I admit it: I’m a space geek. I avidly followed the space program when I was a kid and watched all of the launches and landings, I joined The Planetary Society when I was a college student and got some great photos of planets taken by exploratory spacecraft of the ’70s that I tacked up on the wall around my desk, and I’ve been hooked on space and planets and the technological advances made in our exploration efforts ever since. That’s why I think what we’re doing now on Mars is pretty darned thrilling.
The photo above is a picture of the latest Mars rover, Perseverance, taken by Ingenuity, the helicopter/drone that has been taking short flights over the surface of Mars. It’s not the greatest photograph from a technical standpoint, of course, but the amazing thing is that it is a picture of human technology taken by another item of human technology on the surface of a distant, alien planet. The picture was snapped on Sunday on Ingenuity‘s third, and longest, flight over old Mars, when Ingenuity was about 16 feet above the Martian landscape and about a football field away from Perseverance.
We keep making significant advances in the space arena, whether it is developing reusable capsules and rockets, sending drones to Mars, or seeing more entrepreneurs entering the space technology and exploration business. It makes me believe that the next few years are going to see some real landmarks established: space tourism, permanent bases on the Moon, and even human landings on Mars. But for now, a blurry, grainy photo of Perseverance is still a pretty cool thing.
I don’t know which airlines–if any–are still blocking off the middle seats of flights. We flew American to and from Arizona on our recent visit, and on our flights every seat, including the middle seat, was filed. The airlines not only take the position that the science cited by the CDC is “limited,” but also point out that the airline industry took a huge hit in the early days of COVID, when most people avoided travel, and they need to sell those middle seats to recover economically and become profitable again.
It’s a class example of the tug-of-war between public health and profitability. I’m convinced that, if the CDC had its druthers, they’d rather every American stayed in their homes and avoided any risks whatsoever. And when it comes to air travel, they’d rather people are more spaced out (cramped passengers wouldn’t mind that, either), everyone wears masks, no food is served, and aircraft are designed so that all potential disease transmission vectors are avoided. Of course, if the airlines followed all of the CDC’s guidance, the cost of air travel would inevitably increase, some airlines would go out of business, and people wouldn’t be happy about it.
I’m guessing the airlines will come out on top in the middle-seat muddle and will continue to fill those middle seats, unless the FAA or Congress actually mandates that middle seats be left vacant. But you can bet that the airlines won’t object to the public health requirements that don’t affect their bottom line–like requiring passengers to wear masks at all times, regardless of their vaccination status or COVID case data. I think air travelers are going to be masked for the foreseeable future–and maybe permanently.
We’re at a weird time in America. At the same time many of us are completing our COVID-19 vaccinations, getting our vaccination cards, and feeling like we are on the cusp of returning to some reasonable measure of personal freedom, and some states are beginning to loosen their restrictions, we’re getting dire warnings from national leaders and public health officials about a potential “fourth surge” of the pandemic in the United States.
(Would it really be only a “fourth surge”? I’ve lost count, frankly.)
The statement made yesterday by Dr. Rochelle Walensky, the Director of the CDC, is pretty jarring for those Americans who hope that the worst of the pandemic is behind us and there is a light at the end of the tunnel, just ahead. After reporting on increases in the number of COVID cases (now topping more than 30 million Americans) and hospitalizations, Dr. Walensky went off script to confess, in emotional terms, to feeling a sense of “impending doom” and said she was “scared” that the country could be on the verge of a new surge as COVID variants infect the unvaccinated parts of the population. President Biden also said that “now is not the time” to remove masking and social distancing requirements.
The statements by Dr. Wallensky and President Biden have to rattle the confidence of people who believe a return to “normal” is not far away. The average citizen is getting pretty mixed messages right now. We’re feeling good that vaccinations are being made available to most age groups and seeing lots of social media posts with pictures of bared arms getting jabbed and vaccination cards, and we know that restrictions are being loosened in many places–but at the same time we are getting alarming warnings and, for many of us, we know people who are continuing to come down with COVID even now.
