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The spread of ancient infectious diseases offers insight into COVID-19
Archaeology clues us in on the dangers of letting viruses hang around.
- A University of Otago researcher investigates the spread of disease in ancient Vietnam.
- The infectious disease, yaws, has been with us for thousands of years with no known cure.
- Using archaeology to investigate disease offers clues into modern-day pandemics.
Humans are accustomed to progress. We can travel to the planet's farthest reaches in a matter of hours—a day, at most. Imagining otherwise is impossible. Sure, we can think about it, but our scope of time is limited to generations, not epochs.
Witness our incredulity today. COVID-19 has revealed the impatience that immediately surfaces when we're told not to do something. Though diseases have wiped out entire populations in the past, we've come to expect solutions to instantaneously appear. History is long; our awareness of history, not so much.
For most of time, the geographic range of our ancestors was tiny. Even the dozens of miles hunter-gathering tribes traveled pales in comparison to pond-hopping in a plane. Geotagging travel photos took a few billion years to arrive; so did pandemics, in fact. Like humans, diseases generally remained local, spread only as far as your tribe traveled.
Not that diseases didn't exist. Viruses tumbled around the planet shortly after single-celled organisms emerged from the strange brew of Earth's initial gases and liquids. In some ways, we're returning to that past. Climate change is unlocking diseases our collective consciousness thought it left behind. Recently, an intact extinct cave bear, dating back nearly 40,000 years, was discovered in Siberia. Researchers had better wear protective gear: shifting temperatures are unlocking long-forgotten pathogens. Who knows what fury that beast wants to unleash.
Our relationship to disease changed after the last Ice Age ended roughly 12,000 years ago. The Pleistocene Epoch lasted roughly 2.5 million years; the conditions for mass gatherings did not yet exist. As we packed closer together, and as we packed other species close to us, viruses began circulating broadly.
Everything in life is a trade-off. The price of cities is recurring battles with coronaviruses.
History-Changing Archaeological Finds
While we rightfully look toward infectious disease experts during times such as now, archaeologists also have plenty to offer. A new research article, published in the journal, Bioarchaeology Journal, turns back the clock to ancient Vietnam. The findings offer important clues about why we need to eradicate COVID-19.
Lead author Melandri Vlok, a PhD student at the University of Otago in New Zealand (with support from researchers in Australia, Vietnam, Japan, and the UK), investigated a case of yaws that ran through the Neolithic archeological site of Mán Bạc in Northeast Vietnam.
Yaws remains a common infectious disease in at least 13 tropical countries, with up to a half-million infected each year. Hard skin lesions form on the victim's bodies; they can form painful ulcers. While lesions usually subside within six months, bone and joint pain and fatigue are common. Some cases last many years and result in permanent scars. On occasion, death follows a long battle.
Subsistence farmers in mainland China have long battled the environment. Finding the right soil and water sources for their crops has been a generational battle. Roughly 4,000 years ago, such farmers made their way into Mainland Southeast China (modern day Vietnam), where, as Vlok writes, "genetic admixture and social transition occurs between foragers and farmers." In 2018, Vlok traveled to Mán Bạc to study the remains of seven skeletons, which included two adults, two adolescents, and two children.
Her findings help give us perspective on today's proliferation of the coronavirus. As she says,
"This matters, because knowing more about this disease and its evolution, it changes how we understand the relationship people have with it. It helps us understand why it's so difficult to eradicate. If it's been with us thousands of years it has probably developed to fit very well with humans."
My Son Sanctuary, Quang Nam, Vietnam.
Credit: Mrkela / Shutterstock
Yaws is not the only disease considered in the article. Tuberculosis, brucellosis, and cancers were also discussed. The goal of the research was to identify disease spread through cultures and the chronic problems left behind, sometimes for millennia. Vlok notes how temperature fluctuations in the Mán Bạc region affected a variety of diseases. Yaws appeared to have spread easily due to an abundance of water and vegetation, combined with increased population density—children are more likely to spread this disease.
"Pre-industrialized agricultural communities have also been associated with increased incidence of yaws. The coastal region is also slightly warmer and more humid than inland northern Vietnam and therefore more conducive to the spread of yaws."
The Climate Clock is ticking down. We're already experiencing the ravages of this global shift, and it's not going to get any easier if interventions are not immediately legislated. While no single science will help us wrap our heads around the immediate future, Vlok suggests factoring in archaeology. Past precedent matters.
