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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).
An Indoor Chemical Cocktail

[These excerpts are from an article by Sasho Gligorovski and Jonathan P.D. Abbatt in the February 9, 2018, issue of Science.]

      In the past 50 years, many of the contaminants and chemical transformations that occur in outdoor waters, soils, and air have been elucidated. However, the chemistry of the indoor environment in which we live most of the time—up to 90% in some societies—is not nearly as well studied. Recent work has highlighted the wealth of chemical transformations that occur indoors. This chemistry is associated with 3 of the top 10 risk factors for negative health outcomes globally: household air pollution from solid fuels, tobacco smoking, and ambient particulate matter pollution. Assessments of human exposure to indoor pollutants must take these reactive processes into consideration.

      A few studies illustrate the nature of multi-phase chemistry in the indoor environment….a highly carcinogenic class of compounds—the tobacco-specific nitrosamines—forms via the reaction of gas-phase nitrous acid (HONO) with cigarette nicotine that is adsorbed onto indoor surfaces similar to those in a typical smoker’s room.. HONO is also produced indoors directly by other combustion sources such as gas stoves and by the gas-surface reactions of gaseous nitrogen oxides on walls, ceilings, and carpets. Likewise, carcinogenic polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) and their often more toxic oxidation products are mobile, existing both on the walls of most dwellings and in the air; PAHs arise from combustion sources such as smoking and inefficient cookstoves. This is a particularly important issue in developing countries, where the adverse health effects from cooking with solid fuels is a leading cause of disease. As another example, use of chlorine bleach to wash indoor surfaces promotes oxidizing conditions not just on the surfaces being washed but throughout the indoor space. Reactive chlorinated gases (such as HOCl and Cl2) evaporate from the washed surface, can oxidize other surfaces in a room, and may be broken apart by ultraviolet (UV) light to form reactive radicals….

      The building science research community has long identified the importance of ventilation for the state of indoor environments. Open windows expose us to outdoor air, whereas well-sealed houses are subject to emissions from furnishings, building materials, chemical reactions, and people and their activities. Climate change and outdoor air pollution are leading to efforts to better seal off indoor spaces, slowing down exchange of outdoor air. The purpose may be to improve air conditioning, build more energy-efficient homes, or prevent the inward migration of outdoor air pollution. As exposure to indoor environments increases, we need to know more about the chemical transformations in our living and working spaces, and the associated impacts on human health.

As Polar Ozone Mends, UV Shield Closer to Equator Thins

[These excerpts are from an article by April Reese in the February 9, 2018, issue of Science.]

      Thirty years after nations banded together to phase out chemicals that destroy stratospheric ozone, the gaping hole in Earth's ultraviolet (UV) radiation shield above Antarctica is shrinking. But new findings suggest that at midlatitudes, where most people live, the ozone layer in the lower stratosphere is growing more tenuous—for reasons that scientists are struggling to fathom.

      “I don’t want people to panic or get overly worried,” says William Ball, an atmospheric physicist…. “But there is something happening in the lower stratosphere that's important to understand….”

      Ball and his colleagues suspect the culprit is “very short-lived substances,” or VSLSs: ozone-eating chemicals such as dichloromethane that break down within 6 months after escaping into the air. Researchers had long assumed that VSLSs’ short lifetime would keep them from reaching the stratosphere, but a 2015 study suggested that the substances may account for as much as 25% of the lower stratosphere’s ozone losses. Whereas many VSLSs are of natural origin—marine organisms produce dibromomethane, for example—use of humanmade dichloromethane, an ingredient in solvents and paint removers, has doubled in recent years. “We should study [VSLSs] more completely,” says Richard Rood, an atmospheric scientist at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. But because the compounds are released in small quantities, he says, “They’re going to be difficult to measure.”

      He and others say it's vital to determine what's destroying ozone over the populous midlatitudes. “The potential for harm ... may actually be worse than at the poles,” says Joanna Haigh, co-director of the Grantham Institute at Imperial College London. “The decreases in ozone are less than we saw at the poles before the Montreal Protocol was enacted, but UV radiation is more intense in these regions.”

      Ball and others emphasize that the Montreal Protocol has been a resounding success. “I don’t think it in any way says there’s some-thing fundamentally wrong with how we've been dealing with the ozone problem,” Rood says. “What it says to me is that we’re now looking at effects that are more subtle than that original problem we were taking on” when the Montreal Protocol was adopted.

Gun Science

[These excerpts are from an article by Michael Shermer in the Winter 2017/2018 special edition of Scientific American.]

      According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 33,594 people died by guns in 2014 (the most recent year for which U.S. figures are available), a staggering number that is orders of magnitude higher than that of comparable Western democracies. What can we do about it? National Rifle Association executive vice president Wayne LaPierre believes he knows: “The only thing that stops a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun.” If LaPierre means professionally trained police and military who routinely practice shooting at ranges, this observation would at least be partially true. If he means armed private citizens with little to no training, he could not be more wrong….

      For example, of the 1,082 women and 267 men killed in 2010 by their intimate partners, 54 percent were shot by guns. Over the past quarter of a century, guns were involved in a greater number of intimate partner homicides than all other causes combined. When a woman is murdered, it is most likely by her intimate partner with a gun. Regardless of what really caused Olympic track star Oscar Pistorius to shoot his girlfriend, Reeva Steenkamp (whether he mistook her for an intruder or he snapped in a lover’s quarrel), her death is only the latest such headline. Recall, too, the fate of Nancy Lanza, killed by her own gun in her own home in Connecticut by her son, Adam Lanza, before he went to Sandy Hook Elementary School to murder some two dozen children and adults. As an alternative to arming women against violent men, legislation can help: data show that in states that prohibit gun ownership by men who have received a domestic violence restraining order, gun-caused homicides of intimate female partners have been reduced by 25 percent.

      Another myth to fall to the facts is that gun-control laws disarm good people and leave the crooks with weapons. Not so, say the Johns Hopkins authors: “Strong regulation and oversight of licensed gun dealers—defined as having a state law that required state or local licensing of retail firearm sellers, mandatory record keeping by those sellers, law enforcement access to records for inspection, regular inspections of gun dealers, and mandated reporting of theft of loss of firearms—was associated with 64 percent less diversion of guns to criminals by in-state gun dealers.”

      Finally, before we concede civilization and arm everyone to the teeth pace the NRA, consider the primary cause of the centuries-long decline of violence as documented by Steven Pinker in his 2011 book The Better Angels of Our Nature: the rule of law by states that turned over settlement of disputes to judicial courts and curtailed private self-help justice through legitimate use of force by police and military trained in the proper use of weapons.

Journey to Gunland

[These excerpts are from an article by Melinda Wenner Moyer in the Winter 2017/2018 special edition of Scientific American.]

      …A growing body of research suggests that violence is a contagious behavior that exists independent of weapon or means. In this framework, guns are accessories to infectious violence rather than fountainheads. But this does not mean guns don’t matter. Guns intensify violent encounters, upping the stakes and worsening the outcomes—which explains why there are more deaths and life-threatening injuries where firearms are common. Violence may be primarily triggered by other violence, but these deadly weapons make all this violence worse….

      The frequency of self-defense gun use rests at the heart of the controversy over how guns affect our country. Progun enthusiasts argue that it happens all the time. In 1995 Gary Kleck, a criminologist at Florida State University, and his colleague Marc Gertz published a study that elicited what has become one of the gun lobby's favorite numbers. They randomly surveyed 5,000 Americans and asked if they, or another member of the household, had used a gun for self-protection in the past year. A little more than 1 percent of the participants answered yes, and when Kleck and Gertz extrapolated their results, they concluded that Americans use guns for self-defense as many as 2.5 million times a year.

      This estimate is, however, vastly higher than numbers from government surveys, such as the National Crime Victimization Survey (NCVS), which is conducted in tens of thousands of house-holds. It suggests that victims use guns for self-defense only 65,000 times a year. In 2015 Hemenway and his colleagues studied five years’ worth of NCVS data and concluded that guns are used for self-defense in less than 1 percent of all crimes that occur in the presence of a victim. They also found that self-defense gun use is about as effective as other defensive maneuvers, such as calling for help. “It’s not as if you look at the data, and it says people who defend themselves with a gun are much less likely to be injured,” says Philip Cook, an economist at Duke University, who has been studying guns since the 1970s….

      A closer look at the who, what, where and why of gun violence also sheds some light on the self-defense claim. Most Americans with concealed carry permits are white men living in rural areas, yet it is young black men in urban areas who disproportionately encounter violence. Violent crimes are also geographically concentrated: Between 1980 and 2008, half of all of Boston’s gun violence occurred on only 3 percent of the city’s streets and intersections. And in Seattle, over a 14-year-period, every single juvenile crime incident took place on less than 5 percent of street segments. In other words, most people carrying guns have only a small chance of encountering situations in which they could use them for self-defense….

      The popular gun-advocacy bumper sticker says that “guns don’t kill people, people kill people”—and it is, in fact, true. People, all of us, lead complicated lives, misinterpret situations, get angry, make mistakes. And when a mistake involves pulling a trigger, the damage can’t be undone….

Girls Lead in Solving Problems with Others

[These excerpts are from a report by OECD (Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development) in the February 2018 issue of Phi Delta Kappan.]

      Girls are much better than boys at working together to solve problems, according to an international assessment of collaborative problem solving.

      About 125,000 15-year-olds in 52 countries and economies took part in the assessment, which analyzes for the first time how well students work together as a group, their attitudes toward collaboration, and the influence of factors such as gender, after-school activities, and social background….

      • Students with stronger reading or math skills tend to be better at collaborative problem solving because managing and interpreting information, and the ability to reason, are required to solve problems.

      • Girls do better than boys in every country and economy that participated in the assessment, by the equivalent of a half year of schooling on average….

      • Exposure to diversity in the classroom tends to be associated with better collaboration skills. For example, in some countries, students without an immigrant background perform better in the collaboration-specific aspects of the test when they attend schools with a larger proportion of immigrant students.

      • Students who attend physical education lessons or play sports generally are more positive about collaboration. Students who play video games outside of school score slightly lower in collaborative problem solving than students who do not play video games. But students who access the internet or social networks outside of school score slightly higher than other students.

North American Waterways Are Becoming Saltier

[These excerpts are from an item from the University of Maryland in the February 2018 issue of The Science Teacher.]

      Across America, streams and rivers are becoming saltier, thanks to road deicers, fertilizers, and other salty compounds that humans indirectly release into waterways. At the same time, freshwater supplies are becoming more alkaline.

      Salty, alkaline freshwater can create big problems for drinking water supplies, urban infrastructure, and natural ecosystems. A new study is the first to assess long-term changes in freshwater salinity and pH at the continental scale. Drawn from data recorded at 232 U.S. Geological Survey monitoring sites across the country over the past 50 years, the analysis shows significant increases in both salinization and alkalinization. The study results also suggest a close link between the two properties, with different salt compounds combining to do more damage than any one salt on its own….

      According to the researchers, most freshwater salinization research has focused on sodium chloride, better known as table salt, which is also the dominant chemical in road deicers. But in terms of chemistry, salt has a much broader definition, encompassing any combination of positively and negatively charged ions that dissociate in water. Some of the most common positive ions found in salts—including sodium, calcium, magnesium, and potassium—can have dam-aging effects on freshwater at higher concentrations.

      …Alkalinization, which is influenced by a number of different factors in addition to salinity, increased by 90%.

      The root causes of increased salt in waterways vary from region to region, according to researchers. In the snowy Mid-Atlantic and New England, road salt applied to maintain roadways in winter is a primary culprit. In the heavily agricultural Midwest, fertilizers, particularly those with high potassium content, also make major contributions. In other regions, mining waste and weathering of concrete, rocks, and soils releases salts into adjacent waterways.

It’s Time for EPA’s Scott Pruitt to Go

[This excerpt is from an editorial by Fred Krupp in the Winter 2018 issue of Solutions, the newsletter of the Environmental Defense Fund.]

      This month marks the one-year anniversary of President Trump’s inauguration and the convening of the 115th Congress. And what a year it has been—a perfect storm of extreme weather and extreme politics. The president is surrendering America's climate leadership, undermining the government's ability to enforce the law and demolishing environmental safeguards.

      The administration's point man for environmental assaults and climate denial has been EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt. As Oklahoma attorney general, he sued EPA 14 times trying to block clean air and water protections. This year he led what amounted to a hostile take-over of the agency, rolling back climate standards even as historic hurricanes and wildfires drove home the need for urgent action.

      Pruitt has ruled EPA under a cloak of secrecy, suppressing climate web pages, silencing scientists and keeping his schedule secret, until Freedom of Information Act requests from EDF and others forced its release. It showed Pruitt meeting regularly with executives from the mining, fossil fuel and auto industries, sometimes shortly before making decisions that put their interests above those of the American people. His frequent travel to Oklahoma at taxpayers’ expense prompted EPA’s Inspector General to open an investigation.

Our Science, Our Society

[These excerpts are from an editorial by Susan Hockfield in the February 3, 2018, issue of Science.]

      We live in a scientific golden age. Never has the pace of discovery been so rapid, the range of achievements so broad, and the changing nature of our understanding so revolutionary. Science today has extraordinary powers. It reveals fundamental phenomena of our universe, catalyzes new technologies, powers new businesses, fosters new industries, and improves lives….Today’s advances and innovations presage a future that most of us have not yet imagined.

      Lamentably, we also live in a new heyday of anti-science activism. Fake news and “alternative facts” abound. Climate-change deniers occupy political office and determine environmental policy. Fears of unsubstantiated dangers delay the deployment of genetically modified foods in starving nations. The risks of nuclear power are overstated rather than carefully weighed. The anti-vaccination movement endures, and there are claims that science is as culturally determined and subjective as any other endeavor. Public figures cynically dismiss scientific findings, fostering a popular distrust of expertise and experts. All this, too, presages a different future that most of us would not want to imagine.

      In this environment, how can we ensure that science prevails and continues to flourish? What can be done to get the most from this scientific golden age? We can start by recognizing the critical role of institutions in nurturing the scientific enterprise….

      When the focus of science is placed on individual achievement, it can neglect the importance of the institutions that make the work of science possible. That leaves our institutions open to attack. And, indeed, both science and its institutions are under attack today, with rampant skepticism about the utility of the research enterprise and higher education. Also under attack are the core principles that unite scientists and science enthusiasts: that objective reality can be discovered; that anyone can compete in a game governed by ideas; that disagreements are best resolved by assembling facts to test competing views; and that science and the application of scientific principles have the capacity to improve lives. What's more, science's universal truths call together people from any background, any nation, any phenotype or genotype. These principles have guided us for centuries along the road to discovery and understanding.

A Tale of Two Cultures

[These excerpts are from an editorial by Rush Holt in the January 26, 2018, issue of Science.]

      It is the best of times. It is the worst of times. We are witnessing major advances in almost every field of science, leading to a better understanding of the world and improvements in the quality of people’s lives. Yet, scattered distrust of science, neglect of science by public officials, and frequent denial of scientific thinking in many quarters seem to call into question that rosy view of scientific progress. The inconsistency indicates widespread misunderstanding of what science is and how it works. It is up to scientists to fix this.

      …For example, it is troubling to scientists that in the United States, the president has failed to appoint a science adviser. But even more troubling is that the public has reacted with a yawn.

      …A principle of science is that all findings are provisional. Some seem to think this means science is so uncertain that any opinion or political assertion is as valid as evidence.

      Somehow, scientists must rebuild public understanding and appreciation of science and evidence-based thinking. Clearly, it will not be accomplished simply by decrying the lack of trust or failure to appoint science advisers. It must be achieved by demonstrating trustworthiness and the extraordinary effectiveness of science in confronting questions and problems. Scientists must show that evidence-based thinking leads to more reliable policies to create jobs, maintain a healthy environment, or improve teaching. Rather than denouncing the absence of scientists in policy-making positions, the scientific community must raise public understanding to the level where no public official of any party would ever want to be without a science adviser. Scientists must build the recognition that despite occasional errors, and even blunders, scientific thinking has a strong record of success over centuries. Scientists must demonstrate that science and evidence-based thinking are relevant to everyone, and that science is not an arcane practice under the control of a remote, self-interested priesthood.

      Science practiced by those who neither make their work accessible to all people, nor make clear their work is for the benefit of all, becomes an impoverished enterprise and risks being unsustainable. It comes down to good science communication—not simply choosing the right words to explain one's research, but actually earning the public’s trust that the whole enterprise is intended for societal good. If scientists fail to rebuild the public's understanding and appreciation, this could indeed become the worst of times.

When Facts Backfire

[This excerpt is from an article by Michael Shermer in the Winter 2017/2018 special edition of Scientific American.]

      Have you ever noticed that when you present people with facts that are contrary to their deepest held beliefs they always change their minds? Me neither. In fact, people seem to double down on their beliefs in the teeth of overwhelming evidence against them. The reason is related to the worldview perceived to be under threat by the conflicting data.

      Creationists, for example, dispute the evidence for evolution in fossils and DNA because they are concerned about secular forces encroaching on religious faith. Antivaxxers distrust big pharm a and think that money corrupts medicine, which leads them to believe that vaccines cause autism despite the inconvenient truth that the one and only study claiming such a link was retracted and its lead author accused of fraud. The 9/11 truthers focus on minutiae like the melting point of steel in the World Trade Center buildings that caused their collapse because they think the government lies and conducts “false flag” operations to create a New World Order. Climate deniers study tree rings, ice cores and the ppm of greenhouse gases because they are passionate about freedom, especially that of markets and industries to operate unencumbered by restrictive government regulations….

The 1918 Flu, 100 Years Later

[These excerpts are from an editorial by Jessica A. Belser and Terrence M. Tumpey in the January 19, 2018, issue of Science.]

      Combating a disease of unknown cause is a daunting task. One hundred years ago, a pandemic of poorly understood etiology and transmissibility spread worldwide, causing an estimated 50 million deaths. Initially attributed to Haemophilus influenzae, it was not until the 1930s that an H1 subtype was identified as the causative strain. Subsequent influenza pandemics in 1957, 1968, and 2009 did not approach levels of morbidity and mortality comparable to those of the 1918 “Spanish flu,” leaving unanswered for almost a century questions regarding the extraordinary virulence and transmissibility of this unique strain. Technological advances made reconstruction of the 1918 virus possible; now continued research, vaccine development, and preparedness are essential to ensure that such a devastating public health event is not repeated.

      Over the past 20 years, studies of individual genes and the fully reconstructed live 1918 virus have identified numerous features that likely contributed to its robustness and rapid global spread. Importantly, this research has often been conducted in tandem with viral isolates from recent human and zoonotic sources, enabling insights from the 1918 virus to inform evaluations of current pandemic risk. As we now know, wild birds are the natural reservoir for influenza A viruses. With extensive antigenic and genetic diversity inherent among influenza virus surface proteins, a strain to which humans are immunologically naive could jump the species barrier at any time….

      Philosopher George Santayana pointed out, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” We are no doubt more prepared in 2018 for an infectious disease threat than in 1918. But it is critical to remember that preparation only stems from a global commitment to share data about viral isolates, support innovative research, and dedicate resources to assess the pandemic risk of new and emerging influenza viruses from zoonotic reservoirs.

Alvy’s Error and the Meaning of Life

[This excerpt is from an article by Michael Shermer in the February 2018 issue of Scientific American.]

      …we are sentient beings designed by evolution to survive and flourish in the teeth of entropy and death. The second law of thermodynamics (entropy) is the first law of life. If you do nothing, entropy will take its course, and you will move toward a higher state of disorder that ends in death. So our most basic purpose in life is to combat entropy by doing something “extropic”—expending energy to survive and flourish. Being kind and helping others has been one successful strategy, and punishing Paleolithic Stalins was another, and from these actions, we evolved morality. In this sense, evolution bestowed on us a moral and purpose-driven life by dint of the laws of nature. We do not need any source higher than that to find meaning or morality.

Why Fake Operations Are a Good Thing

[These excerpts are from an article by Claudia Wallis in the February 2018 issue of Scientific American.]

      …Take arthroscopic knee surgery, the number-one most common orthopedic operation. More than two million are done annually to tidy up ragged cartilage in people with arthritis and degenerative wear and tear in their knees, including a torn meniscus. Yet sham surgery studies and other research have shown it offers no advantages for the vast majority of such patients. They would do just as well with physical therapy, weight loss and exercise.

      Consider this: before a new drug is approved for marketing, researchers must show that it is more effective than a sugar pill. Not so for a new operation. And yet surgeries have a much bigger placebo effect than drugs. To quantify the difference, a 2013 meta-analysis looked at placebo effects in 79 studies of migraine prevention: sugar pills reduced headache frequency for 22 percent of patients, fake acupuncture helped 38 percent, and sham surgery was a hit for a remarkable 58 percent….

      And yet sham surgery studies are rarely done, especially in the U.S., where ethics boards resist subjecting patients to incisions, anesthesia and other risks without delivering an actual treatment. Redberg, who has written about the value of these studies, takes the opposite view: “I think it’s unethical not to do them.” Otherwise you maybe exposing millions of people to the risks and the financial costs of surgery for a placebo effect that will not likely last.

Porpoise-Driven Life

[These excerpts are from an article by Clara Moskowitz in the February 2018 issue of Scientific American.]

      The best military sonar technology pales in comparison with the echolocation porpoises use to track prey, predators and obstacles. The marine mammals can find objects a few centimeters wide from 100 meters away—akin to spotting a walnut from across a football field—by releasing clicks from their blowholes. Sonar-equipped ships, in contrast, must emit sound waves from multiple sources spread out over at least a few meters. A recent study suggests porpoises’ ultraefficient echolocation is made possible by adjustable structures in their heads—a finding that may help humans improve our own sonar technology.

      Sonar works by bouncing sound waves off objects and detecting the signals’ return time. Normally if the source of a sonar pulse is smaller than the wavelength of the sound, it releases sound signals in all directions, like light scattering from a disco ball. To send a targeted beam in a specific direction, the source must be much larger than the wavelength. But porpoises manage to evade this requirement….

      The work suggests that porpoises share some tricks with another mammal famous for echolocation: bats….Next to human technology, it seems bats and porpoises really are a few flaps or laps ahead.

My Second Life as a Teacher

[These excerpts are from an editorial by William H. Walter in the January 12, 2018, issue of Science.]

      …I am glad my career path took this unexpected turn. Making the adjustment felt like a new and exciting challenge, not a downgrade in my prospects. In some ways, teaching high school students has been even more rewarding than my college-level teaching. I teach physics and occasional astronomy-related courses at levels that are typically more rigorous than the introductory courses I was teaching at Tufts. I also get to interact with my high school students in a more personal way, as the class sizes are smaller and I see the students more often over the course of the year Yes, they are still teenagers who are prone to lapses in their executive functioning and who can manifest a fair degree of silliness and drama. But they also can be delightful, especially if given a chance to express themselves. I particularly enjoy mentoring students as they conceive and carry out research projects that they can then present in competition….

      Teaching also leaves enough room in my life for my own intellectual interests, including reading scientific journals and magazines….

Taming the Monsters of Tomorrow

[These excerpts are from an article by Kai Kupferschmidt in the January 12, 2018, issue of Science.]

      Philosopher Nick Bostrom believes it’s entirely possible that artificial intelligence (AI) could lead to the extinction of Homo sapiens….Bostrom paints a dark scenario in which researchers create a machine capable of steadily improving itself. At some point, it learns to make money from online transactions and begins purchasing goods and services in the real world. Using mail-ordered DNA, it builds simple nanosystems that in turn create more complex systems, giving it ever more power to shape the world….

      For Bostrom and a number of other scientists and philosophers, such scenarios are more than science fiction. They’re studying which technological advances pose “existential risks” that could wipe out humanity or at least end civilization as we know it—and what could be done to stop them….

      The idea of science eliminating the human race can be traced all the way back to Frankenstein….

      “I think Frankenstein illustrates the point beautifully," says physicist Max Tegmark of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT)….”We humans gradually develop ever-more-powerful technology, and the more powerful the tech becomes, the more careful we have to be, so we don’t screw up with it?”

      The study of existential risks is still a tiny field, with at most a few dozen people at three centers. Not everyone is convinced it's a serious academic discipline. Most civilization-ending scenarios—which include humanmade pathogens, armies of nanobots, or even the idea that our World is a simulation that might be switched off—are wildly unlikely….

      Harvard University psychologist Steven Pinker calls existential risks a “useless category” and warns that “Frankensteinian fantasies” could distract from real, solvable threats such as climate change and nuclear war….

Trust Me, I’m a Scientist

[These excerpts are from an article by Daniel T. Willingham in the Winter 2017-2018 special edition issue of Scientific American titled “The Science Behind the Debates.”]

      Most individuals blame the poor quality of science education in the U.S. If kids got more science in school, the thinking goes, they would learn to appreciate scientific opinion on vaccines, climate, evolution and other policy issues. But this is a misconception. Those who know more science have only a slightly greater propensity to trust scientists. The science behind many policy issues is highly specialized and evaluating it requires deep knowledge—deeper than students are going to get in elementary and high school science classes. A more direct approach would be to educate people about why they are prone to accept inaccurate beliefs in the first place….

      Asking science teachers to impart enough content to understand all the issues may be unrealistic, but they might be able to improve people’s appreciation for the accuracy of scientific knowledge. Through the study of the history of science, students might gain an understanding both of their own motivations for belief and of science as a method of knowledge. If a student understands how a medieval worldview could have made a geocentric theory of the solar system seem correct, it is a short step to seeing similar influences in oneself….

      Science may not be the only way of organizing and understanding our experience, but for accuracy it fares better than religion, politics and art. That’s the lesson.

Lessons Learned in School Reform

[This excerpt is from an article by Frederick M. Hess in the Winter 2017-2018 issue of American Educator.]

      Now, a few reformers will deny that education policy at the American Enterprise reform has disappointed. They’ll argue that dozens of new teacher-evaluation systems have delivered, never mind the growing piles of paperwork, dubious scoring systems, or lack of evidence that they’ve led to any changes in how many teachers are deemed effective or in need of improvement. They’ll insist that the conception and rollout of the Common Core State Standards went swimmingly, never mind the politicized mess, half-baked implementation, or fractured testing regime. They’ll tell you it doesn’t matter that the U.S. Department of Education’s School Improvement Grants didn’t move test scores or that Education Next reports that charter schools are less popular today than they’ve been in 15 years.

      …Why have good intentions and energetic efforts so often disappointed? What exactly have we learned from all of this?

      …Our schools and systems were never designed for what we’re asking them to do today—to rigorously educate every child in a diverse nation. Making that possible will indeed require big changes to policies governing staffing, spending, and much else…

      …Schools can turn around—we just don’t have a clue about how to make this happen via policy.

      Policy is a blunt tool, one that works best when simply making people do things is enough. In schooling, it's most likely to work as intended when it comes to straightforward directives—like mandating testing or the length of a school year. Policy tends to stumble when it comes to more complex questions—when how things are done matters more than whether they’re done.

      …Far too often, in fact, policy unfolds like a children’s game of telephone. In Washington, D.C., federal officials have a clear vision of what they think a change in guidance on Title I spending should mean. But when officials in 50 states read that new guidance, they don’t all understand it the same way. Those officials have to explain it to thousands of district Title I coordinators, who then provide direction to school leaders and teachers. By that point, bureaucracy, confusion, and nervous compliance can start to become the law of the land. Now, multiply that a hundredfold for the deluge of state and federal rules that rain down. When all this doesn’t work out as hoped, there’s a tendency for those responsible to insist that the policy is sound and any issues are just “implementation problems….”

      We’ve mucked up the relationship between parents and educators. We’ve lost the confidence to insist that parents have to do their part. Now, it’s important here to remember that the conviction that every child can learn—and that schools should be expected to teach every child—was not always the norm….can testify that it wasn’t unusual to hear educators declare that certain students-were unteachable and that it was their parents’ fault.

      Today, that mindset is regarded as unacceptable. Teachers are expected to teach every child. That’s a wonderful thing. I fear, though, that the insistence that parents do their part has been lost along the way. Talk of parental responsibility has come to be seen as little more than a case of blaming the victim. The result is that we just don’t talk very much anymore, at least in public, about whether parents insist that their kids do their homework or respect their teachers. When students are truant, we hesitate to say anything that would imply parents are at fault. When only a handful of parents show up at parent-teacher meetings, reformers are conspicuously mum. If they do take note, it’s usually only to lament that parents are overworked and overburdened.

      Obviously, these are thorny questions. Parents frequently are overburdened. But there’s a necessary balance here, and we’ve man-aged to tip from one extreme to the other….

      …Talk of parental responsibility is greeted with resistance and even accusations of bias. Yet parents have an outsized impact on their children’s academic future. Children whose parents read to them, talk to them, and teach them self-discipline are more likely to succeed academically.

      The point is decidedly not to scapegoat parents or to judge them….The point is to clarify for parents what they should be doing and help them do those things well. Today, we ask educators to accept responsibility for the success of all their students. Good. How students fare, though, is also a product of whether they do their work and take their studies seriously. Some of that truly is beyond the reach of educators. So, by all means, let's call teachers to account—let’s just be sure to do it for parents, too.

      …Educators are deeply versed in the fabric of schooling and experience the unintended consequences of reforms. This is why it’s easy for them to get so frustrated with self-styled reformers.

      Educators are right to be skeptical. Reformers and practitioners will inevitably see things differently. But what frustrated teachers can miss is that this is OK, even healthy. Educators are looking firma the inside out, and reformers from the outside in. In all walks of life, there are doers arid there are talkers. Doers are the people who teach students, attend to patients, and fix plumbing. Talkers are free to survey the sweep of what’s being done and explore ways to do it better.

      Ultimately, serious and sustainable school reform needs to be profoundly pro-doer. When talkers wax eloquent about students trapped in dysfunctional systems, they often forget that many teachers feel equally stymied. The bureaucracy that reformers decry can also infuriate and demoralize the teachers who live with it every day. Educators see when policies misfire and where existing practices come up short. Talkers have the time to examine the big picture, learn from lots of locales, and forge relationships with policymakers. Talkers have the distance to raise hard truths that can be tough for educators to address simply because they strike so close to home. But it’s ultimately the doers—the educators—who have to do the work, which means talkers need to pay close attention to what educators have to say. There's a crucial symbiosis here: teachers and talkers need each other….

Moving Beyond the Failure of Test-Based Accountability

[This excerpt is from an article by Daniel Koretz in the Winter 2017-2018 issue of American Educator.]

      Examples abound of how extreme—often simply absurd—this focus on testing has become. In 2012, two California high schools in the Anaheim Union High School District issued ID cards and day planners to students that were color-coded based on the students’ performance on the previous year’s standardized tests: platinum for those who scored at the “advanced” level, gold for those who scored “proficient,” and white for everyone else. Students with premium ID cards were allowed to use a shorter lunch line and received discounts on entry to football games and other school activities.

      Newspapers are replete with reports of students who are so stressed by testing that they become ill during testing or refuse to come to school. In 2013, for example, eight Near York school principals jointly sent a letter to parents that included this: “We know that many children cried during or after testing, and others vomited or lost control of their bowels or bladders. Others simply gave up. One teacher recorded that a student kept banging his head on the desk, and wrote ‘This is too hard’ and ‘I can’t do this,’ throughout his test booklet.”

      In many schools it is not just testing itself that stresses students; they are also stressed by the unrelenting focus on scores and on the degree of preparation for the end-of-year accountability tests. Test-based accountability has become an end in itself in American education, unmoored from clear thinking about what should be measured, how it should be measured, or how testing can fit into a rational plan for evaluating and improving our schools.

      The rationale for these policies is deceptively simple. American schools are not performing as well as we would like. They do not fare well in international comparisons, and there are appalling inequities across schools and districts in both opportunities for students and student performance. These problems have been amply documented. The prescription that has been imposed on educators and children in response is seductively simple: measure student performance using standardized tests and use those measurements to create incentives for higher performance. If we reward people for producing what we want, the logic goes, they will produce more of it. Schools will get better, and students will learn more.

      However, this reasoning isn’t just simple, it’s simplistic—and the evidence is overwhelming that this approach has failed.

      Ironically, our heavy-handed use of tests for accountability has also undermined precisely the function that testing is best designed to serve: providing trustworthy information about student achievement. It has led to “score inflation”—that is, increases in scores much higher than the actual improvements in achievement they are supposedly measuring. The result is illusions of progress; student performance appears to be improving far more than it really is. This cheats parents, students, and the public at large, who are being given a steady stream of seriously misleading good news. Perhaps even worse, these bogus score gains are more severe in some schools than in others.…And an increasing amount of evidence suggests that, on average, schools that serve disadvantaged students engage in more test preparation and therefore inflate scores more, creating an illusion that the gap in achievement between disadvantaged and advantaged children is shrinking more than it is. This is another irony, as one of the primary justifications for the current test-based account-ability programs has been to improve equity.

      …Many critics of our current system blame standardized tests, but for all the damage that test-based accountability has caused, the problem has not been testing itself but rather the rampant misuses of testing….

