By Matthew Stevenson
Photos, Matthew Stevenson
GENEVA, SWITZERLAND – Not since the 1960s, in particular the campaigns of John and Robert Kennedy, has the question of Appalachia determined the outcome of a presidential election. Then it was a backdrop for speaking about domestic poverty, educational failures, the importance of labor unions, and the sense that the Democratic party cared more for mine workers than the corporations that owned them. Now it counts more as a clue in crossword puzzles.
The political legacy
In 1960, when John Kennedy won the West Virginia primary (in this case his father was bootlegging the Scotch-Irish), it signaled his arrival as a serious national candidate.
To replay this era of good feeling, in 1968 Robert Kennedy held Senate hearings in the field around the themes of Appalachia’s downfall, equating the hardships of miners to the failures of the federal government to provide wage support, health care, retirement benefits, educational support, and help for impoverished women with children. He contrasted its neglect against the waste in Vietnam.
In February 1968, Robert Kennedy went to Whitesburg, Kentucky, where he met with the best-selling author, Harry M. Caudill. His 1963 book about Appalachia, Night Comes to the Cumberlands, had enlightened JFK and the nation at large about the depressed coal regions of Appalachia, which were shown to have powered, but then missed out on, the American dream. He wrote: “Coal has always cursed the land in which it lies.”
Admiring both John and Robert Kennedy (meeting the latter while in the eighth grade), I read Night Comes to the Cumberlands as a senior in high school. When it came time to select a topic for independent study near graduation, I chose the coalfields of Appalachia, even though I had grown up in suburban New York.
As part of the research, my friend Kevin Glynn and I spent ten days riding the train and hitchhiking across West Virginia, to understand better what the Kennedys and Caudill were saying.
We followed the line of the Baltimore & Ohio as it headed northwest from Washington, D.C. and made stops in Grafton, Clarksburg, and Fairmont before turning north for the steel mills around Wheeling and Weirton.
We spent our nights in station hotels, guest houses, and even the city jail in Hundred, WVA, where the sheriff kindly offered us the only spare beds in town (after beating us at pool in the local bar).
Until recently I had not traveled again in Appalachia. This time, instead of boarding a tired day coach in Washington’s Union Station, I drove a rental car south by southwest, toward the coal counties of southwest Virginia (evocatively named Buchanan, Dickenson, Russell, Lee, Tazewell, and Wise). In particular I was following a freight line of the Norfolk Southern railway that ran through Rural Retreat.
The New York photographer O. Winston Link took some of the best photographs of Appalachia in the late 1950s, including several around the station of Rural Retreat, which lies in the valley near some of the grittiest coal seams in America.
A legacy of the region’s sense of cultural independence
Although Link was there to capture the last days of American steam engines, his black-and-white pictures are a legacy of the region’s sense of cultural independence, the belief that somehow Appalachia belongs more to itself and its inhabitants than to some larger government entity.
Nearby, the aptly named Dante, Virginia was just one of the hollows where I took stock of the fact that bituminous coal no longer makes anyone’s shortlist of fuels that would allow America to run on alternative energy. Much American coal now gets shipped to foreign markets that have more lax environmental regulation.
Whoever named the town had a sense of literature and irony for the town is a circle of depression along a narrow, dark valley of the Clinch River. It was once the headquarters of the Clinchfield Coal Company and is now as forgotten as the tender on an abandoned steam engine.
From Dante, I crossed the Appalachian Plateau at Pound Gap, not unlike the Cumberland Gap, but farther north and celebrated for the Civil War battle in which a future president, James A. Garfield, helped to push Confederate forces out of Kentucky.
Down the hill from Pound Gap is the town of Whitesburg, KY, where Caudill wrote his books and where Robert Kennedy campaigned in 1968. When not writing or in the state legislature, Caudill was a local lawyer. Perhaps his engaging personality and sense of injustice can be glimpsed in the fictional persona of Atticus Finch in To Kill a Mockingbird?
Not knowing anyone in Whitesburg, a mixture of sad-looking storefronts and small houses, I headed for the Harry M. Caudill Memorial Library, hoping that a local librarian could steer me toward his house or tell me more about Robert Kennedy’s visit.
I found the staff willing to pull manuscripts and clippings that Caudill had donated to the library before he died, a suicide, in 1990. (He was suffering from Parkinson’s.) I was even shown a book, still out on the open shelves, that Robert Kennedy had autographed on February 14, 1968. Was it the last time a candidate traveled to meet an author and stopped in a public library?
For dinner I decided to eat in the Courthouse Café, where for about $11 I had a full meal, desert, and coffee, and a long conversation with the owner, Josephine Richardson, who had personally known Caudill well and who had first come to Appalachia in 1969 in the spirit of idealism so synonymous with the Kennedy visit.
She described how Caudill wrote his books on Appalachia in longhand or dictated them, and how his wife, Anne, had helped to polish the prose. He believed that the mining companies were digging the lifeblood out of the mines and miners, with little regard for the region’s environment.
