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Thesis Time #4- Journey to the Center

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 Hello, lovely readers. I’ll be posting pieces I wrote for my senior thesis for the next couple of weeks. If you’d like a PDF of the whole mess, shoot me an email. 

I did this profile as part of my application process for a fellowship to attend the 2012 AAAS meeting in Vancouver. Once I made it to the great white north, I got to write a piece that you can read on the NASW website

In a tiny liberal-arts school tucked into the mountains of Western Massachusetts, Michael Bergman is studying something he can never see, touch, or take a sample of. Unlike some researchers, he isn’t trying to change the world. In fact, he’s trying to figure out what the world’s been doing for the past 4.54 billion years or so.

Bergman, a professor of Physics at Bard College at Simon’s Rock, studies the behavior of the earth’s core. An undertaking of such magnitude would usually only take place at a larger school, one with hoards of graduate students to hire and well-funded labs to work in. At a typical research university, professors in charge of experiments won’t even teach classes. Bergman chose a different path, and has spent nearly two decades as both a teacher and researcher at a school with fewer than four hundred students, none of them above the undergraduate level. When asked about this choice, Bergman is quick to point out that he’s not at such a disadvantage.

“For one thing, I enjoy teaching,” he said in a recent interview, “and it’s important to realize that teaching classes doesn’t preclude research.” While the pace of his research is necessarily slower than those who can run six or seven projects at a time, it seems that the balance between teaching and research is one that he finds easier to maneuver than most. Bergman regularly teaches two to three classes a semester in addition to lab sections. In recent years he has taught Physics I and II, Quantum Physics, Intro to Robotics, and several advanced classes focusing on higher physics and statistics. He has also led lab sections for a seminar course on climate change, a class often taken by students without previous background in the sciences. Despite having a course load no lighter than the average Simon’s Rock teacher, he also finds the time to continue his personal research.

Bergman currently focuses on the solidification and deformation of the earth’s inner core. Seismic waves have shown us that beneath the rocky crust and thick mantle, our planet’s outer core is liquid iron. The inner core is solid, despite temperatures that may be close to the sun’s 5505 degrees Celsius, because of its incredibly high pressure (over 3.3 million atm). The inner core has the property of seismic anisotropy, or variation of seismic wavespeed with direction. When passing through the earth, seismic waves move faster from north to south than they do from east to west. Bergman studies the cause and effects of this property, which stems from the alignment of crystals in the core. The solidification of the inner core from the outer core may be the primary energy source for the fluid motion that ultimately creates the earth’s magnetic field, which we know surprisingly little about. While Bergman can’t point to any immediate or obvious applications of his research at this point, he knows the project is important in its own right.

“I found it fascinating that we didn’t know anything about how the magnetic field of the earth is generated,” Bergman said of his first experiences with geology as an undergraduate student at Columbia University. “I thought it was something worth knowing.” After earning a Ph.D. at MIT in 1992 and serving as the NATO fellow at the University of Glasgow, Bergman began his current study of fluid dynamics and magnetohydrodynamics (the study of fluids that conduct electricity, like electrolytes or plasmas) at Harvard University for a year before taking a job at Simon’s Rock. He attributes his continued support, which includes laboratory resources from Yale and Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute as well as fourteen years of continuous three-year grants from the National Science Foundation, to good grant writing and determination. He’s been published over a dozen times during his employment at Simon’s Rock, including twice in Nature, once in 1997 and once in 2010.

“Luckily, this is a field where working at a slower pace is okay,” he said, shrugging off the idea that he faces a disadvantage. In addition to one postdoctoral assistant, Bergman hires several members of the Simon’s Rock student body to help him with his research each summer. Most of them are only qualified to do the simpler tasks in the lab, like measuring out samples and running repetitive tests on the mass spectrometer. These students require his constant guidance at first, but Bergman doesn’t seem to mind. “Some students are able to work with me for three or four of their years here, and with time their investment in the project grows, and they can work independently. It’s great when that happens.” When it doesn’t, Bergman just continues to do what he does best. His work might be easier at a massive research university, but Bergman wouldn’t have things change.

“Besides,” he says with a grin, “It’s just so much fun.”

Thesis Time #1: The Golden River (Personal Essay)

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Hello, lovely readers. I’ll be posting pieces I wrote for my senior thesis for the next couple of weeks. If you’d like a PDF of the whole mess, shoot me an email. 

The Golden River

For this valley, the river must be the center. Certainly it is the physical center; perhaps, in a sense, the spiritual center. Perhaps from that very freeing of spirit will come other freedoms and inspirations and aspirations which may be steps toward the diffusion and diversification and enriching of culture throughout this land.-W.E.B. Du Bois, 1930

Watching the waters of the Housatonic rush by after a few days of rain is an unparalleled visual experience. The rapids peak and foam climbing up the banks in a picture so perfect it’s practically a caricature of itself. Even the color of the water, opaque cafe au lait, seems like a detail added deliberately to make the river seem more wild and rugged. I imagine Nature’s paintbrush, thick with green and brown and red pigment after styling the forests and mountains, being dipped into the water and washed clean.

