Tag Archives: research

A Nuclear Bomb at Ground Zero, and What Happens Next

Photo by Stiller Beobachter (CC BY-SA 2.0)

At The AtlanticKaveh Waddell has a conversation with researcher William Kennedy, who along with Andrew Crooks, is mining data from past tragedies such as the 1917 Halifax Explosion, 9/11, and Hurricane Katrina to run computer simulations studying how humans would respond after a nuclear attack on Manhattan.

Kennedy: We’ve found that people seem to be reasonably well behaved and do what they’ve been trained to, or are asked or told to do by local authorities. Reports from 9/11 show that people walked down many tens of flights of stairs, relatively quietly, sometimes carrying each other, to escape buildings.

We’re finding those kinds of reports from other disasters as well—except after Hurricane Katrina. There, we have reports that people already didn’t trust the government, and then with the isolation resulting from the flooding, they were actually shooting at people trying to help.

So we’re going to model individuals responding to the immediate situation around them. They’re trying to leave the area, find food, water, and shelter: basic Maslow-like necessities.

Waddell: What are the goals that each individual agent will be balancing? Safety, hunger, family and friends, getting out of the area—how will the model treat those needs?

Kennedy: One of the aspects we’ll be modeling is the individual agents’ social networks. Communications with those people, and confirmation of their status, seems to be one of the first urgencies that people feel, after their immediate survival of the event.

Part of our modeling challenge is going to be figuring out if a parent would go through a contaminated area to retrieve a child at a daycare or school, putting themselves at risk in the process, because it’s important to them to physically be there with their children. Or do they realize that they’re isolated, that communications aren’t going to be available in the near term, and they only deal with their local folks who are now their family? That’s the sense we get.

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On the Brink of a Cure: An Innovative Immunologist’s Quest for an AIDS Vaccine

Louis Picker, an immunologist at Portland’s Oregon Health & Science University, believes he’s working toward a vaccine to prevent and cure AIDS: “I think within 15 years we’ll have both.” In 2013, his vaccine research showed the first evidence of monkeys eradicating the AIDS-causing virus from their bodies; he inoculated them with weakened CMV — or cytomegalovirus, an infectious agent in the herpes family — which not only pumped up their immune systems and fought off the virus, but killed it off entirely. At Portland Monthly, Jennifer Abbasi profiles the ambitious researcher, whose project’s first human study is set to begin later this year.

Picker set out to prevent AIDS, not cure it. In 2006, he and his team began vaccinating macaques against SIV, the monkey version of HIV. The researchers placed bits of SIV genes inside weakened CMV, hoping the macaques’ immune systems would then mount their natural immediate, large-scale response to CMV. “The immune system will make a response both to the CMV genes and to the SIV or HIV genes that will be in the same flavor, so to speak,” Picker explains. This approach contrasts sharply with that of most HIV vaccine projects, which typically focus on generating antibodies to block infection. Instead, Picker’s method aims to provoke T cells to prevent an infection from progressing to disease. Two years after he inoculated the first group of monkeys with the CMV-based vaccine, he exposed them to SIV.

In 2013, Nature reported Picker’s surprising findings: not only were most of the macaques able to control SIV, but over time their immune systems completely killed off the virus. It was the first evidence of monkeys eliminating the AIDS-causing virus from their bodies. Says Koff: “Louis straddles the prevention and the cure. The most intriguing thing about his vaccine is that the responding animals appear to clear the infection.”

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The Early Roots of Surgery

The first recorded cases of cancer show how the Ancient Egyptians used cauterisation (using red-hot instruments to burn off tissue and seal off wounds) to destroy tumours and to treat a variety of infections, diseases and bleeding lesions. Until the mid-18th century, surgery was the only effective option for addressing several conditions. But it was difficult and painful, as shown by the case of Madame Frances d’Arblay, an English novelist living in Paris.

Before operating in 1811, d’Arblay’s doctor didn’t shield her from the gruelling pain she would encounter during the treatment for her advanced breast cancer – a mastectomy, without anaesthetic. “You must expect to suffer, I do not want to deceive you—you will suffer—you will suffer very much!” d’Arblay later wrote that “when the dreadful steel was plunged into the breast—cutting through veins, arteries, flesh, nerves—I needed no injunctions not to restrain my cries. I began a scream that lasted unintermittingly the whole time of the incision… the air felt like a mass of minute but sharp and forked poniards [daggers] that were tearing the edges of the wound.” Yet the operation was a success, and d’Arblay lived for another 29 years.

