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kottke.org posts about science

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.

America’s Vaccine Glut and “Vaccine Diplomacy”

posted by Jason Kottke   Mar 05, 2021

After the Biden administration announced they will have enough Covid-19 vaccine supply to cover every single adult in the country by the end of May, I got to wondering about what they were going to do with the tens & hundreds of millions of surplus doses already procured for the remainder of the year. “Oh,” I thought, naively, “We’ll be able to distribute it to countries that can’t easily procure or manufacture vaccines of their own!” And I’m sure some of that will happen, if only for PR purposes. But it’s perhaps more likely that America will practice vaccine diplomacy and use the stockpile to reestablish its global leadership.

The United States has backed away from the world. This isn’t a Clinton thing or a W Bush thing or an Obama thing or a Trump thing or a Biden thing, but instead a United States thing. The American people lost interest in playing a constructive role in the world three decades ago, and America’s political leadership has molded itself around that fact. Trump may have been instinctually and publicly hostile to all things international, but Biden is only different in tone. Biden’s Buy-American program is actually more anti-globalization than Trump’s America-First rhetoric as it is an express violation of most of America’s international trade commitments. TeamBiden says it wants to reestablish America’s global leadership…but it plans to do so without any troops or money. Sorry, but that’s not how it works.

Which makes the possibilities for vaccine diplomacy wildly interesting. The United States has no responsibility to provide COVID vaccines to the world. It can — it will — distribute them, but it will want something in return.

Even if you disagree with some of the analysis here, it will be interesting to watch where America’s stockpile ends up. Given Biden’s rhetoric of “listening to the science” when it comes to the pandemic, I hope that at least some of that supply goes to places that need it most to make certain the pandemic doesn’t sputter on for years, generating potentially dangerous new variants, even if it’s politically disadvantageous.

Update: Countries now scrambling for COVID-19 vaccines may soon have surpluses to donate by Jon Cohen and Kai Kupferschmidt for Science magazine:

Like three dozen other countries, the United States contracted with multiple vaccine companies for several times the number of doses needed to cover its population. No one knew at the time which, if any, of the candidate vaccines would work or when they might prove safe and effective. But by now, most of the prepurchased vaccines appear to offer solid protection — which means many countries will receive far more vaccine than they need. The excess doses the United States alone may have by July would vaccinate at least 200 million people.

A chart in the article notes that the US has procured enough vaccine to cover almost 1.5 billion people after fully vaccinating its entire population.

The Gulf Stream, the Cold Blob, and a Potentially Frozen Europe

posted by Jason Kottke   Mar 03, 2021

Cold Blob

The NY Times has a fantastic interactive piece about a particularly disturbing aspect of the climate crisis: the evidence that a huge Atlantic circulation pattern is weakening and could collapse, leading to “a monstrous change” in temperature, precipitation, and other chaotic effects across the globe.

Now, a spate of studies, including one published last week, suggests this northern portion of the Gulf Stream and the deep ocean currents it’s connected to may be slowing. Pushing the bounds of oceanography, scientists have slung necklace-like sensor arrays across the Atlantic to better understand the complex network of currents that the Gulf Stream belongs to, not only at the surface, but hundreds of feet deep.

“We’re all wishing it’s not true,” Peter de Menocal, a paleoceanographer and president and director of the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, said of the changing ocean currents. “Because if that happens, it’s just a monstrous change.”

The consequences could include faster sea level rise along parts of the Eastern United States and parts of Europe, stronger hurricanes barreling into the Southeastern United States, and perhaps most ominously, reduced rainfall across the Sahel, a semi-arid swath of land running the width of Africa that is already a geopolitical tinderbox.

One of the potential reasons for this weakening is that the quickly melting Greenland ice sheet is dumping massive amounts of cold fresh water into the North Atlantic, disrupting the Gulf Stream. This is “the cold blob”.

The northern arm of the Gulf Stream is but one tentacle of a larger, ocean-spanning tangle of currents called the Atlantic Meridional Overturning Circulation, or AMOC. Scientists have strong evidence from ice and sediment cores that the AMOC has weakened and shut down before in the past 13,000 years. As a result, mean temperatures in parts of Europe may have rapidly dropped to about 15 degrees Celsius below today’s averages, ushering in arctic like conditions. Parts of northern Africa and northern South America became much drier. Rainfall may even have declined as far away as what is now China. And some of these changes may have occurred in a matter of decades, maybe less.

