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A recent report by the Associated Press shows poverty and race are still major factors in deciding who inhabits the most polluted parts of the nation. Host Steve Curwood talks with David Pace who reported the story for the AP. (05:45)
New Orleans Sediment: Harmless or Hazardous?/ Jeff Young
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State and federal officials say there's no health risk from the sediment coating New Orleans after Katrina despite samples showing lead, arsenic and other toxins. But activists, armed with a scientific study, argue otherwise. Living on Earth's Jeff Young reports. (06:00)
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Manipulating materials at the atomic level can have astronomic repercussions, both positive and negative. The problem is, no one really knows exactly what these effects may be. To find out where we stand in the world of nanotechnology, host Steve Curwood talks with David Rejeski, director of the Project on Emerging Nanotechnology at the Woodrow Wilson Center. (05:45)
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Comments from our listeners on recent stories we’ve aired. (02:30)
Intelligent Design: "It’s Not Science"
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Astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson looks at the history of attributing scientific gaps to a higher being. He’s on a panel to update the National Academy of Sciences document on evolution and creationism to reflect the dialogue on intelligent design and he tells Living on Earth host Steve Curwood that intelligent design is "a philosophy of ignorance" that has no place in science. (07:30)
Emerging Science Note/Discovery & Extinction
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A look at discoveries and extinctions in the world's species over the past year. (01:30)
Inventor Interrupted/ Harry Goldstein
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Harry Goldstein of Spectrum Radio offers a reporter’s notebook on Corliss Orville Burandt, a man who claims to have invented the device that makes hybrid auto engines work. But Burandt lost his job, his home, his family and his mind when the patent slipped out of his hands and into the public domain. (12:00)
Down on the Louisiana bayou.
HOST: Steve Curwood
GUESTS: David Pace, David Rejeski, Neil deGrasse Tyson
REPORTERS: Jeff Young, Harry Goldstein
NOTE: Emily Torgrimson
CURWOOD: From NPR, this is Living on Earth.
[THEME MUSIC UP AND UNDER]
CURWOOD: I’m Steve Curwood. A new report based on government figures shows an old problem still persists: black Americans in many states are twice as likely as whites to breathe air that can harm their health.
Also, the debate over intelligent design as an alternative to evolutionary biology makes its way through the courts. A leading scientist says it’s not about religious freedom.
TYSON: To come up to a scientific problem and, “You know, this is a really hard problem. I can’t figure out this problem, no one before me was able to figure out this problem, no one who will ever be born in the future of Earth will figure this problem out, therefore God must have done it.” Now that’s just surrendering to ignorance and that is not what goes on in science.
CURWOOD: And, as the new year approaches, we look at species lost and found. That and more this week on Living on Earth. Stick around.
ANNOUNCER: Support for Living on Earth comes from the National Science Foundation and Stonyfield Farm.
CURWOOD: From the Jennifer and Ted Stanley Studios in Somerville, Massachusetts, this is Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood.
A report by the Associated Press, based on the federal government’s own statistics, shows that black Americans are almost 80 percent more likely than whites to live in neighborhoods where industrial air pollution is a major health hazard.
The AP combined information from the 2000 census and a recent EPA project that mapped industrial air pollution for every square kilometer of the nation, and also found that poor and less educated Americans, black and white, live in the top five percent of polluted parts of the country.
David Pace reported the series. He joins us from Washington, DC. Hello.
CURWOOD: Talk to me about the role of race here. People say, look, blacks are much more likely to be poor than whites, even though the absolute number of poor people in America is white, and therefore you’d find these facilities in black neighborhoods more likely. Or do you?
PACE: Well, you do, and part of it is the legacy of the way industry developed in this country. Blacks tend to live more in inner cities in areas where industrial plants are located. The thing that surprised us in doing this study was that environmental justice has been an issue on the national agenda for more than two decades now.
And in 1993, President Clinton issued an executive order directing all agencies of the government to start addressing these inequities through existing civil rights laws and environmental laws. And yet, it’s been, you know, 12 years since that executive order has come out and we find, you know, pretty much exactly the same things that first raised this issue two decades ago. There doesn’t seem to have been a lot of progress.
CURWOOD: Why haven’t things changed in the 20 years or so since this issue was raised?
PACE: Well, it’s a very difficult issue to get at. Industrial corridors tend to attract other industry; that’s where plants go to be located. Black people and poor people have less political clout than their white suburban neighbors. If a company decided to locate a plant in an affluent area they would face a long battle – a legal battle, a public relations battle – from the community to try to keep that plant from being located there. Black Americans who live in these neighborhoods and poor people who live in these neighborhoods that already are industrial sites, to large degree, don’t have the clout, in many cases, to fight back.
CURWOOD: What are the health risks from the kind of industrial pollution that you looked at? I know that asthma is very high on the list but what else is there?
PACE: Well, respiratory problems of all types are very high. Asthma, bronchitis. A number of these chemicals that are being released are carcinogens, they’ve been found in laboratory tests to cause cancer. There’s a lot of research going on to try to determine if there is a definite link between some of these most toxic chemicals and various cancers. It hasn’t been established yet. There are people who believe it’s there, there are people on the other side who argue it isn’t. But definitely the chemicals being released , some of them, have been tested by the government and determined to cause cancer in humans. You know, at significant doses.
CURWOOD: You went to a lot of places. What was one of the worst situations that you saw? What sticks with you as being, frankly, a tragedy in your mind after this?
