Science is Mankind’s Brother

The Best American Science and Nature Writing 2012
Dan Ariely, Guest Editor; Tim Folger, Series Editor

Best_science_12Human beings love patterns. We seek them even when they don’t exist. So I’m not in alien territory when I wonder whether the pattern I’m stuck in with these science annuals is reading them at 12- to 18-month  intervals or picking volumes from  years divisible by two.

More likely there’s no pattern at all although I do have a common reaction which is that I cheat myself by not Continue reading

Sugar and Stress

The Trouble with Testosterone
And Other Essays on the Biology of the Human Predicament
Robert M. Sapolsky


Last I looked,  Mighty Mouse had little to do with science.

Yet an editor agreed to use his image on a book cover–and a science, no, not just a science, a biology book cover at that–for a reason. And it wasn’t just to crack me up.

(It probably was intended to draw my attention to the book on the shelf. Alas for the bean-counters and the Continue reading

The Things That We’ve Learnt

The Best American Science and Nature Writing 2004pinker_best Steven Pinker, Guest Editor; Tim Folger, Series Editor

Birds. I can’t help it, they irk me even though I love birdsong. But as creatures, unh unh. Count me out. What with their unblinking eyes and ability to poop on me from above. I just know they’re waiting to take the planet back.

Which is why I’m shamefaced to point out that the most enjoyable piece of writing in this decade-or-so old Continue reading

Science: It’s Not Just About Nature

The Best American Science and Nature Writing 2008
Jerome Groopman, M.D., Guest Editor; Tim Folger, Series Editor

best am sci 08Luckily, science doesn’t come with a ‘sell by’ date. That’s a good thing because I run so perennially behind that getting to the’ 08 volume in ’14 is actually admirable.

As was the job done in helping assemble this volume. I’ve been known to refer to myself as a failed engineer, which is true. But, seemingly in penance, I gravitated towards social science and went on, eventually, to 3 semesters of graduate school math. My point Continue reading

The Great Antidote

The Best American Science Writing 2004
Dava Sobel, Editor; Jesse Cohen, Series Editor

In high school I was a certified nerd: slide rule, binder, TI some-number-or-other in hand, 90+ on all four science Regents. Science remains a fascination and the rigor I learned is important as I read the social science and business literature where it often goes wanting. So it’s a little troubling that there’s so little of it in these virtual pages.

Part of the problem is that I am, by nature, a generalist. The history of science is populated with Continue reading

Carbonic Math: A Real-world Travel Example

A former boss told me my sensitivity to cognitive dissonance was a drawback in a world defined by same. That may be but when the dissonance gets too loud I like to turn to data. It may not convince you; working with it tends to soothe me.Carbon-dioxide-unit-cell-3D-balls

The lovely image to the right shows CO2 molecules arrayed in a 3D space. Working on my post about lawn reclamation and sustainability prompted me to dig a bit into the numbers behind CO2 emissions. I’m not a scientist or engineer (I work with engineers but washed out of the pre-engineering program I attended in high school) so everything that follows is an educated layman using available numbers and a modicum of common sense.

Our example is a recent business trip from New York to Reston, VA. To keep things easy let’s stipulate that because all but 20 miles was highway driving that we’ll consider it all highway driving.

Item Car 1 Car 2 TOTALS
Miles Driven (R/T NY-Reston, VA  588  588
 MPG (EPA Hwy)    27    33
 Gals Used   21.8   17.8   39.6
 Gas Price/Gal (refuel in DE)  $ 3.65  $ 3.65
Fuel Cost $ 79.49 $ 65.04 $ 144.53
Tolls $ 15.80 $ 15.80 $  31.60
Rental Charges $ 201.25 $ 289.35 $ 490.60
Total Expenditures $296.54 $370.19 $ 666.73
Lbs of CO2/gal 19.643 19.643
 Total lbs CO2  427.781  350.003  777.8

Now, just for giggles, let’s assume that the Metro extension to Reston from DC was working. That would enable us to take Amtrak from NY to Union Station in DC and the metro the rest of the way. The following data come from our friends at, see the citations on their site for the underlying calculations.

Item Group 1 Group 2 TOTALS
Amtrak Distance NY-DC RT (PM) 452 452  904
Distance rail CO2/PM      .42 .     42
Lbs Carbon/passenger 189.84 189.84
# passengers    2    1      3
Lbs Carbon 379.68 189.84 569.52
Ticket Price $ 744 $ 372 $ 1,116
DC-Reston Distance RT 48 48
Passenger Miles (PM) 96 48  144
Commuter rail lbs CO2/PM 0.35 .35
Lbs Carbon 33.6 16.8 50.4
Cost (Max metro fare, one way) $    5 $  5
Commuter Rail Cost R/T all passengers $  20 $  10 $ 30
TOTAL RAIL COST $ 764 $ 382 $1146
TOTAL RAIL CARBON (lbs) 413.3 206.6 619.9

So here’s the conundrum–it’s cheaper to drive–in 2 cars–than to take the train. In fact, even with tolls,  it’s $479 cheaper. And the cars spewed 158 more pounds of carbon into the air. I thought the difference might be greater, so there’s a risk someone would say is that all? I mean, that  was the result of displaying Big Mac calories and people don’t change cognitive styles when products do. Nonetheless, leave aside global warming and you still have to admit that’s not a healthy lungful.

We all know what the fix is. You equalize the costs so that the less harmful method is not disadvantaged vis a vis the more polluting one. There are two words in plain English that say that more clearly: carbon tax. Divide the saved carbon by the difference in price and you get a tax of $3.04 a gallon so that the additional carbon has a price. That raisers the per gallon cost to $6.69. Not crazy by non-US standards but a shocker here at home.

Will we need to have such a tax or see such prices to get people out of cars? I think so. The economists would say behavioral changes require an incentive. For now, most folks balancing a budget or making business travel decisions will choose the overall cheaper alternative. Nobody likes higher taxes but it’s really the only way change will ever happen.

And if we fail to enact such a levy and the impact on the earth gets worse? Well, the economists have a term for that, too: the tragedy of the commons.

The Lives of a Cell Revisited

The Lives of a Cell: Notes of a Biology Watcher
Lewis Thomas

Reading is fuel here at AHC so you might think there would be a premium placed on fresh material. That’s more or less true. I kid myself that it’s about needing new ideas to bounce off existing ones but, really, it’s driven by boredom. Were I in primary school today they’d slap an ADHD label on me and get the drugs into my system as fast as possible. Yet I’m not opposed to rereading even though, as the nuns taught me, you can’t get back time. So if I am to re-read, it better be worth it.

Lewis Thomas’ first book was worth a second visit. Continue reading