Caudill was among the first to oppose strip mining. Were he alive today, she said, he would despair at mountain-top removal, in which the crests of hillsides are sliced open like a soft-boiled egg and the shells are dumped into nearby streams. Like others I met, she said that many companies found it expedient to walk away from their environmental indemnity bond rather than restore the mountain to the way it was first found.
Robert Kennedy, Jr., the senator’s son, recently helped to make a documentary film, The Last Mountain, about this mining practice. The film picks up the themes evoked by Kennedy’s father and Caudill—that coal is both the life and death of Appalachia. Relatively few miners now work the coalfields, as heavy machinery is employed to strip the hills clean.
Profits from the mines are cashed in corporate suites far from Kentucky counties such as Perry, Letcher, and Whitely. Nevertheless, having diversified from coal, Appalachia’s poverty and unemployment rates are now closer to national averages than they were when Caudill wrote his books.
To see some of the “removed” mountains, I drove around Harlan County, went to the excellent coal mining museum in Benham, KY (it has a mannequin of Loretta Lynn and a lunchpail collection), descended an old mine at Lynch, and decided to camp in a state park that has a panoramic view of Appalachia.
As I was there out of season, the park had the eerie feeling of a ghost mining town. I slept lightly, after a ranger warned me about bears and other campers described how joy riders caroused at night through the park.
Dawn on the industrial skinheads
The uneasy night was worth it to be on top of the world for dawn’s early light, which shimmered off several peaks that, from a distance, looked like heads shaved bare. Around these industrial skinheads were the scars from the excavators that had stripped clear the trees and vegetation.
Drinking my cowboy coffee and eating a day-old sandwich, I felt a continuing sadness about Appalachia. Beneath the hills where I was sitting were enough fossil fuels for America to ignore the Middle East for two hundred years. Coal is also part of a proud tradition of industrial progress, as evocative as Link’s pictures of fading steam engines.
Instead of selling itself as an alternative to Arabian instability or finding ways it can be environmentally clean, coal is still positioning itself as a commodity that, to be exploited, first has to sell out the region and its workers for the interests of the corporate store. Caudill writes: “It is an extractive industry which takes all away and restores nothing. It mars but never beautifies. It corrupts but never purifies.”
Matthew Stevenson, a Geneva writer, is a contributing editor of Harper’s Magazine. He is the author of Remembering the Twentieth Century Limited, a collection of historical travel essays, and edited Rules of the Game: The Best Sports Writing from Harper’s Magazine. His next book is Whistle-Stopping America.
Economic notes from a recovery summer
By Matthew Stevenson
Photos, Matthew Stevenson
Because I live in Europe and only travel around the United States in summer—America-on-five-relatives-a-day—I am sure my economic observations from this last hegira lack the rigor of a Gallup poll or a Brookings Institution survey.
Nevertheless, I did cross about two thousand miles of the country—from Maine to New Jersey and then up the Hudson River to Montreal—and came to the conclusions that: in most communities the real estate market is still dead; economic development means putting up a CVS opposite a new Duane Reade; college is a protection racket; public transportation isn’t very kind to the public; Amtrak’s problem is that it doesn’t like trains; Americans all sound like Best Buy salesmen; and, finally, it’s hard to get away from the War of 1812.
Sellers beware: I would like to report that I saw signs of economic recovery in Maine, Massachusetts, New Jersey, and New York. Apart from the bubble that is New York City’s co-op market, most conversations I had about housing prices indicated that, to use Shakespeare’s phrase, the recovery “waxes desperate with imagination.” I drove through a working class neighborhood in Bangor, Maine where it seemed almost a third of the houses were empty or boarded up. In New Jersey, it has taken more than ten years for the houses and apartments in my father’s retirement community to sell, and still vacancies remain. Forlorn towns along the Hudson River look like they are waiting for a revival of the whaling industry.
Build it and they will shop: At each stop I found myself wondering about an economy that to show growth needs to build more drug stores. Banks aren’t lending to small- and medium-sized businesses, but they will fork out any amount of money to put up another drive-through pharmacy, no doubt because the government is now in the pill-giveaway business and doctors prescribe medications by the fistful. Whatever the benefits of Obamacare, it is a gold rush for chain drug stores. Even small towns have two or three of the national brands, all selling flu shots and Oreos. (Aisles 1 to 6 make you sick; in 7 through 12, you feel better.)
Knowledge is good, if pricey: Within the SUV classes, all anyone talks about is getting their kids into college, be it Pomona, Penn, or Perdue. It used to be, in summers, most high-school kids had jobs scooping ice cream or, in my case, pumping gas into motor boats. Now, summer work involves SAT booster courses, essay-writing tutorials, vocabulary enrichment, and application-building volunteerism that usually includes a side trip to Shanghai. I shouldn’t complain, as I value the liberal arts and and touring colleges is clearly a boom industry. But what society wants—on top of the $200,000 in college tuition costs—to limit its university applicants to those who can attend SAT summer camps?
