Is a Revolution in Science in the Offing?

During the summer, Chris Swanson, a fellow tutor at Gutenberg, passed along to me an article from The Economist: “Brought to book: Academic journals face a radical shake-up” (July 21, 2012). The article claimed that academic journals are facing a radical shake-up because the British government announced on July 16th that starting January 1, 2013, all taxpayer financed research would be available, free and online, for anyone to read and redistribute. The reason given for the new law was that journal publishers are seen as an impediment to scientific progress. It is true that the journals are facing a radical shake-up, but this new law also amounts to a potential revolution in science.

According to the article, the criticism of the journal publishers boils down to two things. The first is that it takes months to get a paper through their process, when the results can be published in days or hours on the internet. The second criticism is that the publishers have a monopoly, and they can and do charge any amount of money they want for their journals. They can get away with this because scientists have to have access to the published work. Scientists must read the current journal articles to stay current and place their work in the context of other ongoing work. So, for example, the article pointed out that Elsevier, a large Dutch scientific publisher, made a profit margin of 37% in 2011. (Even academic science publishing works along principles articulated by Adam Smith).

The critics of the new law claim that the publishers perform a vital part of the scientific process: they provide peer-review—critical, sometimes anonymous, reviews by other experts in the field. Peer review is the scientific version of sorting sheep from goats. Reviewers determine what gets published and what does not. In addition, they determine the worth of a scientific paper. The more prestigious the journal someone’s work appears in, the better and more important the work is seen to be. Determining the worth of a scientific paper is seen by the critics as an important function of scientific publishing. Therefore, the journals play a critical role in science.

But how will science papers be peer-reviewed in Britain after January 2013? Currently three options are being evaluated, and numerous other possibilities are being considered. One option is the “gold model,” a business model in place in the U.S. A non-profit out of San Francisco started the Public Library of Science and charges a fee from $1,350 to $2,900 to make papers available for free over the internet. A second option, the “green model,” is currently in use by the National Institute of Health (NIH). In this model, papers are published in peer-reviewed journals the same as always, but they have to be published for free on-line within a year. A third option is for scientists to publish their papers on-line in public archives paid for by a network of universities. In addition to these three options, numerous others have been suggested.

In the end, it will be interesting to see what option or options is/are selected. For over a century, science has been seen as a privileged endeavor because of its method and peer-review. It has been seen as resulting in more certain and objective conclusions than other endeavors. Peer-review has also served as a gate-keeper for making sure that perspectives outside acceptable limits of science are not given a platform for discussion. If an option leads to science papers being published on-line on public sites without peer review or “gate keepers,” then this will result in a significant revolution in science. It will be interesting to watch this development as it unfolds.


A Trip to the Evergreen Museum

Last week my two boys, Dylan and Andrew, and I went up to the Evergreen Museum in McMinnville, Oregon. We had not been there since the boys were ages four and seven (Dylan is entering Gutenberg College this year). In the last decade, Evergreen has become the one of the best aircraft and aerospace museums in the country. Its major attraction is the Spruce Goose, a “flying boat” and probably the most memorable aircraft other than the Wright Brothers’ Flyer to fly less than a mile total. In addition to its impressive World War II aircraft collection, the museum also houses rockets, capsules, and the SR-71 recon plane. When I was in the Air Force in the early 1970s, I worked with the SR-71 as part of my job with the National Security Agency (NSA). It was interesting to see the plane again and to show the boys some of its capabilities. In this post, I will focus on the Spruce Goose and the SR-71.


Spruce Goose photo by Gutenberg College tutor Charley Dewberry

The Spruce Goose

The Spruce Goose was designed and built by Hughes Aircraft (Howard Hughes) during World War II to fly troops and supplies non-stop from the east coast of the U.S. to Europe. Its mission was to help relieve the pressure on the merchant marine fleet which was being savagely attacked by German U-boats. From a design perspective, the plane was required to be built out of non-critical war materials. Probably the greatest irony about the plane is that it does not have one piece of spruce in it. Aircraft spruce was one of the most limited of war materials. (When the war ended, only a narrow, ten-mile strip of Sitka spruce located between Yachats and Florence, Oregon, had not been harvested in the continental U.S. The majority of aircraft spruce left at the end of WW II was in British Columbia and Alaska.) The Spruce Goose is mostly built out of laminated birch.

