Tuesday, October 30, 2012

TED Talk Tuesday - Marco Tempest: A cyber-magic card trick like no other

This Tuesday's TED Talk is a bit different. Marco Tempest is a magician. Here he combines technology and illusion to tell a pretty good story.

 

Monday, October 29, 2012

Bad Science in the Movies: Signs



In 2002 the world was a different place. Mel Gibson hadn't shown us his inner anti-semite, Joaquin Phoenix hadn't fake quit Hollywood, and M. Night Shyalaman was a successful director destined to be loved by millions. These three film juggernauts teamed up to create Signs. A movie about aliens that invade our planet - but not without entertaining us first with their works of art.  

If you haven't seen the movie (or were fortunate enough to forget it) here's the trailer:


There are a number of problems with this movie. For example it stars Mel Gibson. I'll stick to the scientific flaws, though.

Water
In the final scenes we discover the aliens have a major weakness. They die when they come in contact with water. This is one of the most glaring plot holes in all of cinema history. These alien lifeforms travel untold miles to inhabit our planet and they didn't even look at a map first? The earth is more than 70% water, and humans themselves are 50-65% water. This entire alien invasion seems badly planned and ill-advised. But what's the deal with these aliens? Why do they have a problem with water?

Although the simple explanation is that water "burns" their skin, that isn't the most interesting explanation. Instead, let's make a few assumptions.
  1. Their skin must be very water soluble. In other words, they will dissolve like the wicked witch the second they touch any water. This is a fair assumption and it would make a splash of water a deadly blow, just like in the movie. 
  2. The aliens are in a sealed ship before attacking and all exit the ship at the same time.
  3. There are millions of aliens exiting these ships at the same time.
Now, I'd like to say something extreme like that the solvation energy1 from these aliens exiting their ships would be so great it would result in a rapid release of energy and the entire earth would turn into a giant fireball. That wouldn't happen. I thought about it from every angle, hoping it to be true, but I don't see that happening. What would happen is water molecules in the air would start adsorbing2 to the aliens. Water would save the earth by a constant bombardment on these alien trespassers.

We wouldn't be in the clear, though. The aliens would die almost immediately, but as the water molecules adsorbed to the aliens the air would become less humid and the barometric pressure would lower significantly. As you know, gases move from high pressure to low pressure. When all that water vapor is rapidly adsorbed, it would create a low pressure zone. Water vapor would move from the surrounding area to reach an equilibrium pressure. If there are millions of aliens, the air currents on earth would create giant hurricane style storms around the globe. The aliens would die the second they got out of their ships, but we probably would as well...thanks a lot, water.




Crop Circles
I couldn't write about Signs without talking about...well...the signs. This main plot point in Signs is itself a big gaping plot hole. Crop circles were originally seen as proof of alien visitation. They have since been shown to be nothing more than a hoax. Although man made, there are a ton of designs out there, and most of them are stunning.  It seems statistically unlikely that aliens would attack earth using a method used in previous alien hoaxes. I suppose it could be argued that the aliens studied our planet and chose to recreate the hoax because humanity was already desensitized to the idea of crop circles. If they had paid such great attention to detail, though, you think they would have noticed all the water...

Notes
[1] Solvation energy is the energy released when a solid dissolves into water. Maybe we should invent a new unit of measurement to standardize the energy of an entire alien dissolving into the atmospheric H2O. How about this: The person that proposes the best name for this new unit of measurement will be entered into the contest an extra time...
[2]  Adsorbing. That's your sciency word for today. You've probably used the word absorb. Adsorbing is when something sticks to the exterior surface of something.

Sunday, October 28, 2012

Photographic Evidence

With advances in modern technology there are now increasing opportunities for people to be misinformed, taken advantage of, etc. While this technology has increased our understanding of the physical universe and has helped us make great leaps and bounds in almost every aspect of human life, unfortunately this same technology can be used against us by those out to peddle a product to unsuspecting victims. One such way is using the ever so popular "photographic evidence." This is commonly known as the "before and after shot" (get ready for more pseudoscience bashing!)1

As an hobbyist photographer (you know, the hobby my real job pays for) I have studied a lot about certain aspects on how to make a person look good when taking a picture (I'm not talking about photoshop, yet).2 Every minute detail starting from lighting to posing, angles, backgrounds, clothing, attitude, and even that stray hair on the shoulder go into creating a flattering photograph of someone. Ignoring these details typically leaves the photographer with a bad picture and an unhappy client.

Many of the fad health products now sold on T.V. feature the classic "before and after" picture to try and "prove" that their product works. My favorite commercials are for the weight loss supplements. On the popular social media site Facebook I have seen many people praising a body wrap product knows as "It Works Body Wrap".3 This product is being touted as a diet-free, exercise-free way of taking inches off those unsightly parts of your body (I haven't seen where it claims to be a weight loss product, yet). On Facebook, there are hundreds of before and after pictures online that people are posting as "proof" this product works. I would like to use the following as an example and also show you why before and after pictures are not evidence as used in the scientific community.4 Please note that many people, especially women, all very familiar with these techniques and perform them quite easily without much guidance.




1. Hand on hip: This is a very common pose for women to slim the waste line. In essence, by putting your hand on your hip you're pushing your hip away from the camera. Notice her shirt and the creases formed by her pushing in on her hip. 
2. Tight clothing: Tight clothing always makes someone look thinner (unless that excess body fat is bulging out from under the tight clothing, Chad). Notice in this picture the woman rolled the front of her shorts in up thus elevating the front hem and pulling the back tight. Not only did that tighten her shorts making her gluteal appear thinner but it also created a diagonal line in her shorts which is more slimming compared to the horizontal line shown in the before picture. One would think that if she were to really lose inches then wouldn't those shorts be more baggy instead of tight?
3. Weight shifting: In the after picture we see more of the back calf than the before picture because the subject here is shifting her weight to her away from the camera side, again another technique we typically use in conjunction with hand on the hip, thus slimming the appearance of the hip. 
4. Leg position: When the subject shifts their weight onto the back leg the front leg is free to position for maximum slimming effect. The best way is to have the leg at a slight angle thus reducing the appearance of the overall girth. Notice in the after picture the knee is slickly angled toward camera. 
5. Distance: Notice that the distance from the camera has also increased from the first picture to the second. In the second we see some of the subjects feet while in the first she is completely cut off above the ankle. The farther one is from the camera the easier it is to slim down. 
6. Timing: While this isn't labeled on the picture I'm pretty sure this image was taken on the exact same day, just minutes apart. The first reason is that it looks like she is standing on the exact same tiles in both pictures, not something most people would remember to do after they used a product. Second is that the shadows fall on the same part of her gluteals, calves, thighs and different objects in the room. This looks like daylight and so you would think that with the passage of time you would have differences in shadows. Now if it is artificial lighting then she would have had to stand pretty much in the same position as the before picture, one thing I don't think many people would take into consideration. This point is more speculation on my part.

