Monday, September 28, 2009

And things keep "piling" up

Give this some thought before advocating more fission reactors.

"Homeless nuclear waste"

Some 60,000 metric tons of radioactive waste is stored at nuclear power plants across the country, awaiting federal action that’s already a decade late.


Colin Woodard

September 15th, 2009

Christian Science Monitor


Standing on the end of Bailey Point, looking out on a cold, blue inlet of the Atlantic, you’d never know a nuclear power plant once stood here.

The massive concrete containment dome, the spent fuel storage pool, and the six-story-high turbine hall were all torn down earlier this decade, leaving a rain-soaked meadow of grass. The engineers and technicians who tended the 900-megawatt reactor packed up and left town a decade ago, when the Maine Yankee Atomic Power Station stopped producing power.

All that’s left is radioactive waste: the remains of the plant’s reactor vessel lining and the 1,435 spent fuel assemblies that passed through it over a quarter century of operations.

It has nowhere else to go. The owners of the defunct plant have put the waste in sealed canisters and placed them inside 64 two-story concrete silos that stand in regimented formation behind a 12-foot earthen berm and twin rows of razor-wire-topped fencing. Guards, insurance, maintenance, and other costs add up to $8 million a year, which is currently borne by utility customers. If it weren’t for the need to watch over the waste, the company would have been dissolved with the rest of the plant in 2005.

Wiscasset, a community of fewer than 4, 000 sometimes called the prettiest little village in Maine, is one of eight US towns that have found themselves stuck with high-level waste after the power plants that produced it disappeared. Other communities will join them in the coming decade as more plants reach the end of their life spans.

Maine Yankee’s owners worry that spent fuel and other wastes may sit where they are for decades, given the Obama administration’s decision to abandon work on a controversial federal repository at Yucca Mountain in Nevada.

“We’re kind of in limbo now,” says Maine Yankee spokesman Eric Howes, standing next to a concrete barrier at the approach to the interim storage yard. “The law says the federal government was supposed to take this stuff away 11 years ago. There are places they could take it, so we want them to please enforce the law.”

Fifty years after the first civilian nuclear power plant came on line, the United States has yet to decide what to do with the spent fuel they produce, raising questions about proposals to build more plants to meet future energy needs and reduce greenhouse-gas emissions. “If you don’t have a credible endpoint for spent fuel that deals with the long-term safety and security issues, you really have to wonder if nuclear power is a reasonable choice,” says physicist Edwin Lyman, a senior staff scientist with the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) in Washington.

By law, the federal government was supposed to have built a permanent repository and begun taking custody of the spent fuel piling up at the nation’s 104 nuclear plants in 1998. Complications – both political and technical – delayed work at Yucca Mountain, where the government has spent more than $13 billion. The delays caused spent fuel to begin piling up, filling storage pools at power plants across the country and forcing some of them to build special facilities to warehouse the waste.

Today there are 60,000 metric tons of spent fuel awaiting permanent disposal, according to the Nuclear Energy Institute, an industry association, and the nation’s power plants produce 2,000 tons more each year. Even if work on Yucca Mountain had continued, it wouldn’t have solved the problem: By the early 2020s, when it would have been completed, the nation’s nuclear waste would have already exceeded the repository’s 70,000-ton capacity.

The owners of decommissioned plants want the federal government to build its own interim storage site and to take their spent fuel away first, allowing them to close their facilities, sell property, and dissolve their companies.

“Here in New England there are three high-level nuclear storage sites, each of which has to be protected by three separate companies with redundant facilities,” says Bob Capstick, the Boston-based spokesman for two decommissioned plants, Yankee Rowe in Rowe, Mass., and Connecticut Yankee in Haddam, Conn. “It makes a lot more sense for the feds to bring it to a central storage location.”

Either way, the federal taxpayer will probably be stuck with the bill because the government was under a legal obligation to begin taking possession of spent fuel in 1998. In 2006, a federal judge awarded the three New England plants $142 million in damages, but the Department of Energy (DOE) has appealed the way the damages were calculated.

“It’s bad enough to have spent fuel stored on the site of an operating plant, but at least then you already have a security force and the technical skills to deal with radiation risks,” says Jerry Stouck, the attorney who represented the New England plants. “If you have to keep the same expertise on the site and all you’re doing is baby-sitting the fuel, it’s just a waste of money.”

Others say a centralized interim storage site makes sense from a security point of view. “If you have a hundred and some odd sites in 30 or more states where a terrorist attack could take place, you would think it might be better to house it all in one, centralized, highly secure location,” notes Patrick Dostie, Maine’s state nuclear safety inspector.
Centralized interim storage has its critics, though. Dr. Lyman of UCS says the concept is a bad one, as it requires spent fuel to be transported twice before it reaches its final resting spot.

“The less you move the fuel around, the better,” he says, pointing out that it is probably most vulnerable to accident or attack when it’s moving overland on trucks or rail cars, sometimes through densely populated areas. “The standards for transportation are pretty lax, and the risks of moving fuel twice outweigh the benefits.”

Asked about the prospects for a central interim storage facility, DOE spokeswoman Stephanie Mueller says the government is not currently “focused on specific sites” but rather on developing “thoughtful, long-term solutions to nuclear waste storage that do not involve Yucca Mountain.” Energy Secretary Steven Chu plans to delegate that task to a special blue ribbon commission whose membership has yet to be determined.

The Nuclear Energy Institute isn’t opposed to a centralized interim site, just as long as the federal government doesn’t run it, according to Steven Kraft, the industry group’s senior director for used fuel management.

“DOE could rent space in a private facility, but we do not think it would make sense for it to be a government facility,” he says, adding that government management would be more expensive and cumbersome. “Look at how well the government has done with Yucca Mountain,” he says with irony.

Mr. Kraft also says the uncertainty over spent-fuel disposal would have “no effect at all” on efforts to expand nuclear power generation. “Whether or not you build new nuclear plants in this country will be determined by traditional business factors,” he says. “We have to have a plan to deal with spent fuel, but we do not see it as an impediment.”

Back in Wiscasset, Don Hudson isn’t so sure.

“The constipation of the nuclear fuel cycle – our inability to develop a plan to deal with the waste – effectively puts a hold on any kind of significant redevelopment of nuclear power in this country,” says Mr. Hudson, who’s president of the Chewonki Foundation, an environmental education group that owns former Maine Yankee land adjacent to the interim storage site, and also serves on the facility’s community advisory committee.

“I’m very comfortable with the way the [Wiscasset] site is being managed right now,” he says, “but I don’t think it is a sustainable plan to have 60 or 70 of these installations spread across the country for any number of economic, ecological, and radiological reasons. I think it’s just crazy for us to be talking about developing an increased capacity to make waste when we don’t have a plan to deal with it.”

Nix on nuclear power

Hark...the Ark?

"In some ways, the story of the Ark is similar to other Judeo-Christian religious relics such as the Shroud of Turin and Noah’s Ark, Halpern said. "You have to remember why this scripture was written in the first place, and see the Ark’s symbolic power to people as a sacred object. If you try to over-explain it, you lose the power of the story.""

This is the heart of religious artifacts and the grist of popular entertainment and press.

"Probing Question: Is the Ark of the Covenant real?"


Solmaz Barazesh

September 24th, 2009

When you hear the words "Ark of the Covenant" what comes to mind? For some, Steven Spielberg’s film "Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark" provides the most vivid pop-culture reference to this mysterious sacred object.

The quest to find the real Ark has inspired generations of adventurers and Hollywood directors, but the trail has always gone cold.
Is the Ark of the Covenant real?

"Different people will give you different answers to that question," said Baruch Halpern, Penn State professor of ancient history, classics and ancient Mediterranean studies, and religious studies. "The Ark is a regular feature in the Old Testament, making several appearances in the first five books of the Bible. There are many consistent references to the Ark, and when you add it all up, it seems like the Ark was a real article."

According to scriptural accounts, Halpern said, the Ark is a box made from acacia wood, covered in gold and used as a container for the stone blocks bearing the Ten Commandments. Said to have been built at God’s command, the Ark is believed to measure about 4 feet by 2 feet by 2.5 feet and features gold rings on the two long sides that hold the wooden poles used to carry it.

The top surface of the Ark is decorated with two cherubim, or angels, who crouch facing each other with wings outstretched, forming a seat. Believers say God himself occupies that seat, while the Ark served as a footstool, Halpern said.

