God Intelligently Designed Electricity To Make You Sick

For many years, there has been a raging argument between engineers, scientists and the general public. This debate doesn’t center over whether humans and monkeys share a common ancestor. The brouhaha has nothing to do with whether God kicked the universe off in a big bang, or even whether God gives a damn what string theorists have to say. No, this one has long been about the very foundation of modern existence, electricity. In particular, does constant exposure to electrical sources create new and dangerous hazards for human beings?

The human body is, even in the middle of a rather pristine forest, exposed to a deluge of dangerous electromagnetic emanations. Ultraviolet light, penetrating our thick atmosphere and exciting atoms in our skin, can ultimately damage cells if exposure is long enough. Our bodies are constantly attacked by the ionizing electromagnetic fields of high energy particles, the result of cosmic rays smashing into the Earth’s upper atomosphere and showering down upon us. Non-electromagnetic hazards also surround us. Naturally occurring radioisotopes and radioactive atoms, such as Radon or Uranium, occur in the soil and pelt our fragile DNA with neutrons that are capable of rearranging the very atomic nucleus.

But we are protected. Why? We evolved in this environment, and to this environment we are well adapted. Our body has a variety of biological protective mechanisms against ultraviolet light, and our DNA replication process allows for slight errors and mutations to occur harmlessly, usually ending in non-viable mutations that are quickly weeded out of the system. We’ve been here for millions of years, and our predecessors for billions. We are a biological punching bag, well built to withstand the forces of nature.

Needless to say, many a scientist is quite skeptical when we hear people complain about getting a headache while living near power lines. We are skeptical when we hear anecdotes that a certain someone never developed a brain tumor in their life until they bought their Moto. We are skeptical because the kinds of electromagnetic emanations present in common devices are all forms of *non-ionizing* radiation, incapable of doing anything but maybe rattling a few electrons to and fro. The really bad stuff, the stuff the FCC doesn’t allow in a home in any unshielded manner, is *ionizing* radiation, capable of stripping electrons from the outer shells of the atom and changing the chemical properties of molecules.

For many years, there have been all kinds of studies about whether there are true correlations between disease and electrical devices. The serious ones have never pointed to a significant link, which mean that your probability of developing a brain tumor from using a mobile phone is about as likely as you getting one by putting a banana to your ear and having a conversation that way. The latter is, perchance, a great way to see your local sanitarium.

One of my former mentors was once on an investigative panel into the effects of cell phone (back in the days when “cell phone” was a scientifically accurate phrase – “mobile phone” is correct now, since they use digital, and not cellular, technology) use on the human brain. The panel found no effect, but few people in the public apparently wanted to agree with them. It’s another excellent example of how a scientifically starved public responds to such inquiries, breeding only more unscientific contention. Their reaction always made him angry when we talked about such things over lunch.

That said, “there is a new comprehensive study of the effect of electrical appliances (excluding mobile phones)”:http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/health/4402690.stm
that has results. And, of course, even yet another independent study can’t satisfy the people who cling to anecdotes. This one is an excellent example of a misuse of science to sound not only scientific, but right:

But Mike O’Carroll, of the anti-powerline group Revolt, said: “When they say there is no evidence yet of causality, what they should be saying is that the evidence so far doesn’t give adequate support to the theory.”

Ironically, the study doesn’t dispute that the anecdotes contain actual symptoms. It just states that no causal connection between electricity and those symptoms can be found. Mr. O’Carroll’s statement is unfortunately similar in style to that used by detractors of evolution, wherein science is invoked to make their position sound more reasonable. For instance, this logic is revealed as riduculous when applied to the sun: just because there hasn’t been a single day when the sun didn’t rise doesn’t mean that tomorrow it *will* rise. You learn nothing about the sun itself from a position statement like that, because while sounding scientific it is devoid of actual content. A person who rejects a conclusion based on a framework grounded in reason is straying from reason. Perhaps opponents of power lines would better spend their effort trying to identify the actual cause of the reported illness, rather than clinging to blame against a singular claim whose verity is, time and time again, demonstrated to be incorrect.

I would suggest a more reasonable approach. If they are not already being conducted, begin a series of double-blind studies on long-term exposure to conditions such as high-voltage power lines, old pipes or paint in a house, soil chemical content, exposure to UV, etc. Don’t do this by actively exposing people. Rather, find places where people have *chosen* to expose themselves to such things, identify a control population, and conduct the study. Such a reasonable approach to a study ought to at least appeal to those reasonable people who cling to an unverified explanation.