Safe, dependable, cramped: I try to connect the dots of my family with public transportation, even when it involves a bus ride. On this trip, I took Greyhound from Burlington, Vermont, to Montreal. To catch the bus, however, I had to take taxi out to the airport, as the long dog no longer serves downtown Burlington or the University of Vermont. Greyhound is a dreary experience (don’t bet on its wi-fi working), and for many American towns it’s the only hound in the hunt—a virtual monopoly on long-haul bus routes. Nor does it bother with many secondary towns. When you are without a car in Homeland America, the country lives up to Dr. Johnson’s observation about the Giant’s Causeway in Scotland: “Worth seeing, but not worth going to see.”
Your stimulus money at work: A handful of American cities and towns are granted an appearance from Amtrak, although it’s generally so spotty that only those down on their luck or with time to burn chance it for a connection. (Down on my luck?) I took the all-day train from Pennsylvania Station to Plattsburgh, New York. The train was an hour late (at least we had views of the Hudson). The train crew of three conductors (who passed the time reading newspapers in the club car) still managed to strand onboard a passenger who tried to get off in Ticonderoga. The diner ran out of coffee. The old, but charming depot in Plattsburgh had a hand-lettered sign on the door: “This station does not sell tickets,” but noted an 800 number and stated “Reservation Required.” (Is that for the call or the train?) Amtrak is the same organization making the case to be in charge of President Obama’s $128 billion stimulus proposal for high-speed rail.
The attention span of iCats: During my vacation travels, most rooms that I was in had either a new flat-screen television or some other electronic device as alluring as Mecca. Chatting with Americans now is like talking to monks whose heads are always bent in prayer—on the altar of a smart phone. It used to be every American room had television; now it is every pocket. Most conversations touched on the next upgrade.
For solace, I retreated into Neil Postman’s 1985 classic, Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business. In delivering a bromide against the evils of television, making the distinction between a “word-centered culture” and an “image-centered culture,” he writes: “Together, this ensemble of electronic techniques called into being a new world—a peek-a-boo world, where now this event, now that, pops into view for a moment then vanishes again.” He wrote this before there were iPhones.
The battlefield business: Given that Revolutionary and Civil War touring is big business, why not make more of the War of 1812? I enjoyed tracking down the decisive battle of Plattsburgh and its offshore equivalent, the Battle of Lake Champlain. I met Keith Herkalo, the president of the Battle of Plattsburgh Association and its 1812 Museum, and he walked me through the now-forgotten battle that, more than Yorktown, preserved American independence.
On September 11, 1814, American soldiers in Plattsburgh and ships on Lake Champlain held off the attacking British forces from capturing the waterway, if not the Hudson, with a brave stand against numerically superior forces. In his history of sea power, Admiral Alfred Thayer Mahan calls Lake Champlain “decisive.”
Plattsburgh might have saved the American republic, but the ferry across Lake Champlain to Grand Isle, Vermont left me high and dry, about twenty-five miles from Burlington and without a bus to the city. I ended up in an expensive taxi, in which the driver’s girlfriend talked for most of the ride about the novels of Stephen King. (“That’s the one where his head explodes…”)
The sun was setting across the lake, and Vermont had the summer smell of fresh corn and cut grass. It made me forget my late train, all those flat-screen TVs, fragmented conversations, and indebted students. In Burlington, it took me forever to find a hotel (they’re out by the interstate). At least the funky and charming downtown has lots of restaurants, boutiques, and even sidewalk bricks that celebrate cities like Ulan Bator and Chongqing—and, of course, drug stores.
Matthew Stevenson is the author of “Remembering the Twentieth Century Limited,” a collection of historical travel essays. His next book is “Whistle-Stopping America.”
By Shawn Lawrence Otto
Reprinted with permission from online community newspaper MinnPost, Minnesota, USA
Fifth and last article in a five-part science/travel series
Padova, Italy — I have been posting from Italy all week, where I have been talking with leading European science journalists about science debates. Most of the world’s great challenges now revolve around science policy issues, yet we are paralyzed on many of them because of politics. Science debates bring policymakers together with science and the public, highlighting key issues and helping to break logjams.
Today I am on a train from Venice via Milan to Turin, where I’ll catch a flight home. The way runs through the lush green Veneto plain, fed by the Po River. This area is full of historical significance, like the Rotunda that Jefferson copied for Montecello, or Verona of “Romeo and Juliet” fame. But I am stopping to see Padova, the oldest city in northern Italy and birthplace of the Enlightenment.