      So, I should be more precise: we ought to start with standardized tests if and only if we take steps to dramatically reduce bad test prep and inflated scores.

      What’s the solution? Precisely what the designers of standardized tests have been telling us to do for more than half a century, and what the Finnish, Dutch, and Singaporean systems do routinely: use local measures of student achievement—that is, measures not imposed from afar These local measures include both the quality of students' work and their performance on tests designed by educators in their schools, both of which go into the grades that teachers assign. In addition to providing a far more complete view of students' learning, using these local measures—along with standardized tests when we have good ones—would give teachers more of an incentive to focus on the quality of assignments and schoolwork rather than just preparing students for a single end-of-year test.

      …attributes such as persistence, the ability to work well in groups, and so on. E. E Lindquist, the same pioneer of achievement testing who warned that tests must be used in conjunction with local measures of learning, also cautioned—more than half a century ago—that skills of this sort that can’t be captured by standardized tests are a critically important goal of education. This may strike some hardheaded advocates of accountability as “soft,” but recent research has begun to confirm the wisdom of Lindquist’s advice: soft skills affect how well students do long term, even after they leave school….

      Finally, targets have to be reasonable: the goals facing educators have to be ones that they can reach by legitimate means. This requires practical targets for both the amount of improvement and the time allowed to accomplish it…

      There is room to argue about how best to determine what is reasonable, but the principle is inescapable. If we demand more than educators can deliver by teaching better, they will have to choose between failing and cutting corners—or worse, simply cheating. This may sound obvious as a general principle, but, in practice, it will be both controversial and difficult to implement. Demanding big and rapid gains makes for good press and often good politics, so persuading policymakers to be realistic won’t always be easy….

      We shouldn’t rely on tests when we don't have appropriate and sufficiently high-quality tests to use. As much as is practical, we need to avoid relying on arbitrary performance standards, and we need to set realistic goals for improvement. We need to use test scores in conjunction with a wide variety of other measures, and we need to balance the incentives to raise scores. We need to take steps to reduce inappropriate test prep.

      We must stop pretending that one test can do everything. It’s now common to claim that a test designed and used for accountability can also provide honest monitoring of progress and good diagnostic information for teachers. The fact that some are making this claim is hardly surprising; accountability testing has already swallowed a great deal of school time, and with our current incentives, few people want a second measure that might distract from the all-important goal of ratcheting up scores on the accountability test. However, it just isn’t so, particularly given the pressures in our system to raise scores….

      Finally, a recommendation for a truly fundamental shift: we should consider turning the current approach on its head and treating scores as the starting point rather than the end of evaluation. I’ve stressed repeatedly that scores alone, whether high or low, aren't enough to tell us why students are performing as they do. Low scores, however, are an indication of likely problems. Rather than treating these low scores as sufficient to label a school a failure, we could use them to target other resources used for evaluation.

      Teachers can't do it all—especially teachers in many low-performing schools. This fact is widely accepted in principle, but it is often ignored in practice. We will need to take this far more seriously than we have if we are to achieve the large gains in student learning and, in particular, the big improvements in equity that reformers have promised us for years.

      The supports we should provide are of three types. The first is better initial training and ongoing support for teachers already in the workplace….

      The second category is in-school supports: supplementary classes, longer school days, smaller classes, and the like. The third is out-of-school supports; one that has received a great deal of attention in recent years is high-quality preschool, which can improve the long-term prospects of disadvantaged kids.

      Why are recommendations for more support controversial? One reason is money. It is vastly cheaper to buy a test, set arbitrary targets, and pretend that the problem is solved. A second is timing….

      And we need to face up to two bask facts about interventions in complex systems such as education: most interventions, even very good ones, will have side effects we don’t want, and none will work exactly as planned. The implications of this are clear. We need to monitor—routinely—the effects of any new interventions, and we need to be prepared to face the music and make mid-course corrections when warranted. We expect this in fields like medicine and auto safety, and we ought to demand it in education as well.

      No matter how large, however, these difficulties don’t provide an excuse to continue on the current path. The strategy of test-based accountability has failed, and tinkering around the edges won’t change that. Everyone with a stake in our educational system—including parents, employers, educators, and most importantly students—deserves better.

The Profession Speaks

[This excerpt is from an article by Brett Gardiner Murphy in the Winter 2017-2018 issue of American Educator.]

      …Almost everything in public education—from evaluating teachers, to choosing which schools needed to be improved or shut down, to deciding whether new charter schools were successful or not—became connected to these exams. By 2016, 42 states relied on test scores in their teacher evaluation systems, but the systems were notoriously flawed. Today, teachers report the lowest morale in decades, fewer college students plan to become educators, and teacher shortages are rampant in nearly every state. Schools with the highest numbers of low-income students and students of color are still served by the most inexperienced teachers with fewer credentials, and they experience the highest rates of teacher turnover.

      …It is confounding how people so removed 1 from schools can create policies that are no more than large-scale experiments, often tried out on our nation’s most vulnerable children.

Are We Headed Toward a Sixth Extinction?

[This excerpt is from an article by Jennifer Chu in the January/February 2018 issue of Technology Review.]

      In the past 540 million years, Earth has endured five mass extinctions that led to the widespread extermination of marine species around the world. Each involved processes that upended the normal cycling of carbon through the atmosphere and oceans, unfolding over thousands to millions of years.

      The question for many scientists is whether the carbon cycle is now experiencing a significant jolt that could tip the planet toward a sixth mass extinction. In the modern era, carbon dioxide emissions have risen steadily since the 19th century, but deciphering whether the recent spike could lead to mass extinction has been challenging. That’s mainly because it’s difficult to relate ancient carbon anomalies, occurring over thousands to millions of years, to today’s disruptions, which have taken place over a little more than a century….

      Taking this reasoning forward in time, Rothman predicts that given the recent rise in carbon dioxide emissions over a relatively short time scale, the key question is whether a critical amount of carbon is added to the oceans. That amount, he calculates, is about 310 gigatons, which he estimates is roughly equivalent to the amount of carbon that human activities will have added to the world’s oceans by the year 2100.

      Does this mean mass extinction will soon follow? Rothman says it would take some time—about 10,000 years—for such ecological disasters to play out. However, he says that by 2100 the world may have tipped into “unknown territory.”

True Grit

[This excerpt is from an article by Anne Trafton in the January/February 2018 issue of Technology Review.]

      If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again.

      MIT researchers have found that babies as young as 15 months can learn to follow this advice. In their study, babies who watched an adult struggle at two different tasks before succeeding tried harder at their own difficult task than babies who saw an adult succeed effortlessly.

      In the experiment, the babies first watched an adult perform two tasks: removing a toy frog from a container and removing a key chain from a carabiner. Half saw the adult quickly succeed three times within 30 seconds; the other half saw her struggle for 30 seconds before succeeding.

      The experimenter then showed the baby a musical toy with a nonfunctioning button that looked as if it should turn the toy on. Out of the baby’s sight, the researcher turned the toy on, using a concealed, functional button, to demonstrate that it played music, and then turned it off and gave it to the baby.

      Each baby was allowed two minutes to play with the toy. Those who had seen the experimenter struggle before succeeding pressed the button nearly twice as many times overall as those who saw the adult succeed easily. They also pressed it nearly twice as many times before asking for help or tossing the toy. This suggests that people appear to be able to learn, from an early age, how to make decisions regarding effort allocation.

These Are Not Your Father’s GMOs

[These excerpts are from an article by Antonio Regalado in the January/February 2018 issue of Technology Review.]

      To many scientists, the potential of gene editing seems nearly limitless, offering a new way to rapidly create plants that are drought-resistant, immune to disease, or improved in flavor. A supermarket tomato that tastes good? That could happen if scientists restore the flavor-making genes that make heirloom varieties delicious. What about a corn plant with twice as many kernels? If nature allows it, scientists believe, gene editing could let them build it.

      There is another reason gene editing is causing excitement in industry. The U.S. Department of Agriculture has concluded that the new plants are not “regulated articles.” The reason is a legal loophole: its regulations apply only to GMOs constructed using plant pathogens like bacteria, or their DNA. That means Calyxt can commercialize its beans without going through the process of permits, inspections, and safety tests required for other genetically modified crops. It's counting on that to cut at least half the 13 years and $130 million that companies have, on average, invested in order to create a new GMO and get it into farmers’ hands.

      To GMO opponents, the new, unregulated plants are a source of alarm. For years, they have argued that GMOs should be opposed because they might be unsafe. What if they cause allergies or poison butterflies? Now the battle lines are shifting because companies like Calyxt can create plants without DNA from a different species in them. They can argue that gene editing is merely “accelerated breeding technology.”

      To the critics, any attempt to reclassify engineered plants as natural is a dangerous fiction. “If they don't have to go through the regulatory requirements, then it is game on again for genetic modification in agriculture,” says Jim Thomas, head of a nonprofit called the ETC Group that lobbies on environmental issues. “That is the prize. They are constructing a definition of a GMO so that gene editing falls outside it.”

      Already, the effort to persuade governments and food groups is reaching a planetary scale. New Zealand decided that the new plants are GMOs after all, and so did the USDAs own organic council. The Netherlands and Sweden don't think they are. China hasn’t said. The European Union still has to make up its mind. Billions in global grain exports could ultimately hang in the balance.

      Opponents say they’re ready to fight for rules, regulations, and labels…

      Some significant obstacles remain. Drug companies working on gene therapy have learned it is easier to design and make DNA strands than to get them inside a person’s cells. That is also true of many plants, where delivery of the gene-editing ingredients is still difficult. Understanding which genes should be edited is yet another roadblock. Scientists know a lot about how oils are synthesized and why fruit turns brown. But the list of valuable plant traits whose genetic causes are both well understood and easy to alter drops off quickly after that….

      What’s missing, then, is enough scrutiny of whether the plants could harm insects, spread their genetic enhancements to wild cousins, or create super-weeds like the ones resistant to Roundup. Companies do typically consult with the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to confirm that their plants are safe to eat. But that process is voluntary….

Americas Peopled in a Single Wave, Ancient Genome Reveals

[These excerpts are from an article by Michael Price in the January 5, 2018, issue of Science.]

      A rare smidgen of ancient DNA has sharpened the picture of one of humanity’s greatest migrations. Some 15,000 to 25,000 years ago, people wandered from Asia to North America across a now-submerged land called Beringia, which once connected Siberia and Alaska. But exactly when these ancient settlers crossed and how many migrations occurred are hotly debated. Now, the oldest full genome to be sequenced from the Americas suggests that some settlers stayed in Beringia while another group headed south and formed the population from which all living Native Americans descend….

      The genome comes from an 11,500-year-old infant found in 2013 at the site of Upward Sun River in central Alaska’s Tanana River Basin, a part of Beringia that's still above sea level. The infant, one of two from the site, belonged to a population that likely numbered in the low thousands, who hunted Beringa’s abundant herds and gathered plants….

      The infant’s group was most closely related to modern Native Americans—but it wasn’t a direct ancestor. Instead, it and modern Native Americans shared common ancestors who must have entered Beringia some 25,000 years ago….Perhaps 21,000 years ago, those ancient settlers branched into at least two groups: one that included the infant and another that gave rise to Native Americans.

      That supports the idea that Asian migrants lingered in Beringia and became genetically isolated—the so-called Beringian standstill model….

      The researchers also found that the ancient Beringian infant is equally related to both the northern and southern genetic subgroups of Native Americans, implying that both descend from a single migration. The team suggests that a group headed south into North America about 20,000 years ago and only afterward split into distinct subpopulations, perhaps between 14,500 and 17,000 years ago, dates that fit with previous studies.

CRISPR 2.0 Is Here, and It’s Way More Precise

[This excerpt is from an article by Emily Mullin in the January/February 2018 issue of Technology Review.]

      The human genome contains six billion DNA letters, or chemical bases known as A, C, G, and T. These letters pair off—A with T, and C with G—to form DNA’s double helix. Base editing, which uses a modified version of CRISPR, is able to change a single one of these letters at a time with-out making breaks to the DNA’s structure.

      That’s useful because sometimes just one base pair in a long strand of DNA gets swapped, deleted, or inserted—a phenomenon called a point mutation. Point mutations make up 32,000 of the 50,000 changes in the human genome known to be associated with diseases.

The Drifters

[These excerpts are from an article by Linnea Rundgren and Dennis Kunkel in the Winter 2018 issue of Rotunda, published by the American Museum of Natural History.]

      If you’re looking to understand what makes the incredible life in Earth’s vast oceans possible, you have to start small—very small. You have to start with plankton.

      Plankton isn’t a term for animals, nor a genus or family. It's a catch-all for a staggering variety of marine organisms that share one important trait: they’re drifters. In other words, if it lives in the world's oceans and can’t swim against a current, then it's plankton.

      There’s phytoplankton, plant-like organisms that can be found near the ocean’s surface. And then there’s zooplankton, animals that come in a range of sizes from remarkably tiny to easily observed with the naked eye.

      Plankton is the ultimate source of nutrition for the world's oceans—the food source that makes everything else possible. And many species don't just depend on plankton for a meal. They actually start out as plankton themselves.

      Some of the world’s most recognizable fishes and other marine animals begin life as tiny larvae. These larvae spend some time floating passively before either joining the ranks of active swimmers or drifting down to live out life on the seafloor….

      Among the soon-to-be-swimmers: the blue marlin, Makaira nigricans, one of the world’s most iconic game fishes, which can grow to weigh more than 1,000 pounds. Blue marlins start their lives as humble, millimeter-long eggs that, when fertilized, develop into slightly less tiny larvae and spend their early days floating among other zooplankton.

      If they survive long enough—and avoid being eaten—another subset of part-time plankton settle down—way, way down. These benthic species, as they're known, sink out of the water column and stick to the seafloor. Starfishes and sea urchins, for example, get their start as drifting planktonic larvae before moving to a more sedate maturity.

      For some planktonic life forms, though, it’s not just a phase—it’s who they are. Innumerable microscopic species, including bacteria and viruses as well as algae, tiny water fleas, and copepods, will spend their entire existence riding the currents—and feeding the rest of the ocean’s residents….

      Phytoplankton have another crucial role on Earth: they produce about half of the oxygen and soak up excess carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, transferring it to the deep ocean in a crucial carbon cycle.

      And just because many planktonic species are small, don't think that they are simple. Consider the diatom, represented by tens of thousands of living species. Despite being single-celled, many species of diatoms craft cell walls called frustules. While they’re invisible to the naked eye, these cellular armors are often intricate and beautiful pieces of engineering when viewed through a microscope.

      On the other end of the spectrum, there’s megaplankton: any species that measures over 2 mm. Here you’ll find comb jellies, which use rows of cilia along their bodies to propel themselves through the water, and the Portuguese man o’ war, which uses its venom-loaded tentacles to paralyze and kill prey.

      So the next time you go fora swim at the beach, look a little closer—whether you see them or not, you’re taking a swim with plankton.

What Can Machine Learning Do? Workforce Implications

[These excerpts are from an article by Erik Brynjolfsson and Tom Mitchell in the December 22, 2017, issue of Science.]

      Digital computers have transformed work in almost every sector of the economy over the past several decades. We are now at the beginning of an even larger and more rapid trans-formation due to recent advances in machine learning (ML), which is capable of accelerating the pace of automation itself. However, although it is clear that ML is a “general purpose technology” like the steam engine and electricity, which spawns a plethora of additional innovations and capabilities, there is no widely shared agreement on the tasks where ML systems excel, and thus little agreement on the specific expected impacts on the workforce and on the economy more broadly…

      Any discussion of what ML can and cannot do, and how this might affect the economy, should first recognize two broad, underlying considerations. We remain very far from artificial general intelligence. Machines cannot do the full range of tasks that humans can do. In addition, although innovations generally have been important for overall improvements in income and living standards, and the first wave of pre-ML information technology (IT) systems in particular has created trillions of dollars of economic value, “The case that technological advances have L. contributed to wage inequality is strong….”

      As the philosopher Polanyi observed, we know more than we can tell. Recognizing a face, riding a bike, and understanding speech are tasks humans know very well how to do, but our ability to reflect on how we perform them is poor. We cannot codify many tasks easily, or perhaps at all, into a set of formal rules. Thus, prior to ML, Polanyi’s paradox limited the set of tasks that could be automated by programming computers. But today, in many cases, ML algorithms have made it possible to train computer systems to be more accurate and more capable than those that we can manually program.

      Until recently, creating a new computer program involved a labor-intensive process of manual coding. But this expensive process is increasingly being augmented or replaced by a more automated process of running an existing ML algorithm on appropriate training data. The importance of this shift is two-fold. In a growing subset of applications, this paradigm can produce more accurate and reliable programs than human programmers (e.g., face recognition and credit card fraud detection). Second, this paradigm can dramatically lower costs for creating and maintaining new software. This lowered cost reduces the barrier to experiment with and explore potential computerization of tasks, and encourages development of computer systems that will automatically automate many types of routine workflows with little or no human intervention.

      Such progress in ML has been particularly rapid in the past 6 to 8 years due in large part to the sheer volume of training data available for some tasks, which may be large enough to capture highly valuable and previously unnoticed regularities—perhaps impossibly large for a person to examine or comprehend, yet within the processing ability of ML algorithms. When large enough training data sets are available, ML can sometimes produce computer programs that outperform the best humans at the task (e.g., dermatology diagnosis, the game of Go, detecting potential credit card fraud)….

Trump and Scientist: An Epic Estrangement

[These excerpts are from an article by Jeffrey Mervis in the December 22, 2017, issue of Science.]

      As President Donald Trump nears the end of his first year in office, the relationship between the maverick Republican and the U.S. research community is deeply dysfunctional. It’s a breakdown of epic proportions, with no obvious fix.

      One reason for the estrangement is Trump’s action on science-related issues: He has renounced the 2015 Paris climate accord, rolled back many environmental rules, and called for deep budget cuts at key research agencies. In addition, many scientists are alarmed by research-related appointments he has—and has not—made. At press time, there was still no White House science adviser, and Trump has chosen several people to oversee federal research programs who lack serious scientific credentials.

      These developments have fueled perceptions that the president and his top advisers don’t care about science or value its contributions to improving the nation’s health, prosperity, and security. If true, that would be a marked reversal from the support that science generally has received from generations of policymakers of both parties.

      Combined with the personal antipathy that many scientists feel toward the president, his apparent disregard for science appears to have soured the appetite of many scientific leaders for a role in this administration. An informal Science survey of 66 prominent U.S. scientists found that half would refuse an offer to work for Trump. That’s a surprisingly high percentage, given the historically positive attitude among the community for public service. At the same time, four in five said they would consider an invitation to serve on a high-level scientific advisory panel. (Democrats make up half the respondents; 40% are independents, and 10% are Republicans.)

      Many of the scientists surveyed report being torn between a desire to provide the government with the best possible advice on scientific issues and a concern that their efforts would be for naught….

      Of course, no president calls all the shots in Washington, D.C. Congress has largely dismissed Trump’s 2018 request for significantly smaller budgets at NSF, NIH, and several other science agencies. And that response should be a call to action….

      Although some see increased activism as a key to repairing science’s broken relationship with the White House, researchers are still debating the impact of the unprecedented March for Science this spring. Some say it was an effective way to mobilize public support, whereas others believe it has exacerbated the breach….

Preparing for the Next Pandemic

[These excerpts are from an article by Sharon Guynup in the Scientific American Custom Media entitled Next Frontiers.]

      Recently, the U.S. government and the private sector have focused specifically on expanding the nation's vaccine supply and improving effectiveness. Advances include vaccines targeted for people 65 and older who are among those at greatest risk —and a ‘quadrivalent’ vaccine that protects against four flu strains. Some researchers are trying to create the holy grail: a universal vaccine. It would offer broad immunity against all influenza infections rather than targeting the constantly-changing surface antigens of a virus, as current vaccines do. That appears to be years away….

      Beyond preventing outbreaks in the first place, rap-idly detecting them is the next best thing….

      When a threat is detected, it should be met with a robust public health response. If not, a few infections could blossom into an epidemic….

      However, influenza is harder to control than emerging diseases like Ebola since it can be trans-mitted before a patient even shows symptoms….

Defeating Diseases with Energy

[These excerpts are from an article by Renee Morad in the Scientific American Custom Media entitled Next Frontiers.]

      Scientists often refer to the mitochondria as the energy factories of the good reason. The intracellular transform the food we eat and the air we breathe into an electric potential that drives processes like DNA replication or protein building. Individually, the impact of any given mitochondria is small. The potential energy within a cell is about 0.2 volts. But add all those cells up, and the potential energy within a human body is roughly equivalent to a lightning bolt….

      And yet mitochondria, for all the energy they contribute, have been largely overlooked in medicine…. “Since different organs rely on mitochondrial energy to different extents, partial mitochondrial defects organ-specific symptoms.”

      …scientists are now digger deeper into the role mitochondrial disease might play in many of our most pervasive diseases and even into aging itself. The idea is nothing short of a paradigm shift, viewing energy broadly rather than organs specifically. And if Wallace is right, that idea could change millions of lives for the better.

      In the past, scientists have frequently looked to nuclear DNA for answers about disease and aging, but Wallace believes mitochondria' DNA could be the missing link that can steer them toward new understandings about disease, and potentially, new therapies.

      Most DNA, called nuclear DNA, is located in the nucleus of our cells, and contains two copies of each gene, of which there are more than 20,000. For each gene, one copy is inherited from the mother, and another is inherited from the father. But mitochondrial DNA, inherited exclusively from the mother, is much smaller and is located outside the nucleus, inside the mitochondrion. The mitochondria turn food’s hydrogen and carbon and inhaled oxygen into carbon dioxide (CO2), water and adenosine triphosphate, or ATP, which stores energy.

      …Recent studies suggest that mitochondrial DNA variations could lead to everything from autism, cancer and inflammation to neurodegenerative diseases….

      Mitochondrial DNA also plays a role in aging. “Over time, we accumulate more and more mitochondrial-DNA mutations that slowly erode our energetic capacity,” Wallace says. “As people get older, this is why they often complain that they don’t have the energy that they used to.”

      …For large, energy-intensive organs —the brain uses 20% of the body’s energy, for example — any change in energy output can have a profound effect on function….

A New Push for the Male “Pill”

[This excerpt is from an article by Gary Barker in the December 2017 issue of Population Connection.]

      On his third day in office, President Trump signed the new and worse Global Gag Rule, a restriction on international organizations that receive U.S. global health assistance that blocks them from using their own, non-U.S. funds to provide or refer women to abortion services. And lest we forget: He signed that presidential memorandum with seven men and zero women standing behind him.

      The disturbing image of a group of men literally blocking women’s access to abortion conveys the narrative of centuries of men controlling women’s bodies and lives. So, to the question, “What do men have to do with women’s reproductive rights?” the obvious answer in these political times seems to be: Stay out. It might be that we want men to have little or nothing to do with women’s sexual and reproductive health and rights.

      But would women be better off? Excluding all men from discussions around sexual and reproductive rights is a disservice to women. It keeps the burden for contraception on women. It halts efforts that encourage men to support the reproductive choices of their female partners, and perpetuates a culture in which no man is perceived to be, or engaged to be, an ally in ensuring reproductive rights of all people.

      Clearly, men matter in this discussion. There is the obvious point that, in the context of heterosexual relationships, men are half of the human reproductive process. However, they represent only about one-quarter of total contraceptive use, including withdrawal, vasectomy, and male condoms. That proportion has remained virtually unchanged since the 1980s, despite the fact that vasectomy is cheaper and safer than female sterilization. And, while condoms may not be the long-term contraceptive solution for many couples, they have the added protection of STI and HIV prevention.

      There are other male contraceptive methods in various stages of development. The most recent trial of a male hormonal contraceptive method was halted in 2016 due to negative side effects. Some women’s health advocates pointed out that the decision represented a double standard, given that trials for women’s hormonal contraceptives have continued despite multiple side effects experienced by women.

      Here’s the other reason we need men on board: Millions of women report not using contraceptives because of their husbands….

What Do Men Have to Do with Women’s Reproduction Rights?

[This excerpt is from an article by Gary Barker in the December 2017 issue of Population Connection.]

      On his third day in office, President Trump signed the new and worse Global Gag Rule, a restriction on international organizations that receive U.S. global health assistance that blocks them from using their own, non-U.S. funds to provide or refer women to abortion services. And lest we forget: He signed that presidential memorandum with seven men and zero women standing behind him.

      The disturbing image of a group of men literally blocking women’s access to abortion conveys the narrative of centuries of men controlling women’s bodies and lives. So, to the question, “What do men have to do with women’s reproductive rights?” the obvious answer in these political times seems to be: Stay out. It might be that we want men to have little or nothing to do with women’s sexual and reproductive health and rights.

      But would women be better off? Excluding all men from discussions around sexual and reproductive rights is a disservice to women. It keeps the burden for contraception on women. It halts efforts that encourage men to support the reproductive choices of their female partners, and perpetuates a culture in which no man is perceived to be, or engaged to be, an ally in ensuring reproductive rights of all people.

      Clearly, men matter in this discussion. There is the obvious point that, in the context of heterosexual relationships, men are half of the human reproductive process. However, they represent only about one-quarter of total contraceptive use, including withdrawal, vasectomy, and male condoms. That proportion has remained virtually unchanged since the 1980s, despite the fact that vasectomy is cheaper and safer than female sterilization. And, while condoms may not be the long-term contraceptive solution for many couples, they have the added protection of STI and HIV prevention.

      There are other male contraceptive methods in various stages of development. The most recent trial of a male hormonal contraceptive method was halted in 2016 due to negative side effects. Some women’s health advocates pointed out that the decision represented a double standard, given that trials for women’s hormonal contraceptives have continued despite multiple side effects experienced by women.

      Here’s the other reason we need men on board: Millions of women report not using contraceptives because of their husbands….

Five Ways the Trump Administration Is Attacking our Environment

[These excerpts are from an article by Benjamin Schreiber in the Fall 2017 issue of the Friends of the Earth Newsmagazine.]

      In the year since the election of Donald Trump to the Presidency of the United States, the list of his attacks on the environment has grown longer by the day.

      From gutting protections for our water and air, to handing key oversight positions to people in the polluting oil and gas industry, and backing the U.S. out of the Paris Climate Agreement, the Trump administration seems bent on destroying every bit of progress we've made over the last eight years.

      …Trump has vowed to slash the EPA budget by 30%, and he's appointed Scott Pruitt to undermine the agency from within.

      Within days of taking office, Pruitt ordered the removal of the EPA's climate change website - one of the world's top resources for climate change information. He then forced out almost everyone on the Board of Scientific Counselors, and now he is banning any scientist receiving EPA funding from participating while allowing fossil fuel industry representatives to replace them. Later, reports revealed that Pruitt has been wasting taxpayer dollars on private flights to meet with his buddies in the oil industry.

      It gets worse. Pruitt recently announced that the EPA is withdrawing from the Clean Power Plan. This move would give fossil fuel companies a green light to pour even more pollution into our air and could dramatically slow our transition toward clean, renewable energy.

      The fossil fuel industry isn't the only one benefitting from Pruitt's presence at the EPA. Shortly after being sworn in, Pruitt met privately with Andrew Liveris, CEO of Dow Chemical, manufacturer of the bee-toxic insecticide chlorpyrifos. The Obama administration had recommended revoking chlorpyrifos’ use in agriculture, but days after his meeting with Liveris, Pruitt announced that his EPA would reverse the decision….

      And in the House, Republicans have introduced a bill to allow drilling in Grand Teton, the Everglades, and more than 40 other national parks. Another bill would gut the Antiquities Act, which gives presidents the power to stop Big Polluters from destroying our public lands.

      The administration isn’t playing coy about its designs for our public lands, either. In a speech to the National Petroleum Council, Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke pledged to completely restructure his agency to make it easier to help his Big Oil cronies. “It’s going to be huge,” he told the room full of industry executives.

      The Trump administration’s vision for our environment is clear. They want to give polluters free rein over our national parks and monuments and our other precious public lands and waters.

      …The Arctic Refuge is the largest national wildlife refuge in the United States, with nearly 20 million acres of protected public lands that are home to rare wildlife like polar bears, porcupine caribou and muskox. It’s one of our last truly wild places in the U.S., and the ecosystem is fragile.

      But that’s not stopping the Trump administration from pushing to open the area to oil and gas drilling. And Congress is perfectly willing to help them, passing a budget that paves the way to opening the Arctic Refuge in Alaska to extractive industries.

Top 10 Reasons Students Plagiarize & What Teachers Can Do about It

[This list of items is extracted from an article by Michelle Navarre Cleary in the December 2017 issue of Phi Delta Kappan.]

      #10. They are lazy.

      #9. They panic.

      #8. They lack confidence.

      #7. They think they’re supposed to reproduce what the experts have said.

      #6. They have difficulty integrating source material into their own exposition or argument.

      #5. They do not understand why people make such a fuss about sources.

      #4. They are sloppy.

      #3. They do not understand that they need to cite facts, figures, and ideas, not just quotations.

      #2. They are learning.

      #1. They are used to a collaborative model of knowledge production.

Teacher Professionalism from the Superintendent’s Perspective

[This list of items is extracted from an article by Joshua P. Starr in the December 2017 issue of Phi Delta Kappan.]

      #1. Increase teacher pay.

      #2. Support professional learning communities.

      #3. Find ways for teachers to keep learning and growing.

      #4. Make teacher preparation programs tougher and more prestigious.

      #5. Don't forget the principal.

      #6. Use tests as diagnostic tools.

      #7. Encourage teachers to observe each other.

      #8. Bring more men and teachers of color into the profession.

      #9. Renegotiate seniority rules for teachers.

      #10. Encourage experimentation.

      #11. Be realistic.

School Districts Control Teachers’ Classroom Speech

[These excerpts are from an article by Julie Underwood in the December 2017 issue of Phi Delta Kappan.]

      Teachers face particular challenges when they are teaching political or controversial topics in classrooms. They must navigate a narrow passage between delivering the curriculum as required by their local board of education and sharing their own personal views and other information, while also abiding by board regulations regarding content and delivery. In addition, they must deliver the curriculum without attempting to indoctrinate students with their own personal beliefs, particularly on religious, political, and controversial topics.

      In K-12 public schools, the local school board has the authority to set the curriculum, and teachers must adhere to it, as well as following all state and school board regulations. Simply put, K-1 2 teachers do not have the broad academic freedom that is usually afforded to their counterparts in higher education. Courts have made a distinction between university faculty and K-12 teachers in the area of free speech….

      …There the court held that when public employees make statements pursuant to their official duties, the employees are not speaking as citizens for First Amendment purposes; as such, the Constitution does not protect them from employer discipline. For example, when talking to students during classroom instruction, teachers cannot assume their speech is protected….

      Teachers cannot let their personal beliefs interfere with their obligation to deliver the school’s curriculum, and they may not hijack the curriculum or use their position as teacher as an opportunity to inculcate students to their personal beliefs….

      Simply put, the court held that the “First Amendment does not entitle primary and secondary teachers . . . to cover topics or advocate viewpoints that depart from the curriculum adopted by the school system.”

      …The takeaway message here is that as much as teachers should be respected for their expertise and experience in providing curriculum in the classroom, the school district has the legal right to delineate and limit that curriculum, and as employees, teachers must adhere to those policy decisions. As stated by the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals in a decision upholding a teacher's dismissal for not doing so, “Only the school board has ultimate responsibility for what goes on in the classroom, legitimately giving it a say over what teachers may (or may not) teach in the classroom.”

Stand Up for Good Research

[These excerpts are from an article by Maria Ferguson in the December 2017 issue of Phi Delta Kappan.]

      …To be filed under the category of “what a difference a year can make,” consider President Barack Obama’s efforts to ensure that federal policy decisions would be well-informed by research. In 2016, Obama joined with Congress to pass a law that created the Evidence-Based Policymaking Commission, which was given about a year to come up with a plan for improving the government’s capacity in this area. It was no easy task. Multiple federal agencies collect all kinds of data, much of which is highly departmentalized and subject to intense privacy concerns. Still, despite these and other challenges, the commission succeeded in developing a comprehensive plan that focuses on improving capacity, promoting transparency, and protecting privacy.

      The commission's work just ended in September so it is too soon to assess its effect. However, while there is broad bipartisan support in Congress for the commission’s recommendations for improving the quality and use of evidence in policy making, it is hard to imagine the current administration leading any substantive and nonpartisan effort to do so. Other than selectively citing studies that support President Donald Trump’s approach to school choice, the new administration has been entirely silent on the importance of grounding federal decisions in empirical research.

      For those of us who care deeply about research and the appropriate use of data, this is alarming. Although many organizations support the development and sharing of education research evidence, the federal government’s role remains critical, both financially and symbolically….

      Looking ahead, the path is not so clear….But for now, let’s agree on one thing at least: Without evidence, policy making is a time-consuming, resource-sucking black hole. Policy decisions based solely on a desire to tap into the next new thing are neither new nor innovative, and we have seen far too much of that in education already.

