Category: Science

Tropical virus goes from Zero to 1.24 mIllion cases in the Americas – in 1 year!

In slightly more than a year, the Americas have seen more than 1.24 million cases of chikungunya virus, a mosquito-borne disease that causes high fever and debilitating joint pain.

The tropical virus was rare in North, Central, and South America until December 2013, when investigation of suspected dengue virus in the Caribbean island of St. Martin turned up 26 cases of chikungunya, without any sign they had been imported from elsewhere.

As of the end of February 2015, that handful of cases had exploded to 1,247,400 suspected and confirmed cases, affecting almost every country in the hemisphere, according to the Pan-American Health Organization.

Until the end of 2013, chikungunya in the Americas was almost entirely imported from countries in Africa or Asia where the tropical virus was endemic.

In the U.S., most cases are still imported — a cumulative total of some 2,542 since 2013, according to the PAHO, with an additional 11 cases, all in Florida, blamed on local transmission. But most of that transmission now comes from the epidemics raging elsewhere in the region.

The U.S. numbers might be an underestimate…until this year, the virus was not a nationally notifiable disease, so some cases might have been missed.

The virus — the name is pronounced chik-un-GUHN-ya — is carried by mosquitoes, mainly Aedes aegypti and Aedes albopictus, which are widespread in the U.S.

The CDC notes that both species primarily bite in the daytime and urges that travelers take precautions against mosquito bites, including wearing long-sleeved shirts and long pants, if weather permits, and using insect repellents.

There is no specific treatment for the virus and no vaccine, but its dramatic spread has re-focused the attention of vaccine researchers…

By summertime, some enterprising news-as-entertainment-network will pick up on the fear-factor potential of another disease originating in Africa and take a shot at American Ebola panic to get traffic up on their crappy channel. There have been a few false starts; but, the Philistines haven’t succeeded. Yet.

Meanwhile, support for vaccine studies proceeds at a deliberate pace. Something else for both New Age and Old Testament Luddites to use to up their anti-science game.

The CDC will have – and does have – reasonable safety suggestions. Not unlike the usual sensible practices everywhere insect-borne disease may flourish.

First ever photograph of light as particle and a wave

Light as particle and wave
Click to enlargeEnergy-space photography of light confined on a nanowire

Light behaves both as a particle and as a wave. Since the days of Einstein, scientists have been trying to directly observe both of these aspects of light at the same time. Now, scientists at EPFL have succeeded in capturing the first-ever snapshot of this dual behavior.

Quantum mechanics tells us that light can behave simultaneously as a particle or a wave. However, there has never been an experiment able to capture both natures of light at the same time; the closest we have come is seeing either wave or particle, but always at different times. Taking a radically different experimental approach, EPFL scientists have now been able to take the first ever snapshot of light behaving both as a wave and as a particle. The breakthrough work is published in Nature Communications.

When UV light hits a metal surface, it causes an emission of electrons. Albert Einstein explained this “photoelectric” effect by proposing that light — thought to only be a wave — is also a stream of particles. Even though a variety of experiments have successfully observed both the particle- and wave-like behaviors of light, they have never been able to observe both at the same time.

RTFA for details of the experiment. Even if I understand quantum-nothing – though SmartAlix explains it to me at least once every year – I really love the photograph. :)

Will we find life — “not as we know it” — on Saturn’s moon Titan


Click to enlargeAzotosome, the theorized cell membrane on Titan

Liquid water is a requirement for life on Earth. But in other, much colder worlds, life might exist beyond the bounds of water-based chemistry.

Taking a simultaneously imaginative and rigidly scientific view, Cornell chemical engineers and astronomers offer a template for life that could thrive in a harsh, cold world – specifically Titan, the giant moon of Saturn. A planetary body awash with seas not of water, but of liquid methane, Titan could harbor methane-based, oxygen-free cells that metabolize, reproduce and do everything life on Earth does.

Their theorized cell membrane, composed of small organic nitrogen compounds and capable of functioning in liquid methane temperatures of 292 degrees below zero, is published in Science Advances…The work is led by chemical molecular dynamics expert Paulette Clancy…with first author James Stevenson, a graduate student in chemical engineering. The paper’s co-author is Jonathan Lunine…the College of Arts and Sciences’ Department of Astronomy…

On Earth, life is based on the phospholipid bilayer membrane, the strong, permeable, water-based vesicle that houses the organic matter of every cell. A vesicle made from such a membrane is called a liposome. Thus, many astronomers seek extraterrestrial life in what’s called the circumstellar habitable zone, the narrow band around the sun in which liquid water can exist. But what if cells weren’t based on water, but on methane, which has a much lower freezing point?

