Category Archives: Science & Technology

—More Flu Facts

Unless you’re U.S. Vice President Joe Biden, it is important to keep the current outbreak of swine influenza in perspective.  Even the current death toll in Mexico is tiny compared to the estimated 36,000 deaths in the U.S. alone in which the common seasonal influenza is a contributing factor.  If you are U.S. Vice President Joe Biden, it is probably much more important to decide what to call it.  If you are U.S. President Barak Hussein Obama, you are probably wondering if it’s too early to declare martial law.

[For more on the debate about the political- and commodity- appropriate name for the virus:

Despite Government Name Change, Experts Say Flu Strain Still Swine – Presidential Politics | Political News – FOXNews.com]

That is not to say that the peculiar new strain can be safely ignored.  It is apparently a very novel pathogen, and unlike H5N1, it can apparently move easily among human hosts.  The potential for a global catastrophe like the 1918 influenza pandemic or that lethal, incurable, shifting-antigen venereal disease predominantly associated with homosexual behavior that no one wants to talk about anymore is very real. 

Among the peculiarities of this strain of H1N1 is the fact that it seems to be affecting a lot of otherwise healthy adults in their prime.   “Regular”  influenza would usually affect the very young and very old preferentially. 

Among the swine flu mysteries: Why only deaths in Mexico? – CNN.com

Among the theoretical mechanisms for a pathogen that attacks healthy people with robust immune systems is something called a “Cytokine Storm” (The explanation in the CNN article—that “the body secretes too many chemicals”—is a bit light, perhaps targeted for PETA supporters or something):

Cytokine storm – Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

 Cytokine – Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

Cytokine Storm and the H5N1 Influenza Pandemic: The Bird Flu

When a healthy immune system is confronted by a  pathogen, it  provokes the immune cells to secrete cytokines, which can recruit more immune resources to the site of the contact.  In the case of an extremely novel pathogen, however, the cytokine mechanism can apparently get out of control, causing a positive feedback on recruitment of immune agents.  This “storm” can eventually spread throughout the body, and cause harmful effects such as accumulation of fluid in the lungs (acute respiratory distress syndrome—ARDS) and tissue damage.  The patient might survive the pathogen only to succumb to the explosive activation of his own immune system.

[How does this effect compare with anaphylaxis?  Cytokines are mentioned in some of the discussions of anaphylactic shock, but I don’t have the time or  resources to explore the matter further.]

Let us pray for the welfare of people around the world in this potential crisis, and for wisdom and integrity in civil leaders everywhere.

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—MS "Updates" IE

MS’s description of v.8 of its browser is pretty funny.  Distributing it to defenseless consumers as a “Windows Update” is not at all funny.   IE8 is being widely deprecated—just uncheck the box and move on….

ie8 update

—The Swine Flu Rundown

A potentially serious influenza outbreak is causing news coverage and government action world-wide:

U.S. Declares Public Health Emergency in Wake of Swine Flu – First 100 Days of Presidency – Politics FOXNews.com

There is more useful information from WHO and the U.S. CDC:

WHO | Influenza-like illness in the United States and Mexico

Update: Swine Influenza A (H1N1) Infections — California and Texas, April 2009

There are now over a thousand cases in Mexico, with more than 80 deaths thought to be related to this peculiar new strain of H1N1 influenza-A.  For some reason, the 20 cases reported in the U.S. seem to be relatively benign, with only one requiring hospitalization.  The strain has been found to respond to treatment with available antiviral drugs.  Response to the outbreak has been rapid—due in part to world-wide preparations for the potential outbreak of H5N1 several years ago. 

I don’t quite understand why some countries seem to be restricting movement of pork products, since it seems that respiratory activity would be required for transmission. 

The most detailed information I can find is, sort of ironically, on Wikipedia:

Swine influenza – Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

The article has a long list of serious scientific references, with detailed information about how these things work.  It appears—I’m not an epidemiologist, but I play one on my weblog—that pigs function as cute little pink genetic engineering laboratories for viruses.  This better explains the bizarre accounts in the regular news stories about the virus strain being a sort of Frankensteinian patch-job of human, avian, and swine viruses.  Swine can host influenza viruses from all three groups, allowing free-wheeling genetic recombination among them.    One of the listed articles [Interspecies and intraspecies transmission of triple reassortant H3N2 influenza A viruses] also covers hypotheses on the requirements for transmission of the viruses among species.  Of course, one of the most alarming things about this new strain of swine influenza is that it is clearly capable of transmission among humans who have no contact with porkers at all. 

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—Fraud at NASA!

A husband-wife team of non-civil-service-managers has been caught committing fraud and misappropriating millions of dollars of Federal funds!

FOXNews.com – Professor, Wife Accused of Defrauding NASA of Hundreds of Thousands of Taxpayer Dollars

Let’s see—-fraud at NASA—-how does that old adage go?

Selling coal to Newcastle – Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

—“…A Sense of Unease…”

How complicated is too complicated?  After 30 years of the Shuttle program, many of its flight-critical systems are still only marginally understood:

Spaceflight Now | STS-119 Shuttle Report | Shuttle launch put on hold

floridatoday.com | The Flame Trench | Florida Today's Space Team Blog

During the STS mission in November, a hydrogen pressurization control poppet cracked, and released a small fragment of metal into a critical pressurization line.  There are several potentially catastrophic scenarios for a failure of this kind, including puncturing the line or failure of LH2 tank pressure control.  They’re talking about pieces of metal dinging around in the line at speeds from 200-600 mph.  Nobody seems sure whether the breakage occurred due to an existing undetected crack, or the crack occurred during the ascent.

