Fred Guterl

Stories by Fred Guterl

  • What's Killing The Frogs?

    As a boy, Gary Fellers spent summers chasing after frogs in the lakes and ponds of Yosemite National Park. He even kept a field notebook, just like naturalists in the early 20th century who described mountain yellow-legged frogs covering the lakeshores. When Fellers returned years later to the park as an ecologist for the U.S. Geological Survey, he was dismayed. "I've gone back to many of the same sites, and frogs don't occur there anymore," he says. "It's not just that they're not abundant. They're absent."Lately Fellers has been trying to figure out why half the frogs in Yosemite seem to have disappeared. When he collects tadpoles in the park and releases them in Lassen Volcanic National Park to the north, they thrive. But when he tries to raise Lassen tadpoles in Yosemite, they fare as poorly as the natives: they are often born with 1 leg, or 3 legs, or in some cases as many as 10. The likely cause: pesticides wafting over the Sierra Nevada mountains from fruit and nut farms in...
  • Evolution: Birds Do It

    In his book about evolution "Origin of Species," Charles Darwin described how the daily struggle for food and sex ultimately determines the future of a species, be it dinosaur, bird or human. He had plenty of fossil evidence to back him up, but he never actually observed natural selection taking place. Peter and Rosemary Grant, a married team of biologists from Princeton, have worked for three decades to fill in Darwin's blanks. Each year they camp out on Daphne Major, a tiny rock island in the Galapagos, and observe the lives of the hundreds of medium ground finches and cactus finches that live there. They note who mates with whom and how often, and what kind of seeds they eat. They catch each finch and measure its weight and the size and shape of its beak. "We're crazy about being completely absorbed by biological research in uninterrupted fashion," says Peter Grant. "So we can accept the fact that we can't have any cold beer for weeks at a time."The finches have had their ups and...
  • A Delicate Challenge

    By the time Lee Morin had rocketed up in the space shuttle Atlantis last week, he had rehearsed his mission for more than a year in NASA's Neutral Buoyancy Lab. But sloshing around in a big bathtub doesn't really prepare you for the actual experience of floating in space while assembling the International Space Station. Being in Earth's orbit is more like free-falling. Everything is in motion. Below you (or is it above you?) continents and oceans move by with unsettling speed. The sun rises and sets each hour of the day, and the shadows it casts move eerily with it. Yank too hard on your "torque multiplier" (wrench) and you find yourself spinning out of control. Even veteran crew mate Jerry Ross, who's making his record-setting seventh shuttle trip, allowed that the mission would be a "challenge"--and for a spaceman, that's downright emotive.Whatever qualms Morin may have been keeping to himself, he overcame them last Saturday. As scripted, he passed through the station's air lock...
  • When Wells Go Dry

    As Kenneth Deffeyes walks the five blocks from the Princeton University campus to his home, he veers sharply through a parking lot and then without warning takes a diagonal path across a side street. He doesn't seem to be paying any particular attention to where his sneaker-clad feet are taking him. His hands are tucked firmly in his parka, his eyes are looking up at a cloudless blue sky and his mind is where it usually is: on the world's supply of oil. In particular, Deffeyes is trying to explain why anybody should believe that the entire human enterprise of oil exploration--the search for reserves, the drilling of wells, the extraction of crude and all the attendant calculations of supply and demand--why this whole messy business should obey a simple but elegant piece of mathematics.Deffeyes has reached a conclusion with far-reaching consequences for the entire industrialized world. So far-reaching that many of his colleagues in the field of petroleum geology dismiss it. The...
  • In The Germ Labs

    Bakyt Atshabar has worked for the anti-plague Institute for more than 25 years, and for much of that time there was little need for security guards and fences and heavy metal doors with keypad locks. As an unofficial part of the Soviet Union's vast bioweapons program, the institute routinely kept dozens of different strains of anthrax, plague and tularemia stored in unlocked refrigerators. But Moscow's ironclad control over life in Kazakhstan protected the labs. So did a veil of secrecy that hid the institute's bioweapons role from local residents. ...
  • Brave New Foods

    Watching plants grow was never Hugh Mason's idea of a good time. He was always more interested in organic molecules--DNA, proteins, viruses--than in the organisms themselves. But these days he's spending a lot of time fretting over his tomatoes. They grow in pots--dozens of them--in a greenhouse at Cornell University's Boyce Thompson Institute in upstate New York. At first glance they seem quite ordinary--bright red and a bit larger than a golf ball. ...
  • Down-Home Diplomacy

    There was no vestige of the cold-war chill in Crawford, Texas, last week. President George W. Bush and his wife, Laura, had Russian President Vladimir Putin down to their Prairie Chapel Ranch for a dose of diplomacy, Texas style. A band played "Cotton Eyed Joe" and cowboy-clad cooks flipped peppered tenderloin on a mesquite grill. Dessert was pecan pie, which an apron-clad Laura Bush might have prepared from pecan trees on the ranch. Of course, she hadn't--the meal was catered. "I haven't had to cook in a few years. It's been a great relief for my family," joked the First Lady. But no matter. It's the intentions that count, and this event was nothing if not friendly and informal.Take a step back and all the easy Texas cordiality might have seemed inappropriate to the serious business at hand: dispensing with thousands of nuclear bombs the United States and Russia are each ready to unleash on the other at a few minutes' notice. But at the Texas summit, informality was more than a...
  • What Can Iraq Do?

