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I.D. screen time at the Smithsonian


Dancing with giants: A review of The Last Giant of Beringia
Skimming the surface of an epidemic: A review of Venomous Earth

Mapping a transportation hub in Alabama

I.D. screen time at the Smithsonian

In the bowels of the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of Natural History, in a theater that held more than 200 people, the Discovery Institute showed its hour-long program, The Privileged Planet: The Search for Purpose in the Universe, based on a book of the same name written by a philosopher and an astronomer. The program held on June 23 was billed as a national premiere of a documentary, but the invitation-only screening invited a flood of criticism from across the nation for the museum.

Although the National Museum of Natural History hosted a showing of a movie about intelligent design, it did not accept a fee, nor did it co-sponsor the event. Photo by Naomi Lubick.

Both the book and the film are not-so-subtle treatises on intelligent design, produced by the Seattle-based Discovery Institute, an organization that promotes the belief that Earth was made by an intelligent creator (see Geotimes, April 2005). The Privileged Planet argues that Earth is “rare,” and its intelligent life form (humans) even rarer, something that will likely be borne out by humans’ exploration of the universe. The film’s final message is that the universe must have been created by an intelligent designer because it has been made in just such a way so that humans can observe it.

Once scientists and the media heard that the Smithsonian had agreed to show the program, through a story in The New York Times on May 28, a storm of protest erupted. The Smithsonian had accepted a $16,000 rental fee and imposed its own requirements that it be acknowledged as a co-sponsor of the event, just as it would have for any other special event. But after a review in response to outside comments, the museum declined to accept the fee and to be a co-sponsor, but decided to honor the contract. The Smithsonian also made the statement that “the content of the film is not consistent with the mission of the Smithsonian Institution’s scientific research,” a key requirement for private events held on the museum’s campus, as well as a statement saying it does not support or endorse the views of the Discovery Institute or the film.

Randall Kremer, the museum’s director of public affairs, says that in March, the movie was first “reviewed under administrative guidelines as a private, invitation-only event and was determined not to have any overtly religious or political content.” However, he says, the “scrutiny was not broad enough to take into account that many people would interpret this that Smithsonian was partnering or supporting activities of the Discovery Institute,” the wider implications of which the second review took into consideration. The Discovery Institute released its own comments saying that the Smithsonian clearly does not support the film’s message.

“The idea behind the documentary is to convince people that there was an intelligent designer,” a purpose that “hits you over the head at the end,” says Irwin Shapiro, a professor at Harvard University and the former director of the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, who watched a DVD of the film before it was shown at the Smithsonian, but after the controversy broke. “It’s a propaganda piece, subtly masquerading as a science documentary.” The script only uses “design” and “intelligence” a few times, and not together in the film.

Despite some scientifically accurate statements, the problems with the film are innumerable, say some scientists, including Frank Drake, a senior researcher at the Center for SETI Research in Mountain View, Calif. The film, he says, is “full of faulty facts” and has “very slanted interpretations of things.”

Drake points to the example used that total eclipses prove the existence of an intelligent designer because the moon is exactly the right distance to block out the sun just enough to see its corona and determine the star’s composition. But answering why that example is spurious — for example, total eclipses occur on other planets, too, and humans have found other ways to observe the sun’s chromosphere and corona without eclipses — may be futile, Drake says. “It’s the trap they want you to fall into,” he says. “They will bombard you with their coincidences and weird interpretations of things,” until it becomes “he-said-she-said.”

Scientists worry that the other potential trap is that the film looks like a documentary to the untrained eye. Drake says that “the movie is beautiful, the script is well written,” with a pleasing original score, and obviously was “a very expensive production.” Shapiro points out that the British-accented narrator contributes to the feeling that this is a legitimate science documentary. “I thought it was very slick” and “insidious,” Shapiro says.

Scientists have voiced concerns that because the Smithsonian did not cancel the film’s showing, the Discovery Institute would gain credibility. That argument has some consequences for the engagement-versus-non-engagement debate that scientists have been having, prompted by the Kansas state school board “trial” on evolution, for example. “It’s a lose-lose situation for science, a win-win for intelligent design,” Shapiro says. “If a scientist engages [anti-evolutionists] in debate, it shows that they have credibility, just like the Smithsonian allowing them to use their facilities. If you ignore them, they win by arguing that evolution must be dubious if scientists won’t defend it.”

