Before launching one of my regular ‘ain’t we wonderful at science?’ riffs… 

…All across the right-o-sphere, one sees not a single voice willing to discuss pros and cons of Joe Biden’s actual policy proposals (during the State of the Union speech), largely because almost all of them poll separately as immensely popular and Republicans know that each would also be highly effective.

Instead, we see repeated mockery of a man who reached that lectern after struggling all his life with a stuttering handicap. Sure, at one point he said “Iranian” instead of “Ukrainian.” Such gleeful pounces! Leading me to demand another wager challenge over any five random samples from Trump vs. Biden speeches, comparing passages for cogency, truthfulness, or salience to policy.

And yet… might there have been more to the “Iranian” slip of the tongue?

At an online conference today, I broached what could be the most powerful single stroke that might rock the world right now and leave Vlad the Invader reeling. Picture if Kamala Harris were to land in Tehran on a pre-negotiated “Nixon to China” mission? One that cleared our outstanding issues and performed a reset between two nations who had always been (pre 1979) the best of friends.

It’d take major concessions. On both sides. And mind you, I don’t see it likely that the mullahs would let go, since their power is grounded on fear of America and Israel. But if it happened at this opportune time — accompanied by true settlement of the nuclear issues — then sudden release of Iranian oil production would be just the beginning. One can only envision ensuing howls from the jointly owned Kremlin-Saudi propaganda organ – Fox News – as the Riyadh r’oil house suddenly found itself desperately releasing supplies of their own, in order to hang onto whatever influence they have left.

Well, well, one can fantacize. 

Meanwhile, here is one of the better Ukraine update channels I’ve seen. It points out that the ‘red zones’ that seem ‘conquered’ by Russia are only occupied along direct paths and highways. There are no signs of police or civil affairs forces needed for a real occupation. A bypassed, angry citizenry with farm tractors and Molotov cocktails is not ‘occupied.’ 

That must make for long, unpeaceful nights in those floundering, quagmire brigade columns.

== Over to science! ==

Amazing. The U.S. Army’s new Covid vaccine may give immunity to almost all coronaviruses, including SARS and many common colds. Developed at Walter Reed, the SpFN vaccine has undergone the first round of human trials. 

Unfortunately, as any sci fi reader knows, Covid-19 may not be the ‘Big One’: Army scientists warn of deadlier pandemics yet to come

Is it life? Living robots self-replicateXenobots are basically large structures of thousands of modified skin and heart cells from frogs. “The skin cells provide rigid support while the heart cells act as small motors to let the Xenobot move forward. When the 1-millimeter-wide Xenobots were first unveiled to the world last year, scientists were exhilarated by their ability to swim out and self-assemble into larger tissues.” Now comes news that they have been taught how to fabricate new xenobots out of cells piled amorphously nearby.

== Popularizing science ==

Particularly relevant to our current and ongoing pandemic problems: Immune: A Journey into the Mysterious System that Keeps You Alive, by Philip Dettmer gives an extensive (and illustrated) overview of the human body’s complex but powerful defense mechanisms to fight off infection and disease.

Bringing together the worlds of science: John Gribbin’s latest science journalism book is well worth a look.  Eight Improbable Possibilities: the Mystery of the Moon and Other Implausible Scientific Truths. “is a whirlwind tour of the most fantastical discoveries science has revealed – the facts that are almost impossible to believe, but are true according to the best available evidence. With chapters on topics from gravitational waves to the butterfly effect…” 

Under a White Sky: The Nature of the Future by Elizabeth Kolbert, author of The Sixth Extinction, takes a far-ranging look at the future of our planet – and humanity. And how we will deal with threats to the Earth.

== From the frontiers of Biology! ==

The latest medical research indicates that the Epstein-Barr virus may trigger multiple sclerosis.

A wonder drug that reverses some of the debilitating effects of aging and other traumas to the brain? “ISRIB” could have long-range implications for dementia, age-related cognitive design and Parkinson’s Disease, by rebooting cellular protein production. 

How do biological mutations happen? It’s a bit more complex than Darwin envisioned. Chromosome curls and folds apparently protect some vital genes from mutation better than others – a fascinating prioritization. Knowing why some regions of the genome mutate more than others could help breeders who rely on genetic variation to develop better crops. Scientists could also use the information to better predict or develop new treatments for diseases like cancer that are caused by mutation.” 

A possible treatment for arthritis: Bioengineers are developing an implant which generates a tiny electrical current to help heal knee joints after cartilage damage.

(BTW I have noticed something. My own isolated patch of arthritis always nearly vanishes after a bee sting.)

A lifelong dream for biologists… solving the protein folding problem … appears to have come true with stunning speed, this year. DeepMind scientists reported have solved 350,000 proteins found in the human body—44% of all known human proteins. They expect their database will grow to 100 million proteins across all species, nearly half the total number believed to exist. The next step is to predict which of those proteins work together and how they interact, revealing which proteins bind to one another. Code for AlphaFold2 and RoseTTAFold is now publicly available. Alphabet, launched a new venture that will use predicted protein structures to design new drug candidates.  “Much work remains. Protein structures aren’t static; they bend and twist as they do their jobs, and modeling those changes remains a challenge. And it’s still a daunting task to visualize most of the large, multi-protein complexes that carry out myriad jobs in cells.”

Game-playing mini-brains: Scientists taught hundreds of thousands of brain cells to play pong in just five minutes, which is quicker than artificial intelligence (AI), which picks up the game 90 minutes later. Called “DishBrains,” the system comprises brain cells grown on top of micro-electrode arrays that can both stimulate the cells.

In related news, an Israeli team found it took a five- to eight-layer neural network, or nearly 1,000 artificial neurons, to mimic the behavior of a single biological neuron from the brain’s cortex. Moreover, this assumed that everything is electrochemical stimulus and repression, via synapses feeding networks of dendrites. If those dendrites have (as suspected) computational elements along their length, then the difference could be orders larger. And if the Penrose-Hameroff speculations about quantum effects bear out, then all bets are off. 

Fish drive cars? Apparently, goldfish have the cognitive ability to learn a complex task in an environment completely unlike the one they evolved in. As in this experiment where goldfish learn to control and ‘drive’ a wheeled vehicle toward target sites on land.

We need to invest more in efforts like this one: “the Reproducibility Project: Cancer Biology aimed to replicate 193 experiments from 53 top cancer papers published from 2010 to 2012. But only a quarter of those experiments were able to be reproduced.” It’s not as bad as the headline implies… but it’s pretty bad and we need to institutionalize and regularize such reproducibility projects.

== Bio Miscellany ==

While it’s long been known that some fish and amphibians can do parthenogenesis… females producing young without contributions from a male… it is very rare among warm-blooded creatures. But lately it’s proved that California Condors have done it recently, much as in my novel Glory Season.

A project is underway, using advanced machine learning methods to parse the language (if any) of sperm whales. It will be an ambitious undertaking, calling for drones and robots to collect data on whale actions, to correlate with the utterances… hoping the robots won’t interfere or bother the creatures, lest most of the translations turn out to be stuff like “I knew I shouldn’t have swallowed that thing; it complains more than Jonah did!”

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