A mysterious and powerful radio signal from space is repeating itself

Outer space is chirping, and no one quite knows why.

Known as fast radio bursts, or FRBs for short, these very brief yet incredibly powerful bursts of radio wave energy appear to be coming from all corners of the universe. And while astronomers can pick up such signals, they are, because of their brief duration, very difficult to study. Very few of them ever repeat; and since they only last a millisecond, telescopes can rarely focus on them in time to get a good look. Moreover, astronomers do not quite know exactly where they are coming from, or where the next one might land.

All of this uncertainty around fast radio bursts has only heightened their mystery.

But astronomers may have found some answers in a fast radio burst that, unusually, repeats — which has given them more opportunities to study the strange signals.

Dubbed FRB 121102, the first repeating FRB has revealed new insights about this mysterious phenomenon. According to a study published in Nature last week, an international group of scientists found 1,652 independent radio bursts from the same source over the course of 47 days between August 29 and October 29, 2019. The analysis is significant for being the largest set of FRBs ever recorded from a single source. At one point during observation, 122 radio bursts occurred in the span of one hour from the source.

"This was the first time that one FRB source was studied in such great detail," said astrophysicist Bing Zhang, an astrophysicist at the University of Nevada–Las Vegas and one of the study's corresponding authors. "The large burst set helped our team hone in like never before on the characteristic energy and energy distribution of FRBs, which sheds new light on the engine that powers these mysterious phenomena."

Part of the mystery around FRBs is that they are relatively new to science. Scientists discovered the first FRBs in 2007, and have since turned to powerful radio telescopes to track down the bursts and search for clues on where they originate and how they are produced. One prominent theory on their origins is that they spawn from a type of incredibly dense neutron star called a magnetar, which have some of the strongest magnetic fields in the universe. Another theory posits that FRBs emerge from shock waves traveling at near light-speed outside a magnetosphere.

In a news release, Zhang said the latest observations "pose great challenges to the latter model."

"The bursts are too frequent and — given that this episode alone amounts to 3.8% of the energy available from a magnetar — it adds up to too much energy for the second model to work," Zhang said.

Pei Wang, one of the article's lead authors from the National Astronomical Observatories of the Chinese Academy of Sciences (NAOC), agreed.

"During its most active phase, FRB 121102 included 122 bursts measured within a one-hour period, the highest repeat rate ever observed for any FRB," Wang said.

Indeed, in a separate study published in Nature in June 2020 suggested that some fast radio bursts could be coming from a magnetar in our galaxy nearly 10,000 parsecs away.

"Because magnetars are spinning quickly and have powerful magnetic fields, they have huge reservoirs of energy that can produce outbursts," Alexandra Witze wrote in Nature. "One idea about the source of these outbursts is that something happening inside the magnetar — such as a 'starquake,' analogous to an earthquake — could crack its surface and release energy."

While their precise causes remain a mystery, astrophysicists have mostly ruled out the possibility that these mysterious radio waves are coming from an alien civilization, as Salon has previously reported.

"It is unlikely that all FRBs are from alien civilizations due to the power requirements at cosmological distances, but possible," Avi Loeb, the former chair of Harvard's astronomy department previously told Salon.


People I'm close to having COVID. I tested negative, but have symptoms. Could the test be wrong?

Dear Pandemic Problems,

I'm freaking out about possibly coming down with COVID, despite being vaccinated and boosted. I work as a nanny to two young children. Over the weekend, one of the kids came down with standard cold symptoms; so I was not surprised when I got a mild runny nose on Monday, which alone would not be a reason for concern.

(This article first appeared in Salon.)

Then, the parents of the children whom I nanny told me that the five-year-old was going to be quarantined because one of her classmates had tested positive for COVID. I started wondering if my runny nose was actually COVID. I went and got tested yesterday.

Then, this morning, the parents of the child called me and said their daughter had indeed tested positive for COVID.

But then I got my test result back — from the test I took yesterday — and it came back negative.

At this point I assumed I got COVID from the kid that tested positive — luckily with mild symptoms thanks to getting a booster a month ago. I spend a lot of time around this child, after all.

So I have trouble believing my test result, frankly. What are the chances that I get a persistent runny nose and very mild cough, and then it turns out that the little girl I nanny is COVID-positive and I'm not? It just seems weird.

I don't know what do to now. Do I believe what seems like an unlikely result? Do I get tested again? What are the chances that I have a false negative? Are there other types of tests I could get? (This test was a PCR).

Right now, my insurance will not authorize another test so soon but I feel strongly that I should get another test ASAP. How will I know when I can stop quarantining, if at all?

Sincerely,

Not Positive I'm Negative

Dear Positive I'm Negative,

I'm so sorry this is happening to you. This certainly sounds like a confusing and stressful situation. It's frustrating that we are 19 months into this pandemic, and we still have to worry about being exposed to COVID-19 and the possibility of getting false negative tests. I'd be a bit disoriented, too, if I were you — particularly given that you are vaccinated, and got a booster. Ugh!

And yet, this is where many of us find ourselves in the pandemic right now. The good news is that the Biden administration recently purchased 65 million pediatric doses of the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine, which is enough to vaccinate an estimated 28 million children between the ages 5 to 11— pending the Food and Drug Administration's approval, of course. This means the five-year-old you care for will finally be able to get vaccinated, providing even more protection for you at your job. I'm sorry it didn't happen earlier.

I have to be honest with you, Not Positive I'm Negative, that I haven't answered a pandemic problem in a few months. Partly because I haven't received any questions that I thought I could answer, and partly because whenever I write about vaccines, I receive a bunch of hate mail. But I was intrigued by your email because I think there is a lot of confusion around what vaccinated (and boostered) people are supposed to do when exposed to COVID-19— so let's dive in.

First, let's start with the facts. You, a vaccinated person, who was exposed to COVID-19. Here's what the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) advises on that:

"If you've had close contact with someone who has COVID-19, you should get tested 3-5 days after your exposure, even if you don't have symptoms. You should also wear a mask indoors in public for 14 days following exposure or until your test result is negative. You should isolate for 10 days if your test result is positive."

OK, so you did the right thing by getting a COVID-19 test, but it came back negative. I am wondering if the timing of the test has something to do with your result. When I asked Dr. Amesh Adalja, an emergency medicine physician, about your situation, he said: "The validity of the test result depends on how long post-exposure the test was performed."

"Post-exposure testing should be 3-5 days after the exposure," Adalja said. "If a person is not symptomatic and is vaccinated and tested negative 3-5 days post exposure, I would not recommend a retest. If the exposed person is not vaccinated and has no symptoms, a negative test at day 5 would be sufficient."

Adalja added that many exposures don't result in transmission of the coronavirus, which was the case "even in the pre-vaccine era," he said.

"Lastly, if the person who was exposed was vaccinated, transmission risk would be blunted as well," Adalja said.

OK, but you're having symptoms. Since I don't know the exact timing, it could be possible that you tested too early and it might be wise to retest — especially if your symptoms worsen. But as you asked, what are the chances that you get a persistent runny nose and very mild cough, after being exposed to a positive COVID-19 case?

It's estimated that adults have an average of 2-3 colds per year; children have even more. So it could be that you have a cold, or you tested too early. If it's the latter, perhaps consider retesting.

I know you said your insurance won't authorize another test, but is it possible that you can go to a nearby community testing site — where you don't need to provide insurance or pay for a test? The United States Department of Health and Human Services has a list here. You could also do an at-home Binaxnow test, which costs $23 (though it should be free).

I hope this helps, Not Positive I'm Negative. I know it's a frustrating time, but I'm positive that you will weather this storm.

Sincerely,

Pandemic Problems

"Pandemic Problems" is a periodic advice column that answers readers' pandemic questions — often with help from public health data, professors and therapists — who weigh in on readers' dilemmas. Do you have a pandemic problem? Email Nicole Karlis at nkarlis@salon.com.

Do dogs miss us when we are gone? A 'talking' dog offers insights

Any dog owner knows how hard it is to leave their pup for an extended period of time. We wonder: Do they miss us when we're gone? Do they know how long we've been gone for? Or even worse, do they think we've abandoned them?

The way humans are excitedly greeted by their dogs upon return — and the way many whine when we leave — suggests they recognize our absence, and mourn it. However, it's hard to know what is really going on in a dog's brain — perhaps they just miss the food we give them? — partly because we can't really communicate with them.

Well, most of them. Alexis Devine is the human parent of Bunny the "talking" dog. Bunny, a sheepadoodle, has been trained to communicate using a sound board with large buttons keyed to different words. By pressing them in sequence, Bunny can relay basic sentences and sentiments — "Bunny sad," or "where mom," for instance. Though there is debate over the extent to which she understands language, most animal behavior researchers and laypersons alike agree that she is positively communicating and seems to understand what she says and hears back. Devine shares videos of Bunny "talking" on her social media accounts, giving the internet a glimpse into what it might be like to have a casual conversation with Fido.

Recently the beloved sheepadoodle has been concerning herself with the absence of people and animals in her life. And to answer the question about animals missing us when they are gone: if they are anything like Bunny, it would seem that yes, they are very curious about where we go when we leave.

Devine recently filmed Bunny asking her questions about Uni, Devine's lost cat who has been gone for nearly four months. As Devine told Salon, prior to Uni's absence, Bunny didn't "talk" much about Uni.

"It was maybe like two months before he went missing that she had finally finally used the buttons, 'Uni family together,' which was a huge accomplishment because they had had such a tenuous and challenging relationship," Devine said. "And then, last week, it was just heartbreaking, she pressed 'cat bye,' and I just about burst into tears. My little heart couldn't handle it."

It's not the first time Bunny has appeared to wonder about some one or some animal while they're gone. A couple months earlier, Devine's partner Johnny was at work. "Where dad bye?" Bunny asked.

Devine said Johnny worked from home all last year because of the pandemic. He's a high school teacher, and he's finally back to teaching in-person.

"The first week that he was back at school in the classroom, Bunny was very much asking about Johnny, pressing 'Where dad?,' 'Where dad bye?' for a lot of the day, for several days in a row," Devine said.

