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Interesting Excerpts
The following excerpts are from articles or books that I have recently read. They caught my interest and I hope that you will find them worth reading. If one does spark an action on your part and you want to learn more or you choose to cite it, I urge you to actually read the article or source so that you better understand the perspective of the author(s).
Study: Police Diversity Matters

[These excerpts are from an article by Douglas Starr the 12 February 2021 issue of Science.]

      …Does a police officer’s race matter when it comes to the use of force, or even the decision to stop someone in the first place? Although many activists, academics, and even police departments have answered yes—and hired more minority officers to improve community relations—a link has never been proved, and the field has been riddled with contradictory studies.

      …After combing through millions of police records from 2012 to 2015 and analyzing them for the nature of the action, the time of day, the race a of the civilian and the officer, and many other factors, they found that Black, Hispanic, and female officers in Chicago made fewer stops and arrests than their white male counterparts, especially for petty crimes.

      …To properly compare arrest and stop records, they had to geolocate each incident. They also threw out the records of higher ranking officers and explosives technicians, who tended not to interact with civilians. The result, Mummolo says, “was a real Frankenstein data set.” But it allowed the team to refine its list to nearly 7000 officers, who, over 3 million shifts, had engaged in 1.6 million stops, arrests, and uses of force over a period of 3 years.

      When they analyzed their data, they found Black officers in Chicago made far fewer stops and arrests, by 29% and 21%, respectively, than their average white counterparts. They used force 32% less frequently. Overall, Black officers stopped 17% fewer white civilians than their white counterparts, and 39% fewer Black civilians. Most of the differences involved discretionary stops for “suspicious” activity or minor violations; the researchers saw little difference in stops and arrests for violent crimes….They saw a similar pattern with Hispanic officers. Across all races, female officers made fewer stops for minor violations than male officers.

      The results make a strong case that diversifying a police force can reduce conflicts between officers and the community without making any trade-offs in public safety, other researchers say….

Rx for Environmental Health Disparities

[These excerpts are from an article by Harriet A. Washington the January/February 2021 issue of Sierra.]

      No one should be surprised to learn that higher rates of coronavirus infection and death have plagued the racially marginalized African American, Latino, and Native American communities. Other infectious scourges such as HIV and hepatitis C have shown a similar pattern.

      Yet astonishment flared last April when data revealed that although African Americans constituted 13 percent of the population, they accounted for approximately 40 percent of reported COVID-19 cases. Twitter users proffered familiar theories to explain it….

      …African Americans, Latinos, and Native Americans supposedly courted their own illness by being obese; by smoking, drinking, and using drugs; by choosing crumbling tenements and vermin-infested public housing over suburban bedroom communities; and by ignoring social distancing and, by extension, the law as they ventured out and congregated daily.

      …For these Victorian scientists, the shockingly high infant mortality rate of the enslaved was the direct result not of the peculiar institution’s starvation, physical labor, untreated diseases, and draconian punishments but rather of Black parents' abuse and neglect.

      The era’s physicians called pellagra a Black infectious disease that struck only African Americans because of their penchant for living in filthy, crowded conditions. Only in 1920 did research by Joseph Goldberger reveal it as a deficiency disease, linking it to the Lmalnutrition that had been so common during enslavement….

      We also need a strong federal watchdog dedicated to protecting communi-ties from environmental hazards. That begins with revitalizing the Environmental Protection Agency, which is in shambles thanks to the Trump administration. Trump and his allies rolled back dozens of protections that had blocked big polluters from exposing people to carbon dioxide, methane, mercury, and other emissions long known to be responsible for major public health effects, such as cardiovascular disease, neurological disorders, and strokes. Prior to the Trump administration, the EPA had a long history of successfully targeting the purveyors of environmental poisons by enforcing industry standards, replete with government surveillance and penalties. It’s time to rebuild them.

      Eliminating environmental racism’s shameful inequity also requires confronting and correcting the healthcare faultlines that shape it. We must nurture a society in which we address and treat all patients with the same respect and care. Racism, not race, is the problem….

      To remedy this, health insurance should be extended to all, and the government should invest in keeping local hospitals open. We can begin by extending health care to all the essential workers who are being forced to forgo social distancing.

      Fortunately, as one of the world’s wealthiest nations, we have the solution to medical inequity, and we have the means. We just need the political will.

Environmental Justice Demands Listening

[These excerpts are from an article by Dorceta E. Taylor the January/February 2021 issue of Sierra.]

      …The environmental justice movement arose because of the urgent need to make connections between racism, discrimination, equity, justice, and the environment. Published in 1962, Silent Spring, Rachel Carson’s brilliantly crafted expose about the dangers ofpesticides, helped usher in the modern environmental movement. But the book focused on wildlife and human health without accounting for how pesticides disproportionately harmed farmworkers—particularly seasonal-immigrant labofers of color. When the United Farm Workers fought indiscriminate organophosphate use on the grounds of worker safety, the Audubon Society, the Sierra Club, and the Environmental Defense Fund declined to support them, since organophosphates caused less harm to wildlife than DDT.

      In 1972, Sierra Club members were asked to vote on the question “Should the Club concern itselfwith the conservation problems of such special groups as the urban poor and ethnic minorities?” Most members voted no. But there was a generational divide—the younger the members, the more likely they were to agree that they should.

      …Instead, big environmental groups developed policies like cap-and-trade without consultation with environmental justice organizations. Cap-and-trade placed limits on overall emissions but allowed big polluters like oil refineries to purchase the right to emit more. Those big polluters were more likely to be located in communities of color, and later assessments showed that those communities became more polluted after cap-and-trade policies went Lint° effect….

      Environmental justice advocates want to see more than words to heal the wounds of the past. They want to see full accountability from environmental organizations about the concrete steps they have taken and what they have accomplished in making their organizations diverse, equitable, and inclusive. The future of environmental justice is one in which people of color are recognized as equal partners in environmen-tal'affairs, and it is one in which people of color can realize the adage coined at the outset of the environmental justice movement: “We speak for ourselves.”

Teach Your Elders Well

[These excerpts are from an article by Varshini Prakashin the January/February 2021 issue of Sierra.]

      We are young people who have witnessed a world in chaos careening toward climate catastrophe. We have watched and waited our entire lives for people much older and more powerful than us to take care of the crises that were emerging. Yet little has happened. Now our generation is standing up to say, “We are ready to be the adults in the room. We are ready to take the future into our own hands. We are ready to envision reality in a different way.”

      …there was no political home for young people in America who were concerned about the climate crisis'. There was no political home for teenagers and twentysomethings who woke up every day horrified by the crisis and went to sleep imagining a chaotic, climate-disordered world. We realized that it would be absolutely game-changing if we could harness the power of young people—all their passion, optimism, and hope—and translate it into campaigns for long-lasting political change.

      Young people have historically played an important role in social movements and political change….

      …One of the biggest and most important principles of effective protest is this: In your demands and your vision, don’t lead with what is possible in today’s reality but with what is necessary—for, say, the survival of humanity, or for achieving the ultimate goals of whatever campaign or issue you’re working on. So often, I find that older generations are hindered by their view of what is possible or impossible right now….

      Second, we were unafraid to go after not just Republicans—who were denying the validity of climate science and supporting misinformation campaigns—but also Democrats….

      Third, storytelling is powerful….we didn't just deliver a petition with a bunch ofnumbers about parts per million or 2°C. We shared stories about what we had lost because of the climate crisis, or what we were afraid, of losing. We told stories about what we hoped for our future. Some of the storytellers were in high school, not even able to vote yet, but were engaged in politics because of how much they cared for their future….

      Fourth, young people are amazing these days at using all the tools at our disposal to reach other young people, sharing our ideals not just from a political perspective but also from a cultural perspective. We powerfully marry digital organizing with offline organizing….

      The biggest thing that needs to happen for a better future is that ordinary people need to get more power. I don’t expect power holders or people in office to make that happen. We have to build movements….

      The truth is that you can dream up all the white papers you want and create all the policy proposals you want, but we can’t enact any of it into reality if we don’t have power….The road forward is uncertain. But the question of what's possible stretches us to open up our imagination and create new worlds in ways that we L. might never have dreamed of before.

Will the Circular Economy Save the Planet?

[These excerpts are from an article by Elizabeth L. Cline in the January/February 2021 issue of Sierra.]

      …The apparel industry churns out about 5 billion pairs of jeans each year in a resource-intensive process; making a single pair requires at least 800 gallons of water and is responsible for the release of 20 kilograms of CO2 equivalents (comparable to charging your phone about 2,550 times). Add to that about a third of a cup of chemicals to achieve the colors and distressed look consumers have come to expect….

      The fashion industry is notoriously wasteful, consuming roughly 108 million metric tons of nonrenewable resources each year, from pesticides and synthetic dyes to coal and oil. Only about 1 percent of all textiles are recycled into new clothing. The majority—more than two-thirds of textiles—are either incinerated or tossed into landfills.

      These problems are hardly unique to the fashion industry: Our entire economy is built on an inefficient and dangerous system of resource extraction. In 2017, the world passed a grim new annual record of 110 billion tons of resources consumed—from gravel and cement to fossil fuels, metal ores, and timber—an 8 percent increase from just two years before. According to the consultancy Circle Economy, a scant 8.6 percent of materials get reused….

      Over the past decade, the idea of shifting the economy away from a linear model to a circular one to solve our environmental woes has taken hold in corporate boardrooms and government offices around the world. Last June, leaders from the World Economic Forum, the European Parliament, Fortune 500 companies, and environmental grotips endorsed the circular economy as a way to restore the environment and promote growth in response to the coronavirus pandemic. Google, Amazon, Coca-Cola, IKEA, Unilever, and I-I&M have all rolled out ambitious plans to go circular. The United Nations identifies circularity as a key pillar of its Sustainable Development Goals.

      While a global plan to become more sustainable sounds like progress, the circular economy is a huge and fuzzy concept, and it can be hard to pin down how exactly it translates into practice. A 2017 research paper on the topic identified at least 114 definitions of the term, with the majority amounting to little more than reuse and recycling. This is concerning because environmentalists have been championing reuse - and recycling for decades, but our exploitation of resources has only intensified….

      The idea of a modern society built around nature’s circular systems first emerged in economist Kenneth Botilding’s 1966 essay “The Economics of the Coming Spaceship Earth.” In it, Boulding described the urgent need' to transition away from an “open economy” of careless resource extraction, production, and consumption to a “closed Earth”—a cyclical economic system that preserves and maintains resources by creating products that never wear out….

      The various proponents of the circular economy are inspired by nature's capacity to eliminate waste by transforming it into new fodder for ecosystems….

      Responding to decades of pressure from activists and consumers, the fashion industry has seemingly made the most -- progress applying circular economy principles….

      Perhaps more significant (if less technologically alluring), a number of apparel companies and developing business models that revolve around extending the life of the clothes they produce. The secondhand-clothing sector is growing 25 times faster than fast fashion, according to a report by ThredUp, the world’s largest online thrift store. Eco-minded brands like Patagonia and Eileen Fisher now refurbish and resell their own secondhand clothing. And consumers are responding to the trend….

      But the real cutting edge for circular fashion is material innovations that enable fiber and footwear components to be reused over and over again without degrading, keeping materials out ofilandfills and potentially zeroing out the need for virgin fibers. (Current recycling technology produces lower-quality materials that are usually blended with virgin materials.) We’re closer to this science-fiction-sounding scenario than most people realize….

      Companies outside the fashion industry have also introduced circular economy initiatives in recent years. IKEA has committed to making all of its furniture out of renewable or recyclable content by 2030. The company is rolling out its Second Life for Furniture program, which pays customers for their gently used IKEA furniture and resells it in stores across 27 countries….

      It’s hard not to be dazzled by circular innovations like an in-store recycling machine that spits out a new sweater. But as the circular economy scales up, and case studies emerge in real life, problems with the concept are coming to light.

      …Russell concedes that most big businesses that are exploring circularity aren’t doing so at the expense of their main revenue streams….

      What that means is that in fashion and elsewhere, the circular economy is not replacing the linear economy; it’s merely running parallel to it. In other words, circularity is being positioned as a way to drive new growth, not necessarily as a way to cut down on the use of raw materials. There’s no evidence that any of the large brands embracing circularity are actually using fewer virgin resources overall. The fashion industry is a case in point: It still manufactures an estimated 100 billion garments annually; enough for every human on-the planet to buy something new to wear every month. Total production of virgin textiles—whether polyester, cotton, or rayon—hit historic highs in 2019.

      What’s more, by emphasizing reuse and recycling—rather than reducing production—the circular economy runs the risk of becdming a red herring, enabling companies to increase their environmental impact while appearing greener to the public. The circular economy is essentially riding on decades of public conditioning that has us convinced that reuse and recycling are always good for the planet, but that’s not the case…..

      The economics and difficulty of recycling complex consumer goods like electronics, cars, and furniture mean that wide-scale refurbishment and recycling of most products remain elusive. But even if industry were to overcome these barriers and finally scale up recycling, virgin-resource consumption still might not decrease. This is partly because recycling itself requires water, energy, and chemicals. It is far from a zero-impact process….

      In fact, designing products so they're made to be recycled and reused could drive up overall consumption of virgin resources….

      Steel, for example, is the most widely recycled material, and yet consumption of primary steel has doubled in the past 20 years. Because the total consumption of resources is growing by about 3 percent every year, it's difficult to make every new thing out of old things, which means recycled material will always be in competition with virgin material….

      Despite decades of enthusiasm about the circular economy, today’s world is much further away from being sustainable than when Cradle to Cradle was written. The Model U still hasn't been mass-produced, the amount of carpet landfilled in the United States has nearly doubled, and more than 9 million tons of furniture winds up in the trash in the United States every year. Electronics are now the fastest-growing waste stream in the world.

      …Geyer believes that a circular economy, even one grounded in reuse and recycling, could help us get. closer to our ultimate goal, which is to live within the planet’s boundaries. But that won’t magically happen….

      The notion that we can go on making as much as we want as long as we reuse it all is a myth that we’ll have to leave behind if we ever want to realize the dream of a circular economy….

Forests to Burn

[These excerpts are from an article by Christopher Ketcham in the January/February 2021 issue of Sierra.]

      …In 2019, a new industry came to town. Enviva, the World's largest producer of wood pellets for what it calls “sustainable wood bioenergy,” opened a processing facility in Hamlet. Most of the pellets produced there will eventually be exported to the United Kingdom and the European Union, where they will be burned as fuel in utility-scale power plants.

      In 2009, the EU set a goal of getting 20 percent of its energy from renewable.sources by 2020—and EU commissioners included wood biomass in the definition of renewables.The broad idea was thatthe unmarketable leftovers from the logging industry could be upcycled into wood pellets that could easily replace coal as a fuel source in existing power plants. Since trees can be replanted, the biomass and forestry industries claimed, the carbon lost in logging and burning them would be absorbed again as the new trees grew.

      As those new EU energy rules have come into effect, the US South 'has become the epicenter of a booming wood-pellet industrythat has grown tenfold in the past decade. But researchers and environmental groups say that biomass for electricity production is not the green-energy solution that corporations like Enviva promise.

      Critics say that the climate-neutrality claims behind biomass depend on a carbon-accounting sleight of hand that ignores the critical timeframe of decarbonizing in the next 10 to 15 years to avoid catastrophic climate warming. Trees take many decades, sometimes a century, to fully mature and store the carbon that’s emitted when forests are felled and burned. Meanwhile, the demand forwood pellets is accelerating clearcutting in the South, where forests are being logged at four times the rate of those in the Amazon rainforest. Research from the British policy. institute Chatham House has concluded thatthe burning ofwood for power emits more carbon than coal per unit of electricity produced….

      As the international biomass industry cloaks its global carbon emissions, the manufacturing of wood pellets has inundated the rural poor in the South with localized air pollution….

      In 2018, the Environmental Integrity Project (EIP) published a review of the operations of 21 wood-pellet processing facilities in the South. The facilities, all of which were exporting pellets to Europe, emitted some 16,000 tons of air pollutants annually. More than half the plants, according to the E1P report, “either failed to keep emissions below legal limits or failed to install required pollution controls,” in violation of Clean Air Act standards. At one Enviva facility in Virginia, plant operators went so far as to remove pollution-control equipment.

      The manufacturing of biomass-energy wood pellets requires drying the logged material in a wood-fired process, then pressing the dried wood into pellets—and every step emits significant amounts of air pollution. According to the EIP study, the emissions from the facilities include fine particulate matter, nitrogen oxides, carbon monoxide, and volatile organic compounds. Wood-pellet manufacturing emits a form of soot and dust called PM 2.5, which can pass deep into the lungs and depress lung function, worsen asthma, and cause heart attacks. Volatile organic compounds, when exposed to sunlight, transform into ozone, which is especially dangerous to children and the elderly.

      …there has been a rise in respiratory problems, fevers, and cancer in communities near wood-pellet processing facilities, but proof of a connection is “hard for us” because there are no epidemiological studies that tie health problems directly to the wood-pellet boom….

      According to federal data, Black children are 1.6 times more likely to be diagnosed with asthma than white children and seven times more likely to die from it….

Ready for 100 Days

[These excerpts are from an editorial by Michael Brune in the January/February 2021 issue of Sierra.]

      …But make no mistake: Our movement still needs to fight for the future we and our children deserve. The Trump administration didn’t create the climate crisis, though it did its damnedest to make it worse. Just installing a new administration won’t end the crisis, either. There are still too many politicians and corporate executives ready to let people die and homes burn to keep the deadly but profitable fossil fuel economy in place. Similarly, systemic racism, misogyny, xenophobia, economic inequality, and votersuppression didn’t begin and won’t end with the Trump administration.

      Still, the Biden administration represents a crucial opening to mend our democracy and our economy, avert climate catastrophe, and ensure that people from all backgrounds have equal access to clean air and clean water and opportunities to explore wild nature. Biden and Harris’s first 100 days offer an opportunity to setthe agenda for the rest of the administration's time in office.

      On the campaign trail, Biden pledged to rejoin the Paris Agreement, institute new methane-pollution limits on oil and gas operations, develop new fuel-economy standards, permanently protect the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and other wilderness areas, ban new oil and gas leasing on public lands and waters, and require public companies to disclose their greenhouse gas emissions and climate-related financial risks—all on day one of his presidency….

      Our country won’t just be facing a climate crisis come Inauguration Day. Owing to Trump's incompetence, we're struggling with a surging pandemic and an economic recession that's pushed millions out of work. As a nation, we'll still be grappling with the systemic racism that devalues the lives of Black, brown, and Indigenous people and leaves their communities disproportionately affected by pollution and climate chaos. Though Trump lost, it’s clear that his brand 0 resentment continues to resonate with millions of Americans….

      We have no timetowaste. According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s 2018 report, by the time Biden takes office, we will have just nine years to limit global warming to 1.5°C and have the chance to avoid the vicious storms, droughts, floods, and fires that would come with a hotter Earth.The grassroots activism that propelled Biden and Harris to the White House will need to be sustained if we are to see any of our goals realized.

      With more than 11 million Americans unemployed, solving the climate crisis represents our bestopportunity to rebuild lives and livelihoods. While it's daunting to consider all that needs to be done, it’s also exciting to have so many pathways to progress. Let’s start by making the most of the Biden-Harris administration's first 100 days.

Fighting the Good Fight

[These excerpts are from a book review by Adrenne Hollis in the 15 January 2021 issue of Science.]

      In Michael Mann’s latest book, The New Climate War, the reader is afforded a unique perspective on the struggle for climate action and climate protection. This perspective, covering the span of a few centuries and ending in the present, weaves together the missteps, manipulations, and misrepresentations that have occurred throughout the so-called climate war between those who believe that human actions play a role in climate change and those who do not. The book ends on a hopeful note with a call to action and recommended steps for climate advocates.

      The “new” climate war Mann refers to in the book’s title introduces a previously untapped element in the climate battle—strategic inaction, as perpetuated by entities he describes as “inactivists.” According to Mann, this new approach—used to greatest effect by those charged with advancing fossil fuel interests—is intended to deflect blame, divide the public, and delay action so that business can continue as usual. Climate inaction differs from climate change denial, a strategyused in past climate arguments that was ultimately unsuccessful….

      Mann describes various attacks that have been leveraged against climate advocates, including himself: attacks on scientific data, terminology, and hypotheses; attempted character assassinations; and the use of outright trickery and deceit to mislead the scientific community and the public. Such efforts, he argues, were meant to deflect attention away from fossil fuel interest groups and their supporters.

      At the same time, the book ties together every action and every inaction that has affected the fight to protect Earth from the adverse consequences of climate change. Mann is transparent about times when those who fight for climate action have fallen short, for example, describing incidents in which climate change advocates have failed to refute false narratives perpetuated by climate deniers. The notion that individuals should be responsible for addressing the adverse effects of climate change is one such narrative, which, he rightly argues, deflects attention away from the fossil fuel industry.

      Climate changeis a “threat multiplier,” a term that has different meanings in different contexts, notes Mann. From a national security peispective, for example, it may contribute to political instability and terrorist activity by exacerbating existing stressors such as agricultural deficits and water shortages. It can also imperil a country’s civil infrastructure. Meanwhile, from a public health perspective, climate change can exacerbate health disparities in communities that are already disproportionately affected by environmental pollution. Here, Mann describes how adverse effects from climate change rendered regions such as Puerto Rico, where health care infrastructure was severely compromised as a result of Hurricane Maria, unable to adequately respond to the COVID-19 pandemic.

      In the book’s closing pages, Mann reveals that he is “cautiously optimistic” about tackling the climate crisis. His reasons stem from the fact that a great deal of attention has been focused on climate change of late, both as a result of the numerous extreme weather events that have occurred recently and because we have had to grapple with the COVID-19 crisis, which has highlighted just how unprepared and vulnerable we are to global threats.

      Mann is most heartened, however, by the current revival of environmental activism, particularly, as he states, “by children across the world,” which he argues has helped to show that climate change is the “defining challenge of our time.” As such, this book is a must read not just for people currently working to address climate change but also for those who are new to the climate fight, the latter of whom will learn much about past challenges, struggles, and attacks that have been aimed at climate champions.

      There is good reason to hope for change, Mann argues. He points to the sustainability efforts that many cities, states, corporations, and nations are embracing, and he emphasizes that although we need to recognize and accept that damage has already been done as a result of climate change, it is not too late to take action.

Public Debate Is Good for Science

[These excerpts are from an editorial by H. Holden Thorp in the 15 January 2021 issue of Science.]

      In the age of the Internet, there's no such thing as a private debate. But is that bad for science? Some scientists have had misgivings. When debates in any sector move beyond the halls of universities and government agencies, there is potential for misuse of information and public confusion. But open debate can also foster communication among scientists and between the scientific community and the public. During the pandemic, open debate on research, health, and policy—whether on television, in newspapers, or on social media—widened public attention and encouraged more diverse voices. If this trend spurs scientists to agree more quickly about the best solutions to our problems—and at the same time helps the public “see” the process of scientific discourse more clearly—then this is good for everyone, including scientists.

      I pay attention to scientists’ public conversations about COVID-19— including the fast-paced exchanges on Twitter—because my role in communicating science includes amplifying consensus while steering clear of becoming an armchair epidemiologist or immunologist. For most of the pandemic, the trusted experts have generally agreed on issues like social distancing and a rigorous analysis of clinical trial data by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and other agencies. But there have been areas where a consensus has not emerged, such as whether and when to close schools or the usefulness of masks.

      More recently, a heated debate has taken place over how to distribute the COVID-I9 vaccines. For those that require two shots, should the period between them be stretched so that more people can be vaccinated sooner? Should the second shot be dropped altogether? Should a half: dose of each shot be given to younger folks at less risk for infection? Outstanding scholars have taken different positions on this, and the United Kingdom decided to stretch the interval between doses substantially. The debate led to what seems like a good outcome in the United States: The FDA decided not to deviate from the protocols followed in the phase 3 clinical trials. That makes sense. Right now, the main constraint for mass vaccination lies in the logistics for administering the shots themselves, not in having a sufficient supply of vaccine. The Biden transition team just announced a plan to get more people vaccinated while working to ensure that enough vaccine will be in place for the second shots.

      …These days, the public can access debates about science regardless of where they take place, so the medium isn’t so important anymore. What matters is getting to the right place in terms of the science—deciding what the question should be, the appropriate way of answering it, and the correct interpretation of the data. For many scientists, public debate is a new frontier and it may feel like the Wild West (it may well be). But rather than avoiding such conversations, let the debates be transparent and vigorous, wherever they are held. If we want the public to understand that science is an honorably self-correcting process, let’s do away once and for all with the idea that science is a fixed set of facts in a textbook. Instead, let everyone see the noisy, messy deliberations that advance science and lead to decisions that benefit us all.

Species? Climate? Cost? Ambitious Goal Means Trade-offs

[These excerpts are from an article by Erik Stokstad in the 5 February 2021 issue of Science.]

      President Joe Biden last week unveiled an ambitious conservation goal, unprecedented for the United States: conserving 30% of the country’s lands and waters by 2030, which would require more than doubling the area of public and private holdings under heightened protections.

      Conservation scientists welcomed the so-called 30-by-30 goal….

      But Biden’s order also raises athorny practical question: Which swaths of land and sea should be the top targets for enhanced protection or management? The order says the effort should aim for a number of outcomes, including preserving biodiversity, curbing climate change, and even creating jobs and promoting environmental justice. But researchers warn that difficult trade-offs lie ahead, because few chunks of territory can provide all of the desired benefits….

      Reaching the 30% goal could require extending protection to vast expanses of land and sea, depending on how officials define “protected.” Only about 12% of U.S. land is already in wilderness areas, wildlife refuges, national parks, and other reserves with strong protection, according to the U.S. Geological Survey. Much is in Alaska; just 7.5% of the lower 48 states is highly protected….At sea, the country is much closer to the goal: Some 26% of coastal waters is protected to some degree within sanctuaries, national marine monuments, or other entities….

      Making cost the top priority led to expansive new protection in the western plains, where land is cheaper. But because most of the added land supports relatively few threatened species, the scheme would fall short on that measure. The least cost scenario also protected relatively little land that absorbs or stores climate warming gases such as carbon dioxide or methane.

      Another scenario, which emphasized protecting resilient and connected land-scapes, cost twice as much. It preserved areas across most of the country except deserts and the corn belt. A third vision, focused on preventing the loss of grasslands and forests that store carbon, delivered the most climate benefit, but cost three times as much. It also produced a patchwork of protected forests in the southeast that lacked connections, reducing their value for preserving biodiversity. A final scenario, which protected species across the country but especially in the south, covered the greatest range of ecosystems. It cost four times as much and provided fewer climate benefits. Overall, the analysis found that just 2% of lands scored highly on all four measures.

      Observers say Biden could make rapid progress and contain costs by focusing on territory already owned by the federal government….

      The Biden administration’s plans should become clearer by May, when federal agencies must outline their strategies for reaching the 30-by-30 goal….

Study Shows Winners, Losers as Desert Warms

[These excerpts are from an article by Elizabeth Pennisi in the 5 February 2021 issue of Science.]

      In the early 1900s, Joseph Grinnell traversed the wilds of California in his Ford Model T truck, meticulously surveying its fauna. Along the Californian coast, he trapped pocket mice and watched condors soar; in the Mojave Desert, his team chronicled American kestrels swooping for insects and caught cactus mice hiding among rocks.

      Now, by comparing Grinnell's data with modern surveys, ecologists have shown that climate change has not been an equal opportunity stressor. As the Mojave warmed by about 2°C over the past century, bird numbers and diversity declined dramatically, but small mammals like little pocket mice are holding their own. The survivors’ secret seems to be a nocturnal lifestyle and an ability to escape the heat by burrowing….

      Until now, researchers have I often assumed climate change challenges mammals and birds in similar ways, because both need to maintain their body temperature. But, “There are clearly winners and losers….”

      The animals Grinnell studied now live in a markedly hotter, drier climate….On average, every spot surveyed had lost more than 40% of its desert bird species, such as American kestrels or mountain quail. At most sites, even the remaining species were scarcer.

      But the new study…tells a more hopeful story for rats, mice, chipmunks, and other small mammals. Since Grinnell’s survey, three species have declined, 27 have remained stable, and four have increased in number….

      …To keep cool, birds must expend energy, for example by dilating blood vessels to evaporate moisture from their legs or mouths. The energetic costs of cooling in birds were more than three times higher than in mammals.

      That’s because most small mammals take refuge underground during the hottest parts of the day. Such behaviors even helped mammals such as woodrats, which are not specially adapted for desert life. Only mammals that find themselves in soil too shallow to provide much cooling, such as the cactus mouse, suffered from the heat….

      Modeling studies like this one will also help conservationists make hard choices….

President’s Note

[These excerpts are from a letter from John Seager in the December 2020 issue of Population Connection.]

      …If there is one thing all Americans can agree on about this election, it’s that the outcome wasn’t entirely what anyone hoped for. The dismal Trump era will thankfully end. Yet congressional results were mixed.

      We were extremely heartened by the election of Joe Biden and Kamala. Harris. They are committed to taking decisive action to repeal the Global Gag Rule and to reinvigorate an array of vital programs. There is no time to lose when we’re literally seeing the world set aflame due to our heedless ways. We were, however, dismayed to see the defeat of several stalwart House supporters of programs that help achieve population stabilization. While some great Senate candidates fell short of victory on Election Day, control ofthat body is still up for grabs.

      …Since the era of rapid population growth began around 1800, it’s taken more than two full centuries for us to reach current overpopulation levels. Like it or not, it’s going to take time and much sustained effort to restore balance.

      Of course, the events of the day matter greatly. And this election in particular was critical. But we must keep thinking about the next generation, the next century, even the next millennium, which is no easy task in this instantaneous era.

      By meeting the population challenge, we can set the table for a much brighter future. Over the past 50 years, we’ve gone from about four nations at or below replacement rate in terms of family size to nearly 100 nations in that category. That's still fewer than half the nations on earth, but it provides a roadmap for a better future if we're willing to persevere.

      One of the best ways to achieve a better, safer, less-crowded future is by ensuring today's young people understand the challenges posed by rapid population growth. We're the only nationwide provider of K-12 Population Education. If we don’t do it, no one will. We adapted rapidly to training thousands of educators remotely under the current COVID regime, since there is no time to lose….

Why Do People Starve?

[These excerpts are from an article by Bobbie Johnson in the January/February 2021 issue of MIT Technology Review.]

      …Hunger around the globe is getting worse, not better. It’s true that the proportion of people who regularly fail to get enough calories to live has been declining, dropping from 15 in 2000 to 8.6% in 2014. Nevertheless, that proportion has since held fairly steady, and the absolute number of undernourished people has been rising. Last year, according to the UN, 688 million people went hungry on a regular basis, up from 628.9 million in 2014. The curve is not sharp, but if current trends continue, more than 840 million people may be undernourished by 2030….

      Today, the global antipoverty nonprofit Oxfam identifies 10 “extreme hunger hot spots” worldwide where millions of people face this abominable torture. Some are theaters of conflict—including Afghanistan, home to the longest war America has been involved in, and Yemen, where a civil war fueled by neighboring Saudi Arabia has left 80% of the country’s 24 million citizens in need of humanitarian assistance. But there are other circumstances that can bring starvation too: Venezuela’s cratering economy; South Africa’s high unemployment rates; Brazil's years of austerity.

      And even in high-functioning industrialized countries, the threat of hunger—not just poor nutrition, but actual hunger—has been rising as a result of economic inequality. In the UK, the use of food banks has more than doubled since 2013. In the US, food insecurity is widespread, and the hardest hit are children, elders, and the poor. In Mississippi, the country’s hungriest state, one child in four is unable to consistently get enough to eat. What's happening?

      It’s hard to comprehend, in part because the food system has been one of the greatest technological success stories of the modern world. What we eat, how it is produced, and where it comes from—all have changed dramatically in the industrial age. We have found a way to apply almost every kind of technology to food, from mechanization and computerization to biochemistry and genetic modification. These technological leaps have dramatically increased productivity and made food more reliably and widely available to billions of people.

      Farming itself has become many times more efficient and more productive. In the early 1900s, the Haber-Bosch process was harnessed to capture nitrogen from the air and turn it into fertilizer at an unprecedented scale. Mechanization came quickly: in the 1930s, around one in seven farms in the US had a tractor; within 20 years, theywere used by the majority of farms. This was matched by an increasing ability to redirect water supplies and tap into aquifers, helping turn some arid regions into fertile arable land. Swaths of China, Central Asia, the Middle East, and the US were transformed by huge water projects, dams, and irrigation systems. Then, in the 1960s, the American agronomist Norman Borlaug bred new strains of wheat that were more resistant to disease, ushering in the “Green Revolution” in countries like India and Brazil—a development that led Borlaug himself to win the Nobel Peace Prize in 1970.

      All of this means that industrialized farmers now operate at almost superhuman levels of output compared with their predecessors. In 1920, more than 31 million Americans worked in agriculture, and the average farm was just under 150 acres. A century later, the total acreage of farmland in the US has fallen by 9%, but just one-tenth of that workforce, 3.2 million people, is employed to tend it. (There are also far fewer farms now, but they are three times larger on average.)

      The supply chain, too, is a futuristic marvel. You can walk into a store in most countries and buy fresh goods from all over the world. These supply chains even proved somewhat resistant to the chaos caused by the pandemic: while covid-19 lockdowns did lead to food shortages in some places, most of the empty shelves were the ones meant to hold toilet paper and cleaning products. Food supplies were more resilient than many expected.

      But the mass industrialization of food and our ability to buy it has created an avalanche of unintended consequences. Cheap, bad calories have led to an obesity crisis that disproportionately affects the poor and disadvantaged. Intensive animal farming has increased greenhouse-gas emissions, since meat has a much larger carbon footprint than beans or grains.

      The environment has taken a beating, too. Booms in fertilizer and pesticide use have polluted land and waterways, and the easy availability of water has led some dry parts of the world to use up their resources.

      …Today, he says, food production is already competing for water with urban and industrial uses. More people are moving to urban areas, accelerating the trend. If this continues, he says, the proportion of the world's fresh water supply available for growing food will drop from 70% to 40%....

      These are all bleak predictions of future hunger, but they don’t really explain starvation today. For that, we can look at a different unexpected aspect of the 20th-century farming revolution: the fact that it didn’t happen everywhere.

      Just as healthy calories are hard to come by for those who are poor, the industrialization of farming is unevenly distributed….But progress stopped there. Today, a hectare of farmland in sub-Saharan Africa produces just 1.2 metric tons of grain each year; in the US and Europe the equivalent land yields up to eight metric tons. This is not because farmers in poorer regions lack the natural resources, necessarily (West Africa has long been a producer of cotton), but because they are locked into a cycle of subsistence. They haven’t industrialized, so they don’t grow much food, which means they can’t make much money, so they can’t invest in equipment, which means they can't grow much food. The cycle continues.

      …The reason farmers in less industrialized nations can’t make much money isn't just that they have low crop yields. It’s also that their markets are flooded with cheaper competition from overseas….

      Patel and Montenegro point out that much of the populist political chaos of recent years has been a result of the trade turmoil—industrial jobs lost to outsourcing, and rural protests in the US and Europe by people angry at the prospect of rebalancing a deck that has been stacked in their favor for decades.

      Donald Trump, they write, “was never honest about ditching free trade,” but “the social power he stirred up in the Heartland was real. Invoking the abominations of outsourced jobs, rural depression, and lost wages, he tapped in to neoliberal dysfunction and hitched the outrage to authoritarian rule.”

      All this leaves us with a bleak picture of what’s next. We have built systems that don’t just widen the gap between rich and poor but make the distance unassailable. Climate change, competition for resources, and urbanization will produce more conflict. And economic inequality, both at home and abroad, means the numbers of hungry people are more likely to rise than fall….

      The countless books about the food system over the past few years make it clear: solutions are easy to lay out and extraordinarily complicated to enact.

      First steps might include helping farmers in poor countries out of the trap they are in by enabling them to grow more food and sell it at competitive prices. Such a strategy would mean not only providing the tools to modernize—such as better equipment, seed, or stock—but also reducing the tariffs and subsidies that make their hard work so unsustainable….

      And food itself needs to be more environmentally sound, employing fewer tricks that increase yields at the expense of the wider ecology. No more farming oases set up in bone-dry deserts; no more Salton Seas. This is difficult, but climate change may force us to do some of it regardless.

      All of this means recognizing that the golden age of farming wasn’t a golden age for everybody, and that our future may look different from what we have become used to. If so, that future might be better for those who go hungry today, and maybe for the planet as a whole. It may be hard to reckon with, but our spectacular global food system isn’t what will stop people from starving—it’s exactly why they starve in the first place.

Mother’s Milk

[These excerpts are from an article by Haley Cohen Gilliland in the January/February 2021 issue of MIT Technology Review.]

      …Breastfeeding has swung in and out LAP of vogue since ancient Les—influenced by the evolution of medical knowledge, but also by race and social status.Wet nursing, the outsourcing of breastfeeding to someone other than a baby’s mother, goes back at least to ancient Greece. Before the Civil War in America, white enslavers forced Black women to breastfeed the enslavers’ children, often to the detriment of the women’s own infants.

      In 1851, the first modem feeding bottle—an elaborate contraption with a cork nipple and ivory pins that selectively closed inlets to regulate air flow—was invented in France, pushing wet nursing to near extinction. Shortly thereafter, German chemist Justus von Liebig concocted the first commercial infant formula, which consisted of cow’s milk, wheat, malt flour, and a pinch of potassium bicarbonate. It quickly came to be considered the ideal infant food.

      By the 20th century, formula use bad skyrocketed, driven in large part by zealous advertising to doctors and consumers. A 1954 advertisement for Carnation evaporated milk in America shows a radiant mother and infant with text that reads, “8 out of 10 mothers who feed their babies a Carnation formula say: ‘My doctor recommended it!’” Later, formula companies began giving hospitals free formula to distribute to new mothers. At the same time, more women were joining the workforce, making sustained breastfeeding more complicated. The perception that formula was just as safe and efficient, if not more so, led breastfeeding rates to plummet. By 1972, 22% ofAmerican infants were breastfed—a historic low, down from 77% of those born between 1936 and 1940.

      Today, those rates have rebounded, and doctors widely agree that breast milk provides the best nutrition for infants. Most American babies—about 84%, according to statistics from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention—are breastfed at some point. But only one-quarter are fed solely breast milk for six months, as recommended by the American Academy of Pediatrics and the World Health Organization.

      Breastfeeding isn’t always easy. As Strickland experienced, babies can struggle to latch on; sometimes the breasts don't produce enough milk; and it can be excruciatingly painful for the mother.

      Moreover, many mothers of newborns have to work, and it can be difficult if not impossible to breastfeed or pump milk in the workplace. This, obviously, is harder for women who are poor, and especially in countries like the United States, where there is no mandatory paid parental leave and only a small percentage of working mothers get it from their employers….

      The manager led her to the processing area, where recently slaughtered cows were strung up by their hooves and moved along a conveyor belt for processing. Trying to keep her eyes locked on the ground, she pointed up at a cow’s udder and muttered weakly: “I’d like that piece, please.” She went back to her makeshift lab, placed a piece of udder in a petri dish, doused it with amino acids, vitamins, minerals, and salts, and carefully deposited it in an incubator….

      Breast milk derives from two types of Lacells in the milk ducts and alveoli—small sacs in the mammary gland where milk collects. Luminal epithelial cells absorb nutrients from the bloodstream and convert them into milk. Beside them, lining the ducts and alveoli, are smooth, muscle-like myoepithelial cells. When an infant starts suclding, it prompts the myoepithelial cells to contract, pushing milk from the luminal cells, through the ducts, to the baby’s mouth.

      …One study in 2015 suggested that producing one kilogram of milk formula generates the equivalent of four kilograms of carbon dioxide emissions. Strickland’s approach had the potential to be much Lmore efficient….

      Biomilq was on the brink of shuttering when Strickland and Egger were promised $3.5 million in funding from a group of investors led by Breakthrough Energy Ventures, which Bill Gates had established to back technologies that could reduce carbon emissions. Upending the formula industry held the promise of doing just that. As the spring of 2020 gave way to summer, the money arrived in Biomilq’s bank account….

      “I think the best thing we can do is support women to breastfeed,” Katz says. But if that’s impossible, mothers “deserve something better than current infant formula….”

      …relatively little is known about breast milk. Most studies of human mammary epithelial cells tend to focus on their role in breast cancer rather than milk production.

      As for the milk itself, it’s a rich and I, bewildering stew of thousands of chemicals….

      …another challenge looms even larger: how to standardize a substance that is unique to every mother.

      Breast milk changes in composition as a child grows. For the first few days after giving birth, mothers produce colostrum, a thick, yellow, concentrated milk packed with compounds like the antibody IgA and lactoferrin, an abundant protein that boosts a baby’s immunity, Soon, colostrum is replaced by “transitional milk,” which is thinner but contains more fat and lactose. After about two weeks, a mother’s milk is considered “mature.” But even then, it can change in composition over the course of a single feeding. Hindmilk, or the last milk left in abreast, has a higher fat content than the milk that is produced earlier on, which is why women are often counseled to empty one breast before switching to the other.

      Though Egger and Strickland admit they won’t be able to replicate this complexity, nor all the antibodies and microbes in any given woman’s milk, they say their product will be more personalized than those of their competitors. Just as Strickland envisioned back in 2013, they plan to work with pregnant women, taking samples of their mammary epithelial cells and culturing them to create individualized milk for use when their babies arrive. After that, they hope to create a more economical generic option using donor cells. Both, Egger insists, will be better than formula….

      Strickland and Egger have already produced a liquid containing both lactose and casein—the main protein and sugar compounds found in breast milk. They are now testing it to see if they can detect other components, like oligosaccharides and lipids. They are currently tinkering with their equipment and the nutrients they use to grow the cells to see what combination gets them closest to matching the composition of natural breast milk; they estimate it will take about two years to come up with a good enough match….

Flesh Forward

[These excerpts are from an article by Niall Firthin in the January/February 2021 issue of MIT Technology Review.]

      …Cultured meat (or, if you prefer your high-tech foodstuffs seasoned with a bit more marketing savvy, “cultivated meat”—the industry now eschews phrases like “lab-grown” or “in vitro”) is already a nascent industry. The product is still exorbitantly expensive compared with old-fashioned meat, you can't yet buy it at the supermarket, and for the most part it doesn’t look or taste much like the real thing….

      While lab-grown meat was busy trying to find its way out of the petri dish, plant-based meat substitutes were undergoing a revolution. Firms such as Impossible and Beyond Meat broke through to the mainstream by cleverly mimicking the flavor and texture of ground beef, pork, and chicken using vegetable proteins and fats. These days you can pick up an Impossible Whopper at Burger King and Beyond Meat sausages in supermarkets in dozens of countries.

      That kind of competition could b e seen as bad news for cultured-meat startups. But Krieger and a number of other entrepreneurs think it’s the opening they need to finally bring their creations to market—in the form of “blended meat,” melding the best of the plant-based and cultured-meat substitutes. Even the world's biggest fast-food firms are interested: KFC has announced it will be working to produce blended chicken nuggets that could be available this year

      Regardless of who gets there first, blended meat is coming, and it might not be long before you get a chance If taste it.

      …A small sample of cells is taken from an animal, usually via biopsy, and then fed a broth of nutrients. When millions of new cells have grown, they are encouraged to differentiate into muscle cells and eventually strands of muscle fiber.

      The technology’s promise is to reproduce the flavor and texture of meat without harming animals, and without the huge environmental costs of rearing them. Proponents also point out that cultured meat won’t carry diseases or need antibiotics, which breed drug-resistant bacteria….

      But there’s a problem. The medium that nurtures the cells is expensive. The cost is dropping from the early days, when startups in the R&D stage relied on repurposed cell culture media taken from biomedical research. But growth media still make up the bulk of production expenses—estimates range from 55% to 95% of the total—and a kilogram of cultured meat still costs hundreds of dollars. Even allowing for eventual economies of scale as factories get up and running, it’s no recipe for success. No wonder, then, that cultured-meat firms have started thinking about how to get a piece of the huge market that plant-meat companies have opened up….

      If you think about it, there’s nothing new about blended meat. Ground-meat products like sausages, nuggets, and burgers have always been a mashup (McDonald’s has said one of its burgers can contain beef from over 100 cows), often mixed with breadcrumbs and other ingredients. That’s because even conventionally processed meat is e. Bulking it out makes for a cheaper product that’s still full of meaty flavor….

      But besides cost, there’s another reason for blending cultured meat with plants. Meat is mostly muscle, but from a flavor perspective, muscle is a relatively minor player. When you bite into a piece of meat you encounter fats, connective tissue like collagen, that juice dripping down your chin ... it's all part of the sensory experience. Eating pure muscle tissue—which is what most cultured meats are right now—is liable to feel like gnawing on a hunk of shoe leather.

      This is where the advances in plant analogues can help. Scientists at Impossible and the Better Meat Company have perfected techniques for adding ingredients like coconut oil and sunflower oil to create moisture in their burgers and sausages. Plant ingredients, used expertly, can help make early cultured-meat products taste and feel more like the real thing….

      Ah, fat. Villainized for decades, it’s still avoided by many of the health-conscious among us. But true foodies know that it’s responsible for so much of what we love about food. In her hymn to good cooking, Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat, the chef and writer Samin Nosrat describes fat as the element that “carries flavor.”

      …The company’s biologists extract stem cells from a fertilized chicken egg, cultivate them, and then grow fat cells in a bioreactor.

      …When it came, the T-bone we chose was beautifully charred from the grill on the outside, and pink, sweet, and succulent inside. It was juicy, packed full of flavor—in a word: heaven.

      Cultured meat is years, if not decades, from delivering anything that approaches such an experience. Most cultured prototypes are closer to the consistency of ground meat. But if and when something approximating a real steak hits your plate, there’s every chance that it will be a hybrid….

      It’s clear that blended products will have to pave the way. But even ignoring the substantial technical obstacles that remain, a big question looms: Will consumers like these foods? The image of meat grown in giant vats, monitored by scientists in lab coats, has a distinct sci-fi ick factor that doesn’t compete well with the cachet of organic, farm-to-table meat from animals that have spent their lives dancing in pastoral bliss.

      Blended meat might, then, do one final job for the cultured-meat industry: help it gain acceptance. People who are already pretty comfortable with the idea if not the flavor of plant burgers will soon get to try them with a sprinkling of cultured cells to add some extra meaty oomph….

      That system of raising and then slaughtering animals has stood for millennia and won’t be easily upended. Cultured meat—first blended, and then in pure form—will only stand a chance if it tastes at least as good as traditional meat….

In Search of Bovine Perfection

[These excerpts are from an article by Jim McAdams in the January/February 2021 issue of MIT Technology Review.]

      …These technologies are expensive, and it is not unusual for seedstock producers to sell their bulls to other ranchers for $30,000 or more. You’d be lucky to raise a hundred calves from a bull in his lifetime if you just tum.him out naturally with the cows, but using advanced reproductive technologies enables that bull to sire several thousand calves….

      Technology has spread like weeds in the ranching world. In the 1970s, artificial insemination became a widespread tool. In the 1990s, we also started to see modem techniques like gene mapping and DNA testing that help us balance our breeds. There is a cost to gene mapping because you have to test your animals, get them into a database, pay all these fees, pay for animal IDs, all of those things….

      The average cow’s weight 50 years ago was probably 900 pounds. In the ‘70s, it was probably 1,000 pounds. Today, it’s about 1,300 pounds. It takes more acres to maintain cows of that size. And they produce much bigger calves, and require more feed in the winter. In the ‘50s, in the early ‘60s, we got cattle too fat and too small, and their productive life was too short. Then in the ‘70s—I graduated college in 1972—there was this war on fat in the industry because the medical field had determined that eating too much fat was bad for people’s hearts. We really focused on getting cattle that would be more efficient, bigger, leaner. That took us about 20 years. And we overdid it. We realized that we were losing the eating experience, because the meat was getting too tough. There’s a fair amount of trial and error. Today, we’re somewhere in the middle. I think we’ve hit the sweet spot. You won’t really find yourself in a restaurant anymore saying, “I broke my tooth on that steak.”

      Breeding the right kind of cow has been one of the main interests of my career. It's a challenge, because the life cycle of a bovine is pretty long, compared to any other meat protein.

Packaging with Less Plastic

[This brief article by Jocelyn Eason is in the January/February 2021 issue of MIT Technology Review.]

      New packaging materials will allow many food producers to gradually move away from plastics, for good. During my lifetime, I’ve watched plastic become one of the biggest environmental hazards that we face as a society. Consumers want less of it in their lives, and regulators are beginning to ban or impose taxes on plastics used to package or serve food. Sooner or later, most producers will need to switch to more sustainable materials. Some alternatives are already available: Earthpac, a New Zealand company I've worked with, is using starch recovered from the wastewater of potato processing factories to make biodegradable trays, plates, and punnets (the small green baskets in which berries are often sold). Another client, Meadow Mushrooms, is making packaging from the stalks removed from mushrooms during processing.

Supermarket Forces

[These excerpts are from an article by Fabio Parasecoli in the January/February 2021 issue of MIT Technology Review.]

      …As it turns out, these failures derived from built-in features of our food system. It was cheaper to destroy crops than harvest and process them when bulk buyers like schools and catering businesses all but suspended purchases. Dairies set up for selling big volume weren't equipped to shift their packaging machines to consumer-sized containers. Meatpacking plants revved up to meet demand—a situation that required as many workers as possible to crowd in along processing lines. Predictably, many fell ill, and plants across the country were forced to shutter….

      Simply put, the modern food system is a product of the forces inherent in free-market capitalism. Decisions on where to invest in technological research and where to apply its fruits have been guided by the drive for ever greater efficiency, productivity, and profit.

      The result has been a long, steady trend toward greater abundance. Take wheat production as an example: thanks to the railways, the introduction of better equipment, and the adoption of higher-yield varieties, output in the US tripled between the 1870s and the 1920s. Similarly, rice production in Indonesia tripled in 30 years after the mechanized, high-input methods of the Green Revolution were adopted in the early 1970s.

      But as we all know, overproduction in the US in the early 20th century led to widespread soil erosion and the Dust Bowl. The steady march of higheryields was achieved by using large quantities of fertilizers and pesticides, as well as by discarding local crop varieties that were deemed unfavorable. Farmland became concentrated in the hands of a few large players; the US had about one-third as many farms in 2000 as in 1900, and on average they were three times as big. In the same period, the proportion of the US workforce employed in agriculture shrank from slightly over 40% to around 2%. Supply chains have continued to be optimized for speed, reduced costs, and increased returns on investment.

      Consumers have been mostly happy to enjoy the increases in convenience that have come with these trends, but there has also been a backlash. Products that are distributed globally can come across as soulless, removed from local culinary tradition and cultural contexts—we can find blueberries in the middle of winter and the same brand of potato chips in remote corners of the planet. As a reaction, more affluent eaters now look for "authenticity" and turn to food as an arena in which to declare their identity. Suspicions or outright critiques of technology have emerged within the so-called food movement, together with a frequent and uncritical embrace of pastoral fantasies that at times reflect the preferences of richer (and often whiter) consumers.

      Such attitudes fail to acknowledge the obvious: the availability, accessibility, and affordability of industrial food has been a major force in reducing food insecurity around the world. The number of people suffering from undernourishment fell from around 1 billion in 1990 to 780 million in 2014…while the world population grew by 2 billion in the same period.

      And criticizing the mass production of food per se is misguided. It is indeed a very flawed endeavor that produces a lot of calorie-dense, nutrient-poor foods. But it is not doomed to ruin our planet and our well-being. Not if we make choices that take factors other than profit into account.

      …The shutdown of slaughtering and meat-packing plants in response to covid-19 caused troubles upstream, forcing farmers to kill and dispose of livestock that were too expensive to feed without the certainty of sales. This is what happens when a system fine-tuned for efficiency, productivity, and profit collides with a shock.

      …patent owners have used their patents almost exclusively to maximize profit, rather than to improve food security and food quality.

      Genetic modification is a great example. For the most part, its techniques have been applied to commercial crops such as wheat, soybeans, and corn, grown in huge quantities and traded internationally. The goal is single-minded: increase yields, even when that requires heavier use of pesticides and fertilizers—which are often patented by the same companies that own the patents to the GMOs.

      …If applied to those crops in the pursuit of food security instead of profits, genetic technologies could be used to create stronger, more resilient local agriculture and a healthier food system—but they aren’t, because that wouldn't generate profits large enough to interest the private biotech sector. To make matters worse, many low-income countries have also historically been forced to accept trade and financing deals from the IMF, World Bank, and World Trade Organization that open their markets to those heavily globalized commercial crops, regardless of farmers’ or consumers' customs and needs.

      And yet, most debates about GMOs focus on their supposed danger to human health—for which there is little scientific evidence—rather than on the way they tilt the playing field against small farmers and the communities they feed. In short, by focusing on spurious technological problems, we are ignoring very real legal and social ones.

      …But the incentives of the companies behind such innovations are to sell as many apps and devices and data streams as possible, not to feed and nourish as many people as possible. If the companies change their business model, discontinue a product or service, or simply fold, farmers are at their mercy.

      Food production and food security are so connected with food as a human right—and so crucial for the survival of whole communities—that technology and intellectual-property rights in this sector should work according to different principles and priorities from those followed elsewhere in the tech world….

      These are profoundly political choices. They should not be left to supposedly self-regulating economic mechanisms or to the quest for ever greater efficiency and productivity. Such priorities need to be balanced with others to ensure the greatest possible human benefit, rather than merely the greatest possible profit. That will require active participation from governments, activists, international organizations, research institutions, nongovernmental organizations, and representatives of local communities ... the kind of authentic, democratic coalition that would please even the most demanding “food movement” devotee.

      In the process, such cooperation could redefine how we assess new technologies and their use and impact. It may even leave us better prepared for the next crisis, whatever that may be.

From the Editor

[These excerpts are from an editorial by Gideon Lichfield in the January/February 2021 issue of MIT Technology Review.]

      …What makes these technologies so fascinating? Sure, it’s claimed that they’ll make food production better more humane, more reliable, more efficient. But beyond that, I think we’re at once intrigued and repulsed by the idea that something as familiar, essential, and “natural” as food can be deconstructed and rebuilt from its component cells, tweaked like a piece of software, or grown without ever being touched by a human hand.

      This reflects an evolution in Western food culture. If mid-20th-century advertisements extolled synthetic foods in garish colors, and television shows told us we’d soon have all our nutritional needs met by three pills a day, today we fantasize about ancient grains and heirloom tomatoes in limitless abundance. But that also means we prefer not to acknowledge the truth: there’s already precious little that’s “natural” about how we get most of our food.

      Today’s food system bears little resemblance to the one of just a couple of generations ago. It is far more industrial and globalized, and in much of the world it yields many times more crops per acre of land, thanks to new fertilizers, pesticides, and seed varieties. The most mundane processes, from walnut picking to potato breeding, are technologically mediated from top to bottom…and are only becoming more so. We can make a piece of food take on any color in the spectrum, where once we were restricted to naturally occurring pigments…. Industrial-scale fermentation, long-distance transportation, packaging, and refrigeration completely changed what foods are available when and where….

      And yet, for all its abundance and reach, the food system fails to feed hundreds of millions of people each year—and this figure, shockingly, is rising….

      The obvious answer is that the food system is not actually designed to feed people. It’s designed to turn a profit, and typically it achieves that by maximizing yields and efficiencies. This might lead to the production of a lot of food, but often in the wrong places, at the wrong times….

      The message in all this is one that MIT Technology Review delivers time after time: technology can yield great benefits to humanity, but only if we choose to deploy it in pursuit of those benefits. It may be a tired old nostrum, but it's never more self-evidently true than with food—a technological product that every human being relies on almost every single day.

Siberia May Be Long-Sought Site of Dog Domestication

[These excerpts are from an article by David Grimm in the 29 January 2021 issue of Science.]

      Sometime toward the end of the last ice age, a group of humans armed with stone-tipped spears stalked their prey in the bitter cold of northeastern Siberia, tracking bison and woolly mammoths across a vast, grassy landscape. Beside them ran wolf-like creatures, more docile than their ancestors and remarkably willing to help their primate companions hunt down prey and drag it back to camp. These were the world's first dogs. Their descendants flowed both west and east, populating Eurasia as well as accompanying the ancestors of Native Americans as they spread into the Americas.

      That’s the scenario laid out in a new study combining DNA data from ancient dogs and humans….It may even explain how wary wolves were transformed into faithful companions in the first place.

      ….More genomes from ancient dogs and people will be needed to confirm the findings….

      To refine their doodling, the researchers analyzed previously sequenced mitochondrial genomes of more than 200 dogs from all over the world. The mitochondrial DNA—short sequences that are more abundant in fossils than nuclear DNA—showed that all ancient American dogs carried a genetic signature, dubbed A2b, and that they splintered into four groups about 15,000 years ago as they spread around North America.

      The timing and location of those splits mirror those of ancient Native American groups, the team found. All of those people descend from a group scientists call ancestral Native Americans, who arose in Siberia about 21,000 years ago. Those people must have brought dogs with them when they entered the Americas about 16,000 years ago….(The ancient American dogs later vanished, wiped out after Europeans came to the Americas with their own canines.)

      Going even deeper into the genetic past, the team found that the A2b dogs descended from a canine ancestor that lived in Siberia about 23,000 years ago. That ancestral dog probably lived with people who belonged to a genetic grouping known as the ancient north Siberians…The group, which appeared more than 31,000 years ago, lived in a relatively temperate part of northeastern Siberia for thousands of years, and they shared this refuge with the gray wolf, the direct ancestor of today’s dogs….

      The idea fits the leading theory of dog domestication, which holds that gray wolves inched closer and closer to human campsites to scavenge food, with the least timid ones evolving over hundreds or thousands of years into the gentle pups we know today.

      What’s more, genetic evidence suggests the ancient north Siberians mingled with the ancestral Native Americans before they migrated to the Americas. The ancient dog breeders might have traded animals to the lineage that became Native Americans, as well as to other groups of people, including those traveling farther west into Eurasia. That could explain why dogs appeared in both Europe and North America about 15,000 years ago, a puzzle that had previously sparked speculation that dogs were domesticated more than once. Instead, all dogs descend from roughly 23,000-year-old Siberian pups, the team argues….

Going beyond Eloquent Words

[These excerpts are from an editorial by Sudip Parikh in the 29 January 2021 issue of Science.]

      …Diversity is a double-edged sword. When complementary talents and perspectives come together, leaps in understanding are more likely and disruptive technologies are born. But there is also a vulnerability. When seized upon to divide (with talk of quotas in a zero-sum game), diversity can be used to generate fear and stoke division in ways that increase inequities and stifle substantive debate. In the scientific enterprise, explicit acts of racism and sexism still exist and cause harm. However, it is often the less obvious factors—divisive rhetoric, obsolete policies (such as overreliance on standardized tests), and willful blindness to inequitable treatment (such as smaller startup budgets for female academics)—that cement many of the injustices that have sprung from the nation's segregated history. These opaque forces are so ingrained that we scarcely realize their implications for minorities and women in science….

