My Top 10 Science News Stories For 2020

I’m seeing “The Best of,” “Top 10” and “2020 Top” headlines in my news feed: as usual for late December.

Instead of waiting for someone else to highlight this year’s science news stories, I’m making my own ‘top 10’ list. Each item is something that caught my attention, seemed important, or has been lurking in my ‘to do’ folders.

Science Top 10 Countdown, 2020

10. Earth’s Poles Wander as Chaos Stalks the Land!!!

U.C. Berkeley's map, illustrating a (geologically) recent and (geologically) rapid pole reversal.
(From UC Berkeley, used w/o permission.)
(Earth’s poles during the Brunhes–Matuyama reversal. (ca. 781,000 B.P.))

Scientists learned more about geomagnetic reversals1 this year.

But that’s not why Earth’s wandering poles made my top 10 science stories.

What’s noteworthy about geomagnetic reversal in 2020 is —

The Curious Incident of the Apocalyptic Headlines

“…’Is there any point to which you would wish to draw my attention?’
‘To the curious incident of the dog in the night-time.’
‘The dog did nothing in the night-time.’
“‘That was the curious incident,’ remarked Sherlock Holmes….”
(“Silver Blaze,” “The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes.” Arthur Conan Doyle (1892) [emphasis mine])

What’s odd about the 2020 geomagnetic apocalypse headlines is that there weren’t any.

Scott Adam's 'Dilbert' strip: Dogbert's Good News Show. ('We'll all die!')Maybe I missed them. Or maybe the COVID-19 pandemic gave journalists and editors juicier ‘we’ll all die’ material.

Either way, I figure we’ll eventually see retreads of yesteryear’s “sparking chaos … Mayan apocalypse” nuggets. Topically updated, of course:

Along with more sedate announcements which inspire the “sparking chaos” writers:

9. NASA Finds 300,000 (Potentially) Habitable Planets!

Bryson, Kunimoto, and all - Figure 2.
(From Bryson, Kunimoto, Kopparapu and all; used w/o permission.)
(Habitable zone flux range and orbital periods for G, K, and F stars.)

My hat’s off to CNN’s Jessie Yeung, for putting “potentially” in the headline. And including links to a NASA/Ames press release and a 40-plus page research paper.

Jon Lomberg's Milky Way Kepler search area, for the Smithsonian Institution's National Air and Space Museum; used w/o permissionBryson, Zamudio and all didn’t find 300,000 Earth-like planets. They did, however, study the Kepler DR25 planet candidate catalog and Gaia-based stellar properties.

We’re still sifting through Kepler space telescope data. Maybe scientists have found all there is to be found there. But I doubt it.

Getting back to those 300,000 potential ‘Earths’ — We’ve found a bit upward of 5,000 exoplanet candidates and 2,500-plus confirmed exoplanets.

Bryson, Zamudio and team’s estimate of planets like ours orbiting stars like ours is just that: an estimate. It’s based on what’s in the Kepler search space. And is a low-end estimate, the scientists say. It’s still worth noting. Which is why it’s on my list.

How many rocky and roughly Earth-size planets have an atmosphere, and water, and life? That’s another question.2

8. Arecibo Radio Telescope: Instrument Platform Cables Snap

Aerial view of Arecibo radio telscope, after December 1, 2020, collapse.
(From ©AFP via Getty Images/BBC News; used w/o permission.)
(“The telescope collapsed weeks after officials announced that it would be dismantled”
(BBC News))

Puerto Rico: Iconic Arecibo Observatory telescope collapses
BBC News (December 1, 2020)

“A huge radio telescope in Puerto Rico has collapsed after decades of astronomical discoveries.

“The US National Science Foundation (NSF) said the telescope’s 900-ton instrument platform fell onto a reflector dish some 450ft (137m) below….

“…The Arecibo Observatory telescope was one of the largest in the world.

“It was a key scientific resource for radio astronomers for 57 years…”

The good news is that nobody was hurt or killed during the December 1, 2020, event.

That 900-ton instrument platform was moving fast when it hit the edge of the dish.

The National Science Foundation (NSF) has downloadable video and images on its website:

It’s a sad end to what was, from 1963 to 2016, the world’s largest radio telescope.3

7. China Moon Sample Returned

China's Chang'e-5 return capsule, after Inner Mongolia landing.
(From Shutterstock, via BBC News, used w/o permission.)
(“The capsule touched down on snow-covered grassland”
(BBC News))

China’s Chang’e-5 mission returns Moon samples
Jonathan Amos, BBC News (December 16, 2020)

“A capsule carrying the materials landed in Inner Mongolia at 01:59 local time on Thursday (17:59 GMT, Wednesday).

“It’s more than 40 years since the American Apollo and Soviet Luna missions brought their samples home.

“The new specimens should provide fresh insight on the geology and early history of Earth’s satellite….”

The Chang’e-5 capsule’s successful return is a big deal for China’s space program. It’s also a big deal for scientists studying Earth’s moon. We haven’t had fresh samples in decades.4

But I put this in my top-10 list’s lower half because it’s an “again” item, not a “first.”

