The Making of the Siberian Traps Nearly Ended All of Life on Earth – Condé Nast Traveler

If you haven’t seen a trilobite lately, blame Siberia. Ken Jennings explains in this week’s Maphead column.

Source: The Making of the Siberian Traps Nearly Ended All of Life on Earth – Condé Nast Traveler

The dead center of Russia, far away from any tectonic plate boundaries, is a massive flood plain of basalt rock the size of western Europe. How did ten trillion tons of lava come to form the igneous province now called the Siberian Traps? However it happened, it’s by far the biggest crime scene in history, since its formation killed off more than 90 percent of all life on Earth.

Nothing is trapped in the Siberian Traps.

Almost a million square miles of Siberia are covered with the telltale stair-step hills made by floods of basaltic lava, which is how the region got its name—trappa is the Swedish word for stairs. For about a million years, lava and pyroclastic rock vented out of the earth here, sometimes explosively. In all, about one million cubic miles of molten rock were ejected. To get your mind around an eruption that big, try imagining cubes of lava one thousand miles on each side. Yeah, I can’t do it either.

It came from the earth’s core!

How does this much volcanic activity happen so far away from plate boundaries? In 1963, geologists first proposed a mechanism called a mantle plume: a jet of hot rock that might begin way down at the core-mantle boundary 2,000 miles below our feet, and eventually rise by convection all the way to the surface. If a plume like this one stayed anchored for millions of years, constantly spewing out lava while plates and continents moved above it, it could explain the formation of island chains like Hawaii.

Or…it came from outer space!

Other scientists have their own twist on the mantle plume theory: What if an impact event triggered all the volcanic chaos? The Siberian Traps are almost exactly antipodal to the Wilkes Land crater, a giant impact crater that many scientists believe hides beneath the ice sheets of Antarctica. Could a comet or asteroid have struck Antarctica so hard that lava started jetting out all the way on the other side of the planet, like smacking a choking friend on the back so hard that a bit of stuck hot dog comes flying out of their mouth? (In this analogy, the hot dog bits keep flying for about one million years.)

The Siberian Traps are the world’s biggest tombstone.

Scientists now believe that just one year of spewing Siberian lava could have put 1.5 billion tons of sulfur dioxide into the earth’s atmosphere—and keep in mind that the eruption continued for one million years. That’s why the Siberian Traps are now the prime suspect behind the mass extinction that ended the Paleozoic Era about 250 million years ago. This death-fest dwarfs the one that would later kill the dinosaurs; even fish and insects were hard hit. Scientists guess that 96 percent of marine species and 70 percent of land species were completely wiped out. If you haven’t seen a trilobite lately, blame Siberia.

Explore the world’s oddities every week with Ken Jennings, and check out his book Maphead for more geography trivia.


Images Show Landslide Likely Caused Indonesian Tsunami | Smart News | Smithsonian

Radar images appear to show the southwestern flank of the Anak Krakaktau volcano sheared off into the sea

Source: Images Show Landslide Likely Caused Indonesian Tsunami | Smart News | Smithsonian

For Indonesia, 2018 has been a year characterized by natural disasters. In late September an earthquake and tsunami hit the island of Sulawesi killing almost 2,000 people, mostly in the city of Palu. A few days later, the nearby volcano Soputan erupted.

Last Saturday brought more devastation when a tsunami hit Indonesia’s Sunda Strait between the islands of Java and Sumatra. The disaster, which appears to have been triggered by an underwater landslide set off by volcanic activity, killed at least 430 people and displaced upwards of 16,000.

New satellite images taken of the Anak Krakatau volcano before and after the explosion suggests that the massive landslide destroyed the volcano’s entire southwest flank, reports George Dvorsky at Gizmodo.

The close-up look comes from JAXA. While cloud cover made taking direct satellite images impossible, the Japanese space agency’s ALOS-2 satellite used radar readings converted to images to capture the changes in the landscape, according to the Associated Press.

Japan’s Geospatial Information Authority analyzed images, which were taken before and after the disaster hit, and revealed a significant portion of the volcano had been sheered off. The after images also showed concentric circles in the water around the volcano, an indicator of seismic activity.

