Shark Tales: JFK, Mercury 7 astronauts and shark repellents

This seems such an odd topic from the start, but I thought it’s worth revisiting in celebration of today’s 50th anniversary of John Glenn’s orbital flight around the earth.  John Glenn and Scott Carpenter (who will be celebrating his own 50th anniversary in May) are the last surviving members of the original seven astronauts of NASA’s Project Mercury.  Though two other Russian cosmonauts had orbital flights before his, John Glenn’s flight was America’s first and its success changed the momentum of the race to the moon to America’s favor.

a1 shark John Glenn and Mercury SCI 180x300 Shark Tales: JFK, Mercury 7 astronauts and shark repellentsLooking back 50 years, I am always amazed at the significant advances mankind has made as a result of the space race with Soviet Russia — calculators, computers, internet, among many.  Mankind seems to excel when in competition, whether at war, in commerce or in the arts. The rudimentary equipment half a century ago could not even compare with the precision of our digital age.  Many of the technologies we now take for granted were pioneered by the men and women of Project Mercury.  Those that followed in their wake made American pre-eminence in technology possible.

Space travel was a fascination for me long after the Mercury astronauts had made their mark in history.  I was only aware of them through later documentaries.  As a young boy in the 60’s, there was certainly the thrill of watching the spaceships blast off to space.  Yet, I was more keenly interested in the splash down when the capsule plunges into the sea on its return trip.  There was that unexplainable excitement at seeing the helicopters hover around the capsule to retrieve the astronaut and the tiny space capsule.  What seemed odd at time were the other helicopters hovering around with sharpshooters on board.  It wasn’t till later when I got interested in sharks that I learned why.

So, this is my “Shark’s Tale’ for you. And it’s not about saving the shark from extinction, who got bitten lately or about shark fin soup.  Before I tell you the rest of the story, I would like to tell you a little bit more about shark repellents first.

Between sports fishing, by-catch from longline fishing and the Chinese penchant for shark’s fin soup, mankind has devastated the world’s shark population to the point that sharks are becoming endangered.  But the fear of sharks remains with us.  It is a visceral fear.  More people die of bee stings than shark bites.   With bears or lions, the fear is also there, but tempered by the fact that we can always carry a gun, can run off in a jeep or simply hide inside a house.  With sharks the fear is magnified because there is really not much one can do in the water if the shark decides to take a bite, mostly by mistaking us for a seal or a big fish dinner. 

In North America prior to 1916, there was never a fear of sharks simply because there had been no documentation of sharks attacking human beings in temperate waters.  In 1891 Hermann Oelrichs, a banker/adventurer, even put up a reward for anyone who can document a shark attack in the temperate waters of North America.  Everything changed in 1916, detailed in Richard Fernicola’s book entitled “Twelve Days of Terror,” when, in over a span of just 12 days, four people along of the shores of New Jersey were killed by a shark, most likely a bull shark rather than a Great White (a story that inspired Peter Benchley’s book, “Jaws.”)

a1 shark mouth open SCI 199x300 Shark Tales: JFK, Mercury 7 astronauts and shark repellentsThe idea of a shark repellent was not new.  It was suggested way back in 1895.  However, serious work on the idea started with the US Navy during World War II when airmen and sailors inevitably find themselves in shark infested waters.  The sinking of USS Indianapolis, a destroyer that carried the atomic bomb to the tiny Pacific island of Tinian, by a Japanese torpedo made that need imperative.  The mission was so secret then that no SOS signal was transmitted even as the ship sank with over a 1,000 sailors in the water.  When they were finally rescued 4 days later, only 316 remained alive, the rest were eaten by sharks.   

The Navy developed a shark repellent, called the “Shark Chaser.”  It was ineffective, yet given to sailors more for morale to allay fears of sharks rather than as a true protection.  Shark research continued after the war through the Office of Naval Research (ONR) through the 1960’s with not much success either.

Eugenie Clark, a world renowned shark expert, discovered in the 70’s that a flat fish in the Red Sea, aptly called Mose’s sole (Pardachirus marmoratus), can repel sharks.  Sharks have a powerful bite and when committed to a potential meal, would not likely stop.  When the fish is about to be bitten, the shark stops at mid bite and run’s off like a scared rabbit.  It was found later on that the flat fish has glands along its sides that secrete a venomous cocktail of peptides and steroidal compounds, presumably not meant to frighten sharks, but to repel/stun organsims as it glides along the sandy bottom of the Red Sea.  It is the Mose’s sole’s fast food drive-in! Like our quick trip to McDonald’s for a fish sandwich.

When purified, this 33 amino acid peptide repellent was called pardaxin, a term coined by Naftali Primor, an Israeli scientist funded at the time through ONR, working in one of the laboratories at New York University.  As my research team at NYU Medical Center tended to work long hours, Naftali often came by for a short visit at night, the first time to get some of our ‘extra’ mice for his pet snakes.  We talked often about sharks, snakes, Israel and Chinese food.  During this period, he was able to demonstrate pardaxin’s mechanism of action. This peptide create pore channels through the gill membrane that causes a sudden rush of sodium ions through the gills. Likely, it is perceived by the shark as an ‘unpleasant” or perhaps a painful experience.  Naftali used to go out to the fishing port in Montauk Point at the end of Long Island to remove gills from sharks caught by fishermen.  It took a day’s hard work to get enough for his research.  One night, he came back totally disgusted and exhausted.  The cooler was just open for a moment and seagulls rushed to eat all the shark gills he collected.   By then my interest in pardaxin got stimulated.  Yours truly‘s contribution to shark science was helping him dissect late into the night the opercular cells out of the killifish, Fundulus heteroclitus, to use a model system to validate the concept. Certainly beats hanging around fishing ports for shark gills and fighting off seagulls! He told me one night jokingly that Orientals are the ones with the patience for this kind of work.  I just chuckled because I knew he was right! 

My real interest was to develop a gadget, a release mechanism that would enable dispersion of pardaxin or pardaxin-like analogues around the person in water upon seeing the shark.  Great idea, if we only had enough repellent.  I did manage to develop a prototype for the device that still sits on my desk till now with many fond memories.  But, back then the cost of synthesizing the active compound and the liability issues (if the person who have the device got bitten) in a litigious society like United States made the project at that time quite daunting. 

naftali SCI 199x300 Shark Tales: JFK, Mercury 7 astronauts and shark repellents

Dr. Naftali Primor holding a restrained venomous snake( Daboia palaestinae). Its venom is being used for the production of a life saving anti venom.

Naftali eventually returned to Israel, but continues to work on venoms.  This time his interest is turned on to new exciting research on the analgesic effects of small peptides from snake venoms.  This new concept, called Zep3, is a promising technology for relief of chronic pain and treatment of various skin disorders, such as  those caused HSV viruses.  This scientific adventure started me on the path of studies on repellents, leading to the development of barnacle and insect repellents called MR08.  All these new body of work and long-term friendship started on a chance meeting at the corridor of NYU Medical Center 25 years ago.

There had been continuing work on repellents from many other scientists.  That pardaxin also behave like surfactants led to new work on molecules, like SDS (sodium dodecyl sulfate), that can ward off sharks.  SDS did not meet the Navy requirement of a non-directional surrounding cloud-type repellent at 100 parts per billion.  It would require a barrel full of SDS to ward off sharks around a single person.  It is likely useful as directional type repellent where one squirts directly on an oncoming shark.  Not likely a viable option for a swimmer in panic.  Other products include the Shark Shield, a Navy led research on bag type product with a floats where one climbed inside to avoid being detected by shark. There is also a similar concept of bubbles created around a swimmer to deter sharks. There is always of course the shark cage to hide into.  A patent was issued for the Shark Stopper, an acoustic device to ward off sharks.  Wet suits with surface patterns to mask the silhouette of a man underwater are also being developed. More promising areas of work these days involve semiochemicals, associated with decaying shark carcasses (Shark Defense Technologies) that act as small molecule messengers that modulate shark behavior.

JFK and the Mercury astronauts

a1 shark Kennedy and helicopter SCI 271x300 Shark Tales: JFK, Mercury 7 astronauts and shark repellentsConsider this scenario:  America sends a daring young astronaut, the cream of the crop of military pilots (immortalized in the book and movie entitled ‘The Right Stuff’), the best among the best, in a space ship to outer space at a cost of billions of dollars in today’s money; against all odds, the ship survives re-entry and the tiny capsule comes back to Earth, lands in the ocean; the astronaut comes out alive from the tiny space capsule, swims to be rescued and then eaten by a shark in full view of journalist and shown on live television all over the world!  This was President John F. Kennedy’s and NASA’s nightmare scenario; hence, the sharpshooters on board the helicopters.