Bunny, who has 7.1 million followers on TikTok, is one of nearly 2,600 dogs and 300 cats enrolled in a project called TheyCanTalk. The study's aim is to understand if animals can communicate with humans through augmentative and alternative communication (AAC) devices. AAC systems, such as Bunny's giant labeled buttons that speak a single word when pressed, were originally designed to help humans with communication disorders. Recently, they have been adapted for use in language experiments with animals.

Of course, as Salon has previously reported, it is unclear (scientifically speaking) whether Bunny has been trained to use specific buttons on her AAC device, a sound board made up of buttons with a different word vocally recorded on each, or if her communications are actually spontaneous. Through it, Bunny has appeared to report her dreams, ask existential questions, and now answer one of the most frequently thought of questions among dog owners: do they miss us when we're gone?

Federico Rossano, director of the Comparative Cognition Lab at UC San Diego, said in Bunny's case it's "certainly" possible that Bunny is missing Uni and Johnny.

"Most social animals living in small groups or packs are aware that somebody is missing," Rossano said. "This is most obvious in a mother keeping track of their cubs and going to retrieve one that has gone too far."

Rossano added that in a pack of wolves, one might howl when an individual has been separated from the pack. It's a way of saying "we are here," Rossano explained.

"Dogs tend to form close bonds with the animals they live with (humans and non-human) that would be comparable to the forming of a pack (though it is unclear to what degree hierarchy is as important as in wolves)." Rossano said. "So Bunny's behavior in those videos makes perfect sense."

But of course, scientific studies are still pending. To date, not many have tested this precise hypothesis.

Yet there have been an array of studies that show that dogs do love their humans. For one, neuroscientist Gregory Berns trained nearly 90 dogs to stay put so he could do a Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) scan on their brains. In one of his studies, he gave dogs five different scents — their own scent, a familiar human, a strange human, a familiar dog, and a strange dog. Researchers found that the brain region associated with positive rewards, the caudate nucleus, was most activated by the scent of their familiar human; the study was published in the journal Behavioural Processes in 2014.

In 2011, two Swedish researchers Therese Rhen and Linda Keeling performed a scientific study on 12 dogs to determine how they behaved before, during, and after an owner's absence. They found that when an owner had been gone for two hours, dogs had more tail wagging and face licking compared to when the owner was gone for 30 minutes. However, after two hours, there didn't appear to be much difference in the dog's behavior, suggesting that perhaps a dog's sense of time after two hours gets blurry.

Rossano emphasized that, while this study is often referred to, it only involved 12 dogs. There is room for a follow-up to answer some bigger questions around how dogs understand whether animals from their pack are gone or not, and to what extent they miss them.

"So much more research needs to be done to confirm this finding; there are also a series of clear confounds that any future study would need to address," Rossano said. "Indeed, it is possible that the over-excitement after two hours could be due to a desire to obtain food or get out of the house or simply play with the human."

In other words, Rossano said, "it is not that I know you have been gone for long and therefore I am nicer to you [but] rather, I (the dog) am now feeling hungry, or need to pee or am bored and therefore I am trying to engage with you, and if enough time has passed, these states might be reached independently of the dog's awareness of how long the human is gone."

Indeed, it's hard to study what's going on in a dog's mind because we can't communicate with them. But that's part of what the study that Bunny is part of hopes to eventually accomplish.

"If the dogs could tell us how long a human has been gone, it would clearly help us understand their representation of time and how their memories are structured," Rossano said. "This is why we are extremely interested in assessing how training dogs to use buttons and soundboards can lead to novel paradigms and findings concerning dog cognition."

How the once-feared mu variant all but disappeared

In September, news broke that a new coronavirus mutation — the mu variant, formally known as B.1.621 — could potentially evade vaccine-induced immunity.

"This variant has a constellation of mutations that suggests that it would evade certain antibodies, not only monoclonal antibodies, but vaccine- and convalescent serum-induced antibodies," President Joe Biden's COVID-19 adviser Dr. Anthony Fauci told reporters in September. "But there isn't a lot of clinical data to suggest that. It is mostly laboratory in-vitro data."

At the time, the idea of a vaccine-resistant variant sent a shockwave of fear through the world. The dreaded delta variant was already known to be more resistant to vaccines than the original SARS-CoV-2 virus. Could mu, which was first discovered in Colombia, be worse than delta? Indeed, mu appeared to have specific mutations that have been associated with resistance to immunity, as well a mutation known as P681H that has been linked to accelerated transmission.

Now, nearly a month later — long after the World Health Organization dubbed the mu variant one "of interest" that needed to be monitored — data from outbreak.info shows the mu variant hasn't been detected in the U.S., nor anywhere in the world, since September 21, 2021.

Does that mean the mu is no longer a threat? The short answer is: probably. But Joseph Fauver, an associate research scientist at the Yale School of Public Health, wouldn't go as far as saying it's been "eradicated," as some news outlets have reported either.

"To say it was 'eradicated' would imply that we, humans, went out of our way to make that happen … but as far as mu or B.1.621 no longer being around, yeah, I would totally buy that," Fauver said.

Fauver clarified: "What actually happened was that it was effectively out competed by delta."

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A similar trend has been observed with the alpha variant, or B.1.1.7, which was first found in the United Kingdom. According to outbreak.info, a multi-institution coronavirus public health database which collects genomic data from the GISAID Initiative, B.1.1.7 was last detected in the U.S. on September 17, 2021. It was last detected anywhere in the world on September 21, 2021.

As Fauver explained, these dates are derived from the last known genetic detection of each variant in random samples from patients. Because not every COVID-19 case is sampled and DNA tested, there is no way to know with absolute certainty if these variants are indeed still circulating — especially when COVID-19 positive case rates are as high as they are in the United States.

But as weeks go by, the delta variant continues to be the dominant strain worldwide.

Delta's dominance over the other strains may be a blessing in disguise. Indeed, delta is spreading 50% faster than alpha and is 50% more contagious than previous variants. Yet mu certainly had its own set of troubling mutations.

"Mu contains a suite of mutations that are very concerning," Fauver said. "Mutations that have been found in a lot of other variants of concerns, specifically in the Spike gene and receptor-binding domain, also by a variety of studies, look to be slightly more immuno-evasive than some of the other variants of concern."

Fauver added: "If it would not be for delta it may have been much more concerning and it could have gotten to a lot higher frequencies."

If that's the case, why did the delta variant win out?

"Million dollar question," Fauver said. "I can confidently say that delta is more transmissible, but exactly as to why, I think the jury's still out and there's still more science to be done." Fauver speculated it could have to do with something happening at a molecular level.

If the variants that made up the first part of the pandemic essentially die off, and delta is the dominant one worldwide, does that mean delta is the variant we can expect to stay around long-term? Not yet. That's because RNA viruses like SARS-CoV-2 are always mutating. While viruses are technically not alive, it is their nature to mutate and evolve as they infect hosts' cells and replicate.

In fact, the delta variant has already mutated— just not in a way that's been significant to humans. In general, the rate at which mutations happen depend on the virus.

"Viruses replicate and survive and pass their genes to the next generation just by making more copies of themselves," said Sasan Amini, founder and CEO of Clear Labs, a private genomics company. "This replication process is not a perfect process, meaning that while you're going through the replication process errors will be introduced. But these errors are actually being corrected and the result of that actually ends up creating copies that are almost identical to each other."

Many mutations get eliminated in the process of natural selection, Amini said, but sometimes mutants get a competitive advantage— like delta.

"Those mutants actually end up replicating faster, being more infectious, and end up over time becoming the more prevalent part of the population," Amini said. "And that is pretty much what happened."

Amini said some of delta's mutations are similar to mu, but not all. This is all to say that it's possible that delta could mutate into something different.

"Whatever is defined as delta today is not going to be pretty much the only SARS-CoV-2 that you will see in future," Amini said. "And as a result of that actually means that it is very essential for any government entity, public health entity, all of the public health response, to surveil and sequence emerging and also existing versions of SARS-CoV-2."

Does this mean an even worse iteration of delta awaits? Fauver said he's not in the "prediction business," but said that a lot of mutations seen in variants of concern are shared. They have, he said, the same "repertoire."

"Is there some new suite of mutations out there, waiting to be found, to make the virus even worse? I have no idea," he said. "Delta is really transmissible, it is a really bad virus, and I hope it doesn't really get any worse than this."

Instead of just getting vaccinated, anti-vaxxers are drinking iodine antiseptic

Another ineffective treatment for COVID-19 is being promoted in anti-vaccine and science-skeptical circles.

First there was hydroxychloroquine, then ivermectin; now, according to multiple reports, some Americans are gargling and/or ingesting the iodine-based liquid Betadine to prevent COVID-19 — instead of getting vaccinated.

Betadine is the brand name for povidone-iodine, an amber-colored liquid typically sold as a 10% solution as an antiseptic for cleaning wounds and skin. A 0.5% solution is sold as a gargle for sore throats, but the manufacturer cautions people not to swallow it. Recently, the manufacturer warned consumers not to consume Betadine to treat COVID-19, or rely on it as a form of treatment.

"Betadine Antiseptic First Aid products have not been approved to treat coronavirus," reads a statement on the manufacturer's website. "Products should only be used to help prevent infection in minor cuts, scrapes and burns. Betadine Antiseptic products have not been demonstrated to be effective for the treatment or prevention of COVID-19 or any other viruses."

Depending on which type of Betadine one ingests, side effects can range from stomach pain, nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, fever, extreme thirst, being unable to urinate to diarrhea, vomiting, and burning a person's gastrointestinal tract.

As mentioned, there isn't sound scientific evidence that Betadine would treat or prevent COVID-19. So how did this trend start?

While a precise timeline is hard to reconstruct, several sources on social media promoted the use of Betadine to treat COVID-19 starting at the end of last year. Specifically, one video of a purported doctor went viral in April 2021; in it, the doctor states that Betadine helps treat and prevent COVID-19.

Those who are supporting claims that Betadine could be an effective way to treat or prevent COVID-19 often point to a couple of studies suggesting that in in vitro experiments, different antiseptics decrease the viral load of COVID-19. Yet as experts previously interviewed by Salon attest, in vitro studies are often meaningless.

