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System76 prepping updated Darter Pro Linux laptop



11 mins ago
PC & Laptops


System76 Darter Pro Linux laptop

Trevor Gass

System76 has been producing Linux-based computers for years, succeeding well enough that it could even produce a PC manufactured largely in the United States. Its latest plans are for a refresh of the Darter Pro laptop to answer customers’ requests for improved battery life.

The Darter Pro is a thin and light portable (3.6 pounds, 0.78 inches thick) designed to offer more than just the basics for computing tasks. It will ship with either an Intel Core i58265U or i7-8565U quad-core processor, up to 32GB of RAM, up to 2TB of built-in storage, and a full HD 15.6-inch display. System76 claims that the updated Darter Pro will provide a full workday’s worth of battery life so you don’t need to be chained to a wall outlet by noon.

While a laptop like the Dell XPS 13 can ship with Ubuntu Linux if you choose the Developer Edition, the Darter Pro only ships with a choice of Linux OS: Ubuntu 18.04 LTS, or one of two versions of System76’s own Linux OS, Pop!_OS 18.04 LTS or Pop!_OS 18.10 (64-bit). Pop!_OS is based on Ubuntu, but offers additional features such as full-disk encryption for the company’s systems.

According to Softpedia News, System76 will begin taking orders for the Darter Pro beginning on February 5. Pricing has not been announced — at least we won’t have to wait too long — though the company’s other laptop lines are generally priced around the $1,000 mark.

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Red planet has a big core, complex crust



Enlarge / Some seismic waves bounce off Mars’ core before reaching the InSight lander.

We’ve learned a lot about our planet’s interior simply by tracking how the seismic energy released by earthquakes moves through or reflects off the different layers present beneath Earth’s surface. For over a Martian year, we’ve had a seismograph on Mars in the hope that it would help us to figure out the red planet’s interior.

But Mars is relatively quiet seismically, and we’ve only got a single seismograph instead of an entire network. Still, with records of a handful of significant marsquakes, we now have some sense of what Mars’ interior looks like. And a set of new studies indicates that it’s pretty weird, with a large, light core and an unexpectedly warm crust.

It’s complicated

Working out the structure of a planet involves reading seismic waves, which come in two categories: shear and compressional (S and P, in geological parlance). Depending on the location of the earthquake (or marsquake), the waves may arrive directly. But many others bounce off the surface of the planet before reaching the receiver, sometimes multiple times. So P waves will be followed by PP waves, and later by PPP waves. The US Geological Survey has a great diagram of the complexity this can produce, which we’ve included at right.

But that’s far from the end of the complications. The speed of the waves, and thus the time gaps between P and PP and PPP signals, will vary based on the material the waves are traveling through. The composition, density, and even temperature of the material can all make a difference in the speed at which seismic signals move through the planet. These properties often differ dramatically between specific layers of the planet, such as the solid crust and the semi-molten mantle. These differences will refract some of the seismic waves, bending their path through the planet’s interior. Other waves will reflect off the boundary between internal layers.

All of that makes reconstruction of the interior from seismic events complicated; there are generally more than one combination of properties like distance, materials, and temperatures that are compatible with the seismic signals produced by an event. On Earth, this isn’t a problem. We have a huge collection of seismographs that allows us to zero in on the most likely interpretation of the signals. And we have lots of individual events, which allow us to identify the typical behavior of our planet’s interior.

On Mars, none of that is true. We have a grand total of one seismograph, and so even distance estimates are iffy at best. And we have very little sense of the internal temperature of the planet. There are points in reading the studies that almost feel like they’re mourning the absence of data from the failed attempt to have InSight take Mars’ internal temperature.

Mars also turns out to be very seismically quiet. There were no marsquakes with a magnitude above 4.0, and there weren’t many of any magnitude. All told, fewer than a dozen events stood out clearly from the background noise at InSight’s landing site. So, you should view the results in these papers as an initial model of Mars’ interior: they’re likely to be refined as more data comes in and may even be revised considerably.

What’s there

We have a good sense of what the outermost Martian crust looks like, given that we’ve obtained plenty of meteorites that originated on Mars, studied it from orbit, and landed hardware on it. Based on seismic waves, however, one of those studies suggest that the outer crust only extends to about 10 km beneath the planet’s surface at the InSight landing site. But there’s a lower crust, which extends down the mantle, which this study suggests starts at about 50 km deep.

