Updates From the Edge: March 16

The Science of Social Distancing

Earlier this week the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) said gatherings of 50 or more people are strongly discouraged over the next eight weeks. This is to help contain the coronavirus/COVID-19 pandemic. Tons of other stuff is closed down, such as many schools, libraries, colleges, places of worship, etc.

All of this is to help create and enforce distance between humans, a proven way of slowing the progress of pandemics.

We have been hearing the term “social distancing” quite a bit lately. But why is it important? And what does it really mean?

Why Social Distancing Is Important

Even those who become only mildly ill, and those who never show any symptoms at all, can still carry the virus and be a big problem when it comes to the exponential increase in the virus in our population.

Even if you are young, healthy, and have no risk factors, you should still not be socializing. Certainly older people and those with other health conditions are most likely to catch the virus, but young people are not at all immune, and may even be carrying the virus without realizing it.

For example, actor Idris Elba recently said he tested positive for COVID-19, but he said he wasn’t feeling sick at all. This is a prime example of why experts urge everyone to practice social distancing, not just those considered at high risk or who are seriously ill.

What Does Social Distancing Really Mean?

At its most basic, social distancing is the concept of keeping a distance between you and other people. Right now experts suggest at least six feet.

In practical terms, it’s important to minimize contact with all people as much as you are able. So avoiding public transportation when you can, don’t travel, work from home if you can, and definitely and skip social gatherings—ideally even small ones like coffee visits.

Since people weren’t staying out of crowded bars and similar places, many governments have closed down restaurants (other than for takeout), bars, and clubs. And pretty much all sports are shut down at this point as well.

This distancing strategy saved thousands of lives both during the Spanish flu pandemic a little over 100 years ago, and much more recently in Mexico City during the 2009 flu pandemic.

Note that you may have to be physically distant, but be sure to check in with friends and family on the phone or online. People can get lonely out there!

So Can I Go Outside?

Yeah, you can totally go outside. Get some air, go for a walk alone or with your pooch, read on your patio or in your yard. All of that is great. Just don’t do it with a group of neighbors or friends. Do it by yourself.

And you can still get groceries and prescriptions and the like. Just minimize the number of trips you make. If it isn’t important, wait until you need a few more things and go shopping then.

If your grocery store offers disinfecting wipes for your grocery cart use them, and if not, feel free to bring your own.

Just keep practicing good hand-washing and disinfecting, and not touching your face, whenever you go out for any reason.

One expert noted that you should not use your cell phone when out shopping because you may transfer the virus to your phone if you touch it before you’ve washed your hands. You can mitigate this somewhat with hand sanitizer, however.

The Math of Infectious Disease

There is a COVID-19 Event Risk Assessment Planner created by the Georgia Tech quantitative biologist Joshua Weitz which you can check out here. In an article in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution Weitz, along with co-authors Richard E. Lenski, Lauren A. Meyers, and Jonathan Dushoff, gave some real-world examples to help us understand.

They use the example of March Madness basketball games to illustrate the point. What are the odds that none of the 75,000 attendees are affected? They use statistics to determine that there is a 99% chance that one ore more attendees would have arrived infected with the coronavirus that causes COVID-19.

If you’re into mathematical models you can get the full story and all the math here.


What’s Happening at CAEZIK SF & Fantasy Publishing

The Pursuit of the Pankera: A Parallel Novel About Parallel Universes comes out in just over a week! It’s the previously unpublished work by Robert A. Heinlein that is a parallel to his 1980 novel, The Number of the Beast.

Check out this recent review here and if you think it’s for you, definitely reserve your copy right away.

Of course there’s also Robert J. Sawyer’s new novel, The Oppenheimer Alternative, which is being published by CAEZIK in paperback on June 2 in the United States. Read an advanced preview here (link opens a PDF) and be the first of your friends to have a peek inside Sawyer’s latest work.

Also, The Oppenheimer Alternative is now available for pre-order, so be sure to get on the list right away.

Follow news from CAEZIK and all of ARC Manor’s imprints on Facebook and Twitter.

Humans are evolving!

Genetics can be a fascinating thing. What makes our eyes blue instead of brown? Our hair straight versus curly? Sometimes these answers are determined by the genes our parents pass down; some are determined by mutations in our chromosomes. . . .

