Stinky Science

Someone asked me why a cloth mask can stop a virus if pants cannot stop a fart. Well, well, WELL! You have asked the right woman!

The part of a fart that smells is actually not a solid. It’s a mixture of hydrogen sulfide and methane gases. So it doesn’t need to travel in a droplet or a particle. Gases can be dissolved in a water droplet, but when a water droplet evaporates from a filter, the gaseous molecule that was in that droplet would continue to travel in the air. (Whereas a viral particle, which is a solid, would be “stuck” in whatever filter the water had adhered to.)

However, gases are not very soluble. They are more soluble in a liquid when they are under pressure (like carbon dioxide in a soda). But once released from the pressure the gases quickly disassociate from the liquid and rise into the air.

Gaseous molecules are very small in comparison to a solid particle like a virus particle. Water particles are also generally larger in comparison because of a family of intermolecular forces we call van der Waals forces that cause them to glom together. If you’ve heard the term “hydrogen bonding,” that is a van der Waals force. Water has strong van der Waals forces that create surface tension. Surface tension makes water tend to form aerosols with a wide range of particle sizes. So a filter stops the aerosolized water particles, giving them time to evaporate and retaining any solid particles that were traveling in the aerosol. But gases released with the aerosols would not be trapped in the filter.

So, wear a mask y’all.

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.

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!!!

The Incredulous Assertion of Heaven

How many times have we heard that old story, “I thought I’d died and went to heaven?” Well,  Newsweek and academic neurosurgeon Dr. Eben Alexander wants you to think he has – literally. In a classic example of proof in spite of fact, Dr. Alexander is using an uncanny (but not uncommon) experience during his unfortunate brush with death as proof that heaven exists without actually offering any evidence at all. But that, of course, is subjective.

Alexander’s evidence that heaven exists consists of fervent hope, evocative imagery and self-praise. Alexander first tries to paint himself as an objective, skeptical observer writing,

“I grew up in a scientific world… I had always believed there were good scientific explanations for the heavenly out-of-body journeys…

“Although I considered myself a faithful Christian, I was so more in name than in actual belief.”

Alexander attempts several times to gain the trust of his readers by touting his own prestige as a neurosurgeon, as if that gives him an edge in authenticating supernatural phenomena.

“I’ve spent decades as a neurosurgeon at some of the most prestigious medical institutions in our country.”

However, his only explanation for his “out of body” experience is mere subjective story telling.

According to current medical understanding of the brain and mind, there is absolutely no way that I could have experienced even a dim and limited consciousness during my time in the coma, much less the hyper-vivid and completely coherent odyssey I underwent.

Um, yes there is Mr. Alexander. It’s called brain activity. Despite your claims to the contrary, you were not brain dead while in your coma. I doubt your doctors put electrodes in your brain to measure brain activity. Rather than risk further brain infection by introducing a foreign object into dome, they most likely attached EEG contacts to the outside of your scalp, which explains the lack of evidence when you were truly conscious and when you were not. The cortex does not “shut down,” except in death. And with the level of chemical activity experienced by your brain during this bacterial onslaught, your medical treatment and recovery, the fact that your brain relayed such vivid experiences is not unexplainable or unexpected.

There is no scientific explanation for the fact that while my body lay in coma, my mind—my conscious, inner self—was alive and well.

Suddenly Mr. Alexander has an intimate understanding of the origin and nature of human consciousness? Questions on human consciousness – how it materializes, what parts of the brain enable it, and where it goes when we are unconscious – has puzzled scientists for centuries. But one guy gets knocked out, wakes up with a personal epiphany, and we are suddenly to believe he can explain what consciousness really is? I’ve solved engineering problems in my sleep; but let’s be realistic!

“Out-of-body” experiences are today’s Rubik’s Cube: tunnels of light, angels, darkness – the near-death experiences run the gamut in variation. We don’t understand the brain well enough to pinpoint why they happen, but there are some very interesting theories of consciousness. Rather than take the word of a doctor with great hopes, I think I’ll keep my skepticism in tact.

For more perspective, check out Sam Harris’ take on these heavenly shenanigans.

I am the Universe

It takes just take a few random variables put together in the correct sequence to remind one how big the universe is, and how small the universe is.

One of the first warm nights of the spring season brought me out of doors while the night was new to gaze into the cosmos. The sky was so clear and the breeze so light – it was like a little gift from the universe. The moon, Jupiter, Mars and Venus were all there with me. Staring at those twinkling planets – communing with the universe – brought a feeling of happiness and exhilaration upon me – the result of knowing that I am walking talking coincidence of universal imperfection.

Reminders of the origin of life have regaled me of late. First there is was the slew of storms and tornados that swept the midwest. That storm was followed by a beautiful night sky displaying sparkly red Mars and twinkly white Venus in their naked beauty. Then video shot by NASA of a Solar Storm on the Sun sending a disruptive cloud of subatomic charged particles hurtling toward Earth. Watching the force of a solar flare explosion make the whole Sun shiver moved me. (Literally I was jumping around my living room shouting, “It’s just so awesome. I so want to go there! Almost.”)

Video credit: NASA

It takes just take a few random variables put together in the correct sequence to remind one how big the universe is, and how small the universe is. Life is a big deal. Having the ability to live and think and reason and imagine what life can be – knowing that the same forces that caused the big bang, created everything, and hold together the nuclei and their electrons in their orbitals so that I can type this post just makes me feel enormous.

And topping off all of this feel-good, atheistic revelry came a video by Max Schlickenmeyer that almost brought me to tears.

Video credit: Max Schlickenmeyer

I owe a lot to the fervid mass of plasma that spit out the heavy particles that form me. Thank you Supernova!

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