Quiet after 10 pm

This is going to be a hard month, and it hasn’t even started yet. I’m talking about July. I’ve been working pretty seriously on my research, getting it ready for the summer. Along with my 500 colleagues on BaBar, you could probably wring the toil out into a bucket and use it to power the world. Physics seems like it’s all mindgames, but it’s hours of arguing, days of crafting computations in computer code (which is often like building a house of cards, if you’re not very careful), and weeks of checks and cross-checks.

But now it’s Wednesday, and it’s after 10. Jodi is sleeping, and there is very little e-mail trickling in (yes, even international collaborations sleep). This is the best time of the day: crickets chirping, a light breeze cooling the dining room, quiet in the house, and no more responsibility drifting into my inbox.



Rituals are important to life. They can be secular or religious in origin, but having a regular event to which you can look forward is important. I’ve tried removing ritual from my life, and I always feel unglued as a result. Jodi and I decided a few months ago that Sunday night was sacred, and that we would always drop what we were doing, hop in the Honda, and head north to the Borders in San Mateo to scan books and music, and definitely sit and have a drink.

Last night was no exception, and had the added benefit of a spectacular bank of fog rolling in over the Santa Cruz mountains. Such fog, gently pouring over the mountaintops, is a contradiction, a creamy liquid of cottonballs. With the sun setting behind it, the sky was fire on top of this foaming ice.

I’ve put some photos in here of the fog, the sunset and the mountains, Border, and Jodi and I enjoying the teapot service.

Media Circus: Mobile Phones and Lightning Storms

When media outlets fail to employ reporters with either a grounding in science (no pun intended, as you’ll see), or the wherewithal to contact several sources in writing a story, I furrow my brow and wag my finger. While browsing my Sunday morning blogs, I found a “lovely little story on Fox News’ website regurgitating a letter from British doctors that reports mobile phones increase your risk of death in a lightning strike”:http://www.foxnews.com/story/0,2933,200770,00.html.
I am not trying to vilify Fox here, although in general I find their style of cock-eyed caterwauling more insulting to human intelligence than the breed you get from CNN, or that unspeakable venture MSNBC. “Dozens of news agencies have likewise masticated this story for the human population, then regurgitated it into our largely undiscerning mouths.”:http://news.ask.com/news?qsrc=1&o=0&q=lightning%20mobile%20phone&news=true
However, the story itself points to a weakness in the way media portrays an issue that can be clarified by science.

The “original letter, which can only be read in full if you are a paying subscriber to the journal”:http://bmj.bmjjournals.com/cgi/content/extract/332/7556/1513-b, appears to use a single instance of a girl, using a cell phone when hit by lightning, as a broader cautionary tale: DO NOT HOLD CONDUCTIVE OBJECTS TO YOUR SKIN IN A THUNDERSTORM. She would have been in as much danger if she were walking to her car, car keys clutched in her hand, when the strike occurred. The point is not that cell phones are some new source of danger during a thunderstorm; it’s that human skin is a bad conductor, and it can save us from the full effect of a strike via a phenomenon known as “flashover”. However, any good conductor (keys, iPods, … ) in contact with the skin will change the electrical properties, allowing electricity a freer path through our bodies and, if we are really unlucky, straight across our hearts or our heads. The victim in this case had a conductor pressed against her head, and the lightning used this as a path of opportunity.

The real lesson here is not centered on cell phones – it is centered on taking cover during a storm. The Earth has been generating storms since long before humans existed, and there is little our bodies can do to protect us from them. Shelter is our only safety from the power of a lightning strike, but keeping a conductor away from our bodies is an important first step to preventing more injury than necessary.

