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  • richardmitnick 6:28 pm on August 13, 2014 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: , , , NPR-National Public Radio,   

    From Stanford via NPR: “Biologists Choose Sides In Safety Debate Over Lab-Made Pathogens” 

    NPR

    National Public Radio (NPR)

    August 13, 2014
    Nell Greenfieldboyce

    A smoldering debate about whether researchers should ever deliberately create superflu strains and other risky germs in the interest of science has flared once again.
    Some scientists think new types of bird flus should arise only in chickens, not in labs.

    bird
    Here a worker collects poultry on a farm in Kathmandu, Nepal, where the H5N1 virus was infecting animals in October 2011.

    Proponents of the work say that in order to protect the public from the next naturally occurring pandemic, they have to understand what risky infectious agents are capable of — and that means altering the microbes in experiments. Critics argue that the knowledge gained from making new strains of these germs isn’t worth the risk, because a lab-made pathogen might escape the laboratory and start spreading among people.

    Now, as scientists on both sides of the dispute have formed groups that have issued manifestos and amassed lists of supporters, it looks like the prestigious will step in to weigh the risks and benefits.

    “ I don’t think we have adequately involved the public so that they understand the possible consequences of mistakes, or errors, or misadventures in performing this kind of science.

    A representative of the National Institutes of Health, which funds this research, says that NIH, too, is “giving deep consideration to the many views expressed by various highly respected parties” about the best way forward.

    In a recent editorial in “mBio,” the journal’s editor-in-chief, Arturo Casadevall, M.D., Ph.D. , urged his colleagues to “lower the level of rhetoric and focus on the scientific questions at hand.”

    Scientists have passionate debates all the time, but it’s usually about the meaning of some experimental result, says Casadevall, a microbiologist at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York.

    “What is different here is that we are facing a set of intangibles,” he says. “And because they involve judgment calls at this point, people are often weighing the risks and the benefits very differently.”

    Dr. David Rellman, a microbiologist at Stanford University, thinks the risks of making a new strain of flu virus that has the potential to cause a pandemic are very real.

    “I don’t think we have adequately involved the public,” Relman says, “so that they understand the possible consequences of mistakes, or errors, or misadventures in performing this kind of science — the kinds of consequences that would result in many, many people becoming ill or dying.”

    “ These viruses are out there. They cause disease; they have killed many, many people in the past. We bring them to the laboratory to work with them.

    • Paul Duprex, Boston University microbiologist

    Controversial work on lab-altered bird flu was halted for more than a year in a , voluntary moratorium after two labs generated new, more contagious forms of the bird flu virus H5N1. Eventually, after federal officials promised more oversight, the experiments started back up and the controversy quieted down. But key questions were never answered, Relman says.

    “One of the big issues that has not been advanced over the last two years is a discussion about whether there are experiments that ought not to be undertaken and, if so, what they look like,” he says, noting that scientists keep publishing more studies that involve genetically altered flu viruses. “You know, every time that one of these experiments comes up, it just ups the ante a bit. It creates additional levels of risk that force the question: Do we accept all of this?”

    Last month, Relman met in Massachusetts with others who are worried. They formed the Cambridge Working Group and issued a statement saying that researchers should curtail any experiments that would lead to new pathogens with pandemic potential, until there’s a better assessment of the dangers and benefits.

    By coincidence, they released their official statement just as the public started hearing news reports of various , such as a forgotten vial of smallpox found in an old freezer, and mishaps involving anthrax and bird flu at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

    What’s more, the unprecedented Ebola outbreak has reminded the public what it looks like when a deadly virus .

    All of this led a different band of scientists to also form a group — to publicly defend research on dangerous pathogens.

    “There are multiple events that have come together in a rather unusual convergence,” says Paul Duprexa microbiologist at Boston University.

    He sees the recent reports of lab mistakes as exceptions — they don’t mean you should shut down basic science that’s essential to protecting public health, he says.

    “These viruses are out there. They cause disease; they have killed many, many people in the past,” Duprex says. “We bring them to the laboratory to work with them.”

    Duprex helped form a group that calls itself Scientists for Science. The group’s position statement emphasizes that studies on already are subject to extensive regulations. It says focusing on lab safety is the best defense — not limiting the types of experiments that can be done.

    Whenever questions about safety are raised, Duprex says, scientists have one of two options. They can keep their heads down, do their experiments and hope it will all go away. Or, he says, they can proactively engage the public and provide an informed opinion.

    His group has taken the latter approach, “because ultimately we’re the people working with these things.”

