Beautiful, but Deadly: Painting the Coronavirus

Pandemic as art.

You’ve seen it. Probably a thousand or more times by now. It’s the image of a greyish sphere, hanging in space, barbed with blood-red spikes. It looks like an undersea Navy mine… or perhaps a dog’s chew toy. The Covid-19 coronavirus illustration is one of the best known and most viewed scientific illustrations in history. Released in early February by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the image has been seen on news sites, in magazines, even on SNL.

That digital illustration, created by two medical illustrators at the CDC’s Graphic Services Branch — Alissa Eckert and Dan Higgins — will forever be the iconic image of the current pandemic. As a piece of digital art, it is lovely. As a piece of science, it is terrifying.

But another image of the virus was painted in watercolor by the San Diego-based scientist and biological artist David Goodsell, one of the most famous and accomplished scientific illustrators alive today. Goodsell has published several books of his illustrations, and many of his lavishly colored paintings can be found in medical school textbooks. A few have won awards. Some have even hung in museums. Goodsell’s coronavirus image is not nearly as famous, but as a work of art — and a work of science — it is just as mesmerizing. And more lovely.

Goodsell is an Associate Professor in the Department of Integrative Structural and Computational Biology at the Scripps Research Institute in San Diego. Most of the time, he works as a scientific illustrator (or molecular artist), a growing field in science, with numerous university programs available around the country. While the CDC image was created entirely within a computer, Goodsell’s work tends to be done in watercolor, a much older medium, but one that gives his images a vibrant beauty, making terrible pathogens like E-coli, Ebola and HIV, not to mention coronavirus, look like a psychedelic dream or a candy-colored nightmare.

Ebola virus: David Goodsell

Goodsell says that creating images like these serve a very important purpose: allowing people to picture something that otherwise would be unseeable.

“I was trying to put a face on the virus, so it’s not invisible, so we can see what we’re fighting,” Goodsell told California Science Weekly.

Because there are so many other images out there of the virus, it might seem like creating an illustration of it would be simple, but Goodsell says that there’s a tremendous amount of science involved, and that he strives to be as technically accurate as possible, showing only the known proteins in the virus and how they might be organized within the virion, the technical term for a virus particle.

David Goodsell in his home studio.

At the time that the painting was made, says Goodsell, not much was known about the virus. Its genetic structure was still being figured out. But since the virus is so similar to the SARS virome, Goodsell used a lot of the information from existing data on that virus, to create his work of art. Like most molecular artists, Goodsell draws from existing information about the proteins that make up a virus, much of which is freely available in the Protein Data Bank, a global online repository of genetic and structural data on thousands of the proteins which make up all living things.

“I want it to be something that people want to look at. I don’t particularly want it to look scary or monsterish.”

David Goodsell

The Protein Data Bank contains “some really nice structures of the spike protein on the outside of the virus.” Those spike proteins (colored a deep blood-red in the CDC image, but a bubblegum pink in Goodsell’s painting) are the means by which the virus attaches itself to our own cells before injecting them with its RNA, which will rapidly replicate inside and potentially wreak havoc in our bodies.

“If you Google coronavirus, people are using a whole range of different amounts of data, and most of the pictures are total garbage. Somebody has heard there are spikes on the virus, so they put things that look like big nails on the surface,” says Goodsell. “The CDC’s and my picture are much more tied to the data.”

Since creating the image in February, however, more information has come out about the virus’s genetic composition, and Goodsell may revisit his image, although he thinks it remains accurate. Little was known, for example, about the RNA contents of the virus, the genetic information that invades human cells. He also notes that the virus’s shape is not as uniform as depicted in most illustrations, and that any effort to create an image of it requires a significant amount of artistic license. For example, the CDC image, while accurate in terms of various proteins pictured, is likely not the neatly organized spiked ball floating in space that most people have come to know.

“I was trying to put a face on the virus, so it’s not invisible, so we can see what we’re fighting.”

David Goodsell

“It’s not a perfect sphere and it comes in a range of different sizes,” says Goodsell. “All of my reading is that the spikes are arranged randomly on the surface.”

Another quality that is entirely up to the artist is color. None of the molecules in the virus have much color, so molecular artists like Goodsell (and Alissa Eckert and Dan Higgins at the CDC), choose colors that they believe will be both pleasing and informative, helping to differentiate the various structures within the virus particle. “Color is used to help improve the clarity of what the structures are. The CDC has used that bright red to show what they think is the most important part, the spike on the surface,” says Goodsell.

For Goodsell’s part, his palette is far less sinister. He favors delicate pastels and swooping forms over the stark primary colors and jagged spikes of most coronavirus images. “I want it to be something that people want to look at. I don’t particularly want it to look scary or monsterish.”

That said, Goodsell says he’s been getting a lot of comments about the painting on Twitter. “Invariably, they say it’s beautiful but deadly.”

The little-known California scientist who may have saved millions of lives.

At Caltech, Clair Patterson’s relentless determination to understand the health impacts of atmospheric lead changed the world for the better.

It started by asking one of the biggest questions of them all: how old is the earth?

One might think that we’ve known the answer to this question for a long time, but the truth is that a definitive age for our planet was not established until 1953, and it happened right here in California.

Some of the earliest estimates of the earth’s age were derived from the Bible. Religious scholars centuries ago did some simple math, synthesizing a number of passages of Biblical scripture and calculated that the time to their present-day from the story of Genesis was around 6,000 years. That must have seemed like a really long time to people back then.

