Readers sound off
Readers reflect on the impact of James Cronin, SM’53, PhD’55, and Frank Lillie, PhD 1894; debate climate change and free-market capitalism; remember the T-Hut; make observations about observing nature; and more.
Among the stars
“Bright Stars” (Editor’s Notes, Fall/16), citing Gilbert White’s precise 18th-century observations of local natural and human landscape change, calls to mind his 20th-century namesake, distinguished University of Chicago geographer Gilbert F. White, LAB’28, SB’32, SM’34, PhD’42, who chaired the legendary department (founded in 1903) in the 1950s and ’60s.
Like his 18th-century predecessor, White fostered among students and faculty a pervasive atmosphere of quiet curiosity and sense of a problem to be explored theoretically and through applied work. By midcentury, “Chicago geography” was universally recognized as setting the highest standards for the field.
Baruch Boxer, AM’57, PhD’61
Palo Alto, California
Gilbert White’s project of recording the dates of first blooms, dates of the arrival of migrant birds, etc.—today known as the science of phenology or the science of nature’s calendar—is seeing a resurgence during this time of rapid climate change.
There are now databases that citizens can contribute to. For example, Illinois has Project Budburst, run by the Chicago Botanic Garden, for plant observation, and the National Phenology Network sponsors Nature’s Notebook.
We can all be Gilbert Whites now.
Martha L. Bohrer, PhD’03 Chicago
Remembering James Cronin
Thank you for the memorial to James Cronin, SM’53, PhD’55, in the Fall/16 University of Chicago Magazine (“Big Thinker”). It’s a beautiful story about a beautiful life. I had the pleasure of having Professor Cronin teach my undergraduate quantum mechanics class in the 1980s, and I can attest to the fact that he was dedicated to undergraduate teaching. He spent hours in the lab with us, and he inspired in me a much greater appreciation for lab work.
Allen Zeyher, AB’90
Hoffman Estates, Illinois
Thank you for publishing the series of brillant articles by Maureen Searcy on recent advances in computational science at the University of Chicago (Inquiry, Fall/16). I was, of course, aware of the importance of computational science at the U of C when I worked on my PhD in biopsychology at the Pritzker School of Medicine (1968–71). In fact, I recall using punch cards at the facility across from Stagg Field in order to complete some course assignments. But Searcy’s stories show that many mind-boggling advances in physics and computational science have been made since then. For me, the most amazing idea was advanced in the article entitled “Mirror Image” concerning the possibility of using photo collisions to create synthetic materials. What will people at the U of C think of next?
Donald F. Smith, PhD’71
President Robert J. Zimmer’s editorial in your Fall/16 issue says, “Universities cannot be viewed as a sanctuary for comfort but rather as a crucible for confronting ideas.” Sadly, not everyone at the U of C agrees. For example, John Cochrane of Chicago Booth said in 2009, “[Keynesian ideas are] not part of what anybody has taught graduate students since the 1960s. They are fairy tales that have been proved false. It is very comforting in times of stress to go back to the fairy tales we heard as children, but it doesn’t make them less false.” So at least one prominent member of the Chicago Booth faculty has carved out safe spaces for himself and for students who might feel threatened if they were to think seriously about ideas that many competent economists today consider to be very important.
As Eric Holmberg, Class of 2018 and current student government president, remarked, Jay Ellison’s infamous letter to incoming undergraduates “is hypocritical in the sense that the University is more fearful of challenge and discomfort than any student I know.”
Bob Michaelson, SB’66, AM’73
Diverging on climate
Another great issue (Fall/16). The Magazine keeps getting better and better as judged by the percentage of the articles that I actually read all the way through. President Zimmer’s On the Agenda was especially encouraging in these days of political correctness and persecution of individuals with divergent views. The following is a divergent view.
Advocates of the hypothesis that the recent global warming has been caused by human activity would have you believe that the science is settled and that we are all in agreement. This is simply not true. Richard Lindzen is a good example of a well-known and respected specialist in atmospheric dynamics who has questioned the underlying science.
My own specialties lie in cloud microphysics and computer modeling of atmospheric processes (my PhD thesis) as well as statistical methods. I too, have come to question the science underlying this hypothesis.
First, the link between increases in greenhouse gases and global temperatures is provided by global circulation models (GCMs). Since it is not possible to model radiative transfer or precipitation processes from the basic equations, GCMs resort to parameterization. Parameterization substitutes simple algebraic equations for these two critical processes.