The engineers named their theorized cell membrane an “azotosome,” “azote” being the French word for nitrogen. “Liposome” comes from the Greek “lipos” and “soma” to mean “lipid body;” by analogy, “azotosome” means “nitrogen body.”

The azotosome is made from nitrogen, carbon and hydrogen molecules known to exist in the cryogenic seas of Titan, but shows the same stability and flexibility that Earth’s analogous liposome does. This came as a surprise to chemists like Clancy and Stevenson, who had never thought about the mechanics of cell stability before; they usually study semiconductors, not cells.

The engineers employed a molecular dynamics method that screened for candidate compounds from methane for self-assembly into membrane-like structures. The most promising compound they found is an acrylonitrile azotosome, which showed good stability, a strong barrier to decomposition, and a flexibility similar to that of phospholipid membranes on Earth. Acrylonitrile – a colorless, poisonous, liquid organic compound used in the manufacture of acrylic fibers, resins and thermoplastics – is present in Titan’s atmosphere.

Excited by the initial proof of concept, Clancy said the next step is to try and demonstrate how these cells would behave in the methane environment – what might be the analogue to reproduction and metabolism in oxygen-free, methane-based cells.

In part, Stevenson said he was inspired by science fiction writer Isaac Asimov, who wrote about the concept of non-water-based life in his 1962 essay, “Not as We Know It.” I think we can conclude as Asimov would – intelligence formed of life “not as we know it” – but with science grounded in material reality, will develop an understanding of science identical in premises as any of our own species’ physical scientists. Leading or trailing one another the results must be the same since material reality remains the same.

Perceptions can vary widely. An intelligent lifeform evolved through differing chemistry wouldn’t be likely to have the same senses or senses arrayed in the same hierarchy. The possibilities are intriguing.

Truly, a worthwhile adventure. I wish them well.

Antarctica’s retreating ice may re-shape Earth’s geopolitical boundaries


Click to enlargePeter Convey on his way to the office

From the ground in this extreme northern part of Antarctica, spectacularly white and blinding ice seems to extend forever. What can’t be seen is the battle raging thousands of feet below to re-shape Earth.

Water is eating away at the Antarctic ice, melting it where it hits the oceans. As the ice sheets slowly thaw, water pours into the sea – 130 billion tons of ice per year for the past decade, according to NASA satellite calculations. That’s the weight of more than 356,000 Empire State Buildings, enough ice melt to fill more than 1.3 million Olympic swimming pools. And the melting is accelerating.

In the worst case scenario, Antarctica’s melt could push sea levels up 10 feet (3 meters) worldwide in a century or two, recurving heavily populated coastlines…

Here on the Antarctic peninsula, where the continent is warming the fastest because the land sticks out in the warmer ocean, 49 billion tons of ice are lost each year, according to NASA. The water warms from below, causing the ice to retreat on to land, and then the warmer air takes over. Temperatures rose 5.4 degrees Fahrenheit in the last half century, much faster than Earth’s average, said Ricardo Jana, a glaciologist for the Chilean Antarctic Institute…

Robert Island hits all the senses: the stomach-turning smell of penguin poop; soft moss that invites the rare visitor to lie down, as if on a water bed; brown mud, akin to stepping in gooey chocolate. Patches of the moss, which alternates from fluorescent green to rust red, have grown large enough to be football fields. Though 97 percent of the Antarctic Peninsula is still covered with ice, entire valleys are now free of it, ice is thinner elsewhere and glaciers have retreated, Peter Convey of the British Antarctic Survey said…

A few years back, scientists figured Antarctica as a whole was in balance, neither gaining nor losing ice. Experts worried more about Greenland; it was easier to get to and more noticeable, but once they got a better look at the bottom of the world, the focus of their fears shifted. Now scientists in two different studies use the words “irreversible” and “unstoppable” to talk about the melting in West Antarctica. Ice is gaining in East Antarctica, where the air and water are cooler, but not nearly as much as it is melting to the west.

“Before Antarctica was much of a wild card,” said University of Washington ice scientist Ian Joughin. “Now I would say it’s less of a wild card and more scary than we thought before…”

“Changing the climate of the Earth or thinning glaciers is fine as long as you don’t do it too fast. And right now we are doing it as fast as we can. It’s not good,” said Eric Rignot, of NASA. “We have to stop it; or we have to slow it down as best as we can.”

I understand how short-sighted most folks are. After all, if our politicians only think ahead to the next election, if corporate CEOs only think ahead to the next quarter, if the average person thinks long-term planning means paying off your car – or maybe a home – 100 years or 1000 years is beyond comprehension. But, scientists, especially in a discipline like climatology have to think in geologic time and those wee chunks like 1000 years happen in the blink of an eye. Look over the edge of your TV set, folks. Read, search, include some real science in whatever you add to your thinking life.

