About hamanne

Retired math prof from San Jose State University. Long time crusader rabbit for justice. Lost a precious son who was a poet. Have a precious daughter in radio. Tolerant husband who hikes/golfs/swears at hypocritical politicians at the breakfast table.

Our Capacity for Worry is Finite

Researchers have found the human brain is like a swimming pool or perhaps better a water jug. The capacity for worry is limited. This has an effect on human efforts to combat climate change. Further, humans tend to favor filling their worry jugs with what is troubling them in the short term rather than the long term even if the long term concern is far more consequential.

Further, the capacity of humans to act is also finite. We can be content to take only a few actions when many are required to address a particular problem. Doing something assuages concern with a bandaid and can allow us to relax. Further, too much worry without action can lean to emotional numbing. All of this has consequences in promoting public concern over climate change according to the Center for Research on Environmental Decisions. I seem to be into song titles lately as “Don’t worry, be happy” comes to my mind.

This center warns against too much emotional appeal by balancing such appeals with analytical facts to appeal to more than one part of our brains. Environmental Nazis like me need to acnknowledge that most people have other pressing concerns, but we can mention relatively easy ways to contribute to climate solutions.

I am thrilled that the Senate persisted to pass a significant bill to address climate change. Bill Gates in a letter to the NYTimes praised the incentives to corporations to act, suggesting that the carrot is better than the stick. Industry can proceed with confidence that doing the right thing is compatible with operating at a profit, and that the public will be with the program in the long run. He believes and I agree that this is a turning point to further action. I only hope it snowballs.

When Will We Ever Learn?

While matter can never be created or destroyed it can be moved, and today due to climate change we have simultaneously droughts in some areas and floods in others.  

Lakes in Trouble:

Lake Mead: is he largest reservoir in the US. It supplies water to millions in seven states, tribal lands, and northern Mexico. It has dropped 158 ft since the late 1980s—likely the worst drop in the Western US in 12 centuries. NASA calls it a stark illustration of climate change.

Salt Lake: It is at its lowest level since the depth began to be measured in the 1800s. Its loss could amount to an economic loss of up to 2 billion per year. The death of the lake’s flies and brine shrimp threaten 10 million migratory birds. The lake contains arsenic and as it dries, the arsenic is picked up by the wind and blown into the atmosphere for people to breathe.

Lake Powell:  Utah water experts describe its condition as dire. It is not only an important water source, it is critical for hydroelectricity production at Glen Canyon Dam.

Many lakes in California are in trouble including Mendocino and Oroville.where a hydroelectric plant has been shut down.

11 Rivers in Trouble:

Most of them—except as noted— affect states among California, Oklahoma, New Mexico, Texas, and northern Mexico. 

Colorado River: This river is in the most serious crisis, and is a water source for 40 million people from Colorado to northern Mexico. The impact of its drying up is huge. Farmers are already going out of business that once depended on water from tributaries. In addition, Rio Grande River,Sacramento River,Pecos River,John Day River (Oregon),North Fork River,Canadian River,Arkansas River, Brazos River,Red River (Reaches as far as Louisiana), and Gascanado ( Reaches as far as Missouri) are among those whose futures as a water source are threatened.

Aquifers: NASA uses satellites to measure underground  resources. Rain, of course contributes to aquifers, but nearly all global aquifers are being drained at a higher rate than water coming in.

Glaciers: Glaciers contain a tremendous amount of clean water, but if they break off and join with salt water they are lost. The Thwaites glacier in the Antarctic could last as little as 3 to 5 years. Scientists call it the Doomsday glacier as it is like a cork holding back much more ice. Its demise would raise sea levels by as much as two feet, meaning destruction of islands and shorelines.

Since 3/4 of Earth’s clean water is in the form of ice, ways are being studied to tow icebergs to sites for melting and transporting for human use, none of which are inexpensive—less costly than desalinization—but we can’t postpone action while the green grass grows— around our homes and swimming pools.

What does this mean for humanity?

While clean water supplies and subsequent food sources are diminishing, human population is growing.

Our food, even potato chips, depends on non-salt water to grow. Already, there are countries with starving populations. The humane among us want to help by supporting organizations that will provide food, but when are we going to understand that a finite Earth has limits? That our actions and lifestyle have significant impacts on the livability of our planet? That we are all in this together?

Extend Human’s Health Span?

Most of us don’t want a longer life span if it means constant pain or being bedridden.

