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kottke.org posts about science

Cars vs Giant Bulge and Other Outlandish Vehicular Simulations

posted by Jason Kottke   May 06, 2022

It is Friday and this is the perfect Friday sort of post. BeamNG is a video game of sorts that’s “a dynamic soft-body physics vehicle simulator capable of doing just about anything”. In the simulator, you can quickly devise all sorts of situations with a variety of cars and then press play to see what happens, with (mostly) realistic physics and collisions. For instance, here’s Cars vs Big Bulge:

Chained Cars vs Bollards:

Cars vs 100 Fallen Trees:

Trains vs Giant Pit:

And many many more. My god if this simulator had been around when I was 12 years old, I might not have done anything else. Hell, if I downloaded and installed this right now, I might not ever get anything done ever again. (via @tvaziri)

The Brain Eating Amoeba, the Most Overhyped Monster on Earth

posted by Jason Kottke   May 03, 2022

In retrospect, maybe today wasn’t such a good day to watch a video about how incredibly scary brain-eating amoebas are. But, as you might guess from the title, we don’t actually need to worry too much about them.

While the Naegleria fowleri is clearly extremely deadly and the infection truly horrible, there have only been a few hundred cases in the last few decades. You are way more likely to drown in a pool than to get infected.

A reminder that in our current media environment, calibrating personal risk can be challenging.

Mars Helicopter Spots Perseverance Rover’s Landing Debris

posted by Jason Kottke   Apr 28, 2022

wreckage from the landing of NASA's Perseverance rover on Mars

wreckage from the landing of NASA's Perseverance rover on Mars

On the 26th flight of Ingenuity, NASA’s helicopter on Mars, it spotted and photographed the wreckage of the Perseverance rover’s landing gear, protective shell, and parachute. From a NY Times article on the photos:

“There’s definitely a sci-fi element to it,” Ian Clark, an engineer who worked on Perseverance’s parachute system, said of photographs released on Wednesday. “It exudes otherworldly, doesn’t it?”

Part of the reason NASA had Ingenuity go take a look is to see how all of that equipment held up during the landing process. Data from the photos will inform future missions.

“Perseverance had the best-documented Mars landing in history, with cameras showing everything from parachute inflation to touchdown,” said JPL’s Ian Clark, former Perseverance systems engineer and now Mars Sample Return ascent phase lead. “But Ingenuity’s images offer a different vantage point. If they either reinforce that our systems worked as we think they worked or provide even one dataset of engineering information we can use for Mars Sample Return planning, it will be amazing. And if not, the pictures are still phenomenal and inspiring.”

In the images of the upright backshell and the debris field that resulted from it impacting the surface at about 78 mph (126 kph), the backshell’s protective coating appears to have remained intact during Mars atmospheric entry. Many of the 80 high-strength suspension lines connecting the backshell to the parachute are visible and also appear intact. Spread out and covered in dust, only about a third of the orange-and-white parachute — at 70.5 feet (21.5 meters) wide, it was the biggest ever deployed on Mars — can be seen, but the canopy shows no signs of damage from the supersonic airflow during inflation. Several weeks of analysis will be needed for a more final verdict.

It is really remarkable, the images we’re seeing from Mars, taken by a robotic helicopter.

Feynman’s Ode to the Wonder of Life

posted by Jason Kottke   Apr 25, 2022

In the last installment of a video series called The Universe in Verse, Maria Popova, Yo-Yo Ma, and Kelli Anderson have collaborated on a video that features words spoken by Nobel Prize-winning physicist Richard Feynman in a 1955 speech, a poem of sorts on the wonder of life.

Deep in the sea, all molecules repeat the patterns of one another till complex new ones are formed. They make others like themselves… and a new dance starts.

Growing in size and complexity… living things, masses of atoms, DNA, protein… dancing a pattern ever more intricate.

Out of the cradle onto the dry land… here it is standing… atoms with consciousness… matter with curiosity.

Lovely. And of course I love the visuals by Kelli Anderson.