PACE: Well the worst situation, I thought, was Camden, New Jersey. Camden has always been sort of the poster child for environmental justice issues. But we visited with a woman there who gave us a tour of her neighborhood, and it was one plant after another. I mean, around the corner was a sewage treatment plant; down the other side of the street was a licorice/mulch factory; behind her house were three scrap metal recyclers. The cement plant’s located within 100 yards of her house.
There’s a Superfund site which isn’t air pollution but it’s a Superfund site that closed decades ago. It was left there by the feds for over 20 years before it was finally cleaned up. That Superfund site is, you know, within sight of her front porch. So she’s just completely surrounded. And she’s not the only one. She lives on a street that’s just, of rowhouses in Camden, and these people are right in the middle of an industrial area.
CURWOOD: Now, the Environmental Protection Agency says, overall, industrial air pollution has declined significantly. And, in fact, in your series you note that total annual emissions of certain toxins are down by one third since 1990. That sounds like some improvement, isn’t it?
PACE: Oh, there’s definitely been improvement. The Clean Air Act has resulted in dramatic reductions in air pollution across the country. And ultimately, if you keep going at that level, you will solve some of the problems in these communities. But the overall reductions mask the fact that some of these communities still are heavily polluted, and they’re not getting the same relief.
You know, I would venture to guess that the overall levels of pollution in these communities are down somewhat from the past three decade now that the Clean Air Act has been in effect. But if you go and walk the streets in the neighborhoods and smell the air and talk to the residents, you find a, you know, a very different story.
People are still living in areas across the country where there is heavy industrial air pollution, where it is, according to them, affecting their health, affecting the health of their children, and it’s something, you know, they would like to see changed.
CURWOOD: David Pace writes for the Associated Press in Washington. Thank you, sir.
PACE: Thank you.
[MUSIC: Peter Hammill “Oasis” from ‘Plus From Us’ (Real World – 1993)]
CURWOOD: Despite the great outpouring of sympathy for Gulf Coast residents after the catastrophic summer storms, restoration efforts are only just getting started. Hundreds of thousands of people are still displaced, the New Orleans levee system is still broken, and for those who decide to chance a return, caution is the watchword.
One hazard that seems to be too much for the authorities to handle right now is the dull, gray dusty grime that the mucky floodwaters left behind. It stains the city’s walls, streets, backyards and playgrounds. It’s loaded with poisons such as arsenic, but Louisiana environmental and health officials say the sediment is not a health hazard so long as people avoid too much contact. Some New Orleans activists don’t agree and they’re demanding a cleanup.
Living on Earth’s Jeff Young reports.
[CRUNCH OF CAKED SEDIMENT UNDER BOOTS]
YOUNG: This is the lower ninth ward of New Orleans, just a few blocks from the breach of the industrial canal. The sediment left behind is a couple inches thick all over the ground here. It’s drying and caking and cracking, and there’s a lot of concern about what’s in that sediment and what happens when it dries up and blows around.
[CRUNCHING; CLANGING OF METAL AUGER AT SEDIMENT SAMPLING]
FIRST WORKER: Pretty well saturated.
SECOND WORKER: That enough?
FIRST WORKER: Yeah.
YOUNG: The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency hired these workers to take samples from a New Orleans neighborhood known as the Agriculture Street landfill. A housing development and school there sit atop an old hazardous waste dump.
YOUNG: The fear was that these old toxic sites and the region’s heavy industry left behind what some called a toxic gumbo in the sediment, which was more than a foot deep in some parts of the city. State and federal agencies took thousands of samples from some 150 sites in New Orleans and neighboring parishes.
Early tests found high levels of fecal bacteria, but officials expect those microbes to die out. Arsenic, lead and organic hydrocarbons from diesel and oil, substances linked to cancer, neural disorders and other ailments, were found in many parts of the city. But officials with the Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality say the levels detected do not present short or long-term health threats.
HARRIS: Not even close to a toxic soup.
YOUNG: That’s Tom Harris, Louisiana’s state toxicologist.
HARRIS: The levels of chemicals were consistent with what was there before Katrina and protective of children playing in the dirt for the next 30 years.
YOUNG: Harris says the state and federal agencies will continue to monitor, but his conclusion—backed by EPA—is that most of the area is safe. Although a number of samples exceed state and federal thresholds, Harris says they are still within what he calls “acceptable risk.” Except for one community in St. Bernard Parish affected by an oil spill, no widespread cleanup of sediment is needed. Environmental activists looked at the same numbers and came away with a very different conclusion.
OLSON: We see a clear need for EPA and the state to step in and start a cleanup as soon as possible.
YOUNG: That’s Erik Olson, an attorney with Natural Resources Defense Council. NRDC teamed with local groups in Louisiana to audit EPA and state data and to conduct some of their own sampling. They say the agencies have downplayed risks posed by the sediment and dodged responsibility to clean it up. Olson says the state should apply a stricter standard for toxins like arsenic because of the nature of the sediment.
OLSON: Our scientists call this “bio-available.” This coating just covers the whole area. Children, especially, are going to be crawling around in it, they’re going to be running around in it. The dust is suspending, people are sweeping it up, it’s in their houses, it’s all over the city. If you don’t clean that up, the problem is that people will continue to be exposed.
