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Your independent source for Harvard news since 1898

Letters

Cambridge 02138

Geography rejuvenated, better times for poetry, personals

January-February 2007

Communicating about Cures—and Cancer

The Harvard community is richly peopled with leading biomedical researchers. A few of them are doubly gifted: as writers, they explain disease, medicine, and the quest for new therapies in unusually clear, human terms. Many readers will have encountered Recanati professor of medicine Jerome E. Groopman and assistant professor of surgery Atul A. Gawande through the New Yorker and the New England Journal of Medicine, their books, or coverage in these pages. Fewer may recognize David G. Nathan, whose talent is on display in “Ken’s Story.” (Associate professor of medicine George D. Demetri, whose research and care for a patient are profiled in Nathan’s account, exemplifies the caliber of the science done locally.)

The heartbreaking impetus behind biomedical research, of course, is that knowledge about disease and therapies remains limited. So another narrative—that of the terminal patient—still rests at the center of what it means to be mortal. Among these, few are as vivid, and as beautifully written, as “Hit by Lightning: A Cancer Memoir,” by Marjorie Williams ’79, assembled after her death in January 2005 by her husband, Timothy Noah ’80, from fragments of her account-in-progress of her diagnosis, treatment, and life with the metastatic malignancy that killed her. It appears in The Woman at the Washington Zoo, a collection of her work edited by Noah.

Read together, Ken’s story and Marjorie’s speak fundamental truths about both life and the scientific quest to understand it better.     

~The Editors

Harvard Magazine Inc.

Jeffrey S. Behrens ’89 completed his term as a member of the Board of Directors of Harvard Magazine Inc. in October; we thank him for energetic, enthusiastic service, and welcome his election to the Board of Incorporators.

Leslie E. Greis ’80, nominated by the executive director of the Harvard Alumni Association, has been elected a director, succeeding Behrens, by the Board of Incorporators. Henry Rosovsky, Jf ’57, Ph.D. ’59, LL.D. ’98—Geyser University Professor emeritus and a past dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences and member of the Harvard Corporation—has also been elected an incorporator and director, and subsequently president of the Board of Directors, succeeding the late James O. Freedman ’57, L ’60. We look forward to working with them in the years ahead, as both governing boards continue to provide leadership and guidance important to the magazine’s operations.

Catherine A. Chute, publisher
John S. Rosenberg, editor

Hype, Hot Air, and Ethanol

Calling corn-based ethanol an “illusion” or “hype and hot air” (“The Ethanol Illusion,” by Michael McElroy, November-December 2006, page 33), doesn’t match McElroy’s own facts. He is correct that corn ethanol alone is not a complete solution to our nation’s dependence on foreign oil, but by his own admission, corn ethanol does reduce our oil imports, on net.

And it is also true that corn ethanol is hitting the limits of what can be produced sustainably: already, according to USDA projections, 20 percent of our 2006 corn crop will go to ethanol production, and as a result corn prices are rising rapidly. (Another less-noted problem is the greatly accelerated depletion of aquifers in the Midwest.)

Nevertheless, corn-based ethanol should not be viewed as an “illusion,” but rather as a helpful “transition fuel.” Corn ethanol is our first stop on the path toward a much better solution—“cellulosic ethanol,” or ethanol made from fibrous plant material such as wood chips, corn stalks, and other agricultural wastes, rather than from the more expensive sugars in corn kernels. Cellulosic ethanol has a much better energy balance than corn ethanol, containing four to six times the fossil energy used to produce it, as opposed to about 1.3 times for corn ethanol. In addition, cellulosic ethanol will be more economical to produce than corn ethanol, given the much lower cost of biomass relative to corn. Happily, cellulosic ethanol is closer to reality than the author seems to believe. The first full commercial projects should be running in about three years, financed by private investors.

Nor would additional agricultural land be required, as the author fears. According to a 2005 study by the Department of Energy, there is enough waste biomass in the United States to produce roughly 100 billion gallons per year of cellulosic ethanol, which is equivalent to half our nation’s annual gasoline requirements.

Of course, I agree that conservation is also a necessary solution. This could include increased fuel-economy standards; more widespread use of hybrid, electric, and plug-in hybrid vehicles; and “smart growth” policies that reduce the average distance Americans drive each day and that encourage mass transit.

We shouldn’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good by casting corn ethanol as an illusion. Instead, we should speed our transition from corn ethanol to cellulosic ethanol and pursue the other policy solutions that are under our control. We can eliminate our dependence on foreign oil. And we can do so while enhancing our national security, creating new industries and new jobs, and mitigating the risks of global warming.

Sanjay J. Wagle ’92
Burlingame, Calif.

Editor’s note: Wagle is a venture capitalist whose firm invests in renewable energy technologies.


In noting that some optimists regard cellulose-based ethanol as a possible major replacement for oil imports, McElroy does not go far enough when mentioning the major cropland requirement (280 million acres) that would be needed to replace half of U.S. gasoline consumption. Studies at both Oklahoma State University and the University of Nebraska-Lincoln estimate that one ton of switch grass might yield 80 to 100 gallons of ethanol (barely 1.5 barrels of gasoline equivalent).

