Thursday, October 22, 2020

Science Journal Editorials on Poltics and Science

Environmental & Science Education, STEM, History of Science, Nature of Science, Science and Society

Ed Hessler

Recently I've noticed that science journals, on their editorial pages, have been both critical of president Trump and the administration as well as publishing endorsements for Joe Biden's candidacy for that highest U. S. office. These have been in both domestic and international journals--Science (AAAS), Nature (Great Britain), and the New England Journal of Medicine. They all have very large readerships.

I could be mistaken and this may be a more common practice than I've paid any attention in the past. It seems new to me.

Recently the British journal Nature published an editorial in which they defended this practice and promised more of it in future. The attacks on science practice and practitioners is not something they choose anymore to only observe and not comment.

So it was not a surprise to find an endorsement--Why Nature Supports Joe Biden for US President.  

Make of it what you will. It may provide some light on Biden's concerns and issues he plans to face that have a deep basis in science, many some of the most consequential policy issues today.

Wednesday, October 21, 2020

Holiday Days/Daze: To Travel or Not

Environmental & Science Education, STEM, Health, Medicine

Ed Hessler

--Over the bridge and through the woods/ to grandmother's house we shall not go....--Lydia Maria Child (modified bold)

University of Minnesota epidemiologist Michael Osterholm was one of the guests on Meet the Press, October 18. He is one of the foremost among the world's experts on pandemics and what should be done.

Earlier this year Osterholm warned of a fall surge of COVID-19 this fall, one in which he now says we are going to "blow right by" previous cases and deaths  We are heading, he warns, into a "dark fall"--"The next six to 12 weeks are going to be the darkest of the entire pandemic." Dr. Osterholm emphasized that our best hope is to learn to live with the idea that this is our COVID-19 year and what this means. The discussion was a masterful update of many aspects of the U.S. pandemic and included herd immunity, vaccines and vaccination, masks and social distancing at all times.

Todd asked the inevitable question about whether we should travel (and how) to visit loved ones and family during the holidays. "If you really love your family," Dr. Osterholm responded, "don't go home...." This is to be saved for next year. The segment with Osterholm starts at about 22m 46s.

In an article for STAT on health experts advice on Thanksgiving gatherings and travel by Helen Branswell, Osterholm is the most direct  among all of them: "People should not be gathering for Thanksgiving with people outside their immediate family."

These are some of the major questions/issues to consider carefully before, well before, planning a Thanksgiving trip and to reach agreement on: group size, common agreement on precautions to take with no exceptions (all the experts agree on masks, a point Osterholm emphasized in this interview with NBS's Chuck Todd), planning one holiday at a time, and safest way to get there. 

Branswell's essay includes valuable links, including one on interpreting state targets. Branswell mentions but did not link the U. S. Public Interest Group's campaign, Home Safe for the Holidays. It is possible I missed it. Below are considerations/practices Home Safe for the Holidays be addressed before leaving home for a family gathering.

  • Quarantine for 14 days before you gather. 
  • Get tested before you go and limit your contact with others until you reach your destination. 
  • Evaluate travel distance, including how many stops, overnight stays and potential contact with non-household contacts it would take to reach your destination, and see if driving versus taking a flight is better given those factors. It’s best not to travel too far, and you should avoid coming from or going to areas with high community transmission. 
  • Limit the number of people at gatherings. There’s no magic number--more people pose more risk. The size of the gathering depends on the host's ability to safely keep attendees apart, not crowded into a confined space, and outdoors is better than indoors. 
  • Socially distance and wear masks, even if you’ve all been tested. Being tested with a negative result isn’t necessarily a free pass to mingle without preventative measures. If you’ve quarantined for 14 days already, you can merge your social bubbles and interact freely but cautiously. 
  • When eating your meal together, open your windows to increase ventilation and keep at least 6 feet apart, or keep family units together, while spacing out non-household members.
  • Minimize the number of people handling the food and washing the dishes. 
  • If you or a family member are at higher risk for severe infection, you should reconsider gathering together and instead celebrate virtually.

