Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Will Obama Create a Cabinet-Level Science Position?

Whether or not Barack Obama was your choice in this past election, it’s clear changes are in the making. Major news organizations report possible reversals of current policies on stem cell research and drilling. Speculation on posts in his administration during the transition and afterward circle the Beltway in typical DC fashion, driving you wild or serving as a major source of entertainment.

I’m most eager to see if Obama will go with the recommendation made in letters to then-Presidential candidates Obama and McCain in October. These letters called for the speedy post-election appointment of a newly-created “Assistant to the President for Science and Technology” as a cabinet-level position. The signatories included a broad range of science- and math-related institutions such as the American Association for the Advancement of Science and the National Center for Science Education. They referenced both candidates' responses to the Science Debate 2008 questions as reflecting their “acknowledgment of the important role that science will play in a new Administration,” and went on to point out that, “it is essential to quickly appoint a science advisor who is a nationally respected leader with the appropriate scientific, management and policy skills necessary for this critically important role.”(1)

The Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars released a similar recommendation along with their OSTP 2.0 report back in June. (2) That report cited the importance of expert advice in the evaluation and shaping of the $142 billion investments in science and technology the US will need to make. It also pointed out that, “Science and technology pervade virtually all domestic and global issues. The defining policy issues facing our nation are directly related to our capabilities in science, technology, and innovation. Those issues span national security and economic competitiveness, energy security, environmental protection and natural resource conservation, public health, and quality of life.”

As “Key Issues Facing the OSTP” they cited environmental and energy challenges, enhancing US global leadership in innovation, responding to national security challenges, the need for improved S&T education at all levels, improving health and health care delivery, and ensuring greater public understanding of scientific issues and advances. (3) It’s certainly hard to question any of these.

Whether or not Obama goes with the recommendation remains to be seen, but with nearly 180 respected signatories on the letter and every living former Science Advisor contributing to the Wilson report, it’s certainly worthy of his serious consideration.

(1) Letter to then-Senator Barack Obama

(2) Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars OSTP 2.0 Critical Upgrade Report

(3) Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars OSTP 2.0 Critical Upgrade Report

Tuesday, October 28, 2008


It's the time of year for reflections on the fleeting nature of things and all sorts of other deep thoughts. Here in New England, the maple trees briefly – so briefly – flash their stunning incandescent red and orange leaves. Then, of course, the trees shed the leaves on my lawn, where they need to be raked up – a chore that is not at all fleeting.

It's also Halloween, which has a special place in the hearts of the Witches of Agnesi. So, here are a couple of Halloween-relevant legends.

Razors in Apples: Urban Legend
In their book Made to Stick: Why Some Ideas Survive and Others Die, Chip Heath and Dan Heath offer some fascinating explanations for why some excellent ideas – say, an earnest mission statement from a worthwhile nonprofit organization – get little traction, while some patently ridiculous urban legends are believed and repeated by millions of people.

The Heath brothers give the example of a wildly “successful” idea that spoiled Halloween for large numbers of people: the belief that evil strangers were putting razor blades and poison in apples and candy and giving them to trick-or-treating children. But in 1985, researchers Joel Best and Gerald Horiuchi

“studied every reported Halloween incident since 1958. They found no instances where strangers caused children life-threatening harm on Halloween by tampering with their candy. Two children did die on Halloween, but their deaths weren't caused by strangers. A five-year-old boy found his uncle's heroin stash and overdosed. His relatives initially tried to cover their tracks by sprinkling heroin on his candy. In another case, a father, hoping to collect on an insurance settlement, caused the death of his own son by contaminating his candy with cyanide. In other words, the best social science evidence reveals that taking candy from strangers is perfectly OK. It's your family you should worry about.

"The candy-tampering story has changed the behavior of millions of parents over the past thirty years.... It has even changed the laws of this country. Both California and New Jersey passed laws that carry special penalties for candy-tamperers. Why was this idea so successful?"

To find out, read the book.

The Devil's Chord
Can a musical chord be evil? The Medieval Roman Catholic Church and modern heavy metal bands think so. The tritone, "a musical interval that spans three whole tones, like the diminished fifth or augmented fourth.... the gap between two notes played in succession or simultaneously, was branded Diabolus in Musica or the Devil's Interval by medieval musicians. A rich mythology has grown up around it. Many believe that the Church wanted to eradicate the sounds from its music because it invoked sexual feelings, or that it was genuinely the work of the Devil. It is a mythology much beloved of long-haired guitar wizards. In the newly-released documentary Metal: A Headbanger's Journey, bassist Alex Webster of death metal act Cannibal Corpse pays tribute to the effect of the forbidden "Devil's note" on heavy metal" (Finlo Rohrer, 2006).

According to Wikipedia,

"Today the interval continues to suggest an 'oppressive,' 'scary,' or 'evil' sound. However, suggestions that singers were excommunicated or otherwise punished by the Church for invoking this interval are likely fanciful."

Examples of music using tritones:
Jimi Hendrix, Purple Haze
Danny Elfman, The Simpsons theme song
"Maria," from Leonard Bernstein's West Side Story
Black Sabbath, "Black Sabbath"
Claude Debussy, Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun
Richard Wagner, Gotterdammerung

Heath, Chip, and Dan Heath. 2007. Made to Stick: Why Some Ideas Survive and Others Die. New York: Random House (pp. 13–15). www.amazon.com/Made-Stick-Ideas-Survive-Others/dp/1400064287

Rohrer, Finlo. 2006. "The Devil's Music," BBC News Magazine (April 4), http://news.bbc.co.uk/go/pr/fr/-/2/hi/uk_news/magazine/4952646.stm

"Tritone," Wikipedia, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tritone

Sunday, October 19, 2008

Primordial Sludge

One of the enduring imaginative musings of my childhood is of a bolt of lightning striking a shallow pool of water. More like an indention in a rock, really, with a bit of rainwater barely deep enough to keep the mini-pond wet. As the lightning hits, it vaporizes the water and voila! Primordial sludge forms. Fast forward a couple of months and actual creatures – microscopic but creatures nonetheless – are wriggling out of the somehow still wet spot on the rock. Oh. Must have been a spring supplying the water. And there must have been a bit of shade so the microscopic creatures didn’t fry in the noonday sun. And there must have been some source of nutrients. But what did I know at six? And despite my youngest child’s current confusion, I wasn’t actually there at the moment that lightning bolt hit.

So imagine my delight to see in Science this week that someone actually did an experiment to see what would happen when lightning struck the presumed early building blocks of life on Earth. Yes. Back in the early 1950’s. Two chemists at the University of Chicago in Illinois, Miller and Urey, introduced an electric current to a mixture of gases and water in a closed loop of glass. When they analyzed the material that collected after a few hours, they discovered about 10 amino acids. BUT recent experiments on that same residue with an extremely sensitive mass spectrometer at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, MD revealed all 20 of the amino acids in things living today. Not bad. So now they’re wondering: 1) Could a volcano have started it all, and 2) How did this material – my fondly remembered primordial sludge – turn into “self-replicating organic compounds?” That’s the matter (no pun intended) now before geochemists Jim Cleaves and Jeffrey Bada.

I’m looking forward to seeing what they discover!

... Of course that still leaves the matter of the Creation of Adam on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. Forever linked in my mind with that lightning bolt and the sludge, there's no electric charge in evidence. But I've always been certain that Michelangelo has one implied. And that his imaginative musings were far more fully evolved than mine!

Source: http://sciencenow.sciencemag.org/cgi/content/full/2008/1016/1

Monday, October 13, 2008

Identity Crisis

Americans are uniquely concerned with individuality, independence, and personal identity. Ads, self-help gurus, pop culture entertainment, and political and economic conventional wisdom bombard us with messages about self-expression and individual identity. But research shows that there is a powerful social, collective element to identity, too.