The image of an astronaut being eaten by shark was not out of irrational fear and dark imagination.  Prior unmanned space capsules brought of out the water occasionally had embedded shark teeth on the heat shielding tiles.  Like all ships of the period, Project Mercury’s Friendship 7 came with standard military survival kit and included a shark repellent device that shoots out of the capsule ahead of splash down.

a1 shark Carpenter SCI 218x300 Shark Tales: JFK, Mercury 7 astronauts and shark repellentsYears after my shark science with Naftali, I reluctantly went with my wife one night to attend a marketing conference in Connecticut, sponsored by Arbonne, a cosmetic company.  The after dinner speaker, to my great surprise, was Scott Carpenter, who recounted his days as a Mercury astronaut.  In his dinner speech, he related the story of NASA’s preoccupation with sharks.  As the NASA-US Navy liaison officer, astronaut Scott Carpenter took the NASA- approved shark repellent device and sent it to the Navy’s shark experts for validation testing.  Scott related that as he was preparing to embark on his first space trip, he received a letter from the shark experts essentially saying that “the electronic shark chaser device was interesting with all the lights and sounds, but appeared to be mildly effective against sharks in either the on or off positions!”  Later, after the Mercury Mission, Scott became part of the Sealab Program to develop underwater living habitats — the only austronaut who also became an aquanaut. 

As we celebrate John Glenn’s and Scott Carpenter’s 50th anniversaries of their space flights, America should be grateful that JFK’s nightmare of his astronauts being eaten by sharks never came to pass.

The most eloquent sentence in space travel to date was by Scott Carpenter before Friendship 7’s lift-off:  “God speed John Glenn”

 

Jonathan R. Matias

Poseidon Sciences Group

www.poseidonsciences.com    jrmatias@poseidonsciences.com

Dedicated to my children who are on their own unique adventures.

 

References:

Lazarovici  P, Primor N, Loew LM Purification and Pore Forming Activity of Two Hydrophobic Polypeptides from the Secretion of the Red Sea Moses Sole (Pardachirus marmoratus). J Biol Chem. 1986.  261:16704-167123

Primor N. Pardaxin produces sodium influx in the teleost gill-like opearcular epithelia. J exp Biol. 1983. 105:83094

Primor N. Pharyngeal cavity and the gills are the target organ for the repellent action of pardaxin in shark. Experientia. 1985. 15: 693-695

Primor N, et al.  Toxicity to fish, effect on gill ATPase and gill ultrastructural changes induced by Pardachirus secretion and its derived toxin pardaxin.  J exp Biol. 1980. 211:33-43

Sisneros JA,Nelson DR. Surfactants as chemical shark repellents: past, present and future.  Environmental Biology of Fishes. 2001.  60:117-129

http://au.news.yahoo.com/thewest/a/-/breaking/12848556/experts-work-on-wetsuit-to-outwit-sharks/

http://news.yahoo.com/john-glenn-reunites-50-old-mercury-team-022029804.html

http://www.scottcarpenter.com/sealab.htm

http://www.collectspace.com/ubb/Forum29/HTML/000375.html

http://sharkdefense.com/Repellents/repellents.html

http://the.honoluluadvertiser.com/article/2005/Aug/22/ln/FP508220336.html

http://onlineissues.wherewhenhow.com/article/Dive+Training+Shark+Repellent/866010/85272/article.html

http://www.mach25media.com/bookspacious.html

http://www.scottcarpenter.com

 
 
     
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Searching for seagrape seaweed in Indian waters: a nun-scientist’s tale of passion and perseverance

This is not your usual technical article on seaweed biochemistry or biology.  This topic is quite different.  It is the untold tale of discovery, repeated thousands of times around the world by scientists from all disciplines.  It is the chase, the hunt for something new, something useful.  Starting with a hunch, proving an idea and fulfilling the passion are all the ingredients that make scientific discovery a unique experience.  And this story is not about me.  This story is about Sister Avelin Mary, a Roman Catholic nun, a marine scientist of India and her relentless effort to find seagrapes, a strange, odd-looking seaweed considered by experts as ‘extinct’ in Indian waters.

For thousands of years, seaweed has been harvested from wild beds and some cultivated artificially for food, primarily in Asia.  It is only in the last century that a portion of the world’s seaweed harvest has served as natural resource for ingredients used in cosmetics and other industries.  This nonfood use has great potential.  Just as an example, a recent paper in Science described the use of engineered microbes to convert brown seaweeds (kelp) into biofuels.  Seaweeds produce two times more ethanol than sugar cane and five times that from maize given the same area of cultivation.   Given the increasing demand and great interest for new ingredients derived from the marine environment there has been a flurry of research to identify new seaweed resources.  However, harvesting from the wild is a problem, partly because the ingredients derived from them may vary from one season to the next.  Moreover, companies are wary of using resources from wild harvest since they can be affected by seasonal fluctuations of availability, quality, pollution and over-exploitation of sensitive marine habitats.  The cosmetic industry, in particular, looks for marine resources that have both a great marketing story and renewable through artificial methods called mariculture.

Eurocosmetics Fig 7 Umibudo SCI 300x245 Searching for seagrape seaweed in Indian waters: a nun scientist’s tale of passion and perseveranceAnyway, that was my ‘scientific’ excuse for initiating a worldwide search for new exotic seaweeds.  But beyond the science and the capitalistic expectations, there is always a thrill in the hunt. Sister Avelin Mary, the heroine of the tale, and I always refer to such scientific adventures as ‘treasure hunting’ (in a biological sense).  Sister Avelin is a marine biologist and a Roman Catholic nun belonging to the Congregation of the Mother of Sorrows Servants of Mary.  After her PhD in zoology, she went on to do her post-doctoral work at Osborne Laboratories (New York Zoological Society) and Duke University Marine Laboratories (Beaufort, North Carolina).  She returned to India to establish her own independent research group in 1988.  Established in the port city of Tuticorin and with permission of the Mother General of her Congregation, this nonprofit research institution, called Sacred Heart Marine Research Centre (SHMRC), became one of the premier marine science research centers where Sister Avelin studied the biology of barnacles [1].

Why of all things barnacles? That was her area of training and focus of interest while at Duke University and the research program was conceived at the time when there was an urgent need to find alternatives to the toxic tributyl tin (TBT) widely used in marine paints to prevent barnacles from attaching.  TBT is a nonspecific organotoxin and among the most toxic man-made chemicals in use.  It kills all marine life on contact!  She identified one such non-toxic natural anti-barnacle chemical from soft corals called Juncellin, named for Avelin and the octocoral, Juncella [2].  My collaboration with Sister Avelin began in 1994 and continues today, the longest, productive and continuous scientific collaboration Poseidon Sciences ever have had.

Eurocosmetics FIg 6 Seagrapes from around the globe SCI 273x300 Searching for seagrape seaweed in Indian waters: a nun scientist’s tale of passion and perseveranceIn 2007, I posed the question to Sister Avelin about the presence of Indian seagrapes (Caulerpa lentillifera), a unique edible seaweed delicacy grown in Okinawa.  It is found mostly in the Pacific Rim and commonly referred to as sea caviar, as nama in Fiji, as lato in Philippines and umi budo in Japan.  Highly priced as a delicacy, seagrapes really are succulent miniature grape-like seaweeds.  Upon biting on the seagrapes, the salty interior bursts in your mouth.  However, this marine plant is seasonal and available only during the dry season.  This seaweed requires normal seawater salinity to grow and die when salinity drops during the rainy season.  SHMRC’s research site in Tuticorin (Tamil Nadu, South India) is ideal for cultivating the seagrapes since it has two short monsoons, not in the path of cyclones, with stable salinity and temperature year round.

I thought seagrapes ought to be naturally occurring along the coast of India.  This question led us through several years of an exciting quest and I would like to share this story with you.

There was a 2004 article by Mantri [3] that described seagrape found in the Gulf of Kutch on the northwest coast of India.  However, the discovery was not well received by the experts in marine botany who suggested that it was merely an error in identification. Further literature research on the topic indicated that seagrapes, for reasons unknown, had been declared extinct in all of India for over half a century, according to the experts.  The last survey showing presence of seagrape beds was in 1955 and subsequent surveys yielded no specimens [4].  We consulted botanists and was told not to waste our time looking for it.

Eurocosmetics Fig 2 Map India and survey areas SCI1 256x300 Searching for seagrape seaweed in Indian waters: a nun scientist’s tale of passion and perseveranceIndia has a vast coastline.  We could not imagine that the ‘experts’ have explored all of its 7,517 km coastal zones exhaustively to make such a definitive declaration of extinction.  And, as we have seen in the last decade, other species once thought extinct, seems to turn up all the time, found accidentally or through sheer persistence.  Take for example the story of the Hula Painted frog that was also declared extinct 50 years when its swamp habitat was drained totally to get rid of malaria in the Hula Valley of Israel.  Rehydration of the swamp brought back the species. Another example is one species of giant Galapagos tortoise, Chelonoidis elephantopus, once declared extinct for the last 150 years and just recently found again.  There are many more examples just in the last year alone.

So, we thought it is just a matter of looking hard enough for the ‘treasure.’  All we need is some luck and determination.  We decided on a hunch that it is not extinct and that maybe seagrapes were just simply hard to find.

The last known location of seagrapes was in Krudasai, just about 100 miles in front of our marine station in Tuticorin.  However, the site has long been converted to a protected marine reserve and off limits to harvesting of any organism.  Beyond the reserve is a vast area and we have sent divers to search beyond the exclusion zone.  Seagrapes can survive in a wide range of habitats, from rocky subsea outcrops to muddy-sandy substrates where it attach.  Our own surveys covered a wide area from Tuticorin (Toothukudi) to Mandapam.