The AMOC is thus a poster child for the idea of climatic “tipping points” — of hard-to-predict thresholds in Earth’s climate system that, once crossed, have rapid, cascading effects far beyond the corner of the globe where they occur. “It’s a switch,” said Dr. de Menocal, and one that can be thrown quickly.

Which brings us to the cold blob. Almost everywhere around the world, average temperatures are rising — except southeast of Greenland where a large patch of the North Atlantic has become colder in recent years.

The title of this post references a “frozen Europe” but because the Earth is a nonlinear system, a weakened AMOC could actually have the opposite effect:

Scientists at the U.K.’s National Oceanography Centre have somewhat counterintuitively linked the cold blob in the North Atlantic with summer heat waves in Europe. In 2015 and 2018, the jet stream, a river of wind that moves from west to east over temperate latitudes in the northern hemisphere, made an unusual detour to the south around the cold blob. The wrinkle in atmospheric flow brought hotter-than-usual air into Europe, they contend, breaking temperature records.

“That was not predicted,” said Joel Hirschi, principal scientist at the centre and senior author of the research. It highlights how current seasonal forecasting models are unable to predict these warm summers. And it underscores the paradox that, far from ushering in a frigid future for, say, Paris, a cooler North Atlantic might actually make France’s summers more like Morocco’s.

(thx, meg)

Digitally Reading 17th-Century Locked Letters

posted by Jason Kottke   Mar 03, 2021

Using an x-ray technique, MIT researchers have digitally unfolded and read 17th-century letters that had been “letterlocked” by their authors to prevent them from being read in transit. Reading the letters in this way allows close study without actually unfolding and potentially damaging these letters or altering them against further study. This is a fully digital image of one of the unlocked letters:

Letterlocking

From a NY Times piece about the research:

In an interview, Jana Dambrogio, the study’s lead author and a conservator at the M.I.T. Libraries, said that learning of the trove’s existence inspired her to see if more technologically inclined colleagues could find a way to digitally open the locked letters. At the time, in 2014, scholars could read and study such letters only by cutting them open, which often damaged the documents and obscured or eliminated clues as to how they had been secured.

“We really need to keep the originals,” Ms. Dambrogio said. “You can keep learning from them, especially if you keep the locked packets closed.”

The old letters were protected from prying eyes when the sheets of writing paper were carefully folded to become their own secure enclosures.

The first step of their digital opening is to scan a target letter with an advanced X-ray machine. The resulting three-dimensional image — much like a medical scan — reveals the letter’s internal configuration. A computer then analyzes the image to undo the folds and, almost magically, turn the layers into a flat sheet, revealing handwritten text that can be read.

Here’s a contemporary example of the letterlocking technique where folds, slits, and wax are used to lock the letter and provide authentication:

Letterlocking

A letterlocking technique in action, modeled after a triangle-locked letter sent by Sir Francis Walsingham in 1587:

Whoa and this spiral-locked letter modeled on a message sent by Queen Elizabeth I to France’s Henry III in the 1570s:

And this is a list of all the letterlocking techniques and formats the researchers have identified:

Letterlocking

You can explore more about letterlocking at Letterlocking.org.

Learning from the Five Pandemic Mistakes We Keep Making

posted by Jason Kottke   Mar 01, 2021

Zeynep Tufekci has written an important piece for The Atlantic on the mistakes that the media, public health officials, and the public keep making during the pandemic and how we can learn from them. A big one for me is how scientists & other public health officials and agencies communicate their knowledge to the public and how the media interprets and amplifies those messages.

Thus, on January 14, 2020, the WHO stated that there was “no clear evidence of human-to-human transmission.” It should have said, “There is increasing likelihood that human-to-human transmission is taking place, but we haven’t yet proven this, because we have no access to Wuhan, China.” (Cases were already popping up around the world at that point.) Acting as if there was human-to-human transmission during the early weeks of the pandemic would have been wise and preventive.

Later that spring, WHO officials stated that there was “currently no evidence that people who have recovered from COVID-19 and have antibodies are protected from a second infection,” producing many articles laden with panic and despair. Instead, it should have said: “We expect the immune system to function against this virus, and to provide some immunity for some period of time, but it is still hard to know specifics because it is so early.”