The radiative transfer process is critical in determining atmospheric temperatures. The parameterization takes the form of independent variables such as CO2 and water vapor concentrations. Each of these variables has an adjustable coefficient. The coefficients are adjusted until the GCM produces results that resemble the real atmosphere.
In order to determine the coefficients for the greenhouse gases, it is necessary to rely on the climatic record, say for the previous 20 years. This was a period of warming temperatures and increasing CO2 concentrations. Adjusting the coefficient for CO2 based on this dataset in essence assumes that the increase in CO2 was responsible for the increase in temperature. However, this same model is then used to state categorically that the observed warming has been due to the increases in greenhouse gases. It doesn’t take an expert in logic to recognize a circular argument.
Another tenet held by the proponents of anthropogenic climate change is that the climate has never had such rapid changes in such a short period of time. I refer to my 1994 paper that addresses this issue (“Reconstructing Streamflow Time Series in Central Arizona Using Monthly Precipitation and Tree Ring Records,” Journal of Climate).
In this paper, I present a chart showing the raw reconstructed streamflow from 1580 to the early 1990s. The variance in the time series was small for the period prior to 1860 that relied only on tree ring data. The variance was significantly larger when precipitation data was added in but was still well below the variance from 1910 when actual streamflow data became available.
The statistical methods used to reconstruct climate, in this case streamflow, are designed to minimize the root mean square error (RMSE). When the signal is weak, this produces values close to the long-term mean. I developed a method to restore the variance. The raw time series showed a pronounced uptick in the most recent years, similar to Al Gore’s “hockey stick.” This feature was not present in the time series with the variance restored.
I suspect that the conclusion that the climate has become more variable in recent years is merely an artifact of the methods used to reconstruct past climates. I submit this in the spirit espoused by President Zimmer, that we need divergent views: “Having one’s assumptions challenged and experiencing the discomfort that sometimes accompanies this process are intrinsic parts of an excellent education.”
Ken Young, SM’67, PhD’73 Petrolia, California
One hundred years ago Frank Lillie, PhD 1894, then professor of zoology, later dean of the Division of Biological Sciences, discovered the mechanism of intersex or “freemartin” cattle (“Deep Ties,” Original Source, Fall/16). When twin cattle are born, one is male and the other is a female intersex cow, called a freemartin by cattle farmers. Lillie discovered that the blood vessels of the male and female fetal cows communicate with each other in their common placenta. The mixing of fetal hormones across the placenta creates a partial “masculinization” of the fetal female cow and an incompletely developed female genital tract. These freemartins have a distinct appearance as they mature, easily known to the cattle farmers.
Lillie’s pioneering study shed light on the nature of intersex conditions, present not only in humans but in a number of species in the animal kingdom. Intersex conditions in humans are a complex set of hormonal, anatomic, and genetic changes in development and maturation. There is a better knowledge today of how to help intersex persons and their families at birth and at puberty. Much less is known about how these intersex conditions affect the arc of intersex persons’ old age. This remains an area of inquiry, in the spirit of Frank Lillie.
David O. Staats, MD’76
The letters under “What, no T-Hut?” (Letters, Fall/16) reminded me that I had forgotten to write about the original location of Station JBD.
Before urban renewal relocated Lake Park Avenue to about the Illinois Central right-of-way, there were buildings along the east side of that avenue north of, I think, 55th Street. Station JBD was in one of those buildings before moving to Hyde Park Avenue. The Compass Players moved from another of those buildings to a bar on the current site of the University fire station on 55th Street, before spending time in St. Louis and then reconstituting as Second City back here in Chicago. Station JBD was a popular spot in the early ’50s for some faculty members given to two-martini lunches, much more common in those days than now, I understand.
I had the pleasure of a long conversation with Peter Pomier, the owner of the T-Hut, at his relocated site on Stony Island at about 87th. The décor was totally relocated and his niece, the statuesque blonde (in the Hyde Park days), was still serving as hostess: “How many please? This way. Here we are!” The famous corn steak was no longer on the menu, because the machine that embedded the corn broke and could not be restored or replaced. I also learned that, before the T-Hut, Pomier had been a partner with Ric Riccardo in the restaurant of that name near the Wrigley Building, a hangout for the newspaper people from the Trib, Daily News, and Sun-Times and noted for the large paintings of the “seven lively arts.” (The number may need to be corrected. I was usually looking at my companion or my martini.)
