Archive for the ‘History’ Category

An Attempt to Quantify The Number of Deaths Attributable to the Anti-Vaccine Movement

Saturday, June 20th, 2015

For some time a single question has been vexing me:  Just how many people are dead because of the anti-vaccine movement?   We know that people have died because of it.  That’s for sure.  There are diseases that were all but wiped out from the industrial world that have come roaring back, and which have claimed lives.

Today many people refuse to vaccinate themselves or their children and lives are being lost.  We will certainly never know how many, but perhaps we can get a reasonable estimate.

There is a website that does attempt to provide some statistics.  Antivaccinebodycount.com provides information on the number of vaccine preventible deaths in the United States since 2007.  However, there are some problems with this methodology.  For one thing, it only takes into account the United States.  It’s understandable to stick to one country, because it’s much harder to get the statistics from many countries, but it’s certainly very narrow.  It also only goes back to 2007, while the anti-vaccine movement goes back further than that.  Finally, it’s not entirely fair to consider all the deaths from vaccine preventible diseases are because of the anti-vaccine movement.  Vaccines are not 100% effective and sometimes people don’t bother to get them, but not because of the movement.

wakefield44It should be noted that the anti-vaccine movement is not entirely new.  It has existed for almost as long as vaccines.  But it was once very fringe and relatively ineffective.  Up to the 1990′s, most parents vaccinated without question.  The modern movement was almost entirely invented by Andrew Wakefield.  His fraudulent 1998 paper on vaccines and autism touched off a media storm that grew into the full-blown anti-vaccine movement.  In the years that followed, the movement expanded to claim vaccines caused everything from asthma to SIDS.

Today many parents have concerns over vaccines and many people still think they cause autism or other health issues.  This was almost non-existent until 1998.

 

My methodology to determine the number:

Measels2In order to get a reasonable estimate of how many lives have been snuffed out by the anti-vaccine movement, I have begun to look at the data on vaccine-preventible infectious diseases in modern, industrial countries.  The anti-vaccine movement may have started in the UK, but it’s now pervasive in the US, Canada, Australia and across Europe.  The numbers don’t lie.  Both infection rates and deaths have begun to climb after years of decline.

I settled on the year 2000 as the start of where I would begin to measure the effects of the anti-vaccine movement.  This is partially arbitrary, but I chose as a time when the movement really started to gain traction and to provide a couple of years of time to elapse from the initial fraudulent study.  It is also about the time that we can first begin to see the rise in death rates from vaccine preventible diseases.

Take, for example, whooping cough.  It kills mainly infants and had been a major concern until the late 20th century.  However, a highly effective vaccine had resulted in a rapid decline.  By the early 1990′s, the United States was experiencing an average of just about four or five whooping cough deaths per year.  It’s entirely reasonable to presume that the trend would have continued, or, at the very least, the numbers would have stabilized with only five or less deaths happening per year, if things had continued.

But that’s not what happened.  Starting in the early 2000′s, the rate of whooping cough started to climb.  In 2014, there were 16 whooping cough deaths in the United States.  That was not even a bad year, relatively speaking.  26 died in 2010 and 31 in 2005. Such numbers would have seemed unbelievable in the early 1990′s, when the disease seemed under control.

All told, if five had died per year (a reasonable assumption for the average, if the trend had held), then 75 lives would have been lost between 2000 and 2014.  But the actual number was 240 lives lost.  Thus, we can see an excess of 165 deaths since the year 2000.   Perhaps these are not all because of the anti-vaccine movement, but again, this is only the best estimate.  It’s not possible to ever know the exact number for sure.

I then went on to try to compile similar numbers for all other vaccine preventible diseases in the United States, and, after that, for the other countries that have been impacted by the anti-vaccine movement.

It turns out this is really hard to do.

