A Grim Milestone, As Cases Continue

12:09 minutes

This week, COVID-19 case trackers from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention hit a grim milestone, logging over one million deaths in the country from the pandemic. The true total is likely to be much higher, as many cases go unreported, or are logged as deaths due to other factors in death certificates. And the pandemic continues, with locations such as New York City reaching “high” transmission levels, and recommending that people mask again indoors.  

Timothy Revell, deputy United States editor for New Scientist, joins Ira to talk about the groups that have been most affected by the pandemic death toll, and the continuing battle against the coronavirus—including the availability of another round of free tests via the postal service

They also tackle other stories from the week in science, including Congressional hearings on UFO sightings, new theories about what helps make a planet habitable, what can be learned from a fossilized tooth in Laos, and the important psychological question of why some word pairings are funnier than others

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Segment Guests

Tim Revell

Tim Revell is Executive Editor at New Scientist in London, England.

Segment Transcript

IRA FLATOW: This is Science Friday. I’m Ira Flatow. This week, COVID-19 case trackers from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention hit a grim milestone, logging over 1 million deaths in the US from the pandemic. The true total is likely to be much higher. Many cases go unreported or are logged as deaths due to other factors in death certificates.

And the pandemic continues, with locations such as Rhode Island and Connecticut now leading the nation in new cases this week and the possibility of recommending that people mask again indoors. Joining me now to talk about that and other stories from the week in science is Timothy Revell, deputy US editor for New Scientist. He’s based in New York. Welcome back to Science Friday.

TIMOTHY REVELL: Thanks for having me.

IRA FLATOW: All right, let’s talk about these grim statistics. It’s really horrible, is it not? A million deaths. A shocking number.

TIMOTHY REVELL: Yeah. I mean, it once seemed completely unimaginable. If you sort of think back to the early pandemic, some of the wildest estimates were, like, in the 200,000 deaths in the US region. And that seemed impossible back then. And then now, the CDC announcing this week that the US has reached that very grim milestone, as you put it, of 1 million deaths.

IRA FLATOW: And those deaths are not evenly distributed, are they?

TIMOTHY REVELL: No, that’s right. So if you sort of look across the demographics on where they fall, it’s something like 3/4 of the deaths were people of age 65 and older. More men than women have died. And then if you look at the makeup in terms of ethnicity, white people make up most of the deaths overall in the US. But that doesn’t really tell the full story, as Black, Hispanic, and Native American people have been twice as likely to die during the pandemic from COVID-19.

IRA FLATOW: And as I said before, the transmission levels are now going up again in several parts of the country, right?

TIMOTHY REVELL: Yeah. So the good news overall is that deaths have slowed a lot since some of the worst parts over the last 2 and 1/2 years. But cases are on the rise again. They’re almost hitting 100,000 cases a day in the US at the moment. And it’s the first time it’s hit that number since February. So things are definitely on the rise again. The CDC said this week that something like a third of Americans now live in areas with medium to high levels of virus transmission.

IRA FLATOW: And because of that, the United States Postal Service is sending out another round of rapid tests if you fill out the form online. And I did. And boy, it came quickly. They said they were going to send you eight kits. I got 10 tests in the mail this week.

TIMOTHY REVELL: Oh. You must be getting some sort of preferential treatment. I’ve had eight tests as well. And you can get them on the covidtests.gov website. It’s really, really easy.

IRA FLATOW: Yeah. We’ve all, of course, been watching the devastation in Ukraine now, moving on to other news. But there’s word this week of a specific scientific and ecological angle and a seed bank issue here. Tell us about that.

TIMOTHY REVELL: Yeah, so it’s pretty bad news, but maybe not as bad news as it initially seemed. So there was a video going around this week from Sergey Avramenko. He works at the National Center for Plant Genetic Resources of Ukraine. And in this video, he shows how part of Ukraine’s national seed bank was completely destroyed by a Russian bomb attack on Kharkiv.

These seed banks there where researchers store often thousands of seeds from different plants as a sort of repository for genetic diversity so that scientists can study different plants and perhaps restore them if they go extinct in the wild. And Ukraine’s national seed bank, it’s a really big one. It stores around 150,000 samples from around the world, making it the 10th largest in existence.

