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Opinion: The U.S. unraveling of science insulation from politics

opinion: the u.s. unraveling of science insulation from politics

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With myriad suggestions for addressing the coronavirus pandemic, there is a common refrain: Trust the scientists.But some scientific voice can be found to support nearly any assertion. Each year, nearly 2.5 million new scientific papers are published in about 30,000 journals. We can’t make policy based on single studies or the opinion of a single scientist.
There are legitimate disagreements about whether the virus is spread by droplets or airborne mists. There is evidence that opening schools will either harm or not harm small children. We don’t know for certain if the protection offered by cloth masks is similar to N-95s or how far we need to distance from each other. Knowing whom to trust is challenging.
Until very recently, the United States was the world’s exemplar in making sense from divergent scientific opinions. More than 150 years ago, President Abraham Lincoln and Congress created the National Academy of Sciences to provide independent, objective advice on science and technology. In the 1940s, engineer Vannevar Bush persuaded President Franklin Roosevelt that science was the ticket to a successful war effort and to a continuing strong economy.
Starting in 1933, U.S. presidents, Republicans and Democrats alike, made extensive use of …

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A Crazier Crazy Straw for Cutting-Edge Science

a crazier crazy straw for cutting-edge science

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In this artist’s conception, data from the small angle neutron scattering (SANS) experiment at the NIST Center for Neutron Research (NCNR) form a colorful backdrop to transparent spheres representing part of a worm-like micelle, a tiny structure often found in soaps. Higher-intensity neutron scattering (red regions) indicates that the micelles are aligning strongly with the direction of flow through the NCNR’s capillary rheoSANS device, lining up like toothpicks in a tube. The micelles are one of many substances whose properties under extreme flow conditions could become better understood with the new research tool. Credit: R. Murphy/NIST
Curlicued research tool propels fast-moving fluids for study by neutrons.
What do the loopy straws that children like to sip drinks through have in common with cutting-edge science? Ask Ryan Murphy and his colleagues at the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST), where the team has thought up a creative way to explore the properties of fluids under extreme conditions.
The team invented a device that can push fluids through a narrow tube at the velocity of a car hurtling down a rural interstate — about 110 km per hour. This might not sound overly fast to a road tripper, but the …

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This Week in Science

this week in science

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PaleoanthropologyAndrew M. SugdenThe Border Cave site in the KwaZulu-Natal region of South Africa has been a rich source of archaeological knowledge about Stone Age humans because of its well-preserved stratigraphic record. Wadley et al. now report the discovery of grass bedding in Border Cave, dated to approximately 200,000 years ago. The bedding, identified with a range of microscopic and spectroscopic techniques, was mingled with layers of ash. It also incorporated debris from lithics, burned bone, and rounded ochre grains, all of which were of clear anthropogenic origin. The authors speculate that the ash may have been deliberately used in bedding to inhibit the movement of ticks and other arthropod irritants. These discoveries extend the record of deliberate construction of plant bedding by at least 100,000 years.Science, this issue p. 863

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Michael Soulé (1936–2020)

michael soulé (1936–2020)

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Michael Soulé, widely credited with starting the field of conservation biology, died on 17 June at age 84. Michael’s research laid the intellectual groundwork for a new avenue of study, and he cofounded the Society for Conservation Biology in 1985 to ensure that the nascent field had the resources and organization to address the critical environmental issues we face today. Michael’s vision of a better world, in which nature holds a central place, has inspired scientists and nature enthusiasts across the globe.Born on 28 May 1936, Michael grew up in San Diego, California. His free-ranging childhood, spent exploring tide pools and collecting abalones and lobsters, sparked his lifelong love of natural history and helped shape his interest in ecosystems. Michael obtained his undergraduate degree in biology at San Diego State College and his Ph.D. in biology in 1964 from Stanford University in Stanford, California.After joining the biology faculty at the University of California (UC) San Diego in 1967, Michael became troubled by the rapid loss of natural habitats in Southern California. He resigned from the university in 1979 to become director of the Kuroda Institute for the Study of Buddhism at the Zen Center of Los Angeles. In 1984, he returned to academia, first teaching at …

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Medieval DNA suggests Columbus didn’t trigger syphilis epidemic in Europe

medieval dna suggests columbus didn’t trigger syphilis epidemic in europe

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In a 1497 woodcut, a physician examines the urine of a patient in the first European syphilis epidemic.

NLM/Science Source

By Charlotte HartleyAug. 13, 2020 , 11:00 AM

In the late 1400s, a terrifying disease erupted in Europe, leaving victims with bursting boils and rotting flesh. The syphilis epidemic raged across the continent, killing up to 5 million people. For centuries, historians, and archaeologists have debated the origin of the disease, with some blaming Christopher Columbus and his crew for bringing it back from the Americas. Now, using DNA of the pathogen extracted from the remains of nine Europeans, researchers have found evidence that the epidemic was homegrown: diverse syphilis strains were circulating in Europe, perhaps decades before Columbus’s voyages.

