from the world's big
The Legacy of SILENT SPRING: A Q&A with William Souder
William Souder's 2004 biography of John James Audobon, Under a Wild Sky, was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize. His newest book, On a Farther Shore, chronicles the life and times of Rachel Carson, author of the controversial book Silent Spring -- a tome that many consider to be the Bible of the environmental movement. Souder discuses why Carson is such an inspiration, how Silent Spring might be received if it were to be released today and why it's important to read biographies of notable figures in science.
Q: What inspired you to write Rachel Carson’s biography?
William Souder: My interests are diverse, but I write mainly about science, history, and the environment. A really vexing question is why we have this divisive, intensely partisan disagreement over environmental issues. Why should the left and the right feel differently about the environment we all share? I knew Rachel Carson had been at the forefront of the modern environmental movement—it can be argued she was its founder—and so I thought there might be answers to how we got to where we are on the environment that were embedded in her story. And that turned out to be true. The language and the shape of the continuing environmental debate were formed in the response to Carson’s 1962 book, Silent Spring. Now that book is about the collateral damage caused to the environment by the indiscriminate use of pesticides like DDT. But you could substitute climate change for pesticides and the case would be argued out the same way—now as it was a half century ago. On one side you have the interests of industry and its allies in government and on the political right that resists the regulation of economic activity. On the other you have science and the voices that speak for a reasonable preservation of the natural world.
That seems like a simple confrontation between greed and morality, but it’s more complicated than that. The critics of Silent Spring attacked the book by claiming it was hysterical and one-sided—but more importantly that it was un-American, an attempt to strangle the free enterprise that was our advantage over the Soviet Union and the eastern bloc. To its detractors, Silent Spring wasn’t science. It was ideology. The irony, of course, is that it’s the reverse.
I should add that, as a practical matter, Rachel Carson is a terrific subject—and you cannot hope for more as a writer. She lived a consequential life that peaked just before her death from breast cancer in 1964. And she left an enormous legacy that includes the creation of the EPA and a motivated—if insufficiently effective—environmental movement. She also left behind the kind of vast paper trail of correspondence that is gold to a biographer.
Q: As you did your research, what most surprised you about her?
William Souder: I think most readers of my book are going to be shocked by the extent of atmospheric nuclear testing that took place during the Cold War of the 1950s and 1960s—and surprised at how the roots of the environmental movement can be found in the chilly voids of the Cold War. All-in, more than 500 nuclear devices were exploded in the atmosphere between 1945 and 1963, when most of the nuclear powers agreed to halt above-ground testing. The United States accounted for more than 200 of these tests—including ten in June of 1962, or one about every three days. That was the same month Silent Spring—in which Carson argued that pesticides and radiation were parallel threats to the environment—was serialized in the New Yorker magazine.
I knew Carson had argued a connection between pesticides and radiation, but I didn’t realize how important it was until I closely re-read Silent Spring as a commentary not just on pesticides, but on American sensibilities in the Cold War. When you read the short, bleak opening chapter of Silent Spring—it’s one of the great set-pieces in American literature—it’s easy to see that gray, lifeless town, where no birds sing, where farm animals sicken and die, and where a pale residue lies in the gutters and on the rooftops as the result of either pesticides or the fallout from a nuclear apocalypse. And in that lifeless, colorless void was also the shadow of an existence Americans imagined inside the Soviet Union—the cold hardness of totalitarianism that was our darkest fear. It’s no accident that baby boomers became the vanguard of the environmental movement. They came of age with such images and terrors. When they read Silent Spring, they got it.
Q: Do you think the reception of Silent Spring would have been different today? Why or why not?
William Souder: It’s hard to imagine the same circumstances today because so much has changed that would reshape the response to this kind of work. Rachel Carson was one of the most famous and beloved authors in America when she published Silent Spring, and it was a startling departure from her earlier works, which were lyrical, moving portraits of the sea. But her credibility was enormous, as was her audience. That was a world still dominated by print—by many newspapers and magazines that no longer exist, but which back then devoted substantial space to covering the world of literature. I think books mattered then in a way that, sadly, they no longer do. And it has to be conceded that after years of a concerted attack on the media from the right, a significant portion of Americans don’t believe what they read or hear, regardless of how credible the source is.
The fact is, we have seen the perils of climate change exhaustively reported on for years now. And the country is pretty much evenly divided on whether it’s a problem and so we’ve done next to nothing to address it. So, no, I don’t think Silent Spring would have the same impact today. In fact, I think it’s more influential for being half a century old and still relevant.
Q: You’ve done biographies on some notable science celebrities. What does understanding them and their lives beyond their work really offer scientists and science enthusiasts?