Cripes, I remember the first ice geologist I met. I was only 20 and working as a tech in a non-ferrous metals research lab. And with all of his qualifications, the only job he could find here in the States was investigating stress-corrosion cracking – even though he had practically defined the discipline during the couple of years he spent in Antarctica during the International Geophysical Year.

I got to spend lunchtimes with him and a few other scientists from the lab who didn’t mind including in a kid who could only afford to go to engineering night school.

He taught us all about geologic time. He tried to teach us about ice.

John Podesta still wants to reveal the truth about UFOs – whatever that means

John Podesta, former senior advisor to Barack Obama, former Chief of Staff to Bill Clinton, and future chair of Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign is offering some reflections on his most recent stint in the White House.

Number one on the list — aliens.

Podesta was out of the big-time politics game briefly early in the Bush years, and lent his considerable prestige to a coalition pushing the oddball cause of greater disclosure of federal information about UFOs.

Soon afterwards, he founded the Center for American Progress which quickly emerged as a key pillar of center-left infrastructure in Washington. I worked for a while at CAP, and can testify that while there were a lot of in-house jokes about Podesta and UFOs (including an alien-themed holiday party one December) there was approximately zero institutional effort expended on the cause.

But in a personal capacity, Podesta continued to lend a hand. He participated in a couple of UFO-themed TV shows and wrote the forward to a book about UFOs that was published in 2010.

Then he went back to the White House where, once again, there was no progress on the UFO disclosure front. It’s genuinely too bad. As a former Chief of Staff, Podesta presumably has had access to highly classified information and knows what he’s talking about when he says the public deserves to know what’s in these files. I hope — though I don’t actually expect — that he’ll use his influence in the emerging Clinton campaign to push this in a more serious way.

I wouldn’t expect that either. There are more relevant questions to consider for a presidential election.

There have been a few straight-arrow pilots, military and otherwise, in my life’s experience who share Podesta’s views about UFOs. I have no reason to doubt them. But, current science is all I have to go on – and the Fermi Paradox among others convinces me these folks bumped into something other than extra-terrestrial intelligence.

First genetic test submitted by 23andMe approved by the FDA

A test for Bloom syndrome carrier status, a rare condition seen mainly in Ashkenazi Jews (and uncommon among them as well), was approved by the FDA — remarkable primarily because it’s the first time a direct-to-consumer test for a specific genetic condition has won the agency’s OK.

The decision was also notable because the test will be sold by 23andMe, the company that initially began selling a panoramic health-risk test directly to consumers and was slapped down by the FDA. The agency told the firm that it had to seek formal approval for each and every specific component of the test, with proof that the tests were accurate, that consumers could provide proper samples, and that they could understand the results and their health implications.

Although the FDA was widely criticized for discouraging innovation and preventing people from getting access to their own genomic data, 23andMe promised that it would comply with the agency’s demands.

First out of the box for 23andMe was the carrier status test for Bloom syndrome, which is marked by short stature, extreme sun sensitivity, and increased cancer risk. About one in 107 people of Ashkenazi Jewish ancestry carry the gene, two copies of which are needed to cause the clinical syndrome, according to 23andMe…

Additionally, 23andMe conducted a “user comprehension” study with its results report to confirm that individuals understood them and the implications for family planning decisions.

Good news for everyone interested in easy access to knowledge about their genetic factors particularly as they relate to inherited conditions. Easy – in that you needn’t cave to the medical-industrial complex. Good news especially because it looked from the start that the FDA was out for a classic bureaucratic shutdown of an entreprenuerial challenge to the status quo.

Good science seems to have prevailed. Maybe reason and understanding are next. I hope.

Landsat 8 flyover stretches from Sweden to British Columbia

February 11 marked the two-year anniversary of the launch of NASA’s Landsat 8 satellite, an event that signaled the continuation of an Earth observation project that began in the early 1970s. To celebrate the occasion, the team has released a vast composite image that stretches unbroken from Sweden to British Columbia.

The images were taken using the Operational Land Imager (OLI) on Landsat 8 back on 2014’s summer solstice – June 21, 2014 – a point at which the Sun doesn’t duck below the Arctic horizon for more than 24 hours. Collecting the images at that point in the year allowed the satellite to capture the region’s ice in various stages of melting.

The entire flyover stretches for a spectacular 6,800 km, with a width of 200 km. It begins in Finland and Sweden, crosses Greenland, North America and Canada’s Nunavut and Northwest Territories, concluding off the shore of British Columbia.

Awesome.

