Vax-O-Matic

Yesterday we went to get the first of our two-part COVID vaccinations at OSU East Hospital, just off Broad Street between downtown and Bexley. We signed up for an appointment as soon as we became eligible under the Ohio vaccination distribution protocols — age hath its (few) privileges — and when we arrived at the site we immediately became part of a impressively well-oiled machine.

As soon as we entered the building — masked, of course — our temperatures were taken, the results showed that we were clear to proceed, we applied hand sanitizer, and we followed a marked trail to the vaccination room. We got there early, and there was no line, although the vaccination room itself was full. Outside the room we showed our drivers’ licenses, confirmed our identities by answering questions, signed some forms, and then were guided into an open spot for two at one of the tables in the vaccination room itself. Every station was identified by a circular sign, depending on its status: “clean,” for open spots, “on deck,” for people who were waiting to get their shots, “COVID-19 warrior in training,” for people who were getting the shots, and “antibodies in training,” for people who had received the injection and were in the midst of the 15-minute post-vaccination waiting period to see if they had a bad reaction to the shot. As soon as the 15-minute period ended, the newly vaccinated left their spots, their areas were promptly and thoroughly disinfected, the signs were changed, and a new person came in as the process started all over again.

The person who guided us to our vaccination station changed the sign for our station, gave us an overview, and advised us to hold on to our vaccination confirmation card for dear life and “treat it like a passport.” Then we were met by a cheerful woman who asked us additional medical history questions, retrieved some forms that we had signed, gave us our timers, and then scanned some stickers that were placed on our vaccination cards to show which lot and dose we were receiving, distributed the vaccinations themselves, and changed our sign. Next up was our vaccinator, who entered more data, started the 15-minute period on the timers, and deftly gave us our shots after we rolled up our sleeves and bared our upper arms. The needle is long, but the shot was totally painless. After the vaccinator left, yet another staffer came by to change the sign, fill out our vaccination cards, and schedule us for our second shot in three weeks — which helped to fill up the 15-minute waiting period. We had no reaction tto the shots, so after our 15-minute periods ended we left our seats, which were then immediately sanitized for the next patient.

Kudos to the friendly folks at OSU East Hospital, who handled the entire process without a hitch and in very impressive fashion. All told, we were there for less than an hour, which is pretty amazing when you think about it. And we’re going to take very good care of our vaccination cards, too.

One other point to make about the vaccination room: everyone involved in the process was cheerful to the point of giddiness. I asked our vaccinator how she was dealing with the steady stream of arms to be injected, and she said that she believed what she was doing was the single more rewarding thing she had ever done in her entire medical career. All of the other OSU East people were seemingly thrilled to be playing a key role in the fight against the pandemic and the process of getting the country back to normal — and we were too, and so was everyone else who was there to receive their jab.

I don’t remember being this happy about getting my booster shots as a kid, but a pandemic has a way of changing your perspective.

The Great Unmasking

We all remember how the COVID pandemic started, as cases climbed and state and local governments closed businesses, put restrictions on activities, and imposed mask mandates. Now we’ll see how the pandemic will end — and how long that process will take.

On Tuesday, Texas Governor Greg Abbott issued an order, to take effect next Wednesday, that will end the state’s mask mandate and allow all businesses of any type to open at 100 percent capacity. The press release from the Governor’s office, linked above, recognizes that “COVID-19 has not disappeared,” but notes that more than 5 million Texans have been vaccinated and about a million vaccinations are being administered each week, and concludes that state mandates are no longer needed and reopening Texas “100 percent” is necessary to “restore livelihoods and normalcy for Texans.” Under the Governor’s approach, Texans, and Texas businesses, will decide for themselves what practices they will follow.

Abbott’s decision has been strongly criticized. President Biden called it a “big mistake” that was the product of “Neanderthal thinking,” for example, and the CDC Director says “now is not the time to release all restrictions” because the next month or two will be “pivotal” in determining the course of the pandemic. And Texas businesses are taking different approaches to mask issues in view of the order, with some lifting restrictions and others still requiring employees and customers to mask up. Some businesses note that the Governor’s order puts them and their employees in an awkward position: if they decide to continue to require masks from customers because the CDC thinks that is the right course, they are putting their employees in a position of enforcing the requirement–and increasing the risk of confrontations with customers who refuse to do so.

