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Seth Berkley On Agents of Change

Question: How has the technology you use changed?

Seth Berkley:  I was talking the other day when I was living in Uganda, there was no email and we were still working by telex. It had great advantages because the telex machine could just be broken for long periods of time when you didn’t want to talk to anybody. The truth is that to operate as a small organization now in 24 countries across time zones would be impossible without the technologies we have, whether it be email, a web-based application, our ability to have sharing of data and operations. It just couldn’t happen. The other side of it now is that as we’re beginning to move into completely new science areas, we’re trying to solve these neutralizing antibody problems, we’re trying to do them in a high throughput fashion like they did for drugs, but these are for biologics. We’re using computation aspects that couldn’t be done without the technologies. We have a robot that now mechanizes the creation of crystals to try to look at the structures of these compounds. In the old days, it would take years of technicians’ hand time to try to do it. Now you can do years of technicians’ times in weeks and so it allows you to screen hundreds of thousands of experiments as opposed to tens and hundreds. It just accelerates the process of trying to come to a breakthrough.

Question: If research remains stagnant, where will AIDS be in 10 years?

Seth Berkley:  It’s a very interesting question. All epidemics eventually burnout; they come to a steady state. So it would likely happen with HIV but at a minimum, 100 million people will have died. We don’t see the epidemic stopping spreading for a period in the near future and I don’t know what else would stop it. If male circumcision, which is a new issue that has come out, if microbicides got developed, if better drug therapy, if stigma could be removed -- so there is a plausible way to say we may slow it down more but the only way we’ve ever stopped a viral epidemic has been through the use of a vaccine. To me, that’s really the only way we’re going to do it. Without it, we’re probably going to see 30 or 40 million new infections.

Question: Is enough money going to AIDS research?

Seth Berkley:  There is not enough money and part of it is, what is enough? Ten years ago, the world was spending about $150 million. If you think that an average product costs between half a billion to a billion dollars -- and this is a real tough scientific challenge -- you can imagine $150 million a year for the entire global expenditure: public, private, north, south. You weren’t going to get there. That number’s closer to a billion now so it’s a bigger number, it’s still an ideal. What you would like to do is get it to a level where all experiments are moving in parallel and you’re taking sufficient risks. So there’s two issues: one, trying to get more money but as important is how that money is spent. We need basic science. We need investigator-originated research that allows people to follow their own needs. But we also need consortia and applied programs to try to solve things. And last, we need risk capital. We need capital that can be put on very, very high-risk things that we know most of it’s going to fail with the idea being that we’re going to try to drive innovation.

Question: Is male circumcision relevant?

Seth Berkley:  The male circumcision thing is interesting. Even when I lived in Uganda now close to 20 years ago, we had cross-sectional evidence that suggested that men who were circumcised were less likely to get infected than those that weren’t. The challenge was that circumcision as you can imagine has a lot of other confounders: different religions, different beliefs, all kinds of other socio-economic issues, et cetera. So the challenge is how do you separate all that? So for the first time, a series of prospective studies have been done looking at this and they confirmed that in fact if you’re circumcised, you’re less likely to get infected than if you are uncircumcised. These studies prove this. The question is, is this a practical effort? It certainly wouldn’t solve the problem but how many places can do it? What are the cultural issues, social issues? When is it done? What are the risks of doing it in those circumstances when you don’t necessarily have the best surgical grounds, et cetera. But there is a movement now to try to roll that out and that presumably will have an effect on the epidemic as well. In addition, people who are treated in stage of life probably don’t transmit as well. That may have an effect on the epidemic and there’s a parallel effort to what we’re doing to try to create microbicides. These are substances that women can use to protect themselves against infections. All of those may together affect the dynamics of the epidemic. We hope so.

Question: Why is AIDS such a sensitive topic?

