Pertinent Post

“P” post.

Present pandemic’s politics produced:

  • propaganda
  • president-promotion
  • provisions-portioning predicaments
  • panic
  • profiteering
  • paranoia
  • patronage pigs
  • pissed, persecuted people
  • poseurs
  • puerile politicians (petty power plays)
  • pained physicians
  • problematic prescriptions
  • pressured paramedics
  • pestered practices
  • poor populations
  • plus, predictably:

POPPYCOCK.

Pink Boots and A Machete

The Book of the Week is “Pink Boots and A Machete, My Journey From NFL Cheerleader to National Geographic Explorer” by Mireya Mayor, published in 2011.

Mayor was born in February 1973 in Miami. While in her early twenties, she discovered her calling– primatologist / zoologist. An inspirational college professor helped her apply for a government grant to study a monkey in Guyana.

Thereafter, she braved infinite life-threatening dangers and primitive and uncomfortable conditions (like poor sanitation, and an extremely limited and at times– disgusting diet, and unbearable heat, to name three) on dozens of expeditions for weeks or months in obscure places to observe various animals in their natural habitats.

In the Congo, there were killer bees. In the jungle in Guyana, there were itinerant miners who were robbers and rapists; piranhas, malarial mosquitoes, tarantulas, vampire bats, ticks, leeches, etc. The author had to sleep in a hammock to avoid poisonous snakes on the ground.

In June 1997 in Madagascar, “Every visit to a village required a rum-soaked meeting with tribal elders that lasted through the night, occasionally for days.” While seeking a specific species of lemur in an animal reserve (that was not exactly a tourist attraction), she was bitten by a small scorpion and swarmed by wasps. Hundreds of cockroaches nestled in her pants legs overnight, shocking her when she went to put them on.

On another occasion in Guyana, she and her crew collected flora and fauna specimens from a mountain on which they camped (on the edge of a cliff, basically) in a “… flimsy sheet of nylon attached to the rock face by a single, six-inch steel pin.”

In Namibia, she was one of eight people who lifted the six-foot, six hundred pound neck of a tranquilized giraffe. The whole animal weighed approximately eighteen hundred pounds. The goal was to herd giraffes into a trailer to help them mate and reproduce.

On another occasion in Madagascar, when a mudslide from a monsoon prevented their hired truck from going any farther, she, another scientist and expensive porters (strong men) had to hike hours and hours with heavy gear, dozens of bags, crates and a generator to a campsite.

Mayor related that on another occasion in the Congo, “I woke up in an unusually good mood, considering it was 5am and I still had the worm [in the foot], the filarial bites, and the infected tick bite… Repeated hot soaks and antibiotic treatments finally banished it [the tick bite].”

Read the book to learn of the new species Mayor co-discovered, how she fared on a reality show, the kinds of issues she dealt with for being female in a male-dominated field, and much more.

Half-Life

The Book of the Week is “Half-Life, The Divided Life of Bruno Pontecorvo, Physicist or Spy” by Frank Close, published in 2015. The author himself was a physicist, so he interspersed physics concepts with the evolution of the development of nuclear technology and its major players. This book was written for readers who would like to learn some nuclear physics, and/or those readers curious about the people involved in Cold War / nuclear physics mysteries.

However, Close made an error, spelling “Lise Meitner” as “Lisa Meitner.” Additionally, since the author was neither a historian nor American (he was British) he was mistaken in declaring, “For supporters of communism in the West, this [the autumn 1956 Hungarian uprising which was bloodily crushed by the Soviets] was probably the most serious crisis of conscience since the Soviet pact with the Nazis in 1939.” Actually, in early 1956, Khrushchev revealed Stalin’s horrific crimes to the world. Americans, especially those who considered themselves Social Democrats, were thrown for a loop ideologically, and became bitterly conflicted in their own minds, and with each other.

Anyway, born in Italy in August 1913, Pontecorvo was the fourth of eight children. In 1931, he transferred from the University of Pisa to that of Rome for his third year of physics studies, mentored by Enrico Fermi. Knowledge of particle physics was in its infancy. Pontecorvo and other scientists jointly filed a patent in autumn 1935 in connection with experiments with neutrons and hydrogen.

