Pretty Deadly

HIV (120 nm), Influenza Vaccine (100 nm), Lassa (100-130 nm)¹

Flu season is almost upon us. Its leading predictive indicator, Australia’s flu season, is telling us that our flu season will be more severe than normal. Anne and I are both inoculated. So, we’ve done our part to fight back. Today, I also got the booster dose of the Singles vaccine. Shingles is not communicable, unlike the flu, but I’m all caught up now on all of my shots. I’m even up to date with my Tdap inoculation, which is now required for visiting infants.

Which suggest the real purpose of vaccination. It’s not really about personal immunity. All vaccines are less than 100% effective. Vaccination is really all about herd immunity. The idea is that enough people get vaccinated so that the spread of disease is halted. When even healthy people are vaccinated, then those people who are more susceptible to disease, either because of age or medical condition, they are also more protected. More protected than if only they were inoculated. So, get vaccinated. If not for yourself, then for others.

The Med Tech who gave me my flu shot was so good that I didn’t even feel the needle. I later wondered if I had even got the shot, but peeling off the Band-Aid, I saw a tiny drop of blood on it. The new needles are so much smaller than the older ones. I did feel my Singles vaccine though. It’s needle was not that small.

  1. Lassa is the causative agent for a hemorrhagic fever, Lassa fever. Lassa fever is endemic in West Africa.

Sea Cradles


What rolls like an armadillo but lives in the sea? This is a question asked in a recent New York Times article about the lowly chiton. Half-a-billion years ago primordial trilobites first demonstrated the ability to roll themselves into a ball. Their modern day doppelganger is the mollusk we call the chiton. This defense mechanism, called conglobation, is used by animals as varied as armadillos, pill bugs and hedgehogs. The thrust of this article is that the chiton is not as simple an organism as first supposed, but being top heavy, not all that flexible and lacking appendages, the chiton has difficulty righting itself when flipped over. It is thought that in addition to defense conglobation also provies these organisms a means of locomotion. Allowing them to roll to a new perch to attach upon.

I took this photo while tide-pooling this summer in Oregon. It was early in the morning and in the middle of one of the lowest of low tides that normally occur around a full moon. We walked on dry land, on a sandy beach that is normally covered in sea water over our heads. We were in fact walking on the bottom of the sea. We could walk up to rock outcroppings like the one pictured and view a large assortment of sea beasties like this chiton.

Apex Predators

Orca Skull Cast

With teeth like these it is easy to see why the orca is the apex predator of the sea. Even Great White sharks run in fear from Killer whales, because the whales like to feed on them. They eat the shark’s liver and only the liver, for its iron.

I’ve seen orcas in the wild. It was in Puget Sound. Carl and I were taking a late ferry across to the Olympic Peninsula. Anne and Jay had already taken the four kids across and we were going to join them for a weekend whale watching expedition. Two orcas crossed in front of the ferry. Those were the only whales that we saw. The weather on the Pacific side of the Olympic was so rough that even though we did go out in a boat, it was impossible to see any whales.

While sharks may enjoy a fearsome, but noble apex predator, in the orca, we humans are not so lucky.  According to Timothy Winegard’s NY Times article, “The Mosquitoes Are Coming for Us“, our apex predator is the mosquito: 

She gently lands on your ankle and inserts two serrated mandible cutting blades and saws into your skin, while two other retractors open a passage for the proboscis. With this straw she sucks your blood, while a sixth needle pumps in saliva that contains an anticoagulant that prevents that blood from clotting. This shortens her feeding time, lessening the likelihood that you splat her across your ankle.

Researchers think that mosquitoes may have killed half of the 108 billion people who have ever lived, but they don’t do this alone. They are assisted by the likes of malaria, Zika, West Nile, dengue and yellow fever. It doesn’t help that Type O blood, my type, is their preferred menu item. When I used to drink a lot of Coke, Anne always said that the bugs like me more, because my blood is so sweet. It is, but not because of any soda that I might have drunk.

People have been trying to deal with this scourge forever. We tried poisoning them with DDT, but then they just mutated a resistance. Florida’s Disney World is a more enlightened success story. Even though it was built in a central Florida swamp, it is pretty mosquito free. This is accomplished not with chemicals, but by turning all of the once stagnate swamp water into flowing water. Mosquitoes won’t breed in moving water. Disney World is big enough to create its own ecosystem, but most of humanity can’t afford this solution or its park prices.

