Category Archives: Science

What Is Novichok?

On March 4, 2018, former Russian intelligence officer Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia were poisoned in the English city of Salisbury. Since then, journalists have been scrambling to find out more about the alleged poison, a mysterious substance identified by British authorities as “Novichok”.

First off, it isn’t just one chemical, but appears to be a whole new class of nerve agents, a type of chemical weapons which disrupt the mechanisms by which nerves control vital body functions.

So far, we are familiar with two main classes of nerve agents. The “G-series” was first synthesized by German scientists during World War II. Among this group are tabun, also known as “GA” (invented in 1936), sarin, also known as “GB” (invented in 1939) and soman, also known as “GD” (invented in 1944). (Interesting detail: the Third Reich’s military refused to deploy nerve agents as weapons even though by the end of the war, between 500 kg to 10 tons had been produced. But that’s another story). After the war, GF (cyclosarin) was added to this group in 1949.

The second group, the V-series agents, go back to mostly British development, which was continued with work done the U.S. and the Soviet Union during the Cold War. Members of this class are VE, VG, VM, VR, and VX.

Novichok (Russian: Новичо́к, “newcomer”) seems to be a class of nerve agents different from the two above. It was developed by the Soviet Union during the 1970s and 1980s as part of a secret weapons program reportedly named “Foliant”. The specific intent was to be undetectable by standard NATO methods at the time, to defeat NATO protective gear, and to circumvent the Chemical Weapons Convention list of controlled precursors and classes of chemicals. All in all, over 100 chemical variants were developed and tested.

Most of what little is in the public domain about this can be traced to publications by two Russian chemists, Lev Fedorov and Vil Mirzayanov, writing for the Moskovskiye Novosti weekly in 1992. Mirzayanov claimed he made his disclosure out of environmental concerns, after measuring levels of deadly substances 80 times greater than the maximum safe concentration in the vicinity of Russian chemical weapons facilities. Mirzayanov was arrested in October 1992 and charged with high treason. He served some time in prison, and subsequent to his release, left Russia to live in the U.S. However, during Mirzayanov’s trial, some more details about the Novichok program emerged, and the Russian military was forced to acknowledge the existence of this group of chemicals.

According to Mirzayanov, the most potent compounds from this family, Novichok-5 and Novichok-7, are supposedly around five to eight times more potent than VX. The agents are reportedly capable of being delivered as a liquid, aerosol or gas via a variety of delivery systems, including bombs, missiles, artillery shells and spraying devices.

The absorption of nerve agents into the human body can be by skin contact, ingestion, inhalation or injection. Generally speaking, these chemicals were conceptualized as weapons of mass destruction and for wide dispersement. The pin-point use as murder weapons in targeted assassinations appears to have been an afterthought. But it is now well documented in several instances, such as the murders of Russian banker Ivan Kivelidi and his secretary Zara Ismailov in 1995, or the killing of Kim Jong-nam in Malaysia on February 13, 2017. (The U.S. Department of State has claimed the assassination was a plot conducted by agents of North Korea, using VX).

And here it gets extremely troubling. It would appear that nerve agents, due to their rapid effectiveness in extremely small doses, make ideal weapons for assassinations. However, these chemicals require highly specialized skills and facilities to develop, manufacture and deploy – all of which is difficult to conduct except in the presence of state-sponsored weapons programs. Even where chemical weapons treaties led to the controlled and audited destruction of chemical weapons of mass destruction, there can be no doubt that small batches of all these substances were retained, and that of course, the process of making them (even in very small quantities) is well understood by those who were involved in these military weapons programs.

So are we looking at a coming new era of silent state-sponsored assassinations? Could this become a method for governments or institutions to get rid of regime critics, political dissenters or opponents, alleged traitors, whistleblowers and others deemed a threat, on a large scale?

It could well be. The other options – an illicit trade of these substances, or the possibility that criminal organizations, terrorist groups or rogue individuals may have found ways to cook them up in hidden labs – are equally scary.

