Boston Globe Archives

November 2, 2002

Lonely Planet

THERE ARE ABOUT 100 billion galaxies in the observable universe, each with hundreds of billions of stars. What are the chances that there's any interesting life out there?

In 1961, astronomer Frank Drake proposed a simple answer: We can assume that some stars have planets, some planets host single-celled life forms, some of those life forms survive to develop intelligence, and some intelligent beings leave an electromagnetic trace before they expire.

Carl Sagan once estimated that in the Milky Way alone there must be over a million detectable civilizations. Today, Drake sticks to his original estimate of 10,000.

Peter Ward is sick of these loose overestimates. ''You can't turn on the TV without seeing aliens,'' the co-author of ''Rare Earth: Why Complex Life is Uncommon in the Universe'' (Copernicus Books, 2000) complained to a Cambridge auditorium packed withastronomers, UFO enthusiasts, and other onlookers last week. Ward was facing off against Harvard paleontologist Charles Marshall at a debate hosted by the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics. In 1996, Ward and Marshall worked together on a paper arguing that a major drop in sea level, in addition to the infamous asteroid, had wiped out the dinosaurs. But when it comes to the distribution of intelligent life in the universe, they couldn't agree less.

"Maybe I shouldn't count myself as intelligent life," quipped Ward, a professor of geology at the University of Washington. ''The first stop on my book tour was a science fiction convention. A little girl told me I was the devil for taking the aliens away.'' The Australia-born Marshall, for his part, retains the taste for discovery that propelled him from childhood dino-mania to a career in evolutionary biology. ''Life is capable of more trajectories than physics or astronomy might predict,'' he said. ''I don't know if life is teeming out there. But it could be.''

Ward and Marshall agree that the universe is full of microbes. Recent studies have shown that interstellar clouds can generate amino acids, the building blocks of proteins. Meteors falling to earth usually contain a variety of organic compounds. And cells can survive under extremes of temperature, pressure, and pH, and may be able to travel from planet to planet on comets.

But to flourish, even simple life needs liquid water, and this limits it to planets in the habitable zone: far enough from a star not to be boiling, but close enough not to be freezing. And to get complex life - anything more intricate than a flatworm - it seems that you need, first of all, a decent atmosphere.

Here on Earth, it took 3 billion years of steady temperatures to build up enough oxygen to support animals. The fact that our planet lies in a habitable zone does not itself guarantee such steadiness. Ward thinks that plate tectonics also do us a great service: When one plate slides under another, an updraft of magma brings carbon dioxide to the surface, eventually warming up the atmosphere through the greenhouse effect. But once the atmosphere gets warmer, excess carbon dioxide is removed by the calcium in the magma, and it gets cooler again. ''For billions of years, we've been bouncing around in a very fine temperature range because of the thermostat of plate tectonics,'' he said. ''How common is that in the universe? We don't know.''

To survive long enough to evolve any complexity, Ward went on, life must also avoid being destroyed by space debris. Earth is shielded by Jupiter's gravitational field, which slows down incoming comets. But in most solar systems, a Jupiter-sized planet has such an erratic orbit that it will eventually fling any nearby planet away from the star. We may be uniquely lucky to live in such a safe neighborhood.

Marshall is unimpressed by scenarios that emphasize life's fragility. "The question is, how hard is it to sterilize a planet?" he asked. In the total devastation following the Mount Saint Helens eruption, biologists were staggered to find plants protected by animals that fell on them. Even at Hiroshima, a few people survived at close range to the explosion. ''We should expect such surprises,'' said Marshall. ''Life will find a way.''

Life also makes its own way. Take the Cambrian explosion of 445 million years ago, when a host of scuttling sea creatures burst into a world that hadn't seen much more than worms. What accounts for such rapid evolutionary change? ''If you have a bunch of plant life, and someone is able to develop a few genes for jaws, then everyone had better watch out,'' said Marshall. It's no surprise that eyes and legs, crucial for hiding from predators, appeared at the same time. ''With an increase in selective pressures, complexity is bound to arise. You don't need special conditions.''

But Peter Ward was not convinced. ''If complexity is inevitable, then what was going on for the three billion years between the first cell and the Cambrian explosion?'' Just a slow and steady buildup of oxygen due to the presence of simple life-forms and liquid water. ''Without the thermostat of plate tectonics, the right conditions just don't last very long,'' he said.

Of course, there may be more to life than what we can guess now. ''We have some idea of what conditions were necessary for us to evolve,'' Marshall said, ''but we don't know if they're the only possible ones.'' While Ward prefers to limit the discussion to life as we know it - carbon-based organisms with DNA - Marshall thinks we should expect the unexpected.

Some audience members found this approach a bit too vague. ''One data point is better than none,'' one said. ''Can you quantify the problem?''

Many scientists are working on it. Astrobiology, defined broadly as the study of life in the universe, is now serious science. NASA and the National Science Foundation invest tens of millions of dollars every year in it. Astronomers search for new planets, geologists prospect for evidence of water on already known planets, and biochemists piece together the origins of life on earth. Still, it's mostly theory for now. And hitchhiking to the nearest star still takes 300,000 years.

''The fact that neither of us has any numbers, shows that we're going on next to nothing,'' said Marshall. ''But my sense of faith is that the universe is so unimaginably rich that it will turn out that life is common, and that scientific reasoning, while powerful, can lock us into a narrow view of what is possible.''

May 13, 2003

It Takes Four


Here's a problem Lewis Carroll enjoyed posing to kids like Alice: how many colors do you need to fill in any map so that neighboring countries are always colored differently?

It sounds simple enough. But when a Victorian law student first posed the question, guessing that it could be done with a mere four colors, logician Augustus De Morgan was stumped. While no one could devise a map that required more, a proof that every map requires only four colors proved remarkably elusive. Mapmakers didn't care, but problem-solvers were obsessed for decades, including the Bishop of London, a Kentucky colonel, and a California traffic cop. The question's very intractability has inspired innovations in computing and network theory, but some say it still has no satisfying solution.

Oxford professor Robin Wilson's Four Colors Suffice: How the Map Problem was Solved (Princeton: 2003) presents the colorful history of this conjecture, with an unassuming lucidity that will appeal to the mathematical novice. It's thrilling to see great mathematicians fall for seductively simple proofs, then stumble on equally simple counter-examples. Or swallow their pride: after telling his class that the problem had been wasted on third-rate minds, the great number-theorist Herman Minkowski took weeks at the blackboard trying to solve it, finally admitting, "Heaven is angered by my arrogance; my proof is also defective."

The first dead-end occurred shortly after the problem was first posed in 1852. De Morgan became obsessed with his initial insight that in any group of four regions, each bordering every other, one region must be completely enclosed by the others, and thus safe from forcing any colors outside the group. Though undeniably true, this was a false start: looking at single groups of four, one at a time, fails to take into account the myriad ways these groups might interact in ways that force the use of more colors.

The next failure, which convinced mathematicians worldwide for over a decade, actually took giant steps in the right direction. Cambridge mathematician Arthur Cayley revived the problem in 1878 and suggested a totally new approach: if you assume there exist some maps that need more than four colors, and of those you take only the ones that have as few regions in them as possible, then you'll have a manageable but complete set of counter-examples on your hands. (Wilson calls these the "minimal criminals.") If you can show that none of these counter-examples can possibly exist, then you've shown that four colors suffice. The only problem is, there are lots of them.