6. TESS & Red Dwarfs: Beware the Superflares!

S. Wiessinger's impression of a red dwarf star and flares.
(From S. Wiessinger/GSFC/NASA, used w/o permission.)
(Thar she blows! Artist’s impression of a flaring red dwarf star.)

New research explores how super flares affect planets’ habitability
“UNC-Chapel Hill and NASA measure temperature for the largest ever sample of super flares”
University Communications, UNC-Chapel Hill (October 7, 2020)

“Ultraviolet light from giant stellar flares can destroy a planet’s habitability. New research from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill will help astrobiologists understand how much radiation planets experience during super flares and whether life could exist on worlds beyond our solar system.

“Super flares are bursts of energy that are 10 to 1,000 times larger than the biggest flares from the Earth’s sun. These flares can bathe a planet in an amount of ultraviolet light huge enough to doom the chances of life surviving there.

“Researchers from UNC-Chapel Hill have for the first time measured the temperature of a large sample of super flares from stars, and the flares’ likely ultraviolet emissions….”

Superflares and the Habitability of Planets
“Data from TESS helps researchers understand planetary habitability”
Aaron Gronstal, NASA Goddard, Research Highlight, Astrobiology at NASA (October 8, 2020)

“Data from NASA’s Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (TESS) is helping researchers understand how stellar flares can affect the habitability of planets. Flares occur when bursts of energy are released from stars, and they can vary greatly in magnitude. The recent study looks at extremely large events known as super flares, which can be 10 to 1000 times larger that any flares we see from the Sun….”

I see the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill research as an example of what’s possible when larger data sets are available.

It’s also another piece of the ‘is there life out there?’ puzzle.

Life and Red Dwarfs: Still Learning the Odds

Informed opinion on the odds of life on planets orbiting red dwarf stars keeps changing.5

A few decades back, chances seemed slim-to-impossible.

Red dwarfs are very cool. To be Earth’s temperature, a planet would have to be closer to its star than Mercury is to ours.

Then we found systems like TRAPPIST-1, with one planet dead-center in the star’s habitable zone, plus one each on the zone’s inner and outer edges. And we learned that smaller stars often have planets in smaller orbits than the Solar System’s.

Habitability for red dwarf planets looked hopeful.

Until scientists started studying what happens when red dwarf stars flare. Their flares are often about as strong as our star’s. But since habitable planets would be much closer to the action, they’d get a bigger jolt of UV, X-ray and other radiation.

Some studies showed that red dwarf flares wouldn’t just give critters on habitable-zone planets lethal sunburn. Given time, they’d blow the planet’s atmosphere away.

Unless, maybe, an Earth-like planet’s magnetic field could shield its atmosphere. And, again maybe, the flares weren’t “super.”

Then again, the UNC-CH study says the super flares last maybe five to 15 minutes.

That’s a lot of “maybes.”

All of which affect habitability. Probably. Then there’s the difference between ‘habitable,’ comfortable,’ and ‘ideal vacation destination.’

I wouldn’t want to be standing on a beach on a hypothetical red dwarf’s Earth-like planet when a superflare happened. Assuming that the beach is on the planet’s ‘day’ side.

But maybe critters living below the water’s surface wouldn’t mind. Assuming that there were critters there.

My guess is that we have a very great deal left to learn about life, the universe and all that.

5. Three New Worlds: TOI 700 d, KOI 456.04 and Proxima c

Natalie Batalha's and Wendy Stenzel's chart of exoplanet populations found with Kepler data. (NASA and Ames Research Center)(From Natalie Batalha and Wendy Stenzel, via NASA/Ames Research Center, used w/o permission.)
(Exoplanets, charted by radius and orbital period. (2017))

NASA/Ames Research Center/JPL-Caltech/R. Hurt's 'Assembly Line of Planets,' via NASA/Ames Research Center/JPL-Caltec, used w/o permission. (2017)Before 1992, the only known planets orbited our star.

Not quite three decades later, we’ve spotted nearly 5,000 worlds orbiting thousands of other stars. And hundreds of stars with more than one known planet.

Most of the newly-discovered planets and planetary systems aren’t what we expected. But we’ve found a few near-matches to Jupiter and Neptune.

And a few worlds that are almost, but not quite, like Earth.6

TOI 700 d

Artist's impression of TOI 700 d, diagram of TOI 700 planetary system.
(From NASA/Goddard Space Flight Center, used w/o permission.)
Sky and Telescope's Dorado constellation map, TOI 700 location marked with a red circle.(TOI 700 d, as imagined by an artist, and the TOI 700 planetary system.)

TESS Finds First Earth-Size Planet in the Habitable Zone
Yvette Smith, TESS, NASA (January 7, 2020, Updated January 31, 2020)

“About 100 light-years away … in the constellation Dorado … TOI 700 d (illustrated here), the first Earth-size habitable-zone planet discovered by TESS….”

NASA Planet Hunter Finds its 1st Earth-size Habitable-zone World
TESS, NASA (January 6, 2020)

“NASA’s Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (TESS) has discovered its first Earth-size planet in its star’s habitable zone…. Scientists confirmed the find, called TOI 700 d, using NASA’s Spitzer Space Telescope and have modeled the planet’s potential environments to help inform future observations.