We're used to the phrase, "a picture is worth a thousand words," but in today's age we might want to change it to, "a picture is worth a thousand lies, and dollars." Appealing to the visual senses is the most powerful part of advertising and so we see multiple techniques on how to manipulate the "truth". In today's age we cannot use pictures as evidence that a product works. Such products should be backed up by objective, reproducible studies without bias. Anecdotal evidence is also not enough to validate a product.


Tyler d'Hulst, PA-C, MPAS

Notes:

[1] Before and after shots are not the only use of photographs to "prove" a product works. Pictures are, “...35 degrees out of 360 degrees and call it a photo," - Joel Sternfeld. 
http://www.forbes.com/sites/jonathonkeats/2012/09/06/do-not-trust-this-joel-sternfeld-photograph/
[2] Photoshop is a very powerful image editing tool that can pretty much turn anyone into a super model. Not many people have Photoshop and among those that do, not many are proficient enough with it to make significant changes. The techniques I mention about above are very simple and common techniques all people can use to appear more slim without the use of the liquify brush in Photoshop.
[3] I'm hoping Chad will do a post about this specific product. I just don't have the time to research it like those of us who sit in front of a laser all day long.
[4] The use of photography as evidence is highly criticized among many fields as it is so easy to manipulate a digital image (and surprisingly manipulating film images was very common and somewhat easy). Today, unless an image is saved as a RAW format then it cannot be considered the original image and thus one has to assume it has been manipulated. Formats such as JPEG, TIFF, PSD, BMP, GIFF are all computer formats but a RAW image is straight from the camera without any digital manipulation (not even by the camera).

Saturday, October 27, 2012

Saturday Links: October 27th

Here are your science links for the week. Enjoy!

  • Neil deGrasse Tyson talks about UFOs and the argument from ignorance.

Friday, October 26, 2012

Science Term of the Week: Null Hypothesis

Science is often (incorrectly) defined as a group of facts. This isn't the case at all. Instead, science is a system used to analyze the universe. You've probably heard of the scientific method, and I can guarantee if you read this blog any longer you'll hear much more about it. In this week's Science Term of the Week I wanted to focus on the term hypothesis. Specifically, the Null Hypothesis, which is written "H0". 


The first step when you are approaching a problem scientifically is to define the Null Hypothesis - the default position. One way of thinking about the Null Hypothesis is assuming that nothing is significant or that nothing has happened. Two examples of the Null Hypothesis are:

  • A new drug is proposed for treatment of a disease. The Null Hypothesis is that the drug has no effect.
  • Reports have come in that a UFO has been spotted by Roswell, New Mexico. The Null Hypothesis is that the unidentified object is nothing significant (it is not an alien ship).
 The Null Hypothesis is an important concept in science, and it can never be proven. It can be rejected (the drug has an effect) or fail to be rejected (the drug has no effect). The important difference between proving the Null Hypothesis and failing to reject the Null Hypothesis is that any one test (or any group of tests, no matter how large) is not enough to prove a negative.

The Null Hypothesis is the reason I can say things like homeopathy has no effect, essential oils have no medicinal value, and Roswell aliens don't exist. Without the Null Hypothesis a test that gives negative results gives no information and could be considered "failed". With the Null Hypothesis, even negative results are meaningful.

So next time you have a question - define a Null Hypothesis and put it to the test!


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Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Mystic Energy


Today I'd like to talk about something that has been bothering me for a while - energy. Energy has a number of definitions, depending on who you talk to. The politician sees energy as something his opponent handles incorrectly, the scientist defines it as the ability to do work,1 my wife defines it as something my kids have too much of, and practitioners of pseudoscience have a wide variety of definitions. I'd like to focus on that last one. Practitioners of pseudoscience often talk about energy: call it chi, chakra, aura, energy field, energy balance, or any other number of names. I propose that improper use of the word energy is a red flag that something may be pseudoscience.2


But wait, science does that as well, right? After all energy is a key component to almost every scientific theory out there. Science and pseudoscience use the same word (and to the untrained observer they use it to mean the same thing). This is nothing new, of course. Practitioners of pseudoscience borrow terminology from science all the time. So how can you tell the difference? When is the term energy properly used? Here are a few important things to look for:
  • Real energy has a carrier
Energy is not just magically exchanged between two things. In every case we know of there is some sort of force carrying particle. Photons (light) are an excellent example of this. The energy travelling from a light bulb to your eye travels there by photons. Beyond having a carrier particle, real energy has physical manifestations. Things get hot, shine, make noise, etc when real energy is involved.
Pseudo energy rarely has a carrier. Instead energy is just "transferred" or "given" or "balanced". If you're not sure if someone is using the term energy correctly, ask them about the mechanism of energy transfer.
  • Real energy is finite
This is a subtle point that separates real energy from mystic energy. Real energy is finite. If I connect a light bulb to a battery and turn it on the light will slowly dim and eventually turn off. The energy is not some infinite source of power. 
Pseudo energy is seemingly infinite. If there is some energy field that each person has, then why aren't we running out of energy. Maybe you could argue that as a definition of death, but if we have the ability to balance energy fields why not just keep everyone alive forever?
  • Real energy cannot be transferred without some loss of energy
The 2nd law of thermodynamics can be understood as "No transfer of energy is 100% efficient". When you are transferring energy from one form to another there will be loss of some of the energy. For example, there is energy in gasoline. If I want to convert that energy into moving the wheels of my car I will lose some of the energy along the way. My car makes noise, there is friction on the ground, and (most importantly) my engine cannot perfectly extract all the energy from the gasoline. 
Pseudo energy is some free flowing power. Its transfer does not result in any loss, or at least not any physical manifestations of the loss. Instead it's something that magically floats between us giving us magical powers. 
  • Real energy has units
If you've ever taken a science class, you've probably lost some points on a test because you didn't write down the units. You may have put your answer as "2" instead of "2 feet". You may have even complained to your professor or TA that you shouldn't have lost points.3 It is this complaining that proves my point. Energy has units. A common one is the Joule. A chemical bond usually has the strength of somewhere on the order of 100 kJ/mol.  
Pseudo energy doesn't have units, because it's not quantifiable - you can't say how much of it there is. It even seems a little silly to imagine a psychic saying "I feel like your energy is off balance by 22 kJ/mol."
Some pseudosciences will pass the test on some of these points, but few will pass it for all of them. This is obviously not a rigorous test to differentiate between science and pseudoscience (I'll let Sam guest post about that later). If you're investigating something that doesn't pass these three tests, you might be dealing with mystic energy.


Notes
[1] This explanation has always been a little bothersome to me. Mostly because the logic seems a little circular. Energy is the ability to do work. What's work? Well it's the amount of energy expended, of course! You could be more specific in your definition of energy by the equation: 
  \overline E  = k{T^2}{\left( {\frac{{\partial \ln Q}}{{\partial T}}} \right)_{N,V}}
But even in this equation temperature, T, (which was used in the equation to describe energy) is often described as an energy distribution. You have the same problem even when you're being very rigorous in your definition.
[2] Some of these terms (chi and chakra, for example) also have religious meaning. Honestly, I have no problem with using the term energy within a religious belief system. What bothers me more is the modern western culture phenomenon of selling eastern philosophies as science based.
 [3] We love it when you do this. Keep it up, pre-med students. Keep it up. 