Studies based on in vitro test-tube or cell culture work "raises eyebrows" to a virologist, Dr. Benhur Lee, a Professor of Microbiology at Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai, told Salon last month in a discussion of an in vitro ivermectin study. As Lee explained, "in vitro" refers to studies that take place in test tubes, petri dishes, or outside of human patients. Lee notes that what happens in vitro might not necessarily translate to the human body.

"I can increase the concentration of sodium chloride (table salt) by 50% to my tissue culture cells and show inhibition of most viruses," Lee said. "But I don't go asking people to eat as much salty food as possible to combat virus infections, much less SARS-CoV-2."

Lee characterized the belief that in vitro studies will translate to an effective treatment "magical thinking."

Like many myths about COVID-19 drugs, the idea that Betadine is a viable treatment grew from shaky scientific evidence and was perpetuated by seemingly authoritative figures on social media.

For example, a 2020 study found Listerine, Iso-Betadine, and Dequonal mouthwashes might decrease the viral load of saliva, thus lowering the transmission of SARS-CoV-2. A more recent study found that Listerine and Chlorhexidine disrupted the Covid virus under in vitro conditions. But no real world evidence or trials in humans suggest that gargling with mouthwash or Betadine could have an effect on COVID-19.

Even if these did kill novel coronaviruses in one's mouth, that wouldn't be enough to halt the virus.

"It's not like your cells get infected and then they secrete a bunch of virus and they're done," virologist Angela Rasmussen told the New York Times. "Infected cells are constantly making more virus. It's a timing issue."

The manufacturer of Listerine is also warning against consumers using the mouthwash as a treatment for COVID-19.

"Although there are recent lab-based reports (in vitro studies) of some LISTERINE® Mouthwashes having activity against enveloped viruses, including coronavirus, the available data is insufficient, and no evidence-based clinical conclusions can be drawn with regards to the anti-viral efficacy of LISTERINE® Antiseptic mouthwash at this time," the company states. "More research is needed to understand whether the use of mouthwashes can impact viral transmission, exposure, viral entry, viral load and ultimately affect meaningful clinical outcomes."

Not only are the manufacturers strongly warning against this — but many doctors and public health experts are, too.

"Potassium iodine, for example, is a form that, if enough is ingested, it can cause some really severe gastrointestinal issues," Scott Schaeffer, managing director of the Oklahoma Center for Poison and Drug Information, told the Oklahoman. "Betadine and those type of products are very low in concentration. If a person were to get a pure form of iodine, like the potassium iodine, it could potentially cause pretty significant burns in the mouth, the throat, the esophagus. The last thing you want to do is burn a hole in the stomach or the esophagus."

Luckily Schaeffer told the newspaper that they haven't seen an uptick in calls to internal or external iodine-related calls.

"Four of them were the typical type of thing where a child gets into either an iodine supplement or a Betadine bottle, picks it up and drinks from it," he said. "The other was a person who was gargling with Betadine, but for a sore throat, and didn't mention COVID, so I'm inclined to think that it was not with the intent of treating or preventing COVID."

According to the local news channel WJXT in Jacksonville, Florida, the state's poison control center has only received one call in the last month of a person misusing betadine to treat COVID-19.

The once-sedate astronomy world is quarreling over an 'alien' asteroid

'Oumuamua, the cigar-shaped object from another solar system that whizzed through our own in 2017, continues to perplex astronomers. Its inexplicable properties have prompted some to propose that the object was an alien craft of some sort, while other astronomers are steadfast in their insistence that it had natural origins.

Now, there's a new chapter in the saga of this mysterious 650-foot-long tube-shaped object. Earlier this year, researchers at Arizona State University published a new study claiming to "resolve" the mystery surrounding 'Oumuamua (pronounced "oh moo ah moo ah").

Published in Journal of Geophysical Research: Planets, the researchers claimed in a pair of papers that 'Oumuamua was likely a nitrogen ice ball, perhaps from a planet like Pluto yet in another solar system — not an artificially made light-sail spacecraft, comet, or interstellar ball of dust, as some researchers have previously suggested. Nitrogen, the primary component of Earth's atmosphere, occurs primarily as a gas on our home planet; yet in very cold conditions, it can freeze and become solid or liquid. The frigid surface of Pluto, for instance, contains a substantial amount of nitrogen ice.

'Oumuamua's characteristics, the Arizona State University researchers argued, suggested the strange object bore similarities to the surface of Pluto.

"This research is exciting in that we've probably resolved the mystery of what 'Oumuamua is and we can reasonably identify it as a chunk of an 'exo-Pluto,' a Pluto-like planet in another solar system," said Steven Desch, an astrophysicist at Arizona State University and an author of the new study, in March 2021. "Until now, we've had no way to know if other solar systems have Pluto-like planets, but now we have seen a chunk of one pass by Earth."

Previously in 2020, in a separate paper published by a different group of scientists, researchers argued that 'Oumuamua was actually a hydrogen iceberg — a similar proposal to the nitrogen iceberg theory of the Arizona State researchers.

But if you thought the scientific world was closing the book on 'Oumuamua — or at the very least coming to peace with the idea that the interstellar object was of natural origin (and not alien made) — not everyone agrees with the Arizona State researchers. Multiple papers co-authored by Harvard physicist Avi Loeb have argued that it is unlikely that 'Oumuamua was a hydrogen iceberg, or a nitrogen one for that matter.

In a series of co-authored papers and a book, Loeb believes the most likely explanation is that Oumuamua was artificially made — perhaps some sort of light sail made by an alien civilization.

"I would say that the [idea it is of] artificial origin appears to me is quite likely and it should definitely be considered in the future," Loeb told Salon. "Of course, what we want to do is find more objects of that same type, and then catch them early enough on the approach to us so that we can send a spacecraft that will intercept the trajectory and take a close up photograph."

Loeb's latest co-authored paper, which has yet to be peer-reviewed, argues 'Oumuamua definitively was not a piece of a Pluto-like exoplanet or a glob of hydrogen ice. To disprove this, Loeb and his fellow researchers calculated how cosmic rays — background radiation that constantly permeates empty space — would have slowly caused such an "iceberg" to evaporate over millions of years of travel. If 'Oumuamua were comprised of such exotic ice, Loeb and his co-authors calculate that significant cosmic ray erosion would have whittled it down during its journey.

Simply put, Loeb doesn't believe there's enough hydrogen or nitrogen in nearby planets that could have accumulated to being 'Oumuamua's hypothetical original size.

Loeb stressed that we have never seen something like a hydrogen or a nitrogen "iceberg" drifting through space. If 'Oumuamura were such a thing, it would have to have originated from very nearby to avoid evaporating due to erosion.

"Those environments need to be close enough to us, or at least closer than a percent of the size of the Milky Way Galaxy, because otherwise these chunks would entirely evaporate," Loeb said. "The solar system or whatever produces them must be a very different environment."

Loeb does not rule out a natural (non-alien) origin for 'Oumuamua, but said that the numbers don't add up for something that was made of nitrogen.

"Arguing that it's a nitrogenous base to me, now that we did this calculation of the cosmic rays evaporating — it makes it very unlikely," he added.

Indeed, the clash over theories of 'Oumuamua's composition and origins are causing some tension among astrophysicists.

Part of the debate, as Loeb alludes to, stems from observations of the object's odd behavior when it was first discovered in October 2017. Back then, a postdoctoral researcher named Robert Weryk at the University of Hawaii was sifting through the data stream from the Pan-STARRS astronomical survey of the sky when he noticed an unexpected object. It appeared to be highly elongated, like a stick, with a long axis 10 times longer than its short axis — unprecedented for an asteroid.

Upon a further analysis, researchers found that it appeared that 'Oumuamua received an unexpected "push" from the sun as it left our solar system — as though it had a mirror or a sail of some kind that it was using for propulsion. The manner of its push resembled what one might see from a solar sail spacecraft, a type of proposed interstellar probe propulsion that humans actually tested with an experimental probe in 2010.

In any case, no one had ever seen anything 'Oumuamua at the time that it was first observed. Some scientists hypothesized that 'Oumuamua swung towards our solar system as a result of a gravitational slingshot of a binary star system; others postulated that it might be an odd comet, though no tail was evident. Thus the search began to collect and analyze as much data as possible before it left our solar system.

Loeb, who wrote a book about 'Oumuamua entitled "Extraterrestrial: The First Sign of Intelligent Life Beyond Earth,'' continues to believe that the only possible explanation (unless the data was wrongly collected) is that Oumuamua was something akin to a light sail spacecraft created by an extraterrestrial civilization.

Loeb's idea has understandably sent shockwaves through the scientific community and stoked controversy. Most astronomers coalesced around the idea that 'Oumuamua was of natural origin, rather than artificial.

In an interview, Desch told Salon Loeb's most recent paper was yet another "attack" on any explanation that 'Oumuamua was a naturally made object.

"We took great pains to make sure we were comprehensive about all the data that existed and we took into account everything . . . we're careful about it, and went through the peer review process, and I stand by our work," Desch said, adding that Loeb's paper doesn't include findings that suggest cosmic ray erosion is slower than they suggest in their calculations. "I can tell you that the experiments say [cosmic ray erosion] is a lot slower than he's saying — in fact we cited those experiments — and in this case they are just basically are saying, 'well, all of the energy of the cosmic rays can be used to erode the ice, but the experiments show that that's just not true.'"

Desch emphasized: "If you took a chunk of Pluto and you knocked it off and made it go by the sun, it would look, move and behave exactly as this object did."

Over the last couple of years, Loeb has been encouraging the scientific community to change and be more "open-minded to change." In Loeb's perspective, the idea that 'Oumuamua was artificially made has not been as widely embraced as the various ideas that it is of natural origin.

Desch said that most astronomers believe there are aliens out there, but do not believe that 'Oumuamua wasn't a sign of extraterrestrial life.

"If you ask almost any astrophysicist, 'Do you think there are aliens out there?' Almost 100% would say, 'somewhere in the universe, it's a really big place — but [it's] really hard for them to get here,'" Desch said. "But this thing? No, this is a snowball."

Loeb rebuffed Desch's "snowball" theory for 'Oumuamua's properties.

"We did the calculations from first principles," Loeb said of his research. "[Desch] underestimated the evaporation by cosmic rays in his paper."

9/11 brought Americans together. Why is the pandemic tearing them apart?

