science – where would we be without it?


In a comment below Thomascordatus asked me what I think about this video recorded by microbiologist Sucharit Bhakdi.

My first reaction is that as the former head of the Institute of Medical Microbiology and Hygiene, Prof. Bhakdi must know about what he is talking. According to Aelianus, that is the German in me. On the other hand, as a sort of scientist myself, I know that even renowned professors have been known to tell utter nonsense about a topic related to their field. Here are my thoughts:

It is true that we cannot know the true mortality rate, because we do not reliably know the number that is infected (which leads to overestimates, because those seriously ill are far more likely both to be tested and to die). It is also true that the mere presence of a virus infection in a person who then dies does not prove that they died FROM that virus. As is the case with influenza, it seems we will only be able to estimate Covid-19-related deaths after the epidemic is over, namely through ‘excess mortality’, i.e. deaths beyond the background mortality.

These arguments, however, do not explain away the fact that a number of regions experience a surge of severe respiratory illness that requires ICU care, to such an unprecedented extent that hospitals in these regions (first Hubai, later Lombardy, the northeast of France, Madrid) are utterly swamped . There must be some reason for this, and if a large number of these patients tests positive for SARS-CoV-2, this seems to indicate some causality.

So we have an easily spread virus (easily spread particularly since (still) asymptomatic patients can transmit it) in a population with little if any immunity against it. I have not yet heard any experts who claim that it will not infect the majority of people (although I stand to be corrected). Even if the proportion of infected people requiring ICU treatment is much smaller than current infection number suggest: As long as the virus spreads exponentially (which it appears to do, and what you’d expect it to do), the number of these cases should also increase exponentially. In Italy, currently 0.1% of the population have been tested positive for SARS-CoV-2. Even if this underestimates the actual infections by a factor of 100, there would still only be a 10% infection rate and rapid growth of infections as well as severe cases should still be expected. Incidentally, according to this, while 22.7% of Italian tests were positive as of 20th March, this was true only for 3.9% of tests in Germany (15th March) or 5.3% of tests in the UK (20th March). In all cases, tests were restricted to probable cases (symptoms and/or close contact to infected person), so the proportion in the general population should be far lower.

For me, it is the very real risk of overwhelming the health care system that makes it sensible to slow down the spread of SARS-CoV-2 at this point. A Spanish report of 22nd March looks at the age distribution of confirmed SARS-CoV-2 infections, of deaths among these, and of treatment in the ICU. Of the infected, 62% were younger than 60; of the deaths, only 3.3%. However, 32% of the ICU patients were younger than 60, and the majority of these, apparently, did not die. In fact, hardly any of the over 80-year-olds, who made up two thirds of the fatalities, had been treated in the ICU at all. This indicates to me that having sufficient ICU capacity for all severe cases will save lives, and that especially among younger people, among whom it is far more likely that any acute severe respiratory illness is actually caused by SARS-CoV-2 and who would not ‘have died anyway from something else’.

Related to this, I have not found out where Prof. Bhakdi gets his number of 99.5% of infections of whom he says that they may be ‘infected’, but they are ‘not ill’. The only numbers I found are from a WHO report based on data from 55924 confirmed infections up to 20th February. Of these, 80% were ‘mild to moderate’ – which, however, does include pneumonia, unless it requires hospitalization. A proportion of 88% had a fever, about two thirds a dry cough. This may not be dangerous, but I still would not say that they are not ‘not ill’. The same report speaks of 13.8% of ‘severe’ cases, which means ‘dyspnea, respiratory frequency ≥30/minute, blood oxygen saturation ≤93%, PaO2/FiO2 ratio <300, and/or lung infiltrates >50% of the lung field within 24-48 hours’, and 6.1%  ‘critical cases’, namely ‘respiratory failure, septic shock, and/or multiple organ dysfunction/failure’.

It is open to debate which measures will buy us the needed time to spread out the cases requiring ventilation, to increase production of needed materials and, if possible, intensive care capacity, without causing more harm socially, economically and regarding other health conditions. I just think ‘this is all utterly unnecessary’ is not correct.

 

If God made the earth before the sun, as Moses says, then it clearly doesn’t have to go round it.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

 

Oh Camellia sinensis!

Each time the kettle starts to hiss,

Oh praise Him! Alleluia!

Dihydrogen monoxide too,

Infuse their leaves the whole way through!

Oh praise Him! Oh praise Him!

Alleluia! Alleluia! Alleluia!

