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kottke.org posts about science

“If It Doesn’t Shine In Your Face, You Don’t See Anything”

posted by Jason Kottke   Jul 28, 2021

Jocelyn Bell Burnell as a graduate student

As I’ve written before, in the history of astronomy and astrophysics, women have made major discoveries and played a significant role in advancing our understanding of the universe but have often not gotten the recognition their male peers enjoy. In 1967, while she was working on her doctoral research with her advisor Antony Hewish, Jocelyn Bell Burnell (then Jocelyn Bell) discovered a new and unusual kind of object, the pulsar. In this short documentary, Bell Burnell shares her story — how she got interested in radio astronomy, the prejudice with which she was treated as the only woman in her university program, how she discovered the first pulsar and persisted (more than once) through Hewish’s assertions that the object was “interference”, and how she was passed over for the Nobel Prize for her discovery.

In 2018, Bell Burnell was awarded the Special Breakthrough Prize in Fundamental Physics “for fundamental contributions to the discovery of pulsars, and a lifetime of inspiring leadership in the scientific community”, joining past honorees like the LIGO team, Stephen Hawking, and the team that discovered the Higgs boson. She donated the entire $3 million prize to the Institute of Physics to help support “PhD physics students from under-represented groups” with their educations.

It’s not justice, but I will note that Bell Burnell’s Wikipedia page is longer and more substantial than Hewish’s, despite his Nobel.

Living with Delta

posted by Jason Kottke   Jul 21, 2021

This piece by Susan Matthews is really helpful for those of us who are vaccinated and trying to figure out what their risks are regarding the much more transmissible delta variant of SARS-CoV-2. Covid-19 is endemic now — how do we live with that? What reasonable actions should we take to keep ourselves, our communities, and our loved ones safe?

All of this is making people — yes, probably mostly vaccinated people — rethink the basic questions they thought their vaccine had answered for them: Can I go to restaurants and bars unmasked? Can I go back to the office? Can I see my grandma? Can I go on vacation? Can I unmask at my people-facing job? Can I have a wedding, or a party? The answer to those questions is not quite as easy as “yes, if you’re vaccinated.” It depends partly on how many in your group are vaccinated, but the actual answer is basically the same as it’s been all pandemic: It depends on your risk tolerance, it depends on what is happening with case counts locally (though, as more people travel, this might become a less reliable tool), and it depends on any unique risk factors in your group. Kass’ perspective felt novel to me: She said she suspects that in the end, a lot of people are going to end up boosting their immunity by suffering through a mild case of COVID. So no one should feel that bad about getting sick after they’re vaxxed. What matters is getting the order right: “If everyone who gets vaccinated still gets COVID but doesn’t die, that’s a success,” she said. The issue is that it doesn’t feel like a success for vaccinated people. Plus, “if you get infected after you’re vaxxed, it’s all you talk about,” she said. And right now, that’s understandably freaking out a lot of vaccinated people who thought they were in the clear.

Long Covid isn’t mentioned anywhere in here though — surely that has to be part of the conversation here (although anecdotally it doesn’t seem like too much of a worry).

Swimming Tentacled Droplets

posted by Jason Kottke   Jul 19, 2021

Well, this is really quite odd. A group of scientists discovered that if they cool ordinary oily droplets floating in water down to around 2-8°C, they change shape, grow tentacles, and propel themselves around like tiny little sci-fi creatures.

Some of the particles’ facets grow while other shrink, producing a variety of geometrical forms such as kites, isosceles triangles and spiked tetrahedra. Then, from some of the sharp corners emerge tentacle-like strands, as if being extruded from a nozzle. As they grow, the strands bend into undulating shapes — and the droplets start to swim, propelled through the fluid by the tentacles’ extension.

Visualization of How Fast a Ball Drops on Various Solar System Bodies

posted by Jason Kottke   Jul 14, 2021

This is an animation of how quickly an object falls 1 km to the surfaces of solar system objects like the Earth, Sun, Ceres, Jupiter, the Moon, and Pluto. For instance, it takes 14.3 seconds to cover that distance on Earth and 13.8 seconds on Saturn.

It might be surprising to see large planets have a pull comparable to smaller ones at the surface, for example Uranus pulls the ball down slower than at Earth! Why? Because the low average density of Uranus puts the surface far away from the majority of the mass. Similarly, Mars is nearly twice the mass of Mercury, but you can see the surface gravity is actually the same… this indicates that Mercury is much denser than Mars.

(via @thekidshouldsee)

Where Did SARS-CoV-2 Come From?

posted by Jason Kottke   Jun 28, 2021

Over the past several months, I’ve read several pieces about the possible origins of SARS-CoV-2 and have been frustrated with the certainty with which folks who should know better have embraced the “lab leak hypothesis”. So, I was happy to see Zeynep Tufekci’s characteristically even-handed and comprehensive overview of the evidence about the virus’s origins in the NY Times.

While the Chinese government’s obstruction may keep us from knowing for sure whether the virus, SARS-CoV-2, came from the wild directly or through a lab in Wuhan or if genetic experimentation was involved, what we know already is troubling.