Dave Petley, head of research and innovation at Sheffield University, who writes about landslides at his blog hosted by the American Geophysical Union, analyzed similar images from the European Space Agency, concluding that the tsunami was likely caused by an underwater landslide at the volcano. “The challenge now is to interpret what might be happening on the volcano, and what might happen next,” he writes.

As a precaution, authorities have warned people to stay at least a kilometer away from the coastline of the Sunda Strait in case another landslide and tsunami take place. On Thursday, the BBC reports that Indonesian authorities also raised the volcano alert level to the second highest option, due to the activity at Anak Krakatau and diverted all flights from the volcano exclusion zone.

Anak Krakatau has been showing signs of activity since July, when it began shooting out rocks and lava in short bursts known as Strombolian eruptions.

Volcanic eruptions are fairly common with an average of one per week somewhere on the globe. But when Anak Krakatau stirs, people take notice. That’s because the Sunda Strait volcano itself is a remnant of one of the worst volcanic eruptions in recorded history. Anak Krakatau emerged almost five decades after the volcano it got its name from, Krakatoa, blew its top in 1883, creating a massive ash plume and major tsunami. At least 35,000 people died from the explosion, and the massive blast changed the global climate in the northern hemisphere for years, leading to unusual weather events and cooler temperatures.

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Tourists Are Getting Too Close to Volcanoes | Smart News | Smithsonian

I gotta be honest here, this seems like one of those “problems” that will eventually take care of itself…


Visitors to Iceland’s volcanoes are ignoring the rules, many to get the perfect selfie

Source: Tourists Are Getting Too Close to Volcanoes | Smart News | Smithsonian

There’s been a lot of volcanic activity in the news in 2018: Hawaii’s Kilauea volcano had its largest eruption in decades, the Mayon volcano in the Philippines forced mass evacuations, and Guatemala’s Volcan de Fuego has erupted several times this year, killing almost 200 people. Despite the dangers, a new study suggests humanity’s fear of volcanoes may be waning and a dangerous number of volcano tourists are getting a little too close to the bubbling calderas.

Sean Coughlan at the BBC reports that in recent years more and more people have put themselves in danger with risky behavior near volcanoes, putting more pressure on local authorities and placing rescuers in dangerous situations. There are several reasons why people want to feel the heat and rumbling magma in an active volcano, according to the new report published in the journal Geo.

In general, attitudes toward nature that began in the Enlightenment and Romantic periods have grown stronger; instead of seeing nature as a wild, dangerous place to be avoided, people want to see and experience the world’s wonders first hand, writes study author and geographer Amy Donovan of the University of Cambridge.

Geotourism and volcano tourism are a part of that. As a result, many of these activities have become “commodified,” with tour companies flying helicopters close to volcanoes or offering hiking tours to the caldera rim even if the activity isn’t completely safe.

Donovan conducted surveys of tourist and tour operators in Iceland where the 2010 eruption of the Eyjafjallajökull volcano on the island nation set off a volcano tourism boom over the last decade. The results indicate that social media is also pushing people to the edge of the volcano as well.

Between 2010 and 2017, foreign tourism to Iceland jumped from 488,622 to 2,224,074 visits per year. The majority of people visited the island to experience the natural world and the island’s active volcanoes.

“People reported being very keen to get close and experience the eruptions—to feel the heat and the gas and to hear the noises,” Donovan tells Oscar Quine at The Telegraph“But there’s also a drive to get that photo that no one else has got—and to represent yourself as a person who’s doing interesting things and having exciting times.”

That quest for the perfect snapshot, she says, is causing people to ignore safety regulations, push closer to the lava flows and even enter restricted areas. Quine reports Instagram is full of questionable photos of people sipping champagne on volcano rims or dangling over the edge wearing heat suits. Then there are the volcanophiles, obsessive lava lovers who chase erupting volcanoes across the world trying to get as close as possible.

So far, volcano tourism hasn’t led to many fatalities, though Donovan says people are injured by flying rock and hot gases. Just this summer, lava bombs from Kilauea injured 23 people on a sightseeing boat with one rock chunk breaking a woman’s leg.

Tourism can also be problematic in emergency situations. When a volcano begins to show signs of erupting, authorities have to deal with tourists trying to get closer to the volcano while also trying to evacuate people who need to get out.

“People break safety regulations. You can’t police the site of a volcano at night,” Donovan tells Coughlan at the BBC. “Many active volcanic countries face the dilemma of wanting tourists, but also wanting to keep people safe, which creates a difficult conundrum.”

