Science at the Sochi Winter Olympics, plus the Latest on Gene Editing

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The Sochi Olympics: Geology, ecology, and climate

Something I’ve been wondering, and Bob Costas & Matt Lauer & Co. haven’t been telling me, is why the devil Sochi, a summer resort town?

Well, because, Seattle resident Dana Hunter tells us at SciAm’s Rosetta Stones, Sochi is a lot like Seattle. Um, Seattle? Mild, rainy winters? For the Winter Olympics?

Yeah, but that’s good, because it’s pleasant walking-around weather for the thousands of visitors (it hit 60 the other day), and the indoor venues are, duh, indoors, so it doesn’t matter where they are built, and the Caucasus mountains are less than an hour away for the snow sports. Not that real snow is so plentiful there this year; for real snow you have to go to Georgia (the US one). And the Carolinas. Although I guess that blast has turned to ice by now. Which is worse. Oh, and the Midwest. And the East. And especially the Northeast.

Anyway, Hunter’s post is largely about the risks involved in constructing all the venues in a spot where the building sites are wetlands, and flooding and earthquakes and landslides are a big risk.

Also snow slides, although this year it’s all artificial snow, which apparently is not so slidy. This news, doubtless also relevant for decisions about ski waxing, is from another Sochi geology post. It’s by Eva Amsen at The Finch + the Pea.

One of the reasons Russian President Vladimir Putin lobbied so hard to get the Olympics for Sochi was to turn the nearby Caucasus mountains into a trendy spot for a winter sports resort. Putin must be one of those global-warming deniers. (I’ve written about deniers here.)  At Climate Progress, Ari Phillips explains that Sochi will be out of the winter sports business by mid-century. Along with many other formerly cold and snowy locales.

This DigitalGlobe satellite image shows the 2014 Winter Olympics event slopes in Sochi, Russia. This image was collected Jan. 2, 2014. Credit: DigitalGlobe.  HT to Megan Gannon at LiveScience http://www.livescience.com/43149-sochi-winter-olympics-seen-from-space.html

This DigitalGlobe satellite image shows the 2014 Winter Olympics event slopes in Sochi, Russia. This image was collected Jan. 2, 2014. Credit: DigitalGlobe. HT to Megan Gannon at LiveScience 

The Sochi Olympics: Blog roundups

Scientific American is aggregating its Olympics-related blog posts under the heading Science at the Sochi Olympics here.  Among them are the Dana Hunter post mentioned above and the Judy Stone post on disease, below. Some others, Hilda Bastian at Absolutely Maybe on the attraction to risky winter sports, David Wogan at Plugged In on what happens to Olympics cities after it’s all over, and several Olympics posts from yesteryear.

LiveScience is congregating its posts at Winter Olympics 2014.  Some topics: Weather and climate of course, effects of altitude on speed skaters, which winter sports burn the most calories.

 

Big news at the Scientific American Blog Network

In other SciAm Blog Network news, very important news, there is at last a new blog czar for the network. He is Curtis Brainard, who invented The Observatory, the regular blog-style report on science journalism at the Columbia Journalism Review. Given his record, Brainard is the perfect pick for this demanding job, which has been vacant since the uproar last fall over former czar Bora Zivkovic’s behavior with women, which I wrote about at the time, and its electrifying effect on the science blogging community.

Knight Science Journalism Tracker Charlie Petit reports that Brainard, having been at the job only a few weeks, isn’t yet sure what changes he wants to make. Managing the existing stable of 40 bloggers must be a job and a half all by itself.

Charlie also quotes Brainard thus, “I think blogs provide a broader and deeper exploration of the sciences than has ever really been available to consumers of news and information.” About that, Brainard is quite right. Out of the chaos the Internet has visited on the publishing business has emerged, mirabile dictu, a Golden Age for science writing and science journalism, and much of it–maybe even most of it–is coming from science blogs and science bloggers. There are thousands, and I have been dipping into them every week here at On Science Blogs since 2009. Whew.

The Sochi Olympics: At the PLOS blog network

In addition to this post, you shouldn’t miss Travis Saunders’s Obesity Panacea explanation of how women’s ski jumping was barred from the Olympics until this year because “the folks who run the International Ski Federation were also worried that ski jumping might cause a woman’s uterus to move and/or fall out and/or burst.”

At Neuroanthropology, Daniel Lende shows us the startling brain design of John Fairbairn’s helmet for the Skeleton competition. Given the recent attention to the risks of concussion in sports, this design is a bit unsettling. And for the Skeleton competition? Maybe he’s thumbing his nose at fate?

The Sochi Olympics: Physics, chemistry, and math in winter sports



 

The National Science Foundation has collaborated with the educational arm of NBC to produce 10 short videos explaining the physics, engineering, chemistry, design and math involved in winter sports. They cover slopestyle, half-pipe, speed-skating apparel, recovery from injury, the science of ice and snow, bobsled, alpine skiing, the physics of figure skating, and how movement in all these sports relates to robot design. Find all the videos here.

Above, the video about my favorite Olympic sport, figure skating. It features Ashley Wagner, Gracie Gold, Meryl Davis and Charlie White and Evan Lysacek, who declares: “What does figure skating require? Everything.”

