Posts Tagged ‘Penn State’

The Scandal

The past two weeks Penn State has come to the attention of most every sentient being in the nation. I don’t know if the story of Penn State’s awfulness has leaked overseas yet, but it really must be a terrible place, filled with the worst kinds of people. So you would believe from the talking heads and print pundits.
These days when I drive onto campus I can feel a cloud of gloom pressing palpably down on the buildings, the football stadium, the students walking in their hoodies and knee high boots between classes. It’s hard to drive a block without seeing a blow-dried guy with a microphone standing outdoors in front of a video camera, ready to inform the world of the latest transgressions of this university that was until a few weeks ago held up as an example of old school virtues, embodied by an 84-year-old English major turned football coach.
Overlooked is the fact that over the past 20 years, this former agricultural college in the middle of forests and farms has become one of the top research universities in the country, behind only that handful of far more famous, and now less infamous schools, Harvard, Stanford, MIT, and three or four others.
Now news people parachute in like it’s a war zone, from Fox, MSNBC, even NPR, and they bemoan the power of big time college sports, or the size of the stadium, and make the students out to be mindless drones, following a cult of Joe Paterno, or a culture of secrecy that permeates the administration, who are now guilty for what was once considered a virtue, which is being loyal to their school.
Everything about this sorry scandal seems to indicate something larger about the culture to somebody, even though it’s all pure speculation at this point, and likely says nothing at all, except there are bad people who do bad things to vulnerable people. If this were Chicago, people would shrug and sigh.
But this is Happy Valley, some kind of model of Mayberry fifties innocence. Now everything is tarnished, even the least worldly professor among her tomes. Camera crews rush past the new state-of-the-art research building for one more shot of Beaver stadium. They miss the forest of intellectual excitement and scholarly passion in order to film the weeds of scandal.
We are a long way away from knowing who knew what and when did they know it. In the meantime, we have thrown a few, quite likely, good men to the media wolves, and they are still hungry for more. I, too, feel a sense of guilt and shame for those who are always now called the “alleged” victims. And, by that token, so should you in Denver and Topeka and Seattle. It’s not only Penn State. We are all Penn State.

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I was surfing the Web earlier this week when I ran across an article from a London newspaper about the issue of peak oil.  For those of you who haven’t lain awake at night worrying about what happens when the gasoline pumps run dry, that is pretty much peak oil in a nutshell.

An oil engineer named King Hubbert created a graph back in the 1950s that showed the point where US oil production would hit its peak and start a rapid decline.  He was right to within a year of so.  The same sort of graph has been applied to world oil production, and it shows some ominous results.  This article quoted some pretty knowledgeable people in the oil industry who believe that peak oil actually occurred in 2005, and we are on the down slope.  This has huge implications for the price of gas at the pump and for the world economy.

So, I was excited to read about and see a video of a new Penn State invention that could help us to keep the world economy running while we get to work building solar energy infrastructure and wind farms.  A materials scientist named Paul Painter has invented a solvent that can be used to extract oil and tar from places like the Canadian and Venezuela tar sands without causing all of the terrible environmental problems that extraction currently requires.  The tar sands hold as much or possibly many times more oil reserves as currently exist in Saudi Arabia and the rest of the oil producing countries combined.  The problem is that it requires a lot of energy to get oil out of the sands and millions of gallons of water that is then dumped into huge, polluted holding sites.  It’s a nasty business.

Professor Painter’s solvent can extract the heavy oil without any water in a closed system that recycles the solvent and leaves the sand clean.  Even in oil spills on sandy beaches, the oil can be extracted and the sand cleaned up with a small amount of cold water.  The sand is returned to the beach cleaner than before the oil was spilled.  Will this kind of technology save us from what my post-carbonite friends cheerily refer to as Doomsday, that is the world after peak oil?  We won’t know until it is tried out on a huge scale, but I may be able to sleep a little better tonight knowing that we may have bought ourselves some time.  Read all about his discovery and watch a video of one of his students talking about the discovery here: http://www.matse.psu.edu/news/ionicliquids

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One of the scientists at Penn State has come up with a rather amazing new material that soaks up oil spills and turns the oil into a solid that can be scooped up and processed in the same way as crude oil.  I saw a video that the media person in his academic department had posted and asked if I could  write a summary, which I’ve posted  to our website along with two videos:  http://www.mri.psu.edu/.

If it works in practice as described, this invention could have saved a lot of grief for the Gulf Coast environment and people’s livelihoods.  The new report on the Gulf oil spill that came out this week suggests we are not prepared for the next inevitable oil spill disaster, so let’s hope Professor Chung’s invention is as good as claimed.

There are a lot of ways in which we count on modern science to save us from ourselves.  Climate change comes to mind first. Rather than make the hard choices to stabilize  CO2 at some reasonable level, we go on as usual and count on engineers to put mirrors in space or iron in the oceans on some massive scale to rescue us from our own folly.  In science fiction they call this terraforming, only usually it’s some other planet they are trying to make habitable for humans, not Earth itself. Let’s hope there are a lot of savvy engineers and scientists like Mike Chung working on making the future Earth fit for human habitation.



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A Fan’s Note

I’m not much of a football fan, but it’s hard not to get a little excited when the local football team is playing against the top ranked team in the country, which will happen this evening at seven, in Tuscaloosa, or wherever.  Penn State, ranked 18th, is playing Alabama, and the chances are the local boys will get a drubbing.  But who knows, the wily Penn State coach may pull some magic out of his hat.  He is, after all, an English major.

I don’t know Joe Paterno, Penn State’s legendary coach, but a friend of mine knew him pretty well and even wrote a book about him. Bernie Asbell mentioned Paterno’s literary side a couple of times to me, and I have to say it was a kick to think of the gruff coach, with his thick Brooklyn accent, reading the classics.  I was happy to add him to that long list of famous and successful English majors, which now is up to three, if you count the humorist Dave Barry and radio host Garrison Keillor.  There may be a few others, but if there are they are keeping the fact well hidden.

So tonight I’ll root for my fellow English major and hope he pulls something stunning out of an ancient Greek playbook, maybe that one by Thucydides.

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