The Never-Ending War on Cancer

After almost a century, cancer is still the No. 2 cause of death in the U.S.  Why? 

The Never-Ending War on Cancer

You'd think someone, at some point, would ask why so much money has been allocated to cancer research over the years, with so little impact on cancer mortality. After almost a century, cancer is still the No. 2 cause of death in the U.S.  Why? 


Cancer research is important and should, of course, go on. But let's not kid ourselves that it's been cost-effective, because by almost any definition, it hasn't been. Since President Nixon declared a War on Cancer in 1971, we've dumped $500 billion into the conflict—and the cancer death rate has hardly budged. 

I use the word "cancer" as if it's one disease. It isn't, of course. Like "heart disease," cancer is actually a diverse assortment of horrors. But it's customary to count it as one disease in discussions of mortality in this country, so that we can point at it and say "Cancer is the Number Two cause of death in America," and then presidents can declare war on it, $10 billion a year in taxpayers' money can be set aside for research on it (approximately $500 billion in 2012 dollars spent since Nixon declared war) so that a $50-billion-a-year commercial industry of toxic therapies (some of which cost patients $10,000 a month) can be built around it, and meanwhile irrationally exuberant futurists can talk of achievable immortality in our lifetime (with arguments that don't even come close to passing the straight-face test) when there's no cancer cure in sight. 

It might do exuberant futurists some good to spend a little time pondering the fact that roughly $20,000 in anti-cancer research money has been spent for every single person in the U.S. who has died of cancer in the last 40 years; and yet cancer is still the No. 2 cause of death in America; and after it's gone, after it's cured once and for all, this No. 2 Cause of Death, we will have extended human life a grand total of (drum roll, please) a whopping 3.3 years (loud cymbal-crash).

If you're wondering where I got the "3.3 years" figure, it comes straight from the U.S. Decennial Life Tables for 1989-91 (U.S. Dept. of Health and Human Services, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, National Center for Health Statistics, Volume 1, Number 4). 

I'm not suggesting that all research needs to be cost-justified. Cancer research needs to go on, regardless of whether cures are found. But if the goal is to help people live longer, there are more cost-effective ways of getting there than throwing half a trillion dollars (in 40+ years) at cancer research. One thing the government could do is give every smoker who wants one a free e-cigaret. (Lung cancer accounts for 20% of Medicare's $10 billion/yr cancer payout.) Another high-impact measure would be to give every American who wants it a free yearly personal allotment of mouthwash, toothpaste, and toothbrushes. (Periodontal disease and edentulous status are serious risk factors for cardiovascular disease, the No. 1 cause of death in the U.S.) The point is, not every worthwhile public health initiative has to involve a multi-hundred-billion-dollar War on Something. 

Americans and Wars. You'd think we'd learn. 

Massive 'Darth Vader' isopod found lurking in the Indian Ocean

The father of all giant sea bugs was recently discovered off the coast of Java.

A close up of Bathynomus raksasa

SJADE 2018
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  • A new species of isopod with a resemblance to a certain Sith lord was just discovered.
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Astronomers find more than 100,000 "stellar nurseries"

Every star we can see, including our sun, was born in one of these violent clouds.

Credit: NASA / ESA via Getty Images
Surprising Science

This article was originally published on our sister site, Freethink.

An international team of astronomers has conducted the biggest survey of stellar nurseries to date, charting more than 100,000 star-birthing regions across our corner of the universe.

Stellar nurseries: Outer space is filled with clouds of dust and gas called nebulae. In some of these nebulae, gravity will pull the dust and gas into clumps that eventually get so big, they collapse on themselves — and a star is born.

These star-birthing nebulae are known as stellar nurseries.

The challenge: Stars are a key part of the universe — they lead to the formation of planets and produce the elements needed to create life as we know it. A better understanding of stars, then, means a better understanding of the universe — but there's still a lot we don't know about star formation.

This is partly because it's hard to see what's going on in stellar nurseries — the clouds of dust obscure optical telescopes' view — and also because there are just so many of them that it's hard to know what the average nursery is like.

The survey: The astronomers conducted their survey of stellar nurseries using the massive ALMA telescope array in Chile. Because ALMA is a radio telescope, it captures the radio waves emanating from celestial objects, rather than the light.

"The new thing ... is that we can use ALMA to take pictures of many galaxies, and these pictures are as sharp and detailed as those taken by optical telescopes," Jiayi Sun, an Ohio State University (OSU) researcher, said in a press release.

"This just hasn't been possible before."

Over the course of the five-year survey, the group was able to chart more than 100,000 stellar nurseries across more than 90 nearby galaxies, expanding the amount of available data on the celestial objects tenfold, according to OSU researcher Adam Leroy.

New insights: The survey is already yielding new insights into stellar nurseries, including the fact that they appear to be more diverse than previously thought.

"For a long time, conventional wisdom among astronomers was that all stellar nurseries looked more or less the same," Sun said. "But with this survey we can see that this is really not the case."

"While there are some similarities, the nature and appearance of these nurseries change within and among galaxies," he continued, "just like cities or trees may vary in important ways as you go from place to place across the world."

Astronomers have also learned from the survey that stellar nurseries aren't particularly efficient at producing stars and tend to live for only 10 to 30 million years, which isn't very long on a universal scale.

Looking ahead: Data from the survey is now publicly available, so expect to see other researchers using it to make their own observations about stellar nurseries in the future.

"We have an incredible dataset here that will continue to be useful," Leroy said. "This is really a new view of galaxies and we expect to be learning from it for years to come."

Protecting space stations from deadly space debris

Tiny specks of space debris can move faster than bullets and cause way more damage. Cleaning it up is imperative.

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  • NASA estimates that more than 500,000 pieces of space trash larger than a marble are currently in orbit. Estimates exceed 128 million pieces when factoring in smaller pieces from collisions. At 17,500 MPH, even a paint chip can cause serious damage.
  • To prevent this untrackable space debris from taking out satellites and putting astronauts in danger, scientists have been working on ways to retrieve large objects before they collide and create more problems.
  • The team at Clearspace, in collaboration with the European Space Agency, is on a mission to capture one such object using an autonomous spacecraft with claw-like arms. It's an expensive and very tricky mission, but one that could have a major impact on the future of space exploration.

This is the first episode of Just Might Work, an original series by Freethink, focused on surprising solutions to our biggest problems.

Catch more Just Might Work episodes on their channel:
https://www.freethink.com/shows/just-might-work

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