Years of research on the dangers of coronaviruses, and the broader history of lab accidents and errors around the world, provided scientists with plenty of reasons to proceed with caution as they investigated this class of pathogens. But troubling safety practices persisted.

Worse, researchers’ success at uncovering new threats did not always translate into preparedness.

Even if the coronavirus jumped from animal to human without the involvement of research activities, the groundwork for a potential disaster had been laid for years, and learning its lessons is essential to preventing others.

Is it possible that SARS-CoV-2 came from a lab? Yes. Is it probable? We can’t know that right now. It’s a tantalizing puzzle involving a possible cover-up, but irresponsibly assigning certainty to the situation does no one but attention-seeking pundits any good.

New USPS Stamps Celebrate the Sun

posted by Jason Kottke   Jun 24, 2021

postage stamp with an image of a plasma blast from the Sun

postage stamp with an image of a solar flare from the Sun

a group of postage stamps featuring images of the Sun

The US Postal Service has released a set of Sun Science stamps that use images from NASA’s Solar Dynamics Observatory to illustrate different solar phenomena like plasma blasts, sunspots, and solar flares.

Printed with a foil treatment that adds a glimmer to the stamps, the images on these stamps come from NASA’s Solar Dynamics Observatory, a spacecraft launched in February 2010 to keep a constant watch on the sun from geosynchronous orbit above Earth. The striking colors in these images do not represent the actual colors of the sun as perceived by human eyesight. Instead, each image is colorized by NASA according to different wavelengths that reveal or highlight specific features of the sun’s activity.

One of the stamps highlights sunspots, two feature images of coronal holes, two show coronal loops, two depict plasma blasts, one is a view of an active sun that emphasizes its magnetic fields, and two show different views of a solar flare.

NASA has more on the science behind the images on the stamps and the whole set of stamps are available for purchase online.

See also A Decade of the Sun.

Dark Fish

posted by Jason Kottke   Jun 23, 2021

Sometimes you run across an aspect of reality and it just completely blows your mind. You’ve heard of dark matter, right? Well, meet dark fish: biologists suspect that up to 95% of the world’s total fish population lives in a deep layer of the ocean that is difficult to detect and we know little about.

An international team of marine biologists has found mesopelagic fish in the earth’s oceans constitute 10 to 30 times more biomass than previously thought.

UWA Professor Carlos Duarte says mesopelagic fish — fish that live between 100 and 1000m below the surface — must therefore constitute 95 per cent of the world’s fish biomass.

“Because the stock is much larger it means this layer must play a more significant role in the functioning of the ocean and affecting the flow of carbon and oxygen in the ocean,” he says.

See also this thread from ocean scientist Andrew Thaler:

There’s a globe-spanning layer of mesopelagic fish that is so dense it distorts SONAR. For decades we had no idea what created the Deep Scattering Layer or why it moved. We still know almost nothing about it.

It’s astounding how much we don’t know about the ocean:

There’s an entire family of whales with at least 22 species that we know almost nothing about.

We know way more about stars that are billions of light years away than about some parts of the ocean a few hundred feet below the surface of our own planet.

See also dark fungi: “By one estimate, there are between 2.2 million and 3.8 million species of fungi — and more than 90% of them aren’t cataloged.”. (via @_zeets & @chadmumm)

Unexpected Minor Planet to Visit the Inner Solar System Soon

posted by Jason Kottke   Jun 21, 2021

Well, this is cool: a recently discovered minor planet estimated to be between 62 and 230 miles across is currently journeying through our solar system and sometime in 2031 will be almost as close to the Sun as Saturn.

And it turns out, astronomers are about to witness the closest pass of this incredible round trip. Currently, 2014 UN271 is about 22 Astronomical Units (AU) from the Sun (for reference, Earth is 1 AU from the Sun). That means it’s already closer than Neptune, at 29.7 AU. And it’s not stopping there — it’s already traveled 7 AU in the last seven years, and at its closest in 2031, it’s expected to pass within 10.9 AU of the Sun, almost reaching the orbit of Saturn.

Before then, it’s expected to develop the characteristic coma and tail of a comet, as icy material on its surface vaporizes from the heat of the Sun. This close pass would give astronomers an unprecedented close look at Oort cloud objects.

C’mon NASA, let’s a get a probe fired up and visit this very unusual object!

There’s No Such Thing as a Tree

posted by Jason Kottke   Jun 16, 2021

Obviously, there are trees. But speaking phylogenetically, trees aren’t a thing. Some things that are trees evolved from things that are not trees and other things that are trees evolved into things that aren’t trees. Confused? This might clear things up.

“Trees” are not a coherent phylogenetic category. On the evolutionary tree of plants, trees are regularly interspersed with things that are absolutely, 100% not trees. This means that, for instance, either:

The common ancestor of a maple and a mulberry tree was not a tree.
The common ancestor of a stinging nettle and a strawberry plant was a tree.
And this is true for most trees or non-trees that you can think of.

