Head start

[This post was inspired by a comment in an article on PhysOrg, http://www.physorg.com/news/2011-09-cern-faster-than-light-particle.html. Thanks to Randy Scalise for bringing it to my attention.]

Supernova 1987a seen in visible and x-ray light

The expanding supernova remnant around Supernova 1987A and its interaction with its surroundings, seen in X-ray and visible light.

In 1987, a distant star exploded. Here on Earth, it was named “SN1987a” – Supernova 1987a. Here are some basic facts about SN1987a: it occurred (51.4 +/- 1.2) kiloparsecs from Earth, corresponding to a distance in meters of (1.586 +/- 0.037)x1021 m, and we saw the  visible light from the event beginning on Feb. 23, 1987.[1] [2]

Light travels at a finite speed. In the vacuum – completely empty space – that speed is 299,792,458 m/s (meters per second). The uncertainty on that speed is in the last digit, which represents a precision far greater than our knowledge of the distance to SN1987a. Therefore, in all future calculations the uncertainty on this speed will be ignored and numbers will be assumed to have uncertainties dominated by the distance measurement.

Once the light from the supernova collapse and subsequent explosion escapes the star, the time required to travel from SN1987a to Earth is (5.290 +/- 0.0736)x1012s. There are about 3.153×107 seconds per year (fast fact: you can very closely approximate the number of seconds in a year by multiplying the number π, 3.14159…, times 107s. That gives you 3.14×107s, which we see is extremely close to the correct number). If we convert to years, the light from SN1987a required (167,800 +/- 3900) years to travel to Earth.

A recent preliminary, un-reviewed, unpublished, and unconfirmed result from the OPERA Collaboration suggests that neutrinos travel faster than light [3]. Specifically, within the framework of their measurement they find that the speed that muon neutrinos travel through the Earth from CERN to their experiment is (299,799,893 +/- 1,230) m/s.

Supernova collapse is known to lead to the production of neutrinos; in fact, neutrinos from SN1987a were detected by multiple neutrino experiments that were operating in the late 1980s. Based on the difference in speed between light and muon neutrinos, where muon neutrinos are measured by OPERA to travel at a speed EXCEEDING that of light in vacuum, let’s see when we would have expected the supernova-produced neutrinos to arrive at Earth.

Before we proceed, let’s note that we have a potential problem with this calculation – the uncertainty on the distance to SN1987a is HUGE. Our uncertainty on how long light took to travel from SN1987a to Earth has an uncertainty of 3900 years – that covers the entire period of human development back to ancient civilizations such as China and Egypt. Instead, let’s calculate the RATIO of travel times of light and neutrinos. We can then apply this ratio to any time period and evaluate the relative arrival times of neutrinos and light.

The OPERA paper actually provides this number. The ratio of travel times between neutrinos and light is:

(v-c)/v = (2.48 +/- 0.41)x10-5

which means that the neutrinos arrive 0.00248% faster than light. What does that mean for SN1987a?

If we take the light travel time to be 167,800 years (exactly), then in that same time neutrinos take 167,796 years to reach Earth. That’s 4 years earlier than the light. What if, instead, the travel time was 3900 years less (one standard deviation DOWN). Then the travel time of light is 163,900 years and for neutrinos it is 163,896 years – again, 4 years earlier.

So the time difference, regardless of the ACTUAL time it took light to travel, is about 4 years. One would not expect neutrinos to accompany the light when the light reached Earth in 1987.

What was observed?

