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August 2, 2004 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 82, Issue 31

The big picture

Thank you for your thoughtful editorial, "When Is Enough, Enough?" (C&EN, July 12, page 3).

During our post-9/11 obsession with national defense and security, many other critical issues have been overshadowed or ignored. Unfortunately, violence and terrorism will be with us for many, many years to come as the last resort of zealots and fanatics and the misguided choice of irresponsible governments. If we don't pursue other goals such as environmental and economic sustainability in the interim, it may be too late when we are finally ready to get back to them.

Dan Pollart
Alameda, Calif.

Man or machine?

Thanks for your commonsense editorial, "Exploring the Solar System" (C&EN, July 19, page 3). A manned expedition to Mars is a fantasy that we who live on Earth can ill afford. Considering the treachery of space to human life and the quantity of Earth's limited resources that must be expended for a "safe" voyage, such proposals are indeed wrongheaded.

Servicing the Hubble Space Telescope is a different matter. Several proposals for manned and unmanned repair plans have been reported, but I have not heard the following redundancy plan discussed.

If flying one space shuttle to Hubble is too unreliable and would be deemed unsafe after experiencing the Columbia tragedy, why not fly two space shuttles to Hubble, a day or so apart, to do the same job? The project would be twice as expensive, but the astronauts' safety could be greatly enhanced with backup plans and built-in redundancies. For instance, if one space shuttle was somehow damaged during ascent, full accommodation could be made on the other shuttle for all astronauts with time for their safe descent. Hubble is too important an instrument to lose (a true window to the universe) without investing our best efforts to save it.

George Anderson


I beg to differ with your concluding statement: "I'm not sure carbon-based life forms will ever belong in space. Our silicon-based robots are much better surrogates for extending human senses and exploring the solar system and deep space. It's time that we pull the plug on the pointless and wasteful romantic fantasy that is manned exploration of space."

This is a shortsighted view. The dinosaurs ruled Earth for 150 million years and then were wiped out. Humanity must explore space and colonize other worlds or we will suffer the same fate. That is a compelling reason for human exploration of space. Until we do, we are like the proverbial farmer with all of his eggs in the same basket.

Jack W. Horvath
Baytown, Texas

Hire education

I found Madeleine Joullie's comment "Quo Vadis Chemistry?" to be compelling (C&EN, May 31, page 36). But her proposals are all too predictable, and, in my opinion, not likely to succeed. Like Peter in the biblical story she alludes to (from the apocryphal Acts of Peter), chemists have to stop running from the challenge and embrace the sacrifice of bringing the (chemical) "Word" to the ignorant. (However, I predict a better ending for us if we do act.)

Providing more access to "hands-on" chemistry may excite more students to pursue chemistry beyond high school or freshman-level college courses, but I suggest they would be predisposed to learn chemistry anyway: Sooner or later, they will find laboratories. More important, I find it hard to believe that we can teach hands-on chemistry when high school teachers know little of the subject to begin with, and university professors look with disgust on teaching as a distraction from their grant applications and paper writing.

We need to support a change in the professional stature of teaching, to value talented teachers and make recruitment and training of good chemistry teachers a priority. We cannot rely on some other country to provide well-educated students for our universities and industry. We need to teach the craft of chemical thinking--and the scientific philosophy--to all American children, not necessarily so they will choose chemistry as a career, but because they will be better thinkers and decisionmakers no matter what they pursue.

The critical thinking skills a chemist learns are just as relevant to Wall Street and Washington, D.C., as they are to any lab. The debacle unfolding over the Bush Administration's approach to determining the existence of Iraq's weapons of mass destruction (whether they are ultimately found or not) only underlines the failure to instill strong thinking skills and an understanding of inductive logic in our students.

Pointing out the many errors in press accounts and reminding the public of the many blessings bestowed by chemistry is an important goal. But so is teaching chemists the need for greater humility in listening to public fears and concerns and to be more creative in addressing those concerns. We win few converts by displaying arrogance. We need to demonstrate why some fears are irrational by convincing the public of that irrationality. Furthermore, we need to show the public that we will act decisively when we understand those fears are real.

The future of American science is indeed in crisis. The old ways of appealing to students and the public don't work. We need to get back to basics and convince the masses to move to the light of (chemical) knowledge.

David P. Lentini
San Francisco



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