Wednesday, August 5, 2020

See Through Face Masks

Environmental & Science Education
STEM
Health
Medicine
Invention
Society
Edward Hessler

Transparency is one of the most used words of the day. Often, though, transparency is difficult in practice and may seem opaque to those demanding it but here is a case where transparency and practice meet.

Case: transparent face masks.

Who really needs them? Deaf people and the hard of hearing who read lips  Teachers who work with children. Caregivers who work with the elderly. Those who miss smiling at their students.

To my surprise, prototypes and custom made models are increasingly available and according to a report on transparent face masks, NPR's  Business Desk correspondent, Yoki Noguchi"At least one company — Clear Mask (her essay provides a link), based in Baltimore — has gone so far as to seek and earn FDA "'clearance'" that its mask with a transparent panel is "'substantially equivalent'" to a medical-grade surgical mask for hospitals and other front-line uses."

ClearMask, was started by four Johns Hopkins University students and has attracted considerable attention worldwide according to Noguchi.

You may wonder whether the transparent face shields work. Obviously, they would appear to. But there is an issue as Noguchi notes. "[T]hey are open at the bottom and not recommended by the CDC "'for normal everyday activities or as a substitute for cloth face coverings,'" according to the agency's website (linked). And after a coronavirus outbreak in a Swiss restaurant recently — one in which employees wearing face shields became infected with the virus, while those in cloth masks didn't — health officials in Switzerland and some European countries also have been panning reliance on face shields (linked)."

I have seen health care professionals using both non-see through masks and face shields which seems like a good practice, e.g., "open your mouth and say "Ah" where faces are close to one another.

One mask seamstress who is an elementary teacher has turned her summer to making masks as well as  custom transparent masks that use the plastic, Mylar. When asked about the efficacy of such homemade masks, David Aronoff, director of infectious disease at the Vanderbilt Institute for Infection, Immunology and Inflammation said "'We know that the virus cannot penetrate plastic or solid materials, so see-through masks provide potentially a great option for balancing infection prevention with the desire to be able to see somebody's mouth move.'

"'The main thing that we really need to get people to understand is that wearing a face covering is really important. And if it helps them to wear one that has a cut-out in the middle with a piece of plastic to make it easier to see — that's great.'"


Tuesday, August 4, 2020

A Vital New Sign in Health Care

Environmental & Science Education
STEM
Health
Medicine
Edward Hessler

I've never had a conversation initiated by a physician rather than by me on the cost of health care--the financial effects on me. Three physicians from three different institutions--two in Virginia and one in Boston--concerned about the cost of care, "have changed how we work."

In an essay in STAT they write, "We now ask our patients about financial side effects at every encounter, after first explaining why we are doing this. We ask because it is rare for patients to tell us unprompted what financial challenges they are facing, what sacrifices they have made to adhere to their care, and when and where they haven't been able to get the care they feel they need."

The questions include "out-of-pocket expenses, including out-of-pocket costs at the pharmacy, copays or bills for any tests, such as imaging studies; copays for clinic visits; and how and when they spend their annual deductible. We pay attention to our patient's insurance coverage, knowing this might affect which drug we decide to prescribe, or which tests we recommend."

And the questions continue. Do "they sometimes leave prescriptions unfilled or split or skip doses. We ask what sacrifices they make to pay for their care. If we have time during the visit, we ask if out-of-pocket costs for health care prevent them from spending their money on something else important to them or their family. We sometimes also as our insured patients about their annual premiums, including whether they've gone up over the past few years and how that has affected them. When we ask,we learn And when the answers worry us, we search for solutions. After all, one of our mandates is to first do no harm". (my emphasis)

Their essay includes other financial consequences--some personal, others broader but which affect a patient more invisibly (higher taxes) such as safety net programs and government-funded health insurance programs.

The doctors are confident that they are not alone in doing this but think that it is not a common-enough practice. Medicine is becoming more holistic--listening more to patients about their concerns, all of them and this financial review strikes me as an important part of complete health care. Patients always come from and return to their surrounding environment. A visit to see a doctor often has ramifications for the patient, for their environment as well as for the physician.