Seth Berkley:  I think that at the end of the day, people have a hard time focusing on the long term. People want immediate gratification. It’s an unbelievable thing in AIDS when you see somebody who is dying and you can put on drug therapy and they have the so-called Lazarus effect: they get up, they look healthy, they lead a productive life. It’s really moving. If you can stop prevention from mother to child, it’s an unbelievable thing to save those lives. So these are really important things so people tend to focus on that stuff. But it’s also critical to look at the population dynamics and trying to make sure it is an either/or that we have an effort that’s going on over the long term. The problem with long-term stuff is there aren’t necessarily politicians who are going to be there when this happens. There’s not necessarily a funding person who’s going to be there when it happens and so the challenge is getting people to think in the long term. As you know, I don’t need to tell you that our society’s become more and more short-term focused, quarterly earnings, instant information on the internet all the time. So taking that long-term view has been less popular and yet, if we’re going to solve these big global problems, we’ve got to be able to focus on the long term and I think that’s going to be one of our challenges.

A billion dollars goes to AIDS research annually, and that's just scratching the surface.

The “new normal” paradox: What COVID-19 has revealed about higher education

Higher education faces challenges that are unlike any other industry. What path will ASU, and universities like ASU, take in a post-COVID world?

Photo: Luis Robayo/AFP via Getty Images
Sponsored by Charles Koch Foundation
  • Everywhere you turn, the idea that coronavirus has brought on a "new normal" is present and true. But for higher education, COVID-19 exposes a long list of pernicious old problems more than it presents new problems.
  • It was widely known, yet ignored, that digital instruction must be embraced. When combined with traditional, in-person teaching, it can enhance student learning outcomes at scale.
  • COVID-19 has forced institutions to understand that far too many higher education outcomes are determined by a student's family income, and in the context of COVID-19 this means that lower-income students, first-generation students and students of color will be disproportionately afflicted.
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What if Middle-earth was in Pakistan?

Iranian Tolkien scholar finds intriguing parallels between subcontinental geography and famous map of Middle-earth.

Image: Mohammad Reza Kamali, reproduced with kind permission
Strange Maps
  • J.R.R. Tolkien hinted that his stories are set in a really ancient version of Europe.
  • But a fantasy realm can be inspired by a variety of places; and perhaps so is Tolkien's world.
  • These intriguing similarities with Asian topography show that it may be time to 'decolonise' Middle-earth.
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Giant whale sharks have teeth on their eyeballs

The ocean's largest shark relies on vision more than previously believed.

Photo by Koichi Kamoshida/Getty Images
Surprising Science
  • Japanese researchers discovered that the whale shark has "tiny teeth"—dermal denticles—protecting its eyes from abrasion.
  • They also found the shark is able to retract its eyeball into the eye socket.
  • Their research confirms that this giant fish relies on vision more than previously believed.
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NASA releases first sounds ever captured on Mars

On Friday, NASA's InSight Mars lander captured and transmitted historic audio from the red planet.

Surprising Science
  • The audio captured by the lander is of Martian winds blowing at an estimated 10 to 15 mph.
  • It was taken by the InSight Mars lander, which is designed to help scientists learn more about the formation of rocky planets, and possibly discover liquid water on Mars.
  • Microphones are essentially an "extra sense" that scientists can use during experiments on other planets.
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A massive star has mysteriously vanished, confusing astronomers

A gigantic star makes off during an eight-year gap in observations.

Image source: ESO/L. Calçada
Surprising Science
  • The massive star in the Kinsman Dwarf Galaxy seems to have disappeared between 2011 and 2019.
  • It's likely that it erupted, but could it have collapsed into a black hole without a supernova?
  • Maybe it's still there, but much less luminous and/or covered by dust.

A "very massive star" in the Kinman Dwarf galaxy caught the attention of astronomers in the early years of the 2000s: It seemed to be reaching a late-ish chapter in its life story and offered a rare chance to observe the death of a large star in a region low in metallicity. However, by the time scientists had the chance to turn the European Southern Observatory's (ESO) Very Large Telescope (VLT) in Paranal, Chile back around to it in 2019 — it's not a slow-turner, just an in-demand device — it was utterly gone without a trace. But how?

The two leading theories about what happened are that either it's still there, still erupting its way through its death throes, with less luminosity and perhaps obscured by dust, or it just up and collapsed into a black hole without going through a supernova stage. "If true, this would be the first direct detection of such a monster star ending its life in this manner," says Andrew Allan of Trinity College Dublin, Ireland, leader of the observation team whose study is published in Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society.

