Is it the hand sanitizer?

You go through your day in a fog. You’re tired all day but jazzed at night. You get in the car and can barely drive. You have a headache and congestion and maybe a cough due to post nasal drip but no fever. You ask yourself, is it covid? Ask a second question: how much hand sanitizer did I use today?

In these times, I find myself drifting between normalcy and hypochondria. If I have a period of time when I can isolate, I am at peace, but if I have to go out, I might not be able to sleep afterwards. Yes, it could be anxiety. Or is it the hand sanitizer? Today, I got in the car for a grocery pick up. A delivery driver pulled up. I didn’t want to leave the package sitting on the porch. I put on a mask, got out, retrieved the package, got back into the car, and generously used hand sanitizer.

The grocery pick up involved popping the trunk for the grocery delivery, closing it, and driving away. But I felt bad, like I had stumbled in a hole. In fact, I got out of the car in the garage and I almost did stumble. Worried, I took my temperature. It was normal. Then, I thought through the chain of events and took a moment to review the hazards of the active ingredient in my hand sanitizer, ethanol. Here it is:

Do not breathe mist, spray, vapors
Wash exposed skin thoroughly after handling
Do not eat, drink or smoke when using this product

I had the sanitizer in my hot car even though another hazard reads: Store in a well-ventilated place. Keep cool.

From another site:

Inhalation: Inhalation of high concentrations may cause central nervous system effects characterized by nausea, headache, dizziness, unconsciousness and coma. Causes respiratory tract irritation. May cause narcotic effects in high concentration. Vapors may cause dizziness or suffocation. 

As a chemist, I should have known better than to use hand sanitizer in a hot car with the windows rolled up. It’s basically booze.

From a study in 2017 “Inhaled alcohol may be associated with enhanced behavioral effects including increased risk of addiction. “:

The study includes this chart:

From Alcohol Clin Exp Res
 2017 Feb;41(2):238-250.
 doi: 10.1111/acer.13291. Yale based reserch group

In other words, not much is known about inhalation of alcohol, but it does get into your blood more quickly and at a higher concentration than if you drink it. Alcohol can cause covid-like symptoms such as a headache and stuffy nose. Alcohol can make anxiety worse and cause sleep problems.

The bottom line is NOT that you should not use hand sanitizer. COVID is a dangerous virus. You must protect yourself. However: USE SPARINGLY AND IN A WELL-VENTILATED AREA!

And of course, the best protection is quarantine, followed by masking. Hand sanitizer should not be used as an excuse to allow gatherings or to force workers into dangerous situations. It’s not a panacea, only a caution, and it has its own drawbacks. A better alternative to school situations is probably to have hand washing stations with soap and water in classrooms, similar to what you find at outdoor concerts and music festivals.

Earth Day: all the stuff we cannot see

We are running out of places to store our oil. Farmers can’t get their pigs slaughtered because the meat plant workers are sick and can’t kill them fast enough. Economies are toppling because of one little virus. Which brings us to the reminder: our life here hangs in a fragile balance.

Earth Day is 50 years old. It was launched by Gaylord Nelson of Wisconsin and the date was chosen to be just before finals week at colleges. Problems with the oil industry were thought to have inspired him–both the deadly used of lead in gas and an oil spill off the coast of California.

Environmentalism has long been in the fabric of our nation.

Environmentalism embraces  the Pragmatic Utilitarian perspective (hunting, fishing, hiking are worthy pastimes) and Idealist Naturalist (every species is important) perspectives. Most scientists are Idealists.

Gifford Pinchot (1865-1946), a utilitarian and the first director of the U.S. Forest Service, saw conservation as being for the good of the greatest number of people and saw businesses as selfish exploiters of resources.  He felt that the government was a representative of the People and should manage our natural resources.  The Utilitarian approach can be found in the Izaak Walton League and the  National Wildlife Federation.

Many events lead up to the formation of Earth Day:

•1930s  The Dust Bowl showed the need for soil conservation.

•1962 Silent Spring by Rachel Carson linked DDT use and bird death. Rachel Carson’s book Silent Spring connected DDT use with the disappearance of the bald eagle and other birds in the US.  (When I was a girl, most people in the US had never seen an eagle and its mysterious vanishing alarmed patriots as as well as nature lovers.)  Like Galileo and Paracelsus, biologist Carson wrote for a general audience, achieved nearly instant fame, and rattled authority figures.  Yet she had the admiration and backing of other scientists and  some politicians so her environmental movement took hold.