“TOI 700 d is one of only a few Earth-size planets discovered in a star’s habitable zone so far. Others include several planets in the TRAPPIST-1 system and other worlds discovered by NASA’s Kepler Space Telescope….”

The artist’s picture of TOI 700 d assumes that there’s air and water there.

That’s probable. The planet’s density is around 5.6 grams per cubic centimeter, while Earth’s is 5.514 g/cm3.

But we don’t know how probable. Best estimates for TOI 700 d’s diameter and mass have considerable margins of error. The world might be mostly water or have no surface water. It may or may not have an atmosphere.

If our best estimates for TOI 700 d’s diameter and mass are spot-on, it could have a nitrogen-oxygen atmosphere, an ocean and photosynthetic critters exhaling oxygen.

In that sense, it would be Earth-like.

But at 1.9 times — nearly twice — Earth’s diameter, TOI 700 d’s surface gravity would be nearly double Earth’s

That’s probably not what most folks would think of as Earth 2.0.

But jumbo supersize almost-Earths may be common. We’re finding quite a few.

KOI 456.04

René Heller's illustration of Kepler-160 and KOI-456.04
(From ©René Heller/MPS, used w/o permission.)
(Kepler-160 and KOI 456.04: Just under twice Earth’s diameter, orbiting a star like ours.)

A faint resemblance of Sun and Earth
Dr Birgit Krummheuer, Dr. René Heller; Max-Planck-Gesellschaft (June 4, 2020)

“Among the more than 4,000 known exoplanets, KOI-456.04 is something special: less than twice the size of Earth, it orbits a Sun-like star. And it does so with a star-planet distance that could permit planetary surface temperatures conducive to life. The object was discovered by a team led by the Max Planck Institute for Solar System Research in Göttingen….

“… ‘The full picture of habitability, however, involves a look at the qualities of the star too’, explains MPS scientist and lead author of the new study Dr. René Heller. So far, almost all exoplanets less than twice the size of Earth that have a potential for clement surface temperatures are in orbit around a red dwarf….”

I’m pretty sure someone translated this article into English. That might explain the lead paragraph’s potentially-misleading thumbnail sketch of stellar classification.

“…Kepler-160, actually emits visible light; the central stars of almost all other exoplanets, on the other hand, emit infrared radiation, are smaller and fainter than the Sun and therefore belong to the class of red dwarf stars….”
Dr Birgit Krummheuer, Dr. René Heller; Max-Planck-Gesellschaft (June 4, 2020)

Clarifying “Actually Emits Visible Light … Infrared …”

Black body radiation curve, Astronomy Education at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.Kepler-160 does emit visible light.

Red dwarf stars do emit infrared radiation. And they are smaller and fainter than our star.

But our star and Kepler-160 emit infrared radiation, too.

Our sun is hotter than red dwarf stars, around 5,700 K, 9,800 °F, so its emission spectrum peaks at 580 nm, give or take.

Red dwarf temperatures range from 2,300K to 3,800 K. That’s 3680 °F to 6380 °F. They emit a greater fraction of their energy in the infrared zone: electromagnetic (EM) radiation from 700 nanometers to 1 millimeter.

Artists concept, planets crossing TRAPPIST-1's face.Again, these cool stars do emit visible light. EM radiation our eyes detect, that is. Their visible light peaks near the visible spectrum’s red end.

With surface temperatures very roughly 2,700 K, 4,400 °F, they’re very roughly the temperature and color of a ‘warm’ LED or incandescent bulb. (April 21, 2017; July 29, 2016)

But even ultra-cool red dwarfs like TRAPPPIST-1 wouldn’t look as emphatically red as most artistic depictions make them.

One more thing. Although KOI 456.04 is almost certainly a planet orbiting Kepler-160, its existence hasn’t been confirmed yet.

“A Potential for Clement Surface Temperatures”

Habitable zone, illustrated, NASA.Red dwarfs, the coolest ones at any rate, emit most of their energy in the infrared.

But since they’re really small and don’t emit much energy of any sort, their habitable zone is very small.

I think it’s remarkable that we’ve found so many rocky planets at around the right distance for liquid water. And an atmosphere like ours.

That may mean that we’ll find a great many worlds supporting life.

Or that we’ll only find life on planets like Earth orbiting stars like our sun.

Or maybe there isn’t life anywhere but Earth.

In my considered opinion, we don’t know. Not yet.

Proxima Centauri

Artist's impression of TOI 700 d, diagram of TOI 700 planetary system.
(From Michele Diodati/Medium, via EarthSky, used w/o permission.)
(Artist’s concept of Proxima Centauri and its two known planets.)

A 2nd exoplanet confirmed for Proxima Centauri
Paul Scott Anderson, Space, EarthSky (June 9, 2020)

“Just a few days ago, scientists announced that the closest known Earth-sized exoplanet, Proxima Centauri b, had been confirmed to orbit the nearest star to our solar system. That’s an exciting development, but now, as scientists announced on June 2, 2020, it seems that another possible planet around the same star also has been verified … Proxima Centauri c! Both planets are only 4.2 light-years away.

