APS News

Letters to the Editor

Israel’s Rights Record Was Unfairly Attacked

I cannot remain silent at Bob Harvey’s gratuitous criticism of Israel’s human rights record, and unwarranted comparison to Iran’s unfair trial of Omid Kokabee, in the Letters column of the August/September issue. The Palestinian terrorist organizations that Israel defends itself against are openly at war with Israel, and their attacks make no distinction between soldiers and civilians. To the extent that the Palestinian Authority is unable or unwilling to prevent these attacks from taking place, or is even abetting them, Israel has the right and responsibility, under the international laws of war, to defend itself. When possible, Israel sends troops into the PA areas and arrests these people. When that is not possible, Israel has the right to take military action against them–you are not required to give a fair trial to an enemy who is shooting at you, before shooting back. Collateral civilian casualties are allowed by the laws of war, providing they are not out of proportion to the military goals to be achieved. Israel makes every effort to avoid such civilian casualties, and many Israeli soldiers, including the son of a friend of mine, have died because they were sent into house to house combat, rather than bombing a building that was known to contain terrorists, in order to prevent civilian casualties. No other country has such a stringent policy for minimizing civilian casualties, and in similar situations in Afghanistan, the United States resorted to carpet bombing of buildings before sending in troops, resulting in thousands of civilian casualties.

Michael Gerver
Raanana, Israel

Public Activism Makes a Difference

Nina Byers, in her interesting Back Page article in the July APS News, has described a course whose importance needs to be emphasized. Science is not an isolated activity, insulated from society. Scientific knowledge can contribute to the recognition and solution of wide-spread problems, but many scientists do not feel comfortable with entering into this public arena. Major current problems involve the environment, climate change and energy.

These problems will not go away by themselves. We need to expose our students to such topics, and a number of us have been offering courses like this for some years. Byers makes special mention of the reduction of nuclear weapon inventories and relates this to the atmospheric test-ban treaty of 1963. She notes, correctly, that the ratification followed “considerable public pressure from the scientific community and others, particularly following the 1961 publication of Louise Reiss’s study of baby teeth.” In fact, the public pressure started several years before Reiss’s paper appeared, and the involvement of the scientific community constitutes an important lesson that is still relevant today.

The potential dangers to public health that could be posed by ingestion of radioactive fallout from weapons tests had received the attention of Adlai Stevenson in his 1956 presidential campaign. In 1957, Linus Pauling launched his petition against weapons testing that attracted the supporting signatures of many hundreds of major scientists.

The organized public involvement of knowledgeable scientists in this political arena started in 1958 with the formation of the Committee for Nuclear Information (CNI) in St. Louis. Among its founding members were Edward Condon and Barry Commoner, together with many scientists and physicians at Washington University and St. Louis University. CNI (and, even earlier, individual faculty) gave popular lectures on related subjects such as fallout, radioactivity, and the biological effects of radiation. Lecturers went to church groups, schools, civic groups such as Kiwanis–they were willing to speak to anyone who would listen. CNI published a newsletter Nuclear Information, and members testified before Congressional committees. CNI has been well described by Kelly Moore in Disrupting Science, (Princeton Univ. Press, 2008).

Reiss’s study was a part of the Baby Tooth Survey, in which families were encouraged to donate baby teeth to the project; the Sr-90 content could then be related to the concentration of Sr-90 in domestic milk that was being monitored daily. The St. Louis area milk contained, at one time, the highest concentration in the entire country, due to the direction of prevailing winds that carried fallout from the Nevada testing site until brought down by rain, in Missouri. Children whose teeth were collected were rewarded with a lapel button that showed a drawing of a gap-toothed child and with the legend “I gave my tooth to science.”

“Activism” was not a term used in those days. The activism of CNI was not universally appreciated and individual scientists and their universities were attacked with vigor. It was a strong tenure system and principled backing by many administrators that helped to preserve the academic freedom of faculty willing to speak out and criticize government agencies and their statements and reports.

Following CNI, information groups were formed in other parts of the country. Together, their activism laid the foundation for the “considerable public pressure” that Byers correctly identifies.     

By now, the range of public scientific issues has broadened to include the debates over climate change, the environment and legislatively-imposed school curriculum content concerning evolution. There will always be a need for informed public debate, and a part of the professional obligation of the scientific community is to provide reliable, honest information in understandable form, to the non-experts who are, after all, the bulk of the voting public. College courses, such as those described so sympathetically by Byers, should be an essential offering of all colleges.

Michael Friedlander
St. Louis, MO

Electric, Internal Combustion Vehicles Compared

I read with interest the excellent Back Page article by Fred Schlachter in the August/September issue of APS News. The topic of the Electric Vehicle (EV) and its possible replacement of the current Internal Combustion Vehicle (ICV) may be important from the standpoints of cost and environmental impact.

We have made a study on the EV and ICV to compare the cost of operation and the relative consumption of fossil fuels. In this study we assumed that the electric power for the EV would be derived from the burning of coal, oil or natural gas. Some highlights of the study results may be of interest. The study was based on the following assumptions:

  1. The vehicle is a family sized car weighing approximately 7000 pounds including passengers.
  2. The gas mileage for the ICV is about 27 mpg.
  3. The relative purchase prices are about $25,000 for the ICV and $40,000 for the EV.
  4. The cost of electric energy is about 11 cents/kWh.
  5. The price of gas is about $4.00/gallon.

Some of the study results that may be of interest are the following:

  • The fossil fuel consumption for the EV is about 63% of the amount of gasoline used by the ICV.
  • The cost of operation for the EV is about 22% that of the ICV.
  • The investments in terms of purchase price and operating costs would be equal after 130,000 miles of operation.

These results are subject to modification, as some important variables have not been included. For example, the overhead power for the EV to supply heat and air conditioning as needed were not taken into account. It is still unknown how many miles can be driven before an EV battery will need to be replaced. The study has meaning only for operating scenarios allowed by the limited range of the EV. As Fred Schlachter points out, this range limit will not increase in the foreseeable future.

James McDade
Janesville, WI

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Editor: Alan Chodos