Sunday, February 28, 2021

Comments From an MD on A Sense of Wonder

Environmental & Science Education, STEM, Health, Medicine, Childhooe, Early Childhood 

Ed Hessler

CBS's Chief Medical Correspondent, Dr. Jonathan Lapook made some important comments on Valentine's Day  "on how a child;s sense of wonder can be fostered even when a pandemic may get in the way of the Tooth Fairy." I'm glad this topic occurred to him and aired this Valentine's Day.

Here is the short and wonderful video (3m 12s).

Saturday, February 27, 2021

Perseverance Landing Site

Environmental & Science Education, STEM, Solar System, Earth Science, Earth systems, Astronomy

Ed Hessler

Of course the landing of Perseverance left some trash and once-used materials. What happened to them?

The location of the these materials have been identified and the image showing them is on Astronomy Picture of the Day (APOD). There are four annotated inset boxes.

This photograph is also a technological achievement. 

The things humans can do!

Perseverance Landing on Mars

Environmental & Science Education, STEM, Solar System, Technology, Earth and Space Science, Earth Systems

Ed Hessler

Astronomy Picture of the Day (APOD) shows the NASA/JPL-Caltech video (3m 25s) featuring the Perseverance landing on Mars. 

It is a stunning display of science and engineering and computer science. So many things that had to work right, on-time, in-sequence.  

And they did. 

What an achievement!

Friday, February 26, 2021

Friday Poem

Environmental & Science Education, Poetry, Art and Environment

Ed Hessler

From CGEE, Hamline University, Saint Paul, Good Morning on February 26 the 57th day of 2021. These seconds--4924800--add up to 15.62% of the year. 

Today gives us 11h 01m 22s of sunlight in the time between sunrise at 6:55 am and sunset at 5:56 pm. Since the winter solstice we now have two more hours of daylight.

It is National Pistachio Day. The hint of the soft green fruit surrounded by browns and tans in the photograph make me think spring. Here are some facts about pistachios and food events that happened on this day from Foodimentary.

Potent Quote. “Our past is a fictional representation, and the only thing we can be even somewhat sure of is what is happening now. It encourages us to live in the moment and not to place too much importance on our past. It forces us to accept that the best time of our lives, and our memory, is right now. And
 Julia Shaw, Remembering, Forgetting, And the Science of False Memory.

Today's poem is by Izumi Shikibu. The biography of her has quite a few more of her lovely poem, written in the waka style: five lines, 31 syllables total, no more, no less.

Thursday, February 25, 2021

Pandemic Time Line from Ancient Rome to Present

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

Ed Hessler

From the Washington Post, a time line of the deadliest pandemics, from ancient Rome to the present. 

Each pandemic remade the world as it was known. 

Deaths and causes for each of pandemic is included as well as a short discussion. 

Most descriptions of the pandemic include an illustration and they were well chosen.

Wednesday, February 24, 2021

The "Good", the "Bad" and the "Ugly" Myths about Vaccine Efficacy

 Environmental & Science Education, STEM, Health, Medicine

Ed Hessler

Mike Ryan is the health emergencies director for the World Health Organization (WHO). His mother was concerned about a Covid-19 vaccine, used where she lives. She worried that "the vaccine might not be good enough."

"Ryan," according to this article in STAT on this question by Helen Branswell, is "never one to mince words," told her 'Whatever vaccine they show up with you take it. Because that is the best decision you can make on that day for your health."

I hear talk and read articles about so-called "good and bad" vaccines and know that Ryan's message repeated by health care providers the worldwide is "not necessarily well-received."

When or if people become picky this blunts reaching herd immunity as quickly as possible and it "overlooks essential facts." Branswell writes that "the vaccines perceived to be less effective also happen to be ones that may be the best option in rural America or in low-income countries because they don't require the ultra-cold freezers and complex delivery systems more commonly found in or near major cities."

One of the problems, Branswell notes is that "the phenomenon is already playing out, even among some who understand the caveats around when the studies were conducted and the operational benefits of these easier-to-deploy vaccines." She quotes one immunologist who did not hesitate to specify Pfizer or Moderna." Common sense" he said.

Glen Nowak who directs the Center for Health and Risk Communication at Grady College of Journalism and Mass Communication, University of Georgia told Branswell,"'I think, right now, the message really has to be that the vaccines that are authorized for use are authorized for use because they will provide significant protectin against Covid-19 illness. And if you're not vaccinated, yu havae no protection against Covid-19 illness.'"

Furthermore, "decisions about where to use some of the vaccines that appear less effective will be viewed through a lens of racial or socioeconomic inequality, even if the reasons to offer those vaccines in certain settings make sense from a public health point of view and gets vaccines to those places faster."