Science is a process, a method, by which fact is separated from hypothesis. Rather than simply attack the conclusion, why not conduct sound experiments to try other hypotheses? Supporters of intelligent design and groups concerned about the health of people in modern technological environments would do well to actually learn to do science, rather than challenge its conclusions by sounding “sciency” without doing actual experimentation.

I am a Teacher in California and I want to get fired.

In California, this is the week before the November special election to vote on seven ballot measures, several of which modify the state constitution. Trying to revisit my performance from last November as a “good citizen”, I am reviewing the actual text (I hate TV ads and I hate nearly as much those silly text debates they send you WITH LOTS OF CAPITAL LETTERS and *lots of italicized angry text!*). In my reading of the ballot measures, I have found a most interesting fact: you can’t be both a teacher in California and a member of the Communist Party.

Oh yeah, that’s right. Here we are in the 21st century, with so many social advances, and the California Education Code is living in the 1950s. Let me put some context on this find.

Proposition 74 proposes to amend the California Education Code to change from two to five years the probationary period granted to teachers prior to tenure. This ballot measure appears in the form of modifications to two sections of this code: 44929.21 and 44932. I was reading through 44932, which lists the grounds upon which a teacher can be dismissed, and found a few sensible ones: immoral or unprofessional conduct, dishonesty, unsatisfactory performance, conviction of a felony.

And there is was: section 44932, subdivision a, paragraph 10. *Knowing membership by the employee in the Communist Party*.

It’s awfully funny that we’re about to have an expensive special election, care of our governor, to in part vote on measures that are alleged to reform the California education system. We are squabbling over whether teachers are better if they can be fired within two years or five years without a hearing (prop. 74); whether capping education funding in the middle of a fiscal year, rather than guaranteeing that funding for the entire fiscal year (prop. 76), is better for a system struggling to keep libraries open and classes small. Yet, we ought to be removing outdated provisions that judge a teacher not by the success of their teaching, but the content of their politics.

Of course, that kind of social progress seems to be nowhere on the ballot. Instead, we get the option to enshrine an unscientific and medically inaccurate definition of “abortion” in our state constitution (prop. 73). Huzzah.

Heavy Thoughts at 30,000 feet…

I’m having one of those moments of extreme clarity. Ever have those? I can’t say what sparked it. Perhaps it was a wonderful Braidwood collaboration meeting. Perhaps it was my excellent conversation with my colleague and, perhaps even friend by now, Dr. Herman White. Perhaps it was the wine, dinner, and conversation with two good friends of mine from graduate school, Mousumi and Ping. Perhaps it was rising from my Fermilab dorm bed at 4:30 am to shower and get to Midway airport for my 7 am flight. Perhaps it was the panini, juice, milk, and coffee I had for breakfast. Perhaps it’s the gorgeous view of delicate cloud strata drifting by at an illusory lazy speed high in the Earth’s atmosphere, a sky rendered blue by the attenuation of all but the shortest visible wavelengths coming from the sun. Perhaps it’s the Coldplay.

I’ve been thinking about a lot of things the past day. How do I rapidly create or employ a non-C++-based development framework for detailed scientific study of muon veto system design? How do I continue to educate the American public about science, its definition and role in society, culture, and our economy? How do I make myself a better candidate for professorships? How do I help maintain my marriage in the face of the stress of the inevitable job search, tenure rat race, and possible physical distance while Jodi and I pursue our careers? How do I come to a detailed understanding of spin, the nature of quantum mechanics, and the role of mathematics as nature’s language? How do I guide the students in my research group on a path that best educates them as scientists but also achieves reasonable scientific goals and yields meaningful results?

Lots of other scientists must also wrestle with such questions. Questions of science, questions of progress, questions of personal belief and life must constantly be asked and solved by scientists all over the world, all the time. But I also realize that each solution is unique, for each person is unique, and while the methodological framework for coming to a decision is quite likely the same, the skin stretched on the frame to create the best solution is likely different – if subtley – for each situation.

“I was just guessing at numbers and figures, pulling the puzzles apart. Questions of science, science and progress, could not speak as loud as my heart… Nobody said it was easy, it’s such a shame for us to part; nobody said it was easy, noone ever said it would be so hard. I’m going back to the start.”

