Personal responsibility is, of course, not a binary construct. When we say unhealthy behavior — overeating, smoking, excessive alcohol use — is not your fault, we may rob people of the initiative to change it. When we say that same behavior is all your fault, we fail to recognize a more complex reality: Health is a product of genes, environment, work, education, family, medical care and many other factors.

Although it seems we should encourage personal responsibility, punishing the opposite may be heavy-handed and even counterproductive. Breaking down every factor that leads patients to develop cancer or heart disease or Alzheimer’s — and penalizing or rewarding them based on the share they could in theory control — seems a herculean and morally suspect task.

Personal responsibility is an attractive goal with deep roots in American culture. But if it’s too aggressively pursued, it may conflict with another worthy ideal: In a nation as wealthy as the United States, sick humans deserve health care — even if they can’t pay, and even if they’ve made some bad choices.

One eye opening experience was when I was climbing (really, walking up) a mountain in Nara, Japan. I kept passing the same guy. He was not quite my height but easily 30KG (about 66 pounds) lighter than me. Crazy hair, wispy beard, and a tan that identified him easily as a laborer.

I would pass him at the end of various legs of the journey. He would be at a waystation, puffing on a cigarette and drinking a Coke while munching down on some junk food. He would effortlessly pass me on each leg with a large bundle strapped to him, not seeming to break a sweat.

I don’t smoke. I don’t drink soda. And I don’t eat junk food.

But no one will convince me the fellow I crossed paths with so many times wasn’t healthier than me.

That health is a tapestry of “genes, environment, work, education, family, medical care, and many other factors” seems right to me.

In another anecdotal example, someone I know with similar habits to my own went on his “grind”, which basically means sudden excercise and dietary change largely focused on removing carbohydrates from his intake. He worked hard on his “grind” for several weeks to achieve a substantial weight loss. He admits the unlikelihood he will be able to maintain his current weight, and he was miserable while working toward it.

So when we talk about personal responsibility with health care, how do these two edge cases fit?

There needs to be an intelligent, nuanced, and scientifically-based discussion on how best to address Western (especially American) health in the immediate, short, and long terms. The current approaches seem inadequate.

Photo by Joseph Gonzalez on Unsplash

How many cups of sugar would it take to get to the moon? — Jacob P., age 4.5

I’m going to be upfront here: I chose this particular question because I thought it would be kind of fun to troll some rocket scientists. I figured that asking them this question would be like asking a bunch of engineers about the number of cats that would be required to build the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge.

So you can imagine my surprise when Mason Peck, a professor of mechanical and aerospace engineering at Cornell University, started cheerfully telling me about the sugar-based fuel used to launch homemade rockets. “There are lots of amateur rocketry people around the world that are interested in wacky propellants,” Peck told me. “Anything with some kind of hydrocarbon in it works pretty well. So obviously sugar would work. Pepperoni works, and it smells delicious by the way.” Yes, seriously.

I strongly recommend diving into this article. It is fun, informative, and humbling if you were not a 4.5 year old with such a great question. And I always enjoy a good Maggie Koerth-Baker drafted science article.

Photo by SpaceX on Unsplash

NASA lost contact with a satellite 12 years ago. An amateur just found its signal.

NASA confirmed an incredible discovery Tuesday — that an amateur radio astronomer, on the hunt for a classified government satellite, stumbled upon signals from a spacecraft that had been thought lost 12 years earlier, raising hope that NASA can resurrect a mission that changed our understanding of the “invisible ocean” around the Earth.

How cool is this? I think I worked on PowerPoint presentations and sat in meetings on Tuesday. Peace & Love to my employer, coworkers, and customers but I would much rather have discovered a lost spacecraft.

“Too cool” is the correct answer to “how cool is this?”, by the way.