This stretch of river on the outskirts of Great Barrington isn’t one that invites swimming, even on more peaceful days, but a few miles further down the water turns crystal clear and the current slows to a calm, winding pace. By the Du Bois river garden, one can stop and stare into the swirling, glimmering river and remember a time when W.E.B. was around to admonish the town for polluting his golden waterway. Du Bois and his compatriots would be thrilled to see it now, free of debris and refuse. On the surface, at least, the Housatonic is as clean as it was in the days before man. To see it on a hot day is to long for the water, to submerge yourself and drink. It’s funny that my knowledge of the river’s toxicity hasn’t done anything to displace that instinct.

The Housatonic, center of the Berkshires and home to thousands upon thousands of organisms, is full of deadly chemical compounds. We put them there, or at least let them be dumped in, and the damage to generations was done before the start of the 21st century. If we do nothing, humans and river-dwellers alike could lose their lives, but to get rid of the toxins as completely as technology allows we would have to sacrifice the stability of the river. I’ve heard personal, agonizingly passionate arguments on both side of the spectrum everywhere from Town Hall meetings in Lenox to dinner tables in Lee. One thing that most citizens of the area have in common is where they lay the blame: We are a people betrayed.

It’s easy to hate General Electric for what they did. Easy, but maybe rational as well. In the early 90’s, the giant company abandoned a Pittsfield, MA, factory and left it teeming with polychlorinated biphenyls. Usually referred to as PCBs, these compounds are carcinogenic, fat soluble, and almost impossible to get rid of. Standard clean up requires dumping contaminated materials into a ditch and covering the whole thing with asphalt. If that sounds crude, it’s because it is. Throughout Pittsfield one can find stretches of land surrounded by chain-link fences, useless lots dedicated to the “safe” disposal of PCBs. Some bio-engineering companies are working on processes that would decontaminate the soil, allowing it to be returned to the river, but even today those methods are experimental at best, and expensive to even attempt. When the worst areas of contamination, those surrounding the condemned factory in Pittsfield, were cleaned in 1999, the sediment was simply disposed of. Throw a tarp over it, forbid trespassing, and you’ve taken care of the problem. Sort of.

The rest of the river is harder to deal with. PCBs cling to the dirt on the river bed and banks, getting stirred up and carried along the river in bits of sediment. They accumulate in plants and small fish that in turn pass the contamination along to those higher in the food chain. The worst accumulation occurs in fatty organisms at the top of the food chain. Ducks, for example, carry shockingly high percentages of PCBs in their breast meat. Humans aren’t much better, and PCBs can do a lot of damage.

PCBs have been linked to Attention Deficit Disorder and other mental development problems in children, all sorts of cancers in adults, and a wide range of health problems across the board. For every person who dies from overexposure to PCBs, hundreds or even thousands of individuals are experiencing a decline in quality of health and life. This slow, quiet poisoning is harder to track, but perhaps more detrimental overall.

The process of cleaning up PCBs from the river is one that will take years in even the most optimistic scenario. In Pittsfield, where the levels were highest, the river has been dredged, a process in which sediment is scooped from the banks and beds and either cleaned or replaced. As dredging destroys the natural banks, the river has been rebuilt with rocks. These also keep any remaining PCBs from seeping into groundwater. Meanwhile, the contaminated sediment was packed up and buried in lots around the city, then covered with asphalt and tucked away behind chain-link fences. The clean-up is, by its nature, destructive of the contaminated area.

From south of Pittsfield, running all the way down to the Connecticut border, the river and ponds are still contaminated. No option seems ideal. If residents want the area to be virtually free of PCBs, they must consent to the destruction of the wildlife along the banks of the Housatonic. The ecological stability could be restored in time, but it would take a century or more to regrow anything that resembled the picturesque surroundings of today’s river. For every measure taken to preserve the landscape, the effectiveness of the clean-up goes down a bit, and the cost tends to go up. Many argue that there is no ideal balance, and that Monitored Natural Recovery (called MNR) is the only viable option. With an MNR plan, the EPA and General Electric would simply measure and monitor the natural degradation of PCBs. It would take almost a hundred years, but eventually the river would clean itself. In the mean time, residents would simply have to steer clear of dangerous activities.

Others consider MNR to be General Electric’s idea of an easy way out. It’s certainly the cheapest option, and the corporation wouldn’t have to deal with placating residents once the river banks had been torn up. As surely as GE is biased against expensive solutions, the residents of the Berkshires are tainted by a desire to make GE hurt. One with a more balanced approach to the situation might conclude that the best solution is neither the most nor the least expensive, but one of the moderate plans, one that preserves as much river bank as possible while dredging the areas that truly need to be remediated.

It may well take another five years or more for a legal decision to be reached. Depending on which solution is chosen, the clean-up of the river might not be implemented for decades. While we argue, the river waits with an ancient patience. Du Bois called his river golden, the “life stream of the town,” and it is indeed the golden life stream of the Berkshires as a whole. It remains scenic and inviting, a place for residents of The Berkshires to enjoy the natural beauty of their world. We must accept, however, that preserving its golden serenity comes with a price.