Wednesday, September 30, 2020

From There to Here: WaPo Visual Story on SARS-CoV-2

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

Ed Hessler

So far there is no clear exit from the COVID-19 pandemic.

The Washington Post created a visual story  explaining how we got here.

It is included in their free corona virus series which features daily updates and other news. 

Sign up if you'd like to receive it.



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....

Sunday, September 20, 2020

Some Members of Ecosystems are Becomng Younger and Shorter

Environmental & Science Education
Climate Change
Edward Hessler

A perennial complaint of anglers in Minnesota is that walleye are getting smaller. A report on walleye management from the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources notes several reasons noting finally that " The problem apparently stems from fishing pressure.

"Not only are more anglers spending more time at their sport, they also are better educated in their fishing techniques and better outfitted. This intense fishing pressure is like a mower blade, chopping off the seed and blossom and leaving the stubble - in this case the small walleye that proliferate to fill the void left by the larger fish. As the average size of the fish drops, anglers are willing to keep smaller and smaller fish, and the problem of fishing pressure is compounded.
"While our lakes produce as many pounds of fish as ever, anglers have noticed that each is catching fewer fish (because they're sharing the yield with other anglers) and that these fish are smaller."
Some wildlife specialists refer to this in evolutionary terms, i.e., "unnatural selection."
I thought of this when I read National Public Radio reporter Nathan Rott's short essay on two effects of rising temperatures, deforestation, development and climate-induced disasters on forest structure around the world.
The planet's trees are becoming younger and shorter. Forests, like the fish, just can't keep up and can no longer deal with what in the "olden days" we used to refer to as natural disasters. Now it is this double whammy of natural and unnatural disasters that is changing the components of yet other ecosystems.
I'll let you consider some of the obvious effects such as changes/loss in biological diversity, long-term storage of carbon dioxide, the possibility of recovery in the long-terms, shifts in species composition.

Saturday, September 19, 2020

Big Meg

Environmentlal & Science Education, STEM, Earth Science, Paleontology, Biodiversity, Biological Evolution, Nature of Science

An extinct giant shark Otodus megalodon (aka Meg) was indeed big--dorsal fin 1.6 m (~5'), the height of its tail almost 4 m (~13') and its total length 16 m (~52').

How these measurements were made when what has been found of this shark so far is isolataed teeth, is the subject of a column in The Guardian. It is also a story about the excitement of one of the scientists involved, Jack Cooper, who, when he was a boy was "mad about sharks" with sharks and who hoped to study them. Cooper "described the study aas his 'dream project'." I also like that the column describes how scientists work and use data and reason, every bit that they can get their hands on.

It is a short read, too. There is a link to the original paper--hard-nosed science--where you can learn more and I include a link to a figure from the scientific report of silhouette models visualizine body dimensions of "Meg" with a human diver and, of course, the great white shark (Carcharodon carcharias), that denizen of sea and imagination. Click here.

Friday, September 18, 2020

Friday Poem

 Environmental & Science Education, Poetry, Art and Environment, Children, Early Childhood

Ed Hessler

Greetings from St. Paul. It is September 18, the 262nd day of the year. The year-to-date is 6288 hours older and 71.58% of 2020 is gone. The sun rises at 6:55 am and sets at 7:16 pm giving us a welcome 12h 21m 3s of delicious sunlight.

It is National Rice Crispies Treat Day, unofficial, of course, but still worth celebrating this treat year around.

Today's quote is from Charles Darwin. "If I had my life to live over again, I would have made a rule to read some poetry...."--The Autobiography of Charles Darwin (1809-1882) published by John Murray, 1887, London.

The Friday poem is by Tess Gallagher

I thought of the lovely children's book, Ming Lo Moves the Mountain (Arnold Lobel, also illustrator) which tells the tale of Ming Lo and his wife who found to their dismay that the mountain towering over their house not only blocks the sun but rains rocks on the house. They seek the counsel of a a wise man who proposes a solution which they follow that is different but has some similarities to Ms. Gallagher's solution. Both pay attention to nature, one knowingly, the other unknowingly.

Thursday, September 17, 2020

Gedanken Experiments

Environmental & Science Education, STEM, History of Science, Nature of Science, Models

Ed Hessler

Who was the scientist who reportedly said "Imagination is more important than knowledge?" 

