DDT damages plants, too?

September 20, 2007

A columnist for The Christian Science Monitor argues that DDT damages plants, too — more reasons not to release it into the wild.

DDT stunts food crops? Plants?  Is that accurate?

Go see:

For the past several years, Jennifer E. Fox at the University of Oregon in Eugene has used test tube experiments to study the subtle way pesticides impede this nitrogen-fixing process. Last June she joined several colleagues to report research with real plants. Their paper, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, shows that the pesticides block the bacteria recruitment “signal” that legumes emit. “In essence,” Dr. Fox says, “the agrichemicals are cutting the lines of communication between the host plants and symbiotic bacteria.”

This has serious implications for farmers. Heavy use of commercial nitrogen fertilizers is showing diminishing returns in terms of crop yields, while fertilizer runoff contaminates streams, lakes, and even coastal ocean areas. If legumes can’t do their natural fertilizing job, even more artificial fertilizer will be required.

1872 Mining Act – Amend it now?

September 20, 2007

Sherffius cartoon on Bush administration mining regulations

Few people know about the law. Since 1872, mineral extraction from the public lands of the United States has been governed by a law designed to make it easy for miners to get minerals out. The law is essentially unchanged, though some mining operations are now bound by other laws to protect the environment and other uses of public lands, such as grazing, tourism, scientific study, wood production, grazing, wildlife management and hunting.

The Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources opens hearings on reforming the law next Thursday, September 27. The hearing will be webcast, most likely.

The House of Representatives has already had a couple of field hearings.

Watch your claims!


Hijacking science in Texas

September 20, 2007

It looks a lot like inside baseball. It’s conducted away from classrooms, while teachers struggle to deliver science to students in crowded classrooms without adequate textbooks, without adequate science labs and without adequate time. The perpetrators hew to Otto von Bismark’s claim that the public shouldn’t see their laws or sausages being made.

Since Bismark, in the U.S. we have food safety laws to protect our sausage. In Texas, the political scheming in the State Board of Education (SBOE) continues to spoil science education.

Science standards for Texas Essential Knowledge and Skills (TEKS) — the Texas state science education standards — are being rewritten by the Texas Education Agency, under direction of the SBOE. While procedures have been consistent over the past 15 years or so, and the state legislature reined in SBOE from political shenanigans in textbook selection, SBOE members are fighting back to get the right to skew science standards. For weeks the selection of committees to review specific standards have been held up so members of the SBOE can stack the committees to put their political views in.

Board members are insisting on stacking the review committees now, weeks after the deadline for members to nominate qualified teachers and experts to review the standards.  This is the gateway to the path of bad standards through which we earlier watched other school boards frolic — Cobb County, Georgia, Dover, Pennsylvania, and the State of Ohio.  Taxpayers in Cobb County and Dover paid the price when courts correctly noted that the changes proposed violated  the religious freedom clauses of the state constitutions and the First Amendment.  Ohio’s board backed down when a new governor cleaned house, and when it became clear that their position would lose in court.

Simply gutting the standards, however, may not rise to the standard of illegal religious influence.  Keeping kids in the dark may not violate federal or state law.  It’s immoral, but would the Texas State Board stick to that side of morality?  Many observers doubt it, given the track record of recent years striking important health information from texts that might save a few lives, and the legislature’s pro-cancer legislation this year.

Some observers have provided detailed reports that to many of us look like simple foot dragging. In the past week it has become more clear that the foot dragging is really political positioning.

If anyone was lulled to sleep by the Dallas Morning News article a few weeks ago which touted board members’ claims they would not advocate putting intelligent design into the biology curriculum, the greater fears now seem to be coming true:  Board members did NOT say they would stand for good science, or that they would not try to cut evolution, Big Bang, astronomy, geology, accurate medicine and health, and paleontology out of curricula.  The Corpus Christi Caller-Times warned:

Board chairman Don McLeroy, though indicating that he won’t support the teaching of intelligent design, says he would like to see more inclusion in textbooks of what he called weaknesses in the evolutionary theory, a sentiment expressed by many of the predominantly Republican 15-member board.

This only sounds like another version of a common tactic by religious pressure groups that seek to create a controversy about evolution that only exists in their opposition. That nicely covers their ultimate goal of converting classrooms into pulpits for religious teachings.