London barrister and amateur mathematician Alfred Bray Kempe ran with this approach, devising an elegant method that claimed to cleanly dispatch with all possible counter-examples. He put one region after another at the center of a counter-example-first a two-sided shape, then a triangle, square and pentagon-then ruled them out by listing all the possible chains of regions that could branch off from them. The proof was widely accepted, and Kempe was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society, and even knighted.

But in 1890, Percy Heawood, an Oxford eccentric known for his immense mustache and flowing cape, produced a map that showed that one of Kempe's chains didn't work. Even as he disgraced Kempe, however, Heawood demonstrated the lasting value of his contribution, giving a full Kempe-style proof that five colors suffice. (As a result of Heawood's later work, we now know that any map drawn on a doughnut requires no more than seven colors, not counting sprinkles. "There are, of course, additional reasons why one seldom encounters a map of the United States on one's doughnut," mused novelist Tom Robbins.)

The modern story picks up in 1948, when German geometer Heinrich Heesch realized that if he could find a master set of patterns that can't appear in a minimal criminal, he would rule out all possible counter-examples and have a proof. But finding these patterns was really hard, and there were thousands of them.

Enter the computer. In 1976, after 2000 machine-hours at the University of Illinois, Kenneth Appel and Wolfgang Haken found every single one, turning out the first famous computer-aided proof. Some claimed this was not a proof, since it cannot be verified in detail by a human being. By admitting computer proofs into the canon, writes Robin Wilson, math was "in danger of becoming an empirical science, as fallible as physics." Far from a feat of pure reasoning, the answer appeared to some as a monstrous coincidence.

There's an unwritten law as old as math itself: proof comes with understanding. But Appel and Hanken's proof, while almost certainly valid, doesn't clear anything up. Math is changing because of proofs like theirs: Computer jocks like Stephen Wolfram insist that math needs to get beyond its infatuation with axioms, while string theorists say their results just can't wait for rigorous proof. And strangely, mathematicians are even starting to teach machines to prove theorems on their own. So maybe some day computers will explain why four colors are enough, in terms we can understand.

August 24, 2003

Are All Elections Chaotic?


WITH 135 NAMES on the ballot, the confusions of the California recall election may make Florida's stray butterfly ballots look like kindergarten chaos theory.

Or so says Donald Saari, a mathematician at the University of California, Irvine, who claims to list all possible "election paradoxes'' in a slim, accessible volume called "Chaotic Elections!'' (AMS, 2001). According to Saari, we should start to worry about electoral fairness any time a winner fails to obtain a majority of votes - which seems likely in the crowded Golden State race.

Saari sees the potential for "chaos'' in even the simplest election procedures. Take the standard plurality vote, where each voter picks one candidate and the candidate with the most votes wins. Because this method allows voters to name only their first choice, it is biased in favor of what Saari calls "love-him-or-hate-him'' candidates, who may be preferred by a large minority but rank dead last with a clear majority. This likely describes Pat Buchanan when he beat Bob Dole in the 1996 New Hampshire Republican primary, and even Abraham Lincoln when he scraped by Stephen Douglas in 1860, says Saari. It also may describe Arnold Schwarzenegger.

Back in 1770, French mathematician Jean Charles de Borda proposed what he thought was a fairer system. Under the "Borda count,'' voters rank all candidates, who are then assigned points based on those rankings. (A few bodies - including the Cambridge City Council and the governments of Ireland and Australia - still use this method.) But even under this system, outcomes depend on how voters' preferences are weighted.

In 1963, Stanford economist Kenneth Arrow proposed that a problem-free election must meet a few simple conditions. For example, if A ranks ahead of B, and some voters alter their ballots in A's favor, A should still rank ahead of B. Moreover, A coming out ahead of B should have nothing to do with voter preferences for C. But Arrow famously showed that the only voting procedure to meet such conditions was an election with only one voter - a dictatorship, in short. In a democracy, it seemed, elections were inherently chaotic.

By using simple geometrical models, Saari concludes that the Borda count best approximates the will of the people. But California law, he laments, requires the "procedural terrorism'' of a plurality recall. "It remains within the realm of possibility that California could inadvertently elect a porn queen, or an unqualified candidate with an interesting-sounding name,'' he says.

The fact that California will hold two independent votes at once - should the governor be recalled? if so, who should replace him? - adds further wrinkles. While Gov. Gray Davis needs a majority to stay in office, Saari points out, he could be ousted by someone claiming as little as 5% of the vote. "The likelihood that half of the voters will approve the outcome is next to zero,'' he says. "Indeed, the likelihood that even 20% of the voters will approve of both outcomes could be very small.''

At least this is not a new problem for California: In 1990, when there were 28 propositions on the ballot, Saari claims that not a single voter voted the same way the state did as a whole.

November 30, 2003

Stars and Signs Forever

Every day, tens of millions of Americans read their horoscopes.

The predictions of love and wealth are, if not reassuring, at least diverting. The personality profiles -- based on the division of the night sky into 12 houses, each carrying a myth-laden zodiac sign -- offer food for thought. And the compatibility advice -- based on the relationship between one's birth sign and various planets -- may serve as a kind of low-cost, low-yield therapy.

But in an age awash with supposedly useful information -- market forecasts, political polls, gene discoveries -- how many really take their horoscopes seriously? Has the predictive power of modern science exposed astrology as a hoax? And if so, have we simply moved on to other dubious forms of divination?

In his new book, "The Secrets of the Vaulted Sky: Astrology and the Art of Prediction" (Harcourt), writer David Berlinski notes that until the time of Isaac Newton, many great astronomers were also astrologers, and astrology contributed decisively to the development of our ideas about the physical universe. And old habits die hard: Berlinski sees traces of astrology -- which he defines in an interview as a vast scheme of correlation between distant objects and human circumstances, aimed at assessing characters and predicting events -- alive and well in molecular biology and other branches of modern science.

With a doctorate in philosophy from Princeton and several lyrical tracts on subjects such as calculus and algorithms to his credit, Berlinski might not be the sort of author you'd expect to find in the New Age section. His latest work, co-researched with his son Mischa, is his first foray into the occult. In a collection of intellectual portraits organized by astrological sign, Berlinski returns often to an ongoing debate among astrologers and their followers: Do the heavens directly influence human behavior, or just give us hints that allow us to predict it better? In other words, are the stars causes or signs?

. . .

The story of astrology goes back at least as far as the seventh century BC, when the ancient Babylonians, cursed with capricious weather and fickle rulers, developed a computational approach to astronomy that proved superior to ancient Greek methods. They "obsessively scanned the skies -- just as people in a social setting scan one another's faces -- to find out what the gods intended," writes Berlinski. Their forecasts were specific -- "If an eclipse occurs during the morning watch, a high-level official will seize the land," or "If Nergal approaches the Scorpion, there will be a breach in the palace of the Prince," for example -- but the logic behind them remains obscure.

Through the high Muslim renaissance of the 13th century, Berlinski notes, astrologers often played the political adviser, fueling intrigues and plots with strategic predictions. Meanwhile, their less fortunate colleagues worked the streets, offering all sorts of advice to passersby for a small fee. An ancient Roman astrologer might act as physician, private eye, and sexual counselor, and offer to help locate a lost object or two. Many would even inform their clients about the timing and circumstances of their deaths: The second-century seer Vettius Valens predicted that when Mars entered Cancer, a "wet" sign, one man would drown in bilge water and another would burn to death in a bath.

