In an exciting week, I’m reminded that science is less about knowing things with certainty, and much more about knowing how to deal with uncertainty. A growing debate amongst scientists regarding the best policies to fight the second wave of the pandemic draws attention to this.
Working with people in a scientific context, I’ve noticed a disparity between the precision offered by language and the concepts it communicates. Physical parameters such as heart rate, body temperature, blood pressure, oxygen saturation, and white blood cell count can all be measure and conveyed, which will give an indication of someone’s physical health. Scientific concepts such as the Brillouin zone may not be commonly discussed, but when communicated there is a precise understanding being shared. Concepts such as love, stress, and pain, are much more frequently discussed, but it difficult to ensure what is being expressed by the speaker is also being understood by the listeners. In some conversations, it is easy to remove ambiguity through numbers: “it was a heavy bag” becomes “it was a 30 kg bag” or “the car was driving fast” becomes “the car was driving 100 km/h”. In contrast, I am yet to learn how to make “the cut hurt” or “they love her” more precise.
Starting something new is hard. Elon Musk describes founding a startup as “like eating glass and staring into the abyss“. In trying to better understand stress I found this NASA technical report describing the effect of stress on human cognition. It begins with the difficulty of defining what “stress” actually is, and the document as a whole serves as an example of the difficulty of bringing scientific precision to a commonly understood concept.
Energy and power are more accurately described than emotional states. This paper titled Human power (HP) as a viable electricity portfolio option below 20 W/Capita includes a numerical description of the amount of power (i.e energy per unit time) that a human can exert. Novice runners often start out too fast, and thus feel they “cannot run for more than 10 minutes”. The chart below explains this: the power output that is comfortable for around 1 minute (e.g. rushing for a bus) is unsustainable for a longer effort.
This week I’m sharing a quote, a tweet, and a library.
Quote I’m Pondering
“The faintest ink is more powerful than the strongest memory.“
Human memory is fallible, where written notes do not forget. The quote encourages note taking, but implementing that lesson is not trivial. As the exercise of observing a candle can demonstrate, a common occurrence can give rise to tens of distinct observations. Time is finite, and so is the detail in which notes can be taken. I tend to take comprehensive notes inconsistently, which suggests that I attempt an unsustainable level of detail. Ultimately the value of memory or note taking to a situation that has not yet occurred is unknown.
Problems in Science
Science can seem apolitical from the outside, it is often perceived as a rational and collaborative exercise in furthering understanding of the natural world. In reality humans, their endeavours, and the systems they build to achieve them, are all flawed. The incentives of academic research prioritise production of highly cited research papers, creating races to publish ideas first, which ultimately stifles collaboration and sharing. This tweet shares the story of an observation stolen by a visiting professor. The subsequent conversation between scientists in the thread reveals a nasty and paranoid reality of scientific research.
As scientific research on SARS-CoV-2 is published, the general public is becoming more aware of preprint servers, redaction, and the messy side of science. I have not kept up with the deluge of publications, but a few friends have been asking for my opinion on some headlines. I shared the following observation:
As universities shut down, scientists saw the opportunity to return to doing research (which they enjoy) by studying SARS-CoV-2 in their field. Hypothetically, a group that studies kidney disease, might look into the effect of COVID-19 on the kidney. It’s improbable that a respiratory disease improves kidney function, so if an effect is observed it is probably detrimental. The likely result will be a publication linking SARS-CoV-2 and kidney deterioration. It may well be the case that common strains of corona-virus or influenza (or any illness) have a similar negative effect on the kidney that, under normal circumstances, would not be of a sufficient magnitude or interest to investigate. In this way, scientific publications and the resulting mainstream media headlines might cause undue alarm simply due to the unusual focus of the entire scientific community on a single disease.
By a similar mechanism to over-policing, intensive research focus can make a disease seem worse than similar, less investigated diseases. Be careful what you look for, you might actually find it.
Quote I’m Pondering
You cannot hope to build a better world without improving the individuals. To that end each of us must work for his own improvement, and at the same time share a general responsibility for all humanity, our particular duty being to aid those to whom we think we can be most useful.
As a People Growth Engineer, my personal interest in self improvement is now linked to my professional responsibilities. ONI, through democratising life science research, is building a better world, but for us to achieve this we need to improve as a company, and therefore as individuals. Personal development and self improvement can feel selfish, but along with observing Curie’s duty “to aid those to whom we think we can be most useful”, individual improvements do lead to a better world for all.