    Unlike nuclear bombs and deadly chemicals, biological weapons are easy to hide and easy to smuggle. Unfortunately, that also makes them easy to underestimate. For decades Iraq has counted on keeping its bioweapons program out of sight and out of mind. Even when United Nations weapons inspectors were allowed into Baghdad in the 1990s, it took them years to discover evidence of Iraq's bioweapons program. Rihab Taha, the shy, English-educated microbiologist known as "Dr. Germ," had even given them tours of the plant at Al Hakam, on the outskirts of Baghdad. Sure, it had big fermentation tanks, but so what? Such tanks would have been needed to make batches of Bacillus thuringiensis, or Bt, a bug that is used as a common pesticide and the putative product of the Al Hakam plant. Iraq had also obtained 10 or so specimens of Bacillus anthracis, or anthrax, but what of it? The cultures could have been used for such defensive measures as making vaccines and treatments. And besides, they had...
  • The Nagging Fear Of Nukes

    Anyone who doubts the threat of nuclear terrorism should ask the Russians about it. In 1993 Chechen saboteurs left a package of highly radioactive cesium in Moscow's Izmailovo Park. Authorities managed to avert disaster, but the incident is one of the real-world events prompting security experts to review the odds on a terrorist nuclear attack. Scott Parrish of the Monterey Institute for Nonproliferation Studies says such an assault is still highly unlikely. But as he says, "a month ago, I would've thought flying a jetliner into a building was a pretty low probability."The bad news is that Osama bin Laden has been trying to obtain nuclear weapons since the mid-1990s. The good news is that, as far as we know, he hasn't been able to get them. But the United States faces risk from two crude but effective terror stratagems. One is a "dirty bomb," or radioactivity dispersal device (RDD). An RDD consists of conventional explosives wrapped in a shroud of radioactive material that creates...
  • The Boringness Of Computers

    Technologies come and go, but fame is even more fleeting. Back in the 1980s when a few techies with connections to the Defense Department were playing around with computer networks, who cared? It wasn't until Web browsers made it possible to point and click your way through the Internet that things really got interesting. Likewise, computers in the 1960s rarely made the evening news, but now everybody knows the story of those two kids in a garage who created the first Apple. In each case the technology had become personal. Computing and networking existed before they became popular, and they will continue to exist long after most of us stop thinking about them altogether.That day began to seem a whole lot closer last week when Hewlett-Packard Corp. announced its plan to acquire Compaq Computer. Each of these firms entered the public consciousness by making tangible products that had a visceral appeal. At a time when PCs were deskbound, Compaq put them in a shock-resistant case,...
  • The Truth About Global Warming

    For the past five years, Richard Lindzen and his wife have summered in Paris, always staying with family or borrowing an empty apartment from a friend. This year, however, Lindzen decided to splurge. His wife found a modest but airy flat on a noisy street near the Cimetiere du Pere Lachaise. The neighborhood is not the most fashionable, but it has other qualities. When outraged citizens declared their independence from France after the war with Prussia in 1871 and the government sent in the Army to quell the rabble-rousers, the last of them held out in Belleville, a few blocks east of Lindzen's flat. This same district of Paris, he points out, also includes the Bastille. "I think it's safe to say that this area has had more than its share of defiance," he says.Lindzen doesn't seem capable of rabble-rousing. Sitting on his sofa in black-stockinged feet, he looks like a shorter, nerdier Orson Welles. He became a meteorologist back in the 1960s, when it was a backwater among the...
  • How Real Is The Placebo Effect?

    The medical establishment has long held that a substance can have a medicinal effect simply because a patient believes it will. The conventional wisdom about this placebo effect, which harks back to a paper published in 1955, has been that it works for one patient in three. That's not a bad ratio, especially for a treatment that has no side effects. Some doctors have even proposed using the placebo effect as a bona fide medical treatment. But many doctors are uncomfortable with the easygoing notion that mere belief can heal the body. Late last month a paper in the journal Science gave them some ammunition, suggesting that the power of placebo is a myth.The study certainly gores some oxen. A whole medical industry has sprung up based on the mind's presumed power over the body. The growing popularity of alternative medicines and treatments--everything from Chinese herbs and yoga to acupuncture and faith healing--has been fueled in part by the medical respectability of the placebo...
  • The Creation Equation