A half mile south of the train station I find the crumbling ruins of a Roman amphitheater with a chapel built in its park-like center. Enrico Scrovegni bought the site in 1300 and built the chapel to save the soul of his dead father, Riginaldo, a loan shark that Dante conscribed to the seventh circle of hell in his bestseller “The Inferno.” For insurance, Scrovegni hired the Florentine painter Giotto to do the chapel frescoes and — wow. Giotto’s inspired work blew everyone away. The frescoes are considered the birth of modern painting and culture, and the great Renaissance painters all stood on Giotto’s shoulders.
Seeds of freedom
The seeds of another kind of rebirth had already been planted a few blocks further south and some80 years earlier. Feeling their way out of the thick fog of medieval superstition and dark-age religious dominance, a group of law students and professors from Bologna got together in Padova in 1222, seeking more academic freedom.
They started the world’s second university, the Palazzo Bo, or Ox Palace, in an old hotel of the same name. Over time, the Ox Palace became the center of free thought in Europe, with professors encouraging liberal explorations of ideas amid the conservative religious thought of the rest of Europe. Its motto was, and is, “Padova freedom is Universal freedom.”
In 1678, the school graduated the first woman to receive a university diploma: Elena Lucrezia Cornaro Piscopia, who earned the Doctor of Philosophy.
Entering the university I am struck by coats of arms from 700 years of famous graduates and rectors, painted or sculpted on the walls of the grand entrance and wrapping up and around the two-story courtyard.
Upstairs on the East is the Sala dei Quaranta, an expansive, Hogwarts-style dining and lecture hall whose rich paneled walls are lined with hundreds more coats of arms and paintings that look like they may come to life at any moment. It is one of the world’s great collections of heraldry.
Copernicus spent time here, but the real glory days came later. In 1594, the world’s first medical theater opened here, an oval with six steep railed tiers where 200 students of art and science could lean over as they watched a human cadaver secretly dissected by candlelight. If church officials came knocking, the table could be flipped, dumping the body through a hole in the floor for swift removal to the canal, replacing it with an animal.
Walking where Galileo walked
For me, though, the biggest thrill and the reason I came was to walk where the university’s most famous teacher walked, and to touch the wooden handrail of the raised podium where his hand also fell. Galileo Galilei, one of the founding scientists of the Enlightenment, taught at Padova from 1592 to 1610. The podium was built by his students so the SRO crowds that packed the Sala dei Quaranta could hear and see him speak, and begin to see the light of knowledge, instead of, to quote John Locke, “but faith or opinion.”
Since those early days, science has proven to be our most reliable method for creating knowledge. But new knowledge means we must refine our ethics and morality, and that is always political. It certainly was in 16th century Padova, where science was risky and anti-authoritarian indeed.
This aspect is lost on many modern scientists, who seek to disavow association with science’s political dimensions, and, as a result have ceded some measure of public definition of reality back to ideologues.
Galileo simply spoke about his observations through a better telescope that could show the planets more clearly. Shadows on Jupiter, he told students, confirm what Copernicus had already postulated: the earth revolves around the sun, and not the other way around. You can look for yourself, he told church officials. But they refused to look through his telescope.
Like many scientists, Galileo underestimated politics, and didn’t realize that the simple statement of an observable fact is a political act. It either affirms or denies the current power structure.
Consider this quote from Galileo’s 1633 indictment by the Roman Catholic Church, at the time the seat of world power:
1. The proposition that the sun is in the center of the world and immovable from its place is absurd, philosophically false, and formally heretical; because it is expressly contrary to Holy Scriptures.
2. The proposition that the earth is not the center of the world, nor immovable, but that it moves, and also with a diurnal action, is also absurd, philosophically false, and, theologically considered, at least erroneous in faith.
Therefore…, invoking the most holy name of our Lord Jesus Christ and of His Most Glorious Mother Mary, We pronounce this Our final sentence: We pronounce, judge, and declare, that you, the said Galileo…have rendered yourself vehemently suspected by this Holy Office of heresy, that is, of having believed and held the doctrine (which is false and contrary to the Holy and Divine Scriptures) that the sun is the center of the world, and that it does not move from east to west, and that the earth does move, and is not the center of the world; also, that an opinion can be held and supported as probable, after it has been declared and finally decreed contrary to the Holy Scripture.
Why did the church go to such great lengths to discredit this solitary man? For the same reason we fight political battles today over issues like climate change, and right-wing US senators seek to discredit scientists like Michael Mann, whose similarly iconic “hockey stick graph” charts the rise in average global temperatures.
Science sides with observation and measurement, not vested interests. Failing to acknowledge science’s inherently political nature leaves both science and America vulnerable to attack by anti-science thinking from both the right and left—thinking which has come to dominate American politics in the early 21st century—and leads to political rigidity and paralysis.
Modern-day call to defend science
Science has proved to be more powerful and beneficial to humans than anything previously developed. It has built up knowledge that has doubled our life spans, multiplied the productivity of our farms by more than 35 times, freed untold millions from manual farm labor and a life that was, in the words of 15th century writer Thomas Hobbes, “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short,” a “war of every man against every man.” It has given us tremendous insights into our place in the cosmos, into the inner workings of our own bodies, and into our capacity as human beings to exercise our highest aspirations of love, hope, creativity, curiosity, compassion, humility, courage and charity.
