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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).
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.

The College Money Crisis

[These excerpts are from an article by David Leonhardt in the 17 September 2020 supplemental morning report of The New York Times.]

      The coronavirus has caused severe budget problems for American higher education. But many colleges’ financial troubles are much larger than the virus. They have been building for years and stem, above all, from a breakdown in this country’s hodgepodge system of paying for higher education.

      Given the importance of higher education —for scientific, research entrepreneurship and ultimately American living standards — I want to use today’s newsletter to talk about this breakdown.

      The current system arose after World War II and depended on three sources of money: students (and their parents); the federal government; and state governments. Of those, state governments were supposed to provide the most money. That’s why many Americans attend something known as a state college.

      Over time, though, state officials came to a realization. If they cut their higher-education budgets, colleges could make up the shortfall by raising tuition. Many other state-funded programs, like health care, highways, prisons and K-12 education, have no such alternative.

      “In every economic downturn since the 1980s, states have disproportionately cut college and university budgets,” Kevin Carey writes in a new Washington Monthly article that offers an exceptionally clear description of the problem. Since 2008, states have cut inflation-adjusted per-student spending by 13 percent, according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.

      These budget cuts have left most colleges struggling for resources, even as elite colleges, both private and public, can raise substantial revenue from tuition and alumni donations. Not surprisingly, inequality in higher education has grown. Many poor and middle-class students who excel in high school attend colleges with inadequate resources and low graduation rates — and end up with student debt but no degree.

      And research repeatedly shows that college matters: Graduates are more likely than nongraduates to be employed, to earn good salaries, to be happy and to live long lives.

      The decline in state support for higher education is unlikely to reverse itself, and most middle-class families can’t easily afford to pay rapidly rising tuition bills. That leaves the federal government. A central question, then, is whether it will step in — or whether a college education will become ever more of a luxury good.

      …Joe Biden has proposed a big expansion of federal support for higher education, which would make college free for any family earning less than $125,000 a year. President Trump does not have a plan to make college less expensive….

Dismantling the Racist Mindset

[These excerpts are from an article by Corban Swain in the September/October 2020 issue of MIT News.]

      …This internal conversation is the time-consuming effort that Toni Morrison describes: "The function, the very serious function, of racism is distraction. It keeps you from doing your work. It keeps you explaining, over and over again, your reason for being."

      Beyond distraction, the most insidious aspect of the comment my teacher made is the culture and the mindset behind it. It is the mindset that creates scholarship programs aimed at increasing diversity while remaining ignorant of how educational disparities are connected to lack of funding: non-white school districts receive $23 billion less than white districts even though both serve the same number of students.

      It is the mindset that blames both the death of George Floyd and the disproportionate lethality of covid-19 for Black Americans on underlying health conditions when the former is due to racist police brutality and the latter to inequities in health care access and air and water quality, as well as other structural factors.

      It is the mindset that led professors to tell Black students at MIT to “go somewhere and do things you people can do,” as reported in a survey of Black students who attended between 1969 and 1985. And it has left us dealing now with a “lack of administrative investment in confronting and changing the institutional climate,” as a 2017 report commissioned by the Office of the Dean for Graduate Education put it.

      Ultimately, it is the mindset that allows us to barely recognize anti-Black racism around us and remain blind to the ways we uphold and perpetuate racist ideas within ourselves….

      Teach your children to be antiracist. Teach them the breadth of Black and Indigenous history left out of schoolbooks. Teach them not to be silent in the face of jokes and anecdotes that perpetuate racist ideas. Take them to a protest and teach them to march for Black lives. Teach them to vote for policies that acknowledge and deconstruct institutionalized discrimination. Teach them to sacrifice their privileges and financial power for the sake of those unheard and unseen.

      If you do not, they will default to the mindset I described above—to the culture that is already present. They will become students, professors, and leaders who will make comments and take actions that perpetuate the very devaluation of Black people that led me to write this. But if you do teach them, they will contribute to the dismantling of racism in themselves and in their communities. They will begin to embody what a full picture of a “welcoming MIT” and a welcoming world looks like.

      I approach this as someone who is continually learning. I do not have all the answers, and I am still growing in my understanding of how to effectively fight against racism, classism, sexism, and other forms of bigotry within myself. But my posture as a lifelong student does not keep me from changing, acting, and teaching at the same time.

      So I hope that as you teach your children—even before you teach your children—you will take the time to learn, change, and act yourself. The humanity of all of us depends on it.

Punching In

[These excerpts are from an article by Simson Garfinkel in the September/October 2020 issue of MIT News.]

      As a schoolboy growing up in New York City in the 1870s, Herman Hollerith often managed to sneak out of the schoolroom just before spelling lessons. His teacher noticed and one day locked the door; Hollerith responded by jumping out of the second-floor window. Difficult, easily bored, but clearly brilliant, Hollerith gained admission to the School of Mines of Columbia College (now the School of Engineering and Applied Science) and graduated with distinction and an engineering degree in 1879. He was 19….

      But being the kind of person who easily got bored, Hollerith found that working on the report wasn’t enough. So in his spare time, he worked for John Shaw Billings, head of the census office’s Division of Vital Statistics. It was there that Hollerith got the idea to mechanize the repetitive tabulations involved in census work….

      Hollerith thought a census machine might have great commercial potential….

      Walker, who’d been born to a wealthy Boston family and went to Amherst, was highly regarded for his work in economics and bad been appointed chief of the US Bureau of Statistics in 1869, after serving in the Civil War as an enlisted soldierand then a commissioned officer in the Union Army. Nominated to be superintendent of the ninth (1870) census at age 29, he set out to reform the census by making it more scientific and efficient—and by eliminating the influence of politics on the official statistics. He didn’t reach that last goal, but his work was so well respected that he was appointed superintendent of the 10th census in April 1879.

      In the fall of 1881, Walker left government service to become the third president of MIT. The following year, he and George F. Swain, an instructor in civil engineering, persuaded Hollerith to join the MIT faculty….

      While at MIT, Hollerith made what he would later call his “first crude experiments” on the census machine….

      But Hollerith wasn’t cut out for academia. Not wanting to teach the same course a second time, he left the Institute at the end of the spring semester, accepting an appointment as an assistant examiner at the US Patent Office in May1883. He likely took the job to learn firsthand how the US patent system worked. Hollerith resigned his appointment less than a year later, on March 31, 1884, and set up his own office….

      …by the time his patent was issued on January 8, 1889, Hollerith had settled on using cards made out of stiff paper instead of paper strips. His three “foundation” patents—all issued on the same day in 1889—describe a complete system for mechanizing the computation of statistics, including a device for punching cards in such a way that the punches correspond to a person’s age, race, marital status, and so on….

      In 1889, the census office held a competition for a contract to deliver machines that would be used to tabulate the 11th (1890) census: Hollerith's system won. As the work on that census progressed, Hollerith worked out the basics of a business plan that would last for more than a century. Because he didn’t want poorly maintained machines to give his company a bad name, he rented the machines to his customers and included both service and support. After the census office used inferior paper cards that left fibers in the mercury, Hollerith required his customers to purchase his own high-quality cards. /p>

      Hollerith incorporated his company as the Tabulating Machine Company in 1896; in 1911 he sold it for $2.3 million to the financier Charles R. Flint, who combined it with three of its competitors to create the Computing-Tabulating-Recording Company (CTR). In 1914 CTR hired Thomas J. Watson Sr. as its general manager. Eight years later, Watson renamed the company International Business Machines.

Standding Together

[These excerpts are from a letter from President L. Rafael Reif in the September/October 2020 issue of MIT News.]

      …the example that shocked the nation was the brutal killing of George Floyd. But so many have suffered before him over weeks and decades and centuries.

      Our nation is in terrible trouble. And part of that trouble is the systemic racism that is destroying us from the inside. A society that tolerates official brutality thereby, of course, encourages it.

      If we hope to live in a society that is better than its worst impulses, we must use this awful moment to drive and accelerate positive change.

      * We must begin by insisting on full accountability for the officers involved in killing Mr. Floyd.

      * We need to make clear to anyone who doubts it that the rage and anguish unleashed by his murder are deeply justified.

      * We need to support the current protests, which are overwhelmingly filled with peaceful people begging for justice and peace.

      * And, to address systemic racism in policing and criminal justice, we must press for systemic reform.

      I hope we can join together in doing those outward things. But we also have work to do closer to home.

      All of us who can count on the advantages of education, money, power, and even safety in our homes and neighborhoods—all of us with those advantages benefit, every day, from a society with a racist history and a racist present. And MIT is part of that society.

      This is our community. I believe it is a wonderful community. But it is our responsibility to make it better….

      It is difficult to face this moment in our forced separation without even the consolation of being able to embrace or to wipe each other’s tears.

      To those of you who are African-American or of African descent: I know that I cannot know what you are feeling. But I can stand with you. I do stand with you. And I am certain all the people of MIT do too.

Educational Accountability is Out of Step – Now More Than Ever

[These excerpts are from an article by Derek Gottlieb and Jack Schneider in the September 2020 issue of Phi Delta Kappan.]

      The COVID-19 pandemic has led many of us to reconsider what we deem to be the nation’s most essential institutions. Our hospitals and grocery stores, for instance, have never seemed so important. And in the same vein, our public schools have been showered with newfound appreciation. News programs and social media have been full of praise for teachers — not just for the academic instruction they provide, but also for being a stable and caring presence in students’ lives. Americans have also come to recognize the many vital social services schools offer, including mental health care, occupational and physical therapy, and the delivery of regular meals for low-income students. Take those services away, and even the fiercest critics of public education begin to see their schools in a new light, coming to understand just how varied are the ways in which children, parents, and communities rely on them.

      State governments, however, have yet to open their eyes. They may have waived standardized testing this year…, but once their public schools reopen, they'll go right back to measuring them by the same few metrics they've used for more than a generation: test scores in reading and math, high school graduation rates, and, in some cases, student attendance….

      Critics have long highlighted the shortcomings of this approach to school accountability…, but never has it looked so out-of-step with the actual work of educating children. As so many Americans have come to appreciate, schools pursue a broad range of i i m s: not just to teach academic content but also to cultivate social skills and critical thinking, prepare young people for work and citizenship, foster creativity, and promote emotional and physical health….

      The turn toward educating children at home also makes the resource gaps between families all the more evident. More affluent parents are more likely to own musical instruments, art supplies, computers, an internet router, and a car (with which to drive their children to parks and hiking trails, if open). However, most families depend on their local schools to provide their children with such a rich and varied curriculum, and they have been hard-pressed to make up the difference. For them, reducing schools to basic online instruction in math and English is tragic; yet that is essentially what present accountability systems encourage.

      For decades, education researchers have known that standardized test scores, which carry the most weight in accountability formulas, tend to correlate strongly with student background variables like family income and parents’ college completion rates….In other words, they tell us more about out-of-school factors — what students bring to school — than about the performance of schools themselves….

      There are certain things all schools must do well — provide effective reading instruction, maintain a safe and orderly learning environment, and so on — but our best schools also respond in thoughtful ways to local needs and contexts. In rural areas, for example, public schools often provide a hub for community life. In urban areas with high levels of student diversity, they may prioritize English language instruction and culturally responsive pedagogy. Some schools choose to emphasize projects and student-directed learning. Others opt to focus on character education. These differences matter, but they are invisible to the number crunching that characterizes present accountability systems.

      Schools are highly complex organizations, and determining their true quality requires the sort of careful, holistic, human judgment that our society has always relied upon to make consequential decisions in politics, the law, and other arenas….

      A deliberative process of educational accountability would ensure not only that relevant aspects of a school’s work — the particular challenges it faces, its resources, and the goals it has chosen to pursue are taken into account, but also that they are weighed appropriately. This kind of approach would do justice to schools, attending to goals and practices that proponents of test-based accountability often write off as “hard to measure.” Further, it would take into account whatever a given school happens to have faced in that particular year, whether it be a worldwide pandemic, a hurricane, or some other crisis.

      Educating young people involves far more than getting them into their seats and raising their scores. We expect our schools to motivate students, care for them, and keep them safe. Schools introduce young people to the wider world, help them discover their talents and their interests, and alter their life trajectories. Of course, teaching academic skills that can be measured via standardized tests is important, but that can’t be all that matters. We owe it to our teachers, our students, and ourselves to align our accountability systems with our true values….

Enshrining Equity in Democracy

[These excerpts are from an editorial by Evelynn M. Hammonds in the 4 September 2020 issue of Science.]

      On 18 August 2020, the United States celebrated the 100th anniversary of the 19th amendment to its Constitution, which granted the right to vote to female U.S. citizens. This amendment bad a profound, yet uneven, impact on the lives of female scientists and on the scientific enterprise at the time and into the 21st century, enabling white women in science to gain greater professional acceptance, to expand their opportunities for scientific work, and to fight for equal pay. At the same time, women of color did not receive the right to vote until 1965. The participation of women of color in scientific professions was thus severely limited during the intervening years; a disparity that continues today, and which may worsen as women throughout the country are being tasked with new and more extensive childcare, elder care, and household responsibilities as a result of the coronavirus disease 2019 L. (COVID-19) pandemic.

      …in the period from 1880 to 1919, white women in the United States had begun to earn doctorates in scientific fields in greater numbers and to increase their presence in many leading scientific organizations. However, earning more doctorates did not necessarily lead to more desirable jobs, nor to an increase in the number of major publications. And even the most outstanding white female scientists frequently held lowly titles in universities and laboratories, if they held positions in these spaces at all. Some were relegated to women’s colleges, departments of home economics, and separate women's scientific clubs. Often, they were only recognized for their contributions to science decades after. their achievements.

      Many of these women joined in the suffrage movement, with the idea that the vote would help to advance their progress in scientific fields, but they often failed to confront their own exclusionary practices, particularly those surrounding race. In not advocating for voting rights for all women, they helped to support the segregation of scientists of color within scientific institutions, especially female scientists of color. Indeed, little g was done by leading scientists to address issues of race or the representation of women of color in science until after World War II. Even after decades of efforts to increase the diversity of the U.S. scientific workforce, we are still struggling with this legacy of exclusion today.

      It is apt that we reflect on the historical struggles of women and the disproportionate burdens borne by women of color now, at a time when many female scientists find themselves once more disadvantaged professionally, as they assume greater familial responsibilities during the COVID-19 pandemic. Universities and other scientific institutions have never met the capacity to support the needs of all families, and the burden to bridge gaps in child and elder care still falls mainly on women. Most routinely piece together support by combining paid care services and help from family members, or compete for limited access to, and financial support. from, institutional benefits. The pandemic has complicated this already difficult process and introduced new house-hold stresses. Online home-based education, for example, is poised to remain part of the education system from K-12 through college for the foreseeable future. These burdens cross lines of race, ethnicity, age, and class, but are likely to disproportionately affect women from groups that have been historically disenfranchised in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) fields, including Black and Latinx women, who have a long history of shouldering more family responsibilities than their white counterparts.

      Prioritizing the creation of a national, federally supported, robust system for family care would represent a long-needed step toward justice and equity for women in science. Other developed countries have various programs and policies in place, but much more research and more proposals for how to implement and support such programs are needed. If scientific institutions do not begin to address the issue of family support, the nation runs the risk of losing an entire generation of talented female scientists. We do not need a report written years from now bemoaning this loss. If we wish to create a more equitable future for all scientists, then now is the time to redress this long-neglected issue that hinders the full participation of women in STEM.

Reopening Schools during COVID-19

[These excerpts are from an editorial by Ronan Lordan, Garret A. FitzGerald and Tilo Grosser in the 4 September 2020 issue of Science.]

      Coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) is upending education. Operating schools during the pandemic entails balancing health risks against the consequences of disrupting in-person learning. In the United States, plans differ among states as schools have already reopened or plan to reopen. Scientific understanding of severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2, the cause of COVID-19) should inform how schools reopen….

      Minimizing the import of infections into the school can stem the spread of COVID-19. Daily symptom screening can identify individuals with COVID-19 at first presentation. They should seek diagnostic testing. However, infections can be silent. Approximately 15 to 50% of children and 10 to 30% of adults will either not notice symptoms while their immune system fights the infection (asymptomatic carriers) or become infectious 1 to 3 days before symptom onset (presymptomatic carriers). Current diagnostic tests cannot identify silent infections reliably and are not sufficiently fast and inexpensive to make a school-wide testing-based surveillance system practical. Thus, the most effective tool for minimizing the risk of infections being carried into schools is to restrict in-person learning to when infection in the local community is controlled. Countries with widespread testing began opening schools with rigorous safety measures in place when fewer than 30 to 50 new infections were observed within 7 days per 100,000 residents over a prolonged period. Countries providing in-person schooling with basic mitigation measures (i.e., distancing, face masks worn in hallways but not classrooms, hand hygiene, ventilation, and staying home with minimal symptoms) typically have close to zero community transmission.

      The likelihood of further transmission must be minimized if infections are brought into school. COVID-19 is spread through liquid particles containing the virus that are generated by breathing, speaking, shouting, singing, coughing, and sneezing. The rapid settling rate of large droplets underlies recommendations for physical distancing, surface disinfection, ventilation, and hand hygiene. Because smaller liquid particles dispersed as aerosols stay airborne, it is not only the distance from another person that determines the risk of transmission, but also the duration of exposure. Limiting room occupancy, avoiding activities such as singing, and improving ventilation are critical in transmission control. Masks reduce spread by droplets and aerosols by limiting release and inhalation. Airborne spread is much less likely outdoors, but sports, where proximity to excessive exhalation is intrinsic to the game, need to be avoided.

      Large outbreaks in school can be minimized by limiting secondary transmission to the smallest possible number of persons. Cohorts that remain relatively isolated from each other can reduce person-to-person contact and can facilitate contact tracing if outbreaks occur. Early detection of infected individuals through symptom surveillance and diagnostic testing can limit quarantine measures to the affected cohorts, rather than having to close grades or the entire school….

      The lower the infection rate in the community, the less stringent other risk mitigation measures need to be. If communities prioritize suppressing viral spread in other social gatherings, then children can go to school.

Science vs. the Supernatural

[These excerpts are from an article by Katherine Harmon Courage in the September 2020 issue of Scientific American.]

      In 1922 Scientific American announced a high-stakes international contest to find scientific proof of ghosts. The competition offered $5,000, and it pitted top scientists of the day against wildly popular psychic mediums. The contest also escalated a growing feud between two famous friends: renowned magician and escape artist Harry Houdini and Sherlock Holmes creator Arthur Conan Doyle.

      The magazine’s interest in the afterlife was not so much an anomaly but a product of the tirne. The U.S. and Europe were reeling from enormous numbers of deaths in the Great War and the 1918 influenza pandemic. To their families and friends, thespirits of the newly departed seemed to be appearing everywhere—in parlor seances with mediums and at kitchen tables through store-bought Ouija boards….

      In parallel to this supematural fascination, theseyears were filled with breakneck technological innovation. Electricity and radio were making what was previously unimaginable possible: instant illumination and voices from afar appearing out of thin air….

      In an unlikely turn, Conan Doyle, a trained medical doctor as well as the author behind a famously rational detective, had become one of the highest-profile proponents of spiritualism on either side of the Atlantic. Hewes convinced that, among other things, he had been able to communicate with his dead son. He even toured the U.S. in the early 1920s to lecture on the topic.

      On the debunking side was Houdini. The magician and. Conan Doyle had briefly been friends, but then the writer tried to arrange for Houdini to receive a message from his dead mother via a medium.The illusionist saw that the act was a ruse, however, and he easily spatted trickery by other mediums as well, such as the use of a wire to move a distant objeci Hewes unhappy with Conan Doyle and condemned the work of mediums as a “racket….”

      …the magazine’s editors decided that the best way to determine their stance would be to hold the aforementioned contest, which was refereed by a committee consisting of two scientists, two psychic experts and the skeptical Houdini. The contest promised to use the latest scientific tools to ascertain once and for all whetherthere were true conduits to the spirit world. This equipment included “induction coils, galvanometers, electroscopes, etc., some with the purpose of testing the electrical condition of the medium at the moment when phenomena are produced, others to prove the presence or absence of material objects,” the magazine explained in the March 1923 issue.

      The psychic tests, initially performed in the magazine’s library, got off to a slow and rocky start. Many of Conan Doyle’s most revered mediums refused to appear in a public competition. Contestants who did show were quickly dismissed by the judges as tricksters. “I never saw such awkward work in my life,” Houdini noted after one of the early sessions.

      And so it went, in fits and false-apparition starts, for more than ayear. Then news begarito emerge about a medium in Boston who did not take money for herseances and who seemed to have no particular motive for being a conduit.The woman, Mina Crandon, was married to a respected surgeon and so loathed publicity—unlike other mediums the magazine had encountered—that she received a pseudonym: Margery. So an editor and some of the contest judges set off to the Crandon? residence on Lime Street in Boston for preliminaty visits. Bells rang in the dark, a Victrola played without explanation and the voice of the medium’s dead brother conversed with observers.

      But Margery could not convince Houdini, who called her “all fraud.” The Scientific American committee eventually reached the same conclusion after observing nearly 100 seances. In 1925 the magazine announced, “The famous Margery case is over so far as the Scientific American Psychic Investigation is concerned….”

Return of the Germs

[These excerpts are from an article by Maryn McKenna in the September 2020 issue of Scientific American.]

      …A few pages from the end of his book (co-authored with David 0. White), Burnet made a bold prediction: “The most likely forecast about the future of infectious disease,” he wrote, “is that it will be very dull.”

      Burnet was an experienced scientist who had shared the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 1960 for pioneering ideas about the way people developed immune reactions. And at 73 he had lived through devastating epidemics, including the planet-spanning flu pandemic of 1918 while be was a university student in Australia. So he had seen a lot of advances and had played a role in some of them….

      "From the beginnings of agriculture and urbanization till well into the present century infectious disease was the major overall cause of human mortality," he wrote on the book's first page….

      Four years after Burnet made his optimistic prediction, the headmaster of a village school in what is now the Democratic Republic of the Congo collapsed with an unexplained bleeding disorder and died, the first recognized victim of Ebola virus. Nine years after his forecast, in 1981, physicians in Los Angeles and an epidemiologist at the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention diagnosed five young men in Los Angeles with an opportunistic pneumonia, the first signal of the worldwide pandemic of HIV/AIDS. In 1988 the gut bacterium Enterococcus, a common source of hospital infections, developed resistance to the last-resort antibiotic vancomycin, turning into a virulent superbug. And in 1997 a strain of influenza designated H5N1 jumped from chickens to humans in a market in Hong Kong, killing one third of the people it infected and igniting the first of multiple global waves of avian flu.

      Those epidemics represent only a few of the infectious disease eruptions that now occur among humans every year, and efforts to stem them have taken on a renewed and urgent role in modern medicine. Some of these contagions are new to our species; others are resurgent old enemies. Sometimes their arrival sparks small outbreaks, such as an eruption of H7N7 avian flu in 2003 among 86 poultry-farm workers in the Netherlands. Now a never-before-seen illness, COVID-19, has caused a global pandemic that has sickened millions and killed hundreds of thousands.

      None of these scenarios matches what Burnet envisioned. He thought of our engagement with infectious diseases simply as one mountain that we could climb and conquer. It might be more accurate to understand our struggle with microbes as a voyage across a choppy sea. At times we crest the waves successfully. In other moments, as in the current pandemic, they threaten to sink us.

      It is difficult, under the weight of the novel coronavirus, to look far enough back in American history to perceive that—surprisingly—freedom from infectious disease was a part of the early New England colonists’ experience. Beginning in the 1600s, these people fled English and European towns drenched in sewage and riven with epidemics where they might be lucky to live to their 40th birthday. They found themselves in a place that felt blessed by God or good fortune where a man—or a woman who survived child-bearing—could, remarkably, double that life span.

      This was true, of course, only for the colonizers and not for the Indigenous Americans whom they displaced. The Spanish who arrived in Central and South America about a century earlier, and other European colonists who followed to the North, brought diseases so devastating to the precontact population that researchers have estimated 90 percent of the existing inhabitants were killed. Nor was it true for enslaved people brought to American shores, whose lives were cut short by abuse in the South’s plantation system….

      Cholera was a global devastation, but it was also a doorway to our modern understanding of disease. Dogma held that its source was miasmas, bad air rising from rotting garbage and stagnant water. As late as 1874—20 years after physician John Snow traced the source of a London cholera outbreak to a neighborhood's well and halted it by removing the pump handle—an international conference on the disease declared that “the ambient air is the principal vehicle of the generative agent of cholera.” It was not until 10 years later, when bacteriologist Robert Koch found identical bacteria in the feces of multiple cholera victims in India and reproduced the bacterium in a culture medium, that a microbe was proved to be the cause….

      This explanation for the source of cholera became one of the foundations of germ theory. The concept that disease could be transmitted and that the agents of transmission could be identified—and possibly blocked—transformed medicine and public health. The idea ignited a burst of innovation and civic commitment, a drive to clean up the cities whose filthy byways allowed disease-causing microbes to fester. Towns and states established municipal health departments and bureaus of sanitation, built sewer systems and long-distance water supplies, regulated food safety and ordered housing reform.

      These improvements tipped industrial nations toward what would later be called the epidemiological transition, a concept coined by Abdel Omran in 1971 to describe the moment when deadly infections would retreat and slow-growing chronic diseases could become society’s priority. Science started a seemingly unstoppable climb up the mountain of 20th-century achievement: viral identification, vaccine refinement, the development of antibiotics, the achievement of immunotherapies, the parsing of the human genome. Life expectancy in the U.S. rose from an average of 47 years in 1900 to 76 years toward the end of the century. The last case of smallpox, the only human disease ever eradicated, was recorded in 1978. The Pan American Health Organization declared its intention to eliminate polio from the Americas in 1985. The future seemed secure….

      …Scientists and politicians had become complacent, they said, confident in the protection offered by antibiotics and vaccines and inattentive to the communicable-disease threats posed by population growth, climate warming, rapid international travel, and the destruction of wild lands for settlements and mega-farms….

      But unlike illnesses in the past—cholera epidemics in which the rich fied the cities, outbreaks of tuberculosis and plague blamed on immigrants, HIV cases for which gay men were stigmatized—infections of today do not arrive via easy scapegoats (although jingoistic politicians still try to create them). There is no type of place or person we can completely avoid; the globalization of trade, travel and population movement has made us all vulnerable….

      The planet that slid down the far side of the 20th century's wave of confidence is the planet that enabled the spread of COVID-19. In the five years before its viral agent, SARS-CoV-2, began its wide travels, there were at least that many warnings that a globally emergent disease was due: the alerts appeared in academic papers, federal reports, think-tank war games and portfolios prepared at the White House to be handed off to incoming teams. The novel coronavirus slipped through known gaps in our defenses: it is a wildlife disease that was transmitted to humans by proximity and predation, spread by rapid travel, eased by insufficient surveillance, and amplified by nationalist politics and mutual distrust.

      We were unprepared, with no vaccine or antiviral. In past epidemics of coronaviruses, such as SARS in 2003 and MERS in 2012, scientists had begun work on vaccines, but funding and interest dried up as the outbreaks waned. If research had continued, the current emergency might be shortened. Preventions and pharmaceuticals were the stellar achievements of the 20th century, but among scientists and physicians who deal with emerging diseases, there is a sense that attempts to repeat such successes will not be sufficient to save us. What is equally urgent, they argue, is attending to and repairing the conditions in which new diseases arise….

      …social and economic factors, not just medical or innate immunological ones, strongly influence disease risk. Negative social determinants include unsafe housing, inadequate health care, uncertain employment and even a lack of political representation. They are the root cause of why the US., the richest country on Earth, has rapidly rising rates of hepatitis, sexually transmitted diseases, and parasitic and waterborne infections, as reported in Scientific American in 2018—infections that first arise among the poor and unhoused but then migrate to the wealthy and socially secure….unequal societies are unhealthy ones: the larger the gap in income between a country’s wealthiest and poorest, the more likely that country is to experience lower life expectancy and higher rates of chronic disease, teen births and infant mortality. That phenomenon goes a long way toward explaining why COVID-19 wreaked such devastation in New York City, one of the most financially unequal cities in the country, before the city government applied the brute-force tool of lockdown and regained control.

      Lockdowns are effective, but they cannot be sustained indefinitely, and they carry their own costs of severe mental health burdens and of keeping people from health care not related to the virus. And although quarantines may keep a pathogen from spreading for a while, they cannot stop a virus from emerging and finding a favorable human host. What might prevent or lessen that possibility is more prosperity more equally distributed—enough that villagers in South Asia need not trap and sell bats to supplement their incomes and that low-wage workers in the U.S. need not go to work while ill because they have no sick leave. An equity transition, if not an epidemiological one….

      The U.S. has responded to the coronavirus with an extraordinary federally backed effort to find and test a vaccine in time to deliver 300 million doses by early 2021. This is a tremendous aspiration given that the shortest time in which a vaccine has ever been produced from scratch is four years (that vaccine was against mumps)….

Reckoning with Our Mistakes

[These excerpts are from an article by Jen Schwartz and Dan Schlenoff in the September 2020 issue of Scientific American.]

      …In the name of progress (and manifest destiny), we often disparaged knowledge that threatened the expansion of Western civilization. In one column from 1868, the editors opine on a report from General William Tecumseh Sherman on how “Indian affairs” were ham-pering railroad construction. Sherman, as you might remember, is infamous for his “scorched earth” style of warfare against both the Confederate Army and Native Americans. But Scientific American’s editors didn’t think Sherman was being aggressive enough: “The Indians must be summarily and thoroughly squelched.... They are the most treacherous, as well as the most inhuman, of all barbarous races.” Later that year Sherman launched an appalling campaign to obliterate one of the most important resources for many Great Plains tribes by slaughtering millions of bison and nearly wiping out the species. Starved and traumatized, the tribes were forced onto reservations.

      Fast-forward to the present, when we face flooding cities, overfished oceans and depleted soils. Imagine if back in the 19th century, Scientific American editors dispatched correspondents to write open-minded reports on Indigenous peoples’ resource management and foodways. Perhaps they would have learned how grazing bison help to sustain fertile soils, an “ecosystem service” that cattle do not provide. In a belated reversal, scientists are turning to Indigenous communities to learn how to live sustainably and encourage biodiversity. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change is increasingly drawing on Indigenous knowledge and voices to assess how humanity can best adapt to a changing world.

      During the 19th century, Scientific American published articles that legitimized racism. The magazine vigorously advocated for the patent system and its route to wealth—but only for white people. In 1861 the editors wrote that even free Black Americans could not be granted patents, because they were “not regarded as citizens” and could not defend against infringement in court.

      By 1871 Charles Darwin had concluded that all living humans were descended from the same ancestral stock. Leading German anthropologists were promoting the “psychic unity” of all people. But none of that stopped the rise of scientific racism, including false ideas about biological determinism. On October 5, 1895, the magazine published a speech by AAAS president Daniel G. Brinton, in which he argues “the black, the brown, and the red races differentiate anatomically so much from the white ... they never could rival its results t by equal efforts….”

      …In 1896, less than a year after we published Brinton's speech, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Plessy v. Ferguson that “separate but equal” schools and other facilities were legal. As California Supreme Court Justice Loren Miller explained in a 1966 book, the ruling “smuggled Social Darwinism into the Constitution.”

      Scientific American also covered eugenics extensively. The intellectual roots of eugenics sought to improve the human species through breeding. Long before it became the obsession of the Nazi regime, the bias along racial and class lines had become apparent—yet we continued covering eugenics neutrally rather than critically. With the proliferation of both-sides-ism, we allowed contributors to hide racist political agendas under the guise of science. Articles written against eugenics were often labeled “the opposition.”

      Even after a staff writer argued, in 1932, that a lack of knowledge in genetics and environmental influences and unreliable intelligence tests meant that eugenicists were misleading “the fallacy-ridden human race,” articles promoting eugenics as scientific consensus continued to appear in the magazine. In 1933 a neo-Malthusian promoted birth control but only to prevent the reproduction of “defectives….”

      …In the 1960s articles investigating racism placed the need for change on the institutional level. One uses survey data to show that riots are not attributable to individual behavior but to the “blocked-opportunity theory.” In April 1967 psychological studies show that racial unrest will continue until the Black community gets “genuine political and economic power.”

      But articles such as these do not negate that our coverage promoted systemic racism, and it is chilling to experience the effects of that legacy on our current pandemic crisis. Americans who are willing to sacrifice the lives of people who are disabled, poor, elderly or from historically oppressed groups so that the U.S. economy can “go back to normal” sound like modern-day eugenicists. How else to explain the acceptance that some of us are inherently more worthy of life than others? Advocating for “going back to normal” in 2020 is not all that different from protecting “the sane social structure” of 1933. Scientific American contributed to the programming that “normal” and “sane” for some means oppression and death for others….

      This bedrock faith is now our most dangerous delusion. You, too, dear reader, might lean on it during these cataclysmic times. It may be easy to laugh at the popularity of the flat-earth movement, to dismiss conspiracy as silly. It is less amusing to learn that only half of Americans in a 2020 poll said they would get a coronavirus vaccine when it becomes available. It would be an egregious error if we editors fail to understand how these “antiscience” stances are rooted in similar forces, including a rise in institutional distrust, pervasive disinformation, the legacy of scientific racism, and a stubborn belief that we can beat back chaos if we just publish more “well-arranged facts….”

      With coronavirus infections surging across much of the US., the stakes could not be higher. If Scientific American is to help shape a more just and hopeful future, we must learn from the arrogance and exclusions of our past. Not just because it is right, but because the power of scientific knowledge is stronger for it….

Egg Hitchhikers

[These excerpts are from an article by Racehl Nuwer in the September 2020 issue of Scientific American.]

      For centuries scientists speculated that fish eggs reached isolated lakes and ponds by hitching rides on water birds' feathers or feet….the mode of transport for at least some eggs could be much more intimate: the new research provides the first evidence that soft-membraned fish eggs, eaten and pooped out by birds, can still hatch into viable young….

      To test their hunch, the researchers acquired eight captive-bred mallard ducks from a local breeder and the eggs of two carp species from an aquaculture institute. They force-fed each duck three grams of fertilized eggs (about 500 eggs per serving) from each fish species over two separate experiments. Examination of the birds’ feces revealed 18 whole eggs, which the investigators placed in an aquarium. Twelve had viable living embryos, and three hatched into normal baby fish….

      Vincze and her colleagues suspect the success rate would be higher in the wild, where conditions are more favorable for keeping eggs healthy; they hope to test thiE idea in future experiments. They also plan to conduct follow-up studies on a more diverse set of fish species.

A History of Insatiable Intellectuals

[These excerpts are from a book review by Andrew Robinson in the 28 August 2020 issue of Science.]

      The development of science from the mid-19th century abounds in specialists, observes veteran cultural historian Peter Burke in his new book, The Polymath. Think of Louis Pasteur in medicine—the field that first embraced specialization—or Gregor Mendel in genetics, Marie Curie in physics, Edwin Hubble in astronomy, or Dorothy Hodgkin in chemistry.

      Yet despite the trend toward specialization since that time, polymaths, whose expertise spans a range of subjects and who flourished in previous centuries, have remained vital to science, if fewer in number. Charles Darwin and Alan Miring come to mind. As does Linus Pauling, who contributed not only to physical chemistry and mathematical physics but also to biology; medicine, and international peace—for which he received two Nobel Prizes, Indeed, Pauling came close to discovering the structure of DNA in the 1950s but failed to achieve his goal, “perhaps because he was distracted by his other interests….”

      The first half of the book sketches the lives and work of many of these individuals, with longer sections dedicated to key figures. Here we learn of Thomas Young (1773-1829)—now regarded by many as the greatest polymath since da Vinci—whose tombstone in London’s Westminster Abbey describes him as “eminent in almost every department of human learning.” Formally trained as a physician in the 1790s, Young taught himself physics and philology. He discovered the phenomenon of astigmatism and first proposed the three-color theory of how the retina responds to light. He showed, in his famous double-slit experiment, that light could behave as both a particle and a. wave, a remarkable observation that Richard Feynman declared “the heart of quantum mechanics” and its “only mystery.” Young also named the Indo-European family of languages and took the first crucial steps in deciphering the Rosetta stone and the Egyptian hieroglyphs….

      There has always been a tension between specialization and polymathy. Universities and professions are chiefly organized for the benefit of specialists, not polymaths. Moreover, in addition to greater funding, specialists typically receive more recognition than polymaths do, as evidenced by the Nobel Prizes’ emphasis on domain-specific advances. And yet, some of the greatest scientific discoveries and works of art have benefited from interdisciplinarity and even polymathy….

Hidden Web of Fungi Could Shape the Future of Forests

[These excerpts are from an article by Elizabeth Pennisi and Warren Cornwall in the 28 August 2020 issue of Science.]

      The future of the world's flora may depend as much, if not more, on what’s below the ground as what's above. Beneath 90% of all plants lies an invisible support system—subterranean fungal partners that form a network of filaments connecting plants and bringing nutrients and water to their roots. In return, the plants provide a steady supply of carbon to the fungi. Now, researchers are learning that these hidden partners can shape how ecosystems re-spond to climate change.

      The right fungal partners can help plants survive warmer and drier conditions….But other Istudies at the meeting showed climate change can also disrupt these so-called mycorrhizal fungi, possibly speeding the demise of their host plants….

      These fungal associates come in two forms. Arbuscular mycorrhizae (AM), common in tropical and some temperate forests as well as fields and meadows, invade root cells and extend thin hairs called hyphae into the soil. Ectomycorrhizal (EM) fungi, in contrast, associate with conifers as well as oak, hickory, alder, and beech. They settle on the outside of roots, and their networks of hyphae give rise to the mushrooms that pop up on moist forest floors.

      Both types absorb phosphorus and other nutrients, capture nitrogen from decaying organic matter, and help store carbon in the soil….

      Climate change might alter these associations….

      As conditions became warmer and drier, the diversity of the EM fungi fell, and “weedy” EM fungi took over….These “weeds” don’t devote a lot of energy to building extensive underground networks, causing their connectivity to break down. If the same disruption happens as climate change unfolds, fewer seedlings might establish their critical partnerships with fungi, which could deprive the trees of nutrients….

Spit Shines for Easier Coronavirus Testing

[These excerpts are from an article by Robert F. Service in the 28 August 2020 issue of Science.]

      First, a technician pushes a pencil-length swab to the very back of your nasal passages. Then you pay $100 or more, and wait days for an answer. But faster, cheaper, more pleasant ways to test for the novel coronavirus are coming online. This month, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration granted emergency use authorization for two tests that sample saliva instead of nasal fluid….

      When SARS-CoV-2, the respiratory virus that causes COVID-19, emerged in December 2019, researchers scrambled to develop tests to detect the virus. Initially, they turned to a long-trusted technique for diagnosing respiratory infections: looking for viral genetic material in mucosal fluid, thought to be the best hunting ground for a respiratory virus, collected from deep in a patient’s nasal passages. That's where the 15-centimeter swab comes in. The swab goes into a plastic tube with a chemical mixture that stabilizes the virus during transport to a diagnostics lab. There, technicians extract its genetic material and load it into a machine to carry out the polymerise chain reaction (PCR), which amplifies snippets of genetic material unique to the virus.

      The procedure accurately identifies infections about 95% of the time. But the test is uncomfortable and, because collecting the swab requires close contact with patients, it puts medical personnel at risk of contract-ing the virus. “Nobody wants to do that job,” Teshima says.

      Testing saliva for SARS-CoV-2 was no sure thing. Studies with other respiratory diseases showed saliva tests identified only about 90% of people for whom swab tests indicated an infection. But the appeal of an easier and safer test for the new coronavirus led researchers to try. People being tested simply drool into a bar-coded plastic tube, seal it, and drop it in a pouch that's shipped to a lab for PCR analysis. Because the procedure directly tests the fluid responsible for transmitting the virus between people, it may give a better indication of who is most contagious….

      As early as 12 February, researchers in Hong Kong and China reported…that they could identify SARS-CoV-2 from saliva in 11 of 12 patients whose swabs showed virus. Since then, groups in the United States, Singapore, and Japan have confirmed and further simplified the procedures, cutting out costly steps such as adding specialized reagents to stabilize the virus and extract the genetic material….

The Danger of DIY Vaccines

[These excerpts are from an editorial by Arthur L. Caplan and Alison Bateman-House in the 28 August 2020 issue of Science.]

      The world needs to trust science if vaccines are to prove useful, particularly those being developed to combat coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19). That is what makes the recent appearance of highly visible “do-it-yourself” (DIY) vaccine research so morally troubling. It’s an obstacle to securing this trust.

      As reported in last month's MIT Technology Review, at least 20 people are following the lead of geneticist and entrepreneur Preston Estep to take and promote a homebrew potential vaccine for COVID-19. They have formed a group, Rapid Deployment Vaccine Collaborative (RaDVaC), with the avowed mission of rapidly developing and sharing a vaccine recipe simple enough to be produced and administered by the public….

      RaDVaC describes the formulation of its vaccine as containing peptides that prompt the user's body to generate antibodies to severe acute respiratory syndrome-coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19). Furthermore, chitosan, a substance found in the shells of crustaceans, is added to coat the peptides and ease their delivery through mucosal tissue in the nose. The RaDVaC developers deliver their vaccine in a nasal spray in an attempt to trigger a. strong, localized immune response in an area of the body where COVID-19 infection often takes hold….

      So, what is wrong with a tiny group of high-profile scientists and their admirers developing a vaccine, administering it to themselves, and distributing the formulation to others who choose to try it? A great deal is wrong.

