Monday, February 28, 2022

Preterm Birth Reduction in Malawi

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

Ed Hessler

The country of Malawi has one of the highest preterm births in the world. Aimee Cunningham, in a report for Science News tells us about an intervention, one that certainly both was new to me and simple. "Chewing a sugar-free gum daily reduced preterm births in a large study in Malawi." ... The research "was inspired by past research linking poor oral health and preterm birth. The gum contains xylitol ---- a chemical that can boost oral health ---- in place of regular sugar."

The study was part of a long-term project on "problems related to pregnancy the community was concerned about and wanted to solve." Cunningham notes that "The diversity and size of the microbial community in the mouth is second only to the gut. With periodontal disease, there is a shift in the composition of that oral microbial community, giving way to bacteria that cause inflammation and damage gum tissue. From there, the bacteria may enter the bloodstream to reach other organs, perhaps including the placenta." 

Lead author Kjersti Aagaard told Cunningham that she "and her colleagues are planning more research on what’s going on at the microbial level to understand how better oral health reduces preterm birth. The team also wants to track the neurodevelopment of the children born early and those born on time in the study. 'No matter how cost-effective an intervention may be, we still want to make sure you’re making a difference in somebody’s life and the ultimate outcome is how do those kiddos do.'”

Cunningham's reporting includes links to relevant research publications if you want to dig deeper.

Sunday, February 27, 2022


Environmental & Science Education, STEM, Nature, Wildlife

Ed Hessler

Videographer Hank Heusinkveld takes us to the confluence of the Clearwater and Snake Rivers to spend a few minutes (1m 52s) with wood ducks (Aix sponsa) in this Sunday Morning nature video (CBS News). 

To see so many all at once is a treat.

Saturday, February 26, 2022

Dr. Paul Farmer

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

Ed Hessler

Dr. Paul Farmer who founded Partners in Health in Haiti in 1987 died on Monday February 21, 2022. He was a young man, only age 62. 

I'd been looking for a memorial from a colleague and on February 25,  Goats and Soda (NPR) published these memories by  Dr. Sriram Shamasunder who knew him as a student, friend and colleague, written as he wrote "with love and tears."  

Many of us first learned about Dr. Paul Farmer through Tracy Kidder's splendid book Mountains Beyond Mountains. This link is about the book's content and includes a quote from Kidder about Dr. Farmer which provide some of the author's thoughts on writing about this remarkable man.

Friday, February 25, 2022

Friday Poem

Environmental & Science Education, Poetry, Arts & Environment

Ed Hessler

On this 25th day of February of 2022, Good Morning from the Center for Global Environmental Education (CGEE), Hamline University, Saint Paul, MN. This is the 56th day of the year of which 15.34% is now gone (80,640 minutes). Sunrise is at 6:57 am and sunset is at 5:54 pm; the filling of this sandwich  is 10h 57m 31s of sunlight, a lovely egg salad of a day.

Foodimentary notes that it is National Chocolate Covered Peanut Day. Their image looks as though each peanut has been hand polished. National Day announces these days for celebration:  National Toast Day, National Chili Day, National Chocolate Covered Nut Day and National Clam Chowder Day. I noticed 5 chili recipes and a list of chowder variants. Both links are good and always interesting reads.

Quote. "Catalysts are the conductors who choreograph the chemical dance that results in the formation of new structures."--Robert H. Grubbs. He shared the Nobel prize in chemistry for his research on "olefin metathesis". Here is the dance, danced. And a few facts about Grubbs and his research may be read here.

Today's poem is by Alan Shapiro.

Thursday, February 24, 2022

An Unusual Beetle Behavior

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

The Ant Lab produces some unusually good and accurate videos on the natural world--featuring mostly much smaller animals than we usually see. The videos are the products of working scientists which makes their work all the more amazing, i.e., they both do research and publish in peer-reviewed scientific journals and produce a video record for others to see and learn from.

In 2021, an Ant Lab video (6m 33s) shows the unusual behavior of the larvae of lined flat bark beetles (Laemophloeus biguttatus). They jump! In an update they linked to the research publication in which it was published.

I urge a scan of the comments for many of them are from thoughtful viewers, including suggesting other hypotheses and expressing wonder about this jumping behavior.

Wednesday, February 23, 2022

A Celebration of the COVID Vaccines

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

Ed Hessler

"A freaking miracle" is how Helen Branswell described the Covid vaccines in a recent STAT article. "That miracle is the development, testing, manufacturing, and global distribution of Covid vaccines." We haven't noticed this as the relentlessness and length of the pandemic have upended our lives, and tragically cost so many lives here and abroad.

