Some thoughts on Roe

The hot topic at the moment is the recent “repeal” of Roe v. Wade by the US Supreme Court. This topic involves not only legal, but also moral, social, and scientific issues. This blog being a science blog, it’s appropriate to comment on the scientific issues here, and to that end I have produced the chart of human prenatal development above. Horizontal bars show fetal size on a logarithmic scale, and the two images are from Wikimedia and from USAID. Confusingly, two time scales are in regular use for prenatal development, one starting at the last menstrual period, and the other at fertilisation (around 2 weeks later). The chart shows both.

Roe v. Wade had, in fact, largely been overturned by Planned Parenthood v. Casey in 1992. The majority of people in the US (around 63%) believe that abortion should be legal in some cases but illegal in others (although views vary widely between demographic groups and from state to state). Roe v. Wade claimed a constitutional right to an abortion based on a constitutional right to privacy, and attempted to draw a cutoff for abortion legality based on the trimester of pregnancy:

  1. “For the stage prior to approximately the end of the first trimester, the abortion decision and its effectuation must be left to the medical judgment of the pregnant woman’s attending physician.
  2. “For the stage subsequent to approximately the end of the first trimester, the State, in promoting its interest in the health of the mother, may, if it chooses, regulate the abortion procedure in ways that are reasonably related to maternal health.
  3. “For the stage subsequent to viability the State, in promoting its interest in the potentiality of human life, may, if it chooses, regulate, and even proscribe, abortion except where necessary, in appropriate medical judgment, for the preservation of the life or health of the mother.”

Planned Parenthood v. Casey rejected both of these ideas, grounding a right to abortion instead in the due process clause of the 14th Amendment (“nor shall any State deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law”), and drawing a new legal line solely based on viability (the age at which the unborn baby can survive outside the womb) rather than on “Roe’s rigid trimester framework.”


The Supreme Court of the United States: the Roberts Court

Viability has some appeal as a guideline, since many people consider it problematic to kill an unborn baby which could be delivered by caesarean and then cared for successfully in the neonatal intensive care unit down the hall. However, as the recent judgement by the Roberts Court in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization notes, viability “is heavily dependent on factors – such as medical advances and the availability of quality medical care – that have nothing to do with the characteristics of a fetus.” In fact, the viability threshold has been dropping at around a week per decade, sitting now at around 22 or 23 weeks (see the chart). Dobbs also took issue with the constitutional aspects of the decision in Casey, overturning it (and what was left of Roe), so that “the authority to regulate abortion is returned to the people and their elected representatives.” Some of “the people” have been very happy about this, while others have protested.

Another scientific (or rather, technological) issue relevant to the decision in Dobbs has been the widespread use of obstetric ultrasonography in the United States. Janelle Taylor notes that “the obstetrical exam has come to incorporate rituals of showing and telling and giving out pictures” (we have all seen them on Facebook). Such images have greatly influenced how the fetus is viewed by the population at large. Unsurprisingly, such images have also lent support to pro-life campaigners, since they give a very clear face to the unborn. This article in The Atlantic notes that “in recent years, pro-life activists have been more successful in using that tool [scientific evidence] to shift the terms of the policy debate.”

More complex has been the debate on whether the unborn human can feel pain. Even in adults, pain is complex, with two separate human pain systems, one more precisely localised, and the other more affective (it “hurts” more). No real scientific consensus currently exists on when a fetus can feel pain (indeed, how could you really prove a hypothesis here?). Various stages are reported in the literature, some as early as 14 weeks, and this literature has been heavily cited as part of the ethical debate on abortion. Other writers have, rather disturbingly, suggested that only adult human beings can truly feel pain. The debate in the US and elsewhere is ongoing.


Pi Day!

Pi Day is coming up again (3/14 as a US date). The number π is, of course, 3.14159265… Here are some possible activities for children:

  • Search for your birthday (or any other number) in the digits of π
  • Follow in the footsteps of Archimedes, showing that π is between 22/7 = 3.1429 and 223/71 = 3.1408.
  • Calculate 333/106 = 3.1415 and 355/113 = 3.1415929, which are better approximations than 22/7.
  • Measure the circumference and diameter of a round plate and divide. Use a ruler to measure the diameter and a strip of paper (afterwards measured with a ruler) for the circumference. For children who cannot yet divide, try to find a plate with diameter 7, 106, or 113.
  • Calculate π by measuring the area of a circle (most simply, with radius 10 or 100), using A = πr2. An easy way is to draw an appropriate circle on a sheet of graph paper.

You can also try estimating π using Buffon’s needle. You will need some toothpicks (or similar) of length k and some parallel lines (such as floorboards) a distance d apart (greater than or equal to k). Then the fraction of dropped toothpicks that touch or cross a line will be 2 k / (π d), or 2 / π if k = d. There is an explanation and simulator here (see also the picture below). And, of course, you can bake a celebratory pie and listen to Kate Bush singing π, mostly correctly!

This picture by McZusatz has 11 of 17 matches touching a line, suggesting the value of 2×17/11 = 3.1 for π (since k = d).

