Flying to Mississippi in the next few days to talk about the world’s greatest invention. I’ll be speaking to technical side execs at CF Industries, America’s largest manufacturer of ammonia — which is to say, the biggest user of Haber-Bosch technology (the subject of The Alchemy of Air). CF started out as a little farmer’s cooperative in the 1940s and is now listed on the S&P 500. They run America’s biggest Haber-Bosch plant, in Donaldsonville, LA — a monster factory that pumps out fertilizer for millions of farmers. Looking forward to seeing Jackson, and maybe even getting the chance to try the pork chops at Lou’s Full-Serv Southern Restaurant.
Just got word that The Alchemy of Air will be published in Korea. I’m always happy to have my work translated for other countries — the more readers, the better — and the issues in the book are especially important in Asia. Hint to Crown/Harmony (my US publisher): I’ve gotten several requests recently for a Spanish language version.
Good op-ed in the New York Times online today, outlining the price we’re all paying to add ethanol to our gasoline. But the hidden ethanol tax is only part of the problem. Paradoxically, adding a seemingly “green” biofuel to our gas is also bad for the planet. When you factor in all the costs (both financial and environmental) of growing the corn and sugar cane to make the ethanol, burning the biofuel turns out to be worse than burning the gasoline it’s replacing. I know from my work on sustainable agriculture that the biofuel boondoggle is succeeding only in enriching some big farmers, while disproportionately taxing the poor, pulling needed land out of food production, and degrading the biosphere. It’s time to end a bad policy.
I had a great couple of days in Bend, Oregon, giving several talks on the future of food and another on Oregon’s Nobel Prize winners. It was a chance to get feedback on new material, and also to enjoy the Central Oregon sunshine, clear air, and sparkling mountains. The people who hosted me and came to the talks were friendly, knowledgeable, and welcoming. Many good questions, an especially important part of the show for me. Special thanks to the events organizers at the Deschutes Public Library, the classes I spoke to in the sustainability program at OSU/COCC Cascades campus, and McMenamins Old St. Francis School — a former Catholic campus turned into a brewpub/hotel/entertainment complex. McMenamins is doing a great job offering a series of Oregon history lectures around the state.
A long time ago, I wanted to be a scientist. I had a mild interest in biology, which progressed to a fever for microbiology, then medicine, then a full-blown case of medical microbiology and immunology. The latter is what I studied in the Ph.D. program at the Oregon Health Sciences University. Two years of bench work cured me. I learned that my personality was a bad match for the meticulous, repetitive — OK, to me, boring — work of real day-to-day research. I didn’t have the patience for it. So I left early with a master’s degree and went on my merry way to become a writer. This turned out to be a good move. My only regret, really, was that I never produced an article for a juried journal — a rite of passage for young scientists. Oh, well.
So imagine how pleased I was to discover after all these years that I did have an article in a juried journal, based on research I did at OHSU. I found out about it by accident, while signing up for an online service called ResearchGate, a sort of geeky love-child of Facebook and LinkedIn, built especially for scientists. When I signed up on the site, I was presented with a list of publications and asked if I was the author. Surprise #1 was how many researchers around the world are named Tom Hager or Thomas Hager or T. Hager, and none of them are me. Surprise #2 was, lo and behold, my name on a paper published in Infection and Immunity back in October 1981. Primary author was Pam Sokol, a grad student in the lab next door to mine at OHSU, who used some cell lines I had developed to help with her own research. She was generous enough to name me among her coauthors. This makes me surprisingly happy.
Maybe yes, maybe no. A very interesting post over at one of my favorite sites, Nate Silver’s fivethirtyeight.com, points out why. The graph, from a recent study in the New England Journal of Medicine, shows that South Korea has seen a sudden rise in the detection of thyroid cancer, thanks to the fact that the government made the screening free. A lot more people are getting screened and, as expected, they’re finding a lot more early-stage thyroid cancer. The next part, though, was unexpected: The number of people dying from thyroid cancer is unchanged. In fact, it’s going up. Standard thinking is that more early detection should lead to fewer deaths. But it’s not happening in South Korea. Instead, the main effect of the increased screening has been to boost the number of people getting their thyroids removed — standard practice when the disease is caught early-stage — then living the rest of their lives taking thyroid medication. That’s a lot more healthcare costs with no apparent benefits. More screening also means more false positives, people being told they might have cancer when they don’t. It all adds to a growing body of literature indicating that early cancer detection is not always a good thing (although cancer is not a single disease, but a group of more than 100 separate diseases, and early detection is good for some of them).
I’m a fan of fivethirtyeight and Nate Silver; have been ever since he was at the New York Times and blew other pollsters away with his predictions about the Obama elections. Now he’s independent, with this quirky site that crunches the numbers on everything from national politics to football predictions to burrito ratings. He’s not a pollster, just a guy who’s fascinated with statistics and how they are used and misused in our society. He makes sense of (and critiques) the numbers pollsters come up with. Numbers matter — and in Nate’s hands they even make sense.