Sunday, February 14, 2016

Why an Obama "excellent adventure" as a Supreme Court Justice is a bad idea

There's a lot of buzz going around about the possibility of a future Democratic president nominating current Democratic president Barack Obama to the Supreme Court. I think that this would be a bad idea, and I'd like to tell you why.

Just to fend off some of the disapproval that I know I've already provoked, I want to say that I think Obama has the intellect, legal expertise, and the judicial temperament to make for a great Supreme Court Justice.

Indeed, the matter of temperament is of paramount importance. No one has shown more of a commitment to the dispassionate consideration of the most divisive issues facing this country than Barack Obama has over the last eight years, this in spite of relentless attacks on his efforts to reach sensible political compromise.

So what's not to like?

To put it simply, the presence of an Associate Justice Obama would turn the Supreme Court Building into a third ring of the the Washington political circus that now includes the White House and the U.S. Capitol. And a Justice Obama would suck the air of the room of any oral argument before the court.

The obvious objection to the above claim is that we've been there and done that. William Howard Taft, the 27th President of the United States (1909–13), served as the country's tenth Chief Justice (1921–30). The Supreme Court didn't crumble as a result of his tenure there, so there's no reason to believe that a repeat performance by the 44th President of the United States in the capacity of an Associate Justice should raise any cause for alarm.

In response, first of all consider that Taft took on his Supreme Court gig a good eight years after leaving the office of President. I suspect that this cooling off period went a long way toward making Supreme Court deliberations less fraught with the political issues that Taft had to deal with during his time as president.

Second, and more importantly, the power and prestige of the office of the President of the United States have changed immeasurably since 1921. To understand this, it's instructive to look at a story that comes from the ex-presidency of Harry Truman, a little more than sixty years ago.

In June of 1953, not much more than sixth months after leaving office, Harry Truman and his wife Bess packed up their Chrysler New Yorker and headed across country on a road trip. Just the two of them.

It's hard to imagine that the man who had been commander-in-chief of U.S. armed forces at the end of World War II - and who had also survived two assassination attempts - was out touring the country in the family roadster without the company of either a press entourage or a Secret Service detail. This presidential escapade is nicely documented in Matthew Algeo's "Harry Truman's Excellent Adventure: The True Story of a Great American Road Trip" (Amazon link).

If you imagine that Barack Obama's assuming a seat on the Supreme Court in 2017 would be not much more of a disruption than William Howard Taft becoming Chief Justice in 1921, then I invite you to consider how well an "excellent adventure" by the Obama family on a road trip alone into the American heartland would play out today.

Barack Obama is eminently qualified to a be a Supreme Court Justice in the same way that Cate Blanchett is eminently qualified to appear in a community theater production. But celebrity changes everything, and sometimes even the best qualified person isn't the right fit.

Tuesday, February 9, 2016

The stealthy third-rail of American politics

What do you think of this: spending over $1 trillion over the next twenty years for 2,400 stealthy F-35 Joint Strike Fighter jets? That's over $400 million per plane. The helmets that the pilots will wear, alone, cost over $400,000 a pop.

Bernie thinks it's a good idea.
Hillary thinks it's a good idea.
Trump and Cruz and Rubio and Jeb all think it's a good idea.

So much for finally finding something that we can all agree on.

The amount of money being wasted here is mind-boggling. And wasted is the right word, since no compelling case has been made that this weapons system boondoggle will do anything to address our genuine national security concerns.

This number of better things that we could do with this vast sum is itself mind-boggling.

We could provide free college and vocational training for young people for decades. Teachers could be paid the kind of salaries that would allow us to recruit and retain the best and the brightest of them. Our crumbling infrastructure could be repaired or replaced if need be. World-class public transportation systems could be built that would become the preferred way for everyone to get around. Sources of clean energy could be developed and our environment restored in the process. And, for a relative pittance, no city, town, or village in the country would have to settle for providing its residents with anything but the highest quality drinking water.

The list goes on.

So why is everyone behind such a bad idea? The reason is that the United States has become a warrior culture; you can stake out any position you damn well please across the political spectrum, but you can't say anything that in any way could be construed as calling into question the premise of unrivaled and enduring American military power around the world.

Military spending has become the "third-rail" of American politics. No one dares touch it.

Sunday, February 7, 2016

Thinking outside the petri dish - an ingenious application of microfluidics

Petri dish with bacterial colonies 
The easily recognized, circular, slim glass petri dish has been a mainstay of microbiology research since the late 1870s, when it was invented by Julius Richard Petri, an assistant to the pioneering German microbiologist Robert Koch.

Filled with agar, a jelly-like substance, obtained from algae, which has been infused with selected nutrients, the petri dish becomes a go-to habitat for cultivating a variety of microbes, everything from bacteria to small mosses.

But for all its successes as an instrument of biological and biomedical studies - and they are legion - petri dishes fall short in some regards. In particular, once the liquid agar and its mix of nutrients and any other selected chemicals set, you're pretty much stuck with the environment for your microorganisms that you decided on in advance.

But what if you wanted to do an experiment that required you to change the nutrient environment over time? Are there options to using the tried-and-true, but inflexible, approach that the petri dish has to offer?

Microfluidics devices used to direct the evolution of
C. elegans at the McGrath lab (Marc Merlin)
An answer can be found in the so-called lab-on-a-chip, like the set of five pictured here on a wafer fabricated by Georgia Tech School of Biology graduate student Lijian Long and used by the McGrath lab there to direct the evolution of a tiny roundworm with the official name C. elegans.

These are microfluidics devices. They resemble computer chips for a good reason: they are constructed using the same micro-scale techniques used to make those components so central to our digital technology. The key difference is that, unlike computer chips which are designed to control the flow of electrons, microfluidics devices are designed to allow for the exquisite control of the flow of fluids.

In this case of the McGrath research group, the fluid being controlled contains, in part, bacteria found in decaying organic matter, a preferred meal for C. elegans. (Nom, nom, nom, as they say.) The roundworms, only around three-quarters of a millimeter in length, take up residence in the winding, narrow channel inscribed on the microfluidics device and feed on the bacteria that come their way.

By modulating the concentration of these bacteria, among other things, the McGrath lab is able to interfere with the usual development of C. elegans with the intention of driving the evolution of specific traits, for example those having to do with lifespan.

These kind of innovative labs-on-a-chip were developed early on by Georgia Tech School of Chemical & Biomolecular Engineering Professor, Hang Lu. They are wonderful examples of how science proceeds not only through the production of remarkable primary discoveries but also through the development of ingenious auxiliary experimental techniques which require thinking outside the box. In this case, one could say, thinking outside the petri dish.