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Snow Day, Part 2: Selling your body for science, five inches, and slutty first graders.

I’m just hanging out in a hotel in Bethesda waiting to see if the vaccine worked.

Wait, don’t go. Allow me to explain.

Malaria is terrible and it kills 500,000 – 1,000,000 people each year, mostly in the under-developed, warm-climate regions of the world.

There are measures to take to prevent and cure the disease, but parasites in the wild quickly develop resistance to these drugs which target the blood-stage of the infection, rendering both prophylactic and curative measures ineffective.

In addition to poverty, malaria education is significantly lacking in many of the endemic areas, and both of these factors greatly contribute to the inability of worldwide efforts to control it. A current focus of the global eradication initiative is the development of a vaccine that can completely prevent transmission of the disease by generating potent and long lasting immune responses against the parasite early-on in human infection. This is what I work on at my job when there isn’t any snow on the ground.

Currently, the most successful vaccine undergoing clinical trials is RTS,S, a protein subunit vaccine that protects about 50% of volunteers from malaria challenge. This challenge involves an inoculation of malaria parasites via bites from infected mosquitoes into vaccinated or unvaccinated (control) volunteers (if you can really call us that; we get paid nicely for our time). At about 8-9 days post-challenge, all subjects are checked into a local hotel to be monitored daily for the development of parasitemia in their blood. Once parasites are detected, volunteers are treated with chloroquine: a drug that is effective in eliminating the common laboratory strain of the malaria parasite from an infected individual’s red blood cells.

In the wild, resistance to chloroquine was discovered in the 1950’s and has since, along with the introduction of other antimalarial drugs, resulted in multiple drug-resistant strains of malaria. Notwithstanding, the laboratory strain of Plasmodium falciparum (the most dangerous strain of human malaria) remains susceptible to the neutralizing mechanism of most antimalarials and chloroquine is therefore perfectly capable of treating the volunteers in just a few doses, often before any malaria symptoms are experienced. Backup drugs are available if chloroquine is not well tolerated.

Me, I’m at day 12.5 post-challenge as of 7 pm Monday night, while the mean onset time of detectable parasitemia, as indicated in a recent study, is about 12.9 days post-challenge.  Hence, all will be revealed soon.  Not too long ago, I encountered a colleague in the hallway who had recently come down and is now being treated. Her assessment of the symptoms- not favorable. Fortunately she, along with the rest of us test subjects, is in good care owing to the fact that our clinical trials staff does such a great job of detecting infection early.

While my co-worker is in the control group and was guaranteed to get malaria at least to some extent, I received a vaccine expected to protect about half of those immunized, and I have been dutifully keeping up on my vitamins and exercise in hopes that it will help keep me protected. But in truth, it is all futile as my fate was determined within an hour after being bitten by those god damned mosquitoes. Now that the time has arrived, it’s a weird feeling knowing that I can become stricken with P. falciparum at any moment.

But it’s totally safe.

Surely safer than being anywhere near the roads when there is any snow in this damned inept and useless part of the country.

I’m speaking of the D.C. Metropolitan region.

A place that REGULARLY experiences snow, yet somehow never seems prepared.

This locale, where once again, the government was shut down due to winter weather. Not only that, but 4/5 of businesses nearby my hotel are closed for the day. It stopped snowing at noon. The fucking BANK was closed. We got five inches.

In the big picture, maybe it’s not a big deal. I mean it’s one day and nobody around here does much anyway. But to use inclement weather as an excuse to stay home just seems so lame, especially when, by now, this city should know how to handle it. Some claim that it’s all in fear of the other “stupid people on the roads”, but stupidity is ubiquitous and certainly not exclusive to one’s bubble of existence. But when a bank is closed because of five inches of snow: that is just unsatisfactory.

I had the misfortune of meeting a few people today in the hotel lobby, many of which were delighted about this so-called winter weather emergency. To tell the truth, it was embarrassing trying to explain the tradition. Some folks that I met from Michigan were quite amused with a certain rear-wheel drive Cutlass that wasn’t performing so well on the slopes of Bethesda. Another family was unhappy about not being able to find food whilst their three year-old daughter was angrily shouting “I DO NOT WANT TO GO POOPOO, I DO NOT WANT TO GO POOPOO.”  I too, was in no mood for a poopoo as I had yet to find somewhere to get lunch.

