Dispatches from the Corona Experiment

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The Corona virus experiment enters the next phase: Easing of restrictions. Why? Not sure.

I think we are confused as ever about this disease. Even for a scientist it is difficult to comprehend what’s going on.

Yesterday there were 30,000 new COVID-19 cases in the US and over 1800 humans died from the disease in one day. Why would we ease restrictions? Maybe because we are bored at home, need money, or what?

We have now tested about 1% of the population in the US for the presence of virus. Most of the tests were given to people that were ill or had reasons to believe they were in contact with infected people. So that’s a small fraction of the whole population and a highly biased selection.

No problem. We need to test people at risk.

However, at this point the number of tests is too small to make any claims about the prevalence of the disease.

Why is this important?

Well, some officials think about reopening the country. One of the conditions discussed is a “certificate of immunity”. You get tested for COVID-19 antibodies. Your test comes back positive. You can go to work.

I think there is an issue that, which has to do with specificity, selectivity, and prevalence.

First, none of the antibody tests are perfect, meaning they are not 100% specific nor selective. That’s not unusual.

I thought a test that produces in 95% of truly positive cases a positive result is pretty good. And if the same test has a 5% false positive rate that should make a great test, right? Well, it depends. It depends on the prevalence of the disease. If only a small fraction of the people carries or carried the disease than the predictive value of a positive test is rather low. This is all nicely illustrated here.

Since we don’ know the prevalence of the virus in the general population and the unknown predictive power of a positive antibody, we should not send people back to work, unless we want to tolerate 2000 or more individuals dying every day in this country for the foreseeable future.

Please correct me if I am wrong.

On with the experiment.

Stay healthy.

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Conservation

Inspiration

We cannot overlook the importance of wild country as source of inspiration, to which we give expression in writing, in poetry, drawing and painting, in mountaineering, or in just being there.

Olaus Murie


Olaus Murie was the son of immigrants from Norway. He become a proponent of wilderness areas and a defender of the idea that predators are an essential component of functional ecosystems. He was a talented artist and analytical scientist, both with a strong passion. His efforts, together with those of his wife Mardy, lead ultimately to the creation of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. Their lives were shaped by a respect for nature, recognizing the importance of wilderness, and finding opportunities for responsible action.

Isn’t it ironical that our current president wants more immigrants from Norway while at the same time allowing the drilling for oil in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge?

The above picture was taken in the Kluane National Park. It shows the base of Mt. Kennedy rising above the Lowell Glacier and disappearing in the clouds.

 

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Nature

Mammoth Hot Springs – № 2

“You can always back up
and pick a new fork.”

Kary Mullis


What’s the connection between Kary Mullis and Yellowstone National Park, you ask?

Well, Thermus aquaticus, a thermophilic, chemotroph bacterium was discovered in Yellowstone National Park. A number of enzymes were identified in this organism that likes to grow in 70 °C warm water. Make that 70 °C hot water. One of the enzymes, Taq polymerase, was later used in a technique called PCR, which revolutionized molecular biology. PCR is the brainchild of Kary Mullis.

If you want to read more about Kary Mullis, beware! You might find some strange believes and come across extraterrestrials in the form of a green fluorescent raccoon.

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Inside Out

Earth Day

"The Blue Marble" photograph of Earth, taken by the Apollo 17 mission. The Arabian peninsula, Africa and Madagascar lie in the upper half of the disc, whereas Antarctica is at the bottom.

Image Credit: NASA

The Blue Marble” as taken on December 7, 1972, by the crew of the Apollo 17 spacecraft en route to the Moon at a distance of about 29,000 kilometers (18,000 mi). It shows Africa, Antarctica, and the Arabian Peninsula.


In celebration of Earth Day, I watched “The Martian”, as it portrays the ingenuity, curiosity, passion and compassion of mankind. It also begs the question, why do we look for other places to live in the universe? Shouldn’t we rather take good care of this one good planet we are on?

Today was also the March for Science, very appropriate at a time, when science is questioned or worse ignored by a growing portion of politicians and the general public. This is puzzling to me. Scientists spend years of their lives in search of new frontiers, often times at the expense of personal and financial gains. Why on Earth, would the general lay person dare to contradict scientific findings? Science is so complex these days that we should at least acknowledge scientific findings. The ethical, political, and financial concerns are a whole different story, but they should not confuse the scientific data.

When we are sick, we go see the doctor (most of us). We always can choose to do or not do what the doctor ordered. That’s different from saying the doc is a hack.

Science is not a hoax.

Happy Earth Day.


“I have to science the sh-t out of this.”

Mark Watney, Space Pirate

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Inside Out

What’s on my mind?

A plane has disappeared in the ocean. All the Search & Rescue teams have found so far is floating garbage in size larger than Texas. Global warming forecasts are becoming more dire and very little action is taken by our governments. I know this is a highly polarized topic with little or no middle ground. So why bother writing about it? Hasn’t it all been said and disputed already? Maybe.

I don’t know much about biology or meteorology but I believe this planet cannot sustain an exponentially growing world population. It’s that simple. I think our politicians, economists, philosophers, religious and spiritual leaders need to come up with a plan that does not include exponential growth in our future.

Maybe we forget sometimes that Earth is not an infinite, open system, that can provide food and water for an unlimited number of people, and serve as a garbage dump at the same time.

What is the number of people Earth can sustain? I don’t know.
How much fossil fuel do we have? I don’t know.

What happens, when we run out of that energy source? I don’t know.

If a scientist had the answers, would we believe and act accordingly?

I don’t know. I think not.

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