Sharon Begley

Stories by Sharon Begley

  • Heavens!

    Twilight falls, the sun sets, and on a clear night the sky metamorphoses into a pointillist canvas whose pastels have been replaced by twinkling gobs of titanium white. Pretty enough-unless you know what you're missing: more and more, astronomers are coming to realize that stars are but a tame sideshow compared with the rest of what's out there. If our retinas registered wavelengths shorter than the color of a deep violet pansy and longer than the red of a ruby, we would witness a firmament of such turbulence and incandescent splendor that it would make Fourth of July fireworks look like a backyard sparkler. We would see black holes slurp up their neighbors and jets of plasma stream across the sky with the energy of 100 million suns. We would see stars-so small that they would fit comfortably in Lake Tahoe-spin an astounding 643 times per second. We would see neutron stars so dense that a teaspoonful of their tiny bodies weighs 1 billion tons, and clouds bigger than our solar system...
  • On The Wings Of Icarus

    Americans love a technological fix. Drought? Dam and divert more rivers. Bugs munching crops? Carpet-bomb fields with malathion. Little wonder, then, that the most serious environmental problems facing the planet--the greenhouse effect and the depletion of the stratospheric ozone layer--have inspired fixes that would do Rube Goldberg proud. From proposals to orbit 50,000 huge sunshine-reflecting mirrors, to a blueprint for zapping ozone-eating chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) with lasers, they have a zaniness that has kept them out of the scientific mainstream. ...
  • One Deal That Was Too Good For Exxon

    It may be the world's biggest oil company, but Exxon could learn a trick or two from a common street criminal: if there's one thing a judge wants to see when a miscreant takes a plea, it's remorse. Yet in March, right after Exxon agreed to pay a fine of $100 million to settle criminal misdemeanor charges arising out of the gigantic oil spill in Alaska's Prince William Sound, chairman Lawrence Rawl showed anything but. He told a news conference that the agreement, along with a deal to pay an additional $1 billion over 10-plus years to settle civil charges filed by the state and federal governments, "looks pretty good to us ... It will not have a significant effect on our earnings." The corporate braggadocio did, however, have a significant effect on the federal district judge in Anchorage. Last week Judge H. Russel Holland rejected the settlement, writing that the fines-the largest ever proposed for environmental crime-"do not adequately achieve deterrence [and suggest] ... that...
  • A Bigger Hole In The Ozone

    The nations of the world have never agreed on how to halt the destruction of rain forests or save endangered species. But when it came to saving the ozone layer, which screens out the sun's harmful ultraviolet rays, they knew just what to do. Or so it seemed. In 1987, 24 nations meeting in Montreal pledged that, by the year 2000, they would halve their production of chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs), chemicals that destroy ozone. That was when the only ozone hole that had been noticed was over Antarctica. But soon after, satellite data showed that ozone above the United States had dropped 1.5 percent. That persuaded more than 90 countries last June to agree to ban CFCs entirely by 2000. Developing nations were given until 2010 to stop producing ozone-damaging chemicals; wealthier countries promised them up to $240 million to help make the switch. ...
  • Welcome To Lilliput

    In a University of Minnesota lab littered with furnaces, silicon chips and other detritus of the electrical engineer's trade, Dennis Polla charges up his latest invention: an array of sensors, valves and pumps. Static electricity pulls down a valve shaped like the flap of a pocket, snapping it shut. That causes the pump to vibrate, pushing liquid out of a reservoir beside it - in a real-life application, perhaps insulin. All this would be just another Rube Goldberg contraption except for one little - very little - detail. Polla's entire machine sits on a silicon chip one centimeter on a side, roughly the size of a baby's thumbnail. ...
  • The Antibodies That Weren't

    Sandwiched among the usual mind-numbing titles about enzymes and reagents in the April 25,1986, issue of the journal Cell, one paper stood out. It described something no other scientists had ever observed, or even thought possible: transplanted genes that could produce new antibodies in mice, a finding that raised hopes for curing lupus and other crippling ills. The paper had another eye-catcher. One of its authors was David Baltimore, Nobel laureate, star of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's biology department and one of the discoverers of "retroviruses," in which RNA makes DNA rather than vice versa. But for the last five years the paper has stood out for yet another reason: charges that data supporting its conclusions had been faked. The National Institutes of Health investigated. Last week a scientist leaked the draft report. It concluded that Baltimore's collaborator, Thereza Imanishi-Kari, had falsified or fabricated data, and criticized Baltimore for belittling...
  • Hellfighters To The Rescue

