A Fate Worse Than Pseudoscience

You have to be careful what information you believe nowadays. The internet is chock full of wannabe experts trying to sell you on their various theories on health, wealth, and child rearing. It isn’t even limited to the internet anymore. Even that television doctor Doctor Mehmet Oz was dragged in front of the United States Senate to explain his charlatan ways. It’s one thing when such pseudoscience causes unwitting dupes to shell out their hard-earned cash on some useless panacea. It’s quite another when personal opinion masquerading as science actually causes harm.

Case in point – the anti-vaccination wave. A 6 year old boy recently died in Spain because his parents chose not to vaccinate him against a preventable disease – diphtheria – because one money-grubbing doctor wrote an article based on pure falsehood that associated vaccines with autism.

So imagine my [lack of] surprise when I ran across an article aimed at convincing women that mammograms cause cancer. The article, to the unscientific eye, looks legitimate. There are no flashy ads, no claims of CIA schemes or Obama plots, and two scientific articles are even referenced. But a simple examination of the details revealed this blog to be full of unscientific bullshit.

For example, the author straight up claims mammograms cause cancer. [This is where my jaw nearly fell off, it dropped so low.] To support this argument, the author cites Paul Yaswen, a researcher with the Life Sciences Division, Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory and links to a journal article by the same. Taking a look at the article, one can clearly determine the study findings are taken out of context. Yaswen’s study proved that epithelial breast cells respond to radiation by creating variant cells, which he postulates to be more likely to be pre-cancerous. However,Yaswen’s finding cannot be logically interrelated to the claims being made in the mammogram article. Yaswen did not even prove radiation caused the cells to become cancerous. In addition, the radiation dose applied to the epithelial cells in Yaswen’s research is far, FAR higher than that which would result from a mammogram. (Sorry to pick on you Yaswen.) In fact, some of Yaswen’s samples were dosed with 200 Rads – a dose that would cause visible skin inflammation (burns). In contrast, a mammogram results in around 0.3 Rads. And I don’t know anyone who every got a skin burn from a mammogram.

[Smooshed Boobie Syndrome – now that’s another story…]

The author goes on to make many other bogus claims. I’m not going to enumerate them all. Suffice to say it is bull crap like this that could potentially cause real, actual harm. What if a woman reads that crap and then decides not to get a mammogram? If she develops cancer, it might not be detected in time to save her breasts or, possibly, her life.

I wish there was a way to scour the internet and zap away all the harmful falsehoods to make it easier for users to discern fact from fiction. Or better, we need a way to hold people accountable for things they post on the web. As replacement, I give you this warning – beware the internet pseudo-expert.

When the Lights Go Out

The Mercedes-Benz Superdome! WOOT!!!
The Mercedes-Benz Superdome! WOOT!!!

What did you think of Superbowl XLVII? I thought it was AWESOME –  the best Superbowl I’ve watched in years. I was rooting for the San Francisco 49ers – based solely on quarterback cuteness – but alas my team’s comeback was to no avail. Beyoncé’s halftime show was absolutely fabulous. And there was a yawn-inducing power outage at the stadium, which still has all the media guessing, “What happened?”

SMG – the management company that runs the Superdome –  has not announced what piece of equipment failed. Entergy and SMG did announce the outage was not caused by an electrical grid interruption. A fault at equipment where the electrical grid ties into the Superdome caused the protection system to trip – that is to open breakers to arrest power supply to the Superdome. Since the Superdome is powered by the CBD underground secondary network,* such operation could be by design. Its purpose would be to protect network reliability, safety and voltage that could be compromised by feedback to the network from the Superdome. What caused the feedback (or if power feedback was actually the cause) remains to be determined.

A football stadium is a technologically exacting work of art. It takes more than seats and concrete to make a great stadium. A designer has to factor in a wide range of features to maximize capacity while providing efficient means for patrons to breathe, drink, use the bathroom, and escape in an emergency. Various events could challenge a stadium’s ability to protect its patrons – fire, earthquakes, terrorist attacks, inclement weather and, yes, power outages.

