Thursday Morning Open Thread: Because of Wow / Because of Uh-Oh…


What’s on the agenda for the new (hopefully less news-intensive) day?

Hate to bring this up first thing in the morning, but the Balloon Juice demographic (including me) often depends on the miracles of modern medicine. Personal miracles which may, unfortunately, be impacted by the disaster in Puerto Rico:

Federal officials and major drugmakers are scrambling to prevent national shortages of critical drugs for treating cancer, diabetes and heart disease, as well as medical devices and supplies, that are manufactured at 80 plants in hurricane-ravaged Puerto Rico.

Pharmaceuticals and medical devices are the island’s leading exports, and Puerto Rico has become one of the world’s biggest centers for pharmaceutical manufacturing. Its factories make 13 of the world’s top-selling brand-name drugs, from Humira, the rheumatoid arthritis treatment, to Xarelto, a blood thinner used to prevent stroke, according to a report released last year.

With business of nearly $15 billion a year at stake in Puerto Rico, drug companies and device makers are confronting a range of obstacles on the island: locating enough diesel fuel for generators to run their factories; helping their employees get to work from areas where roads are damaged and blocked, electricity is down and phones don’t work. Companies have taken out radio ads pleading with workers to check in. The pharmaceutical and device industries contribute to the employment of nearly 100,000 people on the island, according to trade groups.

“Some of these products are critical to Americans,” Scott Gottlieb, the commissioner of the Food and Drug Administration, told a congressional panel this week. “A loss of access could have significant public health consequences.”

Dr. Gottlieb, who visited F.D.A. staff in Puerto Rico last week, told the House Energy and Commerce Committee’s subcommittee on Health: “We have a list of about 40 drugs that we’re very concerned about. It reflects maybe about 10 firms.”

Thirteen of the drugs, Dr. Gottlieb said, are “sole-source,” meaning the product is made only by one company. Those include H.I.V. medications, injectable drugs and sophisticated medical devices, although he did not name the products. The biggest problem, he said, was not damage to the factories, but the instability of the electric supply. Manufacturers are worried that a long-term lack of connection to a major power grid could jeopardize their products, and are also wary of relying on the more limited electrical grids that the territory is likely to activate as a first step to restoring power…

As someone who takes several old-fat-person medications every day, I’ve been trying to keep an eye on this, but the Trickster-God-blessed megacorps who profit from such drugs are making it very very difficult. There’s one DailyKos poster who’s put up a partial list, which also includes such “everyday” (heavily advertised, often prescribed) brand names as Crestor, Invokana, Eliquis, Lyrica… and Viagra. (Maybe more Repubs should be quietly informed about a potential shortage of that one.)

The DKos poster suggests that anyone taking any of these drugs would be well advised to consult their doctor(s) now, and that seems like a wise precaution to me.

Cosmic Goodness (Immigrant Edition)

Here’s a welcome respite from the ongoing hellscape of GOP-dominated America:

Three American physicists have won the Nobel prize in physics for the discovery of gravitational waves, ripples in the fabric of spacetime that were first anticipated by Albert Einstein a century ago.

Rainer Weiss has been awarded one half of the 9m Swedish kronor (£825,000) prize, announced by the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences in Stockholm today. Kip Thorne and Barry Barish will share the other half of the prize.

If you want to listen to a gravitational wave — the sound of two black holes colliding — here you go:

For more detail on what the prize is for, here’s a lovely, relatively brief lecture — very accessible — on gravitational waves and what it took to detect them, delivered by my MIT colleague Nergis Mavalvala:

And if you want to go a bit deeper, MIT’s Rainer Weiss, one of the three laureates, offers longer, somewhat more technical account:

You can follow this prize — as so many before it — back to Albert Einstein.  As Mavalvala explains, the concept of the gravitational wave emerges directly from Einstein’s theory of gravity, the General Theory of Relativity.

To say “directly” is, as usual, a bit of misrepresentation.