The Fluid Dynamics of Oreo Cookie Twisting

posted by Jason Kottke   Apr 21, 2022

Oreo cookies that have been twisted apart, with the creme sticking to one side of the cookie

You may have noticed, while twisting apart Oreos (aka the world’s favorite “trilayer laminate composite”) to get at the creme inside, that the creme tends to mostly stick to one half of the cookie. MIT graudate student Crystal Owens decided to study this phenomenon and has co-authored a paper about the failure mechanics of the Oreo’s layer of creme in the journal Physics of Fluid. From Ars Technica:

“I had in my mind that if you twist the Oreos perfectly, you should split the creme perfectly in the middle,” said Owens. “But what actually happens is the creme almost always comes off of one side.” The experiments showed that this creme distribution is not affected by rotation rate, the amount of creme filling, or the flavor. Rather, the pre-existing level of adhesion between the creme and the chocolate wafers seemed to be the determining factor. Cookies from the package within any one box typically separated with the same preferred orientation most of the time. This suggests that it has something to do with how the cookies are manufactured and then oriented during packaging, as well as how they are stored.

They even built a 3D printed “oreometer” so that people can study this phenomenon without using an expensive rheometer.

As a very amateur kitchen scientist myself, the Oreo situation reminds me of what happens when you try to tear three connected pieces of paper towel apart in one move by pulling on the outside pieces in opposite directions: the middle piece of paper towel almost always ends up attached to one of the outside pieces. In fact, in extensive testing over the past 3-4 years, this maneuver has only separated all three pieces a few times.1 (thx, eric)

  1. There’s always a lot of hootin’ and hollerin’ and victory laps around the kitchen when a perfect pull happens. It’s a rare event!

NASA’s Perseverance Rover Sees Solar Eclipse on Mars

posted by Jason Kottke   Apr 20, 2022

Wow, NASA just released a video shot by the Mars Perseverance rover of a solar eclipse by the moon Phobos. The video description calls it “the most zoomed-in, highest frame-rate observation of a Phobos solar eclipse ever taken from the Martian surface”. According to this article from JPL, the video of the eclipse is played in realtime; it only lasted about 40 seconds.

Captured with Perseverance’s next-generation Mastcam-Z camera on April 2, the 397th Martian day, or sol, of the mission, the eclipse lasted a little over 40 seconds — much shorter than a typical solar eclipse involving Earth’s Moon. (Phobos is about 157 times smaller than Earth’s Moon. Mars’ other moon, Deimos, is even smaller.)

Just a hunk of space rock passing in front of a massive burning ball of gas recorded by a robot from the surface of an extraterrestrial planet, no big deal.

How Did Roman Aqueducts Work?

posted by Jason Kottke   Apr 18, 2022

I had always heard that the engineering of Roman aqueducts was impressive, but as this video demonstrates, I didn’t know the half of it. The stuff about how precise the descending slope of the aqueducts were over several hundred miles is just incredible. (via open culture)

How Loud Can Sound Physically Get?

posted by Jason Kottke   Apr 15, 2022

Is there a physical limit to how loud a noise can be? As you might imagine, the answer is somewhat complicated, even if you assume normal atmospheric conditions. In video, Benn Jordan discusses a few possible answers, as well as how we should think about the question in the first place. One possible answer is 194 decibels, although experiencing a sound that loud would probably kill you.

See also The World’s Loudest Sound, aka the sound generated by the Krakatoa volcanic eruption in 1883, which Jordan mentions in the video.

We Have the Tools to Fix the Climate. We Just Need to Use Them.

posted by Jason Kottke   Apr 06, 2022

A new video from Kurzgesagt is designed to provide a little hope that humans can figure a way out of the climate crisis, without being overly pollyannish.

And so for many the future looks grim and hopeless. Young people feel particularly anxious and depressed. Instead of looking ahead to a lifetime of opportunity they wonder if they will even have a future or if they should bring kids into this world. It’s an age of doom and hopelessness and giving up seems the only sensible thing to do.

But that’s not true. You are not doomed. Humanity is not doomed.

There’s been progress in the last decade, in terms of economics, technology, policy, and social mores. It’s not happening fast enough to limit warming to 1.5°C, but if progress continues, gains accumulate, people keep pushing, and politicians start to figure out where the momentum is heading, we can get things under control before there’s a global apocalypse.