According to Kasisomayajula "Vish" Viswanath of the Harvard T. H. Chan School of Public Health, "'This is going to explode in the near future, I think.'"

Branswell's reporting may be read here.

Monday, February 22, 2021

COVID-19 Simulations

Environmental & Science Education, STEM, Health, Medicine 

Ed Hessler

"I have thought there was some advantage even in death, by which we mingle with the herd of common men."--Henry David Thoreau

"What will it take to finally halt the spread of the coronavirus in U.S?" ask Thomas Wilburn and Richard Harris in an NPR report on health.

Herd immunity is one on which we are depending. By the way I hope never to use the term "herd immunity" again. In a conversation with the UMN's Larry Jacobs, Kathleen Hall Jamieson, makes a case for using the term "community immunity." * ** *** The terms refer to the large role in slowing, limiting and eventually it is hoped halting the spread of the coronavirus. 

Wilburn and Harris "created a simulation of a mock disease: SIMVID-19." They introduce the simulation with three population blocks of 400 in which 3 people are infected and 397 people are healthy in which 5%, 30% and 75% are vaccinated.

But like other examples I've seen the authors don't stop there. They introduce other factors. These are when a more infections strain of SIMVID-19 takes over; a heavily exposed population which assumes that many people are already immune; and a population in which few people are immune at the beginning of an SIMVID-19 outbreak.

Among the scenarios, 75% vaccination rates "tamed" the outbreaks in all but one. The authors call attention to what scientists are telling us "that between 70% and 85% of the population must be immune" to provide protection, that is community community.

The final point is "One thing that's evident from this simulation (and real life) is that the faster the population is protected by vaccination the better."

Here is the report in which the simulation may be found and played. Additionally, the methodology is discussed. In addition to Wilburn and Harris, Daniel Wood and Carmel Wroth contributed to the report. 

* h/t to Eric Black, MinnPost, February 22, 2021

** The full video may be seen here. It is on resilience. In it she also called attention to a phrase that scientists such Dr. Anthony Fauci use frequently: what we know. What Fauci and other scientist mean is what we know now, today, as of this moment. It is not a forever statement and is subject to change. The changes are not willy-nilly but based on new data, better and different experiments and new evidence. The phrase is often used against Dr. Fauci and others but he is vulnerable because he is such a public figure.--how come you said but now...?, etc.. 

*** If you want to see critical thinking used in action, there are few examples better than this video. It is on full display by Professor Kathleen Hall Jamieson.

Sunday, February 21, 2021

The Bird That Drums

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

Ed Hessler

This drummer is in peril, the palm cockatoo (Probosciger atterimus)of Australia and New Guinea. That range may sound large but a look at the distribution map in the Wiki entry indicates its small range, especially in Australia. The issue is population decline, one described as severe.

The palm cockatoo is considered to be the only bird species to use tools "musically," drumming wood to attract a mate. The BBC has produced a great video (3m 15s) about the bird. 

Researchers want the bird to be declared endangered which will lead to more research as well as bppst funding to save them and prevent their extinction.

Saturday, February 20, 2021

Springer Spaniel Max: Order of Merit Award

Environmental & Science Education, STEM, Health, Medicines

Ed Hessler

A British pooch, a therapy dog named Max is the first pet to be given the People's Dispensary for Sick Animals (PDSA) Order of Merit. Previously it has been awarded only to search and rescue animals. The charity refers to the award the "animal OBE." The PDSA Order of Merit was created in  in 2014 and since then 32 dogs and horses have been recognized for their work.

The 13 year old Max is featured in a short BBC Film (2m 19s) and story.

Max is a charmer and a comforting support to many..

Friday, February 19, 2021

Friday Poem

Environmental & Science Education, Poetry, Art and Environment

Ed Hessler 

Welcome to CGEE, Friday, February 19 2021 from Saint Paul where it is warmer. What a cold week but you ain't felt nothing here. To the north of the Twin Cities there has been a string of record lows and daytime highs in northern Minnesota.

Today is the 50th day of 2020 during which 1200 hours have slipped into the past which means that 13.70% of this 2021 is gone. The sun rises at 7:06 am and sets at 5:46 pm. There is the daily magic of more light; the sequence light to be followed by heat that can be felt.

Today's food celebration is National Chocolate Mint Day. Foodimentary provides a history, minty pictures (what a green, green plant) and a round-up of food events that occurred on this day.

Potent Quote. Writing in 1831, the keen French observer Alexis de Toqueville observed that US citizens were "insensible to the wonders of inanimate nature...their eyes are fixed upon another sight: the American views its own march across the wilds, drying swamps, turning the course of rivers, peopling solitudes, and subduing nature (Source: The Feather Thief, Penguin, Kirk Wallace Johnson).

