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February 2017

Road Blocks in Science

Dr. Robert Fox is here with us to expand on his book, Science without Frontiers. Taking inspiration from earlier lectures, Fox dives into the history of scientific innovation and the ideologies behind these advancements. Whatever the aspirations of individual scientists or the status of projects underway, science is always subject to surveillance and the interference of shifting political agendas. Today, Fox gives a few real-life examples of the ways that politics have affected scientific inquiry throughout history.


Science without Frontiers had its origins in the three lectures that I gave at Oregon State University, Corvallis, as Horning Visiting Fellow in the Humanities in May 2013. When I gave the lectures, I had no idea that, barely three years on, the ideals of the free exchange of knowledge and the free movement of people would assume the immediacy that they have today. In the lectures, I addressed the challenges and aspirations that came, from the mid-nineteenth century, with the accelerating proliferation of scientific books, specialized journals, and press and conference reports. In the face of the growing volume and diversity of knowledge, the procedures of information retrieval assumed unprecedented importance. In the sciences, responses to what was widely seen as a crisis of overload included abstracting journals (Pharmaceutisches Centralblatt was the first of them in 1830) and a new generation of bibliographies and other finding aids.

It is tempting to interpret such innovations as a simple response to a practical problem. But in Science without Frontiers I argue that the push to facilitate the access to scientific knowledge and promote its circulation was also driven by a broader, universalist ideology with a strong pacifist streak. When two Belgian lawyers, Paul Otlet and Henri La Fontaine, launched their International Institute of Bibliography in Brussels in 1895, they did so in the belief that in cataloguing the sources of human knowledge in all its forms, they were taking a first step on a road to a world at peace. Their guiding principle was straightforward: so long as knowledge was open to all and nations and their peoples communicated freely with one another, war between them would be inconceivable.

A similar motivation fired the Norwegian-American sculptor, Hendrik Christian Andersen, who published his plan for a utopian city that he conceived as a World Centre of Communication in 1913, when the tide of universalist sentiment was at its height. Within months, however, the Great War dealt a fatal blow to Andersen's hopes and seriously inhibited the work of the International Institute of Bibliography. Quite suddenly, sciene became the property of the belligerent nations, with consequences in the development of poison gases and other science-based weapons.

In important ways, the coming of peace in 1918 did little to allay wartime enmities. The exclusion of German scientists from conferences under the aegis of the newly established International Research Council (IRC) and the associated ban on the use of the German language at the IRC's conferences constituted assaults on the universalist ideals to which the scientific world had adhered, or at least paid lip service, since the beginnings of modern science in the seventeenth century. And worse was to come. The consolidation of totalitarian regimes in the 1920s and 1930s, in Soviet Russia, Italy, Germany and Spain, resulted in the subordination of the scientific communities of these countries to what their governments variously construed as their national interests. The hardships that Nazi authorities inflicted on Jewish scientists were all too symptomatic of a rejection of any notion of science as a part of a seamless web of learned culture.

A second world war only reinforced that rejection, as scientists were again called upon to serve their countries and turn away from their worldwide disciplinary communities. Even in the darkest days, however, the universalist dream did not completely die, and it re-emerged strongly iin the post-war creation of the United Nations Educational Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO). UNESCO's declared aim of promoting "the free exchange of ideas and knowledge" was precisely that of Otlet, La Fontaine, and Andersen, and since 1946 its initiatives have done much to transcend the barriers of nationhood, race, and language, while respecting the distinctiveness of cultures.

Even in the institution of UNESCO's power and influence, however, the passage from precept to practice has never been easy. Certain British and American administrations have viewed UNESCO's actions as unsupportive, even subversive, of their particular national interests, and they have withdrawn or diminished their support. And now, in our day, we find universalist ideals on the back foot once again as impediments to the free movement of peoples and the ideas and talents they bring with them show signs of being strengthened, not diminished. In the name of a recovery of control over our borders, a post-Brexit Britain seems intent on breaking with the UK's hard-won integration in the networks of European science, despite the intellectual and financial benefits that integration has brought for so long.