Months of treasure hunting yielded nothing!  It was like looking for the Titanic without the benefit of sonar and a GPS unit.  Our broad, methodical sweep, looking for a natural bed of seagrapes was a failure.  But, Sister Avelin, one of the most optimistic people I have ever known, persisted onwards.  In an India Today magazine article, she said that “there is no magic in the world [of science] except the magic of hard work.”  That very much sums up Sister Avelin.

Then came the hunch–the seagrape bed still exists; it is simply not accessible and that fragments wash out of the bed during monsoons, some of them spreading to the shore.  We thought it is was a wild hunch, but Sister Avelin was persistent and thought that it was worth one more try.  This time, instead of looking deep underwater, we simply instructed harvesters to take a few kilogram samples from near shore beds of seaweeds and bring it to the lab.  At the same time one of our company’s biologists from Athena Biosystems in the Philippines, Araceli Q. Adrias, went to India to help sort and identify the seagrapes from the mass of mixed species of harvested seaweeds.

Eurocosmetics FIg 3SeagrapesSCI from JM Searching for seagrape seaweed in Indian waters: a nun scientist’s tale of passion and perseverance

Sorting the seaweeds manually to identify fragments of seagrapes (top left), Seagrapes found compared to mass of other seaweeds collected from near shore (top right), an entire fragment of seagrape (bottom left), close up look at a single ‘grape’ and a schematic of the grapes on a branch (bottom right).

And, indeed the wild hunch paid off!  After hours of exhausting work, we found 16 grams of pure seagrapes embedded in the mass of other seaweeds, such as C. racemosa (a related species with almost similar physical characteristics), C. sertularioides, Enteromorpha flexuosa and C. peltata.  Our seagrape collection represented less than 0.01% of the total mass collected from the near shore.  With much effort and overcoming the objections of other marine botanical ‘experts,’ the seagrape manuscript describing the find was published in 2009 [5].  This Indian species represents a new sub-strain; smaller ‘grapes’ and more spaced than typical specimens found in other countries. And, yet tastes just like the Okinawan variety too!

Eurocosmetics FIg 4 Seagrapes mariculture SCI 300x201 Searching for seagrape seaweed in Indian waters: a nun scientist’s tale of passion and perseverance

Young shoots of seagrapes on the palm (top left), growth pattern of cultured seagrape showing 15 days doubling time in mariculture (top right), raceways used for artificial culture (bottom left), Sister Avelin showing the harvest from one tank after months of culture using the 16 g collection as starting point (bottom right).

Certainly the find is of significant academic interest but not enough was collected to be of practical use.  We asked, “Can we culture the seagrape we collected?”  Within six months, Sister Avelin’s team artificially grew those 16 grams to a mass of over 12 kilograms.  With a doubling rate of 15 days, it is possible to build an entire mariculture program to support a new industry using land-based culture technologies we now refer to as the Javelin Mariculture Program. This natural, sustainable approach is one that can supply vast amount of seagrapes for food and industrial applications.

Why culture this seaweed on land in seawater tanks and raceways? 

This approach represents an opportunity to grow pure strains of the seagrapes under controlled conditions on a year-round basis that maximize production of the required active ingredients.  Mariculture also makes it possible to make productive use of non-arable sandy coastal zones and avoid the need to harvest from the wild, thereby protecting the fragile marine ecosystem of the Indian coastal zones.  And, more importantly, one will avoid the temperamental sea that can easily destroy man-made structures on the sea surface or below.

Eurocosmetics FIg 5 Seagrapes Matias Avelin Aras Vitalina SCI 300x241 Searching for seagrape seaweed in Indian waters: a nun scientist’s tale of passion and perseverance

The senior research team: Jonathan R. Matias (top left), Sister Avelin (top right), Araceli Q. Adrias (bottom left), and Sister Vitalina (bottom right).

Seagrapes have already been shown to have higher absorptive capacity compared to activated carbon.  It has anti-oxidant, anti-viral and anti-cancer properties! [6.7.8.9.10]. Ongoing research is yielding interesting findings that will have unique applications in cosmetics.  It offers a unique opportunity to formulators for an ingredient that is natural, sustainable, reproducible and rare.  With a renewable, secure, year-round supply, Sister Avelin’s seagrapes, she prefers to call in Tamil as kadalthiratchai, may soon yield new and exciting products for cosmetics and other industrial applications.

Our ‘treasure hunt’ at sea continues.….

Jonathan R. Matias, Executive Director

POSEIDON SCIENCES GROUP, New York, N.Y., USA

Email: jrmatias@poseidonsciences.com

www.poseidonsciences.com

References

  1. http://www.poseidonsciences.com/sisteravelin.html
  2. Mary, A. Sr., Mary, V. Sr., Rittschof, D. and Nagabhushanam, R., Bacterial barnacle interaction: potential of using Juncellins and antibiotics to alter structure of bacterial communities. J. Chem. Ecol., 1992, 19(10): 2155-2167.
  3. Mantri, V. A., Current Science, 2004, 87, 1321-1322.
  4. Chacko, P. I., Mahadevan, S. and Ganesa, R., Gulf of Mannar Contrib., Marine Biological Station, 1955, pp 1-16.
  5. Mary, A. Sr., Mary, V. Sr., Lorella, A. Q. D. and Matias, J. R., Rediscovery of naturally occurring seagrape Caulerpa lentillifera from the Gulf of Mannar and its mariculture. Curr. Sci., 2009, 97(10): 1418-1420.
  6. Pavasant, P., Apiratikul, R., Sungkhum, V., Suthiparinyanony, P., Wattanachira, S., Marjaba, T. F., Bioresour. Technol., 2006, 97, 2321-2329.
  7. Barbier, P., Guise, S., Huitorel, P., Amade, P., Pesando, D., Briand. C., Pevrot, V., Life Sci., 2001, 70, 415-429.
  8. Ara, J., Sultana, V., Qasim, R., Ahmad, V. U., Phytother. Res., 2002, 16, 479-483.
  9. Ganesan, P., Kumar, C. S., Bhaskar, N., Bioresour. Technolo., 2008, 99, 271-273.
  10. Nicoletti, E., Della Pieta, F., Calderone, V., Bandecchi, P., Pistello, M. Morelli, I., Cinelli, F., Phytother. Res., 1999, 13, 245-247.
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Thoughts on that fateful September 11th from a man who wasn’t there

     There is so much going on in science and technology every day, yet I am compelled instead to write about this singular event of the decade—September 11th.    Where were you on 9/11?  This is a most often asked question posed to any New Yorker traveling overseas or just going across the State lines.  I wish I can say how terrifying that day
was,.  How the acrid smoke and the dust filled my lungs.  How much anguish it had
been to see the Twin Towers disintegrating right before my very own eyes.   I could not say those words.  I wasn’t there.  I was 6,000 miles away, watching the events of
that fateful day unfold in the safety of a hotel lounge far away from home.

     I belong to that minority of New Yorkers who were not home on 9/11.  It was about
3 pm in Athens, Greece and I just started giving a lecture at a marine a1 911 Twin towers resized 300x186 Thoughts on that fateful September 11th from a man who wasn’t therescience symposium at the University of Piraeus.  One of the organizers came to the lecture room and whispered to me as I was giving my talk that a plane hit one of the Twin Towers.  And I continued on, thinking that it was just an accident.  Certainly those massive Towers can withstand any plane.  A similar accident also occurred before long ago with a plane hitting the Empire State Building and nothing catastrophic happened.  A few minutes later, he came back to tell me that a second plane hit the other Tower.  By then almost everyone in the conference room were rushing out by the coffee area, watching the events on CNN.  I rushed back to the hotel and became glued to the TV, just like the rest of the billions of human beings on that day.

Though I felt less concerned because my family lived miles away in Queenboro, that concern heightened when it was impossible to reach anyone by phone. Because air travel was restricted indefinitely, I ended up by accident in the Greek island of Ydra, spending a week there, mostly drinking wine and watching the Greek sunset along with a dozen fellow stranded Americans.  A week later, I got onboard a plane to
Singapore and from there finally to NYC.  Hardly an adventure worth recounting when someone asked where I was  on 9/11.

The World Trade Center was memorable to me, not simply as an icon of New York City. I had my wedding luncheon at Windows on the World, a restaurant on top of the Towers.  I had New Year’s celebrations there many times over the years.  I often go for a drink there and have lunch or dinner meetings with colleagues visiting New York
for the first time.  In 2000, I looked at several floors at the Twin Towers for Poseidon Sciences as home office.  Only the high expense of the lease and the longer subway ride talked me out of it. The Twin Towers was never pretty, but it exudes power and presence.  Not having enough money and being lazy to take a longer subway ride saved me from that disaster just a year later.

Not being home on that unusual day bothered me.  For inexplicable reasons, I
never came close to the ruins when I got home; the closest was 10 blocks away to see if my friend, Eugene, was fine.   And that was weeks after the event.  I can
sense the doom and gloom of downtown Manhattan as soon as I stepped out of the subway station.  I can feel the dust settling on my skin.  The distinct overpowering smell
that came from the combination of chemicals from plastics, cement, paper… and of
human bodies still burning underneath the rubble, filled my lungs.   As a
scientist, curiosity should have drawn me closer, but did not want to.  I felt I did not deserve to be there.  I did nothing.  Perhaps, I felt that pang of guilt for being
so far away then.  In fact, I had not gone to see the makeshift memorial after the attacks or even came close to the ruins to this date.