Following the Killing of George Floyd in Minnesota, protests against racism have spread across the US and the world, including here in Oxford. The police should not kill people. People should not fear violence or death from the police. Black lives matter. Going beyond these general, and hopefully obvious, statements requires looking into an incredibly complex set of historical, socio-economic, and policy questions. I tried to read and synthesise a meaningful comment this weekend, and was overwhelmed. I fear that the outpouring of emotion in these protests becomes twisted into a force for further political polarisation. In 2014 Police Chief Edward Flynn made comments that have stuck with me since; it is worth remembering that the ugliness of the world is faced and fought daily by good people, and we ought not forget their courage and sacrifice when people who look like them do terrible things.
This week I have had more autonomy in how I allocate my time at work. While I enjoyed the freedom, it also created expectations to perform. I might aspire to a stoic determination around ideas of “never complain, never give excuses”, but having actual excuses be removed increases the pressure I feel to deliver.
Caterpillars in Shotover
On the recommendation of a friend I ran in Shotover Country Park this weekend (see Photos from the Week below). The trails are well kept and soft under foot. There is a good variety of long steady climbs, short punchy climbs, and beautiful flat sections, great for all manner of training. There were also thousands of small (1 cm or so) caterpillars hanging from trees which I was inevitably coated in. Curious, I turned to the scientific literature and found a comprehensive description of this behaviour in the appropriately named journal Animal Behaviour. As it turns out, this is a defence mechanism to avoid predators (stink bugs and wasps). When the caterpillars detect the vibrations their predators make when hunting nearby, they dangle themselves from silk threads to escape being eaten. Interestingly they can differentiate the vibrations of wasps and stink bugs (two predators), and dangle further (30 cm) for wasps than the less adept stink bugs (only 10 cm of dangling). Not only did the study record and artificially replicate the vibrations caused by the predators to confirm this, they also measured that the extra dangling significantly increased survival in response to the wasps, but was not needed for the stink bugs. Science is awesome. Unfortunately for these caterpillars, the extra dangling also made them much more likely to become unwilling passengers on my run. Good pictures of them in this tweet.
Short Observations on Social Pressure
I remember being taught about peer pressure at school. Usually the intention was that if children are aware of what is motivating them to do something the teacher or parent thinks is negative, that they will be less likely to behave in that way. I would like to think that I’ve become more aware since I was a child, and yet peer pressure still nudges me to make bad choices. I was tagged in a run by a friend as part of a “5k for the NHS challenge”. He ran under 20 minutes and, being competitive, I wanted to beat that time. It is something that I feels possible, but would require a more intense change of pace than what seems reasonable given my current training. I really felt pressure, for about 10 days, to go out and try and run a sub 20 5k, which would have been a mistake. With other more significant pressures in my life at the moment, it is interesting to note that such a trivial (and well meaning) nudge to perform can cause such an emotional burden.
Of course the other side of this is that I was motivated to give £5 to the NHS. I have often been cynical about runners raising money for charity: the run seems so unnecessary, even costly, as the event costs could also go to the charitable cause. Fun runs do align with some causes, as exercise reduces susceptibility to cardiovascular diseases and diabetes, but in general it seems contrived to me. I must concede though, that had I not been nudged to donate via Strava, I would not have donated that £5. From this single point of data, it has been effective.
Stuff I’m reading at the moment
Measure What Matters by John Doerr, and Leading by Alex Ferguson and Michael Moritz. I am hoping to get some summarised thoughts out soon.
Priorities become clear in a crisis. The pandemic continues to dominate life, news, and my research. I continue to cope well despite long hours most days, largely (as I’ve discussed in the last couple weeks) due to a community of supportive people around me along with a good diet and regular exercise. Another reason I’ve noticed is “crisis mode” narrows my focus onto a few specific tasks, removing choices, and thus I avoid decision fatigue. I am lucky that there are so many possibilities in my regular life, but invariably I end up feeling torn between possible commitments. In lock-down I can only be at home or in the lab, so I am not choosing between interesting lectures in Oxford, or potential hiking trips, or social events. There is much less fear of missing out, when there is less to miss out on.
Other thoughts from the week:
Will ending lock-down lead to a sudden increase in injuries?
