The Asian Flu in 1956 killed between one and four million people worldwide. SARS in 2002 infected 8,098 and killed 774 in seventeen counties. H7N9 emerged ten years later to strike at least 1,223 people and kill four out of every ten of them. Now, the milder, yet more infectious COVID-19 has sickened more than 70,000 across the globe, resulting in 1,771 deaths.
All of these outbreaks originated in China, but why? Why is China such a hotspot for novel diseases?
"It’s not a big mystery why this is happening… lots of concentrated population, with intimate contact with lots of species of animals that are potential reservoirs, and they don’t have great hygiene required. It’s a recipe for spitting out these kinds of viruses," Dr. Steven Novella recently opined on an episode of the Skeptics' Guide to the Universe.
South Central China is a noted "mixing vessel" for viruses, Dr. Peter Daszak, President of EcoHealth Alliance, told PBS in 2016. There's lots of livestock farming, particularly poultry and pigs, with limited sanitation and lax oversight. Farmers often bring their livestock to "wet markets" where they can come into contact with all sorts of exotic animals. The various birds, mammals, and reptiles host viruses that can jump species and rapidly mutate, even potentially infecting humans. Experts are pretty sure this is precisely what happened with the current COVID-19 coronavirus, which is why, on January 30th, China issued a temporary ban on the trade of wild animals.
Professor Emeritus Eviatar Nevo, the founder and director of the Institute of Evolution at the University of Haifa in Israel, knows a thing or two about evolutionary biology, as his thousands of scientific publications will attest. Sit him down on a cool, yet sunny spring day at the base of a canyon on a slope of Mount Carmel near the University of Haifa, and knowledge will flow from his mouth like a resplendent fountain. This place in particular provides Nevo, who just celebrated his 91st birthday, with a special burst of inspiration. It's called Evolution Canyon.
It is "the best laboratory to study nature," Nevo insisted during an outdoor lecture he gave in 2018. “In a local environment, you have global phenomena.”
A layperson might stand at the base of the canyon, notice the lovely array of wildflowers dancing in the wind before them, the savanna-like, rocky slope to their left, and the lush, humid, and forested slope to their right, and think, "Wow, that's pretty." An evolutionary biologist would absorb the same picturesque scenery and think, "What a great place to explore the adaptation of organisms to their environment!"
“Evolution Canyon is not only a model for biodiversity evolution, it’s also a model for adaptation evolution… speciation… global warming… host-pathogen interaction,” Nevo says.
The controversy began with a scientific paper.
Israeli mathematician Eliyahu Rips, together with Yoav Rosenberg and Doron Witztum, pored through the Hebrew Book of Genesis in search of hidden codes, and they apparently found some... The names of prominent Jewish Rabbis and the dates they were active were concealed within the text, pretty incredible considering that they existed hundreds of years after the Torah was written! Rips and his colleagues extracted these names and dates using the Equidistant Letter Sequence (ELS) method. Basically, they entered all of the letters of the Torah into a computer and searched for meaningful words and numbers that arose when starting at one letter and skipping other letters at regular intervals, either forwards or backwards. For example, the sentence, "He was a bad instructor" can be seen to contain the hidden word "habit" if you start at H and skip every couple letters.
Rips and his co-authors got their work published in the reputable peer-reviewed journal Statistical Science in 1994. The editors of the journal published the paper as a "challenging puzzle" to readers, not as verified account of divine religious predictions. Nevertheless, a great many people took it as the latter.
One of those people was journalist Michael Drosnin, who used the ELS method to find numerous accounts of the Bible apparently predicting all sorts of future events in concealed "code". His book, The Bible Code, became a bestseller. In it, he wrote "no human could have encoded the Bible in this way." He added, "I do not know if it is God," but insisted that some sort of mysterious intelligence was behind it.
Back in 1991, scientists were amazed when they made the discovery...