See also there’s no such thing as a vegetable and there’s no such thing as a fish.

What would the evolutionary tree of salmon, lungfish, and cows be? The answer, it appears at first glance, is simple. Salmon and lungfish, being fish, would cluster nicely together on one branch, and very non-fishy cows would be off on a separate branch. Right? Wrong. Contrary to what you might expect, what you see above is their evolutionary tree. Working up from the root, the lineage that leads to salmon branches off first. Keep tracing up the tree, and you’ll see that the lineage from which the salmon branched off eventually branches into two new lineages: the one leading to lungfish and the other leading to cows. In other words, a cow and a lungfish are more closely related to one another than either is to salmon.

(via @smorewithface)

The Information Visualization Revolution

posted by Jason Kottke   Jun 14, 2021

a 17th century graph of various estimated distances from Toledo, Spain to Rome

For the New Yorker, Hannah Fry wrote a brief history of information visualization, a quiet innovation that has changed the world:

Van Langren could have put these values in a table, as would have been typical for the time, but, as Friendly and Wainer observe, “only a graph speaks directly to the eyes.” Once the numbers were visualized, the enormous differences among them — and the stakes dependent on those differences — became impossible to ignore. Van Langren wrote, “If the Longitude between Toledo and Rome is not known with certainty, consider, Your Highness, what it will be for the Western and Oriental Indies, that in comparison the former distance is almost nothing.”

Van Langren’s image marked an extraordinary conceptual leap. He was a skilled cartographer from a long line of cartographers, so he would have been familiar with depicting distances on a page. But, as Tufte puts it, in his classic study “Visual Explanations” (1997), “Maps resemble miniature pictorial representations of the physical world.” Here was something entirely new: encoding the estimate of a distance by its position along a line. Scientists were well versed in handling a range of values for a single property, but until then science had only ever been concerned with how to get rid of error — how to take a collection of wrong answers and reduce its dimension to give a single, best answer. Van Langren was the first person to realize that a story lay in that dimension, one that could be physically seen on a page by abstracting it along a thin inked line.

Van Langren’s graph, which Fry says “might be the first statistical graph in history”, is pictured at the top of this post.

Flat-Packed Pastas That Pop Open When Cooked

posted by Jason Kottke   Jun 02, 2021

Flat Packed Pasta

Inspired by space-saving flat-packed furniture, scientists at Carnegie Mellon University have developed a technique for making pasta shapes that start out flat when dry but “morph” into their final 3D shapes when cooked. The secret is stamping different groove patterns into the pasta dough.

The solution: something Wang, Yao, and their co-authors term “groove-based transient morphing.” They found that stamping flat pasta sheets with different groove patterns enabled them to control the final pasta shape after cooking. According to the authors, the grooves increase how long it takes to cook that part of the pasta. So those areas expand less than the smooth areas, giving rise to many different shapes.

The team found that the pasta reached its maximum bending angle after about 12 minutes and retained this angle for around 20 minutes before it began to bend back. The researchers were able to produce simple helical and cone shapes, as well as more complex saddles and twists (the latter achieved by introducing double-sided grooves).

I am assuming those grooves would also aid in holding sauce better, a topic we’ve delved into recently. You can read the full research paper on the morphing pasta here. (via the prepared)

UFOs Are Not Aliens

posted by Jason Kottke   Jun 01, 2021

Due to recent government reports, declassified data, media interest in those data & reports, and a long-simmering interest by the public, UFOs are back in the public imagination. Adam Frank, an astrophysicist at the University of Rochester who is searching for signs of extraterrestrial life, says that there’s little chance that UFOs are aliens.

I understand that U.F.O. sightings, which date back at least to 1947, are synonymous in the popular imagination with evidence of extraterrestrials. But scientifically speaking, there is little to warrant that connection. There are excellent reasons to search for extraterrestrial life, but there are equally excellent reasons not to conclude that we have found evidence of it with U.F.O. sightings.

If UFOs are alien craft, we would never see them:

There are also common-sense objections. If we are being frequently visited by aliens, why don’t they just land on the White House lawn and announce themselves? There is a recurring narrative, perhaps best exemplified by the TV show “The X-Files,” that these creatures have some mysterious reason to remain hidden from us. But if the mission of these aliens calls for stealth, they seem surprisingly incompetent. You would think that creatures technologically capable of traversing the mind-boggling distances between the stars would also know how to turn off their high beams at night and to elude our primitive infrared cameras.

More people talking about a thing doesn’t make it credible. More people talking about potential evidence of a thing doesn’t make it credible. Evidence makes something credible.

