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7 scientists we are thankful for this Thanksgiving
You may not recognize the names, but these seven scientists have improved the lives of people the world over.
- We admire people who make a big show of their altruism, but some of the most praiseworthy accomplishments occur outside popular attention.
- This Thanksgiving, we give thanks to seven scientists who made the world a safer, healthier place to live.
- While there is still a lot of progress to make, the combination of science and humanism continues to improve the world and our lot in it at an unprecedented scale.
Most people answer Mother Teresa. She won of the Nobel Peace Prize, was canonized by the Catholic Church, and raised millions of dollars to run her missions for the poor. Bill Gates is best known for being a billionaire who earned his riches through selfish, Scroogian capitalism. And Norman Borlaug is… the answer to a daunting trivia question?
Not so fast, writes Pinker. Mother Teresa enjoyed good moral PR, but her million-dollar missions substituted modern medical procedures and palliative care for prayer and "extoll[ing] the virtues of suffering." Meanwhile, Bill Gates co-founded the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, a charity that has saved or improved the lives of more than 100 million people by developing strategies to fight poor health and infectious diseases in the world's poorest communities.
As for Norman Borlaug, he potentially saved more lives than any other person in history (more on him later).
Pinker's question reminds us that while we benefit immensely from science, our admiration for its practitioners is disproportionate to the progress they've made possible. In the spirit of Thanksgiving, we've chosen to highlight seven scientists whose accomplishments made our pale blue dot a better place to be, and for whom we are immensely grateful.
Jonas Salk and Albert Sabin
Jonas Salk developed one of the first polio vaccines a few years after the U.S. suffered its worst polio epidemic. Image source: Salk Institute
Polio is a debilitating, infectious disease that destroys nerve cells in the brain and spinal cord. It can paralyze parts of the body, and should it strike the muscles used for breathing, the result is a drawn-out death. If the symptoms alone weren't heartbreaking enough, the disease is predominately contracted by children.
But polio may one day be little more than a footnote in history thanks to virologist Jonas Salk.
Salk developed one of the first polio vaccines while working as the head of the Virus Research Lab at the University of Pittsburgh. To prove its efficacy, he tested the vaccine on volunteers, including himself. It worked, yet despite creating a modern miracle, Salk refused to patent or monetize it. "There is no patent. Could you patent the sun?" he said during a famous TV broadcast.
Soon after, Albert Sabin introduced an improved vaccine that could be administered orally and protected the digestive tract to prevent the spread of the disease more efficiently.
Their vaccines came at the perfect time. The United States endured devastating epidemics of polio throughout the first half of the 20th century. The year 1952, three years before Salk released his vaccine, saw a frightening increase in the disease's prevalence, with 57,879 cases and 3,145 deaths.
Today the U.S. is polio free, and cases have fallen worldwide — from 350,000 in 1988 to 407 in 2013, a more than 99 percent decline resulting in 80 percent of the world's population living in polio-free regions.
Shout outs are also due to John Franklin Enders, Thomas Huckle Weller, and Fredrick Chapman Robbins, whose work cultivating the poliomyelitis virus launched Salk's research. And no discussion of vaccination would be complete without mention of Edward Jenner, the founder of vaccinology, who inoculated an 8-year-old boy against smallpox in 1796, another virulent disease the world is better without.
Abel Wolman and Linn Enslow
Abel Wolman, along with Linn Enslow, developed a formula to use chlorine to sanitize water. Image source: John Hopkins University
For much of human history, access to potable water proved a major hurdle to our survival. Diseases such as cholera, dysentery, and typhoid spread through water contaminated by practices like open defecation and poor waste management. Until the development of germ theory, civilizations were at a loss for a reliable explanation as to how these diseases spread, and cases like the Flint Water Crisis remind us how many of us take access to safe water for guaranteed.
If you're one of the millions of people with safe drinking water spilling from your tap, you have Abel Wolman to thank. He designed procedures for water sewage chlorination and disinfection, and alongside chemist Linn Enslow, developed a formula to use chlorine to make water sanitary, while still allowing for safe absorption of the dangerous chemical.
