Pandemics

Today’s news is littered with reports of Monkeypox, long Covid, variants BA.4 and BA.5 and their skill at evading previous immunity, and rising rates of reinfection.  And the serious and death rates keep rising.  But this isn’t new news. 

  • In 1346-53 the Black Death caused an estimated death of 25 million people across the world in the 14th century. According to scientists, the outbreak was caused by a bacteria called Yersinia pestis. This Bubonic Plague lasted for about four years. 
  • Flu pandemics in 1889-90, 
  • Spanish flu 1918-20, 
  • Asian flu 1957-58, 
  • AIDS in 1981, 
  • Ebola, SARS
  • and on they go

Covid and Plague similarities

The Bubonic plague, wiping out 25 million people and Covid with 6.5 million deaths are both deadly epidemics. Both evolved from the East, spread among the population in cities and towns, and made its way to different countries through international trade. There is  mounting evidence that an Ebola-like virus was the actual cause of the Black Death and not spread by flea-ridden rats.

Safeguards for Covid include face masks and full protection suits or PPE. For the Black death the European ‘plague doctor’ ( Medico della Peste), wore a long cloak and grotesque bird-like mask. The eccentric headpiece served as a kind of primitive ‘gas mask’ for medical practitioners in 17th-century Europe, designed to protect its wearer from the foul odours associated with the plague.

The plague doctors primary responsibilities were more administrative and laborious to tally and keep track of casualties, assisting in the occasional autopsy, or witnessing wills for the dead and dying. By the time of the 17th-century though, physicians had subscribed to miasma theory, which was the idea that contagion spread through foul-smelling air. Prior to this time, plague doctors wore a variety of protective suits but it wasn’t until 1619 that a “uniform” was invented by Charles de l’Orme, the chief physician to Louis XIII. This uniform consisted of a waxed leather coat, leggings, boots, and gloves intended to deflect miasmas from head to toe. The suit was then coated in suet, hard white animal fat, to repel bodily fluids. The plague doctor also donned a prominent black hat to indicate that they were, in fact, a doctor.

PPE – Then and Now

The full PPE for today’s medical staff consists of a tight fitting surgical face mask, articulate filter respirators (such as P2 or N95), gloves, goggles, glasses, face shields, gowns and aprons.

Viruses

We live in a world of viruses that are unfathomably diverse, immeasurably abundant. The oceans alone may contain more viral particles than stars in the observable universe. Mammals may carry at least 320,000 different species of viruses. About 60% of infectious diseases can be attributed to viruses, bacteria and pathogens. Viruses evolve fast. Exceptionally fast. Faster than any other organism on Earth—and the new coronavirus is no exception.

As long as there are vulnerable populations that can be infected, the virus will transmit, replicate, and mutate, evolving as it spreads. Evolution by natural selection is a law of biology in the same way that gravity is a law of physics; it is a literal force of nature. Continued spread of this virus will lead to further mutation, new variants, more deaths, and an ongoing pandemic.

The human body contains a plethora of microscopic bugs – bacteria, Protozoa, fungi etc. Very few cause disease, and the majority exist in a symbiotic relationship. Some devour dead skin, others help to break down indigestible molecules, whilst our bodies provide food and shelter.

Bacteria v Viruses

Bacteria are the direct descendants of earliest life on earth and are the smallest microbes which can survive without help from any other living thing. A virus is up to 500 times smaller than bacteria. The word ‘virus’ means a submicroscopic entity.

Viruses on the other hand cannot ‘graze’ on us.  They have to penetrate our living cells in order to survive. They are parasites, taking what they need and giving mouthing in return. They are clever, subversive, subtle and ingenious.  They appear to plan an attack and survival strategy, but have no brain.

Virus activity

Once a virus is in a host it has but a short time to invade a cell and establish an infection. War is declared between the host’s immune system and the virus. 

As a virus replicates, its genes undergo random “copying errors” (i.e. genetic mutations). Over time, these genetic copying errors can, among other changes to the virus, lead to alterations in the virus’s surface proteins or antigens. Our immune system uses these antigens to recognise and fight the virus. This change of mutations in the surface proteins of the virus is antigenic.  