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How Apollo 8 ‘Saved 1968’ | Smithsonian

The unforgettable, 99.9 percent perfect, December moon mission marked the end of a tumultuous year

Source: How Apollo 8 ‘Saved 1968’ | At the Smithsonian | Smithsonian

he Apollo 8 astronauts watched the desolate, crater-pocked surface of the moon pass beneath them. Then, something unexpectedly stunning happened. Rising above the horizon was a beautiful sphere, familiar and yet unfamiliar—a blue marble that beguilingly stole the space voyagers’ attention. What they saw was heart-stopping, heavenly, halcyon—home.

This image would capture the human imagination, and ironically, it could only be seen when Earthlings left home for the first time. The three men traveled hundreds of thousands of miles to look back and discover the jewel they had left behind. It was so far away that a raised thumb could hide this sapphire oasis in the void. “Everything you’ve ever known is behind your thumb,” said Apollo 8 astronaut Jim Lovell decades later. “All the world’s problems, everything. It kind of shows you how relative life is and how insignificant we all are here on Earth. Because we are all on a rather small spaceship here.”

Astronauts Frank Borman, Bill Anders and Lovell were not supposed to visit the moon at all. The National Aeronautics and Space Administration had assigned these men to Apollo 9, a fairly routine test of the lunar excursion module (LEM) in Earth’s orbit. But during the summer of 1968, U.S. officials feared an unexpected Soviet jaunt to the moon, so just 16 weeks before the scheduled liftoff, they reassigned the astronauts to an incredibly ambitious and dangerous flight. This decision was essential “to put us on the right timeline for Apollo 11,” says Teasel Muir-Harmony, a curator at the National Air and Space Museum and author of the new book, Apollo to the Moon: A History in 50 Objects.

Flight Director Christopher Kraft told Borman’s wife Susan that the odds of her husband’s return were fifty-fifty. As launch day arrived on December 21, 1968, many “engineers and scientists at NASA question[ed] whether the crew” would ever return.

There was nothing easy about this flight. The big Saturn V missile that would power the trio’s ship into space had launched only twice. It succeeded once and failed miserably on its second liftoff. And riding a rocket with such a short and unencouraging record was just the astronauts’ first potential obstacle. “Barreling along in its orbit at 2,300 miles per hour the moon was a moving target, some 234,000 miles from Earth at the time of the astronauts’ departure,” wrote author Andrew Chaikin. “In an extraordinary feat of marksmanship, they would have to fly just ahead of its leading edge and then, firing the Apollo spacecraft’s rocket engine, go into orbit just 69 miles above its surface.”

Borman, Lovell and Anders relied on nearly perfect performance from computers and engines to take them to the moon, into lunar orbit, back toward Earth, and through a thin slice of atmosphere to splash down in the Pacific. “Everyone involved accomplished many, many firsts with that flight,” says Muir-Harmony. “It was the first time humans traveled to another planetary body, the first time the Saturn V rocket was used, the first time humans didn’t experience night, and sunrises, and sunsets, the first time humans saw Earthrise, the first time humans were exposed to deep-space radiation. They traveled farther than ever before.”

Some of the crew’s most critical engine burns, including the one that would return Apollo 8 to Earth, occurred when they were on the dark side of the moon and had no way of communicating with the rest of humanity. They fired their engines while the world waited in suspense. Many children went to bed on Christmas Eve 1968, not with visions of sugar plums dancing in their heads or even with dreams of shiny new bicycles lifting their hearts. Instead, they worried about three men far from home—and whether their engine would work correctly and send them back or whether they would die in unending lunar orbits.

The astronauts seized the attention of at least one-fourth of the planet’s residents. More than 1 billion people were said to be following the flight. The Soviet Union even lifted its Iron Curtain enough to allow its citizens to follow this historic moment in human history. In France, a newspaper called it “the most fantastic story in human history.”

Day in and day out, people around the world listened to communications between the Johnson Space Center and the distant Apollo 8. A complete record of communications is available online today. Much of the back-and-forth sounded like business as usual, three men at work, but there were rare moments. Lovell spontaneously created the word “Earthshine” to explain what was obscuring his vision at one point. Until that moment, no one on Earth knew that the planet emitted a noticeable glare.