“…Evidence for Proxima Centauri c was first announced earlier this year by a research group led by Mario Damasso of Italy’s National Institute for Astrophysics (INAF). But the evidence wasn’t conclusive. This second planet for Proxima is apparently a lot larger than Earth and orbits its star every 1,907 days. It orbits at about 1.5 times the distance from its star that Earth orbits from the sun. Not an extreme difference, but Proxima Centauri is a red dwarf star, smaller and cooler than our sun, so at that distance, the planet can be expected to be significantly colder than Earth…..”

The last I checked, scientists figure Proxima Centauri c is a super-Earth or a mini-Neptune. Either way, it nowhere near as warm as our world. Unless its getting heat from something other than its star. Which seems unlikely at this point.

On the other hand – – –

An Odd Signal

Allen Telescope Array at the Hat Creek Radio Observatory in Shasta County, California, USA.
(From BBC News, used w/o permission.)

Alien Hunters Discover Mysterious Signal from Proxima Centauri
Strange radio transmissions appear to be coming from our nearest star system; now scientists are trying to work out what is sending them
Jonathan O’Callaghan, Lee Billings; Scientific American (December 18, 2020)

“Found this autumn in archival data gathered last year, the signal appears to emanate from the direction of our neighboring star and cannot yet be dismissed as Earth-based interference, raising the very faint prospect that it is a transmission from some form of advanced extraterrestrial intelligence (ETI)—a so-called ‘technosignature.’ Now, speaking to Scientific American, the scientists behind the discovery caution there is still much work to be done, but admit the interest is justified. ‘It has some particular properties that caused it to pass many of our checks, and we cannot yet explain it,’ says Andrew Siemion from the University of California, Berkeley….”

For starters, and mostly, the radio emission is along a narrow band and peaks at 982 megahertz. That’s a wavelength of 30.5 centimeters, if I did the conversion right.

Our satellite and spacecraft communications don’t generally use that frequency. So if it’s artificial, it’s almost certainly not from one of our explorers.

Assertions, Assumptions and Uncertainty

XKCD: 'The world's first ant colony to achieve sentience calls off its search for us.But if my memory serves, 982 megahertz isn’t one of the wavelengths folks have said space aliens would use.

That’s either a point against the Proxima signal being artificial. Or, at least as likely, a conclusion based on an arguably-ungrounded assumption.

Informed speculation that extraterrestrial intelligence would use particular parts of the microwave spectrum are just that: informed speculation. I think C. H. Townes is right: “…considerable uncertainty must remain.”

Many serious discussions of SETI assume that we may have neighbors; that if so, everybody’s as chatty as we are; and that they would use modulated radio waves moderate- to long-range communication.

Just like we have. For the last century.

And that they’re either close enough for us to pick up their broadcasts, or that they’re sending signals directly to us.

That’s a lot of assumptions.

I don’t think that the recent ‘Proxima signal’ is from an alien transmitter. Or that it’s not. And certainly not that it either must be or can’t be. Which is another topic.

4. Tasmanian Devils: Not Doomed?

An apparently-healthy Tasmanian devil.
(From Getty Images, via BBC News, used w/o permission.)

Tasmanian Devils reintroduced into Australian wild
BBC News (October 5, 2020)

Tasmanian devils have been reintroduced into the wild in mainland Australia for the first time in 3,000 years.

“Conservation groups released 26 of the mammals into a large sanctuary in Barrington Tops, north of Sydney.

“It’s thought that packs of dingoes helped eradicate them on the mainland.

“There are still some on the island state of Tasmania but their numbers have dwindled over the past two decades….”

Tasmanian devils ‘adapting to coexist with cancer’
Beth Timmins, BBC News (December 15, 2020)

There’s fresh hope for the survival of endangered Tasmanian devils after large numbers were killed off by facial tumours.

The world’s largest carnivorous marsupials have been battling Devil Facial Tumour Disease (DFTD) for over 20 years.

But researchers have found the animals’ immune system to be modifying to combat the assault.

And according to an international team of scientists from Australia, UK, US and France, the future for the devils is now looking brighter….”

Scientists don’t know for sure why Tasmanian devils aren’t dying as fast as they have been. But “…the decline has at least now levelled [!] out….” Which is good news for Tasmanian devils, and folks who have been concerned about the noisy critters.7

3. Habayusa-2’s Successful Return

JAXA Ryugu asteroid mission: successful.
(From JAXA/EPA, via BBC News, used w/o permission.)
(Hayabusa-2 return capsule — after successful landing near Woomera, South Australia.)

Rock from Ryugu, returned from Hayabusa-2.
(From JAXA, via BBC News, used w/o permission.)
(“Chunks of rock and dust from asteroid Ryugu, contained in chamber A of the capsule”
(BBC News))

Hayabusa-2: Pieces of an asteroid found inside space capsule
Paul Rincon, BBC News (December 15, 2020)

“Scientists have been greeted by the sight of jet black chunks of rock and soil from an asteroid after opening a capsule that returned from deep space a week ago.

