Fred Guterl

Stories by Fred Guterl

  • NASA Finally Breaks the Budget

    The ax finally fell today on NASA’s human-spaceflight program. The space agency will no longer fulfill one of the roles it was originally created for: to carry astronauts into earth orbit. Once the space shuttle is mothballed later this year or early next, that job will now fall to commercial companies. It hard to overstate how big a change this is over the way the space agency has operated in the past, when it controlled every step in the process of designing, building and launching spaceships. Its bureaucracy and its insistence on safety at all costs has added billions to the cost of its missions, and the expense has finally broken the budget. U.S. astronauts on their way to the International Space Station and another missions to what’s known as low-earth orbit will soon have to hitch a ride with the Russians, or go on rockets built and maintained by private firms. NASA will still have an oversight role, but it means an end to the practice of issuing reams of regulations governing...
  • Private Firms Are the Future of Space

    In the early 1970s, Freeman Dyson wrote an essay comparing space travel to the colonization of the New World and the settlement of the American West. The subject was fanciful, but that didn't keep Dyson, an eminent physicist and writer for the Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton, from making a meticulous effort to quantify and compare the costs of these vastly different ventures. From letters of Gov. William Bradford of the Plymouth Colony, Dyson calculated that the Mayflower's voyage in 1620 from England to Massachusetts cost the average family about 7.5 years in wages. The westward trek of the Mormons in the 1840s cost each family about 2.5 years, according to records left behind by Brigham Young, the Mormon leader. Even a modest space voyage, Dyson calculated, would set the average family back 1,500 years in wages. The difference reflected the relative difficulty of space travel, but also the limitations of big government programs to do things on the cheap.Nothing has...
  • Global Warming Is Out of Control

    The last time world leaders talked about halting global warming, in Kyoto in 1997, they lacked a consensus. The U.S. Senate had spurned the talks by a vote of 95–0, eliminating any chance that the United States, then the world's biggest emitter of carbon dioxide, would take a leadership role. And China, soon to become the biggest emitter, was exempt from having to make painful cuts. As we move toward new talks in December in Copenhagen, the key players seem to be engaged for the first time. In the United States, the Waxman—Markey bill, which aims to aggressively cap and reduce greenhouse-gas emissions, has passed the House and is awaiting action in the Senate. The big worry now is that the planet may not adhere to the diplomatic timetable.When it comes to climate, what counts is not only what humans do to reduce the buildup of greenhouse gases, but also how the earth responds. Currently half the carbon we release into the atmosphere gets absorbed by land and sea—much of it by plants...
  • Radical Ways to Cool the Planet

    As forecasts for global temperatures grow increasingly dire, scientists are taking a serious look at an idea once considered crazy: reengineering the atmosphere.
  • Is Cloned Meat Safe to Eat?

    European and U.S. food safety agencies have deemed cloned pigs and cows safe to eat. Should we all become vegetarians?
  • New Ebola Strain: Many Unknowns

    Doctors are investigating a new strain of Ebola that has erupted in Uganda, killing 22 people and raising fears of infections farther afield.
  • The Great Race

    Craig Venter recounts bucking the system to decode the human genome.
  • Last Word: Craig Venter

    In what may be remembered as the age of biology, Craig Venter is the field's pre-eminent innovator. He startled the world by making rapid strides towards sequencing the DNA of a human genome at Celera Genomics. (His well-publicized race with Francis Collins, president of the National Human Genome Research Institute, ended in a gentlemen's tie when the two scientists and President Bill Clinton heralded the project's completion in 2001.) Last week, Venter announced that his private institute had achieved another milestone: a far more complete sequencing of one man's genome—his own. (The earlier genome was a composite of several different people.) Venter is hoping that his genome will be the first of thousands to join a database that could yield breakthroughs in preventative medicine. He spoke with NEWSWEEK's Fred Guterl. ...
  • Biomarkers: 'I'm Pretty Optimistic'

    The best way to attack cancers and other diseases is to be watchful for the earliest signs. That's why medical researchers are excited about the potential for diagnostic techniques involving proteins--workhorse molecules that carry out myriad tasks required to keep the human body functioning. Each disease may trigger its own unique set of protein "biomarkers," which doctors might someday be able to detect in simple blood tests. Geneticist Lee Hartwell, president and director of the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in Seattle and co-winner of the 2001 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine, spoke with NEWSWEEK's Fred Guterl about the future promise of protein diagnostics. Excerpts: ...
  • Do It Yourself, Robot