Tuesday, October 20, 2020

Bird Smarts

Environmental & Science Education, STEM, Nature, Wildlife, Biodiversity, Behavior, Nature of Science

Ed Hessler

Bird brains continue to surprise. Two recent studies published in the journal Science, reported on in Scientific American find that "birds actually have a brain that is much more similar to our complex primate (brain) than previously thought." Bret Stetka and experienced writer on neurology walks us through both papers. 

I've read only two or three other accounts reporting on this but Stetka seems to me to stick close to the science and what it claims, eschewing the sensational. Some highlights.

The assumption of a lack of a neocortex in bird brains--the seat of complex thinking and creativity--limited brain function in birds  "The new findings,"from one of the papers, writes Stetka, " show that birds' do, in fact, have a brain structure that is comparable  to netocortex despite taking a different shape. It turns out at a cellular level, the brain region is laid out much like the mammal cortex, explaining why many birds exhibit advanced behaviors and abilities that have long befuddled scientists.

The other paper, "lends still more insight into the avian brain, suggesting that birds have some ability for sensory consciousness," a feature "long thought to be localized in the cerebral cortex of smart primates--namely chimps, bonobos and us humans. The crows studied--Carrion crows--"appear to have at least a rudimentary form of sensory consciousness."

The researchers trained "two carrion recall a previous experiment to guide their behavior." Here is the sequence.  

Upon completion of the training the carrion crows "went through a testing phase in which a gray square might appear followed by either a red or blue square 2.5 seconds later. In this exercise, the crows were trained to move their head if they saw a gray square and then a red one. And they learned to keep their head still if they saw a gray square and then a blue one. When the birds saw no stimulus followed by the appearance of a colored square, the sequence was reversed: blue signaled them to move their head, and red told them not to. So to correctly respond to the colored squares, the crows had to recall whether or not they had seen a gray one first—equating to a past subjective experience. 

"It was crucial to the experiment to present the gray square in six different intensities, including at the threshold of the birds’ perception. This way," the research team," could confirm that the crows were not simply carrying out conditioned responses to stimuli but instead drawing on a subjective experience. 

The activity was also recorded and monitored through implanted electrodes in the brain.


The researchers make no claim about whether the "crows have the self-conscious existence and self-awareness of apes but simply that the birds can partake in a unique, multipart sensory experience in response to a stimulus." Stetka includes a powerful, on the money quote from the team's lead researcher: “I am generally not a big fan of ascribing complex humanlike cognitive states to animals and prefer to maintain a conservative attitude. Humans easily start to project their own mental states to other living (or even nonliving) beings. But in terms of sensory consciousness in other species, it is probably fair to assume that advanced vertebrates, such as mammals and birds, possess it.” 

Bird brains not as simple as once thought! 

Here is a link to the original papers: the first  (consciousness in crows) and the second (cortex-like circuit in avians). You can learn more about the authors, the institutions and details about the research.




Monday, October 19, 2020

Vaccine Rollout: "Looming Questions" and Good Advice

Environmental & Science Education, STEM, Health, Medicine, Society

Ed Hessler

--Expect snafus. Expect confusion. Despite the best of intentions and months of painstaking planning to figure out how to get vaccines to people in an ethical order, doing so is going to be a gargantuan and sometimes messy threats.--Helen Branscomb and Ed Silverman, STAT

Good advice. Keep it tucked away when the Covid-19 vaccine rollout is announced, begins and is ongoing. Pundits will have lots of "raw meat" providing them calories to fuel their "this is what should have..." machines.

Branscomb and Silverman have an essay in STAT on some of the problems ahead and hurdles which "might complicate this very important effort. There are also some that will remain unknown until we are in the thick of it. So it is and ever will be. Here are a few of known questions.

--How do you define high-risk health workers? Essential workers? Settling on the groups of people who should be at the front of the line for vaccines is a challenging enough task. But interpreting the broad directions that distribution guidances  lay out is a tougher one still.

--High-risk medical conditions push you to the front of the vaccine line. How do you prove you have them when you get there? A number of medical conditions put people at higher risk of having severe Covid disease, regardless of their age.