The year 1936 saw Pontecorvo flee to Paris after Mussolini cracked down on Jews’ liberty. He studied with Frederic and Irene Joliot-Curie. He was turned on to Communist ideology by his cousin. They attended meetings and rallies.

By the late 1930’s, physicists (and governments) of different nations such as Germany, France, Italy, the USSR, etc. started to realize how important nuclear processes were for creating future weapons of mass destruction– instrumental for their respective homelands’ national security. Beginning in the summer of 1940, nuclear research became secret in the United States. Scientific journals would no longer publish articles on that topic.

The USSR did not lack for brains, but for uranium in the early 1940’s. Beginning in summer 1942 in Moscow, the Soviets worked on an atomic bomb. But scientists in the United Kingdom had a head start, having begun their work the previous year. In December 1942, the United States started the Manhattan Project.

By the end of the 1940’s, having done nuclear research in Tulsa in Oklahoma, the Northwest Territories in Canada and in Harwell in England, Pontecorvo was planning to move himself, his wife and three sons to Liverpool to become a physics professor. The British intelligence service MI5 secretly pushed him in that direction. As is well known, the United States was gripped by anti-Communist hysteria, with the arrests of spies Klaus Fuchs, David Greenglass and the Rosenbergs.

The summer of 1950 saw the Pontecorvo family take a summer vacation in France, Switzerland, and the Italian countryside. There is circumstantial evidence that he met with his Communist cousin and suddenly, all bets were off.

Read the book to learn the fate of the family, the contributions made to science by the scientist, learn why he neither won the Nobel Prize nor collected royalties on the aforementioned patent, and much more.

Gorsuch – BONUS POST

The Bonus Book of the Week is “Gorsuch, The Judge Who Speaks For Himself” by John Greenya, published in 2018.

This volume mostly discussed Neil Gorsuch’s nomination for the position of Supreme Court justice, gleaned from opinion pieces in online publications including blogs, and comments from interviews, in a disorganized fashion. With some of Obama’s political career thrown in. Plus the controversy surrounding Gorsuch’s mother. It got tedious after a while, and should not be classified as a biography.

As is well known, Gorsuch was nominated in an era with an especially emotionally charged political atmosphere. Of course, during his confirmation hearings, Gorsuch was grilled on one particularly extremely controversial issue: abortion.

Some Republicans propagandized that Gorsuch was a gentleman, and a good writer. Some Democrats propagandized that Gorsuch would seek to overturn Roe v. Wade. Prior to his SCOTUS nomination, he had served as an appellate judge for a decade, during which he saw no cases directly related to that case’s decision.

Gorsuch himself, in a book he wrote, conceded that whether abortion is the taking of a human life, hinges on the definition of “human life.” At his confirmation hearing, when pressed on whether he accepted that the Fourteenth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution does not consider a fetus a person, Gorsuch agreed it is federal law that says a fetus is not a person.

Abortion is one of the most, if not the most, volatile political issue in the United States, because it is a matter of religion and politics, life and death, and its legalization or not, has serious ripple effects on society. There are three major aspects, among a host of peripheral issues, upon which most people seize: biology, women’s rights, and economics.

The first major aspect relates to a few pieces of information that allow people to form opinions on the definition of “human life” to which there is no right or wrong:

A fetus’ heartbeat is detectable approximately two months into a pregnancy. Some people believe that when a heartbeat is detectable in a fetus, that that fetus is a human life.

Besides, a fetus can live outside the womb at approximately two months into a pregnancy, but it still requires a large amount of technological help with sustenance at that stage; around five months is when it can live outside the womb without the extensive assistance of medical technology.

Some people believe that if a fetus can live outside the womb (but the amount of life-support equipment any given fetus requires varies widely), that that fetus is a human life. Thus, some people believe abortion should be illegal from those respective points onward. Others believe life begins at conception. Therefore, according to them, abortion should never be legalized at any point.

The question of abortion obviously disproportionately affects females. Women’s rights involve a female’s control over her own body.

There are two major economics aspects to abortion:

Norman Mailer argued that from a purely economic (non-emotional) standpoint, abortion should have been legalized merely because, according to research, a lot of unwanted babies grow up to become career criminals. Legalization of abortion would eliminate the long-term costs to society of unwanted people.

