The University Record, October 7, 1998


Electric cars are not really emission-free

On the cover of the last University Record (Sept. 30) there is a brief story about electric cars that includes a highly misleading comment that the cars are emission-free. This is a rather naive view. The vehicles themselves are highly inefficient users of energy. Because most electricity in this country is generated by burning of organic compounds such as coal and natural gas, there are very significant emissions of global warming gases released to generate electricity, except for the few power plants using nuclear fuels (and one must factor in the costs and emissions involved with their manufacture and clean-up). In addition, emissions are produced to make the batteries for electric cars, and they eventually offer an environmental hazard upon decommission from the lead or cadmium. One should not contribute to the canard that such vehicles have solved a significant environmental problem. They are best used in indoor situations where emission of diesel or gasoline fumes would be unacceptable. While we need to continue efforts with alternative transport choices and energy uses, the current generation of electric vehicles falls woefully short of solving our problems.

Eric Essene, professor of geology


Finding answers 'long, intense, grueling struggle'

Last week's (Sept. 30) Record included a short note in the "Letters" column from Jason Wedlick, LS&A junior. In this note, Wedlick dismissed 10 years of work by Thomas Hales, U-M associate professor of mathematics, as "a monumental waste of time."

It was my job and my privilege to interview Prof. Hales and write an article, which appeared in the Sept. 16 Record, describing his solution to the Kepler conjecture-a problem mathematicians have been attempting to solve since 1611. In my article, I attempted to explain the nature of a mathematical proof and tried to give members of the university community some sense of how difficult it is to do this type of work.

Based on Wedlick's letter, newspaper coverage and comments from others around campus, I evidently didn't do a very good job. So I appreciate this opportunity to try again.

First of all, every scientist knows the danger of being seduced by the "obvious" solution to the problem. Obvious solutions are frequently wrong. Behind every new discovery in science and technology stands a long line of men and women who never assumed they knew the answer to the problem. Instead they developed a hypothesis and designed an experiment to test it. Sometimes they were right; more often they were wrong and had to start all over again. Finding the answer to even the simplest question-let alone one that has baffled mathematicians for nearly 400 years-is a long, intense, grueling struggle.

People often find it easier to accept the enormous investment of time and energy required to push the boundaries of human knowledge if the outcome has an immediate practical application. If Prof. Hales were a microbiologist and spent 10 years developing a new cancer vaccine, no one would call it a waste of time. But what if he was a musician and spent 10 years composing an opera? What if he devoted his entire career to writing books about 18th-century Eastern European poets? Would we consider that to be "worth it"?

To a mathematician, there is as much beauty in the logic and precision of a mathematical proof as there is in a symphony, a novel or a work of art. Like most of us, I don't have the intelligence or the background to fully understand Prof. Hales' work. Just because I don't understand it, however, doesn't make it trivial or unimportant. Just because I don't see an immediate benefit to my little corner of the world, doesn't mean there never will be one.

Sally Pobojewski, senior science writer, News & Information Services

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