1968 First photo of Earth from space was taken during the Apollo 8 mission. Earthrise shows our planet rising over the moon. The Earth’s beauty contrasted with the dead surface of the moon helped people fall in love with it and see how precious it is and for the photographer, William Anders, human conflict and loyalty to divisive causes looked so petty. “This is the only home we have and yet we’re busy shooting at each other, threatening nuclear war, and wearing suicide vests,” he said. “It amazes me.”

1969 Cuyahoga River in Cleveland was so polluted with industrial wastes that it caught fire and burned.

1969 Santa Barbara oil spill causes by inadequate safety regulations, spilled 21,000 gallons of oil off the coast of California, killing thousands of animals. The explosion it caused cracked the sea floor!

By 1970, people in the US had had enough. In 1970 , the EPA (Environmental Protection Agency) was created. Environmental laws increase from 20-120.

•1970 First Earth Day on April 22 was celebrated.

•A major advancement in environmental science came when the field of analytical chemistry (testing for chemical composition) was developed in the US in the 1960s and 70s.  This new branch of chemistry revealed  that small amounts of synthetic chemicals persisted in the environment.  Before this time, they were undetectable and assumed to be broken down when put into the air and water. I’m an analytical chemist and perhaps my love of environmentalism is at the core of it.

  In 1989 75% of people in US identified themselves as environmentalists. Recently, this has fallen to 42%, in part because it has been wantonly politicized and partly because the problems are less obvious.

•Astroturfing is a big problem for our environmental awareness these days and can be blamed for the lack of support and politicization. Here’s how it works: if scientific evidence points to a consensus but it could harm your profits,  a group of “scientists” will  be formed and they will refute the evidence. They will often not use the scientific method and rarely publish in peer reviewed journals. Sometimes they will get a letter to the editor published in a peer reviewed journal and then they will use it as a citation, as if they had published an article in the journal. Astroturf groups pretend to be “green”. If they employ scientists, the scientists are not working in their area of expertise. There are also social influencers who roam the internet with their name calling ex: saying environmentalists are hippies or earth worshipers, & calling good science “junk science. ” To oppose this, Scientists have had to march and speak out.

Science can be powerful. It’s hopeful yet skeptical–hopeful that problems can be solved but skeptical of the influences of power and money on science. With this, scientists are reacting with alarm to political and financial pressures more than ever before.  Companies are spending money to publicly refute accepted science and regulatory agencies are underfunded.  We even have a president pushing medical cures that don’t work! (Watch the Movie: Thank You for Smoking). These forces aren’t always able to be seen, yet, like a virus, they damage scientific progress and integrity. They damage democracy as well.

Science and Democracy, ideally, are a lot alike. Shared values include –openness to critical scrutiny –a skepticism toward claims that too neatly support reigning values –a willingness to listen to countervailing opinions –a readiness to admit uncertainty and ignorance –a respect for evidence gathered according to the sanctioned best practices of the moment.

“We stand now where two roads diverge. But unlike the roads in Robert Frost’s familiar poem, they are not equally fair. The road we have long been traveling is deceptively easy, a smooth superhighway on which we progress with great speed, but at its end lies disaster. The other fork of the road / the one less traveled by / offers our last, our only chance to reach a destination that assures the preservation of the earth.” Rachel Carson.

These words stand true today, more than ever. Please, celebrate Earth Day today.

Unstable States and angry politics


Scapegoat blame background concept glowingI come from a family of teachers who liked to discuss politics and even argue about it. I have been watching the rise of angry politics. In my own home state, I saw one of the most balanced, fair politicians defeated by someone angry who made accusations against voters that cost the state lots of money. Why and who gravitates to this kind of unsubstantiated rhetoric? It’s a good thing to review as I move forward with my series, Unstable States, which begins with Mixed In.

There has been a good analysis of who supports angry politicians in the Netherlands.

What causes people to vote for the angry blowhards is insecurity. The most insecure people in a society are not at its top or bottom but in the middle. In a group, the people who most want to conform are those in the middle of the pack. People at the top are too secure to conform and those at the bottom don’t like the group enough to adhere to its norms. Thus, angry politicians knowingly play to the middle.

Scapegoating a group of people who can’t easily fight back and blaming them for the middle’s troubles has been a successful tactic of angry politicians practically since time began. Where does the word come from? In ancient days, a goat was selected to represent sins and cast out of the town to remove all evils. Groups of people have also been identified by politicians to be rejected by society. This is always a group without the means to effectively fight back. Thus, the people in the middle will fall for rhetoric that things would be better for them if only some authority figure did something about the lowly scapegoats.

