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Duke Research - January 2011

Cropduster spraying pesticides

January 28, 2011

The EPA at 40

By Becca Bayham, Nicholas 2012

Most birthday parties include presents, or at least cake. However, the Jan. 24 “party” at the Sarah P. Duke Gardens was far from typical: attendees were celebrating  the 40th birthday of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). In the EPA’s honor, 16 speakers offered their prospective and retrospective opinions on the extraordinary influence the EPA has had on our environmental health since its creation in 1970.

The symposium, entitled “The EPA at 40,” followed two earlier events (“The EPA at 20” and “The EPA at 30,” held at Duke Law School in 1990 and 2000, respectively). Last Monday’s event was sponsored by the Duke Environmental Law & Policy Forum, the Duke Law School and the Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions.

Prior to the EPA’s creation, the U.S. was both a “superpower and supermarket,” mass producing food and consumer products for the world, UNC-Chapel Hill professor Pete Andrews said.  But that cornucopia came with a cost: air pollution, toxic dumping and rampant pesticide use, among other problems. 

Rachel Carson’s book Silent Spring,  highlighted the pesticide DDT’s devastating impact on certain bird populations, and catapulted the U.S. into environmental awareness.  Congress authorized the creation of a new environmental agency in 1970, the EPA, to unite an assortment of pre-existing organizations, and it enacted the Clean Air Act, the Safe Drinking Water Act and the Toxic Substances Control Act.

“Resources are usually insufficient, while responsibilities are piled high ... sometimes I wonder how we got anything done,” said Gordon Binder, who served as chief of staff to the administrator of the EPA during the first Bush administration.

Several speakers mentioned how the EPA is subject to the “swinging pendulum” of politics. The Nicholas Institute’s Tim Profeta pointed to a recently-Republican majority in the House as evidence that the pendulum has swung again; facing deep budget cuts and increased scrutiny, the EPA has been forced to adopt a “bunker, rather than constructionist, mentality.”

“The narrative is that Democrats are good and Republicans are evil. We aren’t going to make a lot of progress until we’re able to move past that,” said  Yale law professor E. Donald Elliot.  “Environmentalists do better if the two parties compete for their support rather than when they are assumed to be the property of one party, and then the other party opposes them,” Elliot said.

Elliot and Binder both touched upon the theme that crises -- real or perceived -- are another powerful mechanism for change. Major environmental legislation is often preceded by well-publicized catastrophes, such as the Santa Barbara oil spill (followed by the Clean Air Act) and the burning of the Cuyahoga River in Ohio (followed by the Clean Water Act). Kepone, Love Canal and the Exxon Valdez oil spill also helped usher in influential new legislation.

The question is, what kind of crisis will it take before Congress enacts legislation to significantly address climate change?

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Tags: climate/global change, environment/sustainability, lecture

anatomy lessons

January 25, 2011

Beyond the Circus of Science

P.T. Barnum, famous for devising scientific controversy for the sake of entertainment — such as arguing the existence of mermaids — would have enjoyed our present "debates" on climate change and evolution.

But his "parading of mermaids" approach, which already dominates current media coverage, is risky business with evolution and climate change because the audience isn’t viewing the performance as entertainment. It’s being used to make policy, said Jules Odendahl-James in a Jan. 24 discussion during her Performing Science seminar.

The new elective course explores the relationship between science and the performing arts. Reviewing past work like Barnum’s, and present examples, like the Discovery Channel and Amy Caron’s Waves of Mu, Odendahl-James and her three students will study the best, and worst, marriages of science, performance and art and determine if and how performance can foster science appreciation and possibly the acceptance of ideas that individuals might not initially believe.

Presenting string music, for example, as changing notes over time and evolution as changing genes over time, can teach the audience a way to consider the subject, Odendahl-James said.

Such a performance presents the paradox that one can believe in the essence of music as a change of notes over time but not in the essence of life as the change of genes over time.

Rather than a lecture, this type of performance embodies the Barnumesque invitation to "come, and see for yourself," and Odendahl-James is tasking her students to develop a similar approach for their own science and art.



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Tags: behavior/pschology, science communication & education

cosmic shadws of stars and planets

January 18, 2011

The Shadows of the Cosmos

Black holes are probably not afraid of their shadows. They'd swallow them if they could.

But it's still surprising to think that these cosmic garbage cans, and all other matter, can actually cast patterns of darkness on space -- shadows.

The shadows are one of the most striking consequences of Albert Einstein’s theory of general relativity, says Duke mathematical physicist Arlie Petters, who has a detailed article on cosmic shadows in the December 2010 issue of Notices of the American Mathematical Society.

General relativity mathematically describes how an object's gravity can bend light, distorting it into different patterns, like rings and shadows, in space.

The best way to picture the cosmic shadows is with a flashlight and two screens. One of the screens sits in front of the other along the path of the light and it holds the cosmos -- stars, planets, black holes, gas and dark matter.

When the flashlight's rays hit this first screen, the cosmic materials' gravitational forces bend the light.

The rays that are not captured on that front screen and pass through, then travel on to create cosmic shadows on the back screen.

“Even more surprising is that the shadow patterns are not haphazard. They obey mathematical laws,” Petters says.


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Tags: faculty, physics, science communication & education, Visualization


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