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The Top 10 Science Books of 2010

December 2010

In the tradition of making end-of-the-year lists of the “Top 10 X” I present my personal picks for the Top 10 Science Books of 2010. Most of these books are available in audio format as well as the old-school ink-on-bound-paper format, and I highly recommend Audible.com as the go-to source for easy listening to these selections while driving or riding your bike from your MP3 player or iPhone/iPod (use one ear bud instead of two so you can hear on-coming traffic, ambulances, etc.).

In reverse order I give you my Top 10 Science Books of 2010:

10Merchants of Doubt: How a Handful of Scientists Obscured the Truth on Issues from Tobacco Smoke to Global Warming
by Naomi Oreskes and Erik M. Conway

Oreskes and Conway tell an important story about the misuse of science to mislead the public on matters ranging from the risks of smoking to the reality of global warming. The people the authors accuse are themselves scientists—mostly physicists, former cold warriors who now serve a conservative agenda, and vested interests like the tobacco industry. And they name names, documenting their involvement in such issues as acid rain, the dangers of smoking and secondhand smoke, the ozone hole, global warming, the Strategic Defense Initiative, and the banning of DDT. These scientists aimed to sow seeds of public doubt on matters of settled science by casting aspersions on the science and the scientists who produce it. Oreskes, a professor of history and science studies at U.C. San Diego and science writer Conway also emphasize how journalists and Internet bloggers uncritically repeat these charges.

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9 The Upside of Irrationality: The Unexpected Benefits of Defying Logic at Work and at Home by Dan Ariely

Behavioral economist Dan Ariely, the author of the highly acclaimed Predictably Irrational, expands on his first book to offer a more positive and personal take on the human capacity for irrationality in life, business, and public policy. Ariely bravely discusses his youthful accident that left him badly scarred and facing grueling physical therapy, using his experiences in treatment to discuss the nature of physical and psychological pain, and how this led him to study human thought and behavior, and how and why we consistently fail to act in our own best interest. Ariely is an experimentalist and he takes readers through experiments that reveal such idiosyncrasies as the IKEA effect (if you build something, pride and sentimental attachment are likely to give you an inflated sense of its quality) and the Baby Jessica effect (why we respond to one person’s suffering but not to the suffering of many). Ariely includes prescriptions for how to make personal and societal changes of behavior, and what patterns we must identify to improve how we love, live, work, innovate, manage, and govern.

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8 Packing for Mars: The Curious Science of Life in the Void by Mary Roach

This is one fun book to read. Roach’s wry humor and unconstrained descriptions of the very earthy side of the human condition (sex, death, the afterlife) makes her one of today’s most popular science writers. In her latest book Roach takes us behind the scenes of what it takes to live in space, and she asks the most interesting questions: Why is it impolite for astronauts to float upside down during conversations? Just how smelly does a spacecraft get after a two week mission? Roach gives us the stories Life magazine never covered, and for good reason: they are not glamorous or sexy or adventurous. Living in space is a nightmare of logistical problems that made me wonder why we don’t abandon human space flight entirely and just get all the science we need from robotic spacecraft … until I got to the end of this gripping read and realized that venturing to go where no one has gone before is what our species does.

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7 How Pleasure Works: The New Science of Why We Like What We Like
by Paul Bloom

Would you wear Hitler’s sweater? What about the cardigan of Mr. Rogers? Most people say no to the first question and yes to the second, adding that they would feel more moral and upstanding wearing Mr. Rogers’ sweater. Why? Paul Bloom, one of the most interesting experimental psychologists working today, answers these and many other questions in this, his latest book (see also his previous Descartes’ Baby), in which he explores pleasure from evolutionary and social perspectives. By examining studies and anecdotes of pleasure-inducing activities such as eating, art, sex, and shopping, Bloom posits that pleasure takes us closer to the essence of a thing, be it animal, vegetable, or mineral. He argues that humans are hard-wired to give, as well as receive, pleasure. A study using mislabeled, cheap bottles of wine, wherein “40 experts said the wine with the fancy label was worth drinking, while only 12 said this of the cheap label,” demonstrates the subjective psychological influence behind what we find pleasurable.