There are references in other ancient texts of similar "containers" used to transport sacred relics, and the image of God sitting on the wings of cherubim with his feet resting on the Ark below fits with depictions of ancient kings, he said.

"It’s also important to note that it wasn’t just the Ark being carried into battle. YHWH, the name accorded the god of Israel in much of the Bible and later literature, accompanies the Ark into battle, giving it miraculous power," Halpern said.

There are many references to the awesome power of the Ark, he said. Various Bible stories describe how, during the exodus of the Israelites, the power of the Ark parted the river Jordan to allowing the people to pass. During the siege of Jericho, the Ark was toted around the city walls in a seven day procession accompanied by seven priests sounding seven trumpets - and made the city walls come tumbling down. The ferocity of the Ark was so great that it had to be covered by a veil while being carried around, and could bring misfortune and tragedy on those who disrespected it.

Despite the powers it was said to possess, the Ark was eventually lost to the sands of time. The last Biblical mention of the Ark comes when the Babylonians destroyed Jerusalem and plundered the temple where the Ark was stored, Halpern said. After this point, the fate of the Ark is the subject of much speculation.

One theory is that the Ark was captured by an Egyptian pharaoh, a tale that gave rise to the Raiders of the Lost Ark movie plot. Another possibility is that the Ark was hidden by priests under the Temple Mount for safekeeping, or spirited away to an unknown site before the Babylonians even arrived in Jerusalem. Other suggestions are that the Ark was removed by divine intervention, taken by an Ethiopian prince, or destroyed in battle.

"They’re all fantasy, and we’ll never really know which one is true," Halpern said. "Some theories seem more plausible than others. Was the Ark hidden from the Babylonians? Unlikely. Did the Babylonians take it? That theory is more probable."

Like Indiana Jones, some real-life scholar-adventurers are on the trail of the Ark, with one researcher claiming to have found the remnants of the Ark stored in a library in Zimbabwe. Could this be true?

In some ways, the story of the Ark is similar to other Judeo-Christian religious relics such as the Shroud of Turin and Noah’s Ark, Halpern said. "You have to remember why this scripture was written in the first place, and see the Ark’s symbolic power to people as a sacred object. If you try to over-explain it, you lose the power of the story."

Simple science and priestly control

Comic book and logical certainty

Logicomix: An Epic Search for Truth


Apostolos Doxiadis and Christos H. Papadimitriou

ISBN-10: 0747597200
ISBN-13: 978-0747597209

"Algorithm and Blues"


Jim Holt

September 27th, 2009

New York Times

Well, this is unexpected — a comic book about the quest for logical certainty in mathematics. The story spans the decades from the late 19th century to World War II, a period when the nature of mathematical truth was being furiously debated. The stellar cast, headed up by Bertrand Russell, includes the greatest philosophers, logicians and mathematicians of the era, along with sundry wives and mistresses, plus a couple of homicidal maniacs, an apocryphal barber and Adolf Hitler.

Improbable material for comic-book treatment? Not really. The principals in this intellectual drama are superheroes of a sort. They go up against a powerful nemesis, who might be called Dark Antinomy. Each is haunted by an inner demon, the Specter of Madness. Their quest has a tragic arc, not unlike that of Superman or Donald Duck.

So, at least, the creators of “Logicomix” would have us believe. First published last year in Greece (where it became a surprise best seller), the comic book — er, graphic novel? — is the brainchild of Apostolos Doxiadis, previously the author of a not-bad mathematical fiction called “Uncle Petros and Goldbach’s Conjecture.” For expert assistance on logic, Doxiadis called on his friend Christos Papadimitriou, a professor of computer science at Berkeley and the author of a novel about Alan Turing. The art was done by Alecos Papadatos (drawings) and Annie Di Donna (color).

All four collaborators pop up in interludes throughout the book. (Doxiadis, evidently a handsome fellow, is drawn to look rather like Robert Goulet.) We see them chatting in the artists’ studio or strolling around contemporary Athens, accompanied by an adorable dog called Manga (Greek slang for “cool dude,” not a reference to Japanese comics). They argue about the developing ­logic-and-­madness theme and fret over whether there’s too much or too little technical stuff for the average reader. It’s almost as if they want to pre-empt the stern judgment of the reviewer. Fat chance.

The story proper opens on Sept. 4, 1939, three days after the Nazi invasion of Poland. Bertrand Russell is giving a public lecture at an American university on the role of logic in human affairs. Angry isolationists in the audience challenge Russell to explain how logic could justify participating in a world war. Ah, he responds, but what is logic?

In a series of flashbacks, Russell recounts his epic struggle with that question. We see him first as a little boy, in the 1870s, being brought up by his grandparents after the mysterious — to him, at least — disappearance of his mother and father. (Before succumbing to disease, Russell’s parents lived in a scandalous ménage-a-trois with a rather sinister amateur scientist.) Russell’s grandfather, Lord John Russell, a Whig aristocrat and reformer, had twice been prime minister, but it was his dour and pious grandmother who dominated his childhood. Not only did he suffer from crushing loneliness, but it was borne in upon him that his Uncle Willy had to be shut away as a violent lunatic. (His Aunt Agatha was none too sane either.) This was the beginning of his lifelong terror of hereditary madness, and the impetus for many a nightmare, which the cartoonists depict with lurid relish.

The adolescent Russell sought refuge in the abstractions of mathematics. (In his autobiography, he claimed it was his love of mathematics that saved him from suicide.) His vision of an enchanted logical world was jarred, however, when he reached Cambridge and found that mathematics as practiced there was little more than a bag of calculating tricks, sloppily based on physical intuition rather than rigorous proof. If certain knowledge was to be achieved, he grew convinced, the house of mathematics had to be rebuilt from scratch on firm logical foundations.

Russell’s quest for certainty coincided with a busy erotic career. We see him courting Alys, the pretty American Quaker girl who would become the first of his four wives. (The cartoonists inexplicably neglect to depict what Russell later described as “the happiest morning of my life,” when Alys allowed him to kiss her breasts). The young couple set off on a tour of the Continent, where Russell seeks out Gottlob Frege, the greatest logician since Aristotle, and Georg Cantor, the creator of the mathematical theory of infinity. Both men, to Russell’s consternation, prove to be slightly daft. In Paris, at the 1900 International Congress of Mathematicians, he witnesses a titanic clash between Henri Poincaré and David Hilbert, the two greatest mathematicians of the day, over the importance of intuition versus proof. Returning to England, Russell spends the next decade laboring with Alfred North Whitehead to complete the epic “Principia Mathematica” — all the while doing his best to seduce Whitehead’s comely wife, Evelyn. Their (stillborn) masterpiece runs many thousands of pages, a mere 362 of which are required to prove the interesting proposition “1 + 1 = 2.”

All of this is presented with real graphic verve. (Even though I’m a text guy, I couldn’t keep my eyes off the witty drawings.) To ginger up the story, the authors often deviate from the actual facts. As they admit in an afterword, Russell never met Frege or Cantor in the flesh. Nor, I am fairly certain, did he ever say to Whitehead, “I’m tired, man.” (You expect Whitehead to reply, “Me too, bro!”) We are assured, however, that no liberties have been taken with “the great adventure of ideas.” And for the most part the ideas are conveyed accurately, and with delightful simplicity. If you don’t know much about infinity, for instance, you are invited to check in to “Hilbert’s Hotel” — which, with its infinite number of rooms, can miraculously accommodate additional guests even when it’s completely full.

There is one serious misstep, though. It has to do with the notorious paradox that Russell discovered in the spring of 1901: the paradox of the set of all sets that don’t contain themselves as members. (Think of the barber of Seville, who shaves all men, and only those men, who do not shave themselves. Does this barber shave himself or not? Either possibility yields a contradiction.) The authors have fun unpacking Russell’s paradox, but they exaggerate its fallout. The paradox did ultimately doom Russell’s (and Frege’s) project of reducing mathematics to pure logic. However — and this is something that Russell himself failed to realize, along with the authors — it left mathematics pretty much undisturbed. When Cantor heard of Russell’s paradox, he did not react like a madman, the way ­“Logicomix” caricatures him. He calmly observed that it did not apply to his own theory of sets, which evolved into the present-day foundation of mathematics.