William Souder: I suppose I should say something about how science is the most rational and objective way of understanding things, and so the lives of scientists are object lessons for us all. I do think that’s true. But to be honest, I’ve written biographies mainly because they are such interesting narratives. A life is a story made to order for a writer. You have a protagonist, and a beginning, middle, and end. And with any luck, the person that people may already think they know sometimes turns out to have unexpected depth and complexity. For example, many people who know about Rachel Carson’s intense friendship with Dorothy Freeman assume Carson was a lesbian. Well, I believe she probably was. But there’s no unambiguous evidence either way that would tell us whether she and Freeman had a sexual relationship. In the end, I decided they probably did not. But the reader gets to make up his or her own mind, which is as it should be when the truth is uncertain. As it often is for anyone’s life. So people, not necessarily just scientists, are good subjects. I think if you choose well and the material is strong, it makes for compelling reading. At least I hope it does.
Q: What do you think Carson’s legacy is? What do you think Carson would have wanted her legacy to be?
William Souder: It’s odd. Carson is the invisible force behind one of our most visible public debates. Everyone has convictions on both sides of the environmental debate—a debate that Carson started 50 years ago. But many people do not know who Rachel Carson is. And many people have not read Silent Spring. So Carson’s legacy is considerably larger than the memory of her and her work. And I think she would be sad about this, because her writing was so important to her. For Carson, no title was more exalted than “author.” Carson would be disappointed and surprised that a book like The Sea Around Us, an international sensation in 1951 that sold millions of copies and won her a National Book Award, is today still in print but little-read. Of course, a lot of things about the present would disappoint and surprise Carson. For all of the progress we’ve made in the decades since her death, in many ways we’ve really gone nowhere.
Join Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter and best-selling author Charles Duhigg as he interviews Victoria Montgomery Brown, co-founder and CEO of Big Think, live at 1pm EDT tomorrow.
Richard Feynman once asked a silly question. Two MIT students just answered it.
Here's a fun experiment to try. Go to your pantry and see if you have a box of spaghetti. If you do, take out a noodle. Grab both ends of it and bend it until it breaks in half. How many pieces did it break into? If you got two large pieces and at least one small piece you're not alone.
But science loves a good challenge<p>The mystery remained unsolved until 2005, when French scientists <a href="http://www.lmm.jussieu.fr/~audoly/" target="_blank">Basile Audoly</a> and <a href="http://www.lmm.jussieu.fr/~neukirch/" target="_blank">Sebastien Neukirch </a>won an <a href="https://www.improbable.com/ig/" target="_blank">Ig Nobel Prize</a>, an award given to scientists for real work which is of a less serious nature than the discoveries that win Nobel prizes, for finally determining why this happens. <a href="http://www.lmm.jussieu.fr/spaghetti/audoly_neukirch_fragmentation.pdf" target="_blank">Their paper describing the effect is wonderfully funny to read</a>, as it takes such a banal issue so seriously. </p><p>They demonstrated that when a rod is bent past a certain point, such as when spaghetti is snapped in half by bending it at the ends, a "snapback effect" is created. This causes energy to reverberate from the initial break to other parts of the rod, often leading to a second break elsewhere.</p><p>While this settled the issue of <em>why </em>spaghetti noodles break into three or more pieces, it didn't establish if they always had to break this way. The question of if the snapback could be regulated remained unsettled.</p>
Physicists, being themselves, immediately wanted to try and break pasta into two pieces using this info<p><a href="https://roheiss.wordpress.com/fun/" target="_blank">Ronald Heisser</a> and <a href="https://math.mit.edu/directory/profile.php?pid=1787" target="_blank">Vishal Patil</a>, two graduate students currently at Cornell and MIT respectively, read about Feynman's night of noodle snapping in class and were inspired to try and find what could be done to make sure the pasta always broke in two.</p><p><a href="http://news.mit.edu/2018/mit-mathematicians-solve-age-old-spaghetti-mystery-0813" target="_blank">By placing the noodles in a special machine</a> built for the task and recording the bending with a high-powered camera, the young scientists were able to observe in extreme detail exactly what each change in their snapping method did to the pasta. After breaking more than 500 noodles, they found the solution.</p>
The apparatus the MIT researchers built specifically for the task of snapping hundreds of spaghetti sticks.
(Courtesy of the researchers)
What possible application could this have?<p>The snapback effect is not limited to uncooked pasta noodles and can be applied to rods of all sorts. The discovery of how to cleanly break them in two could be applied to future engineering projects.</p><p>Likewise, knowing how things fragment and fail is always handy to know when you're trying to build things. Carbon Nanotubes, <a href="https://bigthink.com/ideafeed/carbon-nanotube-space-elevator" target="_self">super strong cylinders often hailed as the building material of the future</a>, are also rods which can be better understood thanks to this odd experiment.</p><p>Sometimes big discoveries can be inspired by silly questions. If it hadn't been for Richard Feynman bending noodles seventy years ago, we wouldn't know what we know now about how energy is dispersed through rods and how to control their fracturing. While not all silly questions will lead to such a significant discovery, they can all help us learn.</p>
A study looks at the performance benefits delivered by asthma drugs when they're taken by athletes who don't have asthma.