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6 The Invisible Gorilla: And Other Ways Our Intuitions Deceive Us
by Christopher Chabris and Daniel Simons

Psychologists Christopher Chabris and and Dan Simons produced one of the most famous psychological experiments in history when they asked subjects to count the number of passes made by a team of players, in which half completely missed a person in a gorilla suit walk across the scene, stop and wave its arms, and exit stage right. In this book based on this and other research, the authors write about six everyday illusions of perception and thought, including the beliefs that: we pay attention more than we do, our memories are more detailed than they are, confident people are competent people, we know more than we actually do, and our brains have reserves of power that are easy to unlock. Through a host of studies, anecdotes, and logic, the authors debunk conventional wisdom about the workings of the mind and what experts really know about how the mind works.

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5 What Technology Wants by Kevin Kelly

Kevin Kelly, the editor and publisher of Whole Earth Review and one of the founders and editors of Wired magazine, explains why most of us have a love/hate relationship with new inventions, and why this conflict is inherent to all technology. But Kelly also argues that technology is an extension of life—and an acceleration of the mind. Technology is not anti-nature, but rather the “seventh kingdom” of life: it now shares with life certain biases, urges, needs and tendencies. The system of technology that Kelly calls the “technium” unconsciously “wants” to head in certain directions, just as do life and evolution. The technium functions as a living, natural system. Just as evolution has tendencies, urges, trajectories, established forms, and a direction, so too does the technium. Where is it headed? What is the true nature of its increasing presence in our society? And how do the goals of the technological agenda relate to humanity’s goals? Read this book to find out from one of the true visionaries of our time.

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4 The Grand Design by Stephen Hawking and Leonard Mlodinow

When and how did the universe begin? Why are we here? Why is there something rather than nothing? What is the nature of reality? Why are the laws of nature so finely tuned as to allow for the existence of beings like ourselves? And, finally, is the apparent “grand design” of our universe evidence of a benevolent creator who set things in motion—or does science offer another explanation? The Grand Design attempts to answer these ultimate questions based on the most recent scientific evidence. For example, Mlodinow and Hawking show that according to quantum theory, the cosmos does not have just a single existence or history, but rather that every possible history of the universe exists simultaneously. When applied to the universe as a whole, this idea calls into question the very notion of cause and effect. The authors further explain that we ourselves are the product of quantum fluctuations in the very early universe, and show how quantum theory predicts the “multiverse”—the idea that ours is just one of many universes that appeared spontaneously out of nothing, each with different laws of nature. They conclude with a riveting assessment of M-theory, an explanation of the laws governing us and our universe that is currently the only viable candidate for a complete “theory of everything.” If confirmed, they write, it will be the unified theory that Einstein was looking for, and the ultimate triumph of human reason.

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3 The Moral Landscape: How Science Can Determine Human Values
by Sam Harris

Sam Harris’s first book, The End of Faith, ignited a worldwide debate about the validity of religion. In the aftermath, Harris discovered that most people—from religious fundamentalists to nonbelieving scientists—agree on one point: science has nothing to say on the subject of human values. Indeed, our failure to address questions of meaning and morality through science has now become the most common justification for religious faith. It is also the primary reason why so many secularists and religious moderates feel obligated to “respect” the hardened superstitions of their more devout neighbors. In this explosive new book, Sam Harris tears down the wall between scientific facts and human values, arguing that most people are simply mistaken about the relationship between morality and the rest of human knowledge. Harris urges us to think about morality in terms of human and animal well-being, viewing the experiences of conscious creatures as peaks and valleys on a “moral landscape.” Just as there is no such thing as Christian physics or Muslim algebra, there can be no Christian or Muslim morality.