Later, from another corridor I overheard a brother and sister, probably around 8 and 6 respectively, playing an imagination game, when the little girl began repeating a phrase I never thought I’d hear a 6 year-old deliver: “I wanna be slutty, I wanna be SLUT-TAY!” she cried out in her best attempt to mimic Nicki Minaj or who-the-fuck-ever she got that from. Dear parents, children are like parrots. They will repeat in public what they hear at home. Come to think of it, I don’t know where the parents were while these kids were playing porno.  Perhaps doing the same?

I don’t think I knew the word slutty, or anything that wasn’t related to dinosaurs, when I was that age. But alas, the times change so quickly. What will our grandchildren think that we are overly curmudgeonly about? Children expressing their pornographic fantasies?

Adults whoring their immune systems to pay for their next meth fix?

Or the capital of one of the most powerful countries in the world shutting down over five god damn inches of snow.

M

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A fleeting thought on free will

What I’m about to say could be considered emotionally R-rated, as the subject matter may be a bit depressing to those unfamiliar with deductive reasoning.

One who is a true scientist may be obligated to tell you that the only evidence that we have on the origin of life (e.g. the similarities in DNA across species, geological indications of an ever changing climate, the fundamental laws of physics and chemistry, etc) suggests nothing about the existence of a higher power or true meaning to life (or anything for that matter).

This is what someone would be compelled to agree with if they truly believed that assumptions can only be based off of repeated observations.

And furthermore, if this is the case, it must then be assumed that, through the eyes of the scientist, our individual actions and emotions are merely chemical reactions that serve no other purpose but to enhance our fitness as a species by helping us to reproduce early and often.

The prevailing theory is that life originated with a self-replicating molecule (such as RNA) spontaneously forming within the primordial stew of the early Earth, with cells and larger organisms eventually serving as compartments to “protect” this replicating material.  This is called abiogenesis.  Now, further statistical analyses on the complexities of nucleic acids suggest that life may have begun even before the solar system formed, up to 10 billion years ago.  Considering the vastness of the universe and the likelihood of other celestial bodies with capabilities of producing life-generating biochemical reactions similar to those presumed to have occurred early in Earth’s development, it may truly be arrogant of us to think that life even formed on our planet in the first place.

But then, to subscribe to all of these notions, the scientist must also then admit that true evil and benevolence exist only as a result of a lineage of chemical reactions that may extend as far back as those aforementioned 10 billion years ago.

So all of the bullshit that we hear about and deal with on a daily basis.  The crimes, corruption, greed and traffic jams.  It’s all due to a bunch of skin-sacks of meat and bones just trying to protect their replicating material in the only way that they know how to.

It all makes me wonder if perhaps a greater acknowledgement of these sentiments could make the world a better place.

M

In recognition of our survival of the end of the Mayan calendar

It’s 10 PM on a Friday night.  There’s faint chatter outside my window and traffic hums as people leave town to spend the holidays with family.  I’ll join them tomorrow.

But for now I wait.  Just two more hours and I survive the apocalypse.

What are we so worked up about?

Current estimates date the birth of the Mayan civilization back as far as 2600 years BC (around 1800 BCE is more well agreed upon).  While it is not exactly known when the Mayans began using a calendar, the oldest long count inscription found on an artifact, 7.16.3.2.13, corresponds with the Gregorian calendar date of December 6th, 36 BCE.

The Mayan long count calendar was created to, you guessed it, count long periods of time.  Deciphering this code that looks oddly similar to my IP address is actually rather simple.  By multiplying the first digit by 144,000, the second by 7,200, the third by 360, the fourth by 20 the fifth by 1 and then adding the products, you get the number of days since the date of creation of the fourth world (the “human world”) according to the Popol Vuh (the Mesoamerican equivalent to the bible).  This date of creation coincides with August 11, 3114 BCE and would be written as 13.0.0.0.0.

This is, of course, a bit of an oversimplification as each of these numbers has a name and meaning that I don’t find all that relevant at the time.  Having said that, it is important to note that yesterday, 12/20/12, was equivalent to 12.19.19.17.19 on the long count calendar.  This calendar uses near base-20 system (the next to last digit actually resets at 18) which makes today 13.0.0.0.0 and tomorrow, 12/22/12, 13.0.0.0.1 (or 0.0.0.0.1, depending on whether you want to start over).  Essentially, because the cycle preceding the fourth world (cleverly dubbed the “third world”) lasted for 13 b’ak’tuns (the first number in the IP address), something serious is supposed to go down.