      The DIY RaDVaC initiative is far more likely to contribute to growing public mistrust of all vaccines than it is to provide a path forward to combating the pandemic. Those who are increasingly mistrustful of all the talk of “warp speed” in promising a COVID-19 vaccine are hardly going to be encouraged to change their minds by rogue scientists experimenting with no oversight at the fringes of what is ethically acceptable.

      The DIY effort has no animal or safety trials; no confirmation of safety by closely monitoring healthy volunteers; no dosage studies; no effort to review the proposed science or recruitment of volunteers by an outside, independent ethics review committee; no plan to record all users, to encourage diversity among users, or for systematic follow-up; and no plan to provide help or compensation to anyone harmed by their participation. Moreover, there have been no papers published or data released in peer-reviewed outlets about the vaccine. The research is rife with conflicts of interest in that those making the vaccine are recruiting friends to try it while promoting their actions in the media. They are not selling their vaccine but stand to benefit from attention in the media and any reaulting philanthropic support.

      There are by most estimates around 200 COVID-19 vaccines in development around the world. Some three dozen are in human trials. A handful have progressed to full-fledged clinical trials. News accounts report that large-scale vaccination efforts without full human safety testing or ethical review are underway in Russia. Given the horrors inflicted on people around the world by the pandemic, it would be reasonable to expect that concerted efforts to find a vaccine would have huge popular support, but that is not the case. Large percentages of people polled in many nations say they will not use or are worried about the safety of a COVID-19 vaccine. Nearly half of all those polled in the United States and United Kingdom in recent months said they would refuse vaccination….

      Trust is the key ingredient in any effort to facilitate a vaccine solution to the current pandemic. Peer-reviewed science transparently assessed in carefully controlled trials by independent experts is the only way to cement that trust. DIY vaccinology is dangerous at a time when nonevidence-based claims of COVID-19 “cures” have done little but sow mistrust of science and public health.

Our Forests Are in Danger

[This excerpt is from the Summer 2020 newsmagazine of Friends of the Earth.]

      Our forests are the most biodiverse ecosystems on the planet. Indigenous communities rely on them to preserve their cultures and ways of life. They are home to beloved animals like orangutans, elephants and tigers. And they store millions of tons of carbon, providing a valuable defense against climate change.

      But instead of treating these forests as the temples of life that they are, agribusiness companies are cutting them down for palm oil for products like processed snacks and toiletries.

      This deforestation destroys an area of tropical rainforest the size of Oregon every year—ravaging communities, killing countless plants and animals, and producing nearly a quarter of all global greenhouse emissions.

      And that’s not all. This environmental destruction also exposes humans to new infectious diseases, increasing the likelihood of future pandemics like COV1D-19.

      Biodiverse forests act as “disease reservoirs,” where viruses, bacteria, and other microorganisms naturally live and grow. As forests are destroyed this “reservoir” breaks, allowing diseases to flow out, jumping the species boundary and entering human hosts. With no evolved immunity, humans rapidly spread those diseases….

Past the Peak

[These excerpts are from an editorial by Jason Mark in the September/October 2020 issue of Sierra.]

      …Around the turn of this century, some energy-industry analysts started to predict that the world was approaching the pinnacle of global oil production, after which point we would begin a descent toward scarce petroleum supplies. In some scenarios, a global oil crunch would force civilization to transition to renewable energy, regional food production, and revitalized local economies. In the darker imaginings, peak oil would usher in a dystopia of brutal resource competition.

      For some people, peak oil offered the promise that geology would be a kind of environmental savior. Earth’s natural limits would spare us the hard work of deciding, of our own volition, to pivot away from oil and gas and would—finally—awaken us to the limits of growth. But there was a problem with this form of supply-side wishful thinking. The lure of profits spurred the petroleum industry to find new ways to feed civilization’s appetite for oil—and, sure enough, advances in hydraulic fracturing and horizontal drilling led to an oil and gas boom that has made the United States the world's top oil producer. The peak was an illusion.

      Then the pandemic arrived. As businesses shut down and highways and city streets emptied, demand for oil fell off a cliff; at one point last spring, there was such a glut of oil that the commodity was briefly trading at negative prices. The pandemic did bring us to a peak; but it wasn’t the one some people imagined 20 years ago. Rather than peak oil production, we appear to have reached peak oil demand….

      …Now; the death and disruption caused by the pandemic have peeled away the veils that for too long obscured the grotesque workings of our society, including our life-threatening addiction to fossil fuels.

      …The challenge for civil society is to turn this bust into a new kind of boom, one in which we tap the sun and the wind for energy—rather than punch holes in the earth—and, in the process, place justice and equity at the center of the transition. While peak oil production was geology as destiny, peak oil demand gives us new agency. It’s up to us to build the future we want. Ifwe can make this a moment for transformative change, I'm sure that the view from the downward slope of the petroleum peak will be much better than what we've seen atop it.

The Stigma of Addiction

[These excerpts are from an editorial by Nora D. Yolkow in the September 2020 issue of Scientific American.]

      Untreated drug and alcohol use contributes to tens of thousands of deaths every year and affects the lives of many more people. We have effective treatments, including medications for opioid and alcohol use disorders, that could prevent a significant number of these deaths, but they are not being utilized widely enough, and people who could benefit often do not even seek them out. One important reason is the stigma around those with addiction.

      Stigma is a problem for people with health conditions ranging from cancer and HIV to a variety of mental illnesses, but it is especially powerful in the context of substance use disorders. Even though medicine long ago reached the consensus that addiction is a complex brain disorder, those with addiction continue to be blamed for their condition. The public, as well as many people working in health care and in the justice system, continues to view Laddiction as a result of moral weakness and flawed character….

      Beyond just impeding the provision or seeking of care, stigma may actually drive addicted people to continue using drugs….drug-dependent rodents choose social interaction over the drug when given the choice, but when the social choice is punished, the animals revert to drug use. Humans, too, are social beings, and some of us respond to both social and physical punishments by turning to substances to alleviate our pain….

      The stigmatization of people with substance use disorders may be even more problematic in thecurrent COVID-19 crisis. In addition to the greater risk associated with homelessness and with drug use itself, the legitimate fear around contagion may mean that bystanders or even first responders will be reluctant to administer lifesaving naloxone to people who have overdosed….

      Alleviating stigma is not easy, in part because the rejection of people with addiction or mental illness arises from unease over their violations of social norms. Even health care workers maybe at a loss as to how to interact with someone acting threateningly because of withdrawal or because of the effects of certain drugs (for example, PCP) if they have not received training in caring for people with substance use disorders….

      There must be wider recognition that susceptibility to the brain changes in addiction is substantially influenced by factors outside an individual's control, such as genetics and the environment in which one is born and raised, and that medical care is often necessary to facilitate recovery as well as to avert the worst outcomes, such as overdose. When people with addiction are stigmatized and rejected, especially by those in health care, it only contributes to the vicious cycle that makes their disease so entrenched.

How to Reinvent Policing

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

      It was not just a knee pinned to George Floyd’s neck that killed him. Or gunshots that killed Breonna Taylor. Or a chokehold that killed Eric Garner. It was also centuries of systemic racism that have festered in U.S. society and institutions, including our overly punitive, adversarial system of policing. And videos of the recent police-involved killings do not show the broader toll that stop and frisk, arbitrary arrests and other aggressive law-enforcement actions have taken on Black and other minority communities. Nationwide and fundamental police reform is long overdue.

      Since the advent of government-led “wars” on crime and drugs in the past decades, policing has taken a decisively violent turn, and police departments often see themselves as adversaries of the very communities they are meant to safeguard….police are more likely to stop, arrest and use force against Black and Latinx people than white people….

      Incremental reforms will not fax this perverse system: Choke-holds have been banned in New York City for decades, and the Minneapolis Police Department requires officers to intervene when a fellow officer uses excessive force, but neither rule prevented the death of Garner or Floyd. Nor will technology turn the tide. Body cameras have made the problem of police brutality against minority communities harder to ignore but have not reined it in.

      Instead we need to rethink how we conceive of and support public safety so that it encompasses all communities. One way to do this would be to create policies that use social workers to tackle issues that have been dropped at the feet of police who are ill trained to handle them, such as homelessness, mental illness and working with young people to prevent violence. Law-enforcement professionals themselves have highlighted this problem, and some alternative programs point toward solutions….Taking responsibility for dealing with these noncrime issues out of the hands of police removes officers from situations beyond their training and reduces the chances of encounters escalating to violence….

      A necessary step will be to address the militarization of policing. The use of SWAT teams and tactics has ballooned well beyond the threatening hostage or active-shooter situations they were intended to confront Studies…show SWAT teams are overwhelmingly used for serving search warrants and that communities of color are disproportionately targeted. Returning SWAT to its proper use—and restricting the access of wider police departments to military-style weapons or dogs trained to bite people—would reduce the chances for unnecessary violence and harm.

      Accountability is another key element. Federal and local officials need the political will to create truly independent oversight mechanisms. But accountability also depends on police departments making data on killings, use of force, disciplinary records, budget allocations and other areas publicly available. Departments have resisted releasing such information, so Congress needs to pass laws that mandate that they do so.

      Major police reform will take perseverance and money. (Some of the financing can come from reducing police budgets.) These approaches are a starting point as we confront the way dangerous biases, especially racism, have become embedded in police and other powerful institutions. We must work to root them out.

One Step Forward, Two Steps Back

[These excerpts are from a book review by Saleem H. Ali in the 21 August 2020 issue of Science.]

      Why is it that America has not been able to achieve science-based targets for carbon emissions reductions despite the availability of numerous economically and ecologically rational solutions? This question is often framed in terms of job losses or energy security arguments. In Short Circuiting Policy, a timely political ethnography of US. energy policy, Leah Cardamore Stokes argues that clean energy programs initially gained traction as potential opportunities to create green jobs and reduce carbon footprints but then waned, even as the economics increasingly favored their success. Focusing on state-level politics, Stokes carefully lays out how Arizona, Kansas, Texas, and Ohio struggled to contain the power of the fossil fuel and electric utilities industries and, in doing so, failed to sustain a clean energy trajectory.

      …However, Stokes shows that a carefully curated campaign advanced by conservative groups such as the American Legislative Exchange Council, the State Policy Network, and Americans for Prosperity—sensing ambivalence toward green policies from core Republican Party supporters—began targeting the base with messaging against renewab energy in the late 20th century. Such campaigns gained momentum between 2000 and 2010. The impact of this anti-environmentalist miasma continues to this day.

      Using the heuristic of what she calls “narwhal curve,” Stokes provides a usef visual primer for how steep a rise in renewable energy transition is needed….

A Dangerous Rush for Vaccines

[These excerpts are from an editorial by H. Holden Thorp in the 21 August 2020 issue of Science.]

      The chasm between science and politics continues to grow, with Russian President Putin announcing this week that a fast-tracked vaccine for coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) is ready for use, and President Trump indicating days earlier that a vaccine could be ready in the United States before the 3 November presidential election. There's been a dangerous rush to get to the vaccine finish line first. In a race of “Sputnik” proportions (as Putin puts it), quick approval by regulatory agencies is needed to “win.” This is dangerous thinking, driven by political goals and instant gratification: Shortcuts in testing for vaccine safety and efficacy endanger millions of lives in the short term and will damage public confidence in vaccines and in science for a long time to come.

      The Russian vaccine remains shrouded in mystery—there is no published information about it and what has been touted comes from the mouths of politicians. In the United States, the pressure applied to government scientists by the administration on any aspect of the pandemic is becoming increasingly palpable, as they have been criticized or quieted in plain sight by the administration and Trump. Anthony Fauci, the nation’s foremost leader on infectious diseases and a member of the White House Coronavirus Task Force, has been the most willing to state things clearly, but he has had to deal with muzzling and outright abuse from Trump and White House adviser Peter Navarro (not to mention shameful threats of violence against him and his family).

      The majority of epidemiologists worldwide who work on infectious diseases are firmly committed to randomized controlled trials (“phase 3”) for all interventions, but especially for vaccines to be given to healthy people. This method allows comparison to a control group that receives a placebb. The phase 3 studies now under way on promising COVID-19 vaccine candidates involve approximately 30,000 patients. A randomized controlled trial is particularly important for determining the effectiveness of the vaccine, and the trial must continue until individuals in the control group become infected. It is impossible to predict how long that will take. Physicians who seek to advise healthy patients on taking the vaccine will rightfully require these data….

      Premature approval of a vaccine in the United States (or anywhere) could be a disastrous replay of the hydroxychloroquine fiasco but with much higher stakes. Approval of a vaccine that is harmful or isn’t effective could be leveraged by political forces that already propagate vaccine fears.

      So far, U.S. government scientists are holding strong. Francis Collins, director of the National Institutes of Health, emphatically called for phase 3 trials of vaccines, and FDA director Stephen Hahn also has stated that he will follow the science. There’s a lot riding on Hahn, and as long as he holds firm with the science, the scientific community should support him. He made a mistake in granting an emergency use authorization for hydroxychloroquine but withdrew it once he saw the data—randomized clinical trials showing that the drug was useless against COVID-19….

      Countless lives are at stake—no compromises on the vaccine.

Black Scientists Matter

[These excerpts are from an editorial by Malegapuru William Makgoba in the 21 August 2020 issue of Science.]

      The recent murder of George Floyd by police in the United States, the Black Lives Matter protests around the world, and racial inequalities everywhere that have been exposed by the coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) pandemic—such as the disproportionately high vulnerability and mortality in African-American, Afro-Caribbean, and Afro-Latin communities—are a wake-up call for humankind to recalibrate, restructure, and reimagine its beliefs and behaviors. It’s important to recognize that beneath overt racism are subtle forms of structural and institutionalized racism that have existed for a very keg time, unabated, across communities—in homes, hospitals, churches, schools, governments, and so many other institutions—throughout the Western world. Now, societies are being provoked to ponder fundamental questions about racism. What about the scientific world? Do Black scientists matter?...

      One problem in the Western world is that the scientific enterprise is in denial about its inherent racism. Black scientists encounter discrimination when they embark on a science career in Western countries. The overwhelming message from their experiences is that the culture of academic science where Black scientists are underrepresented is riddled with deeply entrenched racism of various forms and subtleties. For example, although science is supposed to be objective, many white scientists who are part of the enterprise refuse to believe and acknowledge the racism and alienation that is articulated by Black scientists regarding their work and career….White scientists may think that they know what racism is and that they can better explain to Black scientists the experiences that those Black individuals have endured. This dismissive attitude ignores the reality of discrimination and alienation experienced by Black scientists. These realities include differences in the way young people are encouraged (or discouraged) to pursue scientific careers, the lack of role models, not having access to meaningful career guidance and mentorship, and not being plugged into influential career networks. Consequently, even the best and brightest can fail to be recognized and admitted into top scientific programs.

      Research and academic institutions, scholarly academies, and scientific publications in the Western world all show a paucity of Black scientists in leadership positions, on editorial boards, and as authors. And although the Western scientific establishment has several recognition systems for meritorious scientific discoveries, rarely are Black scientists represented among the awardees. In fact, some young Black African scientists have told me that their research was credited to their superiors and even patented and sold without their involvement. Sadly, Black scientists who do not assimilate or conform, or who abandon their African or Caribbean or Latin American identity altogether in exchange for the so-called superior white Western identity, can become intellectually and socially isolated. Identity changes and health crises can cause some Black scientists to suffer alienation even within Black communities in these Western nations.

      Racism in science has a long history throughout the world and manifests largely through systems of evaluation, recognition, funding, and promotion. The scientific community can postpone confronting this pernicious reality; but it cannot stop the train of change—it has left the station. For equality in the global scientific enterprise to be addressed, meaningful change should start in the Western world's scientific system, where a new environment must be created in which not only Black scientists but all scientists can thrive—one that values human dignity, equity, and social justice.

As the World Reopens

[These excerpts are from an article by Elizabeth Svoboda in the September/October 2020 issue of Discover.]

      As crazy-making as staying put can feel, there’s a certain security in it. You know that the fewer people you interact with, the less likely you are to get sick. But as states relax quarantine rules, people now must set their own safety and comfort thresholds as they reengage with the world — a fraught process that requires weighing physical health hazards against mental health needs, social pressures and career goals.

      Do you risk boarding a plane to visit your extended family for Thanksgiving? What if your boss asks you to mingle with large groups of people, sending your health anxiety into overdrive?

      Variations in how other people behave in different spaces will compli-cate things even more….That might mean youll see a lot of masks in the aisles of Costco, but fewer at home-based gatherings. Anyone who enters these kinds of spaces — especially those at highest risk — Will have to adapt their behavior accordingly.

      Given the pandemic’s stop-and-start nature, our first ventures back into communal spaces will also feel like shaky victories. It's hard to celebrate op ening-up milestones — first patio restaurant meal, first trip to the library when you know surging case numbers could still wipe out all the gains.

      As all of these ambiguities pile up, mundane annoyances that dropped away during shelter-in-place will return with a vengeance: commutes, kid drop-offs, surprise cubicle pop-arounds from the boss. Meanwhile, the millions who lost their jobs in the spring will be thrust into full-fledged job-search mode.

      This new parade of stressors may make it tough to give up quarantine habits like day drinking. But one mitigating factor is that people now have a major opening to push back against old, nonessential routines. The quarantine has underscored just how much we can get by without, and just how radically we can change our habits overnight. As reopening proceeds, these shared realizations could start to shift societal choices as well as individual ones….

Online Retaikers Must Clean Up their Act

[These excerpts are from an article by Tasha Kosviner in the Summer 2020 issue of EDF’s Solutions.]

      Price, quality, aesthetics. Many factors influence online shopping purchases. What if we could easily factor in sustainability too?

      That’s the goal of a new EDF initiative aimed at pushing online retailers such as Amazon and Walmart to disclose the environmental footprint of the products they sell….

      The case for action is clear. Analysis shows consumer products are responsible for around half the world’s greenhouse gas emissions. Sixty-six percent of consumers say they’d pay more for sustainable goods….

      Currently there is no legal requirement for companies to list ingredients when selling products online and —particularly when buying through third-party sellers—there’s no guarantee shoppers will get products that are safe.

      Last year, a Wall Street Journal investigation found more than 4,000 items for sale on Amazon.com that had been declared unsafe by federal agencies or were deceptively labeled. Among them were 2,000 listings lacking warnings about health risks to children and at least 157 items Amazon itself said it had banned.

      From employees to customers and shareholders, companies are under increasing pressure to become more transparent and sustainable….

      Companies must also engage in demanding climate action from our elected leaders. In May, EDF helped organize the largest-ever corporate day of action on climate change. The day saw more than 300 companies, with a combined value of $11.5 trillion — including General Mills, Microsoft and Visa — calling on Conaess to pair economic recovery and future Congressional spending packages with climate action, including policies that lead to a net-zero emissions economy by 2050….

      EDF is also working with big investors, such as Legal and General Investment Management and California State Teachers’ Retirement System, to call for stronger sustainability in the companies they invest in, which include the oil and gas industry and other major greenhouse gas emitters….

Antibodies May Curb Pandemic before Vaccines

[These excerpts are from an article by Jon Cohen in the 14 August 2020 issue of Science.]

      While the world is transfixed by the high-stakes race to develop a COVID-19 vaccine, an equally crucial competition is heating up to produce targeted antibodies that could provide an instant immune boost against the virus. Clinical trials of these monoclonal antibodies, which may both prevent and treat the disease, are already underway and could produce signs of efficacy in the next few months, perhaps ahead of vaccine trials….

      …Likely to be more effective than remdesivir and dexamethasone, the repurposed drugs shown to help against COVID -19, antibodies could protect the highest risk health care workers from becoming infected while also lessening the severity of the disease in hospitalized patients. But producing monoclonals involves using bioreactors to grow lines of B cells that make the proteins, raising concerns they could be scarce and expensive….

      Soon after the pandemic began, researchers in industry and academia began to identify, design, tweak, and conduct lab tests of monoclonal antibodies against SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19. Most bind to and “neutralize” the viral surface protein, or spike, that initiates an infection….

      Supplies of monoclonal antibodies may be limited, however, in part because of modest investment. Operation Warp Speed, for example, has committed $8 billion to six different COVID-19 vaccines; for monoclonals, the government has invested about $750 million, much of it in Regeneron, which will produce somewhere between 70,000 and 300,000 doses before it even has efficacy data. Lilly says it will have 100,000 doses by the end of the year.

      But no one knows how far those doses would stretch….the United States alone could require nearly 40 million doses next year for prevention and treatment….

      Although how to prioritize vaccine distribution has already sparked extensive debate, no such discussion has yet taken place about monoclonal antibodies….

      The cost of monoclonals, especially for the higher doses needed for treatment, could split the world into the haves and have-nots….

      Regardless of cost, evidence that monoclonals work as preventives could benefit everyone by giving vaccinemakers a clear sign that antibodies against the surface protein of SARS-CoV-2 are enough to protect a person. This, in turn, could provide a strong indicator for evaluating the worth of a candidate vaccine short of actual efficacy data….

Vaccine Nationalism’s Politics

[These excerpts are from an editorial by David P. Fidler in the 14 August 2020 issue of Science.]

      Before coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) struck, cooperation on global health—especially for pandemic preparedness and response—would, we told ourselves, enhance national security, support economic wealth, protect human rights, and facilitate humanitarian assistance around the world. However, the politics of the coronavirus catastrophe do not reflect such national interests or international solidarity. “Vaccine nationalism” is more evidence that efforts to elevate health cooperation—and the sciences that inform it—have produced more rhetoric than political roots within countries and the international community.

      Concerns about vaccine nationalism were escalating even before the United States announced on 31 July its largest deal to date with pharmaceutical companies to secure COVID-19 vaccines. Other countries—including China, India, the United Kingdom, and members of the European Union—are pursuing similar strategies. To critics, this scramble to secure vaccine supplies is one of many decisions by governments that have failed to control spread of the virus, destroyed economic activity, and damaged international cooperation. Ineffective nationalistic policies appear to create a gap between science and politics that makes the pandemic worse and undermines what science and health diplomacy could achieve. In fact, vaccine nationalism reflects “business as usual” in global health.

      …International access typically happened only after developed countries secured pharmaceuticals for use at home, as happened with vaccines for smallpox and polio and drugs for HIV/AIDS. Developing countries, such as China and India, tried to break out of this pattern by building their own pharmaceutical innovation and production lccapabilities. More recently, developing countries have asserted sovereignty over pathogenic samples….

      With COVID-19, history is repeating itself. Countries with the resources to obtain vaccines have not subordinated their needs and capacities to the objective of global, equitable access. And the worldwide spread of the coronavirus eliminates leverage that viral sovereignty might have provided countries without such means. International and nongovernmental organizations launched an ad hoc effort—the COVID-19 Vaccines Global Access (COVAX) Facility—to achieve equitable access. But with no serious participation by major states so far, COVAX lacks game-changing support. In keeping with the long-standing pattern of political-behavior during pandemics, vaccines will eventually reach most populations, but only after powerful countries have protected themselves.

      Further, changes in domestic and global politics have made matters worse. Domestically, the extent to which governments have ignored science, denigrated health experts, supported quack remedies and policies, peddled disinformation, and botched social distancing and other nonpharmaceutical interventions has been astonishing. This travesty flows from the traction that populist, nationalist, antiglobalist, and authoritarian attitudes have gained around the world.

      Globally, balance-of-power politics has returned to world affairs. Geopolitical calculations have shaped national responses to COVID-19, with the United States and China treating the pandemic as another front in their rivalry for power and influence. National access to coronavirus vaccines has become a priority in power politics, especially as a means to recover from the economic damage at home, in export markets, and within regions of strategic importance in the balance of power.

      These changes in politics have generated ferocious headwinds against global, equitable vaccine access—an objective only approached with great difficulty when political waters were less turbulent….Perhaps the mounting, desperation for scientists to deliver a vaccine against COVID-19 will provide an incentive for leaders to rebuild health policies sufficiently so that, when the next pandemic hits, politicians and citizens will be less likely to drink the hydroxychloroquine.

The False Logic of Science Denial

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

      …Truth, at least in science, is not self-evident. And this helps to explain why science denial is easy to generate and hard to slay. Today we live in a world where science denial, about everything from climate change to COVID-19, is rampant, informed by fallacies of all kinds….an analysis of the logical fallacies and distortions tied to climate change denial, which include jumping to conclusions, cherry-picking data, raising impossible expectations, relying on fake experts, encouraging conspiracy theories and questioning the motivation of scientists. But there is a meta-fallacy—an ilber-fallacy if you will—that motivates these other, specific fallacies. It also explains why so many of the same people who reject the scientific evidence of anthropogenic climate change also question the evidence related to COVID-19.

      Given how common it is, it is remarkable that philosophers have failed to give it a formal name. But I think we can view it as a variety of what sociologists call implicatory denial. I interpret implicatory denial as taking this form: If P, then Q. But I don’t like Q! Therefore, P must be wrong. This is the logic (or illogic) that underlies most science rejection.

      Climate change: I reject the suggestion that the “magic of the market” has failed and that we need government intervention to remedy the market failure. Evolutionary theory: I am offended by the suggestion that life is random and meaningless and that there is no God. COVID-19: I resent staying home, losing income or being told by the government what do to.

      In many cases, these objections are based on misunderstandings; evolutionary theory does not prove the nonexistence of God. In others, the implications are real enough. Climate change is a market failure, which will take government action to address. And absent a system for widespread testing and contact tracing, there was no known way to slow the spread of SARS-CoV-2 in the U.S. without the majority of us staying home. COVID-19 has shown how dangerous the fallacy of implicatory denial is. When we reject evidence because we do not like what it implies, we put ourselves at risk.

      The U.S. could have acted more quickly to contain COVID-I9. If we had, we would have saved both lives and jobs. But facts have an inconvenient habit of getting in the way of our desires. Sooner or later, denial crashes on the rocks of reality. The only question is whether it crashes before or after we get out of the way.

Animals Apart

[This excerpt is from an article by Dana M. Hawley and Julia C. Buck in the August 2020 issue of Scientific American.]

      …Like other animals, humans have along evolutionary history with infectious diseases. Many of our own forms of behavioral immunity, such as feelings of disgust in dirty or crowded environments, are likely the results of this history. But modem humans, unlike other animals, have many advantages when plagues come to our doors. For instance, we can now communicate disease threats globally in an instant. This ability allows us to institute social distancing before disease appears in our local community—a tactic that has saved many lives. We have advanced digital communication platforms, from e-mail to group video chats, that allow us to keep our physical distance while maintaining some social connections. Other animals lose social ties with actual distance. But perhaps the biggest human advantage is the ability to develop sophisticated nonbehavioral tools, such as vaccines, that prevent disease without the need for costly behavioral changes. Vaccination allows us to maintain rich, interactive social lives despite contagious diseases such as polio and measles that would otherwise ravage us.

      When it comes to stopping novel diseases like COVID-19, however, we are in much the same boat as other animals. Here, as in nature, tried-and-true behaviors such as social distancing are our best tools until vaccines or treatments can be developed. But just like other animals, we have to be strategic about it. Like mandrills and ants, we can maintain the most essential social interactions and distance farthest from those who are most vulnerable and who we could infect by accident. The success of spiny lobsters against a devastating virus in the Caribbean shows that short-term costs of social distancing, while severe, have long-term payoffs for survival. As unnatural as it may feel, we need only follow nature's lead.

Measuring What Matters

[These excerpts are from an article by Joseph E. Stiglitz in the August 2020 issue of Scientific American.]

      Since World War II, most countries around the world have come to use gross domestic product, or GDP, as the core metric for prosperity. The GDP measures market output: the monetary value of all the goods and services produced in an economy during a given period, usually a year. Governments can fail if this number falls—and so, not surprisingly, governments strive to make it climb. But striving to grow GDP is not the same as ensuring the well-being of a society.

      In truth, “GDP measures everything,” as Senator Robert Kennedy famously said, “except that which makes life worthwhile.” The number does not measure health, education, equality of opportunity, the state of the environment or many other indicators of the quality of life. It does not even measure crucial aspects of the economy such as its sustainability: whether or not it is headed for a crash. What we measure matters, though, because it guides what we do….

      In fact, the American economy is more like an ordinary car whose owner saved on gas by removing the spare tire, which was fine until he got a flat. And what I call “GDP thinking”—seeking to boost GDP in the misplaced expectation that that alone would enhance well-being—led us to this predicament. An economy that uses its resources more efficiently in the short term has higher GDP in that quarter or year. Seeking to maximize that macroeconomic measure translates, at a microeconomic level, to each business cutting costs to achieve the highest possible short-term profits. But such a myopic focus necessarily compromises the performance of the economy and society in the long term.

      The U.S. health care sector, for example, took pride in using hospital beds efficiently: no bed was left unused. In consequence, when SARS-CoV-2 reached America there were only 2.8 hospital beds per 1,000 people—far fewer than in other advanced countries—and the system could not absorb the sudden surge in patients. Doing without paid sick leave in meat-packing plants increased profits in the short run, which also increased GDP. But workers could not afford to stay home when sick; instead they came to work and spread the infection. Similarly, China made protective masks cheaper than the U.S. could, so importing them increased economic efficiency and GDP. That meant, however, that when the pandemic hit and China needed far more masks than usual, hospital staff in the U.S. could not get enough. In sum, the relentless drive to maximize short-term GDP worsened health care, caused financial and physical insecurity, and reduced economic sustainability and resilience, leaving Americans more vulnerable to shocks than the citizens of other countries.

      …GDP should be dethroned. In its place, each nation should select a “dashboard”—a limited set of metrics that would help steer it toward the future its citizens desired. In addition to GDP itself, as a measure for market activity (and no more) the dashboard would include metrics for health, sustainability and any other values that the people of a nation aspired to, as well as for inequality, insecurity and other harms that they sought to diminish.

      …During the Great Depression, U.S. officials could barely quantify the problem. The government did not collect statistics on either inflation or unemployment, which would have helped them steer the economy. So the Department of Commerce charged economist Simon Kuznets of the National Bureau of Economic Research with creating a set of national statistics on income. Kuznets went on to construct the GDP in the 1940s as a simple metric that could be calculated from the exceedingly limited market data then available. An aggregate of (the dollar value of) the goods and services produced in the country, it was equivalent to the sum of everyone’s income—wages, profits, rents and taxes….

      Kuznets repeatedly warned, however, that the GDP only measured market activity and should not be mistaken for a metric of social or even economic well-being. The figure included many goods and services that were harmful (including, he believed, armaments) or useless (financial speculation) and excluded many essential ones that were free (such as caregiving by homemakers). A core difficulty with constructing such an aggregate is that there is no natural unit for adding the value of even apples and oranges, let alone of such disparate things as armaments, financial speculation and care-giving. Thus, economists use their prices as a proxy for value—in the belief that, in a competitive market, prices reflect how much people value apples, oranges, armaments, speculation or caregiving relative to one another.

      This profoundly problematic assumption—that price measures relative value—made the GDP quite easy to calculate. As the U.S. recovered from the Depression by ramping up the production and consumption of material goods (in particular, armaments during World War II), GDP grew rapidly. The World Bank and the IMF began to fund development programs in former colonies around the world, gauging their success almost exclusively in terms of GDP growth.

      Over time, as economists focused on the intricacies of comparing GDP in different eras and across diverse countries and constructing complex economic models that predicted and explained changes in GDP, they lost sight of the metric's shaky foundations….

      In 1980, following a period of seemingly poor economic performance—stagflation, marked by slow growth and rising prices—President Ronald Reagan assumed office on the promise of ramping up the economy. He deregulated the financial sector and cut taxes for the better-off, arguing that the benefits would “trickle down” to those less fortunate. Although GDP grew somewhat (albeit at a rate markedly lower than in the decades after World War II), inequality rose precipitously. Well aware that metrics matter, some members of the administration reportedly argued for stopping the collection of statistics on inequality. If Americans did not know how bad inequality was, presumably we would not worry about it.

      The Reagan administration also unleashed unprecedented assaults on the environment, issuing leases for fossil-fuel extraction on millions of acres of public lands, for example….

      The politicians knew that if Americans understood how bad coal was for our economy correctly measured, then they would seek the elimination of the hidden subsidies that the coal industry receives. And they might even seek to move more quickly to renewables….

      …In the ideal free-market economy, an increase in profits is supposed to reflect an increase in societal well-being, but the bankers’ takings put the lie to that notion. Much of their profits resulted from making others worse off, such as when they engaged in abusive credit-card practices or manipulated LIBOR (for London Interbank Offered Rate of interest for international banks lending to one another) to enhance their earnings.

      But GDP figures took these inflated figures at face value, convincing policy makers that the best way to grow the economy was to remove any remaining regulations that constrained the finance sector. Long-standing prohibitions on usury—charging outrageous interest rates to take advantage of the unwary—were stripped away. In 2000 the so-called Commodity Modernization Act was passed. It was designed to ensure that derivatives (risky financial products that played a big role in bringing down the financial system just eight years later) would never be regulated. In 2005 a bankruptcy law made it more difficult for those having trouble paying their bills to discharge their debts—making it almost impossible for those with student loans to do so.

      By the early 2000s two fifths of corporate profits came from the financial sector. That fraction should have signaled that something was wrong: an efficient financial sector should entail low costs for engaging in financial transactions and therefore should be small. Ours was huge. Untethering the market had inflated profits, driving up GDP—and, as it turned out, instability….

      The bubble burst in 2008. Banks had been issuing mortgages indiscriminately, on the assumption that real-estate prices would continue to rise. When the housing bubble broke, so did the economy, falling more than it had since the immediate aftermath of World War IL After the U.S. government rescued the banks (just one firm, AIG, received a government bailout of $130 billion), GDP improved, persuading President Barack Obama and the Federal Reserve to announce that we were well on the way to recovery. But with 91 percent of the gains in income in 2009 to 2012 going to the top 1 percent, the majority of Americans experienced none.

      As the country slowly emerged from the financial crisis, others commanded attention: the inequality crisis, the climate crisis and an opioid crisis. Even as GDP continued to rise, life expectancy and other broader measures of health worsened. Food companies were developing and marketing, with great ingenuity, addictive sugar-rich foods, augmenting GDP but precipitating an epidemic of childhood diabetes. Addictive opiolds led to an epidemic of drug deaths, but the profits of Purdue Pharma and the other villains in that drama added to GDP. Indeed, the medical expenditures resulting from these health crises also boosted GDP. Americans were spending twice as much per person on health care than the French but had lower life expectancy. So, too, coal mining seemingly boosted the economy, and although it helped to drive climate change, worsening the impact of hurricanes such as Harvey, the efforts to rebuild again added to GDP. The GDP number provided an optimistic gloss to the worst of events.

      These examples illustrate the disjuncture between GDP and societal well-being and the many ways that GDP fails to be a good measure of economic performance. The growth in GDP before 2008 was not sustainable, and it was not sustained. The increase in bank profits that seemed to fuel GDP in the years before the crisis were not only at the expense of the well-being of the many people whom the financial sector exploited but also at the expense of GDP in later years. The increase in inequality was by any measure hurting our society, but GDP was celebrating the banks’ successes. If there ever was an event that drove home the need for new ways of measuring economic performance and societal progress, the 2008 crisis was it….

      We need to know whether, when GDP is going up, indebtedness is increasing or natural resources are being depleted; these may indicate that the economic growth is not sustainable. If pollution is rising along with GDP, growth is not environmentally sustainable. A good indicator of the true health of an economy is the health of its citizens, and if, as in the U.S., life expectancy has been going down—as it was even before the pandemic—that should be worrying, no matter what is happening to GDR If median income (that of the families in the middle) is stagnating even as GDP rises, that means the fruits of economic growth are not being shared.

      It would have been nice….

      …Policy makers and civil-society groups should pay attention not only to material wealth but also to health, education, leisure, environment, equality, governance, political voice, social connectedness, physical and economic security, and other indicators of the quality of life. Just as important, societies must ensure that these “goods” are not bought at the expense of the future. To that end, they should focus on maintaining and augmenting, to the extent possible, their stocks of natural, thuman, social and physical capital….

      …most of us who live in highly developed economies care about our material well-being, our health, the environment around us and our relations with others. We want to do well today but also in the future. We care about how the fruits of our economy are shared: we do not want a society in which a few at the top grab everything for themselves and the rest live in poverty.

      A good indicator of the true health of an economy is the health of its citizens. A decline in life expectancy, even for a part of the population, should be worrying, whatever is happening to GDP. And it is important to know if, even as GDP is going up, so, too, is pollution—whether it is emissions of greenhouse gases or particulates in the air. That means growth is not environmentally sustainable.

      …To me, knowing what is happening to median income is of particular importance; in the U.S., median income has barely changed L for decades, even as GDP has grown.

      …Societies in which citizens trust their governments and one another to “do the right thing” tend to perform better. In fact, societies in which people have higher levels of trust, such as Vietnam and New Zealand, have dealt far more effectively with the pandemic than the U.S., for instance, where trust levels have declined since the Reagan era….

The Other U.S. Epidemic

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

      Another epidemic besides COVID-19 stalks the land. This one takes a heavy toll on the young. Rims been raging ever more lethally for the past 20 years with no flattening of the curve in sight: an American epidemic of suicide.

      Between 1999 and 2017 the age-adjusted suicide rate in the U.S. climbed 33 percent, from 10.5 to 14 deaths per 100,000 people, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. And the rise has been accelerating. The rate of suicide—the second leading cause of death in the U.S. among people ages 10 to 34 and the tenth overall—rose by an average of 1 percent a year between 1999 and 2006, after which it rose at double that pace. And although males in every age group are far more likely to take their own lives than girls and women are, females are slowly closing the gap.

      Every year seems to bring a fresh helping of these dark statistics. Anew CDC analysis looked at both suicide attempts and mortality. It reported that the sharpest rise in attempts—up a shocking 8 percent annually between 2006 and 2015—occurred among youngsters ages 10 to 19. (The study captured only the attempts that led to a hospital visit.)…As others have found, the incidence of attempts, as well as of fatalities, was shown to be rising faster in women and girls than in men and boys….The study also documented a rise in lethality—that is, a higher rate of attempts that resulted in death.

      Measuring trends is a lot easier than explaining them….

      A possible factor is how much time young people spend with digital devices. A 2018 study…found that screen time correlates with depressive symptoms and suicide-related behaviors (consider-ing it, making a plan, attempting it), especially for girls….

      Among adults, suicide attempts track with the lack of a college degree, age between 21 and 34, very low income, mental illness, and a history of violence or past suicide attempts….Adults are much more likely than teenagers to actually kill themselves, in part because they have easier access to more lethal means such as guns and because they are more planful and less impulsive. Adults who take their own lives are predominantly male and white or Native American, often with a history of substance use, mental disorders, past attempts, loneliness and personal loss.

      Mental health professionals worry that the social isolation, financial hardships and anxiety related to the coronavinis pandemic might worsen suicide trends. Past research in Europe and in the U.S. has shown that for every 1 percent rise in unemployment, there is a 0.8 to 1 percent jump in suicides. The pattern could be different in 2020 if people get back to work quickly or if the response is more akin to that in a time of war….

Masks and Emasculation

[These excerpts are from an editorial by Peter Glick in the August 2020 issue of Scientific American.]

      In April, Vice President Mike Pence violated COVID-19 safety protocols at the Mayo Clinic in Minnesota, refusing to don a mask when he toured the hospital. In May, President Donald Trump similarly eschewed a mask—while visiting a mask-making facility. Pence said he wanted to look health care workers in the eye, even though masks don't cover the eyes. Trump has simply said more than once that he is choosing not to do it.

      Why? Because “real men” don’t play it safe. It’s a prescription that, data show, leads men more than women to resist seat belts, take greater physical risks and suffer accidental death at much higher rates. Research has demonstrated that society treats masculinity as an earned status, hard won and easily lost. And the coronavirus has laid bare how some male leaders value projecting a tough guy image over promoting the common good. They defy experts’ warnings about the danger they pose to other people susceptible to the virus.

      During the coronavirus pandemic, leaders focused on defending a macho image have put their nations at risk in two ways. First, the words and actions of public figures influence their followers through a phenomenon known as social modeling. In Brazil, cellphone data revealed decreased social distancing after President Jair Bolsonaro dismissed the COVID-19 pandemic. In the U.S., Trump's tweets have encouraged resistance to stay-at-home orders. When leaders fail to endorse safety precautions or actively mock them, fewer people take those precautions.

      The second way…is that when leaders endorse hypermasculine norms, poor decisions and organizational dysfunction follow….

      Consider two such norms. The first, “show no weakness,” includes the ideas that admitting you don’t know the answer and that seeking others’ advice are seen as weak Trump’s resistance to expert opinion and his “I alone can fix it” attitude exemplify this attitude. When leaders see listening to experts as undermining their masculinity science fails to translate into policy.

      Another norm, “dog-eat-dog competition” (assessed by items such as “you’re either ’in’ or you’re ‘out’” and “you’ve got to watch your back”), represents the core of the masculinity contest. Every situation is a zero-sum game, promoting suspicion, refusal to admit mistakes, demands for total loyalty and score settling. The result: A win-or-die culture where co-workers constantly compete rather than collaborate. For example, Trump has threatened to withhold critical supplies from states whose governors criticize him.

      The pandemic has unmasked the dangers of this type of behavior among national leaders. Trump, reportedly a germaphobe who hates shaking hands even in the best of times, downplayed the virus and continued to press the flesh well into March. In the U.K., Prime Minister Boris Johnson similarly insisted on handshakes as the coronavirus spread, leading the Guardian to label him a “super spreader” weeks before he fell ill with COVID -19 and spent days in the hospital. Bolsonaro, who bragged that his athleticism would insulate him from the virus, continues to wade into crowds, shaking hands and hugging supporters. All three minimized the pandemic when it first spread across their countries. In contrast, countries with female leaders—New Zealand and Germany, for example—have generally done better, by empowering scientific experts and supporting prevention measures.