Actually, of course, π = 3.1415926535 8979323846 2643383279 5028841971 6939937510 5820974944 5923078164 0628620899 8628034825 3421170679 8214808651 3282306647 0938446095 5058223172 5359408128 … (digits in red are sung by Kate Bush, accurately, although some have said otherwise).


Eurovision Song Contest and GDP

Following up on my previous post and the one before that, here is some more analysis of Eurovision Song Contest voting for this year. There are some interesting correlations between national tele-votes (not jury votes) and demographic variables, especially per capita GDP. As the map above shows, this is essentially a proxy for the northwest–southeast axis.

Iceland came 4th with the song 10 Years in spite of never actually competing; a positive COVID-19 test result restricted the band to their hotel; and they were judged based on a tape of their rehearsal performance. The richer Nordic countries seem to have been especially generous in this situation (see chart below).

Conversely, the winning song from Italy received generally lower tele-votes from the richer countries (I am not entirely sure why):

The song Je me casse from Malta came 7th overall. As with Iceland, the higher tele-votes came from the richer countries, although the pattern here is fuzzier than for Iceland. There are also some notable outliers: the Australian tele-vote of 8 for Malta probably reflects the 176,000 people of Maltese descent living in Australia.

Russia shows a pattern somewhat similar to Italy (p < 0.004, R2 = 22%), but this is simply because the former Soviet countries that vote for Russia are also the poorer ones. A better predictor can be obtained by counting Russian expatriates (p < 0.001, R2 = 44%).

And finally, here is a plot of tele-vote totals against jury vote totals. They differ substantially:


Eurovision Song Contest: More Analysis

Following up on my previous post, here is some more analysis of Eurovision Song Contest voting for this year. The maps above show a hierarchical clustering analysis on tele-voting (above) and jury voting (below), based on calculating simple Euclidean distance between vote vectors and on an assumption that countries would give themselves 12 points if they could. Some key differences between the four main clusters are highlighted in colour (note that Azerbaijan, Israel, the Netherlands, and the UK clustered alone or in a pair):

Tele-voting cluster 1 (green)

Countries: Australia, Belgium, Denmark, Estonia, Finland, Germany, Iceland, Ireland, Italy, Latvia, Lithuania, Malta, Norway, Poland, Sweden, and Ukraine.

Average votes:  Italy:  8, Iceland:  8, Ukraine:  8, Finland:  8, Lithuania:  8, France:  6, Switzerland:  4, Sweden:  4, Norway:  4, Malta:  2, Russia:  2, Serbia:  1, Belgium:  1, Albania:  1, Germany:  1, Greece:  0, Cyprus:  0, and Moldova:  0.

Tele-voting cluster 2 (purple)

Countries: Austria, Bulgaria, Croatia, North Macedonia, Serbia, Slovenia, Spain, and Switzerland.

Average votes:  Italy:  10, Serbia:  10, France:  8, Switzerland:  6, Ukraine:  6, Finland:  5, Iceland:  4, Russia:  2, Bulgaria:  2, Greece:  2, Azerbaijan:  2, Albania:  2, Spain:  2, Malta:  1, Lithuania:  1, Portugal:  1, Cyprus:  1, and Moldova:  0.

Tele-voting cluster 3 (red)

Countries: Albania, Czech Republic, France, Moldova, Portugal, and Romania.

Average votesMoldova:  10, Ukraine:  9, Italy:  8, France:  8, Switzerland:  6, Finland:  4, Greece:  4, Russia:  3, Portugal:  3, Iceland:  2, Sweden:  2, Albania:  2, Lithuania:  1, Bulgaria:  1, Israel:  1, Azerbaijan:  1, Serbia:  0, and Cyprus:  0.

Tele-voting cluster 4 (yellow)

Countries: Cyprus, Georgia, Greece, Russia, and San Marino.

Average votes:  Italy:  10, Greece:  9, Cyprus:  9, France:  7, Ukraine:  6, Finland:  4, Russia:  4, San Marino:  4, Lithuania:  3, Switzerland:  2, Bulgaria:  2, Moldova:  2, Azerbaijan:  2, Malta:  1, Albania:  1, Iceland:  0, and Serbia:  0.

Check out the disputed songs: Iceland: 10 Years, Lithuania: Discoteque, Serbia: Loco Loco, Moldova: Sugar, Greece: Last Dance, and Cyprus: El diablo.

The map below shows jury voting. For jury voting, there were only two substantial clusters (i.e. containing 4 or more countries – Albania, Malta, Romania, France, Israel, Norway, Sweden, Belgium, and Italy clustered alone or in small clusters of 2 or 3 countries).

Jury voting cluster 1 (purple)

Countries: Australia, Austria, Croatia, Czech, Denmark, Estonia, Finland, Georgia, Germany, Iceland, Ireland, Latvia, Lithuania, Netherlands, NM, Poland, Portugal, Serbia, Slovenia, Spain, Switzerland, Ukraine, and UK.

