By Victoria Jaggard, SCIENCE executive editor
When I was starting out in science journalism, a friend loaned me a copy of Complications by Atul Gawande. It’s fascinating, a fine example of how to make complex science engaging and relatable. It was also my first eye-opening window into the fact that medical science is not as straightforward as I had assumed. Even when it comes to routine procedures that have been performed countless times, somewhere there’s a surgeon doing that procedure for the first time, learning on the job. It was an unnerving realization, but I figured that when things go wrong, doctors can still rely on the wealth of information accumulated over the years to guide them toward solutions.
Now, though, scientists are racing to respond to a brand-new virus that exploded into our lives just a few short months ago. Almost nothing about the situation feels anywhere close to routine, and there is far less baseline data to draw on. As such, the whole world is watching science happen in real time, and predictably, it’s gotten complicated.
As Robin Marantz Henig reports in the current issue of National Geographic magazine, the SARS-CoV-2 virus is an unprecedented threat. It “combines contagiousness and lethality in a ferocious mixture” that has even the most experienced experts struggling for answers. Time is of the essence, though, and studies are flying out of labs faster than anything I’ve previously witnessed. The debate about the value of reporting on scientific pre-print articles, published online without the “gold standard” of peer review, has never felt more relevant.
At the same time, the world has evolved in ways that make misinformation easy to spread—intentionally or otherwise—even as modern political divides are more liable to hinder our collective response and actively endanger lives. (Pictured above, social distancing near the London Eye; below; lining up outside London’s L’Ecole de Battersea.)
Based on her analysis, Marantz Henig imagines a future in which the children growing up in this medical maelstrom come out of it with positive views of science as a process, setting up a generation that is well-equipped to handle a repeat performance, should another pandemic strike.
I sincerely hope she’s right, even though historical evidence leans more toward large-scale forgetfulness. After all, I hear that if we do not learn from our mistakes, we are doomed to repeat them.
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Today in a minute
Who infected Trump? Is it impossible to find the person who spread COVID-19 to the president? Not at all, reports Lois Parshley for Nat Geo. Officials could use a technique called viral genome sequencing to identify a source and a location. Just swab a bunch of infected noses, compare the variants, and you can trace the origins of this particular mutation of the coronavirus. The White House cluster could keep growing because the coronavirus so easily spreads, and because nine of 10 Americans remain susceptible. Tracing that mutation back would find the source.
Sampling an asteroid: The rock is only 10 times as wide as a football field is long. Yet next week, a NASA spacecraft is scheduled to collect samples from its surface. Close-up photographs already reveal that the asteroid, Bennu, has richer and more complex terrain—and origins—than any scientist could have dreamed, Nat Geo’s Michael Greshko writes. Researchers suspect that at least some of Earth’s water and organic molecules came from asteroids, so objects like Bennu may have seeded Earth with the chemicals needed for life. Bennu also poses a possible security risk. Its orbit crosses Earth’s, and there’s a roughly 1-in-2,700 chance that it could collide with our home planet in the late 2100s.
R.I.P. Mario Molina: The Nobel-winning chemist determined that household chemicals would threaten the Earth’s ozone layer. He fought political pressure to push for an international treaty, which reduced CFC’s, saved the ozone layer, and helped slow aspects of climate change, the New York Times reported. “The world is a better place because of Mario,” former Vice President Al Gore said of Molina, who died of a heart attack on October 7 in Mexico City. He was 77.
Invisible beauty: It takes microscopes to capture the colorful intricacy of a freshwater snail’s tongue, a water flea’s translucent head, or the fins of a baby zebrafish. And it takes an annual contest to bring a set of these miraculous images to the public. See the winners of the latest Small World Photomicrography Competition. (Above, five stacked images of a clownfish embryo show stages of its development—from hours after fertilization to hours before hatching.)
In a hurry: Researchers have found what they say are fossilized track prints of a prehistoric woman swiftly carrying a child nearly a mile in the presence of predators. They discovered what they claim is the longest trackway of fossil footprints in the White Sands National Park in New Mexico. The prints were spotted in a dried-up lakebed, full of footprints from 11,550 years ago to 13,000 years ago. Writing for The Conversation, the researchers said the woman’s path was remarkable for its straightness—and because she retraced her steps back near it a few hours later.
Instagram photo of the day
A surprise, even for a storm hunter: It takes a lot to impress Arizona-based photographer Mike Olbinski. But he was impressed on June 20, when he captured an image of what he called “The BEAST” approaching Dodge City, Kansas. “Was hard to believe the stunning structure flashing constantly before my eyes. Chased so many sups (supercell thunderstorms) on this day,” Olbinski writes. And yes, he survived the chase. This image first appeared on our Nat Geo Adventure page on Instagram.
Related: When storms arrive, here’s why we run toward danger
The night skies
A galaxy far, far away: With moonless nights this week, sky-watchers can hunt for the most distant object our eye can see: the Andromeda Galaxy. Though it is 2.7 million light-years away, Andromeda is the closest neighboring large galaxy to our Milky Way. And it can be found in its namesake constellation, visible in the evening when it is rising in the east. Start your search by finding the bright constellation Cassiopeia, shaped like a lopsided W. Use the right-side of the W as an arrow pointing downward to find the faint blob that marks the bright core of Andromeda. Binoculars and small telescopes will easily unveil the galaxy’s spindle shape, which spans 150,000 light-years across. —Andrew Fazekas
Related: Who gets to choose whom NASA sends into space? She does.
The big takeaway
Supercharged: That’s what weaker tropical storms and hurricanes can do to the powerful storms that follow them, Nat Geo’s Alejandra Borunda reports. How? A previous storm’s effect on hot, shallow waters such as the Gulf of Mexico—coupled with hot weather—can create the conditions to amplify the next storm. The study showed how it worked in 2018 with Tropical Storm Gordon and the more powerful Hurricane Michael. The scenario “supercharged the ocean battery” that powered Michael, says oceanographer Brian Dzwonkowski. Michael was the most intense hurricane recorded to make landfall in the Florida Panhandle. (Pictured above, floodwaters from Hurricane Delta surround a Louisiana structure damaged weeks earlier by Hurricane Laura.)
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
T. rex mystery: Who paid $31.8 million for the bones of Stan? That’s the nickname of the fossil of a mostly complete, 39-foot-long Tyrannosaurus rex (pictured above) dug up nearly three decades ago in South Dakota. A week after the auction hammer fell, we still don’t know who bought Stan. Scientists are stunned—and furious—not knowing if researchers have lost access to the dino’s bones. “If this kind of money [were] invested properly, it could easily fund 15 permanent dinosaur research positions, or about 80 full field expeditions per year, in perpetuity,” paleontologist David Evans told our Michael Greshko. The sale has raised the stakes in a long-running fossil war between museums and private collectors.
A note on our lead images: Photographer Giles Price has been using thermal technology in his images for years. Here’s a look at his technique.