Wednesday, April 20, 2005

It's April 22, 2005. Do you know where your planet is? Posted by Hello
We've Had Thirty-Five Years of Earth Days and the World Is Still A Mess

by William S. Kowinski

So it's been 35 years since the first Earth Day and the world is still a mess. It's not that we haven't learned a lot and done a lot, just not enough. How far we've come in understanding the extent and nature of the problems, in devising and carrying out solutions, and especially in communicating that understanding and getting politicians and the public to listen, can be gleaned from this new book: '>WISDOM FOR A LIVABLE PLANET by Carl N. McDaniel (Trinity University Press. )

We come to this view of the relative successes and failures of the environmental movement through profiles of eight "visionaries," half being pretty well known at least within enviro circles (Dave Foreman, Wes Jackson, Stephen Schneider the climate scientist and David Orr) and the other half deserve to be better known for their work: Terri Swearingen, whose revealingly unsuccessful and achingly long attempt to shut down a toxic garbage-burning plant in Ohio raised national awareness of this previously ignored air pollution problem; Werner Fornos, president of the Population Institute in Washington, whose new ideas may help counter the bad impressions made by the 1970s "don't have those kids, especially you poor people" activists; economist Herman Daly, adding practicality and a little poetry to the more-is-less philosophy; and Helena Norberg-Hodge, founder of the International Society for Ecology and Culture.

The chapter on Norberg-Hodge caught my eye first. Beginning with a disquisition on language as a distinguishing human characteristic, and how it developed in small human groups, McDaniel describes N.-H.'s first visits to the Shangri-la of Ladakh in isolated Tibet, where she found a culture that proved to her that "the widespread expression of human traits such as greed, selfishness, and acquisitiveness in Western culture are not innate but culturally elicited, as are expressions of traits such as cooperation and generosity."

The people of Ladakh had such a cooperation-based culture, with habits of dealing with conflict that avoided violence. But Norberg-Hodge also was around to see this society transformed by tourism and trade. Innocent of the impact the money economy would have, the people yielded easily to the globalized culture of consumption. But she didn't fade away from this challenge. Instead she helped people understand what was happening to them, and helped them devise strategies for retaining their culture while still enjoying benefits of the modern world. They had little heat in their homes in the old days, but found themselves going away to work to earn money for kerosene, which gave them heat and also pollution. Norberg-Hodge found appropriate methods of renewable solar energy that would provide heat without pollution or the extra step of working elsewhere to pay for it.

So the chapter moves from language and local culture to the impact of globalization on economics and culture, and the political efforts on a global scale as well as local projects to address these problems. The prose is not especially exciting, but it is direct and informative, and the apparently disparate ideas and activities are organized to illuminate the kinds of organic connections that need to be made.

This is a useful guide to the state of environmental action and thought, as it becomes more truly ecological, recognizing such important relationships as economics and culture. It deserves a wide readership.

Childhood teaches us that language and culture both arise, at least partially and potentially, from play. As humans we have perhaps forgotten our species' childhood, when we learned most of what we now think we invented, from animals.

In '>THE GENESIS OF ANIMAL PLAY: Testing the Limits (MIT Press), professor of psychology and ecology Gordon M. Burghardt examines and analyzes the "mysterious" and "enigmatic" phenomena of animal play. Inoculated against the unscientific specter of anthropomorphism (we just think those kittens are playing because they look like children who we know are playing), animal play has been ignored, if not taboo. So Burghardt is careful to include lots of graphs, tables and charts, showing (for example) the "Phylogeny of avian orders and occurrence of different kinds of play." So it turns out that flying really is fun, at least sometimes.

Did dinosaurs play? How about turtles? (How would you know?) Burghardt will tell you, as he evaluates the reasons for playful behavior, the benefits and the costs (you can hear your mother now---don't play with that stick, do you want to put an eye out?) The prose gets a bit thick, but fortunately Burghardt can be, well, a little playful, so even the non-scientist can have some fun here, and learn a bit more about how deeply embedded in our natures is animal play.

