Archive for November 17, 2010

Dan Brown Novel Coming True? Antimatter Captured at CERN

November 17, 2010 1 comment

In Dan Brown’s novel ‘Angels and Demons’, a supposed terrorist group steals a sample of anti-matter from CERN in Geneva. They rig it up like a bomb in an attempt to destroy the Vatican.

Anti-matter is the bizzarro-counterpart to regular matter. For example, regular matter is made up of protons, neutrons and electrons. A positron, which is the anti-matter counterpart to the electron, has the exact same mass as an electron but has an opposite electric charge (positive instead of negative, hence ‘positron’).

When anti-matter comes into contact with regular matter, they annihilate each other, and get converted entirely to energy. This is what makes anti-matter so difficult to handle, because most of our universe is made of regular matter, so anti-matter never hangs around for too long before it gets converted to energy. It is also why Dan Brown uses it in his novel, as an anti-matter bomb can be much more powerful than a nuclear weapon.

For example, half a gram of anti-matter could release as much energy as the atomic bomb dropped on Nagasaki in 1945.

Mushroom Cloud Over Nagasaki, August 9 1945. From Wikipedia.

This isn’t very realistic, however, since anti-matter is so difficult to trap.

But now science fiction has once again turned into science, and researchers at CERN today published a paper in Nature, stating that they had successfully trapped 38 anti-hydrogen atoms (a positron and an anti-proton) in a magnetic field at one time for 170 milliseconds.

This is an important experiment because scientists have always wished they could study anti-matter more closely, but it’s extremely difficult to get under the microscope (so to speak). Studying anti-matter will give us insight into the origins of the universe. It is believed that matter and anti-matter should have been created in equal proportions at the big bang, so one of the greatest mysteries in science is what happened to all the anti-matter?

 The scientists at CERN hope that they will be able to trap larger amounts of anti-matter in the future for longer periods of time in order to facilitate some real studies of the stuff.

So should we be worried about an anti-matter bomb? Well remember 0.5 grams of anti-matter roughly makes a Nagasaki. These guys trapped 38 atoms which is about 0.000000000000000000000000063 grams.

So no, you don’t have to worry :)

Homeopathy “Tricks You” Into Feeling Better? *Facepalm*

November 17, 2010 1 comment

Homeopathy is a form of Complementary and Alternative Medicine which has been largely discredited by the medical community. At its core, it is the belief that by diluting a substance to extremely small amounts, often until none of the active ingredient remains in the final product, makes the remedy more potent.

It makes no sense, and it doesn’t work. Yet because of tradition and some unfortunate legislation in 1938 in the United States, Homeopathy is still around.

A study was published earlier this week in the journal Rheumatology. Some news outlets are saying that the outcome shows that homeopathy “tricks you” into feeling better. This made me feel like poor Captain Picard here.

The study examined 5 groups of patients suffering from Rheumatoid arthritis. It split these participants into 5 groups:

  1. Those that received consultation and individualized treatment from a Homeopath
  2. Those that received consultation and complex treatment from a Homeopath (complex treatment is giving the patient a group of standard homeopathic remedies which are not tailored specifically to the patient).
  3. Those that received consultation from a Homeopath but given a placebo.
  4. Those that received no consolation and given complex treatment.
  5. Those that received no consolation and given a placebo.

The groups were blinded as to whether they received a placebo or a real treatment, but obviously you couldn’t blind them to whether or not they received a consultation.

I won’t go into all the data analysis or statistics, but the results eventually state that there was no difference between the placebo treatment and homeopathic treatment, which is not surprising.

However, the authors go on to assert that there was a significant difference between those that received a consultation and those that didn’t, and that this is evidence for the efficacy of homeopathy.

From the Telegraph:

Dr Sarah Brien, the study’s lead author, said that while previous research had suggested homeopathy could help patients with rheumatoid arthritis, the study provided the first scientific evidence to show such benefits were “specifically due to its unique consultation process”.

There are a few problems with this. The first is that the study is fairly small, therefore the power of their results is not high enough to make any broad stroke conclusions about the efficacy of homeopathy.

Second, the group which received a consultation was not adequately compared to anything. Comparing a homeopathic consultation to no consultation, and then claiming that homeopathy made these people feel better is not a sound conclusion. The authors should have compared the group receiving a homeopathic consultation to a group which received some other form of personal consultation or experience, like speaking with a medical doctor or hell, even a motivational speaker!

Steven Novella gives a good explanation on Science-Based Medicine about the Hawthorne effect which can have a significant impact on a study. Having the personal experience of speakin to a person may make for a better patient outcome, but it certainly does not prove any efficacy of homeopathy itself.