Tuesday, July 31, 2012

$5,000,000 for immortality research


Too much.

"$5 Million Grant Awarded by Private Foundation to Study Immortality"

The John Templeton Foundation grant to UC Riverside philosopher John Fischer will fund research on aspects of immortality, including near-death experiences and the impact of belief in an afterlife on human behavior

by
Bettye Miller

July 31st, 2012

The University of California, Riverside

For millennia, humans have pondered their mortality and whether death is the end of existence or a gateway to an afterlife. Millions of Americans have reported near-death or out-of-body experiences. And adherents of the world’s major religions believe in an afterlife, from reincarnation to resurrection and immortality.

Anecdotal reports of glimpses of an afterlife abound, but there has been no comprehensive and rigorous, scientific study of global reports about near-death and other experiences, or of how belief in immortality influences human behavior. That will change with the award of a three-year, $5 million grant by the John Templeton Foundation to John Martin Fischer, distinguished professor of philosophy at the University of California, Riverside, to undertake a rigorous examination of a wide range of issues related to immortality. It is the largest grant ever awarded to a humanities professor at UC Riverside, and one of the largest given to an individual at the university.

“People have been thinking about immortality throughout history. We have a deep human need to figure out what happens to us after death,” said Fischer, the principal investigator of The Immortality Project. “Much of the discussion has been in literature, especially in fantasy and science fiction, and in theology in the context of an afterlife, heaven, hell, purgatory and karma. No one has taken a comprehensive and sustained look at immortality that brings together the science, theology and philosophy.”

The John Templeton Foundation, located near Philadelphia, supports research on subjects ranging from complexity, evolution and infinity to creativity, forgiveness, love, and free will.

Half of the $5 million grant will be awarded for research projects. The grant will also fund two conferences, the first of which will be held at the end of the project’s second year and the second at the end of the grant period. A website will include a variety of resources, from glossaries and bibliographies to announcements of research conferences and links to published research. Some recent work in Anglo-American philosophy will be translated for German philosophers who, in the last 30 years, have been increasingly studying the work of American philosophers.

UC Riverside Chancellor Timothy P. White said Fischer’s research “takes a universal concern and subjects it to rigorous examination to sift fact from fiction. His work will provide guidance for discussion of immortality and the human experience for generations to come.  We are extremely proud that he is leading the investigation of this critical area of knowledge.”

Noting Fischer’s renown as a scholar of free will and moral responsibility, Stephen Cullenberg, dean of the College of Humanities, Arts and Social Sciences, said, “There is perhaps no one better suited to lead a multidisciplinary research project on the question of immortality and its social implications. The Templeton Foundation’s generous support will enable scholars from across the world to come to UCR to investigate how the question of immortality affects all cultures, albeit in different ways.”

Anecdotal reports of near-death experiences, out-of-body experiences and past lives are plentiful, but it is important to subject these reports to careful analysis, Fischer said. The Immortality Project will solicit research proposals from eminent scientists, philosophers and theologians whose work will be reviewed by respected leaders in their fields and published in academic and popular journals.

“We will be very careful in documenting near-death experiences and other phenomena, trying to figure out if these offer plausible glimpses of an afterlife or are biologically induced illusions,” Fischer said. “Our approach will be uncompromisingly scientifically rigorous. We’re not going to spend money to study alien-abduction reports. We will look at near-death experiences and try to find out what’s going on there — what is promising, what is nonsense, and what is scientifically debunked. We may find something important about our lives and our values, even if not glimpses into an afterlife.”

Fischer noted that while philosophers and theologians have pondered questions of immortality and life after death for millennia, scientific research into immortality and longevity are very recent. The Immortality Project will promote collaborative research between scientists, philosophers and theologians. A major goal will be to encourage interdisciplinary inquiry into the family of issues relating to immortality — and how these bear on the way we conceptualize our own (finite) lives.

One of the questions he hopes researchers will address is cultural variations in reports of near-death experiences. For example, the millions of Americans who have experienced the phenomenon consistently report a tunnel with a bright light at the end. In Japan, reports often find the individual tending a garden.

“Is there something in our culture that leads people to see tunnels while the Japanese see gardens?” he asked. “Are there variations in other cultures?” What can we learn about our own values and the meanings of our finite lives by studying near-death experiences cross-culturally (as well as within our own culture)?

Other questions philosophers may consider are: Is immortality potentially worthwhile or not? Would existence in an afterlife be repetitive or boring? Does death give meaning to life? Could we still have virtues like courage if we knew we couldn’t die? What can we learn about the meaning of our lives by thinking about immortality?

Theologians and philosophers who examine various concepts of an afterlife may delve into the relationship between belief in life after death and individual behavior, and how individuals could survive death as the same person.

“Many people and religions hold there is an afterlife, and that often gives people consolation when faced with death,” Fischer said. “Philosophy and theology are slightly different ways to bring reason to beliefs about religion to evaluate their rationality. If you believe we exist as immortal beings, you could ask how we could survive death as the very same person in an afterlife. If you believe in reincarnation, how can the very same person exist if you start over with no memories?

“We hope to bring to the general public a greater awareness of some of the complexities involved in simple beliefs about heaven, hell and reincarnation, and encourage people to better understand and evaluate their own beliefs about an afterlife and the role of those beliefs in their lives.”

For example, “We think that free will is very important to us theologically and philosophically. And heaven in the Judeo-Christian tradition is supposed to be the best place. Yet we arguably wouldn’t have free will in heaven. How do you fit these ideas together?”

At the end of the project Fischer will analyze findings from the Immortality Project and write a book with the working title “Immortality and the Meaning of Death,” slated for publication by Oxford University Press.

The John Templeton Foundation serves as a philanthropic catalyst for discoveries relating to the Big Questions of human purpose and ultimate reality. The foundation supports research on subjects ranging from complexity, evolution and infinity to creativity, forgiveness, love, and free will. It encourages civil, informed dialogue among scientists, philosophers and theologians, and between such experts and the public at large, for the purposes of definitional clarity and new insights. The foundation’s vision is derived from the late Sir John Templeton’s optimism about the possibility of acquiring “new spiritual information” and from his commitment to rigorous scientific research and related scholarship. The foundation’s motto, “How little we know, how eager to learn,” exemplifies its support for open-minded inquiry and its hope for advancing human progress through breakthrough discoveries.