One of the more interesting consequences of this pandemic has been the spectrum of risk tolerance we are seeing from businesses and our friends and colleagues. Some people have been out and about for months, traveling and dining out, others have stayed at home and are continuing to avoid any public places, and still others occupy every permutation in between. I think we’ll see a similar range of actions from state authorities, guided by the specific economic and health conditions in their states. Is an abrupt, total lifting of requirements the best course, or a gradual easing of restrictions, or keeping all mandates in place until it is crystal clear that there is no longer any risk whatsoever of a COVID resurgence? And do public health authorities really have the ability to give conclusive advice on when the pandemic, and the risks, have ended?

When you were a kid and scraped your knee in a childhood mishap, you put on a Band-Aid. After the Band-Aid did its work, you had to make a decision on how to remove it: rip it off, tug it off gradually, or do something in between. Texas’ Governor has taken the “rip it off” approach. Now we’ll see how that works out.

Schrodinger’s Menagerie

In the bizarre world of quantum physics, “Schrodinger’s cat” is the stuff of legend.

In the 1930s, as concepts of quantum mechanics were being developed and articulated, physicist Erwin Schrodinger devised a thought experiment to illustrate issues related to the quantum concept of superpositioning, in which quantum particles maintain multiple states at the same time and only collapse to a final state upon interaction with other particles. In Schrodinger’s thought experiment, a cat is placed in a sealed box with a small radioactive substance, a Geiger counter, and some poison sufficient to kill the cat. If the radioactive substance decays, it triggers the Geiger counter that releases the poison and kills the cat. The decay of the radioactive substance is governed by quantum mechanics, which means the atoms are simultaneously in the states of “going to decay” and “not going to decay” — and which means that, as a matter of quantum physics, after a while the cat is simultaneously both alive and dead. Add in the concept of an observer opening the box to determine the cat’s status, and the notion of whether the actions of the observer can affect the cat’s status, and you’ve got a classic quantum mechanics mindbender.

Trying to get your head wrapped around quantum mechanics in the morning is tough sledding, but the key point here is that people found the concept of Schrodinger’s cat being both alive and dead at the same time extremely intriguing. His thought experiment not only took the world of physics by storm, it ultimately expanded outside the world of the white lab coats into the world at large — where the idea that something can be two things at the same time has been found to be a very useful concept.

Now we’ve got “Schrodinger’s smiley” — :): — to be used by someone who is both happy and sad at the same time. And there’s “Schrodinger’s douchebag,” defined as a guy who says offensive things and then decides whether he was joking based on the reaction of people around him. And why stop there? “Schrodinger’s politician” would be a politician who varies his position on the issues depending on the inclination of the group the politician happens to be speaking to at the time. “Schrodinger’s dog” would be that dog that comes charging up at you ready to either bite your hand or wag its tail. And “Schrodinger’s referee” would be the football official who decides whether to throw a flag based on crowd reaction and the acting job of the player seeking a penalty.

The possibilities are virtually endless, and the limits of Schrodinger’s menagerie are defined only by the limits of the human imagination and human experience. And to think that it all started with a simple living and dead cat in a sealed box.

Ancient Seeds Can Still Bear Fruit

Herodotus, Galen, and Pliny the Elder, names from the ancient Greek and Roman world that are familiar to the classical scholars among us, all praised the fruit of the Judean date palm. But in the centuries after the heydays of the Greeks and Romans, the date groves fell into decline and the distinctive Judean date palm plant disappeared — until now, thanks to the efforts of some Israeli scientists. And the reappearance of the plants tells us something noteworthy about the sophistication of the ancient farmers who grew the plant and, potentially, the hardiness of seeds.

The scientists located ancient seeds of the long-lost plant in caves and the ruins of a fortress built by King Herod and have used the 2,000-year-old seeds to grow thriving plants, like the one shown in the photo above. From hundreds of seeds that were collected, scientists selected a few dozen of the best candidates, soaked them in water and fertilizer, and then planted them — and, amazingly, six plants sprouted. The scientists then used the grown plants to conduct a genetic analysis that showed that the Judean date palm contained elements of African date palms and Middle Eastern date palms.

