“Massive movement from central cities to their suburbs, a population boom in the West and Southwest, and a lower rate of population growth in the 1960’s than in the 1950’s are the findings that stand out in the preliminary results of the 1970 Census as issued by the U.S. Bureau of the Census. The movement to the suburbs was pervasive. Its extent is indicated by the fact that 13 of the 25 largest cities lost population, whereas 24 of the 25 largest metropolitan areas gained. Washington, D.C., was characteristic: the population of the city changed little between 1960 and 1970, but the metropolitan area grew by 800,000, or more than 38 percent.”
“The proposed machine, known as the ‘Pelican Four-Ton Lorry,’ is a colossal cantilever monoplane designed for two 460-horse-power Napier engines. Its cruising speed is 72 miles per hour. Its total weight is to be 24,100 pounds. The useful load is four tons, with sufficient fuel for the London-Paris journey. Most interesting of all, however, is the novel system of quick loading and unloading which has been planned. This permits handling of shipments with the utmost speed, and is based on a similar practice in the motor truck field. Idle airplanes mean a large idle capital, hence the designers plan to keep the airplane in the air for the greater part of the time.”
Don’t Try This Anywhere
“Dr. Charles Baskerville points out that while the data thus far obtained on chlorine and influenza do not warrant drawing conclusions, such facts as have been established would indicate to the medical man the advisability of trying experimentally dilute chlorinated air as a prophylactic in such epidemics as so-called influenza. Dr. Baskerville determined to what extent workers in plants where small amounts of chlorine were to be found in the atmosphere were affected seriously by influenza. Many of those from whom information was requested expressed the opinion that chlorine workers are noticeably free from colds and other pneumatic diseases.”
The Rise of Telegraphy
“The rapid progress of the telegraph during the last twenty-five years has changed the whole social and commercial systems of the world. Its advantages and capabilities were so evident that immediately on its introduction, and demonstration of its true character, the most active efforts were made to secure them for every community which desired to keep pace with the advances of modern times. The Morse or signal system seemed for a time to be the perfection of achievement, until Professor Royal E. House astonished the world with his letter printing telegraph. Now, almost every considerable expanse of water is traversed, or soon will be, by the slender cords which bind continents and islands together and practically bring the human race into one great family.”
The Transport of Goods
1887: Cargo ship launched as Golconda had room for 6,000 tons of cargo, loaded and unloaded by crane and cargo nets, and 108 passengers. Credit: Scientific American Supplement, Vol. XXIII, No. 574; January 1, 1887
Oxcarts, railroad cars and freight ships can be loaded and unloaded one item at a time, but it is more efficient to handle cargo packed into “intermodal shipping containers” that are a standardized size and shape. Our October 1968 issue noted that a “break-bulk” freighter took three days to unload, a container ship less than one (including loading new cargo). Air transport became a link in this complex system, but the concept in the 1920 illustration shown is a little ahead of its time. These days air cargo (and luggage) makes abundant use of “unit load devices,” cargo bins shaped to fit the fuselage of specific aircraft models.
On the other side of the sun, an interplanetary heist is afoot. Next week NASA’s OSIRIS-REx spacecraft will make a daring attempt to steal samples from the surface of an asteroid, dodging giant boulders and other hazards in the process. If all goes well, it will then make the long journey back home, returning the largest amount of extraterrestrial material to Earth from a nonlunar mission in history. Its precious cargo of otherworldly rocks could hold answers to long-standing questions about our cosmic origins. “We hope to get material that will inform us about the first phase of our solar system’s formation,” says Patrick Michel of the Côte d’Azur Observatory in France.
The roughly $1-billion OSIRIS-REx was launched back in 2016 on a mission to the asteroid Bennu, which has an orbit slightly larger than Earth’s. Equipped with an extendable armlike instrument called the Touch-and-Go Sample Acquisition Mechanism (TAGSAM), the primary goal of the spacecraft is to descend to Bennu’s surface and scoop up a sizable amount of sample, up to two kilograms, before returning to Earth. The only previous successful asteroid-sample-return mission, Japan’s Hayabusa, returned just a few micrograms in 2010. Its successor, Hayabusa2, is scheduled to drop off a new sample in December but with only up to a gram onboard.
OSIRIS-REx has been nearly two decades in the making, says Dante Lauretta, a planetary scientist at the University of Arizona, who is the mission’s principal investigator. “I’ve been working on this for over 16 years,” he says. And now the moment of reckoning has arrived. This Tuesday, October 20, at about 1:50 P.M. EST, mission controllers will command the spacecraft to begin its autonomous approach to Bennu from its parking orbit 700 meters above the surface. Over the next four and a half hours, it will slowly descend and make its way toward a preselected landing site called Nightingale. Then, at about 6:10 P.M. EST, the spacecraft should touch the surface for no more than 15 seconds, sucking up a sample before making its escape.
