Wave at the camera

You have probably seen the fake advertisement for Wave, the new way of charging your iOS 8 phone in any standard household microwave. (Although I would venture that some of the responses with fried microwaves and phones are hoaxes as well.)

I admit I did giggle when I first read it — some chump microwaved their expensive phone and blew it up, funny, right? Only I realized that it’s not funny at all.

Why shouldn’t people believe that a new technology would allow them to charge their phone by microwaving it? It’s no more or less magical than any other new technology being invented every day. It just happens not to have been invented yet.

Yes, people need to think critically, check sources, use common sense, and become less science-illiterate. Is microwaving your phone a smart thing to do? No. Could the average person probably have known better? Yes. But if you are lucky enough to be in the minority for whom this is obvious, you don’t have any right to laugh at those for whom it is not.

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Anvil of Creation

On Skepticblog yesterday, there was a post about what would happen if you put your hand into the LHC’s proton beam, sparked by a YouTube interview of physicists at the University of Nottingham by Sixty Symbols, an amazing cooperation between science and journalism that tries to show the “human side” of physicists who are really, really interested in what they do.

At 42 seconds into the video, in the background, you can see the typical professor’s office: messy shelves of notebooks and books and papers. One big, green book with gold lettering on the spine stands out: “Atlas of Creation.”

I have that book too. It was given to me by a biologist friend, to whom it was sent unsolicited. It’s a four-kilogram, 700-page outsize tome filled with beautiful color photographs of animals and fossils. Unfortunately, each page’s purpose is to ‘prove’ that evolution never happened, because the modern-day animals all look exactly like their fossilized relatives (they don’t, though.)

The book’s epilogue tells a little more about the author’s philosophy: Not terrorists or Nazis, but Charles Darwin himself, was responsible for the World Trade Center attacks and the Holocaust. The solution to all this evil brought about by scientists and their evolution? It just happens to be the author’s religion.

Sound familiar? Where did the book come from? The Creation Museum in Kentucky, USA? Who paid for it to be printed on glossy paper and sent around the world? Pat Robertson? Not at all! Harun Yahya, the pseudonym of a Turkish religious nutcase and former Holocaust denier, wrote it and distributed it unsolicited to schools, universities, and research institutes in many different countries around the world, presumably at the expense of an unknown and very wealthy backer.

I keep the book around as a hefty reminder that just because something looks professionally done, doesn’t mean it’s not bullshit. Also in case I need a really heavy doorstop. I was amused to see that I’m not the only one.

Wisteria Hysteria

Dutch wireless disease? (By Yug, public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.)

Dutch wireless disease?

Faced with the prospect of funding cuts from the new anti-intellectual government (“We don’t pay you to think, Mister Scientist!”), apparently someone at Wageningen University’s PR office has decided their results need to make more waves.

The university’s press release on their website is unfortunately only in Dutch, but in it they say that while observing young ash trees growing for three months, close proximity to six wireless routers seemed to cause discoloration and death of leaves. They then go on to say [translation mine],

Although the effects were observed using various sources of radiation and various trees, the researchers think it desirable to repeat the experiment, preferably during a longer period and on a larger scale.

This is code for “Our results were not statistically significant,” which in layman’s terms means “It might or might not be true, but we proved jack.” Now this research has the potential for far-reaching consequences in our modern society that depends on wireless internet and other sorts of electromagnetic waves, and the subject is also a touchy one, about which many people have a strong opinion which is totally unsupported by facts.

