Monday, September 01, 2003
Talk to the Animals
Barry Yeoman's July article on lab mice ["Can We Trust Research Done With Lab Mice?"] states what animal rights activists have said for years: Animals in barren and boring living conditions may produce skewed test results. What bothered me about this article was the last sentence: "If we get to the stage where we think that we need to treat the animals this way"—with genuine concern for their well-being—"experimenting on them will probably become impossible because that would mean they would almost achieve the same status that we have." As sentient beings with social and emotional needs, that is. Our country may be technologically advanced, but when it comes to how we treat so-called lesser beings, we are still in the Stone Age. If we are to use animals in research, it is imperative that we give them decent, interesting surroundings and interaction with their own species and with researchers. Jeremy Bentham said, "The question is not, Can they reason? nor Can they talk? but Can they suffer?" It is obvious that they can suffer. Bentham's next question might have been, "Knowing that these creatures can suffer, how can we allow it to continue?"

Soozi Urang
Wooster, Ohio

We applaud "Can We Trust Research Done With Lab Mice?" At the Johns Hopkins Center for Alternatives to Animal Testing, we have been working since 1981 to promote the development and use of alternative methods in biomedical research. We would like to point out, however, that the kind of work being done by Hanno Würbel has a longer history than was discussed in the article. The kind of housing enrichment described is a prime example of "refinement," one of the "3 Rs of alternatives" described by scientists Bill Russell and Rex Burch in The Principles of Humane Experimental Technique in 1959. Russell and Burch argued that humane science is the best science; it is more efficient and more predictive as well as humane. Their book provides the underlying basis for most of the animal welfare legislation and guidelines regulating the treatment of laboratory animals in both Europe and the United States.

Alan M. Goldberg
Director, Center for Alternatives to Animal Testing
Baltimore, Maryland

In Goddess We Trust?
I'm not sure why you chose to report on gynecologist Anthony Perks's theory that Stonehenge was created to be shaped like a vulva ["Mother Stonehenge," R&D, July]. After all, how many articles do you write about archaeologists' theories on gynecology? Perks's statement that Neolithic humans worshipped a "great goddess or earth mother" aptly demonstrates that he knows more about New Age belief systems than real, proven research on prehistoric cultures. The article was better suited to a publication about fringe cultures and beliefs than to a magazine dedicated to science coverage.

Dan Norder
Madison, Wisconsin

Josie Glausiusz, writer, responds: While Mr. Norder is welcome to assert that an earth goddess cult may be a New Age myth, Perks's theory is bolstered by discoveries of related artifacts from the same period. The creation of sculptured bone, ivory, or clay female figurines was a common art form during the era in which people began building Stonehenge, around 3300 B.C. According to People of the Stone Age: Hunter-gatherers and Early Farmers, published by the American Museum of Natural History, some similar megalithic monuments dating from the end of the Stone Age incorporate images that appear to represent a female goddess. Incidentally, depictions of what seem to be human vulvae, engraved or painted on cave walls about 32,000 years ago, are among the earliest forms of art ever created.

Watson, Pro and Con
The interview of geneticist James Watson in July's Discover Dialogue should be published on the front page of every newspaper in the world. It reveals a strong, clean intellect, understanding fully yet unafraid to grapple with the most difficult problems facing mankind. Almost all governments on Earth are steeped in the problems of poverty, ignorance, and cultural and social friction. The politically correct obfuscation of these problems, blind nationalism, and misplaced faith in false ideas all contribute to the miserable condition of a large majority of people. Men of vision, integrity, and intelligence like Watson should have more power to persuade and enlighten. Well done, Discover!

Malcolm D. Crawford
Las Vegas, Nevada

I had a difficult time getting through the interview with James Watson because of his sexist comments. When asked how Rosalind Franklin endured the difficulty of being a woman in a "boys' club atmosphere," Watson replies, "I thought she was rather dowdy," missing the point completely. Later, Watson responds to a question about a love gene: "As long as you've got a good brain, you can marry for money. There are other strategies, so I'm sure there are a lot of loveless women in America." Finally, Watson's standpoint on who should make individual genetic decisions is: Do what's good for the family. And who determines what's good for the family? "I'd let a woman have the choice to do it or not do it." What's good for the family is a family affair. Women don't have to function solely under the aegis of the family and be reduced to their 1950s roles. Genetic-counseling decisions should be made by the parent or parents regardless of their gender or sexual orientation. I have respect for Watson and what he has accomplished. However, this article only illustrates how magnificent Rosalind Franklin's work truly was.

Tara Prescott
San Francisco, California

Gazing on the Grass
Being involved in the world of turf grass for about 25 years, I always enthusiastically read articles relating to turf. Unfortunately, Alan Burdick's article on seashore paspalum [The Biology of . . . Lawns, July] left me wondering what ever happened to researching background history. Two varieties of Paspalum vaginatum were first introduced from Australia into the U.S. professional turf grass industry 25 years ago in southern California. This species isn't new, it's just one that has found its way into the able hands of Ronnie Duncan for improvement. Like all plants, it has its place—in this case, temperate to warm climates in which it is subjected to high levels of salinity. Remove it from that place and you'll have both an irate lawn owner and a miserable lawn.