--How do you vaccinate special populations when there are little or no data on how the vaccines work for them?Children and teenagers are pretty much at the back of the line for Covid-19 vaccines. That’s probably a good thing.

--How widely can Pfizer and BioNTech’s vaccine be used, given its taxing storage requirements? Before any vaccine can start being rolled out, manufacturers have to be able to produce enough doses and get the vaccine where it needs to go.

--How will Pfizer and BioNTech’s ordering system affect the potential rollout of its vaccine?An additional constraint of Pfizer’s vaccine relates to how much you have to order if you’re going to use it.  The smallest possible order is 975 doses.

--With air travel slowed, can vaccines get where they need to go quickly?The pandemic has dramatically slowed down commercial air traffic, which the pharmaceutical industry has long relied on to shuttle their products around the world....

--How can officials keep a highly coveted resource safe from theft — and prevent counterfeits?Any Covid-19 vaccine will be extremely valuable — and as such, at high risk of being stolen.

Each of these is explained and discussed in this recent reporting which you can read and think about.




Sunday, October 18, 2020

36th America's Cup: The Technology of the Team Ineos Entry (U. K.)

Environmental & Science Education, STEM

Ed Hessler

Winners of the America's cup sailing contest set the rules for the next race in the series, e.g., number of heats, crew and type of boat, etc.

This means that each team entering must design boats from scratch for each America's cup. In this BBC video (6m 33s) the technology behind the United Kingdom's Ineos Team entry is shown and discussed.

There are many more videos here.

Saturday, October 17, 2020

Wildlife Photrapher of the Year: London Museum of Natural History

Environmental & Science Education, STEM, Nature, Wildlife, Art and Environment, Earth Science, Earth Systems, Geology

Ed Hessler

The Wildlife Photographer of the Year is in its 56th year and is sponsored by the London Museum of Natural History. Her Royal Highness The Duchess of Cambridge and TV presenters Chris Packham and Megan McCubbin made the announcements during an online event. 

Russian Sergey Gorschkov won him the title of Wildlife Photographer of the year for an image of a Siberian--aka Amur tiger--in the dense forest of Russia's Far East. 

You may find it partricularly interested because of how it was taken.It is a camera trap image set up and then left. As you will learn in reading the link below there is more, much more, to taking this kind of image than merely setting up camera traps waiting for something to happen. Knowledge about behaviour, habitat, and the deep forest are key and were counted by the judging panel.

Images receiving honours in each of the following categories.

Junior Photographer, Earth Environments, Behaviour: Amphibians and Reptiles, Behaviour: Invertebrates, Behaviour: Mammals and Under Water.

The images, brief information about each photographer, and locations may be seen here in reporting by BBC Science Reporter Jonathan Amos. 

Entries for next year's were open for submission almost immediately following the presentation!

Friday, October 16, 2020

Friday Poem

Environment & Science Education, Poetry, Art and Environment

Ed Hessler

Good morning/Good day from St. Paul, Friday October 16--41 weeks and 3 days from the beginning of 2020 (79.23% of those days and nights now used). Sunrise is at 7:30 am and sunset at 6:25 pm. Between those times there are 10h 54 m 34s of sunlight.

It is another moggie day, this one is Global Cat Day, to celebrate non-lethal feline programs across the US.

Today's quote. We look at the world once, in childhood./ The rest is memory.--Louise Gluck (from First Born, 1968, New American Library)

Louise Gluck is the 2020 Nobel Prize Recipient for Literature. See also the official press release.

Here is a poem.

Thursday, October 15, 2020

Neanderthal Genes and Covid-19

Environmental & Science Education, STEM, Health, Medicine, Evolutionary Biology, Genetics, Anthropology, Nature of Science

Edward Hessler 

The Guardian has an interesting article on a genetic endowment claiming "that (it) triples the risk of developing severe Covid-19 was passed on from Neanderthals to modern humans...a legacy from more than 50,000 years ago, has left about 16% of Europeans and half of south Asians today carrying those genes."

The paper on which the story is based was published in the British journal Nature.