A Controversy over Controversial Issues

[These excerpts are from an article by Jonathan Zimmerman and Emily Robertson in the December 2017 issue of Phi Delta Kappan.]

      …the most significant restriction on public school teachers has come from the public itself. At the simplest level, most citizens have neither wanted nor trusted teachers to handle controversial questions. A survey of Californians in the late 193 0s found that one-third approved teaching such questions at the junior high school level and two-thirds at the secondary level. But more than half said they would exclude lessons that “might cause pupils to doubt the justice of our social order and government;” two-thirds said teachers should be fired for “giving arguments in favor of Communism” even if the teacher only offered them “for the sake of argument.” Others condemned schools for contradicting or challenging their own points of view. “The basic question is whether educators are to be our servants or our masters,” one respondent explained. “I am not at all ready to turn over to the educators the training of my children along political, religious, and social lines . . . It is rather distasteful to find the school working at cross purposes with the parent.”

      Today, our society — and our schools — would appear much more open to debate about controversial questions. Cable-news channels and internet chat rooms blare with discussions of every conceivable public issue, from same-sex marriage and human-made climate change to gun control and police brutality. Meanwhile, many school districts and state education agencies have official policies that seek to promote — not to prevent — classroom instruction about controversial issues. Indeed, controversy has become a central hallmark of modern America. We live in a roiling, rough-and-tumble political culture marked by endless debate and discussion. And we ostensibly prepare future citizens for that dialogue in our schools where there is a strong consensus in support of teaching about the questions that divide us.

      But a closer look clouds this sunny picture. Too many of the “debates” on our airwaves devolve into screaming matches in which combatants exchange insults rather than ideas. In our school classrooms, meanwhile, controversial issues arise far less frequently than our official policies and prescriptions would suggest. Part of the problem lies in the lowly status of American teachers, who often lack the professional training — and, in some cases, the legal protection— to engage in discussions of hotly contested public questions. Thanks to poor preparation, some teachers have not acquired the background knowledge or the pedagogical skills, or both, to lead in-depth discussions of hot-button political questions.

      Nor do they have much time for these discussions in their daily routines, which are increasingly dominated by test preparation and the other demands of federal and state accountability laws. Despite our overall consensus on teaching controversial issues, moreover, we have little agreement on which issues are legitimate topics for school classrooms. Should we debate recent “religious freedom” initiatives that would give citizens the right to discriminate against gay couples — even though some students might have gay parents or might be gay themselves? Should we ask whether human activity alters the earth’s climate when nearly every known expert on the subject confirms that it does?

      …But we strongly reject the idea that schools should ask whether human beings have changed the earth’s climate, which is simply not subject to reasonable debate…Minnesota Sen. Hubert Humphrey — a former teacher as well as a future vice president — insisted that schools should address public issues to prepare young people for “mature and intelligent citizenship.” But he also cautioned that schools should limit themselves to "arguable" questions about which reasonable and knowledgeable people disagreed. “I know from my own teaching experience how much heat is expended in classrooms when the debate rages over a fact as if its existence were a matter of opinion….”

      …As New York Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan famously quipped several decades ago, each of us is entitled to our own opinions — but not to our own facts. That is especially true in our so-called information age, when disinformation can gain millions of adherents from a few strategic clicks of a mouse. Agreement on a set of verified facts is actually the sine qua non of democracy, providing the shared assumptions for reasoned discussion. So teachers have a duty to share these facts with students instead of pretending that the facts themselves are subject to debate….

A Lesson in Civility

[These excerpts are from an article by Marcelo Suarez-Orozco, Carola Suarez-Orozco and Adam Strom in the December 2017 issue of Phi Delta Kappan.]

      American classrooms today reflect extraordinary diversity. Children originating in every country and every continent on earth are learning to become American. Today, a quarter of our students come from immigrant families. They are our littlest and newest Americans. Yet, though they pledge allegiance to the American flag, these millions of children find their place in our country challenged.

      White supremacists are marching at universities, politicians are spewing anti-immigrant rhetoric, social media are amplifying divisive messages, and hate crimes against minorities are up. But to what extent are children from immigrant families aware of what's going on? Are our schools immune from the hatred we see in the public square? How should they respond?

      …in today’s climate, too many immigrant children are being made to feel invisible and, in effect, have been silenced. Of course, they have much to say, and we all have a lot to learn from them — if we care to listen. Immigrant stories are narratives of resilience, grit, and optimism. They are quintessentially American stories that invite classroom dialogue about themes that can be found throughout our nation's history and literature. Indeed the story of migration is the story of our shared experience of humanity.

      As politicians and social media embody an ethos of discord, divisiveness, and even hatred, classroom teachers must model an ethic of civility. Simply put, bullying and intolerance are anathema to the give-and-take required for students to flourish. Young people can thrive only in classrooms where the basic ground rules include empathy, respect, and a willingness to listen to one another.

      In the American tradition, the obligation of every school is to foster a democratic ethos where immigrant children come to feel they are full members in the community. As John Dewey once argued, schools are places where democratic ideals come to life. In the broadest sense, citizenship is about our responsibilities to each other, the rights and rules of engagement, and the public good. Research has shown that immigrant youth themselves describe citizenship as a shared obligation to society, a responsibility to give back, and above all to be kind. These are lofty but essential goals, and they are more necessary than ever in our uncivil times. At a time when it seems everyone is screaming, the classroom must be a place for listening.

When the President is a Liar

[These excerpts are from an editorial by Joan Richardson in the December 2017 issue of Phi Delta Kappan.]

      …day in and day out, I am confronted with a president who routinely and deliberately lies and doubles-down on a lie when challenged about it. Ile runs an administration that regularly engages in fabricated “truths.” Remember that it was White House counselor Kellyanne Conway who blithely introduced “alternative facts” into our lexicon after commentators challenged the president’s assertions about the size of the crowd at his inauguration.

      But the lie that really pushed me over the edge to write this column was not one of Trump’s vanity lies. Instead, it was the mid-October report that the White House was circulating so-called fact sheets tying free trade to increases in infertility, abortions, single-parent households, spousal abuse, opioid addiction, and more. Here was an effort to assemble spurious “facts” to buttress an argument about a policy of significant importance to this nation. What rational leader would engage in such behavior?

      Of course, that pack of lies was quickly pushed to the side when the president lied about what he said to the widow of a fallen soldier. Then he claimed that no prior president had called grieving Gold Star families. Another blatant lie to soothe the vain beast.

      Lie upon lie upon lie.

      I don’t see an end to this. As someone who prefers life in a fact-based universe, I am cringing at the horror of surviving 1,460 lie-filled days before the Trump term ends. I know I am not alone in imagining the damage that it will do to this nation. Like many of you, I am also wondering how you raise and educate children in an environment in which the leader of your country has literally no regard for the truth. (I won’t even go into my concerns about having a leader who belittles opponents with reckless and childish taunts and the message such behavior telegraphs to all observers.)

      …Teaching students how to identify trustworthy sources of information and how to marshal a series of facts into a coherent argument — all of that is part of preparing the critical thinkers of tomorrow But how do teachers convince students that facts matter when social media routinely exposes them to lies from their president?

      When information moves through the ether in a nanosecond, students must learn how to fact-check in real time so they can verify, analyze, and respond to every morsel of information coming at them, whether through social media or the official messages of leaders. This is no longer an Encyclopedia Britannica world in which someone can thumb through a reference book to check the veracity of someone’s assertion. Everyone must be equipped with the skills of an analyst.

      Most of us want to make decisions based on facts, especially when those decisions involve life, money, or property. I want to know that money managers are plugging facts into their analysis of my retirement accounts. Would any employer hire someone who can’t separate fact from fiction? Imagine the reactions of corporate leaders who learn that employees have shared a set of “alternative facts” when seeking approval for a new project or later reporting the results of that project.

      As we’re working to help students become critical thinkers, let's also prepare them to stand up with backbone to defend their assertions. Let's teach them how to identify their own values and use those to guide their decisions. Then, let's arm them with strategies for deflecting onerous assaults on their integrity.

      To prepare students for citizenship has never been more important — and probably never more difficult. It's ironic that teachers — who have been maligned for decades by folks who also had a loose hold on the truth — have become the last best hope for setting the course right again. The future is literally in your hands.

Two Schools of Thought

[These excerpts are from an article by Rebecca Mead in the December 8, 2017, issue of The New Yorker.]

      As a charter school, Success Academy is required to admit children by lottery. But prominent critics, such as Diane Ravitch, the historian and public-education advocate, have alleged that Success Academy essentially weeds out students, by maintaining unreasonably high expectations of behavior and academic achievement. Similarly, critics claim that the program reduces class size by not accepting new students beyond fourth grade, whereas zoned public schools must accept all corners. To Moskowitz’s detractors, Success’s celebration of standardized test-taking--students attend “Slam the Exam” rallies—is a cynical capitulation to a bureaucratic mode of learning. Success Academy has attracted large donations—in the past two years, the hedge-fund manager Julian Robertson has given forty-five million dollars to the group—and Moskowitz’s opponents say that such gifts erode the principle that a quality education should be provided by the government….

      …Success students can expect to be called to answer a teacher's question at any moment, not just when they raise their hand, and must keep their eyes trained on the speaker at all times, a practice known as “tracking.” Staring of into space, or avoiding eye contact, is not acceptable. “Sometimes when kids look like they're daydreaming, it’s because they are, and we can't allow that possibility;” Moskowitz wrote a few years ago, in an editorial for the Wall Street Journal. Students who stop tracking are prodded both by their teachers and by their peers, who are expected to point out classmates who aren’t looking at them when they are speaking.

      …Some teachers use kitchen timers with beeping alarms that notify students when the ten seconds allotted for finding a space on the rug, or retrieving a book from a backpack, are up….

      For nearly a century, public education in America has been influenced by two opposing pedagogical approaches: traditionalism and progressivism. Broadly speaking, in the traditional approach to education a teacher imparts knowledge to students through direct instruction, and embodies a disciplinary culture in which obedience is both prized and rewarded. The purpose of the classroom is to equip all students to meet measurable academic standards. At a progressive institution, a teacher develops a curriculum but urges students to treat it as a staging ground for their own intellectual discoveries, often through hands-on activities and group work. Allowances are made for differences in the way individual students learn. Progressivism was inspired, in large part, by the work of John Dewey, the American philosopher and educational theorist, who died in 1952. For Dewey, the classroom was not simply a place for acquiring academic credentials; it was also a venue in which students learned crucial values about being citizens in a democracy. Traditionalism is easily caricatured as rote learning—or, in the contemporary classroom, as endless test prep. Progressivism, in its most exaggerated form, can look like an absence of standards and discipline, and an unhelpful abdication of authority on the part of the teacher.

      Many effective contemporary public-school classrooms exist somewhere be-tween these extremes….

      A Success Academy classroom is a highly controlled, even repressive, place. In some classrooms that I observed, there were even expectations for how pencils should be laid down when not in use….The atmosphere can be tense, and sometimes tips over into abuse, as was documented by the Times last year. The newspaper obtained a video that had been recorded secretly by an assistant teacher. It showed a teacher berating a first-grade girl who had made an error on her math worksheet, ripping up the sheet, and sending the child to sit in a “Calm Down” chair….

      …complaining about an excessively punitive atmosphere. Children, they claimed, were being given detention for not clasping their hands when seated, or for burping accidentally….

      …According to data from the New York State Education Department, three years ago, when Success Academy Springfield Gardens was starting up and had only kindergartners and first graders, eighteen per cent of the students were suspended at least once. It’s entirely believable that lots of children between the ages of four and seven found it impossible to meet the school’s stringent behavioral expectations. But it’s also fair to wonder whether, if one out of five young children cannot comply with the rules, there might not be something wrong with the rules.

      …teachers typically stay with Success for just three years. This may be consistent with the job-hopping habits of millennials, but according to veteran educators it generally takes at least three years to become a decent teacher….The system compensates for the inexperience of many of its teachers by having a highly centralized organization. Teachers do not develop their own lesson plans; rather, they teach precisely what the network demands. Like the students in their classrooms, Success’s teachers operate within tightly defined boundaries, with high expectations and frequent assessment.

      …Progressive educators hold that, in early childhood, play is not a distraction from learning but the very means of learning itself.

      But in recent years kindergarten teachers have become increasingly focussed on imparting academic skills—largely in response to pressure to achieve measurable, testable results….

      In college, of course, students have to flourish without constant supervision. Although charter students are admitted to college at higher rates than students from comparable public schools, their graduation rates are dispiritingly low. Seventy per cent of charter-school students who enroll in college fail to complete their degrees within six years. While there are many reasons for this problem—most notably, insufficient money for food and housing—charter-school leaders, including those at Success, are also considering the impact of their own teaching precepts….getting students to succeed at standardized tests isn’t enough; they must prepare students for a future in which their professors—and employers—won't be providing their parents with weekly updates….How can a highly supervised child be transformed into an independent learner? Do you allow students the freedom to fail, or do you continue to provide constant hand-holding?...

      One of the core tenets of John Dewey’s educational philosophy was the belief that, in school, children learn not only the explicit content of lessons but also an implicit message about the ideal organization of society A school, he argued, was a civilization in microcosm. “I believe that the school must represent present life—life as real and vital to the child as that which he carries on in the home, or the neighborhood, or on the playground,” Dewey wrote….

      “A school should be a model of what democratic adult culture is about,” Deborah Meier, a veteran progressive educator, and a theorist in the tradition of Dewey, told me. “Most of what we learn in life we learn from the company we keep. What is taught didactically is often forgotten.” A corollary of Dewey’s belief is that, if children are exposed in school to an authoritarian model of society, that is the kind of society in which they may prefer to live….

Ice on the Run

[These excerpts are from an article by Jane Qiu in the December 1, 2017, issue of Science.]

      Thousands of glaciers perch near human settlements, and in recent decades, dozens of surges have claimed lives. One of the worst calamities occurred in 2002, in the Caucasus Mountains of southern Russia, when Kolka Glacier rumbled into a valley, killing 140 people….

      Most surges, broadly defamed as a flow at least 10 and often hundreds of times faster than a glacier's usual pace of advance, are quieter affairs. Many are imperceptibly slow….Besides overwhelming settlements, glacier surges can threaten distant communities. They can block rivers, creating lakes that can later unleash floods, and by depleting glacier mass, they can threaten the flow of meltwater that downstream towns and I...farms may depend on….

      Studying surging glaciers could also offer insights into grander-scale ice flows with global consequences: the movements of the ice sheets in Antarctica and Greenland, which can change abruptly, altering the ice discharges that affect sea level….

      Just over 1% of our planet’s glaciers—some 2300 in all—are known to undergo these precipitous movements, though the number is likely to rise as glaciers come under closer surveillance by remote sensing….

Outlawing War

[This excerpt is from an article by Michael Shermer in the December 2017 issue of Scientific American.]

      In 1917, with the carnage of the First World War evident to all a Chicago corporate lawyer named Salmon Levinson reasoned, “We should have, not as now, laws of war, but laws against war; just as there are no laws of murder or of poisoning, but laws against them.” With the championing of philosopher John Dewey and support of Foreign Minister Aristide Briand of France, Foreign Minister Gustav Stresemann of Germany and U.S. Secretary of State Frank B. Kellogg, Levinson’s dream of war outlawry came to fruition with the General Pact for the Renunciation of War (otherwise known as the Peace Pact or the Kellogg-Briand Pact), signed in Paris in 1928. War was outlawed.

      Given the number of wars since, what happened? The moralization bias was dialed up to 11, of course, but there was also a lack of enforcement. That began to change after the ruinous Second World War, when the concept of “outcasting” took hold, the most common example being economic sanctions. “Instead of doing something to the rule breakers,” Hathaway and Shapiro explain, “outcasters refuse to do something with the rule breakers.” This principle of exclusion doesn’t always work (Cuba, Russia), but sometimes it does (Turkey, Iran), and it is almost always better than war. The result, the researchers show, is that “interstate war has declined precipitously, and conquests have almost completely disappeared.”

Hydrogen Cars for the Masses

[These excerpts are from an article by Donna J. Nelson in the December 2017 issue of Scientific American.]

      Battery-powered electric vehicles that give off no carbon dioxide are about to become mainstream. Today they constitute less than 1 percent of all rolling stock on the road globally, but multiple innovations in features such as the battery's cost and lifetime have made prices so competitive that Tesla has more than 400,000 advance orders for its $35,000 Model 3, which is slated to hit the road in the middle of 2018.

      Unfortunately, the other great hope for vehicles that exhaust no carbon—those powered by hydrogen-fed fuel cells—remains too pricey for broad sales….Many commercial versions contain the precious metal platinum, which aside from being pricey, is too rare to support ubiquitous use in vehicles.

      Investigators are pursuing several lines of attack to shrink the platinum content: using it more efficiently, replacing some or all of it with palladium (which performs similarly and is somewhat less expensive), replacing either of those precious metals with inexpensive metals, such as nickel or copper, and forgoing metals altogether. Commercial catalysts tend to consist of thin layers of platinum nanoparticles deposited on a carbon film; researchers are also testing alternative substrates.

Fuel from an Artificial Leaf

[These excerpts are from an article by Javier Garcia Martinez in the December 2017 issue of Scientific American.]

      The notion of an artificial leaf makes so much sense. Leaves, of course, harness energy from the sun to turn carbon dioxide into the carbohydrates that power a plant’s cellular activities. For decades scientists have been working to devise a process similar to photosynthesis to generate a fuel that could be stored for later use. This could solve a major challenge of solar and wind power—providing a way to stow the energy when the sun is not shining and the air is still.

      Many, many investigators have contributed over the years to the development of a form of artificial photosynthesis in which sunlight-activated catalysts split water molecules to yield oxygen and hydrogen—the latter being a valuable chemical for a wide range of sustainable technologies. A step closer to actual photosynthesis would be to employ this hydrogen in a reduction reaction that converts CO2 into hydrocarbons. Like a real leaf, this system would use only CO2, water and sunlight to produce fuels. The achievement could be revolutionary, enabling creation of a closed system in which carbon dioxide emitted by combustion was transformed back into fuel instead of adding to the greenhouse gases in the atmosphere.

      Several researchers are pursuing this goal. Recently one group has demonstrated that it is possible to combine water splitting and CO2 conversion into fuels in one system with high efficiency….A plant uses just 1 percent of the energy it receives from the sun to make glucose, whereas the artificial system achieved roughly 10 percent efficiency in converting carbon dioxide to fuel, the equivalent of pulling 180 grams of carbon dioxide from the air per kilowatt-hour of electricity generated.

      The investigators paired inorganic, solar water-splitting technology'(designed to use only biocompatible materials and to avoid creating toxic compounds) with microbes specially engineered to produce fuel, all in a single container. Remarkably, these metabolically engineered bacteria generated a wide variety of fuels and other chemical products even at low CO2 concentrations. The approach is ready for scaling up to the extent that the catalysts already contain cheap, readily obtainable metals. But investigators still need to greatly increase fuel production….

      …he initially ran the fertilizer test just to see if the idea would work. He envisions a time, however, when bacteria will “breathe in hydrogen’ produced by water splitting and ultimately use the hydrogen to produce products ranging from fuels to fertilizers, plastics and drugs, depending on the specific metabolic alterations designed for the bugs.

New Glue Seals Wounds in 60 Seconds

[These excerpts are from a current news entry in the December 2017 issue of The Science Teacher.]

      A highly elastic and adhesive surgical glue that quickly seals wounds without the need for common staples or sutures could transform how surgeries are performed.

      The glue is called MeTro.

      MeTro’s high elasticity makes it ideal for sealing wounds in body tissues that continually expand and relax—such as lungs, hearts and arteries—that arc otherwise at risk of reopening.

      The material also works on internal wounds that are often in hard-to-reach areas and have typically required staples or sutures due to surrounding body fluid hampering the effectiveness of other sealants.

      MeTro sets in just 60 seconds once treated with UV light, and the technology has a built-in degrading enzyme that can be modified to determine how long the sealant lasts—from hours to months, to allow adequate time for the wound to heal.

      The liquid or gel-like material has quickly and successfully sealed incisions in the arteries and lungs of rodents and the lungs of pigs without the need for sutures and staples. …

      The next stage for the technology is clinical testing….

Marijuana and the Teen Brain

[These excerpts are from an article by Claudia Wallis in the December 2017 issue of Scientific American.]

      American parents have been warning teenagers about the dangers of marijuana for about 100 years. Teenagers have been ignoring them for just as long….

      Exaggerating the perils of cannabis—the risks of brain dam-age, addiction, psychosis—has not helped. Any whiff of Reefer Madness hyperbole is perfectly calibrated to trigger an adolescent’s instinctive skepticism for whatever an adult suggests. And the unvarnished facts are scary enough.

      We know that being high impairs attention, memory and learning. Some of today's stronger varieties can make you physically ill and delusional. But whether marijuana can cause lasting damage to the brain is less clear.

      …During adolescence the brain matures in several ways believed to make it more efficient and to strengthen executive functions such as emotional self-control. Various lines of research suggest that cannabis use could disrupt such processes.

      For one thing, recent studies show that cannabinoids manufactured by our own nerve cells play a crucial role in wiring the brain, both prenatally and during adolescence. Throughout life they regulate appetite, sleep, emotion, memory and movement—which makes sense when you consider the effects of marijuana. There are “huge changes” in the concentration of these endocannabinoids during the teenage years….

      Brain-imaging studies reinforce this concern. A number of smallish studies have seen differences in the brains of habitual weed smokers, including altered connectivity between the hemispheres, inefficient cognitive processing in adolescent users, and a smaller amygdala and hippocampus—structures involved in emotional regulation and memory, respectively.

      More evidence comes from research in animals. Rats given THC, the chemical that puts the high in marijuana, show persistent cognitive difficulties if exposed around the time of puberty—but not if they are exposed as adults….

      But even if it turns out that weed does not pose a direct danger for most teens, it's hardly benign. If, like those kids outside my window, you frequently show up high in class, you will likely miss the intellectual and social stimulation to which the adolescent brain is perfectly tuned….On average, adolescents who partake heavily wind up achieving less in life and are unhappier. And those are things a teenager might care about.

Livestock Drove Ancient Old World Inequality

[These excerpts are from an article by Lizzie Wade in the November 17, 2017, issue of Science.]

      Today, 2% of the world’s people own more than half its wealth. This rise of the superrich has economists, politicians, and citizens alike wondering how much inequality societies can—or should—accept. But economic inequality has deep roots….its ancient hotbed was the Old World: Societies there tended to be less equal than those in the New World, likely because of the use of draft animals.

      …Just as striking: Every ancient society studied was much more equal than the United States is today.

      …The authors propose that domestic animals may explain the difference between the New World and the Old World: Whereas North American and Mesoamerican societies depended on human labor, Old World societies had oxen and cattle to plow fields and horses to carry goods and people. Livestock were an investment in future enterprises, allowing people to cultivate more land and stockpile food surpluses, as well as build trade caravans and armies to control huge territories….

Beyond Plastic Waste

[These excerpts are from an editorial by Dame Ellen MacArthur in the November 17, 2017, issue of Science.]

      With more than S million tons of plastic entering the ocean each year, humanity must urgently rethink the way we make and use plastics, so that they do not become waste in the first place.

      Cheap, light, and versatile, plastics are the dominant materials of our modern economy. Their production is expected to double over the next two decades. Yet, only 14% of all plastic packaging is collected for recycling after use, and vast quantities escape into the environment. This not only results in a loss of $80 billion to $120 billion per year to the global economy, but if the current trend continues, there could be more plastic than fish by weight in the oceans by 2050.

      Some companies have started changing their habits. Unilever, for example, has promised that by 2025, all its plastic packaging will be fully reusable, recyclable, or compostable in a commercially viable manner. Given that up to a third of all plastic packaging items are too small (such as straws and sachets) or too complex (such as multimaterial films and take-away coffee cups) to be economically recycled, achieving these commitments will require a great degree of redesign and innovation….

      Policy-makers may, for example, regulate the use of certain polymers, other chemicals, or particular applications of plastic. Such action can be effective, cost little, and garner public support. Bans on or charges for single-use shopping bags have, for example, led to rapid reductions in their use in France, Rwanda, and the United Kingdom. A few uncommon types of plastic used in packaging are too expensive to recycle and should be phased out. A science-based approach is needed to replace chemicals such as endocrine disruptors that are found in some plastics and pose a risk to human health.

      Such restrictions need to be complemented by mechanisms that foster innovation. Policy-makers can connect the design of plastic packaging with its collection, sorting, and subsequent reuse, recycling, or composting by supporting deposit-refund schemes for drinks bottles, as in Germany and Denmark, or by requiring producers to consider what happens to their packaging products after use….

      However, the most potent tool for policy-makers remains the setting of a clear common vision and credible high-level ambitions that drive investment decisions. In the case of plastics, a crucial pillar of such a policy ambition must be stimulating scientific breakthroughs in the development of materials that can be economically reused, recycled, or composted.

      Public- and private-sector financial commitments to combat ocean pollution totaled 7.2 billion euros at the Our Ocean conference this year alone. The task now is to harness this goodwill to make sure that plastics stay in the economy and out of the oceans.

North Atlantic Right Whales Face Extinction

[These excerpts are from an article by Elizabeth Pennisi in the November 10, 2017, issue of Science.]

      In a sad reversal of fortune, the North Atlantic right whale is in deep trouble again after rebounding in recent decades from centuries of hunting. Recent population trends are so dire that experts predict the whale could vanish within 20 years, making it the first great whale to go extinct in modern times.

      …whale experts reported that roughly 100 reproductively mature females remain, but they are not living long enough or reproducing quickly enough for the species to survive. Ship strikes have long been a threat, and fatal entanglements in commercial fishing gear are taking an increasing toll. And researchers have found that even when an entangled female doesn’t die, dragging ropes, buoys, or traps can exhaust her, making her less likely to reproduce.

      …Eubalaena glacialis, the North Atlantic right whale—so-called by 18th century whalers because it was easy to kill and rich in valuable blubber—is one of three right whale species. It is found along North America’s east coast, breeding in the winter in waters off of Florida and migrating to summer feeding waters off New England and northeastern Canada. Its accessible habitat has made it one the world’s best documented large whales. But its range is also in one of the most industrialized stretches of ocean in the world, crowded with threats including ships, fishing operations, and energy infrastructure.

      Over the past few decades, right whale numbers appeared to be slowly climbing, from roughly 300 to about 500. Governments helped it along by taking steps to prevent ship strikes, such as imposing speed limits on or rerouting larger vessels in some waters, and installing sensors that can warn mariners when the whales are nearby….

      Entanglement, however, appears to be taking a growing toll because of increased fishing in areas where the whales are foraging….

Science for Global Understanding

[This excerpt is from an editorial by Flavia Schleger in the November 10, 2017, issue of Science.]

      Resilience is also at the core of the debate at the UN Climate Change Conference (COP23) currently taking place in Bonn. The growing pressures of climate change and stress on natural resources through pollution, overuse, and mismanagement are fueling conflicts and violent extremism and forcing an increasing number of people to flee their homes. This calls for sound, inclusive STI, cooperative approaches between the sciences and among different knowledge systems, and standing up to climate change deniers among scientists and policy-makers.

      The United Nations’ Agenda 2030 for sustainable development recognizes the central role of STI in enabling the international community to respond to global challenges….

Going Negative

[These excerpts are from an article by Elizabeth Kolbert in the November 20, 2017, issue of The New Yorker.]

      This past April, the concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere reached a record four hundred and ten parts per million. The amount of CO2 in the air now is probably greater than it’s been at any time since the mid-Pliocene, three and a half million years ago, when there was a lot less ice at the poles and sea levels were sixty feet higher. This year’s record will be surpassed next year, and next year’s the year after that. Even if every country fulfills the pledges made in the Paris climate accord—and the United States has said that it doesn’t intend to carbon dioxide could soon reach levels that, it’s widely agreed, will lead to catastrophe, assuming it hasn’t already done so.

      Carbon-dioxide removal is, potentially, a trillion-dollar enterprise because it offers a way not just to slow the rise in CO2 but to reverse it. The process is sometimes referred to as “negative emissions”: instead of adding carbon to the air, it subtracts it. Carbon-removal plants could be built anywhere, or everywhere, Construct enough of them and, in theory at least, CO2 emissions could continue unabated and still we could avert calamity. Depending on how you to at things, the technology represents either the ultimate insurance policy or the ultimate moral hazard.

      …In fact, fossil fuels currently provide about eighty per cent of the world's energy. Proportionally, this figure hasn’t changed much since the mid-eighties, but, because global energy use has nearly doubled, the amount of coal, oil, and natural gas being burned today is almost two times greater.

      …they argued that self-replicating machines could solve the world’s energy problem and, more or less at the same time, clean up the mess humans have made by burning fossil fuels. The machines would be powered by solar panels, and as they multiplied they’d produce more solar panels, which they’d assemble using elements, like silicon and aluminum, extracted from ordinary dirt. The expanding collection of 'panels would produce ever more power, at a rate that would increase exponentially. An array covering three hundred and eighty-six thousand square miles—an area larger than Nigeria but, as Lackner and Wendt noted, “smaller than many deserts”—could supply all the world’s electricity many times over.

      This same array could be put to use scrubbing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere….

      …Carbon dioxide should be regarded the same way we view other waste products, like sewage or garbage. We don’t expect people to stop producing waste….At the same time, we don’t let them shit on the sidewalk or toss their empty yogurt containers into the street….

      One of the reasons we’ve made so little progress on climate change, he contends, is that the issue has acquired an ethical charge, which has polarized people. To the extent that emissions are seen as bad, emitters become guilty….If CO2 is treated as just another form of waste, which has to be disposed of, then people can stop arguing about whether it’s a problem and finally start doing something.

      Carbon dioxide was “discovered,” by a Scottish physician named Joseph Black, in 1754. A decade later, another Scotsman, James Watt, invented a more efficient steam engine, ushering in what is now called the age of industrialization but which future generations may dub the age of emissions. It is likely that by the end of the nineteenth century human activity had raised the average temperature of the earth by a tenth of a degree Celsius (or nearly two-tenths of a degree Fahrenheit).

      As the world warmed, it started to change, first gradually and then suddenly. By now, the globe is at least one degree Celsius (1.8 degrees Fahrenheit) warmer than it was in Black’s day, and the consequences are becoming ever more apparent. Heat waves are hotter, rainstorms more intense, and droughts drier. The wildfire season is growing longer, and fires, like the ones that recently ravaged Northern California, more numerous. Sea levels are rising, and the rate of rise is accelerating. Higher sea levels exacerbated the damage from Hurricanes Harvey, Irma, and Maria, and higher water temperatures probably also made the storms more ferocious….

      Meanwhile, still more warming is locked in. There’s so much inertia in the climate system, which is as vast as the earth itself; that the globe has yet to fully adjust to the hundreds of billions of tons of carbon dioxide that have been added to the atmosphere in the past few decades. It’s been calculated that to equilibrate to current. CO2 levels the planet still needs to warm by half a degree. And every ten days another billion tons of carbon dioxide are released….

      No one can say exactly how warm the world can get before disaster—the inundation of low-lying cities, say, or the collapse of crucial ecosystems, like coral reefs—becomes inevitable. Officially, the threshold is two degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit) above preindustrial levels. Virtually every nation signed on to this figure at a round of climate negotiations held in Cancun in 2010.

      Meeting in Paris in 2015,world leaders decided that the two-degree threshold was too high; the stared aim of the climate accord is to hold ”the increase in the global average temperature to well below 2oC” and to try to limit it to 1.5oC. Since the planet has already warmed by one degree and, for all practical purposes, is committed to another half a degree, it would seem impossible to meet the latter goal and nearly impossible to meet the former. And it is nearly impossible, unless the world switches course and instead of just adding CO2 to the atmosphere also starts to remove it….

      BECCS, which stands for “bioenergy with carbon capture and storage,” takes advantage of the original form of carbon engineering: photosynthesis. Trees and grasses and shrubs, as they grow, soak up CO2 from the air. (Replanting forests is a low-tech form of carbon removal.) Later, when the plants rot or are combusted, the carbon they have absorbed is released back into the atmosphere. If a power station were to burn wood, say, or cornstalks, and use C.C.S. to sequester the resulting CO2, this cycle would be broken. Carbon would be sucked from the Aix by the green plants and then forced underground. BECCS represents a way to generate negative emissions and, at the same time, electricity. The arrangement, at least as far as the models are concerned, could hardly be more convenient.

      …Photovoltaic cells have been around since the nineteen-fifties, but for decades they were prohibitively expensive. Then the prices started to drop, which increased demand, which led to further price drops, to the point where today, in many parts of the world, the cost of solar power is competitive with the cost from new coal plants. …

      BECCS doesn’t make big enough demands; instead, it requires vast tracts of arable land. Much of this land would, presumably, have to be diverted from food production, and at a time when the global population—and therefore global food demand—is projected to be growing. (It’s estimated that to do BECCS on the scale envisioned by some below-two degrees scenarios would require an area larger than India.)….

