Discovery

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Growing Wall Street Protests Could Affect Policies, Elections

The anti-Wall Street protests spreading around the country have caught the eye of T.V. Reed, a professor of American Studies at Washington State University and author of The Art of Protest: Culture and Activism From the Civil Rights Movement to the Streets of Seattle. At the request of the WSU Discovery blog editor, he has filed this post:

The Occupy Wall Street movement is growing very rapidly. It is now in more than 70 cities across the US. Whether it will continue to grow depends, I think, on three things.

First is whether the mainstream media will grow tired of the protests, as they tend to do over time. The parallel right-wing movement of the so-called Tea Party was helped immensely by advocacy coverage from Fox News.

Wall Street protest picture courtesy of Flickr and http://www.flickr.com/photos/waywuwei/

A second issue is whether the movement can spread to unions. Conservative media have claimed that labor unions are behind the protests. That is not true. But it could become true given that unions have been so much under attack in the past few months by Republican politicians. Unions are one of the few significant forces that have organizing networks and a liberal-progressive constituency. The Occupy Wall Street movement at present is dominated by students and other youth. Historically, the combination of students and union members has led to very powerful movements. That combination nearly brought down the government of France in 1968, and it was at the heart of the success of the 1999 Battle of Seattle protests for greater justice in globalization processes.

A third factor is whether the movement can hone its message. Movements typically begin with very broad, amorphous agendas. But they grow when they can focus on certain clear objectives. In this case, I think the overall objective is to counter the rightward drift of US politics in general and President Obama in particular over the last couple of years. The current message—that the government is only working for the wealthiest 1 percent of the population, and what about the rest of us, the 99 percent?—will need to be translated into more specific demands.

In the end, the movement could affect tax policies and the upcoming presidential campaign while acting as a check on the Tea Party.

The Tea Party was started by right-wing politicians like Dick Armey, but with help from Fox News grew into a real movement that has emboldened Republicans to move further to the right in policy. The Occupy Wall Street movement has the potential to reverse this movement, pushing the president and Democratic politicians back toward their liberal-progressive base. The policies most immediately impacted will probably be efforts to return tax levels for the wealthiest Americans to the pre-Bush era level and to support the President’s new jobs bill. But the wider impact is likely to be on the presidential campaign.

President Obama is by nature a centrist who leans to the left. But he has governed lately as a centrist who leans to the right. As he enters campaign mode, he has already shown signs of moving back toward the center-left, and this movement is likely to further his move in that direction.

But social movements historically go beyond mere legislative change. They empower ordinary citizens to take on the bigger picture. And in this case the bigger picture has been the steadily widening income gap in the US in which a few continue to become fabulously wealthy while the rest have stagnated or lost ground. As Warren Buffett, the billionaire and advocate of taxing the rich, recently pointed out in response to conservative claims that Democrats want “class warfare”: “There’s class warfare, all right, but it’s my class, the rich class, that’s making war, and we’re winning.”

He meant this latter point figuratively, but in fact people are dying in the US due to things like inadequate medical care and nutrition, and millions of ordinary Americans understand this. How many are ready to join this particular protest of these conditions remains to be seen.

 

 

The Myth—and Psychology—of the Better Bat

Lloyd Smith spends a lot of time pondering the performance of bats and balls—aluminum, wood, baseballs, softballs. It’s his job, and he does it well enough that his Sports Science Laboratory is the official bat testing facility for the NCAA.

But while the WSU associate professor of engineering might use his ball cannons and high speed cameras to facilitate an arms race of ever bouncier balls and more powerful bats, the lab focuses more on uniformity, or to mix a metaphor, a level playing field among the tools of the trade.

Flickr photo courtesty of MelvinSchlubman, http://www.flickr.com/photos/pauldineen/

In fact, if you ask him what bat is best, he can’t tell you. That would be a conflict of interest, an implicit endorsement of the people he is supposed to help regulate. Moreover, he says, it just doesn’t matter that much.

It’s a common misconception that there is an enormous difference between bats, he says. By design, the highest-performing softball bat is 10 percent more powerful than a wood bat. The best college bat is 5 percent better.

“The big difference is in player ability,” he says, referring to an on-the-field study showing as much as a 20 percent variation between players.

“When parents come to me and say, ‘Hey, which bat should I buy for my kid,’ I tell them, ‘Go to the weight room and work out. Go play the game. Go work on your skills.’ That’s going to make a lot more difference than spending $300 on the latest and greatest bat.”

Then there are the intangibles that lie outside the realm of measurable physics, like bat comfort. Smith can measure 100 bats and determine the best performer, “but if a player is convinced that this other bat is better, what does that psychology do? What factor does that have?”

