Monday, April 30, 2012
Monday, April 23, 2012
Monday, April 16, 2012
Tornadoes have been in the news a lot lately, both because this season has produced a good many of them, and because the National Weather Service is trying out a new type of tornado warning to people who are in immediate danger. When a tornado’s radar signature is detected, people in Kansas and Missouri will now read and hear warnings that include phrases like “catastrophic,” “extremely dangerous,” “mass devastation,” and “high-end, life-threatening event.” These warnings may have played a role in the fact that while a storm system spawned about 100 tornadoes in Kansas alone last Saturday, no one was reported killed. However, five people died in Oklahoma tornadoes on the same day.
There was a time when even mentioning the word “tornado” in a weather forecast could cost a weatherman his job. Until the late 1940s, tornadoes were regarded as more or less arbitrary acts of God that no one could predict, let alone give responsible warnings about. Consequently, the policy of the U. S. Weather Bureau (as it was known back then) was to not mention tornadoes at all, for fear of causing undue panic in the population.
However, during World War II the military developed its own staff of forecasters, and after the war kept many of them on duty for predicting weather for special purposes, such as predicting weather near military airbases such as Tinker Air Force Base in Oklahoma, where a tornado struck in March of 1948. Five days later, on Mar. 25, weather conditions were so similar to the ones that produced the earlier tornado that Maj. Ernest Fawbush and Capt. Robert Miller issued the nation’s first “official” tornado forecast, warning airbase personnel to make the planes secure and take other precautions. And sure enough, another tornado hit, but this time with minimal damage, owing to the precautions taken in response to the warning.
After that, military forecasters felt free to predict tornadoes if conditions warranted, but for some years afterward, the civilian Weather Bureau maintained its prohibition on tornado forecasts. This split gave rise to an informal “rumor mill” network around military bases when tornadoes were likely and military forecasters predicted them. When a tornado forecast came through military channels, military personnel would call their friends and relatives in the surrounding area and let them know to watch out. Eventually, because of the increasing availability of weather radars to track the storms and better understanding of the atmospheric conditions producing them, the Weather Bureau allowed mention of tornadoes in forecasts, in the form of watches and warnings. A tornado watch simply means conditions are favorable for their formation, while a warning means a tornado has been sighted and immediate precautions are required for people in its path.
We don’t often think of all the technology that is needed to provide up-to-the-minute warnings of tornadoes, but there’s a lot involved. Besides the conventional weather instrumentation on the ground, there are weather satellites that provide huge amounts of detailed data on large-scale movements of weather systems. Supplement that with both the National Weather Service’s radars and private radars operated by media outlets, most of which are modern Doppler units that can measure wind speed and direction within a storm. Couple those sources of information with the Internet, wireless phones, PDAs, iPhones, people watching live weather-radar feeds on their computers, and so on, and you have a lot of technology in the service of letting people know a tornado is coming.
As time has passed and the National Weather Service has gotten more confident in its predictions, people are getting perhaps a little complacent about tornado warnings, which may explain the experiment to hype the verbiage in the warnings. Of course, it’s not really possible to “hype” a tornado: death and destruction are death and destruction, after all. But tornado warnings are to be taken seriously, and the latest change seems to be paying off in the reduced number of fatalities. One death is still too many, and there are some people who are simply caught by a tornado in the wrong place at the wrong time. But for anyone in a fairly sturdy structure, heading for an interior closet or bathroom and covering up can mean the difference between life and death.
Growing up in Texas, I was familiar with the idea of tornadoes both from stories I heard from my relatives of twisters they’d seen or heard about in Dallas and Waco, and from radar images of tornadoes tracked by an early weather radar our local NBC outlet, WBAP-TV, maintained as long ago as the early 1960s. It was my privilege once to tour the studios around that time, and what I wanted to see most was the weather radar. I was disappointed to find that the actual screen was a little bitty thing only about four inches in diameter. It was an old World War II surplus set that the station had adapted for weather service. But it did its job until more sophisticated commercial units came along.
For anyone who watches the Weather Channel or bombs around on YouTube, tornadoes are no longer unfamiliar and almost mystically malevolent objects. We have seen dozens of videos made by storm-chasers with more curiosity than prudence, and can be as familiar as anybody can be of a phenomenon that you haven’t actually encountered in person. Still, a tornado on the ground is something you don’t want to mess with, and I for one am glad we have all the advanced machinery at our disposal to keep an eye on the sky for the next twister.
Sources: The online New York Times carried an article about the new verbiage in tornado warnings on Apr. 15, 2012 at http://www.nytimes.com/2012/04/16/us/violent-storms-cut-across-the-central-plains.html. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration has a nice history of early tornado forecasting, including the Tinker Air Base story, at http://www.outlook.noaa.gov/tornadoes/torn50.htm. For a more in-depth look at tornado forecasting in the U. S., see historian Marlene Bradford’s book Scanning the Skies: A History of Tornado Forecasting (Norman, OK: Oklahoma Univ. Press, 2001).