From the beginning, astronomy and astrology were intertwined. Ptolemy -- the Alexandrian astronomer whose geocentric model of the universe reigned for 15 centuries -- also wrote the "Tetrabiblos," a foundational astrological handbook still in use today. He saw the two disciplines as parts of a whole: Astronomical calculations tell us where the planets and stars will be, and astrological inferences tell us how their positions will affect human fortunes. Although a theorist at heart, Ptolemy did offer some disturbingly concrete predictions: Children born under an animal sign when Mars and Saturn are centered, for example, "will not even belong to the human race."

In exchange for the raw data they needed, astrologers often helped astronomers through tough financial times. And plenty of astronomers great and small remained solvent by drawing up charts and interpreting them for hire. German astronomer Johannes Kepler, who helped pioneer the notion that the earth was in revolution around the sun, was known for the accuracy of the forecasts in his almanac. According to Berlinski, Kepler was also a "skeptical but passionate astrologer" who dismissed the zodiac and the system of houses, but insisted that the celestial alignment at the moment of birth could affect individual human affairs by means of "rays falling to the earth."

Over the years, Kepler stubbornly tried to bring a measure of geometrical rigor to astrology. In his "Mysterium Cosmographicum" (1596), Kepler matched each planet's orbit with a solid: Saturn occupying the cube, for example, Mars the dodecahedron, Mercury the octahedron, and so on. He then mined this geometrical scheme for astrological insight, claiming that planets with few faces are calm and steady, while planets with triangular faces are united with one another in friendship. Berlinski believes that Newton's later conception of planetary motion centered on the sun, underwritten by an elegant mathematical description of the unseen force of gravity, may owe something to Kepler's phantom solids. (Perhaps Kepler's theory is appropriate for a scientist who, when he cast his own horoscope as a young man, found Mercury in the seventh house, a sure sign of playfulness.)

Owen Gingerich, research professor of astronomy and history of science at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, describes Kepler as "the astrologer who killed astrology." Rising faith in mathematical physics was bad news for all kinds of divination. In 1680, London was thronged with astrologers whose sumptuous banquets Berlinski recounts with relish. By 1720 they were all but forced out of business by a big new idea -- that the universe was nothing but an enormous machine running according to impersonal laws.

But astrology has survived into the 20th century, Berlinski writes, and not just in the fortune teller's parlor and the supermarket magazine racks. Indeed, some have attempted to validate ancient celestial wisdom with contemporary methods. Starting in 1955, French statistician Michel Gauquelin announced there was a linkage between the planetary signs and individuals' choice of profession. An avid tennis player, Gauquelin spent decades trying to show that sports champions are more likely to be born when Mars is ascendant -- in one study he charted 16,756 people who were born in around the same time and place as 303 star athletes. The so-called "Mars effect" was undeniable but quite weak. Gauquelin took his own life in 1991, his many skeptics unconvinced.

. . .

Berlinski calls today's pop horoscopes "sheer nonsense." But he sees traces of the ancient astrological advisers in present-day figures such as the pollster, the therapist, the market analyst -- and especially the molecular biologist. While biologists have given a convincing account of how DNA makes proteins, he argued recently in The Weekly Standard, they are guilty of "magical thinking" when they presume to explain a living organism and its actions in terms of genes, which may have about as much to do with human behavior as the celestial houses. (Berlinski has recently cast a skeptical eye on Darwinism as well, arguing that natural selection may not be able to explain the intricacies of the mammalian eye, for example.) Like the astrologers, the biologists believe that human destiny is "under the control of a system of inaccessible objects that exert influence in ways we do not understand," he says. Is this not a form of superstition?

Berkeley neurobiology professor and Nobel laureate Donald Glaser counters that serious molecular biologists do not reduce behavior to the influence of genes. They also consider the importance of growth in the womb, learning, random fluctuations, and other factors. "We're working on it, but know we don't understand it," he says. Glaser sharply distinguishes astrologers from biologists: Unlike star-charters, Glaser says, scientists must discard hypotheses whose predictions fail.

But for Berlinski, it's the very idea of knowing the future that raises difficulties. On the one hand, if we accept a Newtonian world that can be explained by mathematical physics, we are locked into a universe where effects follow inexorably on causes, and, in exchange for unlimited powers of accurate prediction, we ultimately relinquish our free will. On the other hand, if we assume people with perfect information about the present make free choices on the basis of that information, the future becomes a "random walk" -- like price fluctuations in the stock market -- and essentially unpredictable.

In other words: Look up, and the vast law-abiding cosmos seems transparent but rather chilly; look around, and the bustling marketplace seems warm but all too hazy.

Luckily for the horoscope-writers, though, the art of prediction is in no danger of dying out. "The wish to believe that the future can be foretold is as strong and as ineradicable as the wish to believe that love will last," says Berlinski. "And probably about as well-based."

December 30, 2003

Solving the Poincaré Conjecture

BERKELEY, Calif. - A reclusive Russian mathematician appears to have answered a question that has stumped mathematicians for more than a century.

After a decade of isolation in St. Petersburg, over the last year Grigory Perelman posted a few papers to an online archive. Although he has no known plans to publish them, his work has sent shock waves through what is usually a quiet field.

At two conferences held during the last two weeks in California, a range of specialists scrutinized Perelman's work, trying to grasp all the details and look for potential flaws.

If Perelman really has proved the so-called Poincare Conjecture, as many believe he has, he will become known as one of the great mathematicians of the 21st century and will be first in line for a $1 million prize offered by the Clay Mathematics Institute in Cambridge.

Colleagues say Perelman, who did not attend the California conferences and did not respond to a request for comment, couldn't care less about the money, and doesn't want the attention. Known for his single-minded devotion to research, he seldom appears in public; he answers e-mails from mathematicians, but no one else.

"What mathematicians enjoy is the chase of really difficult problems," said Hyam Rubinstein, a mathematician who came from Australia to attend meetings at the Mathematical Sciences Research Institute in Berkeley and the American Institute of Mathematics in Palo Alto, Calif., hoping to better understand Perelman's solution. "This problem is like the Mount Everest of math conjectures, so everyone wants to be the first to climb it."

The Poincare Conjecture, named after the Frenchman who proposed it in 1904, is the question that essentially founded the field of topology, the "rubber-sheet geometry" that looks at the properties of surfaces that don't change no matter how much you stretch or bend them.

To solve it, one would have to prove something that no one seriously doubts: that, just as there is only one way to bend a two-dimensional plane into a shape without holes - the sphere - there is likewise only one way to bend three-dimensional space into a shape that has no holes. Though abstract, the conjecture has powerful practical implications: Solve it and you may be able to describe the shape of the universe.

Dozens of the best mathematicians of the last century tried with all kinds of approaches to solve the conjecture. Some thought they had it for months, even years, but counter-examples and flaws just kept springing up. Simply-stated but elusive to prove - like Fermat's Last Theorem - this conjecture has spurred the development of whole branches of mathematics.

A decade ago, after some work in the United States that colleagues described as "brilliant," Perelman gave up a promising career to work in seclusion in St. Petersburg. Although he appears occasionally, most recently for lectures at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and several other US schools last spring, he keeps a very low profile.

Even in mathematical circles, surprisingly little is known about him, and those who know him often don't want to speak publicly about his work.

