Rocket Science and Quackery

Reading Ned Rozell’s 2017 Alaska Science article, “How the Cold War Inspired the Poker Flat Rocket Range’s First Launches,” right after perusing Newsweek’s “What Scientific Tests Reveal Abut Dr. Immanuel’s Hydroxychloroquine Claims” article, left me considering the levels and qualities of scientific thinking.  On one hand there was that wild-eyed UAF team of researchers led by Neil Davis, including Larry Sweet, and Eldon Thompson, who by “scrounging materials, including old mining cars … steel beams from an old bridge over the Chatanika River, and a winch Sweet has seen in a Fairbanks backyard,” began constructing the Poker Flat range in mid-summer 1968.  They were launching rockets from it nine months later, but their process was thoughtful, precise, and academically rigorous, and their findings led to enormously valuable understanding of our planet’s atmosphere.

On the other hand, there’s Houston physician Dr. Stella Immanuel, who released a video last week of her speech on the U.S. Supreme Court steps saying, “”Nobody needs to get sick. This virus has a cure – it is called hydroxychloroquine, I have treated over 350 patients and not had one death.”   According to, both Facebook and Twitter, “have taken down the viral video in which she appears, saying it violates their policies about misinformation – but not before it was retweeted by Donald Trump and one of his sons.”  So, millions of tweetees now think hydroxychloroquine’s a sure cure.  In fact, Dr. Anthony Fauci, whose medical credentials and standing are profound, said last week that, “”We know that every single good study – and by good study I mean randomized control study in which the data are firm and believable – has shown that hydroxychloroquine is not effective in the treatment of COVID-19.”


The key word is “randomized.”  Hydroxychloroquine is one of 254 treatments and 172 vaccines being tested for battling covid-19, and studies are valid when a significant number of people are randomly selected for treatment, thus better representing the population as a whole.  Large “randomized clinical trials” have been conducted on hydroxychloroquine by the National Institute of Health in the U.S. and in the U.K. and both found that “while there is no harm, hydroxychloroquine was very unlikely to be beneficial to hospitalized patients with COVID-19.”

Immanuel, whose medical degree is from a school in Nigeria, based her theory on observations rather than controlled tests and said the NIH and U.K. findings are a conspiracy.  The BBC noted “She is also a pastor and the founder of Fire Power Ministries in Houston, a platform she has used to promote other conspiracies about the medical profession … Five years ago, she alleged that alien DNA was being used in medical treatments, and that scientists were cooking up a vaccine to prevent people from being religious.

In “Science By Press Release: When the Story Gets Ahead of the Science,” Dr. Sanjay Gupta, chief medical correspondent, wrote that so many theories and reports are flying about it’s critical to know their sources; is it from a paper published in a respected professional journal, a “pre-print paper” written by researchers “to get feedback from peers before they submit their study to a journal,” or is it a “press release”?  Gary Schwitzer, founder and publisher of, say press releases are intended “to make your institution, your client, your big-name researcher, your product, your drug company and its products, look as good as it can be, hoping that the press release will convince journalists to write about it.”



Scientists, like librarians, can be a mixed bag.  For example, former Librarian of Congress James Billington, a brilliant and persuasive historian, resigned under pressure in 2015 after “presid[ing] over a series of management and technology failures at the library that were documented in more than a dozen reports by government watchdog agencies.”  Dr. Immanuel has probably made sick people better in the course of her career, but I don’t trust her professional judgement.  Even blind hogs sometimes find acorns.

Instead, I’ll rely on our public library to provide solid, verifiable information.  That’s where I met Neil Davis, who died in 2018.  He reached thousands of Alaskans through his “Alaska Science Forum” newspaper columns about the natural wonders and oddities of our state.  Davis founded and wrote the column for many years, and now it’s in Ned Rozell’s capable hands.  As a Geophysical Institute colleague recalled of Davis, “To all of us he was truly a Renaissance Man: someone with the strength and wit to accomplish anything we could dream up.  He built houses, a rocket range, made auroras, and wrote books about it all.  He took us with him on the greatest journey of our lives.”  That’s a eulogy to strive for.