Texas schoolchildren will be the losers if the teaching of science, or health, or history — all subjects that have been the target of pressure groups — is based on something other than the best known and most widely accepted bodies of knowledge. In a pluralistic nation with many creeds and religions, letting personal faith become the guiding force for the public school curriculum invites creation of a battleground.

Texans should watch the State Board of Education in the months to come.

Just over a month ago one of the chief theorists behind Big Bang theory died in Austin, Ralph Alpher. His death went largely unnoticed. In 2003, with the Nobel Prize winning-physicist Ilya Prigogine of the University of Texas not yet cool in the grave, charlatans felt free to misrepresent his work on thermodynamics, saying he had “proved” that evolution could not occur.  In fact, his prize-winning work showed that on a planet like Earth, evolution is a virtual certainty.  Prigogine, Alpher: A greater tragedy is brewing: Will Big Bang survive the hatchets of anti-science forces on the SBOE? Many hard theories of science are unpopular with religious fanatics in Texas. Those fanatics are over-represented on the SBOE.

Don’t just watch.  Write to your board member, to the TEA director, to the governor, to the legislature.  One way to keep “no child left behind” is by holding all children back.   Texas and America cannot afford such Taliban-like enforcement of ignorance.

Political cartoons: Powerful images, powerful ideas

September 20, 2007

Sherffius in the Boulder Daily Camera, August 2007 - copyright Sherffius

Sherffius in the Boulder Daily Camera, August 2007 - copyright Sherffius

Sherffius, in the Boulder (Colorado) Daily Camera

The deadline for cartoonists to enter the Ranan Lurie Prize competition at the United Nations is October 1. The winning cartoon from 2006, from Argentinian cartoonist Alfredo Sabat, is one of the most popular images in Google’s image search for “cartoon.”

Images pack a punch. If a pen is mightier than a sword, a cartoonist’s pencil and ink drawing can be more powerful than a cannon.

While we wait for the winners of the Lurie competition, we can look around to see other great cartoonists’ work. Earlier I tried to call attention to the work of John Sherffius at the Boulder (Colorado) Daily Camera. Since then, he’s won the James Aronson Social Justice Award for Graphics for the body of his work. The power of his drawings should be clear from the cartoon above.

Do you have a favorite cartoonist, especially one from a smaller newspaper who has not yet received the kudos she or he is due? Tell us about it in comments — and give links, if you can.

And share the word with others:

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Science history slips away: Ralph Alpher and Big Bang

September 20, 2007

Looking for something else in an old newspaper, I came across a small obituary for Ralph Alpher. Alpher died August 12, 2007, in Austin, Texas, at the home of his son, Dr. Victor S. Alpher.

Ralph Alpher, physicist who co-hypothesized the Big Bang

Ralph Alpher, physicist who co-hypothesized the Big Bang

Ralph Alpher gave us the Big Bang. We let him slip away, almost unnoticed. Odds are you don’t recall ever hearing of Alpher. Here’s your mnemonic: The alphabet paper.

In 1948, as a graduate student under George Gamow at the George Washington University, Alpher and Robert Herman of Johns Hopkins laid the groundwork for what would become Big Bang theory, calculating how matter could arise in the Universe. Gamow, exhibiting the sense of humor for which physicists are famous, listed the authors of the paper as Alpher, Bethe, Gamow and Herman — a play on the Greek alphabet’s first three letters (alpha, beta, gamma), and a joke invoking the name of the great physicist Hans Bethe. Bethe liked the joke, consulted on the paper, and the theory of Big Bang was published.

Ralph Alpher, in Florida, 2006; Alpher home page

The name “Big Bang” was applied a few years later; Sir Frederick Hoyle and his colleagues favored a “steady state” universe, and at the time both hypotheses could accurately predict most of what was observed, and neither could be disproven. Hoyle, hoping to poke ridicule at the competing hypothesis, belittled it as “a big bang.” The name stuck. The name misleads the unwary; the theory posits a rapid expansion at the beginning of the universe and time, but not an explosion, per se.

Alpher wrote the mathematical model; the model predicted Big Bang, and specifically, it predicted the cosmic background radiation that would have been left over; it was this background radiation, the “echo” of Big Bang, that Arno Penzias and Robert Wilson stumbled across in 1965. Robert H. Dicke had invested several years in trying to discover this signature, and had to explain to Penzias and Wilson what they had found. Penzias and Wilson won the Nobel Prize for their discovery; Dicke, Alpher, Herman and Gamow, did not get Nobel Prizes. This is generally regarded as one of the great miscarriages of justice in Nobel Prize awards, not that Penzias and Wilson did not deserve an award, but that the chief theorists and the man who unveiled the discovery were overlooked.

