The Sciences


Are the settlers living in the shadow of Mount Rainier counting on others to bail them out the next time it blows?'

By Robert KunzigJan 1, 2000 6:00 AM


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Number One With a Bullet The laser-etched firing pin designed by Todd Lizotte ["Bullet With a Name on It," R&D, November] is about as magic as a trigger lock! You show a mark made by the firing pin on the fired primer of a cartridge case=no bullet is involved. Only full automatic and semiautomatic firearms dump their fired cases at a crime scene. Many firearms retain their empty cases after being fired. Once any of these firearms is broken down, an emery board could remove the laser etching from the tip of the firing pin in about 5 seconds and not disrupt normal firearm use.

Donald E. Saunders Ellsworth, Maine

Todd Lizotte responds: The firing-pin stamp was never intended as a cure-all technology, but it was the most obvious way to demonstrate the concept of micro-marking. I am, however, developing this technique further to allow the creation of miniature stamps, similar to those generated by the firing pin, which could be installed in many areas of the weapon to etch a micro-mark into the shell casing. Some of these micro-stamps could be located in the barrel/breach of the weapon or even on some of the loading mechanism parts. As for the marking of the bullet itself, I have demonstrated that idea in principle and believe it can be accomplished. While, in its current, test form, the micro-stamp could be defeated by filing the firing pin, in the actual technology there would be multiple, minute markings. And I am quite confident that an emery board wouldn't do the trick.

Location, Location, Location The question is not only how many people will die the next time Mount Rainier blows, but how much money it will cost federal, state, and local governments for evacuations, rescues, cleanups, relocations, and all the other forms of disaster aid ["Under the Volcano," November]. Are we to assume that daredevil settlers like the Andersons, living in the shadow of Rainier, were able to secure homeowners' insurance with a volcano damage clause? Or are they counting on other, more sensible taxpayers to bail them out when lava or mud swallows their neighborhood?

Greg Loomis Cincinnati, Ohio

Doctors, Heal Thyselves It is interesting to note that, in your October issue, every letter in opposition to Andrew Weil's practices was written by an M.D. or a D.D.S., while no published proponents were. Does this reveal your own bias, or were you looking to show that doctors are territorial and outmoded?

Stacy Miles-Thorpe Austin, Texas

Thank you for your excellent article on alternative medicine in the August 1999 issue. Although Weil is correct in stating that extended life spans in the modern era are "primarily due to sanitation advances," that is one of the most telling weaknesses in his advocacy of alternative medicine. "Sanitation advances" are based on one of the central tenets of modern Western medical philosophy, the germ theory of disease. Many (not all) diseases are caused by infection with bacteria, protozoa, or viruses. These can be contained through sanitation and vaccination, which are the products not of alternative medicine philosophies but rather the traditional Western medicine practices that alternative medicine supporters eschew. Vaccines and sanitation extended life spans-not meditation, herbs, green tea, nor any of the other myriad alternative therapies. Modern medicine is not perfect. But if you want to see what happens when its theories are not implemented, go to any Third World country and look at the mortality and abundance of disease unheard of in this country.

Steve Lloyd-Davies, M.D. Coeur d'Alene, Idaho

Credit Where It's Due. In the october sky lights, you state that the nature of Saturn's rings was first recognized by Cassini. Although it had been known since Galileo's first observations in 1610 that there was something odd about Saturn, the nature of the rings was discovered in 1659 by Christiaan Huygens, a Dutch astronomer. Cassini did discover the gap that we now call the Cassini division in 1675.

Frank Goodwyn Harlan, Kentucky

The editors reply: We stand by our statement that Cassini noted "a globe encircled by a set of rings." But you are correct: Huygens established that Saturn is surrounded by a ring; Cassini, that the ring is divided.

Mo' Money "Physicists on the money" [November] was great, but you forgot one of physics' prime movers. Democritus (460-370 b.c.), on the Greek 100 drachma note, was the first to postulate that matter is made up of discrete particles too small to see, and that these atoms-not the gods-control life.

Bruce Cynar Fort Wayne, Indiana

Eye Make You Nervous? I can imagine my former science educators throwing their arms up in despair at the overgeneralization made by Richard Conniff regarding the "instinctive unease in humans" caused by the circular patterns in wood ["The Natural History of Art," November]. Seems to me that this is based upon the author's experience in a beach rental and his own uneasiness with the knots in the wood paneling. I wish I could employ Conniff's scientific verification methods in the discussion portion of my graduate thesis. Is he available to be on my committee?

Paul M. Evitts Cedar Falls, Iowa

Richard Conniff replies: No serious scientist disputes the overwhelming evidence that false eyespots of all kinds can produce alarm and discomfort in onlookers. This is true whether the pattern of paired circles turns up on the hood of a cobra, the wings of a moth, a Greek kylix drinking cup, a Melanesian tribal mask=or even in a knotty pine wall. Perhaps Paul Evitts will appreciate the sense of "instinctive unease" when he faces the fixed gaze of his thesis committee?

Boggled Bridget copley appears to have ignored the constraint that a veggie burger cannot be placed in the same spot that a hamburger has occupied [Bogglers, November]. Given this, allowing two spots for each type of burger would result in the shortest cooking time. The hamburgers would be done in 18 minutes (3 burgers times 12 minutes per burger divided by two spots to cook them). If you were to cook all the veggie burgers in one spot, you would need 24 minutes. If you were to share one spot between the types, the veggie burger would have to be done before the hamburger could be cooked there, which would result in 20 minutes of cooking time for the two burgers. And if two hamburgers share one spot, they would require 24 minutes. Am I missing something?

Jeff Kroes Onalaska, Wisconsin

Bridget Copley replies: No, you're not exactly missing something, but you are adding something: an unwarranted assumption. If you assume that the missionaries can't take burgers off the grill and then put them back on later, perhaps in a different place, then you're right. But if you don't assume that, you can get faster total cooking times. Sure, it's an entirely reasonable assumption. After all, the typical barbecue chef leaves burgers where they are until they're done. Still, the typical barbecue chef isn't in danger of being eaten by cannibals, either.

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