End of Life
I agree with Robert D. Truog—quoted in Robin Marantz Henig’s “When Does Life Belong to the Living?”—that the dead-donor rule, which says that organs can be taken only from donors who have already been declared dead, is eyewash and should be scrapped. The rule is horrible and medically counterproductive and is merely a sop to the most skittish, and probably least informed, members of society. And Arthur L. Caplan’s caution in “What Comes Next” about having to consider these people notwithstanding—constantly looking over one’s shoulder, asking what Jim Public would say about any given rule or action—is excessive, potentially to the point of paralysis.
If I thought it would carry any weight, I would be more than willing to sign a waiver of the rule right now, when I am presumably of sound mind, and reaffirm it whenever necessary. Further, I would be willing to sign whatever was necessary to exclude family members from any end-of-life and dead-donor decisions. I have seen such family decisions made that ended up merely being destructive, potentially denying someone perfectly good organs. I do not want to be in that situation, as donor or receiver getting a rotting organ. Understandably the receiver has no control over the situation, but denying the donor the right to make the decision is an outrage.
K. A. Boriskin
End of Death
Of course, it would be wonderful if—as Thomas Kirkwood writes in “Why Can’t We Live Forever?”—we could “identify novel drugs able to combat age-related diseases in completely new ways and thereby shorten the period of chronic illness experienced at the end of life.”
But we should not lose sight of the fact that many sick old people want to prolong their lives even if they cannot be cured. Health is better than illness, but illness is not necessarily worse than death. Ask Stephen Hawking.
Felicia Nimue Ackerman
Department of Philosophy
End of Trash
Christopher Mims’s “Landfills” [“Good Riddance”] really missed the mark when it wished the end of landfills. Modern, state-of the-art landfills are carefully regulated facilities, managed to reduce air pollution, control leachate and minimize odors. They are also an important source of clean, renewable energy. Landfill operators are increasingly turning to technology that captures methane emissions and converts them into clean fuel.
More than 500 of these landfill-gas-to-energy projects are operating across 46 states, generating enough energy to supply more than 1.6 million homes and businesses, including major companies such as Honeywell and Dell. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency estimates that the use of landfill-gas-to-energy projects reduces greenhouse gas emissions by the equivalent of taking 16 million passenger cars off the road.
Solid-waste companies fully support zero-waste initiatives and are working closely with local governments, manufacturers, consumers and other partners to achieve this goal. But the volume of trash that Americans continue to generate means we must rely on traditional means of disposal for some time.
Fortunately, today’s solid-waste industry is ready to meet this challenge with science-based solutions, including waste-based energy, more efficient and sophisticated recycling facilities, and modern landfill technology.
Bruce J. Parker
President and CEO
National Solid Wastes
End of Columns
How sad to have to say good-bye to Jeffrey D. Sachs and Lawrence M. Krauss, whose final columns [Sustainable Developments and Critical Mass, respectively] appeared in the September issue. They will be missed. Their columns were each written with knowledge, wisdom and insight, of the kind that one normally does not encounter in day-to-day living. We can be grateful, however, for what they do for humanity and for the words they wrote during their time with Scientific American. I have to believe that they have left us all wiser and more hopeful for the future.
End of Time
I think it is instructive that in a discussion of how time would not exist if there were no natural clocks [“Could Time End?”], George Musser refers to the fact that the Compton wavelength of particles would not have existed before 10 picoseconds after the big bang—and hence there could have been no possibility of time before that. If so, how could he assert that the era was 10 picoseconds long? Why not 10 billion years?
MUSSER REPLIES: This is an excellent question. It is what I was trying to get across in my remark that “If the early universe had no sense of scale, how was it able to expand, thin out and cool down?” How can we meaningfully say that structures became possible only at 10 picoseconds if we can’t define a picosecond? Roger Penrose’s answer is that spatial and temporal scales, though individually ambiguous, remain linked, so that we are still able to meaningfully describe cosmic evolution.
As I near 50 years of age and consider my own end, I find that the more certainty those who speak with “conviction”—be it Stephen Hawking and his existential Godless universe, or Christopher Hitchens, or Richard Dawkins—proclaim to have, the less convinced I am. I need no God, nor do I need a cosmologist to espouse theories that cannot be proven in my lifetime (or in any lifetime).
While they seek to explain how the universe works, the quest for the answer to “Why are we here?” may never be answered, from which I take solace. Why are we here? Because we are here. ’Nuff said. It is more interesting and comforting to know that for now, we are; we exist; we argue over ridiculous beliefs. This tapestry needs no explanation, to which I simply say, “Be grateful that you and I have had the opportunity to experience its wonder.”
W. Scott Fentress