Was the Microwave Invented to Thaw Out Frozen Hamsters?

posted by Jason Kottke   May 28, 2021

We all know that the microwave oven was invented by Raytheon’s Percy Spencer in 1945. What this video presupposes is, maybe it was invented to thaw out frozen hamsters? And somehow James Lovelock, who formulated the Gaia hypothesis, is involved? (via @fourfoldway)

Hisako Koyama, the Woman Who Stared at the Sun

posted by Jason Kottke   May 26, 2021

In the history of science, there are women who have made significant contributions to their field but haven’t gotten the recognition that their male peers have. The field of astronomy & astrophysics in particular has had many female pioneers — Vera Rubin, Cecilia Payne-Gaposchkin, Annie Jump Cannon, Nancy Grace Roman, Maria Mitchell, Jocelyn Bell Burnell, Henrietta Swan Leavitt, Caroline Herschel, Williamina Fleming, and many others. Add to that list Hisako Koyama, a Japanese astronomer whose detailed sketches of the Sun over a 40-year period laid the foundation for a 400-year timeline of sunspot activity, which has aided researchers in studying solar cycles and magnetic fields.

Ms. Koyama was a most unusual woman of her time. As a scientist, she bridged the amateur and professional world. She preferred “doing” activities: observing, data recording, interacting with the public, and writing. No doubt many Japanese citizens benefited from personal interaction with her. The space and geophysics community continues to benefit from her regular and precise observations of the Sun. Although we know very little of her young personal life other than she was relatively well educated and had a father who supported her desire to view the skies by providing a telescope, we can see from snippets in Japanese amateur astronomy articles that she had a passion for observing, as revealed in her 1981 article: “I simply can’t stop observing when thinking that one can never know when the nature will show us something unusual.”

Here are a few of her sunspot sketches, the top two done using her home telescope and the bottom one using the much larger telescope at the National Museum of Nature and Science (that shows the largest sunspot of the 20th century):

drawings of sunspots on the Sun by Hisako Koyama

drawings of sunspots on the Sun by Hisako Koyama

(via the kid should see this)

The Micrometeorites All Around Us

posted by Jason Kottke   May 20, 2021

microscopic photo of a micrometeorite

microscopic photo of a micrometeorite

microscopic photo of a micrometeorite

microscopic photo of a micrometeorite

Jon Larsen collects and photographs micrometeorites from all over the world, finding them even in urban areas mixed in among terrestrial dust and dirt.

The cosmos is a swirling soup of stardust. Every day, approximately 60 tons of dust from asteroids, comets, and other celestial bodies fall to the Earth. These tiny metallic, alien stones of various shapes, textures, and colors-known as micrometeorites-are some of the oldest pieces of matter in the solar system.

Even though micrometeorites blanket the Earth, scientists have generally only been able to discover them in remote places devoid of human presence, such as Antarctic ice, desolate deserts, and deep-sea sediments. Scientists began searching for micrometeorites in the 1960s, and they predominantly thought the extraterrestrial dust would be impossible to find in urban environments. The conventional wisdom held that densely populated areas had too much man-made sediment that camouflaged the tiny space particles.

But Jon Larsen, a Norwegian jazz musician and creator of Project Stardust, was able to show that it is possible to find micrometeorites in more populated areas. In a study published in January 2017 in the journal Geology, he and his colleagues catalogued more than 500 lustrous micrometeorites (and counting), all recovered from rooftops in urban areas.

Check out Larsen’s Project Stardust for more photos and information on how to hunt for your own. (via the kid should see this)

The Final Border Humanity Will Never Cross

posted by Jason Kottke   May 11, 2021

This video focuses on one of my favorite astrophysics facts: 94% of the observable universe is permanently unreachable by humans. (Unless we discover faster-than-light travel, but that’s fantasy at this point.)

This expansion means that there is a cosmological horizon around us. Everything beyond it, is traveling faster, relative to us, than the speed of light. So everything that passes the horizon, is irretrievably out of reach forever and we will never be able to interact with it again. In a sense it’s like a black hole’s event horizon, but all around us. 94% of the galaxies we can see today have already passed it and are lost to us forever.

“Since you started watching this video, around 22 million stars have moved out of our reach forever.” And future generations, billions of years from now, won’t even be able to see any other galaxies or detect cosmic background radiation, making knowledge about the Big Bang impossible.

The Otherworldly Sounds of Ice

posted by Jason Kottke   May 05, 2021

The holes drilled into Arctic, Antarctic, and glacial ice to harvest ice cores can be up to 2 miles deep. One of my all-time favorite sounds is created by dropping ice down into one of these holes — it makes a super-cool pinging noise, as demonstrated in these two videos:

Ice makes similar sounds under other conditions, like if you skip rocks on a frozen lake:

Or skate on really thin ice (ok this might actually be my favorite sound, with apologies to the ice core holes):

Headphones are recommended for all of these videos. The explanation for this distinctive pinging sound, which sounds like a Star Wars blaster, has to do with how fast different sound frequencies move through the ice, as explained in this video:

(via the kid should see this)

An Animated Primer on Black Holes

posted by Jason Kottke   Apr 28, 2021

You’re probably aware that black holes are weird. You can learn more about just how extremely odd they are by watching this animated primer on black holes by Kurzgesagt. The explanation about how long black holes live starting at ~9:30 is legitimately mindblowing — that hourglass metaphor especially.

