31 May 2009

A Terrorist Strikes in Wichita

Dr. George Tiller, a man described by an associate as "a quiet, persistent, capable visionary," was shot while attending church today in Wichita, Kansas. He was 67.

According to witnesses the killer, a white male, left the scene in a 1993 blue Ford Taurus (Kansas license plate 225 BAB). A suspect, Scott Roeder, 51, has been detained by the police.

The motive for the killing is thought to be political. Dr. George Tiller has been repeatedly threatened by terrorists in the past for performing medical procedures involving pregnancy termination many politicians have sought to ban. Recently the state of Kansas brought charges against him for allegedly violating the law in regard to getting second opinions; this apparently politically-motivated attack failed when the jury took less than an hour to acquit him on all charges. More recently terrorists attacked his clinic, causing thousands of dollars worth of damage.

Self-described "pro-life" groups, many of whom have savagely denigrated the doctor in print in the past, were quick to distance themselves from the murder. The state executive director for Kansans For Life said, "Kansans for Life deplores the murder of Dr. George Tiller ... We value life, completely deplore violence, and are shocked and very upset by what happened in Wichita today." Troy Newman of Operation Rescue observed, "We are shocked at this morning's disturbing news that Mr. Tiller was gunned down. ... We denounce vigilantism and the cowardly act that took place this morning." (Apparently Troy Newman couldn't resist getting a plug in for his cult, as he added inappropriately, "We pray for [Dr.] Tiller's family that they will find comfort and healing that can only be found in Jesus Christ.") Phill Kline, the former Kansas Attorney-General responsible for the baseless charges brought against the doctor said, "I am stunned by this lawless and violent act which must be condemned and should be met with the full force of law. We join in lifting prayer that God's grace and presence rest with Dr. Tiller's family and friends." (Another inappropriate bit of product-placement for religion, by the by.)

I personally would like to believe that this is the true face of the so-called "pro-life" movement. However, comments like the following give one pause:

here is a man who made his living off of murdering innocent children. he made his living off of undermining the value of life. with that being said, it seems like they sure are making a big deal about this kansas man dying. sorta seems more like equality to me than anything. at least dr. killer, i mean dr. tiller, had a chance to live life. unlike all of the innocent children that he robbed that from. obviously not a very convicted Bible believing man. i doubt he was involved in his church for any other reason than being able to pull a "good guy" political card.

And then there's

This guy wasn't pro-life. He was pro-choose to kill. Than again Mr. Tiller knew he was being stalked by someone, I read that on a few articles. Tragic it had to end before he repented for killing the sons and daughters of others. My heart grieves, another lost without knowing Christ, because someone thought they had the right to take it.


Tiller the Killer will not kill one more baby.

Ah, yes, naked hatred directed against anybody who would actually dare help people in need—that's the face of the "pro-life" movement I've seen and come to know and detest.

But I prefer to remember a man who "dedicated his life to providing women with high-quality health care despite frequent threats and violence," as a statement from his family put it. In the face of not just threats, but actual physical attacks (a "pro-life" terrorist shot him in an earlier attack, and his clinic was bombed) most people would have given up and gone into a safer line of work. Dr. Tiller stayed the course, fought the good fight, and ultimately paid for doing what is right with his life. He will be missed—which is a lot more than I can say for his detractors.

Sources for this piece include The Los Angeles Times, MSNBC, KSHB-TV, and The Questionable Authority.

Update: Mike Dunsford at The Questionable Authority has "A few more measured thoughts on Dr. Tiller's life, career, and death" up. He says what I was attempting to say, but he says it better. Damn, I hate it when people do that.

Update: See also entries on the subject from Evolving Thoughts (great title), Dr. Joan Bushwell's Chimpanzee Refuge ("pre-born children"? Does that make Newman a pre-dead corpse?), Adventures in Ethics and Science (raw thoughts indeed), and Greg Laden's Blog (Eleanor Smeal writes about the doctor).

28 May 2009

Brian Switek's Series on the History of Science

Brian Switek at Laelaps has done some outstanding pieces on incidents in the history of science. For my own amusement, and I hope yours as well, I'm noting some of them here.

To start with, Brian Switek offers an argument for understanding the history of science in "Who Needs History? [I do]".