OSIRIS-REx and Bennu are currently on the other side of the sun, about 334 million kilometers from Earth. That means it takes 18 minutes to communicate one way with the spacecraft, necessitating the autonomous nature of the landing. But the mission’s team is well prepared: in August it completed the second of two landing rehearsals, in which the spacecraft approached to just 131 feet (40 meters) from the landing site before backing away. This rehearsal included a test of the spacecraft’s ability to use visual images to make its way to the surface.
An overview of OSIRIS-Rex’s Touch-And-Go (TAG) sample collection event, slated to occur at asteroid Bennu on Oct. 20, 2020. Credit: NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center
Originally, the scientists had planned to use laser tracking to touch down at Bennu. But upon arrival, they discovered it was a “rubble pile” asteroid, meaning it was composed of a lot of rocks of varying sizes. This quality would make landing via laser difficult because the beam’s light would be scattered by the asteroid’s surface. Instead the team decided to employ the spacecraft’s cameras to guide the touchdown at Nightingale, a relatively flat 16-meter-wide region among the rubble. “We’re basically trying to park a large van in a spot that’s two parking spaces wide,” Lauretta says.
Bennu’s structure and composition have been of keen interest since OSIRIS-REx arrived. Last week a series of papers published in the journals Science and Science Advances detailed some new findings about the asteroid, based on data from the spacecraft. In one of the studies, scientists describe the presence of organic carbon-bearing material on Bennu’s surface. “Organic carbon is interesting because we think asteroids like Bennu could have delivered organic matter to early Earth,” says Hannah Kaplan of NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, who is lead author of one of the recent studies and a co-author of another. “So to be able to go back and look at what these very early pristine organic materials look like, that’s really exciting.”
In another of the papers, scientists were able to use OSIRIS-REx’s images of material ejected from the surface of Bennu to work out its interior composition and gravity. After the spacecraft arrived at the asteroid in 2018, scientists were surprised to discover that Bennu was actively ejecting particles into space that remained in orbit around it. “We used this ‘particle gravity field’ to analyze how the mass is distributed within Bennu,” says Daniel Scheeres of the University of Colorado Boulder, who was lead author of the study. The researchers found the interior of the asteroid was heterogeneous, meaning some parts were more dense than others—something that could account for the Bennu’s odd bulgelike shape, too. Pulled by the asteroid’s rotation, “material is flowing down into the equatorial region, albeit relatively slowly,” Scheeres says.
The rubble-pile nature of Bennu adds some complexity to OSIRIS-REx’s landing. The first major milestone will come about four hours after leaving its parking orbit, when the spacecraft will start its “checkpoint burn”: it will use its thrusters to come to a momentary halt 410 feet (125 meters) above the Nightingale landing site before beginning its descent. About 11 minutes later, OSIRIS-REx will slow its descent to the surface with a “matchpoint burn,” ultimately reducing its speed to just 10 centimeters per second, with its TAGSAM arm extended out toward the asteroid.
When the arm touches the surface, a spring system inside will slow the spacecraft’s relative velocity to zero. The arm’s circular collector head will remain in contact with Bennu for up to 15 seconds, pumping nitrogen gas into the surface to kick up material for collection. The spring will then recoil and push the OSIRIS-REx away like a pogo stick before the craft fires its thrusters and returns to its parking orbit above the asteroid’s surface. Owing to COVID-19 restrictions, much of the OSIRIS-Rex team will watch the action unfold from the comfort of home, save for about a dozen people at mission control.
The procedure is not without its nail-biting perils. First, the spacecraft must check that there are no hazardous rocks on the surface below before beginning its descent. It will autonomously make the call on the fly, just before the matchpoint burn. The team will also be hoping the TAGSAM arm does not touch any inconveniently angled rock on the surface, which could tilt the entire spacecraft askew. The biggest danger in this scenario is a nearby massive boulder, nicknamed “Mount Doom,” that would prove deadly if OSIRIS-REx were to crash into it on the spacecraft’s ascent. “The worst-case scenario is: you come in right next to Mount Doom, tip over right toward it and fire your thrusters, and slam into that rock,” Lauretta says.
If all goes to plan, the team expects to collect anywhere from 60 grams to two kilograms of material inside the collector head. By spinning the spacecraft with the arm extended, the researchers will be able to measure the sample’s inertia and work out how much of Bennu they have collected with an accuracy of plus or minus 20 grams. If there is deemed to be enough, 60 grams or more, the spacecraft will store the collector head inside a container designed to bring the sample safely through Earth’s atmosphere. If no samples have been collected, the spacecraft has enough nitrogen gas onboard to attempt up to two more landings in December or January. In the event that Nightingale is disturbed by the spacecraft’s thrusters, those landings will occur at a second site called Osprey.
If, however, enough samples are collected from Nightingale—which the team will decide on October 30—the spacecraft will remain in orbit until March 2021 and then depart Bennu on a voyage home. In September 2023 it will arrive back at our planet and drop its capsule into our atmosphere. The capsule will then parachute to safety in the Utah desert with its scientific spoils in tow. But before all that, there is the small matter of actually putting the most crucial part of this grand and elaborate plan in action. “The biggest disappointment is that the team cannot gather to celebrate this event,” says Lauretta, who is instead now eyeing the spacecraft’s late 2023 return to Earth for some revelry. “We better be over the pandemic by then.”
