Early this morning China successfully launched the core module of their new space station into Earth orbit. This station is the focus of the entire Chinese manned space program, at least for the near future, and represents the culmination of years of development and planning. Like all modern space stations, the massive installation will be assembled in orbit utilizing multiple launches, but the Chinese government expects the station to be completed by the end of 2022. There is no reason to expect that target can’t be met given their modest plans. Apart from expanding manned access to space, this station represents one more part of the Chinese government’s soft power exercise over the global scientific community.
A nation exercises soft power anytime they use some form of cultural influence on another nation, and this is a form of power that the United States practically invented during the Cold War. One might rightly ask why the United States government allows foreign scientists to conduct research at US government laboratories, and one justification is the exercise of soft power. A more straightforward term might be “good will.” It helps to have scientists on your side because scientists create new technologies and capabilities that governments want to exploit for economic or defense ends. Since the early 20th century the USA has been the go-to nation for scientists. That is a big part of why the US led technological innovation in the last century. The USA has a reputation for being the place where scientific innovation happens. It’s not a guarantee that reputation will continue.
With the launch of their space station, and the expectation that it will be fully operational within two years, China has offered up the opportunity to fly experiments to the international community. In fact, nine international experiments have already been selected to fly on the station through a program run in collaboration with the United Nations. It is no coincidence that China is opening up room on their station for international collaboration now, given that the US-led International Space Station will reach end of life in 2028. This isn’t the only place where China is looking to pick up the slack that America has dropped.
The recent unceremonious collapse of the beloved and iconic Arecibo telescope represented a major loss to radio astronomy. Many international researchers had built their entire careers at Arecibo, and many of these same researchers were left holding the bag when it collapsed. But fear not, astronomers, because China coincidentally announced that they would be opening their newer and larger radio telescope to international cooperation shortly after the collapse. The Chinese government will be granting 10% of the FAST telescope to international collaborators, with the remaining 90% going to Chinese researchers. Competition for that 10% will be fierce, as will attempts to get Chinese colleagues to submit proposals as co-authors to grab some of that 90%. (This is all above board, and is, quite frankly, how this form of soft power functions. You create a system to draw in foreign talent to boost your native talent, which means that you win, but everyone feels like they win something they want.)
China is not guilty of anything that the USA hasn’t been doing for years, namely exercising soft power to attract scientific talent and prestige. If anything, China is acknowledging that they recognize the importance of soft power and want to apply it in the realm of science and technology. When it comes to soft power China is a pro, and they coordinate across multiple efforts to get what they want. China looks to the USA and the way it has led the world for decades, and wants that role for itself, and is doing what it thinks it has to in order to achieve that goal.
Think I’m being paranoid? Allow me to introduce you to panda diplomacy.
If I’m being honest, I’m not a huge fan of photography as an art form. I’m not saying that it’s not an art form, I’m just saying that for the most part it’s not for me. One strong exception is photomicrography, or the art of taking photographs of insanely tiny things, generally through a microscope. One of the best outlets for this work is the Nikon Small World Photomicrography Competition which announced its 2020 winners a few months ago.
These microscale photographs capture images of our world beyond our natural perception. A fly’s head becomes a nuanced structure of ridges, hairs, and texture that you could almost reach out and touch. An image of a beetle’s leg can be used to illustrate convergent evolution with a crab’s leg. Your mind can be blown by the size of the scales of a butterfly’s wing, or, like me, you can simply marvel at the size of hairs on a fuzzy beetle.
Astronomy asks us to look up and marvel at the immense scale of the Universe that dwarfs our everyday lives. Microscopy asks us to look down, and see the beauty of an entirely different universe all around us.
I can not be the only person to wake up during this pandemic with a cough and think the worst. Fortunately, all my coughs have been allergy related (thank you, every plant in New Mexico), but there is absolutely no guarantee that my luck will hold out. Or yours, if you’ve been lucky enough to not get Covid-19. (Though if you got it early in the pandemic you may be vulnerable again, though the data isn’t clear.)
There is some good news if you’re questioning if that cough is Covid-19. A recent study of tens of thousands of Covid-19 cases compiled by the WHO, along with thousands of influenza cases compiled by the University of Michigan, plus a handful of other respiratory illness cases compiled around the world, indicate that there is a very common order of Covid-19’s four most identifiable symptoms.
The most likely order of Covid-19 symptoms is the following:
2. cough and muscle pain
3. nausea and/or vomiting
There are two standouts in that order. Influenza normally starts with a cough and then a fever. Other household name coronaviruses (MERS and SARS) usually strike the lower gastrointestinal tract first, meaning diarrhea comes before nausea or vomiting.
