Follow the Science – Not Easy To Do #COVID #COVID19

Science is the best way to learn about the physical world, but when a hot topic is rapidly evolving… beware. Science depends on studies, replication, peer reviews, and retractions. Popular media don’t follow all these pathways.

Here’s a list of COVID studies that have been retracted: 147 and still counting. Like me, you may find some you saw reported and took to heart. Only researchers in the field are likely to keep track of all of this, which makes it hard on us hoi polloi.

To provide perspective: Over 87,000 COVID papers have been published, and I got that number from last February. “It is an astonishing number of publications – it may be unprecedented in the history of science.” So 147 retractions isn’t very many, but some are on topics you’ve heard of: hydroxychlorquine, effects of vitamin D, and “JAMA Pediatrics has retracted a paper claiming that children’s masks trap high concentrations of carbon dioxide a little more than two weeks after publishing it.”

It’s easy to get an exciting report stuck in your head and never read about subsequent qualifications or outright debunking.

This level of activity is a good thing – the field of COVID research is active and scientists critique each others work. But it can be confusing to the rest of us. We’ll never figure it out by ourselves. It’s totally understandable if we each pick an expert to follow. Just remember that your expert (and mine) is only human, and if they’re proven to be wrong, that’s not your error and not your fault. Don’t let your emotions get wound up in someone else’s credibility.

When thinking changes your mind, that’s philosophy.
When God changes your mind, that’s faith.
When facts change your mind, that’s science.

How Do You Change Your Mind?

Scientists are Only Human – Drat #ResearchCulture #researchers

Don’t we all love something new, unexpected, and exciting? Scientists do too, and that can lead to bad science.

You may have seen a recent report analyzing information on Twitter that showed false news spreads faster and reaches more people than verified true claims. “Novelty is a culprit: the false news that spread rapidly online was significantly more unusual than the true news.” If you thought that only applies to the hoi polloi and social media, guess again.

Both academics and laypeople experience surprises as more interesting (and certainly more entertaining) than the predictable, the normal and the quotidian. [Results reported] in Science Advances are disturbing: papers that couldn’t be replicated were cited more than average, even after the news of the reproducibility failure had been published, and only 12 percent of postexposure citations acknowledged the failure. ScientificAmerican

If no one else can get the same results you did, you probably did something wrong. This can happen even when you are trying to be diligent. As Richard Feynman said:

The first principle is that you must not fool yourself – and you are the easiest person to fool.

Or, as a corollary to Murphy’s Law puts it, no matter how hard you try, you will fail to find your own mistakes. Fortunately, the first yahoo who wanders by will spot them immediately.

New studies based on flawed old studies aren’t likely to advance knowledge. The most encouraging part of all this is that people are trying to improve the situation. Science has shown us, over and over, that our gut reactions, instincts, and even common sense can lead us astray. Science is still the best way to learn about the physical world, and that means supporting good, sound, well conceived and valuable research that may not inspire headlines screaming “break-through.”

Thanks to Scientific American for their article. You’ll find more on transparency, openness, and reproducibility – and on problems with academic reward systems – here. Thanks also to Retraction Watch, where you’ll discover how scientists stay true to their calling.

Ever Laugh at Someone Who Says They’re With You 130% ? Well… Maybe #solarpower #solarenergy #science

“When we saw the results, we could hardly believe our eyes.”

Look at that sad little blip of usable energy

Please forgive me for my hashtags above, since this discovery is a detector, not a solar panel. But hashtags don’t cover everything as precisely as I’d like.

Aalto University researchers have developed a black silicon photodetector that has reached above 130% efficiency. Thus, for the first time, a single photovoltaic device has exceeded the 100% external quantum efficiency limit at UV. Aalto

What this means is, 100 photons from a certain UV frequency are generating 130 electrons. Not just 100, which sounded impossible all by itself, but more. The results have been replicated (thank you, science.) Apparently, the appropriate high-energy photons trigger a process inside special silicon nanostructures.

The phenomenon has not been observed earlier in actual devices since the presence of electrical and optical losses has reduced the number of collected electrons… In practice, the record efficiency means that the performance of any device that is utilizing light detection can be drastically improved. Light detection is already used widely in our everyday life, for example, in cars, mobile phones, smartwatches and medical devices. Aalto

Okay, this isn’t going to goose your solar panels anytime soon. But since you already know that solar conversion efficiency is limited to a pitiful 33.7% in photovoltaic cells (assuming typical sunlight conditions per Wikipedia,) news about improvements in any photovoltaic device is sure to catch your attention.

Watch your subscription to Physical Review Letters for the upcoming paper, “Black-silicon ultraviolet photodiodes achieve external quantum efficiency above 130%“.

You Know About Cow Farts, but How About Tree Farts? #nature #biology #climatechange #forest #trees

Over 100 years ago, a chemist in Kansas documented that cottonwood sap contained methane bubbles. He could light escaping gas and watch a blue flame flicker. Others discovered that not only cottonwoods produce the gas.

Methane is a powerful greenhouse gas and today, thanks to global warming, we need to understand the ins and outs of methane in the atmosphere. New studies show:

Many instances in which trees produce their own methane—sometimes from microbes in the heartwood or other tissues and in other cases from a remarkable direct photochemical reaction thought to be driven by the ultraviolet wavelengths in sunlight. NatGeo

Measuring methane emissions from tundra

Measuring methane and CO2 emisisons from arctic tundra

Life writes its name with methane, which is why methane on Mars is so exciting. On Earth, methane is released from fossil fuels, microbes in soggy soil like bogs and rice paddies, and (as you know) cattle. Human activities accelerate emissions – sometimes, we do in a year what nature does in centuries.

Methanotroph microbes also break down methane. The life expectancy of an average methane molecule is a few decades.

Trees emit methane and break it down by hosting the wily microbes and also on their own. The balance depends on the tree and soil conditions, but there are “forests where similar trees in similar soils have been measured with a fiftyfold difference in methane emissions… [Forests] in wet soils uniformly were net emitters of methane but those in drier conditions in some regions actually were net absorbers of the gas.”

One scientists said that what we know today is a third grader’s cartoon drawing of a forest.”

None of this means trees are bad! Trees good. Forests good. But learning more about Earth’s methane cycle will improve our models and, if we’re smart enough, help us hand a beautiful world to our progeny.