Power outages can present a danger to patrons. Backup power systems are generally installed to provide emergency power for a stadium if grid power is interrupted or an internal fault causes a local outage. Typically, upon loss of normal power, the alternate source will be on-line within a short period of time: less than one second if provided from a second electrical grid tie-in, around 20 seconds if served by back-up generators.

Nuclear plant electrical systems are designed in much the same way – but on steroids! Operating nuclear plants are required by law to have a second offsite power supply from a different distribution grid source. A nuclear plant’s alternating electrical current system is equipped with protective features that will very quickly switch from the preferred power supply to the second power supply to keep vital equipment energized.

If both those power sources become unavailable – as is what happened at North Anna after last year’s earthquake – a low voltage signal will initiate turbine-generator trip and reactor shutdown. The signal will also start up on-site diesel generators sized to power the emergency equipment necessary to bring the plant to safe shutdown mode and maintain it there for at least 3 days. These generators are each sized to power all necessary emergency equipment. Nuclear plants also have emergency battery banks to power computer systems needed to actuate the emergency diesel generators and some other vital instrumentation and equipment. Back ups to back ups to back ups – that’s Defense in Depth.

Emergency Diesel Generator in a Nuclear Power Plant

So, if the Superdome had been powered like a nuclear plant, could the game have continued uninterrupted thus thwarting the San Fran comeback attempt that kept viewers on the edge of their seats? (Or, well, at least me.) Well, not really. The emergency systems in a nuclear plant, like the emergency power systems in the Superdome, are sized to energize vital equipment only. So, those dim lights just bright enough to reveal Joe Flacco stretching on the sidelines are all we’d get – along with vital ventilation and pumping systems. So no stage lights for the ‘Mercedes-Benz Superdome’ Nuclear Power Station either. Boohoo.

But that’s okay. I needed a break from those chatty announcers anyway.

*I deduced that the Superdome is powered by CBD secondary network. I don’t have the security clearance to verify that. 🙂

Time lapse of 83-day Sequoyah Unit 2 Steam Generator Replacement

This is just one of the coolest things I’ve ever seen.

In 2002, Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) successfully received approval from the NRC for a 1.3 percent power uprate. Just two weeks ago on January 15th, TVA applied for license renewal. And now the steam generators necessary to transform 3,455 mega-watts to steam for another 20+ years are in place and pumping up the POWER!

sequoyah 1and2

TVA replaced all 4 steam generators at Sequoyah Unit 2. Crane operators be warned, this might make you H-O-T!!!

How My Husband Saved a Man’s Life – Maybe

This summer, a man wrecked into and totalled my husband’s car. We only owed $450 more on that car. Stupid chode.

Anyway, the scene was spectacular. The guy – heretofore referred to as Chode – was driving a white Jeep Cherokee which was smashed to oblivion. The woman in the car behind Chode said he didn’t even hit the brakes when he slammed into my husbands Honda Element, which was at a full stop waiting for the man driving the Mercedes Sprinter in front of him to turn left into the Burger King for a Whopper made his way. I drove up to see my husband’s car smashed in the front and the back like a sheet metal accordion, and my husband pacing back and forth with a freaked-out, confused look on his face. When he asked me if I thought “they” could repair it, I told him, “Oh no, I don’t think so honey. There are five kinds of fluid leaking from under the car.”

Chode wasn’t wearing a seat belt. So I didn’t get the liberty to tearing into him for his obvious distracted driving as the ambulance carted him directly to the ER. (At 6:30 pm, he could only remember leaving the house that morning.) His head left a spider mark (Figure 1) on the windshield that left me puzzled as to how the dude didn’t end up on a flying mission to the pavement. (Thank science for airbags, eh?) I mean, how hard does one have to hit the windshield before the windshield wins? Which got me thinking. I’ll betch my husband saved that man’s life. My husband wasn’t convinced. So I will use PHYSICS to prove I am right!

Figure 1: Wrecked up Jeep Cherokee with scary spider mark from Chode's head.
Figure 1: Wrecked up Jeep Cherokee with scary spider mark from Chode’s head.

Figure 2 shows a diagram of what the accident conditions were just before impact.  My husband was stopped behind a Mercedes Sprinter that was trying to make  a left turn into a Burger King. Both the Sprinter and my husband were at a full stop.