- One on hand, the most common health condition among Olympic athletes is asthma. On the other, asthmatic athletes regularly outperform their non-asthmatic counterparts.
- A new study assesses the performance-enhancement effects of asthma medication for non-asthmatics.
- The analysis looks at the effects of both allowed and banned asthma medications.
WADA uncertainty<img type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yMzUzNzU0OS9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTYxMDc4NjUwN30.fFTvRR0yJDLtFhaYiixh5Fa7NK1t1T4CzUM0Yh6KYiA/img.jpg?width=980" id="01b1b" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="2fd91a47d91e4d5083449b258a2fd63f" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" alt="urine sample for drug test" />
Image source: joel bubble ben/Shutterstock<p>When inhaled β-agonists first came out just before the 1972 Olympics, they were immediately banned altogether by the WADA as possible doping substances. Over the years, the WADA has reexamined their use and refined the organization's stance, evidence of the thorniness of finding an equitable position regarding their use. As of January 2020, only three β-agonists are allowed — salbutamol, formoterol, and salmeterol —and only in inhaled form. Oral consumption appears to have a greater effect on performance.</p>
The study<img type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yMzUzNzU0Ny9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTY1MTIzMDQyMX0.Gk4v-7PCA7NohvJjw12L15p7SumPCY0tLdsSlMrLlGs/img.jpg?width=980" id="d3141" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="ebe7b30a315aeffcb4fe739095cf0767" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" alt="runner at starting position on track" />
Image source: MinDof/Shutterstock<p>Of primary interest to the authors of the study is confirming and measuring the performance improvement to be gained from β-agonists when they're ingested by athletes who don't have asthma.</p><p>The researchers performed a meta-analysis of 34 existing studies documenting 44 randomized trials reporting on 472 participants. The pool of individuals included was broad, encompassing both untrained and elite athletes. In addition, lab tests, as opposed to actual competitions, tracked performance. The authors of the study therefore recommend taking its conclusions with just a grain of salt.</p><p>The effects of both WADA-banned and approved β-agonists were assessed.</p>
Approved β-agonists and non-asthmatic athletes<img type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yMzUzNzU1MC9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTYxMzkxODk0M30.3RssFwk_tWkHRkEl_tIee02rdq2tLuAePifnngqcIr8/img.jpg?width=980" id="39a99" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="b1fe4a580c6d4f8a0fd021d7d6570e2a" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" alt="vaulter clearing pole" />
Image source: Andrey Yurlov/Shutterstock<p>What the meta-analysis showed is that the currently approved β-agonists didn't significantly improve athletic performance among those without asthma — what very slight benefit they <em>may</em> produce is just enough to prompt the study's authors to write that "it is still uncertain whether approved doses improve anaerobic performance." They note that the tiny effect did increase slightly over multiple weeks of β-agonist intake.</p>
Banned β-agonist and non-asthmatic athletes<img type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yMzUzNzU1Mi9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTYzNjI3ODU5Mn0.vyoxSE5EYjPGc2ZEbBN8d5F79nSEIiC6TUzTt0ycVqc/img.jpg?width=980" id="de095" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="02fdd42dfda8e3665a7b547bb88007ef" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" alt="swimmer mid stroke" />
Image source: Nejron Photo/Shutterstock<p>The study found that for athletes without asthma, however, the use of currently banned β-agonists did indeed result in enhanced performance. The authors write, "Our meta-analysis shows that β2-agonists improve anaerobic performance by 5%, an improvement that would change the outcome of most athletic competitions."</p><p>That 5 percent is an average: 70-meter sprint performance was improved by 3 percent, while strength performance, MVC (maximal voluntary contraction), was improved by 6 percent.</p><p>The analysis also revealed that different results were produced by different methods of ingestion. The percentages cited above were seen when a β-agonist was ingested orally. The effect was less pronounced when the banned substances were inhaled.</p><p>Given the difference between the results for allowed and banned β-agonists, the study's conclusions suggest that the WADA has it about right, at least in terms of selection of allowable β-agonists, as well as the allowable dosage method.</p>
Takeaway<p>The study, say its authors, "should be of interest to WADA and anyone who is interested in equal opportunities in competitive sports." Its results clearly support vigilance, with the report concluding: "The use of β2-agonists in athletes should be regulated and limited to those with an asthma diagnosis documented with objective tests."</p>
Certain water beetles can escape from frogs after being consumed.
- A Japanese scientist shows that some beetles can wiggle out of frog's butts after being eaten whole.
- The research suggests the beetle can get out in as little as 7 minutes.
- Most of the beetles swallowed in the experiment survived with no complications after being excreted.