The BBC is running a story about how there’s less volunteer help during disease outbreaks. Sometimes I wonder who funds these stories, and why the results are considered newsworthy. I realize the irony here, since I’m writing about it myself, but I’m writing about it because it is a non-story.
Eighty-four per cent of the 6,000 surveyed were willing to report for duty after an environmental disaster.
But just 48% said they would do the same during an outbreak of Sars.
Just over half – 57% – said they would work during a radiological event, and 61% in the event of a smallpox epidemic.
But any disaster involving mass causalities, such as a transport accident, would see 86% willing to work.
I wonder, sometimes, if common sense has any place in science. Common sense, while not always common, nor always sense, does play some role when it comes to things such as this. While common sense would say that the odds of having a coin land tails after flipping nine heads in a row would be more than 50%, this is not the case. Similarly, the idea that a heavy object falls faster seems as though it would be obvious, but objects fall with the same rate of acceleration regardless of weight.
So back to this study.
Kristine Qureshi, who led the research, said: “Although we might assume that healthcare employees have an obligation to respond to these high impact events, our findings indicate that personal obligations, as well as concerns for their own safety play a pivotal role in workers’ willingness to report to work.”
Robyn Gershon, associate professor of sociomedical sciences, at the Mailman School’s National Center for Disaster Preparedness, who also worked on the study, added: “Employers must recognise that their healthcare workers are likely to be as concerned or even more concerned about their safety than the average citizen, because they have a greater understanding of the risks involved.”
My response to that is “You don’t say?!” Honestly, health care workers are not automatons. They are living, breathing people with their own hopes and dreams and families to think of. While the idea of an utterly selfless doctor going off to fight SARS outbreak somewhere is attractive, the cost-benefit analysis of the situation must be evaluated. Does that warm, fuzzy feeling from doing the right thing, and a tax write off offset the risks to himself or his family enough to cause him to help out during an infectious outbreak?
One should not be obligated to put oneself in harm’s way for the benefit of another human being. No job or calling is so high that it can be required. This is true of police officers (who contrary to popular belief are not required to protect you) and doctors and firefighters. While codes of ethics and “typical” public servant behavior might make such behavior seem as though it were somehow mandatory, potentially sacrificing one’s life always comes down to individual choice.
Apparently Hurricane Katrina has freed as many as 36 dolphins from their pens in the Gulf of Mexico. Straight out of Red Alert and Free Willy, the Navy has been training the mammals for anti-terror operations. The Navy has had a dolphin-training program since the 1989 when dolphins, fitted with electrodes and harnesses were trained to patrol and protect Trident nuclear submarines during the Cold War. This particular group of animals are trained to shoot divers or anyone else perceived as a threat with a dart that will put the target to sleep for several hours so they may be interrogated later.
The US military will not confirm or deny reports that the dolphins are missing, but,
Leo Sheridan, 72, a respected accident investigator who has worked for government and industry, said he had received intelligence from sources close to the US government’s marine fisheries service confirming dolphins had escaped.
The dolphins are controlled by signals through a neck harness, but it is unknown if they were made secure before Katrina hit.
The mystery surfaced when a separate group of dolphins was washed from a commercial oceanarium on the Mississippi coast during Katrina. Eight were found with the navy’s help, but the dolphins were not returned until US navy scientists had examined them.
Sheridan is convinced the scientists were keen to ensure the dolphins were not the navy’s, understood to be kept in training ponds in a sound in Louisiana, close to Lake Pontchartrain, whose waters devastated New Orleans.
As usual, animal rights activists have protested the use of dolphins. I see no reason for their disapproval, however. The military as well as civilian police forces often use dogs, which are arguably less intelligent than dolphins, so I can’t say I really see a problem with the whole thing. The Cetacean Intelligence Mission (CIM), which overseas the dolphins became more important again after the attacks on the USS Cole; the dolphins have also reportedly been used to detect mines near an Iraqi port.
Personally I think the idea of dolphin soldiers seems pretty cool, assuming they’re effective, which I see nothing indicating that they are not. The real issue here is why the dolphins were not made secure before the hurricane hit. They could have been harmed, or set free, as has apparently happened here. One would think the military would take better care of its assets.
Scientists at the University of Denmark have made a leap forward by creating a hydrogen tablet that stores hydrogen in an inexpensive and safe material. Because hydrogen gas is flammable and is extremely light, scientists have long had issues storing it safely and effectively. Storing enough hydrogen gas at normal pressure to drive a car 600Km would require a fuel tank the size of nine cars. (What kind of car you’d be driving, how fast you’d be traveling, and what size car would be used as a storage device is left as an exercise to the reader.)
The new method is quite different.
The hydrogen tablet is safe and inexpensive. In this respect it is different from most other hydrogen storage technologies. You can literally carry the material in your pocket without any kind of safety precaution. The reason is that the tablet consists solely of ammonia absorbed efficiently in sea-salt. Ammonia is produced by a combination of hydrogen with nitrogen from the surrounding air, and the DTU-tablet therefore contains large amounts of hydrogen. Within the tablet, hydrogen is stored as long as desired, and when hydrogen is needed, ammonia is released through a catalyst that decomposes it back to free hydrogen. When the tablet is empty, you merely give it a “shot” of ammonia and it is ready for use again.