Moreover, prior to the time abortions became legal, poor women who couldn’t afford illegal abortions done by an experienced medical professional, attempted abortion methods themselves, which were dangerous to their own health. So there arose long-term costs to society in the form of their medical expenses, if they didn’t die from complications.

Even though abortion is now legal conditionally, some poor women still cannot afford it. That raises the can of worms of whether abortions should be publicly funded. Which leads to a vicious cycle for poor women. And society.

Biological aspects of abortion that make abortion laws conditional, include: specifics on the trimester in which the procedure is performed, whether the mother’s or baby’s life is in danger and whether the baby is developmentally normal. An additional wrench in the works is whether a female should be able to have an abortion in a case of rape or incest.

The religious aspects of abortion are a whole other explosive ball of wax. Especially when sex education is thrown into the mix. Yet another cause of heated discussions is that it is impossible to prove how often abortion is used as a birth-control method.

The yelling and screaming, litigation and legislative debate is guaranteed to never stop, because there will always be questions such as: If the mother is extremely young– does she need a parent’s consent to have an abortion?

And can a pregnant woman of any age cross state lines in order to gain access to an abortion that is legal, given her situation? Which leads to the controversy of States’ Rights.

In the last several decades, the Democrats have faced a dilemma when they nominated a Catholic presidential candidate. The Democrats favor laws that allow abortion. Some Catholic and Christian voters say they would never vote for any candidate who is a Democrat for that reason alone. They say they wouldn’t waver on that. The question for the ages is: Is the number of these voters sufficient to affect the outcome of a presidential election?

Anyway, read the book to learn of other issues on which Gorsuch’s positions had yet to be seen as of the book’s writing, and tabloid writers’ and politicians’ take on his fitness for the U.S. Supreme Court.

The Class

The Book of the Week is “The Class, A Life-Changing Teacher, His World-Changing Kids, and the Most Inventive Classroom in America” by Heather Won Tesoriero, published in 2018. Despite its sensationalist title, this volume provided a fascinating inside look at one program at an elitist school where brainy kids prepared to fiercely compete for big money and prestige on the high-school science-fair circuit.

The cliche of the baking soda/vinegar volcano as a winning project at the science fair ended decades ago. A Greenwich Connecticut school offers a specific course for self-starting kids passionate about science, whose sole purpose is providing resources– experimental equipment, materials and supervising teacher– with which to enter science fairs.

The author related about ten of the kids’ experiences in the form of vignettes– their personally chosen projects and whether they won an award, personal details of their home lives, prom adventures, and college acceptances or rejections, etc., roughly over the course of the 2016-2017 academic year, with backstories.

The supervising teacher of the class, who had previously acquired a couple of decades of scientific experience in private industry, had hand-picked the lucky 48 applicants from different grades who partook of this unique opportunity.

They got access to his guidance and professional scientific devices that even well-funded school districts don’t have. Yet another reason Malcolm Gladwell might brand them “outliers” is that some of the chosen students were younger siblings of ones who had gone before.

 

Most of the science fairs or prizes thereof are funded by corporations and benefactors with big names, such as Google, Intel, Amazon, Xerox, United Technologies, etc.

A great irony is that the event itself is called a science fair when in reality, there were instances mentioned by the author in which the judging of projects was thought to be unfair by the teacher, contestants or their parents. The reasons that certain entries won awards and others did not, were unexplained.

The real reasons would have to be revealed in litigation–probably beyond the scope of this book. It must be said that the author did not mention any litigation.

Nevertheless, since major business entities are running the show, the projects must certainly be seen in terms of their commercial applications, not just in terms of their potential for societal good, like curing diseases or finding new sources of renewable energy.

For instance, one girl’s project that was passed over for an award involved computational biology. The software she coded was, with 80% accuracy, able to identify the most effective breast cancer drugs. Without question, that project had a very valuable commercial application that would open a Pandora’s box.

In another case, a boy who was competing for an “XPRIZE” was advised by his personal attorney to drop out of that contest. He was exceptional for various reasons, much more advanced than his classmates– already attempting to patent his work, and the kind who has the potential to be a future Nobel-prize winner.

