Archive for September, 2010

Did We Really Find an Earth-Like Planet?

September 30, 2010 2 comments

Distant Planet “Could Have Life”

New Planet May be Able to Nurture Organisms

Astronomers Discover ‘Goldilocks’ Planet that Could Be Just Right For Life

1st Habitable Distant Planet Found

Yup, we have all seen the headlines. Now it’s just a matter of time before the aliens descend upon us. Or is it?

Astronomers can actually tell if a planet is orbiting a star by looking at the light of the star itself. As the planet orbits, it tugs on the star ever-so-slightly. This causes the light emitted by the star to be doppler-shifted. Basically this means that the colour of the star changes as the planet orbits.

By looking at how much the colour of the star changes, and how often it changes, we can tell how big the planet is, and how far away from the parent star it is.

That’s pretty freakin’ amazing if you think about it. And now, astronomers have announced that there is a planet roughly 3 times the size of the Earth orbiting a star called Gliese 581, a red dwarf star roughly 20 light years away. The planet is called Gliese 581g.

Artists impression of Gliese 581g. Credit: NSF

What is making this headline news is that the planet is orbiting the star in the so-called “Goldilocks” zone. A distance which is just far enough from the star that liquid water could exist on the surface. Many scientists believe that liquid water is essential to the development of life. THAT’S whats gotten the media’s attention.

While I hate to cheapen the importance of this discovery, because it is important, we shouldn’t start panicking about a possible alien invasion just yet.

The only things we are sure of is that the planet is roughly 3 times the size of Earth, and orbits about 1/6 of the distance of the Earth from the Sun. That’s all. Yes, it is possible that liquid water could exist on the surface. This means that it is possible that life could develop on the planet, at some point. But we don’t know that, its just speculation.

Phil Plait also wrote about this on Bad Astronomy. It’s important to clarify what the scientists have actually discovered, and what the news outlets put into their articles. He also points out that perhaps the most important thing about this discovery is that 1) we can detect planets roughly the size of the Earth and 2) that if we can find Earth-size planets only 20 light years from Earth, it is very possible that our galaxy is teeming with planets. Very, very exciting.

For those interested, here is a link to the .pdf of the paper detailing the discovery of the planet. Like I said, it’s a pretty cool discovery, but we haven’t found the Klingon homeworld just yet.

Klingon homeworld of Kronos

Acupuncture and Stroke: The Globe and Mail’s Epic…Win???

September 29, 2010 1 comment

 I guess you could call this post “Part 2” in my examination of science reporting in Canada’s national newspaper The Globe and Mail.

My previous post dealt with the horrific reporting on the supposed link between cell phones and cancer. This time around, I’ll be dealing with an article on acupuncture.

Acupuncture is a traditional Chinese medicine wherein needles are inserted into the skin. The needle insertions are supposed to redirect the flow of qi energy in the body, which subsequently cures whatever ails you. (Check my previous post about acupuncture for a more thorough explanation).

Scientific consensus is that acupuncture offers nothing more than a placebo effect. Yet, most insurance companies continue to cover it (including mine).

So when I saw an article about acupuncture in The Globe, was ready for more fodder for my skeptical mind. But I was pleasantly surprised. Somewhat. Just a little.

The article reports on a recent review of 10 studies looking at acupuncture as a therapy for stroke patients. Not surprisingly, the researchers found no evidence that acupuncture helped the recovery of these patients.

While the article does a good job making this finding clear, it does cloud the issue by talking about the supposed “problems” with studying acupuncture.

One of the most glaring problems confounding the study of acupuncture is that it’s challenging to compare it to anything. While researchers studying the effects of a drug can make a direct comparison by giving some patients the medicine and others a placebo, the same isn’t true of acupuncture. Researchers often give one group of patients acupuncture and use a “sham” therapy on another group, in which needles are inserted at non-acupuncture points in the body.

The problem with that approach is that patients may still get a benefit from the “sham” needles, even if they’re not inserted at the correct points in the body.

The “sham” treatment is the placebo in this type of study, and these sham treatments are often developed with the help of trained acupuncturists. The fact that sham acupuncture gives a similar benefit to the patient as regular acupuncture is not a “problem”, it is evidence. Evidence that acupuncture does not provide any benefit other than a placebo. If the treatment does not provide a statistically significant effect beyond that of a placebo, it is not effective.

Proponents of acupuncture usually try to fog the minds of potential customers by saying that acupuncture cannot be studied by standard “Western” practices; that it should be exempt from scientific study because it is somehow “different”. Even the Globe and Mail article manages to contradict itself on this point:

Dr. Korner-Bitensky said there is no solid evidence showing stroke patients can truly benefit from acupuncture.

