Letters: July 2000

Letters in the July 2000 issue of Discover magazine address a variety of topics.


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Weighty Issues In the same issue in which stephen o'rahilly seeks genetic answers to obesity ["Stephen O'Rahilly," May], Tony Dajer [Vital Signs] writes that few obese patients with sleep apnea have the "willpower" to shed the needed pounds. I, for one, am hoping for more of the research and compassion of the Stephen O'Rahillys of the world. The weight battle is not as simple as "willing" it and exercising. There must be better, as yet unfound, reasons why so many of us just aren't as "lucky" as others in this area. Obesity is not a choice. Shirley Steinman Monroe, Michigan

While genes may account for morbid obesity, they do not explain the large number of overweight people we see every day. Since O'Rahilly believes so much in "observation," I suggest he look at candid news photos of gatherings of adults and children from the 1940s and compare them with similar photos from today. The increase in the number of fat people of all ages is amazing. I doubt if our genes have changed that much in 50 years. But our eating has. Kris Gimmy Aiken, South Carolina

Topics in American Archaeology I enjoyed sarah richardson's review of my book Skull Wars: Kennewick Man, Archaeology, and the Battle for Native American Identity [May]. But she misrepresents my position on Kennewick Man by stating, "Thomas argues that the skeleton, under the terms of NAGPRA, belongs in the custody of Native Americans who have ceded rights to the land on which he was found." I never said this.

On the contrary, I deliberately avoided choosing sides, arguing that the Kennewick case "reflects legitimate and deep-seated differences in interpreting federal legislation"; such "murky legislation" could best be clarified by playing out the legal process.

High-profile legal warfare is one way for archaeologists, agency officials, and Indians to interact. But I also documented episodes of scientists and tribal officials collaborating on major archaeological projects throughout North America - including the study of ancient skeletal remains. One of these two approaches is likely to define the future - if any - of 21st-century American archaeology. The question is: Which one? David Hurst Thomas New York, New York

Don't Knock It the may bogglers asks, "in what order should Professor Kant hang the signs when he is in his office?" But the solution given fails to recognize what a tease the good professor really is. The conditional "If all of the signs below are true, then I am in my office," says nothing about the case in which not all of the signs are true. If they have studied their truth tables, the students should remember that a conditional is always true when the antecedent is false (independent of the truth-value of the consequent). While the students can be sure to find him there when the signs are all true, his best students will realize they had better knock when the signs are not all true as well. Quinn Truckenbrod Department of Philosophy University at Buffalo Buffalo, New York

When Is a Sheet of Paper Not a Doughnut? Many readers pointed out that in "the magnificent Mission" [May], we erroneously claimed that "a sheet of paper is topologically equivalent to a doughnut." We should have stated that gluing together opposite edges of a sheet of paper yields a surface topologically equivalent to the surface of a doughnut.

Cocktail Shakers? i'm disappointed in the may r&d about beer bottles uncovered by archaeologist David Starbuck at the site of a Shaker village ["Shakers Behaving Badly"]. Discover is not supposed to jump to conclusions, yet because Shakers possessed certain bottles, you leaped wildly to the assumption that they used the bottles' original contents. I collect and reuse bottles of various kinds. I assume Shakers, being frugal folk, did the same. Phyl Hubbard Corydon, Indiana

David Starbuck replies: the subject of alcohol use by the Shakers has been much debated. However, even the Shakers' own historical records indicate that there were periods in their history when alcohol was acceptable, mirroring similar trends in the outside world. For example, the Shakers in Kentucky are well known for having distilled whiskey, and the Shaker Brothers in Canterbury drank hard cider throughout their early history. Also, a fascinating account survives in the church records in Canterbury in which the Shakers were trying to decide whether to prepare alcohol for their hired men (presumably feeling that it was better to have at least some control over what was going on).

I do not believe that the Canterbury Shakers were merely recycling bottles that they found elsewhere. For a society that was extremely concerned with how it was perceived, having liquor bottles lying around their village - no matter how they got there - would not have furthered the Shakers' image of sobriety and good works. The bottles are there, along with many other bits of evidence that the Shakers were consumers of mass culture, in every one of the Shaker dumps from a century ago. This is not to say that all Shakers partook in such consumption patterns, but they clearly were having troubles maintaining their "separateness," especially as new members with more "worldly" ways kept arriving.

Bi-measuralism I found the letters regarding metrics ["the Messy Measures of Man," May] as interesting as the original article [Sky Lights, March]. In the early 1970s, when I was in grade school, Canada converted to the metric system. I doubt that few imposed changes could have caused such widespread indignation among the general population. My grandparents and their contemporaries steadfastly refused to learn any metric measures, resulting in years of dual reporting of price per mass at the grocery and dual posting of mileage (kilometerage?) and highway speed limits. I, and my generation, have a uniquely dualistic perspective on weights and measures. Having become an engineer and scientist, I conceptualize volumes exclusively in metrics, due to years of day-to-day usage and the elegance of the metric approach (1 cubic centimeter = 1 milliliter = 1 gram of water; 1 liter = 1 kilogram of water). This leads irreversibly to my ability to relate to density only in metric measures. I couldn't begin to pick a gallon out of a lineup of potentials. Yet, how do I explain that I understand fuel efficiency only in miles per gallon?

The vast majority of the Canadian adult population is temperature bilingual. For years, weather programs announced temperature in both Celsius and Fahrenheit. Even though I usually conceptualize kilometers and miles and inches and centimeters equally and can convert effortlessly in my head, my height and weight are forever only meaningful to me when expressed in feet, inches, and pounds. This duality feels normal to me, yet the changes that have taken place over only one generation surprise me. Last week, my 10-year-old stepdaughter interjected into an earnest conversation over a household renovation project: "Daddy, what's an inch?" Wanda Goulden Saskatoon, Saskatchewan

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