This good has come from the scientific process of questioning assumptions about the universe, dreaming up experiments that test those questions and, based on observations, incrementally building knowledge about nature that is independent of beliefs. A scientifically testable claim can be shown to be either probably true, or to be false, whether the claim is made by a king or a president, a pope, a congressman, or a common citizen. Because of this, science is anti-authoritarian, and a great equalizer of political power.
I came to Italy to talk about science and politics, but as I leave Padova, I am struck by how each generation from Galileo’s to my own must defend science, democracy and freedom of thought, as a moral imperative.
In that regard, we could learn from the courage of those early Italians.
Shawn Lawrence Otto is co-founder and CEO of sciencedebate.org. He wrote the screenplay for the Oscar-nominated movie “House of Sand and Fog” and won the Alfred P Sloan Foundation’s award for best science screenplay for “Hubble.” He also wrote the screenplay for the upcoming film “Dreams of a Dying Heart.” He lives in Minnesota, USA.
—and summer on the Adriatic
By Shawn Lawrence Otto
Reprinted with permission from online community newspaper MinnPost, Minnesota, USA
Fourth in a five-part science/travel series
Venice, Italy — In Italy, when crowds get excited they sing in unison. I’m in Venice, the New Orleans of Europe, but here the flooding is planned. It’s night during the World Cup and several shops have turned televisions out to the squares, where folding chairs have been set up and local bars make rounds to the singing, cheering, klaxon-blasting soccer fans. I wander the streets, taking it in.
It is hard to describe Venice’s special charm. The city and its surrounding islands are built on sandbars and pilings driven into the Adriatic, their scores of crisscrossing canals serviced by a crazy array of water taxis, gondolas and vaporetti — the public bus boats. Its car-less stone streets weave haphazardly around and through buildings that typically date back to the early 1000s, when Marco Polo returned to the city after 24 years of adventures in the Orient. They are filled with art, museums, fresh fish and vegetable markets, trattoria, ancient churches, and parties — soccer and otherwise.
It is no wonder Venice has always attracted the world’s great creative thinkers.
From rack and pinion to jpg
I’m here to meet with Alex Gerber, a Berlin communication scientist who came down to connect while I’m in Italy.
Alex is head of communications for Fraunhofer, the German research giant who brought you the jpg, mp3s and h.264 video, among many other innovations. He is also managing partner at Innocomm, a company that specializes in taking discoveries in scientific papers and doing applied research to find ways to bring them to market. In German it’s called Kommercializacion, but it’s about much more than making a buck. It’s about what could be called knowledge engineering, filling a key gap between research and engineering.
In Leonardo da Vinci’s time, this sort of application was the goal of science experiments. Since I wear hats of both art and science myself, today I checked out a Venetian exhibition of the Tuscan’s engineering drawings made real, showing his early prototypes for rack and pinion, the bicycle, the gearshift, the submarine, the hang glider, and the differential gear, among many others.
Revolutionizing online debate
One of Alex’s team’s projects that attracted my attention is called Debate 2.0. It is inspired by Science Debate 2008, a science policy debate I organized between Barack Obama and John McCain. Alex’s team wondered if they could apply some of the concepts we used to a new online form of debate and discussion.
The result is Debate 2.0. It hopes to revolutionize online discussion and knowledge modeling, for example, in this publication.
Let’s say this story was especially controversial, and there were thousands of comments. That’s a great discussion, but the article would be a victim of its own success, since very few people are going to read past the first couple dozen comments, which often are posted by people most opposed to whatever the article may be proposing, and those who argue with them.
So all the rest are lost in a sort of knowledge eddy created by applying a linear format — time-stamped comment postings — to a nonlinear situation — crowd responses to an article.
In the online world of interactivity, a newspaper is like a reporter standing on a soapbox in a crowded Venetian market square and shouting out. What if we could apply a more nonlinear approach, like we did in Science Debate when we invited signers to submit questions to the candidates for president, and incorporated all their ideas into the discussion?
Alex’s team’s innovation is a system that organizes comments not linearly but graphically. In the future, you may see comments in newspapers organized from a bird’s eye view first into pros and cons, and then substreams of arguments that you can zoom into and navigate through with the click of a mouse instead of scrolling linearly. The process delivers much more meaning much more quickly because it delivers knowledge in context — Debate 2.0.
Holding back effects of climate change
Alex and I rent a boat and motor through the back canals away from the tourists, then head out into the bay. Venice is surrounded by dozens of islands, and we first go to see the new island the Italians are building to battle the effects of climate change. It’s one of dozens of massive geoengineering projects worldwide.
