Tuesday, September 29, 2020

Sooooooooo BIG!

Environmental & Science Education, STEM, Earth Science, Cosmology, Astronomy

Ed Hessler

"Mindboggling!" is how astronomers announced the detection of the most powerful and distant black-hole collision to date. It was detected May 21, 2019 and is named GW190521 after its detection date.

Writing for the journal Nature, Davide Castelvecchi not only gives us a sense of scale but also one of the surprising findings. "Of the two behemoths that fused when the Universe was half its current age, at least one — weighing 85 times as much as the Sun — has a mass that was thought to be too large to be involved in such an event. And the merger produced a black hole of nearly 150 solar masses, the researchers have estimated, putting it in a range where no black holes had ever been conclusively seen before."

Over at ars technica, science journalist Jennifer Ouellette uses her impressive reporting skills to provide some of the details. Her report includes a short video (30 s) of the numerical simulation of a heavy-black-hole merger, how hunting and finding such mergers are done, a wonderfully informative graphic showing masses in the stellar graveyard (in solar masses), the GW event as it was observed and recorded by the three detectors involved, an artist's conception of merging black holes, an artistic rendering (not a numerical simulation) of a black hole that was once considered too large to happen--a 1m 47 s video, and comments on what's next for the collaboration that announced this finding. Ms. Ouellette writes "LIGO-Virgo scientists have identified 56 possible gravitational wave detections (candidate events) from the now-completed third run, only four of which have been confirmed and publicly announced (including today's announcement). Analysis of the remaining 52 candidates is ongoing, so it's possible the collaboration will announce more discoveries in the future. Any additional discoveries should help shed more light on the many questions raised by GW190521." Is it the first representative of a "new class of binary black holes" or the "high mass end" of what has been observed so far?

Monday, September 28, 2020

Flight Suit Fashion

 Environmental & Science Education, STEM, Health, Medicine

Ed Hessler

Goats and Soda (NPR) posed a listener's question on dress and flying that caught my eye. 

Marc Silver answered what seemed a simple question and I thought the link was worth passing on. As is usual I'll extract a few nuggets which may help you decide to read it or not.

Here is the question: Is wearing a pair of disposable painters' coveralls (full sleeves) then disposing of them when I arrive a good idea when you are flying in terms of protection from the corona virus (including wearing a mask, of course).

"Spoiler alert," Silver responds, "not much (protection)." 

However he expands the answer. He first asked Harvard Medical School's Dr. Abraar Karan and he first talked about fomites which are viral contaminated non-living objects that could, to use the common meaning of the phrase, "in theory, be transferred to your hands, if you touch it" or by bringing "your hands to your eyes, nose or mouth.(although if you wash your hands, that gets rid of the risk.)" 

This is unlikely because the virus, according to Karan "'is likely spread primarily through the air, as opposed to other viruses, like Ebola, which are spread though a number of bodily fluids."

Virginia Tech's epidemiologist, Dr. Charlotte Baker said that "she makes it a practice after a flight to change her clothes when she gets to her destination. After carefully changing into a fresh outfit, she puts the clothes she wore on the plane into a sealed plastic bag--to keep them separate from the rest of her stuff." So, a full body jump suit solves that problem but creates another: environmental.

The money line, the take-home line from Silver is this: "Karan and Baker both stress that whatever clothing you wear will never outweigh the protective benefits of face masks and frequent hand-sanitizing. And that's a growing concern about airborne transmission (which masks can block) — and the role it might play on planes."

Silver then discusses covering your eyes (to be considered), the use of lab goggles, plastic face shields, even swimmer's goggles. By now we know that plastic or latex gloves are not much help since viral particles cling to them which makes removing them risky. Health workers know how to avoid self-contamination from removing contaminated gloves through training and experience and washing their hands in soap and water immediately.

Silver also discusses wrapping yourself in a blanket when socializing--at a safe distance, of course--as the weather cools. If you do this, then wash the blanket as well as any you supply friends in the event "any stray viral particles from a wayward cough or sneeze or your conversation. 

 Better yet, make use of a familiar acronym but with new meaning: encourage BYOB, bring your own blanket. I suppose if both are intended then it is BYOBB.