Similarly, since the vaccines were announced, too many statements have emphasized that we don’t yet know if vaccines prevent transmission. Instead, public-health authorities should have said that we have many reasons to expect, and increasing amounts of data to suggest, that vaccines will blunt infectiousness, but that we’re waiting for additional data to be more precise about it. That’s been unfortunate, because while many, many things have gone wrong during this pandemic, the vaccines are one thing that has gone very, very right.

This pair of statements she highlights — “no clear evidence of human-to-human transmission” and “There is increasing likelihood that human-to-human transmission is taking place, but we haven’t yet proven this, because we have no access to Wuhan, China” — are both factually true but the second statement is so much more helpful, useful, and far less likely to be misinterpreted by people who aren’t scientists that making the first statement is almost negligent.

The Secret Message Encoded in the Parachute of the Mars Perseverance Rover

posted by Jason Kottke   Feb 24, 2021

decode instructions for the secret message hidden in the pattern of the Parachute of the Perseverance rover

decode instructions for the secret message hidden in the pattern of the Parachute of the Perseverance rover

NASA engineers encoded a secret message in the parachute the Perseverance rover used to slow its descent to the surface of Mars. Tanya Fish provided a handy guide to decoding it on Twitter and as a PDF available on GitHub.

Onboard Camera Views from Perseverance Rover’s Descent & Touchdown on Mars

posted by Jason Kottke   Feb 23, 2021

Just a few days after the Perseverance rover successfully touched down on Mars, NASA has released onboard video from the descent and landing from multiple perspectives. I watched this with my kids last night and all three of us had our mouths hanging open.

The real footage in this video was captured by several cameras that are part of the rover’s entry, descent, and landing suite. The views include a camera looking down from the spacecraft’s descent stage (a kind of rocket-powered jet pack that helps fly the rover to its landing site), a camera on the rover looking up at the descent stage, a camera on the top of the aeroshell (a capsule protecting the rover) looking up at that parachute, and a camera on the bottom of the rover looking down at the Martian surface.

After watching it again just now, I am struck by two things:

  1. Sometime in my lifetime, live broadcasts from Mars will likely become commonplace. There will be dozens or hundreds of Mars webcams you can pull up on whatever the 2052 internet equivalent is. It will be amazing how boring it all is. (Or perhaps it’ll be boring how amazing it all is.)
  2. That humans landed on the Moon in 1969 was an incredible feat, but a close second is that the first steps were broadcast live from the Moon’s surface to everywhere on the Earth. Unbelievable.

Can’t wait to see more from Perseverance once the science program gets cranking.

Draw an Iceberg and See How It Will Float

posted by Jason Kottke   Feb 22, 2021

Glaciologist Megan Thompson-Munson recently posted an “unofficial but passionate petition” for scientists and science publications to start drawing icebergs correctly.

While it’s true that only ~10% floats above the surface of the water, the “classic” orientation is unstable and would actually not be found in nature. An elongated iceberg would not float on its head, but instead on its side.

Inspired by her plea, Joshua Tauberer made a cool little iceberg simulator called Iceberger — you can quickly draw an iceberg and see how it will float. Here are a couple of weird ones I drew:

drawing of an iceberg

drawing of an iceberg

I would love to see a gently gamified version of this where you compete to draw the slowest-orienting icebergs or icebergs closest to their stable orientation. Would be similar to some of the puzzles in Brain It On!

Update: See also Iceberger Remixed, an iceberg simulator with additional features.

Watch NASA’s Perseverance Rover Land on Mars Live

posted by Jason Kottke   Feb 18, 2021

Today is the day! NASA’s latest Mars rover is scheduled to touch down on the surface of Mars at around 3:55pm EST today1 and you can follow along online. You probably know the drill by now: what you’ll be watching isn’t actually live (it’s delayed by 11 minutes & 22 seconds, the time it takes for data to reach the Earth from Mars) and there’s no video to watch…there’s just telemetry from the rover that indicates where it is and what it’s doing. But I can say having watched the Curiosity landing in 2012, it’s still super exciting and nerve-wracking.

NASA has a number of ways to watch online, including their main stream on YouTube (embedded above), en Español, the “clean feed” from mission control without commentary, and a 360-degree stream, as well as options on Twitter, Facebook, Twitch, etc. You can also watch on NASA TV or through NASA apps on your phone, tablet, or TV. The coverage starts at 2:15pm EST (find your local time) and if all goes well, things start to get exciting at about 3:38pm EST and the landing will happen around 3:55pm EST. To get ready, you can check this page for a schedule of what happens when, watch a video about what’s gonna happen, and look at this live simulated view of where the Perseverance spacecraft is now (here too). Good luck, little rover!