Of course, once science got involved, the estimated age changed dramatically, but even into the 18th century, people’s sense of geologic time was still on human scales, largely incapable of comprehending an age into the billions of years. In 1779, the Comte du Buffon tried to obtain a value for the age of Earth using an experiment: He created a small globe that resembled Earth in composition and then measured its rate of cooling. His conclusion: Earth was about 75,000 years old.

But in 1907, scientists developed the technique of radiometric dating, allowing scientists to compare the amount of uranium in rock with the amount of lead, the radioactive decay byproduct of uranium. If there was more lead in a rock, then there was less uranium, and thus the rock was determined to be older. Using this technique in 1913, British geologist Arthur Holmes put the Earth’s age at about 1.6 billion years, and in 1947, he pushed the age to about 3.4 billion years. Not bad. That was the (mostly) accepted figure when geochemist Clair Patterson arrived at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena from the University of Chicago in 1952. (Radiometric dating remains today the predominant way geologists measure the age of rocks.)

The Canyon Diablo meteorite was used by Clair Patterson to determine the age of the earth. Credit: Geoffrey Notkin
Canyon Diablo meteorite. Credit: Geoffrey Notkin

By employing a much more precise methodology, and using samples from the Canyon Diablo meteorite, Patterson was able to place the creation of the solar system, and its planetary bodies such as the earth, at around 4.6 billion years. (It is assumed that the meteorite formed at the same time as the rest of the solar system, including Earth). Subsequent studies have confirmed this number and it remains the accepted age of our planet.

Patterson’s discovery and the techniques he developed to extract and measure lead isotopes led one Caltech colleague to call his efforts “one of the most remarkable achievements in the whole field of geochemistry.”

But Patterson was not done.

In the course of his work on lead isotopes, Patterson began to realize that lead was far more prevalent in the environment that people imagined. In the experiments he was doing at Caltech, lead was everywhere.

Image of Clair Patterson in his Caltech lab. Courtesy of the Archives, California Institute of Technology
Courtesy of the Archives, California Institute of Technology

“There was lead there that didn’t belong there,” Patterson recalled in a CalTech oral history. “More than there was supposed to be. Where did it come from?”

Patterson’s discovery was “one of the most remarkable achievements in the whole field of geochemistry.”

Barclay Kamb, California Institute of Technology

Patterson was flummoxed by the large amounts of environmental lead he was seeing in his experiments. It seemed to be everywhere: in the water, air and in people’s hair, skin and blood. Figuring out why this was the case took him the rest of his career.

He found it so hard to get reliable measurements for his earth’s age experiments that he built one of the first scientific “clean rooms”, now an indispensable part of many scientific disciplines, and a precursor to the ultra-clean semiconductor fabrication plants (so-called “fabs”) where microprocessor chips are made. In fact, at that time, Patterson’s lab was the cleanest laboratory in the world.

To better understand this puzzle, Patterson turned to the oceans, and what he found astonished him. He knew that if he compared the lead levels in shallow and deep water, he could determine how oceanic lead had changed over time. In his experiments, he discovered that in the ocean’s oldest columns of water, down deep, there was little lead, but towards the surface, where younger water circulates, lead values spiked by 20 times.

Then, going back millions of years, he analyzed microscopic plant and animal life from deep sediments and discovered that they contained 1/10 to 1/100th the amount of lead found at the time around the globe.

He decided to look in places far from industrial centers, ice caves in Greenland and Antarctica, where he would be able to see clearly how much lead was in the environment many years ago. He was able to show a dramatic increase in environmental lead beginning with the start of lead smelting in Greek and Roman times. Historians long ago documented the vast amounts of lead that were mined in Rome. Lead pipes connected Roman homes, filled up bathtubs and fountains and carried water from town to town. Many Romans knew of lead’s dangers, but little was done. Rome, we all know, collapsed. Jean David C. Boulakia, writing in the American Journal of Archaeology, said: “The uses of lead were so extensive that lead poisoning, plumbism, has sometimes been given as one of the causes of the degeneracy of Roman citizens. Perhaps, after contributing to the rise of the Empire, lead helped to precipitate its fall.”

In his Greenland work, Patterson’s data showed a “200- or 300-fold increase” in lead from the 1700s to the present day; and, most astonishing, the largest concentrations occurred only in the last three decades. Were we, like the Romans, perhaps on the brink of an environmental calamity that could hasten the end of our civilization? Not if Patterson could help it.

Exterior shot of the California Institute of Technology. Credit: Erik Olsen
California Institute of Technology. Credit: Erik Olsen

That may be far too grandiose and speculative, but there was no doubting that there was so much more lead in the modern world, and it seemed to have appeared only recently. But why? And how?

In a Eureka moment, Patterson realized that the time frame of atmospheric lead’s rise he was seeing in his samples seemed to correlate perfectly with the advent of the automobile, and, more specifically, with the advent of leaded gasoline.

Leaded gas became a thing in the 1920s. Previously, car engines were plagued by a loud knocking sound made when pockets of air and fuel prematurely exploded inside an internal combustion engine. The effect also dramatically reduced the engine’s efficiency. Automobile companies, seeking to get rid of the noise, discovered that by adding tetraethyl lead to gasoline, they could stop the knocking sound, and so-called Ethyl gasoline was born. “Fill her up with Ethyl,” people used to say when pulling up to the pump.