      It’s important to note that not all male leaders value a macho image over saving lives. For example, Captain Brett Crozier, who commanded the U.S. aircraft carrier Theodore Roosevelt, prioritized sailors’ well-being when coronavirus broke out. He persisted in seeking help after facing delays and opposition to his request to evacuate and quarantine the crew. Relieved of his post, he was cheered by his crew as he departed his ship. Similarly, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo has focused on the communal goal, doing whatever it takes to minimize COVID-19 deaths.

      Effective leadership comes from commitment to the mission. Unfortunately, in the current coronavirus crisis, Trump’s continuing need to ignore the advice of experts to show that he is some sort of tough guy harms us all.

Black Health Matters

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

      The U.S. has been roiled this year by two crises that seem on the surface to be unrelated: the coronavirus pandemic and law-enforcement killings of black Americans—the latter leading to mass protests and police violence toward protesters. Although the immediate causes of these two tragedies seem distinct, both have their roots in structural racism. The virus has killed a disproportionate number of black people (as well as other people of color), and black people are by some estimates 2.5 times more likely than white people to be killed by the police. Support is building for police reform, and we can take concrete steps imme-diately to protect the health of black Americans.

      Deep health inequities have always existed in the U.S., but the pandemic has shone an especially harsh light on them. A report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on a sample of 580 people hospitalized with confirmed cases of COVID-19 found that 33 percent of patients were black in a population sample where just 18 percent of the people were black. White people made up 59 percent of the same population, but only 45 percent were infected. Through April 16 in New York City, the death rate among blacks was 92 per 100,000 people and among Latinx people 74 per 100,000—whereas the numbers for white people and Asian people were 45 and 35 per 100,000, respectively. These trends are not limited to New York: the coronavirus has infected and killed an outsize number of black people across the U.S.

      Many people of color work in so-called essential industries such as nursing or home health care, grocery stores and mass transit, where they are more likely to come into close contact with people who are sick. To make matters worse, these jobs are often poorly paid, and a large proportion of such workers lack health or life insurance. In addition, many black, Latinx and indigenous communities have high rates of underlying health conditions, including diabetes, hypertension and heart disease, which are known risk factors for severe illness and death from COVID-19. These disparities can be traced back largely to the racism and redlining that have resulted in poor, overcrowded housing and exposed people of color to more severe levels of air pollution—factors that exacerbate all these health problems. The Families First Coronavirus Response Act and the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act, both of which Congress passed in March, did very little to protect the health of essential workers, according to policy experts across the political spectrum, because they focused more on providing economic relief than medical care or benefits.

      Tackling these health inequalities fully will require major reforms in our health insurance system and a tru e effort to address deep-seated racial and economic injustices. Some possible short-term solutions are out there: the nonpartisan Brookings Institution published a report in March that called for enrolling all uninsured frontline essential workers and their families in a new “Medicare COVID” program that would cover all testing, treatment and vaccinations related to COVID-19….

      We should adopt these measures as a stopgap. But in the long term, we need to expand access to affordable health care for all Americans, and it should not be tied to employment. The Affordable Care Act (ACA) has made great strides toward this end and has proved popular with most Americans, despite Republican efforts to dismantle it. At minimum, we need to reopen ACA enrollment in every state and provide incentives for all states to expand Medicaid, which insures about 75 million low-income Americans. Too many people of color lack access to even the most basic health care, and others risk losing coverage for themselves and their families if they lose their jobs. The next time there is a pandemic—and there will be a next time—we cannot allow the same appalling racial disparities to determine who lives and who dies.

Equity for All

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

      Under the microscope, the cell being observed does not care who is observing it. Woman., man, queer, African American, Latinx, Asian, gay, middle-class, hearing-challenged, Native American: why has the scientific playing field not been equal for ALL? How can we, as science educators, erase inequitable practices in our teaching?

      A common misconception exists that equity and equality refer to the same thing. Equity is the proportional representation (by race, gender, class, etc.) with all opportunities. Equality is ensuring is ensuring everyone is treated the same and giving everyone access to the same opportunities, rights, and resources in whatever endeavor is being pursued.

      Generally, students of poverty do not come to school on an equal footing. They need more resources in order to improve reading and math skills and to experience science, to begin to close the achievement gap. By leveling the playing field, equality can be achieved.

      …During the COVID-19 pandemic while students learn from home, an example of vertical equity would be to ensure that all students have an electronic tablet AND internet access at home. Equality would just mean that all students have a tablet….

The Unlikely Role of Dinosaurs in the Diversity Discourse

[These excerpts are from a book review by Jorg Matthias Determann in the 7 August 2020 issue of Science.]

      …Sepkoski argues that the increase in diversity discourse that began in the 1980s was linked to the discovery that sudden extinction events, such as the one at the Cretaceous Tertiary boundary more than 60 million years ago, could drastically reduce the number of species on Earth. in such a scenario, the normal rules Catastrophic of natural selection do not apply. David Sep University of Entire tua could disappear within Press, 2020. a short period of time through no fault of their own. Paleontologists thus reimagined life on Earth as precarious, and they recognized mass extinctions in the fossil rec-ord as the cause of sudden drops in diversity.

      This “new catastrophism” of the late 20th century was different from the Darwinian understanding of extinction as a gradual and inevitable process in which natural competition slowly weeded out the unfit. In the struggle for life, Charles Darwin and his successors thought that declines in some populations were simply making way for those that were better adapted to particular habitats. As new species replaced older ones, nature was perceived to be in balance, if not on a path of improvement. Conservation efforts during this period were thus confined to charismatic animals, with little consideration to broader biological diversity.

      …he convincingly demonstrates that an ecological perspective has profoundly shaped our views of biological and social communities. From the 1980s onward, global conservation efforts aimed at biodiversity, and cultural diversity soon gained traction….

Productivity in a Pandemic

[These excerpts are from an editorial by Caitlyn Collins in the 7 August 2020 issue of Science.]

      …Researchers who have managed to stay employed are trying to work from home just as schools and daycare centers have closed. Those with young children, in particular, are struggling to stay afloat One study during the early stage of the pandemic showed that women scientists with young children, more so than similar men, are scaling back their research time to meet these heightened demands. And because women faculty do more service work than men in “normal” times—the less-prestigious student advising, program supervision, and committee tasks that keep academic institutions afloat—my guess is that these duties are consuming more of women’s time as universities coordinate pandemic responses.

      This gender gap matters because in academia, publishing is the primary criterion for tenure, promotion, and raises. Publishing less during the pandemic could undermine the careers of an entire generation of women scholars. Women are already underrepresented in science, and their representation declines at every career stage. This disparity is pronounced for women of color. And because a diverse workforce can boost scientific creativity and productivity, the pandemic’s lasting impacts on women could harm scientific innovation.

      The window of opportunity for advancement in academia is narrow. The time requiring the most devotion—tenure track—often coincides with the early years of parenthood. For parents in science, especially mothers, this timing does not bode well.

      This hard truth helps explain why the upper echelons of academia have long been occupied by white men with stay-at-home wives and, though rarely, by women who decided to forgo motherhood altogether. The success that men achieve in their careers is due in no small part to the support of women. Yes, today’s dads spend more time caring for their kids than did fathers of previous generations, yet both men and women report finding it tough to reconcile family commitments with the demands of science.

      The bottom line is that science is simply not welcoming to parents. After having children, an astounding 43% of mothers and 23% of fathers leave full-time employment in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics fields in the United States….

      Nothing is likely to change until there are policies to support parents, not just in academia but in all walks of life. Among developed nations, the United States is a laggard on every dimension of federal work-family policy. Correcting this would benefit children, families, universities—indeed, the entire scientific enterprise. But until society’s beliefs change about who can and should care for children, such efforts will fall short.

      As the pandemic grinds on and uncertainty prevails about reopening schools and childcare centers, the effects on research productivity, especially for women, will only get worse. Gender equity in scientific publishing will elude us until we address gender equity at home.

One in Three Children Poisoned by Lead

[This brief article by Jeffrey Braiard is in the 7 August 2020 issue of Science.]

      One in three of the world’s 2.4 billion children and adolescents under age 20 has a blood lead level that exceeds what would trigger public health alarms in the United States, a report says. The majority live in lower and middle-income countries, mostly in Asia and the Pacific, according to an analysis by UNICEF and the advocacy group Pure Earth published last week. The potent neurotoxin can reduce a child's intelligence test score and cause other health problems; lead poisoning is blamed for nearly $1 trillion of lost lifetime earnings. Most lead enters the environment through poorly regulated smelters that recycle car batteries. Lead poisoning has worsened considerably during the past 2 decades because car sales in those countries have tripled, the report says. Scientists consider no amount of lead exposure safe, but the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has set the threshold for action at 5 milligrams per deciliter—the level met or exceeded in 800 million children worldwide. The report recommends more blood-level testing, prevention, and environmental cleanup.

Confronting Illness with Empathy

[Theis excerpt is from a book review by Frederick Rowe Davis in the 31 July 2020 issue of Science.]

      …By way of introduction, Broudy notes that there are, at present, 85,000 synthetic chemicals circulating in our daily environments, including 9000 food additives, the vast majority of which have never been tested for potential effects on humans. In 2017 alone, 3.9 billion pounds of chemicals were dumped into the environment, he notes. Meanwhile, billions of metric tons of plastics (8.3 billion in 2015) accumulate around us. Cancer rates have also spiked, notes Broudy, and he cites drastic increases in other conditions, from autism to allergies.

      …But despite the high incidence of environmental illness (EI)—Broudy indicates that as much as 30% of the population may exhibit some environmental hypersensitivity—many nonsufferers, particularly in the medical and scientific communities, wonder if it is even real….

      How did we come to live in a world so saturated in synthetic chemicals? To answer this question, Broudy recounts the story of British chemist William Henry Perkin, who, in 1856, discovered how to synthesize a deep-purple dye. Other chemists followed suit, producing a colorful palette of synthetic dyes. “From this rainbow our modern world of industrial chemicals emerged,” writes Broudy. Pharmaceuticals followed from the labs of Bayer and Monsanto, and in 1910 Fritz Haber successfully synthesized ammonia, a feat that won him the Nobel Prize in Chemistry and ushered in the era of agricultural chemistry.

      As the road trip proceeds, Broudy encounters additional environmental risks: mining operations and power plants fired by coal, for example. He uses this to transition the narrative toward a history of risk assessment, which breezes from the birth of modern insurance to the dawn of nuclear armaments. Here, he draws striking comparisons between EI and other diseases with diffuse etiologies, such as Gulf War illness, posttraumatic stress disorder, and neurasthenia….

How an Ancient Microbial Arms Race Remodeled Human Cells

[These excerpts are from an article by Ann Gibbons in the 31 July 2020 issue of Science.]

      …humans suffer from a long list of deadly diseases—including typhoid fever, cholera, mumps, whooping cough, and gonorrhea—that don’t afflict apes and most other mammals. All of those pathogens follow the same well trodden pathway to break into our cells: They manipulate sugar molecules called sialic acids. Hundreds of millions of these sugars stud the outer surface of every cell in the human body—and the sialic acids in humans are different from those in apes.

      …By analyzing modern human genomes and ancient DNA from our extinct cousins, the Neanderthals and Denisovans, the researchers detected a burst of evolution in our immune cells that occurred in an ancestor of all three types of human by at least 600,000 years ago.

      …these genetic changes may have sharpened the body's defenses against the pathogens that evolved to exploit sialic acids—but created new vulnerabilities. In an added irony, they note, humans’ distinctive sialic acids were themselves once a defense against disease. The evolutionary saga is a vivid illustration of the competition between humans and microbes….

      The arena for this evolutionary arms race is the glycocalyx, a sugar coating that protects the outer membrane of all cells. It consists of a forest of molecules that sprout from the cell membrane. The sialic acids are at the tip of the tallest branches, sugar chains called glycans, which are rooted to fats and proteins deeper in the membrane.

      Given their prominence and sheer number, sialic acids are usually the fist molecules that invading pathogens encounter. Human cells are coated with one type of sialic acid, N-acetylneuraminic acid (Neu5Ac). But apes and most other mammals also carry a different one, N-glycolylneuraminic acid (Neu5Gc).

      More than 2 million years ago, according to multiple molecular clock methods that estimate when mutations arose, a mutation in a gene on chromosome six made it impossible for human ancestors to make Neu5Gc anymore; instead, they made more of another sialic acid, Neu5Ac….Birds, some bats, ferrets, and New World monkeys all separately Made the same evolutionary change.

      The change likely evolved as a defense against malaria….Malarial parasites that infect chimpanzees were no longer able to bind with the altered sialic acids on our red blood cells….

      But in the next million years or so, that mutation became a liability, as Neu5Ac became a portal for a flurry of other pathogens….multiple diseases evolved to use Neu5Ac to enter cells or to evade immune cells.

      Coronaviruses appear to be no exception….Two preprints suggest the novel coronavirus, SARS-CoV-2, also docks with sialic acids before binding with the ACE2 receptor to pierce human cells.

      …If a woman with only Neu5Ac sialic acids mated with a man who still expressed Neu5Gc, her immune system may have rejected that man’s sperm or the fetus that developed from it. This fertility barrier might have helped divide Homo populations into different species more than 2 million years ago, the researchers speculated.

      But the sialic acid change also sparked a new arms race between pathogens and our ancestors. In the new study, the researchers scanned DNA for immune genes in six Neanderthals, two Denisovans, and 1000 humans, and looked at dozens of chimps, bonobos, gorillas, and orangutans as well. They found evolutionary changes that “markedly altered” one class of proteins—sialic acid-binding immunoglobulin-type lectins, or Siglecs—that usually sit on the surface of human immune cells and recognize sialic acids.

      Siglecs are molecular sentries: They probe sialic acids to see whether they are familiar parts of our own bodies or foreign invaders. If Siglecs spot sialic acids that are damaged or missing, they signal immune cells to activate, rousing an inflammatory army to attack potential invaders or clean up damaged cells. If sialic acids instead appear to be normal parts of our own cells, other, inhibitory Siglecs throttle back immune defenges so as not to attack our own tissues….

      The researchers identified functional changes in the DNA of eight out of 13 Siglees encoded by genes on chromosome 19 in humans, Neanderthals, and Denisovans. This hot spot of evolution appears only in Siglec gene variants, not in nearby genes on the chromosome, suggesting natural selection favored these changes, presumably because they helped fight pathogens that target Neu5Ac.

      …Given the mutations’ presence in archaic hominins, this burst of evolution must have happened before our lineages diverged 600,000 years ago, but after the mutation in that altered sialic acid arose more than 2 million years ago, perhaps in Homo erectus, thought to be an ancestor of modern humans Land Neanderthals….

Cautious Optimism

[These excerpts are from an editorial by H. Holden Thorp in the 31 July 2020 issue of Science.]

      The first half of 2020 has seen extraordinary accomplishments in science….So why doesn’t this progress feel like the triumph that it is?

      Public health guidance is ignored, reopening businesses happens too fast, people fight over wearing masks, and the forces that undermine confidence in vaccines proceed unimpeded. Scientists who burn the midnight oil in academia, government, and industry to decipher COVID-19 are confronted with political leaders who downplay and criticize their tireless efforts. Many are immigrants who hear that they aren’t welcome in the United States. President Trump and his allies are sticking their fingers in the eyes of the very people who can lead the world out of this calamity.

      There are many reasons to be optimistic about getting a vaccine against the COVID-19 pathogen, severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2), in record time. Monkey studies of candidate vaccines have shown immune responses that appear linked to protection, and 26 of these have entered human clinical trials. And the U.S. federal government has gambled approximately $6 billion on pharmaceutical companies to produce vaccines in large quantities in the hope that they will perform well in large clinical trials and merit approval by the Food and Drug Administration.

      Science also offers reasons to be cautious. We can’t know for sure that a vaccine is safe over the long term until we have had more time to observe volunteers in clinical trials. Monkeys don’t develop severe disease from SARS-CoV-2, limiting the model's predictive powers. Two doses of the vaccine may be required, which creates a logistical challenge. We won’t know whether billions of doses of the vaccine can be produced and distributed until we actually attempt to do so.

      But the political and social impediments create even more reason for caution. Despite his recent, hollow backtracking, President Donald Trump has mostly embraced the dogma of the antivaccine movement and cheered on the antimask crowd. Part of the administration's strategy is to undermine Dr. Anthony Fauci, the foremost authority on infectious disease in the United States, which might lead to vulnerable people refusing to get the vaccine that their health and lives may depend on. Even folks who are not against vaccines will have questions about the safety of a vaccine to SARS-CoV-2 given how muddled the messaging has been. It doesn’t help that the White House calls the vaccine effort “Operation Warp Speed,” which hardly reflects the great care that is being taken to produce a safe and effective vaccine.

      The logistical impediments seem most daunting of all….

      Having botched the distribution of diagnostic tests to get ahead of the pandemic, disemboweled the CDC, trampled on its own experts, stoked conspiracy theories about wearing masks and the origins of the virus, pushed an unproven treatment that proved worthless, stepped on the independence of the NIH, and audaciously attacked Fauci, the Trump administration does not inspire confidence in its ability to make sound public health decisions. With no strategy, a vaccine is the government's best way out of the pandemic crisis.

      It's not too late to get it right. We need clear decision-making by experts, articulated crisply and without interference. This is not a time for leading with the gut, building up false hope, or making speculative bets. It’s time to let the data do the talking.

      Science is doing its part. Over to you, Mr. President.

Systemic Racism Persists in the Sciences

[These excerpts are from an editorial by Adia Harvey Wingfield in the 24 July 2020 issue of Science.]

      It’s tempting to think of medicine and health care as objective and neutral, driven solely by scientific principles and free inquiry. Indeed, scientists go through extensive measures to make their research bias-free. However, recent developments show that despite the best efforts, racial disparities persist in the health care system even when they are unintentional.

      The disproportionate impact of coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) on Black and Latinx communities in the United States has demonstrated that although illnesses may not discriminate, varying access to treatment, preventive measures, and other resources can still lead to imbalances in health care. Racial differences persist in. scientific research as well: Algorithms designed to make decisions about health care incorporate biases that limit care for Black patients. Another recent study showed that Black applicants to granting programs at the U.S. National Institutes of Health got less money than their White colleagues. This was not a result of intentional discrimination, but because Black researchers worked in areas (fertility, health disparities, and adolescent health) that tend to be underfunded.

      …Systemic racism refers to the well documented fact that most of our institutions—in polities, law, education, and health care, to name a few—are fundamentally organized according to assumptions and policies that work to the disadvantage of communities of color, and Blacks in particular.

      In health care, for instance, this can mean pay policies that discourage practitioners from treating patients who are affected by poverty, discrimination, and other factors that can impair health—factors that disproportionately affect Black patients and the Black practitioners who are more likely to treat them. In technology, this means facial recognition systems that frequently misidentify Black people. And in the legal system, these structural barriers are present in the oft-cited racial disparities in mandatory minimum sentencing rules for drug use, and in targeting predominantly Black, low-income communities for nonviolent drug crimes whose punishment can escalate into a loss of voting rights and other freedoms.

      None of these policies is necessarily a result of individual intent, overt bias, or malice. But ultimately, individuals are the ones who create social institutions. When most of these people are White, it is all too likely that they will fail to recognize the particular realities of life for Black citizens.

      The first step toward addressing these issues is to recognize that despite the pride scientists take in being analytical thinkers, these problems persist Most people don’t set out to maintain racial disparities, but do so inadvertently, and the scientific community is not exempt….

      What is badly needed is a wider range of perspectives. This suggestion may not sit well with scientists who are committed to the belief that theirs is a completely meritocratic field. But bringing together a broader variety of voices to the scientific community will help all scientists as they continue to make discoveries that advance society. The crisis that the COVID-19 pandemic has brought to Black and Latinx communities adds to the urgency.

Avoiding another Hiroshima

[These excerpts are from an editorial by Madeleine K. Albright in the 24 July 2020 issue of Science.]

      The nuclear age dawned on 16 July 1945—75 years ago this month—when the U.S. military detonated an atomic weapon deep in the New Mexican desert. In his diary 1 week later, President Harry Truman wrote: “We have discovered the most terrible bomb in the history of the world. It may be the fire destruction prophesied in the Euphrates Valley Era, after Noah and his fabulous Ark.” The world would soon witness, in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the unprecedented devastation these new instruments of war could cause. Almost immediately, a global effort began to keep them under control. This effort was, until recently, led by the United States. Now that early progress is in jeopardy, and the world risks heading down a dark and dangerous path toward what experts bloodlessly call a “nuclear exchange.”

      President Truman issued the first international nonproliferation proposal on 15 November 1945, when he joined with the leaders of the United Kingdom and Canada in calling for the elimination of atomic weapons and the peaceful uses of nuclear energy. Eight years later, President Dwight Eisenhower echoed this call in his “Atoms for Peace” speech. President John F. Kennedy stressed similar themes in his push to ban atmospheric nuclear tests.

      Foremost among preventive measures, however, was the 1970 Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, negotiated by President Lyndon Johnson, ratified by President Richard Nixon, and eventually signed by every country except Israel, India, and Pakistan. This agreement was based on a grand bargain: that the nuclear haves (United States, USSR, United Kingdom, France, and China) would eliminate these weapons over time, while everyone else pledged not to build or acquire them. For more than a quarter century, the pact held. Dozens of countries that could have developed nuclear arms refrained from doing so.

      But with memories of Hiroshima and Nagasaki fading, countries—including the United States—have begun to reconsider the logic of nonproliferation. When I was Secretary of State in the late 1990s, India and Pakistan crashed into the nuclear club. In the years that followed, North Korea forged ahead with its own program despite international disapproval. Iran agreed in 2015 to strict limits in exchange for sanctions relief, only to see the United States withdraw from the deal in 2018. Tehran has since resumed uranium enrichment.

      A breakdown in efforts by the United States and Russia has further set back the cause. The U.S. withdrawal from the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty in 2002 began a trend away from negotiated arms reduction and toward unilateral moves. With the dissolution of the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty last year, only one agreement remains in place limiting the size of American and Russian nuclear forces—and that treaty, known as New START (Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty), is set to expire next year.

      Against that backdrop, both the United States and Russia are placing a renewed emphasis on the role of nuclear weapons in their military strategies, with the United States deploying new types of bombs following a wholesale modernization effort by the Russian military. Some officials are even embracing the folly that a nuclear war can be won.

      …The United States does not need every weapon in its nuclear arsenal. Nor does it have the money to pay for them without detracting from more urgent priorities. The estimated cost of modernizing the nuclear enterprise—about $50 billion per year—is almost five times the budget of the US. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

      A new U.S. administration can reduce such spendhig, supporting instead the goal of nuclear disarmament. U.S. leaders may not know how to arrive at this final destination, but there are obvious first few steps—extending current treaties, pursuing follow-on agreements, and using the full range of diplomatic tools to avoid conflict and escalation. Seventy-five years into the nuclear age, the United States must get off its current path and once again lead toward a nuclear weapons-free world.

Color Vision

[These excerpts are from a book report by Michael Rossi in the 17 July 2020 issue of Science.]

      …A Natural History of Color is a companion piece to The Nature of Color, an exhibition at the American Museum of Natural History in New York City….As of this writing, the museum is still closed. Nevertheless, the book stands on its own.

      As the authors acknowledge, understanding color tout court is a vast, multidisciplinary project, involving physics, physiology; psychology, anthropology, and philosophy, among many other disciplines. Tb make sense of this potential chaos, the book takes evolution as its guiding principle, looking first at the evolution of light-sensitive molecules and their integration into, and usefulness to, living things; next, at the evolution of particular color schemes that can serve to attract, repel, mimic, and confuse other organisms that possess particular arrangements of light-sensitive molecules; and finally, at the evolution of distinct symbolic responses to color in human beings….

      Perhaps to leaven their dips into the minutiae of physics, genetics, statistics, and molecular biology, the authors frequently reach for pop-culture references to illustrate (or augment) their points. A truncated list would include the movies Predator and Animal House; the TV shows Game of Thrones, The Walking Dead, and Pee-wee’s Playhouse; and the rock groups Violent Femmes and the Police, as well as repeat appearances by Gary Larson’s The Far Side cartoons.…

      This gap notwithstanding, the book does provide, unequivocally and generously, a long look not just at the evolutionary background of color perception but also at the ways in which science itself both draws from and contributes to an understanding of color. The writers are not simply practicing scientists and museum curators, they are enthusiasts eager to share their knowledge with their audience. One comes away from this book with a sense that both the scientific description of color and the science that is used to arrive at that description are mutually reinforcing: a feedback loop wherein a particular understanding of perception shapes a particular understanding of the world, which, in turn, shapes a particular understanding of perception, and so forth. In this way, the book is something of a meta-exercise in the history of perception—a way of viewing one's own perceptions in a historical mirror. If one approaches the book with this precept in mind, the experience will be rewarding.

Science Has Always Been Political

[These excerpts are from an editorial by H. Holden Thorp in the 17 July 2020 issue of Science.]

      This month marks the 75th anniversary of Vannevar Bush’s paper, “Science—The Endless Frontier.” The report set out the rationale and structure of a system to fund science in the United States; it is the Magna Carta of American science….

      Bush’s report and advocacy seized on the historical moment. He was a driving force behind the Manhattan Project, and the scientists who developed the atomic bomb at Los Alamos were viewed as American heroes who won World War II with their minds (we now correctly regret the carnage of Hiroshima and Nagasaki and have more sophisticated views about the danger of nuclear weapons). Bush shrewdly recognized that it was a high-water mark for American trust in science. He used this political capital to create the federally funded scientific establishment in the United States.

      Bush’s document is widely celebrated by U.S. scientists, because it sets out many of the nation’s most cherished principles. It is fundame-tally based on the idea that professors should conduct basic research with federal dollars because universities offer a home for free inquiry and students can be trained in this environment of knowledge creation. It is one of the earliest and most persuasive cases for professors as teacher-scholars. He was passionate that university researchers should be free from government influence, and later tangled in the implementation of his vision with Senator Harley Kilgore, who felt that the government should force more applied research with more federal entitlements.

      There is a disconnect, however, in how we remember this. Although Bush is often held up as a model for keeping politics out of science, his writing and efforts were unmistakably political. “Science—The Endless Frontier” is first and foremost a masterwork of political persuasion. Yes, it eventually ends up with professors carrying out curiosity-driven research without government intervention, but the exposition that leads to this conclusion is nothing short of a jeremiad—a prophecy of American deterioration without immediate investment in science. Perhaps deep in his psyche, basic research was important to Bush for its beauty and transcendent qualities, but in reading his three arguments for federal science, he believed it was crucial for American survival.

      Bush begins with an argument that is still the most politically useful in American science—"For the War Against Disease.” As science has gone in and out of favor in Washington, DC, medical research has almost always had bipartisan support, and Bush’s brilliant framing ensured that fundamental understanding of biology always had support. The second argument—"For Our National Security”—leverages the support that Bush and his colleagues obtained in building the atomic bomb as well as the fear that Americans had of adversaries that could gain an advantage in military technology. “And for the Public Welfare” posits that scientific capability and a trained scientific workforce are necessary for a flourishing economy in the United States.

      These arguments still work today. It would be hard to find Congressional testimony from scientific advocates over the intervening 75 years that didn’t echo some of these themes….

Polynesians, Native Americans Met and Mingled Long Ago

[These excerpts are from an article by Lizzie Wade in the 10 July 2020 issue of Science.]

      By about 1200 C.E., Polynesians were masters of oceanic exploration, roaming 7000 kilometers across the Pacific Ocean in outrigger canoes. Guided by subtle changes of wind and waves, the paths of migrating birds, bursts of light from bioluminescent plankton, and the position of the stars, they reached and settled islands from New Zealand to Rapa Nui, or Easter Island, the closest Polynesian island to South America.

      So it’s natural to wonder: Did these world-class explorers make it the last 3800 kilometers to South America? A genomic study of more than 800 modem Polynesians and Native Americans suggests they did.

      The work strengthens earlier evidence that somewhere—perhaps on the northern coast of South America—the two groups met and mixed well before the era of European colonialism. And it shakes up the most popular model of where Native American genes first took root in Polynesia, shifting the focus from Rapa Nui to islands farther west….

      Earlier hints of contact between the two regions included the sweet potato, which was domesticated in the Andes but grown and eaten all over Polynesia. for hundreds of years before Europeans arrived. And a 2014 study of 27 modern people from Rapa Nui found they had Native American ancestry dating back to between 1300 C.E. and 1500 C.E.—at least 200 years before the first Europeans landed there in 1722 C.E. But a 2017 ancient DNA study, led by Fehren-Schmitz, found no sign of Native Amerircan ancestry in five people who lived on Rapa Nui before and after European contact.

      …found that people on many islands had both Polynesian and European ancestry, reflecting their colonial histories. But they were also able to detect a small amount of Native American ancestry in people from the eastern Polynesian islands of Palliser, the Marquesas, Mangareva, and Rapa Nui. The Native American sequences were short and nearly identical— seemingly a legacy of one long-ago meeting with a Native American group, rather than sustained contact over generations….

      Analyses of the length of the Native American sequences show this ancestry appeared first on Fatu Hiva in the South Marquesas roughly 28 generations ago, which would date it to about 1150 C.E. That’s about when the island was settled by Polynesians, raising the possibility the contact happened even earlier. The genetic legacy of that mixing was then carried by Polynesian voyagers as they settled other islands, including Rapa Nui….

Monumental Patience

[These excerpts are from an editorial by H. Holden Thorp in the 10 July 2020 issue of Science.]

      Next week marks the 60th anniversary of Jane Goodall’s arrival in what is now Tanzania’s Gombe National Park to study wild chimpanzees. Although her story is a familiar one to many scientists, it has taken on a new importance in this era when climate change, racism, and a rapidly spreading coronavirus ravage the globe. It is a story of genuine scientific curiosity, determination, and respect for nature and humanity—all the things we desperately need now….

      Leakey famously said that Goodall was a person of monumental patience. “There’s defi-nitely still lots of opportunity for the old way of watching and recording and being patient,” she said. Goodall still insists that some observational work be done with handwritten note taking, but she also embraces the use of technology….The important thing to Goodall was to get close and study the personalities and interactions among chimpanzee family members. She has been doing it for 60 years, saying “it yielded so much richness.”

      The science that started in Gombe back then has evolved, changing and developing as it grows….

      Another program she devotes most of her time to now, Roots & Shoots, reflects her faith in young people and the future. She still has many concerns, about the world. “How do we move into a new green economy?” she wonders. “How do we alleviate poverty so people can make the right choices and stop destroying the environment? How do we realize that putting the short-term economic gain over and above protection of nature is going to be the end of our species as well as the end of most life as we know it?”

      In an effort to answer these questions, she uses her platform, and her story, to inspire the younger generation, just as she has also inspired the established scientists of today….

Immigrants Help Make America Great

[These excerpts are from an editorial by Sudip Parikh in the 10 July 2020 issue of Science.]

      I am a scientist. I am an American. And I am the product of special expert visas and chain migration—among the many types of legal immigration into the United States. On 22 June, President Trump issued a proclamation that temporarily restricts many types of legal immigration into the country, including that of scientists and students. This will make America neither greater nor safer—rather, it could make America less so.

      The administration claims that these restrictions are necessitated bythe coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) outbreak to prevent threats to American workers. This reasoning is flawed for science and engineering, where immigrants are critical to achieving advances and harnessing the resulting economic opportunity for all Americans.

      For decades, the United States has inspired both immigrants and nonimmigrants to make substantial contributions to science and technology that benefit everyone. Preventing highly skilled scientists and postdocs from entering the United States directly threatens this enterprise.

      …As President Reagan said, the United States is the one place in the world where “anybody from any corner of the world can come...to live and become an American.” Naturalized citizens love the United States deeply because they chose to be American. They and other immigrants make huge contributions to science and engineering.

      According to the National Science Foundation, more than 50% of postdocs and 28% of science and engineering faculty in the United States are immigrants. Of the Nobel Prizes in chemistry, medicine, and physics awarded to Americans since 2000, 38% were awarded to immigrants to the United States….

      Suspending legal immigration is self-defeating and breaks a model that is so successful that other nations are copying it….

      To develop treatments and vaccines for COVID-19, cure cancers, go to Mars, understand the fundamental laws of the universe and human behavior, develop artificial intelligence, and build a better future, we need the brain power of the descendants of Native Americans, Pilgrims, Founding Mothers and Fathers, Enslaved People, Ellis Island arrivals, and immigrants from everywhere. The United States has thrived as a crossroads where people are joined together by ideas and contribute by choice to the freedom and opportunity provided by this wonderful, inspiring, and flawed country that is always striving to live up to its aspirations.

      Scientists, look around your labs and offices. Think about your collaborations and friendships. We must ensure that this “temporary” restriction on legal imrnigra-tion does not become permanent. Now is the time to speak up for your immigrant colleagues and for Ametica.

      [Note: In the following week, the Trump administration agreed to drop this controversial proposal.]

A Child of the Slums

[These excerpts are from an article by Shalini Arya in the 3 July 2020 issue of Science.]

      …My father—a laborer—didn’t let me attend school initially. I was always jealous of my younger brother when he set off to school each day. So, one day, when I was 5 years old, I followed him and hid under the teacher’s desk. She noticed me and sent me home. But the next day, she called my father and told him that he should put me in school. Much to my delight, my father said yes.

      I had a passion for learning, and—despite the hunger pangs I went to school with most days—I quickly shot to the top of my class. When I was 10 years old, my father sent me to a better school outside our neighborhood, one that was mostly attended by students from wealthier families. I was at the top of the class there, too. But I was treated poorly by classmates who saw me as a child of the slums. I also suffered from embarrassment during biology labs because I was very short—due to malnutrition, I suspect—and I had to stand on a chair to see into the microscope.

      When I graduated from high school, I wanted to become an engineer. My father was eager for me to attend university; but he told me I couldn’t study engineering because it was for boys; he said I should study food science instead. My initial reaction was that food science was the last thing I wanted to study. After a childhood preparing meals for my family, there was nothing I hated more than cooking.

      I enrolled in a food science program anyway, and I quickly discovered that food science wasn’t so bad after all. It was a real science—something akin to chemistry—that involved hypothesis testing and experimentation. Soon enough, I was hooked….

      In the years that followed, I received a Ph.D. in food engineering and was appointed to a faculty position—milestones that felt far removed from my beginnings in the slums. But shortly thereafter, I began a collaboration that brought me back to my roots. I worked with a company that wanted to tackle malnutrition in India’s slums. When representatives from the company first approached me, they said, “You’d need to go to the slums and talk with people”—thinking that I’d never done that before. “That’s no problem,” I replied. “I grew up in the slums.”

      As part of my work with the company, I modified the ingredients in a traditional Indian flatbread called chapati, which I’d made every day growing up. I realized it was the perfect vehicle to introduce more nutrition into the diet of poor people, because it was a staple eaten at every meal. I experimented with the ingredients and landed on a recipe that replaced wheat flour with cheap, locally grown grains that contain more minerals, protein, and dietary fiber.

      Other researchers laughed at me when I started to work on chapati because they didn’t think there’d be much science, or innovation, associated with it. But I’ve since proved them wrong. My work has won numerous national and international awards, and companies, nonprofit organizations, and government agencies have all sought my expertise.

      In my life, I’ve faced poverty, hunger, and discrimination. But I didn’t let them hold me back. I pushed through the obstacles and learned lessons from them that helped propel me forward. I hope others can take inspiration from my story and realize that—despite the challenges they may be facing—they, too, can persevere.

Physics Meets America’s Defense Agenda

[These excerpts are from a book review by Melanie Frappier in the 3 July 2020 issue of Science.]

      While historically naïve, Thomas Kuhn’s 1962 treatise The Structure of Scientific Revolutions succeeded in revealing that science is not as rational and objective as many imagined it to be, opening the doors to a new kind of history of science, one that pays attention to the complex interactions between science's conceptual frameworks and its social contexts. Yet, to this day, most history books written for the wider public favor a narrower understanding of science. David Kaiser's work is a wel-comed exception.

      In Quantum Legacies: Dispatches from an Uncertain World, Kaiser, who teaches both particle cosmology and history of science at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, gives a witty and insightful overview of the development of modern physics. Through a series of previously published but carefully reedited essays, he explores how America’s defense agenda has shaped physics research and education, from the ever-increasing size of research teams to the way we talk about quantum phenomena.

      Initially, only taciturn physicists such as Paul Dirac preferred to focus on the mathematical formalism of quantum physics rather than engaging in public debates on its philosophical implications as Albert Einstein and Erwin Schrodinger often did. Why then are so many physicists now favoring Dirac’s “shut up and calculate” approach? Kaiser seems unconvinced by the oft-repeated claim that most physicists were satisfied by Niels Bohr's answers to Einstein’s and Schrodinger’s worries and simply turned their attention to more practical problems. The change of focus, he argues, was brought about by the complex ways in which war transformed physics. \

      Historians usually underline the role that new military technology, from computers to atomic bombs, played in the Allies’ victory in World War II. But according to Kaiser, the most important contribution that physics departments made to the war effort was the training of soldiers. As he reminds us, this was a “physicists’ war” first and foremost, because soldiers needed a basic grasp of physics to operate everyday military technology.

      Across the country; classroom discussions of the interpretation of quantum mechanics were replaced by lectures on the fundamentals of radio transmission and artillery. Far from being temporary, these drastic changes became entrenched during the Cold War as Americans feared—albeit incorrectly—that the USSR would match and perhaps surpass their scientific and military outputs. Fear of a nuclear conflict, Kaiser explains, made nuclear physicists key to national security during this period. Generous governmental funding in research and education led to soaring enrollments in physics departments.

      As Kaiser demonstrates through an examination of mid-20th-century textbooks, increasingly large classes encouraged professors to continue their move away from philosophical musings in favor of more practical (and undoubtedly easier-to-grade) calculations. Gone were the days when textbooks discussed the reality of the energy levels of hydrogen atoms; now the aim was to calculate them.

      The Cold War led to a golden age during which physics saw the development of the standard model and the discovery of new particles, from neutrinos to the' Higgs boson. To his credit, Kaiser never suggests that military funding is key to rapid scientific development….

      …The one “legacy” the book fails to address is the flagrant absence of female and minority researchers in particle cosmology….

Officials Grid for a War on Vaccine Misinformation

[These excerpts are from an article by Warren Cornwall in the 3 July 2020 issue of Science.]

      Within days of the first confirmed novel coronavirus case in the United States on 20 January, antivaccine activists were already hinting on Twitter that the virus was a scam—part of a plot to profit from an eventual vaccine.

      Nearly half a year later, scientists around the world are rushing to create a COVID-19 vaccine. An approved product is still months, if not years, away and public health agencies have not yet mounted campaigns to promote it. But health communication experts say they need to start to lay the groundwork for acceptance now, because the flood of misinformation from antivaccine activists has surged.

      …in recent months, 10% of the Facebook pages run by people asking questions about vaccines have already switched to antivaccine views.

      Recent polls have found as few as 50% of people in the United States are committed to receiving a vaccine, with another quarter wavering. Some of the communities most at risk from the virus are also the most leery: Among Black people, who account for nearly one-quarter of U.S. COVID-19 deaths, 40% said they wouldn’t get a vaccine in a mid-May poll….In France, 26% said they wouldn't get a coronavirus vaccine.

      The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) is now working on a plan to boost “vaccine confidence” as part of the federal effort to develop a vaccine….

      Even before the pandemic, public health agencies around the world were struggling to counter increasingly sophisticated efforts to turn people against vaccines. With vaccination rates against measles and other infectious diseases falling in some locations, the World Health Organization (WHO) in 2019 listed “vaccine hesitancy” as one of 10 major global health threats.

      Any coronavirus vaccine will face additional hurdles, especially the lack of a long-term safety record….Even advocates have worried that the rush for a vaccine raises the risk it could be ineffective or have harmful side effects….

      Del Bigtree, a U.S.-based vaccine critic, claims scientists are pursuing one of “the most dangerous vaccines ever attempted,” for a virus that poses little risk to most peopie. He says he spreads his message through an online talk show, Twitter, and presentations, and that “we have seen incredible growth” since the pandemic started.

      …Other outlandish claims include that vitamin C can cure COVID-19 and that the disease is a conspiracy involving philanthropist Bill Gates….

      Accuracy and authority are at a disadvantage in a media environment that favors speed, emotion, and memorable stories….Antivaccine activists have used those factors to attract followers….

      Vaccine promoters say they need to start now to counter all this, because epidemiologists estimate that to break the pandemic, 70% of the population may need to develop immunity, either by getting a vaccine or becoming infected…..

      Traditional messages promoting vaccination—authoritative and fact-filled—just don’t cut it with people worried about vaccine safety….

      Some current initiatives have pioneered a more story-based approach….”We need to carry positive stories and also negative stories about the harms of not vaccinating.” The downsides of refusing a coronavirus vaccine might include not visiting grandparents and continuing to traverse the produce aisle as if it were a minefield….

      But the most effective tools may lie outside the digital realm. Real-world nudges and infrastructure, such as phone call reminders to come in for a shot, may be more powerful than any social media campaign….

      Public health agencies should consider taking vaccinations out of medical settings and into places where people work or shop….That also means talking to leaders in various communities to understand their views…..

Surviving the Trauma of COVID-19

[This excerpt is from an editorial by Roxanne Cohen Silver in the 3 July 2020 issue of Science.]

