Is a virus alive?

This is actually a question in science. On the one hand, a virus is a set of instructions wrapped up in an envelope. So in that sense, it’s a lot like a computer virus: not alive.

On the other hand, the instructions are quite complicated and not only allow for reproduction (using the host’s cellular machinery) but also “stealthing” technologies for eluding the host’s immune system. So that sounds very much like a living thing, right?

Finally, actually many viruses (like SARS-CoV2) actually have functional proteins that are in addition to the instructions and the envelope. For the current novel coronavirus, the spike protein, is the viral key that opens the host cellular lock, angiotensin converting enzyme 2 (ACE2). So that’s also very “alive”.

The Navy UFO videos….

These are declassified videos released in April. I’ve been thinking about these for a while because they appear to be real. Are they real aliens? Not necessarily. But they are real physical phenomena that need to be explained scientifically. Lots has been written on-line about them. It would be useful to think about taking the observations themselves and, as astronomers do, setting physical constraints on the processes that could have produced the data–including technical artifact, but also allowing for the data to be artifact free.

How would we design a science program around this data? How would we collect more data? What sorts of data (beyond black and white gun camera video) should be collected?

Avoiding nuclear war…

There’s this op ed in today’s NYT by former Secretary of Defense Perry and Tom Collina. It’s worth a read because it’s a no-brainer in my opinion and would make the planet a lot safer. The notion that one individual should be trusted with the power to kill the biosphere of our planet is a bad one. Shame on Harry Truman for claiming it.


That stands for American Association of University Professors. They are the collective bargaining unit for many of my colleagues across the country at schools where the faculty are unionized. Not here at George Mason, but still the local chapter is very active. Yesterday, after more than two decades at my university, I attended my first AAUP event (virtually of course). It was a very positive experience.

Why? First, it’s heartening to have an organization that exists to protect your role in the labor force. At yesterday’s meeting, there were conversations about COVID19, protection of faculty intellectual property and work-load expectations. You don’t get that stuff so much at faculty meetings. Or at least, when there are administrators in the room, it’s a very different tone.

Second, AAUP’s primary historical role has been to protect the idea of academic freedom in American colleges and universities. This is why tenure came to be in the first place: to protect faculty from being fired because of their political views or their scholarship. As a tenured faculty member, this is something I value a lot.

I remember hearing about the organization from my faculty member parents both at Michigan and Caltech. They were both very enamored with both the idea of a faculty union and its practical day-to-day function. I think I am also.

What does the future hold?

Almost everyday I get asked, by dint of being a scientist, what’s going to happen in the future. Recently, these questions are often through the lens of the pandemic. And like mostly everyone I know, I do spend time looking at the various dashboards, trying to glean some picture of where things are trending. But, like everyone else (truly all of us), no amount of modeling is going to reveal the future. It’s unknowable to us until time passes and we are there looking back.

What we can do however, it act wisely. We can act now to enhance our resiliency. Wearing a mask to protect others involves operating under the assumption that we are asymptotic COVID19 positive. That may not be true, but wearing a mask under that assumption protects others. Likewise, if others reciprocate, it protects us.

We can act with our vote. Across the democracies, the act of individual voting is both a leap of faith (what difference does my one vote mean?) and, at the same time, the main way we can produce positive social change (through the emergent sum of all our votes). Please plan to vote. That’s something you can do that’s far more effective than looking at the various epidemiological models.

Hantavirus and climate change

Photo by Pixabay on

When I first came to NSF to head up the Biological Sciences Directorate, I learned about a very interesting connection between climate change and human disease. Now hantaviruses are carried by rodents. In the Western Hemisphere, they cause serious cardiopulmonary disease in humans. In the Eastern Hemisphere, these viruses result in haemorrhagic fever with renal syndrome. The point is that their rodent hosts as migrating as the climate changes, so there are places in the US that now have the human disease that previously didn’t. You can read about that here.

Why am I writing about hantaviruses? Because it is a clearcut example where a viral-borne diseases affects a new, previously naive human population as a result of climate disruption. When species that act as reservoirs for viruses change their habitat to escape a warming climactic temperature, they act as vectors. Just as significant to public health as infected humans jumping on commercial airliners. For more on this notion in the context of COVID19, see here.


Human society will probably survive the current pandemic. I’m assuming that the massive global stresses that are currently revealing underlying weaknesses and faultiness don’t lead to global war. There are no guarantees there. But I’m not at all convinced that we will be any more prepared for future pandemics following the human experience with this one. For us to learn positively from this experience, we’ll need to think about human health completely outside the geopolitical lens. So far that approach, a planetary one, has eluded us both in the context of COVID19 and the larger context of climate disruption.

Because the biosphere doesn’t recognize national boundaries, a nationalistic approach for these larger issues won’t work. So nations are going to have to find a way to put their disputes in abeyance for these planetary emergencies. Looking at our current crop of leaders across the globe, I don’t see that kind of vision. We’re going to have grow a new generation of folks who can think at the level of planet, while simultaneously leading a Westphalian state. This is a very different type of idea from the federalism here in the US or in the EU.

Although, if there are such individuals, my guess is that they’ll be found among our current state governors and mayors–as they collectively try their best to deal with the lousy hand they’ve been dealt.

What I’ve been up to….

My primary effort has been on COVID19. Our latest papers are here and here. We are primarily interested in the connection between the host receptor for the virus, Angiotensin Converting Enzyme II and the nicotinic receptor for the neurotransmitter, acetylcholine.

I’m also deeply involved in an NSF project on AI at the Edge, called SAGE. Which in turn is highly connected to the National Ecological Observatory Network (NEON), which I worked very hard on while I was at NSF.

Finally, I am leading a team working on using NEON environmental microbiome data to explore how continental-scale deposited nitrogen gradients may affect the trajectory of our biosphere.

A Hot Mess…

Yes, we are in a world of trouble. But it’s also an opportunity to think big about what needs to change and what we might want in a new world to come. Here’s a terrific piece by Marilynne Robinson in the NYRB. There’s a lot for those of us who are in the public academy, but there is also something of an optimistic spark that I think we all need.

Money quote:

The theory that supports all this is taught in the universities. Its terminology is economic but its influence is broadly felt across disciplines because it is in fact an anthropology, a theory of human nature and motivation. It comes down to the idea that the profit motive applies in literally every circumstance, inevitably, because it is genetic in its origins and its operations. “Selfishness,” its exponents call it, sometimes arguing that the word in this context has a special meaning, though the specifics of the sanitizing are unclear. 

What Kind of Country Do We Want, Marilynne Robinson, New York Review of Books