Let me state here once and for all that I don’t know the facts either. I tend to start out skeptical of these “studies” because of all the nonsense floating around, but like any good skeptic, I am open to being convinced by sound science. Several serious mistakes indicate, however, that while the as yet unpublished research may be sound, the press release doesn’t even come close:

  • Mistake #1. Sending out a press release before the experiment was finished, apparently. What if this premature conclusion is disproved when the experiment is repeated over longer periods and with more trees, as the researchers say they need to do?
  • Mistake #2. Misrepresenting collaborating parties in the press release. Only the city of Alphen is mentioned in this version of the press release, at whose request (and presumably, on whose dime) the research was carried out. However, other news items also list Delft University and the independent research lab TNO as parties in the research. That indicates to me that they must have been mentioned in an earlier version of the press release. Turns out, TNO issued a statement on their website explicitly distancing themselves from the conclusions! Let me assure you, this does not happen lightly in science.
  • Mistake #3. Including numbers in the press release to inflate its importance, without explaining what they mean so that readers can understand.

Let me elaborate a little on Mistake #3, since numbers are important in this game. The exact words are [again, translation mine]:

…frequencies varying from 2412 to 2472 MHz, and a power of 100 mW EIRP at 50 cm distance.

So this just means that they used wireless routers, transmitting at 2.4 GHz, and placed them half a meter away from the trees. The frequency “variation” here means nothing. The researchers didn’t vary anything, those frequencies are just the standard channels used by 802.11b and 802.11g wireless. Why didn’t they test 5 GHz, which is also a common frequency used by wireless routers? Couldn’t they afford more than six routers?

I also had to look up the abbreviation EIRP, which stands for equivalent isotropically radiated power. This is too technical for me to get into in this post (although if you’re curious I’d be happy to explain it) which means it had no business being in a press release for the public. Also, it makes no sense to quote the EIRP in this case, so I’m guessing the PR office just got it off the side of the box the router came in. For nerds who know what I’m talking about, the power the tree is actually exposed to, depends not only on the distance to the source (and it falls off as 1/r²) but also on the surface the tree presents to the source!

The figure of 100 mW, besides being dubious, also means nothing to the average reader when taken out of context. Let me illustrate: a 100 mW green laser beam will blind you if you look into it. It might sting you if you stick your hand into it, and it might burn paper, all depending on how tightly it’s focused. But a regular 40-watt lightbulb, which radiates both light and heat, lights up your room nicely and harmlessly, despite radiating four hundred times as much power as the laser beam.

You stay the hell away from my baby, you internet tree-murderer! (By blaackhawk, freely reusable, from sxc.hu)

You stay the hell away from my baby, you internet tree-murderer!

All this has led to a spate of news articles with titles like “Wireless internet makes plants sick!” The irresponsibility exhibited here just astounds me. Hippies everywhere are going to don their tinfoil hats, and mobile phone users are going to be subjected to the kind of crusade that smokers have already had to face: “Put away that phone, you irresponsible jerk!” concerned mothers will scream at us. “Your secondhand radiation is giving my kid cancer!” Of course I’m exaggerating, but the damage is already done.

The worst example of this is Spits’ (a freely distributed newspaper, i.e. you get what you pay for) take on the article: you might as well stop reading when you see the giant radioactivity signs in the photo! Conflating ionizing nuclear radiation with non-ionizing electromagnetic radiation is pure fear-mongering, because they are as similar as Santa Claus and Parmesan cheese. If you do read beyond the photograph, bravely risking the loss of several IQ points, you see that Spits can’t even avoid contradicting themselves within the three-paragraph extent of the article! [translation mine.]

Whether radiation is really the cause of these phenomena, did not become clear in the study. […] In the study, the possibility that ultrafine particulates caused the phenomena was not ruled out. In any case, it is certain that the dead leaves and stunted growth were caused by radiation, according to the researchers.

The last sentence is also an outright lie, if I’m to believe the university’s press release. All because some PR monkey or fame-crazy researcher couldn’t wait for conclusive, publishable results and decided to fan the flames of the public’s fear instead. Sorry people, but when the results are not conclusive, that means the results are not conclusive. That’s the way science works. Suck it up and deal with it.

Revelations about the Rapture

My good friend Diederik Jekel, who has actually been the subject of a post in this space recently, approached me with the idea of doing a guest post. I often enjoy Diederik’s opinions on separating good science from bad science and we have had many stimulating discussions on the subject in the past. Since Diederik is looking to be an actual science writer (as opposed to an armchair dilettante like myself) I am honored to host this essay, or “rant” as he calls it.