Jim Vice, EX’52, AM’54
Capital thoughts, revisited
Just finished reading your superb Fall/16 edition. The “Capital thoughts” letters remind me of a seminar response by UChicago’s leading moral philosopher, Alan Gewirth, my mentor during graduate studies: “Not infrequently, Adam Smith’s ‘hidden hand’ is all thumbs!”
Sheldon W. Samuels, AB’51
Thank you for your timely and provocative article “Of Morals and Markets” (Spring/16). Recent price-setting issues for lifesaving drugs raised by the encounter between the public and pharmaceutical companies have raised significant questions with regard to the handling of externalities of establishing a price or cost for a human life. Martin Shkreli and also the Mylan company possess significant monopoly price-setting power and they use it without regard for social acceptance—capitalist system or not. Is the invisible hand fallible?
Another example of market failure is the ever-increasing destruction of this planet from global warming, which also brings with it water—human beings’ staff of life—issues. Society has had a difficult time digesting and coping with this externality of the free market system. Solutions are not directly associated with the free market envisioned by Adam Smith and the invisible hand. And yet society urgently needs to come to grips with the horrendous, costly situation, now and in the future. The market pricing mechanism needs assistance.
A course dealing with the ethics of markets is therefore timely. Market mechanisms of the future will need to be aided by social processes dealing with a number of externalities not addressed by the current market system. Philosophy and ethics will offer the foundation for building revisions to the invisible hand. Nobel Prize–winning economist Elinor Ostrom provides an initial thrust, a process in her book Governing the Commons: The Evolution of Institutions for Collective Action (Cambridge University Press, 1990). Maybe this book should also become a part of the course along with The Wealth of Nations.
Steven A. Windell, MBA’64
I don’t recall reading John Paul Rollert’s (AM’09) “Of Morals and Markets” in the Spring issue, but found the letter about it by Richard West, MBA’63, PhD’64, in the summer issue and Rollert’s response interesting.
I don’t think the financial crisis was based on capitalism itself. In any system it’s necessary that there be people watching it to make sure it runs correctly. In 2008, to an incredible extent, the people who should have been doing this—economists, professors, accounting firms, banks, politicians, government agencies—were either brainless and/or corrupt.
But is this a problem unique to capitalism? Any system, capitalistic or otherwise, can fail if the people running it and supposedly watching over it aren’t doing their jobs. If the government is separate from the economy, it can work to make sure it runs smoothly and fairly (although, unfortunately, I don’t see nearly enough real signs that that’s being done in the United States today, even after the crisis). But if, as in other systems, the government is controlling the economy itself, who has the power to correct it when it goes wrong, as, in the real world, it inevitably will, sooner or later?
If a gigantic failure is proof that an economic system should be dropped, what system can be considered acceptable? Does the collapse of Venezuela mean that an abiding faith in socialism is no longer warranted? And surely (to choose just one of many examples) the famine in China of the late ’50s and early ’60s, in which millions starved to death (Mao: It is better to let half of the people die so the other half can eat their fill), should discredit any faith in communism as an economic system.
So what does Rollert think is left?
Greg Darak, AB’76
I was rather appalled at the photo on page 67 of the Fall/16 issue of the Magazine (Bear Review). No doubt, rules for encounters with wildlife, including bears, were not yet clearly established in 1923, but to print such a photo now is a disservice to the efforts of the Park Service, Forest Service, and other organizations to teach campers and other wilderness visitors not to approach wildlife and certainly not to offer them food. Further, running such a photograph may have the unintended consequence of encouraging dangerous behavior among park and wilderness visitors. A human food–accustomed bear is not only a danger to humans but often is deprived of its life, owing to that danger. Each summer I participate in volunteer activities on Admiralty Island, home to numerous brown bears, in Alaska, and the rangers carefully instruct us about “no food, no food scents, no scents of any kind that might attract a bear,” in our tents. I will mail the page to some of the rangers; they will be as appalled as I.
Roselee Bundy-Hansen AB’73, AM’75, PhD’84
In the obituary for Marilou McCarthy von Ferstel, AM’79 (Deaths, Fall/16), we misstated the year von Ferstel was elected to Chicago’s city council. She was elected in 1971. We regret the error.
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