In 1846, the introduction of ether as an anaesthetic eliminated the pain. Such was its impact that the next hundred years became known as ‘the century of the surgeon’. Yet, even in the 21st century, a neurosurgeon removing a tumour still relies largely on just his eyes and touch to guide him.

Alex O’Brien writing in Mosaic about the difficulty of visually distinguishing cancerous cells from non-cancerous cells in the brain. His piece explores how scorpions, Amazon.com, and the legacy of a dying girl are helping provide new tools for brain surgery.

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The People Who Get Woken Up at 2am When Bob Ballard Finds Something on the Ocean Floor

73-year-old ocean explorer Bob Ballard discovered the wreck of the Titanic 30 years ago, and he hasn’t stopped exploring the ocean floor since. In a recent piece for Popular Mechanics, Ryan D’Agostino profiled Ballard and the research aboard his ship Nautilus (a 211-foot former East German research vessel that carries seventeen crew and thirty-one scientists and operations specialists). But what happens when the Nautilus team thinks they might have found something in ” the three-dimensional chess of the oceans deep” and isn’t sure how to proceed? They call in the experts:

Ballard has assembled, over the years, an astonishing roster of experts in many fields, all volunteers. When the Nautilus is at sea, towing its cameras through the depths, and it finds something interesting, the crew needs to know whether to stop and explore further or move on. And they can’t keep fifty experts on board at all times. So the Nautilus has a phone system with a 401 area code. “The ship thinks it’s in Rhode Island at all times, no matter where on the planet it is,” Ballard says. “When we need an expert, we just pick up the phone. It goes like this: ‘Hi, Deb? I know it’s 2:00 a.m. on Sunday morning, but can you boot up your laptop? We got something. We wanna know what it is. The ship is hovering in twenty thous and feet of water wondering, up or down?’ And we do this literally all the time. All. The. Time. Within twenty minutes we have to deliver the brightest mind in America on whatever subject it is to the spot of the discovery to tell us what to do. If you tell us go, we go into a response strategy,” Ballard says, jutting his chin into the breeze. “It’s an unbelievable feeling. The closest thing to a drug for me is Coke Zero. I don’t drink coffee, I don’t smoke. I do have wine. But you can’t beat the thrill of finding something on the bottom. And I’ll wait and wait and wait for it. We just had one on the last trip!”

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The Very First Blood Transfusion

The world’s first experiments with blood transfusion occurred in the mid-1660s in England. The procedure, which was first carried out between dogs, was gruesome: the dogs were tied down, the arteries and veins in their necks opened, and blood transferred from one to another through quills (most likely made from goose feathers) inserted into the blood vessels. The experimentalist started and stopped the flow of blood by loosening and tightening threads tied with running knots around the dogs’ blood vessels. The blood of the “emittent” dog flowed from its carotid artery into a vein in the recipient’s neck while the recipient’s own blood ran out its carotid artery. According to physician Richard Lower, who described the operation in an essay published in 1666 in Philosophical Transactions, the world’s oldest scientific journal, the transfusion came to an end when the emittent dog began “to cry, and faint, and fall into Convulsions, and at last dye [sic].”

Elizabeth Yale writing in JSTOR Daily about the early history of blood transfusions.

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How Does a Magazine Go About Calculating the Financial Cost of Gun Violence?

To begin to get a grasp on the economic toll, Mother Jones turned to Ted Miller at the Pacific Institute for Research and Evaluation, an independent nonprofit that studies public health, education, and safety issues. Miller has been one of the few researchers to delve deeply into guns, going back to the late 1980s when he began analyzing societal costs from violence, injury, and substance abuse, as well as the savings from prevention. Most of his 30-plus years of research has been funded by government grants and contracts; his work on guns in recent years has either been tucked into broader projects or done on the side. “I never take positions on legislation,” he notes. “Instead, I provide numbers to inform decision making.”

Miller’s approach looks at two categories of costs. The first is direct: Every time a bullet hits somebody, expenses can include emergency services, police investigations, and long-term medical and mental-health care, as well as court and prison costs. About 87 percent of these costs fall on taxpayers. The second category consists of indirect costs: Factors here include lost income, losses to employers, and impact on quality of life, which Miller bases on amounts that juries award for pain and suffering to victims of wrongful injury and death.