In the eerie environment inside the abandoned Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant, researchers remotely piloting robots spotted pitch black fungi growing on the walls of the decimated No. 4 nuclear reactor and even apparently breaking down radioactive graphite from the core itself. What's more, the fungi seemed to be growing towards sources of radiation, as if the microbes were attracted to them!
More than a decade later, University of Saskatchewan Professor Ekaterina Dadachova (then at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York) and her colleagues acquired some of the fungi and found that they grew faster in the presence of radiation compared to other fungi. The three species tested, Cladosporium sphaerospermum, Cryptococcus neoformans and Wangiella dermatitidis, all had large amounts of the pigment melanin, which is found – among many places – in the skin of humans. People with a darker skin tone have much more of it. Melanin is known to absorb light and dissipate ultraviolet radiation, but in the fungi, it seemed to also be absorbing radiation and converting it into chemical energy for growth, perhaps in a similar fashion to how plants utilize the green pigment chlorophyll to attain energy from photosynthesis.
To learn more about Chernobyl's radiation-loving fungi, Jet Propulsion Laboratory researchers sent eight species collected from the area to the International Space Station (ISS) back in 2016, seeking to observe how the organisms would react. The ISS environment exposes inhabitants to between 40 and 80 times more radiation than on Earth. Researchers behind the effort hoped that the fungi would produce molecules that could be adapted into drugs that could be given to astronauts to protect them from radiation on long-term missions. Results of the experiment have yet to be published.
What does it really mean for something to be "scientific", and why is that label so powerful? Should we be equally confident in all scientific claims?
In his recent book, What Science Is and How It Really Works, University of Virginia Professor of Pathology James C. Zimring, aspired to answer those vital questions. He correctly recognizes that the process of science is woefully misunderstood by the general public and even by many scientists. Anchored with a keen grasp of philosophy, logic, and reason, Zimring attempted to resolve a variety of misconstructions.
A particularly thought-provoking passage came early in the book. Zimring notes that it is common for scientists to posit auxiliary hypotheses to explain phenomena that cannot be accounted for under accepted, evidentially entrenched theories. For example, when measurements of stars' velocities at the outskirts of spiral galaxies didn't jive with firmly established ideas of galactic motion, scientists argued that the universe must be full of unobservable matter that does not emit light or energy: dark matter.
That's quite a claim! Today, armed with lots of indirect observations, cosmologists estimate that dark matter constitutes 85% of the mass of, well, everything.
In the wake of the Fukushima-Daiichi nuclear disaster in March 2011, at least 164,865 people were evacuated from their homes as far as thirty kilometers away. Most have now returned, but some 40,000 people are still unable to do so, as the government prohibits lodging in areas where the annual radiation dose exceeds 50 millisieverts, roughly equivalent to three full-body CT scans.
But where humans are absent, wildlife has flourished.
University of Georgia wildlife biologist James Beasley and a team of colleagues recently set up 106 cameras in Fukushima's evacuation zone and captured more than 267,000 images of animals over 120 days. Wild boar, hares, macaques, pheasants, foxes, raccoon dogs, martens, bears, and civets were a few of the many creatures spotted. Beasley and his co-authors found no evidence that radiation exposure had harmed animal populations.
“Based on these analyses, our results show that level of human activity, elevation and habitat type were the primary factors influencing the abundance of the species evaluated, rather than radiation levels,” he said in a statement.
A little more than fifty-seven years ago, on July 8, 1962, a bright new "sun" dawned in the nighttime sky over Hawaii. Briefly resembling the blazing sphere of nuclear fusion that is our bright sun, this fiery burst quickly ballooned to seem as if it would consume the sky itself. It was a thermonuclear blast, 250 miles up, triggered by a 1.4 megaton fusion bomb called Starfish Prime. To date, it remains the largest nuclear test ever conducted in outer space.