Shot of a can of Ethyl gas. Credit: Plazak
Credit: Plazak

Despite what the Romans may have known about lead, it was still an immensely popular material. It was widely used in plumbing well into the 20th century as well as in paints and various industrial products. But there was little action taken to remove lead from our daily lives. The lead in a pipe or wall paint is one thing (hey, don’t eat it!), but pervasive lead in our air and water is something different.

After World War I, every household wanted a car and the auto sales began to explode. Cars were perhaps the most practical invention of the early 20th century. They changed everything: roads, cities, work-life and travel. And no one wanted their cars to make that infernal racket. So the lead additive industry boomed, too. By the 1960s, leaded gasoline accounted for 90% of all fuel sold worldwide.

But there signs even then that something was wrong with lead.

A New York Times story going back to 1924 documented how one man was killed and another driven insane by inhaling gases released in the production of the tetraethyl lead at the Bayway plant of the Standard Oil Company at Elizabeth, N.J. Many more cases of lead poisoning were documented in ensuing years, with studies showing that it not only leads to physical illness but also to serious mental problems and lower IQs. No one, however, was drawing the connection between all the lead being pumped into the air by automobiles and the potential health impacts. Patterson saw the connection.

Ford Model T. Credit: Harry Shipler

When Patterson published his findings in 1963, he was met with both applause and derision. The billion-dollar oil and gas industry fought his ideas vigorously, trying to impugn his methods and his character. They even tried to pay him off to study something else. But it soon became apparent that Patterson was right. Patterson and other health officials realized that If nothing was done, the result could be a global health crisis that could end up causing millions of human deaths. Perhaps the decline of civilization itself.

Patterson was called before Congress to testify on his findings, and while his arguments made little traction, they caught the attention of the nascent environmental movement in America, which had largely come into being as a result of Rachel Carson’s explosive 1962 book Silent Spring, which documented the decline in bird and other wildlife as a result of the spraying of DDT for mosquito control. People were now alert to poisons in the environment, and they’d come to realize that some of the industrial giants that were the foundation of our economy were also having serious impacts on the planet’s health.

Patterson was unrelenting in making his case, but he still faced serious opposition from the Ethyl companies and from Detroit. The government took half-hearted measures to address the problem. The EPA suggested reducing lead in gasoline step by step, to 60 to 65 percent by 1977. This enraged industry, but also Patterson, who felt that wasn’t nearly enough. Industry sued and the case to the courts. Meanwhile, Patterson continued his research, collecting samples around Yosemite, which showed definitely that the large rise in atmospheric lead was new and it was coming from the cities (in this case, nearby San Francisco and Los Angeles). He analyzed human remains from Egyptian mummies and Peruvian graves and found they contained far less lead than modern bones, nearly 600 times less.

Years would pass with more hearings, more experiments, and the question of whether the EPA should regulate leaded gas more heavily went to U.S. Court of Appeals. The EPA won, 5-4. “Man’s ability to alter his environment,” the court ruled, “has developed far more rapidly than his ability to foresee with certainty the effects of his alterations.”

The Clean Air Act of 1970 initiated the development of national air-quality standards, including emission controls on cars.

Drone shot of rush-hour traffic over Los Angeles. Credit: Erik Olsen
Drone over Los Angeles. Credit: Erik Olsen

In 1976, the EPA’s new rules went into effect and the results were almost immediate: environmental lead plummeted. The numbers continued to plummet as lead was further banned as a gasoline additive and from other products like canned seafood (lead was used as a sealant). Amazingly, there was still tremendous denial within American industry.

Although the use of leaded gas declined dramatically beginning with the Clear Air Act, it wasn’t until 1986, when the EPA called for a near ban of leaded gasoline that we seemed to finally be close to ridding ourselves of the scourge of atmospheric lead. With the amendment of the Clean Air Act four years later, it became unlawful for leaded gasoline to be sold at all at service stations beginning December 31, 1995. Patterson died just three weeks earlier at the age of 73.

Clair Patterson is a name that few people know today, yet his work not only changed our understanding of the earth itself, but also likely saved millions of lives. When Patterson was finally accepted into the National Academy of Science in 1987, Barclay Kamb, a Caltech colleague, summed his career up thusly: “His thinking and imagination are so far ahead of the times that he has often gone misunderstood and unappreciated for years, until his colleagues finally caught up and realized he was right.”

Clair Patterson is one of the most unsung of the great 20th-century scientists, and his name deserves to be better known.

To learn more about Clair Patterson, read the fascinating oral history from Caltech Archives.

California companies lead the effort to save the world with microbes, California connection: meet 2018 Nobel Prize winner in chemistry Frances Arnold, Carnegie Observatories and the GMT, Questioning “Disaster tourism” in California, Feeling the Force in Anaheim and more

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Week of May 31, 2019


California companies are leading the effort to save the world with microbes


Overfishing is arguably one of the most significant threats to the human food supply on the planet. Approximately three billion people in the world rely on both wild and farmed seafood as their primary source of protein, and ten percent of the world’s population depends on fisheries to make a living.

One the of dirty little secrets of the global commercial fish industry is that it takes fish to make fish. While many people see farmed fish as an ideal solution to meeting our protein needs in the future, the reality is that feeding farmed fish right now requires massive inputs of so-called forage fish, namely small fish like anchovies, herring, menhaden, capelin, anchovy, pilchard, sardines, and mackerel that occur in large numbers in the ocean, particularly the cold Southern and Northern latitudes. A multi-billion dollar industry is dedicated to using large ships that ply the ocean with nets to bring up millions of tons of forage fish every year.