Figure 2: Diagram of the vehicle positions just prior to impact.
Figure 2: Diagram of the vehicle positions just prior to impact.

I performed an evaluation to compare the force that Chode’s brain would experience if he had rear-ended the Sprinter cargo van head on, rather than encountering my husband’s car first. The key assumption is that, while the Honda  Element has a rear crumple zone (see Figure 3), the Sprinter cargo van lacks a rear crumple zone. (The Sprinter and the damage it incurred can be seen in the backgroud of Figure 3.) I reason that incorporating a crumple zone on the cargo van would pose a danger to the passengers in the cargo van. If the rear of the cargo van crumpled, the crumpling could transfer crash forces to the payload inside, possibly flinging objects toward the passengers in the open cab at the front of the van. One would not want flying objects to injure the passengers. I posit it would be safer to design the Sprinter with a rigid cargo hold to prevent objects from being ejected from the cargo hold.

Junk Honda
Figure 3: Junk Honda being towed away. The Mercedes is shown parked behind the Honda. The Mercedes had a dent in the door and the plastic bumper was cracked. The Honda was totalled.

I had to make lots of assumptions based on insight alone. But as long as the assumptions are conservative and are equally applied in all cases, the results of my analysis should be reasonable. Figure 4 shows a snapshot of the results. I cannot be sure the forces encountered according to these calculations are entirely accurate without downloading the information from the data recorders from all the vehicles involved. But the values are not as important as the comparison of the actual accident to the hypothetical event.

Observing the equations for conservation of momentum, the initial and final velocities of the vehicles can be estimated. My husband said he let up on the brake when he saw the Jeep was about to hit him. I confirm that since the Honda left no skid marks on the road. Assuming that – after collision – two cars can be treated as a single mass, I calculated the velocity after collision. To be conservative, I assumed the Sprinter was carrying merely a third of its full capacity. Then, setting an arbitrary (but informed*) impulse time, I calculated the G forces Chode’s average sized** brain encountered. Since there was only one crumple zone in the hypothetical event (as compared to two in the actual event), I cut the impulse time in half for that event. I believe this is conservative, because crumple zones have been linked to a 400-500 percent increase in impulse time. So the effect of losing a crumple zone is most likely underestimated in my evaluation.

Figure 4: Comparison of the actual and hypothetical accident forces on Chode's brain - G forces highlighted in green.
Figure 4: Comparison of the actual and hypothetical accident forces on Chode’s brain – G forces highlighted in green.

The G forces encountered by Chode’s brain in calculation of the hypothetical event are more than twice that of the actual event. I cannot definitively say that, had Chode hit the Sprinter head-on, he would have died. The relationship of force to traumatic brain injury are quite complex. However, I can with some confidence conclude that encountering my husband’s crumple zone-equipped Honda prior to hitting the Sprinter’s rigid body definitely saved Chode some hospital time.

However, it didn’t save me any money. Stupid Chode.

*Insight sources: German, A. and Comeau, J-L., et al; Event Data Recorders in the Analysis fo Frontal Impacts; Annu Proc Assoc Adv Automot Med. 2007; 51: 225–243.

**Do note, I cannot assume Chode’s average sized brain provided him average intellect.

What is NOT Science

Nuclear power has always had its adversaries. Long before Three Mile Island, anti-nuclear “experts” spewed warnings about two-headed fish and leukemia epidemics. In this post-Fukushima age, there is just so much disinformation about nuclear power floating around, counter-balancing the flow of falsehoods  with accurate information can feel like an overwhelming challenge.

But someone’s has got to do it. So here I go.

Energy News is ‘reporting’*:

“Legal Expert: 3 police died of acute leukemia after being sent to Fukushima within 50 kilometers of plant”

And that article links to another article saying the same, which links to a blog that is deleted. So, we are to believe some unsourced, unknown, non-cited pseudo-person says three people died of leukemia so it must have been from Fukushima. (It couldn’t have been any other carcinogen. No, no…) Behold, the internet says it is so, so it must be true.

Dude, that is not science.