Gazing back a few hundred generations offers important clues for the future—really, the present—that we must confront. A concerted effort by the World Health Organization in the 1950s couldn't eradicate yaws. Diseases that have an opportunity to hang around will exploit every advantage it can. The blasé attitude too many Americans currently hold about the novel coronavirus's dangers is going to have a reverberating effect through the generations. As Vlok concludes,
"This shows us what happens when we don't take action with these diseases. It's a lesson of what infectious diseases can do to a population if you let them spread widely. It highlights the need to intervene, because sometimes these diseases are so good at adapting to us, at spreading between us."
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A new paper reveals that the Voyager 1 spacecraft detected a constant hum coming from outside our Solar System.
- Voyager 1, humankind's most distant space probe, detected an unusual "hum" in the data from interstellar space.
- The noise is likely produced by interstellar gas.
- Further investigation may reveal the hum's exact origins.
Voyager 1, humanity's most faraway spacecraft, has detected an unusual "hum" coming from outside our solar system. Fourteen billion miles away from Earth, the Voyager's instruments picked up a droning sound that may be caused by plasma (ionized gas) in the vast emptiness of interstellar space. Launched in 1977, the Voyager 1 space probe — along with its twin Voyager 2 — has been traveling farther and farther into space for over 44 years. It has now breached the edge of our solar system, exiting the heliosphere, the bubble-like region of space influenced by the sun. Now, the spacecraft is moving through the "interstellar medium," where it recorded the peculiar sound.
Stella Koch Ocker, a doctoral student in astronomy at Cornell University, discovered the sound in the data from the Voyager's Plasma Wave System (PWS), which measures electron density. Ocker called the drone coming from plasma shock waves "very faint and monotone," likely due to the narrow bandwidth of its frequency.
While they think the persistent background hum may be coming from interstellar gas, the researchers don't yet know what exactly is causing it. It might be produced by "thermally excited plasma oscillations and quasi-thermal noise."
The new paper from Ocker and her colleagues at Cornell University and the University of Iowa, published in Nature Astronomy, also proposes that this is not the last we'll hear of the strange noise. The scientists write that "the emission's persistence suggests that Voyager 1 may be able to continue tracking the interstellar plasma density in the absence of shock-generated plasma oscillation events."
Voyager Captures Sounds of Interstellar Space www.youtube.com
The researchers think the droning sound may hold clues to how interstellar space and the heliopause, which can be thought of as the solar's system border, may be affecting each other. When it first entered interstellar space, the PWS instrument reported disturbances in the gas caused by the sun. But in between such eruptions is where the researchers spotted the steady signature made by the near-vacuum.
Senior author James Cordes, a professor of astronomy at Cornell, compared the interstellar medium to "a quiet or gentle rain," adding that "in the case of a solar outburst, it's like detecting a lightning burst in a thunderstorm and then it's back to a gentle rain."
More data from Voyager over the next few years may hold crucial information to the origins of the hum. The findings are already remarkable considering the space probe is functioning on technology from the mid-1970s. The craft has about 70 kilobytes of computer memory. It also carries a Golden Record created by a committee chaired by the late Carl Sagan, who taught at Cornell University. The 12-inch gold-plated copper disk record is essentially a time capsule, meant to tell the story of Earthlings to extraterrestrials. It contains sounds and images that showcase the diversity of Earth's life and culture.
As the American population grows, fewer people will die of cancer.
- A new study projects that cancer deaths will decrease in relative and absolute terms by 2040.
- The biggest decrease will be among lung cancer deaths, which are predicted to fall by 50 percent.
- Cancer is like terrorism: we cannot eliminate it entirely, but we can minimize its influence.
As the #2 leading cause of death, cancer takes the lives of about 600,000 Americans each year. In comparison, heart disease (#1) claims more than 650,000 lives, while accidents (#3) take about 175,000 lives. (In 2020 and likely 2021, COVID will claim the #3 spot.)
Headlines are usually full of terrible news about cancer. Seemingly, you can't get away from anything that causes it. RealClearScience made a list of all the things blamed for cancer — antiperspirants, salty soup, eggs, corn, Pringles, bras, burnt toast, and even Facebook made the list.
The reality, however, is much more optimistic. We're slowly but surely winning the war on cancer.
Winning the war on cancer
How can we make such a brazen statement? A new paper published in the journal JAMA Network Open tracks trends in cancer incidence and deaths and makes projections to the year 2040. The authors predict that around 568,000 Americans will have died of cancer in 2020, but they project that number to fall to 410,000 by 2040. That's a drop of nearly 28 percent, despite the U.S. population being projected to grow from roughly 333 million today to 374 million in 2040, an increase of 12 percent. That means cancer deaths will decrease in both relative and absolute terms.
