P.L.A. - A Journal of Politics, Law and Autism

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Tuesday, April 15, 2003
Science News

Two news articles about scientific developments caught our eye recently.

First Reuters reports that scientists have completed a detailed map of 99% of the humane genome (link via The Agonist).
NIH scientists joined researchers around the world to map what has now come to be known as the 2.85 billion bases, or DNA letters, responsible for heredity in humans. Each of the 23 pairs of chromosomes found inside human cells carry 50 million to 300 million base pairs, and hundreds, to thousands, of genes.

The final mapping is 300 times more accurate than what was announced in 2000, closing gaps that held up research trying to determine gene location and function, said Collins.

The Human Genome Project was begun in 1990 and was projected to take until 2005 to finish and to cost $3 billion just for the U.S. portion of the research. By pulling together globally, researchers finished the mapping two years earlier than scheduled, and American scientists spent only $2.7 billion of taxpayers' money, Collins noted.

The implications of that development are huge. As the Reuters story reports:
The announcement, made at a scientific meeting at the National Institutes of Health (NIH), coincides with the 50th anniversary of the discovery of the DNA's double helix by James Watson and Francis Crick.

"As that discovery revolutionized biological science, so, too, will the final mapping of the human genome," said Francis Collins, leader of the Human Genome Project and director of the National Human Genome Research Institute at NIH.

"This is a transforming moment," said Collins at a press briefing. "This is the day we rolled out the first edition of the Book of Life."
NIH director Elias Zerhouni agreed, noting that, "For centuries to come, this day will be remembered as a landmark event."

We fully expect that the mapping of the humane genome will rank with the development of antibiotics, the creations of vaccines, and the discovery of germs as one of the greatest advances in medical history. The number of lives saved and the amount of suffering that will be alleviated as a result of our understanding of the humane genome cannot be overestimated.

Has $2.7 billion of taxpayer money ever been more wisely spent?

The second story to catch our eye has to do with the development of fusion technology. A New York Times story (located here as the Times has placed the story behind the $ barrier) reports as follows:
With a blast of X-rays compressing a capsule of hydrogen to conditions approaching those at the center of the sun, scientists from Sandia National Laboratories reported on Monday that they had achieved thermonuclear fusion, in essence detonating a tiny hydrogen bomb. Such controlled explosions would not be large enough to be dangerous and might offer an alternative way of generating electricity by harnessing fusion, the process that powers the sun. Fusion combines hydrogen atoms into helium, producing bountiful energy as a byproduct.

The use of X-rays to create fusion power could create the technology to allow us to abandon fossil fuels as an energy source for transporation:
The Sandia experiments, by comparison, could lead to something more like an internal combustion engine, in which power is generated through a series of explosions. "Squirt in a little bit of fuel, explode it," Quintenz said. "Squirt in a little bit of fuel, explode it." That approach is potentially simpler, eliminating the need to confine hot hydrogen gas. But designing a machine that could detonate controlled thermonuclear explosions in quick succession - and survive them - is an engineering challenge that scientists have only begun to think about.

While the development of fusion as a primary energy source is at least decades away, we think that government funding of such research should be made a priority. The funding of long-range research projects is a legitimate function of government and the potential payoffs for such funding are enormous.

Monday, April 14, 2003
Amateurs vs. Professionals

America has a culture of specialization. Americans achieve fame or fortune by choosing a specific are of expertise and dedicating themselves to becoming the very best in a very narrow area. That culture of specialization has led to the demise of the amateur sportsman.

We wish to tell you the story of three amateurs who chose to compete at the highest, most competitive level of their chosen hobby and were able to do so despite the advantages of the professionals.

Our first story comes from the world of golf. At one time amateurs like Bobby Jones dominated the sport. Jones, a lawyer, would only play golf in the summers. When fall came, he put the clubs away until the weather warmed in spring. He maintained an active law practice even as he set golfing records that still stand.

As the prize money at golf tournaments rose and television spread the popularity of the game, professionals came to dominate the sport. Occasionally, an amateur will do well in a PGA event (Phil Mickleson won a PGA tournament as an amateur) but those occasions are rare. Indeed, on most occasions when an amateur does well, the amateur is a professional-in-waiting, usually a college player who has not yet turned pro but has every intention of doing so once some goal, such as an NCAA title or U.S. Amateur Championship is attained.

The Masters is one of the four premier golf tournaments held each year. It is a Major. The Masters was founded by Bobby Jones. Because of that history, the Masters has a tradition of including a few amateurs in the select field of invitees.

Those invitations go to players who won or had very high finishes in prestigious amateur events. Usually, those spots are filled by pros-in-waiting and this year four of the five amateur invitations went to such promising young players.

One invitation, for winning the Unites States Mid Amateur Championship went to George Zahringer.

