Let Facts Go Viral

Spanish flu pandemic of 1918, photo from historyofvaccines.org

The question was asked yesterday: What’s something you’ve longed believed to be true, but now you know is not true?  When it comes to worldwide problems, we often think: It can’t happen here. I mused about this while watching the news, with story after story about the coronavirus, topped by Our Leader at a press conference emphasizing that there are only 15 U.S. cases of the virus, and really that would soon be zero. That same day, the 60th case in the U.S. was confirmed, a case which is literally Here, near-ish to where I live. At the moment, they don’t know how the person became infected, and they don’t know who she came in contact with.

It can happen here.

Americans seem to sway between attitudes of invulnerability and full-scale panic. It can’t happen to us, that’s only for exotic people in China or Iran. Next day, we’re in long lines at Home Depot asking where we can buy HAZMAT suits. I’d like to take a middle road here and discuss some fact facts about pandemics—risks, likely scenarios, treatment, and precautions.

Lessons of History

There have been pandemics before, the most prominent being the Spanish flu pandemic of 1918, where 30 million people died. An estimated 500 million, 27% of the world’s population, became infected, and the death rate averaged around 2%. As many as 675,000 Americans died of the 29 million thought to have contracted the disease. The outbreaks occurred in two waves: one in the winter of 2018 during normal “cold and flu” season and a second, deadlier wave, in late summer. An unusually high number of young adults died in that second wave, unlike a typical flu. The disease hit hard even in isolated communities like the Pacific Islands and Alaska, with communities like Samoa losing 30%. In other places, such as the U.S., the mortality rate was closer to 0.5%. Not everyone was exposed. Not everyone exposed became infected. Not everyone who became infected died.

For comparison, a normal flu season in the U.S. kills between 20-40,000 people annually, about 0.1%. Like the coronavirus, the typical flu spreads when infected people cough or sneeze. People who die from the flu are usually those most vulnerable to respiratory diseases because their immune system is already compromised or they have other risk factors. Not everyone is exposed. Not everyone exposed becomes infected. Not everyone who becomes infected dies.

From CDC.org, your best source of data about infectious diseases in America

Why You Might Want to Be Worried

The seasonal flu numbers are always scary, but it amazes me how much people shrug off the data. People don’t get flu shots; they’re not worried because “they don’t get the flu.” On the other hand, others they come in contact with don’t always call it the flu. How many times have you been near someone in the last two months who has “the office yuck” or “that thing that’s going around”? You might have been exposed to the flu without knowing it. Remember, an estimated 90% of the New World population died when the Europeans carried a version of smallpox, to which they had become immune. Not having had a disease doesn’t prevent you from getting a strain of it.

There are two things particularly worrying about the coronavirus, compared with a seasonal flu. First, it can take up to two weeks for someone to display symptoms, leaving an infected person a long time to interact with others. Secondly, while a mortality rate of 2% sounds very low compared with a normal flu season, that number would be awfully, awfully high if infection rates are 20-50%. What’s 2% of 20% of 7 billion people? Millions of people; Spanish flu territory.

Jumbles of Numbers

The other worrying part for me is the difficulty of getting clean information. I would like to know, for example, what is the infection rate from exposure? What’s the likelihood of getting sick, if you’re infected? Is the estimated mortality rate 2% of people who got sick, 2% of those infected, or 2% of those exposed?

Fortunately for us and unfortunately for them, the passengers on the cruise ship Diamond Princess provide an interesting setting to look for some of this information. There were 3700 passengers on the ship when a person was identified as being infected. Some 700+ eventually became infected, which is around 20%. They had been in isolation in theory, but it wasn’t consistent and strict. For example, the crew wasn’t kept separate from each other, and it’s unclear what measure they were using when preparing food. At least one Japanese doctor who boarded the ship saw breeches of protocol all over the place, with crew members and health workers not using gloves and masks or taking them off, say, to use their phone.

By the time passengers were evacuated, those 700 people had been infected and at least 8 of the 90 Japanese health workers who boarded the ship also among the infected. In other words, it wasn’t so much a quarantine as a breeding ground for disease. Yet even there, a good count is difficult to obtain. For example, one news story also mentioned “700 confirmed COVID-19 cases … not counting infections discovered among passengers after they’ve gone home. “ Wait, not counting others? Well, how many are those?

Right now, we don’t entirely know what we don’t know. Places that are good about keeping track of data don’t have what they need, while places with a lot of cases (China, Iran) are not known for sharing their info with other countries. This leads to swings back and forth between panic and foolishness. There’s no evidence that wearing respiratory masks will keep you from getting infected, but masks are selling out. There’s discussions about whether to cancel the Olympics, which is five months away, but meanwhile many large gatherings of people are still taking place. We don’t seem to be able to take a middle road of caution rather than panic, today rather than later.

