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See Inside Scientific American Volume 311, Issue 1

Readers Respond to "The New Century of the Brain"

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


March 2014


ELEPHANTS IN CAPTIVITY
Your editorial, “Free Willy—And All His Pals” [Science Agenda], fails to accurately reflect the facts about elephants and orcas in human care and reaches the wrong conclusion in asserting elephants and orcas that “can be, should be” released.

The Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA) sets high and rising standards for animal care and welfare, which is especially important for elephants and orcas. AZA's science-based accreditation standards are the best way to make sure large and intelligent animals receive the higher level of care they need. Not surprisingly, the only specific example of poor care you note comes from a non-AZA-accredited facility.

There is no solid science to show that captive elephants and whales can or should be released into the wild. For whales and dolphins, the few attempted releases have resulted in suffering and death. A proved solution is to provide these animals with enriching habitats, appropriate social interaction, high-quality veterinary care and nutritious diets—all mandated by AZA standards.

AZA-accredited zoos and aquariums are also taking a leading role in fighting illegal elephant poaching and in promoting protection of our marine ecosystems. The animals at these facilities play a key role in educating and inspiring 180 million people to take conservation action. AZA-accredited institutions have spent more than $1 billion on field conservation projects over the past 10 years. AZA and its members have made considerable efforts to advance animal welfare and conserve wildlife, and we invite your readers to take a second look.

Kristin L. Vehrs
Executive Director Association of Zoos and Aquariums

THE EDITORS REPLY: There is considerable and increasing evidence that orcas and elephants suffer even in institutions accredited by AZA. Results announced last year from a three-year study on 255 of the roughly 300 elephants in North American AZA-approved zoos found that 74 percent of the elephants were overweight or obese; 25 percent had joint problems in 2012; 67 percent had foot problems in 2012; and nearly 80 percent displayed behavioral tics, such as pacing and head bobbing.

CHECKMATE
In “Why Good Thoughts Block Better Ones,” Merim Bilali´c and Peter McLeod present a chess scenario to illustrate how the brain has difficulty looking past a problem's familiar solution to find a better one. In the scenario, player A can win against player B with the well-known five-move “smothered mate” sequence but supposedly can also win more quickly with a three-move sequence. The latter sequence is contrived. B's response to A's second move would not be to move a rook into the path of A's bishop's but would logically be to capture A's queen with a pawn.

Andy Prevelig
Tallahassee, Fla.

THE AUTHORS REPLY: We've received several letters that come to the same conclusion about the shorter sequence. That sequence involves the critical move of putting player A's queen on a square (H6), where it seemingly can be captured by player B's pawn on G7. But B cannot capture the queen on H6, because that move would expose B's king to a check by the bishop on B2, at the other side of the board. In other words, B's king is pinned, and the queen cannot be taken on H6. In our article, we neglected to explicitly state why this move (queen to H6) is possible. As these letters suggest, it turns out that our omission worked perfectly to illustrate the main message of the article! Once you have an idea about how things work, it becomes increasingly difficult to see alternative ways of dealing with the problem no matter how obvious they seem to others.

PROFESSIONAL SKEPTICS
Ricki Lewis's article on gene therapy, “Gene Therapy's Second Act,” cites the clinical trial that led to Jesse Gelsinger's death.

That is just one story of experiments with unfortunate results that I summarize in my book Experimenting with the Consumer (Praeger, 2008). I am pleased by Lewis's hopeful conclusion for the new promise of gene therapy. But I suggest that institutions pursuing it should name designated Cassandras, or critics, who might backstop institutional review boards in certain cases of frontier experiments. This would sometimes avoid the trap of “Good Thoughts Blocking Better Ones.”

Marshall Shapo
Northwestern University School of Law

Cooking and Trans Fats
“The Case for Banning Trans Fats,” by Walter Willett [Forum], omits any mention of a source of trans fats besides partial hydrogenation: heating naturally occurring cis fats during cooking converts them to an equilibrium mixture of the cis and trans isomers, in which the trans isomer is usually favored. The extent of reaction depends on time, temperature and structure.

This process has been described for a long time, including in studies by Changmo Li et al. in the Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry last year and by Clayton A. Martin et al. in Anais da Academia Brasileira de Ciências in 2007.

Edward J. Behrman
Professor Emeritus, Ohio State University

WILLETT REPLIES: One should always be careful not to overheat oils. But under usual cooking conditions, trans fat formation is small. The Li et al. paper, for instance, found that under what the authors called “extreme conditions” (three hours of heating at 150 degrees Celsius), the amount of trans fat that formed was less than one tenth of 1 percent of each gram of oil.

SCI-FI FORECASTING
In discussing the difficulty of predicting future technology in “Future Imperfect” [TechnoFiles], David Pogue cites the Internet as among the “enormous zigs or zags” that “not even [science-fiction writer Isaac] Asimov saw coming.” But Asimov did envision an Internet in the form of a planetwide communications network for robots in his 1957 novel The Naked Sun.

He used the terms “net” and “web” to denote a possible nefarious tinge to the network: “Perhaps robots listened to all that went on…, and if [a] particular robot was not designed for a particular job … the radio web that united all robots went into action…. [Elijah] Baley had the vision of Solaria as a robotic net with holes that were small and continually growing smaller.”

Ed Shaya
via e-mail

HOW BOMBED WAS BOND?
In “007 and 7” [Anti Gravity], Steve Mirsky cites a BMJ paper as claiming that James Bond had 18 drinks over a single dinner in Ian Fleming's 1959 novel Goldfinger.

But I checked the book and counted the following drinks in that scene: one “large vodka and tonic with a slice of lemon peel,” a “strong gin and tonic,” “another drink,” “some” wine “tasted” (no further mention of the wine bottle) and “a bottle of Mouton Rothschild 1947” (no mention as to how much of it he consumed). That's it.

Don Smith
Indianapolis

MIRSKY REPLIES: Technically, the researchers spoke in terms of “units” of alcohol—10 milliliters or eight grams of pure ethanol. I roughly translated 18 units as 18 standard-sized drinks, but that was inaccurate. The paper specifies different numbers of units for different drinks, including three for Bond's famous vodka martini.

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

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