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The value of lives saved by social distancing outweighs the costs



Enlarge / Economic activity vs. social distancing is a careful balancing act.

As Ars reported recently, evidence from the 1918 flu pandemic suggests that cities with more aggressive lockdown responses had stronger economic recoveries.

There’s more than one way to think about the economics of lockdowns, and a paper due to be published in the Journal of Benefit-Cost Analysis has an entirely different approach. It accepts that lockdowns will hurt the economy compared to business-as-usual but calculates whether that cost is outweighed by the lives that will be saved by social-distancing measures.

The answer is yes—by $5.2 trillion. That’s an estimate that changes based on a range of different assumptions, but it represents what the authors consider the most realistic scenario.

How much is a life worth?

Putting a dollar value on a life can feel icky, but people implicitly act as though lives have a high (although not infinite) value. For instance, throwing all the world’s resources at saving the life of one person is not a choice we’d be likely to make. Yet we’re clearly prepared to pay quite a high price for both life and health.

US federal agency guidelines have needed to put a price on life in order to set policy on things that sometimes kill people, like driving. To do this, they use a figure that estimates how much extra money people will pay to save an additional life. For instance, take the higher pay that comes with riskier jobs: when you look at how much extra a group of 10,000 workers gets paid when their job comes with a higher risk, it comes out to around $10 million for each additional probable death in the group.

That figure of $10 million, the so-called “value of a statistical life,” is the figure used by federal agencies, and it’s also the figure used by economist Linda Thunström and her colleagues when they calculate the cost and benefit of social distancing. They start out by gathering a bunch of other benchmark numbers that represent realistic or middle-of-the-road scenarios for the pandemic—like assuming that social distancing will reduce contact between people by an average 38 percent.

Using that and other benchmark numbers, the researchers calculate that social distancing will save about 1.24 million lives compared to a scenario with no distancing. This translates to a saving of $12.4 trillion, based on the $10 million value of a statistical life used in policy. To work out how much this benefit weighs against the cost to the economy, the researchers take the recent Goldman Sachs prediction that social distancing will cause US GDP to shrink by 6.2 percent, leading to losses of $13.7 trillion.

They next had to calculate the impact the pandemic would have on the economy if we rode it out without any social distancing. Estimates made by others ranged from a loss of 1.5 to 8.4 percent of the GDP, so the researchers used a conservative value: 2 percent. This produces a smaller (yet still massive) hit of $6.49 trillion. Combined with the $13.7 trillion saved by the lack of social distancing, this makes the cost of social distancing $7.21 trillion.

Subtracting this from their earlier $12.4 trillion figure leads to their headline estimate. “Under our benchmark assumptions,” write Thunström and colleagues, “social distancing generates net benefits of about $5.16 trillion.”

Uncertainty everywhere

With new information rolling in all the time, all the numbers of the coronavirus pandemic are inherently slippery and subject to updates. Because of this, Thunström and her colleagues take their basic calculation and throw a range of different numbers at it, to see where its boundaries lie. This analysis works out where the “break-even” point is for a range of different parameters—the point at which the value of lives saved outweighs the cost of social distancing.

For instance, if social distancing wasn’t as effective at slowing disease spread, but came with the same economic cost, the results wouldn’t shake out the same way: the number of lives saved would be outweighed by economic damage. The researchers estimate that, holding everything else equal, social distancing would only need to cut out one in five interactions to be worth the cost—but that’s a result based on so many assumptions that it shouldn’t be read as a prescription for how much social distancing to aim for.

On the other hand, if the virus is more infectious than their initial assumptions, social distancing would need to be way more effective for the economic costs to pay off.

The estimate of 1.24 million lives saved seems pretty high. But it’s not necessarily outlandish—a model published by a team at Imperial College London estimated that if the pandemic were allowed to rampage through the US unmitigated, it would lead to around 2.2 million deaths. Current estimates suggest that the total death toll by August may be more in the region of 60,000 to 124,000 deaths—if (and it’s a huge if) social distancing measures stay in place. That’s a horrific number, but at its most optimistic, it means 2.14 million fewer deaths than that worst-case scenario. This means that the estimate of 1.24 million lives saved could be on the low side.

