ON STEM CELL BILLS, BUSH & CO. WIN THE BATTLE OF THE VISUAL: SC Proponents Worked PR Wonders to Get This Far, But the Power of the Bully Pulpit Is Hard to Beat; Embryo Research is Transformed Visually Into Research on "Young Humans"

I'm sorting through all the news coverage this week, and will be having posts forthcoming summarizing the major frames and narratives that appeared in Editorials, Op-Eds, soundbites, and news coverage, but to start, the most stunning outcome from yesterday's veto was to witness the clear dominance that Bush & Co. displayed when it came to visual framing. The battle over visuals is important. While the press tends to contextualize the issue and is more favorable ground for getting pro-research interpretations into coverage, the majority of Americans are going to rely on TV reports, headlines, and newspaper/online photos for their impressions.

As I've written previously, stem cell research advocates have been amazingly effective since 2001 in re-defining the issue around "research leads to cures," "research is good for the economy," and more recently, "current policy is morally inconsistent." The California Proposition battle was won by running a $20 million campaign that focused almost exclusively on the themes of cures and economic development, and given this one-sided information environment about the issue, public support for the referendum moved from the 40% level to majority support by election day.

It's similar re-framing at the national level that has helped push public support for SC research using embryos left over from in vitro clinics to slight majority levels, though most of this shift in support has occurred among Dems and Independents. In fact, post-2004, for the first time, polls indicated a major public opinion gap between Dems and Republicans on the issue. (Another framing tactic of supporters, as Nancy Pelosi was quoted as saying yesterday on NPR, is that Bush is going against the wishes of 75% of Americans. Though I wish that were true, I am afraid none of the independent polling I've seen bears that number out. More on this in later posts.)

So yesterday, in a White House press conference televised live on the cable news networks, Bush appeared in a packed room of families with children who were adopted as so-called left over embryos from IVF clinics. Also in the room were patients who had been treated with adult stem cell therapies. With the sounds of kids in the background, and a boisterous and supportive audience, the press conference was a stunning success, and the photos that ran on the news wires and that were picked up in today's newspapers support my judgment. These images immediately re-define the debate over research on left over embryos as really about research on human lives, "young humans" as Senator Sam Brownback repeats over and over again.

Stem cell advocates and members of Congress also tried to take advantage of visual framing. When giving speeches they appeared in front of banners with taglines that reinforced their preferred framing including "Providing Hope for New Cures" and "Stem Cell Hyprocrisy" (a reference to the moral inconsistency of Bush's policy, allowing IVF clinics to needlessly destroy embryos, while not allowing scientists to work with those embryos to find cures.)

But compared to the President's press conference at the White House yesterday, stem cell advocates were not able to beat the power of the bully pulpit. What follows are pictures that ran on the news wires, and are archived by Yahoo News. They speak for themselves. Unfortunately, that is the power of visual framing. One picture is truly worth a 1,000 words.



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Accretion disk surrounding a neutron star. Credit: NASA
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The competition between forces from protons and neutrons inside a neutron star create super-dense shapes that look like long cylinders or flat planes, referred to as "spaghetti" and "lasagna," respectively. That's also where we get the overall name of nuclear pasta.

Caplan & Horowitz/arXiv

Diagrams illustrating the different types of so-called nuclear pasta.

The researchers' computer simulations needed 2 million hours of processor time before completion, which would be, according to a press release from McGill University, "the equivalent of 250 years on a laptop with a single good GPU." Fortunately, the researchers had access to a supercomputer, although it still took a couple of years. The scientists' simulations consisted of stretching and deforming the nuclear pasta to see how it behaved and what it would take to break it.

While they were able to discover just how strong nuclear pasta seems to be, no one is holding their breath that we'll be sending out missions to mine this substance any time soon. Instead, the discovery has other significant applications.

One of the study's co-authors, Matthew Caplan, a postdoctoral research fellow at McGill University, said the neutron stars would be "a hundred trillion times denser than anything on earth." Understanding what's inside them would be valuable for astronomers because now only the outer layer of such starts can be observed.

"A lot of interesting physics is going on here under extreme conditions and so understanding the physical properties of a neutron star is a way for scientists to test their theories and models," Caplan added. "With this result, many problems need to be revisited. How large a mountain can you build on a neutron star before the crust breaks and it collapses? What will it look like? And most importantly, how can astronomers observe it?"

Another possibility worth studying is that, due to its instability, nuclear pasta might generate gravitational waves. It may be possible to observe them at some point here on Earth by utilizing very sensitive equipment.

The team of scientists also included A. S. Schneider from California Institute of Technology and C. J. Horowitz from Indiana University.

Check out the study "The elasticity of nuclear pasta," published in Physical Review Letters.

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Image: NASA
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Source: Wolovick et al.

An example of the proposed geoengineering project. By blocking off the warm water that would otherwise eat away at the glacier's base, further sea level rise might be preventable.

But other, more feasible options could also be effective. For example, building a smaller wall that blocks about 50% of warm water from reaching the glacier would have about a 70% chance of preventing a runaway collapse, while constructing a series of isolated, 1,000-foot-tall columns on the seafloor as supports had about a 30% chance of success.

Still, the authors note that the frigid waters of the Antarctica present unprecedently challenging conditions for such an ambitious geoengineering project. They were also sure to caution that their encouraging results shouldn't be seen as reasons to neglect other measures that would cut global emissions or otherwise combat climate change.

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