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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).
Why Were Salmon Dying? The Answer Washed Off the Road

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Low-Income Students Lose Ground

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

How Talented Low-income Kids Are Left Behind

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Evidence Base for Advanced Learning Programs

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rethinking How We Identify "Gifted" Students

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Purposes and Plans for Giften Education in Kappan

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

World’s Oldest Hunting Scene Revealed

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

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

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

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

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

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

Global Warming Forecasts Sharpen

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Divisive Disease

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Shots of Hope

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Glimmer of Hope for Global Emissions

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Water-Dwelling Dino, Lost and Found

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Black in Academia

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Social Symptoms of COVID-19

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Empathetic Reader

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

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

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

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

Spare a Thought for the Teeming Ecosystem beneath Your Feet

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

An Opportunity to Improve Innovation

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Chemistry of Convenience

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Elemental Facts

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

History Matters in Science

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

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

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

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

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

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

Green Hydrogen for the Coronavirus? Think Again.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sun-Powered Chemistry

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Mental Toll of COVID-19

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

How to Do Conservation the Right Way

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Racism in Medical Tests

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Let’s Rethink the Message We Send to Potential Educators

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Structural Racism and the Urban Geography of Education

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rethinking What We Mean by Intelligence

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Good Schools for a Troubled Democracy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rethinking Schools, Rethinking Learning

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Envisioning Good Schools in Kappan

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bringing Down Mercury

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lessons from an Old Enemy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Model Approach to Public Health

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

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

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

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

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

Unnatural Disasters

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Slippery Viral Defense

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Talk to the Hand

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

      There was great excitement in May 1964 when primate researcher John Russell Napier, along with paleoanthropologists Phillip Tobias and Louis Leakey, reported that over the course of many years of working in the Olduvai Gorge in Tanzania, they had found remains, including many hand bones, of the first humans to make tools. “The hand bones resemble those of Homo sapiens sapiens,” they wrote; from the individual fragments, they had reconstructed a hand that had especially powerful joints at the base of the fingers and a prominent thumb. At the time, news of a humanlike hand that was 1.8 million years old caused a firestorm of interest.

      The hand fragments were one of the main reasons the researchers attributed the bone finds to an early human, standing no more than 4 feet tall, that they called Homo habilis (Handy Man). That is contro-versial to this day, because a row of teeth found at the same time are a match for an earlyhorninin of the genus Australopithecus. What is not in dispute is the special nature of the hand bones, which show clear evidence of a hand that was already strikingly human in appearance, with a relatively long, quite flexible thumb….

      Despite all the debate around Homo habilis, its relatively sophisticated hand shape was a good fit with the pebble tools of a similar age found in the Olduvai Gorge. Whether Homo habilis was a handy early human or a handy early hominin, there was no doubt that nearly 2 million years ago, the inhabitants of Olduvai had taken a harnmerstone in one hand and struck it against another stone to manufacture a stone tool with a sharp cutting edge. The brains of these gorge dwellers were approximately half the size of ours and the functional potential of their hands was not yet developed, but their hands were definitely no longer the hands of an ape.

      Flexible hands and simple stone blades allowed the gorge dwellers to occupy a new ecological niche in the savannah-like landscape they called home: that of carrion eater. There were numerous large mammals grazing on the extensive grasslands, and they often fell victim to big cats. After the carnivores helped themselves, there was usually nutritious meat left over that could be quickly cut and scraped from the bones with sharp-edged stone tools — preferably before the hyenas or vultures arrived….

      When these primitive tools were wielded by modern humans, it was clearly a quick and easy job to use them to cut meat. Adding meat to the menu was a crucial step on the way to becoming human — up until then early hominins had likely mostly eaten plants. The increased protein intake must have led to better health overall and, in the long term, helped increase the size of the brain. And in the process, our hands were not only used for eating, crafting, throwing or fighting, but also for communication….

      There is some indication that the evolution of the hand had a significant influence on the development of speech. No direct evidence, of course, but you can deduce this indirectly by observing our closest relatives, the great apes, or by watching small children as they acquire language, using hand gestures to indicate what they want long before they say their first words.

      For humans, gestures are an important component of expression. They both precede and accompany speech. They emphasize what is said and convey emotion. They can signal dismissal or acceptance. They can threaten, or they can express, elicit and offer sympathy. In the sign language used by those who cannot hear, gestures almost completely replace words. Many scientists assume that gestures and sounds developed together over many millions of years to create increasingly complex forms of communication, mutually supporting and supplementing each other.

      Chimpanzees, bonobos, gorillas and orangutans are also capable of communicating with gestures — although their repertoire is extremely limited….

      …In numerous experiments in which they compared human behavior with the behavior of apes, they observed that human gestures went far beyond the simple orders given by apes. Apes indicate things that are useful to them at that moment. Human gestures often have a social context. They indicate things that might be of use to others or express emotions and attitudes that are relevant to the community.

      It seems it all started with gestures centered around self-interest and then, sometime in the story of becoming human — it is difficult to say exactly when — gestures were added to share experiences, intentions, interests and rules….

Why a COVID-19 Vaccine is Key for Returning to Normalcy

[These excerpts are from an article by Allison Whitten in the December 2020 issue of Discover.]

      For many, the COVID-19 pandemic has reduced life to a sliver of what it was — with a restless feeling that nothing can be done to reclaim it. But there is one last crucial step for us to take before we can return to our pre-coronavirus lives: Get a COVID-19 vaccine when it's available….

      The goal is reaching herd immunity community protection from a virus that’s accrued once a sufficient percentage of the population is immune. In the U.S., early data suggested we will likely need at least 70 percent of the population, or at least 229 million Americans, to be immune before it is safe to resume normal life….Vaccinations are the safest way to get there with the fewest number of infections. And their success requires an all-hands-on-deck approach.

      …reaching herd immunity is not all about the threshold — vaccines start to offer protection before that point. They directlyprotect individuals from getting the disease…and they indirectly protect communities, since those who are vaccinated decrease the spread.

      Think of vaccine effectiveness in a community playing out in a dry forest, where each individual is a tree….When you protect each person through vaccination, it’s as if you’re removing trees and decreasing the chances that an infection will spread like wildfire throughout Lthe forest….

      When the first vaccine is eventually approved, who can get it and where won’t be entirely your choice. It’s likely that the first vaccine doses will be given to frontline health care workers and the most vulnerable among us, including people over 65 and those with underlying medical conditions. After that, the vaccine will likely be more widely available at pharmacies, doctor’s offices and workplaces.

      But even when the plans for vaccine distribution are set and ready to go, enough people have to be willing to get it. A Gallup poll released in August revealed that 35 percent of Americans would not get a COVID-19 vaccine….

      With over 30 vaccines in clinical trials around the world, the race is on to see which will be first. But defeating the coronavirus will depend, in part, on how many people show up at that finish line to receive a vaccination.

Is the Universe Infinte?

[These excerpts are from an article by Eric Betz in the December 2020 issue of Discover.]

      When Galileo Galilei pointed his first telescope to the heavens in 1610, he discovered “congeries of innumerable stars” hidden in the band of light called the Milky Way. Our cosmos grew exponentially that day. Roughly three centuries later, the cosmic bounds exploded once again when astronomers built telescopes big enough to show the Milky Way is just one of many “island universes.” Soon they learned the universe was expanding, too, with galaxies retreating from each other at ever-accelerating speeds.

      Since then, ever-larger telescopes have shown the observable universe spans an incomprehensible 92 billion light-years across and contains perhaps 2 trillion galaxies. And yet, astronomers are still left wondering how much more universe is out there, beyond what they observe….

      Building bigger telescopes won’t help extend the cosmos anymore….At the edge, we see the leftover glow from the Big Bang — the so-called cosmic microwave background radiation (CMB). But this isn’t some magical edge of the universe. Our cosmos keeps going. We just may never know how far.

      In recent decades, cosmologists have tried to solve this mystery by first determining the universe’s shape; like the ancient Greek mathematician Eratosthenes calculating Earth’s size using simple trigonometry. In theory; our universe can have one of three possible shapes, each one dependent on the curvature of space itself: saddle shaped (negative, curvature), spherical (positive curvature) or flat (no curvature).

      Few have championed a saddle-shaped universe, but a spherical cosmos makes sense to us earthlings. Earth is round, as are the sun and planets. A spherical universe would let you sail into the cosmos in any direction and end up back-where you started, like Ferdinand Magellan’s crew circumnavigating the globe. Einstein called this model a “finite yet unbounded universe.”

      But starting in the late 1980s, a series of orbiting observatories built to study the CMB made increasingly precise measurements showing that space has no curvature at all. Its flat to the limits of what astronomers can measure — if it is a sphere, it’s a sphere so huge that even our entire observable universe doesn’t register any curvature.

      …You’d never come to an edge of this flat universe; you'd only find more and more galaxies.

      That’s all well and good with most astronomers. A flat universe agrees with both observation and theory; so the idea now sits at the heart of modern cosmology.

      The problem is that, unlike a spherical universe, a flat one can be infinite — or not. And there's no real way to tell the difference….

Learning to Think Long-term

[These excerpts are from an article by Jacob Darwin Hamblin in the 27 November 2020 issue of Science.]

      Before we were worried about fossil fuels and plastic pollution, nuclear waste stretched our minds to think about our place in geological time. When asked about the most challenging aspect of her work, one expert charged with finding a final resting place for this waste observed, “We have to build canisters that are supposed to last hundreds of thousands of years. Nothing has lasted so long, nothing.”

      In Deep Time Reckoning, cultural anthropologist Vincent Talent would have us look to such experts for inspiration. Rather than allowing ourselves to be overwhelmed by the magnitude of humanity’s effects on the planet, he proposes that we see nuclear waste storage as he does, as a case study for how to extend our intellects and acquife habits associated with extremely long-term thinking….

      Because of the myriad challenges of the Anthropocene, Ialenti tells us, deep time reckoning is no longer the province solely of geologists, evolutionary biologists, or astrophysicists. It is now our collective re-sponsibility, and we need the tools to do it.

      …Inspired by scientists’ models of future biospheres, he introduces readers to “deep time heuristics,” which might include doing research on climatological forecasts and comparing them to predictable patterns in everyday routines.

      One of Ialenti’s informants draws an analogy to Peru’s Nazca, lines, whose creators could only imagine the impressive aerial view they were crafting. Talent. wants us to become similarly adept at zooming in and out of different scales of time….He also envisions the establishment of a global nonprofit think tank to work toward scientifically informed portrayals of future worlds.

      Those familiar with the politics of the nuclear industry may find it difficult to accept nuclear experts as exemplars of future thinking. Many have argued that the safety case studies exist to justify Finland’s continued public investment in nuclear energy, and at least one of the scientists Talenti interviewed confided that the archeological analog studies they cited were cherry-picked to suit the nuclear industry’s predetermined conclusions. There are limits, after all, to what a bronze cannon submerged at sea for centuries can tell us about copper nuclear waste canisters buried in granite for millennia. Ialenti argues, however, that his book should not be read as an endorsement of the nuclear experts’ conclusions, even if it does celebrate their process.

      He worries about what he calls the “deflation of expertise,” as manifested in the rising antiscience attitudes that undermine the application of expertise to major policy issues. In its place, he wants us to be guardedly enthusiastic about scientific work, which is superior in value to “freewheeling podcast rants, talking head television pundits, and impulsive Twitter posts.” Fair enough.

      While he does not idealize Finland, Ialenti seems to envy the degree of public trust in technocratic expertise there. We need tools for restoring such trust, he contends, because our survival in the Anthropocene depends on it.

Grade: Incomplete

[These excerpts are from an article by Gretchen Vogel and Jennifer Couzin-Frankel in the 27 November 2020 issue of Science.]

      Schools around the world are again the site of a large, and largely uncontrolled, experiment.

      When schools from New Zealand to Norway to Japan reopened in April and May as the first wave of COVID-19 cases subsided, the virus stayed mostly at bay. Health and education officials cheered, having bet that the huge benefits of in-person schooling outweighed the risk of viral spread among children and teachers and from schools to wider communities.

      As a result, many places that had moved cautiously at first threw open classroom doors in August and September. Schools in the United Kingdom, Denmark, and the Netherlands shifted from cycling in small groups of students to full-size classes. Cities like Montreal that had kept schools shuttered welcomed students back inside. In Manaus, Brazil, a city with a COVID-19 death toll among the world’s highest, more than 100,000 students returned to classrooms. Teenagers thronged hallways in Georgia, Iowa, and Texas. But the backdrop is very different now: In many areas, COVID-19 has surged to even higher levels than early in the year.

      …Now, scrutiny of school openings in countries where the virus is resurgent paints a more complex picture of the risks and how they might be managed.

      The virus has exposed disparities between and within countries, and among the most unsettling are in schools. In many countries, such as India, Mexico, and Indonesia, most schools remain shut. In the United States, students enrolled in urban public schools from Los Angeles to Chicago, which in normal times may struggle to provide enough soap and toilet paper, continue to learn from home, whereas wealthy private schools have installed tents for outdoor learning and hired more teachers to shrink already-small classes….

      Early evidence, often gathered by researchers with children in school or ateacher spouse, suggests schools can stay open even in the face of significant community spread, given strong safety measures and political will. Many countries are closing restaurants, bars, and gyms, and begging residents to steer clear of social gatherings in bids to contain spread and keep schools open. Some-times, that hasn't been enough: The Czech Republic, Russia, and Austria closed schools in the face of skyrocketing case numbers in October and early November.

      …it’s wishful thinking to suggest open schools can't fuel spread of the virus. Closing them can be “one of the most powerful measures we have, but also one of the most costly” to children.

      In Austria, schools hung on until 17 November. However, other countries, such as South Korea and Australia, have closed many schools at the first sign of rising cases as authorities worked to quash even modest community transmission….

      A gnawing anxiety for teachers and parents is the silent spread of virus through hallways and classrooms. Most schools have layers of protection such as mask requirements and physical distancing to impede an outbreak if a student or staff member brings COVID-19 into the building. But with virus cases surging in many communities, Lthose guardrails are facing a stress test….

      So far, scientists say, school outbreaks appear less common than initially feared, although data are sparse….

      Multiple cases among students rightly trigger worries about in-school spread. But young people’s lives are intertwined, and the virus has plenty of chances to infect young people outside of school….

      Many experts lament that although health officials often tout low school case numbers, record keeping is inconsistent, as is transparency, particularly on outbreak investigations….

      To many people, it's especially hard to imagine school without sports. But the potential for the virus to spread there looms. In the United States, numerous outbreaks in August were traced to football practices. Early this month, the Iowa High School Girls Athletic Union hosted a state volleyball championship that brought together 20,000 fans and players in an indoor arena, as cases in the host city, Cedar Rapids, hit record highs and hospitals filled to capacity. In Canada, outbreaks have been linked to youth hockey: whether COVID-19 spread during play itself or gatherings with family and friends, afterward is not known….

      Parties, too, have been an issue around the world. In Cape Town, South Africa, a gathering of high schoolers at a bar sparked an outbreak that ultimately infected more than 80 people….

      As temperatures drop in the Northern Hemisphere, many schools aren’t with 15 students passes 1000 ppm in just 15 to 20 minutes. radiating the comforting warmth they used to. The coronavirus pan-

      In Germany, students wear coats and winter hats in class. In the United Kingdom, they’re permitted to don extra clothes over uniforms. It’s part of an effort to disperse any exhaled viral particles before someone can breathe them in….

      Part of the challenge is practical. if children are “freezing cold, that’s not going to help their learning experience….”

      Some schools are adding professional-grade air filters to try to remove virus, and scientists are developing other creative solutions….

      Scientific uncertainties aren’t helping. Initial studies suggested children under age 10 were less likely than older ones and adults to catch and transmit SARS-CoV-2. But newer data have muddied the picture. In September, a study of families of U.K. health care workers found no difference in susceptibility by age. Antibody surveys in Brazil and southern Germany reported similar results. In a day care in Poland, five toddlers, none with symptoms, apparently infected nine family members….

Systemic Car-ism

[These excerpts are from an article by Paul Rauber in the November/December 2020 issue of Sierra.]

      …For Black Americans, minor traffic infractions can turn deadly. One reason is systemic racism in the nation’s police departments. Another reason is cars.

      The one is related to the other. According to the Justice Department’s Bureau ofJustice Statistics, 52 percent of people’s interactions with the police come in the form of traffic stops. The DO.' has also found that African Americans and Latinos stopped by the police are more than twice as likely to experience the threat or use of physical force as whites….

      The Stanford Open Policing Project analyzed 100 million traffic stops from 2011 to 2018 and found clear evidence of racial discrimination. The study’s simple but effective methodology was to compare traffic stops during the day, when the driver’s race was clearly visible, with those at night. The results were striking. Under cover of darkness, racial disparities in traffic stops dropped significantly. Researcher Emma Pierson’s conclusion: “The police treat Black and Hispanic drivers differently from identically behaving white drivers.” For instance, police officers search the vehicles of Black and brown drivers based on less evidence than they require to search those of white drivers.

      Other studies of stops—both in traffic and otherwise—undertaken by individual police departments have come to similar conclusions in New York City, Los Angeles, and Ferguson, Missouri….

      A wave of reforms followed those investigations. New York greatly curtailed its “stop and frisk” policy after 2015, following a federal judge’s ruling that it was unconstitutional and discriminatory. Los Angeles limited random car stops in 2019. After Ferguson, Barack Obama’s Justice Department initiated national policing reforms, but those were quickly abandoned by the Trump administration. Now, after the death of George Floyd and the nationwide Black Lives Matter protests, Attorney General William Barr has flatly denied that America’s police departments suffer from systemic racism, blaming the notorious killings on a few bad apples. (President Trump went further, calling Black Lives Matter “a symbol of hate.”)

      The Movement for Black Lives has called for “defunding the police,” shifting the money to alternative response strategies, health care, and community investment. (Some cities have made modest moves in that direction, like Milwaukee’s proposed 10 percent cut to its police budget.) Proposals by M4BL and others focus on restricting the scope of police power—demilitarizing forces, repealing the “qualified immunity” that protects officers from lawsuits over their actions, and establishing non-police emergency-response services for people suffering from mental health crises. Polls show that the majority ofAmericans support sweeping police reforms.

      One way to remedy the system that killed Philando Castile, Sandra Bland, and Samuel DuBose is to improve police training, hire more people of color, and hold officers accountable for their actions. But there’s another, perhaps simpler way.

      …Remove the police from their traditional role of regulating vehicles.

      On July 15, the Berkeley City Council moved to do just that. It voted to establish a new, unarmed Department of Transportation to respond to traffic infractions “with a racial justice lens.” In Los Angeles, four city councilmembers have proposed a similar system….

      The idea of de-policing transportation is an inspiration that could perhaps only have come out of the current confluence of events: a disastrously managed pandemic, growing climate chaos, the latest social movement in US history demanding wholesale changes in policing and respect for Black lives, and the blazing dumpster fire of the Trump administration.

      The scene was set at the start of the coronavirus panderhic, when the nation’s initial lockdown forced people to take a hard break from their transportation habits. With fewer pedple commuting and others shelteringat home, automobile traffic largely disappeared….

      …It called on the city to reallocate significant portions of the NYPD’s budget to bicycle-and pedestrian-friendly street design and to automate large portions of traffic enforcement with the speed and red-light cameras that have been shown to reduce the number of people killed in crashes by nearly half With its unblinking, color-blind gaze, the red-light camera is immune to the special pleading of the white and wealthy to be let offwith a warning. It judges Black and white equally: Did you run the red light, or did you not? Those who did, instead of being confronted by an armed police officer, would simply receive a ticket in the mail.

The Legacy

[These excerpts are from an article by Wudan Yan the November/December 2020 issue of Sierra.]

      …If the Trump administration gets its way, their fears will be confirmed. In March, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said that the COVID-19 pandemic proved that the United States needs to take mining for uranium into its own hands. In April, Secretary of Energy Dan Brouillette released a strategy to revive uranium mining across the country as a “matter of national security.” In May, District of Arizona judge David Campbell ruled that a mining company named Energy Fuels could resume uranium-mining operations near the Grand Canyon. That same month, the Trump administration discussed carrying out the first nuclear tests since 1992. In July, EPA head Andrew Wheeler signed a memorandum of understanding with the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, agreeing to limit the EPA’s authority to investigate tainted groundwater at uranium-mining sites. President Trump asked Congress for $1.5 billion to establish a new national uranium reserve.

      The first time it set out to become a nuclear superpower, the United States failed to consider the people in the path of that quest and the environmental consequences. Decades later, the Navajo have little reason to believe this time will be different….

      In the 1940s, prospectors found uranium in Cove. At the time, the US Atomic Energy Commission was aggressively subsidizing uranium production, as the Trump administration is trying to do today. A company called Kerr-McGee struck a deal with the Navajo Tribal Council in 1952 to open a mine. The Navajo were excited to have steady work so close….

      Uranium ore is radioactive; its status as a heavy metal means that it can disrupt the endocrine system, damage organs, and lead to cancer. Buried in the earth, it doesn’t pose much of a problem, but mining operations in Cove brought the ore to the surface and crushed it as part of the refining process, creating dust that spread through the community via wind and water.

      In the mid-1960s, nearly two decades after Kerr-McGee began operations in Cove, the Atomic Energy Commission announced that the government would be winding down the purchase of uranium—it had acquired far more than it could store easily….

      By the 1950s, Kerr-McGee and the US government knew that uranium mining likely caused cancer and lung disease, but they did not share that information with the miners. The Navajo had their own suspicions….

      In 2012—nearly 50 years after Kerr-McGee left—the EPA began cleaning up the mine waste in Cove. The mine tailings that had been heaped in massive dunes outside Cove Day School since the 1960s were trucked away and buried in a nearby field. The field was fenced in with barbed wire, and a sign was placed outside warning passersby of radioactive material.

      Two years later, the Department ofJustice settled a lawsuit filed against Kerr-McGee. In the largest environmental-cleanup settlement to date, Anadarko Petroleum Corporation—which had acquired Kerr-McGee in 2006—would pay out $5.15 billion. About one-fifth of those funds are designated for cleaning up approximately 50 abandoned uranium mines in the Navajo Nation, including the 32 that Kerr-McGee abandoned in the Cove area. (There are more than 1,000 abandoned uranium mines throughout the Navajo Nation.) But there are no definitive federal or regional cleanup plans yet for any of the mines covered in the settlement—the ones dug by Kerr-McGee or the ones created by lesser-known companies that went bankrupt long before anyone could sue them for the damage they left behind….

      Uranium mining and processing has been banned on Navajo Nation land for the past 15 years, but it’s not clear if that ban would be respected under a federal mandate to revive uranium mining on national security grounds. Navajo laws haven’t been respected in the past. The US-Navajo Treaty of 1868 guaranteed sovereignty to the Navajo Nation, but in 1919, Native reservation lands were opened to leasing by the Interior Department anyway….

Nature is Returning

[These excerpts are from an article by Rachel Muwer the November/December 2020 issue of Sierra.]

      …The virus that causes the disease, SARS-CoV-2, almost certainly sprang from the commercial wildlife trade, a fact that forces us to acknowledge the relationship. Wildlife-related pandemics are an extreme example:, We can exploit nature, but at some point there will be serious repercussions for our species as well. We greatly influence wildlife—from the lowly rats of NewYork City to the lofty elephants of Zimbabwe—and it influences us in turn.

      That mutual influence became obvious last spring, when humanity hunkered down and the animal world quickly noted our absence. Some species that had grown dependent on us were left to scramble, while others, emboldened, began reclaiming places normally overrun with people. The national parks, which experienced a surge of visitors in the immediate aftermath of the shutdown, closed their gates -one by one as the pandemic progressed. That's when the animals took over. At Timpanogos Cave National Monument in Utah, staff noted bats roosting for the first time in at least two decades. From Yosemite to Yellowstone, deer, bears, and bison strolled through parking lots and picnic areas. (Ironically, in seeking to become closer to wild nature, humans often drive it away.)

      In the days of quarantine, reports of wildlife wandering into suburban and urban areas abounded. While some viral headlines proved to be wishful thinking (dolphins did not take up residence in Venice’s canals) or fake (a herd of elephant lushes did not raid a Chinese village for booze), many remarkable stories were quite true. Ajuvenile mountain lion prowled the deserted sidewalks of San Francisco. Javelinas took over street corners in Phoenix. Mountain goats roamed Llandudno, Wales. Social media spread a heartening, widely embraced message: Nature is back. Nature will find a way….

      The effect of the pandemic on human-habituated animals raises questions about where we should draw the line in our interactions with them. Consider, for example, Nara, Japan: Each year millions of people come to see the 1,400 semi-tame deer that live in a park there. Nearby shops sell rice-bran-and-wheat “deer crackers” that the deer gobble up. But in the spring, as tourists and their crackers disappeared, deer began turning up in residential and shopping areas, far from the park, eating grass and scavenging garbage. The Mainichi Shinibun newspaper reported that authorities fielded twice the number of deer-related emergency calls compared with the same period in 2019. By June, however, the deer had settled into a new, people-free rhythmsans crackers. Locals noted to the Asahi Shimbun that the animals’ normally watery droppings resembled firm blackbeans, leading some to speculate that the lack of snack food had forced the deer to shift to a healthier natural diet.

      Not all habituated wildlife have made such a peaceful transition. In South and Southeast Asia, before COVID-19, some species of macaques were surviving on garbage and handouts at temples and tourist sites, partly because rampant defor'estation has destroyed their natural habitat. This unhealthy dependency was highlighted in a viral video “brawl” in which hundreds of macaques fought over a cup of yogurt in the streets of Lopburi, Thailand, shortly after the. -8 country’s travel ban went into effect….

      In some cases, people have gone to great lengths to maintain their unnatural relationships with wild animals. When the Cayman Islands closed its borders and enacted strict lockdown measures, including a ban on boat use, rumors circulated that people were sneaking out under cloak of darkness to feed a population of 80 to 120 habituated stingrays. The rays, which live at sites called the Sandbar and Stingray City; are the Caymans’ most popular tourist attraction, sometimes seeing up to 1,500 visitors at a time. Without the free food provided by tourists, however, tour operators feared that the rays (a species that is not normally gregarious) would leave the area permanently. Eventually, the government succumbed to Lpublic pressure and began carrying out daily feedings….