So is there a way to feed farmed fish that reduces the need to trawl the seas for forage fish? It turns out that one California company is working on a solution, and it involves one of the most abundant organisms on earth: bacteria.

NovoNutrients is a Mountain View, California, startup, whose offices lie close to both Facebook and Google. The company is harnessing the new technology of synthetic biology or synbio to get bacteria to do our bidding, creating proteins using the same tiny organisms that curdle milk into yogurt and cause innumerable diseases.

California Science Weekly

Chemistry / Nobel Prizes

California connection: meet Frances Arnold, the 2018 Nobel Prize winner in chemistry


The 2018 Nobel Prizes, announced in October, included a very special California name: Frances Arnold. Dr. Arnold is a professor of chemical engineering at the California Institute of Technology, an institution that has seen its share of Nobel winners: 39.  She calls La Canada Flintridge home, adding brain power to a city already loaded with brilliant minds (JPL is headquartered there).  

A wonderful profile of Dr. Arnold can be found in this week’s New York Times, written by the always witty and fun Natalie Angier. The piece does an admirable job of explaining directed evolution, the process she developed that is now widely used to generate novel enzymes and other biomolecules by harnessing cellular machinery. Her process is being used to develop biofuels, medicines, agricultural prodiucts and even in laundry detergent to remove stains. 

It is only the 52nd time in history that the Nobel prize was awarded to a female scientist. That’s out of a total of 892 awards (17%) given since the prize was created by Alfred Nobel, the inventor of dynamite, who established the prize in 1895. It should be noted that the brilliant French chemist Marie Curie won it twice. 

The Nobel site also has a wonderful series on women in science that’s worth reading in its entirety. It’s very well illustrated and put together. The piece on Dr. Arnold is particularly good. 

The New York Times   Nobel Prize

Astronomy / Space

Carnegie Observatories and the Giant Magellan Telescope 

Carnegie Observatories

While many science institutions in California are extremely well-known (we cover many of them here), one Pasadena organization gets little media attention, but is arguably one of the most important places in the world in astronomy.  

The Carnegie Observatories, located in Pasadena, is playing a leading role in humanity’s grasp of the origins of the cosmos. Scientists at the Carnegie are working at the Las Campanas Observatory in Chile’s Atacama desert, home to the twin Magellan telescopes, and site of the future Giant Magellan Telescope (GMT).  

The Giant Magellan Telescope is arguably one of the most important astronomic scientific instruments ever constructed. When completed in 2025, it stands to revolutionize our view and understanding of the universe. The GMT is a segmented mirror telescope using seven incredibly precise reflecting surfaces that have been shaped and polished to within a wavelength of light, approximately one-millionth of an inch. It will have a resolving power of almost 25 meters, dwarfing that of most other terrestrial-based telescopes. In fact, it will have ten times the resolution of the Hubble Space Telescope, NASA’s current workhorse for mirror-based astronomical observation. That means it will resolve points of light 10 times sharper than Hubble.

Construction of the Magellan is underway and you can follow its progress here.   

Carnegie Observatories


Questioning “Disaster tourism” in California

San Francisco Chronicle

The 2018 Camp Fire in Paradise, California fire wiped out a small community of mostly retired homeowners who sought out the quiet, forested glens in Northern California as a place to spend the waning years of their lives. The fire is considered the deadliest in California history and resulted in the death of 88 people and the destruction of 13,696 homes.  

The San Francisco Chronicle delves into the idea of “disaster tourism”, following several people who made a special effort to visit the destroyed town to see the damage for themselves, take pictures and video. They were not alone. Apparently, three cleanup workers were fired after posting insensitive images of the devastation on social media. And one artist spray-painted chilling images around Paradise.  

For the people who once called Paradise home, let alone for the relatives of the ones who lost their lives in the tragic fire, the idea of people poking around to gaze, paint and take selfies in the ruins might have distasteful quality. 

San Francisco Chronicle

Space / Companies

Feel the Force in Anaheim

Disney Theme Parks

It was 53 years ago this month that Disneyland delighted (or annoyed, depending on your tolerance for earworms) visitors with the opening of the It’s a Small World ride. Perhaps it’s fitting, or a sign of how much more commercialized the world has become, that this week (Friday, May 31, in fact) saw the opening of Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge, a new 14-acre addition to the theme park that capitalizes on Disney’s $4 billion, 2012 purchase of the Star Wars franchise from Lucasfilm. The centerpiece of the new addition is a 100-foot long Millennium Falcon.   

The New York Times gets a personalized tour of the new addition, and seemed to think it was both “jaw-dropping” and incomplete, since several of the marquee attractions still aren’t open. In the Los Angeles Times, the reporter both appreciated and questioned how interactive it is, as it forces people who don’t know each other to work together to achieve various goals. 

We can’t help pity the parents who will not only pay nearly $120 per person to enter the park, but will then have to shell out an additional $200 for a hand-built lightsaber. 

