This beautiful new cloud – Asperitas – now officially in the International Cloud Atlas


Click to enlargeInternational Cloud Atlas/Kairo Kiitsak

❝ Gavin Pretor-Pinney, the London-based president of the Cloud Appreciation Society, first saw the unusual cloud in 2006. A member of the amateur cloud-spotting group in Cedar Creeks, Iowa emailed a photo of an oddly wavy cloud, and asked how it would be classified…

Its shape was similar to what the World Meteorological Organization would categorize as an undulatus formation, but was “more intense, more chaotic.” The WMO’s International Cloud Atlas, first published in 1896, didn’t include anything like it.

❝ Every six months or so, a similar image would arrive, maybe from Scotland, or Australia. The president and others began to feel that a new label was needed to fit the unfamiliar cloud. In 2008, the amateur cloud-spotting group proposed the name asperitas, Latin for “roughness,” and submitted the idea to the WMO.

Nearly 10 years after they floated the idea, the society’s efforts paid off: the WMO has added the asperitas to the updated International Cloud Atlas, released online earlier this week…

❝ Naming clouds, says Pretor-Pinney, builds a deeper connection to what’s visible in our atmosphere, “which also makes us care more about what we’re doing to it.”

I’ll second that emotion. RTFA for details on cloud-naming in disciplined scientific fashion. An enjoyable read. Lovely photographs.

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Weather may just be weather; but — The North Atlantic may get its 1st-ever named storm in March next week

Just one hurricane has ever formed in the northern Atlantic Ocean, Caribbean Sea, or the Gulf of Mexico in the month of March — a time when the oceans are still cold from the winter months in the northern hemisphere. This occurred in 1908 with an unnamed hurricane that, according to the Atlantic Hurricane database, reached sustained winds of 100mph and caused damage in the Caribbean islands.

As the 1908 cyclone formed long before the National Hurricane Center existed, there has never been a “named” storm in March. That could change next week, as an area of low pressure may develop several hundred miles to the east of Florida, in the Atlantic Ocean. This storm system is unlikely to be a major threat to landmasses, with the possible exception of Bermuda. Due to the rarity of March cyclones, however, it would garner significant attention…

Forecast models indicate a low pressure system will develop early next week. It may reach a “peak” in strength by Tuesday or Wednesday, potentially with 40 to 60mph winds, which would exceed the 39mph threshold for a storm to get a name. In this case, the storm would be named “Arlene.”

If we get lucky, it might even drop a little rain or hail on MAR-A-LAGO.

The risk of a single 5-day opioid prescription


Click to enlarge

❝ Now that it’s clear opioid painkillers have helped cause the worst drug epidemic in history, health experts are scrambling to figure out when dependency on these powerful prescription drugs starts — and how to prevent it.

❝ A new study from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention looked at the relationship between the number of days of someone’s first opioid prescription and their long-term use. It found that that number has a huge impact: Patients face an increased risk of opioid dependency in as few as four days of taking the drugs.

As you can see in the chart…opioid prescriptions longer than five days in length significantly increased the likelihood of continued opioid use both one and three years later…

❝ “There’s nothing magical about five days versus six days, but with each day your risk of dependency increases fairly dramatically,” said Bradley Martin of the CDC, one of the study authors.

❝ The study, which analyzed 1.3 million non-cancer patients, also found that only 6 percent of patients prescribed a one-day supply of opioids were still taking the drugs a year later, but that number doubled to 12 percent if patients were prescribed a six-day supply and quadrupled to 24 percent if patients were given a 12-day supply.

Pretty solid warning, I’d say.

“Homo sapiens as we know them will disappear in a century or so”

What is the biggest misconception humanity has about itself?

Maybe it is that by gaining more power over the world, over the environment, we will be able to make ourselves happier and more satisfied with life. Looking again from a perspective of thousands of years, we have gained enormous power over the world and it doesn’t seem to make people significantly more satisfied than in the stone age…

Will humans always find ways to hate each other, or do you lean more towards Steven Pinker’s view that society is much less violent than it used to be, and that this trend is set to continue?