The Highest Resolution Photo of the Sun Ever Taken

posted by Jason Kottke   Apr 01, 2022

very high resolution image of the Sun

The European Space Agency’s Solar Orbiter recently took 25 images of the Sun from a distance of 46 million miles that, when stitched all together, form the highest resolution photo of the Sun (and its corona) ever created.

The high-resolution telescope of EUI takes pictures of such high spatial resolution that, at that close distance, a mosaic of 25 individual images is needed to cover the entire Sun. Taken one after the other, the full image was captured over a period of more than four hours because each tile takes about 10 minutes, including the time for the spacecraft to point from one segment to the next.

In total, the final image contains more than 83 million pixels in a 9148 x 9112 pixel grid. For comparison, this image has a resolution that is ten times better than what a 4K TV screen can display.

You can zoom in on the image here to see how remarkably detailed it is.

IBM’s $300 Open Source Lego Microscope

posted by Jason Kottke   Mar 10, 2022

microscopic image of a fruit fly

microscopic image of a microfluidic chip

Using Lego bricks, a Raspberry Pi mini-computer, an Arduino microcontroller, some off-the-shelf components like lenses, and 3D-printed components, IBM scientist Yuksel Temiz built a fully functional microscope to help him with his work. The materials cost around $300 and the microscope performs as well as scopes many times more expensive — the images above were taken with the Lego scope.

The microscope works so well that for the past two years Temiz and his colleagues in the microfluidics lab at IBM Research, just meters away from the picturesque Zurich lake, have been using the images they took with it in their papers, published in leading journals. They also use them for presentations at major conferences. Not all images relate to microfluidics — the area of science that involves manipulating fluids on miniscule chips in a very precise manner. The liquids can be blood or urine, used for cancer and infectious diseases research as well as understanding heart attack conditions, and more. Researchers also routinely take images of typical computer chips, and Temiz showed me, for instance, how to take a stunning close up of a fruit fly.

Here’s a quick video look at how to build your own:

The the full set of open-sourced instructions are available on GitHub.

Mesmerizing Ice Crystal Formations

posted by Jason Kottke   Mar 09, 2022

For his music video for Sébastien Guérive’s Bellatrix, Thomas Blanchard filmed ice crystals forming at close range and ultra-high resolution.

Bellatrix Sébastien Guérive music video is an experimental film on the crystallization of ice stars. It is a chemical saturation in hot water which is then cooled. The chemical saturation becomes very unstable when the liquid cools. The slightest disturbance in the liquid activates crystallization.

I spent hours and hours as a kid watching snowflakes accumulate on windowsills, raindrops rolling down windows, clouds rolling in from the west, and frost advance on surfaces, looking for patterns in the seeming randomness, so this is right up my alley. (via colossal)

Are There Lost Civilizations in Earth’s Past?

posted by Jason Kottke   Mar 02, 2022

The Earth is some 4.5 billion years old and the first life on Earth appeared 3.7 billion years ago (if not earlier). That’s a lot of time…so maybe it’s possible that a civilization existed at some point during that time and then vanished without a trace. In this video, Kurzgesagt explores the Silurian hypothesis.

When we think about alien civilizations we tend to look into the vastness of space, to far away planets. But there is another incredibly vast dimension that we might be giving too little thought to: time.

Could it be that over the last hundreds of millions of years, other civilizations existed on earth? Indigenous technological species that rose and died out? And that they or their artifacts are buried beneath our feet? What does science have to say about this and what are the implications for us?

See also Could an Industrial Prehuman Civilization Have Existed on Earth Before Ours? and Was There a Civilization on Earth Before Humans?.

Red Sprites and Blue Jets: Massive Luminous Displays in Stormy Skies

posted by Jason Kottke   Feb 28, 2022

Sometimes the sky above powerful thunderstorms can light up in massive displays of color; they’re called transient luminous events. Whoa, I’ve never seen or heard of this phenomenon before!