At any rate, he seems to have used his time alone wisely. While working out the Poincare Conjecture, Perelman also seems to have established a much stronger result, one that could change many branches of mathematics. Called the "Geometrization Conjecture," it is a far-reaching claim that joins topology and geometry, by stating that all space-like structures can be divided into parts, each of which can be described by one of three kinds of simple geometric models. Like a similar result for surfaces proved a century ago, this would have profound consequences in almost all areas of mathematics.

As the foundation for his proof, Perelman used a method called Ricci flow, invented in the mid-1980s by Columbia University mathematician Richard Hamilton, which breaks a surface into parts and smooths these parts out, making them easier to understand and classify.

Although some mathematicians find it disturbing that Poincare's simple question could have such a complicated answer, Hamilton is not worried. After so many failed proofs, he said, "no one expected it to be easy."

Hamilton calls Perelman's work original and powerful - and is now running a seminar at Columbia devoted to checking Perelman's proof in all its detail.

If the proof is vetted, the Clay Mathematics Institute may face a difficult choice. Its rules state that any solution must be published two years before being considered for the $1 million prize. Perelman's work remains unpublished and he appears indifferent to the money. Hamilton, on the other hand, did the foundational work on which the proof is based - but that was over a decade ago. And, as with any major finding, many people have contributed in some degree.

Huge financial prizes raise the stakes for assigning credit for major proofs like this one. For the time being, however, researchers are sharing their approaches with a sense of openness. And the mood is one of cautious optimism that Perelman's approach, even if flawed, will eventually be the one that works.

It takes years for a solution to make the leap from being just another claim to actually being considered "true." Perelman's work will be digested by a wide range of mathematicians in the next few years, said University of California at Davis mathematician Joel Hass. Steps that Perelman pushed through by brute force will be replaced with simpler methods, and his work will be integrated into other fields, Hass said.

And while the equivalent of the Poincare conjecture has already been proven for dimensions four and up, no one yet has any idea how to classify all the spaces that appear in higher dimensions. This state of ignorance is what prods mathematicians to keep working.

"It's interesting how a really good problem can sometimes be much better than a really good answer," Rubinstein said with a grin.

February 1, 2004

Pigskin Pythagoras

IN FOOTBALL, not all 15-yard passes are created equal.

Say it's the end of the 4th quarter of Super Bowl XXXVIII and the Panthers are trailing by three on their own 35-yard line. It's 4th-and-16 with a minute left. Delhomme passes to wide receiver Steve Smith, who is tackled one yard short of a 1st down. While the crowd roars, NFL statisticians quietly record the pass as a 15-yard gain, although in this situation it is clearly worth the same as an incomplete pass: absolutely nothing.

Aaron Schatz thinks there is a better way. Adapting methods from baseball fanatics and pro football franchises alike, this 29-year-old Framingham resident recently invented his own system of statistics to record this pass -- and all other NFL plays. Forget touchdowns, total yards, and red-zone efficiency. The Sunday afternoon armchair general should worry about DVOA (defense-adjusted value over average) and line-yards. By measuring each of the 40,000-odd plays made in a typical NFL season and evaluating them according to a complex array of situational factors, Schatz aims to do nothing less than revolutionize football writing and analysis.

By day, Schatz compiles the "Lycos 50" daily report on Internet pop culture. By night he tends his 6-month-old daughter and a serious football addiction. (On the Sunday she was born, he says, "I complained to the hospital that it didn't get ESPN and I couldn't watch the Bills-Chiefs game.") A year ago, he joined with several fraternity brothers from Brown University to found the website, which offers wry commentary, discussion threads, and reams of stats.

Schatz compares his "ridiculously geeky venture" to the mimeographed copies of the "Baseball Abstract" that the legendary Bill James compiled by hand from box scores in 1978, setting off the revolution in baseball statistics known as sabermetrics. (The name reflects the acronym of the Society for American Baseball Research, SABR). Schatz says a colleague calls their system "safermetrics," but he calls it "my giant time-sucking hobby."

Schatz started in late 2002 with a simple question: Were the Patriots really losing games because they couldn't establish the run, as many Boston sportswriters claimed? He started out counting by hand, then made some spreadsheets over Christmas vacation, and before long he had compiled a database of every single play in the 2002 NFL season.

Sure enough, he found no correlation between 1st-quarter rushing attempts and winning football games. "Teams, with rare exceptions, run when they win instead of winning when they run, so the Pats aren't hurting themselves by running less often early in games," he says.

For years, NFL franchises have kept in-house statisticians to help compile a winning playbook. But while amateur baseball analysis floods the Internet, football fans don't have much beyond the stats at and and the offerings on gambling and fantasy sports sites. Though a well-respected sabermetrics site has launched its own gridiron analysis at, Schatz's numbers are unique in that they evaluate each play against the league average for plays of its type, adjust for the strength of the opponents' defense, and even try to divide credit for a given play among teammates.

"We're trying to see through the biases inherent in a game where the basic situation is constantly changing," says Schatz. "We're trying to create an intelligent community for discussing the NFL -- not just point spreads, not just fantasy, but the game on the field."

hen the "three wise men" of football -- Bob Carroll, Pete Palmer, and John Thorn -- published "The Hidden Game of Football" in 1988, they were riding a current of sports analysis initiated by Bill James.

James's approach to baseball, as implemented by Billy Beane's Oakland A's, inspired Michael Lewis's 2003 bestseller "Moneyball" (W.W. Norton), and in November 2002 he was hired by the Red Sox. James's key move was to measure individual performance more accurately, compensating a pitcher's Earned Run Average for hitter-friendly parks and incompetent fielding, for example. Similarly, for Carroll, et al., and for Schatz, the key is to break down each game into individual plays, and to rate these plays based on their point-scoring value, even adjusting for tough opponents.

Gridiron analysts face a particularly daunting task. First, while baseball unfolds at a leisurely cadence of pitch-hit-field in mostly good weather, the football statistician squints out through fierce winds and snowdrifts at "twenty-two players in constantly shifting alignments, all of them racing against the clock into new configurations," as Carroll and his coauthors put it. Play-by-play records kept by the NFL and ESPN sometimes disagree on who rushed in which direction on a given play.

Second, the short 16-game schedule ensures that some teams will get off easy playing weak opponents, and threatens the analyst with a shortage of data. Finally, there's the challenge of seeing the play in context. As the authors of "The Hidden Game" put it, "The situational side of football statistics is like the weather; everybody knows it's there, but nobody does anything about it."

Schatz thinks he has solved the data problem by treating each season's 40,000-odd plays as separate events and adjusting for lucky schedules. And he has developed a statistic that he says cuts through football's situational fog.

Suppose you want to measure a quarterback's season performance. You could start by asking, all other things being equal, how many yards he averaged per pass. Unfortunately, because the offense has two immediate goals -- achieve a 1st down, and get closer to the end zone -- all things are never equal. Would you rather your quarterback complete an eight-yard pass on 3d-and-10, or a six-yard pass on 3d-and-5? The first boosts his total passing yards, but the second gets a new 1st down. "On any given down and distance, it is always better to get more yards," explains Schatz. But with just a few yards to go, less can be more.

