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Science On The Fly, Week Of Nov. 23

Sheyna Gifford |
November 30, 2014 | 1:52 p.m. PST


This week’s theme: IT’S ALIVE

IT’S ALIVE: The Van Allen Radiation Belts. POW!

Wait, the wait? That’s right, kids. There’s a beautiful, invisible (in the visible-spectrum) force field protecting all life on the planet. The Van Allen Radiation Belts are on 24-7, no batteries required, no Klingon birds of prey. All force, all field, all the time.

But what are they, really?

The Van Allen belts are a vast, space-bound collection of charged particles, held in place by Earth’s spinning magnetic core (the field generated by the spinning core). We didn’t have any idea they were there until we started flying to the moon in the 1950’s. Then was like - hey, what’s this giant force field doing here?

Watch as it faithfully keeps out evil cosmic radiation...and sometimes messes with our artificial satellites. Well, you gotta take the bad with the good.

IT’S ALIVE: Oil drilling turns the American landscape into a 2D version of that Pinhead guy from Hellraiser. Yuck.

Last week, NY Times Science showed us what we’re really doing to the world with drilling. And it was chilling:

It’s easy to ignore things that are out of our view. Pulling them back into the radar is critical to us making good decisions. In the wake of the Keystone Pipeline decision, it becomes ever more important that we understand just what it is our elected representatives are doing, with the aid of science and engineering, for the sake of our society’s energy needs.

If we could see - HAD to see - the results of our efforts to acquire and utilize fossil fuels, every day, how much would the world change?

It’s ALIVE: Igor! Cow and hantavirus. Wait...what?

In the US, hantavirus is typically associated with mice. And pee. And the southwest. And a terrible set of symptoms involving eventually not breathing called Hantavirus Pulmonary Syndrome. So, where do the cows come in?

Last week, Science magazine reported that cows have been genetically engineered to produce Immunoglobulins to fight hantavirus in people. Immunoglobulins, or Ig, are the factors made by our immune systems to identify, hunt down and kill unwelcome guests: viruses, bacteria and parasites. Developing them takes time, however. So when people are exposed to really bad things - rabies, ebola - we give them Ig from people who have successfully fought off the disease.

Giving a someone exposed to ebola an Ig treatment is like giving a kid their first push on a bicycle: it gets them up and moving a whole lot faster. In the case of terrible diseases like ebola, it can jump-start the process of saving that person’s life.

The trouble with highly dangerous diseases like ebola and hantavirus is that people who get it tend to die, so there isn’t a lot of Ig to go around. In fact, there’s basically no hanta Ig to go around. To solve this problem, cows have been given human immune genes, and then exposed to hantavirus. The result? Human-style Hanta Ig. (And really funny tasting burgers.)

It’s important to note that while ebola and rabies Ig is well known to work wonders, hanta Ig therapy is an untested theory. Now that we have hantavirus Ig to spare, I suspect that we’ll be testing this theory sooner rather than later.

Also, we’ve given hows human genes. In the name of science. I feel like there’s a Far Side cartoon in here somewhere.

IT'S ALIVE: The Wishing Well Cluster.

It’s big - one of the biggest star-forming regions in our galaxy. It’s beautiful. Duh. It’s 300 light years away. For no particular reason, this region of space is colloquially known as the “Running Chicken Nebula” - whose, “eggs may form into stars.” Humans are funny. Nature is cool. That is all. Until next week.

Reach Contributor Sheyna Gifford here.  Follow the Science Desk here



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