On rare nights with clear visibility over powerful distant thunderstorms, you might be able to see and capture red sprites. Sprites are large scale electrical discharges occurring high above thunderstorms in the upper atmosphere. They are massive events, sometimes 50 kilometers tall by 50 kilometers wide. Sprites belong to a mysterious and colorful group of phenomenon called Transient Luminous Events, or TLEs. Other TLE’s include halos, Elves, trolls, secondary jets, Blue starters, Blue jets and the magnificent gigantic jets. But what exactly are these transient luminous Events, and how do they form?

This video is a great explainer about the phenomenon — how it arises, where the colors come from, etc. (via the kid should see this)

Measles Makes Your Immune System Forget Its Protections Against Past Illness

posted by Jason Kottke   Feb 14, 2022

Historically, contracting the measles has been linked to subsequent illness (and possibly death) from other causes. In the past few years, scientists have discovered why this is: measles causes “immune amnesia”.

Enter “immune amnesia”, a mysterious phenomenon that’s been with us for millennia, though it was only discovered in 2012. Essentially, when you’re infected with measles, your immune system abruptly forgets every pathogen it’s ever encountered before — every cold, every bout of flu, every exposure to bacteria or viruses in the environment, every vaccination. The loss is near-total and permanent. Once the measles infection is over, current evidence suggests that your body has to re-learn what’s good and what’s bad almost from scratch.

“In a way, infection of the measles virus basically sets the immune system to default mode,” says Mansour Haeryfar, a professor of immunology at Western University, Canada, “as if it has never encountered any microbes in the past”.

This re-learning process takes up to three years, which “around the time it takes infants to acquire immunity to everyday pathogens in the first place”. In the meantime…

It’s not surprising, then, that measles doesn’t just increase the risk of illness, but also death. In fact, childhood mortality from other viruses is strongly linked to the incidence of measles. The 2015 study showed that when childhood mortality in the UK, US, or Denmark goes up, this is usually because measles has become more prevalent.

The findings explain why vaccinating children against measles has the unexpected, beneficial side-effect of reducing deaths among children, way beyond the numbers who were ever at risk of dying from measles itself.

Of course, an extremely effective and safe vaccine offers protection against both measles and the immune amnesia it causes. But with the steep rise in anti-vaccination sentiment during the pandemic and the increasing willingness of conservative leaders to disregard public health protections in favor of “individual freedom”, widely vaccinating against this dangerous pathogen in the US & elsewhere will be more difficult than in the past.

The Unsuccessful Treatment of Writer’s Block

posted by Jason Kottke   Feb 11, 2022

In 1974, the Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis published a paper by Dennis Upper called The Unsuccessful Self-Treatment of a Case of “Writer’s Block”. Here’s the paper, in its entirety:

Unsuccessful Writers Block

“Portions of this paper were not presented at 81st Annual American Psychological Association Convention…” — LOL. You can read more about this paper at Wikipedia. (via @ecohugger)

When the Mediterranean Sea Dried Up

posted by Jason Kottke   Feb 11, 2022

About 5.9 million years ago, due to a combination of tectonic movements and changes in climate, the Mediterranean Sea mostly dried up for over 600,000 years. The Messinian salinity crisis may have raised global sea levels by as much as 33 feet and decreased the salinity of the world’s oceans, raising the freezing point. And then, much more suddenly, it was refilled in less than two years in the Zanclean Flood.

Two years to refill the whole Mediterranean! Apparently the water level rose at 30 feet per day, fed by a river that carried 1000 times more water than the Amazon at velocities exceeding 88 mph. When the water reached a barrier near present-day Sicily, it flowed into the eastern basin via a mile-high waterfall in which the water was moving at 100 mph. The weight of so much water moving into the area so quickly would have triggered seismic activity, resulting in landslides that could have produced tsunamis with wave heights of 330 feet. So much wow!

Anyway, watch the PBS Eons video above for the whole story. And then check out this animation of what the drying up and the flood may have looked like.

P.S. For XKCD, Randall Munroe wrote a comic called Time that unfolded over a series of four months and was based on a future Zanclean-like flood. (via open culture)

The Longest-Running Evolution Experiment

posted by Jason Kottke   Feb 08, 2022

From Veritasium, a video about an experiment in evolution that’s been running continuously for more than 33 years.1The LTEE (the E. coli long-term evolution experiment) was started with 12 identical bacterial populations in 1988 and as of early 2020, they have reached 73,500 generations (the equivalent of 1.5 to 2 million years in human generational terms). When you can fast-forward evolution while also preserving past generations (the bacteria can be easily frozen and reanimated), you can discover some surprising things about it.