The first result is in keeping with a second study, which shows a boundary somewhere between six and 11 km down. But it shows a second boundary somewhere between 15 and 25 km, which is much higher than the first. Still, it also sees some indication of a third boundary somewhere between 27 and 47 km—a figure that’s consistent with the 50 kilometer figure in the first paper. So really, the big difference between the two is about how many layers of crust are present.

The things both these studies agree on is that the crust is warmer than expected. This implies that there are more radioactive elements present than we would have predicted based on what we know about the surface composition. Why that’s the case is unclear, and the amount of excess radioactivity also depends on the exact thickness of the crust. Again, having a measure of the heat flow through the crust, as was originally intended, could have made a big difference here.

The final paper goes deep and looks for the boundary between Mars’ mantle and its core. The result is a radius just north of 1,800 km. This is unexpectedly large: it’s over half the radius of the entire planet. One of the consequences of the large core is that, to be compatible with the planet’s overall density, the core has to be lighter than expected (it’s also liquid). That implies the presence of lighter elements. Sulfur is the most reasonable candidate, but Mars isn’t expected to have enough sulfur to account for it all. So carbon, oxygen, and nitrogen can probably be found in the core as well.

One consequence of this is that the pressures at the outer edge of the core will be lower, meaning that Mars couldn’t have formed a mineral that helps trap heat in the core like Earth. This may have caused the planet to lose the heat left over from its formation more rapidly.

What’s to come

InSight has seen its mission extended, so we’ll continue to get more data from future marsquakes. While the initial data is compatible with a variety of potential conditions—the error bars on the density, temperature, and thickness of various layers are large—further data should help narrow things down.

But the large, liquid core turns out to be rather unfortunate in terms of InSight’s landing location. The core itself casts a seismic “shadow” across Mars, blocking waves from marsquakes on the opposite side of the planet from the seismograph. The larger the core, the more of the planet that’s invisible to InSight. And, unfortunately, that shadow includes the Tharsis region, which contains Mars’ largest volcanoes and is thought to have been active relatively recently.

Not being able to “see” Tharsis means we’re likely to register fewer marsquakes in total. Still, as long as the hardware holds up, we’re likely to have a steadily growing collection of data that will gradually give us a clearer picture of the red planet’s composition and evolution—something that will help us understand planet formation both within and outside of our Solar System.

Science, 2021. Papers linked from: 10.1126/science.abj8914  (About DOIs).

Listing image by Chris Bickel/Science

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Nuclear power’s reliability is dropping as extreme weather increases



Enlarge / Cooling water is only one factor that limits the productivity of nuclear power plants.

With extreme weather causing power failures in California and Texas, it’s increasingly clear that the existing power infrastructure isn’t designed for these new conditions. Past research has shown that nuclear power plants are no exception, with rising temperatures creating cooling problems for them. Now, a comprehensive analysis looking at a broader range of climate events shows that it’s not just hot weather that puts these plants at risk—it’s the full range of climate disturbances.

Heat has been one of the most direct threats, as higher temperatures mean that the natural cooling sources (rivers, oceans, lakes) are becoming less efficient heat sinks. However, this new analysis shows that hurricanes and typhoons have become the leading causes of nuclear outages, at least in North America and South and East Asia. Precautionary shutdowns for storms are routine, and so this finding is perhaps not so surprising. But other factors—like the clogging of cooling intake pipes by unusually abundant jellyfish populations—are a bit less obvious.

Overall this latest analysis calculates that the frequency of climate-related nuclear plant outages is almost eight times higher than it was in the 1990s. The analysis also estimates that the global nuclear fleet will lose up 1.4 percent—about 36 TWh—of its energy production in the next 40 years, and up to 2.4 percent, or 61 TWh, by 2081-2100.

Heat, storms, drought

The author analyzed publicly available databases from the International Atomic Energy Agency to identify all climate-linked shutdowns (partial and complete) of the world’s 408 operational reactors. Unplanned outages are generally very well documented, and available data made it possible to calculate trends in the frequency of outages that were linked to environmental causes over the past 30 years. The author also used more detailed data from the last decade (2010 – 2019) to provide one of the first analyses of which types of climate events have had the most impact on nuclear power.