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2 The Rational Optimist: How Prosperity Evolves by Matt Ridley

Matt Ridley, the author of the bestselling science books Genome, The Red Queen, The Origins of Virtue, and Nature via Nurture, demonstrates in his new book that life is getting better—and at an accelerating rate. Food availability, income, and life span are up; disease, child mortality, and violence are down—all across the globe. Though the world is far from perfect, necessities and luxuries alike are getting cheaper; population growth is slowing; Africa is following Asia out of poverty; the Internet, the mobile phone, and container shipping are enriching people’s lives as never before. The pessimists who dominate public discourse insist that we will soon reach a turning point and things will start to get worse. But they have been saying this for 200 years. Yet Matt Ridley does more than describe how things are getting better. He explains why. Prosperity comes from everybody working for everybody else. The habit of exchange and specialization—which started more than 100,000 years ago—has created a collective brain that sets human living standards on a rising trend. The mutual dependence, trust, and sharing that result are causes for hope, not despair.

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1 The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot

I would never have imagined that a clump of cells could end up being such a compelling story, but such is the nature of narrative in the hands of a world-class storyteller such as Rebecca Skloot. The “immortality” comes from a line of cells that generated some of the most crucial innovations in modern medicine. They came from a woman named Henrietta Lacks, a mother of five in Baltimore, a poor African American migrant from the tobacco farms of Virginia, who died from a cruelly aggressive cancer at the age of 30 in 1951. A sample of her cancerous tissue, taken without her knowledge or consent, as was the custom then, turned out to provide one of the holy grails of mid-century biology: human cells that could survive in the lab. Known as HeLa cells (the convention is to use the first two letters of the first and last names of the subject from which the cells are taken), their stunning potency gave scientists a building block for countless breakthroughs, beginning with the cure for polio. Meanwhile, Henrietta’s family continued to live in poverty and frequently poor health, and their discovery decades later of her unknowing contribution left them full of pride, anger, and suspicion. Skloot includes her decade-long pursuit of the story behind the cells, and along the way gives readers detailed description of the science of using these cells to better humanity.

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Fossil Hunting Without Creationists

December 2010
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click to enlarge photo

This past weekend, December 17–19, 2010, I joined paleontologists Donald Prothero from Occidental College and John Long from the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County on a fossil hunting, rock hopping, geology viewing, petroglyph scanning excursion through the Mojave Desert between Los Angeles and Las Vegas. Through the entire trip I kept thinking “I wish the creationists and Intelligent Design theorists would try their hand at some actual field work because then they would see (and hear and smell and especially touch) what nature is really like and what the history of life reveals in the rocks, instead of sitting in an air-conditioned or heated office in some think tank building or school of theology department, trolling through published papers by real scientists who do this field work, trying to find some little gap that must be filled by the creating designer.

At this site (see photograph above), for example—a trilobite bed east of Amboy near Cadiz smack dab in the middle of nowhere (see what I mean on Google Maps)—we sat for hours with our hammers and collecting bags sifting through thousands upon thousands of shale pieces looking for that fossil gem, and finding a few here and there. These are 550 million year old creatures who once roamed through shallow seas but are now swimming in stone (in the elegant phrase of John Long, whose book by this title is a magnificent testimony to the power and beauty of paleontology). There is simply no denying evolution when you see it raw in the rocks (see especially Don Prothero’s book on proving evolution through the fossil record.

We also visited the coolest slot canyon I’ve ever seen, north of Las Vegas, off of Highway 168 (between Highway 93 and Interstate 15), down this miles-long dirt road that required four-wheel drive. This is Arrow Canyon, and the slot cut exposes a kilometer-thick Carboniferous to lower Permian succession, the upper part of a much thicker Paleozoic section ranging back to the Cambrian. The outcrop is nearly 100% exposed due to the arid conditions and sparse desert vegetation, enabling documentation of facies cyclicity and allowing beds to be traced laterally for hundreds of meters. (If you like it when I talk dirty this way I’m afraid that the credit goes to Don Prothero, whom I am quoting in this last sentence from his field guide for this trip!)

