Science

Sunday Buffet: Domestic Drones, Cosmic Clouts, and More

photo: Parrot AR Drone via Amazon.com

photo: Parrot AR Drone via Amazon.com

Here’s an assortment of goodies that crossed my tablet over the last 24 hours or so. Which of these tidbits fires you up?

•  The Verge reported Friday that a new bi-partisan privacy bill sponsored by representatives Ted Poe (R-TX) and Zoe Lofgren (D-CA) targets the use of drones in the US.

“As written, it would ban police from operating unmanned aerial vehicles armed with weapons of any kind, and any drone surveillance operation would require a warrant notifying the target within 10 days, except when the notice would “jeopardize” an investigation. It also requires they make efforts to “minimize” the amount of data collected or shared, to avoid violating privacy unnecessarily. …

…Fears over the use of drones have increased lately as both President Obama and his counterterrorism chief John Brennan refused to answer whether lethal strikes could be used against American citizens on US soil. …”

When drones can be remotely operated by iPhone or Android cellphones and cost less than $300, we’re way past time for this bill. It might not hurt citizens to act locally as Charlottesville, Virginia has, enacting a ban on their use in their municipality. Think a drone couldn’t possibly slip by you to monitor you without permission? This one pictured here is only 22 inches long, comes equipped with a 720p high-def camera on board–imagine it hovering and peering in your bedroom window, or your kid’s room, its video output watched from an iPhone miles away.

•  Friday’s meteorite-asteroid-meteorite triple whammy certainly shook up the globe. What? You didn’t hear about the third one? Apparently when the smaller meteorite passed over California about 7:42 pm PST, the media had already used up its allotment of cosmic-related coverage for the week. Or year. Anyhow, objects hit our planet all the time that we don’t notice or publicize widely; it was the rare confluence of a near-miss asteroid and a larger-than-average meteorite within a 24-hour window that only made us think earth’s pummeling by space debris is unusual. Given that meteorites and asteroids are not all that rare, it seems like we’d do more to be prepared for impacts–especially since we’ve had pretty decent guesstimates about the damage space objects could inflict.

•  Speaking of science, science writer Philip Ball looks at the discovery of the microscope and its dramatic impact on science and religion. Technology that allowed us to look at our world at meta-scale has also had an impact on our perspective; the famous “blue marble” photo* from an Apollo mission is credited with increasing public interest in ecological studies, environmental protection, and space exploration. What technology will encourage us to get our tails in gear on climate change?

•  Finally, this photo-dense piece gives me pause. I was two years old when these were taken; what an incredible year that was. I wish I’d been old enough to remember any of these events, and yet, I’m glad some of them were well behind us by the time I was school-aged. Some of these photos remind me how little things have changed. Just Google “church arson” or “race hate crime” and you’ll see what I mean.

By the way, I’m open to suggestions as to naming these collections of newsy bits and pieces. Leave me your thoughts in comments. Thanks!

* When I first drafted this post, I didn’t know today marked the anniversary of the similarly important “pale blue dot” photo. How time flies.

Science Wins Out: Studies NSABB Attempted to Censor Published, Fears Unfounded

Yuck!

CDC high-speed photograph of droplets spread by a sneeze.

Back in December, a US government panel took the highly controversial position of calling for the censoring of scientific work aimed at an understanding of how the H5N1 “bird flu” virus can change to become directly transmissible between humans. The virus is deadly to humans but can not be spread from one person to another. Instead, close contact with infected birds is required for humans to be infected. The work which the National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity (which, as described in the Washington Post article linked above, “was created after the anthrax bioterrorism attacks of 2001″) wanted to censor involved experiments aimed at understanding precisely what changes in the virus would be required for it to retain its lethality while also becoming directly transmissible between humans through processes such as the sneeze caught in the disgusting high-speed photo from CDC seen here.

After a very long delay, the first of the two delayed papers was published in Nature last month. Now, the second paper has been published in Science, where the journal has taken the unusual step of dedicating an entire issue to the single topic of the H5N1 virus and has removed the subscription requirements for access.

It turns out that the fearmongering by the NSABB was entirely unfounded. The Washington Post repeated the fear back in December:

Scientists seeking to fight future pandemics have created a variety of “bird flu” potentially so dangerous that a federal advisory panel has for the first time asked two science journals to hold back on publishing details of research.

In the experiments, university-based scientists in the Netherlands and Wisconsin created a version of the so-called H5N1 influenza virus that is highly lethal and easily transmissible between ferrets, the lab animals that most closely mirror human beings in flu research.

The problem is that once the details of the experiments and their results were released, the viruses produced by both of the independent laboratories by different processes lost their lethality as they became transmissible between ferrets, which were used as a model of transmission among humans. It turns out then, that the feared “supervirus” which the NSABB was assuming had been created did not even exist, so the “risk” from publishing details of how one could create it was totally unfounded.

From the New York Times: Continue reading

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