Zahringer is no kid. He is a 49 year old New Yorker with a wife, kids and a full time job on Wall Street. By winning the Mid Amateur, he got to tee it up at the Masters and compete against the finest golfers in the world.

That is an experience that many a weekend golfer has dreamed of many, many times. George Zahringer got to experience it. If this were a movie, Zahringer would have shocked the world and won the Masters as a 49 year old nobody. Real life is not a movie. Zahringer shot 82-85 and missed the cut by 18 shots. Still, it was a once in a lifetime experience for a middle-aged golfer and we applaud Mr. Zahringer’s efforts.

Our second example of an amateur competing with professionals comes from a New York Times book review of Positively Fifth Street by James McManus.

McManus is a writer who teaches at the Art Institute of Chicago. He was hired by Harpers to report on the 2000 World Series of Poker.

The World Series Of Poker is held annually at Binion’s Horseshoe Casino in Las Vegas. Poker players from around the world descend on the Horseshoe in an effort to win first prize of more than a million dollars. Professional poker players dominate the event but amateurs are allowed to play provided they pay the $10,000 entry fee. The game is a particularly volatile form of poker known as No Limit Texas Hold ‘Em.

McManus was given a $4,000 advance against expenses to report on the tournament. Instead of using the advance to pay expenses, he used it to enter a lesser poker tournament. The prize for winning the lesser tournament included a chit for entry into the World Series. McManus, an experienced amateur poker player, won the lesser event and gained entry into the World Series.

By gaining entry into the World Series of Poker, McManus, like George Zahringer, got to compete against the best players in the world in his chosen hobby. Five hundred and twelve of the world’s best poker players entered the event. After several days, the field is winnowed down to the final table. The final table has nine seats.

At one point McManus had accumulated more than $450,000 in winnings. That amounts to more than seven times his yearly earning from teaching and writing. Fighting off the nerves caused by playing for such high stakes, McManus played well enough and had sufficient luck, to make it to the final table.

Playing at the final table against the best in the world for very high stakes is an exhilarating experience. At one point at the final table, McManus won $866,000 on the turn of a single card and took the lead in the tournament.

Finally, however, the skill of the pros prevailed (or perhaps McManus’ luck ran out) and he lost all of his chips. He finished fifth and won $250,000 in prize money. He also got a book out of the deal. We have not yet read the book but we ordered it through the Amazon portal at Atrios.

Our third example of an amateur competing at the highest levels against professionals is from the world of tournament bridge. Some of you may think of bridge as a card game played by your grandmother between tea, crumpets and gossip. The world of high-level tournament bridge is the exact opposite of that image. It is a highly competitive, very difficult game. It is perhaps the most difficult of all "incomplete information" games to master.

High level bridge requires large doses of general intelligence, analytical ability, partnership skill, concentration, the ability to perform under intense pressure and a little bit of larceny.

As you may have guessed by our description, high-level tournament bridge is our avocation. While we have not played in a number of years due to the constraints of family and career, we hope to resume our quest for a National Championship ay some point in the future (our best efforts so far have only resulted in a couple of top 20 finished in the premier national events).

Rose Meltzer is Californian. She is married with two grown sons. She is a chemist by education and also attended Julliard where she studied piano. She teaches piano and does volunteer work.

When her husband left Cisco Systems to start his own technology company, his work required most of his time. Rose, who had learned to play bridge in college at Columbia, decided to get more serious about the game.

She recruited a team of stars in an effort to make in impact on the bridge world. Her teammates were Chip Martel, Lew Stansby, Peter Weichsel, Alan Sontag and Kyle Larsen, world-class experts all.

The Meltzer team began slowly with very poor finishes in a couple of National events and some close losses in other events. The breakthrough came in the summer of 2000 at the North American Bridge Chamionships held in Anaheim. The Meltzer team won the Spingold Knockout (a very prestigious national championship). Meltzer was the first woman to win the Spingold since 1953.

From there, the Meltzer team entered the International Team Trials in an effort to win the right to represent the United States in the world championships (known as the Bermuda Bowl). That was a tall order as not only are the best players in the country competing for that honor, but no women had ever won the Team Trials.

After an early loss, the Meltzer team rallied, beat a number of very strong professional teams and won the right to represent the United States in the World Championships.

In the Bermuda Bowl, the Meltzer team faced an assortment of very strong professional teams from around the world. They survived to make it to the finals against an experienced all professional team from Norway.

As we have noted before, if real life were like the movies, the Meltzer team would win the Bermuda Bowl for the United States and Rose Meltzer would become the first woman to ever win an open world bridge championship.

And that is exactly what happened. Rose Meltzer, an amateur, took on the world of bridge professionals and emerged as a World Champion. Occasionally the talented amateur can compete with and beat the professionals.