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While thinking of how to sum up 2011, I looked backwards to my last blog post from 2010 and was jarred by the similarity of the two years.  There it all was again: the same sort of political scandals, the same news of war in the Middle East, the same tedious celebrity hijinks–only the world shaking environmental catastrophe had changed (the Gulf of Mexico oil spill was supplanted by the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster).  It made me question the optimism of last year’s New Year’s post, in which I ultimately concluded that technology was rolling forward and thereby bringing us both knowledge and the resources needed to live a better happier life.

So this year I am going to base my final post around the worst thing that happened in 2011: the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster.  This spring, three nuclear reactors on the northeast coast of Honshu melted down after being shaken by an earthquake and inundated by a once-in-a-lifetime tsunami. Designed in the sixties and manufactured in the early seventies, the reactors were an old design.  Mistakes made by engineers trying to rectify the situation initially compounded the problem.  This event has already been responsible for several worker deaths (although those occurred not as a result of radiation but rather from disaster conditions caused by the earthquake and flood).  It is estimated that, over the coming decades, fatalities from cancer could ultimately stretch up into the tens or perhaps even the hundreds!

Hindsight is 20/20, but, seriously, was this the best place for a series of fission reactors?

The fear generated by the incident has caused a global anti-nuclear backlash.  Plans for next-generation nuclear plants have been put on hold while existing power plants have been shut down.  Germany is exiting the nuclear energy business entirely.  Japan is building a host of ineffective wind plants and setting its advantages in fission power aside.  Developing nations like India, Brazil, and South Africa are reassessing their nuclear power plans.  The United States is suddenly building more gas power plants.  Even France is backing away from nuclear energy.

Anti-nuclear demonstrators march in Cologne (AP Photo/dapd/Roberto Pfeil)

Of course cold-blooded, analytically-minded readers who missed out on the media circus around the Fukushima incident might be wondering why a few (potential) deaths outweigh the 20,000 victims who were killed by the tsunami outright, or the hundreds of thousands of people killed worldwide in traffic accidents, or the millions of victims of North Korean famine.  Those kinds of casualties are all very ordinary and dull whereas the people who (might possibly) die (someday) from nuclear contamination face a very unusual, rare, and scary end.

Isn’t it worse that ten men might someday die of cancer then 10,000 men die outright from coal mining accidents?

Well no, not really.  The hype around nuclear accidents was used by fear-mongers to peddle their energy agenda–on the surface this might seem to be earth-friendly green energy, but since such a thing doesn’t really exist yet, the beneficiaries of nuclear power’s decline will be oil and gas producers, who are already operating the largest and most lucrative industry on earth.  Additionally the whole crisis allowed media sources to garner viewers and readers by means of frightening headlines (in fact that’s what I’m doing with this post).  The nuclear industry must become bigger to fit the needs of a world running out of fossil fuel (but with a quickly growing population of consumers).  Additionally our next generation of technology will likely require more energy rather than less.

Nigerians fight an oil pipeline explosion which burned hundreds of people to death

But, thanks to a disaster involving equipment that was four decades out of date which killed two people (from blood loss and contusion), humankind is abandoning the pursuit of inexpensive inexhaustible green energy for the foreseeable future.  At best, the next-generation nuclear designs now on the drawing boards or in early stages of construction will be reevaluated and made safer, but at worst we will fall into a long era of dependence of frac gas and foreign oil–a gray age of stagnation. Our leaders will greenwash this development by pretending that solar and wind energy are becoming more effective—but so far this has not been true at all.

I hope my flippant tone has not made it seem like I am making light of the tragedy that befell Japan, a peace-loving nation which is an unparalleled ally and friend.  I really am sad for every soul lost to the tsunami and I feel terrible for people who are now forced to live with the nebulous fear of cancer (especially the brave workers who raced in to known danger to fix the stricken plant).  Similarly, I worry about the Nigerians burned to death in pipeline accidents, the Pakistanis killed in friendly fire accidents, and the bicyclists run over by minivan drivers. To care about the world is to worry and face grief.

Tsunami Memorial Stone

But coping with such worries and sadness is the point of this essay.  Our fears must not outweigh our bright hopes. We must keep perspective on the actual extent of our setbacks and not allow them to scare us away from future progress. Only bravery combined with clear-headed thought will allow us to move forward.  Undoing this year’s mistakes is impossible but is still possible to learn from them and not live in fear of trying again.  I wrote about the energy sector because of its primacy within the world economy—but I dare say most industries are facing such a crisis to one extent or the other.

If we turn back or freeze in place, we will be lost–so onwards to 2012 and upward to great things.  And of course happy new year to all of my readers!

[And as always–if you feel I am utterly misguided in my energy policy or any other particular, just say so below.]

I am always frustrated when the “who we lost in 2011” obituary lists come out and they are filled with actors and popular entertainers (although I am rather pleased that this year’s list contained so many despots, terrorists, and mass murderers).