    Pity the cosmologists. These wizards of science come to work each day and think about how the universe began, why it is what it is, and what exists beyond the mere 6 trillion-trillion-mile stretch that we can see with our most powerful telescopes. They have no laboratories--what relevant experiment could they possibly do? Creation being an event of the distant past, cosmologists are in a sense historians, except they have no witnesses, no legends, not even fossils to comb for clues. All they have (might have) are the known laws of physics. ...
  • The Wasteland

    Sixteen years ago Ramzys Faizullyn had the misfortune of being born in Novaya Kurmanova, a poor village near the Ural Mountains in the shadow of the Mayak nuclear-fuel reprocessing plant. From birth he has suffered from hydrocephalus, a swelling of the brain that has left him with daily headaches and dizziness. The Russian government gives his family a small allowance, acknowledging his illness as a side effect of radiation exposure. That's more than the Soviets ever did. But the government doesn't recognize other, more common symptoms--constantly aching bones, bleeding gums, weak teeth and chronic exhaustion--that Faizullyn shares with thousands of other residents of the Mayak area. ...
  • The Space Siren

    The Delta Clipper was a squat little rocket shaped like an inverted ice-cream cone. It never did much. One day in June 1995, out on the White Sands missile range in New Mexico, it rose slowly on a plume of exhaust to a modest height of 2,800 feet, hovered for a moment and settled itself gently back down on the desert floor. Although McDonnell Douglas engineers had cobbled the rocket together for a few tens of millions of dollars, NASA rejected it the following year in favor of the X-33, a far more technologically ambitious project. By the time NASA gave up on the X-33--the project was canceled earlier this month--it had cost NASA and its contractor, Lockheed Martin, more than a billion dollars. ...
  • The Legacy Of Mir: Falling Star

    People who have lived on the Mir space station say that things seem particularly three-dimensional up there. The main living quarters, about the size of a Greyhound bus, are decorated with carpeting on the floor and lights on the ceiling, but weightlessness belies these conventions. When you can sleep comfortably suspended upside down, the notion of floor or ceiling loses its meaning. A glance out the window reveals not merely a landscape, but an immense blue-white orb inexorably pulling the station toward a 250-mile-deep atmosphere. Sergei Krikalev found himself contemplating this lonely scene when the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991. He had to postpone his return for six months while Russia and Ukraine bickered over his replacement. ...
  • An Aids Drug-Price War

    People infected with the HIV virus can stay alive indefinitely, but only if they can afford drug treatments that cost $10,000 to $15,000 a year in the United States. The big pharmaceutical companies that make the drugs say these steep prices are necessary; otherwise they would have no incentive to pony up hundreds of millions of dollars for research and development. What happens, though, when whole continents full of people are too poor even to contemplate paying the price?Government officials, humanitarians and business executives have batted this question around for years, but last week Yusuf Hamied came up with an unequivocal answer. The chairman of Bombay pharmaceutical firm Cipla announced that the company would provide AIDS cocktails to be distributed through Medecins sans Frontieres, the nonprofit health organization, for a mere $350 a year for each patient. Cipla stipulates only that MSF administer the drugs free of charge. "We want to provide these drugs at an economical...
  • A New Weapon Against Ebola

    Scientists don't know very much about the ebola virus that has wreaked havoc since 1976, most recently in Uganda this autumn. But they have long known the disease's most potent weapon: its speed. Flulike symptoms appear a week after infection and, in some outbreaks, 80 to 90 percent of victims die a week or two later. The virus spreads so easily--a handshake will do it--that a few weeks is enough. Even though scientists responded with unprecedented alacrity to the Uganda outbreak, the disease kills so swiftly that it had already covered its tracks.Once inside a cell, the ebola virus replicates rapidly until the cell bursts, flooding the bloodstream with new viruses that seek out yet more cells. (It prefers cells that line the blood vessels, which accounts for the grotesque bleeding from nose, eyes and gums.) A normal healthy immune system could marshal resistance in perhaps three weeks, but most ebola victims don't have that kind of time.There may be a way of buying that time....
  • A Cosmic Gift Of Great Price

    Jim Brook didn't actually see the fireball himself. Nor did he hear the thunderclap. On the morning of Jan. 18, 2000, he happened to be running an errand in Whitehorse, a town in the northeast corner of British Columbia about 10 miles from his home on Tagish Lake, where he and his elderly mother are the only year-round residents. He wasn't too far away, however, to see the curlicue trails of dust left in the sky. Being a meteorite buff, he knew precisely what had happened. "Frankly, I had kind of given up ever finding any trace of a meteorite," he says, "because they have to be so big to make it through the atmosphere. I thought, 'This must be a fairly large piece coming down somewhere'."The next day, Brook got into his plane and began scouring the countryside for traces. Luckily, snow hadn't fallen for two weeks, and if any blackened fragments had landed on one of the area's many lakes, whose surfaces were frozen as smooth as windowpanes, he just might spot them. He found nothing...