U.S. government personnel with the Atomic Energy Commission and the Defense Atomic Support Agency carried out the experiment, witnessed by thousands of Americans on the Hawaiian Islands. Though Starfish Prime detonated roughly 900 miles away, the initial spherical explosion could be viewed quite clearly from the ground. The sky then lit up with artificial auroras, a result of some of the 10^29 energetic electrons released from the blast reaching and being absorbed by the atoms and molecules of Earth's mesophere. These could be seen as far away as New Zealand. For roughly seven minutes, the night was a glorious light show, "like turning on all the lights over the Hawaiian Islands for a super-super athletic contest," the Honolulu Advertiser reported. Afterwards, the sky gradually dimmed to an eerie glow which persisted for four hours.
Starfish Prime's effects were also felt on the ground. The blast triggered an electromagnetic pulse (EMP), a result of electrons being rapidly accelerated and fleetingly forming their own powerful magnetic field. Citizens reported that almost at the very instant of the blast, radios blacked out, telephones stopped working, and thirty strings of streetlights on the island of Oahu spectacularly failed.
Higher up, Starfish Prime's effects lingered for months. Extra energetic electrons trapped by Earth's magnetic field formed their own radiation belts which damaged the internal components of various orbiting satellites. At least six were rendered inoperable over time, including Telstar 1, the first satellite to relay television pictures and telephone calls through space.
In an ideal world, humans could grow enough food to feed the world without synthetic pesticides, but that is not the world we live in. Readily arable land is limited and all sorts of fauna and flora pests incessantly assault agriculture. At this time, pesticides are necessary tools to stave off our species' starvation.
Despite pesticides' obvious utility, humans are generally afraid of consuming these mostly unseen chemicals. That's understandable, as various organizations have labeled them "toxins" or "carcinogens" and have even published lists of fruits and vegetables that contain the most synthetic pesticides, apparently so you can avoid eating them.
Rest assured, synthetic pesticide residues on food are safe in the minuscule amounts present – we're talking parts per billion. What's more, many are even less "toxic" than substances you encounter each and ever day. For example, glyphosate, the most commonly used herbicide in the U.S., is about three times less deadly than Tylenol and thirty times less deadly than caffeine.
To showcase further how misplaced our fear of synthetic pesticides is, we can perform another, oft-ignored comparison: pitting synthetic pesticides on fruits and vegetables against the "natural" pesticides that they produce in far greater quantities themselves.
The year 2020 is underway! But before we chug along through yet another new year (and decade), let us pause and look back at the top science stories of 2019, determined by aggregating other "top science story" lists from only reputable sources.
Our methods remain the same as past years: We performed a Google search for "top science stories" lists, selecting only those from go-to RCS sources. Points were awarded to each story based on its ranking. For example, on a typical "top ten" list the #1 story earned ten points, #2 earned nine, #3 earned eight, and so on. Lists that had fewer than ten rankings were normalized to a 10-point scale. For the lists that did not rank the stories, each story earned 5.5 points, which is the average score if you add together all the digits from 1 to 10 and divide by ten.
Recently, a pediatric endocrinologist was at her wits' end, and so, she blew the whistle. The endocrinologist, who chose to remain anonymous, wrote to the radio show This American Life claiming she was "inundated" with affluent parents seeking human growth hormone (HGH) for their short, but otherwise healthy, children. The requests now constitute roughly half of her caseload, she reported. Even parents of kids whose heights are in the 40th percentile – just barely below average – have been demanding HGH.
Other doctors have previously been taken aback by this trend, which, as University of Wisconsin pediatric endocrinologist David. B. Allen told This American Life, appears to be centered in wealthier areas of the United States.
It's easy to see why. HGH treatments generally last three to five years and cost upwards of $300,000. And they do work. Studies show the average boost to height is 3.5 to 7.5 centimeters (1.4 to 2.8 inches)
Legally speaking, there is nothing wrong with parents requesting these treatments for their children. HGH may be banned in Major League Baseball, but the FDA has allowed its use in kids with growth hormone deficiency since 1985. In 2003, the agency broadened HGH's availability to kids with "Idiopathic Short Stature" (ISS), in other words, kids who are short with no clear cause. Pharmaceutical company Eli Lilly and Company provided the only diagnostic criteria, saying the shortest 1.2% of men and women have ISS. This corresponds to under 160 cm (63 inches) for adult men and 150 cm (59 inches) for adult women. ISS does not have a regulated definition, however, so doctors can legally prescribe HGH to children whose heights are well above the cutoff.