  1. All times in this post (and stated by NASA in their schedules) are when we here on Earth will learn of events after the 11 minute & 22 second informational travel time from Mars is factored in. So while the Mars landing will actually occur around 3:44pm EST, we won’t know about it until 3:55pm EST.

Let’s Clear This Up: What Does 95% Covid-19 Vaccine Efficacy Actually Mean?

posted by Jason Kottke   Feb 18, 2021

In popular press and social media, there’s been a misunderstanding of what is actually meant when scientists say that the Pfizer and Moderna Covid-19 vaccines have an efficacy of 94-95%. It does not mean that 95% of vaccinated people are protected from infection — these vaccines are better than that. Dr. Piero Olliaro explains in a letter to The Lancet:

The mRNA-based Pfizer and Moderna vaccines were shown to have 94-95% efficacy in preventing symptomatic COVID-19, calculated as 100 x (1 minus the attack rate with vaccine divided by the attack rate with placebo). It means that in a population such as the one enrolled in the trials, with a cumulated COVID-19 attack rate over a period of 3 months of about 1% without a vaccine, we would expect roughly 0.05% of vaccinated people would get diseased.

Another way to put it: you’re 20 times less likely to get Covid-19 with a vaccine than without. (And again, data indicates these are safe vaccines.) Olliaro explains with some simple math:

If we vaccinated a population of 100,000 and protected 95% of them, that would leave 5000 individuals diseased over 3 months, which is almost the current overall COVID-19 case rate in the UK. Rather, a 95% vaccine efficacy means that instead of 1000 COVID-19 cases in a population of 100,000 without vaccine (from the placebo arm of the abovementioned trials, approximately 1% would be ill with COVID-19 and 99% would not) we would expect 50 cases (99.95% of the population is disease-free, at least for 3 months).

And of course if you vaccinate widely, it becomes a compounding situation because the virus just runs out of people to infect.

Why Are Covid-19 Cases Declining So Quickly in the US?

posted by Jason Kottke   Feb 17, 2021

Over the past week or two, I’ve read a number of articles and threads about why Covid-19 cases are falling so rapidly in the US. The explanations have all been somewhat unsatisfying to me. Cases have indeed dropped off quite quickly and it happened pretty uniformly all over the country. Look at the mini state graphs on the NY Times Covid page — they all look about the same. Hospitalizations and positivity rates have dropped too, so while the number of daily tests has fallen too, this appears to be a real drop and not just an artifact of a lack of testing. Which is great news! Imagine a February and March that looked like December — a disaster compounded.

So what’s going on here? For The Atlantic, Derek Thompson lists four reasons for the decline in cases and hospitalizations that mirror the arguments I’ve seen elsewhere: “social distancing, seasonality, seroprevalence, and shots”.

The vaccine explanation is the weakest one for me: not enough people outside of healthcare workers had gotten them early enough to start bending that curve sharply downward in early January. But as Thompson notes, it could be having more of an effect on hospitalizations because the folks getting shots (and therefore immunity against severe infection) are those most likely to end up in hospitals due to infection. And obviously, vaccines are going to become the dominant factor in falling case numbers as more and more people get jabbed.

I’m also skeptical of the seasonality argument, but (again, as Thompson notes) there’s a lot we don’t know about how temperature, sunlight, humidity, and this specific coronavirus interact. Obviously Covid-19 is a seasonal thing and that’s definitely a contributing factor here, but that sharp of a drop in early January? I don’t know if it’s the primary driver here. Also, the seasonal flu typically peaks in February in the US.

The seroprevalence argument is an interesting one. Here’s Johns Hopkins infectious disease epidemiologist David Dowdy in a great Twitter thread about the US case decline:

I think the most logical explanation is one proposed initially by @mgmgomes1 and others — namely that we are seeing the effects of population immunity with heterogeneous mixing + strong behavioral effects. Take a(n overly) simple example. Assume 60% of a population has zero respiratory contacts, while the other 40% lives life as normal. If 75% of that high-mixing group has immunity (e.g., 30% population seroprevalence), you could easily see herd effects.

Basically, a large percentage of the folks at the greatest risk of getting Covid-19 in the US (i.e. folks who aren’t able or willing to keep from seeing other people and/or take proper precautions) have gotten it, resulting in a sort of localized “herd immunity” among those folks. After the massive holiday surge in cases (more on that in a sec), this hypothesis suggests, the virus started running out of people to infect and rates dropped quickly. This is the first explanation I read that really made sense to me.