YOUNG: As activists and regulators argued over how to interpret the data, the first peer reviewed scientific study of the sediment appeared in the journal Environmental Science and Technology. Texas Tech University Professor Steven Presley led a team that found slightly elevated levels of some pesticides and arsenic. But it was lead levels that got his attention. In two samples, lead was above what EPA calls its high priority "bright line" screening level. Presley says the data pose questions for officials.
PRESLEY: Why did we establish these values where there’s concern that human health will be negatively impacted? Why were those values established if we’re not going to do anything about it when we exceed those values?
YOUNG: A senior policy analyst at EPA says some within the agency asked the same questions. Hugh Kaufman is a 30-year veteran of the agency and a frequent critic of his own employer. Kaufman says the federal agencies ceded authority to the state, which is eager to sound the all-clear and avoid a costly cleanup.
KAUFMAN: A decision had been made that EPA would basically have the Corps of Engineers start the cleanup process. Around the beginning of December there was backpedaling by the federal government, and now the federal government’s position is that
everything is safe enough. And so we’re not going to do any substantive cleanup.
YOUNG: EPA Deputy Administrator Marcus Peacock denies this. He says the federal and state governments are working together without compromising safety.
PEACOCK: It’s easy for people to say, well, EPA should come in and do all this work. But the fact of the matter is the responsibilities are clearly set out in the national response plan and worked out with state and local officials to make sure public health and environment are protected.
YOUNG: New Orleans activists are still pressing for action. They sent EPA and FEMA officials a letter demanding a full cleanup of the sediment and are holding out the possibility of legal action to make it happen. For Living on Earth, I’m Jeff Young.
[MUSIC: Bardo Pond “Tantric Porno” from ‘Monsters, Robots And Bugmen’ (Virgin – 1996)]
CURWOOD: Coming up: Big promises, and maybe big perils, from the tiniest of packages. What you should know about the new technology called “nano.” Stay tuned to Living on Earth.
[MUSIC: Manu Katche “Silence (Remix)” from ‘Plus From Us’ (Real World – 1993)]
CURWOOD: It’s Living on Earth. I’m Steve Curwood.
Everybody, it seems, is interested in it. The military sees a chance to make things faster, smaller and more efficient. Medicine sees a way to treat any organ, including the brain and heart, without reaching for the scalpel or destroying healthy cells. Consumers can look forward to novel materials ranging from odor-free socks to glare-free glass.
The “it” is the emerging technology of the tiny. It’s called “nanotechnology.” “Nano” is the prefix the metric system uses for one billionth, so “nanotech” is about manipulating materials at one billionth of the size they are usually handled; in other words, down at the level of the single atom.
There are safety and ecological concerns about nano methods and materials, so the Environmental Protection Agency has just come out with a document to spark discussion of the arising technology’s potential benefits and risks.
Joining me is David Rejeski. He directs the Project on Emerging Nanotechnology at the Woodrow Wilson Center in Washington, D.C. Hello, sir.
REJESKI: Hello. Glad to be here.
CURWOOD: I hear the term “nanotechnology” all the time, meaning small things in technology, but what exactly is nanotechnology for someone who’s never heard of it?
REJESKI: I think it’s useful to think of nanotech as a new way of making things rather than just a technology. We’ve reached a point based, really, on decades of research where we can actually see and manipulate individual atoms. And when we gain that level of control over matter, two really interesting things happen.
I think the first is that we can really fine-tune the behavior of a lot of substances we now use. And number two, it’s going to allow us to discover whole new properties and new substances. We’re not talking about science fiction. It’s here now.
CURWOOD: How big is this nanotech thing?
REJESKI: You’re going to see nanotechnologies in just about everything from consumer goods to medicines, food, energy production, aerospace. Right now, there’s an estimated 1,600 firms globally involved in nanotech and, according to some estimates, there are probably 500 to 700 products already on the market.
CURWOOD: What products am I buying today that have it in it, and I don’t even realize it?
REJESKI: Well, if you’re a skier, it may be in the goggles and glasses that you have. One area where nanotechnology has found some applications is actually coating lenses, and you’re able to actually fine-tune the properties of the lenses with very, very thin film. So you can make an anti-scratch, anti-glare, anti-fogging, anti-microbial; you can block out UV rays. You’re going to see applications already in high-performance fabrics that are water and stain resistant.
One of the interesting things was in sunscreens. So they’ve been able to take some of the ultraviolet-blocking chemicals like zinc oxide – which are usually white and greasy so when you put them on you kind of look like a polar bear – and on a nano scale they can be made to be perfectly clear while retaining and, actually enhancing, a lot of the ultraviolet-blocking characteristics.
CURWOOD: Looking inside the Woodrow Wilson Institute’s nanotechnology crystal ball, what do you see?
REJESKI: I find the medical applications actually the most exciting. They’re exciting simply in terms of the huge impacts they could have on health across a wide range of diseases. Let me just give you one example: people in some of the universities now have taken gold, reduced to about the size of I think about 35 nanometers, and they coat it with an antibody that allows these particles to attach to cancer cells. Once you’ve attached the gold particle to the cancer cell it only takes a very small amount of energy, which you can deliver with infrared light that’ll penetrate the skin, and you can heat that cancer cell up to about 50, 55 degrees centigrade and destroy it.
CURWOOD: Some say that nanotechnology is the next, well, maybe industrial revolution, because it has so many different applications in so many different fields. How could nanotechnology help play a part in helping the environment?