Michele Bachmann inspired Factcheck.org to discredit lies about science

Four years ago, Michele Bachmann slammed Rick Perry—then the governor of Texas—for his executive order mandating HPV vaccinations. “I’m a mom of three children,” Bachmann said during a GOP presidential debate. “And to have innocent little 12-year-old girls be forced to have a government injection through an executive order is just flat out wrong.”

Bachmann, who at the time was a Republican congresswoman from Minnesota, expanded on her allegations the next day. “I will tell you that I had a mother last night come up to me here in Tampa, Fla., after the debate,” she said on the Today show. “She told me that her little daughter took that vaccine, that injection, and she suffered from mental retardation thereafter. It can have very dangerous side effects.”

Bachmann’s suggestion that the HPV vaccine is dangerous was completely false. “There is absolutely no scientific validity to this statement,” explained the American Academy of Pediatrics…

Enter Kathleen Hall Jamieson, the director of the Annenberg Public Policy Center at the University of Pennsylvania, which operates the nonpartisan Factcheck.org. Founded in 2003, Factcheck was one of the first websites devoted to refuting misleading assertions about US politics. Last month, Factcheck launched Scicheck, a new project that evaluates the scientific claims made by politicians. In just a few weeks, Scicheck has countered inaccurate statements about issues ranging from climate change to the economic impact of the Human Genome Project.

On this weeks’ episode of the Inquiring Minds podcast, I asked Jamieson what inspired her organization to focus on scientific issues. She credits Bachmann.

“When Michele Bachmann in the last election made an allegation about the effects of…a vaccine, in public space on national television…the journalists in the real context didn’t know how to respond to the statement as clearly as they ought to,” explains Jamieson. “The time to contextualize is immediately. That should have been shot down immediately…”

That just may be counting on the ignorant to counter the stupid.

But Jamieson is keenly aware that it isn’t enough to simply rebut inaccurate claims in real time. One of the key challenges facing science communication is that voters frequently get their news from highly ideological media outlets that sometimes misrepresent the scientific consensus on controversial issues. This has contributed to substantial gaps between what the general public thinks and what scientists think on a wide range of issues, from evolution to the safety of genetically modified foods.

I love showing crap statements from idjits like Bachmann to friends and family who are Recovering Republicans. Just to remind them why they left the Party.

Yes, I can remember when educated conservatives had a role and a voice in both of the two parties we’re allowed. That’s because I’m very old cranky geek.

Popular soda ingredient poses cancer risk

Public health researchers have analyzed soda consumption data in order to characterize people’s exposure to a potentially carcinogenic byproduct of some types of caramel color. Caramel color is a common ingredient in colas and other dark soft drinks. The results show that between 44 and 58 percent of people over the age of six typically have at least one can of soda per day, possibly more, potentially exposing them to 4-methylimidazole (4-MEI), a possible human carcinogen formed during the manufacture of some kinds of caramel color.

Building on an analysis of 4-MEI concentrations in 11 different soft drinks first published by Consumer Reports in 2014, researchers led by a team at the Johns Hopkins Center for a Livable Future (CLF) estimated exposure to 4-MEI from caramel-colored soft drinks and modeled the potential cancer burden related to routine soft drink consumption levels in the United States.

“Soft drink consumers are being exposed to an avoidable and unnecessary cancer risk from an ingredient that is being added to these beverages simply for aesthetic purposes,” says Keeve Nachman, PhD, senior author of the study…”This unnecessary exposure poses a threat to public health and raises questions about the continued use of caramel coloring in soda…”

While there’s currently no federal limit for 4-MEI in food or beverages, Consumer Reports petitioned the Food and Drug Administration to set limits for the potential carcinogen last year. It also shared the findings with the California Attorney General’s office, which enforces the state’s Proposition 65 law aimed at reducing consumers’ exposure to toxic chemicals. Under this state law, any food or beverage sold in the state that exposes consumers to more than a specific amount of 4-MEI per day requires a health-warning label.

Another one I don’t have to worry about. I actually keep most New Year’s Resolutions as long as I limit myself to one at a time. Make it simple. Make it achievable.

A number of years ago I stopped consuming any carbonated beverages.

NASA, SDO: Year 5

February 11, 2015 marks five years in space for NASA’s Solar Dynamics Observatory, which provides incredibly detailed images of the whole sun 24 hours a day. Capturing an image more than once per second, SDO has provided an unprecedentedly clear picture of how massive explosions on the sun grow and erupt ever since its launch on Feb. 11, 2010. The imagery is also captivating, allowing one to watch the constant ballet of solar material through the sun’s atmosphere, the corona.

Turn up the sound. Set resolution as high as you can. A stunning video.