“It’s the first significant sample of material to be delivered to Earth from a space rock and was grabbed last year by Japan’s Hayabusa-2 spacecraft….”

Human and robotic explorers have been bringing samples back since 1969. In 2010, JAXA’s Hayabusa spacecraft returned with a few micrograms of dust from 25143 Itokawa.

However much Haaybusa-2 returned, “considerable” sounds hopeful. And apparently scientists found gas from the asteroid, too.8 All of which warrants a place on this list.

So does making a successful landing. Returning to Earth is still a tricky process. I’m hoping NASA’s OSIRIS-REx samples experience a smooth landing in 2023.

A great deal can go wrong on the way from deep space to Earth’s surface.

Flashback: Genesis, 2004

Genesis return capsule.
(From USAF 388th Range Squadron, via Wikimedia Commons, used w/o permission.)
(Rough landing. (September 8, 2004))

NASA’s Genesis spacecraft collected and returned solar wind particles in 2004. Zipping along at 24,700 miles an hour — give or take a bit — its return capsule entered Earth’s atmosphere over Oregon.

At the right angle: not so shallow that it skipped back into space, or so steep that deceleration crushed the craft or overheating burned it.

By the time the Genesis return capsule reached Utah’s skies, it was sauntering along at about 109 mph. Aircraft were ready to catch it in mid-air. But a deceleration sensor didn’t work. The capsule’s parafoil didn’t deploy.

And the waiting pilots, prudently, let the capsule proceed to Dugway Proving Ground.

A recovery mission because a salvage job, the Stardust probe returned a gram of comet 81P/Wild, and that’s yet another topic.

2. COVID-19 Pandemic

Galveston County Health Department's H1N1/Swine Flu vaccine distribution in Texas City. (October 30, 2009)
(From Nsaum75, via Wikimedia Commons, used w/o permission.)
(Pandemic in 2009. Swine flu, folks waiting for vaccine in a Texas City mall.)

The COVID-19 pandemic has been in the news, a lot.

But does it really matter? — Either as science or as anything else? And is it really a public  health issue?

After all, those folks in Texas City weren’t wearing masks or staying six feet apart while waiting for vaccine during the 2009 swine flu pandemic.

But I think the COVID-19 pandemic matters as science. And that it’s a public health issue.

So was 2009’s swine flu pandemic. And the 1976 swine flu pandemic that didn’t happen.

Swine Flu, Just Like COVID-19: Except For How It’s Not

Swine flu 2009 was a pandemic.

COVID-19 is a pandemic.

They’re both pandemics, so they’re both pretty much alike, right?

Not quite. Pandemics are epidemics that went global, or at least international, and is changing. In principle, at least, pandemics range from ‘take two aspirin and call me in the morning’ to the Black Death.

The 2009 swine flu was somewhere between those extremes. Its H1N1/09 virus is a variation of the bug that gives folks the flue each year. And Swine flu 2009’s bug wasn’t the same as the 1976 swine flu’s.9

The Epidemic that Wasn’t: Swine Flu 1976

President Gerald Ford getting swine flu vaccination, 1976The 1976 swine flu’s virus was an H1N1 virus: A/H1N1 in that case.

The outbreak started in Fort Dix. American public health folks developed a vaccine, saw to it that a great many Americans were vaccinated, and the outbreak fizzled.

In 2006, an expert said that the folks in charge may have reacted too quickly to the 1976 swine flu outbreak.

Seems that recent number crunching shows that the outbreak might have fizzled anyway, without all those pokey vaccinations. In any case, only one person died of ‘swine flu 1976’ and that swine flu epidemic didn’t happen.

Pandemics and Survivability

Influenza, politicians, druggists and death: 1890 cartoon.H1N1 and company is — or would that be “are?” — what caused “Spanish influenza” and the “Russian flu:” the 1918 and 1918-1919 pandemics.

Those viruses have been been making folks sick every year since then.

Influenza can be fatal, but it’s not dignified.

Someone with a runny nose and watery eyes, who acts and sounds like an irritable frog, isn’t likely to inspire sappy sentiment.

And is more apt to star in something like that 1889 “everyone has influenza” cartoon.

I’ll grant that politicos, doctors and potion peddlers are fair game for satirists.

But I figure that trying to keep folks alive and healthy is a good idea, anyway. The job would be easier if viruses never changed. But that’s not how it is. Viruses change. fast.

That’s why we need an updated flu vaccine at least once a year. But each year’s flu vaccine is just that: an update of what we’ve done before. It’s not exactly a routine, but scientists have had considerable practice predicting and producing what’s needed.

Civil leaders may have over-reacted to pandemics, or maybe not.

I figure ‘an abundance of caution’ makes sense when dealing with a new virus. Even if it’s a mutated version of something we experience every year. “Mutated?!!” I’ll get back to that.

So does paying attention to how many folks are likely to die. CFR, Case Fatality Rate, is a controversial statistic. Data for pandemics is controversial. (December 16, 2020)

But data that some folks don’t like and statistical analyses that don’t satisfy everyone are all I have. So I’ll work with what I’ve got, hope for the best and focus on CFR numbers. At least then I’ll be comparing oranges to oranges.