      In numerous marine parks, rangers’ salaries can no longer LL be paid, critical scientific monitoring has ground to a halt, and illegal fishing appears to be on the rise. Many terrestrial protected areas are likewise experiencing an uptick in bushmeat poaching, much of it likely driven by people out of work. In May 2020, in Sri Lanka, a rare black leopard—one of only three recorded in the past decade—was killed by a snare trap probably intended for deer. In India, researchers found that the number of animals illegally killed for meat nearly doubled during the national lockdown, compared with the same time last year….

      Zimbabwe started 2020 on a high note, with ample savings in the bank and funds set aside in its conservation budget to recruit a thousand new rangers by June and to refurbish facilities at a number of national parks….But because conservation in Zimba-bwe is 100 percent self-financed, primarily by tourism, the pandemic’s effects have been "quite devastating…."

      Across Africa, most national parks, conservancies, and reserves find themselves similarly stressed. Park managers from Zambia to the Democratic Republic of the Congo fear that bushmeat poaching is on the rise and that if the crisis continues, there will be lasting declines of wildlife populations and possibly even local extinctions of some species….

      Conserving wildlife in Africa and the rest of the world, frankly, isn’t just for the critters. From a selfish point ofview, it will also help us. The pandemic exemplifies the direct link between human health and ecological health, something experts have known and warned about for decades. Scientists have yet to pinpoint SARS-CoV-2’s exact origin, but they agree that the virus originated in an animal, most likely a horseshoe bat, before making the jump to humans. An intermediary species, possibly a pangolin—an endangered animal sometimes called a scaly anteater—also could have been involved. Whatever the animal origin, China’s extensive wildlife trade likely brought the virus or a person it was in contact with to a wet market in Wuhan, where public health experts think SARS-CoV-2 first spread….

      Real change requires sustained momentum, however—and China’s may already be slowing. At the time of this writing, China had yet to codify its temporky ban on exotic meat into law, and legal loopholes still abound for wild animals used for traditional medicine, killed for fur, or kept as pets. The country did remove pangolin scales from its official pharmacopoeia of traditional medicine—yet it did not outright ban their use and still lists them as ingredients in certain concoctions….

      Other countries’ responses have been even more lackluster. Although headlines in July reported that Vietnam had “banned wildlife trade,” the government had simply called for enforcement of existing laws. Exotic-animal markets in other nations with a busy wildlife trade and a high potential for disease transmission, including Indonesia and Nigeria, remain open. Few countries have enacted meaningful new wildlife laws; the United States hasn’t….

      The pandemic could usher in fundamental improvements in how we treat animals and the planet. SARS-CoV-2 has giveri us an opportunity to self-correct….population growth is decreasing and will stabilize in the not-too-distant future.

      If we opted to preserve rather than destroy biodiversity going forward, we would lessen the risk of unleashing the next pandemic-causing zoonotic disease—one that could, unlike the coronavirus that causes COVID-19, kill most of the people it infects. We would also reap the many life-sustaining benefits of improved biodiversity, including carbon sequestration, freshwater provision, and pollination. Unless we act quickly, though, our old,.destructive ways will come crawling back, like New York City’s rats….

      …Some will no doubt emerge from the pandemic with a new appreciation for nature—one nurtured, perhaps, through the patient joy of watching a tomato plant sprout from a seed or a newfound love of birding in their own backyard….

      In some cases, though, the opposite is happening—people are recoiling from the natural world, viewing it as the source of their misery….At the last minute, officials in Peru stopped a planned attack on a colony of mouse-eared bats, but in Egypt, people S set fire to an abandoned building full of sleeping fruit bats….

      Newfound love or fear of nature are the extremes, though. Most individuals, once a vaccine finally arrives and the pandemic fades into memory, will probably return to the approach to nature they held before….

The Killing Field

[These excerpts are from an article by Aaron Teasdale the November/December 2020 issue of Sierrae.]

      …Over the past 30 years, grizzly bears have made a heartening comeback in the 22-million-acre Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem. Once numbering over 50,000 and ranging from the Mississippi Riverto the Pacific Ocean, grizzlies were listed as an endangered species in 1975, when only 136 remained in Yellowstone. That protection allowed the bears' population in the Yellowstone area to rebound to over 700 today.

      Because of that growth—and, possibly, the diminished availability of whitebark pine nuts and cutthroat trout, two of the bears’ foundational foodstuffs—grizzlies are now radiating outfrom Yellowstone into areas they haven’t inhabited forgenerations. In the Upper Green River watershed, the snow-mantled Wind River and Gros Ventre Ranges rise above a fertile valley of aspen grasslands and willow-hemmed creeks. But in addition to some of America’s finest wildlife habitat, the Upper Green also has 170,643 acres of public grazing lands, where bears that repeatedly kill cattle are “removed from the population.” In October 2019, after 20 years of debate and countless delays, Bridger-Teton National Forest granted a 10-year extensiori of grazing permits with no additional measures taken to protect bears.

      A burgeoning grizzly population combined with an abundant, nearly defenseless food source makes the Upper Green the largest grizzly killing field in America. Each year, the number of conflicts with bears increases by 9 percent, a trend government biologists predict will continue. The US Fish and Wildlife Service has repeatedly increased the allowed “take,” or killing, of grizzlies on Upper Green allotments. The previous limit was 11 bears over a three-year period, but new regulations announced last fall allow for 72 grizzlies to be killed over 10 years….

      Rice has been promoting grizzly-friendly rules for grazers since 2014. But Bridger-Teton officials have resisted implementing requirements—even when proposed by their own biologists—that ranchers in the field carry bear spray and dispose of livestock carcasses, which grizzlies can smell from over 10 miles away. Other potential solutions include using guard dogs, installing electric fencing, bunching liveStocktogether at night, and not grazing vulnerable calves in grizzly habitat.

      On March 31, 2020, the Sierra Club joined with the Center for Biological Diversity in a lawsuit to force Bridger-Teton to implement bear-protection measures; a separate lawsuit by the Western Watersheds Project seeks to end grazing there until it does….

      On the other side of those lawsuits is Albert Sommers, a Republican Wyoming state representative, whose family has been grazing cattle in the Upper Green since 1902. Each summer he takes his cattle to their mountain pasture in the oldest continually operating cattle drive in Wyoming. His natural, native-grass-fed beef is sold regionally with the slogan “Grizzly tested, wolf approved.”

      Sommers is the head of the Upper Green River Cattlemen’s Association, which has joined with federal agencies to defend against the lawsuits. If the grazing leases were eliminated, he says, “I’d be losing my way of life and the community that we built for 100 years.” The first grizzly predation of his cattle, he says, occurred in 1993. Before then, he lost an average of 2 percent of his calves every summer. Now he averages 12 percent….

      Meanwhile, as the bruins increasingly push out from the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem, mortalities arespiking—more than 80 percent of them caused by humans. For the isolated population of Yellowstone grizzlies to survive in the long term, biologists say, they’ll require even more territory and more genetic diversity….

Alphabets and their Originss

[These excerpts are from a book review by Andrew Robinson the 20 November 2020 issue of Science.]

      Written communication is among the greatest inventions in human history, yet reading and writing are skills most of us take for granted. After we learn them at school, we seldom stop to think about the mental-cum-physical process that turns our language and thoughts into symbols on a piece of paper or computer screen, or the reverse process whereby our brains extract meaning from written symbols.

      The neural correlates of reading remain a mystery to neuroscientists. They once assumed that an auditory pathway in the brain was used for alphabetic symbols and a visual pathway for Chinese characters but have since discovered experimentally that both neural pathways are used together—if in differing proportions—in each instance. Meanwhile, key aspects of writing’s development have yet to be demystified by archaeologists and philologists. Was there a single origin, circa 3100 BCE—either cuneiform in Mesopotamia or hieroglyphs in Egypt—or did writing arise in multiple places independently? When and how did Chinese characters, first identified on Shang oracle bones dated to circa nao BCE, originate? And what prompted the invention of the radically simple alphabetic principle, circa 1800 BCE, in a script that contains certain signs resembling Egyptian hieroglyphs?

      …Latin alphabetic letter forms, unlike calligraphic scripts such as Chinese and Arabic, were ideally shaped for the movable metal type created by Johannes Gutenberg in the 1450s—a technology that enabled the growth of European literacy and the European scientific revolution beginning in the 16th century. The pairing was so ideal, in fact, that the Gutenberg Bible fooled some scholars for centuries, who believed it was handwritten and cataloged it as such….

      …avidly dissects a few signs on early clay tablets to explain the rebus principle, which permits the sounds of pictograms, written together, to express the sound of an unrelated, nonpictographic word. Thus, for example, the plainly pictographic Sumerian sign for barley, pronounced “she,” can be written beside the pictographic sign far milk, pronounced “ga,” to create two signs read as “shega,” meaning something like “beautiful.” As Finkel reasonably spec-ulates, rebuses are so “obvious” that they could have been developed in languages anywhere in the world, supporting the hypothesis that writing may have arisen on multiple, separate occasions.

      Today, pictography has returned to writing in the form of international transport symbols and computerized emojis. Meanwhile, many young people in China, having become habituated to smartphone writing, are increasingly using the Romanized spelling known as Pinyin (“spell sound”) and, as a result, some no longer know how to write Chinese characters.

      Could smartphones, or the Internet more generally, eventually lead to a universal writing system, independent of particular languages, like the one envisioned by polymath Gottfried Leibniz in 1698? It is unlikely, in my view, and, according to Wilson, undesirable. “A world of perfect communication is also a world of cultural uniformity,” she cautions.

Scientists: Use Common Sense

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

      …nearly all the questions involve COVID-19--particularly the matter of masks. The argument for wearing them is pretty straightforward: viruses are spread in droplets, which are expelled when an infected person talks, shouts, sings or just breathes. A properly constructed and fitted mask can prevent the spread of those droplets and therefore the spread of the virus. That is why surgeons have been routinely wearing medical-grade masks since the 1960s (and many doctors and nurses wore cloth masks long before then). It is also why in many parts of Asia, people routinely wear masks in public. A flimsy or poorly fitting face covering may not be much use, but—barring the risk of generating a false sense of security—it is unlikely to do harm. So it stands to reason that, when in public, most people should wear masks….

      So why are people confused? One reason is that we have been getting conflicting messages. In April the World Health Organization told the general public not to mask, while the CDC told us we should. In June the WHO adjusted its guidance to say that the general public should wear nonmedical masks where there was widespread community transmission and physical distancing was difficult. Meanwhile CDC director Robert R. Redfield declared that “cloth face coverings are one of the most powerful weapons we have to slow and stop the spread of the virus—particularly when used universally.” Today government guidance around the globe varies from masks only for sick people to masks mandatory for all.

      …According to one report, officials were also concerned that widespread masking would lead to a false sense of security, leading people to ignore other safety measures, such as handwashing and self-isolation.

      If the WHO had simply said this, there would have been a lot less confusion. But apparently there was another problem. At the time, no direct evidence existed regarding community spread of this particular virus, and most previous studies were done in clinical settings….

      This is a common pattern in science: conflating the absence of evidence with evidence of absence. It arises from the scientific norm of assuming a default hypothesis of no effect and placing burden of proof of those asserting an affirmative claim. Usually this makes sense: we do not want to overturn established science on the basis of an assertion or speculation. But when public health and safety are at stake, this standard becomes priggish. If we have evidence that something may help—and is unlikely to do harm—there is little excuse for not recommending it. And when there is a mechanistic reason to think it might help, the lack of clinical trials should not be a barrier to acting on mechanistic knowledge….

      In nearly all areas of science, our evidence is imperfect or incomplete, but this is no excuse not to act on what we know.

Ancient Plagues Shaped the World

[These excerpts are from an article by James P. Closein the November 2020 issue of Scientific American.]

      In 541 C.E., after years of campaigning against Goths and Vandals, Emperor Justinian I had built the eastern Roman Empire into a vast dominion, nearly encircling the Mediterranean Sea. That year, however, gave the ruler no chance to celebrate. Instead he was attacked by a deadly new foe, an invisible and incomprehensible enemy.

      A mysterious plague swept across Justinian’s lands and into his capital, Constantinople. Victims spiked high fevers, their armpits and groins swelled painfully, and many became delirious. The emperor himself fell ill. Rumors of his demise filled the panicked city. Historian Procopius, a resident of the city, claimed that on some days as many as 10,000 people died. Justinian managed to survive the contagion, but his empire remained scarred for years afterward, losing its grip on many territories and struggling to maintain control of Rome.

      Scientists have debated the identity of this scourge up to the present day. While some blamed the plague on a particularly lethal strain of the bacterium Yersinia pestis—the symptoms resembled the medieval Black Death, and Y. pestis is the bug behind that devastation—other have argued Justinian was beset by an influenza virus related to the notorious 1918 flu epidemic, which killed an estimated 50 million to 100 million people. Historians have also wondered where the disease started. Many pointed the finger at Egypt because historical accounts noted a similar ailment appeared there just before Justinian's catastrophe.

      Now biologists and archaeologists, teaming up to recover ancient DNA from teeth and bones from that time, have been able to resolve this long-standing debate. The teeth hold DNA from Y. pestis, not remnants of the flu. Following this strain back in time and across the globe, researchers learned that the plague began not in Egypt but in western China and traveled across the high grasslands of the Eurasian Steppe before hitting Europe….

      With these discoveries, certain patterns have emerged about the way microbes turn into plagues. The tiny organisms tend to spread death when they encounter groups of individuals who live packed densely together. They race through populations that have never been exposed before and thus have low levels of natural immunity. Growing international trade and increased human mobility amplify the spread, and pathogens usually have found heightened vulnerabilities among people marginalized and impoverished by society, who have few resources to protect themselves. We are now seeing these patterns again as our current pandemic, driven by the SARS-CoV-2 virus, races across the globe….

      One of the first successes of this combination of better samples and newtechnology came in 2011. Poinar and his colleagues recovered a draft Y. pestis genome from teeth obtained in a London Black Death burial site. Their find confirmed, after decades of speculation, that this bug was indeed responsible for the medieval pandemic that killed 30 percent or more of the European population between 1347 and 1351. There was nothing especially virulent about this strain, researchers learned over the next five years; it was quite similar to modern Y. pestiss, which is not nearly as deadly. The high medieval death toll seemed to be driven by an exploding population of runaway black rats, which carried the bacterium through a crowded and malnourished population in burgeoning cities with awful sanitary conditions.

      Perhaps the biggest surprise from plague aDNA has come from even earlier burials. It turns out that neither the Justinian nor the medieval pandemics were the first times this microbe altered human events on a transcontinental scale.

      …an Early Bronze Age people, the Yamnaya culture, moved down from the steppe around 5,000 years ago, replacing the Neolithic farming cultures of Europe. The newcomers had domesticated horses and new forms of metallurgy and were probably warlike, but still the large-scale population changeover has puzzled scientists because the European groups had done well for centuries….

      If the plague bacterium was even part of the cause, the effects can be seen today. Kristiansen's team argues that, just like the later Y. pestis outbreaks, this one spread from the steppe into Europe. The Yamnaya likely had some immunity to the bacterium if they bad already been exposed to it for hundreds of years. That resistance would have given them an advantage over the plague-ravaged European farmers. So they moved in. With a lighter skin color and a proto-Indo-European language, this group and its migration still influence the look, languages and genes of modern Europe. According to Kristiansen, “it changed the course of European history. It changed the languages in Europe.” Genetically, he says, Europeans “are the descendants of those steppe people.”

      Recently the research group found more evidence buttressing this theory of plague-driven change, when it detected Y. pestis DNA in two Swedish Neolithic skeletons dating from around E five millennia ago. The disease, it appears, had arrived in Scandinavia just before the Yamnaya takeover….

      In its earliest form—the 5,000-year-old variant—it was unlikely that the bacterium was carried by rat-riding fleas, as was the Black Death version. The older bacterium lacked an enzyme that the modern microbes use to prevent their digestion in flea guts. It probably spread through airborne droplets when its host—person or animal—coughed….

      The aDNA research has made it possible to trace the history of other microbes in addition to Y. pestis, enabling researchers to identify the dates when many modern human pathogens, including strains of leprosy, tuberculosis, hepatitis B virus and parvovirus, emerged as widespread troublemakers. Those dates, perhaps not surprisingly, occur when humans started to settle down….

      This combination of human factors that increase vulnerability to pathogens—larger populations, greater global connectivity, an ever shifting relationship with the animal world—had a major impact on the New World when Europeans first arrived. The Aztec Empire, centered in Mexico, was invaded by a small contingent of Spanish forces in the early 1500s who toppled the civilization with the aid of disgruntled subjects and rival states. The Spanish then installed a brutal encomienda system of harsh treatment, overwork and malnourishment. And the European outsiders seem to have brought other attackers with them as well.

      After the initial conquest in 1521, the Aztec population was devastated by one of the biggest pandemics in history. Written accounts from Spanish Franciscan friar Bernardino de Sahagiin, who arrived in Mexico eight years after the initial Spanish contact, indicated that an infection killed off as much as 80 percent of the Indigenous population. But the identity of this cocotiztii pest (as the locals named it) remained a mystery. Guesses have ranged from hemorrhagic influenza to malaria to typhoid to smallpox. To historians, it was not even clear if the disease was of local origin or was imported by the Spanish.

      In 2018, however, aDNA pointed to a likely culprit. Obtaining DNA from skeletons discovered in a cocolizai-era mass grave, Krause and his colleagues established that more than half of the samples had Salmonella paratyphi C., a bacterium that causes a severe intestinal disease. Salmonella organisms had not been found in the Americas before European contact, so it was almost certainly shipped across from the Old World. The conquistadors probably carried contaminated food and water on their transatlantic vessels, along with other potential vectors such as chickens, pigs, cattle, and vermin such as rats and mice. All were capable of transmitting disease.

      At just this time an environmental misfortune in the Americas helped microbes such as Salmonella find a new home. A series of catastrophic droughts hit Mexico in the 1500s—established by tree-ring data published in 2000—and food shortages and population dislocation left people weak and unable to fight off unfamiliar microbial invaders that their immune systems were not prepared for. A civilization crumbled.

      Today societies know much more about pathogens and how to fight them than did people 500 or 5,000 years ago. But our current struggles with COVID-19 show that our vulnerabilities to novel diseases have not changed: they often jump to humans from other species, spread via global trade and travel, and become exacerbated by crowding, poverty and malnourishment. The aDNA research reminds us of those enduring facts and shows that some of the biggest events in history were not just defined by powerful figures such as Emperor Justinian I or conquistador Hernan Cortes. They were also profoundly shaped by the microbes their empires helped to spread.

The Pandemic We Forgot

[These excerpts are from an article by Scott Hershberger in the November 2020 issue of Scientific American.]

      …Previously a niche topic even among historians, the 1918 flu has been compared with the current pandemic in terms of fatality rate, economic impact, and the effectiveness of masks and social distancing….

      For the countries engaged in World War I, the global conflict provided a clear narrative arc replete with heroes and villains, victories and defeats. But an invisible enemy such as the 1918 flu makes little narrative sense. It had no clear origin, killed otherwise healthy people in multiple waves and slinked away without being understood. Scientists at the time did not even know that a virus, not a bacterium, caused the flu….

      Unlike the 1918 flu, COVID-19 has no massive, contemporaneous war to compete with in our memories. And scientific understanding of viruses has dramatically improved in the past century. Yet in some ways, not much has changed since our ancestors’ pandemic….The current controversy about masks has a precedent, too: nearly 2,000 people attended a 1919 meeting of the Anti-Mask League of San Francisco….

      Newspapers and magazines did cover the 1918 flu extensively while is. it was still raging….But the press of the day published “very little on the experience of the victims and survivors themselves," Spratt says….

      Spratt sees parallels between the coverage of the 1918 flu and that of COVID-19. "….In this way, from first-hand accounts of essential workers to reports on racial and socio-economic disparities in COVID-19’s impacts, contemporary media are providing a more complete picture of the current pandemic….

How Birds Branched Out

[These excerpts are from an article by Kate Wong in the November 2020 issue of Scientific American.]

      …Birds are dinosaurs, the only lineage to survive to the present day. They arose in the Jurassic period, between 200 million and 150 million years ago, from the theropods, a group of two-legged carnivorous dinosaurs whose members include both the behemoth Tyrannosaurus rex and the daintier Velociraptor. For tens of millions of years birds evolved alongside other dinosaurs, diversifying into a number of small-bodied, fast-growing, feathered fliers, along with a few large-bodied, flightless forms. One group, the so-called neornithines, or new birds—distinguished by their fused foot and anklebones and by certain traits in the bones that support the wings—would eventually give rise to modern avian-kind.

      Scientists have tended to view modern bird diversity as the result of a burst of evolutionary activity that occurred after the fateful day 66 million years ago when a six-mile-wide asteroid struck Earth, dooming 75 percent of plant and animal species, including the nonbird dinosaurs and most bird groups. Exactly why the neornithine lineage alone survived this apocalypse is uncertain, although the recent discovery of a 66.7-million-year-old neornithine bird fossil from Belgium called Asteriornis, a relative of today’s ducks and chickens, suggests that being small and living in a shoreline environment may have helped. In any case, the idea was that after the mass extinction, the neornithine birds had the place largely to themselves. Free of competition from other dinosaurs (not to mention a whole bunch of other vertebrates that also perished, including the pterosaurs, those flying reptiles that had long ruled the skies), birds abruptly exploded into a multitude of forms to fill the many newly vacant ecological niches.

      Now a new analysis has turned up intriguing evidence that their extraordinary diversity might not have originated that way. In a study of hundreds of bird and dinosaur skulls…found that in the aftermath of the mass-extinction event, the pace of birds’ evolution actually slowed way down compared with that of their dinosaur predecessors, rather than accel-erating as expected….

      Fossils that preserve the entire skeleton of an animal are extremely rare, so comparative studies of fossil material tend to focus on a particular region of the body. The team looked at skulls because they serve many functions, from supporting sense organs to enabling feeding to at-tracting mates to defending themselves….Consider hawks versus hummingbirds, he says, or pigeons versus pelicans….

      What the researchers found was that dinosaurs evolved 1.5 to three times faster than birds in all regions of the skull. After the mass-extinction event brought the Mesozoic era to a close and ushered in the Cenozoic era, birds branched into most of the major modern groups, from hummingbirds and penguins to birds of prey and songbirds. But they evolved this diversity far more slowly than their Mesozoic dinosaur forerunners….

      Why the sudden deceleration? Goswami thinks it reflects a shift in priorities for skull function. Whereas dinosaur skulls have elaborate display and fighting structures, as well as complex feeding mechanisms that require large areas for jaw-muscle attachment, bird skulls are mostly dedicated to housing and protecting the animals’ comparatively large brain, she explains.

      Bird-evolution experts who were not involved in the new research praised the team's methodology and the vast number of species they included in their study.

      The finding that dinosaurs had a much faster rate of skull evolution than modern birds might seem strange considering the variety of bills in birds such as spoonbills, flamingos and pelicans….Their sundry shapes suggest a high rate of evolution in the beak, which is a major component of the skull. But a closer look reveals that these distinctive bills are the exception rather than the rule….

      In contrast, some groups of dinosaurs clearly had sky-high rates of skull evolution. Among the ceratopsians (Triceratops and its kin), for instance, “each species had a unique arrangement of horns and crests. And these seem to have evolved rapidly because of their value for attracting mates,” Ksepka says. "So many dino-saurs bad these elaborate skull ornaments, but they are very rare in birds—the cassowary is one awesome exception," he adds. The large, flightless cassowary, a relative of the emu found in the tropical forests of Papua New Guinea and northeastern Australia, has a prominent bony crest atop its head. “It’s likely that feathers took over the display role, as we have plenty of modern birds with plain-shaped skulls but beautiful feathered head crests. Just look at your friendly backyard cardinals and blue jays.”

      The discoverythat bird skulls resulted from relatively low evolutionary rates “is essentially opposite from what we know of the rest of the skeleton”….Early on in their evolution, birds seem to have hit on a head design that worked for them, with such features as a beak, big eyes and a large brain….

      Such mosaic evolution, in which different parts of the body evolve at different rates, is known to have occurred in many organisms….

      But Goswami has a hunch that other parts of the bird skeleton may have also evolved on a relatively leisurely timetable. Nonbird dinosaurs transitioned between bipedal and quadrupedal body plans several times over the course of their evolution and did a lot of different things with their forelimbs, she points out—think of T. rex’s puny arms compared with a titanosaur’s tree trunks. In contrast, once birds became specialized for flight as their forelimbs morphed into wings, among other changes, they never really evolved completely new body plans—presumably because of the developmental or functional constraints of being a bird….

      Of course, the birds are no less spectacular for that downturn. They survived fire and brimstone, conquered the skies and diversified into the dazzling array of feathered wonders that share the planet with us today. Slow and steady won the race.

Bat Signal

[These excerpts are from an article by Jason G. Goldman in the November 2020 issue of Scientific American.]

      Bats have to leave the safety of their roosts every night to find food. That takes energy: their insect prey must provide them with enough fuel to offset the cost of hunting in the first place.

      Because bats use the same chest and abdominal muscles for both flying and producing echolocation calls, many researchers thought vocalizing while airborne would not consume significantly more energy than flying alone. But a new study has thrown that idea into serious doubt….

      Currie and her team measured metabolism and echolocation intensity for nine Nathusius’s pipistrelle bats, captured from urban areas in Berlin and released after laboratory tests. When subjected to just the normal ambient sounds while flying in a wind tunnel, the bats called at 113 decibels. But when the researchers played extra ultrasonic noise, the bats “shouted” at 128 decibels—requiring about 30 times as much energy, Currie says. Although their calls are inaudible to humans, this jump in volume is proportionally equivalent to the difference between a nearby chainsaw and a jet engine, says University of Winnipeg biologist Craig Willis, who specializes in bats and was not involved in the new study.