Mardi Gras 2020, photo at pennlive.com.

What to Do

Since we do have cases in the U.S. and since we do have reliable health officials whose announcements are not yet being censored politically, there are things we can do:

  • Don’t Panic, even as the numbers increase. There are going to be more cases before there are fewer cases. One thing to watch is the rate of increase. China’s daily increase has started to drop even as more cases announced worldwide. Also, pay less attention to headline-grabbing scary numbers, like how many countries have cases, and more attention to what is known about total infection rates, recovery rates, mortality rates. As far as the stock market goes, the Dow today (which dropped again, yes) is now where it was last September, September 2018, and February 2018. You could argue that the stock markets were overpriced.
  • Get Facts from Reliable Sources. CDC.gov is a good go-to site. They’re updating information daily and being candid about what is known and not known. Get your news from them rather than from Facebook. Always remember that the media is trying to get you to look, so their information may over-sensationalize risks (even MSNBC).
  • Have a Plan. Let’s just suppose that on April 10th, you find out that someone you know does have the coronavirus, not the office yuck or the flu. What would you do if you needed to be quarantined? Do you have enough food at home? Could you work entirely from home? What social interactions would you curtail? Do you have upcoming travel plans–what would happen if you needed to cancel them? These questions shouldn’t make you panic, but rather build confidence that you can handle whatever is thrown at you. C’mon, we’re Americans! We’re strong and resilient. We can handle it!

I like to say that if you have a contingency plan, you won’t need it. Instead of choosing between ohmygod I need a mask vs. nothing to worry about here!, it might be better to just think a little about what might happen. Keep yourself accurately informed.

And wash your hands.

A Woman’s Place Is…In Space

Astronaut Christina Koch printing tissue
Astronaut Christina Koch growing a new kidney (?who knows?) Photo at NASA.gov.

Growing organs in microgravity was the experiment that hooked me. Apparently, they’re experimenting on the space station with 3D printers that grow human organs, like hearts, in zero gravity. The difficulty with growing organs on earth is that soft tissue (“biomaterial”) tends to collapse while it’s being printed, unable to hold a shape and turning to mush before it’s completed. In space, the replicated tissue can hold its shape long enough for cells to growth more tightly together in a culture, eventually becoming strong enough to return to earth’s gravity. That’s the theory, anyway.

I learned about this while digging further into the amazing experiments performed by Astronaut Christina Koch, who just completed a record 328 days in space. As the NY Times reported today, she came home safely after a near-year on the international space station. She also completed three all-female spacewalks.

However, it’s the number and breadth of experiments she conducted that may make the most difference to future generations of spacefarers. After all, if we’re going to check out the interstellar neighborhood, we’re going to need to know how to eat real food, practice medicine, and put out fires. You know, domestic affairs. Who better to do all that than Christina Koch, given the old saying that a woman’s place is in the home.

Do You Think that Spacesuit Makes You Look Fat?

The faces of the early space pioneers were all male, of course, selected from the military, which excluded the likes of notable female pilots Amelia Earhart and Harriet Quimby from its ranks. Actually, to be fair, this bias was in the American space program, since Valentina Tereshkova of the USSR was the first woman in space way back in 1963, only two years after the first American man had gone up.

As the American program shifted from moon landings to space shuttles, NASA finally broadened their entry class in 1978 to include women. Sally Ride, a Stanford physicist, was selected to be the first woman aboard the Challenger in 1983, specializing in working with the robotics arm that deployed satellites. Many of us are young enough to remember the “Ride, Sally Ride!” T-shirts and bumper stickers that advertised pride in such an achievement. Dr. Ride, for her part, remained stoic and smiling during the blizzard of press questions that focused repeatedly on her gender rather than her work, one inane question after another:

Will the flight affect your reproductive organs?
Will you become a mother?
Do you weep when things go wrong on the job?

Questions asked of Dr. Sally Ride, first American woman in space

After Sally Ride left NASA, she continued her physics work at both Stanford and UC San Diego, founded a company that fostered opportunities for young women to work in the sciences, and wrote a number of books aimed at encouraging children especially girls towards space. I note with interest that she worked with optics at UCSD, which is where and what my Favorite Son is studying, and that she also had a degree in English because Shakespeare, what else? Clearly, she studied the Right Stuff.