Check out the photo of our expedition group in the slot canyon, along with the photo of the tilted geological beds. There is simply no way that this slot canyon could have been cut through this hard rock in a flash (Noahian) flood, nor could these beds be laid down from ancient seas, compacted under extreme pressure and heat into layered beds, and then uplifted by slow geological forces into what we see today, all in only a few years of biblical times.

In the slot canyon, by the way, there were petroglyphs. Sadly, as you will see, some pinheads managed to find the canyon and decided to leave their mark on or around these ancient pictograms, thereby ruining them forever:

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click the photo above to see both petroglyph images in this gallery

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I did find something for the creationists to crow about. Check out the photograph (below) of a very ancient rock formation on the hike into that slot canyon. Here, embedded solidly on that rock, is a clear and unmistakable footprint with a clear demarcated heal! (I estimate about a men’s size 13.)

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click to enlarge image

So there you go creationists, get in your four-wheel drive and head for Arrow Canyon, find that rock (it’s on the right side going into the canyon, about half way to the petroglyphs), photograph it, write up a paper about it, then submit it to the Journal of Young Earth Creationism. Alternatively, if Erich Von Daniken happens to be reading this, you can do the same thing but claim that it is evidence for alien visitation hundreds of millions of years ago. I think it was a Bruno Magli shoe. Adam (or Alien) had expensive taste.

If you are interested in geology tours, you won’t want to miss the Skeptics Society’s 7-day Alaskan Glacier Cruise. If you can’t make it to that tour, sign up to receive advance notification of future tours.

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Conspiracy Central Dealey Plaza, JFK, and LHO

December 2010

Dealey Plaza

On Tuesday, December 7, I walked through and around Dealey Plaza in Dallas where JFK was assassinated by a lone assassin Lee Harvey Oswald (LHO). Or was he? A lone assassin, that is? Yes, he was, but that is not what anyone giving informal tours of the plaza will have you believe if you give them a few minutes (and a few bucks).

I was in town filming a documentary for the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation. The subject was conspiracy theories, so it was with some irony that we happened to be filming on December 7 because there are many conspiracy theories surrounding that date as well, a date that will live in infamy, as Franklin Roosevelt so crowned that fateful day in 1941, because he supposedly either helped orchestrate the attack on Pearl Harbor or else he knew about the attack and allowed it to happen in order to galvanize the American public into supporting England against the Nazis and getting the United States into the war.

There is no more to the Pearl Harbor conspiracy theory than there is that President Bush helped orchestrate 9/11 or knew about the pending attack and allowed it to happen in order to unite the American public into supporting his wars of aggression in the Middle East. Nevertheless, there is something particularly appealing to conspiracy theorists when they describe “what really happened” in their alternative universe of events. You can see it in their eyes when they begin to talk about what “they” want or don’t want you to know about said event.

This was certainly the case for me when I interviewed several conspiracy theorists hanging around Dealey Plaza that day. Their eye light up and they grow ever more animated (and even agitated) as their story grows in complexity about all the different people, elements, and events that almost miraculously (it would be a miracle in most re-tellings) came together to assassinate JFK. One fellow had so many people involved in the assassination that they would have needed a small sports arena to meet to plan out the day. This improbability seems to bother conspiracy theorists not one tiny bit, as they spin out their narratives, drawing you down their causal pathway that resulted in the end of Camelot.

The most striking thing about being in Dealey Plaza for me was how small it is. Perhaps because the assassination itself was bigger than life we expect the geography to match the eventuality, but that is certainly not the case here. Two X’s on the street mark where JFK was hit: first in the throat causing his arms to move up and splay out, and second where the bullet found its cranial mark and literally blew his brains out (and, according to one conspiricist there, sent the skull cap flying across the street and onto the adjacent lawn). What is astounding is how close both X’s are to the sniper’s nest in the Book Depository building. Both from the street level looking up and from the window looking down (there is a museum on the sixth floor from which you can gain the perspective of the assassin), it seems clear that Oswald could hardly have missed. Given the fact that he was designated a sharpshooter by the Marines during his time in the service, and the fact that Kennedy’s car was traveling less than 10 miles per hour after making the sharp left turn onto Elm street, one is left whispering under one’s breath, “Kennedy was a sitting duck.”