While the paper doesn’t directly link the reported events to climate change, the findings do show an overall increase in the number of outages due to a range of climate events.

The two main categories of climate disruptions broke down into thermal disruptions (heat, drought, and wildfire) and storms (including hurricanes, typhoons, lightning, and flooding). In the case of heat and drought, the main problem is the lack of cool enough water—or in the case of drought, enough water at all—to cool the reactor. However, there were also a number of outages due to ecological responses to warmer weather; for example, larger than usual jellyfish populations have blocked the intake pipes on some reactors.

Storms and wildfires, on the other hand, caused a range of problems, including structural damage, precautionary preemptive shutdowns, reduced operations, and employee evacuations. In the timeframe of 2010 to 2019, the leading causes of outages were hurricanes and typhoons in most parts of the world, although heat was still the leading factor in Western Europe (France in particular). While these represented the most frequent causes, the analysis also showed that droughts were the source of the longest disruptions, and thus the largest power losses.

The author calculated that the average frequency of climate-linked outages went from 0.2 outages per year in the 1990s to 1.5 outages in the timeframe of 2010 to 2019. A retrospective analysis further showed that for every 1°C rise in temperature (above the average temperature between 1951 and 1980), the energy output of the global fleet fell about 0.5 percent.

Retrofitting for extreme weather

This analysis also shows that climate-associated outages have become the leading cause of disruptions to nuclear power production—other causes of outages have only increased 50 percent in the same timeframe. Projecting into the future, the author calculates that, if no mitigation measures are put into place, the disruptions will continue to increase through the rest of this century.

“All energy technologies, including renewables, will be significantly affected by climate change,” writes Professor Jacapo Buongiorno, who was not involved in the study, in an email to Ars. Buongiorno is the Tepco Professor of Nuclear Science and Engineering at the Massachusetts Institute for Technology (MIT) and he co-chaired the MIT study on The Future of Nuclear Energy in a Carbon Constrained World. “The results are not surprising—nuclear plants can experience unplanned outages due to severe events (e.g., hurricanes, tornadoes) or heat waves, the frequency of which is increasing.”

Although there is relatively little research on the topic of climate effects on nuclear power specifically, some projects are already underway to adapt nuclear plants to the changing climate. For example, the US Department of Energy recently invested in a project researching methods to reduce the amount of water needed by nuclear facilities (e.g. advanced dry cooling).

“Existing nuclear plants are already among the most resilient assets of our energy infrastructure,” writes Buongiorno. “The current fleet is adapting to rising sea levels (for those plants located in areas at potential risk of flood) and the increasing intensity of storms. New nuclear reactor technologies will be even more resilient, as in many instances that are being designed to be dry cooled (i.e. not using river/ocean water for rejecting heat to the ambient) as well as capable of operating in ‘island mode,’ i.e. disconnected from the grid and ready to restart before other large power plants in the event of a blackout.”

Other nuclear technologies, such as pebble-bed, molten salt, and advanced small modulator reactors, may also provide more climate-resistant solutions, but these are all still under development. In general, the strict regulations in place for nuclear reactors make it particularly difficult to incorporate newer technologies. Even as these technologies become available, it will likely require further reactor downtime to install new components. So, at least in the short term, even nuclear power will likely contribute to the increasing frequency of climate-related power shortages.

Nature Energy, 2021.  DOI: 10.1038/s41560-021-00849-y

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The Tokyo Olympics could be a Covid-19 “super evolutionary event”



Enlarge / Flag bearers Yui Susaki and Rui Hachimura of Team Japan lead their team out during the Opening Ceremony of the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games at Olympic Stadium on July 23, 2021 in Tokyo, Japan.

Matthias Hangst | Getty Images

Ten days before the opening ceremony of the Tokyo Olympics, Kara Lawson, the coach of the United States women’s 3×3 basketball team, gave a press conference. The sport is new to the Olympics this year, and Lawson, a former WNBA player and coach at Duke University, told the dozen or so reporters participating online what she liked about it—the game is faster-paced, Lawson said, and more unpredictable than the five-on-five version. But during a global pandemic, Lawson added, the health of her players was her number one priority. “We’re obviously tested daily. I’m actually quarantined in my room right now,” Lawson said. “We’re masked all the time … a positive test at this juncture is hard for any team getting ready to go to Tokyo. We’re focused on doing our part, not just so we can have a good competition, but we definitely feel a responsibility to fellow human beings to be smart about eliminating transmission of the disease worldwide.”