The Spruce Goose is the largest flying boat ever built. It is also among the last flying boats built. In other words, it was a dinosaur by the time it first flew. The 1930s and 1940s were the heyday of the flying boats. The most nostalgic of the flying boats were the Great Clippers. They established commercial flight routes across the Pacific to Manila. It took five days to island hop from San Francisco to Manila in the Philippines. They represented a viable technology until long runways were built on Pacific Islands and aircraft increased their range and level of reliability. The flying boats exchanged clean aerodynamics for the ability to take off and land on water. Once the runways were built and the technology became more reliable the flying boats became obsolete. A similar fate was faced by float planes, flying boats’ little brothers. Float planes are now dominant only in Alaska where land airports do not exist in sufficient numbers to provide an adequate transportation network.

The creation and demise of the flying boats is a clear example of the drive for economic and technical efficiency and its effects. The flying boats were only a viable solution to transportation problems for a short period of time. Then aviation went on without them. They were no longer economically viable. Land based planes could fly more people and goods cheaper and faster. All the people that flew and maintained the flying boats had to find new employment.


SR-71 photo by Gutenberg College tutor Charley Dewberry

Charley Dewberry in front of the SR-71

Shifting gears, the SR-71 is arguably the most technologically sophisticated aircraft ever built. It still holds most of the speed and altitude records for an airplane. Flying at more than Mach 3.2; it flies faster than a bullet fired from a rifle.

The SR-71 was designed to replace the U-2 as the U.S.’s high-altitude reconnaissance aircraft. The U-2 (called the Dragon Lady by pilots because it was a very difficult plane to fly and land) was designed for the CIA in the 1950s. Its mission was to overfly the U.S.S.R. during the Cold War. The U-2 was basically a jet powered glider that flew at extreme altitudes (above 75,000 feet). It was designed to fly higher than conventional fighter planes could go. Unfortunately, it was slow (around 500 mph). In 1960, the U.S.S.R. shot down a U-2 with a surface-to-air missile (SAM). This led to designing a new recon aircraft to overfly the U.S.S.R. The SR-71 could fly at least as high as a U-2, and in the event that a surface-to-air missile was shot at it, the SR-71 would simply outrun the missile.

A number of very sophisticated technological developments were necessary to allow the plane to fulfill its mission. The aircraft was largely built out of titanium. Most aircraft only have titanium on surfaces that experience high temperatures. The SR-71 was constructed of about 85% titanium. The aircraft was built loose and only became tight during flight when the surface temperatures increased. Considerable amounts of fuel would leak from the plane on the ground. It would take off, fly initially at high speed to heat and expand the surfaces, and then refuel aerially for its mission. In flight, it also cycled fuel to the wings to cool the leading edges. Needless to say, the fuel was not normal aircraft fuel.

A total of thirty-two aircraft were built. During its thirty-four years of active duty, twelve were destroyed. None were shot down. Only one crew member died. The rest all ejected safely. In addition to photo and remote sensing capabilities, signal intelligence (radio signals) could be gathered as could electronic warfare information.

The cameras on board were incredible. As the exhibit showed, the cameras photographed the ground from over 75,000 feet. Yet it is easy to identify the make and model of cars and trucks in the photographs. The SR-71 could fly its photo mission at greater than Mach 2. So for example, the SR-71 could overfly all of Vietnam (a narrow country) in less than an hour, and the photos allowed one to identify the make and model of cars anywhere in the country.

One would think that that such an aircraft would still be actively flown today, but that is not the case. All the SR-71s were retired in 1998. In another aviation irony, the only remaining dedicated high-altitude reconnaissance plane in the U.S. Air Force inventory is the U-2, the SR-71’s predecessor.

