from the desk of David Almandsmith
Greetings fellow travelers,
From the DNA sequence for building a protein, we know exactly what the amino acid sequence of the protein will be. However, it is largely the shape of the protein that determines its functionality with all its hydrophobic, hydrophilic, electron-rich, and electron-poor sites – and the functionalities of proteins are truly amazing. The problem of predicting the protein shape from its amino acid sequence has stymied scientists for decades. Starting twenty years ago, the effort to predict how proteins ‘fold’ (or ‘misfold’ leading to disease) as they are assembled from the ribosome was handed over to the public – to anyone who agreed to share time on their home computer to help. The Stanford-based project is named Folding@home. (It is similar in strategy with SETI@home based at U.C. Berkeley.) Recently, other computer strategies and universities have joined in this effort. Every two years they compete against each other in a tournament called Critical Assessment of Structure Prediction or CASP. Last week, the company DeepMind won the contest using an AI program named AlphaFold. Its success is being touted as a major breakthrough that will soon lead to medical advances. Possibly so.
I visited the Arecibo Radio Telescope in Puerto Rico a few years ago and I was thoroughly incapable of comprehending its size as we gazed down into its 305 m (1,000 ft) diameter reflector dish from the visitor center. I suggested they put a manikin or two out there to help us comprehend its size. Completed 57 years ago, it sustained minor damage from Hurricane Maria in 2017. On August 10 of this year a support cable broke causing a 30m gash in the dish. A replacement cable was being prepared when another cable cable broke on November 7. An engineering assessment concluded that the structure was no longer safe and that the telescope had to be decommissioned for safety’s sake. On the morning of December 1, major cables snapped, the tops of the three support towers collapsed, and all came tumbling down.
China’s Chang’e 5 Lunar Probe has succeeded in grabbing a two-kilogram sample of lunar soil and is on its way back to Earth. It is noteworthy that the China National Space Administration (CNSA) could have merely sent the probe straight to the Moon and then returned straight back to Earth but instead they followed the mission strategy used by NASA for the Apollo lunar landings. (1) The Chang’e 5 vehicle went into orbit around the Moon after spanning the distance from Earth. (2) A portion of the vehicle – the lander – separated, left orbit, and landed on the Moon’s surface. (3) After collecting the sample, the top portion or the lander blasted off from the surface – leaving the lower part of the lander behind. (4) The two active portions rejoined in orbit and the payload was transferred to the orbiter.(5) The lander portion was jettisoned and the orbiter fired its rockets to return to Earth. As NASA calculated back in the ‘60s, this is the most energy efficient method for getting astronauts there and back. It is reasonable to guess that CNSA used this mission to hone the skills needed to send astronauts there and back. Could be. Stay tuned.
The Earth continues to warm up. High temperature records were broken across Australia in November – in some places exceeding 114°F. In the Northeastern U.S., winter temperatures have risen 4.8°F over the previous 50 years. This year’s hurricane season saw a record 30 ‘named’ storms. Thirteen of those became hurricanes – the second highest number ever recorded. A massive bush fire destroyed 40 percent of the UNESCO world heritage-listed Fraser Island off the coast of Australia. And Greta Thunberg is pissed off. I watched the film “I am Greta” last week and learned a bit about her. She summed up the basics during her TED Talk, “I was diagnosed with Asperger’s syndrome, OCD, and selective mutism. That basically means I only speak when I think it’s necessary. Now is one of those moments.” What she did not mention is that her near eidetic memory allows her to instantly counter spurious claims with accurate data, and that her earlier severe depression and obstinacy over her concern of the climate crisis forced her family to give up air travel – which has hindered her parent’s professional lives – and to eat only sustainably sourced foods. She has added weight to the hypothesis that major players on the world’s stage are not for the ‘normal’ among us. I am grateful she is on the side of science – our side. ¿What can you and i do? (1) Use our power at the ballot box. (2) Make our next car a plug-in hybrid or make it an EV if a long-range car is also available. ¿Want to learn more? Electric Vehicles (EV) 101 is scheduled for 5:30 Wednesday online.
COVID-19 vaccines are being approved.
Vaccines are being hoarded.
Material from the asteroid Ryuga parachuted safely to Australia Saturday night – a significant technological feat for advancing basic research.
My picks for the week (all livestream, of course):
- COVID-19 Misinformation: Understanding and Seeking Truth during a Pandemic – Tuesday 10:30 AM
- Telomeres: from curiosity driven research to human disease – Tuesday 5:30 PM
- A Grand Tour of Remarkable Exoplanets – Tuesday 7 PM
- Wonderfest: COVID Perspectives – Historical, Personal, Biological, and Medical – Wednesday 8 PM
- SkepTalk: Deepfakes, GANs and Visual Misinformation – Thursday 7:30 PM
- Snowy Plovers: The Cutest Birds on the Beach! – Friday Noon
One more Thumbs Up
Technology to the rescue. Last Sunday (29 November) on the first lap of the Formula 1 race in Bahrain, Romain Grosjean’s car went off course and collided with an armco barrier. Because of telemetry on these sophisticated vehicles, we know that the collision was at 222 kph (137 mph). Because of an accelerometer worn in the ear by these race drivers, we know he experienced 53Gs deceleration. The car broke in half as the front half went through the barrier in a massive fireball with Grosjean inside. Still conscious, he unsuccessfully tried several times to flee the burning cockpit before he realized that one of his shoes was jammed next to the pedals. He managed to get his foot out of the shoe and eventually found a twisting motion that freed his torso from the crumpled cockpit. After twenty-eight seconds in the inferno, he scrambled back over the barrier to safety with no more than a sore foot and burns on his hands. The car did not fare so well. He survived because of sheer will and technology. The armco barrier was no match for the strength of the multi-layered carbon fiber cockpit with a nine kilogram (20 lb) titanium ‘halo’ protecting the driver’s head. Also, drivers are totally covered in fire-resistant Nomex except for the eyes and nose. Still – amazing.
Please stay safe, damn it!
Bay Area Skeptics board member
“Our minds are adapted to a world that no longer exists, prone to misunderstandings correctable only by arduous education, and condemned to perplexity about the deepest questions we can ascertain.”
– Steven Pinker (1954- ), Canadian Psychologist