Yes: calculation within Einstein’s 1915 theory does end up at a prediction of gravitational waves, but neither the history of that calculation nor the human story moved down anything like a straight path.  First, in 1905, Henri Poincare suggested that gravity waves might exist.  Then, in 1915, with his new mathematics of gravity, Einstein began to wonder if his theory would yield such waves, soon concluded it would not, then revisited the question, still during WW I, and proposed that three different examples of gravitational oscillations might actually be real.  Then, 1922, Arthur Eddington (who had led the eclipse expeditions that confirmed the underlying general theory three years before) showed that two of the three forms Einstein had proposed were mathematical mistakes, born of the choice of coordinate system Einstein used for his earlier calculation.

Einstein pursued other projects for a while, returning to gravitational waves in the 1930s, after emigrating to the US.  Working with an assistant, Nathan Rosen (of the Einstein-Podolsky-Rosen paradox-that-isn’t), he wrote a paper concluding that gravitational waves do not exist, full stop.  The two men submitted the paper to Physical Review, which then sent it on for review.  The reviewer, Howard Percy Robertson, found a confounding error. On being informed,  Albert Einstein was not amused:

Einstein’s reaction was anger and indignation; he sent the following note to [PR editor John] Tate [10]:

July 27, 1936
Dear Sir.
“We (Mr. Rosen and I) had sent you our manuscript for publication and had not authorized you to show it to specialists before it is printed. I see no reason to address the—in any case erroneous—comments of your anonymous expert. On the basis of this incident I prefer to publish the paper elsewhere.”
Still, Robertson was right, as Einstein’s next assistant, Leopold Infeld confirmed.  He told Einstein what he’d learned, and the older scientist listened:
Infeld refers to the day before a scheduled talk that Einstein was to give at Princeton on the “Nonexistence of gravitational waves”. Einstein was already aware of the error in his manuscript, which was previously pointed out by Infeld. There was no time to cancel the talk. The next day Einstein gave his talk and concluded, “If you ask me whether there are gravitational waves or not, I must answer that I don’t know. But it is a highly interesting problem
Einstein had already resubmitted his original paper to another journal, and the work was in proofs, which led to a scramble, and the final outcome:
“…After finding relationships that cast doubt on the existence of gravitational fields rigorous wavelike solutions, we have thoroughly investigated the case of cylindrical gravitational waves. As a result, there are strict solutions and the problem is reduced to conventional cylindrical waves in Euclidean space”.
Einstein was often swift to annoyance. He could, though, on reflection, be corrected — as he was here.
“I want to thank my colleague Professor Robertson for their friendly help in clarifying the original error.”

The issue remained, though, that gravitational waves were complicated to model, and hence even to imagine detecting.  The article linked above and again here is a history of the idea, and it shows how much thinking and doing — for decades — went into the moment of discovery this prize celebrates.

And that just gets us to the gate of the work behind this year’s physics Nobel.  Weiss first came up with the idea for the detector that ultimately heard two black holes colliding almost exactly fifty years ago, after teaching MIT’s introduction to general relativity. The next decade, he began the collaboration with fellow laureate Kip Thorne, the near legendary Caltech general relativist, to advance the idea of a large-scale interferometer as a gravity wave observatory.  The next key collaborators, Ronald Drever, who died last year last March, and the third prize-winner, particle physicist and large-machine-expert [per valued commenter dmislev] Barry Barish, credited with the transformation of Weiss’s original notion into a full fledged and ultimately enormous lab, joined soon after.  The actual detection took place a mere four decades on.

And it’s beautiful — as Einstein once said of other work, an example of “the highest form of musicality in the sphere” of scientific endeavor.  The scale, the unholy precision, and the extraordinary extension of human perception into the most forbidding recesses of the universe are simply sublime, glorious and terrifying.  In these wretched political times, the notion that some of our species can create on such an encompassing canvas is…a balm, at least.

And, not to harsh that mellow, but because everything is political to me these days, a final thought.  Einstein, an immigrant, discovered the underlying concept.  Rai Weiss, born in Berlin in 1932, escaped with his family from the Nazis first to Prague and then New York.  Mavalvala, featured above, a key contributor to the ultimate instrument that made the detection, came to the US to pursue knowledge at the highest level from her home in Turkey Pakistan [I apologize for the error].  Many, many more people from all over dedicated days and nights and years of their working lives to making this happen.