And now for something completely different... '>AFTER THE ICE: A Global Human History 20,000-5000 BC by Steven Mithen (Harvard University Press) is getting noticed, and though it's been out for several months, it's another appropriate Earth Day read. It's not environmentalism exactly, but it sure is about the Earth, and some fascinating phenomena on and in it, including the interaction of early humans with the changing environment.

For example, Mithen skillfully sums up the various discoveries and controversies over the settlement of the Americas. After evaluating the archeological claims, he concludes that human occupation began far earlier than previously accepted, some 33,000 years ago, although he doesn't really know how. (For an entertainingly detailed account of the craziness of the controversies, with grown scientists acting like medieval church dogmatists, I recommend '>THE FIRST AMERICANS by J.M. Adovasio with Jake Page (Random House, 2002.)

"To my mind," Mithen concludes in this section, "the First Americans, those who must have traveled from Alaska to southern Chile within less than a hundred generations, were the most extraordinary group of explorers ever to have lived on this planet. I suspect that the mystery of the peopling of the Americas can only be resolved by invoking those peculiar human qualities of curiosity and thirst for adventure that in recent times have taken men to the poles, to the deep oceans, and to the moon."

Except for that "peculiar human qualities" bit---he should read Burghardt---it's a welcome notion in a field that seems to favor materialist explanations too often.

This is only one small part of a book of multi-epic sweep, full of fascinating information and surmises, with terrific illustrations throughout. It was a great idea, and Mithen makes it work beautifully. Mind-expanding. Remember that? We used to say that a lot, on the first Earth Day.

Sunday, April 17, 2005

Have We Learned to Forget The Bomb? Posted by Hello
'>THE BOMB: A Life
by Gerard J. DeGroot
Harvard University Press 432 pages, $27.95

by William S. Kowinski

Gerard DeGroot includes a number of eyewitness descriptions of nuclear explosions, which bring the march of names, facts, lies, rationales and theories in this relentless history back to human reality, if only for a moment at a time. The largest hydrogen bomb explosion to that date---twice as large as expected---took place on Bikini Island in 1954. From a U.S. Navy destroyer thirty miles away, Marshall Rosenbluth watched the fireball: "rising and rising, spreading...It looked to me like what you might imagine a diseased brain, or a brain of some mad man would look like...And it just kept getting bigger and bigger..."

DeGroot, Professor of Modern History at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland, writes with grace and economy of a 60-year history still unfolding. Besides his admirable summations and deft narratives based on many long-available sources, he was able to add descriptions of the Russian bomb program and other details that have emerged in recent years (some crucial information about nuclear missiles already in Cuba during the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis was only revealed in the late 1990s.) Although always ready to call a lie a lie (and there were many), and to name insane policies for what they were, he also provides the reader with enough well-organized facts in convincingly developed contexts to allow everyone to form their own impressions.

The pre-history of the bomb is fascinating. In the mid-1930s, few physicists had even thought about an atomic bomb, or if they had, believed one was possible; or if they believed it was theoretically possible, that it could be made a practical reality. But between 1938 and the autumn of 1941, the bomb went from a weird notion to a massive research and development program in the U.S., and lesser but still significant programs in Germany and the USSR. Eventually there was even a small program in Japan.

That Germany didn't develop the bomb is the most resonant story. Most advanced physics was being done in Europe, and most of that in Germany, until 1933, when Hitler directed that non-Aryans be fired from civil service jobs, which included universities and scientific institutes. Eleven physicists who had won or would win Nobel Prizes were dismissed. Around 100 German physicists, most of them Jews, wound up in the U.S. by 1941. They not only provided the scientific talent but a lot of the motivation for the U.S. bomb program.

But even after Hitler had gotten rid of Jewish practitioners of the "Jew science" of physics, it was a German physicist who had the key insight that for the first time revealed that the atomic bomb was possible. But no one listened. In 1934, Ida Noddack suggested that some puzzling results of an experiment conducted by Enrico Fermi in Italy might be explained by nuclear fission. But Noddack was not well-known, and she was a woman. (In '>The Big Bang, Simon Singh reveals many contributions of women in physics and astronomy through the years, though they didn't get much credit.)