Less than a week later, one of Lawson’s players—Katie Lou Samuelson, a power forward for the Seattle Storm—announced on Instagram that she had tested positive for Covid-19 and wouldn’t be able to go to Tokyo. Fast-paced, maybe, but not exactly unpredictable. As the 2020 Tokyo Games get underway, Samuelson is one of 91 people either in Tokyo for the Olympics or who were hoping to go who’ve tested positive for the disease, including US tennis player Coco Gauf, a Czech beach volleyball player, two South African soccer players, and so on.

The spirit of “Olympism” is supposed to ward off worldly concerns. The riders of the Apocalypse may stalk the globe, but they’re not allowed into an Olympic Village. War gets postponed, Famine withers in the dining hall, and Pestilence … well. The global pandemic has killed at least 4 million people and resulted in a very strange Summer Games—no cheering crowds, athletes essentially confined to quarters when they’re not going faster, higher, or stronger—all in an attempt to prevent the disease from spreading among the competitors and to the people of Japan, and to keep the Olympians from carrying new strains of the virus back to their home countries. The Olympics are one of Earth’s great symbols of international cooperation, but this year the Games are also a mass gathering in the middle of the worst pandemic in a century, where people from nearly every country on Earth will gather in a vast congregate living setting and compete in some close-contact sports, sometimes indoors. What could possibly go wr—

The story of disease is also a story of mass gatherings. In 1867, a cholera outbreak started at the Kumbh Mela in India, the world’s largest religious gathering. It spread from the banks of the Ganges to Russia and Europe. A million people died. Over the years, the Hajj pilgrimage has been the site of a bunch of respiratory disease outbreaks, including influenza and the coronaviruses that predate the one that causes Covid-19. In 2014 there were measles outbreaks at the International Dog Show in Slovenia, and at Disneyland.

But the Olympics has generally managed to avoid big infectious disease outbreaks, even when it happened during big disease scares. H1N1 influenza didn’t hurt the 2010 Winter Games in Vancouver, neither SARS nor MERS spread through London in 2012, Zika didn’t spread from Rio in 2016. Yet nevertheless, “What if people get sick at the Olympics?” is a top-three Olympic story subgenre. (The other two are “This athlete is driven to succeed for personal reasons” and “Olympic athletes have sex with each other.”)

Just one postponement

In early 2020, amid a pandemic then just beginning to swell into an exponential tsunami, the International Olympic Committee and the Tokyo organizers postponed the Games. An advisory group composed of experts from public health, travel medicine, economics, behavioral science, and even theme park design spent the gap year coming up with a plan. The person in charge was the one who was largely responsible for the successful public health measures at the London Games in 2012, a public health and mass-gathering expert named Brian McCloskey. “Essentially, the public health response to any event is the same. It’s about how you determine what the risks will be and what you do about them,” McCloskey tells me. “The difference here is the sheer scale, which we haven’t seen before.” Before the organizers closed the Games to travelers in March, they expected 20 million people to come to Tokyo. That probably wouldn’t have been great.

The Olympics are a strange beast. Even with the threat of deadly disease looming, all the stakeholders are highly incentivized to make sure the show goes on. The host country’s tourism industries stand to get a windfall, as do the media organizations covering the Games. Olympic committees are famously full of jet-setters with cozy relationships to all the businesses involved. And unlike, say, professional sports, where missing a couple games might not matter much, Olympic athletes and coaches get their shot only once every four years—so they might put up with a little looseness in infection control measures.

Still, nobody wants anyone to get sick. That advisory group determined that the basic public health measures people relied on before the arrival of Covid vaccines would still work. In fact, things like hand-washing, mask-wearing, and avoiding crowds and poorly ventilated spaces were already working well in Japan. “What we did was to layer on top of that some of the learning from the UK, where not having a test-and-trace system was a weakness,” McCloskey says.