I suspect when lock-down ends and gyms reopen, some proportion of people returning to their workouts after several weeks off will injure themselves. There have been several unexpected effects of the pandemic, such as a decline in accident and emergency admissions (perhaps because increases in hand-washing have led to fewer incidents of food poisoning, or perhaps because people are afraid of contracting COVID-19 by going to hospital). Gyms are closed to prevent transmission of the disease, and so people are not training and their strength and technique are diminishing. Though I hope everyone will return to training accounting for the break when gyms eventually reopen, I suspect there will be a measurable minority who attempt to resume at their pre-lock-down fitness and overexert themselves, resulting in injury and increased demand on rehabilitation services.
Things that seem special may not be
SARS-CoV-2 likely originated in animals (probably bats), making it a zoonotic disease. Bats have been known to carry diseases that can be transmitted to humans including marburg, the previous SARS, and Ebola. Naturally this raises questions about some special attribute of bats that make them more likely to spawn pandemic generating viruses. This paper from the University of Glasgow suggests that the only thing “special” about bats is their diversity. Together with the commonly disease associated Rodentia (rodents), Chiroptera (bats) account for 3938 species, or 60% of all mammal species. If viruses are randomly distributed amongst mammals, and the ability of those viruses to then infect humans is similarly random, then the observed frequency of diseases like COVID-19 coming from bats is explained without any special attribute of bats themselves.
This is a good reminder of a general principle, that because what we observe is so small relative to totality of existence, we are much more likely to attribute “special” meaning to general phenomena. I think this is most useful to remember when it comes to relationship and personal problems, as we assume our uniqueness implies a uniqueness of our problems. An example from this TED talk on depression describes a couple who are both hiding their prescription for antidepressants from each other because they both feel the other could not possibly understand.
It has been an intense week. I am in the lab most waking hours working on COVID-19 projects. To make consecutive long days viable, I prioritise hard exercise in down time as I find it helps keep my health (physical and mental) in a good place. My efforts are only possible because the team at ONI is so supportive, be they working beside me at the bench, in the machine shop on the other side of the building, or coordinating supplies from home. It has been exhilarating to be part of a sudden surge in scientific effort, and I have found the wider scientific community to be universally selfless in their willingness to help.
Things to share this week
COVID-19 Again the media is dominated by discussion of the pandemic. I feel torn about adding to that noise, but my thoughts are now focused on that topic and primarily this blog is where I share what I am thinking about. I continue to be concerned that major media outlets, driven by the need to sell advertising clicks, are tasking journalists without the right medical literacy to create content without much consideration for how useful that content is. My suggestion remains: read from sources that specialise in the area, ignore conventional news coverage of the pandemic. A starting point: WHO Coronavirus Homepage Check with your local health services: US CDC, European CDC, UK NHS, Australia Department of Health. Journals for in depth scientific content: The Lancet, The New England Journal of Medicine, BMJ, and Nature.
My (uninformed) thoughts In Week 11 I was not worried. In Week 12 I was hit by exponential whiplash. My resolve is being tested as governments take economies into lock down and hospitals become overrun. In my note on death I commented that although only 5000 had died at the time of writing, the final toll would likely be in the millions. I take no joy in that prospect and I hope I will be proven wrong. That said, I also feel that stating “millions will die” without the context of the millions who already die each year incites fear beyond the reality of the situation. I stand by the importance of seeing this crisis in the context of others happening simultaneously, e.g. climate change, tropical disease, and obesity. We humans have an incredible power to see into the future, but such a limited desire to take the actions the future tasks us with. This pandemic makes me feel that only when the danger is close in space and time are we spurred to act, and this is something I wish I could change.
Collaboration Nature is running a podcast “Coronapod” and the sentiments from the start of this week’s post are echoed about 15 minutes in; scientists are coming together to help each other.
Hoarding There are reports that the UK is holding £1bn in food that was purchased as the COVID-19 situation became serious. While that is enough to leave me seeing shortages of flour and dry pasta on shelves, a quick division makes that number £15 per person, which means only a little extra spending over a week of “stocking up” can push the complex supply chain of fast moving consumer goods beyond its limits. This small change in perspective makes me feel less frustrated; an average family doubling up on their weekly shop seems foolish but understandable, compared with imagining panicked people filling their cars with pasta and toilet paper. Especially in Britain (where baking is a hobby as much as a source of nutrition) flour stocks could easily sell out as people newly working from home find the opportunity to bake. Furthermore, knowing that the system is tuned so finely to match regular demand makes me feel there is less waste than I had previously intuited. (Side note; in googling for articles on this I came across this guide to how supermarkets nudge you to spend more).