Today's poem is by Joe Mills. It considers with tenderness, grace and humor an enduring question one might ask on Valentine's day or any day.

Thursday, February 18, 2021

They Did It

Environmental & Science Education, STEM, Solar System, Technology

Ed Hessler

They did it! those smart men and women of the Perseverance Mission to Mars. It landed intact.

What fantastic work and news.

How Physicists Evaluate Scientific Claims

Environmental & Science Education, STEM, Nature of Science

Ed Hessler

The most recent on-line issue of Symmetry has an article on how physicists evaluate scientific claims.

There are six listed below with the details describing each one requiring only a click of your mouse. And worth reading.

1. Where did the data come from?

2. How was the data collected and handled?

3. How exceptional is the data?

4. Are the results statistically significant?

5. How significant is the significance?

6. Were the results confirmed by an independent experiment?

You will notice throughout the relentless probing of the data, confirmation/disconfirmation by other scientists (independent confirmation) and the questioning of evidence, how well the results fit current theory.

Wednesday, February 17, 2021

Snow Science: Explaining A Slab Avalancehe that Occurred in 1959

Environmental & Science Education, STEM, Earth Science, Earth Systems Science

During the winter of 1959, nine students never returned from a cross-country skiing trip in the Ural Mountains of Russia (Dyatolov Pass). The circumstances of the remains sparked truly wild speculations including a possible attack by monsters. See the Wiki entry for the full history as well as a review of the expedition, search and discovery, investigation, explanations, and its place in popular culture.

Weather, snow conditions and the precise location of the accident have finally been determined and analyzed, revealing that the students lost their lives in a freak avalanche accident.

A video (9m 34s) is included in Shmini Bundell's essay in the scientific journal Nature which explains what happened. There is also a link to the original paper in Nature but don't be surprised if access is protected by a fire-/paywall.

Tuesday, February 16, 2021

Perseverance Landing on Mars Described and Depicted

Environmental & Science Education, STEM, Solar System, Technology

Ed Hessler

On Thursday, February 18, 2021 it is hoped that there will be a brand new robotic rover on Mars. "Or," as Astronomy Picture of the Day puts it in stark terms, "there may be a new pile of junk." NASA will not know which outcome until nerve-wracking minutes after the  the robot is on the surface.

In the featured video linked below is shown the sequence of events with little, if any, room for error, in perfect, lockstep sequence. The landing  will involve a heat shield, a parachute, intricate rocket maneuvers and the automatic operation of a sophisticated device called a sky crane.  Here some of the engineers involved describe the events which are shown in animation. What is being delivered is a car-sized rover known as Perseverance.

See the video here (5m 7s). The music is dramatic and appropriate, too as is the title, Seven Minutes of Terror..

And from the British journal Nature, a one-page infographic features the three spacecraft heading to Mars in 2021. Richard Monastersky writes "Never before will such a diverse array of scientific gear have arrived at a foreign planet at the same time, with such broad ambitions." There is a nice illustration of the US entry, the robot rover Perseverance. The graphic design is by Jasick Krsysztofiak.

Monday, February 15, 2021

Skating on Thin Ice

Environmental & Science Education, STEM, Earth Science, Earth Systems, Cryosphere 

Ed Hessler

The Siberian Times reported a story about an "Irkutsk photographer (who recorded his) recent skating trip around Lake Baikal to help anyone planning to experience this wonder of the world in winter and get ready for the scary feeling of depth under transparent ice shell.

"Most surprising is the unexpected, cosmic sound. 

"‘The video shows cracks forming as I skate. Watch it to prevent phobias, with sound on, twice before bedtime a week before your planned trip to Baikal’- he jokingly wrote in the caption to the video."

The film may be found in the link and the sounds heard. It includes a photograph of him and some pictures of this lake in winter. It notes that the ice is newly formed but the article didn't note the temperature.

The Wiki link tells you about Irkutsk, name, history, geography, health, culture, sports, and notable residents. It is the 25th largest city in the Soviet Union.

Sunday, February 14, 2021

Colorful Meteor

Environmental & Science Education, STEM, Astrophysics, Astronomy, Earth Science, Earth Systems

Ed Hessler

This entry from Astronomy Picture of the Day (APOD) begins "Meteors can be colorful" and then shows  just how colorful. The description includes an explanation. 

This fireball lasted less than a second but much was going on during that time in terms of color. The image was taken over Missouri.

Saturday, February 13, 2021

Viewing the Earth from the Side

Environmental & Science Education, STEM, Earth Systems, Earth Science, Earth and Space Science, Geology 

Ed Hessler

Tell the truth but tell it slant.--Emily Dickinson (1263)

I wish I had thought of the title which heads a spectacular photoessay in Nightingale by Robert Simmon on satellite imagery: Earth at a Cute Angle.

