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Posts Tagged ‘Science

“The threat of a pandemic is different from that of a nerve agent, in that a disease can spread uncontrollably, long after the first carrier has succumbed”*…

We were, of course, warned. As we do our best to digest the news of emergent new strains of the COVID-19 virus, a look back at Annie Sparrow‘s 2016 New York Review of Books essay on pandemics…

Pandemics—the uncontrolled spread of highly contagious diseases across countries and continents—are a modern phenomenon. The word itself, a neologism from Greek words for “all” and “people,” has been used only since the mid-nineteenth century. Epidemics—localized outbreaks of diseases—have always been part of human history, but pandemics require a minimum density of population and an effective means of transport. Since “Spanish” flu burst from the trenches of World War I in 1918, infecting 20 percent of the world’s population and killing upward of 50 million people, fears of a similar pandemic have preoccupied public health practitioners, politicians, and philanthropists. World War II, in which the German army deliberately caused malaria epidemics and the Japanese experimented with anthrax and plague as biological weapons, created new fears…

According to the doctor, writer, and philanthropist Larry Brilliant, “outbreaks are inevitable, pandemics are optional.”

Much of human history can be seen as a struggle for survival between humans and microbes. Pandemics are microbe offensives; public health measures are human defenses. Water purification, sanitation, and vaccination are crucial to our living longer, better, even taller lives. But these measures of mass salvation are not sexy. While we know prevention is better and considerably cheaper than cure, there is little financial reward or glory in it. Philanthropists prefer to build hospitals rather than pay community health workers. Pharmaceutical companies prefer the Western market to the distant and poor Global South where people cannot afford to buy treatments. Education is a powerful social vaccine against the ignorance that enables pathogens to flourish, but insufficient to overcome the corruption of public goods by private interests. The current enthusiasm for detecting the next panic-inducing pathogen should not divert resources and research from the perennial threats that we already have. We must resist the tendency of familiarity and past failures to encourage contempt and indifference…

An important (and in its time, sadly, prescient) read: “The Awful Diseases on the Way,” from @annie_sparrow in @nybooks.

See also “6 of the Worst Pandemics in History” (source of the image above) and “A history of pandemics.”

[TotH to MK]

Hannah Fry


As we prioritize preparation, we might recall that it was on this date in 1935 that physicist Erwin Schrödinger published his famous thought experiment– now known as “Schrödinger’s cat“– a paradox that illustrates the problem of the Copenhagen interpretation of quantum mechanics.

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is s-cat.jpg


“Men knew better than they realized, when they placed the abode of the gods beyond the reach of gravity”*…

In search of a theory of everything…

Twenty-five particles and four forces. That description — the Standard Model of particle physics — constitutes physicists’ best current explanation for everything. It’s neat and it’s simple, but no one is entirely happy with it. What irritates physicists most is that one of the forces — gravity — sticks out like a sore thumb on a four-fingered hand. Gravity is different.

Unlike the electromagnetic force and the strong and weak nuclear forces, gravity is not a quantum theory. This isn’t only aesthetically unpleasing, it’s also a mathematical headache. We know that particles have both quantum properties and gravitational fields, so the gravitational field should have quantum properties like the particles that cause it. But a theory of quantum gravity has been hard to come by.

In the 1960s, Richard Feynman and Bryce DeWitt set out to quantize gravity using the same techniques that had successfully transformed electromagnetism into the quantum theory called quantum electrodynamics. Unfortunately, when applied to gravity, the known techniques resulted in a theory that, when extrapolated to high energies, was plagued by an infinite number of infinities. This quantization of gravity was thought incurably sick, an approximation useful only when gravity is weak.

Since then, physicists have made several other attempts at quantizing gravity in the hope of finding a theory that would also work when gravity is strong. String theory, loop quantum gravity, causal dynamical triangulation and a few others have been aimed toward that goal. So far, none of these theories has experimental evidence speaking for it. Each has mathematical pros and cons, and no convergence seems in sight. But while these approaches were competing for attention, an old rival has caught up.

The theory called asymptotically (as-em-TOT-ick-lee) safe gravity was proposed in 1978 by Steven Weinberg. Weinberg, who would only a year later share the Nobel Prize with Sheldon Lee Glashow and Abdus Salam for unifying the electromagnetic and weak nuclear force, realized that the troubles with the naive quantization of gravity are not a death knell for the theory. Even though it looks like the theory breaks down when extrapolated to high energies, this breakdown might never come to pass. But to be able to tell just what happens, researchers had to wait for new mathematical methods that have only recently become available…

For decades, physicists have struggled to create a quantum theory of gravity. Now an approach that dates to the 1970s is attracting newfound attention: “Why an Old Theory of Everything Is Gaining New Life,” from @QuantaMagazine.

