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Tuesday, February 25, 2020
Their View / Opinion

That you have a phone number can be traced to the measles

Q.  How did an epidemic of measles lead to the introduction of phone numbers?

A.  At one time, all phone calls were local, and local operators, knowing their community well, could correctly and quickly connect phone calls person to person, no numbers needed, says Dan Lewis in his book “The Soviets Invaded Wisconsin?!”  That all changed in 1879, when Lowell, Massachusetts experienced a measles epidemic, threatening to shut down phone communication if all four of its local operators became ill.  Outside operators could not readily step in.

Enter Dr. Moses Greeley Parker, who proposed that a unique ID number be assigned to each of the roughly 200 phone customers in the town, corresponding to their location on the internal switchboard.  Then, a caller ringing up the operator would merely provide that ID number, affording a correct connection.  Although many customers originally objected to being “reduced to an arbitrary set of numbers,” reason eventually prevailed:  Dr. Parker’s solution was seen as the best way to prevent the measles from stopping phone service.  Lowell, Massachusetts thus became the first town in the U.S. with phone numbers.

Q.  Human lifespan is about 80 years while dogs typically live 12 years or so, suggesting 1 dog year = 7 human years.  But what’s very misleading about this rule of thumb?

A. A recent DNA-based study by UC San Diego professor Trey Ideker and his colleagues found that distinct life stages – infant, juvenile, adolescent, mature, senior – can be identified in both humans and Labrador dogs.  However, if you plot when these life stages start in humans against when they start in dogs you end up with a curve, not a line like the rule of thumb assumes.  Puppies age far more quickly than infants, with a 2-year-old dog being physiologically comparable to a middle-aged human.  The aging of elderly dogs, on the other hand, slows way down, with 1 old-dog year approaching 1 old-person year.  The “1 dog year = 7 human years” rule is only briefly true, for dogs around 2-3 years of age.

Such life-stage analysis also appears to work for mice and may be applicable to many mammal species, note the authors.  The DNA techniques used in this study “… may provide a compelling tool in the quest to understand aging and identify interventions for maximizing healthy lifespan.”

Q.  One day in April 1895, London’s Westminster Gazette headlined: “Arrest of Oscar Wilde, Yellow Book Under His Arm.”  The Irish poet-playwright was found guilty of gross indecency (homosexuality) and spent two years in prison.  What’s the significance of the yellow book?

A.  “The sinful implications of such books had come from France, where, from the mid-nineteenth century, sensationalist literature had been not-so-chastely pressed between vivid yellow covers,” writes Kassia St. Clair in her book, “The Secret Lives of Color.”  It was a marketing ploy.  Yellow books appear in two of Vincent van Gogh’s paintings from the 1880s, and for van Gogh and many other thinkers and artists of the time, “the color itself came to stand as the symbol of the age and their rejection of repressed Victorian values.”  The last decade of the nineteenth century became known as the “Yellow Nineties.”

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