Thursday, September 30, 1999

armageddon by science

Somehow I always assumed that if it weren't the politicians and lawyers who would destroy the world, it would be the used-car salesmen.

Or the newspapers. I never could decide.

Instead, to my horror, I discovered recently that it will be none of those. For once, this is a calamity we can't blame on the lawyers, the godless liberal media or the guy who sold me that maroon Chevrolet Celebrity that always had something wrong with it.

A group of nuclear physicists associated with Brookhaven National Laboratory on Long Island may be setting in motion events that could end the world sometime this autumn.

I can't help feeling disappointed by this discovery. If the world ends in mid-November, I'll have done my Christmas shopping for nothing, I won't get to see if Y2K is as bad as some people say it will be, and I probably won't even get to eat the drumstick at our annual Thanksgiving dinner.

The biggest disappointment, of course, is that I wouldn't be able to cover the end of the world because it would have happened outside my coverage area.

Lest you think that I've been reading too much bad sci-fi, I must assert that I base my statements on news reports disseminated by several notable media, including The Times of London, Scientific American and ABCNews.com, all fairly respectable news outlets, despite their shortcomings.

See, the folks at Brookhaven, who have more degrees than my kitchen thermometer, hope to smash atoms together at high speeds -- much higher speeds than the traffic goes on the Garden State Parkway when there are no police about to enforce speed limits -- in a relativistic heavy ion collider.

The purpose of this experiment, besides gaining an entry in the Guinness Book of World Records for "largest electricity bill," is to play a game of chicken with two gold nuclei and see which nucleus veers off first to avoid being smashed into quarks and gluons, which in scientific parlance means "itsy-bitsy pieces of matter."


The experiment promises to be interesting, even if the world doesn't end, since its stated goal is to recreate the conditions that theoretically existed in the universe a few milliseconds after the Big Bang. Scientists hope to get a better idea about the origins of the universe.

It sounds interesting, and even I can't wait to see what sort of complicated ways they'll find to say, "There were lots of little thingies flying around at high speeds and it was very hot."

The downside of this experiment is that some physicists -- particularly Stephen Hawking -- have theorized that a few milliseconds after the Big Bang is about when the universe's first black holes burst onto the scene.

Black holes, to the scientifically unaware, are nature's equivalent of vacuum cleaners, the chief difference being that you don't get to change the bag when it fills up. As soon as you get too close, the vacuum grabs onto the bunny slippers you do your housework in -- the ones you secretly enjoy wearing, even though you tell everyone that you wouldn't be caught dead in them -- and pulls them in.

Before you know it, you've been sucked right up the vacuum -- bunny slippers, ugly bathrobe and all -- and stuffed into a bag with all the dust and even those annoying pieces of string that ordinary vacuums can't seem to suck.

You, of course, really don't notice this very much because by this point the vacuum has smashed you and your precious bunny slippers to the thickness of ant's left molar or the number of people still reading this column, whichever is smaller. (Don't ask me. I'm not even sure ants have teeth.)
According to Stephen Hawking, black holes formed by colliding nuclei would fizzle out pretty quickly -- unless they happened to be located near a sufficiently large mass like, oh, say, a planet. Let's call it "Earth."

In other words, forming a black hole on the surface of the earth -- even if it is on Long Island -- is what physicists, in their highly technical, scientific jargon, call A Bad Idea.

How bad? I quote Walter L. Wagner, in his letter to Scientific American, which I found on that magazine's Web site:

"If this happened on the earth, the mini black hole would be drawn by gravity toward the center of the planet, absorbing matter along the way and devouring the entire planet within minutes," writes Wagner.

"My calculations indicate that the Brookhaven collider does not obtain sufficient energies to produce a mini black hole," he writes, to my considerable relief. But then he adds: "However, my calculations might be wrong."

I don't know about you, but I know I'm greatly comforted by that display of confidence.
Frank Wilczek of the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, N.J., responded to Wagner's letter in that same issue of Scientific American.

"In the case of the Brookhaven RHIC, dangerous surprises seem extremely unlikely," Wilczek wrote.

He went on to explain in layman's terms -- which is good, because my knowledge of math never advanced beyond engineering calculus and my grasp of physics never progressed further than "Green Lantern" -- that Brookhaven is using less energy in its atomic collisions than hits the earth's atmosphere in the form of cosmic radiation. In other words, if a black hole were going to form under such conditions, it would have done so by now.

Still, I can't help but notice that Wilczek carefully specified "extremely unlikely" rather than "impossible," so that in the event the world is destroyed we'll have no grounds for suing him. I suppose in a society as litigious as ours, you can't be too careful.