      To compensate for the additional calories they burn by turning up their volume so dramatically, the bats would have to gobble up an extra half a gram of insects (around 7 percent of their body mass) each night. “That’s a turkey dinner for us; that’s a big deal,” Willis says.

      Getting enough nourishment to afford calling over the sounds of human-generated ultrasonic noise, from traffic or heavy machinery, for example, may be difficult for bats in habitats with dwindling insect populations. “In many ways, insect conservation is bat conservation,” Willis says, “and we’re in the midst of this insect apocalypse where we’re losing insects at alarming rates.” What that means, Currie says, is that bats in many areas now have to work harder to -find the fewer insects available. If they burn more calories hunting than they acquire from their prey, it could spell trouble for the flying mammals. Human-made noise adds yet one more hurdle to their survival.

Earth after the Pandemic

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

      Early this year, as vast segments of the global economy shut down but before the death toll climbed, many of those privileged enough to feel relatively secure indulged a fantasy that the pandemic would paradoxically make the world more beautiful. Smog cleared from the skies, unveiling the snow-clad peaks of the Himalayas; an octopus was spotted in one of Venice’s formerly murky canals; and the undersea cacophony of transoceanic shipping quieted, allowing whales to revel in one another's songs more than they had in half a century. Daily global carbon emissions fell by more than 20 percent, providing hope of real progress on climate change. It almost seemed that Earth had unleashed avirus on industrial civilization, bringing it to a grinding halt and protecting itself.

      Months later, as Supercyclone Amphan devastated the northern coast of the Bay of Bengal and wildfires ravaged California, it was hard to remember that brief moment of environmental optimism. The coronavirus shock to the global economy will make barely a dentin climate change. The suffering brought by COVID-19 is catastrophic. Worldwide more than 30 million people have been infected, and one million have died. In the U.S., upward of 60 million people have become unemployed, and many are at risk of being evicted from their homes. The situation in developing countries is almost unimaginably horrific, with 265 million people teetering on the edge of starvation.

      But by lifting some of the smog that had obscured the structure of modern society, the pandemic may also have shown a way forward. It is not only the exploitation of nature that undergirds modern civilization but also the exploitation of humans. Systemic inequality, injustice and racism resulting from centuries of colonialism and slavery provide the scaffolding of the global economy, which was built not only by the ingenuity and entrepreneurship of a few but also by the abuse of the many.

      That idea, once bitterly contested, has now become plausible and even self-evident. Some of the least prestigious and worst-paid jobs—picking fruit, delivering parcels, bathing patients—have turned out to be the most crucial. They are also the riskiest because they involve commuting and working in conditions that increase exposure to COVID-19. In consequence, the pandemic reminds us of who performs these services. In the U.S., someone who is Native American, Hispanic or Black—whose families may have been ripped apart in the distant or recent past by global and domestic processes of wealth extraction—is roughly five times as likely to be hospitalized for the coronavirus as someone who is white.

      Marginalized groups also suffer disproportionately from environmental devastation—although they do the least harm to the planet. The world’s top 10 percent of income earners are responsible for up to 43 percent of the environmental impact of human society, whereas the world’s bottom 10 percent contribute no more than 5 percent. Across nations, inequality correlates with worse environmental indicators—probably because the marginalized often lack the clout to fend off polluting facilities, from which the wealthy are more likely to profit. In the U.S., regions with poor air quality, where Black people disproportionately reside, also appear to have worse outcomes from COVID-19.

      The pandemic has not only aggravated these stark inequities and injustices, the mass unemployment it has generated has also given millions of Americans the motivation and opportunity to express their outrage….

      Climate activists have long argued that saving Earth and fighting for justice and equality are one and the same….

Pandemic Dooms Danish Mink—and Mink Research

[These excerpts are from an article by Christa Leste-Lasserre in the 13 November 2020 issue of Science.]

      …Denmark is seeking to stop the spread of what it deems a dangerous strain of SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, that’s circulating in mink and infecting humans as well. Scientists say mutations in the virus, described this week in a short report, might reduce the efficacy of COVID-19 vaccines….

      The move reflects a growing concern about the spread of SARS-CoV-2 in mink, reported in six countries. Four—Spain, Sweden, Italy, and the United States—have responded by culling populations at affected farms. The Netherlands went further by expediting a complete ban on mink farming….

      The Danish government has an even more troubling concern. SARS-CoV-2 has remained “quite stable” since its emergence in the human population…but spillovers into animals can trigger mutations as the virus adapts to a new host. That has happened in mink….One strain, now called the ΔFVI-spike mutant, has four mutations in the gene coding for the spike proLtein, which helps the virus enter host cells….

      The findings are preliminary, but the government considered them serious enough to order the culling of all 12 million remaining minks in Denmark, the world’s largest mink producer. About 80% of the animals were scheduled to meet their end this month anyway—and become fur—but the decision means breeding and laboratory stocks will be destroyed as well. Mink farming will be banned at least until the end of 2021.

      …mutations in the spike protein “could completely undermine” vaccine efficacy, especially if they occur in the part of the iprotein that binds to the human receptor, as one of the four mutations in ΔFVI does….in the meantime it’s important to keep the strain from spreading….

A Divided Congree Could Narrow Biden’s Ambitious Plans

[These excerpts are from an article by Jeffrey Mervis in the 13 November 2020 issue of Science.]

      Most U.S. researchers and environmental activists were ecstatic when Joe Biden emerged as the winner of the U.S. presidential election on Saturday. They expect him to reverse a host of Trump administration policies they oppose and push for new steps to fight climate change.

      But when Biden is sworn in on 20 January 2021, his ability to advance an ambitious agenda will be constrained by his likely status as the first president in more than 30 years to take office without his party controlling both chambers of Congress. Republicans are favored to preserve their majority in the Senate by winning at least one of the two runoff contests in Georgia, and Democrats will have a narrower majority in the new House of Representatives than during the previous 2 years.

      Biden won’t need a Democratic Congress to undo an array of executive orders issued by President Donald Trump over the past 4 years. The president-elect has said he will rejoin the Paris climate pact on his first day in office and cancel orders that weakened environmental regulations and barred immigrants from many majority-Muslim nations. His new administration will also likely suspend work on proposed regulations it opposes, including several weakening pollution controls. The halt will effectively kill them, but it could take years to reverse regulations that are already finalized.

      Biden will also have substantial opportunity to reverse the “denigration of expertise” that permeated the Trump presidency….The outgoing administration’s disregard for evidence-based policy resulted in attempts to undermine the accuracy of this year’s census, politicize climate and hurricane forecasts, and sideline scientific advisory panels. It also triggered a “crisis of confidence” at federal regulatory agencie….

      To restore that Confidence, Biden will likely populate his administration with well-respected researchers. Most science agencies will be getting new leaders….

      Biden’s choice of a science adviser and head of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy could send a key signal about the status of science in his administration….

      A Republican majority in the Senate would pose a serious obstacle to Biden’s campaign promises aimed at combating climate change, including a $2 trillion green infrastructure initiative. Budget hawks in both parties are also expected to put pressure on their leaders to rein in spending after pandemic relief packages caused the federal deficit to skyrocket. Historically, however, Congress has backed increases in federal research spending even during periods of austerity….

      Lawmakers must also decide whether to complete work on this year’s annual budget. In July, the House approved bills containing healthy boosts for several science agencies, and this week the Senate released its preliminary numbers. If the two bodies can't come to an agreement, the alternative is to continue the current freeze on federal spending and leave the dealmaking to the new president and Congress.

The Disease of Distrust

[These excerpts are from an editorial by Reed V. Tuckson in the 13 November 2020 issue of Science.]

      An uncomfortable question has poked out from the chaos of the coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) crisis—why does health inequity still persist in the United States? American people of color have been disproportionately affected by the pandemic. This, sadly, is no surprise because socioeconomic conditions, health care access challenges, and distrust in health care systems have historically prevented people of color from having healthier lives. As infections and deaths from COVID-19 continue to increase, effective treatments and vaccines are anxiously expected to become available soon. Unfortunately, less attention is being paid to questions about their equitable distribution and uptake. This only contributes to the suspicion felt by minority groups in the United States—particularly people of color—of the medical community. This barrier must come down. Every level of the health enterprise should pledge to reclaim the trust of all populations that is demanded by its professional oaths and missions.

      This legacy of mistrust by people of color in health institutions, health professionals, researchers, and health policy-makers in the United States has existed for decades. This painful reality has been amplified by the actions of the Trump administration and state level officials, and by the behaviors of law enforcement, among others. It should be troubling to any health professional when thousands of African Americans pour into the streets to strenuously assert that their lives matter and that their humanity must be recognized. When people lose trust in the fundamental institutions of their society, decisions regarding the conduct of their lives become altered in both obvious and nuanced ways that affect their well-being….

      I am troubled by just how little the health profession has done to address the persistent misperceptions arising from the nation's history. Every aspect of the health enterprise must build the relationship between patients and health professionals. This includes facilitating inclusive input by disenfranchised communities into health policy formulation, reinforcing the actual and perceived protections and benefits of clinical research, and providing accessible scientific evidence to the public regarding therapeutics such as a COVID-19 vaccine.

      Let this be the moment when the health community speaks to society in a manner that reassures the disenfranchised of the strength of the bond with them. When the human dignity of people is assaulted, health outcomes are affected, thereby requiring health professionals to speak out on matters of social concern. When patients receive care that deviates from best evidence because of bias or socioeconomic hurdles associated with structural racism, advocacy is required to recognize and address the problem. Whether through individual action or the collective work of professional societies, disenfranchised people need to be assured that in matters pertaining to their health, there can be confidence in scientific-based guidance and advice.

      We must all recognize this disease of distrust as the scourge that it is and band together to reclaim this essential characteristic of the health profession: the preservation of the lives of all those who share our time and space. This should be the last time our society has to struggle against the legacy of the past as we fight persistent disparities in health outcomes and tackle this pandemic and the challenges to come.

Waste Away

[These excerpts are from an article by Wudan Yan in the November/December 2020 issue of MIT Technology Review.]

      …That choice solved one problem, but not another: what to do with all the nuclear fuel that San Onofre had used. Its radioactive waste could outlast the human race, with spent fuel components that include plutonium-239, which has a half-life of 24,000 years, and iodine-129, with a half-life of 15.7 million years. But for now, there's no place to store it permanently.

      So SONGS is keeping the rods of spent nuclear fuel in storage holes buried along the seismically active California coastline. They are sitting ducks for the next big earthquake, which is likely to hit within the next century. If the nuclear waste somehow got out, the results would be devastating. Even without a quake, the vaults are “easy to inundate…and ground-water can rise up into them.”

      The plan is to eventually transport the fuel at San Onofre offsite, but where to? The US already has 83,000 metric tons of nuclearwaste, enough to fill a football field about a dozen yards deep—and with two dozen plants currently in the process of decommissioning, the leftovers will keep piling up.

      In 1982, the US Congress enacted the Nuclear Waste PolicyAct, which requires the US Department of Energy to find a geological repository for the spent fuel and take it there. Since 1987, the US government has focused its attention on developing an underground repository at Nevada's Yucca Mountain. However, the site has been apolitical hot potato, with support for it swaying in response to local opposition and state and federal leadership. As a result, the government has so far been unable to fulfill its legal duty to find a long-term home for America’s radioactive waste….

      What if we didn’t have to create new repositories? What if, instead, sites already designated for nuclear material could store it more safely? That was one of the questions that environmentalist Elizabeth Muller started thinking about in 2015. But when she asked experts what could be done with nuclear waste, she got immediate pushback: “People in the business said, ‘There’s no appetite for new ideas in nuclear waste. Nothing ever happens in this industry.’” But, she adds, “just because nothing has ever happened in nuclear waste doesn’t mean you should dismiss it as ‘Nothing’s ever going to happen.’”

      …The company’s top priority is to get the waste below ground; accidents above ground can spell catastrophe. But the Mullers realized that one contentious issue plaguing Yucca Mountain and WIPP was the transportation of nuclear waste across state lines….

      Given the amount of waste already out there, some believe it would be more responsible to simply create less of it. But can that be done without giving up nuclear, one of the best carbon-free options for generating energy?

      One option is to reuse the waste. In France, nuclear waste has been reprocessed since the dawn of the industry in the 1940s. Since 1976, the nuclear power and renewable energy group Orano has processed more than 36,000 metric tons of used fuel, which is responsible for generating 10% of France's nuclear electricity. Orano's plant recycles around 1,100 metric tons per year.

      The process of recycling nuclear fuel takes years. Spent fuel rods are taken from nuclear reactors and placed in a storage pool to cool for two years. When they get to around 570 °F, the fuel rods are packed into steel canisters and brought to the Orano plant in the northwesternmost point in France, in the town of La Hague. After the rods cool below 80 °F, they are cut into smaller pieces before being placed in nitric acid and dissolved. Then the recyclable material—a mixture of uranium and plutonium—gets separated from other fission products in the spent fuel and purified. Finally, it is remixed to produce new fuel.

      The US has developed its own approved technology for reprocessing, but in 2007 the Nuclear Regulatory Commission decreed that it would be too expensive to pursue without an investment from the DOE—which has not materialized.

      Instead, there’s growing interest in developing new kinds of nuclear reactors that produce less waste….

      Reprocessing the uranium can significantly reduce waste….But it doesn’t stop waste from being produced altogether. Levesque and others fear that nuclear waste may be intercepted and used to aid in the proliferation and development of nuclear weapons….

      The future of nuclear waste spans thousands of years, but plants are being decommissioned right now. Until a final resting place can be decided, temporary repositories—like the Toltec facility or Deep Isolation’s proposed boreholes are appealing options for corralling the waste. The alternative is having it sit above ground, where an accident could have much more immediate consequences….

How the Truth Was Murdered

[These excerpts are from an article by Abby Ohlheiser in the November/December 2020 2020 issue of MIT Technology Revie.]

      Hundreds of thousands of Americans are dead in a pandemic. Meanwhile, suburban moms steeped in online health propaganda are printing out Facebook memes and showing up masldess to stores, camera in hand and hell-bent on forcing low-paid retail workers to let them shop anyway. Armed right-wing miliitias are patrolling western towns, embracing online rumors of “antifa” invasions. And US president Donald Trump is amplifying such false narratives as he seeks reelection….

      Many Americans, especially white Americans, have experienced the rise of online hate and disinformation as if they’re on a high bridge over that flooding river, staring only at the horizon. As the water rises, it sweeps away anything that wasn’t able to get such a safe and sturdy perch. Now that bridge isn’t high enough, and even the people on it can feel the deadly currents.

      I think a lot of people believe that this rising tide of disinformation and hate did not exist until it was lapping at their ankles. Before that, the water just wasn’t there—or if it was, perhaps it was a trickle or a stream.

      But if you want to know just how the problem got so big and so bad, you have to understand how many people tried to tell us about it….

      And as some companies began trying to do something about abuse, those involved in such efforts often found themselves becoming the targets of exactly the same kind of harassment….

      These first few months after the 2016 election marked another point in time—much like today—when the flood of disinformation was enough to get more people than usual to notice. Shocked by Trump’s election, many worried that foreign interference and fake news spread on social media had swayed voters….

      …On Twitter, Trump repeatedly used his huge platform to amplify supporters who promoted racist and conspiratorial ideologies….

      The tech companies responded with a running list of fixes….

      But so far the toxic tide has outpaced their ability—or their willingness—to beat it back. Their business models depend on maximizing the amount of time users spend on their platforms. Moreover, as a number of studies have shown, misinformation originates disproportionately from right-wing sources, which opens the tech platforms to accusations of political bias if they try to suppress it. In some cases, NBC News reported in August, Facebook deliberately avoided taking disciplinary action against popular right-wing pages posting otherwise rule-breaking misinformation.

      Many experts believed that the next large-scale test of these companies’ capacity to handle an onslaught of coordinated disinformation, hate, and extremism was going to be the November 2020 election. But the covid pandemic came first—a fertile breeding ground for news of fake cures, conspiracy theories about the virus’s origin, and propaganda that went against common-sense public health guidelines.

      If that is any guide, the platforms are going to be largely powerless to prevent the spread of fake news about ballot fraud, violence on the streets, and vote counts Lcome Election Day….

      One path toward making things better could involve providing more incentive for companies to do something. That might include reforming Section 230, the law that shields social-media companies from legal liability for user-posted content.

      Mary Anne Franks, a professor at the University of Miami who has worked on online harassment, believes that a meaningful reform of the law would do two things: limit the reach of those protections to speech rather than conduct, and remove immunity from companies that knowingly benefit from the viral spread of hate or misinformation….

When More is not More

[These excerpts are from an article by David Rotman in the November/December 2020 2020 issue of MIT Technology Revie.]

      Even before the covid-19 pandemic and the resulting collapse of much the world’s economy, a crisis in capitalism was plainly evident. Unfettered free markets had pushed inequality of income and wealth to extremely high levels in the United States. Slow productivity growth in many rich countries had stunted financial opportunities for a generation. Businesses, if no longer quite oblivious to global warming, seemed impotent to make changes that might slow it.

      And then came the pandemic, with millions losing their jobs, and then the raging wildfires, fueled by climate change, that blazed up and down the US West Coast. All the simmering signs of a dysfunctional economic system suddenly became fully evident, full-blown disasters.

      No wonder many in the US and Europe have begun questioning the underpinnings of capitalism—particularly its devotion to free markets and its faith in the power of economic growth to create prosperity and solve our problems.

      The antipathy to growth is not new; the term “degrowth” was coined in the early 1970s. But these days, worries over climate change, as well as rising inequality, are prompting its reemergence as a movement….

      Though Hickel, an anthropologist, offers a few suggestions (“cut advertising” and “end planned obsolescence”), there’s little about the practical steps that would make a no-growth economy work. Sorry, but talking about plant intelligence won’t solve our woes; it won’t feed hungry people or create well-paying jobs.

      Still, the degrowth movement does have a point: faced with climate change and the financial struggles of many workers, capitalism isn’t getting it done….

      Even some economists outside the degrowth camp, while not entirely rejecting the importance of growth, are questioning our blind devotion to it.

      One obvious factor shaking their faith is that growth has been lousy for decades….

      …slow growth might be the new normal, not some blip, for much of the world.

      Gordon held that growth “ended on October 16, 1973, or thereabouts”….they single out the day when the OPEC oil embargo began; GDP growth in .L the US and Europe never fully recovered….

      In this perspective, growth is not the villain of today's capitalism, but—at least as measured by GDP—it’s an aspiration that is losing its relevance….It’s largely the result of lower birth rates—a shrinking workforce means less output—and a shift to services to meet the demands of wealthier consumers….

      Though the US is the world’s largest economy as measured by GDP, it is doing poorly on indicators such as environmental performance and access to quality education and health care….

      Part of the problem, she suggests, is “a failure to imagine that capitalism can be done differently, that it can operate without toasting the planet.”

      In her perspective, the US needs to start measuring and valuing growth according to its impact on climate change and access to essential services like health care….

      Turning such a strategy into reality will depend on politics. And the reasoning of academic economists…is not likely to be popular politically—ignoring as it does the loud calls for the end of growth from the left and the self-confident demands for continued unfettered free markets on the right.

      But for those not willing to give up on a future of growth and the vast promise of innovation to improve lives and save the planet, expanding our technological imagination is the only real choice.

Recognizing the Work of Women

[These excerpts are from a book review by Jesss Miller-Camp in the 6 November 2020 issue of Science.]

      The history of vertebrate paleontology, like that of other scientific disciplines, has traditionally been told and shaped through a masculine filter….The book is the first major effort to bring the work of several centuries’ worth of silenced people to light. Any such endeavor will inevitably have gaps, but it will also serve as a reference for future projects—particularly with regard to premodern individuals, details about whom are often much harder to track down.

      Rebels, Scholars, Explorers can perhaps best be thought of as a three-part work. In the first section, the authors offer a broad overview of the often hostile climate within which women in vertebrate paleontology have long operated. In the second, they present short biographical sketches of a sampling of women throughout the field’s history. In the third, they provide an assessment of where things currently stand and where we might go from here….

      A number of the biographical sketches also contain anecdotal gems. Taphonomist Kay Behrensmeyer's, for example, references her nonchalance about a venomous green mamba at her field site in Cameroon. And Elizabeth (Betsy) Nicholls’s entry notes how, at the age of 12, she wrote to renowned naturalist Roy Chapman Andrews to ask if girls could be paleontologists—and how she kept his encouraging reply as a treasured token.

      The inclusion of a chapter on modern individuals whose careers are not primarily in original research is refreshing, given academia’s general habit of ignoring such contributors….

      It was incredible and heartening to see, throughout the book, so many citation-rich sections exclusively referencing works Ied by women. The authors’ account of vertebrate paleontology in the Soviet Union, for example, discusses the work of a host of women studying Paleozoic fishes. Such passages make stark the extent to which the contributions of women are often overlooked….

      The book’s final chapter begins to address intersectionality by discussing the additional challenges faced by women paleontologists who are also ethnic minorities. Here, Anusuya Chinsamy-Turan’s account of the restrictions placed on her during South Africa’s apartheid was particularly poignant. However, the authors' handling of transgender issues, another intersectional identity, is disappointing….

How the Horse Powered Human Prehistory

[These excerpts are from an article by Andrew Curry in the 6 November 2020 issue of Science.]

      Until now, the only accounts of the Xiongnu came from their enemies. Chinese records from 2200 years ago describe bow these fierce mounted archers from the wide-open steppes of today's Mongolia clashed with armies in what is now northwestern China. Their onslaughts spurred the Chinese to build what would become known as the Great Wall of China on their northern border, as protection against the mounted nomads. They also started to raise cavalry armies of their own.

      The equestrian empire of the Xiongnu left no written records. But biology is now filling out their story, and those of other Central Asian cultures in antiquity….

      Horses were probably domesticated by the Botai culture around 3500 B.C.E. near what is modern Kazakhstan….Horses may have been mainly used for meat and milk at first, and later began to pull wheeled chariots….

      Genetic studies of Western European populations have shown that around 3000 B.C.E., the Yamnaya—mobile herders of cattle, sheep, and goats—pushed west from the steppes of what is today Russia and Ukraine and triggered a dramatic genetic turnover in Europe. Skeletons from Bronze Age Mongolia had shown the Yamnaya also moved east and introduced their dairy-oriented pastoralist lifestyle there. But they left no lasting genetic traces in Mongolia, the oldest samples in the new study show.

      The ancient DNA does show that 1000 years later, another group from the steppes, called the Sintashta, left a lasting imprint. They also brought fateful cultural changes to Mongolia’s grasslands, as earlier archaeological studies had shown. Starting in about 1200 B.C.E., equestrian innovations including selective breeding for size and endurance, plus bridle bits, riding pants, any even early saddles….

      Mongolians of the time were obviously riding horses….horse skeletons buried around 350 B.C.E. in the Tian Shan mountains, now part of China’s Xinjiang province, show bone abnormaities from riding, including spinal damage from the weight of a rider and changes to the bones of the mouth from bits and bridles….

      Not long after, the Xiongnu emerged. They translated their skills on horseback into a sophisticated means of waging war and organizing an empire over vast distances. Starting in about 200 B.C.E., the Xiongnu marshalled nomadic tribes from across Eurasia into a formidable force, turning the steppes into a political center rivaling neighboring China….

      Jeong’s study of DNA from 60 human skeletons from the Xiongwa's 300-year-run shows how the region was transformed into a multiethnic empire. After more than 1000 years in which three distinct, stable human populations lived side by side on the Mongolian steppe, genetic diversity rose sharply around 200 B.C.E. Populations from western and eastern Mongolia mixed with each other and with people carrying genes from as far away as present-day Iran and Central Asia….

      The results suggest mastery of the horse made possible stunning long-distance voyages on Central Asia's sea of grass. Archaeological finds in the graves of Xiongnu elites, such as Roman glass, Persian textiles, and Greek silver, had suggested distant connections. But the genetic evidence suggests something more than trade. Eleven Xiongnu-period skeletons showed genetic signatures similar to those of the Sarmatians, nomad warriors who dominated the region north of the Black Sea, 2000 kilometers across the open steppe from Mongolia….

      In the future, researchers hope the genomes will help reveal how the mysterious nomad empire worked….

‘A Very, Very Bad Look’ for Remdesivir

[These excerpts are from an article by Jon Cohen and Kai Kupferschmidt in the 6 November 2020 issue of Science.]

      October was a good month for Gilead Sciences, the giant U.S. manufacturer of antivirals. On 8 October, the company inked an agreement to supply the European Union with its drug remdesivir as a treatment for COVID-19—a deal potentially worth more than $1 billion. Two weeks later, on 22 October, remdesivir became the first COVID-19 drug approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA). The decisions mean Gilead can cash in big in two major markets, both with soaring COVID-19 cases.

      But they baffled scientists who have closely -watched the clinical trials of remdesivir unfold over the past 6 months—and who have many questions about its worth. At best, one large, well-designed study found that remdesivir, which must be infused intravenously, modestly reduced the time to recover from COVID-19 in hospitalized patients with severe illness. A few smaller studies found no impact on the disease whatsoever, and none has found that the antiviral reduces patients’ level of SARS-CoV-2, the causative virus. Then, on 15 October, the fourth and largest study delivered what some believed was a coup de grace: The World Health Organization’s (WHO’s) giant Solidarity trial showed that remdesivir does not reduce mortality or the time COVID-19 patients take to recover.

      …Gilead., for its part, acknowledges it had seen an early draft of the Solidarity results before signing the EU deal. But Gilead has aggressively challenged the validity of the data, in part because the study was done in countries with widely varying health care standards.

      That criticism has angered Solidarity investigators. Half the patients who received remdesivir were treated in Europe and Canada, WHO notes, and the others were not necessarily in countries with substandard health care….

      …In August, a Gilead-sponsored study showed patients with moderate pneumonia treated for 5 days with remdesivir improved more quickly than those who received standard care, but oddly, those treated for 10 days did not Nevertheless, shortly afterward, FDA expanded remdesivir’s EUA to include all hospitalized COVID-19 patients….