      One of the peculiarities of climate discussions is that the strongest argument for any given strategy is usually based on the hopelessness of the alternatives: this approach must work, because clearly the others aren’t going to. This sort of reasoning rests on a fragile premise—what might be called solution bias. There has to be an answer out there somewhere, since the contrary is too horrible to contemplate.

      Early last month, the Trump Administration announced its intention to repeal the Clean Power Plan, a set of rules aimed at cutting power plants’ emissions. The plan, which had been approved by the Obama Administration, was eminently achievable. Still, according to the current Administration, the cuts were too onerous. The repeal of the plan is likely to result in hundreds of millions of tons of additional emissions.

      A few weeks later, the United Nations Environmental Programme released its annual Emissions Gap Report. The report labeled the difference between the emissions reductions needed to avoid dangerous climate change and those which contries have pledged to achieve as “alarmingly high.”…..

      As a technology of last resort, carbon removal is, almost by its nature, paradoxical. It has become vital without necessarily being viable. It may be impossible to manage and it may also be impossible to manage without.

The Seven Deadly Sins of AI Predictions

[This list is excerpted from an article by Rodney Brooks in the November/December 2017 issue of Technology Review.]

      1. Overestimating and underestimating

      2. Imagining magic

      3. Performance versus competence

      4. Suitcase words

      5. Exponentials

      6. Hollywood scenarios

      7. Speed of deployment

We Need Computers with Empathy

[These excerpts are from an article by Rana el Kaliouby in the November/December 2017 issue of Technology Review.]

      …But Alexa was oblivious to my annoyance. Like the majority of virtual assistants and other technology out there, she’s clueless about what we’re feeling.

      We’re now surrounded by hyper-connected smart devices that are autonomous, conversational, and relational, but they're completely devoid of any ability to tell how annoyed or happy or depressed we are. And that's a problem.

      What if, instead, these technologies—smart speakers, autonomous vehicles, television sets, connected refrigerators, mobile phones—were aware of your emotions? What if they sensed nonverbal behavior in real time? Your car might notice that you look tired and offer to take the wheel. Your fridge might work with you on a healthier diet. Your wearable fitness tracker and TV might team up to get you off the couch. Your bathroom mirror could sense that you’re stressed and adjust the lighting while turning on the right mood-enhancing music. Mood-aware technologies would make personalized recommendations and encourage people to do things differently, better, or faster.

      Today, an emerging category of AI—artificial emotional intelligence, or emotion AI—is focused on developing algorithms that can identify not only basic human emotions such as happiness, sadness, and anger but also more complex cognitive states such as fatigue, attention, interest, confusion, distraction, and more….

      …In online learning environments, it is often hard to tell whether a student is struggling. By the time test scores are lagging, it’s often too late—the student has already quit. But what if intelligent learning systems could pro-vide a personalized learning experience? These systems would offer a different explanation when the student is frustrated, slow down in times of confusion, or just tell a joke when it’s time to have some fun….

Using Bricks to Store Electricity

[These excerpts are from an article by David L. Chandler in the November/December 2017 issue of Technology Review.]

      Firebricks have been part of humanity's technological arsenal for at least three millennia, since the era of the Hittites. Created with special heat-resistant clays fired at high temperatures, firebricks can withstand temperatures of up to 1,600 °C. Now a proposal from MIT researchers shows that this ancient invention could play a key role in helping the world shift away from fossil fuels.

      The idea is to store excess electricity produced when demand is low—for example, from wind farms at night—by using electric resistance heaters, the same kind found in electric ovens or clothes dryers, which convert electricity into heat. The devices would use the excess electricity to heat up a large mass of firebricks, which can retain the heat for many hours, given sufficient insulation. Later, the heat could be used directly for industrial processes, or it could feed generators that convert it back to electricity.

      The technology itself is old, but its usefulness in this context is due to the rapid recent rise of intermittent renewable energy sources and the peculiarities of the way electricity prices are set….

      Forsberg says the demand for industrial heat is actually larger than the total demand for electricity, and unlike the demand for electricity, it is constant. Factories can make use of extra heat whenever it’s available, providing an almost limitless market for it….

The Long View

[These excerpts are from an article by Robert L. Hampel in the November 2017 issue of Phi Delta Kappan.]

      Spurning the option of admission by certificate, several prestigious colleges and universities created the College Board [in 1899], which gave examinations meant to ensure that high school students met particular requirements in various academic fields. By spelling out those requirements in detail, the College Board shaped the corresponding high school courses. For instance, the eight-part syllabus for physics stipulated 51 different experiments.

      Furthermore, prominent university leaders and other educators convened blue-ribbon groups (most notably the Committee of Ten in 1893) to sketch what a true high school should and should not teach. And when the business mogul/philanthropist Andrew Carnegie endowed pensions for college faculty, it became important to decide the true meaning of “college” as well — the foundation needed to decide which faculty would be eligible for a pension. To the foundation officers, a genuine college had several attributes, including a four-year time span and admission restricted to graduates of four-year secondary schools. They even specified how often a course should meet in a real high school and college – hence the familiar Carnegie unit and the emphasis on time served and credits accumulated as the basis for promotion and graduation.

      …By the 1920s, it was much easier to differentiate secondary education and higher education.

      …there were disadvantages to making the boundaries less blurry. I point out three, in particular.

      First, the prestige of high school declined. The word “secondary” began to convey not just a part of a sequence but a lesser status. By the mid-20th century, high school teachers were rarely called professor, and their salaries lagged behind what college faculty earned. The growing reliance on SAT and ACT tests also downplayed the importance of what students achieved in high school — what mattered was their apparent potential for future success. Rising enrollments meant that high school graduation was no longer the badge of merit for a small fraction of teenagers (in contrast, the status of college graduation eroded less severely when enrollments soared after the mid 20th century).

      Second, getting an education took longer. Neither high schools nor colleges showed much interest in reducing their traditional four-year time spans….Instead, Americans came to believe that more time in school and college was not only academically useful but also psychologically crucial. Close friendships, athletic glory, extracurricular success, and opportunities to date attractive young men and women rivaled the formal curriculum….

      Third, the new boundaries could be illusory. By the 1920s, the messy array of 19th-century schools and colleges had been cleaned up, and the system looked relatively logical, rational, and streamlined. But the overlap between school and college was still substantial. In the 1930s, for instance, many college students knew less than high school students. In one study, 22% of high school seniors surpassed the test score of the average college sophomore, and 10% did better than the average college senior. Within each grade, the variations were vast….

People Are Not Dying Because of Opioids

[This excerpt is from an article by Carl L. Hart in the November 2017 issue of Scientific American.]

      I am concerned that declaring the opioid crisis a national emergency will serve primarily to increase law-enforcement budgets, precipitating an escalation of this same sort of routine racial discrimination. Recent federal data show that more than 80 percent of those who are convicted for heroin trafficking are either black or Latino, even though whites use opioids at higher rates than other groups and tend to buy drugs from individuals within their racial group.

      The president also claimed that the opioid crisis “is a world-wide problem.” It isn’t. Throughout Europe and other regions where opioids are readily available, people are pot dying at comparable rates as those in the U.S., largely because addiction is treated not as a crime but as a public health problem.

      It is certainly possible to die from an overdose of an opioid alone, but this accounts for a minority of the thousands of opioid-related deaths. Many are caused when people combine an opioid with another sedative (such as alcohol), an antihistamine (such as promethazine) or abenzodiazepine (such as Xanax or Klonopin). People are not dying because of opioids; they are dying because of ignorance.

      There is now one more opioid in the mix—fentanyl, which produces a heroinlike high but is considerably more potent. To make matters worse, according to some media reports, illicit heroin is sometimes adulterated with fentanyl. This, of course, can be problematic—even fatal—for unsuspecting heroin users who ingest too much of the substance thinking that it is heroin alone. One simple solution is to offer free, anonymous drug-purity testing services. If a sample contains adulterants, users would be informed. These services already exist in places such as Belgium, Portugal, Spain and Switzerland, where the first goal is to keep users safe. Law-enforcement officers should also do such testing whenever they confiscate street drugs, and they should notify the community whenever potentially dangerous adulterants are found. In addition, the opioid overdose antidote naloxone should be made more affordable and readily available not just to first responders but also to opioid users and to their family and friends.

Nip Misinformation in the Bud

[This excerpt is from an aeditorial by Rick Weiss in the October 27, 2017, issue of Science.]

      The democratization of journalism through crowd sourcing, blogging, and social media has proven to be a sharp, double-edged sword. The internet has vastly expanded the sourcing of news and information, capturing stories that might otherwise go untold and delivering a diversity of perspectives that no single media outlet could hope to offer. At the same time, this new and open model has given anyone with web access a global platform to propagate information that is mistakenly or intentionally false. This is especially problematic when it comes to scientific information, which is critical to rational policy-making in areas like health, environmental protection, and national security, and at its best is often misinterpreted by the lay public. Yet recent years have seen a reduction in specialized science pages and reporters in the nation’s newsrooms in favor of reliance on general assignment staffers, even as deadlines have grown shorter—reducing opportunities to ensure accuracy and clarity before publication.

      Postpublication fact checking is helping. From the “Pinocchios” that the Washington Post awards to those caught stretching the truth, to the day-to-day debunkings posted by organizations like FactCheck, Snopes, and PolitiFact, the recent explosion in fact-checking initiatives is a welcome response to this bubbling new environment. But memes take root quickly and die hard. So, in the fight against misinformation, fact checking is often too little, too late. When it comes to stories about science—or about legislation, economics, or other domains where science can be informative—it would be far better to help journalists and the public get it right before having to call in the truth squads….

The Exercise Pill

[These excerpts are from an article by Nicola Twilley in the November 6, 2017, issue of The New Yorker.]

      …the biologist Ron Evans introduced me to two specimens: Couch Potato Mouse and Lance Armstrong Mouse.

      Couch Potato Mouse had been raised to serve as a proxy for the average American. Its daily exercise was limited to an occasional waddle toward a bowl brimming with pellets of laboratory standard “Western Diet,” which consists almost entirely of fat and sugar and is said to taste like cookie dough. The mouse was lethargic, lolling in a fresh layer of bedding, rolls of fat visible beneath thinning, greasy-looking fur. Lance Armstrong Mouse had been raised under exactly the same conditions, yet, despite its poor diet and lack of exercise, it was lean and taut, its eyes and coat shiny as it snuffled around its cage. The secret to its healthy appearance and youthful energy, Evans explained, lay in a daily dose of GW501516: a drug that confers the beneficial effects of exercise without the need to move a muscle. [Referred to henceforth as 516.]

      …The drug works by mimicking the effect of endurance exercise on one particular gene: PPAR-delta. Like all genes, PPAR-delta issues instructions in the form of chemicals—protein-based signals that tell cells what to be, what to burn for fuel, which waste products to excrete, and so on. By binding itself to the receptor for this gene, 516 reconfigures it in a way that alters the messages the gene sends—boosting the signal to break down and burn fat and simultaneously suppressing instructions related to breaking down and burning sugar….

      …Evans refers to the compound as “exercise in a pill.” But although Evans understands the mechanism behind 516’s effects at the most minute level, he doesn't know what molecule triggers that process naturally during exercise….For all the known benefits of a short loop around the park, scientists are, for the most part, incapable of explaining how exercise does what it does.

      …The company was about to embark on Phase III trials—the large, expensive, double-blind, placebo-controlled trials that are required for F.D.A. approval—when the results of a long-term-toxicity test came in. Mice that had been given large doses of the drug over the course of two years (a lifetime for a lab rodent) developed cancer at a higher rate than their dope-free peers. Tumors appeared all over their bodies….the only way to conclusively prove that even a lower dose would not have a similar effect on humans would be to run a seventy-year trial….

      …516 is not the only “exercise pill” in development…. Compound 14 caused the blood-glucose levels of obese, sedentary mice on a high-fat diet to approach normal levels in just a week, while melting away five per cent of their body weight. It works, he explained, by fooling cells into thinking that they are running out of energy, causing them to burn through more of the body's fuel reserves.

      …Bruce Spiegelman, a Harvard cell biologist, has discovered two potent exercise hormones. One of them, irisin, turns metabolically inert white fat in mice into mitochondria-packed, energy-burning brown fat, and Spiegelman said that he's seen evidence that it may also boost levels of healthy proteins in the area of the brain associated with learning and memory….

      Even if everything goes smoothly, however, 516 is multiple trials and several years away from reaching the market. And although Evans is convinced that his improved version of the drug is safe, any molecule that affects metabolic processes is necessarily interacting with a variety of other molecules throughout the body, in ways that we don’t yet understand. Nonetheless, Evans, James, and Spiegelman are all confident that legal drugs mimicking some of the effects of exercise are on their way, sometime within the next ten to fifteen years….

      Although 516 has not been approved as a drug, plenty of people are taking it. Once the structure of a new compound has been published, chemical-supply laboratories are free to synthesize it for sale, “for research purposes only.” 516 is easy and relatively cheap to make, and it is readily available online….

Get Toxic Chemicals Out of Cosmetics

[This editorial by the editors is from the November 2017 issue of Scientific American.]

      Earlier this year a group of more than a dozen health advocacy groups and individuals petitioned the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to ban lead acetate from hair dyes. The compound, a suspected neurotoxin, is found in many hair products—Grecian Formula, for example. Lead acetate has been outlawed for nearly a decade in Canada and Europe. Studies show it is readily absorbed through the skin and can cause toxic levels of lead to accumulate in the blood.

      How is it possible that this chemical is still being sold to U.S. consumers in cosmetic products? The main reason is that petitions such as the one calling out lead acetate are one of the few ways, under current law, that the agency charged with ensuring food, drug and cosmetic safety can even start to limit dangerous chemicals used on our faces and in our bodies. We need to do better.

      Under the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act and the Fair Packaging and Labeling Act, the FDA can regulate cosmetic chemicals. But it only steps in if it has “reliable information” that there is a problem. In practice, that has often meant that nothing is done before a public outcry Years can pass while the FDA investigates and deliberates. Aside from these situations, the safety of cosmetics and personal care products is the responsibility of the companies that make them. The law requires no specific tests before a company brings a new product with a new chemical to market, and it does not require companies to release whatever safety data they may collect.

      The result is that several chemicals with realistic chances of causing toxic effects can be found in everything from shampoo to toothpaste. One is formaldehyde, a carcinogenic by-product released by the preservatives used in cosmetics. In 2011 the National Toxicology Program at the Department of Health and Human Services declared formaldehyde a known human carcinogen, demonstrated by human and animal studies to cause cancer of the nose, head, neck and lymphatic system. Other research indicates it can be dangerous at the levels found in cosmetics, and nearly one fifth of cosmetic products contained the chemical. Other risky substances include phthalates, parabens (often found in moisturizers, makeup and hair products) and triclosan, which the FDA banned from hand soaps in 2016 yet is still allowed in other cosmetics. At exposures typical of cosmetic users, several of these chemicals have been linked to cancer, impaired reproductive ability and compromised neurodevelopment in children.

      A recent study published online by Ami R. Zota of George Washington University and Bhavna Shamasunder of Occidental College in the American Journal of Obstetrics & Gynecology showed that women of color are at especially high risk of exposure. In an attempt to adhere to Caucasian beauty ideals, the researchers found, women of color are more likely to use chemical hair straighteners and skin lighteners, which disproportionately expose them to high doses of phthalates, parabens, mercury and other toxic substances.

      The U.S. should protect its citizens. One worthwhile approach is to emulate the European Union's directive on cosmetics, which has banned more than 1,300 chemicals from personal health or cosmetic products. In some cases, the E.U. has acted after seeing only preliminary toxicity data. This is a prime example of the “precautionary principle” that has guided U.S. health agencies in setting acceptable levels of exposure to other potentially hazardous substances, such as lead.

      Right now the number of studies on cosmetics is limited, and the FDA does not have the resources or directive to initiate broad tests. This past May senators Dianne Feinstein of California and Susan Collins of Maine reintroduced the Personal Care Products Safety Act in Congress. The bill would require, among other things, that all cosmetics makers pay annual fees to the agency to help finance new safety studies and enforcement—totaling approximately $20 million a year. With that money, the FDA must assess the safety of at least five cosmetics chemicals a year. The bill also gives the agency the authority to pull products off the shelves immediately when customers have reported bad reactions, without waiting for a review that can take multiple years.

      Consumers should not be forced to scrutinize the ingredient lists in their medicine cabinets and report adverse reactions. That should be the FDA’S job. The Feinstein-Collins bill empowers the agency to make efficient determinations from sound science.

The Seventh Sense

[This excerpt is from the introduction to Eats, Shoots & Leaves by Lynne Truss.]

      Punctuation has been defined many ways. Some grammarians use the analogy of stitching: punctuation as the basting that holds the fabric of language in shape. Another writer tells us that punctuation marks are the traffic signals of language: they tell us to slow down, notice this, take a detour, and stop. I have even seen a rather fanciful reference to the full stop and comma as “the invisible servants in fairy tales — the ones who bring glasses of water and pillows, not storms of weather or love”. But best of all, I think, is the simple advice given by the style book of a national newspaper: that punctuation is “a courtesy designed to help readers to understand a story without stumbling”.

      Isn’t the analogy with good manners perfect? Truly good manners are invisible: they ease the way for others, without drawing attention to themselves. It is no accident that the word “punctilious” (“attentive to formality or etiquette”) comes from the same original root word as punctuation. As we shall see, the practice of “pointing” our writing has always been offered in a spirit of helpfulness, to underline meaning and prevent awkward misunderstandings between writer and reader. In 1644 a schoolmaster from Southwark, Richard Hodges, wrote in his The English Primrose that “great care ought to be had in writing, for the due observing of points: for, the neglect thereof will pervert the sense”, and he quoted as an example, “My Son, if sinners intise [entice] thee consent thou, not refraining thy foot from their way.” Imagine the difference to the sense, he says, if you place the comma after the word “not”: “My Son, if sinners intise thee consent thou not, refraining thy foot from their way.” This was the 1644 equivalent of Ronnie Barker in Porridge, reading the sign-off from a fellow lag's letter from home, “Now I must go and get on my lover”, and then pretending to notice a comma, so hastily changing it to, “Now I must go and get on, my lover.”

      To be fair, many people who couldn’t punctuate their way out of a paper bag are still interested in the way punctuation can alter the sense of a string of words. It is the basis of all “I’m sorry, I’ll read that again” jokes. Instead of “What would you with the king?” you can have someone say in Marlowe’s Edward II, “What? Would you? With the king?” The consequences of mispunctuation (and re-punctuation) have appealed to both great and little minds, and in the age of the fancy-that email a popular example is the comparison of two sentences:

      A woman, without her man, is nothing.

      A woman: without her, man is nothing.

      Which, I don’t know, really makes you think, doesn’t it? Here is a popular “Dear Jack” letter that works in much the same fundamentally pointless way:

      Dear Jack,

      I want a man who knows what love is all about. You are generous, kind, thoughtful. People who are not like you admit to being useless and inferior. You have ruined me for other men. I yearn for you. I have no feelings whatsoever when we're apart. I can be forever happy — will you let me be yours?

      Jill

      Dear Jack,

      I want a man who knows what love is. All about you are generous, kind, thoughtful people, who are not like you. Admit to being useless and inferior. You have ruined me. For other men I yearn! For you I have no feelings whatsoever. When we're apart I can be forever happy. Will you let me be?

      Yours,

      Jill

      But just to show there is nothing very original about all this, five hundred years before email a similarly tiresome puzzle was going round:

      Every Lady in this Land

      Hath 20 Nails on each Hand;

      Five & twenty on Hands and Feet;

      And this is true, without deceit.

      (Every lady in this land has twenty nails. On each hand, five; and twenty on hands and feet.)

Our Next Billion Years

[This excerpt is from an article by Max Tegmark in the November 2017 issue of Discover.]

      Seth Lloyd, an MIT quantum computer pioneer, showed that computing speed is limited by energy. This means that a 1-kilogram computer, equivalent to a small laptop, can perform at most 5x1050 operations per second — that’s a whopping 36 orders of magnitude more than the computer on which I’m typing these words. We’ll get there in a couple of centuries if computational power keeps doubling every couple of years. He also showed that a 1 kg computer can store up to 1031 bits, which is about one billion billion times better than my laptop.

      Actually attaining these limits may be challenging, even for superintelligent life. However, Lloyd is optimistic that the practical limits aren’t that far from the ultimate ones. Indeed, existing quantum computer prototypes have already miniaturized their memory by storing 1 bit per atom. Scaling that up would allow storing about 1025 bits per kilogram — a trillion times better than my laptop. Moreover, using electromagnetic radiation to communicate between these atoms would permit about 5 x1040 operations per second — 31 orders of magnitude better than my CPU.

      The potential for future life to compute and figure things out is truly mind-boggling: In terms of orders of magnitude, today's best supercomputers are much further from the ultimate 1 kg computer than they are from the blinking turn signal on a car, a device that stores merely 1 bit of information, flipping it between on and off about once per second.

Untangling Spider Biology

[These excerpts are from an article by Elizabeth Pennisi in the October 20, 2017, issue of Science.]

      For a display of nature's diabolical inventiveness, it’s hard to beat spiders. Take the reclusive ogre-faced spider, with its large fangs and bulging, oversized middle eyes. Throughout the tropics these eight-legged monsters hang from twigs, an expandable silk net stretched between their front legs so they can cast it, lightning-fast, over their victims. Showy 'peacock spiders, in contrast, flaunt rainbow-colored abdomens to attract mates, while their outsized eyes discern fine detail and color—the better to see both strutting mates and unsuspecting prey. Bolas spiders, named for the South American weapon made of cord and weights, specialize in mimicry. By night, the female bolas swings a silken line with a sticky ball at its end while emitting the scent of a female moth to lure and nab male moths.

      …Spiders’ universal ability to make silk helps explain their global success—an estimated 90,000 species thrive on every continent except Antarctica. This material, used for capturing prey, rappelling from high places, and building egg cases and dwellings, is itself fantastically diverse, its makeup varying from species to species. The same goes for venom, another universal spider attribute—each species makes a different concoction of up to 1000 different compounds.

      …Based mainly on fossil evidence and specimens preserved in amber, biologists concluded long ago that spiders descended from a many-legged, scorpionlike ancestor that by 380 million years ago had a long tail but looked quite spiderlike and may even have had silk glands. By 300 million years ago, fossils show, eight-legged creatures with spiderlike mouth parts, primitive silk glands, and stumpy abdomens had emerged. Those abdomens were still segmented, not fused as in today’s spiders. But what happened afterward to produce the explosion of spider diversity seen now has been mysterious.

      Today, taxonomists recognize three spider groups. The Mygalomorphae—ground-dwelling creatures characterized by fangs that point straight down—include about 2500 species, including tarantulas and so-called trapdoor and funnel-web spiders. Another group, Liphistiidae, consists of 97 species, many of which also build trapdoors to capture prey. The third group, the Araneomorphae, includes 5500 jumping spiders, 4500 dwarf spiders, 2400 wolf spiders, and thousands of web spinners.

Evolution Accelerated when Life Set Foot on Land

[These excerpts are from an article by Elizabeth Pennisi in the October 13, 2017, issue of Science.]

      Life probably originated in water, but nature did some of its best work once organisms made landfall. That's what Geerat Vermeij has concluded after surveying fossils and family trees to discover where and when some of life's greatest modern advances evolved. Almost all of these seemingly out-of-the-blue innovations, from fungus farming by insects to the water transport systems that made tall trees possible, came about after plants and animals learned how to survive on land some 440 million years ago….

      Many researchers have focused on how newly land-based organisms coped with gravity and the threat of desiccation. But Vermeij wondered instead how the move to land might have changed the pace of evolution. He compiled a list of key innovations that showed up in several groups of organisms and provided a big competitive edge, such as herbivory by vertebrates, flight, echolocation, and warm-bloodedness. Existing fossil evidence enabled him to date the origin of a dozen of these adaptations.

      Nine appeared first on land and later in the sea….

From Students to Scientists

[This excerpt is from an article by Olivia Ho-Shing in the Fall 2017 issue of American Educator.]

      What does it mean to be a scientist? In the most basic of terms, a scientist is someone who does scientific research. But what personal qualities does it take to do scientific research?

      In his book Letters to a Young Scientist, renowned biologist Edward O. Wilson recounts his own coming-of-age story as a scientist, and distills the motivating qualities of science down to curiosity and creativity. Individuals become scientists when they are curious about a phenomenon in the world around them and ask about the real nature of that phenomenon: What are its origins, its causes, or its consequences? Scientists then employ some creativity to answer their questions through a systematic testing of hypotheses (the scientific method), and form some conclusion based on their findings.

      This explanation of how scientists approach research highlights something very powerful: anybody with curiosity and creativity, by subscribing to the scientific method, can do science and discover something new about our natural world. From an early age, children brim with questions and sometimes come up with overly creative methods to test a hypothesis (say, using a magnifying glass to start a fire). It becomes incumbent upon teachers, then, to continually help foster students’ curiosity and creativity as critical aspects of their learning, particularly in science.

      Wilson describes the broad field of science as a “culture of illuminations dedicated to the most effective way ever conceived of acquiring factual knowledge.” His description points to another critical aspect in becoming a scientist: not only acquiring some knowledge but contributing that knowledge to a shared culture and community. Scientists engage with others in their field through collaborations, presentations, and publication, thereby strengthening their own findings and assessing information within a broader context of knowledge….

Message Control

[These excerpts are from an article by Brooke Borel in the October 2017 issue of Scientific American.]

      Science doesn’t happen in a vacuum. But historically, many researchers haven't done a great job of confronting—or even acknowledging—the entangled relation between their work and how it is perceived once it leaves the lab….When communication breaks down between science and the society it serves, the resulting confusion and distrust muddies everything from research to industry investment to regulation.

      In the emerging era of CRISPR and gene drives, scientists don’t want to repeat the same mistakes. These new tools give researchers an unprecedented ability to edit the DNA of any living thing—and, in the case of gene drives, to alter the DNA of wild populations. The breakthroughs could address big global problems, curtailing health menaces such as malaria and breeding crops that better withstand climate change. Even if the expectations of CRISPR and gene drives do come to fruition—and relevant products are safe for both people and the environment—what good is the most promising technology if the public rejects it?

      …To avoid that outcome, some researchers are taking a new tack. Rather than dropping fully formed technology on the public, they are proactively seeking comments and reactions, sometimes before research even starts….By opening an early dialogue with regulators, environmental groups and communities where the tools may be deployed, scientists are actually tweaking their research plans while wresting more control over the narrative of their work.

The Roots of Science Denial

[These excerpts are from an article by Katharine Hayhoe, as told to Jen Schwartz, in the October 2017 issue of Scientific American.]

      Science denial is basically anti-intellectualism. It’s a thread that has run though American society for decades, possibly even centuries. Back in 1980, Isaac Asimov said that it’s “nurtured by the false notion that democracy means that ‘my ignorance is just as good as your knowledge.’” Today we’re dealing with its most recent manifestation, at its peak.

      Climate change is a special case of science denial, which of course goes back to Galileo. The Catholic Church didn’t push back on Galileo until he stuck his head out of the ivory tower and published in Italian rather than in Latin, so that he could tell the common people something that was in direct opposition to the church’s official program. Same with Darwin. The church didn't have a problem with his theory of evolution until he published a popular book that everyone could read.

      Similarly, we’ve known about the relationship between carbon dioxide and global warming since the 1890s. It’s been about 50 years since scientists warned President Lyndon B. Johnson about the dangers of a changing climate. But scientists back then didn't get the deluge of hate mail that I get now So what shifted? It started, possibly, with [Columbia University climate scientist] James Hansen's testimony before Congress in 1988. He announced that a resource we all rely on—and makes many of the world's biggest companies rich—is harming not just the environment but all of humanity. I think it’s no accident that Hansen is the most vilified and attacked climate scientist in the U.S. because he was the first person to emerge from ivory tower and start talking about global warming in a sphere where its implications became apparent for policy and politics.

      So you can see that the problem people have with science is never the actual science. People have a problem with the implications of science for their worldview and, even more important, for their ideology. When anti-intellectualism rises to the surface, it's because there are new, urgent results coming out of the scientific community that challenge the perspective and status quo of people with power. Renewable energy is now posing a very significant threat to them. The more viable the technologies, the greater the pushback. It’s a last-ditch effort to resist change, which is why denial is at a fever pitch.

      Today, although many of the objections to climate science are couched in science-y terms—it’s just a natural cycle, scientists aren’t sure, global cooling, could it be volcanoes—or even religious-y terms—God is in control—99 percent of the time, that language is just a smokescreen. If you refuse to engage these arguments and push through for even five minutes, the conversation will naturally lead to profound objections to climate change solutions....

      Even in the science community, there’s so much confusion over how to communicate. The deficit model—just give them the facts!—does not work in public discourse unless everybody is politically neutral. That’s why social science is increasingly important. I was the experimental method in a recent paper where a researcher asked me to speak at an evangelical Christian college. He asked the students about global warming before and after my talk and found statistically significant differences on their perspectives. Many people are now doing this kind of message testing. How humans interact with information is an emerging area of research that's desperately important.

      Scientists also tend to understate the impact of climate change….

      Look, we can’t fix all these issues—cultural, political, psychological—before we take necessary action on climate change. People say to me, “Well, if you could just get everyone onboard with the science....” I’m like, good luck with that! How did that work out the past few centuries? This climate problem is urgent. The window is closing. We have to fix it with the flawed, imperfect society we have today….

      My number-one piece of advice for people doing climate—or any science—outreach is, Don’t focus on the dismissive people. They’re really a very small part of the population, and they're primarily older white men….

Better Batteries

[This excerpt is from an article by Matthew Sedacca in the October 2017 issue of Scientific American.]

      Some owners of Samsung Galaxy Note7 smartphones learned the hard way last year that lithium-ion batteries, commonly used in many consumer electronics, can be flammable and even explosive. Such batteries typically rely on liquid electrolytes, which are made up of an organic solvent and dissolved salts. These liquids enable ions to flow between electrodes separated by a porous membrane, thus creating a current. But the fluid is prone to forming dendrites—microscopic lithium fibers that can cause batteries to short-circuit and heat up rapidly. Now research suggests that gas-based electrolytes could yield a more powerful and safer battery.

      …recently tested electrolytes composed of liquefied fluoromethane gas solvents, which can absorb lithium salts as well as their conventional liquid-based counterparts do. After the experimental battery was fully charged and drained 400 times, it held a charge nearly as long as it did when new; a conventional lithium-ion battery tends to last nearly 20 percent as long. The condensed-gas battery also generated no dendrites. The findings were published earlier this year in Science.

      If a standard lithium-ion battery is punctured—and the membrane separating the electrodes is pierced—the electrodes can come into contact and short-circuit. This causes the battery to overheat in the presence of its reactive lithium electrolyte and possibly catch fire (which is exacerbated by oxygen entering from outside). But fluoromethane liquefies only under pressure, so if the new batteries are punctured, the pressure releases, the liquid reverts to a gas and the gas can escape…

      The batteries perform well in temperatures as low as —60 degrees Celsius, unlike standard lithium-ion batteries, so they could power instruments in high-altitude drones and long-range spacecraft….

      Donald Sadoway, a professor of materials chemistry at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, who was not involved in the study, says the new concept “opens our eyes to a class of liquids that has been understudied.” But, he adds, the researchers need to ensure that excessive heat does not cause the batteries’ liquefied gas to expand rapidly and lead to a dangerous increase in pressure.

The Distracted Student Mind – Enhancing Its Focus and Attention

[These excerpts are from an article by Larry D. Rosen in the October 2017 issue of Kappan.]

      For more than three decades….my research team and I have watched Americans move from an initial fear of computers to a state of wary acceptance to eager adaptation to what has become more or less an obsession with the tiny devices we now carry in our purses and pockets.

      What does this obsession mean for today’s students? Recent research findings are sobering:

      • Typically, college students unlock their phones 50 times a day, using them for close to 4½ hours out of every 24-hour cycle. Put another way, they check their phones every 15 minutes — all day long (and sometimes all night) — and they look at them for about five minutes each time.

      • Teenagers are almost always attempting to multitask, even when they know full well that they cannot do so effectively.

      • When teenagers have their phones taken away, they become highly anxious (and visibly agitated within just a few minutes).

      • The average adolescent or young adult finds it difficult to study for 15 minutes at a time; when forced to do so, they will spend at least five of those minutes in a state of distraction.

      …consider how many decades it took for wired telephones to fully penetrate American society. Cell phones took hold much more quickly, but even so, it took a couple of decades before cell phone use reached 50 million users (the benchmark for penetrating society, according to consumer scientists). Then came the World Wide Web, which hit 50 million users in just four years. More recently, MySpace took 2.5 years to do so, Facebook did it in two years, YouTube took just a single year, and Instagram hit the mark in a matter of months. If that seems fast, consider that both Angry Birds and Pokemon GO took just one month to garner 50 million users….