In a study published in JAMA in 2002 entitled “A Nationwide Longitudinal Study of Psychological Responses to September 11″ examined the effects of the World Trade Center attack on the national psyche.  In this article, Roxane Cohen Silver, who lead the nationwide study noted:

“This research dispels a number of myths …The effects of a major national trauma are not limited to those directly affected by it, and the degree of response cannot be predicted simply by objective measures of exposure to or loss from the trauma. This fact has not been adequately acknowledged by some mental health professionals….. We believe it is important to recognize that potentially disturbing levels of
trauma-related symptoms can be present in individuals who are not directly
exposed to a trauma, particularly when it is a massive national tragedy such as
the 9-11 attacks….Rather than seeing these symptoms as evidence as psychiatric
disorders, however, their presence is likely to represent a normal response to
an abnormal event.”

New Yorkers, in general, are very resilient mix of peoples.  Perhaps, it is the cultural
diversity that makes them less immune to major catastrophes even in their own
backyard.  The study in 2004 led by Joseph Boscarino and published in Journal
of General Hospital Psychiatry
showed that New Yorker’s use of mental health services only rose slightly after the September 11th terrorist attacks.  In fact mental health providers were prepared to provide mental heath services to the thousands of New Yorkers anticipated needing those services, but the expected need never really materialized.  Must had been the NY attitude thats hard to fathom at times!

a1 911 Iraq briefing3 300x199 Thoughts on that fateful September 11th from a man who wasn’t there

CPT Jennifer McIntyre briefing troops before next mission in Iraq

What I think happened instead was the overwhelming need to do something.  Some as big as joining the armed forces to fight overseas or as little as helping those in need, big or small.  The disaster galvanized people to do something then as therapeutic journey to solidarity.  And, on this 10th anniversary, those who had done little, like yours truly, have some soul searching to do.  I am not sure if many feel the same way.    As a scientist working on marine science issues seemed out of place here, my work irrelevant in many ways.

a1 911 cigar Session in Iraq1 300x180 Thoughts on that fateful September 11th from a man who wasn’t there

Jenny enjoying Nat Sherman cigars I sent for her 'boys.' Just one of the few pleasures in the desert of Iraq.

This asymmetric warfare,  a war between a high tech nation and a low tech enemy, has a common thread repeated thousands of times in thousands of wars over the millennia– that young men (and now women too) go to war and young people die. The basic common thread is always the human element.

Though I had served my time in the army back in the Reagan years, and as I ponder this 10th anniversary of September 11th, I come to realize that I am also fighting this war (and this anger) in a different way–through my own two kids.  My daughter, Jennifer, joined the army after college and had already served two tours in

a1 911 Jason in Afghanistan 300x175 Thoughts on that fateful September 11th from a man who wasn’t there

Airman Jason Matias with the Predator drones in Afghanistan

Iraq running convoys through IED infested highways in and out of Baghdad.  As an army captain, she is now again getting fresh troops ready for her third tour, this time in Afghanistan.  My son, Jason, joined the US Air Force and served his tour in Jalalabad, Afghanistan with a Predator surveillance squadron.  We, as a nation, fight wars through our children.  This is nothing new in the history of mankind, but something new and personal to me.

a1 911 merry xmas from afghanistan 300x215 Thoughts on that fateful September 11th from a man who wasn’t there
A Christmas card from Jason’s team in the Afghanistan airfield taken at 10,000 ft by another Predator surveilance drone

Today, as the 10thanniversary of that fateful day unfolds, perhaps it is time for me to finally come to terms with my own “post-traumatic shock,” see the Memorial and think about what I can do next for my adopted country.

Jonathan R. Matias, Science Officer

Poseidon Sciences Group

www.poseidonsciences.com

 

http://scienceblog.com/community/older/2002/C/20025747.html

http://www.scienceblog.com/community/older/2004/2/20041623.shtml

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Barbarians at the gate: Reflections on the decline of American innovation while watching a spectacular sunset at Gantry Park

        Despite the recent spectacular scientific achievement of DARPA (US Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency) on a hypersonic glider traveling at 13,000 miles per hour, American innovation, like this Mach 20 glider, is on a downward path towards unknown depths, with profound ramifications to our economic and political status among nations.  We all know intuitively that the declining trend exists and I am not sure there is a way to reverse that in such a complicated world we live in today.  In my life experience as an American scientists and a former immigrant, I can see it as clearly as the sun sets behind midtown Manhattan from across the East River in Gantry Park. 

 a1 scienceblog Gantry 1 resized 300x234 Barbarians at the gate:  Reflections on the decline of American innovation while watching a spectacular sunset at Gantry Park       Often, I sit on the bench at Gantry Plaza State Park waiting for sunset, mostly alone or at rare times with my kids or friends.  Just recently I began thinking about my years through graduate school, work, science and the economy.  These thoughts came about after a friend sent me a link to an MSNBC interview with Michael Greenstone, an MIT economist heading the Hamilton Project, on the subject of the Innovation Gap.  It is definitely worth taking time to see the video before reading the rest of my blog.  Here it is http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/21134540/vp/44041044#44038620

       My career spanned the period from the height of American innovation of the 70’s and 80’s to its post-millennium decline.  Why the decline?  There are already many reasons that pundits, strategists, economists, professors and politicians came up with and you can read them elsewhere.  But, it’s not just because of the rise of China and India as economic powerhouses.  It is not just the decline in American knowhow or enthusiasm for the sciences.  And it is not just outsourcing.  It’s all of these.  Most of all it is about the human element–the scientists.

        Sitting in Gantry Park at sunset is like a metaphor of the waning American supremacy in science and technology.  American innovation is spectacular in its achievements, like the burst of light of the waning sun behind the majestic skyscrapers of Manhattan, slowly fading away to darkness.

       Just to digress for a minute, what’s so special about Gantry Park anyway, you may ask?  I think of it as one of the most beautiful small parks in New York City, with the breathtaking view of Manhattan, especially at dusk.  It is at the waterfront in Hunter’s Point on what used to be an industrial/ warehouse district no one wanted to be a1 scienceblog Gantry 2 resized 226x300 Barbarians at the gate:  Reflections on the decline of American innovation while watching a spectacular sunset at Gantry Parkcaught walking at night years ago; a place to be avoided then, but not anymore.  Once the site of the Pepsi bottling plant, whose sign still remains today as a relic of the past, this waterfront area in the 1920’s serviced  rail cars coming from Manhattan and New Jersey to supply the industrialized Long Island City in the NYC borough of Queens.  Gantry refers to cranes that lift objects by hoists that move horizontally.  Back in the heyday of American industrial might, rail cars were lifted off barges, moved on to rail tracks and hooked on to trains that crisscrossed Long Island.  With the decline of American industries and the pre-eminence of trucking systems, the gantries ceased to serve its purpose and the machines became silent, another testimony to the doomed manufacturing industry.  One can still see the original rail road tracks in between the manicured gardens.

       Now, it is gentrified, with bustling new businesses and pricey condominium buildings mushrooming around the park.  It is one of the those truly wonderful little known places in New York, just a subway stop in Queens Borough on the #7 subway train from Manhattan’s Grand Central Station-42nd Street.  I go there because it is a quiet place to contemplate, work and just simply do nothing or go fishing (I have yet to try that).  As I sit by the fishing pier, I can see where I had been.  From my beginnings as a research intern at Goldwater Memorial Hospital on Roosevelt Island on the right of the East River, through my days in graduate school at New York University, my work at Orentreich Foundation on 72nd Street, my old labs leased by the Foundation at NYU Medical Center Public Health building on 29th Street and the Metro North trains I took from Grand Central Station– all laid out for me just across the East River. 

       In a way, standing there on that pier gives me a quick view of where I had been.  Here I share an anecdote about the multibillionaire, Harry Helmsley, among the great real estate magnates of his time; back in the 1970’s when he used to stand on a waterfront building in New Jersey facing Manhattan.  When asked why he often have luncheons on top of this building.  He replied (from memory), “I am old now. I cannot understand the spreadsheets of real estate properties my accountants carry around.  Standing here, I can see all of Manhattan and I do my own accounting.  I own those buildings there, there and there.  And I can see the buildings I would like to buy over there and there.  Here I take stock of  where I had been, what I have and where I am going.”  In a way, standing on the pier at Gantry Park also shows me where I had been, though not necessarily where my life is heading at the moment.

       Having digressed enough, I would like to tell you what I think about how the decline of American innovation came about.

       In the 70’s and 80’s and certainly even decades before, American innovation in computers, engineering, chemistry and practically all scientific pursuits were in a frenzy.  American technology dominated the world, from soft drinks to blue jeans.  That was also a time when young men and women from foreign lands flocked to American universities to continue graduate school.  That was a time when foremost in the mind among foreign students, who tend to work harder than most, was the dread of having to go back where they came from, where political instabilities, economic issues and lack of opportunities persisted.  Coming back to their home countries was not on their priority list, reaching the American dream was.  That means being sponsored by a company and making big bucks.  I know that for a fact as I had sponsored many during that period.  That also was a time when American businesses need more scientists and the steady flow of foreign student filled that gap. And, talented scientists flocked into America through working visas. 

