Weekly Editorials Page
6/21 to 6/27, 2001

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6-26-2001: The Kearneys have sent another (and extremely thought-provoking) article about ritalin. To me, part of what's so intriguing about the article is the political bandwagon that it describes in "CHADD (Children and Adults with Attention Deficit Disorder)". Get a diagnosis of ADD or ADHD and the future is yours! Equally thought-inducing to me is the rise of special interest groups and "minorities" that enforce special treatment by law. There was a news release a few days ago about parents in Connecticut who have just won the right to force their public school to using their retarded child using a personal teacher with a Master's Degree in Special Education dedicated to the education of their offspring. I wonder why SAT scores are dropping while school funding continues to rise? My sister, the advanced placement American history teacher, was concerned over what was happening at her school after her retirement. The school was being forced to hire Special Ed teachers with Master's degrees, one for each child, to individually care for a few handicapped students. Then there was the mother in the Mercedes who forced the school to send a special van to bus her child to and from school. Everett Shostrum observed that underdogs eventually become the top dogs. You wonder where it will all end.
    But to get back to ADD and ADHD, most gifted children have characteristics that are symptomatic of ADD or ADHD. (Part of their problem might be the fact that public schools must now be sensitive to law suits, and are (or so I've read) offering 300 hours of instruction per year in place of the 1,000 hours of classroom instruction that was required in 1950.) But high energy levels, absent-mindedness (as in "concentration on some inner study"), a wide range of interests, etc, can be mistaken for ADD and ADHD. The Kearneys are concerned that many gifted children are being misdiagnosed with ADD and ADHD, and drugged to render them more docile. The Kearneys aren't concerned for themselves, of course, but for those they see around them..
   Two years ago, here in Huntsville, a high school student who was on ritalin and other medications went berserk and killed his parents and a couple of his brothers and sisters. A national campaign is about to be launched from Huntsville to publicize the this case.
    Sometimes things have to get worse before they get better.

    A couple of years ago, NASA's Marshall Flight Center conducted a "tethered satellite" experiment employing a 20-kilometer-long wire to generate electricity using the Earth's magnetic field. Before the wire was fully deployed, it mysteriously snapped in two. Tonight, I ran into Dr, Nobie Stone, the scientific principal investigator for the project, and my former co-worker. Nobie told me that the reason the tether broke was because of the 3,500 volts it had generated.. Although the Earth's magnetic field is small---0.5 gauss---the tether is so long---2,000,000 centimeters---and the satellite moves so fast---8 kilometers or 800,000 centimeters---per second, that high voltages, and kilowatts of power  can be generated. The wire was about 1/16th of an inch in diameter, and was insulated with teflon. At some point, as the onboard winch was unreeling the wire, a spot on the wire with a nick in its teflon insulation passed . With 3,500 volts on the wire, a dielectric breakdown occurred. An arc formed, with about 1 ampere of current flowing from the wire back to the satellite. The teflon vaporized and formed a plasma, which finished the job of melting the wire.
    At that point, our conversation was interrupted. As he turned away, Nobie  mentioned that you could run current the other way, into the wire, and use it as an electric motor to propel the wire (and presumably, the satellite). I didn't get a chance to ask about the logisitcs of the situation, but I will the next time I see him. How practical is this for spacecraft propulsion, and if it's very practical, what are NASA's plans for employing it? (It would transfer momentum to the Earth through the Earth's magnetic field.)

6-23-2001: The Kearneys have also forwarded a book recommendation that Kevin commended to me the last time we were:together: Julian Jaynes, "The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind", available for $23.95 from The Robot Store. I searched for a used copy through Bookfinder, found several for $5, and just ordered one.

    I'm still concerned about yesterday's articles vis-a-vis our rising tide of mysticism and superstition. I agree with the authors that we seem to be more into the mystic than we were 50 or 60 years ago. Fifty or sixty years ago, I think that people were still grateful for the rural revolution brought on by electrification and the internal combusion engine in a way that, perhaps, those who lived through it can appreciate. I remember vividly the chilly bedrooms in the winter and the stifling bedrooms in the summer, or being awakened in the night and rushing to close the windows because a thunderstorm was in progress. There was certainly mysticism then, too, but it doesn't seem as though it were as pervasive as it is today. I see it the way the authors do that science may come across as magic to those who aren't steeped in its underlying order and logic. And yet, it's the difference between ourselves and Stone Age tribes. I've wondered about the role of entertainment in feeding irrationality. Authors write for whatever market has been selling well lately. If that's vampires, they'll write vampire stories. If it's sword-and-sorcery, they'll write sword-and-sorcery. I could imagine that the same thing must hold true for TV stories and movies. This feedback system can become a vicious bonfire that feeds upon itself. Our survival depends upon the advancement of science and technology to cope with problems such as the overpopulation and pollution of the world that irrationality has brought upon us. I don't own Carl Sagan's "The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark". I probably should, although I think it will depress me because it will sound all too true.
    I don't know the answer to this dilemma. Does anyone?