  1. Well, sort of. As you will learn in the video, the bacteria can be frozen without damaging them or ending the experiment, so the experiment was interrupted for 6 months due to the Covid-19 pandemic. But they’re back at it now.

What If the Moon Crashes Into the Earth?

posted by Jason Kottke   Feb 08, 2022

No doubt motivated by this month’s release of Moonfall, the latest movie from disaster shlockmeister Roland Emmerich, Kurzgesagt has made a video that shows what would happen to civilization should the Moon somehow get knocked from its orbit and head straight for the Earth. Spoiler: the Moon doesn’t even need to reach us to kill almost all life on the planet.

See also A Scientific Simulation of Seveneves’ Moon Disaster.

How the James Webb Space Telescope Orbits Nothing

posted by Jason Kottke   Feb 07, 2022

The James Webb Space Telescope is designed to be positioned near one of the five Lagrange Points in the Sun/Earth system, special areas of gravitational equilibrium that keep objects stationary relative to both the Earth and the Sun. Here’s how Lagrange Points work and why they are so useful for spacecraft like the Webb.

See also What Makes Lagrange Points Special Locations In Space.

Native Tribes Have Lost 99% of Their Land in the United States

posted by Jason Kottke   Feb 02, 2022

A recent study estimates that indigenous people in the US “have lost nearly 99% of the land they historically occupied”.

The data set — the first to quantify land dispossession and forced migration in the United States — also reveals that tribes with land today were systematically forced into less-valuable areas, which excluded them from key sectors of the U.S. economy, including the energy market. The negative effects continue to this day: Modern Indigenous lands are at increased risk from climate change hazards, especially extreme heat and decreased precipitation.

What’s different about this study, says Deondre Smiles, a geographer and citizen of the Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe, is the quantification of the land dispossession:

Indigenous people have always understood the devastating effects of these policies, Smiles says. But most of their stories existed only in qualitative historical records, including hundreds of treaties, or oral histories. “The pushback you get in academia is that qualitative narratives are not robust. [Scientists often ask,] ‘Where’s the data? Where’s the hard science?’” Smiles says. “It’s right here, in this article.”

See also A New Online Archive of 374 Treaties Between Indigenous Peoples and the United States and these Native Land maps. (thx, meg)

Tree Root System Drawings

posted by Jason Kottke   Jan 24, 2022

drawing of a plant's root system

drawing of a plant's root system

drawing of a plant's root system

drawing of a plant's root system

The Wageningen University & Research houses a collection of almost 1200 drawings of the root systems of trees, grasses, crops, shrubs, weeds, flowers, and other plants. These drawings were done of plants in Europe, mostly in Austria, over a period of 40 years and are a wonderful combination of scientifically valuable and aesthetically pleasing.

How Does The James Webb Space Telescope Work?

posted by Jason Kottke   Jan 19, 2022

The James Webb Space Telescope is still winging its way to its permanent home at the L2 point1 about 930,000 miles from Earth — it’s due to arrive in about 4 days. It’s a massive and fascinating project and for his YouTube series Smarter Every Day, Destin Sandlin talked to Nobel laureate John Mather, the senior project scientist for the JWST, about how the telescope works.

Also worth a watch is Real Engineering’s The Insane Engineering of James Webb Telescope:

It really is a marvel of modern science & engineering — I can’t wait to see what the telescope sees once it’s fully operational.

  1. You can read about Lagrange points here or here…they are interesting!

Randomly Bouncing Balls Arrange Themselves Into Satisfying Patterns

posted by Jason Kottke   Jan 12, 2022

In this clever simulation, bouncing balls obeying the laws of physics somehow arrange themselves, mid-chaos, into neat patterns. This is immensely satisfying.

Spoiler: the trick here is a pair of simulations stitched together, like a physics Texas Switch: “Each sequence is obtained by joining two simulations, both starting from the time in which the balls are arranged regularly. One simulates forward in time, one backwards.”