What accounts for this unexpected good news? The lion's share is the number of deaths attributable to lung cancer, which is projected to decrease by more than 50 percent, from 130,000 to 63,000. This drop is largely due to the decreasing use of tobacco products. Other deaths predicted to decline include those from colorectal, breast, prostate, and ovarian cancers, among others, such as leukemia and non-Hodgkin lymphoma (NHL).
The authors credit screening and biomedical advances for saving many of these lives. For instance, lead author Dr. Lola Rahib wrote in an email to Big Think that "colonoscopies remove precancerous polyps." She also noted that targeted therapies and immunotherapies have helped reduce the number of deaths from leukemia and NHL.
We'll never cure cancer
Now the bad news: We'll never cure cancer. There are at least three reasons for this. The first is obvious: We all die. The lifetime prevalence of death is 100 percent. The truth is that we are running out of things to die from. After a long enough period of time, something gives out — often your cardiovascular system or nervous system. Or you develop you cancer.
The second reason is that we are multicellular organisms and, hence, we are susceptible to cancer. (Contrary to popular myth, sharks get cancer, too.) The cells of multicellular organisms face an existential dilemma: they can either get old and stop dividing (a process called senescence) or become immortal but cancerous. For this reason, the problem of cancer may not have a solution.
Finally, there isn't really such a thing as a disease called "cancer." What we call cancer is actually a collection of several different diseases, some of which are preventable (like cervical cancer with the HPV vaccine) or curable (like prostate cancer). Unfortunately, some cancers probably never will be curable, not least because cancers can mutate and develop resistance to the drugs we use to treat them.
But the overall optimism still stands: We are slowly and incrementally winning the war on cancer. Like terrorism, it's not a foe that we can completely vanquish, but it is one whose influence we can minimize in our lives.
China has reached a new record for nuclear fusion at 120 million degrees Celsius.
This article was originally published on our sister site, Freethink.
China wants to build a mini-star on Earth and house it in a reactor. Many teams across the globe have this same bold goal --- which would create unlimited clean energy via nuclear fusion.
But according to Chinese state media, New Atlas reports, the team at the Experimental Advanced Superconducting Tokamak (EAST) has set a new world record: temperatures of 120 million degrees Celsius for 101 seconds.
Yeah, that's hot. So what? Nuclear fusion reactions require an insane amount of heat and pressure --- a temperature environment similar to the sun, which is approximately 150 million degrees C.
If scientists can essentially build a sun on Earth, they can create endless energy by mimicking how the sun does it.
If scientists can essentially build a sun on Earth, they can create endless energy by mimicking how the sun does it. In nuclear fusion, the extreme heat and pressure create a plasma. Then, within that plasma, two or more hydrogen nuclei crash together, merge into a heavier atom, and release a ton of energy in the process.
Nuclear fusion milestones: The team at EAST built a giant metal torus (similar in shape to a giant donut) with a series of magnetic coils. The coils hold hot plasma where the reactions occur. They've reached many milestones along the way.
According to New Atlas, in 2016, the scientists at EAST could heat hydrogen plasma to roughly 50 million degrees C for 102 seconds. Two years later, they reached 100 million degrees for 10 seconds.
The temperatures are impressive, but the short reaction times, and lack of pressure are another obstacle. Fusion is simple for the sun, because stars are massive and gravity provides even pressure all over the surface. The pressure squeezes hydrogen gas in the sun's core so immensely that several nuclei combine to form one atom, releasing energy.
But on Earth, we have to supply all of the pressure to keep the reaction going, and it has to be perfectly even. It's hard to do this for any length of time, and it uses a ton of energy. So the reactions usually fizzle out in minutes or seconds.
Still, the latest record of 120 million degrees and 101 seconds is one more step toward sustaining longer and hotter reactions.
Why does this matter? No one denies that humankind needs a clean, unlimited source of energy.
We all recognize that oil and gas are limited resources. But even wind and solar power --- renewable energies --- are fundamentally limited. They are dependent upon a breezy day or a cloudless sky, which we can't always count on.
Nuclear fusion is clean, safe, and environmentally sustainable --- its fuel is a nearly limitless resource since it is simply hydrogen (which can be easily made from water).
With each new milestone, we are creeping closer and closer to a breakthrough for unlimited, clean energy.