In the mid-20th century, under Joseph Stalin's Soviet regime in Russia, Trofim Lysenko pushed an ideological system of agriculture that, among many questionable planks, contended that various crop plants could be physically reshaped and their new characteristics passed on, thus producing more food. Lysenkoism became state dogma amidst Stalin's war on 'western' genetics, and the effects were predictably tragic: crops failed and tens of millions starved.
Lysenko's notion that acquired traits can be inherited did not originate with him. Rather, he repurposed ideas expounded upon by French biologist Jean-Baptiste Lamarck, who himself repurposed commonly held ideas.
"[Lamarck] merely endorsed a belief which had been generally accepted for at least 2,200 years before his time and used it to explain how evolution could have taken place," historian of science Conway Zirkle wrote.
In Lamarck's book Philosophie Zoologique, published in 1809, he described two laws to explain biological evolution, constituting the first cohesive theory to do so, later dubbed 'Lamarckism'. Bryan M. Turner, a Professor of Experimental Genetics at the University of Birmingham in the U.K., described them in a 2013 article.
A single virus particle – or virion – of SARS-CoV-2 is just 50 to 200 nanometers in diameter. Though diminutive in size, this virus has now upended human life on Earth. Travel is essentially shut down, millions are out of work, and hundreds of thousands are dead.
More biological machines than living entities, viruses number in the nonillions. (There's roughly 10^31 individual viruses, or virions, on the planet.) A virus is composed of an RNA or DNA genome and a protein shell called a capsid. Some even have basic membranes – like outer skin – called envelopes. That's essentially it. A virus' sole drive is to replicate itself, and it can only do so inside living cells, which unfortunately usually results in the death of those cells.
Certain viruses target human cells. A few have grown so adept at invading our cells that they infect the majority of humans on Earth. It's a near certainty that you are, or have been, infected by one of these viruses:
1. Epstein–Barr virus. Spread through saliva, this virus (pictured top) is the primary cause of the mild yet protracted disease mononucleosis, commonly know as mono. In the United States, about 90% of adults show evidence of previous active infection. The term "active" is needed because once the initial infection is beaten back, the Epstein–Barr virus lies dormant in the individual's B cells, a type of white blood cell, for the rest of their life. In this form, the virus is harmless, but it can reactivate when the immune system is stressed and cause illness once again.
This week, I joined a rapidly growing group of 14,183 people via the organization 1 Day Sooner in volunteering for human challenge trials (HCTs) to test promising vaccines against the novel coronavirus. If selected, I would be administered a candidate vaccine or a placebo vaccine then deliberately exposed to the SARS-CoV-2 coronavirus.
I did not sign up for this endeavor seeking heroism or notoriety, but because I weighed my own personal risks against the benefits to global society. In this calculation, there is an overwhelming net benefit. As a white, healthy, physically active 32-year-old with no underlying health conditions, my risk of death from COVID-19 could be as high as 1 in 1,200, but more likely as low as .014 percent, roughly 1 in 7,400. Participants in HCTs would be given small, controlled doses of virus and quarantined with excellent medical care, so that rate could be even lower. Still, we can estimate that if 20,000 people took part in HCTs, between two and seventeen participants could die.
In the absence of HCTs, thousands of participants would be given experimental vaccines or placebos in phase III trials then asked to go about their lives so they can potentially be exposed to the novel coronavirus. These trials last many months or even years to ensure adequate infection numbers and sample sizes to ascertain efficacy. HCTs could attain more accurate results in a fraction of the time. Roughly 5,000 people are currently dying every day from COVID-19. That number could swell this winter in the event of a predicted second wave. If three months could be shaved off the estimated 12 to 18 months needed to produce an effective vaccine, hundreds of thousands of lives could be saved. Millions more could safely return to livelihoods, visit quarantined loved ones (particularly the elderly), and resume abandoned pastimes that much sooner.
There is presently a debate over whether or not human challenge trials for COVID-19 should be permitted. That debate will grow more pressing as phase I and II trials – meant to gauge safety, preliminary efficacy, optimal composition, and dose – for some of the dozens of vaccine candidates near completion this summer. The two main arguments against HCTs are ethical and practical. Ethically, given that we still know comparatively little about SARS-CoV-2, can there truly be informed consent for trial volunteers?
Western Europe hosted the most fatal plague pandemic in history – the Black Death killed over 50 million in the mid-14th century. Today, however, plague is essentially extinct in that part of the world. Across the Atlantic, the United States still sees between one and seventeen cases of the infamous bacterial disease each year. At least 106 people have been infected since 2000, with twelve deaths.