And part of the problem with this confusing mix of data and messages is that it is occurring against the backdrop of obvious pandemic fatigue and, in some quarters, a growing distrust of the pronouncements of our public health officials and concern that they are never going to let the world get back to 2019 normality. The CNN analysis piece linked above describes the unsettled situation this way: “The nation is caught on a ledge between triumph and a late game disaster in a fight against a pathogen ideally engineered to exploit lapses in public health, resistance to mask wearing mandates and the frayed patience of a country disorientated after a year when normal life went into hibernation.“
These different perspectives necessarily inform how people react to the messages we are getting. When the doctor who is the head of the CDC admits to being “scared” and feeling a sense of “impending doom,” is she conveying a legitimate, albeit emotional, reaction to the latest data, or is her message part of the newest effort to keep people frightened, masked up, and in their houses indefinitely?
Now that we are vaccinated, we’re going to try to get about our lives–but prudently. I’m still going to engage in social distancing, and I’ll gladly continue to mask up in enclosed spaces. I don’t think we’re done with COVID-19 just yet.
I’ve never understood the silly urge to coin names for “generations” — which basically seems to exist because, once you name a “generation,” you can make grossly overbroad generalizations about the people who are members.
It started with the “Baby Boomers,” which in my view shows just how stupid the generational naming is. “Baby Boomers” include anyone born between the end of World War II and 1964. That’s my generation, although my personal experience as someone born in the late ’50s is a lot different from someone born in the late ’40s. I wasn’t at risk of serving in Vietnam, for example, I didn’t go to any Beatles concerts, and I didn’t participate in any anti-war protests. Nevertheless, I’m designated as in that “generation” that is supposed to be hopelessly narcissistic and self-absorbed and now has become the source of the “OK, Boomer” putdown that younger generations like to use.
I think the Boomers were the first example of a named “generation.” And because sociologists thought that was a good idea, they gave names to other generations–including the “Silent Generation” that came before the Boomers, with members who had somehow been able to live their lives without a generational name until somebody decided, post-Boom, to give them one. Then came “Generation X,” immediately after the Baby Boomers, followed by “Millennials” (also apparently known as “Generation Y”), then “Generation Z.”
Now CNN is suggesting that the little kids of today–as part of the as-yet unnamed generation coming after “Generation Z”–should be called “Generation C,” because their outlook on life has been permanently transformed (and scarred) by the COVID pandemic. You can make the same arguments about how stupid it is to generalize about an entire generation, some of whom may well have been traumatized by COVID while others have simply accepted the changes and gone on with their kid lives without much concern. But the core point is how unfair it is to give a generation a name based on a disease. The coronavirus period has been tough, but it shouldn’t define a generation of little kids who will now be expected, going forward, to all be brittle and hyper safety conscious.
Can we please stop giving “generations” stupid names and generalizing about their members and their experiences?
As we inch closer to reopening America and trying to get back to the way things were before the Great Shutdown, here’s a thought for hopeful business owners, bar proprietors, and restauranteurs: remember the “broken windows” theory.
As long-time readers of this blog know, “broken windows” theory holds that the physical surroundings communicate important messages to people about social order. If you see a broken window in your neighborhood, and after a few weeks it becomes apparent that no one is going to fix that window, you get the message that your neighborhood isn’t as orderly as it once was, and it causes concern about personal safety and appropriate behavior. The same message is conveyed by the appearance of graffiti on buildings, and increased litter on the streets. All suggest a breakdown in the established social compact that will make people jittery.
The COVID-19 pandemic has presented broken windows theory on a national scale. Everything changed abruptly about a year ago. Many businesses closed during the initial shutdown, and some of them never reopened. There were fewer people on the streets, and many of those who were out were obviously fearful. Neighborhoods started to look more trashy because people who might otherwise pick things up and throw them away were afraid that loose trash and debris might be vectors for transmission of the disease. And all of those bleak visual cues have a compounding, reinforcing effect.
I was in downtown Columbus yesterday, and I thought about “broken windows” theory as I passed yet another gross, discarded facial mask in a gutter in front of a business. I think those gutter masks send a pretty unmistakable message that things still aren’t back to normal or even close to normal — because if they were, the business owner or a cleaning crew obviously would pick up that mask, and any other litter on the sidewalk. If I were a business owner trying to get the wheels of commerce to really turn again, I would go on mask patrol and make sure that the area around my establishment was free of dirty masks and other negative visual cues that might cause people to refrain from entering.
There are still a lot of nervous people out there. Many of them want the world to get back to normal, but they’ve been cautioned and conditioned to avoid risk. Filthy facemasks in the gutter subconsciously communicate that the risk is still out there.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.