“We Have to Wear Masks”

(p. D8) Some people are generous transmitters of the coronavirus; others are stingy. So-called super-spreaders seem to be particularly gifted in transmitting it, although it’s unclear whether that’s because of their biology or their behavior.

On the receiving end, the shape of a person’s nostrils and the amount of nose hair and mucus present — as well as the distribution of certain cellular receptors in the airway that the virus needs to latch on to — can all influence how much virus it takes to become infected.

A higher dose is clearly worse, though, and that may explain why some young health care workers have fallen victim even though the virus usually targets older people.

. . .

Apart from avoiding crowded indoor spaces, the most effective thing people can do is wear masks, all of the experts said. Even if masks don’t fully shield you from droplets loaded with virus, they can cut down the amount you receive, and perhaps bring it below the infectious dose.

“This is not a virus for which hand washing seems like it will be enough,” Dr. Rabinowitz said. “We have to limit crowds, we have to wear masks.”

For the full story, see:

Apoorva Mandavilli. “It’s Not Whether You Were Exposed, It’s How Much.” The New York Times (Tuesday, June 2, 2020, 2020): D8.

(Note: ellipsis added.)

(Note: the online version of the story has the date May 29, 2020, and the title “It’s Not Whether You Were Exposed to the Virus. It’s How Much.”)

Mainstream Science, and Governments, Rejected Early Evidence of Symptomless Transmission

(p. 1) MUNICH — Dr. Camilla Rothe was about to leave for dinner when the government laboratory called with the surprising test result. Positive. It was Jan. 27 [2020]. She had just discovered Germany’s first case of the new coronavirus.

But the diagnosis made no sense. Her patient, a businessman from a nearby auto parts company, could have been infected by only one person: a colleague visiting from China. And that colleague should not have been contagious.

The visitor had seemed perfectly healthy during her stay in Germany. No coughing or sneezing, no signs of fatigue or fever during two days of long meetings. She told colleagues that she had started feeling ill after the flight back to China. Days later, she tested positive for the coronavirus.

. . .

Dr. Rothe and her colleagues were among the first to warn the world. But even as evidence accumulated from other scientists, leading health officials expressed unwavering confidence that symptomless spreading was not important.

In the days and weeks to come, politicians, public health officials and rival academics disparaged or ignored the Munich team. Some actively worked to undermine the warnings at a crucial moment, as the disease was spreading unnoticed in French churches, Italian soccer stadiums and Austrian ski bars. A cruise ship, the Diamond Princess, would become a deadly harbinger of symptomless spreading.

. . .

(p. 10) Though estimates vary, models using data from Hong Kong, Singapore and China suggest that 30 to 60 percent of spreading occurs when people have no symptoms.

. . .

After two lengthy phone calls with the woman, doctors at the Robert Koch Institute were convinced that she had simply failed to recognize her symptoms. They wrote to the editor of The New England Journal of Medicine, casting doubt on Dr. Rothe’s findings.

Editors there decided that the dispute amounted to hairsplitting. If it took a lengthy interview to identify symptoms, how could anyone be expected to do it in the real world?

“The question was whether she had something consistent with Covid-19 or that anyone would have recognized at the time was Covid-19,” said Dr. Eric Rubin, the journal’s editor.

“The answer seemed to be no.”

The journal did not publish the letter. But that would not be the end of it.

. . .

On Monday, Feb. 3, the journal Science published an article calling Dr. Rothe’s report “flawed.” Science reported that the Robert Koch Institute had written to the New England Journal to dispute her findings and correct an error.

. . .

Dr. Rothe’s report quickly became a symbol of rushed research. Scientists said she should have talked to the Chinese patient herself before publishing, and that the omission had undermined her team’s work. On Twitter, she and her colleagues were disparaged by scientists and armchair experts alike.

“It broke over us like a complete tsunami,” Dr. Hoelscher said.

. . .

If Dr. Rothe’s paper had implied that governments might need to do more against Covid-19, the pushback from the Robert Koch Institute was an implicit defense of the conventional thinking.

Sweden’s public health agency declared that Dr. Rothe’s report had contained major errors. The agency’s website said, unequivocally, that “there is no evidence that people are infectious during the incubation period” — an assertion that would remain online in some form for months.

French health officials, too, left no room for debate: “A person is contagious only when symptoms appear,” a government flyer read. “No symptoms = no risk of being contagious.”

. . .

(p. 11) Dr. Rothe, . . ., was shaken. She could not understand why much of the scientific establishment seemed eager to play down the risk.

“All you need is a pair of eyes,” she said. “You don’t need rocket-science virology.”

. . .

