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Today's word on journalism

May 8, 2009

The Last WORD

The Fat Lady Sings, Off-Key, Drools

At about this time every year, like the swallows to Capistrano or the buzzards to Hinckley, Ohio, the WORD migrates to its summer musing grounds at the sanitarium —St. Mumbles Home for the Terminally Verbose.

The reason is clear, and never moreso than as this season —the WORD's 13th —peters out.

It's been a fraught year of high palaver and eye-popping transition, both good and not-so-much. An interminable presidential campaign saga finally did end, and in extraordinary and historic fashion. Meanwhile, the bottom and everything that's below the bottom fell out of the economy, with families, homes, entire industries and —of particular interest to WORDsters and the civic-minded —dozens of daily newspapers ("I don't so much mind that newspapers are dying--it's watching them commit suicide that pisses me off." --Molly Ivins). . . all evaporating. What replaces them, from the individual to the institutional to the societal? Are we looking at a future of in-depth Tweeting?

As any newsperson or firehorse knows, it's hard to turn your back on day-to-day catastrophe --we just have to look at the car wreck. But even the most deranged and driven need a rest. As philosopher Lilly Tomlin once observed, "No matter how cynical you become, it's never enough to keep up."

So this morning, as a near-frost hovered over northern Utah, the unmarked van pulled into the driveway and the gentle, soft-spoken men in the white coats rolled the WORD out of bed and into a straitjacket for the usual summer trip to St. Mumbles, where the blathering one will be assigned a hammock and fed soothing, healthy foods --like tapioca, dog biscuits and salmon --while recharging the essential muscles of cynicism, outrage, sarcasm, social engagement and high-mindedness, in preparation for the next edition.
Summer well, friends.

Speak up! Comment on the WORD at


Feedback and suggestions--printable and otherwise--always welcome. "There are no false opinions."

Making Mars a reality

By Greg Aullman

April 24, 2009 | As a boy Scott Bates was raised on a steady diet of fantastic space voyages. From “Star Wars” to “Star Trek” he could race across the stars uncovering galactic conspiracies, meeting alien races, without sacrificing the comforts of his own bed. Like many he dreamed of one day traveling at warp speed, or at least fast enough to get to the moon. The burgeoning space programs across the globe gave hope to the childhood dreams of millions. It seemed that science fiction and reality were inching closer and closer to melding into one glorious journey for mankind.

The older Bates got the more he realized that his dreams of one day working in space were fading. The chances of actually making it into space as an astronaut were going to be harder to realize than making it as a professional baseball player. The rapid improvements of the early space race seemed to change to a stale questioning of the use of having a space program at all. The journey to the moon would slump from the beginning of our hopes of inter-galactic travel to one of the few bright spots.

Ironically enough, moving farther away from the space needle of Seattle and nearer to the peaks of the Rocky Mountains would bring Utah State University professor Dr. Bates closer to his boyhood dreams than he thought possible.

With warp speed still an undiscovered commodity, and the power of hypothetical worm holes eluding scientists, the harsh realities of space travel set in. While traveling to other galaxies or solar systems is recognized as a challenge that will likely continue to surpass current technological capabilities, even the closer voyages are posing challenges that scientists seek to account and plan for. Imagine being stuck with a roommate you hate. Imagine being homesick and yet having positively no chance of hastening your return to not only home, but the only planet you have ever known. Imagine traveling thousands of miles into space and suddenly realizing that you may suffer from claustrophobia.

Scientists realize that space travel requires not only the proper physical technologies to ensure survival in the lifeless environments encountered but also humans to operate those technologies. These humans are not, and cannot be treated like the machines they work on because if they snap, then billions of dollars and years of planning could disappear in one gigantic fireball.

The journey Bates took towards space studies began in his words as, “Accidental I went to Colorado State for the social program, which is actually an environmental and social program.”

After earning his bachelor’s from Whitman College, and his master’s at Western Washington University, Bates completed his studies by earning his doctorate in experimental psychology.

Experimental psychology is a research-study-based approach to understanding or explaining human behavior. Experimental psychology could be compared to applied psychology, which seeks to turn acquired knowledge onto solving real-world problems, or to clinical psychology which aims to treat mental illnesses.