Who likes authoritarians and who resists? This was studied extensively following the Holocaust. The Milgram study created a series of experiments in which volunteers were asked to deliver electric shocks to others who screamed in pain. Shockingly, most button pushers complied, especially if the study took place in an authoritative setting such as Yale.

People who follow authority are not much different than those who don’t. Those attracted to authoritarians tend to think harshly of those lesser than themselves and have less empathy for others. Most of all, cultural factors play a role in the love or distrust of authority figures. People with high insecurity are most likely to be conformists. Thus, creating an unstable society is highly beneficial to those who want conformist followers. Another factor that creates conformity is scrutiny. People tend to conform when others are watching.

Fortunately, egalitarian societies, ones that are best for all, have existed since before scapegoats began. However, they are harder to maintain as populations get larger and there is more competition for food and resources. People tend to share and cooperate with their kin. When it is too hard to identify kin, leaders emerge to make decisions for the group. The best leaders are those others can trust. However, competition gives rise to self aggrandizers who come up with reasons why they deserve more trust and others deserve less. These people are great at claiming the spotlight, motivating others,  and solving problems in the short run. Sadly, mean authoritarians will probably always be with us for these reasons.

A societal factor that plays into the selection of kinder leaders who are more egalitarian is low fertility.  Although the reasons for this aren’t entirely clear, low fertility allows women to take prominent roles in society and become educated. If this happens to the women of a group, it gives a group more social visibility and acceptance.

Egalitarian leaders tend to get less done. Motivating people to share and creating a sense of family is more time consuming than fear based politics. Cooperation takes more work. It is, however, the basis of society. Ironically, egalitarian societies have a lot of social cohesion that could be viewed as conformity.  Yes, even egalitarian societies have conformity although they do not coalesce around anger.

In the case of the Netherlands, educated people rejected angry politics. Why?  “Highly educated people …are socially mobile.. provid(ed) with opportunities rather than threats….Feelings of insecurity, whether justified or not, led people to vote for the PVV (angry party).” Education lessens the likelihood of viewing a politician who is angry as a valid authority figure. This is why, historically, educated people and those who are disenfranchised work together to stand up to any authoritarians who use scapegoating to motivated the “middle.”

What is the best way to reject angry authority and its use of scapegoating? Besides promoting education, the simple act of standing up to it and doing this consistently and repeatedly created heroes in the Milgram experiment. This tactic has been illustrated historically as with the development of the birth control pill and worker safety regulations. Scientists tend to be secure in their knowledge and challenge authority as well. In fact, science can’t move forward without some challenging of the status quo. Science provides a unique problem to authoritarian leaders who both need it and squash it.

In summary, creating a political dystopia involves several factors: insecurity, authoritarianism, scapegoating, scrutiny, conformity, social stratification, anger, encouraging fertility, and anti-intellectualism. Most angry politicians embrace some or all of these policies. If you don’t like these tactics, you must do more than vote against them. Sadly, you must speak out against them as well because when people are silent, these tactics are effective.

Strange Change and other Elements of Science Fiction


One reason I enjoy writing science fiction is because it is at its best, social satire. It’s both serious and campy, insightful and strange. It is by nature, multidisciplinary, wrought with nuance and language subtleties that make it unpalatable for some readers and catnip for others.

Author David Ketterer says “Science fiction (in the inclusive sense) combines satire with the kind of visionary (or prophetic) imagination exemplified by Dante’s Divine Comedy or Milton’s Paradise Lost. ..”

If you look at the history of science fiction, you can see prime examples of  social satire. Ray Bradbury, who wrote during the era of segregation said that much of his work is about oppression and racism. The word robot derives from the Czech word for slave so often in science fiction, you can assume that a robot represents an individual who has  low social status and is oppressed, like Wall E. The term was first coined in a play, R.U.R.  In this campy melodrama, the robots finally accomplish a rebellion against their tormentors.

Likewise, an encounter with an alien or “other” may be a subtle comment about racism, classism, or sexism, often accompanied by an anti-colonialism sentiment. One of my favorite classical examples is First Men in the Moon by H.G. Wells in which a scientist and a businessman have competing ideas about studying the moon vs conquering it.

James Gunn argues that science fiction has its own set of protocols set apart from literary fiction. Like science itself, it is a genre in which characters encounter the unknown,  solve problems, and create understandable universes. He describes it as “the literature of the human species encountering change.”