I tend to agree with Steven Pinker. We now live in the most peaceful era in history. There is definitely still violence – I live in the Middle East so I know this perfectly well. But, comparatively, there is less violence than ever before in history. Today more people die from eating too much than from human violence, which is really an amazing achievement. We can’t be certain about the future but some changes make this trend seem robust. First of all, there is the threat of nuclear war which was perhaps the chief reason for the decline of war since 1945, and this threat is still there. And secondly, you have the change in the nature of the economy – that the economy switched from being a material-based economy to the knowledge-based economy.

Questions asked of Yuval Noah Harari. His answers.

I suggest you read this article. I suggest you read his books.

Think about your own answers.

“It tastes like chicken” — only grown in a lab

❝ If you find yourself torn between cravings and ethical concerns every time you tuck into a chicken nugget, there might soon be a way you can have your meat and eat it too. Memphis Meats has just served up chicken and duck meat cultivated in a lab from poultry cells, meaning no animals were harmed in the making of the meal.

❝ Along with the ethical issues of animal cruelty that surround a carnivorous diet, feeding, breeding and keeping livestock for food has an enormous environmental impact. The animals burp more greenhouse gases into the air than all modes of human transport, and require large swathes of land to be cleared, not to mention all the food, water, and care they need. Studies show that growing meat in a lab setting could go a long way towards solving those problems.

❝ …On the menu from Memphis Meats is southern fried chicken and duck a l’orange, which the company says is the first time poultry has been cultivated in the lab. Rather than raise and slaughter animals, the company simply takes muscle cells from animals without harming them and grows them in vats, in a process Memphis likens to brewing beer.

❝ “It is thrilling to introduce the first chicken and duck that didn’t require raising animals,” says Uma Valeti, CEO of Memphis Meats. “This is a historic moment for the clean meat movement. Chicken and duck are at the center of the table in so many cultures around the world, but the way conventional poultry is raised creates huge problems for the environment, animal welfare, and human health. It is also inefficient. We aim to produce meat in a better way, so that it is delicious, affordable and sustainable.”

❝ Again, the meal was probably prohibitively expensive, but reducing the cost of production is one of Memphis Meats’ main priorities, along with improving the taste, texture and nutritional value of the meat. If all goes to plan, the company has set a target of 2021 to finally serve up this clean meat to consumers.

Yes, I would wait in line to try this. Albeit a short line. I hate lines.

I love chicken.

Cave dweller menus were limited by what’s available – from Woolly rhino to mushrooms

❝ Eating like a caveman meant chowing down on woolly rhinos and sheep in Belgium, but munching on mushrooms, pine nuts and moss in Spain. It all depended on where they lived, new research shows.

❝ Scientists got a sneak peek into the kitchen of three Neanderthals by scraping off the plaque stuck on their teeth and examining the DNA. What they found smashes a common public misconception that the caveman diet was mostly meat. They also found hints that one sickly teen used primitive versions of penicillin and aspirin to help ease his pain.

The dental plaque provides a lifelong record of what went in the Neanderthals’ mouths and the bacteria that lived in their guts, said study co-author Alan Cooper, director of the Australian Centre for Ancient DNA in Adelaide.

“It’s like a fossil,” he said.

❝ While past studies showed varied Neanderthal diets, genetic testing allowed researchers to say what kind of meat or mushrooms they ate, Cooper said. The 42,000-year-old Belgian Neanderthal’s menu of sheep and woolly rhino reflected what roamed in the plains around the Neanderthal’s home, he said. The research is in Wednesday’s journal Nature…

There were no signs of meat in the diet of the two 50,000-year-old Spanish Neanderthals, but calling them vegetarians would be a stretch, Cooper said. Their own bones showed that they were eaten by cannibals.

I don’t doubt that the politicians, priests and pundits of the time provided believable reasons for every part of life – from diet to ritual – even if they were crap. Part of the job description that hasn’t changed.

Will a New Glass Battery deliver on the End of Oil?


John GoodenoughCockrell School of Engineering

❝ Electric car purchases have been on the rise lately, posting an estimated 60 percent growth rate last year. They’re poised for rapid adoption by 2022, when EVs are projected to cost the same as internal combustion cars. However, these estimates all presume the incumbent lithium-ion battery remains the go-to EV power source. So, when researchers this week at the University of Texas at Austin unveiled a new, promising lithium- or sodium-glass battery technology, it threatened to accelerate even rosy projections for battery-powered cars.

