In Memoriam: John Coster-Mullen


Illustration of John Coster-Mullen and the Little Boy bomb

by Alex Wellerstein

I don’t know off-hand exactly when I started talking to John. A look through old e-mails suggests that in 2006 we had been talking, but that those e-mails reference earlier conversations. My guess is that we had been in touch in 2005, when I was working on my paper on how people draw atomic bombs…Around that time I probably bought John’s book and got in touch with him, and we began exchanging documents as well…

Over the next 15 years or so, we exchanged quite a bit of documents, I acquired three versions of his book, Atom Bombs, and we got to spend some time together in person at the Atomic Heritage Foundation’s conference for the 70th anniversary of the Manhattan Project. He was always generous and excited. He clearly really enjoyed that he, a truck driver (among other things), was producing research that academics from places like Harvard and Princeton thought was important and valuable

I enjoyed John as a friend, correspondent, and as a subject of study. John is what I call a “secret seeker” in my book, someone who — for whatever reason — is driven towards learning “nuclear secrets.”…With John, I never got the sense that he was strongly motivated by the politics of secrecy, though he sometimes could sound like that when he got irritated with the Department of Energy…Sometimes he would give the old Ted Taylor line, that the surprising thing about the atomic bombs is that they aren’t that hard to build (if you have the fuel, etc…

I think discovering “the secret” for him was more about proving himself as a researcher than probably any big statement about secrecy. Over the years I’ve gotten various documents from him trying to explain himself, and to my eye they come down to a sort of love for the work, the topic, and the people — one that only grew over time and he had more exposure to all three…

The Cold War mentality was premised in part on hiding science and technology from your competitors. The easiest part of that for American politicians was – and remains – casting all serious competitors as somehow inherently EVIL. That justified reliance on secrecy about absolutely everything…and still does. Including the banal which have already made it to the back pages of local, regional newspapers.

But, the tale, the personality of John Coster-Mullen grows through this dedication to the history of his work and achievements. I hope that recognition of his research will continue to grow, as well.

Evidence that Greenland once was warmer…and greener

The ice sheet that covers the northernmost reaches of our planet has expanded and shrunk over the past 2 million years — but it was thought that Greenland’s bitter cold and miles-deep ice had been a more or less constant feature.

However, new evidence has suggested it was once a much warmer and greener place than we are used to today. What it took in the past to melt the ice and cover it with plants could be critical for predicting how the Arctic will respond to climate change in the present day.

A long-lost core of earth drilled up from beneath mile-thick ice in northwestern Greenland in the 1960s has shown that in the past 1 million years — and perhaps as recently as 400,000 years ago — it was once home to a vegetated landscape.

Scientists had expected to find sand and rock in the dirt but were instead surprised to see twigs and leaves.

Yup. “Lost” for 60 or 70 years. Pretty good illustration of how our nation’s perpetual concern over science, research, providing historic discoveries to institutions of education and knowledge…when we’re condemning other nations…in practice, is OK when it’s OUR MILITARY that’s aiding the research.

Even by accident.

Researchers are publishing and sharing coronavirus data at an unparalleled pace

There are 1581 articles and counting on Covid-19 on the preprint servers medRxiv and bioRxiv. This represents a phenomenal deluge of publications, given that the novel coronavirus Sars-CoV-2 was first described in early January and only formally named on 11 February.

Peer reviewed papers are now coming out at breakneck speed. ‘It is essential that scientific information is made available as quick as possible, but also evaluated as quickly as possible during a pandemic,’ explains Magdalena Skipper, chief editor of Nature.

…’Sharing data straight away can be crucial to people’s lives. We know this from previous epidemics,’ says Skipper, who became editor of Nature in 2018. Nature also sends new data to the World Health Organization, which is aggregating information on Covid-19.

The pace of research and presentation of research is astonishing,’ says Tom Gallagher, a coronavirus scientist at Loyola University Chicago. He says quality can be variable, but ‘some of the papers are the best of the best, and it is truly remarkable that they’ve come out so quickly.’ Under normal circumstances some of the virology papers might take years. ‘To have them completed in a month, I find truly amazing,’ says Gallagher.

The article is delightful, describing the response from the scientific community. Graphics are mind-boggling. Truly a worthwhile read.

Antibiotic/Antimicrobial Resistance

❝ According to the report, more than 2.8 million antibiotic-resistant infections occur in the U.S. each year, and more than 35,000 people die as a result. In addition, 223,900 cases of Clostridioides difficile occurred in 2017 and at least 12,800 people died.

Dedicated prevention and infection control efforts in the U.S. are working to reduce the number of infections and deaths caused by antibiotic-resistant germs, but the number of people facing antibiotic resistance is still too high. More action is needed to fully protect people…

❝ The report lists 18 antibiotic-resistant bacteria and fungi into three categories based on level of concern to human health—urgent, serious, and concerning—and highlights…

❝ The report also includes a Watch List with three threats that have not spread resistance widely in the U.S. but could become common without a continued aggressive approach.

