Tag: science

The Remarkable Voyage of Officer De Long and the Jeannette

Nate Galt | United States

The De Long Islands is a group of small, rocky islands in the middle of the East Siberian Sea, off the coast of Russia. During Soviet times, the islands were used as weather stations to better understand the Arctic climate. After the fall of the USSR in 1991, the weather stations were abandoned. Even though the archipelago may be desolate and uninhabited, its discovery has quite an interesting backstory. The island group is named after George W. De Long, a largely forgotten American explorer who risked life and limb to find a warm water route to the North Pole. 

On July 8, 1879, De Long’s ship, the U.S.S. Jeannette, departed with 33 crew members from the harbor of San Francisco. They were searching for an “open polar route” to the North Pole, which had been a popular theory for centuries. The naval commander had experience in far northern waters and knew that winter would be coming when he would pass through the Bering Strait. Although his ship had a reinforced hull to prevent the Arctic ice from cracking it, he was not sure if it would last throughout the whole winter.  In September 1879, the Jeannette was trapped in the ice in the middle of the East Siberian Sea, near the 75th parallel north. The ship’s commander and crew still did not lose hope, even in these dangerous conditions. The current would push the trapped ship towards an island in May of the next year, which would be the first time the crew saw dry land for an entire year. The sighting of the island was a relief for many crew members and boosted their morale. The crew hoped that the onset of the Arctic summer would free their ship from the thick pack ice, allowing them to continue their expedition. They would journey northwest, following their plan to find the “open polar route” to the North Pole.

Unfortunately for them, the U.S.S. Jeannette would still be trapped inside the ice, which was starting to crack its hull. On the evening of June 12, 1880, the ship would sink just north of the 77th parallel. Desperate and running out of options, the crew took three lifeboats and followed the orders of their commander, De Long, to head over to the Lena River delta. He predicted that there would be numerous native Yakut villages which would provide his men with food and shelter. In order to keep their slim hope of survival alive, they needed to brave the harsh winds and march over the frozen East Siberian Sea, all while hauling their boats. They displayed a strong sense of camaraderie, knowing that they needed to support each other if they wanted to have a sliver of a chance at life.

In July, the party spotted small uninhabited islands with cliffs and named them after their ship and after De Long’s family. De Long claimed these newly discovered islands for the United States and planted an American flag on the largest one. Following a brief rest, they set out on foot again. Since the ice was melting, the men had to use their boats in order to get to the Russian coast. Melville, the group’s engineer, was placed in command of one lifeboat, while Lieutenant Chipp, a naval officer, was made the captain of the smallest boat. The third lifeboat was piloted by De Long himself. Everyone was ordered to stay together, no matter how terrible the conditions became. Unfortunately, on September 12, strong gale-force winds tore the group apart. Hope was quickly dwindling for all three parties. The De Long party tried to maintain their path towards the Lena delta and proceeded to land at its northernmost extremity.

De Long kept meticulous records of his experience, from the unique wildlife to the frigid climate of the region. He noted that food was running out, writing in his journal that “there was nothing to eat but a spoonful of glycerine.” The men were in poor physical condition, with many barely walking a mile per day. Even though their decreasing food rations were replenished by shooting the occasional reindeer or bird, morale was low. One by one, De Long’s men were falling, either due to frostbite or starvation. The first casualty of the expedition came on October 6. As the harsh, biting Siberian winter set in, more men died. The last three men desperately tried to set up camp on higher ground. De Long was among them, and on the last day of October 1880, he passed away. Chipp’s party was never found, and it is assumed that the crew disappeared in the frigid waters of the East Siberian Sea due to their boat capsizing. Melville’s vessel landed at the southeastern part of the enormous river delta. He soon found a sizable native Yakut village and rested there. He ordered that everyone in his party except for two of the fittest crewmen should go to the large city of Yakutsk, which was upstream. Melville wanted to search for De Long but had to wait for the biting cold to ease. He began his search in mid- to late March, when the river ice would have melted, bringing along two of his men and two natives. In a village, a group of natives brought Melville several notes written by expedition members. When he discovered De Long’s body, he found several artifacts as well as his commander’s diary. This journal would be invaluable as there were detailed descriptions of everything that his commander’s party had encountered. All but one body of the group would be recovered and buried on top of a hill in the middle of the river delta. Melville heaped some rocks over the men’s graves and planted a large wooden cross over them to mark their resting place. For one more month, he unsuccessfully tried to find any news about Chipp and his men. He returned to Yakutsk in May and began his long journey back to the United States. 

