Johns Hopkins Magazine -- June 1999
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JUNE 1999

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An urgent need for language guides
On the "adepti" of today
Another way to foil tarnish
A look back at Hopkins postdocs
More insights on millennial matters
Irritated by vulgarity

An urgent need for language guides

In explaining why Japanese is the most difficult language to learn ("Degrees of Difficulty," February 1999), linguist Richard Brecht notes that the Japanese written code is different from the spoken code. I agree 100 percent, even though my native tongue is Japanese.

One thing that makes the situation worse is the lack of Japanese textbooks on reading and writing designed for English-speaking people. True, there are numerous "conversational" materials available, but these do not help students who really want to learn the language and appreciate its deep cultural background. My wife, who is teaching Japanese for honors students at a local high school, tells me about her urgent need for a proper textbook written for English-speaking people--something beyond tourists' or businessmen's guides.
Ted Morishige
Edmond, OK

On the "adepti" of today

As a medical school alumnus and active surgeon for nearly 40 years, I thoroughly agree with John Cameron's assessment that "the most difficult surgical procedure" to perform is a pancreati-coduodenectomy. The pancreas--being wedged deeply at the crossroads of nearly all vital organs and vascular systems--is not only difficult to resect, but precise reconstruction of multiple interrupted structures with corrosive contents is also necessary.

In contrast, I found your article "All that Glitters..." [February 1999] obtusely inappropriate. Though I admire Lawrence Principe's painstaking research effort, I am not in the least surprised by his findings about Boyle. Boyle's greatness is not that he was a pristine scientist ab ovo, ignorant of the state of the art around him, but rather that he (as should be expected from an inquisitive mind) was deeply engaged in exploring and testing the alleged claims of alchemy, as a true scientist should, to determine their merits. Despite this deep involvement--or precisely because of it--Boyle managed to rise above the contemporary wisdom.

Your article then asks, "How could anyone, year after year, continue to believe such stories when no one...could reproduce the alleged results?" To answer this question, senior writer Dale Keiger and Lawrence Principe need not look back into the "dark ages" to find such boundless credulity. They merely need to study any of the many cults and flourishing belief systems operating successfully today. The "adepti" of today are not sequestered in the cloak of underworldly mystery, but rather they peddle their unsubstantiated claims prominently in countless magazines and books, on lecture tours, and on popular national television programs.

Examples abound. The anecdotal claims of a burgeoning array of alternative medical beliefs, preached by charismatic gurus, are rising in popularity; their feel-good messages threaten to displace the tested benefits that our current evidence-based medicine can offer. UFO-related beliefs in alien spacecraft, alien abductions, alien autopsy, and most recently alien implants, are generated by zealous promoters grinding out best-selling books read by mounting numbers of trusting believers, and all of it is based on unsupported anecdotal accounts, without a shred of hard scientific evidence. Astrology and psychic call-in programs, claims of miracles and unexplained mysteries, and other such fringe claims are all gaining in popularity.
J.A. Bauer Jr. (MD '56)
Islamorada, FL

Another way to foil tarnish

In regard to " Foiling tarnish" (April 1999), I have found it easier as follows: Place silver items on a layer of aluminum foil on the bottom of a glass baking dish, and add one tablespoon of washing soda (I have heard that baking soda is effective but haven't tried it). Next, bring to a boil enough water to cover silver and pour into dish. Stir soda into solution and shortly thereafter the silver is clean. If necessary, pour off solution and repeat soda and boiling water. The aluminum foil merely needs to touch every item to clean it.
Richard Turk (MD '48)
Lafayette, CA

A look back at Hopkins postdocs

Joanne P. Cavanaugh's article, " The Postdoc's Plight"(February 1999), gives a gloomy picture of postdoctoral education at Hopkins, which, based on my experience of about 50 years of participating in training postdocs, is an incomplete portrayal. Postdocs are a heterogeneous group. Some history may provide perspective.

In 1963 Hopkins had more postdocs per total student body than any other U.S. institution, and a greater absolute number of postdocs than any other except Harvard and Michigan. With some concern about how best to handle this newly recognized breed of university attendee, Hopkins sent a questionnaire in 1963 to 40 institutions of higher learning, concerning postdoctoral education. Thirty-six responded. Most, but not all, regarded postdocs as students, not as faculty. Usually postdocs were not expected to teach or to counsel, but they received some faculty privileges. Some were required to pay tuition. Many were hired by a faculty member to perform some specified research service. There was great variation as to the amount of stipend; often there was none. Where there was a stipend, it rarely came from the institution, but from an extramural grant.

In 1964 Hopkins president Milton S. Eisenhower appointed a long-range planning committee; I chaired the subcommittee on postdoctoral education. Our subcommittee began by making its own survey of Hopkins departments' attitudes about postdocs. It had been suggested [by some at Hopkins] that because faculty devote uncompensated time to training postdocs, postdocs be charged tuition (then $1,800 a year).