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Chemistry Coaching

I know today has been a whirlwind of posts compared with a normal day, but a lot has been happening. To add to it all, I'm contributing an entry to the Chemistry Coach blog carnival, hosted by See Arr Oh of the blog Just Like Cooking.

Here are the questions, and my answers.

Your current job.
I work (ha!) as a graduate student in physical chemistry. I'm studying gas phase ion spectroscopy. Basically, I study the conformation of molecules in the gas phase using lasers. I'm also manage and write for the website you're reading this on: www.thecollapsedwavefunction.com. It's my nerdy science blog that keeps me sane. 
What you do in a standard "work day."
I do appreciate "work day" in quotations. My day (at least in the lab) usually starts around 9 am. I warm up the laser, which usually takes a couple hours to get everything aligned and in thermal equilibrium. While the laser warms up I read recent journal articles and write for my blog. I also play a liberal amount of "Star Trek: The Deck Building Game" with friends from other labs. 
Once everything is running well I start my experiments. This usually entails sitting in front of a computer for hours on end, pressing a button here or there every 2-3 minutes. I'm usually home by 8 pm, but there is a mattress in my office for those long nights in the lab. It may sound horribly mind numbing, but it can be very exciting. The greatest feeling you will ever experience is discovering something in the lab. It's an amazing feeling to be the only person on earth that knows something you just discovered. 
What kind of schooling / training / experience helped you get there?
I have a B.S. in chemistry. I also worked for 2 years in the industry as a chemical lab technician. I don't recommend it. I'm hoping for a job at a university when I graduate (or after a post-doc).
How does chemistry inform your work?
Chemistry is my work. However, I really don't consider myself a chemist. I do very little actual chemistry in the lab. Most of what I do is analyzing very dilute samples of sugars, amino acids, or short chain molecules. I sometimes wish I was a particle physicist, but that's just because fundamental questions intrigue me so much. 
Finally, a unique, interesting, or funny anecdote about your career*
I recently gave a contributed talk at an important conference. As part of it I was giving the history of the work I'm doing. As part of the history I mentioned the "founder" of the work. It wasn't until I was on stage that I realized it was a foreign name that I had never heard. I had only read it. I also became keenly aware that most people in the audience had a good understanding of what I was saying - meaning they would know the name of the person just fine. Saying his name was the most terrifying moment of my career to date (It turns out I said it right). 
A second one I just thought of: I crashed my bicycle going about 35 mph and gave myself some pretty awful road rash. A week or so after the crash I was aligning the laser and got the open wound in the beam. I now have the scar of a laser cauterized road rash. 

I hope something I said is of some help/interest to someone. If you have any questions, or just want to get future updates just "like" our Facebook page!

Six scientists convicted of manslaughter


The following is a guest post from Sara Pratt. Thanks for the quick turn around on the story!

Photograph: Filippo Monteforte/AFP/Getty Images
Can 6 scientists be convicted for manslaughter for deaths due to an earthquake? In Italy they apparently can! After I posted an article about this tragedy to Facebook, accompanied be a very elegant Noooo!!!!!, Chad figured I had strong opinions about the subject and asked me to write them up.

If you want to get a good background on the earthquake and prosecution, I highly recommend this nature article. My history is condensed from that article. L’Aquila, Italy is very seismically active and was destroyed in both 1461 and 1703 by earthquakes.  In October 2008, many small tremors shook the area. A local man predicted an impending major earthquake in March 2009 based on a scientifically invalid radon tracking method.

The alarmed public prompted the scientists on the National Commission for Forecasting and Predicting Great Risks to assess the risk and calm the public. Before the meeting, one member implied that the small tremors released energy and reduced risk for a larger earthquake. Most others disagreed, but they determined that the risk, even with the extra tremors going on, was really small (~2%). Still they knew that in this seismically active area, a major earthquake can never be ruled out. Unfortunately, in a press conference after the meeting two members said that the current tremors posed no danger (rather than a small danger) and one told the residents to relax with a glass of wine. Tragically, a larger earthquake happened shortly thereafter in April that killed over 300 people.

Photograph: AFP/File, Andreas Solaro
When I first read about the indictment of the committee members for manslaughter in 2010, I thought they were being indicted for not predicting the earthquake, which would be absolutely ridiculous. Predicting the time and place of an earthquake is impossible. I’ve since learned that they were indicted for providing "incomplete, imprecise, and contradictory information" by which the prosecution means that they were only worried about calming the public and thus they downplayed the risk too much, didn’t take into account the weak building structures when analyzing risk, and didn’t remind the citizens about proper safety precautions during an earthquake. Many community members said they didn’t take normal earthquake precautions because of the committee’s reassurances.

Could they have conveyed their findings more clearly? Maybe. But that doesn’t warrant convicting them of manslaughter. There really was not a greatly increased risk of an earthquake. Someone shouldn’t go to jail for not mentioning commonsense precautions every time they talk about earthquakes.  Sending your top scientists to jail for 6 years isn’t going to stop future earthquakes or get better risk information out to the public in the future. Rather, it’ll probably prevent other scientists in the future from speaking for fear of being wrong and prosecuted. A USC earth scientist said "We know that the system in Italy for communicating risk before the L'Aquila earthquake was flawed, but this verdict will cast a pall over any attempt to set up a better one.”
What do we learn from this? When presenting scientific findings or predictions, make sure to communicate to the public in a manner that neither downplays the risks too much nor incites an undue level of panic. Sometimes that’s a hard balance to strike, especially when confronted with an already panicked population led on by pseudoscience. The ChristianScience Monitor asked “What would have happened if [they’d] said ‘there is a high probability of a major earthquake at some point in the next year?’ Would the city of 70,000 have been evacuated? And what if no earthquake came in a year? Would [they] have been sued for damages?”  Given the current trial, they might have been!

PhotoGraph: WOLFANGO VIA FLICKR
Might someone actually be at fault? Those who failed to pass, follow, or enforce building codes could have prevented so many causalities. The building codes in that area of Italy aren’t ideal, but they do have higher standards than are enforced. Sadly, “50 percent of schools are not in compliance with earthquake codes.” The codes can also be improved to reduce risk of death during an earthquake. An Italian official said “In California, an earthquake like this one would not have killed a single person.” California is also very seismically active, but they have better building codes and enforcement.

Would fewer people have died if the risks commission had been more clear and cautionary in presenting their risk assessment? Possibly. Would fewer people have died if building codes were up to date and enforced? Most definitely. The Italian government should not be wasting time and resources prosecuting these scientists for manslaughter. They didn’t communicate perfectly, but they also didn’t do anything criminally wrong. If you prosecute anyone, prosecute those who actually broke the law! But really, I think that might be a waste too. They should instead use those resources to invest in earthquake safety for buildings and disaster training for residents, so that no one dies next time. 