Degrees of Uncertainty

posted by Jason Kottke   Apr 26, 2021

In his latest impeccably produced video, Neil Halloran looks at the science of climate change and uncertainty both in science and in the public’s trust of science.

Degrees of Uncertainty is an animated documentary about climate science, uncertainty, and knowing when to trust the experts. Using cinematic visualizations, the film travels through 20,000 years of natural temperature changes before highlighting the rapid warming of the last half century.

The vast majority of climate scientists seem pretty sure that human use of fossil fuels has warmed the Earth and that warming is increasingly having an impact on both nature and society. But how do we, as members of the public with a relatively poor understanding of science, evaluate how certain we should be?

FYI: This video includes some interactive elements that only work if you watch it on Halloran’s website.

A Helicopter Flies on Mars

posted by Jason Kottke   Apr 19, 2021

Ingenuity Shadow

Deployed from NASA’s Perseverance rover, the Ingenuity helicopter took off and hovered for about 30 seconds in its first flight early this morning.

The solar-powered helicopter first became airborne at 3:34 a.m. EDT (12:34 a.m. PDT) — 12:33 Local Mean Solar Time (Mars time) — a time the Ingenuity team determined would have optimal energy and flight conditions. Altimeter data indicate Ingenuity climbed to its prescribed maximum altitude of 10 feet (3 meters) and maintained a stable hover for 30 seconds. It then descended, touching back down on the surface of Mars after logging a total of 39.1 seconds of flight. Additional details on the test are expected in upcoming downlinks.

Ingenuity’s initial flight demonstration was autonomous — piloted by onboard guidance, navigation, and control systems running algorithms developed by the team at JPL. Because data must be sent to and returned from the Red Planet over hundreds of millions of miles using orbiting satellites and NASA’s Deep Space Network, Ingenuity cannot be flown with a joystick, and its flight was not observable from Earth in real time.

NASA livestreamed the team in Mission Control as the test results were transmitted back to Earth. The photo above is of Ingenuity’s shadow taken while in flight by its onboard camera.

Update: Here’s video footage of the first flight:

And there’s always room for a little Great Span on this site. Alex Knapp:

The world’s oldest living person was alive when the Wright Brothers flew at Kitty Hawk and when the first helicopter flew on Mars.

Case Closed: SARS-CoV-2 Spreads Primarily by Aerosols

posted by Jason Kottke   Apr 16, 2021

In a letter published in The Lancet, a group of scholars argue, with an extensive review of the available evidence, that the primary mode of transmission from human to human of the virus responsible for Covid-19 is via aerosols, not through larger particles called droplets or through fomites (transfer from surfaces). Here are three of their ten reasons why:

Third, asymptomatic or presymptomatic transmission of SARS-CoV-2 from people who are not coughing or sneezing is likely to account for at least a third, and perhaps up to 59%, of all transmission globally and is a key way SARS-CoV-2 has spread around the world, supportive of a predominantly airborne mode of transmission. Direct measurements show that speaking produces thousands of aerosol particles and few large droplets, which supports the airborne route.

Fourth, transmission of SARS-CoV-2 is higher indoors than outdoors and is substantially reduced by indoor ventilation. Both observations support a predominantly airborne route of transmission.

Fifth, nosocomial infections have been documented in health-care organisations, where there have been strict contact-and-droplet precautions and use of personal protective equipment (PPE) designed to protect against droplet but not aerosol exposure.

The letter concludes with a plea by the authors for public health officials to finally embrace this reality: “The public health community should act accordingly and without further delay.”

I can’t believe we’re actually still arguing about this. One of the authors, Jose-Luis Jimenez, wrote this seminal Time magazine piece that provided the smoke analogy that is the mental model I’ve been using to think about potential risks during the pandemic.

When it comes to COVID-19, the evidence overwhelmingly supports aerosol transmission, and there are no strong arguments against it. For example, contact tracing has found that much COVID-19 transmission occurs in close proximity, but that many people who share the same home with an infected person do not get the disease. To understand why, it is useful to use cigarette or vaping smoke (which is also an aerosol) as an analog. Imagine sharing a home with a smoker: if you stood close to the smoker while talking, you would inhale a great deal of smoke. Replace the smoke with virus-containing aerosols, which behave very similarly, and the impact is similar: the closer you are to someone releasing virus-carrying aerosols, the more likely you are to breathe in larger amounts of virus. We know from detailed, rigorous studies that when individuals talk in close proximity, aerosols dominate transmission and droplets are nearly negligible.

Another of the authors, Zeynep Tufekci, has been arguing the case for aerosols (and masks & overdispersion) since early in the pandemic, and she succinctly explained in a Twitter thread how predominantly aerosol transmission fits with the mitigation methods that have really worked around the world:

Airborne transmission unites three things crucial to recognize for effective COVID-19 mitigation: transmission without symptoms (thus aerosols), clusters driving the epidemic (also aerosols) and masks/ventilation indoors being key (hey, also aerosols). This framework is coherent.

