Category Archives: Science & Mathematics

A Rush for Renewables

I have been using this phrase for about a year in talking to people and in newspaper comments. I want to counter that Dash for Gas. We have the possibility of a new sustainable economy where everyone can participate.

  1. Start a nation-wide project to insulate all buildings and make all new building zero-carbon. This will employ people all over the country and many people with little skill can be trained to do this work. This is really investment with a long term return in reduced power needs, better health, and a trained work force. Probably there will be a reduction in crime as well. During this process we will find people who can be trained further for ever more skilled jobs. As people in each area of the country earn more, there will be more to spend locally and new businesses will be able to grow in every town. This could start tomorrow if we made the investment. The return on investment is near immediate.
  2. I am in favour of nuclear (fission) power but this is contentious for many people and we need to regain the country’s pre-eminence in nuclear technology in order to develop new safe designs (which do exist). This is a long term project and we need to work on other zero-carbon technologies now.
    So, let’s go full ahead on solar. Solar power is clearly the future for at least the next 100 million years, after which we may need a rethink. Although people think of Britain as cloudy with short winter days, there is still enough solar energy input to power the needs of the country especially if we make energy use more effective, efficient.
  3. When solar and wind power are mentioned there are immediate objections that it is cyclical and we need power at night and in winter. This is the next issue to address. First we need to see that many things that we might want to do can also be cyclic. I cannot predict how societies will develop in the long term but, taking some evolution of how things are now, an example would be people driving to a place of work. If this used an electric car, that vehicle could be charged while parked during the day. Although there is flooding in the UK, we will also get drought and desalination of sea water could address that, being done during the daytime when solar power is at its peak. Manufacturing could be done during the day time though only in some industries. We need to be smart and flexible about how we optimize the resource just as we were before before the industrial revolution. Of course we can store energy, and that is already done for electricity to cope with surge demand by pumping water to a high reservoir and releasing it to drive a turbine generating electricity when there is a sudden peak in demand. There is a role for this mechanical storage. However, we should also be developing chemical storage as in batteries.
  4. Research and development of chemical storage technologies. This is high-tech investment. If we are to trade with other countries we need something to sell, and best to support what the world needs into the future. This research will cover hydrogen storage, fuel cells and evolution of current battery technology. I imagine that there will be a lot of distributed solar PV and therefore distributed battery storage; each building with solar PV would have its own battery storage pack. An advantage of this is that we will have a very robust and resilient power network with no big points of failure.
  5. These are not jobs that can be outsourced; insulation and solar PV installation will provide work for people in the UK for many years, and there will be ongoing maintenance and upgrades for ever. The work is distributed all over the country. We can innovate as well as anyone and make sure that there is a focus on best methods for the UK as well as looking to develop products for sustainable living globally. Each region of the world will need its own local expertise. Other new ventures will spin off from this. For example, with plentiful solar power we could do vertical farming where we grow fruits and vegetables in tall buildings using solar powered lighting in which we can make optimal use of water and control pests without pesticides. Whole new industries that we have not thought of will come into being.

Cholesterol disinformation

I read this report Statins could help reduce women’s risk of breast cancer.

I don’t in anyway criticize doing the study; this is what big data sets are good at, they give hints about what to investigate. But the spin on it is disgraceful, although those doing the study say that there is a lot more specific work to do before asserting that high cholesterol leads to increased breast cancer. However, I worry that the companies manufacturing statins will be on to this and will say that although the assertion is not certain yet why take the risk when you can take the safe statins.

I thought that I would like to give a short explanation of what the cholesterol test means. Can I write something in less than 500 words without confusing jargon to clarify how I interpret this research? I find the disinformation on cholesterol outrageous. The outline is not too difficult for people to grasp but I think that this obscuring of fact has been allowed to persist because it gets people onto statins. It was the same with tobacco.

Statins inhibit a precursor of cholesterol as well as of various steroids like sex & stress hormones. Cholesterol sulphate is converted to Vitamin D3 in the skin by sunlight, which is another thing most people in the UK are deficient in. An irony here is that vitamin D is believed to be important in preventing breast cancer; look up Dr Cedric Garland who has done many studies of vitamin D deficiency and disease. Vitamin D deficiency also correlates with development of diabetes; look up Dr Frank Garland (deceased brother of Cedric) on this. There is a good story about the serendipitous nature of scientific insight related to a lecture on the geographical distribution of cancer rates that the brothers attended in 1974. I have been following their work for some years.

