Good Drugs

I told the guy to take some good drugs. He was running a high fever, and simultaneously trying to explain to people like me how a new iPad application his company had developed was going to do great things for the good people of Thailand. No, it isn’t multitouch porn, it’s designed to help the country manage its cultivated fisheries.

The poor fellow obviously misinterpreted me, because at lunch he brought up the ‘good drugs’ comment and asked if I was suggesting things like cocaine. In a country where illegal drugs, particularly hard drugs such as heroin, can earn you extended free lodging at the Bangkok Hilton, prudence is advised.

This time round, I actually drove past the prison the locals call the Big Tiger, because it eats you alive. If you’re relaxing in reasonable comfort while you read this, take a deep breath, smile, and count your blessings. If not, live for the moment, things could always be worse.

Thai airports are filled with books written by expatriate convicts, with tales of horror involving the Big Tiger. Often drugs and Muay Thai are also in the mix. BangKwang prison’s a charming spot: in 2011, the Chao Praya river floods forced the relocation of over six hundred inmates, and every year in the rainy season the sewers overflow.

The other topic that’s popular with airport books is kathoey, or ladyboys. There’s a bit in Atmos Fear that includes kathoey—a couple of the book’s chapters take place in Thailand. The country is one of the most (if not the most) tolerant in the world when it comes to transgender issues.

Good? Bad? I tried to define terms, and found Manchester University has a website for children, in which they address drugs. Predictably, all medicines are good, and all illegal substances are bad. The terror twins of tobacco and alcohol are of course in the bad lot. Children like everything clear cut: white is not black, left is not right, and good is never bad.

Good and bad drugs: life is not always what it seems.

Good and bad drugs: life is not always what it seems.

But of course prescription drugs can be teratogenic, as was the case of Thalidomide. I personally knew two girls who had only stumps for arms because of its use in pregnancy. The drug inhibits angiogenesis, i.e. vascular development, but now it has made a comeback in treating leprosy, and specific cancers. The good drug turned bad became good again—the FDA approved it in 1998 for leprosy, and then in 2006 for multiple myeloma (MM), a form of bone cancer.

Cancer cells are mavericks, misfits in society. To my surprise, I became fascinated with cancer at university, because its biology is quite remarkable. You see, the question for me isn’t why there’s so much cancer, but why there isn’t more.

There’s a parallel question in oceanography: folks ask “Why is the sea salty?'” when the real question is “Why isn’t the sea more salty?”

We tend to think in a linear fashion, the kind that leads to bad and good: rivers transport freshwater into the sea, therefore the sea should not be salty, it should be fresh!

But the sea’s saltiness is straightforward: the water cycle takes rainfall (freshwater), dumps it on land, and turns it into river water. Although river water tastes fresh, it contains about 1% of the salts dissolved in seawater.

So the premise that what flows into the sea is freshwater relies on taste, not science. As rivers flow from source to estuary, they dissolve all sorts of things from the basin: stuff like sodium, calcium, and magnesium—probably all of the elements on the planet, in fact. All of it goes into a large bathtub, the world ocean. The water that evaporates from the sea surface to give us clouds, rain, and snow, leaves the salt behind.

Curiosity is also a good drug—but it can bad, since it killed the cat. In 397 AD, Saint Augustine wrote that:

in the eons before creating heaven and earth, God “fashioned hell for the inquisitive”.

So how long would it take to get the sea to be as salty as it is today?

My curiosity helped me make a simple model, based on the planet’s water balance. All the numbers are gigantic, so the estimates will have huge errors—a tiny fraction of those errors will be enough to cause the snowstorms presently pounding the eastern U.S.

I ran my model for one million years; it took about twenty minutes, and gradually I filled my virtual bathtub with salt. At the end, my ocean had about thirty percent of the salt it has nowadays, so three million years would do the trick. If you’re not a creationist, the oceans were formed 3.8 billion years ago. That’s one thousand times more years, give or take the odd eon. We should have salt obelisks reaching up to heaven by now.

Although the sea probably contains all known elements, the most abundant, sodium chloride, has a solubility of 357 grams per liter, in Caribbean waters—in the near freezing water of the world ocean, it’s a lot less. We’d get there in thirty million years, tops. After that, we might expect salt deposits all over the bottom of the ocean, but that doesn’t happen either. Go figure.

James Lovelock dwelt on this issue in his Gaia series. I read the books long ago, and can’t remember seeing an answer, except the notion that Mother Earth, Gaia, self-regulated in ways we can’t fathom. By the way, saltier oceans mean denser water, slower circulation, and more of a split between the fresher water at the surface and the deep layer below. Less life.

Cancer cells present a similar conundrum: cells that live free thrive on unregulated growth. The algae that live in water will keep on growing and splitting until they all end up dead, rotting due to lack of oxygen. So in a human, as in other species, cells have a wonderful control mechanism, superbly tuned to start, stop, and die. Why don’t more of them go rogue?

Billy Connolly, no stranger to drugs himself, discusses what would happen if your pubic hair behaved like your other hair. We’d have pubic hairdressers (well, those are pretty popular now, but more for shaping than braiding), and all sorts of other bizarre things. It’s the only time I’ve heard this issue, one of life’s great unsolved mysteries, addressed at all. Hard to find on YouTube, and you need to skip the first four minutes to get there—but you shouldn’t.

Good cells gone bad, good and bad drugs, they all contribute to greater understanding. In the end, that’s what sets us humans apart. Pass the salt.

The India Road QR links for smartphones: point your camera and click.

The India Road QR links for smartphones: point your camera and click.

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