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Joy Today and a Gloomy Prediction
In the two weeks since my last column there were at least two reasons for joyous celebration. One, of course, was the inauguration of Barack Obama, no matter what your political persuasion. To illustrate how far we’ve come during my lifetime, some readers may recall my mentioning an incident from my childhood. I was only five years old in 1933 but still can remember the police and/or troopers with guns lined up on the main street of Princess Anne, Maryland, my mother’s birthplace, as we drove into town from Pennsylvania to visit my grandmother and other relatives. My mother put me to bed early so that I wouldn’t witness the lynching, the last lynching in the state of Maryland. That night the lynch mob wanted to hang the victim on a tree in front of my grandmother’s home. However, my grandmother, under five feet tall, stood her ground and the mob moved on to another site. Although this was the last lynching in Maryland, the practice continued in other states for decades. Times have indeed changed. Now we have President Obama!
Another reason for celebration was the "Miracle on the Hudson River". My wife happened to be watching TV and we were totally engrossed in the live coverage of the rescue of everyone on Flight 1549. If Chesley "Sully" Sullenberger didn’t live in California, he could have easily won the public’s approval if Governor Patterson had appointed him as Hillary’s replacement for the job of junior Senator from New York! In all the acclaim for the pilots and crew of Flight 1549, and for the many responders involved in the 100 percent rescue of the plane’s occupants, I heard little or no acclaim for the manufacturers of the Airbus. I was amazed that it remained intact after landing in the water. I did hear mention of a special button to be pushed before a water ditching. Apparently, pushing this button results in the sealing off of any of the plane’s components that would admit water into the cabin. Whatever, the Airbus stayed afloat as it drifted down the river in the strong current. Note added after posting: I just read Bar Chat, quoting
the New York Post. Apparently, the ditch switch was not activated in the chaos surrounding the hurried landing in the river.
This week, as I passed my old stomping grounds of Bell Labs, now Alcatel-Lucent, I saw some relatives of the culprits responsible for the shutting down of Flight 1549's engines. There were two flocks of geese pecking in the snow on the lawn. Each flock had at least 50, maybe even a hundred of the birds, who somehow have lost the common sense that they should have migrated south to warmer digs for the winter.
Getting back to acclaim, the Nobel Prize is perhaps the ultimate in acclaim for achievements in science. Last year’s Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine was awarded to Francoise Barré-Sinoussi and Luc Montagnier for the discovery of HIV-1, which causes AIDS and to Harald zur Hausen for discovering of HPV, which causes cervical cancer. In the Letters section of the January 9 issue of Science, I couldn’t help noticing a short Letter carrying over 100 signatures! I’m used to seeing articles, notably in nuclear physics, in reports on certain space missions or in biomedical papers dealing with decoding DNA, with tens or even scores of authors. The signers of this Science letter were a global mix from over 60 institutions all over the world.
What was it that garnered such widespread support? The Letter appeared under the headline "Unsung Hero Robert C. Gallo" and the point of the letter was effectively to make up for the Nobel Committee’s failure to include Gallo as one of the Nobel laureates. The letter points out that, while Barré-Sinoussi and Montagnier discovered a virus they could not determine that it was the AIDS virus. A year later, in 1984, Gallo and his coworkers isolated the virus, grew it and showed it was the AIDS virus. The letter maintains that without Gallo it might have been years before the correlation of the virus with AIDS was recognized and that thousands of lives would have been lost without the testing and drug developments that followed Gallo’s work.
Normally, I admit that I tend to skip over or ignore articles on AIDS but this letter reminded me that I might owe my own debt of gratitude to Gallo. One of the results of his work was that the blood supply was monitored and controlled to try to avoid any transmission of AIDS in transfusions. In 1990, six years after his publications on HIV, I found myself in the intensive care unit of our local hospital having lost half my blood due to internal bleeding. As I recall, it took five units of blood to bring the situation under control. There was at that time still enough concern about the safety of the blood supply that, six months later, my doctor had my blood tested for HIV. Thankfully, the test was negative for the virus. Now I realize that, just as those Flight 1549 passengers owe their lives to Captain Sullenberger, there’s at least a slight chance that I owe my life to Robert Gallo!