By Shawn Lawrence Otto
Reprinted with permission from online community newspaper MinnPost, Minnesota, USA
Third in a five-part science/travel series
Torino, Italy and Geneva, Switzerland — The thing about Italy is that it teaches you to go with the flow. Those who cannot are naturally selected out of the population by early heart attacks, emigration or some other process of elimination. Italians who are left are the only ones who can survive their own system. You always hear them saying things like “No problem” and No worries”. Today is an example of why that Zen-Italian attitude is important.
The Porto Nuovo train station is a grand dame located near the center of Torino. We walk there from our hotel, about 20 blocks through winding streets with flagstone sidewalks. We arrive at the station in plenty of time and look up to see that our train to Milan — where we were to make our connection to Venice — has been cancelled. There is a strike in Milan and the train station there is closed.
We wait in line for the customer service window, where the attendant says my prepaid ticket is worthless. I need to go to a ticket window and get a refund. But this being Friday, the busiest travel day in Italy, they are all closed. The only alternative is to use self-service machines to purchase another ticket going through Bologna. Then, when I get to Venice, I can go to a ticket window and ask for a refund.
I go to the ticket machine lines, and when I get to the front there are not enough tickets left on the train for our party. I book the next available train, which will take us through two other cities and get us in about 8:40 [20:40] in the evening. Not ideal, but hey, it’s Italy. I go ahead and make the reservation, which, being rush hour, is more than double the price.
But then, just to be sure, I check again. This time the same parameters yield a one-stop route that costs only one and a half times as much. Back to customer service. I have time. Eventually I get the second set of tickets marked cancelled. I will have to get a refund on those later as well. At the machines I buy the third set at the lower price and more advantageous route.
So here I sit, next to a man who has never heard of deodorant, waiting for six hours to pass and writing the post I promised about the Large Hadron Collider at the European Organization for Nuclear Research (Cern) near Geneva.
Dominique Bertola is the bouncing, gregarious head of visitor information at Cern, and he is a natural born teacher. He has the rare ability among scientists to take the complicated and make it simple and interesting.
This talent is often looked down upon in the scientific community in a sort of naive snobbery. Astronomer Carl Sagan, perhaps the greatest science communicator ever, had a show called “Cosmos” that was seen by an estimated 600 million people around the world. But Sagan was rejected by his peers for admission to the National Academy of Sciences. This division is part of what I am trying to overcome as I globe trot promoting science debates.
Dominique brims with enthusiasm as he shows me the massive equipment.
The Large Hadron Collider is Cern’s new machine for trying to make some discoveries about the underlying nature of the universe. It is located in a donut-shaped tunnel 100 meters or roughly 35 stories below ground. The donut is huge — a whopping 27 kilometers (16.8 miles) in circumference, running under Switzerland and France. It’s filled not with cream, but with vacuum tubes, superconducting busbars, and electromagnets that make up the core of the particle accelerator.
By Shawn Lawrence Otto
Reprinted with permission from MinnPost, a Minnesota USA online community newspaper.
Second in a five-part science/travel series.
Geneva, Switzerland — In Italy they like to eat late. Most people don’t even head out to the restaurants until about 9. And in Torino there are many of them, mostly spilling out onto the sidewalks. In the old town center, an area of winding streets and tall brick and stone buildings, it’s sometimes hard to tell what is restaurant and what is street – tables are placed out onto the pavement and cars wind between them. They seem to all merge into an outdoor party full of a pleasing mix of wood smoke from the grills, fresh and delicious seafood, Fiat exhaust and wine.
Which explains why this morning came especially early. We had to be at the old Fiat plant, now a huge shopping, hotel, and conference complex, at 6:45 a.m. to catch a bus to Cern — the European Organization for Nuclear Research. The Fiat plant is about a two mile walk from the hotel. It was still that sort of liquid cool before what you could just tell was going to be a hot summer morning.
We ducked into a patisseria along the way and grabbed a cappuccino and some pastries — and let me tell you, you have not lived until you’ve had a china cup full of Italian cappuccino and a still-warm pastry at 6:15 in the morning. You can’t get anything to go here — in fact Torino is the capital of the global Slow Food movement — a pastiche of aligned ideas and practices from extremely fresh, high quality local foods to a certain attitude about life that rejects fast, cheap and unmindful. But the service is quick nevertheless. This morning, we were in, out and happy in less than five minutes. Add that we got to drink and eat on china near the open door, not out of a paper cup and a wax bag, and you have to love it.
Crossing the Alps to Cern
The Cern trip is one of the last activities at ESOF — the Euroscience Open Forum. I am here to talk about U.S. science policy and politics, and how we organized Science Debate 2008 between Barack Obama and John McCain. Several European countries have since copied the initiative, hoping to elevate science in the national dialog and in the minds of elected officials. At least in the case of Barack Obama, it worked.
