1961: Russian doctor in Antarctica removes his own appendix

This short piece from the Atlantic was first published in 2011, but it’s been going the rounds, and I found it so amazing that I had to post it.

The story: in 1961, Soviet doctor Leonid Rogozov was spending the winter at a Russian base in Antarctica when he fell ill, diagnosing himself with appendicitis.  He was the only doctor on the base, and evacuation was impossible as it was winter, too dark and cold for planes to land.

There were only two alternatives: operate on himself, or die. He chose the former. The Atlantic has some excerpts from his journal, both before (first paragraph) and after (last two paragraphs) the surgery:

I did not sleep at all last night. It hurts like the devil! A snowstorm whipping through my soul, wailing like a hundred jackals. Still no obvious symptoms that perforation is imminent, but an oppressive feeling of foreboding hangs over me … This is it … I have to think through the only possible way out: to operate on myself … It’s almost impossible … but I can’t just fold my arms and give up.

. . . I worked without gloves. It was hard to see. The mirror helps, but it also hinders — after all, it’s showing things backwards. I work mainly by touch. The bleeding is quite heavy, but I take my time — I try to work surely. Opening the peritoneum, I injured the blind gut and had to sew it up. Suddenly it flashed through my mind: there are more injuries here and I didn’t notice them … I grow weaker and weaker, my head starts to spin. Every 4-5 minutes I rest for 20-25 seconds. Finally, here it is, the cursed appendage! With horror I notice the dark stain at its base. That means just a day longer and it would have burst and …

At the worst moment of removing the appendix I flagged: my heart seized up and noticeably slowed; my hands felt like rubber. Well, I thought, it’s going to end badly. And all that was left was removing the appendix … And then I realised that, basically, I was already saved.

Here’s a photo:

Russian surgeon-thumb-600x384-44559

The Atlantic reports that Rogozov survived, and died in St. Petersburg in 2000 at age 66.

I asked a friend who is a doctor if Rogozov could have used any kind of anesthetic (even if they had one), and he replied:

No. He would have had to do that without anesthesia. I wouldn’t have thought it possible. The psychological and physical impact of cutting oneself would be hard enough to manage, but to perform an operation in the right order, while losing blood! I can’t imagine it. Goes to show you what you can do when you feel you have to.

I then asked for clarification because my question was ambiguous: could he have used a local anesthetic? The reply:

Local anesthesia, like lidocaine, could have been used, but I don’t know if it had been introduced by 1961. But even if he did have a local anesthetic like lidocaine available, he would have only been able to use it on the skin and superficial subcutaneous tissues. Once the scalpel went deeper, he would have really felt it.

This reminds me a bit of Jerri Nielson, the American doctor who, in late May of 1999, found a lump in her breast while spending the winter at a base in Antarctica. She performed a biopsy on herself (results inconclusive), but then medical equipment was parachuted in since winter evacuation was impossible.  A better biopsy was done and the scans sent to the U.S., where breast cancer was confirmed. After giving herself hormone treatment and chemotherapy (materials also airdropped in), she was finally evacuated to the States in October. I didn’t know the outcome, but was sad to learn, when looking this up, that the cancer eventually returned, killing her in 2009 at age 57.


Iranian psychotherapist hanged for “heresy”

Let’s see Reza Aslan excuse the many Islamic states that have the death penalty for apostasy (all 20 countries that criminalize it, including the 10 where it’s a capital punishment, are Islamic), as well as criminal penalties for blasphemy (badmouthing faith) or heresy (believing the “wrong thing”). Apparently one of the countries where people can be killed for heresy is Iran, where, according to the Guardian, a young man was just hanged for heresy. The story is almost surreal:

Mohsen Amir-Aslani was arrested nine years ago for his activities which the authorities deemed were heretical. He was engaged in psychotherapy but also led sessions reading and reciting the Qur’an and providing his own interpretations of the Islamic holy book, his family said.

Amir-Aslani was hanged last week for making “innovations in the religion” and “spreading corruption on earth”, but human rights activists said he was a prisoner of conscience who was put to death because of his religious beliefs. He had interpreted Jonah’s story in the Qur’an as a symbolic tale.

The proportion of Muslims who interpret the Qur’an (or parts of it) metaphorically rather than literally is much lower than Christians who take the Bible as largely an allegory. The Qur’an is not supposed to be seen metaphorically; it is the dictated word of Allah. But to kill someone over saying that Jonah was a metaphor is beyond belief.  After all, what “giant fish” can swallow a human? There were also allegations of sexual misconduct, but as far as I can see on any site, none of these have been substantiated. It looks like a straight-up case of having beliefs differing from others of your faith:

According to the source, Iran’s ministry of intelligence was behind Amir-Aslani’s arrest. “He was initially held for making innovations in Islam and providing his own interpretations of the Qur’an but later he was accused of insulting prophet Jonah and also faced accusations of having sex outside marriage,” the source said. “They alleged that he had sexual relationships with a group of the people who participated in his classes.”