Science advances by the free exchange of ideas. New ones are put forward and pitted against existing ones, and fights are fought with rational arguments. Scientists tend to take this freedom for granted, and carry it over to other fields, such as politics, where challenging prevailing opinion goes under the name of dissent, and may be much less welcome.
Scientists make tough dissenters for the powers that be. They cannot be dismissed offhand as incompetent, and they bring to the discussion professional standards that are hard to match. They cannot be quietly put away for their opinions, for they belong to an international community that will support them. So, they have to be discredited in some way.
In the time of the Soviet Union, the preferred charge was insanity. Dissenting scientists, such as Alexander Esenin-Volpin and Leonid Plyushch, were routinely sent to psychiatric hospitals. Nowadays, the favored charge is supporting terrorism. Here are three examples, among many others:
Turkish mathematician Tuna Altınel has lived and worked in Lyon, France since 1996. In 2019 he participated in a public meeting in Lyon on the subject of alleged massacres in southeastern Turkey. The local Turkish consul reported on this meeting to the Turkish authorities in Ankara, mentioning that Altınel had served as a poll watcher. A charge of membership in an armed terrorist group resulted.
On an April visit to Turkey, Altınel’s passport was confiscated. He was subsequently arrested and placed in pretrial detention for 81 days. Charges were later reduced to propaganda for a terrorist group. Altınel was acquitted of the latter charge in January 2020. His passport has not been restored, and the government recently sent a letter saying it will not be; he thus remains unable to leave Turkey. Administrative sanctions not subject to public scrutiny have been widely applied in Turkey in response to political expression.
With reference to the statutes invoked, the European Court of Human Rights has condemned the use of criminal procedures such as detention on remand to punish and discourage the exercise of freedom of expression.
For more information see http://math.univ-lyon1.fr/SoutienTunaAltinel/?lang=en.
The case of Azat Miftakhov, a mathematics graduate student at Moscow State University, is somewhat special. Miftakhov was neither a public opponent of Putin’s regime nor yet a professional scientist. His academic career was only starting (with a single publication in the field of stochastics). By that reason one can hardly expect that professional organizations would step up for him. However, Miftakhov’s figure became a sort of litmus test for Russian academic society, dividing people into those who trust the system and those who question its justice. Miftakhov comes from Tatarstan in the Russian Federation. While still in school, he won prizes in several math competitions and received support given to talented young people by the Ministry of Education and Science.
As a student in Moscow, he became involved with the anarchist movement. In June 2018 and January 2019 Miftakhov was harassed via a telegram channel allegedly connected with Russia’s law enforcement agencies. In February 2019, right after his return from a conference in Nizhni Novgorod where Miftakhov gave his first talk in English, he was detained by the state authorities and accused of manufacturing explosives. Miftakhov was reportedly tortured by the police. After three days he was released as the court found no evidence for his detention. In less than two days, on February 9, 2019, Miftakhov was again arrested and accused of destruction of the office window of the ruling political party, United Russia, which occurred more than a year ago.
Miftakhov has pled not guilty. Despite the obvious lack of evidence, he has been kept in jail since then. The Russian human rights center Memorial recognizes Miftakhov as a political prisoner. A letter condemning torture against Miftakhov and calling for his immediate release was signed by many prominent scientists from Russia and worldwide. For more information about both Miftakhov and Altınel see http://www.ams.org/about-us/governance/committees/humanrights
On Thursday, July 16th 2020, Palestinian astrophysicist Imad Barghouthi, a professor at the university of Al-Quds in East Jerusalem, was detained by Israeli military forces during a routine stop at a military checkpoint outside of Anata. After more than two weeks without information on the reason for his detention, on August 2 Barghouthi was charged by an Israeli military prosecutor with “incitement and support for a hostile organization” on the basis of his Facebook posts.
After an Israeli judge twice accepted his lawyer’s request that Barghouthi be released on bail, the military commander of the West Bank ordered him placed under administrative detention until November 15. Administrative detention is an illegal measure under international law commonly used by the Israeli military forces to hold Palestinians in prison without charge or trial.
This is not the first time that the Israeli military forces have arrested Barghouthi, one of Palestine’s most prominent scientists. In 2014 he was placed under administrative detention for two months, and in 2016 he was again detained for six months. In both cases his arrest triggered significant indignation on the part of the international scientific community.
The procedures may differ, but the result is the same: through administrative and juridical harassment, civil or military, our colleagues are deprived of their fundamental freedoms, including academic freedom. It is up to scientists to alert their professional associations and to mobilize, as they did at the time of the Soviet Union, to demand that Altınel, Miftakhov, and Barghouthi recover their freedom and their rights, immediately and unconditionally.
The views expressed by the authors are their own, and do not represent those of their institutions, which are included for identification purposes only.