To add a touch of poetry to their Christmas Eve broadcast, the astronauts read the first ten verses from the Bible’s book of Genesis, with visual images of the barren moon rushing beneath their words. The reading ended with Borman saying, “God bless all of you, all of you on the Good Earth.”

Borman had been advised to “say something appropriate,” says Muir-Harmony for that Christmas Eve broadcast, and he had sought input from others before Apollo 8 lifted off. The reading from Genesis, she says, “was done with the expectation that it would resonate with as many people as possible, that it wouldn’t just be a message for Christians on Christmas Eve.” Its emotional impact startled many viewers, including CBS anchorman Walter Cronkite, whose eyes filled with tears. (In 1969, famed atheist Madalyn Murray O’Hair filed suit against the then-head of NASA Thomas O. Paine challenging the reading of the Bible by government employees. One federal court dismissed the case, and in 1971, the Supreme Court refused to hear an appeal of the lower court’s dismissal.)

This unprecedented flight has been described as “99.9 perfect.” And when the three astronauts set foot on the aircraft carrier USS Yorktown after splashdown, Mission Control erupted in a celebration swathed in cigar smoke. The home team never cheered the small victories along the way to successful flights. It wasn’t time to rejoice until the astronauts stood aboard a U.S. ship. Today, the Apollo 8 command module, an artifact in the collections of the Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum, is on loan to Chicago’s Museum of Science and Industry, where it takes pride of place in the museum’s 50th anniversary celebrations of the historic mission. The command module was crucial to the astronauts’ success. After the 1967 fire on Apollo 1 that killed three astronauts, NASA had put a great deal of effort into guaranteeing that every element of this craft was flawless, Muir-Harmony says.

Once the Apollo 8 astronauts had visited the moon, space enthusiasts began to foresee greater things. Paine quickly predicted that this flight marked just “the beginning of a movement that will never stop” because “man has started his drive out into the universe.” Borman told a joint meeting of Congress that he expected colonies of scientists to live on the moon. “Exploration is really the essence of the human spirit and I hope we will never forget that,” he told his audience.

The New York Times reported that “the travels that earned immortality for Marco Polo, Columbus and Magellan all fade before the incredible achievement of the Apollo 8 crew.” Time named the crew as 1968’s Men of the Year. And Bill Anders’ “Earthrise” photo became a powerful symbol of the budding environmental movement, while Lyndon Johnson was so touched by the vision of a unified world with no national boundaries that he sent a print to every world leader. This mission was “the most important flight of Apollo by far. No comparison,” said Kraft. “Apollo 8 was a major leap forward, and major leap forward of anything we had planned t0 do.”

Fifty years later, the names Frank Borman and Bill Anders are not well recognized. Jim Lovell was made famous by Ron Howard’s 1995 movie about the saga of Apollo 13’s near failure, but neither the first men to leave the Earth nor their mission are prominent fixtures in America’s historical memory. Even more lost are the 400,000 other humans who labored to make this miraculous voyage possible. That in no way diminishes their accomplishment or its effect on people who found inspiration in their fearless feat.

At the close of the turbulent year 1968, one American wrote to Borman with a simple message: “You saved 1968.” The assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy, the race riots in many American cities, the protests, the war and a president’s political downfall marked that year as one of the most memorable in 20th century history, and the Apollo mission, indeed, allowed it to end on a momentous note. It proved that human beings could do more than struggle, oppress and kill: They could accomplish something wondrous.

On Tuesday, December 11, at 8 p.m., the National Air and Space Museum commemorates the 50th anniversary of Apollo 8 with an evening at Washington National Cathedral. A live webcast will stream here, on the museum’s Facebook page and on NASA TV.

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Young Seals Keep Getting Eels Stuck Up Their Noses, and Nobody Knows Why

I don’t know. Why *DO* Seals keep getting eels stuck up their noses?

USS Michigan Answer: If it was a ham sandwich you’d know!

The Hawaiian Monk Seal Research Program released a photo on Monday of a poor Hawaiian monk seal, squinting in what can only be a what-is-my-life look, with a probably-also-distressed eel stuck up its nose.

Source: Young Seals Keep Getting Eels Stuck Up Their Noses, and Nobody Knows Why

So, no one told you life was gonna be this way.

