“People Are Now Coming to Their Own Conclusions About Covid”

(p. 3) Lauren Terry, 23, thought she would know what to do if she contracted Covid-19. After all, she manages a lab in Tucson that processes Covid tests.

But when she developed symptoms on Christmas Eve, she quickly realized she had no inside information.

“I first tried to take whatever rapid tests I could get my hands on,” Ms. Terry said. “I bought some over the counter. I got a free kit from my county library. A friend gave me a box. I think I tried five different brands.” When they all turned up negative, she took a P.C.R. test, but that too, was negative.

With clear symptoms, she didn’t believe the results. So she turned to Twitter. “I was searching for the Omicron rapid test efficacy and trying to figure out what brand works on this variant and what doesn’t and how long they take to produce results,” she said. (The Food and Drug Administration has said that rapid antigen tests may be less sensitive to the Omicron variant but has not identified any specific tests that outright fail to detect it.) “I started seeing people on Twitter say they were having symptoms and only testing positive days later. I decided not to see anybody for the holidays when I read that.”

She kept testing, and a few days after Christmas she received the result she had expected all along.

Though it’s been almost two years since the onset of the pandemic, this phase can feel more confusing than its start, in March 2020. Even P.C.R. tests, the gold standard, don’t always detect every case, especially early in the course of infection, and there is some doubt among scientists about whether rapid antigen tests perform as well with Omicron. And, the need for a 10-day isolation period was thrown into question after the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention announced that some people could leave their homes after only five days.

“The information is more confusing because the threat itself is more confusing,” said David Abramson, who directs the Center for Public Health Disaster Science at the N.Y.U. School of Global Public Health. “We used to know there was a hurricane coming at us from 50 miles away. Now we have this storm that is not well defined that could maybe create flood or some wind damage, but there are so many uncertainties, and we just aren’t sure.”

Many people are now coming to their own conclusions about Covid and how they should behave. After not contracting the virus after multiple exposures, they may conclude they can take more risks. Or if they have Covid they may choose to stay in isolation longer than the C.D.C. recommends.

And they aren’t necessarily embracing conspiracy theories. People are forming opinions after reading mainstream news articles and tweets from epidemiologists; they are looking at real-life experiences of people in their networks.

For the full story, see:

Alyson Krueger. “Covid Experts, the Self-Made Kind.” The New York Times, SundayStyles Section (Sunday, January 23, 2022): 3.

(Note: the online version of the story has the date January 21, 2022, and has the title “So You Think You’re a Covid Expert (but Are You?).”)

Mars Can Be Terraformed to Reduce Costs of Colonization

(p. D5) Since joining NASA in 1980, Jim Green has seen it all. He has helped the space agency understand Earth’s magnetic field, explore the outer solar system and search for life on Mars. As the new year arrived on Saturday, he bade farewell to the agency.

Over the past four decades, which includes 12 years as the director of NASA’s planetary science division and the last three years as its chief scientist, he has shaped much of NASA’s scientific inquiry, overseeing missions across the solar system and contributing to more than 100 scientific papers across a range of topics. While specializing in Earth’s magnetic field and plasma waves early in his career, he went on to diversify his research portfolio.

. . .

Ahead of a December [2021] meeting of the American Geophysical Union in New Orleans, Dr. Green spoke about some of this wide-ranging work and the search for life in the solar system. Below are edited and condensed excerpts from our interview.

. . .

    You’ve previously suggested it might be possible to terraform Mars by placing a giant magnetic shield between the planet and the sun, which would stop the sun from stripping its atmosphere, allowing the planet to trap more heat and warm its climate to make it habitable. Is that really doable?

Yeah, it’s doable. Stop the stripping, and the pressure is going to increase. Mars is going to start terraforming itself. That’s what we want: the planet to participate in this any way it can. When the pressure goes up, the temperature goes up.

The first level of terraforming is at 60 millibars, a factor of 10 from where we are now. That’s called the Armstrong limit, where your blood doesn’t boil if you walked out on the surface. If you didn’t need a spacesuit, you could have much more flexibility and mobility. The higher temperature and pressure enable you to begin the process of growing plants in the soils.