Look at the two photographs (at the top of this post), each taken from one of the X’s on the street (I tried to snap a pic from the sniper’s nest, but this must be a problem for the museum because in addition to “No Photography” signs there is a guard standing there the entire time). The window from which Oswald fired is the square window on the far right of the building, second from the top.

Is it really necessary to invent additional assassins when it is obvious that one could have done the job? No. LHO acted alone in killing JFK. QED.

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Cell Phones and Cancer

December 2010

Ever since the publication of physicist Dr. Bernard Leikind’s article in Skeptic (see eSkeptic for June 9, 2010) and my subsequent column in Scientific American in which I cited Leikind’s arguments (both of which were skeptical of claims that cell phone use causes brain cancer), we have been inundated with letters disputing our skepticism. The letters come in a variety of flavors, so what follows are Dr. Leikind’s responses to the critics that he identifies by their email names. My own response to critics will appear in the next issue of Scientific American, so in the meantime I defer to Dr. Leikind’s responses below, as well as to the SkepDoc Harriet Hall, M.D. along with oncologist Dr. David Gorski, both of whom blog at ScienceBasedMedicine.org, which covers the ongoing controversy over cell phones and cancer.

For example, when I queried her on my critics, Dr. Hall responded to me:

I agree that it is premature to say that cell phones “can’t possibly” cause cancer, although Leikind is correct to say physics shows they can’t possibly do it by the mechanisms that have been commonly proposed. The fact remains: there is no good evidence that cell phones do cause cancer. And so far I’m not convinced by the proposed mechanisms by which they might cause cancer. The radiation/mutation and tissue heating explanations have pretty well been debunked. I’m going to continue to think that cell phones don’t cause cancer — and that there is a high probability that the kind of radiation they emit “can’t” cause cancer — until I see something much more convincing in the way of evidence. If they do somehow cause cancer, studies to date have established that any effect can’t be a very large one. Any potential cancer risk pales against the high risk of accidents from using them while driving, and against the convenience and safety effects of having instant communication.

And I asked Dr. Gorski as well, and he responded to me thusly (with links to further reading):

Basically, as I said, the article is correct in dubbing the idea that cell phone radiation causes cancer as very, very improbable, but I thought Leikind went too far in declaring it “impossible” based a priori on physics because, quite frankly, he completely ignores newer biological understanding of mechanisms of carcinogenesis. As I said in my post, I do not believe that cell phones cause cancer. I consider it highly unlikely and implausible. I do think, however, that declaring it “impossible” is premature. More reading from ScienceBasedMedicine.org:

http://www.sciencebasedmedicine.org/?p=84
http://www.sciencebasedmedicine.org/?p=8
http://www.sciencebasedmedicine.org/?p=3073
http://www.sciencebasedmedicine.org/?p=3666

And, here’s my explanation on just how complex cancer is:

http://www.sciencebasedmedicine.org/?p=4832

Finally, Dr. Leikind sent me this wonderful general response to the critics, which I happen to agree with and will be interested in hearing from readers about this ongoing controversy:

It interests me that so many readers see “microwaves from cell phones cannot cause cancer” and understand us to be saying “there are no physiological effects from microwaves.” But our message is not that there are no physiological effects, but that we (the appropriate scientists and engineers) know exactly what the physiological effects of absorbing microwaves are. And those effects cannot cause cancer, and we know this because there are many identical but more powerful similar effects, such as exercise. No one thinks that exercise causes cancer. I also find it persuasive that no one is concerned about cell phone microwaves causing skin cancer. But the radiation is more intense in our hands, ears, and scalp than it is in brains or optic or auditory nerves, and skin cells reproduce many times more frequently than any glial brain cells, and even many more times more frequently than any neuron cells.