The human eye is a limited organ. The portion of the electromagnetic spectrum that we can see is about 0.0035 percent of the total light in the universe. Without any aid, a normal human eye with 20/20 vision can clearly view up to only about five kilometers (about three miles) in the distance and can distinguish an object as small as about 0.1 millimeter. Just as spyglasses and telescopes extended our range of sight across Earth and into the cosmos, light microscopes allow us to peer at scales hundreds of times smaller than we would otherwise be able to detect. Such technology has bred innumerable discoveries in medicine, biology, geology and plant science.
For 46 years, camera company Nikon has run its Small World contest, which prizes excellence in photography at the tiniest scales—achieved with the aid of the light microscope. Scientists make up a substantial proportion of contest entrants because their work naturally lends itself to stunning visualization. Below is this year’s first-place winner and our editors’ picks for the best images. As entrant Jason Kirk of the Baylor College of Medicine says, the contest is a “unique opportunity to celebrate the convergence of art and science. Images like the ones showcased here are a [wonderful] bridge between the scientific community and the general public.”
This year’s winning image of a juvenile zebra fish was captured as part of research by a team at the National Institutes of Health. They discovered that zebra fish have lymphatic vessels inside their skull—a feature previously thought to only occur in mammals. Such a discovery could expedite and revolutionize research related to neurological diseases such as Alzheimer’s. The researchers stitched together more than 350 individual images to create this single one.
Radula, or “tongue,” of a freshwater snail, stained and captured as a stack of images. The realm of tiny animals is replete with bizarre and sometimes alien forms, says the image’s creator, Igor Siwanowicz of Howard Hughes Medical Institute, who obtained the snail from his lab mate’s aquarium. “It’s a snail’s tongue, looking like a decadent rococo chandelier,” he adds. The image won third place.
Scale from the wing of a blue emperor butterfly (Papilio ulysses). Photographer Yousef Al Habshi, says the challenge in creating this image was finding the correct focal balance between the camera and the scales to capture the light, avoiding overexposure or underexposure.
Daphnia, a water microorganism. To create this image, photographer Paweł Błachowicz used the reflected-light technique: light bounces off the subject and is captured by the camera. This method is usually reserved for opaque objects, Błachowicz says, so he was surprised at this striking outcome. “Daphnia is a transparent organism, and despite this, with the reflected-light technique, it looks astonishing,” he adds.
Crystals formed after heating an ethanol-and-water solution containing L-glutamine and beta-alanine. The proportions of both amino acids must be precisely balanced in order to form such striking crystal structures, says photographer Justin Zoll. He used a polarized-light filter to capture this image, which won 13th place.
Lateral view of a leaf-roller weevil (Byctiscus betulae). The hard exoskeleton is highly reflective and therefore challenging to capture, says photographer Özgür Kerem Bulur, who had to balance the light properly in order to capture these rainbow colors. This image won 14th place.
Head of a tapeworm (Taenia pisiformis) from the gut of a rabbit. The angle of this photograph shows the “teeth” on the edge of the parasite’s head that help it embed itself in its host’s digestive tract. “I love the image’s geometrical beauty, its sculptural qualities and its ambiguity,” says image creator David Maitland. “Is it a fossil or something embedded in sandstone? What is it?”
Credit: Jason Kirk Baylor College of Medicine
Microtubules (orange) inside a bovine pulmonary artery endothelial cell. The nucleus is shown in cyan. In his work, Jason Kirk of the Baylor College of Medicine uses such cells to benchmark the performance of his microscopy equipment. But the end result, which won seventh place, deserves acknowledgement for its artistic value.
Science in Images is a new category of articles featuring photographs and videos from all the disciplines of science. Click on the button below to see the full collection.
p style=”text-align: center”>Science in Images
Science has long considered itself to be an apolitical enterprise. But in the midst of a global pandemic and with the 2020 election looming, some scientific institutions and elite journals have suddenly become willing to take a political stance against President Donald Trump and his allies.
On October 8, for instance, the New England Journal of Medicine (NEJM) jumped into the fray for the first time in 208 years with an unprecedented political editorial calling for leadership change. Although it stopped short of endorsing Democratic candidate Joe Biden, the article labeled people running the current administration “dangerously incompetent” and added that “we should not abet them and enable the deaths of thousands more Americans [from COVID-19] by allowing them to keep their jobs.” This week the journal Nature added similar sentiments in an editorial that did endorse Biden and called Trump’s record “shameful.” A month earlier 81 U.S. Nobel laureates signed an open letter that expressed their Biden support. “At no time in our nation’s history has there been a greater need for our leaders to appreciate the value of science in formulating public policy,” they wrote.
And the nonpartisan National Academy of Sciences and National Academy of Medicine—a pair of notoriously cautious and conventional institutions—issued a statement in late September denouncing political interference in public health agencies, particularly the Trump administration’s efforts to rush the approval of a COVID-19 vaccine before tests for safety and effectiveness are completed. “Policymaking must be informed by the best available evidence without it being distorted, concealed, or otherwise deliberately miscommunicated,” they wrote. “We find ongoing reports and incidents of the politicization of science, particularly the overriding of evidence and advice from public health officials and derision of government scientists, to be alarming.”