There are several scenarios on how to do the magnetic shield. I’m trying to get a paper out I’ve been working on for about two years. It’s not going to be well received. The planetary community does not like the idea of terraforming anything. But you know. I think we can change Venus, too, with a physical shield that reflects light. We create a shield, and the whole temperature starts going down.

For the full story, see:

Jonathan O’Callaghan, interviewer. “Inhabiting Mars? He Calls It ‘Doable.’” The New York Times (Tuesday, January 4, 2022): D5.

(Note: ellipses, and bracketed year, added.)

(Note: the online version of the story has the date Jan. 2, 2021, and has the title “NASA’s Retiring Top Scientist Says We Can Terraform Mars and Maybe Venus, Too.” The first three paragraphs, and the block-indented sentence and question, are by the interviewer Jonathan O’Callaghan. The answer after the question is by Jim Green.)

Carolyn Shoemaker Developed Tacit Knowledge of Presence of Comets and Asteroids

(p. B6) Carolyn Shoemaker, who for more than a decade managed a telescopic camera with her husband from a high-altitude observatory in California and became widely regarded, without academic training, as the world’s foremost detector of comets and asteroids, died on Aug. 13 [2021] at a hospital in Flagstaff, Ariz.

. . .

In the afternoons, Dr. Shoemaker would take the film they had used the previous night and develop it in a darkroom, then turn over the negatives to Ms. Shoemaker. Using a stereoscope, she would compare exposures of the same block of sky at different times. If anything moved against the relatively fixed background of stars, it would appear to float in the viewing device’s eyepiece.

Ms. Shoemaker was charged with discerning what was the grain of the film (and perhaps dust on it) and what was an actual image of light emitted by an object hurtling through space. “With time,” she wrote, “I saw fainter and fainter objects.”

It took a few years before she found her first new comet, in 1983. By 1994 she had discovered, in addition to hundreds of asteroids, 32 comets, a number considered by the United States Geological Survey and others to represent the world record at the time.

. . .

One comet, known as Shoemaker-Levy 9 (named in part for their associate David Levy), had stood out from the rest. Rather than making a lonely journey through the cosmic vacuum, Shoemaker-Levy 9 was on a collision course with Jupiter.

. . .

“Carolyn Shoemaker is one of the most revered and respected astronomers in history,” Jennifer Wiseman, a senior scientist overseeing the Hubble Space Telescope, said by phone. “Her discoveries, her tenacious care in how she did her work — those things have created a legacy and a reputation that has inspired people who have come into the field after her.”

. . .

. . . scientists still depend on methods that Ms. Shoemaker perfected.

“She and her colleagues set the stage for how to identify what we would call minor bodies in our solar system, such as comets and asteroids,” Dr. Wiseman said. “We still use the technique of looking for the relatively fast transverse motions of comets and asteroids in our own solar system, as compared to the slower or more fixed position of stars.”

For the full obituary, see:

Alex Traub. “Carolyn Shoemaker, 92, a Stargazer Who Spotted Comets and Asteroids.” The New York Times (Monday, September 6, 2021): B6.

(Note: ellipses, and bracketed year, added.)

(Note: the online version of the obituary was updated Sept. 4, 2021, and has the title “Carolyn Shoemaker, Hunter of Comets and Asteroids, Dies at 92.”)

Federal Central Planners (and Cronies) Spent Hundreds of Millions of Strategic National Stockpile Funds on Emergent’s Outdated, Marginal Anthrax Vaccine, Leaving N95 Masks Unfunded

(p. 1) WASHINGTON — A year ago, President Donald J. Trump declared a national emergency, promising a wartime footing to combat the coronavirus. But as Covid-19 spread unchecked, sending thousands of dying people to the hospital, desperate pleas for protective masks and other medical supplies went unanswered.

Health workers resorted to wearing trash bags. Fearful hospital officials turned away sick patients. Governors complained about being left in the lurch. Today the shortage of basic supplies, alongside inadequate testing and the slow vaccine rollout, stands as a symbol of the broken federal response to a worldwide calamity that has killed more than a half-million Americans.