The science editor of The Guardian, Ian Sample, includes important comments about what the science may show and what it may not.  This perspective is important

Mark Maslin, a Geography professor at University College, London, when asked about the research, "cautioned that the work risked oversimplifying the causes and impact of the pandemic. “Covid-19 is a complex disease, the severity of which has been linked to age, gender, ethnicity, obesity, health, virus load among other things."

Maslin continued, noting that the "paper links genes inherited from Neanderthals with a higher risk of Covid-19 hospitalisation and severe complications. But as Covid-19 spreads around the world it is clear that lots of different populations are being severely affected, many of which do not have any Neanderthal genes.

“We must avoid simplifying the causes and impact of Covid-19, as ultimately a person’s response to the disease is about contact and then the body’s immunity response, which is influenced by many environmental, health and genetic factors.



Wednesday, October 14, 2020

Who Dunnit?

Environmental & Science Education, STEM, Archeology, Nature of Science, Nature, Biodiversity

Ed Hessler.

When you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improabable, must be the truth.--Sherlock Holmes

"Psssst, I didn't do it. I might as well have said, Hsssst, I didn't do it." You say, "Well, that is what they all say."

In an essay in I Witness History in Aramco World, ancient history professor at the University of Houston, Frank L. Holt, speaks and argues for an accused who cannot speak. "It's low time I set the record crooked," the accused says.

"You see, I, the Egyptian asp, Naja naje (Egyptian cobra), am the victim of overwrought imaginations. I did not kill Cleopatra. Not in Shakespeare's way or any other."

So what is the evidence for and against and how good is it one way or the other in reaching a verdict on the cause of Cleopatra's death? This essay were it a book, at least for me is a real "page turner." O.K. a "paragraph turner." I couldn't resist it. It is also beautifully written with verve, gusto and a historian's knowledge. In addition the essay is beautifully and lavishly illustrated by Norman MacDonald.

Hunt opens with some comments on why snakes are generally despised and then goes on with a quick review of snakes in several cultures (noble roles), asps in high culture and low culture in which much embroidery has been sewn, facts about the geopolitics of Cleopatra's time, facts about asps and poison strength, details about venom suckers (the selection process which one can describe as "hazardous," at best), hearsay and gossip, major players in this drama, other than Cleopatra and the asp-- CaesarOctavian, Arsinoe IV, opportunity, means and motive for two suspects before reaching a reasoned conclusion. .

The conclusion Holt reaches is based on rational separation of speculation and hearsay from certain facts which support but don't or can they "prove" the case. The method is very much in the spirit of Nobel Prize awardee (1946) physicist Percy Bridgman who wrote in his book Reflections of a Physicist (1955). "The scientific method, as far as it is a methodgy, is nothing more than doing one's damnedest with one's mind, no holds barred." It is a definition I still like.

Holt's essay is a nice example of the use of forensics in history as well as reasoning, even though none of us were there.You may disagree with the conclusion, weighting the evidence presented differently. I think the Naje is innocent.

Tuesday, October 13, 2020

People and Pandemics: Jingle Dress Dancing

Environmental & Science Education, Health, Medicine, Culture, Art and Environment, Society

Ed Hessler

The description accompanying this video (16m 57s) states that "Ojibwe women created a healing tradition in response to the influenza pandemic of 1918-19, which devastated native peoples across the US, Alaska, and Canada. A century later, the tradition is with us as we navigate the COVID-19 pandemic.

"The Jingle Dress Dance Tradition emerged from the Mille Lacs Reservation in central Minnesota and in Whitefish Bay, Ontario. Both communities have similar, strong traditions of Ojibwe song and dance. For the Ojibwe, song and dance have the power to heal, so that art is as necessary as medicine in the worst of times. This documentary explores the origins of the Jingle Dress Dance Tradition with Ojibwe historian Dr. Brenda J. Child, who also describes what the tradition means to dancers and Ojibwe people today, and how it has evolved to include modern protest movements such as Standing Rock and calls for racial justice."

The Jingle Dress Dance has been the subject of a Google Doodle, June 15, 2019. It includes an explanation of the dance, see an early sketch and read a short interview with the artist,  Joshua Mangeshig Pawis-Steckley.