Now, some scientists think they may be on the brink of discovering ways of treating old age illnesses by rejuvenating cells. They’ve succeeded in making a 53-year old woman’s skin cells equivalent to that of a 23 year old. It’s not youth’s beauty they’re after. They hope to apply their technique to other bodily tissues to combat or slow diseases such as diabetes, heart disease and neurological disorders, which generally get worse with age. Their goal is an extension of healthy life although it’s hard to imagine if these diseases are slowed that there won’t also be some extension of life itself.

Oddly, the research is related to the 1990s cloning of Dolly, the sheep that involved turning a mammary-gland cell taken from a sheep into an embryo. The article states that the researchers’ intentions were not to develop means of cloning, but to use the technique to create human embryonic stem cells. These cells then might be developed into specific tissues to replace diseased or damaged parts of human bodies. I found myself wondering about the not-for-cloning claim, but I conjecture that the success of the cloning provided evidence that new tissues would be identical to the ones we’re born with.

In 2006, another scientist and his team found chemicals that when used to bathe adult cells for 50 days turned them into stem cells. Another team used the idea on 53-year old skin cells for 12 days and surprisingly discovered they became identical to cells 30 years younger instead of stem cells. The catch is that these cells appear to increase the risk of cancer. The team leader is confident that a safer means of accomplishing safer cells can be achieved.

The challenge remains of determining if the chemicals work on other types of cells.

The scientists do speculate that the human life span may be expanded as well. I find this question has ethical ramifications. New discoveries in medicine often are expensive to put into practice. We already live in a world of vast inequality, and I fear that will be further exacerbated. We need discoveries of cheaper health care more than we need new fantastic treatments few can afford. I do understand that once a new treatment has been discovered there are examples of cheaper means to do the same thing. When insulin’s role in diabetes was first confirmed, insulin came from pigs at great cost. Now, insulin is made by placing its DNA code into bacteria or yeast cells. This was much simpler and at first cheaper. Today, insulin has soared in price in the US. Patents owned by only 3 companies, no generics, and politics play a role.I guess I sidetracked from my point that once a new medicine or procedure is discovered cost reduction can be the next step. Or perhapsI think I stumbled into my next blog topic.

Crispr (It’s not a misspelled adjective for potato chips.)

Gene editing technology has led to innovations in medicine and agriculture while raising ethical questions regarding human DNA.

Crispr is an anagram for clustered regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats” in DNA sequences of bacteria and other simple organisms. It is often used as short for Crispr gene editing.

One interesting project for use of Crispr is to create a rice that absorbs carbon in an effort to combat climate change. If it works well, other such plants may also be created. It could potentially be used to remove allergens from nuts, a potential lifesaver from those with deadly allergies. Also being investigated are making plants use more water more efficiently and are more nutritious. Given projected worldwide water shortages and impact on growing food for a growing population, success would be huge.

There is considerable research on using Crispr to alter cancer cells, sickle cell anemia, and other diseased cells as well as hereditary DNA. You may well remember the highly condemned doctor who edited twin baby embryos to lessen their chance of getting HIV. Scientists are appropriately opposed to using Crispr in human embryos for many reasons. In fact in one experiment on cells in human embryos entire chunks of of genetic material went missing along with the carefully cut snippets of DNA. Further, even if successful in altering DNA to prevent hereditary diseases, there is fear that future parents will want to use gene editing on embryos to birth perfect children.

Golly Glia! (Oops, wrote this & forgot to publish!)

Glia cells have long been known to exist in the brain and thought to be stage hands making connections between nerve and immune cells. A Stanford University neuroscientist studying these cells via a mouse genetically engineered so its glia cells glowed green. He was interested in their behavior in the brain so he was surprised to see green throughout the mouse’s body. (It is interesting that mice are genetically close to humans, making them an ideal candidate for study.) The green coloring showed up in and near the heart, spleen, lymph nodes, kidney, liver, and lungs. In fact, there are a number of distinct glia depending on their roles.

The discovery indicates that glia cells are likely to be vastly more important than thought. In the brain, they are critical to our ability to remember, learn, and think, i.e. the functions we think of re the brain. In addition, many other indispensable activities of our bodies may be governed by glial cells.

For example, glia appear to help regulate heartbeats. Those in the spleen are between nerve and immune cells — a perfect place to influence the connection between health and stress. Exactly what glia do in the lungs is unknown, but early experiments suggest its importance — mice with no lung glia die.

What is known is that glia keep nerve cells fed, combat invaders, insulate nerve wires, change the signals that pass between nerve cells, guide the growth of nerve cells, and prune neural connections called synapses

Scientists are excited about the ramifications of increasing understanding of the role of glia in the various organs for improving human health via improving the body’s ability to ward off disease including cancer. (In other health news, a vaccine for cancer may be available in a number of years.)