Powers of Ten, Updated With Current Science

posted by Jason Kottke   Jan 05, 2022

Charles and Ray Eames’ 1977 short film Powers of Ten is one of the best bits of science communication ever created…and a personal favorite of mine. Here’s a description of the original film:

Powers of Ten takes us on an adventure in magnitudes. Starting at a picnic by the lakeside in Chicago, this famous film transports us to the outer edges of the universe. Every ten seconds we view the starting point from ten times farther out until our own galaxy is visible only a s a speck of light among many others. Returning to Earth with breathtaking speed, we move inward — into the hand of the sleeping picnicker — with ten times more magnification every ten seconds. Our journey ends inside a proton of a carbon atom within a DNA molecule in a white blood cell.

As an homage, the BBC and particle physicist Brian Cox have created an updated version that reflects what we’ve learned about the universe in the 45 years since Powers of Ten was made. The new video zooms out to the limits of our current observational powers, to about 100 billion light years away, 1000X wider than in the original. (I wish they would have done the zoom in part of the video too, but maybe next year!)

And if you’d like to explore the scales of the universe for yourself, check out the Universe in a Nutshell app from Tim Urban and Kurzgesagt — you can zoom in and out as far as you want and interact with and learn about objects along the way.

Unleashing Beaver to Restore Ecosystems and Combat the Climate Crisis

posted by Jason Kottke   Dec 22, 2021

While indigenous communities, farmers, and those living close to the land have known for generations the role that beavers play in maintaining healthy ecosystems, more and more scientists have been experimenting and gathering data on just how essential these animals are. Through their actions, beaver (and humans mimicking their actions) can help restore river-based ecosystems, improve wildfire resilience, bring fish & other animals back to habitats, and fight drought.

Beaver should be our national climate action plan because connected floodplains store water, store carbon, improve water quality, improve the resilience to wildfire, and what beaver do play an enormous role in controlling the dynamics of those systems. So, yeah, it sounds really trite to give a national climate action plan to some rodents. But if we don’t do that directly, we should at least be trying to mimic what they do.

The video above provides a great overview on what we’re learning about how beavers restore ecosystems. Last month, I linked to this Sacramento Bee piece about how beavers were used to revitalize a dry California creek bed:

The creek bed, altered by decades of agricultural use, had looked like a wildfire risk. It came back to life far faster than anticipated after the beavers began building dams that retained water longer.

“It was insane, it was awesome,” said Lynnette Batt, the conservation director of the Placer Land Trust, which owns and maintains the Doty Ravine Preserve.

“It went from dry grassland… to totally revegetated, trees popping up, willows, wetland plants of all types, different meandering stream channels across about 60 acres of floodplain,” she said.

The Doty Ravine project cost about $58,000, money that went toward preparing the site for beavers to do their work.

In comparison, a traditional constructed restoration project using heavy equipment across that much land could cost $1 to $2 million, according to Batt.

See also The Beaver Manifesto and this long piece from Places Journal about beavers as environmental engineers.

Across North America and Europe, public agencies and private actors have reintroduced beavers through “re-wilding” initiatives. In California and Oregon, beavers are enhancing wetlands that are critical breeding habitat for salmonids, amphibians, and waterfowl. In Nevada, Utah, and New Mexico, environmental groups have partnered with ranchers and farmers to encourage beaver activity on small streams. Watershed advocates in California are leading a campaign to have beavers removed from the state’s non-native species list, so that they can be managed as a keystone species rather than a nuisance. And federal policy is shifting, too. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service sees beavers as “partners in restoration,” and the Forest Service has supported efforts like the Methow Beaver Project, which mitigates water shortages in North Central Washington. Since 2017, the USDA Natural Resource Conservation Service has funded beaver initiatives through its Aquatic Restoration Program.