At the other end of the spectrum, the author also wrote about kids who weren’t able to get their acts together, due to honest ineptitude. However, the author also related that, in previous years, there had been mean-spirited activity in the lab. In the documented academic year, there was cyberbullying by students and parents even in the science-fair community (!), borne of jealousy and whiny sour grapes expressed by the non-winners. Sadly, as is well known, the parents can be worse than the kids.

Read the book to learn of the triumphs and setbacks, trials and tribulations of the privileged kids and their teacher.

The Last Man Who Knew Everything

The Book of the Week is “The Last Man Who Knew Everything, The Life and Times of Enrico Fermi, Father of the Atomic Age” by David N. Schwartz, published in 2017.

Born to a wealthy family in September 1901 in Italy, Fermi was mentored in science by a colleague of his father, who worked for the railroad. This, after suffering the trauma of having his older brother die unexpectedly having throat surgery in 1914.

Fermi had a photographic memory, which helped to make him a brilliant student in mathematics and physics from studying textbooks. He was required to learn German too, to keep abreast of developments in the scholarly journals.

Fermi eventually became a physics professor at the University of Rome. His teaching gig, which he was also really good at, lasted from 1926 to 1938. He married in July 1927 and several years later, he wrote, and his wife edited and translated, a high school physics textbook that became part of the standard high school curriculum in Italy.

Quantum statistical mechanics was his specialty. Athleticism was another. Fiercely competitive, he always outdid his colleagues in hiking and climbing the hills around Rome. He became well traveled, thanks to attendance at international physics conferences. Some were hosted in the United States, which had better research funding than his native country.

By the late 1920’s, Fermi had cofounded a world-class nuclear physics research institute in Rome. The first entering class consisted of three graduate students. The younger generation was reflecting on new quantum theories to which the old-school Italian physicists were resistant. Fermi was in the former group.

In spring 1929, Mussolini selected members, of which Fermi was one, for an elite scientific society. He offered them big money so that they would do Italy proud (like academic and athletic scholarships bestowed upon fiercely competitive students, dispensed by elitist schools in the United States nowadays).

In the early 1930’s, Fermi supervised scientists who traveled internationally to different labs to learn from their fellow Europeans; yet they also competed with physicists at prestigious institutions in Berlin, Paris, Berkeley in California, and Cambridge in England.

In October 1934, Fermi’s team discovered that “…slowing down neutrons enhanced the radioactivity induced by neutron bombardment.” In connection therewith, he applied for a patent in Italy and the United States. He got a new lab.

By 1936, Mussolini was finding that invading Ethiopia was an expensive proposition. He began to depend on financial aid from Nazi Germany. By summer 1938, Hitler had control over ruining careers of Jews in licensed professions, civil servants, and white collar jobs in Italy.

In late 1938, after much red tape and worrisome scheming, Fermi and his wife (who had been deemed Jewish) escaped Italy first for the Nobel Prize ceremony in Stockholm, at which he took his trophy and money, and then for the United States. He ended up working at Columbia University.

At a Washington, D.C. conference in January 1939, physicists announced they had figured out how to produce fission, the process required to detonate an atomic bomb. Some were concerned that if Hitler’s scientists got hold of such knowledge, he would order mass destruction of his enemies before they could stop him. Fermi felt there was a low probability that Germany could build such a device. But Fermi was persuaded to share the thereafter-secret formula with the United States Navy. This would show his loyalty to America at a time when Italy was not exactly America’s ally.

Read the book to learn the parties involved with, locations of, trials and tribulations regarding, and Fermi’s role in the Manhattan Project; what Fermi did thereafter; and the Edward Teller/J. Robert Oppenheimer dispute, plus other physics-related occurrences up until Fermi’s death.

How We Do Harm

The Book of the Week is “How We Do Harm” by Otis Webb Brawley, M.D. with Paul Goldberg, published in 2011. This is yet another lamentation on the sorry state of affairs of the oncology industry in the United States. As is well known, the fear-mongering, lying and profit-seeking never stop in many parts of “the system.”