NASA Class 8

NASA astronauts in training
Part of NASA’s 1978 Astronaut Class 8, the first to include women. Photo from NASA Archives.

The entire NASA astronaut class 8, the first to include women, was full of notables. Pictured next to Ride from the left are Judith Resnik, Anna Lee Fisher, Kathryn Sullivan, and Margaret Rhea Seddon. Seddon was the payload commander on Columbia in 1993, receiving recognition for conducting the most successful Spacelab mission at the time for work on medical research to determine how human physiology would fare in space. Kathryn Sullivan was the first woman to walk in space. Anna Fisher worked on tailoring spacesuits to fit women and returned to space after giving birth, becoming the first mother in space. Judith Resnik was with Christa McAuliffe and the other five astronauts on the Challenger, which tragically exploded after liftoff twenty years ago last month.

All of these pioneers continued to pave the way for others. While women spacewalking became increasingly as routine as men, it was still a long time before two were able to venture out together. It was only last October when Christina Koch and Jessica Meir completed the first all-women spacewalk, first in part because, until then, NASA only had one spacesuit that fit women. What they did wasn’t especially unusual, only that it took until 2019 for enough women to be in the NASA graduating classes (50%) and available on the station to create a worthy milestone.

Astronaut’s Weir and Koch posing before their all-female space walk October 2019. Photo at NASA.gov.

Some Mad Scientist!

Dr. Christina Koch’s bio is pretty amazing even before you get to the part about the record in space or the spacewalks. She had earned her three degrees, Bachelor’s in Electrical Engineering and Physics and a Master’s in Electrical Engineering, by the age of 24, and had already graduated from NASA’s Academy along the way. She spent three and a half years as a Research Associate in the Arctic and Antarctic (take that Sheldon Cooper!), a prime opportunity to acclimate to months seeing the same faces, surviving without the sun or fresh food.

The isolation, absence of family and friends, and lack of new sensory inputs are all conditions that you must find a strategy to thrive within.[14]

Christina Koch on surviving in the Antarctic, from Wikipedia

When she finally got that opportunity up on the International Space Station, she made the most out of it. If you slide through her “scrapbook” on NASA’s website, you marvel at experiment after experiment. Monitoring the autonomous robots (watching for hints of self-awareness or the Singularity). Studying how fire behaves in space. Conducting experiments to improve kidney stones. Growing new organs, as mentioned above. Working with the Cold Atom labs. Looking at the efficiency of capillary systems compared with standard air and water filtration systems, to see if improved fluid dynamics would also help desalination and water filtration back on earth.

If you’ve ever seen the movie The Martian, you can almost hear Matt Damon’s voice:

So in the face of overwhelming odds, I’m left with only one option. I’m going to have to science the sh*t out of this.

Botanist Mark Watney in The Martian.
Were the outfits supposed to match the plants? The Lost in Space hydroponic garden. Photo at groovyhistory.com.

Botanizing the Heck Out of Mustard Greens

Then, there are the mustard greens. Remember Antarctica? Months without fresh shipments of food? Fresh vegetables are a critical part of human diet, with leafy greens delivering critical vitamins, fiber, and …well…taste. Even I’d enjoy kale if all I’d had for months was extruded protein paste. The NASA experiments reminded me strongly of Lost in Space and their hydroponic gardens, forever being cultivated on the sandy climate of the CBS soundstage.

Maybe it was annoying that the women of space were relegated to the food, while the men were always fixing metal things, but being in charge of food (and water) might arguably be considered the critical job. Christina Koch conducting all those mustard greens experiments put her at the center of the action. As a lead scientist and one of the designers of the Vegetable Production System on the station, puts it:

…Astronauts tend to lose weight. We think that this weight loss is due to menu fatigue, and so we postulate that adding fresh produce to the diet could help with that. 

Giola Massa, principal investigator for Veggie, the NASA plant production system

These plants are grown in pillows rather than soil, watered with a syringe daily, and exposed to red-blue light combinations to see how that affects the harvest. While you may not crave mustard greens yourself, you can imagine how a leaf might seem mighty appealing after months of eating things out of freeze-dried packages.

Astronaut Koch growing mustard greens
Queen of the Mizuna mustard greens, Dr. Christina Koch. Photo at NASA.gov.

The next moon mission is planned for 2024, which will be a blink of an eye in the grand scheme of our scientific history, even though it is still years away. Last year, NASA announced that the next set of missions will be named Artemis, twin to the Apollo missions that started their journeys in the 1960s. Perfect to be named after the goddess of the moon! The plan is to land women and men on the surface. I noted with glee that the picture of the prototype spacesuit for extravehicular activity (EVA)–male or female–was worn by astronaut Kristine Davis.