It wasn't until 1938 that Fermi himself figured it out, but even then it took another physicist, Leo Szilard, to understand the implications. He knew immediately that the atomic bomb was possible, because he had already read about it, and how it was developed and used in warfare. It was all in a novel by H.G. Wells, written in 1914, including its name: the atomic bomb. Szilard also realized, from his reading of Wells, that if knowledge of fission and the bomb got into the wrong hands, it could mean the end of civilization.

Szilard won the Nobel Prize in 1938, and after picking up the award in Sweden, he and his wife emigrated to America. In addition to his own researches, Szilard was instrumental in first, getting U.S. and British physicists to stop publishing anything about fission, and then getting Albert Einstein to write his famous letter to FDR, and to enlist other influential people in convincing the U.S. government to develop the bomb before Hitler did.

But as DeGroot shows, the letter was so circumspect, and Szilard, Einstein and other physicists so unable to express in plain language the possible implications, that the American government dragged its feet. Hitler had been given such a clear paragraph, and he started the German program. What convinced FDR was not Einstein's letter but a story, a metaphor. Alexander Sachs was an international financier and friend of Einstein, who got the letter to FDR, but in a later meeting with FDR he simply told a story about a young American inventor who went to Napoleon during wartime and offered his invention, which the emperor turned down. The inventor was James Watt, the invention the steam engine. This got Roosevelt's attention.

The story of the bomb is replete with the tricks of fate and power of metaphor, including some forty years later, when Ronald Reagan finally committed to nuclear arms reductions with the Soviets after seeing the TV movie, '>"The Day After," that depicted the impact of a nuclear strike on families in Kansas.

There is no more powerful and defining story of the past 60 years as well as the world we live in as the story of the Bomb. Though the lethal effects of radioactivity were denied for decades, and the extent of cancers and genetic malformations suffered across America as a result of nuclear tests are still obscured, the bomb settled deeply into our national unconscious, and helped define our feelings about our leaders, about science and scientists, and about the future, or lack thereof.

The Bomb has remained in the national unconscious not only because so much about it is impossible for the rational mind to absorb or the psyche to comprehend, but because of the lies and misinformation. In 1971 Richard Nixon prevented crucial information from reaching the Supreme Court so they would not interfere with the largest bomb ever exploded within the U.S. at Amchitka island in Alaska. Radioactive elements from that explosion were still leaking into the Bering Sea by 1996.

In just a few weeks, diplomats from around the world will gather in New York to discuss the nuclear non-proliferation agreements that U.S. policy now endanger. Some observers expect proliferation to grow substantially as a result of this treaty's failure. Perhaps because visible testing ended decades ago, and the Hiroshima photos are in black and white, Americans don't seem to fear nuclear weapons anymore as beyond the pale. Yet one expert estimates the chances of a nuclear weapon exploding in an American city in the present decade at 50%. This book is essential in more than the classroom.

There are also new books on two of the best-known scientists associated with the Bomb. '>EDWARD TELLER: The Real Dr. Strangelove'> by Peter Goodchild (Harvard University Press) is a careful, detailed biography of the most frightening figure of the atomic age, because he was the most successful in convincing important people and a large segment of the public for a very long time that he was brilliant and trustworthy and courageous, when he was paranoid, dishonest and incapable in the extreme. As the chief model for Dr. Strangelove, Teller was a figure of parody, but in an age that produced Richard Nixon, Henry Kissinger and such lesser- known demonical liars as General Leslie Groves (who ran the U.S. Bomb program for years), he emerges as the era's best argument for the existence of Satan.

I haven't had the opportunity to see '>AMERICAN PROMETHEUS: The Triumph and Tragedy of J. Robert Oppenheimer by Kai Bird and Martin J. Sherwin (Knopf), but my virtual colleague at the San Francisco Chronicle Book Review, Elizabeth Svoboda, found that this this 721 page biography of the director of the Manhattan Project at the Los Alamos laboratories has much to say about the shifting "uneasy partnership between science and politics in America."

While DeGroot's new book takes a comprehensive view of the Bomb's history, there are many worthy books that examine specific facets. One that I particularly admire is '>NO PLACE TO HIDE '>by David Bradley (University Press of New England, 1984) which combines his eyewitness account of the "Crossroads" atomic bomb tests in 1946---of particular interest to me since I was born on the day of the first explosion---with more recent data on the health effects of these and other tests, contrasting with all the lies told to the American people by Leslie Groves and others. The combination is instructive on many levels.