Editor's Note (Because it's my blog and I can do what I want):
What really worries me about this story is that it's not an isolated incident. Italian courts have also recently decided that the MMR vaccine causes autism, despite all science pointing in the opposite direction.
On the other hand, anyone peddling pseudoscience has free reign to make fanciful claims and quacks like Andrew Wakefield (who caused the MMR vaccine scare) are at least indirectly responsible for the death of thousands.

Please come share your thoughts with us over on the Facebook page for The Collapsed Wavefunction!

TED Talk Tuesday - Aaron O'Connell: Making sense of a visible quantum world

This TED Talk Tuesday is from Aaron O'Connell, who presents his research into how things on the macroscopic level obey quantum mechanics.
 

Happy Mole Day!

As I post this, the time is 06:02 on October 23rd. For some of you, that may mean something. For the rest of you, I'll explain.

The importance of the day begins with the scientist Amedeo Avagadro, born on August 9th, 1776. If you've taken high school chemistry you'll remember (hopefully) the term "Avagadro's number". It is equal to 602,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 or, using scientific notation, 6.02x1023. It's a unit of measurement more commonly known as The Mole. Nerdy chemists like myself like to make a big deal out of "Mole Day"  - 06:02 10/23. This week is even National Chemistry week in the US.

But what exactly is a mole?

The most common comparison is that a mole is like a dozen. You know that there are 12 eggs in one dozen eggs. You know that there are 12 cars in one dozen cars. In fact, it's silly for me to continue the example - there are 12 of anything in one dozen of that thing. The term "mole" is the same, except instead of 12 in a dozen there are 602,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 in one mole. Remember that chemists study atoms and molecules, which are very small. While one mole may seem like a huge number (and it is) there are a huge number of molecules surrounding us - 18 mL of water contains roughly one mole of water molecules.

But maybe that doesn't shock you. You have no real concept of the size of an atom, so let's look at some examples of bigger things:

  • If I were to stack one mole of quarters on top of each other it would reach to the moon and back 1,370,000,000,000 times. 
  • Speaking of money, the US deficit is a hot button issue. However, if I had a mole of dollars I would have enough to pay for it myself 37 billion times. 
  • One mole of Oreos has enough calories to fill the recommended daily intake for the entire world population - for 10 billion years.
  • If you were to eat all those Oreos at once, you'd have to run around the earth 99,000,000,000,000,000 times to burn off the calories of your midnight snack.1 
I hope you can see by now that a mole is a really, really big number. Now let's go back to the water example. Like I said, there are a mole of water molecules in just 18 mL of water. That may begin to show you how incredibly small molecules are. If you're like me though, it still seems like something I can't really wrap my head around. Either way, have a very happy mole day!
Notes
[1] Perhaps I could be accused of writing this late while contemplating a plate of cookies. I can neither confirm nor deny...

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Monday, October 22, 2012

Book Review - "Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman": Adventures of a Curious Character


Front CoverI don’t tend to re-read books or re-watch movies. I get what I wanted out it them the first time around, and I don’t feel as entertained or enlightened the second time. But as I picked up "Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman" again, I started wondering why it had been so long since I last read it.
Surely You’re Joking is a collection of autobiographical vignettes from Richard P. Feynman, theoretical physicist and Nobel laureate. While some of the stories deal with Feynman’s professional work as a physicist, the majority of the stories in the book are simply interesting stories from his life, and how everyday occurrences informed his approach to theoretical physics.
The book’s subtitle, Adventures of a Curious Character, is no misnomer. Feynman’s life was definitely not what one pictures when one thinks of a physicist – stuffy, work-obsessed, and absentminded. Feynman was definitely one of the most brilliant minds of the 20th century, but he was also one of the quirkiest, funniest, and most alive. As a child, he learned to build and repair radios, and in his depression-era town he was often hired by hotels and businesses to fix their electronics. While working in Los Alamos on the Manhattan Project, he developed an interest in lockpicking and safecracking, and would spend his spare time breaking into his colleagues' safes, in order to demonstrate how insecure they were. In his later years, after receiving the Nobel Prize, he developed an interest in music, and taught himself to play the bongos. Although never formally trained, he became somewhat of a local legend  and was approached by a dance company to provide the soundtrack for a ballet.
One of my favorite stories from Surely You're Joking also comes from Feynman's time at Los Alamos. He noticed that the construction workers working on the facility had cut a hole in the side fence to save themselves a long trip to the main gate. Concerned with security, he tried to report it, but was repelled by the bureaucracy.  So he simply made regular trips out through the hole and then in through the main gate, so that the log showed him checking in may more times than he ever checked out. This almost got him arrested, but the hole did get repaired.
The thing I love so much about Surely You’re Joking is the passion for science that Feynman conveys when talking about “non-scientific” subjects. For Feynman, science wasn't a career, a hobby, or even his life’s work. It was simply reality. To go through life without acknowledging the existence of science would have been like going through life without acknowledging the existence of water. The conversational tone makes for an easy, entertaining read, that's simultaneously depressing (Whenever I read it, I invariably start wondering just what I've accomplished in my life) and inspiring (I realize that the real key to greatness is passion for what you do).

Saturday, October 20, 2012

Tradition vs Evidence


Tradition vs Evidence
Tyler d'Hulst, PA-C, MPAS

As a medical professional working in an area of low socioeconomic status I constantly find myself educating patients and their families about a variety of subjects, but none so prevalent as the subject of tradition verses evidence. Many of us have a plethora of traditions tightly woven into the fabrics of our every day lives. Some of these traditions are beneficial and fun (like shoving someone's face into a birthday cake, or jumping naked off of a houseboat at Lake Powell) while others can put ourselves or those we love at increased risks of physical or emotional damage. Being able to differentiate between these traditions and the risks/benefits they pose is essential to living productive and healthy lives. The problem arises when our beloved traditions conflict with established evidence based science.

I work in family medicine and have patients that fall anywhere between pediatrics and geriatrics. At both ends of this spectrum usually the person involved in a patient's care typically is a parent or child of the patient. Parents bring in their children constantly for routine medical exams and acute problems. One thing I have found very common among my patients is the tradition of supplementing infant feeding with free water (i.e. baby feeds on 4 oz of formula every 2-3 hours plus gets an additional 2-3 oz of pure water once or twice a day). The infant normally will feed on breast milk or formula based milk but many parents will also supplement this with many ounces of free water on a daily basis. This has been going on for years and is very popular, especially among patients of Latin American heritage. Supplementing an infant's nutrition with free water increase the risk for neonatal hyponatremia which can lead to lethargy, seizures, coma and even death. The neonate is at increased risk for hyponatremia already because of limited sources of nutrition and immature kidneys which currently is not efficient in retaining sodium or flushing excess fluids from the system. Their is no evidence that suggest an infant needs supplemental fluids (note 1) besides breast milk or formula. When discussing this with patients (and unfortunately many family members) the reaction is typically the same, "my parents fed us water when we were young and nothing happened to us and their parents did the same thing."  The belief is that because someone else did it and no one was injured then it must not be dangerous to me.