* Arthur C. Clarke, 2010: Odyssey Two


As we unify, we might pause to remember Sir Arthur Stanley Eddington, OM, FRS; he died in this date in 1944.  An astrophysicist, mathematician, and philosopher of science known for his work on the motion, distribution, evolution and structure of stars, Eddington is probably best remembered for his relationship to Einstein:  he was, via a series of widely-published articles, the primary “explainer” of Einstein’s Theory of General Relativity to the English-speaking world; and he was, in 1919, the leader of the experimental team that used observations of a solar eclipse to confirm the theory.


“A man will turn over half a library to make one book.”*…

Source: Takram

Continuing yesterday’s focus on books…

Marioka Shoten is a bookstore that sells only one book at a time (but sells multiple copies of it) for a week. The bookseller Yoshiyuki Morioka carefully selects a title from novels, manga, biographies and graphic novels for showcasing every week. With the extreme approach to curation, the bookstore is a blend of a shop, a gallery and a meeting place with an essence of minimalism…

From Rishikesh Sreehari (@rishikeshshari), “Single Room with a Single Book,” in his fascinating newsletter 10 + 1 Things.

See also, “Japanese bookshop stocks only one book at a time,” in @guardian.

* Samuel Johnson


As we contemplate curation, we might send rational birthday greetings to Francois-Marie Arouet, better known as Voltaire; he was born on this date in 1694.  The Father of the Age of Reason, he produced works in almost every literary form: plays, poems, novels, essays, and historical and scientific works– more than 2,000 books and pamphlets (and more than 20,000 letters).  He popularized Isaac Newton’s work in France by arranging a translation of Principia Mathematica to which he added his own commentary.

A social reformer, Voltaire used satire to criticize the intolerance, religious dogma, and oligopolistic privilege of his day, perhaps nowhere more sardonically than in Candide.


“The past, like the future, is indefinite and exists only as a spectrum of possibilities”*…

A recent paper by Robert Lanza and others suggests that physical reality isn’t independent of us, “objective,” but is the product of networks of observers…

Is there physical reality that is independent of us? Does objective reality exist at all? Or is the structure of everything, including time and space, created by the perceptions of those observing it? Such is the groundbreaking assertion of a new paper published in the Journal of Cosmology and Astroparticle Physics.

The paper’s authors include Robert Lanza, a stem cell and regenerative medicine expert, famous for the theory of biocentrism, which argues that consciousness is the driving force for the existence of the universe. He believes that the physical world that we perceive is not something that’s separate from us but rather created by our minds as we observe it. According to his biocentric view, space and time are a byproduct of the “whirl of information” in our head that is weaved together by our mind into a coherent experience.

His new paper, co-authored by Dmitriy Podolskiy and Andrei Barvinsky, theorists in quantum gravity and quantum cosmology, shows how observers influence the structure of our reality.

According to Lanza and his colleagues, observers can dramatically affect “the behavior of observable quantities” both at microscopic and massive spatiotemporal scales. In fact, a “profound shift in our ordinary everyday worldview” is necessary, wrote Lanza in an interview with Big Think. The world is not something that is formed outside of us, simply existing on its own. “Observers ultimately define the structure of physical reality itself,” he stated.

How does this work? Lanza contends that a network of observers is necessary and is “inherent to the structure of reality.” As he explains, observers — you, me, and anyone else — live in a quantum gravitational universe and come up with “a globally agreed-upon cognitive model” of reality by exchanging information about the properties of spacetime. “For, once you measure something,” Lanza writes, “the wave of probability to measure the same value of the already probed physical quantity becomes ‘localized’ or simply ‘collapses.’” That’s how reality comes to be consistently real to us all. Once you keep measuring a quantity over and over, knowing the result of the first measurement, you will see the outcome to be the same.

“Similarly, if you learn from somebody about the outcomes of their measurements of a physical quantity, your measurements and those of other observers influence each other ‒ freezing the reality according to that consensus,” added Lanza, explaining further that “a consensus of different opinions regarding the structure of reality defines its very form, shaping the underlying quantum foam,” explained Lanza.

In quantum terms, an observer influences reality through decoherence, which provides the framework for collapsing waves of probability, “largely localized in the vicinity of the cognitive model which the observer builds in their mind throughout their lifespan,” he added.