      Insisting on inclusion of underrepresented groups neither sacrifices scientific excellence nor diminishes the accomplishments of those who have historically dominated the sciences. Highlighting the previously ignored does not invalidate the already admired. But this change requires that the scientific community increase attention and support for those who have been disadvantaged….But race and patriarchy are powerful social constructs with societal consequences that cannot be overlooked….Avoiding these conversations amounts to advocating the status quo—and the United States would be weaker for it.

      Institutions also must push for policies that enable diversity across the enterprise. Often, these policies do not seem directly related to diversity, equity, or inclusion. But increasing pay for graduate students and postdocs and providing them with employee-like benefits and protections; achieving open access publishing policies that do not place the financial burden of publishing on authors; improving training and standards for mentorship, and providing safe and supportive workplace cultures—these policies do affect the retention of diverse scientists without sacrificing scientific excellence.

      The reasons for ensuring the diversity of science transcend the obvious moral imperative. Diversity of thought derived from diversity of experience gives America a critical advantage in the global competitive landscape. This is key to making the discoveries that will improve everyone's health, inventing the technologies that will grow the economy, and meeting the formidable challenges of this era. Without the innovative boost from a diverse population, the United States will be hard-pressed to compete on sheer numbers of scientists and engineers….

Science, Civics, and Democracy

[These excerpts are from an editorial by Michael J. Feuer in the 29 January 2021 issue of Science.]

      Will the inauguration of President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris—a transition made "orderly" with barbed wire, National Guard soldiers, and the closure of downtown Washington, D.C.—be remembered as an inflection point? After 4 years of boorish incivility, incendiary nativist extremism, a crippling pandemic, resurgent racism, and riotous mobs incited to attack the Capitol, can the United States rebuild its civic and moral infrastructure? To repair the damage and prepare the next generation of citizens and leaders requires a new spirit of cooperation between the science and civics education communities….

      This is not a zero-sum competition. STEM priorities can be aligned with—and reinforce—ideals of social responsibility and the public good….

      What ingredients should be included in this recipe for reform? Policy-makers and legislators must acknowledge the effects of economic inequality on educational outcomes and invest resources to protect disadvantaged youth. Research on disruptions caused by the pandemic shows that, on average, American students in K-12 experienced less “learning loss” than anticipated, but for disadvantaged and minority children, the setbacks were substantially worse. This is no surprise to researchers who study the effects of poverty and racism on achievement. A strategy to raise average performance in STEM while shrinking the variance would help instill an ethos of the common good—a core aspiration of civics.

      Good science education means equitable science education. This principle will require sustained efforts to expunge biases associated with race, gender, and class from curricula and school culture. As the astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson noted, we must work toward a world where students will succeed in science because of—not despite—what happened in school. Research on the origins of bias and its effects is bringing new ideas into the development of methods to combat discrimination in K-12 schools, colleges, and universities. Again, good science and good citizenship are mutually reinforcing.

      Americans know that educational opportunity is the ticket to economic and social advancement….Let’s seize on this evidence and hold government accountable for ensuring that all students learn in safe classrooms with skilled and dedicated teachers, modem lab equipment and digital technologies, experienced school leaders, and a curriculum that logically connects science with social studies, humanities, and language arts.

      Certainly, not every young person will become a practicing scientist, but every student should appreciate the processes of scientific inquiry and its uses….Let’s integrate into hands-on STEM education some hands-on learning about objective inquiry as a cornerstone of American democracy and the preparation of a well-informed citizenry….

Life on Venus?

[This short article is by Jennifer Chu is in the January-February 2021 issue of MIT News.]

      The search for extraterrestrial life has largely focused on Mars, but scientists at MIT, Cardiff University, and elsewhere reported surprising findings in September of what may be signs of life in the clouds of Venus.

      While Venus is similar to Earth in size, mass, and rocky composition, its surface temperatures reach 900 °F, and its atmosphere is suffused with thick clouds of sulfuric acid billions of times more acidic than any environ-ment on Earth.

      There is, however, a narrow band 48 to 60 kilometers above the surface where temperatures range from 30 to 200 °F. In this temperate region the astronomers detected a pattern of light associated with phosphine, a stinky, poisonous gas that MIT astronomers have shown cannot be produced on rocky planets by any means other than living organisms. The team used computer models to explore all other mechanisms that might produce phosphine in Venus’s harsh environment and came up empty.

      If there is indeed life on Venus, the researchers say, it is some “aerial” form that exists only in this band of clouds. “A long time ago, Venus is thought to have had oceans, and was probably habitable like Earth,” says coauthor Clara Sousa-Silva, a former research scientist in the Department of Earth, Atmospheric, and Planetary Sciences. “As Venus became less hospitable, life would have had to adapt, and they could now be in this narrow envelope of the atmosphere where they can still survive.”

How Acupuncture Relieves Inflammation

[These excerpts are from an article by Debra Bradley Ruder in the January-February 2021 issue of Harvard Magazine.]

      Inflammation can both heal and harm. A core component of the immune system, it's essential for recovering from an injury or infection—but too much can contribute to diabetes, heart disease, arthritis, cancer, and other serious illnesses….

      During animal experiments, the researchers found that acupuncture activates different nerve pathways that can either suppress or promote inflammation, depending on where, when, and how it is used. Their work revealed that acupuncture stimulation can reduce systemic inflammation in mice experiencing cytokine storm, an extreme immune response in which the body rapidly releases excess inflammatory proteins….But Ma’s team also discovered that acupuncture can worsen inflammation when administered at the wrong time, suggesting the ancient healing technique can be harmful if not practiced properly. These findings…hold promise for improving acupuncture’s safety and effectiveness and eventually may help treat patients with inflammatory diseases.

      Acupuncture uses fine needles to stimulate points on the body’s surface that scientists believe send nerve and biochemical signals to corresponding organs and systems. Traditional Chinese medicine describes this process as enhancing the flow of energy (qi) through invisible meridian channels to improve health. The practice is used worldwide to help relieve pain, depression, nausea, digestive problems, and other ailments and has been integrated into some parts of Western medicine. But exactly how it influences the nervous system, Ma says, is still unclear.

      Building on research conducted elsewhere in recent decades, Ma's lab—in its first foray into acupuncture research—wanted to clarify which nerve pathways are activated by acupuncture, and how that process helps tame systemic inflammation. The Harvard team applied “electroacupuncture,” in which mild electric current passes between two acupuncture needles, to mice with rampant inflammation from a bacteria-induced infection. They focused on the effects of this stimulation on two types of nerve cells, chromaffin cells and noradrenergic neurons, which together secrete the hormones adrenaline, noradrenaline, and dopamine, believed to play a role in the body's inflammation response. Using a genetic tool to “knock out” these nerve cells, they confirmed that chrornaffin cells and noradrenergic neurons are key regulators of inflammation.

      Three factors—timing of treatment, placement of the acupuncture needles, and intensity of the stimulation—the investigators found, can produce markedly different outcomes in modulating inflammation.

      In one experiment, they delivered high-intensity electroacupuncture to rodents’ abdomens and hind legs at different stages of infection. The stimulation excited noradrenergic nerve fibers in the spleen (a key immune system organ) that helped to either reduce or fuel inflammation, depending on when it was given. Mice treated preventively—right before their cytokine storm—developed less inflammation and fared much better than untreated mice; their survival rate improved from 20 percent to almost 80 percent. “But when the cytokine storm has already reached the peak, high-intensity acupuncture makes inflammation worse,” Ma warns. This finding may have important clinical implications, he notes, because patients often seek acupuncture therapy after they’ve already developed a health problem.

      Location is also critical. The researchers gave low-intensity electroacupuncture to a point on the animals’ hind legs, driving a different nerve pathway called the vagal-adrenal axis that's been shown to calm systemic inflammation. The approach caused chromaffin cells in the adrenal glands to secrete dopamine. After just 15 minutes of stimulation, those mice exhibited lower cytokine levels, which translated to a better survival rate (60 percent) than that for the Luntreated mice (20 percent)….

      For Ma, these collective findings signal that the 3,000-year-old practice of acupuncture—far from being folk medicine—has a scientific basis that could eventually be understood. That’s a puzzle he hopes to investigate further, through basic research in animals and work with clinical partners to examine how acupuncture treatments might help humans better “fine-tune” inflammation.

Biological Vaccine Factories

[These excerpts are from an article by Erin O’Donnell in the January-February 2021 issue of Harvard Magazine.]

      A miniature device the size and shape of an aspirin tablet could provide new options for people with cancer….the implantable vaccine, inserted under a patient's skin, operates like a tiny factory where immune cells of one kind are transformed to train other immune cells to eradicate tumors.

      The tablet-like device emits a signal that attracts dendritic cells, the messengers of the immune system, which carry information about the pathogens and toxins they encounter to other immune cells. The dendritic cells “literally crawl inside the plastic device” to be activated by freeze-dried fragments of the patient’s own tumor….Once the dendritic cells have become activated, they “"home to the nearest lymph node,” where they encounter T cells that they train to recognize and destroy cancer cells. The T cells then multiply and circulate through the body, dissolving the patient’s tumor. The researchers also believe the vaccine could generate immune memory to prevent future tumor growth.

      …The device…is made of the same plastic found in biodegradable surgical sutures; it completes its activity in a few weeks and dissolves within a few months.

      Immuno-oncology—which harnesses the body’s immune system to fight cancer—has progressed significantly in the last decade, offering new ways to help patients. Current cancer vaccines come in two forms, Mooney explains. One works similarly to a flu shot: a solution containing antigens (proteins from the flu virus or cancer cell) and adjuvants (which boost the body’s immune response to the antigens) is injected into the body to attack cancer cells. The other vaccine type involves nanoparticles containing the antigen and adjuvant that are placed in the body and travel to a lymph node. The new vaccine improves on these options in two ways, Mooney says. First, his team’s device works fora longer time, “so we probably end up trafficking many cells. Second, it appears that we’re able to bring in a variety of different dendritic cells to the device, and it’s likely that the combination of cells works together to generate a really effective response.”

      The implantable cancer vaccine could also incorporate other cancer-fighting tools….

      And promising as the implantable vaccine technology may be, Mooney stresses that “there’s no magic bullet. Cancer is a lot of different diseases that we’ve lumped together, and there’s no one therapy that's going to be the end-all across the board. We’re hoping that this vaccine will have an important role in combination with other therapies.”

New Mutations Raise Specter of ‘Immune Escape’

[These excerpts are from an article by Kai Kupferschmidt in the 22 January 2021 issue of Science.]

      When the number of COVID-19 cases began to rise again in Manaus, Brazil, in December 2020, Nuno Faria was stunned. The virologist at Imperial College London had just co-authored a paper in Science estimating that three-quarters of the city’s inhabitants had already been infected with SARS-CoV-2, the pandemic coronavirus—more than enough, it seemed, for herd immunity to develop. The virus should be done with Manaus. Yet hospitals were filling up again….

      On 12 January, Faria and his colleagues posted their initial conclusions on the website virological.org. Thirteen of 31 samples collected in mid-December in Manaus turned out to be part of a new viral lineage they called P.L Much more research is needed, but they say one possibility is that in some people, P.1 eludes the human immune response triggered by the lineage that ravaged the city earlier in 2020.

      Emerging variants of the coronavirus have been in the news ever since scientists raised the alarm over 3.1.1.7, a SARS-CoV-2 variant that first caught scientists' attention in England in December and that is more transmissible than previously circulating viruses….But now, they’re also focusing on a potential new threat: variants that could do an end run around the human immune response. Such “immune escapes” could mean more people who have bad COVID-19 remain susceptible to reinfection, and that proven vaccines may, at some point, need an update….

      The more transmissible variant, B.1.17, is I already spreading rapidly in the United Kingdom, Ireland, and Denmark, and probably in many other countries. But scientists are just as worried about 501Y.V2, a variant detected in South Africa. Some of the mutations it carries, including ones named E484K and K417N, change its surface protein, spike, and have been shown in the lab to reduce how well monoclonal antibodies combat the virus….

      P.1 adds to the concerns because it appears to have hit on a similar constellation of mutations and has emerged in a place with a high level of immunity….

      Like B.1.1.7, the Brazilian variant is already on the move. Just as Faria was finish-ing his analysis of the Brazilian genomes, a report was published of a variant detected in travelers arriving in Japan from Brazil—and it turned out to be P.1….

      How these new variants are affecting the course of the pandemic is unclear. In Manaus, for example, R1 might have nothing to do with the new surge in infections; people’s immunity might simply be waning….Or it might be driving the boost because it is transmitted more easily, like B.1.1.7, not because it can evade the immune response….

      …South Africa’s 501Y.V2 variant could be 50% more transmissible but no better at evading immunity, or just as transmissible as previous variants but able to evade immunity in one in five people previously infected. “Reality may lie between these extremes,” the authors wrote….

      So far the virus does not appear to have become resistant to COVID-19 vaccines, ays vaccinologist Philip Krause….”The not-so-good news is that the rapid evolution of these variants suggests that if it is possible for the virus to evolve into a vaccine-resistant phenotype, this may happen sooner than we like,” he adds. That possibility adds to the urgency of putting good surveillance in place to detect such escape variants early on….

      …And the Trump administration decided to ship all available doses immediately, rather than holding back 50% to guarantee that people receive their second doses on time. That policy, which the Biden administration has said it will follow, could inadvertently extend the dosing interval if future vaccine deliveries don’t arrive or aren’t administered on time.

      Widespread delays of the second dose might create a pool of millions of people with enough antibodies to slow the virus and avoid getting sick, but not enough to wipe it out. That could well be the perfect recipe for creating vaccine-resistant strains….

      But others say unchecked spread of the virus poses greater risks….Historically, few viruses have managed to evolve resistance to vaccines, with the notable exception of seasonal influenza, which evolves so rapidly on its own—without vaccine pressure—that it requires a newly designed vaccine every year.

      If vaccine-resistant SARS-CoV-2 strains emerge, vaccines might need to be updated. Several vaccines could be easily changed to reflect the latest changes, but regulators might balk at authorizing them without seeing updated safety and efficacy data….

Target Student Mental Well-being

[These excerpts are from an editorial by Alan I. Leshner in the 22 January 2021 issue of Science.]

      Mental health and well-being are critical to student success in higher education and beyond but rarely get the attention they need….

      American undergraduate students have been reporting increasing rates of anxiety, depression, suicidal thoughts, trauma, and substance use for decades. In the 2018-2019 Healthy Minds Study (HMS) survey, conducted before the pandemic, 40% of about 300,000 students at some 300 colleges and universities reported experiencing a mental health problem, and 60% said they were having difficulty accessing mental health care on campus or in the community. A spring 2020 survey conducted in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic by the HMS and American College Health Association showed that self-reported prevalence of depression among undergraduates had increased by 15% compared to the fall of 2019, and more students reported that mental health problems negatively affected their academic performance. Other studies estimate that the dropout rate for U.S. undergraduate students with diagnosed mental health problems is over 40%, and that the prevalence of mental health problems among graduate students is six times that of the general population. These statistics reflect a major problem that has clear implications not only for students but also for their institutions that depend on, if nothing else, tuition payments.

      A December 2020 survey by the American Council on Education reported that 68% of U.S. college and university presidents ranked mental health issues among the five most pressing concerns facing their institutions. Most academic institutions provide some mental health services, often through a dedicated counseling center….Another important question is whether there are elements of the institution’s own environment or culture that contribute to the problems that students are experiencing, like unreasonable workloads or deadlines for assignments. In addition, student orientation should emphasize the value of pursuing one’s own wellness while providing information about campus and community services available to help when needed. The stigma that inevitably accompanies mental health and substance use problems and inhibits students from seeking help must also be tackled. Faculty should be trained to recognize students in distress and refer them to professional services….

      The mission of higher education should be to develop the whole student. After all, physically and mentally healthy, well-educated individuals are what society really needs from academia.

The Very Real Death Toll of COVID-19

[These excerpts are from an article by Christie Aschwanden in the January 2021 issue of Scientific American.]

      A pesistent falsehood has been circulating on social media: the number of COVID deaths is much lower than official statistics, and therefore the danger of the disease has been overblown. In August, President Donald Trump retweeted a post claiming that only 6 percent of these reported deaths were actually from COVID-19. (The tweet originated from a follower of the debunked conspiracy fantasy QAnon.) Twitter removed the post for containing false information, but fabrications such as these continue to spread. In September outgoing U.S. Representative Roger Marshall of Kansas—now incoming senator—complained that Facebook had removed a post in which he claimed that 94 percent of COVID-19 deaths reported by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention “were the result of 2-3 additional serious illnesses and were of advanced age.”

      Now some facts: Researchers know beyond a doubt that the number of COVID-19 deaths in the U.S. surpassed a quarter of a million people by November 2020. This number is supported by three lines of evidence, including death certificates. The inaccurate idea that only 6 percent of the deaths were really caused by the coronavirus is “a gross misinterpretation” of how death certif-icates work….

      The scope of the coronavirus’s deadly toll is clear, even if the exact toll varies by a small fraction depending on the reporting system….

      The first source of death data is called case surveillance. Health-care providers are required to report cases and deaths from certain diseases, including measles, mumps and now COVID-19, to state health departments, which pass this information along to the CDC….

      This second line of evidence comes from the National Vital Statistics System, which records birth and death certificates. When somebody dies, a death certificate is filed in the state where the L death occurred….Death certificates are not filed in the system until outstanding test results are in and the information is as complete as possible….

      A physician, medical examiner or coroner fills out the cause of mortality on the death certificate. That specialist is instructed to include only conditions that caused or contributed to death….

      The 6 percent number touted by Trump and QAnon comes from a weekly CDC report stating that in 6 percent of the coronavirus mortality cases it counted, COVID-19 was the only condition listed on the death certificate. That observation most likely means that those death certificates were incomplete because the certifiers gave onlythe underlying cause of death and not the full causal sequence that led to it, Anderson says. Even someone who does not have another health condition and dies from COVID-19 will also have comorbidities in the form of symptoms, such as respiratory failure, caused by the coronavirus. The idea that a death certificate with ailments listed in addition to COVID-19 means thatthe person did not really die from the virus is simply false….

      COVID 19 is now the third leading cause of death in the U.S., and the toll continues to rise as cases, hospitalizations and fatalities surge across the country. The complete number may never be known, even after the pandemic ends, but already it is a staggering number of lives cut short.

The Real Dilophosaurus

[These excerpts are from an article by Matthew A. Brown and Adam D. Marsh in the January 2021 issue of Scientific American.]

      …In the summer of 1993 dinosaurs and paleontologists exploded onto movie screens around the world. Adapted from the 1990 Michael Crichton novel, Jurassic Park made instant stars, and villains, of several little-known species. Names such as Velociraptor and Dilophosaurus joined Tyrannosaurus and Triceratops in the public lexicon. The dinosaurs of action movies are typically not the animals that scientists know from nature. Yet one of the elements that made the Jurassic Park franchise so successful (it broke box office records in 1993 and topped the charts again in the summer of 2020) was its narrative reliance on the state of the art in paleontology and genetics. Author Crichton and director Steven Spielberg brought a modern look at dinosaur science to audiences for the first time, and the image they portrayed of active, intelligent animals still resonates today.

      Of course, Crichton and Spielberg took artistic liberties to tell a compelling story, dramatizing not only the scientists but also the dinosaurs. The animal that departed most from the fossil evidence was Dilophosaurus. In the movie, it takes the form of a golden retriever-sized creature with a rattling frill and venomous spit that kills the computer programmer-turned-dinosaur embryo smuggler, Dennis Nedry. What was Dilophosaurus really like?

      In truth, scientists did not have a complete picture of this animal back when it entered pop culture. But in the nearly three decades since Dilophosaurus got the Hollywood treatment, researchers have recovered significant new fossil specimens of this dinosaur and analyzed all of the remains with increasingly sophisticated methods. As a result, we can now reconstruct this dinosaur—its appearance and behavior, how it evolved, the world it inhabited—in detail. The findings show that the real Dilophosaurus bore little resemblance to its big-screen counterpart. They also provide the most detailed portraityet of a dinosaur from the Early Jurassic epoch….

      Today we know Dilophosaurus as a bipedal, meat-eating dinosaur more than 20 feet long with two distinctive parallel crests of very thin bone along the top of its head (its name derives from the Greek words for “two-crested reptile”). But in 1954, when the animal first appeared in the scientific literature, it had a different name….When Welles found an additional specimen in 1964 that preserved the top of the skull, with its dual crests, he realized that the original find represented a new genus, so he renamed the animal Dilophosaurus wetherilli.

      The basic body plan of the dinosaur in Jurassic Park was patterned on Welles’s 1984 anatomical description and sculpted reconstructions of the bones in museum exhibits, as well as art-work by paleontologist Gregory Paul in the 1988 book Predatory Dinosaurs of the World. But the Jurassic Park Dilophosaurus departed from the scientific record of the time in several key details. Most obviously, it was depicted as half the size of the real animal. The filmmakers did this deliberately to avoid any confusion with another saurian antagonist, the Velociraptor.

      The hallmarks of the cinematic Dilophosaurus—namely, its venomous saliva and collapsible frill — were also fictional traits added for dramatic effect. But these embellishments resembled the biology of other real animals, which made them believable. When Welles described the fossils of Dilophosaurus, he interpreted some of the joints between the tooth-bearing bones at the end of the snout as “weak” and suggested that the animals may have been scavengers or that they did most of their killing with claws on their hands and feet. When writing the story Crichton invented a dramatic mechanism by which the animals could spit a blinding venom, based on some modern species of cobras, which can spit two meters. Inspiration for the frill, meanwhile, came from the modern-day frilled agamid lizard that lives in Australia and New Guinea. The lizard has a structure made of bone and cartilage originating from the throat that supports the frill. No evidence of such a trait has turned up in the fossil record of Dilophosaurus.

      Other aspects of Jurassic Park drew from the latest science. In the early 1980s paleontologists were just starting to reach broad agreement that modern birds descended from dinosaurs and are, in fact, the last surviving dinosaur lineage. The filmmakers threw out early test animations of sinuous, snakelike velociraptors in preference of recommendations from their science adviser, dinosaur paleontologist Jack Homer, to make the animals more bird-like in their movements. The film, with its depiction of dinosaurs as quick, clever animals rather than the sluggish, more lizardlike creatures that 19th-century scholars thought them to be, was the first time many members of the general public encountered the bird-dinosaur connection.

      …in 1998 teams at the University of Texas at Austin began recovering more Dilophosaurus remains in the same region of northern Arizona that yielded the first finds. Every new fossil discovery can support or refute prior thinking about long-vanished organisms. In this case, the new fossils preserved parts of the Dilophosaurus anatomy that were missing or distorted in previously collected specimens.

      …After millions of years of exposure to geologic processes such as crushing and weathering, the fossils we find are most often distorted and incomplete elements. We sometimes disassemble and reconstruct broken fragments to better approximate their original condition, sculpting and adding missing material based on closely related animals….

      The Dilophosaurus material discovered since Welles’s initial description and Langston's reconstruction shows that the animal’s snout and jaw were much more substantial than originally recognized. The upper jaw b ones do nothave the weak interface that the fragmentary first finds suggested. Instead these bones indicate a strong skull capable of biting into prey. Likewise, newly identified features of bones from the animal’s lowerjaw show stout ridges for muscle attachments. In modern reptiles, these ridges provide surface area for the attachment of large muscles. And the skeleton of a different dinosaur found at the U.T. Austin dig site—the plant-eating Sarahsaurus—features bite marks, attesting to the presence of a large meat-eating animal with jaws strong enough to puncture bone. Together this evidence supports the idea th at Dilophosaurus was probably a predator with a deadly bite rather than a creature that had to scavenge or use its claws to kill, as Welles supposed.

      Dilophosaurus was a large dinosaur, especially for its time. Most of the dinosaurs of the Late Triassic of western North America, just 20 million years earlier, were animals the size of turkeys or eagles, but Dilophosauruss would have towered over a human, standing up to eight feet tall and measuring up to 25 feet long when fully grown. It had much longer and stronger arms than other larger meat-eating dinosaurs such as Allosaurus and Ceratosaurus, and its legs were relatively longer as well. When the first skeletons of Dilophosaurus were found, scientists thought the species was related to the so-called carnosaurs Allosaurus and Streptospondylus, so they reconstructed the missing parts of the pelvis to look like they did in those animals. The better-preserved Dilophosaurus skeletons found later show more intermediate pelvis anatomy between Coelophysis-like and Allosaurus-like animals from the Late Triassic and Late Jurassic, respectively.

      Like many early dinosaurs and all modern birds, DilophosaurusDilophosaurus

      In the fossil excavation depicted in Jurassic Park, a complete Velociraptor skeleton comes to light with some gentle brushing. In the real world, dinosaur fossils are typically found as broken, barely identifiable fragments. On a lucky day, a mostly complete bone might turn up. With the publication last summer of Marsh’s comprehensive anatomical study, Dilophosaurus has become the best-documented Early Jurassic dinosaur from anywhere in the world. But it took decades to find additional remains that filled in the unknown anatomy of the animal. And it took successive generations of paleontologists to interpret the bones.

      Museums play a vital role in facilitating such efforts. The public’s conception of museums is a dramatically lit exhibit gallery, but the major function of a natural history museum is to conduct research into the natural world. To that end, these institutions build large collections of specimens to serve as the evidence for scientific research. Teams of specially trained conservators, archivists and collection managers carefully document and preserve the specimens, with the goal of m aking the collections accessible to researchers in perpetuity. Repeatability is a cornerstone principle of scientific research; other scientists must be able to corroborate our findings. In paleontology, that means that the fossils themselves must be preserved in a museum, so that future generations of scientists can revisit the specimens and double-check observations….

The Immune Havoc of COVID-19

[These excerpts are from an article by Akiko Iwasaki and Patrick Wong in the January 2021 issue of Scientific American.]

      We may well remember the 21st century in two halves: the time before SARS-CoV-2 and the time after. Despite decades of warnings about the potential for a deadly global pandemic, public health systems worldwide were completely outmatched. The first COVID-19 patients were admitted to a hospital in Wuhan, China, on December 16, 2019, and several of them died. Many Americans assumed that even if China failed to contain the virus on its own soil, the span of an ocean would protect them. This complacent view ignored the fact that previous coronavirus outbreaks—caused by SARS-CoV (for severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus) and MERS-CoV (for Middle East respiratory syndrome coronavirus)—reached several continents; MERS-CoV has yet to be eradicated. And so SARS-CoV-2 arrived on American shores in early 2020. The public health response was chaotic and varied from region to region. Some cities and state governments invoked stay-at-home orders and mask-wearing mandates. Others sim-ply hoped for the best. At the timing of writing, 1.3 million had died globally.

      Despite the disorganization at the national level, medical professionals and research scientists launched an all-out effort to counter the new threat even before it arrived in the U.S. Less than a year later this global collaboration has generated unprecedented insight into the coronavirus and its impact on the human body. We are now beginning to understand why SARS-CoV-2 results in wildly different degrees of illness. Some people exhibit no symptoms; others develop a cough or a fever. Most gravely, some fraction of patients suffer a life-threatening pneumonia and a condition called acute respiratory distress syndrome (ARDS). Researchers now know that the virus, like SARS-CoV and MERS-CoV, can provoke the immune system to misfire—and the resulting inflammation may lead to ARDS and an array of perilous symptoms. Readily available clinical tests show clear evidence of high levels of immune proteins…in the blood of seriously ill patients. A few months into the course of the pandemic, the welcome but limited success of broad immune-suppressing drugs, such as the corticosteroids prednisone and dexamethasone, confirmed suspicions that in the sickest patients the immune system had gone into hyperinflammatory overdrive. These same anti-inflammatory treatments were widely used for severe infections with the preceding coronavirus outbreaks.

      We now know that in a certain fraction of COVID patients, an unbridled immune response causes damage throughout the body, producing blood clots, heart damage and even organ failure. The most severe cases require hospitalization in intensive care units. The standard retinue of steroids are not enough for treating severe COVID: these patients will require more targeted treatments. We also badly need rapid tests that can examine tissue samples for biological indicators, or biomarkers, that predict the course of the disease—for example, the likelihood that a patient diagnosed with mild COVID will go on to develop a severe case….

      Developing biomarkers and drug treatments requires a deep understanding of how SARS-CoV-2 interacts with cells throughout the body and how the immune system then responds to the virus’s arrival. This past spring our laboratory, in collaboration with many others, began to examine the dysregulated immune reactions that underlie severe COVED cases. We knew when we started that the immune system choreographs an intricate chain of events in response to invading pathogens. We also knew that if any of the steps in the immune response are mistimed, it can lead to exaggerated levels of inflammation that damage the body’s own tissues.

      The immune system has in its arsenal a fast, emergency response and a slower but longer-lasting defense against viruses, bacteria, fungi and other pathogens. The “innate” immune system acts as a first responder. Some receptors on and inside these immune cells sense invaders, activating an elaborate signaling cascade using proteins called cytokines. The cytokines warn nearby cells to put up defenses, initiate the death of an infected cell or heighten the alarm to bring in other types of cytokines. Innate immune cells also summon certain white blood cells to build more durable immunity to the pathogen. Within a week or two these members of what is called the “adaptive” immune system become active by increasing levels of highly targeted antibodies and T cells that eventually disable or kill an invader.

      In most COVID patients, the innate immune system performs as it evolved to, disarming and killing SAR.S-CoV-2. In about 5 percent of cases, however, the body's counterattack does not proceed as planned. When this carefully timed cascade of signals goes awry, innate immune cells react by making too many cytokines. The overproduction of diverse signaling molecules in COVID-19 resembles “cytokine storms” that turn up in other medical conditions and were thought to be a factor in severe COVID. The most recent research suggests that, in most cases, inflammation differs from that of a cytokine storm, even though it still poses a threat to patients. It can bring about ARDS, resulting in lasting damage to the lung or other tissues. It can also lead to the buildup of fibrin, a protein that causes clotting. If this were not enough, it can induce fluid leakage from blood vessels, triggering respiratory failure.

      Viruses harness the human cell's machinery to reproduce themselves. One innate immune system strategy undermines the virus’s ability to multiply, but it appears to falter against SARS-COV-2. In recent months researchers have devoted attention to a class of cytokines known as interferons, a first line of defense that can block the various steps of viral replication in a cell. Rapid production of type I interferon (IFN-I) by the immune system enable a virus to be brought under control and check any progression beyond mild disease. But some studies suggest that in older adults or patients exposed to large amounts of a virus, the immune system may lag in its response, allowing the virus to continue reproducing. Further, when interferons finally do arrive on the scene, they may overreact, spurring the manufacture of high levels of diverse cytokines, which can lead to inflammation and severe illness. Measuring the interferon response mavfurnishvital knowledge about whether a COVID-19 case will progress to a life-threatening illness, and it may provide clues about how to treat the infection.

      The science is still in flux, however, and there are many ways the immune response could run askew. For example, the virus may hamper a person’s ability to make interferons….

      Cytokine storms made headlines in severe cases of the previous coronaviruses (SARS-CoV and MERS-CoV), so when SARS-CoV-2 emerged it was natural for scientists to suspect that a similar mechanism was at play. Early in the pandemic, physicians did detect elevated cytokines in patients, but the amount of these proteins and the subsequent inflammatory state they evoked differed from that of a classic cytokine storm….

      To identify the source of tissue damage, a number of research groups decided to look at cells in the blood and lungs. In the field of immunology, we commonly use flow cytometry, a technique that allows us to tag subsets of cells in the blood with fluorescent antibodies. Using these markers, our group was able to detect a sizable shift in the populations of immune cells circulating in patients, as compared with healthy donors. Two innate immune cell types—monocytes and neutrophils—were particularly abundant….

      As an integral component of the innate immune system, monocytes normally patrol the blood and arrive first on the scene to eliminate or sequester pathogens. When they sense a microbial threat, the cells can respond by differentiating into macrophages and dendritic cells—specific types of white blood cells. Macrophages consume pathogens and cellular debris. Dendrite cells identify and flag a pathogen for other immune cells to respond to.

      To ensure that the immune system does not overreact, levels of monocytes are usually tightly regulated, but this control is lost iin severe COVID cases. In the worst disease outcomes, monocytes and macrophages infiltrated the lungs….

      Researchers have observed that T cells from patients with moderate disease behave differently than those from severely ill patients. Normally T cell populations that target a specific invader, or antigen, grow more abundant as a protective measure, but this was not the case in the sickest patients.

      There are two types of T cells—those that directly eliminate virus-infected cells and those that coordinate a response to an invader after receiving signals from cytokines. Loss of both types has been observed in hospitalized COVID patients, but it also occurs in other respiratory infections. Diminished cell levels persist, however, for an exceptionally long time—up to weeks in some COVID patients. From research with other respiratory viruses, we know T cells can travel from the blood into infected tissues….

      …COVID patients had an expanded number of T cells bearing receptors that indicated that the cells were susceptible to an early demise. Another possibility is that the bone marrow might not make enough of the precursor cells that give rise to T cells, which could diminish the pool of mature cells. Studies of aging and other diseases have established firm evidence that cytokines modulate the bone marrow’s production of T cells. A similar connection has yet to be definitively proved in COVID-19, despite the presence of the same inflammatory cytokines. Finally, it is possible that the virus itself is directly killing T cells. Testing these competing hypotheses may lead to therapies that can enhance T cell numbers.

      Many of the severe immunological manifestations seen in COVID19—drastically elevated cytokines, inflammatory cells that infiltrate the lungs, NETs and diminished numbers of white blood cells—appear in other serious viral respiratory infections. SARS-CoV-2 presents its own special challenges. What stands out is its unprecedented spread during the presymptomatic phases and among asymptomatic people who never show symptoms.

      SARS-CoV, the virus responsible for the 2003 epidemic, has a relatively late viral peak of 10 days after the onset of symptoms. MERS-CoV’s viral load peaks seven to 10 days after symptoms set in. But SARS-CoV-2’s viral load tops out three to five days after symptoms begin. The early peak translates to extremely high viral levels even before symptoms appear (which for most people happens four or five days after exposure). These numbers mean an infected person can spread significant amounts of virus before feeling even the smallest tickle in the throat.

      The wide array of organ systems involved in COVID symptoms also seems unique among respiratory viruses. SARS-CoV-2 can cause loss of smell, brain fog, gastrointestinal problems, blood clots, cardiovascular problems and even “COVID toes.” The virus can also infect neurons in the brain. Among those who • recover, tissue damage can linger for months….

      Even though the earlier coronavirus, SARS-CoV, uses the same V receptor and can cause cytokine storms and ARDS, there are few reports of the sort of serious extrapulmonary injuries caused by COVID-19. The viruses are an 80 percent genetic match; it is reasonable to suspect that the other 20 percent of their genomes accounts for the differences between them. But a simpler explanation might be that SARS-CoV-2 has infected more than 6,700 times as many people as its eponymous predecessor and has done so before the eyes of the world's scientific community.

      The past nine months of discovery and innovation stand as testament to the dedication of scientists and medical professionals. The research and medical communities have never been more united in their efforts—and never before has the transition from lab bench to patient bedside proceeded as rapidly as in the current climate. This legacy will remain after the success or failure of any of the hundreds of COVID-19-related treatment trials. These innovations will persist to counter future pandemics.

Is 70 Really the New 60?

[These excerpts are from an article by Claudia Wallis in the January 2021 issue of Scientific American.]

      We often hear that 60 is the new 50 and 70 the new 60. It is a bromide borne out by old photos. Just check out images of your grandparents or great-grandparents (depending on your age) and notice their stooped and soft bodies, their lined faces and how they seem anchored in their chairs when they were barely pushing 60. What a contrast with vigorous, gym-going sexagenarians of today!

      Recent studies comparing populations born in different decades have looked beyond these surface impressions to nail down actual physical and mental differences in the ways we are aging. This research has identified particular areas of improvement. But these gains are not across the board, and they appear to depend on social, behavioral and economic factors.

      A pair of new studies from Finland—one looking at physical aging and one looking at cognitive aging—strikingly demonstrates some of the details of generational change….The beauty of this work is that both birth cohorts were examined in person at age 75 and again at 80 with the same substantial battery of six physical tests and five measures of cognition. Most cohort studies look at a narrower range of measures, and many of them rely on self-assessments.

      The later-born group could walk faster, had a stronger hand grip and could exert more force with their lower leg. Such metrics are reliable predictors of disability and mortality. On cognitive tests, the later cohort had better verbal fluency (naming more words beginning with a K in three minutes), clocked faster reaction time on a complex finger-movement task, and scored higher on a test matching numbers to symbols.

      But not everything changed across the generations: measures of lung function were surprisingly static, and there was no improvement in the short-term-memory task of recalling a string of digits—possibly because rote memorization has been de-emphasized in school and in daily life in recent decades, the researchers suspect….

      There are many reasons that people are aging better, including improved medical care and a drop in smoking, but the factors that loomed largest in the Finnish study of physical function…were that the later-born adults were more physically active and had bigger bodies, which suggests better nutrition….For brain function, the key seems to be more years of education….

      Education is a powerful influence on aging and health….

      In the U.S., Ferrucci says, the benefits of prosperity are less equally distributed than in Finland or Denmark. He points out that the average life span is seven years shorter in a poor state such as Mississippi than in a wealthier one such as California….

Blood Worms

[These excerpts are from an article by Chris Baraniuk in the January 2021 issue of Scientific American.]

      Around 80 million years ago in what is now Brazil, a sick dinosaur limped along—but its days were numbered. Its leg bone was so diseased that it had turned spongy, and a particularly gruesome culprit may have been to blame: wormlike parasites wriggling through its blood vessels. The dinosaur in question was a long-necked titanosaur.

      …examined the bone's surface and ran a CT scan to rule out cancer and tuberculosis as the titanosaur’s ailment. They eventually concluded it had a rare bone condition called osteomyelitis, which leads to severe inflammation. When they examined thin slices of the fossil under a powerful microscope, they found a startling potential cause: scattered through the bone’s blood vessel cavities were fossilized remains of what appeared to be around 70 tiny worms, each roughly the length of a dust mite.

      …she and her team suggest these “worms” could be ancient parasites whose arrival caused the infection. The researchers note, however, that osteomyelitis can also be caused by bacteria, fungi and single-celled organisms called protozoa.

      The wormlike structures looksimilarto a known prehistoric parasite called Paleoleishmania, but they are between 10 and 100 times bigger. Forthcoming research compares them with a broad range of parasites.

      There could be other explanations, however….

      If the wormlike forms were indeed living organisms, they could have entered the bone to feed on the dinosaur after it died. But the researchers argue this is unlikely because there were no obvious fractures through which such creatures might have invaded.

      Parasites afflict birds and reptiles today, so it makes sense that they troubled dinosaurs, too….

Getting Dirt

[These excerpts are from an article by Riley Black in the January 2021 issue of Scientific American.]

      Based on bone and tooth records, the Yukon’s last mammoths were thought to have gone extinct about 12,000 years ago. But a new genetic sampling technique suggests the great beasts may have stuck around a lot longer, plodding through the Arctic tundra with bison and elk for thousands of years more. The story is in the soil.

      Bones are rich sources of prehistoric genetic information, but not the only ones; items ranging from shed Ice Age skin cells to pine needles can contribute to the genetic record stored in dirt. Paleogeneticists have been extracting and analyzing “environmental DNA” from soil fora long time, but getting rid of non-DNA material without destroying these fragile clues is daunting….

      In the new approach, soil samples are extracted with a sterilized chisel and then broken into smaller portions, stirred and run through a “cold spin method” to separate as much DNA as possible. The DNA is then compared against an existing genetic library to detect species matches….

      This big picture comes from smaller sampies, Murchie explains: “With a combination of our novel extraction and enrichment techniques, we can pull out entire genomes of multiple extinct organisms simultaneously from less than a gram of sediment.”

      The methodology is limited because researchers using it need to know what DNA to look for. If a saber-toothed cat species is not already in the genetic library, for example, the analysis cannot detect that animal. For known species, however, the process mayyield exciting information. In their study, the researchers detected about 2,100 kinds of plants and 180 animals—including American horses and woolly mammoths, in samples from soil dated to thousands of years after their supposed extinction.

      Not yet published results from other field sites are yielding similar results, Murchie says, and future fossil discoveries could strengthen the case….

Earth Is on Fire

[These excerpts are from an editorial by Jordan Salama in the January 2021 issue of Scientific American.]

      …The fate of nature, like so much else, has temporarily become an agonizing side story to COVID—and now the environment is a real-time plot followed mostly, I think, by those of us young enough to one day see the worst of it.

      At first, things seemed hopeful. Struggling to adjust to the new normal of life in quarantine in March and April, we were relieved to read that emissions levels had dipped, even if only temporarily, and that the skies over New Delhi and Los Angeles and Buenos Aires had cleared of smog. I smiled, as we all did, to notice that animals were roaming free through quiet, traffic-free cities. Nature seemed to be reclaiming spaces humans had abandoned. In the midst of so much present grief, these story lines gave us faith in the planet's resilience. Maybe, some optimists speculated, it would even inspire us to be better stewards of our world when this was over. This “anthropause” was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for humans to understand our impact on wildlife in a crowded world that seemed, for a moment, a little less crowded.

      But only for a moment. Pandemics like this happen and will keep happening because we humans have long encroached on wild spaces, increasing the chances of spillovers of disease from animals to people. In the temporary absence of international watchdogs and local enforcement, South America’s Pantanal, the world's largest tropical wetland, has burned like never before. In May there was a major oil spill in the Russian Arctic, followed by others in places such as Mauritius and Venezuela—terrible ecological catastrophes that are buried underneath headlines of case numbers and mortality rates. Poaching is on the rise in Africa. The list goes on.

      And in the U.S., we’ve somehow become less thoughtful in our daily choices—accepting that extra plastic bag at the supermarket, ordering takeout despite all the single-use containers and, if we’re privileged enough, driving instead of taking public transportation—because, well, “it’s a global pandemic.” Take a walk outside, and you’ll find masks and latex gloves littering our streets and beaches and parks that will eventually fill rivers, lakes and seas.

      It’s as if the pandemic has suddenly given people everywhere even more of a license to dirty the world—if that’s even possible—with carelessness, if not outright contempt….

      In today’s pandemic moment, nature's story line has reached a low point It's unfathomable to me that some people can still so easily shrug it off—especially if they have kids or love anyone who is younger than they are—while for so many in my generation, it is such a constant, excruciating worry. Apathy, let alone denial, is no longer an acceptable option, because we know that if we stay on this course, the destruction will inevitably come for us, too.

      But I like to think that the anthropause still gives some hope—that perhaps if we all live a little lighter, if we listen to those who are in harmony with the land and if we take solace in all that there is to love in the world, nature might meet us halfway. The planet and our fates hang in the balance.

Play Breeds Better Thinkers

[These excerpts are from a book review by Kathy Hirsh-Pasek in the 9 January 2021 issue of Science.]

      In a digital, global world where information is projected to double every 32 hours…, the memorization of facts will become less of a commodity than the ability to think, find patterns, and generate new ideas from old parts….Thus, a cradle-to-career approach to educating children must be mindful of how children learn to learn, not just what they learn….

      Children are bursting with playful curiosity. By age 3, they ask questions about everything they see—Why does a tree have leaves? Why does the Sun come up each day?—and by age 5, they pose even deeper questions, about God and morals. These questions not only provide fodder for knowledge, they help children discover the causal relationships among things—all with adult mentors by their side.

      Children also need time to explore. One child might collect dead things like worms and slugs, and another, assorted leaves of different shapes and colors. These collections, Engel argues, become treasured resources for the discovery of patterns, and they invite even more inquisitiveness. Indeed, the adults who guide this exploration by asking questions themselves reinforce curiosity and innovation. Hidden in _these playful encounters are rich opportunities for learning.

      Yet explorations take time—the time to meander and discover, the unscheduled time to be bored….They learn grit and they learn to have agency over their own learning. As such, the real mental work for children takes place in plain sight as they play—when a child builds a platform of chairs and pillows to retrieve cookies from an out-of-reach cookie jar and when she uses kitchen utensils to fish for the toy that is lodged un-der the couch.

      As adults, we often overlook the fact that learning is happening during periods of unstructured play, or we dismiss these intervals as unproductive. Hurried parents often lack the ability to carve out that time, fearing that their children might be late for their next scheduled activity.

      …Instead, she hopes to reenvision schools as “idea factories” built on inspiring curiosity and problem solving….

      In one lovely example, Engel describes a teacher who challenged her students to construct a record-breaking straw chain that would eventually measure 3.8 miles. “Winning the record would be fun, but the enduring benefit would be coming to grips with vast quantities,” explains the teacher, whose goal was to help the children to better understand the sheer depth of the Mariana Trench.

      The puzzles and problems that captivate children and the ways they set about solving them are reminiscent of how philosophers Karl Popper and Thomas Kuhn conceptualized the thinking of scientists….Both children and scientists bring the tools in their respective arsenals to bear on things that matter to them. Their learning is not linear and is certainly not funneled through flashcards….

      For example, she encourages parents to see children as active thinkers and suggests that by asking open-ended questions and letting them explore, children will be better prepared to thrive in a complex and everchanging world.

Will Warming Make Animals Darker—or Lighter?

[These excerpts are from an article by Sam Kean in the 9 January 2021 issue of Science.]

      …And Gloger’s rule, named after German biologist Constantin Gloger, declared that animals in warmer regions usually have darker exteriors, whereas those in cooler regions are lighter. Among mammals, darker skin and hair was thought to protect against damaging ultraviolet light, which is more plentiful in Sun-soaked equatorial areas. Among birds, the specific melanin pigments in darker feathers seem to resist bacterial infestation, an advantage in the Petri dish of the tropics….

      …Delhey has led a campaign over the past few years to replace Gloger’s rule with something more accurate. “It has been surrounded by confusion since forever,” he says, partly because the 1833 book where Gloger laid out his data “was very dense and awfully written.”

      …Their main beef is that Gloger’s rule conflates temperature and humidity. Humidity leads to lush plant life, which offers shadows to hide from predators. Animals therefore tend to be darker in wet places to camouflage themselves. Many warm places are steamy, but cool, wet forests. tend to have the darkest birds, Delhey says.

      Delhey argues that if you control for humidity, Gloger’s rule gets flipped on its head—warming leads to lighter animals. That’s especially true for cold-blooded critters, he says. Insects and reptiles rely on external beat sources, and in cold places, their dark exteriors help soak up sunlight in warmer climes, that constraint is relaxed, and they end up lighter. Delhey calls this the “thermal melanism hypothesis.”

      …Still, in a reply to the Delhey group, they cite cases where their prediction of darker animals in warmer climates holds true. Tawny owls in Finland are either russet or pale gray, with the gray providing camouflage against snow. But as snow cover has decreased in Finland, russet owls grew from about 12% of the population in the early 1960s to 40% in 2010.

      But they acknowledge that predictions of climate-driven color effects get especially tricky when temperature and humidity both change. Climate models predict the Amazon will get hotter and drier, which all parties agree will lighten animal color. But the boreal forests of Siberia could get hotter and wetter, in which case the temperature and humidity predictions conflict….

      And even when general trends hold, it’s still difficult to predict how individual species will change….Butterflies soak up heat by basking in sunshine, but only one small patch on the underside of the wings actually absorbs the heat. “If you didn’t know that,” she points out, “you could quantify all sorts of exotic colorations on the top of the wing, and it wouldn’t actually matter.” In sum, “We need to think about the full picture of how organisms are interacting with their environments.”

      Changes in coloration will also likely depend on the animal’s temperature-regulation system—with cold-blooded creatures growing generally lighter and birds and mammals showing a wider range of outcomes….

Dismay Greets End of U.S. Effort to Curb Devastating Forest Pest

[These excerpts are from an article by Gabriel Popkin in the 9 January 2021 issue of Science.]

      Later this month, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) will formally admit defeat along one front of its battle against a devastating invasive insect. Starting 14 January, the agency will no longer regulate the movement of living ash trees or wood between states. This quarantine has, for more than 10 years, formed the cornerstone of the federal government’s strategy for curbing the spread of the emerald ash borer, an iridescent green beetle that threatens to wipe out North America’s ash trees, an ecological linchpin of many forests. Instead, USDA plans to ramp up an effort to control the borer by releasing tiny wasps that parasitize and kill the beetles.

      The shift is controversial. Some scientists and environmental advocates agree that, after spending some $350 million over the past 2 decades to fight the ash borer, the government should redirect scarce resources to more promising strategies. But others argue the surrender is premature, and some states are vowing to maintain local controls on ash tree and wood movement….

      The emerald ash borer first gained notoriety in 2002, when ash trees in the Detroit area started mysteriously dying. After researchers identified the insect, which was accidentally imported from Asia, Michigan and USDA’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) imposed a quarantine that prohibited export of ash trees and wood from inside the infested zone. Biologists also began to set traps to monitor the spread of the beetle.

      But stopping the bore’'s expansion has proved difficult; adults can fly up to 10 kilometers and often go undetected in new areas for years. The borer has attacked and killed tens of millions of trees in at least 35 states, mostly in the eastern and central United States; it has also infested southern Canada. USDA’s quarantine zone has expanded along with the beetle. But in 2017, the International Union for Conservation of Nature declared the borer had caused six North American ash species to become endangered or critically endangered. And in 2018, APHIS proposed ending its quarantine….

      …In particular, scientists have identified four species of parasitic wasps native to Asia that lay eggs in ash borer larvae or eggs.

      So far, researchers have released the parasitoids on an experimental basis in 340 counties in 30 states. Three of the wasps have established self-sustaining populations. At some sites, researchers report the wasps have killed 20% to 85% of borer larvae feeding on ash saplings, and are helping Lyoung trees survive to reproductive age….

Viral Evolution May Herald New Pandemic Phase

[Theis excerpt is from an article by Kai Kupferschmidt in the 9 January 2021 issue of Science.]

      For COVID-19 researchers, the new year brings a strong sense of déja vu. As in early 2020, the world is anxiously watching a virus spread in . one country and trying to parse the risk for everyone else. This time it is not a completely new threat, but a rapidly spreading variant of SARS-CoV-2….

      …But as the new variant surfaces in multiple countries, many scientists are calling for governments to strengthen existing control measures as well. U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson announced tough new restrictions on 4 January, including closing schools and asking people not to leave their homes unless strictly necessary….

      …Johnson said the new variant is between 50% and 70% more transmissible. But researchers have been careful to point out uncertainties. Cases have soared in the United Kingdom over the past month, but the rise occurred while different parts of the country had different levels of restrictions and amid changes in people’s behavior and regional infection rates in the run-up to Christmas—"a complex scenario” that makes it hard to pinpoint the effect of the new variant….

      …Data from Denmark, which leads the European Union in the sequencing of SARS-CoV-2, are not reassuring. Routine surveillance there has picked up the variant dozens of times; its frequency went from 0.2% of sequenced genomes in early December to 2.3% 3 weeks later….

      The lack of evidence—so far—that the new variant makes people sicker is little consolation. Increased transmissibility of a virus is much more treacherous than increased pathogenicity because its effects grow exponentially….

      …But that effect breaks down when case numbers reach a critical threshold and public health authorities are overwhelmed, which means tougher measures now can help contain spread of the new variant later….

      …In the long term, mutations could arise that threaten the efficacy of vaccines….

Science’s Irrational Origins

[These excerpts are from a book review by Itai Tanai and Martin J. Lercher in the 1 January 2021 issue of Science.]

      …When asked what science is and how it functions, researchers offer a range of conflicting responses, notes Strevens. “Some scientists say that the essence of science is controlled or repeatable experiment, forgetting that experiments are of relatively little importance in cosmology or evolutionary biology. Some say advanced mathematical techniques are crucial, forgetting that the discoverers of genetics, for example, bad no use for sophisticated math.”

      Strevens argues that an objective scientific method cannot exist; as all predictions from hypotheses rely on auxiliary assumptions such as the functioning of instruments, whose reliability must be evaluated subjectively. He proposes that the distinguishing feature of science is a procedural agreement, which he refers to as the “iron rule of explanation.” This rule holds that differences in scientific opinion must be settled by empirical testing alone. Thus, a scientist cannot argue for one hypothesis over another because it is more beautiful or more appealing philosophically or because it is better aligned with “God’s plan.” The iron rule applies only to official communications. Outside of such venues, scientists may think and believe as they wish….

      Strevens argues that modern science owes its success to the relinquishing of deep philosophical understanding in favor of the shallow power to predict empirical observations. As Isaac Newton—whom Strevens sees as the first truly modern scientist—wrote: "I have not as yet been able to deduce from phenomena the reason for these properties of gravity, and I do not feign hypotheses...It is enough that gravity really exists and acts according to the laws that we have set forth….”

      Strevens proposes that scientists reason differently in public discourse and private venues. By drawing a clear distinction between formal scientific arguments and informal, behind-the-scenes scientific work, he provides a coherent framework for the divergent ideas of earlier philosophers of science….

      …In his autobiography, French biologist Francois Jacob proposed the notion of “night science,” in which scientists generate new ideas and hypotheses in often unstructured thought processes….This approach, he argued, complements “day science,” wherein new ideas are tested empirically and reported formally. Thinkers such as Aristotle perceived day and night science as intertwined in a single process. Newton and his contemporaries founded modem science by separating them into distinct undertakings. While Strevens's iron rule may indeed be the foundation of modem science's success, the methods scientists use to come up with new ideas remain elusive.

Alaska Oil Bid Alarms Scientists

[These excerpts are from an article by Warren Cornwall in the 1 January 2021 issue of Science.]

      A plan to crisscross parts of Alaska’s remote Arctic National Wildlife Refuge with earth-shaking machines that help map underground oil formations is drawing criticism from scientists. They warn that such mapping done there decades ago left still-visible scars on the tundra, and they fear the new effort could harm hibernating polar bears.

      “This population is already in dire straits,” says biologist Steven Amstrup of Polar Bears International. “Does going in and potentially disrupting them make any sense?”

      …One week earlier, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) issued a draft permit allowing the work in prime habitat for the bears, which are protected by federal law.

      The moves aim to launch oil exploration in the refuge in the waning days of President Donald Trump’s administration. Mapping could start this month, and the federal government plans to auction the first drilling leases on 6 January.

      After a long struggle, in 2017 Congress allowed drilling in the refuge's 600,000- hectare coastal plain for the first time….

      Current seismic mapping methods cause little damage….

      But researchers have done few studies of the effects of such work. During the only other seismic mapping done in the refuge, in the mid-1980s, vehicles crushed vegetation, allowing water to pool and permafrost to thaw, causing areas to sink. In a recent paper, scientists reported 5% of the camp trails still showed damage in 2018. They estimate seismic work across the entire coastal plain could moderately or severely damage 12,200 hectares. The federal agencies have “just kind of developed this story-line that [mapping] impacts are negligible,” says Torre Jorgenson, an ecologist who studied the original seismic work.

      Researchers also question FWS's finding that the work will have a negligible impact on polar bears. The agency estimates the study area will host three polar bear dens. And it predicted that at most three bears might be bothered and no bears would be killed.

      But Amstrup fears the machines will disturb or crush hibernating female bears and cubs. The number of bears living at the southern edge of the Beaufort Sea is now about 900, he notes, down 40% since 1980.

A Little Better all the Time in 2021

[These excerpts are from an editorial by H. Holden Thorp in the 1 January 2021 issue of Science.]

      A famous story about the Beatles tells of the collaboration between Paul McCartney and John Lennon on the song “Getting Better” for their legendary Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band album. After McCartney wrote the lines “I’ve got to admit, it's getting better; a little better all the time,” Lennon wryly added, “It can’t get no worse.” This story could serve as an epigraph as the calendar turns from the year 2020, which could hardly have gotten much worse, to 2021, when we hope life will indeed get a little better all the time. Better from COVID-19 because of the vaccines, better from misinformation spread by outgoing president Donald Trump and his allies, and better, we can hope, when it comes to the production and distribution of scientific knowledge….

      In the United States, although the Biden White House will certainly be friendlier to science, the science denial that fueled the Trump administration will linger in the American population and among some conservative politicians. The battles ahead are not to be underestimated. Continued denial of climate change and COVID-19 is sadly inevitable, and it will take everything U.S. science and the Biden administration can muster to stay strong. Still, as new leaders are named and confirmed in health and science policy, U.S. science should be able to at least catch its breath and feel optimistic about a new era.

      Although 2020 will certainly go down as a year that couldn't get much worse, there is plenty to be proud of and reason to hope that things will be getting better. The virus was confronted. Epidemiologists and other scientists became household names. And the scientific community found a much stronger voice, one that will serve us all well in 2021 and beyond.

The Fraught Debate over Reopening Schools

[These excerpts are from an aticle by Rachel M. Cohen in the Winer 2020-2021 issue of American Educator.]

      Many families are desperate to get their kids back to school, and many political leaders agree, worried about harm to children’s educations and believing that key to fixing the economy is making it easier for parents to work. But the pandemic, which is still raging, has led to one of the most politicized and divisive debates in America: Can we safely reopen schools?...

      In late July, when a study came out that suggested children with COVID-19 have a higher viral load than adults, Oster quickly wrote a piece saying it would be a “very big leap” to apply these findings to school reopening discussions. Instead, she urged focus on a large South Korea contact tracing study, which suggested younger children transmitted the virus in their households at a lower rate than other groups. A month later, the leaders for that South Korea study said it wasn’t really clear who infected whom in the households, and called for further research. Even today, how effectively children transmit the virus to others remains one of the fuzziest, and most pressing, questions.

      In late August, Oster announced a new project of “systematic data collection and reporting” on COVID-19 in schools. With a public desperate to return to normalcy and school reopening at the forefront of that, it didn’t take long for national outlets to start reporting Oster's data. These stories clearly suggested that COVID-19 infections in schools were few and far between. But they also reflected an extremely small and unrepresentative sample of schools.

      Oster acknowledged that more data would be needed to understand what was going on in areas with high transmission, but she made no mention that students are still getting tested at significantly lower levels than adults, and that many schools have no requirement for even symptomatic students to be tested. Nevertheless, her findings were soon echoed by influential media figures. When some public health experts offered objections and reason for skepticism, the media establishment either ignored them or cast them as liberal hysterics. In fact, anyone who objected must be unreasonably searching for a world where zero risk exists. This is a strawman, of course, but an effective one—and one easily found in many articles about school reopenings.

      Oster told me in late October they’re working to make their dataset “more representative” and conceded that those who opted to voluntarily report tended to be a “higher-income sample, and more suburban”. This work-in-progress dataset wouldn’t be such a concern if Oster wasn’t disseminating broad conclusions based upon it throughout the fall. In a Wall Street Journal article published in October, Oster told the reporter that her data “suggests the trisks to ldds from going to school are small….”