More often than not, mutations are random, and so many can be negative. Here is a video showing mutations gone wrong:

It’s no surprise that most people, when they hear the word “mutation”, attribute a negative connotation to it (which is no surprise, given what we just saw in the video above). However, not all mutations are bad.

For example, if you click on this page, there is a description of four beneficial evolutionary mutations humans have developed. You will find out there is a mutation that lessons heart disease, prevents broken bones, makes you a lot more immune to malaria, or, as quoted below, even gives women–yes, apparently only women–the ability to see the world in more colors.

Tetrachromatic Vision

Most mammals have poor color vision because they have only two kinds of cones, the retinal cells that discriminate different colors of light. Humans, like other primates, have three kinds, the legacy of a past where good color vision for finding ripe, brightly colored fruit was a survival advantage.

The gene for one kind of cone, which responds most strongly to blue, is found on chromosome 7. The two other kinds, which are sensitive to red and green, are both on the X chromosome. Since men have only one X, a mutation which disables either the red or the green gene will produce red-green colorblindness, while women have a backup copy. This explains why this is almost exclusively a male condition.

But here’s a question: What happens if a mutation to the red or the green gene, rather than disabling it, shifts the range of colors to which it responds? (The red and green genes arose in just this way, from duplication and divergence of a single ancestral cone gene.)

To a man, this would make no real difference. He’d still have three color receptors, just a different set than the rest of us. But if this happened to one of a woman’s cone genes, she’d have the blue, the red and the green on one X chromosome, and a mutated fourth one on the other… which means she’d have four different color receptors. She would be, like birds and turtles, a natural “tetrachromat”, theoretically capable of discriminating shades of color the rest of us can’t tell apart. (Does this mean she’d see brand-new colors the rest of us could never experience? That’s an open question.)

And we have evidence that just this has happened on rare occasions. In one study of color discrimination, at least one woman showed exactly the results we would expect from a true tetrachromat.

Imagine seeing the world, quite literally, in a different way to most humans on Earth.

Here is another website that lists 10 beneficial mutations (including several of the ones listed above), showing us that humans really do evolve to adapt to our climate (for the most part) or today’s very fast paced world. The webpost even mentions that certain individuals even have rare mutations that don’t necessarily help themselves, but definitely help others:

“Golden” Blood

While most of us are aware of the eight basic blood types (A, AB, B, and O—each of which can be positive or negative), there are currently 35 known blood group systems, with millions of variations in each system. Blood that doesn’t fall into the ABO system is considered rare, and those who have such blood may find it challenging to locate a compatible donor when in need of a transfusion.

Still, there’s rare blood, and then there’s really rare blood. Presently, the most unusual kind of blood is known as “Rh-null.” As its name suggests, it doesn’t contain any antigens in the Rh system. It’s not that uncommon for a person to lack some Rh antigens. For instance, people who don’t have the Rh D antigen have “negative” blood (e.g. A-, B-, or O-). Still, it’s extremely extraordinary for someone to not have a single Rh antigen. It’s so extraordinary, in fact, that researchers have only come across 40 or so individuals on the planet who have Rh-null blood.

What makes this blood even more interesting is that it totally beats O blood in terms of being a universal donor, since even O-negative blood isn’t always compatible with other types of rare negative blood. Rh-null, however, works with nearly any type of blood. This is because, when receiving a transfusion, our bodies will likely reject any blood that contains antigens we don’t possess. And since Rh-null blood has zero Rh, A, or B antigens, it can be given to practically everyone.

Unfortunately, there are only about nine donors of this blood in the world, so it’s only used in extreme situations. Because of its limited supply and enormous value as a potential lifesaver, some doctors have referred to Rh-null as “golden” blood. In some cases, they’ve even tracked down anonymous donors (a big no-no) to request a sample.

Those who have the Rh-null type undoubtedly have a bittersweet existence. They know that their blood is literally a lifesaver for others with rare blood, yet if they themselves need blood, their options are limited to the donations of only nine people.

So what does this tell us? That we’ve not only evolved from apes (so to speak) to become who we are today, but we’re still evolving to become something else in the future! Maybe we won’t develop mental powers like the mutants depicted in the X-Man franchise, but we already have our very own X-men in real life–and that is pretty darn amazing.

Meet humble Australian James Harrison. Because of his blood, and donating over 1100 times in half a century, this one man’s blood has saved over two million human lives–precious new born lives. He quite literally is a hero.