I also speak with parents about accidental suffocation in infants, typically due to having an infant sleep in the same bed as the parent and not in their crib and on their back. Again, the argument is "my other kids slept in my bed when they were young and nothing happened to them."

The fallacy lies in the patient's misunderstanding of the risks. Not every case of supplementing nutrition with water or an infant sleeping in the parent's bed leads to hyponatremia or suffocation but these practices increase the risks. These risks have been studied extensively through out the years and are well known in the medical community. My recommendations to these parents are not anecdotal in nature but are based on evidenced backed studies.

Unfortunately many patients still tend to doubt recommendations from health care professions because it conflicts with traditions and anecdotal experiences.

Note 1
There is currently a product out their being marketed as "infant water." It's intended use is for formula fed infants and is to substitute tap water for mixing formula. It is not intended to be an additional water supplementation.

Saturday Links: October 20th

This week the links that I've found are a little more scarce. Even so, I think these four videos are interesting and worth your time. Please enjoy.



  • This is a video posted by Sam on the comments from my open letter to David Bernstein. I think this is an important point. Science literacy has nothing to do with repeating facts. It's a way to logically look at the world around us. He talks about teaching his children to be scientifically literate. I 



  • Time lapse video of the Space Shuttle Endeavor making its trip through the streets in Los Angeles



  • Last of all is this video. If you've ever wondered what the best web-comic of all time is, it's XKCD, by Randall Munroe. Here he is giving a lecture to the folks at Google.



If you find any interesting links, please post them on our Facebook page and I'll add them to the collection each Saturday.

Friday, October 19, 2012

Science Term of the Week: Collapsed Wavefunction

An obvious flaw in my blog has come to my attention. The name of my blog is "The Collapsed Wavefunction", but I haven't even explained what a wavefunction is (or why I want it to be collapsed). Today, I'm going to explain the reason for the title.

Quantum mechanics is the study of how very, very small particles (electrons, atoms, light, etc) act. Think of a bouncy ball. If the ball is a normal size you know exactly where it is and how much energy it has (you know how it will bounce). The normal size bouncy ball follows classical mechanics.

Now imagine that ball were the size of an atom. Just by being this size, the ball will follow completely different laws of physics known as quantum mechanics. The ball will now act like in this diagram. Notice that you can't say exactly where the ball is. You also don't know exactly how it will act. Instead it is spread out over a large area. You can know where the ball probably is, and you can know how it would probably act. The new properties of this ball are described by a wavefunction. The wavefunction is a mathematical statement that describes the energy of the ball.

Now, notice that this ball has properties that sort of look like a wave. Very small particles act like a wave. This is known as wave-particle duality - the ball acts like a wave and a particle. When we aren't looking at the ball it is acting like a wave. It is everywhere at the same time, with higher probability in some places than others. However, the simple act of looking1 at the ball makes it act like a normal ball again. When the ball changes from being everywhere at once to only in one place we say that the wavefunction has collapsed.

So, why did I call my blog "The Collapsed Wavefunction"? Well, partly because I'm a nerd and wanted the name to be something nerdy. But there is a real reason for choosing the name. My goal is to write about science topics in a way that everyone can understand. Many of you may see these topics like the quantum ball - you know something about it, but your understanding is a bit blurry. By looking at subjects you might be unsure about, we are collapsing the wavefunction, and that's my goal for this blog.

Notes
[1] Those that have studied quantum mechanics may want to point out that looking at it is not quite true that looking at a particle is what collapses the wavefunction. The actual term is observe, and has nothing to do with seeing anything at all. An observer doesn't even have to be something living. Light is a good example of an observer. When light strikes an atom, and we follow what happens, the wavefunction of the atom is collapsed and we can know what state the atom was in. 

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Restore Your Body's Natural Energy Balance with Essential Oils...or maybe not.

I had a request from a friend to look into the benefits of essential oils. Specifically essential oils from the company doTERRA. I'm a chemist so the subject was of great interest to me. The majority of my research for this article had nothing to do with doTERRA itself, but with the type of product that they sell. However, doTERRA is a fine company to look for as an example - their website is the #1 Google result for "essential oils".

Here's a quote from the doTERRA website, that I think is telling. I have marked in bold the parts I wish to discuss:
Essential oils have been used throughout recorded history for a wide variety of wellness applications. The Egyptians were some of the first people to use aromatic essential oils extensively in medical practice, beauty treatment, food preparation, and in religious ceremony. Frankincense, sandalwood, myrrh and cinnamon were considered very valuable cargo along caravan trade routes and were sometimes exchanged for gold.
Borrowing from the Egyptians, the Greeks used essential oils in their practices of therapeutic massage and aromatherapy. The Romans also used aromatic oils to promote health and personal hygiene. Influenced by the Greeks and Romans, as well as Chinese and Indian Ayurvedic use of aromatic herbs, the Persians began to refine distillation methods for extracting essential oils from aromatic plants. Essential oil extracts were used throughout the dark ages in Europe for their anti-bacterial and fragrant properties.
In modern times, the powerful healing properties of essential oils were rediscovered in 1937 by a French chemist, Rene-Maurice Gattefosse, who healed a badly burnt hand with pure lavender oil. A French contemporary, Dr. Jean Valnet, used therapeutic-grade essential oils to successfully treat injured soldiers during World War II. Dr. Valnet went on to become a world leader in the development of aromatherapy practices. The modern use of essential oils has continued to grow rapidly as health scientists and medical practitioners continue to research and validate the numerous health and wellness benefits of therapeutic-grade essential oils.
I'll describe the errors that I see with these paragraphs in order.
"Essential oils have been used throughout recorded history for a wide variety of wellness applications." 
The first red flag I saw when I began researching essential oils was the logical fallacy "appeal to antiquity" - that is claiming that something has powerful properties because some ancient civilization used it. doTERRA is no different. The fact that ancient Egyptians used essential oils is irrelevant to the claim at hand - that they serve some medically relevant purpose. We cannot determine whether something is good or bad just because it has ancient origins. Treating disease by ingesting animal feces or applying it to your skin is also an ancient Egyptian remedy, in fact more common than essential oils, but I don't see that catching on in the same way. I'll admit, the appeal to antiquity does sound appealing, but it should; it's a marketing tool.
"Essential oil extracts were used throughout the dark ages in Europe for their anti-bacterial and fragrant properties."
There is no way that essential oils were used in Europe during the dark ages for their anti-bacterial properties. The germ theory of medicine was not developed at the time, and was not used clinically until the 1870s. However, let's give them the benefit of the doubt and say that essential oils were used throughout the dark ages in Europe for their anti-bacterial properties. When you think "anti-bacterial" do you really think of the dark ages as a good example? Just think, now you too can have a life expectancy of thirty years!
 "French chemist, Rene-Maurice Gattefosse, who healed a badly burnt hand with pure lavender oil."
That's right, the whole of the modern argument rests on one piece of anecdotal evidence. It's fine, of course, to mention an anecdote as the reason for pursuing an area of research. The most common example I can think of is Sir Alexander Fleming and the discovery of penicillin. The story of its discovery is famous, but no one says that penicillin works because Fleming noticed that his moldy bread stopped bacterial growth. For the same reason you can't claim that lavender oil heals burnt hands because someone says it worked once. Penicillin is well understood and has plenty of research to support its antibacterial claims. Essential oils? Not so much.
"The modern use of essential oils has continued to grow rapidly as health scientists and medical practitioners continue to research and validate the numerous health and wellness benefits of therapeutic-grade essential oils."
This is the most telling sentence of all. Everything before this sentence is full of specific people, times, and places that support the health benefits. The second they bring up modern research, though, they become vague and non-specific. Why not say "in recent years, researchers at Harvard have shown that..." or something like that? The reason is simple. There actually isn't any modern research that supports the claims. Essential oils claim to be effective at treating a wide range of diseases. They are claimed to have antimicrobial, antifungal, antiviral, and antibacterial properties. This is not the case. Only one type of essential oil (tea tree oil) has shown any efficacy, and it has only shown weak antimicrobial and anti-inflamatory properties. No essential oil has shown any antifungal, antiviral, or antibacterial activity in vivo.1