      …The threat of terrorism was never eliminated, but industries and urban centers continued to thrive. Decades later, the United States and world face another threat, equally amorphous and extremely deadly. In months, severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2), the virus that causes coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19), has infected over 10 million people, killed over 125,000 Americans, and led to more than 500,000 deaths worldwide. A vaccine for COVID-19 is perhaps a year away. What does psychological science tell us about how individuals are responding—and will respond—as the pandemic waxes and wanes? What will the postpandemic “normal” look like? Will our society prove to be resilient?

      COVID-19 is a physical illness that scientists are trying to understand from many angles. But the pandemic and its associated stressors also are likely to have serious mental health consequences. It is quite normal to experience distress as a result of chronic stress of this magnitude. Losses that are real (of loved ones, without the opportunity for a ritual funeral) or symbolic (graduation celebrations) abound. There may be grief for many, and unresolved grief for some. Isolation may lead to depression for many and suicidal ideation for some. But there will be no “one size fits all” response to this crisis.

      Decades of psychological science on collective traumas indicate that individuals’ responses are likely to be based on several factors. These include their prepandemic circumstances and resources—prior exposures to adversity, physical and mental health vulnerabilities, and economic and social supports. One must also consider exposures encountered during the pandemic: Did a family member get sick or worse? Did the person lose a job or health insurance? Was the individual an essential worker whose actions ensured others’ well-being? How much time was spent immersed in traditional or social media, repeatedly being exposed to hours of bad news? One must also consider community-level stressors. Did the individual live in a “hot spot”? Did shops and restaurants close, never to reopen? Was there unambiguous guidance from a governor that was backed by the best science? Emotional and behavioral responses to this ongoing crisis will be multidetermined but not random, and psychological science has isolated risk factors that can guide social service organizations and health care providers to identify the most psychologically vulnerable among us.

      As the death toll due to COVID-19 crossed 125,000 in the United States, behavioral restrictions have been relaxed nationwide. Current public health guidance recommends self-protective behaviors, including frequent hand washing, social distancing, and wearing face coverings. Yet media reports show people congregating with no physical distancing at parties, beaches, and street protests. Research suggests that exposure to conflicting information from government authorities, media sources, and social networks plays a role in understanding whether or not individuals follow science-based recommendations to minimize risk and maximize public health. When Ebola virus cases appeared in the United States in 2014, the public proved to understand risk information that is clearly and directly communicated by trusted authorities. Moreover, this trust must be maintained by honesty and competence. And just as the public returned to airplanes and high rises after 9/11, and just as people now go through x-ray machines -without protest before they board a plane, most people will follow the rules.

      Successfully managing COVID-19 and its aftermath will require that behavioral scientists provide a roadmap for public officials to ensure the public's cooperation, trust in, and implementation of what is learned from biomedical science. Responsible health-protective behaviors must be encouraged with messaging that conveys clearly and consistently the costs and benefits of actions that can ensure the physical and mental health of oneself and one’s community. Although the timing of containment of COVD3-19 remains unknown, most people will get to the other side of the pandemic recognizing strengths and coping skills that they did not realize they had.

Confronting Bias

[These excerpts are from a book review by Calvin K. Lai in the 26 June 2020 issue of Science.]

      On an idyllic summer day in 2009, Pragya Agarwal and her 9-year-old daughter went shopping for a new school uniform. As they were walking back to their car, an armed police officer stopped them.'The officer told them that a customer had reported them as people who “looked like shoplifters” and were “suspicious.” Agarwal and her daughter were eventually allowed to leave, but the consequences of that incident were enduring….

      …In everyday life, we often have either too little. or too much information to make optimal decisions. Our biases serve as mental shortcuts that help us make “good enough” decisions in a complex world. From an evolutionary perspective, this ability to quickly separate good from bad and friend from foe was essential for survival.

      These biases, however, are prone to systematic errors that can have grave consequences in modern society. Take our preference for similarity: We seek out information that confirms views we already hold, prefer to live with people who are like us, and discriminate against those who do not share our views. We also prefer the status quo, meaning that we are biased toward current conditions, even when they reinforce the oppression of a minority group.

      Agarwal documents biases across many social distinctions. She notes the double standards to which women in leadership are held, health care workers’ beliefs that Black individuals experience less severe pain than non-Black individuals, and the insidious stereotype of Asian people as “model minorities.” She describes. how anti-fat stigma is internalized, how elderly people are perceived as burdens, and how accents can confer a host of hidden stereotypes. Although her approach is exhaustive, it falters in its synthesis.

      Research tells us that prejudice, stereotyping, and discrimination are pervasive. Less attention is paid to how to connect these findings together….

      She assumes that many social disparities are necessarily caused by unconscious biases. However, many of the disparities she describes are better explained by structural causes or conscious prejudices. She writes, for example, that “implicit aversive attitudes” are an explanation for racial housing segregation. Racial housing segregation can often be more parsimoniously explained by institutional forces, such as a history of redlining, exclusionary zoning regulations, and economic inequalities. When psychological biases are considered, there is clearer evidence of real estate agents consciously steering homebuyers to certain neighborhoods on the basis of the homebuyers’ race rather than as a result of unconscious bias.

      Another form of concept creep is in the use of the term “unconscious” to encompass biases that are subtle but conscious. Some may just be hidden (for example, an avowed racist who lies about the reasons for treating a racial minority poorly), or they may be fast to arise (for example, a visceral reaction to a person who speaks with a foreign accent).

      In the book’s final chapter, Agarwal describes approaches for debiasing, including raising awareness of bias, confronting others tactfully, removing biasing information from job 'applications, perspective-taking, and role models. Many of these approaches have firm scientific backing and a track record of success in reducing prejudice and discrimination. But most of what she offers is psychologically and individually oriented. If the disparities Agarwal discusses have structural causes, then these individualistic approaches may fall short.

      Promoting equality takes time, effort, and systemic change. The enduring influence of structural factors, such as unequal education and wealth, creates social environments that cannot be escaped. At the same time, structural inequalities depend on the countless individual choices that people make for others in everyday life. An integrated perspective that deeply considers the relationship between individuals and society would have helped illustrate a key lesson of research on inequality: Bias is deeply personal, but it is also universal.

Persuasive Words Are Not Enough

[These excerpts are from an editorial by H. Holden Thorp in the 26 June 2020 issue of Science.]

      Communicating the findings of science plays a vital role in shaping our lives and the planet….

      It’s baffling that as the world struggles to tame coranavirus disease 2019 (COV1D-19), a large portion of the population ignores the fact that wearing masks and practicing social distancing dampen the spread of the pandemic. Even when a vaccine for COVID-19 becomes available, the benefits of achieving herd immunity will be endangered if growing antivaccine sentiment leads some folks to refine to get vaccinated. American science denialism, in particular, persists, even at the highest level of leadership, with a president who denies climate change and a vice president—a devout creationist—who believes that Earth is only 6000 years old….

      The scientific community is up against a sophisticated, data-driven machine that is devoted to mating sure that science doesn’t fully succeed, and the history of this is quite clear. A recent Science editorial pointed out that U.S. Republican politicians embraced Earth Day when it started 50 years ago. But in the 1980s, digital analysis of political polling data based on location fostered the formation of the anti-science movement in the United States—politicians and their supporters who did not like the results criticized the findings and the process. It became fashionable and politically expedient to run against science. Any carve-outs for the environment in the conservative government went away in favor of the dismantling of regulations grounded in evidence. Over time, digital technologies have become more sophisticated, and now there is a. massive, churning, finely tuned digital misinformation machine that has seized social media to ensure that a portion of the population doesn’t accept science. And this battle between science fact and fiction isn’t just being waged in the United States—the United Kingdom, Russia, India, and Brazil all face a similar predicament.

      The current implications of this battle in the United States are everywhere. The administration has promulgated the idea that severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2, the cause of COVID-19) was engineered in China’s Wuhan Institute of Virology, in part based on a non-peer-reviewed preprint that was later retracted. The misinformation about masks and social distancing is spurring dangerous bar gatherings and choir practices. Unsubstantiated claims in a “plandemic” video are convincing citizens that Dr. Anthony Fauci, the longtime leader of the U.S. National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, is hiding a secret business deal from which he stands to profit from COVID-19. The anti-science movement started with the environment, which could hurt our long-term survival, but in the era of COVID-19, it threatens our immediate survival.

      The scientific community is losing the battle against this digital leviathan of misinformation. A well-reasoned and highly placed op-ed on this topic is not going to move the needle, no matter how well it is crafted to adhere to the best practices in science communication. Neither is a perfect trade book, television appearance, or speaking tour by a scientific leader. The only way to win this fight is to harness the same sophisticated tools in the name of science that are being used to tear science down. With social media companies afraid to challenge the misinformation machine, even when their own platforms are being misused, the task is daunting. But we can at least move on from the idea that if we could just find those perfect, persuasive words, everyone would suddenly realize that facts are facts with no alternatives.

Your Hyperbolic Mind

[These excerpts are from an article by Stephen Ornes in the July/August 2020 issue of Discover.]

      The human brain is both a marvel and a mystery of evolution: Packed into a volume about one-quarter that of an inflated soccer ball, somewhere around 86 billion neurons form networks that enable us to do everything from mindlessly scrolling through Instagram to safely sending people into space. But a deeper understanding of the structure of those networks is still an open question.

      Perception remains particularly vexing: How does the human brain turn the deluge of incoming signals — photons, odor molecules, sound waves, sensations on our skin — into an accurate mental simulation? What neural network could represent, say, the smell of chocolate?

      Recent studies suggest that math may help us sort out these questions. To better approximate the complicated networks involved in perception and other cognitive tasks, some researchers turn to hyperbolic geometry. Like other geometries, it's a set of rules about space, distance and connections. But unlike Euclidean geometry, which is what most people learn (or loathe) in high school, hyperbolic geometry describes the way space fits together — if space curved away from itself, everywhere.

      …to understand the mind, we have to prepare to embrace hyperbolic geometry’s tenets — which, when theyfirst appeared, bordered on heresy for the math world…..

      We usually regard the world as following the rules put together more than 2,000 years ago by the “Father of Geometry,” Greek mathematician Euclid, in his treatise, Elements. Those rules approximate the flat, practical, physical world, and are useful on the scale of daily life. Euclidean geometry has enabled us to cross seas, build skyscrapers, race Ferraris.

      But a problem arises with Euclid’s Fifth Postulate. In its original form, it says that if a straight line crosses two other straight lines, and those intersections form interior angles on the same side that add up to less than 180 degrees, then at some point those two other straight lines have to meet somewhere. (Most of us know the Fifth by simpler words: “Parallel lines never meet.”) It’s because of the Fifth Postulate that we get the Pythagorean Theorem and proof that a triangle’s angles sum to 180 degrees.

      A postulate is supposed to be self-evident, but this business about parallel lines struck a nerve with mathematicians. It didn’t seem as intuitively convincing — Euclid didn't even invoke the Fifth for most of the propositions in Elements. These troubled scholars spent millennia wrestling with it, and finally, in the early 19th century, they began to ask: What if the Fifth doesn’t have to hold?

      That question changed everything. Violating Euclid’s Fifth wasn’t just an irritation, they reaized. It was a gateway to exotic new geometries that were still self-consistent.

      The idea of breaking Euclid’s Fifth attracted big thinkers of the time, including Carl Friedrich Gauss and Nikolai Lobachevsky. One of the most remark-able figures was Janos Bolyai, a young, aspiring mathematician from Hungary who was one of the first to forge the rules of this new geometry. In 1820, he undertook a radical plan to thwart Euclid. Janos realized that relaxing Euclid’s Fifth Postulate opened new windows to stranger, non-Euclidean geometries.

      …In Euclidean geometry, the angles of a triangle add to 180 degrees and parallel lines never meet. Not so in non-Euclidean geometries. Spherical geometry offers one example — if you draw a triangle on a sphere (like, say, connecting the North Pole to Honolulu to Miami), the angles sum to a number larger than 180.

      Hyperbolic geometry is another well-known kind of non-Euclidean geometry. A hyperbolic plane floating in three dimensions doesn’t look flat; it looks more like a Pringles chip or a saddle. It’s curved everywhere. If you’re standing on a hyperbolic plane and take a step in one direction, you’ll rise; if you turn 90 degrees and take a step, you’ll go down. In hyperbolic space, the angles of a triangle add up to less than 180 degrees.

      …In the 1940s, work by German-born mathematician Rudolf Luneburg…helped explain why parallel lines differ in perception and reality. He recognized that through binocular vision, we perceive a three-dimensional map of our surroundings that includes both the shapes and locations of the things around us. He set out to derive a metric, a way to translate between physical reality and what we see.

      Luneburg and his collaborators concluded that the rules of perception are not only non-Euclidean, but also are better represented by hyperbolic geometry. Decades later, in 1983, philosopher of science Patrick Heelan similarly argued for the existence of hyperbolic visual space; Heelan also pointed out painters like Paul Cezanne, Vincent van Gogh and Joseph Mallard William Turner depicted hyperbolic structures in their work.

      …In a 2018 study, researchers reported that people rank images created using non-Euclidean geometries as being more realistic than those using the kind of Euclidean perspective we faithfully analyze in high school….

      Her findings suggest that the human brain groups odors according to how often they occur together, rather than according to their molecular makeup. When she created a map of these odor clusters, Sharpee found that the distance between similarly structured molecules was best represented using ideas of distance from hyperbolic geometry, rather than Euclidean. Her work indicates that We might learn more about how the brain organizes perception information if we approach its organizational structure as a kind of curved space.

      …neurons don’t necessarily communicate with the neurons closest to them in space — which you might expect if you were looking for Euclid — but instead form relay networks that follow the rules of a different, more exotic geometry. Hyperbolic space “provides almost perfectly navigable maps” of the web of connections in brains in a variety of species, they reported. Hyperbolic geometry, they say, suggests “a new cartography of the brain.” Similarly, some computer scientists note that hyperbolic geometry offers an appealing way to organize the big datasets needed for machine learning….

Fire in the Belly

[These excerpts are from an article by Anna Funk in the July/August 2020 issue of Discover.]

      …Your digestive system achieves no small feat each and every day, as it turns things you eat into usable energy and nutrients for the rest of your body. It’s an incredibly complex system, which also means there’s incredible complexity in the ways things can get out of whack.

      But while gut issues are on the rise, so is our understanding of them. Researchers have made huge strides toward figuring out the causes of — and solutions for — some of the most common culprits behind your stomachache. And most of this progress is thanks to new mechanistic understandings of how the bacteria in your gut really operate….

      It seems like the cutting edge of nearly every corner of the health field — from eczema to Parkinson’s disease — is finding new links to the gut microbiome. This community of around 38 trillion bacteria that live mostly in your colon helps digest your food and protects your body from intruders hitchhiking on your last snack. And it turns out that these processes in your gut can affect the whole body, thanks to the downstream effects of inflammation, nutrient absorption and the compounds that bacteria produce.

      The gut microbiome is quite diverse: No two people have exactly the same bacteria species in exactly the same quantities, and the bacteria themselves can have huge diversity in their genes. This variation adds an extra challenge to research, since lessons learned from one person’s gut might not apply to someone else’s.

      Nevertheless, researchers have already found links between the gut microbiome and some of the most common diseases of the digestive system….

      …Inflammation may be a dirty word these days, but its actually a normal, adaptive part of your immune system. It’s what makes the skin around a papercut turn a little pink, and what makes a sprained ankle warm to the touch. The damaged cells spit out chemicals that increase blood flow to the area and call white blood cells in to attack intruders to help with healing.

      But when bodies aren’t functioning properly, unnecessary inflammation can become a burden. Some people’s immune systems might think something is an invader that isn’t….And with true food allergies, like some people have to peanuts or shellfish, the immune response can be so strong that it triggers anaphylaxis, a bodywide shock that can be life threatening.

      Other causes of chronic inflammation are even less straightforward. Sometimes a combination of illness, stress or poor diet can lead to an increase in the permeability of a person’s intestines, a condition colloquially referred to as leaky gut. In healthy intestines, a layer of protective mucus keeps food, bacteria and whatever else might be passing through your gut firmly inside the tube and away from your internal organs. But if this barrier weakens or is damaged, the contents of the gut, including bacteria, begin to escape, which triggers a substantial immune response. If this happens repeatedly, you can end up with chronic inflammation that can lead to downstream effects, from neurodegenerative diseases to cancers….

Oceans Beneath the Oceans

[These excerpts are from an article by Steve Nadis in the July/August 2020 issue of Discover.]

      …The more he and other researchers look, the more water they find all throughout Earth's interior — even though it may not resemble the liquid were familiar with. Under the extreme temperatures and pressures existing far underground, water breaks down into its constituent elements, hydrogen and oxygen, which are chemicallybound to the rock’s crystal structure. But to geophysicists, it’s still water, regardless of the form it takes.

      This begs the question: How much of this water is buried beneath the surface? The answer could help explain our planet’s suitability for life and tell us how all this water got here in the first place.

      …Wadsleyite and its relative, ringwoodite, are the two main components of the transition zone between Earth’s upper and lower mantle – about 250 to 410 miles below the surface….Jacobsen wanted to know: How much water might actually be stored in these abundant minerals?

      Because wadsleyite and ringwoodite do not ordinarily exist on the surface, Jacobsen spent almost 15 years synthesizing them in his laboratory, simulating the high-temperature and high-pressure conditions found hundreds of miles below. He studied these lab-grown minerals to determine how fast seismic waves could pass through samples containing different amounts of water — information he’d later use to assess the water content of underground rock.

      He confirmed that the minerals could indeed contain appreciable amounts of water elements, incorporated within the rocks’ structure “like water or milk that’s baked into a cake.” But because his estimates were so much higher than most experts considered plausible, he was hesitant to publish his results until he had more confidence in them.

      Everything changed in 2014 when Graham Pearson of the University of Alberta reported on his investigation of a tiny diamond recovered from Brazil. Formed in the transition zone, the diamond had an even tinier bit of ringwoodite trapped inside. And in that ringwoodite? About 1 percent water by weight.

      That may not sound like much, but given the mineral’s ubiquity in the transition zone, Jacobsen knew: It could add up to a lot of H2O.

      Meanwhile, Jacobsen’s experiments revealed that the presence of water in ringwoodite would lower the melting point of rock at the base of the transition zone. That means the water-bearing rock there is more likely to contain liquid patches — not because it’s wet, but because parts of it are molten….

      Pooling their data, the researchers identified extensive stretches of molten material within the transition zone and just below it — findings that were published three months after Pearson's diamond discovery. By then it was becoming increasingly clear, Jacobsen concluded, that “the transition zone is full of water”

      How much water? If the ringwoodite sample is representative, it would mean there's about twice as much water as in all Earth’s surface oceans, he says. Just one of these “ocean masses” equates to about 1.5 billion billion tons (or over 350 billion billion gallons).

      And the case is far from being closed: Signs of additional water have since been found both above and below the transition zone….

      All that water below Earth’s surface isn’t just sitting still: It’s cycling, pulled along as tectonic plates move….

      …the quantity of water deposited 60 to 100 miles below the seafloor was more than four times above earlier estimates. Extending their results to all the world’s subduction zones suggests that seawater inputs to the mantle are something like one ocean mass of water….

      …Plate tectonics, in turn, is a key part of what makes this planet habitable; it’s like a giant conveyor belt that promotes the steady cycling of heat, water and chemicals. What’s more, Panero says, “it’s largely responsible for keeping Earth’s climate stable over million-year timescales.”

      Earlier in his career, Jacobsen didn’t concern himself with where Earth’s water came from….But as estimates of subterranean water grew; he started looking more closely at the rates at which water can be carried to great depths via plate tectonics and subduction. His calculations show that it could take billions of years, roughly the age of our planet, to move water from the oceans to the mantle.

      For that reason, Jacobsen questions the conclusion many astronomers have embraced: namely, that most of Earth’s water was delivered to the surface by asteroids and comets. Instead, he believes that substantial quantities must have been here since the planet’s formation and that much of the water in our current oceans was “squeezed out” from rocks below….

Denial du Jour

[These excerpts are from an article by Steve Mirsky in the July 2020 issue of Scientific American.]

      …The great man shared his lifetime with many people whose understanding, if you can call it that, of the laws of nature was strongly influenced by antiquity’s often wrong writers. (You also share your stay on Earth with such individuals.) One such contemporary was a Jesuit priest and scientist named Orazio Grassi, who was known to mix it up in print with Galileo on numerous occasions.

      Galileo really didn’t like this guy….

      Current investigators don’t typically have to face the possibility of torture, as Galileo did from the Catholic Church for being “vehemently suspect of heresy.” But modern climate researchers, evolutionary biologists and educators are threatened via e-mail and pilloried in social media, sometimes by elected officials.

      In 2012 two conservative outlets charged usually respected Penn State climatologist Michael E. Mann with disseminating fraudulent data (and compared him to a pedophile). Mann sued for defamation, and the case is still unresolved. Worse than the personal attacks, of course, is that policy is being made based on nonsense and magical thinking. (I'm writing this in early May. Has the coronavirus just, pool, gone away yet?)

      It’s an almost comical irony that today’s deniers try to assume the mantle of Galileo: people who disagree with the scientific consensus on things such as climate sometimes cite Galileo as a rebel (you know, like themselves) who is now seen as a hero….

      By this point Livio was laughing: “It’s not the case now every time that one speaks against the mainstream, he or she is right. Most of the time those people are wrong. In some rare cases, they are right. So to bring that as an argument is just ridiculous.” Sadly, two arguments of very different weights can still convince a lot of people at the same rate.

Are Tech Firms Antiscience?

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

      …In the past decade Google has contributed to more than a dozen groups that have worked to prevent action on climate change by promoting half-truths, misrepresentations and, sometimes, outright lies about climate research and scientists. These include the Competitive Enterprise Institute (CEI), the Texas Public Policy Foundation and the Cato Institute, all of which have a long paper trail of skepticism, if not outright hostility, toward climate science. CEI has been directly involved in personal attacks on scientists.

      So why do large companies fund organizations that attack science? Nearly all leading corporations are part of trade groups that lobby for “pro-business” positions, such as lower taxes, and they typically turn ablind eye to these groups’ other activities. Microsoft, for example, participated for years in the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), which describes itself as dedicated to “limited government, free markets and federalism.” In 2011 it was revealed that ALEC had lobbied not only for pro-business initiatives but also for antidemocratic ones, such as restrictive voter ID requirements. Over the next few years a bevy of Fortune 500 companies, Microsoft included, began to withdraw support.

      Since the New Deal, trade groups have tried to defend the prerogatives of the private sector by claiming that the federal government is a threat to freedom. In the 1980s and 1990s this trans-mogrified into an attack on science….

      We saw this on full display in recent months as many American conservatives refused to accept a significant role for government in containing the coronavirus pandemic. An extreme case is the governor of South Dakota. Even as COVID-19 reached her state and hundreds of workers became ill at a meat-packing plant, she refused to implement any form of state control. To be sure, stay-at-home orders do decrease personal freedom and hurt the economy. But governments that took early steps to contain the threat have done far better in protecting both personal liberty and their economies. In any case, “freedom” is an empty concept to the dead.

      …Why shouldn’t employees and customers expect corporate leaders in all sectors to disassociate themselves from organizations whose rigid ideologies and pursuit of self-interest have led us into an antiscientific dead end? COVID-19 has proved that denying science protects neither individuals nor the economy. It’s time for corporate leaders to step up to the plate and reject the rejection of science.

The Racial Roots of Fighting Obesity

[These excerpts are from an article by Sabrina Strings and Lindo Bacon in the July 2020 issue of Scientific American.]

      Black people, and black women, in particular, face considerable health challenges. Compared with their rates in other racial groups, chronic cardiovascular, inflammatory and metabolic risk factors have been found to be elevated in black women, even after controlling for behaviors such as smoking, physical exercise or dietary variables.

      Black women have also been identified as the subgroup with the highest body mass index (BMI) in the U.S., with four out of five classified as either “overweight” or “obese.” Many doctors have claimed that black women’s “excess” weight is the main cause of their poor health outcomes, often without fully testing or diagnosing them. While there has been a massive public health campaign urging fat people to eat right, eat less and lose weight, black women have been specifically targeted.

      This heightened concern about their weight is not new; it reflects the racist stigmatization of black women’s bodies. Nearly three centuries ago scientists studying race argued that African women were especially likely to reach dimensions that the typical European might scorn. The men of Africa were said to like their women robust, and the European press featured tales of cultural events loosely described as festivals intended to fatten African women to the desired “unwieldy” size.

      In the eyes of many medical practitioners in the late 19th century, black women were destined to die off along with the men of their race because of their presumed inability to control their “animal appetites”—eating, drinking and fornicating. These presumptions were not backed by scientific data but instead embodied the prevailing racial scientific logic at the time. Later, some doctors wanted to push black men to reform their aesthetic preferences. Valorizing voluptuousness in black women, these physicians claimed, validated their unhealthy diets, behaviors and figures.

      Today the idea that weight is the main problem dogging black women builds on these historically racist ideas and ignores how interrelated social factors impact black women’s health. It also perpetuates a misinformed and damaging message about weight and health. Indeed, social determinants have been shown to be more consequential to health than BMI or health behaviors.

      Doctors often tell fat people that dietary control leading to weight loss is the solution to their health problems. But many studies show that the stigma associated with body weight, rather than the body weight itself, is responsible for some adverse health consequences blamed on obesity, including increased mortality risk. Regardless of income, black women consistently experience weightism in addition to sexism and racism. From workplace discrimination and poor service at restaurants to rude or objectifying commentary online, the stress of these life experiences contributes to higher rates of chronic mental and physical illnesses such as heart disease, diabetes, depression and anxiety….

      Additionally, living in racially segregated, high-poverty areas contributes to disease risk for black women. Low-income black neighborhoods are often disproportionately impacted by a lack of potable water and higher levels of environmental toxins and air pollution. These factors add to the risk for respiratory illnesses such as asthma and lung disease. They also increase the chance of serious complications from the novel coronavirus.

      Further, these neighborhoods typically have a surfeit of fast-food chains and a dearth of grocery stores offering more nutritious food choices. Food insecurity, which is defined as the lack of access to safe, affordable and nutritious foods, has a strong association with chronic illness independent of BMI.

      …This weight-focused paradigm fails to produce thinner or healthier bodies but succeeds in fostering weight stigma.

      Chronic diseases such as diabetes or heart conditions are mislabeled “lifestyle” diseases, when behaviors are not the central problem. Difficult life circumstances cause disease. In other words, the predominant reason black women get sick is not because they eat the wrong things but because their lives are often stressful and their neighborhoods are often polluted.

      The most effective and ethical approaches for improving health should aim to change the conditions of black women’s lives: tackling racism, sexism and weightism and providing opportunity for individuals to thrive.

How to Boost Your Immunity

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

      Fear and fraud often travel together. As coronavirus anxiety began to spread across the land, so did bogus nostrums promising protection from this modern-day plague. As early as March 6, U.S. regulators began to issue warnings to companies promoting false claims, such as this one touting the benefits of drinking a daily dose of silver particles….

      For people who hope to build up their resistance to coronavirus and infections of all kinds, there are no magic formulas—but there are some science-based steps one can take to maintain a healthy immune system. For starters, don’t smoke. Cigarette smokers are much more vulnerable to respiratory infections. Second, make sure you are covering all your nutritional bases with a wide variety of vegetables, fruits and other elements of a healthy diet….Third, practice good sleep hygiene so you can raise your chances of adequate nightly rest. And fourth, get regular exercise, which will also help you sleep.

      On the dietary front, several nutrients have been tied to improved resistance to viruses. Taking zinc supplements, for example, has been linked to a reduced rate of respiratory infections and shorter duration of related symptoms. Deficiency in zinc, a mineral found in meat, shellfish, nuts and whole grains, is more prevalent in less developed countries….

      Vitamins C and D have also been shown to improve resistance to respiratory infections. Perhaps relevant to COVID-19, vitamin C plays a role in reducing tissue damage from our own immune responses. Oral doses of the vitamin have also been shown to shorten the amount of time in an ICU and on a ventilator for heart surgery patients, according to a 2019 meta-analysis….

      As for vitamin D, a 2017 meta-analysis of 25 randomized controlled trials found that vitamin D supplements cut the risk of acute respiratory infection—especially for people with low levels of the vitamin, which is about 40 percent of Americans. The percentage is far higher in African-Americans and Hispanics….

      As for sleep, scientists have long known that it plays an essential role in bolstering our defenses. Studies show that if you deprive people of sleep after administering a vaccine, they will produce a weaker antibody response than folks who slept. Research suggests that sleep enhances the migration of T cells to the lymph nodes, where they are presented with foreign molecules that trigger antibody production….

      Committing to a regular bedtime and nightly routine that helps you sleep, along with a healthy diet—and perhaps a multivitamin—will not necessarily keep the coronavirus at bay. But these steps have a true silver lining of helping you endure whatever health threats blow your way.

Death Metal

[These excerpts are from an article by Sophie Bushwick in the July 2020 issue of Scientific American.]

      Copper surfaces kill microbes that come into contact with them in a matter of hours. A new technique makes the familiar metal even deadlier—by zapping it with lasers.

      Bacteria “are becoming more aggressive and resistant to therapeutics; it’s the same thing for viruses….There is a lot of interest in how to create surfaces that actually, on contact with the bacterium or the virus, immediately kill the pathogen” because this “eliminates the spread of that pathogen into the environment.” (The new research focused particularly on bacteria.)

      Copper is a good candidate for such more strongly to water—and thus to any surfaces: humans have been taking advantage of its bacteria-slaying properties for at least 8,000 years. People in some Bronze Age civilizations let their drinking water rest in copper vessels to avoid disease….When a microbe touches a metal surface, the substance carries electrons away from the microbe’s cellular membrane. This reaction sets off a chemical process that ultimately forces open the organism’s pores and destroys it.

      To enhance the process, Rahimi’s team hit a copper sample with laser light for a few milliseconds, thereby creating nanoscale pores in the flat metal and increasing bumpy surface area….the bumpy surface also made the copper cling more strongly to water—and thus to any bacteria within it.

      The researchers tested this newly rugged terrain by placing several bacterial strains, including Escherichia coli and a drug-resistant Staphylococcus aureus strain, on both flat and laser-treated pieces of copper. As soon as the cells hit the textured metal, their membranes began to suffer damage; that surface completely eradicated the bacteria, in some cases much more quickly than the untreated one. The surface killed some microbes immediately on contact and took from 40 minutes to two hours to wipe out a full colony, depending on the species and concentration.

      The laser treatment could also work with other metals, including titanium, which is often used for surgical implants, Rahimi says. He points out that all types of metals display some antimicrobial properties, although titanium, which has little conductivity, kills germs much more slowly than highly conductive ones such as copper….

How to Stop Science Theft

[These excerpts are from an editorial by Mary Sue Coleman in the July 2020 issue of Scientific American.]

      …U.S. universities and institutions are taking steps to ensure that we protect the intellectual capital generated through taxpayer-supported federal research….

      Universities are strengthening and enforcing conflict-of-interest policies. For example, institutions once used forms that were not always clear for faculty to disclose funding sources. Now universities are adding more targeted questions and providing faculty with case examples, scenarios and FAQs on what should be included. Some are also requiring much more detail about time that faculty spend consulting with outside organizations, companies and universities to avoid potential conflicts of interest.

      Leaders at these universities are also using new Web sites and direct communications to alert all their researchers about possible security threats and to clarify security protocols. And research administrators are directly engaging faculty who have significant levels of foreign research engagement to ensure that they fully understand their responsibilities to disclose such funding and to comply properly with all relevant federal laws, regulations and university policies. Universities are developing newtraining programs for both faculty and students to educate them about security risks and to make them aware of ethical research practices that must be followed (including what kinds of information can and cannot be taken or shared outside the laboratory). And some institutions are now offering for-credit courses for graduate students on complex ethical decision making and responsible conduct of research.

      Crucially, universities are establishing stronger relations with their local FBI offices and other federal law-enforcement agencies; at the same time, the FBI is working to establish clear campus liaisons in their regional and local offices. New processes are now commonplace for monitoring data systems and networks for cyberintrusions, reporting suspected breaches and improving data security….

      Universities have put in place additional protections for research involving classified or otherwise sensitive or controlled information. For example, universities have established strenuous technology-control plans and cybersecurity safeguards to appropriately restrict access to such research. Research universities now employ specific staff to secure and manage such data None of these actions prohibits the exchange of knowIedge among legitimate scientific collaborations, which are key to scientific progress.

      …We in the scientific community owe it to ourselves to be proactive in pursuing constructive vigilance.

Justice for Rape Victims

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

      Across the country a crucial trove of crime-solving data is sitting unused in the form of untested rape kits. These cardboard boxes contain envelopes filled with hairs, skin cells, semen, clothing and other forensic evidence collected from survivors after they report a sexual assault. If the DNA on these items matches DNA in a criminal database, it can lead to an arrest. It is practically criminal, then, to put women through the emotionally and physically difficult, hours-long collection process and then never analyze the kits. Yet more than 100,000 rape kits in the U.S. are collecting dust on shelves in laboratories, hospitals and police stations because states lack the money—or the will—to process them.

      We now know that if the kits are analyzed, more criminals are caught and more victims get justice. The Manhattan District Attorney in New York City banded out grants for rape kit tes-ing to 20 states between 2015 and 2018, for example, and 186 arrests were made and 64 convictions won—many of them against serial rapists whose DNA showed up in multiple kits. An ongoing effort to test an archive of old kits in Cuyahoga County, Ohio, has led to more than 400 convictions, mostly in cold cases….

      More jurisdictions must join these efforts. It’s not just money that's needed to fix the problem. Many states act as if the kits are unimportant and have no system to track and process them—they don't even have exact counts of how many are sitting unused.

      Along with Washington, D.C., 32 states have now passed bills requiring newly collected kits to be tested, and 25 states require some kind of tracking. Yet the laws are a patchwork—they don’t cover all that needs to be done, and they leave many states without legislation addressing the backlog. On the federal level, in December 2019, President Donald Trump signed the Debbie Smith Act, reauthorizing a 2004 bill to make $151 million a year available to test criminal forensic evidence. But the money is for all kinds of DNA evidence, not just rape kits, and its grants help only with untested kits that have already been sent to labs—not with the larger backlog of kits still at police or hospital warehouses.

      Because these are only partial solutions, the overall situation is getting worse. A 2019 report from the Government Accountability Office found that between 2011 and 2017 the number of backlogged requests for DNA analysis of crime scenes—mostly made up of rape kits—grew by 85 percent….Police are using kits more often, in part because there is an increased awareness of how useful forensic evidence is in securing convictions, even as 6,i-states are still trying to process old kits….

      …We must believe what survivors tell us and treat the crime of rape seriously. We need to honor their courage in reporting crimes and giving evidence by actually using that evidence to catch rapists.

What 11 Billion People Mean for Disease Outbreaks

[These excerpts are from an article by Bahar Gholipour in the June 2020 issue of Population Connection and was originally published by LiveScience on 25 November 2013.]

      …The virus was a new strain of H1N1, the influenza virus involved in the devastating 1918 Spanish flu pandemic, which killed between 30 million and 50 million people worldwide, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, more than died during World War I. The emergence of the new H1N1 in 2009 was a reminder that despite the unprecedented progress in treating infectious disease in the past decades, the looming shadow of a deadly pandemic still persists.

      In fact, with every mysterious virus that surfaces, be it the 2009 swine flu, the 2002 SARS coronavirus, or most recently, MERS (Middle East Respiratory Syndrome, a viral respiratory illness that has emerged around the Arabian Peninsula and killed half of the people who have had it), the same questions come to the minds of researchers and health authorities: Is this the virus that’s going to cause the next pandemic? And will humanity be able to stop it?

      And now, new challenges are being added to existing ones: The latest population projections from the United Nations, announced in a new report last summer, estimate that the world's population will reach 9.6 billion people by mid-century, and 11 billion by 2100.

      The sheer number of people, their interactions with animals and ecosystems, and the increase in international trade and travel are all factors that will likely change the way humanity deals with preventing and treating epidemics, experts say. In fact, the unprecedented growth of the human population in the second half of the last century—growing from 2.5 billion to 6 billion—may have already started changing how infectious diseases emerge….

      …More than 300 new infectious diseases emerged between 1940 and 2004, the study found.

      Some of these diseases were caused by pathogens that have hopped across species and finally into humans—for example, the West Nile virus, the SARS coronavirus, and HIV. Others were caused by a new variant of a pathogen that evolved to thwart available drugs, such as drug-resistant tuberculosis and malaria.

      Certain pathogens, such as the bacteria that cause Lyme disease, are not new to humans, but their incidence increased dramatically, perhaps due to changes that newly arrived humans made to the environment inhabited by animals carrying these pathogens.

      In light of the continuous population growth, health authorities are calling for strengthening public health organizations, and giving more resources to systems that would protect people….

      “You can predict very confidently as each year moves forward, we're going to see more and more diseases emerge…."

      About two-thirds of new diseases were transmitted to humans from animals, the researchers found. More than 70 percent of these diseases, known as zoonotic diseases, were caused by pathogens originating in wildlife….

      As humans do not often come into contact with wildlife, such pathogens should theoretically not pose much danger to people. But the pathogens can make the leap to humans by first infecting other animals that humans do come into contact with, such as domestic pigs. The animals serving as the middle link of this disease chain, however, have to be in places in some overlapping territory; which occurs when burgeoning populations push people into wild areas where humans once rarely, if ever, ventured….

      Human contact with wildlife species that facilitate the transmission of novel viruses may increase in the future, as the population grows and humans searching for places to live and farm fan out to areas inhabited by or closer to wildlife….

      Scientists have found that new viruses are more likely to surface in some parts of the world than others. Tropical Africa, Latin America, and Asia are the disease emergence hotspots, and their high biodiversity and increasing human interaction with the environment may be helping viruses to make the leap into humans. And from there, they can go anywhere on the globe….

      Today, travelers are just a few hours’ flight away from places that would have taken months to travel to by ground or sea in the past. This is a boon not just to humans, but to the microbes they carry. Sick travelers can introduce pathogens to new people as they travel, and at their destination, before they even realize they are sick. With future population growth, simple math suggests that there’s going to be more travelers, potentially helping epidemics grow by quickly spreading the contagion….

      The movement of the world’s population from sparsely populated rural areas to dense cities may also impact the spread of pathogens. By the year 2050, 85 percent of people in the developed world and 54 percent of those in the developing world are expected to have left rural areas for cities, according to United Nations estimates.

      From a global disease-fighting perspective, urbanization can have some positive effects. Better communication systems can help spread early warnings and other critical information at times of outbreaks. Moreover, better disease surveillance systems can be set up in urban settings compared with remote rural areas.

      However, concentrated populations in cities may need a stronger public health sector to protect them. People in crowded cities are often more vulnerable to infectious disease, especially in the face of natural disasters such as hurricanes and floods, which have particular public health problems associated with them….

Think Exotic Animals are to Blame for the Coronavirus? Think Again.

[These excerpts are from an article by Sonia Shah in the June 2020 issue of Population Connection and was originally published by The Nation on 16 February 2020.]

      …The problem is the way that cutting down forests and expanding towns, cities, and industrial activities creates pathways for animal microbes to adapt to the human body.

      Habitat destruction threatens vast numbers of wild species with extinction, including the medicinal plants and animals we’ve historically depended upon for our pharmacopeia. It also forces those wild species that hang on to cram into smaller fragments of remaining habitat, increasing the likelihood that they’ll come into repeated, intimate contact with the human settlements expanding into their newly fragmented habitats. It’s this kind of repeated, intimate contact that allows the microbes that live in their bodies to cross over into ours, transforming benign animal microbes into deadly human pathogens….

      Mosquito-borne disease outbreaks have been similarly linked to the felling of forests, although less because of the loss of habitat than to its transformation. As trees’ leaf litter and roots disappear, water and sediment flow more readily along the shorn forest floor, newly open to shafts of sunlight. Malaria--carrying mosquitoes breed in the sunlit puddles. A study in 12 countries found that mosquito species that carry human pathogens are twice as common in deforested areas compared to intact forests.

      Habitat destruction also scrambles the population sizes of different species in ways that can increase the likelihood that a pathogen will spread. West Nile virus, a virus of migratory birds, is one example. Squeezed by habitat loss as well as other affronts, bird populations in North America have declined by more than 25 percent over the past 50 years. But species don’t decline at a uniform rate. Specialist bird species, like woodpeckers and rails, have been hit harder than generalists like robins and crows.That increases the abundance ofWest Nile virus in our domestic bird flocks because, while woodpeckers and rails are poor carriers of the virus, robins and crows excel at it.The likelihood that a local mosquito will bite a West Nile virus–infected bird and then a human grows.

      Similarly, the expansion of suburbs into the Northeastern forest increases the risk of tick-borne disease by driving out creatures like opossums, which help control tick populations, while improving conditions for species like white-footed mice and deer, which don’t. Tick-borne Lyme disease first emerged in the United States in 1975; in the past 20 years, seven new tick-borne pathogens have followed.

      It’s not only the fact of habitat destruction that ratchets up the risk of disease emergence, It’s also what we’re replacing wild habitat with. To sate our species’ carnivorous appetites, we've razed an area around the size of the continent raise animals for slaughter. Some of these animals are then delivered through the illicit wildlife trade or sold in so-called “wet markets.” There, wild species that would rarely if ever encounter each other in nature are caged next to one another, allowing microbes to jump from one species to the next, a process that begot the coronavirus that caused the 2002-03 SARS epidemic and possibly the novel coronavirus stalking us today.

      But many more are reared in factory farms, where hundreds of thousands of individuals await slaughter, packed closely together, providing microbes lush opportunities to turn into deadly pathogens. Avian influenza viruses, for example, which originate in the bodies of wild waterfowl, rampage in factory farms packed with captive chickens, mutating and becoming more virulent, a process so reliable it can be replicated in the laboratory….