Since their pioneering work, millions of people worldwide have gained access to safe drinking water. In 1990, 1.26 billion people did not have access to an improved water source. By 2015, that number had fallen to 671 million with most regions seeing massive improvements. Only Sub-Saharan Africa has seen an increase of people without access.
The United Nations has made clean water and sanitation one of its Sustainable Development Goals. By 2030, the UN hopes to "achieve universal and equitable access to safe and affordable drinking water for all" as well as "access to adequate and equitable sanitation and hygiene for all" (Oh, and to end open defecation).
Not 50 years ago, such goals would have been considered a pipe dream. But thanks to Wolman and Enslow, this dream is now literally being piped to people the world over.
Karl Landsteiner memorialized on a 1,000-schilling bank note in 1997. Image source: Wikimedia Commons
When King Charles II of England had an apoplectic fit, his doctors, the best in all the land, immediately began bleeding him — alongside a regimen of enemas, blisterings, cathartics, scarification, cupping therapy, and sacred tinctures. He died soon afterward, leading many modern observers to quip that he perished of too much healthcare.
Thanks to William Harvey, who discovered blood circulation in 1628, we learned the body wanted its blood left in. Yet, medical procedures remained dangerous. If a patient lost a lot of blood from injury or surgery, doctors could perform a blood transfusion, but the technique was a dice roll. Some patients recovered, while others mysteriously died.
Enter Austrian physician Karl Landsteiner, the discoverer of blood types. Expanding on the work of Leonard Landois, Landsteiner classified the A, B, AB, and O blood groups and showed that the transfusion from group A to group B (and vice versa) resulted in the destruction of new blood cells by antibodies. In 1930, he won the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for his work.
Modern medicine would not be possible without Landsteiner's discovery. Knowing a person's blood type is a common part of everyday procedures, such as heart surgeries, trauma care, and treatments for diseases like anemia and hemophilia. Five million Americans need blood transfusions every year. There's a good chance someone at your Thanksgiving dinner could only RSVP because of Landsteiner's work.
Nils Bohlin demonstrating his three-point seat belt.
Image source: Volvo Cars Media
When cars first hit the roads, they were a public menace. In 1925 the U.S. annual death rate was 18 people per 100 million vehicle miles traveled. By 1997 that number dropped to 1.7 per 100 million vehicle miles traveled. That's a 90 percent decrease despite six times as many people driving, an 11-fold increase of vehicles, and 10 times more miles driven.
This reduction isn't because we've became better drivers. In fact, the number of accidents reported with material damage has trended only upwards. As Hannah Ritchie and Max Roser note, it is the "safety standards of and within cars" as well as "interventions such as speed limits" that have decreased the risk of death.
While many engineers and city planners deserve thanks for the lives they've saved, we're giving this one to Nils Bohlin.
Before Bohlin, cars were only equipped with two-point seatbelts (aka the lap belt). During an accident, a lap belt restrains the lower half but not the upper half, so velocity causes the passenger's body to jackknife. This can lead to head, spine, and intra-abdominal injury. It's stomach-churning to watch in slow motion.
Bohlin developed the three-point seat belt (aka the shoulder-lap belt) while working as Volvo's first chief safety engineer. Introduced in Volvo cars in 1959, Bohlin's invention not only saved lives but prevented innumerable life-altering injuries. While the U.S. Patent Office issued a patent to Bohlin, he and Volvo offered the design for free to other car manufacturers in the interest of the common good.
Today, seat belts reduce crash-related injuries and deaths by about half.
Norman Borlaug showing off his super wheat. Photo credit: Art Rickerby / The LIFE Picture Collection via Getty Images
And now we get to Norman Borlaug. Borlaug was an agronomist who worked for the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center as the director of its International Wheat Improvement Program. Starting in the 1940s, he began working with Mexico on its wheat cultivation problems, developing new wheat strains that resisted diseases, produced high yields, and could adapted to challenging growing conditions.