Either way this will play out, the future on this issue looks gloomy.

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    Opossum Science

    According to a friend’s recent social media post, a 15-pound opossum has been caught under her house in the Los Angeles area.

    The responses were an interesting, but typical cross section of America’s modern-day urbanites: one well meaning person commented how beneficial opossums were (and listed a whole range of “pest control” supposedly performed by opossums. Another pleaded to have it released alive in some other place “where it could thrive”. Another was concerned about possible “babies somewhere”, and yet another said how sad it was that the opossum “had to leave its home”. One commenter even inquired if the intent of the capture was to keep it as a pet.

    I probably should keep my mouth shut, but the science writer (with some academic background in biology) finds this rather difficult.

    The reason why I find this interesting is because here is a good illustration of what the relationship with nature has turned into — as least in big cities. On the one hand we engineer completely synthetic environments with a couple of dispersed token shrubs and sad trees, as if to distract from the fact that we have sealed and suffocated most of the natural Earth beneath our feet. On the other hand, we romanticize every critter and think if it’s alive out there somehow, it must be part of nature and thus, it has every right to be here among us. In a strange twist, we humans are suddenly said to be “encroaching” on the territory of beasts, and not the other way around. This, after we have thoroughly destroyed or at least altered almost every natural habitat on Earth – or perhaps because of it.

    There are now city slickers in California who are willing to accept the occasional hiker or resident getting killed or maimed by a bear or mountain lion as if this was just an unfortunate but rare and unavoidable accident. I have even seen bizarre comments not suggesting, but proclaiming it was the home owner’s or hiker’s fault for “being in the animal’s habitat”. “Leave the animals alone,” suggested one. “Nobody needs to live there. Nobody needs to go hiking in the backcountry. That’s why we have gyms.”

    People have started to perceive wilderness as if it was just the no-go section of Disneyland, the wild animal zone of the park into which humans should only be allowed with severe restrictions and at their own peril — after obtaining a permit and signing liability waiver and consent forms. And the anthropomorphic worldview of children has not just become mainstream — it is now considered the new normal. This extends also to how mainstream America treats its pets, which, or who, as some have suggested, should be given civil rights independent from their owners.

    But back to opossums. What does science really tell us about them?

    Being the largest order of marsupials in the Western Hemisphere, they are comprised of 103 or more species in 19 genera. None of them is native to California. 

    As far as wildlife zoologists can tell, they were introduced in San Jose in 1910 from the East Coast. They are an invasive species and therefore not well suited to live in the California wilderness at all. Outside of their natural habitat, they are opportunists thriving in or near human habitation, which they exploit. 

    The myth that opossums have all these wonderful benefits is greatly exaggerated, and some of these claims are simply false. Some are a mix of fact and fiction. For example, the immune system of opossums is quite remarkable. They seem to have immunity to many snake venoms, which is a topic of scientific inquiry as it may help us to make better anti-venom for victims of snake bites. Opossums also possess a high degree of natural immunity to the rabies virus. While all this is scientifically very interesting, it is incorrect to assume that the presence of opossums will rid the neighborhood of dangerous snakes.

    Opossums pose a threat to both wildlife outside their natural habitat, and to domestic pets. In California, the purported benefits of opossums could be had with native animals such as raccoons and skunks, on whose territory opossums encroach.

    The University of California’s Integrated Pest Management Program has this to say:

    “Opossums are considered a nuisance in gardens and near homes where they feed on berries, grapes, tree fruits and nuts, and defecate on garden paths and patios. They get into fights with dogs and cats and can inflict serious injury with their mouthful of sharp pointed teeth.

    Opossums carry diseases such as leptospirosis, tuberculosis, relapsing fever, tularemia, spotted fever, toxoplasmosis, coccidiosis, trichomoniasis, and Chagas disease. They may also be infested with fleas, ticks, mites, and lice. Opossums are hosts for cat and dog fleas, especially in urban environments. This flea infestation on opossums is particularly concerning for transmission of flea-borne typhus, which is increasing in prevalence in Orange and Los Angeles Counties.”

