Sunday, March 29, 2020

The Limits of Accountability


Image of the coronavirus taken with an electron microscope
(Credit: U.S. National Institutes of Health/AP/Shutterstock)

I generally try to keep these blogs (or essays, or meditations, whatever) away from absolute topicality and from following the news of the day in short order. My concern is the longer view, the background view, the why rather than the what of events. But the past few weeks have been extremely disturbing to all of us—emotionally, mentally, physically, and financially.

We have seen a virus of unknown quality as to its incubation time, severity of symptoms, transmission rate, and mortality arise and spread around the world in a matter of months—and perhaps, because of initial attempts at hiding the crisis, within just weeks. That has been one problem: governments, scientists, journalists, and anyone with social media access have lied, exaggerated, imagined, and spun counter-factual accounts (okay, “fake news”) about this virus and its effects. We have gotten comparisons—some real, some bogus, and some irrelevant—with the mortality associated with the Spanish influenza pandemic of 1918, the H1N1 influenza pandemic of 2009, and the caseload and mortality of the yearly seasonal flu—as well as with deaths by gunshot and automobile. We hear that young people may get the disease and remain asymptomatic but still be carriers. We hear that older people and anyone with systemic vulnerabilities will likely get it and die.

In response to all this, various state governments around the world and in the U.S. have locked down their populations. In California, we live under a shelter-in-place order that has emptied the streets, reduced restaurants to take-out service only, closed all entertainments and public gatherings, and supposedly limits travel for non-essential workers to visiting the grocery store and pharmacy. Many other states have followed suit in this country. This has disrupted the local economy for goods and services, crimped the national economy for travel and tourism, and forced every business and organization to reevaluate its most basic assumptions and activities. The result has been people trying to stock up like doomsday survivalists and emptying grocery store shelves—including toilet paper, which seems to be the first priority for everybody.

As a personal experience, my local Trader Joe’s, where I went to do my weekly shopping on Monday, has instituted entry controls, attempting to limit store occupation to one hundred customers at a time. A clerk at the entrance monitors the queue outside and only lets people enter when a clerk at the exit signals someone has left the store. The queue path along the sidewalk is marked off with chalk at six-foot increments for “social distancing,” and we all advance by two giant steps each time someone up front enters. Inside the store, people are orderly and even pleasant—but at a distance. The number of Trader Joe’s personnel now almost equals the number of customers, and the shelves are reasonably stocked. At the register, a sign limits purchases to just two of any one item to prevent hoarding—although the checker let me get by with my weekly supply of six apples, six yogurts, and four liters of flavored mineral water. It wasn’t a bad experience, but it was sobering: we all seem to be taking these restrictions on our movements very calmly.

Health officials would like to see this personal lockdown extended for two, or eight, or perhaps eighteen months in order to “flatten the curve” of the virus’s exponential spread and keep the infected population from exploding as it apparently has done in China, Italy, and Iran. If these experts are right about the need for extending the restrictions, then local economies will crash. Small businesses, many large businesses, and whole industries like hotels, travel, and entertainment will go bankrupt or disappear. Unemployment will reach Depression-era levels, if not greater. China locked down its entire economy—or so it’s said—and dropped their gross domestic product by thirty percent—or so it’s said.

Because of uncertainty about all of this—fears of massive infection rates and millions of dead, the looming prospect of a cratered economy and worldwide depression—the stock market lost a third of its value in two weeks, ending the longest bull market in a sudden and dizzying bear market. The bond markets also crashed. The price of oil collapsed—although this had help from a price feud between the Saudis and the Russians. Gold prices spiked and then relapsed. There has been no safe place to invest in all of this turmoil.

The point of my bringing up these events in such detail is that we may have reached the limits of human accountability in a world still driven by natural forces. Whether the novel coronavirus—that is, this unknown version of a known type of virus—is the unfortunate meeting of a bat and a pangolin in a Chinese wet market, or the intentional creation of a weapon in a biosafety Level 4 lab, it still spreads by the vulnerabilities of the human immune system, the vagaries of human touch, and the viability of its own protein coat. Airline travel—which is virtually instantaneous these days, compared to horseback and sailing ship—allows the virus to move farther and faster before it touches down in a population and blooms with disease, and there it spreads in ways that are still hard to stop.

Today we all live with awareness of our scientific, medical, and technical capabilities, and so with a consciousness moral and civilizational superiority, compared to earlier times and less-developed places. Our past success with vaccines in treating viral diseases like polio and measles makes us believe that we should be able to quickly and easily prevent and treat this disease. We become impatient with diagnostic and pharmaceutical companies who can’t produce a rapid test or a vaccine within a matter of weeks.

We are capable of wielding such enormous economic power and organizational resources that we tend to believe we are immune to natural disaster. And so when hurricanes and earthquakes strike, or a virus comes into the population, we blame the response of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, the Red Cross, the National Guard, and federal, state, and local governments as being inadequate to the task. Someone must be at fault for this.