Masks, Resistance, and Hope

by Greg Hill           

Glancing at an article on the best material to make anti-Covid masks from, I saw it was from last April, and thus woefully dated, what with the constant flux in pandemic information.  “New Study Details the Best Types of COVID-19 Face Masks,” from is from June 30 and said, “the most effective homemade face masks are those made with tightly woven fabric and providing a good seal along the edges, bandanas aren’t effective,  N95 masks are great, but “should be reserved for those who need them,” and “surgical face masks are another effective option.”

            Their information is from a study reported in the scientific journal “Physics of Fluids” conducted by Dr. Siddhartha Verma, a Florida University professor whose team tested all sorts of materials and found that handkerchief and bandanas “were virtually ineffective” and “determined that the most effective homemade masks were those that were well-fitted with multiple layers of quilting fabric.  Cone-style masks also worked well.  ‘Quilting cotton, with two layers stitched together, turned out to be the best in terms of stopping capability.’”

            “Tea towels and antimicrobial pillowcases aren’t ideal materials, but they’re better than a single layer of cotton,” for homemade masks, according to a July 16 article by Aria Bendix in  The UK study she cited says they’re the next best alternative to vacuum cleaner bags, but they need to be very tightly woven to be effective at all.  They also learned that “people who wore cotton masks had a 54 percent lower chance of infection than people who wore no masks at all.”

            A brand new, not-yet-peer-reviewed study from the University of Illinois found that “three layers of either a silk shirt or a 100 percent cotton T-shirt may be just as protective as a medical-grade mask.  Silk in particular has electrostatic properties that can help trap smaller viral particles.”  However you slice and dice it, as CDC Director Robert Redfield predicted in the most recent Journal of the American Medical Association, “the universal adoption of face masks could bring the US’s outbreak under control in as little as four weeks.”

We’re all exhausted from dealing with Covid-19 at every turn, so it helps to dwell a bit on hope, like Vaclav Havel, playwright and Czech President.  It’s “a state of mind, not a state of the world.  Either we have hope within us or we don’t.  Hope is not a prognostication – it’s an orientation of the spirit … Hope is definitely not the same thing as optimism.  It’s not the conviction that something will turn out well, but the certainty that something makes sense, regardless how it turns out.”

            Emmett Ashford, the first major league baseball umpire, loved wearing his protective mask at the ballpark and provides an example of Havel’s style of hope.  Ashford broke the color barrier in the minor leagues in 1951 and was promoted to the American League in 1966.  As such he was the first Black authority figure many baseball managers and umpires had ever dealt with, and he consequently suffered at least as much abuse as Jackie Robinson, even from fellow umpires.  Yet he was an energetic and entertaining umpire who maintained his love of the game throughout.

            Paul Rivet, a leading figure in the French Resistance in WWII, wore a different mask – that of founder and Director of the Museum of Mankind in Paris.  He was a high profile figure but networked, translated, and provided the cover for opposing the invaders.  As Nazi tanks rolled into town, he posted on the museum’s front door Kipling’s “If” (”If you can keep your head when all about you are losing theirs … you’ll be a Man, my son!”) and went on to recruit the organizers of the Resistance from his staff and around Europe.  They trained in the museum’s library, run by librarian Yvonne Oddon.  Part of their efforts included publishing a clandestine newspaper, which Oddon proposed calling “Resistance” to recall the French Huguenot women who were imprisoned in the 1700s because of their religion and carved “Resister” into their cell walls. 

That’s how the movement came to be known as “the Resistance.”  They were betrayed, and after being tipped off that the Gestapo were coming, Rivet escaped to Colombia in 1942.  The others were sent to concentration camps, but Oddon survived the Ravensbruk camp, and today the Museum of Mankind has the “Yvonne Oddon Library.”  As Utne Reader founder Eric Utne described Havel’s version of hope, “It’s not the conviction that something will turn out well, but the certainty that something makes sense, regardless.”