REJESKI: Well there’s already some examples of nanotechnology that’s being used to clean up groundwater pollution. And they actually take iron – simple iron, if you reduce it down to about 70 nanometers in size, it becomes very reactive. Essentially it’s rusting, but it’s rusting much faster. And it can actually be used to clean up groundwater pollution. So this is being injected into the ground and it’s been shown to be, at least at about 20 sites now around the country, fairly effective in terms of dealing with a lot of chemicals that are in the groundwater.
CURWOOD: So, with great powers going to such small things, there must be some risks of having these things loose in the environment, right?
REJESKI: Well, yeah, I think that there’s a number of potential risks. I mean, the research has provided some answers, but there’s still a lot of knowledge gaps.
So, you know, if we look at the sunscreen issue, that’s been researched now for actually three or four years. There’s a big study that was done in Europe on what happens when you put these incredibly small particles on your skin. What they have found, for instance, is that it tends to be, I think, fairly good if you’ve got healthy skin. If you’ve got compromised skin, if you have cuts and bruises and that sort of thing, then it’s less clear, obviously, what the impact might be.
There’s not a lot of research on the impacts on the environment. Again, if you look at the sunscreen, what happens when that washes off into the marine habitats. Are there going to be impacts on marine mammals, fish, coral reefs, that sort of thing?
CURWOOD: It sounds like there’s a fair lack of government involvement and supervision of the safety of nanotechnology. In your view, what should be done to ensure that consumers and the environment, whenever we and it is exposed to nanotechnology, that the stuff has been thoroughly tested and proven to be safe?
REJESKI: I think one of the things that can be done, obviously, is that companies could submit products to testing by third-party independent testers. I think groups like Underwriters Laboratory, Consumer Reports, those kind of independent third-party voices to consumers will play a very critical role, actually, as nanotech rolls out. Because there’s just not a lot of public trust in either government or industry to manage these risks.
CURWOOD: David Rejeski is director of the Project on Emerging Nanotechnologies at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, a partnership of the Pew Charitable Trust. Thank you so much.
REJESKI: Thank you.
CURWOOD: Time now from comments from our listeners.
CURWOOD: Our story about New Orleans residents returning to homes with elevated mold spore levels netted some impassioned responses from mold-sufferers across the nation.
“I am glad someone is taking this mold seriously,” writes Linda Delp of Delaware. “I am one of many who are ill from mold who have been writing Congress and our representatives since Katrina. There are so many suffering this illness, and we don't want more to suffer.”
Unfortunately, she claims, Congress is looking the other way.
Finally, our talk with Jay Ingram about his new book, "The Velocity of Honey: And More Science of Everyday Life,” garnered this tongue-in-cheek response.
“The story about toast landing buttered-side down reminded me of an apocryphal argument between an empiricist and a pessimistic phenomenologist,” writes John Lloyd who tunes in on WMRY in Charlottesville, Virginia.
“Now the empiricist and phenomenologist disagreed about which side a piece of buttered toast would land on. The phenomenologist contended it was bound to land buttered-side down, that such bad things were simply destined to happen. The empiricist contended it only could be determined by testing. So, they toasted and buttered a slice of bread, tossed it in the air, and - lo and behold - it landed buttered-side up.
"See," said the empiricist, "It just goes to prove to you that you have to test things."
"Not really,” the phenomenologist responded dourly. “It just goes to show that we buttered the wrong side of the toast."
Your comments are always welcome. Call our listener line anytime at 800-218-9988. That's 800-218-99-88. Or write to 20 Holland Street, Somerville, Massachusetts, 02144. Our e-mail address is comments at loe dot org. Or visit our web page, Living on Earth dot org, where you can hear our show anytime or get a download for your ipod. That's Living on Earth dot O-R-G.
CURWOOD: In January, a Dover, Pennsylvania, judge is expected to rule whether intelligent design can be taught in a public school science class as an alternative to evolution. Intelligent design is the theory that the origins and workings of the universe can never be explained through science alone.
The judge will decide whether teaching intelligent design as part of biological science violates the first amendment of the Constitution’s separation between church and state. And Pennsylvania is not alone - some twenty states are considering teaching intelligent design in science classes.
With me is Neil deGrasse Tyson. He’s an astrophysicist and head of New York’s Hayden Planetarium. Neil Tyson, just how novel is the argument of intelligence design as the answer to mysteries of science?
TYSON: Actually, many people think that notion is something new in the news. But if you comb the history books and look at what – let’s take scientists, in particular – how many of the greatest scientists of the past have thought about their work and the frontier of their work, it’s replete with reference to an almighty creator having a hand in what’s going on. But you have to pay close attention to how they invoke the creator.
Going back even to Ptolemy, 2,000 years ago, he had an explanation for the planets, and it involved very intricate epicycles, which are these loop-de-loops that planets are doing, to explain what’s going on. But it was fundamentally flawed because the sun is in the middle of all this motion, not Earth. And so he knew he was at his limits there, and he uttered what I think are some of the most poetic words ever to be spoken on the frontier of ignorance.
And he said: “When I trace, at my pleasure, the windings to and fro of the heavenly bodies, I no longer touch Earth with my feet: I stand in the presence of Zeus himself and take my fill of ambrosia.”
So there he was, sort of basking in religious glory, on that frontier where he could not really understand what was going on. And it would take a while before somebody figured out what was going on. That person was Newton. Newton figured out which way the planets were going and how they did it. You read his discussion of gravity, God is nowhere to be found.
Only when he looks at his equations and finds out, you know, the solar system I think is unstable. You keep up this gravity long enough, with all these multiple planets tugging on each other, it’ll unravel this beautiful system of gravity that I have put forth that describes how they attract each other. And he waxes poetic about God coming in and fixing that and keeping it going.