Not all of it has been rosy, e.g., the worldwide distribution of vaccines, especially in low income regions and countries of the world has not been equitable. "But, Branswell observes, "at least 55% of the people inhabiting this planet have been fully vaccinated against Covid-19. In affluent parts of the world, anybody who believes in the protective powers of vaccines has had the opportunity to be vaccinated for months now."

Consider what has been accomplished. Branswell calls attention to the time line: "In the 25 months since Chinese scientists first shared the genetic sequence of the newly discovered SARS-CoV-2 virus has defied the predictions of the most optimistic prognosticators. Eric Topol (Scripps Research Translational Institute) was skeptical when a 12 to 18 month development period was announced. He told Branswell "'I thought it was a fantasy. Pure fantasy.'" And now, “'In one year, half the species vaccinated — wow! '”  

It is true Branswell writes, that the vaccines based on mRNA, "haven't lived up to their initial billing, when they were shown to block roughly 95% of all infections. The initial 95% level of protection has declined over time" but "they have fundamentally altered the threat SARS-2 poses. Most people who have received three doses are shielded from serious disease and death, even in the face of Omicron, which is so different from the vaccine strain some experts are puzzled at why protection against severe disease remains so strong."

The "m" word, miracle, is not liked in science. There is a simple reason: it isn't true. The vaccines and their development were developed on a sturdy foundation of scientific research. The vaccines said Branswell are "the fruit of years of planning and research and major investments in science." In addition, there was capital to support the drug companies during their development. No matter our opinions about Trump", as Michael Diamond (Washington University) told her, "he did support a rapid acceleration of the program and should get some credit for it."'

Still, I like the title. It  jars us to think of an incredible scientific achievement based on rigorous research and evidence-based science and a nation with a long history of investing in basic, fundamental science. I appreciate Branswell's reporting on its quick development. It adds a much needed perspective on where we are in the pandemic.

3 Cheers! Or 6!


Tuesday, February 22, 2022

The Great Thawing: Siberia

Environmental & Science Education, STEM, Earth & Space Science, Earth Systems, Geology, Sustainability, Climate Change, History of Science, Nature of Science

Ed Hessler

The question before us is what will happen to the Earth's atmosphere when the permafrost layers of the planet begin to melt.  It is such an important question because permafrost contains a lot of carbon, more than twice as much as Earth's atmosphere.

The New Yorker's Joshua Yaffa explores the issue and some of the ramifications. These are some notes from the essay which I urge you to read for the full and complex story. This is just a sketch and I've missed a few highlights.  

--Origin. Permafrost is a result of the last continental ice age about three million years ago during which temperatures plunged. In the northern regions of the world, temperatures took a deep and often prolonged plunge and the minus 80 degrees F (~ 62 Celsius temperatures froze the ground to great depths. This was a period of cycles of freezing and thawing caused by glacial advances and retreats.  It ended about 12,000 years ago, temperatures rose, melting sme surface soil but leaving behind a soil that was permanently frozen, no matter the season. We live in the last interglacial period.

--Quantity. A quarter of the land-mass of the Northern Hemisphere has permafrost deposits with Russia claiming about two thirds of it. It can be as much as a mile deep.

--Global Climate Change has led to temperature changes and since the Industrial Revolution, Siberia now experiences temperatures greater than two degrees C more. It is more than twice the global average. And permafrost is melting.

--Swallowing and Belching. During the glaciation/interglaciation periods the earth "swallowed up all matter of organic material, from tree stumps to wooly mammoths." This has provided a microbial feast, a stew and as it thaws, is releasing "a constant belch of carbon dioxide and methane." 

--Shergin's Shaft. In 1827, merchant Fedir Shergin, tried to dig a well and after working a decade, the shaft had reached 300' but this was not the bottom of the below ground soil-ice field in Yakutsk. Scientist Alexander von Middendorff led an expedition to Yakutsk and he published an estimate of some 600', which, it turns out, was accurate. Shergin's Shaft is still there underneath a log structure, one that according to Yuri Murzin of the Melnikov Permafrost Institute (MPI)who told Yaffa, "'smells of antiquity, of time gone by.'" 

--Construction. The Soviets adopted a settlement policy for its cold, northern regions, "encapsulated by Maxim Gorky's axiom,  paraphrasing Karl Marx that "in transforming nature, man transforms himself. "  But structures  began to fail: sink, tilt, collapse. Proposed solutions ranged from far-fetched, place dust rings around the Earth leading to temperatures which would melt all of the permafrost) to the practical, elevate building foundations through cement piles driven deep into the Earth. It was thought that this solution would "'serve  thirty to fifty years." Surely climate wouldn't change as "'dramatically within that span." In a report in 2016 it was noted "that 60 percent of the buildings in Norilsk were compromised as a result of permafrost thaw." In addition to Yakutsk, Norilsk (nickel rich) is the other large city built over permafrost.