This is the intellectual and cultural capacity the GOP seeks to erode.  That makes them philistines, and worse: saboteurs of the American capacity to create both basic science and all the expected and unanticipated possibilities for human well being that flow from “musicality in scientific thought.”

Sunday Morning Garden Chat: “A Field Farmed Only By Drones”

A little something for both the gardening and the geeking commentariat. Now, if only they can program the drones to do the weeding… Nicola Twilley, in the New Yorker:

Across the United Kingdom, the last of the spring barley has been brought in from the fields, the culmination of an agricultural calendar whose rhythm has remained unchanged for millennia. But when the nineteenth-century poet John Clare wrote, in his month-by-month description of the rural year, that in September “harvest’s busy hum declines,” it seems unlikely that he was imagining the particular buzz—akin to an amplified mosquito—of a drone.

“The drone barley snatch was actually the thing that made it for me,” Jonathan Gill, a robotics engineer at Harper Adams University, told me recently. Gill is one of three self-described “lads” behind a small, underfunded initiative called Hands Free Hectare. Earlier this month, he and his associates became the first people in the world to grow, tend, and harvest a crop without direct human intervention. The “snatch” occurred on a blustery Tuesday, when Gill piloted his heavy-duty octocopter out over the middle of a field, and, as the barley whipped from side to side in the propellers’ downdraft, used a clamshell dangling from the drone to take a grain sample, which would determine whether the crop was ready for harvesting. (It was.) “Essentially, it’s the grab-the-teddy-with-the-claw game on steroids,” Gill’s colleague, the agricultural engineer Kit Franklin, said. “But it had never been done before. And we did it.”

The idea for the project came about over a glass of barley’s best self: beer. Gill and Franklin were down the pub, lamenting the fact that, although big equipment manufacturers such as John Deere likely have all the technology they need to farm completely autonomously, none of them seem to actually be doing it. Gill knew that drones could be programmed, using open-source code, to move over a field on autopilot, changing altitude as needed. What if you could take the same software, he and Franklin wondered, and make it control off-the-shelf agricultural machinery? Together Gill, Franklin, and Martin Abell, a recent Harper Adams graduate, rustled up just over a quarter million dollars in grant money. Then they got hold of some basic equipment—a small Japanese tractor designed for use in rice paddies, a similarly undersized twenty-five-year-old combine harvester, a sprayer boom, and a seed drill—and connected the drone software to a series of motors, which, with a little tinkering, made it capable of turning the tractor’s steering wheel, switching the spray nozzles on and off, raising and lowering the drill, and choreographing the complex mechanized ballet of the combine…
Read more

Late Night Music Open Thread: Farewell to Cassini

Late-night nostalgia, from the Washington Post:

PASADENA, Calif. — Linda Spilker checks the clock: 12:04 p.m. As the NASA scientist sits in this crowded conference room on the Caltech campus, the aging Saturn orbiter Cassini is flying past the moon Titan for a final time. The maneuver on Monday will give Cassini the gravitational tug needed to sling it straight into Saturn’s atmosphere, where it will vaporize above roiling clouds of dust and gas.

There’s no turning back now. Spilker’s life’s work is officially doomed.

That is the nature of being a planetary scientist. No mission lasts forever. Every spacecraft eventually runs out of fuel. Spilker knew this when she joined the Cassini team half a lifetime ago. Later, as head scientist, she was part of the group that devised the mission’s “grand finale,” which has sent Cassini on dizzying dives between Saturn and its rings and ends Friday with the fatal plunge.

The assembled researchers lift their glasses of juice and chorus their appreciation. A few are close to tears. After Cassini disintegrates, this team will be disbanded, and NASA’s view of Saturn will go dark. For the moment, the space agency has no plans to return to the ringed planet.