      Things came to a head following a viral Atlantic piece Oster published early in October, with the controversial headline “Schools Aren’t Super-Spreaders.” While surveys of parents have shown reticence to schools reopening, especially among parents of color, Oster chalked up slower reopenings to “fear and bad press.” Her piece said nothing about low in-person attendance rates for districts that have reopened, the lag time in reporting, and the persistent inadequacy in testing and tracing school-related cases. It also didn’t mention the major public health fear that transmission could change as the weather gets colder. It made no mention of the fact that children then made up 10 percent of all COVID-19 cases in the US, up from 2 percent in ApriI. Oster’s story also said nothing about race. Black and Latino communities have been contracting COVID and dying of it at higher rates, and while Oster targeted Chicago, Los Angeles, and Houston specifically for not reopening schools, there was no mention that these cities have higher concentrations of Black and Latino families.

      A study published in mid-September estimated that up to 44 million high-risk adults in the US either work in schools or have school-aged children….

      Chapple thinks many leading the conversation have lost sight of the goal, which is to reduce the rate of the coronavirus in the community. “If opening schools is adding to community transmission, then we’re fighting a harder battle, even if we raise transmission bt a tenth of a point,” she says….

      Public health groups that initially made firmer declarations about the safety of kids and coronavirus have since tamped down their statements....In August, the association updated its guidance to say more research is needed to understand infectivity and transmissibility in children, and that opening schools to all students is “likely not feasible” in many places 'ecause of community spread.

      …The researchers said we also have no clear idea of what would result if schools were again doing in-person learning at full capacity, which is happening in few places in the US.

      Research has long shown that in-person instruction is better for children. The nation’s inequitable access to broadband internet has made virtual learning even harder for millions of families to access, and the fact that bars and restaurants remained open throughout the fall while schools were closed was a staggering political choice.

      Still, many adults work in schools, and illness and death can set back kids, too. If children infect their parents, teachers, or neighbors, or spend time in school anxious that they might, experts wam that trio could yield harm. “Children are not the only ones at school,” says Chapple. “We do not know the impact that infected children can have on ourvulnerable populations. The conver-sation can't just be about children, it has to be about children and communities.”

Let’s Build Back Better Together

[These excerpts are from an editorial by Randi Weingarten in the Winer 2020-2021 issue of American Educator.]

      …In a survey soon after the election, 56 percent of Trump voters said he “stands up for America’s values, history, and culture.” That is difficult to understand for those of us who love America and because of that love are fighting to increase fairness and opportunity. But I believe we have shared aspirations to build on. We all want to feel safe—economically, emotionally, and physically—and we all believe in “liberty and justice for all.” And yet, while some feel that their chance at the American dream has been slipping away, others feel that they have never truly had a chance. Our best hope is to band together, demanding the things we all want: jobs with good wages, healthcare that is affordable, and public schools that inspire and nurture our youth.

      I believe we should start with our schools. Ninety percent of American children attend public schools. Public schools play a vital role in our children’s lives, our communities, our economy, and our democracy. They can help heal our divided country: our public schools are where we both embrace America’s diversity and forge a common identity. They are where we learn about the complex and troubling parts of our history, not to denigrate this great country, but so that our children see their role in creating “a more perfect Union” and develop their civic participation muscles.

      No matter which party takes the majority in the Senate, our public schools will be—must be—places where we all come together. The talk of a vaccine gives some hope, but we still must tackle the current virus surge. We must give our schools the resources they need to reopen safely and to engage in social and emotional learning along with academics. Our kids will be better off, parents will have more work options, and the economy will have a chance to recover. Teachers and support staff have once again been heroic, doing everything they have been asked to do, but they are exhausted and scared. And they feel very alone.

      President-elect Biden is committed to working with Congress to pass a COVID-19 relief package that will help reopen school buildings safely. Beyond that immediate relief, the Biden-Harris education plan fulfills the promise and purpose of our public schools as agents of opportunity and anchors of our communities. It pledges to fully fund the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act and triple Title funding for students from low-income families. It will provide high-quality universal prekindergarten and double the number of psychologists, counselors, nurses, social workers, and other health professionals in our schools. !t will, restore the mission of the Education Department’s Office for Civil Rights. And it will expand community schools, which provide vital wraparound services and enrichment opportunities….

      I often said that this election was about the soul of our nation. You are that soul. You cared, you fought, you showed up—and you voted. Now the real work begins, together.

Why Were Salmon Dying? The Answer Washed Off the Road

[These excerpts are from an artical by Erik Stokstad in the 4 December 2020 issue of Science.]

      For decades, something in urban streams has been killing coho salmon in the U.S. Pacific Northwest. Even after Seattle began to restore salmon habitat in the 1990s, up to 90% of the adults migrating up certain streams to spawn would suddenly die after rainstorms. Researchers suspected the killer was washing off nearby roads, but couldn’t identify it….

      …the primary culprit comes from a chemical widely used to protect tires from ozone, a reactive atmospheric gas. The toxicant, called 6PPD-quinone, leaches out of the particles that tires shed onto pavement. Even small doses killed coho salmon in the lab….

      Manufacturers annually produce some 3.1 billion tires worldwide. Tire rubber is a complex mixture of chemicals, and companies closely guard their formulations. Because tire particles are a common component of water pollution, researchers have been examining how they affect aquatic life.

      …The group created a. mixture of particles from nine tires—some bought new, others provided by two undergraduates who moonlight as mechanics—to mimic what might wash off typical highways. They found several thousand unidentified chemicals in the mixture….

      …The team synthesized 6PPD-quinone and found it was highly lethal to coho salmon.

      Now, the team is working to understand how the chemical kills fish….

      …The simplest solution might be for tire manufacturers to switch to an environmentally benign alternative….

      Another way to protect salmon is to filter stormwater through soil, but installing enough infiltration basins to treat road runoff before it reaches spawning streams would be very expensive….

Low-Income Students Lose Ground

[These excerpts are from an editorial by Christopher Avery, Susan Dynarski and Sarah Turner and Frank C. Worrell in the 4 December 2020 issue of Science.]

      Income inequality in college attendance and graduation in the United States was troublingly large before the pandemic. Without an aggressive infusion of federal support for schools and students, these already sizable gaps will likely widen into chasms.

      Historically, a poor child in the United States has had a 10% chance of eventually earning a college degree; for children from well-off families, it’s over 50%. The pandemic is widening these differences, thereby increasing poverty, reducing social mobility, and stunting economic growth. Data from the National Student Clearinghouse show that first-time enrollment at colleges and universities in the United States decreased by 13% from fall 2019 to fall 2020….

      Low-income college students have historically been half as likely to graduate as their wealthier classmates. The pandemic is likely to worsen those odds. Effective remote learning requires a broadband connection, laptop, and a quiet, private space. Low-income students are the least likely to have this critical set of resources.

      The hit to college enrollment may be even greater in fall 2021. Freshmen who entered college this past fall had only the tail end of their admissions cycle disrupted; the entire process has been turned upside down for next year's freshmen. Low-income and first-generation students depend on teachers, counselors, and coaches to get them through the bureaucratic and academic hurdles of college applications. Upper-income students typically have a family member who is a college graduate to play this role.

      All schools are challenged by remote instruction, but those serving low-income students are also struggling with connecting their students to the internet and delivering school meals. There is now little time to spare for the formal and informal college counseling that schools traditionally provide….

      The pandemic is not just hampering the process of applying for college, but also profoundly affecting student learning. Remote learning is difficult for most students, but financially secure families can afford to hire tutors, buy broadband connections, and provide computers for their children. In poorer families, there may not even be an adult at home to supervise children’s schooling: Low-paid service jobs can rarely be completed remotely. A high school or college student from a low-income family may be watching over siblings, with all of them sharing a single electronic device to connect to the internet and coursework.

      Public schools and colleges need more resources to provide high-quality remote learning, as well as to prepare schools for safe, in-person learning. Yet states are slashing education budgets….Rising tuition and shrinking supports will further reduce college attendance and intensify education inequality….

      We cannot ask college students to borrow their way out of this pandemic, nor to work more, given the collapse of the labor market. Financial aid for college students must adjust to the economic devastation caused by the pandemic. The standard response of the aid system to a sharp downturn in a family’s income is to demand supplementary paperwork. This protocol is designed for unusual cases, but right now the modal family is worse off than a year ago. The aid process should be streamlined and simplified to quickly get money out the door….

      Spending on education is an investment in the nation’s future. An aggressive federal response is critical for getting students and schools through this perilous time

How Talented Low-income Kids Are Left Behind

[These excerpts are from an article by Jonathan Wai and Frank C. Worrell in the December 2020/January 2021 issue of Kappan.]

      Americans have always celebrated the idea that if all children — including those born into poverty — have the chance to achieve to their fullest r-capacity, then we all stand to benefit from their accomplishments. As Thomas Jefferson wrote in 1788:

      By that part of our plan which prescribes the selection of the youths of genius from amongthe classes of the poor, we hope to avail the state of those talents which nature has sown as liberally among the poor as the rich, but which p erish without use, if not sought for and cultivated.

      In recent decades, federal policy makers have often amplifled Jefferson’s message, arguing that we need to find and support greater numbers of high-performing students, both to ensure our national security and to strengthen our economy. Further, since 1988, the federal government has funded research and grants to support programs for “gifted and talented” students.

      However, our investments haven’t matched our ideals. In the mid-1990s, for instance, researchers…pointed out that the federal K-12 education budget allocated just 0.0002% for gifted and talented education….Twenty years later, gifted education still received a microscopically small fraction of the federal education budget — just a single dollar out of every $500,000 spent….Meanwhile, policy makers’ attention to this issue has declined as well, all but disappearing from federal debates about education spending.

      We believe that this decades-long underinvestm.ent in gifted education has weakened our country by withholding much-needed support from young people who might have made important contributions to our economy, culture, and society at large….this failure to invest properly in gifted education has made it more difficult than ever for our public schools to identify, as Jefferson put it, “youths of genius from among the classes of the poor.”

      …A number of recent studies suggest that talented kids who come from low-income backgrounds are less likely, com-pared to similarly talented but more affluent peers, to reach their full potential….So how can we narrow this divide between talented low-income and high-income students? One solution is early identification and talent development.

      It’s hard to develop students’ talents if we don't identify them accurately and at an early enough point to affect their K-12 educational trajectory. This is especially important for gifted low-income students, who do not have the financial advantages that would enable them to access additional edu-cational opportunities and must rely on whatever their local public schools offer them….

      It may seem counterintuitive, but standardized tests appear to be more effective than more subjective measures in selecting students who are ready for more advanced schooling — the key is that such testing must be done universally, not relying on referrals from teachers, parents, or other adults. When gifted identification is left to the discretion of parents and teachers, it turns out that more low-income and minority children are missed….And it appears that universal screening actually is more, rather than less, helpful in objectively identifying talented but disadvantaged students….

      Moreover, recent research has shown that comparing students’ test performance to other students within the same school and using that as the method for identification — what is known as using “local norms” — results in more disadvantaged students being identified….

      When schools identify students, especially disadvantaged students, needing more advanced opportunities early in their K-12 educational development, they can provide the most educationally stimulating opportunities possible right from the start, enabling these students to develop to their fullest potential….

      …The competition for college, in particular highly selective colleges, is quite intense, often requiring years of planning, résumé building, and parental investment. Without early identification and consistent talent development, low-income gifted students are likely to remain at a disadvantage.

      Although the representation of talented but low-income students at selective colleges has improved somewhat since the 1970s, it has improved even more for talented but high-income students….In fact, researchers have found that academically advanced low-income students are less likely than their high-income peers even to apply to selective colleges and universities….And it is these selective colleges that often serve as gateways to positions of leadership and influence in U.S. society.

      People who end up in positions of national and global leadership, it turns out, often attended and graduated from highly selective colleges and universities. In fact, roughly half of the country’s political and economic leaders come from a small set of elite schools….Thus, the disadvantages accumulate for low-income students. Lacking access to the prestige associated with graduating from an elite school and the networking opportunities such schools provide, these students are largely shut out of top jobs and the loftiest positions of power….

      …Similarly, research by James Heckman…found greater long-term economic and societal returns on investment in high-ability students relative to lower-ability students, particularly at an early age.

      …At the same time, even a small early investment in talented students from poor backgrounds has the potential to greatly boost societal innovation and the economy, improving life for us all. Surely such an effort is worth it.

The Evidence Base for Advanced Learning Programs

[These excerpts are from an article by Jonathan A. Plucker and Carolyn M. Callahan in the December 2020/January 2021 issue of Kappan.]

      For decades, Americans have held conflicting views about the wisdom of offering advanced educational courses of study — such as honors classes, Advanced Placement (AP) courses, and special programs for “gifted” students — in the public schools. On one hand, supporters argue that these programs benefit not just the students but all of us, since they identify and nurture talented individuals who will go on to play leading roles in society. On the other hand, critics decry advanced programming as elitist, inequitable, and (on balance) harmful to the country, since they tend to benefit children who are already advantaged, while taking resources away from those who can’t participate.

      In recent years, policy makers and the media have generally taken a positive view of advanced education programs, especially AP, which has seen its enrollments grow rapidly across much of the country, more than doubling between 2009 and 2019. Today, however, advanced programs are coming under fire once again, especially in urban school districts, and with particular urgency given the present economic crisis and heightened concerns about systemic racism….

      Consideration of what kinds of programs we should or should not offer in public schools — by school boards, superintendents, state legislatures, or the general public — may well lead to the conclusion that the pros of advanced programming are outweighed by the cons, or that other investments should have priority. However, if the debate is to be rational, it is important that those who weigh in are informed about the existing defensible evidence rather than relying on false, one-sided asser-tions or biased “popular” claims.

      …Despite the recent wave of criticism, substantial research evidence supports the condusion that advanced learning programs are effective. Does high-quality, gold-standard, replicated research exist for every possible intervention that falls under the umbrella of gifted education or talent development? Of course not. For many reasons, it is an anomaly when an educational program or practice has gold-standard evidence based on comparing student outcomes between groups who have been randomly assigned to receive or not receive that educational intervention. Consider, for example, that despite spending billions to study how best to help children learn to read — one of the most foundational tasks in all of education — we continue to debate the issue….

      However, if we lack gold-standard research, that doesn’t mean we lack evidence. In fact, there is a great deal of intervention research regarding the effectiveness of programs for advanced learners….Because randomized experimental studies aren't available in large numbers for every intervention, we rely on studies offering a preponderance of evidence that an intervention is effective, with a bias toward experimental studies when available.

      …Asking these kinds of specific questions about specific programs — whether we’re discussing science education or gifted education — is much more useful than lumping together a wide variety of interventions and trying to measure their overall effectiveness. T

      …One of the most-studied intervention strategies for advanced learners, acceleration refers to moving particular students forward more quickly than is typical, such as by having them enter kindergarten early, skip grades, study a telescoped curriculum (i.e., compressing material into a shorter time frame), or participate in dual enrollment or early college programs. Researchers have gathered overwhelming evidence that acceleration has positive effects on student achievement, and the evidence also dispels the myth that acceleration is detrimental to students’ social engagement or emotional well-being….

      …Although the evidence ofthe effectiveness of ability grouping is not as clear cut as the data supporting acceleration, researchers have provided convincing evidence that flexible ability grouping (i.e., grouping that can change as student abilities and needs change) is a net positive for the learning of our most and least advanced students. Of course, the important distinction here is the contrast between the concept of flexible grouping and tracking….

      …Both standardized achievement tests and specific curricular assessments have shown that students who were randomly chosen to participate in lessons using these curricula arl-ti eyed at higher levels than did similar students who were offered standard lessons. To date, strong evidence for these benefits has been found in a number of subject areas — science, social studies, reading, language arts, and mathematics….

      …Enrichment programs with a focus on the development of process skills (creative thinking, higher-level thinking skills, etc.) and with a focus on language arts at the elementary level are among the most widely used forms of advanced education…, but the research literature includes relatively few third-party or experimental studies….

      …Research on Advance d Placement and International Baccalaureate provides ample positive data from I surveys of teachers and students…, but the experimental research is mixed in quality (often failing to control for demographic and aptitude variables) and has mixed results regarding student outcomes….Although it appears that students who were successful in AP classes are more likely to be successful in college, the predictive strength varies by course. And there are signs that these courses may be detrimental for some students who do not achieve above minimal AP test scores.

      …Among the oldest strategies for advanced education are public high schools that selectively choose high-performing students based on entrance exam scores (hence the label “exam schools”). However, despite the long history of this approach to advanced learning, very few experimental studies have been conducted on such schools, and other sophisticated research designs have produced mixed-to-negative results regarding whether atten-dance at selective high schools improves student outcomes….

      …Given the strategies and evidence described above, educators and policy makers can reasonably conclude there are research-supported interventions to promote advanced learning. However, most students who would benefit from advanced education spend most of their time in heterogeneous classrooms, with some having access to a pull-out classroom for a very limited time period each day (typically less than an hour p er week) with a focus on enrichment learning activities….The heterogeneous classroom approach relies heavily on teachers' willingness, skill, and time to differentiate curriculum and instruction for the wide range of student performance levels in their classrooms, including students who want and need a greater challenge….However, there is evidence that only a limited cadre ofteachers are effective at doing so…, and few studies have produced evidence that differentiation has a positive effect on student learning….Many teachers themselves appear to recognize how difficult it is to provide this sort of instruction effectively….

      …Increasingly, in recent years, we’ve heard educators make the claim that advanced education programs are no longer necessary in their school district, given the benefits of newly adopted psychosocial interventions — such as those targeting growth mindset, grit, or learning styles. Moreover, we continue to hear educators make the familiar argument that advanced education can cause psychosocial harm to students….

      However, a review of the relevant research literature concluded that psychosocial interventions such as those noted above are not suitable for routine use in schools and may not work at all to promote advanced achievement and close excellence gaps….

      …Do we need more and better research into advanced education programs, especially on how to ensure they work for students of different races, ethnicities, genders, and economic backgrounds? Absolutely, but that can be said about almost any educational intervention. For now, educators, policy makers, and advocates should be aware of and confident in the empirical support for some specific approaches to providing advanced education — and the lack of support for others.

      In addition, educators and researchers should avoid pitting the various interventions against each other, as though one is superior to all others, even though, in practice, these strategies may overlap considerably. Instead of seeking the one best strategy for every situation, it maybe better to ask which set of strategies will be best in a given context for a given student or group of students. As the research base continues to grow, we'll be more and more able to answer these questions.

Rethinking How We Identify "Gifted" Students

[These excerpts are from an article by Scott J. Peters, James Carter and Jonathan A. Plucker in the December 2020/January 2021 issue of Kappan.]

      Public education has long been viewed as society’s great equalizer, an institution that can change life trajectories, enabling students from even the humblest of backgrounds to master content and skills that will allow them to thrive when they reach adulthood. With great ambition, however, comes great responsibility: If our schools offer the surest route from poverty to the middle class, then they have an obligation to help as many students as possible to reach an acceptable standard of performance, one that will permit them to succeed in college and/or the workplace.

      This idea permeates the contemporary discourse about education, where terms like proficient and grade-level evoke a mimimum standard — on the way to college and career readiness — that all students are expected to reach. If they clear that bar, whether by an inch or a mile, then their school has done its job; if too many of them fall short, then the school has failed. In short, our public schools are under a great deal of pressure to identify and support struggling students, helping them to meet the standard.

      But a tale embrace of equity means that all students get the support they need….

      Traditionally, schools have served some portion of those students by enrolling them in gifted and talented (GT) programs. In recent years, though, the field has evolved inimportant ways, in part to address long-standing concerns. As critics have often noted, when children are designated as gifted, this seems to imply that they are qualitatively different from everybody else, as though they’ve been singled out for a lifetime membership in an exclusive club. In truth, high. achievement is much more fluid than that: Children will often race ahead in one area while strugging in others, or they’ll make rapid progress for a while and then slow down, or they’ll struggle for a while and then begin to make rapid progress. Thus, in an effort to highlight students’ current level of achievement in specific areas, rather than to suggest that they belong permanently to a gifted elite, many GT programs have come to use labels such as advanced academics or classes for highly capable students. Still, though, while the labels may be different, the goal tends to be similar: Such programs are meant to support those students found to need more of a challenge.

      Gifted and talented education has also expanded to include a focus on talent development. Whereas traditional GT programs focused on challenging students who were already advanced in one or more areas, many of these programs now include services meant to develop the potential of students who have yet to demonstrate high achievement, often because they've had fewer opportunities to do so. No longer is the focus solely on the needs of already advanced learners; increasingly, the goal also includes developing the potential of all students.

      …For that matte; even a seemingly “objective” selection process can favor students who aren't likely to benefit from the program, while excluding those who would. In one study, for example, students identified by a high IQ score were placed in the same gifted class as students identified through an achievement te s t; the students identified with an IQ te st showed no benefit, while those with high achievement test scores did….

      …But there is no magic bullet to solve the problem of inequity in gifted education. Lack of equity is caused by a number of factors, some of which are outside of educators’ control. For example, there is only so much that teachers and administrators can do to ameliorate the effects of poverty and its role in student achievement….

      …Gifted programs won't become truly equitable until the nation addresses a host of larger societal problems. In the meantime, though, we can make significant progress by relying on a number of best practices, as described below.

      …when schools neglect to give careful consideration to the kind of program they want to offer, or who they want to serve, they tend to make bad decisions, ending up with a program and a selection process that don't go together.

      …Without making clear and explicit choices about who and/or what the gifted program is meant to accomplish, it will end up serving the wrong students.

      …There’s no reason to assume, for instance, that if a student requires an accelerated algebra class this year then she'll need an accelerated class next year as well. Rather, the question should be, “Does this specific program meet this student’s needs at this time?” In brief, the point isn't to identify talented students (stamping them with that label in permanent ink), but to identify talented students in context and to match them with appropriate ser-vices that will benefit them in the moment….

      Higher education institutions, directors of exam schools, and gifted education researchers have long argued that the greater the numbers of students tested, the less likely we’ll be to overlook students who would have benefitted from the program — historically, a disproportionate number of those overlooked students have been Black, Latin; and/or from low-income families.

      Of course, it costs more money to test all students and (since this will lead to the identification of more students who need advanced learning opportunities) expand gifted programs. But if we want to identify students for these services more accurately and equitably, then this is a cost we must bear.

      As a rule, each school should design its GT services to meet the needs of its local population, rather than trying to conform to some national perspective on who counts as gifted….

      Identification systems should be proactive in finding and eliminating such obstacles, making sure that no students are denied gifted services for the wrong reasons….

      It’s not enough to say that a system is available to everyone. Instead, identification systems need to take proactive, affirmative steps to find every student who would benefit from a GT program. Yet, as important as it is to be proactive about equity, we must avoid the temptation to comb the desert in search of the perfect identification process, one that ensures that the makeup of the students receiving GT services precisely mirrors that of the larger student population. The United States is a very unequal country, and as long as some students have access to every resource and privilege imaginable, while others struggle to find enough to eat, we will see unequalperformance on any valid assessment, even ifs cho ols take proactive steps to identify students more equitably.

      …Further, using multiple criteria means using more measures, and those extra instruments (e.g., parent, teacher, or student self-rating scales) are often subjective. The greater the reliance on raters’ personal judgment, the greater the likeiihood that biases will skew the results.

      …Systems should be designed to be inclusive — to err on the side of letting kids into a service rather than on keeping them out. In addition, educators should consider whether their additional measures are injecting more bias into their process, and whether that bias is helping or hurting the ability of the process to identify children in need of advanced services, and to do so equitably. For example, teacher recommendations might help some disadvantaged students access services, but requiring a teacher referral could hold some students back.

      …Every year, many students arrive at school working well above grade level, and some of them may need additonal challenges, by way of accelerated courses, enrichment programs, or any of the many other strategies for providing a more rigorous education. Historically, the nation’s schools have struggled to identify those students accurately. Over the past decade, however, we’ve seen tremendous growth in our understanding of how best to select students for advanced learning services, ensuring that all children have fair and equitable opportunities to develop their skills and talents.

      We anticipate that this perspective will seem counterintuitive to many people, in that it flies in the face of a familiar line of criticism, which portrays gifted education programs as inherently elitist and inequitable. Within the field of advanced education, we can only keep working hard to show that such criticism is wrong, and that if public education is to be truly equitable and effective, then it must find ways to meet the needs of all children, including those who are ready for greater challenges.

      At the same time, we anticipate that our views will seem objectionable to others, especially those parents and educators who have had to fight hard over many years to get services for their very talented children and students, and who fear that a more inclusive approach will reduce or eliminate those services. To them, we can only reiterate that a more inclusive approach to gifted and advanced education, when designed and implemented carefully, will not remove services. Instead, it will “expand the pie,” resulting in a more equitable education system that meets the needs of all students. The question is not whether our schools can provide such services to larger number of children, but whether our leaders are willing to provide the necessary resources.

Purposes and Plans for Giften Education in Kappan

[These excerpts are from an article by Teresa Preston in the December 2020/January 2021 issue of Kappa.]

      In October 1940, Kappan published an issue on the “Education of exceptional children.” At the time, school attendance was growing quickly, and schools were having to figure out how to educate rbildren with an ever-widening range of abilities. Most articles in the issue focused on students with disabilities, but Ernest Newland noted in his Editorial Comment introducing the issue that “only about one-third of our mentally superior children are able to push themselves through the educational undergrowth of mass instruction to any point near the achievement of which they are capable….”

      Whether they are called mentally superior, highly intelligent, gifted, talented, or advanced, the most capable students in schools have presented a dual conundrum for educators. How do we identify them, and how can we develop their abilities? The question William Connor asks in the October 1940 Kappan has remained relevant across the decades, right up to today:

      Children are being born and growing up with the same individual differences, they have always shown. There is no going backward in the schools which serve a dynamic society such as ours. What, then, is the best possible approach to the identification and education of gifted and talented children here and now?...

      According to Connor, programs for these children were not just intended to help them develop their superior abilities further, but also to help them surmount problems perceived as common among gifted and talented children, such as boredom, social isolation, a sense of inferiority, a tendency to correct others, worry over the state of the world and their place in it, and “bafflement” in social situations.

      Likewise, in December 1956, Herbert Klausmeier noted that programs for the most capable children should be about more than intellectual development….

      …For Bernstein, the most capable students should be urged to enter the seats of the greatest power, and for better or worse, the scientific and scholarly worlds are not where the power is. Rather, the power is in the fields of economics and politics, he argued, and society will derive the greatest benefit from putting the best students on the path to these fields….

      In June 1973, Robert Tresize…contemplated how interest in providing special opportunities for the most advanced students had waxed and waned over the years, often along-side concerns about IQ testing, questions about whether nature or nurture were paramount in child development, and the eugenics movement….

      …[Thomas] Jefferson’s idea was that an intellectual elite should be encouraged. His philosophy suggested that we should continually survey the country in order to identify those who seem to be talented, and then pains should be taken to nurture that talent. The country will prosper and attain its ideals only if led by a group of enlightened leaders drawn from the various segments of society.

      …Jackson’s conception of democracy was more rectangular, with all social levels more or less on a plane. Being a product of the frontier, where all men were equal, Jackson thought that all men regardless of experience or educational background should share equally in the leadership function. In fact, the unlettered man of the frontier — but the man with ordinary common sense —should always be kept around to keep the intellectual and aristocratic elitists well rooted in reality and out of mischief….

      Indeed, Kappan authors had long sought ways to bring more young people into the gifted umbrella. As early as November 1958, Jacob Getzels and Philip Jackson…considered the merits of including highly creative students among the gifted, tailoring opportunities to build their specific talents. It was possible, the authors acknowledged, that including creativity as a marker of giftedness could set a precedent for further expanding the definition….

      In May 1982, Sally Reis and Joseph Renzulli…noted the many problems with using IQ tests to determine giftedness and described a more flexible “revolving door” approach, in which students whom the school deemed in need of enrichment would pursue areas of special interest, with the guidance of a resource teacher and following a clear management plan establishing when students would move in and out of the program.

      By the late 1990s, educators were thinking about gifted education as a form of talent development, potentially available to a much broader swath of students,….

      The case could be made that all of education should be about talent development, a view of schooling that focuses on the optimal, not the minimal, development of each student….

World’s Oldest Hunting Scene Revealed

[This brief article by Michael Price in the 18 December 2020 issue of Science.]

      More than 40,000 years ago on the Indonesian island of Sulawesi, a prehistoric Pablo Picasso ventured into the depths of a cave and sketched a series of fantastic animal-headed hunters cornering wild hogs and buffaloes. The age of the paintings, pinned down just 1 year ago, makes them the earliest known figurative art made by modern humans.

      In 2017, when an Indonesian researcher chanced across the scene, the figures alone told him he had found something special. The animals appear to be Sulawesi warty pigs and dwarf buffaloes, both of which still live on the island. But it was the animallike features of the eight hunters, armed with spears or ropes, that captivated archaeologists. Several of the hunters seem to have long muzzles or snouts. One sports a tail. Another’s mouth resembles a bird beak.

      It’s possible the artist was depicting the hunters wearing masks or camouflage, the researchers say, but they may also represent mythical animal-human hybrids. Such hybrids appear in other ancient works of art, including a 35,000-year-old ivory figurine of a lion-man found in the German Alps.

      Parts of the paintings were covered in white, bumpy mineral deposits known as cave popcorn. Uranium in this popcorn decays at a fixed rate, which allowed researchers to date minerals on top of the pigment to about 44,000 years ago. The cave scene must be at least that old—about 4000 years older than any other known figurative rock art, they reported in late December 2019. It decisively unseats Europe as the first place where modern humans are known to have created figurative art.

      If the figures do depict mythical human-animal hunters, their creators may have already passed an important cognitive milestone: the ability to imagine beings that do not exist. That, the researchers say, forms the roots of most modern—and ancient—religions.

Global Warming Forecasts Sharpen

[This brief article by Paul Voosen in the 18 December 2020 issue of Science.]

      More than 40 years ago, the world's leading climate scientists gathered in Woods Hole, Massachusetts, to answer a simple question: How hot would Earth get if humans kept emitting greenhouse gases? Their answer, informed by rudimentary climate models, was broad: If atmospheric carbon dioxide (CO2) doubled from pre-industrial levels, the planet would eventually warm between 15°C and 4.5°C, a climate sensitivity range encompassing the merely troubling and the catastrophic. Now, they’ve finally ruled out the mildest scenarios—and the most dire.

      Narrowing those bounds has taken decades of scientific advancement. Understanding how clouds trap or reflect heat has been a particular challenge. Depending on their thickness, location, and composition, clouds can amplify warming—or suppress it. Now high-resolution cloud models, supported by satellite evidence, have shown that global warming thins low, light-blocking clouds: Hotter air dries them out and subdues the turbulence that drives their formation.

      Longer and better temperature records have also helped narrow the range. Studies of Earth's ancient climate, which estimate paleotemperatures and CO2 levels using ice and ocean sediment cores, suggest how greenhouse gases may have driven previous episodes of warming. And modern global warming has now gone on long enough that surface temperatures, 1.1°C hotter than in preindustrial times, can be used to more confidently project trends into the future.

      This year, these advances enabled 25 scientists affiliated with the World Climate Research Programme to narrow climate sensitivity to a range between 2.6°C and 3.9°C. The study rules out some of the worst-case scenarios—but it all but guarantees warming that will flood coastal cities, escalate extreme heat waves, and displace millions of people.

      If we’re lucky; such clarity might galvanize action. Atmospheric CO2 is already at 420 parts per million—halfway to the doubling point of 560 ppm. Barring more aggressive action on climate change, humanity could reach that threshold by 2060—and lock in the foreseen warming.

A Divisive Disease

[These excerpts are from an article by Kal Kupferschmidt in the 18 December 2020 issue of Science.]

      …The pandemic was the type of threat researchers had worried and warned about for years: a deadly animal virus, new to humans, and spread in the breath we exhale….

      And this virus had help. A “syndemic” is the intersection of two epidemics—two diseases ravaging a population at the same time, exacerbating each other. HIV weakens the immune system, for instance, which makes people more likely to develop tuberculosis. The world witnessed something similar this year. We live in an ecosystem that allows viruses to cross from wildlife to humans more often and spread farther and faster than ever before—that gave us SARS-CoV-2. But the virus emerged in an information ecosystem that helps misinformation and lies spread faster than scientific evidence, weakening our ability to respond to new threats. That made the pandemic far worse.

      …the virus was faster. Carried around the world by travelers, it spread surreptitiously at first but quickly sickened and killed patients at a rate that threatened to overwhelm health care systems. As scientists, doctors, and nurses worked around the clock, countries on all continents tried to follow the Chinese example, depriving the coronavirus conflagration of the oxygen it eeded: human contact.

      “Science is our exit strategy,” Farrar told Science in those dark days of the first peak. And in many ways, science delivered. It launched an all-out effort to develop animal models and diagnostics, chart the pathogen's path of destruction through the human body, find drugs, and develop vaccines….

      But when it came to countering the other plague, that of disinformation and deception, the toolbox was empty. Just as video-conferencing and online shopping found massive new markets as stores, schools, and offices closed, so polarization, politicization, and a media ecosystem that elevates simple lies over complex truths were ready to take advantage of an unsettled public struggling with uncertainty. Even as hundreds of thousands died, many people downplayed the problem or refused to acknowledge its exis tence, no matter what the experts said….Politicians and some physicians began to promote drugs without evidence. The White House flouted epidemiologists’ advice about face masks and SARS-CoV-2’s propensity to spread in clusters indoors—and itself became the site of a superspreading event.

      Scientists, not the virus, became the enemy for some. Top virologists needed police protection. Many other researchers reported threats and harassment, with women often subjected to the worst of it….

      Conspiracy theories flourished. People burned down cellphone towers, blaming them for the pandemic. Others tried to film in hospitals they said were empty. It was all planned. It was all fake. Or maybe it was both.

      Scientists themselves contributed to the confusion. French microbiologist Didier Raoult touted hydroxychloroquine based on a study with few participants and no real control, group….Three scientists with high-profile affiliations published the Great Barrington Declaration, which advocated for shielding the most vulnerable in society while letting the virus infect everyone else to build up herd immunity, a strategy most epidemiologists considered dangerously misguided.

      Such episodes played into the desire for easy solutions: a cure-all pill, a disease that was less dangerous, a quick return to life before the pandemic. Some scientists may have been driven by a healthy distrust of accepted wisdom or a contrarian spirit, but the effect was reminiscent of industry’s playbook in the fights over tobacco and climate change: Create just enough confusion about the evidence to allow people to carry on as before.

      Science worked best when many researchers joined hands. Hundreds of small drug studies didn’t result in clear answers, but two big trials—the United Kingdom's Recovery and WHO’s Solidarity—convincingly relegated hydroxychloroquine and other drugs to the dustbin while showing that dexamethasone, a cheap steroid, cut deaths by one-third. Thousands of scientists signed the John Snow Memorandum, a riposte to the Great Barrington Declaration that declared the herd immunity strategy “a dangerous fallacy.” The vaccines, too, were the product of thousands of scientists and doctors working together.

      In the end, science may save the day—we'll find out in the months and years ahead whether vaccines can defeat the virus. But the pandemic was a stress test for the scientific enterprise. Some cracks that had long been there, small enough to be ignored by many, widened into deep fissures.

      Farrar is hopeful that humanity will come away wiser after staring into the abyss….

      But a new crisis is coming that scientists have warned and worried about for years—one that is slower, yet even more menacing, and far easier to ignore or deny. “You know the biggest deal of this year?” Hanage asks. “When it comes to climate change we are totally screwed.”

      There will be no easy scientific fix for global warming. And if this pandemic has shown anything, it is that evidence without action is like a vaccine in a freezer: It is all potential. Scientists knew deaths would follow cases as sure as thunder follows lightning. And yet politicians and ordinary citizens alike found it hard to act until morgues were overflowing. Some refused to acknowledge reality even then. How much harder will it be to act on climate change?

      The upshot of this year cannot just be more research on unknown pathogens lurking in nature. It has to be an effort to revive and strengthen the bonds between science and the rest of society.

      SARS-CoV-2 did not just disrupt the world. It shattered the fragile mirror we thought of as reality. Without it, we will be defenseless in the next crisis.

Shots of Hope

[These excerpts are from an article by Jon Cohen in the 18 December 2020 issue of Science.]

      …That first month, confusion reigned. No one knew how deadly SARS-CoV-2 was or how it might threaten global health. China obscured early evidence of human-to-human transmission, and the seemingly limited spread to other countries delayed the World Health Organization from declaring an international health emergency. But as January ended, the global threat had become clear….

      Two of the Chinese contenders made vaccine candidates with the entire virus, whereas every other effort singled out the SARS-CoV-2 surface protein, spike, which structural biologists were quick to map and study. Spike initiates infection by attaching to receptors that stud human cells. A vaccine might “neutralize” the virus if it could train the body to create antibodies that would glom onto spike at the precise spot where it engages with its receptor.

      Developers tapped into a dazzling array of technologies to make an effective vaccine….

      But making a vaccine isn’t just a matter of choosing a technology. It has to be tested, first for safety and then for efficacy, in thousands of people who receive the shot or a placebo and are monitored to see who gets sick. “You’re not just going to pull a vaccine out of your pocket,” said Anthony Fauci, bead of the U.S. National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, on 11 February. Panel, who said it typically took “6, 7, 8 years” to develop a vaccine, predicted that small clinical trials would begin in March, but larger trials not until June. In the best-case scenario, he said, “It would take at least 6 or 8 months to know if it works.”

      But the best-case scenario was even better than Fauci expected.

      The field received a jolt of good news in April, when Sinovac showed for the first time that a COVID-19 vaccine safely protected monkeys from an intentional “challenge” with the virus. The company used an old, and, some thought, outmoded technology: whole, killed virus. But the concept itself now had proof. A flood of other monkey challenge successes followed.

      By 20 April, the day after the first report of a monkey success, five companies had vaccines in clinical trials, and no fewer than 71 other candidates were in preclinical development….

      …On 27 July, the Moderna and Pfizer-BioNTech candidates both entered efficacy trials that quickly enrolled more participants in hard-hit locales than the Chinese vaccine studies. Those mRNA vaccines became the first to cross the finish line, each reporting roughly 95% efficacy in November.

      …That’s higher than almost anyone dared hope for. (Influenza vaccines, in a good year, hit 60% effectiveness.) A confluence of forces propelled science from zero to a COVID-19 vaccine at revolutionary speed. Never before have researchers so quickly developed so many experimental vaccines against the same foe. Never before have so many competitors collaborated so openly and frequently. Never before have so many candidates advanced to large-scale efficacy trials virtually in parallel. And never before have governments, industry; academia, and nonprofits thrown so much money, muscle, and brains at the same infectious disease in such short order.

      Biology, however, may have been the overriding factor in the success of COVID-19 vaccines….

      SARS-CoV-2 is different. Early in the pandemic it became clear that most people developed only mild disease, suggesting the immune system can hold the virus in check—and that vaccine-stimulated immunity might prove an effective defense. HIV or hepatitis C, in contrast, cause life-long infections.

      If SARS-CoV-2 is an easy mark, the mRNA vaccines that delivered the most spectacular early results may soon be joined by many others….

      As of 10 December, 162 candidates were in development and 52 were already in clinical trials. If even a fraction of those work, different countries may get to choose the vaccines that best fit their budgets and delivery capabilities—and separate vaccines could be available for children, pregnant women, young adults, and the elderly.

      To be sure, the clinical trial results reported to date have mainly come from glowing company press releases, not the full presentations of data that could reveal caveats. Vaccine doses will be scarce for even the wealthiest countries until at least spring, and the world’s poor will surely wait longer, despite the creation of a global alliance, the COVID-19 Vaccines Global Access Facility, to increase access.

      In other ways, too, the pandemic-battered world has a long trip ahead on a steep mountain road with no guardrails. Vaccine hesitancy, manufacturing problems, and breakdowns in supply chains could botch ambitious rollouts. SARS-CoV-2 might mutate to evade protective immune responses. Vaccines might prevent disease, but not transmission, delaying the end of the pandemic. Worst of all, rare, serious side effects could surface when vaccines move from efficacy trials to entire populations….

      Normal won’t return for a long time. But in the coming months, as vaccines are rolled out and a fuller picture of their promise emerges, we may finally be able to answer the question, “When is this going to end?”

A Glimmer of Hope for Global Emissions

[These excerpts are from an article by Tom Yulsman in the January/February 2021 issue of Discover.]

      As the arc of coronavirus misery rose in 2020, a hopeful development on another dangerous curve may have escaped your attention. The curve tracking the rise of global carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions from energy use were totally flat in 2019….

      …this flattening happened before COVID-19 temporarily hampered economic activity and carbon output. So, the promising CO2 trend stems from other factors: plunging use of coal in many economies and gains in renewable energy….

      Pending final numbers, we’ll likely see actual reductions in CO2 emissions in 2020, “partly but not entirely due to the pandemic,” Mann says. “Perhaps even more significantly, we know that the flattening of carbon emissions is tied to the transition away from fossil fuel burning and toward renewable energy.”

      That’s a structural change, and the shift has been accelerating. Mann predicts the final emissions report for 2020 will show a drop od about 5 percent. But that won’t thwart the dangerous climate impacts in our future. “The problem is that we need further reductions by the, year after year, for the next decade and beyond,” he says. The goal is to prevent Earth from warming an average of 2.7 degrees Fahrenheit, which is projected to cause deadly heat waves, debilitating droughts and stronger storms. In fact, 2020 was on track to be one of the hottest years on record….

      Also, despite the emissions curve flattening in 2019, and likely decreasing in 2020, the amount of CO2 in the atmosphere still reached a new high in 2020, and will continue to rise. Like a bathtub overflowing until the tap is shut off completely, CO2 levels will not stop rising until emissions are driven down to zero – either that, or until emissions are drastically slowed while CO2 is actually removed from the atmosphere.

      …we must embrace this idea: “We humans really are in charge of, and responsible for, our own future, which includes the health of our planet.:

A Water-Dwelling Dino, Lost and Found

[These excerpts are from an article by Riley Black in the January/February 2021 issue of Discover.]

      …The discovery of a long, paddlelike tail marked Spinosaurus as the first known semi-aquatic dinosaur.

      The current model of Spinosaurus took over a century to assemble. In 1915, German paleontologist Ernst Stromer named Spinosaurus, a carnivorous dinosaur that stalked Cretaceous Egypt and bore a tall sail on its back. But, not long after the dinosaur’s description, the only known fossils were destroyed during a 1944 Allied bombing raid of Munich. Spinosaurus was lost to science.

      Bits and pieces turned up over the following decades. Scraps bobbed out of the strata of Egypt and turned up in Morocco’s fossil market. Finds of related animals started to change the image of Spinosaurus, too — shifting it from a Tyrannosaurus-like chomper to a crocodile-snouted fish-eater with huge claws. Yet paleontologists were still lacking a complete specimen to validate their expectations.

      That all changed in the late 2000s, when pieces of a partial Spinosaurus skeleton surfaced from a fossil collector, and later at a museum in Milan. Traced back to their source among the Kern Kern beds of Morocco, the fossil turned out to be the first reasonably complete Spinosaurus found in a century. The finds revealed that Spinosaurus had a long snout full of conical teeth and comically stubby back legs. What’s more, the dense structure of the dinosaur’s bones hinted that its skeleton had naturally steadied the animal as it swam about Cretaceous waterways.

      But the reconstruction spurred controversy. The new specimen was still missing pieces, and experts disagreed on whether all the bones belonged to the same animal or even the same species.

      To solve the debate, paleontologists went back to the source….

      The expedition was a success. A search ofthe quarry that had yielded the latest specimen also turned up something new: a tail. Described early in 2020, the tail of Spinosaurus was long, thick and eel-like — no other known dinosaur had one like this….

      …Spinosaurus spent a lot of time in and near the water.…how the dinosaur used its tail and how much time it spent swimming is up for debate….

Black in Academia

[These excerpts are from an article by Cydney H. Dupree in the January/February 2021 issue of Discover.]

      In May, the killing of George Floyd brought a harsh reality to the forefront of conversations worldwide: Racism permeates every aspect of society: And science, as part of society and my own profession, is not immune….

      Racism in science is nothing new For centuries, science has been a foremost tool used to build, defend and maintain racial inequality. As the transatlantic slave trade reached its peak, the 18th century saw the emergence of “race sciences.” European scientists and philosophers debated the number and characteristics of human races, typically depicting Black people as predisposed to unintelligence, laziness and criminality. This work continued in the 19th century with the American eugenics movement, as scientists argued for the genetic superiority of those classified as white. Even as science began to understand race as socially constructed rather than biologically determined, several scholars began to advance notions of Black Americans’ cultural inferiority.

      Recent decades brought little change. In the 1990s, social scientists continued to argue that genetic unintelligence or a “culture of poverty” keeps Black Americans from success, blaming academic and family shortcomings while overlooking the roles of history and discrimination. Today, scholars across the sciences uncover racial disparities in all areas of life — often without explaining the myriad social factors that drive such differences. One example lies in the well-publicized finding that, as of Aug. 18, Black people are over twice as likely to die from COVID-19 as white people are. There-is less talk, however, of the structural factors that cause such disparities (and even less of how to fix them).

      …I found that white liberals — including Democratic presidential candidates — engage in what I call a competence downshift: They use fewer words highlighting their own competence (like assertive or competitive) when talking to a Black person or a mostly minority audience. White conservatives who, research suggests, are generally less interested in getting along with racial minorities — showed no such shift. This likely well-meaning, if ultimately patronizing, phenomenon maybe one of many that makes scientists of color in mostly white, outwardly progressive scientific communities feel unwelcome.

      This competence downshift is likely rooted in the very stereotypes that science has propagated for centuries — those depicting Black people as lower in status and ability. These ideas are alive and well….The stereotypes also play out in day-to-day interactions for scientists — such as when a Black professor is talked down to or mistaken for the janitor — leaving them feeling unsure of themselves and unwelcome. All of this can deter Black people from entering or staying in the sciences.

      In our rapidly diversifying world, the lack of scientists of color becomes increasingly harmful to humanity. Researchers of color are less subject to racial ignorance, allowing them to conduct research that is meaningful to more communities. Journal editors of color are often more likely to spot harmful implications that research might have for vulnerable communities, while participants of color allow scientific breakthroughs that apply to many rather than a few.

      As Black Lives Matter protests surged this past summer, organizations scrambled to release statements of solidarity. Conversations about reforming criminal justice, education, housing and the economy came to the forefront. The substance of such reforms will hinge on science — the tool the world turns to for addressing its most pressing problems. To be effective and inclusive, science, too, needs sweeping reforms: increasing the number of scientists of color, improving their sense of belonging within their chosen fields, and rebuilding eroded trust between academia and com-munities of color. As the world grapples with racism, one can only hope that, this time, science rises to the challenge.

The Social Symptoms of COVID-19

[These excerpts are from an article by Alex Orlando in the January/February 2021 issue of Discover.]

      It all happened so quickly. In a matter of weeks, our world was upended when a far-fiung outbreak spiralectinto a genuine pardeMiC. With. vateines and pharmaceutical interventions sea speck on theharizon, human behavior has become a key factor in battling the disease. The crisis has also pummeled both individuals and society itself with a plethora of mental health burdens, from stress and anxiety to social isolation.

      Research on COVID-19’s psychological impact is still evolving. But by midsurnmer of 2020, call counts had spiked up to 10 times more than pre-pandemic levels at the Disaster Distress Helpline….For decades, social and behavioral scientists have been examining the toll of long-term loneliness, the difficulty of behavior change and the human capacity for resilience. Their insights can help gauge the pandemic’s lasting consequences — and better equip us to stem the virus’ spread.

      …It’s no secret that human beings are inherently social creatures; for millennia, our bonds have kept us alive. Then 2020 happened. Millions of people found themselves trapped in their homes; either completely alone or intetacting with only a few others. Throughout human history; we’ve evolved to rely on our peers for survival….

      This heightened alertness has a direct effect on our bodies, too. It can cause increases in blood pressure, heart rate, stress hormones and inflammation levels — all of which threaten our life expectancy….researcher’s found that a lack of social connections is comparable to, and often more harmful than, obesity, physical inactivity and other well-known mortality risks. For example, the health effects of loneliness have been likened to the consequences of smoking 15 cigarettes a day.

      Loneliness was already a serious public health concern in the U.S. before the pandemic. But some experts fear that efforts to limit the novel coronavirus’ spread, from stay-at-home orders to social distancing, may amplify our loneliness problem….Even when we’re physically apart, the scientists suggest, a sense of support and solidarity might help stave off feelings of loneliness.

      Regardless,the importance of human connections coupled with the necessity to social distance creates a paradox — particularly for those, like older adults, who are more vulnerable to both isolation and COVID-19….With that in mind, nurturing safe, in-person interactions — from quality time with housemates to chats with neighbors across the street — may prove vital.

      …Despite being up against the worst public health crisis in a century, many people remain resistant to changing their ways….And with a glut of scientific research now showing that wearing face masks — combined with social-dikancing and frequent hand-washing — can curb transmission of the virus, resisting the inertia of habit and convenience is more important than ever.

      Still, information alone isn’t enough to shift someone’s behavior, even when those tweaks could mean the difference between life and death….

      But that doesn’t mean change is impossible. In fact, scientists have identified specific techniques for encouraging healthy and prosocial behavior, like mask-wearing….

      …It’s hard to overstate the disastrous nature ofthe SARS-CoV-2 outbreak. By October, the virus had already infected tens of millions of people — and killed 1 million —worldwide. The pandemic is also leaving varied psychological debris in its wake: Parental exhaustion with kids home from school, general paranoia about any symptoms of illness and major stressors for people forced indoors with abusive partners and guardians….

      Yet a body of research points to one brighter possible outcome of the pandemic —resilience. In psychology, the term refers to a stable course for mental health despite stressful or traumatic events….A 2004 study by Bonanno found that around two-thirds of individuals are likely to show resilience after an aversive event passes. Some scientists contend that percentages of resilience may even be underestimated because of a lack of data.

      There are some factors that tend to be linked to resilience, like the ability- to stay flexible. But Bonanno cautions there is no magic bullet for remaining resilient in the face of the COVID-19 crisis….

The Empathetic Reader

[This excerpt is from an article by Megan Schmidt in the January/February 2021 issue of Discover.]

      Would the world be a better place if people read more fiction? Words on a page can introduce us to what it's like to lose a child, get swept up in a war, be born into poverty or leave home and immigrate to a new country. A growing body of research has found that people who read fiction tend to better understand and share in the feelings of others — even those who are different from themselves. The results hold up even when comparing fiction to non-fiction readers.

      In 2006, researchers found that the more names of fiction authors that participants knew — and the more fiction they presumably read — the higher they-scored on empathy tests. Since then, exploring the intersection between empathy and fiction has caught on in psychology. There’s even evidence to show that reading itself is what promotes a change in individuals, rather than people who are naturally more empathetic gravitating toward fiction.

      But what people do with that extra empathy isn't as well understood….

Spare a Thought for the Teeming Ecosystem beneath Your Feet

[These excerpts are from an article by Elizabeth Pennisi in the 11 December 2020 issue of Science.]

      Reach down and scoop up some soil. Cupped in your hands may be 5000 different kinds of creatures—and as many individual cells as there are humans on the globe. That random handful might hold microscopic fungi, decomposing plant matter, a whisker-size nematode munching on the fungi, and a predatory, pinhead-size mite about to pounce on the nematode. One bacterium may fend off another with a potent antibiotic. It’s a whole world of often overlooked biodiversity.

      Last week, on the eve of World Soil Day, the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations released its first ever global assessment of the biodiversity in this underground world….

      …It details how life in the soil 4r7 boosts crop growth and purifies soil and water. Together with plant root systems, soil organisms store more carbon, potentially for longer, than the aboveground parts of trees do….

      Yet with each pass of the bulldozer or tractor, each forest fire, each oil spill, even the constant traffic of hikers along a popular trail, more and more soil organisms are being killed off. By compiling research on these subterranean ecosystems and how they affect visible ones, the report’s authors hope to convince scientists, policymakers, and the general public to take steps to slow this loss….

      Soil is a mix of organic material, minerals, gases, and other components that provide the substrate for plants to grow. About 40% of all animals find food, shelter, or refuge in soil during part of their life cycle.

      Scientists have mostly focused on the largest and smallest soil creatures. For centuries, natural historians have observed the moles, earthworms, ants, and termites that chew, wiggle, and dig their way among soil's particles, feasting on decaying leaves and other debris or on each other. Those ecosystem engineers aerate the soil and create underground passageways that make soil more hospitable for other life. And over the past few decades, microbiologists sequencing soil DNA have discovered an astonishing diversity of bac-eria and fungi, which process that litter into organic material.

      But in between the scales of macroscopic animals and microbes lie thousands of long-overlooked tiny creatures—the micro- and mesa fauna. Microscopic protists, nematodes, and tardigrades inhabit the watery films around soil particles. Slightly larger animals up to 2 millimeters in size, such as mites, springtails, and insect larvae, live in the airy pores between those particles, helping make soil one of the most diverse habitats on Earth….

      This diversity creates a rich, complex ecosystem that boosts crop growth, breaks down pollutants, and can serve as a nearly inexhaustible sink for carbon. Some soil organisms promote plant diversity and many have yielded important compounds, from antibiotics to natural pesticides….

      The report lists a dozen human activities taking a major toll on soil organisms. They include deforestation, intense agriculture, acidification due to pollutants, salinization from improper irrigation, soil compaction, surface sealing, fire, and erosion….

      Some researchers hope the report will encourage protecting soil organisms for their own sake. “Soil biodiversity is huge, and we must not destroy it without knowing what potential there is for improving sustainability,” says Mary Scholes….

An Opportunity to Improve Innovation

[These excerpts are from an editorial by H. Holden Thorp in the 11 December 2020 issue of Science.]

      The rapid development of COVID-19 vaccines is the outcome of Big Pharma’s R&D prowess, billions of dollars in federal investment, and the dedication and ingenuity of scores of scientists. But it also illustrates the logic of the Bayh.-Dole Act, passed 40 years ago in the United States, which governs how universities can work with industry to reap the benefits of federally funded research. The act permits universities to collaborate with private companies to license and commercialize these technologies under the rationale that the payoff for the government’s investment is increased economic activity for the country. It is unlikely that the act will ever be brought back to the floor of Congress for revision, and its staying power suggests that it is a permanent fixture of the U.S. innovation ecosystem. Nevertheless, there are legitimate philosophical and logistical objections that the incoming administration should work to address.

      Over the years, the federal government has funded most of the basic research that underlies the COVID-19 vaccines. But the government itself lacks the capacity to carry out massive clinical trials or to manufacture and distribute the vaccines on its own. The Moderna vaccine, for example, relies on patents that are licensed under Bayh-Dole to the biotechnology company. The fact that vaccines could be available to health care workers as soon as this week is a testament to the effectiveness of the arrangement.

      When Bayh-Dole first came along, there were notable concerns among university faculties about the conflicts that would arise. Would scientists be objective about their published research if they also stood to gain financially? Would students and postdoes see their careers stalled out because results were held back while patents were filed or—even worse—results were kept secret to protect financial interests?

      Universities set up ways to monitor and correct such conflicts, and though there have been problems, the system has held up well and contributed to important innovation….

      When a faculty member holds equity in a. startup company, their interests are not completely aligned with those of the university, which can make negotiating licenses cumbersome and strained….

      Although Bayh-Dole has produced much economic success and progress on important fronts, there are major drawbacks to depending on the marketplace to spur the kind of research that benefits society—a stated rationale for passing the act. This disconnect provides the strongest argument to create a more public system that doesn't rely on the financial short-sightedness of industry collaboration; however, most attempts at public solutions to this problem have not led to innovations applied outside the public-private model. Thus, the current system does not address what to do when there is insufficient financial interest to attract solutions to problems like antibiotic resistance or unrealized pandemics. As the new Biden administration forms in the United States, a productive effort might be seeking a means of working within the framework of Bayh-Dole to address compelling needs that are not market-driven.

The Chemistry of Convenience

[These excerpts are from an article by Max G. Levy in the December 2020 issue of ChemMatters.]

      lmagine scrambling eggs on a sticky pan, or getting caught walking in a downpour without raingear. if you enjoy a juicy takeout burger, picture how messy it would be packaged in regular paper instead of a grease-proof wrapper.

      These scenarios are very different but share at least one thing in common: the essential stuff that makes these inconveniences disappear. PFAS, or per and polyfluoroalkyl substances, are synthetic chemicals that number in the thousands (some say 5,000; others say 7,000) and are used in a variety of products. They keep food from sticking to pans and wrappers, rain from soaking through jackets, and fires from getting out of hand.

      But PFAS do have a downside. Because they’re manufactured for use in so many things, PFAS end up in water and soil, and inside us through our diets and absorption through our skin. The substances don’t break down, so they can linger intact, and they persist for years in the environment—thus their nickname “forever chemicals.”

      At first glance, this isn’t necessarily a big deal—synthetic chemicals are everywhere and many are harmless. But some PFAS can cause problems. Scientists have linked elevated levels of certain PFAS to an increased risk of serious health conditions….

      The concern over PFAS begs the question: Why are these substances special? The answer, as well as the solution to PFAS pollution, has everything to do with chemistry.

      …Each PFAS has a different formula: Some contain oxygen; others contain nitrogen or sulfur. But every single PFAS contains carbon and fluorine atoms. In each of the thousands of elemental combinations, those tiny atoms play a big role in making PFAS both appealing and potentially harmful.

      Take one of the first PFAS molecules ever made, perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA), as an example. PFOA (C7F15COOH) has been used as a water and oil repellent in clothes and packaging. You can picture the molecule as a chain of carbon atoms covered in fluorine. Dangling from one of the chain’s ends are hydrogen and oxygen atoms. These atoms are attracted to water molecules and repel oils—this end is hydrophilic. The long carbon-fluorine chain repels both oil and water, but it does like other perfluorocarbons.

      In addition, the electron-sharing covalent bond between carbon and fluorine happens to be one of the strongest single bonds in nature.

      Carbon-fluorine bonds in PFAS are so strong because of the electronegativity difference between the two atoms. Electronegativity measures how much an element attracts electrons in a bond with another element. Fluorine is much more electronegative than carbon. So when fluorine and carbon form a bond, the electrons spend more time closer to the fluorine atom.

      This difference in attraction for electrons gives fluorine a partial negative charge, and makes carbon slightly positive. Because positives and negatives attract, the bond gets stronger—and shorter. (Shorter bonds are typically harder to break.) Building on this special chemistry, PFAS molecules become nearly indestructible.

      It’s precisely these properties—durable chemistry and the repellent nature of the molecules—that industrial chemical companies wanted when they made the first PFAS chemicals. They wanted chemicals that could latch onto cookware, clothing, and creams, but shrug off water, grime, and stains—all without breaking down with heat or time. And that’s exactly what they got.

      …In the 1950s, chemical companies began churning out PFAS for innovative products. DuPont's nonstick Teflon coating for cookware and 3M's stain-resistant Scotchgard quickly became household names. Now, PFAS use is widespread, and investigations have found that some manufacturers have released the compounds directly into the environment. In 2018, the chemical company Chemours was fined $13 million after dumping its PFAS waste into a North Carolina river.