That may even have been a factor in the use of illegally corked bats. A study co-authored by Smith in the recent American Journal of Physics found a ball bounced better off a solid wood bat than one hollowed out and filled with a material like cork.

It could be that the lighter corked bat improves a player’s ability to turn on the ball, and a player like Sammy Sosa—caught with a corked bat in 2003—was aiming to improve his batting average, not power. Or it could go back to that intangible psychological factor: He thought the bat worked better, and thinking made it so.

“Suddenly superstition does have a reality,” says Smith, “but we can’t really measure that here, so we stick with the science part.”

To learn more, see “The Physics of Cheating in Baseball” at Smithsonianmag.com.

 

 

The Slime that Saves the Planet

Washington State University researchers have received half a million dollars to study a microscopic slime that they believe plays an outsized role in life on the planet.

The slime, also known as biofilm, forms a super-thin layer gluing the roots of plants to mineral surfaces and serves as a reactor in which a plant can break down the rock for vital nutrients. The process, says Kent Keller, was central to the start of land-based plant life as plants invaded the continents 350 million years ago. It continues to take place on modern volcanic ground and receding glaciers—anywhere a plant can’t get enough to eat.

A special root slime helps plants like this pine tree pull nutrients from bare rock. Flickr photo courtesy of eviltomthai.

“The magic of all of this is plants come in that are adapted to make the slime,” says Keller, co-director of the Center for Environmental Research, Education, and Outreach (CEREO) and professor in the School of Earth and Environmental Sciences. “Within 100 years, you’ve got soil. That’s an amazing thing. And it’s these slimes that are a key part of the mechanism.”

Wait, there’s more: The biofilm reactor also facilitates the most fundamental process on the planet for packing away carbon, as seen in the greenhouse gas carbon dioxide. As the plant dissolves minerals, the plant’s natural carbonic acids, made from CO2 through photosynthesis, are transformed into bicarbonate that is carried in runoff to the oceans. There it precipitates as calcium carbonate.

In other words, the biofilm acts as an intermediary between carbon from the atmosphere and its storage in the earth’s crust. Absent that process, carbon dioxide would continue building up in the atmosphere until oxygen-dependent life forms suffocated in a “runaway greenhouse.”

“Without that we wouldn’t be here,” says Keller. “We’d be Venus, because Venus has no mechanism to sequester volcanic CO2.”

But there’s a mystery to the process, which Keller and a group of colleagues will explore with $492,000 from the National Science Foundation. Somehow plants employ biofilms to build up nutrients for plants to use while also releasing them for long-term storage, and they’ve done this in a way in which plants thrive and the chemistry of oceans and the atmosphere is kept in balance.

The researchers—a team of earth, life, and soil scientists—plan to grow trees in different nutrient conditions, including pure sand, to see which are best at inducing the formation of biofilm. One indicator of that will be microbial communities, which essentially generate the biofilms for shelter. The researchers hypothesize that plants in the worst conditions will be predisposed to hosting the most diverse microbial communities, the better to generate slime and nutrients.

One experiment will rely entirely on fertilized irrigation as a proxy for conventional agriculture, which is less reliant on large microbial communities for nutrients. Comparing this system with those generating their own nutrients could help open the door to agricultural systems that can use fewer artificial fertilizers.

Never Rush a Good Idea: Alex Hammond Concludes 34 Years in the Department of English

“Is shedding all these books synonymous with retirement?” I asked Alex Hammond. I was talking about the rows he had heaped in the Avery Hall Bundy Reading Room kitchen one day last spring. I walked by and saw the hundreds of paperback books stacked on the cafeteria-like tables. Everything from Philip Roth novels to Norton Anthologies to dated collections of feminist criticism. Attached to the door was a sign saying, simply, “FREE BOOKS.” Anyone walking by was welcome, even encouraged, to take them.

Alex Hammond's retirement cakeThese were Alex Hammond’s books, mingled with those from the office of Dick Law, another retiring colleague. Alex was in the midst of cleaning out his office upon his retirement from 34 years in the WSU English Department where he has been a teacher and scholar of American Literature, editor (along with Jana Argersinger) of the scholarly journal Poe Studies/Dark Romanticism, Undergraduate Studies Director, Vice Chair and Scheduler, Interim Chair, frequent commentator in the Faculty Senate, and a role model for how to be one of those people whom no one wants to see retire.

One day last spring, I sat down with Alex and asked him about his books. As usual, Alex answered my question by taking me on a journey.

One of the things the US Government hated about Northwest tribal groups was the potlatch, he told me, a ceremony in which members would give up all their worldly possessions. When the US was trying to get post-Civil War control of the country, one thing they tried to do is outlaw the potlatch, which they saw as very anti-capitalist. Alex likened his book purging to the potlatch. “But I’m not giving away anything that’s worth much on the used book market. It feels great, if people will take them,” he said.

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