Sunday, April 12, 2009

The Origins of Hemochromatosis

There are many uncertainties in the universe, but there is one thing that you can count on: when there are two months between phlebotomies, something like that which follows is bound to happen.

“Why me?” This is a cry heard around the world, uttered by one out of every 250 people. “Why is my duodenum extracting every molecule of iron out of my beef burrito and stuffing it into my liver, pancreas, heart, and brain?” Well, as it happens, I have an answer. Actually I have two answers; in matters of such import, a plethora of explanations cannot help but illuminate. Both of these theories have currency. They are at the heart of the meaning of life, the universe, and everything, about which your humble correspondent has some expertise.

The first theory as to why there is iron overloading at all is called "The Big Iron Bang Theory". Approximately 13 billion years ago (you know, when I was a kid going to school, my teachers told me that this event took place 3 billion years ago; time flies when you are having fun), the universe did not exist. There were no stars and planets, no galaxies of any shape or size. In fact, there were no elements as we know them today, just an enormous number of sub-atomic particles living together in an extremely small condominium. Again, about 13 billion years ago, some sort of accident took place; the condo was condemned and all of the sub-atomic particles fled the inner-city to the suburbs. This shift in demographics fundamentally changed all of the sub-atomic particles. Some became hydrogen; in fact most of them became hydrogen. According to Carl Sagan, for every atom of any other element, there are “billions upon billions” of hydrogen atoms. In honor of the great astronomer, this ratio of “billions upon billions to one” is affectionately referred to as a “Sagan” (pronounced with emphasis, it becomes a "Shy-Sagan"). So, as a result, helium is hard to come by, as is oxygen, nitrogen, and argon. Seaborgium and Ununbrium are difficult to pick up at Wal-Mart as well. Iron, as it turns out, is a rare earth metal when compared to the amount of hydrogen bouncing around the universe. Why, then, do I end up with so much of it?

I was watching PBS yesterday and I found out why. It all has to do with the life of a star. In the beginning, a star is formed by the aggregation of an immense number of Bok globules, several Shy-Sagan-Sagan’s worth....... At this point, astronomers want to talk about hydrostatic equilibrium, Herbig-Haro objects, and proto-planetary disks. This, however, would be a digression from our main theme, so we will push on.....

When a star first flares into existence, its business is the fusing of hydrogen atoms together into helium atoms. The more helium there is at the core of the star, the brighter the star becomes. This continues for about 90% of the star’s life. As the star ages, it suffers what Sagan and his boys call “metallicity”, the dreaded creation of elements other than helium. At first, the process merely fuses helium into such innocuous particles like oxygen and carbon, but the malady continues with the specter of the “carbon-burning process”; the “neon-“ , “oxygen-“, and “silicon-burning” processes quickly follow. As might be expected, there is a point of diminishing returns, and that point is when iron is produced by fusion and the star cannot get rid of it. So, you guessed it, the star stuffs the iron into its own liver, pancreas, heart, and brain. Eventually, the inert iron core becomes so massive (about 1.4 times the mass of our own sun) that it collapses under its own weight and a supernova occurs, splattering all of the iron and all of the other elements all over the place, to be used in the formation of planets and all of the life on them. What no one has figured out before, but which I am sharing with you now, is that there are some stars that produce and store three times the amount of iron as regular stars. These are hemochomatosis stars.

Joni Mitchell, a famous songwriter and erstwhile astronomer, wrote a song in 1969 called “Woodstock” in which she explains why it is that we are all the way we are, why it is that I, my sister, and one out of every 250 people on this planet have hemochromatosis. The tag of the song, the chorus if you will, is as follows:

We are stardust
We are golden
And we’ve got to get ourselves
Back to the garden

So there you have it. The disturbing thing about all of this is that no matter what I do, I am gaining more weight. I play racquetball with Jenny for six weeks and I put on six pounds. I resort to eating nothing but heads of lettuce for lunch and I can’t fit into my suit pants. I fear that I am no longer in the hydrogen-fusing stage of my existence. I am a “red-giant” ready to collapse into a “white dwarf”. All I need is just another solar mass of iron before my heavy metals can be blasted all over the earth. It’s time to defrost the tri-tips.

The other theory explaining the existence of hemochromatosis is called the “Intelligent Wrought-Iron Design Theory”, but at present we can only talk about that in the state of Texas.


Trillium said...

Hooray for Texas! LOL

(for those of you who don't get the reference to Texas, go to my blog, and click on "Evolution News" in the right-hand sidebar under the heading "Say ... WHAT?")

Zaphod said...

By the way, my daughter "Shydandelion" is the only one who pronounce "billions upon billions" properly; thus, the joke about the "Shy-Sagan". Sigh! Nobody is going to get any of this stuff!

Katscratchme said...

I think I get the Shy-Sagan thing... I've never heard Shy do it, but I swear I had "Billeonths and Billeonths" repeating in my head over and over... maybe I'm just crazy..

I was wondering if, when you have your own personal Supernova and blast us all with iron, will it be more like nails flying through the air, or a fine powder?

Zaphod said...

It will be like a gentle rain of cannonballs.

Larsens said...

There is clearly a reason why I failed Physical Science 3 times until I hired a tutor who got me a D+. The happiest day of my life. This mumbo-jumbo makes no sense to me but your tri-tip steaks are great.

Rebecca said...


shydandelion said...

Hey, when you are about to blow, would you warn us? I don't want to reenact the Civil War with all that schrapnel.

Zaphod said...

"Schrapnel"! Hmmm... I think that Henry Shrapnel (d. 1842) would be appalled by the way you yiddified his name. He was just an English artillary officer that has been hoisted on his own pitard.

tedemit: the explosive that you use to make schrapnel