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The past day I have stumbled a few times upon an article by Elizabeth Young. A few times because it has been published at multiple sites, a few of which have continuously tried to open pop-ups telling me I was a winner of a grand prize. Putting this all aside, I was intrigued by this article because it was combining the words ‘rapture’ and the ‘Large Hadron Collider’. Two things which I am very interested in. The article speaks of mass torture being inflicted on Mother Earth by doing experiments inside the LHC. A true genocide performed on innocent atoms and protons who are obviously neglected by the Geneva Convention. The international human rights Magna Carta is invoked and the question is posed, if these rights are applicable to us humans, why does it not apply to Mother Earth?

Now my intonation might come across as cynical but I am truly not here to bash the article as perhaps a non-believer of the Gaia theory. I find it is very productive and useful in a discussion or policy to perceive the earth and her constituents as a living organism which must be cared for and nurtured. Even if it is done so as a selfish act whose only goal is to keep our species alive. So, addressing ethical dilemmas, which are often overlooked in the pursuit of scientific discovery, is something which can only be encouraged and applauded.

That being said, a few things about the article annoyed me, so much even that I found it necessary to say something on behalf of the physicists who are, according to this article, for all intents and purposes, callous, sociopathic monsters. This discussion is difficult though, because of the religious undertone in the article. It does not make sense to throw just scientific arguments against it. In the end you either believe in Gaia or you don’t. You believe in God or you don’t, and many scientists do actually. The scientific vs. religious debate is one which is often fought wrongly, because both sides have their own set of rules and try to convince the other side with their own set. It is like a Brit trying to convince a Dutch person it is dangerous to drive on the right side of the road. It might be perfectly valid in the construct of the British rules, but the Dutch guy will have serious trepidations about following his advice. So you can only debate with the Dutch guy if you use the Dutch traffic codes as arguments.

Crashing and smashing

Which brings me to the first point. In the article a graphic description is given of how atoms and protons collide in a fashion which would not be very pleasant to us humans. We would not like to be crashed into one another at nearly the speed of light. Why are we scientists then so arrogant in assuming this is OK for particles? I was always taught in religion classes in school that the Lord works in mysterious ways and that it is very presumptuous to assume that you know God’s plan.

Two things I know for a fact. One is that the earth is constantly bombarded by particles which have billions of times more energy than the ones we can create inside the LHC. These particles are generated in supernova explosions, rotating black holes and colliding galaxies. Processes which are incredibly more violent than we can possibly create here on earth. Nature seems to be fine with this, because she has been doing this for eons.

Another fact is that Brookhaven National Laboratory has claimed to have created the same kind of soup which the LHC wants to create. This new phase of matter is called quark-gluon plasma and like the three phases of water (ice, liquid and vapor) it is just another phase of matter. When you heat ice, it becomes water. When you heat water, it becomes a gas and if you were to heat lead atoms to trillions of degrees, it should become a quark-gluon plasma. So this has been done before and it shows that with extreme pressure and extreme temperatures, you get this weird state of matter.

To the best of physicists’ knowledge, there was something called a big bang, and only a fraction after the point of creation the universe was extremely dense and extremely hot. Gradually the universe expanded, which cooled everything and made it less dense. Precisely as predicted, this state will come about when you heat matter to enormous temperatures and this is what happens inside the LHC. It is, pun intended, a giant space heater. A nice hint towards the correctness of the big bang theory.

So if Nature is doing the same thing on her own on a massive scale, and that by just increasing pressure and temperature we find this incredibly beautiful substance called quark-gluon plasma, who are we to say: “This is something Nature finds unpleasant.”