New York Times     Los Angeles Times


Could a drought in California be linked to a drought in the Midwest? A recent Stanford-led study looks at so-called “Domino droughts”. (Stanford Water in the West)

Some lovely shots, recently discovered, of California’s desert landscapes from the 1920s, all shot by two women.  (Atlas Obscura)

A bill making its way through the California legislature will allow “harvesting” of roadkill. With a permit. Didn’t know it was illegal, but apparently, it is.  (CalMatters)

Elephant seals speak in dialects, but they may be losing them. Wow, this is so interesting. Who knew? There are numerous rookeries of elephant seals around California.  (The Atlantic)

The Aquarium of the Pacific in Long Beach has a new wing called Pacific Visions that just opened. (Aquarium of the Pacific)

Hawthorne, California-based SpaceX’s internet-beaming Starlink satellites are totally bumming out astronomers. (Axios)

Saving pets is apparently a big – and expensive – thing near San Francisco. (Alta Online)

Spotting wildfires around California may get easier with an array of new cameras. (NY Times)

The Petersen Automotive Museum in Los Angeles has a new exhibit: ‘Hollywood Dream Machines’ with over 40 vehicles from cinema history, including Blade Runner, A Clockwork Orange, Mad Max: Fury Road, Back to the Future, and RoboCop. (Smith Journal)

Speaking of the Carnegie Observatories (see above) NASA’s Transiting Exoplanets Survey Satellite discovered that a nearby system hosts the first Earth-sized planet. Carnegie scientists were involved in the discovery. (Carnegie Observatories)

A rare (and very smelly) corpse lily is set to bloom in Long Beach. (LA Times)

Excellent story on the decline of the vaquita porpoise, a marine mammal that is almost extinct in the Gulf of California. (Undark)

You may soon get a sandwich delivered to you by drone in San Diego.  (Freight Waves)

That’s it! Have a great week, and please send your friends an invitation to sign up for the California Science Weekly newsletter. 

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Design by Luis Ramirez

Netflix’s Our Planet takes on California, Talking with your brain, Banning animal dissection, California’s “King Tides”, Threats to California’s artichokes

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Week of May 3, 2019

Here at the California Science Weekly, we are working hard to bring you the most interesting, informative and entertaining stories about science in the state of California. Every week, we pore through hundreds of articles and Web sites to find the top stories that we believe are worthy of your time. We hope you’ll stay with us and share our work with others via Twitter and Facebook. If there is anything you’d be interested in learning more about, send us a note, and let us know.

Marine Science

Netflix’s amazing Our Planet takes a long look at one of California’s iconic coastal ecosystems

For Californians who have not yet had the joyful opportunity to catch Netflix’s new nature show Our Planet, you should click over now and catch episode four, which features long, impossibly beautiful ruminations on California’s coastal environment.

It captures the recovery of the sea otter population around Monterey and features stunning moving images of Monterey kelp forests, one of our most iconic coastal ecosystems. Huge red and black California sheephead (a type of wrasse) gnaw and crush sea urchins, sea lions gambol in huge numbers like playful puppies, and the time-lapses of urchins creeping across the rocky strata are downright terrifying. Given the incredible array of exotic places that the show has been so far, it’s awfully nice to have California recognized as a biological hot spot worthy of such admirable high-definition filmmaking.

California’s kelp beds have been under threat for decades, with some in severe decline. The culprits are purple sea urchins, who consume kelp, preventing them from growing. Years ago, urchins were kept in check by the otter population, which was decimated for the fur trade. The Our Planet episode explains this in some detail.

Kelp is an amazing organism and is a potential ally in the fight against global warming. When free to grow in a healthy environment, kelp grow remarkably fast, up to two feet a day. Kelp absorbs carbon and provides critical habitat and food for more than 800 species of marine animals. Recent warming caused a 60-fold explosion of purple urchins California’s coast, and the kelp was devastated by these ravenous porcupines of the sea. Over the last 100 years, the Palos Verdes Peninsula has lost 75 percent of its kelp forests.

But efforts over the past decade, by organizations like the Santa Monica-based Bay Foundation, are seeking to bring the kelp back by eradicating urchins, often with divers who wield hammers and smash the urchins. So, not exactly pretty, but the efforts have been effective in restoring this incredibly important part of the ecosystem.



Talking with your brain


Scientists at the University of California San Francisco have developed a brain-computer interface to turn brain signals into computer-synthesized speech. It could be a way for people who have lost the ability to speak to communicate.

The so-called ECoG Electrode Array is made up of dozens of electrodes that are implanted on the brain and record brain activity. The computer deciphers the brain’s motor commands and then generates sentences to try to match the speaker’s natural speaking rhythms.

Brain-computer interfaces are not new, not even those that can generate speech. But previous efforts produced about eight words a minute, while this one generates about 150 words a minute, which scientists say is the pace of natural speech.

Here’s the paper in Nature.

New York Times UCSF


Banning animal dissection from biology class


A new California law might outlaw the use of animals like cats and frogs for dissections in science classes. Cats used for dissection tend to be euthanized animals acquired from shelters; frogs and other amphibians are often gathered in the wild.

Those in support of the bill say that killing the animals is cruel and unnecessary. They say kids can get the same or similar educational experience by using models and computer programs. For those who grew up dissecting animals and believe it is an important part of science education, the move is perceived as an attack on time-honored traditions of biology class. Students are allowed under current law allows to opt out of performing dissections if they have a moral objection, but this would be a state-wide ban at public schools.

SacBee Pacific Standard Magazine

Climate Change

California’s King Tides a harbinger of climate change

King tides are a natural phenomenon in California. Every year when there is an alignment of the gravitational pull between sun and moon, tides are literally pulled higher up the shore. Scientists warm, however, that when king tides take place during floods or storms, sea levels can damage the coastline and coastal property. Studies show that California will be greatly impacted by sea level rise, and so the point of the project is to help us visualize future sea level rise by observing the highest high tides of today.

The King Tide Project has a wonderful series of images from earlier this year showing the highest tides around the state.

