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MIT Technology Review

July-August 1999


Some time ago, well, last week actually, I wrote that Freeman Dyson may have been a bit na´ve in thinking that science beats politics. I tried to convey the sense that the political influence on science is tangible and real, and probably doesn't contribute to good science…If ever.

For further validation of that theory, I ask that you take a look at this month's version of MIT Technology Review--which, for my money, is the best and most consistent popular science mag out there right now.

They wrote a lead story about the effects of bioengineering on agriculture that was balanced and interesting. Furthermore, they did something that I usually don't find in the tech reads that I peruse: Instead of proclaiming that the extreme Jeremy Rifkin "Just Say No" to biotech position is just silly (You know that "Hey, we're scientists and we know best you gaia-lovin' hippie scum" tone) it was admitted that there was very troubling research that these biogenetically engineered plants could crossbreed and create problems.

In other words, the corn plant that you genetically engineer to be resistent to your company's herbicides could "mate" with a killer weed that could result in a far worse problem than what you were trying to solve in the first place.

Not only that, the story also pointed out that no governmental agency has the responsibility to look at the long term effects. It all falls in the cracks between the FDA, the EPA and the USDA.

What was also sort of unspoken in the story and this goes back to that Dyson theory on the Political and the Technical, is that European nations take these issues much more seriously. The story lists a number of protests throughout Europe where GM (genetically modified) foods are being banned or limited left or right.

I would suggest to Freeman and others the reasons why there's more activism is that there are viable environmental and working class parties here in Europe, where over here we have a terribly corporate leaning press and a political elite who are happily bought off by the same people who are pushing for Biotech without limits. Gosh, I wonder who will win the political fight here in the states: underfunded Jeremy Rifkin types or the multinational chemical companies who give millions to candidates? Talk amongst yourselves as some Canadian in drag used to say…

There was a funny line in the article about how we don't have the Killer Tomatoes yet.

Well, I would stress that word "yet".

There were other good reads in the magazine as well. There was an interesting profile on one of the founders of the Palm Pilot and another story on how Big Blue has turned around its research arm and turned it toward more practical business ends. Some of the breakthroughs you may have heard of: voice recognition systems, copper computer chips and "deep computing".


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Scientific American, July 1999


And now for something completely different.

So here's a magazine that's been published for, what, the last 100 years? And it certainly reads that way.

I have to admit that 50 percent of just about any SA issue usually goes beyond me--that article on the speed of electrons was kind of over my head.

Yet I ploughed through and found several articles that made sense to me. The story that interested me the most was a story about fuel cells. They did a group of stories about fuel cells that were clinical and scientific, and they answered many questions about the technology. To me, the stories didn't answer the most important question about fuel cells and that's the policies that drive the science.

Here are a few questions I wished they would ask and answer: Why is California alone in demanding more stringent emission standards? Why weren't things like global warning--just hinted at in the story as to why fuel cells and their zero emission rates might be a promising technology--realistically anticipated by the scientific establishment? How does the American political system with its entrenched money and special interests work against socially progressive technologies? For example, if I make all of my money off the energy grid as most utilities do wouldn't I undermine technologies that work better house to house?

Don't get me wrong, I enjoy some of the diagrams and pictures that I saw, but none of those questions were addressed. You wouldn't even know that they were important questions if you read those articles. Its just science and research puttering along with no real consequences to real life. I'm not saying that SA should turn itself into a version of the New Republic, but they could at least emulate MIT Technology Review and recognize the real world sometimes.

Its like writing about the cotton gin and not mentioning slavery. Or about the creation of the nuclear bomb without mentioning how World War II played a part. I mean, that Connections guy, James Burke, does a column for them. Perhaps he should edit an issue or two.

The other story I barely comprehended was an article on DNA vaccines. The trials that are out there are very promising right now, according to the story.