This article originally appeared on The Conversation.
Some climatologists argue it may be too late to reverse climate change, and it’s just a matter of time before the Earth becomes uninhabitable – if hundreds of years from now. The recent movie Interstellar raised the notion that we may one day have to escape a dying planet. As astrophysicists and avid science fiction fans, we naturally find the prospect of interstellar colonization intriguing and exciting. But is it practical, or even possible? Or is there a better solution?
Science fiction has painted a certain picture of space travel in popular culture. Drawing on stories of exploration from an age of tall ships, with a good helping of anachronisms and fantastical science, space exploration is often depicted in a romantic style: a crew of human travelers in high-tech ships wandering the galaxy, making discoveries and reporting back home. Perhaps they even find habitable words, some teeming with life (typically humans with different-colored skin), and they trade, colonize, conquer or are conquered. Pretty much, they do as humans have always done since the dawn of their time on Earth.
How closely do these ideas resemble what we may be able to achieve in the next few hundred years? The laws of physics and the principles of engineering will go a long way to helping us answer this question.
Last fall as the Ebola epidemic continued unabated, experts started discussing something that had never before been bandied about: the idea of Ebola becoming endemic in parts of West Africa. Endemic diseases, like malaria and Lassa fever in that region of Africa, are constant presences. Instead of surfacing periodically, as it always has before now, Ebola in an endemic form would persist in the human population, at low levels of transmission, indefinitely.
The debate was stoked by a paper written by the World Health Organization (WHO) Ebola Response Team and published in October in the New England Journal of Medicine. The sentence that grabbed the world’s attention was saved till near the very end: “For the medium term, at least, we must therefore face the possibility that EVD [Ebola virus] will become endemic among the human population of West Africa, a prospect that has never previously been contemplated.”
What would it mean exactly for Ebola to become endemic, and how would it change things?
Nuclear power has long been a contentious topic. It generates huge amounts of electricity with zero carbon emissions, and thus is held up as a solution to global energy woes. But it also entails several risks, including weapons development, meltdown, and the hazards of disposing of its waste products.
But those risks and benefits all pertain to a very specific kind of nuclear energy: nuclear fission of uranium or plutonium isotopes. There’s another kind of nuclear energy that’s been waiting in the wings for decades – and it may just demand a recalibration of our thoughts on nuclear power.
Nuclear fission using thorium is easily within our reach, and, compared with conventional nuclear energy, the risks are considerably lower.
This article was originally published on The Conversation.
Popular wisdom and established evolutionary science hold that the sexes seek fundamentally different relationships: men want short-term, no-strings-attached relationships whereas women value longer-term, loyal partnerships.
The explanation generally comes down to biological differences between men and women. Because women invest more in reproduction than men do – think pregnancy, morning sickness and stretchmarks – being picky becomes important because choosing poorly can be costly, even devastating. However, for men, reproduction may only entail a brief sexual liaison and a bit of sperm – there are potentially no long-term costs. This calculus has been built into our psychology, many argue.
Think about it more carefully, though. Where do all the women sleeping with these guys come from? Shouldn’t it be difficult for men to find so many willing partners? As theorist Hanna Kokko noted, it takes two to tango.
If we go by the numbers, in a group with an equal number of both sexes, it is impossible, on average, for men to have more partners than women. So why do we expect male psychology to be so hellbent on one-night stands? And why, clearly in opposition to this notion, are many men often so devotedly paternal?
Here’s where an established body of literature in sociology and demography – called mating market theory (MMT) – can help out. According to MMT, relationship preferences are expected to follow not simply from these fixed biological propensities, but also to be heavily influenced by partner availability.
The “Pillars of Creation,” a photograph of part of the Eagle Nebula, is one of the most iconic images ever taken by the Hubble telescope. Yesterday, astronomers released a bigger, better, sharper version of the pillars, taken almost two decades after the first.
But an ironic twist – and what we didn’t know twenty years ago – is that the Pillars might have been long ago torn apart by a distant explosion. The photos we snap of them today are high-tech and modern but their subject is clouded by thousands of light-years of remove. Like the post-mortem photography of the Victorian era, the resulting images are lifelike, and beautiful, and sad.
This article was originally published on The Conversation.
Food labels seem to provide all the information a thoughtful consumer needs, so counting calories should be simple. But things get tricky because food labels tell only half the story.
A calorie is a measure of usable energy. Food labels say how many calories a food contains. But what they don’t say is that how many calories you actually get out of your food depends on how highly processed it is.
Food-processing includes cooking, blending and mashing, or using refined instead of unrefined flour. It can be done by the food industry before you buy, or in your home when you prepare a meal. Its effects can be big. If you eat your food raw, you will tend to lose weight. If you eat the same food cooked, you will tend to gain weight. Same calories, different outcome.
For our ancestors, it could have meant the difference between life and death. Hundreds of thousands of years ago, when early humans learned to cook they were able to access more energy in whatever they ate. The extra energy allowed them to develop big brains, have babies faster and travel more efficiently. Without cooking, we would not be human.