There is never a shortage of people who abuse science, logic, and reason, whether out of cynical opportunism or simple ignorance. And so, every year, RealClearScience counts down the most glaring forays into junk science. Perhaps one day human actions will be guided by evidence and careful consideration of the facts, but this utopian dream did not come true in 2019. Here are nine examples to prove it.
9. Florida's New Board of Education Chairman Doesn't Support Evolution Being Taught as "Fact." This summer, Andy Tuck was elected to chair Florida's Board of Education, a committee that guides and directs public education in the state, from kindergarten through college. Eleven years ago, Tuck said "as a person of faith, I strongly oppose any study of evolution as fact at all. I’m purely in favor of it staying a theory and only a theory... I won’t support any evolution being taught as fact at all in any of our schools." When recently asked if his views had changed, Tuck gave a noncommittal answer, simply saying that students need to learn how to sort through information so they can arrive at sound conclusions.
8. Bizarre Fox News Segment Suggests the Metric System Is a Global Conspiracy. "Esperanto died, but the metric system continues, this weird, utopian, inelegant, creepy system that we alone have resisted," Fox News host Tucker Carlson said earlier this spring when conversing with art critic James Panero. He and Panero proceeded to spout odd, misinformed arguments against the "original system of global revolution and new world orders." Whether serious or not, the brief segment was certainly strange and full of logical fallacies.
7. Grain-Free Dog Food May Be Killing Dogs. With all of the inane fad diets, it was only a matter of time before hucksters marketed one for our pets as well. Enter grain-free dog food.
Millions of scientific papers are published each year, detailing new discoveries, reviewing the state of research, and opining on important matters. But most people don't delve into daunting databases to learn the latest science news – who has time for that? Rather, they stay up to date with the help of various news outlets, which dig up and report on the stories that matter. At RealClearScience, we strive to steer you towards the best of these sources and castigate the worst. Near the end of the calendar year, we recognize what we perceive to be the leading websites for science content. Here are our picks for 2019:
For fantastic coverage of health and medicine, check out STAT.
Smithsonian provides tidy news round-ups each weekday with an extra dose of stories spanning, culture, geography, and history.
When construction ended and the interchange opened in June 2009, there were groans and grumbles galore. Engineers had implemented a radical new design – the first of its kind in the United States – where Interstate 44 and Route 13 meet in Springfield, Missouri, and many drivers weren't enthused with being guinea pigs. Motorists on Route 13 were now forced to stop at a traffic traffic light, then follow the snaking road as it gently curved left and straightened out. For a fleeting few seconds as they crossed the bridge over Interstate 44, motorists drove on the left side of the road – like they were in England!* Some smoothly turned left to travel onto I-44, while those continuing on Route 13 crossed under another traffic light as they veered right and exited the interchange back on the right side of the road, their experience with the diverging diamond interchange (DDI) now concluded.
More than ten years later, the groans and grumbles are mostly gone as what was novel has now become mundane. There's also simply much less to complain about. Traffic flow has significantly improved and crashes are way down. Why? Because with a DDI there are no left turns that require drivers to cross an oncoming lane of traffic.
The Missouri Department of Transportation has now constructed five more DDI interchanges around Springfield, partly because they were 75% cheaper to build than traditional diamond exchanges. Subsequent analyses showed that they reduced fatal crashes by at least 55% and total crashes by roughly 40%.
The U.S. Department of Transportation's Federal Highway Administration also touts DDIs. They reference a study which compared DDI designs to conventional diamond interchange designs under a range of high and low traffic volume combinations. For higher traffic volumes, the DDI designs reduced delays by 15-60 percent and increased throughput by 10-30 percent.