Iran’s judiciary has presented little evidence in public relating to the allegations of illicit sexual activities. The judge who presided over his case, Abolghassem Salavati, is known in Iran for leading numerous unfair trials, including many that resulted in execution.

. . . Iranian authorities are sensitive towards those practising Islam in ways not conforming to the official line. In recent years, several members of Iran’s Gonabadi dervishes religious minority have been arrested and are currently serving lengthy prison terms.

Really, how could apologists like Aslan rationalize this as “non-religious”? For heresy has to do precisely with not hewing to an official religious line; you can’t pretend that it’s secular.  And though I don’t know the countries that make heresy a crime, I’m willing to bet that nearly all of them are majority Muslim countries. You can’t claim, as Aslan did (unconvincingly) for female genital mutilation, that heresy is a purely cultural issue.

Amir-Aslani had a wife (I don’t know about kids)—a wife who has lost her husband because he spoke metaphorically about a nomming fish. The more I think about Aslan excusing this kind of stuff, or about those who say “it’s culture, not religion,” the angrier I get.


Mohsen Amir-Aslani


The Albatross revealed!

I discovered—from Matthew Cobb!—that the Albatross, under its real name, has now appeared on Amazon. Here it is (note that the publication date of May 19 is provisional):

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You will note that the name “Richard Dawson” is in the blurb on the site; it will be changed to “Richard Dawkins” ASAP.

I like the cover (that was Viking’s doing), and I should note that the bar between the title and my name will be made out of matte gold foil, which is quite classy. You can pre-order it if you want (a bargain at $22.40 in hardcover!), and I’ll divulge more details as they become available.

p.s. Do not mistake this for another book by a Jerry Coyne, though I doubt they’ll be confused!

h/t: Merilee


Guest post: Reza Aslan goes after Bill Maher

Just a short while ago I put up a post and video about Bill Maher going after Islam on his show. Maher’s words were prompted by the Pennsylvania kid who was arrested for “desecrating” a statue of Jesus; Maher’s point was that in a Muslim country (if they even allowed statues of Muhammad, which they don’t), the kid would have been killed. The video on that post has now been removed from YouTube, but another one has sprung up here.

On Monday, Reza Aslan, the Great Muslim Apologist, went on CNN to attack Maher and defend Islam, and a reader sent me the link along with a critique of Aslan’s critique.  Usually readers just send me links and a few words, but when a reader gives me a longer take, I always worry about unconscious theft of ideas if I post the link with my own commentary. If my take is similar to the reader’s, how do I know I would have had those ideas on my own? Therefore, when I got this reader’s commentary, I avoided all unconscious plagiarism by simply asking him/her to allow me to post the commentary. It is given below, along with a video of Aslan’s performance. You can judge whether Aslan pwned Maher or not; the reader (whose own website is given below), clearly thinks not. (By the way, you should go over and have a look at that website, which deals with issues dear to our hearts.)

First, the CNN video of Aslan’s lucubrations on the benign nature of Islam:

The guest post:

Reza Aslan’s “Takedown” of Bill Maher

By the reader who hosts The Uncertainty Blog

Last night Reza Aslan, unofficial spokesperson for liberal Islam and best-selling author of Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazarath, took to CNN to respond to Bill Maher’s recent “islamophobic rant” (Aslan’s words in a tweet). The rant in question was part of last Friday’s episode of Real Time, and you can watch it here. You’ll find at least part of Aslan’s appearance on CNN, accompanied by a predictably terrible headline from Salon, here: Reza Aslan Takes Down Bill Maher’s Facile Arguments on Islam in Just 5 Minutes.

Despite the hyperbole of Salon, most of what Aslan says in the excerpt doesn’t stand up to scrutiny, at least not if it was meant as a direct “takedown” of Maher. For example, right off the bat, it simply isn’t “empirically, factually incorrect” to suggest that female genital mutilation (FGM) is an Islamic problem. While some central African countries, like Niger and the others Aslan mentions, have Christians practicing FGM, it is empirically and factually true (to the best that I could find) that most recorded FGM happens in or near Islamic communities (see Mackie, 2006, American Sociological Review) and the justification is often religious in nature.

And when Aslan does make a good point in this appearance, it’s generally a rebuttal of something that was never actually claimed. For example, he spends a lot of energy making sure we understand that not all Muslim-dominated countries are like Saudi Arabia and that therefore it is “stupid” to generalize Saudi Arabia’s practices as being emblematic of Islam as a whole. While Maher does say that “the Muslim world” has too much in common with ISIS (perhaps over-generalizing a bit), his reference to Saudi Arabia was specifically about Saudi Arabia, not the Islamic world as a whole, and the point was not that all Muslims agree with the extremism of that country, it was that Saudi Arabia’s practices are in part influenced by Islam. It is obviously true that there are Muslim-majority states where women are not treated like they are in Saudi Arabia, but it also true that Saudi Arabia treats women the way they do, at least in part, because of Islam. But Aslan willfully denies that Islam has anything to do with extremism in every public appearance I’ve seen him make.