(more…)

The question about whether the United Kingdom can be called a legitimate state may have become rather passé by Christmas. The latest United Nations climate change jamboree will be taking place in Paris from 30th November to 11th December. At this one they want to make everyone agree to the principle of a world government. The official web-site for the conference puts it like this:

The will to act together and to keep within the +2°C limit led to the creation of the Durban Platform (ADP), with the role of bringing together all developed and developing countries to work on a “protocol, legal instrument or agreed outcome with legal force”, applicable to all parties to the UN Framework Agreement on Climate Change. The “new instrument” will have to be adopted in 2015 and implemented from 2020, and that is the goal of the 2015 Paris Conference.

“Legal force” implies that all the members of the United Nations would agree to the existence of a universal body with the right to legislate and to enforce its laws. I imagine that it will not feel at first like a fully-fledged government, but will rather be something like the European Union, spread across the world. I shouldn’t be surprised if it began with some global Mother Earth tax; inane and sinister at the same time. The the poorer nations will probably agree to it in the hopes of getting money from the richer nations; the governing classes of the richer nations will probably subscribe in the hopes of gaining greater power over everyone, confident that even if their nations as a whole become poorer, the kinds of people who arrange United Nations’ Agreements don’t. China has apparently been guaranteed an exemption, so there is no reason why it should obstruct the process.

I suggest that anyone who wants to hear some relevant climactic, economic and political facts about the question have a look on YouTube for anything by Christopher Monckton. If we accept Belloc’s definition of genius as the capacity to think rapidly in a very great number of categories, then Viscount Monckton is clearly a genius. Originally trained in classical art and architecture, he is a very gifted mathematician who served as a political advisor to Margaret Thatcher and has published widely in scientific journals (yes, ‘peer-reviewed’ ones) on climactic matters. He is also an excellent and sometimes alliterative public speaker. In a recent talk he summarized the present political situation like this:

The breaching of the Berlin Wall and the melting down of the Iron Curtain marked not the end of totalitarianism, but the end of its confinement. The new menace to liberty is groupthink gone global. The globalization of groupthink is guilefully disguised under the green fig leaf of pietistic environmentalism. From behind that fig leaf, emerges today’s tumescent totem of totalitarian tyranny: climate change.

Here he is speaking on a recent article of which he is a co-author, arguing for the inapplicability of one of the principal equations used in calculating changes in temperature. It was published in the Chinese Bulletin of Science; on these kinds of question, free speech is more favoured in China than in the west:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fE7r0gk5nmw

This one is from a few years ago, being a more general survey of the question. It was given to a well-known institute of higher education in East Anglia:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ppQl6KYyMqA

I can claim no specialist knowledge on this subject. But I know a stink when I smell one. And when the United Nations, the world’s press and the world’s politicians profess certainty about so complex a question, and will brook no opposition – why, it stinks to high heaven.

Continuation of yesterday’s post:

3. Just to take one of the examples from the talk: energy. Of course gas is in many, many respects much better than coal or oil, even including fracking. Nevertheless, it does not solve the problem of limited fossil energy source that will run out at some point in the future (some point that may come before end of times – and we are explicitly told not to base our decisions on calculating when this is most likely to occur). This aspect was somehow left out of the talk.

Or: Fewer people die in connection with energy production from nuclear energy than with that from coal. How much might that have to do with the fact that nuclear power is a high-end technology mostly used by rich countries, using qualified workers and because of its very danger potential run with tight security measures, while coal mining often uses cheap and easily displaceable labour that makes enhanced security uneconomical?

China-coalmine-accidents_1-6-2014_133128_l

4.  Which leads to economic interest: The video points out that environmental exaggeration may prolong and increase poverty. This is true. But on the other hand, there are many, many cases where the few may make a lot of money by exploiting natural resource, and the bill is paid by the many (in term of lack or bad quality of drinking water, or respirational diseases due to industrial smog, or part of the beauty of creation destroyed by the extinction of species, etc.)

Now the few who profit from irresponsible behaviour have the money to try and influence public opinion in their favour (had it in the past, at least, and are, after what seems to me to have been a lull, increasingly successfully employing it in that direction again). Anyone seeing this, and rightfully resenting it, may have my excuse to quite some extent for playing the knight in shining armour for those who cannot, on their own, defend themselves. (They should not lie, of course, no true knight would, but they may well honestly be swept by their enthusiasm for the good cause into some imprudence).

Ever thought about WWF like that?

Ever thought about WWF like that?

5. Finally, there is an aspect about risks that did not feature very much in the talk either.

Who of our readers does have some sort of insurance? I do. It does seem highly improbable that I will ever do anything that will make my indemnity insurance worthwhile. However, if I ever should accidently burn somebody’s house down, or similar, it would utterly ruin my life financially. The yearly equivalent of some six or eight (secondhand)  trivial novels seems a small price to pay against that risk.

