Friday, August 26, 2005

Biolab and the folly of Mankind

I spoke at a meeting last night against the Biolab. Also speaking were Councilor Turner, candidates Ready, Garza, Yoon, Rivera. Matt O'Malley came and left without speaking. Sam Yoon, whose wife is an MIT Ph.d biologist, in particular spoke forcefully and eloquently against it. I congratulated him and told him it was the best speech I'd heard him give. Laura Garza also spoke well about why are we even building biolabs? We are not threatened by anthrax, ebola, etc. She thinks these labs are part of the moneyed classes War Machine, interesting points.

As a physicist who used to do experiments for the US Air Force, I feel I have some measure of competence in speaking about the scientific method.

I spoke about how this Biolab reminds me of the Space Shuttle Program. After the Space Shuttle Challenger blew up the government appointed a blue ribbon panel to examine the Space Shuttle Program. One of the people they appointed was Richard Feynman, a nobel prize winning physicist, generally perceived to be the smartest physicist of his day. (Now deceased) He is a personal hero of mine, who studied at MIT, worked at Los Alamos, played the drums, including a score for an avante guard dance troupe, he questioned authority and everything, and generally lived life to the fullest.

When the blue ribbon panel put their report together about the safety of future space shuttle flights. He alone dissented. This in the face of tremendous pressure from the politicians, NASA and others who had billions of dollars invested in the shuttle program. He wrote an Appendix to the Rogers Commission Report where he questioned their numbers for the probability of anothe shuttle mission ending in disaster. He pointed out that the scientists and engineers predicted a disaster in 1 out of 100 flights. The management predicted 1 in 100,000.
He asks "What is the cause of management's fantastic faith in the machinery?" He then goes on to analyze and explain the systems, and makes the point that the managers were not listening to the scientists perhaps because they wanted the funding for their project. The final line of his report stands alone and says "For a successful technology, reality must take precedence over public relations, for nature cannot be fooled" We see who was correct. In well less than 100 flights, another shuttle disaster ensued. His report can be seen here:

The scientific method is all about honesty and transparency, no scientist could advance without his experiments being reproduceable. They can not lie for they will be found out. Politicians and businessmen on the other hand obscure the truth to their benefit, often at the expense of the public. This is not illegal, it is just another realm where the rules are different.

The Biolab has frightening parellels. Scientists are cautioning against putting this in a dense urban population. They explain how accidents do happen and how we are not prepared to deal with potential calamity. On the other side we have big money in the form of the US Government, the Bush Administration, Boston University, and a number of politicians saying that there is no danger to the public. Meanwhile, they won't answer questions, they hold secret meetings with the Mayor and the City Council, they receive their property in an insider deal, and they hide the fact that some of their researchers got Tuleramia in a lab accident, and city councilor Feeney who is on the BU Medical Center Board of Trustees is trying to squash discussion at the city council. This gives me no reason to sleep tight living maybe 1/2 a mile from this proposed project. One of the ideas I had was why don't we put this thing on one of the military bases that is closing? They are in much less populated areas, the government already has the property, and there are already security apparatus in place.

Nature can not be fooled. Reality must take precedence over public relations. I hear politicians such as Steve Murphy, Patricia White, Congressman Capuana say they are for the Biolab but safety is their first priority. (Addendum: Steve Murphy called me after this blog was posted to say that he is neither for or against but that he is willing to listen to BU(in a secret meeting?), but he is concerned about safety) This is an internally inconsistent statement. (Not new for politicians) If Safety is their first priority they won't build it here. Because by definition, if there is any risk at all, then safety is downgraded in some way by building it here. I don't think you can get any of them to say there is no risk at all. Some of those types went down with the Titanic.

It is interesting that none of the incumbents nor the Sons of Politicians and Daughters of Politicians (SOPs and DOPs) showed up at the forum. Perhaps they know that the big money is behind this thing, and speaking out for safety and the public interest isn't going to get them elected. Especially when they can put on a very sincere face and say "I'm really concerned about safety."

Mother Nature will not be so easily fooled.

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