Comparisons: Influenza Pandemics and COVID-19

Map: COVID-19 deaths per capita in December, 2020.
(From Dan Polansky/BlankMap-World.svg authors, via Wikimedia Commons, used w/o permission.)
(COVID-19 Deaths per million, by country: December 20, 2020))

Etzel and Page Avenues, St. Louis, Missouri, in 1918: another case of the flu.The 1918 “Spanish flu” pandemic killed between 20,000 and 100,000 out of every million people diagnosed as having it. That’s between 2% and 10% CFR.

The 2009 swine flu pandemic only killed 100 out of every million diagnosed. That’s 0.01% CFR.

COVID-19 CFR varies by age, location and a whole mess of other factors. I gather that out of every million folks diagnosed as having COVID-19, between under 1,000 to 250,000 die. Some countries, like Singapore, have hardly any deaths. Others aren’t doing so well.

In other words, COVID-19’s CFR is between <0.1% to over 25%. The 1918 “Spanish flu CFR was, depending on whose numbers you look at, between 0.10% and 0.28%. Neither are in the Black Death’s league, but COVID-19 is a serious health problem.

All that’s rather abstract. Let’s see what’s happening where I live, Minnesota.

On December 26, 2020, Minnesota’s Department of Health reported a total of 3,93,391 confirmed COVID-19 cases. 4,957 of those folks are now dead.

That’s a CFR of 1.26% in Minnesota, on the day after Christmas, 2020: worse than a typical seasonal flu, but not as bad as the 1918 “Spanish flu.” Not quite. Not here.10

Recent major influenza pandemics & COVID-19 pandemic
(Source: 2009 swine flu pandemic, COVID-19 pandemic, Wikipedia)
Pandemic CFR: Case Fatality Rate
“Asiatic/Russian flu” 1889-90 flu 0.10%-0.28%
“Spanish flu” 1918 2%-10%, estimates vary
“Asian flu” 1957-58 less than 0.2%
“Swine flu” 2009 0.01%
Typical seasonal flu 1918-2019 less than 0.01%
COVID-19 2019-???? less than 0.1% to over 25% (†)

(†) Odds of survival depend on where you live. And many other factors.

Data, Disease, Death and Decisions

Michael Wolgemut's 'Danse Macabre/Dance of Death.' (1493)I’m quite sure we don’t know everything about the COVID-19 pandemic, including how many folks have been catching the disease and how many died as a result.

But I’m also quite sure that it’s a serious disease. And that panic is not a reasonable option. Not that it ever is.

Keeping track of pandemic diseases would be easier if every nation’s government collected data the same way and reported it in a standard format.

Maybe we will, someday. But that’s not today’s reality.

On the ‘up’ side, we’ve learned a great deal since the Black Death was a current event.

European Space Agency's air pollution map: nitrogen dioxide (NO2) in Earth’s troposphere, between January 2003 and June 2004.We can’t, however use satellite imagery to highlight disease hotspots.

And governments haven’t settled on a standardized ‘who’s sick and who’s dying’ reporting format. I’m pretty sure that some governments are run by folks who prefer not acknowledging that their subjects are dying in wholesale lots.

That said, I see collecting and analyzing data that is available as a good idea. That’s part of the ‘science’ angle to the COVID-19 pandemic.

I don’t envy folks whose job is making decisions based on incomplete and sometimes-dubious data. Partly because they don’t have the option I do: waiting until more and better data arrives. Not if they’re going to do their job right.

Wrapping this bit up, we’ve learned and are learning a great deal about what makes folks sick, and how to lower the odds of death and permanent disability. And we’ve got a great deal left to learn.

Like I said: science.

Life Goes On, Even During a Pandemic

Winter Holidays, 2020. (CDC)
(From CDC, used w/o permission.)

Winter Holidays: Holiday Travel
COVID-19 (Coronavirus Disease), CDC (December 16, 2020)

“Travel may increase your chance of spreading and getting COVID-19. CDC continues to recommend postponing travel and staying home, as this is the best way to protect yourself and others this year.

“If you are considering traveling for the winter holidays, here are some important questions to ask yourself and your loved ones beforehand. These questions can help you decide what is best for you and your family….”

Okay. That CDC page is more of a Public Service Announcement than news.

Here’s a sample of one day’s pandemic headlines:

Tennessee Volunteers out of Liberty Bowl due to COVID-19 issues
Chris Low, ESPN (December 21, 2020)

“Tennessee football coach Jeremy Pruitt and multiple players and coaches have tested positive for COVID-19…”

As Biden Gets Sworn In, White House Will Get Scrubbed Down
Phil Galewitz, Kaiser Health News (December 21, 2020)

“…As Joe Biden lifts his right hand to take the oath of office at noon on Jan. 20 at the Capitol, a team of specially trained cleaners will be lifting their hands to disinfect the White House….”