If science is to be pursued "without frontiers," we need to be sensitive to what is afoot. As history shows and this short book reminds us, frontiers that we may feel to have been removed or made less formidable have a nasty habit of re-emerging in the press of political events. In the present circumstances, that should be a matter of profound concern for all of us, scientists and non-scientists alike.

Being Published

Today Eric Dieterle, author of Where the Wind Dreams of Staying, shares what life has been like since the book's publication in October 2016. In his memoir, Dieterle reveals the events and experiences that shaped his search for a place he could call home. As his book advances between states, readers are further able to identify and connect with themselves through the storms of life. A big thanks to Eric for reflecting on the evolution of his writing life.


In the five months since Where the Wind Dreams of Staying appeared on bookshelves, themes of isolation and connection have risen from the pages to play out in my post-memoir life. I should not be surprised, but I am.

It may be that I simply didn't know what to expect.

A week ago, I spoke on the phone with the chair of my thesis committee-- our first conversation in more than 30 years. He'd read the book, and wanted to congratulate me and tell me how much he enjoyed it. The workmanship impressed him. I told him how much it meant to me to hear that, for he was the professor who taught me so much about discipline and hard work at a time when I lacked much capacity for either.


My mother wrote me a long letter, explaining what had been unexplained for decades, un-shrouding the mysteries cloaking my understanding of family history. My history. I would never have guessed the details of the story that now, even as I continue to process it, simply makes sense.

As I wrote the book, choosing carefully what to include and what to omit was more than merely a storytelling exercise. I wanted to balance disclosure with compassion-- for myself and for others-- and I feared rejection on more than just literary terms. I could imagine family, friends and coworkers recoiling, aghast that I had done this or said that, or appalled at the full spectrum of poor choices laid out before them. A lifetime of mistakes contained in 136 pages.

So far, compassion eclisped scorn. The column for sincere compliments contains a number of marks; the ledger of shame, regret and anxiety remains filled only with my own scribbling.

Still, I wince at the prospect of the recrimination I had so worried about when I wrote, and revised, and awaited publication. Because I never know what the next reaction might bring. If there is any reaction at all.

A few weeks ago, as I sat at a small table in the local iteration of a national bookstore chain, I decided to turn away from discouragement toward bemusement. Until that moment, I had not fully understood the capacity of people to not simply ignore someone, but to convince themselves that the periphery of their world simply did not exist. There I sat, next to a poster-sized cover of my book that was perched on a tripod stand, a stack of books in front of me, open to engaging all anonymous passers-by with a smile or even eye contact. Nothing. I was invisible. After about an hour of this, I decided that if I were ever to commit an offense that would cause law enforcement to pursue me, my best choice of escape would be to sit in a bookstore next to a poster of a book, inviting conversation or perhaps even a sale. No one would ever find me.


Please, I'm not complaining. I did sell six books that day-- four to the handful of people who attended my reading, and two at the table itself-- and I deepened my understanding of the human condition by observing those who so astutely managed not to observe me. So I'm a better person for it. A better writer.

As the weeks roll by, I'm mining the literary value of the highs and lows of post-publication experiences. Duality permeates the book: east and west sides of the Cascade mountains, interior and exterior landscapes, the promises of a spiritual realm and the pain of human endeavor. Each "fantastic book!" stands to counterpoint to the vacuum of non-response-- the non-stars, the non-reviews, the non-acknowledgement.

This is as it must be, and if something significant changes, I'll accept the new development as being part of the natural course of events in this writing life. Because honestly, I still have no idea what this writing life is, exactly.

As the author, I am merely the source of the lines. What lies between them-- and beneath them and in the margins-- may simply be empty, or is filled with what the reader experiences. Most of the time, I won't know either way.

Knowing the words are out there-- that needs to be enough for me.

Medicine and Humanity

Dr. Patricia Kullberg joins us today to give a sneak peek at her new book, On the Ragged Edge of Medicine, available March 2017. Dr. Kullberg has served as Medical Director of the Multnomah County Health Department as well as a primary care doctor for people living with physical, mental, and addiction issues in Portland, Oregon. On the Ragged Edge of Medicine  invites readers to take a deeper look at the world we live in, especially at the lives of the dispossessed among us.