Monday, August 3, 2020

Why the Rapid Development of a Vaccine for Covid-19 is Happening so Fast

Environmental & Science Education
STEM
Health
Medicine
History of Science
Nature of Science
Edward Hessler

The reasons for the surprisingly rapid progress on a COVID-19 vaccine are reviewed by Andrew Joseph in STAT.

--A familiar family. The coronavirus is quite similar to "others that had previously leapt from animals to people" so rejiggering "vaccine projects" could be done quickly.

--An acute, not chronic infection. This infection is one "most people will clear on their own."

--Cutting-edge approaches. Innovations include determining the genetic sequence of the virus, "basic genetics, immunology and structural biology." By knowing the genetic sequence researchers "can string together the right pieces of (genetic) code to synthesize vaccines." (added)

--Money, money, money. Money has been no object. Usually companies wait for each phase of the trials on whether to make further investments. And one researcher, Dr. James LeDuc of the University of Texas Medical Branch's Galveston Medical Branch also noted that, "The fact that industry is able to hedge their bets like this and to make these investments is because the government has put up the money.”

In related reporting, NPR's Sydney Lupkin listed drug companies that have "agreements for the support of clinical trials, scaling-up of the manufacturing process and producing 100 million doses of vaccine": AstraZeneca, GlaxoSmithKline, Johnson & Johnson, Moderna, Novovax, Pfizer, and Sanofi.

--Regulatory Nimbleness. Since the West African Ebola crisis regulators have been more comfortable moving vaccine trials forward, including the use of collapsing the usual three phases "into Phase 1/2 or Phase 2/3 trials. Recall too that this is a somewhat familiar coronavirus so the trials could be shorter or collapsed.

In his STAT essay Andrew Joseph reminds us though that "progress so far remains just that. The vaccines are now facing their real tests: the monthslong, Phase 3 trials that will demonstrate whether or not they protect people from the virus."

The full essay is worth reading since it includes details and nuances that this brief doesn't.



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Sunday, August 2, 2020

The Wild Bison Return...to the United Kingdom

Environmental & Science Education
STEM
Sustainability
Nature
Wildlife
Biodiversity
Edward Hessler

It has been 6000 years since wild bison were found in the United Kingdom.

This is about to change. According to an article by Environment Editor Damian Carrington for The Guardian, a male and three female European bison (Bison bonasus), will be released in a forest in Kent and allowed to breed naturally to slowly repopulate the land. The bison will come from the Netherlands or Poland. It is expected that each female will produce one calf per year.

Bison are viewed as a keystone species and through their activities, it is hoped, these will change or re-make the land which in turn will encourage broader biological abundance. One of the most important changes they will make in the habitat into which they are introduced is by killing some of the trees which will create "a healthy mix of woodland, scrub and glades, boosting inset, bird and plant life."

It is fair to think of the bison as "ecosystem engineers" in this "nature-based" approach to habitat and wildlife management. One thing leads to another. Bison rub against trees, ultimately killing them, the dead wood provides habitat for insects, insects provide food for birds, and the openings created change environmental conditions allowing new plants to grow.

Carrington notes that "Once the bison are settled, the public will be able to visit the area with rangers and watch the animals from viewing platforms. In the Netherlands, where bison projects have been running for 15 years, people walk through the areas without incident. Free-living longhorn cattle, “iron age” pigs, and Exmoor ponies will also live alongside the bison and assist in restoring the woodland."

The article describes some of the details, including important links and includes three photographs: Blean Woods where they will be released and of bison on the land in Poland and Germany.

For a discussion of some of the differences between European and American bison, see here.



 


Saturday, August 1, 2020

Unsolicited Seeds by Mail: MDA Advises

Environmental & Science Education
STEM
Agriculture
Edward Hessler

The Minnesota Department of Agriculture released a statement July 31 on unsolicited seeds arriving through the mail which includes what you should do.

This includes upon their arrival in your postal box and/if you have planted them.

It is a quick and useful summary. "To date, over 700 Minnesotans have made reports to the department."

The Quokka

Environmental & Science Education
STEM
Behavior
Nature
Biodiversity
Edward Hessler

This Atlantic cinematic short documentary film (22 m 56 s) takes us to Rottnest Island (aka "Rotty"), off the coast of western Australia, to introduce the quokka (Setonix brachyurus), a relative of the kangaroo family. It is unafraid of humans and appears to smile for pictures.

