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Pulses of Pluto and Polio speak of the universe

Pluto
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This image of Pluto was captured by NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Southwest Research Institute.

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Sunday, February 17, 2019

The pulse of the universe beats in the air of Pluto.

Pluto, the famous dwarf planet in our Solar System, is cold, extremely cold, year round. It is especially cold during its 124-year long winter, when it is so frigid that its wan atmosphere freezes to the icy surface. Then, in summer, the ice vaporizes back to reform a feeble atmosphere. Like a respirator, Pluto air draws in, Pluto air gusts out.

It is cold there because it is so far from the Sun. Pluto is 3.7 billion miles away from Earth. Even traveling at 40,000 mph, it took the New Horizons spacecraft nine and a half years to get there.

The Pluto Sun is small and weak, just a brilliant pinprick of star at high noon that isn’t strong enough to melt a single Dippin’ Dot. The whole Pluto orb is colder than a popsicle. Colder and harder than cash. Colder than the polar vortex. Pluto’s winter temperature is -385 degrees Fahrenheit, almost as cold as if sunlight did not exist at all. If Earth were the same temperature as winter Pluto, our air, too, would freeze to the ground, crystalizing into nitrogen and oxygen frost.

Since 2015, when New Horizons closed to within 8,000 miles of Pluto, taking pictures of details never before seen, and beaming them the 4.5 light-hours back to us, the most heart-warming feature of Pluto has been, well, its heart. The photos show a large heart-shaped feature on its northern hemisphere, smooth and pink and bordered by H2O ice mountains, and tumbled with nitrogen glaciers to the east. At Pluto temperatures, water ice is so cold it forms volcanoes. Just as rock volcanoes here draw hot, liquid-rock lava from below, and rush it out onto the cool surface where it hardens into mountains, liquid water may have erupted out of Pluto, freezing into steel-hard Himalayas at the surface.

There, in the pink nitrogen heart of Pluto, a surface frost of nitrogen blankets thicker rocks of nitrogen, churning up from a deep pit of nearly solid nitrogen. The whole icy crust, from top to mantle, is made mostly of solid nitrogen, a frost layer gone rogue. In Pluto summer, the surface warms to -365 F, and the nitrogen of Pluto slowly melts and swelts, rises sky high, lifts and drifts, into the atmosphere, flipping from air to rock to air with the seasons.

Here on Earth, our greatest association with nitrogen is in our atmosphere, which is 78 nitrogen. Every breath we take is mostly nitrogen. Every breath we exhale is mostly nitrogen. Nitrogen drawing in, nitrogen gusting out. Nitrogen pulses carry the breath of life.

Poliomyelitis is a virus that can leave the breath of life locked in a tank. It assaults motor neurons in the spinal cord, reducing and in some cases severing the signals that stimulate the muscles of the legs, arms and torso. Cut off from spinal commands, the muscles wither and and droop. When the diaphragm muscles atrophy, breathing hangs in the balance.

In 1961, Judith Moses lay in that balance. Polio was ravaging the neurons in her spinal cord. She went to bed with flu symptoms, and woke up unable to ever walk on her own again. No hops, no skips, no jumps. No tippy-toes. No leap-frogs or jump-seats or dancing with wolves. For weeks the virus hords invaded, inflicting lesion upon lesion upon the neurons. For weeks she weakened, neuron after neuron shutting down, closing communications with the muscles. Her muscles atrophied. It was a victory for virus, a necrosis for neurons, a moldering of muscles, a staying of stride. She came within a breath of being loaded into an iron lung, a body-tank that could draw in, sigh out as her own diaphragm weakened.

The rush of polio virus through a human system crests and retreats like winter cold, and with retreat comes a measure of recovery. The iron fist of the iron lung, drawing in, sighing out, was spared. Mom went on to venture forward with braces on legs and crutches on arms, to bear another child, to take in the wonders of this Earthly planet, to breathe in gratitude and vent out anguish, to ride the pulses of fate.

Pulse is universal. From Pluto’s subliming nitrogen air to the respiring breaths of life and the advances of a virus; even in the ons and offs of the electric switches in the binary code of the New Horizons computers, the way of nature is in waves of nature, wafting up and snowing down, drawing in and flowing forth, swarming on and blotting out, building a rhythm of gaseous to frozen, inhaled to exhaled, healthy to paralyzed. Everything we know flashes through the universe in pairs of crest, then trough, drawing in, rushing out.

Follow @jmoseshall on Facebook. Joy Moses-Hall teaches physics and astronomy at Pitt Community College. She has a PhD in oceanography and is the author of the novel Wretched Refuge.

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