In regard to this marvel, material creation, the maximum sum that might be to pay if we in some way significantly damage it might be rather large. I do not think it likely I will ever burn down someone’s house. For many of the things discussed under the category of ‘environmental scare’, I have no clue how much more or less likely it is for us, mankind, to drop that fateful smouldering match. It seems  to err on the side of caution in regards to the one earth that has been given to us, on which God Himself has trod, would not be an entirely impious thing.

No exaggeration ;-) (But wouldn't it be a shame?)

No exaggeration 😉
(But wouldn’t it be a shame?)

A while [read: ages] ago, Aelianus sent me a link to this video, asking for my comments:

These are the messages another blogger derived from it:

  • MSG is not unhealthy
  • Nuclear Power is the safest method of energy production there is
  • Fracking is not as bad as the media/NGOs would have us believe
  • Gas is efficient
  • NGOs market just as much as Industries

Of course, I felt flattered by this question and would, ideally, have written a pithy, succinct summary of the results of my profound meditation on the subject.

Reality intervening, I will give you my random thoughts in two posts.

1. Just to clear the air: yes, I DO think that ‘environmentalists’ exaggerate with the aim of advancing their agenda. This may be caused by ignorance, ideology, or strategy, and, in any case, is annoying.

And let us just disregard, in what follows, most of the environmental scares linked to health. Exaggerated concerns about one’s health by far pre-date any environmentalism, at least in the classes that had the leisure for it because they were not starving or regularly dying of illnesses caused by poverty. Nearly everything can kill you, depending on circumstances. If you want to avoid all possibly health-damaging stuff, life will probably not be worth living anyway. ‘You’ll just die healthy’, as my family says.

Come on, I grew up eating school meals from ALUMINIUM cutlery.
Come on, I grew up eating school meals from ALUMINIUM cutlery.

2. I guess Aelianus asked me for my opinion because I was one of the scientists amongst his friends. I would like to stress that the label ‘scientist’ does not go very far in qualifying me for judging the statements made in this talk. In fact, in nearly every case of ‘environmental-concern- against-the-rest-of-the-world’, the issue has been very – complex. No easy yes-and-no, conflicting experimental evidence, many things depending on circumstances, the whole an optimization process depending on many inputs.

You cannot have it all, snobby philosophists/theologists – this is a hazy area where we only know stuff by percentage of probability, and not absolutely. You cannot have your cake and eat it: while in your field, absolute certainty is possible, in OUR field, certainty should be proportional to actual knowledge of the field.

alpha_beta_error

THIS is what we are dealing with. (And yes, it is bad enought to split infinitives over.)

For this reason, opinions can be swayed so easily from either side. In most cases, proponents of both sides do not tell direct lies, but present a one-sided choice of known facts, blow things out of proportion, or jump upon the one new scientific study that appears to support their claim. In judging what is really more or less likely to be the truth, you have to actually have to have very, very good factual knowledge. [Which is one of the reasons why I detest all arguments about evolution.]

To cut a long story short: I try to be extremely careful about my opinions on any of these environmental topics when they do not fall into my field of expertise.

… to be kontinewed, ehem, continewed, tomorrow.

Yes, this is reality: scientists have found ways to grow mini brains in vats from human embryonic stem cells. What’s next?

In my conversations with Aelianus, I have frequently been both annoyed and surprised at his strongly negative attitude towards ‘scientists’, and his pessimistic estimate of their intellectual vigor.

It may be, however, that I have been living in some sort of bubble. I am, as biologists would probably stress, not myself a full proper scientist, dealing with such mundane things as farming, and, as a consequence, may be dealing with more down-to-earth people professionally than your average proper scientist would. I do read ‘proper’ scientific papers, but then these tend to be matter-of-fact reports of experimental results, of varying quality of course, but rather innocuous. Media reports about ‘science’ I mostly ignore, as I know to what extent journalists tend to garble even my own, rather straightforward, field of research. But yesterday I read a bit in a magazine called ‘Cosmos‘. In spite of being a ‘Popular science magazine’, this one appears to be written to a greater extent by people who do have some clue about the field they are writing about, including reference to proper scientific studies with mentioning of the sources.

And then, besides ‘Decode your brain’, you get titles such as ‘Are we just numbers in a matrix?’

Now, I have learnt from Dorothy McLean that authors are often not responsible for the titles of their columns. But it was the content itself just the same as the title that seriously tempted me to hit my head on the desk.

