Climate Changes Exposes Ancient, Giant Virus

Global warming is thawing Siberia's permafrost.

Global warming is thawing Siberia’s permafrost.

In his book Extreme Threats: Climate Change, author Don Nardo lays out a number of potentially calamitous consequences that might result from climate change. Heat waves, droughts, prolonged and devastating periods of freezing temperatures, increased numbers of natural disasters such as floods and hurricanes; the list goes on and on. But a new, particularly icky threat has recently come to life: gigantic, ancient viruses.

Earlier this month, scientists discovered a 30,000 year old giant virus buried some one hundred feet in Siberia’s frozen ground. Called Pithovirus sibericum, scientists believe the virus was sealed in the cold region’s permafrost (soil at or below a freezing temperature for more than two years). Indeed, many animals and organisms have been preserved for centuries in the frozen ground (some researchers have even tasted perfectly preserved wooly mammoth meat). But climate change and warming of the Siberian region have caused the layers of permafrost to decrease at steady rate, exposing many of these ancient lifeforms, including many viruses that been sealed away for thousands of years.

Pithovirus sibericum is one such virus, and it’s big. Literally. At just 1.5 micrometers, it may not sound large, but it’s about 1,000 times larger than an average virus (such as influenza); it also contains about 2,500 genes, while influenza has just thirteen. And research shows that the newly thawed virus has been revived and is growing and multiplying.

You can tell it's an old-timey virus from the push-broom mustache.

Yikes!

Fortunately, this particular virus strictly attacks single cell organisms, such as amoebas; it doesn’t attack more complex organisms like humans or animals. But, the researchers studying the giant virus worry that’s it just one of many frozen in the permafrost. The more that global warming thaws out the frozen ground, the more likely other ancient viruses will be found and potentially revived.

Admittedly, the chances of these viruses becoming a threat to humanity are low. But as one of the scientists working on the project says, “there’s always the first instance, right?”

Not too mention that earlier this year, scientists reconstructed the genetic code of a strain of the bubonic plague that wreaked havoc in the Roman Empire under Emperor Justinian; they were able to do so by extracting DNA from the teeth of two ancient bodies found by land developers in Germany. Scientists hope that studying the bacteria will give a greater understanding the plague’s evolutionary journey, providing insight into human history and the disease itself, which still affects some people today.

Still, ancient viruses and bacteria being extracted from frozen ground and preserved teeth bring to mind science fiction and apocalyptic scenarios. Of course, that kind of thing is just fiction . . .  anyway, now I’m off to move into a hermetically sealed biosphere and shower in Purell.

To learn more about the other dangers posed by climate change, as well as what we can do to slow it down, check out Extreme Threats: Climate Change by Don Nardo (ISBN# 978-1-59935119-3) from your local library or order it from Morgan Reynolds Publishing. For more about the Bubonic plague, influenza, and other diseases, please see Morgan Reynolds’ Diseases in History series.

-Josh Barrer

Associate Editor

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Published in: on March 12, 2014 at 2:08 pm  Leave a Comment  
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Finding New, Life Saving Uses for Drones

droneUnmanned aerial vehicles, or drones, as they are commonly called, are a key topic in the worlds of technology and the military. These vehicles, which can be piloted remotely from anywhere in the world, are poised to redefine warfare and quite possibly the state of the world. As author Don Nardo writes in his book Drones, the US military estimates that drones participated in five missions a day in 2012; by 2016, that number is projected to rise to seventy a day.

But while drones are primarily made and used for military operations, unmanned aerial vehicles have a number of other, non-combat uses. In the wake of the devastating Typhoon Haiyan that struck the Philippines, reporters and rescue workers have used drones mounted with cameras to take stock of the devastation.

Some observers, though, think drones could be doing much more to help the people affected by the typhoon, as well as people in other disasters and life threatening situations. A drone equipped with a thermal camera, for example, could not merely document the damage, but find survivors still in need of assistance. Drones could also be used to deliver food and supplies, serve as communication hubs, fight fires, and more.

Largely, life saving measures like these are not happening though. This is largely because of as of right now, drones are primarily thought of as a military tool: as such, all the drones currently in use are being used and programmed for military operations, not rescue ones.

Finding a non-combat use for drones would undoubtedly be a good thing. Most importantly, it could save lives, but it could also combat the growing mistrust of drones throughout the world. Drones strikes against suspected terrorists and insurgents have largely succeeded in killing their targets, but have also killed many civilians in the process; Pakistani officials, for example, claim drone strikes have killed sixty-seven civilians since 2008.  Indeed, even when a drone strike eliminates a reviled target, execution by drone carries a stigma that causes many to sympathize with the assassinated, for good or ill, as was the case with Hakimullah Mehsud, leader of the Pakistani Taliban killed in a controversial drone strike.