  • “Antigenic drift” where the surface proteins trigger immune responses in the host.  The small changes that occur from this antigenic drift usually produce closely related viruses with similar properties. However, the small changes associated with antigenic drift can accumulate over time and result in viruses that are antigenically different such that a person’s existing antibodies won’t recognize and neutralize the newer viruses.
  • Another type of change is called “antigenic shift.” Shift is an abrupt, major change that can result in a new subtype – a new novel virus. Fortunately these Shifts happen less frequently. When a virus undergoes both antigenic drift and shift then this can give rise to a pandemic.

How did viruses evolve?  

Were they rogue pieces of genetic material that have broken free from chromosomes and reproduce independently.  ‘Jumping genes’ free themselves from the DNA chain of a chromosome and rejoin at another site but are trapped within a cell.  The answer is not clear and scientists are still investigating.

Understanding Viruses

Scientists studying the ‘flu virus and how it changes to escape natural or vaccine-elicited immunity, have a clearer understanding of viruses. That’s why they constantly update influenza vaccines as they change in the two main ways, antigenic drift and antigenic shift.

However without viruses humans wouldn’t have evolved.  There are two lengths of DNA that originated from viruses and now reside in the genomes of humans and other primates, for instance, without which—an astonishing fact—pregnancy would be impossible. 

Although viruses are parasites, sometimes that parasitism is more like symbiosis, mutual dependence that profits both visitor and host. Viruses are easier to describe than to define. Each viral particle consists of a stretch of genetic instructions (written either in DNA or that other information-bearing molecule, RNA) packaged inside a protein capsule (known as a capsid). The capsid, in some cases, is surrounded by a membranous envelope (like the caramel on a caramel apple), which protects it and helps it catch hold of a cell. A virus can copy itself only by entering a cell and commandeering the 3D-printing machinery that turns genetic information into proteins. If the host cell is unlucky, many new viral particles are manufactured, they come busting out, and the cell is left as wreckage.  However if the host cell is lucky, the virus could simply settle back by going dormant or back-engineering its genome into the hosts.

The future

How viruses originated or how they are able to mutate and survive is still keeping scientists busy.

How dull would it be?

Have you ever thought how life would be if you couldn’t read or write?

Tom Mole’s book “The Secret Life of Books” summed up our love of books and how they transformed us. I found this book was well written, humorous and convincing.

In Maryanne Wolf’s book “Reader come home: the reading brain in a digital world” she chronicles changes in the brains of children and adults as they learn to read while immersed in a digitally dominated medium and is concerned over the inability of young readers to concentrate completely and develop a deeper and questioning mind whilst reading. Wolf is a cognitive neuroscientist and an advocate for children and literacy around the world. The reviews on her book are mixed. The book is written as a series of letters to enhance a more personal feel for the reader. I found I lost interest and agreed with some of her reviewers. One stated “ Wolf never uses 15 words where she can use 60. She never uses a ‘common’ word when she can use a longer, lesser-known one.” Another reviewer stated “Almost every page in this book has a pithy quote or anecdote from three or four different literary/historical figures and it’s just so tiresome I can’t continue.” She blames digital interruptions, for example adverts, and wandering off topic, and skimming as reasons for loss of attention. As an adult I would argue that it is only true if one lets these distractions dictate one’s reading. The arguments weren’t balanced. There are good reasons for skimming. Learning to keep focused despite the distractions is a discipline but not impossible to achieve.

There is a school of thought that reading on e-readers or digital devices is the death of the paper books. I like both forms. I prefer the convenience of being able to carry several books on my e-reader and also being able to curl up in bed with a book in a lightweight device. Also I don’t feel reading on my Kindle stops me from being transported into the world the author has created. Wolf believes reading paper books in the early years leads to a better deeper understanding and better concentration.

Were our brains made for reading?

Human brains are naturally wired to speak; they are not naturally wired to read and write. With teaching, children typically learn to read at about age 5 or 6 and need several years to master the skill. Reading and writing are acquired skills for which the human brain is not yet fully evolved (Liberman, Shankweiler, & Liberman, 1989). Sophisticated reading comprehension is the goal of 8 to 16 more years of schooling.

It’s been over a century since scientists identified an area of the brain that serves as its “letterbox.” The “visual word form area,” or VWFA, recognizes letter and word shapes before sending them on to the brain’s language regions for processing.

The researchers found that even in the newborns who were less than a week old, the VWFA was different from the visual cortex in that it already had connections to the language areas of the brain. While the VWFA and visual cortex share some characteristics — they both require high spatial resolution in order to accurately comprehend what they’re seeing — the study reveals that “the VWFA is specialized to see words even before we’re exposed to them.”