King Tide Project

Climate Change / Agriculture

California’s artichokes may be threatened by climate change

Climate change is going to have massive impacts around the world and will impact many facets of our lives. But perhaps few other impacts are as important as how it will affect the world’s food supply. California’s economy is largely built on agriculture, and few products are more representative of our food production than the California artichoke. A 2018 report by Agronomy, a peer-reviewed, open access scientific journal, laid out a stark future for California agriculture. The classic California artichoke faces particular threats. A warming ocean and changing the marine layer, which the artichoke depends on, not to mention the spread of pests like the artichoke plume moth, could devastate the state’s artichoke crops.

Similarly, the New York Times looks at various products around the nation and what problems various states may face. As one of the top producers of agricultural products in the world, California faces particular challenges.

New York Times Capital and Main


A map of “wicked weather and deadly disasters” from the Washington Post shows California faring well against tornadoes and hurricanes, but not, alas, against wildfires.

California Sierra’s snowpack is 2.5 times larger than last year. Using Lidar and a spectrometer, this is how NASA’s JPL figures that out.

In case you missed it, the New York Times reports that California’s raisin industry is controlled by a “raisin mafia”.  

Fifty years ago, an oil spill off Santa Barbara became a galvanizing moment for the US environmental movement.

The Golden State Killer case was just the beginning. How DNA will continue to solve crimes.

How palm trees came to define Los Angeles, and why it’s all a myth.

A fantastic story in Wired about the discovery of a new earthquake fault in California.

Fifty years ago, an oil spill off Santa Barbara became a galvanizing moment for the US environmental movement.

The Golden State Killer case was just the beginning. How DNA will continue to solve crimes.

How palm trees came to define Los Angeles, and why it’s all a myth.

A fantastic story in Wired about the discovery of a new earthquake fault in California.

Success! You're on the list.

Design by Luis Ramirez

Mountain lions could disappear by 2050, Hydraulic mining’s destructive power, an ode to Yosemite’s Lyell glacier, Descanso Gardens’ dinosaur era plants, More mosquitos, LAFD drones

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Week of April 12, 2019

Here at the California Science Weekly, we are working hard to bring you the most interesting, informative and entertaining stories about science in the state of California. Every week, we pore through hundreds of articles and Web sites to find the top stories that we believe are worthy of your time. We hope you’ll stay with us and share our work with others via Twitter and Facebook. If there is anything you’d be interested in learning more about, send us a note, and let us know.


An end to California’s magnificent mountain lions?

Credit: US National Park Service

Two mountain lion populations in Southern California face a real threat of extinction if an effort is not made to protect their environment and create so-called “wildlife corridors” through the city’s developed areas, a new study warns.

Thestudy published in the journal Ecologist Applications that examined DNA from the lion’s blood and tissue samples from the 1990s to 2016, shows that the species could soon experience “inbreeding depression”, a term used to describe when genetic diversity has declined to the point that the species’ future existence is called into question. A similar issue occurred with Florida panthers.

The greatest danger facing the magnificent cats remains being struck by a motor vehicle. Mountain lion advocates are hoping for approval for a $60 million Liberty Canyon Wildlife Crossing over Highway 101 connecting the Santa Monica Mountains to the Sierra Madre Mountain Range. It’s possible construction of the corridor could begin as early as 2022.

Yale Environment 360


Hydraulic mining’s efficient destruction

Credit: Eastman Collection of the University of California, Davis

When most of us think of the California gold rush, we picture gold panners hunched over a stream, or shoveling dirt into long, wooden sluices, all in an effort to reveal so-called color, shiny pieces of malleable yellow metal that brought thousands of people to California. But in the later years of the gold rush, in the 1860s and 70s, hydraulic mining was the dominant method of extracting gold from the hills.

Hydraulic mining used high-pressure jets of water to dislodge rocky material or move sediment. The jets were so powerful that men were killed by the force of the water from 200 feet away. It was extremely efficient, but also incredibly damaging to the environment. By the time hydraulic mining was banned in 1884, according to John McPhee’s Assembling California, hydraulic mining was responsible for removing 13 billion cubic yards of the Sierras.

Climate Change

The disappearance of Yosemite’s Lyell glacier

Credit: USGS

Greg Stock is a geologist at Yosemite National Park where, for the last decade, he has documented the decline of the park’s Lyell glacier. The glacier sits on Mount Lyell, the tallest peak in Yosemite National Park (13,120 feet). An 1883 photograph (above) shows the glacier spread across 13 million square feet. Current photographs reveal mostly bedrock now, a sad tale of global warming and the rapid loss of glacial ice in California.

Daniel Duane of California Sunday Magazine visited the remains of the glacier and followed along with Stock as he continued a 135-year effort to map and understand the glacier’s decline. It’s a wonderfully well-wrought tale, but like so many stories in these warming days, it’s a depressing one.

California Sunday Magazine


Descanso Gardens’ rare collection of dinosaur-era plants

Cycad plant

In 2014, La Canada Flintridge residents Katia and Frederick Elsea called the city’s Descanso Gardens with an odd proposal: would the famous horticultural center take their collection of over 180 cycads rare cycads, a fern-like plant from the days of the dinosaurs?

The garden said yes, and now those plants are part of Descanso Gardens’ Ancient Forest. Cycads are so old, in fact, they appear in fossils from over 280 million years ago. That makes them far older than flowers. (Flowering plants first appeared in the Jurassic period about 175 million years ago.) In the Ancient Forest, there are also redwoods, tree ferns and ginkgoes, all “living fossils” from a long past era.