    Christmas day 2003 was a gloomy time at the National Space Center in Leicester, England. Scientists waited all day for a signal from the European Space Agency's Beagle 2, announcing its successful landing on Mars, but no signal ever came. Beagle 2's failure remains a mystery, but it was never a surprise. A robot ship millions of kilometers from home stands a decent chance of encountering the unexpected. And robots aren't good at handling what their makers can't foresee.The inability of robots to adapt is a symptom of their growing complexity--the more we want them to do, the harder it is to build them for every contingency. This limitation is the biggest obstacle to making robots more useful around the house, attached to the human body, in our cities and streets. Almost all commercial robots now work in tightly regulated environments such as the factory floor, where objects are always where they're supposed to be, and people are nowhere near. Scientists want to change all that. In...
  • Another Nuclear Dawn

    The story of nuclear power seems to have begun and ended in the 20th century. First came the fireworks--two atom bombs that ended a world war and announced vast stores of energy in the fine structure of the atom. Then came a new industry that promised electricity "too cheap to meter," but instead foundered on high costs and inexcusable accidents. Its epitaph was written in the 1980s, when only the blind or the biased could still have believed that the hundreds of billions of dollars invested in nuclear power was money well spent.So much has changed. The prices of oil and natural gas have gone through the roof and are expected to stay there. Wariness of major suppliers like Russia and Iran is forcing political recalculations across the world. Coal is cheap and plentiful, but it's a big source of carbon dioxide, a greenhouse gas that 157 nations are committed to reducing. Environmentalists, who used to be the natural enemies of nuclear power, are now busy beating their drums over...
  • Rediscovering America

    Of all the stories people tell, the least grounded in fact tend to be those about origins. Only a few decades ago, Christopher Columbus was the discoverer of America and a hero of the second-grade classroom. In recent years, however, Americans have moved toward a more brutally realistic view of their nation's beginnings. Now teachers are more likely to depict the slaughter of Native Americans at the hands of European settlers, and to paint Columbus as a ruthless tyrant who put peaceful, nature-loving natives in chains.Despite this coming-to-terms, Americans have clung to certain founding myths. One is the notion that Europeans came to dominate the continent because they possessed superior technology and culture. Another is the idea that Native Americans coexisted side by side with natural wilderness without imposing on it. In "1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus" ( 465 pages. Knopf ), author Charles Mann demolishes both of these myths.Mann pulls together in a...
  • The End Of The Word As We Know It

    It's never easy to plumb the reading habits of children, but teachers and parents perennially knock themselves out with worry over any sign of a decline. Among U.S. teenagers, reading skills haven't improved in high schools since 1999, according to the National Assessment of Educational Progress, a standardized test. To many educators, the wild success of the "Harry Potter" books only underscores the paucity of reading in the lives of today's children, who somehow manage to find copious amounts of time for videogames, Web surfing and text messaging. "Fast-paced lifestyles, coupled with heavy media diets of visual immediacy, beget brains misfitted to traditional modes of academic learning," writes psychologist Jane Healy in "Endangered Minds." The lure of the visual in today's electronic media, it would seem, is proving too much for the increasingly antiquated pleasures of the written word.What should be done? Healy and others would have us mount a vigorous campaign to restore...
  • RICHARD HOLBROOKE

    News of the devastation caused by aids has been a steady drumbeat for decades now, and it keeps getting louder. The New York-based Council on Foreign Relations recently reported that 39 million people are expected to die of the disease in the next five or 10 years, and warns that some countries may find themselves unable to perform basic functions of governance. For the past five years, former U.S. ambassador Richard Holbrooke has been at the forefront of the war on AIDS, acting as CEO of the Global Business Coalition on HIV/AIDS, a member-supported group that works to enlist corporations to fight the disease. NEWSWEEK's Fred Guterl spoke with him about the growing crisis. Excerpts:GUTERL: How bad is the situation?HOLBROOKE: AIDS is unquestionably the worst health crisis in 700 years, since the Black Death. It decimates societies, and if it's not stopped it can wreck the social fabric and security of entire nations. This is already happening in parts of Africa, and other countries...
  • PEOPLE PROBLEMS

    In the 1950s, astronomer Fred Whipple theorized that comets were made of ice, with some rocks and dirt mixed in, and that their trademark long tails were made of vapor created by the sun's heat. To put Whipple's "dirty snowball" idea to the test, scientists sent unmanned ships to get a closer look. The European spaceship Giotto got to within 200 kilometers of Halley's comet in 1986, and since then several probes have passed close to other comets. Now a U.S. ship, Deep Impact, launched in January, has taken the closest look yet. Last week it hurled a hunk of copper at the comet Tempel 1 and recorded the impact, obtaining new data about the comet's composition that may give scientists clues about the early solar system.It's not a job for the frail--which is to say, it's not a job for humans. These days the most successful space missions seem to be the ones that involve no astronauts. Instead, robotic spaceships, unencumbered by costly life-support equipment and the prying eyes of a...
  • ENERGY: FINALLY ON THE WAY IN FRANCE? IT'S FUSION