The suits fit, finally. The women are walking, growing, piloting, and sciencing the bejeezus out of everything. I can barely wait until that first one, whether it’s Davis, Koch, Weir, or any one of a number of intrepid, smarty-pants women, takes that first step out there.

Then, a woman’s place will be on the moon.

Icarus Reborn

The Parker Solar Probe, photo simulation by JHUAPL in Nature.com.

In the decade that I grew up, Americans went to the moon. Then, we flew reusable planes into space, a couple of which turned into spectacular disasters. Since then, most of NASA’s activity has been relegated to the back sections of newspapers or museums. Astronauts dying have a tendency to turn off people’s appetite towards science. Add in the politics of government financing, and when you can’t even agree to spend money on providing food or medicine to people, then funding decade-long programs to shoot a few people off towards a distant planet seems pretty impossible.

But a couple of stories this week in those science sections caught my eye, and I am pleased to report that NASA, as well as international space exploration, is alive and well. Humans have been going into space, one small research grant at a time. Well-played, NASA.

Barbecue Spacecraft

What’s the fastest human-made object that’s ever traveled? The Parker Solar Probe zipped near the sun in September of this year at 213,000 miles per hour. In comparison, the escape velocity of rockets leaving earth is only about 30,000 mph, which is still hundreds of times faster than we’d experience in a plane. Parker, which was named for University of Chicago (my alma mater) scientist Eugene Parker, who first hypothesized about solar winds, was launched two years ago to explore the sun. Apparently, it’s finding out some really cool things.

Of course, the probe has to get very close to the sun to do this, and in its third dive around Sol, Parker was about 15 million miles out—halfway between Mercury and the sun. Plans are for it to make another couple dozen circuits, which should generate speeds nearly twice as fast and bring it twice as close. On the surface of the sun, the temperature runs around 10,000 o F, although at the corona, the thin covering around the sun, the temperatures can be millions of degrees, up to 300 times hotter. Parker won’t get quite that close, but it’s built to withstand up to 1400 o C, which is steel-melting territory.

Continue reading “Icarus Reborn”

The Singularity Always Happens

How did the Mongols conquer Asia? Where did knights come from? Look at the feet. Photo from arstechnica.com.

Will the Singularity happen? I’m currently reading an international spy techno-thriller pot-boiler whose premise centers around the creation of Artificial General Intelligence (AGI), just asTerminator: Dark Fate is raking in big bucks in theaters. Scary futures are big entertainment business. It’s a perfect time for a provocative question like the one Fandango asks today:

Do you think the singularity will occur? If so, what time frame do you think it will happen in and how will it impact humanity? Alternatively, do you think or care at all about the potential for reaching singularity?

The short answer is: World-threatening technology is perpetually created by humans. Humans then create an alternative to pull civilization back from the brink. Lather. Rinse. Repeat.

My autocorrect: “You didn’t type candy corn, you typed child porn….” Your IP address has been forwarded to local law enforcement.
Continue reading “The Singularity Always Happens”

We Don’t Remember the Future Imperfect

Author’s Note: I apologize, in advance, for mangling Spanish, misinterpreting quantum physics, and injecting so many puns into this essay.

Time is perfect. We are imperfect. We remember only the past. We don’t remember the future.

The past is always tense, the future perfect.

Zadie Smith

This quote from English novelist Zadie Smith is today’s provocative question (muchas gracias, Fandango). It suggests we remember the negatives and hope for the positives. The future hasn’t occurred, so it can be what our imagination creates. This is also a play on grammar, which is a subject much on my mind these days as I am attempting to learn Spanish. So, for me, the tense is confusing. The present might be more like the collapse of a wave, given that the arrow only goes one direction. But the Multiverses suggest that the arrows might go several directions, if we could but see them, and that would make the future perfect. Let me explain what I mean.

One view of the Multi-verse, photo of Into the Spider-verse by Sony Pictures

Tenses Are Difficult. Futures Are Also Difficult.

The use of the word Tense, in the sense of verbs and grammar, comes from the Old French word for time which was tens. That’s not to be confused with the current French word for time, temps; language has changed. Language, like time, moves forward (and collapses). The word does not refer to “tense” as in stretchiness, which comes from the Latin tendere. This is why Zadie Smith’s quote is a looping play on words, since it mixes emotions and grammatical expressions, and either deliberately or innocently uses them wrongly. Tense does not mean tension. It is a homophone. Which is intense. And perhaps what she intended.

Continue reading “We Don’t Remember the Future Imperfect”