Monday, June 13, 2005

The rare, the foolish, the ancient--and then there's George Bush

The march of science news goes backwards, forwards and sideways.
June 13, 2005.

imagesWhat we need more research on here is how these people got elected—The oil guys in the Bush Administration may suddenly discover they are all alone. With the exception of a few folks who are being paid by the coal industry, everyone now agrees that global warming is real and no, we don’t need any more research. In a fascinating story in USAToday, Dan Vergano writes that the consensus now is widespread, all the groups agree. It is no longer controversial. The only thing wrong with the story is that it is not new—the scientific community has been virtually united on this conclusion for almost 10 years. Global warming is real and we all know that, in the words of Pogo, we have met the enemy and they are us. Even large corporations like General Electric, which produces huge electric generators, are on board; religious groups are united to see what they can do about it, and only the most foolish or clueless politicians are holding back, like our esteemed leader in the White House. A recent study by the Goddard Institute for Space Studies at NASA confirms what everyone knows, that carbon dioxide emissions and other greenhouse gases are trapping more of the sun’s energy in the atmosphere than is being released back up into space and that means climate change. That and scores of other studies are the research the President says we need. Just how incompetent does a President have to get before the peasants start storming the streets with pitchforks?

images-2The righteous shall flourish like the palm tree, but it may take a while—Sometime, about 2,000 years ago, a band of Jews then living in Roman Judea, barricaded themselves in the mountain fortress of Masada, surrounded by Roman legions and determined not to be captured. They had amassed a huge collection of food—plants and animals—and cisterns full of water. But the Romans built a ramp up the mountain and before they made it to the top, the Jews killed themselves. Later archeologists dug up the ruins of Masada and found, among other things, seeds of the date palm tree, a tree storied in legend (and the Bible) for its beauty and medicinal efficacy, wiped out by the Crusaders. Some of the seeds wound up in a drawer at Bar-Ilan University. Two scientists, Sara Sallon and Elaine Solowey took some and succeeded in germinating one. They now have a plant, nicknamed Methuselah, the only indigenous date palm of the Bible. It may be a short-lived victory: most very old seeds (and this is perhaps the oldest anyone has been able to germinate) grow a few inches and then keel over in exhaustion. And, if it is a male plant (50-50), it will not be able to reproduce. So far, however, so good.

images-3 Politically incorrect pharmacology—For decades now, scientists more interested in political correctness than science, have fought a long and valiant struggle against the idea that race is a biological attribute, that there really is a biological difference between, say blacks and Asians or whites. The evidence in medicine is overwhelming that race is real, but we are not talking about science here. Now a drug company has roiled up things. It has asked the FDA to approve a heart drug aimed at African-Americans. The drug, BiDil, seems to have very little effect on most patients, but the drug company that developed it, NitroMed, found that it significantly reduced death and hospitalization among blacks. The American Heart Association calls the drug a major development, but it has met with considerable resistance. You see, there are no such things as races and even if a useful drug is blocked, it is attitude that matters. The FDA is expected to reject the argument and approve the drug—one hopes.

images-4 Redemption in the skies, even if they are ugly birds—High above the Grand Canyon, its sere, varicolored limestone and sandstone cliffs, they soar and circle. Giant birds from another age, once on the brink of extinction, now returned to play on the updrafts from the canyon. California condors have returned to the Grand Canyon, as many as 25 or 30. When once there were so few that scientists knew everyone by name and knew where they were, the birds now own the skies over much of the isolated west. Six were released north of the canyon in 1996 and now 53 live there, including wild-born condors, the first in more than 20 years. We can do good when we want to.

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