 

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29 Years Since The Challenger Exploded, One of My Earliest Memories

Wednesday, January 28th, 2015

Space flight is dangerous.  Taking a rocket into orbit means sitting on a controlled explosion happening under an enormous tank of fuel and oxidizer.  Rocket engines are under such tremendous forces, they push engineering to its limits.  Once one arrives in space, the spacecraft must protect occupants from one of the harshest environments imaginable.  Then, upon return, the rapid reentry to the atmosphere subjects the craft to enormous heat and pressure.  Every part of a space mission is dangerous.

It is more dangerous when politics and a desire for good publicity and scheduling gets in the way of more important concerns over safety and engineering.   This is what happened to the Challenger.  It was the first American space mission to result in causalities (although astronauts had died before in practice sessions and dry runs, such as Apollo 1).  It was the worst loss of life in a single space mission up to that time.  It would be tied by the 2003 breakup of the shuttle Columbia.

The accident put a temporary halt to the US space program and resulted in numerous safety improvements.  Unfortunately, these improvements were not enough to stop another tragedy from happening with the Space Shuttle.  While the Shuttle proved to be one of he most capable craft for low earth orbit, with unique capabilities, like the capacity to retrieve satellites from orbit, it also has some other, more dubious, distinctions.  More lives have been lost in the Space Shuttle than any other spacecraft.  It has a LOVC (loss of vehicle and crew) rate of greater than one percent, for all launches.

For me, the Challenger incident has other significance.  I was three years old at the time if happened.  It is one of my earliest distinct memories and the earliest memory I can pin directly to an event.

My memories are vague, but I do remember a few things.  My mother worked with a man whose television was not working on that day.  He came over to my home to watch the TV coverage.  He and my father were glued to the set all afternoon and evening.  I was upset because I wanted to watch Mister Roger’s neighborhood and we only had the one television.

My parents watched ABC news.  It’s amazing but these videos actually jar distinct memories for me.


No, it does not take a conspiracy to make people fat

Thursday, January 1st, 2015

 Videos like this one really get under my skin

Click here if your browser does not support embedded videos

 

PEOPLE LIKE HIGH CALORIE FOODS. IT IS NOT A CONSPIRACY

Foods that are high in calories, that contain a large portion of fat are simply something people like.   The same is true for starchy foods and sweet foods.   Any chef will tell you this. There’s a reason why so many of them seem to be nearly obsessed with butter.  It makes foods taste pleasing.  Trying to make foods that are low in sugar, low in fat and low in starch as palatable is, at beast a challenge.  They can be spiced and seasoned, but this really does not get you quite the same level of culinary gratification.

Owithdrawalfromsugarf course, substitutes can be used, which give similar taste to foods.  Many substitute sweeteners exist.  Unfortunately, they do not always work in all products, since they may not melt or dissolve the same way as natural sugars do.  They also tend to have inferior subjective tastes, at least to most people, with undesirable mouth-feels and aftertastes.  There are also fat substitutes, but they have their own problems.   Olestra is a well known example.   The molecule is similar to fats, chemically and physically.  It has the same thick, greasy feel to it.  However, it also has some unfortunate side-effects.  It is not absorbed in the digestive tract but passes through.  It’s become famous for therefore producing an unpleasant side effect known as anal leakage. (Which is exactly what it sounds like.)

The human affinity for sweetness, however, should not be viewed as an addiction in the same way something like cocaine is addictive, however.  That’s just ridiculous.  Sugar is a natural part of our food we are all exposed to and which can’t be eliminated.  Sweet flavors light up the pleasure centers of the brain because we like them and that’s what stuff we like does.   Cocaine is a powerful drug that modifies brain chemistry, working on the dopamine system.  It has strong stimulating effects and produces tolerance and dependence.  With time, users are left dopamine-deficient without it.  It also has an effect on serotonin and norepinephrine.