In short, the Judean farmers of long ago had engaged in careful breeding programs to try to produce the most succulent dates — which is why many people in the ancient world praised the Judean date for its large size, sweetness, and long storage life, as well as claimed medicinal benefits. Those findings suggest that ancient farmers knew what they were doing as they crossed different plants, hoping to enhance specific, desired qualities of the fruit.

The successful regeneration of the Judean date palm, centuries after its disappearance, from seeds that have sat, unused, for millennia may teach us something about the longevity of seeds, and may mean that other lost plants of the distant past can be recultivated. As for me, I’d like to try one of those famous dates — after the scientists that rescued the variety from oblivion are done experimenting with them, of course.

The Why Of Spillage

Every morning, my first task is to make a pot of fresh coffee. And on the vast majority of mornings, after I fill the pot with water from the faucet, as I am pouring the water from the pot into the coffee maker some water drips from the spout and runs down the side of the pot to the counter. There might be a rare day, once in a great while, when my combination of morning alertness and careful pouring technique prevents any spillage, but 99.9% of the time I’ll need a dish towel to mop up the water.

What causes this annoying event? Your sixth-grade science teacher would tell you it is the so-called “capillary effect” of water, which involves elements of cohesion, adhesion, and surface tension. Basically, water molecules like to stick together, and like to stick to almost anything — including the sides of coffee pots. Once the first water molecule decides to tumble over the spout of the coffee pot and stick to the side — rather than obediently falling into the coffee maker, like a good water molecule should — other water molecules will follow.

This is a common problem, and you’ll see all kinds of tips about how to address it. As for me, I think the best approach is to try to pour the water into the coffee maker very slowly, so there is no chance that the first rogue water molecule will make its break for freedom over the spout and down the side of the pot. But normally the urge to drink some hot coffee is too strong, the pour passes the tipping point, the first bad boy molecule leads the way, more inevitably follow, and it’s time to get the dish towel off the rack again.

This can be annoying, to be sure, but as the U.S. Department of Interior “water science school” website teaches us, capillary action is essential to the health of trees, shrubs, flowers, and other plants — because capillary action is a big part of how they get water from their roots up to their branches, leaves, and flowers. Capillary action also has been a real boon for paper towel makers, because that’s why water creeps up a paper towel that touches a water spill, thereby ensuring that Rosie the lunch counter lady can demonstrate that Bounty is the quicker picker-upper.

So that’s the capillary effect for you — helping trees and Rosie, while adding an inevitable extra step to the morning coffee making process. The morning spill might be irritating, but if that’s the price to pay for flowers and green leaves, I’ll gladly pay it.

A Lost Sense Of Smell

The rich, earthy smell of freshly ground coffee on a crisp winter morning. The bright fragrance of a glass of orange juice, or the heady aroma of an uncorked bottle of shiraz. The over-the-top scented assault of lavender vanilla hand soap, or the utterly clean whiff of a freshly laundered bath towel. The smell of wood smoke from a neighbor’s chimney. These are little things that add color and flavor to our lives and that people with working noses take for granted.

But among us are people who have been infected with COVID who have lost their sense of smell. A year into the epidemic, many of us know people who have survived their bout with the coronavirus, and they often report that the strangest symptom of the disease–and the one that made them realize they’ve got the ‘rona in the first place–is the sudden absence of smells in their world. And the loss of the sense of smell (called anosmia) also can produce a lost sense of taste (called dysgeusia), which means victims of the virus may lose two of their familiar senses at the same time. And some unfortunate victims of the disease develop parosmia, in which the ability to detect smells gets scrambled, so that a flower might smell like an open sewer.

For some victims, the sense of smell comes back quickly as they recuperate from their exposure, but for others the anosmia or parosmia lingers on and on. You can get a sense of the extent of that problem by running searches on regaining sense of smell, which produces lots of hits. Doctors and hospitals have featured links on Google about the condition and their treatments, and there are first-person accounts about the battle to get the olfactory senses working again. The Los Angeles Times recently ran an article that described the sweeping range of potential treatments that people who are desperate to return to normal can try — which might include CAT scans, steroids, and aromatherapy. And the LA Times piece indicates that some victims will try just about anything.