Students with a reading disability, including dyslexia, are not able to access the reading centres in rear left of the brain. Wolf argues that Dyslexia is the result of a brain that’s organized in a different way that needs different teaching methods. If they don’t receive tuition to read they show anxiety and frustration

Learning to read involves training our visual system to recognize patterns—the patterns exhibited by text. You can approximate the feeling of illiteracy by taking a page written in a familiar script and language and turning it upside down. Try this now and attempt to read the following paragraph. This exercise only approximates the feeling of illiteracy. You will discover that the inverted text appears foreign and illegible at first, but after a minute you will be able to read it, albeit slowly and laboriously.

˙ʞǝǝʍ ɐ sǝʇnuᴉɯ 06 ɹoɟ ǝnbᴉuɥɔǝʇ sᴉɥʇ ƃuᴉɔᴉʇɔɐɹd ʎlǝɹǝɯ ʎq sʞǝǝʍ 0Ɩ ɹǝʌo ǝʇnuᴉɯ ɹǝd spɹoʍ ϛƐ ʎq pǝǝds ƃuᴉpɐǝɹ uʍop-ǝpᴉsdn pǝʌoɹdɯᴉ ǝldoǝd punoɟ ʇɐɥʇ ʎpnʇs ㄣƖ0ᄅ ɐ uᴉ pǝlɐǝʌǝɹ sɐʍ sᴉɥ┴ ˙ǝʌoɹdɯᴉ uɐɔ ǝuoʎuɐ ʇsoɯlɐ ɥɔᴉɥʍ ʇɐ llᴉʞs ɐ sᴉ sᴉɥʇ ‘ɹǝʇʇǝq uǝʌƎ ˙pɐǝɹ noʎ ʇɐɥʍ ɟo sǝᴉɹoɯǝɯ ɹnoʎ sǝʌoɹdɯᴉ ʎlʇuɐɔᴉɟᴉuƃᴉs uʍop ǝpᴉsdn spɹoʍ ƃuᴉpɐǝɹ

Learning to read also involves training the brain’s systems that control eye movement to move our eyes in a specific way over text. The main direction of eye movement depends on the direction in which the language we are reading is written. Our eyes constantly jump around, several times a second. Each of these movements, called saccades, lasts about 0.1 second. Saccades are ballistic, like firing a shell from a cannon: their endpoint is determined when they are triggered, and once triggered, they always execute to completion.

When we read, we may feel that our eyes scan smoothly across the lines of text, but that feeling is incorrect. In reality, our eyes continue with saccades during reading, but the movements generally follow the line of text. They fix our fovea on a word, pause there for a fraction of a second to allow basic patterns to be captured and transmitted to the brain for further analysis. then jump to the next important word.

Restricted lending?

The Internet Archive is a non-profit library of millions of free books, movies, software, music, websites, and more, including a useful site for reviewing older website pages. They announced that they were fighting the right for libraries to lend books freely. Four large publishing companies have filed a lawsuit to criminalise lending. The Internet Archive and other libraries make and lend out digital scans of print books in our collections, subject to strict technical controls. Each book loaned via CDL has already been bought and paid for, so authors and publishers have already been fully compensated for those books, but the claim is that this violates their copyrights.

The question is “Should we stop libraries from owning and lending books?”

What’s under the crust?

No this isn’t about pies I read an interesting account about the earth’s deep blobs, the size of continents, that sit in the lower mantle of the earth, which is just above the earth’s core.  This mantle is a layer of abundant rocks and dry oceans.  The rocks are interspersed with a kaleidoscope of crystals, from diamonds. They survive under immense pressures that if they could be brought to the earth’s surface would break up.  In addition to the rocks is an “ocean” which doesn’t contain any liquid; the water being trapped within the mineral olivine.

The rocks are mainly bridgmanite and davemaoite.  Bridgmanite has also been found in minute quantities in meteorites and US geologists have found tiny amounts of davemaoite in a diamond from the Orapa kimberlite pipe in Botswana,

Davemaoite was the name given to honour the prominent experimental high-pressure geophysicist Ho-kwang (Dave) Mao.  Bridgmanite is named in honour of the physicist Percy Bridgman.  It is  the most abundant mineral in the lower mantle of the earth.

These elusive minerals can only be seen in their natural form when they become trapped inside diamonds brought to the surface. Even then, what these crystals would actually look like deep inside the Earth is impossible to predict, because their physical properties are so altered by the pressures they usually exist under.