Explanations about what went wrong have devolved into partisan finger pointing, with Mr. Trump blaming the Obama administration for leaving the cupboard bare, and Democrats in Congress accusing Mr. Trump of negligence.

An investigation by The New York Times found a hidden explanation: Government purchases for the Strategic National Stockpile, the country’s emergency medical reserve where such equipment is kept, have largely been driven by the demands and financial interests of a handful of biotech firms that have specialized in products that address terrorist threats rather than infectious disease.

Chief among them is Emergent BioSolutions, a Maryland-based company now manufacturing Covid-19 vaccines for AstraZeneca and Johnson & Johnson. Last year, as the pandemic raced across the country, the government paid Emergent $626 million for products that included vaccines to fight an entirely different threat: a terrorist attack using anthrax.

Throughout most of the last decade, the government has spent nearly half of the stockpile’s half-billion-dollar annual budget on the company’s anthrax vaccines, The Times found. That left the government with less money to buy supplies needed in a pandemic, despite repeatedly being advised to do so.

Under normal circumstances, Emergent’s relationship with the federal stockpile would be of little public interest — an obscure contractor in an obscure corner of the federal bureaucracy applying the standard tools of Washington, like well-connected lobbyists and campaign contributions, to create a business heavily dependent on taxpayer dollars.

Security concerns, moreover, keep most information about (p. 18) stockpile purchases under wraps. Details about the contracts and inventory are rarely made public, and even the storage locations are secret.

But with the stockpile now infamous for what it doesn’t have, The Times penetrated this clandestine world by examining more than 40,000 pages of documents, some previously undisclosed, and interviewing more than 60 people with inside knowledge of the stockpile.

Former Emergent employees, government contractors, members of Congress, biodefense experts and current and former officials from agencies that oversee the stockpile described a deeply dysfunctional system that contributed to the shocking shortages last year. Their accounts were confirmed by federal budget and contracting records, agency planning documents, court filings, corporate disclosures and transcripts of congressional hearings and investor presentations. Continue reading “Federal Central Planners (and Cronies) Spent Hundreds of Millions of Strategic National Stockpile Funds on Emergent’s Outdated, Marginal Anthrax Vaccine, Leaving N95 Masks Unfunded”

The Promise of Gene Editing Is Greater Than the Peril

(p. C1) The Berkeley biochemist [Jennifer Doudna] had helped to invent a powerful new technology that made it possible to edit the human genome—an achievement that made her the recipient of a Nobel Prize in 2020. The innovation was based on a trick that bacteria have used for more than a billion years to fight off viruses, a talent very relevant to us humans these days. In their DNA, bacteria develop clustered, repeated sequences (what scientists call CRISPRs) that can recognize and then chop up viruses that attack them. Dr. Doudna and others adapted the system to create a tool that can edit DNA—opening up the potential for curing genetic diseases, creating healthier babies, inventing new vaccines, and helping humans to fight their own wars against viruses.

. . .

(p. C2) . . . the advances in CRISPR technology, combined with the havoc wrought by the Covid-19 pandemic, have pushed me to be more open to gene editing. I now see the promise of CRISPR more clearly than the peril. If we are wise in how we use it, biotechnology can make us more able to fend off lethal viruses and overcome serious genetic defects.

After millions of centuries during which evolution happened “naturally,” humans now can hack the code of life and engineer our own genetic futures. Or, for those who decry gene editing as “playing God,” let’s put it this way: Nature and nature’s God, in their wisdom, have evolved a species that can modify its own genome.

For the full commentary, see:

Walter Isaacson. “What Gene Editing Can Do for Humankind.” The Wall Street Journal (Saturday, Feb. 20, 2021): C1-C2.

(Note: ellipses, and bracketed name, added.)

(Note: the online version of the commentary has the date Feb. 19, 2021, and has the same title as the print version.)

Isaacson’s commentary is related to his book:

Isaacson, Walter. The Code Breaker: Jennifer Doudna, Gene Editing, and the Future of the Human Race. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2021.