Rapamycin and longevity

Deceased--Chris Marker [Christian François Bouche-Villeneuve]

 Chris Marker
[Christian François Bouche-Villeneuve]
July 29th, 1921 to July 29th, 2012


"French film-maker Chris Marker dies"
 
The controversial Left Bank Cinema director scored an arthouse hit with Sans Soleil and made the brilliant, haunting, highly influential La Jetée
 
July 30th, 2012
 
guardian.co.uk

Chris Marker, the enigmatic master of left-field French cinema, has died at the age of 91. The artist and film-maker was best known for his award-winning documentary Sans Soleil and for his haunting drama La Jetée, charting the quest for memory in the aftermath of a nuclear apocalypse.

Born Christian François Bouche-Villeneuve, Marker fought for the French Resistance and then cut his teeth as a journalist and a critic for Cahiers du Cinéma. He made his film debut with Olympia 52, a documentary on the 1952 Helsinki Olympics, and went on to become a leading light of the Left Bank Cinema movement alongside his friends Agnès Varda and Alain Resnais. In 1961 he sparked controversy with the documentary Si Cuba, a film that praised Fidel Castro, denounced America and was promptly banned in the US.

Marker's other notable pictures include 1985's AK, an essay on the work of the Japanese director Akira Kurosawa, and 1977's A Grin Without a Cat, charting the socialist struggle in the period before and after the 1968 Paris uprisings. He scored an arthouse hit with 1983's Sans Soleil, his elliptical meditation on travel and memory that darted from Japan to Africa via an appreciation of the 1958 thriller Vertigo. Hitchcock's movie, said the director, was the only film "capable of portraying impossible memory, insane memory".

Yet Marker's most influential production remains 1962's La Jetée, a 29-minute drama composed almost entirely of still images and tracing one man's attempt to reclaim an image from his past. Marker's poetic, provocative meld of global catastrophe and human frailty went on to inspire the 1987 drama The Red Spectacles and Terry Gilliam's 1995 blockbuster 12 Monkeys.

The teasing, elliptical nature of Marker's work was reflected in the man himself. He refused to give interviews, hated being photographed and claimed to have born in Mongolia despite contradictory sources that suggested he was a native of Paris. All of which, wrote the critic David Thomson, fostered the notion of Marker as "some mysterious if ideal figure, a hope or a dream more than an actual person". He was, Thomson added, "the essential ghost".

 
"Chris Marker dies at 91; avant-garde French filmmaker"

Marker directed 'La Jetee,' a short film that travels between past and future. Pauline Kael called it ' very possibly the greatest science-fiction movie yet made.'

by

Elaine Woo

July 31st, 2012

Los Angeles Times

Chris Marker, an enigmatic figure in French cinema who avoided publicity and was loath to screen his films yet was often ranked with countrymen Alain Resnais and Jean-Luc Godardas an avant-garde master, died at his home in Paris on Sunday, his 91st birthday.

His death was reported by Agence France-Presse, but the cause was not given.

Marker, who worked well into his 80s, made more than two dozen films during a six-decade career. Known as a pioneer of the film essay, he was most admired for "La Jetee" (1962) and "Sans Soleil" (1983), which explored time, memory and history in an unconventional and evocative style.

"La Jetee" ("The Jetty") was a 28-minute movie made almost entirely of stills that focuses on a man who travels between the past and the future to understand a haunting image from his childhood.

The most startling moment in the film is when, for a brief few seconds, the stills give way to moving images of a sleeping woman opening her eyes, staring at the camera and blinking. For British film scholar Janet Harbord, who wrote the 2009 book "Chris Marker: La Jetee," the motion causes "a gasp close to an experience of the erotic or the religious or possibly both," and conveys in an instant the magic and mystery of the medium.

Critic Pauline Kael called "La Jetee" "very possibly the greatest science-fiction movie yet made." Film critic and historian David Thomson went further, declaring in a 2002 article in the British newspaper the Guardian that "La Jetee" could be "the one essential movie ever made."

Its theme may sound familiar to contemporary audiences because it inspired a Hollywood remake, "12 Monkeys." Directed by Terry Gilliam and starring Bruce Willis and Brad Pitt, the 1995 film was generally viewed by critics as less essential than the original.

Marker's other masterpiece, "Sans Soleil" ("Sunless"), is narrated by a woman who reads aloud the letters she receives from a nomadic cameraman during his travels in Japan, Iceland, Africa and other far-flung destinations. The letters describe wondrous sights, such as a blindingly white desert, a musical staircase and a temple dedicated to cats.

Cats appear throughout Marker's films and are named in two of them: the documentaries "A Grin Without a Cat" (1977) and "The Case of the Grinning Cat" (2004). The first film examines the New Left movement from the Vietnam War era to the ouster of Chilean President Salvador Allende in 1973. The latter film documents the political mood in France after the Sept. 11 attacks and incorporates images of smiling cat graffiti that began to appear in Paris then. Rare photographs of the filmmaker usually show a thin, balding man behind a camera with his cat, Guillaume.

Marker's politics were clear in other works, as well, such as "Cuba Sí" (1961), about Castro's Cuba; "Le Joli Mai" (1963), made from 55 hours of interviews with French citizens about their attitudes toward the French-Algerian War; and "The Last Bolshevik" (1993), conceived as a series of letters to Soviet filmmaker Alexander Medvedkin.

He also produced "Far from Vietnam," a 1967 documentary made in collaboration with Godard and Resnais that opposed American involvement in Vietnam.

One of Marker's later works, from the late 1990s, was an interactive CD-ROM called "Immemory" that consists of more than 20 hours of stills, film clips, music, text and sound bites divided into several sections, including poetry, cinema, travel and photography.

Little is known about Marker's life, which apparently was just as the filmmaker, who called himself "the best-known author of unknown movies," wanted it.

Most biographies say he was born Christian François Bouche-Villeneuve in Neuilly sur Seine, France, on July 29, 1921, and studied philosophy with Jean-Paul Sartre in the late 1930s. It may be apocryphal, but some sources say his affection for the Magic Marker felt-tipped pen inspired him to change his last name.