Brawley prudently wrote, “It’s always about the balance of what I know, what I don’t know, and what I believe.” However, so many medical professionals ignore the second, and offer up as facts, the third. This is where guidelines go awry. Hundreds of organizations globally distribute thousands of guidelines every year; many of them from profit-seekers.

American medical culture changed for the worse in the 1990’s. For, “…commercial interests usurped the language of clinical epidemiology, making it impossible even for an educated person to distinguish a real recommendation based on science from a thinly disguised advertisement for medical services.”

The author served as a medical oncologist, professor, and officer of the American Cancer Society, among other roles in his career. He provided a series of anecdotes on the system’s victims and critical analyses of the fear-mongerers and liars.

One major irony is that people whose top-dollar medical care is supposedly dispensed by “experts” become victims of fear-mongering and lying and get overtreated and die unnecessarily. Whereas, poor people who forgo medical care except to save their lives and end up receiving publicly-funded care– because they can’t afford better– are more likely to survive because the caregivers have their patients’ best interests in mind rather than a desire to make more money.

The American mentality is that more is better– more early detection and treatment must be better than less. Not necessarily true. Often, the screening tests and the treatment are themselves carcinogenic, so more of each actually increases the likelihood of more medical problems.

The author described an FDA-approved (but insufficiently tested) drug launched in the single-digit 2000’s whose makers claimed it strengthened patients and reduced fatigue; it actually caused strokes and heart attacks and even tumors. But it was lucrative! That became apparent at an FDA advisory committee session, where “Billions of dollars in [stock] trades hinge[d] on the words of the [medical] doctors and the scientists…”

American oncology is reminiscent of the Jack Benny joke: A robber approaches a man on the street, points a gun at him and menacingly says, “Your money or your life.” The man becomes pensive for a few seconds. The robber says, “Well??” The man replies, “I’m thinking, I’m thinking.” The joke is that the man can’t spend his money after he’s dead, but he values both money and life equally.

But thinking is the right answer– instead of succumbing to panic instilled by the oncology industry that leads to the loss of both money and life. All of the victims in the author’s anecdotes had panic in common.

Read the book to learn the answer to the question “Does treatment of localized prostate cancer save lives?” (hint– statistically, tens of men might become incontinent and impotent unnecessarily for one life to be “saved”) plus other thought-provoking, awareness-raising issues in American medicine, and how not to get fooled by liars and fear-mongerers.

Von Braun

The Book of the Week is “Von Braun, Dreamer of Space, Engineer of War” by Michael J. Neufeld, published in 2007.

Born in Prussia in March 1912, Wernher von Braun grew up in a wealthy, cultured, intellectual family who encouraged his interest in science. He played the cello and piano. At thirteen years old, he was sent to boarding school. Although he failed math and physics, he learned these subjects to the extent he needed to in pursuing his passion for rocketry and astronomy.

In 1932, von Braun’s father snagged a plum civil service position. As a result, the German army funded von Braun’s research into rocket-based weaponry. In summer 1933, he took flying lessons. He later completed his PhD at one of the most prestigious universities in Germany.

After Hitler’s purge of political dissidents in spring 1934, the German army and air force had a duopoly on top-secret ballistic missile research directed and supervised by von Braun.

In November 1937, von Braun was compelled to join the Nazi party, or be fired. Although ample evidence has emerged that he was aware of the evil purposes to which his projects were applied, he appeared to suppress his moral revulsion in connection therewith. His first love and loyalty was working toward his goal of creating vehicles that could explore outer space. But he was ordered to make weaponry first.

“After 1938, corporate and university researchers were also integrated in increasing numbers, further propelling funding in breakthroughs in liquid fuel propulsion, supersonic aerodynamics, and guidance control.” In spring 1940, von Braun was compelled to join the SS or be fired. He reluctantly did so.

Von Braun’s was a serious moral dilemma. It is unclear what the consequences would have been had he refused to willingly participate in operations involving slave labor (Resistance fighters, Communists, criminals, concentration camp internees) subjected to inhumane conditions (disease, torture, starvation) in making the instruments of war, and to willingly participate in the making itself.

