See Inside Scientific American Volume 311, Issue 3

Readers Respond to "A Crisis In Physics?"

Letters to the editor from the May 2014 issue of Scientific American

May 2014

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In describing the use of an experimental cocktail to execute Dennis McGuire in January as having gone “badly” in “The Myth of the Compassionate Execution” [Science Agenda], the editors say, based on observations by the priest who gave McGuire his last rites, that “McGuire struggled and gasped for air for 11 minutes, his strained breaths fading into small puffs” before he died 26 minutes after the injection. As a practicing anesthesiologist, I conclude from this description that McGuire's priest probably witnessed the effects of airway obstruction in an unconscious but not yet dead subject, which may have been upsetting to the priest but would have been of no consequence to McGuire.

There are a variety of drugs that cause rapid loss of consciousness. In contrast, lethal gassing will often bring on distressing breathlessness before permanent loss of consciousness, and death by electrocution may cause extreme pain. There are plenty of arguments with which one may (and personally I think should) oppose capital punishment, but to oppose it by suggesting that lethal injection is as barbarous as gassing or electrocution is unwarranted.

Peter A. Bamber
Midgley, England

I would argue that there is a moral imperative for medicine to work on perfecting a hasty and painless death. While doctor-assisted suicides do not and should not involve healthy people, even a terminally ill patient's body can put up a significant struggle to live under the effects of adrenaline and the emotions related to death. Although the method of administration in doctor-assisted suicides and executions may need to differ, it seems that the desired result in both cases would be the same: a respectful death.

Talon Swanson

While I endorse this article's opinions and am opposed to the death penalty, I must disagree with the editors' statement that “scientific protocols for executions cannot be established, because killing animal subjects for no reason other than to see what kills them best would clearly be unethical.” In the veterinary world, animal euthanasia is sadly performed many times a day, for many reasons.

Some years ago after fighting all day for the life of my horse, Alex, I took him to our local surgeon. It turned out he had colic. We led him into my trailer, where he was given a barbiturate, and he died without a twitch. The mercy we give to our animals and pets is the heavy price we pay for their love and companionship.

Chris Stross
via e-mail

In “Supersymmetry and the Crisis in Physics,” Joseph Lykken and Maria Spiropulu discuss hopes that evidence of supersymmetry, which proposes that all known particles have hidden superpartners, will be found at CERN's Large Hadron Collider within a year's time—and the effects on physics as a whole if it is not.

There is one approach to superpartner discovery that the authors do not explore. Many people think the framework of string theory and its M-theory variant, with small extra dimensions, is well motivated. To make predictions from the 10- or 11-dimensional string/M theories, it is necessary to project them onto a world with four spacetime dimensions, and some resulting descriptions have had phenomenological successes. Essentially all predict that some superpartners of the electroweak gauge bosons will be light enough to observe at the LHC after its upgrade. Some also predict that gluionos, the proposed superpartners of gluons, will be light enough to observe there.

Predictions based on such theories should be taken seriously. I would like to bet that some superpartners will be found at the LHC, but I have trouble finding people who will bet against that prediction.

Gordon Kane
Victor Weisskopf Distinguished University Professor of Physics University of Michigan

Lykken and Spiropulu write about a crisis in physics that results if we fail to discover supersymmetry. But they and the editors of Scientific American have neglected possibilities that I reported on in your own blogosphere in 2012 (ScientificAmerican.com/sep2014/beyond-higgs): that there is nothing whatsoever wrong with the Standard Model, that it doesn't need fixing and that even adding quantum gravity may not spoil it. That scenario is more boring than all the wonderful ideas being put forward but is much simpler.

Glenn D. Starkman
Professor of Physics and Astronomy Case Western Reserve University

In “Are E-Cigarettes Safe?” [The Science of Health], Dina Fine Maron notes that one of the concerns about e-cigarettes is that they expose users and bystanders to “unidentified dangers.”

As a bystander, I am concerned about being exposed to both unidentified dangers and identified vapors that I do not want to breathe. Many public places that have set aside smoking areas do not know what to do with e-cigarette users. Society needs to separate all smoke and vapor users from nonusers in such spaces.

Mathieu Federspiel
via e-mail

In reading the story of mathematics prodigy Srinivasa Ramanujan, who died at 32, in “The Oracle,” by Ariel Bleicher, I am reminded of another self-taught, towering mathematical genius: Frenchman Évariste Galois, who died in a duel at age 20. He developed the basis of group theory a generation ahead of his time. The works of both these great intellects continue to be mined generations later for remarkable insights.

David Howell
via e-mail

“Shape-Shifting Things to Come,” by Sridhar Kota, cites shampoo bottle caps as an example of the engineering approach of compliant design, in which flexible mechanisms are made with the fewest possible parts. Now I know who to blame for caps whose hinge breaks when dropped, whose nozzle clogs, and which are impossible to get off and replace when extracting the last 20 percent of the contents.

Roger Friedman
via e-mail

Adrian M. Owen's article on imaging techniques developed to determine when seemingly vegetative patients are actually conscious [“Is Anybody in There?”] caused me to wonder about the described patients after they no longer had access to the equipment and technicians. Having myself spent weeks on life support in a pulmonary intensive care unit, though always conscious, I know that an inability to communicate is immensely frustrating. The index cards and pens provided by my sister as a means of communication were greatly valued. I hope that some means was found to continue communicating with the patients.

Mark Virovatz

This article was originally published with the title "Letters."

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