“For patients and families I would say [acupuncture is] not where you want to put your major commitment in terms of therapy,” she said.

But there’s another important point that shouldn’t be discounted, Dr. Korner-Bitensky added: Some patients simply believe in acupuncture therapy, and that alone could somehow benefit them.

Sorry, but science is a methodology, not an ideology. “Belief” is not enough. If acupuncture produced a real effect, it should be testable and quantifiable. But it doesn’t.

Now the question always arises at this point: “Even if it is just a placebo, why is that bad? It still makes people feel better. Why can’t we let it continue?”

There are several reasons. The first is that if acupuncture is covered by health insurance, it means that we are all collectively footing the bill for a medical treatment that doesn’t work.

Second, if we allow a treatment which doesn’t work to continue, we open the door for similar treatments and ideology to become mainstream, such as faith healing or homeopathy.

Third, if we continue to allow treatments which don’t work to exist, we run the risk of ordinary people choosing “alternative” treatments, treatments which have been proven ineffective, over science-based treatments that do work.

Finally, acupuncture is not always completely benign. There have been reports of needles being left in, punctured bladders, and there is always the possibility of infection.

So although this Globe and Mail article wasn’t an all-out “Win”, it wasn’t a Fail either. But it does serve to bring up discussion about alternative medicine and the associated dangers of giving them more credit than they deserve.

Cell Phones and Cancer: The Globe and Mail’s Epic Fail

September 26, 2010 3 comments

So I wake up around 8:30 on Saturday morning. I’m enjoying a nice coffee and watching a “Hell’s Kitchen” episode that I’ve PVR’d.

Then I open my laptop to read the news, and right there on the home page of The Globe and Mail I read the headline: “The Disturbing Truth About Cell Phones”

Here we go…

The author of the article quotes a book newly released called Disconnect. Even though the book admits that there is no conclusive evidence that cell phones are in any way dangerous, the article still manages to come across as fear-laden and lazily researched. The article claims that studies show that the risk of glioma, a rare type of brain tumor, doubles with cell phone use. Funny, that’s not what this review of the literature says.

One thing that I think science journalists are particularly bad at is understanding that you cannot prove a negative. There are a large number studies which show there is little or no evidence that cell phone use is associated with increased health risks. However, when these studies are covered in the press or quoted by those opposed to cell phone use, they simply say that this shows “more study is needed”.

Now, I am all for studying the long-term risks/benefits of cell phone use. However, it needs to be made clear that when a study shows “no correlation”, this is not “inconclusive”. The only thing which will satisfy journalists or anti-cell phone activists is a study saying that “cell phones proved to not cause cancer”. The unfortunate thing is that this will never happen.

It is impossible to prove a negative. It would be like saying “prove to me that the sun won’t rise one day”. In order to prove this, I will have to perform an infinite number of observations, which is of course impossible. I could tell you that all the evidence suggests that the sun will rise every morning that the Earth continues to rotate on its axis and the sun continues to burn. But I cannot conclusively say “the sun will always rise”.

The Globe and Mail article also performs a common fallacious argument, which is cherry-picking data. Even though there is a large body of literature on RF radiation and cell phone use, the small number of studies which suggest a negative health effect of cell phones are often touted as proof that they do, in fact, cause negative health effects. This is wrong.

You have to look at a whole body of literature, not just a few isolated studies. For example, here is a study which not only shows no negative health effects of cell phones, but actually shows it may help fight Alzheimer’s disease. This is an isolated case which demanded further study, but no other lab showed similar results. So you can see why you need to look at a large amount of literature to get an accurate picture. This is something The Globe article fails to do.

The article also talks about a study in which rats were bombarded with microwaves and found that they had damaged DNA. Not only that,

The rats also had brain-cell alterations, memory lapses and fluids leaking from their brains into their blood, indicating a breach of the blood-brain barrier.

Where do I start with this one?

Well the reference to the study is not given, so that’s a big problem. It is not stated at what powers or frequencies of microwaves the rats were exposed to. Big problem there, since it is not fair to compare different powers or frequencies than those used in cell phones. And the final problem is rats are not people. This may seem obvious to most of us, but results from a rat-based study do not always translate to humans. Many drug studies test drugs which helped disease models in rats, but failed to do the same thing in humans, the physiology is different. To tout this study as evidence that cell phones hurt humans is wrong. It may warrant further study, but it doesn’t prove anything.