The essay is about the dominant use of "nadir imagery,to use remote sensing jargon, i.e., top-down which makes things appear "unnaturally flat. It's a view that is disconnected from our everyday experience," writes Simmons. ... "We're used to seeing things from the side...never looking straight down."

Simmon takes us on a written and lavishly illustrated (a couple of embedded videos, too) essay on these two views and the importance of  oblique remote sensing.

Side-on 'oblique' aerial images give us a sense of depth and make it easier to connect abstract data to our own, lived experience. It was once the norm when such images were made from balloons. Today such images requires scientists and engineers to program satellites to shoot at unusual angles as well as from greater distances. I think you will agree that the results are worth it.

Nightingale is the journal of the Data Visualization Society.

Friday, February 12, 2021

Friday Poem

Environmental & Science Education, Poetry, Art and Environment

Ed Hessler

Greetings from Saint Paul on February 12, day 43, 1032 hours or 11.78% so far gobbled up by 2021. It is clear, cold, sunny and not too windy.

Sunrise is at 7:18 am and sunset is at 5:36 pm which gives us 10h 19m 24s of daylight. Can't help but notice the sun now sets past 5:30 pm.

On this day in 1809 there were two birthdays of marked significance, one revolutionized the biological sciences; the other of a president who led this country through multiple crises--constitutional, moral, and political: they are Charles Darwin, Shrewsbury, United Kingdom and Abraham Lincoln, Hodgenfeld, Kentucky. 

Potent Quotes: "It is interesting to contemplate a tangled bank, clothed with many plants of many kinds, with birds singing on the bushes, with various insects flitting about, and with worms crawling through the damp earth, and to reflect that these elaborately constructed forms, so different from each other, and dependent upon each other in so complex a manner, have all been produced by laws acting around us. These laws, taken in the largest sense, being Growth with reproduction; Inheritance which is almost implied by reproduction; Variability from the indirect and direct action of the conditions of life, and from use and disuse; a Ratio of Increase so high as to lead to a Struggle for Life, and as a consequence to Natural Selection, entailing Divergence of Character and the Extinction of less improved forms. Thus, from the war of nature, from famine and death, the most exalted object which we are capable of conceiving, namely, the production of the higher animals, directly follows. There is grandeur in this view of life, with its several powers, having been originally breathed by the Creator into a few forms or into one; and that, whilst this planet has gone circling on according to the fixed law of gravity, from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being evolved.--Charles Darwin. (This same concluding " tangled bank " paragraph did not include the phrase "by the Creator" in the first edition of November, 1859.  It was inserted under popular pressures into  the second edition of January, 1860 and subsequently retained.)

"A house divided against itself cannot stand. I believe this government cannot endure, permanently half slave and half free.I do not expect the Union to be dissolved - I do not expect the house to fall - but I do expect it will cease to be divided.It will become all one thing, or all the other."--Abraham Lincoln, Republican State Convention, Springfield, Illinois, June 16, 1858.

Today there are two events:  Darwin Day: see here and here. The second is complicated because Lincoln's birthday, never a national holiday (one in some states, e.g., Illinois) is included in President's Day,  Monday the 15th. The history, a tangle is explained in the second link.

And it is national peanut butter and jelly day. Foodimentary provides some facts about peanuts and some events in the history of food. 

Today's poem is by Robert Hayden.

Thursday, February 11, 2021

How Long Is the Pandemic Likely to Last?

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

Ed Hessler

One of the questions about the COVID-19 pandemic we would like answered is "how long will it last?" even though we know that we can't know the true answer. In the meantime we can seek out those who study pandemics and this pandemic and listen to their wise words about the future..

CNN Opinion, had a feature by Dr. Nicholas Christakis, physician and social scientist at Yale University. In this video (4m 30s) he discusses the legacy COVID-19 will leave in its wake and also discusses the future course of the disease.  His current research is mainly focused on two topics: (1) the social, mathematical, and biological rules governing how social networks form (“connection”), and (2) the social and biological implications of how they operate to influence thoughts, feelings, and behaviors (“contagion”).  This is a "darker" discussion than we perhaps want to hear but it is one that is likely closer to reality.

Do you need another reason than this video to want and seek a pharmaceutical intervention--a vaccination--and to take seriously and practice non-pharmaceutical interventions (making, social distancing, avoiding crowds and closed spaces, washing your hands, using hand-sanitizer). Attaining hedr immunity is going to require these daily practices.

