Tennessee Alumnus

Fuels, Funds, and a Solved Mystery

Fuels, Funds, and a Solved Mystery

Gasoline Alternatives: UT’s in the Driver’s Seat

Cutting gasoline consumption tops the wish lists of both the government and cash-strapped families. The solution could come from Tennessee. With a prototype biorefinery in the works and a multimillion-dollar bioenergy research effort scheduled at UT and Oak Ridge National Laboratory, the state is poised to give the nation workable alternatives to its gasoline addiction.

The $125-million bioenergy research center will be headquartered at the Joint Institute for Biological Sciences, a UT facility to be built on the campus of ORNL. The research center, one of three funded by the Department of Energy’s Office of Science, will study how to more efficiently extract cellulose from such plants as switchgrass and poplars. Cellulose can be converted to fuels like biodiesel and ethanol, reducing the demand for gasoline and diesel fuel.

When the center was announced, Tennessee was still celebrating the state legislature’s approval of a $61-million package for bioenergy research at UT and ORNL. The Tennessee Biofuels Initiative, which will be managed by the UT Institute of Agriculture, includes a pilot plant to demonstrate the ­switchgrass-to-ethanol conversion and produce 5-million gallons of ethanol per year. The research and business model promises new jobs and increased revenue, as well.

The Biofuels Initiative will tackle such issues as fuel production, transportation of feedstocks like switchgrass, and distribution of products.

State Support Best in Years

UT is enjoying its best year in recent history in terms of appropriations from the state of Tennessee. The university received new state appro­priations totaling $43.5-million to fund a 3-percent salary increase across the board for members of its faculty and staff, a 1.9-percent increase in operating funds, and $15.6-million in other initiatives, including the UT Biofuels Project and support for the UT Martin satellite campuses in Ripley, Parsons, and Selmer. UT trustees approved a plan for the university to provide an additional 2-percent pool for merit and equity increases for faculty and staff members.

Funding for major capital projects recommended by Governor Phil Bredesen and approved by the General Assembly will benefit UT for years to come:

UT president John Petersen called the 2007-08 appropriations an “endorsement by the governor and the legislature of the importance and value of higher education.” Also as the result of the appropriations, tuition increases were held to just 6 percent.

Petersen said the process began last winter with the governor’s recommending the highest operating budget in recent years for UT: “The governor set the pace early, recommending the largest-ever capital outlay for UT, as well as operating increases and money for faculty and staff compensation. The appropriations will help us keep our best faculty and staff and recruit other good people.”
Other operating budget increases were for expansion of UT Martin’s satellite campuses and the biofuels initiative.

Legislators in both houses were extremely supportive, Petersen said, enabling the following significant projects:

“We are grateful for the governor’s commitment to higher education as demonstrated in his budget proposal, and we very much appreciate the very positive support shown for UT throughout the General Assembly,” Petersen said.

Rest in Peace Big Bopper

J.P. Richardson, better known as “the Big Bopper,” appears to have died instantly from massive injuries sustained in a 1959 plane crash.

That’s the opinion of University of Tennessee Professor Emeritus William “Bill” Bass who recently traveled to Beaumont, Texas, to examine the ’50s rocker’s exhumed remains. Richardson’s body, which was not autopsied at the time of death, was exhumed to be moved to a more prominent grave site in Forest Lawn Cemetery in Beaumont, Texas.

With the exhumation already set to take place, J.P. Richardson’s son, Jay Richardson–a musician known as “the Big Bopper Jr.”–hired Bass to examine the remains in hopes of putting to rest some of the rumors that have existed since the crash. Buddy Holly’s gun had been found at the crash site, and some people had speculated it could have been fired aboard the plane. Also, because the Big Bopper’s body was found nearly 40 feet away from the wreckage, the family always wondered if he’d survived the crash and tried to go get help.

Bass X-rayed the remains and examined the body, which he described as amazingly well preserved–so much so that Richardson could see that he resembled his dad. Bass said he found “massive fractures from head to toe, even the bones of the right foot were fractured. Bones in the skull, bones in the chest, the pelvis all were broken. Most every part of the body, except for the arms, had massive fractures.”

The injuries suggest that the Big Bopper did indeed die from the trauma of the crash. He couldn’t have crawled or walked away from the scene. And if there had been a gunshot aboard, there was no bullet in the Big Bopper’s body.

Jay Richardson was there to see his father’s coffin removed from the ground and opened. “He held up real well,” Bass said of him. “His father died before he was born. The only thing he’d seen were pictures of his father. This was the first time he really ‘met’ his father. The preservation was so good you could see a likeness between the Big Bopper and his son. He bonded with his father during this process,” Bass said.

Afterward, Richardson agreed: “There was no doubt it was him.” He said he’s glad the examination took place and he now knows what happened to his dad. “I believe I knew the answers already. It was nice to have them substantiated,” he said.

The Big Bopper died along with rock superstars Buddy Holly and Ritchie Valens on February 3, 1959. After finishing a concert, the three musicians boarded a four-passenger Beechcraft Bonanza that crashed minutes after taking off from the municipal airport of Mason City, Iowa. The wreckage was found the next morning on a farm about 5 miles from the airport. The tragedy was immortalized as “the day the music died” in Don McLean’s song, “American Pie.”

