Nathan Wolfe’s jungle search for viruses | Video on TED.com (Why it’s important to beat H1N1, now)

November 29, 2009

Here’s Nathan Wolfe explaining how viruses work, quickly and at a high enough level to be entertaining, and explaining why we need to worry about H1N1.

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Wolfe also explained a lot at the TED Blog:

Take us back a step or two: How did swine flu enter into the human population?

Swine flu has been known since at least the early part of the 20th century, since the 1930s. It was originally a virus of bird origin — all influenza viruses were originally bird viruses — and it probably spread to humans before it was in pigs.

Now, we still haven’t received definitive information on the underlying genetics of this particular virus. But initial reports suggest that it may be what’s known as a “mosaic virus,” which includes components of swine influenzas, bird influenzas and human influenzas. A cosmopolitan virus like that wouldn’t be unprecedented. (Editor’s Note: see Joe DeRisi’s 2006 TEDTalk for more on state-of-the-art virus detection.)

But in any case, this is a virus that appears to come from pigs, and pigs in close proximity spread the flu in much the same way that humans do — coughing, sneezing, and so on. The virus probably initially entered into human populations through people who work with livestock.

Is swine flu here to stay?

Whether this particular virus will sustain itself and become a permanent part of the human landscape is unclear, but that’s certainly what we’re watching for. As it is, the virus may just disappear because of the weather; summers aren’t good for flu viruses.

So this heat wave is working in our favor?

It might be. The virus has had a good start, from the flu perspective, considering that this is really the end of the season. But the unseasonably hot weather may bode poorly for this virus’ potential to establish itself definitively and cause a pandemic. Had this happened in September or October, it would be much more concerning.

Having said that, it’s not impossible that a virus like this might “go into hiding” — in the southern hemisphere or the tropics — and might come to light again next year. So there will be a lot of discussion about expanding the fall flu vaccine to try to control it next cycle.

Is it really possible for us to prevent future outbreaks like this?

Yes, I believe it is. We spend tons of money trying to predict complex phenomena like tsunamis, hurricanes, earthquakes. There’s no reason to believe that a pandemic is harder to predict than a tsunami. And we’d be foolish not to include forecasting and prevention as part of our overall portfolio to fight these pandemics.

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Time to start making huge stone heads

November 29, 2009

Well, maybe not yet.

But consider Jared Diamond’s 1997 essay in Discover:

In just a few centuries, the people of Easter Island wiped out their forest, drove their plants and animals to extinction, and saw their complex society spiral into chaos and cannibalism. Are we about to follow their lead?

Among the most riveting mysteries of human history are those posed by vanished civilizations. Everyone who has seen the abandoned buildings of the Khmer, the Maya, or the Anasazi is immediately moved to ask the same question: Why did the societies that erected those structures disappear?

Diamond’s essay appears in different, and longer form (as I recall) as a chapter in his book Collapse.  That book is all about why civilizations collapse.

A lot of it boils down to wasting of resources.  Easter Island had not always been the grass-only rock with just a couple of thousand people clinging to a desperate existence, as Dutch explorer Jacob Roggeveen found it on Easter Sunday, 1722 (April 5).  When the ancestors of the tiny population found the island, it had forests, and probably animals, and rich enough resources to support a larger population.

Until they deforested it, hunted to near extinction every animal that couldn’t escape, and caused the collapse of their own civilization.

Is this an analogy for what humans are doing to the planet now with pollution, especially atmospheric-warming air pollution?

Diamond concluded his essay:

I suspect, though, that the disaster happened not with a bang but with a whimper. After all, there are those hundreds of abandoned statues to consider. The forest the islanders depended on for rollers and rope didn’t simply disappear one day-it vanished slowly, over decades. Perhaps war interrupted the moving teams; perhaps by the time the carvers had finished their work, the last rope snapped. In the meantime, any islander who tried to warn about the dangers of progressive deforestation would have been overridden by vested interests of carvers, bureaucrats, and chiefs, whose jobs depended on continued deforestation. Our Pacific Northwest loggers are only the latest in a long line of loggers to cry, “Jobs over trees!” The changes in forest cover from year to year would have been hard to detect: yes, this year we cleared those woods over there, but trees are starting to grow back again on this abandoned garden site here. Only older people, recollecting their childhoods decades earlier, could have recognized a difference. Their children could no more have comprehended their parents’ tales than my eight-year-old sons today can comprehend my wife’s and my tales of what Los Angeles was like 30 years ago.

Gradually trees became fewer, smaller, and less important. By the time the last fruit-bearing adult palm tree was cut, palms had long since ceased to be of economic significance. That left only smaller and smaller palm saplings to clear each year, along with other bushes and treelets. No one would have noticed the felling of the last small palm.

By now the meaning of Easter Island for us should be chillingly obvious. Easter Island is Earth writ small. Today, again, a rising population confronts shrinking resources. We too have no emigration valve, because all human societies are linked by international transport, and we can no more escape into space than the Easter Islanders could flee into the ocean. If we continue to follow our present course, we shall have exhausted the world’s major fisheries, tropical rain forests, fossil fuels, and much of our soil by the time my sons reach my current age.

Resources:

Jared Diamond in a 2003 appearance at TED:


No health insurance: Can you look this man in the eye and tell him you want to let him die?

November 29, 2009

Our National Conscience, Nicholas Kristof asked the question in his column a week ago:  Are we going to let John die?

45,000 Americans die each year because of a lack of health insurance.  What do you think:  Should we allow John to die?

Which system saves John’s life, “socialism,” or “free enterprise?”

Here, you can help:

UPDATE: Several readers have asked how they can help or if there is a fund to help John. There isn’t any such fund, but with John and Esther’s permission I’m posting their mailing address: John and Esther Brodniak, 770 W Main St., Sheridan, OR 97378.

Check Kristof’s blog for more details, and nearly 400 comments.

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Starlings of climate change denial do about-face on data-corruption and fraud

November 29, 2009

Funny.  Zumwalt never complained when the data-corruption and fraud were all on the denialists’ side.

I am reminded that, as of the end of November 2009, there are incredibly few science papers (see CCPO’s note) — meaning papers based on research, published in peer-review journals — which make any case contrary to global warming occurring, nor even against the link that much of current warming is caused by human activities.

Under softball rules, the game would have been called against denialists long ago.  Now they want to claim victory on a disqualification, when they violated that rule with gusto through the entire game so far?


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