    Fusion energy wasn't new back in 1972, when physicist Robert Goldston first arrived at the Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory as a graduate student. His colleagues were ecstatic over generating one tenth of a watt of electricity for one hundredth of a second--enough to make a light bulb flicker. "We thought that was so amazing," he says, "we held a big party."More than three decades later, the celebrations are still going on, but no bulbs are lit. Last week a research group called ITER, which includes Japan, Europe and the United States, announced that it would build the world's first large-scale fusion reactor in Cadarache, France. If all goes well, the plant will make 500 megawatts for 400 seconds--enough to run air conditioners in a small city for a few minutes. The trouble is, scientists will have to pump even more energy than that just to get the plant warmed up. Net output: negative.Commercial fusion plants might already have been pumping electricity onto the grid if funding...
  • INVESTING IN GREEN

    The recent re-discovery of the ivory-billed woodpecker, long thought to have gone extinct, was a rare bit of good news in an otherwise gloomy time for conservationists. Like everyone, ecologist Gretchen Daily at Stanford University was thrilled--"this bird is a legend in my life"--but it also confirmed her belief that efforts to preserve endangered species are "doomed to failure" unless conservationists embrace free-market capitalism. Specifically, she thinks that we should view an ecosystem not as vacant land for development, but as a capital asset that must not be squandered, even if that means compensating landowners for keeping forests green. Daily, director of Stanford's tropical research program at the Center for Conservation Biology, talked with NEWSWEEK's Fred Guterl. Excerpts:NEWSWEEK: Why are traditional conservation efforts doomed to fail?DAILY: So far, conservation has been done with biodiversity as the major objective--protecting other life forms. But now, increasingly,...
  • NOTES FROM A GENIUS

    Richard Feynman was a particularly American sort of genius. He was born in 1918 into a middle-class Jewish family and grew up in, of all places, Far Rockaway, Queens, an outer borough of New York City. His father was uneducated but would walk with his son on the beach, pointing out shells and birds, even though he often couldn't identify them. Feynman grew up with a distaste for formality and pretense and with an iconoclasm that went beyond wearing open-collared shirts and playing practical jokes (he liked to pick locks) to the way he approached physics. He liked to derive things from first principles, reinventing theories merely to understand them better. To describe the dynamics of fundamental particles, his rival, physicist Julian Schwinger, spun a masterful web of mathematics; Feynman drew pictures. The two shared the Nobel Prize for this work in 1965, but by then a new generation of physicists preferred the "Feynman diagrams" because they yielded more intuitive insight than all...
  • TRUE TEAMWORK

    President George W. Bush has won plaudits for the diversity of his cabinet officials, most notably when he promoted Condoleezza Rice, an African-American woman, to secretary of State in his second term. Is this the kind of diversity that makes the White House team better equipped to come up with creative solutions to world problems? It is, according to the conventional wisdom in management circles, which for years has held that a diverse team is a creative one.The idea is simple. When people of different points of view get together, they question each other's way of doing things and habits of thought. From this collision of different ways of looking at the world come new ideas--creativity. But what kind of diversity is most important for ensuring creativity? Researchers at Northwestern University set out to answer that question. Their results, published last week in the journal Science, suggest that although diversity is essential, ethnicity, race and gender may not be the most...
  • The Truth About Gender

    When it comes to gender differences, everybody's an expert. But George Lazarus is a bit more expert than most. Although he doesn't study the subject formally, as a pediatrician in New York City he sees a lot of children, who are, after all, far better than adults at expressing their essential natures. One girl's parents, for instance, set out to raise her without "gender bias" that might hinder her success later in life. When she turned 3, they eschewed dolls and gave her toy trucks instead. The girl went off to her bedroom to play. When the parents checked up on her, they found her tucking the trucks in bed for the night. "Shhhh!" she said. "They're sleeping."It's a story that Larry Summers, the beleaguered president of Harvard University, might appreciate. Summers caused a firestorm when he suggested several weeks ago that differences in "intrinsic aptitude" might be the principal reason the university has fewer females in the sciences and engineering than males; he lost a vote of...
  • DARWIN'S REVENGE

    Of nature's many guises, winter at the Arctic Circle would have to be one of the least subtle. It's hard to imagine that humans would have survived generations of frigid climate without some adaptation giving them a way to cope. Scientists have in fact postulated a "thrifty genotype" that some humans acquired 30,000 or so years ago during their migration from Asia, across a land bridge at what's now the Bering Strait, to North America. These genes may have given cold warriors an ability to store fat and metabolize it sparingly, a handy trait for the dark, cold months when food is scarce.Now that the land bridge is long gone, the descendants of these first North Americans are stuck with genes optimized for life in the Ice Age. The same traits that allowed their ancestors to thrive in the Arctic wilderness may be making them uniquely vulnerable to the high-fat, high-cholesterol, sedentary American lifestyle. Members of the Pima tribe of Arizona, for instance, suffer one of the world's...

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