If we still thought of certain women as spinsters or old maids, Carla would have been one. That's what my mother would have called her six decades ago: a woman whose longing had fled before the impress of time. Carla was middle-aged, crumpled and dowdy, no shape to her skirts and blouses, no color either. She wore old lady underwear, like white cotton short shorts and full, white nylon slips, gray with age. You couldn't even buy a full slip anymore without going to an online specialty store, where, I was certain, Carla did not get hers. I was her doctor. I knew these things about her. I thought of her as someone who would never precede anyone through a door, who would not even complete a sentence if the signals looked wrong. She was well practiced in backing away. A woman peeping out from under a rock.

What I didn't know about Carla was this: she harbored a secret passion that would erupt with tragic consequences, ones that would implicate me in ways I had never anticipated.

I knew doctoring would be difficult. But not like this. Forty-two years ago as I sat in the lecture hall trying to absorb the principles of pharmacokinetics or glucose metabolism, I thought challenges would evolve from the science: understanding it and applying it with sufficient care and finesse More often the science was the easy part. The hard parts were these:

  • Accepting the limits of medical science.
  • Battling the self-sabotage of mental illness and addiction disorders
  • Caring for patients who were hateful, manipulative, contrary, or hostile.
  • Challenging bureaucracies that places rules over human welfare.
  • Facing up to my own lapses of judgment or knowledge.
  • Cultivating a sense of humor and agency against an irrational system of care.
  • Bearing witness to the unnecessary suffering of a sick society.
  • Placing band-aids on the wounds of poverty, racism, and abuse.
  • Embracing the mysterious and unknowable.
  • Making peace with uncertainty.
  • Coping with failure.
  • Struggling to do something when there was nothing to do.

Writing about it helped. I first put fingertips to keyboard during the second year of my two-decade practice among the dispossessed in downtown Portland. My patients were homeless or marginally housed. They suffered all manners of acute and chronic physical and mental health disorders. Many had fled war and repression in the countries of their birth. Or abuse within their families of origin. Or conditions in their American home town that deprived them of safety and economic security, only to land in yet another place that would treat them scant better. They were not necessarily innocent, but they never deserved the nastiness of what was dished out to them.

The patient who inspired my first writing was, like Carla, white and middle-aged. She suffered all the ill effects of massive obseity, like diabetes and arthritis and social isolation. What is most seared in my memory about her was her unrelieved grief over the death of her only child some decades earlier. At the time my own son was a toddler and I was simply unable to contemplate her loss. It was too painful to imagine. Still, we had a good relationship I thought, until I unintentionally breached her trust. I was never quite sure what had upset her. One day she became furious with me for not attending properly to her problems and never came back. It was confusing and disheartening.

Putting words to paper forces you to elaborate, clarify, and crystallize. If you enter into the process with an open mind, you can discover things you didn't know. The act itself can enable you to acknowledge, to forgive, and let go. I employed the writing process often in the years to come. I had many opportunities, as so many times things did not go as planned. I had lots to sort through. On the Ragged Edge of Medicine: Doctoring Among the Dispossessed is a collection of fifteen stories I wrote. They are snapshots of fifteen lives as seen through the lens of ill health and the struggle to survive. Too many of these patients did not.

The stories include these:

  • A woman who tested my loyalty, found it wanting, and chose to forgive.
  • An elderly man who repeatedly, wittingly or unwittingly, sabotaged efforts to fix his problem and still emerged with a good outcome.
  • A modern day hermit who cultivated a large garden on forbidden green space smack dab in the middle of town and got away with it.
  • A fellow who crashed his own lifeboat by refusing his medicine, but managed to survive.
  • A young woman who could endure most anything but loneliness.

My stories ask a lot of questions. They don't provide a lot of answers. They are an invitation to look into a corner of the world that usually escapes the public gaze, precisely because what you will see is disturbing. We should be disturbed.

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