Your family doctor is probably hip to all this. Not so much heard from our politicians, whether local or some big deal in Washington, DC.. But, they’re the ones who get to move money around…decide whether grants go to corporate gladhanders…or to not-for-profit research.

RTFA. Think about it. Who do you trust to get something done?

Research Icebreaker Parked on Arctic Ice Floe for the Next Year


Esther Horvath/MOSAiC Expedition

❝ German research icebreaker Polarstern is now parked on an Arctic Ocean ice floe where researchers will set up camp for a one-year-long drift around the North Pole in the name of climate science.

❝ Experts from the MOSAiC expedition used satellite imagery and helicopter flights to scout the perfect ice floe, perhaps the most critical piece of the puzzle in the year-long expedition to study the climate system in the Central Arctic.

❝ Over the course drift, hundreds of experts from 19 countries will be on board for what is described as the largest-scale Arctic research expedition of all time…The mission: to take climate research to a completely new level by spending a full year at “ground zero” for climate change.

Fascinating stuff. Nowadays, being able to shuttle in and out of the research environment should help with sanity. I remember an old mate of mine who spent a long stretch BITD stationed in a remote military weather station in Thule, Greenland. Not a happy camper.

Researchers find mixed values for “thoughts and prayers”

❝ An experiment led by Assistant Professor Linda Thunstrom, of the Department of Economics in UW’s College of Business, found that Christians who suffer such adversity value thoughts and prayers from religious strangers, while atheists and agnostics believe they are worse off from such gestures…

❝ The debate over the value of “thoughts and prayers” has come to the forefront as a result of the verbal responses of political and other leaders to mass shootings and natural disasters such as hurricanes and wildfires. Some critics argue that expressing sympathy through thoughts and prayers is a meaningless gesture in response to tragedy — and that, in some cases, it’s an excuse to not take action…

❝ Specifically, the study found that, on average, Christian hurricane victims value prayers from a Christian stranger at $4.36, and $7.17 from a priest. In contrast, non-religious people are willing to pay $3.54 for a Christian stranger and $1.66 for a priest to not pray for them.

Likewise, Christians value thoughts from a religious stranger at $3.27, while non-religious people negatively value the same gesture at -$2.02.

You can find details over here. Chuckles pretty much anywhere.

Still dumb, still self-destructive


Getty Images

❝ Dr. John E. Parker was working at a West Virginia hospital in 2015 when a 31-year-old female patient was admitted with acute respiratory problems. A team of doctors ultimately suspected that her mysterious case of lipoid pneumonia might be related to vaping and weren’t sure they had seen anything like it before. They were intrigued enough to present the case report — a type of medical paper on unusual or provocative patient findings. Such reports can serve as a call to the medical community to be on the lookout, though they sometimes raise more questions than they provide answers.

❝ This summer, almost four years later, federal officials began investigating a national outbreak of severe lung illnesses linked to vaping that has struck more than 150 patients in 16 states…

❝ We really felt that it wasn’t going to be a one-off event and that it was what we usually called in public health a “sentinel” health event … that it was an example of a respiratory illness that can be caused by this exposure and that it probably wasn’t the first case ever seen nor would it be the last…

❝ I know we’ve seen a case [of alveolar hemorrhage syndrome] that we published, and in polling some colleagues we think we’ve probably also seen [cases of] cryptogenic organizing pneumonia as well as lipoid pneumonia and acute eosinophilic pneumonia. Yeah, we’ve certainly seen at least probably four forms of lung disease from vaping.

Interesting chronology of medical researchers discovering ailments from recreational, addictive foolishness. The medical community will continue to sort out deaths and impairment — while politicians and the government bodies chartered to preserve health sit around, twiddle their thumbs and do nothing for years.

Fire cloud — up close


Click to enlargeNOAA/NASA

❝ On August 8, 2019, a team of atmospheric scientists got an exceedingly rare look at fire clouds as they were forming. NASA’s DC-8 flying laboratory passed directly through a large pyrocumulonimbus that day as it was rising from a fire in eastern Washington. The flight was part of a joint NOAA and NASA field campaign called FIREX-AQ. Scientists are studying the composition and chemistry of smoke to better understand its impact on air quality and climate…

❝ The photograph above, shot from roughly 30,000 feet (9 kilometers), shows the setting Sun shining through thick smoke at 8 p.m. Mountain Time. Particles in the smoke reflect light in ways that make the Sun appear orange…

The flight was the most detailed sampling of a pyrocumulonimbus in history, explained Peterson. A second research aircraft flew over the plume a few hours earlier in the day, and mobile labs on the ground also made detailed measurements.

Amazing photos. Quality and timing should offer useful analysis, learning for future events and their global effect.