It is true that Cantor did suffer fits of madness (the magus of infinity died in a mental asylum), as did many other figures in this story. Frege, the consummate logician, ended up a foaming anti-Semite. Kurt Gödel, who proved that no logical system could capture all of mathematics, starved himself to death out of a paranoid fear that people were poisoning his food. Russell maintained his own grip on sanity, but his fear of hereditary madness was borne out when his elder son became schizophrenic and his granddaughter, also schizophrenic, committed suicide by setting herself afire. Russell’s philosophical confidence, however, was shattered by his onetime pupil Ludwig Wittgenstein, who made him realize that he had never really understood what logic was.

Is it madness to be driven by a passion for something as inhuman as abstract certainty? This is a question the four creators of “Logicomix” ponder as, in a beguiling coda, they make their way through nighttime Athens to an open-air performance of the “Oresteia.” Oddly enough, Aeschylus’ trilogy furnishes the concluding wisdom, which, at the risk of triteness, I’ll condense into a mathematical inequality:

Life > logic.

Jim Holt is the author of “Stop Me if You’ve Heard This: A History and Philosophy of Jokes.” He is at work on a book about the puzzle of existence.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

John Dee returns

John Dee...a man of science and magic may now be getting his rightful position in the history and philosophy of science.

"Lost 'Renaissance Man' celebrated"

September 22nd, 2009


A celebration is taking place to mark the 400th anniversary of the death of a Welshman who helped develop the idea of a British empire.

John Dee, a scholar who excelled in science and maths, delved into early Welsh history to identify a common identity for the Welsh and the English.

But, despite being dubbed the "Renaissance man" of the Tudor era, his achievements have gone unremembered.

A University of Cambridge event will honour Dee, who died in 1609.

Specialists from all over the world are gathering for a two-day conference on Monday and Tuesday, during which they aim to celebrate his achievements and restore his reputation, which they say remains unfairly tainted by his interests in the supernatural.

Jennifer Rampling, from the Cambridge University's department of history and philosophy of science, said: "John Dee was probably the dominant figure of the English Renaissance, certainly as far as science is concerned."

"Yet although he was one of Europe's leading mathematicians, he never managed to find a patron who would support the full range of his interests. Ironically, this continued even after his death."

Born in in 1527, Dee formulated blueprints for a national library and the modern calendar and was also Queen Elizabeth I's astrologer, choosing the date for her coronation.

Although from London, he belonged to a Welsh family which had moved to the area a few decades earlier.

Dee, who went to Cambridge's St John's College, traced his own ancestry to Rhys ap Gruffydd, ruler of the medieval Welsh kingdom of Deheubarth, and claimed ancestral ties to legendary figures such as Rhodri Mawr and Coel Hen.

It was this ancestry which inspired him to look into the issue of identity, which became fundamental to England's ambitions in the New World.

Welsh legends

Dee coined the term "British Empire" long before Britain as a nation existed.

Alongside his scientific interests, he was fascinated by the medieval myth-history of both England and Wales, seeing the two as united by a common British identity and a shared, ancient, imperial past.

In 1574, he undertook a tour of western England and eastern Wales on a quest to find antique materials that would support this notion of a shared heritage.

At the same time, he delved deep into Arthurian legend and took a particular interest in the story of the voyage of Madog ab Owain Gwynedd, a mythical Welsh Prince who legend has it discovered America in 1170.

Together, this enabled Dee to formulate historical "evidence" for a British claim to large parts of North America.

These rights to the New World were set out in legal documents and presented to Queen Elizabeth around 1580, laying the basis for England's settlement of the Americas and its evolution as an international power in the century that followed.

John Dee

The John Dee Society

Saturday, September 19, 2009

Cultural heritage--closer to home

This was brought to my attention by POSP stringer Tim. This will never cease.

"Crackdown on artifact crimes gets results"


Dennis Wagner

September 18th, 2009


A federal government crackdown on black-market Indian artifacts and the looting of dozens of sacred objects from Indian ruins in Utah, Arizona, Colorado and New Mexico continued to unfold this week as a mother and daughter were sentenced to three and two years of probation respectively.

Jeanne Redd, 59, and her daughter Jerrica, 37, both of Blanding, Utah, were the first to be sentenced in the Department of the Interior investigation, launched in late 2006. The women pleaded guilty to multiple felonies involving theft and excavation of artifacts and surrendered an antiquities collection of more than 800 objects.

Since the investigation began, 26 people, including several well-known antiquities collectors, have been indicted, according to Melodie Rydalch, a spokeswoman for the U.S. Attorney's Office in Utah.

The investigation has included grave robbers looting Native American burial grounds, two suspects committing suicide and pre-dawn raids by federal agents, Rydalch says.

"It's like a Tony Hillerman book unfolding right before our very eyes," Rydalch noted, referring to popular detective novels based on the Navajo Nation.

Jeanne Redd is the widow of James Redd, a physician and antiquities collector who committed suicide by carbon monoxide poisoning one day after his arrest in June court records show. Steven Shrader, 56, of New Mexico shot and killed himself in Illinois in June, the same day he was scheduled to appear in federal court in Salt Lake City.

Search warrant affidavits filed at the U.S. District Court in Utah say the case began after "a major dealer in archaeological artifacts" agreed to work with federal investigators. The affidavits say investigators were able to penetrate a secretive network of illicit diggers and dealers because the informer, identified only as "the Source," had numerous connections.

In the course of the probe, affidavits say, "the Source" purchased sacred Hopi kachina masks, Navajo pendants, Pueblo pottery and other artifacts from more than two dozen figures.

In Arizona, where no arrests have been made to date, several collectors surrendered artifact collections after federal investigators came with search warrants this summer, said Beth Grindell, director of the Arizona State Museum in Tucson. She described the collections as "quite sizable."

Grindell and Rebecca Tsosie, executive director at Arizona State University's Indian Legal Project, said looters do tremendous scientific damage that also is devastating to Native American tribes.

Brett Tolman, U.S. attorney in Utah, said the probe is far from over. "I hope we've accomplished a deterrent effect that will have an impact on the black market," he said.

War and cultural heritage

Raptorex--T. Rex precursor and how science works

This is a fine example how some areas of science are subject to change. Science is an evolving disciple of knowledge.

"Fossil Find Challenges Theories on T. Rex"


Henry Fountain

September 18th, 2009

New York Times

Paleontologists said Thursday that they had discovered what amounted to a miniature prototype of Tyrannosaurus rex, complete with the oversize head, powerful jaws, long legs — and, as every schoolchild knows, puny arms — that were hallmarks of the king of the dinosaurs.

But this scaled-down version, which was about nine feet long and weighed only 150 pounds, lived 125 million years ago, about 35 million years before giant Tyrannosaurs roamed the earth. So the discovery calls into question theories about the evolution of T. rex, which was about five times longer and almost 100 times heavier.

“The thought was these signature Tyrannosaur features evolved as a consequence of large body size,” Stephen L. Brusatte of the American Museum of National History, an author of a paper describing the dinosaur published online by the journal Science, said at a news conference. “They needed to modify their entire skeleton so they could function as a predator at such colossal size.”

The new dinosaur, named Raptorex kriegsteini, “really throws a wrench into this observed pattern,” Mr. Brusatte said.

The nearly complete fossil was found in northeastern China and bought by a collector, Henry J. Kriegstein, who alerted Paul C. Sereno, a paleontologist at the University of Chicago and lead author of the paper. The fossil, which was illicitly excavated, will be returned to a museum in China.

Dr. Sereno said the fossil was that of a young adult, about 5 or 6 years old and near the end of its growth period. Besides the oversized head, jaws and legs, it had long shinbones and long, compressed feet that helped it run fast after smaller dinosaurs and other prey. “We see this all, to our great surprise, in an animal that is basically the body weight of a human,” Dr. Sereno said.

Raptorex, like T. rex, would have killed animals with its teeth and jaws. The forelimbs would not have been the primary means for attacking prey. In fact, Dr. Sereno said, the forelimbs would have gotten smaller as the head got larger. “This is an agile, fast-running animal,” he said. “By adding a lot of weight at the top, something has to give way. What gave way was the forelimb.”

Thomas R. Holtz Jr., a paleontologist at the University of Maryland who was not involved in the work, said the discovery helped “clear up the origin of the characteristic features of the Tyrannosaurs.”

Dr. Holtz, who cautioned that the findings needed to be independently confirmed, noted that there had been a gap in the family tree between earlier, more primitive Tyrannosaurs that had relatively short legs and long arms and the later giants with opposite features. “This clarifies the sequence,” he said.