To measure both yards and 1st downs in one statistic, while adjusting for the specific game situation, Schatz adapted a measure from "The Hidden Game." DVOA, or defense-adjusted value over average, compares every single play a team makes to the league averages for that particular situation -- down, distance to go, current score gap, location on the field, opponent -- and rates it on how it improved the team's chances of scoring. DVOA measures a team's point-scoring (or point-stopping) ability as a percentage above or below league average; a strong offense will have a positive DVOA, while a strong defense's DVOA will be negative.

For example, this season the Patriots' offense was 12th in the NFL with a -0.2 percent DVOA, but their -20 percent defense, ranking 3d in the league, more than made up for it. (In their four-interception playoff game against the Colts, the Pats' defense had an impenetrable DVOA of -80 percent.) The Panthers, on the other hand, were 14th on defense with a -2.5 percent DVOA, and a pitiful 20th on offense with -9.1 percent -- but have drastically improved in the playoffs.

According to Schatz, the DVOA should mitigate a big problem with the short 16-game season, which is that luck does not even out. "Games turn on one turnover, one big play, one lucky break, and so teams do not necessarily have a record that reflects their true ability," he says. "I think that as we do this for three or four years we will discover that DVOA is more consistent from year to year than actual wins and losses." As an example, he cites the Kansas City offense, which was No. 1 in DVOA last year when they were 8-8, and was No. 1 in DVOA this year when they were 13-3.

There remains the problem of untangling football's unfathomably complex teamwork. DVOA solves some problems easily: If Tom Brady passes for 80 yards and then Antowain Smith runs it in from the one-yard line, Smith gets credit for the touchdown -- but Brady gets the DVOA boost. But how, for example, can you evaluate the contributions of individual offensive lineman?"

We're not sure that we can even imagine a set of statistics that would make it possible to rate these players individually," say Sean Lahman and Todd Greanier, who run, in their comprehensive yearbook, "Pro Football Prospectus 2003." Schatz is a bit more hopeful, using a quantity called line-yards to separate initial rushing yards earned by the strength of the offensive line from subsequent rushing yards earned by the running back's agility.

o what can Schatz tell us about Super Bowl XXXVIII?

First, according to the Pythagorean theorem of football, the only team that can beat New England is New England itself.The Pythagorean what? Early on, Bill James came up with the following formula: The ratio of wins to losses for a given baseball team is roughly equal to the square of the ratio of runs scored to runs allowed. Because it looked a bit like the familiar geometrical formula for computing the hypotenuse of a right triangle, and expressed a similarly basic relation, he named it after the Greek mathematician.

Later, statistician Daryl Morey of STATS, Inc. found that the formula applied to many sports if the exponent was tweaked: for the NFL, the exponent is 2.37 instead of 2. For example, the Patriots scored 348 points and allowed 238 in the 2003 regular season, for a ratio of 1.46 points scored for every one allowed. Raise this number to the power of 2.37 and you have an expected win-to-loss ratio of 2.46, which comes out to 11.4 wins for the 16-game season. Of course, the Pats won 14.

History shows that teams "lucky" enough to win more games than their combined offensive and defensive abilities should allow tend to find their luck running out in the post-season. For instance, in 1990 Oakland lucked into a stunning 14-2 record, but they lost in the playoffs. The Super Bowl was played between New York and Buffalo, the top two teams in Pythagorean wins that year.

The bad news, Schatz says, is that the Patriots are the "luckiest" team in the NFL this season, their inflated 14-2 record dwarfing their 11.4 Pythagorean wins. The good news, however, is that the Patriots also lead the league in Pythagorean wins, making them the first team since 1982 -- and perhaps ever -- to earn the double distinction of being both the luckiest and the best team in the NFL at the same time. "All year long, the argument has raged over whether the Patriots are lucky or good," says Schatz. "It turns out they are both."

The next question is, which Panthers will the Patriots be playing: the regular-season team, or the playoffs team? According to Schatz, the two are like night and day.

Carolina scored an anemic 8.6 Pythagorean wins in the regular season. But they won the season 11-5, a good indication that, among other things, they got lucky with an easy schedule. But when it comes to DVOA, in the playoffs Carolina had the best three-game stretch of any team in any part of the season.

Such a wild comeback is not apparent using traditional NFL stats. But Schatz's metrics show the offense improving on every down and distance except 2nd-and-short, with Jake Delhomme and company passing an unbelievable 26.4 percent DVOA over their negative 5.7 percent DVOA of just five weeks ago.

"If the last three weeks are just part of the standard ups and downs of the regular-season Carolina Panthers," Schatz opines, "then we are probably headed for a New England rout. But if Carolina's playoff performance truly represents advancement to a higher level of skill, then we have one heck of a good game on our hands."

March 14, 2004

Insider Trading: A Good Thing?


ALREADY FACING UP to 20 years in prison following her conviction last Friday on four charges stemming from a 2001 sale of ImClone stock, Martha Stewart may still have to run another legal gauntlet as the Securities and Exchange Commission prepares a civil charge of insider trading.

But as supporters continue to defend the domestic diva, some economists are going a step farther and defending insider trading itself.

Insider trading, defined by the SEC as the use of "material, nonpublic information" in stock sales, was first outlawed in the United States in the wake of the stock market crash of 1929. The rule went unchallenged -- and unenforced -- for decades. But soon after the first insider-trading conviction in 1961, economist Henry Manne stunned the corporate law crowd by arguing that insider trading, though harmful to some investors, should be legal nonetheless.

First, Manne argued, insider trades would make a company's stock more quickly reflect the company's actual value, making the market more efficient. The canonical example is Texas Gulf Sulphur Co., whose managers gobbled up the company's stock in 1963 and `64 before announcing they had struck ore in Canada, inflating their share price with their own demand -- and enriching fellow stockholders -- well before the good news was released.

More importantly, Manne saw insider trading as a form of incentive compensation, a way to turn rule-bound managers into "corporate entrepreneurs" who would want to create more good news for their companies so they could trade on it.

Don Boudreaux, chairman of the economics department at George Mason University, takes Manne's argument a step farther, claiming that insider trading can actually fight corporate crime by serving as a silent form of whistleblowing. If insiders who knew about malfeasance were free to sell their company's stock short, Boudreaux claimed in a recent interview, the resulting decline in share value would serve as a distress signal to investors, and might eventually encourage a takeover.

But not everyone is convinced by such logic. Economist Andrew Metrick, of the University of Pennsylvania's Wharton School of Business, argues that the incentive to sell when one smells wrongdoing in the air is small compared to the incentive to produce fake information to temporarily pump up one's stock and then sell short. A study of the profits insiders actually reap, performed by Metrick and two Boston-area coauthors in 1999, shows that only 12 cents per $10,000 invested in domestic markets is lost to insider profits. If all insider trades were legalized, Metrick says, this quantity would shoot up, making average investors so afraid of getting burned by in-the-know sellers that firms would have trouble raising capital: a liquidity disaster.

Would the liquidity loss outweigh the potential gains outlined by Manne and Boudreaux? Some claim that without letting firms opt out of insider-trading enforcement, we'll never know for sure. But a few economists are taking an international approach. In the most comprehensive study so far, Utpal Bhattacharya and Hazem Daouk at Indiana University hounded officials from Armenia to Zambia to gather a complete survey of all 103 stock markets worldwide -- most of which adopted insider-trading laws sometime in the 1990s.

Strikingly, they found that while simply having laws on the books does nothing for liquidity, the first insider-trading prosecution coincided with a consistent drop in the cost of capital, often cutting it in half in emerging markets. Bhattacharya says this shows that when investors no longer fear they are trading with insiders, they demand lower returns and invest more. "If firms want to raise money," he says, "then they will have to assure the general public there is no insider trading."