We look at previous civilizations and historic events like the Spanish Flu, the Black Death, the eruption of Vesuvius, or the storms that swept the Armada’s galleons off course, and believe we are superior. Because we understand the nature of viruses and bacteria and their role in disease, or the nature of plate tectonics and its role in earthquakes and volcanoes, or the weather patterns that create typhoons and hurricanes, we think we should be able to prevent, treat, and immediately recover from their effects. And if we do not, we blame the experts, the government, the organizational structures that have been built to protect us. Someone should be held accountable.

The fact is, we are still relatively helpless. Humans are not the masters of this world, only its dominant tenants. We are still subject to the unpredictable movements of its lithosphere, its atmosphere, and the other inhabitants of its diverse biome, including the tiniest specks of DNA and RNA wrapped in a layer of reactive proteins.

No one gets the blame. Everyone is doing their best. And we all die eventually.

Sunday, March 15, 2020

Harry Potter’s Broom

Nimbus 2000

Harry Potter’s broom

I enjoy many stories, novels, and movies based on magic and magicians—the kind where magic is a real force, not a stage performance. But I have always resisted writing about magic as if it was real and not, in Arthur C. Clarke’s words, a “sufficiently advanced technology.”1

The problem, as I see it, is that I have too practical and inquiring a mind. Being the son of a mechanical engineer, grandson of a civil engineer, having worked all my life with engineers and scientists, and being good at asking questions and keeping my ears and mind open, I have a feel for the way things work in the real world. Which means I can just about smell a technical problem without having to take measurements.

So … Harry Potter’s broom raises an interesting question. In the Wizarding World, is it the broom that flies, and the person simply steers or wills it to fly in a certain direction at a certain altitude? Or is it the person that flies, and the broom is simply an adjunct, a supplement to his or her powers, perhaps functioning as some kind of talisman?

The reason I ask is one of balance. A person perched on top of a broom has his or her center of mass positioned above the shaft of the broomstick.2 In that condition—as I know from personal experience with the inertial dynamics and all the postures and gestures involved in riding a motorcycle—your balance would be severely proscribed. Like a ship whose center of gravity and center of buoyancy become misaligned, the whole rig will tend to turn over.

So why doesn’t a witch or wizard riding a broomstick—either in the Harry Potter world or in the traditional Salem and Halloween sense—with only her or his legs hanging below the shaft, and the rest of the body’s mass above it, not turn over? Why don’t we see these people flying upside down and hanging onto the broom for dear life?

The question is pertinent because I don’t think that—to the extent authors who deal in magic and flying broomsticks are actually thinking this matter through—the person is flying and only using the broom as a talisman. We’ve seen comic scenes, particularly during Quidditch games, where a player is knocked off his or her broom and must hang on, two-handed and legs flailing, underneath the floating broom while he or she tries to climb back aboard. Clearly, the broom and not the human is doing the actual lifting and flying.

So why isn’t the rider flying upside down? Does the broom have a preferred side or orientation? Do the laws of physics cease to operate in the vicinity of the broomstick?3 Or does it have something to do with the positioning of the rider’s hands and legs and the strength of their grip on the shaft?

It’s all a mystery, as magic should be. Still, inquiring minds want to know.

1. The whole quote is “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” And that is the basis of much good science fiction.

2. Don’t be fooled by the wire stirrups in the picture, as if they anchored the rider in any preferred position. Mass is mass and finds its own center of gravity. Just ask any horseback rider who, with or without stirrups, experiences a broken saddle girth.

3. Well, of course!

Sunday, March 1, 2020

A Material World


The Buckminsterfullerene

In the movie Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home, Scott and McCoy try to find a light and strong material with which to build a giant seawater tank in the hold of their stolen Klingon ship. They locate a manufacturer of plexiglass in 20th-century San Francisco and offer him the formula for “transparent aluminum,” a material from the 23rd century. They assuage their consciences about temporal paradoxes by suggesting, “How do we know he didn’t invent it?”

Well, he didn’t. The crystal in many of today’s quality watches of all descriptions, including my upgraded Apple Watch, are made from synthetic sapphire. Since the composition of sapphire is corundum, or crystalline aluminum oxide (Al2O3)—the same material from which, in powder form, metallic aluminum is smelted—along with traces of iron, titanium, chromium, vanadium, or magnesium depending on the gem’s color,1 you could easily say that this crystal, which is durable, lightweight, strong, and scratch-resistant, is indeed “transparent aluminum.”

Synthetic rubies and then sapphires were invented in 1902 by French chemist Auguste Vermeuil. He deposited the requisite chemicals in the requisite combinations on a ceramic base by heating and passing them through a hydrogen-oxygen flame, then increasing the temperature to the point of melting and crystallizing the alumina. So far, we can make watch crystals and synthetic gemstones with this process. Whether it is scalable for fabricating whole spaceships is another question. But the technology is young yet.