      But it doesn’t take illegal dumping for PFAS to end up in unintended locations. The military and fire departments use heavy-duty firefighting foams in training exercises. Since these foams contain PFAS, large amounts of the chemicals wash away into water and soil. Food and personal-care products carry small amounts of PFAS into our bodies where they linger and accumulate. These molecules are so resistant to breaking down that they can persist intact for years.

      Because the carbon-fluorine bond is so sturdy, PFAS don't readily react with compounds in our bodies—they are inert. Instead of damaging molecules in the body like a reactive molecule such as hydrogen peroxide would, PFAS travel unchanged and get distributed in various parts of the body.

      When PFAS were first studied, people praised the inertness as a sign of safety….

      Studies suggest that people who are exposed to relatively high levels of PFAS, such as those who work in fluoropolymer plants or whose groundwater has been contaminated by PEAS, have an increased risk of developing particular health problems. According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, some PFAS are linked to pregnancy complications, kidney and testicular cancer, liver damage, and asthma, among other issues….

      How PFAS act in the body is not well understood yet. One way they might interfere with the normal functioning of cells is through an ability to bind to protein receptors that help control what genes in a cell get expressed. By attaching to these receptors, PFAS can mess up a cell's processes.

      To better understand the potential dangers of individual PFAS, scientists need to predict how and where the chemicals move within bodies. Lab experiments provide chemical information, such as solubility, toxicity, and molecular charges, for each particular PFAS. Researchers can then use complex math equations to convert that data into a prediction….

      What is certain is that the carbon-fluorine bond keeps PFAS intact, and that PFAS accumulation poses a human health risk.

      …On the bright side, scientists are devising ways to clean up PFAS from the environment, and even destroy them.

      Water chemists find that it’s relatively easy to filter out larger PFAS molecules from water with common filtration technology, such as activated carbon—the material found in Brita filters—and reverse osmosis membranes. In reverse osmosis, water is forced across a semipermeable membrane, leaving contaminants behind. But short-chain PFAS are smaller and can slip through filters and membranes.

      New research is testing ways to capture long- and short-chain PFAS in a more targeted way. For example, scientists have created molecules in the lab that detect PFAS and form microscopic cages around them.

      Once captured, PFAS will still need to be destroyed; otherwise, they will keep accumulating as waste. But breaking the carbon-fluorine bond requires a lot of energy. Where could all of that energy come from? Could we burn the chemicals? Incineration can destroy some substances, but the C-F bond is so strong that an incinerator would need to reach 1,000 °C (1,800 °F) to break it, and even then, scientists say the process could just result in producing smaller PEAS.

      Another approach involves supercharged gas, or plasma. Scientists can energize a gas, such as argon, with electricity. The plasma can break carbon-fluorine bonds, one by one. Within minutes, the bursts of energy separate fluorine from the carbon atoms. This method is being tested by the U.S. Air Force, and is so far the only technology for large-scale PFAS destruction.

      …Some scientific experts believe governments should limit PFAS use to essential products….

      Leaders in the European Union have proposed plans to phase out nonessential PEAS by 2030. They are also setting strict limits on PFAS levels in drinking water. The U.S. started phasing out a few specific PFAS in the 2000s. At least two, PFOA and PFOS, can no longer be imported or manufactured in the U.S. The action seems to be having an effect. The blood levels of these two PFAS in the general popu-lation dropped from 5 and 30 nanograms/mL, respectively, in 2000 to 2 and 5 ng/mL by 2014….

Elemental Facts

[These excerpts are from a letter by Peter Davern in the November/December 2020 issue of The Science Teacher.]

      …It turns out that beryllium played a central role in the discovery of the neutron because when English physicist James Chadwick bombarded a sample of beryllium with alpha particles in 1932, the metal responded by emitting some previously unobserved particles. Chadwick noted that these particles possessed about the same mass as the proton but were electrically neutral. From this he correctly deduced the existence of a new subatomic particle, the neutron, and earned himself a Nobel Prize in Physics for his efforts….

      …when explaining elec-tronegativity trends on the periodic table, I might pause and highlight the metalloid antimony; not because its electronegativity is particularly noteworthy, but rather to describe how its toxicity was put to good use to treat constipation during the Middle Ages. Back then, a person would swallow a pea-sized antimony pill, which irritated the intestines to cause a relieving, laxative purge! The offending (yet medicinally invaluable) pill would then be retrieved from the projectile-esque feces, hopefully cleaned, and retained for future use.

      Another type of purging effect could be produced using wine left standing overnight in an antimony goblet. Enough antimony dissolved in the wine to make the resulting potion a powerful emetic (a vomit inducer). Indeed, antimony tartrate (the metalloid's salt with tartaric acid) was widely prescribed by 17th and 18th century physicians as an emetic. It has even been suggested that the composer Mozart’s untimely death in 1791 at the age of 35 was due to excessive self-administration of the antimony tartrate prescribed for him to treat an illness….

      Another example of an interesting nugget of quirky elemental trivia has to do with how metallic tin transforms to a powdery, gray solid when cooled below I3°C. This transformation has been observed during prolonged periods of cold, wintery weather. For example, the majestic tin organ pipes in some churches have developed some unsightly gray patches (known as tin plague or tin pest) that crumble to dust when touched. Perhaps more interestingly, though, the phenomenon was also implicated—admittedly, more by way of folklore than fact—in the freezing to death of many of Napoleon’s soldiers during their retreat from Moscow in the winter of 1812. The soldiers' uniforms' tin buttons were said to have crumbled in the cold….

Why Science Teachers Must Employ Interdisciplinary Science Methods to Save the World

[These excerpts are from an editorial by Ann Haley MacKenzie in the November/December 2020 issue of The Science Teacher.]

      Saving the world? Interdisciplinary methods? Isn’t this too much to place on the shoulders of our nation’s science teachers, especially as they are inundated with standardized tests that measure little in their students?

      But first, what is meant by interdisciplinary science? Interdisciplinary science is when two disciplines come together to broaden the portrait of the concepts being uncovered by their students….

      Interdisciplinary science also results from two sciences working together. Biochemistry could be argued to be in-terdisciplinary, steeped in biology and chemistry. Two science teachers working together to examine the complex issue of water pollution could have a chemistry teacher’s students analyzing water quality while a biology teacher has their students examining the impact of pollution on organisms in the water.

      Robotics is truly interdisciplinary, with its marriage of science, technology, engineering, and math contained within one enterprise of study. While some students code, others build robots using carefully constructed mathematical calculations. Science is infused with concepts such as friction, torque, and force, while using engineering processes, such as design—redesign—design. Blending the disciplines results in a powerful product involving critical thinking, planning, innovation and creativity.

      But why isn’t more interdisciplinary work used in schools? First, time barriers. Having all the science teachers being able to plan and execute an interdisciplinary unit takes coordination, common planning time, and a dedication to the importance of this kind of learning experience. Secondly, interdisciplinary work is often not in the minds of the administrators when the schedule is constructed. We must advocate for ways to get more interdisciplinary events into our curriculum or else it just won’t happen.

      …Imagine the conversations the students could have in relating the subjects to one another in and outside of classes. Imagine how a school day would all of the sudden make sense to students versus a myriad of disparate topics with no cohesion between them. Imagine a unit of study being so memorable that students, as adults, would remember the subject matter decades later.

      …Climate change, cancer, overpopulation, food deserts, pollution, and other critical topics benefit from individuals engaging in collaborative, interdisciplinary research. To be able to look outside one's discipline leads to a powerful explosion of ideas, technological advances, and increased knowledge focusing on critical societal issues.

      Shouldn’t we be providing such experiences for our science students? Don’t we want them to see the interconnectedness of the natural world around them? Using interdisciplinary approaches can go a long way in accomplishing these goals.

History Matters in Science

[These excerpts are from an article by Naomi Oreskes in the December 2020 issue of Scientific American.]

      2020 has been a historic year—and mostly not in a good way. Among many things, we saw a historic level of disregard of scientific advice with respect to the COVID-19 virus, a disregard that made the pandemic worse in the U.S. than in many other countries. But while the events of 2020 may feel unprecedented, the social pattern of rejecting scientific evidence did not suddenly appear this year. There was never any good scientific reason for rejecting the expert advice on COVID, just as there has never been any good scientific reason for doubting that humans evolved, that vaccines save lives, and that greenhouse gases are driving disruptive climate change. To understand the social pattern of rejecting scientific findings and expert advice, we need to look beyond science to history, which tells us that many of the various forms of the rejection of expert evidence and the promotion of disinformation have roots in the history of tobacco.

      Throughout the first half of the 20th century, most Americans saw science as something that made our lives better. Science had deepened our understanding of the natural world, which helped us to cure diseases, light our homes and bring new forms of entertainment into our lives. Perhaps most important, physicists helped to win World War II and became cultural heroes. Chemists got their due, too. As DuPont reminded us, we had “better things for better living through chemistry.” At General Electric, scientists and engineers were helping to “bring good things to life.” These were not just slogans; corporate R&D really did produce products that measurably improved many American lives. But corporate America was also developing the playbook for science denial and disinformation.

      The chief culprit in this darker story was the tobacco industry, whose playbook has been well documented by historians of science, technology and medicine, as well as epidemiologists and lawyers. It disparaged science by promoting the idea that the link between tobacco use and lung cancer and other diseases was uncertain or incomplete and that the attempt to regulate it was a threat to American freedom. The industry made products more addictive by increasing their nicotine content while publicly denying that nicotine was addictive. With these tactics, the industry was able to delay effective measures to discourage smoking long after the scientific evidence of its harms was clear….the same arguments were used to delay action on acid rain, the ozone hole and climate change—and this year we saw the spurious “freedom” argument being used to disparage mask wearing.

      …this past September, a former Facebook manager testified in Congress that the company “took a page from Big Tobacco’s playbook, working to make our offering addictive,” sayingtlaat Facebook was determined to make people addicted to its products while publicly using the euphemism of increasing “engagement.” Like the tobacco industry; social media companies sold us a toxic product while insisting that it was simply giving consumers what they wanted.

      …If we are to confront disinformation, the rejection of scientific findings, and the negative uses of technology, we have to understand the past that has brought us to this point.

Green Hydrogen for the Coronavirus? Think Again.

[These excerpts are from an article by Jeff Carbeck in the December 2020 issue of Scientific American]

      When hydrogen burns, the only by-product is water—which is why hydrogen has been an alluring zero-carbon energy source for decades. Yet the traditional process for producing hydrogen, in which fossil fuels are exposed to steam, is not even remotely zero-carbon. Hydrogen produced this way is called gray hydrogen; if the CO2 is captured and sequestered, it is called blue hydrogen.

      Green hydrogen is different. It is produced through electrolysis, in which machines split water into hydrogen and oxygen, with no other by-products. Historically, electrolysis required so much electricity that it made little sense to produce hydrogen that way. The situation is changing for two reasons. First, significant amounts of excess renewable electricity have become available at grid scale; rather than storing excess electricity in arrays of batteries, the extra electricity can be used to drive the electrolysis of water, “storing” the electricity in the form of hydrogen. Second, electrolyzers are getting more efficient.

      Companies are working to develop electrolyzers that can produce green hydrogen as cheaply as gray or blue hydrogen, and analysts expect them to reach that goal in the next decade. Meanwhile energy companies are starting to integrate electrolyzers directly into renewable power projects….

      Current renewable technologies such as solar and wind can decarbonize the energy sector by as much as 85 percent by replacing gas and coal with clean electricity. Other parts of the economy, such as shipping and manufacturing, are harder to electrify because they often require-fuel that is high in energy density or heat at high temperatures. Green hydro-en has potential in these sectors….

      Although green hydrogen is still in its infancy, countries—especially those with cheap renewable energy—are investing in the technology….

Sun-Powered Chemistry

[These excerpts are from an article by Javier Garcia Martinez in the December 2020 issue of Scientific American.]

      The manufactureof many chemicals important to human health and comfort consumes fossil fuels, thereby contributing to extractive processes, carbon dioxide emissions and climate change. A new approach employs sunlight to convert waste carbon dioxide into these needed chemicals, potentially reducing emissions in two ways: by using the unwanted gas as a raw material and sunlight, not fossil fuels, as the source of energy needed for production.

      This process is becoming increasingly feasible thanks to advances in sunlight-activated catalysts, or photocatalysts. In recent years investigators have developed photocatalysts that break the resistant double bond between carbon and oxygen in carbon dioxide. This is a critical first step in creating “solar” refineries that produce useful compounds from the waste gas….

      Photocatalysts are typically semiconductors, which require high-energy ultraviolet light to generate the electrons involved in the transformation of carbon dioxide. Yet ultraviolet light is both scarce (representing just 5 percent of sunlight) and harmful. The development of new catalysts that work under more abundant and benign visible light has therefore been a major objective. That demand is being addressed by careful engineering of the composition, structure and morphology of existing catalysts, such as titanium dioxide. Although it efficiently converts carbon dioxide into other molecules solely in response to ultraviolet light, doping it with nitrogen greatly lowers the energy required to do so. The altered catalyst now needs only visible light to yield widely used chemicals such as methanol, formaldehyde and formic acid—collectively important in the manufacture of adhesives, foams, plywood, cabinetry, flooring and disinfectants.

      …Some start-ups are work-ing on a different approach to transforming carbon dioxide into useful substances—namely, applying electricity to drive the chemical reactions. Using electricity to power the reactions would obviously be less environmentally friendly than using sunlight if the electricity were derived from fossil-fuel combustion, but reliance on photovoltaics could overcome that drawback.

      The advances occurring in the sunlight-driven conversion of carbon dioxide into chemicals are sure to be commercialized and further developed by start-ups or other companies in the coming years. Then the chemical industry—by transforming what today is waste carbon dioxide into valuable products—will move a step closer to becoming part of a true, waste-free, circular economy, as well as helping to make the goal of generating negative emissions a reality.

The Mental Toll of COVID-19

[These excerpts are from an article by Claudia Wallis in the December 2020 issue of Scientific American.]

      You didn’t need a crystal ball to forecast that the COVID-19 pandemicwould devastate mental health. Illness or fear of illness, social isolation, economic insecurity, disruption of routine and loss of loved ones are known risk factors for depression and anxiety. Now studies have confirmed the predictions. But psychologists say the findings also include surprises aboutthe wide extent of mental distress; the way media consumption exacerbates it; and how badly it has affected young people.

      For example, a report from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, published in August, found stripling of anxiety symptoms and a quadrupling of depression among 5,470 adults surveyed compared with a 2019 sample….

      Some of the most affected groups in these studies were people who had preexisting mental health issues, low-income individuals, people of color, and those close to someone who suffered or died from COVID-19. In Ettman's study, however, the group in the U.S. with the single biggest rise in depression—up fivefold—was of Asian ethnicity….the upsurge could reflect the impact of racism and slurs related to the pandemic’s origin in China.

      An unanticipated finding…was the outsized toll on young adults. In the CDC survey, 62.9 percent of 18- to 24-year-olds reported an anxiety or depressive disorder, a quarter said they were using more drugs and alcohol to cope with pandemic-related stress, and a quarter said they had “seriously considered suicide” in the previous 30 days. Young adults were also the most affected age group in an unusual, real-time study that tracked the rapid rise in “acute distress” and depression at three points between mid-March and mid-April….

      Her study, which involved 6,500 people, does point to one major contributor to anxiety for people of all ages: increased engagement with media coverage of the outbreak. Especially problematic is exposure to conflicting information. Silver…says that a. fixation on media coverage is a known risk factor….

      Silver and others who investigate mass trauma have suggestions for keeping mental equilibrium in challenging times. Limiting media consumption and avoiding sensationalist reports is one. Maintaining social contacts—via Zoom, phone or other COVID-safe methods—is also vital….

      Fewer hugs and less shared grieving may help explain why people do not seem to be adjusting to the new normal….His other tips are to maintain healthy sleep, exercise, food and drink habits. Keep a journal, too. Research shows that expressive writing helps people process difficult emotions and find meaning, he says: “If you’re worrying about COVID too much, try writing about it.”

How to Do Conservation the Right Way

[These excerpts are from an article by David Shiffman in the December 2020 issue of Scientific American.]

      No matter which party wins a presidential election, it’s a good betthat its formal platform won’t be fully enacted. Platforms are at least partly aspirational; they include proposals that are too radical, even in the eyes of some party members, to be enacted into policy or law any time soon. That could certainly be seen as the case with a plan called “30 by 30,” which the Democrats put on their official wish list back in August: it calls for protecting 30 percent of U.S. lands and waters from development by the year 2030. It would, if implemented, represent the largest shift in biodiversity conservation policy since the Endangered Species Act was passed in 1973.

      But the 30 by 30 idea isn’t new, and it isn't radical eco-extremism run amok. It has been discussed for years by the science-based conservation community and has been vetted in peer-IL reviewed journals….

      The 30 by 30 plan is based on a huge and growing body of scientific evidence that says that the world's wildlife and wild places face existential threats—and that a commitment to help save these places is good not only for the abstract goal of “protecting the environment” but also because it matters for people, too….the most commonly cited figures suggest that about 12 percent of U.S. land and 26 percent of US. waters are currently protected—but there is a lot of land that is important for biodiversity con-servation that is not yet protected but could be.

      Experts also emphasized that it matters which 30 percent we protect. Conserving a giant, undeveloped stretch of land where little lives and that no one wanted to develop anyway is not especially helpful to biodiversity conservation or climate resilience. We need to protect at least some of every major ecosystem, an ecological concept called representativity, as well as habitats where species of concern actually live.

      When we are dealing with migratory species, for example, corridor conservation is critical to safeguard their migratory routes and not just their destination. Not all habitats are equally helpful in terms of climate resilience. Moreover, human needs are vital when determining which habitats should be off-limits to large-scale resource extraction and development. So whereas some top-down coordination is necessary, local voices would have to have a say, especially on lands inhabited by Indigenous people. And because unequal access to wild spaces and the mental and physical health benefits they provide is a major environmental justice issue…, 30 by 30 “is an opportunity to hit the reset button on who conservation is for and who nature can benefit.”

      Does such a bold plan have a chance of happening in our hyperpolarized government? It really might because conserving wildlife and wild places often has tremendous bipartisan support; in fact, 86 percent of voters somewhat or strongly support the specific goal of 30 by 30, including 76 percent of Republican voters….

      30 by 30 represents the last best hope for saving many of the U.S.’s iconic species and wild places and is a key step in fighting climate change and restoring ecological justice. But although such a plan is important, there is obviously no guarantee that it will happen.

Racism in Medical Tests

[These excerpts are from an editorial by the editors in the December 2020 issue of Scientific American.]

      COVID-19 has wreaked havoc on Black and Indigenous communities and other people of color, and U.S. medical institutions should be doing everything they can to root out and eliminate entrenched racial inequities. Yet many of the screening assessments used in health care are exacerbating racism in medicine, automatically and erroneously changing the scores given to people of color in ways that can deny them needed treatment.

      These race-based scoring adjustments to evaluations are all too common in modern medicine, particularly in the U.S. To determine the chances of death for a patient with heart failure, for example, a physician following the American Heart Association's guidelines would use factors such as age, heart rate and systolic blood pressure to calculate a risk score, which helps to determine treatment. But for reasons the AHA does not explain, the algorithm automatically adds three points to non-Black patients' scores, making it seem as if Black people are at lower risk of dying from heart problems simply by virtue of their race. This is not true.

      …These “corrections” are presumably based on the long-debunked premise that there are innate biological differences among races. This idea persists despite ample evidence that race—a social construct—is not a reliable proxy for genetics: Every racial group contains a lot of diversity in its genes….

      The mistaken conflation of race and genetics is often compounded by outdated ideas that medical authorities (mostly white) have perpetuated about people of color. For example, one kidney test includes an adjustment for Black patients that can hinder accurate diagnosis….Black patients’ scores are automatically adjusted because of a now discredited theory that greater muscle mass “inherent” to Black people produces higher levels of the protein….

      A recent study in Science examined an algorithm used throughout the U.S. health system to predict broad-based health risks. The researchers looked at one large hospital that used this algorithm and found that, based on individual medical records, white patients were actually healthier than Black patients with the same risk score. This is because the algorithm used health costs as a proxy for health needs—but systemic racial inequality means that health care expenditures are higher for white people overall, so the needs of Black people were underestimated….

      The algorithms that are harming people of color could easily be made more equitable, either by correcting the racially biased assumptions that inform them or by removing race as a factor altogether, when it does not help with diagnosis or care. The same is true for devices such as the pulse oximeter, which is calibrated to white skin—a particularly dangerous situation in the COVID pandemic, where nonwhite patients are at higher risk of dangerous lung infections. Leaders in medicine must prioritize these issues now, to give fair and often lifesaving care to people left most vulnerable by an inherently racist system.

Let’s Rethink the Message We Send to Potential Educators

[These excerpts are from an article by Joshua P. Starr in the November 2020 issue of Kappan.]

      …I share my story because I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the teacher shortage and how our framing of both the problem and the solution may be contributing to the very challenge we’re trying to solve….

      I suspect that many young people hesitate to choose a career in education because they’ve seen too many unappealing examples of the work: the support staff toiling in the background, the veteran who’s been teaching the same lessons in the same room for 20 years, or the harried administrator who rushes through the halls, walkie-talkie squawking as they tell kids to take off their hats and get to class….but by the time they graduate, every student will also have met some educators who fail to inspire.

      At least in part, that may explain why enrollment in teacher preparation programs across the U.S. has declined by 35% over the last few years….

      Even if students express an interest in teaching, it can still be difficult to get them to take the initial steps toward entering the profession….For one thing, they need to be in touch with inspiring teacher leaders who can relate to them and get them excited about serving their communities. And once they are inspired, they need opportunities to experience what it’s actually like to teach and work with students, so they can see if the job is a good fit for them….

      …Either way, though, the message to aspiring teachers is the same: Teaching is a calling, a form of service, and a deeply satisfying job, allowing you to work directly with young people, build positive relationships with them, and make a real difference in their lives. That is, the default assumption has been that all new teachers are traditionalists who aim to spend a long and happy career in the classroom….

      To be clear, I don’t mean to suggest that teachers should be encouraged to leave the dassroom after a few years. Experienced classroom teachers are to be treasured, rewarded, looked to as mentors, and given every opportunity to continue working directly with students for as long as they choose. However, we need to acknowledge that some educators want a different kind of career, and if we neglect to make other pathways available to them — or worse, if we insist that they are wrong to want to leave the classroom — then we shouldn’t be surprised to see them leave education altogether.

      …But we need to reimagine the pathways that we offer to teachers, providing real options for those who want to stall: out in the classroom and then move into new roles. Otherwise, our teaching population will continue to dwindle, with fewer and fewer people ready to step up and join the profession.

Structural Racism and the Urban Geography of Education

[These excerpts are from an article by Pedro A. Noguera & Julio Angel Alicea in the November 2020 issue of Kappann.]

      …Recognizing that low teacher expectations may be a factor contributing to under-achievement and to unfair discipline practices, many districts have embraced implicit bias training to address problems related to race. However, while bias is a genuine concern…, bias training does nothing to address how, more than 60 years after the historic Brown v. Board of Education decision, the legacy of racially separate and profoundly unequal schooling endures for mil-lions of American children….To understand how and why this occurs — and to be prepared to engage in serious conversations about it with their students and colleagues – educators must understand structural racism and what they can do to address it.

      Unlike interpersonal racism and racial bias, which remain pervasive, structural racism is not necessarily premised upon the actions, motivations, or beliefs of individuals. Rather, the term feres to the ways in which the history of racial domination has influenced the organization and structure of society….Structural racism is evident in public policies that place communities of color at a disadvantage, such as redlining and predatory lending by banks…, unequal access to health care, healthy food, and clean water and air…, school funding policies based on local property taxes…, and teacher assignment patterns that result in the least experienced teachers working in the most disadvantaged schools….

      In recent years, a certain kind of structural racism, related to the ways in which forces such as gentrification and environmental disasters have affected both the physical and social landscape of our cities, has come to have particularly deleterious effects on urban communities and schools. This form of racism must not be left out of the conversation about equity and racial justice in K-12 education.

      …By the 1980s, most major American cities and other former industrial areas around the country became home to a largely non-white and poor population….

      Although prominent school reform efforts often adopt a race-neutral approach, an explicit commitment to racial justice can help reformers stay focused on critical questions that educators oftentry to avoid, even though they are key to school improvement. For example, whose cultural background and behavior do teachers and staff take to be “normal,” and whose forms of thought and expression do they view as inappropri-ate? How should staff be prepared to support children who come from communities that face enormous economic and social challenges? And how should teachers be expected to engage with parents and other caretakers whose racial and cultural identities are different from theif own?

      All too often, education reformers ignore the structural barriers to change. For instance, they ask teachers to boost student test scores, but they offer no guidance as to what to do when those students and their families are struggling to meet basic needs. Or they design and implement improvement plans based on abstract theories of school change, without adapting them to the needs and priorities of the particular community. Yet, educators, scholars, and policy makers can learn to pay closer attention to the structural racism affecting the neighborhoods, cities, and towns where they work. When they do so, they are better equipped to help improve the lives of their most vulnerable students, and when those young people ask them to talk about race and social justice in education and society, they are much better prepared to lead that discussion.

Rethinking What We Mean by Intelligence

[These excerpts are from an article by Robert J. Steinberg in the November 2020 issue of Kappan.]

      Imagine intelligent, friendly space aliens come to Earth in the year 2120. They want to understand this planet’s various inhabitants and their social customs. What will they find? Will they find a world of people living in peace with each other, enjoying dean air and water and largely temperate climates? Or will they find a world devastated by largely human-induced ills, such as global climate change, air pollution, water pollution, pandemics, weapons of mass destruction, and general fear of others? Seeing what the world is like, will they think of its human inhabitants as intelligent — or as anything but intelligent?

      This mental exercise leads us to think about what we even mean when we say someone is intelligent. If we view intelli-gence through the lens of IQ tests and their proxies — other tests that measure roughly the same thing…, then we humans can be self-congratulatory: During the 20th century, IQs around the world increased by roughly 30 points….

      Early 20th-century scholars defined intelligence as the ability to adapt to the environment….But does global climate change, water pollution, air pollution, and the worsening of existing natural disasters in any way represent adequate “adaptation to the environment”? Is it possible that humanity has lost sight of what intelligence really is, in favor of some attribute that, although relatively easy to measure, does not and should not qualify as intelligence?

      IQ tests have been criticized for various reasons: The items on them are remote from real-world concerns; they show differences among racial and ethnic groups; they fail to take into account important skills for everyday life such as creative, commonsense, and wise thinking; and they favor those whose parents are in a p osition to provide their rhildren with the resources that will enable them to thrive on the tests — such as living in neighborhoods with schools having strong academic programs and tutoring of various kinds to prepare their children for the tests….

      A person with adaptive intelligence uses that intelligence in one of three ways: (1) to change themselves so they better fit their environment, (2) to shape the environment to better fit their and others' needs or desires, or (3) to find a new environment that is a better fit than the one presently inhabited. …

      Adaptive intelligence differs in three key ways from general intelligence. First, the appropriate criterion for adaptive intelligence is not grades in school, or the prestige of the college one goes to, or one's annual compensation, but rather, what one has done in one's life, individually or collectively, to make the world a better place to live….Adaptive intelligence is about creating a future, not only for ourselves, but also for future generations. Adaptive intel-ligence is not just about maximizing individual return on investment through prestigious education and employment, even if the employment is to create even more pollution and more adverse climate change; it is about leaving future generations a viable and livable world.

      Second, the kinds of problems one solves using adaptive intelligence are quite different from the kinds of problems 3 one solves using general intelligence….Most important, for real-world adaptive problems, there are no single correct answers, and it often is not even dear what the problems are. People have to recognize the existence of the problems and then define the problems for themselves. The difference between these kinds ofproblems is so great that it is reasonable to expect that there actually would be relatively little transfer in skills from the one kind of problem to the other….

      Third, adaptive intelligence problems have a different kind of criterion for what constitutes a good solution. On a typical general intelligence test, a good solution produces the correct answer — and other answers are wrong. But an adaptive intelligence test requires a good answer — one that (a) helps to promote a common good (b) over the long and the short term, by (c) balancing one’s own interests with larger interests and those of others (d) through the infusion of positive ethical values….

      The current regime of testing, which heavily influences instruction, largely prepares students for a world that does not exist, one in which problems and solutions are clear-cut. But real-world problems requiring adaptive intelligence are much murkier….Adaptive intelligence problems can be integrated into existing curricula, especially at the secondary level, to help students learn how to solve the kinds of problems that people encounter in the real world. If we prepare students for a nonexistent world, when those students grow up, they are more likely to take a simplistic view of complex problems and avoid seeking the best solutions. And the problems we now face will only get worse.

      …Tests of general intelligence measure knowledge base as well as memory and abstract-analytical thinking skills, both of which are important for academic success and for dealing with various kinds of problems in everyday life. The problem is that general intelligence does not necessarily transfer well to these everyday problems. Moreover, it often is used with individual, short-term goals in mind These goals may fail to take into account the long-term collective or common good, not just various individual goods that often are achieved at others’ expense.

      We can do better if we recognize that however much general intelligence matters in our lives, adaptive intelligence matters much more. We need to teach students to create a better world, and we can do so by changing the ways we test and the ways we teach to focus on real problems rather than artificial, contrived ones. The examples of such problems are endless and include problems of interpersonal interactions, as well as those of global climate change, pollution, gun violence, increasing income disparities, poverty, racism, xenophobia, inadequate child care, neglect of the needs of the elderly, terrorism, weapons of mass destruction, and so on. By moving beyond decontextualized test and textbook problems, we will help to create students who will enter the world prepared not just to solve problems we have created but to forestall new problems before they even start.

Good Schools for a Troubled Democracy

[These excerpts are from an article by Jon Valant in the November 2020 issue of Kappan.]

      There’s no such thing as a “good school” in the abstract. Every school serves a particular community, in a particular time and place, with its own needs and desires. A good school in rural Montana might not be a good school in Midtown Manhattan, just as a good school in 1920 might not be a good school today. This doesn’t mean that we can’t define scho of quality. It does, however, mean that we can’t define quality without first considering the needs of a school’s time and place….

      Looking forward, what the U.S. needs from its schools has more to do with building a cohesive society and a stable democracy than with shoring up our economy. We’re experiencing dramatic changes in how we consume information and engage with one another. These changes, coupled with our lack of preparation to handle them, threaten core aspects of American life. Those threats won’t subside, no matter who wins any particular election, unless and until we prepare ourselves to navigate this new terrain. Schools have an important role to play in that work, but if we want them to play that role, we will have to rethink what it means to provide, and Lmeasure, a good K-12 education….

      Our existing education policy framework — emphasizing standards, testing, and accountability — has its roots in the 1980s, a time when many of this country’s business leaders and elected officials worried about economic competition from overseas….

      More relevant here is that leaders saw a link between the country’s needs and the appropriate pursuits of schools — a link between economic prosperity and better instruction in core academic subjects such as math and English language arts….

      These school ratings systems rely heavily on students’ test scores in core subjects. At least that's my assumption, since some of these sites provide hardly any information about how they arrived at their ratings. The ratings reinforce the idea that the dominant purpose of schools is to prepare students academically for college and career — and that we should evaluate school quality based on how well they serve this purpose. They provide actionable information (Sending my children to this school is better than sending them to that one. It’s best to buy a house within this attendance zone.) while conditioning us, in a sense, to believe that school quality is reducible to a single number or letter.

      I’m not arguing that there's anything inherently wrong with measuring academic performance or even rating schools based in part on those measures. If done well, this can expose systemic and localized problems while challenging the idea that student demographics are good proxy measures for school quality. For instance, that’s why much of the civil rights community supported test-based accountability, recognizing its potential both to reveal inequities in students’ opportunities and to highlight examples of excellent schools that serve disadvantaged students.

      A good system of measurement and evaluation can be a powerful tool for school improvement. However, we built a bad one, which is worse than having no system at all. Many of the unintended consequences of test-based accountability in the No Child Left Behind era are well known, so I won’t review them here, other than to note that, as the saying goes, “What gets measured gets done.” Intense pressure to maximize state test scores in math and English narrowed the curriculum and had negative effects on teaching, learning, and the everyday life of our public schools….

      However, another of NCLB’s consequences has received less attention, although it has been just as harmful: Our test-based accountability system limits what we, as a nation, believe schools can and should do. The machinery of stan-dardized testing is so impressive, having such a powerful aura of objective truth, that it can trick us into believing that schools are only capable ofteaching that which we can readily measure….

      …Americans have, over the long term, changed how they’ve thought about education. The country built its public school system to mold virtuous citizens, but our focus has shifted Ltoward preparing students to be capable workers….

      …the meaning of the public good has evolved from molding citizens to molding workers. And economic purposes may have won out in the private sphere, too. To the extent that early public schools were meant to benefit the individual, the focus was on providing a liberal education, helping children to become well-rounded adults. Even now, almost all parents say that characteristics like strong moral character are important for their children’s future….However, the school ratings that many parents use today don’t evaluate schools based on how well they open minds or shape character. They evaluate schools based on students' performance on state tests. The implicit message is that what parents should want from schools — what distinguishes a good school from a bad one — is academic preparation for college and career.

      The truth, though, is that schools can and should do much more than that. We need them to serve their democratic and societal purposes, not just their economic purposes. It’s the only way for schools to produce meaningful public, and private, value.

      This is especially true today, as American democracy is now in a precarious place. Affective polarization (animosity) has risen sharply in the U.S…, with polls showing decades-long highs in ideological division and antipathy between Democrats and Republicans — even before Donald Trump took office….

      Perhaps most troubling, though harder to quantify, is that we seem increasingly unable to solve the most import-ant problems we confront. Our handing of the COVED-19 pandemic is an obvious example. Issues that never should have become politicized, such as mask wearing and school reopening, have become partisan, undermining the effec-tiveness of our responses. With daunting challenges ahead, from handling the effects of global warming to dismantling structural racism, political dysfunction presents a serious {threat to the country’s future….

      Participating in American politics and society is different today from what it was a generation ago. For example, the media landscape is starkly different from the one we knew in, say, 1983. It has become more fragmented and politicized, blurring the lines between news and commentary and between fact and fiction. From the rise of talk radio and 24-hour cable news networks to the free-for-all of online information consumption (in an era of deepfakes and disinformation campaigns), information has become a both easier to find and harder to interpret.

      …First, note how scarcely today’s school quality ratings incorporate any of these types of learning. There’s little reason to believe that these traits will somehow arise from more effective instruction in core academic subjects, yet those ratings purportto measure school quality with little, if any, attention to them. Second, note that this type of learning isn’t fundamentally partisan. Would any American not like to see more of these traits in our citizenry; or in their own children? Third, note that we, as a country, have work to do in building these traits. Many of them don’t come naturally to us. For example, online disinformation is a potent threat because it is hard for us to detect. Similarly, caring about people we know only through hostile social media posts is qualitatively different from caring about someone right in front of us….

      Rather, if we believe that a good school, today and for the forseeable future, is one that aims to prepare young people to participate responsibly in the life of their democracy, then states and districts will have to hardwire such priorities into schools’ day-to-day activities. They need to build it into curricula, standards, course requirements, professional development programs, hiring criteria, and the like — tests be damned. It’s not enough to encourage schools to take their roles in preparing citizens seriously, especially when our accountability systems and school ratings give them incentives to focus their attention elsewhere. And parents, for their part, should think carefully about what they want for their children, and ask what today's school ratings really tell them….

Rethinking Schools, Rethinking Learning

[These excerpts are from an article by Maxine McKinney de Royston, Carol Lee, Na’ilah Duad Nasir & Roy Pea in the November 2020 issue of Kappan.]

      …This paradoxical legacy schools serving both to promote equity and reproduce inequities — was on full display in spring 2020 as COVID-19 forced schools online (while, at the same time, the murder of George Floyd ignited a national reckoning with anti-Black racism and violence). On one hand, educators all over the country made superhuman efforts to continue their work. On the other hand, large numbers of students — Black and brown students, especially — were unable to participate in their newly virtual K-12 classrooms, their absence serving as yet another painful reminder that not every child has secure access to computers and Wi-Fi, much less to food, housing, and other necessities that would allow them to stay focused on school during a national emergency.

      In light of these stark inequalities, the question of what defines a “good” school seems particularly timely right now. Today, with the pandemic still raging, and with demands for racial justice continuing to ring out across the country; many education stakeholders — including students, parents and caregivers, teachers, district leaders, and policy makers — have begun to raise serious concerns about the public schools’ preoccupation with test scores and graduation rates. They’re asking, shouldn’t the goodness of a school be defined not by students’ academic performance, but by factors such as classroom climate; opportunities for social-emotional development; responsiveness to the needs of parents, families, and communities; the availability of nutritious meals, effective special education programs, health care services, and other school-based supports; the diversity of the teaching force, and how and what those teachers choose to teach?

      Such questions push us to rethink what we want our schools to look like and what we want them to offer and do for young people….In this historic moment, then, as we make consequential decisions about public education, we must be careful to say not just what a good school looks like, but also what it means to learn….

      Much of what goes on in K-12 education today is grounded in past beliefs about how children learn, particularly the idea that learning is an individual cognitive process that occurs mainly in the head and in the classroom. But, in fact, humans taught and learned from one another long before they ever decided to create classrooms and schools….

      In the early 20th century, compulsory enrollment for all children became one of the defining features of K-12 education in the United States….

      …a good school is one that provides direct, teacher-centric 1 instruction, designed to transmit a predetermined set of concrete ideas. Student activity is highly regulated and controlled through behavior charts and rigid disciplinary expectations and practices that are presumed to facilitate and benefit the child’s learning….

      In the latter half of the 20th century, a new view of learning cognitivism — gained some prominence, offering an alternate view of what constitutes a good school. In this era of rugged individualism and the race to prove that the “American experiment” yielded a more egalitarian and productive model for human society than was possible in other countries, human learning began to be understood as a mental (rather than behavioral) process wherein symbolic representations of information (much like those computers use) are constructed, stored, retrieved, and adapted….Within this perspective, learning is defined by active exploration and individual sense-making. This view of learning can be seen in classrooms characterized by real-world tasks, project-based learning, and pedagogical approaches that emphasize developing habits of mind that encourage critical thinking and student-directed learning…

      At the end of the 20th century; scholars began to view learning as something more than individual sense-making and the active construction of knowledge, and the perception of the good school changed yet again. Questions about the roles of contexts and relationships in learning ushered in a more sociocultural perspective in which learning is defined by situational, social, and ultim at ely cultural processes…

      Over time, it became clear that while each of these perspectives has value, each is incomplete and offers only a partial view of learning based upon their respective units of analysis (i.e., behaviors, sense-making, cultural practices), narrow assumptions about learners and what the future holds for specific learner populations, and the kinds of preparations particular learners require. In this way, proponents of each view were like medical specialists who could only see what they were trained to see and diagnose.

      What is needed now is a holistic perspective that takes into account the complexity and diversity of social, cultural, economic, and political life in the 21st century and, that allows for more nuanced insights into how our schools can and should serve all of our children….

      Schools, like the theories of learning that ground them, have complicated histories. They can perpetuate and deepen inequities, while also disrupting them by creating opportunities for social change and justice. Their curricula, reading lists, teaching practices, resources, and tools can become instruments of racial, colonial, and patriarchal oppression…, but they can also reflect the richness of students’ everyday linguistic, cultural, and familial experiences….

      Relatedly, if we took seriously a robust science of learning, we would view teaching not as a set of scripted “best practices” and instrumentalist approaches, but as a work that is both principled (based on specific methods) and improvisational, requiring them to know how to adapt their instruction to the students before them. This would require us to respect teachers as human development professionals (i.e., professionals tasked with cultivating human life and society) who must be provided with the support, materials, and compensation needed to prepare for and engage in this complicated and intellectually challenging work. And to support their instructional efforts, we would bring parents, caregivers, families, and community members on as team members with educators, establishing invaluable home-school connections….

      …Educators often pretend that the learning of math or history or other subjects has little to do with students' relationships to their peers and teachers, but in a good school, as we've defined it, educators would have to acknowledge that academic learning is always, also, a moment of intense human drama. Some students feel entirely at home in the roles their teachers expect them to play, but many others need help repairing their feelings about and relationships to their teachers, their peers, and the academic material they’re asked to study….

      Achieving this aim will involve incorporating more formative assessments in whichteachers honor what students know and identify areas for future growth while offering feedback that teaches students to monitor and guide their own learn-ng. This approach likely requires less focus on standardized testing and grading (meaning global, end-point assessments) and instead embraces a growth model that documents learning and development along the way. How we assess learning is a key component for the kinds of transformations we envision in good schools.

      …For instance, if schools alienate and shut out parents, caregivers, families, and communities from decisions about how and what students are to be taught, then they will miss important opportunities to align what goes on inside the school with what they do and value in the rest of their lives.

      Likewise, punitive accountability measures presumed to foster school improvement have proven to be much more harmful than useful: They push educators, students, and parents to think of learning as little more than the accumulation of knowledge, and they shift attention and resources away from valuable goals (such as social-emotional development and the teaching of civics and art). Punitive measures give teachers, students, and families little information about how instruction and learning can be improved and instead harm rhildren physically and psychologically, result in students’ missing instruction to take tests, and create unnecessary barriers to students’ learning and teachers’ success. /p>

      Finally, the process of rethinking schools and learning means that we must disavow one-size-fits-all approaches to instruction (e.g., “teaching to the middle”) and the kinds of teaching that view academic disciplines in narrow and historically constrained ways….

Envisioning Good Schools in Kappan

[These excerpts are from an article by Teresa Preston in the November 2020 issue of Kappan.]

      In Kappan's March 1990 issue, Roland Barth shared his personal vision of what a good school looks like. Other people may have a very different vision in mind, and that's fine, he explained. The important thing isn’t that educators all see eye to eye but that each of us has a dear idea of the kind of school we hope to create:

      I don’t believe that any teacher, principal, or professor can be a serious agent of change in a school while only responding to someone else’s vision. Implementing the ideas and ideals of others will always be a half-hearted enterprise….

      Those who favor quantity are extending educational facilities and welcoming the hordes of students who flock to the doors of our schools and colleges. Those who think first of quality are restricting attendance in order to do their best for small numbers. If it were possible to give a satisfactory education to large numbers in big institutions under conditions of reasonable economy, the results would be of utmost importance. After all, it is a question of the possibility of quantity produc-tion of quality in education….

      Further, whether or not we choose to educate large quantities of children, we still face the challenge of deciding what quality looks like, which requires some consensus Labout the purpose of our schools….

      By the second half of the 20th century; most articles about school quality revolved around academics. But even then, authors disagreed as to what a good academic education entailed and how it should be evaluated. Then, as now many experts considered standardized testing to be an essential means of evaluating schools, while many others decried the ways in which tests were used….

      …As the massive, federally funded Coleman Report of 1966 had found, student test scores tend to have more to do with family background and life circumstances than anything that goes on inside the school building. Thus, why should we treat those test scores as an indication of a school’s quality?

      …In April 1997, William Glasser (“A new look at school failure and school success”) made the strong accusation that “We have been treating our children badly for a long time now With the new emphasis on ‘accountability,’ the abuse will only multiply”….For Glasser, the more we standardize our expectations, the more we contradict what’s known about children and their development, failing “to take into con-sideration the single clear fact of life: children are different. It is the only psychological truth accepted by all psychologists. Children are different. Certainly educators know this to be true”….

      …Writing just a year before the No Child Left Behind Act was signed, Eisner worried that what he called the “rationalization” of schooling, with its focus on standards, rubrics, and measurement, was taking attention away from more important matters, such as individual student needs….

      And so, perhaps, the difficulty of articulating a dear vision for a good school rests in the fact that not all students are the same. A singular vision of a single type of school and classroom that meets all needs may be unrealistic. If we want good schools, we may need multiple visions, with policy makers, educators, and community members working together to ensure that there is a good school available for every student, whatever their specific needs.

Bringing Down Mercury

[These excerpts are from an article by Ari Daniel in the Fall 2020 issue of Spectrum.]

      …They also rented a car to drive the couple hours north to the small town of Almaden. They were drawn by a tour of the mercury mine there. It closed in 2002 after operating for millennia, producing close to a quarter-million metric tons of mercury and poisoning the people who worked there, many of them convicts, slaves, and prisoners of war.

      Selin…studies pollution, from emission to its environmental and health impacts to ensuing policy responses. Much of her work focuses on mercury, but she also examines ozone and other particulate matter….

      Selin runs atmospheric models to determine where the mercury we see today comes from. Coal burning is one culprit, since mercury is a common coal contaminant. Another significant source is artisanal and small-scale gold mining in developing countries. But the mine in Almaden, classified now as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, is just one example of how human history and mercury are intertwined.

      The thing about mercury as an element is that it’s stable, so it doesn’t break down like DDT, PCBs, and other, more chemically complex pollutants. It cycles between the atmosphere and the ocean for centuries. Mercury easily evap-orates, travels long distances in the air, and then rains back down onto land and into water. “So we’re actually living with the legacy of both past and current mercury pollution,” Selin explains.

      For instance, in the 1500s, mercury was used as part of a process to extract silver from ore in South America. Some of this silver returned to Spain to be transformed into, among other things, the urns and altarpieces that the Selins saw at the Seville Cathedral earlier this year. So it's quite possible that this same mercury from half a millennium ago is still circulating in the world. “And now it’s in your tuna,” Selin adds. That’s because seafood—especially swordfish and tuna—bioconcentrate the element in the form of methylmercury, which harms neurological develop-ment and cardiovascular health even at low exposures. (This is why it is particularly dangerous for children and pregnant women to eat large quantities of certain fish.)….

      During the George W. Bush administration, which was skeptical about starting negotiations for a global treaty controlling mercury, Selin demonstrated through her graduate work that both domestic and international action were necessary to address mercury contamination in the United States. When Barack Obama became president, Selin’s research in part helped persuade the new EPA administrator to change the country's position and support a worldwide treaty on mercury….

      These days, Selin continues to use data on where mercury comes from, how it’s transported globally, and its impact on human populations in her modeling to advise and strengthen global policy on pollution and climate change….

      Domestically, she’s also modeled how different policy directions would impact American consumers. It’s an issue of particular relevance since the federal Mercury and Air Toxics Standards, established in 2012, were threatened earlier this year when the EPA “rolled back the finding that it was ‘appropriate and necessary’ to regulate mercury,” says Selin. She testified before Congress in advance of the rollback, hoping to support a future legal challenge to the change….

      Many people were harmed by mercury before enough evidence accumulated to persuade communities to stop using the heavy metal. It’s this sort of transition that Selin sees influencing other urgent sustainability efforts, including climate change….

Lessons from an Old Enemy

[These excerpts are from an article in the Fall 2020 issue of Spectrum.]

      Nearly half a million people die each year from malaria, a disease that has been part of the human experience since the dawn of time. With characteristic symptoms of high fever, chills, and weakness, malaria is caused by any of several Plasmodium parasite species, with P. falciparum being responsible for the highest mortality. While the mosquito-borne pathogen has been eradicated in some parts of the world, including the United States and Europe, the developing world continues to suffer….

      About 90% of malaria deaths occur in Africa, with children under five years being most commonly afflicted….

      Niles’s career provides a window into the long, uphill journey scientists face in fighting a disease such as Covid-19….He and his team have been working for more than a decade to establish new ways to disrupt the malaria parasite’s life cycle….

      Battling malaria today centers on treatment with antimalarial drugs, but this has drawbacks. “These parasites are resilient,” Niles says. “Resistance to mainstay antimalarial drugs occurs fairly commonly and then spreads around the globe. Some drugs work very well but for a limited time.” Understanding the strategies the parasite uses to survive can provide new insights into possible therapeutics.

      Most recently, Niles and his team have focused on how the parasite metabolizes heme, the molecule that makes blood look red. Malaria parasites spend much of their lives in human red blood cells, consuming hemoglobin and releasing heme, which can be toxic but may also be used to support growth. “Our work is revealing aspects of a complex metabolic network the parasite uses to walk a razor's edge in regulating the balance between beneficial and harmful effects of heme,” he says. “Actually, it’s amazing that a pathogen adopting such a potentially dangerous lifestyle could be among the most successful.”

      Disrupting this balance in heme metabolism provides an opportunity for new therapeutics….This approach has proven successful in fighting other infectious diseases, such as HIV.

      While malaria and other killer infectious diseases of the developing world rarely get attention commensurate with their impact on human lives, Niles has a hopeful attitude toward fighting pathogens, and that includes the Covid-19 virus….

A Model Approach to Public Health

[These excerpts are from an article by Catherine Caruso in the Fall 2020 issue of Spectrum.]

      …To estimate how quickly the virus is likely to propagate, the model incorporates information on current public health restrictions, the distribution of families, demographics on age and preexisting conditions, and patterns of contact. Researchers can then adjust model inputs to predict how different public-health policies may affect the spread. For example, the model showed that in Georgia, Florida, and Mississippi, implementing initial quarantine lockdowns a week and a half earlier would have saved hundreds of lives—and continuing those lockdowns for several weeks longer could have saved thousands.

      Charpignon says the goal is not only to understand spreading dynamics but also to forecast undocumented Covid-19 cases, which can inform vaccine purchase and distribution….

      Charpignon is also working on other Covid-19 projects. In one, she and her teammates are focusing on social media, examining how sentiment about the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and mask wearing is evolving on Twitter. The researchers extract a representative sample of tweets mentioning the CDC and masks and classify each by sentiments such as fear, anger, and trust or mistrust. They then track how sentiment changes over time and evaluate what happens when influential people express their opinions….

      If there is a silver lining to Covid-19, Charpignon says it is bringing newfound attention to public health as a vital area of study….

Unnatural Disasters

[This excerpt is from an article by Steve Nadis in the Fall 2020 issue of Spectrum.]

      The coronavirus pandemic is not a purely natural disaster. According to Kate Brown, a professor in the MIT Program in Science, Technology, and Society, zoonotic diseases—those initially transmitted from animals to humans, including Covid-19—can occur more frequently and strike more powerfully as a direct consequence of the stresses humans place on the environment.

      Contributing to the current pandemic and to other infectious disease flare-ups in recent decades is the fact that animals and humans now live in increasingly close quarters, with human populations encroaching ever further into wildlife zones, Brown maintains. Modern industrial-scale agriculture is another culprit: tens of thousands of chickens, for example, can be raised within a single barn in just six weeks, an accelerated time frame that encourages pathogens to transform from sublethal residents into deadly invaders.

      Although self-isolation is a key preventative strategy, the human body is not hermetically sealed….Protecting ourselves when we are so porous is a huge challenge, compounded by the fact that we face a vast array of environmental toxins predominantly of anthropogenic origin, in addition to the threats posed by virulent biological agents….

      One lesson emerging from Brown’s work is that natural and human-made disasters are now so closely entwined it can be hard to disentangle the two. Yet she sees some grounds for hope, albeit from an unlikely source. “The [coronavirus] pandemic is teaching us a great deal,” she says. “We’ve learned how to slow down, to communicate over the phone and internet rather than getting on a plane every other day. And people have shown they’re willing to make economic sacrifices to save lives.” Thanks to these changes, CO2 output has dropped, which means fewer people die from air pollution and respiratory illnesses….

      …While people today focus on the growth of financial indicators, she says, “we ignore the phenomenal growth around us—the ability of plants to create biomass turn carbon dioxide into oxygen, and fill our soils with nutrients. That’s the kind of growth that’s really radical, and that’s the kind of growth we should be promoting.”

A Slippery Viral Defense

[These excerpts are from an article by Deborah Halber in the Fall 2020 issue of Spectrum.]

      Our cells pump out more than a liter of mucus a day: a slimy line of defense against pathogens, toxins, and viruses. Unfortunately, SARS-CoV-2 seems to sneak past mucus with perplexing ease….

      Anyone with a cold or allergies is hyperaware of how continuously the body secretes mucus. But mucus, generally scorned as snot, is not just a product of the nose. Part viscous liquid and part elastic solid, mucus hydrates, lubricates, and transports fluids throughout the body. Dedicated cells adjust the amount and type of mucus secreted depending on the threat detected.

      …Mucus and its main structural component, biopolymers called mucins, struck her as significantly understudied given their importance in health and disease. Her research to date has drawn attention to the value of mucins, which are now being eyed by the food, agriculture, and biomedical industries for potential use in consumer products.

      Bolstering mucus’s role as a security force is its community of microorganisms, or microbiome, which act on toxins and pathogens. Ribbeck and colleagues have identified components within mucus that don’t necessarily kill pathogens but disarm them. Some of these are members of a diverse family of sugars called glycans that protrude from mucin’s bottlebrush-shaped filaments. The exact function of these sugars is still a mystery; Ribbeck calls them “therapeutic libraries” with broad-spectrum effects on microbes, both good and bad.

      Within the lungs, these sugars may act as receptors for the signature spike proteins that enable coronaviruses to slip inside a cell and replicate. But sugars in the protective mucosal layer could potentially prevent the virus from entering the cell by mimicking receptors on the cell surface, offering decoy binding sites.

      It’s been suggested that influenza A sneaks through mucus by slicing off these decoys. It’s not clear whether SARS-CoV-2 uses this tactic or another means to avoid being trapped in mucus like an insect in tree sap.

      An inhaled virus such as SARS-CoV-z must navigate a relatively thick layer of mucus. Ribbeck says it's unlikely that viral particles can diffuse through mucus faster than mucus can sweep them out of the body, so SARS-CoV-2 must have evolved a strategy to co-opt or overcome mucus's defenses….

Talk to the Hand

[These excerpts are from an article by Madelaine Bohme, Rudiger Braun and Florian Breier in the December 2020 issue of Discover.]

      It is not only the flexibility granted by the fully opposable thumb that makes the human hand so special, but also its extraordinary ability to feel and to touch. It operates almost like an independent sensory organ. We use it to feel the temperature of a breeze and of water. With its help we are able to fit a key directly into a lock, even in the dark. We can detect uneven surfaces with our fingers that we cannot see with our naked eye. With a little bit of practice, we can use our fingers to tell real silk from synthetic silk or real leather from fake leather, even with our eyes dosed.

      Our fingers can even replace our eyes as ways to perceive the world….There is no doubt about it: Our hands are an exceptional development in the history of evolution.

      But how did a precision tool like the human hand, a tool that seems to have been at least as important for the process of becoming human as our upright gait, develop? The evolutionary ball started rolling, of course, when walking on two feet meant the hands were no longer needed for locomotion. They could then be used for a wide range of tasks: transporting food or offspring, scooping up water, gathering material to build a shelter or holding objects in one hand and manipulating them with the other to carry out specific tasks.

      The more skilled our ancestors were with their hands, the more successful theywere and, therefore, the higher the survival rate of their offspring. And so advantageous adaptations in hand structure prevailed as natural selection took its course. The evolution of our brain and our anatomy advanced in lockstep. The balance between hand bones, tendons, muscles and nerves was constantly being refined, as were the hand’s increasingly sensitive sense of touch and the brain’s ever-more sophisticated oversight of motor coordination. The result is a multi-faceted tool that has helped us build, hunt, eat and communicate….

      We can trace the evolution of our hands back to the very beginning of the primate ancestral chart over 70 million years ago. The development of the primate hand probably started with small ancestors that lived on the ground and gradually conquered the tree canopy as their new home. Those that could grasp small objects clearly had the advantage.

      For a long time, scientists thought that the early members of the genus Homo started out equipped with a hand anatomically similar to the hand of a modern human. This notion can be traced back to a few spectacular fossil finds in Africa from the early 1960s.

      There was great excitement in May 1964 when primate researcher John Russell Napier, along with paleoanthropologists Phillip Tobias and Louis Leakey, reported that over the course of many years of working in the Olduvai Gorge in Tanzania, they had found remains, including many hand bones, of the first humans to make tools. “The hand bones resemble those of Homo sapiens sapiens,” they wrote; from the individual fragments, they had reconstructed a hand that had especially powerful joints at the base of the fingers and a prominent thumb. At the time, news of a humanlike hand that was 1.8 million years old caused a firestorm of interest.

      The hand fragments were one of the main reasons the researchers attributed the bone finds to an early human, standing no more than 4 feet tall, that they called Homo habilis (Handy Man). That is contro-versial to this day, because a row of teeth found at the same time are a match for an earlyhorninin of the genus Australopithecus. What is not in dispute is the special nature of the hand bones, which show clear evidence of a hand that was already strikingly human in appearance, with a relatively long, quite flexible thumb….

      Despite all the debate around Homo habilis, its relatively sophisticated hand shape was a good fit with the pebble tools of a similar age found in the Olduvai Gorge. Whether Homo habilis was a handy early human or a handy early hominin, there was no doubt that nearly 2 million years ago, the inhabitants of Olduvai had taken a harnmerstone in one hand and struck it against another stone to manufacture a stone tool with a sharp cutting edge. The brains of these gorge dwellers were approximately half the size of ours and the functional potential of their hands was not yet developed, but their hands were definitely no longer the hands of an ape.

      Flexible hands and simple stone blades allowed the gorge dwellers to occupy a new ecological niche in the savannah-like landscape they called home: that of carrion eater. There were numerous large mammals grazing on the extensive grasslands, and they often fell victim to big cats. After the carnivores helped themselves, there was usually nutritious meat left over that could be quickly cut and scraped from the bones with sharp-edged stone tools — preferably before the hyenas or vultures arrived….

      When these primitive tools were wielded by modern humans, it was clearly a quick and easy job to use them to cut meat. Adding meat to the menu was a crucial step on the way to becoming human — up until then early hominins had likely mostly eaten plants. The increased protein intake must have led to better health overall and, in the long term, helped increase the size of the brain. And in the process, our hands were not only used for eating, crafting, throwing or fighting, but also for communication….

      There is some indication that the evolution of the hand had a significant influence on the development of speech. No direct evidence, of course, but you can deduce this indirectly by observing our closest relatives, the great apes, or by watching small children as they acquire language, using hand gestures to indicate what they want long before they say their first words.

      For humans, gestures are an important component of expression. They both precede and accompany speech. They emphasize what is said and convey emotion. They can signal dismissal or acceptance. They can threaten, or they can express, elicit and offer sympathy. In the sign language used by those who cannot hear, gestures almost completely replace words. Many scientists assume that gestures and sounds developed together over many millions of years to create increasingly complex forms of communication, mutually supporting and supplementing each other.

      Chimpanzees, bonobos, gorillas and orangutans are also capable of communicating with gestures — although their repertoire is extremely limited….

      …In numerous experiments in which they compared human behavior with the behavior of apes, they observed that human gestures went far beyond the simple orders given by apes. Apes indicate things that are useful to them at that moment. Human gestures often have a social context. They indicate things that might be of use to others or express emotions and attitudes that are relevant to the community.

      It seems it all started with gestures centered around self-interest and then, sometime in the story of becoming human — it is difficult to say exactly when — gestures were added to share experiences, intentions, interests and rules….