Dr. Leikind’s responses to the posted critiques of my and his claims follow:

GreenMind suspects that I may have ties to the cell phone industry. I use an old model Motorola RAZR V3 cell phone and pay T-Mobile about $40 per month for my cell phone service. I would be happy to earn some money from my investigation and writing about cell phones and cancer.

The precautionary principle draws passionate support from public health care professional, Dr. Martin Donohoe. In the case of cell phone microwave radiation, scientists have already done the appropriate research. We know exactly what happens when any material, including living tissue, absorbs microwave radiation. The microwave energy appears as additional shaking, jostling, rattling and rolling of the molecules. In a living human being with her powerful temperature control mechanisms functioning and her blood flowing, we know that there is no potential for microwave radiation from a cell phone to cause significant, widespread or irreparable harm. Therefore, the precautionary principle does not apply. The situation is different when someone invents a new chemical. The precautionary principle would apply to eating cell phones but not to talking on them. It would not apply to texting while driving because the harmful potential is well known.

Freedom for All and dideldum worry about power levels and heating. A cell phone emits about a watt of microwave radiation. Some of that power enters the user’s hand, ear, scalp, skull, and brain and other tissues. To produce this watt of microwave radiation, the cell phone’s electronics must convert somewhat more than a watt of power from its batteries. The excess power and all of the power that goes to operate the circuitry of the phone appears as a temperature increase in the phone. The phone may feel warm. This energy transfers to the user’s hand or ear. Some may transfer to the environment by infrared radiation or convection. This energy does not cause cancer. The temperature increase in the human brain from absorbed cell phone microwave radiation is so small that many researchers mistakenly believe that there are non-thermal effects. The temperature never reaches the various potentially harmful temperatures that Freedom cites.

GreenMind questions Dr. Shermer’s and my statement that there is no known mechanism by which cell phone microwaves might cause cancer. I claim more than that there is no known mechanism. I assert that there is no unknown mechanism.

To summarize, here is the proof. We know exactly what happens to the cell phone microwaves the body absorbs. The energy transfers from the radiation to jostling, jiggling, vibrating and twisting of the molecules. From there, the energy enters to flowing blood, reaches the entire body, and moves to the environment. If the power flow is large, the transfer to the environment will occur primarily by the evaporation of sweat. For the watt or less absorbed from cell phones, the transfer will occur by small changes to the flow of blood to the body’s surface causing slight increases in radiation, conduction, and convection to the environment. There is little temperature increase in a living human being from cell phone microwaves. We know many other processes and effects that produce exactly the same effects at much greater energy and power levels, and all of these are safe and do not cause cancer. Exercise is one such process. Wearing a ski cap is another.

Any researcher who proposes a mechanism by which cell phone radiation might trigger or enhance carcinogenesis is welcome to do so, but must begin with the process described, and also explain why much larger, but otherwise identical processes, do not trigger the proposed mechanism. This thought informs my consideration of the many real and supposed physiological effects of microwave radiation cited by readers.

In the following, I use colloquial language but I could have used the technical terms. Knowledgeable scientists will recognize what these are. I mention specific readers in these notes, but often other readers made similar points.

Richard2010 correctly asserts that it might be possible to modify the complicated and lengthy process by which an initiating incident leads to cancer. He says that microwaves might influence any of the intermediate steps that do not involve breakage of DNA. The only means by which cell phone microwave radiation might influence those steps is through the jiggling, jostling, rocking and rolling that occur when the organism’s thermal control system is functioning. Test tube experiments that do not reproduce the stable temperature conditions in a living organism, however, are not relevant. While some can imagine putative carcinogenic mechanisms from electromagnetic radiation, the only forms of electromagnetic radiation that cause cancer, ultraviolet, X-rays, and gamma rays, operate by breaking chemical bonds in DNA.