Doubts also surrounded his birthplace. Marker told film historian Thomson during a meeting in Berkeley in the 1980s that Thomson's "Biographical Dictionary of Film" was in error and that he actually was born in Ulan Bator, Mongolia.

Thomson said he accepted the eccentric filmmaker's Mongolia story, explaining in the Guardian that it was "a part of Chris Marker's thinking that no place is actually farther away, more extreme or less plausible than another."

In Marker's view, history was fluid and a playful view was sometimes important. "Look what happened to dinosaurs," his narrator says in "The Last Bolshevik" as a child on screen hugs a stuffed version of the TV character Barney. "Kids love them."

"Chris Marker, Pioneer of the Essay Film, Dies at 91"

by

Dennis Lim

July 31st, 2012

The New York Times

Chris Marker, the enigmatic writer, photographer, filmmaker and multimedia artist who pioneered the flexible hybrid form known as the essay film, died on Sunday in Paris. He was 91.

His death was announced by the French Culture Ministry.

A transmedia artist long before the term was coined, Mr. Marker resisted categorization throughout his career; he once referred to “career” as “that despicable word.” His sprawling and constantly evolving body of work, which ranged from books to installations to CD-ROMs and included more than 50 films of varying length, was at once fragmentary and cohesive, united by an abiding interest in the nature of time and memory and by a strong physical and intellectual wanderlust.

Mr. Marker’s best-known film, the 1962 short “La Jetée,” about a man haunted by a childhood memory, was the basis of the 1995 Hollywood movie “12 Monkeys” starring Bruce Willis and Brad Pitt. Whether taking the form of time-warp science fiction like “La Jetée” or archive-rich historical surveys like “A Grin Without a Cat” (1977), about the fate of the New Left after the pivotal year 1968, most of his films involve a kind of time travel.

A lifelong leftist and perennial globe-trotter, he documented almost every political hot spot of the mid- and late-20th century: the Soviet Union, China, the new state of Israel, Cuba after the revolution.

In his later works — like the installation “Silent Movie” (1995) and the feature “Level Five” (1997) — he was also an early explorer of video, digital technology and cyberspace.

Born Christian François Bouche-Villeneuve on July 29, 1921, Mr. Marker hid many aspects of his biography. He once claimed he was born in Ulan Bator, Mongolia, though some sources have cited his place of birth as the Parisian suburb Neuilly-sur-Seine. He granted few interviews and typically refused to be photographed. Information about his survivors was not immediately available. But in his work, at least, Mr. Marker was not anonymous so much as he was playfully evasive.

His films often feature a first-person narrator, a device he once called “a sign of humility.” They abound with avatars and alter-egos, including his own cat, Guillaume-en-Egypt, which sometimes appeared, in the flesh and in cartoon form, as his surrogate.

The pseudonym Chris Marker — which originally appeared in print as “Chris. Marker” — dates from the late 1940s, when he published criticism, editorials, poetry and fiction, including a novel, “Le Coeur Net,” set in Indochina.

After his first directorial effort, “Olympia 52,” about the 1952 Helsinki Olympic Games, Mr. Marker wrote the narration for the documentary “Statues Also Die” (1953), which he directed with Alain Resnais. Ostensibly about African art, the film doubled as a critique of French colonialism. It received the prestigious Prix Jean Vigo but was banned by French censors for more than 10 years because of its political content.

Mr. Marker refined his signature approach to voice-over narration, at once intimate and quizzical, in the early works “Sunday in Peking” (1956) and “Letter From Siberia” (1957). The latter film’s provocative rethinking of the relationship between word and image — one sequence replays the same shots with vastly different commentaries — prompted the critic André Bazin to use the term “an essay documented by film.”

Borrowed from the poet Henri Michaux, the opening words of “Letter From Siberia” — “I write to you from a far-off country” — could serve as Mr. Marker’s motto. He had a foreign correspondent’s drive to “capture life in the process of becoming history,” as he put it, but there was also a science-fiction strangeness to many of his travelogues.

He retained his outsider’s perspective, his taste for oddity and digression, even when shooting at home. The ambitious “Le Joli Mai” (1963) was an attempt to map the national psyche as the Algerian War drew to a close, culled from dozens of man-on-the-street interviews in Paris. The film is often called an early example of the documentary mode known as cinéma vérité. But Mr. Marker rejected the term and proposed a more modest alternative: “ciné, ma vérité” (“Cinema, my truth”).

On days off from “Le Joli Mai,” Mr. Marker embarked on a photography project that became the half-hour “La Jetée.” Composed almost entirely of still images, this recursive loop of a film was both an homage to a beloved movie, Alfred Hitchcock’s “Vertigo,” and a self-reflexive testament to cinema as a time machine.

Like many of his peers, Mr. Marker became increasingly politicized in the 1960s. In 1967, he formed a film collective called SLON (Russian for “elephant” and also an acronym for Société pour le Lancement des Oeuvres Nouvelle, or Society for the Launch of New Works).

SLON’s documentaries include “À Bientôt, J’espère,” about a strike at a French textile factory, and “The Sixth Side of the Pentagon,” about an antiwar march on the Pentagon. One of the collective’s major initiatives was the omnibus film “Far From Vietnam,” a protest against American involvement in Vietnam, with contributions from Mr. Marker, Mr. Resnais, Jean-Luc Godard and Agnès Varda, among other filmmakers.

“Sans Soleil” (1982), often acknowledged as the masterpiece among Mr. Marker’s late works, is one of his least classifiable, a free-associative mix of ethnography, philosophy and poetry. Purporting to be the footage of a fictional cinematographer accompanied by his letters to a nameless woman, the film roams from Iceland to Guinea-Bissau to Japan, a favorite destination of Mr. Marker’s since “The Koumiko Mystery,” which he shot in Tokyo during the 1964 Olympics. A bar in Tokyo’s famous Golden Gai district is named for “La Jetée” — an honor that Mr. Marker once said was “worth more to me than any number of Oscars.”

Mr. Marker also turned his attention to fellow filmmakers. He made two essays on Soviet cinema and history centered on the neglected director Alexander Medvedkin (“The Train Rolls On,” “The Last Bolshevik”), one elegy to his friend Andrei Tarkovsky (“One Day in the Life of Andrei Arsenevich”) and a portrait of Akira Kurosawa on the set of the 1985 film “Ran” (“A.K.”).

