Rumors Behind the News


(Picture from here.)

Those are the headlines. Now for the rumors behind the news.Firesign Theater.

I have a lot of science material running across my desk this week so I’m just going to hit the highlights.

These are not in-depth discussions. Instead, they’re more like look at this sort of thing. Links to further discussions are provided.

Let’s get started.

Top of the list is the James Webb Space Telescope. This intended successor to the Hubble Space Telescope can be considered an enormous boondoggle or the greatest potential tool for ferreting out cosmic mysteries, depending on your point of view. There is enough evidence for both points of view that the JWST could be both.

It is enormous.

The mirror is 6.5 meters across of a hexagonal construction. It operates in the infrared—which is, in some ways, a more forgiving frequency range than what humans like to use. Infrared penetrates much of the gas between us and the center of the Milky Way, for example. When—if—the JWST works out, the potential for observation is likely without peer for some time.

That said, there are at last count some 350 “single point failures”, i.e., non-redundant components, that might scuttle or damage the mission. The JWST already had a scare in November when a clamp band was unexpectedly released, jarring the structure. While the JWST will be packed and secured for launch, it was not so secured when this happened.

It’s scheduled for launch sometime on or beyond 12/22/21. Good luck.

Some discussion on the archeology of glass came by the other day.

Glass in the Late Bronze Age was prevalent but didn’t resemble modern glass much. It was opaque, colorful, and usually is in the form of beads and jewelry. Think of glass then as Aluminum was in the 19th century. Now, Aluminum is so ubiquitous we can use it to make soda cans rather than glass soda bottles because it is cheaper. But in the 19th century, Aluminum was so rare it surpassed Gold in value.

Glass was similar. Difficult to work with—Bronze Age foundries could not get a high enough temperature to get Silicon Oxide to melt complete. Instead, they found clever ways to reduce the melting temperature. Some of those additives gave the result some striking color. Notable, the color blue.

Interesting side note, early Iron smelting took advantage of a similar approach and figured out a way to reduce the melting point of iron in a bloomery. The resulting iron was beaten with hammers to essentially knock out the slag. This first blomery seemed to appear around 3000 BC. But, iron wasn’t utilized into 1200 BC. Glass beads have been discovered back as far as 3000 BC but the use of glass took off somewhere around 1600-1200 BC. Hm. Isn’t that an interesting coincidence? Did one technology feed the other? Were they developed independently?

No one knows.

Anyone who has spoken with me for any length of time knows that I have two big areas of interest: Neanderthals and dinosaurs. My first published story, A Capella, in 1982 involved a Neanderthal artist working on commission for some Cro Magnons. The source of that story was an exhibition of cave painting photographs at the Boston Museum of Science. One of the docents was introducing the photographs and said something like, “Who made these paintings? Well, it wasn’t this fellow here, the Neanderthal. He wasn’t capable.” That pissed me off and I wrote the story.

It seemed the height of arrogance that a close relative of ours whose longevity exceeded ours would not have similar characteristics. Since then, I have been happy to see the rehabilitation of Neanderthal’s image. Certainly, we find we have interbred with Neanderthals but I don’t really count that for much. Human beings will mate with anything.

But we have been finding Neanderthal artistic artifacts that, along with similar Homo sapiens artifacts, that it’s beginning to look like fashion has been with us as long as we’ve been human. See here.

Science isn’t always comforting and COVID is not reassuring. Now, no doubt, the omicron variant are words on everyone’s lips. But there’s more to consider.

The number of new cases in children is disconcerting, both here in the US and in other places, notably South Africa. Part of this is, of course, that children are the last group to be vaccinated. So, it is expected that they would be showing up more often. That said, the increase in child cases in South Africa is troubling. The African vaccination rate is low in comparison to the rest of the world so the same metrics might not apply. Since SA is also the source of the omicron variant, and many of the mutations are in the spike protein, one wonders if the relative resistance of children to COVID that we’ve seen throughout the pandemic might have been overcome.

Vaccination is the best way to combat this. Vaccination, masks, and social distancing.

More problematic medical news. There are increases across the world in fungal diseases.

Pathogenic fungus has been with us for a very long time. It’s a known danger to HIV patients. However, usually, humans (and mammals in general) have a good time resisting fungus attacks. Part of this is the fact we are warm blooded. Hard over on the endothermic scale, for that matter. Birds and mammals maintain a very high temperature relative to the outside world. Other branches of the vertebrate tree, such as fish, reptiles and amphibians, do not and are much more prone to fungus attack. Mammals that have variable body temperature, such as bats, have been fungus susceptible.

Some scientists have suggested that the reason mammals have developed this form of thermoregulation was, in fact, to ward off fungi attack. Certainly, it didn’t hurt. One scientist has suggested that what might have prevented the dinosaurs from retaking the planet after the Chicxulub meteor was that they did not have sufficient fungal resistance when the temperature of the planet cooled.

Our little hiatus from fungal attacks may be coming to an end.

In 2009, a patient in Japan contracted Candida auris on the ear. The species had been unknown to science up to that point. Within a few years, cases emerged in other parts of the world. At first, scientists thought this was a case of travelers carrying the disease. But genetic sequencing showed these were disparate strains without contact with one another. This is potentially serious as 30% of those infected die within 30 days.

Fungal infections occur more often in warmer regions—while humans are hotter than their surround, this resistance reduces when the environment is just as hot as we are. Fungi adapt just like anything else and they’ve adapted to the tropics. As the world continues to warm, more places begin to approach human temperatures and there are more places for fungi to adapt to.

Remember, part of the reason we’re seeing more COVID variants is because there are so many opportunities to adapt in the sea of unvaccinated human beings. We are, in effect, selecting for variants.

In creating more warm places on the globe, we are doing the same thing for other organisms, many of which view us as just so much real estate to occupy.

That’s depressing. Let’s move on to something more fun. Back to space.

It’s no secret the International Space Station is getting long in the tooth. Many don’t believe it will last beyond the end of the decade. It would be nice to have something to replace it.

There’s no shortage of candidates. China has the Tiangong. Sierra Nevada is talking about building its own. So has Russia.

NASA has selected a bunch of candidates to develop commercial stations with government funding. The three, Blue Origin, Nanoracks, and Northrup Grumman, have been awarded grants to come up with designs. Each is to be independent of the others.

While each of these companies brings a considerable expertise to the problem, even if they find excellent solutions, it’s not at all clear Congress will fund it. Congress hasn’t yet even funded the grants.

It would be really nice if the endeavor of getting human beings to the stars weren’t at the whim of a body containing people who believe in giant Jewish Space Lasers.

Finally, Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (TESS) found a very interesting planet orbiting a red dwarf about 30 light years from here. Heck, that’s practically two blocks over. GJ 367b orbits its star every eight hours. It’s about half the mass of earth and orbiting so close that its tidally locked and the sun facing portions might be molten—even if they are iron. The estimated surface temperature is 1,745K. Iron’s melting point is 1,811K. However, impurities might reduce the melting point that any iron on the surface might be considered part of one big bloomery.

That’s it for today. Enjoy your week.



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