Sunday, September 27, 2020

The People of Qaanaaq

Environmental & Science Education, STEM, Nature, Culture

Edward Hessler

There are sequences in this video from The New Yorker (5m 07s) that reminded me of a still photograph that was used on the cover of Richard K. Nelson's Hunters of the Northern Ice. Both show hunters in boats, one hunting in open water for narwhal, the other for seals at the edges of sea ice. Both images leave me with a sense of their scale (small) compared with the enormous proportions of their hunting range.

The book is based on Nelson's Ph.D. (University of California--Santa Barbara) in which he lived with sea ice hunters. The Wiki entry provides a short biography--he spent many years Following his Ph.D., living with indigenous people of the North. Nelson was a fine writer about the links between nature and culture.

The New Yorker video could almost stand alone to be viewed in silence; it is so contemplative but I'm glad it is narrated and that a transcript is attached. The people of Qaanaaq experience a quarantine of nearly 4 months each year during which there is no sun at all. Narwaal supply them Vitamin C and is also an important ingredient for ritual communion with each other and nature. Communion includes not only the making and sharing of food, but the mending of clothes, the feeding of the dogs and the narrator speculates on lessons that the hunters of Qaanaaq may know very deeply, leaving the viewers to consider the possibility of what we can learn from the pandemic, a time of great upheaval in our personal and social lives.

Saturday, September 26, 2020

Flying Foxes

Environmental & Science Education, STEM, Nature, Behavior, Biological Evolution

Ed Hessler

Australia's flying foxes (Pteropus) spp. are even more amazing than I ever imagined. I knew that they are bats, very large large bats.

They are also long-distant rovers and nomads. However, they don't travel in groups. The distance record holder--"current champion"--is a female who traveled more than12000 km (~7500 miles) in five years and visited 123 other colonies, many of which were unknown to scientists who work with these bats..

In this BBC video (2m 44 s), researcher Justin Welberger reports on their surprising mobility as well as their role in ecology, e.g., the recovery of fire-ravaged forests.

One might call them forest managers.

Friday, September 25, 2020

Another Huzzah for RGB

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

Ed Hessler

--- Reading is the key that opens doors to many good things in life. Reading shaped my dreams, and more reading helped me make my dreams come true.--Ruth Bader Ginsberg

I've wanted to say something about Ruth Bader Ginsberg. There is so much to admire about her, her life and career and it has been commented on by many who knew her, some well and some who had encountered her at formal occasions.

An accolade I hadn't thought about is the subject of a column on STAT by Steven Petrow. She was a cancer survivor where she continued her path-breaking ways.

Twenty years ago she was diagnosed with colon cancer kept it at bay. Later she experienced both pancreatic and lung cancer.

It actually wasn’t that long ago," Petrow observes, "that people diagnosed with cancer — people like Ginsburg, me, and (some 16 million Americans with cancer) were called cancer victims." We were expected to hide in shame, and too often faced discrimination in the workplace and, of course, by health insurers who viewed us as either too risky or too expensive to provide coverage.

Ginsberg was a living demonstration, Petrow continues, "to all of us what it means to be a cancer survivor," defined by "the National Cancer institute,(as) a person... from the time of diagnosis until the end of life."

Petrow relates two stories from NPR's legal correspondent Nina Totenberg on the strength of RGB's commitments, regardless.

So with respect to her achievements, Petrow reminds us, "let's not forget to add 'cancer survivor.'"

Justice Ginsberg lies in repose today in the rotunda of the U. S. Capitol. Her friend, mezzo-soprano Denyce Graves accompanied by pianist Laura Ward, sang RGB's favorite version of American Anthem written by composer/songwriter Gene Scheer.  

You may listen to Graves and Ward performing this poignant and patriotic song here.


Friday Poem

Environmental & Science Education, Poetry, Art and Environment

Ed Hessler

Good morning from St. Paul on September 25, the 269th day of the year or to put it another way, 73.50% of the year is now gone.

There will be 11h 59m 16s--first dip below 12 hours--of sunlight today with sunrise at 7:04 am and sunset at 7:05 pm. 

It is National Cooking Day.