Charles Beichman of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif., who is project scientist of NASA’s Terrestrial Planet Finder mission and was interviewed for the movie, says that he does not mind the discussion of philosophy with science. Still, if distributed to schools (it has already been shown at various universities and churches across the country), this movie does not belong in the science classroom, Beichman says. When it comes to the purpose of the universe, “this is a realm where in the end, science can determine a significant set of facts,” he says. “At that point, science stops, [and] you try to figure out, ‘Is there a broader context?’ But that is religion or philosophy, not science.”

Charles Townes, a Nobel prize-winning astrophysicist, says that integrating religion and science makes sense. “My own view is that, while science and religion may seem different, they have many similarities, and should interact and enlighten each other,” Townes said in a news conference on March 9, upon accepting the Templeton Prize for “progress toward research or discoveries about spiritual realities.” Townes said that “if the universe has a purpose or meaning, this must be reflected in its structure and functioning, and hence in science.”

Jay Richards, the Discovery Institute philosopher who co-authored the book The Privileged Planet and is prominently featured in the film with co-author Guillermo Gonzalez, an astronomer at Iowa State University in Ames, cited Townes during the question-and-answer period following the film’s showing in June. “Is there purpose in the universe, and if so, can we find evidence for it?” he asked rhetorically. Both authors say yes, and Gonzalez said that he wanted to find a graduate student to prove that humans evolved at the perfect time in the universe to observe it. “It’s possible,” Gonzalez said, to find such evidence.

Richards also said that he believes intelligent design is on the cusp of being accepted, describing it as in the middle of the period of rejection that has preceded past scientific paradigm shifts.

But finding proof of God or some kind of designer is impossible, most scientists say. “The business of science is only to understand and tell how things happen, and religion’s business is to tell us why,” Drake says. “Once scientists get into why, they get in trouble.”

During the same question-and-answer session, Rep. John Culberson (R-Texas) commended the filmmakers and The Privileged Planet’s co-authors. Mixing science, religion and politics, Culberson then made a plug for funding SIM PlanetQuest and Terrestrial Planet Finder, two nascent NASA programs that are to be launched in the next decade to search for extrasolar planets that might harbor life elsewhere in the universe.

Naomi Lubick


"Creationism: Back in Kansas Again," Geotimes, April 2005

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Book review
The Last Giant of Beringia:
The Mystery of the Bering Land Bridge

by Dan O’Neill.
Westview Press, 2004.
ISBN 0 8133 4197 3.
Hardcover, $26.

Dancing with Giants
Michael C. Wilson

A title like The Last Giant of Beringia may conjure up images of large beasts roaming the vast steppe tundra of Beringia, the joined lands of northeastern Asia and northwestern North America. But this book by Dan O’Neill is actually about a different type of giant — the kind that Isaac Newton described as one upon whose shoulders we stand, in order to see farther. A richly anecdotal biography, the book covers the life of the late David M. Hopkins, one of the giants of the earth sciences.

Alaska historian O’Neill builds vivid images of Beringia, past and present, with the ever-present Hopkins, who for decades was the most energetic advocate for studies of the geology, chronology and paleoenvironments of the Bering land bridge. He played an enormous role in stimulating generations of fellow scholars and graduate students to look beyond — to stand on his shoulders — and seek answers to the questions he posed.

O’Neill’s admiration of his subject shines through in this tribute. Hopkins is portrayed as a visionary, a fighter of administrative inertia, a lover of fieldwork, defiant of health problems, a homespun philosopher and a first-rate scientist. All are true, but relentless praise can wear out the reader and warning flags are raised by the time O’Neill dubs a landmark book Hopkins edited, The Bering Land Bridge, “the Bible” and refers to Hopkins’ colleagues as “disciples.”

Chronological and thematic discussions of Bering land bridge studies show how Hopkins took a feature sketched in broad brush by another figurative giant, Canadian George M. Dawson, in 1894, and made it into the carefully mapped and much better conceived linkage of continents that we understand today. The coming together of Canadian, Russian, Chinese and American scientists to study the land bridge elegantly parallels the concept of Beringia. Hopkins’ Asian colleagues warmly greeted him after his publication of The Bering Land Bridge, which rose above the Cold War to include invited works by authors from both continents. A second edited volume, Paleoecology of Beringia, built strongly upon these alliances as well.