I am no physicist, so do not expect me to put this utterly correctly, but here a wee summary: Starting from Newtonian physics, where the universe is made up of the fundamentals of matter, space and forces, Einstein’s general relativity joined space and the force of gravity together. He failed to develop a ‘unified field theory’ that added matter as well, but now the discovery of the Higgs boson seems to finally make that goal achievable. In fact, modern physics is not interested in the Higgs boson as such, but in its field, and field theory is now the thing in physics.

Over the past century and a half, field theory has transformed physics as a science. It has also changed our view of reality. As theoretical physicists now see it, the core of nature is nothing more substantial than waving fields. As Carroll told us, fields are ‘the true reality’ while the apparent substance of matter – its solidity and point-like concentration – is an artefact of our limited powers of perception.

And so we return to our original question: what exactly are these fields? If fields are ‘states of space’, what exactly is ‘the state’ that is changing here? At the end of Carroll’s lecture, I put this question to him. His answer, afer a considerable pause, was both illuminating and confounding.

Each state of space, he said, was a matrix of numbers, one number for each point in space. As a field changes, what is really changing is the value of the numbers.

Carroll seemed simultaneously elated and a bit dazed by this idea. For myself, I could not help thinking of the film The Matrix, in which Keanu Reeves’s character discovers that the world he has known all his life is actually a computerised simulation generated by the matrix.

[…]

But are we able to accept ourselves as flickers in a matrix of shifting sequences of numbers?

M. Wertheim, 2013, Are we just numbers in a matrix?, Cosmos 52: 60-65.

Is it too much to hope that this is really one more daft science reporting that does not reflect what goes on in the mind of the people who actually work on the topic?

Otherwise, how daft is this? I am sitting on a chair. Whether this chair ‘actually’ consists of uniform chair-matter, or of densely-packed atoms of some sort or other, or of tiny, tiny nuclei surrounded by a lot of nothing with some even tinier electrons racing through, or some fields having different states – does it make it less chairy?

As I am tired and still can plead jet-leg (account of adventures down-under to follow), I am not too sure of my analogies. But this seems to me as if you were to say that learning that a Beethoven symphony was ‘actually’ just sound waves generated in mechanical ways and reaching your ear would make the music less real or meaningful.

Moreover, not stressing the fact that given the image above, it would seem to have to be a set of numbers for each point in space, for the different fields, the only  connection to the Matrix seems to be, well, a matrix involved. All our vegetation samples form matrices: rows (sites) by columns (species) with numbers (abundances) – so does this mean we have no real vegetation. The thing in Matrix seems to be (Aelianus gave some brilliant interpretation on parts one and two, and I may be confusing everything here) that there is a real reality, and what people were experiencing was just a simulation.

It seems really odd to me that materialists appear to be able to put more meaning into a world made of particles (as if you could see them), than in a world of ‘fields’. This might denote a refreshingly naive sort of mindset. It does not, in my humble opinion, show great philosophical insight, but then, I am just a farmer.

In my ongoing quest of watching all 79 episodes of Star Trek – The Original Series (TOS), I have stumbled on a rather unusual one. An anonymous friend once characterized TOS as “banal American optimism”, comparing it favourably to its successor series’ Evil Nietzscheanism. There is a lot to be said for banal optimism, American or otherwise, for emotional-anaesthesia and/or gently-rinsing-one’s-brain-at-the-end-of-the-day purposes. Therefore, I like Star Trek best when it does not focus on deep philosophical contents, because when it does, it usually, and not surprisingly, gets it  wrong (Although, to be fair, the general rule of Narm Charm holds even here: when Star Trek is good, its is good; when it is bad, it is usually So Bad it’s Good).

The episode in question is ‘Bread and Circuses’, and has been generally rated as rather mediocre (possibly justified, though there are far worse), and, interestingly, as sort of  betraying what Star Trek stands for. The script is written by no less than (Star Trek inventor) Gene Roddenberry and (inventor of Klingons, Prime Directive, and much more) Gene L. Coon. Kirk , Spock and McCoy beam down to a hitherto uncharted planet to find it a planet of Space Romans – Romans with -us names, the Roman deities, slavery (albeit more humanized), arena fights (circuses!) – and Earth 20th century technology. For the first time, we even get an explanation why all these suspiciously Earth-history like planets are not just a ruse to make the most of pre-existing scenery and costume in a low-budget production: it is due to Hodgekins’ Law of Parallel Planetary Development. As I said, science explains everything.