I have to admit that given the knowledge and intelligence backing his and similar statements, I'm not too worried about the end of the world coming from experiments at Brookhaven.

After all, if the scientists fail to deliver Armageddon, we still have the politicians.

Thursday, September 16, 1999

a better mouse

Like a number of other people around the nation, I read with great interest news accounts of the recently announced gene-splicing success at Princeton University.

A team of researchers, including Princeton University neurobiologist Joe Tsien, announced Sept. 1 they had engineered a super-intelligent mouse they named Doogie, after the teenager on the TV show "Doogie Howser MD," the rationale being that the character was an annoying little pipsqueak too (The Princeton Packet, Sept. 3).

This announcement immediately raises a number of questions among thoughtful folk. For starters, why on earth would an Ivy League institution pick a name with the initials PU? Even the University of Pittsburgh had the sense to put the U before the P so that the worst students at rival schools can say is only "Boy, your school is a real Pitt."

Why on earth would someone want to make a better mouse? With the sort of brains Princeton University attracts, you would think they could put their effort into something more useful, like designing a better mousetrap and dumber mice.

My first year living in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, we developed a serious mouse problem. The tracking ball kept getting stuck, so it was next to impossible for me to get a high score on our laptop computer's copy of Solitaire during the relatively brief periods that we had electricity and I could turn the thing on.

But besides that, for a couple months we had problems with little brown furry creatures sneaking in and making off with food, including food in airtight packages. Haitian cats, of course, often are used for human consumption, with the result they're not easy to find, and we were forced to rely on mouse traps and our guard dog Gideon.

Gideon's own brush with rodent control came during my second year in Haiti, when a large rat climbed in the window while we were eating dinner. For half an hour, three of us chased the rat through the living room, trying to hit the rat with a sauce pan, a baseball bat and a can of Raid (kills rats dead?).

Gideon was the only one to connect with the rat, although Dan and I both beat a chair senseless trying to flush it out of hiding. Gideon grabbed the rat in his jaws for about three seconds, until it scratched him on the nose and got away.

The rodent problem persisted, even after we introduced a variety of poisons and rat and mouse traps. All we succeeded at was increasing the intelligence level of the average mouse in our home.

At first the smarter mouse -- no doubt also engineered by Dr. Tsien and his fellow researchers -- would convince his companion to run across the trap and see if it was armed. After this had gone on a few months, the surviving mice, born from the intelligent mice, had wised up to this trick, and formed a union to protest their unsafe work conditions.

As time went on, the mice would find ways to get the bait without getting caught, and find all sorts of escape routes from a trap that would keep even James Bond in maximum security.
Ever since "Tom and Jerry" debuted, mice have been getting uppity. Believe me, they don't need any extra help from Dr. Tsien.

My whole point, of course, is that mice are a pain in the neck to get rid of as it is. By adding the gene NR2B, Dr. Tsien allowed mice to learn faster and double their SAT scores with only a few extra hours of study. The experiment succeeded so well that two of the mice plan to take a full class load at Princeton University in the Class of 2004 if they can get enough financial aid.

Now don't get me wrong. I'm not knocking these recent discoveries and what they mean for the human race years down the road. With more research, the work Dr. Tsien and his colleagues have done could become the foundation for treating Alzheimer's disease, a few mental disabilities and generally making people smarter.

Who knows? One day gene therapy might even make a scientist smart enough to invent a better mousetrap.

Thursday, September 09, 1999

the downside of home ownership


There are many stops on the passage from boyhood to manhood that we all know and celebrate: attending college, choosing a career, getting married and starting a family, and earning the Arrow of Light in Cub Scouts.

Another important step is home ownership. It's not hard to buy a home -- anyone can buy one who doesn't mind slaving away for 30 years to get out of debt -- but home ownership is rife with responsibilities.

There are obvious ones common to homeowners: set up the baby's room, cut the grass, water the garden after the lettuce dies, replace the basement stairs before they collapse, add a banister to the main stairs before someone falls, remove the world's ugliest hedge and hire an exorcist to drive out the ghosts that torment guests and do weird things to the toilet.

The work is never-ending, but I am proud to say that Natasha and I finally are making some headway. The baby's furniture has been arranged, we have plans for the banister and basement stairs, and the hedge, while still in our front yard has been trimmed and is not quite as ugly as before.