Keep in mind that this is the most common order of symptoms, but absolutely not the only possible order. Even with so many global infections there is still a lot we don’t know about the Covid-19 disease and how it presents. According to the latest CDC estimate, potentially 40% of all Covid-19 cases are asymptomatic, meaning they show no symptoms at all. Still, researchers feel this likely order of Covid symptoms is a good guideline to determine if an individual should be tested. It also indicates that the common practice of taking someone’s temperature as an indicator of possible Covid-19 infection is a sound strategy.
With flu season rapidly approaching, and the near impossibility of widespread Covid-19 inoculations before it hits, being able to differentiate between influenza and Covid-19 on a symptomatic level is welcome news.
All I ever wanted as a scientist was to work on interesting problems. I’ve also long contended that almost any subject is interesting if you approach it from the right angle. I’d argue that James Smoliga feels the same way. Smoliga, a physiologist and physiotherapist, recently conducted a study of historical data from Nathan’s Famous Coney Island Hot Dog Eating Contest to scientifically assess the long term performance increase of these “elite athletes.”
Essentially all competitive sports exhibit a long term improvement that will plateau at some point. Take sprinters, for instance. It is possible to use physiology to determine the maximum theoretical speed that a human could possibly run. Usain Bolt is famously the fastest runner ever officially clocked, with a peak speed during the 100 meter sprint of 27.51 mph. Scientists estimate that humans have a peak sprint speed of between 35 and 40 mph, which is about half the top speed of the fastest quadrupeds. It is reasonable to expect that over time, with improved nutrition and biological sciences, humans will get faster and faster, but will plateau somewhere around 40 mph.
It seems that competitive hot dog eating has undergone a similar trend in just 40 years, and that humans might be reaching the plateau very quickly. The limit to how many hot dogs a human can eat in 10 minutes is dominated by how far a human stomach and stretch to take on an ungodly amount of sausage. (With running, the limiting factor is how fast human leg muscles can move, which is based on the rate that muscles can contract and expand, so in a way it’s a very similar problem.) A more scientific term for stomach stretchiness is “gut plasticity,” and Smoliga has calculated that maximum human gut plasticity is equivalent to eating 84 hot dogs in 10 minutes. The thing is, the present world record is 75 hot dogs in 10 minutes. If you plot the “active consumption rate” of hot dogs – defined as hot dogs per minute – in the Nathan’s contest since 1980 you get the following chart.
The circles are data from 10 minutes competitions, and the squares are from 12 minutes competitions. In 1980 it was pretty much one hot dog per minute, or 10 hot dogs in 10 minutes. And that is what is so incredible. Every physical sport has this shape of curve, but the time between the low point and the plateau is usually much longer. As fast as Usain Bolt is, he is nowhere near the theoretical maximum human speed. Joey Chestnut, who holds the present record at 75 hot dogs in 10 minutes, is very close to the theoretical maximum of 84. This leads to an interesting question: Why are competitive eaters progressing up the curve so much faster than other athletes?
Smoliga proposes an answer. In competitive running, an athlete must train their body to undergo an intense physical strain. This training turns them into a very specialized, and highly adapted, peak physical specimen. A competitive eater must also train their body, but rather than improving physical fitness, what might actually be happening is a chronic form of damage. It’s a lot easier to break something than it is to fix it, and that may be exactly what competitive eaters are doing to their own guts. Smoliga argues that high performance competitive eaters haven’t been around long enough to assess the long term health implications of this sport, but in general increased gut plasticity to the point that normal gut plasticity is no longer possible would not be good for long term health. It’s not a shock that routine binge eating (“training”) is probably not good for you.
So there you have it. Nathan’s Famous Coney Island Hot Dog Eating Contest is a great case study for a weird bit of human physiology. And you probably thought it was just a silly sport.
I recently had the privilege of co-authoring a manuscript summarizing the last 15 years of research at the Z Pulsed Power Facility. I’ve worked on the Z Machine since 2016, where I predominantly design material science experiments and study energy delivery (aka “power flow”). My writing contribution was primarily in section C, “Dynamic material properties,” in particular “Improved capabilities for dynamic materials experiments at Z.” A review article of this magnitude comes around less than once a decade, so it was interesting to be a part of it.
The paper is open access, meaning it is free for everyone. It can be read online, or via a PDF download. The goal was for the introductory section to be broadly accessible, but the later sections are intended for interested scientists in related fields. It at least has a lot of cool pictures.
Dr. Andrew Porwitzky is a scientist and freelance writer living in Albuquerque, New Mexico. He is the author of numerous works of fiction, scientific articles, and essays.