Thus, to replace just 1 percent of current U.S. oil imports (12 million barrels per day), an operation would require a daily input of about 75,000 tons of switch grass. The switch grass growing season may be no more than six months. This means that at the start of winter, a “haystack” of 13,500,000 tons would be required for this 1 percent of equivalent oil imports. What is the energy cost of simply gathering this mass?

Robert C. Baker, M.B.A. ’57
Darien, Conn.


McElroy goes a long way toward helping us understand that domestic ethanol production is no magic bullet for U.S. energy needs. He also suggests that if we could find ways of increasing ethanol production efficiencies by means of crop selection and integrated production processes, we could substantially increase benefits so as to raise the contribution of ethanol to the energy and environmental mélange. So the first policy question then becomes whether we as a society are putting our resources where they should be in this campaign. Do ethanol subsidies catalyze research and development or do they simply promote an expansion of existing production inefficiencies? Even more fundamental, does the United States enjoy a comparative advantage in ethanol production? McElroy’s analysis of the Brazilian experience and current technologies suggests otherwise, because an acre of sugar cane produces about 640 gallons of ethanol compared with about 386 for an acre of corn.

Supposing that the United States’s greatest comparative advantage in energy production comes from coal, I ask whether the national energy policy should instead prioritize research and development dollars towards improving coal-based energy production (perforce including greenhouse-gas-reducing technologies)?

I hope that McElroy, or someone else, finds a way of giving an energy value to that other, often ignored, resource in these debates: natural ecosystems and biodiversity. Natural resource losses stemming from inorganic fertilizer runoff, irrigation diversion, and deforestation are essential elements of accurate energy/environment cost-benefit calculations.

Adam Cherson ’84
New York City

As a farm owner in the Midwest, I follow these developments only tangentially, but I believe that McElroy owes some additional research to the corn-energy balance. He has neglected the fact that there are byproducts from the corn processing. When ethanol is produced from corn, only the starch is used, leaving the protein, fiber, vitamins, and minerals. Andrew Johnson, writing in Barron’s, November 17, 2003, reported that one bushel of corn not only yielded 2.72 gallons of ethanol but also 17 pounds of distillers’ grain. Distillers’ dry grain contains about 25 percent protein (versus 7-10 percent for corn) and is an ideal feed for dairy animals in particular, but research continues on how best to utilize this feed for all animals. There are also byproducts from the animal production that can be recycled as fertilizer supplements or stripped of their methane potential and then burned in much the same way as the Brazilian bagasse to generate electricity.

Keith N. Johnson, M.B.A. ’62
North Smithfield, R.I.


I so rarely get a chance to pick on Harvard that I can’t resist. The sentence beginning “First is the expense associated with transport: the hydroscopic properties of ethanol…” has an error. A hydroscope is a device for viewing under the surface of water. A substance that absorbs atmospheric water is hygroscopic.

Bruce P. Shields ’61
Wolcott, Vt.


How to reduce gasoline (and diesel) consumption? Not with a dollar-a-gallon tax, which would reduce consumption selectively, primarily among the less affluent. Instead, impose a graduated annual fee based on rated fuel economy on all cars, trucks, and SUVs. Begin at zero for 40 mpg vehicles, and increase the fee with decreasing rated mpg. The fee would be payable with auto license renewal, and should be high enough to bring in $140 billion annually, like a dollar-a-gallon tax on gasoline. Annual fees for 20 mpg vehicles would have to be a few thousand dollars. We could choose any vehicle, but high horsepower and/or large size would cost more than they do already. Isn’t this the American way?

Elliott Doane ’51
Oklahoma City, Okla.


Born-Again Geography

Thanks for the fine piece on the discipline of geography at Harvard (“Hello Geotech,” by Christopher Reed, November-December 2006, page 44). I arrived at the College shortly after the decision to terminate the department. Readers might be interested to know that the University explored the possibility of restoring a concentration (and perhaps a department) of geography in the late 1950s. In one of the years between 1958 and 1960, the University invited the leading historical geographer in the English-speaking world, H.C. Darby, of University College, London, to be a visiting professor and offer a survey course in historical geography. I was a graduate student in history and was asked to serve as Darby’s teaching fellow. I can remember him telling me, in a walk along the Charles River on a beautiful spring day, that Harvard had offered him a full professorship and the opportunity to reinstitute a geography program. But, he said, the administration had refused to provide the funds to set up a cartographical laboratory, without which he did not think a real concentration possible. He also said that he hoped for an Oxbridge professorship and a “K” if he returned to England. And so he did, becoming professor of geography at Cambridge University and Sir Clifford Darby. He was an elegant man and a distinguished scholar. Remaining in the U.K. was clearly the right thing for him, but, alas, it meant that geography at Harvard was not then to be revived. Peter Bol’s initiative is welcome indeed.

Stanley N. Katz ’55 , Ph.D. ’61
Princeton, N.J.


