Archive for October, 2014

A Few Thoughts On Ebola

Here’s  few ideas that popped into my head over the past few days about the presence of ebola disease in the United States.  Keep in mind, a lot of the talk about ebola lately is political.  It’s also epidemiological.  I’m not a politician, nor am I a political pundit, nor an epidemiologist.  As a PhD virologist, I studied viruses in the laboratory, so that’s the basic foundation from where my comments come.  Here’s what I think.

First, the Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta has been criticized for its lax guidelines on what kind of protective clothing persons who are caring for an ebola-infected patient should wear.  But from the point of view of a virologist in the hospital, the hospital should have known better.  After all, we’ve been seeing pictures from West Africa for months of people treating ebola victims there, and they’re dressed in total-body containment suits.  The hospital should have known.  That’s what infection control is for.  I understand the two nurses who contracted ebola while caring for the index patient were not wearing total body protection.  I find it difficult to believe that knowing all we know about ebola, the hospital didn’t insist on total body protection from the very first.

Second, the fact that those two nurses got infected while allowing small areas of skin to go unprotected suggests that somehow the virus penetrated their skin.  Right now, it’s unknown how they got infected.  Perhaps they had small open wounds or sores on the unprotected area of skin, and the virus splashed on that and got through the skin.  But we have to keep in mind that they were only two nurses out of a larger number of people who were caring for the patient.  If the others were wearing the same type of protective equipment, and didn’t get infected, then there’s a question of why only those two were infected.  Or is it possible that ebola virus can penetrate intact skin?  That’s scary.

I got my baptism under fire back in the 1980’s and 90’s with the AIDS virus.  Back then, when we worked with HIV, we assumed that the virus wouldn’t penetrate intact skin.  That turned out to be true.  Now we’re making the same assumption about ebola and perhaps it isn’t true.  This will take some study.

Third, I’ve seen warnings from health officials on TV and on the internet that ebola can be caught only by direct contact with a patient or with a patient’s bodily fluids.  They say that it can’t be caught through food, water, air, etc.  As someone who has done studies with inactivation of viruses in water and buffers, I’m a little suspicious about the blanket statement that ebola can’t be transmitted by water.  I assume, like everyone else, that the ebola virus is inactivated by the chlorine in drinking water.  But a lot of the drinking water in Africa isn’t treated with chlorine, and I think it’s a mistake to assume that the virus can’t be transmitted by water, or even food.  Has anyone done any studies to find out?

Fourth, the fact that we have to use such heavy protective gear while working with ebola-infected patients is a recognition that the ebola virus is one of the most infectious agents we’ve ever seen.  The only virus I can think of that even comes close to the infectivity of ebola is smallpox, and that has been eradicated from the earth.  Marburg fever virus is also very infectious, but it has been kept under control.  I don’t know what the ratio of virus particles to infectious units is for ebola, but it may be very low, possibly in the range of one or two.  That’s also scary.  That means that if ebola virus does somehow survive in water, only a small number of particles can cause an infection.  The fact that two nurses got infected while wearing protective equipment also suggests the ratio is very small.

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All Those Civilizations Out There

I read an interesting article on Yahoo News a few days ago and I thought I’d comment on it.  Entitled “Aliens May Be Out There, But Too Distant For Contact,” it detailed the reasons why we citizens of Earth may have a difficult time communicating and interacting with aliens from other planets.  (Go to the website LiveScience and click the “Space” tab for the complete article.)  The original report was made by Michael Garrett, head of the Dutch astronomical research foundation, ASTRON, who gave this report at the International Astronomical Congress in Toronto recently.  His basic reasoning was that the distances between civilizations advanced enough to communicate with each other are very likely to be much too great for any  meaningful communication.  It’s possible that 3000 or more extra-terrestrial civilizations exist out there, out of approximately 40 billion possible habitable worlds, but they would be distributed throughout the galaxy and the distances between them would be so large as to make communication virtually impossible.  Remember, light and radio waves operate according to the inverse-square rule.  As you get farther and farther away from a source of light or source of communication such as a radio transmitter, the intensity of the waves decreases substantially.  If you double the distance from the source, the amount of light drops by one-quarter.  Triple the distance and it drops by one-ninth.  So, if an advanced civilization exists, say, a thousand light-years away, they would have to have one hell of a transmitter to deliver a signal that would be strong enough for us to, first, detect and, second, recognize when it got here.  Even a civilization a simple 50 light-years away would have to have a huge transmitter. The amount of power they’d have to put into it would be absolutely immense.