Descanso is also the location of North America’s largest collection of Camellias, a genus found in eastern and southern Asia, from the Himalayas to Japan and Indonesia.  At the gardens, there are also some of the oldest oak trees in the city, dating back to Spanish colonial times, beneath which you can take a stroll or simply hang out and enjoy the shade.

If you’d like to learn more about the gardens, check out this episode of Lost LA.

Descanso Gardens Lost LA


As the planet warms, get ready for more mosquitos

Global warming promises to bring more than just sea level rise, more severe storms, and destructive wildfires. According to researchers at Stanford University, a change in the earth’s temperatures is also likely to increase the range and numbers of biting insects like mosquitos, that seek out warmer, wetter climes. California itself could be impacted, with the insects pushing north from tropical climes.

Mosquitoes transmit numerous harmful diseases including malaria, dengue fever, chikungunya and West Nile virus. It’s estimated that they kill about 1 million people a year.

Stanford University


Los Angeles Fire Department employs drones

Credit: Erik Olsen

The Los Angeles Fire Department (LAFD) has begun a program to use drones to find and respond to fires. It’s potentially a very big deal, given that the 2018 wildfire season was the deadliest and most destructive on record in California. Some 8,527 fires burned across 1,893,913 acres last year. That’s larger than the state of Delaware. It was the largest burned area ever recorded in a fire season, according to the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection.

The agency is partnering with Chinese drone-maker DJI, in what is being called one of the first partnerships between a drone company and a major fire agency. The LAFD will use drones equipped with both visual and thermal imaging cameras that will provide real-time video and data transmission to incident commanders.

Drone DJ


Building an ancient sailboat…in Irvine

Credit: The Orthogonal project

UC Irvine professor Simon Penny and his students are building an ancient Micronesian outrigger boat called a proa to get people interested in long lost seafaring traditions and to promote indigenous science. He hopes, too, to support Pacific indigenous groups to reconnect with their historic mastery of the sea and sailing. And he’s also doing it because it’s fun. Instead of balsa, the 30-foot boat called Orthogonal will be made out of wood with a fiberglass skin. Penny told the California Science Weekly in an email that the craft could launch as early as summer 2019.


Catland: Disneyland is home to a large colony of feral cats. An Instagram account tells their story in photos.

California Underground: a fascinating podcast from the magnificent new California Magazine Alta takes you into the world of urban explorers, bold adventurers who venture into abandoned buildings and structures.

Pretty Fishes: If you feel like chilling out and having something mesmerizing to look at, put on the live Reef Lagoon Cam at the California Academy of Sciences.

One small thing: The Superbloom…by drone

Credit: Erik Olsen

Sure, you’ve seen all the lovely pictures, but have you seen the Superbloom by drone? Here at the California Science Weekly we decided to visit the Superbloom near Lancaster, but rather than simply take pictures, we busted out our drone to bring you a few images of the rare California Superbloom. Enjoy!

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Design by Luis Ramirez

CalTech’s famous fly lab, Saving California’s rare fruit, Atomic microscope, Winter snowfall earthquakes, Brain enhancement drugs, Mars copter

Week of April 5, 2019

Here at the California Science Weekly, we are working hard to bring you the most interesting, informative and entertaining stories about science in the state of California. Every week, we pore through hundreds of articles and Web sites to find the top stories that we believe are worthy of your time. We will also be writing feature stories, developing a podcast and producing a video series that will take our content offerings to a whole new level. We hope you’ll stay with us and share our work with others via Twitter and Facebook. If there is anything you’d be interested in learning more about, send us a note, and let us know.


An homage to Cal Tech’s fly lab

Credit: Sanjay Acharya

Few critters in the history of science have been as important to our understanding of life as the humble fruit fly. The genus Drosophila melanogaster holds a particularly esteemed spot among the dozens of model organisms that provide insight into life’s inner workings. Much of the work has taken place, and is taking place now, right here in California.

CalTech Magazine has a wonderful story by Lori Dajose about the crucial role the fruit fly has played in science and why we should all revere this underappreciated insect.

The story begins in 1906 at Columbia University in the fly lab Thomas Hunt Morgan, whose work with white-eyed mutants established chromosomes as the pathway of inheritance for genes. Morgan made his way to CalTech in 1928 to found the school’s Division of Biology, and ever since then, the school has been a launching pad for ground-breaking research (and a few Nobel Prizes) using fruit flies.

Other notable names involved in fruit fly research include Ed Lewis, who helped standardize fruit fly food, but more importantly discovered how Hox genes control embryonic development (for which he won the 1995 Nobel Prize) and Seymour Benzer, a pioneer the field of neurogenetics and the subject of one of our favorite science books of all time here at the CSW: Jonathan Weiner’s Time, Love, Memory: A Great Biologist and His Quest for the Origins of Behavior. The breakthroughs made in Benzer’s Fly Rooms form the basis of much of our current understanding of genes and behavior.

The essay goes on to describe the great work that continues at CalTech with researchers like Elizabeth Hong, who is investigating how the brain orders and encodes complex odors, David Anderson, who studies emotions and behaviors, and Michael Dickinson, whose lab investigates how the tiny fruit fly brain gives rise to flight. So much to learn from one little insect and one great institution.

