The Books of College Libraries Are Turning Into Wallpaper

The Books of College Libraries Are Turning Into Wallpaper
University libraries around the world are seeing precipitous declines in the use of the books on their shelves.
By Dan Cohen
May 26 2019

When Yale recently decided to relocate three-quarters of the books in its undergraduate library to create more study space, the students loudly protested. In a passionate op-ed in the Yale Daily News, one student accusedthe university librarian—who oversees 15 million books in Yale’s extensive library system—of failing to “understand the crucial relationship of books to education.” A sit-in, or rather a “browse-in,” was held in Bass Library to show the administration how college students still value the presence of books. Eventually the number of volumes that would remain was expanded, at the cost of reducing the number of proposed additional seats in a busy central location.

Little-noticed in this minor skirmish over the future of the library was a much bigger story about the changing relationship between college students and books. Buried in a slide deck about circulation statistics from Yale’s library was an unsettling fact: There has been a 64 percent decline in the number of books checked out by undergraduates from Bass Library over the past decade.

Yale’s experience is not at all unique—indeed, it is commonplace. University libraries across the country, and around the world, are seeing steady, and in many cases precipitous, declines in the use of the books on their shelves. The University of Virginia, one of our great public universities and an institution that openly shares detailed library circulation stats from the prior 20 years, is a good case study. College students at UVA checked out 238,000 books during the school year a decade ago; last year, that number had shrunk to just 60,000.

Before you tsk-tsk today’s kids for their lack of bookishness, note that the trend lines are sliding southward for graduate students and faculty members, too: down 61 percent and 46 percent, respectively, at UVA. Overall, across its entire network of libraries, UVA circulated 525,000 books during the 2007–08 school year, but last year there were only 188,000 loans—nearly 1,000 fewer books checked out a day. The Association of Research Libraries’ aggregated statisticsshow a steady decrease of the same proportion across its membership, even as student enrollment at these universities has grown substantially.

Maybe students aren’t checking the books out but are still consulting them regularly within the library? This also does not appear to be true. Many libraries also track such in-house uses, by tallying the books that need to be reshelved, and the trends are the same. At my library at Northeastern University, undergraduate circulations declined 50 percent from 2013 to 2017—before we decided to do our own book relocation—and our logged number of books removed from shelves but not checked out also dropped by half.

These stark statistics present a conundrum for those who care about libraries and books. At the same time that books increasingly lie dormant, library spaces themselves remain vibrant—Snell Library at Northeastern now receives well over 2 million visits a year—as retreats for focused study and dynamic collaboration, and as sites of an ever wider array of activities and forms of knowledge creation and expression, including, but also well beyond, the printed word. It should come as no surprise that library leadership, in moments of dispassionate assessment often augmented by hearing from students who have trouble finding seats during busy periods, would seek to rezone areas occupied by stacks for more individual and group work. Yet it often does come as an unwelcome surprise to many, especially those with a powerful emotional attachment to what libraries should look like and be.

What’s happening here is much more complicated than an imagined zero-sum game between the defenders of books and library futurists. The decline in the use of print books at universities relates to the kinds of books we read for scholarly pursuits rather than pure pleasure, the rise of ebooks and digital articles, and the changing environment of research. And it runs contrary to the experience of public libraries and bookstores, where print continues to thrive.

Unlike most public libraries, the libraries of colleges and universities have always been filled with an incredibly wide variety of books, including works of literature and nonfiction, but also bound scientific journals and other highly specialized periodicals, detailed reference works, and government documents—different books for different purposes. Although many of these volumes stand ready for immersive, cover-to-cover reading, others await rarer and often brief consultations, as part of a larger network of knowledge. Even many monographs, carefully and slowly written by scholars, see only very sporadic consultation, and it is not uncommon for the majority of college collections to be unused for a decade or more. This is as it should be: Research libraries exist to collect and preserve knowledge for the future as well as for the present, not to house just the latest and most popular works.

But there is a difference between preservation and access, and a significant difference, often unacknowledged, in the way we read books for research instead of pleasure. As the historian Michael O’Malley humorously summarizedthe nature of much scholarly reading and writing, “We learn to read books and articles quickly, under pressure, for the key points or for what we can use. But we write as if a learned gentleman of leisure sits in a paneled study, savoring every word.” Or as he more vividly described the research process, academics often approach books like “sous-chefs gutting a fish.”