Olga Khazan, staff writer for The Atlantic, notes this huge IF regarding herd immunity" "If the coronavirus vaccine is 75 percent effective--which would be excellent, considering that the flu shot is only about 50 percent effective--roughly two-thirds of the population would need to be effected, according to Paul Offit, the director of the Vaccine Education Center (VEC) at the Children's Hospital of Philadelphia. That number is enough to reach herd immunity--the level at which everyone is protected because there are not enough vulnerable to pass between." (Full article here.)

Keep in mind that Christakis set himself a difficult task. The virus is likely to surprise us as we engage with it in this cat-and-mouse game. It has no conscious strategies. The American Museum of Natural History explains (see VISTA) the basics of how natural selection works.

Of great concern is human impatience in the time it will take to get to the "new semi-normal."

Wednesday, February 10, 2021

A V-E-R-Y Small Reptile.

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

Edward Hessler

The smallest reptile on Earth? Could be. Certainly is to date.

The aptly commonly referred to nano-chameleon (Brookesia nana) was found, no two were found, a male and a female by a German team in Madagascar. I've seen the term used with the discovery, Madagascan, one of two names used, the other is Malagasy " to to describe its people, its culture, and many other things such as fauna, flora and other inanimate objects." 

In the Conversation, Andriamiraito Reveloson, made this conclusion after doing some research on the questions. When colleagues and I did some research into this, our findings came down firmly in favour of “Malagasy” (emphasis added). The article with a link to the research may be found here

Reveloson is described as a postdoctoral fellow in seismology at the University of Witwatersrand (Johannesburg) but I was not able to find any reference to him not only there but also not elsewhere. 

So by the numbers the male had an overall length of 22 mm (0.87 inches) and the larger female measured 29 mm (1.14 inches). In the BBC link above, Dr. Mark Schertz, a member of the research team noted an ecological question this miniature animal raises. "'So this tiny new chameleon violates the pattern of the smallest species being found on small islands. That suggests that something else is allowing/causing these chameleons to miniaturise."

Reuters also reported on its close relative discovered in 2012. Brookesia micra "is ... slightly larger."

Here is a short film from YouTube (1m51s)



Tuesday, February 9, 2021

Great Backyard Bird Count

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

Ed Hessler

Be part of a midwinter tradition! The Great Backyard Bird Count invites you to celebrate birds, citizen science, and the power of discoveries. Watch wild birds in your yard, or anywhere you find them, for 15 minutes this weekend: Friday through Monday, Feb. 12–15. Report your observations to the Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology.

This is how you join other backyard and anywhere else counters.

Monday, February 8, 2021

Goats and Soda Primer on the Coronaviru Variants: Illustrated

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

Ed Hessler

Michaleleen Doucheff who reports for NPR's Goats and Soda includes an illustrated guide about Coronavirus Variants. It is based on Legos, a convenient gadget for showing how the virus literally shakes hands with a cell, one secret enough that the cell considers all is well and "We can let this guy inside." Mistake #1 but once made the course is set. From such a simple beginning we now have a global pandemic (discounting the botched response of many nations, including the United States and we can't do that. There is more to this disease than biology and biomedicine; there is also biopolitics.).

She writes about the tactics the virus uses to "evade the immune system." But antibodies have their methods too to help take down the virus. So there is this continuous dance between the virus and the immune system.

There is some hope and fear here but it is a nice primer on a complicated subject.

Sunday, February 7, 2021

Where Did Atoms Come From?

Environmental & Science Education, STEM, Cosmology, Astrophysics

One of the problem with learning at least when I was in school was how rote much of it was.  I've spent most of my life trying to correct some of these deficiencies in my understanding while also learning to ask questions as a matter of routine. To wonder.

I'd never wondered where atoms came from, when they were made and what is our best current understanding of the process. I'd just accepted the definition that they are made of neutrons, protons and electrons and marched on.

Dr. Sabine Hossenfelder has a great explainer--a talk and a manuscript. It is a guided tour of the atom factory. And it is great to have both transcript and talk. The advantage the universe had, still has, is time, so much of very, very, very deep time that it is not easy to grasp but this time and the behavior of the particles of the early universe led to these things we call atoms. The baking process was a long one. The result is encapsulated in the periodic table, that chart that is the part of the furniture in many classrooms. She speaks while standing in front of one. 

Here is the video (8m 47s) and as usual I recommend you scan the comments--invariably interesting and Dr. Hossenfelder manages the back and forth very nicely and, I think, always fairly and firmly, sometimes bluntly.

Saturday, February 6, 2021

Papier Mache: A Dying Art In Kashmir.

Environmental & Science Education, STEM, Art and Environment, Society, Economics

Ed Hessler

The introduction to this short BBC video (3m 22s) states "Papier mache, a painstaking and delicate craft, is believed to have arrived in Kashmir in the 14th Century with Persian artisans. It has since become a specialty of the region, earning its practitioners awards and accolades."