        In the 1980’s China was just experimenting on private enterprise.  Having visited China in those days, I have seen the change; from the early days with people wearing Chairman Mao style jackets and avoiding contact with Americans to a time when local Chinese students would go out of their way to meet with me just to practice their English. (That was also a time when I was courageous in haggling with a street merchant for a pair of shoes that I know was worth $75 in NY, then coming back to the hotel proudly telling the concierge that I got it for $4 and only deflated when he told me I was cheated—it was only $2 for the locals. I knew then something was very wrong).

       It was the 1990’s when things began to change.  China opened its doors to manufacturing for overseas markets and India slowly made strategic changes in its business laws.  Exports brought wealth and China opened a hybrid enterprise system allowing private ownership.  American and European companies saw the opportunity for cheaper good to be manufactured, increasing their profitability and dooming their own domestic manufacturing industries.  More important, foreign students and foreign workers began to have a change of attitude about coming home.  It is not simply being homesick that drove them back.  Certainly they have the economic capacity to come home for frequent visits.  It was the lure of starting a business in their home countries where economic opportunities began to be rosier than struggling in America.  For these young men and women, it was riskier but the potential opportunities outstrip what they can get here. 

        I know this because I was once one of them.  In 1995, I came back to the old country, started some businesses, did research at a cost of 1/10th it would had I stayed in America.  Though political issues had made me return to New York in 2000, the experience was profound, memorable and productive.  I was able to accomplish much more in that 5 years than I could have possibly done in NYC in 20 years.  The 1990’s also saw countries adjusting to the new-found wealth.  By the turn of the century, opportunities abounded in Asia.  It was no longer a risky experiment for foreign scientists from America to come home.  The infrastructure, though imperfect, was there, waiting for the young scientists/entrepreneur from America.  American knowhow, learned from years of study and hard work are being snapped up by companies in foreign soil.  Is there anything wrong with that?  Absolutely not, as long as they are not bringing patented ideas.  And even so, most of those countries are not places American inventors filed their patents anyway and therefore free for the taking and/or improvements. 

       America is hemorrhaging its talents not just from reverse migration.  American talents from those born here are also being lured by foreign companies and governments with higher wages, better scientific support and a better life style than they could ever imagine at home.  Just simply take the case of Singapore, whose expat communities are bursting at the seams.  American innovations are being sucked out of the country year after year.  You will see great innovations coming out of Asia in the next decade, innovations that would have originated from America had we been able to keep our scientists happier at home.

       These thoughts are from my own personal experiences.  Can I support this point of view?  Absolutely! 

        The backbone of a modern economy is innovation.  In the days of the Spanish, the British and the Portuguese empires, economic wealth came from conquest of new lands and people.  Modern economies, such as the ‘American Empire,’ is built solely in innovation; not the military innovations whose proprietary ownership is often fleeting.  Take the case of the US stealth fighter shot down in Serbia and ended up being reversed engineered by the Chinese who now have stealth technology of their own.  Outsourcing in history is best exemplified by the Roman Empire, whose lack of foresight and need to save money on its military outsourced the defense of its borders to ‘barbarians.’  The Goths, Visigoths and others eventually turned on the Empire, emptying Rome of its 1 million inhabitants down to the size of Google’s workforce of 30,000 by simply destroying its greatest innovation—the Roman aqueducts that brought freshwater to the city.

        The Hamilton Project demonstrated that the loss of America’s innovative edge translated to American workers losing 51% of the value of the dollar compared to the a1 scienceblog Gantry 3 Hamilton Project final2 300x239 Barbarians at the gate:  Reflections on the decline of American innovation while watching a spectacular sunset at Gantry Park1970’s.  This loss of purchasing power was made up by credit and eventually led up to our current economic crisis.  There is no direct way to show how innovation’s decline affects our economy.  However, the 2009 article by Vivek Wadha in YaleGlobal served to highlight the impact of migrant workers, foreign students and immigrants on the American economy.  A most telling part of the article described an adhoc question he posed on Indian techies at a conference on who wanted to return home.  Fifty percent raised their hand.  Had I asked the same question in the 1980’s, I would had been lucky to get one!  It is really worth reading his article entitled “Is the US brain drain on the horizon?  Immigrants now see better prospects back home” (see link below).

       Considering that the Chinese and Indian nationalities in the US represent only 3% of the population, over 25% of all patents have ethnic Chinese and Indians listed as inventors. 

Vivek Wadha writes:

      In 2006, immigrants contributed to 72 percent of the total patent filings at Qualcomm, 65 percent at Merck, and 60 percent at Cisco Systems. And contrary to claims that immigrant patent-filers crowd out US-born researchers, emerging research is increasingly showing that immigrants actually tend to boost patent output by their US born colleagues. These immigrant patent-filers emerged from the US university system, where foreigners now dominate the advance degree seeking ranks in science, technology, engineering and mathematical disciplines. For example, during the 2004–2005 academic year, roughly 60 percent of engineering Ph.D. students and 40 percent of Master’s students were foreign nationals. (We don’t know for certain that those who have been leaving are patent-filers but anecdotal evidence suggests this to be the case).

       Beyond intellectual contributions, Chinese and Indian immigrants have been key entrepreneurial drivers in the US. According to another survey we conducted, one-quarter of all technology companies in the US have at least one founder who is a Chinese or Indian immigrant. The concentration is even heavier in certain key industries such as semiconductors and enterprise software. Based on this data, we calculated that in 2005, immigrant-founded tech companies generated $52 billion in revenue nationwide and employed 450,000 workers. This revenue total bridges multiple multi-billion dollar sectors including semiconductors, Internet, software and networking.

…. the Rising East will continue to pull in its fair share of future science and technology rock stars who may build the next Google or Microsoft in Gujarat or Mumbai.

That immigrant-founded tech companies employed 450,000 people with a $52 billion in revenue is awesome to contemplate.  And if 50% of them returned home to their own countries, that’s an economic loss that will never be recovered.

The barbarians are at our gates and they are tearing down our aqueducts. What to do?

       All is not lost of course.  There had been so many suggestion put forth by strategic thinkers.  They range from improving educational opportunities, inviting more foreign techies on H1 visa, providing better business opportunities, relaxing the immigration hurdles for scientists.  All these require a bouncing economy and political will, both simply lacking in our current domestic environment.  Even if those were to be implemented now it is unlikely that the tide will reverse since other countries can offer much more.  And Congress has to debate on that for a while if they ever get to it, unless of course they are distracted by something else like elections or the debt ceiling.

       The answer is through private initiatives, backed by government immigration reforms specifically tailored for inventors.  Here is what I thought of at Gantry Park (I certainly had a lot of free time then):

1.  Have a Gates Foundation type of initiative where a fund is created to entice potentially lucrative inventions from overseas.  Bill Gates can easily do this with his own money besides creating challenge funds for the best ecofriendly toilet for the third world.  (I think toilets are also important.  But as one of the great American inventors, it’s time for him to put in a little for his fledgling inventor colleagues of the new generation).  We have enough billionaires here in the US and each can donate a million or two to this fund if Gates is preoccupied with toilets.  Hey, that’s just your annual budget for fuel for your private jet.  Time to kick in some for your country.  I would like to call this The Great American Enterprise Fund (GAEF) and a billion $ should just about do it.

2.  Winning ideas from anywhere in the world get evaluated by the private sector; not some academics who likely have not made a dollar on his own.  Many great inventions were made in the dining room table or the garage—take the case of Sergey Brin and Larry Page of Google.  Fellow inventors and business people can make the winning technologies much better than any government or academic-led initiative.

3.  Have the winning invention patented in the US and licensed to an American company.  With few exceptions, inventors typically make lousy businessmen anyway (me included in that group).

4.  If the invention makes X amount of money or employs X number of Americans, give the guy or gal (have to be politically correct here) prize money above and beyond the license for the technology.  If he/she is foreign born, give him/her a fast track to citizenship and let him/her invent some more right here in America. 

5.  What does the donor get? Besides the usual tax write off, whoever invests in GAEF has first option to commercialize the new invention (provided the inventor agrees) before anyone else does and the unique opportunity to feel good about being an instrument in reversing this innovation gap.

       For now, that’s all I thought about.  Perhaps, someone already have this idea before and just did not know about it.  Let me know.

a1 scienceblog Gantry 3 resized Barbarians at the gate:  Reflections on the decline of American innovation while watching a spectacular sunset at Gantry ParkI did not want to miss this sunset because the Gantry Park locals say such a view happens only once a year when the sun comes down at the right angle on 42nd Street.  My lucky day!

       Any better ideas or have something to add, just send me a note (use subject heading GAEF) on my email (jrmatias@poseidonsciences.com) or send your comments here. 

Jonathan R. Matias, Chief Science Officer

Poseidon Sciences  www.poseidonsciences.com

PS:

This blog is dedicated to my colleagues who loved inventing:  Jason, Mike, Kosta, George, Naftali, Ernie, Saudha, Avelin, Aras, Tim, Coleen, just to name a few.