 Einstein and how can I help but add, of course.

 What in the cosmos did he mean? There are two meanings.

Stripped from the full quote, this short aphoristic sentence became a well known poster and T-shirt headline; a bumper sticker providing confirmation to many that studying and learning stuff was not too important. It was imagination...daydreaming. But this was from a scientist who spent nearly a decade to learn the really hard mathematics to develop the theory of General Relativity so he must have meant something different.

Barbara Wolff, an archivist at the Albert Einstein Archives from 1995-2016, has written in Quora: Now we know that Einstein did not speak English, so Viereck (American writer/poet George Sylvester V. who interviewed Einstein) translated Einstein’s words. "As for 'imagination' the term Einstein used (if !) must have been “Vorstellungskraft” which is the ability to visualize = imagine (make an image of) an idea, a process. connections, whatever… and has nothing to do with phantasy = loose creativity."

I thought of Einstein's famously popular quote when I read Sabine Hossenfelder's post on Einstein's greatest legacy; not the one(s) many of us would immediately think, e.g., general relativity (there are other qualifying candidates). It was, Hossenfelder writes, the Gedankenexperiment (German for 'thought experiment'). I don't implicate her in the connection I made for she never mentioned the quote.

Here are a few execrpts from Hossenfelder (read and/or watch at the link above) on thought experiments which, she says "are common in theoretical physics.  We use them to examine the consequences of a theory beyond what is measureable with existing technology, but still measureable in principle. Thought experiments are useful to push a theory to its limits, and doing so can reveal inconsistencies in the theory or new effects. There are only two rules for thought experiments: (A) relevant is only what is measureable and (B) do not fool yourself. This is not as easy as it sounds." (emphasis added)

Professor Hossenfelder traces the short history of thought experiments, some of the ways in which they have been used, including Einstein's best known, the famous elevator thought* experiment, that seemed to Einstein a challenge to quantum mechanics (a real experiment was subsequently done and has been shown to be real), and a famous one on black holes.

 Hossenfelder concludes with a reminder: "So, yes, thought experiments are a technique of investigation that physicists have used in the past and continue to use today. But we should not forget that eventually we need real experiments to test our theories." (my emphasis)

This is another of her posts that challenge us to think hard and often differently about physics and in general about science--what we think we know. Please click on the Hossenfelder link and read/view. I especially recommend  the responses, many of which slide right by me but provide additional slants on the nature of science. 

*"In 1907, while still a patent clerk, (Einstein) was pondering how one might produce a relativistic theory of gravity and he was not having much success. Then he was struck by the fact that an observer in free fall no longer feels his own weight. He then hit upon what he called 'the happiest thought of my life.' One can produce gravity in gravity free space merely by reversing the process. Acceleration creates a gravitational field. This is his 'principle of equivalence'." (from J. D. Norton) (My emphasis).

Wednesday, September 16, 2020

Mouse v. Scorpion

Environmental & Science Education, Biological Evolution, Biodiversity, STEM

Ed Hessler 

"Commonly found in the Sonoran Desert, the Arizona bark scorpion (Centruroides sculpturatus) is the most dangerous scorpion in the continental United States. According to Keith Boesen, Director of the Arizona Poison & Drug Information Center, about 15,000 Americans report being stung by scorpions every year in the U.S. The worst stings, about 200 annually, are attributed to this one species. Its sting can cause sharp pain along with tingling, swelling, numbness, dizziness, shortness of breath, muscular convulsions, involuntary eye movements, coughing and vomiting. Children under two years old are especially vulnerable. Since 2000, three human deaths have been attributed to the Arizona bark scorpion in the United States, all within Arizona. "But there is one unlikely creature that appears unimpressed. While it may not look the part, the Southern grasshopper mouse (Onychomys torridus) is an extremely capable hunter. It fearlessly stalks and devours any beetles or grasshoppers that have the misfortune to cross its path. But this mouse has a particular taste for (these) scorpions."

This video from KQED's Deep Look series tells you how the mouse survives the bite so it can have a preferred meal. The link includes information about scorpions as well as an article about the Arizona bark scorpion. And here is a video about one researcher Dr. Ashley Rowe (and her team) of Michigan State University on their work with Arizona bark scorpions.