Good riddance!

Although I enjoyed M*A*S*H and Columbo, televised entertainments are not foremost in my list of human accomplishments.  Therefore here is my (not at all comprehensive) overview of various important people who died in 2011.  I have tried to concentrate on scientists, doctors, and heroes (as I tend to hold them in the highest respect) but some painters, toymakers, and fantasy illustrators crept into my list thanks to my own professional background.  We will miss these notable people who passed on in 2011:

John “Jack” Ertle Oliver (September 26, 1923 – January 5, 2011) was a geologist who provided scientific data supporting the (then controversial) place tectonic model of continental drift.

Milton Levine (November 3rd, 1913 – January 16th, 2011) was a toy inventor who created Uncle Milton’s Ant Farm—one of the ultimate fad toys. More than 20 million units were sold during Levine’s lifetime. In 1956, while at a Fourth of July picnic, he became entranced by a mound of ants.  His fascination with the teeming colony of hymenopterans led him to found Uncle Milton’s Toys.

Uncle Milton's Ant Farm (one of 20,000,000)

Frank Buckles (February 1st, 1901 – February 27th, 2011)was the last living American veteran of World War I.  He drove ambulances in the mud of France and was still driving the tractor on his West Virginia farm until he was 103. He was one of the last survivors of the so-called “Lost Generation” passing away of natural causes at the age of 110.

Frank Buckles in his World War I Uniform

Simon van der Meer (November 24th, 1925 – March 4th, 2011) was a particle physicist from the Netherlands who shared a Nobel Prize for discovering the W and Z particles, two of the most fundamental constituents of matter.

Paul Baran (1926- March 26th, 2011) was a Polish-American engineer who invented packet switching techniques critical to the internet.  He additionally helped develop many other technologies including cable modems, interactive TV, and airport metal detectors.

Baruch Samuel “Barry” Blumberg (July 28th, 1925 – April 5th, 2011) Blumberg received a Nobel Prize in Medicine for identifying the Hepatitis B virus, for which he subsequently developed a diagnostic test and a vaccine. He patented his vaccine and then distributed it for free to international pharmaceutical companies (thereby saving millions of people from a life of disease, serious liver complications, and early death).

Baruch Samuel “Barry” Blumberg

Rosalyn Sussman Yalow (July 19th, 1921 – May 30th, 2011) was the second woman to win the Nobel Prize for Medicine in recognition of her work developing the Radioimmunoassay, an in vitro immune assay technique which revolutionized the field of endocrinology.

Lucian Freud (December 8th, 1922 – July 20th, 2011) was a figurative painter who crafted impasto portraits of normal people in anguished poses. His fleshy nudes were so un-erotic and anti-beautiful that they took on their own strange heroic dimension.

Reflection, self portrait (Lucian Freud, 1985, oil on canvas)

Elliot Handler (April 9, 1916 – July 21, 2011) was a toy-maker and businessperson who co-founded Mattel (the “el” stood for Elliot).  He designed or popularized famous toys including Barbie, Burp Gun, Chatty Cathy, and Hot Wheels.

The first Barbie doll shown at New York Toy Fair in 1959.

Gen. John M. Shalikashvili (June 27th, 1936 – July 23rd, 2011) was the first foreign born soldier to rise up through the American army to become the chairman of the joint chiefs of staff.  His father, Prince Dimitri Shalikashvili (1896–1978), was a Geogian nobleman who served the army of Imperial Russia before fleeing the Bolshevik Revolution to Poland.

Wilson Greatbatch (September 6th, 1919 – September 27th, 2011) invented the implantable cardiac pacemaker now worn constantly by countless survivors of heart disease.

John McCarthy (September 4th, 1927 – October 24th, 2011) was a cognitive scientist and computer pioneer who coined the phrase “Artificial Intelligence” in 1956.  He created the LISP programming language.

Lynn Margulis (March 5th, 1938 – November 22nd, 2011) was a cell biologist and philosopher best known for her theory on the symbiotic origin of eukaryotic organelles. Her contributions were critical to the endosymbiotic theory—the accepted scientific consensus concerning the manner certain organelles were formed. She also helped to formulate thee Gaia hypothesis, which posits that all life is linked together as a super-organism.

Darrell K. Sweet (August 15th, 1934 – December 5th, 2011) was a fantasy illustrator famous for providing cover art for novels such as the Wheel of Time series and the Xanth series.

Robot Adept (Darell K. Sweet, mixed media)

Václav Havel (October 5th, 1936 – December 18th, 2011) was a Czech playwright, essayist, and political dissident who ended up becoming the last president of Czechoslovakia and the first President of the Czech Republic as the iron curtain crashed down around Europe.  I have a special fondness for Havel since he wrote “The Memorandum”, the first play I acted in during high school.  I played the officious pedant “Lear”, mouthpiece of the latest inane concept sweeping through a hidebound bureaucracy.  I enjoyed the role intellectually but didn’t really get Havel till I grew up and went to work in an office.