Clearly, drones, which allow for aerial combat without endangering the lives of pilots, are going to be an integral part of military operations going forward. But their reputation as underhanded and vicious weapons as deadly to civilians as to enemy combatants make their deployment risky and complicated. Its probably too late for drones to offer much aid to the people of the Philippines, but hopefully the next time disaster strikes, drones will be able to assist and lessen suffering and death. Finding ways to use this amazing technology to actually save lives instead of just ending them might make a drone filled future less foreboding.

To learn more the development and usage of drones, please check out Drones by Don Nardo (ISBN# 978-1-59935-384-5), part of Morgan Reynolds’ The Military Experience. In The Air series, from your local library, or purchase it from Morgan Reynolds.

-Josh Barrer

Associate Editor

Published in: on November 19, 2013 at 11:32 am  Leave a Comment  
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Fighting the Flu and Other Diseases

A new flu vaccine, administered via a tiny needle.

A new flu vaccine, administered via a tiny needle.

As we near the fall, the weather cools and kids begin returning to school, and many people begin worrying about the flu and the spread of disease.

These days, people have more ways than ever to help protect themselves against the influenza virus. An article recently run by the Associated Press examines the number of different types of flu vaccine now available. There is a more potent vaccine that protects against multiple types of flu, and vaccinations made especially for people with allergies to eggs, or fear of needles. The flu, it seems, doesn’t stand much of a chance this year.

Of course, many people don’t have access to vaccinations, and as a result, as many as 500,000 people die from the flu yearly. And throughout history, the influenza virus has taken millions of lives.

A 3d model of the flu virus

A 3d model of the flu virus

Still, thanks to the dedication and efforts of scientists and doctors through history, we have multiple tools to battle influenza and its potentially devastating effects. Unfortunately, there are many other health threats still around.

Some bacteria, for example, grow resistant to antibiotics. Therefore, the infections and illnesses these bacteria cause are more difficult to fight, and kill an estimated 23,000 people a year.

Meanwhile, other diseases, such as SARS (severe acute respiratory syndrome) and MERS (Middle East respiratory syndrome) seem to frequently be making the news, cropping up in small pockets throughout the world and inflicting great damage on infected individuals.

There are unfortunately no easy answers on what can be done to prevent and fight these diseases, but plenty of people are doing everything they can. The BBC recently ran an article looking at the doctors and nurses who put themselves in great danger to stop the spread of

X-ray of the lungs of a person with SARS

X-ray of the lungs of a person with SARS

SARS. They didn’t do so for glory or fame, but because they believed it was their duty to do what they could to help the sick and prevent the sickness from spreading.

They are reminiscent of the the people who braved influenza infection during various outbreaks throughout history, or even the Late Middle Age physicians who ventured into plague houses, risking everything to protect people and gain just a bit more knowledge and understanding of a disease that was devastating humanity.  With time, thanks to the efforts of people like this, we may have someday have vaccines and other ways to protect against whatever diseases and bacteria prove to be a threat in the future.

To learn more about the history of the influenza virus, its impact on history, and people’s efforts to prevent and fight it, please check out Diseases in History: Flu by Kevin Cunningham (ISBN # 978-159935-105-6) from your local library or purchase it from Morgan Reynolds Publishing. The Diseases in History series also features books about the plague, HIV/AIDS, and malaria.

-Josh Barrer

Associate Editor

Published in: on September 18, 2013 at 1:43 pm  Leave a Comment  
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Past Discoveries Pave the Way for the Advancements of Today

An atom's electron orbital

An atom’s electron orbital

The world of science is built on the work of the past. This is true of almost all things, but when looking at a new scientific advancement, one can often trace a direct line from past breakthroughs to the present, in a way that’s more logical and clear than history often is. Because of that, understanding the past is vital. Looking at the newest scientific breakthrough without any context of the breakthroughs that led up to that moment is akin to looking at something magical; but by going backwards, looking at how the pieces have added up to the current whole, we can begin to understand even the most abstract concepts.

It’s fitting, then, that many scientists seek to understand the mysteries of life by looking at the smallest components of matter. For years, scientists have studied atoms: how they are constructed, how they function, how they come together to create life as we know it.

Recently, some great new advancements have been made. Using a newly designed quantum microscope, scientists in the Netherlands were able to observe an atom’s electron orbital. This is the first time scientists have been able to directly observe the wave function of an atom. Similarly, researchers in Berkeley, California, were able to capture high resolution images of molecules as they break and reform chemical bonds.

