Category Archives: In the news

Weekly Roundup

It’s Monday, so you know what that means: Weekly Roundup! Click through for the best of this week’s science news that you might have missed.

  • Are universities’ efforts to further their own social mobility undermining that of their students?  A New America white paper suggests so.
  • Is the multiverse theory already passé?
  • Another entry for Jenna’s STS Ferguson Syllabus: Nathaniel Comfort on the problem with arguments over whether or not race is genetic, in Nature.
  • The first blood test for depression, or one more category error?
  • Where do your condoms come from? This fun NPR piece explores recent consumer trends towards socially responsible condoms – whether they be fair trade, organic, or GMO free.
  • NASA’s MAVEN rover has finally made it to Mar’s atmosphere!
  • In a moving personal essay, University of Hawaii geobiologist A. Hope Jahren shares how a sexual assault early in her career forever changed the course of her scientific work. She is not alone – an estimated 1/4 of all female scientists have been sexually assaulted in the field, often by their own senior colleagues. Jahren argues that this danger must be seriously addressed if we hope to increase female representation within STEM.

Diagnosing the diseases of the past, today

Historians of science and medicine debate whether it is possible to re-diagnose diseases manifested in the past with modern terms. But what about “diseases of the past” that come back today.

Note this ‘graf from a Chicago Tribune article on vaccination and the resurfacing of now uncommon diseases:

Bonwit said medical schools must do a better job of teaching young doctors the history of medicine, which is largely the history of disease and death, he said. Archival footage of children with measles or whooping cough, for instance, should be teaching tools to help students identify diseases and understand their severity, he said.

Via Hope Leman. See below.

Statistical Infrastructure

It has little to do with America directly, but I am fascinated by the New York Times‘ coverage of India’s new nation-wise statistical and biometric registry: “Aadhaar”—which translates, in an Asimovian twist, to “foundation.”

The project aims to assign a 12-digit ID to every Indian—that’s 1.2 billion IDs—and link those IDs to names, fingerprints, and iris-scans. As Lydia Polgreen, the Times reporter, notes: “It is a project of epic proportions.” It also promises to make the Indian government into the world’s most important aggregator of biometric data, surpassing the US-Visit program by an order of magnitude.

Nandan M. Nilekani, the former chairman of Infosys and Aadhaar’s head, explained the necessity of the system in terms that made it sound like a natural governmental activity: “What we are creating is as important as a road.” It is, in other words, a kind of infrastructure: statistical infrastructure. That’s a phrase I use quite a bit in my own work as I trace the ways that different systems for gathering data about individuals developed in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries around the life insurance industry. In that story, private and public actors worked in parallel and sometimes together to improve the nation’s system of vital statistical registration, to discipline doctors and nurses, and to build special biometric (of sorts) databases that could help assess each individual’s risk. Yet the United States’ own giant leap in gathering data (Social Security) created a national identity database only as an after-thought and had no thought of including biometric data.

That’s the most intriguing thing about Aadhaar, as viewed through Polgreen’s reporting. Identity sits at the center of the project. Polgreen begins with Ankaji Bhai Gangar volunteering to be IDed with hopes of getting “the first official proof that he exists.” She ends with Mohammed Jalil pointing to the biometric station and saying “This will give me an identity….It will show that I am a human being, that I am alive, that I live on this planet. It will prove I am an Indian.”

I’m wary of Polgreen’s enthusiasm. She brushes aside concerns of “privacy watchdogs” effortlessly. She thrills at the possibililies of overcoming corruption on the local level and getting around the “crippling bureaucracy that is a legacy of [India’s] socialist past.” Aadhaar, we learn, will increase worker mobility and allow for greater agricultural modernization—these are both, we are made to understand, necessarily good things.

I’m all in favor of reducing corruption, improving the distribution of poor relief and welfare benefits. I think the poor ought to have access to savings, credit, cell phones, and teachers who show up to work. Who doesn’t? But will a centralized, national system of identification really do that? Does bypassing local government—rather than, say, fixing it—solve that problem? I can’t pretend to know, but I think there’s reason to be skeptical with any theory of improving governance that tries to bypass local institutions. I do hope my fears prove entirely unfounded.

Science and Spills

While we anxiously await a closer telling of the geologists in Afghanistan tale, there are some fascinating moments of science in action to be found in this gripping tale of Deepwater Horizon’s last hours and immediate aftermath.

I had no idea how ridiculously huge and complex these drilling rigs are. I know that the federal government pitched deep sea exploration as a kind of parallel to space exploration in the second half of the twentieth century: exploring inner space. Sean Flynn draws on a similar metaphor: “Deep-sea drilling is a risky and complicated process, of course—the oil industry’s equivalent of a moon shot—and it’s vulnerable to all sorts of delays.”