Her whole thread is worth a read — like this bit about how other respiratory pathogens are likely spread by aerosols and not droplets (as commonly believed):

Fascinatingly, you search the scientific record high and low, but there really is little to no direct evidence for gravity-sprayed droplets being predominant mode of transmission for respiratory illnesses outside of coughing/sneezing. It’s many… assumptions. Like a tradition.

If any good comes out of the pandemic at all, a better and more useful scientific understanding of how respiratory pathogens are transmitted would be a good start.

Update: One of the authors, Trisha Greenhalgh, responds succinctly to criticisms of the paper in this Twitter thread.

Criticism 1: “The paper is just opinion, and several authors aren’t even doctors.”

Response: No. It’s well-researched scholarly argument, produced by an interdisciplinary team of 6 professors including 3 docs, 2 aerosol scientists and 1 social scientist.

Using Nuclear Energy to Stop Climate Change

posted by Jason Kottke   Apr 13, 2021

This new video from Kurzgesagt takes a look at the possible role of nuclear energy in helping to curb the effects of our climate emergency.

Do we need nuclear energy to stop climate change? More and more voices from science, environmental activists and the press have been saying so in recent years — but this comes as a shock to those who are fighting against nuclear energy and the problems that come with it. So who is right? Well — it is complicated.

Rebecca Tuhus-Dubrow wrote about climate change activists who are embracing nuclear energy for the New Yorker back in February.

In the course of years, Hoff grew increasingly comfortable at the plant. She switched roles, working in the control room and then as a procedure writer, and got to know the workforce — mostly older, avuncular men. She began to believe that nuclear power was a safe, potent source of clean energy with numerous advantages over other sources. For instance, nuclear reactors generate huge amounts of energy on a small footprint: Diablo Canyon, which accounts for roughly nine per cent of the electricity produced in California, occupies fewer than six hundred acres. It can generate energy at all hours and, unlike solar and wind power, does not depend on particular weather conditions to operate. Hoff was especially struck by the fact that nuclear-power generation does not emit carbon dioxide or the other air pollutants associated with fossil fuels. Eventually, she began to think that fears of nuclear energy were not just misguided but dangerous. Her job no longer seemed to be in tension with her environmentalist views. Instead, it felt like an expression of her deepest values.

For more reading on the topic, check out Kurzgesagt’s list of source materials used to make their video.

Katalin Kariko, the Scientist Behind the Groundbreaking mRNA Vaccines

posted by Jason Kottke   Apr 09, 2021

The NY Times has a profile of Dr. Katalin Kariko, who struggled for decades against a system unwilling to consider and fund her ideas about how messenger RNA could be used to instruct cells inside human bodies to “make their own medicines”. Her work has culminated in two highly effective vaccines for Covid-19 and is being extended to produce possible vaccines for HIV, the flu, tuberculosis, and malaria.

Now Katalin Kariko, 66, known to colleagues as Kati, has emerged as one of the heroes of Covid-19 vaccine development. Her work, with her close collaborator, Dr. Drew Weissman of the University of Pennsylvania, laid the foundation for the stunningly successful vaccines made by Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna.

For her entire career, Dr. Kariko has focused on messenger RNA, or mRNA — the genetic script that carries DNA instructions to each cell’s protein-making machinery. She was convinced mRNA could be used to instruct cells to make their own medicines, including vaccines.

Stat also wrote a piece about Kariko and the development of the mRNA vaccines. It seems like Kariko will be strongly considered for a Nobel Prize in Chemistry for her achievements. The Covid vaccines will save hundreds of thousands of lives alone, and if mRNA can indeed be harnessed to protect against HIV and malaria, the effect on the world will be immense. Give Kariko all the prizes and whatever she wants to be happy in life — she’s earned it and more.

Update: From Derek Thompson at The Atlantic, How mRNA Technology Could Change the World.

But mRNA’s story likely will not end with COVID-19: Its potential stretches far beyond this pandemic. This year, a team at Yale patented a similar RNA-based technology to vaccinate against malaria, perhaps the world’s most devastating disease. Because mRNA is so easy to edit, Pfizer says that it is planning to use it against seasonal flu, which mutates constantly and kills hundreds of thousands of people around the world every year. The company that partnered with Pfizer last year, BioNTech, is developing individualized therapies that would create on-demand proteins associated with specific tumors to teach the body to fight off advanced cancer. In mouse trials, synthetic-mRNA therapies have been shown to slow and reverse the effects of multiple sclerosis. “I’m fully convinced now even more than before that mRNA can be broadly transformational,” Özlem Türeci, BioNTech’s chief medical officer, told me. “In principle, everything you can do with protein can be substituted by mRNA.”

Wobbling Muons May Hint at Unknown Forces

posted by Jason Kottke   Apr 08, 2021

Muon Ring

The preliminary results of a study of elementary particles at Fermilab and elsewhere show that the behavior of particles called muons deviates from standard physical theories, indicating that previously unknown forces are at work.