This is another story of rejection leading to great discovery; it is also a rather sad story of a momentous achievement, mostly overlooked through the years.

Alpher was the son of Jewish émigrés from the Russian pogroms. His high school achievements merited a scholarship to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, in 1937. MIT had a rule at the time that scholarship recipients could not work outside the school. Alpher assisted his father in building houses in the Washington, D.C. area; the family had little money, and Alpher would be unable to pay room and board without working. Discussions with MIT broke down — the offer of a scholarship was withdrawn, according to most accounts when MIT discovered he was a Jew. As so many great people of the post World War II era, he enrolled at the George Washington University.

At GWU, Alpher found Gamow as a mentor, and much of the rest is history.

The New York Times:

The paper reported Dr. Alpher’s calculations on how, as the initial universe cooled, the remaining particles combined to form all the chemical elements in the world. This elemental radiation and matter he dubbed ylem, for the Greek term defining the chaos out of which the world was born.

The research also offered an explanation for the varying abundances of the known elements. It yielded the estimate that there should be 10 atoms of hydrogen for every one atom of helium in the universe, as astronomers have observed.

Months later, Dr. Alpher collaborated with Robert Herman of the Applied Physics Laboratory at Johns Hopkins University on a paper predicting that the explosive moment of creation would have released radiation that should still be echoing through space as radio waves. Astronomers, perhaps thinking it impossible to detect any residual radiation or still doubting the Big Bang theory, did not bother to search.

The Alpher-Bethe-Gamow paper, or αβγ paper, as explained by the American Institute of Physics:

When Alpher and Gamow prepared a paper on the subject, Gamow mischievously added the name of the noted nuclear physicist Hans Bethe to the list of authors so it would be called the “Alpher-Bethe-Gamow paper,” mimicking the “alpha-beta-gamma” of the first letters of the Greek alphabet. Unknown to Gamow, Bethe was a reviewer for the journal to which Gamow submitted the article. Bethe took it in good humor, later explaining, “I felt at the time that it was rather a nice joke, and that the paper had a chance of being correct, so that I did not mind my name being added to it.” Gamow also urged Herman to change his name to Delter to match delta, the next letter in the Greek alphabet. Despite Herman’s refusal, in a paper in a major scientific journal Gamow referred to “the neutron-capture theory…developed by Alpher, Bethe, Gamow and Delter.” Not least among his notable characteristics was his sense of humor.

Alpher continued in this work for a time, but joined General Electric’s labs in the 1950s. When he retired from GE, in 1986 he joined the faculty at Union College in Schenectady, New York, and taught there until 2004.

Alpher was largely overlooked for awards even while his theory was big news in astronomy and physics for the last 40 years of the 20th century. I regret that I was wholly unaware he was in Austin; how many other great contributors to science and history live among us, unrecognized, uncelebrated, and their stories unrecorded?

Alpher, Herman and Gamow - and the famous Cointreau bottle

Photo caption from AIP: A 1949 composite picture with Robert Herman on the left, Ralph Alpher on the right, and George Gamow in the center, as the genie coming out of the bottle of “Ylem,” the initial cosmic mixture of protons, neutrons, and electrons from which the elements supposedly were formed. [The Cointreau bottle from which the three drank a toast upon the acceptance of the paper, is now in the collection of the Smithsonian Institution.]

Alpher was an Eagle Scout. I wonder whether anyone has a history of his time in Scouting?

While the Nobel Prize eluded Alpher, he collected a host of other prestigious awards and honors. Earlier this year, President Bush announced that Alpher had been awarded the National Medal of Science, which is administered by the National Science Foundation and is the highest honor for science.

. . . [T]he citation reads in part:

“For his unprecedented work in the areas of nucleosynthesis, for the prediction that universe expansion leaves behind background radiation, and for providing the model for the Big Bang theory.”

Note from George Gamow, on confirmation of Big Bang Gamow’s humor again on display — an undated note from Gamow upon the confirmation of the Big Bang, with a punny reference to Steady State backer Sir Frederick Hoyle. Image from the American Institute for Physics.

Online sources for Ralph Alpher:


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