And it was not until 100 years after that where Simon-Pierre de Laplace, a brilliant French mathematician, was not content with just assigning that role to God. And he went in and figured out that the solar system is stable, and invented a new form of mathematics to learn that. So, we can glean a lot from scanning the history of people invoking what today is called “intelligent design.” And what they all have in common is it stunts further progress of discovery.
CURWOOD: Neil, I’m wondering if intelligent design is just another term for creationism, or different? As I understand it, the creationism perspective is one that looks directly at the Judeo-Christian Bible that says that God created everything here in seven days.
TYSON: Six days. (Laughs)
CURWOOD: Six days. Oh, that’s right. He took a day off.
TYSON: He rested on the seventh day. Yep.
CURWOOD: And intelligent design is not necessarily subscribing to that very literal interpretation, but saying, you know, this is really pretty amazing stuff and there must be something really smart, some being, that created all this. So, is there anything different in the movement to include intelligent design in science curricula, as opposed to efforts to teach creationism in schools?
TYSON: Well, what they have in common is that they’re both not science. But if you were to step into that universe, if you will, you can find differences among them. If you look 15-20 years ago, the creation science movement, which is what it was called, was taking a, just as you described, a literal interpretation of the Judeo-Christian Bible, and asserts that the universe was created in the six days and could not be much older than 10,000 years, as demanded by Biblical chronology.
Now, in this latest movement, you don’t have people who are leading the intelligent design movement making those kinds of claims. Because they’re just patently false in the face of scientific evidence. What you have them saying – and many of them, in fact, do accept what science tells us about the universe. Many of them do accept that the universe is about 14 billion years old, and, you know, that Earth goes around the sun. You know, they accept this. And their only issue is when you come to something you can’t explain, and they assert that it’s unexplainable.
CURWOOD: Now, you’ve been involved with updating a National Academy of Sciences document on creationism versus evolution, I think that was done in 1999. And that document states, quote, “unequivocally that creationism has no place in any science curriculum at any level.” Now, in the updating that you’re involved in right now, will this entail doing more than just including the term intelligent design in addition to creationism?
TYSON: Yeah, I’m on a committee to sort of revise that document which, by the way, is important in many ways. That document is read not only by, sort of, school administrators, but by schoolteachers who are not otherwise part of the debate but they want some guidance as to how they should treat the subject when they go back to their classroom. And so, yes, the document needs to gather some language that has accumulated over the past few years to enhance its relevance to what’s going on in the various court cases.
But also, one of our goals is to have it serve the role as a guide for people to understand how science works. So, rather than just going around debunking things, you just sort of highlight and enlighten the reader in terms of what theories are, how they work, how the frontier of science advances. And then it’s simply a document that brings you up close and personal to the methods and tools of science. And in that way you will understand immediately that philosophies of ignorance have no place in the same room as philosophies of discovery.
CURWOOD: Let’s say the courts in Pennsylvania, or perhaps somewhere else here in the United States, rule in favor of teaching intelligent design alongside evolution, as recently happened in Kansas. What would this mean for the future of science?
TYSON: Yeah, that’s an excellent question because, in some ways, I don’t really care much about the court case. I mean, it’s interesting to follow sociologically, but if they say intelligent design is science, that doesn’t make it science. You know, the courts is not the ultimate arbiter of how science works. It would be a curious development that we would have a legal system legislating what is science and what isn’t.
I can tell you this, that in the 21st century, emergent economies will flow from our innovations in science and technology. And the moment we stunt our curiosity by offering ready explanations that it’s unknowable, we will cede to the rest of the world that frontier of discovery. And we will see more than just a few engineering jobs go overseas. It’ll be sort of the beginning of the end of our sort of economic strength as a nation that we’ve come to take for granted in the 20th century.
CURWOOD: Neil deGrasse Tyson heads the Hayden Planetarium in New York and is a frequent contributor to Living on Earth. Thanks for being with us.
TYSON: It’s a pleasure. Thanks for having me again.
[MUSIC: Anonymous “Volta” from ‘Lyrichord Early Music Sampler’ (Lyrichord – 1995)]
CURWOOD: Just ahead: An inventor’s dream turns into a nightmare. First, this Note on Emerging Science from Emily Torgrimson.
[SCIENCE NOTE THEME]
TORGRIMSON: Think the world is just one big catwalk, your own personal runway? Here’s our look at some of the hottest new species discovered this past year, as well as the animals who made a comeback, and the ones no longer with us.
New this year is osedax mucofloris, or, the bone eating snot flower. It’s an elegant new species of marine worm discovered off the Swedish coast. It lives off whalebone on the ocean floor. Its root system extends into the bone and plumes out like a flower – with lovely, mucus-covered petals.
From the forests of Tanzania comes Africa’s first new species of monkey in more than 20 years--the Highland Mangabey, lophocebus kipunji. It models cheek whiskers, a cream belly and tail, and long crest of hair on its head…as well as an unusual call its discoverers call a “honk-bark.” Though just emerging on the scene, the Highland Mangabey is already critically endangered because of illegal logging.
Of course, the nostalgic star of the year was rediscovered in the big woods of Arkansas, the Ivory-billed Woodpecker, campephilus principalis. The largest woodpecker in North America reemerged this spring 60 years after its last confirmed sighting in the United States.
