These Mild-Mannered East Bay Superheroes make Leaping Tall Buildings in a Single Bound Seem Like Kid Stuff
Real-life heroes can’t throw fireballs, stretch their bodies hundreds of feet, or become invisible. Like Albert Einstein, Time’s Person of the Century, our modern real-life heroes are scientists and thinkers, the creative visionaries who can help untangle the chaos of a complicated world. Keeping this in mind, we decided to do Marvel Comics one better, tracking down five East Bay innovators who are doing everything superhumanly possible to make our world a better place to live.
Arthur Rosenfeld is a fan of the big metaphor. When speaking of the epiphany that started his crusade to change the way we think about energy—and personally save the country billions of dollars in energy costs—he says he “discovered a Saudi Arabia of oil beneath every American city.”
These vast resources spring not from the ground, but from the easy ways people can cut back on their electricity consumption. Over the past four decades, Rosenfeld, co-founder of Lawrence Berkeley Laboratory’s Environmental Energy Technologies Division and a California Energy Commission member, has helped create a number of energy-saving devices we now take for granted, like smaller fluorescent lights and reflective window coatings.
These kinds of ideas have especially helped California, where Rosenfeld deserves partial credit for helping the state’s energy consumption rates remain constant, while the rest of the country has increased its appetite considerably. Although Californians have purchased more televisions and larger refrigerators, each still consumes an average of only 7,000 kilowatts per year, compared with others around the country, who average 12,000. “You have to look around to where you can cut back,” he says.
A fluorescent lightbulb, Rosenfeld notes as an example, lasts about as long as eight incandescent bulbs. Beyond the convenience, you’re also saving about $50 in electricity over the life of the bulb and, in addition, the barrel of oil required to generate that electricity. Enough fuel, he says, to drive from here to Denver. The difference: one lightbulb.
On a larger scale, Rosenfeld cites China, now the largest energy consumer on the planet, and its recent completion of Three Gorges Dam, a massive hydroelectric project that displaced millions of people. He points out that until 2000 China had no regulatory standards for its refrigerators and air-conditioning units. By 2005, however, the country instituted standards—developed in part by Rosenfeld—nearly as stringent as those in the United States, and, in doing so, essentially gained just as much energy as its costly, disruptive dam will produce. “It’s just a different point of view,” he says. “We’re not there yet, but we’ll have to get there sooner or later. Because these new sources of energy are never free."
Al Gore has nothing on Douglas Engelbart, who, for one thing, actually did invent the Internet. Engelbart, to put it mildly, is a man of big ideas. Sure, he contributed to inventions like e-mail, word processing, the computer mouse, and a system that was the precursor to the Internet, but these have been mere side projects. His life’s opus has been, without exaggeration, to raise the intellectual prowess of our civilization. More specifically, Engelbart hopes to invent tools to speed the public thinking process, broaden the pool of contributors, and beef up the capacity for research.
“If we don’t boost the collective IQ, what’s going to happen to mankind?” he asks. “Problems will keep getting bigger until there’s a real collapse.”
He points to global warming as an example, a concept that has finally gained entry into the public consciousness, thanks in large part to the Academy Award–winning An Inconvenient Truth.
Engelbart, who at 82 still shows up to work at his Bootstrap Institute in Fremont, would like to accelerate the discussions that lead to public awareness. He sees doing this with websites, or “dynamic knowledge repositories,” as he calls them, that would consolidate everything said on a subject—be it climate control, AIDS, or world hunger—in the same space. He would then make those repositories incredibly easy to search on a far deeper level, rendering something like Gore’s documentary almost obsolete. While acknowledging Gore’s film as an important step, he sees the form as limited in the bigger picture. “Its significance?” he muses. “What influence did the early stone tablets have on the creation of the computer you’re writing on today?”
In the world Engelbart envisions, someone would be able to view a 20-second segment of the film with the click of a button, then within that segment read the competing arguments around the idea and, further still, see how the argument has evolved.
Toward this end, Engelbart has received a National Science Foundation grant to build the “HyperScope Project,” a search engine of sorts that allows access to vast quantities of information by concepts and arguments rather than key words.Engelbart knows that words like dynamic knowledge repository and hyperscope may sound like science fiction, but he’s no stranger to adversity. The scientific community ignored many of his ideas for decades, until the early 1990s, when a group of professors at Stanford University began reexamining his work. This led to Engelbart being given the prestigious $500,000 Lemelson-MIT Prize in 1997, the world’s largest cash award for invention and innovation.
Awards don’t mean much to Engelbart, however. “I almost feel like my life [has been] a total failure,” he says. “I still ask myself why I can’t get the world talking about a collective IQ.”
Eric Stover has seen things you don’t want to see and heard stories you don’t want to hear. He has unearthed a shallow grave so that a mother may know for certain what happened to her son, and so that we, on the other side of the earth, may also know. “It’s hard to argue with a point-blank gunshot wound to the head,” he says.
Stover teaches the occasional law course at UC Berkeley, but his real work lies in the battlefields of secret wars—and memory. In June, the university’s Human Rights Center, where Stover serves as director, released a report detailing the forced conscription of thousands of women and children into the Lord’s Resistance Army, a rebel group in northern Uganda. His research showed that as many as 38,000 children and 37,000 adults were kidnapped and forced into sexual slavery as well as into murdering their fellow villagers.