He remained active into his 70s and 80s. His last film appears to have been a short about the history of cinema, commissioned as a trailer for the 50th anniversary of the Viennale Film Festival in October. The film is scheduled to be shown at the Locarno Film Festival on Saturday.

Mr. Marker gave one of his final interviews — in 2008 to the French magazine Les Inrockuptibles — through the virtual medium of Second Life. In response to a question about pseudonyms as masks, he said: “I’m much more pragmatic than that. I chose a pseudonym, Chris Marker, pronounceable in most languages, because I was very intent on traveling. No need to delve further.”


"In Memoriam: Chris Marker"

by

Richard Brody

July 30th, 2012

The New Yorker

The very subject of Chris Marker’s work is memory; his death today, at the age of ninety-one (indeed, the day after his ninety-first birthday), elicits a simulacrum of memory, in tributes such as this one, where the contrast between the immediate significance (to the protagonist in the drama and to those who know and love him) and its public reflection is stretched to absurdity. For Marker, memory isn’t passive; it’s an act of resistance—the edge that cuts a path into the future—and the effective work of memory is the very definition of art. Marker was a master of film editing—the part of the filmmaking process that Jean-Luc Godard, another master editor and memory-artist, defined as holding past, present, and future in one’s own hands—and the very possibility of remembering Marker demands a little editing, a splicing-in of excerpts from a surprising and crucial document.

Marker gave few interviews and hardly ever allowed himself to be photographed; in one of the few interviews that he did grant—in 2003, to Samuel Douhaire and Annick Rivoire, for Libération—he explained his reticence, calling himself “publiphobic”:


    At the beginning of the sixties, that was well-thought-of, now it has become literally inadmissible. I can’t help it. That way of putting the mechanism of calumny in the service of praise has always rubbed me the wrong way, although I recognize that this diabolical sponsorship sometimes offers the most beautiful images one can see on a small screen (have you seen David Lynch with blue lips?).

In this remarkable text, he provides several signal examples of what he considered abuses of the press: the silence surrounding the 2002 reissue of a 1945 book by the novelist François Vernet, a friend of his who died at Dachau; the lack of discussion of a recording of songs by Viktor Ullmann of poems by Hülderlin and Rilke (“one is seized by the truly vertiginous idea that, at that moment, nobody glorified true German culture more than this Jewish musician who would soon die at Auschwitz”). Marker defined the problem:


    The exponential progress of stupidity and vulgarity, everyone’s aware of it, but it’s not just a matter of a vague feeling of disgust, it’s a concrete fact, it’s measurable (it can be measured by the volume of the “Woof!”s that greet talk-show hosts, which has risen by an alarming number of decibels in the last five years) and which constitutes a crime against humanity. Not to mention the permanent assault on the French language.

It’s strange to hear (virtually) Marker speak for himself; in the interview, he describes his own ambition—in particular, regarding his longtime championing of lightweight and low-cost equipment: “Trying to give the floor to people who haven’t got it, and, when possible, to help them to find their means of expression. They’re workers at the Rhodia factory in 1967, but also the Kosovars I filmed in the year 2000, who had never been heard on television: everyone was speaking for them….” He spoke of teaching the editing of “Battleship Potemkin” to filmmakers from Guinea-Bissau and of the use of television equipment by Bosnian refugees, in 1993. But he distances himself from the label of “political” filmmaker: “What I’m passionate about is History, and politics interest me only insofar as it is the cross-section of History in the present.”

In his 1978 film “A Grin Without a Cat“—his vast and rueful look at what the events of 1968 actually were, and why they proved to be of so little consequence—Marker gathers an extraordinary set of documentary film clips and, assembling them along with his trenchant, provocative text on the soundtrack, brings them back from the dead. He infuses them—and, through them, history itself—with a shocking new energy. It’s as if his memory-piece—a memorial for dreams that died—actually reanimated the dreams and, by locating their traces in largely forgotten actions, offered a surprisingly practical map for making a glimmer of a stifled utopia burst forth with a new brilliance.

And as for the voice: as much as Marker masks his own—whether, literally, in Agnès Varda’s “The Beaches of Agnè” or virtually in his own distinctive reticence as a movie essayist who doesn’t speak of himself—he has made one of the greatest films about the use of the voice, “The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Singer” (scroll down) in which he follows Yves Montand in the rehearsals leading up to a return to the stage after a six-year hiatus. Montand’s natural talent, his relentless practice and rigid self-discipline, his tightly-focussed and highly-principled purpose, and his charismatic presence all contribute to an art that is centered on the body, its presentation, its projection. Marker’s modesty is that of a devoted craftsman and an exquisite aesthete: a nonperformer, a nonsinger, a nonathlete, a former writer who didn’t continue—he did the one thing that he cultivated with an unyielding devotion. In so doing, he left on the history of cinema, and on history as such, a mark more enduring and decisive than that of mere personality. He made his own conscience, of the cinema as the living embodiment of history, into the conscience of his time—and, now that he’s not here, of future times already.




 La Jetée

1962

video


Sans Soleil1982

video

video

Monday, July 30, 2012

Mars worth the investment?


Worth more than the ISS and trying to place man in space right now.

"Is exploring Mars worth the investment?"

NASA's Curiosity rover, slated to land next week, is the centerpiece of a $2.5-billion project. Some argue for rolling back spending, but proponents say knowing our celestial neighbor is in the nation's best interest.

by

Eryn Brown

July 30th, 2012

Los Angeles Times

Saturn has its famous rings and Jupiter is the granddaddy of the solar system, but no planet has entranced earthlings quite like Mars.

Humans have launched 40 spacecraft to the Red Planet, lured by the prospect that life might once have existed in what is now dry rocks and sand. The latest machine to make the journey isNASA'sMars Science Laboratory, a hulking, souped-up lab-on-wheels that will plunge toward the Martian surface next week.

But even as excitement builds, some wonder: Is Mars exploration a good investment?

It certainly doesn't come cheap. It's hard to calculate a total price tag, but over the 48 years that NASA has been launching missions to Mars, Americans have spent a significant sum. The Viking missions alone cost nearly $1 billion — in 1970s dollars. The twin rovers Spirit and Opportunity cost a total of about $1 billion to build and operate as well.