But as fads move in and out, and trends supercede each other, for some species to succeed, others must fail. According to Bird Life International, one species was officially declared a goner in 2005: the thick-billed ground dove disappeared after much of its habitat in the Solomon Islands was opened to logging. The introduction of rats, dogs and cats didn’t help much either.
Alas, extinction is a natural feature of evolution. But the World Wildlife Foundation estimates that current extinction rates are between one hundred and one thousand times the background extinction rate, at which species would naturally go extinct without human intervention. That’s this week’s Note on Emerging Science. I’m Emily Torgrimson.
CURWOOD: And you’re listening to Living on Earth.
ANNOUNCER: Support for NPR comes from NPR stations, and: The Charles Stewart Mott Foundation, online at m-o-t-t dot org, supporting efforts to promote a just, equitable and sustainable society; The Kresge Foundation. Building the capacity of nonprofit organizations through challenge grants since 1924. On the web at k-r-e-s-g-e dot org; The Annenberg Fund for excellence in communications and education; and, The W-K Kellogg Foundation. ‘From Vision to Innovative Impact: 75 Years of Philanthropy; This is NPR, National Public Radio.
[MUSIC: The Letter E “Better Days” from `The No. 5ive Long Player’ (Tiger Style - 2000)]
CURWOOD: It’s Living on Earth. I’m Steve Curwood.
Some people exult in their work while others struggle just to show up each day. Some prosper in their careers while others end up broken-spirited and bankrupt. Harry Goldstein has this reporter’s notebook about a man who loved his work and invented a way to make a better car, but took a wrong turn on the road to success.
[CAR DOOR SLAMS; AIR BLOWING FROM HEATER; “Ah, the heater”]
GOLDSTEIN: You’ve never heard of Corliss Orville Burandt. I hadn’t either, until someone slapped a ten page fax down on my desk that Burandt – or Cob, as he calls himself – sent me about the flood of hybrid electric cars onto the world market.
Cob claimed to have invented and patented a way of using a sensor inside a cylinder of a car engine to optimize how air and fuel mix during combustion. He claims almost all hybrid cars on the market are using a version of his invention. But Cob didn’t get rich off his patent. Instead, he lost his house, his wife, and his mind.
[MUSIC: Radiohead “A Wolf At The Door” from ‘Hail To The Thief’ (Capitol – 2003)]
Somehow, through years of homelessness, Cob and some well-meaning friends have preserved a prototype of his invention. It sits in the trunk of a sky blue 1965 Corvair in an auto shop in the Minneapolis suburb of Ham Lake. My friend Jon Zurn drove me out there to meet Cob and see the Corvair. The day was blindingly bright and frigid.
[RADIO WEATHER REPORT]
GOLDSTEIN: I explained to John that Cob’s story serves as a warning to all inventors who exchange rights to their patents in return for venture capital to bring those inventions to market. Cob thought he was on his way to easy street when, in 2002, he discovered that Honda’s Intelligent VTec engine used technology similar to that described in his U.S. Patent number 4961406. Issued on October 9, 1990, this patent covers a , quote, “Method and Device for optimizing the air/fuel mixture burn rate of internal combustion engines.”
[MUSIC: Tristeza “Casio” from ‘Spine & Sensory’ (Better Looking – 2004)]
GOLDSTEIN: So you know Cob’s, did you get Cob’s name?
ZURN: Corliss Orville Burandt.
GOLDSTEIN: Corliss Orville Burandt. Apparently a direct descendant of –
ZURN: Mr. Corliss?
GOLDSTEIN: [Laughs] Mr. Corliss. Some very famous steam engine inventor.
ZURN: He made it efficient.
GOLDSTEIN: He made it efficient. And that’s what we want to do today.
[MUSIC: Idaho "Levitate, Part 2" from ‘Levitate’ (Idaho Music – 2001)]
GOLDSTEIN: With this patent in hand, Cob thought he could force the world’s largest carmakers to pay him royalties on an idea he believed they were clearly using. But there was a problem. A big one. Cob didn’t own the patent.
Not only that, the company to which Cob had assigned ownership, Investment Rarities Inc. of Minneapolis, had failed to pay the U.S. Patent office the maintenance fees due on all 12 of the patents Burandt had garnered over the course of a decade. So, Cob’s invention slipped into the public domain. Today, anyone can use it for free.
By the time I finished telling John the particulars, we had arrived at our destination, Bendsten’s Transmission Center.
[CAR DOOR SLAMS, CRUNCHING THROUGH SNOW]
GOLDSTEIN: “There’re a lot of trucks around here. Don’t see anyone here. Hi! I’m here to see Cob.”
GOLDSTEIN: We entered a cramped wood paneled office and were greeted by the office manager, who fetched Cob from the garage.
GOLDSTEIN & ZURN: Hi. How you doing?
BURANDT: Hi. John, pleased to meet you.
GOLDSTEIN: Well groomed, dressed in a black leather vest and black jeans, with piercing grey eyes that would occasionally flutter shut as if he were about to fall asleep, Cob greeted us with a hearty handshake. And immediately launched into his story. His dream was to have car engines communicate with satellites that would calibrate the engine to operate at optimum efficiency depending on where you were driving in the U.S.
[MUSIC: Tom Vek "Cover" from ‘We have Sound’ (Star Time – 2005)]
GOLDSTEIN: What kind of car is it again?