We’re taking a coach bus over and through the Italian, French and Swiss Alps to Geneva, Switzerland. Cern is famous to moviegoers as the home of the Large Hadron Collider, the most complex scientific instrument on the planet. In the movie “Angels and Demons” it was the source of the anti-matter the bad guys stole to try to end the world. In reality, you encounter antimatter all the time, but in subatomic particles that are almost immediately destroyed as they contact matter.
By Shawn Lawrence Otto
Reprinted with permission from MinnPost, a Minnesota USA online community newsaper, first in a 5-part travel/science series
Torino, Italy — I am posting from the Euroscience Open Forum in Torino, Italy. Torino is a beautiful older city of about 1 million nestled along the Po River in northern Italy at the foot of the Alps. It was, for a brief spell in the late 1800s, the capital of Italy. It is full of grand palaces and manors hundreds of years old, but the building getting the most use this week is the huge old Fiat plant, now known as the Lingotto Conference Center, the venue for ESOF.
The reason I’m here is to talk about U.S. Science policy and world politics. I got here the other day, sans luggage, and had to go straight from the airport into a press conference, then out to dinner with my hosts, a bunch of science journalists from around Europe. After some amazing food and wine under the stars by violin and scooter engine, I chose to walk the four miles back to the hotel.
As I did, I stumbled upon an outdoor exhibition of “green porn” in the old town square. Apparently this was part of the Science in the City program and had been billed as a movie about animals mating but turned out to be a bunch of old scientists on a stage talking about sexual and asexual reproduction. This may be the worst example of a scientist’s idea of how to sex up science to make it interesting to lay people.
Still there were about two hundred people sitting in chairs in the square, but I think it was a bit of a bait and switch. I can’t possibly guess what these Italians thought of when they heard “green porn” but for me it definitely wasn’t old scientists.
Science poised to transform lives
The larger issue of elevating science in the public dialog is a big part of why I’m here. In fact, I gave a presentation about it at Euroscience, headlining a panel on science debates. There have been several science debates in various European countries now, generally in the context of parliamentary or national elections, all patterned on a science debate I helped organize in 2008 between Barack Obama and John McCain. The other panelists in the latest session included Hajo Neubert, president of the European Union of Science Journalists’ Associations, as well as science debate organizers from Germany, Italy and the UK.
The idea behind ScienceDebate is simple. Most of the world’s major political issues revolve around science policy, from energy and climate change to ocean health, biodiversity loss, global economic competitiveness, and dozens of others. At the same time, the number of scientists around the world is expanding rapidly, all connected by the internet. This is causing an explosion of new knowledge that will utterly transform our lives over the coming few decades. Topics that are barely on the public radar now, like genomics, nanotechnology, and geoengineering have the potential to become the political lightening rods of tomorrow.
ESOF itself is only four years old, and already rivals the powerful American Association for the Advancement of Science’s annual meeting in its breathtaking size and scope.
Lag in science reporting
At the same time, there is a crisis in science reporting. As budgets are slashed, editors and publishers, most of whom were English majors, wrongly assume the public shares their disinterest in science, and it’s one of the first things to go. MinnPost is one of the few outlets left in the United States that has a science section — at the very time when we need more reporting on these science issues, not less.
My presentation recounted the story of how we started Science Debate as a small group of six committed individuals. It eventually became the largest political initiative in the history of science, supported by most of the U.S. science enterprise and making nearly a billion media impressions.
It was basically an effort to elevate science in America’s national dialog, something that had faded over the last two generations as scientists withdrew from public discourse, culminating in the Bush years, widely regarded by scientists as the most anti-science administration in U.S. history.
By 2008, the top five TV news anchors asked the then-candidates for president 2,975 questions in 171 separate interviews. Just six mentioned the words “global warming” or “climate change,” arguably the most important policy debate facing the country. To put that in perspective, three questions were about UFOs. Obviously, science needs to reengage with the public — but probably in a more sophisticated way than sexing it up and calling it “green porn.” The fact is that when science is made relevant to people, they are deeply interested.
In Europe, they take a different approach, seeking to elevate society in the dialog of science. What research should we be doing? Where should we be putting our resources? The people should have a say. This is an idea that some scientists will likely find heretical, even dangerous.
But both approaches build on something nearly everyone agrees on: Science is always political. Any time we refine our knowledge, that has implications for our morals and ethics, forcing us to refine them too. And that means politics. In a century when science dominates every aspect of life and can give the power to save or destroy the planet, scientists need to be a more vocal part of the political discussion.
Shawn Lawrence Otto is co-founder and CEO of ScienceDebate2008.com. He wrote the screenplay for the Oscar-nominated movie “House of Sand and Fog” and won the Alfred P Sloan Foundation’s award for best science screenplay for “Hubble.” He also wrote the screenplay for the upcoming film “Dreams of a Dying Heart.” He lives in Minnesota.
by Bill Harby
Bill Harby publishes Expatch
A few days ago, with my shiny new go-anywhere-anytime-on-train-bus-tram-funicular-or-boat CFF pass in my wallet, I zipped down to Bern. My excuse for visiting the Swiss capital was to renew my passport, but really I just wanted to make this expensive year’s pass ($195 SFR per month) start paying for itself. And I’d never been to Bern and its handsome medieval city center.