President-elect Joe Biden receives first dose of COVID-19 vaccine
Bart Jansen, USA Today (December 21, 2020)

“…Biden and his wife, Jill, each received shots at ChristianaCare Hospital in Newark, Delaware. They will each need another round of the vaccinations developed by Pfizer-BioNTech in about 21 days….”

Shares fall as new Covid strain spooks investors
BBC News (December 21, 2020)

“Shares in London dropped and the pound lost ground after several EU countries closed their borders to the UK, which has reported a new variant of coronavirus….”

The closest approach to science I saw in Monday’s headlines was the “new variant of coronavirus” that was spooking investors.

Beware the Mutant Virus?

(From Getty Images, via BBC News, used w/o permission.)
(No, giant mutant coronaviruses are not coming to get you.)

The science behind virus mutations and why they matter
Helen Briggs, BBC News (December 22, 2020)

Since the early days of the pandemic, scientists have been tracking changes in the genetic code of the coronavirus.

“All viruses naturally mutate, and Sars-CoV-2 is no exception, accumulating an estimated one or two changes a month….”

'Attack of the Killer Tomatoes!' (1978)The tone of many headlines I’ve seen, happily, has fallen short of full-bore panic.

One ‘mutant virus’ headline even told readers to not panic:

I’ll take that — and an apparent lack of allusion to cautionary tales like “Attack of the Killer Tomatoes!” — as good news.

Virus Mutations Happen

And my hat’s off to outfits like BBC News, whose staff apparently takes time to research their topics, and include some science in their science news.

“…But every once in a while, a virus strikes lucky by mutating in a way that positively affects its ability to survive and reproduce….

“…Mutations in the gene that encodes the spike protein, which the virus uses to latch on to and enter human cells, are particularly worrisome.

“Some have been reported before, but not in the same precise number and combination.

“The variant has 14 mutations that cause a change in protein building blocks (amino acids) and three deletions (missing bits of genetic code)….”
(Helen Briggs, BBC News (December 22, 2020))

Changes in the SARS-CoV-2’s ‘spike-making’ code is, I think, reason for concern. Concern, not fretting.

Flagellants, a woodcut. (1493)And certainly not chucking science and giving flagellation a try. That sort of thing went out of vogue in the 15th century, and I’m drifting off-topic. (March 31, 2020)

Learning more about how the mutant spikes work makes sense, since at least some of the new mRNA vaccines work by making our cells mimic the SARS-CoV-2 spikes.11

“Mutant spikes?!” Good grief. Maybe I should cut news editors some slack. It’s hard to write colloquial headlines for COVID-19 pieces without sounding like a B-movie promoter.

Anyway, mutant spikes and vaccines bring me to my NUMBER ONE science news topic for 2020.

1. Science and Technology, Ethics and Decisions: mRNA Vaccines

mRNA vaccine delivery chain.
(From Getty Images, via BBC News, used w/o permission.)
(Good news, mRNA vaccines are easier to make. But they don’t travel well.12)

Why are mRNA vaccines so exciting?
Anthony Komaroff, MD; Harvard Health Blog (December 10, 2020; updated December 18, 2020)

“The very first vaccines for COVID-19 to complete phase 3 testing are an entirely new type: mRNA vaccines….

“…Traditional vaccines work: polio and measles are just two examples of serious illnesses brought under control by vaccines. Collectively, vaccines may have done more good for humanity than any other medical advance in history. But growing large amounts of a virus, and then weakening the virus or extracting the critical piece, takes a lot of time.

Early steps toward mRNA vaccines

“About 30 years ago, a handful of scientists began exploring whether vaccines could be made more simply. What if you knew the exact structure of the mRNA that made the critical piece of a virus’s protein coat, such as the spike protein of the COVID-19 virus?…”

I see the COVID-19 mRNA vaccines as “exciting” in part because they’re an example of practical science: science and technology, economics and administrative decisions working together.

That’s the good news.

The bad news is that two of the new vaccines were tested with parts from a girl who was killed in the early 1970s: cell line HEK 293 and its variants. And HEK 293 was used in development of a third vaccine.

I’ve talked about available vaccines, the HEK 293 cell line, ethics and making decisions before. (December 16, 2020)

I figure a recap won’t hurt, so here goes.

Killing an innocent person to help another is a bad idea, even if the homicide is legal. (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 22682279, 22922296)

But I am not denouncing the two ‘tested with parts’ vaccines.

Ethics Matter — So do Life and Health

An HEK 293 variant: 293FT cells.It’d be nice if the KEK 293 donor hadn’t been killed. But that’s not how it was, and now we have government-approved COVID-19 vaccines and ethical issues.

Maybe the COVID-19 pandemic will disappear in the wee hours of January 1, 2021.

Or, better yet, at the start of New York City’s business hours on December 30: with a gilt-edged guarantee, allowing the annual Times Square party to go ahead.

Seriously? That’s not going to happen. Although I do wonder what the Times Square virtual celebration will be like.

What will almost certainly happen is that, sooner or later, my turn will come to get a COVID-19 vaccination. And then I’ll cooperate. Or I won’t.

I’m hoping that one of the two available vaccines that weren’t developed with a murdered girl’s cells are available. Even so, the final tests of those two involved the HEK 293 donor.