Curiosity, as the Mars Science Laboratory rover is known, is over budget at $2.5 billion.

Some in the federal government have suggested it's time to roll back the spending. President Obama's fiscal plan for 2013 would cut NASA's funds for Mars exploration from $587 million to $360 million.

Proponents insist Mars science is vital for the U.S. More visits to our next-door neighbor could answer lingering questions about Earth's history, reinforce U.S. prestige and get more children interested in science.

It also could bring humanity closer to answering the ultimate question: Are we alone in the universe?

"It's the search for the meaning of life," said Alden Munson, a senior fellow at the Potomac Institute for Policy Studies, a science and technology think tank based in Arlington, Va.

America's love affair with Mars can be traced to astronomer Percival Lowell, who turned his telescope to the Red Planet in the 1890s and thought he saw an intricate system of canals that must have been built by intelligent beings. He never found them, of course, but Martians became a science fiction mainstay.

Earthlings got their first up-close view of Mars' rocky surface in 1965, when Mariner 4 flew by and photographed a surface that appeared as dead as the moon's — lacking water or active geology, two prerequisites for life.

But later missions, from the Mariner 9 orbiter to Spirit and Opportunity, helped establish Mars as a useful comparative laboratory for studying climate and geophysics on Earth. They demonstrated that the planet was once warmer and wetter than it is now. Long ago, it may have been a hospitable cradle for life.

When planetary scientists assembled recently at the behest of the National Academies to set research priorities for the next decade, the search for conditions that would allow life to emerge on Mars topped the list.

"If there's life or past life on Mars, it means the chances that life exists somewhere else are much higher," said David Paige, who studies the moon and terrestrial planets at UCLA. If Mars is barren, "it might make Earth more unique than we thought."

Some experts question the wisdom of focusing so intently on a single planet. Jupiter's moon Europa, which is covered with an ice-encrusted ocean, could have the potential to harbor life; Saturn's moon Titan, rich in organic chemistry, might as well.

"It's like the person who loses their keys and only looks for them below the streetlight," said David Jewitt, a planetary scientist at UCLA who studies comets.

But funds for planetary science are limited — and even those who favor a broader search admit that Mars remains the most practical site to explore.

A mission to Europa, for example, would take about six years to reach its destination. Curiosity's trip to Mars takes about eight months.

Europa has other drawbacks too: For one, particles flung into space by Jupiter's magnetic field would likely fry a spacecraft's electronics in a matter of weeks, said Richard Greenberg, who studies the frozen moon at the University of Arizona.

"Personally, I love Europa," he said. "But objectively, both it and Mars are great places to look for life."

Regardless of whether life can be found beyond Earth, Mars exploration boosts U.S. prestige.

"A lot of the warmest feelings people have had around the world have had to do with the space program," Munson said. "It's hard to put a value on that."

Space exploration is the ultimate status symbol. China and India have signaled their technological aspirations by establishing space programs. So have Iran, Pakistan, Venezuela, Israel, Mexico and dozens of other countries.

"I'm afraid if we step back, it will be decades before we get back to Mars," said Rep. Adam B. Schiff(D-Burbank), whose district includes NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in La Cañada Flintridge, where Mars missions are based. "We have the expertise now. No other countries have been able to do this."

NASA has outperformed other space agencies by a wide margin, completing 13 successful missions (against five failures) since 1964. The Russians have had particularly bad luck, with 15 failed missions and only four partial successes.

The amount of money Americans devote to Mars is tiny compared to annual expenditures on other NASA projects, said Munson, who noted that in 2011 alone, the agency spent more than $4 billion on the International Space Station and the fleet of space shuttles.

The James Webb Space Telescope, the successor to the Hubble Space Telescope that is designed to help scientists study the very early universe, is costing NASA $8.8 billion.

Even that price tag is dwarfed by the more than $600 billion the Defense Department will spend in 2012.

Jewitt put it like this: Americans spend more than $7 billion a year on potato chips.

"We're talking about a small amount of money in the grand scheme of things," Paige said.

Still, in the heat of an election season, some find it hard to justify Mars spending as long as the deficit remains high and the basic needs of many citizens aren't met.

This time around, in the run-up to Curiosity's high-profile landing, it's hard to find people willing to criticize Mars science in public. But back in 2004, when President George W. Bushwas pushing an ambitious plan that included manned missions to the Red Planet, Sen. Joe Lieberman of Connecticut (then a Democrat) said the billions of dollars NASA would require would be better spent "right here on Earth" on healthcare, education and domestic security.

Even those who've caught the Mars bug and are excited about Curiosity worry that with the new rover, NASA has "put all the eggs in one basket," said Robert Zubrin, an aerospace engineer and founder of the Mars Society, which advocates for manned missions to the planet.

When NASA's Mars Climate Orbiter and Mars Polar Lander both failed in 1999, work was already underway on several other missions that turned out to be successful, Zubrin said. But there's not much waiting in the wings this time around.

Plans to send a lander to scoop up Martian soil and return it to Earth, as well as to visit Europa, have been postponed to save money.

After Curiosity, NASA's planetary scientists have only one major mission lined up: an orbiter called MAVEN, which will explore the Martian atmosphere and climate. It is scheduled for launch in 2013.

Saturday, July 28, 2012

Sheharbano Sangji, Patrick Harran, UCLA case settled



"UC Regents strike plea deal in chemistry lab death at UCLA"

July 27th, 2012

Los Angeles Times

Felony charges against the University of California Regents stemming from the 2009 death of UCLA research assistant Sheharbano “Sheri” Sangji were dropped Friday in return for a pledge of comprehensive safety measures and the endowment of a $500,000 scholarship in her name.

“The Regents acknowledge and accept responsibility for the conditions under which the laboratory operated on December 29, 2008,” the agreement read in part, referring to the date that Sangji, 23, suffered fatal burns.

She was transferring about 1.8 ounces of t-butyl lithium from one sealed container to another when a plastic syringe came apart in her hands, spewing a chemical compound that ignites when exposed to air. The synthetic sweater she wore caught fire and melted onto her skin. She died 18 days later.

From the outset, UCLA and chemistry professor Patrick Harran, who is still charged in the case, have cast her death as a tragic accident and said she was a seasoned chemist who was trained in the experiment and chose not to wear a protective lab coat.