The ride from Neuchâtel took just over 30 minutes, during which time I frantically paged through my phrase book hoping to absorb some sense of Swiss German, of which I knew only two words, grüezi (hello), and bitte (please). I tried to memorize the phrase that I knew I’d have occasion to use most, Es tut mir leid. (I’m sorry), but always found during the day that it escaped me in the fluster of the many moments when I needed it. Instead, I relied upon the ever-versatile question, Sprechen Sie Englisch?
Searching for the American embassy, I knew I was close when I saw a Swiss soldier holding a cute little machine-gun. Nearby, an American flag hung limply behind high fences. In front of one door thick with blast-glass stood a line of hopeful young people holding papers. If the American embassy was under attack that morning, it was by cream-skinned Swiss teenagers who probably just wanted to invade Disneyland.
Unsure where to go, I got in line with them. A Swiss soldier who’d been letting people in the locked door one-by-one soon spied me and asked in perfect English if I were American. I said yes. “I thought so,” he said, eliciting smiles from a few of the others in line.
How did he know? I wasn’t wearing a cowboy hat or dorky white running shoes. I wasn’t being loud or pushy. I wasn’t even yet asking anyone Sprechen Sie Englisch?
Nevertheless, I’m sure I managed to confirm opinions about Americans’ sense of entitlement when the guard told me to go to the front of the line.
Half an hour later, after multiple security screenings, a session under the blinding lights of a photo booth, and impossibly friendly service from embassy staff, I exited with the paperwork for my renewed passport.
Now it was time to see Old Bern. Though the city was founded in 1191, most of it burned to the ground in 1405, and was rebuilt in the stone buildings that I was now walking among. It was downright weird to meditate upon this, walking the cobblestone and low archways between storefronts full of modern furniture and art and yes the inevitable watches and Swiss Army knives—and bears.
Bern was named Bärn by founder Berthold the 5th, Duke of Zähringen, because this apparently whimsical fellow decided one day that he’d name his new town after the next animal he killed in the hunt. That Bär lives on today in the town’s name and statues, icons and tourist gewgaws around town. Plus there’s the newly renovated live bear viewing area, Bärengraben, on the banks of the Aare River. Depending upon your perspective, this attraction is either an honor to the city’s fearless namesake or a humiliating pit in which a family of bears including two cute cubs is forever trapped. The day I was there, hundreds of people were voting their conscience with their cameras and oohs-and-aahs.
Anyone feeling guilty about enslaving noble bears can give confession up the street at the tallest cathedral in Switzerland, Münster St. Vinzenz.
Like so many European cathedrals, the most inspiring and intriguing personalities hanging around are not the men shuffling about in white collars, but the figures made of timeless stone.
After communing with these fine creatures for awhile, I was spiritually spent, so moved my observances to a sunny table at a nearby café to sip a beer. Then I jumped on the bus for the train station. Rolling up the street, passing the countless faces, I knew I’d been unfair to the flesh and blood of Bern. But I’ll be back in a few weeks to pick up my new passport. Maybe by then I can tell them Es tut mir leid.
Ed. note: flickr photographer Tambako the Jaguar, who regularly takes beautiful animal photos, has shared some of his new bear cub images with GenevaLunch.
By Tambako the Jaguar on flickr
Tambako the Jaguar, a Neuchatel photographer who frequently visits Switzerland’s zoos and shares his beautiful photos of animals on flickr, visited the young bear cubs in Bern last week (18 June).
The bears were born in December and are named Urs and Berna, but for now even the Baerengraben zookeepers are unsure if they are male and female.
Background story, Bern’s bears, GenevaLunch
Republished with permission
Liam Bates, from Saint Prex, Vaud, who attends the University of British Columbia in Canada, contributes feature and travel articles to GenevaLunch. In mid-March 2009 he won a speech contest sponsored by the Chinese government, “Chinese Bridge,” to find the best Chinese speaker among Canadian university students. In August 2009 he competes in Beijing with some 100 students from around the world for the international title. Video of his winning speech in Canada.
Tsering Shakya, interviewed on the blog Motorbikes, Mao and a Yak, is the author of The Dragon in the Land of Snows, called by the New York Times likely to be the “definitive history of modern Tibet.” He is a professor at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver.
by Liam Bates
UBC Professor Tsering Shakya was kind enough to give us an interview on youth in Tibet today and the influence Chinese culture has had over the past 50 years or so. Professor Shakya left Lhasa in 1959 with his mother, moving to India. He attended university in the UK on scholarship and now resides in Vancouver. He is one of the world’s foremost authorities on contemporary Tibet.