Extreme weather has made half of America look like Tornado Alley

Extreme weather has made half of America look like Tornado Alley
Climate change may be confounding the jet stream and making trouble for everyone.
By Joel Achenbach and Jason Samenow
May 29 2019

Tornadoes have been popping up every day in the U.S. as if coming off an assembly line. They’re part of an explosion of extreme weather events, including record flooding, record cold and record heat. Wednesday brought more of the same, with tornado watches in the Midwest and Atlantic seaboard and 37 million Americans facing an “enhanced” risk of severe weather, according to the National Weather Service.

All of which raises the question: Is this climate change, or just an unusually bad year?

For years, scientists have warned that climate change caused by human activity — primarily the burning of fossil fuels and the spike in atmospheric greenhouse gases — would make extreme weather events more likely. But tornadoes have never fit neatly into the climate change narrative. They’re eccentric and quirky. Until this year, the U.S. was in something of a tornado drought.

Twisters seem to follow a boom-and-bust cycle. There weren’t many tornadoes in 2018. So far this century, two years — 2008 and 2011 — jump off the charts, each with more than 2,000 reported tornadoes. This year, there have been nearly 1,000.

The immediate driver of the violent weather is the jet stream, the powerful winds at high altitudes that sweep west to east across North America. The jet stream since May 14 has created conditions ripe for twisters. Seven deaths have been reported so far in the tornado assault of May. That’s a low death toll compared to some tornado seasons, but the steady, percussive nature of the storms — the daily pounding — has been anomalous.

“Every day, somewhere in the United States is getting pummeled by tornadoes and hail,” said Victor Gensini, a professor of meteorology at Northern Illinois University.

There’s plenty of water in the mix, too. The Mississippi River is projected to reach 14 feet above flood stage in St. Louis, the second-highest on record. The river has been above flood stage at Vicksburg, Miss., since Feb. 17, the longest stretch of flooding since 1927, the year of the famed “Great Flood.” And the Arkansas River is rising rapidly and poised to approach record flood stages in Tulsa and other cities. There’s been too much rain and not enough places to put it.

Meanwhile it’s been so cold and wet in California that the ski resort of Mammoth has seen more than two feet of snow this month and may stay open until August.

In the usually broiling desert city of Phoenix on Memorial Day, the thermometer topped out at a pleasant 79 degrees, which is 19 degrees below average. The Deep South would love to be so lucky: Temperatures have hit 100 in many cities, breaking records. Savannah has hit 100 more times this year than Phoenix, something that’s never happened since people began tracking such things. The high of 102 degrees in Gainesville, Fla., on Monday was higher than any temperature ever recorded in May.

The jet stream shapes the high pressure and low pressure systems that control the weather in any given location. Normally it flows west to east in temperate latitudes in a fairly reliable manner. But lately it has fallen into a roller coaster pattern. It’s dipping, forming deep troughs. The result is weather that’s wildly different from west to east, with regions of extreme instability and too much drama.

Worse, the jet stream appears to be stuck in this sinuous pattern. The weather has become not merely extreme but also inert, stubborn, persistent, tiresome, tedious — pick your adjective.

Between the cold weather in the West and the heat wave in the Southeast lies a huge swath of the United States that’s primed for tornadoes.

“The jet stream is the thing that creates and steers individual storms and also sets up large-scale patterns. What we’re seeing now that’s so unusual is that the large-scale pattern, all the way from the middle of the Pacific Ocean to the Atlantic is stuck,” said Jennifer Francis, senior scientist at the Woods Hole Research Center.

Francis believes there’s a climate change signal in the extreme weather, including the tornadoes. Extreme warmth in and around Alaska, along with the reduction of Arctic sea ice, affects the flow of the jet stream, she said. A blob of warm air, and high atmospheric pressure, near Alaska has been fingered by many meteorologists as a flashing red light that something is very different about climate these days.

“We can’t say that the rapid Arctic warming is causing this particularly pattern, but it certainly is consistent with that,” Francis said.