Margaret Atwood calls Science Fiction “Social Commentary about Now. ” She doesn’t write a novel without a modern detail hidden in the story line. An older woman, she warns what life was like, and could be like, if women aren’t allowed to control their own bodies, as happened in the past.

Since science fiction is mainly about today’s society, a person doesn’t need to be a scientist to write science fiction. Some scientists avoid it because they dislike the anxiety about science that is often found on the pages. However, the science must be plausible and based on scientific information or the story won’t have authority. To paraphrase the late author and biochemist Isaac Asimov, science fiction needs to make brains respectable.

One way that an author can gain credibility is to accurately name chemical substances. For example, vibranium, found in Wakanda, carries the Latin noun ending -ium which became common for elements in the Victorian era when many elements were discovered and named. Despite a lot of well-known memes, keep in mind that scientists are most often drawn to science because they want to help people To create fresh, realistic characters, here are some traits that scientists feel help define them.

Through its discoveries and ways of looking at the world, science creates change that society adapts to. This is why we have science in science fiction–to create strange new change.The most important parts of science fiction are people and change, and in the best cases, satire based on today.

There is no Beauty without Strangeness (Detroit mural)

Cough, cough. Birds, pigs, people, and Influenza A

I’d like to thank for letting me use this for free because fewer than 100,000 people visit my blog.

If I had a vivid imagination, I could conjure up some sinister reason for cutting funds to the CDC and the NIH as our recent Congress has done and create a fiction from it. Perhaps a corrupt leader wanted to kill off the type of people he didn’t like and had secret vaccination programs for his followers. His enemies would become infected and die. One way to do that would be with Influenza A.

There are two main categories of Influenza viruses, A,B., and C. Type A viruses cause the most trouble and can be found in humans and animals, including whales, cats, horses, and other animals,notably birds and pigs. (Bats have their own special viruses.) Influenza B is uncomfortable to humans but not deadly. There is also a human C virus which is milder yet. Influenza A can be deadly.

Besides A and B viruses are then categorized by their H and N types of proteins that they have in their outer coatings. If you want to read more about that here is a great description.  Let’s just say that it takes a match up of the right H and N to allow a virus to invade your cells, hijack them, create “baby” viruses, and pop the cells to release moe viruses. That is how we get the designations such as H1H1 (the deadly Swine flu) and H2N3 (this year’s virulent strain.) Both of these, and all Influenzas, are zoonoses–infections that can move between people and animals.

Many Type A viruses can creep between birds, human, and pigs. If you look at charts from the CDC (why are we underfunding them by the way?) you can see that birds are a significant reservoir of these viruses. Shore birds including geese are potent carriers but other types of domestic and wild birds also carry viruses. For example N3 viruses are associated with ducks.

Most Influenza A viruses originate  in birds. However, not many of these are easily transmitted to people. They can be transmitted to pigs. Pigs are a common go-between for viruses. Pigs and humans can infect each other with influenza more easily than birds and humans can infect each other. Pig flu symptoms are much like human flu symptoms.

Domestic pigs get wild bird viruses when birds interact with water used for cleaning their housing facilities that sits on site in ponds. In my opinion, deregulation of such facilities is asking for a new flu to be created.  However, the global flu pattern is that influenzas originate in Asia.

Therefore, pigs act as mixing vessels for bird flu which is hard for people to catch and pig flu which people can catch.  They create new types of flu inside them–possibly in their snouts/respiratory tracts. 

H1, H2, and H3 viruses are common during flu season and all can infect people, birds, and pigs. These viruses begin in birds, then infect pigs, where they mix, and then move on to people. There are several other diseases that can be transmitted between pigs and people. Sick pigs are a serious thing.There are even plans in the works for the government to begin an educational program for kids who handle pigs at state fairs.

And there are/were government funded scientists working on a universal flu vaccine, which we all want but is not profitable enough for big pharma to develop. That’s why we have to rely on public funds. Or if you have a sinister mind, the people who currently are in charge here in the United States do not want the common people to have this vaccine.

There is even a professor at Iowa State who is working on a universal vaccine that can be delivered via eating corn!

Another bit of good news is that UV light can kill airborne flu viruses. and these may soon be installed in hospitals and airports.

And a Japanese company has a drug that can keep the influenza virus from entering our cells, stopping it from multiplying within a day. 

So before you vote, ask your politicians what they want to do with the meager bit of taxes they’ll be collecting. Do they want a Universal flu vaccine or something like a wall or a military parade? When you are laid low with the next flu epidemic or even pandemic, you probably aren’t going to care about all that stuff you accumulated. Consider your priorities.