DeGroot writes about the most significant of the many books, movies and television programs that make up an important part of the Atomic Age history, and there are many other books that deal with just these aspects. I still admire'> NUCLEAR FEAR by Spencer Weart (Harvard, 1988)for its thoroughness and insights, though I don't always agree with his conclusions.

Finally, we must not forget that The Bomb was used as a bomb, and may be again. Therefore, Sven Lindquist's '>A HISTORY OF BOMBING (The New Press) remains essential reading.

Sunday, April 10, 2005

My review of Sharon R. Kaufman's '>...And a Time to Die: How American Hospitals Shape the End of Life appears in the San Francisco Chronicle Book Review of April 10,2005, here.

Saturday, April 09, 2005

Watching Your Language #1
Much Ado About Few

by William Severini Kowinski

Fewer things may seem less important than a small alteration in language, but there may be something more to this one. For in common speech and in print, there are fewer and fewer instances of "few", and more and more of "less."

In particular, it's become common to hear the expression "less people" rather than "fewer people." Is this simply a case of English getting more efficient? Or does it suggest something more troubling?

The distinction between "few" and "less" which has been standard English since at least the 18th century, is simply stated: "few" applies to number, "less" to quantity. While there are the usual ambiguous circumstances, the usage has been clear in the most common instances: "few" or "fewer" people, for example. But these days, "less" is increasingly used.

It is not just an American phenomenon. A quick Internet search yielded examples from most English speaking countries, including articles from the Economist ("less people, more water") and ("Less People Buy Bibles as Condom Sales Soar.") "The use of 'less people' etc. is so common in British English that there seems little point in claiming it as an error," wrote a teacher in Great Britain to her listserv. Another agreed that "fewer" is archaic. "...Less means the same as fewer," wrote someone in a different discussion on the subject. " So what is wrong with plain English, simpler English? Want to write a Victorian novel? Use fewer."

Though those of us who cling to "fewer" are fewer, I don't think we are we less democratic. The resources of a rich language can be used to deploy distinctions, which is crucial to meaningful debate in a democratic society. Communication among the many does not have to mean less precision: it very likely depends on more.

There may even be a more direct attack on certain values of our society reflected in this elimination. Perhaps we need to ask what has changed in the phrase "less people." Is it the grammar of "fewer" and "less," or is it our underlying idea of people?

In changing how we express the outcome of a count, are we changing our conception of what we are measuring? Do we see people only in aggregates, and not in affiliations? Do we now consider people not as integers with integrity, but as quantities that are classified according to common characteristics?

Perhaps in our marketing-minded society, numbers of people translate too easily into quantities of money, or of votes. If votes are just quantities, then stealing them is just theft. But if votes are individual commitments added up, to cheat is to dishonor the people who stood in line at the polls for hours in the rain. "Count the votes" means the voters must count more than the outcome.

The cause of human rights is based on the individual as significant, not as an indistinguishable element in a quantity that doesn't count. When justice or health depend more on quantities of money and power, individuals count less.

Quantity applies to objects, implying a passivity, of being acted upon. Number and counting suggest subject, capable of action: "Stand and be counted." Few can become many. When quantities of money have overpowering political effects, only numbers of people can balance it.

Or perhaps it takes only a few. The sense of individual significance is often conveyed in the most famous instances of "few": "Many are called, but few are chosen." "We happy few, we band of brothers," "A few good men." It's the key to the joke in the early 1960s British comedy "Beyond the Fringe", in an exchange between an officer and a soldier, mocking a World War II movie heroism cliché: "Sir, I want to be one of the few." "Sorry, there are far too many."

Yet we're talking more about "less people," as science suggests the individual, and the individual action, is potentially more powerful than previously believed. The now-famous "butterfly effect" of chaos theory is but one example: it can take even less than a few butterflies to change the weather thousands of miles away.

"Fewer" has a dignity lacking in "less." The change in language may be a done deal, but "less people" doesn't necessarily mean fewer butterflies.