Why this is the case:

The reason why humans seek out and prefer high calorie foods is actually very simple.   For most of our evolution food was scarce and it was common to not know where your next meal was coming from.  Calories are, by far, he most important basic nutrient, and therefore when the opportunity arose to eat something high in them, it made sense to do so.  If our ancestors went out foraging or hunting for food, it made sense to seek out that which had the highest calorie density.

It’s also more common to find other important nutrients, such as vitamins in the fruits of plants than in their leaves.   Since humans require a steady supply of vitamin C, an affinity for sweet fruits was a good thing to have.

It really is that simple.   It’s a matter of desiring foods and high calorie foods, because that’s what we need.

Evolution is also the reason why humans get fat when they eat a lot of high calorie foods.  Many seem to believe that gaining weight represents the human body functioning improperly or that it is the result of something unnatural.  This seems to be the reason why there are so many “detox” diets, which are based on the entirely false notion that fat is toxic or that some toxic and foreign substance is making people gain fatty tissue.  There’s nothing especially toxic in fat cells.  They’re just full of nutrients.

This has the same basic evolutionary reason.   Every day we burn a certain number of calories, based primarily on the level of activity undertaken.  We also take in a certain number of calories, based on diet.   When we consistently eat more calories than we burn, there is a surplus and that surplus of calories needs to go somewhere.

Perhaps these calories could be eliminated by selectively closing the intestinal wall to further absorption or by boosting the body’s resting metabolism rate.   If we were designing the human body for modern society, that might be what we’d decide to do.  But that would be a very bad decision in a more “natural” environment, where food could be scarce.  If there are extra calories, they are stored in fatty tissue, which is one of the primary purposes of fat.  Our distant ancestors probably never had the opportunity to take this process to the extreme that so many do today, but it does not change the fact that it’s all just the body functioning normally to pack away calories for later.

It’s been said that there’s more to weight loss than just calories in and calories out.  That’s only partially true.  Metabolism is a complicated process and some people do have naturally higher or lower metabolisms, which does mean they may have to work harder than others to keep the pounds off.  It’s also true that some foods have more easily absorbed calories than others.  It does not change the fact that the human body cannot create fat out of nothing nor can it expend energy without burning something.  We can’t photosynthesize.

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The Babushka Lady: A Critical Missing Witness to the Kennedy Assassination

Saturday, November 29th, 2014

On November 22, 1963, John F. Kennedy was shot and killed in broad daylight in Dealey Plaza in Dallas TX, in broad daylight and in front of numerous witnesses.  The overwhelming majority of those who were close to the shooting or who saw anything that was of importance were identified immediately and gave statements to investigators.   Many were interviewed by police almost immediately.  Comprehensive testimony was recorded by the Warren Commission.

There were three motion pictures taken that show at least part of the assassination: the Zapruder, Nix and Muchmore films.  There were more than a dozen more films that were taken either immediately before or after the shooting took place.  More than one hundred photographs were also taken in the plaza on that day.  These films and pictures were examined as evidence and are now part of the historical record.

But one remains absent

A woman can be seen in the Zapruder film and on other films and photographs taken at the time.  She was standing just north of Elm street, slightly behind witness Charles Brehm and his son.  This would have made her one of the closest witnesses to the fatal shot.  She appears to be wearing a long coat, perhaps a raincoat.  She wears a distinctive pink headscarf, like those worn by older women in Eastern EuropeHer appearance has earned her the name “The Babushka Lady.”   The Term Babushka means “old woman” in Russian.

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After the shooting, witnesses and photographs show that she moped around the area she was standing for a minute or two before crossing Elm Street and ascending the steps on the grassy knoll, toward the retaining wall.  Shortly after (around 12:40) she is seen as part of a crowd of people who had gathered on the south side of Elm Street.  Her movements are consistent with many of those in the area.  Those who saw the shooting were shocked or confused and most seem to just be talking and trying to get a handle on what had happened.  Some, who had a clear view of the events, such as Charles Brehm spoke to reporters or to members of the public, describing what happened.  At some point, a few of those in the crowd brought out transistor radios and others congregated around them to listen for reports.