      Many scientists expected WHO’s Solidarity trial—which had 2750 patients on remdesivir, about three times as many as all other published trials put together—to resolve the drug’s worth. Conducted in 30 countries, Solidarity compared remdesivir and three other repurposed drugs with each other and the standard of care. (Unlike the NIH and Chinese trials, it did not use a placebo.) None of the drugs lowered mortality among hospitalized patients, ft found, and the investigators also noted that remdesivir did not affect “the duration of hospitalization” or whether COVID-19 patients required ventilators.

      Solidarity described the results to FDA representatives on 10 October and in a preprint posted 5 days later. Butl week after that, FDA approved the drug, having reviewed data only from the NIH study and two Gilead-sponsored trials. It had ignored the Solidarity data as well as the findings in China….

      At the same time, the trials have not ruled out the possibility of harmful side effects. In late August, WHO noted a disproportionately high number of reports of liver and kidney problems in patients on remdesivir. And the European Medicines Agency (EMA) said last month that its safety committee had begun to assess reports of acute kidney injuries in some patients taking the drug….

Gradually, then Suddenly

[These excerpts are from an editorial by H. Holden Thorp in the 6 November 2020 issue of Science.]

      Racism, climate denial, and coronavirus disease 2019 (COV1D-19) are major crises standing in the way of a prosperous future for the United States, and resolution of all three could be enabled by science that is persistently ignored….The resistance of US. policy to science has followed a similar path: It gradually built up over 40 years, beginning with the election of Ronald Reagan, but suddenly reached a tipping point in the chaos of 2020. Will the path to resolution also be gradual and then sudden, and if so, at what cost?

      A saying incorrectly attributed to Winston Churchill holds that Americans always do the right thing but only after all other possibilities have been exhausted. Whatever the source, the idea lives on because it resonates and is no more apparent than in the failure of the United States to aggressively deal with 400 years of racial injustice. Slavery ended, but only after a civil war and decades of delay. The civil rights movement created important positive change, but only after civil rights leaders Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and John Lewis boxed in President Lyndon Johnson so that he had little choice but to champion legislation or be associated by history with staunch segregationist George Wallace. Will people of color in the United States have to endure yet more violence from white supremacists before the next inflection toward racial justice?

      As for confronting climate change, the prospects seem distant. Support for climate science has been steadily undermined by politicians catering to businesses dependent on fossil fuels and by religious conservatives suspicious of science because it argues for evolution. When California’s Secretary for Natural Resources Wade Crowfoot challenged President Donald Trump on climate change, the president laughed and said, “I don’t think science knows, actually.” Perhaps Trump knew he was saying something untrue but that many Americans agree with. Will wholesale environmental destruction have to occur before the United States does something about climate change?

      When it comes to COVID-19, White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows admitted, “We’re not going to control the pandemic,” making clear that Trump’s only strategy is to wait for therapeutics and vaccines to soften the blow. Although prospects for both look promising, we are months, if not a year away from reasonable supplies of either….

      Now that so many possibilities have been tried and exhausted, can science help push the country toward resolving these issues? Science must deal with the systemic racism that persists in our enterprise. There are scientifically sound measures that could promote greater racial justice in America, but the scientific community is in no position to advocate for racial justice if its own house is not in order, and that requires difficult soul-searching about the underrepresentation of racial and ethnic groups as well as norms and practices of science that are not inclusive. Scientists must continue to speak out. Skepticism of the peril of COULD I9 has brought forth the response of science in ways never before seen. Scientists must hold on to that voice once the world gets past the pandemic. The old ideal of keeping politics out of science has not served the United States well. And scientists must continue to do the best science. Eventually, society will ask for help. Let’s make sure science has the goods when they do.

“I Burned with Indignation”

[These excerpts are from an article by Anna Nowogrodzki in the November/December 2020 issue of MIT News.]

      In 1892, Hannah Knox Luscomb took her five-year-old daughter, Florence, to hear Susan B. Anthony speak. The speech made such an impression on Florence that she always began her life story with this moment, which inspired her long career as an activist. She would begin as a college student, working in concert with a group of MIT alumnae who played key roles in the quest to earn women the right to vote.

      Having been raised by her mother to develop what she called “an independence of mind,” Luscomb set her sights on attending MIT when she finished high school. “Most of my boy classmates were going to MIT,” she later recalled thinking. “Why shouldn’t I go?” So she enrolled at the Institute to study landscape architecture, and with three of her male classmates, she walked six miles every day from Allston to MIT’s Boston campus and back.

      Although she was one of just 12 women among 1,200 students, Luscomb described MIT as “a preview of heaven.” When a male student released a mouse under her seat in a lecture, she calmly pronounced it a nice-looking mouse. Nor was she fazed by the inhospitable reception MIT gave to suffrage activism….

      Already a fiery and persuasive public speaker by the time she entered MIT, Luscomb became known for her open-air speeches. While still a student, she volunteered to speak in rural towns on trolley tours sponsored by local women’s suffrage groups. Wherever the trolley would stop, she'd disembark and deliver an impassioned speech while standing on top of a Moxie box borrowed from the nearest drugstore.

      Fellow suffragist Katharine Dexter McCormick, Class of 1904, also took part in such trolley tours….in their stop in Lawrence, Massachusetts, they went up in a hot air balloon and rained leaflets on the crowd. /p>

      In their quest to convince women they deserved a voice in democracy, the MIT suffragists were undaunted by naysayers….

      As they sought to combat that indif-ference, the suffragists were not afraid to trample on convention. When police tried to block McCormick from speaking on Nantasket Beach, she waded into the ocean and gave her speech as the water lapped around her knees….

      Page wasn’t the only MIT alumna to wield her pen in support of suffrage. Eugenia Brooks Frothingham (Class of 1899), a well-known novelist, published an essay titled “Fears of the Anti-Suffragist” in 1914. And when Luscomb earned her MIT degree in 1909, she joined the Waltham-based architectural firm of fellow MIT suffragist Ida Annah Ryan, Class of 1905, and together they sponsored a women’s edition of the Waltham daily paper in 1913. (In 1906, Ryan had been the first woman to earn a master of science degree from the Institute and the first woman in the country to earn a master’s in architecture; hers was one of the country’s first women’s architectural firms, specializing in municipal buildings and workers’ housing.)….

      Six months before the passage of the 19th Amendment in 1920 gave women the right to vote, McCormick cofounded the League of Women Voters with Carrie Chapman Catt, becoming its first vice president. Later in life, she would fund the development of the birth control pill and the construction of MIT’s McCormick Hall, providing the first housing for women at the Institute.

      Meanwhile, the indefatigable Luscomb found many other causes to fight for, protesting McCarthyism, the Vietnam War, and nuclear weapons….

COVID-19’s Sunny Side

[These excerpts are from an article by David L. Chandler in the November/December 2020 issue of MIT News.]

      As covid-19 brought travel and commerce to a standstill, air pollution cleared significantly enough to boost the performance of solar panels. In Delhi, one of the world’s smoggiest cities, output from solar installations increased more than 8%....

      …Using pollution data collected at the US embassy and meteorological data collected by monitors at the solar installations, they had concluded that pollution generally reduced output by about 10%.

      To assess the pandemic’s impact, they compared the data from before and after India went into mandatory lockdown on March *, and also compared this with data from the previous three years. Pollution was down by about 50% after the shutdown, they found, and total solar output increased by 8.3% in late March and 5.9% in April—three to four times the typical fluctuations.

      An 8% increase might not sound like much, Buonassisi says, but “the margins of profit are very small for these businesses.” The findings demonstrate, he says, that the very act of using more solar electricity to displace dirtier fossil fuels makes the solar systems more efficient: putting solar panels on one’s house is “not only putting money in your pocket, but it’s also helping everybody else out there who already has solar panels installed, as well as everyone else who will install them over the next 20 years.”

EDF Racks Up New Legal Wins against the Trump Agenda

[These excerpts are from an article by Joanna Foster in the Fall 2020 issue of Solutions.]

      …A recent MIT study found that around half of premature deaths in the United States related to poor air quality are due to interstate air pollution. Communities of color are disproportion-ately affected.

      One of the most dangerous forms of interstate pollution is ground-level ozone, or smog. Smog forms when in-dustrial emissions react with heat and sunlight in the air. Nearly 40% of Americans live in areas with unhealthy levels of ozone pollution, which can cause and exacerbate chronic respiratory diseases like asthma. It can scar the lungs and cause premature death and is particularly harmful to children.

      Despite the proven, and staggering, public health burden of interstate air pollution, the EPA refused New York's recent request for help reducing smog-forming pollution from out of state. EDF and our allies fought back and won, and the EPA is under court order to consider New York’s petition.

      New York sought relief under the Good Neighbor provision of the Clean Air Act from the biggest upwind polluters, but the EPA mired the request in red tape. The District of Columbia Circuit Court agreed with us, saying the EPA “demanded likely unattainable standards of proof…."

      New York’s petition, which the EPA must now consider, would broaden the range of interstate pollution sources to which the Good Neighbor provision could apply….

      The success in defending against interstate air pollution was just one in a streak of four resounding victories for the environment by EDF and allies in a single week this summer. The others are:

      Our successful defense of an Obama-era rule designed to create an even playing field for energy storage to compete with fossil fuel generators….

      A victory that upheld California’s authority to coordinate with Quebec to cut climate pollution through a linked climate pollution reduction program….

      A court ruling to vacate the administration’s rollback of the 2016 Methane Waste Prevention Rule….

      After nearly four years of relentless attacks on health and environmental protections, the administration has failed to complete and successfully defend in court a rollback of any major climate and clean air safeguards….

      In fact, whereas previous administrations typically won about 70% of their regulatory law-suits, the Trump administration has lost 85% —and 90% when it comes to environmental suits….

      The success of EDF and allies in disrupting and delaying the administration's deregulatory agenda means that many major rollbacks face ongoing litigation, while other rollbacks promoted in the first weeks of the administration are still struggling to be finalized. This is important, as any rule finalized within the last 60 legislative days of a presidential term, is vulnerable to repeal under the Congressional Review Act. A weapon once wielded by Trump to cut down environmental progress could eventually be repurposed to repair and rebuild.

      Yet even as the clock ticks down the final days of his first term, Trump continues to escalate his appalling attacks.

      In July, the administration announced changes to weaken the Magna Carta of environmental law— the National Environmental Policy Act. NEPA was signed into law by President Nixon 50 years ago with huge bipartisan majorities. The act enshrines environmental review and public comment. It gives communities a voice in the planning of pipelines, industrial activities and some power plants and ensures they can protect themselves from dangerous or poorly designed federal projects.

      The new changes strike at the heart of NEPA: they fast-track environmental studies, recklessly ignore climate impacts and exempt certain projects from any environmental impact assessment….

      With the climate crisis growing deeper every day and a deadly pandemic worsening the burden of polluted air, halting the administration's hasty and half-baked deregulatory agenda is simply not enough.

      Moving past the destruction of the past four years, to secure a safe climate and healthy air for all Americans, is the vast job that awaits….

A Profound Plan to Save the Seas

[These excerpts are from a book review by Mary Ellen Hannibal in the 30 October 2020 issue of Science.]

      …Instead of regulating individual fisheries or putting boundaries around select areas of the ocean, we need to protect the whole thing.

      The ocean waters that make Earth habitable for humans are becoming increasingly polluted with plastics and chemicals; they are acidifying and warming. They are also losing species at a rate that could drive many to extinction. The profound interconnectivity of ocean organisms means that negative impacts are amplified throughout the food web. But, according to Rowan Wright, the biggest problem many ocean denizens face is a shortage of food. Humanity is eating it all. In 2018, the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations reported 4.6 million fishing vessels in operation, harvesting two-thirds of commercial stocks to capacity and the final third in biologically unsustainable numbers.

      Science has long shown the negative im-pacts of lower-trophic-level overharvests on 1.- the rest of the food web….In Antarctica, we harvest krill—small planktonic crustaceans near the bottom of the food chain—for use in health supplements and fish-farm feed. Krill are eaten by a wide panoply of seabirds, by invertebrates such as squid, and by fish. They are also an important part of the whale diet. Take out the krill, and many other species go hungry; eventually, the ecosystem will collapse.

      Removal of top predators likewise has negative impacts on the process, function, and resilience of the ecosystem….Humans like to eat bluefin tuna, for example, which have been hunted nearly to extinction.

      As Rowan Wright probes catch limits putatively designed to prevent collapse of the fishery, she finds that, often, these limits are set well above those recommended by experts….

      Oceans are vulnerable to what Garrett Hardin memorably called “the tragedy of the commons,” wherein individuals fail to act in accordance with the common good and collectively exploit a shared resource….This is particularly true of the high seas, where both the lack of sovereign jurisdiction and technological advances have allowed humanity to penetrate the ocean’s farthest reaches, leading to the decimation of harvests even in the most remote waters.

      Rowan Wright’s solution to the current plight of the seas is to reinvigorate existing international laws according to' economist Elinor Ostrom’s principles for good commons governance….

      As she sets out to aggregate the various treaties and agreements that address human impacts on the ocean, Rowan Wright is surprised to learn that “virtually all the seas and oceans in the whole world are already protected by international law.” The comprehensive United Nations effort—called, simply, the Law of the Sea—is an existing treaty signed by 180 countries (the United States is notably absent), which covers most of the bases necessary to mitigate damage to the ocean, from catch-size• limits to guidelines for minimizing pollution.

      The problem, argues Rowan Wright, is lax enforcement and apathy. Sovereignties are inconsistent and self-serving when it comes to upholding the rules to which they have agreed, and we have not put pressure on our governments to do better….

The Vibrant Lives of Neanderthals

[These excerpts are from a book review by Emma Pomeroy in the 30 October 2020 issue of Science.]

      Over the past several decades, many academic and popular writers have attempted to narrow the long-entrenched gulf between humans and Neanderthals, focusing, for example, on the misinterpretations and racist presumptions of the 19th and early 20th centuries out of which the dim view of our evolutionary cousin arose, or on more recent paleoanthropological, archaeological, and genetic evidence suggesting that they interbred with our ancestors and displayed a range of sophisticated-behaviors. In her new book, Kindred, Rebecca Wragg Sykes nevertheless brings something new to this discussion.

      The book’s scope is impressive, spanning from the initial discoveries and interpretations of Neanderthals to the diverse aspects of their biology and behavior, including their childhoods, lifestyles, technologies, art, and approaches to death….

      A recurring perspective in Kindred is that diversity can and should be expected in Neanderthal behavior, given their existence over hundreds of thousands of years and their vast geographical range. The culture of groups separated by space or time would likely have seemed just as foreign (had they met) as it does when we encounter unfamiliar cultures today….

      Wragg Sykes evaluates the available evidence on Neanderthals with empathy and even-handedness, revealing the group to be less “them” and more “us.” She rejects aggression-centered narratives that have previously shaped our interpretations of Neanderthal interactions with each other and with human ancestors, and she convincingly argues that we must recognize the potential role of other characteristics, including cooperation, sharing, and social bonds, in shaping their lives.

      Wragg Sykes takes a similarly considered approach in discussing why Neanderthals went extinct. Rather than framing the question in terms of winners and losers, or superior and inferior species, she evaluates modern humans and Neanderthals in parallel, comparing the successes and shortcomings of each. While it is true that Neanderthals are the ones that went extinct, our story is not one of unmitigated success, she notes. Modem humans did not successfully settle in Europe until long after we evolved in Africa and reached Asia, for example, and those earliest modem humans in Europe were eventually replaced by later waves of migration. Meanwhile, the fact that Neanderthals existed for around 350,000 years hardly suggests failure. We, too, may yet succumb to environmental challenges or bring about our own downfall….

Denisovan DNA Found in Cave in Tibetan Peninsula

[These excerpts are from an article by Ann Gibbons in the 30 October 2020 issue of Science.]

      For today’s Buddhist monks, Baishiya Karst Cave, 3200 meters high on the Tibetan Plateau, is holy. For ancient Denisovans, extinct hominins known only from DNA, teeth, and bits of bone found in another cave 2800 kilometers away in Siberia, it was a home. Last year, researchers proposed that a jawbone found long ago in the Tibetan cave was Denisovan, based on its ancient proteins….

      After working from dusk to dawn while temperatures outside plunged to -18°C, then covering traces of their dig every morning, the scientists' persistence paid off….mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA) gleaned not from fossils, but from the cave sediments themselves. Precise dates show the Denisovans took shelter in the cave 100,000 years and 60,000 years ago, and possibly as recently as 45,000 years ago, when modern humans were flowing into eastern Asia….

      The presence of Denisovan DNA in the genomes of living people across Asia suggested these ancient humans were widespread. But the partial jaw from Baishiya Karst Cave was the first fossil evidence….

      Those questions are likely to fade. The dig…took many sediment samples and found charcoal from fires, 1310 simple stone tools, and 579 pieces of bone from animals including rhinos and hyenas….

      The dates for the older sediments seem highly reliable….And by showing DNA and dates can be gleaned from the same sediment samples, the work opens “"a new era of molecular caving….”

      The charcoal in the cave shows its occupants built fires. They also used simple stone tools, and, from the cave's high opening, must have spied on animals grazing in the meadows below. Some may also have been on the lookout for modern humans, who were in the region by 40,000 years ago.

      Homo sapiens must have met and mated with two populations of Denisovans—one in mainland Asia and one in Southeast Asia….

      The Denisovans bequeathed a particular genetic gift to modern Tibetans: a “super-athlete” variant of a gene, called EPAS1, that helps red blood cells use oxygen efficiently and is found in Denisovans from Denisova Cave. Zhang and her colleagues think the Tibetan Plateau Denisovans may have been adapted to life at high altitude, and that EPAS1 may have spread widely among them, before they handed it on to modem Tibetans.

      But molecular dating suggests EPAS1 spread rapidly only in the past 5000 years. And natural selection would have favored that gene variant only in people who lived at high altitude year-round….

It’s Just Louder this Time

[These excerpts are from an editorial by H. Holden Thorp in the 30 October 2020 issue of Science.]

      As if there were any doubt that U.S. President Donald Trump has no respect for scientists, he now refers to public health scholars as “Fauci and all these idiots.” That's how he’s describing experts in virology, immunology, epidemiology, and infectious disease. Never mind that after recovering from coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19), Trump suddenly became excited about future vaccines and “Regeneron,” which is what he calls monoclonal antibodies in general….Apparently, no one told the president that scientists from these same fields—many of whom live in “Democrat-run cities” or college towns and are immigrants who wouldn’t be here under his, policies—created these drugs and carried out the decades of science that made them possible. This paradox of loving the drug but hating the science is nothing new It’s just louder this time.

      …In the 1970s, President Richard Nixon worked bard to pass important pieces of public health and environmental legislation that were approved with large bipartisan majorities in Congress. Then, when Ronald Reagan arrived as a candidate in the 1980 election, he advocated teaching creationism in public schools and mocked environmental science and regulation. In his brand of conservatism, the free market and American exceptionalism could not coexist with a shared responsibility for caring for the planet or its inhabitants.

      Vice President Mike Pence is carrying on Reagan’s tradition. In a widely viewed speech on the House floor when he was a member of Congress, Pence extolled “intelligent design.” He cited a then-recent study of new fossils, which enhanced our understanding of how human life unfolded on Earth, as evidence that evolution was invalid because scientists were always changing theories when new data were obtained. He was criticizing scientists for doing science….If Pence thinks we can’t change our understanding with new data, then we'd have to go back to breathing phlogiston and being orbited by the Sun.

      The paradox has played out for years. Many Republicans in Congress have been strong advocates for science funding, especially for the National Institutes of Health, although some simultaneously espouse antiscience views and embrace creationism. Biology is the study of evolution, and biomedicine is applied evolution: Why would creationists spend money to study and apply this heresy? Because they want their new medicines. They want to tell their constituents that they are fighting diseases that are harming their families. Arguing for science funding by promising new cures has been a winning political strategy for the 75 years that the United States has had federally funded science.

      A recent survey from the Pew Research Center found that only 20% of the political right has “a lot” of confidence in scientists. Yet when folks at this end of the political spectrum get sick, they want the best treatments that secular academic medicine can provide. The consequences of this are profound and especially apparent in the COVID-19 crisis. The same politicians who are criticizing public health guidance are praising vaccines and antibodies without acknowledging that they come from the same principles and researchers as masks and social distancing.

      When the presidential election is over, science will face an important choice. Should the scientific community try to get the missing 80% of the ideological right to understand its people and its methods? Or should science write it off as a lost cause and continue to take the funding while providing the outstanding new medicines?

Controlling the Global Thermostat

[These excerpts are from an article by Jonathan Shaw in the November-December 2020 issue of Harvard Magazine.]

      Climate changes may be the most inexorable catastrophe the human species has ever faced. What to do about the warming is dominated by uncertainties—and a pervasive inability to agree on who should do what in response. Can humanity agree to meet its energy needs with carbon-free renewables, such as wind and solar power—and if so, how quickly could the transition be made, and feasibly paid for? How high will sea level rise by 2050? By zoo? Given rich. nations and poor ones, and public and political attention spans measured in a few years (if that long), rather than decades or centuries, what mechanisms exist to make collective decisions on long time scales, and to allocate the resulting pain and gains?

      These are all important questions—but even they ignore a central certainty that no one appears to be addressing: what Dan Schrag calls “climate change’s dirty little secret.” “Even if we could become carbon-neutral tomorrow,” says the director of the Harvard University Center for the Environment, “the climate will keep changing for thousands of years, the ice sheets will keep melting, and the seas will continue to rise.”

      …Atmospheric carbon dioxide (CO2), the chief global-warming agent by volume, is increasing rapidly. In Ivlay 1960, the gas made up 317 parts per million (ppm) of earth’s atmosphere as measured at Mauna Loa, Hawaii, up from preindustrial levels of about 280 ppm; by this May, as humans continued to release more than 35 billion metric tons of CO2 annually, the figure had risen to 417 ppm—and during that period, average temperatures over land increased about 2.5 degrees Fahrenheit. The current, accelerating rate of CO2 increase is 2.5 ppm per year: loo times faster than at any period in Earth's geological history, straining the ability of ecosystems to adapt.

      CO2 is also persistent. A thousand years from now—30 human generations—more than half the heat-trapping carbon dioxide that humanity has pumped into the atmosphere since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution will still be there. Twenty thousand years from now, says Schrag, a third of that CO2 will remain. As the gas traps heat arriving from the sun, temperatures will continue to increase progressively above the natural, preindustrial levels which the human species has come to expect. Unless the process can be reversed—not just slowed—the globally transformative effects of human-induced warming will thus extend across a geological time scale that has come to be known among scientists as the anthropocene: the era of extinctions in which human action plays the determining role.

      Profound changes caused by the seemingly modest increase in average temperature to date have already begun: heat waves, wildfires, the spread of diseases, and increasing coastal erosion and inundation. The Greenland ice sheet is melting, and global sea levels are rising at increasing rates attributable to meltwater and thermal expansion of the oceans themselves. Climate data from the Eocene, 56 million to 35 million years ago, when the atmospheric CO2, concentration was last this high, suggest that this ice sheet probably can’t survive at the temperatures associated with levels above 400 ppm.

      If all 3,000-trillion tons of Greenland ice return to the sea as meltwater (whether over five centuries or lo millennia), the average global sea level will, rise about 23 feet—submerging Lower Manhattan, San Francisco, and Shanghai; most of southern Florida; and large portions of the mid-Atlantic coast. Parts of the West Antarctic ice-sheet, equivalent to an additional 20 feet of sea-level rise, will probably melt on a similar time scale, but could collapse much sooner….The conservative consensus estimate…is that even if the surface temperature increase can be held to 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit), the resulting two-degree world is one that commits to long-term sea-level rise of 39 feet, around the height of a four-story building.

      Two degrees of warming does not seem like much. But buried in that small average increase in temperature are record-breaking extremes, including heat that has begun to make life impossible in some places, driving migrations of hundreds of thousands of pastoral people from Africa’s Sahel—and imminently, millions more. Storms fueled by the excess solar energy in the climate system are becoming more dangerous and frequent. Rising seas already pose an existential threat to island nations in the Pacific and inhabitants of low-lying coastal areas worldwide: 15 million in Bangladesh alone….

      Addressing climate change is hard because it requires collective global action by nations and their citizens on very long time scales….most U.S. politicians tend to consider the issue as a relatively short-term challenge of decarbonizing the domestic economy in the coming decades. They haven’t yet grasped that climate change will continue beyond any human time scale….Emissions are cumulative, and the atmosphere integrates the world, so “unless every major country on Earth" decarbonizes, the effort would be ineffective….”

      “Ronald Reagan merrily told us all that the nine scariest words in the English language were “’I’m from the government, and I’m here to help,’” he sums up, “but it turns out the scariest words in the English language are either ‘We’ve run out of ventilators’ or ‘A hillside behind your house caught on fire’—and neither of those yields to individual solutions. They require working societies.”

      …such measures, combined with higher fuel-economy standards for combustion engines and a tax on carbon in the power sector, could lead to 50 percent reductions of CO2 emissions economy-wide by 2035, relative to 2005, levels.

      Getting to such a 50 percent reduction would require a larger, nearly zero-carbon power grid, to provide the electricity for a vast expansion of electric vehicles. Making this scaled-up, nearly clean grid a reality would require additional “very substantial cost reductions in grid-level storage, to deal with the intermittency of sun and wind,” plus a huge push to construct a national long-distance transmission grid, because the best sites for generating renewable power are far from the major sites of demand….

      …The very last emissions cuts will be the hardest and most expensive: developing carbon-neutral methodsand steel manufacturing, or for production of liquid fuels needed for aviation….

      Based on his experience, Aldy says it is also "politically infeasible" to decarbonize by 2035. It’s not just the cost; inertia also perpetuates the existing energy infrastructure, he explains. In the United States, for example, permitting and siting “"all the transmission lines you would need...takes a really long time.” Furthermore, the global fossil-fuel-burning capital stock—the existing burden of working cars, furnaces, power plants—contains baked in warming (not yet apparent, but predictable based on continued emissions) that is expected to carry e costs. “Even if we don’t build another coal-fired power plant anywhere in the world starting tomorrow, or another gasoline-powered automobile, and just continue to use what we have,” he says, the average global temperature increase will reach at least 1.5 degrees Celsius. The Paris Agreement, signed in 2015, aspired to limit warming to that level, and to keep long-term temperatures well below 2 degrees Celsius. (The Trump administration’s decision to withdraw from the agreement will take ef-fect November 4.)….

