Reality Straight Up!

Thoughts & Observations of a Free Range Astrophysicist

Typhoid Mary on Two Wheels

Spreading COVID one lap at a time

The morning cyclist in my neighborhood may not be standing in the Michigan Statehouse carrying a gun and demanding her right to spread contagion far and wide, but she may as well be.


My wife’s professional day starts at 7:00 AM, so she gets up around 6:00 and heads out the door for a couple of mile walk. Despite the fact that it’s only May 1, it’s hitting 100 F in the afternoons here, so early morning is the time for such things. That’s also before our 10 year old daughter gets up, so Vicki gets a rare half an hour of relative solitude. She is as thankful for that as for the exercise itself.

I take my walk when she gets back, usually heading out the door around 7:00. This is a relatively new routine. We I let myself go for a couple of weeks during the COVID lockdown I rediscovered that exercise is important for sleep, and both are important for mental well being. And let’s face it, if you are following what is going on, mental well being doesn’t necessarily look after itself.

The lady on her bicycle takes aim for her attack.

I take my walk down a pleasant road through the desert, and every morning I see the same woman on her bicycle, perhaps two or three times as she goes up and down the same stretch.  She is probably about my age, and is always done up in proper biking clothes, looking like she is ready for the Tour d’France. This is bluster on her part. She certainly does not ride like she cycles seriously.

The first time our paths crossed, the expression was all but literal. She was riding toward me on the shoulder, and it would have been easy for her to cross the street to give us plenty of space.  Six feet of separation is not the right answer when riding a bicycle; air flow matters.  But instead she barreled on. Had I not jumped off the road at the last minute she was on track to blast past me about as closely as she could. She seemed intent on me feeling her wind in my face. That impression grew stronger when she called out, “What’s the matter, are you afraid of me?”

“Are you afraid of me?” she asks.  “I’d be an idiot not to be,” I answer.

That first morning pretty much set the now predictable course of our daily interactions. I see her coming a few hundred feet up, and cross to the other side of the street. I smile and wave, and she asks, “Are you scared of me?”  To be fair, sometimes she mixes it up. “I won’t run you over!”  It seems kind of pointless to engage, so I just smile, laugh, and perhaps say something like, “Just being careful.”

Until this morning, that is.  This time when she called out, “What’s the matter, are you scared of me?” I finally snapped and said what I was thinking. “Yes, I’m scared of you.  I’m scared of you because you are irresponsible and inconsiderate, and think it’s a joke. I’m scared of you because you are the kind of person that makes it so hard to actually contain this thing. I’m scared of you because if you behave like this with me, I’m guessing that you behave like this with everyone. You are among the more dangerous people I share physical space with these days.”

“Yes, I’m afraid of you because you are the problem!”

I’d bet a six pack of good beer that she voted for Trump, and another six pack that she will again.

So that’s what I finally did this morning!  I finally told her just what I thought of her not so passive aggression!

Well, OK.  That’s what I did in my head.  What I did with my mouth was say, “These days I’m afraid of everybody.” I was trying to convey, “It’s not just you; I’m not in a hurry to share respiration with random people right now.”  But that’s not right, because it is her.

We don’t need social distancing. We need physical distancing.

I’m not really the “embrace fear” type, and most people don’t scare me. I stop and chat with different people most mornings, but those people are responsible and respectful. They are content to be social from a good 15 or 20 feet.  Someone, I forget who, noted that “social distancing” is a lousy term. What we need is physical distancing.  Failing to be social, on the other hand, deprives us of what we need most.

But the lady on the bike terrifies me. What she represents terrifies me. The number of new cases of COVID-19 in the U.S. isn’t falling, and there are many places where the infection and death rates are climbing rapidly. As we better understand how COVID-19 can kill, the recognized fatality rate is also climbing. Deaths in New York City during the worst of their outbreak soared to six times the normal rate

Some of those deaths were due to people who failed to receive medical care, or when the ambulance didn’t get there on time. Others were directly caused by COVID-19, although without routine testing we’ll never know for certain. We are discovering that COVID-19 kills in lots of ways that do not involve classical symptoms. That includes, for example, relatively young people who were asymptomatic experiencing sudden massive strokes because COVID-19 had attacked cells with ACE-2 receptors in the linings of their blood vessels. And let’s face it. When bodies are piling up in the backs of refrigerated trucks, careful autopsies are few and far between.

But these are all victims of COVID-19 nonetheless. They are deaths that would not have happened were it not for COVID-19. Six times as many people have died in New York City than would have were it not for COVID-19. Every one of those lives lost before their time counts.

Russian Roulette with a Twelve-Shooter

The same thing is happening throughout the U.S. and around the world, albeit at lower levels in most places. More people are dying due to COVID-19 than are showing up in the official numbers.  But even the official numbers are bad enough.