--Permafrost types. Some is frozen soil and some consists of "yedoma," which is very rich in ice. In the latter, a vicious cycle, a feed-forward cycle, is common. Ice melts, water conducts heat well and the permafrost below it begins to melt and so on.Trofim Maximov, a climate researcher studying the contribution to climate change, told Yaffa "'It's a natural process. Which means that, unlike purely anthropogenic processes, once it starts you can't really stop it." Yaffa took a trip with a researcher from MPI who grew up in a village 80 miles from Yakutsk to observe the effects of this transformation on the ground. He describes the land as "craggy and dotted with small indentations...pock-marked."  Small ponds and lakes known as thermokarst lakes formed from melting ice, many are now dried up and or drying. These could have taken some 5000 years to form but have disappeared in 150 years. The dates are from birch tree fragments found on their bottoms. After leaving the home of his aunt and uncle, who "attempt to keep things level," the scientist told Yaffa that '"People don't understand the end of this story.'" They try to adapt, using shovels to level posts and homes, but "'the thaw will reach them all the same.'"

--Methane. While it doesn't last as long in the atmosphere as carbon dioxide, it is "twenty-five times as effective in trapping heat."  In 2001 when Katey Walter Anthony was a Ph.D. student, she began collecting data on methane emissions from thermokarst lakes. She published her work in Nature in 2006. The gases being emitted were the product of decaying organic debris "that formed between twenty and forty thousand years ago, during the Pleistocene." That gas is emitted year round and gas bubbles can be seen under the clear ice in the winter "as if the lake were a giant cauldron on the brink of a very slow, barely perceptible boil, with a pop of air here and there." While a "methane bomb" (massive sudden release of the gas) was once feared to the point of some hysteria, it turns out that it is a "slow-motion disaster."

--Climate Change Models. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (I.P.C.C.) has not until "only very recently started factoring in various permafrost-thaw models." The possible outcomes vary widely, to the point where one scientist has put it, they have become the "wild card" of climate science. One assumption in the models, one that is problematic is that the thaw will be gradual, linear but  there could be abrupt thaws that would trigger "non-linear events like rapid erosion of landslides."

--Disease. In 2016, a Laplander herder reported the death of 50 of his reindeer herd, later growing to more than 200, and eventually rising in the area to 2500. Samples revealed anthrax, the first in the Yamal Peninsula, home to the Nenets, a native ethnic group. Anthrax, a serious infectious disease. is found in soil and can infect wild and domestic animals as well as humans. Anthrax had long been thought to have been eradicated. Reindeer carcasses were burned, quarantine measures were set in place, and old soil samples studies showed no evidence of anthrax. Eventually it jumped to humans leading to hospitalizations and a death. Following the outbreak, a panel of experts reported "'The emergence of anthrax was triggered by the activation of "old' infection sites following anomalously high air temperature and the thawing of the sites to a depth beyond normal levels"'

--Microscopic life. A living rotifier was found in a thawed sample. That a bacterium might be able to survive frozen for this long is not surprising but this is a complex animal with a gut, nervous system, a brain, reproductive organs. This organism is "two-tenths of a millmetre in size, and survived for twenty-four thousand years. It was capable of reproducing and direct descendants are still being cultured.

--Mammoths and Pleistocene Park. Mammoth findings of exceptional quality are frequently reported from thawed permafrost. There is a Mammoth Museum in Yakutsk. Because they are so well-preserved they provide a very clear window into the Pleistocene, including the make-up of vegetation. Gut samples have been so well preserved that specific plants can be identified.  Humans were long thought to be the cause of their extinction at the end of the Pleistocene since they had no natural predators. However, analysis of ancient  environmental DNA  has provided strong evidence for the disappearance of their food.  A mammoth de-extinction effort is described which uses gene editing techniques. In 1998, a different attempt, based on the warming effects of snow was started. Less snow; more cold air. Since snow removal at the scale required can't be done, another mechanical means might be used to re-create this ancient ecosystem. It is led by a Russian scientist and his son and is known as Pleistocene Park (PP).'"  There is another Pleistocene Park unit in Alaska which is independent of the Russian effort.