Plague is caused by the bacterium Yersinia pestis, which most often spreads from the bite of infected fleas. When the bacterium infects humans or other mammals, it usually multiplies quickly, causing fever, weakness, headache, and a variety of other symptoms depending upon the part of the body the pathogen attacks. Lymph nodes swollen to characteristic buboes hint that the bacterium has entered the lymphatic system, while blackened skin indicates that plague has reached the blood.
Thankfully, the disease is readily treatable today with early administration of antibiotics. Its rarity in the U.S. can result in misdiagnosis, however, which contributes to the roughly ten percent death rate.
In the U.S., plague became a harsh reality rather than a distant piece of history relegated to Europe in 1900, when steamships bearing immigrants, goods, and infected rodents arrived on the west coast. California experienced almost all of the resulting 280 cases and 172 deaths over the next eight years. Many politicians, officials, and newspapers initially covered up the outbreak, worried that it would devastate the state's lucrative and growing agriculture industry.
Mice are not humans. This obvious truth, coupled with issues like poor methodology, reporting bias, and sloppy statistics, explains why – historically – studies conducted on mice have rarely translated to us.
Those latter problems always seem to plague scientific research, no matter how hard scientists try to weed them out. Perhaps that's why in the early 2000s, researchers began working in earnest to re-engineer laboratory mice altogether. The goal? Make them a little more human.
"Humanized models – mice expressing human transgenes or engrafted with functional human cells or tissues – can provide important tools to bridge the gap between animals and humans in preclinical research," wrote Monica J. Justice, Program Head and Senior Scientist in Genetics and Genome Biology at The Hospital for Sick Children.
Mice and humans share roughly 97.5% of their DNA, so one might think that would make us near perfect stand-ins for each other when it comes to studying pharmaceutical treatments and modeling disease. However, the slight difference in our biological coding means that mice are not susceptible to various infections like HIV, Epstein Barr Virus, or Ebola. Moreover, they metabolize drug compounds much differently.
Dogs are regularly infected with H3N8 and H3N2 canine influenzas, as well as a variety of other strains. Cats often catch dangerous respiratory infections from viruses like feline calicivirus and Felid alphaherpesvirus. Both also carry various bacteria and parasites that can pass to humans. Yet despite all the diseases affecting these animals and the countless, adorable interactions we share, there has not been a single instance in known memory where one of our beloved canine or feline companions has triggered a global pandemic in humans. Why not? And could it ever happen?
To explore the first question, it might help to compare our pets to the animal presently synonymous with emerging viruses: bats. Deadly infectious diseases like Ebola, Marburg, nipah, SARS, Lassa, and of course COVID-19 have all been linked to these furry, flying mammals. Unlike, dogs, cats, and most other mammals, bats have mutations that blunt their immune responses. Somewhat paradoxically, that seems to be a benefit – their immune systems keep viruses at bay while not overreacting, which can cause harmful collateral damage to bodily systems. As a side effect, this means that viruses and bats can co-exist – bats provide homes to various viruses while suffering few ill effects.
Unfortunately for other animals, that makes bats a breeding ground for dangerous diseases that can mutate and jump species. Many of the 1,200 bat species worldwide live in large colonies, which range in size from dozens of individuals to hundreds of thousands. These colonies are dense and intimate, making viral transmission a fact of life. Such a melting pot is a mixing pool for viruses where mutations abound. Bats can then come into contact with other animals or humans via predation, co-habitation, or hunting and share their viral interlopers.
Moving the discussion back to our prized pets, there are a few apparent factors that make it less likely that dogs or cats will spark a global infectious disease pandemic in humans, even though we regularly interact. For one, they are fairly separated from others of their species, making viral transmission more difficult and mixing less common. Nor do they interact very often with other animal species, provided they are kept on leash or indoors. Moreover, between grooming appointments, veterinary visits, and mandatory vaccinations, we regularly keep them clean and cared for.
Mount Wingen in New South Wales, Australia is commonly known as Burning Mountain, partly for the red regolith that colors its summit, but primarily because an actual fire smolders one hundred feet below its surface, and has done so for at least 6,000 years! This is the oldest-known natural coal fire.
There are a couple good reasons why – for decades – humans have harvested coal to generate energy: it's copious and quite combustible. Over millions of years, simmering heat and crushing pressures transformed dead plant matter into this sedimentary rock, which is composed of carbon and smaller amounts of hydrogen, sulfur, oxygen, and nitrogen. It sometimes only takes a little heat to roil coal into flaming life. Just as this is true when grilling on a summer's day, so is it true within the Earth.