But Spilker and a young protegee have submitted a proposal for a new mission to the Saturnian system, which would investigate one of Cassini’s most significant finds: jets of water on the moon Enceladus that could contain traces of alien life

Only peripherally related, but somehow appropriate:

Russiagate Open Thread: The Facebook Conundrum(s)


Until Adam or Cheryl can post more expert information, I’m just gonna toss out some links that seem like they might be important. Per CNN:

Facebook did not give copies of the ads to members of the Senate and House intelligence committees when it met with them last week on the grounds that doing so would violate their privacy policy, sources with knowledge of the briefings said. Facebook’s policy states that, in accordance with the federal Stored Communications Act, it can only turn over the stored contents of an account in response to a search warrant.

“We continue to work with the appropriate investigative authorities,” Facebook said in a statement to CNN.

Facebook informed Congress last week that it had identified 3,000 ads that ran between June 2015 and May 2017 that were linked to fake accounts. Those accounts, in turn, were linked to the pro-Kremlin troll farm known as the Internet Research Agency.

In those briefings, Facebook spoke only in generalities about the ad buys, leaving some committee members feeling frustrated with Facebook’s level of cooperation.

Sen. Mark Warner, the top Democrat on the Senate Intelligence Committee, told CNN last week that Facebook had not turned over the ads to Congress. Warner has also called Facebook’s review “the tip of the iceberg,” and suggested that more work needs to be done in order to ascertain the full scope of Russia’s use of social media…

Are those “contents” significant? This guy — “Former federal prosecutor. Legal expert for TV and print”thinks so:

Read more

North Korea’s Latest Nuclear Test

For broad policy, there are only two things that matter about the latest North Korean nuclear test: The explosion is very big and the bomb possibly small enough to fit on a North Korean missile. If it isn’t that small yet, the next model will be.

The yield measured for the test was about 150 kilotons. That’s about ten times the force of the Hiroshima bomb. It doesn’t matter whether it was 130 kilotons or 200 kilotons. It can destroy a city. The missiles now being tested can reach the United States. Read more

Monday Morning Open Thread: Another Monday, Already?

(Tom Toles via

Apart from keeping our Floridian fellows in our thoughts, what’s on the agenda as we start the week?


On a more upbeat note, we humans don’t deserve dogs, and yet they forgive us. From the NYTimes, “Gregory Berns Knows What Your Dog Is Thinking (It’s Sweet)”:

Dr. Gregory Berns, 53, a neuroscientist at Emory University in Atlanta, spends his days scanning the brains of dogs, trying to figure out what they’re thinking. The research is detailed in a new book, “What It’s Like to Be a Dog.”

Among the findings: Your dog may really love you for you — not for your food…

Dr. Burns: As a neuroscientist, I’d seen how M.R.I. studies helped us understand which parts of the human brain were involved in emotional processes. Perhaps M.R.I. testing could teach us similar things about dogs. I wondered if dogs had analogous functions in their brains to what we humans have.

The big impediment doing this type of testing was to find some way to get dogs into an M.R.I. and get them to hold still for long enough to obtain useful images.

I worked with an Atlanta-based dog trainer, Mark Spivak, to break down the steps that might make it possible for dogs to go into an M.R.I.

In my basement, I built an M.R.I. simulator. We introduced Callie, the family terrier, to it — acclimating her to the noise, teaching her to climb the stairs leading to the machine, recline into a head rest and be motionless for increasing periods of time.

After she mastered these tasks, we combined them, as would be necessary when she encountered a real M.R.I. It took her three months of practicing every day. After perfecting a training system, we sent out a call to local dog owners for volunteers for the study.

Since 2012, we’ve trained and scanned a total of about 90 dogs. As a matter of principle, we never restrained or drugged any. If a dog wants to get up from the M.R.I. and leave, they can. There’s no compulsion…

We did an experiment where we gave them hot dogs some of the time and praise some of the time. When we compared their responses and looked at the rewards center of their brains, the vast number of dogs responded to praise and food equally.

Now, about 20 percent had stronger responses to praise than to food. From that, we conclude that the vast majority of dogs love us at least as much as food.

Another thing that we’ve learned by showing pictures of objects and people to the dogs is that they have dedicated parts of their brain for processing faces. So dogs are in many ways wired to process faces.

This means that dogs aren’t just learning from being around us that human faces are important — they are born to look at faces. This wasn’t known before…