His work proved monumentally successful and would later be used to transform crop management in Asia, Africa, the Middle East, and Latin America, too. It also set Borlaug on the humanitarian path to feed the world, for which he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1970.
This improved cultivation sparked the Green Revolution and increased crop yields across the world. Since the 1960s, yields per hectare have increased substantially. For example, in 1961 Mexico produced 1.68 tonnes of wheat per hectare; by 2014 it was producing 5.19 tonnes. In the same period, China went from cultivating 2.08 tonnes of rice per hectare to 6.81 tonnes.
But there's still much work to do. One in nine people in the world are undernourished, and poor nutrition kills 3.1 million children under five per year. Those lucky enough to survive such harsh conditions still suffer from stunted mental and physical development.
The United Nations has made zero hunger one of its Sustainable Development Goals, looking to end hunger and ensure worldwide access to safe and nutritious food by 2030. Like potable water, this goal may prove too industrious, but the only reason we can even strive for it is because of the work of people like Norman Borlaug.
Plenty of thanks to go around
The selection process for a listicle of this nature will, of course, have some arbitrariness. In this case, it was based on a tight deadline and information readily at hand. The truth is that there are simply too many scientists whose work has improved our world to give due thanks in a single article.
Louis Pasteur and Robert Koch put us on the path to modern germ theory. Rachel Carson's writings prompted a nationwide ban on DDT. Fritz Haber and Carl Bosch developed a process to create synthetic fertilizers. Richard Lewisohn found a way to store blood for later use. Jennifer Doudna's CRISPR is already showing promise to eradicate many genetic diseases. The list goes on.
Then there are the scientists and engineers whose work provided an incremental step toward a larger revelation. As we saw, Jonas Salk's polio vaccine could never have existed without the preceding work of Jenner, Enders, Weller, and Robbins. And Bohlin's seat belt is only one feature that improves safety in modern cars. A myriad of unnamed engineers helped to develop airbags, the anti-lock brakes, power steering, backup cameras, and better frames — all of which make modern cars safer than the mechanized coffins of our great-grandfathers.
Any of these people, and many more, are well deserving of praise, admiration, and thanks this Thanksgiving.
Inventions with revolutionary potential made by a mysterious aerospace engineer for the U.S. Navy come to light.
- U.S. Navy holds patents for enigmatic inventions by aerospace engineer Dr. Salvatore Pais.
- Pais came up with technology that can "engineer" reality, devising an ultrafast craft, a fusion reactor, and more.
- While mostly theoretical at this point, the inventions could transform energy, space, and military sectors.
The U.S. Navy controls patents for some futuristic and outlandish technologies, some of which, dubbed "the UFO patents," came to light recently. Of particular note are inventions by the somewhat mysterious Dr. Salvatore Cezar Pais, whose tech claims to be able to "engineer reality." His slate of highly-ambitious, borderline sci-fi designs meant for use by the U.S. government range from gravitational wave generators and compact fusion reactors to next-gen hybrid aerospace-underwater crafts with revolutionary propulsion systems, and beyond.
Of course, the existence of patents does not mean these technologies have actually been created, but there is evidence that some demonstrations of operability have been successfully carried out. As investigated and reported by The War Zone, a possible reason why some of the patents may have been taken on by the Navy is that the Chinese military may also be developing similar advanced gadgets.
Among Dr. Pais's patents are designs, approved in 2018, for an aerospace-underwater craft of incredible speed and maneuverability. This cone-shaped vehicle can potentially fly just as well anywhere it may be, whether air, water or space, without leaving any heat signatures. It can achieve this by creating a quantum vacuum around itself with a very dense polarized energy field. This vacuum would allow it to repel any molecule the craft comes in contact with, no matter the medium. Manipulating "quantum field fluctuations in the local vacuum energy state," would help reduce the craft's inertia. The polarized vacuum would dramatically decrease any elemental resistance and lead to "extreme speeds," claims the paper.