In late December, however, the Los Angeles County district attorney’s office charged Harran and the UC Regents with three counts each of willfully violating occupational health and safety standards.

Friday’s agreement, announced at a hearing in Los Angeles County Superior Court, does not affect Harran’s charges. University of California officials said Friday they stood by him and would continue to pay his legal expenses.

Harran was to be arraigned Friday, but that was postponed until Sept. 5 to allow the judge to weigh defense motions, including one this week that alleges the state’s chief investigator on the case, Brian Baudendistel, committed murder as a teenager.

Baudendistel, a senior special investigator for the California Division of Occupational Safety and Health, has denied that he is the person of the same name who pleaded no contest to first degree murder when he was 16.

But  Harran’s lawyers said in court papers this week that the district attorney’s office had matched Baudendistel’s fingerprints to the killer’s and that the two share the same birth date. Prosecutors have declined to comment on the allegation or the defense’s motion to quash Harran’s arrest because of it.

The motion contends that the Cal-OSHA investigator is the same Brian A. Baudendistel who, in January 1985 with two accomplices, lured Michael Myer from a bar in the Northern California town of El Dorado to a remote area to rob him of $3,000 worth of methamphetamine. As he rolled up on his motorcycle, Myer, 26, was killed by a shotgun blast. Another teenager admitted to being the shooter, but said Baudendistel had supplied the weapon.

And here is an interesting report from Chemical & Engineering News...

"Sheri Sangji case: The limits of oral transfer of knowledge"
by

Jyllian Kemsley

January 25th, 2012

Chemical & Engineering News

As others have also reported, a second Cal/OSHA report has surfaced on the circumstances surrounding the death of University of California, Los Angeles, researcher Sheharbano (Sheri) Sangji from a laboratory fire. The first report, which I covered extensively back in 2009, was the one that led to civil sanctions against UCLA. As is standard in a California workplace fatality, once the civil case was completed, it was turned over to Cal/OSHA’s Bureau of Investigations (BOI) to determine whether it might warrant criminal prosecution. The newly-available report is the one that the BOI sent to the Los Angeles County District Attorney, who filed criminal charges against UCLA and chemistry professor Patrick Harran.

The report paints a pretty damning picture of overall UCLA safety culture at the time of the incident. To quote from the report’s conclusions (report page 90):

    Based upon the investigation, it is apparent that the laboratory safety policies and practices utilized by UCLA prior to Victim Sangji’s death, were so defective as to render the University’s required Chemical Hygiene Plan and Injury and Illness Prevention Program essentially non-existent. The lack of adequate lab safety training and documentation, lack of effective hazard communication practices, and repeated failure to correct persistent and repeated safety violations within University labs, were all causal deficiencies that led to a systemic breakdown of overall laboratory safety practices at UCLA.

Much of the report just gives added detail to what was already known about the case or documents conventional wisdom about poor lab safety culture in academia. In one interview, postdoctoral researcher Paul Hurley noted that lab coats were seen as optional rather than required in every academic lab he’d worked in. “That’s how my experience has been pretty much everywhere I’ve been, apart from my current job actually,” the report quotes Hurley. Where does he work now? In industry.

The report does reveal, however, a bit more of how Sangji was supervised and trained. To recap the incident, Sangji was using a syringe to transfer about 53 mL of tert-butyllithium (tBuLi), a pyrophoric substance that ignites spontaneously in air, when the barrel came out of the syringe. The chemical splashed on Sangji, who was wearing neither a regular nor a flame-resistant lab coat, and set her clothes on fire. She was burned on more than 40% of her body and died of her injuries.

The report confirms that Sangji did not handle pyrophoric reagents as an undergraduate or during a few months of work at Norac Pharma. At UCLA, Sangji worked in Harran’s lab. Harran told the Cal/OSHA investigator that he observed Sangji do an initial experiment to gauge her experience and competency... Assuming that the experiment Harran referred to is the first entry in Sangji’s lab notebook–the second is her first tBuLi reaction–the procedure involved working in a glove bag and syringing no more than a few milliliters of air-sensitive, non-pyrophoric material. Although some of the fundamental techniques might have been the same, I think many people would argue that in scale and hazard that first reaction was a far cry from Sangji’s tBuLi experiments....

As for handling tBuLi, Harran reportedly told Sangji to ask Hurley for help. Hurley told the Cal/OSHA investigator that he didn’t follow standard operating procedures or other written protocols; rather, he was trained and in turn trained others by word of mouth.... Hurley also couldn’t recall the specifics of his interactions with Sangji. The way Hurley described handling pyrophoric reagents, however, echos some of what contributed to the lab fire that ultimately killed Sangji:

    Hurley said in the interview that “most people…more often than not did not clamp the bottle” and instead held it with one hand while syringing with the other. Aldrich recommends (pdf) clamping the bottle, which leaves both hands free to manipulate the syringe. (Sangji compounded this by using a 60-mL syringe with a short needle, so would have had to tip the bottle up to get the needle into the liquid while trying to handle a large syringe with one hand.)

    Hurley said that he always used plastic syringes. Aldrich does not specifically prohibit using plastic syringes, but it does recommend drying syringes in an oven, which effectively means that glass must be used. (Sangji used a plastic syringe. Another postdoc in the lab, Hui Ding, commented that plastic syringes can swell, making them difficult to operate.)

    Hurley said that he would use a syringe size as close to the reagent volume as possible. Aldrich recommends using a syringe at least twice the volume of the reagent volume, precisely to guard against taking the plunger out to the end of the barrel. (Sangji used a 60-mL syringe for 50 mL or more of material. Ding knew about the twice-the-volume rule.)

    Hurley said that he would physically pull on the plunger to pull up the reagent. Aldrich recommends using low-pressure, inert gas to push the material into the plunger rather than risk pulling too hard on the plunger and drawing in air. (It’s not clear which approach Sangji used. When Harran was interviewed by Cal/OSHA investigators in the civil investigation, he also said that he’d pull on the syringe. Aldrich scientist Mark Potyen has previously told me that plastic syringe plungers can’t be pushed up by low-pressure gas.)