How such an idea would work is described by Yaffa. "Those animals would break down shrubs and churn the soil, allowing grass lands to reappear. In summer, owing to the albedo effect--light surfaces reflect heat, dark ones absorb it--the pale grass would that grows remains cooler than the brown shrubs that currently blanket the tundra."  PP-Siberia is a fenced-in area of one-hundred and fifty animals, including horses, bison, sheep, yaks, and camels. To give them a head start, a "'hefty, all-terrain transport vehicle on treads,'" was used to knock "down trees and undergrowth. Eventually laboratory grown mammoths will be introduced.You will not be surprised to learn that not all scientists share such enthusiasm or hope. One noted that the required animal density "greatly exceeds anything that could be maintained naturally." However the son of the father involved in the project defended the effort, saying "'We're not reinventing the wheel here. This all existed at one point, we know that. How to re-create it now, though? That's the question.'" Later in the conversation he added "The point isn't whether it's O.K to act like a god but whether you're acting like a benevolent or wise one."  Indeed. See also this article in The Atlantic for more about the concept and team.

--Another Solution. There is one both obvious and unlikely. Duane Froese, University of Alberta put it this way: it is by "'reducing human emissions (of greenhouse gases). A focus on other solutions might be intriguing, but it's ultimately a distraction.'"  

Please read Joshua Yaffa's "The Great Thaw," print edition or on-line slightly retitled, "The Great Siberian Thaw." Long and worth the time which includes two photographs, including one of the home mentioned in Permafrost Types above.

Monday, February 21, 2022

Dog Size

Environmental & Science Education, STEM, Biological Evolution, Biodiversity, Nature, Wildlife, History of Science, Nature of Science.

Ed Hessler

Have you ever wondered why dogs vary so much in size and then chalked it up to selective breeding?

Ewen Calloway (Nature 27 January 2022) notes that "dogs differe more in size than any other mammal species on the planet. A mutation behind such variation has been traced to an unexpected source" ancient wolves.

He continues, "Ancient dogs, domesticated from wolves in the past 30,000 years, differed in size to some extent. But the current extreme size differences — the largest breeds are up to 40 times bigger than the smallest — emerged in the past 200 years, as humans established modern breeds."

Calloway reports that "two versions, or alleles, of the variant (gene) have been identified." The research on which he reports notes that when pooches have two of the small-bodied alleles, the dogs are smaller; when they have two copies of the large-bodied alleles are larger; and dogs with a copy of each are "intermediate" in size.

Did one pair come first. Right now the resarchers think the allele for small bodies is evolutionary the oldest. "Coyotes, jackals, foxes and most other canids they analysed, Calloway writes "had two copies of the ‘small’ version, suggesting that this version was present in a common ancestor of these animals."

Evolutionary biologist Robert Wayne (UCLA). "This turns the whole story on its head. That’s what’s marvellous about the whole thing.” What has been turned upside-down is that what was formerly thought to be due to "relatively new genetic changes, potentially unique" to our dogs. Geneticist Elinor Karlsson (U Mass Chan Medical School) adds that it could mean "dogs were domesticated from smaller-bodied wolves."

Caution is warranted here since we like to attribute things to genes, i.e., "the gene for."  This is complex since the gene in question 'accounts for about 15% of variation between breeds." 

A reminder that nature's mechanisms present very difficult research problems.

Sunday, February 20, 2022

A Grease Trail

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

Ed Hessler 

There is, reports BBC's Diane Selkirk, a little known hiking trail in western Canada that predates "the Silk Road and the Amber Road. It is the Nuxalk-Carrier Grease Trail...that's been worn deeply into the earth by 6000 years of walkers."

The 279-mile trails "starts at a glacier-fed fjord near Bella Coola...climbs east over mount ranges and then the fans out across what's now known as British Columbia." It was an overland trade route for "goods such as jade, copper, basketry, food, hides, obsidian and the highly valued commodity the trail was named for: the nutritious oil or "grease of the small eulachaon fish," a delicacy but also was so rich in oil that it could be lighted and used as a candle." It is also commonly known as the "candlefish." This short video (2m 03s) shows the transformation of fish to candle.

The European explorer, Alexander Mackenzie, walked some of it in 1793 when he made "the first known transcontinental crossing of the Americas north of Mexico." In his journal, he described it as a "'great road,'' one that "was very good and well traced''.

While "sitting on a beach...200km south of Bella Coola," Selkirk came "up with an unexpected prize: a small glassy shard of obsidian." Further sifting led to the discovery of a "growing pile of volcanic glass." This piqued her curiosity and she "made a plan to hike a grease trail. The most obvious contender was the Nuxalk-Carrier," a trail that still exists. "It is believed there were hundreds of them."

In her story, Selkirk provides a brief history of grease trails, notes the effects of the smallpox epidemic of 1862 to '63 on native populations and the area, early use by fur trappers and prospectors, the current rarity of grease trails and the work of Six Nations on clearing and rebuilding the trail "which sustained them in the past" and their hopes that it "can offer a path into the future" as they expand "their economies away from logging."