"But in recent decades, the art has slowly lost its appeal amid growing unrest in the Indian-administered valley." Interest among children in this family legacy art grows weaker and weaker. Additionally is the issue of "making ends meet." Artists of this art struggle to earn a living.

What a loss and how painful it must be for practicing artists to be witnesses to a dying craft and a tradition.

 And what in the world is a "tuk-tuk," you may ask. For those who have been in India and SE Asia you know. I didn't. The Wiki tells us.

Friday, February 5, 2021

Friday Poem

Environmental & Science Education, Poetry, Art and Environment

Ed Hessler

Hello from Saint Paul on February 5 2021, the 36th day of 2021 or 9.86% of the year. Sunrise is at 7:27 am and sunset is at 5:26 pm which will give us 9h 59m 43 s of sunlight.

Weather is a topic of conversation in Minnesota and I'm glad this Friday falls on National Weatherperson's Day. It is also World Nutella Day

Quotable quote. "A favorite concept of mine (Elise Boulding) is the 200-year present, a way of thinking about change. The 200-year present began 100 years ago with the the year of birth of the people who have reached their hundredth birthday today. The other boundary of the 200-year present, 100 years from now, is the hundredth of the babies born today. If you take that span, you and I will have had cojntact with a lot of people from different parts of that span. So think in terms of events over that span and realize how long change takes."--Paul Saffo, The Long Now Foundation, July 7. 2010

Today's poem is by Billy Collins.


Thursday, February 4, 2021

Life on Venus? Phosphine Claim Challenged

Environmental & Science Education, STEM, Cosmology, Solar System, Astrophysics, Nature of Science

Ed Hessler

We knew this was coming--a challenge/challenges to the life on Venus claim that because it's atmosphere might contain phosphine gas, a potential sign of life. This claim was first reported last September and I posted a note about the original study. Phosphine is a relatively simple molecule: one phosphorous atom plus three hydrogen atoms. It can come from both biological sources and non-biological sources which presents a problem at the outset.

In reporting for the scientific journal Nature, Alexandra Witze discusses the details based on papers that have been accepted for publication in Astrophysical Letters. They were  posted on a preprint server on January 26.

Witze writes "The latest papers pretty clearly show that there is no sign of the gas, says Ignas Snellen, an astronomer at the University of Leiden in the Netherlands who has published a different critique of the phosphine claim. 'This makes the whole debate about phosphine, and possibly life in the atmosphere of Venus, quite irrelevant.'”

"Jane Greaves, an astronomer at the University of Cardiff, UK, who led the team that made the original phosphine claim, says she and her colleagues are still reading through the new papers and will comment after they’ve evaluated them."

The new studies are based on reprocessed telescopic data and on "modelling the structure of Venus's atmosphere at various altitudes." The modelling studies found that there is a better explanation, "the presence of sulfur dioxide more than 80 kilometers above the planet's surface--not by phosphine above the surface," as originally claimed.

The new studies have not completely debunked the original claim and the case will not be completely closed until new observations are made of Venus. These are planned, some months away and others years away.

This is how science works--is there an alternative and better explanation supported by evidence? The late Carl Sagan stated in what has become a popular phrase, “Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence”. Sagan reworded Laplace's principle, which says that “the weight of evidence for an extraordinary claim must be proportioned to its strangeness”. This statement is at the heart of the scientific method, and a model for critical thinking, rational thought and skepticism everywhere."

This is easy to say in a flippant way as though everything was obvious. In a trenchant review of this concept, Patrizio E. Tressoldi reviews some of the problems about such claims and what constitutes such evidence. He limits the discussion to quantitative psychology. The paper is demanding. I think the physical claim and data are much more amenable to the the idea of a scientific claim rather than thinking of it as an extraordinary claim. The answer is evidence and the papers referenced above are a start. More is coming.

Wednesday, February 3, 2021

Take a Sequence of Amino Acids and Accurately Predict Their 3D Shape

Environmental & Science Education, STEM, Nature of Science

Ed Hessler

Did you think it would ever be possible to determine a protein's 3D shape from its amino acid sequence? The problem seemed intractable and when it could be solved involved painstaking laboratory experiments until...

The story of its solution is found in a recent science briefing in the journal Nature

As the article notes "Proteins are the building blocks of life, responsible for most of what happens inside cells. How a protein works and what it does is determined by its 3D shape — ‘structure is function’ is an axiom of molecular biology. Proteins tend to adopt their shape without help, guided only by the laws of physics."

Ewen Galloway, the writer of the essay on this 7-league step, opens this remarkable achievement with these words. "An artificial intelligence (AI) network developed by Google AI offshoot DeepMind has made a gargantuan leap in solving one of biology’s grandest challenges — determining a protein’s 3D shape from its amino-acid sequence.

