Archive for March, 2011

Signs Point to "Yes"

The fraudulent invention debunkifier

The Crackpot Flowchart(TM) will let you know in an instant whether the invention being touted is not only earth-shattering but whether it will rock the very foundations of modern science itself. No more worrying that you missed out on a Pulitzer, kick the frauds and the deluded into a cracked pot and save the real breakthrough for a sneaky call to the newsdesk at Science and Nature.


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!”

Advanced Camera Techniques

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Uncle Helium Gets Married

Physicists observe antihelium-4 nucleus, the heaviest antinucleus yet

[S]cientists with the STAR collaboration at the Relativistic Heavy Ion Collider (RHIC) at Brookhaven National Laboratory have observed another state of antimatter for the first time: the antimatter helium-4 nucleus, which is the heaviest antinucleus observed so far.

Not Letting the Facts Get in the Way

A case of never letting the source spoil a good story

Of course, this is a problem that generalises well beyond science. Over and again, you read comment pieces that purport to be responding to an earlier piece, but distort the earlier arguments, or miss out the most important ones: they count on it being inconvenient for you to check. There’s also an interesting difference between different media: most bloggers have no institutional credibility, so they must build it by linking transparently and allowing you to double-check their work easily.

But more than anything, because linking to sources is such an easy thing to do and the motivations for avoiding links are so dubious, I’ve detected myself using a new rule of thumb: if you don’t link to primary sources, I just don’t trust you.

If I Did It

Several weeks ago we had an office discussion that eventually got around to xkcd and the fascination with ball pits, to pranks involving filling up a cubicle with balls or packing peanuts. The problem with such pranks, it was observed, is that balls are expensive and balls or peanuts take up the same volume ahead of time — storage is an issue. But balloons … they don’t suffer from this problem. You could fill a colleague’s office with balloons.


“That would be cool,” that colleague was heard to utter.


To me, such a statement is an invitation. It would be rude to not fill that person’s office with balloons, should such an opportunity arise, and I fear that someone might do it. So it got me thinking. How would one go about doing such a thing? (Not that I would do such a dastardly thing — I wouldn’t want to expose myself to a wrongful breath suit)

First thing would be to obtain a pump. Double-action, so it fills on both the up- and down-stroke.

When filling the balloons, I would use a balloon clip to speed things up (tying is such a pain) and would find that twisting the neck is important, otherwise the air would tend to quickly leak out.

Then, I would start filling the office. Maybe during lunch hour, or at odd times during the day (and staying late to ensure my real work was done). Get an idea of how many balloons I and any co-conspirators could fill. The progress after one day might look something like this

After four days, it might look something like this


I’ll bet with some help I could use up 200 12″ balloons and 122 (50+72) 17″ balloons, along with a few balloon-animal style balloons (which would be close to useless, since they take up so little volume). With that many, I’d probably notice that there is significant balloon-stink. And I would find the non-stick agent they use (probably cornstarch) to be really annoying after a while.

To be especially devious I might even fill some of the balloons with confetti, so that popping them all would become more of a challenge. I might be tempted to also fill some with helium, but they wouldn’t survive the weekend, so I wouldn’t bother. I’d probably find that about 10% of the balloons would be lost to defect and breakage, and would be amused by the occasional “boom” coming from the office. I’ll bet it would remind me of the episode of the Simpsons where Homer becomes the Beer Baron (Homer vs. the 18th Amendment), and his stills kept blowing up.

If I were to do such a thing.

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.

I'll Take Perspective for $200, Alex

Deaths per TWH by energy source

What is the worst kind of power plant disaster? Hint: It’s not nuclear.

The disaster in Tokyo is horrific, and we aren’t trying to say it isn’t a terrible situation. The question we’re trying to answer rationally here is whether nuclear power plant accidents cause more damage than other kinds of power plants. We’ve put together a list of five of the worst power plant disasters in recent history, measured by death toll, monetary damage, and regions affected. The lesson? The issue isn’t so much the kind of energy you use, but how you design the power plants that contain it.

It's Not All Stick Figures

xkcd Radiation Dose Chart

The Deepening Time Sink

Awesome new physics blogs

Which reminds me that my blogroll disappeared at some point in my layout reshuffling, and I should do something about that someday…

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