Importantly, the researchers don’t question their assumption that social distancing will lead to a greater decline in GDP, or a slower economic recovery, compared to business as usual. That assumption doesn’t tie in with other recent research suggesting that social distancing may in fact be the best thing for the economy itself. If the economy recovers faster with social distancing than without, this research would actually be underestimating the economic benefits of lockdown.

There are reams of questions still to be answered about the economic results of the pandemic, and models like these will need to be tweaked, repeated and refined as more information rolls in. But right now, a range of different economic analyses are questioning the knee-jerk assumption that social distancing is a worse economic outcome than business as usual. And a poll of economists at US universities saw a unanimous response: restarting the economy should only be on the cards with a huge increase in testing capacity and a well-formed plan to control new outbreaks.

Journal of Benefit-Cost Analysis, Forthcoming. DOI: 10.2139/ssrn.3561934 (About DOIs).

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Colorful quantum dots snag 2023 Nobel Prize in Chemistry



Enlarge / Vials of quantum dots with gradually stepping emission from violet to deep red.

Once thought impossible to make, quantum dots have become a common component in computer monitors, TV screens, and LED lamps, among other uses. Three of the scientists who pioneered these colorful nanocrystals—Moungi G. Bawendi, Louis E. Brus, and Alexei I. Ekimov—have been awarded the 2023 Nobel Prize in Chemistry by the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences for the discovery and synthesis of quantum dots.” The news had already leaked in the Swedish news media—a rare occurrence—when Johan Aqvist, chair of the Academy’s Nobel committee for chemistry, made the official announcement, complete with five flasks containing quantum dots of many colors lined up before him as a visual aid.

A quantum dot is a small semiconducting bead with a few tens of atoms in diameter. Billions could fit on the head of a pin, and the smaller you can make them, the better. At those small scales, quantum effects kick in and give the dots superior electrical and optical properties. They glow brightly when zapped with light, and the color of that light is determined by the size of the quantum dots. Bigger dots emit redder light; smaller dots emit bluer light. So, you can tailor quantum dots to specific frequencies of light just by changing their size.

Physicists had thought since the 1930s that particles at the nanoscale would behave differently. That’s because, according to quantum mechanics, there is much less space for electrons when particles are that small, squeezing electrons together so tightly that material properties can change dramatically. Scientists succeeded in making nanoscale-thin films on top of bulk materials in the 1970s that had size-dependent optical properties, in keeping with those earlier predictions. But making those films required ultra-high vacuum conditions and temperatures near absolute zero, so nobody expected them to have much practical use.

Moungi Bawendi, Louis Brus ,and Alexei Ekimov pioneered the development of quantum dots.
Enlarge / Moungi Bawendi, Louis Brus ,and Alexei Ekimov pioneered the development of quantum dots.

Niklas Elmehed

A solution emerged from the study of ancient colored glass. Glassmakers long ago realized they could add silver, gold, or cadmium to their molten glass, vary temperature, and control the cooling process to make different shades of colored glass. Scientists later realized that the colors arose from tiny particles inside the glass, and the particular color depended on the size of those particles.

In the late 1970s, Ekimov, as a newly minted PhD, began researching the optical properties of colored glass at the S.I. Vavilov State Optical Institute in what was then the Soviet Union. He drew on some of the optical diagnostic methods he’d used for his doctoral research on semiconductors, shining light on the materials and measuring how it was absorbed to learn more about the crystal structure.

Ekimov began tinting his lab-made glass with copper chloride, X-raying the resulting glass after cooling. He found that tiny crystals of the copper chloride had formed and how he made them—varying the temperature between 500°–700° C and the heating times from one to 96 hours—affected the sizes, which ranged from about 2 nm to 30 nm. Furthermore, the particle size affected the light absorption of the glass, just like the thin films created in the 1970s: the smaller the particles, the more blue light they absorbed. These were the first quantum dots deliberately made in the laboratory.