Concerning Flight 1549, it was fortunate that the landing in the Hudson River didn’t occur a day or so later, when the temperatures were really low and the danger from hypothermia could have been much worse. While we’ve been shivering in the frigid weather, President Obama’s mention of the threat of a warming planet in his inaugural address may seem less threatening than it did when temps were significantly higher last summer. Another article in the same January 9 issue of Science brings us back to reality.
In the article, David Battisti and Rosamond Naylor paint a gloomy picture of global warming and its effects on crop yields necessary to feed an ever growing population. They have used 23 global climate models and past experiences with the effects of higher temperatures on crop yields to estimate possible temperatures in various locations on our planet by the end of this century. France is one of the places of concern. You may recall the terrible heat wave in France and western Europe in 2003, when an estimated 52,000 people died from the heat. Aside from the direct human toll, one of the effects of higher temperatures is to prolong the growing season. You might expect that this would be good and crop yields would rise.
Not so. In 2003, the temperatures in France were 3.6 degrees Centigrade higher than normal and the harvests of corn and fruits, instead of increasing, fell 25 percent! So, what do the climate models predict for near the end of this century, in 2090? There’s a 90 percent chance that the average summer temperature in France will be 3.7 degrees Centigrade above the long-term norm. That’s another 2003 heat wave! But wait, the global climate model calculations yield a range of possible temperatures and their probabilities. There’s a slight chance that the average summer temperature in 2090 could be 9.8 degrees Centigrade above the norm. That would be total disaster!
France is just one example. Battisti and Naylor’s article includes maps of the world in which the predicted percentage of summers warmer than the warmest summers on record (in the years 1900-2006) are color coded, with red being between 90 and 100 percent. One map is for the period 2040-2060. The picture is not encouraging with most of the world shaded in green, which corresponds to between 10 and 50 percent of the summers being warmer than the warmest on record. However, the second map, for the period 2080 -2100 is truly frightening. Most of the world is in red, including where I live here in New Jersey. This means there’s a 90 percent or greater chance that the averaged summer temperatures will be higher than the hottest summers of the past century! I hope Obama and all the world’s leaders see this map! If they do, I hope they have scientists who know the full story interpret the data for them. France, for example, is not in red but, as I see it, this is because it already had that huge heat wave in 2003, with an averaged summer temperature already strongly overlapping into the predicted range for the end of this century. Hence, in green, it’s not nearly as benign as it looks.
I can’t stand the heat. Let’s get back to cold weather and the inauguration. I couldn’t help pitying those band members from Punahou School in Honolulu who left balmy Hawaii to march in freezing weather to celebrate their most famous Punahou alumnus as he became our president. However, they didn’t seem to mind the cold one bit and performed beautifully. Thanks to our good friends in Honolulu, I’ve been to visit Punahou and can understand why Obama returns there to shoot hoops and renew acquaintances.
Two weeks ago I mentioned our Honolulu friends’ experience with Thomas Bell, the cat that returned to their house twice after absences of years. Thomas was again in residence when I wrote that column. Well, old Tom has taken to disappearing for days at a time and presently has been gone for a week or so. Should he reappear, our friends said they might put a tag with their phone number on the cat so they can trade stories about Tom with whomever it is he spends the rest of his time. It just occurred to me. Could he have made his way to the inauguration? After all, Verne, the turtle in the comic strip "Over the Hedge", did land in Obama’s hands as he took the oath of office!
Well, this has been another potpourri of subjects. Perhaps, I’ll become more focused in my next column, which will be posted on February 5, in line with my new every-other-week schedule.
Allen F. Bortrum