❝ “I think we have the possibility of doing what we’ve been trying to do for the last 20 years,” says John Goodenough, coinventor of the now ubiquitous lithium-ion battery and emeritus professor at the Cockrell School of Engineering at the University of Texas, Austin. “That is, to get an electric car that will be competitive in cost and convenience with the internal combustion engine.” Goodenough added that this new battery technology could also store intermittent solar and wind power on the electric grid.

❝ Yet, the world has seen alleged game-changing battery breakthroughs come to naught before…So, on whose authority might one claim a glass battery could be any different?

For starters, Donald Sadoway’s. Sadoway, a preeminent battery researcher and MIT materials science and engineering professor, says, “When John Goodenough makes an announcement, I pay attention. He’s tops in the field and really a fantastic scientist. So, his pronouncements are worth listening to.”…

❝ The new battery technology uses a form of glass, doped with reactive “alkali” metals like lithium or sodium, as the battery’s electrolyte…

They find, for instance, that the lithium- or sodium-glass battery has three times the energy storage capacity of a comparable lithium-ion battery. But its electrolyte is neither flammable nor volatile, and it doesn’t appear to build up the spiky “dendrites” that have plagued lithium-ions as they charge and discharge repeatedly and can ultimately short out, causing battery fires…

❝ Moreover, says…battery codeveloper Maria Helena Braga, a visiting research fellow at UT Austin and engineering professor at the University of Porto in Portugal, the glass battery charges in “minutes rather than hours.” This, she says, is because the lithium- or sodium-doped glass endows the battery with a far greater capacity to store energy in the electric field. So, the battery can, in this sense, behave a little more like a lightning-fast supercapacitor…

…Braga says, early tests of their technology suggest it’s also capable of perhaps thousands of charge-discharge cycles, and could perform well in both extremely cold and hot weather…And if they can switch the battery’s ionic messenger atom from lithium to sodium, the researchers could even source the batteries more reliably and sustainably. Rather than turning to controversial mining operations in a few South American countries for lithium, they’d be able to source sodium in essentially limitless supply from the world’s seawater…

❝ If Goodenough, Braga, and collaborators can ramp up their technology, there would clearly be plenty of upsides. Goodenough says the team’s anode and electrolyte are more or less ready for prime time. But they’re still figuring out if and how they can make a cathode that will bring the promise of their technology to the commercial marketplace.

“The next step is to verify that the cathode problem is solved,” Goodenough says. “And when we do [that] we can scale up to large-scale cells. So far, we’ve made jelly-roll cells, and it looks like they’re working fairly well. So I’m fairly optimistic we’ll get there. But the development is going to be with the battery manufacturers. I don’t want to do development. I don’t want to be going into business. I’m 94. I don’t need the money.”

Gotta love for-real researchers who would rather be exploring the inner space of new opportunities, qualitative discovery – instead of playing entrepreneur and building the next technology startup to an IPO.

Thanks, SmartAlix

Canadian glaciers have become a major contributor to sea level change


Click to enlargeNASA/John Sonntag

❝ Ice loss from Canada’s Arctic glaciers has transformed them into a major contributor to sea level change, new research by University of California, Irvine glaciologists has found.

From 2005 to 2015, surface melt off ice caps and glaciers of the Queen Elizabeth Islands grew by an astonishing 900 percent, from an average of three gigatons to 30 gigatons per year, according to results published…in the journal Environmental Research Letters

❝ The team found that in the past decade, overall ice mass declined markedly, turning the region into a major contributor to sea level change. Canada holds 25 percent of all Arctic ice, second only to Greenland…

❝ The Canadian ice cap has glaciers on the move into the Arctic Ocean, Baffin Bay and Nares Strait. The researchers used satellite data and a regional climate model to tally the “balance” of total gain and loss each year, and the reasons why. Because of the huge number of glaciers terminating in area marine basins, they expected that discharge into the sea caused by tide water hitting approaching glacier fronts would be the primary cause.