 

The Sochi Olympics: Olympic diseases

At Molecules to Medicine, Judy Stone has a long post on how big gatherings like the Olympics are a boon for infectious organisms. The only mass assemblage more disease-friendly than the Olympics, she says, may be the Hajj, the annual pilgrimage to Mecca. There was influenza at the Salt Lake City Winter Olympics in 2002 and measles at the Vancouver Winter Olympics in 2010. Measles spread far into British Columbia, affecting especially indigenous people in remote areas.

No mention in that post of NBC Olympics impresario Bob Costas’s pink eye, which forced him to give up the throne to Matt Lauer. “As a practical matter, I simply couldn’t do my job because my eyes had become so blurry, watery and sensitive to light,” Costas said in a statement released by NBC. Conjunctivitis has many causes; docs have said his is probably viral. At LiveScience, Rachael Rettner explains why pink eye is so contagious.

Credit: YouTube screen grab VIA LiveScience

Credit: YouTube screen grab VIA LiveScience

And see Star Lawrence at HEALTH’Sass for a literally colorful description of what pink eye feels like and what the green glop it produces looks like, plus the word on treatment and prevention. The take-away on prevention: Stay away, far away, from people with pink eye. I bet public health folks are emplaning to Sochi even as we speak to study its spread. Star’s conclusion, based on personal experience, “This is gross, but not the end of the world.” Costas might disagree; as I write he has not yet returned to his Olympics post.

 

Sochi Winter Olympics: Political science

It’s not possible to write about Sochi and the Russian Olympics and Vladimir Putin without mention of international politics and human rights. At the anthropology blog Savage Minds, anthropologist Elizabeth Cullen Dunn explains, via a history of Russia’s centuries-long record of genocide in this region, that she won’t be watching Putin’s Olympics. That record includes the recent ethnic “cleansing” of 26,000 people in the South Caucasus. Sochi itself was a site of Russian genocide against hundreds of thousands of Circassians in 1864. Dunn says, “Like Hitler at the 1936 Olympic games, Putin hopes to use the Olympic moment to showcase his grip on power.”

At 13.7 Cosmos & Culture, NPR’s group science blog, Barbara King writes about Olympics issues of social justice: Russian laws and discrimination against gay and transgender people and also animal rights issues.  Helen Jefferson Lenskyj, at The Conversation, describes the anti-gay propaganda and discrimination in Russia and mocks Putin’s defense of the anti-gay laws as a demographic strategy to encourage a higher birth rate. Putin and the International Olympic Committee, which insists that sports and politics are separate, she calls a perfect match for each other.  The Washington Post’s political blog The Monkey Cage promises explanatory posts on Russian politics for the next week or so.

 

Sister macaques Ningning and Mingming are the first primate GMOs whose genomes have been monkeyed with using CRISPR/Cas9 technology. Credit: Cell, Niu et al.

Sister macaques Ningning and Mingming are the first primate GMOs whose genomes have been monkeyed with using CRISPR/Cas9 technology. Credit: Cell, Niu et al.

How to rewrite genomes, our own included

These adorable monkeys are the first primate species to be genetically modified by a new technique called the CRISPR/Cas system. When I tell you CRISPR/Cas has generated unprecedented buzz among researchers, I hope you will understand that this is not hype.

The potential applications of the system are pretty-near unprecedented too. Genetic modification of any animal, any plant, and any microbe. “Smart bombs” that could destroy antibiotic-resistant disease bacteria without harming the good guys in your microbiome. The ability to study groups of genes to learn how they function together, which could identify real risk factors for complex disorders ranging from schizophrenia and autism to heart disease.

And, of course, direct human applications. Precisely targeted gene therapy. Preimplantation genetic diagnosis. Genetic enhancement. And attendant moral issues.

No, none is these things is possible at the moment, and yes, there is a distance to go. But the CRISPR/Cas system has been embraced by hundreds of researchers around the globe. And, oh yes, it’s simpler and cheaper than any other current gene-editing system.

You can find lots of details on these and related matters in my piece on the CRISPR/Cas system, last Tuesday’s column at the Genetic Literacy Project. For example, this gene-editing system is based on one evolved by microbes nearly 3 billion years ago.

 

Happy Valentine’s Day from On Science Blogs

Cutaneous Hearts, Each Distinctive and Unique Shown are a café au lait macule (A), lentigo (B), nevus spilus (C), halo nevus (D), acquired nevus (E), congenital nevi (F-J), hemangioma (K), salmon patch (L), acne excoriée (M), and a venous insufficiency ulcer (N). Credit: JAMA Dermatology.  http://archderm.jamanetwork.com/article.aspx?articleid=1787841

Cutaneous Hearts, Each Distinctive and Unique
Shown are a café au lait macule (A), lentigo (B), nevus spilus (C), halo nevus (D), acquired nevus (E), congenital nevi (F-J), hemangioma (K), salmon patch (L), acne excoriée (M), and a venous insufficiency ulcer (N). Credit: JAMA Dermatology.

 

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Science at the Sochi Winter Olympics, plus the Latest on Gene Editing by PLOS Blogs Network, unless otherwise expressly stated, is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.

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