What did in the SR-71? Its mission is still viable. Satellites are not as mobile as an aircraft; it takes awhile to move a satellite over a target area. The SR-71 can provide photo intelligence on short notice anywhere in the world, and there is virtually no way to shoot it down. The SR-71’s mission didn’t go away, nor has a better aircraft been designed to replace it (some people say there is an active replacement, the Aurora, but it is classified); the U.S. Congress just decided it was too expensive to fly and maintain the nine aircraft then operational. What doomed the plane was partly the secret nature of its capacities: it had few knowledgeable advocates. Too few people making decisions truly understood the nature and demands of gaining intelligence information and the role the aircraft could play, and its few advocates did not want to make all its secret capabilities known, so they did not strongly defend the aircraft program. Also, the plane was part of the Air Force’s mission. Most line officers in the Air Force have no use for intelligence. The glamorous missions are fighter planes and bombers; an assignment to an intelligence organization is largely a death warrant for an Air Force career. So when push came to shove over budget issues, the SR-71 was doomed.

The boys and I enjoyed the time we spent at the museum. For anyone interested in aviation or space exploration, the museum is a must. At the end of the day, I did find myself reflecting on one question, though: Did Howard Hughes take off in the Spruce Goose during a taxi test on purpose or by accident? He always claimed the plane just took off by itself. His opponents had largely killed the Spruce Goose program because they were convinced that the plane could never fly. As I pilot, I have to smirk. Howard Hughes was an exceptional pilot, and to have the largest flying boat in the world accidentally take off for the first time under total control and fly at about fifty feet elevation for a mile (a difficult maneuver) and then make a perfect landing is a fine piece of work. It proved one thing for sure: the Spruce Goose was at least airworthy. It was truly the world’s largest flying boat.


Tim’s Top Ten: Modern Plays

I know what you’re thinking. You don’t want to go to the theatre. It’s too risky. The ticket costs three times more than a movie—and ten times more than a rental. To make matters worse, if the performance stinks, you’re stuck until curtain-fall.

But the possibility of greatness makes theatre worth the risk. Watching a great play makes you forget you are watching. Two hours pass and you’ve not breathed once. All this without recourse to a machine-gun fight or a CGI dragon. All this with only actors on wooden boards.

Enough plumping for theatre. On with the list! The following ten plays are, in my opinion, the best since the advent of modern theatre. Twisting stories, vibrant characters, gripping themes. These plays are worth the risk.


10. Doubt, John Patrick Shanley (2004). Father Flynn is suspected of sexually molesting a student. To complicate matters, the boy is the school’s first African-American student. Sister Aloysius investigates him. But she is clouded by her acidic distrust of everything and everyone—students, teachers, parents. Soon you have doubts yourself. Did he really do it? (Winner of the Pulitzer and the Tony in 2005.)

9. The Birthday Party, Harold Pinter (1957). Much great twentieth century literature has been haunted by menacing, faceless bureaucracy. (Think Franz Kafka’s The Trial and George Orwell’s 1984). The Birthday Party is a classic in this theme. The thirty-ish Stanley hides in a non-descript boarding house until two ominous characters, Goldberg and McCann, find him and throw him a birthday party. But it’s not his birthday. And it’s not a party. It’s a terror-filled examination. [Side-note: Pinter was fond of writing long silences into tense moments of his plays. Playgoers have since given a name to these powerful silences: “Pinter Pauses.”]

8. The Iceman Cometh, Eugene O’Neill (1940). A brothel of bums, Communists, drunks, and prostitutes play cards, flirt, drink, and dream of tomorrow. But when dawn breaks, nothing has changed. Until the Iceman arrives. He begins to preach his message: Take control of your dreams! A harrowing play about that all-to-human instinct to flee reality for a dream world. [Side note: O’Neill is the most decorated playwright in American history. Unfortunately, his works are rarely performed because of their girth. His monologues are rain-barrels of repetition. The ideas are dense. And the length, nearly impossible. (Long Day’s Journey runs three hours, The Iceman Cometh almost four.) But when performed well, O’Neill’s plays are riveting.]