BURANDT: A 1965 Corvair. Or I should say, half of a 1965 Corvair. So we cut the engine in half, and we rotated it 90 degree, and we made an opposed push rod six cylinder into an upright three cylinder overhead cam engine with variable compression, variable cam phasing, and variable valve vents that all can be adjusted by radio control. Because we were trying to advocate that you could reprogram things on the fly or from satellites before their were satellites. We were hitchhiking and we were going to do it off of a radio station.
[MUSIC: Secret Chiefs 3 "Welcome To The Theatron Animatronique’ from ‘Book Of Horizons’ (Mimicry - 2004)]
GOLDSTEIN: As a noisy printer churned out page after page of invoices, we stood there in the office listening to Cob, trying to get him to focus on the timeline: when he invented what, and how his whole odyssey began.
GOLDSTEIN: And what years were you shopping this around?
BURANDT: Early 80s.
GOLDSTEIN: Early 80s. And when you say “we.” Who was involved in that?
BURANDT: Well, at that time we had so much money we had several professional people that would transport the car. We were dealing with presidents of companies and it was a high roller adventure. We were eating in these restaurants with Muhammad Ali and all these, you know—it was quite the roll. I was there to stay on top of technology. I wasn’t there to be worried about hotel rooms, transportation, or anything. The company said, you think variable valve timing from when you get up and you go to bed, and everything else is on us. ‘Cause that’s the only way we were going to get to the top.
[MUSIC UP AND UNDER]
GOLDSTEIN: Here was a man who believed his invention could change the world for the better: cheaper, cleaner cars, a better environment, less dependence on foreign oil. The world was his oyster. He was eating in fine restaurants, talking with top executives at big automakers, and he was turning down multimillion dollar offers to develop engines for the likes of GM. All because his venture capitalist, Investment Rarities, thought it could get more.
But when its core business, gold trading, went south in the late 1980s, Investment Rarities dropped Cob and his patents. Cob recalled the grim day in 1988 when he stood between the local post office and a McDonald’s trying to decide whether to spend the only money he had left on a cheeseburger for his growling stomach, or postage for his last remaining patent.
[MUSIC: Idaho "Scrawny" from ‘Levitate’ (Idaho Music – 2001)]
BURANDT: Everybody, I mean everybody, said, Walk away from it. Give it up, you’ve wasted your life over it. I said, no way, this is the control patent. Anybody who ever lands one of these mamas has got Easy Street for the rest of his life. And that’s how the…in the end, the financial…it wasn’t believable. I couldn’t tell you a story that would actually...you couldn’t put it in words how horrible the financial end of the deal was. And I rode it through and then basically nothing happened for years. Invest Rarities—basically the IRS shut them down.
GOLDSTEIN: Cob’s eyes fluttered again, and it looked as though he might break into tears at any moment. The nostalgia for what he had, and what might have been, seemed too much. He had made a huge mistake somewhere along the line, and he knew just what it was.
BURANDT: The dilemma that I got myself in is a dilemma that any engineer in the world can get it. I lost everything I owned. I lived in that car. I mean, that was my address. That’s how far I went down the tube. And there was no money to pay maintenance fees. So the Unites States government took away all 12 of my patents. Basically, I started having some stress related health problems. I’m certified crazy! I’m on SSI. Totally medically disabled. I mean, I was declared crazy. It says right on my papers: “Obsessive compulsive behavior associated with engine patents.” It says it right on my papers, right on the deal when they went down an analyzed me.
GOLDSTEIN: Wow. Wow. Wow!
[MUSIC: The Shins “Young Pilgrims” from ‘Chutes Too Narrow’ (Sub Pop – 2003)]
BURANDT: I mean, I lost everything. I lost my house, I lost all my cars. I lost everything. I was fricking homeless. I lived in that goddamn car for awhile. I mean, how many inventors live in their prototypes? I mean, is that ridiculous or what? It was just…I ruined my family with the deal. But in terms of what happened to me: basically, I was left to rot for eight years.
GOLDSTEIN: The annals of technology are filled with stories about inventors whose epic struggles over their inventions drove them over the edge. Some, like Edwin Armstrong, inventor of FM radio, take their own lives. Others, like Nikola Tesla, the father of alternating current, suffered – like Cob - from obsessive compulsive disorder. Tesla required any repeated actions in his life, such as the footsteps he took in a walk, to be divisible by three, and would keep repeating them until he arrived at the right total.
When we met with Cob, it was apparent that his obsessive-compulsions focused entirely on car engines. But beyond that, it seemed to me that some essential part of him, what some people might call a soul, I guess, was indistinguishable from his invention. He is the variable valve mechanism, and it is him. When after over an hour of conversation I asked to see the prototype, his sleepy, medicated eyes sparkled to life, and like a kid on Christmas morning, he bounded through the door leading to the garage and showed us the modified Corvair.
[MUSIC: Texas Red “Car Trouble’ from ‘Nothin’ Can Save Me Now’ (Cold Wind Records – 2004)]
[CAR ENGINE TURNING OVER]
Cob’s prototype engine. (Photo: © Harry Goldstein)
BURANDT: Okay, now this in economy mode, and you can listen, when we go into performance mode, you will see the idle quality deteriorate. Just to simulate that, I’ll show you what happens here if we push it all the way up.