CalTech Magazine


Saving California’s fruit

Credit: C. Todd Kennedy

Two hours south of San Francisco, a lawyer turned horticulturalist named C. Todd Kennedy is helping preserve America’s agricultural legacy.  Todd is one of California’s premier experts on fruit. As a co-founder of the Arboreum Company, he has single-handedly saved numerous rare varieties of so-called stone fruit like peaches, plums, and apricots from possibly disappearing forever.

Atlas Obscura


UCI researchers see life’s vibrations

“Credit: Steve Zylius / UCI

Using a cutting edge new type of microscope, scientists at the University of California, Irvine have for the first time captured images of the way that a molecule vibrates down at the atomic level. These vibrations drive the chemistry of all matter, including the function of living cells. “From structural changes in chemistry to molecular signaling, all dynamical processes in life have to do with molecular vibrations, without which all would be frozen,” said co-author V. Ara Apkarian, a UCI Distinguished Professor of chemistry. 

The breakthrough was published in a paper in the science journal Nature. The advance could open up new ways of seeing and understanding the sub-microscopic/ atomic world. The research was conducted at UCI’s Center for Chemistry at the Space-Time Limit, maybe the coolest name for a lab ever.


Geology and earthquakes

Could winter storms cause earthquakes?

All the snow we’ve been getting in the high Sierras may cause skiers and farmers to rejoice, but a new study from Emily Montgomery-Brown at the US Geological Survey in Menlo Park, California, suggests a connection between the heavy runoff following record snowfall in the Sierra Nevada and small earthquakes. Using historical records, Montgomery-Brown and others have determined that small earthquakes occur 37 times more often when there is high runoff from melting snowpack. One theory is that the water permeates the ground and changes pressures deep down within faults, leading to small quakes.



Are we ready for brain enhancement?

You have probably never heard of Klotho, but according to a story by Carl Zimmer in the New York Times, this mysterious hormone could one day lead to a way to prevent, or even enhance, cognitive ability.

Research on mice by Dr. Dena Dubal at the University of California, San Francisco, suggests that Klotho protects mice from cognitive decline, likely due to Alzheimer’s disease. The mice bred to make extra Klotho also performed better running mazes and in other cognitive tests. “Klotho didn’t just protect their brains, the researchers concluded — it enhanced them,” writes Zimmer. Further research suggests that Klotho could also extend life.

In March, Dr. Dubal released a study suggesting that Klotho may also protect people from Alzheimer’s disease. The Alzheimer’s Association says that 5.8 million Americans are currently living with the debilitating disease.

The bigger question that the piece raises is whether Klotho pills or gene manipulation techniques like Crispr that might stimulate Klotho production, could someday be available to humans for cognitive enhancement. In other words, brain boosting. The idea raises numerous ethical questions such as who would get access and how much would it cost? What if you could pass these enhancements on to your children? “If people could raise their SAT scores by taking a pill the night before an exam,” writes Zimmer, “that might not seem fair.”

The New York Times


NASA’s JPL tests new Mars copter

It’s mind-boggling enough that we’ve been able to explore Mars using rovers big and small. But what if the next step is navigating the red planet with a vehicle that can lift off and soar above the dusty surface?

NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) is testing a new helicopter, a small, autonomous rotorcraft weighing about four pounds, that will travel with the Mars 2020 rover, one of JPL’s most ambitious projects ever. The 2020 rover is currently scheduled to launch in July 2020 and is expected to reach Mars in February 2021. The vehicle has been in development since August 2013 at JPL’s testing facility in La Canada Flintridge, California.

Flying a copter on Mars is a lot more challenging than doing so on earth. The thin atmosphere means that the copter’s blades will have to spin at almost 3,000 rpm, about 10 times the rate of a helicopter on Earth. Then there is the Martian climate with dust storms and temperatures that can fall as low as minus 130 degrees Fahrenheit.

The copter project is only one small part of the larger Mars 2020 mission, and is considered a high-risk, high-reward project. If it fails, it won’t impact the mission’s larger goals, including answering key questions about the potential for life on Mars.

Last year, JPL released this informative video about the project.


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Design by Luis Ramirez

Death-Cap mushrooms pose a mortal danger, and they are prevalent in California

The recent deluge of rain from the atmospheric river has brought much-needed relief to the California water system, doing a lot to refill reservoirs. However, the rain has also raised concern over the rapid growth of amanita phalloides, also known as the death cap mushroom. The death cap accounts for nearly 50 percent of all deaths caused by mushrooms.

In a wonderful new animated video series called Life Up Close by The Atlantic and the HHMI Department of Science Education, the health dangers of the death cap mushroom are described in frightening detail. The mushrooms have been a big problem in rainy years in California. In 2017, there were 14 cases of death-cap mushroom poisonings documented in Northern California. The deadly mushrooms grow in moist earth, and while they may look delicious, they should be avoided. It is estimated that just half a mushroom contains enough poison to kill a human adult. The mushroom’s toxin attacks the liver, and those who are affected develop severe abdominal pain, diarrhea and vomiting. Death can come as quickly as a few days.

Interestingly, death caps are not native to the United States, but likely came from Europe, attached to the roots of other plants, but they have become increasingly prevalent in California, finding a particularly hospitable home around oak trees.

So, if you like to pick and eat wild mushrooms, how do you know what to avoid? Unfortunately, the greenish-beige death cap closely resembles several edible species. We looked around and found several places that warn foragers from eating anything with gills, which harbor the toxin. The Bay Area Mycological Society also has an excellent write up on what to look out for and how to avoid them. You also might check out PBS’s excellent Deep Look video on the subject.

The Atlantic