Monday, April 09, 2012
On a long road trip the other day, I listened to part of a set of CD recordings of Homer’s Odyssey. If you’ve never read it in a good translation, you’re missing something that is not only fundamental to the Western literary canon, but is also a rollicking good story. It’s about Odysseus, a hero on the Greek side of the Trojan war, and how he manages to get home, in 12,000 lines. Along the way he’s helped by the goddess Athena, tripped up and tormented by the sea god Poseidon, and runs into monsters, treacherous enemies, shipwrecks, and a gang of layabouts all hoping to marry his wife Penelope after Odysseus is declared dead.
As I was listening to all these fanciful goings-on, I began to think of how many god-like abilities that Homer describes are now things that engineering has brought to pass in the 2800 years or so since he wrote the poem. Take flying, for example. Athena could do it; she flies back and forth to Olympus (which was kind of the country club of the gods) enough times to get a free frequent-flyer trip anywhere in the world. And seeing at a distance: the gods watched Odysseus and his friends and enemies like they were characters in a soap opera. We’ve got these things covered with airplanes and television, at a minimum, not to mention the Internet.
Lots of dramatic tension in the poem is created by the fact that for much of the time, Odysseus is held captive on a small island by Calypso, a minor goddess who is smitten with him and wants to make him immortal. He will have no part of this, however, and spends his days on the seashore, pining for Penelope and home. No one comes to rescue him because he landed there after all his shipmates died in a shipwreck, and nobody but Calypso and a few gods and goddesses know where he is—and they’re not telling the mortals. Here’s where an emergency beacon, or at least a decent cellphone, would have come in handy. And if he’d had along a GPS, he might never have had the shipwreck in the first place.
While we already enjoy the use of a good many things that only gods had back then, one nut we haven’t cracked yet is immortality, which the gods possessed and were able to hand out more or less at will. Immortality is the stated ambition of a loose-knit group of scientists, engineers, and their companion enthusiasts known as transhumanists, who believe it is humanity’s fate to transcend ordinary biology and wind up as software in a virtual-reality environment that is indistinguishable from Olympus, as far as I can tell. There really wasn’t much that the gods couldn’t do, and the same will be true of our transhuman descendants, if the transhumanists get their wishes.
Anyone familiar with Greek mythology knows that despite all the advantages of being a god, the lives of Zeus and his immortal friends and relations were plagued with the same kinds of botherations that trouble ordinary mortals: jealousy, revenge, discouragement, and anger. This is because the Greek gods were really just people writ large, with very human failings and shortcomings. It took a long time for the inexpressible perfection of the God of monotheism (e. g. Judaism, Christianity, and Islam) to make any headway into the Western consciousness.
Most transhumanists don’t seem to recognize any gods, Greek, Roman, Jewish, Christian, or otherwise. Instead, they promise us that we will become just like the gods of Olympus: basically able to do anything we want. While their spokespeople have worked out in great detail a lot of roadmaps that describe how the technology needs to develop to get us there, I have never heard any of them discuss in comparable detail the problem that Homer knew backwards and forwards: once you get a bunch of gods together, how do you make sure they will get along? Another nonbeliever, Jean-Paul Sartre, famously said that “hell is other people.” And unless the transhumanists contemplate setting each of us up in our own private Olympus where the only other beings we interact with are automaton-like slaves (which sounds pretty dull), I fail to see how, even with every privilege enjoyed by the Olympians of Homer’s imagination, the proposed society of immortal transhumans is going to be one whit better than Homer’s Olympus. Even gods had to solve the problem of getting through a boring Wednesday afternoon.
So as I contemplate the wonders that technological optimists promise us in terms of indefinitely long lives, freedom from disease and death, and so on, and how this will make life permanently wonderful and trouble-free for everyone, I can’t help but wonder whether Homer would listen to them and simply laugh. Even if some day we accumulate enough cyborgean accessories to be physically unrecognizable as humans, the essential nature of humanity will still be there. And that tendency to do the wrong thing while knowing the right thing will get us into just as much trouble as it does now, if not more.
As far as I know, belief in the Greek gods is not a live option for much of anyone nowadays. But faith in the monotheistic God is, to my mind, the only worldview that makes sense of the way the world is. As long as the transhumanists ignore the God factor, I think their dreams of an ideal transhuman future will remain just that: dreams. And dreams without nearly as good a story line as the Odyssey, incidentally.