But why the end of the world?

There are plenty of explanations for this, none of which actually involve any supernatural, geological or astronomical event.

Humans inherently fear death.  At least the smart ones do.  This is how we survive.  And any time that the thought of mass destruction enters our minds, we get a little silly.  Even I, the biggest cynic you may ever meet, could not shut the hell up about this.  It was the same old bullshit all day today.  “Have a nice holiday! – See you next week if the world doesn’t end!”  I understand that, for the most part, it’s all in fun, but come on.  We’re intelligent creatures.  We should know when the joke gets old.

And we’ve been through this before.  Not once, but TWICE in recent memory.  We should all recall, as the year 2000 approached, the mass chaos that transpired over our fears that somehow our computers would all malfunction, leading to nuclear war, earthquakes and a botched presidential election.  And how could we forget, more recently, the lovable Harold Camping and his end of the world calculations.  And when we was wrong, he tried and failed AGAIN before finally admitting that he was an imbecile and thus further damaged the credibility of all outspoken religious zealots (did they really need the help?).

But we just cannot help but eat this shit up.  People gave away their fortunes.  I recall that somebody even euthanized their poor dog!  People stood in the streets with costumes and signs while I sat in a bar that played that infamous REM song on repeat, drinking beers and wishing that I could apologize to all the intelligent extraterrestrial life that may be out there for our stupidity.

And frankly, I haven’t the slightest clue why we are so gullible.  The world is full of extraordinary beings that can design skyscrapers; create billion dollar enterprises; sequence genomes; and frankly do anything that we put our minds to.  We’ve sent a man to the moon, made bombs that can destroy entire cities and can communicate with one another across the globe.  Can’t we just get over this doomsday phase please?  I think we may be frightening the children.

So do we have anything to worry about?

Well yes, we do.  Beyond the inevitable nuclear warfare looming on the horizon, we have quite the interesting scenario approaching in our relatively near future.  In the year 2029 the 1,000 foot wide asteroid 99942 Apophis will pass is such close proximity to Earth that it will be visible in the night sky and fall inside of the orbit of most geosynchronous satellites.  There is no chance for collision at this time, but if the asteroid passes by Earth at a specific distance known as a gravitational “keyhole”, it will inevitably make impact on Friday, April 13th, 2036 when it returns from its orbit around the sun.   How ironic that our bullshit bad luck/play movies about serial killers day could inevitably yield such a catastrophe!  While this collision will not cause an extinction event (the impact will release the energy equivalent of 1,500 megatons of TNT, compared to the estimated 100,000,000 megatons of energy released in the Chicxulub impact), landfall in highly populated areas could cause millions of fatalities while a strike to one of our oceans would generate massive tsunamis.  Fortunately, the odds of collision are currently estimated at about 1:250,000, as the gravitational keyhole is only about a half mile wide.

But let’s just imagine for a moment that on that fateful day in 2029, 99942 Apophis does hit that keyhole.  Based off of the position of the Earth upon calculated impact seven years later, there is a sigmoidal line of possible landfall (sigmoidal in relation to a flat map of the world) that runs through Russia, across the Pacific, through central and northern South America before tailing off into the Atlantic Ocean.  A collision in densely populated regions of northern South America could cause upwards of 10 million fatalities while a Pacific impact would likely generate epic tsunamis on the east coast of Asia and west coast of the US.  I don’t even want to think about an impact in the Atlantic!  The good news is that we will have 7 years to come up with a plan!  And we’ve already been working on one.  Currently, the proposed mode of action does not involve an attempt to blow up the asteroid with nuclear weaponry, but instead the use of a spacecraft to “nudge” the asteroid away from the keyhole as it makes its initial approach.

I’d like to be optimistic and postulate that if this scenario unfolds, it could forge some much needed global unification of the human race.  Rather than sanctions and fighting over land, religion and our perceptions of human rights, maybe we can pull together to make something happen.  I know it may sound like a movie that we’ve all seen, but one day the fate of humanity may truly rest on our ability to work together in a time of peril.