    So there you have the scientific truth.

    It should be noted that it is illegal to relocate an opossum without a permit. For two reasons: (1) It has virtually no chance of surviving in the California wilderness, but it might introduce new diseases and parasites acquired near humans and from their pets, to wild animals. (2) It can only thrive by scavenging from human habitation, and releasing a captured opossum near someone’s else’s home amounts to gifting the problem to someone else.

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    R.I.P. L. Stephen Coles, M.D., PhD (1941 – 2014)

    LSCWhat is the maximum human lifespan? Why do we age? What are the causes and their mechanisms? Why do humans tend to live longer than most other mammals? Do we have a built-in “expiration date” – perhaps for the benefit of the species? Can the aging mechanism be delayed or entirely deactivated leading to eternal life?

    These and the related questions were what fascinated Dr. L. Stephen Coles, who in 1990 founded the  Los Angeles Gerontology Research Group, a global network of researchers and parties intrigued by the boundaries of the human life span. Among the group’s primary work is the cataloguing, tracking and studying of so-called “supercentenarians” – people who live past the age of 110. (As of this writing, there are only 76 such humans verified to be living on this planet. 74 of them are women).

    I became intrigued with this subject after reading about Dr. Coles’ work in this Los Angeles Times article in 2004. So I got in touch with him and found a fascinating researcher, inspiring person and mentor.


    Subsequently, I wrote a long-form magazine article on the subject, which was published in a German science magazine. Dr. Coles was the most important and primary source for it. During the many hours we spent talking, I learned to appreciate not only his professional knowledge, but also his humor, gregarious personality and boundless enthusiasm for the hope that science would, very soon, make it possible for humans to live exceedingly longer than today.

    Steve was a passionate proponent of evidence-based science and rational thought, for the prosperity of all mankind. Sadly, he didn’t get to benefit from the future scientific breakthroughs he was hoping for. I was shocked when shortly after Christmas of 2012, there came an e-mail announcing this Steve’s holidays had been rather miserable.

    “I am sad to report that on Christmas Eve (two days ago), I received the
    horrible diagnosis of ‘adenocarcinoma of the head of the pancreas’,” the message read. “BTW, this is the same form of cancer that Steve Jobs CEO of Apple Computer had before he passed away when money was no object. Although I knew that something was wrong with my body for the last three weeks (acute onset of symptoms with the occult tumor possibly growing subclinically for two years or more with no manifestation of its presence until it grew large enough to screw up my internal plumbing by its  sheer volume [about the size of a plum])”.

    Knowing that pancreatic cancer has one of the lowest survival rates of all carcinomas, the first thing that came to my mind was obvious. It was really crushing.

    Of course Steve was perfectly aware of his low odds. He went on writing, “Even in the best of all possible worlds, the mortality statistics after five years of chemo therapy are not great (around 50 percent). Of course, in the event of metastases, one’s life post chemotherapy/radiotherapy are significantly shortened proportionally.”

    And unfortunately, there was metastasis in the liver.

    Various attempts were made – first surgery (the “Whipple Procedure“), then various chemotherapy, as well as some experimental procedures involving the growth of tumor-specific cells in the laboratory.

    While the procedures prolonged Steve’s life to the limits of the statistical prognosis range, they failed in in the end.

    When this final message on Oct. 9, 2014, we all knew this was it. “Update on Health Status,” it said. “In order to be eligible for more services, last week I was placed on hospice care at home.  Now that I have been taken off taxotere, some measures of health have improved.  However, my eligibility for the ECLIPSE clinical trial has been placed on hold pending a decrease in frailty.”

    Steve passed away on December 3, 2014, a few weeks short of living for two years after his diagnosis.

    But the story does not end here. A few days before his death, Steve must have gone on his life’s final journey: From Los Angeles to Scottsdale, Arizona. Located there is the Alcor Life Extension Foundation – coincidentally also an organization which intrigues me, and about which I have also reported in detail.