Why a COVID-19 Vaccine is Key for Returning to Normalcy

[These excerpts are from an article by Allison Whitten in the December 2020 issue of Discover.]

      For many, the COVID-19 pandemic has reduced life to a sliver of what it was — with a restless feeling that nothing can be done to reclaim it. But there is one last crucial step for us to take before we can return to our pre-coronavirus lives: Get a COVID-19 vaccine when it's available….

      The goal is reaching herd immunity community protection from a virus that’s accrued once a sufficient percentage of the population is immune. In the U.S., early data suggested we will likely need at least 70 percent of the population, or at least 229 million Americans, to be immune before it is safe to resume normal life….Vaccinations are the safest way to get there with the fewest number of infections. And their success requires an all-hands-on-deck approach.

      …reaching herd immunity is not all about the threshold — vaccines start to offer protection before that point. They directlyprotect individuals from getting the disease…and they indirectly protect communities, since those who are vaccinated decrease the spread.

      Think of vaccine effectiveness in a community playing out in a dry forest, where each individual is a tree….When you protect each person through vaccination, it’s as if you’re removing trees and decreasing the chances that an infection will spread like wildfire throughout Lthe forest….

      When the first vaccine is eventually approved, who can get it and where won’t be entirely your choice. It’s likely that the first vaccine doses will be given to frontline health care workers and the most vulnerable among us, including people over 65 and those with underlying medical conditions. After that, the vaccine will likely be more widely available at pharmacies, doctor’s offices and workplaces.

      But even when the plans for vaccine distribution are set and ready to go, enough people have to be willing to get it. A Gallup poll released in August revealed that 35 percent of Americans would not get a COVID-19 vaccine….

      With over 30 vaccines in clinical trials around the world, the race is on to see which will be first. But defeating the coronavirus will depend, in part, on how many people show up at that finish line to receive a vaccination.

Is the Universe Infinte?

[These excerpts are from an article by Eric Betz in the December 2020 issue of Discover.]

      When Galileo Galilei pointed his first telescope to the heavens in 1610, he discovered “congeries of innumerable stars” hidden in the band of light called the Milky Way. Our cosmos grew exponentially that day. Roughly three centuries later, the cosmic bounds exploded once again when astronomers built telescopes big enough to show the Milky Way is just one of many “island universes.” Soon they learned the universe was expanding, too, with galaxies retreating from each other at ever-accelerating speeds.

      Since then, ever-larger telescopes have shown the observable universe spans an incomprehensible 92 billion light-years across and contains perhaps 2 trillion galaxies. And yet, astronomers are still left wondering how much more universe is out there, beyond what they observe….

      Building bigger telescopes won’t help extend the cosmos anymore….At the edge, we see the leftover glow from the Big Bang — the so-called cosmic microwave background radiation (CMB). But this isn’t some magical edge of the universe. Our cosmos keeps going. We just may never know how far.

      In recent decades, cosmologists have tried to solve this mystery by first determining the universe’s shape; like the ancient Greek mathematician Eratosthenes calculating Earth’s size using simple trigonometry. In theory; our universe can have one of three possible shapes, each one dependent on the curvature of space itself: saddle shaped (negative, curvature), spherical (positive curvature) or flat (no curvature).

      Few have championed a saddle-shaped universe, but a spherical cosmos makes sense to us earthlings. Earth is round, as are the sun and planets. A spherical universe would let you sail into the cosmos in any direction and end up back-where you started, like Ferdinand Magellan’s crew circumnavigating the globe. Einstein called this model a “finite yet unbounded universe.”

      But starting in the late 1980s, a series of orbiting observatories built to study the CMB made increasingly precise measurements showing that space has no curvature at all. Its flat to the limits of what astronomers can measure — if it is a sphere, it’s a sphere so huge that even our entire observable universe doesn’t register any curvature.

      …You’d never come to an edge of this flat universe; you'd only find more and more galaxies.

      That’s all well and good with most astronomers. A flat universe agrees with both observation and theory; so the idea now sits at the heart of modern cosmology.

      The problem is that, unlike a spherical universe, a flat one can be infinite — or not. And there's no real way to tell the difference….

Learning to Think Long-term

[These excerpts are from an article by Jacob Darwin Hamblin in the 27 November 2020 issue of Science.]

      Before we were worried about fossil fuels and plastic pollution, nuclear waste stretched our minds to think about our place in geological time. When asked about the most challenging aspect of her work, one expert charged with finding a final resting place for this waste observed, “We have to build canisters that are supposed to last hundreds of thousands of years. Nothing has lasted so long, nothing.”

      In Deep Time Reckoning, cultural anthropologist Vincent Talent would have us look to such experts for inspiration. Rather than allowing ourselves to be overwhelmed by the magnitude of humanity’s effects on the planet, he proposes that we see nuclear waste storage as he does, as a case study for how to extend our intellects and acquife habits associated with extremely long-term thinking….

      Because of the myriad challenges of the Anthropocene, Ialenti tells us, deep time reckoning is no longer the province solely of geologists, evolutionary biologists, or astrophysicists. It is now our collective re-sponsibility, and we need the tools to do it.

      …Inspired by scientists’ models of future biospheres, he introduces readers to “deep time heuristics,” which might include doing research on climatological forecasts and comparing them to predictable patterns in everyday routines.

      One of Ialenti’s informants draws an analogy to Peru’s Nazca, lines, whose creators could only imagine the impressive aerial view they were crafting. Talent. wants us to become similarly adept at zooming in and out of different scales of time….He also envisions the establishment of a global nonprofit think tank to work toward scientifically informed portrayals of future worlds.

      Those familiar with the politics of the nuclear industry may find it difficult to accept nuclear experts as exemplars of future thinking. Many have argued that the safety case studies exist to justify Finland’s continued public investment in nuclear energy, and at least one of the scientists Talenti interviewed confided that the archeological analog studies they cited were cherry-picked to suit the nuclear industry’s predetermined conclusions. There are limits, after all, to what a bronze cannon submerged at sea for centuries can tell us about copper nuclear waste canisters buried in granite for millennia. Ialenti argues, however, that his book should not be read as an endorsement of the nuclear experts’ conclusions, even if it does celebrate their process.

      He worries about what he calls the “deflation of expertise,” as manifested in the rising antiscience attitudes that undermine the application of expertise to major policy issues. In its place, he wants us to be guardedly enthusiastic about scientific work, which is superior in value to “freewheeling podcast rants, talking head television pundits, and impulsive Twitter posts.” Fair enough.

      While he does not idealize Finland, Ialenti seems to envy the degree of public trust in technocratic expertise there. We need tools for restoring such trust, he contends, because our survival in the Anthropocene depends on it.

Grade: Incomplete

[These excerpts are from an article by Gretchen Vogel and Jennifer Couzin-Frankel in the 27 November 2020 issue of Science.]

      Schools around the world are again the site of a large, and largely uncontrolled, experiment.

      When schools from New Zealand to Norway to Japan reopened in April and May as the first wave of COVID-19 cases subsided, the virus stayed mostly at bay. Health and education officials cheered, having bet that the huge benefits of in-person schooling outweighed the risk of viral spread among children and teachers and from schools to wider communities.

      As a result, many places that had moved cautiously at first threw open classroom doors in August and September. Schools in the United Kingdom, Denmark, and the Netherlands shifted from cycling in small groups of students to full-size classes. Cities like Montreal that had kept schools shuttered welcomed students back inside. In Manaus, Brazil, a city with a COVID-19 death toll among the world’s highest, more than 100,000 students returned to classrooms. Teenagers thronged hallways in Georgia, Iowa, and Texas. But the backdrop is very different now: In many areas, COVID-19 has surged to even higher levels than early in the year.

      …Now, scrutiny of school openings in countries where the virus is resurgent paints a more complex picture of the risks and how they might be managed.

      The virus has exposed disparities between and within countries, and among the most unsettling are in schools. In many countries, such as India, Mexico, and Indonesia, most schools remain shut. In the United States, students enrolled in urban public schools from Los Angeles to Chicago, which in normal times may struggle to provide enough soap and toilet paper, continue to learn from home, whereas wealthy private schools have installed tents for outdoor learning and hired more teachers to shrink already-small classes….

      Early evidence, often gathered by researchers with children in school or ateacher spouse, suggests schools can stay open even in the face of significant community spread, given strong safety measures and political will. Many countries are closing restaurants, bars, and gyms, and begging residents to steer clear of social gatherings in bids to contain spread and keep schools open. Some-times, that hasn't been enough: The Czech Republic, Russia, and Austria closed schools in the face of skyrocketing case numbers in October and early November.

      …it’s wishful thinking to suggest open schools can't fuel spread of the virus. Closing them can be “one of the most powerful measures we have, but also one of the most costly” to children.

      In Austria, schools hung on until 17 November. However, other countries, such as South Korea and Australia, have closed many schools at the first sign of rising cases as authorities worked to quash even modest community transmission….

      A gnawing anxiety for teachers and parents is the silent spread of virus through hallways and classrooms. Most schools have layers of protection such as mask requirements and physical distancing to impede an outbreak if a student or staff member brings COVID-19 into the building. But with virus cases surging in many communities, Lthose guardrails are facing a stress test….

      So far, scientists say, school outbreaks appear less common than initially feared, although data are sparse….

      Multiple cases among students rightly trigger worries about in-school spread. But young people’s lives are intertwined, and the virus has plenty of chances to infect young people outside of school….

      Many experts lament that although health officials often tout low school case numbers, record keeping is inconsistent, as is transparency, particularly on outbreak investigations….

      To many people, it's especially hard to imagine school without sports. But the potential for the virus to spread there looms. In the United States, numerous outbreaks in August were traced to football practices. Early this month, the Iowa High School Girls Athletic Union hosted a state volleyball championship that brought together 20,000 fans and players in an indoor arena, as cases in the host city, Cedar Rapids, hit record highs and hospitals filled to capacity. In Canada, outbreaks have been linked to youth hockey: whether COVID-19 spread during play itself or gatherings with family and friends, afterward is not known….

      Parties, too, have been an issue around the world. In Cape Town, South Africa, a gathering of high schoolers at a bar sparked an outbreak that ultimately infected more than 80 people….

      As temperatures drop in the Northern Hemisphere, many schools aren’t with 15 students passes 1000 ppm in just 15 to 20 minutes. radiating the comforting warmth they used to. The coronavirus pan-

      In Germany, students wear coats and winter hats in class. In the United Kingdom, they’re permitted to don extra clothes over uniforms. It’s part of an effort to disperse any exhaled viral particles before someone can breathe them in….

      Part of the challenge is practical. if children are “freezing cold, that’s not going to help their learning experience….”

      Some schools are adding professional-grade air filters to try to remove virus, and scientists are developing other creative solutions….

      Scientific uncertainties aren’t helping. Initial studies suggested children under age 10 were less likely than older ones and adults to catch and transmit SARS-CoV-2. But newer data have muddied the picture. In September, a study of families of U.K. health care workers found no difference in susceptibility by age. Antibody surveys in Brazil and southern Germany reported similar results. In a day care in Poland, five toddlers, none with symptoms, apparently infected nine family members….

Systemic Car-ism

[These excerpts are from an article by Paul Rauber in the November/December 2020 issue of Sierra.]

      …For Black Americans, minor traffic infractions can turn deadly. One reason is systemic racism in the nation’s police departments. Another reason is cars.

      The one is related to the other. According to the Justice Department’s Bureau ofJustice Statistics, 52 percent of people’s interactions with the police come in the form of traffic stops. The DO.' has also found that African Americans and Latinos stopped by the police are more than twice as likely to experience the threat or use of physical force as whites….

      The Stanford Open Policing Project analyzed 100 million traffic stops from 2011 to 2018 and found clear evidence of racial discrimination. The study’s simple but effective methodology was to compare traffic stops during the day, when the driver’s race was clearly visible, with those at night. The results were striking. Under cover of darkness, racial disparities in traffic stops dropped significantly. Researcher Emma Pierson’s conclusion: “The police treat Black and Hispanic drivers differently from identically behaving white drivers.” For instance, police officers search the vehicles of Black and brown drivers based on less evidence than they require to search those of white drivers.

      Other studies of stops—both in traffic and otherwise—undertaken by individual police departments have come to similar conclusions in New York City, Los Angeles, and Ferguson, Missouri….

      A wave of reforms followed those investigations. New York greatly curtailed its “stop and frisk” policy after 2015, following a federal judge’s ruling that it was unconstitutional and discriminatory. Los Angeles limited random car stops in 2019. After Ferguson, Barack Obama’s Justice Department initiated national policing reforms, but those were quickly abandoned by the Trump administration. Now, after the death of George Floyd and the nationwide Black Lives Matter protests, Attorney General William Barr has flatly denied that America’s police departments suffer from systemic racism, blaming the notorious killings on a few bad apples. (President Trump went further, calling Black Lives Matter “a symbol of hate.”)

      The Movement for Black Lives has called for “defunding the police,” shifting the money to alternative response strategies, health care, and community investment. (Some cities have made modest moves in that direction, like Milwaukee’s proposed 10 percent cut to its police budget.) Proposals by M4BL and others focus on restricting the scope of police power—demilitarizing forces, repealing the “qualified immunity” that protects officers from lawsuits over their actions, and establishing non-police emergency-response services for people suffering from mental health crises. Polls show that the majority ofAmericans support sweeping police reforms.

      One way to remedy the system that killed Philando Castile, Sandra Bland, and Samuel DuBose is to improve police training, hire more people of color, and hold officers accountable for their actions. But there’s another, perhaps simpler way.

      …Remove the police from their traditional role of regulating vehicles.

      On July 15, the Berkeley City Council moved to do just that. It voted to establish a new, unarmed Department of Transportation to respond to traffic infractions “with a racial justice lens.” In Los Angeles, four city councilmembers have proposed a similar system….

      The idea of de-policing transportation is an inspiration that could perhaps only have come out of the current confluence of events: a disastrously managed pandemic, growing climate chaos, the latest social movement in US history demanding wholesale changes in policing and respect for Black lives, and the blazing dumpster fire of the Trump administration.

      The scene was set at the start of the coronavirus panderhic, when the nation’s initial lockdown forced people to take a hard break from their transportation habits. With fewer pedple commuting and others shelteringat home, automobile traffic largely disappeared….

      …It called on the city to reallocate significant portions of the NYPD’s budget to bicycle-and pedestrian-friendly street design and to automate large portions of traffic enforcement with the speed and red-light cameras that have been shown to reduce the number of people killed in crashes by nearly half With its unblinking, color-blind gaze, the red-light camera is immune to the special pleading of the white and wealthy to be let offwith a warning. It judges Black and white equally: Did you run the red light, or did you not? Those who did, instead of being confronted by an armed police officer, would simply receive a ticket in the mail.

The Legacy

[These excerpts are from an article by Wudan Yan the November/December 2020 issue of Sierra.]

      …If the Trump administration gets its way, their fears will be confirmed. In March, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said that the COVID-19 pandemic proved that the United States needs to take mining for uranium into its own hands. In April, Secretary of Energy Dan Brouillette released a strategy to revive uranium mining across the country as a “matter of national security.” In May, District of Arizona judge David Campbell ruled that a mining company named Energy Fuels could resume uranium-mining operations near the Grand Canyon. That same month, the Trump administration discussed carrying out the first nuclear tests since 1992. In July, EPA head Andrew Wheeler signed a memorandum of understanding with the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, agreeing to limit the EPA’s authority to investigate tainted groundwater at uranium-mining sites. President Trump asked Congress for $1.5 billion to establish a new national uranium reserve.

      The first time it set out to become a nuclear superpower, the United States failed to consider the people in the path of that quest and the environmental consequences. Decades later, the Navajo have little reason to believe this time will be different….

      In the 1940s, prospectors found uranium in Cove. At the time, the US Atomic Energy Commission was aggressively subsidizing uranium production, as the Trump administration is trying to do today. A company called Kerr-McGee struck a deal with the Navajo Tribal Council in 1952 to open a mine. The Navajo were excited to have steady work so close….

      Uranium ore is radioactive; its status as a heavy metal means that it can disrupt the endocrine system, damage organs, and lead to cancer. Buried in the earth, it doesn’t pose much of a problem, but mining operations in Cove brought the ore to the surface and crushed it as part of the refining process, creating dust that spread through the community via wind and water.

      In the mid-1960s, nearly two decades after Kerr-McGee began operations in Cove, the Atomic Energy Commission announced that the government would be winding down the purchase of uranium—it had acquired far more than it could store easily….

      By the 1950s, Kerr-McGee and the US government knew that uranium mining likely caused cancer and lung disease, but they did not share that information with the miners. The Navajo had their own suspicions….

      In 2012—nearly 50 years after Kerr-McGee left—the EPA began cleaning up the mine waste in Cove. The mine tailings that had been heaped in massive dunes outside Cove Day School since the 1960s were trucked away and buried in a nearby field. The field was fenced in with barbed wire, and a sign was placed outside warning passersby of radioactive material.

      Two years later, the Department ofJustice settled a lawsuit filed against Kerr-McGee. In the largest environmental-cleanup settlement to date, Anadarko Petroleum Corporation—which had acquired Kerr-McGee in 2006—would pay out $5.15 billion. About one-fifth of those funds are designated for cleaning up approximately 50 abandoned uranium mines in the Navajo Nation, including the 32 that Kerr-McGee abandoned in the Cove area. (There are more than 1,000 abandoned uranium mines throughout the Navajo Nation.) But there are no definitive federal or regional cleanup plans yet for any of the mines covered in the settlement—the ones dug by Kerr-McGee or the ones created by lesser-known companies that went bankrupt long before anyone could sue them for the damage they left behind….

      Uranium mining and processing has been banned on Navajo Nation land for the past 15 years, but it’s not clear if that ban would be respected under a federal mandate to revive uranium mining on national security grounds. Navajo laws haven’t been respected in the past. The US-Navajo Treaty of 1868 guaranteed sovereignty to the Navajo Nation, but in 1919, Native reservation lands were opened to leasing by the Interior Department anyway….

Nature is Returning

[These excerpts are from an article by Rachel Muwer the November/December 2020 issue of Sierra.]

      …The virus that causes the disease, SARS-CoV-2, almost certainly sprang from the commercial wildlife trade, a fact that forces us to acknowledge the relationship. Wildlife-related pandemics are an extreme example:, We can exploit nature, but at some point there will be serious repercussions for our species as well. We greatly influence wildlife—from the lowly rats of NewYork City to the lofty elephants of Zimbabwe—and it influences us in turn.

      That mutual influence became obvious last spring, when humanity hunkered down and the animal world quickly noted our absence. Some species that had grown dependent on us were left to scramble, while others, emboldened, began reclaiming places normally overrun with people. The national parks, which experienced a surge of visitors in the immediate aftermath of the shutdown, closed their gates -one by one as the pandemic progressed. That's when the animals took over. At Timpanogos Cave National Monument in Utah, staff noted bats roosting for the first time in at least two decades. From Yosemite to Yellowstone, deer, bears, and bison strolled through parking lots and picnic areas. (Ironically, in seeking to become closer to wild nature, humans often drive it away.)

      In the days of quarantine, reports of wildlife wandering into suburban and urban areas abounded. While some viral headlines proved to be wishful thinking (dolphins did not take up residence in Venice’s canals) or fake (a herd of elephant lushes did not raid a Chinese village for booze), many remarkable stories were quite true. Ajuvenile mountain lion prowled the deserted sidewalks of San Francisco. Javelinas took over street corners in Phoenix. Mountain goats roamed Llandudno, Wales. Social media spread a heartening, widely embraced message: Nature is back. Nature will find a way….

      The effect of the pandemic on human-habituated animals raises questions about where we should draw the line in our interactions with them. Consider, for example, Nara, Japan: Each year millions of people come to see the 1,400 semi-tame deer that live in a park there. Nearby shops sell rice-bran-and-wheat “deer crackers” that the deer gobble up. But in the spring, as tourists and their crackers disappeared, deer began turning up in residential and shopping areas, far from the park, eating grass and scavenging garbage. The Mainichi Shinibun newspaper reported that authorities fielded twice the number of deer-related emergency calls compared with the same period in 2019. By June, however, the deer had settled into a new, people-free rhythmsans crackers. Locals noted to the Asahi Shimbun that the animals’ normally watery droppings resembled firm blackbeans, leading some to speculate that the lack of snack food had forced the deer to shift to a healthier natural diet.

      Not all habituated wildlife have made such a peaceful transition. In South and Southeast Asia, before COVID-19, some species of macaques were surviving on garbage and handouts at temples and tourist sites, partly because rampant defor'estation has destroyed their natural habitat. This unhealthy dependency was highlighted in a viral video “brawl” in which hundreds of macaques fought over a cup of yogurt in the streets of Lopburi, Thailand, shortly after the. -8 country’s travel ban went into effect….

      In some cases, people have gone to great lengths to maintain their unnatural relationships with wild animals. When the Cayman Islands closed its borders and enacted strict lockdown measures, including a ban on boat use, rumors circulated that people were sneaking out under cloak of darkness to feed a population of 80 to 120 habituated stingrays. The rays, which live at sites called the Sandbar and Stingray City; are the Caymans’ most popular tourist attraction, sometimes seeing up to 1,500 visitors at a time. Without the free food provided by tourists, however, tour operators feared that the rays (a species that is not normally gregarious) would leave the area permanently. Eventually, the government succumbed to Lpublic pressure and began carrying out daily feedings….

      In numerous marine parks, rangers’ salaries can no longer LL be paid, critical scientific monitoring has ground to a halt, and illegal fishing appears to be on the rise. Many terrestrial protected areas are likewise experiencing an uptick in bushmeat poaching, much of it likely driven by people out of work. In May 2020, in Sri Lanka, a rare black leopard—one of only three recorded in the past decade—was killed by a snare trap probably intended for deer. In India, researchers found that the number of animals illegally killed for meat nearly doubled during the national lockdown, compared with the same time last year….

      Zimbabwe started 2020 on a high note, with ample savings in the bank and funds set aside in its conservation budget to recruit a thousand new rangers by June and to refurbish facilities at a number of national parks….But because conservation in Zimba-bwe is 100 percent self-financed, primarily by tourism, the pandemic’s effects have been "quite devastating…."

      Across Africa, most national parks, conservancies, and reserves find themselves similarly stressed. Park managers from Zambia to the Democratic Republic of the Congo fear that bushmeat poaching is on the rise and that if the crisis continues, there will be lasting declines of wildlife populations and possibly even local extinctions of some species….

      Conserving wildlife in Africa and the rest of the world, frankly, isn’t just for the critters. From a selfish point ofview, it will also help us. The pandemic exemplifies the direct link between human health and ecological health, something experts have known and warned about for decades. Scientists have yet to pinpoint SARS-CoV-2’s exact origin, but they agree that the virus originated in an animal, most likely a horseshoe bat, before making the jump to humans. An intermediary species, possibly a pangolin—an endangered animal sometimes called a scaly anteater—also could have been involved. Whatever the animal origin, China’s extensive wildlife trade likely brought the virus or a person it was in contact with to a wet market in Wuhan, where public health experts think SARS-CoV-2 first spread….

      Real change requires sustained momentum, however—and China’s may already be slowing. At the time of this writing, China had yet to codify its temporky ban on exotic meat into law, and legal loopholes still abound for wild animals used for traditional medicine, killed for fur, or kept as pets. The country did remove pangolin scales from its official pharmacopoeia of traditional medicine—yet it did not outright ban their use and still lists them as ingredients in certain concoctions….

      Other countries’ responses have been even more lackluster. Although headlines in July reported that Vietnam had “banned wildlife trade,” the government had simply called for enforcement of existing laws. Exotic-animal markets in other nations with a busy wildlife trade and a high potential for disease transmission, including Indonesia and Nigeria, remain open. Few countries have enacted meaningful new wildlife laws; the United States hasn’t….

      The pandemic could usher in fundamental improvements in how we treat animals and the planet. SARS-CoV-2 has giveri us an opportunity to self-correct….population growth is decreasing and will stabilize in the not-too-distant future.

      If we opted to preserve rather than destroy biodiversity going forward, we would lessen the risk of unleashing the next pandemic-causing zoonotic disease—one that could, unlike the coronavirus that causes COVID-19, kill most of the people it infects. We would also reap the many life-sustaining benefits of improved biodiversity, including carbon sequestration, freshwater provision, and pollination. Unless we act quickly, though, our old,.destructive ways will come crawling back, like New York City’s rats….

      …Some will no doubt emerge from the pandemic with a new appreciation for nature—one nurtured, perhaps, through the patient joy of watching a tomato plant sprout from a seed or a newfound love of birding in their own backyard….

      In some cases, though, the opposite is happening—people are recoiling from the natural world, viewing it as the source of their misery….At the last minute, officials in Peru stopped a planned attack on a colony of mouse-eared bats, but in Egypt, people S set fire to an abandoned building full of sleeping fruit bats….

      Newfound love or fear of nature are the extremes, though. Most individuals, once a vaccine finally arrives and the pandemic fades into memory, will probably return to the approach to nature they held before….

The Killing Field

[These excerpts are from an article by Aaron Teasdale the November/December 2020 issue of Sierrae.]

      …Over the past 30 years, grizzly bears have made a heartening comeback in the 22-million-acre Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem. Once numbering over 50,000 and ranging from the Mississippi Riverto the Pacific Ocean, grizzlies were listed as an endangered species in 1975, when only 136 remained in Yellowstone. That protection allowed the bears' population in the Yellowstone area to rebound to over 700 today.

      Because of that growth—and, possibly, the diminished availability of whitebark pine nuts and cutthroat trout, two of the bears’ foundational foodstuffs—grizzlies are now radiating outfrom Yellowstone into areas they haven’t inhabited forgenerations. In the Upper Green River watershed, the snow-mantled Wind River and Gros Ventre Ranges rise above a fertile valley of aspen grasslands and willow-hemmed creeks. But in addition to some of America’s finest wildlife habitat, the Upper Green also has 170,643 acres of public grazing lands, where bears that repeatedly kill cattle are “removed from the population.” In October 2019, after 20 years of debate and countless delays, Bridger-Teton National Forest granted a 10-year extensiori of grazing permits with no additional measures taken to protect bears.

      A burgeoning grizzly population combined with an abundant, nearly defenseless food source makes the Upper Green the largest grizzly killing field in America. Each year, the number of conflicts with bears increases by 9 percent, a trend government biologists predict will continue. The US Fish and Wildlife Service has repeatedly increased the allowed “take,” or killing, of grizzlies on Upper Green allotments. The previous limit was 11 bears over a three-year period, but new regulations announced last fall allow for 72 grizzlies to be killed over 10 years….

      Rice has been promoting grizzly-friendly rules for grazers since 2014. But Bridger-Teton officials have resisted implementing requirements—even when proposed by their own biologists—that ranchers in the field carry bear spray and dispose of livestock carcasses, which grizzlies can smell from over 10 miles away. Other potential solutions include using guard dogs, installing electric fencing, bunching liveStocktogether at night, and not grazing vulnerable calves in grizzly habitat.

      On March 31, 2020, the Sierra Club joined with the Center for Biological Diversity in a lawsuit to force Bridger-Teton to implement bear-protection measures; a separate lawsuit by the Western Watersheds Project seeks to end grazing there until it does….

      On the other side of those lawsuits is Albert Sommers, a Republican Wyoming state representative, whose family has been grazing cattle in the Upper Green since 1902. Each summer he takes his cattle to their mountain pasture in the oldest continually operating cattle drive in Wyoming. His natural, native-grass-fed beef is sold regionally with the slogan “Grizzly tested, wolf approved.”

      Sommers is the head of the Upper Green River Cattlemen’s Association, which has joined with federal agencies to defend against the lawsuits. If the grazing leases were eliminated, he says, “I’d be losing my way of life and the community that we built for 100 years.” The first grizzly predation of his cattle, he says, occurred in 1993. Before then, he lost an average of 2 percent of his calves every summer. Now he averages 12 percent….

      Meanwhile, as the bruins increasingly push out from the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem, mortalities arespiking—more than 80 percent of them caused by humans. For the isolated population of Yellowstone grizzlies to survive in the long term, biologists say, they’ll require even more territory and more genetic diversity….

Alphabets and their Originss

[These excerpts are from a book review by Andrew Robinson the 20 November 2020 issue of Science.]

      Written communication is among the greatest inventions in human history, yet reading and writing are skills most of us take for granted. After we learn them at school, we seldom stop to think about the mental-cum-physical process that turns our language and thoughts into symbols on a piece of paper or computer screen, or the reverse process whereby our brains extract meaning from written symbols.

      The neural correlates of reading remain a mystery to neuroscientists. They once assumed that an auditory pathway in the brain was used for alphabetic symbols and a visual pathway for Chinese characters but have since discovered experimentally that both neural pathways are used together—if in differing proportions—in each instance. Meanwhile, key aspects of writing’s development have yet to be demystified by archaeologists and philologists. Was there a single origin, circa 3100 BCE—either cuneiform in Mesopotamia or hieroglyphs in Egypt—or did writing arise in multiple places independently? When and how did Chinese characters, first identified on Shang oracle bones dated to circa nao BCE, originate? And what prompted the invention of the radically simple alphabetic principle, circa 1800 BCE, in a script that contains certain signs resembling Egyptian hieroglyphs?

      …Latin alphabetic letter forms, unlike calligraphic scripts such as Chinese and Arabic, were ideally shaped for the movable metal type created by Johannes Gutenberg in the 1450s—a technology that enabled the growth of European literacy and the European scientific revolution beginning in the 16th century. The pairing was so ideal, in fact, that the Gutenberg Bible fooled some scholars for centuries, who believed it was handwritten and cataloged it as such….

      …avidly dissects a few signs on early clay tablets to explain the rebus principle, which permits the sounds of pictograms, written together, to express the sound of an unrelated, nonpictographic word. Thus, for example, the plainly pictographic Sumerian sign for barley, pronounced “she,” can be written beside the pictographic sign far milk, pronounced “ga,” to create two signs read as “shega,” meaning something like “beautiful.” As Finkel reasonably spec-ulates, rebuses are so “obvious” that they could have been developed in languages anywhere in the world, supporting the hypothesis that writing may have arisen on multiple, separate occasions.

      Today, pictography has returned to writing in the form of international transport symbols and computerized emojis. Meanwhile, many young people in China, having become habituated to smartphone writing, are increasingly using the Romanized spelling known as Pinyin (“spell sound”) and, as a result, some no longer know how to write Chinese characters.

      Could smartphones, or the Internet more generally, eventually lead to a universal writing system, independent of particular languages, like the one envisioned by polymath Gottfried Leibniz in 1698? It is unlikely, in my view, and, according to Wilson, undesirable. “A world of perfect communication is also a world of cultural uniformity,” she cautions.

Scientists: Use Common Sense

[These excerpts are from an article by Naomi Oreskes the November 2020 issue of Scientific American.]

      …nearly all the questions involve COVID-19--particularly the matter of masks. The argument for wearing them is pretty straightforward: viruses are spread in droplets, which are expelled when an infected person talks, shouts, sings or just breathes. A properly constructed and fitted mask can prevent the spread of those droplets and therefore the spread of the virus. That is why surgeons have been routinely wearing medical-grade masks since the 1960s (and many doctors and nurses wore cloth masks long before then). It is also why in many parts of Asia, people routinely wear masks in public. A flimsy or poorly fitting face covering may not be much use, but—barring the risk of generating a false sense of security—it is unlikely to do harm. So it stands to reason that, when in public, most people should wear masks….

      So why are people confused? One reason is that we have been getting conflicting messages. In April the World Health Organization told the general public not to mask, while the CDC told us we should. In June the WHO adjusted its guidance to say that the general public should wear nonmedical masks where there was widespread community transmission and physical distancing was difficult. Meanwhile CDC director Robert R. Redfield declared that “cloth face coverings are one of the most powerful weapons we have to slow and stop the spread of the virus—particularly when used universally.” Today government guidance around the globe varies from masks only for sick people to masks mandatory for all.

      …According to one report, officials were also concerned that widespread masking would lead to a false sense of security, leading people to ignore other safety measures, such as handwashing and self-isolation.

      If the WHO had simply said this, there would have been a lot less confusion. But apparently there was another problem. At the time, no direct evidence existed regarding community spread of this particular virus, and most previous studies were done in clinical settings….

      This is a common pattern in science: conflating the absence of evidence with evidence of absence. It arises from the scientific norm of assuming a default hypothesis of no effect and placing burden of proof of those asserting an affirmative claim. Usually this makes sense: we do not want to overturn established science on the basis of an assertion or speculation. But when public health and safety are at stake, this standard becomes priggish. If we have evidence that something may help—and is unlikely to do harm—there is little excuse for not recommending it. And when there is a mechanistic reason to think it might help, the lack of clinical trials should not be a barrier to acting on mechanistic knowledge….

      In nearly all areas of science, our evidence is imperfect or incomplete, but this is no excuse not to act on what we know.

Ancient Plagues Shaped the World

[These excerpts are from an article by James P. Closein the November 2020 issue of Scientific American.]

      In 541 C.E., after years of campaigning against Goths and Vandals, Emperor Justinian I had built the eastern Roman Empire into a vast dominion, nearly encircling the Mediterranean Sea. That year, however, gave the ruler no chance to celebrate. Instead he was attacked by a deadly new foe, an invisible and incomprehensible enemy.

      A mysterious plague swept across Justinian’s lands and into his capital, Constantinople. Victims spiked high fevers, their armpits and groins swelled painfully, and many became delirious. The emperor himself fell ill. Rumors of his demise filled the panicked city. Historian Procopius, a resident of the city, claimed that on some days as many as 10,000 people died. Justinian managed to survive the contagion, but his empire remained scarred for years afterward, losing its grip on many territories and struggling to maintain control of Rome.

      Scientists have debated the identity of this scourge up to the present day. While some blamed the plague on a particularly lethal strain of the bacterium Yersinia pestis—the symptoms resembled the medieval Black Death, and Y. pestis is the bug behind that devastation—other have argued Justinian was beset by an influenza virus related to the notorious 1918 flu epidemic, which killed an estimated 50 million to 100 million people. Historians have also wondered where the disease started. Many pointed the finger at Egypt because historical accounts noted a similar ailment appeared there just before Justinian's catastrophe.

      Now biologists and archaeologists, teaming up to recover ancient DNA from teeth and bones from that time, have been able to resolve this long-standing debate. The teeth hold DNA from Y. pestis, not remnants of the flu. Following this strain back in time and across the globe, researchers learned that the plague began not in Egypt but in western China and traveled across the high grasslands of the Eurasian Steppe before hitting Europe….

      With these discoveries, certain patterns have emerged about the way microbes turn into plagues. The tiny organisms tend to spread death when they encounter groups of individuals who live packed densely together. They race through populations that have never been exposed before and thus have low levels of natural immunity. Growing international trade and increased human mobility amplify the spread, and pathogens usually have found heightened vulnerabilities among people marginalized and impoverished by society, who have few resources to protect themselves. We are now seeing these patterns again as our current pandemic, driven by the SARS-CoV-2 virus, races across the globe….

      One of the first successes of this combination of better samples and newtechnology came in 2011. Poinar and his colleagues recovered a draft Y. pestis genome from teeth obtained in a London Black Death burial site. Their find confirmed, after decades of speculation, that this bug was indeed responsible for the medieval pandemic that killed 30 percent or more of the European population between 1347 and 1351. There was nothing especially virulent about this strain, researchers learned over the next five years; it was quite similar to modern Y. pestiss, which is not nearly as deadly. The high medieval death toll seemed to be driven by an exploding population of runaway black rats, which carried the bacterium through a crowded and malnourished population in burgeoning cities with awful sanitary conditions.

      Perhaps the biggest surprise from plague aDNA has come from even earlier burials. It turns out that neither the Justinian nor the medieval pandemics were the first times this microbe altered human events on a transcontinental scale.

      …an Early Bronze Age people, the Yamnaya culture, moved down from the steppe around 5,000 years ago, replacing the Neolithic farming cultures of Europe. The newcomers had domesticated horses and new forms of metallurgy and were probably warlike, but still the large-scale population changeover has puzzled scientists because the European groups had done well for centuries….

      If the plague bacterium was even part of the cause, the effects can be seen today. Kristiansen's team argues that, just like the later Y. pestis outbreaks, this one spread from the steppe into Europe. The Yamnaya likely had some immunity to the bacterium if they bad already been exposed to it for hundreds of years. That resistance would have given them an advantage over the plague-ravaged European farmers. So they moved in. With a lighter skin color and a proto-Indo-European language, this group and its migration still influence the look, languages and genes of modern Europe. According to Kristiansen, “it changed the course of European history. It changed the languages in Europe.” Genetically, he says, Europeans “are the descendants of those steppe people.”

      Recently the research group found more evidence buttressing this theory of plague-driven change, when it detected Y. pestis DNA in two Swedish Neolithic skeletons dating from around E five millennia ago. The disease, it appears, had arrived in Scandinavia just before the Yamnaya takeover….

      In its earliest form—the 5,000-year-old variant—it was unlikely that the bacterium was carried by rat-riding fleas, as was the Black Death version. The older bacterium lacked an enzyme that the modern microbes use to prevent their digestion in flea guts. It probably spread through airborne droplets when its host—person or animal—coughed….

      The aDNA research has made it possible to trace the history of other microbes in addition to Y. pestis, enabling researchers to identify the dates when many modern human pathogens, including strains of leprosy, tuberculosis, hepatitis B virus and parvovirus, emerged as widespread troublemakers. Those dates, perhaps not surprisingly, occur when humans started to settle down….

      This combination of human factors that increase vulnerability to pathogens—larger populations, greater global connectivity, an ever shifting relationship with the animal world—had a major impact on the New World when Europeans first arrived. The Aztec Empire, centered in Mexico, was invaded by a small contingent of Spanish forces in the early 1500s who toppled the civilization with the aid of disgruntled subjects and rival states. The Spanish then installed a brutal encomienda system of harsh treatment, overwork and malnourishment. And the European outsiders seem to have brought other attackers with them as well.

      After the initial conquest in 1521, the Aztec population was devastated by one of the biggest pandemics in history. Written accounts from Spanish Franciscan friar Bernardino de Sahagiin, who arrived in Mexico eight years after the initial Spanish contact, indicated that an infection killed off as much as 80 percent of the Indigenous population. But the identity of this cocotiztii pest (as the locals named it) remained a mystery. Guesses have ranged from hemorrhagic influenza to malaria to typhoid to smallpox. To historians, it was not even clear if the disease was of local origin or was imported by the Spanish.

      In 2018, however, aDNA pointed to a likely culprit. Obtaining DNA from skeletons discovered in a cocolizai-era mass grave, Krause and his colleagues established that more than half of the samples had Salmonella paratyphi C., a bacterium that causes a severe intestinal disease. Salmonella organisms had not been found in the Americas before European contact, so it was almost certainly shipped across from the Old World. The conquistadors probably carried contaminated food and water on their transatlantic vessels, along with other potential vectors such as chickens, pigs, cattle, and vermin such as rats and mice. All were capable of transmitting disease.

      At just this time an environmental misfortune in the Americas helped microbes such as Salmonella find a new home. A series of catastrophic droughts hit Mexico in the 1500s—established by tree-ring data published in 2000—and food shortages and population dislocation left people weak and unable to fight off unfamiliar microbial invaders that their immune systems were not prepared for. A civilization crumbled.

      Today societies know much more about pathogens and how to fight them than did people 500 or 5,000 years ago. But our current struggles with COVID-19 show that our vulnerabilities to novel diseases have not changed: they often jump to humans from other species, spread via global trade and travel, and become exacerbated by crowding, poverty and malnourishment. The aDNA research reminds us of those enduring facts and shows that some of the biggest events in history were not just defined by powerful figures such as Emperor Justinian I or conquistador Hernan Cortes. They were also profoundly shaped by the microbes their empires helped to spread.

The Pandemic We Forgot

[These excerpts are from an article by Scott Hershberger in the November 2020 issue of Scientific American.]

      …Previously a niche topic even among historians, the 1918 flu has been compared with the current pandemic in terms of fatality rate, economic impact, and the effectiveness of masks and social distancing….

      For the countries engaged in World War I, the global conflict provided a clear narrative arc replete with heroes and villains, victories and defeats. But an invisible enemy such as the 1918 flu makes little narrative sense. It had no clear origin, killed otherwise healthy people in multiple waves and slinked away without being understood. Scientists at the time did not even know that a virus, not a bacterium, caused the flu….

      Unlike the 1918 flu, COVID-19 has no massive, contemporaneous war to compete with in our memories. And scientific understanding of viruses has dramatically improved in the past century. Yet in some ways, not much has changed since our ancestors’ pandemic….The current controversy about masks has a precedent, too: nearly 2,000 people attended a 1919 meeting of the Anti-Mask League of San Francisco….

      Newspapers and magazines did cover the 1918 flu extensively while is. it was still raging….But the press of the day published “very little on the experience of the victims and survivors themselves," Spratt says….

      Spratt sees parallels between the coverage of the 1918 flu and that of COVID-19. "….In this way, from first-hand accounts of essential workers to reports on racial and socio-economic disparities in COVID-19’s impacts, contemporary media are providing a more complete picture of the current pandemic….

How Birds Branched Out

[These excerpts are from an article by Kate Wong in the November 2020 issue of Scientific American.]

      …Birds are dinosaurs, the only lineage to survive to the present day. They arose in the Jurassic period, between 200 million and 150 million years ago, from the theropods, a group of two-legged carnivorous dinosaurs whose members include both the behemoth Tyrannosaurus rex and the daintier Velociraptor. For tens of millions of years birds evolved alongside other dinosaurs, diversifying into a number of small-bodied, fast-growing, feathered fliers, along with a few large-bodied, flightless forms. One group, the so-called neornithines, or new birds—distinguished by their fused foot and anklebones and by certain traits in the bones that support the wings—would eventually give rise to modern avian-kind.

      Scientists have tended to view modern bird diversity as the result of a burst of evolutionary activity that occurred after the fateful day 66 million years ago when a six-mile-wide asteroid struck Earth, dooming 75 percent of plant and animal species, including the nonbird dinosaurs and most bird groups. Exactly why the neornithine lineage alone survived this apocalypse is uncertain, although the recent discovery of a 66.7-million-year-old neornithine bird fossil from Belgium called Asteriornis, a relative of today’s ducks and chickens, suggests that being small and living in a shoreline environment may have helped. In any case, the idea was that after the mass extinction, the neornithine birds had the place largely to themselves. Free of competition from other dinosaurs (not to mention a whole bunch of other vertebrates that also perished, including the pterosaurs, those flying reptiles that had long ruled the skies), birds abruptly exploded into a multitude of forms to fill the many newly vacant ecological niches.

      Now a new analysis has turned up intriguing evidence that their extraordinary diversity might not have originated that way. In a study of hundreds of bird and dinosaur skulls…found that in the aftermath of the mass-extinction event, the pace of birds’ evolution actually slowed way down compared with that of their dinosaur predecessors, rather than accel-erating as expected….

      Fossils that preserve the entire skeleton of an animal are extremely rare, so comparative studies of fossil material tend to focus on a particular region of the body. The team looked at skulls because they serve many functions, from supporting sense organs to enabling feeding to at-tracting mates to defending themselves….Consider hawks versus hummingbirds, he says, or pigeons versus pelicans….

      What the researchers found was that dinosaurs evolved 1.5 to three times faster than birds in all regions of the skull. After the mass-extinction event brought the Mesozoic era to a close and ushered in the Cenozoic era, birds branched into most of the major modern groups, from hummingbirds and penguins to birds of prey and songbirds. But they evolved this diversity far more slowly than their Mesozoic dinosaur forerunners….

      Why the sudden deceleration? Goswami thinks it reflects a shift in priorities for skull function. Whereas dinosaur skulls have elaborate display and fighting structures, as well as complex feeding mechanisms that require large areas for jaw-muscle attachment, bird skulls are mostly dedicated to housing and protecting the animals’ comparatively large brain, she explains.

      Bird-evolution experts who were not involved in the new research praised the team's methodology and the vast number of species they included in their study.

      The finding that dinosaurs had a much faster rate of skull evolution than modern birds might seem strange considering the variety of bills in birds such as spoonbills, flamingos and pelicans….Their sundry shapes suggest a high rate of evolution in the beak, which is a major component of the skull. But a closer look reveals that these distinctive bills are the exception rather than the rule….

      In contrast, some groups of dinosaurs clearly had sky-high rates of skull evolution. Among the ceratopsians (Triceratops and its kin), for instance, “each species had a unique arrangement of horns and crests. And these seem to have evolved rapidly because of their value for attracting mates,” Ksepka says. "So many dino-saurs bad these elaborate skull ornaments, but they are very rare in birds—the cassowary is one awesome exception," he adds. The large, flightless cassowary, a relative of the emu found in the tropical forests of Papua New Guinea and northeastern Australia, has a prominent bony crest atop its head. “It’s likely that feathers took over the display role, as we have plenty of modern birds with plain-shaped skulls but beautiful feathered head crests. Just look at your friendly backyard cardinals and blue jays.”

      The discoverythat bird skulls resulted from relatively low evolutionary rates “is essentially opposite from what we know of the rest of the skeleton”….Early on in their evolution, birds seem to have hit on a head design that worked for them, with such features as a beak, big eyes and a large brain….

      Such mosaic evolution, in which different parts of the body evolve at different rates, is known to have occurred in many organisms….

      But Goswami has a hunch that other parts of the bird skeleton may have also evolved on a relatively leisurely timetable. Nonbird dinosaurs transitioned between bipedal and quadrupedal body plans several times over the course of their evolution and did a lot of different things with their forelimbs, she points out—think of T. rex’s puny arms compared with a titanosaur’s tree trunks. In contrast, once birds became specialized for flight as their forelimbs morphed into wings, among other changes, they never really evolved completely new body plans—presumably because of the developmental or functional constraints of being a bird….

      Of course, the birds are no less spectacular for that downturn. They survived fire and brimstone, conquered the skies and diversified into the dazzling array of feathered wonders that share the planet with us today. Slow and steady won the race.

Bat Signal

[These excerpts are from an article by Jason G. Goldman in the November 2020 issue of Scientific American.]

      Bats have to leave the safety of their roosts every night to find food. That takes energy: their insect prey must provide them with enough fuel to offset the cost of hunting in the first place.

      Because bats use the same chest and abdominal muscles for both flying and producing echolocation calls, many researchers thought vocalizing while airborne would not consume significantly more energy than flying alone. But a new study has thrown that idea into serious doubt….

      Currie and her team measured metabolism and echolocation intensity for nine Nathusius’s pipistrelle bats, captured from urban areas in Berlin and released after laboratory tests. When subjected to just the normal ambient sounds while flying in a wind tunnel, the bats called at 113 decibels. But when the researchers played extra ultrasonic noise, the bats “shouted” at 128 decibels—requiring about 30 times as much energy, Currie says. Although their calls are inaudible to humans, this jump in volume is proportionally equivalent to the difference between a nearby chainsaw and a jet engine, says University of Winnipeg biologist Craig Willis, who specializes in bats and was not involved in the new study.

      To compensate for the additional calories they burn by turning up their volume so dramatically, the bats would have to gobble up an extra half a gram of insects (around 7 percent of their body mass) each night. “That’s a turkey dinner for us; that’s a big deal,” Willis says.

      Getting enough nourishment to afford calling over the sounds of human-generated ultrasonic noise, from traffic or heavy machinery, for example, may be difficult for bats in habitats with dwindling insect populations. “In many ways, insect conservation is bat conservation,” Willis says, “and we’re in the midst of this insect apocalypse where we’re losing insects at alarming rates.” What that means, Currie says, is that bats in many areas now have to work harder to -find the fewer insects available. If they burn more calories hunting than they acquire from their prey, it could spell trouble for the flying mammals. Human-made noise adds yet one more hurdle to their survival.

Earth after the Pandemic

[These excerpts are from an article by the editors in the November 2020 issue of Scientific American.]

      Early this year, as vast segments of the global economy shut down but before the death toll climbed, many of those privileged enough to feel relatively secure indulged a fantasy that the pandemic would paradoxically make the world more beautiful. Smog cleared from the skies, unveiling the snow-clad peaks of the Himalayas; an octopus was spotted in one of Venice’s formerly murky canals; and the undersea cacophony of transoceanic shipping quieted, allowing whales to revel in one another's songs more than they had in half a century. Daily global carbon emissions fell by more than 20 percent, providing hope of real progress on climate change. It almost seemed that Earth had unleashed avirus on industrial civilization, bringing it to a grinding halt and protecting itself.

      Months later, as Supercyclone Amphan devastated the northern coast of the Bay of Bengal and wildfires ravaged California, it was hard to remember that brief moment of environmental optimism. The coronavirus shock to the global economy will make barely a dentin climate change. The suffering brought by COVID-19 is catastrophic. Worldwide more than 30 million people have been infected, and one million have died. In the U.S., upward of 60 million people have become unemployed, and many are at risk of being evicted from their homes. The situation in developing countries is almost unimaginably horrific, with 265 million people teetering on the edge of starvation.

      But by lifting some of the smog that had obscured the structure of modern society, the pandemic may also have shown a way forward. It is not only the exploitation of nature that undergirds modern civilization but also the exploitation of humans. Systemic inequality, injustice and racism resulting from centuries of colonialism and slavery provide the scaffolding of the global economy, which was built not only by the ingenuity and entrepreneurship of a few but also by the abuse of the many.

      That idea, once bitterly contested, has now become plausible and even self-evident. Some of the least prestigious and worst-paid jobs—picking fruit, delivering parcels, bathing patients—have turned out to be the most crucial. They are also the riskiest because they involve commuting and working in conditions that increase exposure to COVID-19. In consequence, the pandemic reminds us of who performs these services. In the U.S., someone who is Native American, Hispanic or Black—whose families may have been ripped apart in the distant or recent past by global and domestic processes of wealth extraction—is roughly five times as likely to be hospitalized for the coronavirus as someone who is white.

      Marginalized groups also suffer disproportionately from environmental devastation—although they do the least harm to the planet. The world’s top 10 percent of income earners are responsible for up to 43 percent of the environmental impact of human society, whereas the world’s bottom 10 percent contribute no more than 5 percent. Across nations, inequality correlates with worse environmental indicators—probably because the marginalized often lack the clout to fend off polluting facilities, from which the wealthy are more likely to profit. In the U.S., regions with poor air quality, where Black people disproportionately reside, also appear to have worse outcomes from COVID-19.

      The pandemic has not only aggravated these stark inequities and injustices, the mass unemployment it has generated has also given millions of Americans the motivation and opportunity to express their outrage….

      Climate activists have long argued that saving Earth and fighting for justice and equality are one and the same….

Pandemic Dooms Danish Mink—and Mink Research

[These excerpts are from an article by Christa Leste-Lasserre in the 13 November 2020 issue of Science.]

      …Denmark is seeking to stop the spread of what it deems a dangerous strain of SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, that’s circulating in mink and infecting humans as well. Scientists say mutations in the virus, described this week in a short report, might reduce the efficacy of COVID-19 vaccines….

      The move reflects a growing concern about the spread of SARS-CoV-2 in mink, reported in six countries. Four—Spain, Sweden, Italy, and the United States—have responded by culling populations at affected farms. The Netherlands went further by expediting a complete ban on mink farming….

      The Danish government has an even more troubling concern. SARS-CoV-2 has remained “quite stable” since its emergence in the human population…but spillovers into animals can trigger mutations as the virus adapts to a new host. That has happened in mink….One strain, now called the ΔFVI-spike mutant, has four mutations in the gene coding for the spike proLtein, which helps the virus enter host cells….

      The findings are preliminary, but the government considered them serious enough to order the culling of all 12 million remaining minks in Denmark, the world’s largest mink producer. About 80% of the animals were scheduled to meet their end this month anyway—and become fur—but the decision means breeding and laboratory stocks will be destroyed as well. Mink farming will be banned at least until the end of 2021.

      …mutations in the spike protein “could completely undermine” vaccine efficacy, especially if they occur in the part of the iprotein that binds to the human receptor, as one of the four mutations in ΔFVI does….in the meantime it’s important to keep the strain from spreading….

A Divided Congree Could Narrow Biden’s Ambitious Plans

[These excerpts are from an article by Jeffrey Mervis in the 13 November 2020 issue of Science.]

      Most U.S. researchers and environmental activists were ecstatic when Joe Biden emerged as the winner of the U.S. presidential election on Saturday. They expect him to reverse a host of Trump administration policies they oppose and push for new steps to fight climate change.

      But when Biden is sworn in on 20 January 2021, his ability to advance an ambitious agenda will be constrained by his likely status as the first president in more than 30 years to take office without his party controlling both chambers of Congress. Republicans are favored to preserve their majority in the Senate by winning at least one of the two runoff contests in Georgia, and Democrats will have a narrower majority in the new House of Representatives than during the previous 2 years.

      Biden won’t need a Democratic Congress to undo an array of executive orders issued by President Donald Trump over the past 4 years. The president-elect has said he will rejoin the Paris climate pact on his first day in office and cancel orders that weakened environmental regulations and barred immigrants from many majority-Muslim nations. His new administration will also likely suspend work on proposed regulations it opposes, including several weakening pollution controls. The halt will effectively kill them, but it could take years to reverse regulations that are already finalized.

      Biden will also have substantial opportunity to reverse the “denigration of expertise” that permeated the Trump presidency….The outgoing administration’s disregard for evidence-based policy resulted in attempts to undermine the accuracy of this year’s census, politicize climate and hurricane forecasts, and sideline scientific advisory panels. It also triggered a “crisis of confidence” at federal regulatory agencie….

      To restore that Confidence, Biden will likely populate his administration with well-respected researchers. Most science agencies will be getting new leaders….

      Biden’s choice of a science adviser and head of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy could send a key signal about the status of science in his administration….

      A Republican majority in the Senate would pose a serious obstacle to Biden’s campaign promises aimed at combating climate change, including a $2 trillion green infrastructure initiative. Budget hawks in both parties are also expected to put pressure on their leaders to rein in spending after pandemic relief packages caused the federal deficit to skyrocket. Historically, however, Congress has backed increases in federal research spending even during periods of austerity….

      Lawmakers must also decide whether to complete work on this year’s annual budget. In July, the House approved bills containing healthy boosts for several science agencies, and this week the Senate released its preliminary numbers. If the two bodies can't come to an agreement, the alternative is to continue the current freeze on federal spending and leave the dealmaking to the new president and Congress.

The Disease of Distrust

[These excerpts are from an editorial by Reed V. Tuckson in the 13 November 2020 issue of Science.]

      An uncomfortable question has poked out from the chaos of the coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) crisis—why does health inequity still persist in the United States? American people of color have been disproportionately affected by the pandemic. This, sadly, is no surprise because socioeconomic conditions, health care access challenges, and distrust in health care systems have historically prevented people of color from having healthier lives. As infections and deaths from COVID-19 continue to increase, effective treatments and vaccines are anxiously expected to become available soon. Unfortunately, less attention is being paid to questions about their equitable distribution and uptake. This only contributes to the suspicion felt by minority groups in the United States—particularly people of color—of the medical community. This barrier must come down. Every level of the health enterprise should pledge to reclaim the trust of all populations that is demanded by its professional oaths and missions.

      This legacy of mistrust by people of color in health institutions, health professionals, researchers, and health policy-makers in the United States has existed for decades. This painful reality has been amplified by the actions of the Trump administration and state level officials, and by the behaviors of law enforcement, among others. It should be troubling to any health professional when thousands of African Americans pour into the streets to strenuously assert that their lives matter and that their humanity must be recognized. When people lose trust in the fundamental institutions of their society, decisions regarding the conduct of their lives become altered in both obvious and nuanced ways that affect their well-being….

      I am troubled by just how little the health profession has done to address the persistent misperceptions arising from the nation's history. Every aspect of the health enterprise must build the relationship between patients and health professionals. This includes facilitating inclusive input by disenfranchised communities into health policy formulation, reinforcing the actual and perceived protections and benefits of clinical research, and providing accessible scientific evidence to the public regarding therapeutics such as a COVID-19 vaccine.

      Let this be the moment when the health community speaks to society in a manner that reassures the disenfranchised of the strength of the bond with them. When the human dignity of people is assaulted, health outcomes are affected, thereby requiring health professionals to speak out on matters of social concern. When patients receive care that deviates from best evidence because of bias or socioeconomic hurdles associated with structural racism, advocacy is required to recognize and address the problem. Whether through individual action or the collective work of professional societies, disenfranchised people need to be assured that in matters pertaining to their health, there can be confidence in scientific-based guidance and advice.

      We must all recognize this disease of distrust as the scourge that it is and band together to reclaim this essential characteristic of the health profession: the preservation of the lives of all those who share our time and space. This should be the last time our society has to struggle against the legacy of the past as we fight persistent disparities in health outcomes and tackle this pandemic and the challenges to come.

Waste Away

[These excerpts are from an article by Wudan Yan in the November/December 2020 issue of MIT Technology Review.]

      …That choice solved one problem, but not another: what to do with all the nuclear fuel that San Onofre had used. Its radioactive waste could outlast the human race, with spent fuel components that include plutonium-239, which has a half-life of 24,000 years, and iodine-129, with a half-life of 15.7 million years. But for now, there's no place to store it permanently.

      So SONGS is keeping the rods of spent nuclear fuel in storage holes buried along the seismically active California coastline. They are sitting ducks for the next big earthquake, which is likely to hit within the next century. If the nuclear waste somehow got out, the results would be devastating. Even without a quake, the vaults are “easy to inundate…and ground-water can rise up into them.”

      The plan is to eventually transport the fuel at San Onofre offsite, but where to? The US already has 83,000 metric tons of nuclearwaste, enough to fill a football field about a dozen yards deep—and with two dozen plants currently in the process of decommissioning, the leftovers will keep piling up.

      In 1982, the US Congress enacted the Nuclear Waste PolicyAct, which requires the US Department of Energy to find a geological repository for the spent fuel and take it there. Since 1987, the US government has focused its attention on developing an underground repository at Nevada's Yucca Mountain. However, the site has been apolitical hot potato, with support for it swaying in response to local opposition and state and federal leadership. As a result, the government has so far been unable to fulfill its legal duty to find a long-term home for America’s radioactive waste….

      What if we didn’t have to create new repositories? What if, instead, sites already designated for nuclear material could store it more safely? That was one of the questions that environmentalist Elizabeth Muller started thinking about in 2015. But when she asked experts what could be done with nuclear waste, she got immediate pushback: “People in the business said, ‘There’s no appetite for new ideas in nuclear waste. Nothing ever happens in this industry.’” But, she adds, “just because nothing has ever happened in nuclear waste doesn’t mean you should dismiss it as ‘Nothing’s ever going to happen.’”

      …The company’s top priority is to get the waste below ground; accidents above ground can spell catastrophe. But the Mullers realized that one contentious issue plaguing Yucca Mountain and WIPP was the transportation of nuclear waste across state lines….