Lanza says, “The observer is the first cause, the vital force that collapses not only the present, but the cascade of spatiotemporal events we call the past. Stephen Hawking was right when he said: ‘The past, like the future, is indefinite and exists only as a spectrum of possibilities.’”

Could an artificially intelligent entity without consciousness be dreaming up our world? Lanza believes biology plays an important role, as he explains in his book The Grand Biocentric Design: How Life Creates Reality, which he co-authored with the physicist Matej Pavsic.

While a bot could conceivably be an observer, Lanza thinks a conscious living entity with the capacity for memory is necessary to establish the arrow of time. “‘A brainless’ observer does not experience time and/or decoherence with any degree of freedom,” writes Lanza. This leads to the cause and effect relationships we can notice around us. Lanza thinks that “we can only say for sure that a conscious observer does indeed collapse a quantum wave function.”…

Another key aspect of their work is that it resolves “the exasperating incompatibility between quantum mechanics and general relativity,” which was a sticking point even for Albert Einstein.

The seeming incongruity of these two explanations of our physical world — with quantum mechanics looking at the molecular and subatomic levels and general relativity at the interactions between massive cosmic structures like galaxies and black holes — disappears once the properties of observers are taken into account.

While this all may sound speculative, Lanza says their ideas are being tested using Monte Carlo simulations on powerful MIT computer clusters and will soon be tested experimentally.

Is the physical universe independent from us, or is it created by our minds? “Is human consciousness creating reality?@RobertLanza

We might wonder, if this is so, how reality emerged at all. Perhaps one possibility is implied in “Consciousness was upon him before he could get out of the way.”

* Stephen Hawking


As we conjure with consciousness, we might recall that it was on this date in 1908 (the same year that he was awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics) that Ernest Rutherford announced in London that he had isolated a single atom of matter. The following year, he, Hans Geiger (later of “counter” fame), and Ernest Marsden conducted the “Gold Foil Experiment,” the results of which replaced J. J. Thomson‘s “Plum Pudding Model” of the atom with what became known as the “Rutherford Model“: a very small charged nucleus, containing much of the atom’s mass, orbited by low-mass electrons.


“24 hours in a day, 24 beers in a case. Coincidence?”*…

Social distancing makes a soul thirsty– and as the Journal of the American Medical Association reports, that has had consequences…

Alcohol consumption has substantially increased during the COVID-19 pandemic… We examined national changes in waiting list registration and liver transplantation for ALD and the association with alcohol sales during the COVID-19 pandemic. We hypothesized that waiting list registrations and deceased donor liver transplants (DDLTs) for alcoholic hepatitis (AH), which can develop after a short period of alcohol misuse, would disproportionately rise…

This cross-sectional study found that waiting list registrations and DDLTs for AH increased significantly during COVID-19, exceeding the volumes forecasted by pre–COVID-19 trends by more than 50%, whereas trends for AC and non-ALD remained unchanged. While we cannot confirm causality, this disproportionate increase in association with increasing alcohol sales may indicate a relationship with known increases in alcohol misuse during COVID-19. Since less than 6% of patients with severe AH are listed for transplantation, increasing waiting list volume during COVID-19 represents a small fraction of the increase in AH, a preventable disease with 6-month mortality up to 70%.

Pandemic drinking is up– way up. So, it turns out, is serious liver disease: “Association of COVID-19 With New Waiting List Registrations and Liver Transplantation for Alcoholic Hepatitis in the United States.”

And lest we think think that waning COVID-19 pressure will be the end of all of this, a warning: “The Coming Age of Climate Trauma.”

[Image above: source]

* Steven Wright


As we muse on moderation, we might recall that it was on this date in 2012 that Charles Darwin received about 4,000 write-in votes in the election in Georgia’s 10th Congressional District. Republican Paul Broun, an M.D. who was running unopposed for re-election, had given (the September before) a campaign speech at the Liberty Baptist Church Sportsman’s Banquet in which he said “All that stuff I was taught about evolution and embryology and the Big Bang Theory, all that is lies straight from the pit of Hell.”

In response, radio talk show host Neil Boortz and University of Georgia plant biology professor Jim Leebens-Mack spearheaded a campaign to run the English naturalist and evolutionary theorist against Broun, a young earth creationist. They had no expectation of unseating him (and indeed, Broun carried his district handily) but hoped to draw attention to these comments from the scientific community and to have Broun removed from his post on the House Science Committee– at which they also failed.

Paul Broun [source]
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