Campus murders--intriguing

The question posed and described below is not that unusual. We like to read and witness the peccadillos and crimes of the rich and famous and even the crimes of outstanding merit on university campuses. Passions, greed, and ego stalk the halls of ivy. This isn't unique to the United States. Think of the popular British favorites, Inspector Morris and Inspector Lewis, who resolve criminal activities at Oxford. It is just sad that it happens at all.

"Murder Draped in Ivy"

Why the press can't get enough of Harvard or Yale murders


Jack Shafer

September 17th, 2009


If you plan to be murdered and expect decent press coverage, please have the good sense to be a Harvard or Yale student or professor. America's top dailies and the cable networks will rush to the scene of the crime and sniff the vicinity for clues to your demise. They'll scrape your personal history and publish enough information to serve as a foundation for a made-for-TV movie about you.

Likewise, if you kill somebody and want the press to go all Nancy Grace on your ass, make sure your victim attends or works at Harvard or Yale. Journalists almost everywhere observe this rough rule of thumb: Three murders at a Midwestern college equal one murder at Harvard or Yale.

The press is currently demonstrating its abiding interest in Ivy League murders as it covers the killing of Yale University graduate student Annie Le, who went missing last week and was discovered on Sept. 13 hidden inside a wall in a campus building where she worked.

The New York Times, one of several Ivy League house organs, has already published five articles about Le's disappearance and murder and the apprehension of suspect Raymond Clark III. The Boston Globe has published at least six stories about the case, and the Washington Post has run at least three briefs from the Associated Press. The Times of London, published five time zones away, can't seem to sate its appetite for Annie Le news. Even the proletarian New York tabloids—the Post and the Daily News—have gone ape for the story.

The press has long thrived on Harvard and Yale murder. Earlier this year, Newsweek, the New York Times, and other publications threw themselves at the murder of Cambridge, Mass., resident Justin Cosby in a Harvard dorm. When Sinedu Tadesse killed her Harvard roommate and hanged herself in 1995, the New York Times printed at least six stories on it; The New Yorker ran long on the crime in a 1996 feature by Melanie Thernstrom. (Doubleday released her book-length account the following year.) See also the 1991 murder of Yale sophomore Christian Prince—or, for that matter, the cold-case slaying of Suzanne Jovin, a Yale senior killed off campus in 1998.* The New York Times Web site has an entire "Times Topics" page on Jovin. Times coverage of the 2001 murders of professors Half Zantop and Suzanne Zantop also gets its own space in the "Times Topics" parking garage. (They taught at Dartmouth, which as far as I'm concerned is Harvard Lite.)

Defenders of abundant Annie Le coverage will cite special circumstances that make this killing more newsworthy than your garden-variety murder. Le was reported as missing. She was found, on the day she was to be married, in a strange place. Also, the fact that the charged suspect was a "a grunt in the rarefied world of medical research, cleaning lab animals' cages and doing custodial chores," as the New York Times puts it, has given the story town-gown legs.

But every murder is uniquely dramatic; otherwise, CSI would be set in Ivy League towns instead of Las Vegas, Miami, and New York. (Addendum: A reader points out that New York is an Ivy League town. I concede the error, but leave the joke intact.) Had the Le murder happened at, say, Oklahoma State University, you'd have to bribe the night editor of the New York Times with a case of scotch and Hasty Pudding tickets to get him to run a one-inch wire story. Hell, a Stanford murder wouldn't warrant this sort of coverage! All murders are equal; it's just that press treats Harvard and Yale murders as more equal.

I can already hear the special pleaders responding: Harvard and Yale murders deserve special coverage because those universities occupy exceptional places in our national psyche. An inordinate contingent of the American elite is educated and socialized there. Then there's the alleged bellwether effect: Harvard and Yale people will tell you more eyes look to Harvard and Yale on a regular basis than to the nation's Podunk U.'s, which makes them de facto symbols for broader university-life concerns. West Texas State's image won't dim if you get murdered there, but get murdered at Harvard or Yale and you have people all across the country worrying about campus safety. And don't forget the "even at Harvard?" effect: These schools have the reputation for being some of the country's most exclusive ivory towers. Grisly crime stands in disconcerting relief against their vaunted reputations—and the resulting cognitive dissonance has news weight. By this logic, anything out of the ordinary that happens at Harvard or Yale—from a murder to the arrest of one of its scholars for disorderly conduct—is "newsworthy." At Slate, no Harvard or Yale story proposal will ever be laughed out of a story meeting, no matter how mundane.

The elite press and the tabloid press (in which I include cable populists such as Greta Van Susteren) approach Ivy murder from different angles.* Members of the elite press identify with Harvard and Yale—even if they didn't go there. They may work for someone who went, or wish they'd gone, or hope their children go. The same applies to many Times readers, pre-selling the story on both the supply and demand sides. The murder-happy tabloid press, on the other hand, has always taken special joy in showcasing the pain of the high-and-mighty.

The gap between elite and tabloid narrows every time bad things happen to privileged people. The difference is that tabloids never stop to justify or explain their prurient interest. If this how-the-mighty-fall stuff is your sort of story—and I'm thinking it is, since you've read to the end of this piece—don't bother with the Times. The emotional ride you seek is hawking tickets right now at the Daily News and Post.

Corrections, Sept. 18, 2009: This article originally misspelled the first name of Suzanne Jovin.

This article also originally misspelled the last name of Greta Van Susteren.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Roth update

"From Ivory Tower to Iron Bars: Scientists Risk Jail Time for Violating Export Laws"


Sharon Weinberger

September 17th, 2009


John Reece Roth never thought he’d be going to prison for his research on plasma physics. But that’s precisely where the 72-year old University of Tennessee professor will likely spend the next four years.

Roth was sentenced last month for sharing his research with foreign graduate students and taking a laptop with his research to China. Along with his university research, he was working on an unclassified contract from the U.S. Force looking at ways to reduce drag on drones using plasma actuators.

The case has been closely watched by university professors working in areas that deal with controlled technical information, particularly satellite technology, which is classified as a munition. As I write in a recent article for Nature (apologies, behind a paywall):

Concerns over prosecution have even led some academics to self-censor when teaching, particularly in the area of satellites, which have been under the control of the state department since 1999. That shift, which was prompted by a satellite manufacturer illegally sharing technical data with China about the failure of a Long March rocket, had an immediate effect on university work in the area. “There are things I was once comfortable talking about in class, and I’m not comfortable with anymore,” says Thomas Zurbuchen, a professor of space science and aerospace engineering at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor.

It’s a difficult subject: many people I interviewed felt Roth showed blatant disregard for the law — he was warned his work fell under the State Department’s munitions list — but they expressed deep frustration with the ambiguity of the laws.

Clif Burns, a lawyer at Bryan Cave, who contributes to the equally amusing and educational Export Law Blog, believes the Roth case is an anomaly — at least so far. Burns also told me that part of Roth’s particular problem was that he was sharing research with graduate students from the two countries of most concern to the United States: China and Iran.

“This was a double whammy,” he said.

J. Reece Roth case--new trial appeal

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Paul book

The Strangest Man: The Hidden Life of Paul Dirac, Quantum Genius


Graham Farmelo

ISBN-10: 0571222781
ISBN-13: 978-0571222780

"Studying the Strangest Man"


Lee Billings

September 15th, 2009


For more than five years, former physicist Graham Farmelo devoted himself to unlocking the secrets of one of the most important and curious figures of 20th century science, Paul Dirac. He was born in 1902 and died in 1984, and though lionized by his peers for his fundamental work in quantum mechanics (among other things, he predicted the existence of antimatter and won a Nobel Prize when he was only 31), Dirac’s legacy has fared poorly among the general public. During his research, Farmelo found that most residents of the “famous” physicist’s hometown of Bristol didn’t even know who Dirac was. Unquestionably, this is due to Dirac’s reclusive and taciturn behavior; his social quiescence was so extreme that it inspired his fellow physicists to invent an unofficial unit of measure for the minimal number of words a person could speak in polite company: a “Dirac,” roughly one utterance per hour.

But as Farmelo delved deeper into Dirac’s life for his new biography, The Strangest Man, he discovered surprising complexity and contradiction that gives new appreciation to the physicist’s character: Despite what many perceived as a lack of empathy, Dirac married, raised children, and forged several close lifelong friendships. Despite his professed distaste for unscientific reasoning, in his later life he became increasingly obsessed with philosophical, even religious, questions. And despite his love for the rarefied subject of theoretical physics, Dirac also had a passion for “lowbrow” cartoons and comic books.