Now, I've carried on about how essential oils are no good for you, but that is not completely true. I began this research open minded, and I'm more than willing to list the good along with the bad. Essential oils are also used for aromatherapy, and the idea behind aromatherapy isn't completely bunk. After all, when I have a cold I use Vick's vapor rub and I feel immediately better. I also think that certain smells can be soothing. Those are two legitimate uses for aromatherapy. If the only claim that proponents of essential oils made was "this smells good, I think you'll enjoy it" I wouldn't be writing this post at all. That's not the case, though. Websites like this one make extraordinary health claims like curing colds, asthma, bronchitis, hypertension, liver congestion, heart palpitations, depression, and boosting your immune system.2 Other websites make fanciful claims like "restore your body's natural energy balance", which are completely meaningless and will be the subject of a later post. Unfortunately, the health claims made have been studied and are just not true.3

Of course, this doesn't mean you can't use essential oils. As with any pseudosciene, I'm of the opinion that you are free to waste your money on whatever you choose. I just wish those selling alternative medicine products were more honest with themselves and their customers.

Am I completely off? Did I miss the point? Please share your thoughts with me on the Facebook page for The Collapsed Wavefunction.

Notes
[1] This may require a little explanation. There are several types of studies, two of which are in vitro (in the glass) and in vivo (in the living). In vitro tests are done by growing bacteria on a small plate, exposing them to something, and seeing if the bacteria survives. In vivo tests are clinical tests done on living subjects. There are many times that an in vitro test gives positive results but do not give the same results in vivo. Essential oils are just one example.
[2] What does it even mean to "Boost your immune system". That's a story for another day... 
[3] Here are some actual studies, just so you don't think I'm dismissing the claims for no reason.

Is Science Important? - An open letter to David Bernstein of The Washington Post


Today in the Washington Post there is an article entitled "Why are you forcing my son to take chemistry". In it the author, David Bernstein, shares his frustration that his son is forced to take high school chemistry. In short, this is my reaction to the video, and Mr. Bernstein.

Now, perhaps as a chemist I'm approaching this subject with somewhat of a bias. I obviously think that chemistry is important. However, the specific subject of chemistry has nothing to do with what really upsets me about this article. And so, I present to you, an open letter to David Bernstein of The Washington Post:

Mr. Bernstein,
I recently read your article in The Washington Post, and would like to discuss a few things with you. I'll start with the research that you did. You say in your article:

"After a lengthy five minute Google search, I discovered that my 15-year-old  son must suffer through a year of chemistry because a “Committee of Ten” academics was assembled in 1892 in order to standardize the curriculum."
Ok, that sounds like you really put some effort into this article. Five whole minutes on Google, huh? Well, if you had looked a little harder you may have found this website, which details the classes your son is actually required to take. You'll notice that chemistry is not specifically on the list. The science requirements are:
  • 3 credits (1 biology credit, designated BC, and 1 physical science credit, designated PC, must be included)
Your son can take chemistry to fulfill the physical science requirement, but does not necessarily have to take chemistry.

You also mentioned the cloak and dagger sounding organization known as "The Committe of Ten". While it is true that the "Committee of Ten" was a real group of academics that were assembled to standardize education, it certainly isn't the conspiracy theory that you're implying. Education should be standardized. Reading this article it sounds like the standards were set in 1892 and that was the end of it. I assure you that is not the case. It seems like every year brings with it new discussion about curriculum standardization.


Later in your article you say of your son:
"But my son is not going to be a scientist. The very thought of it makes me laugh."
This quote breaks my heart. You as a father, for some reason, believe that your son cannot or will not ever be capable or have the desire to  succeed as a scientist. The idea even makes you laugh. I wonder how your son would feel, hearing that from his dad. If he believes it himself then the damage has already been done.

Now, maybe your son hasn't shown any interest in being a scientist. Maybe it's not his personality. That's just fine, but the idea of him becoming one is not laughable. You should be promoting science and critical thinking, not laughing at the idea. The truth is, you have no idea what your son will be. In high school I missed 85 days of school my senior year. In Utah that is 47% of the school year that I didn't even attend. I spent the year after high school playing guitar in a band with my friends, playing video games, and generally doing nothing with my life. I am now in my third year of graduate school working on a PhD in physical chemistry. If my entire life were judged from that one point I would be a failure my entire life. But I turned my life around. I changed who I was. Mr. Bernstein, don't deprive your son of that same opportunity. You don't know what classes he will like, and you don't know what he will become.


We need scientists, but we also need people in all fields to be interested in science. We need critically thinking, evidence analyzing citizens. Memorization is not the only thing science is good for - in fact science isn't memorization. If you feel that memorization is stressed too much in high school education, write an article on that. I'll agree with you. But don't head down the path away from science literacy.


Thank you for your time,


Chad Jones



If you've found this page from The Washington Post, please take time to like my Facebook page for more science news items!

TED Talk Tuesday - James Randi: Homeopathy, quackery, and fraud

This Tuesday's TED Talk is from James Randi, and it's about psychics and...you guessed it...homeopathy...


I know, I've talked about it quite a bit on this blog. If you think I'm writing too much about homeopathy and think I need to get over it send me an e-mail at:
areyoukiddingmeidontcare@notgoingtorespondtoyou.com
Anyways, here's the talk: Homeopathy, quackery, and fraud

Monday, October 15, 2012

What is Dark Matter?