The Physicist Who Made Sense of the Universe

The Physicist Who Made Sense of the Universe
Murray Gell-Mann’s discoveries illuminated the most puzzling aspects of nature, and changed science forever. 
By Sean Carroll

There is nothing physicists love more than a mess of puzzling, apparently contradictory experimental results. Physicists are convinced that nature is fundamentally simple, and that they can discover hidden principles which bring order to the chaos — if they just think about it hard enough. Nobody was better at finding order amid apparent chaos than Murray Gell-Mann, who died on Friday. 

The 1950s and 60s were a Golden Age of particle physics, as accelerators produced a plethora of new particles with unpredictable properties. This presented a problem: There were too many of these new particles, which appeared in collisions without any evident rhyme or reason. They didn’t look anything like the kind of simple, elegant structure scientists expect from the laws of nature.

With a series of brilliant strokes, Dr. Gell-Mann revealed the secret pattern that made everything snap into place. His Eightfold Way, mischievously named after a Buddhist doctrine of liberation, made sense of the new particles that had been discovered and predicted ones that hadn’t been. The Eightfold Way is to elementary particles what the Periodic Table is to chemical elements. Ultimately, he proposed “quarks,” unobserved particles that are bound together in groups of two or three, to account for almost all of the new discoveries.

But that wasn’t all. 

Dr. Gell-Mann was at the center of a whirlwind of theoretical activity. He showed how quantum mechanics allowed a particle to transform into a different particle and then back again. He demonstrated that the strength of particle interactions would depend on the energy with which they were colliding. With his colleague Richard Feynman, he explicated the symmetry structure of the weak nuclear force, one of the four forces of nature. He proposed a physical quantity — “strangeness” — that would explain why some particles lasted longer than others. He, along with Harald Fritzsch, hypothesized that there were force-carrying particles, which they called “gluons,” that hold quarks together. Each of these ideas has subsequently been triumphantly confirmed by experiment.

Any one of these achievements would have served as the high point in the career of any physicist. And there were many others he could have received credit for, as he often waited too long to publish and was occasionally scooped; the Eightfold Way was proposed independently by Yuval Ne’eman, and quarks were theorized by George Zweig. Dr. Gell-Mann’s perfectionism could get the best of him.

Where Dr. Gell-Mann almost always came out ahead was in giving names to his ideas. Dr. Ne’eman simply referred to his proposal by its mathematical label, “SU(3).” That was never going to compete with the romance of “the Eightfold Way,” even if Dr. Gell-Mann did later regret providing an opening to those who would connect quantum physics with Eastern mysticism. Dr. Zweig, on the other hand, called his hypothetical particles “aces,” which lacked the enigmatic heft of “quarks.” Dr. Gell-Mann actually had the sound “kwork” first, and then later noticed the sentence “Three quarks for Muster Mark!” in James Joyce’s novel “Finnegans Wake.” There was no connection to particle physics, but Dr. Gell-Mann didn’t let that get in the way of a colorful coinage.

Today, the situation in particle physics is the opposite of that in the postwar boom. All of the data being produced in high-energy accelerators is beautifully explained by a single theory with a highly unromantic name: the Standard Model. It was put together over years by numerous talented scientists, but nobody had a greater part in its construction than Dr. Gell-Mann.

There are many ways to become an influential theoretical physicist. Some produce creative new ideas, while others are masters of intricate calculations. Some are best at speculating about the unknown, while others bring clarity and insight to established lore. Part of what made Dr. Gell-Mann special was his mastery of all these modes. His work with Francis Low on the “renormalization group” taught physicists how phenomena at high energies and short distancescould be elegantly related to what happens at low energies and long distances. This philosophy remains the central organizing principle of much of modern physics.

Once the Standard Model triumphed in the 1970s and 80s, Dr. Gell-Mann didn’t rest on his laurels. He became convinced of a pressing need for more interdisciplinary work on complex systems. He consequently helped found the Santa Fe Institute, which is today the world’s leading research center on complexity, and which was Dr. Gell-Mann’s research home for the last decades of his life.


New York’s Adoption Of Congestion Charging Might Mean Something Much More Radical Could Come

New York’s Adoption Of Congestion Charging Might Mean Something Much More Radical Could Come
By Brad Templeton
May 28 2019

In 1975, Singapore was the first city in the world to try “congestion charging” — a toll for driving into the central business district meant to reduce traffic there. Since then, the idea has been very slow to catch on, spreading to only a few cities. In the United States, it’s generally been turned down as too much of a political problem. Everybody’s taxes pay for the roads, so charging for them smacks of saying that everybody’s roads are only for the rich.

