Tag Archives: politics

Botanical Garden’s SOL Grotto reignites national Solyndra debate

What do you get when you combine a promising technological innovation, a devastating bankruptcy that set back an entire industry by years, and a political flash point during the heart of election season? Artwork, apparently – highly controversial artwork. From the ashes of Solyndra, a new art installation has risen at the UC Berkeley Botanical garden, built from the same glass tubes that once defined Solyndra’s unique approach to solar electricity generation. For a company that had always been regarded as symbolic, both in success and failure, it seems an oddly appropriate tribute on the one year anniversary of the company’s demise.

Problematic prions and the history of Mad Cow Disease

Well, folks, it has happened again. A dairy cow from California was recently diagnosed with bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE), also known as “mad cow disease.” The cow was already at a rendering plant when the diagnosis was made and, apparently, was never headed toward our food supply. The last confirmed BSE infection in US beef was in 2006, and in total, only four cows have ever tested positive in our country’s entire beef industry. Meanwhile, in just a handful of decades, over a hundred people in the UK have gone “mad” and ultimately died from consuming BSE-tainted beef. In addition, over four million head of cattle have been culled in the UK in an effort to eradicate the problem.

The history of spongiform encephalopathy, however, begins long before the relatively recent BSE crisis — and its victims have included everything from human cannibals to farmed mink. Yet, rarely does science news cover spongiform encephalopathy beyond the context of the grilled burger patty. Burgers are indeed delicious (I prefer mine with BBQ sauce and cheddar cheese), but trust me, the history of spongiform encephalopathy as a disease is way more interesting than this one dairy cow might lead you to believe.

Circa 1920, two German doctors, Hans Gerhard Creutzfeldt and Alfons Maria Jakob, each individually identified the symptoms of spongiform encephalopathy in humans. Hence, the pathology was named Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease (CJD) in their honor. The patients that the doctors studied, however, did not develop their diseases as a result of eating tainted beef. Rather, these patients “spontaneously” developed the condition as the result of a rare (and natural!) genetic anomale.

Trusting your fellow scientist

In my last post, I told you that Berkeley Physics professor Richard Muller is the go-to guy for proof of anthropogenic climate change. Maybe that strikes you as odd. Why would I look to a physicist for information about our atmosphere? Shouldn’t we be talking with UC Berkeley’s Atmospheric Sciences program instead?

Of course, Muller and his team at Berkeley Earth Surface Temperature don’t claim to be the first people to measure the change in global temperature over time. When they began that project in 2010, there was an active field of climate scientists claiming that the Earth is warming, and there was also an extremely vocal group of skeptics disagreeing with their results. Muller entered the conversation with the mindset of an impartial third party, someone who could analyze the data without any political or financial incentives often attributed to the climate scientists.


Placing trust in God and nation

Does the universe have meaning and structure? Is there some kind of force or power that controls events and preserves order in our lives?

These may seem like questions for philosophers or theologians, but some social psychologists have chimed in with their own evidence-based opinions. Their answer is a resounding … “Well, people certainly think so!”

Most people live with the assumption that there is an order and reason underlying the things that happen in the universe. In fact, it could be said that one of the larger cognitive motivators in life is the preservation of that belief. Without this sense of order, we would be left with a terrifying and chaotic existence in which a terrible fate could befall us at any time.

Some may argue that this chaotic view of life is closer to reality than any sense of meaning or order. We do, indeed, live a life in which something terrible can happen at any moment for no reason. Innocent people die every day and horrendous criminals get away with terrible acts. Senseless natural disasters befall thousands of people every year. So, is this sense of stability and rationality a false hope held by the feeble minded among us? Probably not.

In the face of senseless tragedies, we feel a sense of anger, injustice, and confusion. These reactions are quick and automatic. They indicate that, at our core, we all feel that the things that happen need to have a reason. The deaths of innocent people don’t pass without notice. It shakes our internal sense of order, which needs to be restored.