One of the more ominous sounding names in astronomy is dark matter. Today we're going to be shining some light on it.

Dark matter is an astronomical term for the theoretical matter that, together with dark energy, makes up ~95% of the universe. That might seem like a typo - it is not. The matter we can see makes up only 5% of the universe. The rest is invisible matter or related energy that is not in any way directly detectable.

Now, this doesn't mean that there is some unknown creature standing behind you like The Silence from Doctor Who - dark matter is a strictly astronomical phenomenon. Jan Oort was the first to provide evidence for the existence of dark matter. In 1932 Oort found that the movement of stars inside the milky way could not be correctly defined by the mass that could be seen.

Physics describes the movement of...stuff. We can throw a ball and calculate where it will land. Physics does not accurately describe all of the motion in the universe. There must be some mass affecting the movements of those stars, but there is nothing we can see that would have that effect. The following video does a good job of describing dark matter.


There are many possible explanations for what dark matter is, and some of those explanations are pretty weird. And, since I just mentioned something about a weird scientific theory it must be time to show Michio Kaku doing what he does best: being weird.
 

<rant>I think Michio Kaku is very unscientific, especially in his interactions with the media. He tends to propose the least probable, most sensational possibilities. Then he assumes that those possibilities are reality and makes another, even more sensational proposition based off his new reality and presents that to the media without any context. The video above is no different. He starts with the assumption that there are layered universes (He's pulling this, I assume, from an interpretation of quantum mechanics that is not widely accepted and he further distorts to fit his odd fantasies). Then, he makes the leap from there that dark matter is our universe interacting with that other universe.

The second problem I have with this video is that he says "of course, there are other theories to explain dark matter" and then gives another "out there" explanation. Sure, those two explanations are possible, and are based in legitimate theoretical physics. But why not mention a more down to earth possibility? Dark matter could simply be standard model particles that have yet to be discovered. Here's why I think he didn't mention that hypothesis - it's just not sensational enough for Michio Kaku.</rant>

I wasn't going to include that Michio Kaku video, mostly because I knew I couldn't avoid going into a Michio Kaku rant. Maybe that's an idea for another post: The Michio Kaku Rant (believe me, I have enough material). Michio Kaku may be right, dark matter could be an alternate universe interacting with ours. Until I have reason to believe that, though, I won't be betting on it.

What do you think? Is Michio Kaku right and I'm just closed minded? Head over to the Facebook page and leave a comment for this post. 

Saturday, October 13, 2012

Saturday Links: October 13th 2012

Hey guys, I've found and compiled some great science links this week. I hope you enjoy.
  • What does the Higgs Boson sound like? This is the data collected by ATLAS, one of the groups working at CERN that found the Higgs Boson, with each data point transcribed to a musical note. (Link via itsokaytobesmart.com)



  • Bill Nye needs your help:


  • I'll end the links with the best. In this video Neil deGrasse Tyson explains what he sees as the most astounding fact. I disagree with anyone that say science removes the beauty of the universe by trying to explain it. Science gives beauty to the universe. Science gives understanding and reason to the universe.You will be touched by this video. 




If you have a question you'd like me to answer, a comment, or just want to start a science based discussion head over to the Facebook page.

Thursday, October 11, 2012

The Nobel Prizes: 2012

The Nobel Prize winners were announced this week. You may not have heard about them yet, since the media generally only covers the Nobel Peace prize, which is a controversial prize more often than not.1 However the prizes for Physics, Medicine, and Chemistry have all been announced. Here are the winners:

Medicine
Jointly awarded to Sir John B. Gurdon and Shinya Yamanaka for "the discovery that mature cells can be reprogrammed to become pluripotent". You've no doubt heard of stem cells. Stem cells contain all the information to become any other cell - that is, they are pluripotent. Gurdon and Yamanaka showed that mature cells could act as stem cells. The Nobel prize being awarded to a controversial topic like stem cells may be an important step towards further research in the area.

Physics
To be honest, I look forward to the Physics Nobel prize more than the Chemistry prize, even though I am a chemist (at heart I'm probably more of a physicist, though). The prize this year went to Serge Haroche and David J. Wineland, for their work in quantum physics. My favorite quote from the interview with Serge Haroche is "I use atoms to study photons and he uses photons to study atoms". I won't go into too much detail. Instead I'll use the old fall back of MinutePhysics to start the explanation...



I think he introduces a bit too much of a philosophical argument to the question (at least as far as the Nobel Prize goes) but that's better than any explanation I would give in that amount of time...

Chemistry
Robert J. Lefkowitz and Brian K. Kobilka shared the Chemistry prize for their work in G-protein-coupled receptors. I feel asleep when I heard the word protein, but that's my own bias. I've been to one too many conferences with one too many talks about proteins. In all seriousness, the idea of protein receptors is one of the most important in biochemistry. For a long time it was known that hormones had an effect on cells, but not understood how. Receptors are something that is almost taken for granted in most college level courses.

Congratulations to all the winners. There are other prizes that have or will be awarded (literature, economics, peace) but we'll leave that for some other blog to care about.

If you want to ask a question or leave a comment, head on over to the Facebook page under the comments for this post.
Notes
[1] The other important difference is the science Nobel prizes are generally not given until long periods of time have passed and the contribution as been verified. The peace prize does not have the same requirement. In fact, it is often given within the same year of an accomplishment (see, for example, Barack Obama, Al Gore, etc.)

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Bad Science in the Movies: Star Wars

I am a nerd. A big one. I own a well used set of Star Trek: The Deck Building Game, I play D&D, I write a 3x weekly1 science blog, and I have had exhaustive arguments about exactly how George Lucas ruined Star Wars. I'm not going to go into my opinion about how the entire Star Wars universe was ruined by Episodes I, II, an III,2 but I am going to point out a few things in the Star Wars movies that just don't make sense.

Lasers
Almost every science fiction movie has problems with lasers. For the most part they're all the same problems, and they all exist for the purpose of story telling. Let's see the opening scene of Star Wars: A New Hope for an example of what I mean.


This is an iconic scene, and probably one of my favorites from the trilogy (remember, there are only three films), but the movie starts out with some of the biggest science blunders.
  1. You can't see a laser beam unless it has been scattered. If you've ever used a laser pointer, you know that you can't see the path it takes. If you point it at a wall you see it on the wall, not in the air between you and the wall. If you happen to see the beam it has been scattered by particles in the air. The only way you would see a laser being fired between two ships is if the air were full of large particles (dust, water droplets, etc). If that were the case the lasers would do no damage - all the laser light has been scattered. 
  2. Light travels at the speed of... As if the fact that you can see the laser moving through space isn't bad enough, you can see the laser moving through space. Light travels at rough 671 million miles per hour. If a laser were being fired between two ships ten miles apart the travel time of the laser light would be roughly 0.000005 seconds.
  3. Lasers don't make noise. The Star Wars blaster in particular is a well known sound. Every sci-fi movie has its own laser sounds. The problem is, lasers don't make sound. I've heard it argued that it's not the laser making sound, but instead the mechanism that is firing the laser. That may answer part of the problem, but then why is there such a distinct ricochet sound? Imagine waking up in the morning, turning on the lights, and hearing every photon as it bounced off your mirror. Light doesn't make sound.3 
There is one more laser blunder that is unique to Star Wars - lightsabers. The big problem is when a lightsaber reflects a laser. Photons (light) are a type of particle called bosons (you may have heard of the Higgs boson). A lightsaber could in no way reflect laser light, and if you've ever tried to recreate a lightsaber fight with a flashlight you know why this is a problem. The two beams of light just pass through eachother unaffected. Of course, Star Wars fans work around this problem by describing a lightsaber as plasma, but I'll show later why that is an even bigger problem.