Anyway, Kirk, Spock and McCoy first run into a group of runaway slaves drawn together by a sun (?)  worship with ideals of brotherhood, non-violence even in the face of cruel treatment (i.e., they are the goodies of the episode). McCoy is confused, as he does not know of any sun worship amongst Earth Romans, and everything on the planet is just so plausibly transformed-into-20th-century Romanism. However, everyone is far too busy being imprisoned, threatened, made to fight in the arena, consoled by pretty half-clad blonde alien females, and the like, to bother about that detail. Happily back on the Enterprise, they pick up this thought again, and Uhura is able to clarify things: She has been listening to the Space Romans’ radio programme, in which they tried to ridicule that religion of the protesting slaves, without success. It turns out they do not worship the sun, but the Son: Christ. And Kirk is blithely intrigued, wishing it was possible for him to “see it all happening again” – confident that slavery and arenas will soon disappear on this (unimaginatively named) Planet 4 of star system 892 through the rise of Christianity.

Given this:

Bread_and_Circuses_046

They are peaceful Christionas and won’t use this gun on Kirk & Co.

this:

shirt

might be a cool nerdy Christian witness T-shirt. You could have bets who among your pious friends gets it.

This could be a good place to discuss the questions of  a) whether, theologically, we can exclude the possibility of intelligent non-human life out there somewhere, b) whether, if there should be intelligent non-human life out there somewhere, they are either not fallen, and have a natural end, or fallen, and unredeemed, or fallen, and redeemed by Our Lord, or what. It could also be used as a justification of wasting one’s time with watching Star Trek, because, hey, it is after all, sometimes, and awkwardly, sort of Christian, isnt’ it?

With just one year’s delay, I have to post this:

Does Santa Claus Exist? – Scientific Viewpoint

 

Consider:

1) No known species of reindeer can fly. But there are 300,000 species of living organisms yet to be classified, and while most of these are insects and germs, this does not COMPLETELY rule out flying reindeer which only Santa has ever seen.

2) There are 2 billion children (persons under 18) in the world. BUT since Santa doesn’t (appear) to handle the Muslim, Hindu, Jewish and Buddhist children, that reduces the workload to 15% of the total – 378 million according to Population Reference Bureau. At an average (census) rate of 3.5 children per household, that’s 91.8 million homes. One presumes there’s at least one good child in each.

3) Santa has 31 hours of Christmas to work with, thanks to the different time zones and the rotation of the earth, assuming he travels east to west (which seems logical).

This works out to 822.6 visits per second. This is to say that for each Christian household with good children, Santa has 1/1000th of a second to park, hop out of the sleigh, jump down the chimney, fill the stockings, distribute the remaining presents under the tree, eat whatever snacks have been left, get back up the chimney, get back into the sleigh and move on to the next house.

Assuming that each of these 91.8 million stops are evenly distributed around the earth (which, of course, we know to be false but for the purposes of our calculations we will accept), we are now talking about .78 miles per household, a total trip of 75-1/2 million miles, not counting stops to do what most of us must do at least once every 31 hours, plus feeding and etc.

This means that Santa’s sleigh is moving at 650 miles per second, 3,000 times the speed of sound. For purposes of comparison, the fastest man- made vehicle on earth, the Ulysses space probe, moves at a poky 27.4 miles per second – a conventional reindeer can run, tops, 15 miles per hour.

4) The payload on the sleigh adds another interesting element. Assuming that each child gets nothing more than a medium-sized lego set (2 pounds), the sleigh is carrying 321,300 tons, not counting Santa, who is invariably described as overweight.

On land, conventional reindeer can pull no more than 300 pounds. Even granting that ‘flying reindeer’ (see point 1) could pull TEN TIMES the normal amount, we cannot do the job with eight, or even nine.

We need 214,200 reindeer. This increases the payload – not even counting the weight of the sleigh – to 353,430 tons. Again, for comparison – this is four times the weight of the QE2.

5) 353,000 tons traveling at 650 miles per second creates enormous air resistance – this will heat the reindeer up in the same fashion as spacecraft re-entering the earth’s atmosphere. The lead pair of reindeer will absorb 14.3 QUINTILLION joules of energy. Per second. Each.

In short, they will burst into flame almost instantaneously, exposing the reindeer behind them, and create deafening sonic booms in their wake. The entire reindeer team will be vaporized within 4.26 thousandths of a second.

Santa, meanwhile, will be subjected to centrifugal forces 17,500.06 times greater than gravity. A 250-pound Santa (which seems ludicrously slim) would be pinned to the back of his sleigh by 4,315,015 pounds of force.

In conclusion – If Santa ever DID deliver presents on Christmas Eve, he’s dead now…

(NOTE: This appeared in the SPY Magazine (January, 1990)

Stolen from Mulier fortis.