Clarity Is Rewarded, at Least Among Cave Experts

After Deirdre McCloskey published her classic “Economical Writing” in Economic Inquiry, Jack High published a critique in the same journal arguing that young economists would ruin their careers if they followed McCloskey’s advice to write clearly. High claimed that clear writing would be less published and economists who wrote more clearly would therefore be less likely to receive tenure. McCloskey published a rebuttal saying that clear writing was more likely to be published, to be read, and to help the writer receive tenure. But she added that even if she was wrong about that, we should try to write clearly because it is the right thing to do.

The study mentioned below provides some evidence to support McCloskey’s claim that clarity is rewarded.

(p. D2) . . . a team of researchers has analyzed jargon in a set of over 21,000 scientific manuscripts. The study focused on manuscripts written by scientists who study caves, . . .

They found that papers containing higher proportions of jargon in their titles and abstracts were cited less frequently by other researchers. Science communication — with the public but also among scientists — suffers when a research paper is packed with too much specialized terminology, the team concluded.

For the full story, see:

Katherine Kornei. “Confused by All That Scientific Jargon? So Are the Scientists.” The New York Times (Tuesday, April 13, 2021): D2.

(Note: ellipses added.)

(Note: the online version of the article has the date April 9, 2021, and has the title “Are You Confused by Scientific Jargon? So Are Scientists.” Where the wording in the online version differs from the wording in the print version, the passages quoted above follow the print version.)

The study discussed in the passages quoted above is:

Martínez, Alejandro, and Stefano Mammola. “Specialized Terminology Reduces the Number of Citations of Scientific Papers.” Proceedings of the Royal Society of Britain (April 7, 2021)
https://doi.org/10.1098/rspb.2020.2581.

The McCloskey classic article, and the exchange with Jack High, are:

McCloskey, Deirdre. “Economical Writing.” Economic Inquiry 23, no. 2 (April 1985): 187-222.

High, Jack C. “The Costs of Economical Writing.” Economic Inquiry 25, no. 3 (July 1987): 543-45.

McCloskey, Deirdre. “Reply to Jack High.” Economic Inquiry 25, no. 3 (July 1987): 547-548.

Still Plenty of Fruit to Pick from the Tree of Science

Some pessimists have argued for imminent economic stagnation on the grounds that technological progress depends on new scientific knowledge and that we already pretty much know all there is to know about science. One way in which they are wrong is that the process of scientific discovery still has a long way to go before we fully understand the world. (If C.S. Peirce was right in saying that truth is the result of infinite inquiry, then we will never fully understand the world.)

(p. A1) Evidence is mounting that a tiny subatomic particle seems to be disobeying the known laws of physics, scientists announced on Wednesday, a finding that would open a vast and tantalizing hole in our understanding of the universe.

The result, physicists say, suggests that there are forms of matter and energy vital to the nature and evolution of the cosmos that are not yet known to science. The new work, they said, could eventually lead to breakthroughs more dramatic than the heralded discovery in 2012 of the Higgs boson, a particle that imbues other particles with mass.

“This is our Mars rover landing moment,” said Chris Polly, a physicist at the Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory, or Fermilab, in Batavia, Ill., who has been working toward this finding for most of his career.

The particle célèbre is the muon, which is akin to an electron but far heavier, and is an integral element of the cosmos. Dr. Polly and his colleagues — an international team of 200 physicists from seven countries — found that muons did not behave as predicted when shot through an intense magnetic field at Fermilab.

The aberrant behavior poses a firm challenge to the Standard Model, the suite of equations that enumerates the fundamental particles in the universe (17, at last count) and how they interact.

“This is strong evidence that the muon is sensitive to something that is not in our best theory,” said Renee Fatemi, a physicist at the University of Kentucky.

. . .

(p. A19) For decades, physicists have relied on and have been bound by the Standard Model, which successfully explains the results of high-energy particle experiments in places like CERN’s Large Hadron Collider. But the model leaves many deep questions about the universe unanswered.

Most physicists believe that a rich trove of new physics waits to be found, if only they could see deeper and further. The additional data from the Fermilab experiment could provide a major boost to scientists eager to build the next generation of expensive particle accelerators.