    Hardly anyone thinks America should be the policeman of the world any more, but the United States does have the fireman's job nailed down firmly. As Kuwait begins this week to address in earnest the problem of hundreds of oil wells set aflame by fleeing Iraqis, it will call in Red Adair, Inc., Boots & Coots and Wild Well Control. These outfits do not work by appointment to Her Majesty, the Queen. All are headquartered in Houston - and preceded by the kind of modern-day-cowboy myths that once inspired "Hellfighters," a John Wayne vehicle based on the hair-singeing adventures of Adair. To hang out with the real-life hellfighters - as some destined-to-be-bewildered Kuwaitis soon must - is to see that even Hollywood could not exaggerate the true grittiness of these men, a gumbo of mostly Texans and Louisianans who call a spade a spade and a fire a far. During a recent scouting expedition, Boots and a few of the boys got bored with the military's help and started searching for Iraqi...
  • Welcome To Lilliput

    In a University of Minnesota lab littered with furnaces, silicon chips and other detritus of the electrical engineer's trade, Dennis Polla charges up his latest invention: an array of sensors, valves and pumps. Static electricity pulls down a valve shaped like the flap of a pocket, snapping it shut. That causes the pump to vibrate, pushing liquid out of a reservoir beside it - in a real-life application, perhaps insulin. All this would be just another Rube Goldberg contraption except for one little - very little - detail. Polla's entire machine sits on a silicon chip one centimeter on a side, roughly the size of a baby's thumbnail. ...
  • Playing Creation Games

    It was not a very promising list of ingredients: a lot of smelly ammonia and methane, a soupcon of hydrogen and some water vapor. Yet in 1953, when Stanley L. Miller at the University of Chicago zapped this gaseous stew with simulated lightning, he came closer to turning dust into life than any mortal ever had. After the flash, he found a brick-colored goo containing simple amino acids, the beads that string together into proteins. Since then, scientists have zapped other gases thought to mimic the primordial atmosphere and harvested the precursors of DNA, RNA, proteins - all that life needs to live. ...
  • The Long, Dry Winter

    In posh Santa Barbara, once lush lawns have become mottled plains of scorched earth. Streams are now cracked mud flats, their fish extinct and hatcheries closed indefinitely. San Francisco Bay has lost half the fresh water that used to flow into it. During 1990 drought-related causes killed some 5 billion board feet of timber. As California's newly elected it Gov. Pete Wilson joked last week, to fulfill his place in history he will have to learn to turn wine into water. ...
  • Will Sabotage Cancel Springtime?

    If Saddam unleases and torches another gusher, the environmental effects will be even more damaging than last week's sabotage. Within hours of opening the spigots at Sea Island Terminal, Iraqi troops set ablaze dozens of wells in the Wafra field, a joint venture of Texaco and Kuwait; Iran reported being pelted with greasy black rain the next day. If Saddam ignites the 363 producing wells in Kuwait, as well as the oil in tankers and storage facilities, the blaze could produce "hundreds of thousands of tons" of sulfuric and nitric acids, says nuclear physicist Abdullah Toukan, science adviser to Jordan's King Hussein. ...
  • Saddam's Ecoterror

    An oil-coated cormorant struggles to pull itself onto the rocky Kuwaiti shore; after raising its head a few inches and its wings a few times, it drops back into the gulf. Birds at sea shake their oiled heads every few seconds, trying in vain to free themselves from the crude; uncounted scores wash onto Kuwaiti beaches, lying dead in groups of two or three. Dolphins struggle to lift their snouts above the suffocating slick. The black muck rolling in with the surf is so thick that it gurgles and groans like an ugly batter being sucked down a kitchen drain. ...
  • Return Of The Toxic Teeth

    Lean back and open wide: a little plaque scraping, a thorough fluoride treatment, floss and. . . hold on, don't get up yet. More and more patients are undergoing another procedure at the dentist's. The patient chews gum or almonds for five to 10 minutes, then the dentist places a tiny probe in his mouth. A motor draws air over a sensor and electronics compute how much toxic mercury vapor is wafting out of the silver-amalgam tooth fillings. ...
  • Gridlock In The Labs