In a 2018 interview with Lisa Luckett, whose husband Teddy worked and died in the World Trade Center building on September 11, 2001, Luckett told Salon one memory she never wants to forget from that horrific day was the "beauty," "grace," "compassion," and "incredible strength of the human spirit" that followed.

"I never expected people to show up for me," Luckett said. Yet they did.

Like many survivors and family members of those who passed away on September 11, 2001, Luckett was struck by the unique, communal sense of unity that followed. In New York City, service members and citizens dubbed the "Bucket Brigade" volunteered on their own to pass buckets of debris to investigators as they searched for human remains. Stories of civilian helpers, from taxi drivers to Hudson River rescue boats evacuating people from Manhattan, made headlines.

There is no shortage of think pieces on how Americans united around the tragedy of 9/11. The nation was in shock and grieving, but they were in their grief together. This so-called unity infiltrated the very rhetoric people used to refer back to this day. A benefit concert was billed as "United We Stand"; in remembering the awful tragedies, newscasters would often repeat the line, "today, we are all New Yorkers."

Despite the sense of national solidarity, it would be remiss not to mention the xenophobic reaction. Following 9/11, Muslim Americans were discriminated against, scapegoated, and faced an unprecedented wave of violence — very different from America's big group hug that played out on mainstream media.

Yet experiencing a collective sense of unity and a deep desire to help strangers in the wake of a tragedy isn't unique to 9/11. Sociologists and experts in disaster resilience studies often see that a "therapeutic community" surfaces in the wake of a disaster — whether that's a hurricane, wildfire, or a terrorist attack. According to the American Red Cross, the "honeymoon phase" after such a disaster occurs when people are nicer, kinder and feel a deeper sense to go out of their way to help others. Non-profits see an uptick in donations and volunteers.

The 20th anniversary of 9/11 comes at a peculiar moment in American history, when the country finds itself in another period of crisis: the COVID-19 pandemic. Yet unlike 9/11, there hasn't been an overwhelming sense of unity or kindness. In fact, the opposite seems to be occurring.

Certainly, the crises are different, particularly in the gravity of the loss: 2,996 people died in 9/11, while 653,000 Americans have died from COVID-19. It is hard to imagine that, 20 years from now, Americans will look back on the pandemic with a sense of sentimental nostalgia for the feeling of national unity that followed. Has America ever felt "in this pandemic together?" Will we don t-shirts commemorating the pandemic, the words "Never Forget" emblazoned across them?

Probably not. Americans are sharply politically divided over public health measures that could help end the pandemic, like masks and vaccine mandates. Many do not even believe the pandemic is real (although, truthfully, there were 9/11 "truthers" too; this, at least, is a familiar national reaction to tragedy).

Sure, at the beginning of the pandemic, we saw fragmented public displays of support for healthcare workers and essential workers. And there were stories about people helping their elderly neighbors by doing their grocery shopping or donating a stimulus check to a stranger. But those anecdotes are fading now, or at the very least, they aren't talked about as much. Rather, the country appears riven by the virus; Americans are having furious, even violent outbursts towards their neighbors in grocery stores, airplanes, and in elementary schools. The furor seems poised to have a devastating effect on social cohesion for years to come.

This kind of rancor over a national tragedy is a sharp contrast to 9/11, and feels incongruous. So what is it about the pandemic that makes it such a different kind of disaster, in terms of people coming together and uniting around tragedy? Experts in sociology and disaster resilience have a few ideas.

First, it may be that the coronavirus is still ongoing — and it's everywhere in the United States. 9/11 was a discrete event that took place over the course of one day (though the aftermath of the dust and smoke killed people years later). In contrast, the pandemic has lasted for more than a year, and has directly affected far more people.

That 9/11 was one day gave Americans one point of focus, explained Jennifer Trivedi, an assistant professor of anthropology at the University of Delaware who studied disaster recovery after Hurricane Katrina.

"There was really in a lot of ways, a key date and a key location that people could really focus on and kind of coalesce around," Trivedi said. "It is really hard to have a very visible, come together moment around something that's, in some ways, so scattered."

It is telling that many Americans watched 9/11 unfold in real-time from their own homes on their televisions. According to Pew Research Center, 90 percent of people surveyed said they received most of their news about the attacks from television; only 5 percent reported getting their news online at the time. The attacks had an emotional effect on the populace: People who weren't even directly impacted by the attacks reported feeling depressed and unable to focus. Pew Research Center's first survey following the attacks found that a majority of adults (71%) said they felt depressed, 49% had difficulty concentrating, and a third said they had trouble sleeping.

Together, this created somewhat of a bonding experience for many Americans.

"The way we're getting our news has changed a lot in the last 20 years," Trivedi said. "The sources of news that people are turning to have changed in the last 20 years, and so I think that's definitely playing into things and the way people are thinking about and learning about what's happening on a larger scale but also in their own backyard."

Social media's innate tendency to balkanize users into discrete political and social groups led to a profoundly different media consumption during the pandemic. Of course, Instagram wasn't around in 2001; nor was Twitter, or Facebook. Can you imagine how 9/11 would have unfolded differently had it occurred twenty years later?

Some experts argue any possibility of unity was doomed from the start of the pandemic, in part because of how politically divided and polarized the nation was before the novel coronavirus began spreading.

"Even the very existence of this crisis is politicized and debated," said Daniel Aldrich, professor and Director of the Security and Resilience Studies Program at Northeastern University. "No one disagreed that there in fact was an attack on 9/11 that killed several thousand Americans that day."

Alice Fothergrill, a professor of sociology at the University of Vermont, said former President Donald Trump's messaging created division from the very beginning.

"I think a lot of it has to do with Trump's leadership and the way in which the very initial ways that the public was presented with the problem, how the problem was defined, and how it got framed early on," Fothergrill said. "Right from the beginning, that was a moment where we lost a little bit about being united because people were defining the situation in different ways, the risk was being communicated in different ways, and people chose different ways to approach the crisis. It's almost as if right from the beginning we missed our opportunity to frame it."

Former president George W. Bush received bipartisan support for his handling of the days that followed 9/11. Bush had the highest Gallup approval rating in history at the time. Democrats widely approved of the Republican president.

The same cannot be said about Trump, who referred to the coronavirus as the Democrats' "new hoax," and predicted the coronavirus would disappear "like a miracle" — at the end of February 2020.

"It's really hard to understand the lack of unity with COVID without looking at political leadership," Fothergrill said. "The Trump presidency has polarized us in ways that I think affected the way this disaster played out. We often say in disaster research that sometimes disasters just exacerbate the conditions that are there already, so whatever is already operating is going to become heightened or louder."

Today, the pandemic is a horrific ongoing disaster. And the fact that it is still happening could be another reason why the nation lacked that moment of coming together, despite our differences and political affiliations.

"It's really challenging for us to move through a long-term crisis without a clear end date and a start date," Aldrich said. "I think that that makes it really challenging for us to unify."

Plus, with 9/11, ways that the average person could help were more obvious, Aldrich said.

"You could sign up to give blood, you could volunteer to join the National Guard," Aldrich said. He added that, with COVID-19, this hasn't been as obvious, as opportunities aren't as widely available. Plus, the social distancing aspect of the pandemic makes rendering direct help more difficult.

The lack of such volunteer opportunities matter, particularly because volunteering after a crisis is a way for affected people to move through their negative emotions.

"If people can find a way to help, it really helps them personally with their own emotional well-being," Fothergrill said. "That's a pretty consistent finding in disasters . . . . In my work on 9/11, people were just desperate to figure out ways to help."

That's not to say that Americans weren't scrambling to offer help at the beginning of the pandemic. Yet the moment of national unity, in which Americans were applauding healthcare workers on their way to work, appear to be over.

While disaster resilience researchers have strong thoughts on how the nation's response to the pandemic contrasts with 9/11, they also are trying to factor in what this means for disasters in the future. Aldrich said in studying disaster resilience, researchers will be factoring in how political polarization, a lack of social ties in communities, and the rise of social media affect social cohesion.

"This very idea that the political party you vote for will now influence how you respond, evacuate, or listen, to health authorities — I'll be honest, it was not a top priority for my work, five to 10 years ago," Aldrich said.

Kathleen Tierney, Professor Emerita in the Department of Sociology at the University of Colorado, said she hopes the situation will "turn" in the pandemic, and that some sense of unity will surface. But the past two years have been a "lesson in absolutely how not to manage a pandemic, and how not to communicate with the public."

"It violates every rule of crisis communication," Tierney said.

Astronomers think they know where to find Planet Nine

Does Earth's solar system host eight planets — or nine?

The answer depends on who you ask. Ever since Pluto got demoted as a planet, a group of scientists still believe there is a ninth planet out there, somewhere. The evidence for it abounds in our solar system: the weird orbits of a bunch of distant objects near Pluto hint that something massive is perturbing them.

The challenge is that nobody has been able to directly observe Planet Nine. That's not entirely surprising: given its likely distance from our sun, it would be incredibly dim.

But as with dark matter and dark energy, one's inability to observe something doesn't mean it doesn't exist.

Now, a new study re-examines old observations, and calculates new ones, suggesting that Planet Nine has a higher likelihood of being a real planet in an icy, faraway part of our solar system —but closer than previously thought.

The study, published in the preprint arXiv last month and recently accepted for publication by the Astronomical Journal, suggests there is only a 0.4 percent chance that Planet Nine is a statistical fluke. This new calculation is based on both more recent observations and old evidence that made the case for Planet Nine in the first place.

In addition to this calculation, the new study provides astronomers with a map of its orbit, and some of the best places in the sky to look for it. Its orbit was inferred by looking at the way that other objects in the outer solar system have their own orbits seemingly perturbed by some other massive object. The new proposed orbit suggests the hypothetical planet is closer to the sun than previously believed, which could make it easier for astronomers to spot. The predicted mass was also revised: based on new observations, Planet Nine is projected to be only six times the mass of Earth, instead of 20 times the size.

"By virtue of being closer, even if it's a little less massive, it's a good bit brighter than we originally anticipated," co-author of the study Michael Brown, a professor of planetary astronomy at the California Institute of Technology, told NBC News. "So I'm excited that this is going to help us find it much more quickly."

According to National Geographic, Brown estimates Planet Nine is "within a year or two from being found."