– Coldplay, “The Scientist”

While the Braidwood collaboration continues to make focused choices about how best to proceed with the experiment (while we also wait to know if we’re even allowed proceed, let alone even allowed to have money to make progress), I am filled with a desire to make sure that the underlying software framework we use to pursue our science is flexible enough to meet the demands of a wide variety of users. Put in the language used by my senior colleague Tim Bolton, I need to make our research framework for veto system design not just “idiot-proof”, but “faculty-proof”. I have had in my mind for a while, thanks to a series of short discussions with and suggestions from my MIT colleague Michael Miller, that what Braidwood needs is a way to quickly load designs into the simulation without days of geometry coding. GEANT4 is a wonderful framework for rapid design of detectors, but it is neither “faculty-proof” nor CAD-like in its approach to design. How to solve this problem will consume me on Monday.

After the meeting ended yesterday, I had the opportunity to spend an afternoon talking to another graduate school buddy of mine, now a Fermilab postdoc in theoretical astrophysics, “Dan Hooper”:http://pheno.physics.wisc.edu/~hooper. Dan just started at FNAL after several years at Oxford, and is settling into the hard work of being a member of the theoretical astrophysics group. His office is doubly windowed – windows facing the hallway, windows overlooking the 6-floor drop to the atrium floor of Wilson Hall – and just down the hall from a comfortable seating area and espresso machine. We sipped our coffee and talked about supersymmetry, B physics, the excitement of the coming LHC and the work of the Tevatron, professorships and tenure, and a myriad of other subjects. To close our afternoon together, Dan invited me to attend the colloquium with him. Fermilab offers wine before these talks, which SLAC would do well to learn from. We were then engaged in a well-delivered, but “light-on-results”, talk from a member of the LIGO gravitational wave observatory.

LIGO is an American, multi-state effort to detect the ripples in spacetime – “gravitational waves” – predicted by General Relativity to pervade space. These ripples can be caused by all manner of things: the waving of your hands (very hard to detect), the motion of the Earth about the Sun, the collision or merging of neutron stars or black holes, gamma ray bursts, and even the creation of the universe itself. LIGO, and the several other similar observatories scattered across the globe, are a tremendous precision set of instruments operating at the edge of human mechanical ingenuity. They, like the broad spectrum of scientific endeavours undertaken by the U.S. and the entire globe, daily press the edge of human knowledge, and so by necessity push the frontier of innovation and technological ability. While the most exciting science is yet to come (in fact, that science run is imminent), LIGO and her partners have already wowed a science community that largely wondered if this hard work was even possible.

“Look at Earth from outer-space/everyone must find a place/give me time and give me space/give me real, don’t give me fake/give me strength, reserve, control/give me heart and give me soul/give me time, give us a kiss/tell me of your politic.”

– Colplay, “Politic”

After the colloqium, I parted ways with Dan and started for the rental car parked beside Wilson Hall. On my way out of the elevator, I had the third chance on this visit to run into my colleague Herman White. Herman is a Fermilab physicist who, I am learning, has had his hands not only in a number of exciting experiments and proposed experiments, but as I know is also a staunch advocate of the sciences, a well-spoken public educator, and an even-tempered spokesman for high energy physics in the halls of our government. Beside his car, in the cold air of an autumn Illinois sunset, we had what turned into a very long chat about science, government, and policy. We talked of many things, including the sense of personal failure we both have over the state of American attitutes toward science and science funding. We both feel the urgent need to make science a policy goal of this nation, but so many things stand between us and that goal. They are not insurmountable, but they require a great effort and interest from our colleagues.

We both agreed that educating the American public about the value of science was foundational. The simplest argument is the very world we live in is a world not possible without the basic, unapplied scientific investigations undertaken by men and women in the 19th and 20th centuries. Their tireless efforts to understand chemical substance, to verify or villify the atomic theory, to demonstrate the conservation of mass and energy, to unify energy and matter, to understand the relationship between all life, and to unify matter and force has given us all modern conveniences. Without these investigations, there would be no medicine as we know it, no electricity, no computers, no television, no portable MP3 players and no iTunes. There would be no world-wide web, no mass communication, no satellites employing critical corrections only predicted by General Relativity that tell us when we’ve missed a turn or passed our restaurant.

On top of this foundation rests the need to educate our policymakers, and most importantly cultivate comfortable relationships *as citizen scientists* with their staffers. As Herman and I discussed, staffers often outlive elected officials because their knowledge spans administrations, their experience spans political goals. It is with them that we must seek an extra friendship that goes beyond any special interest, and instead pursues nothing less than the common goal of restoring the United States’ status as a “city on a hill” in both educational and scientific endeavors.