An underground coal bed can ignite from a lightning strike, wildfire, or a mere jostling of the topsoil, enough to permit a slight, but steady stream of oxygen to reach the rocky fuel below. Oxgyen is a highly reactive element, and will oxidize the coal, pilfering electrons and spurring a release of heat. When a fire starts, it can endure for a very long time.
Scientists have unearthed remnants of coal fires that burned millions of years ago, so they've been occurring naturally for some time. Humans, however, have set alight a lot more in a comparatively short timespan. Why? Mining. Explosions, digging, and drilling at mines set numerous coal fires each year, so much so that in 2010, it was estimated that coal fires accounted for as much as 3% of global carbon emissions.
In 2008, the National Academy of Sciences put forth a textbook-ish definition of "science": "The use of evidence to construct testable explanations and predictions of natural phenomena, as well as the knowledge generated through this process."
That's fine, well, and accurate, but it's also a tad dull. Over the years, influential scientists and philosophers have taken their own stabs at describing the discipline to which they have dedicated their lives. What they've written has been elucidating and occasionally odd.
Philip Morris Hauser, a demographer and pioneer in urban studies who was a president of the American Sociological Association, expressed that science is "the most subversive thing that has ever been devised by man. It is a discipline in which the rules of the game require the undermining of that which already exists, in the sense that new knowledge always necessarily crowds out inferior antecedent knowledge."
Nobel Prize-winning physicist Richard Feynman agreed, but he focused instead on out-of-date fountains of knowledge, saying, "Science alone of all the subjects contains within itself the lesson of the danger of belief in the infallibility of the greatest teachers in the preceding generation... As a matter of fact, I can also define science another way: Science is the belief in the ignorance of experts."
The SARS-CoV-2 coronavirus pandemic may still be in its early stages, and though it's difficult to see past shelter-in-place orders, infection reports, images of crowded hospitals, and record unemployment, you can rest assured in knowing that this public health crisis will eventually come to an end. It may take many months, but sports will resume, bars and restaurants will reopen; for the most part, life will return to normal.
But a comforting new normalcy must not be accompanied by complacency. There are lessons to be heeded, policy changes that must be implemented, and mistakes that cannot be repeated. Here are five ways the world can mitigate, or even prevent, a future pandemic.
1. Ban the sale of wild animals and freshly-slaughtered animals at wet markets in China and around the world. The likeliest source for the coronavirus is the Huanan Seafood Wholesale Market in Wuhan, China (but this is still debated). A wet market also likely spawned the SARS outbreak in 2003. At this market and others like it, humans and wild animals gather in cacophonous, crowded spaces, exchanging goods, money, and germs. It was here where scientists hypothesize that the coronavirus jumped from a bat, then possibly to a pangolin, then on to humans. While wet markets offer a needed economic outlet for thousands of poor farmers, they are notoriously unsanitary and unregulated. At the Huanan Market, journalists documented animals being openly slaughtered and skinned while blood, urine, and feces drenched walkways. Sellers proffered a menagerie of animals including spotted dear, porcupines, otters, ostrich, crocodiles, and bats.
In late February, the Chinese Communist Party banned wet markets, noting "it is necessary to strengthen market supervision, resolutely ban and severely crack down on illegal wildlife markets and trade, and control major public health risks from the source." Let us hope this strong statement will be backed up with meaningful action.
The spring flood season is upon us in the United States. As temperatures rise, the snows of winter melt and trickle across the landcape into rivers, whose steady flows turn to rushing torrents. Rising waters boosted by wet weather overflow their banks and pour onto farm fields, highways, and city streets.
Last year, record floods along the Missouri and Mississippi Rivers caused $2.9 Billion worth of damage in Nebraska and Iowa, flooding at least one million acres of farmland and killing three people.
While floods and other natural disasters can inflict unfortunate death and destruction upon individuals, they can paradoxically benefit communities in the long run.
In the short term – over a span of a few years – floods can transform urban areas into downtrodden, waterlogged ghost towns. But you might be surprised to learn that in the long term – think more than ten years – floods and other natural disasters actually seem to grow economies and populations. Laurence C. Smith, a Professor of Environmental Studies and Professor of Earth, Environmental and Planetary Sciences at Brown University, explained this apparent paradox in his forthcoming book Rivers of Power.
The Biblical story of Noah's Ark is widely known: God decides to wipe the Earth clean of wickedness and tasks the righteous Noah and his family to safeguard themselves along with all the world's animals inside a gigantic wooden ark in order to ride out a global 150-day flood.