      The avalanche of excreta produced by our livestock introduces yet more opportunities for animal microbes to spill over into human populations. Because animal waste is far more voluminous than croplands can possibly absorb as fertilizer, it is collected in many places in unlined cesspools called manure lagoons. Shiga. toxin-producing Escherichia coli, which lives harmlessly inside the guts of over half of all cattle on American feedlots, lurks in that waste. In humans, it causes bloody diarrhea and fever and can lead to acute kidney failure. Because cattle waste so frequently sloshes into our food and water, 90,000 Americans are infected every year.

      This process of transforming animal microbes into human pathogens is accelerated today, but it is not new It began with the Neolithic revolution, when we first cleared wildlife habitat to make way for crops and yoked wild animals into servitude….

      Today, the shadow of the next pandemic looms. But that’s not just because of the novel coronavirus. The Trump administration’s liberation of extractive industries and industrial development from environmental and other regulatory constraints can be expected to accelerate the habitat destruction that brings animal, microbes into human bodies. At the same time, the administration is reducing our ability to pinpoint the next spillover microbe and to contain it when it starts to spread….

Destruction of Habitat + Loss of Biodiversity are Creatibg the Perfect Conditions for Diseases like COVID-19 to Emerge Back to Antiquity

[These excerpts are from an article by John Vidal in the June 2020 issue of Population Connection and was originally published by Ensia on 17 March 2020.]

      …Only a decade or two ago it was widely thought that tropical forests and intact natural environments teeming with exotic wildlife threatened humans by harboring the viruses and pathogens that lead to new diseases in humans like Ebola, HIV, and dengue.

      But a number of researchers today think that it is actually humanity’s destruction of biodiversity that creates the conditions for new viruses and diseases like COVID-19, the viral disease that emerged in China in December 2019, to arise—with profound health and economic impacts in rich and poor countries alike. In fact, a new discipline, planetary health, is emerging that focuses on the increasingly visible connections among the well-being of humans, other living things, and entire ecosystems….

      Research suggests that outbreaks of animal-borne and other infectious diseases like Ebola, SARS, bird fiu, and now COVID-19, caused by a novel coronavirus, are on the rise. Pathogens are crossing from animals to humans, and many are now able to spread quickly to new places. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates that three-quarters of “new or emerging” diseases that infect humans originate in nonhuman animals….

      Increasingly, says Jones, these zoonotic diseases are linked to environmental change and human behavior. The disruption of pristine forests driven by logging, mining, road building through remote places, rapid urbanization, and population growth is bringing people into closer contact with animal species they 'may never have been near before….

      Yet human health research seldom considers the surrounding natural ecosystems….

      Disease ecologists argue that viruses and other pathogens are also likely to move from animals to humans in the many informal markets that have sprung up to provide fresh meat to fast-growing urban populations around the world. Here animals are slaughtered, cut up, and sold on the spot.

      The “wet market” (one that sells fresh produce and meat) in Wuhan, thought by the Chinese government to be the starting point of the current COV1D-19 pandemic, was known to sell numerous wild animals, including live wolf pups, salamanders, crocodiles, scorpions, rats, squirrels, foxes, civets, and turtles. Equally, urban markets in West and Central Africa see monkeys, bats, rats, and dozens of species of birds, mammals, insects, and rodents slaughtered and sold close to open refuse dumps and with no drainage. …

      Getting the the message about pathogens and disease to hunters, loggers, market traders, and consumers is key….

Most Americans Want Abortions to Remain Legal

[This brief article by Stacie Murphy in the June 2020 issue of Population Connection.]

      According to a Kaiser Family Foundation poll of 1,215 people in the U.S., 59 percent of Americans believe abortion should be legal in most or all cases, and nearly 7 out of 10 support Roe v. Wade.

      However, the researchers found what they called a significant “knowledge gap” when it comes to abortion facts. Nearly 7 in 10 respondents believe that most abortions take place at 8 or more weeks into pregnancy (in fact, nearly two-thirds of abortions take place at less than 8 weeks). Thirty-one percent of those polled believed that between 20 and 49 percent of abortions take place more than 20 weeks into pregnancy (the actual number is 1.2 percent). Nearly 8 in 10 had never heard of mifepristone, a pill that can be taken to end a pregnancy in its early stages.

      The poll also revealed that many people support restrictions on access, including waiting periods and the requirement that providers have hospital admitting privileges—measures that have no impact on wome’'s health and safety. Support for these restrictions appears soft, however. After hearing counterarguments, many respondents who had supported the measures stated that they had changed their minds.

Viruses Can Be Saviors, Too

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

      This year the world awakened to the fact that the most powerful and sophisticated species on earth is tragically vulnerable to the tiniest and most basic of creatures. Infectious disease specialists have been warning about this for decades. And the threat comes not only from novel viruses, such as the one causing COVID-19, that jump from animals to humans but also from microbial monsters that we have helped to create through our cavalier use of antibiotics: treatment-resistant bacteria such as MRSA (methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus) and multidrug-resistant Acinetobacter baumannii, sometimes dubbed “Iraqibacter” because so many soldiers returning from Iraq were infected with it. The World Health Organization has predicted that deaths from resistant “superbugs” will rise from roughly 700,000 a year today to nearly 10 million by 2050.

      But in a splendid irony, it may turn out that viruses, so often seen as nemeses, could be our saviors in fighting a host of killer infections. As the threat from drug-resistant bacteria has grown and the development of new antibiotics has stalled, researchers have turned their attention to bacteriophages—literally, bacteria eaters. Viruses in this class are believed to be the oldest and most numerous organisms on earth. And like guided missiles, each type has evolved to seek and destroy a specific type of bacteria. Phage therapy has long been used in eastern Europe to battle infections, but after modern antibiotics arrived in the 1940s, it was largely ignored….

      For now phage therapy remains experimental. In most cases, it involves making custom cocktails of several phages shown to be active in vitro against an individual patient’s bug….

      The effort that is furthest along, however, relies on a phage enzyme called a lysin rather than on whole phages. After multiplying inside a bacterium, phages use lysins to break through the cell wall of their host, instantly killing it….

      Lysins work synergistically with standard antibiotics…; they can pierce the walls of superbugs, enabling the drugs to do their job. Lysins also clear up biofilms—slimy layers of bacteria, carbohydrates and gunk—that cause lasting infections not readily cured by antibiotics. Another advantage is specificity: lysins kill their target without collateral damage to the microbiome.

      Phage and lysin therapies still have a ways to go, but at a time when much of the world is besieged by a virus, its good to know that these tiny invaders may someday save us.

All in One

[These excerpts are from an article by Viviane Caller in the June 2020 issue of Scientific American.]

      Malaria struck an estimated 228 million people worldwide in 2018. Yet questions remain about how the mosquito-borne malaria parasite, Plasmodium, infects humans—and how antimalarial-drug-resistance genes spread. Different strains of the parasite can exchange genes with one another when they reproduce sexually inside an individual mosquito, and the resulting mixed strains infect humans through the mosquito's bite. A new study paints a detailed picture of how Plasmodium trades genes, and it finds that all the genetic diversity within an actively infected human host—up to 17 parasite strains—can come from just one bite….

      Plasmodium spends part of its life cycle in humans and part in mosquitoes. In the mosquito, it reproduces, mixing and matching genes. Until now, the most efficient way to study Plasmodium’s genetic diversity was to grind up whole mosquitoes and sequence the mix. The new technique lets scientists determine whether a patient’s particular parasites were the product of reproduction within a single mosquito or were introduced separately by different ones.

      The researchers collected blood from patients at a hospital serving different vil-lages in Malawi, then sequenced genomes of the parasites found in infected blood cells. Based on the parasites’ intermingled genomes, the researchers found that nearly all the infections studied likely came from an individual bite.

      …When eradication efforts reduce malaria cases in a given area, analyzing blood cells from those who still get sick can reveal if the infected mosquitoes came from afar or if local elirrination was incomplete….The method could also help researchers track the proliferation of drug-resistance mutations. Finding these mutations—and containing their spread—is a critical public health strategy for preserving drugs’ effectiveness.

Water Wand

[These excerpts are from an article by Ben Santer in the June 2020 issue of Scientific American.]

      Municipal water can be contaminated by electronic waste and other sources of heavy metals—but collecting, chemically preserving and transporting samples to laboratories for testing is challenging for remote communities.

      To streamline the process, Emily Hanhauser, a mechanical engineer at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and her colleagues created a low-tech sample-collection device that costs less than two dollars to make. It consists of a plastic handle tipped by propellerlike attachments made from polymer mesh, which contain small packets of absorbent resin beads that attract heavy metal ions. Users stir the device in water and then blot or air-dry it. Dunking the attachments in an acid solution releases the absorbed ions, which can then be measured.

      Unlike possibly contaminated water samples, which are considered hazardous, the device can be safely mailed to testing facilities. It can also yield results after two years of storage, its creators say. In experiments, the tool accurately reflected the amounts of copper, nickel, lead and cadmium added to a variety of water samples….

      A detailed analysis of water quality ideally would be performed near the source, eliminating the need for sample shipping entirely, Hanhauser notes. But existing tools designed for that purpose cannot measure small enough amounts of contaminants, and they often have too much variation in measurement to be useful, she says. Her group's device might be able to provide remote communities and well owners—who in the U.S. are responsible for their own water-quality monitoring—with a feasible alternative to transporting high-volume liquid samples over long distances. A more advanced version of the device could potentially measure large clumps of contaminating metals as well….

Failure to Lead

[These excerpts are from an article by Ben Santer in the June 2020 issue of Scientific American.]

      …The novel coronavirus is a major shock to complex human systems of governance. Here are a few personal thoughts on lessons learned from the current situation.

      LESSON 1: Scientific ignorance can be fatal—particularly if it starts with the U.S. president and trickles down from there. It was scientifically incorrect for Donald Trump to dismiss the coronavirus as no worse than the seasonal flu, as he did on February 26. It was incorrect to advise U.S. citizens to engage in business as usual, which he did as late as March 10. Itwas incorrect to imply, as he did in a press briefing on March19, that the malaria drugs hydroxychloroquine and chloroquine are promising remedies for COVID-19— some thing that has not been verified. Dissemination of such inaccurate information helped to spread the novel coronavirus in America faster by delaying the adoption of social distancing. Ignorance served as a potent disease vector.

      LESSON 2: A leader tells hard truths in times of crisis, not falsehoods such as “Anybody that wants a test can get a test,” as Trump said on March 6 at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. A leader does not assume the mantle of expertise in areas where he or she has none. A leader accepts responsibility for personal and organizational failures. A leader cares more about saving lives than about winning reelection.

      LESSON 3: “America first” is a singularly poor survival strategy in the middle of a global pandemic. No nation is safe from a microscopic agent that can hitch a ride on any airplane, ship, train or car. Building effective international organizations and alliances is a far better way of surviving a global health crisis than going it alone.

      …an abundance of caution should have been exercised at the beginning of the pandemic….

      They were not ready. The capability to test tens of thousands of citizens a day and to give hospital staffers basic safety gear should have been in place. It was not. Members of the Tramp administration should have corrected the president’s misstatements on the seriousness of the coronavirus. Instead they largely remained silent. After years of belittling and neglecting science—most notably the science of climate change—Trump is suddenly discovering that science is imperative for human survival and perhaps even for his own political survival. Through science, a vaccine will be developed for the novel coronavirus. If this country invests in science now—and if we invest in the maintenance of strong global health systems we will be better prepared for the next novel virus waiting out there.

To Stop Pandemics, Stop Deforestation

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

      SARS, Ebola and now SARS-CoV-2: all three of these highly infectious viruses have caused global panic since 2002—and all three of them jumped to humans from wild animals that live in dense tropical forests.

      Three quarters of the emerging pathogens that infect humans leaped from animals, many of them creatures in the forest habitats that we are slashing and burning to create land for crops, including biofuel plants, and for mining and housing. The more we clear, the more we come into contact with wildlife that carries microbes well suited to kill us—and the more we concentrate those animals in smaller areas where they can swap infectious microbes, raising the chances of novel strains. Clearing land also reduces biodiversity, and the species that survive are more likely to host illnesses that can be transferred to humans. All these factors will lead to more spillover of animal pathogens into people.

      Stopping deforestation will not only reduce our exposure to new disasters but also tamp down the spread of a long list of other vicious diseases that have come from rain forest habitats—Zika, Nipah, malaria, cholera and HIV among them….An average of 28 million hectares of forest have been cut down annually since 2016, and there is no sign of a slowdown.

      Societies can take numerous steps to prevent the destruction. Eating less meat, which physicians say will improve our health anyway, will lessen demand for crops and pastures. Eating fewer processed foods will reduce the demand for palm oil—also a major feedstock for biofuels—much of which is grown on land clear-cut from tropical rain forests. The need for land also will ease if nations slow population growth—something that can happen in developing nations only if women are given better education, equal social status with men and easy access to affordable contraceptives. Producing more food per hectare can boost supply without the need to clear more land.

      …Reducing food waste could also vastly lessen the pressure to grow more….In September 2019, just months before the COVID-19 pandemic began, the U.S. Agency for International Development announced it would end funding for PREDICT, a 10-year effort to hunt for threatening microbes that found more than 1,100 unique viruses. USAID says it will launch a new surveillance program; we urge it to supply enough mon-ey this time to cast a wider and stronger net….

      Ending deforestation and thwarting pandemics would address six of the United Nations’ 17 Sustainable Development Goals: the guarantee of healthy lives, zero hunger, gender equality, responsible consumption and production, sustainably managed land, and climate action (intact tropical forests absorb carbon dioxide, whereas burning them sends more CO2 into the atmosphere).

      The COVID-19 pandemic is a catastrophe, but it can rivet our attention on the enormous payoffs that humanity can achieve by not overexploiting the natural world. Pandemic solutions are ustainability solutions.

Brilliant Defense

[These excerpts are from an article Spring 2020 issue of Rotunda from the American Museum of Natural History.]

      When a new species of “dragon millipede” was discovered in 2007, the researchers who described it took the unusual step of insisting that its scientific name didn’t do this striking arthropod justice. “We think that such an unusually colored, conspicuous millipede deserves more than a Latin name,” the team wrote. They proposed “shocking pink dragon millipede”–and the name stuck.

      The spectacularly colored species was discovered in Thailand, in a limestone cavern called Hup Pa Turd. Here, these millipedes were observed on the ground and on palm leaves during the daytime, in plain view of would-be predators–and, seemingly, unprotected.

      Or are they? Scientists think that this species may wear its loud hue as a sort of dazzling armor. In nature, bright coloration often serves as a warning signal, flashing “danger” to anyone looking for a meal. In some cases, called Batesian mimicry, organisms take on a poisonous counterpart’s distinctive colors to fake out predators. In other examples, classified as Miillerian mimicry, several toxic species resemble one another in what seems to function like a group insurance policy: if a predator knows to avoid one, it's more likely to skip the look-alikes….

      In the case of the shocking pink dragon millipede, its remarkable color is truth in advertising: this millipede packs a toxic punch. Like some other millipedes, D. purpurosea has defensive glands that produce cyanide in amounts that can be lethal to birds and reptiles. And, like its brightly colored cousin–the vividly red and likely toxic D. deifae millipede, which has also been observed out on foliage in the daytime as though unconcerned about predation–the shocking pink dragon millipede appears secure in its protective colors.

Paleozoic Roly Poly

[These excerpts are from an article Spring 2020 issue of Rotunda from the American Museum of Natural History.]

      To survive for hundreds of millions of years, trilobites—a vast group of extinct arthropods that populated the world's oceans until about 250 million years ago—had to develop a variety of defenses against the hazards in their environment.

      Of the more than 20,000 described species of trilobites, some deployed a mechanism that today is associated with roly polys, armadillos, and hedgehogs: they enrolled, or curled up into a tight ball, shielding their underside with a protective exterior from potential predators….

      Some species were able to curl up completely, tucking in their entire bodies. Late Ordovician species like Flavicalymene retrorsa, which lived around 488-445 million years ago, and Middle Devonian species like Eldredgeops rana and Greenops boothi, which lived 393 million years ago, are among trilobites that resembled a ribbed ball in their enrolled state. Some…were even preserved as enrolled fossils, likely while facing down a fatal threat.

      The first known example of enrollment among trilobites, dates back even farther, to about 510 million years ago, to a species called Mummaspis muralensis. Researchers first speculated that this early trilobite had spiny points protruding from its head. But a closer look revealed that the animal had actually tucked its head under its spiky tail in its last moments.

      By the Ordovician period, the proportion of trilobite species with this defensive talent increased significantly. Some even developed a structure, called a vincula furrow, which allowed their heads and tails to seal together by way of small Linterlocking notches—perhaps becoming watertight for additional protection….

Creating a Culture of Change

[These excerpts are from an article by Donna Riley in the 19 June 2020 issue of Science.]

      Sweeping in scope yet intimately compelling, Picture a Scientist tells the stories of three female scholars, revealing the systemic and structural nature of gender discrimination and harassment in academic science. The film shows how intersections of sexism and racism shape experiences differently for white women and for women of color and how implicit bias both generates inequity and prevents us from noticing it. it reveals injustices ranging from subtle slights and salary gaps to bullying and physical assault. And it reminds us of the power of women’s collective action; the value of social science research in analyzing and responding to inequality; and the importance of allies and advocates, especially in university leadership.

      Biologist Nancy Hopkins shows what convivial conspiracies can hatch over lunch with a colleague, when one dares to act. In the early 1990s, convinced that male colleagues at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) were afforded more lab space than their female counterparts, she took a tape measure to her own lab and to the lab spaces of male colleagues in the dead of night, care-fully documenting the disparity With this data-driven approach, Hopkins gained the support of her female colleagues and upper-level administrators and went on to lead a more comprehensive study investigating salary gaps, access to day care, and other inequities in need of redress….

      But the sexism Hopkins experienced during her career was not always subtle. In the film, she recounts a shocking groping incident that occurred when she was an undergraduate presenting her work to a visiting colleague. Stunned by the encounter and certain that no one would believe her over her perpetrator, she resolved to act as though nothing unusual had occurred, answering the Nobelist's questions without mention of the offense.

      Sexual harassment is more often a “put-down” than a “come-on,” explains anthropologist Kate Clancy in the -film's narration, as geoscientist Jane Willenbring reveals how she was bullied, humiliated, and assaulted while conducting fieldwork in Antarctica as a graduate student in 1999. After nearly two decades of silence, she felt compelled to speak out against the perpetrator when her young daughter began expressing scientific. aspirations of her own. Willenbring’s Title IX complaint resulted in her perpetrator’s dismissal, due in part to the supporting testimony of a bystander, graduate student Adam Lewis. One wonders why Lewis did not intervene at the time, but as he shares his epiphanies and takes gentle correction from his colleague, we see how true allies are formed.

      What a ponderous thing it is to hold an esteemed scientist accountable for unprofessional behavior; so much has to align to achieve any semblance of justice. For every story, there are thousands left untold; academia is haunted by those who cannot come forward, those who are not believed, and those who are dismissed as ill-suited for the discipline.

      In chemist Raychelle Burks’s story, we encounter the toll of day-to-day slights, underestimations, and the simultaneous invisibility and hypervisibility that women of color experience in the academy. As Burks recounts how a colleague challenged her right to park in the faculty lot, we see how such experiences can accrue over one's career, taking time and energy away from science….

      …This film could be the vehicle that moves us, as Clancy advocates, “away from a culture of compliance and towards a culture of change.”

The Origins of Flowering Plants and Pollinators

[These excerpts are from an article by Casper J. van der Kool and Jeff Ollerton in the 19 June 2020 issue of Science.]

      For more than a century there has been a fascination with the surprisingly rapid rise and early diversity of flowering plants (angiosperms). Darwin described the seemingly explosive diversification of angiosperms as an “abominable mystery,” and debates continue about the origin and processes driving angiosperm speciation. Dating the origin of angiosperms was traditionally the prerogatibe of paleobotanists who read the fossil record of plants, but with DNA sequencing becoming increasingly sophisticated, molecular dating methods have come to the table. Many angiosperm fossils can be dated to the Early Cretaceous (~135 million years ago), which has led paleobotanists to reason that they originated during that era. It is now increasingly recognized that angiosperms are probably older than the oldest fossils, but how much older remains controversial. When angiosperms originated is key to understanding the origin and evolution of pollinators, particularly insects such as bees, butterflies, moths, and flies.

      Recent reports highlight the disparity of molecular and paleontological time scales and draw conflicting conclusions about the timing of angiosperm diversification….one study…dated the origin of angiosperms to the Late Triassic, >200 million years ago. This is ~70 million years (roughly the equivalent of the Jurassic) before the earliest accepted angiosperm fossils. This study further suggests that major radiations (species diversifica-tion) occurred in the Late Jurassic and Early Cretaceous, -165 to 100 million years ago….

      Both paleontological records and molecular analyses have their strengths and weaknesses. The strength of fossils is that they can provide information on past form, function, and Glade richness, and indirectly provide information on- speciation and extinction. Fossils are particularly useful when they harbor intermediate structures or combinations of characters that no longer exist, which can provide insightful examples that help to reconstruct the course of evolutionary events. However, the interpretation of fossils can be subjective and controversial, because important features of these plants may not be preserved and often must be inferred from two-dimensional compressed remains.

      The absence of evidence is no evidence of absence, and it is known that the fossil record can be incomplete or biased because some taxa may be less likely to fossilize. For example, specific ecologies or habitats will influence the likelihood of whole-plant fossilization, although pollen is a useful exception because it can generally survive more extreme conditions. Furthermore, anchoring a fossil to a specific time period relies on accurately dating the stratum in which it was found, which can also be problematic, although the error margin caused by this factor is usually small. It is important to keep in mind that there can be a considerable lag between time of origin and the earliest recognizable fossil, because fossils generally appear when a taxon has existed for some time and in relatively high frequencies….

      Molecular analyses are built on hard-to-estimate variables, such as the distribution of mutation rates across taxa and time. Variation in divergence times—which inevitably occurs in datasets with many species—frequently leads to overestimation of age….Indeed, molecular analyses often push origin dates back in time, including the older lineages, but whether this is a methodological error remains unclear.

      One of the hallmarks of angiosperms is their relationship with animal pollinators, especially insects. As with plants, the diversification of insects is a field with many Luncertainties….

      Notwithstanding that the timing of the origin of angiosperms remains debated, if angiosperms arose before the Jurassic, this has profound implications for understanding how insect pollination evolved. There is little doubt that insect pollination accelerated the angiosperm radiation; however, which factor triggered what evolutionary event becomes more complex given the latest findings. It was long considered that wind pollination in early-diverging nonflowering seed plants (gymnosperms) was replaced by animal pollination in angiosperms, and that this switch to animal pollination led to angiosperm diversification, but this seems an oversimplification….

      Future paleontological discoveries will undoubtedly reveal additional fossils, and the use of complementary sequencing approaches and more sophisticated evolutionary models will help to mitigate the limitations imposed by the rampant polyploidy in plants that frequently hinders analysis of nuclear genes. Whether Darwin’s question about the timing of flowering-plant evolution and radiation will ever be answered remains a mystery, but clearly this question and its ecological implications for understanding insect pollination are complicated.

Responding to COVID-19: Short- and Long-Term Challenges

[This excerpt is from an article by Joshua P. Starr in the May 2020 issue of Phi Delta Kappan.]

      …And the COVID-19 pandemic is like nothing any of us have encountered in many decades. Unlike school shootings, tornadoes, and floods, this catastrophe is neither localized nor a single, onetime event. The situation evolves by the hour, and the endgame is unknown, which means that even as school system leaders scramble to meet the immediate needs of students, families, teachers, and staff, they must also plan for what may stretch into weeks or even months of school closures.

      Even in the early days of the pandemic, it's clear that different parts of the country are being affected in very different ways and no two school systems are dealing with precisely the same set of problems, so it doesn’t make sense to recommend a one-size-fits-all approach to handling this crisis….

      Already, many public school systems and their community partners have created effective processes and systems to feed children and families, both those who previously relied on school meal programs and those who suddenly find themselves in need of this vital support. Some districts are providing grab-and-go meals in central locations, and some have even arranged for deliveries to students’ homes. This is essential work, and it has been encouraging to see so many educators rise to the challenge.

      …Further, while the schools 1rare shut, many children must take care of their younger siblings. Increasingly, too, parents are losing their jobs, and families can’t afford basic necessities, much less school supplies, books, and computers.

      …How are administrators supposed to identify which students need which kinds of services? Which staff are available to help? Given the closure of not just schools but also libraries, community centers, religious institutions, and other facilities, where can services be provided? And given the imperative to limit face-to-face interactions, how can school districts provide services that normally require people to be in the same room, such as psychological counseling or physical and speech therapy?

      As a start, superintendents can look to their data systems to help them identify those students and families most likely to need social services to make it through this phase and beyond….

      Like all assessment data, though, this information won’t be useful unless somebody acts on it — which raises the question of school system capacity: Who has the time to follow up on an initial list of students who may need targeted support? No doubt, the answer will vary from district to district….

      Even while superintendents are racing to ensure students’ health and safety, they cannot afford to ignore the longer-term challenges that their districts will face, given not just the need to move instruction online but also given that COVID-19 is all but guaranteed to do serious damage to state and local economies. Right now, state legislatures and governors are supposed to be determining what to allocate toward education in fiscal year 2021. Local jurisdictions make those decisions based on tax revenue raised in the previous year, which means school system budgets should be safe for now But that revenue will derline significantly over the coming months, as a result of the current economic shutdown, which means that the FY 2022 and perhaps the FY 2023 budgets will be pared way back. And since wide swaths of the public have taken, and will continue to take, a financial hit, I can’t imagine we’ll see much appetite for local tax increases, even for a goal as worthy as maintain-ing healthy school budgets.

      Thus, superintendents should probably use some of the time they have available in the short term…to plan for the likely fiscal scenarios. Since at least 80% of any school system’s budget is personnel, it will be nearly impossible to plan for possible reductions without considering layoffs. Attrition always plays a role here, as faculty and staff can be reduced simply by not hiring new employees. And COV1D-19 is forcing school systems to learn how to deliver instruction online, which may provide cost-saving opportunities in the future. The process by which superintendents begin considering options, preparing their communities and employees, and communicating the reality will be their real test. Given the myriad of unknowns, simply having frank conversations about the various possibilities will help stake-holders accept the ultimate decision when it has to be made.

      The ills of society are foisted upon public schools. When local, state, and federal governments fail to support students and families, schools pick up the slack. There's a reason Americans trust teachers and school leaders. We know that educators will do whatever it takes to support our children, no matter what. During this time, that mission has become all the more important even as our ability to act has become compromised and will likely be diminished in the future. But, with intentional data analysis and some forward thinking, superintendents can and will continue to do what they do best.

Reach for the Sky

[This excerpt is from an article by Jonathon Keats in the June 2020 issue of Discover.]

      When the Empire State Building was completed in 1931, the 102-story skyscraper ranked as the tallest in the world, a beacon of American progress as well as a lightning rod for Midtown Manhattan. And the material that made it possible was steel — or so people believed until 2015, when Canadian architect Michael Green showed that an identical structure could be fabricated out of timber.

      Green was not proposing replacing the 20th-century icon. His plans are far more radical. Green wants the global construction industry to replace steel and concrete with high-tech plywood.

      …Plus, the construction of buildings is responsible for around 10 percent of all global climate emissions….To show the high-reaching potential of wood in the real world, in 2016 he erected a seven-story high-rise in Minneapolis, the tallest wooden building in the U.S. at the time.

      He used a plywood popularized in the 1990s. Losing market share to concrete, the lumber industry had sought to produce a material that would be both sturdy and cheap. By gluing stacks of wood panels together into massive blocks they called “mass timber,” the engineers effectively replicated traditional masonry. And they added several features that neither stone nor concrete could claim: The new material could be cut with high precision, making it suitable for affordable, high-efficiency prefabrication. Plus, it was relativelylight, making it practical to transport from a factory to the construction site. But what most impressed Green was the strength: When the wood panels are cross-laminated, or glued with their grains running in alternating directions, the material is, pound for pound, stronger than steel.

      …lignin, a structural compound that makes plants woody, could be refined to make adhesives or bioplastics that nanocellulose fibers could strengthen like the fibers in fiberglass.

      But for the moment, Berglund is doing windows. By chemically removing the lignin from wood veneers and injecting the panels with acrylics, he’s making semitransparent sheets that don't shatter, and even contribute structural support to buildings — a key advantage over conventional glass panes. In the future, as Berglund gains greater command over the material properties of wood, the acrylics could be replaced with lignin bioplastics, making the windows entirely arboreal….

COVID-19 and Flu, a Perfect Storm

[This excerpt is from an editoria by Richard A. Belongia and Michael T. Osterholm in the 12 June 2020 issue of Science.]

      The world is in uncharted waters for the 2020 respiratory virus season. For the first time in modern history, the Northern Hemisphere faces the prospect of the coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) pandemic and a simultaneous epidemic of seasonal influenza. Each causes life-threatening illness and death, especially in older adults, people with chronic diseases, and other vulnerable populations. How can we prepare for this convergence?

      The timing and severity of a COVED-19 wave in the fall and winter are uncertain, but past experiences with the 1918 and 1957 influenza pandemics point to the possibility of a resurgence. Almost nothing is known about the interaction of influenza virus and severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus-2 (SARS-CoV-2, the cause of COVID-19) within individuals. Does coinfection increase the risk of severe illness or amplify virus shedding? Few coinfections have been reported from China during the early phase of the pandemic. The Southern Hemisphere influenza season is just beginning, and it may provide some clues as to what can be expected in the Northern Hemisphere later this year.

      Much of the population remains susceptible to SARS-CoV-2, and the stress on hospitals will be greatest if the COVID-19 and influenza epidemics overlap and peak around the same time. It is possible that the number of individuals infected with each virus will peak at different times, reducing the peak demand for hospital beds. If a surge in COVID-19 cases occurs this fall, tightening mitigation strategies will be necessary. Social distancing and stay-at-home orders are socially and economically disruptive, but can reduce demand on hospitals and protect vulnerable populations. They will also reduce transmission of other respiratory viruses, including influenza and respiratory syncytial virus. Supplies of personal protective equipment must sufficiently meet the projected demand of a severe influenza season along with COVID-19.

      There are important differences in the epidemiology of COVID-19 and seasonal influenza, but symptoms overlap. Molecular diagnostic testing for SARS-CoV-2 is critical for all patients with acute respiratory illness, especially during periods of co-circulation. Rapid-turn-around testing is necessary to distinguish between influenza and COVID-19, guide patient care, and support a comprehensive COVID-19 control program (including isolation of cases and rapid identification and quarantine of contacts). Every effort should be made to ensure that resources will be available for combined testing for COVID-19 and influenza. These tests should be without charge to patients because they serve a dual purpose for public health and patient care.

      We do not yet have a COVID-19 vaccine, but safe and moderately effective influenza vaccines are available. Their widespread use is more important now than ever, and we encourage health care providers, employers, and community leaders to promote vaccination. Vaccine effectiveness varies by season and subtype, but vaccination offers similar protection against laboratory-confirmed influenza hospitalization and outpatient illness. Widespread misinformation on social media includes the false claim that influenza vaccination increases the risk of SARS-CoV-2 infection. Scientists, health care providers, and public health leaders must counter these claims with clear, evidence-based information on the importance of influenza vaccination during the COVID-19 pandemic.

      The prospect of a second COVID-19 wave requires planning to ensure optimal delivery of influenza vaccines starting in the early fall. Community vaccination sites are often set up for maximum volume and efficiency, and alternative approaches will be needed to maintain physical distancing and minimize the risk of SARS-CoV-2 transmission, particularly because many influenza vaccine recipients are at high risk for both influenza and COVID-19 complications. Randomized trials have shown that some enhanced influenza vaccines (e.g., high-dose inactivated vaccine and recombinant vaccines) generate greater protection in older adults compared to standard-dose inactivated vaccine. The optimal timing of influenza vaccination in patients with confirmed COVID-19 is uncertain. There are no clinical studies on the effects of influenza vaccination in patients with COVID-19, but it may be prudent to delay vaccine administration until after the acute illness has resolved.

      Over 400,000 COVID-19 deaths were reported worldwide by 6 June, including over 109,000 in the United States. The actual death count is almost certainly higher, and we are still in the early phase of the pandemic….

Discounting Lives

[These excerpts are from an article by Audra J. Wolfe in the 12 June 2020 issue of Science.]

      In late March of this year, Texas Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick suggested in an interview that many people over 70—himself included—would be willing to risk contracting coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) so as not to, in his words, “sacrifice the country.” At the time, his comments were widely reviled. Just over 2 months later, the public appears to have accepted the calculus that lives will in fact have to be sacrificed in the name of the economy.

      Emerging reports make clear that the burden of this “sacrifice” is not being borne equally. As of mid-April, in Richmond, Virginia, a city that is 48% Black, every single person who had died from the disease was Black….Similarly, the population of Chicago is ~30% Black, but, as of 28 April, Black people made up 54% of the city’s COVID-19 deaths….The New York Times roster of COVID-19 “cluster” sites nearly exclusively lists prisons, jails, meat processing plants, and nursing homes….

      In the United States, the lives of people of color and those of the poor, the elderly, the disabled, and the incarcerated are heavily discounted in the economic sense, a phenomenon documented in Howard Steven Friedman’s Ultimate Price. Written for a lay audience, Friedman's book explains how the U.S. government and corporations assign dollar values to human lives. Chapters survey the techniques decision-makers use in leveling penalties for wrongful death, evaluating potential regulations, assessing corporate liability, setting life insurance premiums, providing health care, and choosing to have a child or go to war.

      “Price tags” for human beings, Friedman repeatedly shows, reflect existing inequalities in U.S. society. The formula that the government used to compensate the families of victims of the September 11 terrorist attacks, for example, factored in the deceased's annual salary, which meant that the lives of bond traders were valued many times higher than those of restaurant staff.

      Early and often, Friedman argues that we must devise more equitable ways to assign value to human life….

      …Murphy, like Friedman, is intensely interested in how experts have assigned value to human populations. But where Friedman treats economics as a solid basis for rational decision-making, if done right, Murphy explores how the concepts of “economy” and “population” gained their appeal.

      Through a series of chapters that explore the history of ideas about population control in the United States and Bangladesh in the mid-to-late 20th century, Murphy persuasively argues that life has come to be valued primarily in terms of its ability to contribute to the macroeconomy of nation-states. This has not come to pass through the action of free markets but rather through social scientific practices, including indexing, surveying, and other forms of counting, that re-create racial hierarchies even while rejecting the language of race.

      In this moment when we are being-asked to weigh the risks of (some people’s) deaths against the economic costs of stay-at-home orders, Murphy’s notion of the economy as a “phantasmagram” is compelling. She uses the term to capture the emotion and aspiration associated with the disembodied metrics we use to measure and track the economy. As phantasmagrams, Murphy writes, quantitative measures such as gross domestic product “have supernatural effeets in surplus of their rational precepts.” They “conjure ineffable realms that can take shape as a collective phantasy in excess of the representational and logical limits of quantification practices themselves.”

      On Fridays, the U.S. government releases data on new unemployment insurance claims. Just as Murphy suggests, the weekly release of these numbers stimulates anxiety and prognostication mostly disconnected from the (noneconomic) value of an individual life. The shock value of these numbers pushes the other shocking number, the cumulative number of COVID-19 deaths in the United States 108,194 as of 5 June 2020 (3)—to the side.

Time to Look in the Mirror

[These excerpts are from an editorial by H. Holden Thorp in the 12 June 2020 issue of Science.]

      This is a grave time in American history. Both the public health and economic problems of coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) were foreseeable. But even more predictable is the racial tension gripping the United States in the wake of the brutal killing of George Floyd. It is easy to think that the problem is isolated to individual racists in the community and in the government, and that the scientific enterpriseis immune to racism. Scientific inquiry produces knowledge, and that ultimately leads to justice, right?

      Not so fast. The U.S. scientific enterprise is predominantly white, as are the U.S. institutions that Science’s authors are affiliated with. The evidence of systemic racism in science permeates this nation. Why are so few Science authors from historically black colleges and universities? Why are the scientific areas studied more frequently by people of color continuously underfunded by the government? Why do students who are people of color have to remind society that they are almost never taught by someone who looks like them? Why has the United States failed to update its ways of teaching science when data show that people of color learn better with more inclusive methods? If there had been more diversity in science, would we have the painful legacy of the Tuskegee syphilis study and the shameful nonrecogni-tion of Henrietta Lacks’s contribution to science?

      …Not surprisingly, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. described this problem in 1963 in his “Letter from a Birmingham Jail”:

      “First, I must confess that over the past few years I have been gravely disappointed with the white moderate. I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Counciler or the Ku Klux Manner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to ‘order’ than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says: ‘I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I cannot agree with your methods of direct action’; who paternalistically believes he can set the timetable for another man’s freedom; who lives by a mythical concept of time and who constantly advises the Negro to wait for a ‘more convenient season.’"

      The reckoning Dr. King calls for has not happened in the intervening 57 years. The failure of the white moderates to heed the call of the Birmingham Jail is just as integral to today’s systemic racism as the racist actions of some law enforcement. It's not just abusive police that need to be reminded that Black Lives Matter.

      It is time for the scientific establishment to confront this reality and to admit its role in perpetuating it. The first step is for science and scientists to say out loud that they have benefited from, and failed to acknowledge, white supremacy. And then science and scientists finally need to listen to, and make space for, people of color to lead laboratories that publish great science and produce influential scientists, run institutions and their scientific units, and propel Science and other journals to promote structurally underfunded scientists and areas of science….

      As in the past, the scientific community is expressing anguish, outrage, and renewed commitment to promote equity and inclusion. But when the protests wind down and disappear from the headlines, science will be at a familiar fork in the road. Let’s have the courage to take the right path this time.

Colonialism and Its Consequences

[These excerpts are from an article by Mary Ellen Hannibal in the 5 June 2020 issue of Science.]

      The area known as Beringia sits atop the world, straddling Asia and North America. A mere 50 miles of water separate the Chukchi Peninsula in Russia and the Seward Peninsula in the United States. Terrestrial plant life is relatively impoverished here, but the Bering Strait compensates for the land’s parsimony and more.

      In Floating Coast, Bathsheba Demuth tells the story of this singular place beginning in the mid -1800s. Empire-making was under way then, both by the United States and by Russia, and the lifeways of native Inupiat, Yupik, and Chuckchi peoples were about to be severely curtailed. So too were the natural histories of the species that contributed to making the region.

      America was earnestly building its sovereign might, and thus its economy, during this period. Having exhausted species off both the Atlantic and Pacific coasts, whalers looking for new quarry came to Beringia to hunt bowheads. Whales were integral to just about every machine and product made at the time. Whale blubber was used for lubricating sewing machines and cotton gins. Whalebone (baleen) lent structure to umbrellas, fishing rods, and mattresses. Whale tallow was refined into soap and became a base for perfume. Most of all, whale oil was used to fuel indoor lighting.

      The ever-ratcheting appetite for whales drove them to near extinction in a few short decades. The indigenous peoples whose lives depended on whales lost both their source of sustenance and the culture around which their identities had been constructed for millennia.

      With whale populations depleted, industrial appetites turned to walruses, although it took 250 of the blubbery beasts to measure up to a single bowhead….Wholesale depletion of walruses continued well into the early 1900s, as their blubber was transformed into nitroglycerin in service of World War I.

      While Americans denuded Arctic waters, Russians bristled at what they considered theft of their natural resources. The denizens of the waters between the two sovereign nations did not adhere to any putative human boundary.

      …The United States bemoaned profits that were being spent on guns and alcohol, contributing not to lawfulness but its opposite. The Russians saw those profits as going to the wrong people (Americans). The solution that was negotiated was to establish boundaries, to “enclose” the cyclical peregrinations of whales, and subsequently those of walruses, reindeer, and fox, in an attempt to systematize harvests and make their yields more reliable. Bringing little ecological knowledge to bear on this effort led to both market and population crashes….

      As the Russian Revolution transformed into bolshevism, and from thence to communism, the question of how exactly to govern territory according to a Marxist ideal brought new pressures to Beringian land, sea, and native peoples. The cycles of nature notwithstanding, Stalinism in particular sought to mechanize production according to its own time frame, not only at the expense of the animals involved but by way of cruelty to the Russian people it employed.

      Once nonliving resources in the form of gold and eventually tin and oil became the focus of colonial harvest, the question of how to enclose Beringia became expressly about sovereignty….

      …Global warming, the result of quickly burning organic material that took eons to accumulate, is the apotheosis of colonial strategy. Floating Coast is eloquent testimony to how this strategy is not working.

Shuttered Natural History Museums Fight for Survival

[This article by Elizabeth Pennisi in the 5 June 2020 issue of Science.]

      …In March, the coronavirus pandemic forced the museum to close its doors. No more school groups thronging the interactive exhibits, no more corporate dinners or lines of international tourists waiting to pay $23 a head to marvel at fossils. The museum’s income plummeted 60%.

      Leaders first asked for early retirements. By early May, they had sliced the staff of 1100 by 20% and furloughed an additional 250 staff members. Many full-time employees now work 3 days a week, mostly from home….

      Around the world, natural history museums are shuttered and reeling. Last week, the California Academy of Sciences announced it was furloughing or laying off 40% of its staff….

      Museums’ reliance on revenue from ticket sales and events makes them among the first scientific institutions to feel the economic impact of the COVID-19 pandemic….

      But the crisis is also spurring museums to adopt or expand practices that, though they may not restore lost revenue, are keeping the public engaged and research ticking along: an online biodiversity contest, public discussions on Zoom, a webcam streaming captive corals. Curators are also expanding and refining digital collections that are accessible to both the public and homebound researchers….