(What’s not addressed in the report is the issue of transferring material by syringe versus a double-tipped needle, or cannula. On the day of the incident, Sangji was supposed to transfer a total of about 160 mL. For that amount, a cannula is the accepted practice rather than multiple smaller transfers. It’s not clear that anyone ever said that to Sangji. Certainly no one told her to read the Aldrich protocol.)

The Hurley interview clearly illustrates the limit of oral transfer of knowledge. As in a game of telephone, what gets passed on can change over time. Written protocols help guard against that. And making lab workers (re-)write protocols that faculty then review helps to ensure that everyone does, in fact, know what they’re supposed to do.

Other points of note: Sangji started in the lab in October, 2008. Hurley left the lab in November. According to the report, on the day of the incident in December, Harran knew that Sangji was planning to scale up the tBuLi reaction but told the investigator that he didn’t know by how much. Harran seems never to have discussed the hazards or use of tBuLi with Sangji.

Around the web today, I’ve seen a couple of people ask why the DA didn’t file charges against Hurley. My guess is that it comes down to the legal statute, California Labor Code Section 6425, which specifies “Any employer and any employee having direction, management, control, or custody of … any other employee.” Harran clearly fits that description–he hired Sangji, directed her work, and was ultimately in charge of his lab. I don’t see that it applies to Hurley, who was not explicitly assigned to supervise Sangji’s work and who was gone from UCLA by the time of the incident.

Last but not least, one caveat about the report: It is basically a summary of what the investigator found. The full package appears to involve five binders of information, which I do not have (nor, as far as I know, does anyone else outside of Cal/OSHA or the DA’s office). When reading the report, I think it’s important to remember that you’re not getting the full interview transcripts and we don’t know what the investigator may have left out. (I tried to get everything back in 2010, but was told that because the report was part of an ongoing criminal investigation, it was exempt from disclosure under California’s Public Records Act....

Thursday, July 26, 2012

Deceased--Karl Benjamin

 Karl Benjamin
December 29th, 1925 to July 26th, 2012



Mondrain 

1957


Stage II 

1968

"Karl Benjamin dies at 86; painter created colorful geometric works"

A longtime Claremont resident, Karl Benjamin taught at Pomona College and Claremont Graduate University. He created tightly balanced compositions that seem to shimmer, vibrate or explode in space.

by

Suzanne Muchnic

July 26th, 2012

Los Angeles Times

Karl Benjamin, a painter of dazzling geometric abstractions who established a national reputation in 1959 as one of four Los Angeles-based Abstract Classicists and created a highly acclaimed body of work that celebrates the glories of color in all its variations, has died. He was 86.

Benjamin died Thursday of congestive heart failure at his home in Claremont, said his daughter Beth Marie Benjamin.

His work had been displayed last year in "Karl Benjamin and the Evolution of the Abstraction, 1950-1980" at the Louis Stern Fine Arts gallery in West Hollywood as part of the region-wide Pacific Standard Time exhibitions.

Benjamin was a longtime resident of Claremont and a vital part of the college town's art community. After retiring from a 20-year teaching career in public elementary and middle schools, he was a professor and artist-in-residence at Pomona College from 1979 to 1994 and taught at Claremont Graduate University. Through most of those years he also pursued an abiding interest in orchestrating intricate arrangements of color on canvas.

Working with a full palette and a vocabulary of stripes, squares, triangles, circles, rings and irregular shapes, he created tightly balanced compositions that seem to shimmer, vibrate or explode in space. His work fell out of fashion in the 1970s and '80s, but he made an astonishing comeback in later years when his paintings suddenly looked fresh and smart to younger artists, critics and curators.

"I can think of no other artist whose paintings exude the joy and pleasure of being an artist with more intensity than Karl Benjamin's, nor any other artist whose long teaching career has left no blemish of cynicism on his practice," critic Dave Hickey wrote in the catalog of a 2007 survey of Benjamin's paintings at Louis Stern Fine Arts. "He is always the kid in the candy store, the kid with the rock in his pocket drawing it out, showing it to you and exclaiming 'Wow! Look at this.' "

Times art critic Christopher Knight praised the Claremont Museum of Art for making "just the right choice for its inaugural exhibition" in his review of a 42-year survey of the artist's work, also in 2007. "Benjamin emerges as a colorist of great wit and inventiveness," he wrote.

Born Dec. 29, 1925, in Chicago, Benjamin began his college education in 1943 at Northwestern University but dropped out the same year to enlist in the U.S. Navy. At the end of his military service, in 1946, he moved to California and resumed his studies at what is now the University of Redlands.

Three years later, he received a bachelor's degree, married Beverly Jean Paschke and began teaching in an elementary school in the San Bernardino County town of Bloomington. After two years he shifted to a teaching position in Chino's public schools. He and his young family moved to Claremont in 1952.

Benjamin's art career began in 1951 when he was asked to add a component of art to his students' curriculum. Initially working with crayons, he became intrigued with choosing colors and figuring out the effect of placing one hue next to another. Color, in and of itself, soon became his subject matter.

At home, he began experimenting with oils and eventually took classes at Claremont Graduate School (now Claremont Graduate University), earning a master's degree in 1960. He received grants from the National Endowment for the Arts in 1983 and 1989.

In a 1986 essay Benjamin wrote: "I am an intuitive painter, despite the ordered appearance of my paintings, and am fascinated by the infinite range of expression inherent in color relationships." Although he often set up a systematic structure based on numerical progressions, modular constructions or random sequences, he came up with surprising results.

He showed his work in 1954 at the Pasadena Museum of Art and in 1958 at the Long Beach Museum of Art. But he rose to fame in 1959-60 with "Four Abstract Classicists." The landmark exhibition — also featuring the work of Lorser Feitelson, John McLaughlin and Frederick Hammersley — offered the L.A. artists' cool, hard-edge abstractions as an alternative to the East Coast's relatively emotional Abstract Expressionism. After appearances in Los Angeles and San Francisco, the show traveled to London and Belfast, Northern Ireland.

Benjamin subsequently showed his work widely and was represented in major museum exhibitions such as "Geometric Abstractions in America" at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York in 1962; the 30th and 35th editions of the "Biennial Exhibition of American Painting" at the Corcoran Gallery in Washington, D.C., in 1967 and 1977; and "Painting and Sculpture in California: The Modern Era" at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art and the National Collection of Fine Arts in Washington, D.C., in 1976.