These science blunders are common in just about every sci-fi film, and there's a good reason. If it were realistic it would be boring. If the empire were shooting realistic lasers you wouldn't know that anything was happening until a ship blew up seemingly for no reason.

Force Fields
I'm not going to take issue with the specific idea of a force field. It's not a complete impossibility. Star Wars (and other sci-fi films) gets into trouble when they include an invisible force field.


The problem with the scene above (beside Jar Jar Binks) is the fact that the Gungan army deploys an invisible shield, but the droid army is firing visible lasers. If something is invisible that means that visible light is able to pass through it undisturbed. An easy fix would be to say that it was a two way shield (reflective from the outside and transmissive from the inside like a two-way mirror). The problem with that explanation is that no mirror is truly a two-way mirror, and that's not because our current technology doesn't allow it, but the light itself sets the limitation; there is always  a possibility of reflecting or transmitting light through any surface. Also, if it were a two-way shield it would further complicate the situation by making every person inside the shield blind to everything happening on the outside.


The Kessel Run
Han Solo famously made the following statement about his ship, the Millennium Falcon (at about 0:25).


The problem with Han's statement is this: a parsec is a measurement of distance, not a measurement of time. Han bragging that his ship "made the Kessel run in less than 12 parsecs" is the same as me saying that I can run a Marathon in under 4 miles. It just doesn't make sense. Of course, Star Wars fans are well aware of the blunder and have an explanation for it. As an afterthought, they have included the Kessel run into the mythology. The Kessel run is completed by passing through an area of space full of black holes. If you have a powerful ship you are able to pass closer to the black hole than any other ship and create a more direct route through the interstellar mine field.
So Han's ship was able to make it through an area of space full of black holes using a path under 12 parsecs. Makes sense, right? The problem with this explanation is that parsec is a measurment of distance used in astronomy, and they only care about very large distances. 12 parsecs is about 40 light years. Even assuming faster than light travel that's a stretch that the fastest route through a black hole mine field is that long.4

Lightsabers
There's no right way to argue against lightsabers. The word implies that the blade is made from light. Of course, Star Wars universe apologists will refute my arguments by saying that it's not light it's plasma. Plasma does play an important role in the bad science, but we'll get to that soon enough.

To begin, it seems that the rebels understand physics much better than the empire. After all, Darth Vader and Darth Maul both used red lightsabers, while the rebels tend to use a bluer color. Now, since energy is inversely proportional to wavelength, this means that a lightsaber like Mace Windu's (see Samuel L. Jackson on the right) is more powerful than Darth Maul's by about 145 kJ/mol if a lightsaber is made of light
The story gets better. As I said earlier, Star Wars fans have said that lightsabers are actually plasma. I think fans would have been better off sticking with the light story, and here's why. Violet light isn't a problem. I'm not going to die being near a violet light. Once you define a lightsaber as plasma, it makes more sense to treat it as a blackbody. The best example of a blackbody is your stove top. You know that when it gets really hot it glows red. That is called blackbody radiation. If you've ever described something as "white hot", you've noticed blackbody radiation. The color of light emitted by a blackbody changes depending on the temperature.

Darth Vader's lightsaber was hot, but not unbelievably so; it was only emitting red photons. Mace Windu's light saber, on the other hand, was emitting violet photons, and a large number of them. For a blackbody to emit light at that energy, it would have to be ~13,000 °F. That's about 3,000 °F hotter than the surface of the sun! So when a Jedi turns on his lightsaber, he's going to completely ionize himself, his opponent, and the air around him. This kind of temperature alone isn't enough to recreate the conditions of the sun, though. Fusion will not occur, since you need high pressures to force the nuclei together. Instead, turning on a lightsaber will just create a super hot, extending field of plasma. Kind of makes you wonder why they chose the ice planet Hoth to hide out, and why Han needed to kill a tauntaun to keep warm when a lightsaber was right there.5

So Star Wars has some scientific flaws. I don't think there was anyone that would argue otherwise. I hope you enjoyed my take on the problems though. If not, here's  "How It Should Have Ended: Star Wars". Enjoy!


Continue the discussion at www.facebook.com/TheCollapsedWavefunction in the comments section for this post


If you liked this "Bad Science in the Movies" check out Bad Science in the Movies: 2012, and stay tuned for more to come!

Notes
[1] You heard that right. I've got myself a schedule and everything. I will not be taking another 5 month hiatus (although maybe I'll take a sabbatical). 
[2] You know what, yes I am. Listen, the start of each of the original Star Wars begins with something to bring you into the story: The rebel ship is captured by Vader, Luke is attacked by a wampa and saved by Han Solo by cutting open a tauntaun to sleep in (not to mention the AT-AT attack), and Luke infiltrates Jabba's palace to rescue Han. How does Episode 1 begin? Trade discussions. Jedi's drinking tea while they wait for a meeting. Furthermore, what is the plot? Who is the protagonist? It's supposed to be the story of Anakin Skywalker to Darth Vader, but we don't even see Anakin until nearly an hour into the movie. What was the point of the first hour? It didn't really set up any part of the story that couldn't be written into the opening crawl. Was it to introduce us to Jar Jar Binks? That's a wasted hour if you ask me. And another thing, if Anakin built C3PO, why doesn't he clue Luke into the idea that maybe he didn't want to get too close to his sister. If C3PO had already gone through such an ordeal with R2-D2, why did he pretend not to know him later? Were they undercover? Did they give little "robot winks" when they saw each other? Maybe their memory was wiped, I don't know. And don't get me started about midi-chlorians. Seriously, the idea is stupid. Long story short, Episode I, II, and III are worse than the Star Wars Holiday Special. At least after watching the Holiday Special I could forget it and just watch The Empire Strikes back without having some major plot hole introduced ex post facto. 
[3] An interesting exception to this statement is photoacoustic spectroscopy. Lasers are fired at a sample, which quickly heats up and sends a pressure wave (sound). By measuring how this pressure wave changes with the wavelength of the laser you can learn some cool stuff.
[4] Quick note: When I say that 40 light years is long I mean it is a long distance, not a long time. A light year is not a measurement of time even though it sounds like it is.
[5] Maybe Han secretly likes the way they smell