When history meets science, the ride can be bumpy. Beringia remains a land of burning questions relating to glacial chronology, paleoenvironments, back-and-forth migrations of animal and plant species, and the first peopling of the New World — and O’Neill addresses these in an accessible and entertaining fashion. The quest for direct evidence as to the composition of plant life in the steppe tundra makes for interesting reading. He shows that the past is the key to the future, so these studies say much about ongoing global change. He also acknowledges “the first Americans’ discovery and colonization of half of the earth” as “one of the great accomplishments in human history,” making them giants, too; a welcome respite from the view that they simply “followed the animals.”

Imagery, however, sometimes stands in the way of information. O’Neill states that as sea level fell, “Asia and North America began to reach for each other like the outstretched arms of God and Adam on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. When the fingertips touched, a charge of new life streamed into the Americas.” Actually, this was a two-way charge: Camels and horses streamed the other way into Asia, and DNA evidence indicates that Asian-derived bison also returned the other way in later land-bridge episodes. Mixing metaphors with wild abandon, O’Neill then describes the two continents as “joined at the head like Siamese twins,” one of which is then the other’s “fickle lover” — all of this, including God and Adam, in a scant two pages!

At one point, O’Neill states that the steppe tundra community “covered a firmer substrate than today’s mushy, wet tundra.” What is missing is that this likely had something to do with trampling by large grazing mammals, so that the modern absence of this vegetation type may reflect the absence of mammoth, bison and horses in the region. Charlie Schweger, featured in this book as one of Hopkins’ intellectual offspring, told me, tongue-in-cheek, that if mammoths were alive today, they would exceed federal guidelines for loading on tundra and would not be permitted to wander there. By their presence they would change its character.

The change to wet tundra poignantly signals that these giants are gone, a landscape lament to their passing. The Last Giant of Beringia is also a lament, to the passing of Dave Hopkins. Many in his circle of colleagues are introduced in this book, and (its title notwithstanding) I expect that he would be pleased to see them in turn emerge as new giants of Beringia.

Wilson is instructor of geology and environmental sciences, and past chair of the Department of Geology at Douglas College, New Westminster, British Columbia. He also teaches half-time in the department of anthropology at Douglas and is adjunct professor of archaeology at Simon Fraser University.

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Book review
Venomous Earth:
How Arsenic Caused the World’s Worst Mass Poisoning

by Andrew A. Meharg.
Macmillan Press, 2005.
ISBN 1 4039 4499 7.
Hardcover, $29.95.

Skimming the surface of an epidemic
Sarah J. Ryker

The story of arsenic in Bangladesh’s drinking water is a fascinating and frustrating saga, full of science, politics and plenty of human tragedy. But while biogeochemist Andrew Meharg of the University of Aberdeen gives an overview of arsenic in Bangladesh in his book Venomous Earth, he unfortunately devotes little space to developing this rich subject.

Bangladesh is one of the poorest and most densely populated parts of the world. Until 30 years ago, most of Bangladesh’s drinking water came from surface water that was heavily contaminated by sewage; in 1960, water-borne diseases such as dysentery, cholera, diarrhea, typhoid and hepatitis killed 1 in 7 infants and 1 in 4 children under the age of five.

In the 1970s, international aid agencies funded a massive well-drilling program intended to provide clean drinking water. Over subsequent decades, the world community discovered that many of the “safe” new wells yielded water with exceptionally high levels of arsenic (see Geotimes, May 2005). (Arsenic occurs naturally in Earth’s crust and may be found in many geochemical settings — usually in small amounts, but occasionally at attention-getting concentrations, as in Bangladesh.)

While the new wells have cut pathogen-related childhood deaths almost in half, many Bangladeshis now show signs of moderate to severe arsenic toxicity, including skin discolorations, lesions and cancers. Over time, more serious effects of long-term arsenic poisoning (such as gangrene and internal cancers) are expected to become common in the Bangladeshi population. At present, a number of organizations are studying the sources of arsenic in groundwater in hopes of identifying low-arsenic regions and aquifers that could provide alternate drinking-water supplies. Unfortunately, as of yet, there appears to be no easy or cheap solution.

But very little of that story is conveyed in Venomous Earth. Despite the intriguing subtitle (“How Arsenic Caused the World’s Worst Mass Poisoning”), and the publisher’s blurbs on the book’s back cover and flaps, only the first 35 pages and last 13 pages deal directly with the arsenic crisis in Bangladesh. The first chapter describes the complicated history of the region, and some of the politics and controversies surrounding the international agencies’ well-drilling program and its aftermath. And the second chapter gives a brief gloss over of several current hypotheses as to the sources of arsenic in Bangladesh. The treatment of these hypotheses is simply too short; the reader is given insufficient information with which to judge Meharg’s briefly stated but rather sweeping conclusions.