Not only that, if the vacuum-creating technology can be engineered, we'd also be able to "engineer the fabric of our reality at the most fundamental level," states the patent. This would lead to major advancements in aerospace propulsion and generating power. Not to mention other reality-changing outcomes that come to mind.
Among Pais's other patents are inventions that stem from similar thinking, outlining pieces of technology necessary to make his creations come to fruition. His paper presented in 2019, titled "Room Temperature Superconducting System for Use on a Hybrid Aerospace Undersea Craft," proposes a system that can achieve superconductivity at room temperatures. This would become "a highly disruptive technology, capable of a total paradigm change in Science and Technology," conveys Pais.
High frequency gravitational wave generator.
Credit: Dr. Salvatore Pais
Another invention devised by Pais is an electromagnetic field generator that could generate "an impenetrable defensive shield to sea and land as well as space-based military and civilian assets." This shield could protect from threats like anti-ship ballistic missiles, cruise missiles that evade radar, coronal mass ejections, military satellites, and even asteroids.
Dr. Pais's ideas center around the phenomenon he dubbed "The Pais Effect". He referred to it in his writings as the "controlled motion of electrically charged matter (from solid to plasma) via accelerated spin and/or accelerated vibration under rapid (yet smooth) acceleration-deceleration-acceleration transients." In less jargon-heavy terms, Pais claims to have figured out how to spin electromagnetic fields in order to contain a fusion reaction – an accomplishment that would lead to a tremendous change in power consumption and an abundance of energy.
According to his bio in a recently published paper on a new Plasma Compression Fusion Device, which could transform energy production, Dr. Pais is a mechanical and aerospace engineer working at the Naval Air Warfare Center Aircraft Division (NAWCAD), which is headquartered in Patuxent River, Maryland. Holding a Ph.D. from Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, Ohio, Pais was a NASA Research Fellow and worked with Northrop Grumman Aerospace Systems. His current Department of Defense work involves his "advanced knowledge of theory, analysis, and modern experimental and computational methods in aerodynamics, along with an understanding of air-vehicle and missile design, especially in the domain of hypersonic power plant and vehicle design." He also has expert knowledge of electrooptics, emerging quantum technologies (laser power generation in particular), high-energy electromagnetic field generation, and the "breakthrough field of room temperature superconductivity, as related to advanced field propulsion."
Suffice it to say, with such a list of research credentials that would make Nikola Tesla proud, Dr. Pais seems well-positioned to carry out groundbreaking work.
A craft using an inertial mass reduction device.
Credit: Salvatore Pais
The patents won't necessarily lead to these technologies ever seeing the light of day. The research has its share of detractors and nonbelievers among other scientists, who think the amount of energy required for the fields described by Pais and his ideas on electromagnetic propulsions are well beyond the scope of current tech and are nearly impossible. Yet investigators at The War Zone found comments from Navy officials that indicate the inventions are being looked at seriously enough, and some tests are taking place.
If you'd like to read through Pais's patents yourself, check them out here.
Laser Augmented Turbojet Propulsion System
Credit: Dr. Salvatore Pais
The symbol for love is the heart, but the brain may be more accurate.
- How love makes us feel can only be defined on an individual basis, but what it does to the body, specifically the brain, is now less abstract thanks to science.
- One of the problems with early-stage attraction, according to anthropologist Helen Fisher, is that it activates parts of the brain that are linked to drive, craving, obsession, and motivation, while other regions that deal with decision-making shut down.
- Dr. Fisher, professor Ted Fischer, and psychiatrist Gail Saltz explain the different types of love, explore the neuroscience of love and attraction, and share tips for sustaining relationships that are healthy and mutually beneficial.
A new study suggests that reports of the impending infertility of the human male are greatly exaggerated.
- A new review of a famous study on declining sperm counts finds several flaws.
- The old report makes unfounded assumptions, has faulty data, and tends toward panic.
- The new report does not rule out that sperm counts are going down, only that this could be quite normal.