Three cheers for Harvard’s new Center for Geographic Analysis! for those who wish to learn more about geography in higher education in recent years, a good place to start will be “Geography’s Place in Higher Education in the United States,” by Alexander Murphy, in the 2007 volume of the Journal Of Geography In Higher Education. The Association of American Geographers’ Guide to Geography Programs in the Americas is also worth browsing.

George E. Clark
Environmental resources librarian
Harvard College Library


Younger Americans can be characterized as a “lost generation” in the sense of not knowing where Chicago, Texas, Afghanistan, or Luxembourg are located. But our geographical ignorance is a lot more serious than that. What matters most is the ignorance of Americans about how people live in places other than the United States.

Today, perhaps the most important ways in which the United States differs from the rest of the world have to do with crime, poverty, welfare, and education. Most reasonably educated Americans are aware that Europeans generally regard the United States as barbaric because, unlike most European countries, we have the death penalty and no gun control. Some really sophisticated Americans know that the only countries in the world with higher rates of execution, imprisonment, and violent crime than ours are all in the Third World. But the only Americans who have any real sense of what it is like to live in countries outside the United States are those who have done it. Most especially, we don’t know anything about other systems of politics and economics.

Mixed economies and democratic socialism have been tried, with considerable success, in Western Europe and Japan, where the average blue-collar worker lives a lot better than his or her American counterpart. We could consider a day in the life of the Swedish car mechanic, or the German secretary, or the French shop clerk, or even the British steelworker on unemployment. Why don’t we? Because we don’t even know where to find out how they live. We are as isolated from the rest of the world as the poor little Soviet children we learned about in grade-school geography.

Marian Henriquez Neudel ’63, Div. ’67
Chicago

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An Upswing for Poetry

It’s great news, of course, that Ifeanyi Menkiti has enabled the Grolier Poetry Book Shop to survive (“Grolier Reincarnated,” by Nathan Heller, November-December 2006, page 30). His hopes for the store may not be unrealistic. Although you quote former owner Louisa Solano as saying, “There’s more interest in hearing a poet read than in actually reading the book,” the fact is that poetry book sales have been on an upswing in recent years. In the Pitt Poetry Series, which I edit, five or six books have sold 40,000 to 100,000 copies and many others have gone into multiple printings. The numbers are much better than 10 or 20 years ago.

As for Solano’s rather sour comment that younger poets are “writing like their instructor,” I see an enormous diversity among younger writers in style and content, a diversity that reflects that of the country itself and that is evident in American Poetry Now, a forthcoming anthology I’ve edited. I’d invite your readers who are unfamiliar with contemporary poetry to become reacquainted with what Dylan Thomas called the oldest and the greatest of the arts.

Edwin Ochester, A.M. ’63
Pittsburgh

 

Implausible Personals

Delicate bone structure? Magical smile with dancing eyes? Seriously pretty with devilish twinkle? Lots of range and depth? Who are these people? Or more to the point, where the hell were they when I was dragging myself, pale and unappealing, down those hallowed halls? Are there so many Grace Kelly-by-way-of Marie Curies sporting Ivy diplomas? An endless supply of athletically proficient male lovers, eager to nibble ears and escargot? And if so, what the hell are they doing so…single? Aren’t there any sloppy magnanimous souls out there?

More appropriate would be: “Neurotic overachiever who can’t relax seeks great-on-paper partner to impress parents and competitive friends. Unwilling to compromise, control freak, fear of intimacy and failure. Recurring nightmare of arriving late to lecture. Interests include résumé building, winning, and listing interests.”

Bless you all for your God-given talents or your penchant for narrative. May you mate happily and impressively.

Gregg Hurwitz ’95
Los Angeles

Amplifications

Judith Robbins, M.T.S. ’96, noticed what seemed a misquote in the excerpt from “Station Island” included in Adam Kirsch’s “Seamus Heaney, Digging with the Pen” (November-December 2006, page 52). In her edition of the poem, published in 1985, the passage reads: “Take off from here. And don’t be so earnest,/let others wear the sackcloth and the ashes.” The passage as it appears in the magazine comes from Opened Ground: Selected Poems 1966-1996, published in 1997, and reads: “Take off from here. And don’t be so earnest,/so ready for the sackcloth and the ashes.” Kirsch assumes that Heaney revised the poem between the original publication and the later edition.

In “Hello, Geotech” (November-December 2006, page 44), Howard T. Fisher ’26, who founded the Design School’s Laboratory for Computer Graphics and Spatial Analysis in 1965, is described as a geographer and mathematical cartographer. His son, Morgan Fisher ’64, points out that his father studied fine arts in the College and entered the design school to study architecture, but dropped out to design a house for his older brother. He went on to practice architecture and city planning with his own firm before returning to the design school as a full professor.

Speak Up, Please

Harvard Magazine welcomes letters on its contents. Please write to “Letters,” Harvard Magazine, 7 Ware Street, Cambridge 02138, send comments by e-mail to [email protected], use our website, or fax us at 617-495-0324. Letters may be edited to fit the available space.