|UCB Physics in the News|
|Colloquia & Seminars|
|Honors & Awards|
|Physics in the News|
Real-life heroes can’t throw fireballs, stretch their bodies hundreds of feet, or become invisible. Like Albert Einstein, Time’s Person of the Century, our modern real-life heroes are scientists and thinkers, the creative visionaries who can help untangle the chaos of a complicated world. Keeping this in mind, we decided to do Marvel Comics one better, tracking down five East Bay innovators who are doing everything superhumanly possible to make our world a better place to live.
Arthur Rosenfeld is a fan of the big metaphor. When speaking of the epiphany that started his crusade to change the way we think about energy—and personally save the country billions of dollars in energy costs—he says he “discovered a Saudi Arabia of oil beneath every American city.”
These vast resources spring not from the ground, but from the easy
ways people can cut back on their electricity consumption. Over the
past four decades, Rosenfeld, co-founder of Lawrence Berkeley
Laboratory’s Environmental Energy Technologies Division and a
California Energy Commission member, has helped create a number of
energy-saving devices we now take for granted, like smaller fluorescent
lights and reflective window coatings.
A fluorescent lightbulb, Rosenfeld notes as an example, lasts about as
long as eight incandescent bulbs. Beyond the convenience, you’re also
saving about $50 in electricity over the life of the bulb and, in
addition, the barrel of oil required to generate that electricity.
Enough fuel, he says, to drive from here to Denver. The difference: one
On a larger scale, Rosenfeld cites China, now the largest energy
consumer on the planet, and its recent completion of Three Gorges Dam,
a massive hydroelectric project that displaced millions of people. He
points out that until 2000 China had no regulatory standards for its
refrigerators and air-conditioning units. By 2005, however, the country
instituted standards—developed in part by Rosenfeld—nearly as stringent
as those in the United States, and, in doing so, essentially gained
just as much energy as its costly, disruptive dam will produce. “It’s
just a different point of view,” he says. “We’re not there yet, but
we’ll have to get there sooner or later. Because these new sources of
energy are never free."
Al Gore has nothing on Douglas Engelbart, who, for one thing, actually
did invent the Internet. Engelbart, to put it mildly, is a man of big
ideas. Sure, he contributed to inventions like e-mail, word processing,
the computer mouse, and a system that was the precursor to the
Internet, but these have been mere side projects. His life’s opus has
been, without exaggeration, to raise the intellectual prowess of our
civilization. More specifically, Engelbart hopes to invent tools to
speed the public thinking process, broaden the pool of contributors,
and beef up the capacity for research.
Before Uganda, there was the genocide in Kosovo and, before that, mass
graves in Rwanda, land mines in Cambodia, and the “disappeared” in
Argentina. When something very bad happens somewhere in the world,
Stover appears with notebook in pocket and shovel in hand. He spends
long spans of time in these places, interviewing family members,
collecting documentary evidence, even digging up bodies, the corpus
delicti, for forensic analysis. His purpose: to achieve a modicum of
justice, he says, by setting the record straight for the families.
Beyond that, he wants to enlighten the average American, who wouldn’t
be able to find Uganda on a globe.
He resists feel-good words like closure or catharsis. Such terms, he
says, imply a typically American approach to emotional healing. “We
want to make it better,” he says, “but that’s often the wrong way to
look at it. There’s never really any closure.”
He prefers scientific facts. Emotions and political agendas, he says,
have muddied the most well-intentioned investigations. “Science has
this rudder where you can go right down the middle,” he says.
Stover loves his job, as grim as it might seem. He says that he agrees
with Albert Camus’ theory of the absurd, that the universe in many ways
is unintelligible. Bad things happen. But if you can focus your
principles and interests, if you can find meaning in your work, then
maybe you can accomplish something. “I believe in the myth of
Sisyphus,” he says. “I’m just pushing that rock up the hill.”
Carmichael, an epidemiologist with the California Birth Defects Monitoring Program in Berkeley, chips away at the puzzle, undaunted, playing a key role in the largest study of birth defects in the world. “I’ve been doing research for 20 years and have been around a lot of very smart people,” says Gary Shaw, who is Carmichael’s boss at the birth defects monitoring program, a joint effort by the March of Dimes and the California Department of Health Services. “Suzan is a brilliant scientist, and amazingly productive.
”In 2004, Carmichael contributed to a study demonstrating that choline,
a vitamin B–like supplement, can be just as helpful as folic acid in
preventing neural tube birth defects such as spina bifida. She also
recently completed a study showing that “food instability”—a lack of
food and good nutrition, in other words—may contribute to defects such
as diabetes. She published another paper showing that even stress can
lead to birth defects in a child.
Contaminated drinking water is considered the world’s greatest environmental threat to human populations. Approximately 1.8 million people die every year from bad water, most before the age of five. Another 60 million children fail to reach their full physical potential, the victims of repeated bouts of diarrhea, which impairs their ability to absorb nutrients and, over time, stunts their growth.
Gadgil’s invention provides clean water to entire villages in countries
as far-ranging as India, Mexico, the Philippines, and Honduras. It’s a
virtual miracle in some parts of the world. “You wouldn’t believe the
excitement and enthusiasm the people have shown for what they call this
‘mineral water,’ ” he says.
Using the purifier to clean water is also inexpensive. Chlorination requires large treatment plants, and boiling demands a surprising amount of fuel. Ultraviolet light needs only a modest power supply, such as a car battery, for the bulb. Gadgil’s filter can disinfect a year’s worth of drinking water for an individual at a cost of a few cents.
In villages, the purifiers are housed in what are called Water Health Centers. Some 500 of these centers now exist worldwide. Setting up a center to service a village of 6,000 people costs about $50,000. The villages establish the centers with the help of low-interest loans. Filling and refilling 10-liter cans for about 2 cents each, a center eventually pays for itself, until the village owns the facility outright. “It’s important they don’t have the perception that someone has a stranglehold on their drinking water,” Gadgil says.In scientific circles, Gadgil, a modest, unassuming man, has attained rock star status. He has even become the cartoon star of a children’s book about environmental engineering. “I find that more satisfying than publishing any of my papers,” he says with a laugh.