Case in point: Perhaps the most inane thing Aslan said during the interview (and one I still can’t get my head around) was the following,  “Islam doesn’t promote violence or peace. Islam is just a religion, and like every religion in the world, it depends on what you bring to it. If you’re a violent person, your Islam, your Judaism, your Christianity, your Hinduism, is going to be violent.” What exactly is he saying here? That religion has no impact on one’s behavior? Even a positive impact? What could that even mean? A fun thought experiment: If I were to offer Aslan $10,000,000 (or whatever sum necessary) to desecrate a holy book of his choice in front of a group of randomly assembled devotees of that particular holy book, is he honestly suggesting he wouldn’t feel more nervous about desecrating the Koran rather than the Bible or Torah?

Finally (and maybe this is a cheap shot) it always bothers me that Aslan is touted as a “scholar” of religion during media appearances. That’s not to say he doesn’t have an expertise in the subject, but I don’t know that he’s contributed to the literature at all outside his popular books, which tend to summarize other peoples’ actual scholarship. He’s currently a professor of creative writing (according, at least, to Wikipedia) and has a Ph.D. in sociology, apparently focused on religion. He’s a terrific writer, but I think of him more as a religious journalist or author than a “scholar of religion”. You can read the opinion of an actual scholar of religion, Bart Ehrman, on Aslan’s credentials here.


[Disclaimer: Obviously this wasn't actually meant to be a takedown. While Aslan might not be a "scholar" in my opinion, he's worlds closer to that title than I am. These are just slightly revised comments I sent to Jerry after watching the video and needing to vent. So if I've mischaracterized or misstated anything, please correct me, and apologies in advance.]

Jesus ‘n’ Mo ‘n’ metaphorical lattes

Today’s Jesus and Mo pwns both accommodationists like Alain de Botton as well as those Sophisticated Theologians™ who argue that “real” religion doesn’t make truth claims:


Jesus is reading Alain de Botton’s book, Religion for Atheists, while Mo is, of course, perusing the only book that many Muslims see as worth reading.


Readers’ wildlife photos

Reader Jacques Hausser from Switzerland (he’s an emeritus professor of ecology and evolution at the University of Lausanne) had a trip to the Arctic and sent many photos of birds and terrestrial mammals (you can guess which one).

I had the opportunity to visit Svalbard (Spitzbergen) this summer – a fantastic trip – and I’ll send you some short series of pictures each dedicated to one species.
Little auk or Dovekie (Alle alle). The smallest auk (Alcidae), not bigger than a starling. They wear the usual ceremonial coat of Alcidae, with only a very discreet ornaments: a tiny white eyebrow, not always visible, and some white inverted V on the shoulders. They nest under boulders in screes, and a visit to their colonies is really enjoyable: they are very active, very noisy (recording here [click button on upper right)! They eat mostly planktonic crustaceans.
There are about 3000 polar bears (more than humans) in Svalbard. Summer is a difficult period for them, since most of the sea-ice—and therefore most of their prefered prey, the seals—are away to the north. So they eat what they find, that is anything from seaweed to grass to eggs and chicken to young reindeers to tourists. It’s compulsory to be armed when landing somewhere. They mostly stay on the shores and it’s safer to approach them in a zodiac (taking the gun with you nevertheless, for they are excellent swimmers).
My favorite picture: this male just spotted our boat.
A powerful male:
A slender—and yawning—female. Note the blood at the corner of her mouth: she probably just nommed a fat gosling (they were some geese around). Note also the blue tongue.
…and for Diana MacPherson: “Mmm… if only this floating dish full of tender meat could beach just here…”
An elegant gangster: parasitic jaegers (Stercorarius parasiticus) are the most common jaeger in Svalbard. They feed mostly by mercilessly pursuing gulls and terns until their victims disgorge their prey. – but they are couragous parents too, attacking bears and people to defend their eggs (a good opportunity for the photographer).
Their eggs:
One parent trying to turn potential robbers away from its eggs:
 . . and braking at the last moment:

Willie the Cat changes the bogroll from over to under

This, O readers, is the feline incarnation of Diana MacPherson. Notice that Willie accomplishes, at much greater effort, exactly what Diana does.

h/t: Smokedpaprika

Tuesday: Hili dialogue

Cyrus: What is this “golden rule”?
Hili: Never let any human sit on a sofa we are lying on.

In Polish:
Cyrus: Co to jest ta złota reguła?
Hili: Nigdy nie pozwalaj ludziom siadać na sofie, na której my leżymy.


Uh oh. . .

From my CNN News bulletin:

A patient at a Dallas, Texas, hospital is the first case of Ebola virus diagnosed in the United States, according to the CDC.

Other Americans were diagnosed in West Africa and then brought to the United States for treatment.

Three cat gifs

Oy vey! I’m formatting endnotes all day on orders of my draconian editor! You haven’t lived until you’ve spent hours cutting, pasting, and formatting, all without the need to think (I do not find that relaxing). But what is relaxing is to find and post cat gifs. Here are three.

Cat overdoes it with “catch-the-mouse” game on an iPad:


Ninja cat gets through gate:


Finally, a tw**t with an embedded gif: click on the screenshot to see this amazing cat:

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h/t: Su, Barry




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