In fact, they determined that until 2005, the ice loss was caused about equally by two factors: calving icebergs from glacier fronts into the ocean accounted for 52 percent, and melting on glacier surfaces exposed to air contributed 48 percent. But since then, as atmospheric temperatures have steadily climbed, surface melt now accounts for 90 percent.

❝ Lead author Romain Millan said that in recent years ice discharge was only a major component in a few basins, and that even rapid, short term increases from these ice fields only had a minor impact on the long-term trend.

Millan added, “We identified meltwater runoff as the major contributor to these ice fields’ mass loss in recent years…

Just keeping y’all up-to-date, folks. Climate change deniers won’t spend any of their bought-and-paid-for time checking scientific study. Folks with a real interest in real science enjoy the practice.

The evidence for vaccine safety is abundant. That will be $100,000…

❝ At what point does a body of evidence become massive enough to count as proof? When has a question been answered enough times that it can be put to rest?

When it comes to the safety and effectiveness of vaccines, it sometimes seems as though public health advocates must constantly roll the burden of proof toward a mountaintop that never comes into view.

❝ The latest salvo against vaccinations came courtesy of Robert Kennedy Jr. and Robert De Niro. At a joint appearance this week, Kennedy offered $100,000 to anyone who could turn up a study showing that it is safe to administer vaccines to children and pregnant women, with a specific call out to concerns about mercury. De Niro was there to lend his endorsement and a patina of Oscar-winning gravitas.

The article is clear and accurate on the unreliability of either in producing science that backs up their foolishness.

❝ Like most people, I can think of many handy uses for a spare hundred grand, and would gladly sit down and share my experience as a pediatrician with De Niro and Kennedy at great length. It’s nearing two decades since I graduated from medical school, and in that span of time I’ve immunized thousands of patients. Not once have I encountered a case where those immunizations could be plausibly linked with autism.

In the off chance that my word alone isn’t sufficient to collect the $100,000, I’m happy to proffer lots of studies that support the safety of vaccines. Studies never seem to settle the question for anti-vaccine activists, but they are the best evidence we could ever have, based on millions of people and using many different types of comparisons, that vaccination is safe for kids…

All of this information is readily available to anyone who chooses to look for it — 350 health organizations recently reaffirmed the safety of vaccines and highlighted more than 40 of the most respected studies in an open letter to President Trump — and yet still Kennedy and De Niro are happy to pretend none of it exists.

❝ However, if either De Niro or Kennedy read this article and change their mind, I’m happy to take the $100,000 anyhow.

I’ll second that emotion. I grew up when most of today’s vaccines hadn’t yet been designed and produced. Every spring, kids in the factory town where I grew up would compare notes about who was missing, who died over the winter.

Mumps, scarlet fever, rubella, diphtheria vaccination was just becoming universal — polio was waiting for us in the summer.

Kite Pharma’s gene therapy for cancer shows hopeful results

❝ An experimental gene therapy that turns a patient’s own blood cells into cancer killers worked in a major study, with more than one-third of very sick lymphoma patients showing no sign of disease six months after a single treatment…

In all, 82 percent of patients had their cancer shrink at least by half at some point in the study.

Its sponsor, California-based Kite Pharma, is racing Novartis AG to become the first to win approval of the treatment, called CAR-T cell therapy, in the United States. It could become the nation’s first approved gene therapy.

❝ A hopeful sign: the number in complete remission at six months — 36 percent — is barely changed from partial results released after three months, suggesting this one-time treatment might give lasting benefits for those who do respond well…

The worry has been how long Kite’s treatment would last; there’s also been concern about its side effects, which…seem manageable in the study. Follow-up beyond six months is still needed to see if the benefit wanes…

The therapy is not without risk. Three of the 101 patients in the study died of causes unrelated to worsening of their cancer, and two of those deaths were deemed due to the treatment.

❝ The treatment involves filtering a patient’s blood to remove key immune system soldiers called T-cells, altering them in the lab to contain a gene that targets cancer, and giving them back intravenously. Doctors call it a “living drug” — permanently altered cells that multiply in the body into an army to fight the disease.

First opportunity for peer review will be at an April meeting of the American Association for Cancer Research. Fascinating stuff. Methodology that holds promise for any number of difficult deadly diseases.