Psychologist John Cacioppo and science writer William Patrick (2008) cite Wendy Gardner and Marilyn Brewer, whose research found that answers to the question, “who are you?” fell in three categories: personal, intimate; social, relational (spouse, kids, friends, neighbors); and collective (ethnic group, nation, profession, sports team) (p. 78). Cacioppo and Patrick’s goal is to “change our culture’s lopsided view of human nature, its focus on the individual in isolation as the proper measure of all things” (p. 19).

In our single-minded focus on individual identity, we may be neglecting to demand policies that strengthen our social and civic identities. Consider our voting system. Practices such as “caging” cause the identity and eligibility of many citizens to be challenged at polling places for questionable reasons. The Michigan Messenger (Brayton 2008) reported that the Democratic Party recently filed a lawsuit in Michigan to prevent lists of foreclosures – disproportionately involving African Americans – from being used to challenge voters’ addresses of residence. The standards of accuracy and fairness of lists like these – techniques borrowed from direct mail – are inadequate to be used to determine citizens’ rights. The lists contain errors; people are mistaken for people with similar names; and many people who have had foreclosure proceedings initiated still live in their houses or are still entitled to count them as a legal residence. Elsewhere, inaccurate lists of convicted felons have also been used in this way.

A different system prioritizing citizens’ rights might address some of these problems – for instance, the use of a national identification card. The thought of a nationally centralized database controlled by the federal government with personal identification information about every citizen from birth to death raises the hair on the backs of many necks, from libertarians and populist conservatives to liberals and privacy advocates – and rightly so. But a democracy that purports to represent the will of any group bigger than a village in which everyone knows each other – let alone millions of people spread across a geographic area of 3,794,066 square miles – must have a reliable way of establishing accurate identities of citizens eligible to vote. We fear giving too much power to “big government.” But the government, marketers, credit bureaus, health-insurance providers, financial institutions, credit card companies, retail stores, and Internet-based services already collect, buy, and sell our personal data – in many cases, without our knowledge and with little concern for our privacy.

This has implications for our system of voting. Progressive political commentator Robert Kuttner (2004) argued:

“Tens of millions of Americans don't vote because we make voters go through a two-step process of registering and then voting. As we saw in the elections of 2000 and 2004, the registration process is an invitation to endless political mischief. In fact, registration was introduced in the late 19th century precisely to hold down the numbers of votes, from former slaves and from recent immigrants. It still functions to hold down voting today. In most countries, the national ID card certifies your identity, age, and citizenship. That's it. You present the card, and you vote. In America, millions of volunteer hours and hundreds of millions of dollars go into the needless process of registering voters – time and money that could go toward political activism and education.”

Our unplanned approach to legitimate identification needs has led to a hodgepodge of identification policies that neither provide accurate identification nor protect the privacy of citizens. The REAL ID Act of 2005 was an attempt by the Department of Homeland Security to turn state drivers’ licenses into a quasi-national ID card whose purpose would be to establish identity when the holder boarded a commercial aircraft or entered a federal building or other federal property. States protested that it was an unfunded mandate that would cost them billions of dollars and require departments of motor vehicles to assume immigration and policing functions they weren’t designed for; implementation, originally scheduled for May 2008, was postponed until 2017, and many states have vowed they will never agree to it. The social security card, another common proxy for a national identification card, is also inadequate for that purpose – it’s easily falsified and vulnerable to identity theft. (Sources: EPIC 2008; Gaouette & Mathews 2007; McLaughlin 2007; NCSL 2008)

According to Esther Dyson (2008) in a recent Scientific American article, there’s no going back to the pre-computer days. The issue is not so much increasing privacy for individuals, she argues, but limiting privacy for institutions, so we can monitor what they’re doing with the data they’re collecting. She also points out that many issues that look like privacy issues are actually the result of inadequate policies in other areas. For instance, privacy of genetic information and medical records would not be such an issue if we had universal health coverage and health insurers did not have the power to cherry-pick healthier individuals.

What if U.S. elections looked like elections in many other countries? All U.S. citizens would be presented with a national identification card, free, at birth, which would accompany them throughout life. The cards would feature the secure technology used in most countries for identification – in contrast to driver’s licenses now available in Arizona and some other border states that have inexpensive EPCglobal Gen2 technology like that used for E-Z passes, designed to track products in warehouses, which can be easily captured through walls and purses by readers available in virtually any warehouse in the country (Albrecht 2008). To vote, citizens would present their national identification card – doing away with the contentious and expensive voter registration process. Elections would be held on weekends, or election day would be a national holiday, so they wouldn’t compete with work. And in a real shift for the U.S., voting would be mandatory – a right and responsibility of all citizens, rather than one more consumer choice. How different would our election results be?


Albrecht, Katherine. 2008. “RIFD tag – You’re it,” Scientific American 299, no. 3 (September).

Brayton, Ed. 2008. “Obama campaign files suit over ‘voter-foreclosure’ plans,” Michigan Messenger (September 16). http://michiganmessenger.com/4463/obama-campaign-files-suit-over-foreclosure-lists

Cacioppo, John T., and William Patrick. 2008. Loneliness: Human Nature and the Need for Social Connection. NY: W. W. Norton.

Dyson, Esther. 2008. “Reflections on privacy 2.0,” Scientific American 299, no. 3 (September).

Electronic Privacy Information Center. 2008. Real Id Implementation Review: Few Benefits, Staggering Costs (May). http://epic.org/privacy/id-cards/epic_realid_0508.pdf

Gaouette, Nicole, and Joe Mathews. 2007. “Illegal immigrant licenses drive debate,” Los Angeles Times (November 1). http://articles.latimes.com/2007/nov/01/nation/na-licenses1

Kuttner, Robert. 2004. “Try national ID card – you might like it,”
Boston Globe (December 8). http://www.boston.com/news/globe/editorial_opinion/oped/articles/2004/12/08/try_national_id_card____you_might_like_it/

McLaughlin, Eliott C. 2007. “Federal ID plan raises privacy concerns,” CNN.com (August 16). http://www.cnn.com/2007/POLITICS/08/16/real.id/index.html

National Conference of State Legislatures. 2008. Real ID news. NCSL.org http://www.ncsl.org/standcomm/sctran/Real_ID_news.htm

Sunday, October 5, 2008

Aerodynamics of a Baseball in Flight

It's the MLB Postseason! As the days grow shorter and the leaves turn, how can anyone think of anything but baseball ...

Nine inches in circumference. Weighing in at about five ounces. Made of cork wound with woolen yarn covered with two layers of cowhide stitched by hand precisely two hundred sixteen times… Every baseball used in Major League play today is made to these specs.

Over the years there have been claims of juicing, concerns about the effects of altitude and humidity, and changes to the cork in 1910, the yarn in 1920, and a switch to cowhide from horsehide in 1974. But every ball has been manufactured to exact specifications since 1874. And every ball is still handstitched – currently at the Rawlings manufacturing facility in Costa Rica.

The real news relating to the ball itself occurred in 1920 after Yankee pitcher Carl May’s fastball bounced off Cleveland Indians batter Ray Chapman’s skull with the resounding crack of a pitch well hit. Chapman reportedly took two steps toward first before dropping to the ground - skull crushed - to die twelve hours later.

Ever since, dirty, misshapen, barely discernible lumpy balls rushing toward the batter have been outlawed. Only spotless, flawless baseballs can remain in play. The designation of “flawless” isn’t left up to the perception of the batter or the pitcher. The umpire inspects each ball frequently. When he decides one is unfit, he puts a new one into play.

But a new baseball is a gleaming white orb of perfection that’s slick to the touch. The cowhide ensures that. For a pitcher to get a good grip, something has to be done to make the ball less glossy. Spit, nicks, gels — any tampering or foreign substance altering the appearance or aerodynamic properties of the ball is illegal. Something was needed that could make the ball uniformly easier to handle — without amending the ball in any way.