Selkirk "already (has) her next hike planned on the trail: I'm headed north to the Anahim Peak, the likely origin of the obsidian I found."

The story is lavishly illustrated, well-linked and the concise history, one that I was ignorant of, is nicely reported. Selkirk reports under "Slowcomotion...a BBC Travel series that celebrates slow, self-propelled travel and invites readers to get outside and reconnect with the world in a safe and sustainable way."

Here is a link to the Nuxalk-Carrier Grease Trail Community Knowledge Keeper which describes the trail, first nations communities,and includes galleries and traditional use species. Eulachon (Thaleichthys pacificus) is listed as threatened by the ESA.

Saturday, February 19, 2022

Underwater Photogaphy

Environmental & Science Education, Art & Environment, Biodiversity, Wildlife, Nature

Ed Hessler

Whew, so many photographic contests and so little time but this one is new to me and may be to you. Besides the photographs are too good to be missed.

The competition is annual and was founded--what? time flies it is said--in 1965 (UK). It "celebrates photography beneath the surface of the ocean, lakes, rivers and even swimming pools."

The BBC provides a gallery, Matthew Tucker provides commentary with some comments by the photographers.

Life! What a world we live in and also have responsibility for taking care of it.

Friday, February 18, 2022

Friday Poem

Environmental & Science Education, Poetry, Art & Environment

Ed Hessler

Good morning from the Center for Global Environmental Education (CGEE) at Hamline University, Saint Paul, MN on February 18, 2022, the 49th day of the year (or 7 weeks; 13.42%). Sunrise is at 7:08 am and sunset is at 5:45 pm as light makes its presence known.
Updraft's meterorologist Sven Sundgaard noted that while we are talking here about the round of back and forth between arctic air and milder air in February that "there’s one more hopeful sign that spring will eventually get here and win. Sunshine...returned to Longyearbyen on Norway's Svalbard archipelago. It’s the northern most settlement (defined by 1,000 or more people) on Earth, high into the arctic and they haven’t seen the sun since late October. The town saw only saw 23 minutes of light in the noon hour Tuesday (February 15, 2022) but they gain light exponentially until finally by late April it’s out all day and night." (my emphasis)

It is National Drink Wine Day according to Foodimentary, celebrating it with pictures, wine facts and some food history. National Day also celebrates National Drink Wine Day and adds information about wine.

Quote. Do not be afraid to skip the equations (I do this frequently myself.) -- Roger Penrose,  2020 Nobelist in Physics and OM.

Today's poem is by E. Ethelbert Miller. At the right he writes about this lovely poem. In it he mentions The Line Hotel in Washington, DC. I'd never heard of it and used Google for information to find an extraordinary building.

Thursday, February 17, 2022

Snow: The Real Stuff; The Artificial Stuff

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

Ed Hessler 

The Beijing winter Olympic games are in a region of China that receives little winter snow. Artificial snow is prominent in reporting from the games with some athletes blaming poor performance or even danger to life and limb on the human-made stuff.

So what is the difference between it and the real stuff?. Peter Veals (University of Utah) is a reliable source. He is an atmospheric science specializing in mountain weather and snow, an avid skier and the co-founder of a snowmaking startup. 

Here is a primer in The Conversation.


Wednesday, February 16, 2022

Grape Expectations *

Environmental & Science Education, STEM, Sustainability, Biodiversity, Agriculture

Ed Hessler 

The January 31, 2022 "Where I Work" (Nature) features applied ecologist Geoff Gurr (Charles Stuart University, Australia) who is working on eco-friendly approaches to growing grapes. The planet's humans drink wine!, e.g., 234 million hectolitres (Mhl)** in 2020, the lowest since 2002, according to estimates by OIV, "the scientific and technical reference of the vine and wine world."

He and his colleagues conduct experimental research on ways to "reduce the population of pests by encouraging predators."

These are short reads in which the research is briefly described. At the outset Gurr mentions that he sometimes dodges "the odd brown snake." The Wiki entry notes that it is "considered the world's second-most venomous land snake."

*h/t and thanks for the title from Benjamin Plackett's profile about Dr. Geoff Gurr.

**In US measurement, this is 196,242,095 barrels where 1 barrel = 42 gallons

Tuesday, February 15, 2022

SARS-CoV-2 Family Tree

Environmental & Science Education, STEM, Biodiversity, Nature, Health, Medicine, Biological Evolution, Art & Environment, Nature of Science, History of Science

Goats & Soda (NPR) commissioned an artist to develop a family tree for SARS-CoV-2. The accompanying story by Michaleen Doucleff explains the structure of the tree telling us first why they are so useful in science. They "give biologists insights into how a virus has evolved over time and what changes to expect in the future."