Alas, Ekimov’s 1981 paper announcing his discovery was published in a Soviet journal, and thus, researchers elsewhere in the world didn’t have access. That included Brus, who published a 1983 paper announcing his discovery of nanoparticles floating freely in a solution that also showed size-depending optical effects.

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Russia talks a big future in space while its overall budget is quietly cut



Enlarge / Russia outlined a plan for future spaceflight activities this week.


The leader of Russia’s space corporation, Yuri Borisov, discussed his country’s future ambitions in space on Tuesday at the International Astronautical Congress. He spoke expansively about Russia’s plans to build a new space station in low-Earth orbit, the Russian Orbital Station, as well as other initiatives.

“We are expecting to design, manufacture, and launch several modules by 2027,” Borisov said via a translator at the conference, which is being held in Baku, Azerbaijan, this year. The conference’s plenary sessions are being livestreamed on YouTube.

This space station will reside in a polar orbit, Borisov added, allowing it to observe the entire planet’s surface. Its purpose will be to test new materials, new technologies, and new medicines. “It will be like a permanently functioning laboratory,” he said.

Megaconstellations and nuclear tugs, too

During the discussion, Borisov added that Russia is also hard at work on the “Sfera” megaconstellation to satisfy the country’s large demand for communications. This constellation would include the capacity to provide direct-to-cell communications, which necessarily means that some of these satellites will be very large. Such projects cost billions of dollars at a minimum to get off the ground.

In a PowerPoint slide accompanying Borisov’s presentation, Roscosmos also advertised other, even grander visions. The slide showed a nuclear-powered deep space transport vehicle called “Nuklon” and two “prospective” launch vehicles named Amur-LNG and Korona.

It all may have looked and sounded good on the international stage, but the presentation had something of the feel of a Potemkin Village, which refers to fake villages designed to impress the Russian empress Catherine the Great two centuries ago. Put another way, most (if not all) of the presentation was based on vaporware rather than hardware.

Shortly before Borisov took the stage, Russian media sources revealed that the country’s budget for space activities is due to drop over the next two years—rather than rise to meet the challenge of these ambitious new space programs.

According to an article in Lenta.Ru, translated by Rob Mitchell, the proposed Russian space activity budget for 2024 will comprise 285.95 billion rubles ($2.88 billion), followed by 271.91 billion rubles ($2.74 billion) in 2025 and 258.1 billion rubles ($2.6 billion US) in 2026. The article says that “the budget allocations will be aimed in particular to advance financing of investment projects for the Russian space and rocket industry and for the functions of the Roscosmos State Corporation.”

Less money to build more things? Probably not.

From Russia, with doubt

No one doubts the ability of Russia to build space stations, as the country has a long history of assembling successful orbital outposts. However, since the dissolution of the Soviet Union, Russia has struggled to build new hardware for spaceflight activities. Both its Nauka space station module and Luna 25 spacecraft that recently crashed into the Moon were essentially mothballed projects largely constructed decades ago.

The idea that Russia will now build a new space station and launch it within the next four years at a reduced budget is especially difficult to comprehend in the current situation. The country’s main focus is on financing and fighting its unprovoked war against Ukraine, and as the space budget story shows, resources for the space program are likely to be reduced rather than increased.

Every project proposed beyond the space station seems even more fanciful. Consider, for example, the Amur and Korona rockets. Russia has been talking publicly about the reusable “Amur” rocket for three years now. It looks similar to SpaceX’s Falcon 9 and aims to have a reusable first stage. But there has apparently been zero progress toward actually developing the hardware.

As for the Korona rocket shown on Borisov’s slide, who knows? It’s probably a reference to a single-stage-to-orbit rocket first conceived of 30 years ago when NASA and McDonnell Douglas were working on the DC-X launch vehicle in the United States. The idea that Russia is going to resurrect this concept and develop actual spaceflight hardware is not “prospective,” as the Roscosmos slide claims. Rather, it’s preposterous.

