Scientific American January 2011: On Newsstands December 28
The Latest in Science News
Infectious Disease: Flu factories (p 46)
Our regulatory and surveillance system for virus detection in pig farms did not change much in response to last year's H1N1 influenza pandemic, despite it underscoring the possibility of viruses jumping from pigs to humans. Helen Branswell writes in this month's Scientific American of the gaping holes that leave space for future possible pandemics to arise.
The U.S. is the world's second largest pork producer with 115 million hogs being processed in U.S. slaughterhouses last year. Presently, the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention do not require independent surveillance or testing of hog farms, even though the precedent has been set: after the 1997 avian flu scare, scientists developed their own surveillance programs to detect dangerous viruses that could jump from birds to people. Humans are even more susceptible to viruses from pigs since swine viruses jump to people much easier than avian viruses.
Though the CDC and USDA have launched a compromise program to better monitor pig farms, as Branswell notes, "...the program, which is still getting off the ground, cannot work without the cooperation of pork producers, who have to date been reluctant to support what many see as a bid by government to meddle in their affairs." As hesitant as pig farmers are, another swine flu pandemic would be even worse negative publicity.
Science Agenda: A political wish list (p 12)
When the new Congress takes office in January it will be facing many urgent issues in science, health and environment. Instead of building partisan road blocks, members should work together to ensure the advancement of science, argue the editors in this month's issue of Scientific American. "The study of disease ... and scientific research in general, boosts economic growth, creates jobs and often ends up saving taxpayers money, as do improving infrastructure, supporting small farmers and promoting green energy."
The editors highlight four general topics that should be on the top of the agenda for Congress and the Obama administration during the next two years: cut federal subsidies for large farms by encouraging a progressive return to sustainable, integrated farming; encourage low-carbon electricity options for generating clean power; implement policies that ensure the Internet remains free and open; and ratify the World Health Organization's recommendations on how to reduce smoking.
TechnoFiles: Don't worry about who's watching (p 32)
Privacy concerns are exaggerated, even in our always-connected world, argues David Pogue in a column in this month's Scientific American.
There are, of course, good reasons to protect privacy. People wouldn't want their financial, medical or voting records to stop them from getting a job-or a date-for example. But is anyone really interested in what groceries we buy? Pogue argues that privacy fears have always been an emotional reaction rather than a rational one, and are increasingly alien to the younger generation who freely broadcast their location via online services such as Facebook and Foursquare.
"Some aspects of your privacy have been gone for years," Pogue concludes, for instance, credit cards leave a trail and telephones give phone companies a record of who calls whom and when. "The fear you feel may be real, but the chances of someone actually looking up the boring details of your life are reassuringly small."
Forum: Diplomacy's meltdown (p 14)
The solution to gridlock in the diplomacy of global warming policies is not grand treaties such as the Kyoto Protocol or the Copenhagen Accord of 2009, but smaller initiatives aligned with what each individual nation can honor, writes David G. Victor in this month's issue of Scientific American.
Stringent treaties that require of cuts in emissions for all nations-rich and poor-are years away from feasibility. In the meantime, developing countries are making local strides by curbing deforestation and controlling carbon emissions. In fact, writes Victor, although "the conventional wisdom holds that developing countries are the main villains," in global warming talks, in reality China, India, Brazil and other developing countries are leading the way in making changes to curb emissions. The best way forward is not to try to throw billions of dollars at the issue, but to work on smaller policies aligned with the local concerns-such as urban air pollution-that nations can really honor.
Computer Science: Rise of the robo scientists (p 72)
Robots can devise a hypothesis, conduct an experiment to test it and analyze the results-without human intervention-but are these machines scientists? In an article in this month's Scientific American, Ross D. King examines whether scientific discovery can be automated.
King and his colleagues developed a robot called Adam that experiments on yeast. Adam is not humanoid; rather, it is a complex, automated lab, whose parts include: a freezer, liquid-handling robots, robotic arms and a computational brain. After being programmed with background knowledge about the metabolism and functional genomics of yeast, Adam devised new hypotheses and tested them experimentally. Adam can design experiments that examine many hypotheses at once, whereas human scientists usually take one at a time.
Though the idea is scintillating, present day scientists don't seem to be able to agree if robots of the future can become scientists. Physics Nobel laureate Philip Anderson contends that paradigm-shifting science may be too profound to be accessible to robots. However, another physics Nobel laureate, Franz Wilczek has written that in 100 years, the best physicist will be a machine. "Time will tell," concludes King, "who is correct." He suggests that if human and robot scientists collaborate-with contrasting strengths and weaknesses-they can achieve more than either one alone.
And finally...The Science of Health: Curing the common cold (p 30)
Future treatments for the common cold could hamper immune responses and cause side effects that are more severe than the original cold symptoms. An article in this month's Scientific American examines recent developments in both vaccines and treatments for colds and explores promising directions.
Although many have dreamed of a cure for the common cold, this reality has eluded us after more than fifty years of research. Attempting to tackle rhinoviruses, which cause many colds, through vaccination strategies is tricky because they mutate quickly and evade the immune system. But finding cures is virtually impossible, since the illness won't kill you, the treatment has to be "safe as water." As the article concludes, the central problem with curing the cold is that "the cure may be worse than the inconvenience.">