      Given the amount of waste already out there, some believe it would be more responsible to simply create less of it. But can that be done without giving up nuclear, one of the best carbon-free options for generating energy?

      One option is to reuse the waste. In France, nuclear waste has been reprocessed since the dawn of the industry in the 1940s. Since 1976, the nuclear power and renewable energy group Orano has processed more than 36,000 metric tons of used fuel, which is responsible for generating 10% of France's nuclear electricity. Orano's plant recycles around 1,100 metric tons per year.

      The process of recycling nuclear fuel takes years. Spent fuel rods are taken from nuclear reactors and placed in a storage pool to cool for two years. When they get to around 570 °F, the fuel rods are packed into steel canisters and brought to the Orano plant in the northwesternmost point in France, in the town of La Hague. After the rods cool below 80 °F, they are cut into smaller pieces before being placed in nitric acid and dissolved. Then the recyclable material—a mixture of uranium and plutonium—gets separated from other fission products in the spent fuel and purified. Finally, it is remixed to produce new fuel.

      The US has developed its own approved technology for reprocessing, but in 2007 the Nuclear Regulatory Commission decreed that it would be too expensive to pursue without an investment from the DOE—which has not materialized.

      Instead, there’s growing interest in developing new kinds of nuclear reactors that produce less waste….

      Reprocessing the uranium can significantly reduce waste….But it doesn’t stop waste from being produced altogether. Levesque and others fear that nuclear waste may be intercepted and used to aid in the proliferation and development of nuclear weapons….

      The future of nuclear waste spans thousands of years, but plants are being decommissioned right now. Until a final resting place can be decided, temporary repositories—like the Toltec facility or Deep Isolation’s proposed boreholes are appealing options for corralling the waste. The alternative is having it sit above ground, where an accident could have much more immediate consequences….

How the Truth Was Murdered

[These excerpts are from an article by Abby Ohlheiser in the November/December 2020 2020 issue of MIT Technology Revie.]

      Hundreds of thousands of Americans are dead in a pandemic. Meanwhile, suburban moms steeped in online health propaganda are printing out Facebook memes and showing up masldess to stores, camera in hand and hell-bent on forcing low-paid retail workers to let them shop anyway. Armed right-wing miliitias are patrolling western towns, embracing online rumors of “antifa” invasions. And US president Donald Trump is amplifying such false narratives as he seeks reelection….

      Many Americans, especially white Americans, have experienced the rise of online hate and disinformation as if they’re on a high bridge over that flooding river, staring only at the horizon. As the water rises, it sweeps away anything that wasn’t able to get such a safe and sturdy perch. Now that bridge isn’t high enough, and even the people on it can feel the deadly currents.

      I think a lot of people believe that this rising tide of disinformation and hate did not exist until it was lapping at their ankles. Before that, the water just wasn’t there—or if it was, perhaps it was a trickle or a stream.

      But if you want to know just how the problem got so big and so bad, you have to understand how many people tried to tell us about it….

      And as some companies began trying to do something about abuse, those involved in such efforts often found themselves becoming the targets of exactly the same kind of harassment….

      These first few months after the 2016 election marked another point in time—much like today—when the flood of disinformation was enough to get more people than usual to notice. Shocked by Trump’s election, many worried that foreign interference and fake news spread on social media had swayed voters….

      …On Twitter, Trump repeatedly used his huge platform to amplify supporters who promoted racist and conspiratorial ideologies….

      The tech companies responded with a running list of fixes….

      But so far the toxic tide has outpaced their ability—or their willingness—to beat it back. Their business models depend on maximizing the amount of time users spend on their platforms. Moreover, as a number of studies have shown, misinformation originates disproportionately from right-wing sources, which opens the tech platforms to accusations of political bias if they try to suppress it. In some cases, NBC News reported in August, Facebook deliberately avoided taking disciplinary action against popular right-wing pages posting otherwise rule-breaking misinformation.

      Many experts believed that the next large-scale test of these companies’ capacity to handle an onslaught of coordinated disinformation, hate, and extremism was going to be the November 2020 election. But the covid pandemic came first—a fertile breeding ground for news of fake cures, conspiracy theories about the virus’s origin, and propaganda that went against common-sense public health guidelines.

      If that is any guide, the platforms are going to be largely powerless to prevent the spread of fake news about ballot fraud, violence on the streets, and vote counts Lcome Election Day….

      One path toward making things better could involve providing more incentive for companies to do something. That might include reforming Section 230, the law that shields social-media companies from legal liability for user-posted content.

      Mary Anne Franks, a professor at the University of Miami who has worked on online harassment, believes that a meaningful reform of the law would do two things: limit the reach of those protections to speech rather than conduct, and remove immunity from companies that knowingly benefit from the viral spread of hate or misinformation….

When More is not More

[These excerpts are from an article by David Rotman in the November/December 2020 2020 issue of MIT Technology Revie.]

      Even before the covid-19 pandemic and the resulting collapse of much the world’s economy, a crisis in capitalism was plainly evident. Unfettered free markets had pushed inequality of income and wealth to extremely high levels in the United States. Slow productivity growth in many rich countries had stunted financial opportunities for a generation. Businesses, if no longer quite oblivious to global warming, seemed impotent to make changes that might slow it.

      And then came the pandemic, with millions losing their jobs, and then the raging wildfires, fueled by climate change, that blazed up and down the US West Coast. All the simmering signs of a dysfunctional economic system suddenly became fully evident, full-blown disasters.

      No wonder many in the US and Europe have begun questioning the underpinnings of capitalism—particularly its devotion to free markets and its faith in the power of economic growth to create prosperity and solve our problems.

      The antipathy to growth is not new; the term “degrowth” was coined in the early 1970s. But these days, worries over climate change, as well as rising inequality, are prompting its reemergence as a movement….

      Though Hickel, an anthropologist, offers a few suggestions (“cut advertising” and “end planned obsolescence”), there’s little about the practical steps that would make a no-growth economy work. Sorry, but talking about plant intelligence won’t solve our woes; it won’t feed hungry people or create well-paying jobs.

      Still, the degrowth movement does have a point: faced with climate change and the financial struggles of many workers, capitalism isn’t getting it done….

      Even some economists outside the degrowth camp, while not entirely rejecting the importance of growth, are questioning our blind devotion to it.

      One obvious factor shaking their faith is that growth has been lousy for decades….

      …slow growth might be the new normal, not some blip, for much of the world.

      Gordon held that growth “ended on October 16, 1973, or thereabouts”….they single out the day when the OPEC oil embargo began; GDP growth in .L the US and Europe never fully recovered….

      In this perspective, growth is not the villain of today's capitalism, but—at least as measured by GDP—it’s an aspiration that is losing its relevance….It’s largely the result of lower birth rates—a shrinking workforce means less output—and a shift to services to meet the demands of wealthier consumers….

      Though the US is the world’s largest economy as measured by GDP, it is doing poorly on indicators such as environmental performance and access to quality education and health care….

      Part of the problem, she suggests, is “a failure to imagine that capitalism can be done differently, that it can operate without toasting the planet.”

      In her perspective, the US needs to start measuring and valuing growth according to its impact on climate change and access to essential services like health care….

      Turning such a strategy into reality will depend on politics. And the reasoning of academic economists…is not likely to be popular politically—ignoring as it does the loud calls for the end of growth from the left and the self-confident demands for continued unfettered free markets on the right.

      But for those not willing to give up on a future of growth and the vast promise of innovation to improve lives and save the planet, expanding our technological imagination is the only real choice.

Recognizing the Work of Women

[These excerpts are from a book review by Jesss Miller-Camp in the 6 November 2020 issue of Science.]

      The history of vertebrate paleontology, like that of other scientific disciplines, has traditionally been told and shaped through a masculine filter….The book is the first major effort to bring the work of several centuries’ worth of silenced people to light. Any such endeavor will inevitably have gaps, but it will also serve as a reference for future projects—particularly with regard to premodern individuals, details about whom are often much harder to track down.

      Rebels, Scholars, Explorers can perhaps best be thought of as a three-part work. In the first section, the authors offer a broad overview of the often hostile climate within which women in vertebrate paleontology have long operated. In the second, they present short biographical sketches of a sampling of women throughout the field’s history. In the third, they provide an assessment of where things currently stand and where we might go from here….

      A number of the biographical sketches also contain anecdotal gems. Taphonomist Kay Behrensmeyer's, for example, references her nonchalance about a venomous green mamba at her field site in Cameroon. And Elizabeth (Betsy) Nicholls’s entry notes how, at the age of 12, she wrote to renowned naturalist Roy Chapman Andrews to ask if girls could be paleontologists—and how she kept his encouraging reply as a treasured token.

      The inclusion of a chapter on modern individuals whose careers are not primarily in original research is refreshing, given academia’s general habit of ignoring such contributors….

      It was incredible and heartening to see, throughout the book, so many citation-rich sections exclusively referencing works Ied by women. The authors’ account of vertebrate paleontology in the Soviet Union, for example, discusses the work of a host of women studying Paleozoic fishes. Such passages make stark the extent to which the contributions of women are often overlooked….

      The book’s final chapter begins to address intersectionality by discussing the additional challenges faced by women paleontologists who are also ethnic minorities. Here, Anusuya Chinsamy-Turan’s account of the restrictions placed on her during South Africa’s apartheid was particularly poignant. However, the authors' handling of transgender issues, another intersectional identity, is disappointing….

How the Horse Powered Human Prehistory

[These excerpts are from an article by Andrew Curry in the 6 November 2020 issue of Science.]

      Until now, the only accounts of the Xiongnu came from their enemies. Chinese records from 2200 years ago describe bow these fierce mounted archers from the wide-open steppes of today's Mongolia clashed with armies in what is now northwestern China. Their onslaughts spurred the Chinese to build what would become known as the Great Wall of China on their northern border, as protection against the mounted nomads. They also started to raise cavalry armies of their own.

      The equestrian empire of the Xiongnu left no written records. But biology is now filling out their story, and those of other Central Asian cultures in antiquity….

      Horses were probably domesticated by the Botai culture around 3500 B.C.E. near what is modern Kazakhstan….Horses may have been mainly used for meat and milk at first, and later began to pull wheeled chariots….

      Genetic studies of Western European populations have shown that around 3000 B.C.E., the Yamnaya—mobile herders of cattle, sheep, and goats—pushed west from the steppes of what is today Russia and Ukraine and triggered a dramatic genetic turnover in Europe. Skeletons from Bronze Age Mongolia had shown the Yamnaya also moved east and introduced their dairy-oriented pastoralist lifestyle there. But they left no lasting genetic traces in Mongolia, the oldest samples in the new study show.

      The ancient DNA does show that 1000 years later, another group from the steppes, called the Sintashta, left a lasting imprint. They also brought fateful cultural changes to Mongolia’s grasslands, as earlier archaeological studies had shown. Starting in about 1200 B.C.E., equestrian innovations including selective breeding for size and endurance, plus bridle bits, riding pants, any even early saddles….

      Mongolians of the time were obviously riding horses….horse skeletons buried around 350 B.C.E. in the Tian Shan mountains, now part of China’s Xinjiang province, show bone abnormaities from riding, including spinal damage from the weight of a rider and changes to the bones of the mouth from bits and bridles….

      Not long after, the Xiongnu emerged. They translated their skills on horseback into a sophisticated means of waging war and organizing an empire over vast distances. Starting in about 200 B.C.E., the Xiongnu marshalled nomadic tribes from across Eurasia into a formidable force, turning the steppes into a political center rivaling neighboring China….

      Jeong’s study of DNA from 60 human skeletons from the Xiongwa's 300-year-run shows how the region was transformed into a multiethnic empire. After more than 1000 years in which three distinct, stable human populations lived side by side on the Mongolian steppe, genetic diversity rose sharply around 200 B.C.E. Populations from western and eastern Mongolia mixed with each other and with people carrying genes from as far away as present-day Iran and Central Asia….

      The results suggest mastery of the horse made possible stunning long-distance voyages on Central Asia's sea of grass. Archaeological finds in the graves of Xiongnu elites, such as Roman glass, Persian textiles, and Greek silver, had suggested distant connections. But the genetic evidence suggests something more than trade. Eleven Xiongnu-period skeletons showed genetic signatures similar to those of the Sarmatians, nomad warriors who dominated the region north of the Black Sea, 2000 kilometers across the open steppe from Mongolia….

      In the future, researchers hope the genomes will help reveal how the mysterious nomad empire worked….

‘A Very, Very Bad Look’ for Remdesivir

[These excerpts are from an article by Jon Cohen and Kai Kupferschmidt in the 6 November 2020 issue of Science.]

      October was a good month for Gilead Sciences, the giant U.S. manufacturer of antivirals. On 8 October, the company inked an agreement to supply the European Union with its drug remdesivir as a treatment for COVID-19—a deal potentially worth more than $1 billion. Two weeks later, on 22 October, remdesivir became the first COVID-19 drug approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA). The decisions mean Gilead can cash in big in two major markets, both with soaring COVID-19 cases.

      But they baffled scientists who have closely -watched the clinical trials of remdesivir unfold over the past 6 months—and who have many questions about its worth. At best, one large, well-designed study found that remdesivir, which must be infused intravenously, modestly reduced the time to recover from COVID-19 in hospitalized patients with severe illness. A few smaller studies found no impact on the disease whatsoever, and none has found that the antiviral reduces patients’ level of SARS-CoV-2, the causative virus. Then, on 15 October, the fourth and largest study delivered what some believed was a coup de grace: The World Health Organization’s (WHO’s) giant Solidarity trial showed that remdesivir does not reduce mortality or the time COVID-19 patients take to recover.

      …Gilead., for its part, acknowledges it had seen an early draft of the Solidarity results before signing the EU deal. But Gilead has aggressively challenged the validity of the data, in part because the study was done in countries with widely varying health care standards.

      That criticism has angered Solidarity investigators. Half the patients who received remdesivir were treated in Europe and Canada, WHO notes, and the others were not necessarily in countries with substandard health care….

      …In August, a Gilead-sponsored study showed patients with moderate pneumonia treated for 5 days with remdesivir improved more quickly than those who received standard care, but oddly, those treated for 10 days did not Nevertheless, shortly afterward, FDA expanded remdesivir’s EUA to include all hospitalized COVID-19 patients….

      Many scientists expected WHO’s Solidarity trial—which had 2750 patients on remdesivir, about three times as many as all other published trials put together—to resolve the drug’s worth. Conducted in 30 countries, Solidarity compared remdesivir and three other repurposed drugs with each other and the standard of care. (Unlike the NIH and Chinese trials, it did not use a placebo.) None of the drugs lowered mortality among hospitalized patients, ft found, and the investigators also noted that remdesivir did not affect “the duration of hospitalization” or whether COVID-19 patients required ventilators.

      Solidarity described the results to FDA representatives on 10 October and in a preprint posted 5 days later. Butl week after that, FDA approved the drug, having reviewed data only from the NIH study and two Gilead-sponsored trials. It had ignored the Solidarity data as well as the findings in China….

      At the same time, the trials have not ruled out the possibility of harmful side effects. In late August, WHO noted a disproportionately high number of reports of liver and kidney problems in patients on remdesivir. And the European Medicines Agency (EMA) said last month that its safety committee had begun to assess reports of acute kidney injuries in some patients taking the drug….

Gradually, then Suddenly

[These excerpts are from an editorial by H. Holden Thorp in the 6 November 2020 issue of Science.]

      Racism, climate denial, and coronavirus disease 2019 (COV1D-19) are major crises standing in the way of a prosperous future for the United States, and resolution of all three could be enabled by science that is persistently ignored….The resistance of US. policy to science has followed a similar path: It gradually built up over 40 years, beginning with the election of Ronald Reagan, but suddenly reached a tipping point in the chaos of 2020. Will the path to resolution also be gradual and then sudden, and if so, at what cost?

      A saying incorrectly attributed to Winston Churchill holds that Americans always do the right thing but only after all other possibilities have been exhausted. Whatever the source, the idea lives on because it resonates and is no more apparent than in the failure of the United States to aggressively deal with 400 years of racial injustice. Slavery ended, but only after a civil war and decades of delay. The civil rights movement created important positive change, but only after civil rights leaders Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and John Lewis boxed in President Lyndon Johnson so that he had little choice but to champion legislation or be associated by history with staunch segregationist George Wallace. Will people of color in the United States have to endure yet more violence from white supremacists before the next inflection toward racial justice?

      As for confronting climate change, the prospects seem distant. Support for climate science has been steadily undermined by politicians catering to businesses dependent on fossil fuels and by religious conservatives suspicious of science because it argues for evolution. When California’s Secretary for Natural Resources Wade Crowfoot challenged President Donald Trump on climate change, the president laughed and said, “I don’t think science knows, actually.” Perhaps Trump knew he was saying something untrue but that many Americans agree with. Will wholesale environmental destruction have to occur before the United States does something about climate change?

      When it comes to COVID-19, White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows admitted, “We’re not going to control the pandemic,” making clear that Trump’s only strategy is to wait for therapeutics and vaccines to soften the blow. Although prospects for both look promising, we are months, if not a year away from reasonable supplies of either….

      Now that so many possibilities have been tried and exhausted, can science help push the country toward resolving these issues? Science must deal with the systemic racism that persists in our enterprise. There are scientifically sound measures that could promote greater racial justice in America, but the scientific community is in no position to advocate for racial justice if its own house is not in order, and that requires difficult soul-searching about the underrepresentation of racial and ethnic groups as well as norms and practices of science that are not inclusive. Scientists must continue to speak out. Skepticism of the peril of COULD I9 has brought forth the response of science in ways never before seen. Scientists must hold on to that voice once the world gets past the pandemic. The old ideal of keeping politics out of science has not served the United States well. And scientists must continue to do the best science. Eventually, society will ask for help. Let’s make sure science has the goods when they do.

“I Burned with Indignation”

[These excerpts are from an article by Anna Nowogrodzki in the November/December 2020 issue of MIT News.]

      In 1892, Hannah Knox Luscomb took her five-year-old daughter, Florence, to hear Susan B. Anthony speak. The speech made such an impression on Florence that she always began her life story with this moment, which inspired her long career as an activist. She would begin as a college student, working in concert with a group of MIT alumnae who played key roles in the quest to earn women the right to vote.

      Having been raised by her mother to develop what she called “an independence of mind,” Luscomb set her sights on attending MIT when she finished high school. “Most of my boy classmates were going to MIT,” she later recalled thinking. “Why shouldn’t I go?” So she enrolled at the Institute to study landscape architecture, and with three of her male classmates, she walked six miles every day from Allston to MIT’s Boston campus and back.

      Although she was one of just 12 women among 1,200 students, Luscomb described MIT as “a preview of heaven.” When a male student released a mouse under her seat in a lecture, she calmly pronounced it a nice-looking mouse. Nor was she fazed by the inhospitable reception MIT gave to suffrage activism….

      Already a fiery and persuasive public speaker by the time she entered MIT, Luscomb became known for her open-air speeches. While still a student, she volunteered to speak in rural towns on trolley tours sponsored by local women’s suffrage groups. Wherever the trolley would stop, she'd disembark and deliver an impassioned speech while standing on top of a Moxie box borrowed from the nearest drugstore.

      Fellow suffragist Katharine Dexter McCormick, Class of 1904, also took part in such trolley tours….in their stop in Lawrence, Massachusetts, they went up in a hot air balloon and rained leaflets on the crowd. /p>

      In their quest to convince women they deserved a voice in democracy, the MIT suffragists were undaunted by naysayers….

      As they sought to combat that indif-ference, the suffragists were not afraid to trample on convention. When police tried to block McCormick from speaking on Nantasket Beach, she waded into the ocean and gave her speech as the water lapped around her knees….

      Page wasn’t the only MIT alumna to wield her pen in support of suffrage. Eugenia Brooks Frothingham (Class of 1899), a well-known novelist, published an essay titled “Fears of the Anti-Suffragist” in 1914. And when Luscomb earned her MIT degree in 1909, she joined the Waltham-based architectural firm of fellow MIT suffragist Ida Annah Ryan, Class of 1905, and together they sponsored a women’s edition of the Waltham daily paper in 1913. (In 1906, Ryan had been the first woman to earn a master of science degree from the Institute and the first woman in the country to earn a master’s in architecture; hers was one of the country’s first women’s architectural firms, specializing in municipal buildings and workers’ housing.)….

      Six months before the passage of the 19th Amendment in 1920 gave women the right to vote, McCormick cofounded the League of Women Voters with Carrie Chapman Catt, becoming its first vice president. Later in life, she would fund the development of the birth control pill and the construction of MIT’s McCormick Hall, providing the first housing for women at the Institute.

      Meanwhile, the indefatigable Luscomb found many other causes to fight for, protesting McCarthyism, the Vietnam War, and nuclear weapons….

COVID-19’s Sunny Side

[These excerpts are from an article by David L. Chandler in the November/December 2020 issue of MIT News.]

      As covid-19 brought travel and commerce to a standstill, air pollution cleared significantly enough to boost the performance of solar panels. In Delhi, one of the world’s smoggiest cities, output from solar installations increased more than 8%....

      …Using pollution data collected at the US embassy and meteorological data collected by monitors at the solar installations, they had concluded that pollution generally reduced output by about 10%.

      To assess the pandemic’s impact, they compared the data from before and after India went into mandatory lockdown on March *, and also compared this with data from the previous three years. Pollution was down by about 50% after the shutdown, they found, and total solar output increased by 8.3% in late March and 5.9% in April—three to four times the typical fluctuations.

      An 8% increase might not sound like much, Buonassisi says, but “the margins of profit are very small for these businesses.” The findings demonstrate, he says, that the very act of using more solar electricity to displace dirtier fossil fuels makes the solar systems more efficient: putting solar panels on one’s house is “not only putting money in your pocket, but it’s also helping everybody else out there who already has solar panels installed, as well as everyone else who will install them over the next 20 years.”

EDF Racks Up New Legal Wins against the Trump Agenda

[These excerpts are from an article by Joanna Foster in the Fall 2020 issue of Solutions.]

      …A recent MIT study found that around half of premature deaths in the United States related to poor air quality are due to interstate air pollution. Communities of color are disproportion-ately affected.

      One of the most dangerous forms of interstate pollution is ground-level ozone, or smog. Smog forms when in-dustrial emissions react with heat and sunlight in the air. Nearly 40% of Americans live in areas with unhealthy levels of ozone pollution, which can cause and exacerbate chronic respiratory diseases like asthma. It can scar the lungs and cause premature death and is particularly harmful to children.

      Despite the proven, and staggering, public health burden of interstate air pollution, the EPA refused New York's recent request for help reducing smog-forming pollution from out of state. EDF and our allies fought back and won, and the EPA is under court order to consider New York’s petition.

      New York sought relief under the Good Neighbor provision of the Clean Air Act from the biggest upwind polluters, but the EPA mired the request in red tape. The District of Columbia Circuit Court agreed with us, saying the EPA “demanded likely unattainable standards of proof…."

      New York’s petition, which the EPA must now consider, would broaden the range of interstate pollution sources to which the Good Neighbor provision could apply….

      The success in defending against interstate air pollution was just one in a streak of four resounding victories for the environment by EDF and allies in a single week this summer. The others are:

      Our successful defense of an Obama-era rule designed to create an even playing field for energy storage to compete with fossil fuel generators….

      A victory that upheld California’s authority to coordinate with Quebec to cut climate pollution through a linked climate pollution reduction program….

      A court ruling to vacate the administration’s rollback of the 2016 Methane Waste Prevention Rule….

      After nearly four years of relentless attacks on health and environmental protections, the administration has failed to complete and successfully defend in court a rollback of any major climate and clean air safeguards….

      In fact, whereas previous administrations typically won about 70% of their regulatory law-suits, the Trump administration has lost 85% —and 90% when it comes to environmental suits….

      The success of EDF and allies in disrupting and delaying the administration's deregulatory agenda means that many major rollbacks face ongoing litigation, while other rollbacks promoted in the first weeks of the administration are still struggling to be finalized. This is important, as any rule finalized within the last 60 legislative days of a presidential term, is vulnerable to repeal under the Congressional Review Act. A weapon once wielded by Trump to cut down environmental progress could eventually be repurposed to repair and rebuild.

      Yet even as the clock ticks down the final days of his first term, Trump continues to escalate his appalling attacks.

      In July, the administration announced changes to weaken the Magna Carta of environmental law— the National Environmental Policy Act. NEPA was signed into law by President Nixon 50 years ago with huge bipartisan majorities. The act enshrines environmental review and public comment. It gives communities a voice in the planning of pipelines, industrial activities and some power plants and ensures they can protect themselves from dangerous or poorly designed federal projects.

      The new changes strike at the heart of NEPA: they fast-track environmental studies, recklessly ignore climate impacts and exempt certain projects from any environmental impact assessment….

      With the climate crisis growing deeper every day and a deadly pandemic worsening the burden of polluted air, halting the administration's hasty and half-baked deregulatory agenda is simply not enough.

      Moving past the destruction of the past four years, to secure a safe climate and healthy air for all Americans, is the vast job that awaits….

A Profound Plan to Save the Seas

[These excerpts are from a book review by Mary Ellen Hannibal in the 30 October 2020 issue of Science.]

      …Instead of regulating individual fisheries or putting boundaries around select areas of the ocean, we need to protect the whole thing.

      The ocean waters that make Earth habitable for humans are becoming increasingly polluted with plastics and chemicals; they are acidifying and warming. They are also losing species at a rate that could drive many to extinction. The profound interconnectivity of ocean organisms means that negative impacts are amplified throughout the food web. But, according to Rowan Wright, the biggest problem many ocean denizens face is a shortage of food. Humanity is eating it all. In 2018, the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations reported 4.6 million fishing vessels in operation, harvesting two-thirds of commercial stocks to capacity and the final third in biologically unsustainable numbers.

      Science has long shown the negative im-pacts of lower-trophic-level overharvests on 1.- the rest of the food web….In Antarctica, we harvest krill—small planktonic crustaceans near the bottom of the food chain—for use in health supplements and fish-farm feed. Krill are eaten by a wide panoply of seabirds, by invertebrates such as squid, and by fish. They are also an important part of the whale diet. Take out the krill, and many other species go hungry; eventually, the ecosystem will collapse.

      Removal of top predators likewise has negative impacts on the process, function, and resilience of the ecosystem….Humans like to eat bluefin tuna, for example, which have been hunted nearly to extinction.

      As Rowan Wright probes catch limits putatively designed to prevent collapse of the fishery, she finds that, often, these limits are set well above those recommended by experts….

      Oceans are vulnerable to what Garrett Hardin memorably called “the tragedy of the commons,” wherein individuals fail to act in accordance with the common good and collectively exploit a shared resource….This is particularly true of the high seas, where both the lack of sovereign jurisdiction and technological advances have allowed humanity to penetrate the ocean’s farthest reaches, leading to the decimation of harvests even in the most remote waters.

      Rowan Wright’s solution to the current plight of the seas is to reinvigorate existing international laws according to' economist Elinor Ostrom’s principles for good commons governance….

      As she sets out to aggregate the various treaties and agreements that address human impacts on the ocean, Rowan Wright is surprised to learn that “virtually all the seas and oceans in the whole world are already protected by international law.” The comprehensive United Nations effort—called, simply, the Law of the Sea—is an existing treaty signed by 180 countries (the United States is notably absent), which covers most of the bases necessary to mitigate damage to the ocean, from catch-size• limits to guidelines for minimizing pollution.

      The problem, argues Rowan Wright, is lax enforcement and apathy. Sovereignties are inconsistent and self-serving when it comes to upholding the rules to which they have agreed, and we have not put pressure on our governments to do better….

The Vibrant Lives of Neanderthals

[These excerpts are from a book review by Emma Pomeroy in the 30 October 2020 issue of Science.]

      Over the past several decades, many academic and popular writers have attempted to narrow the long-entrenched gulf between humans and Neanderthals, focusing, for example, on the misinterpretations and racist presumptions of the 19th and early 20th centuries out of which the dim view of our evolutionary cousin arose, or on more recent paleoanthropological, archaeological, and genetic evidence suggesting that they interbred with our ancestors and displayed a range of sophisticated-behaviors. In her new book, Kindred, Rebecca Wragg Sykes nevertheless brings something new to this discussion.

      The book’s scope is impressive, spanning from the initial discoveries and interpretations of Neanderthals to the diverse aspects of their biology and behavior, including their childhoods, lifestyles, technologies, art, and approaches to death….

      A recurring perspective in Kindred is that diversity can and should be expected in Neanderthal behavior, given their existence over hundreds of thousands of years and their vast geographical range. The culture of groups separated by space or time would likely have seemed just as foreign (had they met) as it does when we encounter unfamiliar cultures today….

      Wragg Sykes evaluates the available evidence on Neanderthals with empathy and even-handedness, revealing the group to be less “them” and more “us.” She rejects aggression-centered narratives that have previously shaped our interpretations of Neanderthal interactions with each other and with human ancestors, and she convincingly argues that we must recognize the potential role of other characteristics, including cooperation, sharing, and social bonds, in shaping their lives.

      Wragg Sykes takes a similarly considered approach in discussing why Neanderthals went extinct. Rather than framing the question in terms of winners and losers, or superior and inferior species, she evaluates modern humans and Neanderthals in parallel, comparing the successes and shortcomings of each. While it is true that Neanderthals are the ones that went extinct, our story is not one of unmitigated success, she notes. Modem humans did not successfully settle in Europe until long after we evolved in Africa and reached Asia, for example, and those earliest modem humans in Europe were eventually replaced by later waves of migration. Meanwhile, the fact that Neanderthals existed for around 350,000 years hardly suggests failure. We, too, may yet succumb to environmental challenges or bring about our own downfall….

Denisovan DNA Found in Cave in Tibetan Peninsula

[These excerpts are from an article by Ann Gibbons in the 30 October 2020 issue of Science.]

      For today’s Buddhist monks, Baishiya Karst Cave, 3200 meters high on the Tibetan Plateau, is holy. For ancient Denisovans, extinct hominins known only from DNA, teeth, and bits of bone found in another cave 2800 kilometers away in Siberia, it was a home. Last year, researchers proposed that a jawbone found long ago in the Tibetan cave was Denisovan, based on its ancient proteins….

      After working from dusk to dawn while temperatures outside plunged to -18°C, then covering traces of their dig every morning, the scientists' persistence paid off….mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA) gleaned not from fossils, but from the cave sediments themselves. Precise dates show the Denisovans took shelter in the cave 100,000 years and 60,000 years ago, and possibly as recently as 45,000 years ago, when modern humans were flowing into eastern Asia….

      The presence of Denisovan DNA in the genomes of living people across Asia suggested these ancient humans were widespread. But the partial jaw from Baishiya Karst Cave was the first fossil evidence….

      Those questions are likely to fade. The dig…took many sediment samples and found charcoal from fires, 1310 simple stone tools, and 579 pieces of bone from animals including rhinos and hyenas….

      The dates for the older sediments seem highly reliable….And by showing DNA and dates can be gleaned from the same sediment samples, the work opens “"a new era of molecular caving….”

      The charcoal in the cave shows its occupants built fires. They also used simple stone tools, and, from the cave's high opening, must have spied on animals grazing in the meadows below. Some may also have been on the lookout for modern humans, who were in the region by 40,000 years ago.

      Homo sapiens must have met and mated with two populations of Denisovans—one in mainland Asia and one in Southeast Asia….

      The Denisovans bequeathed a particular genetic gift to modern Tibetans: a “super-athlete” variant of a gene, called EPAS1, that helps red blood cells use oxygen efficiently and is found in Denisovans from Denisova Cave. Zhang and her colleagues think the Tibetan Plateau Denisovans may have been adapted to life at high altitude, and that EPAS1 may have spread widely among them, before they handed it on to modem Tibetans.

      But molecular dating suggests EPAS1 spread rapidly only in the past 5000 years. And natural selection would have favored that gene variant only in people who lived at high altitude year-round….

It’s Just Louder this Time

[These excerpts are from an editorial by H. Holden Thorp in the 30 October 2020 issue of Science.]

      As if there were any doubt that U.S. President Donald Trump has no respect for scientists, he now refers to public health scholars as “Fauci and all these idiots.” That's how he’s describing experts in virology, immunology, epidemiology, and infectious disease. Never mind that after recovering from coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19), Trump suddenly became excited about future vaccines and “Regeneron,” which is what he calls monoclonal antibodies in general….Apparently, no one told the president that scientists from these same fields—many of whom live in “Democrat-run cities” or college towns and are immigrants who wouldn’t be here under his, policies—created these drugs and carried out the decades of science that made them possible. This paradox of loving the drug but hating the science is nothing new It’s just louder this time.

      …In the 1970s, President Richard Nixon worked bard to pass important pieces of public health and environmental legislation that were approved with large bipartisan majorities in Congress. Then, when Ronald Reagan arrived as a candidate in the 1980 election, he advocated teaching creationism in public schools and mocked environmental science and regulation. In his brand of conservatism, the free market and American exceptionalism could not coexist with a shared responsibility for caring for the planet or its inhabitants.

      Vice President Mike Pence is carrying on Reagan’s tradition. In a widely viewed speech on the House floor when he was a member of Congress, Pence extolled “intelligent design.” He cited a then-recent study of new fossils, which enhanced our understanding of how human life unfolded on Earth, as evidence that evolution was invalid because scientists were always changing theories when new data were obtained. He was criticizing scientists for doing science….If Pence thinks we can’t change our understanding with new data, then we'd have to go back to breathing phlogiston and being orbited by the Sun.

      The paradox has played out for years. Many Republicans in Congress have been strong advocates for science funding, especially for the National Institutes of Health, although some simultaneously espouse antiscience views and embrace creationism. Biology is the study of evolution, and biomedicine is applied evolution: Why would creationists spend money to study and apply this heresy? Because they want their new medicines. They want to tell their constituents that they are fighting diseases that are harming their families. Arguing for science funding by promising new cures has been a winning political strategy for the 75 years that the United States has had federally funded science.

      A recent survey from the Pew Research Center found that only 20% of the political right has “a lot” of confidence in scientists. Yet when folks at this end of the political spectrum get sick, they want the best treatments that secular academic medicine can provide. The consequences of this are profound and especially apparent in the COVID-19 crisis. The same politicians who are criticizing public health guidance are praising vaccines and antibodies without acknowledging that they come from the same principles and researchers as masks and social distancing.

      When the presidential election is over, science will face an important choice. Should the scientific community try to get the missing 80% of the ideological right to understand its people and its methods? Or should science write it off as a lost cause and continue to take the funding while providing the outstanding new medicines?

Controlling the Global Thermostat

[These excerpts are from an article by Jonathan Shaw in the November-December 2020 issue of Harvard Magazine.]

      Climate changes may be the most inexorable catastrophe the human species has ever faced. What to do about the warming is dominated by uncertainties—and a pervasive inability to agree on who should do what in response. Can humanity agree to meet its energy needs with carbon-free renewables, such as wind and solar power—and if so, how quickly could the transition be made, and feasibly paid for? How high will sea level rise by 2050? By zoo? Given rich. nations and poor ones, and public and political attention spans measured in a few years (if that long), rather than decades or centuries, what mechanisms exist to make collective decisions on long time scales, and to allocate the resulting pain and gains?

      These are all important questions—but even they ignore a central certainty that no one appears to be addressing: what Dan Schrag calls “climate change’s dirty little secret.” “Even if we could become carbon-neutral tomorrow,” says the director of the Harvard University Center for the Environment, “the climate will keep changing for thousands of years, the ice sheets will keep melting, and the seas will continue to rise.”

      …Atmospheric carbon dioxide (CO2), the chief global-warming agent by volume, is increasing rapidly. In Ivlay 1960, the gas made up 317 parts per million (ppm) of earth’s atmosphere as measured at Mauna Loa, Hawaii, up from preindustrial levels of about 280 ppm; by this May, as humans continued to release more than 35 billion metric tons of CO2 annually, the figure had risen to 417 ppm—and during that period, average temperatures over land increased about 2.5 degrees Fahrenheit. The current, accelerating rate of CO2 increase is 2.5 ppm per year: loo times faster than at any period in Earth's geological history, straining the ability of ecosystems to adapt.

      CO2 is also persistent. A thousand years from now—30 human generations—more than half the heat-trapping carbon dioxide that humanity has pumped into the atmosphere since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution will still be there. Twenty thousand years from now, says Schrag, a third of that CO2 will remain. As the gas traps heat arriving from the sun, temperatures will continue to increase progressively above the natural, preindustrial levels which the human species has come to expect. Unless the process can be reversed—not just slowed—the globally transformative effects of human-induced warming will thus extend across a geological time scale that has come to be known among scientists as the anthropocene: the era of extinctions in which human action plays the determining role.

      Profound changes caused by the seemingly modest increase in average temperature to date have already begun: heat waves, wildfires, the spread of diseases, and increasing coastal erosion and inundation. The Greenland ice sheet is melting, and global sea levels are rising at increasing rates attributable to meltwater and thermal expansion of the oceans themselves. Climate data from the Eocene, 56 million to 35 million years ago, when the atmospheric CO2, concentration was last this high, suggest that this ice sheet probably can’t survive at the temperatures associated with levels above 400 ppm.

      If all 3,000-trillion tons of Greenland ice return to the sea as meltwater (whether over five centuries or lo millennia), the average global sea level will, rise about 23 feet—submerging Lower Manhattan, San Francisco, and Shanghai; most of southern Florida; and large portions of the mid-Atlantic coast. Parts of the West Antarctic ice-sheet, equivalent to an additional 20 feet of sea-level rise, will probably melt on a similar time scale, but could collapse much sooner….The conservative consensus estimate…is that even if the surface temperature increase can be held to 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit), the resulting two-degree world is one that commits to long-term sea-level rise of 39 feet, around the height of a four-story building.

      Two degrees of warming does not seem like much. But buried in that small average increase in temperature are record-breaking extremes, including heat that has begun to make life impossible in some places, driving migrations of hundreds of thousands of pastoral people from Africa’s Sahel—and imminently, millions more. Storms fueled by the excess solar energy in the climate system are becoming more dangerous and frequent. Rising seas already pose an existential threat to island nations in the Pacific and inhabitants of low-lying coastal areas worldwide: 15 million in Bangladesh alone….

      Addressing climate change is hard because it requires collective global action by nations and their citizens on very long time scales….most U.S. politicians tend to consider the issue as a relatively short-term challenge of decarbonizing the domestic economy in the coming decades. They haven’t yet grasped that climate change will continue beyond any human time scale….Emissions are cumulative, and the atmosphere integrates the world, so “unless every major country on Earth" decarbonizes, the effort would be ineffective….”

      “Ronald Reagan merrily told us all that the nine scariest words in the English language were “’I’m from the government, and I’m here to help,’” he sums up, “but it turns out the scariest words in the English language are either ‘We’ve run out of ventilators’ or ‘A hillside behind your house caught on fire’—and neither of those yields to individual solutions. They require working societies.”

      …such measures, combined with higher fuel-economy standards for combustion engines and a tax on carbon in the power sector, could lead to 50 percent reductions of CO2 emissions economy-wide by 2035, relative to 2005, levels.

      Getting to such a 50 percent reduction would require a larger, nearly zero-carbon power grid, to provide the electricity for a vast expansion of electric vehicles. Making this scaled-up, nearly clean grid a reality would require additional “very substantial cost reductions in grid-level storage, to deal with the intermittency of sun and wind,” plus a huge push to construct a national long-distance transmission grid, because the best sites for generating renewable power are far from the major sites of demand….

      …The very last emissions cuts will be the hardest and most expensive: developing carbon-neutral methodsand steel manufacturing, or for production of liquid fuels needed for aviation….

      Based on his experience, Aldy says it is also "politically infeasible" to decarbonize by 2035. It’s not just the cost; inertia also perpetuates the existing energy infrastructure, he explains. In the United States, for example, permitting and siting “"all the transmission lines you would need...takes a really long time.” Furthermore, the global fossil-fuel-burning capital stock—the existing burden of working cars, furnaces, power plants—contains baked in warming (not yet apparent, but predictable based on continued emissions) that is expected to carry e costs. “Even if we don’t build another coal-fired power plant anywhere in the world starting tomorrow, or another gasoline-powered automobile, and just continue to use what we have,” he says, the average global temperature increase will reach at least 1.5 degrees Celsius. The Paris Agreement, signed in 2015, aspired to limit warming to that level, and to keep long-term temperatures well below 2 degrees Celsius. (The Trump administration’s decision to withdraw from the agreement will take ef-fect November 4.)….

      …Even if emissions ceased overnight, the ocean and other carbon sinks that have absorbed vast quantities of anthropogenic CO2 will begin slowly releasing that stored gas into the atmosphere to reach equilibrium, if and when atmospheric concentrations of the gas begin to decline. To reduce atmospheric carbon by 50 ppm in the future, for example, one might have to plan to remove an amount equivalent to too ppm. (The same is true of the excess heat trapped by greenhouse gases, 90 percent of which has been absorbed by the oceans. That stored solar energy will slow efforts to cool Earth in the future.)

      …One version, solar aerosol geoengineering, would involve launching reflective aerosolized particles into the stratosphere from airplanes. The effect would mimic what happened when Mount Pinatubo erupted in 1991, ejecting 20 million tons of sulfur dioxide into the atmosphere. That cooled the Earth by half a degree Celsius from 1991 to 1993.

      Aldy and Zeckhauser describe solar geoengineering as “an awful action” that might nevertheless be needed to help moderate global temperature during a long period of slow decarbonization and could also galvanize greater public support for cutting emissions. Because it is already technically achievable at low cost, and offers the prospect of rapid results, researchers at Harvard and elsewhere have speculated that it could be deployed by a very small number of nations without a consultative global process—by the G-7 nations, for example, or by the United States alongside China or India. At the moment, Aldy points out, nothing in U.S. or international law would prevent such a deployment….

      The aim of solar geoengineering would be to keep Earth’s tem-perature as close to equilibrium as possible….

      Keith’s modeling also suggests that if the process were used to halve warming, that would moderate climate hazards nearly everywhere. Only 1.3 percent of land areas would see a change in water availability—as increased moisture, not as drought. In addition to attenuating global average temperature, this halving of warming would in theory lessen the intensity of tropical cyclones, reduce regional changes in water availability, ease extreme precipitation and extreme temperatures, and even reduce atmospheric carbon concentrations and ocean acidification.

      Ironically, the biggest challenge may be the same one facing decarbonization: global governance….

      …World governments, for example, might agree to cap CO2 at 500 ppm, but miss that target because eliminating the last industrial and aviation uses of fossil fuels is so difficult and expensive. As the cumulative CO2 levels rise higher, more and more particles would need to be injected into the atmosphere to keep the temperature below damaging levels. “And then,” says Stock, “you are seriously addicted.”

      That idea is not farfetched, he argues. The Trump administration, in its first round of fuel-economy standards, projected that CO2 would reach 800 ppm in 2100—and then used that as an argument to lower fuel consumption standards, because burning a little more gasoline would make no difference….

      …He expects, in fact, that people whose fortunes are bound up with oil and gas will try to exploit the prospect of solar geoengineering, using it to argue against emissions cuts….

      “Does humanity need to do solar radiation management?” is not solely a scientific question because any larae-scale intervention will affect all life on Earth….

      Schrag says his view of geoengineering is a little like Churchill’s assessment of democracy: that it is “’the worst form of Government except for all those other forms...’ Taking control of the planet’s thermostat is a terrifying idea. I just think that a lot of people don’t understand that climate change is even more terrifying.”

Life in Full Color

[These excerpts are from an article by April Thames in the Autumn 2020 issue of USC Torjan Family Magazine.]

      I’m biracial—half African American and half white. Growing up, I would see a lot of acts of racism. Being an interracial couple, my mom and dad experienced a lot of discrimination. I knew from a very early age that Blacks were treated much differently than whites. I would hear these rants against Black people because people didn’t know I was Black—I would hear what people were really thinking.

      It’s hard to look back, but I remember feeling that I was being treated differently and not really understanding why. If my dad brought me to school, I got different looks and teachers would react in different ways than if my mom dropped me off….

      My parents also faced judgment and lost friends because of their interracial dynamic. When my mom would become friends with other mothers at the school, they didn't know my father was Black. When they found out, they would no longer associate with her and didn’t want their kids playing with me. I didn’t know any of this was going on when I was younger. I just knew one day I had a friend and the next day I didn’t.

      I think that’s what got me interested in this idea that things you can’t change about yourself—things that are part of your core identity—can also be social threats. It does result in chronic underlying stress. My dad had this stress as a Black man. My mom would worry about how people would treat me because I was half Black and how they would treat her when they saw she was with my dad. Those stressors were there.

      If you talk to any researcher, especially those who study social justice issues, there's usually some kind of personal connection to the work—you need that passion. It’s been fascinating to connect discrimination to health outcomes. In terms of the science, it’s about showing how these experiences are real and affect people.

A Case for “We” in an “I” Country

[These excerpts are from a book review by James A. Morone in the 23 October 2020 issue of Science.]

      In the 1890s, a biracial coalition swept to power in North Carolina, infuriating white supremacists, who primed themselves for the next election. “You are Anglo-Saxons,” shouted former congressman Alfred Moore Waddell to white vot-ers in Wilmington in 1898….Intimidation and violence defeated the coalition, and the day after the election, militiamen led white mobs through the city’s Black neighborhood, killing, burning, and looting….

      …At the turn of the 20th century; the United States suffered from rampant inequality, vicious partisanship, a torn social fabric, and unabashed egoism. Individuals and corporations lunged ahead, the devil take the hindmost. But from that terrible epoch—eerily similar to today—something admirable sprang up and flourished: six decades of steady, albeit imperfect, social amelioration….

      But what was it about the 1960s that cracked a sunny community and turned it back into a selfish, snarling, and segregated land? After much searching, the authors declare that “it is fruitless to look for a single cause.” Nonetheless, a powerful potential cause glints through, and the authors seem repeatedly tempted to settle on it.

      At the height of the civil rights movement, George Wallace, a fiery segregationist, stunned everyone by riding a crude racial backlash to strong showings in the 1964 primaries. The Republican Party, led by Barry Goldwater (in 1964) and Richard Nixon (in 1968 and 1972), cashed in and began to wink at white privilege. Suddenly, the majority of white people stopped voting for Democrats (who averaged just 39% of the white vote in presidential contests between 1976 and 2016)….

      Over the past 50 years, the backlash spread from civil rights to welfare policies (“we” do not want to pay for “them”) to immigration (another raciRlind "them") and, eventually, to all government action, leading some citizens to question the very idea of good policy, science, and expertise. By the 1990s, the political parties were channeling unprecedented tribal division. Democrats embraced all the so-called minorities, while Republicans spoke to racial anxieties. And just as the temperature was rising, in 2005, the US. Census. Bureau predicted a majority-minority nation within a generation, further stoking white fear. Putnam and Garrett return to racial tensions in four different chapters, raising the question of whether it was white racial anxiety that shattered the great American “we.” The authors do not go so far as saying yes, but they lay out enough evidence to allow readers to judge for themselves….

Science, Politics, and Public Health

[These excerpts are from an editorial by William L. Roper in the 23 October 2020 issue of Science.]

      There is an idea on the part of scientists that politics is dirty, and a companion idea on the part of politicians that science, by its continual qualifications and revisions, is, if not irrelevant, then at least out of touch with the constraints of a democracy: What seems optimal from the perspective of science may be impossible to implement in the political arena. The events of the past several months regarding the coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) pandemic make it apparent that for public health to continue to improve the lives of everyone, we must find ways to overcome this mutual distrust.

      …the disease particularly hit marginalized groups in the population. There were major controversies about the safety of the blood supply, about condom distribution and needle exchange programs, and about how to deal with HIV-infected health care workers.

      The biomedical community felt that science and scientists should be making the decisions regarding public health—in other words, “getting politics out of public health.” Policy-makers said that these decisions should not be left to unelected public health experts.

      Many of those same sentiments are being voiced today, during the COVID-19 pandemic. What’s worse now is that many in Washington, DC, and around the country seem to scorn even the idea-of scientific experts. The fact is that each group needs the other—science without politics is impotent, and politics without science is subject to whim and caprice.

      …it is as true today as it was then that the CDC and the other U.S. public health agencies are not infallible. That is especially true regarding new diseases, those without an existing body of knowledge. Early pronouncements often need to be revisited, and frequently revised, as new discoveries are made.

      This year, the CDC has been off the mark more than once and has had to reverse its recommendations. But the solution to this reality is not to belittle and tear down this hugely important agency, but rather to continue the quest for more and better scientific knowledge, and to be willing to implement those insights. But there have been repeated reports of political folks pushing the CDC to alter their scientific judgments to fit a political agenda.

      Politicians should use the product of the scientific process to make careful policy and to design programs that benefit the public's health. And scientists should avoid being drawn into the political fray and being used to try to influence elections. Calling for this mutual respect and joint involvement in the public health process may seem naïve—especially in the wake of the recent scientific problems at the CDC, and also at a time of hyperpolitical division and unprecedented election-year chaos….

      Every American-whether scientist or layperson, whether Republican, Democrat, or Independent—has a stake in getting this science-politics balance right. It is far too important for game playing.

Saving the Poor and Vulnerable

[These excerpts are from an editorial by Sir Ian L. Boyd in the 23 October 2020 issue of Science.]

      Right now, warm surface water is moving into the western Pacific Ocean in the form of a “La Nina.” It is a sentinel for a complex set of connections that drive weather patterns from the Horn of Africa to Botswana and normally presages drought in East Africa. This event soon will be ringing alarm bells within the World Food Programme (WFP). Even as this United Nations-led agency celebrates its well-deserved award of the 2020 Nobel Peace Prize, the relentless challenge of preventing hunger marches on….

      The work of the WFP is the consequence of failure. It has been around since 1961 and has been the global coordinator of nationally based efforts to avert catastrophes with food aid. If it has struggled at times, this is largely because of the debilitating nexus of war, corruption, climate change, and famine. Despite decades of effort to alleviate hunger, the latest estimate is that about 11% of people on the planet (about 820 million people) are suffering chronic under-nourishment. This rises to nearly a quarter of all people in sub-Saharan Africa, and hunger is on the rise in Africa. Progress at reducing undernourishment has stalled de-spite gains through the 1990s and 2000s.

      At this time, when a global pandemic is forcing the rich of the world to adjust their lives—often in minor ways compared with the starving and dispossessed—the Nobel Committee is challenging humanity to act with moral courage and selflessness. Even in good times, the richest of the world are hardly overflowing with generosity….Climate change, a product largely of the accrual I of capital wealth by rich nations, just adds to the asymmetry of stress. The developing world suffers the most from the negative impacts of climate change.

      American philosopher John Rawls saw that addressing the needs of the poor and vulnerable is about more than money—it is mostly about creating conditions under which liberty and opportunity can thrive….It was U.S. President Dwight Eisenhower who asked for the wYP to be established, but the current incumbent of that office has hardly shown such leadership. Nations must act together and act globally. Perhaps the Nobel Committee’s choice was also a poke in the eye for Donald Trump and his tribe.

      …The various national food aid agencies that are coordinated through the WFP are increasingly informed by forecasting of climatic challenges to food production, for instance. The resilience that must be built into sonic of the poorest countries will not come from loans from wealthy and populous countries, which may have a food deficit of their own, or institutions like the International Monetary Fund. It will be built upon self-confident people using open and shared scientific knowledge to pull themselves out of their misery.

Lessons from the Pandemic about Science Education

[These excerpts are from an an article by Andrew Zucker and Pendred Noyce in the October 2020 issue of Phi Delta Kappan.]

      If students in the United States master everything in the Next Generation Science Standards but learn nothing else about science, then they will graduate high school without knowing anything about immunization, viruses, antibodies, or vaccines, or about organintions such as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the World Health Organization. They will never have been asked to investigate such topics as the efficacy of measles vaccine or the risks of vaping. They will never have been asked to read science-related books or articles in the popular press. Nor, for that matter, will they have been taught how to find reliable sources of information about science or how to evaluate and reject scientific misinformation, such as, for example, fringe theories about the origin of the 2019 novel coronavirus. And yet, these same students will have been required to master a host of more technical standards, such as learning to “use mathematical representations to support claims for the cycling of matter and flow of energy among organisms in an ecosystem,” even though few of them will Lever use such knowledge….

      One does not need to be a science expert to recognize that our existing K-12 national science standards omit a host of important topics. In fact, nonexperts — given their broader interest in the societal implications of scientific knowledge — may be better equipped than the experts to spot those omissions. It is often said that war is too important to be left to the generals. One might add that science education is too important to be left to the scientists….

      However, while the NGSS doesn’t prohibit anybody from adding more content to the curriculum, few teachers are able to do so. In practice, most teachers have their hands full trying to integrate all three of these dimensions into every lesson, much less trying to go beyond what the standards require. If a topic isn't included in the NGSS, it’s not likely to be taught at all, no matter how important it may be.

      …early in the process of writing the new standards, the National Science Teaching Association (NSTA), which represents 50,000 science educators, took a firm position on the need for “all students . . . to understand the nature of science and the history of science.” However, the final NGSS document does not mention the name of a single scientist, nor does it expect students to learn about key events in the history of science, such as Galileo's conflict with the church about Earth’s place in the solar system or Jonas Salk’s development of a polio vaccine and his decision to place it in the public domain….

      Similarly, Susan Hockfield…, a former president of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, argues in Science magazine that if the public hopes to “get the most from this scientific golden age,” then it will have to understand the critical roles scientific institutions — such as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC); the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC); the Environment ProtectionAgency (EPA), and the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) — play in sponsoring and conducting scientific investigations and advising policy makers who apply science to vital societal issues….

      These days, roughly 45% of teens say they are “almost constantly” online…, where misinformation is rampant. More Americans get their news from the web than from traditional sources like newspapers and television broadcasts. Still, the NGSS says nothing about how to find reliable science information on the internet or assess scientific claims in the media.

      …Rather than placing so much emphasis on preparing students for college and careers, we argue that its chief goal should be to ensure that all students attain the IL capacity to act as scientifically informed citizens….

      The nation’s schools always face difficult choices about what to teach and how, and that’s true for every field, not just the sciences. A number of years ago, for example, some policy makers rushed to mandate algebra instruction for all 8th-grade students, on the theory that this would put them on track to succeed in college and would improve educational equity. However, critics argued that this mandate was counterproductive, as many students were simply not prepared to take algebra — and subsequent research demonstrated that the critics were correct….

      Before the NGSS can be significantly improved, though, many people and groups will need to speak out in support of change….

      Finally, while some science educators have long seen weaknesses in the Next Generation Science Standards, the world-shaking onset of COVID-19 should make these weaknesses clear to all. Whether at the national, state, or even the local level, science education standards need to be improved to ensure that the nation’s young people become scientifically literate. Democracy depends on. the ability of ordinary citizens to distinguish between credible information and outright falsehoods. The task of establishing appropriate goals for education should be entrusted not just to discplinary specialists but to everyone who wishes to build a strong and healthy society.

Federal Policy and the Push to Privitize Education

[These excerpts are from an article by Patricia Burch in the October 2020 issue of Phi Delta Kappane.]

      Both in the United States and around the world, the 21st century has seen a massive expansion of efforts to privatize educational services that were formerly provided by public agencies and school systems. Guided by the belief that this will make schooling more productive, innovative, and affordable, federal policy makers (Democrats and Republicans alike, but with new urgency under the Trump administration) have taken aggressive steps to deregulate the education marketplace and create strong incentives for public schools to contract with outside agencies (both for-profit and nonprofit) to deliver products and services, typically targeting low-achieving and economically disadvantaged students. Every year as a result, billions of U.S. taxpayer dollars meant for public education pass through private hands.

      …the evidence suggested that these policies and practices were having harmful effects on children living in poverty, Black and Latinx students, students with disabilities, and English learners — the very children who proponents had claimed would benefit from increased privatization.

      Nevertheless, over the subsequent years, federal policies did little to slow the rush to privatize educational services….

      Today, NCLB is remembered mostly for its emphasis on standardized testing and school accountability, but it also made it easier and less risky forprivate companies to sell go o ds andservices to schools and districts, especially those serving students from low-income backgrounds. Under provisions referred to as Supplemental Education Services (SES), for example, NCLB mandated that if schools and districts did not make test score targets, then they had to provide needy students with tutoring, paid for out of a federal pot of money.

      Several years into NCLB, the U.S. Department of Education funded…a national evaluation of SES. While the initiative’s designers had promised that the program would unleash the creativity of private tutoring companies, leading to bold and innovative new approaches to helping struggling students, we found quite the opposite: The evidence showed that most tutoring services provided old-fashioned and low-quality “chalk and talk” instruction and scripted lessons.

      Further, thanks to laissez-faire contracting regulations, private providers had little to no accountability for their poor performance. Many of them continued to receive funding for years in spite of low student attendance, failure to maximize instructional time, wide variations in teacher practice within tutoring programs, and ineffective teaching in general, including numerous cases in which tutors taught materials that did not align with the school's curriculum and/or serve the given students’ needs….

      The great irony here is that plenty of empirical research studies have found that instructional tutoring, when well-designed and implemented, tends to have significant benefits for needy students. Further, before NCLB, most large school districts had well-established tutoring programs in place. However, SES contracting rules excluded many of those district-run programs from serving as providers. In effect, the designers of NCLB (and SES in particular) assumed that most public school officials are incompetent, wasteful, inexperienced, and corrupt and that private providers tend to be innovative, efficient, and morally responsible. Thus, they created a funding process that made it easier for the latter to win contracts….

      As it stands, Google and other big-tech companies are not just competing for public education dollars but also acting to undermine competition and lock in profits for themselves. Given the scale of the K-12 education market, the stakes are exceedingly high, both for the private corporations involved and for the taxpaying public.

      As a means of discouraging such under-the-radar monopolistic practices, the government often imposes hefty fines on bad actors. But for companies the size of Google, even a hundred-million-dollar fine isn’t a real deterrent, any more than the threat of a parking ticket deters one-percenters from parking wherever they like. Thus, while antitrust charges against big-tech companies may provide some leverage for public school educators and advocates hoping to slow the movement to privatize public schooling, they will be far from sufficient to turn the tide.

      …National emergencies have come to be seen as golden opportunities to push for deeper private involvement in public education.

      As the pandemic continues to unfold, this bears watching. Already, COVID-19 has begun to challenge Americans’ assumptions about the nature of public schooling, including where and when it happens. Even before the virus struck, much of the everyday work of schools was conducted online — data collection, communication with parents, class projects, and so on — but now that so many school districts have shut their doors, the online classroom has become, in effect, the primary way many of us experience public education….

      It remains to be seen whether the current shift to remote instruction will prove to be a temporary fix or the beginning of public education’s gradual transformation to largely online teaching and learning. What is obvious already, though, is that as the pandemic forces so many of us online, the boundaries separating public and private have begun to weaken, and the business prospects for online providers have begun to soar.

The Commercial Transformation of America’s Schools

[These excerpts are from an article by Alex Molnar and Faith Boninger in the October 2020 issue of Phi Delta Kappan.]