The Hawaiian Monk Seal Research Program released a photo on Monday of a poor Hawaiian monk seal, squinting in what can only be a what-is-my-life look, with a probably-also-distressed eel stuck up its nose.

This phenomenon, eels getting stuck in seals’ noses, is rare; the team has observed only three or four cases of eel-nose in the past four decades, said Charles Littnan, a monk seal conservation biologist with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) Fisheries. But weirdly, the incidence has been increasing in the past couple of years. “In almost 40 years of monitoring, we have actually never observed this until a few years ago,” Littnan said. [Gallery: Seals of the World]

Oddly, it seems to always be in the right nostril, but “I don’t really think that means anything,” Littnan told Live Science. This whole situation could just be a “weird anomaly” or a “crazy statistical quirk, and we may never see it again,” he added. “We have no idea why it’s happening.”

As to how the eel gets stuck, Littnan has several ideas. The monk seals feed on or near the bottom of the ocean, because they’re “very efficient” and “don’t like to chase things in the water,” he said. So, they go for the food, like eels, whose strategy is to hide.

Monk seals nose around in coral reefs, root around in the sand, and flip over 50-lb. (22 kilograms) rocks to grab hiding octopuses, Littnan said. While the unfortunate, recently photographed seal was doing this, an eel could have, in a case of self-defense, “rammed itself into the nostril and maybe got stuck,” Littnan said.

Or if the seal brought the eel out to the surface to eat the prey, the eel could have whipped around and got into the nose, Littnan said. Since this phenomenon has been observed only in juvenile seals, Littnan said it could also just be that the seals are inexperienced at hunting.

Or, just like in the YouTube videos where people sneeze and spit up long strands of pasta through their noses, the seal could have regurgitated an eel that it ate, with the eel coming out the wrong pipe, Littnan said.

In this case, a relatively small part of the eel is in the nose, which “leads me to thinking that the eel forced itself in while trying to escape,” Littnan said. In some other cases, the researchers have seen, in which around 2 feet (0.6 meters) of the eel was stuck the seal’s nose, the seals must have regurgitated the prey, Littnan said.

If that had been the case with this seal, the animal probably could have gotten rid of the eel on its own by shaking its head around. But the eel may have gotten deeper into the nose, preventing the seal from removing the invader. An eel in the nose may be bad, but a rotting eel in the nose would be even worse; bacteria from the rotting flesh could have infected the animal, Littnan said. Also, seals’ nostrils close automatically when the animals go under water, and having an eel in there could have hindered that process, closing off an all-around great day for the seal with some water up the nose.

In every instance of eel-nose, including this one, the researchers have removed the eel successfully. The seals were all fine, but the eels did not make it, according to the scientists’ post.

Hawaiian monk seals are among the most endangered seals on the planet, with only about 1,400 of them living in Hawaii. But recent years have shown “encouraging developments,” according to NOAA Fisheries. The seals’ numbers have increased, even though these little creatures always “find unique ways to get themselves into trouble,” Littnan said.

What’s New, and What’s Not, in the Reported Birth of the CRISPR Babies | Science | Smithsonian

Editing human DNA, either in embryos or in cells that are reintroduced to the body, had come a long way before Lulu and Nana were born

Source: What’s New, and What’s Not, in the Reported Birth of the CRISPR Babies | Science | Smithsonian

The announcement from Chinese researcher He Jiankui claiming to have created the world’s first gene-edited babies—twins whose genomes were altered, as embryos, using CRISPR technology—shook the scientific world and prompted a maelstrom of ethical controversy. The experiment, if its outcome is verified by peer review, would certainly take CRISPR use in humans further than it’s gone before. But where, exactly, do the CRISPR babies stand in the swiftly-moving field of genetic editing?

He’s work (which has not yet been published in a peer-reviewed journal or independently verified) involved creating embryos from a healthy mother and HIV-positive father and applying the gene-editing tool CRISPR-Cas9 to those embryos to remove the CCR5 gene, which allows HIV to enter cells. Those CRISPR-modified embryos led to a pregnancy and eventually, the birth of twin girls named Lulu and Nana. One of the children is said to lack both functional copies of the CCR5 gene, which would prevent her from ever contracting HIV, while the other has one functional copy, meaning she could still possibly contract the virus.