Farmelo spoke with Seed’s Lee Billings about the process of researching the book and his astonishing hypothesis that could explain, once and for all, Dirac’s enigmatic behavior.

Seed: What motivated you to spend five years writing a book about Paul Dirac?

Graham Farmelo: I used to be a theoretical physicist, and I can say that everyone in that profession is interested in Dirac. He’s often said to be “the first really modern theoretician” or “the theorist’s theorist.” I remember as an undergraduate coming across my first taste of Dirac’s physics, something called Fermi-Dirac statistics, which governs the transistors and electron flow in your computer. I was blown away, a bit like a young music student listening to Beethoven’s “Moonlight Sonata.” Dirac’s first papers on quantum mechanics still look modern, more than those of any of his fellow pioneers. The mathematical imagination and beauty of those articles is amazing. I wanted to write a biography of him to try to communicate the power and scope of his work to non-specialists who are nevertheless curious about science, and to try to understand his remarkable personality.

In my time in physics, I met quite a few “Dirac fanatics,” people who are obsessive about him. I’m speaking to you from the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, and I’ve spent several lunchtimes recounting to the physicists here some new “Dirac stories.”

Seed: “Dirac stories?” Can you give me some examples?

GF: Certainly. At the end of a lecture, Dirac agreed to answer questions. Someone in the audience piped up: “I didn’t understand the equation on the top right of the blackboard, professor.” Dirac was silent for more than a minute. When the moderator asked him if he’d like to answer the question, Dirac shook his head and said, “That wasn’t a question. It was a comment.”

Here’s another: Over dinner one evening at Saint John’s College, Cambridge, an American visitor who was desperate to meet the formidable Dirac steeled himself to ask, “Are you going on vacation this summer, professor?” Silence. About 20 minutes later, Dirac turned to the visitor and said, “Why do you ask?”

Seed: He sounds like quite a deep, literal thinker. Did Dirac have any interests outside physics?

GF: Yes, a lot, but he just didn’t talk about them. He read widely, from Tolstoy to John le Carré. Among artists, he loved Rembrandt and Salvador Dali. Like Einstein, Dirac’s taste in music was mainly classical, but in later life he had a thing about Cher. To settle a dispute with his wife, he bought a second television so that he could watch a Cher special while she watched the Oscars.

Seed: The book includes several revelatory passages documenting Dirac’s personal life. How did you research and verify that material?

GF: I devoted a lot of time tracking down Dirac’s surviving friends, people who knew him very well. The most important one I found was his last great friend, Leopold Halpern, an expert on relativity who slept in the open air, refused to wash with soap, and liked to slice open baked potatoes with a karate chop. A few years ago, when Halpern was at death’s door with prostate cancer, he flew across the country to Florida, where Dirac spent the latter part of his life, just so he could row me up Wakulla Springs. He and Dirac used to go rowing every weekend. That was a special trip for me: Even now I’m looking at my arm and there are goose bumps. He showed me places where they talked, even where they went skinny dipping. Two and a half months later, Halpern died.

I spent several months consulting the Dirac archive at Florida State University in Tallahassee, which was virtually untouched. Dirac was an FSU professor for the last 14 years of his life. I found amazing things, not just letters from great physicists like Heisenberg and Schrödinger but also an amazing cache of weekly letters from Dirac’s mother, spanning almost 20 years. Many historians would’ve probably turned their noses up at these, but I found in them a dramatic story that illuminates Dirac’s home life and upbringing. I was also blessed with beginner’s luck when I happened to meet Dirac’s younger daughter at a centenary celebration of his birth. We hit it off well, and one day in her kitchen while I was visiting her, she showed me something like 120 private letters between Dirac and his first serious girlfriend, later his wife. Keep in mind, this man hardly spoke a word, and here he was opening up, writing whole pages—epics for him. I couldn’t believe my luck. Here was Dirac talking about his father with whom he didn’t get along at all, and about what it felt like to be someone conscious, that he was unlike most other people, unable to empathize with them. This is just my opinion here, but I believe he demonstrated many symptoms of what we now call autism, though that condition had not been identified at the time.

Seed: You think Dirac had undiagnosed autism?

GF: I did not go into this book project thinking Dirac was autistic in any way. When I started researching him all those years ago, I barely even knew what the term “autism” meant, and certainly didn’t apply it to Dirac. But as I researched, I encountered rumors about Dirac being autistic, about Einstein being autistic, and speculations that autism was more prevalent in scientists and mathematicians. So during one of my stays at Cambridge, I went to see Simon Baron-Cohen, who is arguably Britain’s leading expert on autism. He knew nothing about Dirac, but, to my amazement, he began describing patterns of behavior that exactly correspond to Dirac’s. Let me stress that this is just a hypothesis, and that I’m personally very skeptical of attempts to psychoanalyze people who are dead. This isn’t theoretical physics; I can’t do a slam-dunk experiment to prove it.

Seed: What were some of the behavioral indicators?

GF: There are many of them: inability to empathize, extreme taciturnity and literal-mindedness, a passion for a routine, narrow interests, a lack of physical coordination, dislike of sudden loud noises, and so on. Many of the “Dirac stories” told by physicists are, in my opinion, actually autism stories. When people are laughing at these things, they forget what they’re actually doing is mocking.

Seed: Do you think those traits might have helped him in his work or given him a unique perspective?

GF: Well, he was certainly as focused as a laser and as logical as a computer. He also had a fascinating way of looking at mathematics. He had a phrase, “My equation is smarter than I am.” He really did think that a good equation could be more intelligent than its creator. There’s a kind of mysticism in that. In the last 15 or 20 years of his life, he became obsessed with the philosophy that, for a piece of mathematics to be useful in fundamental physics, it must be beautiful. For instance, he thought the theory of photon and electron interactions—what we call quantum electrodynamics—was ugly, so he wouldn’t accept it. He had this extremely rigorous sense of beauty, and saw each successive revolution in physics progressing through increasingly beautiful mathematics.

Dirac, to his dying breath, pursued this quest for mathematical beauty. For him, everything apart from that principle was just details. The job of the fundamental theorist was to look for mathematically beautiful laws. That’s why the string theorists are on the right track, even though there aren’t experiments to bear them out at the moment.

Seed: So Dirac would be a fan of string theory, you think?

GF: Well, when people get old, they tend to basically think that everything’s gone to the dogs, and there was an element to that in Dirac, who took virtually no interest in the latest findings in his field. But if you apply his idea about sticking to mathematically beautiful generalizations of past theories and to hell with experiments in the short term, then this philosophy should embolden string theorists, yes.

"Quantum Leap"


Louisa Gilder

New York Times

This biography is a gift. It is both wonderfully written (certainly not a given in the category Accessible Biographies of Mathematical Physicists) and a thought-provoking meditation on human achievement, limitations and the relations between the two. Here we find a man with an almost miraculous apprehension of the structure of the physical world, coupled with gentle incomprehension of that less logical, messier world, the world of other people.

At Cambridge University in 1930, Subrahmanyan Chandrasekhar took a class in quantum mechanics from the 28-year-old Paul Dirac. Three years later, Dirac would become the youngest theoretician to receive the Nobel Prize in Physics up to that time (50 years after that, Chandrasekhar would become one of the older ones). Chandrasekhar described Dirac as a “lean, meek, shy young ‘Fellow’ ” (i.e., of the Royal Society) “who goes slyly along the streets. He walks quite close to the walls (like a thief!), and is not at all healthy.” Dirac’s class — which Chandrasekhar took in its entirety four times, even though Dirac taught it by repeating material from his recently published textbook word for word — was “just like a piece of music you want to hear over and over again.”

Dirac is the main character of a thousand humorous tales told among physicists for his monosyllabic approach to conversation and his innocent, relentless application of logic to everything. Listening to a Dirac story is like slipping into an alternate universe: Dirac reads “Crime and Punishment” and reports it “nice” but notes that in one place the sun rises two times in a day; Dirac eats his dinner in silence until his companion asks, “Have you been to the theater or cinema this week?” and Dirac replies, “Why do you wish to know?”