As of May 1, there are just over a million known cases in the U.S., with a death count of over 63,000.  Since deaths lag cases by a week, and 2,000 people are known to be dying daily from COVID-19 with no sign of a downturn, that means today’s million known cases will result in something approaching 80,000 deaths.

In other words, if you show strong enough symptoms to be counted (and are around 60-ish), there is a 8% chance you will die of the disease. And anyone who claims that things are going to be better by such and such a date is selling snake oil. We don’t know what will happen next, but we do know the answer depends on how people behave. With the number of politicians out there actively encouraging bad behavior, that’s going to get worse before it gets better.

That brings me back to my neighbor on a bicycle. Maybe tomorrow I’ll stop and try to explain to her why I cross the street and why it matters. Or not. Odds are it won’t do any good, and I enjoy my walks. I choose not to let her ruin that.

Typhoid Mary on Two Wheels ^ Spreading COVID one lap at a time  © Dr. Jeff Hester
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Reality Straight Up!

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Click on thumbnail to select post:

  • COVID-19 Arrives  The Humanitarian Disaster is HerePosted in Thoughts
  • Correctly Predicting Failure  It’s time for scientists to get loudPosted in Thoughts
  • Typhoid Mary on Two Wheels  Spreading COVID one lap at a timePosted in Thoughts
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  • Scientists Stuck Inside  Curiosity in the Time of COVIDPosted in For Your ConsiderationThoughts
  • After COVID’s First Wave  No getting back to normalPosted in Success & FailureThoughts
  • COVID-19  Cutting through the confusionPosted in Success & FailureThoughts
  • Great Deceiverism 101  Explanation or Theory? Therein lies the rub.Posted in For Your ConsiderationUnreasonable Faith
  • One Step at a Time  The  not-so-mysterious origin of lifePosted in For Your ConsiderationUnreasonable Faith
  • The Mind’s Siren Call  Being certain is a primrose pathPosted in For Your ConsiderationUnreasonable Faith
  • Constrained Hallucinations  How the brain uses science to perceive the worldPosted in For Your ConsiderationUnreasonable Faith
  • Entropy Redux  Why our universe isn’t boringPosted in For Your ConsiderationUnreasonable Faith
  • Currently new cases of COVID-19 in Arizona are doubling every 7 days. ICU beds in the state are already full. The rest of the country isn’t that far behind us. You do the math.

  • Now is not the time for scientists to be circumspect and silent. We are on the short end of a battle over whether truth even matters. If scientists do not stand up for what is real, who will?

  • The morning cyclist in my neighborhood may not be standing in the Michigan Statehouse carrying a gun and demanding her right to spread contagion far and wide, but she may as well be.

  • You know those nice charts and graphs that make it look like we are over the hump of COVID-19 and that things are about to get better? Those predictions are dead wrong, with an unfortunate emphasis on “dead.”

  • Imagine three gregarious scientists, each with the gift of the gab, all coping with stay-at-home orders. Of course we started a livestream/podcast talk show! What else would we do? Welcome to the kickoff episode of Scientists Stuck Inside.

  • Even after COVID-19 kills hundreds of thousands in the U.S. over the coming weeks, we will still be almost as vulnerable to the pandemic as we are today. We’d all love to “get back to normal” after that, but the price could be a second wave, worse than the first. Some see us facing either economic Depression or allowing vast numbers of preventable deaths, but that is a fool’s choice. There are better options if we have the will to find them.

  • There is a lot of information about COVID-19 out there, much of it misleading. When looking at the future, start with what the science really says.

  • If someone can’t tell you how they would know that they are wrong, they don’t have a clue whether they are right.

    This article originally appeared in my Astronomy Magazine column, For Your Consideration.

  • Once seemingly incomprehensible, the origin of life no longer seems such a mystery. Most of what once appeared as roadblocks are turning out to be superhighways.

    This article originally appeared in my Astronomy Magazine column, For Your Consideration.

  • Being certain lights up our brains like a junkie’s next hit. Literally. Unfortunately, being certain and being right are two very, very different things.

    This article originally appeared in my Astronomy Magazine column, For Your Consideration.

  • The unique worlds we each consciously inhabit – the only worlds we will ever experience – are constrained hallucinations, products of hypothesis testing by our predictive brains.

    This article originally appeared in my Astronomy Magazine column, For Your Consideration.

  • A month’s worth of sunlight could pay the entropy bill for a billion years of biological evolution. Entropy is evolution’s best friend.

    This article originally appeared in my Astronomy Magazine column, For Your Consideration.

Over his 30 year career as an internationally known astrophysicist, Dr. Jeff Hester was a key member of the team that repaired the Hubble Space Telescope. With one foot always on the frontiers of knowledge, he has been mentor, coach, team leader, award-winning teacher, administrator and speaker, to name a few of the hats he has worn. His Hubble image, the Pillars of Creation, was chosen by Time Magazine as among the 100 most influential photographs in history.
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