The H.N. Olympias

Exciting news for the summer! According to the www.trireme.org (official website of non-profit company  “Trireme in New York City, Inc.”), plans are in place to bring the world’s only trireme to New York harbor in 2012.  The website’s homepage states:

 

Plans are being made to bring the Hellenic Navy vessel Olympias for its first voyage in the U.S. Scheduled for late spring through early summer of 2012, Olympias’ visit will coincide with the Tall Ships “OpSail” and July 4th events in New York Harbor. A world-class exhibition on Athenian maritime history is among the many exciting activities being organized to promote the ship’s historic visit and enhance public awareness of the significance of triremes in the development of democratic ideals.

The Olympias is a reconstruction of a 5th century Athenian trireme, the great warship of the age.  Trireme determined the outcome of the Persian wars and then cemented Athenian supremacy in the Mediterranean.  By the 4th century, triremes were being supplanted by larger faster quadriremes and quinqueremes which were the war galleys used by the Romans and Carthaginians.

 

Since the world has been noticeably trireme-free of late, the 170-oar Olympias currently qualifies as the fastest human-powered sailing vessel in the world.  Classical Greek galleys were originally crewed by free citizens, but, because of the danger, tedium and hardship involved in such work, citizens were soon replaced by criminals and slaves. If you are looking for the unique opportunity to row a classical warship around New York harbor, click here.  Apparently there are still plenty of openings on the Olympias’ rowing benches.

In summarizing the year which is passing, the bleak, dreadful, and meretricious aspects of human affairs leap to prominence (this is not the full thesis of this essay—please keep reading despite this dire opening).  Two thousand ten AD was so filled with earthquakes, insurgencies, layoff announcements, fat stupid North Korean heirs, Snookis, LeBron Jameses, oil spills, and every other sort of malediction–both major and trivial–that it seems like some latter-day lack-wit Pandora must have found another ornate casket.

"Is that a shiny box? I wonder if it has jewels in it? Or even more publicity? I better just peep inside."

Please take heart!  There is not yet a pressing need to reread Revelations or start building an ark.  Distortions of perspective are responsible for making the problems and failures (and minutiae) of 2010 loom up larger in our vision than the real successes and breakthroughs.  First and most importantly, we are still too close to 2010 to understand what was truly important.  Second, the people who produce newspapers, websites, and TV shows realize there is more money in showing Kim Kardashian making a face than in explaining magnetic anisotropy in individual molecules.

The single-molecule magnet Mn4O3Cl4(O2CCH2CH3)3(pyridine)3 crystallizes in pairs held together by hydrogen bonds between chlorine and hydrogen atoms (Mn = green, O = yellow, N = blue, Cl = red, C and H = gray). Seriously! It could cause data storage technology to leap forward!

Looking backwards for examples from the past helps clarify how distorted our view of a year is as it ends.  At the end of 1969 every commenter was writing about Hamburger Hill, My Lai, Altamont, underground nuclear testing, Ted Kennedy’s driving, the Manson murders, and how we were losing the cold war.  Most people didn’t notice WalMart incorporating as “WalMart stores”, or the Stonewall Riots (events which were subsequently realized to be important). Only a very few computer scientists knew that the first Arpanet link had gone live in California and the first messages had started bouncing back and forth across what would evolve into the internet. Nobody of that time really understood the ramifications of such a development.  Imagine trying to explain the internet or Walmart to someone in 1969! Then imagine going even further back to the disastrous year of 1837 when messages were first sent between remote locations electronically and explaining the modern network of communications.

Maybe 1969 was a funny choice to illustrate my point....

Similarly, the scientific and technology breakthroughs of this year will be important long after the frothy jetsam of pop-culture has drifted away and the rubble of contemporary disasters has been cleaned up. This was the year that humankind first created artificial life (albeit of a rudimentary sort).  The National Ignition Facility’s project to build a star in a jar came several steps closer to completion.  The Japanese successfully launched a solar sail in interplanetary space.  Nanotechnology, stem-cell biology, robotics, and innumerable other fields took steps forward. And those are the things we know about–probably other groundbreaking discoveries are not widely known or even comprehensible.  The time traveler attempting to describe 2051 or 2183 is most likely going to be dealing in ideas outlandish to us.

I hope you don’t think this defense of 2010 is teleological (or that looking back at the present from an imaginary future is specious).  With all of the tin-pot dictators, outsourcing, environmental devastation, and reality TV, it is easy to lose track of our real progress and our actual achievements.  Science and technology (along with social and political breakthroughs that we so far missed) can provide a way for humanists not to be disappointed by 2010.  It is now up to people of intellect, imagination, and conscience to bear out the potential of the year’s embryonic innovations.

Whether this was worthy year for humanity (or the drab disappointment it currently seems like) has yet to be decided by the future and what we do with it.   In the mean time, kindly accept my heartfelt wishes for a very happy new year.

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