Today's quote. "First find out what you are capable of, then decide who you are."--Tara Westover, Educated, Random House 

Here is some background. When Westover was an undergraduate (Brigham Young University) she quickly found how unprepared she was for college, especially the many things she'd never heard about and to which she was drawn, these were what she regarded as not "compatible with my idea of what a woman is." Her formal education had been very spotty. So she decided to ask one of her professors. She writes "I knocked on his office door quietly, as I hoped he wouldn't answer, and soon was sitting silently across from him." She wasn't sure of her question and he took the time and had the courtesy to talk with generally. The result was a suggestion: explore and see what happens. The quote is what Ms. Westover thought he said. And ultimately she ended with a Ph.D. (Cambridge University) in history.

Today's poem is by Donald Hall.

Thursday, September 24, 2020

Like Water Off a Duck's Back

Environmental & Science Education, STEM, Nature, Biodiversity, Biological Evolution

Ed Hessler

How do ducks and geese stay warm and dry in precipitation in its several varieties and the often cold water of ponds, lakes, streams and oceans? 

We all know the "secre": feathers. But most of us don't know the details..

In this KQED science film (4m 51s) the "secret" of the weatherproof feather coat squatic birds wear is revealed. In addition, an accompanying article by Annie Roth, also explains.

Wednesday, September 23, 2020

Evidence for Life Elsewhere in the Solar System?

Environmental & Science Education, STEM, Cosmology, Astronomy, Solar System, Earth Science, Earth Systems, Nature of Science

Edward Hessler

There is not much to say about the discovery of the molecule phosphine (PH3) in the atmosphere of Venus other than that it was a great surprise. The original observations were made at the James Clerk Maxwell Telescope in Hawaii. In the study (link at end) authored by Cardiff University professor Jane Greaves and her colleagues, the discovery is more modest, couched in the language of science: "apparent presence of phosphine." On rocky planets it is produced only, as far as is known, by living critters so explaining its presence awaits further research, data and explanation. Phosphine is referred to as a biomarker/bioindicator.

Venus is inhospitable, to put it in the most kind terms. On the surface the temperature is ~860 degrees Fahrenheit (~460 Celsius). However at the upper limit of the Venusian atmosphere it is almost shirtsleeve weather: about  85 Fahrenheit (~29 C). The atmosphere is a choker, consisting mostly of only two gases:~ 96% carbon dioxide and ~3%+ nitrogen.

Phosphine seems an unlikely candidate as an indicator of life as Nell Greenfieldboyce (NPR) explains. Here are a few of the characteristics she describes. It stinks, is very toxic and is highly flammable. It is used as a fumigant and was also employed in chemical warfare during WWI. It also interferes with oxygen metabolism but as we know there is life on Earth that doesn't rely on oxygen, finding it toxic. They produce phosphine in large quantities. However, it  breaks down quickly so how could it possibly accumulate in detectable quantities in the clouds of Venus? Continual replacement  appears to be a possibility, for now a working hypothesis. Greenfieldboyce's report may be read in full.

I just jumped way, way ahead. You could infer that life as been found in the atmosphere of Venus. Far from it. What has been found is phosphine and the question is whether it is produced by living organisms OR by an unexpected/unknown chemistry independent of life.

It seems impossible that an opportunity currently exists to learn a little more almost immediately and without launching a satellite probe although in the end an orbiting satellite with detection equipment will add more clarity to these first observations. It would be very useful to know about the abundance of phosphine over time. In an essay for Forbes, Johnathan O'Callaghan describes this happy circumstance, one though without any guarantee of success..

"BepiColombo, launched in 2018, is on its way to enter orbit around Mercury, the innermost planet of the Solar System. But to achieve that it plans to use two flybys of Venus to slow itself down, one on October 15, 2020, and another on August 10, 2021. What is not known is whether the instrument on this probe is sensitive enough to detect phosphine."

The observations to be made on the first flyby--at 10,000 km (6000+ miles)--are quite literally chiseled in stone and can't be changed. Since the second flyby is about a year away this gives scientists and engineers time for planning as well as to profit from what they learned from the first flyby to revise their observation schedule and possibly measurement of observations for the second flyby at only 550 km (~340 miles). 

As Jorn Helbert of the German Aerospace Center puts it "On the first flyby we have to get very, very lucky. On the second one, we only have to get very lucky. But it’s really at the limit of what we can do.”

The original paper by Greaves et al., is technical! (my emphasis) 

Tuesday, September 22, 2020

The Use of Games in Pandemic Planning.