In the study I assume that the standard cholesterol blood test was used. This measures total cholesterol in a sample and the bit in the so called HDL. Then the HDL bit is subtracted from the total to give so called LDL cholesterol. The reason for doing this is that it is easy (low cost) to separate the HDL for measurement. LDL is often labelled “bad-cholesterol” quite wrongly. It cannot be bad in itself because it transports fats and cholesterol to where they are needed and we need a lot of fat and cholesterol to be healthy and function. What are these HDL & LDL? They are lipoproteins (High Density & Low Density) that themselves contain cholesterol as a component (which is why they are measured). They are wrappers for fats because fats are not soluble in water and therefore not in blood either. The outside of these lipoproteins attracts water and so dissolve in blood and can be transported with contents via the blood stream to where it is needed; this is like canals were used for the transport of goods; the lipoprotein is the barge. LDL transports its cargo to cells that need the cargo, HDL picks up cargo not used or doscarded and returns it for disposal or reprocessing. The size of the lipoprotein particle depends on the contents. Saturated fats end up in large size lipoproteins. Where is the killer? – it’s sugar – the fructose in sugar is converted by the liver into a kind of fat that ends up in small size lipoproteins. These small LDL, often labelled vLDL are the potential bad ones. So the standard cholesterol test does not distinguish the vLDL from the big LDL. If high cholesterol is correlated as in the report, I suggest that it is eating too much sugar that is the real problem. Sugar is also a great food for cancer cells. People who eat comfort foods with lots of sugar are likely to be stressed, which in itself lowers immune response and may lead to cancers growing that would otherwise have been destroyed.

In all studies of this kind I ask: was there a proper measure of LDL factions, and what other things are people eating (a very difficult thing to know with useful exactness)?

The only unfamiliar jargon word may be lipoprotein. Just as barges are made of steel and wood an brass etc, lipoproteins are made mostly of proteins and fats (lipids) and cholesterol which is a steroid.



Science, humbling and inspirational

I sometimes visit the Science Museum in London to ponder some of the exhibits and find myself humbled by what has been discovered and invented in the past. I have marvelled at the James Watt steam engine that looks so crudely made and obvious now, yet required a big thought transition to conceive and build. Here is something from over 2000 years ago. It has precision gearing to do complex calculations: The Antikythera Mechanism. There is a link to the article in Nature Ancient astronomy: Mechanical inspiration that you might as well read instead as it has more detail. I did know about this device from articles a few years ago but at that time the 3D analysis with X-rays had not been done and I didn’t follow up the details. Now the details of the contruction of the device are so refined that we can appreciate the immense knowledge and skill in making it, and fully understand its function.

Delightful and impressive creative thinking

These two bits of scientific thinking impressed me a lot: Dark energy and flat Universe exposed by simple method and Cosmos may show echoes of events before Big Bang with links to the original papers that I like to have explicit rather than search for. The first, as the article title suggests, is a method to determine the large-scale geometry of space-time. Is it flat (so we can use Euclidean geometry) or is it curved (so we have to use a non-Euclidean geometry). What impressed me is the simplicity of the analysis. There is an assumption that the inclination of orbits of binary galaxy systems that we observe has no bias for any angle, but from that the flatness of space-time and the proportion of dark energy in the overall Universe mass is obtained. My ‘lay’ question on this is that we need to know what theories that amend general relativity to avoid the existence of dark energy would predict.

The second report is of work done with Roger Penrose, a very creative thinker. I had always assumed that if the Big Bang theory is really the way our world came into existence we would have no way of knowing anything about what was before the Big bang. This is so if you take the conventional view of the event, but Penrose does not like the instant inflation that current models need (the Penrose view suits me) and has a model of the Universe where the Universe preceding ‘this’ one produces the effect that inflation in the conventional model does. The papers author’s find non-uniformities in the microwave background radiation that can be related to the previous Universes and Big Bangs. We need alternative models in a similar way to test the ideas in the first paper mentioned above.

Newton’s law of cooling

I have been making yogurt since 1965. After initial trial with a yogurt making kit the method became simplified into equal quantities of evaporated milk and boiling water poured into jars that then have a spoonful of the last batch of yogurt added. These jars then go into a polystyrene milk-bottle keep-cool container that I got in 1962 as an offer with Kellogg’s cornflakes! Left overnight there is perfect yogurt in the morning. There is some pleasure in still using this battered polystyrene box, up-cycling it in current jargon, for almost 50 years – technology you can trust.

The past few years I have had some mild allergy to “standard” milk that I don’t have with organic milk. Now I am making yogurt with organic milk that needs heating to 82C to kill bacteria and prepare the milk protein to help setting, and then cooling to 43C before adding some of the last batch of yogurt.

The cooling takes over an hour and to start with I kept going to check because the final temperature is critical. Then I thought that I would make use of Newton’s rule-of-thumb about bodies cooling in still air. It was a delight to see the near linear plot of log(temperature difference) against time. This I now use by taking the starting temperature and one other reading at a later time that an excel spreadsheet then turns the time I need to go and add the yogurt – ping.