Megahurtz, Richard2010, and many other readers assert that microwaves have physiological effects. Some readers cite Russian studies, well known to researchers in this field. Western scientists could not replicate the Russian studies, and do not credit them. Readers point to therapeutic methods. Every therapeutic method that involves microwaves begins with the process I describe. Therapeutic use of microwaves always involves heating tissues.

Monastralblue asserts that microwaves modify chemical bonds or transfer molecules from one quantum state to another nearby state without breaking the bonds. Quantum states of molecules that differ by such a small amount of energy that a microwave photon might cause a transition from one state, the supposedly safe one, to another, the supposedly bad one, will be virtually equally populated in the living organism because of the random shaking, rattling, and rolling of the organism’s molecules. The supposedly bad state will not be empty. If population of the supposed state were bad in some way, carcinogenic or cancer enhancing, then the state would be doing its dirty work at all times.

fscr37 says that Dr. Shermer and I have unstated assumptions and implies that these may be unjustified. The primary scientific assumption that pertains to the question of cell phones and cancer is that the laws of physics apply to biological systems, to organisms, just as they apply to anything else.

The various speculative models, such as the resonance effects to which fscr37 refers, are unphysical and unbiological because they neglect to consider the environment in an organism when they supposedly occur. The energy exchange time, the time it takes for a molecule to transfer energy within its own modes of oscillation or with its neighbors, is about a hundred quadrillionths of a second, 10-13 seconds. This is the result of direct measurements. The oscillation periods of microwave radiation are about a hundred trillionth of a second, 10-10 seconds. That is, molecular jostling will interrupt any buildup of energy by any individual molecule or bond long before the processes frscr37 cites might develop.

Iward notes that the risk that a cell may become cancerous relates to the rate at which it divides. In the brain, for example, neurons divide rarely, if at all, while glial cells divide more often. In adults, brain cancers are gliomas, not neuromas. If there were some effect of microwaves on carcinogenesis related to the division rate of cells, we’d expect that the microwaves might cause skin cancer in phone users’ hands, ears, and scalp. The skin cells divide much more rapidly than any brain cells, and the intensity of the radiation is higher in these skin cells than in any brain cells. Cell phone radiation does not cause skin cancer, and no one fears that it might.

Iward, hereticoftruth, Mark Pine guess that cell phone microwave radiation might have chemical effects other than breaking DNA molecules and refer specifically to denaturing of enzymes. Large, complex biological molecules (and small ones too) take on their shapes through a combination of strong covalent bonds and many weaker chemical bonds, such as hydrogen bonds, van der Waals bonds, and others. Denaturing a molecule refers to the process by which the molecule assumes another form, denaturing. It assumes the denatured form by breaking bonds, mostly weak ones. A cell phone’s microwave radiation absorbed by a living human being cannot denature any biological protein or enzyme unless that radiation can substantially increase the tissue’s temperature in the living organism. High power microwave radiation, much higher than from any cell phone, may damage the cornea in this way. Cooking tissue is bad, but does not cause cancer.

Rivk, tomerg compares microwave cooking with absorbing microwave radiation from a cell phone. Sending microwave power into a roast in a microwave oven causes the temperature of the meat to rise. Sending the same microwave power into a living human being causes the person to sweat with little temperature increase. Dr. Eleanor Adair and others have done this experiment many times. Microwaving a human being causes sweat, not cancer. Can readers guess the difference between a cut of meat and a human being?

Microwaving a person with power levels similar to those of a microwave oven is safe and does not cause cancer. It is not a good idea to microwave a man’s testicles because they prefer temperatures lower than core body temperature. It is a bad idea to microwave your cornea or lens because they have little or no blood supply to provide cooling.