Those of us who have dodged the COVID bullet can’t really imagine what this condition is like, and I certainly hope that I never find out through personal experience. But it’s also a reminder that, when victory is declared in the war on the coronavirus, there will still be people out there suffering from its after-effects, and wondering if their world will ever get back to the way it was before the pandemic hit.

A New Blue

As a kid, I figured that the spectrum of colors was pretty much fixed, defined by the different hues in the rainbow, and in the natural world, and in the Crayola 64 collection of crayons with the crayon sharpener built into the back of the box where the crayon your kid sister was trying to sharpen broke off and you could never use the sharpener again.

Then, as I grew older, I realized that new colors were being developed virtually every day, primarily for the purpose of requiring mystified husbands to go into paint stores and try to distinguish between tiny gradations shown on tiny paint sample squares, when their wives were trying to figure out which color to paint the dining room. I question, for example, whether “sea foam” was actually a color until some paint mixologist at Sherwin Williams or Benjamin Moore chuckled with evil glee and decided that tantalizing people with “sea foam” would make the home redecoration choices even more difficult.

But blue colors are different. Shades of blue tend to fade easily, and often contain toxic elements. That’s why it’s noteworthy that recently, for the first time in two centuries, a new blue pigment that is stable and doesn’t fade has become commercially available. It’s called YInMn, which is short for some of the chemical components of the color — Yttrium, Indium, and Manganese — and it was discovered accidentally by scientists at Oregon State University who were testing materials for use in electronics applications. They applied extreme heat to the compound, and the vivid, eye-popping blue shown above emerged. You can read about the discovery of the pigment and the chemistry behind it here.

The people are the paint stores are already smiling about it, and putting the YInMn paint squares out there in the sample case, right next to cobalt, lapis, and azure, ready to trap the next unwary husband asked to express an opinion about which one he prefers and then forced to explain why he likes that one better than the rest.

Vacci Nation

In the history of modern medicine, there probably have never been as many people talking about vaccination, or as many news stories about vaccination plans, or as many charts and updates on the number of vaccinations, as is happening in America right now. When I was a kid and regularly went to our family doctor to get the next vaccination on my personal vaccination card, for example, I don’t remember there being much talk about it. You needed to get vaccinated, you went to the doctor and got your shot, and that was all there is to it.

But that’s not the way things work in the world these days. Between the extraodinary impact that the coronavirus has had on the world, and the hope that the vaccine will not only protect against the vaccinated individual getting COVID, but also finally move us to achieving “herd immunity” and getting back to normal — whatever that might be right now — people can’t help but talk about vaccination. And, thanks to social media, we’re being treated to lots of pictures of masked people getting their shots in real time or proudly displaying their upper arm punctures. The social media frenzy is so great that some people are actually posting “selfies” of their COVID-19 vaccination cards — leading the Federal Trade Commission to warn people that doing that isn’t a very good idea, because fraudsters could take the information from the cards and use it to achieve identity theft.

I had a virtual happy hour with some friends from the firm on Friday, where the conversation is typically limited to office chatter, sports, bad attempts at humor, and general bitching about the world. But on Friday, vaccination crept into the conversation, too. It’s safe to say that it is the first time this group has ever talked seriously about vaccination. What’s next on the agenda — the importance of dietary fiber?

It’s understandable that people are talking about the vaccine, and when they will be getting their shots. But for me, we’ll know that we’ve really returned to normal when people have stopped talking or posting selfies about getting vaccinated — or COVID-19, period.

Galileo And Me

Scientific legend has it that a young Galileo Galilei conducted an experiment that helped to define some of the properties of gravity. In order to test Aristotle’s notion that objects fall at different rates according to their weight, Galileo is reputed to have taken two balls with materially different weights to the top of the Leaning Tower of Pisa and dropped them simultaneously. According to the story, the balls fell to the ground below at the same rate of acceleration and landed at the same time — thereby showing that Aristotle was wrong and the invisible force of gravity acts equally on objects with different masses. Galileo’s findings still hold up — even when modern-day scientists test the effects of gravitational acceleration at the atomic level.

I conducted my own impromptu experiment with gravity yesterday morning, and can attest that gravity is still out there, working the same way it always has.