Lulu and Nana’s birth would certainly represent a first in the budding field of gene editing. But Kiran Musunuru, a cardiologist and geneticist at University of Pennsylvania’s Perelman School of Medicine who reviewed a preliminary manuscript by He’s team for the Associated Press, says He’s announcement “does not represent in any way a scientific advance” because “there was nothing preventing previous researchers who edited human embryos from doing the same, except their own ethics and morals.”

CRISPR (which stands for clustered regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats) is a genetic material found in bacteria and other prokaryotes that can be used to target specific stands of DNA. The technology works by introducing a carefully programmed strand of RNA into a cell. The RNA can locate a target sequence of DNA and, with the help of an enzyme (most commonly Cas9), cut the DNA at the designated spot. The cell’s native DNA repair mechanisms will repair the break, removing part of the genetic sequence, and researchers can also add a desired DNA strand into the cell that will be swapped in for the just-snipped gene.

In 2012, a team of scientists led by Jennifer Doudna of the University of California, Berkeley, and Emmanuelle Charpentier, now of the Max Planck Institute, (and almost at the same time, Lithuanian researcher Virginijus Siksnysharnessed CRISPR sequences to snip and edit prokaryotic, or single-celled, DNA. Half a year later, several scientists, beginning with the Broad Institute’s Feng Zhang and Harvard’s George Church, pioneered a way to use CRISPR to edit multicellular DNA, including in humans.

The studies revolutionized gene editing. CRISPR’s simplicity and efficiency blew earlier techniques out of the water.

The first CRISPR breakthrough in human embryos came in 2015, when Chinese scientists Canquan Zhou and Junjiu Huang used CRISPR to remove a gene that, when mutated, causes the blood disorder beta thalassemia. However, none of the resulting embryos were considered successful; they showed unintended genetic edits as well as mosaicism, meaning the cells did not uniformly adopt the CRISPR-induced changes. In a crucial distinction from He’s work, Zhou and Huang used tripronuclear zygotes (one egg, two sperm) in their research, which could not have developed into grown humans if implanted in a womb.

Last year, a team led by Shoukhrat Mitalipov of Oregon Health & Science University built upon Zhou and Huang’s work and successfully used CRISPR to remove a genetic variant from embryos that causes hypertrophic cardiomyopathy, a deadly heart condition. Mitalipov’s embryos were viable and lacked the unintended edits and mosaicism of previous experiments, but the researchers did not let them develop for more than three days, at which point they were separated and genetically analyzed. In a statement, Mitalipov wrote that unlike his own research, He’s work “involves mutating a normal gene and then transferring the embryos to establish a pregnancy, apparently with little scientific oversight. The outcome of this work is unpredictable and lacks the rigor of a well-planned clinical trial.”

Several of the scientists who helped developed CRISPR technology have censured He, with Zhang calling for a “moratorium on implantation of edited embryos” until the technology advances further. Church, however, took a more moderate stance, questioning some of He’s choices but telling Science, “At some point, we have to say we’ve done hundreds of animal studies and we’ve done quite a few human embryo studies.”

CRISPR technology has a wide range of potential applications, notably in the agriculture and pharmaceutical industries. In recent years, however, CRISPR has also made its way into clinical research with a focus on human disease prevention.

In 2016, Chinese scientists broke ground as the first to inject CRISPR-edited cells into a human. The first similar study in the United States is currently recruiting. It aims to help cancer patients by removing their T-cells, tweaking them to make them more effective at fighting cancer cells, and reintroducing the modified immune cells into the patients’ bloodstreams. One crucial difference between this line of work and embryo editing, according to lead researcher Edward Stadtmauer, is that “ex vivo” work involves making genetic alterations outside of the patient’s body and only to a specific type of cell. In contrast, a change to embryonic cells has the potential to impact every single cell in the resulting person’s body, and these “germline” changes would be passed down to any future descendants as well.

He appears to have anticipated the furor over the twins’ births. In a video posted on YouTube the day the news broke, he says, in English, “I understand my work will be controversial, but I believe families need this technology, and I’m willing to take the criticism for them.”