7. Waiting for Godot, Samuel Becket (1952). You may love it, you may hate it—but you won’t forget it. Early performances of Beckett’s absurdist play elicited howls and hoots from the audience forcing the director to lower the curtain during a monologue. Fifty years later it was voted the most important English-language play of the century.

6. Hedda Gabler, Henrik Ibsen (1891). Hedda is arguably the most famous female character in modern theatre. What an enigma! Is she a proto-feminist heroine who defies rigid social expectations? Or is she a petulant villain? Teaching Hedda at Gutenberg last year, I was surprised by our students’ reaction. Almost all accused her of being a petulant villain! Perhaps their verdict was shaped by our culture’s laissez-faire attitude toward morality. I suspect their views would change if they lived in rigid nineteenth-century Scandanavia.

5. The Crucible, Arthur Miller (1952). In 1952 Miller wrote The Crucible about the Salem witch trials. The play is a thinly veiled allegory about the House Un-American Activities Committee. Four years later Joseph McCarthy summoned him to testify before the committee. He was convicted of contempt of Congress for refusing to identify writers believed to hold Communist sympathies. —Does life reflect art or art reflect life?

4. The Cherry Orchard, Chekhov (1904). Is Chekhov’s last play a comedy or a tragedy? Konstantin Stanislavski, its first director, performed it as a tragedy. Since then, every director has had to make a choice: Ought Chekhov’s collapsing Russian family make us laugh or cry?

3. A Streetcar Named Desire, Tennessee Williams (1947). When Blanche visits her sister Stella in New Orleans, she encounters the brutish Stanley (a role made famous by Marlon Brando). A battle is inevitable. Blanche is an ethereal dreamer; Stanley is a violent animal. Their relationship is a mixture of lust and spite that results in tragedy.

2. Death of a Salesman, Arthur Miller (1949). Miller’s plays are Greek tragedies. His plays cut two ways. First, the hero suffers for his faults. Second, the hero’s faults mirror society’s faults. In Death of a Salesman, Willy Loman dreams the American dream. When the dream fails, the hero conjures a new fantasy that dooms him and his family. “The chickens,” said Miller, “always come home to roost.”

1. The Wild Duck, Henrik Ibsen (1884). The iconoclastic Ibsen is best remembered for his proto-feminist Hedda Gabler and idealistic Enemy of the People. But in The Wild Duck, Ibsen reverses course. Instead of the victory of ideals, The Wild Duck tells a story of the violence of ideals. Gregers’s insistence on absolute truth functions as a blunt knife in the soft-tissue of family and love. Which leaves us to wonder, what is this play? Is it Ibsen’s regrets over a life of bashing? Or was he merely telling the truth about the costs of idealism? 


These top ten lists were inspired by the occasional debates among Gutenberg students about their favorite great books. Which is a better novel, Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina or Dostoevsky’s Brothers Karamzov? Which is Shakespeare’s best play, Hamlet or King Lear? Who do you more identify with, Plato or Aristotle?

Yes, we have such debates. We are bookish, nerdy, and classicist. Just like others who studied the classics—folks like Winston Churchill, James Madison, Dorothy Sayers, Oliver Wendell Holmes, Hannah Moore, C.S. Lewis, John Milton, Søren Kierkegaard, William Gladstone…


What’s a Representative To Do?

Embedded in representative government is a tension with which every representative and every electing body must come to terms. Should a representative be encouraged to vote in accordance with his principles and judgment, or should the representative always vote in accordance with the majority view?

Part of the design of representative government is the idea that the electorate cannot and should not be burdened with all of the complications of the affairs of state. It takes a great deal of effort to determine what policies and laws will be beneficial and what potentially harmful side effects might ensue. Further, the representative is in a position to choose a course of action that can be beneficial in the long run but cause distress in the short run. The electorate rarely has the patience or the understanding for such long-term considerations.