And in this video, it’s quite harrowing. A building has been turned to ashes, as Avramenko describes it. And the footage is pretty devastating. And so initially, it seemed like that was the whole seed bank gone.

But one of our reporters at New Scientist, Michael Le Page, he looked into this. And it seems there’s a very sliver of silver lining in that the video is actually only a single agricultural research station. And so the vast majority of the Ukraine national seed bank is actually still intact, though it’s obviously still at risk with the invasion ongoing.

IRA FLATOW: Wow, that’s good news.

TIMOTHY REVELL: Yeah. It’s sort of like initially bad news, but not quite as bad as it seemed.

IRA FLATOW: All right. Let’s talk about some other interesting news, something a bit lighter. This week, we had congressional hearings about UFOs, which they don’t call UFOs anymore, do they?

TIMOTHY REVELL: No. There’s a real move, I think, to try and make UFOs seem less like things associated with aliens. And part of that is, instead of using the term UFOs, they use the expression UAPs, which is Unexplained Aerial Phenomena.

IRA FLATOW: Doesn’t quite roll off the tongue quite as–

TIMOTHY REVELL: No, it really doesn’t. And there’s a very specific way that the military generals involved in researching these unexplained aerial phenomena speak. At one point during this congressional hearing, Ronald Moultrie, who was Pentagon intelligence official, he was describing the sorts of events that they track. And he then used this expression, which I wrote down as I found quite interesting. He says that “any object we encounter can likely be isolated, characterized, identified, and, if necessary, mitigated,” which is very, very mundane language to say, we spotted some UFOs, and then we worked out what they were.

IRA FLATOW: Well, so did we move any closer to understanding what these things may be?

TIMOTHY REVELL: Yeah, so for the last couple of years, there’s been a bit of an investigation into asking for people to come forward with sightings of UAPs, or UFOs, and to try and work out what they are. And in this congressional hearing, they showed some videos. And in one of them– it’s a video from a cockpit of a fighter pilot, and in a blink of an eye, a metallic object flies past extremely quickly. And it’s sort of hard to work out what it is. And then there’s another one where there’s some sort of strange glowing triangles that appear in the night sky, all very mysterious.

But then, as we’ve spoken about in this hearing, the explanation always turns out to be pretty mundane. It can be things like a drone or another aircraft, a strange weather event, birds, balloons. And often it’s just, like, strange camera effects. There’s something in the sky that’s causing a bit of reflection on your lens.

IRA FLATOW: But there were a few things they said they could not explain.

TIMOTHY REVELL: Yeah, so there’s a few things left. And they very much said they can identify most UAPs, which leaves the option of, well, what about the other ones? They used the expression, “the data’s not good enough.” So it’s very poor quality video, or they don’t really have any other data points they can use to make a more educated guess about what it is.

IRA FLATOW: Right. Now, those aliens have to live somewhere if they are out there. You have a story this week about new ideas in what makes a planet habitable.

TIMOTHY REVELL: Yeah. So this is a lovely story from my colleague Leah Crane. And she looked at this study where they’ve tried to work out what makes the chances of a solar system having a habitable planet more likely, with the idea that there’s so many options we could point our telescopes at to look for signs of life, so how do we work out the best places? And it turns out that having giant planets like Jupiter and Saturn in your solar system may just be one of those things.

IRA FLATOW: Why? Why would that make a difference?

TIMOTHY REVELL: In the study, they basically did huge simulations. So they looked at 140,000 different planetary systems, and then in these systems, they had a star and two giant planets a bit like Jupiter and Saturn. And then they determined whether those systems would allow a habitable, Earth-sized world.

And so a world is habitable, or considered habitable, if it orbits a star close enough to allow liquid water on its surface, but not so close that it all evaporates. And in these simulations, they found that, actually, most of them didn’t have a very good chance of having a habitable planet. But in a small number of them, around 250, the presence of these two gas giants actually enhances the overall habitability of the system, so much so that they called them ultra-habitable systems.