An ex-player and manager named Lena Blackburne was the one who solved the problem in the 1930’s with his discovery of the perfect mud. He harvested it from a still-secret location in New Jersey until his death. The location was passed on and this ‘magic mud’ that doesn’t discolor, soften, or stink up the ball has been rubbed on every ball in Major League play before every game ever since.


But any batter can tell you that seeing the ball and hitting the ball are two different things. It’s not enough to figure out the probable pitch racing toward you. You’ve got to get the bat in the precise position needed to connect solidly.

It’s a humbling experience and today with two balls, two outs, and men on first and second, there’s now as much pressure on the batter standing ready at the plate, as there has been on the pitcher all day.

On the mound, the pitcher nods at the catcher’s signal and makes the throw.
The batter steps into his swing. The crack of the bat reports a solid hit as the left fielder races to make the catch.

No one has control of the ball now.

Now that it’s airborne air temperature, the amount of moisture in the air, wind and wind direction all come into play. And that’s not all. The speed of the bat when it met the ball, the angle of the bat on the swing, where along the bat the ball was hit – all of these matter, too.

How much any of it matters has been the subject of much debate. So much so that in 1987 President of the National Baseball League, Bart Giamatti, named Dr. Robert K. Adair Physicist to the National League. Adair’s wonderful book, The Physics of Baseball, resulted. Its detailed scientific and conversational explanations cover the effect of factors ranging from the length of time a batter has to reach a decision on a pitch and what a pitcher can do to minimize that time, to the optimal weight of a bat.

It’s safe to assume that batting and pitching coaches are familiar with the theories in this seminal work and the works that have followed. It might even be safe to assume that an individual pitcher or batter is familiar with these theories or, through trial and error, has come up with ways to use them to his benefit.

Every player out there has a vested interest in the behavior of a ball in flight. Their success depends upon their ability to manipulate the aerodynamic properties of the baseball to their advantage.


Aerios: concerning the air. Dynamics: force. The Ancient Greeks coined the term aerodynamics for their study of forces and the resulting motion of objects through air. Today, all the attention a pitcher pays to the placement of his fingers in relation to the seams is done to take advantage of the aerodynamic properties of a ball in flight. Because the seams are the only raised portion of the ball, a baseball made to spin as it moves alternates its smooth and raised surfaces. The cowhide – cut in two peanut-shapes – is smooth. The 216 stitches used to hold the cowhide together, a raised saddle pattern, or double horseshoes, on the ball. These smooth and raised surfaces are the cause of the ball’s performance as it responds to the effects of Lift, Thrust, Drag, and Gravity.

Daniel Bernoulli’s work with fluid mechanics in the 1700’s provides the basis for many of the concepts used in the study of aerodynamics today. According to Bernoulli, an increase in the speed of the fluid occurs in concert with a decrease in pressure or a decrease in the fluid’s gravitational potential energy. That’s why, for a baseball, it’s not only the accuracy and strength of a pitcher’s arm that decides the ball’s path. It’s also the orientation of the stitches as the ball moves through the atmosphere.

But a baseball doesn’t create aerodynamic forces in the same way as the wing on an airplane or other airfoil. The spinning of the ball and the raised surface of the stitches create a whirlpool of rotating air around the ball. This exerts pressure and the ball moves in the direction of least resistance. This Magnus Force is what causes a perfect curve ball to curve right at the plate as the disequilibrium reaches it’s maximum at the end of it’s seconds-long, sixty feet six inch journey.

A successful pitcher knows how to use his arm and wrist to optimal effect. He also knows throwing the ball with the proper speed and arm movement isn’t enough. If his fingers aren’t positioned correctly, there’s no way he can count on the ball to cross the plate where he wants. It all comes down to where he positions his fingers on the ball.


Throwing a curveball? The index and middle fingers are positioned so the middle finger is on the right horseshoe seam with the index finger between the seams. It’s released with the wrist angled so the thumb is on top to give the ball a downward spin - top to bottom. With the right flick of the wrist and a pitch speed of 70 mph or more the ball will curve just as it reaches the batter. How much it curves is determined by the extent of the disequilibrium created by the seams as the ball spins on the way to the plate. If a righty pitcher facing a righty batter wants a big break to the outside, he’ll create a large area of disequilibrium by orienting the ball so four of the seams are rotating toward the batter on the way to the plate. If he requires a smaller curve, he’ll orient the ball so only two seams rotate toward the batter.

For the four-seam fastball essential to the arsenal of every Major League pitcher, the index and middle finger are placed across one side of the horseshoe portion of the seam as it’s thrown at full velocity. The ball rotates bottom to top.

Prefer a Slider? That’s thrown with the index and middle finger close together and off-center as they run down the length of a horseshoe portion of the seam. The tight spin apes the fastball but it has a striking late break down and away when thrown by a righty pitcher to a righty batter. The pitcher creates the spin with a downward pull at release but the aerodynamics of the seams - not the action of the wrist - causes the spin. It’s the off-center spin that causes the ball to break.

You don’t see many Knuckleballs. They’re difficult to learn, locate — and hit! The pitcher puts the tips of both his index and middle fingers on one side of the narrow portion of the seam. He uses his thumb on the bottom of the ball to form the secure grip he needs to hurl the ball. The Knuckler is pushed straight out at release, with as little spin as possible. Because there’s virtually no spin, the wind pushes the ball around on its way to the plate.


The batter is intent on reaching first as the pitcher conspires with the catcher to keep him from doing just that. With absolutely no control over the ball, the batter will shrink his strike zone to maximize the number of pitches he receives. He’ll also do what he can to perfect his stance. Ready his bat. None of which will matter if he can’t get a sense of the ball rushing toward him. A sense of what the pitcher has done with his grip on the ball upon release.

Since a pitcher does his best not to betray his choice of pitch with the position of his arm or the type of motion he uses, that leaves the batter to read the pitch while it’s on the way. He doesn’t have much time. A fastball takes just seconds to reach the plate. A curveball slightly longer. The sooner he can identify the pitch from the pattern of seams and smooth surfaces streaking toward him, the better his chances of getting a clean hit.

If the ball is rotating top-to-bottom and feels slower than a fastball, the batter will prepare for a curve. Rotating bottom-to-top? He’ll watch to see if it’s six-to-twleve or four-to-ten as he readies himself in the seconds before the fastball reaches him. A slider will come in like a fastball, but the orientation of the stitches as it spins is different. And a knuckleball? Few pitchers throw it. When he’s facing one who does the batter’s decision to hit or hold will depend on the count and whether or not it looks like this particular pitch is headed for the strike zone.

Some batters have described the ball as looking big as the moon as it nears the plate. Others have described it as coming at them in slow motion. More often it’s just a fast moving streak with alternating seams. No matter what, the batter has milliseconds to use what he can discern of the ball’s movement to reach his decision about when to swing. Or whether or not to swing at all.

The lowly baseball.

Not very impressive.

Until it’s in flight.

Saturday, September 27, 2008

Who owns rain?

The idea that anyone “owns” rain struck Bolivians as so outrageous that it fueled a massive “Water Revolt” in 2000. Ownership of rainwater was not the immediate issue, but it came to symbolize everything Bolivians hated about the heavy-handed economic policies imposed by the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund.

Latin American countries burdened by poverty and debt were being pressured to privatize their economies in return for much-needed foreign investment. Bolivia’s government, headed by former dictator Hugo Banzer, obligingly gave a subsidiary of U.S. corporate giant Bechtel the rights to commercialize all water systems – including natural and agricultural systems – in water-starved Cochabamba, the third-largest city in Bolivia.