References:

http://www.qchron.com/news/western/article_5f2a6db9-2e05-5f0d-8c5c-34993b652151.html

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gantry_crane

http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/21134540/vp/44041044#44038620

http://www.brookings.edu/opinions/2011/0805_jobs_greenstone_looney.aspx

http://yaleglobal.yale.edu/content/us-brain-drain-horizon

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Collapse of dictatorships through people power revolutions expedited by science and technology

“The revolution that surprised the world” was a headline in 1986 and just as easily applies to the revolutions now sweeping the Middle East.   Today is the 25th anniversary of the first People Power Revolution that took the Philippine dictator, Ferdinand Marcos, out of power.  That was Feb 22-25, 1986, the remarkable days of non-violent civil resistance against the 20-year repressive rule of a dictator.  Those were the 4 days when 2 million unarmed people –common folks, priests, nuns – took to the main thoroughfare of Manila, called EDSA, built barricades, sang songs, made prayer vigils and refused to disperse.  Those were the days when soldiers and tank crews facing the crowds were given kind words, praises and flowers.  Also the days when soldiers simply could not fire on their own people and turned their guns around to join the revolution instead.

Back then, I was among the millions watching the events unfold on television, but in the comforts of home in New York.  My parents and I were among the few that managed to go on a self-imposed exile to escape the dictatorship and could not return until the dictatorship was over.  So, the events of those four days took on a more personal meaning for me.

Many similar revolutions have followed since then, taking the Philippine example of nonviolent regime change, such as that in East Germany and many other former Soviet Bloc countries.  These last few weeks see history being made once again in the Middle East.

Non-violent civil disobedience is not new.  It was happening already in many instances long before and made more widespread by Gandhi against British rule in India.  But, it was never in the scale seen in the last 25 years.  Why such a phenomenon only in the last 25 years?  Repressive regimes have been around for millennia and people suffered through successions of regimes—good and bad—without triggering a massive popular revolt.  What made the last 25 years so different? 

I suppose dictators can blame it partially on science and technology!

People Power then

Perhaps the first attempt at people power revolt ever recorded was during the reign of Ramses III of ancient Egypt.  In that instance, the wives and concubines of Ramses conspired to start revolts against their own pharaoh by sending written messages to their relatives in the far flung empire at the same time.   The revolt failed and all the conspirators executed.  Ramses III ‘s reign was also the first time in recorded history of a labor strike when tomb builders were not provided with adequate grain supply.

Back then Ramses could blame his problem on the invention of the papyrus.

a1 Revolt PI 133x300 Collapse of dictatorships through people power revolutions expedited by science and technologyThe Philippine experience 3,000 years later was two million people coming out on the streets almost at the same time, surprising a dictatorship that could not muster effective resistance against such an unexpected, passive, non-confrontational show of displeasure against the government.  Soldiers would not fire on the mass of people, many of whom are their own relatives.  Although there were organized opposition leaders at the time, they too were surprised by the unexpected turn out. 

That revolution was made possible by portable radios.  People listened to Radio Veritas (a Catholic church owned and operated radio station), coordinating the revolt by listening to the minute by minute events, troop movements and where food/ water were needed.  If it were not because of the popularity of cheap, portable ‘transistor’ radios, it is doubtful that such a spontaneous mass movement of people can be coordinated back in 1986.

For the engineering impaired ones like me, I had to read more about what transistors radios really mean as I have always taken that for granted.  And, most of our newer generation probably can’t relate to this at all.  I asked my kids what they know about transistor radios and I just drew a blank stare.  Before the transistor radio was developed by Bell Laboratories (Yes, its Bell and not Sony as most think) in the 1940’s, the typical radio used a vacuum tube and the smallest radio was the size of a toaster.  Hardly the type to carry around since it needed to be plugged to an electrical outlet.  The transistor changed all that.  It is a tiny, solid piece of semiconductive material which amplifies and switches electronic signals.  Unlike the vacuum tubes that serve the same function, the transistor is compact, does not need to warm up first like the vacuum tube, turns the radio on instantly, can be operated by batteries, rugged and lost lasting (over 50+ years of performance life).  Its invention, thought to be among the best of the 20th century, made the development of hand-held calculators, cell phones and laptop computers possible.  By the 1970’s,  over 7 billion cheap transistor radios were manufactured.  Almost every household on earth can afford to have one, even in poor countries where it became a common source of entertainment, especially with the worldwide popularity of rock and roll music.  And there were plenty during the People Power Revolution to coordinate the mass uprising.

People Power now

Though the passions, anger, resentments and collective suffering were all part of the common experiences, the single catalyst that made these revolutions in Tunisia, Egypt and now Libya possible was the technology of cell phone, video and internet.  Had the mobile systems not evolve from its original 80 lb weight in 1946 by Bell Labs engineers to its current light weight design first developed by Motorola in 1973 , these popular uprisings would have been more difficult.  The first call made from a cell phone by Motorola’s inventor, Martin Cooper, in 1973 was to his rival at Bell Labs, Dr. Joel S. Engel.  Even years before that, the concept of cellular phone was already part of the science fantasy of Star Trek in the late ‘60s.  Back then, it was called the ‘communicator.’

a1 revolt ME 226x300 Collapse of dictatorships through people power revolutions expedited by science and technologyMobile phones and internet are the first to be shut down by besieged dictators because of their power to mobilize people.  Just like cryptic messages written on papyrus 3,000 years ago, mobile text messages, voice and videos certainly made the call to action even more immediate, compelling and personal.

People Power in the future

While dictatorships are slowly fading to the pages of history just like hard core communism, there will always be room for dissent in mass scale.  Being dissatisfied is a very human thing and there will always be some cause to take up later on.  What technology will propel the future people power revolt?  Can’t imagine.

But, if I have to fantasize, I would say teleportation, just like in Star Trek episodes and movies.  Scientist are making progress now in transporting tiny objects from one place to another already.  The popular phrase “Beam me up Scotty” will be in common usage by then and people will simply materialize instantly for the next people power revolt.

Star Trek’s creator, Gene Roddenberry would had been ecstatic.

Jonathan R. Matias

Chief Science Officer

Poseidon Sciences Group

www.poseidonsciences.com

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FRACKING Revisited: What lies ahead (or beneath) and the idea of a FRACKING CHALLENGE

Last summer, precisely six month ago, I wrote a blog article on hydraulic fracturing at the height one of the contentious periods between the industry and the public about this issue.  The adversarial relationship between the two groups have not abated since, maybe just dampened for now by the piles of snow on the ground, out of sight and partially out of mind.  This is sure to erupt once again once spring thaw arrives.

Anything good happened in the last 6 months?  Not a thing.  Really!  The same issues remain.  The politics and the drama you can read elsewhere.  The industry continues, bowing to some regulatory pressures in some cases, moratoriums, public discussions, but the business goes on.  Even politicians are divided, some trying to sit on the fence, some seemingly concerned, but wary of the economic repercussions of bringing the industry to a halt.  Both sides have strong convictions and even that is not worth a story line here.

Practically everything humans do, even those done with the best of intentions, carries unintended and often unforeseen consequences.  Even a simple new design for baby cribs get recalled for flaws found only when thousands began using it and accidental deaths occur.  The same happens to new drugs that came into the market, backed with world class research and extensive clinical trials on thousands of patients, only to be withdrawn later because, when millions use it, then other medical problems emerge.  When the spraying of the pesticide, DDT, to kill mosquitoes was banned for the sake of protecting other non-target species from being decimated, millions of Africans died of malaria instead.  Even for the best and noblest of reasons, things happen we never planned for.

a1 cartoon kids talking 300x254 FRACKING Revisited:  What lies ahead (or beneath) and the idea of a FRACKING CHALLENGEI also think that it is an uphill battle for the industry to change public perception that fracking is good for the country and good for the environment at the same time.  Even a billion dollar public relations campaign will not change that. Not that I would want PR executives and lawyers to lose out in this process. Somebody has to spend for the Audis, the Mercedes Benzes, Lear jets and box seats at the Superbowl.  They are part of how our economy flows.

Getting our oil from elsewhere overseas carries an environmental price too.  Do you think it’s OK for some countries to have their aquifers destroyed to extract oil to ship to America, but not OK if ours are damaged?   Does the environmental degradation of the Niger Delta, the deserts of Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates or Iraq less important?  There are living things there too besides people.  These organisms may not look so cute or cuddly, but deserve the right to exist.  How about marine life in the Gulf of Mexico and the new gas fields being discovered along the continental shelves and out in the open oceans?  Pollution in China eventually reaches the United States; just takes time to get here.  The same is true that desert storms in Africa bring polluted particles to Europe and beyond.  We live in one Earth, interconnected in so many ways that even pollution is a shared experience for all.  Our Fracking issue is a mirror of what is happening throughout the world and how we deal with this may set the framework on how the rest of world can manage the same issues. 

Human beings are great problem-solving species. That is why we are dominant on Earth. We are also a great problem-making species too—but we have the ability to correct our mistakes.  This Fracking problem is no different.  The Halliburton technology was a ground breaking (pardon the pun) in extracting shale oil.  No one cared about it for decades until when the boom came and thousands of wells start springing up all over the place.  And, just like the crib story, things happen.  Is the contamination problem ubiquitous throughout the industry or is it just a few bad apples spoiling the rest of the bushel?  I can’t say for sure.  Can the technology be improved so that even some bad apples can’t ruin things for the rest of us?  I am sure it can.  This is not rocket science.  We are not curing cancer or growing new hair on balding scalps.  This is engineering, chemistry and geology.  Americans are good at these.  We can certainly make a better mouse trap.  And, we should.