Sociologists say the scientific establishment seems to be making a switch from a long-held condemnation of political interference in science to actually condemning a politician. “In some ways, this is the last stand,” says Dana Fisher, a sociologist at the University of Maryland, College Park. “They have to stand up, at this point, for science because science and its role in society is threatened right now.” Scientific leaders contend that Trump is uniquely unfit for the presidency and has harmed science to an unprecedented degree. But some social scientists worry that aligning the research enterprise with a political party could ultimately backfire, politicizing science beyond repair.
Speaking out against antiscience policies has long been the domain of advocacy groups such as the American Association for the Advancement of Science and others. In 2017, for instance, several such organizations backed the March for Science in Washington, D.C., which was sparked by concerns about the incoming Trump administration’s seeming disregard for evidence-based policies that arose during the 2016 presidential campaign. Although journals and institutions such as the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine largely stayed out of the debate, “all of the ingredients were there for a showdown at some point,” says political scientist Matthew Motta of Oklahoma State University.
The three years that followed saw a mass exodus of researchers from government, appointments of federal research agency officials with few scientific credentials, the muzzling of government scientists, and most recently, constant statements and policies dismissing the threat posed by COVID-19. Institutions’ new willingness to speak out, Fisher says, “basically shows how far the Trump administration has sunk and how far they’ve dragged down the discourse.”
National Academy of Sciences president Marcia McNutt agrees. Unlike previous infringements on scientific independence, such as suppressing federal reports on climate change, McNutt says, the president’s statements and actions around the COVID-19 pandemic could immediately harm public health, and that is why her academy has acted. “The reason the statement had impact was because we don’t do it very often,” she says. “Rather than being a political statement, it is rather a statement saying, ‘Please don’t be political when it comes to science.’”
Other calls have been more explicit. At the journal Science, editor in chief Holden Thorp has published about a dozen editorials criticizing the government’s response to the pandemic and attitude toward science this year. His September 18 editorial, entitled “Trump Lied about Science,” chastised the president personally for downplaying the danger of the pandemic.
“Before I started [in August 2019], it was the tradition at Science to refer to it as ‘the administration,’ not by [a person’s] name,” Thorp says. “But I felt that when Trump went into heavy denial on COVID, it was time to change that.”
It is unclear whether these kinds of statements will have much impact. At their best, editorials such as Thorp’s can help scientists articulate their own arguments, says communications researcher Matthew Nisbet of Northeastern University. But he points out that because most of the general public already has strong opinions about the election, endorsements from elite institutions will not change many minds. “They’re read and heard about by people who follow Science,” Nisbet says.
Still, Thorp and others see taking this new political stance as a moral imperative. “I think of myself as speaking for the scientists who either don’t have the platform or are in a situation where they can’t speak out,” such as government scientists or researchers at universities with conservative trustees, Thorp says.
While Thorp and McNutt say the response from their members and subscribers has been almost universally positive, the reaction to NEJM’s editorial was more mixed. The journal’s editor in chief Eric Rubin says that one of its regular article reviewers wrote to say he would no longer evaluate submissions because he thought NEJM’s “political stance” disqualified it from judging papers. But Rubin says this attitude speaks to the mistaken idea that facts and evidence are a matter of opinion. “It’s not a matter of ‘he said, she said’; it’s a matter of these stupid things cost lives.”
Rubin, who says he has received some “uncomfortably vile” letters, is not surprised at the mixed response from NEJM’s readership. Although academic scientists are overwhelmingly liberal on average, physicians tend to be equally liberal and conservative—similar to the general public.
Nisbet and Motta worry that taking a political stance could backfire on scientific institutions. “There is an important potential cost to keep in mind: that it may alter the way public thinks about science,” Motta says. Historically, Republican politicians have been at least as enthusiastic as Democrats about funding and support for scientific research—a trend that has contributed to scientists’ general avoidance of politics. If science is seen to have a liberal bias, Motta says, Republican politicians could become less willing to fund scientific research, and conservative students could become more reluctant to enter scientific fields.
Motta has some evidence to support that concern. In a survey of 428 online volunteers, he found that while liberals viewed scientists more favorably after the 2017 March for Science, conservatives’ views of scientists and their research became more negative. Similarly, a 2017 study found that although climate scientists’ credibility is not always impacted when they advocate for specific policies, it can sometimes suffer when they do so.
To McNutt, that is all the more reason to hope that the recent spate of science activism is short-lived. “If I could do anything, I would like to unwrap science and politics as quickly as possible,” she says. “We want to just say, ‘Here’s the science. You political leaders decide.’”
Hiral Tipirneni spent nearly a decade working in emergency medicine in Arizona. She started out 23 years ago at Banner Good Samaritan Hospital in downtown Phoenix, treating patients with broken bones, failing hearts and a lot of other problems. Then some health tragedies hit home. “Our family suffered a great loss to cancer: my mom and nephew,” she says. Tipirneni felt she should do something to combat the illness that took her loved ones. In 2010 she accepted a position as a scientific review officer for the Society of Research Administrators International, a global research management group overseeing cancer studies.
