Category: Top Posts

Should Patients Be Given Experimental Ebola Drugs?

By David Warmflash | August 8, 2014 3:07 pm
An Ebola victim is buried by the Guinea Red Cross in May 2014. ©EC/ECHO/Jean-Louis Mosser

An Ebola victim is buried by the Guinea Red Cross in May 2014. ©EC/ECHO/Jean-Louis Mosser

Official response to the Ebola outbreak reached new heights today, as the World Health Organization declared the Ebola outbreak a Public Health Emergency of International Concern – a status that allows them to issue recommendations for travel restrictions. “We’re going to see death tolls in numbers that we can’t imagine now,” Ken Isaacs, a vice president at the NGO Samaritan’s Purse, told a congressional hearing yesterday.

The attention on Ebola, and the urgent need for solutions, has focused attention on experimental treatments waiting in the wings – and ignited an ethical debate about whether giving untested drugs to patients is the best course of action.

Tracking the Outbreak

Based on the most recent official reports, 1,712 people have been infected in the current outbreak. Nearly all of these cases have been in Sierra Leone, Liberia, and Guinea, but another West African country, Nigeria, reports 9 infected people, one of whom died after flying from Liberia. Also, Saudi Arabia reported a likely case after a Saudi man died following a trip to Sierra Leone. And now, the two infected Americans, both stricken with the virus while helping victims in affected areas, have been flown to Atlanta to receive treatment. This will be achieved under special quarantine conditions at Emory University Hospital, where their body fluids will be handled using biohazard level 4 laboratory precautions in which scientists wear outfits resembling spacesuits.

It’s got lots of the trappings of similar science fiction plotlines, such as TNT’s The Last Ship, the topic of my previous post. On that series a viral pandemic, whose symptom profile looks eerily similar to that of Ebola, has killed off 80 percent of humanity. The fictional virus has managed this because it’s 100 percent contagious, nearly 100 fatal, and because the fictional scientists and physicians on the series have insufficient knowledge of the virus and no way to treat or even slow the disease. Such extreme situations facilitate nail-biting drama.

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CATEGORIZED UNDER: Health & Medicine, Top Posts

How Faith – and Fear – Created the World’s First Time Capsule

By Jill Neimark | August 8, 2014 11:11 am

Atlanta, Georgia, prides itself on being a world class city, but in 6,000 years it may be remembered for one thing only: a massive time capsule buried in its midst. The waterproof, airtight, hermetically sealed time capsule, called the Crypt of Civilization, was locked and bolted shut on May 25, 1940 – making it the first ever time capsule in history. Its lofty ideal was to preserve a snapshot of all of civilization up until 1940, with strict orders not to be opened until the year 8113.

The crypt was the brainchild of Oglethorpe University president Thornwell Jacobs. who like many others of his time, was deeply moved when the tombs of the Egyptian pyramids were opened in the 1920s. But those tombs told us little about Egyptian daily life, and Jacobs decided that future civilizations might want a record of ours. And so he invented the time capsule, which has since been imitated around the world, in capsules ranging from the intimate to the immense. The International Time Capsule Society (ITCS) estimates there are now 10,000-15,000 capsules worldwide. However, most of them are forever lost to humanity, their whereabouts forgotten and their records misplaced over the years.

That makes it all the more remarkable that the Crypt persists, unopened but watched over by the university whose grounds it inhabits. Crafted out of a basement room that once held a swimming pool, the Crypt is twenty feet long and ten feet wide with ten-foot ceilings. It’s set in Appalachian granite bedrock under a stone roof seven feet thick, lined with enamel plates embedded in pitch. The only visible marker of its existence above ground is a tiny x carved in a flagstone outside the university’s Phoebe Hearst Memorial.

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CATEGORIZED UNDER: Living World, Top Posts
MORE ABOUT: archaeology

Readers Respond: When Did You Get Hooked on Science?

By Carl Engelking | July 22, 2014 9:27 am

science

Scientific inquiry has yielded novel cures for diseases, revealed distant planets and unearthed ancient civilizations. And behind these grand achievements are individual people with a burning question one that, at some point, set their mind spinning and after that it never stopped.

It’s likely that there came a point when science placed you under its spell as well (after all, you are reading Discover right now). So we asked readers to share the moment that they became hooked on science, and their answers are proof that inspiration can occur anywhere.