So, of course, the quokka then becomes "the world's happiest animal." Filmmaker David Freid says "When you see one, it's a bonafide heart melter." He describes the film as a "quokkumentary."

The island's name is from the Dutch for"rat's nest." Dutch sea captain Willem de Vlamingh who visited the island in the early 1700s, in a case of mistaken identity, "dubbed (quokkas as) "a kind of rat as big as a common cat."

Friday, July 31, 2020

Friday Poem

Environmental & Science Education
Poetry
Art and Environment
Edward Hessler

Greetings from Saint Paul, MN. It is the 2l3th day of 2020--30 weeks and 30 days are in our past. On a percentage scale this reckons to 58.20%. Sunrise is at 5:57 am and sunset at 8:39 pm giving us 14h 42m 09s of precious sunlight. A good day to celebrate a berry: National Avocado Day.

And if you wonder just what berries are, Wiki has a useful entry. There are more berries than you think although the definition is not the same as a botanical definition,

Quote: "Every 8–15 days, we have what I call ‘confessions’, where each student and postdoc tells me what they have been up to. I’m not so interested in the positive results – negative results are more important because they are about solving problems. You can ping-pong ideas back and forth during the discussion."-Janine Cossy, Organic Chemist, ESPCI, Paris (Chemistry World)

If you wonder what the preceding acronym stands for see here. It is quite a place.

Today's poem is by Robert Haas.

Thursday, July 30, 2020

"Campfres" Dance on the Sun's Surface

Environmental & Science Education
STEM
Solar System
Astronomy
Edward Hessler

Man, it's a hot one
Like seven inches from the midday sun
--Smooth, Lyrics by Rob Thomas & Itaal Shur

The NASA and European Space Agency joint mission, the Solar Orbiter, was launched in February.

In a press conference July 16, the European Space Agency released the first images (taken May 30) when the solar orbiter was 77 million kilometers (~47,845,581 miles) from the sun. The distance of Earth from the sun is ~152 million kilometers (~94,448,421 miles). These are the closest ever taken. It is on its way to an orbit inside the orbit of the planet Mercury (my emphasis). Mercury is ~36 million miles (~58 million kilometers) from the sun

 In this short article from the British scientific journal Nature by Elizabeth Gibney, David Berghmans, principal investigator for the orbiter's Extreme Ultraviolet Imager instrument comments that“When the first images came in, my first thought was this is not possible, it can’t be that good.It was much better than we dared to hope for. The Sun might look quiet at the first glance, but when we look in detail, we can see those miniature flares everywhere we look."

Gibney notes that "The fires are just millionths or billionths of the size of the solar flares visible from Earth, which are energetic eruptions thought to be caused by interactions in the Sun’s magnetic fields. The mission team has yet to work out whether the two phenomena are driven by the same process, but the researchers speculate that the combined effect of the many campfires could contribute to the searing heat of the corona, the Sun’s outer atmosphere. The corona is hundreds of times hotter than the Sun’s surface, but the reason is a long-standing mystery."

"To be clear," according to BBC reporter Jonathan Amos, "while the new images have been taken from the closest ever vantage point, they are not the highest resolution ever acquired. The largest solar telescopes on Earth will always beat SoIO on that measure.

"But the probe's holistic approach, using the combination of six remote sensing instruments and four in-situ instruments, puts it on a different level." Amos' reporting includes a variety of images that give you an idea of what scientists are seeing and the significance of this mission.

National Public Radio's reporter Rachel Treisman quotes Holly Gilbert, NASA project scientist for the mission at the Goddard Space Flight Center on some of what will be learned. "These unprecedented pictures of the Sun are the closest we have ever obtained. These amazing images will help scientists piece together the Sun's atmospheric layers, which is important for understanding how it drives space weather near the Earth and throughout the solar system."
According to Treisman, "Scientists involved in the mission said that while the first images from a spacecraft typically only serve to confirm that its instruments are working, these photographs reveal an unprecedented level of detail."
Both reports include links to more photographs (Treisman includes a film and also a Facebook page) as well as what is ahead, e.g., fine-tuning the orbit, use of the full array of cameras and instruments to take temperatures. 
 According to Treisman the primary phase of he mission begins November 2021 and it is not until 2022 that it will reach its closest pass-by "'about a third the distance" from the sun to the earth. At this time it will be  inside the orbit of the planet Mercury (my emphasis). "Man, it's a hot one," will take on a new meaning.
Dr. Gilbert was a cello major at the Interlochen Center for the Arts Academy--entering her junior year of high school. She notes in the Academy's Crescendo Magazine that “I really was academically driven—I've always been very interested in math and science. So when I got here and found out that the academics were taken as seriously as the art, that was a perfect combination. It probably academically was the best school I attended."