The temperatures are measured with an IR thermometer that I got to help with research on house insulation. The measurements of temperature and time are rough – same eyes reading both and jotting down – but fit for purpose.

Temperature vs time
Cooling of the yogurt jar

Final points: The top and bottom temperatures of the jar are different and half-way up the jar gives a reasonable average. The milk in the jar is hotter than the temperature on the outside, in my case by about 2C. I add one dessert-spoon of yogurt and that cools the milk by about 1.5C . The final milk temperature I aim for is 43C, so 43C on the outside is just about right.

At last into that courtesy-of-Kellogg’s 1962 insulating box.

Probably all this is over done, but it is irresistable to let a bit of our skills affect everything we do.

From code to code

The start of digital computing as we know it came from Alan Turing’s work for code cracking during WW2. There have been other big developments from the push to simulate nuclear weapons and forecast weather & climate to the mass use of small personal computers for playing graphic games. Code again seems to be a driving force in development: The number crunchers who are saving lives. I remember this chemistry by computer starting in the 1980s and this is an amazing development in scale since then. Probably this will be a mutually beneficial development in more that the obvious way; maybe we can eventually genetically engineer a computer to grow from biological parts.

Excellent comment on science, using climate science as example

I don’t think it could be better expressed in the same number of words: Climate scientists must be ruthlessly honest about data. My own view of a few weeks ago was too forgiving. I thought the science is really OK so I will allow the means to justify the end. David Colquhoun is totally right; science works best through openness. If scientists are being targeted because of the results of their research, that research can only become better if the whole methodology is open for review by anyone. The mitigating circumstance is also mentioned – targets and target-decided funding decided by those who do not do research.

Scientists as mere humans

Having read many biographies of scientists and mathematicians, after my school and university days uncritical admiration of scientists, I know they are a mixed lot of personality types like any other grouping of people. From Galileo to Newton to Einstein one finds behaviour that is not always admirable. Newton was especially ruthless in trying to eliminate rivals; the comment about standing on the shoulders of giants (in a letter to Robert Hooke) that is often used to show his humility was also a put-down for Robert Hooke who was a person of small stature. Newton is thought to have destroyed the painting of Hooke at the Royal Society. Etc.

The revelations about scientists studying climate change is therefore no surprise to me: Climate scientists shut out sceptics by turning down data requests. See Simon Jenkins in full swing too: Scientists, you are fallible.

But Newton and others did have deep insights that have proved true (rather partially true in the way that all science is) inspite of their personality failings. So just as some sports people have unorthodox personal lives but play amazing games, let us not throw out the science when focussing on the personality frailities of scientists.

I agree with Simon Jenkins that the humanities are being seen as mere entertainment value yet they are also vital to our survival.  The human natures that we can explore though literature and history are neglected to our detriment: the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq showed a profound lack of historical perspective. Here is sad news that another world-view has been lost; that which comes with each of the world’s different languages: Ancient tribal language becomes extinct as last speaker dies.

Fear not radiation

Radiation and Reason, Wade Allison, 2009

In summary this book presents evidence to show that there is no known harm to us for radiation levels that do not exceed 100 millisieverts per month, with a cautious life-time limit (for now, maybe it could be higher) of 5,000 millisieverts. The International Commission for Radiological Protection limit is 1 millisievert per year so the argument is that this is about 1000 times too restrictive.

The Sievert is an attempt to give a unit to effects of radiation in living tissue. Although other units have to be used in particular situations for precision, the book is not concerned with fine detail and everything is assessed via the millisievert.

Cornwall in the UK has background radiation at 8 millisieverts per year, and that is as high as anywhere in the country. Cancer radiation treatment is 1000 to 10,000 millisieverts in a session, though this is meant to be targeted on the tumour with geometry to minimize radiation in healthy tissue. Numbers such as these present the arena for the discussions in the book.

The aim of the presentation is to suggest that safety limits could be relaxed a thousand fold, thereby making fission nuclear power stations cheaper; they must be structurally robust with multiple fail-safe mechanisms, but they do not need to be so radiologically protective. Especially decommissioning should be much easier and cheaper and not the huge bogeyman that it is currently made to be.

Prof Allison is not doing this to win favour with the nuclear industry but because, like me and others, he is concerned for the human future because of global warming. We have to take a balanced view of risks.

There are good simple discussions of radioactive decay, atomic weapons and nuclear power reactors, and the biological effects of radiation. Even so the book is not for the innumerate or those lacking any scientific background. I would hope that it might be read by policy makers and their advisors. I notice that he is the publisher of the book so I hope he has persuaded the publisher to send a few copies to UK MPs and European MEPs.

