Mt. Vernon Register-News

Opinion

November 21, 2013

Science's dangerfield

On Jan. 15, 2009, US Airways Flight 1549 ditched in the Hudson River, saving the lives of its 150 passengers and five crew members. The crew was feted from coast to coast, including being the guests of honor at that year’s Super Bowl. The crew deserved every accolade it received.

Nearly five years later, on Nov. 17, accomplished scientists and dedicated volunteers saved the lives of more than 250 people. Yet there will be no parades, no Super Bowl tickets.

I’m talking about the lives saved in Sunday’s outbreak of vicious tornadoes in the Midwest. How do I know how many lives were saved?

On Palm Sunday 1965, a similar outbreak of tornadoes struck about 100 miles north of that same region. One town was hit in both 1965 and 2013. The earlier tornado outbreak killed 267. The 2013 tornadoes killed just six.

The lower death toll from this week’s storms was not inevitable; it is the result of a half-century of scientific discovery and technological development: Doppler radar, weather satellites, lightning detection networks and smartphone apps. It is a result of volunteer storm chasers instantly reporting the most violent tornado (the Washington, Ill., storm) when it first touched down near Pekin.

No other nation enjoys the quality and breadth of meteorological services available in the United States. It is an area in which federal dollars are put to valuable use and leveraged through the efforts of private-sector weather companies such as AccuWeather, and by meteorologists and emergency managers.

Yet modern meteorology is the Rodney Dangerfield of sciences: Despite saving hundreds of lives in a single day, meteorologists often get no respect. Part of the reason is that our successes are invisible. People see the destruction of buildings or a nightmarish plane crash, but no one notices the people who were not killed or the planes that made it to their destinations safely. Remarkably and unremarkably, all of Sunday’s hundreds of flights over the Midwest landed safely.

The rate of improvement of storm warnings over the past decade is remarkable. So, don’t let past experiences dissuade you. When a meteorologist says “Take cover!” you ought to take cover.

1
Text Only
Opinion
  • Sometimes brand-name drugs just work better When you go to the pharmacy for aspirin, do you buy Bayer or the private-label generic alternative offered by chains such as CVS? The price for Bayer's version is more than twice that of CVS's, yet the active ingredient is exactly the same. The choic

    April 24, 2014

  • Conference looks at Obama, democracy Some of America's leading public intellectuals, scholars and activists gathered at Tufts University April 16-18 for the fifth annual Barack Obama and American Democracy conference. Author Michael Eric Dyson's exhilarating opening keynote offered a ri

    April 24, 2014

  • Will losers outvote winners? When it comes to the politics of Obamacare, there's really only one question that matters: How many Americans are benefiting from the new health care system, and how many are hurting? Problem is, we know more about the first part of the question than

    April 24, 2014

  • Why EU is not your dad's Europe The important-sounding Foreign Affairs Council of the European Union has recently reiterated "its strong support for Ukraine's unity, sovereignty, independence and territorial integrity." Poor, destabilized, post-putsch Ukraine is to be congratulated

    April 23, 2014

  • Facebook bank could be disrupting force The company that rebranded the word "friend" may soon take up a more ambitious makeover: the word "bank." Facebook is on the verge of winning approval from Ireland's central bank to allow its users to store and exchange money. The company's plans are

    April 23, 2014

  • Warren's call for student loan reform As commencement season approaches, graduating students will soon hear words of wisdom from speakers offering experience, advice and inspiration. One thing they're not likely to hear about is the $1.08 trillion elephant on the quad -- our nation's stu

    April 23, 2014

  • How we devalued the 'R' word At the risk of angering somebody like MSNBC's Melissa Harris-Perry, I sometimes used to joke that I only look white. Actually, I'm Irish. Meaning basically that I wasn't raised to think the man in the big house had all the answers, nor deserved all t

    April 22, 2014

  • Can Hillary rock the world? WASHINGTON -- There are few happier events than becoming a grandmother, and almost none that says quite so loudly "over the hill." Ageism mixed with sexism is a toxic brew, but somehow tolerated. It's a often-used joke, but not a funny one, that wome

    April 22, 2014

  • Losing hearts and minds Robert Kagan recently wrote that, foreign policy decision by foreign policy decision, President Barack Obama has given Americans what they say they want. But the result hasn't made them proud of America or of their president. The same phenomenon may

    April 22, 2014

  • I signed what? When Dr. Sam said, "You've got the prostate of a 16-year-old," it was hard to keep from beaming. This must be how a woman feels when a complete stranger tells her she has a beautiful baby. Well, maybe not quite. Still, it was hard not to feel proud o

    April 19, 2014

Twitter Updates
Facebook
Stocks