Plastic “Recycling” is Akin to “Safe” Cigarettes

The controversey over cigarettes causing cancer lasted over ten years. Cigarette companies themselves funded “scientific research” intended to muddy the issue. By 1969 the federal government was convinced that cigarettes were clearly causing early deaths,and required warning labels.Later cigarette manufacturers perfidy was exposed by anemployee.

Now, the truth on plastic recycling is coming out. According to the president of Beyond Plastics, former EPA regional administrator, together with a chemical engineer and founder of the Last Beach Cleanup, the idea that all the labeled plastics can be recycled is as bogus as the idea that smoking cigarettes is not harmful to your health.

The main issue is that each plastic has a unique chemical composition and there are thousands of different ones. Unfortunately, they cannot be recycled together. Even differently colored plastic bottles are incompatible. Thus, sorting the different plastics is essentially impossible. There are a few individual entrepreneurs who are finding creative uses for plastic, but these efforts are a drop in a plastic bucket. Is it time for a ban on the recyclable symbol on most plastics?

I was aware that most plastics like clamshells were not being recycled, and the amount recycled was around 8%, but until I read the Atlantic article about the incompatibility of different plastic bottles I thought at least these were being recycled. When China was accepting plastic waste we falsely thought it was all being recycled. It appears that those little triangle of arrows stamped on plastics is nearly meaningless. Once again, corporations are misleading the public in order to maintain their profits. The need to turn to renewable energy means declining markets for fossil fuel, and the plastic market looks inviting to oil companies. Recylcing makes consumers feel good.

Want to get rid of those huge, heavy, plastic, laundry bottles? Try a product made in Canada consisting of 2″ by 4″ concentrated laundry strips that dissolve in your wash load. Here’s a clever ad if a little too long.

I’ve already written about how much plastic waste finds its way into our waterways and oceans. Further, plastic is in our bodies. Plastic may not degrade, but it does break up into fine pieces that float through our air and make their way into products we consume. One plastic contains estrogen-like disrupting chemicals. I’ve read articles about puberty happening to young children with claims that no one knows why. However, some in the medical field believe that plastics may be contributing.

One hopeful idea is for the public to push for biodegradable plastic, which is made from trees and plants. In particular, one company is investigating use of parts of plants that can’t be used for food or feed production. These bags can go into our compost. One of my favorite grocers, TJs, provides such bags for packing your own produce. Hmm, I guess I could bring my own bags to other grocers. I reuse plastic bags at home. I’m certain everyone can find creative ways to reduce plastic use.

Thousands of New RNA Viruses Discovered in Oceans

Don’t become alarmed. They are not likely to be coming after us, and not all RNA viruses cause disease. An RNA virus is defined as a virus that contains ribonucleic acid. Sounds better already, right? Unable to replicate outside of a host cell, viruses are not considered living organisms. In the ocean, they use plankton primarily as their hosts. In terms of number, RNA viruses dominate our oceans.

Scientists were searching for RdRp, an ancient gene existing only in RNA viruses  and found  44,000 RNA viruses with RdRp. This gene has evolved many times over billions of years, existing even before DNA. (RNA contains the sugar ribose, while DNA contains the sugar deoxyribose. RNA is a single-stranded molecule, while  DNA is double-stranded.)The researchers planned to determine the evolutionary relationship between the different  versions. Ahmed Zayed, a research scientist in microbiology at Ohio State, said, “So we’re not just tracing the origins of viruses, but also tracing the origins of life.” Many xcholars have long puzzled over how life began, with a number of theories but in almost every case, they have agreed that in some way, the creation of life involved water. The human body is 60% water on average, which seems to support this view..

In the search process, researchers identified about 5,500 new RNA virus species. Some fell into five existing phyla, but some were so different, they were determined to require five new phyla or categories. The new phyla were dubbed Taraviricota, Pomiviricota, Paraxenoviricota, Wamoviricota and Arctiviricota, sounding  like new pasta dishes.

As a footnote, biologists are excited about a massive sinkhole in china (click to see picture.) The unusual nature is that it contains an entire forest. It could contain species new to our generation, but possibly ancient in the world both in terms of vegetation and insects. Maybe even little green men from inner space could exist on the forest floor.

Snakes Alive! Ever Heard of Venomics?