But our report pointed out: "Balanced against the cost of the post-doctoral fellow to the University are the contributions the post-doctoral fellow makes directly to the University....The post-doctoral fellow, while he is learning by his research, contributes to the research productivity of the faculty, and gets on-the-job training as a teacher of predoctoral students [and of junior postdocs]."

We predicted that demand for postdoctoral training would increase dramatically over the next decades--as the scope and depth of human knowledge increased--and listed six items as the University's responsibility to postdoctoral fellows. All of them were included in our final, not unanimous, recommendation:

"In recognition of the problems and opportunities presented in this report, it is recommended that The Johns Hopkins University establish a School of Post-doctoral Studies. We are now at the stage with respect to post-doctoral education that the United States was with respect to a pre-doctoral education when the University was founded. Such a school should attract financial support on the merits of its own program.

"High standards of selection should be established. The specific criteria should remain in the hands of the departments, but the School itself should stress high standards and may even reserve the right to recommend rejection of an applicant.

"Most of the fellow's education should remain on the present apprenticeship or tutorial basis, but there should be opportunities to remedy formal deficiencies and to supplement the training with whatever course-work is desired.

"Criteria should be established for satisfactory performance during the tenure of the fellowship, and satisfactory completion of the fellowship should be given formal recognition.

"A range of stipends should be established for post-doctoral fellows.

"A tuition fee should be set. [On this issue the committee was most sharply divided.] After a survey of financial resources, the School should decide on ways and means of handling cases in which there is no third-party provision for meeting tuition costs.

"The School should assist fellows in matters of housing, visas, health insurance, and so on, and the School should help in placing the fellow in the best position on satisfactory completion of the training.

"The School should coordinate post-doctoral programs and, in general, assist in any way it can in providing the most stimulating intellectual environment.

"The School should cooperate with other divisions of the University in providing post-doctoral fellows the proper teaching opportunities."

Although 34 years ago some of our committee did not agree with our recommending a School of Postdoctoral Studies (on the grounds "that it has no really important function, that it omens more paper work for the faculty, that it may interfere with faculty freedom"), your article suggests that our proposal should be dusted off and re-examined.
Kenneth Jeiler, MD
Professor emeritus of medicine and of physiology

More insight on millennial matters

Senior writer Dale Keiger's "Inventing the Millennium" (February 1999) was most interesting and entertaining. Obviously the year 2000 completes the 20th century A.D. for the simple reason that the year 100 completed the first century A.D. He is also on target, citing Hopkins French professor Stephen Nichols, in stating that the "dread of the year 1000" in Western Europe in the last years of the 10th century was a 19th-century invention lacking any historical basis in fact.

It is true, as Keiger points out, that The Venerable Bede (ca. 673-735) of the Benedictine monastery at Jarrow in Northumbria, provided the example for the calculation of years from the birth of Jesus Christ. Among Bede's numerous scholarly works were two that should be cited in this connection. One was Concerning the Computation of Times (725), and the second was his justly famous Ecclesiastical History of the English People (completed in 731). Copies of both of these works soon enjoyed wide circulation among the cathedral and monastic libraries of Western Europe.

However, due credit should also be given to Bede's near-contemporary Northumbrian scholar, Wilfrid of Lindisfarne, Bishop of York (634-709). When, in 664, Edwin, king of Northumbria, summoned a Council at Whitby to resolve the differences between the proponents of Celtic Christian practices and those who defended the more recent customs introduced from Rome by Augustine and his successors, Wilfrid successfully defended Roman practice--including that involving the proper annual celebration of the Easter Feast. He cited the Easter Tables of Dionysus Exiguus.

In 525 Pope John I had assigned Dionysus, abbot of a monastery at Rome and a noted astronomer-mathematician, the complex task of computing Easter days for the ensuing century. His completed Tables began with "the year of our Lord's Incarnation DXXXII" i.e., A.D. 532. Until this time the solar year had either been reckoned from the legendary date for the founding of Rome (735 B.C.) or from the first year of the reign of the Emperor Diocletian (A.D. 284).

Although most modern biblical scholars believe the birth of Christ actually occurred [earlier than had been believed], in the time-frame 6 to 4 B.C., the very first year of what is now often called "The Common Era" was the year 1 A.D. as calculated by Dionysus.
Franklin M. Wright (PhD '59)
Memphis, TN

Irritated by vulgarity

In his "Morality Tales" in the April issue, Michael Rosenbloom '00 says of a tutee, "The left side of her face is twisted into a scowl. She looks p----d." (The blanks are mine.)

How did the vulgar word for "urinated" take on the meaning of "extremely irritated" and then become acceptable in some of the media, including a number of fine magazines such as Johns Hopkins?

Perhaps the answer, in part, is this: Since Americans often fail to make the "v" sound distinctly just before making the "d" sound in the same syllable, "peeved" is often heard as "peed." And if irritated is "peed," then extremely irritated is ... you know what.
Henry Harlan (MA '54)
Churchville, MD