Water bills immediately doubled to a quarter of the average Cochabamban’s salary, with no improvement in the poor service. Bechtel also took over wells that had been drilled – with great effort and with no help from the government – by local cooperatives. Bechtel then installed meters, for which they charged the cooperatives, and started charging for well water that had previously been free and plentiful to cooperative members.

Cochabambans were livid. A citywide protest campaign rallied around resistance to leasing the rain,” reflecting the fear that Bechtel would begin to charge residents for collecting rainwater under the agreement that granted the company control of all water in the city. The protests spread to other cities; the government declared a state of siege and sent in troops to break up demonstrations; a teenage boy was killed and more then 100 people were wounded; the government told Bechtel executives it could no longer guarantee their safety; the water privatization plan failed catastrophically. Today, Bolivia, still poor and in debt, has had mixed success in standing by its definition of water as a basic human right rather than a marketplace commodity. (Sources on Cochabamba: Finnegan 2002; Shultz 2008)

But ownership of rain wasn’t invented by multinational corporations looking to make a buck off of vulnerable Third-World countries. Residents of Colorado and Utah have recently been surprised to learn that what seemed like a great, environmentally sound idea for watering their lawns and flushing their toilets – collecting rainwater runoff from their roofs – is illegal. Why? Because someone else owns the rain that falls on their property.

Unlike land, which pretty much stays put, water moves through a hydrologic cycle – on the ground, underground, and in the atmosphere – and can be reused by many different people. A complex body of federal and state water law has developed to sort out the inevitable conflicts. Western states tend to go by the doctrine of “prior appropriation” – whoever first puts the water to beneficial use and satisfies other legal requirements has first claim to the use of that water, followed by the next user, and so on until the water is put to its maximum use.

Colorado’s constitution grants appropriation rights over all “natural streams.” But Colorado courts’ unique interpretation of this law considers rain to be part of the groundwater and streams it replenishes – and nearly every stream in the state is already over-appropriated. A seemingly reasonable petition by Colorado farmer Kris Holstrom to collect rainwater from her roof was recently denied. She discovered, to her surprise, that the state of Colorado considers her roof a “tributary” to the San Miguel River.

As is often the case, water law struggles to keep up with advances in technology. States and their citizens are grappling with the contradictions between laws that ensure fair apportionment of water rights and individual attempts to develop creative environmental solutions. Policies that forbid people from collecting rainwater from their roofs in a barrel and using it to water their gardens strike many people as absurd. But what about rainwater catchment on a larger scale? In Utah, where it’s also illegal to catch rainwater without a permit, Mark Miller, a Salt Lake City Toyota dealer, had a more ambitious plan.

“He collects rainwater on the roof of his new building, stores it in a cistern and hopes to clean cars with it in a new, water-efficient car wash. But without a valid water right, state officials say he can’t legally divert rainwater. ‘I was surprised. We thought it was our water,’ Miller said. State officials say it’s an old legal concept to protect people who do have water rights. Boyd Clayton, the deputy state engineer, said, ‘Obviously if you use the water upstream, it won’t be there for the person to use it downstream.’”

Eventually city and state officials worked out a compromise with Miller.

“State officials say the Mark Miller agreement could become a blueprint for other rainwater projects. Homeowner projects, although technically illegal, are likely to stay off the state radar screen.” (Sources for Colorado and Utah water law: Hollenhorst 2008; Fitzgerald 2008; Water Encyclopedia n.d.)

The problem of scale is recognized by the state of Washington, which considers rain a water resource of the state. Residents are allowed to collect small quantities of rainwater without permits. The state has currently invited residents to help establish exactly what “small” means. (ENS 2008)

The state of Washington is wise to involve its citizens in working out fair and forward-thinking policies to conserve a valuable communal resource – in contrast to the approach of American investors in Bolivia. Like many other creators of misguided policies, Bechtel and World Bank executives believed that imposing their version of a free market would solve the chronic problems of water supply in Bolivia. They were stunned at the animosity their actions created. Protests and resistance to water privatization have also occurred in Panama, Argentina, Peru, Brazil, Trinidad, Indonesia, Pakistan, India, South Africa, Poland, and Hungary (Finnegan). Maybe it’s time for Americans to look to the Third World for guidance about whether water, the most basic of human needs, should be considered a consumer good – similar to, say, an iPod – or a human right.


Environment News Service. 2008. “Washington State Drafts Rainwater Collection Rule” (July 14). www.ens-newswire.com/ens/jul2008/2008-07-14-094.asp

Finnegan, William. “Letter from Bolivia: Leasing the Rain,” New Yorker, April 8, 2002. www.newyorker.com/archive/2002/04/08/020408fa_FACT1

Fitzgerald, Daniel. 2008. “Can you own the rain? Make harvesting the resource legal,” denverpost.com (June 27). www.denverpost.com/ci_9712027

Hollenhorst, John. 2008. “Catching rain water is against the law,” ksl.com (August 12). www.ksl.com/?nid=148&sid=4001252

Shultz, Jim. “Water in Cochabamba: After the Water Revolt; a Legend With Mixed Results,” excerpt from a chapter in Dignity and Defiance: Stories from Bolivia's Challenge to Globalization, University of California Press, 2008. Available for download at http://www.democracyctr.org/bolivia/investigations/water/

Water Encyclopedia: Science and Issues. n.d. “Law, Water.” www.waterencyclopedia.com/La-Mi/Law-Water.html

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Is the Mystery of the Disappearing Honey Bees Really a Mystery?

A Spring Without Bees: How Colony Collapse Disorder Has Endangered Our Food Supply, by Michael Schacker, presents a compelling case for immediate action on behalf of the honey bee. This thoroughly-documented narrative details the stresses on hives today and includes an in-depth discussion of the practical ways bees can be saved without hindering crop production.

I’d heard about disappearing hives and wondered what could cause bees to fly off and never return. It struck me as highly unusual bee behavior – but I’m no bee expert. Turns out it is unheard of. And not only that, but predators like wax moths and hive beetles, who usually jump at the chance to move in to an abandoned hive, have been observed to hold back for weeks.

Clearly something is wrong.

I’d read about the disappearing bees in France and the debate there over pesticides but since it never made the news in a big way here I assumed it was not anything that concerned the US. Then I read reports about possible confusion of the bees due to cell phone towers or maybe even their orientation to the sun. In short, I read about everything but a possible chemical component. Until this book.

Appalled at what Schacker has written and I’ve gone on to verify, I feel compelled to share this information.

It is clear the bees, who don’t have a robust immune system to begin with, are being pushed to their limit. Varroa destructor mites in the hive leave them susceptible to disease. Hives trucked around the country, following the crops like miniature migrant workers, leave them stressed. The substitution of lower-cost, syrup-based winter feeds leave the honey bees introduce chemicals to their food supply. Residue from a new type of pesticide, Imidacloprid, in the pollen and areas around the pollinating crops also impacts the honey bee.

I have no interest in bashing chemical companies, but the fact remains that IMD had been put into production via Section 18 Pesticide Emergency Exemptions with the EPA. This allows the manufacturer to get the product to market before the mandated testing has been performed. In theory this has valid applications, I’m sure. In practice, this means we have an unproven toxin being applied to our food supply. In the case of Imidacloprid – a neurotoxin derivative of DDT – almond, blueberry, and a host of other crops dependent upon pollination by bees are being sprayed or planted with painted seeds without benefit of thorough study of IMD’s effect.

One could claim the use of such exemptions helps get beneficial products to market and allows the US to enjoy a variety of foods at a reasonable price. Even with this positive view of exemptions, prudence dictates testing for harmful effects to animals and people. But we also know that the testing required for any new chemical or medicine has hoops to jump through that make very little sense. However, in the case of IMD, where bees have literally abandoned over 30% of the their hives in conjunction with pollination of IMD crops, something between no hoops and too many is definitely in order. Quickly.