So lets not start throwing out our cell phones in favour of tin-can phones or telegraphs just yet. The literature shows that there is no conclusive evidence linking cell phone use to negative health effects.

Lets remember to keep these things in perspective too. A study which was just published estimates cell phone related deaths in the United States over the last decade. Not from microwaves, but from talking or texting while driving. In 2005, there were 4572 deaths related to cell phone use while driving. In 2008, the number was 5870. The study also estimates that from 2001 to 2007, texting resulted in an additional 16 000 deaths.

These numbers are only for the United States, not worldwide. This is a problem that is more dangerous than RF radiation will ever be, even if it did cause damage to humans.

Even though I am not a huge fan of Oprah, she has the right idea with her “No Phone Zone” pledge.

You can read more about the dangers of using cell phones while driving and sign the pledge on her website.

My 100th Post!

September 25, 2010 2 comments

I realize that if we humans had evolved 8 or 12 fingers instead of 10, then perhaps this particular post wouldn’t hold as much meaning. But since we do live in a base-10 world, happy 100th post!

Its been only a few short months since I started this blog, and I am quite proud of how it has progressed. I can only hope that you have enjoyed reading it as much as I have enjoyed writing it.

I got the idea of starting a blog when I moved from Ontario to Alberta after finishing my M.Sc. degree. I got a “real” job out here in oil country, but found that I was missing some of the intellectual stimulation of being in school and doing research.

That being said, I was not about to head back to the lab just yet. Instead, I thought it would be a good idea to branch out and start exploring new topics; topics that were currently making it into the news.

Unfortunately, what I found in the news was not always “science”. Alternative medicine, UFOs, psychics, and *emphatic groan* anti-vaccinationists were what I kept reading about.

And so I discovered the skeptical movement. A large collection of scientists and bloggers (often both) who shared my viewpoint on “science” in the media. We all decided that we wanted to do something to change it, and this new thing called the “interweb” has given us the ability to do so.

So what does the future hold for ‘A Quantum of Knowledge’?

Well I will be trying to do more blogging on current research papers and making them accessible to the general reader. What I’ve also found is that some of my most popular posts are when I explain the “Physics Of” everyday things, as well things you hear about in the news (like solar cells, Vuvuzelas, or that girl getting hit with the watermelon). So expect to see a whole bunch of posts explaining the physics of everything from hair dryers (why DO they always trip the circuit breakers?) to the new James Webb Telescope.

You can also expect me to start writing a bit more about myself and what I actually do out here in good ol’ Calgary. Some of the most interesting posts from the blogs I read are those about the author’s everyday lives, so expect to see more of that here.

Finally, I’d like to say thanks to you, my readers! I’ve gotten a great deal of satisfaction from watching my readership grow and reading all of your comments. Keep reading, keep commenting, and if you really like a particular post,  maybe you could help me promote it by using the ‘Share’ buttons down at the bottom of the page.

You can also follow me on Twitter, where I send out my thoughts and interesting science links as they happen.

P.S. If you have any ideas or physics related questions you’d like to have answered, please feel free to email them to . I’m always looking for topics to write about so I’d love to hear from you guys!

Do You Love Music? Is Music Your Life? Now It Can Be Your Death.

September 24, 2010 Leave a comment

You’ve lived a good life. You’ve done some things, had some laughs, and now its time to decide what to do after you pass on.

Burial used to be the only option, but nowadays we have many more options to consider. Gene Roddenberry had his ashes launched into space, others have them released into the ocean, and now you can even have your ashes pressed into a vinyl record.

Yes a company in the UK called Andvinyly is offering a service in which they press some of your cremated remains into a vinyl record of your choice.

You can even have your own record made with some of your own music, record some of your own poetry or words of wisdom, complete with a smattering of your Earthly remains into the tracks.

The amount of ash they actually use is quite small, since as any vinyl purist will know, any kind of dust or impurities on the record will degrade the sound quality. So you can still choose to have the bulk of your remains launched into space if you so desire.

And I have to say, this sounds kinda cool. Can you imagine a record playing at your memorial service with some of your ashes pressed right into it? And you can make some pretty artistic statements with your song selection.

Personally, I think I would go with “Comfortably Numb” by Pink Floyd.

Although, “Don’t Fear the Reaper” by Blue Oyster Cult also seems like an obvious choice.

So if space burial is a little beyond your means, at a $3000 price tag this vinyl pressing doesn’t seem like such a bad idea.

After all, as Neil Young so eloquently put it: “Rock and roll can never die.”

The Curious Case of the Increasingly Muscular Woman

September 23, 2010 Leave a comment

It sounds like something right out of an episode of House.

