By Victoria Jaggard, SCIENCE Executive Editor
Early in the course of the pandemic, my mom dropped off a pile of homemade masks for me and my husband. She’s always been a crafty person, sewing my dresses when I was in preschool and making many a Halloween costume from scratch. So it was no surprise that she was able to produce simple cloth masks with layered fabrics that were reasonably comfortable. She even included one special mask just for me—a frothy confection trimmed with cream-colored lace and black silk ribbons fit for a gothic fashion show. “That one’s just for fun,” she emphasized, since the woolly fabric is very porous and not reinforced with a filter.
But do we really have to sacrifice fashion for function when it comes to effective face masks? Not necessarily, according to the myriad experts who spoke to our reporter Erin Blakemore. (Pictured above: Katherine Thorpe and her friends at Jones Beach in Long Island.)
Since surgical masks and N95 respirators are most urgently needed in hospitals, the public at large is being encouraged to use cloth face coverings, none of which are exactly perfect at blocking potentially dangerous respiratory droplets. Still, something is, in fact, better than nothing. In one recent study, scientists found that a mask made of two layers of cotton quilting fabric stopped droplets from traveling more than 2.5 inches from a person’s face, versus the eight feet those drops reached unimpeded by a mask.
The benefits of wearing a mask should be obvious. But as with any large cultural shift, adopting the practice will take time. Currently, just 60 percent of people in the U.S. always wear some kind of face covering when they leave home, according to a National Geographic and Morning Consult poll. (I was disappointed to see fellow GenXers were the least likely to take this simple safety precaution.) Putting aside political divides, common complaints about mask-wearing include discomfort and difficulty breathing, though I have to imagine vanity plays a role. Luckily, Blakemore reports, innovators from nanotech scientists to fashion designers are already stepping up to find solutions that will make masks more breathable, more beautiful, and more inclusive.
I choose to keep my glass half full and believe that at some point, we’ll get new treatments, develop a vaccine, and find our way out of this nightmare. In the meantime, I applaud efforts to build a better mask that will hopefully encourage everyone to embrace a simple accessory—and to care, not just about your safety, but the well-being of others.
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Your Instagram photo of the day
Mother Earth: You may know Jimmy Chin as the award-winning director of Meru and Free Solo. Here, the mountain-climbing photographer captures an aerial view of the newly established Cerro Castillo Parque Nacional in Chile, where a massive effort has been underway to preserve nature. What does he think this image looks like? Chin answers in four words: “Veins of Mother Earth.” Our four-word response: We can see it.
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Today in a minute
The Big One: Recent earthquakes may indicate that a major temblor in Los Angeles is more likely. Researchers began intensive studying after last year’s series of quakes near Ridgecrest, California. They found the quake increased the chance of a future quake along the Garlock fault, and that could trigger the San Andreas fault, which comes as close as 35 miles to downtown L.A. Nat Geo’s Maya Wei-Haas notes that the sequence of quakes has only a small chance of happening in the next year (researchers put it at a 1 in 87 probability).
Giving back the land: Do you know New York City has set aside four times as much land for cars as for Central Park? What if the people got much of it back in a less car-centric future? That’s what Farhad Manjoo asks in a provocative, interactive New York Times story. What if Manhattan banned private cars (not ride-shares, taxis, delivery trucks, emergency vehicles, public transportation, etc.)? “Banning them,” he writes, “would instantly improve life for just about everyone who lives and works in New York.” In Los Angeles, using the land set aside for parking could provide enough space to house almost a million more people at current density levels, Manjoo writes.
Next for Keystone XL? They call it the zombie pipeline because it keeps going on despite court setbacks. The U.S.-Canada pipeline for Alberta oil sands was one of three pipeline projects dealt huge blows last week. For Keystone, it was a U.S. Supreme Court decision to suspend construction on parts of the pipeline. Nat Geo’s Alejandra Borunda urges caution to Keystone opponents. “This particular pipeline has seen its share of comebacks—and debates about the viability and advisability of building it are as contentious as ever,” she writes.
At Trinity: It's only open to the public two days a year. But reporter Bill Newcott got a private tour to see the crater in the New Mexico desert from where, 75 years ago Thursday, the first atomic bomb mushroomed. The bomb had traveled—in two pieces—to the site in the back seat of a Packard. It was assembled for the project, codenamed Trinity, and the world changed. Newcott's guide says people only need to see the blast site once. “That's because,” Newcott writes for Nat Geo, “Trinity follows you home."
This week in the night sky
Lord of the Rings: On Monday, the ringed marvel Saturn will be especially bright, because it will be the closest to Earth it will get this year. The planet will be directly opposite the sun from Earth’s perspective, meaning it will rise in the east at sunset and set in the west at sunrise. At midnight you will find it due south. Shining like a brilliant, creamy colored star in the zodiacal constellation Sagittarius, the ringed planet is a tad fainter than its neighboring planet Jupiter, which sits just next to Saturn in our sky. Making this a must-see sky target with a telescope is the fact that the famous rings will seem to surge in brightness thanks to sunlight directly backscattering through the countless chunks of ice particles. — Andrew Fazekas
In a few words
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On Thursday, Rachael Bale covers the latest in animal news. If you’re not a subscriber, sign up here to also get Whitney Johnson on photography, Debra Adams Simmons on history, and George Stone on travel.
The last glimpse
Hello (goodbye) NEOWISE: It has been one of the brightest comets in the skies in decades. The comet NEOWISE has been a staple of the pre-dawn skies for the past week, after surprisingly surviving a ride around the sun. Now the comet is visible in the northwestern sky after sunset, “arcing slowly upward beneath the stars of the Big Dipper,” as Dan Falk writes for Nat Geo. Hurry up if you want to see it: NEOWISE has its closest brush with Earth next Wednesday, and will fade in the following weeks. The comet is pictured (above) from the International Space Station.