    Alcor is the leader in “cryonics”. This is an experimental technology which seeks to preserve human bodies through a procedure resulting in suspension of human tissues in liquid nitrogen, at extremely low temperatures, in perpetuity. The hope is that one day in the future, biotechnology will exist to revive these cryogenically “suspended” human bodies, restore them to life by the use of sophisticated nanotechnology, and also deal with whatever the cause of death was.

    Depending on the preferences of the customer, either the entire body, the head or just the brain may be frozen (on the theory that once biotechnology has progressed far enough, it should also be possible to either create a new body, or transfer the brain’s content into a computer system).

    I am not at all surprised that Steve was also intrigued by the idea and made arrangements to implement this option as a last resort.

    And so, Steve’s brain will come to rest in a dewar of liquid nitrogen. Perhaps, one day, he might live again. And he has reportedly made a reservation to attend his colleague Johnny Adams’ 100th birthday party. In the year of 2049.

    I will miss him.


    L. Stephen Coles on Wikipedia

    Gerontology Research Group

    Obituary in the Los Angeles Times


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    Drones Over Fukushima

    I recently wrote a feature story about the many uses of unmanned aerial vehicles (“drones”). It was published in February 2011 issue of the German Gruner+Jahr publication, Wunderwelt Wissen.

    I truly believe that drones will revolutionize law enforcement, border patrol, search and rescue, security, agriculture, environmental monitoring, fire fighting, traffic control and many other areas.

    Here is a good example for what drones can do. Flying over the Fukushima reactors is very dangerous at this time. Not only because of the direct radiation, but also because radioactive particles can get sucked into aircraft. Unmanned drones, on the other hand, can fly very close and and provide images and measurements around the clock. Some can even hover in the air and get within a few meters of parts to be inspected.

    Here are a few aerial shots.

    Continue reading

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    Daylight Saving Time Makes No Sense

    This Sunday we will again do the crazy switch: “Daylight Savings Time”. But the assertion that Daylight “Saving” Time “saves” energy is bunk. It is simply a stupid and anachronistic idea. It serves no documentable purpose and should be done away with.

    Not only have the positive effects of DST never been conclusively documented. On the contrary! In recent years, there has been a growing body of scientific evidence showing an increase in energy consumption during DST.

    The idea behind DST was that more daylight in the afternoon would reduce the need for artificial lighting, thus cutting down on energy costs.

    But as it turns out, more light (and heat) in the afternoon also means an increased demand for air conditioning, which results in a net increase in energy usage. These are the findings of a 2008 study by two University of California, Santa Barbara researchers. “I’ve never had a paper with such a clear and unambiguous finding as this,” said lead researcher Matthew Kotchen.

    Studies conducted in Japan, Australia and the State of Indiana have reached similar conclusions.

    In the U.S., the situation is rather bizarre: some states switch to DST, others don’t. In the State of Indiana, some counties have DST. Others don’t. So if one drives though the state, the time jumps!

    There is similar confusion around the globe. Some countries switch to DST, others don’t. Some (just to top everyone else in terms of absurdity) switch only one half hour forward and back.

    Here is a world map showing DST usage:

    Legend: DST implemented (blue), DST not implemented (red), DST formerly used but now abolished (orange). Click to enlarge.

    Of course, this impacts telecommunications, the travel industry, navigation and international business.

    It is idiotic (to say the least!).

    By the way: another false myth about DST is that Benjamin Franklin suggested it. Not true! Franklin merely suggested that getting up earlier (with the sun) and going to bed earlier would be more efficient – considering that most illumination in his days came from (expensive) candles and oil lamps.

    Franklin is said to have remarked: “Early to bed, and early to rise, makes a man healthy, wealthy and wise”. In 1784, he also published an anonymous letter, which satirically suggested taxing shutters, rationing candles, and waking the public by ringing church bells and firing cannons at sunrise. Of course he was not serious. And he never suggested to move the clocks back and forth.