Only 13 of the 33 men that originally sailed from the U.S. survived the perilous expedition. Their return was celebrated by the American public, as their ordeals were not at all in vain. Public interest in the expedition had been high since the crew’s departure. Besides discovering new islands and sailing through uncharted waters, the crew of the USS Jeannette dismantled the theory of an “open polar sea” and the absence of currents in the Arctic Ocean. Early cartographers mapping the Arctic believed that there were no currents in this ocean. As a result of the crew of the Jeannette being trapped in ice that was floating with a current, this myth was debunked. This would change far northern exploration forever, as following explorers learned from the mistakes of De Long and used his journal entries to plan future voyages. The party’s treacherous journey in the high north was commemorated with a memorial cross in the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis. Their exploration would be the first of its kind, as no one had made so many discoveries about the North Pole and the waters around it up to this point. De Long’s contribution was great, but if it weren’t for Melville’s determination and commitment to find his shipmates, we would not have learned all we know today. Melville had given the scientific world so much by recovering artifacts, especially the notes of his comrades and De Long’s diary. The men risked life and limb solely to prove a theory and ended up doing much more. Significant stories like these frequently fall through the cracks of history and should never be forgotten. 

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Psychedelic Mushroom Trials Approved By FDA

By Spencer Kellogg | @TheNewTreasury

COMPASS Pathways, a mental health startup funded by tech pioneer Peter Thiel, has quietly gained approval from the FDA to begin phase IIb clinical trials utilizing psilocybin mushrooms as a potential treatment for depression. More commonly referred to as ‘psychedelic’ or ‘magic’ mushrooms, psilocybin fungus has been studied previously for its physical and mental properties but has recently seen a renewed resurgence in interest and research.

The trial will feature 216 patients spanning across countries in Europe and North America throughout up to 15 different research sites. The therapy will combine an active dose of the mushroom along with psychological support from mental health practitioners. So far, the testing has seen positive results as a safe treatment for depression in the U.K. George Goldsmith, Chairman of COMPASS Pathways pointed to the more than 100 million people globally that suffer from mental illness as a need and reason for new research.

The scientific team that COMPASS has assembled is impressive and includes both Tom Insel and David Nutt as board advisors and a steady supply of venture capital from libertarian-leaning entrepreneurs like Thiel. Limited research in the field of using psychedelics to treat depression has already produced positive results that could radically change the healthcare options for those that are struggling with mental illness or terminally ill. In cancer patients, psychedelic mushrooms have been shown to relieve anxiety and stress and in Denver, activists have advocated for the drug as an end-of-life treatment.

In a Business Insider article from 2017, a patient named Martin told how his participation in an experimental psilocybin trial helped him cope with cancer that had plagued him for years. “With the psilocybin, you get an appreciation — it’s out of time — of well-being, of simply being alive and a witness to life and to everything and to the mystery itself.” Martin went on to explain how taking psychedelic mushrooms had made him more cognizant of how to live present in social situations. He suggested that his experience for a few hours with psilocybin had created a sea change in his outlook on life.

This is most likely because psychedelic drugs operate as a sort of low key “reboot” in for users, resetting tension and anxiety that exists in a person’s everyday experience. Researchers at Johns Hopkins and NYU confirmed this very hypothesis when they found that ‘a single dose of psilocybin decreased anxiety in cancer patients for eight months when compared to a placebo.’ Other scientists have found that using psilocybin-assisted psychotherapy can help curb cigarette smoking.

Mushrooms aren’t the only drug that is being hailed as a possible new therapeutical avenue for suffering patients. Ecstasy, which has been used as an experimental substance in couple therapy for years, is now also being trialed to help treat veterans with PTSD. COMPASS Pathways, which has already produced over 20,000 doses of magic mushrooms, is hopeful that these new treatments will become available in the near future and have suggested that we could see psychedelics being used as legal therapy as early as 2027.

In recent years, microdosing psychedelics as a way to improve physical stamina, mental acuity, and overall happiness has become vogue in intellectual and celebrity circles. Joe Rogan has spoken extensively about the benefits of eating magic mushrooms and Janet Chang wrote a beautiful essay on how a year of microdosing helped different aspects of her life. In a 2016 research paper released by a team of scientists at John Hopkins, the conclusion read simply: “In conjunction with psychotherapy, single moderate-dose psilocybin produced rapid, robust and enduring anxiolytic and antidepressant effects in patients with cancer-related psychological distress.”

About COMPASS Pathways

COMPASS Pathways is a life sciences company dedicated to accelerating patient access to evidence-based innovation in mental health

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Philosophy is Not Dead.