Tuesday, September 15, 2020

A Theoretical Physicist Produces a Music Video on Theories of Everything (TOE)

Environmental & Science Education, STEM, Astronomy, Cosmology, Nature of Science, History of Science

Ed Hessler

Theoretical physicist, Sabine Hossenfelder has posted an irresistibly delightful music video on theories of everything (TOE).

A TOE, according to the Wiki entry, "is a hypothetical single, all-encompassing, coherent theoretical framework of physics that fully explains and links together all physical aspects of the universe." It is routinely described as a major unsolved problems in physics. One day the idea is that we will be able to wear the equation on a T-shirt.

The idea of unification has a long history in physics. And three of the fundamental interactions have been merged into a single force (not directly observed yet). These are the electromagnetic (electricity, magnetism, and light), weak (radioactive decay) and strong force (holds nucleus of the atom together).  It is pesky gravitation that so far eludes physicists in their search for a TOE. It is the most intuitive of the four forces and is long in its range, from falling apples to the solar system and beyond. One simple way to think of all four forces is that they govern how objects or particles interact and how certain particles interact.

But this is not a post on the forces or their unification but an occasion to view a video about several proposed theories. A Google search will lead you to more details than perhaps you care to know. Dr. Hossefelder's posts usually generate many responses and while some of them are technical you may still want to scroll through them to see whether any of the physicists whose theories she mentions responded to the video.

Here it is (3 m 24 s).

Monday, September 14, 2020

Gravity Explained

Environmental & Science Education, STEM, Astronomy, Cosmology

Ed Hessler

Theoretical physicist Janna Levin explains gravity to five different people: a child, a teen, a college student, a graduate student, and an expert. 

 The video is 36m 31s long.

Sunday, September 13, 2020

School Days, School Days/Dear Old...Days

Environmental & Science Education, STEM, Childhood, Schooling, Health

Ed Hessler

Students from five different countries talk about going back to school with the ongoing risk of coronavirus in this short film (2m 53s) from the BBC.  The countries are Australia, Denmark, Italy, Japan and Spain.

Measures to keep students safe and how they are affecting them is described. The new normal school day is clearly different.

Saturday, September 12, 2020

Photo Team of the Journal Nature Selects the Best Images from the Journal

Environmental & Science Education, STEM, Art and Environment

Ed Hessler

Here is the August collection of the sharpest of the sharp images of the month from the British scientific journal Nature selected by Nature's photo team.

As usual, each includes a short description.

Friday, September 11, 2020

Friday Poem(s)

Environmental & Science Education, Poetry, Art and Environment

Ed Hessler

Good morning from St. Paul on the 255th day of 2020. It has taken 22,003,000 seconds to get here (69.67% of the year gone). In 12 more days it will be fall officially, the Autumnal Equinox. Sunrise today is at 6:47 am and sunset at 7:29 pm. There will be 12h 42m 44s of sunlight.

On this day in September 2001, the Islamic terrorist group al-Qaeda attacked the United States. Four aircraft strikes killed nearly 3000 people, the deadliest attack on United States soil by a foreign entity. See the 9/11 Memorial & Museum for details.

Today's quote is from correspondent Jennifer Gonnerman (The New Yorker 8/31/2020). Her reporting is about driving buses during the NYC pandemic. In particular on Terrence A. Layne. NYC employs 40000 transit workers of which more than 100 have died of COVID-19 and 1000s have been quarantined. "I don't want to be cynical, but I don't know if anybody is going to remember that during this period it was the bus operators who helped this city survive."--Terrence A. Layne, M.T.S. driver

There are two poems today from a story produced by the BBC about Kuli Kohli (b. 1970 in Uttar Pradesh, northern India). She has spent most of her life with cerebral palsy. She is now 49, married, a mother with three children, works full time and continues writing poetry. The essay describes how she became a poet and has overcome the limitations a person with CP experiences daily.

There is one poem (Mine) at the top of the entry and another (Survivor) at the end.  I hope you have the time to read the full article. It is a remarkable portrait.

Thursday, September 10, 2020

COVID-19 Reinfections: Many Questions to be Answered

Environmental & Science Education, STEM, Health, Medicine

Edward Hessler

The report of a confirmed case of a COVID-19 reinfection in the United States came as a surprise. The most notable, attention-getting feature of the re-infection of a 25-year old, Reno, Nevada male was that the second infection turned out to be more serious than the first. The expectation was that when re-infection occurs a less severe bout would follow.