Average votesSwitzerland:  9, Iceland:  8, France:  7, Italy:  6, Malta:  4, Bulgaria:  4, Portugal:  4, Ukraine:  3, Finland:  3, Lithuania:  2, Russia:  2, Israel:  2, Belgium:  2, Greece:  1, Sweden:  1, Serbia:  1, Cyprus:  1, Azerbaijan:  1, San Marino:  1, Netherlands:  1, Spain:  1, Germany:  1, UK:  1, and Moldova:  0.

Jury voting cluster 2 (red)

Countries: Azerbaijan, Bulgaria, Cyprus, Greece, Moldova, Russia, and San Marino.

Average votesGreece:  9, Moldova:  8, Malta:  7, Bulgaria:  7, Italy:  6, France:  6, Russia:  6, Cyprus:  4, Azerbaijan:  4, San Marino:  3, Portugal:  2, Belgium:  2, Switzerland:  1, Iceland:  1, Ukraine:  1, Finland:  1, Lithuania:  1, Sweden:  1, Israel:  1, and Spain:  1.

Check out the disputed songs: Switzerland: Tout l’Univers, Iceland: 10 Years, Greece: Last Dance, and Moldova: Sugar


Eurovision Song Contest 2021

The Eurovision Song Contest has been on again (strangely, Australia is now part of Europe). On the whole, I didn’t think much of the songs this year, although there were a few gems (like the French entry).

This (revised) chart shows those tele-votes which were surprisingly high, given the total scores (country colours indicate total scores, with grey for non-finalists). Arrows reflect high tele-votes (in a relative sense). Red arrows reflect particularly high tele-votes (in a relative sense), including:

  • Austria, Croatia, North Macedonia (NM), Slovenia, and Switzerland Serbia (Balkan cluster)
  • North Macedonia (NM) and Italy Albania (ditto)
  • Cyprus Greece Cyprus (as usual)
  • Netherlands Greece (the Greek singer resides in the Netherlands)
  • Georgia Greece
  • Russia Cyprus
  • Moldova Russia (former USSR)
  • Czech Republic and Romania Moldova
  • Latvia, Germany, Norway, UK, and Ireland Lithuania
  • Denmark and Iceland Sweden (Nordic cluster)
  • Sweden, Iceland, and Estonia Finland (ditto)
  • Malta Norway
  • Azerbaijan Israel

Regional sentiment and expatriate voting still play a part, I see. Here is the same network overlaid on a map:


Zhurong on Mars

For people asking “Where are the pictures of China’s Zhurong rover?” – it’s still early days. Above is a timeline comparison with NASA’s Perseverance. Testing processes take time – Perseverance did not start driving until 15 days after arrival. And apparently Zhurong’s initial uplink speed was only 16 bit/s.

As I understand the schedule, Zhurong will roll off the lander on 22 May, and the rover and lander will photograph each other on 27 May.

Update #1: the Zhurong rover has now established a higher-bandwidth uplink via the Tianwen-1 orbiter, so sending photos taken by the lander is now technically feasible.

Update #2: photographs have now been released (rover on left and view down descent ramp on right):


International Nurses Day 2021

May 12 is International Nurses Day, a day which marks the contributions that nurses make all around the world. The day is in fact the birthday of Florence Nightingale, who built on the work of Christian nuns to found the nursing profession as we know it today.

Florence Nightingale’s work was among the wounded of the Crimean War, so our montage for this year has a military flavour, but it also hints at the vast range of healthcare activities that other nurses carry out. Happy Nurses Day to all nurses!

In the photograph, from top left:


Four new species from 2020

In spite of Covid-19, last year saw the description of several hundred new species of plants and animals. The image above (click to zoom) shows four of them.

Top left: The Yoknapatawpha darter, Etheostoma faulkneri (male shown above female) is found only in the Yocona River of Mississippi. It was recently distinguished from the closely related Etheostoma raneyi found in nearby rivers.

Top right: Dendropsophus bilobatus (image credit M. Ferrão, J. Moravec, J. Hanken, A.P. Lima) is a small Bolivian tree frog distinguished by the shape of its vocal sac and its characteristic mating call.

Bottom left: Platylestes kirani (male only shown; image credit Rison Thumboor) is a damselfly from the coastal wetlands of Kerala, South India.

Bottom right: The northern Western Ghats vine snake, Ahaetulla borealis (image credit Geoish) is a tree snake from the Western Ghats of India. It was declared to be a species in its own right after a subdivision of Ahaetulla nasuta.


Current NASA DSN tasking

My visualisation of current NASA Deep Space Network tasking as per eyes.nasa.gov/dsn (click image to zoom). Several Mars orbiters are lending a hand to transfer Perseverance imagery from the Martian surface, while other space science is going on as normal.

The chart is for 2 PM Australian time, with the Sun overhead in Tidbinbilla, Australia, and Mars overhead in the 7 PM evening sky in Goldstone, California. The respective skies looked like this (click to zoom):

Later in the afternoon, as Mars rose in the sky, Tidbinbilla began to share the load of Martian traffic. As Jupiter and the Sun rose over Madrid, MDSCC prepared to take over traffic from Juno.