I can see it now: we’ll all go to our gas stations and fill up on ammonia — which is dangerous — and drive around in our quiet H-powered cars. Cars powered by hydrogen do not emit carbon dioxide (or carbon monoxide, for that matter), and the hydrogen can be produced by renewable energy sources, such as wind power, completely cutting fossil fuels out of the picture.
I’d like more details on the conversion process from ammonia to free hydrogen. Jan-Willem points out that the storage of hydrogen is largely the last/greatest barrier to widespread hydrogen fuel cell adoption. (Besides inertia.)
Jonathan has done a bang-up writing about the road to a science Ph.D. Last week saw his first installment, and yesterday brings his follow-up. From week 1:
The next few years are not always plain sailing. Friends who graduated with you move on to high paying jobs whilst you remain in relative penury. Experiments don’t always work out. There are assessments and committees to deal with. If you’re unlucky enough to have classes, there will be homework! Although you’re researching a particular niche of your own, you are also being formed in the same crucible as the scientists who precede you. They all had a tough time of it, and they’ll be damned if they’ll let some young upstarts off the hook easily.
It might be that you have a committee with five or more examiners. Perhaps it’s only two. You may get grilled in public, or in private. Some places expect you to bring baked goods or food, or (and I prefer this one) you go out to the pub with them afterwards. What they all have in common is that the thesis you wrote, your dissertation, is going to be gone over with a fine-toothed comb, and every little weakness, typo, mistake or, error will be brought up. Remember that great discussion I wrote? It never even came up in mine. Everything I was proud of writing got ignored, but I did get to spend an hour going over each figure to be told they didn’t like the way I represented the statistics. Again. Odds are, your examiners went through the meat grinder in their day, and if they had it tough, by Jove you will too!
Hrm. Sounds like… fraternal pledging.
A massive black hole with the mass of 140,000,000 suns(!) has been found at the center of the Andromeda galaxy, surrounding by fast-orbiting, hot, blue stars similar to Sirius, which is the brightest visible star in our own night sky. These blue stars are orbiting so quickly that their speed can only be explained by the existence of a massive black hole. By calculating the speed of their orbit, scientists have determined the mass of what they are orbiting.
It has been suspected that a black hole existed at the center of Andromeda, but other theories have suggested that it was inhabited by dead and dying brown dwarf stars. However, the measurement of the speed of the blue stars’ orbit has laid that theory to rest. The measurements were made using data from a now-defunct spectrometer on the Hubble Space Telescope — which is an unusual use for a spectrometer.
It is suspected that there are 35 other galaxies with supermassive black holes at their centers, though only two have actually been confirmed: our own Milky Way, and M106. It is doubtful whether black holes in the other 35 galaxies will ever be confirmed because they are so far away. (Though personally I believe determinations will be made in the next 50 years, with the rate that technology is progressing.) Andromeda is the closest galaxy to our own, and it is easier to look into than the Milky Way due to its orientation: we are on the outskirts of the Milky Way, and looking towards the center of our galaxy is difficult. Because Andromeda is removed somewhat, studying it is easier.
Most clocks get progressively less accurate as time goes on, the only deviance from this near-universal truth is by how much. However the atomic fountain clock has gotten more accurate with time. By the latest measurement, the clock will neither gain nor lose a second in 60 million years, with a certainty of 0.53e-15. Some of you might recall that atomic clocks generally lose roughly one second every few million years. Atomic clocks function by measuring the oscillation of cesium atoms, which oscillates roughly 9 billion times per second.
The NIST-F1′s improved accuracy comes from better lasers, software and equipment; the cesium atoms being spread over a larger space which reduces the frequency of particle interaction; and the ability to control the magnetic fields within the clock, and are able to quantify and compensate for them.
The usefulness of a more accurate atomic clock seems somewhat unclear to me. The press release states that the improved accuracy allows for better precision: navigation systems, telecommunications networks, and wireless and deep space communications all may benefit, though I question whether the “benefit” has any measurable, real-world impact.
In the last week or two gas prices have come down, but they’re going to go right back up again. The other day I wrote about the problem of heavy crude, and why gas prices have been high: it’s not because OPEC’s being ridiculous, it’s because the US lacks the refinement capacity to meet its own demand, and on top of that, it cannot process the heavy crude being sold by OPEC.
This problem has been exacerbated by Hurricane Rita, whose approach has caused 92% decrease in Gulf Coast refinement capacity. This is 27.5% of the US’s total refining capacity, which is going to aggravate the gasoline shortage even more. After Katrina knocked out some of Louisiana’s capacity (~900,000 barrels/day), Rita will at least temporarily cut out another 4.7 million barrels per day that the US can produce.
Natural gas will be affected as well, with 66% of the Gulf Coast natural gas plants being offline.