In dealing with some of the financial, technical and social challenges of coping with arsenic in Bangladesh, the author indulges in some fingerpointing that seems a little fruitless. Still, Meharg does successfully convey a sense of the complexity of the situation, including the mind-boggling logistics of testing more than 1 million wells in a country with limited transportation infrastructure and few laboratory facilities, and the social barriers that prevent households of different castes from sharing one low-arsenic well. That said, Meharg once again attempts to cover too much ground in too little space.

Most of Venomous Earth focuses on arsenic poisonings related to human activity in industrialized nations. Arsenic has been used for a striking variety of purposes in our indoor and outdoor environments for centuries, and has been recognized as a poison for almost as long. Unlike some of today’s highly specific “designer chemicals,” arsenic has a great variety of effects on the body and a plethora of industrial uses.

Our forebears dealt with arsenic as both a nuisance byproduct of mining and a useful active ingredient in numerous fields from medicine to home décor. Only relatively recently has the use and disposal of arsenic been restricted by new regulations on environmental, occupational and consumer safety. At present, the primary uses of arsenic have shifted toward a few industries, including agricultural pest control, wood preservation and glass production.

The chapters on industrial, medical and household uses of arsenic contain many interesting anecdotes about arsenic, but it is difficult to extract from these narrow topics any perspective on the situation in Bangladesh. These sections do make the interesting point that the Bangladesh situation is not the first time that arsenic has caused a pervasive public-health problem. However, this finding is not unique to arsenic: The same could be said of other elements such as mercury, which is associated with a similarly broad array of industries and uses, including cosmetics, power plants, thermometers and dental amalgam.

For my tastes, the book as a whole treads too lightly over each area, giving a scattershot overview of each topic with little synthesis. My disappointment partly stems from the bait-and-switch advertising, which seemed to promise a book with rather more to say on Bangladesh. All in all, the various chapters of the book form a series of short essays that, while interesting, only skim the surface of each topic, giving the reader an idea of the variety of forces at play in Bangladesh, but not doing justice to the situation.

Ryker, formerly with the U.S. Geological Survey, is currently pursuing a Ph.D. in engineering and public policy at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, Pa. She previously wrote about arsenic contamination in the November 2001 Geotimes.

"Needling out the arsenic epidemic," Geotimes, May 2005

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Mapping a transportation hub in Alabama

The Decatur area in the Tennessee Valley of Alabama is a busy transportation corridor, traversed by Interstate 65 and U.S Highways 31 and 72 and, in the eastern part, includes the high-growth area on the west side of Huntsville, Ala. The area is underlain by stratigraphically complex Mississippian rocks and by alluvium deposits associated with the Tennessee River. New geologic mapping is providing detailed geologic data critical to the continuing development of the Decatur area.

Part of the Mississippian Pride Mountain Formation is exposed on U.S. Highway 31 in the Decatur region of Alabama. Recent mapping by the Geological Survey of Alabama provides detailed information about the busy transportation corridor. Courtesy of Andrew K. Rindsberg.

The mapping, conducted by the Geological Survey of Alabama and supported in part by the U.S. Geological Survey’s STATEMAP Program, includes seven 7.5-minute quadrangles. Six of the quadrangles have been published in the Quadrangle Series, and the remaining quadrangle is scheduled for publication this summer. Published reports comprise a printed and bound text describing the geology of each area and a plot-on-demand geologic map, cross section and explanation.

The Decatur area was chosen as a high-priority mapping area by the Geological Survey of Alabama’s external Geologic Mapping Advisory Committee. The goal of the advisory committee’s long-range geologic mapping plan is to provide new geologic mapping in areas of rapid urban and industrial development along Alabama’s primary transportation corridors.

Many communities in the area rely on groundwater for their domestic and industrial water supplies. The geologic maps will aid in protecting existing water supplies and in siting new wells. The quadrangles are underlain predominantly by carbonate rocks, and karst features are locally common. The maps document the distribution of karst-prone formations, allowing for more informed planning. Mississippian carbonate rocks have been quarried extensively in the area for use in construction. The demand for crushed stone is expected to increase, and the maps will be valuable exploration tools in the search for additional aggregate resources.

W. Edward Osborne contributed to the Maps column this month. Osborne directs the Geologic Mapping Program for the Geological Survey of Alabama.

For more information or to purchase individual maps, visit or call (205) 247-3636.

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