However, Brown admitted: "I've made that statement every year for the past five years. I am super-optimistic."

Meanwhile, in a blog post, Brown further explained that several factors have changed since he and his colleagues first proposed the idea of Planet Nine. First, Brown argues there's a better understanding of how Planet Nine could affect objects around it. Second, he says scientists have a better understanding of the observations that have been made over the last few years. Third, thanks to various numerical simulations, Brown and his team "understand how changes to parameters of Planet Nine change the outer solar system." And finally, thanks to a new mathematical model, scientists "now have probability distributions of all of the Planet Nine parameters."

The new paper is sure to stir a bit of a controversy in astronomy circles. Previously, speculation as to what was messing with the orbits of distant trans-Neptunian bodies fixated on the existence of a massive object — although such an object does not necessarily have to be a planet.

In 2019, a separate paper proposed a very different theory behind Planet Nine. Then, astronomers asked: what if Planet 9 were not a planet at all, but rather a primordial black hole — as in, a hypothetical type of small black hole that formed soon after the Big Bang, in the early Universe, as a result of density fluctuations? Such a novel idea might have explained why powerful telescopes have never detected so much as a flicker from the theoretical distant planet. Likewise, black holes do not emit visible light at all; rather, they absorb all photons that pass their event horizon, while occasionally emitting energy in the form of (theorized but never directly observed) Hawking Radiation.

However, Brown is hopeful that the Vera Rubin Observatory, which currently under construction atop a Chilean mountaintop, will be able to discover Planet Nine when it is available to astronomers in 2023.

For the unfamiliar, astronomers believe that Planet Nine exists in part because a handful of objects in the Kuiper Belt appear to be clustered in the same orientation in space. This could be random, but the pattern observed to these objects' orbits makes it more likely to be the result of the gravitational force of an elusive, massive object — hence, Planet Nine.

However, critics have often said "observation bias" could be the truth behind Planet Nine. In Brown's blog post, he admits "bias is real," but also notes, "I am here to show you that it doesn't cause the clustering that we see."

As Brown explains: "There is a lot of bias, and the observations generally fal [sic] along the lines of bias. But the bias clearly cannot account for the fact that the orbits are tilted and that they are tilted in one direction."

If discovered, it will be the first planet in our solar system to be found since Neptune in 1846. Similar to Planet Nine, astronomers discovered Neptune using mathematics after noticing Uranus was being pulled slightly out of orbit by an unknown body. Astronomers were able to infer how much mass the unknown planet had, and then where to look.

Scientists say a telescope on the Moon could advance physics — and they're hoping to build one

Humans are reliant on the Moon for far more than most realize. The natural satellite that lights up the nighttime sky moderates Earth's tilt, creating a more stable and livable climate for us here on Earth. Without the Moon, there would be no seasons. And, the Moon also creates tides, which help move heat across the ocean from the equator to the poles.

This article first appeared in Salon.

In addition to the Moon's vital effects on Earth, this enchanting orb that has mesmerized humans since history began could play a critical role in furthering our understanding of the early universe, if only we can build an observatory there.

Interestingly, there is now a plan in development to do just that. In April 2020, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) awarded the Lunar Crater Radio Telescope (LCRT) project $500,000 for further research and development. The premise of this project is that a massive radio telescope would be built by robots on the far side of the Moon in a 100-meter long, bowl-shaped crater with the mission of observing radio wavelengths that are 10 meters and longer.

One might wonder: why the Moon? Isn't this something that we can do here on Earth? The truth is there is only so much data we can gather about the universe from Earth, in part due to the own limitations of our planet when it comes to observing the night sky. Earth's (comparatively) dense atmosphere, light pollution and man-made electromagnetic radiation significantly hamper our ability to clearly observe the cosmos from our home planet.

In the case of radio telescopes, the Moon is an especially tantalizing choice for an observatory. On Earth, scientists are unable to observe cosmic radio waves that are longer than 10 meters because of the ionosphere — a layer of electrons, charged atoms and molecules, that surrounds Earth and protects us from harmful rays from the sun and other bad stuff in space. Earth's ionosphere essentially absorbs any radio wavelengths over 10 meters long. On the Moon, a lack of atmosphere and radiation could (on the far side) vastly improve observations.

"Because the ionosphere is such a strong source, even [by] putting a satellite around it we won't be able to observe any of those wavelengths . . . it basically drowns out all the signals [over 10 meters]," said Saptarshi Bandyopadhyay, a Robotics Technologist at NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory and a the lead researcher on the LCRT project, in an interview with Salon. "So we need to go to a place where we are shielded from Earth, and the best place to go to is the far side of the Moon.

An observatory on the far side of the Moon would have the added benefit of being perpetually shielded from electromagnetic noise from Earth. "The Moon is tidally locked, so only one side of the Moon faces us, and the other side of the Moon is always pointing away," Bandyopadhyay noted.

Bandyopadhyay argues there is an urgent need to better observe radio wavelengths over 10 meters, the kind that would have originated in the early days of our universe. Such a telescope might provide scientists with invaluable information about dark matter and dark energy.

These two substances mark one of the universe's most enduring mysteries. The existence of dark matter can be intuited by how it affects gravity, particularly the makeup and orbits of the largest-scale objects in the universe, galaxies. Yet no one knows exactly what dark matter it is, even though it makes up 27 percent of the universe's total mass and energy — far more than the 5 percent of the universe that "normal" matter, like planets and stars, comprises.

Dark energy, an ill-understood force that is responsible for the accelerating expansion of our universe, is estimated to comprise 68 percent of all matter and energy in the universe.

"Right now, we have some ideas, some models of what happened at the time of the Big Bang, and then we have some idea of what the current universe looks like, where all the galaxies are, how they're moving away, and things like that, but they're not many large questions in the middle [that remain unanswered]," Bandyopadhyay said. "A good part of that region is not observable because we have never looked at the universe 10 meters or longer, and that's what we want to observe — we want to observe those 10 meters and longer wavelengths, so that we can understand things like, 'why is there dark energy and dark matter, what is the pattern, and then why is there so much more matter and so little antimatter in the universe?'"

Bandyopadhyay said scientists need to find answers to these questions before humanity makes "another giant leap in physics."

Such a leap in understanding of fundamental physics might be nearer than one might think. Bandyopadhyay noted that 100 years ago, scientists were just starting to understand nuclear energy. Perhaps dark energy could be used in unknown ways in the future — we just have to understand it first.

"We know the universe is made out of only 4% matter, and 95% of the universe is dark matter and dark energy, and we understand nothing about it," Bandyopadhyay said. "My personal thought is if we could at least observe those regions of the universe, where dark energy and dark matter is active, we might be able to piece together what dark energy and dark matter is."

"Maybe our grandchildren would be able to take advantage of dark matter for interstellar travel," he mused.

Bandyopadhyay said the thought is a little "science fiction"; but argues in the 1920s, people likely would have thought powering homes from nuclear plants would have been science fictional, too.

Of course, to assemble such a device on the Moon would not be easy. In the LCRT proposal, robots would build the massive radio telescope. In order to work well, its dish would have to be at least like 10 times longer than the longest wavelength they'd observe. Bandyopadhyay said the budget would need to be between $1 billion and $5 billion. Two space crafts would be needed: one to deliver the mesh wire of the telescope, a material change to adapt to operating on the Moon, and a second to deliver the DuAxel rovers which would build the dish over several days or weeks.

"It's going to be a long journey," Bandyopadhyay said. "I would be very surprised if we managed to launch before I retired and I'm a very young scientist right now, but if you see all the other missions that's the kind of time it takes."

There is precedent for building a radio telescope in a crater: the Arecibo Observatory in Puerto Rico, which collapsed due to neglect recently, operated for decades and provided valuable scientific data. As with the proposed LCRT, the Arecibo Observatory took advantage of the natural concavity of its resident crater to focus distant radio waves. However, unlike the proposed lunar observatory, the Arecibo Observatory was not constructed entirely by robots.

Notably, only one spacecraft has successfully soft landed on the Moon's far side, which was China's Chang'e 4. Still, the very possibility of putting a radio telescope on the Moon is closer than it has ever been before. Such an instrument could pave the way for different types of telescopes, including optical ones, to make home in other spots on the Moon, ultimately transforming humanity's view of the cosmos.

"Visual telescopes would also benefit from the lack of an atmosphere on the Moon," said Avi Loeb, the former chair of the astronomy department at Harvard University (2011-2020). "Atmospheric turbulence blurs and distorts images of sources in the sky when observing from Earth; X-rays cannot propagate through the Earth's atmosphere and can also be observed from the Moon, and finally, the Moon has no geological activity and so a LIGO-like gravitational wave detector would benefit greatly from the lack of seismic noise and the vacuum that is offered for free — eliminating the need for vacuum tubes as used in the terrestrial version."

California's massive wildfires are doing something no wildfire has ever done before

Between natural disasters and once-in-a-lifetime pandemics, the word "unprecedented" has perhaps been overused in the past year. Yet nature continues to shock us with new, previously unseen crises, warranting the adjective's use in print. That's especially true in the case of California's 2021 wildfire season, which is indeed unprecedented.

Currently, there are two massive wildfires burning across California's Sierra Nevada mountain range— the Caldor Fire, and the Dixie Fire. The Caldor Fire started on August 14, 2021. Over the last 17 days, it has burned 204,390 acres and is only 20 percent contained. As it encroaches on the Lake Tahoe basin, a popular vacation spot for Californians in the summer and skiers across the world in the winter, evacuation orders have been mandated in many neighborhoods and have even expanded from California to Nevada as many expect the massive fire to cross the state line.

According to CalFire, 544 homes and 12 commercial properties were confirmed destroyed as of early Wednesday morning. Less than two hundred miles north in the same mountain range, the Dixie Fire has been burning since July 14, 2021. To date, it has burned 844,081 acres, qualifying it as the second largest wildfire in California's history. Only 52 percent of it is contained. (The August Complex Fire from 2020, which burned more than 1 million acres, ranks first.)

Despite both the Dixie and Caldor Fires' location, they have another characteristic in common warranting the "unprecedented" label: both managed to burn from one side of the Sierra Nevadas to the other, raging across mountaintops that, in previous years, have had enough moisture and snowpack to stop fires, or at least slow them down.