Here is the summary from the Wikipedia article on SN1987a:

Approximately three hours before the visible light from SN 1987A reached the Earth, a burst of neutrinos was observed at three separate neutrino observatories. This is likely due to neutrino emission (which occurs simultaneously with core collapse) preceding the emission of visible light (which occurs only after the shock wave reaches the stellar surface). At 7:35 a.m. Universal time, Kamiokande II detected 11 antineutrinos, IMB 8 antineutrinos and Baksan 5 antineutrinos, in a burst lasting less than 13 seconds. Approximately three hours earlier, the Mont Blanc liquid scintillator detected a five-neutrino burst, but this is generally not believed to be associated with SN 1987A. [4]

Neutrino interactions in the detectors were observed to increase in rate just before the light reached the Earth. This was consistent with the physics noted above; neutrinos are essentially free to leave the star once it collapses since the material density in the star is not sufficient to completely prevent neutrinos from leaving. Light, however, is trapped in the collapse until the blast wave reaches the surface of the star; this is at a later time than the nuclear reactions that produced neutrinos. So even though light travels slightly faster than neutrinos (due to the neutrinos’ small but non-zero masses), the light didn’t catch up before reaching Earth and the neutrinos arrived about 3 hours before the light.

So the time difference was just 3 hours, not 4 years. Of course, nobody was looking for neutrinos from SN1987a 4 years before it happened, but the fact that a burst of neutrinos was observed just hours before the light is evidence that the neutrinos were not too far ahead of the light. Calculations of the neutrino and light arrival times within the framework of core-collapse supernova modeling suggest that this time difference (neutrinos leading light) is not a surprise, given that neutrinos escape before light escapes the supernova.

Some criticisms of this calculation

  1. This calculation assumed that the neutrinos produced by supernova are the same as those studied by OPERA. OPERA studies muon neutrinos. The neutrino experiments which detected neutrinos from SN1987a were sensitive to electron neutrinos. So all we can really say is that electron neutrinos arrived just hours before light. Muon neutrinos may have also been produced directly by SN1987a, or produced by neutrino mixing between the explosion and the time the neutrinos reached Earth. One could argue, therefore, that perhaps the undetected muon neutrinos arrived much earlier.
  2. Nobody was looking for muon neutrinos from space/supernovas in 1983. That’s a hole in the argument, given that the calculation suggests the muon neutrinos would arrive 4 years before the light.

A comment on item #1: there is no evidence that electron neutrinos are so different from muon neutrinos. One would have to gather such evidence. In the meantime, one would have to postulate a mysterious and VAST difference in the speeds of electron and muon neutrinos.

Another comment: neutrino mixing is easily explained if neutrinos have mass. Mass prevents a particle from traveling at the speed of light in vacuum. If the OPERA result is correct, very little makes sense anymore regarding the Theory of Relativity, which has withstood precision tests for about a half-century. Certainly, it only takes one confirmed and reproducible measurement to bring a scientific theory into question. The OPERA result is neither confirmed nor even reproduced at this point. It’s not even published.


The neutrino is a mysterious particle. But so far, it hasn’t been so mysterious as OPERA would suggest. Data from SN1987a suggests that electron-type neutrinos arrived just hours before light, consistent with the different interactions neutrinos and light would suffer in the environment of a core-collapse supernova. This contradicts the expectation from OPERA, albeit that measurement applies to muon-type neutrinos.

Personally, I’m not holding my breath for this result. I’ll bet anybody $10 it’s wrong. And if instead I am wrong, I will pay up with a smile on my face and joy in my heart.

[1] http://heritage.stsci.edu/1999/04/fast_facts.html

[2] Panangia, N. “Distance to SN 1987 A and the LMC.” New Views of the Magellanic Clouds, IAU Symposium #190, Edited by Y.-H. Chu, N. Suntzeff, J. Hesser, & D. Bohlender. http://adsabs.harvard.edu/full/1999IAUS..190..549P

[3] http://arxiv.org/abs/1109.4897

[4] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/SN_1987A









It only makes sense in the light of Presidential aspirations

“Nothing in biology makes sense except in the light of evolution.” [The title of the 1973 essay by the evolutionary biologist and Russian Orthodox Christian Theodosius Dobzhansky, who criticized the anti-evolution creationist movement.]

Almost 30% of humans carry the Human Papillomavirus. In women, HPV has been linked to 90% of all cervical cancers. The HPV vaccine is 90% effective at preventing infection by HPV. How is it that a virus evades our complex human immune system?