 

Some readers were inspired by events, which led to science-related careers:

“My earliest memory is of the Apollo 11 moon landing… What I remember much more vividly, though, is how excited my father was. He would point at the television and exclaim breathlessly, ‘Look Brad, they’re walking on the moon!’” — Bradford Watson

I entered high school when science fiction had very little attention of the public, and I started listening to Orson Welles’ “Mercury Theater” on the Sunday evening radio…I got home from the theater a couple of minutes late, and the famous “War of the Worlds” show was on. What a shock, and what fun, when I learned of the panic it caused!” — Gordon Kull

“I was first inspired by science when I was six years old and the rovers Spirit and Opportunity landed on Mars. I remember going to NASA’s website and playing a game where you had to assemble the rocket and if you did it right you could click the big red launch button and watch the rocket fly to Mars.” ­— Emma Louden

 

Sometimes, it just takes a good old-fashioned book to be inspired:

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CATEGORIZED UNDER: Top Posts

How We’d Really Deal With the Pandemic in ‘The Last Ship’

By David Warmflash | July 17, 2014 11:36 am

THE-LAST-SHIP

A United States Navy Destroyer is sent to the Arctic and ordered to radio silence for four months. During that time, a mysterious virus – 100 percent fatal and 100 percent contagious – spreads from isolated pockets in Africa and Asia into a pandemic. When radio silence ends and the captain and his 217 crew finally learn what’s going on, 80 percent of the human population is either dead or dying, and all government control has collapsed.

Unrealistic? Perhaps. But this is the setting of the TNT hit series The Last Ship. While that fictional virus may indeed be too lethal and spread too rapidly to be realistic, one thing this nail-biting, apocalyptic story should scare us into doing is to respond faster to viral outbreaks than we’ve been able to do in the past. The real-life models for this are two coronaviruses: Middle East respiratory syndrome coronavirus (MERS-CoV) and severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus (SARS-CoV).

First identified in humans in 2012, MERS-CoV has since caused 572 laboratory-confirmed infections, 173 of which have been fatal, and yet clinicians have no drug that targets the virus specifically. The same is true of SARS. Despite some initial, anecdotal reports suggesting that the drug ribavirin might work against this virus, and some modest success with interferon (which has a general inhibitory effect against many viruses), there is no specific anti-SARS agent.

So whether we’re talking about a virus in real life that’s killed hundreds, or the unnamed, fictional virus from The Last Ship that’s killed billions, global and national health organizations can respond via several strategies.

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CATEGORIZED UNDER: Health & Medicine, Top Posts

In Tanzania, ‘Living Walls’ Take Root to Protect Threatened Lions

By Richard Schiffman | July 16, 2014 10:00 am

Elvis Kisimir is a moon-faced and soft-spoken 31-year-old Maasai with a fondness for lions. That makes him the odd man out in the East African tribe of pastoralists whose conflict with the big cats is legendary.

But Elvis has a vision for the future that’s every bit as large as the history that precedes him. That vision is the Living Wall project — an effort to radically change not just his peoples’ interactions with lions but the very way they think of the animals, which are now critically endangered in the region.

“This work is my life now,” he told me. “I want this area to be an example for the world of a functioning, healthy ecosystem where both people and wildlife live in harmony together.”

A Fierce History

The Maasai are perhaps best known for their coming-of-age ritual in which young morani warriors venture into the bush draped in bright red waistcloths, armed only with spears, to kill a lion as a traditional test of manhood. Nowadays, however, this practice is on the wane. Maasai adolescents — like their peers elsewhere in Africa — tend to be more adept with soccer balls and video games than they are with spears and the ancient art of tracking carnivores through the open bush.

That was certainly true of the young Elvis. Aside from occasionally hearing their roars at night, he had little contact with lions growing up in a village on Tanzania’s Maasai Steppe. His first encounter with the king of beasts came from a video about their social life, which his tour-guide father brought home with him one day.

It was not exactly a case of love at first sight. The big cats appeared scary and alien, a relic of the wild Africa that Elvis and his Christian forebears (his grandfather was one of the first Maasai to be baptized) had presumably left behind them.

Still, his curiosity was aroused. When Elvis asked his Maasai elders about lions, they spoke of the respect with which the species was regarded in their culture: though they were hunted, at the same time lions were deeply admired as embodiments of independence, courage, canny intelligence and majestic strength.

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CATEGORIZED UNDER: Environment, Top Posts
MORE ABOUT: animals, Ecology

The Tale of a Vintage Spacecraft That’ll Never Make it Home

By Sarah Scoles | July 10, 2014 1:26 pm
ISEE-3 before its 1978 launch. Credit: NASA

ISEE-3 before its 1978 launch. Credit: NASA

Your mission, should you choose to accept it: Find and reanimate an ailing spacecraft, prevent it from hurtling into deep space, and guide it back to stable orbit near Earth. This setup could be the plot of a cheesy computer game, but it was actually the summer plan of a team of renegade spacemen.

The group of ambitious volunteer-engineers made contact with a 1970s spacecraft, downloaded its data, and attempted to shift its trajectory homeward. They wanted to resume the craft’s mission and siphon its data back down to Earth. Their initial plan, however, failed on Wednesday when they discovered the thrusters were out of juice—but in the wake of that setback they are altering, rather than abandoning, their plans.