The tree was inspired by the SARS-CoV-2 phylogenetic tree generated by Emma Hodcroft of Nexstrain and the University of Bern. That tree is reproduced within Michaleen Doucleff's story.

Doucleff begins with an observation about the tree's growth. When the tree first took root, "many virologists thought they knew how it would evolve: slowly and minimally." But the virus surprised us with Omicron, variants "BA.1 and its sibling BA.2" The standard understanding was that SARS would mutate slowly and it did. The original structure prevailed early on in the pandemic, resulting in "only about one or two mutations each month." The tree seemed to have a single trunk with "only a few tiny little branches."

In December 2020, "the virus began to change rapidly. ... Two variants of concern: alpha and beta appeared," each having around 20 mutations each."  In addition, branches began to sprout from the main trunk: "gamma, lambda and mu appeared (although none of these variants ended up spreading across the globe) while at"the top of the tree, dozens of delta branches from the delta canopy." The future growth of the tree appeared clear."

Then omnicron. What was so different about it is "it didn't have any close relatives on the tree..."no parents, no grandparents, not even great-great-great-grandparents." Different genes which led to a profound puzzle. Where did it come from? BA.1 went world-wide; BA.2 "is now reported to be taking over South Africa. (A third sibling also appeared, but so far it doesn't seem able to keep up with its glove-trotting siblings.)"

The question of the origin of the omnicron branch's origin has left a "gap in our knowledge" bringing "much uncertainty about the future of the pandemic." Doucliff points to possibilities, e.g., under surveillance "in parts of Africa that scientist weren't watching closely enough..." or omnicron "was evolving inside another animal...and then jumped back to people..." or "was evolving...inside a person who had a chronic infection." At present, these are hypotheses in need of investigation.

About the possibility of invisible variants emerging from the tree, Emma Hodcroft, University of Bern told Doucleff, that "right now, there could be several other long -- and invisible -- branches growing on the SARS-Cov-2 tree. And in the oncoming months one of those branches could sprout off another family of rapidly spread variants, similar to omicron." 

Or, according to Doucleff, one even "more lethal than any previous variant." Commenting on this scenario, infectious disease physician Roby Bhattacharyya (Massachusetts General Hospital and Harvard Medical School.) told her that "'Variants, that transmit better are going to be selected for, and it's kind of the luck of the draw whether that variant is also more severe or less severe.'"

At present there is every reason to cheer loudly for our immune systems which have handled "whatever variant emerges. ...Vaccination or a prior infection has still offered good protection against hospitalization and severe disease."

Monday, February 14, 2022

Happy Valentine's Day: A Postscript

Environmental & Science Education, Art & Environment, Miscellaneous

Ed Hessler

Earlier today I posted a biologically and earth science themed Happy Valentine's Day. 

Thanks to Astronomy Picture of the Day (APOD), I finally took a look up and out into the cosmos  to view the Heart Nebula, a mere 7,500 light years out, "toward the constellation of the mythological Queen of Aethiopia (Cassiopeia).

The explanation is about what shapes and excites the Heart Nebula.

Happy Valentine's Day

Environmental & Science Education, Art & Environment, Miscellaneous, Earth & Space Sciences

Ed Hessler

From EPOD, this lovely ice feature.

And on YouTube (3m 08s), mating dragonflies.

Sunday, February 13, 2022

Where I Work: Tattoo Anthropologist

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

Ed Hessler

The naturebriefing series from Nature, often include a feature I like, entitled "Where I Work." These are about the places where scientists of all kinds work and always include a photograph of the scientist at work, in the field or laboratory. Furthermore, they include a variety of scientists and interests. And the stories are well told and short.

This one is about anthropologist Lars Krutak who works "to document, preserve and interpret a neglected part of cultural heritage." He writes this about the accompanying photograph. "In this picture taken in November 2019, I take notes as Chen-o Khuzuthrupa, a centenarian nobleman of the Chen tribe of northeastern India, describes a tattoo on his back: a sacred tiger familiar spirit. He received the tattoo — a tiger stripe motif with circles that represent the spirit — during an elaborate ceremony in the 1930s, when he was a young headhunter and warrior. He says the markings gave him a tiger’s strength in battle and the ability to spy on his enemies in his dreams. Those powers are gone. He lost the connection to the tiger spirit decades ago when he converted to Christianity."