(Curiously, another study by Bhattacharya showed that Mexican stocks don't react at all to official company news -- a sure sign, in his view, that the market has been corrupted by insider trading, which, according to Manne's logic, allows stock prices to reflect information before it is released.)

On the other hand, two recent studies suggest some overlooked upsides to insider trading. Hong Kong economist Guochang Zhang argues that insider trades could give shareholders an insight into their managers' true intentions. And according to Giovanna Nicodano and colleagues at the University of Turin, insider trading might even benefit risk-averse outsiders by distributing profits more equally between uninformed traders.

Whatever its economic effects, most legal scholars consider insider trading a form of fraud, because it is a blow to the transparency that makes markets work. But a thorny question remains: If a company were to advertise up-front that it allowed its insiders to trade on non-public information, why shouldn't investors have the chance to take a risk on it?

Leo Katz of Penn Law School, author of "Ill-Gotten Gains: Evasion, Blackmail, Fraud, and Kindred Puzzles of the Law" (1996), argues that as long as there's no coercion, deception, incompetence, or downside for third parties, people should be allowed to enter any contract they please. But just as a rapist shouldn't go free if his victims signed a release form, he said in an interview, insider trading may be a wrong that one cannot by definition consent to. Insider trading, he adds, may be one of those cases where we have "firm intuitions but no clear analytical grasp on what is wrong."

Besides, Katz says, even advance warnings about the possibility of insider trading would not necessarily take management off the hook for any legal claims. For example, he points out, one company's attempt to issue stock in 1964 accompanied by a prospectus declaring that "anyone considering purchase of this security must be prepared for immediate and total loss" was rejected by the SEC.

April 18, 2004

Picking Up the Pieces


WHEN RICHARD GOULD, an archaeologist at Brown University, took a walk in Lower Manhattan in October 2001, his trained eye fixed on a gravelly dust strewn on dumpsters and fire escapes that cleanup crews had missed. Looking closer, he saw that the coating contained bone fragments and other human remains mixed in with concrete dust and ash.

Gould, a founder of the subfield of ethnoarchaeology, which uses material culture to learn about living societies, immediately recognized that if this substance were properly sifted, it would help identify 9/11 victims. For that to happen, however, archaeologists accustomed to spending months scraping away on an isolated plot would need to go in just after the first-responders and be out of the way in time for cleanup -- "archaeology at warp speed," as Gould puts it.

Back in Providence, Gould decided to act on his insight. Working with graduate students, the Providence police, and local volunteers, he formed the Forensic Archaeology Recovery (FAR) team in early 2002, pioneering a new subfield he calls "disaster archaeology." Like forensic archaeologists who examine crime scenes or mass graves, FAR would collect physical remains to try to piece together what happened to whom at a disaster site. But they would be prepared to dig faster and more thoroughly -- while using a stricter scientific protocol than conventional disaster response teams. Most importantly, unlike any forensic archaeologists before them, their main purpose would be to provide understanding and closure to survivors and families of victims.

Today, Gould's expertise is increasingly in demand by government officials from New York to Iraq,where his methods have been well-received by those who identify the bodies of American soldiers. And he is working to make FAR an official part of the Department of Homeland Security.

Still, the fledgling discipline of disaster archaeology remains largely beneath the scholarly radar. Some specialists scoff at the idea of do-good forensics, while others see Gould as extending the field's time-honored public-service tradition. Gould may modestly claim not to have any big answers, but his work raises a big question: Can archaeology serve scholarship, government, and the bereaved at the same time?

. . .

The first real test of Gould's approach came when tragedy struck close to home. In February 2003, when 100 clubgoers died in the smoke and flames of The Station nightclub fire in West Warwick, R.I., FAR was ready to swing into action. Gould had joined the federal Disaster Mortuary Response Team (DMORT) in the process of organizing FAR, and was now working around the clock with federal medical examiners to identify every last one of the victims in just three days -- a prodigious feat of speed and accuracy. Then the State Fire Marshal took Gould aside and explained that, to avoid the inevitable scavenging that occurs when the police tape is lifted, he wanted FAR to collect all personal effects and human remains left in the wake of the emergency workers.

Seeing a chance for FAR to prove that it could help authorities better provide closure to families, without interfering with emergency work or the ongoing investigation, Gould decided to take the assignment. FAR volunteers zipped up their white Tyvek suits and, under the suspicious gaze of survivors and television cameras, started gathering debris, searching for objects as small as earrings and teeth. They filled 340 buckets and recovered 88 clusters of objects in all, from guitar picks to supermarket frequent-shopper cards.

The work was grueling, the conditions were harsh, and the team often had to improvise. It was too cold for wet sifting, the standard technique used to spray debris loose from artifacts, so they had to chip away at icy chunks of ash instead. Because officials were still swarming the site, it was impossible to use the traditional string grid employed by archaeologists to record the exact positions of found objects. So they replaced it with a movable square made from PVC pipe, which they could line up with markings on the perimeter. When it snowed, they improvised a tarp.

To make things harder, the team had to meet police evidence-processing standards when handling the objects they recovered. At one point, while police were busy inspecting all area clubs for fire violations, Gould was given temporary oversight of the Mobile Crime Unit van where found articles were tagged as evidence. "I'm used to peer review," Gould said, "but legal scrutiny is worse."

The scrutiny has only gotten more intense. The team's fastidious procedures yielded some of the strongest clues as to the cause of the fire, and all of Gould's field notes were subpoenaed last year. With cases pending, he can't discuss the details, but he does mention an artifact he calls the "smoking gun." "Is this what you had in mind?" he recalls asking the chief of the team from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms that was independently combing the stage area for clues. The chief snatched it from his hand without so much as a word.

For Gould, a video shot inside the building as it burned down provided a unique opportunity to test the accuracy of his techniques -- and to improve them, by rewinding the film to figure out where to sift next. He notes that academic archaeologists, who are used to century-old sites with no written record, are not accustomed to this level of accountability. "When you excavate a Narragansett cemetery, no one can challenge your inferences," Gould says.

In the end, FAR may have raised the bar for forensic response to terrorism and other mass-casualty disasters. "They use trowels and screens where we use rakes and shovels," says Napoleon Brito, director of the Bureau of Criminal Identification at the Providence Police Department, now a FAR member himself. "They're much more accurate, much more patient."

Richard James, deputy State Fire Marshal of Rhode Island, agrees. "These young people were determined to bring closure. They were very professional. . .. They cleaned [the site] down to a bare floor."

. . .

At the age of 64, when many scientists might be thinking about retirement, Gould is on the lookout for the next opportunity to put his archaeological training to public use. Lately, he's been thinking about suicide bombers. On a recent rainy Saturday, FAR volunteers and Rhode Island police officers strapped a 5-pound dynamite vest to a dead sheep and detonated it inside a police car in order to practice their response. While the police worked within a 100-foot perimeter, Gould's team tracked car parts and significant chunks of flesh several hundred yards away.

Fellow archaeologists are divided on the significance of Gould's work. According to David Thomas, curator of North American archaeology at the American Museum of Natural History in New York City, disaster archaeology is the youngest branch of applied archaeology, which already extends to landfills, battlefields, and politically sensitive historical projects, such as the excavation of slave quarters at Monticello and Mount Vernon. "It fits within the broader sweep of recognizing that what you do matters to descendant communities," says Thomas, who plans to include Gould's work in the new edition of his undergraduate textbook.