      The question is, what does this increasingly rapid influx of media and technologies do to us mentally, physically, and neurologically? More specifically…as young people are buffeted by one new communications technology after another, what happens to their ability to focus on the present?...

      This is a huge problem, given that sleep plays an absolutely critical role in learning, allowing us to consolidate important information, rid ourselves of unwanted information, and dispose of stray toxic molecules left in the brain during the day. The human body includes hormonal mechanisms that ensure that it gets the sleep it needs — as day turns to dusk, the pineal gland starts to secrete melatonin, which is a hormone that gradually makes people sleepy. However, most electronic devices emit light in the blue part of that spectrum, which tells the pineal gland to shut down the melatonin and orders the adrenal gland to secrete cortisol, which wakes people up. The closer one holds the device to one’s eyes, the more blue light is absorbed and the more difficult it is to get a good night's sleep. The upshot is that 80% of today's teens say they rarely or never sleep well. The National Sleep Foundation recommends nine hours per night, but most teens now get far less than that. Most weeks, they accrue 12 hours of sleep debt, which can only be repaid by sleeping during the day (often in class)….

      What can educators do for students who’ve become used to accessing their smartphones all day long, are constantly distracted by texts and alerts, spend countless hours on social media, use their phones right up to bedtime, and rarely get a good night’s sleep? There’s no simple solution. For example, studies suggest that if we take away their phones, that only makes them anxious, impeding their learning. Plus, online conversations are their lifeblood, accounting for much, if not most, of their social lives. However, some simple strategies can help. Drawing from my own and others’ research, here’s what I recommend:

      #1. Make sure students understand that their brains need the occasional "reset."…

      #2. Help students build stamina for studying with tech breaks.…

      #3. Advise students to treat sleep as sacred….

      #4. Tell students to minimize the alerts and notifications….

      #5. Advise parents to create specific tech-free zones….

      I am hopeful, though, that with conscious effort we can help students strengthen their powers of attention. I've heard from many educators who have implemented the strategies described above and have seen students become less distracted by fears of missing the latest text or update. While these strategies require diligence, they are not difficult or complicated. And if you're skeptical that they can help students, then try them on yourself and your own family first — it shouldn’t take long before you begin to feel better able to control your “human-ware”and less like your hardware and software are controlling you.

Giant Shape-Shifters

[These excerpts are from an article by Annie Sneed in the October 2017 issue of Scientific American.]

      Paleontologists unearthed a strange sight in Newfoundland in the early 2000s: an ancient fossil bed of giant, frond-shaped marine organisms. Researchers had discovered these mysterious extinct creatures—called rangeomorphs—before, but they continue to defy categorization. Now scientists believe the Newfoundland fossils and their brethren could help answer key questions about life on Earth.

      Rangeomorphs date back to the Ediacaran period, which lasted from about 635 million to 541 million years ago. They had stemlike bodies that sprouted fractal-like branches and were soft like jellyfish. Scientists think these creatures grew to sizes until then unseen among animals—up to two meters long. After they went extinct, the planet saw an explosion of diverse large animal life during the Cambrian. “Rangeomorphs are part of the broader context of what was going on at this time in Earth’s history,” says study coauthor Jennifer Hoyal Cuthill, a paleobiology research fellow at the Tokyo Institute of Technology. Figuring out how rangeomorphs grew to such great sizes could help provide context for understanding how big, diverse animals originated and how conditions on Earth—which were shifting around this time—may have affected the evolution of life….

      The researchers examined various aspects of the rangeomorphs’ stems and branches, then used mathematical models to investigate the relation between the fossils’ surface areas and volumes. Their models, combined with the fossil observations, revealed that the organisms’ size and shape appeared to be governed by the amount of available nutrients….This may explain why they could reach such large sizes during a period when Earth's geochemistry was changing.

      But other experts are hesitant to generalize in this way….

Angels and Men

[These excerpts are from an article by Claudia Roth Pierpont in the October 16, 2017, issue of The New Yorker.]

      …There is little doubt that Leonardo was arrested. Although any time he may have spent in jail was brief, and the was dismissed….It is impossible to know if this affected the artist’s habit, later cited as a mark of his character, of buying caged birds from the market, just to set them free. But it does seem connected with the drawings he made, during the next few years, of two fantastical inventions: a machine that he explained was meant “to open a prison from the inside,” and another for tearing bars of windows.

      These drawings are part of a a vast treasure of texts and images, amounting to more than seven thousand surviving pages, now dispersed across several countries and known collectively as “Leonardo’s notebooks”—which is precisely what they were. Private notebooks of all sizes, some carried about for quick sketches and on-the-spot observations, others used for long-term, exacting studies in geology, botany, and human anatomy, to specify just a few of the areas in which he posed fundamental questions, and reached answers that were often hundreds of years ahead, of his time. Why is the sky blue? How does the heart function? What are the differences in air pressure above and beneath a bird’s wing, and how might this knowledge enable man to make a flying machine? Music, engineering, astronomy. Fossils and the doubt they cast on the Biblical story of creation……He intended publication, but never got around to it; there was always something more to learn. In the following centuries, at least half the pages were lost. What survives is an unparalleled record of a human mind at work, as fearless and dogged as it was brilliant….

      A chariot fitted with enormous whirling blades, slicing men in half or cutting off their legs, leaving pieces scattered; guns with multiple barrels arranged like organ pipes to increase the speed and intensity of firing; a colossal missile-launching crossbow. Leonardo made many such frightening drawings…. He had never demonstrated any military skills before, and his intention in these drawings remains a matter of dispute. Was he an unworldly visionary or a conscienceless inventor?...

Scaredy-Cats

[These excerpts are from an article by Jason G. Goldman in the October 2017 issue of Scientific American.]

      Humans kill large carnivores—a category of animals that includes wolves, bears, lions, tigers and pumas—at more than nine times their mortality rate in the wild. Although they may not be our prey in the traditional sense, new research shows that some of the World’s biggest carnivores are responding to humans in a way that resembles how prey animals react to predators. Biologists at the Santa Cruz Puma Project, an ongoing research effort in the mountains of California’s central coast, report that even the formidable puma, or mountain lion, shows its fearful side when people are around.

      In a recent study, the researchers followed 17 mountain lions outfitted with GPS collars to the animals’ deer kill sites. Once the cats naturally left the scene between feedings, ecologist Justine A. Smith…and her team trained motion-activated cameras on the prey carcasses. On the animals’ return, the cameras triggered nearby speakers, which broadcast recordings of either frogs croaking or humans conversing.

      The pumas almost always fled immediately on hearing the human voices, and many never returned to resume feeding or took a long time to do so. But they only rarely stopped eating or fled when they heard the frogs. They also spent less than half as much time feeding during the 24 hours after first hearing human chatter, compared with hearing the frogs….

      The human presence in such a situation has far-reaching consequences. A previous study found that Santa Cruz pumas living near residential areas killed 36 percent more deer than those in less populated places. The new finding could explain why: if the cats are scared away from their kills before they finish feeding, they may be taking more prey to compensate. And fewer deer could mean more plants go uneaten, according to Chris Darimont, a professor of conservation science at the University of Victoria in British Columbia, who was not involved in the study. Thus, fear of humans may alter the entire food chain.

      “Humans are the most significant source of mortality for pumas in this population even though [the cats are] not [legally] hunted” for food or sport, Smith says. Many are hunted illegally, struck by vehicles or legally killed by governmental agencies as a means of protecting livestock. “So they have good reason to be fearful of us,” she adds. Darimont predicts other large carnivores would show similar responses because humans have effectively become the planet's apex predators—even if we often do not eat what we kill. ”I expect this to be common because the human predator preys on just about every medium-to-large vertebrate on the planet,” he says. “And at very high rates.”

Put Science back in Congress

[This excerpt is from an editorial in the October 2017 issue of Scientific American.]

      The White House and Congress have lost their way when it comes to science. Notions unsupported by evidence are informing decisions about environmental policy and other areas of national interest, including public health, food safety, mental health and biomedical research. The president has not asked for much advice from his Office of Science and Technology Policy, evidently.

      The congressional committees that craft legislation on these matters do not even have formal designated science advisers. That’s a big problem. Take the House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology. Its leader, Republican Representative Lamar Smith of Texas, clearly misunderstands the scientific process, which includes assessment by independent peer reviewers prior to publication. The result has been a nakedly antiscience agenda. The committee has packed its hearings with industry members as witnesses instead of independent researchers. Democratic members have felt compelled to hold alternative hearings because they feel Smith has not allowed the real experts to speak. Smith’s misinformed leadership has made it clear that congressional science committees need to be guided by genuinely objective experts.

      So far this year, Smith and fellow committee member Representative Frank Lucas of Oklahoma have each introduced bills that would seriously weaken the Environmental Protection Agency. Lucas’s bill would help stack the EPA’s Science Advisory Board with industry representatives and supporters. Smiths—the Honest and Open New EPA Science Treatment (HONEST) Act—would make it harder for the EPA to create rules based on good research. As Rush Holt, CEO of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, a former representative and a nuclear physicist, said of an earlier version of the bill, this sort of legislation is nothing less than an attempt to “fundamentally substitute] a [political] process for the scientific process.”

      This is lunacy. We should not allow elected officials—especially the heads of congressional science committees—to interfere with the scientific process, bully researchers or deny facts that fit poorly with their political beliefs. Instead of seeing science as a threat, officials should recognize it as an invaluable tool for improving legislation.

The Most Effective Climate Change Solutions Are Rarely Discussed

[These excerpts are from a current news article in the October 2017 issue of The Science Teacher.]

      Governments and schools are not communicating the most effective ways for individuals to reduce their carbon footprints, according to new research. The four actions that most substantially decrease an individual’s carbon footprint arc eating a plant-based diet, avoiding air travel, living car-free, and having smaller families.

      The study found that the incremental changes advocated by governments are unlikely to reduce greenhouse gas emissions beneath the levels needed to prevent 2°C of climate warming…

      Lead author Seth Wynes said: ‘We found that [the four actions] could result in substantial decreases in an individual’s carbon footprint. For example, living car-free saves about 2.4 tons of CO2 equivalent per year, while eating a plant-based diet saves 0.8 tons of CO2 equivalent a year.

      “These actions have much greater potential to reduce emissions than commonly promoted strategies like comprehensive recycling (which is four times less effective than a plant-based diet) or changing household lightbulbs (eight times less effective).”

      The researchers also found that neither Canadian school textbooks nor government resources from the E.U., U.S., Canada, or Australia highlight these actions, instead focusing on incremental changes with much smaller potential to reduce emissions.

      Study co-author Kimberly Nicholas said: “We recognize these are deeply personal choices. But we can't ignore the climate effect our lifestyle actually has. Personally, I've found it really positive to make many of these changes. It's especially important for young people establishing lifelong patterns to be aware which choices have the big-gest impact. We hope this information sparks discussion and empowers individuals.”…

Shellfish Secrets Could Help Save Soldiers

[These excerpts are from an article by David L. Chandler in the September/October 2017 issue of Technology Review.]

      The shells of marine organisms take a beating as they get propelled onto rocky shores by storms and tides or chomped by sharp-toothed predators. But recent research has shown that one type of shell stands above all others in its toughness: the conch. Now, an MIT team has explored the secrets behind these shells’ extraordinary impact resilience—and they've shown that this strength could be reproduced in engineered materials, leading to superior protective headgear and body armor.

      Conch shells “have this really unique architecture….” This internal structure makes the material 10 times as resistant to fractures as nacre, or mother-of-pearl—the shell’s basic material. The key is that it forms a “zigzag matrix….”

      Protective helmets and other impact-resistant gear require a combination of strength and toughness….Strength refers to a material’s ability to resist damage, which steel does well, for example. Toughness, on the other hand, refers to a material's ability to dissipate energy, as rubber does. Traditional helmets use a metal shell for strength and a flexible liner for both comfort and energy dissipation. But in the new composite material, this combination of qualities is distributed through the whole material.

      The printing technology would make it possible to form the conch-inspired material into individualized helmets or body armor….

The Myth of the Skills Gap

[These excerpts are from an article by Andrew Weaver in the September/October 2017 issue of Technology Review.]

      The contention that America’s workers lack the skills employers demand is an article of faith among analysts, politicians, and pundits of every stripe, from conservative tax cutters to liberal advocates of job training. Technology enthusiasts and entrepreneurs are among the loudest voices declaiming this conventional wisdom….

      Two recent developments have heightened debate over the idea of a “skills gap”: an unemployment rate below 5 percent, and the growing fear that automation will render less-skilled workers permanently unemployable.

      Proponents of the idea tell an intuitively appealing story: information technology has hit American firms like a whirlwind, intensifying demand for technical skills and leaving unprepared American workers in the dust. The mismatch between high employer requirements and low employee skills leads to bad outcomes such as high unemployment and slow economic growth.

      The problem is, when we look closely at the data, this story doesn’t match the facts. What’s more, this view of the nation’s economic challenges distracts us from more productive ways of thinking about skills and economic growth while promoting unproductive hand-wringing and a blinkered focus on only the supply side of the labor market—that is, the workers.

      Although much research touches on this topic, almost none of the existing studies directly measure skills, the key quantity of interest. I have conducted a series of nationally representative skill surveys covering a range of technical occupations: manufacturing production workers, IT help-desk technicians, and laboratory technologists. The surveys specifically target managers with knowledge of both hiring and operations at their businesses. The basic strategy is to ask: what skills do employers demand, and do the employers that demand high skill levels have trouble hiring workers?

      The results yield a number of surprises. First, persistent hiring problems are less widespread than many pundits and industry representatives claim….

      …Given a tighter labor market and higher educational requirements for these entry-level technical jobs, it would be reasonable to expect hiring to be more difficult. Not so. Only 15 percent of IT help desks report extended vacancies in technician positions. While the results do show higher levels of long-term lab-tech openings, it turns out that many of these are concentrated in the overnight shift and thus reflect inadequate compensation for difficult working conditions, not a structural skill deficiency. A little over a quarter of clinical diagnostic labs report at least one long-term vacancy.

      The survey results do show some hiring challenges, but not for the reasons posited by the conventional skill-gap narrative. In fact, the data reveal that high-tech and cutting-edge establishments do not have greater hiring difficulties than other establishments. Furthermore, the data imply that we should be careful about calling for more technical skills without specifying which skills we are talking about. It is quite common to hear advocates—and even academics—assert that the answer to the nation's labor-market and economic-growth challenges is for workers to acquire more science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) skills. However, my data show that employers looking for higher-level computer skills generally do not have a harder time filling job openings. Manufacturers requiring higher-level math do sometimes have more hiring challenges, but math requirements are not a problem for IT help desks or clinical labs.

      So what are the skill requirements most consistently associated with hiring difficulties? In manufacturing, its higher-level reading, while for help-desk technicians it's higher-level writing. Proponents of the skill-gap theory sometimes assert that the problem, if not a lack of STEM skills, is actually the result of a poor attitude or inadequate soft skills among younger workers. But while demand for a few soft skills—like the ability to initiate new tasks without guidance from management—is occasionally predictive of hiring problems, most soft-skill demands, including requirements for cooperation and teamwork, are not.

      This is not to say that STEM or soft skills are not enormously useful. However, specific recommendations and courses of study need to be tightly connected to particular occupational requirements and employer needs….

      Even economists and labor-market experts don’t know the exact mix or level of skills that particular occupations demand….

      The danger is not that we will run out of tasks humans can usefully perform or that required skill levels will be catastrophically high; it's that misguided anxiety about skill gaps will lead us to ignore the need to improve coordination between workers and employers. It’s this bad coordination—not low-quality workers—that presents the real challenge.

A Quick Fix for Rush Hour

[These excerpts are from an article by Peter Dizikes in the September/October 2017 issue of Technology Review.]

      Cities plagued with terrible traffic may be overlooking a simple, low-cost solution: high-occupancy-vehicle . (HOV) policies can reduce traffic drastically, according to a new study coauthored by MIT economists.

      In Jakarta, Indonesia, travel delays became 46 percent worse during the morning rush hour and 87 percent worse during the evening rush hour after a policy requiring three or more individuals in a car was discontinued on important city-center roads….

     Jakarta instituted HOV regulations in 1992 to address its notoriously bad traffic, requiring three people in each vehicle on some major roads between 7 and 10 A.M. and between 4:30 and 7 P.M. However, many commuters picked up so-called jockeys—people willing to ride in their cars for a small fee—instead of carpooling. Skeptics contended that the policy therefore wasn’t actually reducing the number of vehicles on the roads. So Jakarta scrapped it in 2016—first for a week, then for a month, and then permanently. ..

      After the HOV policy was abandoned, the average speed of Jakarta’s rush-hour traffic declined from about 17 to 12 miles per hour in the mornings, and from about 13 to seven miles per hour in the evenings. By comparison, people usually walk at around three miles per hour.

Sleeping with the Jellyfish

[This brief article appeared in the September 29, 2017, issue of Science.]

      We think of sleep as restoring our brains: a time to process memories, cleanse our cells of toxins, and prepare for a new day. But even animals that lack brains need to snooze. Biologists have discovered that, like humans, jellyfish appear to enter a daily state of rest and are groggy when they “wake up.” Scientists observed that 23 jellyfish in the genus Cassiopea slowed their rhythmic pulsing from 60 pulses per minute during the day to just 39 per minute at night, and were slow to respond when they were moved around their tanks during “resting” hours. When the researchers put them through the jellyfish version of sleep deprivation—squirting water at them every 20 minutes for 6 to 12 hours every night—the jellyfish were not nearly as active the next morning, they reported last week in Current Biology. Because these creatures are very low on the animal family tree, the work suggests that the ability to sleep evolved quite early.

Russia Heightens Defenses against Climate Change

[This excerpt is from an article by Angela Davydova in the September 23, 2017, issue of Science.]

      When a squall tore through Moscow at the end of May, the toll was unusually high: The fierce gales killed 1S people and injured scores more, officials say, and inflicted about $3.5 billion in damages in Russia’s capital region….

      The new charge to the environment ministry reflects a sea change in Russia’s views about climate change and how the nation must respond. Politicians have acknowledged that extreme weather events have doubled over the past 25 years, to 590 in 2016, and that average temperatures are rising, particularly in the Arctic. Yet until recently, tackling climate change was a low priority for the federal government. One reason is complacence, because Russia's greenhouse gas emissions have already plummeted since the collapse of the Soviet Union. Another is political: Russia’s economy depends heavily on pumping oil and gas out of the ground. Many influential voices here routinely debunked climate change, and some Russian newspapers in recent years chalked up climate variability to a mythical U.S. weapon aimed at Russia, or as a foreign plot aimed at Russia’s energy exports….

      Unease spread nationwide this summer, after forest fires razed 4.6 million hectares of Siberian taiga and flooding ravaged the Far East. The mosquito-borne West Nile virus has made gains in southern Russia, and tick-borne encephalitis and Lyme disease are spreading in the north. Officials as well as scientists blame those disturbing patterns on climate change….

Refilling the Coral Reef Glass

[These excerpts are from an editorial by David Obura in the September 23, 2017, issue of Science.]

      Coral reefs around the world have suffered from 3 years of coral bleaching, following three decades of record high temperatures. It is now clear that coral reefs cannot survive, unchanged, under climate change. Their final state will depend not only on societal conviction to restore coral health but also on the ability to sustain investments and action that support this commitment.

      For the past 50 years, warnings of anthropogenic climate change and evidence of the impacts of increasing populations, resource consumption, and energy use worldwide went largely unheeded. During this time, local impacts were transformed into global ones. But in the past 2 years, world leaders signaled a sea change by signing the Paris Agreement and by adopting the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). The Paris Agreement's target of less than 2°C increase in global temperatures provides the only chance for coral reef survival. If the agreement is fully implemented, temperatures will eventually decline, improving conditions for surviving reef corals and for reef rescue….

      Support and expansion of conservation efforts in all ocean basins are urgently needed, but they may only succeed if temperatures stabilize under low greenhouse gas emission scenarios. Two things will eliminate any chance for coral reef survival: not dealing with nonclimate stresses that erode reef resilience, and runaway warming above 2°C. If these occur, it is virtually certain that major reef systems will not survive in the Anthropocene.

Eliminating the Human

[These excerpts are from an op-ed article by David Byrne in the September/October 2017 issue of Technology Review.]

      I have a theory that much recent tech development and innovation over the last decade or so has an unspoken overarching agenda. It has been about creating the possibility of a world with less human interaction. This tendency is, I suspect, not a bug—it’s a feature. We might think Amazon was about making books available to us that we couldn’t find locally—and it was, and what a brilliant idea—but maybe it was also just as much about eliminating human contact.

      The consumer technology I am talking about doesn't claim or acknowledge that eliminating the need to deal with humans directly is its primary goal, but it is the outcome in a surprising number of cases. I’m sort of thinking maybe it is the primary goal, even if it was not aimed at consciously. Judging by the evidence, that conclusion seems inescapable….

      Human interaction is often perceived, from an engineer’s mind-set, as complicated, inefficient, noisy, and slow. Part of making something “frictionless” is getting the human part out of the way. The point is not that making a world to accommodate this mind-set is bad, but that when one has as much power over the rest of the world as the tech sector does over folks who might not share that worldview, there is the risk of a strange imbalance. The tech world is predominantly male—very much so. Testosterone combined with a drive to eliminate as much interaction with real humans as possible for the sake of “simplicity and efficiency” do—the math, and there’s the future….

      Minimizing interaction has some knock-on effects—some of them good, some not. The externalities of efficiency, one might say.

      For us as a society, less contact and interaction—real interaction—would seem to lead to less tolerance and understanding of difference, as well as more envy and antagonism. As has been in evidence recently, social media actually increases divisions by amplifying echo effects and allowing us to live in cognitive bubbles. We are fed what we already like or what our similarly inclined friends like (or, more likely now, what someone has paid for us to see in an ad that mimics content). In this way, we actually become less connected—except to those in our group.

      Social networks are also a source of unhappiness. A study earlier this year by two social scientists, Holly Shakya at UC San Diego and Nicholas Christakis at Yale, showed that the more people use Facebook, the worse they feel about their lives. While these technologies claim to connect us, then, the surely unintended effect is that they also drive us apart and make us sad and envious….

      We have evolved as social creatures, and our ability to cooperate is one of the big factors in our success. I would argue that social interaction and cooperation, the kind that makes us who we are, is something our tools can augment but not replace.

      When interaction becomes a strange and unfamiliar thing, then we will have changed who and what we are as a species. Often our rational thinking convinces us that much of our interaction can be reduced to a series of logical decisions—but we are not even aware of many of the layers and subtleties of those interactions. As behavioral economists will tell us, we don't behave rationally, even though we think we do…..

      Humans are capricious, erratic, emotional, irrational, and biased in what sometimes seem like counterproductive ways. It often seems that our quick-thinking and selfish nature will be our downfall. There are, it would seem, lots of reasons why getting humans out of the equation in many aspects of life might be a good thing.

      But I’d argue that while our various irrational tendencies might seem like liabilities, many of those attribute ally work in our favor. Many of our e ion responses have evolved over millennia, and they are based on the probability that they will, more likely than not, offer the best way to deal with a situation….

      We’re a social species—we benefit from passing discoveries on, and we benefit from our tendency to cooperate to achieve what we cannot alone….

      “We” do not exist as isolated individuals. We, as individuals, are inhabitants of networks; we are relationships. That is how we prosper and thrive.

My Zero-Waste Life

[These excerpts are from an article by Bradley Layton in the September/October 2017 issue of Technology Review.]

      …Aren’t we all persistently, consistently, and incessantly metabolizing organic and inorganic matter?

      Life itself is defined by metabolism. Fail to metabolize, and you die. The deep ecological question of our hypersuccessful global species now becomes: how do we bring every molecule, every atom, full circle indefinitely as we shuttle matter back and forth between Earth’s biosphere and humanity’s technosphere?...

      Along the way, it’s become abundantly clear to me that we cannot afford to keep extracting and using fossil fuels 10 million times faster than they were created—particularly when their use generates waste in the form of carbon dioxide, methane, and oceans of plastic. (It does not take an MIT degree to understand this concept; when I talk to high schoolers about it, they quickly catch on.)…

      As our population approaches 10 billion, it's more critical than ever that we live sustainably—and clean up after ourselves.

The Unsustainable Scientist

[These excerpts are from an article by Jeffrey J. McDonnell in the September 15, 2017, issue of Science.]

      But how? A sustainable scientist is still a hard-working scientist. Combining hard work with laserlike focus and ruthless time management is an important step toward making your life sustainable. Even more important is opportunity management.

      Early on, I worried that each new opportunity….I felt like I couldn't say no. I now understand that early-career opportunities, like gray hairs, don’t stop appearing, and that sometimes it’s important to turn them down so that you can complete the things you’ve already said yes to. As you work on learning to say no, the “want to-need to” matrix can be a useful tool: Say yes only to the things you both need and want to do, and say no if you either do not need or do not want to do something.

      Similarly, developing a personal work philosophy can help you allocate your most precious resource: time…

Darwin, the Crowdsourcer

[These excerpts are from a book review by Christopher Kemp in the September 15, 2017, issue of Science.]

      At Down House in Kent, Charles Darwin is instructing his manservant Parslow to lower another dead pigeon into a foul-smelling pot. It is February 1856. Darwin is 47 years old. Endlessly curious, he has begun to suspect that the skeletons of different pigeon varieties will support his secretly held ideas about how species are related and have changed throughout history….

      Things began inauspiciously enough. In 1831, inspired by the works of naturalist Alexander von Humboldt, Darwin—a medical school dropout—embarked on a 5-year voyage aboard the HMS Beagle.

      He was 22 years old, was constantly seasick, and was Captain Fitzroy’s third choice for the position of ship's naturalist. But Darwin’s keen mind questioned everything….

      After his return, Darwin’s ideas about evolution began to formulate, but he knew that he needed evidence to support them.

      Whenever possible, he crowdsourced his data, enlisting the help of his children (he had ten, three of whom died in childhood), for example. Often, they were sent across the Kentish fields with specific work orders: “Collect a hundred Lythrum plants and bring them home,” or “Track the routes of the bees that crisscross the clover-studded meadows.”

      Parslow the manservant helped, too, as did Darwin’s long-suffering wife, Emma, who watched with dismay as he carpeted the hallway of Down House with paper covered in frog spawn. Catherine Thorley, the children's governess, assisted in the completion of a painstaking plant survey of nearby meadows. Schoolmaster Ebenezer Norman tabulated all of Darwin’s data for him. The local vicar helped build beehives.

      Researchers also offered vital information. Kew Gardens botanist Joseph Hooker, for example, provided Darwin with fresh orchid specimens, sent express from London in sealed cans. (Despite ample evidence, Victorian scientists simply refused to believe that many plant species reproduce sexually. The idea that the orchids might be having sex in the parlor—in front of the children!—was simply too horrid to entertain. But it was so. And, with Hooker’s help, Darwin proved it.)

Defending Science

[This excerpt is from are from the start of Defending Science – within Reason, by Susan Haack.]

      Attitudes to science range all the way from uncritical admiration at one extreme, through distrust, resentment, and envy, to denigration and outright hostility at the other. We are confused about what science can and what it can't do, and about how it does what it does; about how science differs from literature or art; about whether science is really a threat to religion; about the role of science in society and the role of society in science. And we are ambivalent about the value of science. We admire its theoretical achievements, and welcome technological developments that improve our lives; but we are disappointed when hoped-for results are not speedily forthcoming, dismayed when scientific discoveries threaten cherished beliefs about ourselves and our place in the universe, distrustful of what we perceive as scientists’ arrogance or elitism, disturbed by the enormous cost of scientific research, and disillusioned when we read of scientific fraud, misconduct, or incompetence.

A Looming Tragedy of the Sand Commons

[These excerpts are from an article by Aurora Torres, Jodi Brandt, Kristen Lear and Jianguo Liu in the September 8, 2017, issue of Science.]

      Between 1900 and 2010, the global volume of natural resources used in buildings and transport infrastructure increased 23-fold. Sand and gravel are the largest portion of these primary material inputs (79% or 28.6 gigatons per year in 2010) and are the most extracted group of materials worldwide, exceeding fossil fuels and biomass. In most regions, sand is a common-pool resource, i.e., a resource that is open to all because access can be limited only at high cost. Because of the difficulty in regulating their consumption, common-pool resources are prone to tragedies of the commons as people may selfishly extract them without considering long-term consequences, eventually leading to overexploitation or degradation. Even when sand mining is regulated, it is often subject to rampant illegal extraction and trade. As a result, sand scarcity is an emerging issue with major sociopolitical, economic, and environmental implications.

      Rapid urban expansion is the main driver of increasing sand appropriation, because sand is a key ingredient of concrete, asphalt, glass, and electronics. Urban development is thus putting more and more strain on limited sand deposits, causing conflicts around the world. Further strains on sand deposits arise from escalating transformations in the land-sea interface as a result of burgeoning coastal populations, land scarcity, and rising threats from climate change and coastal erosion. Even hydraulic fracturing is among the plethora of activities that demand the use of increasing amounts of sand. In the following, we identify linkages between sand extraction and other global sustainability challenges.

      Sand extraction from rivers, beaches, and seafloors affects ecosystem integrity through erosion, physical disturbance of benthic habitats, and suspended sediments . Thus, extensive mining is likely to place enormous burdens on habitats, migratory pathways, ecological communities, and food webs….

      Such environmental impacts have cascading effects on the provisioning of ecosystem services and human well-being. For example, sand mining is a frequent cause of shoreline and river erosion and destabilization, which undermine human resilience to natural hazards such as storm surges and tsunami events, especially as sea level continues to rise…

Reasoning versus Post-truth

[These excerpts from are from a commentary article by Wayne Melville in the September 2017 issue of The Science Teacher.]

      Empirical evidence and reasoning have not always been at the heart of the scientific enterprise. Evidence-based reasoning evolved in response to beliefs that were increasingly untenable to early natural philosophers. In the early 1600s, the first scientific academies were established in part to uphold the primacy of experiment in questions about the natural world. Such a stance was counter to scholasticism, the dominant medieval method of learning “rooted in Aristotle and endorsed by the Church ….”

      Synthesizing Christianity and Aristotelian thought, scholasticism viewed the universe as simultaneously religious and physical. The scholastic reaction to the heliocentrism put forth in the 1543 publication of De revolutionibus orbium coelestium is entirely understandable: Copernicus challenged not just a “scientific” model of the universe but also a view of man’s place in creation.

      The difficulty that philosopher and scientist Francis Bacon had with deductive scholasticism was that it was static, not permitting new knowledge to develop. By introducing and promoting induction as a method for studying nature, L Bacon profoundly influenced the course of scientific inquiry….

      …After Galileo died in 1642, both Grand Duke Ferdinano II and his brother Prince (later Cardinal) Leopoldo recognized the political value of continuing to support Galileo’s experimental practices.

      This led to Leopoldo’s creation of the scientific Accademia del Cimento in 1657. In 1664, the Accademician Francesco Redi recorded that Leopoldo was interested in science “not for vain or idle diversion, but rather to find in things the naked, pure, genuine truth…” Leopoldo’s commitment to experimentation was captured in the Accadernia's motto: Provando e riprovando (Test and Test Again)….

      The Accademicians regarded experimentation as central to the practice of science, directly in contrast to both Aristotle and the Church….

      …In doing so, the Accademicians worked to remove any reference to philosophy or mythological cosmology from experimental science and so establish the authority of experimentation in questions about the natural world. This was an overt challenge to the prevailing scholastic view of the natural world.

      To reason from evidence is not simple, as it opens the evidence to speculation and argumentation. The Accademicians often struggled to reconcile their interpretations of the experimental data….A particular point of contention within the Accademia. was the range of views about the relationship between experimentation and the still powerful approach of Aristotle….

      The work of the Accademia set out the need for replicable tests, the control of variables, and the standardization of measurement and instrumentation. It also demonstrated that modern science is more than just knowledge; science is a human endeavor based on curiosity about the natural world, observation. argument, creativity, and reason….As science teachers, we must model, teach, and practice these qualities if we are to engage our students with Lthe need for evidence and reasoned argument.

      …As educators, our challenge is to use our authority in the classroom to engage, alongside our students and as learners ourselves, with all of the practices of science, and thus build trust in those practices.

      Post-truth relies on the distrust of both the sources and value of information. This loss of trust in institutions and academic disciplines—including science—along with the wide availability of misinformation that conforms to what people want to hear, diminishes expertise and learning. Drawing from history, we can give students the tools and attitudes needed to challenge those who would devalue reason so that reasoned decision-making can triumph. Just as the Accademicians challenged scholasticism and eventually prevailed, so must we challenge the very idea of post-truth.

With Ice Cream, Fattier May Not Be Tastier

[These excerpts from are from a “Current News” article in the September 2017 issue of The Science Teacher.]

      Researchers have found that people generally cannot tell the difference between fat levels in ice creams.