      Some museums, including the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of Natural History in Washington, D.C., have dodged financial cliffs thanks to government support. The Natural History Museum, London, stayed afloat with emergency support from the U.K. government, but furloughed half its staff until the end of June. Similarly, the Field Museum has thus far avoided layoffs thanks to a cash reserve and the federal paycheck protection program…

      Some university museums managed to avoid layoffs now but may pay a price later if university budgets shrink. Harvard University’s Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology will likely not reopen as quickly as stand-alone museums….

      As they worry about the future, researchers are also distraught because they can’t pursue their current research. Travel restrictions have brought fieldwork to a screeching halt—and with it, the addition of more specimens to collections. The American Museum of Natural History alone has canceled 100 expeditions. And researchers can’t get into buildings to analyze existing collections….

      One trend accelerated by the crisis could help: efforts to digitize natural history collections. At Harvard’s Museum of Comparative Zoology, staff working from home have been busy enhancing the millions of records in the museumwide database, for example adding latitude and longitude coordinates to specimens thus far identified only by location names….

Sea Change: Maine’s Lobstermen Cultivate Kelp

[These excerpts are from an article by Rod Griffin in the Spring 2020 issue of the Environmental Defense Fund newsletter Solutions.]

      …Baines’ four-acre “farm” starts seven feet underwater and descends almost to the ocean floor. His crop: brownish sugar kelp, dangling from ropes, undulating in the current.

      The kelp, which can grow six inches a week, is an edible variety of seaweed. If all goes well, in May, Baines will cultivate as much as 65,000 pounds of kelp, to be sold at Whole Foods, Legal Sea Foods and Sweetgreen, a popular salad chain.

      Baines is one of an expanding group of Maine lobstermen looking for ways to weather climate change and diversify their operations. The Gulf of Maine, which stretches from Nova Scotia to Cape Cod, has warmed faster than 99% of global oceans, according to a recent study in Science….

      Lobster still makes up three quarters of Maine’s fishing revenue, but aquaculture can help fishing communities continue to thrive….

      For Maine lobstermen, kelp farming is a ninifal fit. Farming takes place in the winter and spring, lobster fishing in the summer. They already have all the necessary gear, and they understand the currents and tides….

      Ocean scientists call kelp farming a zero-input food source because it doesn’t need soil, fertilizers or pesticides to flourish. It also reduces ocean acidification, improves water quality and creates habitat for other marine life.

      Maine is a small piece of the $11 billion global seaweed market, but the U.S. market for this high-nutrient superfood is poised to take off. According to a recent study, seaweed aquaculture is one of the fastest growing maritime industries in New England….Over 98% of the edible seaweed on the U.S. market is grown in Asia, with little or no environmental oversight. Maine kelp could be a fresh alternative….

A Tale of Toxic Chemicals

[These excerpts are from an article by Charles Miller in the Spring 2020 issue of the Environmental Defense Fund newsletter Solutions.]

      From day one, President Trump and his polluter-friendly political appointees at the Environmental Protection Agency have been undermining the nation’s recently enacted chemical safety law, the Toxic Substances Control Act. Reformed in 2016 thanks to a strong bipartisan coalition led by EDF, the law was designed to protect Americans from hazardous chemicals. Instead, the administration is letting hundreds of risky or untested chemicals stay on the market, or enter it for the first time. EDF is demanding that the administra-tion fully implement the law, and we're backing these demands with legal action….

      Trump’s EPA has sidelined a key scientific assessment of formaldehyde that demonstrates a link between it and several cancers. Formaldehyde is found in carpets, glues, insulation and paints. First the EPA’s political leadership blocked the release of the nearly completed safety assessment for almost two years. Then it put any future assessment under the control of political appointees instead of EPA scientists. EDF is helping the House Science Committee hold the agency accountable….

      Nevertheless, the chemical is approved for use in plastic food packaging and food processing equipment. From there, perchlorate migrates into food. A 2016 study from the Food and Drug Administration found that virtually all types of food contain perchlorate. For years, EDF has worked to get the Food and Drug Administration to ban perchlorate from our food. The agency rejected this request in 2017 and again in 2019.

      EDF and others are suing….

Mission: Methane

[These excerpts are from an article by Shanti Menon in the Spring 2020 issue of the Environmental Defense Fund newsletter Solutions.]

      From 1,000 feet in the air above southeastern New Mexico, the single-engine prop plane banks hard left, descending over a cluster of oil and gas well pads. As the plane spirals down to 200 feet and back up again, flight scientist Mackenzie Smith watches data pour in from the Picarro laser spectrometer at the back of the cabin, indicating elevated levels of methane downwind. Near ground level, she pulls out an infrared video camera that reveals a plume of methane streaming from what looks like a malfunctioning flare, designed to burn excess gas. Smith’s analysis shows it’s emitting more than a ton of methane per hour. Left unchecked for a year, this single leak would have the same 20-year climate impact as a year's pollution from 150,000 cars.

      Colorless, odorless methane, the primary component of natural gas, is responsible for at least one-quarter of today’s global warming. It often leaks undetected, along with other harmful air pollutants such as cancer-causing benzene and smog-forming chemicals, from oil and gas sites. While fixing most leaks is relatively simple, finding them is not. Tens of thousands of potentially leaky flares, valves and other bits of oil and gas machinery dot the Permian Basin — a region half the size of California — yet most leak detection is left to just a handful of state inspectors and company employees who can’t possibly cover such a vast area.

      As the administration weakens limits on oil and gas industry pollution, EDF is pulling back the curtain on the industry’s methane problem. Our ambitious new campaign to measure methane and other air pollution in the Permian Basin is driving action that will hold companies accountable and protect communities in oil and gas country.

      …Oil production in the Permian, which extends hundreds of miles from southeast New Mexico through west Texas, grew about 250% from 2012 to 2019. More than half of all drilling rigs in the U.S. are located here….

      The recent discovery of vast, new oil and gas reserves in the Permian has radically changed the town of Carlsbad, New Mexico, until recently best known for Carlsbad Caverns National Park. Signs of the boom are everywhere. The highway leading into town is lined with new motels and intersections are clogged by tanker trucks and 18-wheelers. Outside town, the Big Dipper is barely visible on a cloudless night, dimmed by glaring lights on drilling rigs and the orange glow from 20-foot-tall flares that bum excess gas. On some days, a brownish haze lingers over the horizon.

      …EDF research has revealed how little is understood about oil and gas wastewater. Of the chemicals that have been identified thus far, fewer than half have been studied for safety or toxicity.

      …She traveled to Dallas last year to testify at the EPA’s only public hearing on a proposal that would eliminate oil and gas methane safeguards and weaken protections against smog-form-ing air pollutants….

      By exposing the extent of the industry’s methane problem and pinpointing the parties responsible, EDF is driving state and industry action to cut pollution.

      New Mexico is already taking steps to rein in methane and other oil and gas pollution. Under new Governor Michelle Lujan Grisham last year, the legislature restored authority to state oil and gas regulators to impose fines for spills and other violations. Previously, thousands of violations resulted in zero fines. The state is also creating its first rules to reduce oil and gas methane pollution as it works to cut climate pollution statewide at least 45% by 2030….

      While New Mexico seeks to craft its own protections, Texas, under its current political leadership, is certainly not. That’s why federal standards are critical. Yet the EPA proposed rollbacks that would allow an extra 5 million metric tons of methane, 1.2 million metric tons of smog-forming chemicals and over 43,000 metric tons of ha 72rdous air pollutants every year

      EDF is pushing for strong state and federal methane rules and helping change the oil and gas industry. More than a dozen companies have pledged to reduce methane pollution to near zero by 2025. Last year BP started using drone-mounted sensors to check for methane leaks in U.S. operations, including the Permian, and announced it will use continuous methane monitoring technologies in new operations worldwide. One intriguing development: Soon after EDF's Permian research began, the industry announced plans to test the first collective methane monitoring system across the basin….

Rescuing a Landmark Environmental Law

[These excerpts are from an article by Rod Griffin in the Spring 2020 issue of the Environmental Defense Fund newsletter Solutions.]

      …the National Environmental Policy Act, often called the Magna Carta of environmental law. Fifty years ago, both the House and Senate passed NEPA by huge bipartisan majorities. The act, signed into law by President Richard Nixon, requires that nearly every highway, bridge, pipeline and other major federal project undergo environmental review.

      The law ensures that communities have a voice in planning and can protect themselves from dangerous or poorly designed federal projects by mandating environmental impact statements and allowing for public comment.

      NEPA is now under serious threat. The White House Council on Environmental Quality, which oversees implementation of the law across 80 government agen-cies, has proposed regulatory changes that would weaken NEPA in a number of ways, including by narrowing the range of projects that require review and by imposing strict new deadlines on completing studies.

      The CEQ’s revisions would eliminate the need for agencies to consider the cumulative impacts of projects. That means, for example, agencies would not have to examine whether a pipeline, mine or other fossil fuel project would worsen climate change….

      To make the changes, the CEQ is required under law to hold public hearings, but slots for testimony were filled within minutes, limiting public input. EDF joined with 323 other environmental and health groups calling for greater transparency….

      NEPA critics often cite environmental review as the reason for stalled projects, but a 2016 study commissioned by the U.S. Department of Treasury analyzed 40 major transportation and infrastructure projects whose completion had been delayed and found that a “lack of public funding [was] by far the most common factor hindering [their] completion.”

      Every state can claim a NEPA success story, and often projects are improved after review When seismic testing was proposed for oil and gas leases in the Canyons of the Ancients National Monument in Colorado, for example, citizens groups were able to use NEPA to work with the Bureau of Land Management and the leaseholders to steer clear of significant cultural features and fragile habitats.

      In recent years, courts have halted or delayed numerous federal actions under NEPA for failing to take into account climate impacts. Examples include the Keystone XL pipeline and plans to expand coal mining and oil and gas drilling in the Powder River Basin of Montana and Wyoming. EDF is currently in court using NEPA to challenge the repeal of the Waste Prevention Rule….

The Will to Act when the Data Are Dire

[These excerpts are from an article by Erika Lorraine Milam in the 29 May 2020 issue of Science.]

      In the face of a dire planetary prognosis, American politicians in the 1980s faced a simple question: Act now, or wait and see? These are the same options available to anyone presented with an uncertain future, whether rising levels of atmospheric carbon dioxide, a cyst that might turn cancerous, or scattered cases of an infectious disease that could explode into a pandemic….

      In 1951, environmentalist Rachel Carson had noted that the growing season in the subarctic regions was longer, growth rings on trees were fatter, and cod were migrating farther north….

      In 1975, anthropologist Margaret Mead convened a symposium calling attention to the endangered atmosphere. Arguing that the issue would need to be addressed on a planetary scale, she called for more research, especially scientific models of the likely future that could guide action in the present.

      …by 1979, scientists had assembled the essential pieces of the climate warming puzzle. By the end of the next decade, evidence regarding the future of the planet was incontrovertible: Increased levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere were causing the planet to warm. Models warned of a litany of dangers: rising sea levels, the abandonment of coastal cities, widespread droughts, and shifting agricultural belts. These issues…were understood to be environmental in nature and political in impact.

      The book’s two main characters—Rafe Pomerance and James Hansen—move through its pages like characters from a Frederick Forsyth novel: cool, competent, unfussy, and at odds with a world that underappreciates their hard-won expertise. Pomerance was “not a scientist” but a stooping six-foot-four environmental policy analyst with horn-rimmed glasses and a mustache. Hansen had majored in math and physics but dreamed of baseball. He helped create computer models of carbon circulation on a planetary scale and worked with Jule Charney to produce a report that predicted that the planet would warm by 3°C in the next century….Pomerance scrutinized the evidence, read between the lines, and started calling politicians.

      They might have succeeded in convincing those in power of the need to curb the world’s fossil fuel dependency were it not for President Ronald Reagan’s investment in fossil fuels and unrelenting war on environmentalism throughout the 1980s, followed by President George H. W. Bush’s 1989 appointment of John Sununu as White House Chief of staff. If Pomerance and Hansen are the book’s heroes, Sununu is the archvillaih.

      Ever since Mead’s 1975 conference, Rich posits, Sununu had interpreted claims of global warming as an excuse to bridle economic progress and enact authoritarian global solutions to a problem whose existence he doubted. Pomerance and Hansen could not convince Sununu otherwise, and when given the opportunity to steer the country's policy away from reckoning with climate change, Sununu took it. (He remains skeptical of global warming to this day.)

      Rich’s tight focus on the lives of a handful of men allows him to frame science and politics as mirror worlds—Hansen and Pomerance never quite grokking the power dynamics of politics and Sununu handily rejecting the logic of science. More broadly, Rich suggests that many Americans found it difficult to appreciate the connection between actions in the present and long-term effects, the lag between cause and effect exacerbated by our species's tolerance for self-delusion.

      …It was not until the epilogue that Rich turned his attention to the powerful dynamics of funding in science, attempts of the fossil fuel industry to manipulate the optics of knowledge for a broader public, and the disproportionate effects of climate change according to demographics and geography.

UV Radiation Blamed in Ancient Mass Extinction

[These excerpts are from an article by Paul Voosen in the 29 May 2020 issue of Science.]

      The end of the Devonian period, 359 million years ago, was an eventful time: Fish were inching out of the ocean, and fernlike forests were advancing on land. The world was recovering from a mass extinction 12 million years earlier, but the climate was still chaotic, swinging between hothouse conditions and freezes so deep that glaciers formed in the tropics. And then, just as the planet was warming from one of these ice ages, another extinction struck, seemingly without reason. Now, spores from fernlike plants, preserved in ancient lake sediments from eastern Greenland, suggest a culprit: The planet’s protective ozone layer was suddenly stripped away, exposing surface life to a blast of mutation-causing ultraviolet (UV) radiation.

      Just as the extinction set in, the spores became misshapen and dark, indicating DNA. Damage….

      Scientists have long believed—at least before humanity became a force for extinction—that there were just two ways to wipe out life on Earth: an asteroid strike or massive volcanic eruptions. But 2 years ago, researchers found evidence that in Earth’s worst extinction—the end-Permian, 252 million years ago—volcanoes lofted Siberian salt deposits into the stratosphere, where they might have fed chemical reactions that obliterated the ozone layer and sterilized whole forests. Now, spores from the end-Devonian make a compelling case that, even without eruptions, a warming climate can deplete the ozone layer….

      The end-Devonian die-off has long sat in the shadow of the Late Devonian extinction 12 million years earlier, one of the planet’s largest. Likely driven by volcanoes that emitted gases that drastically cooled and warmed the planet, it killed most corals and many shelled sea creatures. But 10 years ago, work by Sallan and others revealed the end-Devonian was mighty in its own right, wiping out many plants and vertebrates, including most tetrapods, the four-limbed fish that had begun to evolve fingers and toes. Only the five-toed tetrapods survived….

      What the end-Devonian lacked was a cause. There was no evidence for volcanism or a giant impact, but one alluring clue was seen in the rapid formation and disappearance of rock deposits associated with glaciers….

      Marshall argues that the warming climate drove more powerful summer thunderstorms, which could have injected an ozone-depleting mix of water and salts into the stratosphere. As UV rays killed off forests, nutrient runoff into the sea could have caused blooms of plankton and algae, which would have produced more ozone-destroying salts in a runaway feedback….

      Marshall’s scenario could explain not just the extinction, but also the many natural gas deposits dating from the period….They formed from decaying organic matter, but no one has explained the needed surge in plankton growth. Nutrient runoff from dead forests could have fertilized the marine life.

      It’s also a portent of what could happen in today's warming world, where more powerful thunderstorms sometimes “overshoot” the troposphere and inject moisture into the dry, cold stratosphere. When combined with aerosol particles and chlorine molecules, the moisture may eat away ozone….

      But atmospheric scientists can barely agree on whether these ozone depletions are happening now, let alone hundreds of millions ofyears ago. More overshoots occur now than expected, but whether they are spurring damaging reactions is not yet clear….

Scientists Put Survivors’ Blood Plasma to the Test

[These excerpts are from an article by Kal Kupferschmidt in the 29 May 2020 issue of Science.]

      …the blood plasma of people who have recovered from the disease, rich in antibodies against the virus. The strategy seems to have worked in other infections…and the infrastructure for collecting and administering plasma exists. The risks are known and comparatively low….

      Blood or plasma from recovered patients has been tried as a therapy since at least the Spanish flu of 1918; reports from that pandemic suggest it helped. It has also been used to fight measles, severe acute respiratory syndrome, and lesser known diseases such as Argentine hemorrhagic fever. In a 1970s study of 188 patients with that disease, only 1% of plasma recipients died, versus 16.5% in a control group….

      …And the treatment carries risks: Transfusions can transmit blood-borne pathogens, and in rare cases lead to conditions such as transfusion-related acute lung injury (TRALI), in which transferred antibodies damage pulmonary blood vessels, or transfusion-associated circulatory overload (TACO), when the patient’s body doesn't adapt to the added blood volume, which can be up to half a liter. Both can lead to difficulty breathing and death….

      Researchers have already collected more data on complications, and they seem to be rare. A U.S. paper looking only at the therapy’s safety in the first 5000 patients found 36 severe adverse events, including TRALI and TACO cases, but some may have been the result of COVID-19 itself. Only two events were “definitely related” to the transfusion, according to the treating physician; 23 others were deemed “possibly” or “probably” related….

      Convalescent serum could also help prevent infection in those at high risk. In a trial coordinated by Johns Hopldns, 150 health care workers exposed to COVID-19 while not wearing proper protection will receive either convalescent serum or serum collected last year. Researchers will compare how many people in each group develop disease.

      If convalescent plasma is shown to work, much more of it may be needed, and sup-a ply could become a challenge….One plasma donation—the volume depends on the donor’s weight but it’s usually between 690 and 880 milliliters in the United States—is enough for just one or two patients, and the donor’s blood type needs to match the recipient’s. But recovered patients might be able to donate plasma multiple times. In New York City; there is now-more than enough to go around, in part because thousands of members of the hard-hit Orthodox Jewish community have donated.

      Consistency is also an issue. The mix and concentration of antibodies differs from one donor to the next….

COVID-19 Research in Africa

[These excerpts are from an editorial by Linda-Gail Bekker and Valerie Mizrahi in the 29 May 2020 issue of Science.]

      When two French doctors recently discussed the ease of conducting clinical research on coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) in African nations, with an insinuation that ethical and safety standards for testing vaccines and treatments in these nations are lower than in other countries, and-African research sentiments flared on social media and in news reports. Suggesting that clinical trial conduct is at a lower standard in Africa is unacceptable. Africa has innovated and implemented health solutions with high ethical regard for its people….

      So far, COVID-19, caused by severe acute respiratory syndrome-corona-virus 2 (SARS-CoV-2), has infected -5 million people worldwide and caused -328,000 deaths. Africa now has over 95,000 cases of infection across the continent and more than 3000 deaths, with Egypt (14,000) just behind South Africa (18,000) in reported infections. But Africa has long grappled with the morbidity and mortality of communicable diseases including endemic tuberculosis (TB), Ebola virus disease, and malaria. Sub-Saharan Africa has borne the brunt of the HIV/AIDS epidemic, with half of the annual global infections. Once again, Africa confronts a new pandemic and must help find solutions, both for the continent and for the global community.

      Africa, a consumer of health products, has played a key role in developing new medical products….The extensive involvement of African women in clinical HIV/AIDS research underpinned the establishment of new preventive tools.

      …Vaccines for malaria and Ebola virus 1 disease were also tested across Africa. Recently, vaccine candidates for TB prevention were tested in East, West, Central, and Southern Africa, a necessary prerequisite before deployment across the continent.

      The key components to Africa's contributions in these endeavors have included robust community engagement with clinical research, the ethical conduct of this research, and ensuring that the research is regulated, monitored, and analyzed within Africa. These principles must also guide the partnerships needed to address COVID-19 effectively….All research should have ethical and regulatory approval in-country. And the highest international and national standards of treatment and prevention for COVID-19 should be maintained.

      Several countries in Africa are now preparing for clinical trials of COVID-19 therapies and vaccines with multiple international partners….

      As with so many other diseases, COVID-19 trials will be carried out in Africa, under the highest ethical and safety standards. To exclude Africa would be a life-threatening mistake.

Planting Patriotism

[These excerpts are from an article by David A. Taylor in the May 2020 issue of Discover.]

      …Valuable natural resources like oil or iron often get government support, but during World War II, trees also fit the bill — specifically, cork oak trees.

      Cork had enjoyed commercial value for centuries, of course, in wine bottles and fishing equipment, among other uses. But during the first half of the 20th century, the spongy material from the bark of the cork oak (Quercus suber) gained much wider use as an industrial sealant and insulator. Ground up and pressed into molds, from which thin sheets could be cut, this “composition cork” took full advantage of cork’s pliability.

      When companies around the world realized they could press composition cork into gaskets and other fluid-tight seals, the material’s prospects soared….By 1940, American industries imported around half of the world's cork, mostly from forests in Europe and North Africa (mainly Portugal, Algeria and Spain)….

      The Nazi blockade of the Atlantic Ocean began in late 1939, and increasingly affected imports for the U.S. in the early ‘40s. America would be able to get by on its existing stores of cork for a while, but not forever. Just weeks before the attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941, a government report titled “Cork Goes to War” provided a sobering realization of the problem….

      U.S. officials declared cork a “critical” material – a resource less difficult to procure than the “strategic” materials that were essential for defense, like copper and carbon steel, but nonetheless crucial for the nation….By 1941, the government had ordered companies to reserve their cork inventories for defense needs.. An Associated Press story printed in The New York Times on July 7, 1941, reported that the Commerce Department suggested rationing cork, as “no suitable substitute ... is at present in production.”

      This was largely thanks to the material’s unusual physical properties….No other natural substance came close. Even today, the PortugueSe Cork Association points out its unique squishiness among unprocessed solids: Pressing on one side does not cause another to expand. Cork’s flexible cell stricture also allows it to hold up to changing pressure and temperatures.

      That one-of-a-kind versatility was bad news for companies like Crown Cork & Seal, a Baltimore-based bottle cap and packaging company — and one of the biggest American importers of cork. On one side, their incoming supply was being threatened by the Nazi blockade; on the other, Uncle Sam was saying the existing cork stock must be held for government use only. So Crown Cork President Charles McManus assigned his staff chemist, Giles Cooke, to find a solution. Cooke eventually realized the only fix was the simplest one: For America’s supply of cork to be assured, the country would need to grow its own trees.

      Cooke consulted with arborists to chart the climate zones across the U.S. where cork oak could grow and thrive. As it turned out, American industry was in luck: The growing zone stretched across the South and up both the East and West Coasts.

      Next, Cooke talked with and wrote to politicians and state governments, suggesting Crown Cork could provide the seeds if the states rallied the muscle.

      The result was a successful nationwide tree-planting campaign to grow cork oaks. Kids could mail off a request and receive a package of acorns and instructions for planting. Throughout World War II, young 4-H and garden club members joined in tree-planting efforts, eager to do their part for the war effort. Their work was recognized and promoted by governors at Arbor Day celebrations and other festivities. All told, young people planted millions of acorns, resulting in thousands of viable trees that would produce cork for harvest after about 20 years of growing. Some are still alive today.

      But Cooke knew we would need trees sooner than in 20 years, so he pushed for a second effort, involving the cork oaks already growing in the U.S. Leading the hunt for the trees was Woodbridge “Woody” Metcalf…who scoured existing forests for the cork oaks. His team found thousands across California, most planted in the late 1800s. Arizona and a few other Southern states contained the trees in much smaller quantities, but there was enough to one day ensure a long-term domestic cork supply — especially since, after testing, scientists deemed this domestic cork just as good as European cork.

      Cooke and Metcalf’s two-pronged approach promised a steady supply of the critical material….

      After the war, international commerce resumed, and Portugal and Spain once again supplied America with cheap cork. Our country’s trees now simply grow free cork, and few people around them, recognize the bounty. They remain a legacy of how the right circumstances can motivate viable tree-planting campaigns in this country.

      Today, climate change may pose similar circumstances. Scientists and others have suggested that addressing climate change will require a World War II-like mobilization. And while the U.S. is the second-highest contributor of carbon dioxide emissions, the whole world will share in the consequences….

      Yet there is still reason to hope. Young people could again commit to battling a larger foe and recognizing trees' role in storing greenhouse gases: According to a 2019 study in Science, restoring forests — though logistically tricky — could cut atmospheric carbon levels by up to 25 percent. Could saving the environment be the basis for another federally backed nationwide horticultural operation?...

Growing Up Wired

[These excerpts are from an article by Alex Orlando in the May 2020 issue of Discover.]

      …The average child younger than 2 spends around 40 minutes a day looking at screens — and that daily dose only increases as the years go by. One survey estimates that almost half of all American teenagers say they’re online nearly constantly.

      The proliferation of screens — and their poten-tial impact — has sparked concerns. The American Academy of Pediatrics has recommended that kids under 18 months avoid screens altogether, apart from the occasional video chat. The group’s 2016 report on media use for children cites risks ranging from poor sleep to stunted language skills….

      …some recent research suggests that the little ones might not be taking away much information from those experiences.

      The bulk of research shows that, unlike older children, infants and toddlers are less likely to learn from a screen than from a dynamic, face-to-face interaction — a phenomenon known as “video deficit” As early as the 1980s, researchers discovered that children learn language skills better from show’s such as Sesame Street if an adult is watching with them and reinforcing the material. A 2007 study, published in Media Psychology, found that tod-dlers struggled to learn new words simply by watching television.

      Some studies have suggested, though, that video chat — in which parents interact with their child in real time — is different….

      In short, for many tykes still learning about the world, what is shown on a screen is not reality – and thus can’t convey substantive information about that reality….

      By the time kids hit their teens, most have become veterans of the social media Wild West, flitting between apps like Snapchat, Instagram and TikTok. And increasingly, even they seem aware that they’re probably checking their smartphones a little too much.

      According to a 2018 survey by the Pew Research Center, more than half of U.S. teens between 13 and 17 worry they spend too much time on their phones. And when they don’t have a smartphone in their pocket, nearly 60 percent of teens reported feeling either anxious, lonely or upset. Tech companies have responded to the mounting unease, with Facebook, Google and Apple releasing new tools to help users cut down on screen time….

      During adolescence, the brain is developing neural pathways that underlie impulse control, attention, planning and other higher-level functions. Leventhal suggests that exposure to smartphones, where our impulses are immediately rewarded with likes and comments, could interfere with teens’ ability to delay gratification — which is often associated with ADHD….

It's Not That Easy Being Green

[These excerpts are from an article by Anna Funk in the May 2020 issue of Discover.]

      …Sadly, “aspirational recycling” is not helpful at all. Although recycling centers do have ways of sorting recyclables from non-recyclables – called residuals – you’re just making more work for them. According to the National Waste & Recycling Association, contamination rates are around 25 percent. And then recycling centers still have to deal with your trash.

      Since China announced it would no longer accept imports of plastic waste, recycling programs are even more strapped than usual, forcing some cities to implement plan B. Local and national news outlets reported in 2019 that Philadelphia had begun sending recyclables that were regularly contaminated straight to an incinerator, albeit onethat generates electricity.

      What’s recyclable also varies from place to Place, so be sure you know what your town actually accepts. Not everything with a recycling symbotmay be recyclable in your area.

      Of course, there are things that are almost never recyclable that tend to make their way into bins, too. Common culprits are disposable paper cups, like the ones you might get to go from a coffee shop. The plastic-based lining that makes them liquid-proof is too hard to separate from the paper.

      Other offenders are paper towels, Styrofoam, glass from things like windows or mirrors, plastic bags…, greasy pizza boxes and, really, anything that’s covered in food.

      When in doubt, check out your city’s website….

      …Putting plastic bags in any single-stream recycling bin. This one deserves its own number, because its still such a common practice. Cut it out! Don’t. Put. Plastic. Bags. In. The. Recycling. Bin.

      If you put all your recyclables in a big plastic trash bag and put it in the bin — guess what — that could mean the whole thing is going to the landfill. If you must collect recyclables in a plastic bag, dump them out loose into the bin when you take them to the curb, and then toss the plastic bag in the trash where it belongs. (Or, you know, reuse it.)

      Plastic bags like you get atthe grocery store or big box store are recyclable, but you have to bring them back to a designated plastic-bags-only receptade. There’s often one right inside the door at grocery stores or places like Walmart. A few other bags can get recycled here, too, like bread bags.

      But other soft filmy plastics, like your candy wrappers, the film you peeled off your lunch meat container or the cellophane that held your muffin from the coffee shop — sorry to say, these are trash.

      Why does this matter? Besides making workfor recycling, centers…, the, soft plastics clog up the machinery….

      City dwellers are increasingly forgoing car ownership. Making the switch to walking, biking and taking public transit is cheaper and more sustainable, and can mean you don't have to sit in rush-hour traffic or circle for parking spots ever again.

      But as ride-shares like Uber and Lyft have gained popularity, more attention is being given to the environmental blight that is cars that never stop driving.

      People tend to think of ride-shires as almost on par with public transit. But they’re not. They’re worse than taking a personal vehicle because they roam around between fares. This means the total number of miles your trip takes is more than just the distance you travel. A study published in 2018 in Transportation found that, in Denver, using ride-shares increased the average miles driven by 84 percent for each trip….

      With an upsurge of restaurants making the switch to compostable, biodegradable bowls, cups and servingware, one might assume that these are successfully reducing waste.

      But, sadly, most landfills are set up so that even biodegradable stuff doesn’t biodegrade on any reasonable tirnescale. That’s because most decomposition comes from bacteria and fungi that require oxygen to do their thing. Landfills are tightly packed, and once “full,” they’re often sealed off with layers of clay and plastic to prevent liquids from seeping in or out. In anaerobic places like these, what little decomposition occurs is carried out by different organisms that create methane as a byproduct — if decomposition happens at all.

      That’s why composting food waste is so important. The EPA estimates that most composting households send 28 percent less trash to the curb than their noncomposting peers.

This Is Your Brain on Tech

[These excerpts are from an article by Kenneth Miller in the May 2020 issue of Discover.]

      According to a recent survey by the Nielsen market-research group, the average American spends nearly four hours a day on computers and mobile devices and nearly a quarter of that time on social media. While the upsides of all this pixel-gazing are plentiful, the downsides can be scary. In the public arena, online filters generate bubbiewt reinforce our preconceptions and amplify our anger. Brandishing tweets like pitchforks, we're swept into virtual mobs; some of us move on to violence IFIL. Our digitally enhanced tribalism upends political norms and sways elections.

      On the homefront, the sound of thumbs tapping screens has replaced dinnertime conversation. Professors face classrooms full of Snapchatting zombies. A 2017 study found that on-the-job smartphone time cost companies $15 billion a week in lost productivity: Texting while driving causes more than 300,000 crashes each year. Hundreds of us are hospitalized annually for walking into things while texting. As our devices grow smarter, more efficient and more connected, they often appear to be making us dumber, more distracted and more divided.

      A growing body of research suggests that this conundrum arises from a feature etched into our DNA: our unparalleled hunger to know stuff….

      Our current predicament…involves the gap between our vast appetite for information and our limited capacity for attention. To grasp how we wound up here — and, perhaps, to find a way out — it’s crucial to understand how we got our brains.

      …The computer in our heads contains some 86 billion processing units, known as neurons, woven into a distributed network with hundreds of trillions of connections, or synapses. Over a lifetime, it can store about a billion bits of data: 50,000 times the information in the Library of Congress. It can compose novels and symphonies, figure out how to send spacecraft beyond the solar system, and invent electronic brains whose powers, in some ways, exceed its own.

      Yet this wonder’s origins were strikingly humble. About 7 million years ago, hominins — our branch of the primate family tree — began the long transition to walking upright. Bipedalism, or walking on two legs, freed our hands for making and manipulating tools. It also allowed us to walk longer distances, key to our spread beyond Africa’s forests and savannas….

      Not that the effects were immediate. More than 3 million years ago, the braincase of Australopithecus afarensis, likely the first fully bipedal hominin, was only slightly larger than a chimpanzee’s. But by the time Homo sapiens emerged at least 300,000 years ago, brain volume had tripled. Our brain-to-body ratio is six times that of other mammals, and the neurons in our cerebral cortex (the brain’s outer layer, responsible for cognition) are more densely packed than those of any other creature on Earth….

      Our brains were also shaped by external forces, which increased the odds of smarter hominins passing on their genes. Experts debate which factors mattered most. Falk, for one, hypothesizes that the loss of grasping feet was crucial: When infants could no longer cling to their mothers, as nonhuman primates do, the need to soothe them from a distance led to the development of language, which revolutionized our neural organization. Other researchers believe that dietary shifts, such as eating meat or cooking food in general, enabled us to get by with a shorter digestive tract, which freed up more energy for a calorie-hogging brain. Still others credit our cerebral evolution to growing social complexity or intensifying environmental challenges.

      What’s clear is that our neural hardware took shape under conditions radically different from those it must contend with today. For millennia, we had to be on the alert for dangerous predators, hostile clans, potential sources of food and shelter — and that was about it…."Our brains evolved to focus on one thing at a time.”

      Our digital devices, by design, make that almost impossible….

      The part of the brain that enables us to make elaborate plans and carry them through — the part, arguably, that makes us most human — is the prefrontal cortex. This region is only slightly larger in H. sapiens than in chimps or gorillas, but its connections with other brain regions are more extensive and intricate. Despite this advanced network, our planning ability is far stronger than our ability to remain focused on a given task.

      One reason is that, like all animals, we evolved to switch attention instantly when we sense danger: the snapping twig that might signal an approaching predator, the shadow that could indicate an enemy behind a tree. Our goal-directed, or top-down, mental activities stand little chance against these bottom-up forces of novelty and saliency — stimuli that are unexpected, sudden or dramatic, or that evoke memories of important experiences.

      …Even macaque monkeys respond to new information as they do to primitive rewards like fruit or water. When the animal finds a ripe mango in the jungle — or solves a problem in the lab — brain cells in what’s called the dopaminergic system light up, creating a sensation of pleasure. These cells also build durable connections with the brain circuits that helped earn the reward. By triggering positive feelings whenever these circuits are activated, the system promotes learning.

      Humans, of course, forage for data more voraciously than any other animal. And, like most foragers, We follow instinctive strategies for optimizing our search….

      The call of the next data patch may keep us hopping from Facebook to Twitter to Google to YouTube; it can also interfere with the fulfillment of goals — meeting a work deadline, paying attention in class, connecting face-to-face with a loved one. It does this…in two basic ways. One is distraction….We try to ignore our phone’s pings and buzzes (or our fear of missing out on the data they signify), only to find our focus undermined by the effort.

      The other goal-killer is interruption: We take a break from top-down activity to feed our information munchies. The common term for this is multitasking, which sounds as if we’re accomplishing several things at once — working on the quarterly report, answering client emails, staying on top of the politician’s gaffe count, taking a peek at that aardvark. In truth, it means were doing nothing well.

      …Besides putting a major crimp in efficiency, such juggling can lead to high levels of stress, frustration and fatigue.

      It also wreaks havoc on working memory, the function that allows us to hold a few key bits of data in our heads just long enough to apply them to a task. Multiple studies have shown that “media multitasking” (the scientific term for toggling between digital data sources) overloads this mental compartment, making us less focused and more prone to mistakes. In 2012, for instance, Canadian researchers found that multitasking on a laptop hindered classroom learning not only for the user but for students sitting nearby. Heavy media multitasking has been associated with diminished cognitive control, higher levels of impulsivity and reduced volume in the anterior cingulate cortex, a brain region linked with error detection and emotional regulation….

      Emotional regulation is central to another of tech's disruptive effects on our ancient brains: exacerbation of tribal tendencies. Our distant ancestors lived in small nomadic bands, the basic social unit for most of human history….

      These days, many analysts see tribalism asserting itself in the resurgence of nationalist movements worldwide and the sharp rise in political polarization in the U.S., with both trends playing out prominently online. A study published in the American Journal of Political Science in 2015 found that party affiliation had become a basic component of identity for Republicans and Democrats. Social media, which spurs us to publicly declare our passions and convictions, helps fuel what the authors call “the gradual encroachment of party preference into nonpolitical and hitherto personal domains.”

      And we’re hardwired to excel at telling “us” from “them.” When we interact with in-group members, a release of dopamine gives us a rush of pleasure, while out-group members may trigger a negative response. Getting online “likes” only intensifies the experience.

      Our retreat into tribal mode may also be a reaction to the data explosion that the web has ignited….

      It’s surely no coincidence that during the 2016 presidential election, Russian hackers focused largely on convincing various groups of Americans that another group was out to get them. But foreign agents are hardly the top promoters of tribalism online. As anyone who’s spent time on social media knows, there’s plenty of homegrown schadenfreude on the web….

      Don’t expect Silicon Valley honchos to redesign their profitable products to be less exploitative of our old-school neural wiring….

      We can, however, evolve. The surest way to combat digital tribalism…is to be wary of bias, embrace critical thinking and encourage others to do the same….

This Is What It Will Take to Get Us Back Outside

[These excerpts are from an article by Gideon Lichfield in the May/June 2020 issue of Technology Review.]

      At some point covid-19 will be vanquished. By early April some 50 potential vaccines and nearly 100 potential treatment drugs were in development, according to the Milken Institute, and hundreds of clinical trials were already registered with the World Health Organization.

      Even with all these efforts, a vaccine is expected to take at least 12 to 18 months to bring to market. A treatment may arrive sooner—one company, Regeneron, says it hopes to have an antibody drug in production by August—but making enough of it to help millions of people could take months more.

      It could all be over more quickly if certain existing drugs, already known to be safe for other uses, prove effective in treating COVID-19. Trials are now under way; we should know by the summer. On the flip side, it may be that only a vaccine delivers the knockout blow, and even then, we still don’t know how long one will stay effective as the virus mutates.

      This is why everything feels unmoored and why everybody is stressed: because we can no longer predict what will be allowed and what will not a week, a month, or 12 months hence.

      That means we have to prepare for a world in which there is no cure and no vaccine for a long time. There is a way to live in this world without staying permanently shut indoors. But it won’t be a return to normal; this will be, for Westerners at any rate, a new normal, with new rules of behavior and social organization, some of which will probably persist long after the crisis has ended.

      In recent weeks a consensus has started to build among various groups of experts on what this new normal might look like. Some parts of the strategy will reflect the practices of contact tracing and disease monitoring adopted in the countries that have dealt best with the virus so far, such as South Korea and Singapore. Other parts are starting to emerge, such as regularly testing massive numbers of people and relaxing movement restrictions only on those who have recently tested negative or have already recovered from the virus— if indeed those people are immune, which is assumed but still not certain.

      This will entail a considerable degree of surveillance and social control, though there are ways to make it less intrusive than it has been in some countries. It will also create or exacerbate divisions between haves and have-nots: those who have work that can be done from home and those who don’t; those who are allowed to move about freely and those who aren’t; and, especially in the US and other countries without universal health coverage, those who have medical care and those who lack it. (Though Americans can now get coronavirus tests for free by law, they may still wind up with hefty bills for related tests and treatment.)

      This new social order will seem unthinkable to most people in so-called free countries. But any change can quickly become normal if people accept it. The real abnormality is how uncertain things are. The pandemic has undercut the predictability of normal life, the sheer number of things we always assume we will still be able to do tomorrow. That is why everything feels unmoored, why the economy is collapsing, why everybody is stressed: because we can no longer predict what will be allowed and what will not a week, a month, or three or six or 12 months hence.

      Getting to normal, therefore, is not so much about getting back the old normality as it is about getting back the ability to know what is going to happen tomorrow. And it’s becoming increasingly clear what’s needed to achieve that kind of predictability. What we can’t predict, yet, is how long it will take political leaders to do what it takes to get there.

      …One feature of the COVID-19 pandemic is the speed with which the unthinkable has become the obvious. In mid-March, the British government was still advocating for letting most people go about more or less their normal daily business, while only the sick and the especially vulnerable isolated themselves. It changed tack rapidly after researchers at Imperial College London published a study showing the policy would lead to as many as 250,000 deaths in the UK.

      That study made the case for what almost everyone now agrees is essential: imposing social distancing on as much of the population as possible. This is the only way to “flatten the curve,” or slow the spread of the virus enough to prevent hospitals from being overwhelmed, as they have been in Italy, Spain, and New York City. The goal is to keep the pandemic ticking along at a manageable level until either enough people have had COVID-19 to create “herd immunity”—the point at which the virus is starting to run out of new people to infect—or there’s a vaccine or cure.

      Waiting for herd immunity is not an idea most experts take seriously. But no matter what the final outcome, some degree of social distancing has to remain in place until we get there. A strict lockdown can slow new infections to a trickle, as it did in China’s Hubei province, but as soon as measures are relaxed, the infection rate starts to rise again.

      In their report on March 16, the researchers at Imperial College proposed a way of alternating between stricter and looser regimes: impose widespread social distancing measures every time admissions to intensive care units (ICUs) start to spike, and relax them each time admissions fall….

      What counts as “social distancing”? The researchers define it as “All households reduce contact outside household, school, or workplace by 75%.” That doesn’t mean you should feel free to go out with your friends once a week instead of four times. It means if everyone does everything they can to minimize social contact, then on average, the number of contacts is expected to fall by 75%.

      Under this model, the researchers concluded, both social distancing and school closures need to be in force some two-thirds of the time— roughly two months on and one month off—until a vaccine or cure is available….