Evidence is mounting that a tiny subatomic particle seems to be disobeying the known laws of physics, scientists announced on Wednesday, a finding that would open a vast and tantalizing hole in our understanding of the universe.

The result, physicists say, suggests that there are forms of matter and energy vital to the nature and evolution of the cosmos that are not yet known to science.

“This is our Mars rover landing moment,” said Chris Polly, a physicist at the Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory, or Fermilab, in Batavia, Ill., who has been working toward this finding for most of his career.

The particle célèbre is the muon, which is akin to an electron but far heavier, and is an integral element of the cosmos. Dr. Polly and his colleagues — an international team of 200 physicists from seven countries — found that muons did not behave as predicted when shot through an intense magnetic field at Fermilab.

The aberrant behavior poses a firm challenge to the Standard Model, the suite of equations that enumerates the fundamental particles in the universe (17, at last count) and how they interact.

“This is strong evidence that the muon is sensitive to something that is not in our best theory,” said Renee Fatemi, a physicist at the University of Kentucky.

Update: At Quanta Magazine, Natalie Wolchover dives deeper into the preliminary results and what they might mean.

The Secret of Synchronization

posted by Jason Kottke   Apr 02, 2021

What do swaying bridges, flashing fireflies, clapping audiences, the far side of the Moon, and beating hearts have in common? Their behavior all has something to do with synchronization. In this video, Veritasium explains why and how spontaneous synchronization appears all the time in the physical world.

I was really into the instability of the Millennium Bridge back when it was first opened (and then rapidly closed), so it was great to hear Steven Strogatz’s explanation of the bridge’s failure.

Oh, and do go play with Nicky Case’s firefly visualization to see how synchronization can arise from really simple rules.

Why Comparing Different Covid-19 Vaccines is Difficult

posted by Jason Kottke   Mar 24, 2021

Related to my post from last month about what a 95% or 66% efficacy rate of a vaccine even means, Vox made a clear and concise video about why comparing vaccine efficacy rates is difficult — trials were done in different countries with different variants under different conditions with different levels of disease — and why protection against severe illness, hospitalization and death is a better way to compare and evaluate these vaccines. As this chart from Dr. Eric Topol shows, all of the major vaccines show strong protection against severe illness.

Vaccine Chart Illness

What If the Earth Turned to Gold?

posted by Jason Kottke   Mar 19, 2021

For their latest video, Kurzgesagt ventures into What If? territory with a hypothetical exploration of what would happen if King Midas turned the entire Earth into gold. This video did not go where I thought it was going to. Ten minutes of freefall? Shrinking mountains?

Life After Vaccination

posted by Jason Kottke   Mar 16, 2021

I thought this interview with Dr. Ashish K. Jha, dean of the Brown University School of Public Health, was really good and useful in terms of calibrating expectations with regard to the “end” of the pandemic, vaccines, and variants. On the guidance that vaccinated people should be getting:

I think it is essential that we give guidance to people. And I think we should give guidance to people on what they can do safely once they are vaccinated. People say, “Can your behavior change?” My answer is: absolutely! That’s a major motivation for getting vaccinated. First of all, what’s very clear to me is vaccinated people hanging out with other vaccinated people is pretty darn close to normal. You don’t have to wear a mask. You can share a meal. The chance that a fully vaccinated person will transmit the virus to another fully vaccinated person who then will get sick and die … I mean, sure, people get struck by lightning, too. But you don’t make policy based on that. And we need to remind people that there is a huge benefit to getting vaccinated, which is that you are safe enough to do the things you love with other vaccinated people.

How Were the Covid-19 Vaccines Developed So Quickly?

posted by Jason Kottke   Mar 12, 2021

According to a study conducted by the Pew Research Center, among those people who said they probably or definitely won’t get a Covid-19 vaccine, the top two reasons given were “concern about side effects” and “the vaccines were developed and tested too quickly”. For our purposes here, I’m going to ignore the first concern — the data is pretty conclusive that, on average, the vaccine side effects are minimal when compared to the effects of actually contracting Covid-19 — and focus on the quick development timeline. If you’re among those who are apprehensive about the unprecedented speed at which the world’s governments and scientific community mobilized to create several effective Covid-19 vaccines, I hope the following will help you make a good decision.

In reading a bunch of different resources (linked below throughout), I identified six main reasons why the Covid-19 vaccines were developed so quickly compared to past efforts.

1. The need was urgent. Covid-19 changed the entire world in a very short span of time and it was evident in the absence of an effective vaccine, tens of millions more people would unnecessarily die and/or suffer and the rest of us would be living in fear of disease and death. This urgency drove several of the other factors here: the availability of funding, resources, and collaboration.

2. Funding & focus. Companies and governments threw billions and billions of dollars at this. Companies, research centers, and scientists dropped other stuff they were working on to study SARS-CoV-2 and Covid-19. Governments prioritized regulatory approval for trials, etc. From a thread by Dr. Kat Arney:

Relatively few in the scientific, pharma & policy worlds care about vaccines compared w/ drugs. Most vaccine programmes are underfunded as they’re perceived as not profitable, only relevant to LMICs, & have few research groups/companies working on them. Getting funding & research capacity for vax usually takes months/years. COVID-19 vaccine was a massive global research effort w/ $millions for multiple groups/projects in weeks. Years of funding cycles & lab research happened in months, huge amount of time saved.