For the full story, see:

Dennis Overbye. “A Particle’s Tiny Wobble Could Upend the Known Laws of Physics.” The New York Times (Friday, April 16, 2021): A1 & A19.

(Note: ellipsis, and bracketed year, added.)

(Note: the online version of the article was updated April 9, 2021, and has the title “A Tiny Particle’s Wobble Could Upend the Known Laws of Physics.”)

My point at the start of this entry is directly relevant to my argument in the first half of the last chapter of:

Diamond, Arthur M., Jr. Openness to Creative Destruction: Sustaining Innovative Dynamism. New York: Oxford University Press, 2019.

Quiet, Modest Steinsberger Said Scientists Should “Be Interested in Learning About Nature,” Not in Seeking Prizes

(p. B12) Jack Steinberger, who shared the 1988 Nobel Prize in Physics for expanding understanding of the ghostly neutrino, a staggeringly ubiquitous subatomic particle, died on Saturday [Dec. 12, 2020] at his home in Geneva.

. . .

In 1988, The Economist said Dr. Steinberger “enjoys a reputation as one of the finest experimental physicists in the world.” The magazine continued, “In a field full of flamboyance and a fair bit of arrogance, he is a quiet, modest man; something of a physicist’s physicist.”

As if to prove the point, Dr. Steinberger told a meeting of Nobel laureates in 2008 that scientists should “be interested in learning about nature,” not prizes.

“The pretension that some of us are better than others,” he said, “I don’t think is a very good thing.”

For the full obituary, see:

Douglas Martin. “Jack Steinberger, Physicist Awarded a Joint Nobel Prize, Is Dead at 99.” The New York Times (Thursday, December 17, 2020): B12.

(Note: ellipses, and bracketed date, added.)

(Note: the online version of the obituary was updated Jan. 20, 2021, and has the title “Jack Steinberger, Nobel Winner in Physics, Dies at 99.”)

Dolly Parton Sings and Donates with “Effective Sympathy”

The above is an “embed” from a YouTube video posted by singer (and English Professor) Ryan Cordell. The lyrics were written by Gretchen McCulloch and the tune is from Dolly Parton’s “Jolene.” The YouTube URL is: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cCwNQtnI64I

In my book Openness to Creative Destruction: Sustaining Innovative Dynamism, I write about “effective sympathy” which I describe as “actions taken by sympathetic observers that actually save or improve the lives of those who are suffering” (p. 110). I admire Dolly Parton for donating copies of The Little Engine That Could to poor children. I also admire Dolly Parton for donating a million dollars to help start research on the Moderna vaccine for Covid-19. Dolly Parton knows how to practice effective sympathy.

(p. 12) She wrote “I Will Always Love You” and “Jolene” on the same day and built a theme park around herself. She has given memorable onscreen performances as a wisecracking hairstylist and harassed secretary. She even helped bring about the creation of “Buffy the Vampire Slayer.”

Now, Dolly Parton’s fans are crediting her with saving the world from the coronavirus. It’s an exaggerated, tongue-in-cheek claim, to be sure. But for legions of admirers, Ms. Parton’s donation this spring to Vanderbilt University Medical Center, which worked with the drugmaker Moderna to develop a coronavirus vaccine, was another example of how her generosity and philanthropy have made her one of the world’s most beloved artists.

. . .

“Her money helped us develop the test that we used to first show that the Moderna vaccine was giving people a good immune response that might protect them,” Dr. Denison said on Tuesday.

Ms. Parton told the BBC on Tuesday [November 17, 2020] that she was excited to hear her contribution provided a “little seed money that will hopefully grow into something great and help to heal this world.”

. . .

On Monday [November 16, 2020], after Moderna announced that early trials of the vaccine showed a 94.5 percent effectiveness rate, fans reacted rapturously.

. . .

Ryan Cordell, an associate professor of English at Northeastern University in Boston, filmed himself singing a song about the vaccine to the tune of “Jolene.”

For the full story, see:

Maria Cramer. “Dolly: A Star of Country, a Songwriter, a Virus Hero.” The New York Times, First Section (Sunday, November 22, 2020): 12.

(Note: ellipses, and bracketed dates, added.)