Finally the Babushka Lady is seen walking east on Elm Street.  What happened to her after that is unknown.   She has never been identified or come forward.

What may be most important about the Babushka Lady is that she appears to have been taking a movie or photograph(s) at the time of the assassination.  In the Zapruder film and other films, she clearly has a camera to her face.  The fact that she holds it there for a period of time might imply that it is a motion picture camera, but it could also be a still camera.

Many conspiracy theories hing on the claim that there was a shooter in front of the motorcade, with the most common location cited being on the grassy knoll or behind the stockade fence, just south of Elm Street.   A photograph of this area, at the time of the assassination could well prove this to be true or put the issue to rest.  Unfortunately, the photos that exist are not adequate.  There is one photograph, taken by Mary Moorman, at almost exactly the time of the fatal shot, which shows the area of interest. H0wever, the Muchmore photograph is a Polaroid and lacks the quality and range to show anything definitive.  There is also the film taken by Orville Nix, but the Nix film was taken on stock intended for indoor shooting, and not well suited for the lighting conditions.  In the Nix film, the area of interest is obscured by shadows.  The Babushka Lady’s film or photograph may well have captured the area and could, quite possibly, be of sufficient range and quality to prove or disprove claims of a gunman in the area.

The photo has never been found.  However, a tantalizing clue comes from assassination researcher Gary Mack, who testified before Congress in 1994, recounting a story he’d been told by a retired Kodak employee about an unknown film of the assassination.

What I have found living here and talking with people is that there are a lot of people in the Dallas area who, for one reason or another, just would prefer not to come forward. I learned a story just a few weeks ago. A retired Kodak executive remembered that while they were processing Abraham Zapruder’s film out in the Dallas office out by Love Field, that a woman had come in, and this was a woman in her late 30s, a brunette, who had taken a picture at the assassination scene, and her picture was the first one out of the processor, and they were working on this because it was quicker to do stills than it was moving film.

He didn’t catch her name, but he stood next to her while she was explaining her story to some of the Federal investigators who were already there. She was running from Main Street up to Elm Street across the grass, realized she wasn’t going to get there close enough, stopped and took a picture. In the foreground were some people standing on the south curb of Elm Street. The Kennedy limousine was directly behind them, directly behind the limousine was the Book Depository Building. When the picture came out of the processor, the first thing they noticed was the exposure was terrific but the focus was way, way off. It was virtually useless, and she was told that. Well, she apparently went home and whether anyone even got her name or that is unknown.

If this story is true, and I have no reason to doubt it, the man – we sought him out, he did not seek us out, today if we can locate that slide, and this is a color slide, computer enhancement can return it literally to almost the best clarity you could have had at the time. Of course, back in those days nothing like that existed. The Kodak executive’s name is Jack Harrison. Jack said they were pushing the technicians very hard to do whatever you can to sharpen this picture and approve it, and they just said, hey, there is nothing we can do.

There is one individual who has come forward, claiming to be the Babushka Lady.  Beverly Oliver was  a singer and dancer at a strip club at the time of the assassination.  She claims to have been the Babushka Lady and to have taken a film of the assassination.  She has made some other claims, including that she was approached by FBI or Secret Service agents shortly after, who confiscated the film and never returned it.  Her claims cannot be backed up by anyone else and there’s no apparent documentation of this story before 1970.

Many mainstream assassination experts flatly dismiss the stories about Beverly Oliver being the Babushka lady.  I would tend to agree.

Even today, identifying this woman could turn out to be a breakthrough in historical documentation of the assassination.  With 51 years having passed, it’s likely she is no longer alive.  Even if she is, a decades old recollection isn’t likely to do much for the historical record.  But that photograph certainly could.  It’s impossible to know what kind of image could be extracted without seeing the photo.  Certainly, modern technology could provide at least some level of correction for bad focus.