But when Donald Trump was elected U.S. president in 2016, “I was terrified of the threats of ‘repeal and replace’ of the Affordable Care Act,” she recalls. “After years spent in the ER seeing thousands of families come through with no access to health care…, it was too much to stand by. That prompted me to throw my hat into the ring.”
Following a failed bid for a seat in the House of Representatives during a 2018 special election, Tipirneni, a Democrat, is running for the state’s sixth congressional district in the November 3 election. The district includes part of Maricopa county and some Phoenix suburbs. She is challenging Republican incumbent David Schweikert, a former businessman now serving his fourth consecutive term in that seat and his fifth overall in the House.
Republicans have held this seat since 1995. But in the middle of a pandemic that has killed more than 5,700 Arizonans—more than 3,400 of them in Maricopa County—Tipirneni is hoping her medical background will carry weight with voters. “We see decision after decision being made not based on data, not based on science, but rather on political expediency, partisanship—or based on the election calendar,” she says. “That’s blasphemy for a scientist or physician.”
Tipirneni is one of several candidates with a scientific background running for federal office this fall. The election will serve as the political climax to a year that saw raging wildfires fueled by climate change, devastating hurricanes and the COVID pandemic, which has claimed the lives of more than 216,000 Americans—a death toll medical experts say has been driven high by politicians who have ignored public health guidelines. Given these catastrophic outcomes, Tipirneni and another physician-politician, Barbara Bollier, who is running for an open U.S. Senate seat in Kansas, hope voters will be swayed by candidates who tout respect for science when making policy decisions.
Both races are incredibly close, with recent polls showing Tipirneni and Bollier either ahead or behind their opponents by only a few percentage points. The stakes are high. If Democrats manage to flip a Senate seat in Kansas, along with achieving a few other wins, they will gain control of the Senate. And Tipirneni winning in Arizona could help them hold onto their majority in the House. Both outcomes would put Democrats in charge of the two houses of Congress, ending the current split with Republicans.
“After a big military conflict, you often see a surge in military veterans running for office,” says Eitan Hersh, a political scientist at Tufts University. “Following the 2016 election, more women ran than ever before [in the midterms.] And after COVID-19, it’s not surprising that some physicians would run for office, feeling like their voices need to be heard. If there’s a big surge in doctors running, some will get in.”
Grand Battle in the Grand Canyon State
In Arizona, Tipirneni has raised more than $1 million more in campaign funding than Schweikert. Generally, a September poll by the Arizona Policy Lab found that science-based approaches to fighting COVID, including mask mandates, were popular among Arizonan voters in both parties. “There is really strong disapproval for how Donald Trump and how Republican governor Doug Ducey have handled COVID-19,” says Samara Klar, a political scientist at the University of Arizona. Ducey, for instance, pushed hard for the resumption of activities with few restrictions in the spring, only to see a surge in COVID cases that forced another shutdown. Klar adds that polls show that “at the same time, there’s been strong support for how local mayors have dealt with it.” This, she says, could hurt the Republicans’ chances in Arizona.
Schweikert did not respond to requests for comment from Scientific American. He has been a vocal supporter of the use of masks, however. In a July tweet, he encouraged his constituents to “continue wearing our face coverings when out in public, or when in close proximity to others.” He also advocated for increased access to federal resources to purchase items such as personal protective equipment (PPE). “We … ask the U.S. Department of Health and Human Resources (HHS) and the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) for an immediate influx of federal resources to combat the virus, through increased testing, contact tracing, personal protective equipment (PPE), staffing support, and emergency funding for local initiatives to respond to and mitigate further spread,” he and four other Arizonan congresspeople wrote in a letter in August. But despite Schweikert’s support for public health practices, his messages may be tainted by the president’s handling of the pandemic. Recent polls show that Republicans have begun to drift away from Trump. Biden currently leads Trump, 49 percent to 41 percent, in Arizona.
On energy policy, Schweikert and Tipirneni’s messaging diverges. “Arizona should be leading the charge on a renewable energy economy,” Tipirneni says, adding that those energy sources are key to reducing the impacts of climate change. “But we have leaders like my opponent, who has stood at every opportunity to block those kinds of initiatives because he is someone who still takes money from fossil fuels and is driven by party leadership to invest in other forms of energy.”
Schweikert’s platform promotes an “‘all of the above’ energy solution,” tapping into “traditional energy reserves” but also expanding renewable energy resources. In his time in the House, however, he has taken dozens of antienvironmental positions, including voting against protecting Chaco Canyon from oil and gas drilling, banning offshore drilling in the Atlantic and Pacific Ocean, and implementing methane pollution safeguards.
The Kansas Contest
Democrats have not cornered the market on physician candidates. In Kansas, Roger Marshall, a Republican representative in the House and an ob-gyn, is running against Bollier, a Democratic former anesthesiologist, creating a rare doctor-doctor duel. But despite sharing a medical background, the two appear diametrically opposed on issues pertaining to science.