All particles and forces around us were born inside this soup of quarks and gluons. Everything we see around us today, from a beautiful sunset, to this rant from a physicist, to all my wonderful friends, have originated from this ooze. This is our genesis and this is what physicists are trying to understand. Elizabeth Young quotes the Bible a lot as a justification for her side of the story. But in doing so she is trying to prevent us from understanding the origin of everything in our own scientific, empirical, and experimentally verified way.

So she claims to know all about God and Mother Earth and denies me my right to understand where we are coming from. What makes her such an expert? This is difficult to find out, because all information about the author (except her name) is about her husband. Do not get me wrong, her husband seems like a sensible, heroic and wonderful human being, but I have absolutely no credentials of the author herself. Oh, this is not entirely true, she is a Hollywood screenwriter. Besides that she will not tell the reader what makes her an expert.

Why do you care so much, you may wonder. Why are you whining about this? Fair and valid questions. The problem is that because she explains some things in scientific terms it seems that she knows what she is saying. If you throw big numbers and impressive terms at readers, they tend to see that person as an expert. Something which is common practice in pseudo-science. I am emphatically not claiming she is a pseudo-scientist here to dupe the masses. I am saying this to clear up why I am so annoyed by this article. People take it at face value because it is written nicely and has technical aspects to it, so as a reader why check it out further. How could you be critical of this, if you are not familiar with the subject?

Scientific details

A few scientific details I would like to clarify. The first argument she makes is the mass electrocution of the earth by the LHC. There are many more things happening daily on earth which cause a lot more electric energy than the LHC. I will come to that later and give an example. But first I must address something she keeps claiming:

Each time the LHC is fired, God, the Planet, Gaea, our Mother Earth is violently shocked with 3,500,000,000,000 volts of electricity.

I believe that she gets this number from the fact that particles are accelerated to an energy of 3.5 TeV or tera-electron volts. This is the quoted number up there. What physicists mean is the following: the particles inside the accelerator have the same amount of energy as an electron would have if we were to put it inside a potential difference (think battery) of 3,500,000,000,000 volts (think very large battery). This is a ridiculously large number. For if we were to make such a field, we would generate incredible lightning storms. Think of it this way, if you have a potential difference of 30,000 volts, you will get lightning of about 1 cm long. So having 60,000 volts gives you 2 cm long lightning and so on. This 3.5 TV gives you lightning of more than 1100 kilometers long! So this is to put the ridiculous number into context. Something else must be going on here.

Luckily we don’t have to accelerate particles with electric fields, we use big magnets. We only use this archaic measurement unit because it is convenient. You can even use lasers to accelerate particles, and that has even less to do with electricity. To make it even more strange, I can calculate how much electron volts worth of energy I have, when traveling inside my car at 80 km/h. It is a staggering 1.2 × 1023 eV, or to put it in context, 35 billion times more energy is in me traveling at that speed, than the LHC puts in its particles. The thing is I am also very much more heavy than a proton, so to put that amount of energy in one proton is very impressive. So not much zapping is going on because we do not use these electric fields.

Let us look at other sources which are electrocuting the earth. The earth’s entire magnetic field is created by extremely large electric currents flowing inside the earth’s core. Another electrocution source is lightning. Annually there are 16 million lightning storms, containing hundreds of bolts and each average bolt produces 500 megajoules of energy. 500 megajoules (a single bolt) in the weird electron volt unit gives 3 × 1027 electron volts!!! Which does not even have an official name because it is so big. It would be 3000 yotta-electron volts and is the equivalent of 857 trillion times the energy the LHC puts in her particles. And this is just one lightning bolt. So if the earth does not like electricity, it should stop making so much of it.

So much more energy is contained in lightning storms and in the earth’s core than the LHC can ever produce. And even so, the LHC does not generate this energy by using electricity, it does this by using magnets (which run on electricity, but this is not zapped straight into the earth.)

She goes on to use some other numbers, which are very questionable to say the least, but I don’t want to bore the reader with more he-said-she-said on math.

Pointless

Then comes the part where she says the LHC is all pointless because:

Whatever the outcome, the LHC will not be the final word in physics experimentation.