The background radiation dose received by humans from naturally occurring sources is 2.4 mSv per year globally, 3.0 mSv in the United States. (FUN TIP: If you want to find your estimated personal annual radiation dose, you can use the interactive Personal Annual Radiation Dose Calculator on the Nuclear Regulatory Commission‘s website.) In comparison, the annual radiation dose limit for radiation workers in the United States is 50 mSv (5 rem). But the dose radiation workers actually receive is substantially smaller than the legal limit. For example, in 2010 the average radiation dose actually received by U.S. radiation workers was 1.7 mSv (0.17 rem). (NUREG-0173, 2012)

In 2006, the National Research Council’s Committee on the Biological Effects of Ionizing Radiation (BEIR) developed risk models for estimating the relationship between exposure to low levels of low -LET (linear energy transfer) ionizing radiation (such as gamma rays) and harmful health effects (ISBN: 0-309-53040-7 ). The committee defined low dose as doses from zero to about 100 mSv. (That’s 10 rem!)

The BEIR risk model predicted that approximately 1 person in 100 would be expected to develop solid cancer or leukemia from a dose of 100 mSv above background (3 mSv), while approximately 42 individuals per 100 would be expected to develop solid cancer or leukemia from other causes.

Per the BEIR model, lower doses would produce proportionally lower risks. For example, the committee predicted that approximately 1 individual per 1000 would develop cancer from an exposure to 10 mSv. In comparison, approximately 1 individual per 100 would be expected to develop cancer from a lifetime exposure to low-LET, natural background radiation (excluding radon, which is high-LET radiation).

So, while there is a correlation between significant (compared to background radiation dose) exposure to ionizing radiation and leukemia risk, there are many other contributing factors that contribute far more to the risk for developing the disease. Workers exposed to certain carcinogenic chemicals over a long period of time, such as benzene, are at much higher risk. Some genetic conditions, like Down’s Syndrome, can increase risk, as well as electromagnetic fields, cancer drugs, and even smoking.

The claim made in that Energy [non]-News – I can’t even call it an article! – blurb are purely hysterical. Any claim that cancer or leukemia was caused by radiation dose by someone not involved in epidemiological studies of the correlation between radiation exposure and cancer should be taken with a very big boulder of salt.

*I can’t even link there because this site is just that bad. If you really want to read it, google can help you out.

The REAL Reason for the Season

Take your Bah Humbug elsewhere!

Christmas is about longer days, iced cookies and family shindigs. End of story.

The real reason for the season.
The real reason for the season.

Oh, and that sciencey obliquity stuff too. Yeah.


A Snowball’s Chance in Hell

A composite image showing regions of Mercury permanently in shadow highlighted in red, hydrogen-rich regions highlighted in yellow.
Image Credit: NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Carnegie Institution of Washington/National Astronomy and Ionosphere Center, Arecibo Observatory

“Holy Interplanetary physics, Batman!!!”


Well, ice, that is. For over twenty years, scientists have accepted the working hypothesis that water or ice may exist on Mercury based on bright patches that showed up in reflected in radar images of Mercury’s north pole. But with  temperatures reaching as high as 800 degrees Fahrenheit on the sunny side,  without definitive proof that the conditions for ice to thrive existed on Mercury, the hypothesis could only remain such. Through experiments using infrared imaging, combined with satellite imagery, altitudinal data, and temperature modeling, NASA scientists are confident the hypothesis that water ice exists on Mercury is true.

But all this pales in comparison to the discovery that regions of the water ice deposits on Mercury are covered with dark patches of less reflective material – presumably material deposited by asteroids and comets that impacted the Mercurian surface.

Mercury is approximately the size of Earth’s moon. Because Mercury is so small, it lacks the gravitational forces necessary to retain a substantive atmosphere. The solar winds Mercury experiences are so strong that nearly all of Mercury’s atmosphere was blown away long, long ago. As Mercury has almost no atmosphere, asteroids don’t experience the atmospheric burn that asteroids entering Earth’s atmosphere experience. Because asteroids experience no burn approaching Mercury, material on or within an asteroid can be retained upon impact with Mercury. So, if an asteroid that hit Mercury’s north pole contained organic material, it is likely that organic material is retained in deep freeze on Mercury’s poles.

Considering all of this, if this dark material on Mercury is organic, where did it come from?

Organic material. Alien organic material.

Maybe we are aliens too…