The advent of modern genetic technology, in the form of Crispr offers us the opportunity to up our game. Throughout history our battle against the mosquito had been a onesided disaster. Using Crispr scientists have already created sterile mosquitoes. Maybe Bill Gates and a few more of his billionaire colleagues can chip in enough money to make enough of these drones to put a dent in the 100 trillion world mosquito population? Until then, keep slapping.

Dinosaur Doomsday

T-Rex Sue

Next week’s New Yorker will feature an article by Douglas Preston entitled, The Day the Dinosaurs Died. This piece describes the work of Robert DePalma and the discoveries that he has unearth at Hell Creek, South Dakota. DePalma is a relatively unknown paleontologist, a University of Kansas doctoral candidate, who may have discovered the moment of one of the most significant events in the history of life on Earth.

Sixty-five million years ago the Cretaceous period or the age of the dinosaurs ended and the Paleogene period or the age of the mammals began. The culprit for this catechismic change is believed to be an asteroid that came crashing to earth in what is now the Yucatan peninsula. Evidence for this event can be found worldwide in what is called the KT layer. The Paleogene was originally called the Tertiary and the term KT persists, below KT dinosaurs, above none.

In Hell Creek, DePalma has discovered a primordial soup, a mix of mammal and dinosaur fossils, along with fish, plants and insects, all within this site’s KT layer. Some specimens have been burnt, while others are so perfectly preserved that they must have been encased in mud at the moment of death. Also common at his dig are tektites, ejecta of super heated rock turned to glass, possibly from the hypothesized asteroid strike. At that time, the Dakotas were part of an inland sea and the idea of a tsunami washing over everything there fits well with some of these finds, like fresh and salt water fish on top of each other.

According to Preston, DePalma is a bit eccentric, a standout as such in a field with more than its fair share of unusual characters. Combine this trait with his penchant for secrecy and his relatively low scientific stature and you have a recipe for simply being dismissed. DePalma has had some impact though. He once unearthed a hadrosaur and noticed that there was a nodule on one of its bones. A CT scan showed a T-Rex tooth embedded. This find helped to refute the theory that the T-Rex was solely a scavenger.

Slowly and little-by-little DePalma’s work is being disseminated. His lack of transparency and the dramatic nature of the findings will receive their first real test, when next month he publishes in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. If even a tenth of what he purports is true, it should rock the world.

Lies, Damn Lies and Statistics

Numeri (Numbers) Plate, Laura de Santillana, 1977

Neither snow nor cold nor gloom of night shall stay this blogger from the swift completion of his appointed rounds. Braving the polar vortex, Anne and I first did our Gyrotonic workout and then continued on to Science on Tap. Liberty Vittert, a visiting professor from Glasgow in Mathematics and Statistics was the night’s speaker. Her talk was entitled, How to Win the Lottery and Get Away with Murder. Here she is via YouTube giving the TEDx version of this talk.

With our previous exercise, we arrived later than normal, but Joanie had our table ready and Pat just beat us there. The usual hosts were absent due to a family emergency and without their tutelage the venue’s flakey AV systems reared their awful heads and plagued Dr. Vittert’s talk. She straight off wrecked my planned question, “Which high school did you go to?” Growing up in Saint Louis, she knew that such a question would be code for who are you. Burroughs indicates that she was a local high flyer. 

The gist of her talk was that we can defend ourselves from the chronic misuse of statistics through common sense. The get away with murder portion of the title comes from the OJ Simpson trial. In it, one of the defense lawyers argued that only one in 1/2500 of women who are abused, were murdered by their abuser and you can’t convict on a 1/2500 chance. A more correct way of viewing it is that nine out of ten women who are murdered by a spouse had been abused. The police have always known this and that is why they always suspect the husband.

The how to win the lottery part of the title presents a strategy for dealing with incomprehensibly big numbers, by characterizing them using a real world situation. Imagine a bathtub, the biggest that you’ve ever seen and then imagine that that tub is filled to almost overflowing with kernels of dried rice. Take one of the kernels, paint it gold and then plunge it down into the rice. Then standing at the bathroom door, charge people two bucks to blindfold themselves and pick one grain of rice. This example illustrates both the futility of buying lottery tickets and why government loves them. As the saying goes, it’s a tax on people who can’t do math or more correctly can’t visualize the math.