I find this unbelievable. So if it is not perfect, we should not do it at all? I am very glad she did not live during the caveman era, where man was trying to invent fire and she would say, “Why bother? It tends to go out and I might burn myself.” I believe the first aeroplane flight lasted about 10 seconds?

The endnotes finally are questionable to say the least and many quotes are used out of context but what I find utterly annoying is that she posts a phone number of a scientist online which you must call after reading her story, asking him to stop the experiment. I wonder if I should post her number here, so people can call her to explain what they think of her story. It is a spam-inducing breach of privacy.

One final quote:

But let me tell you this. I have proof these scientists may be several wires short of a working plug. Before they began their descent into scientific instability, these people actually made a rap video.

So as an extra argument for not trusting the hundreds of scientists who have worked their (pardon my French) asses off, she refers to a humorous video a few employees have made in an effort to make a particle accelerator a bit more comprehensible. Many people are afraid of this device, because of people like Elizabeth Young, who instead of trying to understand, try to scare the hell out of normal citizens. Including friends and family of mine who are, understandably so, worried.

The rap video was a joke. If scientists cannot be trusted when they try to make their work fun and relatable, then we are about to create very boring and annoying physicists. Scientists cannot use media such as video and rap songs to relate a more informal message? Then I ask you, Hollywood screenwriter Elizabeth Young, do you really want to link credibility to popular culture? Especially if these people made the rap video while getting their PhD in physics?

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Diederik Jekel is a Dutch physicist and scientific journalist. He received his degree in solid state physics and graduated on a superconductivity experiment. He is very happy to give more details about himself if necessary, but only about himself and not about his relationship.


Fox News don’t know Jack Bleep

This travesty was brought to my attention: Freaky Physics Proves Parallel Universes Exist, a worse-than-amateurish piece of what I hesitate to call scientific journalism by Fox News. I won’t waste space on why I consider the article so terrible, since someone else has already heaped scorn upon it better than I could: The Worst Physics Article Ever. Besides, it’s Fox News, and by now it shouldn’t be a surprise that they just write down whatever the hell they feel like.

I want to draw your attention to something mentioned in the article that I find much more worrying and insidious: the name Fred Alan Wolf. Wolf is a former physicist, turned crackpot, and anytime you hear his name mentioned in connection with legitimate science, alarms should start going off inside your head.

I recognized him as one of the “experts” featured in What The Bleep Do We Know, a piece of pseudoscientific rubbish that basically asserts that quantum mechanics allows us to control our destiny by wishful thinking. Just to give you some background, it’s a propaganda film made and paid for by students of Ramtha’s School of Enlightenment. This hotbed of charlatans is led by one J. Z. Knight, a cigar-voiced medium from Washington who claims to channel a 35000-year-old warrior named Ramtha from the lost continent of Lemuria.

To be fair, not everyone interviewed in the movie is a fraud. For example, there’s Professor David Albert, who, according to this Salon.com article, spent hours on camera explaining why the film’s physics was utter nonsense, only to see his contribution spliced and edited so as to imply the exact opposite.

Fred Alan Wolf, on the other hand, was not misrepresented in the least. Wolf, whose stage name is Dr. Quantum, has been on the lecture circuit since the 1980’s promoting quantum wishful thinking, according to an interview on the What The Bleep website. This claptrap has been popularized more recently by Rhonda Byrne and cronies in the bestseller The Secret, and what do you know, Wolf also appeared in the film version of that.

As far as I’m concerned, Dr. Quantum has about as much to do with real, falsifiable science as the iPad has to do with blue cheese. One might ask why I care so much. Let me put it this way: if Fox News not giving a crap about proper science reporting is a slap in the face of my profession, then the thought of Fred Alan Wolf being any journalist’s go-to guy for quantum physics is a kick in the nads.

PS. If you’re interested in what was actually achieved in the experiment, hysterical claims of time travel aside, here is the original press release from UCSB. Or see Nature 464, pp. 697–703 (2010).