K. Tymon Zhou | USA

Does philosophy have an important role in contemporary society?  The late Stephen Hawking asserted that it does not, declaring that  “Philosophy is dead.”.  Hawking argued that scientific progress in physics renders philosophy irrelevant. He was not alone in this assertion among his scientific peers. In 2014, Neil deGrasse Tyson suggested that philosophy, as it relates to physical sciences, is needlessly absurd:

My concern here is that the philosophers believe they are actually asking deep questions about nature. And to the scientist it’s, what are you doing? Why are you concerning yourself with the meaning of meaning?… The scientist says look, I got all this world of unknown out there, I’m moving on, I’m leaving you behind. You can’t even cross the street because you are distracted by what you are sure are deep questions you’ve asked yourself. I don’t have the time for that.

From Tyson’s perspective, the future seems to lie strictly in the hands of scientific knowledge. To be completely fair, Tyson suggests that there are productive fields for philosophy such as ethics and politics. However, these criticisms speak to a broader  disdain for philosophy as a useless discipline. Society increasingly values expertise in STEM fields. Such expertise is highly useful, but it only covers means, not ends. Technicians can create increasingly powerful weaponry. However, they cannot answer the question of when they should or should not be used. Such an answer requires not only knowledge (What military intelligence do we have?), but wisdom (Is this a just war?). Thus, any political question becomes a philosophical question as well. Far from being a obscure debate over concepts, philosophy is perhaps more relevant than ever.

Socrates, the father of European philosophy, and Plato, his influential pupil, understood this. To them, scrutinizing the meaning of meanings was highly important. Why was it worth it? Although Socrates and Plato rarely came to a definitive conclusion on a subject, they saw the search’s value. It prevented creative and moral stagnation. In a discussion with a Greek aristocrat named Meno, Socrates reflected on virtue’s meaning. While Tyson might have shrugged his shoulders and told Socrates that he didn’t have time to examine such a useless subject, both Meno and Socrates persisted. Perhaps sensing that Meno felt as Tyson might have, Socrates responded:

I would contend that at all costs in both word and deed as far as I could that we will be better men, braver, and less idle, if we believe that one must search for the things one does not know, rather than if we believe that it is not possible to find out what we do not know and that we must not look for it.

Indeed, Socrates was willing to sacrifice his own life to pursue such meanings.  Charged by the dogmatic Athenians as a blasphemer, Socrates boldly defended his aims. Can anyone not doubt his sincere devotion to truth when reading his Apology?

  ….if I say that this even happens to be a very great good for a human being—to make 20 speeches every day about virtue and the other things about which you hear me conversing and examining both myself and others— and that the unexamined life is not worth living for a human being, you will be persuaded by me still less when I say these things.

Tragically, they were not persuaded. Socrates was executed for philosophy’s sake.

If philosophy is dead, we have decided that the unexamined life is worth living. Instead of pursuing truth, we have resigned ourselves to bleak ignorance. Instead of dreaming of a discovery, we say that there is nothing left to uncover. It is a world without hope and without possibilities. No, philosophy is not dead. It is very much alive and the world is better because of it.

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Upgrade: Movie Review

By Brennan Dubé | @Brennan_Dube71R 

‘Upgrade’ was released here in Canada this past weekend, so I decided to go check it out. I’ve heard good things about this lower budget sci-fi flick so I was somewhat excited for the lights to go down and the movie to begin rolling. Safe to say, ‘Upgrade’ was a treat and I definitely had a pretty good time with this film. Here is my review of ‘Upgrade.’

This film stars Tom Hardy doppelganger Logan-Marshall Green, Betty Gabriel, Benedict Hardie and Simon Maiden. This is a low budget sci-fi feature that is about a man on a path to seek revenge after his life has been flipped upside down. He gets a chip inserted in him that is able to enhance his abilities to do many things. This essentially makes him an upgraded human. Here we have our movie. I found ‘Upgrade’ took a little bit to pick up, but when it did, it truly was a fun ride. The film offers a unique take on futuristic science fiction and opens a world that I truly want to see more of.

The film’s acting was mainly good, but dialogue at times was somewhat cheesy. There were times early on in this film where I found things happened a little too conveniently, and dialogue just didn’t go well with the overall flow of the film. The story was sweet and simple, but executed really well, making for an effective movie. The unique camera angles and truly entertaining action sequences are the greatest glow of this film. Fight scenes put me at the edge of my seat, as the choreography and strong camera work elevated them in all the right ways. ‘Upgrade’ had quality build up for the majority of the movie as it was able to wind up the intensity as the film progresses. The payoff for me was one of the weakest spots of the film.

‘Upgrade’ also featured some overall weak antagonists that didn’t add a ton to the story. A stronger antagonist would benefit the movie, but I did not find that this detracted from it much at all. Despite being a low budget film, the visuals and special effects satisfied me. Director Leigh Whannell ensured this film had solid pace and it did flow quite well after a slow start. Sure, it’s not the perfect film, but it is a fun and enjoyable time for sure.