When we fall ill we visit a clinic or a pharmacy. Our ancestors, however, didn’t have that luxury. Instead, early humans likely observed and learned from sick animals that healed themselves by eating certain plants. Yet, only in the past two decades have biologists and chemists begun to recognize that animals do self-medicate – select and use substances specifically to cure themselves of parasites and ailments.
Early accounts of animal self-medication came in the late 1980s from Michael Huffman, a primatologist at Kyoto University. His decades-long research on chimpanzees, which revealed that they use plant compounds to rid themselves of parasites, helped established self-medication as a fundamental animal behavior.
“Any animal species alive today is alive in part because of its ability to adapt and to fight off diseases,” Huffman says. Self-medication does not require high intelligence, but was simply the reaction of animals to remove an ailing symptom that evolved into strategies to expel parasites. “Self-medication is a very basic behavior that’s important to the survival of so many species,” he says.
And animal self-medication points to a treasure larger than mere fascination. By following the animals’ lead, we tap into a medicine vault furnished by millions of years of natural selection. The world’s best bio-prospectors – the animals themselves – may very well show us new pharmaceuticals to improve the health of our livestock and ourselves.
While developing drugs to cure Ebola is crucial to end the current epidemic, a vaccine that prevents the infection altogether is the end-game for viral outbreaks – a way to protect healthcare workers on the front lines and to prevent future outbreaks.
It typically takes 10 or 20 years to develop and test a vaccine and get it to market. But in Ebola’s case, this time frame has been compressed into a matter of months, bringing pharmaceutical companies, scientists and regulators into uncharted territory, striving for a vaccine to curb the still-escalating epidemic without compromising safety.
“Never before has there been a push to develop a vaccine for an emerging public health threat in this short a time frame,” said Dr. Mark Feinberg, vice president and chief public health and science officer of the drug company Merck’s vaccine division.
Dr. Ripley Ballou, head of Ebola vaccine research for GlaxoSmithKline, concurs. “I’ve been doing this kind of work for 30 years, and this is the first time I’ve encountered anything with the compressed timeline and sense of urgency,” he said.
In the mid-1800s, English chemist William Henry Perkin serendipitously synthesized the first non-natural dye: starting with coal tar, he was hoping to produce the malaria drug quinine but instead created mauve. His discovery revolutionized the textile industry and launched the petrochemical industry. Natural dyes just didn’t have the staying power and vivid colors of the dye Perkin created. Never before had such a steadfast dye been found.
Soon after, August Hofmann (Perkin’s chemistry professor) noticed that a dye he had derived from coal tar formed a color when exposed to air. The molecule responsible was para-phenylenediamine, or PPD, the foundation of most permanent hair dyes today.
Although hair is a protein fiber, like wool, the dyeing process for textiles cannot be duplicated on the head. To get wool to take a dye, you must boil the wool in an acidic solution for an hour. The equivalent for hair is to bathe it in the chemical ammonia. Ammonia separates the protective protein layers, allowing dye compounds to penetrate the hair shaft and access the underlying pigment, melanin.
A defining feature of this Ebola epidemic has been the significant resistance of some of the affected communities to treatment and prevention measures by foreign aid workers and their own governments. Many local people, suspicious and fearful, have refused to go to treatment centers or turn over bodies for safe burial, and whole communities have prohibited the entry of doctors and health teams.
As the months have gone by that resistance has been less reported upon, and there are signs that it may be lessening. In the Forest Region of Guinea, where the Ebola epidemic started, foreign staff previously faced roadblocks, stone-throwing and violent attacks. But in the last few weeks, as the New York Times has reported, locals have opened up the literal and figurative barricades around their villages and sought outside help.
Still, the friction continues to shape the spread of the disease. Doctors Without Borders’ December briefing paper [pdf] calls the situation in Guinea “alarming,” with 25 percent more cases reported in November than October and many areas where there is “still a great deal of resistance towards Ebola response” and their teams are “not welcome.”
The solution, some say, is to reevaluate treatment and prevention tactics with the benefit of an anthropological perspective. That was the call delivered last week by a meeting of the American Anthropological Association in Washington D.C. If international staff had approached the epidemic from day one with more understanding of cultural, historical and political context, attendees said, local traditions and community leaders could have become assets rather than obstacles in the fight against Ebola.
The American Anthropological Association is asking for anthropologists to become more involved in the global Ebola response. They have started the Ebola Emergency Response Initiative to connect anthropologists who are already working in or experienced with West Africa, and to build structures and programs that help more anthropologists spend time directly involved in the Ebola response on the ground.
“We’ve worked in these places and we’re watching our friends die,” said University of Florida professor Sharon Abramowitz, one of the founders of the initiative.
Abramowitz points out that the anthropologists involved in the initiative have a total of 300 years of ethnographic experience in the affected West African nations – experience which could help medical scientists both understand and respond to the epidemic.