"DeepMind’s program, called AlphaFold, outperformed around 100 other teams in a biennial protein-structure prediction challenge called CASP, short for Critical Assessment of Structure Prediction. The results were announced on 30 November, at the start of the conference — held virtually this year — that takes stock of the exercise."

The report describes the problem, the laboratory research and then how this "contest" was conducted--the exercise takes place each year over several months. And it is blind, i.e., the assessors don't know the names of the individuals or their affiliations." They are referred to as groups and assigned a number. The entry that satisfied the judges and met the criteria was from "Group 427). 

The significance of this solution is noted by Mohammed AlQuraishi, a computational biologist at Columbia University. “'I think it’s fair to say this will be very disruptive to the protein-structure-prediction field. I suspect many will leave the field as the core problem has arguably been solved. It’s a breakthrough of the first order, certainly one of the most significant scientific results of my lifetime.'”

Structure-function is one of the important ideas in current standards for science, K-12.. Here is a short explanation from the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) of why it is important, what should be learned and progression of this cross-cutting concept by grades.

There is information about the company and "the real world impact," e.g., drug discovery, protein design, and making "sense disease causing gene variations that differ between people."

Expect scientific criticism, skepticism and intense arguments on whether the problem has been solved. It is the nature of science. American astronomer Carl Sagan once wrote "Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence."

This video (7m 54s) from DeepMind shows and explains the making of this breakthrough.


Tuesday, February 2, 2021

The Question of the Winter Ahead

Environmental & Science Education, STEM, Society 

Ed Hessler

According to the legend that if a certain woodchuck in Punxsutawney, PA, named Phil, does not see his shadow spring will come early. The date of the prediction is February 2.

Today Punxsutawney Phil saw his shadow so six more weeks of winter are ahead. Here, another day without significant shadows although I understand there will be sun this afternoon, one thing we know is that there are certainly six weeks of winter ahead, including a week of very cold weather (or more) staring at us.

The event was held virtually this year due to the pandemic. ABC News reports on the event, its past and includes a video. By the way "Phil's actual prediction takes place ahead of time in a place called Gobbler's Knob, a small hill just outside of the town, and has done so each year since 1887. 2021 marks the 135th time the event has occurred, according to the Pennsylvania Tourism Office." And if you are keeping track, 100 of those predictions have been made for six more weeks of winter.

The ABC report mentioned that there is an official Groundshog Day cookie, something I didn't know. Here is the recipe. You will  not be surprised to learn that the Punxsutawney Area Chamber of Commerce has an official gift shop which you can see here. Wiki, of course, has an entry on Punxsutawney Phil (it notes it is in need of work on verification) where you can also see how well the groundshog's have done over the years. So far about 35-40% accurate in spite of claims to the contrary. There is a gap in the record book--10 are missing.

Lung Cancer Cases and Never-Smokers: Cases Growing

Environmental & Science Education, STEM, Health, Medicine

I've referred to more than one article on health, biomedicine/bioscience, and scientific discovery by Sharon Begley.

On January 17, Eric Boodman informed readers who relied on her careful writing, of her death at age 64 from lung cancer. She was a non-smoker all of her life. I had no idea that she was ill. I think few outside the STAT offices knew. Mr. Boodman's essay introduced me to the extraordinary range of her work--Wall Street Journal, Newsweek, STAT-- as well as her contributions to mentoring science journalists. 

I was struck by what one of friends and colleagues said about her. Boodman notes that "Melinda Beck was unsure of what to do with herself after learning of her death so she opened their college yearbook. 'In her little entry," Beck notes Begley 'had written she wrote that she hoped to be a science journalist.' This led Beck to say 'What an understatement. It's kind of like Louis Pasteur saying, 'Gee, I'd like to be a biologist.''

I was surprised to learn--I shouldn't have been--that "five days before here death, she filed a piece to her editor. It was about non-smokers who get lung cancer--a story she knew intimately, inside out one she was living as she wrote it, neuropathy from the the chemo making it hard for her to hold a pen. She didn't mention that. Ned knew that there was still someone else she'd wanted to interview, another patient she was supposed to call Thursday, but by then she was acutely ill. 'The question,' Ned wrote in an email to her editor, Gideon Gil, 'is what to do with the story. I did not read it but know that she put a lot of work into it, and from my listening post across the room she was still the same sharp reporter and writer as ever, though her energy and ability to concentrate were flagging. she struggle to finish it and was so happy when she filed it with you. I'm hoping in your judgment it is good enough to publish in its current state, or with your essential editing. Sharon probably would not have settled for 'good enough' but it's out of Sharon's hands at this point. Given the subject matter, I hope you share my sense that, if this proves to be the last thing she ever published, how fitting that would be." 

