How Do Scientists Know?

Those scientists dudes–and dudenas–are so smart! They can tell you how much oxygen a dinosaur was using. They can figure out where the bubonic plague came from, 700 years ago. They can use new computers to rescan old pictures to look for earth-nudging asteroids. Exploring the universe with tools, logic, and an understanding of the behavior of things, they can describe what happened in places they can’t see and have never gone. Knowledge spreads ever-so-slightly outward into the vastness of the unknown.

Drawing of Dr. Jasmina Wiemann’s test subjects from scitechdaily.com.

Strangely enough, it gives me a warm and fuzzy sense of comfort. As the kids say, Science gives you All the Feels. But let’s not get it tangled up with Belief.

Hot Blood Begets Hot Thoughts and Hot Deeds

Whether dinosaurs were hot-blooded or cold-blooded is a century-old argument. It was two whole classes in my semester of Paleontology 2A, back in the 1980s. Dr. Jasmina Wiemann at CalTech may have come across clues that explain why it’s been so hard to determine. The answer is a little of both.

Dinosaurs were reptiles. They lay eggs, and they don’t have fur/hair–I will spare you the much longer explanation involving clades. Modern reptiles are cold-blooded, ectothermic; they rely on external sources to raise body temperature enough to move around. They have slow metabolisms, so are very thrifty with their energy movements. Mammals and other creatures are endothermic or warm-blooded, with fast metabolisms. We can move around even when it’s not warm or sunny, even though we’d rather burrow under the covers. And some of us have such low metabolisms that even thinking about Cheetos causes bloating. But I digress.

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Sewage, Save Us!

Wastewater monitoring in Bay Area, courtesy of covid-web.org

Who knew that effluent could be interesting? Who knew that the poop emoji was grinning for a reason? Who could have foretold, two years ago, that wastewater would be the key to everything? The scientists did.

Scientists have been closely monitoring wastewater and COVID since the start of the pandemic, and their data has helped predict patterns that have proved essential to acting on the spread of the disease. This kind of analysis has saved lives before and may be more common than we knew.

Dr. John Snow, who knew plenty. Photo from wikipedia.

The Intrepid Sewage Scientists of Yesteryear

The year is 1854, London. You’ve read your Dickens, so you can visualize the urchins, the dark and narrow alleys, the choking industrial pollution. And the sewage–open cesspool holes near houses and channels of who-knows-what running near the sidewalks. There’s a cholera outbreak, and cholera has to be one of the nastiest diseases ever invented by that clever bacteria kingdom. I mean, if you’re evil bacteria and you want to spread across your host population as quickly as possible, what better way than to infect a human intestinal tract then produce explosive, watery … uh…. output.

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Cal Football’s COVID problem: Go Stay Home, Bears!

I am 99% certain that this story won’t surprise any of you. I am 99.5% sure that college football has too many players. And I am 100% disappointed in the stupidity of the behavior of players for my alma mater, which has had to cancel its upcoming game against USC because of a COVID outbreak.

The Bears had 24 players out with COVID on 11/6 that their opponents broke a 20-game losing streak. Getty photo from SFGate.com

The back-and-forth finger-pointing between the Cal sports program and local health officials started before the previous week’s game, when 24 players couldn’t travel to Arizona due to “COVID protocols.” Players, alumni, and sports fans weren’t bashful in criticizing the City of Berkeley Health Services and the university for being overly cautious. However, the dam broke this week, when so many players and staff tested positive that the team had to cancel their next upcoming game. As it turns out, the facts matter, especially when the whole picture is revealed. And, for most of you, who I suspect don’t care about Cal or college football, there are also lessons to be learned.

The Sequence of Events

A few days before the Cal-Arizona football last Saturday, the team announced that 24 players were required to stay home due to COVID protocols. This included starting players, such as quarterback Chase Garber. News reports later clarified that they weren’t staying home just because of exposure to someone with COVID but because they had tested positive themselves.

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