[ENGINE REVS, THEN FADES OUT INTO MUSIC]
BURANDT: Maintainance fees are a capitalist tool for driving small people out of business. And the small guy, in my opinion, is always the guy who gets his five years a hit. That’s what we’re buying—that’s what the patent deal does. The sooner we get something birthed and into the incubation period, the greater the potential to capitalize on the large scale employement we can derive from it. So we need the guys birthing and we need to keep ‘em alive. Well, how the hell are you gonna do that? How could a state do that and get a return on their money? I think by making the payment of maintenance fees and possibly the patent application costs, eligible for tax credits—probably another thing I would say on that is, I think especially things that have to do with the environment and energy. That have a social value, not just another hoola hoop but things that have a social value as well.
GOLDSTEIN: All right. Well, I think we need to be getting on.
[ON THE ROAD]
GOLDSTEIN: As we drove back to Minneapolis, John and I talked about how it was appropriate somehow that we hadn’t met Cob anywhere but the garage. The garage was where Cob really lived, even when his body was sleeping somewhere else. He tries to solve the same problem over and over again: how to get control of his patents back, and that’s as far as he’ll go because what lies beyond—patent battles with some of the world’s largest corporations—is too remote a possibility even for Cob to contemplate. And surely too expensive for him to ever afford. His patents expire next year, and hope with them. And hope is the only thing that’s kept Cob’s motor running all these years.
[MUSIC: The Album Leaf “Moss Mountain” from ‘In A Safe Place’ (Sub Pop – 2004)]
GOLDSTEIN: As the frozen expanse of Great White North suburbia flashed by, the trailer parks cheek by jowl with the giant malls filled with last minute shoppers, part of me wished I’d asked Cob how he was going to spend Christmas. Another part of me couldn’t bear to know. For Living on Earth, I’m Harry Goldstein.
CURWOOD: Harry Goldstein is a reporter for Spectrum Radio, the broadcast edition of IEEE Spectrum magazine. To see photoes of Corliss Orville Burandt – a.ka. “COB” – and his invention, visit our website, Living on Earth dot org.
CURWOOD: Next week on Living on Earth: a little storytelling, a little comfort food, and a whole lot of blues.
[MUSIC: Tab Benoit “We Make A Good Gumbo” performed live in LOE studios, November 23rd, 2005 (New Orleans)]
BENOIT (SINGING): We make a good gumbo, oh yes, we do.
We make a good gumbo on the old bayou.
BENOIT: Gumbo is very simple. A lot of people think gumbo is we go in there and empty out the leftovers from the fridge and putting it all in one pot and that’s gumbo. No, that’s not the case
CURWOOD: That’s Cajun blue’s guitarist Tab Benoit. He joins me next week for Living on Earth’s Christmas-time holiday special, “Longing for Louisiana.” Tab and others will brew a mix of holiday sprits, including a Cajun version of “The Night before Christmas.”
BENOIT: ‘Twas the night before Christmas, and all trew da house, de not a ting pass, not even a mouse. De chillen be nezzled, good snug on da floor, and mom passed the pepper trew the crack in the door. Den mamma in the fireplace, done rose up the ham, stir up the gumbo, and bake the yam.
CURWOOD: Storyteller Angela Davis will spin a take of New Orleans’ Christmas past.
DAVIS: I hear you a storyteller! You know any ghost stories? Why don’t we pass the time telling ghost stories?
CURWOOD: And Doctor Jazz, the trumpet-playing coroner of New Orleans, talks about his love of the city’s music and how much its absence is affecting him this time of year.
JAZZ: My mother played a lot of Gospel stuff. But ‘round Christmas holidays, it was always music every day. Either my mother or my grandmother was playing.
CURWOOD: Chef Susan Spicer also joins the cochon de lait to talk about reopening her New Orleans’ restaurant “Bayona” and the Louisiana standard she’ll cook up for Christmas – and it ain’t no turkey!
SPICER: Something that always says holiday time in New Orleans to me is oysters.
CURWOOD: As for Tab Benoit: he’s sticking to his gumbo.
BENOIT: The thing is, with a rue, you gotta constantly stir it. And it’s gonna take you a good forty, forty-five minutes of stirring, constant stirring. And you can’t stop. So once you start that rue, you better get yourself something to drink right next to there and get all of your trinity, which is the bell peppers, onions, and celery. That’s what we call the trinity. And you constantly stir it, and it doesn’t do anything for a long time. And all of a sudden it starts browning, starts getting that good kind of popcorn smell to it. Phew, I’m getting hungry. Is this a cooking show?
CURWOOD: Yes, it’s cooking show and more on our Christmas-time holiday special – “Longing for Louisiana” - next week on Living on Earth. Ca c’est bon!
BENOIT (SINGING): We make a good gumbo, with a lovin’ touch,
From New Orleans, way down to the Gulf,
CURWOOD: We leave you this week with the voice of the Louisiana bayou.
[INSECTS CHIRPING; BULLFROG GROWL]
CURWOOD: Kim Wilson recorded this chorus of bird songs, frog calls, alligator grunts and the squeal of an amphibian being skewered by a heron in the primordial waters of the bayou.
[BIRD CALLS; CICADAS]
CURWOOD: Living on Earth is produced by the World Media Foundation. Our crew includes Ashley Ahearn, Chris Ballman, Eileen Bolinsky, Ingrid Lobet and Susan Shepherd - with help from Christopher Bolick, Kelley Cronin, James Curwood and Michelle Kweder. Our interns are Brianna Asbury, Kevin Friedl and Emily Torgrimson. Our technical director is Dennis Foley. Alison Dean composed our themes. You can find us at LOE dot org. I'm Steve Curwood. Thanks for listening.
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