      …Even if emissions ceased overnight, the ocean and other carbon sinks that have absorbed vast quantities of anthropogenic CO2 will begin slowly releasing that stored gas into the atmosphere to reach equilibrium, if and when atmospheric concentrations of the gas begin to decline. To reduce atmospheric carbon by 50 ppm in the future, for example, one might have to plan to remove an amount equivalent to too ppm. (The same is true of the excess heat trapped by greenhouse gases, 90 percent of which has been absorbed by the oceans. That stored solar energy will slow efforts to cool Earth in the future.)

      …One version, solar aerosol geoengineering, would involve launching reflective aerosolized particles into the stratosphere from airplanes. The effect would mimic what happened when Mount Pinatubo erupted in 1991, ejecting 20 million tons of sulfur dioxide into the atmosphere. That cooled the Earth by half a degree Celsius from 1991 to 1993.

      Aldy and Zeckhauser describe solar geoengineering as “an awful action” that might nevertheless be needed to help moderate global temperature during a long period of slow decarbonization and could also galvanize greater public support for cutting emissions. Because it is already technically achievable at low cost, and offers the prospect of rapid results, researchers at Harvard and elsewhere have speculated that it could be deployed by a very small number of nations without a consultative global process—by the G-7 nations, for example, or by the United States alongside China or India. At the moment, Aldy points out, nothing in U.S. or international law would prevent such a deployment….

      The aim of solar geoengineering would be to keep Earth’s tem-perature as close to equilibrium as possible….

      Keith’s modeling also suggests that if the process were used to halve warming, that would moderate climate hazards nearly everywhere. Only 1.3 percent of land areas would see a change in water availability—as increased moisture, not as drought. In addition to attenuating global average temperature, this halving of warming would in theory lessen the intensity of tropical cyclones, reduce regional changes in water availability, ease extreme precipitation and extreme temperatures, and even reduce atmospheric carbon concentrations and ocean acidification.

      Ironically, the biggest challenge may be the same one facing decarbonization: global governance….

      …World governments, for example, might agree to cap CO2 at 500 ppm, but miss that target because eliminating the last industrial and aviation uses of fossil fuels is so difficult and expensive. As the cumulative CO2 levels rise higher, more and more particles would need to be injected into the atmosphere to keep the temperature below damaging levels. “And then,” says Stock, “you are seriously addicted.”

      That idea is not farfetched, he argues. The Trump administration, in its first round of fuel-economy standards, projected that CO2 would reach 800 ppm in 2100—and then used that as an argument to lower fuel consumption standards, because burning a little more gasoline would make no difference….

      …He expects, in fact, that people whose fortunes are bound up with oil and gas will try to exploit the prospect of solar geoengineering, using it to argue against emissions cuts….

      “Does humanity need to do solar radiation management?” is not solely a scientific question because any larae-scale intervention will affect all life on Earth….

      Schrag says his view of geoengineering is a little like Churchill’s assessment of democracy: that it is “’the worst form of Government except for all those other forms...’ Taking control of the planet’s thermostat is a terrifying idea. I just think that a lot of people don’t understand that climate change is even more terrifying.”

Life in Full Color

[These excerpts are from an article by April Thames in the Autumn 2020 issue of USC Torjan Family Magazine.]

      I’m biracial—half African American and half white. Growing up, I would see a lot of acts of racism. Being an interracial couple, my mom and dad experienced a lot of discrimination. I knew from a very early age that Blacks were treated much differently than whites. I would hear these rants against Black people because people didn’t know I was Black—I would hear what people were really thinking.

      It’s hard to look back, but I remember feeling that I was being treated differently and not really understanding why. If my dad brought me to school, I got different looks and teachers would react in different ways than if my mom dropped me off….

      My parents also faced judgment and lost friends because of their interracial dynamic. When my mom would become friends with other mothers at the school, they didn't know my father was Black. When they found out, they would no longer associate with her and didn’t want their kids playing with me. I didn’t know any of this was going on when I was younger. I just knew one day I had a friend and the next day I didn’t.

      I think that’s what got me interested in this idea that things you can’t change about yourself—things that are part of your core identity—can also be social threats. It does result in chronic underlying stress. My dad had this stress as a Black man. My mom would worry about how people would treat me because I was half Black and how they would treat her when they saw she was with my dad. Those stressors were there.

      If you talk to any researcher, especially those who study social justice issues, there's usually some kind of personal connection to the work—you need that passion. It’s been fascinating to connect discrimination to health outcomes. In terms of the science, it’s about showing how these experiences are real and affect people.

A Case for “We” in an “I” Country

[These excerpts are from a book review by James A. Morone in the 23 October 2020 issue of Science.]

      In the 1890s, a biracial coalition swept to power in North Carolina, infuriating white supremacists, who primed themselves for the next election. “You are Anglo-Saxons,” shouted former congressman Alfred Moore Waddell to white vot-ers in Wilmington in 1898….Intimidation and violence defeated the coalition, and the day after the election, militiamen led white mobs through the city’s Black neighborhood, killing, burning, and looting….

      …At the turn of the 20th century; the United States suffered from rampant inequality, vicious partisanship, a torn social fabric, and unabashed egoism. Individuals and corporations lunged ahead, the devil take the hindmost. But from that terrible epoch—eerily similar to today—something admirable sprang up and flourished: six decades of steady, albeit imperfect, social amelioration….

      But what was it about the 1960s that cracked a sunny community and turned it back into a selfish, snarling, and segregated land? After much searching, the authors declare that “it is fruitless to look for a single cause.” Nonetheless, a powerful potential cause glints through, and the authors seem repeatedly tempted to settle on it.

      At the height of the civil rights movement, George Wallace, a fiery segregationist, stunned everyone by riding a crude racial backlash to strong showings in the 1964 primaries. The Republican Party, led by Barry Goldwater (in 1964) and Richard Nixon (in 1968 and 1972), cashed in and began to wink at white privilege. Suddenly, the majority of white people stopped voting for Democrats (who averaged just 39% of the white vote in presidential contests between 1976 and 2016)….

      Over the past 50 years, the backlash spread from civil rights to welfare policies (“we” do not want to pay for “them”) to immigration (another raciRlind "them") and, eventually, to all government action, leading some citizens to question the very idea of good policy, science, and expertise. By the 1990s, the political parties were channeling unprecedented tribal division. Democrats embraced all the so-called minorities, while Republicans spoke to racial anxieties. And just as the temperature was rising, in 2005, the US. Census. Bureau predicted a majority-minority nation within a generation, further stoking white fear. Putnam and Garrett return to racial tensions in four different chapters, raising the question of whether it was white racial anxiety that shattered the great American “we.” The authors do not go so far as saying yes, but they lay out enough evidence to allow readers to judge for themselves….

Science, Politics, and Public Health

[These excerpts are from an editorial by William L. Roper in the 23 October 2020 issue of Science.]

      There is an idea on the part of scientists that politics is dirty, and a companion idea on the part of politicians that science, by its continual qualifications and revisions, is, if not irrelevant, then at least out of touch with the constraints of a democracy: What seems optimal from the perspective of science may be impossible to implement in the political arena. The events of the past several months regarding the coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) pandemic make it apparent that for public health to continue to improve the lives of everyone, we must find ways to overcome this mutual distrust.

      …the disease particularly hit marginalized groups in the population. There were major controversies about the safety of the blood supply, about condom distribution and needle exchange programs, and about how to deal with HIV-infected health care workers.

      The biomedical community felt that science and scientists should be making the decisions regarding public health—in other words, “getting politics out of public health.” Policy-makers said that these decisions should not be left to unelected public health experts.

      Many of those same sentiments are being voiced today, during the COVID-19 pandemic. What’s worse now is that many in Washington, DC, and around the country seem to scorn even the idea-of scientific experts. The fact is that each group needs the other—science without politics is impotent, and politics without science is subject to whim and caprice.

      …it is as true today as it was then that the CDC and the other U.S. public health agencies are not infallible. That is especially true regarding new diseases, those without an existing body of knowledge. Early pronouncements often need to be revisited, and frequently revised, as new discoveries are made.

      This year, the CDC has been off the mark more than once and has had to reverse its recommendations. But the solution to this reality is not to belittle and tear down this hugely important agency, but rather to continue the quest for more and better scientific knowledge, and to be willing to implement those insights. But there have been repeated reports of political folks pushing the CDC to alter their scientific judgments to fit a political agenda.

      Politicians should use the product of the scientific process to make careful policy and to design programs that benefit the public's health. And scientists should avoid being drawn into the political fray and being used to try to influence elections. Calling for this mutual respect and joint involvement in the public health process may seem naïve—especially in the wake of the recent scientific problems at the CDC, and also at a time of hyperpolitical division and unprecedented election-year chaos….

      Every American-whether scientist or layperson, whether Republican, Democrat, or Independent—has a stake in getting this science-politics balance right. It is far too important for game playing.

Saving the Poor and Vulnerable

[These excerpts are from an editorial by Sir Ian L. Boyd in the 23 October 2020 issue of Science.]

      Right now, warm surface water is moving into the western Pacific Ocean in the form of a “La Nina.” It is a sentinel for a complex set of connections that drive weather patterns from the Horn of Africa to Botswana and normally presages drought in East Africa. This event soon will be ringing alarm bells within the World Food Programme (WFP). Even as this United Nations-led agency celebrates its well-deserved award of the 2020 Nobel Peace Prize, the relentless challenge of preventing hunger marches on….

      The work of the WFP is the consequence of failure. It has been around since 1961 and has been the global coordinator of nationally based efforts to avert catastrophes with food aid. If it has struggled at times, this is largely because of the debilitating nexus of war, corruption, climate change, and famine. Despite decades of effort to alleviate hunger, the latest estimate is that about 11% of people on the planet (about 820 million people) are suffering chronic under-nourishment. This rises to nearly a quarter of all people in sub-Saharan Africa, and hunger is on the rise in Africa. Progress at reducing undernourishment has stalled de-spite gains through the 1990s and 2000s.

      At this time, when a global pandemic is forcing the rich of the world to adjust their lives—often in minor ways compared with the starving and dispossessed—the Nobel Committee is challenging humanity to act with moral courage and selflessness. Even in good times, the richest of the world are hardly overflowing with generosity….Climate change, a product largely of the accrual I of capital wealth by rich nations, just adds to the asymmetry of stress. The developing world suffers the most from the negative impacts of climate change.

      American philosopher John Rawls saw that addressing the needs of the poor and vulnerable is about more than money—it is mostly about creating conditions under which liberty and opportunity can thrive….It was U.S. President Dwight Eisenhower who asked for the wYP to be established, but the current incumbent of that office has hardly shown such leadership. Nations must act together and act globally. Perhaps the Nobel Committee’s choice was also a poke in the eye for Donald Trump and his tribe.

      …The various national food aid agencies that are coordinated through the WFP are increasingly informed by forecasting of climatic challenges to food production, for instance. The resilience that must be built into sonic of the poorest countries will not come from loans from wealthy and populous countries, which may have a food deficit of their own, or institutions like the International Monetary Fund. It will be built upon self-confident people using open and shared scientific knowledge to pull themselves out of their misery.

Lessons from the Pandemic about Science Education

[These excerpts are from an an article by Andrew Zucker and Pendred Noyce in the October 2020 issue of Phi Delta Kappan.]

      If students in the United States master everything in the Next Generation Science Standards but learn nothing else about science, then they will graduate high school without knowing anything about immunization, viruses, antibodies, or vaccines, or about organintions such as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the World Health Organization. They will never have been asked to investigate such topics as the efficacy of measles vaccine or the risks of vaping. They will never have been asked to read science-related books or articles in the popular press. Nor, for that matter, will they have been taught how to find reliable sources of information about science or how to evaluate and reject scientific misinformation, such as, for example, fringe theories about the origin of the 2019 novel coronavirus. And yet, these same students will have been required to master a host of more technical standards, such as learning to “use mathematical representations to support claims for the cycling of matter and flow of energy among organisms in an ecosystem,” even though few of them will Lever use such knowledge….

      One does not need to be a science expert to recognize that our existing K-12 national science standards omit a host of important topics. In fact, nonexperts — given their broader interest in the societal implications of scientific knowledge — may be better equipped than the experts to spot those omissions. It is often said that war is too important to be left to the generals. One might add that science education is too important to be left to the scientists….

      However, while the NGSS doesn’t prohibit anybody from adding more content to the curriculum, few teachers are able to do so. In practice, most teachers have their hands full trying to integrate all three of these dimensions into every lesson, much less trying to go beyond what the standards require. If a topic isn't included in the NGSS, it’s not likely to be taught at all, no matter how important it may be.

      …early in the process of writing the new standards, the National Science Teaching Association (NSTA), which represents 50,000 science educators, took a firm position on the need for “all students . . . to understand the nature of science and the history of science.” However, the final NGSS document does not mention the name of a single scientist, nor does it expect students to learn about key events in the history of science, such as Galileo's conflict with the church about Earth’s place in the solar system or Jonas Salk’s development of a polio vaccine and his decision to place it in the public domain….

      Similarly, Susan Hockfield…, a former president of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, argues in Science magazine that if the public hopes to “get the most from this scientific golden age,” then it will have to understand the critical roles scientific institutions — such as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC); the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC); the Environment ProtectionAgency (EPA), and the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) — play in sponsoring and conducting scientific investigations and advising policy makers who apply science to vital societal issues….

      These days, roughly 45% of teens say they are “almost constantly” online…, where misinformation is rampant. More Americans get their news from the web than from traditional sources like newspapers and television broadcasts. Still, the NGSS says nothing about how to find reliable science information on the internet or assess scientific claims in the media.

      …Rather than placing so much emphasis on preparing students for college and careers, we argue that its chief goal should be to ensure that all students attain the IL capacity to act as scientifically informed citizens….

      The nation’s schools always face difficult choices about what to teach and how, and that’s true for every field, not just the sciences. A number of years ago, for example, some policy makers rushed to mandate algebra instruction for all 8th-grade students, on the theory that this would put them on track to succeed in college and would improve educational equity. However, critics argued that this mandate was counterproductive, as many students were simply not prepared to take algebra — and subsequent research demonstrated that the critics were correct….

      Before the NGSS can be significantly improved, though, many people and groups will need to speak out in support of change….

      Finally, while some science educators have long seen weaknesses in the Next Generation Science Standards, the world-shaking onset of COVID-19 should make these weaknesses clear to all. Whether at the national, state, or even the local level, science education standards need to be improved to ensure that the nation’s young people become scientifically literate. Democracy depends on. the ability of ordinary citizens to distinguish between credible information and outright falsehoods. The task of establishing appropriate goals for education should be entrusted not just to discplinary specialists but to everyone who wishes to build a strong and healthy society.

Federal Policy and the Push to Privitize Education

[These excerpts are from an article by Patricia Burch in the October 2020 issue of Phi Delta Kappane.]

      Both in the United States and around the world, the 21st century has seen a massive expansion of efforts to privatize educational services that were formerly provided by public agencies and school systems. Guided by the belief that this will make schooling more productive, innovative, and affordable, federal policy makers (Democrats and Republicans alike, but with new urgency under the Trump administration) have taken aggressive steps to deregulate the education marketplace and create strong incentives for public schools to contract with outside agencies (both for-profit and nonprofit) to deliver products and services, typically targeting low-achieving and economically disadvantaged students. Every year as a result, billions of U.S. taxpayer dollars meant for public education pass through private hands.

      …the evidence suggested that these policies and practices were having harmful effects on children living in poverty, Black and Latinx students, students with disabilities, and English learners — the very children who proponents had claimed would benefit from increased privatization.

      Nevertheless, over the subsequent years, federal policies did little to slow the rush to privatize educational services….

      Today, NCLB is remembered mostly for its emphasis on standardized testing and school accountability, but it also made it easier and less risky forprivate companies to sell go o ds andservices to schools and districts, especially those serving students from low-income backgrounds. Under provisions referred to as Supplemental Education Services (SES), for example, NCLB mandated that if schools and districts did not make test score targets, then they had to provide needy students with tutoring, paid for out of a federal pot of money.

      Several years into NCLB, the U.S. Department of Education funded…a national evaluation of SES. While the initiative’s designers had promised that the program would unleash the creativity of private tutoring companies, leading to bold and innovative new approaches to helping struggling students, we found quite the opposite: The evidence showed that most tutoring services provided old-fashioned and low-quality “chalk and talk” instruction and scripted lessons.

      Further, thanks to laissez-faire contracting regulations, private providers had little to no accountability for their poor performance. Many of them continued to receive funding for years in spite of low student attendance, failure to maximize instructional time, wide variations in teacher practice within tutoring programs, and ineffective teaching in general, including numerous cases in which tutors taught materials that did not align with the school's curriculum and/or serve the given students’ needs….

      The great irony here is that plenty of empirical research studies have found that instructional tutoring, when well-designed and implemented, tends to have significant benefits for needy students. Further, before NCLB, most large school districts had well-established tutoring programs in place. However, SES contracting rules excluded many of those district-run programs from serving as providers. In effect, the designers of NCLB (and SES in particular) assumed that most public school officials are incompetent, wasteful, inexperienced, and corrupt and that private providers tend to be innovative, efficient, and morally responsible. Thus, they created a funding process that made it easier for the latter to win contracts….

      As it stands, Google and other big-tech companies are not just competing for public education dollars but also acting to undermine competition and lock in profits for themselves. Given the scale of the K-12 education market, the stakes are exceedingly high, both for the private corporations involved and for the taxpaying public.

      As a means of discouraging such under-the-radar monopolistic practices, the government often imposes hefty fines on bad actors. But for companies the size of Google, even a hundred-million-dollar fine isn’t a real deterrent, any more than the threat of a parking ticket deters one-percenters from parking wherever they like. Thus, while antitrust charges against big-tech companies may provide some leverage for public school educators and advocates hoping to slow the movement to privatize public schooling, they will be far from sufficient to turn the tide.

      …National emergencies have come to be seen as golden opportunities to push for deeper private involvement in public education.

      As the pandemic continues to unfold, this bears watching. Already, COVID-19 has begun to challenge Americans’ assumptions about the nature of public schooling, including where and when it happens. Even before the virus struck, much of the everyday work of schools was conducted online — data collection, communication with parents, class projects, and so on — but now that so many school districts have shut their doors, the online classroom has become, in effect, the primary way many of us experience public education….

      It remains to be seen whether the current shift to remote instruction will prove to be a temporary fix or the beginning of public education’s gradual transformation to largely online teaching and learning. What is obvious already, though, is that as the pandemic forces so many of us online, the boundaries separating public and private have begun to weaken, and the business prospects for online providers have begun to soar.

The Commercial Transformation of America’s Schools

[These excerpts are from an article by Alex Molnar and Faith Boninger in the October 2020 issue of Phi Delta Kappan.]

      Although John Dewey may be the more familiar name to American educators, Edward Bernays, the father of modem public relations and marketing, has an arguably greater influence on today’s schools. During World War I, he worked for the Committee on Public Information, helping the committee sell the Woodrow Wilson administration’s war policies. After the wax, Bernays signed on as “public relations counsel” to an impressive list of America’s most powerful corporations. One notable "success" was his effort on behalf of the American Tobacco Company to increase cigarette smoking among women. As part of this campaign, he persuaded socialites to march down Fifth Avenue in the 1929 New York City Easter Parade proudly smoking “torches of liberty” as a protest for women’s right….

      The issue of how to have a democracy while restraining the mob and maintaining social stability has occupied American political theorists throughout our history. Bernays saw public relations and advertising as important tools of democratic governance in a market economy. But the reality today is that modern mass marketing poses a threat to democratic political institutions in. general and to public education in particular….

      At the end of the 19th century, American industry was, for the first time, able to produce more than Americans could consume. This did not mean that poverty had been abolished, just that more goods and services were available than our society, as it was then structured, could consume. Thus, sellers of goods and services had to find a way to promote and make possible mass consumption of their wares without threatening the position of the existing political and economic elites.

      Education was central to this process….Yet, as Otis Pease…points out in his study of the development of American advertising between 1920 and 1940, the advertising industry was not necessarily interested in facts. Whether an advertisement was literally true or false was mostly irrelevant — what mattered was the psychological impact of the advertisement — the associations it created in the minds of its targets….

      If a powerful, privately controlled institution systematically sets out to undermine people’s ability to make rational judgments, then people become more likely to fall prey to the forces of mass consumerism in commerce and politics….The result is the creation of what David Riesman and his coauthors…term the “lonely crowd” in which people define themselves by their possessions and express their individuality by looking, smelling, and thinking like everyone else.

      …Indeed, the edifice of American mass marketing is built on what Dewey…termed “miseducative experiences,” meaning any experience “that has the effect of arresting or distorting the growth of further experience”….Such experiences limit people's ability to exercise thought and control their own actions….

      The last thing in the world that advertisers want is for a target audience to have self-control. But for Dewey, freedom is expressed through the control of impulse in the service of intelligent purposes….In contrast, advertising deploys a variety of nonrational appeals and attempts to create pseudo-communities based on consumption or the uncritical acceptance of a particular policy or point of view.

      If the methods of modern mass marketing threaten the self-control and judgment of adults, deploying them against children is particularly insidious. No one can seriously suggest that children are rational consumers who have the same power, information, and freedom that adults are said to have to freely enter into contracts for goods and services. Advertising to children is, then, a kind of immoral war on childhood, waged for the profit of adults who should be childhood’s guardians. Furthermore, when advertising is conducted in schools, the immorality is compounded because the power of the state is twisted to the service of special interests, the ethical standing of educators is compromised, and the orientation of the school is shifted toward mis-educative experiences.

      …When Sheila Harty…surveyed 1,250 teachers for her book Hucksters in the Classroom, the responses suggested that approximately half of U.S. teachers used sponsored materials from a wide variety of commercial interests, such as banks, utilities, manufacturers, and food processors. The fox had found a home in the henhouse….

      The marketing imperative was, however, much more powerful than any suggested guidance or voluntary principles, even if the materials offered were lackluster. When Consumers Union…evaluated more than 100 sponsored materials provided by corporations, trade groups, and others, it found the vast majority to be highly commercial, educationally trivial, or both….

      Whatever the medium, the corrosive impact of marketing on children and their education remains the same. As targets of marketing, students are not treated as persons, as John Dewey would have understood the term. Instead, they are treated as objects to be exploited for the benefit of others. It goes without saying that objectified students are going to be mis educated.

      …However, there appears to be no research evidence that virtual education produces student outcomes superior to or even as good as conventional, face-to-face approaches to teaching and learning….

      To be sure, the COVID-19 pandemic has created a new need for virtual technologies, but the fact remains that little to no research exists supporting their educational efficacy. On the contrary their use is tied to significant threats to the integrity of schools' curriculum and instruction programs, their student assessments, and their data collection and record-keeping practices….

      Any app or website can easily incorporate code that collects IP addresses and other information, including the pages, content, or ads children see or click on; what they download; what games they play; and what device they are using, with what operating system and settings, and so on. And when a contract defines a company as a “school official,” the company can access even more data, including student data that is part of school data systems….

      Corporations that gather this information may claim to refrain from using it for commercial gain, but there are no guarantees….

      Even when companies claim to use the information they collect simply to improve websites, apps, and services and to personalize users’ experience, they often connect children to third-party sites (such as YouTube) that collect data for advertising purposes while denying responsibility for any use a third party might make of children’s or teachers’ data….Companies may also share aggregated and “de-identified” data without notice to users…, despite evidence that such “de-identified” data is easily reidentified….

      Further, although companies may promise compliance with U.S. data privacy laws, once data cross international borders, companies may no longer be held to the laws of the country where the data were originally gathered….

      Proprietary digital educational applications serve the business needs of the people who pay for them, not the educational needs of students who use them. In addition to potentially compromising children’s privacy for purposes not in their interest, digital educational applications put important educational decisions (such as whether a child has attained a specific competency or grade level) in private hands. This can distort pedagogy in ways that stifle students’ learning and stunt their ability to grow into fulfilled, competent adults, and engaged citizens.

      If the capacity of the United States to renew its democracy rests on an educated citizenry making well-informed public policy decisions, as Dewey believed, then every American is poorly served when public schools turn their curricula into an educational flea market open to anyone who has the money to set up a table. Yet that is precisely what the 40-year assault on funding for public education and repeated calls for “cooperation” with the business community have pushed schools to do. The COVID-19 crisis is a golden opportunity for well-heeled hucksters to further integrate schools into the corporate digital marketing machine fueled with student data. If Mark Zuckerb erg has taught the world anything, it is that data are fungible. And that “free” products offered by opaque and unaccountable organizations come at a very high social cost.

Tales from Times Long Past

[These excerpts are from a book review by Barbara J. King in the 16 October 2020 issue of Science.]

      Why, unlike other primates, did our ancestors begin to walk upright? What factors enabled Homo erectus to develop new cultural practices and, later, to give rise to our own species? As paleoanthropologist Meave Leakey explains in The Sediments of Time, understanding climate change is key in answering such questions….It serves as an invitation to grasp how climate cycles have driven human evolution and how anthropogenic global warming now threatens our species (and a Lmultitude of others)….

      Having joined a world-famous fossil-hunting family, Meave would go on to make spectacular finds that have reshaped how human evolution is understood and taught. In 1994, for instance, her team discovered an early hominin fossil at Kanapoi that was subsequently named Australopithecus anamensis and dated to between 3.9 and 4.2 million years ago. This find extended the time range for australopithecines—the same genus of hominin as the famous Lucy—and, at the time, represented the earliest known hominin bipedality.

      Meticulous cross-site research by paleoanthropologists, including Leakey herself, has revealed a shift in habitat and diet that occurred before the time of australopithecines, wherein many species moved from woodlands to grasslands and changed from browsers to grazers. We now know that an “inexorable drying trend” around 5 to 7 million years ago led to a reduction in forest cover and an increase in grasslands, which created new foraging opportunities. In turn, new selection pressures and bipedalism, a form of locomotion that was efficient and freed up hominin hands to take on fine manipulative tasks, emerged.