Yet some think Gould's service orientation may cloud his scientific judgment. "If he's being utilized by law enforcement then he has to go by their rules," says Walter Birkby, a forensic anthropologist in Tucson, Ariz. Birkby also questions the originality of Gould's work. "He's not doing anything that's innovative. People have been doing this for years and years."

Jennifer Trunzo, a doctoral candidate in archaeology at Brown and FAR's deputy team leader, sees the team's originality not in its methods but in its mission. "We're just taking established excavation and recording skills and applying them in . . . public service," she says. This, she continues, "allows archaeology to give something back to the public that goes beyond heritage preservation."

"Sometimes a body cannot be returned intact for burial," Trunzo says. "But a wedding ring, a cell phone, or some other personal item can definitively tell people if . . . they should be mourning, rather than waiting for somebody to return that may never come home."

Gould hopes that FAR can eventually earn a permanent place on DMORT within the Department of Homeland Security. To that end he is trying to assemble a nationwide roster of on-call archaeologists under the auspices of the Society of American Archaeology. But he worries that, as officials discover the forensic power of his work, his team will be stretched beyond its modest humanitarian mission. He notes that while human-rights archaeologists are busy digging up mass graves in Iraq, no one is studying suicide bombings with the intent to repatriate items to grieving families. "The government's goal may not be the same as ours," he admits, "but someone should be doing this."

. . .

Last June, after the smoke cleared and every trace of The Station nightclub had been hauled away, 100 crosses made from the discarded tongue-and-groove floorboards, painted lavender and decked with plastic beads and butterflies, were erected around the perimeter. The next week brought waves of flowers, candles, statues, money, and unopened beer cans. Weeks later, someone had the idea of lining the entire site with solar-powered yard lamps. As the site blossomed into a full-scale memorial, it attracted more tributes, including fuzzy dice, compact discs, and model cars.

For Gould, these spontaneous memorials in West Warwick offered a chance to extend FAR's work in a new direction. And so he asked Randi Scott, a 50-year-old FAR volunteer from East Greenwich, to catalog the proliferation of objects and interview those who brought them.

As an ethnoarchaeologist who studied Australian aborigines in the 1960s, Gould was accustomed to doing a cultural anthropologist's work with an archaeologist's tools. Here was an opportunity to begin a formal study of the spontaneous memorial in an effort to understand the community's reaction to the tragedy through its rituals of grieving. So it was that Gould made the curious switch from conducting research for the bereaved to conducting research on the bereaved.

On a late February afternoon, just days after the one-year anniversary of the fire, Scott gave me a tour of the muddy lot. A few people hovered over particular plaques, and a young couple kissed as they stepped around puddles and shrines. Every so often, Scott stopped to prop up a cross that had been blown down, or to replace a picture that had drifted from its usual place. "I do this because I know where everything belongs," she said. "But I would never take anything away. This is a hallowed place."

It may seem odd that no official memorial is planned at West Warwick. Two doughnut shops and an oil-change station are interested in developing the site, Gould says, although he doubts anyone would frequent them. Meanwhile, plaintiffs' lawyers have put an injunction on the modest plot, in an effort to claim something of value for their clients. Most families, however, want to use the space for a public memorial. If they go to court, Scott says, they may use her documentation to prove the site has been under continuous use by mourners.

Gould denies that his mission is political or that it goes beyond the scholarly effort to understand. "We're not here to exert influence, but simply to observe and record," he says. But sometimes it seems that Gould and Scott are still combing the site because, like the survivors and families who show up every day, they are not yet free to leave.

"We just want to make sure we don't miss anything," says Gould.

—Jascha Hoffman

August 8, 2004

Crash Course

MINEOLA, LONG ISLAND - William "Rusty" Haight has survived more automobile crash tests than anyone else on Earth, and I'm dodging four lanes of traffic with him — on foot.

Rusty has flown out from San Diego to testify on a double-murder case. Two kids are drag-racing a Corvette and a Mercedes down a city street much like the one we just crossed, he explains, when they both plow into a turning Jeep, ripping it in half. The boys in the Corvette - "spoiled rich kids" driving Daddy's sports car, Rusty says - walk away, but the young couple in the Jeep are killed. They had just mailed out their wedding invitations and closed on a new home.

Rusty Haight is a car accident reconstructionist, maybe the best one there is. His job is to analyze all the physical evidence present at the scene of the crash - skidmarks, vehicle damage, injury patterns - and, using the laws of physics to run time in reverse, make an educated guess about how fast the drivers were going.

On this case his job is made easier by the black-box data recorder in the Corvette, which reads 139 miles per hour just seconds before the accident. All in all, the defendants don't have a chance, he says, which is why they switched lawyers at the last minute. He believes it's just a delaying tactic to postpone the trial and prevent him from testifying. But he'll be back when the trial reconvenes, he vows.

Haight, 45, with a sturdy build and an easy grin, is not your typical accident reconstructionist. For one thing, while most of his colleagues consult and testify for a living, Rusty's main business is "research and training," conducted through his San Diego-based Collision Safety Institute. By research, he means crashing cars together and seeing what happens, to better understand the damage he sees on the streets. By training, he means traveling the country to instruct and amaze the paying audiences of police officers and engineers who flock to his seminars on everything from motorcycle wrecks to "collision trauma biomechanics" (in short, injuries).

Getting into accidents might not seem like the most precise way to do forensic science. But Rusty's models of collision mechanics, from the simplest momentum analysis to the occasional full-fledged computer simulation, come with the ultimate guarantee: He'd stake his life on them. In fact, he has, 766 times and counting, at speeds up to 54 miles per hour.

In March, Men's Journal magazine ranked Rusty 24th on its list of the toughest men in America, right between 50 Cent and Hillary Clinton. "I look at it this way," he says soberly. "I came right behind the rapper who got shot nine times and survived, and right ahead of the gal who kicked the butt of the leader of the free world."

. . .

There are thousands of accident reconstructionists in the United States. Most of them work for police agencies, and rely on patrolmen to gather the reams of physical evidence they use as raw material for their calculations. Then there are the consultants, many of them aeronautical engineers laid off during the airline bust of the 1980s, who either work for forensics firms or sell their services directly to lawyers and insurance companies. Very few reconstructionists perform their own custom crashes in order to test a hypothesis or to prove a point. But all use the data gathered by the handful of experts who, like Rusty Haight, have chosen to become human crash-test dummies.

In studying high-speed accidents, where one can expect death or serious injury for all passengers, there is simply no substitute for crash-test dummies strapped into cars and thrust to their doom by a giant pulley or winch. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration uses such high-speed dummy tests to set safety rules for car manufacturers.

But for low-speed collisions, which are more common but far less deadly, the government does not set manufacturing standards, or fund crash tests. To understand these accidents, there is often no substitute for human-driven cars with human bodies inside them. For one thing, dummies are stiffer than people, and are not designed to measure smaller impacts. Rusty has figured this out the hard way by letting a dummy ride shotgun with an identical set of sensors strapped to its head, chest, and limbs. While the readings from dummy sensors can be useful, they don't always match up with his own.