      In a series of taste tests, participants could not distinguish a 2% difference in fat levels in two vanilla ice cream samples as long as the samples were in the 6-12% fat-level range. While the subjects could detect a 4% difference between ice cream with 6% and 10% fat levels, they could not detect a 4% fat difference in samples between 8% and 12% fat….

      The researchers also found that fat levels did not significantly sway consumers' preferences in taste. The consumers’ overall liking of the ice cream did not change when fat content dropped from 14% to 6%, for example….

      The study may challenge some ice-cream marketing that suggests ice creams with high fat levels are higher-quality and better-tasting products, according to researchers….

How Civilization Started

[This excerpt is from an article by John Lanchester in the September 18, 2017, issue of The New Yorker.]

      Science and technology: we tend to think of them as siblings, perhaps even as twins, as parts of STEM (for “science, technology, engineering, and mathematics”). When it comes to the shiniest wonders of the modem world—as the supercomputers in our pockets communicate with satellites—science and technology are indeed hand in glove. For much of human history, though, technology had nothing to do with science. Many of our most significant inventions are pure tools, with no scientific method behind them. Wheels and wells, cranks and mills and gears and ships’ masts, clocks and rudders and crop rotation: all have been crucial to human and economic development, and none historically had any connection with what we think of today as science. Some of the most important things we use every day were invented long before the adoption of the scientific method. I love my laptop and my iPhone and my Echo and my G.R S., but the piece of technology I would be most reluctant to give up, the one that changed my life from the first day I used it, and that I'm still reliant on every waking hour—am reliant on right now, as I sit typing—dates from the thirteenth century: my glasses. Soap prevented more deaths than penicillin. That’s technology, not science.

      In “Against the Grain: A Deep History of the Earliest States,” James C. Scott, a professor of political science at Yale, presents a plausible contender for the most important piece of technology in the history of man. It is a technology so old that it predates Homo sapiens and instead should be credited to our ancestor Homo erectus. That technology is fire. We have used it in two crucial, defining ways. The first and the most obvious of these is cooking. As Richard Wrangham has argued in his book “Catching Fire,” our ability to cook allows us to extract more energy from the food we eat, and also to eat a far wider range of foods. Our closest animal relative, the chimpanzee, has a colon three times as large as ours, because its diet of raw food is so much harder to digest: The extra caloric value we get from cooked food allowed us to develop our big brains, which absorb roughly a fifth of the energy we consume, as opposed to less than a tenth for most mammals' brains. That difference is what has made us the dominant species on the planet.

      The other reason fire was central to our history is less obvious to contemporary eyes: we used it to adapt the landscape around us to our purposes. Hunter-gatherers would set fires as they moved, to clear terrain and make it ready for fast-growing, prey-attracting new plants. They would also drive animals with fire. They used this technology so much that, Scott thinks, we should date the human-dominated phase of earth, the so-called Anthropocene, from the time our forebears mastered this new tool.

Our Connected Struggle

[These excerpts are from an article by Michelle Chan in the Summer 2017 issue of Friends of the Earth Newsmagazine.]

      Environmentalists understand one thing above all others: in any ecosystem, everything is interconnected. Bears rely on salmon, which rely on rivers, which rely on trees - all the way down to the microorganisms that sustain our soil. Every part plays a critical role, even if we don’t understand it. All of life - and our fates - are intertwined….

      Nature inspires hope and awe: The mind-boggling 3,000-mile migration of the monarch butterfly, alight on paper-thin wings; the damp quiet of ancient redwoods, which have stood in witness to history for thousands of years….

      Excludes nothing and no one. Our fraternity with one another, and with nature, cannot exclude Muslims, immigrants, people of color, or those who disagree with us politically. This communion does not build walls or prohibition lists; it doesn't divide the world between “worthy” or “unworthy” people, or into places to be protected and those to be sacrificed. As our nation becomes increasingly divided and laden with hate, fear and militarism, it flies against nature’s most powerful and enduring lesson: everything and everyone is intrinsically valuable and vital to the whole….

      Our environmental ethic requires us to consider not only our planet's crisis, but our role in creating and solving it - which includes both ecological and social dimensions. We begin by making changes in our own lives to get in “right relationship” with the planet and with others. Then we take that to the systemic level, to transform the institutions that perpetuate environmental and social injustice - understanding that these are interconnected….

      Nature teaches us that all things are interconnected and intrinsically valuable. As environmentalists, we have the opportunity., and responsibility, to let our interconnectedness inspire and animate us to overcome these turbulent and dangerous times. Let us exclude nothing and no one.

Measuring and Managing Bias

[These excerpts are from an editorial by Jeremy Berg in the September 1, 2017, issue of Science.]

      As someone who grew up with a mother who was a medical researcher, who has been married to a woman very active in scientific research for more than 30 years, and who has had many female colleagues and students, I was surprised when I first took a test to measure implicit gender bias and found that I have a strong automatic association between being male and being involved in science. We all carry a range of biases that are products of our culture and experiences or, in some cases, of outcomes that we desire. Fortunately, many such biases can be measured and, in some cases, effectively managed. A key is to first acknowledge their presence and then to take steps to minimize their influence on important decisions and results.

      Implicit biases—those that we are not consciously aware of—might seem difficult to demonstrate or quantify. However, implicit association tests…can be a useful tool for achieving this. IATs are based on measuring the times needed to classify attributes in a simple computer exercise that takes about 5 minutes to complete….I have found the same strong automatic association between male and science and with female and liberal arts. The good news is that direct awareness of one's own implicit biases can reduce their impact on outcomes, at least in some circumstances. I sometimes catch myself assuming that a scientist is male, and then remind myself of my implicit bias test results, and try to think deliberately to avoid making such assumptions.

      Implicit biases are intrinsic human characteristics that should be acknowledged and managed, rather than denied or ignored. Everyone should consider taking one or more IATs to understand this approach and measure his or her own implicit biases….

Postmodernism vs. Science

[This article by Michael Shermer is in the September 2017 issue of Scientific American.]

      In a 1946 essay in the London Tribune entitled “In Front of Your Nose,” George Orwell noted that “we are all capable of believing things which we know to be untrue, and then, when we are finally proved wrong, impudently twisting the facts so as to show that we were right. Intellectually, it is possible to carry on this process for an indefinite time: the only check on it is that sooner or later a false belief bumps up against solid reality, usually on a battlefield.”

      The intellectual battlefields today are on college campuses, where students' deep convictions about race, ethnicity; gender and sexual orientation and their social justice antipathy toward capitalism, imperialism, racism, white privilege, misogyny and “cissexist heteropatriarchy” have bumped up against the reality of contradictory facts and opposing views, leading to campus chaos and even violence. Students at the University of California, Berkeley, and outside agitators, for example, rioted at the mere mention that conservative firebrands Milo Yiannopoulos and Ann Coulter had been invited to speak (in the end, they never did). Middlebury College students physically attacked libertarian author Charles Murray and his liberal host, professor Allison Stanger, pulling her hair, twisting her neck and sending her to the ER.

      One underlying cause of this troubling situation may be found in what happened at Evergreen State College in Olympia, Wash., in May, when biologist and self-identified “deeply progressive” professor Bret Weinstein refused to participate in a “Day of Absence” in which “white students, staff and faculty will be invited to leave the campus for the day’s activities.” Weinstein objected, writing in an e-mail: “on a college campus, one’s right to speak—or to be—must never be based on skin color.” In response, an angry mob of 50 students disrupted his biology class, surrounded him, called him a racist and insisted that he resign. He claims that campus police informed him that the college president told them to stand down, but he has been forced to stay off campus for his safety’s sake.

      How has it come to this? One of many trends was identified by Weinstein in a Wall Street Journal essay: “The button-down empirical and deductive fields, including all the hard sciences, have lived side by side with ‘critical theory,’ postmodernism and its perception-based relatives. Since the creation in 1960s and ‘70s of novel, justice-oriented fields, these incompatible world-views have repelled one another.”

      In an article for Quillette.corn on “Methods Behind the Campus Madness,” graduate researcher Sumantra Maitra of the University of Nottingham in England reported that 12 of the 13 academics at U.C. Berkeley who signed a letter to the chancellor protesting Yiannopoulos were from “Critical theory, Gender studies and Post-Colonial/Postmodernist/Marxist background.” This is a shift in Marxist theory from class conflict to identity politics conflict; instead of judging people by the content of their character, they are now to be judged by the color of their skin (or their ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, et cetera). “Postmodernists have tried to hijack biology, have taken over large parts of political science, almost all of anthropology, history and English,” Maitra concludes, “and have proliferated self-referential journals, citation circles, non-replicable research, and the curtailing of nuanced debate through activism and marches, instigating a bunch of gullible students to intimidate any opposing ideas.”

      Students are being taught by these postmodern professors that there is no truth, that science and empirical facts are tools of oppression by the white patriarchy, and that nearly everyone in America is racist and bigoted, including their own professors, most of whom are liberals or progressives devoted to fighting these social ills. Of the 58 Evergreen faculty members who signed a statement “in solidarity with students” calling for disciplinary action against Weinstein for “endangering” the community by granting interviews in the national media, I tallied only seven from the sciences. Most specialize in English, literature, the arts, humanities, cultural studies, women’s studies, media studies, and “quotidian imperialisms, intermetropolitan geography [and] detournement.” A course called “Fantastic Resistances” was described as a “training dojo for aspiring ‘social justice warriors’” that focuses on “power asymmetries.”

      If you teach students to be warriors against all power asymmetries, don’t be surprised when they turn on their professors and administrators. This is what happens when you separate facts from values, empiricism from morality, science from the humanities.

Life before Roe

[These excerpts are from an article by Rachel Benson Gold and Megan K. Donovan in the September 2017 issue of Scientific American.]

      When she went before the U.S. Supreme Court for the first time in 1971, the 26-year-old Sarah Weddington became the youngest attorney to successfully argue a case before the nine justices—a distinction she still holds today.

      Weddington was the attorney for Norma McCorvey, the pseudonymous “Jane Roe” of the 1973 Roe v. Wade decision that recognized the constitutional right to abortion—one of the most notable decisions ever handed down by the justices….

      The pre-Roe era is more than just a passing entry in the history books. More than 40 years after Roe v. Wade, antiabortion politicians at the state level have succeeded in re-creating a national landscape in which access to abortion depends on where a woman lives and the resources available to her. From 2011 to 2016 state governments enacted a stunning 338 abortion restrictions, and the onslaught continues with more than 50 new restrictions so far this year. At the federal level, the Trump administration and congressional leaders are openly hostile to abortion rights and access to reproductive health care more generally. This antagonism is currently reflected in an agenda that seeks to eliminate insurance coverage of abortion and roll back public funding for family-planning services nationwide.

      Restrictions that make it more difficult for women to get an abortion infringe on their health and legal rights. But they do nothing to reduce unintended pregnancy, the main reason a woman seeks an abortion. As the pre-Roe era demonstrates, women will still seek the necessary means to end a pregnancy. Cutting off access to abortion care has a far greater impact on the options available and the type of care a woman receives than it does on whether or not she ends a pregnancy.

      The history of abortion underscores the reality that the procedure has always been with us, whether or not it was against the law. At the nation's founding, abortion was generally permitted by states under common law. It only started becoming criminalized in the mid-1800s, although by 1900 almost every state had enacted a law declaring most abortions to be criminal offenses.

      Yet despite what was on the books, abortion remained common because there were few effective ways to prevent unwanted pregnancies. Well into the 1960s, laws restricted or prohibited outright the sale and advertising of contraceptives, making it impossible for many women to obtain—or even know about—effective birth control. In the 1950s and 1960s between 200,000 and 1.2 million women underwent illegal abortions each year in the U.S., many in unsafe conditions. According to one estimate, extrapolating data from North Carolina to the nation as a whole, 699,000 illegal abortions occurred in the U.S. during 1955, and 829,000 illegal procedures were performed in 1967.

      A stark indication of the risk in seeking abortion in the pre-Roe era was the death toll. As late as 1965, illegal abortion accounted for an estimated 17 percent of all officially reported pregnancy-related deaths—a total of about 200 in just that year. The actual number may have been much higher, but many deaths were officially attributed to other causes, perhaps to protect women and their families. (In contrast, four deaths resulted from complications of legally induced abortion in 2012 of a total of about one million procedures.)

      The burden of injuries and deaths from unsafe abortion did not fall equally on everyone in the pre-Roe era. Because abortion was legal under certain circumstances in some states, women of means were often able to navigate the system and obtain a legal abortion with help from their private physician. Between 1951 and 1962, 88 percent of legal abortions performed in New York City were for patients of private physicians rather than for women accessing public health services.

      In contrast, many poor women and women of color had to go outside the system, often under dangerous and deadly circumstances. Low-income women in New York in the 1960s were more likely than affluent ones to be admitted to hospitals for complications following an illegal procedure. In a study of low-income women in New York from the same period, one in 10 said they had tried to terminate a pregnancy illegally.

      State and federal laws were slow to catch up to this reality. It was only in 1967 that Colorado became the first state to reform its abortion law, permitting the procedure on grounds that included danger to the pregnant woman’s life or health. By 1972,13 states had similar statutes, and an additional four, including New York, had repealed their antiabortion laws completely. Then came Roe v. Wade in 1973—and the accompanying Doe v. Bolton decision—both of which affirmed abortion as a constitutional right.

      The 2016 Supreme Court decision in Whole Womans Health v. Hellerstedt reaffirmed a woman’s constitutional right to abortion. But the future of Roe is under threat as a result of President Donald Trump’s commitment to appointing justices to the Supreme Court who he says will eventually overturn Roe. Should that happen, 19 states already have laws on the books that could be used to restrict the legal status of abortion, and experts at the Center for Reproductive Rights estimate that the right to abortion could be at risk in as many as 33 states and the District of Columbia….

      Instead of repeating the mistakes of the past, we need to protect and build on gains already made. Serious injury and death from abortion are rare today, but glaring injustices still exist. Stark racial, ethnic and income disparities persist in sexual and reproductive health outcomes. As of 2011, the unintended pregnancy rate among poor women was five times that of women with higher incomes, and the rate for black women was more than double that for whites. Abortion restrictions—including the discriminatory Hyde Amendment, which prohibits the use of federal dollars to cover abortion care for women insured through Medicaid—fall disproportionately on poor women and women of color.

      These realities are indefensible from a moral and a public health standpoint. The time has come for sexual and reproductive health care to be a right for all, not a privilege for those who can afford it.

Is there a “Female” Brain?

[These excerpts are from an article by Lydia Denworth in the September 2017 issue of Scientific American.]

      As she continued reading, Joel came across a paper contradicting that idea. The study, published in 2001 by Tracey Shors and her colleagues at Rutgers University, concerned a detail of the rat brain: tiny protrusions on brain cells, called dendritic spines, that regulate transmission of electrical signals. The researchers showed that when estrogen levels were elevated, female rats had more dendritic spines than males did. Shors also found that when male and female rats were subjected to the acutely stressful event of having their tail shocked, their brain responded in opposite ways: males grew more spines; females ended up with fewer.

      From this unexpected finding, [Daphna] Joel developed a hypothesis about sex differences in the brain that has stirred up new controversy in a field already steeped in it. Instead of contemplating brain areas that differ between females and males, she suggested that we should consider our brain as a “mosaic” (repurposing a term that had been used by others), arranged from an assortment of variable, sometimes changeable, masculine and feminine features. That variability itself and the behavioral overlap between the sexes—aggressive females and empathetic males and even men and women who display both traits—suggest that brains cannot be lumped into one of two distinct, or dimorphic, categories. That three-pound mass lodged underneath the skull is neither male nor female, Joel says….Joel tested her idea by analyzing MRI brain scans of more than 1,400 brains and demonstrated that most of them did indeed contain both masculine and feminine characteristics. “We all belong to a single, highly heterogeneous population,” she says….

      In the late 1800s, long before MM was a gleam in any scientist's eye, the primary measurable difference in male and female brains was their weight (assessed postmortem, naturally). Because women's brains were, on average, five ounces lighter than men's, scientists declared that women must be less intelligent….

      For much of the next century concrete sex differences in the brain were the province not of neuroscientists but endocrinologists, who studied sex hormones and mating behavior. Sex determination is a complex process that begins when a combination of genes on the X and Y chromosomes act in utero, flipping the switch on feminization or masculinization. But beyond reproduction and distinguishing boy versus girl, reports persisted of psychological and cognitive sex differences. Between the 1960s and early 1980s Stanford University psychologist Eleanor Maccoby found fewer differences than assumed: girls had stronger verbal abilities than boys, whereas boys did better on spatial and mathematical tests….

      Making the leap from brain to behavior provokes the most strident disagreements. The most recent high-profile study accused of playing to stereotypes (and labeled "neurosexist") was a 2014 paper….It found that males had stronger connections within the left and right hemispheres of the brain and that females had more robust links between hemispheres. The researchers concluded that “the results suggest that male brains are structured to facilitate connectivity between perception and coordinated action, whereas female brains are designed to facilitate communication between analytical and intuitive processing modes.” (Counterclaim: the study did not correct for brain size.)

Promiscuous Men, Chaste Women and Other Gender Myths

[These excerpts are from an article by Cordelia Fine and Mark A. Elgar in the September 2017 issue of Scientific American.]

      The stereotype of the daring, promiscuous male—and his counterpart, the cautious, chaste female—is deeply entrenched. Received wisdom holds that behavioral differences between men and women are hardwired, honed by natural selection over millennia to maximize their differing reproductive potentials. In this view, men, by virtue of their innate tendencies toward risk-taking and competitiveness, are destined to dominate at the highest level of every realm of human endeavor, whether it is art, politics or science.

      But a closer look at the biology and behavior of humans and other creatures shows that many of the starting assumptions that have gone into this account of sex differences are wrong. For example, in many species, females benefit from being competitive or playing the field. And women and men often have similar preferences where their sex lives are concerned. It is also becoming increasingly clear that inherited environmental factors play a role in the development of adaptive behaviors; in humans, these factors include our gendered culture. All of which means that equality between the sexes might be more attainable than previously supposed.

      The origin of the evolutionary explanation of past and present gender inequality is Charles Darwin’s theory of sexual selection. His observations as a naturalist led him to conclude that, with some exceptions, in the arena of courtship and mating, the challenge to be chosen usually falls most strongly on males. Hence, males, rather than females, have evolved characteristics such as a large size or big antlers to help beat off the competition for territory, social status and mates. Likewise, it is usually the male of the species that has evolved purely aesthetic traits that appeal to females, such as stunning plumage, an elaborate courtship song or an exquisite odor.

      It was, however, British biologist Angus Bateman who, in the middle of the 20th century, developed a compelling explanation of why being male tends to lead to sexual competition. The goal of Bateman’s research was to test an important assumption from Darwin’s theory. Like natural selection, sexual selection results in some individuals being more successful than others. Therefore, if sexual selection acts more strongly on males than females, then males should have a greater range of reproductive success, from dismal failures to big winners. Females, in contrast, should be much more similar in their reproductive success. This is why being the animal equivalent of a brilliant artist, as opposed to a mediocre one, is far more beneficial for males than for females….

      Scholars mostly ignored Bateman’s study at first. But some two decades later evolutionary biologist Robert Trivers, now at Rutgers University, catapulted it into scientific fame. He expressed Bateman’s idea in terms of greater female investment in reproduction—the big, fat egg versus the small, skinny sperm—and pointed out that this initial asymmetry can go well beyond the gametes to encompass gestation, feeding (including via lactation, in the case of mammals) and protecting. Thus, just as a consumer takes far more care in the selection of a car than of a disposable, cheap trinket, Trivers suggests that the higher-investing sex—usually the female—will hold out for the best possible partner with whom to mate. And here is the kicker: the lower-investing sex—typically the male—will behave in ways that, ideally, distribute cheap, abundant seed as widely as possible.

      The logic is so elegant and compelling it is hardly surprising that contemporary research has identified many species to which the so-called Bateman-Trivers principles seem to apply, including species in which, unusually, it is males that are the higher-investing sex….

      In our own species, the traditional story is additionally complicated by the inefficiency of human sexual activity. Unlike many other species, in which coitus is hormonally coordinated to a greater or lesser degree to ensure that sex results in conception, humans engage in avast amount of nonreproductive sex. This pattern has important implications. First, it means that any one act of coitus has a low probability of giving rise to a baby, a fact that should temper overoptimistic assumptions about the likely reproductive return on seed spreading. Second, it suggests that sex serves purposes beyond reproduction—strengthening relationships, for example….

      Meanwhile the feminist movement increased women’s opportunities to enter, and excel in, traditionally masculine domains. In 1920 there were just 84 women studying at the top 12 law schools that admitted women, and those female lawyers found it nearly impossible to find employment. In the 21st century women and men are graduating from law school in roughly equal numbers, and women made up about 18 percent of equity partners in 2015.

      …It is hard to see how a young female lawyer, looking first at the many young women at her level and then at the very few female partners and judges, can be as optimistic about the likely payoff of leaning in and making sacrifices for her career as a young male lawyer. And this is before one considers the big-picture evidence of sexism, sexual harassment and sex discrimination in traditionally masculine professions such as law and medicine….

      Although sex certainly influences the brain, this argument overlooks the growing recognition in evolutionary biology that offspring do not just inherit genes. They also inherit a particular social and ecological environment that can play a critical role in the expression of adaptive traits. For example, adult male moths that hailed, as larvae, from a dense population develop particularly large testes. These enhanced organs stand the moths in good stead for engaging in intense copulatory competition against the many other males in the population. One would be forgiven for assuming that these generously sized gonads are a genetically determined adaptive trait. Yet adult male moths of the same species raised as larvae in a lower-density population instead develop larger wings and antennae, which are ideal for searching for widely dispersed females.

      …men now place more importance on a female partner's financial prospects, education and intelligence—and care less about her culinary and housekeeping skills—than they did several decades ago. Meanwhile the cliché of the pitiable bluestocking spinster is a historical relic: although wealthier and better-educated women were once less likely to marry now they are more likely to do so.

A Moth’s Eye

[These excerpts are from an article by Morgen Peck in the September 2017 issue of Scientific American.]

      It is a summer night, and the moths are all aflutter. Despite being drenched in moonlight, their eyes do not reflect it—and soon the same principle could help you see your cell-phone screen in bright sunlight.

      Developing low-reflectivity surfaces for electronic displays has been an area of intensive research. So-called transflective liquid-crystal displays reduce glare by accounting for both backlighting and ambient illumination. Another approach, called adaptive brightening control, uses sensors to boost the screen’s light. But both technologies guzzle batteries, and neither is completely effective. The anatomy of the moth eye presents a far more elegant solution….

      When light moves from one medium to another, it bends and changes speed as the result of differences in a material property called refractive index. If the difference is sharp—as when light moving through air suddenly hits a pane of glass—much of the light is reflected. But a moth’s eye is coated with tiny, uniform bumps that gradually bend (or refract) incoming light. The light waves interfere with one another and cancel one another out, rendering the eyes dark.

The Oldest Homo sapiens?

[These excerpts are from an article by Kate Wong in the September 2017 issue of Scientific American.]

      The year was 1961. A barite mining operation at the Jebel Irhoud massif in Morocco, some 100 kilometers west of Marrakech, turned up a fossil human skull. Subsequent excavation uncovered more bones from other individuals, along with animal remains and stone tools. Originally thought to be 40,000-year-old Neandertals, the fossils were later reclassified as Homo sapiens—and eventually related to roughly 160,000 years ago. Still, the Jebel I rhoud fossils remained something of a mystery because in some respects they looked more primitive than older H. sapiens fossils.

      Now new evidence is rewriting the Jebel Irhoud story again. A team led by Jean-Jacques Hublin of the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany, has recovered more human fossils and stone tools, along with compelling evidence that the site is far older than the revised estimate….If the fossils do in fact represent H. sapiens, as the team argues, the finds push back the origin of our species by more than 100,000 years and challenge leading ideas about where and how our lineage evolved. But other scientists disagree over exactly what the new findings mean….

      Experts have long agreed that H. sapiens got its start in Africa. Up to this point, the oldest commonly accepted traces of our species were 195,000-year-old remains from the site of Omo Kibish and 160,000-year-old fossils from Herto, both in Ethiopia. Yet DNA evidence and some enigmatic fossils hinted that our species might have deeper roots.

      In their recent work, Hublin and his colleagues unearthed fossils of several other individuals from a part of the Jebel Irhoud site that the miners left undisturbed. The team's finds include skull and lower jaw bones, as well as stone tools and the remains of animals the humans hunted. Multiple techniques date the rock layer containing the fossils and artifacts to between 350,000 and 280,000 years ago….

      Hublin noted that the findings do not imply that Morocco was the cradle of modern humankind. Instead, taken together with other fossil discoveries, they suggest that the emergence of H. sapiens was a pan-African affair. By 300,000 years ago early H. sapiens had spread across the continent. This dispersal was helped by the fact that Africa was quite different back then—the Sahara was green, not the forbidding desert barrier that it is today…

      The new fossils “raise major questions about what features define our species,” observes paleoanthropologist Marta Mirazon Lahr of the University of Cambridge. “[Is] it the globular skull, with its implications [for] brain reorganization, that makes a fossil H. sapiens? If so, the I rhoud population [represents] our close cousins” rather than members of our species. But if, on the other hand, a small face and the shape of the lower jaw are the key traits, then the Jebel Irhoud remains could be from our actual ancestors—and thus shift the focus of scientists who study modern human origins from sub-Saharan Africa to the Mediterranean—Mirazon Lahr says.

      Either way, the discoveries could fan debate over who invented the artifacts of Africa’s Middle Stone Age cultural period, which spanned the time between roughly 300,000 and 40,000 years ago. If H. sapiens was around 300,000 years ago, it could be a contender. But other human species were on the scene back then, too, including Homo heideibergensis and Homo naledi.

Africa’s CDC Can End Malaria

[These excerpts are from an article by Carl Manlan in the September 2017 issue of Scientific American.]

      More than 65 years ago Americans found a way to ensure that no one would have to die from malaria ever again. The disease was eliminated in the U.S. in 1951, thanks to strategies created through the Office of Malaria Control in War Areas, formed in 1942, and the Communicable Disease Center (now the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention), founded in 1946.

      The idea for Africa’s own Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (Africa CDC) was devised in 2013 and formalized after the worst Ebola outbreak in history the following year. The Africa CDC, which was officially launched in January of this year, is a growing partnership that aims to build countries’ capacity to help create a world that is safe and secure from infectious disease threats….

      Malaria and other preventable diseases continue to challenge our ability to transform our economies at the pace required to support our population growth. Ultimately, for Africa to achieve malaria eradication, it is necessary to translate the Africa CDC’s mandate from the African Union into a funded mechanism to inform health investment.

      Ending malaria was the impetus that led to a strong and reliable CDC in the U.S., and now Africa has an opportunity to repeat that success—ideally by 2030, when the world gathers to assess progress toward achieving the U.N.’s Sustainable Development Goals. We have the opportunity to save many, many lives through the Africa CDC. Let's make it happen.

End the Assault on Women’s Health

[This excerpt by the editors is from the September 2017 issue of Scientific American.]

      Current events are just the latest insult in a long history of male-centric medicine, often driven not by politicians but by scientists and physicians. Before the National Institutes of Health Revitalization Act of 1993, which required the inclusion of women and minorities in final-stage medication and therapy trials, women were actively excluded from such tests because scientists worried that female hormonal cycles would interfere with the results. The omission meant women did not know how drugs would affect them. They respond differently to illness and medication than men do, and even today those differences are inadequately understood. Women report. more intense pain than men in almost every category of disease, and we do not know why. Heart disease is the number-one killer of women in the U. S., yet only a third of clinical trial subjects in cardiovascular research are female—and fewer than a third of trials that include women report results by sex.

      The Republican assault on health care will just make things worse. The proposed legislation includes provisions that would let states eliminate services known as “essential health benefits,” which include maternity care. Before the ACA made coverage mandatory, eight out of 10 insurance plans for individuals and small businesses did not cover such care. The proposed cuts would have little effect on reducing insurance premiums, and the cost would be shifted to women and their families—who would have to take out private insurance or go on Medicaid (which the proposed bill greatly limits)—or to hospitals, which are required by law to provide maternity care to uninsured mothers.

      The bill, in its current form, would also effectively block funding for Planned Parenthood, which provides reproductive health services to 2.4 million women and men. The clinics are already banned from using federal funding for abortions except in cases of rape or incest or when the mother's life is in danger, in accordance with the federal Hyde Amendment. So the Planned Parenthood cuts would primarily affect routine health services such as gynecological exams, cancer screenings, STD testing and contraception—and these clinics are sometimes the only source for such care. Regardless of which side you are on in the pro-life/pro-choice debate, these attempts to remove access to such basic services should alarm us all.

      The Trump administration also has been chipping away at the ACA’s birth-control mandate. A proposed regulation leaked in May suggested the White House was working to create an exemption to allow almost any employer to opt out of covering contraception on religious or moral grounds. Nationwide, women are increasingly turning to highly effective long-acting reversible contraceptives (LARCs) such as intrauterine devices (IUDs). The percentage of women aged 15 to 44 using LARCs increased nearly fivefold from 2002 to 2013. Decreased coverage for contraceptives translates to less widespread use and will likely mean more unintended pregnancies and abortions.

      And abortions will become harder to obtain. After Roe v. Wade, many states tried to put in place laws to hamstring abortion clinics. These efforts have only ramped up in recent years, as many states have enacted so-called TRAP laws (short for targeted regulation of abortion providers), unnecessarily burdensome regulations that make it very difficult for these clinics to operate. Recognizing this fact, the Supreme Court struck down some of these laws in Texas in 2016, but many are still in place in other states. Rather than making women safer, as proponents claim, these restrictions interfere with their Supreme Court-affirmed right to safely terminate a pregnancy.

      Whether or not the repeal-and-replace legislation passes this year, these attacks are part of a larger war on women’s health that is not likely to abate anytime soon. We must resist this assault. Never mind “America First”—it’s time to put women first.

Beyond DNA

[These excerpts are from an article by Gemma Tarlach in the September 2017 issue of Discover.]

      The study of ancient proteins, paleoproteomics is an emerging interdisciplinary field that draws from chemistry and molecular biology as much as paleontology, paleoanthropology and archaeology. Its applications for understanding human evolution are broad:

      One 2016 study used ancient collagen, a common protein, to determine otherwise unidentifiable bone fragments as Neanderthal; another identified which animals were butchered at a desert oasis 250,000 years ago based on protein residues embedded in stone tools.

      Paleoproteomic research can also build evolutionary family trees based on shared or similar proteins, and reveal aspects of an individual’s physiology beyond what aDNA might tell us….

      Thanks to ancient proteins surviving far longer than aDNA — in January, one team claimed to have found evidence of collagen in a dinosaur fossil that’s 195 million years old — researchers are able to read those cheap molecular newspapers from deep time.

      The roots of paleoproteomics actually predate its sister field, paleogenomics. In the 1930s, archaeologists attempted (with little success) to determine the blood types of mummies by identifying proteins with immunoassays, which test for antibody-antigen reactions.

      A couple of decades later, geochemists found that amino acids, the building blocks of proteins, could survive in fossils for millions of years. But it wasn’t until this century that paleoproteomics established itself as a robust area of research.

      In 2000, researchers identified proteins in fossils using a type of mass spectrometer that, unlike earlier methods, left amino acid sequences more intact and readable. Much of today’s research uses a refined version of that method: zooarchaeology by mass spectrome-try (ZooMS)….

      And in 2016, Welker, Collins and colleagues used ZooMS to determine that otherwise unidentifiable bone fragments in the French cave Grotte du Renne belonged to Neanderthals, settling a debate over which member of Homo occupied the site about 40,000 years ago. Given how closely related Neanderthals are to our own species, the researchers' ability to identify a single protein sequence specific to our evolutionary cousins is stunning.

      ZooMS is not a perfect methodology. Analyzing proteins within a fossil requires destroying a piece of the specimen, something unthinkable for precious ancient hominin remains.

      That’s why the most significant applications for ZooMS may be to identify fragmentary fossils and to learn more about ancient hominins’ environments — especially the ones they created….

A Matter of Choice

[These excerpts are from an article by Peg Tyre in the August 2017 issue of Scientific American.]

      …President Donald Trump’s secretary of education, Betsy DeVos, is preparing to give the scheme its first national rollout in the U.S. She has made voucher programs the centerpiece of her efforts to enhance educational outcomes for students, saying they offer parents freedom to select institutions outside their designated school zone. “The secretary believes that when we put the focus on students, and not buildings or artificially constructed boundaries, we will be on the right path to ensuring every child has access to the education that fits their unique needs,” says U.S. Department of Education spokesperson Elizabeth Hill.