In an information brief for STAT, Andrew Joseph notes some things to look for in assessing reports as they make their way from the scientific literature to the media.

--First, the Nevada case. Forty-eight days after testing negative twice the symptoms he had experienced returned--sore throat, cough, headache, nausea and diarrhea--and he had to be hospitalized (pneumonia). "[V]irus samples from both of his infections...were different, providing evidence that this was a new infection distinct from the first."

--Immunity. Our "immune response...creates memories of the virus" which as is the case of "other corona thought to (provide protection) "to last for perhaps a little less than a year to about three years." SARS-CoV-2 is new it is not known how long immunity will last, "what mechanisms provide protection, and "what levels of (blood indicators) are required to signal that someone is protected."

--Experts expect second cases to be milder. Why? "[T]his is what happens with other respiratory pathogens." There was a case in of re-infection in Hong Kong but it was asymptomatic, detected only after a mandatory sample following a flight. The Reno case is a perplexing counterexample.

--What level of immune response did both cases generate. No antibodies could be detected following the first infection of the man in Hong Kong. The Nevada man was not tested following his first infection. Immune responses vary and Sarah Cobey at the University of Chicago told Joseph, that "'Infection is not some binary event. There's going to be some viral replication, but the question is how much is the immune system getting engaged." Currently "it's thought that more than 20%

--The big question. Are those who are re-infected a second time infectious. It is not known but if it turns out that they are not spreaders "that's obviously good news."

--Another big question. People will become broadly susceptible again but by that time any protection from a first infection is expected to be much weaker. With "the arrival of a vaccine and broad uptake of it, that could change the dynamics of local outbreaks," leading to what is known as "herd immunity," the point "when enough people are immune that transmission doesn't occur." It is thought but not known that "more than 20% of residents (in some communities) have experienced an initial Covid-19 case, and are thus theoretically protected from another case for some time. This is below the standard of herd immunity, though. However, transmission risk could be increased "if more people become susceptible again.

Whether the Reno case is a one-off or generalizable is not known although modelers are starting to include this as a factor "into their forecasts."

Harvard epidemiologist Michael Mina told Joseph that “'There are millions and millions of cases. The real question that should get the most focus, Mina said, is, What happens to most people?'” (My emphasis) This is an important question.  The media love storieslike these...waning antibodies and re-infection based on "onesies" and "twosies" or even on anecdotes.  The evidence suggests that people are likely to develop immunity of some kind to COVID-19 and it is this immunity we need to know more about: how long, how strong, what effects, etc.

Joseph's full brief made be read here

Wednesday, September 9, 2020

School Return: Riverside School, Barking, England

Environmental & Science Education, STEM, Health, Education, Schools, Children

Ed Hessler

This short (2m 44s) video was shot on the first day of return to school after Covid-19. It includes comments on concern, the typical anxieties as well as a new one (virus), and the importance of school to students--"its going to get me back on track." In addition an administrator talks about opening and the reasons for decisions made about the new school year.


Tuesday, September 8, 2020

The 1% (or less) Club Could Use More Members

Environmental & Science Education, STEM, Health, Medicine

Ed Hessler

A headline in the free corona virus series (Washington Post) caught my eye. Lateshia Beachum reports that New York's infection rate has been below one percent for 30 days, "marking a turning point for the state that once was the epicenter of the novel coronavirus." (my emphasis)

You may recall earlier numbers, e.g., "more than 11,500 new cases in a single day in May and more than 1200 deaths in a day in April." The numbers from Sunday, September 6: "720 new infections, four deaths and 410 hospitalizations--another low since mid-March--related to the virus.

A bump on this path is the discovery of cases which appear to be connected to returning college students. It is not clear what this means yet.

The article includes information on Operation Warp Speed--the production of an effective vaccine in record time as well as briefs on recent developments: concern about Labor Day celebrations, supplemental unemployment benefits in California, suspension of West Virginia University students for coronavirus-related violations, India has replaced Brazil as the second hardest hit country (we remain number 1), and concerns about a second wave of infections in Europe.

Let's hope that New York's rate holds and other states will be joining this list.