So, em...

Between astronomers' last look in 2011 and 2019 is a large enough interval of time for something to happen. Not that 2001 (when it was first observed) or 2019 have much meaning, since we're always watching the past out there and the Kinman Dwarf Galaxy is 75 million light years away. We often think of cosmic events as slow-moving phenomena because so often their follow-on effects are massive and unfold to us over time. But things happen just as fast big as small. The number of things that happened in the first 10 millionth of a trillionth of a trillionth of a trillionth of a second after the Big Bang, for example, is insane.

In any event, the Kinsman Dwarf Galaxy, or PHL 293B, is far way, too far for astronomers to directly observe its stars. Their presence can be inferred from spectroscopic signatures — specifically, PHL 293B between 2001 and 2011 consistently featured strong signatures of hydrogen that indicated the presence of a massive "luminous blue variable" (LBV) star about 2.5 times more brilliant than our Sun. Astronomers suspect that some very large stars may spend their final years as LBVs.

Though LBVs are known to experience radical shifts in spectra and brightness, they reliably leave specific traces that help confirm their ongoing presence. In 2019 the hydrogen signatures, and such traces, were gone. Allan says, "It would be highly unusual for such a massive star to disappear without producing a bright supernova explosion."

The Kinsman Dwarf Galaxy, or PHL 293B, is one of the most metal-poor galaxies known. Explosive, massive, Wolf-Rayet stars are seldom seen in such environments — NASA refers to such stars as those that "live fast, die hard." Red supergiants are also rare to low Z environments. The now-missing star was looked to as a rare opportunity to observe a massive star's late stages in such an environment.

Celestial sleuthing

In August 2019, the team pointed the four eight-meter telescopes of ESO's ESPRESSO array simultaneously toward the LBV's former location: nothing. They also gave the VLT's X-shooter instrument a shot a few months later: also nothing.

Still pursuing the missing star, the scientists acquired access to older data for comparison to what they already felt they knew. "The ESO Science Archive Facility enabled us to find and use data of the same object obtained in 2002 and 2009," says Andrea Mehner, an ESO staff member who worked on the study. "The comparison of the 2002 high-resolution UVES spectra with our observations obtained in 2019 with ESO's newest high-resolution spectrograph ESPRESSO was especially revealing, from both an astronomical and an instrumentation point of view."

Examination of this data suggested that the LBV may have indeed been winding up to a grand final sometime after 2011.

Team member Jose Groh, also of Trinity College, says "We may have detected one of the most massive stars of the local Universe going gently into the night. Our discovery would not have been made without using the powerful ESO 8-meter telescopes, their unique instrumentation, and the prompt access to those capabilities following the recent agreement of Ireland to join ESO."

Combining the 2019 data with contemporaneous Hubble Space Telescope (HST) imagery leaves the authors of the reports with the sense that "the LBV was in an eruptive state at least between 2001 and 2011, which then ended, and may have been followed by a collapse into a massive BH without the production of an SN. This scenario is consistent with the available HST and ground-based photometry."


A star collapsing into a black hole without a supernova would be a rare event, and that argues against the idea. The paper also notes that we may simply have missed the star's supernova during the eight-year observation gap.

LBVs are known to be highly unstable, so the star dropping to a state of less luminosity or producing a dust cover would be much more in the realm of expected behavior.

Says the paper: "A combination of a slightly reduced luminosity and a thick dusty shell could result in the star being obscured. While the lack of variability between the 2009 and 2019 near-infrared continuum from our X-shooter spectra eliminates the possibility of formation of hot dust (⪆1500 K), mid-infrared observations are necessary to rule out a slowly expanding cooler dust shell."

The authors of the report are pretty confident the star experienced a dramatic eruption after 2011. Beyond that, though:

"Based on our observations and models, we suggest that PHL 293B hosted an LBV with an eruption that ended sometime after 2011. This could have been followed by
(1) a surviving star or
(2) a collapse of the LBV to a BH [black hole] without the production of a bright SN, but possibly with a weak transient."