Mark Follman, James West, Julia Lurie, and Jaeah Lee writing in Mother Jones about the magazine’s six-month-long investigation into the financial costs of gun violence in America.

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How ‘Body Worlds’ Inspired People to Leave Their Bodies to Science

Photo by Brett Neilsen

Why do people leave their bodies to science, or more specifically medical research? And what exactly does that entail for them, after the fact? Writing for The Guardian, David Derbyshire delved into these questions, exploring the motivations behind donation, as well as what the actual process looks like. In the excerpt below, he discusses the touring Body Worlds show—”a display of dissected human corpses preserved using a process called plastination”—and its effect:

Body Worlds artfully straddles the line between education and entertainment. When it first came to London in 2002, it generated controversy for the way the bodies – skillfully preserved by replacing the water in cells with resin and then artfully dissected – were arranged.

More than 40 million people have seen a Body Worlds show worldwide; 180,000 people saw the most recent in Newcastle. The show features all von Hagens’ trademark qualities. It is thought provoking, technically accomplished and playful. At the entrance, visitors encounter a skeleton in a running pose handing a baton to a figure made of soft tissue. On closer examination, both figures turn out to be from the same donor. Another body was dissected in the pose of a fisherman with hundreds of body parts suspended in mid air on fishing lines, a version of the “exploded” diagrams normally seen in a children’s Dorling and Kindersley science book. It says something about the human response to corpses that the atmosphere in the exhibition was cathedral like. Outside the voices of children filtered through from the nearby cafe. But inside, among the bodies and tasteful dark drapes, tones were muted. At the exit is a consent form, filled in by an anonymous donor – a reminder that these are not plastic mannequins, but once living people. Von Hagens has no shortage of donors. His exhibitions have used 1,100 bodies – but he claims to have another 12,100 living donors signed up. One is Emma Knott, a PR consultant in London. “I was so inspired after I saw the exhibition], which is why I made that decision,” she says. But does she have reservations? “Not really, I mean let’s face it I’m going to be dead.” For her, the attraction lies in encouraging people to get excited about science and anatomy. “The bodies looked so incredible and beautiful and I just thought that would be a fantastic thing to leave once you have left the world – to be preserved in that fashion.”

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The Maestro as Detective

At a mere 31 years old—practically an infant in classical music years—British conductor Robin Ticciati is already a major maestro. He made his La Scala debut at 22, making him the youngest conductor ever to grace the podium at the world’s most famous opera house. Two years later he was named principal conductor of the Scottish Chamber Orchestra, and he is now the musical director at the UK’s Glyndebourne Festival Opera. Though notoriously media-shy, Ticciati allowed violinist and writer Clemency Burton-Hill to shadow him over a period of months, through meals, conversations and conducting engagements. The resulting More Intelligent Life profile provides a vivid window into his life and work.

How does a man who has already found so much success find new ways to engage classic material? It seems Ticciati isn’t afraid of doing a little detective work:

He now strives to engage both head and heart. “I might read a symphony score for the first time and read it like a novel, and get awash with feelings. And then I might look at it going, ‘hmm, so there it goes to the supertonic, he’s used that inversion to get to there, there’s a three-bar phrase, there’s a seven-bar phrase…’” A lover of words, he often tackles an opera text first. “I might have a month of reading the libretto, without even the notes, and then gradually I’ll put it all together.” Contemporary music is another story. “I probably won’t do a Schenkerian analysis [of the structure],” he laughs. “I’ll probably just look at it and go, ‘how the hell am I going to beat this?’ Every departure point is always different, so every process is always different.”

What is consistent is his desire to be “investigative”, going to primary sources—letters, biographical material, contemporary theorists, “quite academic stuff, but one sentence can make you go, ‘God, maybe those ten bars could be done like that!’ Or there’ll be a throwaway moment in a letter, like [the violinist Joseph] Joachim just happening to mention to Schumann, ‘you know, I’ve been really playing at the tip a lot today, and it’s created this effect, like snowflakes’.” Ticciati’s melodious voice drops, as it often does, to an awed near-whisper. “One line, from one little letter that you don’t even need to share with anyone, can colour an entire movement of a symphony when you conduct it.”