Barbara Bollier (left) and Roger Marshall (right). Credit: Barbara Bollier Flickr (Bollier); Eric Connolly U.S. House Office of Photography (Marshall)
Bollier had been a Republican until she switched parties in 2018, and has served in the state’s legislature for a decade. She acknowledges that climate change is caused by people and has committed to greatly expand wind energy in the state. In contrast, Marshall has rejected the scientific consensus on climate, stating, “I’m not sure that there is even climate change” in 2017. His campaign Web site makes no mention of the issue.
Bollier “is a scientist and data nerd at heart,” says her communications director Alexandra De Luca. “Barbara follows science. She always listens to the experts. Roger Marshall does not. If Roger Marshall followed science, he wouldn’t be holding events indoors, shaking hands with vulnerable Kansans.” Bollier’s campaign, De Luca says, held more than 40 virtual town halls on Zoom this summer. And Bollier only began in-person campaigning in late August—always outdoors and physically distanced.
Marshall did push for additional coronavirus testing kits for Kansas in April, saying that more testing could keep workers at large meat processing plants on the job—processors in Kansas had already had big outbreaks of the virus. But Marshall differed from much medical research in May, when he told the Wall Street Journal he was taking the antimalarial drug hydroxychloroquine as a preventive measure against COVID-19. Though touted by President Trump as a possible cure, the data supporting the medication was always sparse, and emergency authorization for it was revoked by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration in June. In the May article, Marshall added that he “would encourage any person over the age of 65 or with an underlying medical condition to talk to their own physician about taking hydroxychloroquine.” In September, Marshall wrote a Facebook post suggesting that most COVID-19 deaths were from other ailments; Facebook deleted the post. His campaign did not respond to Scientific American’s requests for an interview.
Marshall regularly plays up his medical credentials: he has given himself the nickname “Doc,” and his Twitter username is @RogerMarshallMD. He also has used his medical skills to help in the pandemic, he says. In late April, Marshall tweeted, “Today, I began treating COVID-19 patients on a volunteer basis in Wyandotte County, KS. I began the process of onboarding several days ago, and have started in the clinic today.”
Thus far, polls show the race between Bollier and Marshall “as surprisingly close for a Republican state,” with all of them falling within the margin of error, says Don Haider-Markel, a political scientist at the University of Kansas. Despite electing a Democratic governor in 2018, he says, the state still leans conservative, and to have a competitive Democrat in the running is “not typical, to say the least.” After the economy and jobs, Haider-Markel observes, Kansans care most about the handling of the pandemic in this election cycle—ranking that issue ahead of education and civil unrest. In the final days of campaigning, Democrats are trying to focus attention on health care, he adds, but “it’s not clear that voters are prioritizing that more than last month.”
Bollier is likely succeeding at picking up moderate Republican and independent voters, Haider-Markel says. Trump’s election alienated many Republican women in the suburbs in eastern Kansas and around Wichita who have likely switched to supporting the Democratic candidate, he explains. “I think Bollier’s messaging on evidence-based policy will resonate with them—but they were already going to be more attracted to her to begin with.”
Patti Doll, a 67-year-old former social worker who lives in Wichita, has been following the Senate race closely. She is a Democrat and says the pandemic has made her pay greater attention to candidates’ adherence to scientific guidelines. Marshall, she notes with dissatisfaction, is still campaigning without a mask in October. “It’s his job to lead and show people that this is important,” she says. “If it was switched, and it was Bollier who was a Republican, and Marshall was a Democrat, I would vote across party lines in this situation. It doesn’t matter to me. Follow the science.”
Scientists have created a mystery material that seems to conduct electricity without any resistance at temperatures of up to about 15 °C. That’s a new record for superconductivity, a phenomenon usually associated with very cold temperatures. The material itself is poorly understood, but it shows the potential of a class of superconductors discovered in 2015.
The superconductor has one serious limitation, however: it survives only under extremely high pressures, approaching those at the centre of Earth, meaning that it will not have any immediate practical applications. Still, physicists hope it could pave the way for the development of zero-resistance materials that can function at lower pressures.
Superconductors have a number of technological applications, from magnetic resonance imaging machines to mobile-phone towers, and researchers are beginning to experiment with them in high-performance generators for wind turbines. But their usefulness is still limited by the need for bulky cryogenics. Common superconductors work at atmospheric pressures, but only if they are kept very cold. Even the most sophisticated ones—copper oxide-based ceramic materials—work only below 133 kelvin (−140 °C). Superconductors that work at room temperature could have a big technological impact, for example in electronics that run faster without overheating.
The latest study, published in Nature on 14 October, seems to provide convincing evidence of high-temperature conductivity, says physicist Mikhail Eremets at the Max Planck Institute for Chemistry in Mainz, Germany—although he adds that he would like to see more “raw data” from the experiment. He adds that it vindicates a line of work that he started in 2015, when his group reported the first high-pressure, high-temperature superconductor—a compound of hydrogen and sulfur that had zero resistance up to −70 °C.