Before Uganda, there was the genocide in Kosovo and, before that, mass graves in Rwanda, land mines in Cambodia, and the “disappeared” in Argentina. When something very bad happens somewhere in the world, Stover appears with notebook in pocket and shovel in hand. He spends long spans of time in these places, interviewing family members, collecting documentary evidence, even digging up bodies, the corpus delicti, for forensic analysis. His purpose: to achieve a modicum of justice, he says, by setting the record straight for the families. Beyond that, he wants to enlighten the average American, who wouldn’t be able to find Uganda on a globe.
He resists feel-good words like closure or catharsis. Such terms, he says, imply a typically American approach to emotional healing. “We want to make it better,” he says, “but that’s often the wrong way to look at it. There’s never really any closure.”
He prefers scientific facts. Emotions and political agendas, he says, have muddied the most well-intentioned investigations. “Science has this rudder where you can go right down the middle,” he says.
Stover loves his job, as grim as it might seem. He says that he agrees with Albert Camus’ theory of the absurd, that the universe in many ways is unintelligible. Bad things happen. But if you can focus your principles and interests, if you can find meaning in your work, then maybe you can accomplish something. “I believe in the myth of Sisyphus,” he says. “I’m just pushing that rock up the hill.”
Protector of the Innocents
You can push and prod her, but Suzan Carmichael won’t surrender to an easy answer. Nope, she won’t do it—because there are no easy answers when it comes to predicting the occurrence of birth defects.
Birth defects emerge in one out of every 33 births, basically one child in every large-size classroom. Yet scientists have no idea how two-thirds of the world’s known defects come about, and few try to investigate why.
Carmichael, an epidemiologist with the California Birth Defects Monitoring Program in Berkeley, chips away at the puzzle, undaunted, playing a key role in the largest study of birth defects in the world. “I’ve been doing research for 20 years and have been around a lot of very smart people,” says Gary Shaw, who is Carmichael’s boss at the birth defects monitoring program, a joint effort by the March of Dimes and the California Department of Health Services. “Suzan is a brilliant scientist, and amazingly productive.
”In 2004, Carmichael contributed to a study demonstrating that choline, a vitamin B–like supplement, can be just as helpful as folic acid in preventing neural tube birth defects such as spina bifida. She also recently completed a study showing that “food instability”—a lack of food and good nutrition, in other words—may contribute to defects such as diabetes. She published another paper showing that even stress can lead to birth defects in a child.
Carmichael is the first to point out that these studies are mere glimpses of the larger picture. “These are small steps, but they’re pushing the field,” Carmichael says. “We’re the first to take many of these steps.”
With so many variables at play, the work can be humbling. Smoking can cause birth defects, for example, but some mothers might be more at risk genetically than others. A woman’s environment can play a role as well. Is she exposed to pesticides or exhaust? Then there’s the way a woman takes care of herself. Does she exercise, and what role does that play in producing healthier babies? If she smokes but takes a multivitamin, is she less at risk?
One finding leads to another, and to another, says Carmichael, ever the patient puzzle-solver. “It builds,” she says. “I’m not expecting any magic bullets.”
Ashok Gadgil saved a child’s life today. Probably more than one. But after years of watching his water purification devices save thousands of lives, he now takes the accomplishment in stride. “I’m not counting the number of infant deaths I’ve prevented,” he says. “But, yes, there is tremendous psychological satisfaction in creating a device that affects millions of people.”
Although some scientists content themselves with writing academic papers that may never see the light of day, Gadgil, a researcher at Lawrence Berkeley Laboratory, invented a water purifier in 1995 that is changing the lives of hundreds of thousands of people around the globe. The device, a box less than three feet long by two feet wide, passes the water under a 40-watt ultraviolet bulb, which kills bacteria.
Contaminated drinking water is considered the world’s greatest environmental threat to human populations. Approximately 1.8 million people die every year from bad water, most before the age of five. Another 60 million children fail to reach their full physical potential, the victims of repeated bouts of diarrhea, which impairs their ability to absorb nutrients and, over time, stunts their growth.
Gadgil’s invention provides clean water to entire villages in countries as far-ranging as India, Mexico, the Philippines, and Honduras. It’s a virtual miracle in some parts of the world. “You wouldn’t believe the excitement and enthusiasm the people have shown for what they call this ‘mineral water,’ ” he says.
Using the purifier to clean water is also inexpensive. Chlorination requires large treatment plants, and boiling demands a surprising amount of fuel. Ultraviolet light needs only a modest power supply, such as a car battery, for the bulb. Gadgil’s filter can disinfect a year’s worth of drinking water for an individual at a cost of a few cents.
In villages, the purifiers are housed in what are called Water Health Centers. Some 500 of these centers now exist worldwide. Setting up a center to service a village of 6,000 people costs about $50,000. The villages establish the centers with the help of low-interest loans. Filling and refilling 10-liter cans for about 2 cents each, a center eventually pays for itself, until the village owns the facility outright. “It’s important they don’t have the perception that someone has a stranglehold on their drinking water,” Gadgil says.
In scientific circles, Gadgil, a modest, unassuming man, has attained rock star status. He has even become the cartoon star of a children’s book about environmental engineering. “I find that more satisfying than publishing any of my papers,” he says with a laugh.
Matt Isaacs is a freelance writer based in the East Bay.