The most pertinent discussion is on biological effects of radiation. He points out that the no-safe-dose idea is totally wrong – there is a threshold at which irreversible damage occurs and below that cell repair mechanisms deal with any damage. In fact in morbidity studies people with exposure to radiation lower than the limit he suggests seem to live longer: a little radiation may be a good thing. He makes a good analogy with sunbathing (page 34): too much sun bathing causes damage to skin and sometimes skin cancer, but too little exposure leads to lack of Vitamin D. The demolition of the Linear No-Threshold and Collective Dose models is excellent. There is analysis of Japanese survivors of the atomic bombs of 1945 with the amazing statistic that those who survived to 1950 had only a 4 in 1000 chance of dying of radiation induced cancer.

There is an excellent contrast made between current fossil fuels and nuclear fuel. Fossil fuels put CO2 into the air where it dilutes and distributes globally as well as toxic substances that are then buried but never lose their toxicity. The nuclear waste from a power station after reprocessing is much smaller in volume by a factor of about a million, and any radiation dangers decrease with time; these are volumes we can cope with.

Although he does not point it out explicitly, when people mention long half-life they often miss that this means low activity, the high activity nuclear products have short half-life (maybe years) so if we wait a reasonable time they make themselves safe. 

Page 108 has a table of deaths from various disasters in which the Chernobyl and Three Mile Island reactor accidents are at the low end counting for about 50 and zero deaths. My own favourite comparison (not in this table) is with traffic accident deaths that are in the range 40,000 to 50,000 per year in the EU: a Hiroshima and Nagasaki every two years.

There is a good discussion of the differences between nuclear refinement for power stations versus weapons, though this may not be as easy a political issue as the discussion suggests. Compare Nuclear arms will soon proliferate. So here’s a plan to scrap them all.

I found the suggestion on page 159 that people should be given devices to enable them to ‘see’ radiation levels a bit naive as I suspect that interpretation of what we have not evolved to see takes expertise. Just consider how people are assessing their sense of global warming from experience. I think that better general science education is the key.

I have never myself had a problem with the technology of nuclear power, but I thought that the costs probably made it non-viable. This book attempts to address the cost issue but we need some new careful estimates of costs given the proposed relaxation of safety limits that the book does not provide. David Mackay, Sustainable Energy – without the hot air, provides some rough guides for this.

I await a review of the book by someone with expertise in radiobiology to see what weakness there is in the argument.

Finally I agree totally with the comments on page 194 about specialization. Although each of us may have some specialty we need to have the big picture of how the specialties connect up and be able to see where we are being led.

My minor quibbles:
That the bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki were a military and political success (page 5) I think is still debateable. I think the statement was meant to contrast with the lasting suspicion of nuclear power he mentions ever after those events but feels a bit gung-ho.

For anyone who cannot work it out for themselves the graph on page 121 comparing chronic and repeated doses of radiation would not help. I found it confusing at first.

Another odd slip for an otherwise good simple description of the physics of fusion and fission is on page 134 where it says that the neutron being uncharged can enter straight through the coulomb barrier: rather, for the uncharged neutron, there is no coulomb barrier.

On page 133 there is a dismissive footnote on cold fusion that says “predictably, its hopes have not been realised.” I admit that when I first heard about it 1989 I felt it impossible that it could work; now I am not so sure and I certainly don’t think it is predictable that it does not. The footnote just above this one mentions quantum tunnelling so there is clearly a non-zero probability that cold fusion will happen, a minute probability in free space but maybe much greater in some material lattice. I still think it unlikely, but I would not want to be totally dismissive.

Trust evolution

It seems that not wearing running shoes is best for the foot when running: The Barefoot Professor. Bare-foot runners do not land on the heel but on the more flexible (and therefore shock-absorbing) forefoot: the pad under the distal metatarsal joints. I found this presentation fascinating for two reasons. First I had an interest in foot biomechanics some years ago that started with a marathon runner. The ‘heel strike’ mentioned in the video has a resonance for runners because the impact pulse really does travel up the spine. The problem not mentioned is sharp debris that might be in one’s path. The bigger message for me was that this ‘back to basics’ must be a useful starting point in checking any solutions we develop to improve on what evolution has already provided for us. Having developed a shoe, it seemed that the obvious route was to improve it for running rather than to improve on no-shoe for running.

On the matter of foot cuts and infections from running barefoot a distant memory surfaced. My English teacher at school, Mr Oswald Alan Thorpe, had been with the British Army in Europe in WWII. Among his many stories (this was less than 10 years after the end of the war) he mentioned how he used to walk barefoot as much as possible so that the soles of his feet became ‘as tough as old leather’. So after a few weeks of running barefoot you won’t have a problem if you watch out for larger debris as you go.