While public health officials hesitated, some doctors acted. At a conference in Seattle in mid-February, Jeffrey Shaman, a Columbia University professor, said his research suggested that Covid-19’s rapid spread could only be explained if there were infectious patients with unremarkable symptoms or no symptoms at all.

In the audience that day was Steven Chu, the Nobel-winning physicist and former U.S. energy secretary. “If left to its own devices, this disease will spread through the whole population,” he remembers Professor Shaman warning.

Afterward, Dr. Chu began insisting that healthy colleagues at his Stanford University laboratory wear masks. Doctors in Cambridge, England, concluded that asymptomatic transmission was a big source of infection and advised local health workers and patients to wear masks, well before the British government acknowledged the risk of silent spreaders.

The American authorities, faced with a shortage, actively discouraged the public from buying masks. “Seriously people — STOP BUYING MASKS!” Surgeon General Jerome M. Adams tweeted on Feb. 29.

. . .

By the end of the month [March 2020], the U.S. Centers for Disease Control announced it was rethinking its policy on masks. It concluded that up to 25 percent of patients might have no symptoms.

Since then, the C.D.C., governments around the world and, finally, the World Health Organization have recommended that people wear masks in public.

Still, the W.H.O. is sending confusing signals. Earlier this month, Dr. Van Kerkhove, the technical lead, repeated that transmission from asymptomatic patients was “very rare.” After an outcry from doctors, the agency said there had been a misunderstanding.

“In all honesty, we don’t have a clear picture on this yet,” Dr. Van Kerkhove said. She said she had been referring to a few studies showing limited transmission from asymptomatic patients.

Recent internet ads confused the matter even more. A Google search in mid-June for studies on asymptomatic transmission returned a W.H.O. advertisement titled: “People With No Symptoms — Rarely Spread Coronavirus.”

For the full story, see:

Matt Apuzzo, Selam Gebrekidan and David D. Kirkpatrick. “How the World Missed Covid’s Symptom-Free Carriers.” The New York Times, First Section (Sunday, June 28, 2020): 1 & 10-11.

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

(Note: the online version of the story was updated June 27, 2020 and has the title “How the World Missed Covid-19’s Silent Spread.”)

In Italy Regulators Ban Gelato in Cones but OK Gelato in Cups

(p. A10) Europe is lifting its lockdowns, but the new rules to battle the coronavirus are baffling Europeans as the continent goes into a familiar mode: regulatory overdrive.

. . .

When Italian beaches reopened in late May, windsurfing was allowed but tanning was banned. Except at other beaches, where it was the other way around.

. . .

In Lerici, a town of pastel houses on the Italian Riviera, Mayor Leonardo Paoletti spent months coming up with a plan.

. . .

“Where the virus is, or not, is irrelevant. What matters is that there are rules, and the job of us mayors is to enforce those rules,” Mr. Paoletti said.

Some rules confuse even the mayor. Take ice-cream cones. Rules on them vary widely across Europe. Many people don’t know whether they’re allowed or not.

In Lerici, some gelato sellers were reprimanded by a central government regional representative office for offering cones instead of only paper cups.

“I don’t see why,” said Mr. Paoletti. As far as he is concerned, ice cream can be served in cones.

“At this point, nothing makes sense to me anymore,” he said.

For the full story, see:

Margherita Stancati, and Valentina Pop. “Europe Reopens With Rules for Ice Cream in Italy, Dates in Denmark.” The Wall Street Journal (Saturday, June 10, 2020): A1 & A10.

(Note: ellipses added.)

(Note: the online version of the story has the date June 9, 2020, and the title “Moving to Reopen, Europe Goes Into Regulatory Overdrive.”)

Modern Physics Puts Elegance and Beauty Over Practical Value

(p. C9) Fundamental physics, says David Lindley, has lost its way. “I am ready to declare that research in this area, no matter its intellectual pedigree and exacting demands, is better thought of not as science but as philosophy.” His book aims to show how physics emerged out of airy speculation in the 17th century and, in recent years, has sunk back into it. “The Dream Universe” is not a book that will please philosophers, nor indeed historians, though physicists will find the argument a familiar one.

The problem, says its author, has been an excessive reliance on “mathematical elegance and beauty and whatnot” in fields such as “particle physics, the unification of gravity with quantum mechanics, and cosmology.” . . .

“The Higgs mechanism is no one’s idea of beautiful mathematics,” Mr. Lindley writes. “There’s nothing natural or inevitable about it, certainly nothing elegant. But it does its job.” The same applies, it appears, to one of the biggest breakthroughs in astronomy of recent decades, the confirmed reality of a previously theorized quantity driving universal expansion at an accelerating rate. “The beauty or otherwise of the cosmological constant is a non-issue,” the author writes. “It has practical value, and that’s what matters.”

. . .