    Every student of America's decline has a favorite culprit, but in a year when the Hubble Space Telescope was launched with a myopic eye and NASA couldn't get a shuttle off the ground in five tries, one statistic seemed especially telling: the Japanese now have six times as many students majoring in engineering as the United States does. It is now an article of faith that a shortage of technically savvy manpower is undermining America's competitiveness and national security. The belief shapes both the federal budget, in which raising the science allocation has become an annual rite, and school curricula, which traditionally emphasize the sort of abstract physics, chemistry and biology that only a professional scientist needs. But now that the number of scientists and engineers has more than doubled in 10 years, what if the assumptions behind these fiscal and education policies are wrong? A growing number of top scientists argue that they are, and leading the contrarians is materials...
  • Park-Barrel Politics

    A national park or historic site is sort of like pornography--you may not be able to define it, but you know it when you see it. The thundering falls of Yosemite, for instance. The richly colored chasms of the Grand Canyon. The family estate of Franklin D. Roosevelt. The rusting rolling stock of a rail yard called Steamtown, in Scranton, Pa., where nothing of any significance to the development of the nation's rail system ever took place. ...
  • Gentlemen, Start Your Rays

    Think of it as driving from Florida to Michigan, over hilly country roads, maintaining a steady 23 mph--and doing it with all the power of a hair dryer under the hood. That was the challenge facing students from 32 colleges in the United States and Canada last week. After days of grueling qualifying rounds, they accelerated out of Walt Disney's EPCOT Center at the start of the 1,641-mile "GM Sunrayce USA," the largest American rally ever held for cars powered by the energy of our nearest star. ...
  • Heaven Can Wait

    A flawed mirror blurs the vision of the $1.5 billion Hubble telescope, imperiling its hopes of seeing to the edge of space and the beginning of time ...
  • Up In The Sky! It's...Hearts! Stars! Bow Ties!

    They were the original peace dividend: the first fireworks, blasted off after a victorious battle in 11th-century China when jubilant soldiers turned their rockets and gunpowder to less belligerent use. The 25 million Americans expected to ooh and aah at Fourth of July spectacles this week will see dazzling aerial displays of light and color that those ancient pyrotechnicians never dreamed possible. Rather than monochromic showers of sparks, the shows will splatter brilliant reds, greens and blues across the sky in tightly choreographed arrays of hearts, stars, letters and even bow ties. It's all courtesy of researchers who are unraveling "the physical processes [behind] the dramatic colors and special effects" of fireworks, writes chemist John Conkling of Washington College, in an article on firework science in the current Scientific American. ...
  • The 'Quark Barrel' Politics Of The Ssc

    It won't cure cancer or improve the nation's defenses, but science's latest megaproject enjoys the kind of support in Congress usually reserved for tax cuts. It's not that lawmakers are so impressed that the proposed atom smasher (which would be the most powerful on earth) promises to solve such profound mysteries as where the elementary blocks i of matter called quarks come from. No, to understand why the House of Representatives last week voted $318 million for the machine that will perform these wonders, and why Congress may write checks for much of the rest of the $8 billion it will cost, forget the profound mysteries. Consider a map drawn up by the Department of Energy (DOE). Thirty-nine states have a university, firm or lab with a piece of the Superconducting Supercollider (SSC) pie. It's known as quark-barrel politics. ...
  • Fighting The Greenhouse

    Of course you know what it will take to save the world from the greenhouse effect. To cut emissions of carbon dioxide--the gas released when coal, gas or oil burn and the one responsible for more than half of the impending global warming--you'll have to turn down the heater in winter and break out the long johns. In summer, don't even think of air conditioning. Chuck your 100-watt bulbs, screw in 40s. Trade in the dishwasher and clothes dryer for a dish drainer and laundry line. ...
  • The Tiniest Patients

    Scores of obstacles confront a fetus struggling to grow from a mere fertilized egg into a sentient, conscious human being. There are fingers to mold from featureless blobs, brains to craft from undifferentiated protoplasm. One of the higher hurdles looms at the eighth week. That's when the diaphragm, separating the abdomen and chest, should close. But for unknown reasons, in about one of 2,500fetuses it remains open. As a result the stomach, intestines, spleen and part of the liver can spill into the chest, leaving the lungs with no room to grow. About 75 percent of such babies die--often right in the delivery room-unable to gasp even the tiniest breath. Now, at least for those fetuses in which the hernia has been detected by ultrasound, there is hope. Last week in The New England Journal of Medicine, a team of physic fans led by Dr. Michael Harrison of the University of California, San Francisco, reported that in two life-threatening cases, they had reached into the womb itself to...
  • sally-ride-newsweek

    RIP Sally Ride

    Sally Ride became the first American woman to fly into space. Read this 1983 Newsweek profile.