    Each of these two groups of scientists now has a website, and each website features its own list of more than a hundred supporters, including Nobel Prize winners and other scientific superstars.

    One thing that almost everyone seems to agree on is that, to move forward, there needs to be some sort of independent, respected forum for discussing the key issues.

    The American Society for Microbiology has called on the prestigious National Academy of Sciences to take the lead. A representative of the Academy says NAS does plan to hold a symposium, later this year. The details are still being worked out.

    Tim Donohue, a microbiologist at the University of Wisconsin, Madison who is president of ASM, says a similar kind of debate happened back in the mid-1970s, when brand-new technologies for manipulating DNA forced scientists and the public to tackle thorny questions.

    “And I think that is a productive exercise,” Donohue says, “to have scientists and the public, sitting around the table, making sure each one understands what the benefits and risks are, and putting in place policies that allow these types of experiments to go on so that they are safe and so that society can benefit from the knowledge and innovation that comes out of that work.”

    See the full article, with links, here.

    Great storytelling and rigorous reporting. These are the passions that fuel us. Our business is telling stories, small and large, that start conversations, increase understanding, enrich lives and enliven minds.

    We are reporters in Washington D.C., and in bunkers, streets, alleys, jungles and deserts around the world. We are engineers, editors, inventors and visionaries. We are Member stations around the country who are deeply connected to our communities. We are listeners and donors who support public radio because we know how it has enriched our own lives and want it to grow strong in a new age.

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  • richardmitnick 1:36 pm on April 29, 2014 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: , , , NPR-National Public Radio, ,   

    From NPR: “Are Physicists Ready To Give Up The Chase For SUSY?” 

    NPR

    National Public Radio (NPR)

    April 26, 2014
    Marcelo Gleiser

    Is physics in crisis? An article in the May issue of Scientific American by physicists Joseph Lykken, from Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory, and Maria Spiropulu, from the California Institute of Technology, lay bare an issue that is keeping a growing number of physicists up at night. Will supersymmetry — the hypothetical symmetry of nature proposed some 40 years ago — be proved out? Or should it be archived to history as just another clever idea that didn’t prove true?

    A lot is at stake: the lifework of many eminent physicists, both theoretical and experimental; our understanding of how matter behaves at high energies; a possible solution to the dark matter problem, the mysterious particles that cloak ours and other galaxies in the universe; a deeply ingrown faith that nature has an underlying simple structure, somehow coded in an overarching “super”-symmetry; the realist philosophical position that the universe is, in its essence, comprehensible by reason.

    Lykken and Spiropulu do a wonderful job of explaining why so many want supersymmetry (affectionately called SUSY by its supporters) so badly.

    There are many questions that we would like to have answers to, questions that cannot be addressed by our current description of particle physics, the wonderfully successful Standard Model.

    sm
    The Standard Model of elementary particles, with the three generations of matter, gauge bosons in the fourth column, and the Higgs boson in the fifth.

    The Standard Model encapsulates all we know so far of the material world: that there are 12 matter particles (the electron being the most familiar) and 12 kinds of particles that transmit the forces between these matter particles (the photon being the most familiar). To these, we must add the most recent particle celebrity, the Higgs boson, found in 2012, and the hypothetical graviton, the particle that supposedly transmits the gravitational force.

    However, we don’t know why the 12 matter particles are arranged in three families of four members each. Why not six families? Or 23? Physicists like to understand numbers, as opposed to taking them for granted. Also, we don’t understand the vast differences in the masses of these particles; for example, the electron is about 252,000 times lighter than the Higgs. Is this just a coincidence? Or is there a deeper mechanism that can explain it?

    The other class of problems has to do with the interactions between the particles. The way we picture it, particles interact by exchanging other particles, like two ice skaters throwing tennis balls at one another. However, according to quantum mechanics, all kinds of particles could take part in this exchange, including very heavy ones. This would quickly turn interactions into major warfare, causing effects that are not seen in experiments. So, either these super-heavy particles don’t exist, or there is a mechanism to suppress their presence.

    This is where supersymmetry makes a triumphal entrance: it has the power to suppress these heavy exchanges, acting like a sort of tamer of quantum effects.

    In its simpler version, (called “natural” supersymmetry) the theory does a great job of answering many of the questions the Standard Model leaves open. The problem is that in order to be a true symmetry of nature, effects from supersymmetric theories must be seen. In particular, one of its most dramatic predictions is that the number of particles must be doubled: every particle must have a supersymmetric cousin. Of these, most, or even all but one, are unstable and decay very quickly. But the lightest of them should be stable and should be around, with a mass not very different from that of the Higgs. In this case, machines like the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) at CERN in Switzerland should find it.