Chief Thom Porter, of the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, said there have been no known fires to have burned from one side of the Sierra to the other — until now, according to the Los Angeles Times.

"Two times in our history and they're both happening this month," Porter said. "So we need to be really cognizant that there is fire activity happening in California that we have never seen before."

As rare as it is, Craig Clements, a professor and director of the Wildfire Interdisciplinary Research Center at San José State University, previously told Salon that he and his colleagues suspected that this years' wildfires would outpace 2020's. In April, Salon reported on how the California Bay Area's live fuel-moisture content (FMC), a metric which measures the ratio of moisture to natural combustible material, was historically low, signaling prime conditions for yet another catastrophic wildfire season. He believes both fires were able to travel from one side of the mountain range to the other because the fuel-moisture content at higher elevations is extremely low, too.

"What's unique about both these fires is that the fires have burned up into very high elevation in the Sierra Nevada," Clements said. "One reason that likely is the drought, lower snowpack . . . those higher elevations are drying out sooner, so, your fuel-moisture content in those plants are drier — and we predicted that in April that this was going to be the case."

Fire behavior, Clements explained, depends on the fuel, the fuel's condition, the weather, and the terrain. Clements added that the Wildfire Interdisciplinary Research Center's forecaster predicts that the Caldor wildfire will potentially cross into Nevada by today, Sept. 2.

Clements emphasized the center's wildfire forecaster is "experimental" and for research — meaning, it is not a national weather forecast — but it has been accurate throughout tracking these fires.

Still, this week's gusty conditions quite literally fanned the flames of both fires, making it more difficult to slow them down or contain them, which also played a role in the fire traversing the mountain range.

Historically, the granite ridge that overlooks the Tahoe basin has been viewed as a protective barrier that prevents fire from entering the area. But strong winds on Monday night helped spread embers onto the dry brush, setting fire on the other side of the mountain. The Dixie Fire traveled over its highest peak in mid-August, and continues to cause evacuations as it rages down the Sierra Nevada.

Near South Lake Tahoe, Calif., firefighters are now tasked with keeping the Caldor Fire up the hill, and trying to keep it from barreling down where it could burn the town.

"We're just right now trying to see what happens with the structures and businesses in our community and our homes," South Lake Tahoe Mayor Tamara Wallace told CNN. "There was a huge amount of granite between the fire and us and I woke up on Sunday and it had, it had jumped that granite and now it is in the Lake Tahoe basin and homes are threatened and our community is threatened and I never thought that was possible."

To keep future wildfire seasons from topping the previous ones, Celements said "we need to treat the landscape, we need to bring prescribed fire back, we also need to do a better job at fuel management, and allow low intensity fires to burn."

Indeed, as unprecedented as these fires are, some argue that we need to stop using superlatives to talk about the fires. Rather, this is just the new normal in California.

"Historically, we've used terms such as 'anomaly,' 'unprecedented' or 'extreme' to describe the wildfires that we have seen burn throughout the state over the past 10 to 20 years," said Cal Fire spokesman Chris Anthony. "These terms are no longer appropriate given the clear trends associated with drought, changing climate and un-resilient forest stands. Unfortunately, these factors contribute to the resistance to control that we are seeing with the Caldor fire."

Experts say the right-wing obsession with a veterinary drug is a tactic to undermine vaccines

In November 2020, a pre-print study touting the safety and efficacy of an anti-parasitic drug called Ivermectin was published on the Research Square website, a platform where scientific studies are submitted before they are peer-reviewed and accepted by a journal. The study, led by Dr. Ahmed Elgazzar of Egypt's Benha University, claimed that in a randomized control trial of nearly 600 people, hospitalized COVID-19 patients who "received ivermectin early reported substantial recovery."

In the search for a COVID-19 wonder drug, the preprint study seemed promising. But then, in July 2021, the paper was pulled "due to ethical concerns." Those concerns included alleged plagiarism and calculation of data points that were "mathematically impossible," according to The Guardian.

Despite the retraction, the anti-parasite drug is allegedly flying off shelves of local farmer supply stores, according to various local news reports who say some feed stores are struggling to keep it in stock. That's because the drug has become a political flashpoint, enveloped by the culture wars just like nearly everything else related to the pandemic.

Indeed, Republicans politicians like Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.) have promoted Ivermectin as a COVID treatment. Robert Malone, a doctor who has spread COVID-19 vaccine misinformation on platforms like "Tucker Carlson Tonight," alleged to have personally used the drug to treat COVID-19, further popularizing it among followers of Carlson's show. The response to Malone's latest Ivermectin-related tweet reveals how many of his followers are using the so-called treatment to undermine the available COVID-19 vaccines. "You don't need a #vaccine, people," one commented. "Ivermectin works," another one chimed in.

Without a prescription, the only way for a layperson to obtain Ivermectin would be at a feed store or farm supply store, which sell the drug as a horse de-wormer. Some such stores report having to put up signage reminding their customers that the drug is approved for horse consumption, not human consumption.

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Salon reached out to Tractor Supply Company, whose spokesperson would not share sales numbers, but did note that the retail chain has put up "signs to remind our guests that these products are for animal use only."

"The product sold in our stores is only suitable for animals and is clearly labeled as such," the spokesperson said via email. "The anti-parasite drug Ivermectin has not been approved by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) for use in treating or preventing COVID-19 in humans; if customers have questions about COVID-19, we suggest consulting a licensed physician and finding more information at FDA website."

Meanwhile, right-leaning politicians abroad have been promoting the drug. The presidential administration of Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil has spent "millions" to promote un proven drugs like Ivermectin as COVID-19 treatments, according to an NPR report. In India and elsewhere in Latin America, Ivermectin has gained momentum. Craig Kelly, an Australian member of Parliament, has repeatedly promoted Ivermectin.

The obsession over Ivermectin, and its politicization, is curious from an economic standpoint. Unlike climate change denialism or other anti-science culture wars, there is no lobby group profiting off of Ivermectin sales to the extent that they might pull politicians' strings. So why have so many on the right seized on an unproven drug as a COVID-19 treatment?

According to Dr. Amesh Adalja, a senior scholar at the Johns Hopkins Center, the right-wing obsession with Ivermectin may be important to that demographic merely because it sows distrust in science in general while stirring up vaccine skepticism.

"Politics got injected into it, and then Ivermectin became a crusade for certain individuals, as a way to kind of deflect the importance of the vaccine," Adalja told Salon. "It's the same kind of story of the politics of this pandemic that's driven a lot of the interest in Ivermectin — and when I do interviews on ivermectin I get a slew of hate mail."

Yet such promotion of unproven drugs can be dangerous. According to the United States Food and Drug Administration (FDA), there have been "multiple reports of patients who have required medical support and been hospitalized after self-medicating with ivermectin intended for horses."

Ivermectin, as previously mentioned, is often used to treat or prevent parasites in animals. Reminiscent of how anti-malaria drug hydroxychloroquine was touted by former President Donald Trump as a treatment for COVID-19 despite there being little sound scientific evidence to support such a claim, Ivermectin has become weaponized in a way to distract efforts from getting the unvaccinated vaccinated. This kind of misinformation costs lives — not only because humans should not be taking Ivermectin that is meant for animals, but also because there is no scientific evidence to suggest that it treats COVID-19.

"There's no evidence that Ivermectin has a beneficial effect in treating COVID-19," Adalja said. "Studies that are there are of poor quality, none of which really has an unequivocally positive result. One of the studies which was touted to provide the most evidence has been shown to be invalid study."

Adalja was referring to Elgazzar's study. Salon reached out to Elgazzar twice and did not receive a comment prior to publication.

Imran Ahmed, CEO of Center for Countering Digital Hate, said that promoting the idea that treatments like Ivermectin or hydroxychloroquine can treat COVID-19 fall into one of three categories of misinformation promoted by anti-vaccine influencers. The three misinformation categories, Ahmed said, include "COVID isn't dangerous," "vaccines are dangerous," and the idea that you "can't trust doctors."

"This is all part of the spreading of the idea that vaccines might not be the safest way of dealing with this," Ahmed said.[It's part of] 'the government's trying to kill you with a vaccine,' and blah, blah. It's an extremist narrative."

Meanwhile, the World Health Organization (WHO) has issued a warning against its use with the exception of clinical trials.

"The current evidence on the use of Ivermectin to treat COVID-19 patients is inconclusive," WHO stated in March 2021. "Until more data is available, WHO recommends that the drug only be used within clinical trials."

As Nature has reported, there are risks to people taking the unchecked drug to treat COVID-19. Not only has it been linked to convulsions, lethargy and disorientation; it can impede researchers' ability to conduct clinical trials.

Alejandro Krolewiecki, an infectious-disease physician at the National University of Salta in Orán, Argentina, told Nature that the more people take it, especially in Latin America countries, "the more difficult it will be to collect the evidence that regulatory agencies need, that we would like to have, and that will get us closer to identifying the real role of this drug."

NASA slightly improves the odds that asteroid Bennu hits Earth -- humanity will be ready regardless

If the thought of an extinction event–level asteroid hitting Earth keeps you up at night, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) has relatively good news for you: the chances of asteroid Bennu striking Earth are higher than previously thought, but probably not high enough to lose sleep over. That's partly because we are getting better at spotting and calculating asteroid trajectories, but also because NASA is soon to test technology that could divert a threatening asteroid decades in advance of impact.

This article first appeared on Salon.

This week, scientists published an updated estimate related to the trajectory of this particular asteroid of concern, Bennu, in the journal Icarus. Bennu's estimated chance of hitting Earth prior to the year 2300 is now 1 in 1,750 — slightly greater than the previous probability of 1 in 2,700, but still quite low. NASA discovered Bennu, a carbonaceous asteroid about 500 meters in diameter, in 1999, and has been keeping track of it ever since. In fact, it is one of the two most hazardous known asteroids in our solar system, though its likelihood of hitting Earth is still pretty slim.

Yet the news about the updated estimate isn't of note due to the revised probability, but because the technology used to calculate it is believed to be the most precise estimate of an asteroid's future trajectory ever calculated.