Meanwhile, Discovery’s next flight is off the calendar pending a decision about how to evaluate existing valves, and possibly redesign them to avoid the problem. 

[Finding something mean to say about the political situation in the U.S. is like shooting the proverbial fish in a barrel (as thoroughly evaluated by the Myth Busters).   I’m just going to have to find someone else to talk about for a while.]

—It’s Science Again

1 Corinthians 2:14 (New International Version)

14The man without the Spirit does not accept the things that come from the Spirit of God, for they are foolishness to him, and he cannot understand them, because they are spiritually discerned.

Various scientists have had some more conversations to try to kick together an explanation for reality:

Why it’s not as simple as God vs the multiverse – science-in-society – 04 December 2008 – New Scientist

Here is the referenced discussion among Richard Dawkins, Steven Weinberg, et al., which I admittedly haven’t had the patience to sit through yet (if someone wants to drop by and complain about my lack of rigor, maybe they can also summarize this for me):

VOICES-OF-SCIENCE—Available-Now-on-DVD,Richard-Dawkins-Steven-Weinberg-Lawrence-Krauss-PZ-Myers-David-Buss

Weinberg:  “If you discovered a really impressive fine-tuning… I think you’d really be left with only two explanations: a benevolent designer or a multiverse.”

My sort of lazy attempt to understand this discussion leads me to conclude that they mean that, to escape the cataclysmic—and probably career-ending— conclusion that an intelligent God created the Universe, we now have to have an infinite number of them so that the apparent tailoring of our Universe to the production and maintenance of Life can be explained away as a statistical fluke.

Pause for a moment—maybe a couple of moments—while you wrap your ability to observe the Universe around this—That’s right!  It’s the Infinite Monkeys Theory of the Origin of the Universe! 

Occam’s Razor, evidently, can be set aside when it is politically necessary to reach an utterly preposterous conclusion (although this stuff did work pretty well in a couple of episodes of SG-1).

Continuing the conversation, Weinberg is careful to make the requisite reference to the Greater Catechism of the Scientific Religion:

“Weinberg went on to clarify that invoking a benevolent designer does not count as a genuine explanation…”

The GCoSR, as we know, requires that one may ask any question one pleases, except the two Forbidden Interrogatories:

“WHO?” 

and

“WHY?”

Then it gets really frustrating:

“Physicist John Wheeler once offered a suggestion: maybe we should approach cosmic fine-tuning not as a problem but as a clue. Perhaps it is evidence that we somehow endow the universe with certain features by the mere act of observation. It’s an idea that Stephen Hawking has been thinking about, too. Hawking advocates what he calls top-down cosmology, in which observers are creating the universe and its entire history right now.”

Now scientists are required to accept that the Universe can be “created” by some kind of quantum-mechanical mumbo-jumbo of human intelligent intervention/observation, but to ostracize the hated notion of “Intelligent Design”—viz. that an intelligence beyond our species could do basically the same thing, but by active intention, and on a larger scale.  Also, because they can’t ask the Forbidden Interrogatories, these guys can’t see the logical failing of the Multiverse dodge—that all of this stuff still has to come from somewhere. 

Science is a really useful tool, in the context to which it applies.  It can’t explain everything, because it is ultimately an extension of human senses and imagination.  To successfully use this tool for the common good requires the integrity and humility to realize its limitations, and one’s own.  Science in which there are questions that scientists can’t ask is little more than a somewhat more eloquent shamanism.  It certainly isn’t science.

Update:
Other views of the same article, as found on Technorati:

Other people apparently noticed the logical problem with discussing “top-down cosmology” while dismissing the possibility of a non-human Creator without further comment, for example:

Anybody can create the universe, as long as it isn’t, like, God?


Then there’s this one: pretty heavy philosophy, which is one of those subjects—like psychology—that most of us were only exposed to because our undergraduate degree plans required an area elective in something “social”:
God or a multiverse?

—Ares 1X

FLToday: Ares 1X Preps Pick Up Around KSC

A detailed report on the planned 7-11 suborbital test of NASA’s melon-on-a-fishing-pole concept for the future of manned space exploration.

—Extrasolar Planets Imaged

Two groups have produced the first direct images of planets orbiting other stars:

First-ever images taken of extrasolar planets – Space.com- msnbc.com

One is a sort of spooky infrared image from the Hubble ACS of the relatively nearby star Fomalhaut.  Images were taken 4 years apart to verify that the object is actually in orbit around Fomalhaut.  The object appears to be “herding” the outer portion of Fomalhaut’s accretion disc into a distinct, bright edge.

The other set of images is of several planetary object in orbit around HR 8799.  These were apparently imaged in visible light by ground-based telescopes on Mauna Kea in Hawaii. 

The technology for planet detection is improving dramatically.  Of course, when the excitement dies down a bit, astronomers will go back to squabbling about the definition of “planet”.  The smallest of these objects, now labeled Fomalhaut B, is three times the mass of Jupiter.  Several of the others are estimated to be around 10 times Jupiter’s mass.  Somewhere around 13xJupiter is apparently the lower limit for a type of failed star called a “Brown Dwarf”.  As techniques improve, it should become possible to resolve planets of  a more practical size.