The big plus: Superb fight sequences and a pretty simple yet solid premise makes for a really entertaining time.

Where it lacks: Poor dialogue and pacing early on may give you a hard time getting into this movie, and when you finally do get into it… the overall payoff lacks impact.

Score: 77/100

I will say that this movie thoroughly entertained me and I hope to see it again. ‘Upgrade’ introduced me to a premise and a world that I would love to see more of in the future. Definitely see this movie if you haven’t as it really is a good alternative to the norm these days. ‘Upgrade’ was cool like I wanted ‘Hotel Artemis’ to be. I truly did have fun with this movie and props to the filmmakers for crafting a good low budget summer film.

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The Great American Brain Drain of Scientists

By Craig Axford | United States

Elections have consequences. So do significant cuts in funding for higher education and cultural attitudes toward expertise that tend to vary from indifferent to downright hostile. America has begun to pay a price for its anti-intellectualism, and that price looks poised to only steadily increase into the future.

In response to President Trump’s decision to withdraw the United States from the Paris Climate Accord, President Emmanuel Macron announced France’s Make The Our Planet Great Again initiative. No doubt many Trump supporters chuckled at France’s invitation to American scientists to come to France to conduct their research. Though Macron’s initiative may have been relatively small as government programs go, it wasn’t purely symbolic.

By December 2017, France had recruited its first 18 scientists. Of those 18, 13 were coming from the United States. In May of this year, France announced it had lured six more US scientists to join the others. Trump’s tempestuous behavior during and following the G7 Summit in Quebec only serves as further evidence things in the US aren’t likely to improve soon, adding fuel to the fire for those already contemplating departing the country.

France isn’t the only country beginning to benefit from American scientific talent feeling unwelcome in the United States. Of 150 research chair positions funded by the Canadian government to mark the 150th anniversary of confederation, 14 are leaving institutions in the United States. According to the Globe and Mail’s story on the new research chair recruits, “The haul of prominent scientists attracted to the new chairs suggests that a predicted brain gain for Canada owing to reactionary politics in the United States and elsewhere is having an impact and that scientists are indeed voting with their feet.”

There are signs that international students too are joining the stampede. President Trump has hardly been signaling foreigners are welcome in the United States. As a result, many students that had US universities on their short list appear to be crossing those schools out. High tuition no doubt depresses international student enrolment to some extent, but Trump’s election appears to have been the decisive factor in 2017’s dramatic decline.

Forbes Magazine, citing a study by the National Foundation for American Policy, reported in March that international student enrolment in US universities dropped by 4% between 2016 and 2017. At the graduate level that drop was 6%. Compare that to the dramatic jump experienced in Canada during the same period. The autumn 2017 start of the school year saw 10.7% more international students attending Canadian universities than in the previous year. In British Columbia, the increase was 15.6%.

None of this should come as a surprise. The administration rarely misses an opportunity to signal its hostility toward immigrants and foreign visitors to the United States. When it comes to science the hostility is just as real even if the rhetoric isn’t usually as heated.

The New York Times recently reported that “Mr. Trump is the first president since 1941 not to name a science adviser.” The president has eschewed any detailed scientific or technical briefings that could prepare him for his summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, opting instead to follow his gut. Meanwhile, “Both the Interior Department and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration have disbanded climate science advisory committees,” while “The Food and Drug Administration disbanded its Food Advisory Committee, which provided guidance on food safety.”

The consequences of all of this for American scientific leadership and innovation will take a while to become obvious, though probably not more than five to ten years. International students pay much higher tuition, subsidizing American students who are already burdened with the highest university fees in the developed world. As a result, American students will be among the first to feel the impact of declining international enrollment.

As the EPA, FDA and other agencies continue advancing policies with little to no scientific input and funding for scientific research begins to take a hit, government employees engaged in scientific endeavors will likely follow very shortly. Meanwhile, we can expect the EU, Canada, China, India, and others to actively seek to lure back citizens that came to the US to do scientific work and, as is already the case with France and Canada, to recruit Americans interested in leaving their home country for more fertile scientific soil elsewhere.

Trends don’t appear out of nowhere. They build gradually. They are typically imperceptible at first. American policymakers have either been too busy pushing uninformed and fiscally irresponsible ideological goals such as deregulation and tax cuts for the wealthy, or too occupied responding to the latest ethical and rhetorical brush fires ignited by the president to realize that America is losing its appeal to the world’s best and brightest. Global talent used to see America’s universities as among the best educational opportunities the world had to offer. Many of them used to want to stay to work in Silicon Valley or other centers of research and development. That’s beginning to change, and it doesn’t look very likely anyone is going to notice until it’s too late to easily restore the country’s reputation.

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