Ask a Scientist

by Meghan D. Rosen

Askascientist Each year, the Science Communication program at the University of California, Santa Cruz accepts 10 students and, for nine writing-intensive months, teaches them how to become better science journalists. This year, I am happy to say that I am one of the 10. My nine fellow classmates come from a wide variety of scientific backgrounds (from marine biology to mechanical engineering to neuroscience). We have a self-proclaimed ‘fish guts scientist,’ a potato pathologist, a reality TV star with survival skills (from the Discovery Channel’s, ‘The Colony’), a raptor surveyor (aka ‘hawk lady’), and an agricultural writer who grew up on a dairy farm.

It’s a diverse bunch of people, with a broad set of experiences, and the best part is: they all like to talk about science. I think I’m in heaven.

One of our recent assignments was to answer a classmate’s question that was about (or loosely connected to) our field of study. The constraints: we couldn’t use any jargon in the answer, it had to be clear to a non-scientist, and we had to do it in 200 words or less. Here are some of the question ideas we kicked around: Why does a golf ball have dimples? How does a submarine judge depth? Why do tarantulas migrate? How does the brain form memories?

I liked the challenge – answer a could-be complicated question with clarity–, and the idea of directly connecting scientists with people looking for answers to life’s curiosities.

So, this month, I’m trying an experiment for the readers of 3QD. Do you have any burning science-based questions that you’d like answered? Do you want to know how something works? Is there anything that you wish was just explained more clearly? If so, leave a question in the comments. I’ll solicit answers from my classmates, and get back to you next month. To help us get us started, I’ve included my own question and answer below (and yes, I stuck to the word limit –I even had two words to spare!).

Question: Why are doctors now recommending fewer screenings for breast cancer?

The idea behind breast cancer screening is simple: the sooner you find a lump, the sooner you can fight it. Until two years ago, the standard for care was frequent screenings and aggressive treatment. We were constantly on guard (yearly mammograms) and ever ready to wage surgical war (lump or breast removal). Intuitively, it made sense – root out the cancerous seed before it sprouts. Early detection should save lives, right? Not necessarily.

In 2009, an independent panel of experts appointed by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services found that mammograms didn’t actually cut the breast cancer death rate by much: only about 15 percent. But we were screening more women than ever. So why were so many people still dying?

The problem isn’t detection: mammograms are pretty good at pinpointing the location of an abnormal cell cluster in the breast. But not all abnormal cells are cancerous, and mammograms can’t tell the harmless ones from the dangerous ones. In other words, a lump is not a lump is not a lump.

Today, doctors are divided. Some think excessive screening forces thousands of women to undergo unnecessary surgeries. Others think one life saved is worth the cost.

Thomas Pynchon makes me giggle

by Fred Zackel

Thomas_pynchon As the 2011 Nobel Prize announcement nears (October 12th for our handicappers), the U.K. betting site Ladbrokes has posted odds for the prize, putting Thomas Pynchon at (give or take) 10/1 odds to win the prize for literature.

I got my fingers crossed.

First off, Pynchon is clever and that makes his playfulness most pleasurable. His favorite playground is America’s fondness for conspiracy theories. These theories, no matter how whacko they sound, summarize and reflect cherished American values and morals. Lots of us are alienated from official reality. We find it easy (and maybe self-defeating) to deny its validity. (As a student of mine once said, “I think a lot of the time we take for granted the history of the world.”) But what if our own conclusions are denied legitimacy? What Pynchon does that is so subversive is to deny them closure. And seeing how those well-intentioned wackos are left high and dry actually adds to my merriment.