You’ll remember this from the pandemic’s early days, when the US and Europe mostly failed at it: Test everyone for Covid, trace the contacts of the people who are positive, and isolate them to keep one person’s infection from turning into a super-spreading event. That’d be the approach in Tokyo, along with reducing the number of people in the Olympic Village, improving the ventilation systems in those apartments, and adding “additional filtration” and plexiglass shields (which probably don’t really do anything, but OK) in the common areas. And “by and large there is no intermingling between the international community and the local Japanese population,” McCloskey says. “They don’t go out in the subway in Tokyo.”

The organizers thought about requiring vaccination but ultimately decided against it. “We were fairly certain a vaccine would be available, but we were equally certain it would not be available equally around the world,” McCloskey says. “That’s against the whole spirit of doing the Games. We also didn’t want athletes competing for vaccines with health care workers and local populations.”

At a press conference just a few days before the Games were set to open, McCloskey described the system—codified for the competitors into “playbooks”—as one of multiple layers of filtration. Athletes would get tested before they left their home countries and again every day before competition. They’d follow social distancing rules, the non-pharmaceutical interventions of 2020. And if someone pinged positive, they’d get multiple kinds of tests, including a highly accurate nasopharyngeal PCR test, to see how high their viral load was and help determine the level of risk to the people they might’ve exposed. (More virus equals more bad.) Olympic staff would track their contacts, in part using forms the teams would fill out beforehand of who was close to whom. Vaccines, if athletes got them, would be a bonus layer.

As for the Olympic-bound folks already testing positive, McCloskey said that didn’t constitute a failure in the system. Quite the opposite—each one represented the cutting-off of a more infectious timeline that might have been. “What we’re seeing is what we expected to see, essentially,” McCloskey told reporters in Tokyo at a press conference on July 19, a week before the opening ceremony. “If I thought all the tests we did would be negative, I wouldn’t be bothering to do the tests.”

Hey, 91 positive cases out of roughly 15,000 competitors and tens of thousands of reporters and other Olympic workers ain’t bad, right? For a few disease experts and athlete advocates, the answer is: That is, in fact, pretty bad—because of what it says about the preparations, and what might happen next.

Is a safe Olympics even possible?

At least that’s what some scientists and experts have been saying. Hitoshi Oshitani, the virologist who devised Japan’s anti-Covid strategy, told The Times of London that he didn’t think it was possible to have a safe Olympics. “There are a number of countries that do not have many cases, and a number that don’t have any variants,” Oshitani told The Times. “We should not make the Olympics [an occasion] to spread the virus to these countries. There is not much risk to the US and UK, where people are vaccinated. But most countries in the world don’t have the vaccine.”

McCloskey estimates about 85 percent of people coming to Tokyo will be vaccinated. But only about 22 percent of Japanese people are. That’s among the lowest rates of all wealthy countries. Combined with Japan’s relatively low case count, that means most of the population doesn’t yet have antibodies to the virus. They’re what epidemiologists call “naive.” Which means Japan might be, as the cliché goes, a victim of its own success. “Clearly there is a high value being placed on holding these Olympics,” says Samuel Scarpino, managing director for pathogen surveillance at the Rockefeller Foundation’s Pandemic Prevention Institute. “Because certainly it’s risky to bring people together in a congregate setting inside a country with essentially no vaccination and essentially no existing immunity in the population.”

Covid-19’s asymptomatic, airborne spread means that testing has to be extremely frequent, at least once a day, to catch cases before they infect others. The strict, successful disease control measures of the US National Football League and National Basketball Association for example, used all the typical hygiene and distancing measures, plus a hardcore test-trace-isolate regimen. The NFL performed daily reverse-transcription PCR tests and gave players and staff single-purpose electronic devices that registered close contacts; a cumulative 15 minutes or more counted as a higher risk. Over time, the NFL supplemented the electronics with intense in-person interviews to determine the nature of those contacts. (Masked? Indoors? While eating?) “What the NBA did—or women’s basketball, which I advised last year—was to design and pull off a bubble. Once you’re in it, you’re not out,” says Annie Sparrow, a population health science and policy professor at Mt. Sinai Medical School. “There’s no way you can ever create a bubble at the Olympics. It just cannot be done at this scale.”

In early July, Sparrow and a bunch of other US researchers published a commentary in The New England Journal of Medicine expressing many of the same concerns Oshitani did. They went further, warning that the strategy McCloskey’s group had come up with was based on outdated information about the dynamics of the virus.