Understanding the blobs could help to unravel some of geology’s most enduring mysteries, such as how the Earth formed, the ultimate fate of the “ghost” planet Theia, and the inexplicable presence of volcanoes in certain locations around the globe. They may even shed light on the ways the Earth is likely to change over the coming millennia.

The Russians embarked on an ambitious exploration into the earth and in 24 years had reached some 12,000m underground until the drill became stuck as the granite ceased to be drillable due to the intense heat of the earth’s interior.  

Even using seismic instruments and methods geologists have a lot to discover about the structure and composition of the earth’s inner mantle.

Read more  

Looking at a map of Earth today may appear differently in the future.

Geologists know that supercontinents disperse and assemble in cycles: we’re halfway through one now. So, what kind of supercontinent might lie in Earth’s future? How will the landmasses as we know them rearrange over the very long-term? It turns out that there are at least four different trajectories that could lie ahead.

Earthquakes of this scale usually happen on or near major subduction zones, where oceanic plates plunge beneath the continents and are melted and consumed in the hot mantle. They involve collision and destruction. The 1755 quake, however, happened along a “passive” boundary, where the ocean plate underlying the Atlantic transitions smoothly into the continents of Europe and Africa.

Joao Duarte, a geologist at the University of Lisbon, realised that, if this happens, it could lead to the Atlantic eventually closing. And if the Pacific continued to close too – which is already occurring along the sub-ducting “Ring of Fire” circling it ­– a new supercontinent would eventually form. He named it Aurica, named because the former landmasses of Australia and the Americas would sit at its centre.

The four scenarios

He combined with another geologist Hannah Davies, and oceanographer Matthias Green at Bangor University. Their work led to four scenarios. They then collaborated with Michael Way, a physicist at the Nasa Goddard Institute for Space Studies. Way’s modelling of the supercontinent climates – which took months using a supercomputer – revealed some striking variations between  the four scenarios.

This modelling is speculative, and there may be unanticipated geological surprises that change the outcome. However, what can be said for certain is that the landmasses we take for granted will one day rearrange into an entirely new configuration. Countries once isolated from one another will be close neighbours.

Read more

Which Strategies Does Cognitive Behavioural Therapy for Insomnia Have? — Damon Ashworth Psychology

Chronic sleep problems such as insomnia do not go away without appropriate treatment1. Once people start to sleep poorly, they tend to develop ways of thinking and behaviours around sleep that worsen their problems over the long run2. Fortunately, cognitive behavioural therapy for insomnia (CBT-I) can improve your sleep, as it directly targets these unhelpful thoughts […]

Which Strategies Does Cognitive Behavioural Therapy for Insomnia Have? — Damon Ashworth Psychology

The Importance of Sleep for Good Mental Health — Damon Ashworth Psychology

Having difficulty sleeping? It’s not uncommon.

Once you cannot sleep well Worse still, Insomnia does not tend to go away on its own without appropriate treatment. This is because once people start to sleep poorly, they tend to develop ways of thinking and behaving around sleep that make their problems worse over the long run.

Psychologists often use a method called CBTI. Cognitive behavioral therapy for insomnia (CBT-I or CBTI) is a short, structured, and evidence-based approach to combating the frustrating symptoms of insomnia.

Research shows that CBT-I consistently reduces the time taken to get to sleep, decreases the amount of time spent awake during the night, and improves sleep quality and efficiency, with improvements persisting after treatment finishes. This is unlike sleeping pills, which typically lead to sleep difficulties coming back once people with insomnia stop taking them.

Damon Ashworth describes this in more detail in his blog.

Learning about positive sleep habits is a core part of CBT-I. Tailoring recommendations is best done with the help of a doctor or CBT-I provider. In the meantime, here are some basic tenets of sleep hygiene that anyone coping with sleep issues may find helpful.

  • Maintain a sleep schedule: Having a regular, predictable sleep schedule can help your body maintain a rhythm and make it easier to fall asleep. This includes weekends too, which are a common time to forget about the importance of sleep.
  • Don’t lie awake in bed: If you can’t sleep, get out of bed and find something relaxing to do until you feel tired again.
  • Create a nightly routine: Give yourself enough time to get ready for bed. Turn off your electronics early and find some relaxing activities that help you wind down before sleep.
  • Consider daytime activities: What you do during the day really counts. Even a small amount of exercise can help you sleep better. Also try to avoid eating, alcohol, and caffeine too close to bedtime.