I first discovered Pynchon as the best man for Richard Farina’s marriage to Mimi Baez. I was a big fan of Farina’s novel “Been Down So Long It Looks Up to Me,” and so I went looking for Pynchon’s first novel. “V” was a rabbit hole, or maybe an oubliette. I fell. Maybe I was pushed. One enigmatic woman may have been at the nexus of the great events of the 20th century? I also traveled decades and the world with a schlemihl named Benny Profane and with Herbert Stencil, questing after his father, who may have been a legendary British spy. Hunting alligators in the New York sewers? A living figurehead lashed to the bow-sprit of a boat? Jewish princesses getting nose jobs? Coeds with 72 pairs of Bermuda shorts? All culminating in the trash heaps of Malta a half-century before? A long, strange trip indeed. And I was hooked by a sideways look at how we perceive reality. And conspiracy. “They – whoever ‘they’ were – seemed to be calling the tune,” was one ominous thought. Later, “Any situation takes shape from events much lower than the merely human.” Most importantly I learned that progress was best imagined as only a new coat of paint on our xebec adrift.

Read more »

Tripping Over the Bulges: What Really Matters Morally

by Tauriq Moosa

How should we tackle things we believe are wrong and should be illegal, when it seems their very status of being ‘illegal’ gives rise to the problems we oppose. It’s not drugs per se that bothers us, but the violence and destruction that can arise. It’s not sex itself that’s a problem, it’s how we consider sex and apply it to policy decisions. But using our emotions and knee-jerk reactions and letting it simmer within policies can have disastrous effects for us.

I’ve written before that I don’t quite understand the so-called inherent moral problem of necrophilia. Sure, the deceased’s loved ones might be upset, offended and so on. But aside from these interests, what else should we be concerned about? Health reasons, you say? Well, that’s a problem even for living and consensual partners in sex acts, given STD’s, trust, promiscuity and so on. What makes necrophilia particularly a problem?

The main thing about acts of necrophilia, it seems to me, is revulsion. What makes it particularly potent is the combination of ‘sex’ with death. Sex, for many people, is fraught with moral problems – but, as I’ve briefly highlighted above with necrophilia – it’s not particular to sex with dead bodies or sex with live bodies. Both are apparently problematic. It’s how people consider sex in general.

I don’t quite understand why sex should be considered morally problematic in itself. It is not. Just as driving a car is not problematic in itself: Sure, we can kill others and ourselves, and usually we have partners involved, but that doesn’t mean driving a car is automatically morally problematic. Sex offers pleasure and pain, like most of life. I think that many people are still caught up in absolute right and wrong ways to conduct themselves in and toward sex, instead of realising that like most human actions, sexual relations are dynamic and varied. The ways we approach sex more often has terrible consequences than the results of consensual sex between rational persons.

Consider recently a story in the M&G about prosecuting 12- to 16-year-olds engaged in consensual sex acts.

Recently, children's rights activists were outraged when it emerged that National Prosecution Authority head Menzi Simelane had used the Act to authorise the prosecution of at least two groups of children between the ages of 12 and 16 for having consensual sex — six learners from Mavalani High School in Limpopo and three pupils from Johannesburg.

Simelane did withdraw the charges, but compelled the children to complete something called a “diversion programme”. The problem is the Sexual Offences Act which “makes it illegal for any person to engage in ‘consensual sexual penetration’ with children between the ages of 12 and 16.” It has excellent justification of course: “This Act was designed to address the sexual abuse of children [my emphasis]” – but many of you will no doubt see the arising problem: “But in effect also makes it illegal for youngsters of those ages to have sex.”

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Tevatron collider falls silent after 26 years of smash hits

Mark Lancaster in The Guardian:

ScreenHunter_05 Oct. 02 21.41 At 8pm BST today in prairie land just outside Chicago, a feat that is unlikely to be repeated in my lifetime will occur for the last time: man-made collisions of high-energy protons and anti-protons.

The final collisions at Fermilab's Tevatron collider bring to an end an odyssey that began in Bob Wilson's (not the Arsenal goalkeeper's) mind as Elvis topped the charts with The Wonder of You; produced its first collisions to the accompaniment of Jennifer Rush warbling about The Power of Love; and discovered the top quark just as Celine Dion was advising the world to Think Twice.