The first successful ballistic missile (launched via a rocket), occurred in October 1942, after various trial-and-error failures (balls-of-fire explosions). This kind of experimentation at that time was, and still is, agonizingly slow and astronomically expensive. At the start of WWII, the weapons program had about twelve hundred employees. Wartime meant von Braun’s experimental resources of nitric acid, diesel oil and aluminum alloys were diverted to Hitler’s actual military usage, causing serious production problems.

In spring 1945, von Braun and his immediate boss were able to carry out their plan at war’s end of turning themselves over to the Americans, with whom they would share their rocketry expertise.

According to the author, in June 1945, the Americans liberating Germany persuaded about 350 skilled rocket-workers, and their relatives, numbering a few thousand, to emigrate to Alabama and New Mexico in the United States. The Soviets grabbed a few “brains” who traveled to East Germany, and then the Soviet Union. The author didn’t explicitly state which superpower acquired more talent.

In the 1950’s in the United States, von Braun published his writings, lectured, and literally broadcasted his opinion that the United States should engage in space exploration for the purpose of launching a satellite that would indicate weapons installations of surveilled regions on earth, among other purposes.

Read the book to learn of the political power struggles and trials and tribulations that von Braun and the German and U.S. governments underwent in aerospace research as matters of national pride and security; of why some historians might describe von Braun as an overrated attention whore; and how times have changed (hint– in the 1960’s, “…only nation-states had the resources to finance and direct huge guided-missile and space programs.”).

The Pioneering Odyssey of Freeman Dyson

The Book of the Week is “The Pioneering Odyssey of Freeman Dyson, Maverick Genius” by Phillip F. Schewe, published in 2013. This is a biography of the multi-disciplinary mathematician / scientist, theorist, professor, author and lecturer.

The author named nearly all of the most famous twentieth-century nuclear physicists (and provided historical backdrop that led to scientific advances in physics, war and astronomy), and briefly described their contributions– even a few of whom Dyson hardly knew; that is, except for two scientists, who happened to be female:  Marie Cure and Lise Meitner. This oversight might be due to the fact that the author encountered little or no literature on them (due to their gender) when researching this book. Ironically, the author did admit, however, that Dyson’s marital troubles were due to his sexist hypocrisy.

Anyway, born in Great Britain in 1923, Dyson grew up in a wealthy family in the London suburb of Winchester. His mother was already 43 at his birth. Pursuant to family tradition, he was sent to boarding school at eight years old. Due to WWII, in two years rather than four, he earned a degree in mathematics at Cambridge University.

Dyson was then tapped to use his newly acquired knowledge as a tactical aviation consultant of sorts for the war effort, staying stateside. Postwar, as a graduate, he resumed his education, studying physics at Cambridge and Cornell universities. He never did finish his PhD.

Nevertheless, of all his lifetime’s workplaces, the Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton was where he spent the longest total time. In the late 1940’s, he was supervised by J. Robert Oppenheimer. He explained the missing link between Richard Feynman’s, Julian Schwinger’s and Shin’ichiro Tomonaga’s ideas about field theory in nuclear physics; more specifically, quantum electrodynamics.

Yes, Dyson did rocket science, too, at the dawn of the 1960’s. However, it was all theoretical. He actually wanted to go on a mission to Mars or Saturn or Jupiter. Dyson’s fluency in Russian allowed him to understand the Soviet mentality on the space and arms races.

Paradoxically, during the Cold War, an adverse consequence of the testing of nuclear weapons included cancer deaths due to radiation exposure; about a thousand of them annually. This was an acceptable sacrifice (in the name of saving the world)– as highway deaths numbered about fifty thousand annually. That changed of course, with nuclear accidents and seat belts in later decades.

In 1976, Dyson supervised a graduate student who wrote a term paper that generated much controversy.  “From non-classified government documents, freely available to anyone, Phillips [the student] proceeded to gather a primer of frightening specificity showing step by step how to build a nuclear bomb.” The student got an “A.”

Read the book to learn of Dyson’s views on extraterrestrials and extrasensory perception, on how religion and science can coexist; his fantasies about what humans could do in outer space in the future; his participation in a think tank named Jason, his take on global warming, the reversal of his beliefs on nuclear matters, and much more.