Natasha and I don't live in Amityville, so we don't have any ghosts to deal with; instead, we have a queen-size mattress. The mattress doesn't drag chains across the floor, it doesn't give me nightmares, and it hasn't ever gone to the bathroom and forgotten to flush the toilet, but in its own way it's just as disconcerting.

When we moved in, the mattress was leaning against the fence in the back yard. Natasha and I left it there, under the impression that someone was coming by to pick it up. That was three months and one hurricane ago.

The mattress now sits out of view on the side of our house, covered with leaves, cobwebs and other indescribables. If the owners wait much longer, it won't be useful for a bed anymore.

We could get the trash collectors to pick it up, except we don't want to pay the extra pick-up fee. We could ignore it, except there's probably some obscure law on the books in New Jersey that says mattresses must be kept inside the house.

Our best hope for disposing of it appears to be saving it for kindling at our Y2K "Collapse of Civilization" extravaganza this coming Jan. 1.

The mattress lingers on my list of "Things we must get rid of," along with that hedge and the collection of branches, brambles and other yard debris stacked up in the back yard. My mind dwells on that unholy triune with all the obsession a dog gives a well-gnawed bone.

"Maybe we could bury it in the back yard," I told Natasha. "We could dig a shallow hole, toss the mattress in and cover it up. After the grass goes to seed, no one would ever know it's there."

If you think about it, it makes sense. In "Arsenic and Old Lace," Teddy buried 12 bodies in the basement at the behest of his aunts, and no one objected. Compared to that, a mattress in the back yard is nothing.

Natasha wouldn't go for it. She put her foot down immediately. If she had been on the basement steps at the time, they would have collapsed.

"You're not going to bury a mattress in the back yard, and that's final!"

This is in keeping with my track record on other holes in the back yard. Longtime readers may remember that earlier this summer I dug a compost pit for the garden out of a sense of family tradition; that is to say, my father had a compost pit when I was growing up, and by gum, I wanted to have one too.

Well, I did. For about four weeks.

The compost pit was filling nicely with corn cobs, potato peels and other sundry organic matter, except for what the squirrels stole. I was thinking there might be hope next year for our garden, which this year produced about $1.25 worth of tomatoes before the bugs ate them.

(According to one school of thought, the value of those tomatoes should be equated with the cost of the house since the tomatoes are all we've received from our investment so far. In that case, we had more than $100,000 worth of tomatoes this year, far more than my father harvested the first year of his garden.)

The Monday before Labor Day, Natasha and I had some friends up for dinner. My friends, who I won't identify here, except as "Dan" and "Kathy," brought along their three children, whom I'll call "Tim," "Tyler" and "Anna" to protect their privacy.

While Dan and I barbecued chicken on my grill, Tim, Tyler and Anna gave me a dramatic lesson on childproofing homes. Their lesson took the form of a game that involved kicking Natasha's basketball around the back yard and bouncing it off various stationary objects and the odd person or two.

The only complete write-off was a flower I had planted by the patio. My hosta plants, sufficiently large to withstand the judgment of the flying basketball.

I was secretly disappointed when the basketball plowed into garden, not because it killed anything, but because it didn't. If they had aimed a little more to the left, Natasha and I would have lost our entire crop of brussels sprouts. Now we have to eat them.

(I tried to get the kids to kick the basketball into the hedge and mattress, but my attempts were unsuccessful.)

The compost pit became a magnet, first for the ball and then for the children. I don't think any of the trips into the hole were accidental, but just to be safe I filled the pit that week.

With the compost pit filled, there are no more jokes about the grave in my back yard. All that's buried there are half-rotted vegetables, and if a mad scientist stitches old potato peels together and reanimates them, just give me a deep-fryer. I'll have Frenchenfries eaten out of my hand in a matter of minutes.

But that mattress won't go away. At least, it hasn't yet. Nor have the sticks and fallen branches.

"I wish we had a wood-chipper," I said one day, my imagination filled with images of mulch I could put on the flower bed out front.

"You're not going to mulch a mattress!" Natasha protested.

"I was talking about the sticks," I explained, but immediately I began to warm to Natasha's suggestion. "That's not a bad idea. The wood-chipper could grind up the stuffing in the mattress, as well as the fabric and we could mix it in with the rest of the mulch, or blend it in with the garden. It'll biodegrade eventually."

And so it continues. The hedge remains. The mattress is slowly growing a crop of mildew on the side of the house. The pile of sticks in our back yard is growing steadily larger, and other chores are starting to pile up as well. There's no escape.

I have only one regret: I wish I had finished my Arrow of Light while I was still in Webelos.