Daily Archives: August 3, 2012

We may have a pig problem

There is a novel strain of swine flu of the H3N2 type with a lot of infections in humans over a short period of time but over a large geographic area.

The CDC reports 12 cases this week, 1 in Hawaii, 10 in Ohio, and one in Indiana. Seventeen more cases were reported since about one year ago. Most of the cases are found in individuals who had direct contact with swine, but some cases appear to be person to person transmission.

A large number of the recent cases seem to have been in individuals who had contact with swine at a fair. This is fair season across much of the US, and apparently petting the pigs is a cool thing for people, mainly kids, to do.

No one has died of this flu, and few seem to have become gravely ill. Three people with high risk factors were hospitalized in all.

The take-home message, the message the CDC is trying to get out, is to wash hour hands very carefully after you pet the pig. But health authorities are also saying to not eat or drink in the presence of swine at these state fairs. Personally, I plan to stay away from the pigs entirely. That will be hard to do because one of our favorite things to do at the State Fair is to visit the Big Pig. They have one really big pig at the fair every year. It is the pig that won the prize for being really really big. Nobody pets it, though. But a lot of people stand around looking at it while they eat their Food on a Stick. This year, I may glance at the pig from a distance, but I will not be eating my corn dog at that particular time.

You can’t get this flu from eating a swine who is infected. So, I can eat the corn dog, just not while petting an influenza infected swine.

Normally, even though swine do get the flu pretty routinely, it does not transmit to humans. While it is possible that there is just a lot more swine flu among the swine and we are seeing unlikely events happening, it is thought that this flu is a variant that is more transmittable to humans than is usual. In prior years, an average of about one person per year in the US gets swine flu from swine. Over the last few years, this number has gone up and the present situation is seemingly unprecedented. However, there have also been significant changes in surveillance and reporting which almost certainly account for some of this apparent increase. The CDC is not sure if there is a real increase in swine flu occurrence, transmission, or mainly reporting. They say:

The increased detection and reporting of these cases could be occurring for a number of reasons, including one or more of the following factors: First, pandemic preparedness efforts have improved state level surveillance and laboratory capacity to detect novel viruses in the United States. Second, in 2007, novel influenza virus infections were made domestically and internationally reportable. And three, it’s also possible that there is a true increase in the number of these cases, possibly occurring from exposure to infected swine or through subsequent, limited human-to-human transmission.

Just don’t pet the pig.

The CDC report is here and additional information is here and in links therein.


The Mars Science Laboratory Mission has piles of cool equipment on board Curiosity Rover, which is closing in on Mars as we speak. The landing is expected to be next Sunday/Monday, 10:31 p.m. Aug. 5 PDT (1:31 a.m. Aug. 6 EDT, 05:31 Aug. 6 Universal Time) plus or minus a minute.. But not really, because the event is happening a it far away in spacetime; those are the times that the signals from Mars will arrive on the planet Earth, about 13.8 minutes after the event has happened. The mission is expected to last one Martian year, which is close to two Earth years. The weather at the landing site will be clear and ranging from 90 degrees below zero C to about freezing (-130F to 32F).

The location of the landing is ner the Martian equator, near the base of Mount Sharp inside the Gale crater.

The rover is about three meters long not ocuting it’s arm, and just under three meters wide, and 2.1 meters high to its tallest point. The arm is about 2.1 meter long and the wheels are about a half a meter in diameter. It weights just under 4,000 kilos (over four tons). The vehicle is a hybrid of sorts, and will run on a nuclear thermoelectric generator with lithium ion batteries. Batteries are included.

The instruments Curiosity will carry include: a Alpha Particle X-ray Spectrometer, cameras, a robotic Martian-designed loupe, radiation detectors, environmental monitoring gear and a very fancy chemistry set.

NASA says this about the scientific investigations:

NASA’s Mars Science Laboratory mission will study whether the Gale Crater area of Mars has evidence of past and present habitable environments. These studies will be part of a broader examination of past and present processes in the Martian atmosphere and on its surface. The research will use 10 instrument-based science investigations. The mission’s rover, Curiosity, carries the instruments for these investigations and will support their use by providing overland mobility, sample-acquisition capabilities, power and communications. The primary mission will last one Mars year (98 weeks).

The payload includes mast-mounted instruments to survey the surroundings and assess potential sampling targets from a distance; instruments on Curiosity’s robotic arm for close-up inspections; laboratory instruments inside the rover for analysis of samples from rocks, soils and atmosphere; and instruments to monitor the environment around the rover. In addition to the science payload, engineering sensors on the heat shield will gather information about Mars’ atmosphere and the spacecraft’s performance during its descent through the atmosphere.

To make best use of the rover’s science capabilities, a diverse international team of scientists and engineers will make daily decisions about the rover’s activities for the following day. Even if all the rover’s technology performs flawlessly, some types of evidence the mission will seek about past environments may not have persisted in the rock record. While the possibility that life might have existed on Mars provokes great interest, a finding that conditions did not favor life would also pay off with valuable insight about differences and similarities between early Mars and early Earth.

The landing itself has been dubbed the “seven minutes of terror” because it is so complicated that even engineers will be terrified. Here is a graphic depicting the landing plan:

Here is a video about the mission: