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How NASA averted the 2060 apocalypse
Pop quiz! Which NASA mission has been most critical to humanity? (Hint: it's not the Moon landing.)
Dr. Michelle Thaller is an astronomer who studies binary stars and the life cycles of stars. She is Assistant Director of Science Communication at NASA. She went to college at Harvard University, completed a post-doctoral research fellowship at the California Institute of Technology (Caltech) in Pasadena, Calif. then started working for the Jet Propulsion Laboratory's (JPL) Spitzer Space Telescope. After a hugely successful mission, she moved on to NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center (GSFC), in the Washington D.C. area. In her off-hours often puts on about 30lbs of Elizabethan garb and performs intricate Renaissance dances. For more information, visit NASA.
Michelle Thaller: Well, I am one of the directors of science [at NASA], and my specialty is communications. There's the idea that a mission ends when you return the data, when you make the discoveries, when the scientists publish their papers. To me, the mission doesn’t end until you have some sort of public involvement, until you have some sort of public buy-in. I think that’s as important as any other part of the mission.
I’ve been trying to tell people for years that a communications team on a mission is just like having your crack team of electrical engineers or your best computer programmers. You need to have people that really understand communications well. And it helps—I mean, in my case I started out as a research astrophysicist and so I understand a lot of the topics as well. But I do communications now at NASA.
And as far as why NASA is important, I think this is one of these things that people have no idea: We run, at the moment, 108 science missions. Those are mostly spacecraft. Some of them are on balloons or sounding rockets or on the space station. Some of them are on the earth. We have people embedded with the Sami reindeer herders trying to understand how climate change is changing the migration of reindeer herds. I mean it’s amazing that NASA is all over. Everything from the disaster mitigation from all of those hurricanes—we actually sent staff to Puerto Rico when FEMA was overwhelmed, they had been setting up communication centers.
I mean everything from determining what set off the Big Bang to where those wildfires are going to be spreading to in southern California. We have 108 missions and I’ve never seen any organization operate more efficiently. I’ve never worked with more brilliant people.
I think people often don't understand what the real value is as far as blue sky research, you know. People talk about spinoffs and people joke about things like Velcro and Tang. I mean those are jokes, but the more intelligent people might notice things like microprocessors started at NASA. Cell phones. The reason you have computers, the reason the United States was poised to lead the computer revolution was because of the Apollo program. But all those kind of fall flat, to tell you the truth. I think that people don’t understand. It was a NASA satellite doing research just out of curiosity to see what gases were in the atmosphere that discovered that the ozone hole was being depleted in the 1980s.
And the NASA scientists with a number of university scientists went running to the U.N. and said, “If we don’t do something, we are literally going to destroy the planet.” And they actually got the Montreal Protocol signed. They actually made treaties. They banned these chemicals that were depleting our ozone layer. And we’ve since done atmospheric models that show that we would have actually destroyed the ozone layer, had we done nothing, by the year 2060, which, if not in my lifetime, is probably in our children’s lifetime.
And basically, that would have destroyed agriculture. Crops would have failed all over the world. You couldn’t have livestock outside. People couldn’t have lived outside. We very nearly destroyed civilization, and your grandchildren would have lived through that.
And so when people talk about what’s the best NASA spinoff, you know, what's the worth of blue sky research where you don’t understand where it’s going to lead? The best spinoff I know of is grandchildren.
Pop quiz! Which NASA mission has been most critical to humanity? It's not the Moon landing. It's not the Apollo 8 mission, with its iconic Earthrise photo. It's not even spinoff tech like cell phones, baby formula, and GPS. "All those kind of fall flat, to tell you the truth," says Michelle Thaller, NASA's assistant director of science communication. "I think that people don’t understand." Thaller says the greatest mission NASA ever pulled off was saving your butt. While conducting blue sky research—curiosity-driven scientific investigation with no immediate "real-world" applications—that scientists in the 1980s discovered that the ozone layer was being depleted. Realizing the danger this posed to life on Earth, scientists—and NASA's crack team of science communicators—mobilized the public, the U.N., and governments to get the Montreal Protocol signed, and to ban ozone-depleting chemicals for good. "We’ve since done atmospheric models that show that we would have actually destroyed the ozone layer, had we done nothing, by the year 2060..." says Thaller. "That would have destroyed agriculture. Crops would have failed all over the world. You couldn’t have livestock outside. People couldn’t have lived outside. We very nearly destroyed civilization, and your grandchildren would have lived through that." The value of blue sky research is severely underestimated—especially when budgets are being drafted. But it has led to the best NASA spinoff Michelle Thaller can think of: grandchildren.