Krutak includes some comments about reasons that young people in these villages often mark themselves with modern tattoo designs, unaware of the designs of their ancestors. Sadly he notes that even if they were aware "the culture and context around" these designs is lost, the "original artist is long dead, and nobody remembers the prayers, songs and other aspects of the tattooing ceremony."

Krutak made the book he wrote in 2010, Kalinga Tattoo, available to villages in the area from which he collected the stories and images."


Saturday, February 12, 2022

People's Choice: Wildlife Photographer of the Year

Environmental & Science Education, Art & Environment 

The winner of Wildlife Photographer of the Year People's Choice Award 2021. 

About the image, photographer Cristiano Vendramin (Italy) said , "' I believe having a daily relationship with nature is increasingly necessary to have a serene and healthy life.

"Nature photography is therefore important to remind us of this bond, which we must preserve, and in whose memory we can take refuge."

Four finalists were also Highly Commended.

All five images can be seen here. I found the top selection difficult to leave and to get on to business.

Wildlife Photographer of the year is an annual contest of the Natural History Museum, London. There are some details at the BBC link.

Friday, February 11, 2022

Friday Poem

Environmental & Science Education, Poetry, Art & Environment

Ed Hessler

It's February 11, 2022, the 42nd day of the year, now 11.51% spent. Good morning from the Center for Global Environmental Education (CGEE) at Hamline University, Saint Paul, MN. Sunrise is at 7:19 am and sunset is at 5:35 pm giving us 10h 15m 49s of sunlight. 

Seven days ago (168h), February 5, marked the beginning of solar spring, "the end of the darkest quarter of the year and the beginning of the greatest three months of light gain we experience all year (4 hours and 4 minutes of light.) David Epstein reports on what he calls "this happy astronomical marker" for The Boston Globe.

Foodimentary notes that it is National Peppermint Patty Day with its usual pictures, facts and food history. And National Day also notes it with a recipe for Peppermint Patty Brownies.

Tomorrow, February 12, is the 213th birthday of Charles Darwin (and also Abraham Lincoln). Darwin Day is a celebration of his life and contributions. See also this entry from daysoftheyear for more information, including ways to celebrate it. It also has a timeline of events in Darwin's life. There is an official site but it was unreachable when I typed this. Google Darwin Day and see whether it works for you.

Quote. This cartoon from XKCD is a substitute for a quote.

Today's poem is by Margaret Atwood.

Thursday, February 10, 2022

Fusion Reactor Smashes Energy Record

Environmental & Science Education, STEM, Energy, Sustainability, Science & Society, History of Science

Ed Hessler

I've previously reported on the development of practical nuclear fusion. You know, the energy that powers our sun...stars, through fusing together atoms. The scientific and engineering challenges in developing this technology are immense, to say the least.

In a short article in the British science journal Nature is reported the breaking of a 24-year-old nuclear fusion record. It was doubled. This new record requires a drum roll: 5s.

From the Nature article by Elizabeth Gibney. JET (Joint European Torus) really achieved what was predicted. The same modelling now says ITER (ITER means "The Way, in Latin) will work,” says fusion physicist Josefine Proll at Eindhoven University of Technology in the Netherlands, who was not involved in JET’s research. “It’s a really, really good sign and I’m excited.”

Gibney attributes the following reporting to plasma scientist Fernanda Rimini "who oversaw the experiment when she reports that "in an experiment on 21 December 2021, JET’s tokamak produced 59 megajoules of energy over a fusion ‘pulse’ of five seconds, more than double the 21.7 megajoules released in 1997 over around four seconds. Although the 1997 experiment still retains the record for ‘peak power’, it was over a fraction of a second and its average power then was less than half that of today. ... The improvement took 20 years of experimental optimization, as well as hardware upgrades that included replacing the tokamak’s inner wall to waste less fuel.

"Producing the energy over a number of seconds is essential for understanding the heating, cooling and movement happening inside the plasma that will be crucial to run ITER." 

The story in Nature includes a still of the pulse light inside the JET reactor but Jonathan Amos' reporting for the BBC includes a video which captures the inside shortly before the light pulse, the full 5 second pulse of light and immediately following. In addition, there is a diagram of how fusion works. 

I like the way John Amos of the BBC described the energy output of these experiments.

"The experiments produced 59 megajoules of energy over five seconds (11 megawatts of power).

"This is more than double what was achieved in similar tests back in 1997.

"It's not a massive energy output - only enough to boil about 60 kettles' worth of water. But the significance is that it validates design choices that have been made for an even bigger fusion reactor now being constructed in France."

Interestingly, "the record-breaking run happened on the last day of a five month campaign. I bet you know what's next: analysis of data collected during this long experiment. 