And from a presentation given by Dr. Anthony Fauci:

We proceeded at risk. So people say, what do you mean by “at risk”? Are you risking safety? Are you risking scientific integrity? No, it’s a financial risk. In other words, you invest in things that cost a lot of money before you even have an answer to whether the prior step worked.

And a classic example is the production of large scale amounts of clinical lots, which have been produced and are being produced before you even know that your vaccine works, so that you have hundreds of millions of doses ready to go. If the vaccine works, you’ve saved many months. If the vaccine doesn’t, you lost a lot of money, to the tune of hundreds of millions if not billions of dollars. But it was felt it was worth that investment and that risk financially in order to save time.

More on that here. As Dr. Faheem Younus put it, “We didn’t cut corners; we cut the crap!”

3. Availability of volunteers & high incidence of disease. In order to statistically show the vaccine works, you need people to test it on and you need enough people in the studies to get sick. Kat Arney again:

To show vax effectiveness, you need a high number of people with the disease in the population — big problem with the Ebola vax is that it took so long to develop the outbreak was over & the couldn’t get enough numbers to conclusively show it worked

We’re in a global pandemic — the vaccine is being tested in places with very high community prevalence, so trials can hit pre-determined statistical milestones very quickly. Huge amount of time saved.

Hundreds of thousands of people around the world volunteered to test these vaccines — without them, we’d be months and years away from a safe, tested vaccine.

4. International & corporate collaboration. Countries and companies shared research, data, and resources because the primary goal was to develop effective vaccines and save lives, not make a profit. For instance, Chinese researchers posted the genome for SARS-CoV-2 on January 11, 2020, allowing the effort to develop a vaccine to begin.

5. We knew a lot about coronaviruses from previous work. This wasn’t an effort that started from scratch. From Bloomberg:

The Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna vaccines may seem brand new, but they are the culmination of more than a decade of work that started during the SARS and MERS outbreaks. Vaccines were even developed against MERS but were never needed. Nevertheless, scientists learned a huge amount from working with that virus, which is from the same family as the one that causes Covid-19.

From Dr. Habibul Ahsan:

Really, most of the vaccine platform development work is already done. You just have to do the remaining part, which is adding the right viral antigens to the already-proven platform and making sure it’s safe and effective in humans. Even in just the last five to 10 years, we’ve made big leaps in developing new kinds of vaccine platforms like those being tested for SARS-CoV-2.

6. Scientific and technological capability. Ok, we know a lot about coronaviruses but humanity’s general scientific and technological abilities have never been stronger or more powerful. Again from Bloomberg:

Remember also that technology has evolved rapidly — for example, we’re now about able to sequence the genomes of every mutant version of the virus in less than a day. That helps in speeding up vaccine development.

Dr. Mark Toshner sums up the effort:

However we have collectively now shown that with money no object, some clever and highly motivated people, an unlimited pool of altruistic volunteers, and sensible regulators that we can do amazing things.

Further reading: The lightning-fast quest for COVID vaccines — and what it means for other diseases (Nature), How were researchers able to develop COVID-19 vaccines so quickly? (Univ. of Chicago), The race for the COVID-19 vaccine: A story of innovation and collaboration (Carnall Farrar), COVID-19 vaccines: development, evaluation, approval and monitoring (European Medicines Agency).

What the End of the Pandemic Looks Like

posted by Jason Kottke   Mar 08, 2021

Stat’s Andrew Joseph and Helen Branswell on the short-term, middle-term, and long-term future of the coronavirus in the US. The short-term outlook is dominated by vaccination & variants; some parts of the country will continue to be affected by outbreaks:

Conditions may be ripe for a better summer, however. Vaccine supplies should be flowing more freely, at least in the U.S.; the Biden administration now expects enough vaccine doses in hand for all adults by the end of May. With most vulnerable populations protected, there should be fewer hospitalizations and deaths. And with warmer weather, people can return to outdoor life.

Widespread transmission of the virus could be replaced by more sporadic and localized outbreaks. There’s also growing evidence that vaccines don’t just protect people from getting symptomatic Covid-19, but can reduce transmission.

And in the long-term, well, SARS-CoV-2 will be around for years and even decades to come:

Years from now, SARS-CoV-2 could join the ranks of OC43, 229E, NL63, and HKU1 — the four endemic, seasonal coronaviruses that cause a chunk of common colds every year. Essentially, our immune systems — primed by vaccines, boosters, and previous encounters with the coronavirus — will be ready to knock back SARS-2 when we see it again, potentially blocking an infection or leading to one that causes no symptoms or maybe just the sniffles.

It’s good to read stuff like this — it provides a basis to use when calibrating your optimism or pessimism for future activities and desires.