It is common knowledge that many of today’s drugs originated from plants. However, the number, 7,000, prescribed by Western doctors surprised me. Seventy percent of the 3000 plants identified by the United States National Cancer Institute as having potential anti-cancer properties are endemic to the rainforest. Further, new drugs continue to be found at a time when due to climate change and deforestation, the rain forest is shrinking.

However, I didn’t expect that creatures like snakes, scorpions, gila monsters, and poisonous spiders could be sources of medicine for human ailments. Scientists are amazing in their curiosity and where they search for ways to improve human health and lives. It turns out that venom, which has recently been found to have thousands of components, provides a wealth of possibilities for relief and saving lives. One component under investigation could be used after heart attacks. A heart attack reduces blood flow to the heart, making its cells more acidic, leading to their dying off. The component being tested blocked heart cells’ ability to sense the acidity, which in turn helped the cell to stay alive. There is also potential for the relevant component to improve the chances of success with heart transplants.

A number of venom-derived drugs are already on the market. Captopril  was created from the venom of a Brazilian jararaca pit viper to treat high blood pressure. Exenatide, is derived from Gila monster venom and is prescribed for Type 2 diabetes. Draculin is an anticoagulant from vampire bat venom and is used to treat stroke and heart attack.

Just as for drugs that came from the rain forest, there is no need to extract venom from these friendly creatures once the critical components are chemically analyzed. They can be replicated in laboratories.

Wonders from Mother Nature and Science never cease to amaze me in terms of what they do for the human race. Let’s hope the human race will respect both. We do otherwise at our own peril.

Questionable Scientific Measurement

Much of scientific inquiry involves measurement and data. I recall decades ago when I taught mathematics at the college level, that my colleagues in social science maintained that their research was as scientific as that of physical scientists. In so doing, there were efforts to measure human traits numerically. Measurement theory is indeed a serious academic area of study. Two main qualities are required for legitimate measurement: reliability and validity. Reliability requires consistency. If you measure the same thing at different times or identical things, the measurements should be the same. Validity requires that what is being measured reflect the quality being studied.

Indeed, wouldn’t it be wonderful to determine depression, sanity, honesty, tendency toward violence, and other human traits by questionnaires with numerical answers? I recently encountered a Kaiser questionnaire that measured the # of days in the last two weeks I experienced various feelings like hopelessness, lack of interest in daily activities, inability to sleep or eat, etc. I found myself wondering if feeling hopeless about the war in Ukraine, the wacky politicians holding the country hostage, or humans getting their act together regarding climate change counts toward what is being measured. If so, does it make me in trouble or am I a normal human being who cares?

I do agree that social science is a science in terms of most other qualities of scientific endeavors like experimentation, research, peer reviews, replication, critical analysis, and the like.

As a mathematician, however, I maintain not everything can be numerically measured reliably and validly. 


Carbon Capture Needs Corporate committments

Climatologists have been quietly researching carbon capture for some time. Their warnings and pleas to decrease the use of fossil fuels went unheeded too long by too many. Earth’s temperature continued to increase along with its population of consumer/producers. We are on track to hit 420 parts of carbon per million this month. 350.org is named after the 350 parts per million that is the maximum tolerable level.

There has been limited progress. Prompted by federal legislation, gas mileage has been increased (In fact, even with today’s gasoline prices, the increase means today’s drivers pay less per mile than in the past.) More electric vehicles are on the roads. The number of solar rooftops continue to increase. Nevertheless, the efforts aren’t enough to prevent an increase in the number of drought areas, floods, hurricanes, fires, threats to health, and shortages of food and clean water. As a result, scientists understood that in addition to controlling pollution emissions, means of removing methane and carbon from the air needed to be seriously investigated. They avoided over- publicizing the research lest people spank their hands together and assume that science will take care of the problem without any sacrifice on their parts.

Fortunately, due to the increasing number of disasters the general public does appreciate that climate change is real. Corporations now understand that it is good public policy to convince consumers they are environmentally responsible. Some including several airlines like United pledge to be Net Zero in terms of emissions by a given date. Since, zero emissions is not always possible, Net Zero requires some kind of offset, i.e. carbon capture. Carbon capture can be accomplished in two different categories: natural and designed. For example, trees and other plant life naturally capture carbon, so adding trees to a forest can be an offset.  There are a myriad of ideas, but who will pay for the costs of a wholesale effort? If corporations seeking Net Zero would commit to buy the number of tons of carbon offset they need, it would create competition among those companies means of sucking carbon from the air and promote best solutions.

There are plenty of ideas. Now corporations and government need to commit to make them happen.