Bates’ schooling helped him realize that he had an affinity for the normally despised subject of statistics. Working on statistics is one of the things that USU assistant professor Michael Twohig says sets him apart as a researcher. Bates spent a full year of his collegiate studies doing statistics. Most students hope to get through statistics as soon as possible or find courses that replace the meticulous learning required. Bates’ interest in statistics may be tied to his hobby of playing fantasy baseball. For years he would delve deep into the numbers of earned-run average (ERA), on base average (OBA), slugging average (SLG) and even the mythical OPS (OBA plus SLG). His hobby helped him keep up with numbers as his learning to balance injuries, trades and all-star personalities to build powerhouse fantasy teams sharpened his statistic skills for his later studies in deviance prevention and eventually space research.

Going to Colorado State ended up having more benefits than just learning the trade that would bring him closer to his goals. While there he would meet his wife and fellow Utah State University assistant professor Melanie M. Domenech Rodriguez. Bates and his wife spend at least part of their time working in preventative research, in addition to their teaching and other research studies they are kept busy raising two young daughters.

USU would finally provide Bates the chance to merge his skills with his interests and education. The Space Dynamics Lab (SDL) which is tied to NASA since the Electro-Dynamics Laboratories (EDL) was built on the USU campus in 1959. Originally the Space Dynamics Lab was two separate labs, the EDL located at USU and the Upper Air Research Laboratory (UARL) based at the University of Utah. In 1970 the UARL relocated to USU’s campus, and in 1982 the two were joined together to create the Space Dynamics Lab. In addition to the work the SDL has done with NASA, they have also collaborated on projects with the Russian Ministry of Defense, which led to the eventual project currently being researched, the ground-breaking 500-day Mars mission.

The Mars mission posed the need for a mentally stable environment in which astronauts would be able to not only go to Mars, but endure the rest of the trip back home.

Bates said he was approached and asked to study the, “Potential non-nutritive psychological benefits to growing plants.” He initially resisted saying that he didn’t know anything about the topic. The powers that be responded that nobody knows anything about plants in space, and his job would essentially be to “Assess if there is a benefit and what that benefit would be.” He was told that if he did the studies he would quickly become the world expert.

Faced with a monumental task Bates began interviewing current and former astronauts hoping to uncover some clue as to what they needed. Did plant color matter? Does size matter? He was told that for food it was estimated the astronauts would be able to get one salad roughly every 30 days. His major research question right now is do astronauts seek out the plants for more than just watering or care reasons?

Bates has some tips for hoping to follow in his footsteps, “I don’t think you can set out and intend to do NASA.” He felt that the field of environmental psychology would continue to grow because, “We’ve messed up our planet deeply.” He notes the shift in societal attitudes about the climate and in global concerns regarding the health of our planet and how that will affect us. He also notes that most environmental psychologists do not identify themselves as such until something pushes them in that direction. Even Bates would not identify himself as an environmental psychologist until he began his work on the space mission. Environmental psychology is recognized under the American Psychological Association (APA) accreditation and has its own division of the APA. According to the website, division 34, known better as population and environmental psychology, has the statement of, “Population and Environmental Psychology members conduct research and advance theory to improve interactions between human behavior and environment and population.”

Heeding Bates advise is important. We don’t always know the path that our future will take us. Bates parlayed his love of helping others into a career that put him in a position to fulfill his dream. He has excelled in his teaching career, earning the Early Career Teaching Excellence Award from the APA, a nomination for Carnegie Professor of the Year, teacher of the year for the Emma Eccles Jones college of Education and Human Services, and a finalist for the Robins Award for USU professor of the year. Bates has shown that if you are willing to work at what you do, or as Confucius said, “Wheresoever you go, go with all your heart,” then you will achieve even those dreams written off years ago.

Bates still sits in awe at the various meetings that he attends, “There is a meeting where someone finally realizes that they made it, and that (the Johnson Space Center) was it.”

In retrospect Dr. Bates said, “If I could go back and tell my 12-year-old self what I was doing now, my head would explode.”



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