Using NASA's Deep Space Network and state-of-the-art computer models, researchers were able to further minimize any uncertainties about Bennu thanks to the observations made by NASA's OSIRIS-REx spacecraft, which is now en route to return to Earth after studying Bennu up close.

"We carry out this endeavor through continuing astronomical surveys that collect data to discover previously unknown objects and refine our orbital models for them," said Kelly Fast, program manager for the Near-Earth Object Observations Program at NASA Headquarters in Washington. "The OSIRIS-REx mission has provided an extraordinary opportunity to refine and test these models, helping us better predict where Bennu will be when it makes its close approach to Earth more than a century from now."

As Salon previously reported, the OSIRIS-REx spacecraft also made headlines for collecting samples on Bennu, which scientists believe may have had water on its surface earlier in its history. This is all part of NASA's Planetary Defense group, whose sole purpose is to discover and monitor asteroids and comets that might pose a risk to Earth.

Data collected by OSIRIS-REx gave researchers an opportunity to test their models and calculate when Bennu would be most likely to hit Earth. Indeed, the data from OSIRIS-REx allows researchers to "test the limits of our models and calculate the future trajectory of Bennu to a very high degree of certainty through 2135," said study lead Davide Farnocchia, of the Center for Near-Earth Object Studies (CNEOS), in a statement. "We've never modeled an asteroid's trajectory to this precision before."

Specifically, researchers estimate that Sept. 24, 2182, will be the most significant single date in terms of a potential impact, with an impact probability of 0.037 percent. Even though the odds are low and no one today will be alive then, Dr. Ed Lu, Executive Director of the Asteroid Institute, said Bennu isn't a threat to Earth precisely because of our careful tracking of it. Lu is more concerned about are asteroids that aren't on NASA's radar.

"Most of the asteroids in our solar system that could do great damage should they hit the Earth are untracked," Lu said. "Those asteroids are large enough to destroy a city should they hit, but 99% roughly, of those, are untracked — zero data."


Lu compared tracking Bennu to tracking a hurricane, as the models are somewhat similar given the constant variability. Just as weather forecasting has come a long way, astronomy advancements over the last several years — including new telescopes and relevant missions, like the Japanese Space Agency's probe currently exploring the Ryugu asteroid — are preparing the world for more precise measurements when it comes to asteroid tracking. In general, asteroids have been notoriously hard to track.

"They are difficult to track because they're orbiting the sun just like the Earth . . . their distances can be quite far from the Earth, and they are small and dark," said Lu. "But the issue behind tracking is both not just seeing them, but seeing them often enough so that you can accurately determine the trajectory."

Scientists are already testing technology that would essentially nudge a potentially dangerous asteroid away from Earth. One mission, the Double Asteroid Redirection Test (DART) spacecraft, is expected to launch sometime after November 24, 2021, from Vandenberg Air Force Base, California. Once in space, the spacecraft — a joint project of NASA and the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory — will travel for ten months to reach the Didymos asteroid system. The spacecraft will then literally ram into Didymos' smaller asteroid moonlet, Dimorphos, to change its orbital path.

"DART will change the orbit speed of Dimorphos by a little bit less than a millimeter per second," said Andy Rivkin, DART investigation team co-lead at the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory (APL). "That may not seem like a huge change, but it will be easily measurable compared to Dimorphos' average speed around Didymos."

Rivkin said in the case of a real life emergency in the future, scientists would possibly "change the speeds of asteroids a bit more."

"But our best information favors doing a gentle tap applied decades ahead of time to avert an Earth impact when possible, rather than a forceful shove applied at the last minute," Rivkin told Salon.

Later, the European Space Agency's HERA mission will conduct follow-up observations to survey DART's collision, and turn this experiment into a repeatable planetary defense strategy.

"Together these missions allow us to better understand how we can protect humanity from future asteroid impacts," said Danica Remy, President of the B612 Foundation, a nonprofit whose goal is to protect Earth from asteroid impacts.

But what about those pesky, unidentified asteroids that have escaped observations?

"The best thing the public can do right now is to advocate for increasing asteroid discovery rates and to provide funding for asteroid discovery and deflecting programs," Remy added.

How anti-vaxxers weaponized a horse de-wormer drug as COVID treatment

In November 2020, a pre-print study touting the safety and efficacy of an anti-parasitic drug called Ivermectin was published on the Research Square website, a platform where scientific studies are submitted before they are peer-reviewed and accepted by a journal. The study, led by Dr. Ahmed Elgazzar of Egypt's Benha University, claimed that in a randomized control trial of nearly 600 people, hospitalized COVID-19 patients who "received ivermectin early reported substantial recovery."

This article originally appeared at Salon.

In the search for a COVID-19 wonder drug, the preprint study seemed promising. But then, in July 2021, the paper was pulled "due to ethical concerns." Those concerns included alleged plagiarism and calculation of data points that were "mathematically impossible," according to The Guardian.

Despite the retraction, the anti-parasite drug is allegedly flying off shelves of local farmer supply stores, according to various local news reports who say some feed stores are struggling to keep it in stock.. That's because the drug has become a political flashpoint, enveloped by the culture wars just like nearly everything else related to the pandemic.

Indeed, Republicans politicians like Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.) have promoted Ivermectin as a COVID treatment. Robert Malone, a doctor who has spread COVID-19 vaccine misinformation on platforms like "Tucker Carlson Tonight," alleged to have personally used the drug to treat COVID-19, further popularizing it among followers of Carlson's show. The response to Malone's latest Ivermectin-related tweet reveals how many of his followers are using the so-called treatment to undermine the available COVID-19 vaccines. "You don't need a #vaccine, people," one commented. "Ivermectin works," another one chimed in.

Without a prescription, the only way for a layperson to obtain Ivermectin would be at a feed store or farm supply store, which sell the drug as a horse de-wormer. Some such stores report having to put up signage reminding their customers that the drug is approved for horse consumption, not human consumption.

Salon reached out to Tractor Supply Company, whose spokesperson would not share sales numbers, but did note that the retail chain has put up "signs to remind our guests that these products are for animal use only."

"The product sold in our stores is only suitable for animals and is clearly labeled as such," the spokesperson said via email. "The anti-parasite drug Ivermectin has not been approved by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) for use in treating or preventing COVID-19 in humans; if customers have questions about COVID-19, we suggest consulting a licensed physician and finding more information at FDA website."

Meanwhile, right-leaning politicians abroad have been promoting the drug. The presidential administration of Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil has spent "millions" to promote un proven drugs like Ivermectin as COVID-19 treatments, according to an NPR report. In India and elsewhere in Latin America, Ivermectin has gained momentum. Craig Kelly, an Australian member of Parliament, has repeatedly promoted Ivermectin.

The obsession over Ivermectin, and its politicization, is curious from an economic standpoint. Unlike climate change denialism or other anti-science culture wars, there is no lobby group profiting off of Ivermectin sales to the extent that they might pull politicians' strings. So why have so many on the right seized on an unproven drug as a COVID-19 treatment?

According to Dr. Amesh Adalja, a senior scholar at the Johns Hopkins Center, the right-wing obsession with Ivermectin may be important to that demographic merely because it sows distrust in science in general while stirring up vaccine skepticism.

"Politics got injected into it, and then Ivermectin became a crusade for certain individuals, as a way to kind of deflect the importance of the vaccine," Adalja told Salon. "It's the same kind of story of the politics of this pandemic that's driven a lot of the interest in Ivermectin — and when I do interviews on ivermectin I get a slew of hate mail."

Yet such promotion of unproven drugs can be dangerous. According to the United States Food and Drug Administration (FDA), there have been "multiple reports of patients who have required medical support and been hospitalized after self-medicating with ivermectin intended for horses."

Ivermectin, as previously mentioned, is often used to treat or prevent parasites in animals. Reminiscent of how anti-malaria drug hydroxychloroquine was touted by former President Donald Trump as a treatment for COVID-19 despite there being little sound scientific evidence to support such a claim, Ivermectin has become weaponized in a way to distract efforts from getting the unvaccinated vaccinated. This kind of misinformation costs lives — not only because humans should not be taking Ivermectin that is meant for animals, but also because there is no scientific evidence to suggest that it treats COVID-19.

"There's no evidence that Ivermectin has a beneficial effect in treating COVID-19," Adalja said. "Studies that are there are of poor quality, none of which really has an unequivocally positive result. One of the studies which was touted to provide the most evidence has been shown to be invalid study."

Adalja was referring to Elgazzar's study. Salon reached out to Elgazzar twice and did not receive a comment prior to publication.

Imran Ahmed, CEO of Center for Countering Digital Hate, said that promoting the idea that treatments like Ivermectin or hydroxychloroquine can treat COVID-19 fall into one of three categories of misinformation promoted by anti-vaccine influencers. The three misinformation categories, Ahmed said, include "COVID isn't dangerous," "vaccines are dangerous," and the idea that you "can't trust doctors."

"This is all part of the spreading of the idea that vaccines might not be the safest way of dealing with this," Ahmed said.[It's part of] 'the government's trying to kill you with a vaccine,' and blah, blah. It's an extremist narrative."

Meanwhile, the World Health Organization (WHO) has issued a warning against its use with the exception of clinical trials.

"The current evidence on the use of Ivermectin to treat COVID-19 patients is inconclusive," WHO stated in March 2021. "Until more data is available, WHO recommends that the drug only be used within clinical trials."

As Nature has reported, there are risks to people taking the unchecked drug to treat COVID-19. Not only has it been linked to convulsions, lethargy and disorientation; it can impede researchers' ability to conduct clinical trials.

Alejandro Krolewiecki, an infectious-disease physician at the National University of Salta in Orán, Argentina, told Nature that the more people take it, especially in Latin America countries, "the more difficult it will be to collect the evidence that regulatory agencies need, that we would like to have, and that will get us closer to identifying the real role of this drug."

How QAnon convinced a Parkland shooting survivor's dad that the tragedy was a hoax

Last month, an anonymous Reddit user with a throwaway account posted in r/QAnonCasualties, a Reddit group for people whose spouses, family members and loved ones have been consumed by the baseless conspiracy theory known as QAnon. QAnon, for the uninitiated, posits that American politics are dictated by an elite, Satan-worshipping pedophile cabal which Donald Trump and his inner circle opposed.

This article first appeared in Salon.