The answer to this problem will not come from tweaking the fracking fluid formula a little or carting them offsite and hoping for the best; and it is not lambasting the industry, yet clamoring for cheap oil and gas at the same time.  The answer lies in collectively finding a better way, another method and an improved ‘out-of-box’ idea that can change the scenario in the years to come.

a1 Fracking Selenium Graphics schematic with pic proppants 265x300 FRACKING Revisited:  What lies ahead (or beneath) and the idea of a FRACKING CHALLENGEYes, there have been some innovations in the past 6 months.  But they are not ground breaking.  They won’t change much how things are done.  Even our work at Poseidon Sciences on developing covalently bound biocides that never leave the ceramic beads (proppants) to keep the fractured shale from clogging with bacterial slime is just part of the incremental step toward eco-safety.  Perhaps the newest idea I have seen from industry is the use of LPG technology (liquid petroleum gas, not propane as one would automatically think, but a mixture of petroleum and natural gas in liquid state) by GASFRAC Energy Services Inc. (Alberta, Canada) instead of the conventional hydraulic fracturing fluid.  The company claims that the new process avoids the contaminations normally associated with fracking fluids since all of the LPG are recovered after the fracture stimulation.  Only time will tell if there might be unintended consequences here too, but certainly it is a step in the right direction, if all goes well.

When it is energy and the environment, time seems to be of the essence.  We don’t always have the luxury to wait.  As I think through these issues tonight, how does one create a ‘crash program’ to solve this issue?  Certainly waiting for the universities to come up with solutions will take time and money too.  To get a grant (assuming there is money appropriated for it) takes at least a year, even if one’s idea is so great and if you are in the right academic environment to get it.   An entrepreneur with a great idea?  Not likely because this project will cost a bundle of personal wealth even to try a simple idea and most entrepreneurs, like yours truly, are always hard up for cash to chase new ideas.  Government?  I think everyone will agree that getting Congress involved is a guarantee of long, bickering rounds of partisanship.  They have to argue about it until they reach consensus and until everyone involved looks great on TV.   By the time it gets voted, if at all, the enthusiasm would have died of old age.  The Industry?  Oil men are great adventurers but hardly guys that do well when put together in the same room, especially if they have to share a single vintage bottle of Bourbon (The standard perception would be: “It works. Why fix when it is not broken—just tweak it a bit and keep the regulators happy.”).  Bill Gates is preoccupied with his obsession with malaria, TB and something else in foreign lands. And Oprah is just way too busy right now.

How to stimulate innovation?

In his State of the Union speech last week, President Obama focused on the need for innovation in America and the need to correct America’s innovation deficit.  With the economy in the toilet right now, we better find a better way to stimulate innovation than the traditional ways it has always been done.   

So, it dawned on me.  (It would have happened earlier if I had that bottle of Bourbon).  We need a FRACKING CHALLENGE.  The same way that my friend, Mike – Dr. Michael A. Champ — has been advocating for A DESALINATION CHALLENGE to develop a low cost, advanced desalination technology to convert seawater into freshwater. Make everyone chip in.  Get Mike to create a combination of Gates Foundation Grand Challenge and a FRACKING X-PRIZE that has an independent, third party judging group with the right expertise to develop the rules, judge the challenge and award cash prizes. 

a1 Fracking X prize graph 300x297 FRACKING Revisited:  What lies ahead (or beneath) and the idea of a FRACKING CHALLENGEI always thought that prizes to stimulate innovation is a modern invention until Mike pointed out that it dated as far back as 1714.  Back then, determining the accurate position of a British ship at sea was indeed a challenge and they needed a practical means of determining longitude.  That year, the British Parliament enacted the famed Longitude Act and offered the highest bounty – a prize equal to a king’s ransom (several million dollars in today’s currency) for a “Practicable and Useful” means of determining longitude.   English clock maker John Harrison, a mechanical genius who pioneered the science of portable precision time keeping, invented a clock that would carry the true time from the home port to any remote part of the world, which was considered the greatest scientific problem of his time in measuring longitude.  Harrison was our first true X-Prize winner in recorded history at least.  I would not be surprised if later archaeologists dig up an Egyptian tablet from 5,000 years ago announcing a competition for best design of an above ground pharaoh’s tomb.

How to do it?  Set up a nonprofit foundation with a board comprising industry, academia, environmental groups and government.  Then ask each company involved in hydraulic fracturing to support the program with 1 % of their gross sales over a 3-year period, complemented with the 100% tax free incentive from the government for that funding.  Considering that the projected market value of shale oil by 2015 is estimated at US $12 billion, this will yield at least US $300 million– $100 million to support promising ideas for validation at Phase I; another $100 for field demonstration of those that have real world practical applications on Phase II; and $100 million for the Prize on Phase III.  Any company that pitches in gets to use the technology royalty-free; the rest that didn’t shall pay a price through the nose to use the technology developed from this Challenge.

$300 million is a lot less than the fracking industry likely spends just paying lawyers and PR companies in a single year.  Seems a lot of bucks, doesn’t it?   This project is definitely not simple or cheap.  But, if you look at it from other perspectives, it surely isn’t that much.  The last Megalotto that I (and other friends) sunk $10 for was worth $375 Million!  I did not win even a buck either, but I was willing to fork over $10 for the infinitesimal chance of winning.

Or, let’s assume the industry, according to environmentalists, is just a bunch of lowly ‘pond scum’; only in it for what they can get out of it (I tend to think not).  Then, how about just $1 contribution from every US resident — citizens, legal aliens, illegal aliens and out-of-this-world aliens?  That’s even less than the price of one bottled water.  Or, for a family of 4, just skip one Starbucks coffee for one day this year!  We can make $300 million without government-industry support.

Or better yet, run the fundraising from a special Megalotto for each of the states affected by fracking.  “Hey. You never know,” as the NY lotto advertising says. 

$1 per person in the US is a cheap price for saving our water resources and keep our own oil and gas flowing, isn’t it?  Buy less foreign oil; Keep our men and women in the military from harms way for the sake of protecting our overseas strategic interests in oil.

How about it?  Anyone up to this FRACKING CHALLENGE?

Jonathan R. Matias

Chief Science Officer

Poseidon Sciences Group

www.poseidonsciences.com

Suggested reading:

http://www.poseidonsciences.com/Covalently_bonded_biocides_selenium_environmentally_friendly_hydraulic_fracturing_Poseidon_Sciences.pdf

http://www.poseidonsciences.com/Selenium_environmentally_friendly_biocides-Hydraulic_Fracturing_Poseidon_Sciences.pdf 

http://gasfrac.com/fracturing_process.aspx

Suggested reading on the use of a prize to stimulate innovation:  

Adler, Jonathan. Editorial on Innovation. Prizes are more effective at spurring innovation than federal subsidies.    http://energy.nationalreview.com/post/?q=YTQwNzY2ZGRhMGM5MGQ0NjdmMTlhNjVjZDdkZTY4NjE=

Congressional Research Service, Deborah D. Stine. 2009. Federally Funded Innovation Inducement Prizes.  CRS 7-5700. www.crs.gov.

Diamandis,  P.H. 2007.  X Prize Foundation.  2007.  Offer a prize if you want innovation. Reno Gazette Journal. www.RGJ.com August 13, 2007. 

Debelak, D.  2007. Winning a Contest Can Catapult Your Invention into the Mainstreamwww.entrepreneur.com

McKinsey & Company. 2009.  And the Winner is…Capturing the Promise of Philanthropic Prizes.  124p. http://www.mckinsey.com/clientservice/socialsector/And_the_winner_is.pdf

The Economist. 2010.  Offering a cash prize to encourage innovation is all the rage. Sometimes it works rather well.  http://www.economist.com/node/16740639?story_id=16740639.

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Mathematical models of emerging and collapsing societies. From Asimov’s fictional futuristic tale to the real science of Gavrilets’ numerical simulations

I was preoccupied in this last three weeks of January about the bigger picture of how life and work might look like in 2011, mostly playing catch-up with work issues since a lot of things just got placed in my ‘waiting basket’ during the Holidays.  I was also bothered by little things; especially about finding my old collection of science fiction books by Isaac Asimov called The Foundation Series, the first trilogy printed in the 1950’s.  My kids typically classify my preoccupation with things and events of that era as the ‘dinosaur years.’  With a plethora of science fiction paperback novels and special effects movies in the last 10 years alone, why should I be interested in a similar genre written 60 years ago?  Not sure what the answers is.  Perhaps by the time I finish this tale of science fiction and real science we will both have the answer to this question.  

As I rummage hopelessly through my ‘library’ (In my case defined as rooms full of books, manuscripts, articles and magazines scattered on the floor, on bookshelves and on top of tables, along with the smattering of half a dozen partially filled and almost empty cups of coffee for ‘decorative’ purposes), I decided to just glance over to my laptop to check out today’s smorgasbord of science news in scienceblog.com.  And there it was!  Not Asimov’s books, but an article published recently by Sergey Gavrilets (National Institute for Mathematical and Biological Synthesis) and co-authored by David G. Anderson (University of Tennessee-Knoxville) and Peter Turchin (University of Connecticut).  The article “Cycling in the complexity of early societies” was among the first in the brand new journal called Cliodynamics: The Journal of Theoretical and Mathematical History, “the first academic journal to research from the emerging science of theoretical history and mathematics.”    

