A sad Facebook birth story

The Washington Post is carrying a remarkable birth story today by Ian Shapira, called "A Facebook story: A mother's joy and a family's sorrow."

Shapira has shaped the story using the Facebook postings of Shana Greatman Swers, a 35-year-old Gaithersburg, Md., consultant who died just weeks after the birth of her son, Isaac Lawrence Swers, on Sept. 23 of this year.

Within days of Isaac's birth, Swers was diagnosed with peripartum cardiomyopathy, a rare, grave heart disease associated with childbirth.

In a "Story Lab" blog post, and in a live Q&A chat, Shapira describes how he came to write about a colleague of his wife's, a woman who, he writes, not only died from "unusual pregnancy complications," but also "had been remarkably public about her ordeal" in her Facebook postings, some of them sent from her iPhone at the hospital.

Shapira determined to tell Swers' story through selected postings from her Facebook page, beginning with her proud announcement of her pregnancy on March 10, and continuing until her death.

What emerges is a picture of a first-time mom reveling in impending motherhood, then reacting with concern and frustration at the unexpected medical problems, responding to friends' good wishes and offers of food and other help.

At one point, her husband, Jeffrey, asked friends to "post a memory or funny story that lets her know why she is special to you," and began himself with the story of their first Fourth of July together.

It seems impossible to believe, reading the posts, that Swers' condition would not improve, that the last post in the story, from Nov. 3, would be her husband's anguished cry: "I love you wifey wife, I love you, I love you, a million times over I love you!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!"

Shapira's story, and the Facebook page itself, are compelling artifacts of our times.

Roger Bacon

Was Roger Bacon Europe's first real scientist?

This 13th-century English monk recognized that going to the source of phenomena was the surest way to understand them.

Roger Bacon

Statue of Roger Bacon at Oxford

Bacon was born in Ilchester, in Somerset, around the time King John granted the English nobles some important rights in the Magna Carta of 1215. Education was apparently an important value in his family, and he went to Oxford University probably at about age 13.

Bacon lectured at the University of Paris and pursued a life of dogged intellectual inquiry at a time when unorthodox opinions were dangerous — even fatal. At about the age of 40, he became a Franciscan friar, which limited his ability to publish his works, as any writings had to be approved by his order.

About 10 years later, though, his friend Guy le Gros de Foulques became Pope Clement IV. During the few years of Clement's reign, Bacon published his Opus Maius, about science and theology, and other works.

Bacon understood that mathematics was crucial to understanding science. He refused to accept received knowledge without testing out its tenets with experiments — and at the time, the scholarly world was all about received knowledge from the ancients.

He created the first useful maps in hundreds of years by re-introducing map projections, he was a pioneer in the field of optics, and he began a reformation of the calendar that was adopted hundreds of years later by Pope Gregory XIII.

Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Spontaneous generation and Francesco Redi

Some small organisms are visible to the eye, at least in large numbers. Thousands of years ago, people came up with an explanation for the sudden appearance of mold on bread, maggots on meat, mice in grain: The creatures came to life spontaneously in decaying organic matter.

The theory of spontaneous generation — the belief that under the right circumstances living organisms could come into being without parents — was the target of perhaps the first real scientific experiment, in 1668.

That was the year that the Italian physician Francesco Redi set out to prove his idea that maggots came from eggs laid by flies. This was no fluke: Redi was an intellectual who belonged to prestigious literary societies and undertook many experiments over the course of his life.

Francesco Redi
Francesco Redi

He had also been a member of the Accademia del Cimento, an early scientific society founded by the Medicis in Florence.

Redi set out three groups of jars containing rotting meat. One group he closed completely, one he covered with gauze, and one he left completely open.

As time went on, flies enter the uncovered jars. They landed on the gauze on the partially covered jars. However, there were no flies around the totally covered jars.

Later, many maggots appeared on the meat in uncovered jars. A few maggots appeared on the meat in the partially covered jars. No maggots showed up on the meat in the totally covered jars.

Redi's use of several jars for each situation showed that his results could be replicated, an important aspect of any scientific experiment.

Redi had proved that flies had to be present on or around the meat for maggots to generate. His work began to raise doubts about spontaneous generation, though it was a long time before it was truly put to rest.

Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons