There Must Be Room for Debate

There’s a science-literacy backbeat to several of the recent supposedly-superluminal-neutrino stories, and it really manifested itself in a barrage of tweets a few days back, responses to the WSJ “science” article I discussed where the author mused that because of the neutrino experiment, the global warming science isn’t settled. Lampooning such denialism is pretty easy (and fun) and it’s summarized in Be(c+)ause Neutrino and ‘Settled Science’ and CO2. The tweets went with the format of

If serious scientists can question Einstein’s relativity, there must be room for debate about [silly argument]

And fun was had by all. But it occurred to me that there are a lot of people who wouldn’t get the joke. As I tweeted, serious scientists question Einstein ALL THE TIME. That’s what we DO. This is something I think the most people probably don’t get, and that the crackpots who liken science to dogma and scientists to priests certainly don’t. ANY time you do an experiment you are questioning and testing the principles at play in that experiment. If you get some unexpected result you may have discovered new science. Most of the time, of course (and more so the further you are from the cutting edge), you either get what you expected to get, or you made a mistake that you might later uncover. But that’s not due to science being a religion or some conspiracy, it’s because the science is on a solid foundation. So any experiment that uses relativity is a test of relativity, just as any experiment using chemistry principles is a test of those principles, and for biology and geology.

Once a theory has been tested numerous times, you gain confidence that it’s right. Toppling it is not really an option once you have established that it works over the range of problems it’s meant to address — at best you might have to modify it. If you let go of an object and it rises, you don’t rush out and declare “gravity is dead!” (unless perhaps you’re Charles Krauthammer). What you do is look to see if there is some other influence at play — the object is a helium balloon, perhaps, or there’s a strong air current. Established science mandates the adage that extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence. Established science defines what ordinary is.

And ordinary does not get toppled with a single experiment. While some abbreviated history lesson might point to these paradigm shifts, the reality is that the experiments were repeated or other experiments were done and there was invariably a period of debate. Paradigm shifts are slower than the history books sometimes depict. The famous 1887 Michelson-Morely experiment, for example, was a higher-precision repeat of an 1881 experiment that hinted at a discrepancy with the expected answer. The 1881 experiment was insufficient to topple the idea of the aether as a medium (representing an absolute frame) we moved through (but it most certainly was a test of the current paradigm) but at the time, so was the 1887 experiment. Other experiments were subsequently done, and new hypotheses arose to explain the results, such as the partial entrainment of the aether and the ad-hoc FitzGerald–Lorentz contraction. Michelson-Morely may have been the mortal blow for the aether, but it took decades for it to actually die.

Evolution is another example. It took a long time for the theory to be accepted, but by now has accumulated so much evidence and been tested in so many ways, no single bit of evidence is going to topple it. Theories are either shown to be systemically wrong, or they get modified. The early thermodynamic theories of phlogiston and caloric were tossed out because they were wrong — they were not examples of a simplified version of a more complete theory, as with relativity and Newtonian systems. Atomic models came and went as more data were obtained, and the Bohr model had its day as quantum mechanics was developed. The Rutherford scattering experiment may be the closest example of which I am aware of a single experiment toppling a model, but that model was not particularly well-developed and certainly did not have 100 years of testing and confirmation behind it.

Wait For It…

It may have happened already, but if not, it’s just a matter of time before some jackass complains about how Irene was overhyped* because the damage/devastation was not as bad as it was feared. Which completely ignores that getting people to properly prepare is a huge part of minimizing the damage.

*I know Ron Paul has called for the elimination of FEMA, but that’s pre-existing jackassitude.

Meet Me in Small Claims Court

We maintain that arbitrary killing is not a solution to political problems and crime’s adjudication as Justice must be seen to be done.

When I read that in Statement From the Family of Osama bin Laden, my irony meter broke. They owe me a new one.

I was out of town on May 1 (and all of last week), and have had only intermittent chances to catch up on all of the happenings, but do have some thoughts. There are only a few things that bother me at all, I think. The kind of celebration I saw Monday night/Tuesday morning made me a tad uncomfortable; I understand it, but the first thing I thought of was the media coverage of the reaction in some (not all) places in the middle east after 9/11. It wasn’t obvious that they were celebrating justice or reveling in revenge. That gives me pause. Labeling it as justice also has some issues. I don’t know what a better description would be, but the word implies that this was somehow tied in with the criminal justice system, with due process and rights. It wasn’t. This was a military action, and it was justified.

Terrorism is a strange mix of criminal activity and war. But one must not forget that it is still war in many of its actions. Bin Laden declared war on the US in 1998 and carried out overt acts, killing thousands, and not just in the US. The attribution of these deeds solely as criminal acts is, I think, naive and simplistic. This did not take place on US soil. The notion that the appropriate response to locating him, in foreign territory, would to be to serve an arrest warrant is ludicrous. Good men put their lives at risk in this operation, and would have been at greater risk if they had been under a restriction to capture but not kill, or with similar rules of engagement. Keep in mind that we had other options, like sending a missile or a GPS/laser-guided bomb. An enemy general in a war does not need to have a pistol in his hand at the time of action in order to justify bombing his headquarters. This, I think, is no different. This was a war of bin Laden’s choosing, and it is likely that the only way the ending could have been different would be if he had surrendered of his own accord. Which he had the option to do at pretty much any point.

Fred Clark at slacktivist has some excellent posts (its predecessor is linked within) on the reasoning behind the justification. There is a mention of the Nuremburg trials after WWII in a post by Glenn Greenwald, which I have not read. Those trials took place after the war was over, with prisoners who had been captured, many of whom were captured after hostilities had ceased. That’s an important distinction, I think. Prisoners are taken when they have made an overt act of surrender. Absent that, they are considered combatants, and don’t have to explicitly “go” for a weapon to be considered dangerous. I would not consider the risk trading even one more life for Osama bin Laden’s capture to have been acceptable. His killing was not arbitrary, nor was it the execution of a criminal sentence. It was part of the war that he declared, and unlike the slaughter of civilians he orchestrated, was justified.

Radioactive Data Part II

My analysis of beta counts in California was from some simple EPA data. Here is a more detailed analysis of samples from Seattle: Fission Products in Seattle Reveal Clues about Japan Nuclear Disaster

By measuring the energy of the gamma rays from the filters, these guys have identified exactly which fission products have made their way across the Pacific. And this in turn allows them to make a number of interesting inferences about what has gone wrong at Fukushima.

[T]here are a huge number of possible breakdown products from nuclear fission in a reactor and yet the Seattle team found evidence of only three fission product elements–iodine, cesium and tellurium. “This points to a specifific process of release into the atmosphere,” they say.

Cesium Iodide is highly soluble in water. So these guys speculate that what they’re seeing is the result of contaminated steam being released into the atmosphere. “Chernobyl debris, conversely, showed a much broader spectrum of elements, reflecting the direct dispersal of active fuel elements,” they say.

However, this comes from an analysis of just the first five days after the fission products were detected (data collected on Mar 17-18), so it does not reflect more recent events.

Over on the Other Side of the Line

Understating the risks is just as irresponsible as overstating it.

The Mind of Dr. Pion: Don’t believe what the press is telling you!

There is no explicit by-line on this article, but the video contains an interview with BBC reporter Chris Hogg in Tokyo that repeats that a half life of 8 days means “that after 8 days the risk will have dissipated”.

The reporter is WRONG. Twice, because that is also not what the officials said. His ignorance of basic physics, in this case a topic I always teach in a college general education class, led him to misinterpret what was actually said by a government spokesman and hence mislead the public.

Let's Look at Some Radioactive Data

Stock tip: invest in adult diaper companies, what with the soiling of undergarments going on about radiation levels in the US.

I’ve run across a number of stories about the worries and the run on iodine tablets, and then saw the California radiation monitoring map which led me to the EPA site. They give radiation levels for select cities, but don’t tell you what the expected background levels are, so all you have is the assurance that the detected levels are small. However, the EPA has set up a section dedicated to the Japan accident, which includes a map with the most recent data for all of their monitoring sites. I eventually found how to get historical data — you click on “Query View” over in the left column — and looked to see what I could find.

I chose Eureka, CA because it’s on the West Coast and I was excited to have found the database, and the beta count rate because that would be indicative of having fallout reach the US; many fission products are beta-emitters. (The gamma data is divided into energy bins, and would have taken longer to analyze.)

Here’s what the radiation levels look like, starting with March 10, up through a half-day’s worth of data on the 25th.

The earthquake happened in Japan on the 11th at 0542 UTC. You might think the first spike, on the 11th, might be caused by the quake/tsunami, but the cooling problems didn’t happen until about 8 hours had elapsed and it would take several days for any fallout to reach California. If you really think that either peak is significant, all you have to do is go into the database and look at a larger data set.

This graph goes back to early February. The two peaks shown on the first graph are near points 750 and 1000. We can see that the radiation levels are showing no unusual behavior.