IRA FLATOW: And is that because they have big gravity, some sort of– because they’re so big, they can suck up other things?

TIMOTHY REVELL: It’s like a combination of factors. So part of it is like, does having these two giant planets give room for a smaller, Earth-sized planet that could sit at just the right spot in a solar system? And that’s what this study looked at. We didn’t really know about that before. And it seems that, absolutely, it does.


TIMOTHY REVELL: But we also already know that having giant planets in your solar system can have other good effects, too. For example, they often have a strong enough gravitational pull to pull in asteroids and other objects flying through the solar system that might otherwise be detrimental to life.

IRA FLATOW: Cool. Let’s turn from outer space to ancient history, because there’s news about a possible Denisovan tooth find. Tell us about that.

TIMOTHY REVELL: Yeah, I absolutely love this story. And so it starts back in 2018, with archaeologist Laura Shackelford and her team looking for potentially interesting places to dig in northern Laos in Southeast Asia. And so when they were doing this, they came across this cave, which to me sounds absolutely horrifying, but probably it was very exciting for these archaeologists.

And they described it as being just filled with teeth. And so these teeth, they were from different species, including giant tapirs, deer, and pig. And they were probably gathered by porcupines collecting bones to sharpen their teeth and extract nutrients, which to me only adds to the horror. But among these fossilized teeth was a small, underdeveloped hominin tooth. And this is the one that they think could well be from the Denisovans.

IRA FLATOW: So what’s significant about this? We’ve found the evidence of Denisovans around the world before.

TIMOTHY REVELL: There’s only a very small number of Denisovan fossils in total. And so there are a handful of teeth and bone shards in the original Denisova cave, which is where we first learned about this strange hominin species. And then there’s a jawbone in Tibet. But that’s it. That’s the grand total of Denisovan fossils until now with this one in Laos.

And it’s just one of those remarkable things of the last 10 years of science, where just over 10 years ago, we had no idea the Denisovans existed. Then we found a few bone shards and work out, oh, it’s actually an extinct hominin species we didn’t know of before. But then with genetic analysis, it was worked out that millions of people around the world in Asia, Oceania, and the Pacific Islands carry traces of Denisovan DNA. So that hinted of where the Denisovans lived– in Asia, most likely, and around 2 million to 100,000 years ago. But this tooth, if confirmed, would be the first fossil evidence that Denisovans made it to Southeast Asia.

IRA FLATOW: That’s very interesting. I see why you’re interested in it. Finally, something about psychology and word pairs– why some word combinations sound funny.

TIMOTHY REVELL: Yeah. So a team of researchers have done this big study where they looked at why some pairs of words are funnier than others. But one of the amusing parts of it is they’ve probably used the most unfunny research method known to man, the online survey.

And the researchers, they put together a list of around 5,000 words that have previously been studied for their humor or lack of. And then they paired these words together and asked people to say whether they thought the resulting pairs were funny or not. And they ended up looking at about 55,000 pairs of words. And so I guess what you want to know is, what were the funny words?

IRA FLATOW: Yeah, of course.

TIMOTHY REVELL: Yeah, so some of those ranked as funniest were “Playboy parrot,” “weasel penis,” and “spam scrotum,” all things I wasn’t expecting to say on national radio anytime soon. And then some of my other favorites that made the list included “known bone” and “funk fungus.” And by contrast, the ones that were very unfunny were “large small,” “schedule year,” and “sell bargain.” And those were not very funny.

IRA FLATOW: Well, the old comedian Johnny Carson used to say Bayonne, New Jersey, was the funniest.


IRA FLATOW: That he could come up with. [LAUGHS] Thank you very much for taking the time to be with us today.

TIMOTHY REVELL: Thanks for having me.

IRA FLATOW: Timothy Revell, deputy US editor for New Scientist. One last note– this week, electronic music and composer Vangelis died at the age of 79. You might know him for “Chariots of Fire” or the soundtrack to Blade Runner. But did you know he also wrote space music, writing pieces for NASA, the ESA, and Carl Sagan’s Cosmos, among other things? Our condolences to his friends and loved ones.

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