge issued by the challenger before he/she dump ice water or are dumped upon by others with ice water, often followed by an utterance of “Oh that’s cold” and then he/she nominates three people to share in the icy enjoyment. Those who douse with ice water also send in $10 to ALS Association (USA) or Motor Neurone Disease Association (UK), while anyone who doesn’t wish to get wet (haha) can simply write a check for one hundred buckaroos.

Now that I’ve laid out the details of the challenge let me share some of the more hysterical celebrity acceptances of the challenge. First allow me to commend Captain America for laying down the law of what ice water really is, and then props to Star-Lord for the funnies. Some are more civilized, like Captain Jean-Luc Picard’s. But all pale in comparison to Foo Fighter captain and Nirvana alum Dave Grohl’s inspired take. It may be silly fun, but it also serves a good purpose in encouraging awareness of the plight of ALS, as well as sending some much needed donation dollars towards the study of the disease that sees over 5600 new cases each year in America alone. Hopefully what we learn about ALS and how to treat and ideally cure it will also be able to be put forth to likewise manage other motor neurone diseases like those I mentioned earlier as they all affect a growing number of the world population, including one of the most intelligent men to ever live who still lives today.

No matter what faith you choose to follow, if any, almost all major religions have accepted that the universe began as a super-dense, super small ball of everything that suddenly expanded in a tremendous explosion known as the Big Bang. A man named Albert Einstein was a major player in putting forth a scientific theory that supported this called the theory of general relativity. However, even Einstein had trouble figuring out a theory to unite all known aspects of physics. Not all fields of study are lucky enough to have a unifying theory (Biology represent!) and this is a very active area of debate for theoretical physicists trying to figure out how the universe works and how it began. One man at the forefront of past and present research (often dealing with past, present, and future moments of spacetime) is Stephen Hawking. Hawking has conducted pioneering research on black holes, and he still seeks to unlock the secrets of creation by bringing together Einstein’s general theory of relativity and quantum mechanics. It may be wild way-above-your-head physics that’s super hard to get a tenuous grasp of for most of us, but if it’s spoken in Hawking’s cool robot voice then it must be important. But higher physics aside, did you ever wonder why Hawking is in the wheelchair and needs to talk through a specialized voice generator? It’s because he has a neurodegenerative disorder much akin to ALS, and it has rendered him almost completely paralyzed. Nevertheless, the man has been a force in science both from contributing academically and successfully teaching and encouraging interests in science to the masses who do not have doctorates in quantum mechanics. This is all the more inspiring considering Hawking is stricken with a muscle-sapping disease and he just keeps on trucking using his remarkable mind to unearth the fantastic wonders of the cosmos. Someday he or someone following in his wheelchair grooves will figure out how it all works, and someday those ice water donations may lead to the discover of how degenerative neurological disorders work.

Thanks for reading this far if you have! Feel free to comment and request future topics on my comment board here or at my email at Come back next week for more interesting stuff!

For more information on ALS check out the ALS Association webpage.

Go Tigers!


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