I first read about the barnacle goose in a piece by Willy Ley when I was a teenager. (The piece probably appeared in his For Your Information series in Galaxy, but as I've permanently lost my collection, as well as the index I made when I was much younger, I have to rely on my aging memory alone, and I'm just not sure.) This goose was once believed to develop from barnacles, a fact that might have exempted it from the no-meat-on-Friday church prohibition, or something like that. Brian Switek writes an interesting piece ("Geese from Barnacles") on the subject, about a certain John Hill to took objection to the claim. Comments by Lars Dietz enliven the account.

Perhaps of especial interest to me, given my enthusiasm for Thomas Jefferson, is this piece on Jefferson and the mastodon. (May we hope for a companion piece some time on Jefferson and the giant ground sloth?) Jefferson of course was a man of many interests—political theory, theology, linguistics—and here we see him in his guise as a scientist.

I mentioned Nebraska Man in an earlier entry. This obscure event in the history of science involved the mis-identification of a pig tooth as a tooth of an unknown North American primate. The backstory is fascinating, and Brian Switek covers it nicely in two separate entries: "The Truth about 'Nebraska Man'," and "The 'Million Dollar Pig's-Tooth Mystery'" This is science writing at its best.

A fellow named Albert Koch may have made an extremely interesting discovery about 1839—the remains of a giant ground sloth associated with human artifacts. Of course we'll never know, thanks to Koch's Barnum-like proclivities. Read about it in "Koch's 'Mammoth' and Human Antiquity".

When did the last mammoth die? You might be surprised by this tale of "Killing the Last Mammoth".

Attempts to reconcile science with the histories narrated in the Bible have been many and varied, and I've waded through a number of them myself over the years. (I'm not sure why they fascinate me; they just do.) While not up there with Gosse's Omphalos, Isabella Duncan's 1860 Pre-Adamite Man is an interesting attempt to find a compromise that doesn't involve throwing out scripture along with the bathwater of tradition. Brian Switek reviews it here.

"Sideshow Bob Was Here" covers some 19th century human footprints carved into ancient rocks—a kind of fraud that continues till this day, alas.

One of the blog entries I lost with the death of my laptop almost a year ago was one about the fake letters attributed to Ignatius of Antioch. One of the heroes in separating the true letters from the false was the archbishop James Ussher, best remembered today for his calculation that the universe was created in 4004 BCE. This brilliant scholar deserves better, and Brian Switek gives him some acknowledgment in "Return to the Work of Ussher".

Possibly the outstanding entry in the series is "The Tragedy of Saartje Baartman", an account of a woman known as the "Hottentot Venus" who was exhibited as a sort of sideshow curiosity in early nineteenth century Europe. This is a story I knew nothing about until I read Brian Switek's piece on her. "The Sad Tale of Julia Pastrana" might be profitably read alongside this one.

I'm sure I've left out a number of great entries in this series, but let me conclude anyway with a few more miscellaneous links:

Weirdly cool: "The Father, the Son, and the Holy Goat"; "A Bad Bit of Stone"; "Devilution"; "The Problem with Shermer's Endorsement"; "The Sputnik Fable"

And here's a neat list of 19th century science books available at Google Books, including Chambers and Lyell.

Seriously, if you haven't already seen them, check these out.

Looking Around, Cautiously

Hibernation ends, and I poke my head up above ground to see if things have changed since I bedded down for the winter. Not really, I guess—George W. Bush is still president, the Republicans are still running roughshod over traditional American values, and the world continues to deteriorate. Give up.

I still don't have a reliable connection with the internet, by the way, but I guess I'm going to try to resurrect this blog, despite horrendous setbacks. Readers may remember my griping about my notes and library being in storage. I'd like to report that I've successfully recovered them and am ready to get down to some serious work—but alas, that's not true, and the news is bad. Very bad.

All my decades of work on various projects—the Dubious Documents book for one—are irretrievably lost. The same goes for the bulk of my library—my encyclopedias, reference works, and small specialized collections on subjects that interested me. My shelf of writings by the American founding fathers. All gone. I'm still frankly in a state of shock over it. Some of the older and rarer items, ironically, are relatively easily replaced, thanks to being able to download PDFs from Google Books and Archive.org. Some items I'd only recently acquired and was looking forward to enjoying when I could retrieve them are particularly galling—my 1950 edition of Max Beerbohm's A Christmas Garland, for example. And I was really looking forward to spending time with some of my old sf favorites—I had a complete collection of Galaxy and ASFs going back to 1941.

Sorry to bore you all with my problems. I'm trying to count my blessings. I still have my family, and my dog, and the remnants of my library (my Western Americana collection and my ancient religions stuff are still mainly intact, for example). But I'm having a hard time of it, and I'm not sure how I'm going to start over.

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