The odyssey ends, 26 years after the first collisions, with the dual horror of the Higgs boson potentially being found to be a hoax and a bunch of teenagers who failed to win X Factor topping the charts. I don't know who is more upset: me, Elvis or Peter Higgs.

I have been working on the Collider Detector at Fermilab (CDF) experiment at the Tevatron since 1996 but I feel like a spring chicken. Many people have been working on the experiment since the early 1980s and a handful from a decade earlier, their allegiance lasting longing than most marriages. Indeed, several marriages have resulted from eyes meeting across a crowded CDF control room.

PhD students have become professors, hair has receded and trouser legs have narrowed, but the quest for new knowledge has stayed firm. CDF has been the source of more than 550 papers, more than any other single experiment in the physical sciences. This year alone, scientists have published 30 papers using its data.

More here. [Thanks to Farrukh Azfar, professor of physics at Oxford University and experimentalist for many, many year at Fermilab. As a bit of indulgence to nostalgia, the photo shows Farrukh, who is my friend from our undergraduate years together at Johns Hopkins University, showing me around at the CDF in July of 2004.]

Why Israel can’t be a ‘Jewish State’

Sari Nusseibeh in Al Jazeera:

201192615635147734_20 The Israeli government's current mantra is that the Palestinians must recognise a “Jewish State”. Of course, the Palestinians have clearly and repeatedly recognised the State of Israel as such in the 1993 Oslo Accords (which were based on an Israeli promise to establish a Palestinian state within five years – a promise now shattered) and many times since. Recently, however, Israeli leaders have dramatically and unilaterally moved the goal-posts and are now clamouring that Palestinians must recognise Israel as a “Jewish State”.

In 1946, the Anglo-American Committee of Inquiry concluded that the demand for a “Jewish State” was not part of the obligations of the Balfour Declaration or the British Mandate. Even in the First Zionist Congress in Basel in 1897, when Zionists sought to “establish a home for the Jewish people”, there was no reference of a “Jewish State”. The Zionist Organisation preferred at first to use the description “Jewish homeland” or “Jewish Commonwealth”. Many pioneering Zionist leaders, such as Judah Magnes and Martin Buber also avoided the clear and explicit term “Jewish State” for their project of a homeland for Jews, and preferred instead the concept of a democratic bi-national state.

More here.

Wilson Greatbatch, Inventor of Implantable Pacemaker, Dies at 92

Barnaby Feder in the New York Times:

ScreenHunter_03 Oct. 02 21.16 Wilson Greatbatch, a professed “humble tinkerer” who, working in his barn in 1958, designed the first practical implantable pacemaker, a device that has preserved millions of lives, died on Tuesday at his home in Williamsville, N.Y. He was 92.

His death was confirmed by his daughter, Anne Maciariello.

Mr. Greatbatch patented more than 325 inventions, notably a long-life lithium battery used in a wide range of medical implants. He created tools used in AIDS research and a solar-powered canoe, which he took on a 160-mile voyage on the Finger Lakes in New York to celebrate his 72nd birthday.

In later years, he invested time and money in developing fuels from plants and supporting work at the University of Wisconsin in Madison on helium-based fusion reaction for power generation.

He also visited with thousands of schoolchildren to talk about invention, and when his eyesight became too poor for him to read in 2006, he continued to review papers by graduate engineering students on topics that interested him by having his secretary read them aloud.

“I’m beginning to think I may not change the world, but I’m still trying,” Mr. Greatbatch said in a telephone interview in 2007.

He was best known for his pacemaker breakthrough, an example of Pasteur’s observation that “chance favors the prepared mind.”

Mr. Greatbatch’s crucial insight came in 1956, when he was an assistant professor in electrical engineering at the University of Buffalo.

More here.

Cruel America

Jonathan Schell in The Nation:

Ron-paul-debate At the GOP debate on the 12th, there was another public expression of enthusiasm for loss of life in Texas. CNN’s Wolf Blitzer asked Texas Congressman Ron Paul, who favors repeal of President Obama’s health plan, what medical response he would recommend if a young man who had decided not to buy health insurance were to go into a coma.