    Here is an organization with the goal of abolishing DST for good:

    (Adapted from my blog post of 03/07, 2008)

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    Please Do Not Call Me “Caucasian”

    There has been quite an uproar about an NPR (National Public Radio in the U.S.) commentator, who used the term “Gringo” for white Americans.

    Personally, I don’t care if you call me “Gringo”. What I find offensive is the term “caucasian”. It is anthropologically and ethnologicially wrong and scientifically ignorant.

    The term was probably invented by the German anthropologist Johann Friedrich Blumenbach. Around 1800, he theorized that all of the indigenous populations of Europe, North Africa, the Horn of Africa, West Asia, Central Asia, and South Asia originated in the Caucasus region. (Locate the Caucasus on a map. Most Europeans would not even consider it to be part of Europe).

    In this region, so Blumenbach thought, God had created the “perfect man”. As they spread out in all directions, Blumenbach (and his fellow “monogenists”) believed, people degenerated in appearance.

    Blumenbach wrote: “Caucasian variety – I have taken the name of this variety from Mount Caucasus, both because its neighborhood, and especially its southern slope, produces the most beautiful race of men, I mean the Georgian; and because all physiological reasons converge to this, that in that region, if anywhere, it seems we ought with the greatest probability to place the autochthones (birth place) of mankind.” [From: Blumenbach, De generis humani varietate nativa (3rd ed. 1795), trans. Bendyshe (1865)]

    The 4th edition of Meyers Konversations-Lexikon (Leipzig, 1885-1890) shows the “caucasian race” as comprising Aryans, Semites and Hamites. Aryans are further subdivided into European Aryans and Indo-Aryans (the latter corresponding to the group later designated Indo-Iranians.

    Blumenbach’s theories (most of which were derived from a bizarre pseudo science called “craniology” — the examination of skulls) are considered absurd by today’s standard of knowledge.

    The term “caucasian” is anachronistic, misleading, scientifically wrong and should be dropped altogether. What should be used instead? “Caucasoid”, “Europid” and “Europoid” have been suggested, but are a similarly demented.

    “European” would suffice. “European-American”, if you must. “Europeans” can be subcategorized into “Nordic” or “Germanic European” peoples, Slavic peoples, etc. — although in practice, these groups have been mixing in Europe for thousands of years. What matters more are the distinct cultural (and linguistic) differences, which have been preserved in Europe to this day.

    In the U.S., the Supreme Court in 1923 decided that Asian Indians may be “caucasian” but not “white”. (United States v. Bhagat Singh Thind). In 1946, the court modified its opinion. The issue came to the court’s attention because of their relevance to immigration laws which, before 1965 favored white Europeans. As a result, the court was left to decide who was to be considered “white”.

    Outside of American English and in science, the term “caucasian” has fallen out of use a long time ago, and it should be thrown out from everyday American language as well.

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    From My Bookshelves

    A fortnight ago I attended a lecture by Robert Piccioni. Rarely have I heard Einstein’s work and the fundamentals of modern cosmology explained in such a simple, entertaining and yet informative way. Much of the lecture’s content is echoed in Piccioni’s latest book, which I highly recommend for everyone.

    Learn the basics about how the universe works and understand the difference between Newton’s and Einstein’s view of gravity. Take a brief look at phenomena such as black holes, dark energy, gravitational lensing, redshift and the expanding universe! Piccioni’s work is a perfect blend of hard science and amusing anecdotes, making it very easy to follow. No advanced background in science is needed.

    Everyone’s guide to Atoms, Einstein and the Universe, by Robert L. Piccioni (2nd Edition). ISBN 13: 978-0-9822780-7-9.

    Talking about books: The Grand Designthe most recent book by Stephen Hawking (this time co-authored Leonard Mlodinow) just came out. (ISBN-13: 978-0553805376)

    The wheelchair bound physicist from Britain is arguably the most famous scientist since Einstein. At his last lectures here at Caltech, people were lining up all night for a spot in the lecture hall. (It is amusing to see that even in this day and age, scientists can achieve rock-star fame).