The answer is evolution. The multiple strains of HPV which lie dormant and unkilled in our bodies have adapted to our immune response; those strains which could not temper or evade our immune response were killed, and those that went unkilled then reproduced and became the strains that today routinely suppress our body’s natural defenses. In fact, the ability of a virus to survive, repopulate, and co-habit with our normal cell tissue only makes sense in the light of evolution. The HPV vaccine amends the failure of our body by providing an external means to trigger the desired immune response [2]. Without evolution, one has to posit some unfalsifiable and possibly malicious deity whose existence is consumed with the creation of tiny biological curiosities that wreak havoc on our species. When understanding the natural world, I prefer evolution to a construct.

And so it was a little strange that Gov. Rick Perry leapt to the defense of the HPV vaccine. Perry not only mis-understands the meaning of the phrase “scientific theory,” he chooses to wield it like a machete and then hack at evolution. Each stroke of his tongue seems meant to slash evolution from a grand view of life to some unrecognizable stump whose only merit is that it is somehow equal in stature the cheap theology and pseudo-science of literal Biblical creationism.

Said Perry of Rep. Michele Bachmann’s “HPV vaccine causes mental retardation” claim,

“I think that was a statement that had no truth in it, no basis in fact.” [Gov. Rick Perry, Ref. 3]

Perry, who signed an executive order requiring pre-teen girls to receive the HPV vaccine (with parental opt-out), has come out swinging against the Theory of Evolution. This is a terrifying behavior, because a scientific theory is hypothesis that is not only based on facts, but is better than facts because it explains them and predicts new ones which allow us to make progress in understanding and fighting disease.

Yet, while Perry defends his policy choice – one which is meant to insure that the co-evolution of HPV is stopped dead in its tracks – he so easily dismisses the very scientific theory that has given us the power to understand and master our immune response. Without that theory, cervical cancer becomes some punishment whose origin is shrouded in fear and whose treatment is a dose of guess washed down with a sip of hope.

It’s either sad, or funny, or both, that a person so focused on running a country cannot command a consistent and complete view of the facts. He changes his allegiance to the facts depending on whether he needs to support his policy choices or demonize the choices of other people. Choosing the facts that support your policies, rather than the policies that are supported by facts, is just the kind of behavior that led us to war and economic collapse in the last decade. Do we want that again?

[1] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nothing_in_Biology_Makes_Sense_Except_in_the_Light_of_Evolution 

[2] “Immune response to human papillomavirus after prophylactic vaccination with AS04-adjuvanted HPV-16/18 vaccine: Improving upon nature.” Gynecologic Oncology Volume 110, Issue 3, Supplement 1, September 2008, Pages S1-S10. http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0090825808004939

[3] “Rick Perry knocks Michele Bachmann’s HPV story.” Politico. September 14, 2011. http://www.politico.com/news/stories/0911/63526.html


HPV Virus

A group of koilocytes on the the bottom right is accompanied by two normal intermediate squamous cells at the top and left from Ref. 19.

The Republican Presidential Candidate debates (and all the media that encircles them) are a great place to look for examples of poorly applied thinking. Specifically, it’s a buffet of examples of pseudo-scientific argument. In this post, we’ll use one example that stemmed from the most recent CNN/Tea Party Express debate to highlight the danger of the anecdote.

First, what is an “anecdote?” The Merriam-Webster dictionary provides the following definition: “a usually short narrative of an interesting, amusing, or biographical incident.” [1] According to that same source, the word derives from the Greek word anekdota, which means “unpublished items.”

Anecdotes are a popular staple of the campaign trail. Candidates of all stripes use them to make themselves appear more relatable to their audience. They seem to be used to serve the role of a kind of parable – an anecdote usually is meant to contain a meaning or truth upon which the candidate builds an argument or with which a candidate counters their opponent.

Anecdotes are not a form of scientific evidence. Why not? First, they are usually second-hand information, at best. The person telling the story is almost never the participant in the story; rather, the story is about somebody else. You’re lucky if the anecdote resulted from a direct eye-witness event.