That’s nice.  But, where’s the connection to Asimov’s books?  Let me tell you first what this article is all about as best as I can figure it out.  I really am not a fan of anything mathematical, especially when it comes to theoretical population biology on which I still harbor occasional nightmares from grad school days.  The start of the population biology class usually triggers also the start of  my usual fantasy of being somewhere else—on a tropical beach, sipping margarita under a coconut tree, surrounded by native women wearing sarong– that is, when I wasn’t dozing off. 

a1 asimov Gavrilets image 274x300 Mathematical models of emerging and collapsing societies.  From Asimov’s fictional futuristic tale to the real science of Gavrilets’ numerical simulationsGavrilets developed a mathematical model, using hundreds of years of human historical data, to predict the rise and fall of complex societies.  Through numerical simulations that take into account parameters such the size of the state, political power, length of rule, economic variables, etc, his team was able to explain the dynamic processes that cause kingdoms, states and empires to collapse on the scale of decades and centuries.  

Gavrilets concludes: 

Over the past several decades mathematical methods and techniques have become very important in life sciences and social sciences. In particular, mathematical and computational modelings are powerful tools for better understanding the origins of new species and of general rules of biological diversification. Agent-based simulation modeling efforts like those advanced here offer fruitful avenues for future research on general patterns in historical dynamics and on the emergence and diversification of human societies. 

Isaac Asimov

Much has been written about Asimov and thought I just give you a snapshot of his life and his works as a preamble to the next part of this narrative.  Isaac Asimov (family name derived from the Russian word meaning winter grain—from his great grandfather’s occupation) was born in Russia as Isaak Yudovich Ozimov of Jewish ancestry, immigrated to United  States at the age of 3 and later became one of the most prolific American writers of all time, with over 500 books  to his credit.  Not knowing the exact date of his birth due to the uncertainty between the Gregorian and Jewish calendars of the time, he simply decided that his birthday ought to be January 2, 1920.  He would have been 90 years of age this month.  

Young Isaac taught himself to read English at the age of five, taking advantage of the “pulp” science fiction magazines sold in his father’s candy store in Brooklyn, NY. (Pulp  magazines, pulp fiction or simply ‘the pulps’ refer to cheap fiction magazines printed between 1896 through the 1950’s on cheap, ragged, untrimmed wood pulp paper.  It was famous for being cheaper than the magazines called ‘glossies.’  Pulps mostly feature lurid, sensational, exploitive stories with colorful page covers.  Comic book superheroes are considered descendants of pulp fiction).  Though his father disapproved of pulp science fiction magazines, Isaac managed to convince him otherwise since he reasoned that the word ‘science’ was there and therefore must be ‘educational.’  By 11, he was already writing his own stories and by the age of 19 selling stories to science fiction magazines himself.  Educated in the New York public school system, he eventually received his PhD in biochemistry from Columbia University in 1948.  Along with Arthur C. Clarke and Robert A. Heinlein, Isaac Asimov is considered the master of science fiction during his life time. 

a1 Asimov photos 187x300 Mathematical models of emerging and collapsing societies.  From Asimov’s fictional futuristic tale to the real science of Gavrilets’ numerical simulationsThe words robotics, positronic (an entirely fictional technology) and psychohistory (also fictional) are all attributed to Asimov from his novels.  Robotics and positronic continues to be part of American lexicon, most notably in movies, such as Star Trek; The Next Generation that featured androids with positronic brains.   His robot stories which became part of the novel I, Robot in 1950 and  made into a film in 2004 with Will Smith, described a set of ethical rules for robots (The Three Laws of Robotics) leading to other stories, such as the Bicentennial Man, also made into a movie starring Robin Williams.  He became a friend and science advisor to Gene Roddenberry on many Star Trek projects. 

The Foundation Series 

a1 asimov cartoon robotics 300x255 Mathematical models of emerging and collapsing societies.  From Asimov’s fictional futuristic tale to the real science of Gavrilets’ numerical simulationsThough Asimov had written history books (about the Greeks, Romans, Babylonians and Egyptians), mystery stories (in Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine), scholarly biblical works and countless science fiction stories, he is singularly remembered for his Foundation SeriesThis is where Gavrilets and Asimov converged in this narrative.  The Foundation Series comprises seven science fiction novels, the first three, the Foundation Trilogy (Foundation, Foundation and Empire and Second Foundation) are considered the most famous and written in the early 1950’s.  It wasn’t until 30 years later that he began writing again the 4th entry in the saga.  

The fictional story goes like this: 

The setting is the universe thousands of years in the future when mankind, with a population in the quadrillions and ruled by a Galactic Empire, occupied millions of star systems in the galaxy.  A mathematician named Hari Seldon developed a mathematical simulation, called psychohistory.  The principle, based on the laws of mass action, numerically calculates the behavior of a quadrillion inhabitants (anything less is inaccurate) that enabled Seldon to predict the imminent collapse of the Empire.  It also predicted that the collapse will follow a period of 30,000 years of descent to anarchy and barbarism, akin to the Dark Ages of medieval Europe, before the rise of the Second Empire.  His mathematical modeling also predicted an alternative option with the Dark Ages lasting only 1,000 years, if a source of knowledge can fill the vacuum left by the collapse of the Empire and the technologies that created it.  The Seldon Plan, which attempts to minimize the period of the Dark Ages, was to establish two cryptic societies, one at each opposite end of the Milky Way galaxy, populated by scientists and technocrats, called the Foundations, ready to step in as the Empire collapses.  The Galactic Emperor found out about psychohistory and the adventures began… 

Gavrilet and Asimov’s Hari Seldon 

A science fiction writer conceives the idea from basic facts and then extrapolates from there, creating fantasies and visions not always possible in a real scientific discipline. 

a1 asimov star trek images 266x300 Mathematical models of emerging and collapsing societies.  From Asimov’s fictional futuristic tale to the real science of Gavrilets’ numerical simulationsThere are times when the figment of a fiction writer’s fantasy decades before becomes a common reality now.   Let’s take the case of the Star Trek television series of the late 60’s.  The series described the interstellar adventures of Capt. Kirk, Mr. Spock, Dr. McCoy, a multi-ethnic crew (first time such an attempt was made in the racially charged era of the 1960’s) and the occasional alien crew member or guests in galactic starship Enterprise of the 22nd century.  This unique TV series created the biggest ever fan base of science fiction enthusiasts (and that includes yours truly).  Even NASA named its first space shuttle Enterprise in honor of the fictional galactic starship. Though the original airing of the TV series was not accessible to me then (I happened to be in an island in another continent at the time; and yes, no American TV), coming to America, I did grow up on the TV reruns of Gene Roddenberry’s vision of the future, many of which has come to fruition in my life time:  mobile phones, pda, tablet PC, hand held diagnostic instruments (Mr. Spock’s tricorder), MRI (Dr. Spock’s diagnostic table), the jet injector for drugs (Dr. McCoy’s hypospray), the universal translator (now the voice recognition and language software), the telepresence device (now the video conferencing) and the phaser set to stun (now the Taser gun to immobilize), just to name a few.  Even the truly far out concepts of the Romulan cloaking device, the transporter beam, the tractor beam, the energy shield to protect the starship are being researched seriously.  New results from military and university research are paving the way for new materials to distort light to hide objects in plain sight, new methods  transport small items by fragmenting molecules and electronic shield/counter strike weapons that destroy incoming projectiles, now featured in the more recent Israeli design for combat tanks. 

Isaac Asimov’s fiction of a mathematician predicting the collapse of the Galactic Empire made a good the story.  It was purely from the fantasies of Asimov’s fertile mind.  But like in Star Trek, some fantasies eventually turn to something real—sometimes.  Gavrilets’ numerical simulations do seem to show that such predictions can be possible.  His paper certainly is an elegant piece of scientific work and will surely be controversial.  Whether it can predict the collapse of empires, perhaps Gavrilets, like Hari Seldon, have to wait before mankind reach the quadrillion mark in the far flung reaches of a future galactic empire. 

I wonder if Sergey Gavrilets ever read the Foundation trilogy.  Had he been alive today, Isaac Asimov would have been ecstatic to read Gavrilets’ paper.  Perhaps, I should ask Gavrilets about the Foundation novels if we ever meet one day.   Not to talk about galactic futures, but about the recent collapses of dictatorial states and when future ones might be expected to follow the same path. 

I think science fiction writers and mathematicians in sociobiology have one thing in common – they seem to chase after futuristic events. 

I am sure Isaac Asimov would agree.

Jonathan R. Matias

Chief Science Officer

Poseidon Sciences Group

www.poseidonsciences.com

PS

Still looking for Asimov’s books !

SUGGESTED READING

http://scienceblog.com/41939/mathematical-model-explains-how-complex-societies-emerge-collapse/

Gavrilets S, Anderson D, Turchin P. 2010. Cycling in the complexity of early societies. Cliodynamics: The Journal of Theoretical and Mathematical History. 1:1

http://escholarship.org/uc/irows_cliodynamics?volume=1;issue=1

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Foundation_series

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Isaac_Asimov

http://www.tiem.utk.edu/~gavrila/Research.htm

http://electronics.howstuffworks.com/10-star-trek-technologies10.htm

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