Paul answered, “That’s what freedom is all about: taking your own risks.” He seemed to be saying that if the young man died, that was his problem.

There were cheers from the crowd.

Blitzer pressed on: “But Congressman, are you saying that society should just let him die?” Someone in the audience shouted, “Yeah!” And the crowd roared in approval.

A characteristic that these exchanges have in common is cruelty. Cruelty is a close cousin to injustice, yet it is different. Injustice and its opposite, justice—perhaps the most commonly used standards for judging the health of the body politic—are political criteria par excellence, and apply above all to systems and their institutions. Cruelty and its opposites, kindness, compassion and decency, are more personal. They are apolitical qualities that nevertheless have political consequences. A country’s sense of decency stands outside and above its politics, checking and setting limits on abuses. An unjust society must reform its laws and institutions. A cruel society must reform itself.

More here.

Can we please stop the nonsense and give Philip Roth a Nobel Prize?

Michael Bourne's open letter to the Swedish academy, in The Millions:

ScreenHunter_02 Oct. 02 20.25 Esteemed Members of the Swedish Academy:

Can we please stop the nonsense and give Philip Roth a Nobel Prize for Literature before he dies?

For your consideration, I present to you the Library of America edition of The American Trilogy, out just this week. The coincidence, I grant you, is a touch unseemly. One can’t help wondering if the board of the LOA chose this week to publish its handsome $40 omnibus edition of Roth’s three best-known late novels in the hope that you, the esteemed members of the Swedish Academy, would award him the Nobel Prize in Stockholm next week, allowing the LOA to bring in enough cash to float yet another edition of Henry James’s Desk Doodles. But don’t let that sway you. Just consider the work.

The opening of American Pastoral, the first book of the trilogy, with its effortless conjuring of the age of American innocence during the Second World War, is enough by itself to warrant at least a Nobel nomination. The book begins with an extended reverie about “steep-jawed…blue-eyed blond” Seymour Levov, star athlete of Newark’s tight-knit Jewish community, and a Jew who excels at all the things Jews of that era aren’t supposed to be good at: playing ball, being glamorous, loving themselves. By being “a boy as close to a goy as we were going to get,” Seymour Levov, nicknamed the Swede, offers his neighbors, only “a generation removed from the city’s old Prince Street ghetto,” a home-grown avatar in the fight against Hitler’s fascists in Europe.

Yet in the eyes of the novel’s narrator, Roth’s alter ego, novelist Nathan Zuckerman, the Swede is a plaster saint, a bland, blond cipher. The Swede goes on to inherit the family’s Newark glove-making factory; marry a shiksa goddess, Dawn Dwyer, Miss New Jersey of 1949; and buy an old stone house in an upper-crust Gentile suburb.

More here.

Kashmir’s Mass Graves

Basharat Peer in Foreign Policy:

Kashmir_0 The grim story starts more than two decades ago, in 1989, when a separatist insurgency blossomed in Kashmir. India had gradually eroded any sense of Muslim-majority Kashmir's autonomy, rigging elections and arresting and torturing opposition political activists. Gun battles between the separatist guerrillas and the Indian troops were routine; land mines and hand grenades exploded every other day in crowded markets, on empty roads. Fear dominated the streets and nobody stepped out after dusk. By 1996, according to conservative official estimates, around 15,000 had been killed — a number that has since risen to 70,000. India's military, paramilitary, and police forces deployed in massive numbers to pacify the rebellious province, and tens of thousands of Kashmiri civilians were taken into custody. Thousands never returned. Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, and several Indian rights groups have repeatedly urged the Indian government to investigate the disappearances in Kashmir, but the government and the Army consistently argued that the missing weren't dead: They had crossed over to Pakistan to train as militants.