This is changing, as New York is going to institute a congestion charge below 60th St. in Manhattan. This is controversial, as expected, and fees don’t start until 2021. They may be around $12 for cars and $25 for trucks, so not minor. The plan is to use the $1 billion generated each year to pay for public transit.

New York’s charging, like London’s, is very imprecise. It’s a daily fee. It charges the same no longer how long you spend in the zone. The idea is almost 45 years old, and so it’s strange that NYC isn’t considering something much better and more modern. Singapore began with paper tickets you put on the windshield, and moved to electronic tolling over 20 years ago. We now live in the era of the smartphone. By 2021, it’s entirely reasonable to require that every car entering downtown Manhattan have a smartphone in it.

This means that much more is possible today than was imagined 45 years ago.

Congestion charging has had mixed reactions around the world, but not always as expected. In Sweden, support for it was 40% before it started, and rose to 68% later. For example, it was feared that downtown retailers would hate it — it’s effectively a tax on people driving to shop at their store — but by clearing the roads, it made the shopping more pleasant and worth the fee. It also changed the debate on what else might be priced on the roads, like free street parking. The people who paid the most voted for it by a small majority, but then they obviously thought it was worth it.

Congestion charging should be a big boon for true “ride sharing” — namely carpooling, Uberpool, LyftLine, vanpools and plain old transit. When you count the number of empty seats passing you on the road at any time, it’s obvious that our roads have a great deal of extra capacity that’s not exploited. Pooling people together is hard, because we won’t tolerate too much inconvenience, and you need a critical mass of riders before you can make pooling happen with minimal inconvenience. After all, private car travel already costs a great deal more than transit, but it is the overwhelming choice (92% of miles in the USA and 82% in Europe) for travel due to its combination of convenience and comfort. Congestion charging not only discourages taking a private car; if it discourages enough people, it makes sharing much more likely to be convenient.

Transportation of the future should offer a very wide variety of vehicle sizes, from small single person “pods” to vans, and in some cases, even buses and trains. The key is making the vehicles match the trip and the number of riders, not making the riders match the vehicle. I have outlined how, thanks to robocars, we can have extremely convenient and efficient shared transportation in The future of transit.

To really make that work, congestion charging could become extremely precise. People could be charged literally for every square-foot-second of road capacity and parking they use. Your “footprint” is not just the size of your car. More properly it’s the width of your car times the size of the buffer zone it needs around it, times the amount of time you occupy that footprint. The faster you go, the more buffer you need, but the less time you take. The same can be true of parking, particularly when robots are doing the parking and can park themselves “valet” dense (or even more densely since nobody has to get in or out of the car.)

Unfortunately, when it comes to the road, recording this level of information would require highly Orwellian tracking. It’s never a good idea to ask something people own (like a phone or car) to be responsible for enforcing charges on them. It means locking down the device they supposedly own, and/or having people break those locks.


Malaysia to send back plastic waste to Western countries

Malaysia to send back plastic waste to Western countries
“Malaysia will not be a dumping ground to the world … we will fight back. Even though we are a small country, we can’t be bullied.”
By Associated Press
May 28 2019

PORT KLANG, Malaysia — Malaysia will send back some 3,300 tons of non-recyclable plastic waste to countries such as the U.S., U.K., Canada and Australia in a move to avoid becoming a dumping ground for rich nations, Environment Minister Yeo Bee Yin said Tuesday.

Yeo said Malaysia and many developing countries have become new targets after China banned the import of plastic waste last year. She said 60 containers stacked with contaminated waste were smuggled in en route to illegal processing facilities in the country and will be sent back to their countries of origin.

Ten of the containers are due to be shipped back within two weeks, she said, as she showed reporters contents of the waste at a port outside Kuala Lumpur.

The displayed items included cables from the U.K., contaminated milk cartons from Australia and compact discs from Bangladesh, as well as bales of electronic and household waste from the U.S., Canada, Japan, Saudi Arabia and China. Yeo said the waste from China appeared to be garbage from France and other countries that had been rerouted after a ban imposed by China.