There are 13,865 nuclear warheads presently in existence, but it could only take one hundred of them to set off a "Nuclear Autumn," creating a 10 to 20% shortfall in agricultural production, destabilizing industrial supply chains, and causing widespread starvation, possibly resulting in the deaths of over two billion people.
Scientists Joshua M. Pearce and David C. Denkenberger, respectively from Michigan Tech University and Tennessee State University, arrived at that conclusion last year in a paper published to the journal Safety.
The duo sought to rationally examine the concept of nuclear deterrence.
"Stated simply: no country should have more nuclear weapons than the number necessary for unacceptable levels of environmental blow-back on the nuclear power’s own country if they were used," they wrote.
For well over a decade, Bill Gates has funded TerraPower, a startup seeking to design, build, and commercialize a revolutionary nuclear reactor. Their traveling-wave reactor design uses depleted uranium to operate, rather than uranium-235 like in current reactors, and is built so that if left unattended, it will slowly shut down, making a catastrophic meltdown a near impossibility. Optimistic estimates from the company suggest that current American stockpiles of spent nuclear fuel could be used in traveling-wave reactors to electrify the entire country for hundreds of years, and for far cheaper than current nuclear plants. This is carbon-free, baseload electricity that could easily provide the foundation for a next-generation, renewable-focused energy grid.
In partnership with the state-owned China National Nuclear Corporation (CNNC), TerraPower was preparing to break ground on a prototype 600 MegaWatt reactor in Fujian province, but then political disaster struck. Late in 2018, Department of Energy policy changes stemming from the U.S. - China trade war forced TerraPower to end its agreement with the CNNC, leaving their potentially game-changing reactor without a home.
This saga brings up a key question: why was an American company, funded by one of America's most wealthy and respected philanthropists, going to China to build their next-generation nuclear reactor? Why not here? The simple answer is that Americans are notoriously afraid of and unfriendly toward nuclear power. Though nuclear has reliably and safely provided roughly 20% of electricity in the U.S. for the past quarter-century, a majority of Americans oppose it and politicians have repeatedly erected more and more regulatory roadblocks, driving up costs and making new nuclear power plants nearly impossible to build. Even innovative ideas like what Bill Gates and TerraPower are proposing are not welcome.
Could a Boeing 737 land on an aircraft carrier? It seems like an absolutely crazy question...
An empty Boeing 737 weighs 75,000 pounds, has a wingspan of 112 feet, typically lands at 178 miles per hour, and requires a minimum landing runway distance of 1,710 meters, about 19 football fields. Nimitz-class aircraft carriers, the largest ever built, are wide enough for a 737, but only offer a maximum landing runway of 333 meters.
So, yeah, that sounds like a "no."
Colonel Chris Hadfield, a retired pilot for both the Royal Canadian Air Force and the U.S. Navy, and a former commander of the International Space Station, thinks it's possible, however. He described how landing a passenger plane on an aircraft carrier might just work to author, comic, and science enthusiast Randall Munroe for Munroe's recently published book How To: Absurd Scientific Advice for Common Real-World Problems.
There's a reason why companies plaster the word "PROTEIN" on their products: the macronutrient has a health halo. While carbohydrates and fats have both been vilified over the years, protein has remained almost entirely unscathed. This is mostly due to an invisible insinuation that is also an omnipresent myth: eating lots of protein makes you build lean muscle.
Sorry, but that's not true.
While muscles absolutely require protein to repair and grow, consuming more protein over what is recommended will not automatically make your muscles bulk up. If that were true, then the average American would be far more muscle-bound, as we consume much more protein than we need, about 100 grams per day compared to the recommended 65.
Interwoven into our notions that more protein will make us stronger is the corollary idea that protein will not make us fat. However, like carbohydrates, protein caries four calories per gram. In the body, protein is broken down into its constituent amino acids. Any amino acids not used for the body's bones, tendons, enzymes, etc. are subsequently converted to glucose (sugar) predominantly or ketones. The glucose can later be stored as fat.