Second, an anecdote is a form of witness testimony that may be first-hand, but more likely has been transferred by an oral tradition from person to person (with the usual change in details or embellishment of events resulting from the transfer). Witness testimony is a form of legal evidence but is not a form of scientific evidence. Why? People lie. Even when they do not lie, people mis-remember events, or miss the full detail of an event, or both. Even when they do accurately recount an observation, they may assign causation in the sequence of events even though the relationship between the sequence may be accidental, coincidental, or completely random. The point is that people are fallible; the eye is fallible, the ear is fallible, and the mind is fallible. A single story cannot then be relied upon as the sole basis of a scientific argument. It may be the seed of an evidence-gathering cycle, but in and of itself the anecdote – a form of witness testimony – is not primary evidence. For an overview of the the fallibility of eyewitness testimony, see Ref. [2].

With all of this in mind, let’s look at the fallout from an exchange between Presidential Candidates Rep. Michele Bachmann and Gov. Rick Perry [3]. The exchange focused on Rick Perry’s executive order requiring young women (albeit allowing for parental opt-out of the requirement) to be vaccinated against the Human Papillomavirus (HPV). HPV is strongly linked to cervical cancer, is carried by men and women, and is sexually transmitted. That executive order was overturned by a veto-proof majority of the Texas Legislature. NPR ran an excellent story on this strange episode: a staunchly Republican Governor, professing support for individual liberty, issued an order requiring young women to receive a vaccine (albeit with a parental opt-out) [4].

This post is NOT about the political, policy or rights issues raised by his decision (however, see the “footnote” near the end of this post). Rather, this post is about something Michele Bachmann said on the “Today Show” on the morning after the debate [5]. She was discussing her position on the vaccination of young women against HPV.  She relayed an anecdote told to her by a debate audience member after the event.

” . . . all innocent little 12-year-old girls or 11-year-old girls in the state of Texas would be forced  by the government to take an injection of what could potentially be a very dangerous drug . . . I had a mother last night come up to me last night here in Tampa, Florida after the debate. She told me that her little daughter took that . . . vaccine and suffered from mental retardation thereafter. It can have very dangerous side-effects . . .  people have to draw their own conclusions.” (Ref. [5])

Let’s parse that argument. Bachmann states her thesis – that the vaccine could be potentially dangerous. She then cites her evidence: a single anecdote from a single mother that connects two events, the receiving of the vaccine and the onset of some kind of mental retardation. Bachmann then repeats her thesis, and leaves the final decision to an audience that, one assumes from her argument, she believes she has now informed with this argument. This unit of speech represents the fullness of her argument.

What is missing here? She cites no medical literature to back up her statement. Let’s look at the literature on this issue.

There are some relevant numbers in making an informed assessment of the risks associated with vaccination. First, what is the risk from the disease prevented by the vaccine? The numbers I cite here are all taken from Ref. [6], an article entitled “Epidemiologic Classification of Human Papillomavirus Types Associated with Cervical Cancer” from the New England Journal of Medicine. This article has been cited over 2600 times. The authors pooled data from 11 case-control studies of cervical cancer, including women with and without symptoms of the cancer.  Almost 91% of the women in the group with cervical cancer also had HPV in their bodies (evidenced by the detection of HPV DNA in cervical cell samples), whereas only about 13% of the control group had positive results for HPC DNA in their cervical cells). Cervical cancer was once the leading cause of female cancer deaths in the U.S.; in the last 40 years, the rate of death from this cancer dropped significantly due to screening (e.g. Pap tests). In 2007, the most recent year for which data are available [7], over 12,000 women were diagnosed with cervical cancer. Since the cancer is linked strongly to a virus, and the vaccine prevents against the virus, about 90% of these cases were preventable.

Based on 2007 census numbers, this number of cases corresponds to 0.008% of the female U.S. population (and thus 0.004% of the U.S. population). Each year, about 0.001% of the U.S. population dies from cervical cancer.

Let’s pause for a moment and compare this vaccine and its associated preventable disease with some other vaccines and their preventable diseases.