Somewhere in Dallas, there is likely someone who would recognize this woman.  Perhaps she was their mother, aunt, grandmother, neighbor or family friend.

Unfortunately, the only photos we have of the Babushka lady show her from behind.  The exception to this is the Zapruder film.  However, in the Zapruder film, she is holding a camera up to her face, obscuring most of her features.  Zapruder also moved his camera to track the car.

 

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A Look At Russian Nuclear Icebreakers

Monday, October 13th, 2014

Given that Russian territorial waters include large areas of the far north, it’s no surprise that Russia has some of the world’s largest and most capable icebreakers.  A few of these are of the nuclear-powered variety.

Nuclear power is ideally suited to icebreakers, because it provides nearly limitless energy for propulsion and on board needs like heating and electricity.   Icebreakers tend to consume a lot of fuel, both because of their need for heat and because of the resistance posed by the ice, which requires large and powerful engines.  Nuclear power assures the ships will never be stranded in ice with low fuel and gives them the ability to run at full power without concern for fuel burned.

Russia’s fleet of nuclear-powered icebreakers are the most capable ice-breaking ships in the world.  The icebreaker Artika was the first non-submarine to make it all the way to the North Pole, something few other ships could do.

In recent years, the icebreakers have been used in antarctic and arctic cruises, bringing passengers places few other ships could.  It’s not entirely clear if the contract for cruises on these ships will be renewed in future years, but at present, for the price of about nineteen thousand Euro, you can visit the antarctic from the comfort of a huge nuclear icebreaker.  Accommodations  on board are extremely comfortable, but because these ships were not built to be cruise liners, there’s only room for about one hundred guests.

A look inside really illustrates just what can be done with nuclear energy.  When you have limitless power at your disposal, anything is possible, including providing the creature comforts of home in an extremely harsh environment, with subzero temperatures while easily breaking through the toughest pack ice.

And yes, that is a swimming pool.  A small one, but a swimming pool none the less.  Why did they decide to put a pool on an icebreaker?  My guess is just to show off the fact that these icebreakers are such engineering masterpieces that nothing, not even swimming, needs to be omitted in the arctic and antarctic.   There are also saunas, libraries, gym areas and small theaters on the icebreakers.

Such recreational facilities also provide the crews of such icebreakers with much needed rest and relaxation during deployments in that can last several months.  For an escape from the dark and cold of the poles, they also have conservatory-like rooms with plants bathed in artificial sunlight.

The comforts, however, should not detract from appreciating the extreme capabilities of these ships.  They can cruise at more than twenty knots and break through some of the thickest ice in the world.  Their twin nuclear reactors are capable of delivering more than 350 megawatts of thermal power and providing 75,000 or more horsepower to the ship’s propellors.

These photos are not all of the same icebreaker

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The US Coast Guard operates a fleet of large icebreakers.  They’re very capable by any standard, but they are nothing compared to these nuclear-powered ships.  Like most of the world’s icebreakers, the Coast Guard uses conventional oil-fired propulsion.

One can only imagine the possibilities if nuclear power of this type were more widely embraced and deployed for marine propulsion.  Building a large number would undoubtedly bring the cost down, due to economics of scale.

Sources of Photos:

Natural Habitat
Eformable Nuclear NewsMoby Nova
English Russia
Poseidon Expiditions
Arctic Centre On Flicr

The Mars Rover That Keeps Going Breaks Distance Record

Tuesday, July 29th, 2014

As you probably know, there is now a nuclear-powered rover on the surface of mars that is equipped with more scientific instruments and data gathering systems than anything before.  It is highly capable and has already made some important discoveries.

But many have forgotten that there is another Mars rover that is still operating.   Right now, the US actually has two independent rovers that are functioning and making observations on the surface of Mars.  The two original exploration rovers have shown a capability to work far beyond their design lives.  The rover Opportunity continuing to operate to this day.  Spirit, a nearly identical rover, functioned until 2010 but lost power after it became stuck in place.