Several years ago, a meta-analysis of studies on human fertility came out warning us about the declining sperm counts of Western men. It was widely shared, and its findings were featured on the covers of popular magazines. Indeed, its findings were alarming: a nearly 60 percent decline in sperm per milliliter since 1973 with no end in sight. It was only a matter of time, the authors argued, until men were firing blanks, literally.
Well… never mind.
It turns out that the impending demise of humanity was greatly exaggerated. As the predicted infertility wave crashed upon us, there was neither a great rush of men to fertility clinics nor a sudden dearth of new babies. The only discussions about population decline focus on urbanization and the fact that people choose not to have kids rather than not being able to have them.
Now, a new analysis of the 2017 study says that lower sperm counts is nothing to be surprised by. Published in Human Fertility, its authors point to flaws in the original paper's data and interpretation. They suggest a better and smarter reanalysis.
Counting tiny things is difficult
The original 2017 report analyzed 185 studies on 43,000 men and their reproductive health. Its findings were clear: "a significant decline in sperm counts… between 1973 and 2011, driven by a 50-60 percent decline among men unselected by fertility from North America, Europe, Australia and New Zealand."
However, the new analysis points out flaws in the data. As many as a third of the men in the studies were of unknown age, an important factor in reproductive health. In 45 percent of cases, the year of the sample collection was unknown- a big detail to miss in a study measuring change over time. The quality controls and conditions for sample collection and analysis vary widely from study to study, which likely influenced the measured sperm counts in the samples.
Another study from 2013 also points out that the methods for determining sperm count were only standardized in the 1980s, which occurred after some of the data points were collected for the original study. It is entirely possible that the early studies gave inaccurately high sperm counts.
This is not to say that the 2017 paper is entirely useless; it had a much more rigorous methodology than previous studies on the subject, which also claimed to identify a decline in sperm counts. However, the original study had more problems.
Garbage in, garbage out
Predictable as always, the media went crazy. Discussions of the decline of masculinity took off, both in mainstream and less-than-reputable forums; concerns about the imagined feminizing traits of soy products continued to increase; and the authors of the original study were called upon to discuss the findings themselves in a number of articles.
However, as this new review points out, some of the findings of that meta-analysis are debatable at best. For example, the 2017 report suggests that "declining mean [sperm count] implies that an increasing proportion of men have sperm counts below any given threshold for sub-fertility or infertility," despite little empirical evidence that this is the case.
The WHO offers a large range for what it considers to be a healthy sperm count, from 15 to 250 million sperm per milliliter. The benefits to fertility above a count of 40 million are seen as minimal, and the original study found a mean sperm concentration of 47 million sperm per milliliter.
Healthy sperm, healthy man?
The claim that sperm count is evidence of larger health problems is also scrutinized in this new article. While it is true that many major health problems can impact reproductive health, there is little evidence that it is the "canary in the coal mine" for overall well-being. A number of studies suggest that any relation between lifestyle choices and this part of reproductive health is limited at best.
Lastly, ideas that environmental factors could be at play have been debunked since 2017. While the original paper considered the idea that pollutants, especially from plastics, could be at fault, it is now known that this kind of pollution is worse in the parts of the world that the original paper observed higher sperm counts in (i.e., non-Western nations).
There never was a male fertility crisis
The authors of the new review do not deny that some measurements are showing lower sperm counts, but they do question the claim that this is catastrophic or part of a larger pathological issue. They propose a new interpretation of the data. Dubbed the "Sperm Count Biovariability hypothesis," it is summarized as:
"Sperm count varies within a wide range, much of which can be considered non-pathological and species-typical. Above a critical threshold, more is not necessarily an indicator of better health or higher probability of fertility relative to less. Sperm count varies across bodies, ecologies, and time periods. Knowledge about the relationship between individual and population sperm count and life-historical and ecological factors is critical to interpreting trends in average sperm counts and their relationships to human health and fertility."
Still, the authors note that lower sperm counts "could decline due to negative environmental exposures, or that this may carry implications for men's health and fertility."
However, they disagree that the decline in absolute sperm count is necessarily a bad sign for men's health and fertility. We aren't at civilization ending catastrophe just yet.