Cal State Northridge organized a traveling survey of his work in 1989, and Pomona College presented a retrospective in 1994, when he became a professor emeritus. Benjamin also played a prominent role in "Birth of the Cool: California Art, Design and Culture at Mid-Century," a 2007-09 national traveling show organized by the Orange County Museum of Art.

His work is in many museum collections, including those of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, L.A.'s Museum of Contemporary Art, the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, the Art Institute of Chicago and the National Museum of American Art.

Besides his wife and his daughter Beth of Boulder Creek, Calif., he is survived by another daughter, Kris Benjamin Jones of Claremont; son Bruce Benjamin of Santa Cruz; six grandchildren; and three great-grandchildren.


Karl Benjamin [Wikipedia]

Karl Benjamin website

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Update on the emerald ash borer and Kansas City, Missouri


"Emerald ash borer finally reaches KC metro area"

by

Katy Bergen

July 25th, 2012   

The Kansas City Star

It’s finally reached Kansas City.

The Missouri Department of Agriculture officially confirmed Wednesday that the emerald ash borer, an insect native to Asia that feeds on and kills ash trees, has been found in Platte County.

Officials had been watching for its arrival ever since the emerald ash borer was found in southeast Missouri in 2008.

Wednesday’s announcement could be a slow-moving death sentence for many ash trees in the metro area.

“If there is just one borer, that tree will die,” said Mark Nelson, a forestry regional supervisor with the Missouri Department of Conservation. “It’s fatal 100 percent of the time.”

Ash trees are common in the metro area, with 40,000 lining Kansas City streets alone.

This new confirmation marks the furthest West the metallic green insect has ever been found. But it’s likely, Nelson said, that the borer has been in the area for some time.

“It’s hard to find the insect because the main damage is inside the tree,” he said. “It can go years undetected.”

As adults, the insects lay eggs on the bark of ash trees, which they feed off of. When the eggs hatch, larvae burrow into the layer of the tree that brings water and nutrients from the roots, and eat living tissue, eventually cutting off all nutrients.

The Platte County confirmation comes less than two weeks after a local arborist found signs of emerald ash borer damage in a residential tree south of Weatherby Lake.

Brett Cleveland, of Urban Tree Specialists, saw the signs when he responded to a dead tree removal call in the Parkville area: the shoots sprouting out at the base of an otherwise dead tree — a sign the tree had fought to stay alive — the “S-shaped” larvae tunnels underneath peeling bark and the tiny “D-shaped” exit holes smaller than an eraser head.

He took pictures and sent them immediately to the Missouri conservation department, which, along with other state departments, sent experts out to access the site.

“We knew we needed to be on the lookout,” said Cleveland, who had been trained to look for signs of the insect. “But we didn’t expect to find it so soon.”

The emerald ash borer was first found in the United States in southeast Michigan in 2002 and was thought to have been transported here in cargo ships. It has since spread to more than 15 states, primarily through the transport of firewood.

It was discovered at a Wappapello Lake campground in Missouri’s Wayne County in 2008, and officials have said it was only a matter of time before the insect spread throughout the state.

The state also said Wednesday that ash borers had been found in Reynolds County, located next to Wayne County.

Nelson said those borers were found through traps.

Even with the Platte County confirmation, Nelson said it’s too soon to speculate on how fast an infestation could spread.

The Missouri Department of Agricultural, the Missouri Department of Conservation and members of the Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service will survey the area in half-mile increments until they’ve determined the perimeter of the infestation, Nelson said.

If it is substantial, the county could enact a quarantine, regulating the movement of lumber, firewood, ash wood and the insect itself in and out of the state.

“That has been the strategy in the past and in other states,” Nelson said. But quarantines have proven only temporarily effective, as evident by the quick spread of the insect since 2002.

“Look at the number of states it’s gone through in 10 years,” said Dennis Patton, a horticulturist with Johnson County Extension.

Cleveland says recent droughts won’t help the problem because borers tend to seek out weakened or declining trees. Because the insects can only fly a half-mile, they are primarily spread through the transfer of lumber and firewood.

While there are prevention methods, insecticides that deter the insect are expensive, not 100 percent effective and often have to be performed by a professional, officials said.

Many communities have already chosen to beat the insects to the punch, chopping down ash trees and replacing them with different species before the bugs even arrived. Kansas City removed about 60 ash trees from eight Benton Boulevard blocks in 2010. This past spring, St. Louis cut down more than 900 ash trees surrounding the grounds of the Gateway Arch.

Even if the infestation proves to be a substantial problem, the spread won’t happen overnight, and many urge those who own ash trees not to be alarmed.

“I have an ash tree in my front yard,” Patton said. “I’m not going to panic.” He said if you own an ash tree, it doesn’t necessarily make sense to run out and treat it. Rather, it’s more important to spend money on water or properly pruning it because the bugs tend to target unhealthy trees.

Nelson said that if people think they’ve found specific signs of insect damage — a dying ash tree, “S-shaped” channels underneath loose bark and “D-shaped” exit holes — to call a local forester.

“Just because you see a hole in a tree doesn’t mean it’s an emerald ash borer,” Nelson said.

Still, now that the emerald ash borer has been found in the Kansas City area, it means that in some time, probably a matter of years, that the insect will spread.

Cleveland summed it up:

“It was a bad day for ash trees.”

Emerald ash borer vs Ash trees

Raffaello Caverni, Antonio Favaro, and Galileo

Raffaello Caverni

Abstract...

Raffaello Caverni, a Catholic priest, was a truly lay and anti-establishment intellectual in his opinions both on Darwin and on Galileo. He opposed the mythicization of Galileo, as a rule in Italy after the unification, even though he considered Galileo a great scientist. As a consequence the scientific community of that time, under the influence of Antonio Favaro, bitterly censured his work Storia del Metodo Sperimentale in Italia. In this way, Caverni's book was removed from the scientific debate in Italy for at least forty years.


 "RAFFAELLO CAVERNI (1837 - 1900) AND THE SOCIETY FOR THE
PROGRESS OF THE SCIENCES: AN INDEPENDENT PRIEST
CRITICIZED BY THE LAY SCIENTISTS* by Dino Boccaletti