      Again and again, Leakey’s attention returns to climate. Homo erectus, she writes, evolved in a “glacial-interglacial icehouse world,” where endurance hunting and increased social cooperation led to survival and migration out of Africa. Later, Homo sapiens had to cope with even greater extremes of cold and heat.

      …she places blame for Earth’s most recent climate disruption where it belongs. Our long evolutionary lineage is at a crisis point, she argues, and it is critical that we rein in consumerist greed and environmental destruction before it is too late….

What if Biden Wins?

[These excerpts are from an article by David Malakoff in the 16 October 2020 issue of Science.]

      …A President Biden will have vast authority to move quickly to undo many 'hump policies. But he could be hampered by forces beyond his control, including which party controls the Senate, the ideological complexion of the courts, and—when it comes to fighting L COVID-19—the progress of science itself….

      Biden has made confronting the pandemic the centerpiece of his presidential campaign. The most dramatic immediate shift is likely to be in the tone and consistency of messag-ing coming from the Oval Office and federal health agencies….

      Yet getting new agency leaders confirmed by the Senate could take months, observers say, and repairing the damage done to the credibility of those agencies could be slow. Efforts to mandate mask wearing or limit gatherings could face opposition, and how soon a vaccine or effective new treatments arrive is largely out of a president’s control….

      Biden advisers say climate change is one of “the four crises” he will put a priority on addressing. (The others are the pandemic, the economy, and racial injustice.) Biden says the United States will rejoin the Paris climate accord on his first day in office—which he can do with the stroke of a pen—and he will issue executive orders to strengthen climate protections. Advocates want him to roll back Trump rules that weakened limits on power plant emissions set by former President Barack Obama, and to set even stiffer limits for cars than Obama did. Overall, Biden wants the United States to cease to be a net emitter of greenhouse gases by 2050, and the federal government to invest at least $1.7 trillion over 10 years in clean energy technologies.

      Achieving that ambitious agenda will likely require that Democrats control the U.S. Senate. Even with a Democrat-led Congress, however, Biden might only have a 2-year window, as the party in power often loses control of one chamber of Congress in midterm elections. Biden could also face pushback from conservative judges, especially on the Supreme Court, if he relies heavily on executive authority to push his agenda….

      A president has great leeway in deciding how the United States interacts with other nations, and research groups hope Biden will move aggressively on several fronts….

      On immigration, industry groups and universities hope Biden follows through on promises to ease restrictions on visas for students and high-skill workers. And some have applauded Biden's vow to protect the so-called Dreamers, undocumented immigrants who were brought to the United States as children, and end Trump’s de facto ban on immigrants from many majority-Muslim nations….

      Environmental scientists have a long wish list. They want Biden to undo changes in how agencies review the environmental impacts of major projects and evaluate the risks posed by toxic chemicals, which critics say downplay the risks and inflate economic benefits. The Environmental Protection Network, made up of former Environmental Protection Agency officials, wants Biden to kill a proposed rule that could bar the agency from using health and other data that can’t be made public because of concerns about patient privacy or trade secrets.

      Conservation scientists, meanwhile, hope he will block federal permits for several high-profile energy and mining projects, including proposed pits in Alaska and Minnesota that threaten aquatic habitats. Paleontologists are looking to Biden to restore fossil-rich lands that Trump removed from several national monuments in western states, while ocean scientists want him to reimpose fishing limits that Trump lifted at a marine monument off the coast of New England.

      But many of Trump’s environmental policies could take years to unwind because of lawsuits and federal rules that require extensive comment periods. Democratic control of the Senate, however, could speed the process: Under a rarely used law, just a simple majority of both houses is needed to cancel rules finalized near the end of the Trump administration. (Republican lawmakers used the law to void many Obama-era rules at the start of Trump’s term, when they controlled both chambers of Congress.)….

Weathering the Storm

[These excerpts are from an article by Jeffrey Mervis in the 16 October 2020 issue of Science.]

      Disastrous. Damaging. Catastrophic. Those are just some of the more polite terms that many U.S. scientists use to describe the policies of President Donald Trump. His handling of the COVID-19 pandemic, his repeated public dismissals of scientific expertise, and his disdain for evidence have prompted many researchers to label him the most antiscience president in living memory.

      Last month, that sense of betrayal led two of the nation’s preeminent scientific bodies, the US. National Academy of Sciences and the National Academy of Medicine, to issue an uncharacteristically harsh rebuke….

      “Policymaking must be informed by the best available evidence without it being distorted, concealed, or otherwise deliberately misco mmunicated,” the leaders of the two academies wrote. “We find reports and incidents of the politicization of science, particularly the overriding of evidence and advice from public health officials and derision of government scientists, to be alarming.”

      …Any president trying to alter that behemoth has three levers to press—policies, budget requests, and leadership appointments.

      Most scientists give Trump exceedingly low marks in an arena where he has perhaps the greatest authority: foreign affairs. His unilateral decisions to pull out of the Paris climate treaty, the Iran nuclear deal, and the World Health Organization are widely seen as damaging not just to global scientific cooperation, but also to the continued health, safety-, and prosperity of the planet. Similarly, most scientists think the administration’s aggressive efforts to restrict immigration pose a serious threat to the nation’s ability to alit act scientific talent from around the world.

      In the domestic arena, Trump’s efforts to impose new policies by executive order and rewrite regulations have also drawn sharp criticism from scientists. They say the administration has routinely ignored or suppressed evidence that doesn't support its efforts to roll back environmental regulations, including those aimed at limiting emissions of greenhouse gases. Trump has also threatened the reliability of key demographic data by interfering with the orderly completion of the 2020 census, and by telling the Department of Commerce to exclude undocumented residents from the final count.

      Biomedical researchers, meanwhile, have been appalled by what they say is a de facto ban on the use of tissue derived from elective abortions in research, as well as orders to cancel a grant that Trump disliked. Such moves, many researchers believe, are designed to advance the president's political agenda at the expense of national interests.

      Fewer scientists complain about the Trump administration’s record on spending. But that's largely because Congress has ignored the deep cuts the 'White House has proposed in its annual budget requests to Congress….

      Assessing the president's appointees is more complicated. Scientists have condemned some of Trump's choices at agencies involved in environmental regulation or climate science, citing their meager scientific credentials or views that are outside the mainstream….

Not Throwing Away Our Shot

[These excerpts are from an editorial by H. Holden Thorp in the 16 October 2020 issue of Science.]

      Over the past few weeks, prominent scientific publications have condemned President Donald Trump's record on science. This is unprecedented. Although my predecessors at Science have always held elected U.S. officials accountable (but could not make a formal political endorsement because of the nonprofit of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the publisher of Science), many of these publications are now clearly denouncing the U.S. president, administration, and federal agency leaders as the nation approaches a highly consequential presidential election. To paraphrase lyrics by Lin-Manuel Miranda in “Hamilton” about another set of political essays, why do we write like we’re running out of time? Because recent events show that the voice of the scientific community can lead to positive change….

      The pressure put on Hahn by the scientific community played a big role in stiffening his spine. Topol told me that Hahn said he was “profoundly dejected” after the convalescent plasma debacle and realized that the subsequent vaccine drama posed an “existential crisis”—either he would be fired by Tramp or permanently lose his standing in the scientific community. Ultimately, he decided that doing what was right for the success of the COVID-19 vaccine trials and the safety of the public—while also repairing his reputation in medical science—was more important than keeping his job at the FDA. We can hope that it's too much trouble for Trump to fire him this close to the election….

      With his apparent recovery from COVID-19 due perhaps in part to receiving an experimental monoclonal antibody cocktail from Regeneron, Trump’s attention has turned to touting this treatment as a “cure” and promising its availability to all Americans. An antibody-based treatment does deserve more scientific attention, but a therapeutic is not a cure….These antibodies are helpful but currently in very limited supply and not something that will “get everybody out of the hospitals,” as Trump said recently. The scientific community must keep the pressure on Hahn to state the science clearly….

Newly Found Viruses Suggest Rubella Originated in Animals

[These excerpts are from an article by Ann Gibbons in the 9 October 2020 issue of Science.]

      The virus that causes rubella, or German measles, finally has company. Scientists had never identified close relatives of the virus, leaving it as the only member of its genus, Rubivirus. But with a report in this week’s issue of Nature, rubella has gained a family. One of its two newfound relatives infects bats in Uganda; the other killed animals from three different species in a German zoo and was found in wild mice living nearby as well.

      The findings strongly suggest that at some point in the past, a similar virus jumped from animals to humans, giving rise to today’s rubella virus, the researchers say. Although neither of the new viruses is known to infect humans, the fact that a related virus jumped species raises concerns that the two viruses or other, as-yet-unknown relatives could cause human outbreaks….

      The rubella virus usually causes rashes and fever, but in pregnant women it can lead to miscarriages, stillbirth, and babies born with congenital rubella syndrome, which includes deafness and eye, heart, and brain problems. An estimated 100,000 newborns are affected by the syndrome annually, mostly in _Africa, the western Pacific, and the eastern Mediterranean; in many other countries the measles, mumps, and rubella (MMR) vaccine has made it a rarity.

      …Given the genetic distance between rubella and the ruhugu and rustrela viruses, the researchers don’t think either of them made the jump to humans—but they suspect they'll find other Rubiviruses if they look closely.

      Both viruses bear close watching, researchers say. It’s “really interesting” that rustrela was able to infect placental and marsupial mammals….That flexibility could spell trouble….

A Call to Test New Vaccines Head to Head, in Monkeys

[These excerpts are from an article by Jon Cohen in the 9 October 2020 issue of Science.]

      Primate researchers in the United States have banded together in a push for an ambitious monkey study that would do head-to-head comparisons of the leading COVID-19 vaccine candidates. Although 10 candidates are already undergoing large-scale tests in people, proponents of the monkey plan say those clinical trials may not deliver the comprehensive data needed to choose the safest and most effective vaccines. The comparison trial in monkeys, in contrast, could shed light in a matter of weeks on how the candidates stack up on measures including potential side effects, the strength of immune responses they trigger, and how well they protect against infection and disease….

      The proposed monkey vaccine comparison faces hurdles: It would add to the pressure on the dwindling U.S. supply of research monkeys, potentially delaying research on other diseases, and it does not yet have funding….

      Most developers of the vaccine candidates in efficacy trials have already published how well each works in monkeys against a “challenge” with SARS-CoV-2—a deliberate exposure to the pandemic coronavirus that causes COVID-19. But the details of how the experiments were conducted and the ways the results were analyzed differ so profoundly that…he can’t make sense of how the candidates compare….

      The human vaccine trials, for their part, are likely to yield only preliminary signals of efficacy over the next few months, not clear-cut evidence that one or more is safe and protects people….

      The data from the many human trials, some in multiple countries, will also be tough to compare….

      In contrast to the human trials that must wait for enough participants to become naturally infected to gauge a vaccine’s worth, …monkey challenge studies could deliver definitive results quickly….the monkey comparison could start as soon as this month and would require only about 6 weeks to vaccinate animals, challenge them, and assess their immune responses and levels of protection.

      …the U.S. consortium has many experiments now in the wings that they’re willing to delay to conduct the comparative COVID-19 vaccine work….

      NIAID head Anthony Fauci says “it would be worthwhile” to conduct a rigorous comparative study, noting that animal results from vaccine studies for AIDS and other infectious diseases have also been difficult to compare, complicating attempts to trans-late their results to humans….

Here Today, Gone Tomorrow

[These excerpts are from an editorial by Peter H. Raven and Scott E. Miller in the 9 October 2020 issue of Science.]

      We are destroying the life-support systems of Earth rapidly, making our future uncertain. Ecosystems—the complex sets of organisms that form the globe’s living landscape—regulate the atmosphere, water, and soils. They supply humanity its food, most medicines, and many other essential products, and they fill our lives with beauty. But they are falling apart as, one by one, their constituent species are lost. To save what we can and provide our children and grandchildren with a sustainable future, studies must be conducted not only in nature but also, to an increasing extent, on the billions of specimens preserved in the world's natural history collections. For many species barely hanging on in their endangered habitats, these samples will one day be all that we have.

      …perhaps 1 million of the estimated 8.5 million species of plants, animals, and other organisms are in imminent danger of extinction. Probably as many as half of the populations of organisms that existed half a century ago are already gone. Over the past quarter century, about a quarter of all tropical forests have been lost. Because we have identified no more than a tenth of the estimated tens of thousands of species in those habitats, most that were lost may forever remain unknown.

      Unless we control the underlying causes, including overdevelopment and climate change, we are in danger of losing 80% or more of the world's species, the proportion lost 66 million years ago when the dinosaurs became extinct and many of the plants and animals known today began their ascent. We have clearly entered the world's sixth major extinction event….

      Faced with this grave future, we must find ways to preserve these specimens as well as we can for as long as we can. They are vulnerable to degradation and loss from pests, humidity, fire, and the simple ravages of time. While renewing efforts to protect them, we need to make them more accessible through digitization, including imaging and DNA barcoding (at least a minimal DNA sequence of the representative specimens). We also need to continue targeted sampling, focused on key taxa and habitats.

      Some groups of great ecological and environmental importance are dying off too rapidly to ever be completely understood. We have named 25,000 species of nematodes, 64,000 species of mites, and 100,000 species of fungi. Yet each of these groups is estimated to consist of a million or more species, with the number of fungi likely to be 2.2 to 2.6 million. We must sample them and understand them as well as we can before many of their species disappear forever….

      Many of the world’s biological collections are in institutions that depend in part on attendance for their support. In this time of coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19), many of them will fail financially or be unable to continue maintaining their own collections. These and other potentially "orphan" collections have immense value and should be monitored and incorporated as needed into permanent homes. This is likely to be our last chance to know many of Earth’s species. We must make the most of it.

Flawed Research and its Enduring Repercussions

[These excerpts are from a book review by Paul A. Offit in the 2 October 2020 issue of Science.]

      On 26 February 1998, the Royal Free Hospital in London held a press conference….Sitting at the front of the room was the senior author, Andrew Wakefield, who explained that the combination measles-mumps-rubella (MMR) vaccine could cause developmental delays; including autism. Wakefield argued that the MMR vaccine suppressed the immune system in some children, freeing the measles vaccine virus to damage the intestine, which allowed encephalopathic proteins to enter the circulation, cross the blood-brain barrier, and destroy brain cells. He called for MMR vaccinations to cease until more research could be conducted.

      Wakefield became an international hero….Then along came Brian Deer, an investigative reporter working for The Sunday Times. Deer would become the first to expose the clinician’s undisclosed financial associations and unearth troubling problems with the Lancet paper. In The Doctor Who Fooled the World, Deer recounts in vivid detail how he came to learn that Wakefield and his study were of what they appeared to be….

      Wakefield, we learn, had received £435,643 (the equivalent of $846,000 today) to conduct studies that would help build a legal case against AMR vaccine producers 2 years prior to the Lancet publication. And although he reported that the children in his study were referred to his hospital through routine channels, many came from an antivaccine group called JABS and the lawyer preparing to sue vaccine makers. In June 1997, further undermining the sentiment the physician would convey at the 1998 press conference (“It’s a moral issue for me”"), Wakefield submitted a patent for a product that claimed to treat so-called “autistic enterocolitis,” rid the body of harmful toxins, and immunize safely against measles.

      Deer reveals that Wakefield also misrepresented clinical, biological, and molecular data….and Wakefield’s claim that the measles vaccine virus genome was present in intestinal epithelial cells of children with autistic enterocolitis was inconsistent and irreproducible.

      As a consequence of these and other revelations; The Lancet retracted the paper, and Wakefield lost his license to practice medicine. Subsequent studies have shown that children who receive the MMR. vaccine are at no greater risk of developmental delays than those who do not receive it. Nonetheless, the damage was done. The Wakefield study helped to accelerate the antivaccination movement that has imperiled children and led to the resurgence of once-controlled diseases….

Record U.S. and Australian Fires Raise Fears for Many Species

[These excerpts are from an article by John Pickrell and Elizabeth Pennisi in the 2 October 2020 issue of Science.]

      …Even as Australia tallies the damage from its blazes, the worst fires in more than 70 years are burning in California, Oregon, and Washington; so far, they have consumed some 2 million hectares, killing at least 35 people. As in Australia, scientists fear the loss of habitat has threatened species with small populations or restricted ranges, and could potentially lead to permanent ecological changes if burned landscapes fail to rebound in a warming climate….

      Australia’s postfire experience offers cause for anxiety, researchers say. From September 2019 to March, more than 11 million hectares burned, mostly in the continent’s southeastern forests, killing at least 34 people. More than 20% of the nation’s total forest cover was lost….Even normally fire-proof rainforests and wetlands were scorched….114 threatened plant and animal species lost 50% to 80% of their habitats; 327 species saw more than 10% of their ranges burn.

      …In New South Wales, fires killed about one-third of the state’s koalas, a government inquiry found in July. It warned that the marsupial would be extinct in the state by 2050 if dramatic measures are not taken to conserve it. And in the state’s Nightcap National Park, a survey found that fires destroyed 10% or more of the remaining stands of several critically endangered rainforest trees. Some species were down to fewer than 200 trees before the fires….

      In the United States, researchers say it’s too soon to know how many species the fires have put in jeopardy. But there are already worrying reports. In Washington, biologists estimate the fires have killed 50% of the state’s endangered pygmy rabbits, which inhabit sagebrush flats that burned this year. They believe only about 50 of North America’s smallest rabbit remain. Officials estimate the flames have also killed 30% to 70% of the state’s sage grouse and sharp-tailed grouse, birds that also depend on sagebrush….

      The longer term consequences for ecosystems are harder to predict, researchers say. In both Australia and the Western United States, many ecosystems are adapted to fire and even require it to thrive….

      But climate change adds to the uncertainty about how forests will respond time….

      Already, some ecosystems in North America that have had frequent or intense burns are not regenerating. In some places, such as the sagebrush ecosystem of the Great Basin west of the Sierra Nevada mountain range and forests in the Klamath Mountains along the California-Oregon border, invasive shrubs or grasses appear to have taken over Because the invaders burn frequently, they appear to be preventing seedlings from maturing. In Australia, researchers have similar concerns. In the state of Victoria, forests of alpine ash, a towering eucalyptus tree found in moist regions, historically experienced fires less than once a century or so. Now, some forests have been hit by five fires in the past 20 years, and scientists fear some of the stately groves will disappear for good.

China’s Bold Climate Pledge Earns Praise – But is it Feasible?

[These excerpts are from an article by Dennis Normile in the 2 October 2020 issue of Science.]

      China’s surprise pledge last week to cut its net carbon emissions to zero within 40 years has reignited hopes of limiting global climate change to tolerable levels. The country is the world’s largest producer of carbon dioxide (CO2), accounting for 28% of global emissions, and its move may inspire other countries to follow suit. But observers warn that China faces daunting challenges in reaching its goals. ricking its coal habit will be particularly hard.

      …China's commitment also “ratchets up pressure on other major emitters” to set more ambitious targets “while further isolating the Trump administration in its climate myopia…”

      China had previously said its CO2 emissions would peak “around” 2030, a target most analysts considered within reach. But achieving carbon neutrality before 2060 will require drastically reducing the use of fossil fuels in transportation and electricity generation and offsetting any remaining emissions through carbon capture and storage or planting forests.

      China has not yet revealed details of how it will do this….

      Coal is both the biggest challenge and an opportunity. Last year, the carbon-heavy fuel accounted for about 58% of China’s total energy consumption and 66% of its electricity generation. In coal-producing regions, coal is also used to heat buildings. Recent advances in renewable energy have made replacing coal easier than cutting oil use in transportation and emissions from farm fields and livestock….

      But it will require a U-turn. A recent study…found r that China’s coal-fired generating capacity grew by about 40 gigawatts (GW) in 2019, to about 1050 GW. Another 100 GW is under construction and coal interests are lobbying for even more plants….

      Expanding nuclear power presents challenges as well. The 2011 Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster in Japan sent ripples of concern through China, which mandated additional safety measures that made new plants more expensive. Public opposition is also growing. China has 48 nuclear power reactors in operation and 12 under construction, according to the World Nuclear Association. The government had aimed for 58 GW of nuclear capacity by this year but did not get beyond 52 GW….

Europe Builds ‘Digital Twin’ of Earth to Hone Climate Forecasts

[These excerpts are from an article by Paul Voosen in the 2 October 2020 issue of Sciencen.]

      The European Union is finalizing plans for an ambitious “digital twin” of planet Earth that would simulate the atmosphere, ocean, ice, and land with unrivaled precision, providing forecasts of floods, droughts, and fires from days to years in advance. Destination Earth, as the effort is called, won’t stop there: It will also attempt to capture human behavior, enabling leaders to see the impacts of weather events and climate change on society and gauge the effects of different climate policies.

      By rendering the planet’s atmosphere in boxes only 1 kilometer across, a scale many times finer than existing climate models, Destination Earth can base its forecasts on far more detailed real-time data than ever before. The project…will start next year and run on one of the three supercomputers that Europe will deploy in Fin-land, Italy, and Spain….

      Typical climate models run at resolutions of 50 or 100 kilometers….The new model’s 1-kilometer resolution will enable it to direedy render convection, the vertical transport of heat critical to the formation of clouds and storms, rather than relying on an st algorithmic approximation….The model will also simulate the ocean in fine enough detail to capture the behavior of swirling eddies that are important movers of heat and carbon….

      The high resolution will also enable Destination Earth to base its forecasts on more detailed data. Weather models suck in observations of temperature and pressure from satellites, weather stations, aircraft, and buoys to guide their simulations. But coarse grids mean the models can’t assimilate measurements that don't average well or cover broad areas, such as fractures opening up in sea ice….

      The model will also incorporate real-time data charting atmospheric pollution, crop growth, forest fires, and other phenomena known to affect weather and climate….

      The goal is to allow policymakers to directly gauge how climate change will impact society—and how society could alter the trajectory of climate change. For example, the model could predict bow climate change will affect agriculture and migration patterns in Brazil—and also how cuts in ethanol subsidies might limit deforestation in the Amazon….

      Getting there won’t be easy. Exascale supercomputers rely on both traditional computer chips as well as graphical processing units (GPUs), which are efficient at handling intensive calculations. GPUs are good for running model components in parallel and training artificial intelligence algorithms—two techniques Destination Earth will lean on to enhance performance. But old climate modeling code will have to be reworked….

      The massive amount of data generated by the model will be a problem of its own. When the Japanese team ran its 1-kilometer-scale experiment, it took half a year to extract something useful from a couple days of data….

Fire in Our Future

[These excerpts are from an editorial by William Wallace Covington and Stephen Pyne in the 2 October 2020 issue of Science.]

      It can seem like Earth itself is on fire. In places such as Australia and California for which fire is a natural feature, landscapes are burning at historic if not epic scales. In the Arctic and Greenland, where fire is rare, tundra is smoldering and melting permafrost. In Amazonia, Indonesia, and Mediterranean Europe, fires are interacting with the land clearing of rainforest, the draining of peatlands, and the abandonment of rural lands to create damaging, even lethal, conditions.

      There is no single driver except humanity behind this outbreak. But increasingly, anthropogenic climate change is recognized as an enabler, performance enhancer, and globalizer. Fire seasons are lengthening, fire severity is escalating, and collateral damages are compounding….

      We need to unbundle “fire” in all its shape-shifting avatars into manageable pieces. Some issues will have technical solutions—fires sparked by powerlines can be prevented. Some involve knotty ecological processes: Lands that have had fires removed can suffer an ecological fire deficit for which reinstating flame can be as complicated as restoring a vanished species. Most of the problems involve clashes of cultural values over bow we get energy, organize our economy, and choose to live on the land. These will demand a political resolution.

      Scales matter. Some reforms can be applied immediately and locally, as with protecting towns. Others will require decades of work across countries and regions. Restoring a suitable regimen of fire to tens of millions of hectares will be an arduous exercise in adaptive management. Confronting the effects of climate change will likely prove a century-long quest, but unless we reverse trends, they will overwhelm whatever type of management is implemented. We need to pursue all levels simultaneously.

      Begin with ignition. Research shows that nationally, 97% of the fires that have threatened houses are started by people….

      …Within limits, we can dampen fire intensities by modifying the landscapes that fire feeds upon, and we can harden communities to keep embers blown from the countryside from metastasizing into urban conflagrations. The strategies are the same as those used to contain urban fire. Concepts like the home ignition zone—the house and its immediate surroundings—identify points of vulnerability….

      In montane forests like the ponderosa pine of the Southwest, research shows that thinning and burning are effective methods to reduce fuel loads and allow surface fires to return. But many techniques are available, including prescribed grazing, the use of managed wildfire, and varieties of mechanical, treatments like chipping and masticating. Most places will need a cocktail of treatments, appropriate to their local conditions.

      Smart treatments, done well, will enhance ecological integrity at the same time that they reduce hazardous fuels. Thinning, for example, resembles woody weeding and unlike logging removes the small stuff that powers fire. Moreover, fire is a biochemical process, not just a flaming woodchipper. Fire as fire matters biologically. Good fire can provide herd immunity against bad fire.

      Yet all these interventions will be overpowered unless climate change is brought to heel. Paradoxically, as we ratchet down our binge-burning of fossil fuels, we’ll have to ratchet up our burning of living landscapes to grant them the robustness they will need to survive the stresses to come.

      Science can’t do all the intellectual lifting. Fire is systemic: We need a systemic cultural response….

      But we need a solid empirical basis for the tough decisions heading our way. We need what science can do best, and the best of what science can do.

Gut Feeling

[These excerpts are from an article by Elizabeth Svobodain in the November 2020 issue of Discover.]

      …For decades, experts scoffed at the idea that gut bacteria affect our mental health. Many called it a fringe theory. Yet mounting evidence suggests that intestinal microbes profoundly shape our thinking and behavior. Human trials are now underway to investigate how these microbes boost our overall well-being. If the results hold up, new bacteria-based therapies could expand a mental health treatment landscape that has been IA__ mostly stagnant for decades….