Today, syphilis and other conditions caused by the same bacterium, Treponema pallidum, such as yaws and bejel, are making a comeback, with millions of people infected every year. “These diseases are not just a problem of the past,” says Verena Schuenemann, a palaeogeneticist at the University of Zürich and co-author of the new study. By understanding when and where T. pallidum originated, and how it has evolved, she says, researchers can learn how it might behave in the future and be prepared to treat …

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To the Mathematician Eugenia Cheng, There’s No Gap Between Art and Science

to the mathematician eugenia cheng, there’s no gap between art and science

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“The boundaries between subjects are really artificial constructs,” says the mathematician and author, whose new book is “X+Y: A Mathematician’s Manifesto for Rethinking Gender.” “Like the boundaries between colors in a rainbow.”What’s the last great book you read?“Notes From a Young Black Chef: A Memoir,” by Kwame Onwuachi and Joshua David Stein. I think it’s really important to read first person accounts of the way Black people are disadvantaged by the structures of American society, as well as by systems and by individuals. This memoir is bracing to those of us privileged to have been protected by our ethnicity or our relative affluence. In the end, however, it’s a deeply inspiring story from someone who was almost destroyed by the disadvantages piled onto them by society but who managed to rise up and then work to help others rise too.Are there any classic novels that you only recently read for the first time?“Yevgeny Onegin” (in translation). I’ve known and loved the opera since I was a teenager, but the only thing I read was many articles about the difficulties of translating it, and so shied away from reading it in …

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Early and mid-career scientists face a bleak future in the wake of the pandemic

early and mid-career scientists face a bleak future in the wake of the pandemic

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The COVID-19 pandemic has taken a heavy toll on research in Australia. We surveyed 333 early and mid-career researchers in science, technical, engineering and medical (STEM) fields and found the impact on their productivity and mental health has been dire, with many considering leaving research altogether.

Survey says: it’s bad

In May, the Early and Mid Career Researcher (EMCR) Forum of the Australian Academy of Science conducted a national survey to understand the effects of COVID-19 restrictions such as lockdown and the transition to remote learning. We found the effects of COVID-19 have made existing problems worse, and are likely to have a long-lasting impact on careers and well-being.

Researchers across the country reported increased anxiety not only due to the pandemic, but also to the uncertainty in their employment situation resulting from loss of university revenue and calls for cuts to jobs and pay.

Employment uncertainty for researchers on a fixed-term contract.

They also revealed their research has often had to take a back seat to heavier loads of teaching and administrative work, and other priorities such as caring for children.

Even short-term disruptions can have long-term impact

In scientific research, career success often depends on steadily accumulating performance …

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Science from home: Meteors & meteorites

science from home: meteors & meteorites

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What you need:

Plate or other containerWaterA few of small objects (example: nuts, seeds, small fruit, ice cube)

Steps:

Fill your plate or container about 2/3 the way full with waterHold a small object above the plateDrop the object onto the plateWatch what happens, and how the water reactsRepeat steps 2-4 with different sized objects, or by changing the height or angle that the object is dropped or thrown onto the plateObserve how the water reacts if you change elements like height or angle

The science:

Let’s start with a few definitions.

A meteor is debris, or bits of rock and ice that are left behind from a comet as it starts to melt. Meteor showers occur when the Earth passes through the trail of debris that is left behind from a comet or astroid. While meteors are traveling so fast that there is usually nothing left by the time it approaches the Earth’s surface, a meteor reaches the surface, then it is called a meteorite.

In this experiment, our small objects (whether it be a rock, ice cube, fruit, nuts or anything else) represent a meteor. The water on the plate, or in a container, represents the surface …

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These conventional bricks can store power

these conventional bricks can store power

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D’Arcy laboratory/Department of Chemistry/Washington University in St. Louis

By Lucy HicksAug. 12, 2020 , 5:15 PM

Researchers have transformed standard bricks into energy-storing devices, The Guardian reports, potentially adding a new function to these omnipresent construction materials. The team created these “power bricks” by utilizing the iron oxide stored in the brick that gives it a red color. Using chemical vapors that reacted with the iron, they deposited a layer of special conductive plastic, known as PEDOT, throughout the brick’s pores. When two bricks were put together, they began to store charge, researchers reported this week in Nature Communications. These “power bricks” can be recharged more than 10,000 times before their energy-storing capacity significantly degrades. However, the amount of energy they can store is very small: just 1% of that stored in a lithium-ion battery of same size. The team hopes to improve the energy-storage capacity of these bricks by experimenting with adding materials such as metal oxides to the brick.

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