Fusion energy is such an active area of research because of the amount energy it could provide--virtually limitless--that is both low-carbon and low-radiation.

There are more details in both articles if you are more technically minded.

Wednesday, February 9, 2022

Tire Necklace Removal from a Crocodile

Environmental & Science Education, STEM, Wildlife, Nature 

Ed Hessler

Several months ago I posted about the successful removal of a belted car tire from the neck of an elk in Colorado, one it had worn a while.

Here is another story about the successful removal of a motorcycle tire from the throat area of a salt water crocodile in Palu, Indonesia. This one, it seems to me was a much more dangerous capture. It appears a rope snare was used and that is it--no tranquilizer, etc. 

Tili, "is a self-taught reptile rescuer," who "had been tracking the crocodile for three weeks before finally capturing it." There had been a rope failure the first time he entangled it. In the video Tili describes the event--another day at the office--and his passion for saving reptiles. The crocodile had worn this "necklace" for ~6 years. I've seen length measurements that range from 4m (~13') to 5.2m (~17'). In any event not small.

The removal was successful and the crocodile was released.

This is the BBC film (1m 05s).  I include a Jakarta source with more pictures and links.

Tuesday, February 8, 2022

The Havana Syndrome

Environmental & Science Education, STEM, Nature of Science

Ed Hessler

Sabine Hossenfelder of BackReaction has a new video and read on "the three best explanations for The Havana Syndrome."

This is how she opens this little bit longer than usual explanation and discussion.

In late 2016, United States diplomats working in Cuba began reporting health problems: persistent headaches, vertigo, blurred vision. They were dizzy. They heard sounds coming from nowhere. The affected diplomats were questioned and examined by doctors but the symptoms didn’t fit any known disease. They called it the “Havana Symptom”.

More cases were later reported from China and Russia, Germany and Austria, even from near the White House. A CIA agent in Moscow was allegedly so badly affected that he had to retire. And just a few weeks ago another case made headlines: a CIA officer fell ill during a visit to India. What explanations have doctors put forward for those incidents? What could the Havana Syndrome be? That’s what we’ll talk about today.

And this is how she leaves it.

(T)his) is a really difficult story and no one presently has a good explanation for what has happened. Most importantly I think we must keep in mind that there could actually be a number of different reasons for why those people fell ill. While it seems unlikely that the first cases in Cuba spread by mass hysteria, the cases in China only began after those in Cuba had made headlines, so that’s an entirely different situation.

Well, not quite, the end. She raises a few of the prominent ideas that have become part and/or parts of conspiracy theories about which she says she doesn't "have any insights." We humans have a talent and liking for them, these easy explanations. However, most often presented with little, if any, evidence.

She mentions she welcomes comments, especially about the latter, I'll remind you that they are no longer possible on the blog but are if you subscribe to her series. She said that between developing and presenting these, she no longer had the time to pay attention to comments on her blog. 

Fair enough. 

Monday, February 7, 2022

Sharp Science Shots for January

Environmental & Science Education, STEM, Biodiversity, Geology, Earth & Space Sciences, Earth Systems, Nature, Wildlife, Art & Environment, Cosmos, Astronomy

Ed Hessler

Nature's photographic team has chosen January's "sharpest science shots." The gallery includes comments and explanations. There you will find a massive fireplace, Greta's frog, the recent find of an intact fossil and more.
While I'm at it, the BBC had a story with additional images of the snowfall on Algeria's Sahara Desert which includes white snow on red desert sand. The BBC also had a video of a snowfall on red sand dunes (December 2016), the first snow residents of Ain Sefra had experienced since 1979.

Admission is free and you can amble at your leisure.


Sunday, February 6, 2022

Earthquake Predictions: Intermediate and Long Term

Environmental & Science Education, STEM, Earth & Space Science, Earth Systems, Solar System, Geology 

Ed Hessler

"Earthquakes" writes Sabine Hossenfelder, "are the most fatal natural disasters. According to a report from the United Nations Office for Disaster Risk Reduction, in the period from 1998-2017, Earthquakes accounted for 7.8% of natural disasters, but for 56% of deaths from natural disasters. Why is it so hard to predict earthquakes? Did you know that the number of earthquakes correlates with solar activity and with the length of the day? You didn’t? Well then stay tuned...."

In the first of a two-part series, Hossenfelder discusses "the long-term and intermediate term forecast for earthquake probability, ranging from centuries to months." She notes that "geophysicists are teasing out some really systematic correlations that may lead to better long-term predictions" regarding the risk of an earthquake. 

The video is 14m 30s long. You may watch it on YouTube (linked) but in this link there is a complete transcript, too.