To satisfy beekeeper concerns after the fact, IMD has been tested. The problem is, the testing has been done at lethal levels. These tests show that bees will avoid anything approaching this concentration. But they’re not encountering this level in the fields. They’re ingesting a number of sub-lethal amounts as they pollinate crops, sip from water pooled in the area of the crops, rest in areas covered with IMD. The net effect to the bee is a growing chemical load. One that is too much for them to carry.

Whether IMD would be as disastrous to the bees if it were the only stressor is a moot point. The fact is that in combination or not, it appears to be the last straw. Bees who ingest bits of IMD over the course of their foraging trip become “drunk” and disoriented. They lose the ability to find their way back to the hive. They don’t die at the entrance to the hive as bees do when they’ve been poisoned by pesticides. The IMD is not killing them outright but it is confusing them to the point where they cannot navigate their way home – and so die.

In France, the evidence and outcry by the beekeepers has been enough to ban IMD. Within a couple of years of the ban, the hives were back to their former numbers. That has been compelling enough to the French that IMD has been banned. Here in the areas where the bee die-offs have occurred (all IMD areas), bees feasting on the pollen of untreated crops have not been affected. With all the advances in organic farming and the premium paid for organic goods, it is worth our time to look into banning IMD, insisting on thorough testing of toxins with a neurological mechanism, and broader implementation of organic farming methods.

Using pesticides on crop pests results in the need for ever-stronger pesticides as the pests develop resistance to the formerly lethal dose. Quitting this escalation now, while we still have bees to save, makes a lot more sense than continuing doggedly on our way, insisting that something cannot be the problem because it isn’t a problem in the lab at a lethal level when we can observe and verify that the newly-introduced variable is the IMD. And even if we’re wrong. Even if what we think is solid evidence pointing to IMD is not actually evidence of the true cause and something else is harming the bees, what is the harm in putting a three-year moratorium on IMD and seeing if Colony Collapse Disorder becomes a thing of the past? It’s not as if we are looking at data from one beekeeper. Or one crop. Or even from one country!

Bottom line, our crops need pollinators and the bees need our help. Now. Check out the steps you can take to give them a hand.


Schacker, Michael.  A Spring without Bees: How Colony Collapse Disorder Has Endangered Our Food Supply.  Connecticut/The Lyons Press (2008).

Saturday, September 13, 2008

Good News: Fewer Choices

I read some great news in the New York Times the other day: supermarkets are getting smaller and offering fewer choices. “After years of building bigger stores — many larger than a football field and carrying 60,000 items — retailers are experimenting with radically smaller grocery stores…. ‘The average person goes shopping for 22 minutes,’ said Phil Lempert, who edits Supermarketguru.com, a Web site that tracks retail trends. ‘You can’t see 30,000 or 40,000 products. We are moving into an era when people want less assortment.’”

Personally, I agree with many of the 106 commenters on the article that “hell is like a big box store” where you can’t find what you’re looking for and there are no employees to ask – and when you do find it, there are a hundred feet of variations, and you are at a loss as to whether there is any meaningful difference among them.

The prevailing wisdom among American economists and policy-makers is that no matter how much choice consumers have, they always want more. But a growing body of research shows that in many cases, people with fewer choices are happier. Swarthmore psychology professor Barry Schwartz has cogently explained why in his often-cited book The Paradox of Choice and in an article in Scientific American (see references below). One of the most powerful reasons is opportunity cost: losses have a much greater psychological impact than gains, so the more choices you have to forego to pick one among them, the more the unhappiness of what you’re missing out on outweighs the pleasure of having the item you chose.

Schwartz cites research that shows that more options often leads to less satisfaction or resistance to even making a choice. Lyle Brenner of the University of Florida, for instance, showed that subjects assigned a lesser dollar value to a magazine if they were choosing it from many magazines and a higher value when presented with the same magazine by itself. In other research, Sheena Iyengar and Mark Lepper set up a table at a specialty food store, offering samples of jam and a coupon to buy any flavor. Half the subjects had six flavors to choose from and half had 24. Overwhelmingly, subjects were more likely to actually purchase jam when they had had fewer choices.

The tyranny of too much choice particularly affects what Schwartz calls “optimizers” – people who are not satisfied with a decision unless they have evaluated all the options and chosen the best one. In contrast, “satisficers,” a term Schwartz borrows from the late Nobel Prize-winning psychologist and economist Herbert Simon, establish a set of criteria, look until they come to the first option that meets all the criteria, and stop there, without considering if there are even better choices.

So, here comes a confession. My name is Margaret, and I’m an optimizer (all together, now, “Hi, Margaret” – and, by the way, where's the nearest 12-step group for optimizers?). I lose sleep over things like picking an Internet provider, cell phone plan, and investment options for my meager savings. I would have much more free time if I did not feel compelled to do extensive comparison shopping for electronic equipment, appliances, insurance, and every other big or small household or personal need. Clothes shopping, at least, is less stressful since my daughter suggested I buy all clothes of a similar color. God bless black, navy, and brown – it makes getting dressed in the morning so much simpler.

Another complicating factor of too much choice is the way that humans make decisions. Economists assume that decisions are made “rationally,” by which they mean each person makes judgments that are consistent, according to that person’s values, and that the decisions will predict the level of happiness for that person. But Schwartz’s work challenges the assumption of predictability. And a large body of research shows that there are strong biases in human decision-making that challenge the assumption of consistency.

Amos Tversky and Daniel Kahneman (1981) conducted an experiment that showed that people will make a different decision depending on how the question is framed. Subjects were asked to make a decision about a hypothetical case of a public health program to combat an outbreak of a lethal disease that threatens 600 people. The problem was framed in two different ways. One framing emphasized saving lives. The program would save 200 lives, and without it there was a 1/3 chance of saving everyone and a 2/3 chance of saving no one. Most people chose to implement the program. The other, essentially equivalent framing emphasized losing lives. With the program, 400 people would die; without it, there was a 1/3 chance that no one would die, vs. a 2/3 chance that everyone would die. With this framing, most people chose not to implement the program.

Barry Schwartz argues that there is a “strong correlation between maximizing and measures of depression” and that “overwhelming choice at least contributes to the epidemic of unhappiness spreading through modern society.” He ends his article with some warnings about the wrong-headedness of many policies that are being touted as “what people want.”

“A point is reached at which increased choice brings increased misery rather than increased opportunity. It appears that American society has long since passed that point…. Our society would be well served to rethink its worship of choice. As I write this, public debate continues about privatization of Social Security (so people could select their retirement investments), privatization of Medicare and prescription drug benefits (so people could choose their own health plans), and choice in public education. And in the private sphere, medical ethicists treat the idea of "patient autonomy" as sacrosanct, as if it goes without saying that having patients choose their treatments will make them better off. Software developers design their products so that users can customize them to their own specific needs and tastes, as if the resulting complexity and confusion are always a price worth paying to maximize user flexibility. And manufacturers keep offering new products or new versions of old products, as if we needed more variety. The lesson of my research is that developments in each of these spheres may well rest on assumptions that are deeply mistaken.”

I’m with Schwartz: the American people of the twenty-first century need fewer choices. With all the time that would be freed up by eliminating the need to evaluate meaningless choices, maybe we would have more time to think about what kind of a country we want to live in, what is the best way to relate to the rest of the world, and what kind of leaders we need to take us where we want to go.


Martin, Andrew. “Miles of Aisles for Milk? Not Here,” New York Times (Sept. 9, 2008). www.nytimes.com/2008/09/10/business/10grocery.html

Schwartz, Barry. The Paradox of Choice: Why More Is Less. Ecco/HarperCollins Publishers (2004).

Schwartz, Barry. “The Tyranny of Choice,” Scientific American 290, no. 4 (Apr. 2004), pp. 70-75.

Tversky, Amos, and Daniel Kahneman. “The Framing of Decisions and the Psychology of Choice,” Science, New Series 211, no. 4481 (Jan. 30, 1981), pp. 453-458.