    Immediately after the The Grand Design appeared earlier this month, some began to misquote it, saying Hawkins claimed that there was no God. But that’s not what Hawkins & Mlodinow are saying.

    If we accept that nature is governed by laws, logical questions arise: What is the nature of these laws? Are there exceptions to them (the so-called “miracles”)? Is there really only one set of laws?

    Ever since the beginning of mankind’s inquiry, there were those who accused “scientists (as the believers in “natural philosophy” began to be called in the 19th century) of plunging the world into moral and ethical darkness, as theirs was allegedly an attempt to demystify or even deny God’s involvement in nature.

    Even this is a misunderstanding. Descartes, Galilei, Copernicus, Newton, Darwin and the like maintained their belief in a supreme being, while at the same time carrying on their investigations into the principles and laws governing everything in the universe.

    Hawkins & Mlodinow contend that modern science has reached the point where the “mysterious hand of God” is perceivably no longer necessary to “explain” how the universe functions. Rather, our level of understanding of natural laws may have progressed to the point where we can (or will soon be) able to explain all the fundamental milestones of cosmology with pure reason.

    The intellectual methods used in today’s science are in effect no different to those used by Aristarchus of Samos (310 BC – 230 BC, approx.) who, during the Ionian period, correctly calculated that the Earth orbits the Sun. Furthermore, that the Sun must be bigger than the Earth, which was not the center of the universe. (Of course, it took more than 1800 years until the heliocentric world view would become universally accepted). Here too, an “explanation” such as “God made it” is not sufficient, and neither is:

    The sun is a luminary whose egress is an opening of heaven, which is (located) in the direction of the east, and whose ingress is (another) opening of heaven, (located) in the west. I saw six openings through which the sun rises and six openings through which it sets. The moon also rises and sets through the same openings, and they are guided by the stars; together with those whom they lead, they are six in the east and six in the west heaven. All of them (are arranged) one after another in a constant order. There are many windows (both) to the right and the left of these openings. First there goes out the great light whose name is the sun; its roundness is like the roundness of the sky; and it is totally filled with light and heat. The chariot in which it ascends is (driven by) the blowing wind. The sun sets in the sky (in the west) and returns by the northeast in order to go to the east; it is guided so that it shall reach the eastern gate and shine in the face of the sky. (1 Enoch 72:2–5)

    And yet, science has never ruled out the possible existence of a supreme being, which may well lie beyond the abilities of our intellect, in the same manner as quantum physics is beyond what a chimp can rationally comprehend.

    In human terms, as Piccioni rightfully pointed out in his talk, we live in the “golden age” of Astronomy. There have been more groundbreaking discoveries about our universe within the last 100 years, than in all the history of mankind before.

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    Lacking Vaccines, 78 Humans And 800,000 Dogs Killed in Bali

    Here’s a wake-up call to members of the anti-science, flat-earth society who believe that vaccines are more harmful than infectious diseases: due to a shortage of vaccines, rabies is now out of control in Bali.

    The toll of infection so far: 600,000 dogs and at least 78 humans — most of whom were children. Many deaths have gone unreported. In desperation, the government has ordered the killing of an additional 200,000 dogs. And this in a nation known for revering dogs!

    Around the world, rabies kills some 55,000 people annually, according to the WHO. Most deaths happen after bites from unvaccinated dogs. Most human fatalities occur when the human vaccine is not given immediately after a dog bite.

    In Bali, about 30,000 dog bites have been reported in the last half year. And in most cases, a lack of vaccine means that doctors can do little but dress up the wound and send the patient home while hoping for the best.

    Rabies is a serious, very infectious virus, but we have countermeasures, and nobody should have to die from it.

    The Associated Press has more on this story.

    From the Centers for Disease Control, more on rabies.

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