His work was as sui generis as his social skills. “The great papers of the other quantum pioneers were more ragged, less perfectly formed than Dirac’s,” explained Freeman Dyson, who took Dirac’s course as a precocious 19-year-old. Dirac’s discoveries “were like exquisitely carved marble statues falling out of the sky, one after another. He seemed to be able to conjure laws of nature from pure thought.” (Most notably, Dirac predicted the existence of antimatter in 1928 because his just discovered relativistic electron equation required it.) “It was this purity that made him unique.”

In 1990, Helge Kragh wrote “Dirac: A Scientific Biography,” a useful resource comprising physics, a little history and a dessert of Dirac stories in a chapter entitled “The Purest Soul.” And indeed, what else besides quantum mechanics and amusing anecdotes did this great and single-minded physicist’s life hold?

“The purest soul” is a quotation about Dirac from Niels Bohr, as is Graham Farmelo’s title. (“Dirac is the strangest man,” Bohr said, “who ever visited my institute.”) But purity and strangeness were not the whole story. Kragh’s book offers a collage of a brilliant and peculiar man seen from the outside; Farmelo’s is a tapestry, and he provides glimpses of the inside.

A senior research fellow at the Science Museum in London, Farmelo gives us the texture of Dirac’s life, much of it spent outdoors — from long Sunday walks as a young man, looking like “the bridegroom in an Italian wedding photograph,” “dressed in the suit he wore all week, his hands joined behind his back, both feet pointing outwards as he made his way around the countryside in his metronomic stride”; to late-life canoeing trips with Leopold Halpern, a physicist even stranger than he, “through forests of sassafras and American beech trees, draped with Spanish moss. The alligators made scarcely a sound: the silence was broken only by the rhythmic sloshing of the paddles, the cry of a circling osprey, the occasional shuffling of wind passing through shoreline gaps in the forest.” (After lunch, they swam and paddled back, “scarcely exchanging a word.”)

We follow Dirac from his pinched and chilly childhood in Bristol (a few blocks away from the two-years-younger Archie Leach, a k a Cary Grant); through his discovery, visiting the Bohrs in Copenhagen, of what a happy family was like; his fiercely loyal friendship with Werner Heisenberg; his joyful beach honeymoon, still in a three-piece suit; his careful fatherhood (constructing for his daughters’ cat a door wider than its whiskers); to his death in Florida — “a place where recreational walkers are regarded as perverse” — in 1984.

The science writing in “The Strangest Man” isn’t glib, but neither does it require problem-solving on the part of the reader. In most cases, Farmelo presents the technical matter clearly and efficiently, and in all cases — one of the great joys of the book — Dirac’s scientific insights are placed within the circumstances in which they were born: e.g., the “sweltering July” of 1926 when Dirac, sitting at his college desk, produced his paper on what became Fermi-Dirac statistics.

In a prologue, Farmelo describes a visit to the elderly Dirac paid by his biologist colleague Kurt Hofer. Through the eyes of Hofer, we see Dirac suddenly break out of monosyllables to talk for two hours with increasing vehemence about his monstrous father. This represents the author’s careful decision to keep the tale Dirac told about his childhood separate from — even as it overshadows — the rest of the book, and it ends with Hofer’s thoughts, not Dirac’s: “ ‘I simply could not conceive of any childhood as dreadful as Dirac’s.’ . . . Could it be that Dirac — usually as literal-minded as a computer — was exaggerating? Hofer could not help asking himself, over and again: ‘Why was Paul so bitter, so obsessed with his father?’ ”

The conflict between this prologue (which gives ample reason for Dirac to be bitter about his father) and the seemingly warm family life that emerges in the first chapter casts a tension over the rest of the book very similar to that felt when reading a mystery. And as in a mystery, the penultimate chapter sheds new light. There Farmelo delves into a sensitive exploration of the possibility that Dirac was autistic, and of the ways in which his lack of facility in reading the emotions of others affected their perceptions of him and his perceptions of them. The emphasis on Dirac’s childhood as a story — one Farmelo (along with me) believes to be true — usefully reinforces the importance of point of view.

In a memorable episode, Dirac and his wife visit their closest friends, Peter and Anna Kapitza, in Russia. In 1934, the long arm of the Soviet state had wrenched Kapitza, despite his devoted long-distance fellow-traveling, away from his lab at Cambridge under Ernest Rutherford and back into the Soviet Union. In 1937 the friends reunited at the Kapitzas’ summer house in the piney woods of Bolshevo, “with wild strawberries ripe for gathering and a fast-flowing river close by.” They arrived only “days before Stalin authorized the torture of suspected enemies of the people,” Farmelo writes. “On the roads around Bolshevo, some of the trucks marked ‘Meat’ and ‘Vegetables’ hid prisoners on their way to be shot and buried in the forests to the north of the city which Dirac admired through his binoculars.”

Farmelo handles such scenes with a refreshing, cleareyed understanding of how complicated the world actually is. Dirac did not — probably could not — know what the Soviet Union really was; he also could not know who his father really was, and his father could not really know him. These complexities and unresolvably cubist perspectives make, paradoxically, for the most satisfying and memorable biography I have read in years.

Paul Dirac

Monday, September 14, 2009

Dino wars

Legal wranglings over some old always appears to be a factor.

"The Dinosaur Fossil Wars"

Across the American West, legal battles over dinosaur fossils are on the rise as amateur prospectors make major finds


Donovan Webster

April 2009


Editor’s note: On August 6, 2009, the 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals upheld an earlier ruling that Ron Frithiof did not engage in fraud and that he and his team can retain ownership rights of Tinker the Tyrannosaurus .

Buried beneath a barren stretch of South Dakota badland, the deceased appeared small for its species. As Ron Frithiof, an Austin, Texas, real-estate developer turned dinosaur prospector, dug cautiously around it in a rugged expanse of backcountry, he was growing increasingly confident that he and his partners were uncovering a once-in-a-lifetime find.

Ever since he had heard about a private collection going up for sale in the mid-1990s, Frithiof, now 61, had been hunting dinosaurs. "I'd thought fossils were things you could see only in museums," he says. "When I learned you could go out and find stuff like that, to keep or even to sell, it just lit a fire in my imagination. I studied every book I could, learned techniques of extraction. Fossils inspire a powerful curiosity."

Frithiof was keenly aware that the skeleton of a mature Tyrannosaurus rex ( "Sue," named in honor of prospector Sue Hendrickson, who made the find in western South Dakota in 1990) had been auctioned off-at Sotheby's in New York City in 1997-for more than $8 million. The specimen that Frithiof and his fellow excavators began unearthing in 1998, in a painstaking, inch-by-inch dig was about four feet tall, less than half Sue's height. With unfused vertebrae and scrawny shin and ankle bones, the skeleton was almost certainly that of a juvenile. If so, it would likely be the most complete young T. rex ever discovered. A find of this magnitude, Frithiof knew, would create a sensation. Its value would be, as he put it, "anyone's guess." $9 million? $10 million? This was uncharted territory.

For nearly three years, the excavators-including longtime fossil hunter Kim Hollrah, who had first investigated the site-continued their meticulous work. Whenever Frithiof, Hollrah and their companions could coordinate time off from work, they would drive 24 hours straight, from Texas to the dig site, north of Belle Fourche, South Dakota, which Frithiof had leased from a local rancher in 1998. "Most years, we'd spend about a month working," he recalls. "Thirty or 40 days a summer, before the weather would drive us off."

Braving blistering 100-degree temperatures, the crew took every precaution to keep the specimen intact. At the same time, they were attempting to wrest it from the ground before South Dakota's brutal winter set in. "That's one of the paradoxes of fossil collecting," says Frithiof. "Once a specimen is exposed to the elements, it's a race to get it out in as responsible a way as possible, to protect it from wind and rain and weathering. It's like a slow-motion race."

Paleontological excavation is nothing if not grueling. "We worked inch by inch, brushing bits of rock and soil away, taking a pin to strip away just that next little bit of rock and earth [to reveal the rough contours]," Frithiof told me. On a good day, an experienced fossil excavator might uncover only a few inches of skeleton. Frithiof and the others gingerly pried out each section, still enclosed in the crumbly chunk of rock matrix that had originally surrounded it. In preparation for transport, the prospectors then wrapped the sections in layers of tissue paper, aluminum foil and plaster.