The modern rot set in, he maintains, with theoreticians such as Hermann Weyl and Paul Dirac, who spoke of beauty as well as truth in physics. “Galileo would have been aghast,” Mr. Lindley writes. “He had no patience with mystical blather.”

. . .

Mr. Lindley complains that “the more physics pushes into the subatomic world, the more arcane the mathematical tools it draws upon.”

For the full review, see:

Andrew Crumey. “Pulling on a String.” The Wall Street Journal (Saturday, June 13, 2020): C9.

(Note: ellipses added.)

(Note: the online version of the review has the date June 12, 2020, and has the title “‘The Dream Universe’ Review: Pulling on a String.”)

The book under review, is:

Lindley, David. The Dream Universe: How Fundamental Physics Lost Its Way. New York: Doubleday, 2020.

CDC Urges Americans to Wear Masks

(p. A6) The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention urged Americans on Friday [June 12.2020] to wear masks and distance themselves from others as states reopen and large gatherings take place, including protests related to the killing of George Floyd and events tied to the presidential election.

For the full story, see:

Brianna Abbott, and Betsy McKay. “CDC Sets Guidelines For Safety In Public.” The Wall Street Journal (Saturday, June 13, 2020): A6.

(Note: bracketed date added.)

(Note: the online version of the story has the date June 12, 2020, and the title “CDC Encourages Wearing Masks, Other Coronavirus Precautions at Gatherings.” Where there is a minor difference between versions, the passage quoted follows the online version. But the online version lists McKay’s name first.)

Houghton Shifted Corning from Cookware to Fiber Optics

(p. A13) When Amory Houghton became chief executive of Corning Glass Works in 1964, the company founded by his great-great grandfather was thriving. Known to the general public for Pyrex measuring cups and Corning Ware casseroles, it dominated the U.S. market for the glass used to encase TV tubes.

But the company, now known as Corning Inc., proved too reliant on those tubes, which accounted for as much as 75% of profit. In the mid-1970s, the company faced a recession and the loss of TV-related business as Japanese imports captured the U.S. market. Profits collapsed, and Mr. Houghton had to chop costs, including at the headquarters in Corning, N.Y. The global workforce dropped by more than one-third.

. . .

“It was tough making these cuts,” he said, “particularly when you lived in a small town where you knew a lot of these people.”

Corning bounced back, unlike many other U.S. manufacturing giants. That was partly because Mr. Houghton made a long-term commitment to development of fiber optics. He correctly saw that hair-thin strands of glass would replace copper wire in transmissions of voice and data. “It’s our turf, with our patents,” he said.

By the late 1990s, optical fiber and related telecommunications products accounted for more than half of Corning’s operating profits.

For the full obituary, see:

James R. Hagerty. “Executive Lifted Corning With Bet on Fiber Optics.” The Wall Street Journal (Saturday, March 14, 2020): A13.

(Note: ellipsis added.)

(Note: the online version of the obituary has the date March 13, 2020, and the title “Amory Houghton’s Bet on Fiber Optics Helped Save Corning.”)

Oliver Williamson’s Subtle Attempt to Get Pablo Spiller to Turn Down the Music

Several years ago, I presented a paper in an economic methodology session at the AEA in which Williamson also presented a paper. He was a fellow pluralist in method. I think his work deserves more attention than I have given it. The profession will be worse for his absence.

(p. A9) Building on the work of Ronald Coase, Dr. Williamson developed transaction-cost economics, examining costs that go beyond the price of a good or service.

. . .

Some of Dr. Williamson’s thinking took shape when he worked for the Justice Department’s antitrust division in 1966 and 1967.

The department had accused Schwinn & Co. of restraining trade by limiting the retailing of its bicycles to authorized merchants. The conventional wisdom among antitrust enforcers was that such arrangements could be explained only as an effort to reduce competition.

Dr. Williamson found the question more complicated and argued that Schwinn’s motive might be to reduce costs. For instance, a restricted number of retailers would make it less costly to control quality and agree on how to share advertising expenses. The resulting increase in efficiency could benefit consumers.

. . .

Pablo Spiller, a friend and Berkeley colleague who lived across the street from Dr. Williamson, recalled that he spoke precisely but not always directly. One night Dr. Spiller was playing music a bit too loudly. Dr. Williamson called. Rather than mentioning the volume, he said: “You know, I actually like the current song more than all the previous ones.”

For the full obituary, see:

James R. Hagerty. “Economist Explored Inner Life of Firms.” The Wall Street Journal (Tuesday, June 6, 2020): A9.

(Note: ellipses added.)

(Note: the online version of the obituary has the date June 4, 2020, and the title “Oliver Williamson, Nobel Economics Winner, Studied Inner Life of Firms.”)