“This is probably just the tip of the iceberg (due) to the banning of plastic waste by China,” Yeo told a news conference. “Malaysia will not be a dumping ground to the world … we will fight back. Even though we are a small country, we can’t be bullied by developed countries.”

In one case alone, Yeo said a U.K. recycling company exported more than 55,000 tons of plastic waste in about 1,000 containers to Malaysia over the past two years.

The government has clamped down on dozens of illegal plastic recycling facilities that had mushroomed across the country, shuttering more than 150 plants since last July. Earlier this month, the government also sent back five containers of waste to Spain.

Yeo said China’s plastic waste ban had “opened up the eyes of the world to see that we have a huge garbage and recycling problem.”

Citizens in rich nations diligently separate their waste for recycling but the garbage ended up being dumped in developing nations where they are recycled illegally, causing environmental and health hazards, she said.


Trump’s EPA shifts more environmental enforcement to states: ‘They’re going to do absolutely nothing’

Trump’s EPA shifts more environmental enforcement to states: ‘They’re going to do absolutely nothing’
By Ellen Knickmeyer
May 20 2019

Susan Holmes’ home, corner store and roadside beef jerky stand are right off Oklahoma Highway 31, putting them in the path of trucks hauling ash and waste from a power plant that burns the high-sulfur coal mined near this small town.

For years, when Bokoshe residents were outside, the powdery ash blowing from the trucks and the ash dump on the edge of town would “kind of engulf you,” Holmes said. “They drove by, and you just couldn’t breathe.”

Over three decades, the ash dump grew into a hill five stories high. Townspeople regard the Environmental Protection Agency as the only source of serious environmental enforcement. Whenever people took their worries about ash-contaminated air and water to state lawmakers and regulators, “none of them cared,” Holmes said.

So the residents of this 500-person town have nothing but bitter warnings for similarly situated communities now that President Donald Trump’s EPA has approved Oklahoma to be the first state to take over permitting and enforcement on coal-ash sites.

“They’re going to do absolutely nothing,” predicted Tim Tanksley, a rancher in Bokoshe, about 130 miles southeast of Tulsa in a Choctaw Nation coal patch that helped fuel the railroads.

Around the country, the EPA under Trump is delegating a widening range of public health and environmental enforcement to states, saying local officials know best how to deal with local problems. Critics contend federal regulators are making a dangerous retreat on enforcement that puts people and the environment at greater risk.

One administration initiative would give states more authority over emissions from coal-fired power plants. Another would remove federal protections for millions of miles of waterways and wetlands.

Some states and counties say the EPA is also failing to act against threats from industrial polluters, including growing water contamination from a widely used class of nonstick industrial compounds. Michigan, New Jersey and some other states say they are tackling EPA-size challenges — like setting limits for the contaminants in drinking water — while appealing to the real EPA to act.

In Houston’s oil and gas hub, local officials and residents say a lax EPA response to toxic spills during Hurricane Harvey left the public in the dark about health threats and handicapped efforts to hold companies responsible for cleaning up.

Nationwide, EPA inspections, evaluations and enforcement actions have fallen sharply over the past two years, some to the lowest points in decades, or in history.

The agency says environmental enforcers remain on the job despite the plunging enforcement numbers.

“There has been no retreat from working with states, communities and regulated entities to ensure compliance with our environmental laws,” said George Hull, the agency’s enforcement spokesman.

“Through our deregulatory actions, the Trump administration has proven that burdensome federal regulations are not necessary to drive environmental progress,” EPA Director Andrew Wheeler, a former coal lobbyist, told lawmakers earlier this year.

Past EPA officials accuse the Trump administration of pulling back on enforcement of polluters and turning back the clock to a dirtier, more dangerous time.

“The reason that the ultimate authority to enforce the law was put into federal hands was because the states weren’t any good at it,” William Ruckelshaus said.

Now 86, Ruckelshaus served as the first administrator of the EPA in 1970, when President Richard Nixon created the agency amid a wave of public anger over contaminated air and water. The previous year, the pollutant-slicked surface of Ohio’s Cuyahoga River caught fire for only the latest time, sending smoke billowing in downtown Cleveland.