Kiya, jschunke, and pradhangegeorge say that they and other people are hypersensitive to electromagnetic radiation and cite personal experience of these effects from their cell phone use. There is no such thing as electromagnetic sensitivity. It is an imaginary ailment. All double blind tests show that no one can tell if a cell phone or cell phone tower is radiating except through the usual human senses, such as looking at the screen or holding the phone and noting that it is warm. There have been many amusing reports of locals developing vague symptoms when the phone company installs a tower, symptoms that disappear when investigation reveals that the company has not yet installed the amplifiers. Perhaps Kiya would be less prone to headaches if he or she were to choose less annoying people to talk to.

Richard2010 refers to non-thermal effects of microwave radiation. There are none in living organisms, in humans. This fact has not prevented mistaken researchers from doing studies and publishing about non-thermal effects. These researchers mistake the fact that they do not observe a temperature increase with something non-thermal taking place. By their definition, an ice cube melting in a glass of tea or water boiling would be non-thermal effects, but they are thermal effects. Every effect of cell phone microwave radiation must be a thermal effect because the absorbed energy goes into shaking, wiggling, rocking and rolling of the molecules. None of the energy goes anywhere else. If this causes changes to the blood-brain barrier, just to choose one example, then plenty of other things would also cause changes to the blood-brain barrier, such as wearing a ski cap. Wearing a ski cap is safe as long as it doesn’t cover your eyes.

Islesin refers to a comment in Microwave News. This journal has long added to the public’s fears of imagined harm from electromagnetic fields. Scientific American readers may remember the kerfuffle about potential harm from high voltage power lines and household appliances. Microwave News was on the wrong side of that issue too.

On the Internet I am often known as Left Coast Bernard. I say to my neighbor, CaliforniaJoe, that photons are the chunks of energy that carry all forms of electromagnetic radiation, not just visible light.

Agdavis comments on the units in Dr. Shermer’s column, which come from my Skeptic magazine essays. Chemists like to use kJ/mol, kilojoules per mole, which is an energy density, because they like matters relevant to test tube quantities. Using kJ/mol to refer to the energy in a chemical bond is telling us how much energy is in an Avogadro number of bonds, 6 X 1023. An Avogadro number of things is known as a mole, abbreviated mol. A watt-hour is a unit of energy (not a watt per hour); Joules. Physicists would prefer to use a density, just as chemists do. They would refer to Joules/bond or Joules/molecule, while the chemists like Joules per mole, a much larger, test tube sized number. Another reader confuses a mole of cell phones with a mole of photons from a cell phone. Comparing the energy in a mole of chemical bonds with the energy in a mole of microwave photons is correct thinking because it is also comparing the energy in a single bond with the energy in a single photon. The physical effect is, as always, one photon to one bond. Microwave photons do not have sufficient energy to modify any chemical bond, strong or weak.

Monastralblue comments upon safety factors. Here is the way, roughly speaking, that the appropriate organizations establish safety factors for non-ionizing radiation. Since it is a well-established fact that this radiation transfers its energy into tissues as additional shaking, rattling, and rolling, the safety committees find the lowest detectable power level that produces a detectable temperature change, not the lowest level at which some harm occurs. Then they divide this level by 10 or 100. This becomes the official safe level. Exceeding the safe level only means that some temperature increase might be noticed, not that any harm would occur.

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The Conspiracy Theory Detector

December 2010
How to tell the difference between true and false conspiracy theories
magazine cover

This past September 23 a Canadian 9/11 “truther” confronted me after a talk I gave at the University of Lethbridge. He turned out to be a professor there who had one of his students filming the “confrontation.” By early the next morning the video was online, complete with music, graphics, cutaways and edits apparently intended to make me appear deceptive (search YouTube for “Michael Shermer, Anthony J. Hall”). “You, sir, are not skeptical on that subject — you are gullible,” Hall raged. “We can see that the official conspiracy theory is discredited…. It is very clear that the official story is a disgrace, and people who go along with it like you and who mix it in with this whole Martian/alien thing is discrediting and a shame and a disgrace to the economy and to the university” [sic]. Hall teaches globalization studies and believes that 9/11 is just one in a long line of conspiratorial actions by those in power to suppress liberties and control the world. (continue reading…)

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