  1. Polio [8]: During the period of highest infection rates in the U.S., an average of 35,000 cases of polio were reported per year. In 1954, the last year before the vaccine was introduced, this represents 0.02% of the U.S. population [9]. Of that infected population, 72% have no symptom  but spread the virus; 24% exhibit minor infection-related symptoms, such as fever, upset stomach, or flu-like symptoms, but do not develop paralysis; only 1% of infected people develop the iconic paralysis that put fear into the nation. If polio-induced paralysis is the symptom that was most feared, and thus the thing most worth preventing when requiring vaccination, then we are talking about 1% of 0.08% of the population, or 0.0008% of the population that was most seriously affected. Was polio worth preventing with a potentially risky vaccine just to save 0.0008% of the population from paralysis? The answer is an unequivocal “yes.”
  2. Pertussis (whooping cough) [10]: From 1940-1945, there were about 1 million reported cases of whooping cough. This is an average of 200,000 cases per year. This is 0.14% of the population in 1945. Of those infected by whooping cough, the mortality rate in the 1940s was about 0.0025% [11].  The vaccine was introduced to prevent the disease in a significant fraction of the population (certainly a very significant fraction of infants, as most risk for mortality from the disease), and to save the lives of just 0.0000035% of the population who would otherwise die from the disease.

These are just a few examples. We see that due to the nature of the death, or the severity of the disease, or the communicable nature of a disease, we have acted as a people to develop and distribute vaccination for diseases that kill far fewer people than are killed by cervical cancer.

But it is not enough to discuss the incidence or mortality rates of a disease; we should also consider the complications associated with giving the vaccine to the population. For instance, what are the risks associated with giving every woman in the U.S., 12 years or older, the currently available vaccines for HPV?  As part of the evaluation of the drug Gardasil, data were collected using a randomized double-blind study of patients [14]. The findings were obtains from 277 women receiving the actual drug and 275 receiving placebo preparations; the groups were randomly determined. No life-threatening or quality-of-life altering side-effects were reported in either group. Standard injection related effects were reported in both groups. For instance, 83% of patients receiving the actual drug reported ” erythema, pain, and swelling, with severe intensity” [14] while 73.4% of placebo recipients reported the same effects. The margin of error on these numbers is +/- 2.7% and +/- 3.6%, respectively (I computed my own binomial errors on these numbers using the numbers presented in the references). These two numbers agree within 2.1 standard deviations, which is not a significant difference between the two groups. Most vaccines yield some kind of injection site effect, and here we see that the placebo causes just as many as the drug.

The CDC information site on the vaccine notes that the medical community continues to monitor the women who receive the vaccine for evidence of very rare complications that won’t show up in such trials. But the American Academy of Pediatrics issued a statement following Bachmann’s interview on the “Today Show” stating that her comments were irresponsible and fly in the face of any actual medical and scientific evidence about complications associated with the vaccine [15]. They state that 35 million doses have been administered with no scientifically demonstrated causal link to serious side effects.

Let’s take stock of what we have learned. Primary evidence gathered in randomized, double-blind trials shows that one of the two approved vaccines for HPV, Gardasil, is not only efficacious (90% success rate in preventing infection by HPV) but safe (no significant difference between placebo and the vaccine in studies of side effects). There is no additional data that clearly links rarer complications to the specific vaccine. The risk associated with taking the vaccine  is small (35 million vaccinations given with no evidence of serious side effects, suggesting a life-altering complication probability of  <0.000003%) compared to the fact that death from cervical cancer results in 0.001% of the population.

Bachmann offered only an anecdote as evidence of the need to proceed cautiously with policy regarding HPV vaccination. Anecdotes are a form of eye-witness testimony, and thus unacceptable as primary scientific evidence due to well-documented problems with this form of evidence. Since then, she has reportedly been offered thousands of dollars to produce primary scientific evidence backing up her claim (in the form of wagers from medical researchers) [16]. So far, her campaign has not responded.

We have an excellent teachable moment here. If you want to win the war with facts, you need to provide them. Testimony are insufficient as facts. Anecdotes, then, are anecdon’ts when it comes to making a solid argument.