(via the kid should see this)

CDC Report Shows Steep Drop in US Life Expectancy in 2020

posted by Jason Kottke   Dec 22, 2021

The CDC recently released their report on Mortality in the United States, 2020 and this graph of US life expectancy at birth since 1950 by Christopher Ingraham dramatically summarizes the report’s main finding:

graph showing US life expectancy at birth since 1950, featuring a steep drop in 2020

That’s a decrease in life expectancy of 1.8 years from 2019. Here are some more of the report’s significant findings:

In 2020, life expectancy at birth was 77.0 years for the total U.S. population — a decrease of 1.8 years from 78.8 years in 2019. For males, life expectancy decreased 2.1 years from 76.3 in 2019 to 74.2 in 2020. For females, life expectancy decreased 1.5 years from 81.4 in 2019 to 79.9 in 2020.

In 2020, the difference in life expectancy between females and males was 5.7 years, an increase of 0.6 year from 2019.

graph of the death rates in the US for 2020

The age-adjusted death rate for the total population increased 16.8% from 715.2 per 100,000 standard population in 2019 to 835.4 in 2020. Age-adjusted death rates increased in 2020 from 2019 for all race-ethnicity-sex groups, increasing 42.7% for Hispanic males, 32.4% for Hispanic females, 28.0% for non-Hispanic Black males, 24.9% for non-Hispanic Black females, 13.4% for non-Hispanic White males, and 12.1% for non-Hispanic White females.

graph of the leading causes of death in the US in 2020

In 2020, 9 of the 10 leading causes of death remained the same as in 2019. The top leading cause was heart disease, followed by cancer. COVID-19, newly added as a cause of death in 2020, became the 3rd leading cause of death. Of the remaining leading causes in 2020 (unintentional injuries, stroke, chronic lower respiratory diseases, Alzheimer disease, diabetes, influenza and pneumonia, and kidney disease), 5 causes changed ranks from 2019. Unintentional injuries, the 3rd leading cause in 2019, became the 4th leading cause in 2020. Chronic lower respiratory diseases, the 4th leading cause in 2019, became the 6th. Alzheimer disease, the 6th leading cause in 2019, became the 7th. Diabetes, the 7th leading cause in 2019, became the 8th. Kidney disease, the 8th leading cause in 2019, became the 10th leading cause in 2020. Stroke, and influenza and pneumonia, remained the 5th and 9th leading causes, respectively. Suicide dropped from the list of 10 leading causes in 2020.

And from the report’s summary:

From 2019 to 2020, the age-adjusted death rate for the total population increased 16.8%. This single-year increase is the largest since the first year that annual mortality data for the entire United States became available. The decrease in life expectancy for the total population of 1.8 years from 2019 to 2020 is the largest single-year decrease in more than 75 years.

Since more people in the US died of Covid in 2021 than in 2020, I’d expect the decline life expectancy and the rise in death rate to continue.

Charles Darwin’s First Microscope

posted by Jason Kottke   Dec 21, 2021

In the mid-1820s, the naturalist Charles Darwin began his research career studying botany in university and he bought a portable brass microscope to aid him in his studies. The microscope was passed down through the generations of his family and was recently sold at auction for ~$790,000.

Charles Darwin’s own research career began in earnest with the more prosaic, but no less philosophical, investigation into the sea creatures being dredged up from the Firth of Forth, which Charles obtained from friendly fishermen while he was trying to avoid his medical studies at the University of Edinburgh. Darwin’s studies of these strange ‘zoophytes’, which made liberal use of the microscope, began in 1826 and reached a successful conclusion in the spring of 1827, when he presented his very first scientific paper to the University’s Plinian Society.

These dates coincide with the first appearance of the present model on the market: the instrument was designed by Charles Gould for the firm Cary around 1825, and was certainly on sale by 1826, when its accompanying booklet was mentioned in the Mechanics’ Register. Of the five other surviving microscopes associated with Charles Darwin, four are known to have been acquired later (two in 1831, one each in 1847 and c.1848), and the other cannot be used for studying marine invertebrates.

a brass microscope that was owned by Charles Darwin

a brass microscope that was owned by Charles Darwin, packed into its box

(thx, mick)

America Is Not Ready for Omicron

posted by Jason Kottke   Dec 17, 2021

This piece, from Ed Yong, is not at all surprising: America Is Not Ready for Omicron.

