What to Read, View and Visit in June

Sunday, June 25, 2006

Books

SUPER WOMEN

They smash atoms, save endangered apes, and protect the planet.

By Josie Glausiusz

As a child, Cynthia Breazeal fell in love with a robot. As an engineering student at MIT, she built one. The first robot was a fantasy—Star Wars' R2-D2—but the second was real: a talking head named Kismet that interacted with humans like a baby. Breazeal's creation—which could smile, babble, and sneer—later earned her a spot as a consultant to Steven Spielberg on the 2001 movie AI: Artificial Intelligence.

Physicist Shirley Ann Jackson followed a tougher path. As an African American born in 1946, she attended a segregated school in Washington, D.C. She too studied at MIT but found that no one would sit next to her in class. She went on to smash atoms at Fermilab. In 1995 Jackson became the first woman and the first African American to head the Nuclear Regulatory Commission.

Mimi Koehl's mother warned her that smart girls don't get dates. As a teen, she tried out for the majorette team and dislocated her jaw after hitting her own head with a twirling baton. As an adult, she studied how sea anemones survive strong waves and how insects fly. In 1990 she won a MacArthur genius award for her work in biomechanics.

These women—brilliant scientists all—are just 3 of the 10 profiled in a series of books for young adults called Women's Adventures in Science, published by Joseph Henry Press/Scholastic. Although different authors penned the books, they all seem to write in the same eager tone, being careful to balance the serious science with wedding snapshots festooned with bad 1970s hairdos (perhaps an attempt to refute Koehl's mother's advice). Thankfully, they also offer clear explanations of such knotty topics as genetic diseases and nuclear fission. Most notable is the discussion of the human impact on climate change in Forecast Earth: The Story of Climate Scientist Inez Fung. The straight talk, along with colorful illustrations, makes the series a great resource for school projects.

The best laughs, though, are to be found on an accompanying Web site, www.iWASwondering.org, which complements the books with cartoons and games introduced by a sassy lass with blue-streaked locks named Lia. This gal thinks scientists are cooler than rock stars: Shirley Ann Jackson, recites Lia in an excited crescendo, "explores the invisible particles that make up everything in the universe, including you and me and your computer and Limburger cheese and the rings of Saturn and even giant squids!" Astronomer Heidi Hammel, she says, has "seen comets crash into Jupiter, the Great Dark Spot on Neptune, and close-ups of the moons of Mars," and planetary geologist Adriana Ocampo "went to work for NASA when she was a teenager, which is way more interesting than, like, babysitting or bagging groceries."

iWASwondering.org offers more than Lia's streetwise patter, however. Budding climate scientists are advised to build a "greenhouse in a bottle" using soil, seeds, and sunlight. Future geneticists can map their own family's "gene tree" by examining their relatives' dimples and earlobes. Nascent engineers can design their own bug-eyed robot. Most important, though, both the Web site and book series dismantle the stereotypes of women scientists as spectacled spinsters locked in a lab. These brave women travel the world, tackle global problems, and explore outer planets. They're, like, totally awesome.

DEATH OF A MOUNTAIN

America's ravenous appetite for coal is destroying Appalachian peaks and their wild inhabitants.

By Alison Fromme

If the United States suffered a toxic spill 30 times the volume of the Exxon Valdez disaster, we'd know about it, right? Not necessarily. In 2000, 300 million gallons of coal sludge, a by-product of mining, poured out of a containment pond and poisoned the flora and fauna of Coldwater Creek in eastern Kentucky. Incredibly, the catastrophe barely registered as a blip in the national media.

Journalist Erik Reece picked up the story—and so much more—in his book Lost Mountain: A Year in the Vanishing Wilderness (Riverhead Books, $24.95). In compelling prose peppered with cold, hard facts, he tracked the fate of one Appalachian peak, aptly named Lost Mountain, that was slated for radical strip mining. This grotesque "mountaintop removal" method slices off summits with explosives, bulldozers, and enormous dragline excavators as tall as an eight-story building. Just 10 men can blast away an entire mountaintop to reach the coveted coal below.

In its natural state, Lost Mountain was swathed in ancient rain forest that was home to more than 80 tree species. Because it escaped the Pleistocene glaciation 1 million years ago, the forest supported stunning biodiversity. Cerulean warblers, flying squirrels, grouse, ovenbirds, bobcats, and countless other species populated the wilderness.