As the dig moved forward, Frithiof's colleagues, with a nod to "Sue" (today a centerpiece attraction at Chicago's Field Museum), decided the new T. rex needed a name. The one they came up with honored Frithiof's role as the project's financial backer. "I don't know why my parents started calling me Tinker," says Frithiof. "Somehow, it stuck."

In 2001, as the excavation of Tinker headed toward completion, the team made another remarkable discovery: evidence of two additional T. rex skeletons on the site. By that point, a children's museum in the Midwest had indicated its willingness to pay up to $8.5 million for Tinker. During the prospective purchaser's pre-transaction research, however, a massive legal hiccup was uncovered-one that Frithiof and his lawyers would later insist had been an honest mistake.

Tinker, as it turned out, had been found not from local rancher Gary Gilbert's land but from adjacent property owned by Harding County, South Dakota. In November 2000, Frithiof, he says, with an eye to future excavations, had leased the parcel from the county; the agreement stipulated that the county would get 10 percent of the sale price for any fossils uncovered there. Now, in August 2004, Harding County filed a civil lawsuit in Federal District Court against Frithiof and his partners alleging fraud, trespass and conspiracy.

Frithiof's world caved in. After devoting years to Tinker, the prospector was suddenly in danger of going to jail for his efforts. "This whole experience has been a disaster," he says. "[With] all the lawyers' fees, not to mention the disruption of my life, it's cost me a fortune. And it's been very hard on my family. You gotta remember, I've never been in trouble in my life. Not even a traffic ticket." The disputed dinosaur, according to Frithiof's attorney Joe Ellingson, "wrecked my client's life."

Moreover, the fossil was consigned to limbo. As a result of byzantine twists in the litigation, Tinker's bones would soon be placed under another lawyer's supervision, stored in plastic tubs at an undisclosed location in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania-1,400 miles from the excavation site.

Across the American West and Great Plains, an intensifying conflict over the excavation of fossils-everything from a five-inch shark's tooth, which might sell for $50, to Frithiof's spectacular T. rex-has pitted amateur excavators against both the federal government and scientists. Scores, perhaps thousands, of prospectors-some operating as poachers on federally protected land-are conducting digs across hundreds of thousands of square miles from the Dakotas to Texas, Utah, Wyoming and Montana.

"In terms of digging for fossils, there are a lot more people" than there used to be, says Matthew Carrano, curator of dinosauria at the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History. "Twenty years ago, if you ran into a private or commercial fossil prospector in the field, it was one person or a couple of people. Now, you go to good fossil locations in, say, Wyoming, and you find quarrying operations with maybe 20 people working, and doing a professional job of excavating fossils."

Fueling the frenzy is skyrocketing market demand, as fossils, long relegated to the dusty realm of museum shelves, have entered the glitzy spheres of home décor and art. "There have always been private fossil collectors," says David Herskowitz of Heritage Auction Galleries in Dallas. "The difference is, historically, a private fossil collector was wealthy. But today, interest in fossils has grabbed the attention of a broad swath of the population. That means a lot more people are collecting."

Who's buying these days? Just about anyone. With prices to suit virtually any budget, one can own an ancient remnant of life on earth: a botanical fossil, such as a fern, may cost as little as $20; a fossil snail, perhaps, may well go for $400.

The real action, however, is in the big vertebrates: dinosaurs that roamed the earth between 65 million and 220 million years ago. These are the specimens attracting the high rollers-serious collectors. Actors Harrison Ford and Nicolas Cage, for example, are rumored to have impressive collections.

The paleo-passion, however, extends far beyond celebrities. "The group who used to be serious fossil collectors-that's really grown," says money manager Charles Lieberman of Advisors Capital Management in Hasbrouck Heights, New Jersey. At his office, Lieberman displays several impressive specimens, including a three-foot-long Cretaceous herbivore, Psittacosaurus. "Since the book and movie Jurassic Park," he adds, "interest in fossil collecting has gone into overdrive, affecting demand and elevating prices."

The rise in prices is fueling the prospecting boom in the Great Plains and West-not necessarily because of a higher concentration of fossils there, but because the American West is one of the world's easiest places to find them. "If you had flown around the world 150 million years ago, the West wouldn't be more populated by dinosaurs than anywhere else," says the Smithsonian's Carrano. "But in the West, the rock layers laid down during the age of dinosaurs are currently exposed. It also helps that the landscape is dry, so there's not a lot of vegetation covering the rock. And it's erosive, so new rock is constantly being uncovered."

While fossils can now be found in stores from Moab to Manhattan, the most unusual (and valuable) specimens tend to show up at auction houses-or vanish into the shadowy world of private purchasers, some of whom are buying on the black market. At the Tucson Gem and Mineral Show, for instance, it is possible to obtain illegally taken fossils. While Carrano does not attend the show, it's well-known, he says, that, "if you spend the week building trust with some of the sellers, you’ll get invited back to a hotel room and be shown exquisite fossil specimens that were probably taken illegally. We’re talking museum-grade specimens that are going to disappear into private collections."

The auction houses, of course, make sure their offerings come with documented provenance. In only a few hours in April 2007, Christie's in Paris gaveled off fossils worth more than $1.5 million-including a dinosaur egg that went for $97,500 and the fossilized skeleton of a Siberian mammoth that fetched $421,200. In December 2007, a 70-million-year- old mosasaur a-30-foot carnivorous underwater reptile excavated in North Africa-brought more than $350,000 at Los Angeles auctioneer Bonhams & Butterfields. In January 2008, Heritage Auction Gal­leries in Dallas sold the largest mastodon skull ever found for $191,000 and a 55-million-year-old lizard from the Dominican Republic, its flesh and skin preserved in amber, for $97,000. "The day's tally was $4.187 million," says auction director Herskowitz. "While I can't disclose who my buyers were, I can say many of them have small to substantive museums on their properties."

Then there's eBay. When I logged on recently, I discovered 838 fossil specimens for sale, including a spectacular ammonite-an ancestor of today's chambered nautilus-expected to go for upward of $3,000. Very little was disclosed about where any of the fossils came from. "Here's what I can tell you about eBay," says Carrano. "If a fossil being sold there comes from Morocco, China, Mongolia, Argentina or a number of other nations, at some point it was part of an illegal process, since those countries don't allow commercial fossil export."

In the United States, the law regulating fossil excavation and export is far from straightforward. Property statutes state that any fossil taken with permission from privately owned land may be owned and sold-which is why legitimate excavators usually harvest fossils from individual landowners. A complex series of regulations apply to fossils removed from federal and state land (including Bureau of Land Management [BLM] tracts, national forests and grasslands, and state and national parks) and what are known as jurisdictional lands-for example, the public land held by Harding County, South Dakota.

To complicate matters, some fossil materials-limited amounts of petrified wood or fossil plants, for example-may be removed from certain public lands without oversight or approval. In most cases, however, permits are required; applications are reviewed according to a time-consuming process. Prospectors who want to cash in quickly on a single find are often reluctant to abide by the law. Given that there are nearly 500 million acres of publicly held land in the United States (two-thirds of which contain some of the best excavation zones in the world), prospectors who dig illegally are not often caught. "Newly harvested fossils are flooding the commercial market," says Larry Shackelford, a special agent with the BLM in Salt Lake City. "Running down each one and checking where it came from? We don't have the manpower."

In fact, law enforcement officials can barely keep up with prosecutions already underway. Although state and federal officials may not discuss cases currently in litigation, they acknowledge that volume is increasing. "In most districts, we easily see one or two new leads a month," says Bart Fitzgerald, a BLM special agent in Arizona. "Mostly these become civil cases. We understand that enthusiasm gets the best of people sometimes. Someone finds an amazing fossil and they take it home. Mostly we just want to recover the fossil-it's government property. But once in a while, we see a case where clearly the intent was criminal: where people were knowingly extracting fossils from public land for private profit. Those we prosecute criminally."

A major criminal case began unfolding in 2006, when a largely intact Allosaurus-a meat-eating older cousin of T. rex-was taken from public land in Utah. The excavator went to great lengths to look legitimate, including creating bogus letters of provenance. The dinosaur bones were first transported from Utah to a U.S. buyer, then to a purchaser in Europe, before finally being sold to a collector in Asia. In February 2007, the Allosaurus poacher-who had been turned in anonymously-was convicted on one count of theft of federal property.