This tension was brought to light recently when I was reading about the most recent attempt by various groups to remove the dam on the Hetch Hetchy reservoir located in a beautiful valley in Yosemite National Park. The dam was built in the years prior to the Yosemite obtaining national park status in order to provide water and power for San Francisco. For the last fifty years, environmental groups and park enthusiasts have tried to have the dam removed.

What was particularly striking about the report was the way the political parties lined up on the issue. I would have expected the Democratic party to have been in favor of removal due to their strong environmental platform. However, it turned out that many Republicans were pushing for the removal, while staunch liberals like California Senator Feinstein and San Francisco Representative Nancy Pelosi opposed it. It seems that environmental principles are of value as long as they have no impact on the representatives’ constituencies.

I don’t pretend to have much knowledge about the pros and cons of removing the dam on Hetch Hetchy. If I knew more I might agree with them—or I might not—but I do think this situation is ironic, and it highlights the direction our country has taken with regard to the tension I mentioned above. The apparent inconsistency of Feinstein and Pelosi is not unique to these two representatives. The rest of our elected leaders are just as capable of such flip-flopping because we, the electorate, have taken the reins of control. With the expansion of the media’s role over the last two hundred years, the electorate has had the illusion of being more informed on every issue. As a result, the will of the electorate has become more specific and more demanding. There is little willingness to allow an elected official to make long-term decisions or decisions on principle if those decisions happen to be unpopular. Further, the will of the electorate has become extremely fickle and subject to an inundation of propaganda forces. Feinstein and Pelosi know that any unpopular decision they make will be loudly decried by opponents in the next election.

In the modern state, we are averse to a position where representatives are elected based on their character and principles with the expectation that they will make good judgments based on their knowledge and expertise. Instead, our representatives are slavishly bound to the fickle will of the electorate and the sounding board of the media. They are not given the chance to vote in accord with careful examination of the consequences but instead vote in accord with the careful examination of polling data. We can rest assured that if we are hypocrites, so also will be our representatives.


Whose Stone Tablets?

8/19/2012 update: In an effort to minimize the amount of misinformation racing around the world wide web, I ask that if you read the following post, please also read Michael Pruitt’s response which follows immediately.

I have been a subscriber to Biblical Archaeology Review (BAR) for several decades now. I don’t read every issue from cover to cover, but I always leaf through each issue, and, when I have the time, I read those articles that strike me as particularly interesting. I was flipping through the pages of the most recent edition (September/October 2012), and I found something extremely curious. Hershel Shanks, the founder of the Biblical Archaeology Society, wrote an editorial explaining how difficult it is to determine to which country any given ancient artifact belongs. For instance, does an ancient artifact belong to the culture that produced it? Does it more appropriately belong to the people who currently occupy the land where it was found? Does it belong to the culture that found it? Does it belong to the people who currently possess it? Obviously these are difficult questions.

The issue that gave rise to the editorial concerned a find made in the Sinai desert in 1969, just two years after the Six-Day War. A team of Israeli archaeologists was exploring one of the proposed locations of the biblical Mt. Sinai. While digging, they found a stone inscribed with a Hebrew letter. They continued to dig and eventually were able to find all of the pieces of two tablets except for a few pieces on the edge that contained no writing. Paleographers examined the writing and concluded that it dated to about 1200 BC.

When all pieced together, the text on the tablets was easily legible. It was the text of the Ten Commandments. Interestingly, it matched the text as recorded in Deuteronomy 5, which is slightly different from the text in Exodus 20. The scholars reached the obvious conclusion that these tablets were the ones Moses broke when he came down from the mountain and found the Israelites worshipping the Golden Calf. The scholars who found the tablets decided to stick them in a vault at the university and keep quiet.

The new Egyptian government found out about this discovery and sent a request to the Israeli government that the tablets be given to Egypt since they were found on land that is currently part of Egypt.

I find this very curious. In my thinking, the discovery of the original tablets of the Ten Commandments is a very significant find. But to my knowledge there have been no major news articles about this find; I have never seen anything else about it in BAR. So to see the story pop up in an editorial was very surprising, and I don’t know what to make of it. If this find is legitimate, it is a very amazing development.


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