John Rector
Canby, Oregon

The Biology of . . . Lawns failed to mention the growing (no pun intended) interest in native buffalo grass (Buchlo‘ dactyloides), which has been finding favor with homeowners because of its amazing drought tolerance. Having thrived for millennia on rainfall alone in its native range, it needs a fraction of the water required by Kentucky blue, Bermuda grass, and other lawn standards. I saw an example of the virtues of buffalo grass in Plano, Texas. One front yard sported Prairie, one of the numerous new varieties of buffalo grass entering the market. The house next door had a Bermuda lawn. The buffalo-grass lawn had been watered just once that summer, while the Bermuda lawn had been watered 33 times. The buffalo-grass lawn was verdant, while the Bermuda grass showed brown spots. Buffalo grass is also a slow-growing grass; homeowners can get by with one or two mowings all season. Some varieties grow to four to six inches and stop, so lawn mowers can be left in the garage.

Andy Wasowski
Arroyo Seco, New Mexico

Both the front cover and the headline of the July Sky Lights pose the intriguing question, Why does everything in the universe rotate? Did I miss it, or did Bob Berman forget to answer his own question? All I got out of the article was "it just does." Any help here?

Bob Bryan
Dunmore, Pennsylvania

Corey S. Powell, senior editor, responds: The "why" questions are always the hardest to answer. Everything in the solar system rotates because the nebula from which the sun and the planets formed had some net angular momentum. Why? Well, the nebula is part of our galaxy, which is full of gas flows and which has its own net angular momentum. Why? Our galaxy probably acquired angular momentum through interactions with other galaxies during its formative years. And where did the initial motions behind those interactions come from? According to the latest cosmological models, a period of rapid expansion right after the Big Bang stretched tiny quantum fluctuations into galaxy-cluster-size regions of excess density. These primordial fluctuations seeded the formation of giant clumps of hydrogen and helium after the cosmos cooled down. Since rotation is essentially created by gravitational encounters and collisions between large masses, once the universe became clumpy, practically everything in it began to rotate. In short, you can pretty much blame it all on quantum physics.

Under Obstruction
With all due respect, the reviewer of the New Orleans Pharmacy Museum [Reviews, July] was mistaken in her claim that the Naegele perforator is "an indication that late abortion was legal in early 19th-century New Orleans." In fact, the perforator was usable only through a dilated cervix (hence the patient was at term and in labor) and was generally used as a last resort to extract a (usually) dead fetus through the vaginal canal in an era when obstructed labors from rickets-deformed pelvic bones were common. The contemporary alternative of cesarean delivery was dangerous in that period, hence fetal destruction was a last resort to extract the stillborn from a mother who had usually been suffering in labor for many days.

Stephen Schneberger
Fellow, American College of Obstetricians
and Gynecologists
Kingsville, Texas

Countdown costs
In July's Letters, reader Adrian Coward correctly points out that the marginal cost—what he calls the "incremental cost"—of each space shuttle flight is $50 million. The editorial staff tries to convince Mr. Coward that marginal cost and average cost are the same by using a nonsensical restaurant bill example. The total average cost of each launch ($500 million) is found by dividing the total cost of the program by the number of launches. The marginal cost ($50 million) is found by dividing the change in total costs by the change in the number of launches. As evident from the formula, total cost is taken into account when computing marginal cost, which is why the restaurant example makes no sense, even to noneconomists.

Elizabeth Bass
Tampa, Florida

The editors respond: Our point in using the restaurant analogy is that Mr. Coward's interpretation of marginal costs is misleading because the number of annual shuttle launches cannot really change. Approximately $2.5 billion of NASA's annual budget is devoted solely to the expense of launching and maintaining the shuttle fleet. Focusing on incremental costs misses the point: No part of this program would exist if not for the space shuttle, and NASA now has little flexibility over how often the shuttle goes up. Currently the agency carries out five shuttle launches a year, and there is no indication that it would be feasible to increase that frequency without a major new investment. If anything, the Columbia disaster suggests that the current schedule may still be too ambitious. There's no way around it—NASA spends $500 million per shuttle launch, about three times the cost of sending up a Delta IV rocket and 25 times what the agency promised early in the planning stages of the shuttle program.

The genetic disorder known as medium-chain acyl-CoA dehydrogenase deficiency (MCADD) does not cause fat to "lodge" in the brain, as stated by the patient's father on page 40 in "Testing Your Future" [July]. When people with MCADD go without food for a sustained period, they run the risk of extremely low blood sugar, which can cause irreversible brain damage or death. This happens because they cannot draw on their stored fat to create energy. Eating a low-fat, high-carbohydrate diet usually controls MCADD-associated problems.


Visit the Johns Hopkins Center for Alternatives to Animal Testing (caat.jhsph.edu) and Altweb, the Alternatives to Animal Testing Web site (altweb.jhsph.edu).
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