Let’s step away from the science issue for a second and think about the policy issue. Whether or not to require that 11-12 year-old girls received the HPV vaccine is a policy question. There is a science component to this issue. We need to set aside the values issues for a second (e.g. different people, with different ethical or moral world views, will respond differently to the question of whether or not a young woman should receive a vaccine for a sexually transmitted disease, independent of what the science says).

The recommendation about the age of vaccination stems from a couple of pieces of data: how many vaccinations are needed to receive complete protection and when a young woman typically becomes sexually active. The CDC has statistics on sexual activity [17]. For instance, by age 15 about 8% of women engage in oral intercourse and 26% of women engage in vaginal intercourse; rates are similar for young men. At age 14, 5.7% of young women claim to have had sex. According to the Kaiser Family Foundation [18], the median age at which first experience with sexual intercourse occurs is about age 16; that means 50% of young girls have their first sexual intercourse BEFORE age 16. If prevention is the goal, the vaccine has to be administered at an age before which the majority of sexual activity occurs.

Perry’s executive order followed the recommendations of the CDC: begin the vaccination process at age 12 because it takes about 1 year to receive all three recommended vaccinations. That means full protection from HPV occurs at around age 13. That assures that young girls are protected against HPV by the time they become sexually active.

That’s the science that informs the policy discussion.

[1] http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/anecdote

[2] The Problem With Eyewitness Testimony from Stanford Journal of Legal Studies

[3] http://archives.cnn.com/TRANSCRIPTS/1109/12/se.06.html

[4] “In Texas, Perry’s Vaccine Mandate Provoked Anger,” National Public Radio, “All Things Considered,” http://www.npr.org/2011/09/16/140530716/in-texas-perrys-vaccine-mandate-provoked-anger

[5] “The Today Show,” September 13, 2011. http://today.msnbc.msn.com/id/41521818/#44499076

[6] “Epidemiologic Classification of Human Papillomavirus Types Associated with Cervical Cancer”, N Engl J Med 2003; 348:518-527February 6, 2003. http://www.nejm.org/doi/full/10.1056/NEJMoa021641

[7] CDC, “Cervical Cancer Statistics.” http://www.cdc.gov/cancer/cervical/statistics/

[8] CDC, “Polio Disease – Questions and Answers.” http://www.cdc.gov/vaccines/vpd-vac/polio/dis-faqs.htm

[9] http://www.census.gov/popest/archives/1990s/popclockest.txt

[10] http://www.cdc.gov/vaccines/vpd-vac/pertussis/default.htm

[11] http://www.healthsentinel.com/joomla/images/stories/graphs/us-deaths-1900-1940.jpg

[12] CDC. “HPV Vaccine Safety.” http://www.cdc.gov/hpv/vaccinesafety.html

[13] Villa LL, Costa RL, Petta CA, et al. Prophylactic quadrivalent human papillomavirus (types 6, 11, 16, and 18) L1 virus-like particle vaccine in young women: a randomised double-blind placebo-controlled multicentre phase II efficacy trial. Lancet Oncol 2005; 6:271–278. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/15863374

[14] http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.3322/canjclin.57.1.7/full

[15] http://www.aap.org/advocacy/releases/hpv2011.pdf

[16] http://www.cbsnews.com/8301-504763_162-20107489-10391704.html

[17] http://www.cdc.gov/nchs/data/ad/ad362.pdf and “Teenagers in the United States: Sexual Activity, Contraceptive Use, and Childbearing, 2002” (PDF). Vital and Health Statistics. National Center for Health Statistics. 2002. Retrieved 2008-04-29.

[18] http://www.kff.org/youthhivstds/upload/U-S-Teen-Sexual-Activity-Fact-Sheet.pdf

[19] http://www.flickr.com/photos/euthman/2825069064/

Back to the Mountaintop

It’s about 11 in the morning and the phone is ringing. The crappy red plastic cordless phone is ringing, and the cheap digital sound fills my one-room cottage in Atherton, CA. I remember getting home around 4am. I remember the last thing I heard on the radio before I turned off the car engine and went inside to sleep. Now the phone is ringing at 11am, and I grab it to find out who is calling.