      Anyone who’s sprinted to the bathroom moments before a speech or felt a wave of nausea after public humiliation knows the gut and the brain are connected. Doctors have speculated about this linkage since ancient times. Hippocrates, who is credited with saying “all disease begins in the gut,” speculated that black bile spilled from the spleen into the intestines and brought on dark moods.

      Theories like these grew more sophisticated over the centuries as scientists learned more about the microorganisms in the human gut. (We now know there are literally trillions of them.) By the late 19th century; doctors argued that “melancholia,” a then-common term for depression, arose from overgrowth of intestinal microbes. But physicians at the time understood little about what these microbes did in the body. So, early gut-based treatments including major abdominal surgery for schizophrenia —were doomed to fail.

      Fast-forward a century; and data from speedy genome sequencing of gut bacteria in the 2000s revealed that microbes perform an array of bodily tasks. Further studies showed how some might affect mental health. Each of us, it turns out, is more microbe than human: Bacterial cells outnumber human cells in the body by a factor of at least 1.3 to 1. The human gut plays host to more than 100 trillion of these bacteria — a complex, interdependent microbial universe wedged between your ribcage and spine.

      While the human genome consists of roughly 25,000 genes, the swarm of microbes in your gut expresses about 3 million distinct genes. Many of these bacterial genes help build molecules that let you digest food, keep harmful microbes at bay, and even feel emotions. For starters, the bacteria in your gut produce about 90 percent of the serotonin in your body yep, the same happy hormone that regulates your moods and promotes well-being….

      When researchers at Cryan’s lab sampled gut bacteria from stressed-out rats in 2009 and sequenced them, they hit on something surprising: Stressed-out animals — those more prone to mental health issues — had a less diverse assortment of gut microbes, or microbiome, than their more relaxed counterparts….

      In the past decade or so, more labs have started reporting that gut bacteria produce a smorgasbord of compounds that affect the mind in surprising ways, both good and bad for your emotional health. Some bacteria in the Clostridium genus generate propionic acid, which can reduce your body's production of mood-boosting dopamine and serotonin. Microbes like bifidobacteria enhance production of butyrate, an anti-inflammatory substance that keeps gut toxins out of the brain. Other species produce the amino acid tryptophan, a precursor to mood-balancing serotonin….

      While researchers continue to map the workings of what they’ve dubbed the “gut-brain axis” — the two-way communication link between the GI tract and the central nervous system — many already think it creates a major potential avenue for mental health treatment….

      …Do gut bacterial changes actually drive mood and behavioral changes? A growing body of research suggests they do….

      Human studies of oral probiotic therapy are a bit further along. A survey of small-scale controlled trials found that Bifidobacterium and Lactobacillus strains improved depressive symptoms overall, while other studies show similar effects on anxiety. One Australian study published in 2017 even suggests that a diet higher in beneficial bacteria can banish depression in more than a third of people….

      …So far, he’s found that people with more butyrate-prbducing gut microbes — such as certain types of Faecalibacterium and Coprococcus — have a higher quality of life, while people with lower levels of Coprococcus are more likely to be depressed….

      The next psychobiotics milestone, scientists say, will be full-scale clinical trials that show whether microbes or microbial cocktails boost well-being beyond placebo effects common in psychiatric treatment studies….

      We’ll likely be waiting at least two years for those definitive results. One sticking point in the outcome could come from drug companies, and whether they can identify a substantial profit. Many gut-based remedies contain naturally occurring bacteria, which makes them difficult to patent….

      Another issue is that, while certain types of bacteria have more profound effects on the brain than others, there probably won’t be any magic-bullet strains that work for everyone. Some gut bacteria function best alongside a constellation of varieties, complicating the picture further — especially since gut bugs number in the trillions and represent more than 500 different species….

      If the mix of probiotics, fecal transplants and diets do prove their mettle, Raes says, gut-based therapies will likely be considered an adjunct to treatments like medication and counseling, not necessarily a replacement….

      …While doctors generally regard common strains like B. breve and L. acidophilus as safe for human consumption — they appear in foods like yogurt, kombucha and kefir — bacteria are bioactive substances, so ingesting them involves some level of risk.

      And in the U.S., the supplement industry is largely unregulated. That means consumers have to take companies’ word that probiotics contain the strains listed on the label.

      Given the rapidly evolving state of gut-brain research, experts don’t all agree on how to advise patients seeking treatment options….

Parents Worry About Learning Loss in Remote Education Environments

[These excerpts are from an article by Alyson Klein in the 13 October 2020 issue of Education Week.]

      Parent concerns about learning loss during COVID-19 remain high as most report their children are still learning remotely either full or part time, concludes a new survey.

      More than 3 of every 4 parents, 76 percent, reported that their children are attending school remotely either full time or part time….

      Among all parents, 38 percent said they felt their children were learning less this school year than they would during a normal school year, according to the survey, which was conducted the last week in September. The survey attributed that relatively high level of concern mostly to parents whose children are learning remotely either full time or part time….

      Those figures from the National Parents Union survey also track with a late August Education Week survey of parents, which found that 36 percent of parents believed their children were making less progress in English language arts than before the pandemic. However, the Education Week survey found that educators were far more concerned than parents, with more than 80 percent saying their students were making less progress in both language arts and math.

      The National Parents Union survey also found that 54 percent of parents think schools should put more of their energy into making sure online instruction is high quality rather than figuring out how to reopen schools for in-person instruction. Another 37 percent want to see energy put into reopening school buildings safely.

      Parents are also more or less equally divided between wanting their children to continue taking standardized tests and feeling as though teachers and students should get a break, given how much else they have to worry about this school year. Forty-seven percent of parents wanted to continue with the testing, while another 43 percent supported a one-year pause, according to the parents’ union survey.

White-Cheeked Gibbon

[These excerpts are from an articleby Troy Kippen in the November 2020 issue of Discover.]

      Barely 10 years ago, the plight of the northern white-cheeked gibbon looked dire. The gibbon's territory had once spanned old-growth rainforests across China, Laos and Vietnam, but decades of habitat loss and hunting had left only a few dozen isolated communities. By 2013, the gibbon was declared effectively extinct in China—and today, no one knows how many are left in Laos.

      A few secluded reserves in Vietnam now appear to be the gibbon’s holdout. Just 127 ani-mals remained in 2011 in one of the country's last strong-holds for the species — Xuan Lien Nature Reserve and the adjacent forests….

      But things might be turning around for the gibbon….gibbon numbers have almost doubled….

      The researchers attribute this dramatic increase to the efforts of local villagers: Xuan Lien hired people living around the reserve to patrol the forest for poachers and to educate their neighbors on the importance of gibbon conservation.

      However, not all the news from Xuan Lien is good. Poachers are still active in the area, motivated by the ongoing market for food, traditional medicines and illegal pets. During a field trip in December, the team came across five illegal wildlife-hunting camps where the poachers were selling their catch to restaurants. Forest rangers who had accompanied the researchers chased away the poachers and razed their camps, but it was a stark reminder that the gibbons’ future relies on their continued protection.

How Can Educators Teach Critical Thinking?

[These excerpts are from an article by Daniel T. Willingham in the Fall 2020 issue of American Educator.]

      Individuals vary in their views of what students should be taught, but there is little disagreement on the importance of critical thinldng skills. In free societies, the ability to think critically is viewed as a cornerstone of individual civic engagement and economic success.

      Despite this consensus, it's not always dear what's meant by “critical thinking.” I will offer a commonsensical view. You are thinking critically if (1) your thinldng is novel—that is, you aren’t simply drawing a conclusion from a memory of a previous situation; (2) your thinking is self-directed—that is, you are not merely executing instructions given by someone else; and (3) your thinking is effective—that is, you respect certain conventions that make thinking more likely to yield useful conclusions. These would be conventions like “consider both sides of an issue,” “offer evidence for claims made,” and “don’t let emotion interfere with reason.” This third characteristic will be our main concern, and as we’ll see, what constitutes effective thinking varies from domain to domain….

      It's a perennial idea—teach something that requires critical thinking, and such thinking will become habitual. In the 19th century, educators suggested that Latin and geometry demanded logical thinking, which would prompt students to think logically in other contexts. The idea was challenged by psychologist Edward Thorndike, who compared scores from standardized tests that high school students took in autumn and spring as a function of the coursework they had taken during the year. If Latin, for example, makes you smart, students who take it should score better in the spring. They didn’t.

      In the 1960s, computer programming replaced Latin as the discipline that would lead to logical thinking. Studies through the 1980s showed mixed results, but a recent meta-analysis offered some apparently encouraging results about the general trainability of computational thinking. The researchers reported that learning to program a computer yielded modest positive transfer to measures of creative thinking, mathematics, meta-cognition, spatial skills, and reasoning. It’s sensible to think that this transfer was a consequence of conceptual overlap between programming and these skills, as no benefit was observed in measures of literacy.

      …a large sample will probably be closer to a “true” estimate than small sample—if you want to know whether a set of dice is loade you’re better off seeing the results of 20 throws rather than two throws. People readily understand this idea in the context of evaluaating randomness, but a small sample doesn’t bother them when judging academic performance; if someone receives poor grades on two math tests, observers judge they are simply bad at math.

      …We know that a student has understood an idea like the law of large numbers. But understanding it offers no guarantee that the student IL will recognize new situations in which that idea will be useful.

      …in math and science classes, students often learned to solve standard problems via a series of fixed, lockstep procedures. That meant students were stumped when confronted with a problem requiring a slight revision of the steps, even if the goal of the steps was the same….

      …We do know that students who go to school longer score better on intelligence tests, and certainly we think of intelligence as all-purpose. Still, it may be that schooling boosts a collection of fairly specific thinking skills. If it increases general thinking skills, researchers have been unable to identify them.

      Although existing data favor the specific skills account, researchers would still say it’s uncertain whether a good critical thinker is someone who has mastered lots of specific skills, or someone with a smaller set of yet-to-be-identified general skills. But educators aren’t researchers, and for educators, one fact ought to be salient. We’re not even sure the general skills exist, but we’re quite sure there’s no proven way to teach them directly. In contrast, we have a pretty good idea of how to teach students the more specific critical thinking skills. I suggest we do so….

      As much as teaching students to think critically is a universal goal of schooling, one might be surprised that student difficulty in this area is such a common complaint. Educators are often frustrated that student thinking seems shallow. This review should offer insight into why that is. The way the mind works, shallow is what you get first. Deep, critical thinking is hard-won.

      That means that designers and administrators of a program to improve critical thinking among students must take the long view, both in the time frame over which the program operates and especially in the speed with which one expects to see results. Patience will be a key ingredient in any program that succeeds.

The Crisis of American Democracy

[These excerpts are from an article by Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt in the Fall 2020 issue of American Educator.]

      Nearly all living Americans grew up taking our democracy for granted. Until recently, most of us believed—and acted as if—our constitutional system was unbreakable, no matter how recklessly our politicians behaved.

      No longer. Americans watch with growing unease as our political system threatens to go off the rails: costly government shutdowns, stolen Supreme Court seats, impeachments, mounting concerns about the fairness of elections, and, of course, the election of a presidential candidate who had condoned violence at rallies and threatened to lock up his rival, and who, as president, has begun to subvert the rule of law by defying congressional oversight and corrupting law enforcement agencies to protect his political allies and investigate his opponents.

      In a 2019 survey by Public Agenda, 39 percent of Americans said they believed our democracy is “in crisis,” while another 42 percent said it faces “serious challenges.” Only 15 percent said American democracy is “doing well.”

      …According to Freedom House's ranking, the United States is now less democratic than Chile, the Czech Republic, Slovenia, Taiwan, and Uruguay—and in the same category as newer democracies like Croatia, Greece, Mongolia, and Panama….

      The problems started long before 2016 and go deeper than Donald Trump’s presidency. Electing a demagogue is always dangerous, but it does not condemn a country to democratic breakdown. Strong institutions can constrain corrupt or autocratic-minded leaders. That is precisely what the US Constitution was designed to do, and for most of our history, it has succeeded. America’s constitutional system has effectively checked many powerful and ambitious presidents, including demagogues (Andrew Jackson) and criminals (Richard Nixon). For this reason, Americans have historically had a lot of faith in our Constitution. A 1999 survey found that 85 percent of Americans believed it was the main reason why our democracy has been so successful.

      But constitutions by themselves aren’t enough to protect democracy. Even the most brilliantly designed constitutions don't function automatically. Rather, they must be reinforced by strong, unwritten democratic norms.

      Two basic norms are essential to democracy. One is mutual toleration, or the norm of accepting the legitimacy of one’s partisan rivals. This means that no matter how much we may disagree with—and even dislike—our opponents, we recognize that they are loyal citizens who love the country just as we do and who have an equal and legitimate right to govern. In other words, we do not treat our rivals as enemies.

      The second norm is institutional forbearance. Forbearance means refraining from exercising one’s legal right. It is an act of deliberate self-restraint—an underutilization of power that is legally available to us. Forbearance is essential to democracy. Consider what the US president is constitutionally able to do: The president can legally pardon whomever she wants, whenever she wants. Any president with a congressional majority can pack the US Supreme Court simply by pushing through a law that expands the Court’s size and then filling the new vacancies with allies.

      Or consider what Congress has the constitutional authority to do. Congress can shut down the government by refusing to fund it. The Senate can use its right to “advise and consent” to prevent the president from filling her cabinet or Supreme Court vacancies. And because there is little agreement on what constitutes “high crimes and misdemeanors,” the House can impeach the president on virtually any grounds it chooses.

      The point is that politicians may exploit the letter of the Constitution in ways that eviscerate its spirit: Court packing, partisan impeachment, government shutdowns, pardoning allies who commit crimes on the president's behalf, declaring national emergencies to circumvent Congress. All these actions follow the written letter of the law to subvert its spirit….

      Unwritten norms of mutual toleration and forbearance serve as the soft guardrails of democracy. They are what prevent healthy political competition from spiraling into the kind of partisan fight to the death that wrecked democracies in Europe in the 1930s and South America in the 1960s and 1970s.

      America has not always had strong democratic guardrails. It didn’t have them in the 1790s when institutional warfare between the Federalists and the Republicans nearly destroyed the Republic before it could take root. It lost them in the run-up to the Civil War, and they remained weak through the late 19th century.

      For most of the 20th century, however, America’s guardrails were solid. Although the country experienced occasional assaults on democratic norms (e.g., McCarthyism in the 1950s), both parties broadly engaged in mutual tolerance and forbearance, which in turn allowed our system of checks and balances to work. During the first three quarters of the 20th century, there were no impeachments or successful instances of Court packing. Senators were judicious in their use of filibusters and their right to “advise and consent” on presidential appointments--most Supreme Court nominees were approved easily, even when the president’s party didn’t control the Senate. And outside of wartime, presidents largely refrained from acting unilaterally to circumvent Congress or the courts.

      For more than a century, then, America’s system of checks and balances worked. Again, however, the system worked because it was reinforced by strong norms of mutual toleration and forbearance.

      There is, however, an important tragedy at the heart of this story. The soft guardrails that undergirded America’s 20th century democracy were built upon racial exclusion and operated in a political community that was overwhelmingly white and Christian. Efforts to create a multiracial democracy after the Civil War generated violent resistance, especially in the South. Southern Democrats viewed Reconstruction as an existential threat, and they used both constitutional hardball and outright violence to resist it. It was only after the Republicans abandoned Reconstruction—enabling the Democrats to establish Jim Crow in the South—that Democrats ceased to view their rivals as an existential threat and two parties began to peacefully coexist, allowing norms of mutual toleration and forbearance to emerge. In other words, it was only after racial equality was removed from the agenda, restricting America's political community to white people, that these norms took hold. The fact that our guardrails emerged in an era of incomplete democracy has important consequences for contemporary polarization….

      …America’s democratic norms have been unraveling over the last three decades. There were early signs in the 1990s, when Newt Gingrich encouraged his fellow Republicans to use words like betray, anti-flag, and traitor to describe Democrats. In doing so, Gingrich encouraged Republicans to overtly abandon mutual toleration. The Gingrich revolution also brought a rise in constitutional hardball, including the first major government shutdown in 1995 and a presidential impeachment—the first in 130 years—in 1998.

      The erosion of democratic norms accelerated during the Obama presidency. Republican leaders like Gingrich, Sarah Palin, Rudy Giuliani, Mike Huckabee, and Donald Trump told their followers that President Obama did not love America and that Obama and the Democrats weren’t real Americans. Trump and others even questioned whether President Obama was an American citizen. Hillary Clinton received similar treatment: Trump and other Republican figures cast her as a criminal, making “lock her up” a chant at rallies. This was not happening on the political fringes: these were ideas put forth by the Republican nominee for president, and cheered—live, on national television—by the crowd at the Republican National Convention.

      This was a worrisome development because when mutual toleration disappears, politicians begin to abandon forbearance. When we view our partisan rivals as enemies, or as an existential threat, we grow tempted to use any means necessary to stop them.

      That is exactly what has happened over the last decade. Republicans in Congress treated the Obama administration as an existential threat that had to be defeated at almost any cost. Constitutional hardball became the norm. There were more filibusters during President Obama’s second term than in all the years between World War I and Ronald Reagan’s second term combined. Congress twice shut down the government, and at one point, it pushed the country to the brink of default. President Obama responded with constitutional hardball of his own. When Congress refused to pass immigration reform or climate change legislation, he circumvented Congress and made policy via executive orders. These acts were technically legal, but they clearly violated the spirit of the Constitution.

      Perhaps the most consequential act of constitutional hardball during the Obama years was the Senate’s refusal to take up President Obama’s nomination of Merrick Garland to the Supreme Court. Since 1866, every time a president had an opportunity to fill a Court vacancy before the election of his successor, he had been allowed to do so (though not always on the first try). The Senate's refusal to even consider an Obama nominee thus vio-lated a 150-year-old norm.

      The problem, then, is not only that Americans elected a demagogue in 2016. It is thatwe elected a demagogue at a time when the soft guardrails protecting our democracy were coming unmoored….

      American society has transformed dramatically over the last half-century. Due to large-scale immigration and steps toward racial equality, our country has grown both more diverse and more democratic. These changes have eroded both the size and the social status of America’s erstwhile white Christian majority.

      In the 1950s, white Christians constituted well over 90 percent of the American electorate. As recently as 1992, when Bill Clinton was elected president, 73 percent of American voters were white Christians. By the time Barack Obama was reelected in 2012, that percentage had fallen to 57 percent and research suggests that it will be below 50 percent by 2024. In effect, white Christians are losing their electoral majority.

      They are also losing their dominant social status. Not long ago, white Christian men sat atop all our country’s social, economic, political, and cultural hierarchies. They filled the presidency, Congress, the Supreme Court, and the governors' mansions. They were the CEOs, the newscasters, and most of the leading celebrities and scientific authorities. And they were the face of both major political parties.

      Those days are over. But losing one’s dominant social status can be deeply threatening. Many white Christian men feel like the country they grew up in is being taken away from them. For many people, that feels like an existential threat.

      This demographic transition has become politically explosive.. because America's racial and cultural differences now map almost perfectly onto the two major parties. This was not the case in the past. As recently as the late 1970s, white Christians were evenly divided as Democrats and Republicans.

      Three major changes have occurred over the last half-century. First, the civil rights movement led to a massive migration of Southern white people from the Democrats to the Republicans, while African Americans—newly enfranchised in the South—became overwhelmingly Democratic. Second, the United States experienced a massive wave of immigration, and most of these immigrants ended up in the Democratic Party. And third, beginning with Ronald Reagan’s presidency in the early 1980s, white evangelical Christians flocked to the Republicans.

      As a result of these changes, America's two major parties now represent very different parts of American society. The Democrats represent a rainbow coalition that includes urban and educated white voters and people of color. Nearly half of Democratic voters are nonwhite. The Republicans, by contrast, remain overwhelmingly white and Christian.

      Americans have thus sorted themselves into parties that represent radically different communities, social identities, and visions of what America is and should be. The Republicans increasingly represent white Christian America, whereas the Democrats have come to represent everybody else. This is the divide that underlies our country’s deep polarization.

      What makes our polarization so dangerous, however, is its asymmetry. Whereas the Democratic base is diverse and expand-ing, the Republican Party represents a once-dominant majority in numerical and status decline. Sensing this decline, many Republicans have grown fearful about the future. Slogans like “take our country back” and “make America great again” reflect this sense of peril. These fears, moreover, have fueled a troubling development that threatens our democracy: a growing Republican aversion to losing elections.

      …desperation leads politicians to play dirty.

      …These measures, together with a monstrous campaign of anti-Black violence, did what they were intended to do: Black voter turnout in the South fell from 61 percent in 1880 to just 2 percent in 1912. Unwilling to lose, Southern Democrats stripped the right to vote from almost half the population, ushering in nearly a century of authoritarianism in the South.

      The GOP is showing signs of a similar panic today. Republicans’ electoral prospects are diminishing. They remain an over-whelmingly white Christian party in an increasingly diverse society. Moreover, younger voters are deserting them….Indeed, the GOP has won the popular vote in just one presidential election in the last 30 years….

      Trump has attacked the media, trampled on congeonal oversight, and sought foreign intervention into our eleions. And like autocrats in Hungary, Russia, and Turkey, he has sought to deploy the machinery of government for personal, partisan, and even undemocratic ends. In the age of the COVID-19 pendemic, the fear that the Trump administration is shocangvuAhg the US Postal Service to make it harder to vote and to shape the results of the 2020 presidential election is only the latest instance of this phenomenon. Across the government, officials responsible for law enforcement, national intelligence, defense, election security, the census, public health, and even weather forecasting are under pressure to work for the president’s personal and political benefit—and, crucially, against his critics and opponents. Those who refuse—including inspectors general responsible for independently monitoring government agencies—are being pushed out and replaced with Trump loyalists….

      Nowhere was the erosion of our checks and balances made clearer than in the failure of the 2019-2020 impeachment process. Senate Republicans stated from the outset that they would acquit the president no matter what the evidence of wrongdoing. Polarization was so extreme that it was more important for the Republicans to beat the Democrats than to rein in a president who threatened democratic institutions. Impeachment, our most powerful constitutional check on executive abuse, was rendered toothless….

      America’s descent into democratic dysfunction prevents our governments from de aling with the most important problems facing our society—from immigration to climate change to healthcare. America’s botched, slow-moving response to the COVID-19 pandemic is only the latest and most lethal symptom of a political system that has been run aground by polarization….

      • In 2017, Neil Gorsuch became the first Supreme Court justice in history to be appointed by a president who lost the popular vote and then be confirmed by senators who represented less than half the country. A year later, Brett Kavanaugh ascended to the Court in exactly the same way, creating a conservative Court majority with decidedly minoritarian origins.

      • In February 2020, the 52 senators who voted to acquit Presi-dent Trump came from states that represented 18 million fewer Americans than the 48 senators who voted to convict….

      To be sure, minority rule has a deep history in America. Our Founders created a constitutional system that was biased toward small (or low population) states. But over time, that early small state bias evolved into a massive overrepresentation of rural states, affecting three important countermajoritarian institutions: the Electoral College is slightly biased toward sp arsely p opulate d states; the US Senate is heavily biased toward sparsely populated states; and because the Senate must approve Supreme Court nominations, the Supreme Court is also somewhat biased toward sparsely populated states. Population trends—the gradual depopulation of rural areas—are exacerbating the problem. In 20 years, 70 percent of the US population will be living in 16 states, which means that 30 percent of the country will control 68 percent of the Senate.

      For most of American history, the rural bias inherent in the political system had little partisan effect, because the major parties had urban and rural wings. In other words, the system always favored Vermont over New York, but it did not favor any particular party. In recent years, however, US parties have divided along urban-rural lines. Today, Democratic voters are concentrated in the big metropolitan centers, whereas Republicans are increasingly based in sparsely populated territories. That gives the GOP a systematic and growing advantage in the Electoral College, the Senate, and the Supreme Court….

      In sum, no matter what the outcome of the presidential election, Americans could be headed for a period of partisan minority rule, in which governments elected by a minority of Americans seek to tilt the playing field under the protection of the Senate and the Supreme Court.

      …Unfortunately, the White House has publicly opposed efforts to expand vote-by-mail options, and in many states, the Republican Party challenged such initiatives in court.

      We often assume that one must break or change the rules to subvert democracy. But this isn’t always true. When changing conditions make it impossible to practice democracy as we did in the past, like when a pandemic makes in-person voting dangerous, failing to act—failing to update our rules and procedures—can itself subvert democracy. Malign neglect is an insidious form of constitutional hardball. It is hardly illegal to not act or to not pass legislation. Maintaining our traditional voting system—one that has worked in the past—doesn’t seem very authoritarian. Indeed, it may even at first glance seem prudent. Moreover, a chaotic, low-turnout election would violate no Laws. Strictly spealdng, it would be constitutional. But to do nothing at a time when a pandemic threatens citizens’ ability to vote, potentially affecting the outcome of a presidential election, would be an act of malign neglect—and potentially the biggest subversion of American democracy since Jim Crow….

      Democracy requires the existence of at least two democratically minded political parties. Thus, American democracy will only be secure when both major parties are committed to the democratic rules ofthe game. For that to happen, the Republican Party must change. It must transform itself into a more diverse party, capable of attracting younger, urban, and nonwhite voters. A Republican Party that can thrive in a multiracial America will be less fearful ofthe future….

      …Parties only change course when their strategies fail. In democratic politics, success and failure are measured at the ballot box. And nothing compels change like electoral defeat.

      But there is a hitch: countermajoritarian institutions like the Electoral College, the Senate, and the federal judiciary allow the GOP to hold onto considerable power without winning national popular majorities. These institutions may therefore weaken Republicans’ incentive to adapt….

Trump Chooses Chaos – We Choose Community

[These excerpts are from an editorial by Randi Weingarter in the Fall 2020 issue of American Educator.]

      …It is not just the three crises—the pandemic, the worsening economic inequality, and the long overdue reckoning with systemic racism; now we also face very real threats to our democracy and to the ability of every eligible American to safely and freely vote. These crises are all made worse by one person: Donald J. Trump….