Environmental & Science Education, STEM, Medicine, Health, Models, Society, History of Science  

Ed Hessler

You've heard of wargames, "a type of strategy game, "according to the Wiki entry, which realistically simulates warfare. A military wargame, specifically, is a wargame that is used by some military organizations to train officers in tactical and strategic decision-making, to test new tactics and strategies, or to predict trends in future conflicts."

Wargame scenarios on global pandemics have also been played by academics, government officials, and business leaders to identify the risks and gaps in the ability of governments and organizations to respond. 

Amy Masmen and Jeff Tollefson published a Nature feature about these scenarios and simulatons on their success and failures. They write  "The exercises anticipated several failures that have played out in the management of COVID-19, including leaky travel bans, medical-equipment shortages, massive disorganization, misinformation and a scramble for vaccines. But the scenarios didn’t anticipate some of the problems that have plagued the pandemic response, such as a shortfall of diagnostic tests, and world leaders who reject the advice of public-health specialists.

"Most strikingly, biosecurity researchers didn’t predict that the United States would be among the hardest-hit countries. On the contrary, last year, leaders in the field ranked the United States top in the Global Health Security Index, which graded 195 countries in terms of how well prepared they were to fight outbreaks, on the basis of more than 100 factors. President Donald Trump even held up a copy of the report during a White House briefing on 27 February, declaring: “We’re rated number one.” As he spoke, SARS-CoV-2 was already spreading undetected across the country.

"Now, as COVID-19 cases in the United States surpass 4 million, with more than 150,000 deaths, the country has proved itself to be one of the most dysfunctional. Morhard and other biosecurity specialists are asking what went wrong — why did dozens of simulations, evaluations and white papers fail to predict or defend against the colossal missteps taken in the world’s wealthiest nation? By contrast, some countries that hadn’t ranked nearly so high in evaluations, such as Vietnam, executed swift, cohesive responses."

The authors describe the history of their use , including a box with a timeline of games and some results, commenting on the difficulty of translating what was learned by policy-makers into policy--"actionables" as they are called but that are the opposite, what I would call as "inactionables" in practice.

What Maxmen and Tollman note in particular is a response focusing on the endgame--the development of an effective vaccine--rather than the important middle game: "the complex, systemic deficiencies in the public-health system" and how to strengthen it." Taiwan has held annual outbreak exercises for 17 years; in other words they "practice, practice, practice." At the date the essay was written on 6 August, Taiwan had had only seven deaths from Covid-19.

The pandemic has revealed the lack of coordination at the U. S. federal level, silencing agencies (notably the CDC), revising well prepared guidelines and I think worst (all are horrible) actively "undermined authority" of agencies and experts at nearly every turn. However it is much worse. Trump has conducted a disinformation campaign against our democratic institutions from the beginning of his administration. An attack on one agency has ripple effects. 

In his recent The New Yorker essay, Joshua Yaffa (September 14, 2020) probes and expands on such effects. He writes "Democratic institutions depend on the trust of citizens who share a factual universe." This includes the use of evidence, reasoning and a rational view of the world.

Pandemic games and their players make assumptions about government, particularly administrations, e.g., that during a pandemic the response would make use of existing plans and consult with experts as well as to use evidence-based data to make decisions. It is unlikely that a game would include this "what if" and/or that players would consider it likely, "but," as Maxmen and Tollman point out, "none explored the consequences of a White House sidelining its own public health agency. Perhaps they should have...."

There will be more games, simulations, scenarios but the question lingers. Will policy makers act? To give you an idea of how seriously we should consider this is noted in a scenario called Event 201, played in Geneva Switzerland last year. Ryan Morhard, a biosecurity specialist who devised the game, the name recognizes that "we're seeing up to 200 epidemic events per year...eventually one would cause a pandemic.

The report by Maxmen and Tollefson is four pages and in my view worth the time.



Monday, September 21, 2020

History of the Universe as Read by Radio Astronomers

 Environmental & Science Education, STEM, Cosmology, Astronomy

Ed Hessler

A Nature film (4m 07s) reveals how 13 billion years of history can be captured in a single moment. 

 Radio astronomers construct the history of the universe by separating layers of time and space--ancient signals from the dawn of time and light from our nearest neighbors.

I didn't read all 56 comments but most viewers raved about it--video was perfect, positively wonderful, a gorgeous telling, enchanting....