As predicted, He’s work has been decried by scientists and ethicists alike. A National Academy of Sciences panel recently concluded that germline changes to humans might be permissible, “but only after much more research to meet appropriate risk/benefit standards,” “under strict oversight,” and only for “compelling reasons” like allowing couples with heritable, untreatable diseases to have healthy children. Chinese guidance, while prohibiting clinical research that breaches “ethical or moral principles,” is ambiguous. However, China’s vice-minister for science and technology did characterize He’s research as “blatantly” breaching the law on state-owned television.

He’s work, which was conducted in secrecy and identified as research for “AIDS vaccine development” in participant consent forms, is now under joint investigation by local health and ethics authorities. Additionally, Shenzen HarMoniCare Hospital, which was listed as having approved the project’s ethics, released a statement denying its involvement.

Because He’s work, while submitted to a journal, has not yet been peer reviewed and published, it’s impossible to judge whether or not his genetic editing was successful. Musunuru says that the data he saw indicated mosaicism in at least one placenta and an off-target edit in one embryo (but not in placenta samples). He’s presentation at this week’s Hong Kong-based gene-editing summit left some colleagues convinced of his results, but others still have lingering questions, according to Nature.

Beyond the accuracy of He’s claims, scientists have expressed broader concern because people without the CCR5 gene can be more vulnerable to other illness like influenza. He has also drawn rancor for using CRISPR when other effective methods exist that allow HIV-positive couples to have healthy children, such as “washing” sperm before in vitro fertilization without making any genetic modifications. He’s method, however, which involves washing sperm as well as editing the embryos’ genes, has the potential to produce children who are immune from ever contracting HIV. But of course, any germline editing raises a quagmire of ethical questions down the road, as Lulu and Nana could pass on any unintended mutations in their genomes should they choose to have children.

Given the international uproar, experts also worry that He’s cavalier approach could have a chilling effect on future research, potentially leading to similar protocol-skirting experiments.

“I would not call this a historic achievement,” Musunuru says. “I would call this a historical ethical violation.”

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The Present Phase of Stagnation in the Foundations of Physics Is Not Normal

The problem is loads of wrong predictions from theoretical physicists. Photograph by Inga Nielsen / Shutterstock


Nothing is moving in the foundations of physics. One experiment after the other is returning null results: No new particles, no new dimensions, no new symmetries. Sure, there are some anomalies in the data here and there, and maybe one of them will turn out to be real news. But experimentalists are just poking in the dark. They have no clue where new physics may be to find. And their colleagues in theory development are of no help.

Some have called it a crisis. But I don’t think “crisis” describes the current situation well: Crisis is so optimistic. It raises the impression that theorists realized the error of their ways, that change is on the way, that they are waking up now and will abandon their flawed methodology. But I see no awakening. The self-reflection in the community is zero, zilch, nada, nichts, null. They just keep doing what they’ve been doing for 40 years, blathering about naturalness and multiverses and shifting their “predictions,” once againto the next larger particle collider.

I think stagnation describes it better. And let me be clear that the problem with this stagnation is not with the experiments. The problem is loads of wrong predictions from theoretical physicists.

The problem is also not that we lack data. We have data in abundance. But all the data are well explained by the existing theories—the standard model of particle physics and the cosmological concordance model. Still, we know that’s not it. The current theories are incomplete.

We know this both because dark matter is merely a placeholder for something we don’t understand, and because the mathematical formulation of particle physics is incompatible with the math we use for gravity. Physicists knew about these two problems already in 1930s. And until the 1970s, they made great progress. But since then, theory development in the foundations of physics has stalled. If experiments find anything new now, that will be despite, not because of, some ten-thousands of wrong predictions.

We are today making more investments into the foundations of physics than ever before. And yet nothing is coming out of it.

Ten-thousands of wrong predictions sounds dramatic, but it’s actually an underestimate. I am merely summing up predictions that have been made for physics beyond the standard model which the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) was supposed to find: All the extra dimensions in their multiple shapes and configurations, all the pretty symmetry groups, all the new particles with the fancy names. You can estimate the total number of such predictions by counting the papers, or, alternatively, the people working in the fields and their average productivity.

They were all wrong. Even if the LHC finds something new in the data that is yet to come, we already know that the theorists’ guesses did not work out. Not. A. Single. One. How much more evidence do they need that their methods are not working?