Then and now, some states lack the resources and legal authority to police big polluters. And crucially, Ruckelshaus said, some states just don’t want to. They see routine environmental enforcement as a threat to business and jobs.

“The idea that you’re going to delegate it to the states … is completely fraudulent,” Ruckelshaus said in an interview.

Congressional Democrats allege Trump is selective in his passion for state sovereignty and has blocked states that want tighter environmental enforcement. They point to the president’s call to revoke California’s authority under the Clean Air Act to set tougher mileage standards than those Trump wants, among other examples.


Trump Administration Hardens Its Attack on Climate Science

Trump Administration Hardens Its Attack on Climate Science
By Coral Davenport and Mark Landler
May 27 2019

WASHINGTON — President Trump has rolled back environmental regulations, pulled the United States out of the Paris climate accord, brushed aside dire predictions about the effects of climate change, and turned the term “global warming” into a punch line rather than a prognosis.

Now, after two years spent unraveling the policies of his predecessors, Mr. Trump and his political appointees are launching a new assault.

In the next few months, the White House will complete the rollback of the most significant federal effort to curb greenhouse-gas emissions, initiated during the Obama administration. It will expand its efforts to impose Mr. Trump’s hard-line views on other nations, building on his retreat from the Paris accord and his recent refusal to sign a communiqué to protect the rapidly melting Arctic region unless it was stripped of any references to climate change.

And, in what could be Mr. Trump’s most consequential action yet, his administration will seek to undermine the very science on which climate change policy rests.

Mr. Trump is less an ideologue than an armchair naysayer about climate change, according to people who know him. He came into office viewing agencies like the Environmental Protection Agency as bastions of what he calls the “deep state,” and his contempt for their past work on the issue is an animating factor in trying to force them to abandon key aspects of the methodology they use to try to understand the causes and consequences of a dangerously warming planet.

As a result, parts of the federal government will no longer fulfill what scientists say is one of the most urgent jobs of climate science studies: reporting on the future effects of a rapidly warming planet and presenting a picture of what the earth could look like by the end of the century if the global economy continues to emit heat-trapping carbon dioxide pollution from burning fossil fuels.

The attack on science is underway throughout the government. In the most recent example, the White House-appointed director of the United States Geological Survey, James Reilly, a former astronaut and petroleum geologist, has ordered that scientific assessments produced by that office use only computer-generated climate models that project the impact of climate change through 2040, rather than through the end of the century, as had been done previously.

Scientists say that would give a misleading picture because the biggest effects of current emissions will be felt after 2040. Models show that the planet will most likely warm at about the same rate through about 2050. From that point until the end of the century, however, the rate of warming differs significantly with an increase or decrease in carbon emissions.

The administration’s prime target has been the National Climate Assessment, produced by an interagency task force roughly every four years since 2000. Government scientists used computer-generated models in their most recent report to project that if fossil fuel emissions continue unchecked, the earth’s atmosphere could warm by as much as eight degrees Fahrenheit by the end of the century. That would lead to drastically higher sea levels, more devastating storms and droughts, crop failures, food losses and severe health consequences.

Work on the next report, which is expected to be released in 2021 or 2022, has already begun. But from now on, officials said, such worst-case scenario projections will not automatically be included in the National Climate Assessment or in some other scientific reports produced by the government.

“What we have here is a pretty blatant attempt to politicize the science — to push the science in a direction that’s consistent with their politics,” said Philip B. Duffy, the president of the Woods Hole Research Center, who served on a National Academy of Sciences panel that reviewed the government’s most recent National Climate Assessment. “It reminds me of the Soviet Union.”

In an email, James Hewitt, a spokesman for the Environmental Protection Agency, defended the proposed changes.

“The previous use of inaccurate modeling that focuses on worst-case emissions scenarios, that does not reflect real-world conditions, needs to be thoroughly re-examined and tested if such information is going to serve as the scientific foundation of nationwide decision-making now and in the future,” Mr. Hewitt said.

However, the goal of political appointees in the Trump administration is not just to change the climate assessment’s methodology, which has broad scientific consensus, but also to question its conclusions by creating a new climate review panel. That effort is led by a 79-year-old physicist who had a respected career at Princeton but has become better known in recent years for attacking the science of man-made climate change and for defending the virtues of carbon dioxide — sometimes to an awkward degree.