WHO ASKED FOR THAT?
Cold Fusion and
On March 23, 1989, B. Stanley Pons, a professor of chemistry at the University of Utah, and his colleague, Martin
Fleischmann of the University of Southampton in England, announced they had created fusion—the process that occurs
inside the sun and a hydrogen bomb—in a jar of water at room temperature. Unfortunately, no one else could replicate
their celebrated achievement. Others who were loose with their facts: former Harvard researcher John Darsee
(faked cardiac research); radiologist Robert Slutsky (altered data; lied); obstetrician William McBride (changed data,
ruined stellar reputation), and physicist J. Hendrik Schön (faked breakthroughs in molecular electronics).
The American Society of Civil Engineers awarded our national infrastructure a grade of D in 2009, down a full letter
since its first report in 1988. Cracks are everywhere, from aviation (D) to dams (D) to waste water (D–). Lack of
maintenance, investment, and upgrades over decades has made our foundations increasingly fragile (hurricane
Katrina is a handy case in point). Our health infrastructure is creaking as well: Food safeguards are lax and outdated, giving rise to outbreaks of E. coli involving everything from ground beef to cookie dough.
There is no American manned space effort anymore—the Space Shuttle
program, inaugurated the year DISCOVER premiered, is about to wind
down. Along the way 14 astronauts died on two missions (Challenger,
1986, and Columbia, 2003). Astronauts who visit the International Space
Station, the high-price and low-profile structure currently orbiting Earth,
will be ferried there for the next five years by the Russian reusable space
capsule Soyuz. Apparently the Russians won the space race after all.
In 1965 more than 60 percent of R&D was funded by the federal government. By 2006, 65 percent was funded by the private sector. Good news in some ways—who doesn’t like less government spending?—but with private inter- ests exerting that much pressure on research, the public will truly get what it pays for. For instance, pharmaceuti- cal companies will most likely continue to generate more lucrative cures for hypertension and high cholesterol, even though existing drugs work well, and ignore other disorders that lack effective drugs. The blizzard of commercial medical information is especially unsettling at moments of crisis when doctors ask questions—” Which experimental breast cancer therapy would you like to explore?”—that we are ill equipped to answer.
Quants Run Amok
“It is difficult to get a man to understand something when his salary depends
upon his not understanding it,” wrote novelist Upton Sinclair. Perhaps that is
why the economic meltdown of 2008 came upon us so suddenly: We were all
in that bubble economy together, including most of the macroeconomists and
mathematicians who could have—should have—seen something coming. Many
of those quantitative analysts, or “quants,” claimed to be importing a scientific
mind-set to economics. Let’s hope the physicists are paying better attention.
Not satisfied with the biblical God who created the world in six days, creationists developed a “science” that aims
to explain the supernatural force behind the whole shebang: intelligent design. Because we cannot reverse-engineer things like the human eye, they say, it follows that all must be designed by a higher being. (The human
knee presumably came together during a moment of distraction.) This tactic had some success easing intelligent
design/creationism into American public-school science lessons. But in 2005 a jury prohibited its teaching in the
schools of Dover, Pennsylvania, delivering a stinging rebuke.
It’s not just that the Internet gives almost complete access to information—from images of your house from space
to your neighbor’s mortgage amounts—with almost no work. It’s also that the information never goes away. (Due
to the power of Facebook, that image of your coworker covered in salsa at Señor Frog’s in 1992 can now haunt
you—and him—for the rest of your life.) Meanwhile, robot cameras issue traffic tickets, antiterror agencies test the
boundaries of constitutional freedom, and people willingly give out their Social Security number to get discount-purchase cards at the supermarket. At least restrooms are still private. For now.