I don’t like that.

But I’m not overly fond of playing ‘holier than the Pope,’ either. So I’ll go along with what my bishops and the Vatican have said.

Ethics matter. So does valuing my neighbor’s life and health. (December 16, 2020)

Working for the common good includes, but isn’t limited to, acting as if my neighbor’s life and health matters. It’s part of being Catholic. (Catechism, One/Two/Article 2 Participation in Social Life/II: The Common Good, 22582317)

Now, back to science and being human.

Cooperation and mRNA Vaccines

(From Getty Images, via BBC News, used w/o permission.)

The Science Behind The Historic mRNA Vaccine
Madeline K. Sofia, Rebecca Ramirez, Emily Kwong; Short Wave; NPR (December 17, 2020)

“After the vaccine is injected into a person’s arm, the muscle cells will essentially swallow the mRNA, bringing it into the cell. From there, our body uses mRNA to make a coronavirus protein that your immune system can recognize and respond to. After getting the vaccine, if you are exposed to the real coronavirus, antibodies can recognize that protein, grab on to it, and keep the virus from getting into our cells.

How it was developed

“As epidemiologist Rene Najera explains, while this is the first time a vaccine with this technology has been authorized, the technology is not new. The speed was also enabled by the global scientific community: pretty much as soon as the genetic sequence for the virus was released in January of this year, scientists across the globe began working on vaccines. It also helps that this particular vaccine is easier for scientists to make in the lab compared to others like the flu vaccine….”

As I see it, the big deal about our new COVID-19 mRNA vaccines isn’t new science. It’s science started in the late 20th century, applied to the problem of a new and dangerous virus.

I’ve no idea when we’d have seen the first mRNA vaccines, without the COVID-19 pandemic. And some truly remarkable examples of common sense.

I strongly suspect that developing and authorizing the new vaccines wouldn’t have been possible without today’s information technology helping scientists share information.

And a remarkable number of leaders letting scientists cooperate with each other.

Living in a Less-Than-Ideal world

'At the Sign of the UNHOLY THREE' cartoon, warning against fluoridated water, polio serum and mental hygiene. And 'communistic world government.' (1955)I’d much rather live in a world where crackpots weren’t part of public discourse.

Maybe dividing the world into righteous ‘real Americans’ and the megalomaniacal evil masterminds plotting against me and folks who agree with me would be easier.

Or maybe not.

I get the impression that folks who lean toward that caricature and its liberal analogs aren’t very happy.

In any case, the world we live in isn’t a utopian Camelot brimming with harmony and understanding, where sympathy and trust abound: with no more falsehoods or derisions.

And I’m wandering off-topic again.

I’m Catholic, so I’m obliged to see paying attention to God’s universe and using what we learn — science and technology — as good ideas. They’re part of being human. I’m also expected to think that being healthy, and staying healthy, make sense. Within reason. (Catechism, 3536, 301, 303306, 311, 1704, 22882289, 22932296)

Like anything else we do, science and technology can be used to help or hurt others. How we use them is up to us.

I think helping others is a good idea. I’d jolly well better.

Acting as if my neighbor matters, and seeing everyone as my neighbor, goes with being Catholic. Or should. (Matthew 5:4344, 22:3640; Mark 12:2831; Luke 6:31 10:2527, 2937)

Looking Forward to 2021

'Wizard of Id' 2020 new year resolutions. (December 27, 2020)
(From John Hart Studios, used w/o permission.)

This year has been memorable.

We’re experiencing a pandemic that’s scarier than many.

And we have vaccines for the new disease long before I thought we would.

Americans have endured another presidential election.

A. Feild (STScI)'s comparison of the Solar and Upsilon Andromedae systems. (via NASA, ESA)(2010)And I’ve finally begun sorting through a backlog of topics. Including “A Golden Age that Didn’t Quite Happen” and “Asisium, Assisi, and a Rich Kid’s Impulsive Charity.”

“Asisium…” is a working title which I may or may not use when the thing’s finished.

I’ve also got scattered notes about exoplanets, evolution and speculation regarding extraterrestrial intelligence.

So I predict that I’ll keep writing about science, life, the universe and everything. Barring unforeseen events, which are pretty much inevitable in this world.

Here’s a not-entirely-unrelated sample of stuff I’ve already written:

NASA computer simulation of Earth's magentic field between and during geomagnetic reversals.1 Earth’s magnetic poles move:

2 Exoplanets, extraterrestrial life and all that:

3 Arecibo Observatory and radio telescope:

4 Finally! new moon rocks:

5 Red dwarf stars, background:

6 Three exoplanets, and a little SETI:

7 Tasmania’s famous marsupials:

8 Exploring an asteroid:

9 Swine flu in retrospect:

10 Pandemics and statistics:

11 SARS-CoV-2, viruses and all that:

12 Messenger RNA and new vaccines:

About Brian H. Gill

I'm a sixty-something married guy with six kids, four surviving, in a small central Minnesota town. I mostly write and make digital art. I'm only interested in three things: that which exists within the universe; that which exists beyond; and that which might exist.
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