I was just starting my morning walk. We had been subjected to the dreaded “wintry mix” overnight, and the footing was treacherous. The parking lot at the corner had been cleared of snow and looked to be dry and safe, so I decided to take a short cut through the parking lot. As I proceeded with a jaunty step across the lot, my right foot hit a patch of black ice, my feet shot out to the left, and I landed hard on the asphalt surface on my right side. I gingerly picked myself up, checked to make sure that I was in one piece, then carefully made my way back to our house, figuring that the wise course would be to skip any further icy adventures that day. Fortunately, I had on several layers as well as my own more than ample personal padding, no bones were broken, and I’m sore, but not badly bruised.

It’s the first time I’ve fallen to the ground in a while, and it got me to thinking how amazing gravity is. I probably fell no more than a few feet, but I struck the pavement with breathtaking (literally) force, as if one of the Ohio State linebackers had hit me at full speed and laid a crushing blow on my right side. The experience made me think that I need to be a lot more judicious about walking during the winter, because gravity is always out there, brooding and ready to yank you down.

I’m just grateful I wasn’t falling from the top of the Leaning Tower of Pisa.

Answering The “Kid Questions”

Every parent has had to field their fair share of “kid questions”: those innocent, wide-eyed inquiries that presuppose that Mom and Dad know everything there is to know in the world and can explain it, besides. The classic “kid question,” of course, is “why is the sky blue”?

“Why does food stick to what is supposed to be a no-stick pan?” is another good example of a kid question. And depending upon a parent’s mood at the time, and whether the parent is trying to use a spatula to lift a stuck egg from a frying pan without splitting the yolk, answers might range from some quasi-scientific-sounding mumbo-jumbo that you figure will satisfy the kid and cause him or her to stop asking those infernal questions to an honest answer that will give the kid more information than they bargained for, like: “Well, Tommy, sometimes in life things don’t work like they are supposed to, and you’re just going to have to get used to it, okay?”

It’s nice when science lends beleaguered parents a hand and provides information that will allow them to answer those tough questions. Researchers at the Czech Academy of Sciences have done just that by carefully examining the no-stick pan issue and publishing their research in the Physics of Fluids journal. The scientists found that dry spots can form even on oiled, “no-stick” pans, and that’s where the food sticks. The dry spots are created by a process called thermocapillary convection, in which oil moves from the hot center of the pan to the cooler edges, and the thin coating of oil in the center of the pan becomes destabilized and eventually ruptures — leaving that dreaded dry spot that threatens to ruin your otherwise perfectly cooked egg. (And if you don’t want thermocapillary convection in your kitchen, the scientists helpfully note: “To avoid unwanted dry spots, the following set of measures should be applied: increasing the oil film thickness, moderate heating, completely wetting the surface of the pan with oil, using a pan with a thick bottom or stirring food regularly during cooking.”).

So there you have it: thermocapillary convection is the right answer. And the great thing about that answer is that once you start talking about thermocapillary convection, capillary length, and oil destabilization, your kid will probably lose interest and stop asking those questions. It turns out they probably didn’t really want an actual answer, they just wanted to reassure themselves that Mom and Dad do know everything there is to know.

Feel free to use “thermocapillary convection” to answer other kid questions, including the “why is the sky blue” head-scratcher. It will serve until your children reach the teenage years, when the questions stop and parents suddenly become far less knowledgeable than friends. 

Lying To The Lab Coats

We’ve all read reports on medical studies that have reached significant conclusions about the consequences of certain behavior or the causes of physical or mental conditions. One question about those studies always lingers: if one of the elements of the study is self-reporting by participants, how do we know that the participants are really being truthful in what they are reporting — or, whether they are lying to the lab coats instead?

A recent discovery of misreporting by participants in a genetic study of the effects of alcohol consumption highlights the concern. Researchers determined that participants in the UK Biobank that provided the data for the study often underreported their use of alcohol and did not provide accurate information about their consumption over time. (The UK Biobank includes data from 500,000 volunteers who have, since 2006, agreed to be periodically questioned and tested about various activities and conditions.)