This long phase of lacking progress is unprecedented. Yes, it has taken something like two-thousand years from the first conjecture of atoms, by Democritus, to their actual detection. But that’s because for most of these two-thousand years, people had other things to do than contemplating the structure of elementary matter. Like, for example, how to build houses that don’t collapse on you. For this reason, quoting chronological time is meaningless. We should better look at the actual working time of physicists.

I have some numbers for you on that too. Oh, yes, I love numbers. They’re so factual.

According to membership data from the American Physical Society and the German Physical Society, the total number of physicists has increased by a factor of roughly 100 between the years 1900 and 2000.* Most of these physicists do not work in the foundations of physics. But for what publication activity is concerned the various subfields of physics grow at roughly comparable rates. And (leaving aside some bumps and dents around the second world war) the increase in the number of publications, as well as in the number of authors, is roughly exponential.

It’s not institutional pressure that creates this resistance, it’s that scientists themselves don’t want to move their butts.

Now let us assume for the sake of simplicity that physicists today work as many hours per week as they did 100 years ago—the details don’t matter all that much given that the growth is exponential. Then we can ask: How much working time starting today corresponds to, say, 40 years working time starting 100 years ago. Have a guess!

Answer: About 14 months. Going by working hours only, physicists today should be able to do in 14 months what a century earlier took 40 years.

Of course you can object that progress doesn’t scale that easily, for despite all the talk about collective intelligence, research is still done by individuals. This means processing time can’t be decreased arbitrarily by simply hiring more people. Individuals still need time to exchange and comprehend each other’s insights. On the other hand, we have also greatly increased the speed and ease of information transfer, and we now use computers to aid human thought. In any case, if you want to argue that hiring more people will not aid progress, then why hire them?

So, no, I am not serious with this estimate, but it explains why the argument that the current stagnation is not unprecedented is ill-informed. We are today making more investments into the foundations of physics than ever before. And yet nothing is coming out of it. That’s a problem and it’s a problem we should talk about.

I’ve recently been told that the use of machine learning to analyze LHC data signals a rethinking in the community. But that isn’t so. To begin with, particle physicists have used machine learning tools to analyze data for at least three decades. They use it more now because it’s become easier, and because everyone does it, and because Nature Newswrites about it. And they would have done it either way, even if the LHC would have found new particles. So, no, machine learning in particle physics is not a sign of rethinking.

Another comment-not-a-question I constantly have to endure is that I supposedly only complain but don’t have any better advice for what physicists should do.

First, it’s a stupid criticism that tells you more about the person criticizing than the person being criticized. Consider I was criticizing not a group of physicists, but a group of architects. If I inform the public that those architects spent 40 years building houses that all fell to pieces, why is it my task to come up with a better way to build houses?

They constantly tell each other that what they are doing is good science. Why should they stop?

Second, it’s not true. I have spelled out many times, very clearly, what theoretical physicists should do differently. It’s just that they don’t like my answer. They should stop trying to solve problems that don’t exist. That a theory isn’t pretty is not a problem. Focus on mathematically well-defined problems, that’s what I am saying. And, for heaven’s sake, stop rewarding scientists for working on what is popular with their colleagues.

I don’t take this advice out of nowhere. If you look at the history of physics, it was working on the hard mathematical problems that led to breakthroughs. If you look at the sociology of science, bad incentives create substantial inefficiencies. If you look at the psychology of science, no one likes change.

Developing new methodologies is harder than inventing new particles in the dozens, which is why they don’t like to hear my conclusions. Any change will reduce the paper output, and they don’t want this. It’s not institutional pressure that creates this resistance, it’s that scientists themselves don’t want to move their butts.

How long can they go on with this, you ask? How long can they keep on spinning theory-tales?

I am afraid there is nothing that can stop them. They review each other’s papers. They review each other’s grant proposals. And they constantly tell each other that what they are doing is good science. Why should they stop? For them, all is going well. They hold conferences, they publish papers, they discuss their great new ideas. From the inside, it looks like business as usual, just that nothing comes out of it.

This is not a problem that will go away by itself.

Sabine Hossenfelder is a Research Fellow at the Frankfurt Institute for Advanced Studies where she works on physics beyond the standard model, phenomenological quantum gravity, and modifications of general relativity. If you want to know more about what is going wrong with the foundations of physics, read her book Lost in Math: How Beauty Leads Physics Astray.

Source: The Present Phase of Stagnation in the Foundations of Physics Is Not Normal