Thompson leads off his piece with the behavioral explanation: “Maybe Americans finally got the hang of this mask and social-distancing thing.” I do not buy that people who previously weren’t doing so before suddenly started wearing masks (or better masks), keeping distant, spending less time indoors with others, and staying home from work started doing so in numbers large enough to cause such a sharp downturn. But you can’t consider the decline without also looking at how cases got so high in the first place. Here’s Steven Johnson on Twitter, zooming out a few months:

[It’s] not so much that people got the hang of social distancing, but rather that the holiday season compelled people to relax social distancing for in-person family gatherings. So the current decline is mostly reversion to where we were in Oct-Nov.

Yes, this. Without these holidays, we may have seen much more of a winter plateau than a spike. So here’s what seems plausible to me. As the cold weather made the coronavirus more effective at infection, people gathered for Halloween, Thanksgiving, Hanukkah, Christmas, and New Year’s — each subsequent holiday building on the previous one — and it pushed cases much higher than they would have been without those major gatherings. After two months of massive infection rates, the virus burned itself out among the high-mixing group and everyone else retreated back into their homes and pods to hunker down, resulting in the steep decline we’re seeing.

Obviously, careful scientific study will be necessary to tease out how significant each of these (and other!) causes were to the holiday spike and subsequent decline. But for now, the way forward is continuing to social distance, wear (better) masks, limit close contacts, and get people vaccinated — before B.1.1.7 and the other variants hit.

The Perseverance Rover Lands on Mars Tomorrow

posted by Jason Kottke   Feb 17, 2021

Curiosity is about to get some company. NASA’s newest rover, Perseverance, is set to land on Mars beginning tomorrow at around 3pm EST. The video above walks us through the 7-minute landing routine in which the rover ditches its spacecraft, heat shields its way through the Martian atmosphere, deploys its parachute, uses an onboard guidance system to navigate to a good landing spot, and finally is lowered down to the surface via a sky crane. The rover’s destination is Jezero Crater, site of an ancient river delta and lakebed.

Jezero Crater tells a story of the on-again, off-again nature of the wet past of Mars. More than 3.5 billion years ago, river channels spilled over the crater wall and created a lake. Scientists see evidence that water carried clay minerals from the surrounding area into the crater lake. Conceivably, microbial life could have lived in Jezero during one or more of these wet times. If so, signs of their remains might be found in lakebed or shoreline sediments. Scientists will study how the region formed and evolved, seek signs of past life, and collect samples of Mars rock and soil that might preserve these signs.

Here’s how you can watch the landing “live” tomorrow (i.e. delayed by the 11 minutes & 22 seconds it takes for signals to travel from Mars). I’ll do a separate post tomorrow w/ the proper YouTube embeds so we can all follow along together.

This New 10 Terapixel Image of the Night Sky Contains 1 Billion Galaxies

posted by Jason Kottke   Feb 08, 2021

portion of a 10 terapixel image of the night sky

After 1405 nights of observation over 6 years, astronomers at three observatories have produced an image of the night sky that contains 10 trillion pixels of data and depicts over a billion galaxies. Bad Astronomy’s Phil Plait has the details.

It’s the result of the DESI Legacy Imagining Surveys, maps of the sky made by the three observatories (the Dark Energy Camera Legacy Survey, the Beijing-Arizona Sky Survey, and the Mayall z-band Legacy Survey, in combination with the orbiting WISE infrared observatory). They mapped the northern sky in seven colors, covering a third of the entire sky — 14,000 square degrees, or the equivalent area of 70,000 full Moons on the sky.

The ultimate goal is to better understand dark energy, the mysterious substance that’s accelerating the expansion of the Universe, by looking at the distribution of galaxies throughout the Universe. They’ll do that by picking tens of millions of the billion galaxies in the data and getting follow-up observations with the Dark Energy Spectroscopic Instrument (DESI), which will take spectra of those galaxies and find their distances.

Since we’ll know their positions on the sky, and their distances, this will make a 3D map of the Universe larger than any ever before.

The photo included at the top of the post is just a tiny tiny bit of the full image — you can pan and zoom the whole thing in this viewer. Be sure to zoom out in increments from the default view so as to fully appreciate just how absurdly large this image (and the universe) is.