Even worse, the false information caused the researchers in the genetic study to reach inaccurate conclusions about alcohol use and its association with certain health conditions. When statistical analysis techniques were used to scrub the Biobank data of false information, for example, negative correlations between alcohol consumption and diseases like anemia, hypertension, and type II diabetes were significantly reduced — in some cases to near zero.

It’s not clear from the article linked above precisely how the researchers discovered the underreporting, but the fact that study participants lied to the lab coats about their use of alcohol shouldn’t surprise anyone. Human nature tells us to be dubious of the scrupulous accuracy of self-reported information on any potentially embarrassing topic — whether it’s smoking, drinking, daily exercise, amount of TV viewing, or consumption of ice cream and potato chips. The next time you read about a study that reached startling conclusions about something, take a look at how the data was generated, and if self-reporting was involved, consider whether the nature of the study might have tempted participants to fudge a bit in their reporting. And let’s hope the lab coats do likewise.

Dog Yawns

If you’ve been around dogs much, you know that they tend to yawn. In fact, they yawn a lot. Russell’s dog Betty, for example, is a ferocious yawner, with the all-out yawn frequently followed by a full-bodied stretch.

Why do dogs yawn — and for that matter, why do humans yawn? Just about every species yawns, and scientists don’t know exactly why. Yawns clearly happen in response to periods of boredom or fatigue, but they don’t seem to help resolve those conditions by, for example, energizing the yawner and equipping him or her to withstand more of a droning meeting. So why yawn in the first place? Yawns also can occur during times of stress or social conflict — for both humans and dogs. And once a yawn begins, you just can’t stop it, no matter how embarrassing yawning at that particular moment might be.

Once of the more interesting things about yawns is that, in certain species like humans and chimpanzees, yawns are contagious. A good yawn from someone in a room can set off a chain reaction of yawning, and people who are empathetic are most likely to yawn in response to the yawn of another. But research also indicates that a good yawn from a dog’s human friend can provoke a yawn in the dog. In short, contagious yawns happen between two distinct species. Scientists believe that this is another indication of the incredibly close emotional connection between people and dogs.

They don’t call dogs “man’s best friend” for nothing. So the next time you transmit a good yawn to your dog, enjoy that empathetic moment — and then take her for a walk, will you?

Money And Happiness

At some point in your life, a family member probably told you that “money can’t buy happiness.” And another family member might have added: “Yeah, but it sure can rent it for a while.” The relationship between money and happiness is a topic that people just can’t resist discussing — and one that researchers can’t resist studying.

The latest study, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, used a technique called experience sampling to determine whether money influences feelings of well-being. The sampling asked people to repeatedly complete short surveys about their emotions, their feelings, and their satisfaction with life at random points during their days, through an app called “Track Your Happiness.” The study sought to measure overall satisfaction with life and how people feel in the moment, and assembled 1.7 million data points from more than 33,000 participants. The study then determined average levels of well-being for participants and compared them to income.

A well-known 2010 study of happiness and money determined that happiness does increase with earnings, but that money-related happiness plateaus at the $75,000 income level. The most recent study, in contrast, found no cut-off point. Instead, it concluded that all forms of well-being continue to increase as income rises. And, according to the lead researcher, the reason for the connection between money and happiness is that money gives people a sense of more control over their own lives and better choices about their lives. That shouldn’t surprise anyone. And it also shouldn’t come as a surprise that the study found that people who earn more work longer hours and feel stress about their work.

I’m confident this won’t be the last study of money and happiness, although I really wonder whether such an elusive connection can really be studied and quantified in a meaningful way. It makes sense that people with more money feel more control over their lives and have a sense of well-being simply because they know they can eat and have a roof over their heads and aren’t always lurching from one financial crisis to another, buffeted by forces beyond their control. But I also know people with lots of money who aren’t very happy, and people with modest incomes who lead rich, fulfilled lives. There doesn’t seem to be a cosmic formula, with money and happiness being two elements in the equation, that applies to everyone.

Counting Down The Moons

Obviously, the Earth’s Moon is pretty great, as moons go. For the broad sweep of human history, this beacon of our night sky has inspired lovers and songwriters and literature, encouraged early humans to develop calendars and create the science of astronomy, influenced the tides of our oceans, and provided a bright light to help illuminate the dark night and early morning hours. For a dead, lifeless celestial body that is pockmarked with craters, that’s a pretty impressive list of achievements.