      The researchers also modeled various less stringent policies, but all of them came up short. What if you only isolate the sick and the elderly, and let other people move around freely? You’d still get a surge of critically ill people at least eight times bigger than the US or UK healthcare system can handle. What if you lock everybody down for just one extended period of five months or so? No good—as long as a single person is infected, the pandemic will ultimately break out all over again….That means the economic paralysis lasts until there’s a vaccine or cure.

      …The key to getting to normal will be to establish systems for discriminating—legally and fairly—between those who can be allowed to move around freely and those who must stay at home…

      First, keep as many people as possible at home until the rate of infections is well under control. Meanwhile, massively ramp up testing capacity, so that once the country is ready to relax social distancing rules, anybody who asks for a test—and some who don’t—can take one and get the result within hours or, ideally, minutes. This has to include testing both for the virus, in order to detect people who are currently sick even if they don’t have symptoms, and for antibodies, in order to find people who have had the disease and are now immune.

      People who test positive for antibodies might be granted “immunity passports,” or certificates to let them move freely; Germany and the UK have already said they plan to issue such documents. People who test negative for the virus would be allowed to move around too, but they would have to get retested regularly and agree to have their cell phone’s location tracked. This way they could be alerted if they come into contact with anyone who has been infected.

      …This sounds Big Brotherish, and it can be: in Israel, such automated monitoring and contact tracing is being done by the domestic intelligence agency, using surveillance tools created for tracking terrorists. But there are less intrusive ways of doing it.

      The Safra Center, for example, outlines various schemes for “peer-to-peer tracking,” in which an app on your phone swaps encrypted tokens via Bluetooth with any other phones that spend some minimum period of time nearby. If you test positive for the virus, you put that information into the app. Using the tokens your phone has collected in the past few days, it sends alerts to those people to self-isolate or go get tested. Your actual location doesn’t have to be tracked, only the anonymized identities of the people you’ve been near….in principle at least— such a system can be set up with no centralized record-keeping at all.

      There also needs to be nationwide data-gathering and analysis to better understand how the virus is spreading and spot high-risk areas that might need more testing or medical resources, or another quarantine….

      It’s also important to make sure people who have tested positive or been exposed are staying in quarantine. This, however, seems hard to do without more direct surveillance….Without it, we have to rely on people to be responsible citizens and self-isolate when necessary….

      Regardless of the methods chosen, the goal is the same: after a couple of months of shutdown, to begin selectively easing restrictions on movement for people who can show they’re not a disease risk. With good enough testing capacity, data collection, contact tracing, enforcement of or adherence to quarantines, and coordination between the federal, state, and local governments, local outbreaks might be contained before they spread and force another national shutdown.

      Gradually, more and more people would be able to return to some semblance of normality. It would still be a far cry from the packed bars and sports arenas of the past, but it would be a less unbearable way to wait for the discovery of a vaccine or cure. More important, the economy could start ticking back to life.

      This depends on a lot of things going right, though. First, the initial shutdown probably needs to be harsher than it currently is in the US. At the time of writing some US states still had no stay-at-home orders, few cities were enforcing those orders, and there were no restrictions on travel between cities or states….

      Second, by some estimates, millions of virus tests a day, promptly performed, may be required to properly keep tabs on the pandemic in the US. By April 8 the country was testing around 150,000 people a day, and many results were taking more than a week to come back….

      Social distancing is here to stay for much more than a few weeks. It will upend our way of life, in some ways forever.

      Third, testing for antibodies is still in its infancy, and most of the tests currently in development still return fairly high rates of both false positives and false negatives….

      Fourth, the US in particular has precious little coordinated national strategy. The chaotic management of the crisis by the Trump administration, the separation of powers between the federal government and the states, and the fragmented nature of privatized health care make it unclear how systems for automated contact tracing, quarantine enforcement, or immune certification will emerge.

      That means a reopening of the US in June is optimistic, to say the least, and a reopening by April 30, as President Donald Trump was still hoping for in early April, is a fantasy. But Trump, along with his alter ego, Fox News, has gradually and reluctantly been moving toward a more realistic stance about the pandemic. By the end of March the White House had adopted projections of the death toll in line with those of many experts, even if those projections still assumed stricter social distancing measures than the federal government is currently calling for. As the pandemic spreads further into the country and starts to pummel the more Republican-leaning states, the president’s interests may start to align more closely with those of the country as a whole.

      …This, then, is what passes for optimism in these grim times: the hope that while the days are still warm, and after tens if not hundreds of thousands of lives have been lost that could have been saved with quicker action, some of us will be able to start crawling out into the sunlight. We’ll emerge into a world in which people give each other wide berths and suspicious looks, where those public venues still in business allow only the thinnest crowds to congregate, and where a system of legal segregation determines who can enter them. Millions will still be out of work and struggling to get by, and people will watch nervously for signs of a new flare-up near them.

      But as you contemplate that future, spare a thought for the billions of people in the world for whom even social distancing and basic hygiene are unaffordable luxuries, let alone testing, treatment, and technologically advanced governments. The pandemic will roar through the slums of the world’s poorest countries like fire through sawdust. In their considerably younger populations, it will probably be less deadly than in the rich world. But an unchecked pandemic there may also oblige other countries to keep their borders closed for longer to protect their own populations.

      A miracle may still happen. Perhaps a readily available drug will work. Perhaps testing will show that the virus is far more widespread and less deadly than we thought. It’s worth hoping for these things, but we can’t bank on them. What we can expect is to have an increasingly clear picture, as the days go by, of how this will play out if we take the right steps.

      That’s as normal as things are going to get for a while.

Get Out of Our Faces

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

      State and local authorities from New Hampshire to San Francisco have begun banning the use of facial-recognition technology. Their suspicion is well founded: these algorithms make lots of mistakes, particularly when it comes to identifying women and people of color. Even if the tech gets more accurate, facial recognition will unleash an invasion of privacy that could make anonymity impossible. Unfortunately, bans on its use by local governments have done little to curb adoption by businesses from start-ups to large corporations. That expanding reach is why this technology requires federal regulations—and it needs them now.

      Automated face-recognition programs do have advantages, such as their ability to turn a person’s unique appearance into a biometric ID that can let phone users unlock their devices with a glance and allow airport security to quickly confirm travelers’ identities. To train such systems, researchers feed a variety of photographs to a machine-learning algorithm, which learns the features that are most salient to matching an image with an identity. The more data they amass, the more reliable these progrnrns become.

      Too often, though, the algorithms are deployed prematurely. In London, for example, police have begun using artificial-intelligence systems to scan surveillance footage in an attempt to pick out wanted criminals as they walk by—despite an independent review that found this system labeled suspects accurately only 19 percent of the time. An inaccurate system could falsely accuse innocent citizens of being miscreants, earmarking law-abiding people for tracking, harassment or arrest. This becomes a civil-rights issue because the algorithms are more likely to misidentify people of color. When the National Institute of Standards and Technology reviewed nearly 200 facial-recognition systems, it found that most of them misidentified images of black and East Asian people 10 to 100 times more often than they did those of white people. When the programs searched for a specific face among multiple photographs, they were much more likely to pick incorrect images when the person being tracked was a black woman….

      Even if someone releases improved facial-recognition software capable of high accuracy across every demographic, this technology will still be a threat. Because algorithms can scan video footage much more quickly than humans can, facial recognition allows for constant surveillance of a population. This is already happening in China, where the authoritarian government is using the tech to suppress its Uighur ethnic minority and zero in on individuals' movements. These systems can easily be used to treat every citizen like a criminal, which destroys individual privacy, limits free expression and causes psychological damage.

      In a democratic country such as the U.S., the government needs to protect all its citizens against these kinds of measures. But existing bans on the technology create an inconsistent patchwork of regulations: some regions have no restrictions on facial recognition, others ban police from applying it, and still others prevent any government agencies or employees from using it.

      Federal regulations are clearly needed. They should require the hundreds of existing facial-recognition programs, many created by private companies, to undergo independent review by a government task force. The tech must meet a high standard of accuracy and demonstrate fairness across all demographic groups, and even if it meets those criteria, humans, not algorithms, should check a program's output before taking action on its recommendations. Facial recognition must also be included in broader privacy regulations that limit surveillance of the general population--because other identification tools that flag people based on their gait or even their heartbeat pattern are already in development.

      Americans have always been fiercely protective of the right to privacy. Technologies that threaten that must be. controlled.

Why Fight Poverty? Nobelists Explain

[These excerpts are from an article by Esther Duflo and Abhijit Benerjee in the Spring 2020 issue of MIT’s Spectrum.]

      …One big advantage of focusing on clearly defined interventions is that these policies have measurable objectives and therefore can be directly evaluated. We can experiment with them, abandon the ones that do not work, and improve the ones with potential.

      The recent history of malaria is a good example. Malaria is one of the biggest killers of small children and a disease preventable byavoiding mosquito bites. Since the 19805, the number of malaria deaths had been rising every year. At the peak in 2004 there were 1.8 million deaths from malaria. Then in zoos there was a dramatic turning point. Between zoos and 2016, the number of deaths from malaria declined by 75 percent. Many factors probably contributed to the decrease in the number of malaria deaths, but the widespread distribution of insecticide-treated bed nets almost surely played a key role. Overall, the benefits of nets are well established. In 2004, a review of the evidence from 22 carefully done randomized controlled trials [RCTs] found that, on average, 1,000 more nets distributed contributed to a reduction of 5.5 deaths per year….But an RCT by Pascaline Dupas and Jessica Cohen, replicated since then by several other studies, established that free nets are in fact used just as much as nets that are paid for, and free distribution achieves a much higher effective coverage than cost sharing.

      …Between 2014 and zoi6, a total of 582 million insecticide-treated mosquito nets were delivered globally. Of these, sos million were delivered in sub-Saharan Africa, and 75 percent were distributed through mass distribution campaigns of free bed nets. The magazine Nature concluded that insecticide-treated net distributions averted 450 million malaria cases between 2000 and 2015.

      The accumulation of evidence took some time, but it worked. Even the skeptics were convinced….

      The bottom line is that despite the best efforts of generations of economists, the deep mechanisms of persistent economic growth remain elusive. No one knows if growth will pick up again in rich countries, or what to do to make it more likely. The good news is that we do have things to do in the meantime; there is a lot that both poor and rich countries could do to get rid of the most egregious sources of waste in their economies. While these things may not propel countries to permanently faster growth, they could dramatically improve the welfare of their citizens.

      Moreover, while we do not know when the growth locomotive will start, if and when it does, the poor will be more likely to hop onto that train if they are in decent health, can read and write, and can think beyond their immediate circumstances. It may not be an accident that many of the winners of globalization were ex-communist countries that had invested heavily in the human capital of their populations in the communist years (China, Vietnam) or countries threatened with communism that had pursued similar policies for that reason (Taiwan, South Korea). The best bet, therefore, for a country like India is to attempt to do things that can make the quality of life better for its citizens with the resources it already has: improving education, health, and the functioning of the courts and the banks, and building better infrastructure (better roads and more livable cities, for example).

      For the world of policy makers, this perspective suggests that a clear focus on the well-being of the poorest offers the possibility of transforming millions of lives much more profoundly than we could by finding the recipe to increase growth from 2. percent to 2.3 percent in the rich countries....It may even be better for the world if we did not find that recipe.

Computational Tools for Better Chemistry

[These excerpts are from an article by Catherine Caruso in the Spring 2020 issue of MIT’s Spectrum.]

      Chemistry and computer science may not seem like the most obvious pairing: one conjures the image of a lab-coated and begoggled scientist titrating agents in test tubes and beakers, while the other brings to mind a scientist hunched over a computer, typing code and analyzing vast data sets. And yet, Connor Coley SM ‘16, PhD ‘19 is building his career at the interface of these fields, developing algorithms and machine-learning systems to streamline the work chemical engineers do in the lab—tools he hopes can accelerate the process of discovering and synthesizing useful molecules….

      While Coley has always enjoyed coding and programming, he considers these interests secondary to his passion for chemical engineering—his undergraduate major and the focus of his master’s degree….

      Coley was in the lab, building automated reaction platforms that use algorithms to optimize conditions for existing chemical reactions, when he realized that another part of the process could be made more efficient: designing the reactions themselves.

      “Once you’ve figured out what molecular structure you want to make, you still need to come up with a recipe—all the ingredients, all the instructions, all the steps that it will actually take to physically make it,” Coley explains. This process requires chemical engineers to draw on published papers, previous experiments, and general chemistry knowledge. “My interest was trying to use that background information in a more principled way.”

      Working with group members, Coley has built an algorithm-based, machine-learning system, trained on millions of previously published reactions, that analyzes this background information and offers chemists options and suggestions for making molecules. “It’s a way to supplement, not replace, the more traditional approaches,” Coley says….

      Now a postdoctoral researcher at the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard, Coley has temporarily shifted his focus to molecule discovery using a technology called DNA-encoded libraries. In this approach, Coley explains, chemists put millions of DNA-tagged compounds in a tube and simultaneously screen those compounds to see which ones have the greatest affinity for a target—for example, a protein linked to a disease. A selection process then identifies the molecules most inclined to “stick” to the target, measured through DNA amplification and sequencing. Chemists typically look only at measurements related to those top molecules, ignroring the rest.

      Coley wants to improve this process by developing computational tools that can sift through the entire collection of measurements and pull out anything that may improve the design of molecules selected for development….

      Ultimately, Coley hopes his work will improve the research process for thousands of scientists—making all of their discoveries and advancements a little bit faster. “that can have a pretty sizeable impact.”

Tropical Forests Store Carbon Despite Warming

[These excerpts are from an article by Elizabeth Pennisi in the 22 May 2020 issue of Science.]

      Tropical forests have been one of Earth's best defenses against rising carbon dioxide levels. The trees suck carbon from the atmosphere as they grow, and researchers estimate that, despite ongoing deforestation, tropical forests hold more carbon than humanity has emitted over the past 30 years by burning coal, oil, and natural gas. But scientists have worried that the ability of tropical forests to act as carbon sinks will diminish and ultimately reverse with continued global warming, as trees stressed by heat and drought die and release their carbon….

      Trees, with their long lives and massive woody trunks, are particularly good at storing carbon. But just how much carbon tropical forests can capture as the planet warms depends on the balance between tree growth spurred by higher atmospheric carbon levels and tree stress and death caused by rising temperatures and increasing drought….

      To forecast how carbon accumulation might change in the future, the researchers assumed that the hottest forests, which are mostly in South America, are bellwethers of the future. By comparing carbon storage in forests across the range of climates, they could use space as a proxy for time. They analyzed how changes in temperature and precipitation might affect carbon storage, looking for those changes that best explained what they observed in the forests. (The analysis takes into account differences in the forests’ mix of tree species.)

      Previous studies had suggested the lowest temperature a forest experiences at night has the biggest impact on its long-term carbon storage capacity, perhaps because warm nights cause trees to boost respiration and release more carbon. But this study found that the maximum daytime temperature is most important, perhaps because on hot days trees slow. their carbon dioxide intake to reduce water loss through pores in their leaves.

      The study showed that, overall, the forests now take up more carbon than they lose. But it found that at a tipping point—when the average daily maximum temperature during the warmest month of the year rises to 32.2°C—long term carbon storage capacity declines steeply and carbon loss increases. The decline is even greater in drier forests….

      The team calculated that,, worldwide, each 1°C increase in maximum temperature reduces carbon storage in tropical forests by 7 billion tons (roughly equivalent to total U.S. carbon emissions over 5 years), although much of that loss is currently offset by increased growth. If global temperatures rise 2°C above preindustrial levels, however, 71% of tropical forests will be pushed past the thermal tipping point, the researchers found….

      Other researchers see the findings as a wake-up call for action, noting the world has already warmed about 1°C above preindustrial levels….

Case Clostering Emerges as Key Pandemic Puzzle

[These excerpts are from an article by Kai Kupferschmidt in the 22 May 2020 issue of Science.]

      When 61 people met for a choir practice in a church in Mount Vernon, Washington, on 10 March, everything seemed normal. For 2.5 hours the chorists sang, snacked on cookies and oranges, and sang some more. But one of them had been suffering for 3 days from what felt like a cold—and turned out to be coin:D-19. In the following weeks, 53 choir members got sick, three were hospitalized, and two died, according to a 12 May report by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) that meticulously reconstructed the tragedy.

      Many similar “superspreading events” have occurred in the COVID-19 pandemic….

      Other infectious diseases also spread in clusters. But COVID-19, like two of its cousins, severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) and Middle East respiratory syndrome (MERS), seems especially prone to attacking groups of tightly connected people while sparing others. It’s an encouraging finding, scientists say, because it suggests that restricting gatherings where superspreading is likely to occur will have a major impact on transmission and that other restrictions—on outdoor activity; for example—might be eased….

      Most of the discussion around the spread of SARS-CoV-2 has concentrated on the average number of new infections caused by each patient. Without social distancing, this reproduction number (R) is about three. But in real life, some people infect many others and Others don’t spread the disease at all….

      …SARS-CoV-2 appears to transmit mostly through droplets, but it does occasionally spread through finer aerosols that can stay suspended in the air, enabling one person to infect many….

      Individual patients’ characteristics play a role as well. Some people shed far more virus, and for a longer period of time, than others, perhaps because of differences in their immune system or the distribution of virus receptors in their body. A 2019 study of healthy people showed some breathe out many more particles than others when they talk. (The volume at which they spoke explained some of the variation) Singing may release more virus than speaking, which could help explain the choir outbreaks. People’s behavior also plays a role. Having many social contacts or not washing your hands makes you more likely to pass on the virus….

      Countries that have beaten back the virus to low levels need to be especially vigilant for superspreading events, because they can easily undo hard-won gains. After South Korea relaxed social distancing rules in early May, a man who later tested positive for COVID-19 visited several clubs in Seoul; public health officials scrambled to identify thousands of potential contacts and have already found 170 new cases.

      If public health workers knew where clusters are likely to happen, they could try to prevent them and avoid shutting down broad swaths of society….

      But studying large COVID-19 clusters is harder than it seems. Many countries have not collected the kind of detailed contact tracing data needed. And the shutdowns have been so effective that they also robbed researchers of a chance to study superspreading events….

Suspend Tests and Rankings

[These excerpts are from an editorial by H. Holden Thorp in the 22 May 2020 issue of Science.]

      The notion that U.S. colleges and universities will open this fall in “normal” mode should not be in any forecast. As Dr. Anthony Fauci (of the White House’s coronavirus task force) testified last week before the Senate, it’s unlikely that a vaccine or treatments for coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) will be available by the time students return to campus. I sympathize with the predicament of college and university administrators who need to reopen in ways that are safe and supportive for all their students while also planning for the possibility that they won’t be able to reopen in-person classes. To help them grapple with this, let's suspend two things, at least temporarily—test scores and rankings.

      Although universities that support research, graduate, and postgraduate training have struggled during the pandemic with the shuttering of labs, clinics, and academic programs, these functions seem to be on their way back and probably can restart safely. I worry less about the recovery of this sector of higher education than I do about undergraduate students, of which there are an estimated 20 million in the United States. We know that their success, on multiple fronts, is enhanced by completing college.

      Recent statements by a few U.S. college and university presidents about the coming fall semester range from the bullish announcement that Purdue University will open with in-person classes to the cautious decision that the California State University system will be all-virtual. My guess is that there will be a messy, hybrid solution involving mainly virtual instruction, for most institutions. In-person classes will require new configurations for housing and dining, smaller lectures, and more instructors. Student health centers need to prepare for testing, isolation, and mental health support. And those are just the most obvious needs to be addressed, quickly. The chaotic move to virtual classes this spring demonstrated that this approach needs to be executed much more deliberately in the fall, which will require resources to help faculty prepare fora new mode of teaching.

      My biggest worry is that certain students may get lost in the planning debates and that COVID-19 health and economic impacts may further exacerbate inequities in higher education. The spring semester showed us that students had to make quick arrangements to continue their education online—a path that was easier for some than others. And the large number of students who already lived off campus—particularly those enrolled in community colleges and big urban public universities—were in the same situation as they were in the prepandemic era, but without adequate recognition. Shutting down in-person classes and campuses all together compounded student insecurities—from food, shelter, and medical to financial and technological. A major concern is whether these students will be able to continue (or even begin) their higher education in the fall….

      …High scores in admissions tests and high ability to pay tuition are already given too much weight by American academic institutions when it comes to undergraduate admissions. This inequitable behavior is further reinforced by the yearly rankings assigned to colleges and universities….

      A truly transformative move in this moment of crisis would be to suspend testing requirements and college rankings. This is not a time for undergraduate institutions to be using precious resources to chase these numbers. Rather, they need to support struggling students and other members of the academic community so that education can resume this fall in a manner that is fair to all. Some schools are already making test scores optional for the time being, and hopefully that requirement will never return. Ranking colleges and universities changed higher education, mostly for the worse. Now is the time for institutions to suspend those rankings and, when the crisis is over, bring them back in a more progressive form.

An Unequal Blow

[These excerpts are from an article by Lizzie Wade in the 15 May 2020 issue of Science.]

      When the Black Death arrived in London by January 1349, the city had been waiting with dread for months. Londoners had heard reports of devastation from cities such as Florence, where 60% of people had died of plague the year before. In the summer of 1348, the disease had reached English ports from continental Europe and begun to ravage its way toward the capital. The plague caused painful and frightening symptoms, including fever, vomiting, coughing up blood, black pustules on the skin, and swollen lymph nodes. Death usually came within 3 days.

      The city prepared the best way it knew how: Officials built a massive cemetery, called East Smithfield, to bury as many victims as possible in consecrated ground, which the faithful believed would allow God to identify the dead as Christians on Judgment Day. Unable to save lives, the city tried to save souls.

      The impact was as dreadful as feared: In 1349, the Black Death killed about half of all Londoners; from 1347 to 1361, it killed between 30% and 60% of all Europeans. For those who lived through that awful time, it seemed no one was safe. In France, which also lost about half its population, chronicler Gilles Li Muisis wrote, “neither the rich, the middling sort, nor the pauper was secure; each had to await God’s will.”

      But careful archaeological and historical work at East Smithfield and elsewhere has revealed that intersecting social and economic inequalities shaped the course of the Black Death and other epidemics….The people at greatest risk were often those already marginalized—the poor and minorities who faced discrimination in ways that damaged their health or limited their access to medical care even in prepandemic times. In turn, the pandemics themselves affected societal inequality, by either undermining or reinforcing existing power structures.

      That reality is on stark display during the COVID-19 pandemic….In hard-hit New York City, Latino and black people have been twice as likely to die from COVID-19 as white people. Cases there have been concentrated in poorer ZIP codes, where people live in crowded apartments and can’t work from home or flee to vacation homes….

      When the Black Plague struck, many places in Europe were already beleaguered. The late 13th and 14th centuries were a time of climatic cooling and erratic weather. Harvests had failed and famines had struck in the century or so before the pandemic emerged. In the Great Famine of 1315-17, up to 15% of the population of England and Wales died, according to historical records. As wages fell and grain prices soared, more people were driven into poverty. Household account books and records of payments to workers on English manors show that by 1290, 70% of English families were living at or below the poverty line, defined as being able to buy enough food and goods to not go hungry or be cold. Meanwhile, the wealthiest 3% of households received 15% of the national income….

      Four hundred years later andhalf aworld away, smallpox struck Cherokee communities in what would become the southeastern United States. Elsewhere in the world, the disease—with its fever and eruption of pustules—killed about 30% of people infected. But among the Cherokee, the feared pathogen had help, and likely became even more devastating….

      Although a lack of acquired immunity often gets all the blame for Native Americans’ high mortality from disease during the colonial period, social conditions amplified the impacts of biological factors. The mid 18th century smallpox epidemic in the Southeast, for example, coincided with escalated British attacks on Cherokee communities in what’s called the Anglo-Cherokee War. The British used a scorched-earth strategy, burning Cherokee farms and forcing residents to flee their homes, causing famine and spreading smallpox to more Cherokee communities. Historians think by the end of the epidemic and the war, the Cherokee population had fallen to its smallest recorded size, before or since….

      The 1918 pandemic struck in a spring and an autumn wave, and black people were more likely than white people to get sick in the first wave….Then, in the deadlier autumn wave, black people were infected at lower rates, presumably because many had already acquired immunity. But when black people did get sick in the fall of 1918, they were more likely to develop pneumonia and other complications, and more likely to die, than white people. That may be because black people had higher rates of pre-existing conditions such as tuberculosis….

      Today in Washington, D.C., 45% of COVID-19 cases but 79% of deaths are of black people. As of late April, black people it made up more than 80% of hospitalized COVID-19 patients in Georgia, and almost all COVID-19 deaths in St. Louis. Similar trends have been seen for black and South Asian patients in the United Kingdom. And in Iowa, Latinos comprise more than 20% of patients, despite being only 6% of the population.

      In 1350, burials stopped in East Smithfield cemetery. But the Black Death's impact lingered, thanks to its extraordinary ecoomic consequences….

U.S. ‘Warp Speed’ Vaccine Effort Comes out of the Shadows

[These excerpts are from an article by Jon Cohen in the 15 May 2020 issue of Science.]

      Conventional wisdom is that a vaccine for COVID-19 is at least 1 year away, but the organizers of a U.S. government push called Operation Warp Speed have little use for conventional wisdom. The project, vaguely described to date but likely to be formally announced by the White House in the coming days, will pick a diverse set of vaccine candidates and pour essentially limitless resources into unprecedented comparative studies in animals, fast-tracked human trials, and manufacturing. Eschewing international cooperation—and any vaccine candidates from China—it hopes to have 300 million doses by January 2021 of a proven product, reserved for Americans.

      Those and other details…have unsettled some vaccine scientists and public health experts. They’re skeptical about the timeline and hope Warp Speed will complement, rather than compete with, ongoing COVID-19 vaccine efforts, including one announced last month by the National Institutes of Health….

      Warp Speed, first revealed by Bloomberg News on 29 April, has so far only been outlined. President Donald Trump briefly discussed the initiative the next day, saying, “We’re going to fast track it like you’ve never seen before.” According to a CNN report…Warp Speed intends to deliver the first 100 million doses of a vaccine in November and another 200 million over the following 2 months.

      More than 100 COVID-19 vaccines are in development, and eight candidates—four from Chinese companies—have entered small trials in people, according to an 11 May update from the World Health Organization (WHO). But there’s less than meets the eye in many of the efforts….

      Warp Speed has already narrowed its list of vaccine candidates to 14 and plans to push ahead with eight….

      …By July, Warp Speed hopes to have its eight lead candidates in human trials. At the same time, itwill fund a large-scale comparison of their safety and efficacy in hamsters and monkeys to help winnow down that group. “If something’s really bad, we’ll get rid of it,” he says.

      In parallel with the trials, the project will lay the groundwork for “heavy duty manufacturing” of as many as four different vaccines. More than one may prove worthy, and multiple options guard against contamination incidents and other supply concerns.

      Although Warp Speed has not ruled out any type of vaccine, it will not consider ones made in China, such as the inactivated virus vaccine recently shown to protect monkeys from the coronavirus, a first….

      Warp Speed’s main goal is to protect the United States….

      Many scientists and organizations have argued, however, that any proven COVID-19 vaccines should be accessible and affordable to everyone in the world at the same time….

Lessons from the Crucible of Crisis

[These excerpts are from an editorial by the editors in the December 2019 issue of Science.]

      As coronavirus disease 2019 (COV1D-L9) continues to claim lives around the planet, the United States observes the bitter anniversaries of tiTo tragedies: its most damaging volcanic eruption and its largest marine oil spill. Forty years ago, on 18 May 1980, Mount St. Helens volcano erupted in Washington state, claiming 57 lives and triggering an enduring legacy of downstream sediment and hydrogeologic disruptions….Just 10 years ago, the Deepwater Horizon explosion and oil spill began on 20 April 2010 and continued to release oil for 87 days into the Gulf of Mexico from a damaged deep-sea well before it was finally capped. Eleven rig workers died in the explosion. As we all continue to struggle with the current pandemic crisis, it is an opportune time to ask what lessons in the response to previous catastrophes should not be forgotten.

      The first lesson is that the battle is usually won or lost in the myriad actions that are taken in the days, weeks, and years before it has even begun….

      As a corollary to the first lesson, in preparing for the next emergency, expect the unexpected. Emergency managers, policy-makers, regulators, and even scientists too often assume that the next crisis will be “just like the last one.” Not even scientists predicted the magnitude of the eruption at Mount St. Helens, which released more energy than Hurricane Katrina (2005) and produced the largest landslide ever recorded in human history….

      Scenario planning can be effective both for determining which prior actions will build resilience and lessen the impacts of disasters and for preparing for the unexpected. This approach was used effectively during the Deepwater Horizon oil spill for considering a range of scenarios for what might happen next, to prevent a legacy of problems that cascade from the environment to people and the economy….

      Both of these lessons apply to the current pandemic. Its death toll in any region is varying with the prior health status of the population, the quality of the health care system, and the early precautions taken in the months and weeks after the first report of the disease to mitigate its spread. Any longer-term actions to curb obesity; reduce the incidence of diabetes, and eliminate respiratory afflictions caused by polluted air, smoking, and other factors are beneficial to public health even without a major pandemic. Undertaking scenario planning now can prevent unfortunate surprises as nations work to reopen their economies, reestablish travel and tourism, cope with the staggering levels of unemployment, and adjust to new norms in personal and professional lives engendered by the pandemic….

Both/and Problem in an Either/or World

[These excerpts are from an editorial by H. Holden Thorp in the 15 May 2020 issue of Science.]

      Before the coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) pandemic, nuance and candor from governments were in short supply. Now they are almost nonexistent. Protecting the world from severe acute respiratory syndrome-coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2) can’t happen without international scientific collaboration. Progress on vaccines in China and the United States should make us optimistic that science will solve this problem, but the actions of the governments involved are not equally inspiring.

      The saber rattling by China and the United States is unnecessary, as the broad impacts of the pandemic in both countries are shared. Isn’t that worth curbing nationalistic tendencies? Apparently not to China, which has rebuffed efforts to understand the origin of SARS-CoV-2. And not to the Trump administration either, which can’t grasp that it's possible to question the actions of the Chinese government about the early days of the pandemic while embracing collaboration with Chinese science. In a worldwide pandemic, isn’t it best for everyone to cooperate and try to save all of humanity together?

      We need a both/and approach, but we are living in an either/or world.

      …We are asked to believe that the highly ranked project was killed because even though it sought to prevent the next bat-originating human pandemic, it did not “align” with the NIH’s goals and priorities. This comes while the administration is propping up and circulating the unproven theory that the virus escaped from the Shi lab at the WIV, when the science is clearly in favor of zoonotic transfer in nature.

      The genetic sequence of SARS-CoV-2 rules out a lab-engineered virus. And although escape from a lab of a naturally occurring virus that was isolated from bat specimens collected by scientists cannot be completely eliminated as the origin, the closest laboratory version of the virus…is separated from SARS-CoV-2 by at least 20 years of evolutionary time. SARS-CoV-2 would have had to have escaped from the lab decades ago—or, another virus that was brought into the lab and not documented somehow escaped. Either way, only a chain of unlikely events could explain laboratory involvement.

      The U.S. administration instructed its intelligence community to investigate this matter. Last week, these intelligence agencies ruled out that the virus was lab-engineered. They have not reached any conclusions about whether a virus might have escaped from the lab. But in the absence of evidence, the administration will likely turn uncertainty into “truth”—a lab escape—that serves its narrative.

      Even in the face of the intelligence report to the contrary, U.S. Secretary of State Michael Pompeo initially said that “the best experts so far seem to think it was man-made.” Apparently, the best experts are neither scientists nor intelligence experts. Pompeo claims to have additional evidence that we are unlikely to see, if it even exists….

      I feel for, and admire, our scientific colleagues in the U.S. federal government. They are giving all they’ve got to protect the American public and others under impossible circumstances. Before the pandemic, the NIH went overboard to deal with foreign influence in U.S. research because of the nationalistic pressure it was under. Now, the agency is trying to dodge political lunges from an administration that puts political success above human life.

      The tyranny of either/or is that we only survive on our own. The promise of both/and is that the world is imperfect but we're all in this together.

Katherine Johnson (1918-2020)

[These excerpts are from an article by Shirley M. Malcom in the 8 May 2020 issue of Science.]

      Katherine Johnson, a mathematician for NASA and its predecessor agency, passed away on 24 February at age 101. She and women like her worked unseen for decades to ensure America’s success in the space race. The 2016 movie Hidden Figures finally brought her story to light. The recognition of Katherine’s contributions to aeronautics and to America’s ventures into space is well deserved, as she and her African American colleagues did vital work while facing Jim Crow barriers in nearly every aspect of their lives.

      Katherine, the youngest child of Joshua and Joylette Coleman, was born on 26 August 1918, in White Sulphur Springs, West Virginia. The state had been part of the Union during the Civil War, but in every way that mattered it was part of the segregated South. Where the Colemans lived, education for Black children only extended through grade school, so Joshua rented a house more than 100 miles away to give his children the opportunity to attend the laboratory school at West Virginia Collegiate Institute (later West Virginia State College), a historically Black public land-grant institution established by the second Morrill Act. In 1933, at the age of 15, Katherine enrolled as a college freshman. She graduated summa cum laude in 1937 with a double major in mathematics and French.

      Following the path often taken by Black, college-educated women of her generation, Katherine became a teacher. The possibility of using her education in mathematics in any other career was unimaginable, although her professor did encourage and prepare her to pursue graduate study. An opportunity for graduate work came along when she was among those selected to integrate all-White West Virginia University after a Supreme Court decision mandated equal access to graduate educational opportunities. However, after one summer at the university in 1940, Katherine chose not to continue. Recently married, she stepped away to assume the role of wife and mother.

      In 1952, through family, Katherine learned of and seized an opportunity to apply her mathematical skills at the Langley Aeronautical Laboratory, a research center of the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA, NASA’s predecessor). During World War II and the ensuing Cold Wax, NACA needed the skills of female mathematicians (“human computers”) to support the work of their engineers….

      At that time, women in government experienced economic inequality—in title, salary, and limited opportunities for promotion. Meanwhile, Black Americans in the segregated South faced educational, social, and economic inequities. And yet, on the strength of her mathematical abilities, Katherine was considered an equal within the community of engineers and scientists with whom she worked….

      The Soviet Union’s successful launch of Sputnik in 1957 led to a blistering pace of work for the engineers, scientists, and mathematicians charged with bolstering American pride in space. Long hours and the agency's demand for results were layered atop increasing family responsibili-ties. Katherine’s husband, James Goble, had died in 1956, leaving her carrying the added weight of single parenting.

      In 1959, she married Jim Johnson and published her first research report under the name Katherine G. Johnson. That report and her subsequent work developing precise trajectory calculations for NASA’s early human spaceflights were essential to establishing the United States as the leading spacefaring nation. Electronic computers were just being introduced into the space program, and their results were not always reliable. The human computers were there to backstop the machines. In the early 1960s, she worked on lunar orbits. Her contribution was crucial in helping to realize President Kennedy’s goal of banding a man on the Moon….

      The girl who loved to count became the woman whose aptitude and passion for mathematics helped propel the space ambitions of the United States. Katherine's story and those of other hidden figures have been embraced in popular culture and by those of us working to diversify science, technology, engineering, and mathematics. But there are other lessons to be learned: Her story demonstrates why we must work to provide excellent education and opportunities for all It also elucidates the importance of policy interventions and laws in sustaining those opportunities. Katherine Johnson earned her place in the pantheon of America’s space heroes; she and the other women who contributed to the country’s path to the heavens are hidden no more.

Without Fossil Fuels, Reactors Churn Out Chemicals

[These excerpts are from an article by Robert F. Service in the 8 May 2020 issue of Science.]

      As windmills and solar panels multiply, the supply of renewable electricity sometimes exceeds demand. Chemists would like to put the excess to work making commodity chemicals, such as the raw materials for fertilizer and plastics, which are now produced with heat, pressure, and copious fossil fuels. The electrochemical cells that can harness renewable electricity to make these compounds have been too slow to be practical. Now, two groups report redesigning the cells to achieve a dramatic speedup—perhaps enough to put green industrial chemistry within reach….

      One research group uses carbon dioxide (CO2) as its starting material to make ethanol, a fuel, and ethylene, a starting point for plastics; the other turns nitrogen (N2) into ammonia (NH3), a key component in fertilizer. Both owe their progress to advances in the catalyst-coated electrodes that drive chemical reactions between gases and liquids.

      In theory, turning CO2 into hydrocarbons such as ethanol and ethylene is simple: Just add energy to the CO2 so it can steal hydrogen atoms from water. But the reactions are tricky. They take place in electrolyzers, which consist of two electrodes separated by a liquid electrolyte. At one electrode, the anode, water splits into oxygen, electrons, and hydrogen ions, or protons. The protons then migrate through the electrolyte to the cathode, where they react with CO2, which is fed in separately, to make the hydrocarbons.

      In current electrolyzers, the cathode typically consists of a 3D carbon mesh dotted with tiny copper catalyst particles. Their “gas diffusion” design allows CO2 gas that infiltrates the mesh to interact with all the catalyst particles simultaneously. One side of the mesh is also in contact with the liquid electrolyte, which helps ferry protons over from the anode. But water in the electrolyte can also infiltrate the pores, blocking CO2 gas from reaching the catalyst particles.

      Coating the electrode with a water-repellent, fluorine-rich polymer can help. That and other improvements have resulted in electrolyzers that efficiently convert a modest input of electricity into hydrocarbons. But only about 40% of the product compounds have two carbon atoms, as ethylene and ethanol do. Much of the rest is methane, which has one carbon and is less valuable.

      …adding fluorine to the standard copper catalyst on their gas diffusion electrode changes the pathway of the reactions, so that up to 85% of the resulting products are valuable two-carbon compounds….

      With oil prices crashing because of price wars and the coronavirus pandemic, companies will likely continue to rely on fossil fuels to produce ammonia, ethanol, and other commodity chemicals in the near future. But as researchers continue to improve electricity-based production methods, even cheap fossil fuels may ultimately prove no match for surplus green energy.

Ape Researchers Mobilize to Save Primates from Coronavirus

[These excerpts are from an article by Ann Gibbons in the 8 May 2020 issue of Science.]

      …Human respiratory viruses are already the leading cause of death in chimp communities at Kibale and at Gombe Stream National Park in Tanzania, where Jane Goodall worked, according to a study led by Goldberg. Now, researchers are gearing up to protect apes as well as local people from COVID-19….

      The ape form of the receptor that the new coronavirus uses to enter cells (the angiotensin-converting enzyme 2, or ACE2, receptor) is identical to the human one, so it’s likely apes can be infected….If the virus gets into ape communities, flattening the curve will be all but impossible. “Gorillas can’t social distance,” says primatologist Tara Stoinski at the Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund.

      The virus would hit already depleted populations. Among chimps at Tal National Park in aite d’Ivoire, researchers have detected repeated outbreaks of viruses and strep since 1999. Each time a respiratory virus swept through, about one-quarter of the chimps died, says primatologist Roman Wittig of th4 Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology. Those deaths, plus poaching and habitat loss, have shrunk the Tali forest chimp population from 3000 in 1999 to 300-400 today, he says.

      Among mountain gorillas, respiratory viruses cause up to 20% of sudden deaths….Half the world’s 1063 mountain gorillas live at Bwindi Impenetrable National Park in Uganda, where 40,000 tourists visit every year. The February study found that more than 98% of the observed tourist groups got closer to the gorillas than the mandated 7 meters, and that sick tourists tried to hide their illnesses….

      African governments have already stopped all ape-related tourism….

      To keep people out of the forest and reduce hunting, some researchers are offering goats to local people or helping farmers prow cash crops like coffee….

Children’s Role in Pandemic Is Still a Puzzle

[These excerpts are from an article by Grethchen Vogel and Jennifer Couzin-Frankel in the 8 May 2020 issue of Science.]

      For families eager for schools to throw open their doors, the tale of a 9-year-old British boy who caught COVID-19 in the French Alps in January offers a glimmer of hope. The youngster, infected by a family friend, suffered only mild symptoms; he enjoyed ski lessons and attended school before he was diagnosed. Astonishingly, he did not transmit the virus to any of 72 contacts who were tested. His two siblings escaped infection even though other germs spread readily among them: In the weeks that followed, all three had influenza and a common cold virus.

      The story could be a bizarre outlier—or a tantalizing clue. Several studies of COVID-19 hint that children are less likely to catch the novel coronavirus and don’t often transmit it to others. A recent survey of the literature couldn’t find a single example of a child younger than 10 passing the virus on to someone else, for example.

      Relying on those encouraging if scant data—and the reassuring indications that very few children get severely ill from COVID-19—some governments are beginning to reopen schools. Denmark sent children up to age 11 back on 15 April, and Germany welcomed back mostly older children on 29 April. Some Israeli schools reopened on 3 May the Netherlands the Canadian province of Quebec plan to reopen many primary schools on 11 May. Most schools are resuming with reduced class sizes, shortened school days, and extra hand washing.

      Ending school closures has clear benefits for children’s education and mental health—not to mention their parents’ well-being—but scientists disagree about the risks. Some worry that even if children transmit less efficiently than adults, they may make up for it by their far more expansive web of contacts, especially at school….

      As parents and teachers know all too well, children excel at catching and sharing germs, from influenza to common colds, even when they don’t feel very sick themselves….

      Could COVID-19 be different? The evidence so far is mixed. Researchers in Iceland, one of the few countries to conduct mass screening, turned up no infec-ions in 848 children under the age of 10 without significant symptoms, compared with an infection rate of nearly 1% in ages 10 and older. A U.S. analysis of nearly 150,000 infected people found that just 1.7% were younger than 18. But a study of 391 cases and almost 1300 close contacts in Shenzhen, China, reported that children were just as likely to be infected as adults. Eckerle cautions that some of these data come from surveys done after shutdowns were put in place….