That article, in turn, echoed criticisms leveled by the World Players Association, an international group that works with athletes’ unions around the world. The WPA has argued—to little effect, having gotten no response from the IOC—that the rules consider contact on, say, the rugby pitch to be the same as contact in individual gymnastics or running track outdoors. WPA representatives criticized the shared-room situation and advice from the playbooks about opening windows once in a while for ventilation, something that might actually be impractical in Tokyo’s extreme summer heat. Also bad in the plan: allowing different kinds of masks and personal protective equipment, using phone apps for contact tracing instead of dedicated tech, and a lineup of other less-than-stellar interventions that the WPA reps said were just asking for trouble. “There’s never going to be zero risk when it comes to Covid, but there certainly could have been more mitigation put in place,” says Matthew Graham, director of legal and player relations at the WPA. “We, like the athletes we represent, hope this can be done safely, but no expense should have been spared for that.”

McCloskey, for his part, maintains that the measures his team has put in place will keep the Village, the Games, and Japan as safe as possible. “As a general principle, I think if I’m not being criticized, I’m not doing my job properly,” he says.

Starting with a single infection

If a few athletes get sick and are not able to compete—that’s sad, but it’s not an economic or epidemiologic catastrophe. But the most expensive Summer Olympics($15.4 billion!) in history with no visitors to the host city? Well, an Olympics failing to live up to the economic and development promises of its organizers wouldn’t exactly be novel, though the actual studies on this are complicated.

The catastrophe, if it happens at all, will start out small—inside a single human cell, infected by a virus. “Whenever you get many people together, there’s the opportunity for large outbreaks—not just super-spreading events, but also multiple generations of transmission, and the infections can then be passed on when people return home,” says Sarah Cobey, an epidemiologist and evolutionary biologist at the University of Chicago. “All such spread promotes not just new cases but also adaptation, including the movement of fitter variants to new populations.”

In other words, the problem isn’t merely someone infecting someone else, or even lots of someone elses. These potential Olympic infections could be like microbiological invasive species, given the means to travel to new populations where they might be even more dangerous than they were at home. Covid-19 has been charged by super-spreader events—occasions where many people get infected at once. SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes Covid-19, has evolved and adapted over the past 18 months, manifesting changes to its genetic code that make it easier for the virus to spread. That’s very good for a virus whose whole existential goal is to make more of itself; it’s very bad for humans, because it might make the virus more able to infect other people, either through force of numbers or being more virologically sneaky in infecting cells, or some other mechanism altogether.

A giant gathering with people from many different populations, almost certainly carrying different versions of the virus, is exactly the kind of place that makes super-spreader events and the exchange of new variants more possible. It might—emphasis on might—even make possible the development and spread of new, worse variants. “Personally, if I were in charge of the Olympics in Japan, the risk of transmission getting established would be too high for me. Maybe their assumption is, if it does spill over, they can bring it under control again without risking an epidemic,” Scarpino says. “I may not agree with that, but I think where we diverge in the cost-benefit calculations of holding the Olympics versus the spread of Covid locally in Japan is when we get into the conversation of what this might mean for the evolution of the virus itself.”

This is the worst worst-case scenario. “There are plenty of eco-evolutionary scenarios where this isn’t a traditional super-spreader event, but a ‘super-evolutionary event,’” Scarpino says, “where a critical mass of vaccinated individuals are selecting for variants that have increased transmissibility in vaccinated individuals.” All those people with differing immune statuses and different exposures to different strains of the virus could create a terrifying genetic parody of Olympism’s international cooperation: a free and open exchange of viral ideas on how to be more infectious, maybe even more deadly or more vaccine-evasive. And then it’d travel back to everyone’s home country under the cover of asymptomatic spread.

There are two extremes on the scale of probability. The best outcome anyone can hope for at this point is that with the screening program in place, only a few people will get infected or ill. A few Olympic stories will end badly. That’s already happening—athletes and the people who work with them have been denied a chance to compete in Tokyo because testing shows they’re infected. And on the far side of the scale is a super-evolutionary event that allows the development of an even more potent form of the virus and then puts it on hundreds of jet planes headed to every corner of the planet. For everyone wondering what the most likely outcome is, it’s like the Olympics, except only in the most terrifying way possible: It’s unpredictable.

This story originally appeared on

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