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CATEGORIZED UNDER: Space & Physics, Top Posts
MORE ABOUT: space exploration

Jeans Designed by Lions and Tigers Are a Win-Win for Zoos

By Robert Young, University of Salford | July 10, 2014 10:50 am
zoo jeans

Fashionably mauled denim. Courtesy Zoo Jeans

This article was originally published on The Conversation.

A Japanese jeans maker has found a new way of capitalizing on zoo animals. Zoo Jeans is producing jeans “designed by dangerous animals.” Denim is wrapped around tires, which are then thrown to the lions who enjoy ripping and biting at the material. This produces that all-important designer, distressed look.

Rather than simply being a marketing gimmick, there is actually value in this from an animal welfare perspective. Involving lions and the zoo’s other large carnivores in the activity is part of what’s called environmental enrichment. This is the provision of stimuli to help improve well-being. It’s a win-win activity for many zoos, who can make alternative profits from their animals, which tend to be used to provide extra facilities for them.

The end result - this pair "designed" by lions.

The end result – this pair “designed” by lions.

Wrapping denim around a tire to make enrichment devices for toothy carnivores is just one way that zoos have profited from their animals’ hobbies over the years. Since their inception, zoos have looked for different ways to fund their activities. London Zoo when it first opened would let in penniless visitors for a cat or dog to be fed to the carnivores. Visitors with money were offered other things to keep themselves amused as they looked at the animals.

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CATEGORIZED UNDER: Living World, Top Posts
MORE ABOUT: conservation

Your Friends’ Faces Could Be Your Future Password

An example of how Facelock could be implemented in practice. Rob Jenkins

An example of how Facelock could be implemented in practice. Credit Rob Jenkins

This article was originally published on The Conversation.

One of the problems with using passwords to prove identity is that passwords that are easy to remember are also easy for an attacker to guess, and vice versa.

Nevertheless, passwords are cheap to implement and well understood, so despite the mounting evidence that they are often not very secure, until something better comes along they are likely to remain the main mechanism for proving identity.

But maybe something better has come along. In research published in PeerJ, Rob Jenkins from University of York and colleagues propose a new system based on the psychology of face recognition called Facelock. But how does it stack up against existing authentication systems?

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CATEGORIZED UNDER: Technology, Top Posts

Do Screens Make Us Stupider? Time for a Rethink of Reading

By Julie Sedivy | June 17, 2014 11:30 am

reading

At the university where I teach, fewer and fewer new books are available from the library in their physical, printed form. And yet, the company that just published my textbook tells me that about 90 percent of students who buy my book choose to lug around the four-pound paper version rather than purchase the weightless e-book.

The information is exactly the same, so why would students opt for the pricier and more cumbersome version? Is the library missing something important about the nature of printed versus electronic books?

Some studies do show that information becomes more securely fixed in people’s minds when they read it from paper than when they read it from the screen (as summarized in this recent blog post). Findings like these may resonate with our subjective experience of reading, and yet still seem puzzling at an intellectual level. This is because we’re used to thinking about reading—or information processing more generally—as the metaphorical equivalent of consuming food. We talk about devouring novels, digesting a report, and absorbing information. If we’re ingesting the same material, whether it’s presented in print or electronically, how can the results be so different?

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CATEGORIZED UNDER: Mind & Brain, Top Posts
MORE ABOUT: Memory & learning

Turing Test-Beating Bot Reveals More About Humans Than Computers

By Anders Sandberg, University of Oxford | June 10, 2014 2:28 pm

eugene

This article was originally published on The Conversation.

After years of trying, it looks like a chatbot has finally passed the Turing Test. Eugene Goostman, a computer program posing as a 13-year old Ukrainian boy, managed to convince 33% of judges that he was a human after having a series of brief conversations with them. (Try the program yourself here.)

Most people misunderstand the Turing test, though. When Alan Turing wrote his famous paper on computing intelligence, the idea that machines could think in any way was totally alien to most people. Thinking – and hence intelligence – could only occur in human minds.

Turing’s point was that we do not need to think about what is inside a system to judge whether it behaves intelligently. In his paper he explores how broadly a clever interlocutor can test the mind on the other side of a conversation by talking about anything from maths to chess, politics to puns, Shakespeare’s poetry or childhood memories. In order to reliably imitate a human, the machine needs to be flexible and knowledgeable: for all practical purposes, intelligent.

The problem is that many people see the test as a measurement of a machine’s ability to think. They miss that Turing was treating the test as a thought experiment: actually doing it might not reveal very useful information, while philosophizing about it does tell us interesting things about intelligence and the way we see machines.

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CATEGORIZED UNDER: Technology, Top Posts
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