(Note: the online version of the story has the date Nov. 17, 2020, and has the title “Dolly Parton: Singer, Songwriter, Pandemic Savior?” The online version says that the title of the New York print version was “Dolly: Country Music Legend, Songwriter, Pandemic Hero” and its page number was 8. The title of my National print version was “Dolly: A Star of Country, a Songwriter, a Virus Hero” and its page number was 12.)

My book mentioned above is:

Diamond, Arthur M., Jr. Openness to Creative Destruction: Sustaining Innovative Dynamism. New York: Oxford University Press, 2019.

The use of The Little Engine That Could to encourage entrepreneurial perseverance is analyzed in:

Yandle, Bruce. “I Think I Can! Does the Little Engine That Could Matter?” Journal of Private Enterprise 26, no. 2 (Spring 2011): 127-42.

Scientists Are “a Political Interest Group Like Any Other”

(p. B15) Mr. Greenberg, who spent most of his professional life in Washington, became a science journalist at a time when many practitioners seemed to view their job as advancing the cause of research — a consideration that many researchers expected.

As an author, newspaper reporter and magazine editor, and as the founding editor and publisher of Science & Government Report, a newsletter he ran for almost 30 years, Mr. Greenberg took a different view.

From his vantage point in the capital, he tracked scientific rivalries and battles over the government’s science priorities, describing research not as a uniquely worthy activity but rather as one of many enterprises competing for federal largess.

“He recognized that science, and the scientific endeavor broadly, was a political interest group like any other, and they behaved like any other, and he covered them like any other,” said Daniel Sarewitz, a congressional staffer in the science policy arena in the early 1990s and now director of the Washington-based Consortium for Science, Policy and Outcomes at Arizona State University.

“He was not a toady or an advocate for the science community,” Dr. Sarewitz said. “He was a journalist covering science.”

Writing in The New York Times Book Review in 1968, Robert K. Merton, the eminent 20th-century sociologist of science, said Mr. Greenberg’s “perceptive” first book, “The Politics of Pure Science,” was one that “should be read by the President, legislators, scientists and the rest of us ordinary folk.”

For the full obituary, see:

Cornelia Dean. “Daniel S. Greenberg, 88, Science Journalist.” The New York Times (Thursday, March 26, 2020): B15.

(Note: the online version of the obituary was last updated March 26, 2020, and has the title “Daniel S. Greenberg, Science Journalist and Iconoclast, Dies at 88.” Williams’s question is in bold; Achorn’s answer is not in bold.)

The second edition of the book by Greenberg, mentioned in the passage quoted above, is:

Greenberg, Daniel S. The Politics of Pure Science. Second ed. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1999.

Guacamole “Toast-Munching Hipsters” Can Relax: Gene Edited Avocados Would Thrive Under Global Warming

(p. B1) Last month, a team of scientists in the United States and Mexico announced that it had mapped the DNA sequences of several types of avocados, including the popular Hass variety. That research is likely to become the foundation for breeding techniques and genetic modifications designed to produce avocados that can resist disease or survive in drier conditions.

Whether they realize it or not, this could be big news for toast-munching hipsters. Already, rising temperatures are disrupting the avocado supply chain, causing price increases across the United States that have also been exacerbated by trade uncertainty.

“Because of climate change, temperature might not be the same, humidity might not be the same, the soil might be different, new insects will come and diseases will come,” said Luis Herrera-Estrella, a plant genomics professor at Texas Tech University who led the avocado project. “We need to be prepared to contend with all these inevitable challenges.”

. . .

(p. B5) “There are avocados that grow in very hot places with little water, and there are avocados that grow more in rainy places,” Dr. Herrera-Estrella said. “If we can identify genes that confer heat tolerance and drought tolerance, then we can engineer the avocados for the future.”

For the full story, see:

David Yaffe-Bellany. “Genes Ripe for Editing.” The New York Times (Saturday, September 28, 2019): B1 & B5.

(Note: ellipsis added.)

(Note: the online version of the story was last updated on Sept. 30 [sic], 2019, and has the title “Avocado Toast, Meet Gene Editing.”)