      Because the Trump administration has championed vouchers as an innovative way to improve education in the U.S., SCIENTIFIC AMERICAN examined the scientific research on voucher programs to find out what the evidence says about Friedman’s idea. To be sure, educational outcomes are a devilishly difficult thing to measure with rigor. But by and large, studies have found that vouchers have mixed to negative academic outcomes and, when adopted widely, can exacerbate income inequity. On the positive side, there is some evidence that students who use vouchers are more likely to graduate high school and to perceive their schools as safe.

      DeVos’s proposal marks a profound change of direction for American education policy. In 2002, under President George W. Bush’s No Child Left Behind Act, the federal education mantra was “what gets tested, gets taught,” and the nation’s public schools became focused on shaping their curriculum around state standards in reading and math. Schools where students struggled to perform at grade level in those subjects were publicly dubbed “failing schools.” Some were sanctioned. Others were closed. During those years, networks of privately operated, publicly funded charter schools, many of them with a curriculum that was rigorously shaped around state standards, opened, and about 20 percent of them flourished, giving parents in some low-income communities options about where to enroll their child. While charter schools got much of the media attention, small voucher programs were being piloted in Washington, D.C., and bigger programs were launched in Indiana, Wisconsin, Louisiana and Ohio….

      Until now only a handful of American cities and states have experimented with voucher programs. Around 500,000 of the country’s 56 million schoolchildren use voucher-type programs to attend private or parochial schools. The results have been spotty. In the 1990s studies of small voucher programs in New York City Washington, D.C., and Dayton, Ohio, found no demonstrable academic improvement among children using vouchers and high rates of churn —many students who used vouchers dropped out or transferred schools, making evaluation impossible. One study of 2,642 students in New York City who attended Catholic schools in the 1990s under a voucher plan saw an uptick in African-American students who graduated and enrolled in college but no such increases among Hispanic students.

      In 2004 researchers began studying students in a larger, more sustained voucher plan that had just been launched in Washington, D.C. This is the country's first and so far only federally sponsored voucher program. There 2,300 students were offered scholarships, and 1,700 students used those scholarships mostly to attend area Catholic schools. The analysts compared academic data on those who did and did not opt for parochial school and found that voucher users showed no significant reading or math gains over those who remained in public school. But graduation rates for voucher students were higher-82 percent compared with 70 percent for the control group, as reported by parents. A new one-year study of the Washington, D.C., program published in April showed that voucher students actually did worse in math and reading than students who applied for vouchers through a citywide lottery but did not receive them. Math scores among students who used vouchers were around 7 percentage points lower than among students who did not use vouchers. Reading scores for voucher students were 4.9 percentage points lower. The study authors hypothesized that the negative outcomes may be partly related to the fact that public schools offer more hours of instruction in reading and math than private schools, many of which cover a wider diversity of subjects such as art and foreign languages….

      Voucher proponents say parents, even those using tax dollars to pay tuition, should be able to use whatever criteria for school choice they see fit. A provocative idea, but if past evidence can predict future outcomes, expanding voucher programs seems unlikely to help US. schoolchildren keep pace with a technologically advancing world.

Life Springs

[These excerpts are from an article by Martin J. Van Kranendonk, David W. Deamer and Tara Djokic in the August 2017 issue of Scientific American.]

      …Some of the rocks are wrinkled orange and white layers, called geyserite, which were created by a volcanic geyser on Earth's surface. They revealed bubbles formed when gas was trapped in a sticky film, most likely produced by a thin layer of bacterialike microorganisms. The surface rocks and indications of biofilms support a new idea about one of the oldest mysteries on the planet: how and where life got started. The evidence pointed to volcanic hot springs and pools, on land, about 3.5 billion years ago.

      This is a far different picture of life's origins from the one scientists have been sketching since 1977. That was the year the research submarine Alvin discovered hydrothermal vents at the bottom of the Pacific Ocean pumping out minerals containing iron and sulfur and gases such as methane and hydrogen sulfide, surrounded by primitive bacteria and large worms. It was a thriving ecosystem. Biologists have since theorized that such vents, protected from the cataclysms wracking Earth's surface about four billion years ago, could have provided the energy, nutrients and a safe haven for life to begin. But the theory has problems. The big one is that the ocean has a lot of water, and in it the needed molecules might spread out too quickly to interact and form cell membranes and primitive metabolisms.

      Now we and others believe land pools that repeatedly dry out and then get wet again could be much better places. The pools have heat to catalyze reactions, dry spells in which complex molecules called polymers can be formed from simpler units, wet spells that float these polymers around, and further drying periods that maroon them in tiny cavities where they can interact and even become concentrated in compartments of fatty acids—the prototypes of cell membranes.

      …Charles Darwin had suggested, back in 1871, that microbial life originated in “some warm little pond.” A number of scientists from different fields now think that the author of On the Origin of Species had intuitively hit on something important….

      …simple molecular building blocks might join into longer information-carrying polymers like nucleic acids—needed for primitive life to grow and replicate—when exposed to the wet-dry cycles characteristic of land-based hot springs. Other key polymers, peptides, might form from amino acids under the same conditions. Crucially, still other building blocks called lipids might assemble into microscopic compartments to house and protect the information-carrying polymers. Life would need all the compounds to get started….

      Both on land and in the sea, chemical and physical laws have provided a very useful frame around this particular puzzle, and the geologic and chemical discoveries described here fill in different areas. But before we can see a clear picture of the origin of life, many more pieces need to be put in place. What is exciting, however, is that now we can see a path forward to the solution.

Technology as Magic

[This excerpt is from an article by David Pogue in the August 2017 issue of Scientific American.]

      We the people have always been helplessly drawn to the concept of magic: the notion that you can will something to happen by wiggling your nose, speaking special words or waving your hands a certain way. We've spent billions of dollars for the opportunity to see what real magic might look like, in the form of Harry Potter movies, superhero films and TV shows, from Bewitched on down.

      It should follow, then, that any time you can offer real magical powers for sale, the public will buy it. That’s exactly what’s been going on in consumer technology. Remember Arthur C. Clarke’s most famous line? “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” Well, I’ve got a corollary: “Any sufficiently magical product will be a ginormous hit.”

      Anything invisible and wireless, anything that we control with our hands or our voices, anything we can operate over impossible distances—those are the hits because they most resemble magic. You can now change your thermostat from thousands of miles away, ride in a car that drives itself, call up a show on your TV screen by speaking its name or type on your phone by speaking to it. Magic.

      For decades the conventional wisdom in product design has been to "make it simpler to operate" and “make it easier for the consumer.” And those are admirable goals, for sure. Some of the biggest technical advancements in the past 30 years—miniaturization, wireless, touch screens, artificial intelligence, robotics—have been dedicated to “simpler” and “easier.”

      But that’s not enough to feel magical. Real tech magic is simplicity plus awe. The most compelling tech conventions—GPS apps telling you when to turn, your Amazon Echo answering questions for you, your phone letting you pay for something by waving it at that product—feel kind of amazing every single time.

      The awe component is important. It's the difference between magic and mere convenience. You could say to your butler, “Jeeves, lock all the doors”—and yes, that’d be convenient. But saying, “Alexa, lock all the doors,” and then hearing the dead-bolts all over the house click by themselves? Same convenience, but this time it’s magical.

Plastic-Eating Worms

[These excerpts are from an article by Matthew Sedacca in the August 2017 issue of Scientific American.]

      Humans produce more than 300 million metric tons of plastic every year. Almost half of that winds up in landfills, and up to 12 million metric tons pollute the oceans. So far there is no sustainable way to get rid of it, but a new study suggests an answer may lie in the stomachs of some hungry worms.

      Researchers in Spain and England recently found that the larvae of the greater wax moth can efficiently degrade polyethylene, which accounts for 40 percent of plastics. The team left 100 wax worms on a commercial polyethylene shopping bag for 12 hours, and the worms consumed and degraded about 92 milligrams, or roughly 3 percent, of it. To confirm that the larvae’s chewing alone was not responsible for the polyethylene breakdown, the researchers ground some grubs into a paste and applied it to plastic films. Fourteen hours later the films had lost 13 percent of their mass—presumably broken down by enzymes from the worms’ stomachs.

      When inspecting the degraded plastic films, the team also found traces of ethylene glycol, a product of polyethylene breakdown, signaling true biodegradation….

      …the larvae’s ability to break down their dietary staple—beeswax—also allows them to degrade plastic. “Wax is a complex mixture of molecules, but the basic bond in polyethylene, the carbon-carbon bond, is there as well….The wax worm evolved a mechanism to break this bond.”

      Jennifer DeBruyn, a microbiologist at the University of Tennessee, who was not involved in the study, says it is not surprising that an organism evolved the capacity to degrade polyethylene. But compared with previous studies, she finds the speed of biodegradation in this one exciting. The next step, DeBruyn says, will be to pinpoint the cause of the breakdown. Is it an enzyme produced by the worm itself or by its gut microbes? Bertocchini agrees and hopes her team's findings might one day help harness the enzyme to break down plastics in landfills, as well as those scattered throughout the ocean. But she envisions using the chemical in some kind of industrial process—not simply “millions of worms thrown on top of the plastic.”

Awash in Plastic

[These excerpts are from an article by Jesse Greenspan in the August 2017 issue of Scientific American.]

      Henderson Island, a tiny, unpopulated coral atoll in the South Pacific, could scarcely be more remote. The nearest city of any size lies some 5,000 kilometers away. Yet when Jennifer Lavers, a marine biologist at the Institute for Marine and Antarctic Studies in Tasmania, ventured there two years ago to study invasive rodent-eradication efforts, she found the once pristine UNESCO World Heritage Site inundated with trash-17.6 metric tons of it, she conservatively estimates—pretty much all of it plastic. (The rubbish originates elsewhere but hitches a ride to Henderson on wind or ocean-currents.) One particularly spoiled stretch of beach yielded 672 visible pieces of debris per square meter, plus an additional 4,497 L items per square meter buried in the sand….

      By comparing the data with a study of the nearby Ducie and Oeno atolls conducted in 1991, the team extrapolated that there is between 200 and 2,000 times more trash on Henderson now than there was on those neighboring islands back then. Unidentifiable plastic fragments, resin pellets and fishing gear make up the bulk of the total (graphic), but the researchers also came across toothbrushes, baby pacifiers, hard hats, bicycle pedals and a sex toy. Thousands of new items wash up daily and make any cleanup attempt impractical, according to Lavers, who specializes in studying plastic pollution. Meanwhile many of the world's other coastlines could face a similar threat…

Find My Elephant

[These excerpts are from an article by Rachel Nuwer in the August 2017 issue of Scientific American.]

      How does one protect elephants from poachers in an African reserve the size of a small country? This daunting task typically falls to park rangers who may spend weeks patrolling the bush on foot, sometimes lacking basic gear such as radios, tents or even socks. They are largely losing to ivory poachers, as attested by the latest available data on Africa’s two species of elephant, both threatened: savanna elephant populations fell 30 percent between 2007 and 2014, and those of forest elephants plummeted by 62 percent between 2002 and 2011.

      To stem the losses, conservationists are increasingly turning to technology. The latest tool in the arsenal: real-time tracking collars, developed by the Kenya-based nonprofit Save the Elephants and currently being used on more than 325 animals in 10 countries. The organization’s researchers wrote algorithms that use signals from the collars to automatically detect when an animal stops moving (indicating it may be dead), slows down (suggesting it may be injured) or heads toward a danger zone, such as an area known for rampant poaching. Experimental accelerometers embedded in the collars detect aberrant behaviors such as “streaking”—sudden, panicked flight that might signal an attack. Unlike traditional tracking collars, many of which send geographical coordinates infrequently or store them onboard for later retrieval, these devices’ real-time feeds enable rangers to react quickly. In several cases, they have led to arrests….

      An early version of the program is being tested at four sites in Africa, with a 10-site expansion planned for September. At Lewa Wildlife Conservancy in Kenya, DAS is already seen as a game changer after its launch less than a year ago, says Batian Craig, director of 51 Degrees, a private company that oversees security operations at Lewa: “Being able to visualize all this information in one place and in real time makes a massive difference to protected-area managers.”

Aussie Invaders

[These excerpts are from an article by Erin Biba in the August 2017 issue of Scientific American.]

      The Australian government unleashed a strain of a hemorrhagic disease virus into the wild earlier this year, hoping to curb the growth of the continent’s rabbit population. This move might sound barbaric, but the government estimates that the animals—brought by British colonizers in the late 18th century—gnaw through about $115 million in crops every year. And the rabbits are not the only problem. For more than a century Australians have battled waves of invasive species with many desperate measures—including introducing nonnative predators—to limited avail.

      Australia is not the only country with invasive creatures. But because it is an isolated continent, most of its wildlife is endemic—and its top predators are long extinct. This gives alien species a greater opportunity to thrive….But the Tasmanian tiger, the marsupial lion and Megalania (a 1,300-pound lizard) are gone. The only top predator left, the Australian wild dog, or dingo…is under threat from humans because of its predilection for eating sheep.

      Along with rabbits, Australia is trying to fend off red foxes (imported for hunting), feral cats (once kept as pets), carp (brought in for fish farms) and even camels (used for traversing the desert). Wildlife officials have attempted to fight these invaders by releasing viruses, spreading poisons, building thousands of miles of fences, and sometimes hunting from helicopters. In one famous case, the attempted solution became its own problem: the cane toad was introduced in 1935 to prey on beetles that devour sugarcane. But the toads could not climb cane plants to reach the insects and are now a thriving pest species themselves.

      Despite scientists’ protestations, the government plans to introduce another virus later this year to try reducing the out-of-control carp population….

Scientists Can’t Be Silent

[This excerpt is from an editorial by Christopher Coons in the August 4, 2017, issue of Science.]

      In an era of rapid technological change and an increasingly global economy, investments in research and development are crucial for spurring economic growth and sustaining competitiveness. Yet, across the U.S. federal government, scientists are playing a decreasing role in the policy-making that supports this investment, often being pushed out by a political agenda that is stridently anti-science. Meanwhile, Americans are becoming more dis-trustful of democratic institutions, the scientific method, and basic facts—three core beliefs on which the research enterprise depends. The United States remains the unquestioned global leader in science and innovation, but given a White House that disregards the value of science and an American public that questions the very concept of scientific consensus, sustaining the U.S. commitment to science won't happen without a fight.

      Many Americans take for granted the ways in which the United States supports its scientists, but that hasn’t always been the case. Before 1940, the United States had only 13 Nobel laureates in science. Since World War II, however, the country has won over 180 scientific Nobel Prizes, far more than any other nation. That's not a direct proxy for achievement, but it reflects a fundamental change in the way Americans understand the value of research. This transformation didn’t happen by accident. Immigration laws have allowed aspiring scientists from around the world to study and innovate in the United States. Long-term, sustained investments in research and development have been supported by a network of universities, national laboratories, and federal research institutions such as the National Institutes of Health. Strong intellectual property laws have evolved to protect groundbreaking ideas. These efforts haven’t just won Nobel Prizes. Federal investments in diverse scientific and human capital have unleashed economic growth, created tens of millions of jobs, and returned taxpayer money invested many times over.

      Sadly, media headlines (and recent election results) reflect a growing distrust of science and scientists. Look no further than efforts to undermine the nearly unanimous scientific consensus on the impacts of climate change, the use of genetically modified organisms, or the importance of vaccinations. These trends predate the current administration, but President Trump has already taken steps that threaten scientific progress. In its 2018 budget proposal, the White House is seeking to cut overall federal research funding by nearly 17%. Dozens of key scientific positions throughout federal agencies remain unfilled. The administration has sought to shutter innovative programs such as the Department of Energy's Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy.

      How should the scientific enterprise respond? In August 1939, Albert Einstein wrote to President Franklin D. Roosevelt, urging him to monitor the development of atomic weapons and consider new investments and partnerships with universities and industry. Einstein's letter galvanized federal involvement in creating a world-class scientific ecosystem. Scientists today should follow Einstein's lead. They should make the case for science with the public through online communities and in local meetings and media. Scientists should fight for scientific literacy by advocating for science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) education, as well as for women and minorities in STEM fields.

Inevitable or Improbable?

[This book review of “Improbable Destinies,” written by Adrian Woolfson is in the July 28, 2017, issue of Science.]

      In their seminal book Evolution and Healing, Randolph Nesse and George C. Williams describe the design of human bodies as “simultaneously extraordinarily precise and unbelievably slipshod!” Indeed, they conclude that our inconsistencies are so incongruous that one could be forgiven for thinking that we had been “shaped by a prankster.”

      By what agency did this unfortunate state of affairs come into being, and how might we amend it? Gene editing and synthetic biology offer the possibility of, respectively “correcting” or “rewriting” human nature, allowing us to expunge unfavorable aspects of ourselves—such as our susceptibility to diseases and aging—while enabling the introduction of more appealing features. The legitimacy of such enterprises, however, to some extent depends on whether the evolution of humans on Earth was inevitable.

      If our origin and nature were deterministically programmed into life’s history, it would be hard to argue that we should be any other way. If, on the other hand, we are the improbable products of a historically contingent evolutionary process, then human exceptionalism is compromised, and the artificial modification of our genomes may be perceived by some as being less of an affront to the natural order. In his compelling book Improbable Destinies, Jonathan Losos addresses this issue, recasting previous dialogues in the light of an experimental evolutionary agenda and, in so doing, arrives at a novel conclusion.

      Until recently, the evolutionary determinism debate focused on two contrary interpretations of an outcrop of rock located in a small quarry in the Canadian Rocky Mountains known as the Burgess Shale. Contained within the Burgess Shale, and uniquely preserved by as-yet-unknown processes, are the fossilized remains of a bestiary of animals, both skeletal and soft-bodied. These fossils are remarkable in that they appear to have originated in a geological instant 570 to 530 million years ago during the Cambrian. They comprise a bizarre zoo of outlandish body plans, some of which appeared to be unrepresented in living species.

      In his 1989 book Wonderful Life, the Harvard biologist Stephen Jay Gould argued that the apparently arbitrary deletion of distinct body plans in the Cambrian suggests that life's history was deeply contingent, underwritten by multiple chance events. As such, if the tape of life could be rewound back to the beginning and replayed again, it would be vanishingly unlikely that anything like humans would emerge again. The Cambridge paleontologist Simon Conway Morris, on the other hand, would have none of this.

      Citing a long list of examples to illustrate the ubiquity of convergence—the phenomenon whereby unrelated species evolve a similar structure—Conway Morris claimed that the evolution of humanlike organisms would be a near inevitability of any replay. In his scheme, articulated in 2003 in Life’s Solution, nature’s deep self-organizing forces narrowly constrain potential evolutionary outcomes, resulting in a relatively sparse sampling of genetic space.

      Losos closes the loop on this contentious debate, marshaling data from the burgeoning research area of experimental evolution. Unlike Darwin, who perceived the process of evolution to be imperceptibly slow and therefore inaccessible to direct experimentation, contemporary evolutionary biologists have realized that evolution can occur in rapid bursts and may consequently be captured on the wing.

      Given that microbes have an intergenerational time of 20 minutes or less, in 1988, the evolutionary biologist Richard Lenski reasoned that the bacterium Escherichia coli would comprise the perfect model experimental system to study condensed evolutionary time scales. Bacteria could additionally be frozen, allowing multiple parallel replays to be run again and again from any time point in their history. Twenty--eight years and 64,000 bacterial generations later, he concluded that the history of life owes its complexity both to repeatability and contingency.

      Losos and other investigators have demonstrated a similar degree of repeatability in the natural evolution of the Anolis lizard, three-spined sticklebacks, guppies, and deer mice. Importantly, however, when experimental populations evolve in divergent environments, novel outcomes are more commonly observed than convergence.

      These experiments were not a replay of the tape of life in time so much as a replay in space, but the findings were surprising in that they emerged within a relatively short time frame—a far cry from what one might have expected would be necessary to falsify the predictability hypothesis.

      Losos concludes that “both sets of forces—the random and the predictable ... together give rise to what we call history!” With this, humans are humbled once again, cast firmly into the sea of ordered indeterminism. Although he does not attempt to use this as a justification for human genomic modification, Losos argues that the genetic principles underlying life's multifarious convergent solutions might, among other things, be coopted to rescue imperiled species.

Nitrogen Stewardship in the Anthropocene

[These excerpts are from an article by Sybil P. Seitzinger and Leigh Phillips in the July 28, 2017, issue of Science.]

      Nitrogen compounds, mainly from agriculture and sewage, are causing widespread eutrophication of estuaries and coastal waters. Rapid growth of algal blooms can deprive ecosystems of oxygen when the algae decay, with sometimes extensive ecological and economic effects. Nitrogen oxides from fossil fuel combustion also contribute to eutrophication, and nitrous oxide, N2O, is an extremely powerful greenhouse gas (GHG)….climate change is worsening nitrogen pollution, notably coastal eutrophication. The results highlight the urgent need to control nitrogen pollution. Solutions may be found by drawing on decarbonization efforts in the energy sector.

      Increased precipitation and greater frequency and intensity of extreme rainfall events will see increased leaching and run-off—or nitrogen loading—in many agricultural areas….in the Mississippi-Atchafalaya River Basin, a business-as-usual emission scenario leads to an 18% increase in nitrogen loading by the end of the 21st century, driven by projected increases in both total and extreme precipitation. To counter this, a 30% reduction in anthropogenic nitrogen inputs in the region would be required. Farmers here already are trying to achieve a 20% loading reduction target imposed by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), requiring a 32% reduction in nitrogen inputs to the land. To offset the climate-induced boost to nitrogen pollution in addition to meeting this target would thus require a 62% reduction in nitrogen inputs, a colossal challenge for any farmer.

      …regions with historically substantial rainfall, high nitrogen inputs, and projected robust increases in rainfall are most likely to experience increased coastal nitrogen loading. This includes great swaths of east, south, and southeast Asia, India, and China—regions where coastal eutrophication already occurs.

      Solutions to coastal eutrophication and climate change are closely intertwined. To stay below a 2°C increase in global average temperature will require attaining net zero GHG emissions soon after mid-century. To achieve this goal, fossil fuel combustion must plummet, thus also reducing production, deposition, and consequent eutrophication due to nitrogen oxides associated with fossil fuel combustion. However, nitrogen and carbon GHG emissions from agriculture (such as N2O and CH4) are some of the most difficult to reduce. In the energy sector, humanity needs to perform one action: Stop burning fossil fuels. And, at least in principle, there are clean-energy alternatives. In agriculture, many different actions are required. There is no alternative to eating.

      Nevertheless, we can begin to structure our thinking about solutions for the sector in a way that mirrors the fuel-switching solutions for other GHG sources-a rule of thumb that everyone from policy-makers to farmers, communities, and even children can comprehend and help put into practice….

      Although the challenges are great, successful commercialization of technologies currently in development and increased nitrogen efficiency in agriculture could help to reduce the pressures on coastal ecosystems and to reduce GHG emissions while permitting increased production to feed a growing population. There is potentially an exciting optimistic story to be told about global nitrogen stewardship in the Anthropocene.

We Still Need to Beat HIV

[These excerpts are from an editorial by Francois Dabis and Linda-Gail Bekker in the July 28, 2017, issue of Science.]

      Despite remarkable advances in HIV treatment and prevention, the limited political will and leadership in many countries—particularly in West and Central Africa and Eastern Europe—have fallen short of translating these gains into action. As a result, nearly 2 million infections occurred in 2016, creating a situation that is challenging to counter. This week in Paris, the International AIDS Society (IAS) convened researchers, health experts, and policy-makers to discuss the global state of this epidemic. It has been more than three decades since AIDS was clinically observed and associated with HIV infection. Since then, HIV has accounted for 35 million deaths worldwide. Today, about 37 million people are infected. IAS and the French Research Agency on HIV and Viral Hepatitis (ANRS) have now released the Paris Statement…to remind world leaders why HIV science matters, how it should be strengthened, and why it should be funded globally and durably so that new evidence can be translated into policy.

      The good news is that scientific breakthroughs have led to new biomedical interventions and practices and, consequently, substantive reductions in morbidity, mortality, and new infections. Full-scale implementation of these new measures could eliminate HIV/AIDS as a health crisis. The bad news is that this effort is fragile because funding is under threat, health care systems of many countries are not equipped to deliver, and political will and leadership are lacking. Even if current efforts reduce new infections by 90% over the next decade, there would still be 200,000 new infections each year, with a worldwide lifelong treatment target of 40 million individuals living with HIV.

      Antiretroviral therapy (ART) has been the catalyst for change in how HIV infection is treated and prevented. A single, once-a-day, multidrug tablet, with few side effects, has converted HIV from a death sentence to a chronic, manageable disease for millions. It reduces viral levels so that the risk of transmission plummets. ART also has made mother-to-child transmission a rare event in many places. Pre-exposure prophylaxis and voluntary male circumcision have joined other behavioral measures (condom promotion, universal testing, and lifestyle changes) as cornerstones of prevention. Yet, ART is a lifelong and costly regime, and many people in the developed and the developing world cannot access it. Many nations do not have the health care infrastructure or the community engagement to support the robust new ways to prevent transmission or diagnose infection. Although we have come far, the benefits of these new approaches are not universal….

      Containment of this infectious disease is attainable. We encourage all to join in the global advocacy for HIV/ AIDS research and development.

Charlottesville, VA

[This letter to the MIT community was sent out on the morning of August 15, 2017, by L. Rafael Real, the President of MIT.]

      History teaches us that human beings are capable of evil. When we see it, we must call it what it is, repudiate it and reject it.

      This weekend in Charlottesville, Virginia, we witnessed a strand of hatred. White supremacy and anti-Semitism, whether embodied by neo-Nazis, the Ku Klux Klan or others, are bankrupt ideologies with a wicked aim as plain as our need to repel it.

      The United States must remain a country of freedom, tolerance and liberty for all. To keep that promise, it must always remain a place where those who hold radically opposing views can voice them. However, when an ideology contends that some people are less human than others, and when that ideology commands violence in the name of racial purity, we must reject that ideology as evil.

      I write to you this morning because I believe that the events of this weekend embody a threat of direct concern to our community.

      A great glory of the United States is the enduring institutions and ideals of our civil society. The independent judiciary. The free press. The universities. Free speech. The rule of law. The belief that we are all created equal. Each one reinforces and draws strength from the others. When those pillars come under attack, society is endangered. I believe we all have a responsibility to protect them—with a sense of profound gratitude for the freedoms they guarantee.

      At MIT, let us with one voice reject hatred—whatever its form. Let us unite in mourning those who lost their lives to this struggle in Charlottesville. And let us work for goodwill among us all.

Territory

[These excerpts are from chapter 6 of The Parable of the Beast by John N. Bleibtreu.]

      Domestic animals have, over the course of their domestication, lost much of their reliance on territory for subsistence and mating opportunities. Any wild animal removed from its territory and placed in another, even though the new area may be superficially identical, undergoes a great emotional crisis. Zoo animals transported from a cage in a zoo in one city to a cage in another may often, in their fright and panic, do themselves physical injury, or go through a long period of weight loss and apathy in their new quarters. Fully adult animals, caught in the wild and brought into captivity, often do not survive this combined shock of losing a familiar ecological territory and all the rituals of behavior that are enacted within it. For a successful life in captivity, wild animals must be captured young before their patterns of life become enmeshed with that of their familiar territory. Domestic animals can be transported around from one racetrack or show ring to another with a minimum of psychic injury. This is also true of wild circus animals, which have never been allowed to become familiar with any special territory and must adapt to being without any territory whatever from an early age. But once an animal has become accustomed to a territory, even the reduced territory of a zoo cage, it is hard indeed for it to adjust to a new territory.

      Most mammals affiliate themselves with their environment by means of chemical sense-impressions—exceptions being the higher primates including man, and such marine mammals as whales, porpoises, seals, etc., and the occasional special case like the giraffe whose scent receptor is removed by height from likely contact with scent traces in its territory.

      They identify their territories by scent markers, which they deposit themselves. The systems of scent markings vary with their relative usefulness to the animal concerned. For those so constructed as to be able to travel fairly rapidly while at the same time keeping their noses to the ground (as for instance foxes, wolves, jackals, cats, hippopotamuses and rhinoceroses), scent traces are deposited on the ground. The most convenient scent traces are the feces and urine of the animal concerned. One “housebreaks” a domestic dog or cat by defining its territory in relation to that of its master. The interior of the house is the master’s territory, the animal's territorial orientation accommodates to this fact and it restricts its fecal and urinary marking to its own territory elsewhere. Primates (including human infants) are notoriously difficult to housebreak. Territorial affiliation is not directly connected with olfactory marking, though a good case can be made for the persistence of marking habits, which among normal humans consist of optical markings (initials, etc.). In pathological mental states, however, they may well revert to fecal or urinary marking rituals.

      The treatment of feces and urine vary as usual with the species. Hippopotamuses and rhinoceroses distribute their feces; hippopotamuses with the special musculature of their tails, which whirl almost like miniature propellers. The rhinoceros roots about in his feces pile with his horn, distributing it and giving rise to an African legend that the rhinoceros has lost his horn in his feces and attempts to find it again—a legend that should be of some curious interest to depth psychologists, especially in view of the symbolic connection, which appears repeatedly in many cultures associating the horn of the rhinoceros and human priapean energy. For many years, because of the fame of the rhinoceros’ horn as an aphrodisiac, it was hunted hard, almost to the point of extinction, vast prices being paid in China particularly, for powdered rhinoceros horn….

      We still possess, in the structure of our shoulder bones and muscles, evidence that our ancestors were arboreal. The baboon, a terrestrial monkey, cannot hang from his arms as we can. Anthropologists surmise that our human ancestors, possibly several species of apes rather than merely one apish ancestor, descended from the trees at some later time than did the ancestors of the modern baboons. Fecal marking is not very useful to arboreal creatures; some of the lemurs mark with urine, others with special scent glands usually located under the tail. But in the higher reaches of the primate order, territories are established by visual recognition, a form almost unique among mammals.

      That traces of territorial marking instincts still persist among humans can be established by a wealth of detail. For example the “Kilroy Was Here” drawings of World War II are undoubtedly territorial markings. The keepers of public monuments fight a losing battle against the scrawled, carved, scratched legends that visitors leave. But perhaps the most directly territorial marking by humans is the urinal graffiti. As with animals, it is the male of the human species who is the most ardent marker; and the compulsion to mark insulting legends on the walls of urinals seemingly transects all economic classes and educational levels. We have all seen graffiti on walls where we should never expect to see them, in universities and exclusive clubs. Mating area markings are a commonplace among animals. Among tigers the female leaves a special urine trace on the male’s marking spot as a sexual invitation, and on their next encounter he is prepared for her presentation. Among humans the park benches and tree trunks adjoining a popular assignation area are overlaid with a mosaic of carved initials often joined with Cupid’s arrow and enclosed within the outline of a heart.

      Among humans the association between the related ideas of geographic and personal possession is demonstrated by the word property, which includes both real estate and personal belongings. For young American males of mating age the first territorial possession is not a geographic area but an automobile, the sexual significance of which is well understood by manufacturers and their advertising agents. In this respect the behavior of the American male is not very different from that of many birds and mammals. The acquisition of a territory is an indispensable commencement for any courtship activity. The American male must often get a car before he can get a mate.

Earthworms

[This excerpt is from chapter 5 of The Parable of the Beast by John N. Bleibtreu.]

      Space is far more subjectively appreciated by organisms than is time, which passes for us all, great beasts and tiny animalcules alike, in roughly the same way, since the circuit of the earth, the alternation of light and dark, affects all living things on this planet, directly or indirectly. The drive of an animal to acquire time by flight is readily seen by the most casual observer. The drive to acquire space is not quite so easily or readily seen. The discovery that there is no form of life that does not manifest some behavior that could be considered territorial has only lately come to the attention of biologists. Laboratory psychologists have been concerned with the functional basis of comparative systems of space perception, but even though von Uexkiill pondered the problem in the beginning of this century, the various behaviors by which the organism expressed this perception in its natural environment was slow in coming.

      In an attempt to discover whether the basic element of space-perception, form, was perceived as such by the eyeless earthworm, von Uexkiill performed an experiment based on an observation of Darwin’s. “Darwin early pointed out,” wrote von Uexkiill, “that the earthworm drags leaves and pine needles into its narrow cave. They serve it both for protection and for food. Most leaves spread out if one tries to pull them into a narrow tube petiole [stem] foremost. On the other hand, they roll up easily and offer no resistance if seized at the tip. Pine needles on the other hand, which always fall in pairs, must be grasped at their base, not their tip, if they are to be dragged into narrow holes with ease.

p style="text-indent: 40px;">       “It was inferred from the earthworm's spontaneously correct handling of leaves and needles that the form of these objects which plays a decisive part in its effector world must exist as a receptor in its perceptual world.

      “This assumption has been proven false. It was possible to show that identical small sticks dipped in gelatine were pulled into the earthworms’ holes indiscriminately by either end. But as soon as one end was covered with powder from the tip of a dried cherry leaf, the other with powder from its base, the earthworms differentiated between the two ends of the stick exactly as they do between the tip and base of the leaf itself. Although earthworms handle leaves in keeping with their form, they are not guided by the shape, but by the taste of the leaves. This arrangement has evidently been adopted for the reason that the receptor organs of earthworms are built too simply to fashion sensory cues of shape. This example shows how nature is able to overcome difficulties which seem to us utterly insurmountable.”