Politics and Harry Potter

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, the seventh and final book in the world-famous Harry Potter series, was released in July, and UT law professor Benjamin Barton was standing in line to get it.

A big fan of Harry Potter’s, Barton has become a true student of the series, and he says he’s found some politically charged lessons written between the lines. Barton, who teaches advocacy clinic and torts, has written and lectured about how author J. K. Rowling depicts the government and law in the Harry Potter books.

Barton wrote a paper, “Harry Potter and the Half-Crazed Bureaucracy,” published in the Michigan Law Review in May 2006 and now reprinted as a chapter in Harry Potter and the Law (Carolina Press, 2007).

In his paper, Barton details the political messages he’s discovered in the Potter books. “What would you think of a government that engaged in this list of tyrannical activities: tortured children for lying; designed its prison specifically to suck all life and hope out of the inmates; placed citizens in that prison without a hearing; ordered the death penalty without a trial; allowed the powerful, rich, or famous to control policy; selectively prosecuted crimes (the powerful went unpunished and the unpopular faced trumped-up charges); conducted criminal trials without defense counsel; used truth serum to force confessions; maintained constant surveillance over all citizens; offered no elections and no democratic lawmaking process; and controlled the press?

“You might assume that this list is the work of some despotic third-world nation, but it is actually the product of the Ministry of Magic, the magician’s government in J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series,” says Barton. He also thinks the anti-­government theme is significant because the books have great potential to sway public opinion.

“It would be difficult to overstate the influence and market penetration of the Harry Potter series,” Barton contends. “In the last few years the Harry Potter novels passed from a children’s literature sensation to a bona fide international happening.”

Why does Barton think that Rowling writes with such disdain about the government and the press? “When she started the Harry Potter series, Rowling spent a period of time unemployed and on public assistance in Edinburgh [Scotland], divorced with a young child,” he says.

“Anyone who has pulled herself out of poverty as Rowling has is likely to believe that self-reliance and hard work are the keys to success, and to be conversely wary of government intervention.”

UT Chattanooga Honors Griscom

Tom Griscom, publisher and executive editor of the Chattanooga Times Free Press, is UT Chattanooga’s 2007 Distinguished Alumnus. “His career as a political and media leader has placed him in the middle of many of the significant events that have shaped our times, and in every instance, he has conducted himself with intelligence, professionalism, and charm,” said UTC chancellor Roger Brown.

Griscom’s journalistic bent was apparent even as a student. He was the editor of the campus newspaper, the UTC Echo, and the UTC yearbook, Moccasin. He also was a member of the Blue Key Honor Society and graduated as a commissioned officer in ROTC.

After graduating in 1971, Griscom went to work as a reporter and political columnist for the former Chattanooga News-Free Press. In 1978, he was named press secretary for then-senator Howard Baker. He later served as executive director of the National Republican Senatorial Committee and president of Ogilvy & Mather Public Affairs. He was appointed by President Ronald Reagan to be the president’s assistant for communications and planning.

Griscom became the executive vice-president of external relations at R.J. Reynolds and an executive vice-president in the Washington, D.C., public-affairs firm, Powell Tate Public Relations. At UTC, Griscom taught classes and held the title of West Chair of Communications and Public Affairs. Griscom and his wife, Marion, also a UTC graduate, remain active at the university. They have hosted alumni dinners and have volunteered for a variety of UT groups.

Plech Joins UT-Oak Ridge

A leading computational ­mathematician is now the first mathematics-oriented member of the University of Tennessee-Oak Ridge National Laboratory Joint Institute for Computational Sciences (JICS).

Petr Plech, a native of the Czech Republic, comes to UT and ORNL from a faculty appointment at the University of Warwick in England. As a computational mathematician, Plech bridges the traditional scientific divide between complex theories and their application, a role he enjoys playing. “I’ve always been kind of split,” said Plech. “Computational mathematics is really a synthesis of many fields.”

Plech draws on a theoretical understanding of how computers process information to develop solutions to some of the toughest problems facing scientists. His most recent work has centered on the application of computational techniques to designing and modeling advanced materials. The process of designing new materials increasingly relies on predictions and computational models of how the material will behave.

According to Plech, he was attracted to the UT-ORNL partnership because of the top-level opportunities and resources in both sides of his work, computational theory and scientific application. “I came here for the opportunity to work on really interesting scientific problems,” said Plech, “and I have not been disappointed.”

Looking forward, Plech said he plans to tackle more issues related to materials science and multiscale computation but also to examine other fields. He noted especially the computational and mathematical challenges faced as computers grow more powerful, linking more and more powerful processors.

Plech also hopes to use his position as a teacher to help encourage more students to pursue the field of computational mathematics. “There’s so much more potential to explore,” he said. “The resources in this area are a rich place for students to begin their research.”

JICS is one of four new joint institutes in the UT-Oak Ridge partnership. It is housed in an $11-million research facility on the ORNL campus–the first state-owned building ever built on the campus of a national laboratory.

The other UT-ORNL joint institutes are the Joint Institute for Biological Sciences, now under construction at ORNL; the Joint Institute for Advanced Materials, to be located on the UT Knoxville campus; and the Joint Institute for Neutron Science, to be located next to the Spallation Neutron Source at ORNL.