To the folks at Popular Mechanics, though, our Moon isn’t at the top of the lunar heap. When they decided to sit down and rank the more than 150 moons in the solar system — including ones you’ve probably never heard of, like Epithemius and Janus, which share the same orbit around Saturn, Dactyl, a moon that actually orbits an asteroid rather than a planet, and Mimas, which looks uncomfortably like the Death Star from Star Wars — our Moon didn’t fare very well. In fact, the Moon barely cracks the top ten, coming in at number 8. The Popular Mechanics crew concludes that it’s just not as interesting from a scientific standpoint, or as charismatic, as other moons. In fact, you get the sense from the comments reported in the article that the number 8 slot is actually kind of a pity ranking, given just because the Moon is our moon and we give it a capital M. The Old Man in the Moon has got to be disappointed.

The Moon came in behind Iapetus, Ganymede, Europa, Triton, Enceladus, Io, and the top-rated moon, Titan, which also orbits Saturn. These bodies all have features the Moon lacks, like liquid oceans, actual atmospheres made up of exotic combinations of chemicals, volcanic activity, bright colors, or the possibility of alien life.

OK, I get it: but has anyone ever actually written a song about Enceladus, or Titan?

The Lab Leak Scenario

It’s been about a year since the coronavirus started to spread in earnest and unleash its wrath on an unwitting world. Since that time, tens of millions of people have been infected, countless more have died, and therefore the focus understandably has been on fighting a desperate, rear-guard action to try to minimize the spread and effects of COVID-19. But . . . will we ever know, for sure, the origins of the virus and how it came to shut down the world?

Initially, many people thought that the virus had its roots in a “wet market” in Wuhan, China, where a virus that previously was limited to animals somehow made a leap to humans. Increasingly, however, people are exploring the alternative “lab leak” scenario. That hypothesis posits that the virus had its roots in a naturally occurring condition among animals, but than was modified and bioengineered and made even more infectious in a medical laboratory — in this case, a lab somewhere in Wuhan.

And here’s the scary part: the people who are articulating the lab leak scenario do not believe that COVID-19 was intentionally designed to function as some kind of biological weapon. Instead, they believe it was created and enhanced in infectiousness and virulence as part of routine, ongoing experimentation with viruses — and that, through negligence and inadvertence, it somehow got out of the controlled environment and began its destructive rampage across the globe. In short, they believe medical researchers throughout the world have been engaging in incredibly risky behavior with incredibly risky viruses, and through someone’s mistake or carelessness, we’re now all paying the piper. If that hypothesis is what actually happened, this wasn’t some naturally occurring phenomenon, but a self-inflicted wound that didn’t have to happen in the first place.

A New York magazine piece, The Lab Leak Hypothesis, does a good job of explaining this scenario for the creation of COVID-19 and establishing why it seems plausible. It turns out that, for years now, scientists and medical researchers have been tinkering with viruses and modifying them in an effort to make them more deadly and more easily transmitted, for the putative purpose of trying to prevent the spread of viruses and designing vaccines or other treatments. And, in publications in the scientific community, some people have sounded the alarm bells and predicted that, one of these days, one of those bioengineered viruses would escape. That may be precisely what happened here.

Reading the New York article, I found myself thinking: didn’t anyone involved in funding or supervising or performing this kind of incredibly risky research ever read The Stand, Stephen King’s novel about a bioengineered disease that decimated the world? And didn’t the scientists who were engaging in this research have a bit of humility about their capabilities, and question whether they should be playing God with viruses that could potentially sweep across the world?

We may never know exactly how COVID-19 came toravage the world. It’s unlikely that, if the lab leak scenario is true, someone will step up and admit that they opened the door to allow a global pandemic to escape. But Congress and the incoming Biden Administration can take a good, hard look at precisely what kind of risky research is being performed, at taxpayer expense or otherwise, and consider whether that research should be shut down entirely, or subject to much more rigorous controls than currently exist. We may not learn from whence the coronavirus came, but we can take the lab leak scenario seriously, and try to prevent a human-engineered disease from killing unwitting victims, smashing our economies, and throwing millions of people out of work in the future.