Towering tulip poplars, lush sassafras, and ground pines shared soil laid down inch by inch over the millennia. But in the space of one year, the 300-million-year-old mountain was gone. Everything that blocked access to its underlying coal—trees, boulders, soil—was dumped into surrounding valleys and streams. Lost Mountain's 1,847-foot summit morphed into a desert mesa of lifeless rock.

Such wrecked peaks are unknown to most Americans, even though more than 50 percent of our homes are supplied with electricity produced by coal-fired power plants. Yet strip mining in the United States has already obliterated an area the size of Delaware. In Kentucky it has rendered 47 percent of the streams and rivers too polluted for drinking, swimming, or fishing. Mining explosions crack wells, walls, and foundations. Without trees and soil to soak up rainwater, flash floods routinely knock out valley homes and subsistence gardens. Sulfates leach into waterways, foul drinking water, and kill invertebrates.

One has to wonder why we allow this destruction. For answers Reece turns to the mining corporations, which, blinded by greed, wrangle for policies favorable to coal. Perhaps it is appropriate, therefore, that Lost Mountain was so named because early hunters often become disoriented among its dense and verdant trees. As Reece conveys with superb reporting, we still have not found our way.

Museum 

THRILLS, SPILLS AND SCIENCE

By Elizabeth Svoboda

The voyage of Double Eagle V began in chaos, continued in constant peril, and ended in near disaster. Following two aborted liftoffs, the helium-filled balloon took off from Nagashima, Japan, on November 10, 1981, first flying sideways and hitting trees before rising upward. On its flight across the Pacific—the first for a balloon—the four-man crew battled violent storms and a buildup of two tons of ice on the balloon's surface, forcing them at one point to hover just 4,500 feet above the ocean. After flying 5,209 miles in 84 hours and 31 minutes, Double Eagle V crash-landed in Mendocino National Forest in California. The crew had flown farther in a balloon than anyone before.

Today the red-and-yellow gondola of Double Eagle V is the centerpiece of the great hall of the Albuquerque International Balloon Museum (www.cabq.gov/balloon), a 59,000-square-foot space filled with a unique collection of gasbags. The aircraft on display include the gondola of the Jules Verne, which attempted three round-the-world trips in the 1980s; a replica of a zeppelin; and a model of the balloon that made the first North American transcontinental flight: the Kitty Hawk.

Two parts daring to one part deranged, the ballooning sport began not with human flight but with a menagerie that rose above the gardens of Versailles on September 19, 1783. On that day, two brothers, Étienne and Joseph Montgolfier, launched a duck, a rooster, and a sheep in a balloon that floated briefly above a crowd of thousands of Parisians before landing in a nearby field. The flight was powered by hot air produced by burning bundles of chopped straw, rotting meat, and old shoes.

The science behind the Montgolfiers' feat was straightforward. Warm air is lighter than cool air, so any object filled with it will rise, as long as the lifting power of the air counteracts the weight of the container. A hands-on exhibit at the museum demonstrates this principle: Pressing one button pumps heated air into a nylon sphere; a separate launch control frees it to rise.

Entrepreneurs soon took advantage of this simple science. In 1891 French performer Marie Merton ascended 10,000 feet in a balloon, then took a leap out of its basket, hanging on to it by a single wooden ring. Her tattered gray parachute is on display, and a period poster depicts Merton's descent, her skirts fanned out and lacy bloomers gloriously visible.

Scientific uses for balloons eventually superseded pageantry. Visitors can peer through the porthole windows of the Stratolab, whose spherical gondolas rose 76,000 feet into the upper atmosphere in 1955, six years before NASA launched its first manned spaceship. Telescopes and other instruments extending from the gondolas monitored cosmic rays and analyzed the chemical composition of Venus's atmosphere. In 1961 two pilots using the Stratolab to test silver Mercury Project space suits reached an altitude of 113,740 feet—a height record for a manned balloon flight that has never been exceeded.

Film  

CUTE, CLEAN, CODDLED AND CRUSHED

A stack of colorful cars rest on a remote stretch of the Arizona desert, shining like tropical beetles—or maybe verminous bugs, for all of them are crushed. Yet these cars posed no danger to anything, except perhaps to the profits of their manufacturer. Or so claims Chris Paine, the director of Who Killed the Electric Car? (Sony Pictures Classics), a scathing documentary that indicts General Motors for making, and then destroying, the EV-1 (right), a dashing little electric vehicle that ran on batteries, emitted no noise or noxious gases, and was beloved by its drivers.