You can see a video on earthworm activity at night by IMPACT Product Development at
ACTIVE EARTHWORMS
Insect Chemicals

[This excerpt is from chapter 5 of The Parable of the Beast by John N. Bleibtreu.]

      …Since what was known about chemical communication systems suggested that they transmitted information via a binary code, Butler hypothesized the following sequence: If the absence of the queen-chemical produced certain behaviors, then her presence, and the presence of this chemical inhibited these behaviors. The logic may seem odd when related to human behavior, but one could say about humans that if the absence of oxygen produces suffocation, then the presence of oxygen inhibits suffocation.

      Suspecting, from the delay in the communal reaction to the presence or absence of the queen, that chemical information about her presence or absence was transmitted along with food particles from bee to bee in the ritual act of food sharing, Butler's first step was to exclude other factors which could conceivably be operative. In one adroit experiment he proved that neither the sight of the queen in the flesh, nor sounds made by her, nor a generalized scent exuded by her which might have pervaded the entire hive, informed the colony of her presence. He enclosed the queen in her own colony within a double-walled cage of wire mesh, through which no other bee could make physical contact with her. Within a matter of hours, though the members of the colony could see her, hear her, and smell her, the colony reacted with the classic symptoms of queen loss.

      Butler’s next step was to begin a detailed study of the various kinds of physical contact exchanged between the queen and the members of her colony. The queen is normally surrounded by a suite or an entourage. These words are the technical terms used to describe this social arrangement—a refreshing change from the usual run of bastardized Latin generally employed in scientific usage. This entourage generally contains ten or twelve nurses. Butler wished first to determine whether these nurses composed a special caste within the colony, or whether any worker bee could perform nurse duties. To this end he removed the queen with a forceps, placing her in various random locations within the hive. Each time this was done, the suite disbanded us the queen was removed, the nurses going about other worker tasks immediately, while at the new location a new suite formed itself around the queen immediately. In order to gather harder statistics (the kind that impress other scientists), he repeated the basic experiment, except that instead of using crude forceps he devised a complicated, electrically-powered transport cage, which moved the queen about the hive according to a predetermined pace. Using this procedure, he demonstrated that information concerning the presence of the queen was trans-mitted via the nurses who comprised her entourage to other bees via ritual food sharing, and from these others to still others, until, like a chain letter, the number of bees receiving a chemical trace of the queen’s presence, multiplied geometrically.

      The suite of the queen bee surrounds her completely. The bees directly in front of the queen feed her continuously. Those bees to her rear and sides stroke and caress her with their antennae or lick at her with their proboscises. Butler discovered that those bees who caressed the queen with their antennae then touched antennae with other members of the colony when they exchanged food. Those who fed the queen took in this queen substance via their proboscises and distributed it in the same way to others during food sharing. In 1962, ten years after Ribbands had stimulated his curiosity, Butler finally isolated the queen bee substance. He found that it was produced by the mandibular glands of the queen, and distributed all over her body through the act of grooming. The molecule, as he finally identified it, had a remarkable chemical resemblance to the ovary-inhibiting hormone of prawns. Butler, suspecting that its ovary-atrophying effects might well work on other phyla, experimented with various arthropods and vertebrates in hopes that this substance might be a hormone of universal application, but sorrowfully, he found no support for this supposition.

      It would be very interesting to discover whether or not the literal communication entity transmits an identical meaning across phylum barriers; whether, in effect, certain words in the chemical language mean the same thing to different classes of animals. In some instances—we know that they do. Insect alarm signals, the chemical exudations which comprise warning signals, are grossly similar in classes of insects. This seems to be generally true in animal communication. Courtship signals, for example, whether auditory, visual (behavioral), chemical, or a combination, seem to be highly specific. No other bird will respond affirmatively to a blue jay's courtship call, except another blue jay. But almost all the birds and mammals within range of its alarm call will respond alertly as the blue jay shrieks its warning through the woods. The same is true of insect chemical communication, and because of this it was possible for humans to devise insect repellents (which are essentially distillations of insect chemical alarm signals) which are effective across a wide spectrum of genera. The average personal insect repellent acts upon such a disparate collection of creatures as chiggers, ticks, and mosquitoes, perhaps others as well.

Gypsy Moth

[Thise excerpt is from chapter 5 of The Parable of the Beast by John N. Bleibtreu.]

      During the summer of 1869 a French painter and amateur naturalist named Leopold Trouvelot took a house for the season in Medford, Massachusetts—at 27 Myrtle Street, to be exact. The address has become notorious in the annals of entomology. M. Trouvelot wanted to do some illustrations of silkworms in various stages of their development, and to that end had imported several eggs from Europe. He left them on a table in his work-room and waited for the larvae to emerge. It must have been a warm summer, and the table on which the eggs were located must have been near a window. Perhaps the rustling of a curtain blowing in the wind brushed them from M. Trouvelot’s worktable and out the window into the yard. M. Trouvelot missed the eggs on the afternoon of their disappearance and made efforts to find them, for among the eggs were several belonging to a European moth, Porthera dispar, known in England as the gypsy moth, perhaps because the color of the wings of the male imago resemble the color of tanned, windburned skin. Knowing full well this moth’s European reputation as a destroyer of leafy trees, M. Trouvelot “gave public notice of [the eggs’] disappearance.” It was a pity that the public took no notice at the time.

      Within two years of this event, a vigorous colony of the moths had established itself on Myrtle Street and the citizens of the town of Medford found themselves living in a nightmare.

      There was a public hearing sometime later at which citizens spoke of their impressions of that summer of 1871. One Mrs. Belcher reported as follows: “My sister cried out one day, ‘They [the caterpillars] are marching up the street!’ I went to the front door and sure enough the street was black with them coming across from my neighbor, Mrs. Clifford, and heading straight for our yard.”

      A Mrs. Spinner stated: “I lived in Cross Street . . . and in June of that year [1871] I was out of town for three days. When I went away the trees in our yard were in splendid condition and there was not a sign of insect devastation upon them. When I returned there was scarcely a leaf upon the trees. The gypsy moth caterpillars were over everything.” A neighbor of Mrs. Spinner, Mr. D. M. Richardson, said: “The gypsy moth appeared in Spinner's place in Cross Street and after stripping the trees there, started across the street. It was about five o'clock in the evening that they started across in a great flock and they left a plain path across the road. They struck into the first apple tree in our yard and the next morning I took four quarts of cater-pillars off one limb.” Mrs. Hamlin continues: “When they got their growth, these caterpillars were bigger than your little finger and would crawl very fast. It seemed as if they could go from here to Park Street in less than half an hour.”

      Mr. Sylvester Lacy reported that: “I lived in Spring Street . . . and the place simply teemed with them and I used to fairly dread going down the street to the station. It was like running a gauntlet. I used to turn up my coat collar and run down the middle of the street. One morning in particular, I remember that I was completely covered with caterpillars inside my coat as well as out. The street trees were completely stripped down to the bark. . . . The worst place on Spring Street was at the houses of Messrs Plunket and Harman. The fronts of these houses were black with caterpillars and the sidewalks were a sickening sight, covered as they were with the crushed bodies of the pest.”

      The destruction in Medford was horrible. The landscape looked like a burned-out battlefield. In their desperation the insects had devoured even the grasses down to the bare dirt. The Massachusetts National Guard was called out to drench the countryside with Paris green, an arsenic compound. Artillery caissons were converted into spray wagons, but the moths continued to flourish.

      The plague spread very slowly. Female moths, though they did not appear markedly different from the males, are flightless. When they emerge from the pupa case, they can crawl only a few feet away from the spot where they are sought out by flying males and fertilized, so the new generation of eggs is laid not far from the previous spot.

      Dr. Charles Fernald, the resident entomologist at the Massachusetts State Agricultural Station at Hatch, was the first professional zoologist to become involved with the moth. He was not at home when the first delegation of citizens from Medford appeared on his doorstep with specimens of the caterpillar and the moth. His wife searched vainly through his collection of American moths in an attempt to identify the animal, and it was finally his young son who discovered Linnaeus’ original description of the moth in a European book. Fernald found the havoc caused by the moth utterly incredible until he performed some tests of his own with lettuce leaves and found that a fully mature caterpillar would consume well over ten square inches of foliage in one twenty-four hour feeding period.

      He wondered how the male moths located their flightless females. Was it random accident? The vernacular name for the moth in France was “Zigzag,” which described accurately their erratic, wavering flight. Fernald suspected there might be some truth to the folklore account that it was a scent exuded by the female which attracted the males, and that their lumbering flight pattern had evolved in response to this need. In traveling from one point to another the moth lumbers wildly off course, to and fro and up and down: it would thus more likely encounter air-borne scent traces than if it flew sharp and straight like a swallow.

      Fernald devised a trap, a wire-mesh box with a funnel entrance, which would admit insects but not permit them exit, and using live females for bait, he attracted numbers of males into it. He began using these traps as a gauge of infestation in any given area. By placing the traps in an open location and leaving them for several days, he could get an impression of the population density from the number of males captured. By this time the plague of caterpillars had spread from Medford to other Massachusetts towns, probably carried by travelers such as Mr. Lacy who dreaded going to the railroad station covered with caterpillars, but went nonetheless.

      In all of this work by Fernald and in the work to follow, there was very little of the philosophical speculation which so marked the studies stimulated by von Uexkiill or even Marston Bates working with his anopheles. It was all eminently practical. By 1915 the moths had spread as far north as Maine, and in August of that year entomologists had become curious about the range of this sex attractant. Traps containing live females were placed on several uninhabited islands off the coast of Maine, in Casco Bay. In one trap placed on Outer Green Island, better than two miles from the nearest moth, and left there for three weeks, two males were found when it was retrieved. In another trap placed on Billingsgate Island off the coast of Cape Cod, four males were found, though this trap was two and a quarter miles from the nearest point of infestation.

      To assure themselves that these males had actually flown the distance and not been blown by winds into the general vicinity of the traps, follow-up tests were conducted in a closed, airstill room twelve by fourteen feet, and the moth’s flight speed was timed at approximately 150 feet per minute. Virgin males rarely flew uninterruptedly for much more than a mile before alighting, but a small number of sexually experienced males flew constantly for several days, covering well over two miles before eventually collapsing in death.

      This is curious in that prior sexual experience would seem to be a powerful motivating force for males. Fernald timed a number of gypsy moth copulations and reported that they ranged in time from twenty-five minutes to three hours and eighteen minutes, with the average time being about one and a quarter hours. He writes that “after mating, the male is quite stupid but in about one-half hour regains his normal activity” and is quite eager to mate again.

      The next episode in the annals of the study of the sex stuff of the gypsy moth is almost comic in its foolishness. For the amount of sophisticated effort that was lavished upon obtaining the information, very little was finally learned. But the gigantic power of the United States Government was now bent upon the project, and the elephant labored to produce the mouse. By 1927 the gypsy moth was no longer a regional problem; it had become a national concern, and the United States Department of Agriculture was asked to aid in its control.

      It was imperative now for the Government to obtain a census of the moth. Fernald’s system of using live females as bait in traps was considered too dangerous : if, through some inadvertence a fertile female should escape, the horrors of Medford might be re-enacted somewhere else. Two government entomologists, Charles W. Collins and Samuel F. Potts, were assigned the task of devising an extract of female scent to be used for bait. After dissecting thousands of moths and baiting traps with sections of tissue taken from various parts of the female anatomy, they finally discovered (not to anyone's great surprise) that the scent was produced in the tissues immediately surrounding the female genitalia, particularly the area immediately surrounding the opening of the copulatory pouch. But though the Government contracted the services of several eminent university chemistry professors, no one was able to isolate and identify the chemical responsible. However, the Government is obsessed with the establishment of standards and specifications, and the notion of utilizing female genitalia (even if only that of a moth) as official United States Government equipment must have been repellent to the authorities in charge of the program, for thirty years were spent in the attempt to isolate the chemical in its pure form. Finally in 1960 three chemists, Martin Jacobson, Morton Beroza, and William A. Jones, working at the Beltsville, Maryland, United States Government Agricultural Research Station, succeeded. They had dissected the genitalia of well over half a million female moths in order to determine the official specifications for the scent bait to be used in United States Government gypsy moth census traps. For the record, the name of the chemical is dextrorotatory-10-acetox-y-I-hydroxy-cis-7- hexadecene.


You can see a video on gypsy moths by YouTube at
GYPSY MOTHS
Marine Worms

[This excerpt is from chapter 5 of The Parable of the Beast by John N. Bleibtreu.]

      Since the most primitive existing organisms inhabit the sea, one of the earliest and most curious studies of chemical communication was conducted by two marine biologists, Frank Lillie and Ernest Everett just, in 1913. One summer night during the dark of the moon they set out from the Woods Hole Biological Laboratory in a rowboat with a carbide lamp swinging from the bow. They wanted to know more about a most peculiar phenomenon, the swarms of minute marine worms which covered the surface of the sea at certain times like a red carpet, rising and falling in the gentle ocean swell. Lillie wrote the report: “The swarming usually begins with the appearance of a few males, readily distinguished by their red anterior segments and their white sexual segments darting rapidly through the water in round paths in and out of the circle of light cast by the lantern. The much larger females then begin to appear, usually in small numbers, swimming laboriously through the water. Both sexes rapidly increase in numbers during the next fifteen minutes and in an hour or an hour and a half all have disappeared into the night.” Lillie and Just imagined that this assembly was connected with reproduction. Males and females were obviously swollen with sperm and eggs; but they were unable to observe the mating act under these field conditions, so they captured several specimens and brought them back to the laboratory, putting them in separate containers to see what would happen. They believed it likely that a lunar rhythm controlled both the assembly and the actual spawning activity. They wanted to see whether the females dropped their eggs first, to be fertilized immediately thereafter by the males shedding sperm, or whether perhaps the sequence would be reversed. But they were disappointed. Nothing happened until, as is so often the case in science, there was a procedural accident. “One day,” Lillie writes, “a male was dropped accidentally into a bowl of seawater which had previously contained a female. He immediately began to shed sperm and swam round and round the bowl very rapidly casting sperm until the entire 200 cubic centimeters was opalescent.” The female had obviously left some chemical trace of her presence in the water, which stimulated the male. But the female had not previously shed any eggs into this water. Lillie then placed a female in the bowl in which the male had shed his sperm, and the female immediately cast her eggs. Lillie and Just were unable to extract or identify this substance. They did determine, however, that it was highly species-specific. The worm they worked with was Nereis limbata, and when they attempted to repeat the experiment with closely related species of worms, there was no response. This particular chemical language was understood only by N. limbata. No other worm could comprehend it. In 1951 a team. of German biochemists attempted to analyze this (as they called it) "sex stuff:" without too much success. They did discover that it was a protein substance which oozed out from the entire body of the egg-bearing female. This stimulates the male into shedding sperm. Chemical elements in the semen stimulate the female into casting her eggs into this floating mass of sperm. The system is very effective. It does not require any auditory or visual communication system.

Malaria and Mosquitoes

[These excerpts are from chapter 4 of The Parable of the Beast by John N. Bleibtreu.]

      No less an authority than Sir William Osier, the famous British physician and medical historian, has called malaria “the single greatest destroyer of mankind,” and considering the vast array of ills that human flesh is heir to, including the malice of other humans, the odd little parasite which produces the disease has accomplished a remarkable record. It may yet prove to have been the single greatest destroyer of vertebrates generally, and therefore one of the most potent pruning hooks of the natural selection process, for contrary to popular notion, it is neither restricted to the tropic zones nor to warm-blooded mammals. Fish, reptiles (particularly lizards), and birds have all been discovered suffering from the disease. It has spread so far from the tropics, which may well have been its original birthplace, that penguins living well below the Antarctic circle have been discovered suffering from the disease. Though in this latter instance, instead of a mosquito vector being the intermediate host, a louse or mite is suspected of carrying the parasite.

      Several authorities believe it has had an incalculable effect on human history, particularly the development of modern civilizations in the temperate zones where there is a shorter summer activity season for the adult female mosquito. The disease is also considered partially responsible for the decline of several great Mediterranean cultures, particularly that of Athens, between the fifth and third centuries B.C., where the literature abounds with excellent clinical descriptions of the classic symptoms. It may have worked analogously in other animal phyla, sapping its victims of energy, creating brain damage with resulting sluggish neurological reactions, so that many populations of animals which were superbly fitted to cope with other elements of their environment may have perished because of their inability to withstand the ravages of this disease. Paul F. Russell, Chairman of the World Health Organization's Committee on Malaria, estimates that the total number of contemporary cases of human malaria, as recently as 1952, ran about 350 million, or roughly 6.3 per cent of the world’s population….

      In its vertebrate host, the animal produces the major portion of its population inside the red blood corpuscles. There is a little-understood transitional phase when the animal enters the host and resides in one of the organs (the spleen and liver are favored locations in primates), and there may be some reproduction—enough to give the population a start—somewhere other than in the red blood cell. But this latter location is where the vast bulk of the population resides. The red corpuscles are living cells shaped like a concave disk, composed mainly of hemoglobin. They are produced by specialized cells within the marrow of the long bones of the body. The corpuscles live for about fifty to seventy days, and upon dying, their corpses are destroyed by processes occurring in the liver, the spleen, and the lymph nodes. These latter organs are the first to suffer from the effects of the disease. They become enlarged and overworked in an attempt to cope with the increased mortality of corpuscles, and if the parasite population is not stabilized by one means or another, they ultimately fail in their functions. But before this happens, other unpleasant effects are felt. Hemoglobin, the stuff on which the parasite lives, is an oxygen transport material transferring the oxygen taken in by the lungs to the various body tissues requiring it. If a person dies of malaria, his body literally smothers to death. The capillaries become distended, clogged with dead and dying cells, blood flow is impeded, and the brain—one of the most voracious users of oxygen—will be damaged by oxygen deprivation. If the damage is not too extensive, the brain can transfer functions from destroyed tissues to intact ones, but in many cases of malaria fatality, the mortal blow to the individual was dealt in the brain itself.

      The parasite enters into its vertebrate host as a tiny hairlike creature, called a sporozoite, which matured within the stomach of a female mosquito. The sporozoite is injected into the vertebrate as the mosquito spits its irritating saliva into the wound created by its proboscis mouth. In the late nineteenth century Alphonse Laveran, a French medical officer stationed in a military hospital in Algeria, first discovered the creature. Considering the tremendous technological advances which have occurred since then, surprisingly little more is known about the parasite….

      The crescent bodies which Laveran described were the asexually reproducing forms of the protozoa now known as schizonts. This schizont form is the one that the animal assumes to best exploit its vertebrate host. As it grows within the red blood cell, it produces forms called pseudopodia—literally false feet—which grow out in seemingly haphazard fashion from any part of the original schizont until the cell is completely filled with this Medusa-head mesh of living matter. These false feet now break away from one another; and as this happens they are given another name, merozoites. They become active as a swarm of snakes, and the blood cell ruptures under the pressure of their writhing. This cycle may take anywhere from one to three or four days—the period required is one of the species criteria. As the corpuscle ruptures, the merozoites escape into the surrounding plasma and each one actively squirms its way into another cell. Sometimes, if the population is dense, two or three may enter a single cell, but in that case future growth is stunted. The number of these merozoites which derive from any given schizont is also a species criterion. In the most virulent human form of the disease, the production averages about sixteen merozoites per schizont.

      Almost the entire population of parasites reproduces simultaneously; this causes the classic symptoms of malaria—a sudden chill which leaves the victim blue-lipped and shaking with an ague which can last a few minutes or an hour, and which is followed immediately by a furious rise in temperature, up to 107°F, often accompanied by delirium, frightful aches in the bones, vomiting, etc. This paroxysm ends after about four hours, and is followed by a relatively tranquil sweating stage during which the patient may fall into an exhausted sleep. The victim may then be relatively without symptoms until the next period of schizont reproduction, which occurs two or three or four days hence, depending on the species of parasite. The majority of these paroxysms occur, at least in the tropic forms of malaria, after midnight and before dawn. The reproductive cycle of the parasites is tuned to the favored time for the mosquitoes to seek out food. In temperate zones, or locations where the mosquitoes feed in the daytime or early evening, the symptoms of the disease occur then.

      For some reason that we still do not understand, a few members of this parasite population do not assume the asexual schizont form. These are the “oval forms” described by Laveran, and it is in their interest that the cycle of the schizonts occurs when it does, during the mosquito's favored feeding time, for if these oval forms remain in the blood of a vertebrate they will perish. They are sexual animals, and in order to complete their mating activities, they require a special setting, the unique and particular environment that obtains within the gut of a female mosquito. Not any mosquito—but a particular species of mosquito—and it was this host preference of the malaria parasite that led obtuse human entomologists to separate into species categories several populations of anopheles mosquitoes that had appeared identical.

      The particular set of conditions which prevail within the mosquito gut have never been reproduced in the laboratory, so no one has any idea what these requirements may be. But the full cycle of parasite mating activities can only occur in this setting. Some of the preliminary transformations of these oval forms into free-living sexual animals can occur outside the mosquito’s gut—on a microscope slide—though it is not believed that they can occur in the bloodstream of the vertebrate host. The transformation happens fairly quickly, within a span of ten minutes or so. Some of the oval bodies contain male spermatazoa; they burst, rupturing the corpuscle as they do, and releasing a swarm of swallow-tailed sperm into the surrounding plasma. These active creatures, which swim about lashing their double tails, are known as microgametes. The other oval bodies are females. Under the microscope, if one is careful about the staining procedures, one can differentiate between the two types of oval bodies. One can sometimes see within the oval envelope which surrounds the microgametes the compressed community of males, swarming and writhing, at least at a certain stage of maturity shortly before the males are released.

      The female oval bodies, known as macrogametocytes, appear dense and more coherent; they also grow larger and finally explode out from the cell which surrounds them through the sheer increase in bulk. Once released from the blood cell they are mobile, capable of some movement; given a surface to cling to, they screw themselves about with a hideous scrunching worm-like movement. In the mosquito gut, and occasionally on a microscope slide, they will develop still further, growing an odd humping protuberance, which seems to exert an attraction for the males. If any microgametocyte finds himself in the vicinity of this hump, he lashes himself toward it and enters it like a battering ram. Then genetic materials are exchanged and the female is fertilized. As this happens, she becomes endowed by scientists with still another name, oocyte, and from this point on any further development must occur within the gut of an appropriate species of mosquito.

      As the mosquito sucks up its meal of blood, it takes into its gut, along with the sexual forms of plasmodium, the asexual forms, schizonts and any free-swimming merozoites which happen to be about. These creatures are digested along with the ingested vertebrate’s blood. Only the sexual forms resist digestion.

      After being fertilized, the female screws herself deeply into the mosquito’s gut wall where, if conditions are proper, she will be enclosed within a cyst. She now grows to a huge size, large enough to be visible to the naked eye. She mushrooms through the mosquito’s gut wall, and continues growing from the other, outer, side. Dissecting a mosquito to remove the gut is not as difficult a procedure as may be imagined. It can be done by anyone who knows the trick with two ordinary pins on any smooth surface. The gut comes right out like a tiny piece of brown spaghetti, and the mature oocytes can clearly be seen protruding like mushrooms on small stalks from its outer wall. Eventually these oocytes burst, releasing a horde of small hairlike animals similar in appearance to microgametes. But their lashing tails, instead of extending from the rear of the body, extend fore and aft; the creature looks like a transparent snake with its opaque head carried amidships. The sporozoites now swim actively around within the fluids inside the mosquito’s body cavities until eventually some of them enter the salivary glands. Once there they seem content to remain even though, after a period of time, the population may become quite dense. There they collect and wait for the mosquito to spit them out along with its irritating saliva into the body of a vertebrate animal.

      It is believed by some malariologists that sporozoites have the ability to penetrate tissue, finding their way into the nearest capillary by burrowing right through the flesh. It is conceivably possible for a person to contract malaria even if he is not bitten by a mosquito—even if he squashes the insect on his skin before it has a chance to bite, the sporozoites may still be able to enter into his bloodstream and infect him. Once in the bloodstream the parasites migrate rapidly to the liver or the spleen (in the case of primates), where they begin reproducing and eventually the population spills out into the red blood cells where the parasites travel throughout the body as a whole, each enclosed in its hospitable capsule, a red blood cell.

      Interesting as this recital of the malaria parasite sequence may be, both in itself and as an example of parasitic adaptation, it may still seem far removed from the species problem. Yet it was largely through the concerted efforts of several malariologists that the modern “sexual” concept of the species, the so-called New Systematics, developed. Mounting field trips into remote areas with special equipment to study animal sexual relationships is an expensive business. While involved in their mating activities, many animals are peculiarly vulnerable to predators; they make strenuous efforts to accomplish the mating act under conditions of great privacy—in darkness, in inaccessible locations, etc.—and at this time more than any other, they resist observation.

      But since detailed and intimate knowledge of the entire generative cycle of both the mosquito and its infectious parasitic passenger was of such crucial importance to the health of mankind, no expense was spared in sending men and equipment anywhere in the world where the mosquito was suspected to exist so that all the information possible about the mosquito’s habits generally, its round of daily activities—its feeding habits, resting habits, those habits connected with copulation and oviposition—could be obtained for the purpose of destroying the mosquito more effectively and economically; and with their destruction, hopefully, control of the disease they carry.

      As with most blood-sucking insects, it is the female who requires the blood for the maturation of her eggs. The male anopheles drinks the juices of plants and fruits. In the laboratory it feeds happily on apples and raisins; the skins of these fruits represent the limit of the penetrating powers of its proboscis, which is blunter and more flaccid than the female’s.

      The female proboscis is a complicated instrument composed of comparatively rigid members—the jaws, which have grown together into a tube during the course of evolution. The lips remain flexible members; the insect uses them as a retractable guide-sleeve while introducing the proboscis into tissue--for the act of biting is an introduction, an insinuation; it is not a stab. The tip of the proboscis, for the final third of its length, is more flexible than the rest; something like the tip of a fishing rod, and once the main entrance into the tissue has been made, this tip searches for a capillary at an angle of about 45o, first probing in this direction, then being withdrawn and redirected into another direction, and so on, until it strikes a capillary. Then the saliva which contains some decongestant properties is injected to “thin out” the blood and the insect begins sucking it up, often taking blood in the amount of its own body weight. After this it flies away to a resting place where it shall remain for at least two days (depending on species) until the blood is digested and the eggs matured. The next act is that of oviposition, and for this the insect must fly to a body of water (a rain-filled hoofprint is enough) to lay its eggs, for the larva which shall emerge from the egg is an aquatic creature.

      It has been reckoned that the lifespan of the average mature female anopheles is somewhere around a week or so. One laboratory specimen has been maintained in the lab for eighty-six days, during which time it had six blood meals and laid six clutches of eggs; but this is considered exceptional by malariologists. The general feeling is that only the rare mosquito has more than two blood meals during the course of her lifetime. Here is another example of how absurdly unfavorable the environment of the plasmodium parasite would seem to be: the time required for the development of the oocysts in the gut of the mosquito varies with environmental temperature, shortening as the temperature rises, but on the average it seems to take about a week. The average parasite has then only one opportunity to re-establish its population within a new vertebrate host. And yet the prevalence of the disease testifies to the operational effectiveness of this seemingly unforgiving system. One chance for success is all that most animals get, and this one chance is sufficient.

      The species problem only entered into malaria studies as the carrier of Europe, Anopheles maculipennis began to be intensively studied during the 1920’s and 1930’s. A. maculipennis is unmistakable, a small, rather darkly speckled insect sitting high on its spindly legs and pitched at a distinctly downward angle. Its rearmost legs are normally held up in the air off the surface, even when the insect is resting, not preparing to bite, and the body is tilted downward as though it intended to stand on its head. Most resting mosquitoes carry their body horizontal to the surface. As malariologists all over Europe concentrated their attention on A. maculipennis, certain inconsistencies became apparent. The first disturbing note appeared in 1920 when the French malariologist Emile Rouboud published a paper noting the abundance of A. maculipennis in many parts of France where malaria had never been reported. Quite independently, in the next year, Carl Wesenberg-Lund reported the same situation in Denmark, as did Battista Grassi for Italy. Wesenberg-Lund believed that his Danish mosquitoes had changed their food preferences. Rouboud and Grassi were closer to the truth in their speculations; they believed they had discovered a new “race” or subspecies of maculipennis. They believed they were dealing with a “race” rather than a new species, because there was nothing in the appearance of the adult to differentiate these benign insects from the disease carriers.

      But then a Dutch entomologist, Nicholas H. Swellengrebel, given financial support for his studies as the result of an outbreak of malaria in the Netherlands, found that there was a difference between the carriers and the benigns. One could not discern it by comparing any two individuals from either population, but statistically he was able to determine average differences in the length of wing in each population; he named one of them, the suspected malaria carriers, “shortwings” (which has since been made over into formal Latin as atroparvus), and the other, the benign population, “longwings.” Assisted by a colleague, Abraham de Buck, he went on, in the manner of a good ethologist, to discover that between the populations the entire repertoire of behaviors differed: their feeding habits, adult mating habits, their larval breeding places—everything differed except their appearance. Linnaeus’ doctrinal shroud still blinded both these men, and they hesitated (they wrote that they considered it “inadvisable”) to give separate Latin species names to these two populations. The next step was obvious: would they interbreed and would the offspring be fertile?

      The shortwings would and did. Males would buzz any resting female within a cage no matter how small it was, and mount her. Matings between female longwings and male shortwings produced infertile offspring like horse and donkey matings. This was certainly diagnostic of a species difference. But the longwing males could not be induced to mate in small cages, or in large outdoor cages. They simply would not mate in captivity. This was curious. Were the pursuit of this curious phenomenon to be conducted purely for purposes of enlightenment, we would probably still be waiting for the answer. But a dread disease had struck a civilized nation, and so investigations leading to the solution of this problem were supported by serious men sitting on the boards of reputable institutions; it was no longer an eccentric obsession on the part of a handful of entomologists.


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FIGHTING MALARIA
Evolution of Species

[This excerpt is from chapter 4 of The Parable of the Beast by John N. Bleibtreu.]

      Today it is taken for granted that evolution occurs; the idea of phylogenetic development is accepted as is the idea of ontogenetic development. But our understanding of the time scales involved is completely missing. We simply have no idea how long it takes for almost anything to happen in evolution—or why rates should be so uneven. It would seem that certain populations of animals are halted in a hiatus of attentive expectancy for very long periods of time. In our order of primates, for example, there are the families of tree shrews, lemurs, lorises, tarsiers; for the most part squirrel-like insectivores which have not changed nearly so radically from their fossil forebears as have we. Darwin’s hypothesis, coupled with the discoveries of modern genetics, have given us a retrospective comprehension of what must have happened. We know that branches grow apart from the trunks of trees, and that their individual growth will depend in part on the vicissitudes of their particular location; they will either flourish if they have access to light and space, or remain stunted if they are deprived. The analogy persists in the “family trees” of animal relationships, and insofar as evolutionary theory goes, the most fascinating part of the process is the one that occurs right at the point of branching.

      How does it occur? Geographic isolation is not the answer. “San Francisco Bay,” Ernst Mayr writes, “which keeps the prisoners of Alcatraz isolated from the other [human] inhabitants of California, is not an isolating mechanism, nor is a mountain range or a stream that separates two populations that are otherwise able to interbreed.”

      The species problem, when finally examined here, at its roots involves an understanding of sexual behavior, of compatibility and incompatibility. What happens is that suddenly a splinter portion of any given population no longer chooses to interbreed with the main body. The members of this splinter party suddenly begin to interbreed exclusively with one another, rejecting potential mates from outside the group.

      As a result they share the genetic memory of their communal experiences with one another and develop their particularities aloof from the parent population. In the past fifty years the fallacies inherent in the Linnean system of classification on the basis of appearance have caused zoologists to formulate a classification based on something other than appearance. Appearance can vary with the individual. For example, prior to 1950 the weasels of North America were classified into twenty-two different species. A patient zoologist, Eugene R. Hall, after observing them for a long period, in 1951 published a 466-page paper which finally convinced his fellow taxonomists that the weasels of North America really belonged to only four separate species. There appeared the typical species gap between four weasel populations. All the rest of the varying animals were merely subspecies, or races.

      How then is the species defined if not on the basis of appearance? How is this gap between populations perceived? It is perceived in sexual terms. Ernst Mayr defines the species as follows: “The species, finally, is a genetic unit consisting of a large interconnecting gene pool.” It is the word interconnecting which is the operative word in this definition. So long as the pool is interconnecting, the population is capable of fermenting— producing its own interior variations. Only when it ceases to be interconnecting, when a discontinuous splinter becomes a separate fragment, does it become a species embarked on the road toward extraordinary differentiation—such differentiation for example as exists between the gibbon, the gorilla, and ourselves.

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