Both of these advancements, while highly technical, will help scientists gain a greater understanding about how the smallest units of matter function, thus increasing our understanding of how life and the universe works, and why. Undoubtedly, these advancements will allow further discoveries in the near future (if they haven’t already), and these discoveries will seem common-place and easy to understand.

So it is with the scientists who more than a century ago helped discover atoms and molecules, and introduced the idea that everything in the universe was made of smaller and smaller parts. Many scientists worked in this area and made essential discoveries, but two giants in the field were John Dalton and Ernest Rutherford. Dalton is credited as a pioneer in the development of Atomic Theory, while Rutherford was a respected experimentalist who was vital in the development of nuclear physics and was integral in the discovery that atoms could be broken down into smaller parts, such as the nucleus and protons.

In their own time, the work of Dalton and Rutherford and others like them was complex and controversial, but their theories and discoveries are viewed as essential building blocks of modern science. Without their work, the discoveries being made today would almost probably be impossible; they would almost certainly be incomprehensible. It’s impossible to tell now exactly which advancements being made today will be the basis for discoveries of tomorrow, and which modern scientists will be remembered like Dalton and Rutherford. But it is clear that to understand what’s coming, we must have knowledge of what has been done and discovered, just as to understand the universe, we must look at it’s smallest parts.

To learn more about John Dalton and Ernest Rutherford, please read the newest additions to Morgan Reynolds Publishing’s acclaimed Profiles in Science series: John Dalton and the Development of Atomic Theory  (ISBN# 978-1-59935-122-3) and Ernest Rutherford and the Birth of the Atomic Age (ISBN# 978-1-59935-171-1), both by Roberta Baxter, available now! Check them out from your local library, purchase them from Morgan Reynolds or a distributor, or download an ebook version to read on your computer or e-reader.

-Josh Barrer

Associate Editor

Rosalind Franklin and the Continuing Challenges for Women in Science

In 1962, Francis Crick, along with James Watson and Maurice Wilkins, won the Nobel Prize. They were awarded for their work on nucleic acids, particularly their mapping of the structure of DNA, a vital breakthrough in the understanding of the chemical building block of life. Last week, on April 11, Crick’s Nobel Prize was purchased at an auction by a bio-technology company for about $2 million.

Rosalind Franklin

Rosalind Franklin

Whenever Crick’s name, along with Watson and Wilkins’s, is brought up, it inevitably renews discussion about Rosalind Franklin. Franklin was an accomplished scientist and researcher, and her own work on the structure of DNA was almost certainly a key influence on the work of Watson and Crick. But when the Nobel Prize was handed out, Franklin (who died of ovarian cancer years earlier, in 1958) and her contributions were not mentioned. Many observers, then and today, saw this as an injustice, and insult was added to injury by James Watson’s widely read memoir The Double Helix, which portrayed Franklin antagonistically and diminished her work as a scientist. (Accusations that Watson’s book was sexist are just a few of the controversies the geneticist has found himself embroiled in- in 2007, Watson was widely criticized for stating his belief that people of African descent were genetically less intelligent than others.)

Today, Franklin’s contribution is recognized, and she has been granted many posthumous honors, including various fellowships and institutions named after her. But she never received a Nobel Prize, what many consider the proper recognition for her most groundbreaking work, and as such, has been become a symbol of the sexism and discrimination many women suffer in the world of science.

A photo of the structure of DNA, taken by Franklin

A photo of the structure of DNA, taken by Franklin

Though there have been numerous female Nobel Prize winners in the sciences–most famously Marie Curie’s win for Physics in 1911, and Ada Yonath, Elizabeth Blackburn, and Carol Greider all winning awards in 2009–science is still a largely male dominated field. And new research suggests this is especially true in Western countries, such as the U.S. and Britain. Experts suggest this is largely a cultural problem: women are not encouraged to pursue scientific careers and interests. There are many efforts being made by various educational institutions to encourage more young women to pursue science (the subject was even a subplot on popular sitcom The Big Bang Theory), but challenges still exist. In 2005, just eight years ago, Harvard president Larry Summers gave a speech in which he claimed that there were fewer women in science because of “innate” differences between the sexes. That Summers was widely criticized for the speech is a positive development, but the fact that he even felt comfortable making such statements suggests that the sexism Rosalind Franklin struggled against is still troubling us today.

To learn more about Rosalind Franklin, and her contributions to science and our understanding of DNA, please check out Rosalind Franklin and the Structure of Life by Jane Polcovar (ISBN# 978-1-59935-022-6) from your local library, or purchase it from Morgan Reynolds Publishing. And be sure to look up our Profiles in Science series for biographies about other fascinating women in science, including Marie Curie and Caroline Herschel.