If you are a dedicated browser among the pages of Science and Nature, as I am, with forays into Scientific American and Popular Science, you know that the world of materials science is hot right now. And the element carbon is getting a resurgence—but not as a fuel.

Carbon has the happy ability to bond with many different atoms including, sometimes, itself. Its four covalent bonding points allow it to share single, double, and even triple bonds with other carbon atoms, often forming chains and hexagonal rings that are the building blocks of organic chemistry and so the basis of all life on this planet. These rings and chains leave room for adding other atoms and whole other molecules, making carbon the backbone of the chemical world’s Swiss Army knife.

What modern materials scientists have discovered is that bonding among carbon atoms can be induced in several structural forms. We are all familiar with the three-dimensional, tetrahedral-shaped crystal of a diamond, whose bonds are so strong that they make it one of the hardest materials known. But those atoms can also be knit into fibers, which are then stabilized and supported in an epoxy resin to create a material that is light, strong, and useful in many applications, sometimes replacing steel. The carbon atoms call also form two-dimensional, hexagonal structures that can also be laid out in endless sheets, called graphene, which are strong and supple even at one molecule’s thickness.2 Or smaller sections of those sheets can be bent into nano-scale tubules, which are even stronger than the carbon fibers and have interesting chemical uses. And finally, the carbon atoms can be joined into microscopic soccer ball–like molecules, made of twenty hexagons and twelve pentagons with the formula C60 (pictured). This is the buckminsterfullerene—named after the architect Buckminster Fuller, who invented a spherical structure of similar configuration.

Graphene is not only strong but it is also electrically and thermally conductive, useful for dissipating heat. It has a high surface-to-volume ratio, which means it can be used to make batteries and fuel cells more efficient. It holds promise for flexible display screens and solar photovoltaic cells. And as an additive to paint and in other surface preparations, it can increase wear and resistance to corrosion.

Carbon nanotubes, which are also electromagnetically conductive, can be used in radio antennas and as the brushes in electric motors. Being biodegradable, they can be used in tissue engineering for bone, cartilage, and muscle. Because they are easily absorbed into cells, they can carry other molecules such as medicines as well as protein and DNA therapies. Spun into yard, the tubes would offer superior strength and wear in clothing, sports gear, combat armor, and even in cables for bridges and for space elevators—imaginative projects that have been proposed for hauling people and cargo up to geosynchronous orbit.

Buckyballs have potential uses as a drug delivery system, as lubricants that will resist breaking down under wear and heat, and as catalysts in chemical reactions. As a medicine in itself, the C60 fullerene can be used as an antioxidant, because it reacts with free radicals.

And that is just some of the potential for various pure forms of carbon.

Work on the genetics of plants and animals other than humans will have far reaching effects, too, in terms of bio-simulates. For example, spiders produce a raw silk that they spin into a strand which has a tensile strength greater than steel and more fracture-resistance than the aramid fibers used in Kevlar body armor.3 We could farm spiders for this silk, the way we do silkworms for their cocoon fibers, except that spiders in captivity will eat each other. But several companies are now working on creating synthetic spider silk.

Another area ripe for development is natural latex, the basis of all our rubber products. Rubber trees are native to South America, where they naturally grow in splendid isolation because a fungus-based leaf blight destroys any trees that grow too close together. Attempts by Ford to create a rubber plantation in Brazil in the late 1920s failed because of this blight. All of the world’s rubber currently comes from trees grown on plantations in Southeast Asia, where they survive only with the strictest vigilance—cutting and burning whole plantations at the first sign of blight—and government control of imported plants and vegetables.

Natural rubber is essential to modern life. Synthetics based on petroleum chemistry, like styrene-butadiene, are less resilient and elastic. A natural rubber tire can thaw from being frozen in the wheel well of an airliner at 35,000 feet in the time it takes for the plane to descend and land, while a synthetic-based tire will remain frozen and shatter upon impact. So discovering a genetic formula for latex and being able to extrude it in the same way the rubber tree weeps its sap would be a godsend.

One of the unsung stories of our modern life is the nature of our materials. They are not just getting cheaper but also lighter, stronger, and better. And this is only the beginning.

1. Just about every color but red. And a red crystal of virtually the same composition is called a ruby.
    Emeralds are a different material, however, based on beryl, which is composed of beryllium aluminum silicate (Be3Al2Si6O18) in hexagonal crystals with traces of chromium and vanadium.

2. The graphite in pencil “leads” is not chemically lead but a pure form of carbon. Small bits of what we now call graphene are layered into a three-dimensional composite, like the layers in sandstone or shale.

3. Interestingly, spiders that are fed a diet of carbon nanotubes make a silk that is even stronger, incorporating the tubules into its protein microfibers.