Since I wrote last week about the pandemic, putting it in the context of other global health issues, the total fatalities due to COVID-19 have more than doubled, and major European economies have essentially halted. I had some awareness of the likely rate of spread, but was not anticipating how events have played out, and so count myself among those hit by “exponential whiplash”:
“a cognitive phenomenon that sars-cov-2, the virus which causes covid-19, has been provoking around the world: exponential whiplash. Knowing in principle that something may take only a few days to double in size does little to prepare you for the experience of being continually behind the ever-steepening curve such doubling creates.” The Economist
I shared on LinkedIn this week that ONI is working on research to support the fight against COVID-19 and since Wednesday my productive energy has been focused there. Like many businesses across the UK, a majority of ONI’s staff are working from home, but my skills let me keep working on new projects directly related to SARS-CoV-2. It is exciting and rewarding to be able to do so, but it is also sapping time and energy from my usual pursuits. Given that, I have only a few incomplete thoughts to share:
Things to share this week
Proximity bias It is noticeable to me that these deaths are causing so much more economic and social pressure than the deaths by the causes I listed last week. I guess it is because these deaths are more proximate to wealthy societies, which have won huge victories against infectious diseases. Combined with the panicked behaviour I note below, I feel most people demonstrate they do not find all lives are equally valuable, even though they might espouse that value.
Pandemics vs. Climate Catastrophe Something I’m thinking about: if society knew that these radical measures were necessary to prevent a much larger disaster much further away, would we be able to make the same cuts on air travel, entertainment, and consumption? Could we reinvent our way of life to prevent deaths from climate change, without anyone needing to die first?
Some people are panicking I am hearing first hand accounts of stockpiling from both Australia and the UK; supermarket shelves being emptied despite no larger issues on the supply side. A friend had toilet paper snatched out of her shopping cart. There has been a spike in gun sales in the US. It saddens me to see people act out of fear, and with so much selfishness. I wonder if it is merely a lack of understanding, or a symptom of a more fundamental social focus on individuals vs. collectives.
Some people are too relaxed I was very surprised to see stories in my twitter feed of crowds flocking to climb Mt. Snowdon and filling out beaches in Florida and Bondi. While I am feeling relaxed when it comes to my personal safety, wider compliance with public health directives such as social distancing are needed for those policies to be effective (see also vaccines).
Misleading headlines make me angry Please take care of the media you engage with. I generally feel positive about coverage from the guardian, but headlines like Australian man, 36, diagnosed with coronavirus dies in Iceland are deceptive. It is designed to grab your curiosity (or fear) about the pandemic, and clearly implies that the Australian man was killed by COVID-19. The disease is most lethal in older people, so a younger person dying is notable. But the reality brought by the third sentence is:
“While he was found to be infected with the coronavirus, it is unlikely to have been the cause of his death,” epidemiologist Dr Thorolfur Gudnason,
I.e. an accurate headline is “Australian man, 36, dies in Iceland of unknown causes whilst infected with coronavirus”. This is a problem; in a media saturated landscape many will scroll past the headline in a feed, and it will add to anxiety needlessly.
Harvard Medical Students COVID-19 Curriculum A friend passed on this resource, which I think provides a good balance of brevity and comprehensiveness on the disease.
It was another exciting (but confidential) week at ONI. Evenings included a little live music, training, reading, and trying out the game Terraforming Mars. The increase in daylight going into spring is improving my mood, and conversation continues to be dominated by COVID-19.
Honeywell, as a google image search will suggest, are mostly known for making safety equipment and thermostats. As a chemist, I also am familiar with buying Honeywell research chemicals. In this paper they have revealed that they are also developing quantum computing. While a huge conglomerate like Honeywell doesn’t need its various business units to be aligned, there is a (tenuous) link between thermostats and quantum computing. The delicate states of the ytterbium ions that hold the quantum information require ultra low temperatures, in this case -260.5°C at the trap.
New Zealand has a unique wildlife, including a historic lack of mammals, and subsequent flourishing of bird life. On the arrival of mammals (including us humans) bird life that had existed without predators suffered, but this recent paper shows that is not entirely due to lack of intelligence in birds.
Rockets are expensive, and not just the kind that will get us to Mars. “Israel, for example, routinely expends $50,000 interceptors on home-made rockets that cost about $1,000“. The solution to this? Lasers.