Wednesday, July 29, 2020

It's a Bird-Like Dinosaur. No It was a Lizard

Environmental & Science Education
STEM
Nature of Science
Biodiversity
Biological Evolution
Edward Hessler

A while ago I posted an entry about a bird-like skull less than 2 cm king with a beak packed with teeth that was found trapped in amber. It was thought to be the remains of he smallest-known bird-like dinosaur.

Strong doubts were raised on this interpretation almost immediately after it was published in the British journal Nature

A retraction notice was published in Nature on July 22. In a brief article describing the retraction Giuliana Vigilione notes that "Andrea Cau, a vertebrate palaeontologist in Parma, Italy, was among the scientists who were sceptical of the original classification. The fossil has several characteristics typical of lizards that have never before been seen in a bird-like fossil from that era, Cau says. And because so many of the specimen’s features are lizard-like — about ten, by his estimate — “the idea that it was instead a lizard could not be excluded”. Cau says he is not surprised by the retraction and notes that re-classifications, especially of incomplete fossil specimens from unknown groups, are not uncommon in the field."
This is the way science works; it changes. New evidence based on new data often is put forward and corrections are made. This doesn't mean that this fossil if no longer interesting to scientists. It is. Just that the interpretation has changed from dinosaur to lizard. An important correction.

Monday, July 27, 2020

More on Photograph 51 and Rosalind Franklin

Environmental & Science Education
STEM
Nature of Science
History of Science
Edward Hessler

British scientist Matthew Cobb posts occasionally on Why Evolution is True. I always look forward to reading any post by him, today's especially. It hit me between the eyes.

On July 25 Professor Cobb wished Rosalind Franklin a Happy Birthday and then sets the record straight about Photograph 51, how science works, the importance of her data, a key to understanding the structure of DNA, not Photograph 51 alone, her contributions to X-ray crystallography, and includes links, and photographs.

I was wrong, dead wrong in my earlier post about Photograph 51 but am far from alone. (my emphasis) I take no solace in this. My view was badly distorted, couldn't have been worse. Alas, it is a perception we are not likely to shake for the the account by James Watson exerts a powerful hold. This correction is important.

Below are some of Dr. Cobb's comments but please read his post if you are interested in her remarkable, short career. There are some photographs and links, too.

"Franklin’s decisive and unwitting contribution to Watson and Crick’s discovery was not a single photo. Indeed, she did not even take photograph 51; it was taken by her PhD student, Raymond Gosling, who had initially been a student of Wilkins. By the end of 1952, Gosling was again supervised by Wilkins, which is why Wilkins had the photo and had every right to show it to Watson. Whether that was wise is another matter.
"Instead it was something much more significant: a set of values, established by Franklin on the basis of her detailed studies of these photos, and which were contained in a report by the King’s lab to the Medical Research Council, which provided Watson and above all Crick with the key. This report, including Franklin’s data, was handed to Watson and Crick by members of the Cambridge lab where they worked at the end of 1952.
"Franklin was not consulted, but the data were not secret, or private. Indeed, she had presented similar data 15 months earlier at a talk Watson attended, but he did not take notes, and by his own account spent his time musing about her dress sense. But the Cambridge crew could and should have asked her, and were wrong not to. Given her previous (and understandable) complaint to members of Wilkins’ group that they should not interpret her data for her, it is perhaps no surprise that she wasn’t asked – it seems very likely her answer would have been ‘no’.
"Once Crick saw the data, he understood their significance in a way that Franklin initially did not do – he had been working on the way that helical molecules diffracted X-rays, so his mind was prepared to understand them in an instant. That encounter of a prepared mind with Franklin’s values, not Watson glancing at photograph 51, was the decisive moment."
I'm very grateful that Cobb wrote this essay.