This strange saga began in 1990, when California's Air Resources Board, in an attempt to curb the state's smog, issued a mandate calling for 10 percent of California's vehicles to be emission-free by 2003. GM responded in 1996 with the launch of the EV-1, which Paine calls "the first perfect car of the modern age" because it required no oil, mufflers, or brake changes. Seven years later, however, GM had recalled all 1,000 of the EV-1's, citing lack of demand and liability issues. Although the company promised to recycle the cars, it crushed or shredded all but a few, several of which were consigned to museums.

Paine accuses GM and the oil industry of conspiratorial "murder," claiming that both of them feared widespread electric car use would put a dent in their earnings, since the drivers had no incentive to buy gasoline or the beasts that guzzle it. That's a plausible argument, but just how "perfect" was the EV-1? True, it had the potential to clean up California's air, although that may be of little consolation to people living near coal-fired power plants, which supply more than 50 percent of America's electricity. Recharging the car's battery would thus quite likely consume coal, which is the dirtiest of all energy sources, says Christopher Flavin, an energy expert and president of the Worldwatch Institute in Washington, D.C. Burning it produces ozone, soot, sulfur dioxide, and 50 percent more carbon dioxide per unit of energy than gasoline, while strip-mining for coal ruins landscapes, kills wildlife, and causes terrible water pollution.

Flavin, no fan of the auto industry, believes that electric cars or hybrids with rechargeable batteries do have a future, especially if the primary energy source is renewable, such as solar, wind, or geothermal. And he sounds a little wistful as he considers the EV-1's demise. "They were wonderful cars; I do think the technology was really quite impressive," he says. "Crushing the cars was just incredibly stupid." Josie Glausiusz

Gizmo

BABY, YOU CAN DRIVE MY STACKABLE CAR 

What miserable city driver wouldn't happily pony up for the MIT Media Lab's new urban supercar? Designed by the school's Smart Cities Research group, these as-yet-unnamed electric vehicles (below) would nest in queues like shopping carts. "There would be stacks of these outside dense urban public spaces like subway stations and airports," says Ryan Chin, a design-team leader. Wave your membership card over a scanner, unfold the front car, and off you go. Then drop it in another queue near your destination. Each of the car's wheels can pivot 360 degrees, like office-chair casters, making parallel parking a snap; they are also swappable to allow for instant repair. The design even incorporates seats made of fingerlike structures that sense and respond to violent motion, tightly grasping occupants in the case of an accident. The concept is, alas, still in development, but a full-scale running model is scheduled for construction this summer, and a stackable-car queue could appear near you in as little as five years. For a preview, see http://cities.media.mit.eduBrad Lemley

Book

NASA NEGLIGENCE

Mike Mullane is an Air Force flier jock with a scatological sense of humor. In Riding Rockets: The Outrageous Tales of a Space Shuttle Astronaut (Scribner, $26), he boasts about how long he held in an enema during a medical exam, even though he was constipated for two weeks afterward. He also brags about telling feminist astronaut Sally Ride a joke with the word "tits" in it. She refused to speak to him for the next 10 years.

Although Mullane will never win any sensitivity awards, his candor is refreshing. Most notable is his forthright account of NASA's failure to protect the crew of the space shuttle Challenger, which blew up in 1986 because of a design defect in the O-rings that sealed sections of the ship's solid-fuel boosters. Engineers had recorded eroded O-rings in 15 earlier shuttle flights, yet NASA continued to launch the spacecraft. A similar scenario played out soon after. During a shuttle flight in 1988, Mullane used a robotically controlled camera to take pictures of damaged heat-shielding tiles. The crew warned Houston that the damage was extensive—an assessment NASA recklessly discounted. The tiles doomed the Columbia crew in 2003.

For Mullane, NASA's negligence not only led to national disasters but a personal tragedy too. In a moving counterpoint to his shameless crassness, he describes his friendship with astronaut Judy Resnik. In some ways, the two could not be more different: Resnik was a civilian Jewish woman with a doctorate, while Mullane had dreamed of being an astronaut since launching handmade rockets as a kid. Slowly, however, Mullane came to appreciate what women were capable of. During training Resnik confided intimate details of her life—her estrangement from her mother, her loneliness—to Mullane. "I had more in common with this woman than I had previously thought," he writes. When Resnik was killed on Challenger's tragic last flight, Mullane's loss was palpable. Even chauvinist fighter jocks can grow up, it seems. Fred Guter

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