Sally Massagee, a North Carolina mother in her early 50s, began noticing something strange happening to her body several years ago.

While some of us would give anything to have our muscles grow without going to the gym, the old adage “be careful what you wish for” comes to mind in this situation.

Massagee’s muscles starting growing all on their own. Even the muscles which move her eyes were 3-4 times larger than in a normal person!

She says she never went to the gym and had no explanation for the transformation.

As the muscles grew, however, they started to get hard as well. This was causing severe pain and she found she had difficulty performing even minor tasks.

I couldn’t reach up to fold over the turtleneck on my sweater…I couldn’t reach my ears to put on earrings.

She saw several doctors at Duke University, but they came up empty-handed in the way of a diagnosis. Consequently, she was not accepted into the Mayo Clinic since she did not have a diagnosable ailment.

In 2008, however, she was accepted into the Undiagnosed Disease Program at the National Institute of Health . After a couple more years of tests and tests and more tests, doctors finally came up with an answer.

Apparently, abnormal proteins which are supposed to attack organs, were instead attacking her skeletal muscles. Although this is a step in the right direction, doctors are still working on a treatment.

I’m glad to know that there is a place like the Undiagnosed Disease Program which performs this kind of work. It must be difficult emotionally, but the challenge and eventual success must be very satisfying.

Sorry Creationists, Radiometric Dating Still Works

September 21, 2010 2 comments

About a month ago, there was a story about scientists from Purdue University claiming that they have measured changes in decay rates of certain isotopes. The changes, they claimed, corresponded to the orbit of the Earth around the sun, and the rotation of the core of the sun.

They hypothesized that it could be neutrinos emitted from the sun’s core interacting with the radioactive substances, causing a change in their decay rate.

I’ve written a post previously on radiometric dating. The technique is used to estimate the age of archaeological samples and rocks. It is used to determine the age of skeletons, fossils, and rocks. The geologic history of the Earth is based on these techniques, and it is how we know how old the Earth is.

So any inconsistency with the decay rate of an isotope we use for these dating techniques would be interesting indeed. But, perhaps not surprisingly, I am skeptical.

One of the scientists was quoted as saying,

What we’re suggesting is that something that can’t interact with anything is changing something that can’t be changed.

Very aptly put. Neutrinos are particles emitted by the sun and very nearly massless. Billions of them pass through you every second and do not interact with the atoms and molecules in your body.

So the idea that they may, somehow, be able to change the decay rates of radioactive isotopes is quite an extraordinary claim, and it therefore requires extraordinary evidence.

This article states that

The Purdue team has ruled out the possibility of experimental error or an environmental influence on the detection systems.

That claim, any scientist will tell you, is at best bold, and at worst laughable. Being able to conclusively eliminate all environmental factors is very difficult indeed. Particularly in the work of these scientists, who used data and labs in several different locations.

That the orbit of the Earth could have any measurable effect on these isotopes is very unlikely. Consider this. Some have claimed that because the Earth’s orbit is elliptical,  the Earth is sometimes closer to the sun than at another part of the year. This could increase the flux of neutrinos and possibly account for changing decay rates of isotopes.

The Difference in Earth-Sun distance between aphelion and perihelion is about 4 million km (diagram is not to scale). Picture Credit: NASA

This seems unlikely, since the flux of neutrinos changes by only about 5% though the course of the year (I did that math myself, feel free to check it if you wish).

In addition, their study looked at decay rates of several different isotopes, and used data from a variety of labs. This is not a controlled experiment, but we can’t discount the findings simply because of that. However, they also found that the change of decay rate they measured was not the same for all of the isotopes they studied. So this could mean that the neutrinos are interacting differently with each isotope, or it could mean they are simply getting anomalous readings.

Other scientists are starting to respond as well. A study was recently published which measured the decay rate of Gold-198 over several weeks. The researchers set up the experiment so that one sample got many times more neutrinos bombarding it than the control sample. No detectable change in radioactive decay was measured.

So the question is still largely unsettled. Oh but wait. Even though Creationists and Young Earth Theorists love to take studies like this and spin them to say that the Earth may not be as old as we thought, consider this…

The changes the Purdue researchers measured were fractions of a percent. They would not have any significant effect on the dating of any geological or archaeological sample. So even if their numbers are right (which I don’t think they are) they wouldn’t affect our measurement of the age of the Earth.

But this is what science is all about. Making a discovery and then trying to prove it to the rest of the world. Whether the neutrino theory turns out to be true or not, it is a classic example of why science works.