-Josh Barrer, Associate Editor

Meteors Spotted All Over the World

The Chebarkul Meteorite explodes over Russia.

The Chebarkul Meteorite explodes over Russia.

Just a few days ago, on February 15th, reports came in about a giant explosion in the sky over Russia. Shortly after, there were reports of fireballs in the sky over California and Cuba.  All of this happened on the same day that an asteroid, called 2012 DA14,  similar in size to a small building (about 30 meters) passed Earth at about a distance of about 17,000 miles (a tiny distance astronomically speaking).

Was there any connection between this sudden burst of astrological activity? Scientists agree that it was just a coincidence. Or rather, that events like these are fairly common, and there is tremendous amount of debris floating through space which frequently comes near or impacts Earth.

As author Don Nardo points out in his book Extreme Threats: Asteroids and Comets, scientists believe there are as many as 1 billion near-Earth objects (NEO’s) in space: NEO’s are space debris (asteroids or meteorites) whose orbits push them into the inner solar system, near the Earth. Though the solar system–space–is almost inconceivably huge, the chance of these objects impacting Earth does exist, even if it’s small.

The meteorite's crash caused damage throughout the region.

The meteorite’s crash caused damage throughout the region.

The meteorite that exploded in the sky over Russia, called the Chebarkul Meteorite after the lake where most of the debris landed, is currently getting the most attention, and for good reason. The meteorite is one of the largest space objects to impact the Earth in nearly a century, when a similar meteor exploded over the Tunguska River in Siberia in 1908.  The Chebarkul Meteorite also caused some 1,200 injuries-mostly from broken glass blasted towards people by the massive impact of the meteorite’s explosion. Cameras from bystanders throughout Russia caught gripping footage of the event.

Curiosity about the meteorite abounds. Some people are even trying to profit off it. Russians in the Chebarkul vicinity have been searching for fragments of the meteorite, which they then sell to collectors and scientists for hundreds, or even thousands of dollars.

To learn more about asteroids, comets, and meteors, check out Extreme Threats: Asteroids and Comets by Don Nardo (ISBN# 978-1-59935-121-6) from your local library, or purchase it from Morgan Reynolds Publishing. For more about other threats facing the world, check out Morgan Reynolds Publishing Extreme Threats series.

-Josh Barrer

Associate Editor

Published in: on February 21, 2013 at 12:16 pm  Leave a Comment  
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Justice For Alan Turing, 60 Years After His Death?

ImageAlan Turing was a brilliant scientist and mathematician; as a codebreaker, he was vital to England’s efforts against the Nazis during World War II, and as a research scientist, his work helped pave the way for computerized artificial intelligence that we take for granted today. But his great legacy is marred by a criminal conviction: in 1952, Turing was tried, and convicted, of indecency for engaging in homosexual acts.

Even though homosexuality remains a heated topic of debate today, it’s easy to forget that homosexuality and homosexual acts were punishable crimes very recently. (Indeed, in many countries, it remains illegal.) In England, homosexuality between men was essentially made illegal in 1885, when statutes against homosexual acts were included in a new set of laws passed under the Criminal Law Amendment Act. These laws remained in effect until 1967. It was during this time that Alan Turing lived.

Now, a group of prominent scientists are calling for British Prime Minister David Cameron to officially pardon Turing, some 58 years after his death. The scientists, who include Professor Stephen Hawking and Royal Society President Sir Paul Nurse, argue that is time Turing’s “reputation be unblemished.”

This is not the first time that efforts have been made to get an official pardon issued for Alan Turing. In February 2012, over 23,000 signatures were collected for an online petition calling for him to be pardoned, but the motion was rejected by the British government. Before that, though, in 2009, Prime Minister Gordon Brown issued an official apology to Turing, calling his arrest and punishment (which included forced injection of estrogen and revocation of his government security clearance) “appalling.”

The British government has also issued numerous honors and reminders of Turing’s legacy, including a street named after him in the city of Manchester, and a commemorative stamp issued by the Royal Mail in 2012, the centenary of Turing’s birth. Turing has also been recognized and praised for his work by UK Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ) for contributions to the fields of code breaking and computer science.

Still, these honors aren’t enough for the scientists demanding Turing’s pardon; they find it unacceptable that the legacy of such an important scientist and national hero is tarnished by a criminal conviction, especially since the crime he was convicted of is no longer illegal.

So far the government has not responded to this new request from the scientists. The previous call for a pardon was rejected on the basis that Turing’s conviction was legitimate and in keeping with the laws of the time, which Turing knowingly violated. As that response was just made in February 2012, it seems unlikely that the government will respond differently less than a year later.