Travel between planets that have sophisticated civilizations likewise would be all but impossible.  The nearest star system to Earth is the Alpha Centauri system, a little over 4 light-years away.  That means that traveling at the speed of light a spaceship would take over 4 years to complete the journey, and that’s just one way.  Einstein says it’s almost impossible to travel at the speed of light, so a spaceship traveling at 1/1000 the speed of light (still very fast) would take 4000 years to get there.  That’s grossly unrealistic.  And that’s not even considering a civilization on the other side of our Milky Way Galaxy, which is about 100,000 light years across.  Travel that far isn’t likely.

Some say that a highly sophisticated civilization might travel by wormhole, shortening the distance traveled.  Space-time is curved and shortcuts are postulated to exist between points that are otherwise very far apart.  I suppose wormholes may exist, but they require huge amounts of energy to open, and just aren’t feasible, at least not by those of us living in a civilization whose sophistication in space travel consists of barely being able to get to their own planet’s moon and back.  (Forget wormholes.  They’re good only in science fiction.  I’ve even used them myself in some of my stories.)

In short, I’ve been saying for a long time that I don’t think travel or communication between planetary systems is very likely, and now a report has come out saying the same thing.  The distances are just too great.  No good evidence exists that anyone from outer space has visited us here on Earth, and I can certainly understand why.

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All Those Scientists Out There…

As I mentioned in a previous post this past August, I attended Bubonicon 46 here in Albuquerque, and had a great time.  One interesting topic that came up in one of the panel discussions was the fact that while science fiction writers have been known to predict the development of future objects and appliances, by and large, sci-fi writers are lousy at making future predictions of real objects.  Science and technology always seem to come up with items that no one foresaw or foretold.  Like CAT scans and MRI technology.  So why can’t science-fiction writers figure out the next big thing?  We work in the future.  We should be able to decipher the code to the future, but we just haven’t been able to.  Why not?

I suspect several good reasons exist as to why it’s impossible to predict the future (by scientists themselves or sci-fi writers), and I can’t go into all of them, so for what it’s worth, here’s my explanation: too many scientists.

Every breakthrough in science has to start in somebody’s laboratory (or basement or garage).  Someone makes an observation, small at the time, and publishes it in a scientific journal.  Then that scientist–and others as well–may work on it and develop it until it becomes a big damn deal.  At that point it becomes a real breakthrough and is hailed as the next big thing.  That can take a long time, though, ten or twenty years or more.  Yet, it had to start with a single, simple observation or concept.  Thomas Edison is reputed to have said that genius is one percent inspiration and ninety-nine percent perspiration.

There are millions of scientists in the world today, most of whom publish papers that wind up in scientific journals.  That’s a lot of papers–millions every year.  No scientist has the time to read all those papers.  Not even close.  As a virologist, I read papers only in my limited field within the overall broad field of virology.  And virology is only one part of the larger field of microbiology, which is one part of the still larger field of biology.  In one year, I probably read less than one percent of all papers published in virology.  A tiny percentage.

In contrast, how many science-fiction writers–currently publishing–are there in the world today?  Maybe a few thousand?  No science fiction writer has the time to scan all those scientific papers to glean the next big thing.  Somewhere, buried in all that science, could be a breakthrough that will lead us to better times for all.  (Or most.)  But where is it?  And not only would that sci-fi writer have to find it, he/she would have to have the intelligence, experience, expertise and training to be able to recognize it in the first place.

Science-fiction writers, like everybody else, see mainly the big things that have come up recently, for example, solid-state electronics; the latest iPhone; the images from the Hubble telescope; the data from the Large Hadron Collider; the emergence of diseases such as AIDS, MERS, and ebola; data from neutrino experiments; the development of small personal drones; and so on.  Extrapolating from these and others is possible, but leads only to an extrapolated future, not a future populated with the “next great thing.”  A good example of that is the talking computer HAL in “2001 A Space Odyssey,” or the computers onboard the Starship Enterprise.  The next big thing is somewhere within that mess of scientific journals, and someone’s going to have to find it.  It’s extremely unlikely.  There’s just too much to wade through.

Read any good scientific journals lately?

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