The scientists, as opposed to the engineers and technicians, only make a cameo here and they are set up against BP’s official pronouncements on the volume of the leak. The problem of knowledge becomes: how do we settle on a measurement of oil flow at a mile and one half (8,000 feet) below the Gulf’s surface. I post the relevant passage after the break, but the entire story—for all its detail and pathos—demands to be read. Read more…


The Spreading Poison
7 Days After the Blast
A small armada of oil skimmers and service boats are puttering about the Gulf of Mexico, attending to what is, officially, a minor ecological untidiness. The wounded Macondo well supposedly is trickling a mere thousand barrels of crude into the sea every day.
That is a ridiculous number, and an obviously ridiculous one, albeit less ridiculous than the one announced four days ago, which was zero. “The blowout preventer,” Coast Guard Rear Admiral Mary Landry announced at a press briefing on Friday, April 23, “appears to be working.”
It is important to note that Admiral Landry was not obfuscating. Rather, she—indeed, everyone—was relying on BP for information. The BOP is under a mile of water, in a dark and murky place that can be seen only by remotely controlled submersibles, which the Coast Guard neither owns nor operates. Visibility is so poor and the water so deep, in fact, that it required two days of searching to locate the capsized wreckage of the Horizon, which had burned for thirty-six hours before toppling into the waves.
The Friday briefing was not, primarily, about the potential environmental impact but was instead to announce that the Coast Guard was suspending its search for Shane Roshto and the other ten missing men. After twenty-eight sorties by plane and boat and helicopter covering a swath of ocean the size of Connecticut, “we have reached the point,” Landry said, “where the reasonable expectation of survival has passed.”
So that left the oil, or the threat of the oil. By Tuesday, a week after the explosion, when the BOP has clearly failed and the well is purportedly leaking only 1,000 barrels a day, crude the color of dime-store chocolate streaks miles of the surface in long, ragged ribbons. Approaching from the north, even a mile out, before the stink begins to sting the eyes, the water is divided by a stark and clearly defined line, a border of oil.
Given the undeniable silliness of its initial estimate, BP soon quintuples it to 5,000 barrels a day, another egregious lowball that for weeks will be repeated religiously by reporters, a fragment of boilerplate—210,000 gallons a day—in daily news reports.
Meanwhile, other scientists—oceanographers, environmentalists, an assortment of professionals who share no culpability in having punctured a hemorrhaging wound in the earth’s surface—calculate much higher figures based on satellite imagery and a basic understanding of how the ocean functions. Oil bleeding out of a hole a mile down, for instance, will get swept into sub-sea currents and dragged Lord knows where; deep-sea pressure will make it heavier, less likely to rise; thousands of gallons of chemical dispersants, a toxin in their own right, break the crude into droplets that linger at staggering depths. In mid-May scientists will discover plumes of oil, miles long and miles wide, spreading at 4,300 and 2,600 feet below the surface.
BP, for its part, maintains that measuring the flow more precisely isn’t possible (not true, but whatever), and in any case, what’s the point? If it can’t clean up 5,000 barrels a day, BP seems to be saying, what difference does it make if Macondo is spewing 70,000? To BP, for right now, it makes no difference at all, except that 5,000 isn’t nearly so catastrophic a number. BP can’t unwreck the ocean, and the damage, environmental and economic ruin on a heretofore unimaginable scale, will become apparent in time, when the lawyers and public-relations people are better equipped to deal with it.

US Geologists Discover Soviet Documents, Lithium Exploitation Ensues.

The New York Times gives the barest outline to a truly momentous piece of archival work, albeit one done by historians of another sort than usually reads here at Americanscience. This document digging will certainly raise the stakes for the US military, the Afghan government, and perhaps the Taliban as well. Cell phone battery manufacturers may be holding their breath too:

In 2004, American geologists, sent to Afghanistan as part of a broader reconstruction effort, stumbled across an intriguing series of old charts and data at the library of the Afghan Geological Survey in Kabul that hinted at major mineral deposits in the country. They soon learned that the data had been collected by Soviet mining experts during the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan in the 1980s, but cast aside when the Soviets withdrew in 1989.

During the chaos of the 1990s, when Afghanistan was mired in civil war and later ruled by the Taliban, a small group of Afghan geologists protected the charts by taking them home, and returned them to the Geological Survey’s library only after the American invasion and the ouster of the Taliban in 2001.

US geologists used “an old British bomber equipped with instruments that offered a three-dimensional profile of mineral deposits below the earth’s surface” to confirm the earlier mineral findings. The Times calls it “the most comprehensive geologic survey of Afghanistan ever conducted.”

Still, this data languished for two years until the Pentagon’s business development task force translated those geological maps into dollar signs. The geologists and task force now think that Afghanistan may become a major producer of iron and copper, niobium, and perhaps lithium.

Now that’s my kind of story: intrigue in the archives; field scientists flying retrofitted planes; international exchanges; lost opportunities; geopolitical significance.