Wednesday, September 3, 2008


Back in 1961, when John F. Kennedy called for the United Sates to “commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the Moon and returning him safely to the Earth”1 it was a daunting proposal. He was asking us to pull together as a nation. To expend millions of dollars and hours of effort toward a common purpose. To put other national priorities aside and focus on this one monumental task. And he was asking us to do all this without promising a specific tangible benefit.

It’s become abundantly clear that as long as we’re dependent upon foreign sources of oil, our economy is subject to the dictates of nations who don’t necessarily have our best interests at heart. We can ration and lower speed limits - effectively slowing transit to a crawl. We can drill offshore and in wildlife refuges – hoping all the while that we don’t cause irrevocable harm to ecosystems already under stress. We can legislate ever more stringent mileage requirements for passenger automobiles – counting on the general public to respect those limits this time rather than flaunting their disregard by flocking to non-passenger classifications of automobiles once again. We can do all these things and when all is said and done, we’ll have invested money in initiatives that have no teeth and wasted time pursuing solutions that ultimately solve nothing.

It’s 2008 and we must again pull together for a common purpose. We must again work together toward a common goal “because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win.”2 It’s time to commit ourselves as a nation to achieving the goal of energy independence. To do this, we’ll have to take a new look at existing solutions and come up with new technologies. Nuclear power must come back on the table. The effective use of wind power, solar energy, lighter-weight vehicles, alternatives to fossil fuels… These are all imperative if we’re to have an economy that responds to the whims and dictates of our own marketplace more readily than to that of other nations.

It doesn’t matter if the ideas come from Republicans or Democrats. It doesn’t matter if the ideas sound like the looniest ideas under the sun. We need to evaluate them all and identify the handful with real possibility. Then we need to get to work for this common purpose – which has immense tangible benefit – because we don’t have a choice. We’ve put ourselves in an untenable position between the real and figurative rock and hard place. We’ve got the argument structured so that it’s a zero sum game where something is lost in order to gain something else. It’s time to change the game and engage ourselves fully in this imperative. We need to put some new ideas on the table and make them work if we don’t want to drill in protected habitats yet do want to drive comfortable cars. If we don’t want to pollute the air with noxious toxins yet do want to keep our interstate commerce running at the current rate.

And we need to do it right now.

Let’s generate serious discussion that leads to a productive outcome. Please add your your solutions for energy independence.

1. Kennedy, John F. “Man on the Moon” Special Address to Congress. 25 May 1961.
2. Kennedy, John F. Address at Rice University. 12 September 1962.

Friday, August 29, 2008

What’s the difference between a chimpanzee, a sewage sludge hauler, and my mother?

As I discovered while following the plight of an Austrian chimpanzee called Hiasl, that’s a very good question.

A Chimpanzee
Hiasl was captured in Sierra Leone in 1982. A pharmaceutical company attempted to smuggle him into Austria for its vivisection laboratory, but he was seized in customs. In 2007, the sanctuary where he had ended up went bankrupt, and a philanthropist wanted to donate money for his support. But according to Austrian law, only a person can receive money. The sanctuary’s creditors would get the donation – and the vivisection lab would get Hiasl.

Paula Stibbe, a British animal rights activist, petitioned the Austrian courts to be appointed as Hiasl’s legal guardian, but she would have to establish that Hiasl was a person. Chimpanzees, the argument went, shared 96 to 98.4% of human DNA and had a culture of sorts, so they should be considered people and granted certain human rights.

The Austrian courts rejected the argument, reasoning that Hiasl did not need a guardian, because he is not a disabled person – he is a normal chimpanzee. Furthermore, comparing a chimpanzee to a disabled person might encourage the perception that disabled people are like animals. The case is now being appealed to the European Court of Human Rights. (See References below for sources on Hiasl's story).

My Mother
I know what the Austrian judge means. Advocates for considering apes as humans rely on arguments such as this one, quoted in What It Means to Be 98% Chimpanzee: Apes, People, and Their Genes, by bioethicist Jonathan Marks (2002, p. 190) in a discussion of the ethical quagmire such an argument bogs down in:

“We give human rights to children, to the aged and to the mentally infirm, to the autistic, to the deaf and dumb.... [Apes] can reason and communicate at least as well as some of the children and disabled humans to whom we accord human rights.”

My mother, in the last 7 years of her life, was one of those disabled people to whom Hiasl was being compared. I find that comparison inappropriate. A devastating stroke left my mother paralyzed and unable to communicate, even at the level that a chimpanzee might ask for a banana. When I was appointed as her legal guardian, it was to administer the complex legal, financial, medical, and personal affairs of what had once been a thoughtful, vibrant, active human being. It was not to accept donations on her behalf to save her from being sent to a vivisection laboratory.

Using a certain level of cognition, communications, and culture as a test to determine personhood has troubling implications. Scholars like Marks and linguist Steven Pinker are appalled at the common assumption that the “factoid” that chimpanzees share 98% of human DNA means that they are 98% human (Marks, 2002; Pinker, The Language Instinct: How the Mind Creates Language, 1995, pp. 334–351). Marks points out that using degree of cognition to define humanity supports the central argument of books like The Bell Curve that put what looks like genetics at the service of repellent social and political philosophies.

Pinker analyzes the scientifically unsound nature of many of the claims that apes can use human language, like in the case of the chimpanzee Washoe, who was said to have learned American Sign Language:

“This preposterous claim is based on the myth that ASL is a crude system of pantomimes and gestures, rather than a full language with complex phonology, morphology, and syntax.” (p. 337)

The people who claimed to have taught Washoe ASL were all hearing people, Pinker says. The only deaf native ASL signer on the team asserted that none of Washoe’s gestures were really ASL signs.

We’re not doing a favor to animals, either, by insisting that they must be nearly as smart and articulate as we are to be worthy of humane treatment. Pinker asks, “What about all the creepy, nasty, selfish animals who do not remind us of ourselves.... Can we go ahead and wipe them out?” (p. 336)

A Sewage Sludge Hauler
We are especially confused about what personhood means in the U. S., due to the unusual interpretations we have historically made of the centuries-old legal principle that treats corporations as “persons”:

“The 14th Amendment was passed to protect the rights of former slaves after the Civil War. However, that very amendment became the favorite tool of lawyers seeking to establish corporations as “natural persons,” assuring them the human rights of due process, equal protection, freedom of speech, and protection against unreasonable search and seizure. In the same year they extended the 14th Amendment to corporations, the Supreme Court overturned a major civil rights act....

"Throughout the U.S., the civil rights of African-Americans were being scaled back in other courts, paving the way for segregation. In 1938, Justice Hugo Black remarked that of the cases in which the Supreme Court applied the 14th Amendment during the first 50 years after Santa Clara vs. Southern Pacific, “less that one-half of 1% invoked it in protection of the Negroe race, and more than 50% asked that its benefits be extended to corporations.” (Ecology Center)

In 2006, one township in Pennsylvania was so fed up with corporations dumping toxic sewage sludge that it took an unusual action, described in Mother Jones:

“[Licking Township] had passed an anti-sludge ordinance, only to be sued by a sludge hauler called Synagro, which argued that the township had infringed on its rights under the 14th Amendment, passed after the Civil War to guarantee "equal protection" to all. Synagro could make that argument because since the late 19th century, the Supreme Court has defined corporations as legal "persons," conferring on them many of the same rights that belong to flesh-and-blood citizens. And so, Licking's supervisors did something that has been variously described as creative, futile, or out-and-out revolutionary: They passed an ordinance declaring that henceforth, in their township, 'Corporations shall not be considered to be "persons" protected by the Constitution of the United States.'"