We have too long alienated our international educational and scientific colleagues with misguided immigration policies, driven them away from seeking permanent citizenship by grouping them in the same class as temporary workers or migrant laborers. Their goal is the increase in the knowlege of the human species, and by seeking such an end necessarily educating the population and generating new innovations that create new jobs and thus feed a ravenous economy. Their goal, and the goal of all native citizens engaged in teaching and research, has as its natural conclusion nothing less than the well being of society. This end is the same sought by human relief or religious organization, operating from different means and for different purposes, but none of them less noble than the other. To expose our native citizenry to the experience and knowledge of international friends, and even men and women who come from perceived political “enemies”, is to end the many “isms” that have plagued our history. Give these same non-citizens a chance to become citizens and contribute to the inherent good of American society, and does that not better us?

Take a citizen trapped in poverty, and give them a better home and a regular meal; do they not become relieved of the burden of mere survival? Given these same people the chance to learn about language, culture, history, politics, religion, and science, and do not great and new ideas spring forth from their minds? Does not the combination of the relief of the burden of survival and the opportunity to learn bootstrap society into a cycle of growth that, if sustained by care and diligence, could endlessly advance our species?

These are all weighty thoughts – perhaps too weighty for a single plane ride. But these are my thoughts, here high above the Earth. Perhaps I am too much of an optimist. I know there is ill in the world, but I so rarely experience it in my interactions with my fellow humans that I see it more as a means to an end than an end itself. While a single ill actor can destabilize a democracy (or any society built on the collective good will of its inhabitants) it is the resiliency of the society itself that eventually amends the ill. Whatever bad judgement has been pronounced against science (its funding or teaching) by a handful of misguided academics, theologians, or politicians, it is within the purvue of our collective good will to reverse it. We can, and we will, not only achieve scientific excellence in this nation, but we will do it in a way that instills a love of learning and discovery again in a nation starved of education, starved of optimism.

“Open up your eyes, open up your eyes, open up your eyes, open up your eyes.”

– Coldplay, “Politic”

Catching Up

It’s been a while since I last put pen to paper and placed some thoughts in this blog. As is typical with most things at the bottom of the list, this gets shelved when I have more important things to do. These past few weeks have been full of such things, among them a new path for my research and a visit by family.

I’ve started working most of my time now on the study of the B meson using the rare decay B → Xsgamma. The photon spectrum tells us about the rattling of the bottom quark inside the meson, and in turn this teaches us about the laws governing its motion. My former project, to search for invisible decays of the Upsilon, is on hold again until BaBar’s data is reprocessed with new tools that will make that search more sensible. I expect that to turn around by Christmas.

That said, I’ve been spending my days on this rare decay. I’m working with two students, which is nice (working alone on the invisible decays was taking its toll). We’re gearing up to do a “toy” analysis on purely simulated data, as a means to benchmarking not only the tools we’ve developed but also to teach us how to do this analysis once, all the way through, in a controlled environment.

This past weekend, my wife’s sister and her sister’s husband joined us here in California for a week visit. We’ve already hit Alcatraz, Fisherman’s Wharf, and wine country. In addition, we walked over the “Golden Gate Bridge”:http://steve.cooleysekula.net/photos/Jackie_and_Jason_Day_2 and visited the Winchester Mansion in San Jose. This mansion, constructed by Sarah Winchester after the death of her first and only child and the loss of her husband to tuberculosis, is a confusing maze of finished and half-finished rooms, staircases that go nowhere, doors that open onto sheer drops, and other oddities. She built this legendary house over the course of 38 years, allegedly to confuse the spirits of those men killed by her husbands Winchester guns. It’s a remarkable structure, with beautiful artwork scattered in a million architectural details (all of Mrs. Winchester’s own devising), but also a lesson in how to lose your guests by sending them to the bathroom.

I’ve been keeping a lazy eye on Dover. The NCSE has been doing a great job of posting briefs on the trial, along with transcripts. There has also been a “tremendously thorough legal brief put together”:http://www.nytimes.com/2005/10/25/science/sciencespecial2/25darw.html which explains the history and the Constitutional failures of “intelligent design”. I would hope that among these, the most prominent is the simple violation of terminology when forcing non-scientific metaphysics into the science classroom.