Most QAnonCasualties posts take on a tone of desperation — heartfelt sagas of loved ones who have become unmoored from reality, and for whom the outlandish conspiracy theory is the ultimate truth. This post in particular hit on those tropes, but with an added twist: "I survived the Stoneman Douglas school shooting and my dad is suddenly convinced I'm a liar and part of a false-flag operation," the pseudonymous poster wrote.

"I think my dad has gone f***ing insane; It's going way too far and I have trouble processing the last 5 months. He's always been very conservative, but now QAnon has consumed his life to the point where it's tearing our family apart along with my mental health," the Reddit post said. "Back in January he saw the video of Marjorie Taylor Greene harassing [fellow high school student] David Hogg about the shooting being a false-flag operation, and while my dad was already into Q, he'd never gone down that particular rabbit hole and now he's convinced everything was a hoax and it breaks my f***ing heart."

As Salon has previously reported, QAnon has torn apart marriages and families; hence, the creation of the aforementioned Reddit forum, which has become a digital support group for nearly 179,000 people who swap stories, advice and guidance. Some posters describe the experience of completely "losing" their loved one. Others are more alarming, like the woman whose "Qhusband" got a gun license because of the conspiracy, which made her feel "sick to my stomach." But this user sheds light on how the cult-like group can brainwash family members of those who have firsthand experienced a horrible national tragedy, like the Stoneman Douglas school shooting, which left 17 people dead in 2018.

Last week, Vice spoke with the author of the Reddit post and confirmed their identity as a survivor of the Parkland, Fla. shooting; the author spoke on the condition of anonymity using the name "Bill."

"It started a couple months into the pandemic with the whole anti-lockdown protests," Bill told Vice. "His feelings were so strong it turned into facts for him. So if he didn't like having to wear masks it wouldn't matter what doctors or scientists said. Anything that contradicted his feelings was wrong. So he turned to the internet to find like-minded people which led him to QAnon."

It's an interesting and tragic tale, and at odds with how parents of Sandy Hook's victims responded when far-right conspiracy theorist Alex Jones tried to convince his followers the massacre was a hoax. Joe Kelly, a cult intervention specialist, said trauma affects people differently, and straight-out denying an event happened — like your son almost dying in a school shooting — could be one way to cope.

"When it's not dealt with by a trained individual, people will start to scattershot trying to find help in any form," Kelly said. That can put someone in a vulnerable position where they can be taken advantage of by a group like QAnon with toxic agendas. "They will say this is because of this, and they'll touch on that moment, and you'll feel heard, you'll feel appreciated and understood, finally, for the first time in that moment of vulnerability."

From that point on, Kelly said, this group that's provided "comfort" and "assuredness" starts to take control of the traumatized individual.

Doni Whitsett, Clinical Professor Emerita of Social Work at the University of Southern California who specialized in cults, said via email that "denial is a great defense against feelings that are uncomfortable, in this case, feelings of powerlessness [and] helplessness."

"These are feelings that actually define what is meant by a trauma," Whitsett said. "This is part of the personality profile of those prone to believe in conspiracy theories."

As numerous psychologists previously told Salon, some people are prone to conspiratorial thinking. These types are unlikely to recovery from their QAnon beliefs, and, if not QAnon, would likely have been drawn to other conspiracy theories.

"I'm glad the QAnon casualty community is helping 'Bill' leave the situation, because sometimes that's all you can do," Whitsett said.

As Bill noted in his Reddit, it doesn't help that prominent politicians, like, Marjorie Taylor Greene, R.-Ga, perpetuate the falsehood that the shooting was a hoax. In part, Kelly said, the continuing existence of these falsehoods is the fault of far-right leaders like Greene.

"Leadership allows for this to continue to take place — they've never come out and outright said this stuff is garbage, right?" Kelly said. "And this is dangerous, and that's exactly what we see in cult leaders."

Kelly, who has worked as a cult interventionist for nearly 30 years, said some are drawn to QAnon because it fulfills a specific need — in some cases, loneliness. In other cases, they may be struggling with other demons that make them susceptible.

"You'll have people who were struggling, for lack of a better word, with mental health issues — they could have been minor, and yet during pandemic, they became isolated, then surrounded or bathed in liquid that QAnon became," Kelly said. "It fills the brain, and that suspended judgment becomes solidified faith and belief . . . these things are all reinforced by this new community you meet online, and you don't have to get to know these people — their nuts and bolts and where the warts are — these are just faces behind the screen, promoting an ideology [for which] now you're a prophet."

And that, Kelly said, is how someone who nearly lost their son in a national tragedy could disbelieve what happened right in front of them.

How does the pandemic end now?

On Thursday night, news surfaced of an internal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) memo revealing just how contagious, and threatening, the delta variant is. The rapid, fearful spread of the delta variant, and its ability to infect the vaccinated at a higher rate, has quelled hope that the pandemic is truly, finally waning. As journalist Maura Judkis wrote for the Washington Post, "instead of flattening the curve, we've hit the delta swerve."

This article originally appeared at Salon.

Specifically, the slide presentation first obtained by The Washington Post, estimated that among the 162 million vaccinated Americans there are 35,000 symptomatic infections each week. Vaccinated people are much less likely than unvaccinated people to be hospitalized or die from the mutant strain, according to the memo; but, if infected, they are able to spread it to vaccinated and unvaccinated people.

The news has led to swift public policy changes across the country, such as reinstating mask mandates, and even pushing back in-person office openings. The ominous shift in the pandemic precipitated by delta's spread raises the question: Will we ever be out of the woods? In other words, when — and how — does this pandemic end?

While the delta variant is alarming, both for its rapid spread and its ability to occasionally infect the vaccinated, it is not invincible against the existing COVID-19 vaccines. Those who are vaccinated are less likely to get hospitalized or die from the delta variant than those who are unvaccinated.

Still, that doesn't mean such things cannot happen. And it turns out the delta variant may foreshadow the future of the novel coronavirus — a future in which the virus continues to mutate and spread throughout the human population, year after year, again and again.

Dr. Amesh Adalja, a senior scholar at the Johns Hopkins Center, told Salon that he believes it has "always been the case" that "the pandemic ends with SARS-CoV-2 becoming an endemic seasonal respiratory virus like the other 4 coronaviruses that we deal with year in and year out."

"The delta variant doesn't change that trajectory but confirms it as the virus has become more efficiently transmissible, increasing its reach into the population," Adalja said. "There will not be a single point where the pandemic ends; it will just transition, and has partially transitioned in states in which cases have been decoupled from hospitalizations."

In previous interviews, Adalja has emphasized that the public health goal will never be to eradicate the coronavirus, but instead to not overwhelm hospitals with severe infections. The current available COVID-19 vaccines are still a means to do that. When asked if the number of symptomatic breakthrough COVID-19 infections estimated in the memo was alarming, Adalja said "no."

"Because they almost never land people in the hospital," Adalja said.

As Kathleen Neuzil, a vaccine expert at the University of Maryland School of Medicine, told the Washington Post, there needs to be a shift in preventing infections to preventing severe disease.

"We really need to shift toward a goal of preventing serious disease and disability and medical consequences, and not worry about every virus detected in somebody's nose," Neuzil said. "It's hard to do, but I think we have to become comfortable with coronavirus not going away."

When asked where we go from here, Dean Blumberg, chief of pediatric infectious diseases and associate professor in the Department of Pediatrics at the University of California, Davis, said he sees COVID-19 becoming more like a "cold" and "flu" — for the vaccinated.

"Essentially we're going to have COVID be similar to colds or flu — it will be endemic, there will be continued risk and there will be a small percentage of people that have severe disease, but the vast majority of vaccinated people will have mild illness and it will be an outpatient illness," Blumberg said. "Those who are unvaccinated will still be at risk for severe disease, but what this suggests is that people who are vaccinated may have breakthrough infections, they may have replication of the virus at a high level in their upper respiratory tract, and therefore they may transmit to others also."

Blumberg said that this news doesn't mean we will never return to a sense of "normalcy," mirroring pre-pandemic days, but that it might take more population immunity to get there.

"I think we can eventually return to near normal," Blumberg said. "The challenge is that the virus is much more extraordinarily infectious." He explained that the novel coronavirus' "R-naught" number — a number that describes on average how many new people are infected from each case, considered a measure of a virus' infectivity — has increased precipitously throughout the pandemic.

"The number of infected people that result from every infected case has gone up from 2.4 at the beginning of the pandemic to around 8," he noted. "Now it's in the realm of some of the most infectious agents known to mankind."

Similar to the measles or chickenpox, a higher percentage of people immune to the virus is needed to stop transmission completely.

"So for measles, for example, we need 95% of the population immune to result in limited transmission of cases introduced to a community, so that's what we're looking for," Blumberg said. "Earlier in the pandemic we were looking at maybe 75% or 80% immunity to limit transmission, but the bars were set higher."

* * *

The new reality of the "forever" coronavirus pandemic means that the pharmaceutical industry will have to shift its strategy, too. Beyond merely distributing existing vaccines, there is a need now for boosters, new vaccines that immunize against variants, or both.

Pharma's strategy moving forward is still unclear. Could it be that booster shots that specifically target the delta variant could help us get to a 95% level of herd immunity sooner? A third dose of the Pfizer/BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine can "strongly" boost protection against the Delta variant, according to Pfizer data. but that doesn't mean more people will get vaccinated.

But vaccines take time — months or years — and lots of testing before they can be deemed safe. In the meantime, life will continue apace for millions of Americans — as will gatherings, events and human interactions.

And what of those? As for how one should approach gatherings in the delta variant phase of the pandemic, Blumberg recommends doubling-down on masking and social distancing, especially in areas where delta transmission is high, and if they're unvaccinated or vaccinated with weakened immune systems.

"The vast majority of people who have breakthrough infections, who are vaccinated, are going to have mild infections; they're going to maybe have a fever, cough, runny nose and be sick for a couple days and then they're going to get better and that's not that big of a deal," Blumberg said. "If you're unvaccinated, then you're rolling the dice about whether you're going to end up in the hospital."

"For vaccinated people with weakened immune systems, who might have a suboptimal response to vaccination, it becomes even more important to take the extra layers of protection to avoid breakthrough infection," Blumberg added.

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