What's the Difference?
It's hard to dispute that humans ought to feel some responsibility for getting Hiasl out of the fix they have put him in. But conferring personhood on chimpanzees is not the answer. The world doesn’t need more confusion about who is a “real” human being and what hierarchy of rights should be granted to people who are “almost” human. On that topic, we’re confused enough already.

Bryner, Jeanna. "Court Claim: Chimps Are People, Too." Live Science, May 29, 2008.

Connolly, Kate. "Court to Rule if Chimp Has Human Rights." UK Guardian/The Observer, April 1, 2007.

Ecology Center. "Corporation as Person." Spring 2001. Berkeley, CA.

Keim, Brandon. "Should Chimpanzees Be Given Human Rights?" Wired Science. May 11, 2007.

Kole, William J. "Activists Want Chimp Declared a 'Person.'" Breitbart.com, May 4, 2008.

Marks, Jonathan. What It Means to Be 98% Chimpanzee: Apes, People, and Their Genes. Ewing, NJ: University of California Press, 2002.

Pinker, Steven. The Language Instinct: How the Mind Creates Language. New York: HarperCollins, 1995, pp. 334-351.

Stafford, Ned. "Chimp Denied Legal Guardian.", BioEd Online. April 26, 2007.

tzramsoy. "If a Chimp Gets Its Rights…" BrainEthics, May 29, 2007.

Yeoman, Barry. "When Is a Corporation Like a Freed Slave?"
Mother Jones, November/December 2006.

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Who was David Taylor?

I’m tremendously interested in the ways technology evolved in the 20th century. There are so many things we use today that simply didn’t exist at the end of the 1800’s. And yet here we are, taking ocean voyages on vessels with gyroscopes to stabilize them, watching planes take off from the deck of carriers, lighting our world with bulbs instead of flames. For me, one of the most fascinating innovations of that time is the use of model basins for the testing of scale-models of ships before the ships were built –- a practice still in widespread use today.

At the start of the twentieth century, the US Navy needed to design ships of metal, with propellers and engines, to replace their fleet of wooden sailing vessels. Until that time the norm had been to build a ship and then see how it performed. This time, the Navy decided to follow the example of the navies of Europe and test scale-models first. But before they could test the models, they needed a place to test them.

They chose David Watson Taylor, a brilliant mathematician who’d graduate with distinction from both the US Naval Academy and the Royal Naval College in England, to oversee the construction of the Experimental Model Basin at the Old Navy Yard in Washington, DC. His task was to construct a basin – trench – to test the models, record his findings, and use those results to suggest modifications to the design of the vessels before any work on them was begun. It wouldn’t be as simple as it sounds.

The first thing Taylor had to do was construct a basin and a building to house that basin on the ground provided by the Navy. They gave him land very close to the Anacostia River, with weak streams running underneath and quicksand at one end. Taylor had his plans. He had his land. And he had no time to waste. He came up with the idea of preparing the ground beneath the basin, then driving pilings into the soil on either side of the space for the walls of the basin and creating a wall around that area. The intent was to keep the water in the soil from exerting pressure on the outside floor and walls of the basin – which would cause it to collapse when not filled. His modifications worked and the walls stood.

He decided to use alum to get the dirt in the water from the Potomac –- used to fill the basin –- to settle before it was in the basin because he needed clear water. He came up with the idea of allowing a stream to run into the basin to keep it filled with a constant amount of water. He designed baffles and wave breakers to settle the motion of the water between tests and designed a massive towing carriage to run along tracks mounted on the upper edges of the basin while towing the models through the water in the basin….

He did all this before he could even get started. When he finally was ready to test the models he found that the paraffin models had lost their shape in the heat of a DC summer. But he couldn’t wait for cooler weather and he had no way to keep the water cooler. He needed something else and here is where his innovation saved the day. Taylor decided to make his models out of pine because it would hold its shape and was in plentiful supply. To make identical models posed a problem. Doing it by hand just didn’t afford the necessary precision. He designed a machine that would turn out identical model forms. While he was at it, he realized he could build the models in a way that would allow different types of hulls and other external parts to be varied by test. Now that he had the identical models, he needed a uniform surface. He hit upon painting each model part with several coats of varnish – ensuring a smooth surface.

Taylor’s tests formed the basis of many of the principles of hull design still in use today. His work on the “wetted surface of ships,” the optimal ratio of width to length of a ship, the type and pitch of propeller, the use of a bulbous bow beneath the waterline… All of these came out of Taylor’s testing. And he was one of the founding members of NACA –- now NASA –- because of his conviction that it would someday be possible to transport planes on ships.

Rear Admiral David Watson Taylor. I’ll write more about his work in the future!

Thursday, August 14, 2008

Review: When Science Goes Wrong

When Science Goes Wrong: Twelve Tales from the Dark Side of Discovery by neuroscientist Simon LeVay (Plume, 2008) is fascinating reading for those of us who take an interest in the impact of science on society. LeVay presents 12 stories of disaster in a range of scientific and technological fields such as medicine, engineering, psychology, meteorology, forensic science, and volcanology, and over a period of time from 1928 to the present.

The failures occurred for a variety of reasons, raising a number of philosophical and policy questions. Some of the failures appear to be mostly due to individual recklessness. Geologist Stanley Williams ignored warnings and scorned protective gear while leading an expedition into the crater of an active volcano in 1993, causing the deaths of 9 people. A barrage of recriminations and justifications followed. Was Williams a daring innovator making invaluable contributions to science that could not be obtained in any other way? Or did a “culture of daredevilry” in the field of volcanology lead to bad science and unnecessary risks?

Other stories illustrate design flaws or ignorance of scientific principles that were only understood decades later. In 1928, the St. Francis Dam, built by water engineer William Mulholland to fuel the growth of the fledgling city of Los Angeles, failed catastrophically, leaving a 40-mile swath of death and destruction. A modern analysis attributed the failure to ignorance of the principle of hydrostatic uplift, which causes water seeping into the foundation to exert upward pressure and destabilize the dam.

Another design flaw described by LeVay ocurred in a nuclear reactor. In 1961, three operators died at the National Reactor Testing Station on Snake River Plain, Idaho, when one of them pulled out a control rod beyond its sixteen-inch safety limit, causing a runaway chain reaction. The reason was never established – theories ranged from a lack of training to murder-suicide, but clearly the design of the control rod made it too susceptible to human error.

These particular design flaws have been corrected in modern dams and nuclear reactors. But what principles are we not fully understanding today? Which of these failures of understanding will lead to disasters that will be clearly explained only in retrospect, by future analysts? In addition to unknown design flaws, LeVay’s stories invite us to consider the gamut of possible human errors: shortsightedness, arrogance, incompetence, fatigue, blind ideology, poor training, low morale, greed, ambition, lack of resources, failure to heed warnings, pressure for quick results, out-and-out fraud, and plain bad luck.

LeVay, a scientist himself, is not calling for a halt to all scientific and technological endeavor, or for rejecting science in favor of, say, creationism. But his book does give cause for considering what the magnitude of the stakes would be for a given scientific activity if something were to go wrong.

This brings me to the discussion of nuclear power begun by my co-blogger Gina in her last post and continued in a comment by red craig with a cogent defense of nuclear energy as a source of clean power. I agree with red craig that coal can hardly be called “safe.” But I believe the comment oversimplifies the question of nuclear waste disposal, and there are also other major policy issues.

Physics Today, in an analysis of Barack Obama’s and John McCain’s energy policy positions, notes: “Nuclear power represents more than 70 percent of our non-carbon generated electricity. It is unlikely that we can meet our aggressive climate goals if we eliminate nuclear power from the table.” But, the blog notes, “there is no future for expanded nuclear without first addressing four key issues: public right-to-know, security of nuclear fuel and waste, waste storage, and proliferation.”