Since whole police departments generally can't travel to San Diego en masse, Rusty takes his crash-test show on the road. And since remote-control cars and dummy-friendly test tracks are hard to come by, he usually just finds a car locally, outfits it with a single accelerometer at its center of gravity (to measure how fast its speed is changing), and drives it into something himself.

He always wears kneepads, and sometimes wears Kevlar body armor to distribute the impact. But he never uses a helmet, which would prevent an accurate reading on his head-mounted accelerometer, one of several strapped to his body. Being behind the wheel, he explains, gives him the maneuverability he needs to investigate "nonstandard" crashes - weird combinations of vehicles, uncommon approach angles, and so on.

"What we do are the oddball tests," says Rusty, who has rammed cars into trucks, trucks into buses, school buses into cars, and more than one vehicle into a pole. "We do the 'Malibu-ramp-jump, hits-the-ground, hits-the-car' test. There's no federal standard for that." And, in addition to reading the car's built-in sensors after the fact, he adds speculatively, "we can explore what the speedometer tells us in the air" - another topic neglected by government research.

. . .

As long as there are low-speed car accidents, there will be a place for human-driven crash tests. But these days accident reconstructionists face a new job-security threat - not from crash-test dummies, but from onboard black boxes.

Used by airplanes and commercial vehicles for decades, the devices are quickly becoming standard in passenger cars. According to the National Transportation Safety Board - which this week recommended that data-recorders be installed in all passenger vehicles - about 15 percent of vehicles now on the road have them, with the figure estimated at between 65 percent and 90 percent for the 2004 fleet. Triggered by the airbag system, a black box will usually hold five seconds' worth of data on the car's speed and rotation before the crash, as well as its engine throttle and RPM and its seat belt and brake usage.

Black boxes have an uncertain legal status, with some judges requiring a search warrant for data to be admitted into evidence. (In Massachusetts they have been used in a handful of criminal cases, but no statewide standard for admitting or using black-box evidence has emerged. Citing privacy concerns, lawmakers in California, Maryland, and Virginia have tried to ban the devices altogether, but none have been successful so far.) Because they gather snapshots of fast-changing and unpredictable events, black boxes are not a perfect source of information that will take the guesswork out of the reconstructionist's job - or do away with it altogether.

Recently Rusty has testified in several cases that leaned heavily on black boxes, including the case against Bishop O'Brien of Phoenix, who was convicted of hit-and-run in February. But while black boxes provide a convenient way to verify his conclusions, he says they are not his primary source of data.

Rusty believes black boxes are useful not just for deciphering crashes but for stopping them from happening in the first place. Eventually, he says, when crash data filters back into the design process, it will help guide the next generation of crashworthy vehicles. Meanwhile, when insurance companies start cutting their rates for black-box equipped cars, all the automakers will jump on board. When everyone knows the devices are recording their actions, Rusty believes, reasonable drivers will drive more reasonably. But many reckless drivers will continue to be reckless.

. . .

By his own account, Rusty had a normal childhood in El Paso, Texas, with no more taste for cars - or carnage - than the next kid. An average science student, he spent a few years as a local reporter, then worked as a police officer in San Diego in the 1980s.

Working as a police investigator, he was drawn to accident reconstruction because it seemed like the only field where an individual could make a direct contribution to public safety. "Burglary and rape are sins of passion or opportunity," Rusty explains. "But crashes you can do something about. You can find a reason it occurred."

When asked about his heroes, Rusty cites Colonel John Paul Stapp, the doctor who served as "human decelerator" in dozens of 1950s Air Force deceleration experiments that produced better helmets and safety harnesses for aircraft pilots, and eventually led to a 1966 bill requiring seat belts in all new cars.

In one rocket-powered ride, the Colonel went from zero to 632 miles per hour in five seconds on a one-man sled mounted on a length of railroad track, then sustained over 40 Gs on braking, the equivalent of hitting a brick wall in a car going 120 miles per hour. According to legend, when Stapp, shaken and bleeding from more than one orifice, was informed by his assistant Captain Edward A. Murphy that the sensors had failed to record the run, Stapp replied drily, "Whatever can go wrong, will go wrong." The law has been attributed to Murphy ever since.

Rusty rolls up his sleeve to show me the only permanent damage he's received in two decades of live crash tests: a small scar on his upper wrist, from the seam of a life-saving airbag. "When I first started out, because there was an element of doubt, I would install my own seat belts. But now I . . . trust the stock seat belts," he says. His wife used to worry every time he got behind the wheel; now she straps herself into the passenger seat for the occasional crash.

For all his concern with public safety, Rusty (who drives a GMC Envoy when he's not planning on crashing, and admits to a few fender-benders) is not losing sleep over his own safety, judging by his three current short-term goals.

The first is to drive a car into water and live to tell the tale. "I have some friends who have done it," he says, but thanks in part to the absence of government research there is "no solid understanding" of aquatic crashes.

The second goal, he says, is to break "the 55-mile-per-hour glass ceiling," a purely psychological barrier. The way to do it and survive, he explains, is to drive a bigger car into a smaller one, in order to dilute your deceleration on impact. Haight thinks he can take the equivalent of hitting a brick wall at 27 miles per hour, which may sound like child's play compared to Stapp's records. "If I rammed a Hummer into a Hugo," he estimates casually, "I could probably do 70 miles per hour."

Rusty's third and most pressing objective - he calls it a "destructive personal goal" - is what the kids he came to Long Island to testify against did: split a car in half. He wants to do it without killing anyone, least of all himself. Luckily, he explains, with the right vehicle and approach angle, there's no need to go 139 miles per hour.

—Jascha Hoffman


OF ALL THE made-to-order crash tests Rusty Haight has performed in his years as an accident reconstructionist, the one that really sticks with him was the one that helped exonerate John Button, who was wrongly convicted of manslaughter for allegedly running over his teenage sweetheart in Western Australia almost three decades earlier.

On a February night in 1963, Button had a fight with his girlfriend at his parents' house in Perth. She stormed out and he followed her in his 1962 Simca, hoping she would come home with him. Shortly after he lost sight of her, she was hit by Eric Edgar Cooke, a serial killer who had terrorized the city for months with random murders, including several hit-and-run attempts. Moments later, as Cooke sped off in the Holden he'd stolen that night, Button discover his girlfriend bleeding and unconscious. Informed of her death at the hospital, then interrogated for hours in a state of shock, Button signed a confession saying that he ran her over. He served five years in prison, despite Cooke's later confessions to the murder.

In 1999, Button enlisted Haight to help him appeal the conviction once and for all. From archival photos of Button's car, Haight concluded that the "tiny ripple" in the hood "could have been caused by anything," and that the total lack of hair, skin, or clothing traces on the vehicle was "wholly inconsistent with a pedestrian impact."

Button was exonerated, but Haight didn't stop there. In February 2000, exactly 37 years after the night in question, he staged a public recreation of the accident, ramming three antique Simcas into a life-sized medical dummy. The impact consistently produced indentations much deeper than that found on Button's car in 1963. Meanwhile, a similar crash performed with a late-model Holden did not rule out the scenario that Cooke, who was hanged in 1964 for his murder spree, was the real culprit.

Button, 56, who watched dry-eyed during the Simca crashes, burst into tears after the Holden crash, overwhelmed to see the accident just as Cooke had described it in his confessions, according to Haight. Button was eventually awarded about $330,000 in US dollars as compensation for his wrongful imprisonment.

—Jascha Hoffman

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