I was pleased to see in the “Rapid Responses” to this letter that an “engineer raised the above points”:http://bmj.bmjjournals.com/cgi/eletters/332/7556/1513-b#136415 (we came up with “iPods” independent of one another). I am annoyed that the media used their usual tactics to turn this into a cell phone scare instead of a lesson in electrical safety, or a lesson in statistics:

“It seems to me that since the number of mobile phones registered in the UK now approximates the total population, you’re just as likely to be struck by lightning when phoning or texting as when doing literally anything else.”
– Martin Nicholson, Applications Engineering Manager, Teknoflex Limited, in his “rapid response” to the BMJ letter

The point that Martin makes here is that one had best normalize out the probability that a person struck by lightning is carrying a mobile phone. The probability of being struck by lightning is about 1/1,000,000 [AskAScientistsLightning] [CanadiansStruckByLightning], and is roughly the same for everybody (though there are geographic factors that can change this for small populations). The fraction of the population in Britain that own a mobile phone is 50% (in 2002) [BritishMobileOwners]. Since the chance of being struck by lightning is about the same for everybody, you’d observe that about half the time people hit by lightning were carrying or using mobile phones. You therefore might believe there is a correlation, but because half the population carries one this interpretation is no better than flipping a coin. Since the 50% number is four years old, it’s very likely that more people own such phones, so the fraction of those struck by lightning who have phones has climbed proportionately (through no fault of the phone!).

There is more fault to go around on this story. The doctors involved in the letter writing are calling for cell phone companies to warn us of this danger. However, since they mentioned that three such cases have been found in Britain, but not how many cases *without* mobile phones occurred, there is no basis to judge the reality of the phenomenon. They don’t call for double-blind tests with mobile phones and conductive dummies to be done, but rather for a public health reaction to overinterpretation of limited statistics. As doctors, they were supposed to have taken biology, or chemistry, or even physics. Where is the scientific skepticism, the urge to invoke research? And why don’t they ask car manufacturers to warn us of the danger of carrying keys, or gum manufacturers to warn us about foil gum wrappers, or Apple to warn us about the shiny metal iPod cases?

Regarding the media’s behavior, one tactic here used by Fox News is the old “one scientist dissenting vs. three medical doctors raising alarm” trick in trying to discredit opposing opinions: “One U.S. lightning expert is skeptical, however.” Instead of saying, “We spoke with only one expert, and he was skeptical – therefore, 100% of such experts are skeptical, with a 100% uncertainty on that opinion” they make it sound like only one expert in the U.S. disagrees.

To contrast this recklessness, a few paragraphs later the article says, “The letter in the journal, however, is not backed by the sort of scientific rigor that goes into many published papers.” Why didn’t they say this in the first paragraph? Most casual readers – and I believe most news consumers are casual readers – wouldn’t have gotten this far, or maybe even noticed the line. I didn’t see it until my second read, and I am a scientist looking for such things!

This story is yet another example of how we as scientists and educators have failed the public. We really have to do a better job of disseminating skepticism with a healthy dose of reason and inquisitiveness to back it up…

.. [AskAScientistLightning] “http://www.newton.dep.anl.gov/askasci/math99/math99144.htm”:http://www.newton.dep.anl.gov/askasci/math99/math99144.htm

.. [CanadiansStruckByLightning] “http://www.coolth.com/llp.htm”:http://www.coolth.com/llp.htm

.. [BritishMobileOwners] “http://www.cancer-health.org/”:http://www.cancer-health.org/

Looking South

The horror of last year’s hurricane season, and its effects on Louisiana and Mississippi, were too many to count. While much of the nation has apparently lost interest in the plight of the South, as a scientist I am very much aware and concerned about this new hurricane season. Already, there has been one named storm. While probability is certainly on New Orleans’ side this year, a storm has to hit land someplace.

To keep up with the sense of the society in New Orleans, I’ve been checking out “Metroblogging New Orleans”:http://neworleans.metblogs.com/, a blog of the goings on in and around the city. Not every city along the Gulf Coast can have an active blog community like New Orleans, but this seems to be a good way to keep one finger on the pulse.

If you want to take those tax dollars and put them to work for you, check out the “NOAA National Hurricane Center”:http://www.nhc.noaa.gov/. They’re tracking data for the Atlantic, Carribean, and Gulf regions, making predictions, and forecasting storms.