In 2018, a high-pressure compound of hydrogen and lanthanum was shown to be superconductive at −13 °C. But the latest result marks the first time this kind of superconductivity has been seen in a compound of three elements rather than two—the material is made of carbon, sulfur and hydrogen. Adding a third element greatly broadens the combinations that can be included in future experiments searching for new superconductors, says study co-author Ashkan Salamat, a physicist at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. “We’ve opened a whole new region” of exploration, he says.
Materials that superconduct at high but not extreme pressures could already be put to use, says Maddury Somayazulu, a high-pressure-materials scientist at Argonne National Laboratory in Lemont, Illinois. The study shows that by “judiciously choosing the third and fourth element” in a superconductor, he says, you could in principle bring down its operational pressure.
The work also validates decades-old predictions by theoretical physicist Neil Ashcroft at Cornell University in Ithaca, New York, that hydrogen-rich materials might superconduct at temperatures much higher than was thought possible. “I think there were very few people outside of the high-pressure community who took him seriously,” Somayazulu says.
Physicist Ranga Dias at the University of Rochester in New York, along with Salamat and other collaborators, placed a mixture of carbon, hydrogen and sulfur in a microscopic niche they had carved between the tips of two diamonds. They then triggered chemical reactions in the sample with laser light, and watched as a crystal formed. As they lowered the experimental temperature, resistance to a current passed through the material dropped to zero, indicating that the sample had become superconductive. Then they increased the pressure, and found that this transition occurred at higher and higher temperatures. Their best result was a transition temperature of 287.7 kelvin at 267 gigapascals—2.6 million times atmospheric pressure at sea level.
The researchers also found some evidence that the crystal expelled its magnetic field at the transition temperature, a crucial test of superconductivity. But much about the material remains unknown, researchers warn. “There are a lot of things to do,” says Eremets. Even the crystal’s exact structure and chemical formula are not yet understood. “As you go to higher pressures, the sample size gets smaller,” says Salamat. “That’s what makes these types of measurements really challenging.”
High-pressure superconductors made of hydrogen and one other element are well understood. And researchers have made computer simulations of high-pressure mixtures of carbon, hydrogen and sulfur, says Eva Zurek, a computational chemist at the State University of New York at Buffalo. But she says those studies cannot explain the exceptionally high superconducting temperatures seen by Dias’s group. “I am sure, after this manuscript is published, many theoretical and experimental groups will jump on this problem,” she says.
This article is reproduced with permission and was first published on October 14 2020.
Four hundred years ago Galileo Galilei’s scientific findings were rejected because they didn’t fit the prevailing beliefs of the time. His story is disturbingly relevant today. Astrophysicist and author Mario Livio and Scientific American editor Clara Moskowitz to discusses lessons from Galileo’s life for dealing with science deniers now, plus a historical detective story about Galileo’s famous motto, “And yet it moves.”
Copper, lead and zinc are essential for modern technology’s electronics and batteries. Demand has skyrocketed, and mining companies are depleting known deposits faster than prospectors can find more. Now an international team of scientists has discovered a relationship between deposits of these metals and the thickness of the lithosphere (the earth’s crust and upper mantle), providing a reliable way to locate these crucial resources.
The project began by chance, says Mark Hoggard, first author of the new study and a geologist at Harvard University and Columbia University’s Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory. His co-author Karol Czarnota, a researcher at Geoscience Australia, was visiting Harvard and mentioned noticing—and wondering why—metal deposits in northern Australia seemed to align with areas where the lithosphere’s thickness varies. The research team found that this connection applies globally, hinting at more places to search for the hidden ores. The study, published in July in Nature Geoscience, comprehensively maps the correlation between known metal deposits and lithosphere thickness and proposes a potential mechanism for that correlation.
The lithosphere can reach up to 300 kilometers below the surface, making its thickness “actually really hard for geophysicists to measure,” says Maureen Long, a Yale University geophysicist, who was not involved in the study. To calculate the lithosphere’s thickness, seismometer readings are typically used to record how fast earthquake vibrations travel through the planet. Long notes, however, that the world’s limited number of earthquakes and seismometers means “our ability to resolve the earth’s structure is not perfect.”
To create a high-resolution world map of lithosphere thickness, Hoggard and his colleagues combined and calibrated existing regional and global models, adding temperature and pressure data from lithospheric rocks carried to the surface in volcanic eruptions. They found that metal deposits tend to appear where the lithosphere is around 170 kilometers thick. Theorizing about why, they note that metal’s building blocks are commonly found near the earth’s surface, where they accumulate in basins. If these basins sit above a part of the lithosphere with the right thickness, the amount of heat that rises from the deeper mantle could set the perfect temperature for the constituents to concentrate into metal deposits.
Finding these metals has traditionally involved “boots on the ground,” Hoggard says, with people widely sampling mineral content in soil or measuring the earth’s magnetic field to find anomalies. The team’s discovery provides an opportunity to find promising sites remotely; in fact, mining companies have already begun using this information to inform their searches, Hoggard says.
“What these authors have done that’s really novel is … connecting these deeper structures in the upper mantle to something that we can see [near] the surface, which is the distribution of these metal deposits,” Long says. “It’s a really exciting piece of work.”