    LHC Grand Tunnel
    Grand Tunnel at the LHC

    CERN LHC New
    LHC at CERN

    So far, not a trace of supersymmetry has graced the amazing detectors at CERN.

    ATLAS
    The Large Hadron Collider’s ATLAS detector under construction in 2005. ATLAS is one of the tools physicists are using to try and understand how the universe works.

    Or the dozens of other experiments spread around the globe hunting for supersymmetric particles raining down from the heavens, something that should happen if they are, indeed, dark matter. Things are not looking good for SUSY.

    The LHC has a new run planned for 2015 with substantially higher energy. As the energy of the collisions increase, heavier particles can be “made,” out of the conversion of motion energy into matter, as described by the E=mc2 formula. If no supersymmetric particle is found then, physicists will have to make a very difficult decision, not unlike letting go of something you have loved deeply and committed to for a long time but that now is causing more harm than good.

    Lykken and Spiropulu give an excellent illustration of the struggle, quoting noted physicist Nima Arkani-Hamed, from the Institute for Advanced Study:

    “What if supersymmetry is not found at the LHC?” he asked, before answering his own question. “Then we will make new supersymmetric models that put superpartners just beyond the reach of the experiments. But wouldn’t that mean that we would be changing our story? That’s OK; theorists don’t need to be consistent; only their theories do.”

    The question, though, is how long can you keep on changing your story before you realize the story is just wrong? This is the hardship (and the excitement) of research; we don’t have a path ahead, we need to forge one. And we are not sure of which direction to take, having only inklings that it could go this or that way.

    Of course it may be that supersymmetry is a symmetry of nature, but realized at energies well beyond the reach of our current machines. This is what Arkani-Hamed was saying. But if this is the case, we need to change the story quite a lot and redefine what it is that we want supersymmetry to answer. Clearly, it won’t do much to help as understand the Standard Model.

    Theories need to be consistent. But they also need to be falsifiable: this is where theorists do need to be consistent. If you can’t test a scientific hypothesis, what are you doing, exactly?

    Supersymmetry, beautiful as it is, has the annoying feature that it can always be hidden from testing, a slippery fish you can’t hold on to. Of course, the ultimate judge of all this is nature itself. But a theory that is always hiding from us serves very little purpose as an explanatory scientific device.

    Great storytelling and rigorous reporting. These are the passions that fuel us. Our business is telling stories, small and large, that start conversations, increase understanding, enrich lives and enliven minds.

    We are reporters in Washington D.C., and in bunkers, streets, alleys, jungles and deserts around the world. We are engineers, editors, inventors and visionaries. We are Member stations around the country who are deeply connected to our communities. We are listeners and donors who support public radio because we know how it has enriched our own lives and want it to grow strong in a new age.

    We are NPR. And this is our story.


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  • richardmitnick 6:33 pm on April 4, 2011 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: , Fresh Air, NPR-National Public Radio, ,   

    From Fresh Air at NPR: “The High Probability Of Finding ‘Life Beyond Earth'” 

    i1

    Life Beyond Earth on Fresh Air this is an audio link

    i3
    The Crab Nebula

    April 4, 2011

    “Scientific interest in extraterrestrial life has grown in the past 20 years. The field of astrobiology now includes researchers from a wide variety of disciplines — microbiologists studying bacteria that survive in the most extreme conditions on Earth; astronomers who believe there may be billions of planets with conditions hospitable to life; chemists investigating how amino acids and living organisms first appeared on Earth; and scientists studying rocks from Mars are seeing convincing evidence that microbial life existed on the Red Planet.

    In First Contact: Scientific Breakthroughs in the Hunt for Life Beyond Earth, Marc Kaufman, a science writer and national editor at The Washington Post, explains how microbes found in some of Earth’s most inhospitable environments may hold the key to unlocking mysteries throughout the solar system…”

    Listen to this engrossing interview at the audio link above.

    Read the full article here.

    Then, think about helping in this quest by giving the free CPU cycles on your computer(s) to the Public Distributed Computing project SETI@home. Visitthe web site, take a look around. SETI@home was the original project which resulted in the software from Berkeley Open Infrastructure for Network Computing- BOINC on which now run some of the most important scientific projects anywhere on the globe. Visit the BOINC site and see what it is all about.

     
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