Kmareka.com has a series of posts about a nuclear accident in Rhode Island in 1964 that caused the death of an inadequately trained operator. The posts consider the long-term waste-disposal problem posed by the site and the liability to taxpayers under the Price-Anderson Act for disasters of unimaginable magnitude.

The recent controversy over the potential nuclear waste disposal site in Yucca Mountain, Nevada, also raises a number of questions. An ad released by the Barack Obama campaign criticizes John McCain for supporting the development of the site, while showing video of McCain objecting to the presence of nuclear waste in Arizona. The expense for storing nuclear waste there is also enormous. According to a recent report, the Yucca Mountain project will cost $38.7 billion more than was originally anticipated.

LeVay concludes his book by observing “There, but for the grace of God, go I.” Errors occur constantly in the practice of science – they just usually don’t lead to major catastrophes. LeVay raises the question: Can – and should – anything be done to make science go wrong less often? He argues for an appropriate level of regulation and strict oversight, especially when science is applied to human needs and activities, which is when most of the disastrous consequences are likely to occur.

The current climate in our nation – hostility to regulation, reliance on the free market to solve all problems, and starvation of the national budget through extreme tax reduction and gargantuan military expenses – is hardly conducive to strict oversight of complex and potentially dangerous scientific activities. Hopefully, that climate will change with the next administration. But are we confident that we can trust the administration after that, and after that, and for the next thousand or so years that nuclear waste will be around, to keep us and our descendents safe?

Thursday, August 7, 2008

Nuclear Power Now?

August 1945.  America uses the horrifying and horrible power of atomic bombs in nuclear attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.  Today we struggle with our attitudes toward the use of nuclear power for domestic, peaceful purposes.  We could attribute this unease to some sort of collective squeamishness related to those days in 1945 but my informal survey reveals far less moral concern lurking behind our reticence.  The possibility of meltdown and the long-term safety of waste disposal top the list of considerations with, "We'll just wind up paying a fortune for nuclear power, too" close behind.

Given the cost of construction, containment, waste disposal, and operations it's naive to argue that nuclear power will wind up being a bargain in the long run.  There's just no way to guaranty it.  Then again, should monetary benefits be the test?  What if a switch to nuclear power sources would make a significant positive difference in Global Climate Change?  What if a a switch would put us ahead in terms of our carbon footprint -- that distressing number we can each calculate on sites like EarthLab -- by causing less damage to the environment in the long run?

Unfortunately, that's another question without a solid answer.  Any nuclear waste disposal schemes have to remain effective for generations.  They have to withstand damage by seismic events while ensuring there is no leakage.  It won't do us any good to reduce our carbon imprint while poisoning our groundwater and soil.  Given the current level of technology, can we safely and effectively dispose of nuclear waste for all time?  How about for the time it will take to develop and test more effective methods?  Is that a gamble worth taking?

And what about a nuclear accident?  Today we can build reactors with passive safety features.  Features that use the laws of physics to slow nuclear reactions in the event of a problem -- without the need for immediate human intervention.  These smart facilities don't rely upon effective communication, proper operating procedures, or human cooperation to keep things under control in the event of a malfunction.  Is that enough?

As recently as twenty or thirty years ago -- the days of Chernobyl and Three Mile Island -- the state of technology gave us reason to pause.  Are our concerns warranted today?  Will nuclear power be more expensive in the long run?  Will we have difficulty disposing of the waste effectively?  Are nuclear accidents with severe implications a forgone conclusion?  Is it time for America to embrace the use of nuclear power?

Please weigh in with your thoughts.

Thursday, July 31, 2008

About the Blog

In this blog, Gina Hagler and Margaret Balch-Gonzalez share our thoughts as women, science writers, and citizens about the pursuit of scientific knowledge and how it affects our lives. The blog’s name honors Maria Gaetana Agnesi, an extraordinary 18th-century Italian mathematician and social activist. In her day, Agnesi was something of a rock star. But today, she and her works have mostly been forgotten – except for one odd historical accident.

First, some background. Agnesi, born in Milan in 1718, was a child prodigy. Her wealthy and enlightened father doted on her and gave her every educational opportunity he would have given a son. At age 9, she delivered an oration to an academic audience, in Latin, defending the right of women to be educated. By age 11, she spoke 7 languages. In 1748, she published one of the most important mathematics textbooks of the 18th century, in which she integrated, revised, and clarified the work of such well-known contemporaries as Leibnitz, Newton, Kepler, and L’Hopital in the emerging field of infinitesimal calculus.

The book caused a sensation among intellectuals all over Europe. Among her admirers were Pope Benedict XIV and the Empress Maria Theresa of Austria – Italy was under the control of Austria at the time – who presented Agnesi with costly jewels. At a time when women were virtually excluded from academia, the Pope appointed her to a professorship at the University of Bologna, although she never actually accepted the position. Her book was translated into French and English, a sign of its importance.

In his English translation, Cambridge mathematics professor John Colson made a bizarre mistake that might provoke a weary sigh of recognition among 21st-century women dismayed by media representations of Hillary Clinton and Michelle Obama. Agnesi briefly discussed a mathematical curve known as versiera, or “turn”; Colson mistook the name for avversiera, or “witch.” Ever since, students of mathematics have been surprised to stumble across a relatively minor curve called the Witch of Agnesi that has few noteworthy characteristics other than its startling name.

Ironically, this silly mistranslation allowed Agnesi’s name to linger at the fringes of the public eye far longer than it would have if she had “only” been a brilliant woman revered by her contemporaries. In many ways, her challenges seem like an exaggerated version of the burden on modern women of “doing it all.” After her mother died when Agnesi was 14, she ran her father’s household and raised her siblings, who eventually numbered 20 after her father’s two remarriages. At the same time, she sustained a heavy schedule of demanding intellectual work. Her father showcased her erudition by hosting frequent “salons” – a popular feature of intellectual life at the time – attended by distinguished patricians and scholars.

At age 21, exhausted and disturbed by the lavish lifestyle of her father’s social circle, Agnesi had a breakdown. She begged her father to excuse her from public appearances and allow her to enter a convent. Her father was devastated. They negotiated an agreement that allowed for a simpler, more spiritual lifestyle for Agnesi, and she continued her work in mathematics, philosophy, and science.

But Agnesi’s true passion, inspired by her spiritual values, was social action. After her father died in 1752, Agnesi abandoned intellectual pursuits and devoted the rest of her life to charitable works for poor and sick women, to the consternation of many European intellectuals. In spite of vigorous protests, she insisted on the value of being a whole person, engaged with knowledge for its own sake, but also committed to improving some of the appalling social and economic conditions of her day.

Being a complex, integrated person was hard in Agnesi’s time, and it’s still hard today. Agnesi succeeded at a number of endeavors in the intellectual, domestic, and social realms. She serves as an alternative to a model of accomplishment more familiar to us, patterned on traditional Western male values: dedication to one narrow area, to the exclusion of all other areas, with the goal of winning top ranking over other contenders.

Inspired by Maria Gaetana Agnesi and countless other women and men dedicated to understanding how to acquire and use knowledge to serve their communities, Margaret and Gina humbly invite you to visit our blog, read our weekly posts, and join the conversation with your comments.


Cupillari, Antonella. 2008. A Biography of Maria Gaetana Agnesi, an Eighteenth-Century Woman Mathematician. Lewiston, NY: Mellen Press.

Mazzotti, Massimo. 2007. The World of Maria Gaetana Agnesi, Mathematician of God. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Press.

Messbarger, Rebecca, and Paula Findlen, editors and translators. 2005. Maria Gaetana Agnesi et al.: The Contest for Knowledge. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Morrow, Charlene, and Teri Perl, editors. 1998. Notable Women in Mathematics: A Biographical Dictionary. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press.

Richards, Joan L., Professor of History, Brown University. Personal communication.

Weisstein, Eric W. “Witch of Agnesi.” From MathWorld – A Wolfram Web Resource, .