Sources: I referred to the Wikipedia articles on “hecatomb” and “Odyssey.” One of the more recent and substantial books with a transhumanist theme is Ray Kurzweil’s The Singularity Is Near (Viking, 2005).
Monday, April 02, 2012
When the U. S. Supreme Court issued its Roe v. Wade decision in 1973 legalizing abortion, ultrasonic imaging of the human body was still largely in its early research stages. Unborn babies were neither seen nor heard, and the knowledge of the average citizen about embryology and what went on in a mother’s womb before birth was hazy at best. That was one reason why the phrase “terminating a pregnancy” as a euphemism for abortion gained currency, and why many organizations, religious and otherwise, were slow to mount opposition to legalized abortion.
Others such as Planned Parenthood welcomed the ruling with open arms. The philosophy that says women own their bodies and all products thereof, and are free to do with them whatever they like, leads to the conclusion that eliminating an inconvenient truth such as a pregnancy by means of abortion is one tool in an array of technological controls that include contraception methods of all kinds.
Fast-forward to 2008 or so. A woman named Abby Johnson received the employee-of-the-year award from her employer, which happened to be Planned Parenthood. Abby had had two abortions herself, and regarded them as a woman’s right. Abortions were a necessary part of empowerment that incidentally paid her well and allowed her to rise to a management position in the Planned Parenthood clinic in Bryan, Texas.
One day a physician arrived from Austin with an ultrasound machine, the type used to view the wombs of pregnant women. He wanted to show how using the machine could lead to improvements in the efficiency of certain kinds of abortions, and that day Abby happened to be the person holding the ultrasound probe on the patient’s abdomen while the doctor did what he was there to do. Abby thought she was inured to the “products of conception” that had to be sorted out after each abortion, to make sure no arms or legs were left inside, before they were disposed of along with the other medical waste. But there was something different in watching the baby jump away from the doctor’s instrument as it got closer and closer, and the baby was cornered in one end of what should be the safest place in the world. Another minute, and it was all over. But Abby’s journey out of the world of abortions had just begun.
Abby Johnson is now a vocal and unstoppable witness for the pro-life cause. Last week she was in San Marcos, and I was privileged to hear her speak about her experience. I also met two college-age women who were also converted to the pro-life cause by seeing graphic images of what abortion is really like. One of them, Sarah Ryan, notes that six states (including Texas) have passed laws that require abortion clinics to show each prospective client a sonogram of the baby in her womb before performing the procedure. The technology to do this is now relatively inexpensive, and it is almost routine for prospective parents to put a sonogram of their pre-newborn on the refrigerator before his or her official arrival. Seeing is believing, and after watching the beating heart and baby-like movements of the living child within her own body, it will be admittedly harder for women to go through with what Planned Parenthood clinics around the country are set up to do for her.
Like many advances in medical technology, obstetric ultrasonic imaging was the work of dozens or hundreds of doctors, scientists, and engineers. But probably the most influential paper showing that it was not a pipe dream but a realistic technology was published in 1958 by Dr. Ian Donald, a Scottish physician with experience in World War II radar. His images of a pregnant woman’s womb obtained with safe and non-invasive ultrasound technology set off a storm of interest, which issued later in the development of commercial systems in the early 1960s and eventually the highly portable and economical devices that many obstetricians use today. It is significant that Dr. Donald raised his famous voice in protest over the 1967 Abortion Act legalizing abortion in the United Kingdom. Over forty years later, the descendants of his primitive ultrasound machine are still at work convincing women of the true significance of the mass of tissue inside their pregnant bodies.
The truth about abortion is now plain to see, thanks to technologies such as ultrasound and other modern imaging techniques. I find it intriguing that one of the most powerful things that can happen to a woman to change her to a pro-life supporter is to witness images of the graphic horror of abortion. Such scenes are not for everybody, and such pictures can be used wrongly to abuse women who are already tormented by the anxiety of what to do about an unplanned pregnancy. But I think it might be a good idea for every woman of child-bearing age at least to see a live ultrasound image of a baby in the womb of a real mother, before she herself faces the kind of choice that can lead to abortion. And if laws requiring abortion clinics to show sonograms to their clients are passed in more states, we can look forward to more babies surviving to become adults who—who knows?—may invent things just as wonderful as Dr. Donald’s ultrasound machine. It is a price of abortion that we seldom stop to think about.
Sources: Abby Johnson’s book about her experiences is titled Unplanned (Tyndale, 2010). Sarah Ryan’s article “It’s Not a Sprint, It’s a Marathon” on state laws restricting abortion appeared in the Fall 2011 issue of Human Life Review (p. 124). I referred to articles on the history of obstetrical ultrasonic imaging at the websites http://www.ob-ultrasound.net/iandonaldbio.html and http://www.ob-ultrasound.net/history1.html.