Several years earlier, a high-profile case involved paleo-prospector Larry Walker, who discovered a cache of fossil Therizinosaurs-a rare dinosaur/bird hybrid-in the desert outside his Moab, Utah, hometown. Working at night beneath camouflage netting, Walker excavated 30 to 40 of the creatures' distinctive ripping claws, then sold the specimens at the Tucson Gem and Mineral Show for a total take of roughly $15,000.

"He knew what he was doing was illegal," says Loren Good, a special agent for the BLM's Idaho district. "Working with the FBI, we did a joint investigation into the source of the claws and prosecuted Mr. Walker. He received a ten-month incarceration and a $15,000 fine."

"These cases come in all forms," says the BLM's Fitzgerald. "Take the example of some tour operators in Montana. They took a group of tourists out recently on a fossil-hunting trip, strayed onto public land and extracted fossils from a good site there. Was it an honest mistake or a calculated commercial move?" Fitzgerald asks. "After all, the tour operators carried GPS units; they knew precisely where they were." (Charges have not yet been filed.)

In the Tinker case, the prosecution claimed that Frithiof knew he was on county property when he found the Tinker specimen, that he had signed the agreement with Harding County without informing officials of the find and that he had negotiated a perhaps $8.5 million sale without telling the county. "Harding County believes Mr. Frithiof first discovered the specimen's location, then induced the county into a lease, knowing the value of what existed on the property without disclosing it to us," says Ken Barker, a Belle Fourche, South Dakota, attorney retained by the county to prosecute the case. "Because of this, we seek to void the lease agreement, entered into fraudulently, and to recover the county's property."

Frithiof sees things differently. It wasn't until the prospective purchaser's survey in 2001, he says, that all parties learned that the Tinker site was on county land. "We were something like 100 feet across the [county] property boundary," he says. "Even the rancher we were working with believed we were on his land. It was an honest mistake. And I already had a lease on that land with Harding County."

"It wasn't like we were sneaking around," Frithiof adds. "Our find had been in the newspaper. We'd been on the Discovery Channel. We'd had prominent paleontologists, like Bob Bakker from the University of Colorado, out to look at it. What we were doing was all out in the open. Nobody thought we were doing anything all."

In June 2006, Judge Richard Battey of the United States District Court voided the agreement between Frithiof and the county and ruled, on the basis of a technicality, that Tinker belonged to Harding County. Frithiof appealed. In September 2007, a United States Court of Appeals panel reversed the decision. The Tinker fossil, they ruled, was Frithiof's property; only the original contract's 10 percent payment was owed to Harding County. The appeals court then sent the case back to Federal District Court for final disposition. Frithiof had no choice but to wait.

In the meantime, the location of Tinker-and the fossil's condition-had become a source of contention. Before the legal wrangling began, Frithiof had delivered sections of the skeleton to private curators Barry and April James, who specialized in preparation of paleontological specimens for display, at their Sunbury, Pennsylvania, firm, Prehistoric Journeys. (The process involves removal of the stone matrix encasing the excavated bones.) Once the litigation proceeded, however, the Jameses, who say they had put $200,000 worth of labor and more than two years into the project, were barred from completing the work or collecting payment from Frithiof. Their company filed for bankruptcy in 2005.

"Now I have the Tinker fossil in my possession," says Larry Frank, a Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, attorney who is trustee of the James bankruptcy. "I've filed an artisans' lien against the value of the specimen. Until the matter is resolved, the skeleton will sit in large plastic containers in my possession. We believe that's a good, safe place for it."

For scientists, commercial excavation of fossils-legal or not-raises troubling questions. "For me," says Mark Norell, chairman and curator of vertebrate paleontology at the American Museum of Natural History in New York City, "the big concern with all this private digging is that it may be robbing science of valuable knowledge."

Norell believes that anyone harvesting fossils "needs to be considerate of scientific data surrounding the specimen." Context is important. "A lot of the guys out there digging commercially are just cowboys; they don't care about the site where the fossil sits, how it's oriented in the earth, what can be found around it to give us clues to what the world was like when that fossil animal died." Some commercial excavators "want only to get the specimen out of the ground and get paid-so we lose the context of the site as well as the fossil itself."

The Smithsonian's Carrano says all scientifically significant fossil specimens, whether from public or private lands, should be placed into museums for study in perpetuity. "Any unique fossil has more value scientifically and educationally than we can ever place a cash value on," he adds. "In a perfect world, there'd be a way to vet every fossil collected: the significant ones would be retained and studied; others could go to commercial use. Not every fossil shark's tooth is significant, but some are. Let's retain those significant ones for study."

For the past several years, the Society of Vertebrate Paleontology, one of the fossil world's preeminent professional organizations, has lobbied in support of Congressional legislation that would protect fossils taken from public lands. Since 2001, a bill introduced by Representative James McGovern, Democrat of Massachusetts-the Paleontological Resources Preservation Act-has languished in both the House and Senate. The delay, some proponents believe, stems from some western lawmakers' reluctance to add any regulations regarding public lands. If passed into law, the act would require that only trained, federally certified professionals be allowed to extract fossils from public lands-and would substantially increase penalties for illegal fossil excavation.

The proposed legislation has galvanized critics, from mining company executives to paleontology prospectors, many of whom argue that improved enforcement of existing laws is all that is needed. "This new bill provides no funding for additional federal agents to police these areas, meaning it has no teeth," says Jack Kallmeyer, a paleontological prospector. "As long as there is demand for the commodity, without sufficient enforcement personnel, nothing will stop illegal collecting."

Kallmeyer also notes that proposed and existing fossil-extraction laws do not address a critical threat to the nation's fossil heritage. "There are a number of dinosaur and [other] vertebrate fossils out there [on public lands] that are not rare. Professional paleontologists aren't interested in excavating them, as those specimens are well known and well studied. Why shouldn't amateur or commercial collectors be allowed to extract those?" Fossils left exposed over years, Kallmeyer adds, will eventually erode away.

But paleontologist James Clark of George Washington University in Washington, D.C., who serves on the government liaison committee for the Society of Vertebrate Paleontology, disagrees. "Nobody knows how much fossil material is being taken off public lands and smuggled out," he says. "We don't know the scale of what's being lost." Clark, who sees the proposed federal bill as a step forward, believes that existing legislation is too nonspecific and confusing. "As it stands now, the situation is a free-for-all," he says.

Through the winter of 2007-2008, as Frithiof awaited another ruling from Federal District Court, he and lawyer Joe Ellingson hunkered down. "We don't want to say much," Ellingson told me. "We don't want to antagonize anyone in any way. We just want to wait and get our ruling."

The delay, however, proved excruciating for Frithiof, who continued living near Austin, selling real estate. "There's not one hour," he says, "that it wasn't in the back of my mind. And that takes a toll. Even a physical toll." Frithiof says he developed cardiac problems. "I just want this all to be over," he says, "so I can go back to my site and keep working. We've found evidence of two other T. rex specimens there, but we don't know if they're complete or not. We've covered them up to protect against the elements. Until all this is resolved, we've been barred from working."

At last, on February 5, 2008, Judge Battey ruled that Frithiof's lease with Harding County was legal and enforceable. Frithiof owned Tinker, though he would have to give the county 10 percent of any profits from its sale. Harding County, the decree said, "knowingly entered into this contract, and now must live with the consequences of its actions." For Frithiof, the ruling meant "a huge weight had disappeared off my life."

But within weeks of the ruling, Harding County appealed yet again, sending the case back into court and consigning Frithiof once again to legal limbo. After more than four years of litigation, disposition of the appeal is expected within weeks. "This experience has removed the joy of fossil hunting for me," says Frithiof. "I haven't done one day of digging since the day initial charges were brought."

And yet, Frithiof tells me, an even larger question preoccupies him. "My thoughts always return to the exposed fossils out there on our public land," he adds. "Fossils that are going unexcavated due to lack of interest. The ones paleontologists are never going to extract because they are fossils that are too common, but which some collector might cherish."

Frithiof insists that careful amateur excavators can make a significant contribution to science. "The fossils are out there, wind and rain weathering them, while people argue about who is allowed to collect them and who isn't. After a year or two of exposure, any fossil begins to disintegrate and crumble to dust." And then, he adds, "Well, nobody gets them. They're just gone."

Writer Donovan Webster lives in Charlottesville, Virginia. Photographer Aaron Huey is based in Seattle, Washington.

Editor's Note: An earlier version of this article misspelled the name of paleontologist Bob Bakker and incorrectly stated he is with the University of Montana. He is with the University of Colorado.

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