      Several studies suggest children who do get sick with COWD-19 are just as infectious as ailing adults. Researchers have detected the same amounts of viral RNA in nose or throat swabs from sick children as in those from older patients. Finding RNA does not always mean a person is infectious; it can also come from noninfectious viral remnants….

      Far less is known about the risk posed by infected children with few or no symptoms. But there’s at least one example of a child who didn’t appear sick and was nevertheless a virus factory: In February, doctors in Singapore described a 6-month-old baby, infected without apparent symptoms, whose coronavirus levels were on par with those of sick adults.

      Real-life studies of how often children transmit COVID-19 are scarce….

      …Although they were only one-third as likely to be infected, keeping hildren at home helped curb China’s outbreaks….

      Even without those efforts, daily case numbers could soon provide a reality check. If children are ample virus spreaders after all, cases could surge in a matter of weeks in the countries reopening their schools. If they aren't, parents and policy-makers will heave a sigh of relief and more countries may follow….

Beat COVID-19 through Innovation

[These excerpts are from an editorial by Pierre Azoulay and Banjamin Jones in the 8 May 2020 issue of Science.]

      As coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) has spread, public health and economic well-being are increasingly in conflict. Governments are prioritizing public health, but the current solution—social isolation—is costly as commerce remains shut down. Restarting economies could rekindle the pandemic and cause even worse human suffering. Innovation can help societies escape the untenable choice between public and economic health. The world needs effective vaccines, therapies, or other solutions. But how do we achieve these solutions, and aehieve them quickly? Innovation policy can accelerate advances, with high returns. In the United States, COVID-19 has reduced gross domestic product (GDP) by ~30%. What if additional investment in research and development (R&D) could bring forward an effective vaccine by just 1 day? If this investment costs less than the daily loss in GDP ($18 billion in the United States alone), it would pay for itself. Even large incremental funding to support R&D will be miniscule in scale compared to the $2.8 trillion the U.S. government is spending to compensate for the economic shutdown.

      What principles should guide government innovation policy to battle COVID-19? It is critical to support many independent avenues of research. Outcomes from R&D investments are uncertain. Many avenues will be dead ends, so many different paths—each corresponding to an independent effort—should be pursued. Consider funding 10,000 such efforts. Even if each had only a 0.1% chance of producing an advance in prevention, treatment, or infection control, the probability of at least five such advances would be 97%. By contrast, if efforts crowd into only a few prospects, the odds of collective failure can become overwhelming.

      …Moreover, good ideas often come from unexpected corners. Useful solutions may be discovered outside biomedicine, including through engineering disciplines and information technology.

      …The National Institutes of Health (NIH) has taken some first steps with emergency procedures to supplement existing grants, but these efforts need to draw on additional labs and talent, and to accelerate review The marginal investment through the NIH, at $3 billion, appears modest in size, equating to the U.S. GDP loss in just 4 hours. Globally, researchers with relevant expertise are essential workers; they should have access to their labs and additional resources to engage in the COVID-19 battle.

      Government support for private sector R&D should be delivered at great speed.…More support could come through supplementing the R&D tax credit system, which already exists in the United States and other countries.

      In June 1940, the U.S. government created the National Defense Research Committee (NDRC), composed of eminent scientists and innovators in the public and private sectors, with the mandate to achieve innovations related to the war effort. This leadership structure drove the rapid development of numerous technologies, including weapons systems but also antimalarial drugs and penicillin manufacturing. A COVID-19 Defense Research Committee could similarly be empowered to coordinate and fund solutions to the pandemic. This group would track R&D efforts, create a public clearinghouse documenting the avenues pursued, fund innovations and the scaling of successful advances, and streamline bureaucracy. The new vaccine effort, Operation Warp Speed, moves in this direction. But we also need efforts beyond vaccines.

      COVID-19 presents the world with a brutal choice between economic and public health. Innovation investments are essential to avoiding that choice—yet tiny in cost compared to current economic losses and other emergency programs. Even the slight acceleration of advances will bring massive benefits.

Combination Prevention for COVID-19

[These excerpts are from an editorial by Myron S. Cohen and Lawrence Corey in the 8 May 2020 issue of Science.]

      The coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) pandemic has produced the fear and disorder inevitably provoked by emerging pathogens. As such, it should also inspire consideration of our experience with HIV over the past 40 years. As with HIV, the road to reducing infections with severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2, the cause of COVID-19), and attendant morbidity and mortality, requires medical and nonmedical strategies. The most important lesson learned from tackling HIV is to use a combination of prevention strategies.

      The first step to stopping the spread of SARS-CoV-2 has already been taken—behavioral changes. This reflects a rapid but imperfect understanding of the transmission of this virus. At the beginning of the AIDS epidemic, changes in sexual behavior, condom promotion, and government interventions (closing “hotspots” of HIV transmission such as bathhouses) made a difference. For SARS-CoV-2, masks and gloves, hand hygiene, and “shelter in place” mandates have already demonstrated benefits. More efficient behavioral intervention requires better understanding of the rules governing SARS-CoV-2 transmission. What are the risks from exposure to respiratory droplets, airborne virus, and surface contamination? What concentration of SARS-CoV-2 is required for transmission? Evidence suggests that SARS-CoV-2 transmission is greatest very early in infection prior to development of symptoms the same lessons learned from HIV. Given this rule of transmission, biomedical prevention strategies that provide reliable protection become essential. And as has proven true for HIV, directing prevention to people at the highest ri sk for SARS-CoV-2 infection or the worst disease outcomes will be an important consideration.

      Historically, antiviral therapies that reduce the severity of infection have preceded the development of biomedical approaches to prevent onward transmission (although interruption of viral replication also offers a prevention benefit). The first HIV treatment, azidothymidine (AZT), extended life by up to 18 months, providing hope that HIV infection could be transformed from a death sentence to a treatable disease. Reduced risk of mother-to-child transmission by AZT was the first biomedical prevention against HIV transmission. This success was the precursor to “pre-exposure prophylaxis.” AZT also launched research focused on “treatment as prevention” where antiviral agents reduce the HIV viral load to a point where infected people no longer transmit….

      …Preliminary results from a large randomized controlled trial show that the antiviral drug remdesivir substantially reduced the duration of hospitalization for COVID-19. To date, COVID-19 testing results have been used primarily for patient isolation, contact tracing, and quarantine. But effective therapies will lend great urgency for the universal availability of rapid and reliable testing for SARS-CoV-2 infection, so that treatment can be provided when indicated….

      Ultimately, a safe and effective vaccine is crucial for preventing COVID-19. Vaccine efforts started immediately after the discovery of SARS-CoV-2. Numerous vaccine candidates have been identified, and early-phase vaccine studies of several are underway. Proof of vaccine efficacy will require large trials with 6000 to 12,000 participants or more in each study….We cannot predict the time of availability degree of efficacy of a SARS-CoV-2 vaccine with precision, but most trials in development are designed to demonstrate 60 or 70% prevention efficacy, not 100% protection.

      HIV has taught us that multiple concomitant prevention strategies are essential. Behavioral changes to reduce SARS-CoV-2 spread must be accepted as the “new normal.” The COVID-19 toolbox must include safe and effective interventions whose values have been proven through robust scientific methods honed over decades. Ongoing research in each prevention domain must be sustained. We simply cannot depend on any single “"magic bullet.”

Carbon Dioxide Increase May Promote ‘Insect Apocalypse’

[These excerpts are from an article by Elizabeth Pennisi in the 1 May 2020 issue of Science.]

      Empty calories may be grasshoppers’ downfall. Many insect populations are declining, and a provocative new hypothesis suggests one problem is that rising levels of atmospheric carbon dioxide (CO2) are making plants less nutritious. That could spell trouble not just for insects, but for plant eaters of all sizes.

      Over the past 5 years, several studies have documented dwindling insect populations, prompting “insect apocalypse” headlines and calls for increased conservation efforts….Not everyone was convinced; insect populations can have booms and busts, and the trends might vary depending on the species. Just last week, for example, a meta-analysis of 166 insect populations found that although terrestrial species are indeed declining overall, aquatic insects seem to be doing fine….

      ….in 2014, plants including wheat, maize, rice, and other major crops grown under expected future CO2 levels accumulate less nitrogen, phosphorous, sodium, zinc, and other nutrients than they do under current CO2 levels. The thinking is that roots cannot keep up with the growth stimulated by the extra carbon and therefore don’t provide adequate supplies of other elements.

      Since then, most of the concern about nutrient dilution has focused on human health. Given the predicted rises in CO2, “diluted” plants could increase the number of people worldwide who are not getting enough nutrients in their diet—already 1 billion or so—by hundreds of millions….

      …The biomass of the grasses doubled over the past 30 years, but the plants’ nitrogen content declined about 42%, phosphorous by 58%, potassium by 54%, and sodium by 90%....

      …hopes to bolster the hypothesis by looking for a decline in nutrients in the grasshoppers’ own tissues. Larger plant eaters, such as elephants, pandas, and elk, may also be at risk….”If nutrient dilution is widespread, this has enormous implications for herbivorous organisms all over.”

Scientists Discover Upsides of Virtual Meetings

[These excerpts are from an article by Michael Price in the 1 May 2020 issue of Science.]

      …As the novel coronavirus outbreak shutters businesses and disrupts everyday life for billions around the globe, massive annual conferences and small society meetings alike have moved online. The new format poses numerous technical and organizational challenges, but it also offers opportunities—for reaching wider audiences, reducing the carbon footprint of meeting travel, and improving diversity and equity. For some meetings, the shift may be permanent….

      In many ways, virtual conferences offer a better experience….The original conference…would have drawn a few hundred attendees, but 30,000 people tuned in to the online version.

      …the virtual environment allowed moderators to better control the flow of discussion and questions from the audience….

      During the audience question period, the moderators didn't open up the virtual floor for anyone to speak. Instead, they asked audience members to type their questions, and “a little army of people reading chat windows” prioritized the most insightful inquiries….

      Scientists acknowledge that virtual conferences can’t entirely replicate the conference experience, which normally involves impromptu meetings in hallways and other social get-togethers….So virtual meetings might lose some of their appeal once stay-at-home requirements If loosen….

      For some societies, the COVID-19 crisis hasn’t so much started discussions about virtual conferences as accelerated them….

COVID-19 Shot Protects Monkeys

[These excerpts are from an article by Jon Cohen in the 1 May 2020 issue of Science.]

      For the first time, one of the many COVID-19 vaccines in development has protected an animal, rhesus macaques, from the new coronavirus. The vaccine, an old-fashioned formulation consisting of a chemically inactivated version of the virus, produced no obvious side effects in the monkeys; human trials began on 16 April. And encouraging monkey results for other vaccines are close behind.

      Researchers from Sinovac Biotech, a privately held Beijing-based company, gave two different doses of their COVID-19 vaccine to a total of eight rhesus macaques. Three weeks later, the group introduced SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, into the monkeys’ lungs. None developed a full-blown infection, and the monkeys given the highest dose of vaccine had the best response: Seven days after the animals received the virus, researchers could not detect it in their pharynx or lungs. Some of the lower dosed animals had a “viral blip” but also appeared to have controlled the infection, the Sinovac team reports in a paper published on 19 April on the preprint server bioRxiv.

      In contrast, four control animals developed high levels of viral RNA and severe pneumonia. The results “give us a lot of confidence” that the vaccine will work in humans….

      But Douglas Reed of the University of Pittsburgh, who is developing and testing COVID-19 vaccines in monkeys, says the number of animals was too small to yield statistically significant results. In a manuscript in preparation, his team also raises concerns about the way the Sinovac team grew the stock of novel coronavirus used to challenge the animals, which may have evolved differences from the strains that infect humans. What's more, the monkeys are not a perfect model for COVID-19 as they don’t develop some symptoms that kill many humans.

      The study did address worries that partial protection by a vaccine could be dangerous. Earlier animal experiments with vaccines against the related coronaviruses that cause severe acute respiratory syndrome and Middle East respiratory syndrome had found that low antibody levels could lead to aberrant immune responses, enhancing the infection and damaging their lungs. But the Sinovac team did not find any evidence of lung damage in vaccinated animals that produced relatively low levels of antibodies, which “lessens the concern about vaccine enhancement,” Reed says. “More work needs to be done, though.”

      To check the possibility that SARS-CoV-2 variants might thwart a vaccine, the Sinovac researchers mixed antibodies taken from monkeys, rats, and mice given their vaccine with strains of the virus isolated from patients in China, Italy, Switzerland, Spain, and the United Kingdom. The antibodies potently “neutralized” all the strains, which are “widely scattered on the phylagenic tree,” the researchers noted….

      An experimental vaccine made by the University of Oxford has also shown promise, although the data have not yet been published….”People just have to be patient.”

      Sinovac recently started phase I human trials of its vaccine in Jiangsu province….The company hopes to start phase II studies by mid-May that will assess the same end-points but will enroll more than 1000 people.

      If all goes well, Meng says, Sinovac will launch phase III efficacy trials that compare the vaccine with a placebo in thousands of people. Because of the low level of transmission now occurring in China, the company may run additional trials in harder hit countries….

The Mystery of the Pandemic’s ‘Happy Hypoxia’

[These excerpts are from an article by Jennifer Couzin-Frankel in the 1 May 2020 issue of Science.]

      Among the many surprises of the new coronavirus is one that seems to defy basic biology: infected patients with extraordinarily low blood-oxygen levels, or hypoxia, scrolling on their phones, chatting with doctors, and generally describing themselves as comfortable. Clinicians call them happy hypoxics….

      A normal blood-oxygen saturation is at least 95%. In most lung diseases, such as pneumonia, falling saturations accompany other changes, including stiff or fluid-filled lungs, or rising levels of carbon dioxide because the lungs can’t expel it efficiently. It’s these features that leave us feeling short of breath—not, counterintuitively, low oxygen saturation itself….

      In serious cases of COV1D-19, patients struggle to breathe with damaged lungs, but early in the disease, low saturation isn’t always coupled with obvious respiratory difficulties. Carbon dioxide levels can be normal, and breathing deeply is comfortable….But oxygen saturation, measured by a devite clipped to a finger and in many cases confirmed with blood tests, can be in the 70s, 60s, or 50s. Or even lower. Although mountain climbers can have similar readings, here the slide downward, some doctors believe, is potentially “ominous….”

      Hypotheses about what causes it are emerging. Many doctors now recognize clotting as a major feature of severe COVTD-19….Negri thinks subtle clotting might begin early in the lungs, perhaps thanks to an inflammatory reaction in their fine web of blood vessels, which could set off a cascade of proteins that prompts blood to clot and prevents it from getting properly oxygenated….

      …this hypoxia is likely stressing a body already straining to battle the virus. What to do about it is prompting debate. An emerging view is that doctors should avoid aggressive treatment they’ve been trained to offer in other settings….is wary of what he calls a “Pavlovian response” to COVED-19 hypoxia, in which doctors may swoop in to inflate lungs with ventilators or high-pressure oxygen even when patents seem comfortable….

      No one, however, has studied whether early detection of hypoxia might head off bad outcomes. Some physicians believe pulse oximeters are best used with a doctor’s guidance, perhaps through telemedicine. With many COVID-19 patients frightened to visit a hospital and arriving only when their symptoms have dangerously advanced, doctors also wonder whether home monitoring could hasten treatment—and whether, for some, that could make all the difference.

A COVID-19 Recovery for Climate

[These excerpts are from an editorial by Daniel Rosenbloom and Jochen Markard in the 1 May 2020 issue of Science.]

      In response to the coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-1.9) pandemic, countries are launching economic recovery programs to mitigate unemployment and stabilize core industries. Although it is understandably difficult to contemplate other hazards in the midst of this outbreak, it is important to remember that we face another major crisis that threatens human prosperity—climate change. Leveraging COVID -19 recovery programs to simultaneously advance the climate agenda presents a strategic opportunity to transition toward a more sustainable post-COVID-19 world.

      The climate and COVID-19 crises are global and unprecedented in their level of disruption, and require coordinated responses by policy-makers, businesses, and broader society. But they are also different. The pandemic directly threatens individuals and health systems, whereas climate change undermines broader natural and human systems. COVID-19 requires responses within days and weeks, whereas reactions to the climate crisis appear less acute. Nevertheless, science suggests that climate impacts will worsen the longer we wait. So, we are faced with overlapping crises that require immediate societal mobilization.

      Yet, as nations marshall massive resources to mitigate the economic and social impacts of COVID-19, they may be missing the chance to address climate change. Indeed, earlier experiences show that policy responses to major calamities, such as the 2008 global financial crisis and the Millennium drought in Australia, tend to focus on stabilizing incumbent industries, technologies, and practices rather than seizing the opportunity for sustainable transformation.

      At this early stage of the pandemic, we are witnessing how worldwide lockdowns have decreased air pollution and greenhouse gas emissions because of reduced transportation, electricity generation, and industrial production. This shows how intertwined modern economic life and fossil fuels have become, and suggests consideration of climate implications in economic recovery plans.

      However, there is variation in political responses to COVID-19. The United States has rolled back certain environmental regulations and appears poised to direct stimulus funds toward reinvigorating the fossil fuel industry The German Council of Economic Experts submitted a 110-page report on the coronavirus crisis without mentioning climate change or sustainability. By contrast, 17 European climate and environment ministers called on the European Commission to make the Green Deal central to the recovery following the pandemic.

      Where, then, should we begin to focus in building back jobs and the economy while also transitioning toward a more sustainable future? One strategy would be to use recovery funds to stimulate innovation for the low-carbon energy transition….An example would be supporting the diffusion of electric delivery vehicles, given the rise in e-commerce. But transitioning entire sectors is a long-term endeavor that requires continuous adaptation and attention to context. There may also be opportunities to build on social changes catalyzed by COVID-19 such as remote working, video conferencing, e-commerce, and reduced air travel. Science must explore how such changes can be made durable and contribute to low-carbon pathways.

      A complementary strategy is to harness disruption to accelerate the decline of carbon-intensive industries, technologies, and practices. COVED-19 has temporarily destabilized businesses, economic activity; and consumption. This can be leveraged to accelerate the phase-out of coal-fired power, which is already part of the climate action plans of several countries….Destabilization has also affected the oil and gas industry, with the price of U.S. oil futures turning negative for the first time in history and global demand for oil estimated to reach a 25-year low. These circumstances can be harnessed to transition away from fossil fuels toward clean alternatives. To drive this change, it is important not to bail out fossil fuel companies and industries….

      COVID-19 recovery programs can lay the foundation for a more sustainable and prosperous future. Nations should not squander this opportunity.

COVID-19 Amidst Ebola’s Retreat

[These excerpts are from an editorial by John Ditekemena in the 1 May 2020 issue of Science.]

      In April, the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) was on the verge of good news—announcing an end to its tenth (and the world’s second largest) Ebola outbreak. Unfortunately, since 10 April, new Ebola cases have been reported in Beni, the epicenter of the Ebola outbreak. Although the DRC has long struggled with political unrest, armed conflict, poverty, and infectious diseases, it must remain committed to ending the Ebola crisis while also applying the lessons learned in tackling this old viral enemy to combat a new one—severe acute respiratory syndrome-coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2), the cause of coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19).

      Reported cases of COVID-19 in the DRC so far (442 cases, 28 deaths) are probably underestimations given the lack of testing in a country whose weak health system serves 89 million people. The perception of COVID-19’s impact among the DRC Congolese is likely to be dwarfed by their experience with the more lethal Ebola virus (2279 deaths among 3461 infected since August 2018). As less than 5% of the DRC's 59,000-km network of roads are usable, the expansion of COVID-19 to rural provinces may be slow. But once COVID-19 gains a strong foothold in the DRC, its elimination could take much longer.

      A major lesson learned from the DRC’s response to Ebola is that people’s distrust of authorities and outsiders can delay responses to disease. Illegal poaching and lumber trade, mining, and war-related displacement of people to Congo’s rain forests likely damaged the forest in ways that increased contact between people and animal reservoirs of Ebola virus. The Congolese became increasingly wary of authorities and others who were stripping resources and stoking corruption, violence, and poverty. Health workers had to establish local trust through clear communication and transparency about the disease and treatments. Eventually, the Congolese were open to a vaccination campaign and other measures that brought the current outbreak under control.

      But there is an air of optimism in and about the DRC. The near successful campaign against Ebola, the first peaceful democratic transition of power in 2019, economic growth over the past 2 years, and anticorruption reforms aimed at individuals and industrieS have been positive changes for the nation. The new government must launch a strong response to COVID-19 without compromising the last leg of the Ebola response. Indeed, the system developed for managing Ebola is now being absorbed by the COVID-19 task force….

      The DRC government must also address pandemic-induced economic hardships—that is, the loss of daily wages for the 73% of the population who survive on less than $1.90 a day, as businesses, farming, and other livelihoods begin to close. Private sector food banks have emerged, but they should be sustained by government engagement with the private sector and the United Nations World Food Programme….

      Difficult days are ahead for the DRC in its fight against Ebola and COVID-19, in addition to measles, malaria, and cholera. This is a time for national unity and optimism and partnerships with the global community to ensure that disease threats are faced head-on.

Global Environmental Issues and the Circular Bioeconomy

[These excerpts are from an article by Robert Smith and Mark Rudnicki in the April/May 2020 issue of The Science Teacher.]

      Since the first World Environment Day in 1974, society has struggled with increasing the standard of living at the expense of our environment. All civilizations have advanced by capitalizing on their natural resources, either physical or human. In most instances this has been a win/lose scenario, with consumers improving their lifestyles without regard to the cost to Mother Nature.

      In recent years, an alternative economic scenario has risen to the forefront: Societies increase their prosperity while simultaneously reducing their impact on the environment. This new economy is based on the idea of using and reusing natural, renewable materials to meet society's material and energy needs (i.e., clothing, packaging, transportation fuels, energy, and housing). Things we enjoy in a modern society doesn’t always have to be unsustainable or contribute to global warming and/or biodiversity loss.

      This concept goes by a variety of names—bioeconomy, circular economy, renewable economy, green economy, sharing economy—which has complicated its path forward by creating misunderstandings or limited understanding by the consumer. Strictly speaking, each of these terms hold different meanings and represent different perspectives; however, they also have common underpinnings. All the terms offer perspectives on the common idea of how to move away from the current linear, short-term profit focused economy to one that is low carbon, efficient, prosperous and circular. While the definitions of these terms are still evolving, circular bioeconomy may be emerging as the umbrella term encompassing two key sustainability concepts — the shift to renewable resources and keeping all materials and products in use longer.

      With proper planning in the design, manufacture, use, and reuse of products, we can dramatically reduce environmental impact, energy consumption, and demand for raw materials. A principle shared by these terms is that all products have additional “lives” after their initial use. Used material should not be discarded in landfills, but instead developed into new products or used for other purposes; the final option of burning for energy should occur only after all product “lives” have been exhausted. The principle of transitioning away from fossil fuels and other carbon-intensive, nonrenewable resources and toward bio-based alternatives, is imperative for sustainability and applies across all the different emerging sustainable economy concepts….

      Preparing high school students in traditional fields of knowledge with a circular bioeconomy perspective will be a great step forward. However, to address the needs of the circular bioeconomy, multidisciplinary education and research must move forward to raise awareness on how peoples’ decisions impact all aspects of consumption. Part of the impetus to move forward will be supplied by the students' expectations and demands. Students educated in the principles of the circular economy are expected to demand dedicated programs and applications of traditional disciplines to the circular economy.

      Our educational systems (high school and university) must also adopt circular thinking and move away from traditional silo-based training where education is linear. We need to move toward more cross-pollination of classes in which students can see the interrelationships between the basic disciplines of math, chemistry, biology, business, and environmental science. To tackle the issues of tomorrow, we cannot continue to use the methods of the past. Only this multidisciplinary approach to education will prepare students to deal with the challenges of the future and be able to work in the circular bioeconomy.

Are We Recognizing the Sheer Power of Mother Nature?

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

      COVID-19. Viruses. Pandemic. Mother Nature. As we deal with this horrific pandemic, we must be sure our students understand the power of nature. There is still speculation as to the origin of this virus (as of this printing). Bats have been the most cited organism, with the armadillo-like pangolins as the intermediary host, yet there have been no known bat-human interactions reported. Pangolins are endangered mammals and are supposedly one of the most trafficked animals in the world. Since they are frequently sold in Asian markets, it is thought humans were infected in this manner.

      The second hypothesis is the SARS-CoV2 could have evolved to invade its human host via its eloquent design for cleaving the human cell, thus making it efficient for spreading the disease through human to human contact. At this time, we don’t have enough evidence to know exactly which hypothesis is supported the most by data. Natural selection is currently the best explanation for the structure of the corona virus, which is parr of a family of corona viruses with its protein-spiked backbone. Some of our students have heard the myth behind it being genetically engineered in a lab but due to its structure and genetic genome, there is no evidence this occurred….

      New information is surfacing that suggests man’s interaction with nature in the form of habitat destruction may be releasing previously unknown viruses that were safely tucked away in the confines of their natural environment. Is there a chance that the more habitats we destroy, the more pandemics we will unleash? Is this yet another ramification of climate change?...Has Mother Nature effectively sent us to our rooms for time-out with the outbreak of COVID-19 due to our role with changing landscape of the Earth through logging, destruction of the rainforest, and other major mechanisms of habitat alterations?...

      The power of Mother Nature cannot be overlooked, understated, or ignored. As we know from the film Jurassic Park, nature always finds a way….

      Environmental studies seem to take a backseat in many science classrooms at a time when students must be well-versed in the social issues surrounding nature and the impact of humans on the environment….

      …In a time where this is the most important, all-encompassing issue we, as humans, are facing, our students must be more than well-versed on the issue, the ramifications, and methods for combatting climate change. As it is, teaching climate change is often a “filler” in classes instead of an overarching theme that all biological concepts could surround and connect….

      The advent of this current pandemic has shown the absolute necessity for our students to have the media literacy skills to determine reliable sources, the credentials of authors making claims, and the validity of information they receive. On social media, fake claims run rampant and the general public, including our students, often do not dive deep into stories to determine their credibility.

      Our students must have these skills if they are to take action, much like Greta Thunberg did during her emotional, powerful speech at the United Nations Climate Action Summit in 2019. Are our administrators and school boards afraid of our students becoming activists and taking action in their communities to preserve habitats, to participate in citizen science action projects, and to make other changes whether big or small? If so, it is our role to be transformative science teachers to empower our students to be leaders in their communities. We must be transformative science teachers and push back on the mandated standardized testing that rob us of essential time to enact change in our curricula. It is our time to be activists ourselves when it comes to these issues.

      We must help our students gain the skills to interpret scientific papers, providing them with the foundation to take action….Examining graphs and data charts enables our students to see mathematics in action….

      We, as adults, are responsible for the damage that has been done to Mother Nature. We must educate our youth so they will do a far better job of nurturing the environment around them than we have done.

A Rampage through the Body

[These excerpts are from an article by Meredith Wadman, Jennifer Couzin-Frankel, Jocelyn Kaiser and Catherine Matacic in the 24 April 2020 issue of Science.]

      …As the number of confirmed cases of COVID-19 approaches 2.5 million globally and deaths surpass 165,000, clinicians and pathologists are struggling to understand the damage wrought by the coronavirus as it tears through the body. They are realizing that although the lungs are ground zero, the virus’ reach can extend to many organs including the heart and blood vessels, kidneys, gut, and brain….

      Understanding the rampage could help doctors on the front lines treat the roughly 5% of infected people who become desperately and sometimes mysteriously ill. Does a dangerous, newly observed tendency to blood clotting transform some mild cases into Iife-threatening emergencies? Is an overzealous immune response behind the worst cases, suggesting treatment with immune-suppressing drugs could help? And what explains the startlingly low blood oxygen that some physicians are reporting in patients who nonetheless are not gasping for breath?...

      …Without larger, controlled studies that are only now being launched, scientists must pull information from small studies and case reports, often published at warp speed and not yet peer reviewed….

      When an infected person expels virus-laden droplets and someone else inhales them, the novel coronavirus, called SARS-CoV-2, enters the nose and throat. It finds a welcome home in the lining of the nose…because cells there are rich in a cell-surface receptor called angiotensin-converting enzyme 2 (ACE2). Throughout the body, the presence of ACE2, which normally helps regulate blood pressure, marks tissues potentially vulnerable to infection, because the virus requires that receptor to enter a cell. Once inside, the virus hijacks the cell’s machinery, making myriad copies of itself and invading new cells.

      As the virus multiplies, an infected person may shed copious amounts of it, especially during the first week or so. Symptoms may be absent at this point. Or the virus’ new victim may develop a fever, dry cough, sore throat, loss of smell and taste, or head and body aches.

      If the immune system doesn’t beat back SARS-CoV-2 during this initial phase, the virus then marches down the windpipe to attack the lungs, where it can turn deadly. The thinner, distant branches of the lung’s respiratory tree end in tiny air sacs called alveoli, each lined by a single layer of cells that are also rich in ACE2 receptors.

      Normally, oxygen crosses the alveoli into the capillaries, tiny blood vessels that lie beside the air sacs; the oxygen is then carried to the rest of the body. But as the immune system wars with the invader, the battle itself disrupts healthy oxygen transfer. Front-line white blood cells release inflammatory molecules called chemokines, which in turn summon more immune cells that target and kill virus-infected cells, leaving a stew of fluid and dead cells—pus—behind….This is the underlying pathology of pneumonia, with its corresponding symptoms: coughing; fever; and rapid, shallow respiration. Some COVID-19 patients recover, sometimes with no more support than oxygen breathed in through nasal prongs.

      But others deteriorate, often suddenly, developing a condition called acute respiratory distress syndrome. Oxygen levels in their blood plummet, and they struggle ever harder to breathe. On x-rays and computed tomography scans, their lungs are riddled with white opacities where black space—air--should be. Commonly, these patients end up on ventilators. Many die, and survivors may face long-term complications….Autopsies show their alveoli became stuffed with fluid, white blood cells, mucus, and the detritus of destroyed lung cells.

      Some clinicians suspect the driving force in many gravely ill patients’ downhill trajectories is a disastrous overreaction of the immune system known as a “cytokine storm,” which other viral infections are known to trigger. Cytokines are chemical signaling molecules that guide a healthy immune response; but in a cytoldne storm, levels of certain cytokines soar far beyond what's needed, and immune cells start to attack healthy tissues. Blood vessels leak, blood pressure drops, clots form, and catastrophic organ failure can ensue.

      Some studies have shown elevated levels of these inflammation-inducing cytokines in the blood of hospitalized COVID-19 patients….

      How the virus attacks the heart and blood vessels is a mystery, but dozens of preprints and papers attest that such damage is common….

      The disruption seems to extend to the blood itself….Blood clots can break apart and land in the lungs, blocking vital arteries—a condition known as pulmonary embolism, which has reportedly killed COVID-19 patients. Clots from arteries can also lodge in the brain, causing stroke….

      Infection may also lead to blood vessel constriction. Reports are emerging of ischemia in the fingers and toes—a reduction in blood flow that can lead to swollen, painful digits and tissue death….

      If COVID-19 targets blood vessels, that could also help explain why patients with pre-existing damage to those vessels, for example from diabetes and high blood pressure, face higher risk of serious disease….

      Scientists are struggling to understand exactly what causes the cardiovascular damage. The virus may directly attack the lining of the heart and blood vessels, which, like the nose and alveoli, are rich in ACE2 receptors. By altering the delicate balance of hormones that help regulate blood pressure, the virus might constrict blood vessels going to the lungs. Another possibility is that lack of oxygen, due to the chaos in the lungs, damages blood vessels. Or a cytokine storm could ravage the heart as it does other organs….

      One study identified viral particles in electron micrographs of kidneys from autopsies, suggesting a direct viral attack. But kidney injury may also be collateral damage. Ventilators boost the risk of kidney damage, as do antiviral compounds including remdesivia which is being deployed experimentally in COVID-19 patients. Cytokine storms can also dramatically reduce blood flow to the kidney, causing often-fatal damage. And pre-existing diseases like diabetes can increase the chances of kidney injury….

      …adds to a growing body of evidence suggesting the new coronavirus, like its cousin SARS, can infect the lining of the lower digestive tract, where ACE2 receptors are abundant….

      The presence of virus in the GI tract raises the unsettling possibility that it could be passed on through feces. But it's not yet clear whether stool contains intact, infectious Lvirus, or only RNA and proteins….

      The intestines are not the end of the disease’s march through the body. For example, up to one-third of hospitalized patients develop conjunctivitis—pink, watery eyes—although it's not clear that the virus directly invades the eye.

      Other reports suggest liver damage….They say other events in a failing body, like drugs or an immune system in overdrive, are more likely causes of the liver damage.

      This map of the devastation that COVID-19 can inflict on the body is still just a sketch. It will take years of painstaking research to sharpen the picture of its reach, and the cascade of effects in the body’s complex and interconnected systems that it might set in motion. As science races ahead, from probing tissues under microscopes to testing drugs on patients, the hope is for treatments more wily than the virus that has stopped the world in its tracks.

A History of the Metaphorical Brain

[These excerpts are from a book review by Alex Gomex-Marin in the 24 April 2020 issue of Science.]

      Physidsts, biologists, psychologists, philosophers, mathematicians, and computer scientists work (sometimes together) to unravel the mysteries of how the brain, and by extension the mind, operates. This makes neuroscience a peculiar community—a wild confluence of different approaches, backgrounds, and specific interests. The Idea of the Brain by Matthew Cobb is a history of this struggle. Spanning approximately Eve centuries, the book reveals that there are many ways to think about what brains are, what they do, and their relation to the mind….

      For centuries, in many traditions, the heart was considered the seat of thought and feeling. In the 17th century, things slowly started to change. The French philosopher Rene Descartes suggested that hydraulic automata in the brain could move “animal spirits” through the nerves, producing behavior. The Danish anatomist Nicolaus Steno proposed that the brain is a machine: To figure out how it works, we must take it apart. Gottfried Leibniz, a German polymath, protested. If one could enter the brain as one enters a mill, he argued, there would be only mechanical parts, but one would not be able to observe thoughts.

      The Italian scientists Luigi Galvani and Alessandro Volta experimented with the role of electricity in animal flesh in the mid 18th century. In the 19th century, the German physicist Hermann von Helmholtz coined the term “action potential” to describe the electrical impulse transmitted down the nerves, and the brain analogy was updated: Nerves were now akin to wires, and the nervous system was conceived of as a telegraph. The Spanish anatomist Santiago Ramon y Cajal preferred a natural metaphor: “The cerebral cortex,” he wrote, “is like a garden full of an infinite number of trees.”

      In the 20th century, American researchers Walter Pitts and Warren McCulloch proposed the first mathematical model of a neural network. Biology and technology hybridized, and the brain became a computer….

      In the second part of the book, Cobb reveals how much progress (however lacking in major conceptual innovations) we have made in the past 70 years, detailing the elusive quest to find the physical manifestation of memory, the many advances in brain-machine interfaces and neuromodulators, the improvement in mapping neural circuits, the invention of functional magnetic resonance imaging, and the progress made on understanding the neural correlates of consciousness. Despite our endless refinement of tools and our ability to collect massive amounts of data, many fundamental questions remain unanswered….

      The path toward understanding the brain is long, winding, and littered with dead ends. In the words of the Argentinian writer Jorge Luis Borges, “The solution to the mystery is always inferior to the mystery itself” As The Idea of the Brain demonstrates, the mysteries of the mind may not just be stranger than we suppose; they may be stranger than we can suppose.

First Antibody Surveys Draw Fire for Quality, Bias

[These excerpts are from an article by Gretchen Vogel in the 24 April issue of Science.]

      Surveying large swaths of the public for antibodies to the new coronavirus promises to show how widespread undiagnosed infections are, how deadly the virus really is, and whether enough of the population has become immune for social distancing measures to be eased. But the first batch of results has generated more controversy than clarity.

      The survey results, from Germany, the Netherlands, and several locations in the United States, find that anywhere from 2% to 30% of certain populations have already been infected with the virus. The numbers imply that confirmed COM-19 cases are an even smaller fraction of the true number of people infected than many had estimated and that the vast majority of infections are mild. But many scientists question the accuracy of the antibody tests and complain that several of the research groups announced their findings in the press rather than in preprints or published papers, where their data could be scrutinized. Critics are also wary because some of the researchers are on record advocating for an early end to lockdowns and other control measures, and claim the new prevalence figures support that rail.

      Some observers warn the coronavirus’ march through thi population has only just begun, and that even if the antibody results can be believed, they don’t justify easing controls….

      The many different academic and commercial tests for coronavirus antibodies are still being refined and validated. They can show whether someone’s immune system has encountered the virus. But because no one knows what level of antibodies, if any, confers protection against the new virus, the tests can’t tell whether a person is immune to a future infection. And no one knows how long such immunity might last.

      A German antibody surveywas the first out of the gate several weeks ago. At a press conference on 9 April, -virologist Hendrik Streeck from the University of Bonn announced preliminary results from a town of about 12,500 in Heinsberg, a region in Germany that had been hit hard by COVED -19. He told reporters his team had found. antibodies to the virus in 14% of the 500 people -tested….They recommended that politicians start to lift some of the regions' restrictions.

      Streeck had argued even before the study that the virus is less serious than feared and that the effects of long shutdowns may be just as bad if not worse than the damage the virus could do. However, Christian Drosten, a virologist at Charite University Hospital in Berlin, told reporters later that day that no meaningful conclusions could be drawn from the antibody study based or the limited information Streeck presented Drosten cited uncertainty about what leve of antibodies provides protection and note that the study sampled entire households. That can lead to overestimating infections because people living together often infer each other….

      Even if the antibody surveys show a COVID-19 death rate well below 1%...control measures will be needed for a long time to avoid overwhelmed hospitals….

Heat-protected Plants Offer Cool Surprise—Greater Yields

[These excerpts are from an article by Erik Stokstad in the 24 April 2020 issue of Science.]

      As plants convert sunlight into sugar, their cells are playing with fire. Photosynthesis generates chemical byproducts that can damage the light-converting machinery itself—and the hotter the weather, the more likely the process is to run amok as some chemical reactions accelerate and others slow. Now, a team of geneticists has engineered plants so they can better repair heat damage, an advance that could help preserve crop yields as global warming makes heat waves more common. And in a surprise, the change made plants more productive at normal temperatures.

      …The genetic modification worked in three kinds of plants, a mustard that is the most common plant model, tobacco, and rice, suggesting any crop plant could be helped….

      When plants are exposed to light, a complex of proteins called photosystem II (PSII) energizes electrons that then help power photosynthesis. But heat or intense light can lead to damage in a key subunit, known as D1, halting PSII’s work until the plant makes and inserts a new one into the complex. Plants that make extra D1 should help speed those repairs. Chloroplasts, the organelles that host photosynthesis, have their own DNA, including a gene for DI, and most biologists assumed the protein had to be made there. But the chloroplast genome is much harder to tweak than genes in a plant cell’s nucleus….

      The shock was what happened at normal temperatures. Engineered plants of all three species had more photosynthesis —tobacco’s rate increased by 48%— and grew more than control plants. In the field, the transgenic rice yielded up to 20% more grain….

Lost in Transition

[These excerpts are from an editorial by Kathleen Newland in the 24 April 2020 issue of Science.]

      Coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) has been the greatest disruption to the movement of people since. World War IL Many who had plans—and permission—to move permanently from one country to another have seen their transition put on hold. Worldwide, the flows of tourists, business and professional travelers, and students are all affected. But those most vulnerable to the virus and virns-related policies are low-paid migrant workers who have lost their jobs, and refugees or displaced people. Their lives were precarious even before the pandemic spread.

      Migrant workers suffer as they struggle to return home with little or no money, often in the face of travel restrictions and suspension of transport links. In India, after Prime Minister Modi imposed a country-wide lockdown on 24 Maxch, hundreds of thousands of internal migrants crowded the roads on foot, creating the very conditions that the lockdown was meant to prevent Many foreigners are being summarily expelled, such as in India and Saudi Arabia. Others are stranded in foreign countries. Losing jobs creates a cascade of other losses for migrant workers—of legal status and access to health care and other public services. Only a few places, including Portugal and New York state, have opened their health care syst -ins to migrants regardless of legal status….These migrants’ families back home will suffer too, from the loss of remittances that fund health care, housing, education, and better nutrition. The departure of temporary migrant workers also creates risks for the native population. Agricultural producers in Europe, for example, are predicting crippling labor shortages this spring and summer.

      Refugee camps are densely packed—the largest one in the world, in the Cox’s Bazar District of Bangladesh, has three times the population density of New York City, without a single high-rise building. Social distancing is impossible in such a setting. Clean water for handwashing is scarce. Medical resources are thin, although humanitarian agencies are ramping up hand-washing stations, protective gear, isolation units, and ambulance services. Conditions in Eiiropean “reception centers” for refugees and asylum seekers, like that near Motia village on the Greek island of Lesvos, are worse than in many refugee camps in poor countries. Moria holds about 22,000 people in a site built for 3000. There are 1300 residents per water tap. So far, the only refugee camps known to have confirmed cases of COVID-1.9 (Ritsona and Malakasa) are in Greece.

      Perhaps the most critical resource is information….In every country, rich or poor, the provision of accurate and timely information is among the most urgent responsibilities of governments.

      Unlike most natural disasters, COVID-19 has so far affected rich and upper-middle-income countries (including China, Iran, Turkey, Brazil, and South Africa) more than poorer ones. But that will quickly change in countries whose health care systems are ill-equipped to cope. Displaced people and poor migrants are often the last in line for health services. The virus cannot be suppressed if vulnerable migrants and refugees are not integrated into COVID-19 responses….

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