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Letters From Our Readers

December 21, 2009

The Father of Shale Gas
Our cover story on the vast amounts of natural gas trapped in shale deposits in the northeastern United States (“Natural Gas Changes the Energy Map,” November/December 2009) prompted one reader to write in about the person who pioneered the techniques that now make extracting that gas economically viable.

David Rotman’s article was informative and thoughtful but had one glaring deficiency. There is just a single line referring to the fact that the crucial drilling techniques were developed in Texas, but the vast gas reserves in the Northeast are accessible thanks entirely to 17 years of drilling experimentation led by George Mitchell and his company, Mitchell Energy and Development. Mitchell didn’t put the gas there, but he showed how to get it out. Leaving his name out of the article is like having an article on the theory of relativity that leaves out the name Einstein and instead briefly mentions some contributions made in the Swiss Patent Office.
William H. Bassichis
College Station, TX

Human Needs, Technological Solutions
Editor in chief Jason Pontin’s letter “Ghosts in the Machine” (November/December 2009) detailed the personal experiences that prompted him to have chief correspondent David Talbot take a look at the way electronic health records can be used to help poor and underserved patients in American hospitals (“Prescription: Networking”).

I was touched by Jason Pontin’s editorial on many levels, not least by his willingness to share what is such a poignant part of his past. David Talbot’s article describing a network that links the records at a major Boston hospital to those at 10 community health centers is excellent, and I shall forward it to all my informatics students here at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine. The poignancy of both articles is that we are still relying on anecdotes to motivate these types of technological solutions. It is a sad state of affairs that we recurrently decry the lack of a business case for interoperability–and that we must rely on business cases in the first place rather than cater to these really crucial human needs.
Harold P. Lehmann, MD
Baltimore, MD

A doctor in the field argues that the solutions described in the article are still insufficient.
While electronic health records offer great promise in recording and distributing objective patient data, their ability to handle subjective data has been less impressive. This is a crucial failing and, in my opinion, the reason doctors have not enthusiastically embraced them. The interaction between doctor and patient, even in this technological era, remains of paramount importance. It is difficult to digitize, and the onerous data entry involved in most EHR systems steals time from doctors that could otherwise be used at the bedside. Physicians who object are often dismissed as Luddites resisting change. Until their complaints are addressed, physicians will continue to have reservations about adopting EHRs, despite their potential benefits. Give us a tool that works and we will use it.
Frank Venuti, MD
Big Flats, NY

Nuclear Risks
Matthew Wald’s article on the 30th anniversary of Three Mile Island (“Nuclear Power Renaissance?” November/December 2009) discussed three risk factors currently facing the nuclear industry: the cost of building a new reactor, uncertainty about future competitors, and uncertainty about the price of fossil fuels. A commenter online suggested another.

There is a fourth risk factor that I believe holds equal weight: regulatory uncertainty and inflexibility. The new one-step reactor licensing process is still untested, and until one or two new units go through the process, the investment community will be jumpy. Also, while several companies and groups are promoting small reactors that would lower the cost of entry and enable investors to scale nuclear capacity gradually, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission appears reluctant to devote sufficient resources to reviewing the designs. Small-reactor vendors are in a catch-22: the NRC says it won’t devote resources until the companies have customers, yet customers are unlikely to sign up without a certified design. As a result, we’re likely to see American ingenuity and investment heading overseas to build small reactors in a more friendly and stable regulatory climate.
John Wheeler
Zionsville, IN

CORRECTIONS: The image on page 32 of the November/December 2009 photo essay should have been credited to Maria Carmen Piñon and Zoltán Molnár, University of Oxford.

A map on page 66 in the November/December 2009 Briefing on transportation, showing high-speed rail lines worldwide, neglected to show the Taiwan High Speed Rail line, which began service in January 2007.

An article in the September/October 2009 Briefing on electricity incorrectly stated that peak demand for New York City is 35,000 megawatts. That is the peak demand for the entire state of New York.

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