America was not prepared for COVID-19 when it arrived. It was not prepared for last winter’s surge. It was not prepared for Delta’s arrival in the summer or its current winter assault. More than 1,000 Americans are still dying of COVID every day, and more have died this year than last. Hospitalizations are rising in 42 states. The University of Nebraska Medical Center in Omaha, which entered the pandemic as arguably the best-prepared hospital in the country, recently went from 70 COVID patients to 110 in four days, leaving its staff “grasping for resolve,” the virologist John Lowe told me. And now comes Omicron.

Will the new and rapidly spreading variant overwhelm the U.S. health-care system? The question is moot because the system is already overwhelmed, in a way that is affecting all patients, COVID or otherwise. “The level of care that we’ve come to expect in our hospitals no longer exists,” Lowe said.

The real unknown is what an Omicron cross will do when it follows a Delta hook. Given what scientists have learned in the three weeks since Omicron’s discovery, “some of the absolute worst-case scenarios that were possible when we saw its genome are off the table, but so are some of the most hopeful scenarios,” Dylan Morris, an evolutionary biologist at UCLA, told me. In any case, America is not prepared for Omicron. The variant’s threat is far greater at the societal level than at the personal one, and policy makers have already cut themselves off from the tools needed to protect the populations they serve. Like the variants that preceded it, Omicron requires individuals to think and act for the collective good — which is to say, it poses a heightened version of the same challenge that the U.S. has failed for two straight years, in bipartisan fashion.

The main point:

Here, then, is the problem: People who are unlikely to be hospitalized by Omicron might still feel reasonably protected, but they can spread the virus to those who are more vulnerable, quickly enough to seriously batter an already collapsing health-care system that will then struggle to care for anyone — vaccinated, boosted, or otherwise. The collective threat is substantially greater than the individual one. And the U.S. is ill-poised to meet it.

Also from Yong: he recently cancelled his 40th birthday party because of Omicron and wrote about how he thought through the decision.

If someone got sick, I know others could too. A week later, many of my friends will spend Christmas with their own families. At best, a cluster of infections at the birthday party would derail those plans, creating days of anxious quarantine or isolation, and forcing the people I love to spend time away from their loved ones. At worst, people might unknowingly carry the virus to their respective families, which might include elderly, immunocompromised, unvaccinated, partially vaccinated, or otherwise vulnerable people. Being born eight days before Christmas creates almost the perfect conditions for one potential super-spreader event to set off many more.

As has been the case the entire pandemic, our political and public health systems are not equipped to collectively combat this virus, so it falls to individuals to make good choices for our communities. It’s a nearly impossible thing to ask to pandemic-weary folks to focus in again on making good personal choices and even harder to achieve if few are willing to do it, but goddammit we have to try.

Humans (and Vaccines!) Vs the Microbes

posted by Jason Kottke   Dec 16, 2021

From Max Roser at Our World in Data: Our history is a battle against the microbes: we lost terribly before science, public health, and vaccines allowed us to protect ourselves.

Science is the foundation for our success. 150 years ago nobody knew where diseases came from. Or more precisely, people thought they knew, but they were wrong. The widely accepted idea at the time was the ‘Miasma’ theory of disease. Miasma, the theory held, was a form of “bad air” that causes disease. The word malaria is testament to the idea that ‘mal aria’ — ‘bad air’ in medieval Italian — is the cause of the disease.

Thanks to the work of a number of doctors and chemists in the second half of the 19th century humanity learned that not noxious air, but specific germs cause infectious diseases. The germ theory of disease was the breakthrough in the fight against the microbe. Scientists identified the pathogens that cause the different diseases and thereby laid the foundation for perhaps the most important technical innovation in our fight against them: vaccines.

Here’s what vaccines did for us, in three charts:

graphs showing marked reduction in cases and deaths for smallpox, polio, and measles

Even among those who accept and understand how good vaccines are at stopping disease, it’s difficult to truly appreciate just how incredible and transformative they have been. By one estimate, vaccines saved between 150 & 200 million lives from 1980 & 2018…and that’s just for smallpox. Covid-19 vaccines have saved hundreds of thousands of lives in Europe and the US in the first year of their availability. Truly a miraculous invention.