Though some take the story literally, there's no archaeological evidence that such an ark ever existed, nor is there any geologic evidence of a cataclysmic global flood. That doesn't mean the story wasn't based on historical events, however.
As Laurence C. Smith, a Professor of Environmental Studies and Professor of Earth, Environmental and Planetary Sciences at Brown University, recounted in his forthcoming book, Rivers of Power, a story nearly identical to Noah's is "written on one of the twelve tablets of the Epic of Gilgamesh," predating the Old Testament account by more than a thousand years.
"Numerous credible studies suggest that a real-world local catastrophe may have inspired the story," he writes.
Aristotle, Plato, Socrates... Ancient Greece's charismatic philosophers define the civilization's legacy in popular memory. Often forgotten are the technological inventions that set Greece apart from other societies during classical antiquity, which roughly spanned between the 8th century BC and the 6th century CE.
Mechanical engineer Kostas Kotsanas wants to change that. Perhaps the foremost expert on ancient Greek technology, Kotsanas created the Kotsanas Museum of Ancient Greek Technology to apprise the public of Ancient Greece's formidable technological prowess. The stars of the show? Nearly 300 models of ancient Greek inventions, all exhaustingly researched and painstakingly built by Kotsanas himself. Here are four of the most incredible:
Plato's Alarm Clock
This may be the first known awakening device in human history. Water would be poured into a top bowl, which would trickle down at a known rate to another bowl with an axial pipette inside. Thus, when this second bowl filled, its water would rapidly fall into a third closed vessel, forcing air to come whistling out through a tube, and (hopefully) waking anyone nearby.
The past weeks have brought quite a change of pace – to markets, to countries, to daily life. The SARS-CoV-2 coronavirus, along with COVID-19 (the disease it causes), has spread worldwide. We are in a new normal.
Here at RCS, our mission remains unchanged: to bring you the most clear, relevant, and evidence-based science news and opinion. Of late, that means our daily updates have been dominated by the coronavirus. In our attempts to seek out the best information on the pandemic, we've noticed a variety of websites, organizations, and writers that have consistently done outstanding work. We'd like to highlight a few of them now, while acknowledging that there are many more dedicated sources also striving diligently to inform the public and arrest the viral threat. You'll find their reports regularly featured at RCS as the outbreak plays out over the ensuing weeks and months.
Consciousness is the awareness of existence. While most would agree that we have it, nobody really knows how it arises. And we may never know. That doesn't stop academics from endlessly debating it, however.
From these esoteric debates, a lot of useless theories arise. Note: they're not useless because they're uninteresting. They're useless because they provide no meaningful mechanisms for consciousness to emerge and don't even elaborate on how these mechanisms could be uncovered. Back in 2016, Michael Graziano, a Professor of Neuroscience and Psychology at Princeton University, took aim at three of them.
Oscillation Theory states that consciousness arises from fluctuations in neuronal activity. That's basically it.
"It appeals to intuition and explains nothing," Graziano wrote.
The SARS-CoV-2 coronavirus (causing the disease COVID-19) that emerged in Wuhan, China back in December 2019 is now spreading globally and has now been declared a pandemic by the World Health Organization (WHO). Its ascendance has already rattled stock markets, disrupted the daily lives of millions, and resulted in the heartbreaking deaths of over 4,000 people, including the 38 in the United States as of March 11th. With COVID-19's spread now picking up steam outside of China – it has now arrived in at least 100 countries and new cases are rising almost every day – we can expect its outbreak to get worse before it gets better.
Make no mistake, COVID-19 is a grave pathogenic threat which must be taken seriously. According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC):
More cases are likely to be identified in the coming days, including more cases in the United States. It’s also likely that person-to-person spread will continue to occur, including in the United States. Widespread transmission of COVID-19 in the United States would translate into large numbers of people needing medical care at the same time. Schools, childcare centers, workplaces, and other places for mass gatherings may experience more absenteeism. Public health and healthcare systems may become overloaded, with elevated rates of hospitalizations and deaths. Other critical infrastructure, such as law enforcement, emergency medical services, and transportation industry may also be affected. Health care providers and hospitals may be overwhelmed.
The CDC's warning is frank and unnerving. It is an impetus for sober and reasoned action. Stock up on a week's worth of frozen/canned food. Restock your medicine cabinet. Practice proper hygiene. Stay home if you're feeling sick. Avoid large gatherings if you are older, have a compromised immune system, or chronic health conditions like diabetes or heart disease.
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.