Issue Date: February 9, 2004
Lessons from disaster
I was intrigued by louisa wraydalton's article titled "Chemical Analysis of a Disaster," describingthe nature of aerosol particles resulting from the collapse ofthe World Trade Center (C&EN,Oct. 20, 2003, page 26). The results of studies made by severalindependent groups are relevant to the effect a "dirty bomb" explosionwould have on the area surrounding the explosion. The populationin this area following the explosion would encounter aerosol particlescontaining radioactive isotopes. Even the large particles (greaterthan 10 µm) that would lodge in the nose and throat would causesevere damage from radiation emanating from the particles. Smallerparticles that lodge in the lungs would be extremely difficultto remove.
Last summer, I arranged a workshop on the effectof a dirty bomb explosion in several major population regionsof the country, including lower Manhattan. I invited a group ofleading scientists from Ukraine who have been involved in treatingthe consequences of the Chernobyl explosion. Volodymyr V. Tokarefsky,director of the Research Institute at the Chernobyl site, describedthe formation of aerosol particles as radioactive carriers. Hestressed the necessity of immediately washing all building exteriors,streets, and surroundings with fire hoses to ground the aerosolsand wash them into the sewer system. Many other protective measureswere discussed, but I see very little movement in the Departmentof Homeland Security to initiate protective measures. Police,firefighters, hospital staff, and other frontline responders needto be trained in how to respond to such an attack. Rapid deployment,protective measures, and immediate patient treatment are requiredto avert panic and disaster.
College Station, Texas
Lies, damn lies, and statistics
I'm distressed that trainedscientists could write and approve an article like the one titled"Grad School: Does It Matter Where You Go?" by Amanda Yarnell(C&EN,Sept. 29, 2003, page 42). This article devotes its whole firstpage to the questionable practice of concluding that a correlationimplies causation. Namely, Michael Gottselig and colleagues usea simple correlation between academic success and choice of graduateschool to "quantify the influence of graduate school choice onfuture academic success."
It's obvious to me (and to David B. Collum laterin the article) that the correlation arises from the tendencyof top students to want to work with top advisers, who are disproportionatelyfound at top schools (that's why they're "top schools!"). Greatstudents will be successful because they have drive and determination,and less capable chemists will not succeed because they attendeda "top" graduate school. The finding that only 5060% ofthe faculty at top 10 schools went to top 10 schools themselvesstrongly implies that one may succeed regardless of whether onegoes to a top 10 school. Therefore, it's ludicrous when Gottselig/LarsOeltjen say that a high-ranking grad school is a sine qua nonfor a high-ranking professorship, even though they found thata substantial fraction of professors at top 10 schools did notmeet this criterion! It's the responsibility of a trained sciencewriter to notice and call to attention these inconsistencies.
Probably Yarnell would defend herself by sayingthat both sides of the argument are stated in the article. However,as magazine producers, you know that impact is made by the graphicsand the bylines, which all somehow follow the conclusion that"prestige counts." Does the author believe Gottselig and Oeltjenmore than the internationally respected scientists Collum, ThomasJ. Meade, and Carolyn R. Bertozzi?
Foreign labor: A siren song
In Madeleine Jacobs' editorial,she refers to the R&D jobs and services moving to India (andChina) at a stunning rate (C&EN,Dec. 8, 2003, page 3). While this sounds good for a developingcountry like India in the short run, in the long run it is neithergood for India nor for the U.S.
A close relative of mine returned to India to joina major U.S. company's R&D center, only to discover that thework had no relevance to India. Even the work hours were changedso that the Indian scientists would be available for conferencecalls from the U.S. After the initial euphoria of returning home,you begin to realize that you are being exploited, given thatthe salary is a fraction of that for a comparable job in the U.S.(albeit good by local standards) and the work you are doing soenergetically has little or no relevance to the local conditions.This cannot last forever; in a country ruled by a foreign rulerfor 200 years, people are ever more conscious of being recolonizedand exploited.
Since the information technology revolution ofthe 1990s, India has been perceived as a country with a highlytrained workforce consisting of many science Ph.D.s and engineeringgraduates. This has translated to many call center and softwarejobs fleeing to India. But neither are examples of high-tech work,if they can be called high-tech at all. High school graduateswith proper training can do that. In fact, the state of affairs of Indian science as reported in the journal Science previously [298,733 (2002)] is not good. According to the article, "The numberof Indian papers in peer-reviewed journals had dropped by 24%since 1980 and the country's global ranking had slipped from eighthto 15th, despite its status as the world's second most populousnation."
India has many serious problems that require urgentattention, such as public health, basic health care, safe andadequate drinking water, an endemic energy shortage, and environmentalpollution. None of the work panned out to India and other developingcountries by Western companies helps them to solve these basicproblems.
Colorado Springs, Colo.
A fond farewell
Iwas surprised and saddened to read of the recentdeath of Marshall D. Gates Jr., my Ph.D. adviser at the Universityof Rochester some 50 years ago (C&EN,Nov. 3, 2003, page 52). One thing that has struck me is thatI suspect many young chemists wonder why all the fuss about thesynthesis of morphine that Gates accomplished, considering thatits structure looks quite simple compared to those that are beingelucidated and synthesized now. However, if those who wonder cantry to put themselves back a bit over 50 years and look at thetools and knowledge a chemist had to work with, they will beginto understand what an amazing piece of work it was. In the manyyears since I left the university, I have had cause to think backto all the things I learned from Gates and realize that much ofit had little to do with chemistry and more to do with being agood and curious human being. I could never thank him enough forall that he taught and gave to me.
La Paz, Mexico
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