Episode #10: Smallpox, Titan and Douglas Adams

The iron meteor we saw at Scopex

The tenth episode of Consilience is out! You can download the mp3 here (23.1mb) and the file’s page on Archive.org is here.

Teaching Angela to Appreciate History

We celebrate International Nurses Week from 6-12 May in honor of Florence Nightingale.

Updates

We give some feedback on the telescope exhibition we went to last week, Scopex 2011. It isn’t pretty.

News

The WHO will this week decide whether or not to destroy the last two remaining samples of variola virus, the virus that causes smallpox in humans. This disease has been extinct in the wild since 1979.  The WHO had initially decided that these samples be destroyed in 1993. Not so good at sticking to deadlines…

Nick Risinger released a 5,000 Megapixel Sky Survey which he created by taking and then combining 37,440 high definition photos of the sky. The photographs were taken from the Western US and the Western Cape in South Africa, during new moon.  The picture is zoom-able and interactive (with constellation maps laid out over it in one section). It’s not for science, but it is serious geek porn!

We discuss a proposed NASA mission to land a boat on Titan, Saturn’s methane-rich moon. The boat will be aimed at a lake on Titan, with a launch date (possibly) as early as 2016. The boat will carry a bunch of instruments, including a mass spectrometer (to characterize the lake’s chemistry), sonar (to investigate the lake’s physical features), and various cameras. The boat will be powered by the still-in-development Advanced Stirling Radioisitope Generator.

An international study, funded by the United States National Institutes of Health, has found that early anti-retroviral treatment for HIV can cut infectiousness by as much as 96%.

Daniel Favre of the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology has released a study in which he tests the hypothesis that electromagnetic signals released by cellphones have an impact on honey bees.

Harold Camping of Family Radio in the USA has been on a massive crusade to warn us that the world will end on the 21st of May, 2011. Camping has spent five decades studying the bible and he has decided that the Rapture will happen on the 21st. This is not the first prediction of the Second Coming of Christ, and it is not Campings first either. We take a look at some of the reasons why this is such an important part of the Christian mythology, and give a run-down of previous predictions of the date of the Rapture (there have been LOTS!).

Big History: Abiogenesis

The origin of life from non-life, Abiogenesis is one of the most important open questions in science. We take a look at the different theories to explain how life arose on Earth and what we have learned from experiments such as the Miller-Urey experiments.

Feature: A Tribute to Douglas Adams
The 11th of May marked the 10th anniversary of the death of Douglas Adams, the British writer who is best known for writing the “Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy“. We pay tribute to Adams and his wonderful writing by remembering some superb quotes from his books.

Announcements

This week we launched the Gauteng Skeptics website, a resource for all the activities of the scientific skepticism movement in Gauteng, South Africa. The site is still in it’s early days, please contact us if you have any suggestions or additions for the site. http://www.archive.org/download/ConsilienceEpisode10/Consilience10.mp3

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7 Responses to Episode #10: Smallpox, Titan and Douglas Adams

  1. Tom Maydon says:

    Hey guys…check that link for the 5000MPixel sky survey. Should perhaps be something like http://media.skysurvey.org/interactive360/index.html ?

  2. James says:

    Hi guys, this is a great episode. I just wanted to chime-in on one point; during the Smallpox piece there was mention of the “typical UN” being unable to keep to its original timeline to eradicate the samples by 1993 – and I get that it’s a joke. But the reason for the first extension was to allow scientists to complete the sequencing of the variola genome, which was completed only in 1994. Of course this means that we know how to build the virus again and doesn’t rule-out the possibility of someone with cool futuristic technology (or current technology and a l-o-o-o-o-o-o-t of patience) recreating the virus long after all stocks are finally destroyed and the virus is considered extinct. And we still don’t have a cure for it. Even the vaccine that we have from the seventies isn’t great because it can’t be used on people with immune deficiencies – HIV wasn’t the global pandemic it is today back then and if there’s one fifth of the young South African population that you can’t vaccinate, it won’t take long for the virus to wreak havoc. There may be a good cause to keep it a bit longer if the more effective vaccine which is in development is a short way to completion. Did you know a smallpox scab was found in a medical textbook in a library in 2004? The virus was likely too degraded to cause infection, but are there other places it could be “hiding” in slightly more conducive conditions? It can’t really be in a host out in the wild anymore because it would be killing people – it’s highly virulent. Unless it’s evolved to have some kind of extended dormancy period or it’s become a retrovirus in which case it’d be something that we don’t know if current vaccines can prevent. I don’t know how they make decisions on things like this and don’t envy the decision. Maybe it’s just a case of “better the devil you know”.

  3. benguela says:

    ScopeX was overall crap. A few of the stands had some mildly interesting things like that periscope tent and that dude who built his own mirror calibration machine and software.

    He had that stand with power point printouts with hectic charts and numbers. I wasted an hour or so going through them with him. I’m sure he was pleased somebody made an effort to analyse them but it was not a display suitable for the intended audience.

    The clubs need an injection of new young blood to drag them into the world of multimedia, social networking etc. They need big plasma/LCD screens with cool videos to fire up the imagination.

    Suggestion for teaching Angela about history: the story about the scientific community’s effort to measure the distance from the Earth to the Sun using the transit of Venus. There are lots of epic stories of the various English and French astronomers sent around the world in the 18th century during the Seven Year War between England and France 🙂

  4. Mark says:

    …photo’s…

    Aaaaarggghhhh! Photos, godammit!

  5. Murraybiscuit says:

    Sorry about the podcast necro. Pertaining to the bee colony collapse. Would it not be more plausible to just try correlate incidents of apiaries experiencing this issue with cell tower nucleation? If incidence in urban and peri-urban populations is higher than in rural areas, then it’s a starting point. Albeit a vague correlation. I fail to see how subjecting a hive to an artificially high level of radiation only in one location can be extrapolated to bees in agricultural areas which receive substantially less radiation while in the field. Just saying.

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