      Let’s be clear: we must all take a stand against violence—just as we must all take a stand against systemic racism. What’s the key in moving from indifference to action and from ignorance to understanding? Teaching for racial equity and justice….

      How does the president of the United States not say the names that are on so many of our lips Jacob Blake, George Floyd, Breonna Taylor—yet call violent white supremacists in Charlottesville “very fine people”? Why has the president cheered on caravans of white supremacists in Portland and refused to condemn the killings of two protesters in Kenosha by a 17-year-old white teenager?

      This is not the way any president should act.

      Rather than calming a tense nation, he is courting violence. Savvy political scientists believe he is not merely energizing his base; he is cultivating chaos to distract the nation from his inept handling of the pandemic. At the beginning of September, when the United States had over 6 million cases and 185,000 confirmed COVID-19 deaths, a comparison with other countries estimated that about 145,000 of those deaths would have been avoided if the US had an average—not good, just average—response to the pandemic. Instead, the US was far below average, with 4 percent of the world’s population but 22 percent of COVID-19 deaths.

      Think about what could have hap-pened if Trump had decided to fight, not deny or downplay, the virus.

      President Trump claims that he has created the best economy ever. Before the pandemic, 40 percent of Americans couldn’t cover a $400 emergency, yet the rich were getting fax richer. By the end of August, 25 million Americans had lost work—and economic inequality in America was on par with the Gilded Age.

      President Trump has obliterated nearly every norm of our democracy, including running roughshod over the laws intended to prevent him from using his office for political or personal gain….

      Where do we go from here? We have a choice between chaos or community, to paraphrase Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

      Trump wants chaos. In addition to trying to turn peaceful protests into violent confrontations, he fomented turmoil in the reopening of schools….Trump made baseless claims that children are “practically immune” to COVID-19 and ignored the risks to educators, staff, and families….

      Donald Trump isn’t up to the task of handling this public health crisis. He’s desperate to distract us from the fact that most Americans are decidedly not better off than they were four years ago.

      Donald Trump’s economic policies help millionaires and billionaires, not average people. While his corruption threatens our democratic form of government, his secretary of education tries to take funds away from youth in under-resourced communities, and his administration is trying to take health insurance away from millions of people during a pandemic. In the face of these failures, his hobbling of the US Postal Service is an attempt to hamper voting by mail and to sow doubt about the election in the event he loses.

      But Trump’s America is not America….

How Sticky Innovations Changed the World

[These excerpts are from an article by Carl E. Heltzel in the October 2020 issue of ChemMatters.]

      During World War il, Vesta Staudt, who had two sons serving in the U.S. Navy, was working at the Green River Ordnance Plant near Amboy, Illinois.

      She helped pack boxes of ammunition. This involved waterproofing the boxes by sealing them with paper tape and dipping them in wax. A loose end of the tape was left sticking out so soldiers could pull on it and quickly peel off the whole strip of tape to open the package. But there was a critical problem with this technique. It succeeded in waterproofing the boxes, but the flimsy tabs of paper tape often tore off, leaving the boxes sealed shut.

      Under enemy fire, soldiers would have had little time to deal with a hard-to-open box. They needed to unseal ammunition boxes quickly. So, Stoudt came up with a solution. She designed a waterproof cloth tape that was sturdier than the paper tape the army had been using. She proposed the idea to her bosses, but they didn't show much interest.

      Undeterred, Stoudt wrote a letter to then-President Franklin D. Roosevelt on Feb. 10, 1943. Roosevelt saw the merits of her idea and instructed the War Production Board to follow up. The Industrial Tape Corporation won the job of producing the tape in large amounts. Thus, duck tape—now known as duct tape—was invented….

      Archaeologists have found evidence that tar was used for hafting—that is, attaching stone blades to wooden handles—which represented a toolmaking advancement for early humans.

      Another important development in the history of adhesives was the use of the naturally occurring rock limestone (calcium carbonate, CaCO3), which is often composed of the skeletal remains of marine organisms. When heated, added to water, and mixed with sand, limestone produces lime mortar. When lime mortar reacts with carbon dioxide (CO2) in the air, it hardens into limestone, binding together the materials it's in contact with. Lime mortar was used to bond together stone in ancient structures, including the Egyptian pyramids and the Great Wall of China….

The Race to Decipher Egyptian Hieroglyphs

[These excerpts are from a book review by Andrew Robinson in the 25 September 2020 issue of Science.]

      The Rosetta stone, inscribed in 196 BCE during the reign of the Greco-Egyptian ruler Ptolemy V and discovered in Egypt by engineers of Napoleon Bonaparte's army in 1799, is a bilingual inscription written in two of the ancient Egyptian scripts—hieroglyphic and demotic—and the Greek alphabet. From 1815 to 1823, it served as the key that unlocked the decipherment of the Egyptian hieroglyphs through the largely independent labors of the English polymath Thomas Young and the French linguist and archaeologist Jean-Frangois Champollion, who is generally regarded as the founder of Egyptology….

      By comparing the Rosetta stone's hieroglyphic and demotic inscriptions, Young correctly concluded in 1815 that demotic script consisted of “imitations of the hieroglyphics...mixed with the letters of the alphabet.” He next read the hieroglyphic name of Ptolemy on the stone by analyzing it phonetically, justifying this approach on the grounds that it was a non-Egyptian name. But, like the ancient Greeks and Romans, Young wrongly assumed that the native Egyptian words in the hieroglyphic script were probably nonphonetic, representing ideas rather than sounds.

      In April 1821, Champollion categorically stated in a misguided publication (which he later withdrew) that the three ancient Egyptian scripts—hieroglyphic, hieratic, and demotic—represented things or ideas, not sounds. He reaffirmed this belief in October 1822 on the first page of his most famous publication, Lettre a M. Dacier….

      Although Champollion’s statement seemed to exclude even the slightest possibility of a phonetic element in Egyptian scripts, this appears to have been unintentional, because he made one crucial exception in the Lettre, undoubtedly influenced by Young's prior work: Hieroglyphs could represent sounds when used phonetically to write foreign proper names in cartouches. This allowed Champollion to justify the Lettre’s phonetic transliterations of the cartouches of many foreign rulers of Egypt, such as Alexander, Cleopatra, and Ptolemy, and its celebrated list of hieroglyphic and demotic “phonetic signs” supposedly used for writing only these foreign names.

      Soon after, however, Champollion radically changed his mind about the Egyptian scripts upon reading the name of Ramesses, a historically known, native Egyptian pharaoh, written in a cartouche—a possibility hinted at by Young in 1819. Having applied his growing hieroglyphic “alphabet” to many native Egyptian words, Champollion was thrilled to find that it produced credible transliterations of them that were recognizable from Coptic vocabularies. In April 1823, he announced to the Academy of Inscriptions in Paris that there was, after all, a major phonetic hieroglyphic component that had existed long before the Greco-Roman period—the essential insight that enabled his decipherments in Egypt inn 1828-29.

      …Young’s myriad-mindedness provided some vital clues early on, but unlike Champollion, Young was far from obsessed with ancient Egypt. His versatility obstructed him from mak-ing further progress. Conversely, Champollion’s single-mindedness hindered him from spotting these clues, but once they were in place, his tunnel vision allowed him to begin to perceive the system behind the signs. What a pity that the two scholars, despite being in touch, never truly collaborated.

Birds Do Have a Brain Cortex—and Think

[These excerpts are from an article by Suzana Herculano-Houzel in the 25 September 2020 issue of Science.]

      The term “birdbrain” used to be derogatory. But humans, with their limited brain size, should have known better than to use the meager proportions of the bird brain as an insult Part of the cause for derision is that the mantle, or pallium, of the bird brain lacks the obvious layering that earned the mammalian pallium its “cerebral cortex” label. However, birds, and particularly corvids (such as ravens), are as cognitively capable as monkeys and even great apes. Because their neurons are smaller, the pallium of songbirds and parrots actually comprises many more information-processing neuronal nal units than the equivalent-sized mammalian cortices….the bird pallium has neurons that represent what it perceives—a hallmark of consciousness….the bird pallium has similar organization to the mammalian cortex….

      Stating that birds do not have a cerebral cortex has been doubly wrong for several years. Birds do have a cerebral cortex, in the sense that both their pallium and the mammalian counterpart are enormous neuronal populations derived from the same dorsal half of the second neuromere in neural tube development. The second neuromere is important: The pallium of birds and mammals lies posterior to the hypothalamus, the true front part of the brain, which is then saddled in development by the rapidly bulging pallium….it is now understood that in both birds and mammals, the pallium rests on top of all the neuronal loops formed between spinal cord, hindbrain, midbrain, thalamus, and hypothalamus.

      In both birds and mammals, the pallium is the population of neurons that are not a necessary part of the most fundamental circuits that operate the body. But because the pallium receives copies, through the thalamus, of all that goes on elsewhere, these pallial neurons create new associations that endow animal behavior with flexibility and complexity. So far, it appears that the more neurons there are in the pallium as a whole, regardless of pallial, brain, or body size, the more cognitive capacity is exhibited by the animal. Humans remain satisfyingly on top: Despite having only half the mass of an elephant pallium, the human version still has three times its number of neurons, averaging 16 billion. Corvids and parrots have upwards of half a billion neurons in their pallia and can have as many as 1 or 2 billion—like monkeys.

      Additionally, it has been known since 2013 that the circuits formed by the pallial neurons are functionally organized in a similar manner in birds as they are in mammals….

      If the bird pallium as a whole is organized just like the mammalian pallium, then it follows that the part of the bird pallium that is demonstrably functionally connected like the mammalian prefrontal pallium…should also function like it….

      …The widespread occurrence of large mammalian bodies today does not mean that ancestral mammals were large (they were not), nor do the nearly ubiquitous folded cortices of most large mammals today imply that the ancestral cortex was folded [it was not]. The physical properties that make self-avoiding surfaces buckle and fold as they expand under unequal forces apply equally to tiny and enormous cortices, but folds only present themselves past a certain size. Expansion of the cortical surface relative to its thickness is required for folds to appear. But that does not imply that folding evolved, because the physical principles that cause it to emerge were always there.

      Perhaps the same is true of consciousness: The underpinnings are there whenever there is a pallium, or something connected like a pallium, with associative orthogonal short-and long-range loops on top of the rest of the brain that add flexibility and complexity to behavior. But the level of that complexity, and the extent to which new meanings and possibilities arise, should still scale with the number of units in the system. This would be analogous to the combined achievements of the human species when it consisted of just a few thousand individuals, versus the considerable achievements of 7 billion today. /p>

Sizing Up a Green Carbon Sink

[These excerpts are from an article by Gabriel Popkin in the 25 September 2020 issue of Science.]

      Forests are having their moment. Because trees can vacuum carbon from the atmosphere and lock it away in wood, governments and businesses are embracing efforts to fight climate change by reforesting cleared areas and planting trees on a massive scale. But scientists have warned that the enthusiasm and money flowing to forest-based climate solutions threaten to outpace the science.

      Two papers published this week seek to put such efforts on a firmer footing. One study quantifies how much carbon might be absorbed globally by allowing forests cleared for farming or other purposes to regrow. The other calculates how much carbon could be sequestered by forests in the United States if they were fully “stocked” with newly planted trees. Each strategy has promise, the studies suggest, but also faces perils.

      To get a worldwide perspective on the potential of second-growth forests, an international team…assembled data from more than 13,000 previously deforested sites where researchers had measured regrowth rates of young trees. The team then trained a machine-learning algorithm on those data and dozens of variables, such as climate and soil type, to predict and map how fast trees could grow on other cleared sites where it didn’t have data.

      …had previously calculated that some 678 million hectares, an area nearly the size of Australia, could support second-growth forests. (The total doesn’t include land where trees might not be desirable, such as farmland and ecologically valuable grasslands.) If trees were allowed to take over that entire area, new forests could soak up one-quarter of the world's fossil fuel emissions over the next 30 years….That absorption rate is 32% higher than a previous estimate….

      The study highlights “what nature can do all on its own…."

      “…Natural regrowth is not going to save the planet.” One problem: There is often little economic incentive for private landowners to allow forests to bounce back. Under current policies and market pricing, “nobody will abandon cattle ranching or agriculture for growing carbon”….And even when forests get a second life, they often don't last long enough to store much carbon before being cleared again….

      Given such realities, some advocates are pushing to expand tree planting in existing forests. To boost that concept, a team of researchers at the U.S. Forest Service (USFS) quantified how many additional trees U.S. forests could hold. Drawing on a federal inventory, they found that more than 16% of forests in the continental United States are “understocked”—holding fewer than 35% of the trees they could support. Fully stocking these 33 million hectares of forest would ultimately enable U.S. forests to sequester about 18% of national carbon emissions each year….But for that to happen, the United States would have to “massively” expand its annual tree-planting efforts, from about 1 billion to 16 billion trees….

      …planting trees might make sense in some places, but natural regeneration, where possible, provides more bang for the buck….

Ancient DNA Tracks Vikings across Europe

[These excerpts are from an article by Andrew Curry in the 18 September 2020 issue of Science.]

      …In 2008, construction work on an isolated Estonian beach near the town of Salme uncovered the skeletons of more than 40 powerfully built men. They were buried around 750 C.E. in two ships with Viking-style weapons and treasure—apparently the aftermath of a raid gone wrong. DNA from the bones has now added a poignant detail: Four of the men, buried shoulder to shoulder holding their swords, were brothers.

      The new data come from a massive effort to sequence the DNA of Vikings across Eu-.. rope. The results…trace how the Vikings radiated across Europe from their Scandinavian homeland, and how people with roots elsewhere also took up Viking ways….

      …The genetic details may also rewrite popular perceptions of Vikings, including their looks: Viking Age Scandinavians were more likely to have black hair than people living there today. And comparing DNA and archaeology at individual sites suggests that for some in the Viking bands, “Viking” was a job description, not a matter of heredity.

      Viking-style graves excavated on the United Kingdom’s Orkney islands contained individuals with no Scandinavian DNA, whereas some people buried in Scandinavia had Irish and Scottish parents. And several individuals in Norway were buried as Vikings, but their genes identifled them as Saami, an Indigenous group genetically closer to East Asians and Siberians than to Europeans….

      The results also settle a centuries-old argument about the geography of raiding. Sagas written down centuries after the first expeditions suggest Vikings from certain regions favored specific destinations, but other scholars suggested the Viking command of the waves made them equal-opportunity raiders and traders.

      DNA in hand, researchers for the first time could conclusively trace the origins of people from the far edges of the Viking diaspora back to their roots in Scandinavia….

      They found that Vikings from what is now Sweden moved east to the Baltics, Poland, and the rivers of Russia and Ukraine, whereas Danes were more likely to head west to what is today England. Norwegians were most likely to set sail for the North Atlantic Ocean, colonizing Ireland, Iceland, and eventually Greenland….

      To the team’s surprise, there was little evidence of genetic mixture within Scandinavia itself. Although a few coastal settlements and island trading hubs were hot spots of genetic diversity, Scandinavian populations farther inland stayed genetically stable—and separate—for centuries….

      Other mysteries remain. Viking settlements in the Americas have not yielded bones for sequencing, leaving the identity of the first European settlers in the Americas a mystery. And to the east, more samples may help illuminate the role of Vikings in the origins of the early Russian state….

Trump Lied about Science

[These excerpts are from an editorial by H. Holden Thorp in the 18 September 2020 issue of Science.]

      When President Donald Trump began talking to the public about coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) in February and March, scientists were stunned at his seeming lack of understanding of the threat. We assumed that he either refused to listen to the White House briefings that must have been occurring or that he was being deliberately sheltered from information to create plausible deniability for federal in-action. Now, because famed Washington Post journalist Bob Woodward recorded him, we can hear Trump's own voice saying that he understood precisely that severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2) was deadly and spread through the air. As he was playing down the virus to the public, Trump was not confused or inadequately briefed: He flat-out lied, repeatedly, about science to the American people. These lies demoralized the scientific com-munity and cost countless lives in the United States.

      …now, a U.S. president has deliberately lied about science in a way that was imminently dangerous to human health and directly led to widespread deaths of Americans.

      This may be the most shameful moment in the history of U.S. science policy.

      In an interview with Woodward on 7 February 2020, Trump said he knew that COVID-19 was more lethal than the flu and that it spread through the air. “This is deadly stuff,” he said. But on 9 March, he tweeted that the “common flu” was worse than COVID-19, while economic advisor Larry Kudlow and presidential counselor Kellyanne Conway assured the public that the virus was contained. On 19 March, Trump told Woodward that he did not want to level with the American people about the danger of the virus. “I wanted to always play it down,” he said, “I still like playing it down.” Playing it down meant lying about the fact that he knew the country was in grave danger.

      It also meant silencing health officials who tried to tell the truth. On 25 February, Nancy Messonnier, director of the National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases (of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention), said, “It’s not so much a question of if this will happen anymore, but rather more a question of exactly when this will happen and how many people in this country will have severe illness.” She was right and Trump knew it. But he shut her down. He also tried. to control messaging from Anthony Fauci, the nation’s foremost leader on infectious diseases. Trump's supporters insisted that Fauci and Messonnier were not being muzzled, but now we have clear evidence in emails that they were.

      Trump also knew that the virus could be deadly for young people. “It’s not just old, older,” he told Woodward on 19 March. “Young people, too, plenty of young people.” Yet, he has insisted that schools and universities reopen and that college football should resume. He recently added to his advisory team Scott All as—a neuroradiologist with no expertise in epidemiology—who has advocated for a risky and misguided course: somehow isolating the older and more vulnerable while allowing the virus free rein among young people. The opening of colleges and schools has accelerated the spread of the virus and will mean untold suffering among both students and the people to whom they are now spreading the virus.

      Monuments in Washington, D.C., have chiseled into them words spoken by real leaders during crises….

      …Trump was not clueless, and he was not ignoring the briefings. Listen to his own words. Trump lied, plain and simple. /p>

How to Unlearn Racism

[These excerpts are from an artical by Abigail Libers in the Octob2020 issue of Scientific American.]

      …to share our definitions of racism. People’s responses were all over the map, from “a mean-spirited, close-minded way of thinking” to “discrimination based on someone’s skin color or ethnic background.” The trainers validated each of our responses before pointing out how varied they were and explaining that few of us had identified racism as a web of institutional power and oppression based on skin color. Not having a simple or agreed-on definition of racism makes it easier to keep racism in place. To undo racism, they said, we need a common language that ties together individual and systemic factors. Hearing racism described as a power hierarchy was eye-opening for me. Having been marginalized myself, I thought I was sensitive toward other groups who faced discrimination. I thought I got it.

      Over the past several months, America has been reckoning with racism on a scale that has not been seen since the civil-rights movement. The recent killings of George Floyd, Ahrnaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor and others sparked protests against systemic racism and police violence that have drawn multiracial participation. Some white Americans attended Black Lives Matter protests for the first time—the movement has been active since 2013—and saw up close the police brutality they previously only read about or witnessed through short video clips on phone screens. These experiences were a tiny window into the reality of violence and oppression that Black people endure. The pandemic further emphasizes the racial disparities that people are protesting, with Black, Latinx and Indigenous communities disproportionately affected by COVID-19. It has become widely discussed that police violence and virus deaths are not disparate issues—they are both embedded in a pervasive system of racism.

      …All of us have individual race prejudice: anyone can prejudge a person based on race alone. But what makes racism different from individual prejudice is who has institutional power. White people control our government systems and institutions in every sector, from law enforcement and education to health care and the media, leading to laws and policies that can advantage white people while disadvantaging everyone else.

      White people’s dominance in our systems is why you may have heard people refer to the U.S. as a white supremacist society in recent months. In this context, white supremacy does not refer to hate groups such as neo-Nazis and the Ku Klux Klan but rather an entire system where one group has all the advantages….

      …But addressing bias is not sufficient for confronting the racist systems, ideas and legacies that are present in our day-to-day lives. There is no one-size-fits-all solution, but research shows that undoing racism often starts with understanding what race and racism actually are. It is also crucial to develop a positive racial identity; to feel—not just intellectualize—how racism harms all of us and, finally, to learn how to break prejudice habits and become an active anti-racist….

      False classifications of humans that would later be called “races” began in the 16th and 17th centuries with Christian clergy questioning whether “Blacks” and “Indians” were human. As colonial expansion and slavery increased, religion was used to justify classifying Black people and other people of color as “pagan and soulless.” But as many of them were converted to Christianity and the Age of Enlightenment took off in the 1700s, religion lost its legitimizing power.

      Instead “science” was used to justify the enslavement of Africans and the genocide of Indigenous peoples, which had already been occurring in British colonies for more than a century….

      In the U.S., political and intellectual leaders reinforced the false ideology that Africans were biologically inferior to other races and therefore best suited for slavery. After Bacon's Rebellion in 1676, which had united white and Black indentured servants, Virginia lawmakers began to make legal distinctions between “white” and “Black” people. Poor white indentured servants who served their term could go free and own land; Black servants were committed to lifelong servitude. With the Naturalization Act of 1790, Congress codified white racial advantage into law by limiting citizenship by naturalization to “free white persons,” namely white men. Women, people of color and indentured servants were excluded.

      With white superiority cemented firmly into law, the social and political power of whiteness was born. As a category, it was increasingly associated with resources and power: explicit laws and practices that created whiteness as a requirement for being able to live in certain neighborhoods, to be able to vote, to own land, to testify in court before a jury. The legacy of “scientific” racism persists to this day.

      Although biology has shown that there are no genetically distinct races, racial identity—how you and others perceive your race—is very real, as are its ramifications. In a white-dominant society like America, white people tend to be unaware of their identity and may think of themselves as neutral, as nonracial….

      To unlearn racism then, white people must first examine their racial identity….

      …prejudices and biases can be more successfully unlearned through longer-term intervention. The 12-week longitudinal study was based on the premise that implicit bias is like a habit that can be broken through the following soteps: becoming aware of implicit bias, developing concern about the effects of that bias and using strategies to reduce bias—specifically, ones that replace biased reactions with responses that reflect one's nonprejudiced goals.

      The researchers argue that the motivation to “break the prejudice habit” comes from two sources: First, you have to be aware of your biases, and second, you have to be concerned about the consequences of your biases to be motivated to make the effort needed to eliminate them. Recent research has shown that interacting with a wide variety of racial groups can help people care more about racial justice….

      …the process of unlearning is only the first step, and it needs to translate into a commitment to practices such as breaking white silence and bringing an antiracist lens to my work. That is only possible, and sustainable, by building empathy and feeling the ways in which racism is not just harmful for people of color—it hurts white people, too.

      …many white people oppose social health programs such as the Affordable Care Act that would actually benefit them, in part because they believe these programs are designed to benefit people of color….some white Americans support politicians who promote policies that increase their risk of sickness and death.

      …Our country prides itself on being a melting pot, but much gets yr lost in the assimilation to whiteness and white supremacy culture. Markers of ethnic identity such as language, food, culture and music are discouraged; those from a non-Western European heritage are often vilified….

      In the midst of COVID-19, a high-stakes election season and racial protest movements that illuminate issues affecting everyone, many Americans are reevaluating what matters most. White people may be waking up to areas of their lives that were previously inaccessible to them and to histories and literature and legacies that have long been excluded from school curriculums. This awakening may lead people to work on creating a positive racial identity away from white supremacism, one based on fully acknowledging the power of whiteness in our society and using that knowledge to pursue equality and justice for everyone. Skipping that step risks giving up or doing even more harm; shame and self-loathing are not effective motivators and can inhibit the strength and stamina needed to push for systemic change….

Sexism and Racism Persist in Science

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

      Tempers are running hot in science (as they are in the U.S. at large) as the field embarks on along-overdue conversation about its treatment of women and people of color….

      Physics exemplifies the problem. African-Americans make up about 14 percent of the college-age population in the U.S., commensurate with their numbers in the overall population, but in physics they receive 3 to 4 percent of undergraduate degrees and less than 3 percent of Ph.D.s, and as of 2012 they composed only 2 percent of faculty. No doubt there are many reasons for this underrepresentation, but one troubling factor is the refusal of some scientists to acknowledge that a problem could even exist. Science, they argue, is inherently rational and self-correcting.

      Would that were true. The history of science is rife with well-documented cases of misogyny, prejudice and bias. For centuries biologists promoted false theories of female inferiority, and scientific institutions typically barred womens participation….Racial bias has been at least as pernicious as gender bias; it was scientists, after all, who codified the concept of race as a biological category that was not simply descriptive but also hierarchical.

      Good scientists are open to competing ideas; they attend to challenging data, and they listen to opposing views. But scientists are also humans, and cognitive science shows that humans are prone to bias, misperception, motivated reasoning and other intellectual pitfalls. Because reasoning is slow and difficult, we rely on heuristics—intellectual shortcuts that often work but sometimes fail spectacularly. (Believing that men are, in general, better than women in math is one tiring example.) It is not credible to claim that scientists are somehow immune to the biases that afflict everyone else.

      Fortunately, the objectivity of scientific knowledge does not depend on the objectivity of individual scientists. Rather it depends on strategies for identifying, acknowledging and correcting bias and error….Science is a collective effort, and it works best when scientific communities are diverse. The reason is simple: heterogeneous communities are more likely than homogeneous ones to be able to identify blind spots and correct them. Science does not correct itself; scientists correct one another through critical interrogation. And that means being willing to interrogate not just claims about the external world but claims about our own practices and processes as well.

      Science has an admirable record of producing reliable knowledge about the natural and social world, but not when it comes to acknowledging its own weaknesses. And we cannot correct those weaknesses if we insist the system will magically correct itself. It is not ideological to acknowledge and confront bias in science; it is ideological to insist science cannot be biased despite empirical validation to the contrary. Given that our failings of inclusion have been known for a longtime, it is high time we finally fix them.

Born Unequal

[These excerpts are from an article by Janet Currie in the October 2020 issue of Scientific American.]

      The COVID-19 pandemic has disproportionately hurt members of the minority community in the U.S. As of late July, 73.7 Black people out of every 100,000 had died of the coronavirus—compared with 32.4 of every 100,000 white people. Structural racism accounts for much of this disparity. African-Americans are more likely to have jobs that require theria to leave their homes and to 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 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.

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