More here.

he could leap through time


They called him the Dog Wonder, the Mastermind Dog, America’s Greatest Movie Dog. He was listed in the Los Angeles phone book, made more money than his human costars and actually came unnervingly close to winning the first Academy Award for actor. He was Rin Tin Tin and, as Susan Orlean puts it, “He was something you could dream about. He could leap twelve feet, and he could leap through time.” “Rin Tin Tin: The Life and the Legend” is New Yorker writer Orlean’s first original work since the celebrated “The Orchid Thief,” and like that book, it’s a story of magnificent obsession. Nearly a decade in the making, combining worldwide research with personal connection, it offers the kind of satisfactions you only get when an impeccable writer gets hold of one heck of a story. Rin Tin Tin (Rinty to his intimates) was not the first dog on film; that honor went to 1905’s “Rescued by Rover.” He wasn’t even the first Hollywood dog star. That would be Strongheart, who was promoted as “More Human Than Human.” But Rin Tin Tin was bigger than them all, and he had a story so unlikely it would have made a movie in itself.

more from Kenneth Turan at the LA Times here.

foster and the starchitects


I like this title. It suggests the uncovering of a huge conspiracy, a moneymaking axis on a par with the military-industrial complex or the newer, more sinister military-entertainment complex (which sees the confluence of shoot-’em-up computer gaming and training soldiers to kill without compunction). Unfortunately – because, surely, we all love conspiracy theories – it is nothing of the kind. Instead it is a collection of essays, some very good, some less so, on the state of contemporary architecture and contemporary – particularly minimal – art. Hal Foster, a US art critic and author who writes for the London Review of Books, purports to reveal an alliance of the corporate and the cultural in an increasingly globalised world of contemporary visual culture. He backs this up by pointing to the ubiquity of big-name artists in homogenous new museums designed by an elite group of “starchitects”. It is an intriguing proposition and one, you would think, that could be bitingly critical. But Foster feels, perhaps, too much affection for his protagonists.

more from Edwin Heathcote at the FT here.

adams on mahler


Idealistic, fantastic, grotesque, violent, tender, sarcastic, confrontational, confessional, the symphonies of Gustav Mahler (1860-1911) are among the most profoundly autobiographical of all composed music. “I have written into them, in my own blood, everything that I have experienced and endured,” he confided to a friend after finishing the Second Symphony. For all its professional, emotional and physical crises, Mahler’s life was exemplary for an artist who, no matter how loud the outside world might pound on the walls of his concentration, vigilantly maintained an unobstructed direct line to his creative self, keeping it uncorrupted and unblocked to the end. He was the living embodiment of “the world as will and idea.” The composer Hans Pfitzner said Mahler was “one of the most strong-willed men I have known.” Romain Rolland, novelist and creator of the fictional genius composer Jean-­Christophe, saw in the “extraordinarily high-strung” Mahler “something of the schoolmaster and something of the clergyman,” with a “long, clean-shaven face, hair tousled over a pointed skull and receding from a high forehead, eyes constantly blinking behind his glasses, a strong nose, a large mouth with narrow lips, sunken cheeks, and an ascetic, ironic and desolate air.”

more from John Adams at the NYT here.

Saturday Poem

Gas Tank Sonnets

1 hour out of Byron Bay
and no dreams for three days
when the snakes in the engine
hatched a mutiny

the radiator hose was the first to go

a roadside heart-attack,
meatball surgery with a swiss-army knife
and almost hijacked by hitchers

the days and days of service station pies
finally ripped through my spare tyre
and cocktails of on-edge nerves did their work

while all the time
across the hills, the Pacific
looking good enough to eat

feelings of withdrawal
Byron Bay and the muse,
for the likes of Brisbane-town
and this want of becoming a writer
tongue dragging along the bitumen
regurgitating yesterday's gravel,
the mind aflush
with gas tank sonnets

by Samuel Wagan Watson
from Smoke Encrypted Whispers
University of Queensland Press, 2005