      Although John Dewey may be the more familiar name to American educators, Edward Bernays, the father of modem public relations and marketing, has an arguably greater influence on today’s schools. During World War I, he worked for the Committee on Public Information, helping the committee sell the Woodrow Wilson administration’s war policies. After the wax, Bernays signed on as “public relations counsel” to an impressive list of America’s most powerful corporations. One notable "success" was his effort on behalf of the American Tobacco Company to increase cigarette smoking among women. As part of this campaign, he persuaded socialites to march down Fifth Avenue in the 1929 New York City Easter Parade proudly smoking “torches of liberty” as a protest for women’s right….

      The issue of how to have a democracy while restraining the mob and maintaining social stability has occupied American political theorists throughout our history. Bernays saw public relations and advertising as important tools of democratic governance in a market economy. But the reality today is that modern mass marketing poses a threat to democratic political institutions in. general and to public education in particular….

      At the end of the 19th century, American industry was, for the first time, able to produce more than Americans could consume. This did not mean that poverty had been abolished, just that more goods and services were available than our society, as it was then structured, could consume. Thus, sellers of goods and services had to find a way to promote and make possible mass consumption of their wares without threatening the position of the existing political and economic elites.

      Education was central to this process….Yet, as Otis Pease…points out in his study of the development of American advertising between 1920 and 1940, the advertising industry was not necessarily interested in facts. Whether an advertisement was literally true or false was mostly irrelevant — what mattered was the psychological impact of the advertisement — the associations it created in the minds of its targets….

      If a powerful, privately controlled institution systematically sets out to undermine people’s ability to make rational judgments, then people become more likely to fall prey to the forces of mass consumerism in commerce and politics….The result is the creation of what David Riesman and his coauthors…term the “lonely crowd” in which people define themselves by their possessions and express their individuality by looking, smelling, and thinking like everyone else.

      …Indeed, the edifice of American mass marketing is built on what Dewey…termed “miseducative experiences,” meaning any experience “that has the effect of arresting or distorting the growth of further experience”….Such experiences limit people's ability to exercise thought and control their own actions….

      The last thing in the world that advertisers want is for a target audience to have self-control. But for Dewey, freedom is expressed through the control of impulse in the service of intelligent purposes….In contrast, advertising deploys a variety of nonrational appeals and attempts to create pseudo-communities based on consumption or the uncritical acceptance of a particular policy or point of view.

      If the methods of modern mass marketing threaten the self-control and judgment of adults, deploying them against children is particularly insidious. No one can seriously suggest that children are rational consumers who have the same power, information, and freedom that adults are said to have to freely enter into contracts for goods and services. Advertising to children is, then, a kind of immoral war on childhood, waged for the profit of adults who should be childhood’s guardians. Furthermore, when advertising is conducted in schools, the immorality is compounded because the power of the state is twisted to the service of special interests, the ethical standing of educators is compromised, and the orientation of the school is shifted toward mis-educative experiences.

      …When Sheila Harty…surveyed 1,250 teachers for her book Hucksters in the Classroom, the responses suggested that approximately half of U.S. teachers used sponsored materials from a wide variety of commercial interests, such as banks, utilities, manufacturers, and food processors. The fox had found a home in the henhouse….

      The marketing imperative was, however, much more powerful than any suggested guidance or voluntary principles, even if the materials offered were lackluster. When Consumers Union…evaluated more than 100 sponsored materials provided by corporations, trade groups, and others, it found the vast majority to be highly commercial, educationally trivial, or both….

      Whatever the medium, the corrosive impact of marketing on children and their education remains the same. As targets of marketing, students are not treated as persons, as John Dewey would have understood the term. Instead, they are treated as objects to be exploited for the benefit of others. It goes without saying that objectified students are going to be mis educated.

      …However, there appears to be no research evidence that virtual education produces student outcomes superior to or even as good as conventional, face-to-face approaches to teaching and learning….

      To be sure, the COVID-19 pandemic has created a new need for virtual technologies, but the fact remains that little to no research exists supporting their educational efficacy. On the contrary their use is tied to significant threats to the integrity of schools' curriculum and instruction programs, their student assessments, and their data collection and record-keeping practices….

      Any app or website can easily incorporate code that collects IP addresses and other information, including the pages, content, or ads children see or click on; what they download; what games they play; and what device they are using, with what operating system and settings, and so on. And when a contract defines a company as a “school official,” the company can access even more data, including student data that is part of school data systems….

      Corporations that gather this information may claim to refrain from using it for commercial gain, but there are no guarantees….

      Even when companies claim to use the information they collect simply to improve websites, apps, and services and to personalize users’ experience, they often connect children to third-party sites (such as YouTube) that collect data for advertising purposes while denying responsibility for any use a third party might make of children’s or teachers’ data….Companies may also share aggregated and “de-identified” data without notice to users…, despite evidence that such “de-identified” data is easily reidentified….

      Further, although companies may promise compliance with U.S. data privacy laws, once data cross international borders, companies may no longer be held to the laws of the country where the data were originally gathered….

      Proprietary digital educational applications serve the business needs of the people who pay for them, not the educational needs of students who use them. In addition to potentially compromising children’s privacy for purposes not in their interest, digital educational applications put important educational decisions (such as whether a child has attained a specific competency or grade level) in private hands. This can distort pedagogy in ways that stifle students’ learning and stunt their ability to grow into fulfilled, competent adults, and engaged citizens.

      If the capacity of the United States to renew its democracy rests on an educated citizenry making well-informed public policy decisions, as Dewey believed, then every American is poorly served when public schools turn their curricula into an educational flea market open to anyone who has the money to set up a table. Yet that is precisely what the 40-year assault on funding for public education and repeated calls for “cooperation” with the business community have pushed schools to do. The COVID-19 crisis is a golden opportunity for well-heeled hucksters to further integrate schools into the corporate digital marketing machine fueled with student data. If Mark Zuckerb erg has taught the world anything, it is that data are fungible. And that “free” products offered by opaque and unaccountable organizations come at a very high social cost.

Tales from Times Long Past

[These excerpts are from a book review by Barbara J. King in the 16 October 2020 issue of Science.]

      Why, unlike other primates, did our ancestors begin to walk upright? What factors enabled Homo erectus to develop new cultural practices and, later, to give rise to our own species? As paleoanthropologist Meave Leakey explains in The Sediments of Time, understanding climate change is key in answering such questions….It serves as an invitation to grasp how climate cycles have driven human evolution and how anthropogenic global warming now threatens our species (and a Lmultitude of others)….

      Having joined a world-famous fossil-hunting family, Meave would go on to make spectacular finds that have reshaped how human evolution is understood and taught. In 1994, for instance, her team discovered an early hominin fossil at Kanapoi that was subsequently named Australopithecus anamensis and dated to between 3.9 and 4.2 million years ago. This find extended the time range for australopithecines—the same genus of hominin as the famous Lucy—and, at the time, represented the earliest known hominin bipedality.

      Meticulous cross-site research by paleoanthropologists, including Leakey herself, has revealed a shift in habitat and diet that occurred before the time of australopithecines, wherein many species moved from woodlands to grasslands and changed from browsers to grazers. We now know that an “inexorable drying trend” around 5 to 7 million years ago led to a reduction in forest cover and an increase in grasslands, which created new foraging opportunities. In turn, new selection pressures and bipedalism, a form of locomotion that was efficient and freed up hominin hands to take on fine manipulative tasks, emerged.

      Again and again, Leakey’s attention returns to climate. Homo erectus, she writes, evolved in a “glacial-interglacial icehouse world,” where endurance hunting and increased social cooperation led to survival and migration out of Africa. Later, Homo sapiens had to cope with even greater extremes of cold and heat.

      …she places blame for Earth’s most recent climate disruption where it belongs. Our long evolutionary lineage is at a crisis point, she argues, and it is critical that we rein in consumerist greed and environmental destruction before it is too late….

What if Biden Wins?

[These excerpts are from an article by David Malakoff in the 16 October 2020 issue of Science.]

      …A President Biden will have vast authority to move quickly to undo many 'hump policies. But he could be hampered by forces beyond his control, including which party controls the Senate, the ideological complexion of the courts, and—when it comes to fighting L COVID-19—the progress of science itself….

      Biden has made confronting the pandemic the centerpiece of his presidential campaign. The most dramatic immediate shift is likely to be in the tone and consistency of messag-ing coming from the Oval Office and federal health agencies….

      Yet getting new agency leaders confirmed by the Senate could take months, observers say, and repairing the damage done to the credibility of those agencies could be slow. Efforts to mandate mask wearing or limit gatherings could face opposition, and how soon a vaccine or effective new treatments arrive is largely out of a president’s control….

      Biden advisers say climate change is one of “the four crises” he will put a priority on addressing. (The others are the pandemic, the economy, and racial injustice.) Biden says the United States will rejoin the Paris climate accord on his first day in office—which he can do with the stroke of a pen—and he will issue executive orders to strengthen climate protections. Advocates want him to roll back Trump rules that weakened limits on power plant emissions set by former President Barack Obama, and to set even stiffer limits for cars than Obama did. Overall, Biden wants the United States to cease to be a net emitter of greenhouse gases by 2050, and the federal government to invest at least $1.7 trillion over 10 years in clean energy technologies.

      Achieving that ambitious agenda will likely require that Democrats control the U.S. Senate. Even with a Democrat-led Congress, however, Biden might only have a 2-year window, as the party in power often loses control of one chamber of Congress in midterm elections. Biden could also face pushback from conservative judges, especially on the Supreme Court, if he relies heavily on executive authority to push his agenda….

      A president has great leeway in deciding how the United States interacts with other nations, and research groups hope Biden will move aggressively on several fronts….

      On immigration, industry groups and universities hope Biden follows through on promises to ease restrictions on visas for students and high-skill workers. And some have applauded Biden's vow to protect the so-called Dreamers, undocumented immigrants who were brought to the United States as children, and end Trump’s de facto ban on immigrants from many majority-Muslim nations….

      Environmental scientists have a long wish list. They want Biden to undo changes in how agencies review the environmental impacts of major projects and evaluate the risks posed by toxic chemicals, which critics say downplay the risks and inflate economic benefits. The Environmental Protection Network, made up of former Environmental Protection Agency officials, wants Biden to kill a proposed rule that could bar the agency from using health and other data that can’t be made public because of concerns about patient privacy or trade secrets.

      Conservation scientists, meanwhile, hope he will block federal permits for several high-profile energy and mining projects, including proposed pits in Alaska and Minnesota that threaten aquatic habitats. Paleontologists are looking to Biden to restore fossil-rich lands that Trump removed from several national monuments in western states, while ocean scientists want him to reimpose fishing limits that Trump lifted at a marine monument off the coast of New England.

      But many of Trump’s environmental policies could take years to unwind because of lawsuits and federal rules that require extensive comment periods. Democratic control of the Senate, however, could speed the process: Under a rarely used law, just a simple majority of both houses is needed to cancel rules finalized near the end of the Trump administration. (Republican lawmakers used the law to void many Obama-era rules at the start of Trump’s term, when they controlled both chambers of Congress.)….

Weathering the Storm

[These excerpts are from an article by Jeffrey Mervis in the 16 October 2020 issue of Science.]

      Disastrous. Damaging. Catastrophic. Those are just some of the more polite terms that many U.S. scientists use to describe the policies of President Donald Trump. His handling of the COVID-19 pandemic, his repeated public dismissals of scientific expertise, and his disdain for evidence have prompted many researchers to label him the most antiscience president in living memory.

      Last month, that sense of betrayal led two of the nation’s preeminent scientific bodies, the US. National Academy of Sciences and the National Academy of Medicine, to issue an uncharacteristically harsh rebuke….

      “Policymaking must be informed by the best available evidence without it being distorted, concealed, or otherwise deliberately misco mmunicated,” the leaders of the two academies wrote. “We find reports and incidents of the politicization of science, particularly the overriding of evidence and advice from public health officials and derision of government scientists, to be alarming.”

      …Any president trying to alter that behemoth has three levers to press—policies, budget requests, and leadership appointments.

      Most scientists give Trump exceedingly low marks in an arena where he has perhaps the greatest authority: foreign affairs. His unilateral decisions to pull out of the Paris climate treaty, the Iran nuclear deal, and the World Health Organization are widely seen as damaging not just to global scientific cooperation, but also to the continued health, safety-, and prosperity of the planet. Similarly, most scientists think the administration’s aggressive efforts to restrict immigration pose a serious threat to the nation’s ability to alit act scientific talent from around the world.

      In the domestic arena, Trump’s efforts to impose new policies by executive order and rewrite regulations have also drawn sharp criticism from scientists. They say the administration has routinely ignored or suppressed evidence that doesn't support its efforts to roll back environmental regulations, including those aimed at limiting emissions of greenhouse gases. Trump has also threatened the reliability of key demographic data by interfering with the orderly completion of the 2020 census, and by telling the Department of Commerce to exclude undocumented residents from the final count.

      Biomedical researchers, meanwhile, have been appalled by what they say is a de facto ban on the use of tissue derived from elective abortions in research, as well as orders to cancel a grant that Trump disliked. Such moves, many researchers believe, are designed to advance the president's political agenda at the expense of national interests.

      Fewer scientists complain about the Trump administration’s record on spending. But that's largely because Congress has ignored the deep cuts the 'White House has proposed in its annual budget requests to Congress….

      Assessing the president's appointees is more complicated. Scientists have condemned some of Trump's choices at agencies involved in environmental regulation or climate science, citing their meager scientific credentials or views that are outside the mainstream….

Not Throwing Away Our Shot

[These excerpts are from an editorial by H. Holden Thorp in the 16 October 2020 issue of Science.]

      Over the past few weeks, prominent scientific publications have condemned President Donald Trump's record on science. This is unprecedented. Although my predecessors at Science have always held elected U.S. officials accountable (but could not make a formal political endorsement because of the nonprofit of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the publisher of Science), many of these publications are now clearly denouncing the U.S. president, administration, and federal agency leaders as the nation approaches a highly consequential presidential election. To paraphrase lyrics by Lin-Manuel Miranda in “Hamilton” about another set of political essays, why do we write like we’re running out of time? Because recent events show that the voice of the scientific community can lead to positive change….

      The pressure put on Hahn by the scientific community played a big role in stiffening his spine. Topol told me that Hahn said he was “profoundly dejected” after the convalescent plasma debacle and realized that the subsequent vaccine drama posed an “existential crisis”—either he would be fired by Tramp or permanently lose his standing in the scientific community. Ultimately, he decided that doing what was right for the success of the COVID-19 vaccine trials and the safety of the public—while also repairing his reputation in medical science—was more important than keeping his job at the FDA. We can hope that it's too much trouble for Trump to fire him this close to the election….

      With his apparent recovery from COVID-19 due perhaps in part to receiving an experimental monoclonal antibody cocktail from Regeneron, Trump’s attention has turned to touting this treatment as a “cure” and promising its availability to all Americans. An antibody-based treatment does deserve more scientific attention, but a therapeutic is not a cure….These antibodies are helpful but currently in very limited supply and not something that will “get everybody out of the hospitals,” as Trump said recently. The scientific community must keep the pressure on Hahn to state the science clearly….

Newly Found Viruses Suggest Rubella Originated in Animals

[These excerpts are from an article by Ann Gibbons in the 9 October 2020 issue of Science.]

      The virus that causes rubella, or German measles, finally has company. Scientists had never identified close relatives of the virus, leaving it as the only member of its genus, Rubivirus. But with a report in this week’s issue of Nature, rubella has gained a family. One of its two newfound relatives infects bats in Uganda; the other killed animals from three different species in a German zoo and was found in wild mice living nearby as well.

      The findings strongly suggest that at some point in the past, a similar virus jumped from animals to humans, giving rise to today’s rubella virus, the researchers say. Although neither of the new viruses is known to infect humans, the fact that a related virus jumped species raises concerns that the two viruses or other, as-yet-unknown relatives could cause human outbreaks….

      The rubella virus usually causes rashes and fever, but in pregnant women it can lead to miscarriages, stillbirth, and babies born with congenital rubella syndrome, which includes deafness and eye, heart, and brain problems. An estimated 100,000 newborns are affected by the syndrome annually, mostly in _Africa, the western Pacific, and the eastern Mediterranean; in many other countries the measles, mumps, and rubella (MMR) vaccine has made it a rarity.

      …Given the genetic distance between rubella and the ruhugu and rustrela viruses, the researchers don’t think either of them made the jump to humans—but they suspect they'll find other Rubiviruses if they look closely.

      Both viruses bear close watching, researchers say. It’s “really interesting” that rustrela was able to infect placental and marsupial mammals….That flexibility could spell trouble….

A Call to Test New Vaccines Head to Head, in Monkeys

[These excerpts are from an article by Jon Cohen in the 9 October 2020 issue of Science.]

      Primate researchers in the United States have banded together in a push for an ambitious monkey study that would do head-to-head comparisons of the leading COVID-19 vaccine candidates. Although 10 candidates are already undergoing large-scale tests in people, proponents of the monkey plan say those clinical trials may not deliver the comprehensive data needed to choose the safest and most effective vaccines. The comparison trial in monkeys, in contrast, could shed light in a matter of weeks on how the candidates stack up on measures including potential side effects, the strength of immune responses they trigger, and how well they protect against infection and disease….

      The proposed monkey vaccine comparison faces hurdles: It would add to the pressure on the dwindling U.S. supply of research monkeys, potentially delaying research on other diseases, and it does not yet have funding….

      Most developers of the vaccine candidates in efficacy trials have already published how well each works in monkeys against a “challenge” with SARS-CoV-2—a deliberate exposure to the pandemic coronavirus that causes COVID-19. But the details of how the experiments were conducted and the ways the results were analyzed differ so profoundly that…he can’t make sense of how the candidates compare….

      The human vaccine trials, for their part, are likely to yield only preliminary signals of efficacy over the next few months, not clear-cut evidence that one or more is safe and protects people….

      The data from the many human trials, some in multiple countries, will also be tough to compare….

      In contrast to the human trials that must wait for enough participants to become naturally infected to gauge a vaccine’s worth, …monkey challenge studies could deliver definitive results quickly….the monkey comparison could start as soon as this month and would require only about 6 weeks to vaccinate animals, challenge them, and assess their immune responses and levels of protection.

      …the U.S. consortium has many experiments now in the wings that they’re willing to delay to conduct the comparative COVID-19 vaccine work….

      NIAID head Anthony Fauci says “it would be worthwhile” to conduct a rigorous comparative study, noting that animal results from vaccine studies for AIDS and other infectious diseases have also been difficult to compare, complicating attempts to trans-late their results to humans….

Here Today, Gone Tomorrow

[These excerpts are from an editorial by Peter H. Raven and Scott E. Miller in the 9 October 2020 issue of Science.]

      We are destroying the life-support systems of Earth rapidly, making our future uncertain. Ecosystems—the complex sets of organisms that form the globe’s living landscape—regulate the atmosphere, water, and soils. They supply humanity its food, most medicines, and many other essential products, and they fill our lives with beauty. But they are falling apart as, one by one, their constituent species are lost. To save what we can and provide our children and grandchildren with a sustainable future, studies must be conducted not only in nature but also, to an increasing extent, on the billions of specimens preserved in the world's natural history collections. For many species barely hanging on in their endangered habitats, these samples will one day be all that we have.

      …perhaps 1 million of the estimated 8.5 million species of plants, animals, and other organisms are in imminent danger of extinction. Probably as many as half of the populations of organisms that existed half a century ago are already gone. Over the past quarter century, about a quarter of all tropical forests have been lost. Because we have identified no more than a tenth of the estimated tens of thousands of species in those habitats, most that were lost may forever remain unknown.

      Unless we control the underlying causes, including overdevelopment and climate change, we are in danger of losing 80% or more of the world's species, the proportion lost 66 million years ago when the dinosaurs became extinct and many of the plants and animals known today began their ascent. We have clearly entered the world's sixth major extinction event….

      Faced with this grave future, we must find ways to preserve these specimens as well as we can for as long as we can. They are vulnerable to degradation and loss from pests, humidity, fire, and the simple ravages of time. While renewing efforts to protect them, we need to make them more accessible through digitization, including imaging and DNA barcoding (at least a minimal DNA sequence of the representative specimens). We also need to continue targeted sampling, focused on key taxa and habitats.

      Some groups of great ecological and environmental importance are dying off too rapidly to ever be completely understood. We have named 25,000 species of nematodes, 64,000 species of mites, and 100,000 species of fungi. Yet each of these groups is estimated to consist of a million or more species, with the number of fungi likely to be 2.2 to 2.6 million. We must sample them and understand them as well as we can before many of their species disappear forever….

      Many of the world’s biological collections are in institutions that depend in part on attendance for their support. In this time of coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19), many of them will fail financially or be unable to continue maintaining their own collections. These and other potentially "orphan" collections have immense value and should be monitored and incorporated as needed into permanent homes. This is likely to be our last chance to know many of Earth’s species. We must make the most of it.

Flawed Research and its Enduring Repercussions

[These excerpts are from a book review by Paul A. Offit in the 2 October 2020 issue of Science.]

      On 26 February 1998, the Royal Free Hospital in London held a press conference….Sitting at the front of the room was the senior author, Andrew Wakefield, who explained that the combination measles-mumps-rubella (MMR) vaccine could cause developmental delays; including autism. Wakefield argued that the MMR vaccine suppressed the immune system in some children, freeing the measles vaccine virus to damage the intestine, which allowed encephalopathic proteins to enter the circulation, cross the blood-brain barrier, and destroy brain cells. He called for MMR vaccinations to cease until more research could be conducted.

      Wakefield became an international hero….Then along came Brian Deer, an investigative reporter working for The Sunday Times. Deer would become the first to expose the clinician’s undisclosed financial associations and unearth troubling problems with the Lancet paper. In The Doctor Who Fooled the World, Deer recounts in vivid detail how he came to learn that Wakefield and his study were of what they appeared to be….

      Wakefield, we learn, had received £435,643 (the equivalent of $846,000 today) to conduct studies that would help build a legal case against AMR vaccine producers 2 years prior to the Lancet publication. And although he reported that the children in his study were referred to his hospital through routine channels, many came from an antivaccine group called JABS and the lawyer preparing to sue vaccine makers. In June 1997, further undermining the sentiment the physician would convey at the 1998 press conference (“It’s a moral issue for me”"), Wakefield submitted a patent for a product that claimed to treat so-called “autistic enterocolitis,” rid the body of harmful toxins, and immunize safely against measles.

      Deer reveals that Wakefield also misrepresented clinical, biological, and molecular data….and Wakefield’s claim that the measles vaccine virus genome was present in intestinal epithelial cells of children with autistic enterocolitis was inconsistent and irreproducible.

      As a consequence of these and other revelations; The Lancet retracted the paper, and Wakefield lost his license to practice medicine. Subsequent studies have shown that children who receive the MMR. vaccine are at no greater risk of developmental delays than those who do not receive it. Nonetheless, the damage was done. The Wakefield study helped to accelerate the antivaccination movement that has imperiled children and led to the resurgence of once-controlled diseases….

Record U.S. and Australian Fires Raise Fears for Many Species

[These excerpts are from an article by John Pickrell and Elizabeth Pennisi in the 2 October 2020 issue of Science.]

      …Even as Australia tallies the damage from its blazes, the worst fires in more than 70 years are burning in California, Oregon, and Washington; so far, they have consumed some 2 million hectares, killing at least 35 people. As in Australia, scientists fear the loss of habitat has threatened species with small populations or restricted ranges, and could potentially lead to permanent ecological changes if burned landscapes fail to rebound in a warming climate….

      Australia’s postfire experience offers cause for anxiety, researchers say. From September 2019 to March, more than 11 million hectares burned, mostly in the continent’s southeastern forests, killing at least 34 people. More than 20% of the nation’s total forest cover was lost….Even normally fire-proof rainforests and wetlands were scorched….114 threatened plant and animal species lost 50% to 80% of their habitats; 327 species saw more than 10% of their ranges burn.

      …In New South Wales, fires killed about one-third of the state’s koalas, a government inquiry found in July. It warned that the marsupial would be extinct in the state by 2050 if dramatic measures are not taken to conserve it. And in the state’s Nightcap National Park, a survey found that fires destroyed 10% or more of the remaining stands of several critically endangered rainforest trees. Some species were down to fewer than 200 trees before the fires….

      In the United States, researchers say it’s too soon to know how many species the fires have put in jeopardy. But there are already worrying reports. In Washington, biologists estimate the fires have killed 50% of the state’s endangered pygmy rabbits, which inhabit sagebrush flats that burned this year. They believe only about 50 of North America’s smallest rabbit remain. Officials estimate the flames have also killed 30% to 70% of the state’s sage grouse and sharp-tailed grouse, birds that also depend on sagebrush….

      The longer term consequences for ecosystems are harder to predict, researchers say. In both Australia and the Western United States, many ecosystems are adapted to fire and even require it to thrive….

      But climate change adds to the uncertainty about how forests will respond time….

      Already, some ecosystems in North America that have had frequent or intense burns are not regenerating. In some places, such as the sagebrush ecosystem of the Great Basin west of the Sierra Nevada mountain range and forests in the Klamath Mountains along the California-Oregon border, invasive shrubs or grasses appear to have taken over Because the invaders burn frequently, they appear to be preventing seedlings from maturing. In Australia, researchers have similar concerns. In the state of Victoria, forests of alpine ash, a towering eucalyptus tree found in moist regions, historically experienced fires less than once a century or so. Now, some forests have been hit by five fires in the past 20 years, and scientists fear some of the stately groves will disappear for good.

China’s Bold Climate Pledge Earns Praise – But is it Feasible?

[These excerpts are from an article by Dennis Normile in the 2 October 2020 issue of Science.]

      China’s surprise pledge last week to cut its net carbon emissions to zero within 40 years has reignited hopes of limiting global climate change to tolerable levels. The country is the world’s largest producer of carbon dioxide (CO2), accounting for 28% of global emissions, and its move may inspire other countries to follow suit. But observers warn that China faces daunting challenges in reaching its goals. ricking its coal habit will be particularly hard.

      …China's commitment also “ratchets up pressure on other major emitters” to set more ambitious targets “while further isolating the Trump administration in its climate myopia…”

      China had previously said its CO2 emissions would peak “around” 2030, a target most analysts considered within reach. But achieving carbon neutrality before 2060 will require drastically reducing the use of fossil fuels in transportation and electricity generation and offsetting any remaining emissions through carbon capture and storage or planting forests.

      China has not yet revealed details of how it will do this….

      Coal is both the biggest challenge and an opportunity. Last year, the carbon-heavy fuel accounted for about 58% of China’s total energy consumption and 66% of its electricity generation. In coal-producing regions, coal is also used to heat buildings. Recent advances in renewable energy have made replacing coal easier than cutting oil use in transportation and emissions from farm fields and livestock….

      But it will require a U-turn. A recent study…found r that China’s coal-fired generating capacity grew by about 40 gigawatts (GW) in 2019, to about 1050 GW. Another 100 GW is under construction and coal interests are lobbying for even more plants….

      Expanding nuclear power presents challenges as well. The 2011 Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster in Japan sent ripples of concern through China, which mandated additional safety measures that made new plants more expensive. Public opposition is also growing. China has 48 nuclear power reactors in operation and 12 under construction, according to the World Nuclear Association. The government had aimed for 58 GW of nuclear capacity by this year but did not get beyond 52 GW….

Europe Builds ‘Digital Twin’ of Earth to Hone Climate Forecasts

[These excerpts are from an article by Paul Voosen in the 2 October 2020 issue of Sciencen.]

      The European Union is finalizing plans for an ambitious “digital twin” of planet Earth that would simulate the atmosphere, ocean, ice, and land with unrivaled precision, providing forecasts of floods, droughts, and fires from days to years in advance. Destination Earth, as the effort is called, won’t stop there: It will also attempt to capture human behavior, enabling leaders to see the impacts of weather events and climate change on society and gauge the effects of different climate policies.

      By rendering the planet’s atmosphere in boxes only 1 kilometer across, a scale many times finer than existing climate models, Destination Earth can base its forecasts on far more detailed real-time data than ever before. The project…will start next year and run on one of the three supercomputers that Europe will deploy in Fin-land, Italy, and Spain….

      Typical climate models run at resolutions of 50 or 100 kilometers….The new model’s 1-kilometer resolution will enable it to direedy render convection, the vertical transport of heat critical to the formation of clouds and storms, rather than relying on an st algorithmic approximation….The model will also simulate the ocean in fine enough detail to capture the behavior of swirling eddies that are important movers of heat and carbon….

      The high resolution will also enable Destination Earth to base its forecasts on more detailed data. Weather models suck in observations of temperature and pressure from satellites, weather stations, aircraft, and buoys to guide their simulations. But coarse grids mean the models can’t assimilate measurements that don't average well or cover broad areas, such as fractures opening up in sea ice….

      The model will also incorporate real-time data charting atmospheric pollution, crop growth, forest fires, and other phenomena known to affect weather and climate….

      The goal is to allow policymakers to directly gauge how climate change will impact society—and how society could alter the trajectory of climate change. For example, the model could predict bow climate change will affect agriculture and migration patterns in Brazil—and also how cuts in ethanol subsidies might limit deforestation in the Amazon….

      Getting there won’t be easy. Exascale supercomputers rely on both traditional computer chips as well as graphical processing units (GPUs), which are efficient at handling intensive calculations. GPUs are good for running model components in parallel and training artificial intelligence algorithms—two techniques Destination Earth will lean on to enhance performance. But old climate modeling code will have to be reworked….

      The massive amount of data generated by the model will be a problem of its own. When the Japanese team ran its 1-kilometer-scale experiment, it took half a year to extract something useful from a couple days of data….

Fire in Our Future

[These excerpts are from an editorial by William Wallace Covington and Stephen Pyne in the 2 October 2020 issue of Science.]

      It can seem like Earth itself is on fire. In places such as Australia and California for which fire is a natural feature, landscapes are burning at historic if not epic scales. In the Arctic and Greenland, where fire is rare, tundra is smoldering and melting permafrost. In Amazonia, Indonesia, and Mediterranean Europe, fires are interacting with the land clearing of rainforest, the draining of peatlands, and the abandonment of rural lands to create damaging, even lethal, conditions.

      There is no single driver except humanity behind this outbreak. But increasingly, anthropogenic climate change is recognized as an enabler, performance enhancer, and globalizer. Fire seasons are lengthening, fire severity is escalating, and collateral damages are compounding….

      We need to unbundle “fire” in all its shape-shifting avatars into manageable pieces. Some issues will have technical solutions—fires sparked by powerlines can be prevented. Some involve knotty ecological processes: Lands that have had fires removed can suffer an ecological fire deficit for which reinstating flame can be as complicated as restoring a vanished species. Most of the problems involve clashes of cultural values over bow we get energy, organize our economy, and choose to live on the land. These will demand a political resolution.

      Scales matter. Some reforms can be applied immediately and locally, as with protecting towns. Others will require decades of work across countries and regions. Restoring a suitable regimen of fire to tens of millions of hectares will be an arduous exercise in adaptive management. Confronting the effects of climate change will likely prove a century-long quest, but unless we reverse trends, they will overwhelm whatever type of management is implemented. We need to pursue all levels simultaneously.

      Begin with ignition. Research shows that nationally, 97% of the fires that have threatened houses are started by people….

      …Within limits, we can dampen fire intensities by modifying the landscapes that fire feeds upon, and we can harden communities to keep embers blown from the countryside from metastasizing into urban conflagrations. The strategies are the same as those used to contain urban fire. Concepts like the home ignition zone—the house and its immediate surroundings—identify points of vulnerability….

      In montane forests like the ponderosa pine of the Southwest, research shows that thinning and burning are effective methods to reduce fuel loads and allow surface fires to return. But many techniques are available, including prescribed grazing, the use of managed wildfire, and varieties of mechanical, treatments like chipping and masticating. Most places will need a cocktail of treatments, appropriate to their local conditions.

      Smart treatments, done well, will enhance ecological integrity at the same time that they reduce hazardous fuels. Thinning, for example, resembles woody weeding and unlike logging removes the small stuff that powers fire. Moreover, fire is a biochemical process, not just a flaming woodchipper. Fire as fire matters biologically. Good fire can provide herd immunity against bad fire.

      Yet all these interventions will be overpowered unless climate change is brought to heel. Paradoxically, as we ratchet down our binge-burning of fossil fuels, we’ll have to ratchet up our burning of living landscapes to grant them the robustness they will need to survive the stresses to come.

      Science can’t do all the intellectual lifting. Fire is systemic: We need a systemic cultural response….

      But we need a solid empirical basis for the tough decisions heading our way. We need what science can do best, and the best of what science can do.

Gut Feeling

[These excerpts are from an article by Elizabeth Svobodain in the November 2020 issue of Discover.]

      …For decades, experts scoffed at the idea that gut bacteria affect our mental health. Many called it a fringe theory. Yet mounting evidence suggests that intestinal microbes profoundly shape our thinking and behavior. Human trials are now underway to investigate how these microbes boost our overall well-being. If the results hold up, new bacteria-based therapies could expand a mental health treatment landscape that has been IA__ mostly stagnant for decades….

      Anyone who’s sprinted to the bathroom moments before a speech or felt a wave of nausea after public humiliation knows the gut and the brain are connected. Doctors have speculated about this linkage since ancient times. Hippocrates, who is credited with saying “all disease begins in the gut,” speculated that black bile spilled from the spleen into the intestines and brought on dark moods.

      Theories like these grew more sophisticated over the centuries as scientists learned more about the microorganisms in the human gut. (We now know there are literally trillions of them.) By the late 19th century; doctors argued that “melancholia,” a then-common term for depression, arose from overgrowth of intestinal microbes. But physicians at the time understood little about what these microbes did in the body. So, early gut-based treatments including major abdominal surgery for schizophrenia —were doomed to fail.

      Fast-forward a century; and data from speedy genome sequencing of gut bacteria in the 2000s revealed that microbes perform an array of bodily tasks. Further studies showed how some might affect mental health. Each of us, it turns out, is more microbe than human: Bacterial cells outnumber human cells in the body by a factor of at least 1.3 to 1. The human gut plays host to more than 100 trillion of these bacteria — a complex, interdependent microbial universe wedged between your ribcage and spine.

      While the human genome consists of roughly 25,000 genes, the swarm of microbes in your gut expresses about 3 million distinct genes. Many of these bacterial genes help build molecules that let you digest food, keep harmful microbes at bay, and even feel emotions. For starters, the bacteria in your gut produce about 90 percent of the serotonin in your body yep, the same happy hormone that regulates your moods and promotes well-being….

      When researchers at Cryan’s lab sampled gut bacteria from stressed-out rats in 2009 and sequenced them, they hit on something surprising: Stressed-out animals — those more prone to mental health issues — had a less diverse assortment of gut microbes, or microbiome, than their more relaxed counterparts….

      In the past decade or so, more labs have started reporting that gut bacteria produce a smorgasbord of compounds that affect the mind in surprising ways, both good and bad for your emotional health. Some bacteria in the Clostridium genus generate propionic acid, which can reduce your body's production of mood-boosting dopamine and serotonin. Microbes like bifidobacteria enhance production of butyrate, an anti-inflammatory substance that keeps gut toxins out of the brain. Other species produce the amino acid tryptophan, a precursor to mood-balancing serotonin….

      While researchers continue to map the workings of what they’ve dubbed the “gut-brain axis” — the two-way communication link between the GI tract and the central nervous system — many already think it creates a major potential avenue for mental health treatment….

      …Do gut bacterial changes actually drive mood and behavioral changes? A growing body of research suggests they do….

      Human studies of oral probiotic therapy are a bit further along. A survey of small-scale controlled trials found that Bifidobacterium and Lactobacillus strains improved depressive symptoms overall, while other studies show similar effects on anxiety. One Australian study published in 2017 even suggests that a diet higher in beneficial bacteria can banish depression in more than a third of people….

      …So far, he’s found that people with more butyrate-prbducing gut microbes — such as certain types of Faecalibacterium and Coprococcus — have a higher quality of life, while people with lower levels of Coprococcus are more likely to be depressed….

      The next psychobiotics milestone, scientists say, will be full-scale clinical trials that show whether microbes or microbial cocktails boost well-being beyond placebo effects common in psychiatric treatment studies….

      We’ll likely be waiting at least two years for those definitive results. One sticking point in the outcome could come from drug companies, and whether they can identify a substantial profit. Many gut-based remedies contain naturally occurring bacteria, which makes them difficult to patent….

      Another issue is that, while certain types of bacteria have more profound effects on the brain than others, there probably won’t be any magic-bullet strains that work for everyone. Some gut bacteria function best alongside a constellation of varieties, complicating the picture further — especially since gut bugs number in the trillions and represent more than 500 different species….

      If the mix of probiotics, fecal transplants and diets do prove their mettle, Raes says, gut-based therapies will likely be considered an adjunct to treatments like medication and counseling, not necessarily a replacement….

      …While doctors generally regard common strains like B. breve and L. acidophilus as safe for human consumption — they appear in foods like yogurt, kombucha and kefir — bacteria are bioactive substances, so ingesting them involves some level of risk.

      And in the U.S., the supplement industry is largely unregulated. That means consumers have to take companies’ word that probiotics contain the strains listed on the label.

      Given the rapidly evolving state of gut-brain research, experts don’t all agree on how to advise patients seeking treatment options….

Parents Worry About Learning Loss in Remote Education Environments

[These excerpts are from an article by Alyson Klein in the 13 October 2020 issue of Education Week.]

      Parent concerns about learning loss during COVID-19 remain high as most report their children are still learning remotely either full or part time, concludes a new survey.

      More than 3 of every 4 parents, 76 percent, reported that their children are attending school remotely either full time or part time….

      Among all parents, 38 percent said they felt their children were learning less this school year than they would during a normal school year, according to the survey, which was conducted the last week in September. The survey attributed that relatively high level of concern mostly to parents whose children are learning remotely either full time or part time….

      Those figures from the National Parents Union survey also track with a late August Education Week survey of parents, which found that 36 percent of parents believed their children were making less progress in English language arts than before the pandemic. However, the Education Week survey found that educators were far more concerned than parents, with more than 80 percent saying their students were making less progress in both language arts and math.

      The National Parents Union survey also found that 54 percent of parents think schools should put more of their energy into making sure online instruction is high quality rather than figuring out how to reopen schools for in-person instruction. Another 37 percent want to see energy put into reopening school buildings safely.

      Parents are also more or less equally divided between wanting their children to continue taking standardized tests and feeling as though teachers and students should get a break, given how much else they have to worry about this school year. Forty-seven percent of parents wanted to continue with the testing, while another 43 percent supported a one-year pause, according to the parents’ union survey.

White-Cheeked Gibbon

[These excerpts are from an articleby Troy Kippen in the November 2020 issue of Discover.]

      Barely 10 years ago, the plight of the northern white-cheeked gibbon looked dire. The gibbon's territory had once spanned old-growth rainforests across China, Laos and Vietnam, but decades of habitat loss and hunting had left only a few dozen isolated communities. By 2013, the gibbon was declared effectively extinct in China—and today, no one knows how many are left in Laos.

      A few secluded reserves in Vietnam now appear to be the gibbon’s holdout. Just 127 ani-mals remained in 2011 in one of the country's last strong-holds for the species — Xuan Lien Nature Reserve and the adjacent forests….

      But things might be turning around for the gibbon….gibbon numbers have almost doubled….

      The researchers attribute this dramatic increase to the efforts of local villagers: Xuan Lien hired people living around the reserve to patrol the forest for poachers and to educate their neighbors on the importance of gibbon conservation.

      However, not all the news from Xuan Lien is good. Poachers are still active in the area, motivated by the ongoing market for food, traditional medicines and illegal pets. During a field trip in December, the team came across five illegal wildlife-hunting camps where the poachers were selling their catch to restaurants. Forest rangers who had accompanied the researchers chased away the poachers and razed their camps, but it was a stark reminder that the gibbons’ future relies on their continued protection.

How Can Educators Teach Critical Thinking?

[These excerpts are from an article by Daniel T. Willingham in the Fall 2020 issue of American Educator.]

      Individuals vary in their views of what students should be taught, but there is little disagreement on the importance of critical thinldng skills. In free societies, the ability to think critically is viewed as a cornerstone of individual civic engagement and economic success.

      Despite this consensus, it's not always dear what's meant by “critical thinking.” I will offer a commonsensical view. You are thinking critically if (1) your thinldng is novel—that is, you aren’t simply drawing a conclusion from a memory of a previous situation; (2) your thinking is self-directed—that is, you are not merely executing instructions given by someone else; and (3) your thinking is effective—that is, you respect certain conventions that make thinking more likely to yield useful conclusions. These would be conventions like “consider both sides of an issue,” “offer evidence for claims made,” and “don’t let emotion interfere with reason.” This third characteristic will be our main concern, and as we’ll see, what constitutes effective thinking varies from domain to domain….

      It's a perennial idea—teach something that requires critical thinking, and such thinking will become habitual. In the 19th century, educators suggested that Latin and geometry demanded logical thinking, which would prompt students to think logically in other contexts. The idea was challenged by psychologist Edward Thorndike, who compared scores from standardized tests that high school students took in autumn and spring as a function of the coursework they had taken during the year. If Latin, for example, makes you smart, students who take it should score better in the spring. They didn’t.

      In the 1960s, computer programming replaced Latin as the discipline that would lead to logical thinking. Studies through the 1980s showed mixed results, but a recent meta-analysis offered some apparently encouraging results about the general trainability of computational thinking. The researchers reported that learning to program a computer yielded modest positive transfer to measures of creative thinking, mathematics, meta-cognition, spatial skills, and reasoning. It’s sensible to think that this transfer was a consequence of conceptual overlap between programming and these skills, as no benefit was observed in measures of literacy.

      …a large sample will probably be closer to a “true” estimate than small sample—if you want to know whether a set of dice is loade you’re better off seeing the results of 20 throws rather than two throws. People readily understand this idea in the context of evaluaating randomness, but a small sample doesn’t bother them when judging academic performance; if someone receives poor grades on two math tests, observers judge they are simply bad at math.

      …We know that a student has understood an idea like the law of large numbers. But understanding it offers no guarantee that the student IL will recognize new situations in which that idea will be useful.

      …in math and science classes, students often learned to solve standard problems via a series of fixed, lockstep procedures. That meant students were stumped when confronted with a problem requiring a slight revision of the steps, even if the goal of the steps was the same….

      …We do know that students who go to school longer score better on intelligence tests, and certainly we think of intelligence as all-purpose. Still, it may be that schooling boosts a collection of fairly specific thinking skills. If it increases general thinking skills, researchers have been unable to identify them.

      Although existing data favor the specific skills account, researchers would still say it’s uncertain whether a good critical thinker is someone who has mastered lots of specific skills, or someone with a smaller set of yet-to-be-identified general skills. But educators aren’t researchers, and for educators, one fact ought to be salient. We’re not even sure the general skills exist, but we’re quite sure there’s no proven way to teach them directly. In contrast, we have a pretty good idea of how to teach students the more specific critical thinking skills. I suggest we do so….

      As much as teaching students to think critically is a universal goal of schooling, one might be surprised that student difficulty in this area is such a common complaint. Educators are often frustrated that student thinking seems shallow. This review should offer insight into why that is. The way the mind works, shallow is what you get first. Deep, critical thinking is hard-won.

      That means that designers and administrators of a program to improve critical thinking among students must take the long view, both in the time frame over which the program operates and especially in the speed with which one expects to see results. Patience will be a key ingredient in any program that succeeds.

The Crisis of American Democracy

[These excerpts are from an article by Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt in the Fall 2020 issue of American Educator.]

      Nearly all living Americans grew up taking our democracy for granted. Until recently, most of us believed—and acted as if—our constitutional system was unbreakable, no matter how recklessly our politicians behaved.

      No longer. Americans watch with growing unease as our political system threatens to go off the rails: costly government shutdowns, stolen Supreme Court seats, impeachments, mounting concerns about the fairness of elections, and, of course, the election of a presidential candidate who had condoned violence at rallies and threatened to lock up his rival, and who, as president, has begun to subvert the rule of law by defying congressional oversight and corrupting law enforcement agencies to protect his political allies and investigate his opponents.

      In a 2019 survey by Public Agenda, 39 percent of Americans said they believed our democracy is “in crisis,” while another 42 percent said it faces “serious challenges.” Only 15 percent said American democracy is “doing well.”

      …According to Freedom House's ranking, the United States is now less democratic than Chile, the Czech Republic, Slovenia, Taiwan, and Uruguay—and in the same category as newer democracies like Croatia, Greece, Mongolia, and Panama….

      The problems started long before 2016 and go deeper than Donald Trump’s presidency. Electing a demagogue is always dangerous, but it does not condemn a country to democratic breakdown. Strong institutions can constrain corrupt or autocratic-minded leaders. That is precisely what the US Constitution was designed to do, and for most of our history, it has succeeded. America’s constitutional system has effectively checked many powerful and ambitious presidents, including demagogues (Andrew Jackson) and criminals (Richard Nixon). For this reason, Americans have historically had a lot of faith in our Constitution. A 1999 survey found that 85 percent of Americans believed it was the main reason why our democracy has been so successful.

      But constitutions by themselves aren’t enough to protect democracy. Even the most brilliantly designed constitutions don't function automatically. Rather, they must be reinforced by strong, unwritten democratic norms.

      Two basic norms are essential to democracy. One is mutual toleration, or the norm of accepting the legitimacy of one’s partisan rivals. This means that no matter how much we may disagree with—and even dislike—our opponents, we recognize that they are loyal citizens who love the country just as we do and who have an equal and legitimate right to govern. In other words, we do not treat our rivals as enemies.

      The second norm is institutional forbearance. Forbearance means refraining from exercising one’s legal right. It is an act of deliberate self-restraint—an underutilization of power that is legally available to us. Forbearance is essential to democracy. Consider what the US president is constitutionally able to do: The president can legally pardon whomever she wants, whenever she wants. Any president with a congressional majority can pack the US Supreme Court simply by pushing through a law that expands the Court’s size and then filling the new vacancies with allies.

      Or consider what Congress has the constitutional authority to do. Congress can shut down the government by refusing to fund it. The Senate can use its right to “advise and consent” to prevent the president from filling her cabinet or Supreme Court vacancies. And because there is little agreement on what constitutes “high crimes and misdemeanors,” the House can impeach the president on virtually any grounds it chooses.

      The point is that politicians may exploit the letter of the Constitution in ways that eviscerate its spirit: Court packing, partisan impeachment, government shutdowns, pardoning allies who commit crimes on the president's behalf, declaring national emergencies to circumvent Congress. All these actions follow the written letter of the law to subvert its spirit….

      Unwritten norms of mutual toleration and forbearance serve as the soft guardrails of democracy. They are what prevent healthy political competition from spiraling into the kind of partisan fight to the death that wrecked democracies in Europe in the 1930s and South America in the 1960s and 1970s.

      America has not always had strong democratic guardrails. It didn’t have them in the 1790s when institutional warfare between the Federalists and the Republicans nearly destroyed the Republic before it could take root. It lost them in the run-up to the Civil War, and they remained weak through the late 19th century.

      For most of the 20th century, however, America’s guardrails were solid. Although the country experienced occasional assaults on democratic norms (e.g., McCarthyism in the 1950s), both parties broadly engaged in mutual tolerance and forbearance, which in turn allowed our system of checks and balances to work. During the first three quarters of the 20th century, there were no impeachments or successful instances of Court packing. Senators were judicious in their use of filibusters and their right to “advise and consent” on presidential appointments--most Supreme Court nominees were approved easily, even when the president’s party didn’t control the Senate. And outside of wartime, presidents largely refrained from acting unilaterally to circumvent Congress or the courts.

      For more than a century, then, America’s system of checks and balances worked. Again, however, the system worked because it was reinforced by strong norms of mutual toleration and forbearance.

      There is, however, an important tragedy at the heart of this story. The soft guardrails that undergirded America’s 20th century democracy were built upon racial exclusion and operated in a political community that was overwhelmingly white and Christian. Efforts to create a multiracial democracy after the Civil War generated violent resistance, especially in the South. Southern Democrats viewed Reconstruction as an existential threat, and they used both constitutional hardball and outright violence to resist it. It was only after the Republicans abandoned Reconstruction—enabling the Democrats to establish Jim Crow in the South—that Democrats ceased to view their rivals as an existential threat and two parties began to peacefully coexist, allowing norms of mutual toleration and forbearance to emerge. In other words, it was only after racial equality was removed from the agenda, restricting America's political community to white people, that these norms took hold. The fact that our guardrails emerged in an era of incomplete democracy has important consequences for contemporary polarization….

      …America’s democratic norms have been unraveling over the last three decades. There were early signs in the 1990s, when Newt Gingrich encouraged his fellow Republicans to use words like betray, anti-flag, and traitor to describe Democrats. In doing so, Gingrich encouraged Republicans to overtly abandon mutual toleration. The Gingrich revolution also brought a rise in constitutional hardball, including the first major government shutdown in 1995 and a presidential impeachment—the first in 130 years—in 1998.

      The erosion of democratic norms accelerated during the Obama presidency. Republican leaders like Gingrich, Sarah Palin, Rudy Giuliani, Mike Huckabee, and Donald Trump told their followers that President Obama did not love America and that Obama and the Democrats weren’t real Americans. Trump and others even questioned whether President Obama was an American citizen. Hillary Clinton received similar treatment: Trump and other Republican figures cast her as a criminal, making “lock her up” a chant at rallies. This was not happening on the political fringes: these were ideas put forth by the Republican nominee for president, and cheered—live, on national television—by the crowd at the Republican National Convention.

      This was a worrisome development because when mutual toleration disappears, politicians begin to abandon forbearance. When we view our partisan rivals as enemies, or as an existential threat, we grow tempted to use any means necessary to stop them.

      That is exactly what has happened over the last decade. Republicans in Congress treated the Obama administration as an existential threat that had to be defeated at almost any cost. Constitutional hardball became the norm. There were more filibusters during President Obama’s second term than in all the years between World War I and Ronald Reagan’s second term combined. Congress twice shut down the government, and at one point, it pushed the country to the brink of default. President Obama responded with constitutional hardball of his own. When Congress refused to pass immigration reform or climate change legislation, he circumvented Congress and made policy via executive orders. These acts were technically legal, but they clearly violated the spirit of the Constitution.

      Perhaps the most consequential act of constitutional hardball during the Obama years was the Senate’s refusal to take up President Obama’s nomination of Merrick Garland to the Supreme Court. Since 1866, every time a president had an opportunity to fill a Court vacancy before the election of his successor, he had been allowed to do so (though not always on the first try). The Senate's refusal to even consider an Obama nominee thus vio-lated a 150-year-old norm.

      The problem, then, is not only that Americans elected a demagogue in 2016. It is thatwe elected a demagogue at a time when the soft guardrails protecting our democracy were coming unmoored….

      American society has transformed dramatically over the last half-century. Due to large-scale immigration and steps toward racial equality, our country has grown both more diverse and more democratic. These changes have eroded both the size and the social status of America’s erstwhile white Christian majority.

      In the 1950s, white Christians constituted well over 90 percent of the American electorate. As recently as 1992, when Bill Clinton was elected president, 73 percent of American voters were white Christians. By the time Barack Obama was reelected in 2012, that percentage had fallen to 57 percent and research suggests that it will be below 50 percent by 2024. In effect, white Christians are losing their electoral majority.

      They are also losing their dominant social status. Not long ago, white Christian men sat atop all our country’s social, economic, political, and cultural hierarchies. They filled the presidency, Congress, the Supreme Court, and the governors' mansions. They were the CEOs, the newscasters, and most of the leading celebrities and scientific authorities. And they were the face of both major political parties.

      Those days are over. But losing one’s dominant social status can be deeply threatening. Many white Christian men feel like the country they grew up in is being taken away from them. For many people, that feels like an existential threat.

      This demographic transition has become politically explosive.. because America's racial and cultural differences now map almost perfectly onto the two major parties. This was not the case in the past. As recently as the late 1970s, white Christians were evenly divided as Democrats and Republicans.

      Three major changes have occurred over the last half-century. First, the civil rights movement led to a massive migration of Southern white people from the Democrats to the Republicans, while African Americans—newly enfranchised in the South—became overwhelmingly Democratic. Second, the United States experienced a massive wave of immigration, and most of these immigrants ended up in the Democratic Party. And third, beginning with Ronald Reagan’s presidency in the early 1980s, white evangelical Christians flocked to the Republicans.

      As a result of these changes, America's two major parties now represent very different parts of American society. The Democrats represent a rainbow coalition that includes urban and educated white voters and people of color. Nearly half of Democratic voters are nonwhite. The Republicans, by contrast, remain overwhelmingly white and Christian.

      Americans have thus sorted themselves into parties that represent radically different communities, social identities, and visions of what America is and should be. The Republicans increasingly represent white Christian America, whereas the Democrats have come to represent everybody else. This is the divide that underlies our country’s deep polarization.

      What makes our polarization so dangerous, however, is its asymmetry. Whereas the Democratic base is diverse and expand-ing, the Republican Party represents a once-dominant majority in numerical and status decline. Sensing this decline, many Republicans have grown fearful about the future. Slogans like “take our country back” and “make America great again” reflect this sense of peril. These fears, moreover, have fueled a troubling development that threatens our democracy: a growing Republican aversion to losing elections.

      …desperation leads politicians to play dirty.

      …These measures, together with a monstrous campaign of anti-Black violence, did what they were intended to do: Black voter turnout in the South fell from 61 percent in 1880 to just 2 percent in 1912. Unwilling to lose, Southern Democrats stripped the right to vote from almost half the population, ushering in nearly a century of authoritarianism in the South.

      The GOP is showing signs of a similar panic today. Republicans’ electoral prospects are diminishing. They remain an over-whelmingly white Christian party in an increasingly diverse society. Moreover, younger voters are deserting them….Indeed, the GOP has won the popular vote in just one presidential election in the last 30 years….

      Trump has attacked the media, trampled on congeonal oversight, and sought foreign intervention into our eleions. And like autocrats in Hungary, Russia, and Turkey, he has sought to deploy the machinery of government for personal, partisan, and even undemocratic ends. In the age of the COVID-19 pendemic, the fear that the Trump administration is shocangvuAhg the US Postal Service to make it harder to vote and to shape the results of the 2020 presidential election is only the latest instance of this phenomenon. Across the government, officials responsible for law enforcement, national intelligence, defense, election security, the census, public health, and even weather forecasting are under pressure to work for the president’s personal and political benefit—and, crucially, against his critics and opponents. Those who refuse—including inspectors general responsible for independently monitoring government agencies—are being pushed out and replaced with Trump loyalists….

      Nowhere was the erosion of our checks and balances made clearer than in the failure of the 2019-2020 impeachment process. Senate Republicans stated from the outset that they would acquit the president no matter what the evidence of wrongdoing. Polarization was so extreme that it was more important for the Republicans to beat the Democrats than to rein in a president who threatened democratic institutions. Impeachment, our most powerful constitutional check on executive abuse, was rendered toothless….

      America’s descent into democratic dysfunction prevents our governments from de aling with the most important problems facing our society—from immigration to climate change to healthcare. America’s botched, slow-moving response to the COVID-19 pandemic is only the latest and most lethal symptom of a political system that has been run aground by polarization….

      • In 2017, Neil Gorsuch became the first Supreme Court justice in history to be appointed by a president who lost the popular vote and then be confirmed by senators who represented less than half the country. A year later, Brett Kavanaugh ascended to the Court in exactly the same way, creating a conservative Court majority with decidedly minoritarian origins.

      • In February 2020, the 52 senators who voted to acquit Presi-dent Trump came from states that represented 18 million fewer Americans than the 48 senators who voted to convict….

      To be sure, minority rule has a deep history in America. Our Founders created a constitutional system that was biased toward small (or low population) states. But over time, that early small state bias evolved into a massive overrepresentation of rural states, affecting three important countermajoritarian institutions: the Electoral College is slightly biased toward sp arsely p opulate d states; the US Senate is heavily biased toward sparsely populated states; and because the Senate must approve Supreme Court nominations, the Supreme Court is also somewhat biased toward sparsely populated states. Population trends—the gradual depopulation of rural areas—are exacerbating the problem. In 20 years, 70 percent of the US population will be living in 16 states, which means that 30 percent of the country will control 68 percent of the Senate.

      For most of American history, the rural bias inherent in the political system had little partisan effect, because the major parties had urban and rural wings. In other words, the system always favored Vermont over New York, but it did not favor any particular party. In recent years, however, US parties have divided along urban-rural lines. Today, Democratic voters are concentrated in the big metropolitan centers, whereas Republicans are increasingly based in sparsely populated territories. That gives the GOP a systematic and growing advantage in the Electoral College, the Senate, and the Supreme Court….

      In sum, no matter what the outcome of the presidential election, Americans could be headed for a period of partisan minority rule, in which governments elected by a minority of Americans seek to tilt the playing field under the protection of the Senate and the Supreme Court.

      …Unfortunately, the White House has publicly opposed efforts to expand vote-by-mail options, and in many states, the Republican Party challenged such initiatives in court.

      We often assume that one must break or change the rules to subvert democracy. But this isn’t always true. When changing conditions make it impossible to practice democracy as we did in the past, like when a pandemic makes in-person voting dangerous, failing to act—failing to update our rules and procedures—can itself subvert democracy. Malign neglect is an insidious form of constitutional hardball. It is hardly illegal to not act or to not pass legislation. Maintaining our traditional voting system—one that has worked in the past—doesn’t seem very authoritarian. Indeed, it may even at first glance seem prudent. Moreover, a chaotic, low-turnout election would violate no Laws. Strictly spealdng, it would be constitutional. But to do nothing at a time when a pandemic threatens citizens’ ability to vote, potentially affecting the outcome of a presidential election, would be an act of malign neglect—and potentially the biggest subversion of American democracy since Jim Crow….

      Democracy requires the existence of at least two democratically minded political parties. Thus, American democracy will only be secure when both major parties are committed to the democratic rules ofthe game. For that to happen, the Republican Party must change. It must transform itself into a more diverse party, capable of attracting younger, urban, and nonwhite voters. A Republican Party that can thrive in a multiracial America will be less fearful ofthe future….

      …Parties only change course when their strategies fail. In democratic politics, success and failure are measured at the ballot box. And nothing compels change like electoral defeat.

      But there is a hitch: countermajoritarian institutions like the Electoral College, the Senate, and the federal judiciary allow the GOP to hold onto considerable power without winning national popular majorities. These institutions may therefore weaken Republicans’ incentive to adapt….

Trump Chooses Chaos – We Choose Community

[These excerpts are from an editorial by Randi Weingarter in the Fall 2020 issue of American Educator.]

      …It is not just the three crises—the pandemic, the worsening economic inequality, and the long overdue reckoning with systemic racism; now we also face very real threats to our democracy and to the ability of every eligible American to safely and freely vote. These crises are all made worse by one person: Donald J. Trump….