It is this detail, he says as his pigeon arrives, that enables him to “go beyond painting in primary colours”. The next stage is the essence of conducting: how to convey his interpretation to the musicians who actually make the noise? “That’s the beauty of it,” he says, gnawing at a wing and proffering his plate again. (“Go on, have some, shovel a bit of bacon on there.”) “You have to have a physicality, so you can get up in front of an orchestra, lift up your arms and tell them how to play the music—everything: dynamic, phrasing, colour, shape, speed, emotion—by not saying a word.”

Inside the restaurant, a glass shatters. Ticciati grimaces in sympathy with whoever dropped it. After a moment he says, “It’s a beautiful sound, though, isn’t it?”

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Link Rot, or Why the Web May Be Killing Footnotes

The Web dwells in a never-ending present. It is—elementally—ethereal, ephemeral, unstable, and unreliable. Sometimes when you try to visit a Web page what you see is an error message: “Page Not Found.” This is known as “link rot,” and it’s a drag, but it’s better than the alternative. More often, you see an updated Web page; most likely the original has been overwritten. (To overwrite, in computing, means to destroy old data by storing new data in their place; overwriting is an artifact of an era when computer storage was very expensive.) Or maybe the page has been moved and something else is where it used to be. This is known as “content drift,” and it’s more pernicious than an error message, because it’s impossible to tell that what you’re seeing isn’t what you went to look for: the overwriting, erasure, or moving of the original is invisible. For the law and for the courts, link rot and content drift, which are collectively known as “reference rot,” have been disastrous. In providing evidence, legal scholars, lawyers, and judges often cite Web pages in their footnotes; they expect that evidence to remain where they found it as their proof, the way that evidence on paper—in court records and books and law journals—remains where they found it, in libraries and courthouses. But a 2013 survey of law- and policy-related publications found that, at the end of six years, nearly fifty per cent of the URLs cited in those publications no longer worked. According to a 2014 study conducted at Harvard Law School, “more than 70% of the URLs within the Harvard Law Review and other journals, and 50% of the URLs within United States Supreme Court opinions, do not link to the originally cited information.” The overwriting, drifting, and rotting of the Web is no less catastrophic for engineers, scientists, and doctors. Last month, a team of digital library researchers based at Los Alamos National Laboratory reported the results of an exacting study of three and a half million scholarly articles published in science, technology, and medical journals between 1997 and 2012: one in five links provided in the notes suffers from reference rot. It’s like trying to stand on quicksand.

The footnote, a landmark in the history of civilization, took centuries to invent and to spread. It has taken mere years nearly to destroy. A footnote used to say, “Here is how I know this and where I found it.” A footnote that’s a link says, “Here is what I used to know and where I once found it, but chances are it’s not there anymore.” It doesn’t matter whether footnotes are your stock-in-trade. Everybody’s in a pinch. Citing a Web page as the source for something you know—using a URL as evidence—is ubiquitous. Many people find themselves doing it three or four times before breakfast and five times more before lunch. What happens when your evidence vanishes by dinnertime?

Jill Lepore, writing for the New Yorker about the Internet Archive and the difficulties of preserving information on the Web.

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Long after the 1960s, a researcher into the effects of LSD makes the case for a return to studying it:

On a Saturday last October, 45 years after dispensing those last legal doses, James Fadiman stood on stage inside the cavernous hall of Judson Memorial Church, a long-time downtown New York incubator of artistic, progressive, and even revolutionary movements. High above him on a window of stained glass, a golden band wrapped Escher-like enigmas around the Four Evangelists. Fadiman appeared far more earthly: wire frames, trim beard, dropped hairline, khakis, running shoes—like a policy wonk at a convention, right down to lanyard and nametag.

A couple hundred people sat before him in folding chairs and along the side aisles of the hall. He adjusted his head microphone, then scrolled his lecture notes and side-stepped the podium. He felt fortunate to be there for many reasons, he said, including a health scare he’d had a few months back—a rather advanced case of pericarditis. ‘Some of you, I know, have experimented with enough substances so that you’ve “died.” But it’s different when you’re in the ER.’ He chuckled. ‘And you’re not on anything.’

“The Heretic.” — Tim Doody, The Morning News

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