Here is Sharon Begley's last essay, "But I never smoked’: A growing share of lung cancer cases is turning up in an unexpected population."

I'm not going to say anything about it or quote from it. It is informative, thorough and careful with facts and humans affected are always present as we had come to expect. It deserves to be read, appreciated and admired in its fullness, not in quotes or abstracted form.


Monday, February 1, 2021

This Doomsday Clock Says The Time Is...Part II

Environmental & Science Education, STEM, Society, Sustainability, Global Change

Ed Hessler

In the United States there is another more well known Doomsday Clock and most of the issues as well as determining the time are different from the Asahi Foundation's method.

It is published each year by the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists'  Science and Security Board in consultation with the Bulletin's Board of Sponsors, which includes 13 Nobel Laureates. 

In their recent 2021 Doomsday Clock Statement (for the year 2020) they said:

We set the Doomsday Clock at 100 seconds to midnight—the closest it has ever been to Doomsday since its inception—because the existential risks confronting humanity today call for quick and comprehensive action across the 21st century’s complex threat spectrum.(bold mine).

By reading or skimming the press release the criteria for determining the time can be seen. Still it is a human judgement, one relying heavily on expertise, mostly scientific. All Doomsday Clock statements and times are found on this timeline.  In addition there is an extensive and interactive virtual tour here

In addition, the clockmakers always include practical steps that world leaders can and should initiate in 2021 to protect humanity from major global threats that have the potential to end civilization.

  • The US and Russian presidents should, upon extension of New START, launch follow-on talks for more ambitious and comprehensive limits of nuclear weapons and delivery systems.
  • Now that the United States has announced it will rejoin the Paris climate agreement, it should accelerate its commitment to decarbonization and put policies in place that make the attainment of the commitment feasible.
  • Now that the United States has rejoined the World Health Organization, it should work through the WHO and other international institutions to reduce biological risks of all kinds. Also, national leaders and international organizations can prepare for biological events before they occur by more carefully monitoring animal-human interactions and improving international disease surveillance and reporting efforts; increasing world capacity to produce and quickly distribute medical supplies; and expanding hospital capacity.
  • US President Joe Biden can show leadership by reducing US reliance on nuclear weapons via limits on their roles, missions, and platforms, and by decreasing budgets accordingly. The United States should declare its commitment to no-first-use of nuclear weapons and persuade allies and rivals to agree that no-first-use is a step toward security and stability.
  • President Biden should banish the fear that a single person would have the power to end civilization by eliminating his own and future US presidents’ sole authority to launch nuclear weapons. He should work to persuade other countries with nuclear weapons to put in place similar barriers.
  • Russia can rejoin the NATO-Russia Council and open serious discussions on risk reduction and on avoiding escalation dangers.
  • North Korea can agree to codify and allow verification of its moratorium on nuclear tests and long-range missile tests.
  • Iran and the United States can jointly return to full compliance with the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, and Iran can agree to new, broader talks about Middle East security and constraints on its missile and other military activities.
  • The United States and Russia can renew cooperation on fissile material and nuclear security to make sure that terrorists cannot acquire the means to build a nuclear weapon.
  • Banks and other sources of capital can implement policies that limit investment in fossil fuel projects, as indeed some already have done, and redirect it to climate-friendly investments.
  • China can reorient its Belt and Road Initiative, so it sets an example for other investors by pursuing sustainable development pathways rather than supporting fossil fuel-intensive development.
  • All nations can commit to stronger decarbonization goals under the Paris Agreement and implement policies directed toward the realization of these goals. Those policies should address not merely long-term goals but near-term emission reductions and investments in longer-term structural changes. Meanwhile, the world’s wealthier countries should enhance their commitments under the Paris Agreement to provide financial support and technology cooperation required by developing countries to undertake strong climate action.
  • Leaders in governments and the private sector can emphasize COVID-recovery investments that strongly favor climate mitigation and adaptation objectives across all economic sectors and address the full range of potential greenhouse gas emission reductions. This includes capital investments in urban development, agriculture, transport, heavy industry, buildings and appliances, and electric power.
  • The new US administration can fill leadership positions for science-based agencies on the basis of scientific expertise and credentials; prohibit interference with the production or dissemination of executive branch scientific reports; use the best possible science to inform policy considerations; allow government scientists to engage with the public about their work; and provide funding to restore and strengthen international scientific cooperation.
  • National leaders and international organizations can create more effective regimes for monitoring biological research and development efforts, so potential benefits can be maximized, and possible negative consequences minimized or eliminated.
  • Governments, major communications technology firms, academic experts, and responsible media organizations can cooperate to find practical and ethical ways to combat internet-enabled misinformation and disinformation.