Others questions the value of pardoning Turing. In an editorial in UK newspaper The Telegraph, writer Tom Chivers argues that a pardon of Turing would serve little purpose. Chivers agrees that Turing’s conviction and punishment were appalling and wrong, but feels that a pardon issued now will be of no use to the long dead Turing, and will only serve to be a positive publicity stunt for David Cameron and the British government. Chivers argues that it would be much more meaningful for the government to issue a pardon to all people unfairly charged with the crime of indecency. “Don’t pardon Turing because he was a hero and a genius,” Chivers writes. “Pardon him, and everyone else, because there should never have been a crime in the first place.”

Regardless of whether or not Turing is issued a pardon, the controversy does have the positive effect of bringing publicity and attention to Turing, one of the 20th century’s most important scientific thinkers, who was integral in shaping the world as it is today. Indeed, this debate shows just how relevant Turing continues to be, and how his influence continues to be shape the future.

UPDATE (July 22, 2013)- Turing will be pardoned by the British government.

 

– Josh Barrer,

Associate Editor

To learn more about Alan Turing, his interesting life, and his contributions to science and mathematics, check out Profiles in Mathematics: Alan Turing by Jim Corrigan (ISBN 978-1-59935-064-6) from your local library, or purchase it from Morgan Reynolds Publishing.

Published in: on January 2, 2013 at 1:47 pm  Leave a Comment  
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If Thomas Edison were alive, what would he think of all the patent lawsuits being filed today. Would the threat of litigation stop him from inventing? Thomas Edison had 1,093 U.S. patents to his name, when he died eighty-one years ago, on October 18, 1931. And, he had several hundred more foreign patents from Great Britain, France, Germany, and other countries. But obtaining a patent is not so easy today.

In a recent New York Times article, “The Patent, Used as a Sword,” authors Charles Duhigg and Steve Lohr write,  “in the smartphone industry alone . . . as much as $20 billion was spent on patent litigation and patent purchases in the last two years—an amount equal to eight Mars rover missions.”

Duhigg told NPR’s Fresh Air host Terry Gross that widespread lawsuits are stifling inventors and innovation.  “It almost goes without saying that when you are a startup,” said Duhigg, “one of the first things you do is you start setting aside money to defend yourself against patent lawsuits, because any successful company, even moderately successful, is going to get hit by a patent lawsuit from someone who is just trying to look for a payout. ”

Edison was the Steve Jobs of his day. Roberta Baxter, author of Morgan Reynolds Illuminated Progress: The Story of Thomas Edison, writes,

 “Edison’s success was supported by his curiosity about the world, his resilience when experiments failed, his optimism, and his hard work. His attitudes can be summed up by two of his most famous quotes: ‘There is no substitute for hard work;’ ‘Genius is one percent inspiration and 99 percent perspiration.’ ”

 In the past twenty years, there has been a huge increase in the number of patent applications worldwide, resulting in a large and growing backlog in unprocessed applications. By one estimate, more than 4 million applications are waiting to be processed in patent offices around the globe. In the U.S. alone, there are hundreds of thousands of outstanding patent applications.

 According to Duhigg and Lohr, patents were originally meant to encourage innovation. However, they write,

  “. . . what’s happened, particularly in the last 15 years . . . is that rather than patents becoming something that encourages innovation, patents have become essentially a barrier, a toll gate on the road of innovation because patents have become so broad, so amorphous that if someone can get a patent on kind of a completely commonplace technology, what they can do is they can say to everyone else: Listen, if you want to invent this widget that you’ve invented on your own, that hundreds of people have invented at this point, I own the intellectual property on that widget. So I can stop you from using or selling that widget, or I can force you to pay me for it. ”

Fortunately for Edison, he lived and invented in a less litigious atmosphere than that of today’s inventors. Baxter writes, “Part of Edison’s legacy can be seen in the fact that at his death, the lights could only be turned off for one minute. People had become too dependent on them to go longer than that. Edison’s work prompted many to call him ‘Inventor of the World.’ His development of electrical components such as fuses, switches, and light bulbs put him in the forefront of the electrical industry. His favorite invention, the phonograph, was the beginning of the multibillion dollar music industry. . . . Decades after his death, his work still illuminates the path of progress.”

Sharon F. Doorasamy

Managing Editor

For more information about the “Inventor of the World,” check out Roberta Baxter’s Illuminated Progress: The Story of Thomas Edison (ISBN: 978-1-59935-085-1).

Published in: on October 17, 2012 at 11:18 am  Comments (1)  
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