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Potential source of ancient methane eruption identified



Enlarge / 3D seismic image showing the crater of the Modgunn Vent and others like it. The cratered surface labelled “BVU” is the seabed of 56 million years ago, with the modern seabed shown at top left. White lines are boreholes into the vent.

Berndt et al, Nature Geoscience 2023

Fifty-six million years ago, trillions of tons of carbon found its way into the atmosphere, acidifying oceans and causing the already-warm global climate to heat up by another 5º C (9º F)—an episode known as the “Paleocene-Eocene Thermal Maximum” or “PETM.”

Like today, the warming climate affected the environment on land and in the sea, with extreme downpours and heat-stressed plankton at the base of the food web. Land animals had a high rate of extinction and replacement by smaller species, and there was a mass extinction of tiny shell-making creatures that lived on the sea bed. The hotter climate supported alligators and swamp-cypress forests, like those in today’s southeastern United States, in Arctic latitudes that are covered by ice and tundra today.

Where did all that carbon come from?

Its source has been debated for years, with some scientists blaming the destabilization of methane ice in the seabed and others pointing to the widespread volcanic activity in the North Atlantic at the time. Modeling of the carbon isotope shift points to carbon originating from both organic and volcanic sources, but the relative proportions aren’t settled.

A new study published in Nature Geoscience by Professor Christian Berndt of the GEOMAR Helmholtz Centre for Ocean Research in Germany blames underground magma that drove methane and CO2 from marine sediments into the atmosphere via gassy eruptions dubbed “hydrothermal venting.” Berndt worked with an international group of 35 coauthors on the paper.

Waiting 17 years for a date

The idea that hydrothermal venting played a major role in the PETM dates back to 2004. Seismic images gathered for oil and gas exploration showed that the marine sediments off Norway were pockmarked with thousands of craters that are about PETM age, and other studies have found similar craters near Greenland. But the seismic images couldn’t constrain the time when the craters formed precisely enough to determine if they played a role in triggering the PETM: “That was conjecture, basically,” said Berndt.

To see if the vents really could have triggered the PETM, they needed to retrieve samples from them to date them—and that required drilling deep into the seabed that lies below 5,600 feet (1.7km) of Atlantic Ocean.

So in 2004, Berndt and several coauthors formally proposed a project to drill and sample a hydrothermal vent, but they had to wait 17 years before drilling finally started in 2021 as part of the International Ocean Discovery Program (IODP). “You have to be patient,” said Berndt.

Berndt and colleagues were aboard the scientific drilling ship “JOIDES Resolution” as it drilled five boreholes into the “Modgunn Vent,” some 200 miles off the Norwegian coast. The crater at the top of the vent is about 1.3 km (4,300 feet) wide and approximately 80 meters (260 feet) deep. Beneath the crater, seismic images show a 400-meter-deep (1,300 feet), chimney-like feeder zone that connects the crater to a sheet of now-frozen magma called a “sill.”

The right time?

“This was bang on at the beginning of the PETM,” Berndt told Ars.

The samples recovered from the boreholes provide “conclusive evidence for hydrothermal venting immediately before the PETM onset,” supporting the “major role” of the vents in the PETM warming, Berndt and colleagues say in their paper. They base this on two lines of evidence found in the crater: a globally recognized shift in carbon isotopes that marks the PETM and the presence of a species of plankton that only existed during the PETM.

“The crucial one and the most precise one… is the carbon isotope excursion,” said Berndt.

But both these lines of evidence only show up in the sediments that filled the crater after it initially formed; they’re found 10–15 meters up from the crater floor. That distance leaves some wiggle room in tying the crater to the start of the PETM. “That means the vent was formed very shortly before the PETM, and during the PETM, it filled in,” said Berndt.

“The crater is older than the PETM,” agreed Professor Appy Sluijs of Utrecht University, who was not involved in Berndt’s study. But Sluijs points out that the plankton species in these deposits existed throughout the PETM. “The species can therefore not distinguish between the onset or the body of the event,” said Sluijs. In other words, the presence of this species can’t narrow down the time the crater formed to less than a fairly large window.

So how long before the PETM did the vent form?

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