When I turn on the TV, I’m almost awake with the shock.


When they hit, jet fuel erupted in fiery vomit from both sides of the towers.


Amateur video, wandering through city streets choked with dust, something like the sound of electric crickets filling the air.


The skies become empty of planes. I think I cried – I can’t really remember.

A lot of us showed up at the lab because we had to, but we couldn’t work. This upset my supervisor. There is fear about going to Paris for the meeting. It’s likely planes won’t be flying anyway. We are told we don’t have to fly to the meeting because it’s canceled. I am relieved. I miss my fiancee. I ask permission to drive back to Wisconsin to see her. I’m not sure how long I’ll be gone. I think my supervisor thinks I’ll be back in a week or two. I don’t care what they think. I don’t know when I’ll be back. All I know is that I am suddenly very lonely in California, that I miss my family, and that I miss my fiancee, and that all I want to do is be back in Wisconsin.

Wisconsin in September is beautiful. I think about it on the drive. Tahoe is beautiful. Reno is forgettable. I look for the prisons off the side of the Nevada highway. Salt Lake City is like a dream nestled in mountains and guarding the way to a salt sea.

Cars pass me on the highway with poems and sayings  painted on the back. I feel a sense of connectedness with these strangers on the road. We are all going somewhere. We all want to be with our families. Jobs don’t matter. Lots of things don’t matter.

But the things that should matter suddenly do.

I listen to the memorial broadcast from the National Cathedral. I cry while I drive; it’s not safe but I don’t care. I just want to be in Wisconsin as fast as I can get there. I’ve never really sung “America the Beautiful” that loudly before. I re-learned stanzas I knew in youth but forgot. The sun is shining. America is beautiful . . . for a brief time.

I stay in Wisconsin until early October. I am happy and sad. If I were in California I would only be sad and lonely. It’s one of the best times I have in Wisconsin until two years later when I am married and living there and finishing my thesis.


America discovers its new fear: Muslims. It doesn’t matter that our country was founded on religious tolerance. It doesn’t seem to matter that once there were extreme Christian sects that fled to a horrible wet and wintery continent to escape their own persecution and find a place where tolerance could be practiced. America forgets its history. America forgets its values. America finds a friend

[let’s call him Jack]

to help her fight in desert war. For the death visited upon us, we multiply that death upon the heads of others. Many are to blame for what happened to us; many more are not to blame. We are feared. We are loved. We are hated. The world is changed, not because of what was visited upon us

[remember the embassy bombings, remember the Cole]

but because of how we chose to enact our vengeance upon the world.

New language emerges.

Persons of interest.

Coalition of the willing.

Enhanced interrogation techniques.

America once looked in the mirror and was beautiful, a twin vision of justice and liberty standing like towers on a silver skyline.

Now she looks in the mirror and sees something like a painting by Gerald Scarfe. Blind Justice’s body twists toward the sky in waves of screaming secrecy, her scales pressing down upon a man as water is poured into a towel that covers his screaming mouth. Her other hand is raised, a single finger to her lips – SHHHHHH. Although a blindfold covers her eyes you feel her STARING at you with cameras and infrared eyes, your every move followed by sharp and pointed pupils that lie hidden behind folds of cloth. To her left, Lady Liberty has ceased her welcoming of new faces and cultures. Instead, she bars the way of the immigrant masses with her large book. The original words written on the book, which remind of us the day that liberty came to America

JULY 4, 1776

have been traded for a new date

SEPTEMBER 11, 2001

that suddenly seems to inform more of America’s thinking. Liberty’s torch stands ready to strike those who would try to sneak past.

This grim painting is a terrifying vision of America, one so different from the soaring stanzas of America the Beautiful that we all sang in the days after September 11. Yet this was the twisted vision that came to pass. We traded liberty for security. We traded rights for restrictions. We traded responsibility for entitlement. We traded knowledge for ignorance. We traded science for lies. We gave Justice the power to torture and Liberty the power of restriction.

Ten years later, I still wonder if we’ll ever wander out of the desert of September 11 and find our way back to the mountaintop of July 4.