Sallie Krawcheck and Bob Kulhan will be talking money, jobs, and how the pandemic will disproportionally affect women's finances.
Health officials in China reported that a man was infected with bubonic plague, the infectious disease that caused the Black Death.
- The case was reported in the city of Bayannur, which has issued a level-three plague prevention warning.
- Modern antibiotics can effectively treat bubonic plague, which spreads mainly by fleas.
- Chinese health officials are also monitoring a newly discovered type of swine flu that has the potential to develop into a pandemic virus.
Bacteria under microscope
needpix.com<p>Today, bubonic plague can be treated effectively with antibiotics.</p><p style="margin-left: 20px;">"Unlike in the 14th century, we now have an understanding of how this disease is transmitted," Dr. Shanthi Kappagoda, an infectious disease physician at Stanford Health Care, told <a href="https://www.healthline.com/health-news/seriously-dont-worry-about-the-plague#Heres-how-the-plague-spreads" target="_blank">Healthline</a>. "We know how to prevent it — avoid handling sick or dead animals in areas where there is transmission. We are also able to treat patients who are infected with effective antibiotics, and can give antibiotics to people who may have been exposed to the bacteria [and] prevent them [from] getting sick."</p>
This plague patient is displaying a swollen, ruptured inguinal lymph node, or buboe.
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention<p>Still, hundreds of people develop bubonic plague every year. In the U.S., a handful of cases occur annually, particularly in New Mexico, Arizona and Colorado, <a href="https://www.cdc.gov/plague/faq/index.html" target="_blank">where habitats allow the bacteria to spread more easily among wild rodent populations</a>. But these cases are very rare, mainly because you need to be in close contact with rodents in order to get infected. And though plague can spread from human to human, this <a href="https://www.healthline.com/health-news/seriously-dont-worry-about-the-plague#Heres-how-the-plague-spreads" target="_blank">only occurs with pneumonic plague</a>, and transmission is also rare.</p>
A new swine flu in China<p>Last week, researchers in China also reported another public health concern: a new virus that has "all the essential hallmarks" of a pandemic virus.<br></p><p>In a paper published in the <a href="https://www.pnas.org/content/early/2020/06/23/1921186117" target="_blank">Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences</a>, researchers say the virus was discovered in pigs in China, and it descended from the H1N1 virus, commonly called "swine flu." That virus was able to transmit from human to human, and it killed an estimated 151,700 to 575,400 people worldwide from 2009 to 2010, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.</p>There's no evidence showing that the new virus can spread from person to person. But the researchers did find that 10 percent of swine workers had been infected by the virus, called G4 reassortant EA H1N1. This level of infectivity raises concerns, because it "greatly enhances the opportunity for virus adaptation in humans and raises concerns for the possible generation of pandemic viruses," the researchers wrote.
The word "learning" opens up space for more people, places, and ideas.
- The terms 'education' and 'learning' are often used interchangeably, but there is a cultural connotation to the former that can be limiting. Education naturally links to schooling, which is only one form of learning.
- Gregg Behr, founder and co-chair of Remake Learning, believes that this small word shift opens up the possibilities in terms of how and where learning can happen. It also becomes a more inclusive practice, welcoming in a larger, more diverse group of thinkers.
- Post-COVID, the way we think about what learning looks like will inevitably change, so it's crucial to adjust and begin building the necessary support systems today.
Scientists uncovered the secrets of what drove some of the world's last remaining woolly mammoths to extinction.
Every summer, children on the Alaskan island of St Paul cool down in Lake Hill, a crater lake in an extinct volcano – unaware of the mysteries that lie beneath.
The coronavirus pandemic has brought out the perception of selfishness among many.
- Selfish behavior has been analyzed by philosophers and psychologists for centuries.
- New research shows people may be wired for altruistic behavior and get more benefits from it.
- Times of crisis tend to increase self-centered acts.