Experiments seeking to produce weight loss are a dime a dozen these days. In the midst of a burgeoning obesity epidemic, there is no shortage of dietary solutions demanding to be studied.
But fifty years ago, as obesity was beginning to crop up on researchers' radar, a study of a different sort helped to radically alter prevailing scientific views on the matter.
Experts today recognize that chronic obesity is a nuanced health issue influenced by behavioral, genetic, physiological, and cultural factors. In the 1960s, however, conventional knowledge held that obesity was a simple problem of laziness.
George A. Bray, a University Professor emeritus in endocrinology at Louisiana State University, dedicated his half-century career to studying obesity. He summarized the archaic views of decades ago (some of which persist in the general population today) in a recent article.
Some people consider the Great Plains of America to be "flyover country." The truth of that pejorative falls outside the realm of science. It is true, however, that 80 million years ago one could not cross the heart of North America without flying... or swimming. That's because a great, shallow ocean once stretched from what is now the Gulf of Mexico all the way to the Arctic Ocean.
Remnants of the Western Interior Seaway can be found above and below the ground. In Gove County, Kansas, the Monument Rocks jut magnificently seventy feet up from what is otherwise a mostly flat and featureless terrain. The remarkable earthen structures are made of carbonate rocks which formed on the seafloor over the ocean's sixty-million-year lifespan. Standing near the formations, backdropped by a bright blue sky, one can almost imagine standing on the prehistoric seabed back in the Cretaceous Period, 2,500 feet below the ocean's surface.
That's about as deep as the Western Interior Seaway got, which is positively shallow compared to the average depth of oceans today, roughly 12,100 feet. This, however, meant that the Sun's life-giving rays touched a significant portion of the water column, and so, the ocean teemed with all sorts of marine creatures. Paleontologists have unearthed fossils of plesiosaurs and mosasaurs, giant marine reptiles that grew up to sixty feet long. They've also dug up the remains of huge sharks, turtles the size of cars, and clams six feet in diameter, the largest to ever exist.
The Western Interior Seaway formed about 100 million years ago when the mountains that now define western North America lifted up as a result of tectonic forces. Those same forces flexed the land east of the mountain range downward. Waters from the Arctic Sea and the Tethys Sea (now the Gulf of Mexico) flowed in to fill the lowlands.
To most laypersons, Tyrannosaurus rex epitomizes the dinosaurs, but in truth, the 40-foot-long, 14,000-pound carnivore prowled the Earth for just two million years, a paltry portion of dinosaurs' 165-million-year reign. And that's not the only surprising fact about the "Tyrant King." Here are five more:
1. Tyrannosaurus rex was one of the last non-avian dinosaurs to exist. Fossils suggest that T. rex lived between 68 and 66 million years ago, right up until the notorious Cretaceous–Paleogene extinction event. This mass extinction was likely triggered when a ten to fifteen kilometer-wide asteroid slammed into the Yucatan Peninusla, releasing energy equivalent to a billion Hiroshima atomic bombs. That T. rex existed at the end of the dinosaur's story presents a thought-provoking fact – as pointed out by science writer Riley Black, "Less time separates us from Tyrannosaurus rex than separated T. rex from Stegosaurus."
2. T. rex may have had the most powerful bite of all time. T. rex sported a four-foot-long jaw and potentially the most powerful bite of all time, though the infamous shark Megalodon might have a bone to pick about that. Speaking of bones, T. rex's jaw could easily crush them, with each of its sizable teeth generating an astounding 431,000 pounds per square inch of pressure, which could have literally caused bones to explode.
3. T. rex only roamed the western part of North America. While T. rex's legend spans the globe, its actual range was limited to what is now western North America, from southwest Mexico to Alaska. Back then, this region was an island continent scientists have dubbed Laramidia, flanked by the Pacific Ocean on the west and the Western Interior Seaway on the east, which flooded what is now the Great Plains.