      Let’s be clear: we must all take a stand against violence—just as we must all take a stand against systemic racism. What’s the key in moving from indifference to action and from ignorance to understanding? Teaching for racial equity and justice….

      How does the president of the United States not say the names that are on so many of our lips Jacob Blake, George Floyd, Breonna Taylor—yet call violent white supremacists in Charlottesville “very fine people”? Why has the president cheered on caravans of white supremacists in Portland and refused to condemn the killings of two protesters in Kenosha by a 17-year-old white teenager?

      This is not the way any president should act.

      Rather than calming a tense nation, he is courting violence. Savvy political scientists believe he is not merely energizing his base; he is cultivating chaos to distract the nation from his inept handling of the pandemic. At the beginning of September, when the United States had over 6 million cases and 185,000 confirmed COVID-19 deaths, a comparison with other countries estimated that about 145,000 of those deaths would have been avoided if the US had an average—not good, just average—response to the pandemic. Instead, the US was far below average, with 4 percent of the world’s population but 22 percent of COVID-19 deaths.

      Think about what could have hap-pened if Trump had decided to fight, not deny or downplay, the virus.

      President Trump claims that he has created the best economy ever. Before the pandemic, 40 percent of Americans couldn’t cover a $400 emergency, yet the rich were getting fax richer. By the end of August, 25 million Americans had lost work—and economic inequality in America was on par with the Gilded Age.

      President Trump has obliterated nearly every norm of our democracy, including running roughshod over the laws intended to prevent him from using his office for political or personal gain….

      Where do we go from here? We have a choice between chaos or community, to paraphrase Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

      Trump wants chaos. In addition to trying to turn peaceful protests into violent confrontations, he fomented turmoil in the reopening of schools….Trump made baseless claims that children are “practically immune” to COVID-19 and ignored the risks to educators, staff, and families….

      Donald Trump isn’t up to the task of handling this public health crisis. He’s desperate to distract us from the fact that most Americans are decidedly not better off than they were four years ago.

      Donald Trump’s economic policies help millionaires and billionaires, not average people. While his corruption threatens our democratic form of government, his secretary of education tries to take funds away from youth in under-resourced communities, and his administration is trying to take health insurance away from millions of people during a pandemic. In the face of these failures, his hobbling of the US Postal Service is an attempt to hamper voting by mail and to sow doubt about the election in the event he loses.

      But Trump’s America is not America….

How Sticky Innovations Changed the World

[These excerpts are from an article by Carl E. Heltzel in the October 2020 issue of ChemMatters.]

      During World War il, Vesta Staudt, who had two sons serving in the U.S. Navy, was working at the Green River Ordnance Plant near Amboy, Illinois.

      She helped pack boxes of ammunition. This involved waterproofing the boxes by sealing them with paper tape and dipping them in wax. A loose end of the tape was left sticking out so soldiers could pull on it and quickly peel off the whole strip of tape to open the package. But there was a critical problem with this technique. It succeeded in waterproofing the boxes, but the flimsy tabs of paper tape often tore off, leaving the boxes sealed shut.

      Under enemy fire, soldiers would have had little time to deal with a hard-to-open box. They needed to unseal ammunition boxes quickly. So, Stoudt came up with a solution. She designed a waterproof cloth tape that was sturdier than the paper tape the army had been using. She proposed the idea to her bosses, but they didn't show much interest.

      Undeterred, Stoudt wrote a letter to then-President Franklin D. Roosevelt on Feb. 10, 1943. Roosevelt saw the merits of her idea and instructed the War Production Board to follow up. The Industrial Tape Corporation won the job of producing the tape in large amounts. Thus, duck tape—now known as duct tape—was invented….

      Archaeologists have found evidence that tar was used for hafting—that is, attaching stone blades to wooden handles—which represented a toolmaking advancement for early humans.

      Another important development in the history of adhesives was the use of the naturally occurring rock limestone (calcium carbonate, CaCO3), which is often composed of the skeletal remains of marine organisms. When heated, added to water, and mixed with sand, limestone produces lime mortar. When lime mortar reacts with carbon dioxide (CO2) in the air, it hardens into limestone, binding together the materials it's in contact with. Lime mortar was used to bond together stone in ancient structures, including the Egyptian pyramids and the Great Wall of China….

The Race to Decipher Egyptian Hieroglyphs

[These excerpts are from a book review by Andrew Robinson in the 25 September 2020 issue of Science.]

      The Rosetta stone, inscribed in 196 BCE during the reign of the Greco-Egyptian ruler Ptolemy V and discovered in Egypt by engineers of Napoleon Bonaparte's army in 1799, is a bilingual inscription written in two of the ancient Egyptian scripts—hieroglyphic and demotic—and the Greek alphabet. From 1815 to 1823, it served as the key that unlocked the decipherment of the Egyptian hieroglyphs through the largely independent labors of the English polymath Thomas Young and the French linguist and archaeologist Jean-Frangois Champollion, who is generally regarded as the founder of Egyptology….

      By comparing the Rosetta stone's hieroglyphic and demotic inscriptions, Young correctly concluded in 1815 that demotic script consisted of “imitations of the hieroglyphics...mixed with the letters of the alphabet.” He next read the hieroglyphic name of Ptolemy on the stone by analyzing it phonetically, justifying this approach on the grounds that it was a non-Egyptian name. But, like the ancient Greeks and Romans, Young wrongly assumed that the native Egyptian words in the hieroglyphic script were probably nonphonetic, representing ideas rather than sounds.

      In April 1821, Champollion categorically stated in a misguided publication (which he later withdrew) that the three ancient Egyptian scripts—hieroglyphic, hieratic, and demotic—represented things or ideas, not sounds. He reaffirmed this belief in October 1822 on the first page of his most famous publication, Lettre a M. Dacier….

      Although Champollion’s statement seemed to exclude even the slightest possibility of a phonetic element in Egyptian scripts, this appears to have been unintentional, because he made one crucial exception in the Lettre, undoubtedly influenced by Young's prior work: Hieroglyphs could represent sounds when used phonetically to write foreign proper names in cartouches. This allowed Champollion to justify the Lettre’s phonetic transliterations of the cartouches of many foreign rulers of Egypt, such as Alexander, Cleopatra, and Ptolemy, and its celebrated list of hieroglyphic and demotic “phonetic signs” supposedly used for writing only these foreign names.

      Soon after, however, Champollion radically changed his mind about the Egyptian scripts upon reading the name of Ramesses, a historically known, native Egyptian pharaoh, written in a cartouche—a possibility hinted at by Young in 1819. Having applied his growing hieroglyphic “alphabet” to many native Egyptian words, Champollion was thrilled to find that it produced credible transliterations of them that were recognizable from Coptic vocabularies. In April 1823, he announced to the Academy of Inscriptions in Paris that there was, after all, a major phonetic hieroglyphic component that had existed long before the Greco-Roman period—the essential insight that enabled his decipherments in Egypt inn 1828-29.

      …Young’s myriad-mindedness provided some vital clues early on, but unlike Champollion, Young was far from obsessed with ancient Egypt. His versatility obstructed him from mak-ing further progress. Conversely, Champollion’s single-mindedness hindered him from spotting these clues, but once they were in place, his tunnel vision allowed him to begin to perceive the system behind the signs. What a pity that the two scholars, despite being in touch, never truly collaborated.

Birds Do Have a Brain Cortex—and Think

[These excerpts are from an article by Suzana Herculano-Houzel in the 25 September 2020 issue of Science.]

      The term “birdbrain” used to be derogatory. But humans, with their limited brain size, should have known better than to use the meager proportions of the bird brain as an insult Part of the cause for derision is that the mantle, or pallium, of the bird brain lacks the obvious layering that earned the mammalian pallium its “cerebral cortex” label. However, birds, and particularly corvids (such as ravens), are as cognitively capable as monkeys and even great apes. Because their neurons are smaller, the pallium of songbirds and parrots actually comprises many more information-processing neuronal nal units than the equivalent-sized mammalian cortices….the bird pallium has neurons that represent what it perceives—a hallmark of consciousness….the bird pallium has similar organization to the mammalian cortex….

      Stating that birds do not have a cerebral cortex has been doubly wrong for several years. Birds do have a cerebral cortex, in the sense that both their pallium and the mammalian counterpart are enormous neuronal populations derived from the same dorsal half of the second neuromere in neural tube development. The second neuromere is important: The pallium of birds and mammals lies posterior to the hypothalamus, the true front part of the brain, which is then saddled in development by the rapidly bulging pallium….it is now understood that in both birds and mammals, the pallium rests on top of all the neuronal loops formed between spinal cord, hindbrain, midbrain, thalamus, and hypothalamus.

      In both birds and mammals, the pallium is the population of neurons that are not a necessary part of the most fundamental circuits that operate the body. But because the pallium receives copies, through the thalamus, of all that goes on elsewhere, these pallial neurons create new associations that endow animal behavior with flexibility and complexity. So far, it appears that the more neurons there are in the pallium as a whole, regardless of pallial, brain, or body size, the more cognitive capacity is exhibited by the animal. Humans remain satisfyingly on top: Despite having only half the mass of an elephant pallium, the human version still has three times its number of neurons, averaging 16 billion. Corvids and parrots have upwards of half a billion neurons in their pallia and can have as many as 1 or 2 billion—like monkeys.

      Additionally, it has been known since 2013 that the circuits formed by the pallial neurons are functionally organized in a similar manner in birds as they are in mammals….

      If the bird pallium as a whole is organized just like the mammalian pallium, then it follows that the part of the bird pallium that is demonstrably functionally connected like the mammalian prefrontal pallium…should also function like it….

      …The widespread occurrence of large mammalian bodies today does not mean that ancestral mammals were large (they were not), nor do the nearly ubiquitous folded cortices of most large mammals today imply that the ancestral cortex was folded [it was not]. The physical properties that make self-avoiding surfaces buckle and fold as they expand under unequal forces apply equally to tiny and enormous cortices, but folds only present themselves past a certain size. Expansion of the cortical surface relative to its thickness is required for folds to appear. But that does not imply that folding evolved, because the physical principles that cause it to emerge were always there.

      Perhaps the same is true of consciousness: The underpinnings are there whenever there is a pallium, or something connected like a pallium, with associative orthogonal short-and long-range loops on top of the rest of the brain that add flexibility and complexity to behavior. But the level of that complexity, and the extent to which new meanings and possibilities arise, should still scale with the number of units in the system. This would be analogous to the combined achievements of the human species when it consisted of just a few thousand individuals, versus the considerable achievements of 7 billion today. /p>

Sizing Up a Green Carbon Sink

[These excerpts are from an article by Gabriel Popkin in the 25 September 2020 issue of Science.]

      Forests are having their moment. Because trees can vacuum carbon from the atmosphere and lock it away in wood, governments and businesses are embracing efforts to fight climate change by reforesting cleared areas and planting trees on a massive scale. But scientists have warned that the enthusiasm and money flowing to forest-based climate solutions threaten to outpace the science.

      Two papers published this week seek to put such efforts on a firmer footing. One study quantifies how much carbon might be absorbed globally by allowing forests cleared for farming or other purposes to regrow. The other calculates how much carbon could be sequestered by forests in the United States if they were fully “stocked” with newly planted trees. Each strategy has promise, the studies suggest, but also faces perils.

      To get a worldwide perspective on the potential of second-growth forests, an international team…assembled data from more than 13,000 previously deforested sites where researchers had measured regrowth rates of young trees. The team then trained a machine-learning algorithm on those data and dozens of variables, such as climate and soil type, to predict and map how fast trees could grow on other cleared sites where it didn’t have data.

      …had previously calculated that some 678 million hectares, an area nearly the size of Australia, could support second-growth forests. (The total doesn’t include land where trees might not be desirable, such as farmland and ecologically valuable grasslands.) If trees were allowed to take over that entire area, new forests could soak up one-quarter of the world's fossil fuel emissions over the next 30 years….That absorption rate is 32% higher than a previous estimate….

      The study highlights “what nature can do all on its own…."

      “…Natural regrowth is not going to save the planet.” One problem: There is often little economic incentive for private landowners to allow forests to bounce back. Under current policies and market pricing, “nobody will abandon cattle ranching or agriculture for growing carbon”….And even when forests get a second life, they often don't last long enough to store much carbon before being cleared again….

      Given such realities, some advocates are pushing to expand tree planting in existing forests. To boost that concept, a team of researchers at the U.S. Forest Service (USFS) quantified how many additional trees U.S. forests could hold. Drawing on a federal inventory, they found that more than 16% of forests in the continental United States are “understocked”—holding fewer than 35% of the trees they could support. Fully stocking these 33 million hectares of forest would ultimately enable U.S. forests to sequester about 18% of national carbon emissions each year….But for that to happen, the United States would have to “massively” expand its annual tree-planting efforts, from about 1 billion to 16 billion trees….

      …planting trees might make sense in some places, but natural regeneration, where possible, provides more bang for the buck….

Ancient DNA Tracks Vikings across Europe

[These excerpts are from an article by Andrew Curry in the 18 September 2020 issue of Science.]

      …In 2008, construction work on an isolated Estonian beach near the town of Salme uncovered the skeletons of more than 40 powerfully built men. They were buried around 750 C.E. in two ships with Viking-style weapons and treasure—apparently the aftermath of a raid gone wrong. DNA from the bones has now added a poignant detail: Four of the men, buried shoulder to shoulder holding their swords, were brothers.

      The new data come from a massive effort to sequence the DNA of Vikings across Eu-.. rope. The results…trace how the Vikings radiated across Europe from their Scandinavian homeland, and how people with roots elsewhere also took up Viking ways….

      …The genetic details may also rewrite popular perceptions of Vikings, including their looks: Viking Age Scandinavians were more likely to have black hair than people living there today. And comparing DNA and archaeology at individual sites suggests that for some in the Viking bands, “Viking” was a job description, not a matter of heredity.

      Viking-style graves excavated on the United Kingdom’s Orkney islands contained individuals with no Scandinavian DNA, whereas some people buried in Scandinavia had Irish and Scottish parents. And several individuals in Norway were buried as Vikings, but their genes identifled them as Saami, an Indigenous group genetically closer to East Asians and Siberians than to Europeans….

      The results also settle a centuries-old argument about the geography of raiding. Sagas written down centuries after the first expeditions suggest Vikings from certain regions favored specific destinations, but other scholars suggested the Viking command of the waves made them equal-opportunity raiders and traders.

      DNA in hand, researchers for the first time could conclusively trace the origins of people from the far edges of the Viking diaspora back to their roots in Scandinavia….

      They found that Vikings from what is now Sweden moved east to the Baltics, Poland, and the rivers of Russia and Ukraine, whereas Danes were more likely to head west to what is today England. Norwegians were most likely to set sail for the North Atlantic Ocean, colonizing Ireland, Iceland, and eventually Greenland….

      To the team’s surprise, there was little evidence of genetic mixture within Scandinavia itself. Although a few coastal settlements and island trading hubs were hot spots of genetic diversity, Scandinavian populations farther inland stayed genetically stable—and separate—for centuries….

      Other mysteries remain. Viking settlements in the Americas have not yielded bones for sequencing, leaving the identity of the first European settlers in the Americas a mystery. And to the east, more samples may help illuminate the role of Vikings in the origins of the early Russian state….

Trump Lied about Science

[These excerpts are from an editorial by H. Holden Thorp in the 18 September 2020 issue of Science.]

      When President Donald Trump began talking to the public about coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) in February and March, scientists were stunned at his seeming lack of understanding of the threat. We assumed that he either refused to listen to the White House briefings that must have been occurring or that he was being deliberately sheltered from information to create plausible deniability for federal in-action. Now, because famed Washington Post journalist Bob Woodward recorded him, we can hear Trump's own voice saying that he understood precisely that severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2) was deadly and spread through the air. As he was playing down the virus to the public, Trump was not confused or inadequately briefed: He flat-out lied, repeatedly, about science to the American people. These lies demoralized the scientific com-munity and cost countless lives in the United States.

      …now, a U.S. president has deliberately lied about science in a way that was imminently dangerous to human health and directly led to widespread deaths of Americans.

      This may be the most shameful moment in the history of U.S. science policy.

      In an interview with Woodward on 7 February 2020, Trump said he knew that COVID-19 was more lethal than the flu and that it spread through the air. “This is deadly stuff,” he said. But on 9 March, he tweeted that the “common flu” was worse than COVID-19, while economic advisor Larry Kudlow and presidential counselor Kellyanne Conway assured the public that the virus was contained. On 19 March, Trump told Woodward that he did not want to level with the American people about the danger of the virus. “I wanted to always play it down,” he said, “I still like playing it down.” Playing it down meant lying about the fact that he knew the country was in grave danger.

      It also meant silencing health officials who tried to tell the truth. On 25 February, Nancy Messonnier, director of the National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases (of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention), said, “It’s not so much a question of if this will happen anymore, but rather more a question of exactly when this will happen and how many people in this country will have severe illness.” She was right and Trump knew it. But he shut her down. He also tried. to control messaging from Anthony Fauci, the nation’s foremost leader on infectious diseases. Trump's supporters insisted that Fauci and Messonnier were not being muzzled, but now we have clear evidence in emails that they were.

      Trump also knew that the virus could be deadly for young people. “It’s not just old, older,” he told Woodward on 19 March. “Young people, too, plenty of young people.” Yet, he has insisted that schools and universities reopen and that college football should resume. He recently added to his advisory team Scott All as—a neuroradiologist with no expertise in epidemiology—who has advocated for a risky and misguided course: somehow isolating the older and more vulnerable while allowing the virus free rein among young people. The opening of colleges and schools has accelerated the spread of the virus and will mean untold suffering among both students and the people to whom they are now spreading the virus.

      Monuments in Washington, D.C., have chiseled into them words spoken by real leaders during crises….

      …Trump was not clueless, and he was not ignoring the briefings. Listen to his own words. Trump lied, plain and simple. /p>

How to Unlearn Racism

[These excerpts are from an artical by Abigail Libers in the Octob2020 issue of Scientific American.]

      …to share our definitions of racism. People’s responses were all over the map, from “a mean-spirited, close-minded way of thinking” to “discrimination based on someone’s skin color or ethnic background.” The trainers validated each of our responses before pointing out how varied they were and explaining that few of us had identified racism as a web of institutional power and oppression based on skin color. Not having a simple or agreed-on definition of racism makes it easier to keep racism in place. To undo racism, they said, we need a common language that ties together individual and systemic factors. Hearing racism described as a power hierarchy was eye-opening for me. Having been marginalized myself, I thought I was sensitive toward other groups who faced discrimination. I thought I got it.

      Over the past several months, America has been reckoning with racism on a scale that has not been seen since the civil-rights movement. The recent killings of George Floyd, Ahrnaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor and others sparked protests against systemic racism and police violence that have drawn multiracial participation. Some white Americans attended Black Lives Matter protests for the first time—the movement has been active since 2013—and saw up close the police brutality they previously only read about or witnessed through short video clips on phone screens. These experiences were a tiny window into the reality of violence and oppression that Black people endure. The pandemic further emphasizes the racial disparities that people are protesting, with Black, Latinx and Indigenous communities disproportionately affected by COVID-19. It has become widely discussed that police violence and virus deaths are not disparate issues—they are both embedded in a pervasive system of racism.

      …All of us have individual race prejudice: anyone can prejudge a person based on race alone. But what makes racism different from individual prejudice is who has institutional power. White people control our government systems and institutions in every sector, from law enforcement and education to health care and the media, leading to laws and policies that can advantage white people while disadvantaging everyone else.

      White people’s dominance in our systems is why you may have heard people refer to the U.S. as a white supremacist society in recent months. In this context, white supremacy does not refer to hate groups such as neo-Nazis and the Ku Klux Klan but rather an entire system where one group has all the advantages….

      …But addressing bias is not sufficient for confronting the racist systems, ideas and legacies that are present in our day-to-day lives. There is no one-size-fits-all solution, but research shows that undoing racism often starts with understanding what race and racism actually are. It is also crucial to develop a positive racial identity; to feel—not just intellectualize—how racism harms all of us and, finally, to learn how to break prejudice habits and become an active anti-racist….

      False classifications of humans that would later be called “races” began in the 16th and 17th centuries with Christian clergy questioning whether “Blacks” and “Indians” were human. As colonial expansion and slavery increased, religion was used to justify classifying Black people and other people of color as “pagan and soulless.” But as many of them were converted to Christianity and the Age of Enlightenment took off in the 1700s, religion lost its legitimizing power.

      Instead “science” was used to justify the enslavement of Africans and the genocide of Indigenous peoples, which had already been occurring in British colonies for more than a century….

      In the U.S., political and intellectual leaders reinforced the false ideology that Africans were biologically inferior to other races and therefore best suited for slavery. After Bacon's Rebellion in 1676, which had united white and Black indentured servants, Virginia lawmakers began to make legal distinctions between “white” and “Black” people. Poor white indentured servants who served their term could go free and own land; Black servants were committed to lifelong servitude. With the Naturalization Act of 1790, Congress codified white racial advantage into law by limiting citizenship by naturalization to “free white persons,” namely white men. Women, people of color and indentured servants were excluded.

      With white superiority cemented firmly into law, the social and political power of whiteness was born. As a category, it was increasingly associated with resources and power: explicit laws and practices that created whiteness as a requirement for being able to live in certain neighborhoods, to be able to vote, to own land, to testify in court before a jury. The legacy of “scientific” racism persists to this day.

      Although biology has shown that there are no genetically distinct races, racial identity—how you and others perceive your race—is very real, as are its ramifications. In a white-dominant society like America, white people tend to be unaware of their identity and may think of themselves as neutral, as nonracial….

      To unlearn racism then, white people must first examine their racial identity….

      …prejudices and biases can be more successfully unlearned through longer-term intervention. The 12-week longitudinal study was based on the premise that implicit bias is like a habit that can be broken through the following soteps: becoming aware of implicit bias, developing concern about the effects of that bias and using strategies to reduce bias—specifically, ones that replace biased reactions with responses that reflect one's nonprejudiced goals.

      The researchers argue that the motivation to “break the prejudice habit” comes from two sources: First, you have to be aware of your biases, and second, you have to be concerned about the consequences of your biases to be motivated to make the effort needed to eliminate them. Recent research has shown that interacting with a wide variety of racial groups can help people care more about racial justice….

      …the process of unlearning is only the first step, and it needs to translate into a commitment to practices such as breaking white silence and bringing an antiracist lens to my work. That is only possible, and sustainable, by building empathy and feeling the ways in which racism is not just harmful for people of color—it hurts white people, too.

      …many white people oppose social health programs such as the Affordable Care Act that would actually benefit them, in part because they believe these programs are designed to benefit people of color….some white Americans support politicians who promote policies that increase their risk of sickness and death.

      …Our country prides itself on being a melting pot, but much gets yr lost in the assimilation to whiteness and white supremacy culture. Markers of ethnic identity such as language, food, culture and music are discouraged; those from a non-Western European heritage are often vilified….

      In the midst of COVID-19, a high-stakes election season and racial protest movements that illuminate issues affecting everyone, many Americans are reevaluating what matters most. White people may be waking up to areas of their lives that were previously inaccessible to them and to histories and literature and legacies that have long been excluded from school curriculums. This awakening may lead people to work on creating a positive racial identity away from white supremacism, one based on fully acknowledging the power of whiteness in our society and using that knowledge to pursue equality and justice for everyone. Skipping that step risks giving up or doing even more harm; shame and self-loathing are not effective motivators and can inhibit the strength and stamina needed to push for systemic change….

Sexism and Racism Persist in Science

[These excerpts are from an article by Naomi Oreskes in the October 2020 issue of Scientific American.]

      Tempers are running hot in science (as they are in the U.S. at large) as the field embarks on along-overdue conversation about its treatment of women and people of color….

      Physics exemplifies the problem. African-Americans make up about 14 percent of the college-age population in the U.S., commensurate with their numbers in the overall population, but in physics they receive 3 to 4 percent of undergraduate degrees and less than 3 percent of Ph.D.s, and as of 2012 they composed only 2 percent of faculty. No doubt there are many reasons for this underrepresentation, but one troubling factor is the refusal of some scientists to acknowledge that a problem could even exist. Science, they argue, is inherently rational and self-correcting.

      Would that were true. The history of science is rife with well-documented cases of misogyny, prejudice and bias. For centuries biologists promoted false theories of female inferiority, and scientific institutions typically barred womens participation….Racial bias has been at least as pernicious as gender bias; it was scientists, after all, who codified the concept of race as a biological category that was not simply descriptive but also hierarchical.

      Good scientists are open to competing ideas; they attend to challenging data, and they listen to opposing views. But scientists are also humans, and cognitive science shows that humans are prone to bias, misperception, motivated reasoning and other intellectual pitfalls. Because reasoning is slow and difficult, we rely on heuristics—intellectual shortcuts that often work but sometimes fail spectacularly. (Believing that men are, in general, better than women in math is one tiring example.) It is not credible to claim that scientists are somehow immune to the biases that afflict everyone else.

      Fortunately, the objectivity of scientific knowledge does not depend on the objectivity of individual scientists. Rather it depends on strategies for identifying, acknowledging and correcting bias and error….Science is a collective effort, and it works best when scientific communities are diverse. The reason is simple: heterogeneous communities are more likely than homogeneous ones to be able to identify blind spots and correct them. Science does not correct itself; scientists correct one another through critical interrogation. And that means being willing to interrogate not just claims about the external world but claims about our own practices and processes as well.

      Science has an admirable record of producing reliable knowledge about the natural and social world, but not when it comes to acknowledging its own weaknesses. And we cannot correct those weaknesses if we insist the system will magically correct itself. It is not ideological to acknowledge and confront bias in science; it is ideological to insist science cannot be biased despite empirical validation to the contrary. Given that our failings of inclusion have been known for a longtime, it is high time we finally fix them.

Born Unequal

[These excerpts are from an article by Janet Currie in the October 2020 issue of Scientific American.]

      The COVID-19 pandemic has disproportionately hurt members of the minority community in the U.S. As of late July, 73.7 Black people out of every 100,000 had died of the coronavirus—compared with 32.4 of every 100,000 white people. Structural racism accounts for much of this disparity. African-Americans are more likely to have jobs that require theria to leave their homes and to cornintite.by public transport, for example, both of which increase the chances of getting infected. They are also more likely to get grievously ill when the virus strikes. As of early June, the hospitaliation rate for those who tested positive for SARS-CoV-2 infection was more than four times higher for Black people than for non-Hispanic white people.

      One reason for this alarming ratio is that African-Americans have higher rates of diabetes, hypertension and asthma—ailments linked to worse outcomes after infection with the coronavirus. Decades of research show that these health conditions, usually diagnosed in adulthood, can reflect hardships experienced while in the womb. Children do not start on a level playing field at birth. Risk factors linked to maternal poverty—such as malnutrition, smoking, exposure to pollution, stress or lack of health care during pregnancy—can predispose babies to future disease. And mothers from minority communities were and are more likely to be subjected to these risks.

      Today’s older African-Americans—those most endangered by COVID-19—are more likely than not to have been born into poverty. In 1959, 55 percent of Black people in the U.S. had incomes below the poverty level, compared with fewer than 10 percent of white people. Nowadays 20 percent of Black Americans live below the poverty line, whereas the poverty rate for white Americans remains roughly the same. Despite the reduction in income inequality between these groups, ongoing racism works through circuitous routes to worsen the odds for minority infants. For example, partly because of a history of redlining (practices through which financial and other institutions made it difficult for Black families to buy homes in predominantly white areas), even better-off African-Americans are more likely to live in polluted areas than are poorer whites—with a corresponding impact on fetal health. Worryingly, people disadvantaged in utero are more likely to have lower earnings and educational attainments, so that the effects of poverty and discrimination can span generations.

      Researchers now have hard evidence that targeted programs can improve health and reduce inequality….And interventions after birth can often reverse much of the damage suffered prenatally….Such interventions came too late to help those born in the 1950s or earlier, but they have narrowed the health gaps between poor and rich children, as well as between white and Black children, in the subsequent decades.

      Enormous disparities in health and vulnerability remain, however, and raise isturbing questions about how children born to poorer mothers during the current pandemic, with all its social and economic dislocations, will fare. Alarmingly, just before the pandemic hit, many of the most essential programs were being cut back. Since the beginning of 2018, more than a million children have lost Medicaid coverage because of new work requirements and other regulations, and many have become uninsured. Now that the COVID-19 death toll has exposed stark inequalities in health status and their attendant risks, Americans must act urgently to reverse these setbacks and to strengthen public health systems and the social safety net, With special attention to the care of mothers, infants and children….

      At present, one of the leading causes of low birth weight in the U.S. is smoking during pregnancy. In the 1950s pregnant women were told that smoking was safe for their babies. Roughly half of all new mothers in 1960 reported smoking while pregnant. Today, thanks to public education campaigns, indoor-smoking bans and higher cigarette taxes, only 7.2 percent of pregnant women say that they smoke. And 55 percent of women who smoked in the three months before they got pregnant quit for at least the duration of their pregnancy.

      Possibly because going to college places women in a milieu where smoking is strongly discouraged, mothers with higher education levels are less likely to smoke. Among mothers with less than a high school education, 11.7 percent smoke, compared with 1 percent of mothers with a bachelor’s degree.

      …The recent surge in vaping, which delivers high doses of nicotine and which surveys show has been tried by almost 40 percent of high school seniors, is an extremely worrying development that could have long-term implications for fetal and infant health….

      The racial divide in pollution exposure is profound, in part because of continuing segregation in housing that makes it difficult for Black families to move out of historically Black neighborhoods. Disadvantaged communities may also lack the political power to fend off harmful development, such as a chemical plant, in their vicinity….across the entire U.S., neighborhoods with higher numbers of African-American residents have systematically worse air quality than other neighborhoods. African-Americans are also twice as likely as others to live near a Superfund hazardous waste site. For these reasons, pollution-control measures such as the Clean Air Act Lhave greatly benefited African-Americans….

      One revealing study indicates that fetal exposure to maternal stress can have greater negative long-term effects on mental health than stress directly experienced by a child….

      …although being stressed during pregnancy is damaging to the fetus, mothers with more education are better able to buffer the effects on their children—an important finding in view of the severe stress imposed by COVID-19 on families today….

      Health at birth and beyond can nonetheless be improved through thoughtful interventions targeting pregnant women, babies and children and through reductions in pollution. The food safety net in the U.S. has already had tremendous success in preventing low birth weight in the babies of disadvantaged women….

      Investments in pregnant women and infants have been paying off, their success reflected in dramatically falling infant mortality rates in the U.S.—despite rising inequality in income and wealth. Alarmingly, however, many successful programs, such as the Clean Air Act, SNAP and Medicaid, are under attack….

      Even simple preventive measures such as giving pregnant women flu shots can have a tremendously positive effect on infant health and child development….It is important to help pregnant women quit smoking and to develop new approaches relevant to a new generation addicted to vaping. Also needed are stronger protections for women at risk of domestic violence, which leads directly to chronic stress, premature deliveries and low birth weight….

From Fear to Hope

[These excerpts are from an editorial by the editors in the October 2020 issue of Scientific American.]

      Scientific American has never endorsed a presidential candidate in its 175-year history. This year we are compelled to do so. We do not do this lightly.

      The evidence and the science show that Donald Trump has badly damaged the U.S. and its people—because he rejects evidence and science. The most devastating example is his willfully ignorant and inept response to the COVID-19 pandemic, which cost more than 170,000 Americans their lives by the middle of August. He has also attacked environmental protections, medical care, and the researchers and public science agencies that help this country prepare for its greatest challenges….

      The pandemic would strain any nation and system, but Trump’s rejection of evidence and public health measures have been catastrophic in the U.S. He was warned many times in January and February about the onrushing disease, yet he did not develop a national strategy to provide protective equipment, coronavirus testing or clear health guidelines. Testing people for the virus, and tracing those they may have infected, is how countries in Europe and Asia have gained control over their outbreaks, saved lives, and successfully reopened businesses and schools. But in the U.S., Trump claimed, falsely, that “anybody that wants a test can get a test.” That was untrue in March and remained untrue through the summer. Trump opposed $25 billion for increased testing and tracing that was in a pandemic relief bill as late as July. These lapses accelerated the spread of disease through the country—particularly in highly vulnerable communities that include people of color, where deaths climbed disproportionately to those in the rest of the population.

      It wasn’t just a testing problem: if almost everyone in the U.S. wore masks in public, it could save about 66,000 lives by the beginning of December, according to projections from the University of Washington School of Medicine. Such a strategy would hurt no one. It would close no business. It would cost next to nothing. But Trump and his vice president flouted local mask rules, making it a point not to wear masks themselves in public appearances. Trump has openly supported people who ignored governors in Michigan and California and elsewhere as they tried to impose social distancing and restrict public activities to control the virus. He encouraged governors in Florida, Arizona and Texas who resisted these public health measures, saying in April—again, falsely—that “the worst days of the pandemic are behind us” and ignoring infectious disease experts who warned at the time of a dangerous rebound if safety measures were loosened.

      And of course, the rebound came, with cases across the nation rising by 46 percent and deaths increasingly 21 percent in June. The states that followed Trump's misguidance posted new daily highs and higher percentages of positive tests thanthose that did not. By early July several hospitals in Texas were full of COVID-19 patients. States had to close up again, at tremendous economic cost. About 31 percent of workers were laid off a second time, following the giant wave of unemployment—more than 30 million people and countless shuttered businesses—that had already decimated the country. At every stage, Trump has rejected the unmistakable lesson that controlling the disease, not downplaying it, is the path to economic reopening and recovery.

      Trump repeatedly undercut clear public health messages, falsely saying the virus was “under control” and no worse than the flu….

      Trump’s reaction to America’s worst public health crisis in a century has been to say “"I don’t take responsibility at all.” Instead he blamed other countries and his White House predecessor, who left office three years before the pandemic began.

      But Trump’s refusal to look at the evidence and act accordingly extends beyond the virus. He has repeatedly tried to get rid of the Affordable Care Act while offering no alternative; comprehensive medical insurance is essential to reduce illness. Trump has proposed billion-dollar cuts to the National Institutes of Health, the National Science Foundation, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, agencies that increase our scientific knowledge and strengthen us for future challenges. Congress has countermanded his reductions. Yet he keeps trying, slashing programs that would ready us for future pandemics and withdrawing from the World Health Organization….

      Trump also keeps pushing to eliminate health rules from the Environmental Protection Agency, putting people at more risk for heart and lung disease caused by pollution. He has replaced scientists on agency advisory boards with industry representatives. In his ongoing denial of reality Trump has hobbled U.S. preparations for climate change, falsely claiming that it does not exist and pulling out of international agreements to mitigate it. The changing climate is already causing a rise in heat-related deaths and an increase in severe storms, wildfires and extreme flooding….

The Twentieth Century

[These excerpts are from A History of the Twentieth Century, with Illustrations by Kim Stanley Robinson in The Year’s Best Science Fiction – Ninth Annual Edition, which was published in 1992.]

      …One could trace the roots of late capitalism to Great War innovations….All business had been organized to fight the enemy; but when the war was over and the enemy vanquished, the organization remained. People continued to sacrifice the fruits of their work, but now they did it for the corporations that had taken the wartime governments’ positions in the system.

      So much of the twentieth century, there already in the Great War. And then the Armistice was signed, at eleven A.M. on November 11th, 1918. That morning at the front the two sides exchanged bombardments as usual, so that by eleven A.M. many people had died….

      And the war never ended.

      The principal point of the process is pressure—pressure in large doeses—and they tried to use enormous steel retorts, made of metal of the finest quality and nine inches thick. But hydrogen has a nasty habit of forming a compound with iron—iron hydride—under these conditions, and that compound is twice as brittle as glass and not a tenth as strong. The retorts, fifty feet long and three feet in diameter, for all theose nine-inch walls, blew up. Hydrogen and nitrogen do not unite readily, except under great pressure—

      This idea, that the two world wars were actually one, was not original….Winston Churchill said it at the time, as did the Nazi Alfred Rosenberg. They saw the twenties and thirties as an interregnum, a pause to regroup in the middle of a two-part conflict. The eye of a hurricane….

      There were arguments against the view that it was a single war. The twenties did not seem very ominous, at least after the Treaty of Locamo in 1925: Germany had survived its financial collapse, and everywhere economic recovery seemed strong. But the thirties showed the real state of things: the depression, the new democracies falling to fascism, the brutal Spanish Civil War; the starvation of the kulaks; the terrible sense of fatality in the air. The sense of slipping on a slope, falling helplessly back into war.

      But this time it was different. Total War. German military strategists had coined the phrase in the 1890s, while analyzing Sherman’s campaign in Georgia. And they felt they were waging total war when they torpedoed neutral ships in 1915. But they were wrong; the Great War was not total war. In 1914 the rumor that German soldiers had killed eight Belgian nuns was enough to shock all civilization, and later when the Lusitania was sunk, objections were so fierce that the Germans agreed to leave passenger ships alone. This could only happen in a world where people still held the notion that in war armies fought armies and soldiers killed soldiers, while civilians suffered privation and perhaps got killed accidentally, but were never deliberately targeted. This was how European wars had been fought for centuries: diplomacy by other means.

      In 1939, this changed. Perhaps it changed only because the capability for total war had emerged from the technological base, in the form of mass long-range aerial bombardment. Perhaps on the other hand it was a matter of learning the lessons of the Great War, digesting its implications. Stalin’s murder of the kulaks, for instance: five million Ukrainian peasants, killed because Stalin wanted to collectivize agriculture. Food was deliberately shipped out of that breadbasket region, emergency supplies withheld, hidden stockpiles destroyed; and several thousand villages disappeared as all their occupants starved. This was total war….

      Twenty million had died in the first war, fifty million in the second. Civilian deaths made the bulk of the difference. Near the end of the war, thousands of bombs were dropped on cities in the hope of starting firestorms, in which the atmosphere itself was in effect ignited, as in Dresden, Berlin, Tokyo. Civilians were the target now, and strategic bombing made them easy to hit. Hiroshima and Nagasaki were in that sense a kind of exclamation point, at the end of a sentence which the war had been saying all along: we will kill your families at home. War is war, as Sherman said; if you want peace, surrender! And they did.

      After two bombs. Nagasaki was bombed three days after Hiroshima, before the Japanese had time to understand the damage and respond. Dropping the bomb on Hiroshima was endlessly debated in the literature, but Frank found few who even attempted a defense of Nagasaki. Truman and his advisors did it, people said, to a) show Stalin they had more than one bomb, and b) show Stalin that they would use the bomb even as a threat or warning only, as Nagasaki demonstrated. A Vietnam Memorial’s worth of civilians in an instantaneous flash, just so Stalin would take Truman seriously. Which he did.

      When the crew of the Enola Gay landed, they celebrated with a barbecue….

      The Holocaust, like Hiroshima and Nagasaki, had precedents. Russians with Ukrainians, Turks with Armenians, white settlers with native Americans. But the mechanized efficiency of the Germans' murder of the Jews was something new and horrible….

      …the atomic bomb meant that the second half of the century looked different than the first. Some, Americans for the most part, called it the Pax Americana. But most called it the Cold War, 1945-1989. And not that cold, either. Under the umbrella of the superpower stalemate local conflicts flared everywhere, wars which compared to the two big ones looked small; but there had been over a hundred of them all told, killing about 350,000 people a year, for a total of around fifteen million, some said twenty; it was hard to count. Most occurred in the big ten: the two Vietnam wars, the two Indo-Pakistan wars, the Korean war, the Algerian war, the civil war in Sudan, the massacres in Indonesia in 1965, the Biafran war, and the Iran-Iraq war. Then another ten million civilians had been starved by deliberate military action; so that the total for the period was about the equal of the Great War itself. Though it had taken ten times as long to compile. Improvement of a sort.

      And thus perhaps the rise of atrocity war, as if the horror of individualized murders could compensate for the lack of sheer number. And maybe it could; because now his research consisted of a succession of accounts and color photos of rape, dismemberment, torture—bodies of individual people, in their own clothes, scattered on the ground in pools of blood. Vietnamese villages, erupting in napalm. Cambodia, Uganda, Tibet—Tibet was genocide again, paced to escape the world’s notice, a few villages destroyed every year in a process called thamzing, or reeducation: the villages seized by the Chinese and the villagers killed by a variety of methods, “burying alive, hanging, beheading, disemboweling, scalding, crucifixion, quartering, stoning, small children forced to shoot their parents; pregnant women given forced abortions, the fetuses piled in mounds on the village squares.”

      Meanwhile power on the planet continued to shift into fewer hands. The Second World War had been the only thing to successfully end the Depression, a fact leaders remembered; so the economic consolidation begun in the First War continued through the Second War and the Cold War, yoking the whole world into a war economy….

The End of Oil?

[These excerpts are from an article by Antonia Juhasz in the September/October 2020 issue of Sierra.]

      …The oil industry has turned the oceans into aquatic parking lots—floating storage facilities holding, at their highest levels in early May, some 390 million barrels of crude oil and refined products like gasoline. Between March and May, the amount of oil “stored” at sea nearly tripled, and it has yet to abate in many parts of the world.

      This tanker invasion is only one piece of a dangerous buildup in oil supply that is the result of an unprecedented global glut. The coronavirus pandemic has gutted demand, resulting in the current surplus, but it merely exacerbated a psychopathy that’s been plaguing the oil industry for years: the incessant overproduction of a product that the world is desperately trying to wean itselffrom, with growing success.

      Today, the global oil industry is in a tailspin. Demand has cratered, prices have collapsed, and profits are shrinking. The oil majors (giant global. corporations including BP, Chevron, and Shell) are taking billions of dollars in losses while cutting tens of thousands of jobs. Smaller companies are declaring bankruptcy, and investors are looking elsewhere for returns. Significant changes to when, where, and how much oil will be produced, and by whom, are already underway. It is clear that the oil industry will not recover from COVID-19 and return to its former self. What form it ultimately takes, or whether it will even survive, is now very much an open question.

      Under President Donald Trump, the United States has joined other petroleum superpowers in efforts to maintain oil’s dominance. While government bailout programs and subsidies could provide the lifeline the industry needs to stay afloat, such policies will likely throw good money after bad….

      In contrast to an agenda that doubles down on dirty fuels, a wealth of green recovery programs aim to keep fossil fuels in the ground as part of a just transition to a sustainable and equitable economy. If these policies prevail, the industry will rapidly shrink to a fraction of its former stature. Thus, as at no other time since the industry’s inception, the actions taken now by the public and by policymakers will determine oil’s fate….

      The oil industry is in such dire straits today because of the multiple crises it has faced since well before the pandemic. These upheavals.are largely the result ofthe decades of organizing that have cast a dark shadow over the industry and exposed the harms associated with oil. This advocacy has helped to shut down and delay fossil fuel projects through direct-action protest, bring about current and expected policies to cut demand and production, make sustainable transportation and renewable energy more accessible and affordable, and reduce the political and economic benefits of supporting the oil industry. The result of the organizing and advocacy is death by a thousand cuts, leaving behind an industry producing too much of a commodity that is of shrinking value.

      For more than a decade, volatility has been a hallmark of global oil markets. Within extreme highs and lows, however, there exists a consistent trend: a fall both in oil prices since 2008 and in the growth of demand for oil since at least 2011. After reaching a record high of $148 a barrel in 2008, which helped spark the Great Recession, the price of a barrel of oil in November 2019 was just $60. The growth in demand for oil worldwide in 2015 was more than two and a half times greater than in 2019; it plunged precipitously between 2017 and 2019. Despite the contraction in demand, companies kept pumping larger. amounts of oil. By 2018, the global oil supply had outstripped demand, causing a glut….

      Global indexes measuring the value of the largest oil companies hit a 50-year low in 2018; of the world's 100 biggest stocks, only six were oil producers. By 2019, the fossil fuel industry ranked dead last among major investment Sectors in the United States. This was not surprising, given. that the US oil and gas industry was in debt to the tune of $200 billion, largely because of struggling small fracking companies.

      Even as investors were abandoning oil company stocks, a flood of cheap money and easy credit had been keeping the industry afloat. During the past decade, the US fracking industry lost $300 billion yet was able to continue producing, thanks to the financial backing of government subsidies, banks, hedge funds, and other investors. But well before the pandemic arrived, the private-capital flows were weakening. In addition, every major Democratic candidate for president pledged to end government subsidies for fossil fuels….

      …in the midst ofoverproduction, both the price of oil and demand growth had been dropping, creating a vicious cycle in which producers had to sell more oil to make the same or even less money.

      Oil production rose globally, but most aggressively in the United States. After production fell in the last year of the Obarna. administration, Trump’s “American energy dominance” policy spurred a historic ramp-up. US oil production reached its highest levels in history in 2018, and again in 2019. The boom made the United States the world's largest oil producer and drove production across the nation, with states including Colorado, New Mexico, North Dakota, Ohio, Oklahoma, and Texas all reaching record highs.

      A massive oversupply, a slew of indebted and overleveraged companies, wary investors, and a hostile public: All ofthe signs were there of a bubble ready to burst….

      The COVID-19 pandemic has brought into sharp relief the existing fragilities within the oil industry—and then made each of them worse. The pandemic has also revealed new ways that oil harms the public, as studies confirm that exposure to air pollution generated largely from fuel combustion from cars, refineries, and power plants increases COVID-19 death rates and that climate change (caused by the production and use of oil and other fossil fuels) is making outbreaks of infectious diseases more common and more dangerous.

      As the pandemic took hold, governments around the world implemented stay-at-home orders. People delighted in the newly clean air as airplanes, trucks, trains, and cars went idle. Consumption of fossil fuels, especially gasoline, collapsed, and with it the price of oil….

      The oil glut quickly became a tsunami. Under the weight of all that oil, in April the price of oil crashed to negative $40 dollars a barrel—the low-est amount in history. Yet even at that bargain-basement price, there were few takers. Panic jolted the industry….

      The fall in new drilling led to a collapse in jobs. Across the United States, more than 100,000 oil and gas and associated industry jobs were lost between March and May…..

      …Shell announced that it will slash up to $22 billion from the value of its assets, and BP is selling assets worth $15 billion, including its petrochemical business, and eliminating 10,000 jobs worldwide. Chevron is cutting about 6,000 workers worldwide, and ExxonMobil, after taking a. $3 billion write-down in May, announced that it could drop as many as 7,500 workers in the United States alone. They join some 55 oil companies that have announced plans to cut more-than $37 billion from their pre-COVID 2020 spending budgets.

      …Led by President Trump and Republicans in Congress, oil and gas companies in the United States had, by June, received billions of dollars in both direct federal COVID-19 benefits and indirect payouts through new Federal Reserve pandemic-relief spending….

      To lock in the production cuts that have already been implemented and go beyond them requires keep-it-in-the-ground policies that are based, on a “managed decline” in oil production. On the global level, turning away from oil will require wealthy countries to meet their obligations under the Paris Agreement and provide $500 billion by 2025 to support poorer countries’ transition to green, sustainable economies. These funds can be increased and should include targeted support for efforts in poor countries to keep their oil in the ground….

      The pandemic has made painfully clear that there are two ways the age of oil might end. There’s the status quo path, in which we are so overcome by the disasters brought about by our oil reliance—calamities in the forms of war, political upheaval, and the climate catastrophes of worsening drought, floods, hurricanes, fires, and disease—that we are unable to consume oil. And there is a more intentional, thoughtful path, one that embraces justice, equity, and sustainability. If we take that route, the “end of oil” will be a commitment to live in peace with one another and the planet.

      The choice is up to us.

“I Can’t Breathe”

[These excerpts are from an article by Kendra Pierre-Louis in the September/October 2020 issue of Sierra.]

      Even in nonpandemic times, air pollution is deadly.

      Each year, it kills more than 100,000 people in the United States and 5 million worldwide. Most deadly are the-tiny particles that are byproducts of the fuels we burn to power our cars, generate electricity, and create the panoply of chemicals that make up modern life. Like the coronavirus that causes COVID-19, they lodge deep in a person’s lungs, triggering a deadly cascade of health problems.

      But mortality from air pollution is not evenly distributed….

      Some of these deaths can be attributed to broader social inequities. Black and Latino people, for example, are more likely to hold jobsincluding many in health care—that have been declared essential services, putting them at greater risk of exposure to the coronavirus. And because of systemic racism within health care, they’re less likely to be given adequate treatment when they become sick….

      A growing body of research suggests that air pollution itself is an important factor in these deaths….

      To understand why, it helps to understand what air pollution does to the body—especially the fine particulate matter known as PM 2.5, which is created from burning oil, coal, and fracked gas. Over the long term, breathing in these particles can permanently damage the lungs, making it harder to breathe. COVID-19 also damages the lungs. Air pollution can damage the heart. COVID-19 also damages the heart. Breathing polluted air makes you more likely to develop type 2 diabetes, a disease that makes you more likely to die from COVID-19…

      If air pollution is the bullet, systemic racism loaded the gun….while communities of color suffer higher overall levels of air pollution compared with predominantly white communities, it also matters where those communities are located. Segregated cities, such as Memphis and Chicago, have higher levels of air pollution overall than more integrated ones.

      In the face of evidence that air pollution is harmful and air pollution during a pandemic is especially so, the Trump administration is making it easier for companies to pollute. Even as the number of COVID-19 deaths was beginning to rise, Trump’s EPA rejected recommendations to raise the national air quality standard for particulate matter and told polluters that it wouldn’t expect routine pollution monitoring and compliance because of the pandemic….

      The movementthat was sparked by George Floyd’s dying words, “I can’t breathe,” is now addressing air pollution as well as police violence….

Did Milk Build the Mongol Empire?

[These excerpts are from an article by Jonathan Shaw in the September/October 2020 issue of Harvard Magazine.]

      When the sons and grandsons of Genghis Khan ruled the Mongol empire in the thirteenth century, it stretched from eastern Europe to the Pacific Ocean, and encompassed Persia in the south and Russia to the north. How did this nomadic culture—the third such empire to rise from the arid grasslands of the Eurasian Steppe since 200 B.C.—conquer and cohere across such vast distances? And how did these nomads' predecessors, pastoralists with ox-drawn carts, spread swiftly east and west to forever change the genetic structure of Europe and Asia?

      Answers have been hard to come by, in part because nomadic cultures leave only limited archaeological evidence of their lifeways behind—mortuary mounds with occasional animal-bone offerings are the prime archaeological feature of the Eastern Steppe. Now a scientist interested in reconstructing ancient diets and understanding the evolution of the human microbiome has begun to assemble new types of evidence suggesting that the ability to build a succession of empires on the Eurasian Steppe has been predicated, at least in part, on dairying: the widespread production and consumption of horse, sheep, goat, cow, and other milks and milk products that sustained and tied nomadic tribes together culturally across vast distances. And the record showing the origin, extent, and diversity of this custom lies in a durable and extraordinarily representative source: ancient dental plaque.

      …Ancient tartar, once discarded, is now regarded by archaeologists as a vital archive that preserves individuals’ DNA, their oral microbiome, and traces of what they ate….milk proteins can become trapped in calcifying human dental plaque, enabling research-ers to determine when livestock milk first began appearing in human diets. In addition, the specific amino acid sequences of the recovered milk proteins act as a kind of fingerprint that can reveal which livestock species were being milked.

      …Dairying, well-studied in Western European cultures, was once thought to have spread alongside a genetic mutation that makes it possible to digest lactose, a milk sugar, into adulthood. This correlation between culture and a genetic trait, driven by natural selection, appears to have been the dominant pattern for dairying’s spread in the British Isles and Scandinavia, where a majority of people now carry the gene variant. But most of the world’s population—including the nomads of the Eurasian Steppe—lack such a mutation….

      …around 3000 B.C., ruminant dairying rapidly spread thousands of kilometers across the Eurasian Steppe, from the north Caucusus region near the Black Sea to as far east as Mongolia, in the span of only a few centuries. There, the grasslands, although inhospitable to grain agriculture, provided abundant nutrition for grazing animals and supported the production of a wide variety of rbliry-based foods for humans.

      But not until 1200 B.C., coincident with the first plaque-protein evidence for horse-milk consumption, does mobile pastoralism “reach its height,” says Warinner. Mare’s milk was probably used “almost exclusively for alcohol production,” to make a drink that is still used today to cement contracts and social ties, but the use of horses led to a transformative expansion of dairying culture. Horses travel farther and faster than other ruminants, she points out, thereby enhancing herding capacity, access to pasturage, and the control of larger territories. And in winter, they dig instinctually for snow-covered grasses, exposing it for sheep, goats, and cattle, which would otherwise starve. “Horses,” explains Warinner, “made the whole dairy-based economy work better and more efficiently.” The stage was set for the rise of nomadic empires.

      But at least one mystery remains. Although 95 percent of the Eastern Steppe population lacks the gene variant for digesting lactose, ethnographic studies of modern nomadic herders show that between 30 percent and 50 percent of their summer-time dietary calories come from dairy products. These range from mare’s milk (men will consume up to eight liters of fermented airag a day), to lightweight, calorie-dense curds that can be transported and stored for up to two years—in all, more than 20 different dairy-based foods. How these nomads cope with such extreme levels of lactose in their diet is unknown, but Warinner suspects they may have highly altered gut microbiomes that could be adaptive….

Census Experts Fear Rush to Finish Tally Will Yield Flawed Data

[These excerpts are from an article by Jeffrey Mervis in the 11 September 2020 issue of Science.]

      With the 2020 census in its final month, the U.S. statistical community fears rushed deadlines and political interference could lead to a seriously flawed bead count They want Congress to take two steps to avoid that fate: ensure that the Census Bureau has enough time to do the job right, and create an independent oversight body to track the agency’s efforts.

      The primary purpose of the decennial census is to determine how many seats each state gets in the 435-member House of Representatives. The data are also used to allocate some $1.5 trillion per year in federal spending, and they fuel countless research studies of U.S. demographic trends.

      But many social scientists believe several recent actions by the Trump administration have undermined the bureau's ability to meet those obligations without sacrificing its rigorous standards for quality. Last month, the administration cut by nearly half the time the bureau had earlier said it needed for its final push to complete the census. Demographers fear that could result in a major undercount of people who are traditionally hard to reach—including immigrants, the poor, and people of color—and distort the country’s demographic profile. And some observers charge that the recent insertion of three political appointees into new, high-level Census positions is part of a broader effort by the White House to produce a 2020 census that will benefit Republican-leaning states by giving them greater representation in Congress.

      …the administration’s actions, which include a failed last-minute attempt to add a citizenship question to the census, have also tarnished the agency’s “well-earned global reputation as a respected statistical agency, independent of political agendas.”

      The most expensive element of every census is tracking down the one-third of all U.S. residents who do not respond to repeated reminders to answer the 10 questions and submit the form. The bureau begins its nonresponse follow-up (NRFU) campaign roughly 6 weeks after the official 1 April start of the decennial census. But the COVID-1.9 pandemic delayed the NRFU and also led the bureau to ask Congress for a 4-month extension of its 31 December deadline for submitting the state-by-state numbers used for the apportionment of House seats.

      The Trump administration later rescinded that request, however, and on 3 August Census Bureau Director Steven Dillingham announced that the agency would meet its end-of-the-year deadline by halting field operations on 30 September, 4 weeks earlier than planned. (Last week a federal judge blocked the bureau’s effort to wrap things up early pending a 17 September hearing.)

      Last week, the House committee that oversees the Census Bureau released an internal agency report warning that the compressed period “creates risks for serious errors” and that eliminating some operations “will reduce accuracy.” Census officials have also canceled an exercise this month designed to ensure enumerators don’t miss so-called group quarters—places that are home to large numbers of residents, including college dormitories, prisons, and nursing homes.

      Such last-minute changes will most likely mean greater reliance on a process called imputation to fill in any data gaps. Imputation uses information on file with other government agencies to infer the demographic characteristics of non-respondents. But experts say demographic groups with lower self-response rates are also less likely to be found in existing administrative records, increasing the odds they will be undercounted.

      In recent censuses, the nonresponse rate has been less than 1%—it was about 0.4% in 2010—leaving few holes to fill with imputation. But many experts believe the nonresponse rate could reach double digits in 2020….

      To reduce that number, Prewitt and other census advocates want to give the bureau the 4-month extension it originally requested. In May, the Democrat-controlled House included the extension in a pandemic relief package. But that bill has stalled in the Republican-led Senate….

      This summer’s arrival of three political appointees holding newly created positions at the bureau has also spurred calls for more oversight. Social scientists fear that the appointees…might bring a political agenda to how the bureau completes its work and releases the data….

      Social scientists also worry that a 21 July Trump order requiring the Census Bureau to exclude undocumented residents from the state-by-state count will damage the overall quality of the 2020 census….Civil rights groups have sued to block the order, which they say violates a constitutional requirement to count every resident.

      Given all these unanswered questions, some observers are already speculating about a possible early do-over….

Systemic Equity in Education

[These excerpts are from an editorial by Gilda A. Barabino in the 11 September 2020 issue of Science.]

      To often in higher education, the legacy of laws, policies, and practices that have systematically denied educational opportunities to Blacks is ignored, thereby perpetuating racial inequities. In the United States, higher education is a key route to career success and upward socioeconomic mobility. Unfortunately, this path is increasingly becoming most accessible to privileged communities….

      …The U.S. Supreme Court ruling on Plessy v. Ferguson in 1896 legalized “separate but equal” educational institutions and opportunities for Blacks. Even though the landmark decision of Brown v. Board of Education in 1954 declared "separate but equal" to be unconstitutional, many schools remained segregated, including the one in Florida near where my military family lived nearly 10 years later. In higher education, historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs) were established in the United States in the early 19th century for Blacks to obtain advanced degrees. Until Brown, most college-educated Blacks graduated from HBCUs.

      …But it is discouraging that the challenges that existed along my journey remain challenges faced today by Black students interested in pursuing careers in science, technology; engineering, and mathematics. There is still a lack of diversity among faculty and students in engineering schools. This environment has negative consequences and feeds a. vicious cycle. The dearth of Black faculty role models and mentors contributes to the underrepresentation of Black students. Structural and social barriers such as hostile climates, bias, and tokenism make it difficult to achieve a sense of belonging and limit career choices and opportunities for Black students and faculty; further perpetuating the persistent underrepresentation. Today, 3.9% of students in the United States who graduate with a bachelor's degree in engineering are Black. And only 4.1% of students who graduate with a Ph.D. in engineering in the nation are Black.

      Dismantling systemic racism in higher education will require efforts to think and operate in new ways beyond existing programs that support students of color—those efforts are typically targeted to individuals, and what’s needed in addition are efforts that promote insti-tutional change. Engineering colleges are a good place for breaking things down and rebuilding. Olin, for example, is committed to applying a co-creation model of change (where students, faculty, and administration work together) that relies on a combination of leadership, shared responsibility and accountability, courageous and effective discourse, mutual understanding, community engagement, and design approaches that have the potential for meaningful change. The lessons learned in our process of experimentation and discovery hopefully can be shared to help other colleges interested in achieving similar goals.

      It’s time to abandon the myth that students and faculty of color can't be found. Higher education must challenge the status quo.

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