Because the EPA has labeled levels coming from specific isotopes I have to assume that’s by looking at the spectrum, and they give numbers that are much less than a picoCurie per cubic meter. One Curie is 3.7 x 10^10 decays per second (based on the activity of a gram of Radium-226), which means that a picoCurie is about 2 decays per minute. The EPA isn’t clear that the numbers it gives for gross beta counts are for a cubic meter or a larger volume, but I think it has to be, because 0.0017 pCi (the Anaheim Cs-137 activity) is only about a quarter of a decay per hour, so I imagine they sample a much larger volume.

Vocabulary lesson: many MSM stories are confusing radiation and fallout/contamination. radiation (in this context) is the energetic particle emitted when something decays, e.g. a gamma or a beta. Fallout or contamination refers to the radioactive particles, such as particulate matter that was expelled from the reactor and contains radioactive particles. We aren’t worried about radiation reaching us from Japan, because that is diminished by distance. It would be like complaining that the lights of Tokyo are too bright and though I’m sure Sarah Palin can see them from her home, it’s simply not an issue for us. What matters is the amount of radioactive particles that might reach us, and decay when they are here. But we can’t see any effect on the radiation levels, because any increase is small compared to the background and fluctuations in the background.

To quote Hedley LaMarr, “Gentlemen, Please, Rest Your Sphincters!”

Because People Could Die

Back when I was teaching in the Navy’s nuclear propulsion program, I saw that there was an foundational attitude towards operational systems: these are the rules — obey them. It is not up to you to decide that it’s OK to not follow them. And the unspoken undercurrent to that is because if you don’t, people could die. This applied to the reactor systems, because they were designed to work a certain way and had safeguards that assumed you were operating it according to procedure. The attitude was also present, as far as I could tell, to general shipboard operations. Most of my students were going to serve aboard submarines, and the potential for disaster is magnified by orders of magnitude when you are in a closed container some depth below the surface, and a loss of propulsion or breathable air could spell your doom. (Not that duty aboard a surface ship means tolerance for corner-cutting, either). That’s why they continually drill — practice your responses to emergency situations and do it right, because if you don’t, people could die. Commanding officers are used to orders being carried out, rather than getting “that’s not in my job description.” And you know what? The navy has a pretty good track record for a task that’s just a little dangerous. (As a side note, I can only imagine the frustration of the navy folk atop my org chart, dealing with a staff that is >90% civilian and who generally lack this ingrained response to following orders and rules without question*, and among whom are several people who do decide that a rule is silly and therefore will not be followed)

This attitude goes beyond the military. It’s why we have safety rules and building codes, and people who work within professions that have them, you will generally find a serious attitude toward such protocols. The people with experience do not relish putting their health or life at risk at the behest of someone looking for a shortcut. And usually a shortcut is a temptation for those who wish to save time and/or money, and for whom it means putting someone else at risk.

I was reminded of this when I read Millions saved in Japan by good engineering and government building codes. (The link title is a play on a tweet by Dave Ewing, who proclaimed that it was a headline you would not see.) And though some of the numbers are out of date (it was posted on the 12th, and the death toll is significantly larger), the idea is still valid. The Japanese have recognized the continual danger of earthquake and tsunami and instituted building codes to minimize the destruction, despite the fact that it costs more to do that. While such efforts did not (and probably cannot) result in no damage or loss of life, the devastation was far less than has occurred with weaker earthquakes elsewhere.

The difference is that Japan has made a commitment to earthquake-safe buildings, and had the money to carry out that commitment. Haiti lacked the money to implement strict construction standards and a government capable of compelling compliance. Builders and government regulators in the United States have the power and the resources to ensure Japanese standards of construction apply here, but my sense from living in California for 3 years is that we may lack the commitment needed to do this.

I think Josh is right about the US lacking the commitment — it’s just not how we do things here. We moan and wail about how damnably expensive regulation is, and how we should be free from government intrusion (curiously, I have yet to see any small-government proponents claim that the nuclear power industry is over-regulated). The question of how much money a regulation will cost is always asked, but the question of how many lives will be lost or saved does not seem to get the same attention. We bemoan the loss of life and note the monetary costs when a bridge or dam fails, but the money to inspect, repair and modify them isn’t always spent. There is a push to let businesses regulate themselves, to let “the market” take care if such things, except that “the market” doesn’t punish transgressors until after the fact, if at all. Action is taken, or not taken, for money, not because people could die. Prevention is usually invisible, which was the point behind the tweet, and too often we reward politicians for bold responses, not bold prevention.

* “without question” is not the same as “without grumbling.” Generally speaking (or Admirally speaking, since this is the navy) you grumble but do the task, and sailors are excellent grumblers.