It is really amazing because Opportunity landed on mars in early 2004, with the hopes that it would function for a few months.   Today, it is still going, albeit with some diminished capabilities.  Solar panels have degraded, the drill bit used to sample rocks is far too dull to function.  Problems have arisen with the robotic arm of opertunity.   Still, for its age, now over ten years, it’s amazing that it is still going.

Despite its slow speed and the fact that it needs to stop frequently to charge batteries in the dim sunlight of mars, it has now broken a long standing record for rovers traversing extraterrestrial terrain.
Via Astronomy Magazine:

Long-lived Mars Opportunity rover passes 25 miles of driving

Opportunity was intended to drive about 0.6 mile and was never designed for distance.
NASA’s Opportunity Mars rover that landed on the Red Planet in 2004 now holds the off-Earth roving distance record after accruing 25 miles (40 kilometers) of driving. The Soviet Union’s Lunokhod 2 rover held the previous record.

“Opportunity has driven farther than any other wheeled vehicle on another world,” said John Callas of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California. “This is so remarkable considering Opportunity was intended to drive about 1 kilometer [0.6 mile] and was never designed for distance. But what is really important is not how many miles the rover has racked up, but how much exploration and discovery we have accomplished over that distance.”

A drive of 157 feet (48 meters) on July 27 put Opportunity’s total odometry at 25.01 miles (40.25km). This month’s driving brought the rover southward along the western rim of Endeavour Crater. The rover had driven more than 20 miles (32km) before arriving at Endeavour Crater in 2011, where it has examined outcrops on the crater’s rim containing clay and sulfate-bearing minerals. The sites are yielding evidence of ancient environments with less acidic water than those examined at Opportunity’s landing site.

If the rover can continue to operate the distance of a marathon — 26.2 miles (about 42.2 kilometers) — it will approach the next major investigation site mission scientists have dubbed “Marathon Valley.” Observations from spacecraft orbiting Mars suggest that several clay minerals are exposed close together at this valley site, surrounded by steep slopes where the relationships among different layers may be evident.

The Russian Lunokhod 2 rover, a successor to the first Lunokhod mission in 1970, landed on Earth’s Moon on January 15, 1973, where it drove about 24.2 miles (39 kilometers) in less than five months, according to calculations recently made using images from NASA’s Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter (LRO) cameras that reveal Lunokhod 2’s tracks.

For comparison, the distance record by a crewed surface vehicle is 35.75 km (about 22 miles) set in 1972 by Apollo-17. That rover, of course, covered such a distance in a much shorter period of time than it has taken the Mars rovers, lending to its power coming from powerful silver-zinc potassium hydroxide batteries on the vehicle and not from solar panels. The Lunakhod rovers covered long distances in a matter of months, also far quicker than the Mars rover Opportunity. While they used solar power, the moon offers far brighter sun than the surface of Mars and thus more power.

Hopefully the new rover, Curiosity will break the record. It can travel faster than Spirit and uses a nuclear power source that does not require recharging in the sun. It has already traveled 4.6 kilometers. It could have traveled further, but NASA has been conservative with the valuable rover and it has spent much time stationary making scientific observations

Don’t Worry, Yellowstone Won’t (Likely) Erupt

Friday, April 4th, 2014

Yellowstone National Park is a true national treasure of the United States and indeed is one of the world’s most unique and majestic natural settings.  The park is home to pristine wilderness and wildlife and to numerous dramatic geothermal features like geysers and hot springs.  The park is visited by more than three million per year and is one of the most popular national parks in the world.

The unique topography and geothermal activity are the result of a massive supervolcano which the park sits above.  It has been more than two million years since the volcano had a “mega eruption” amd 70,000 since it had even a minor eruption event. Still, if it were to erupt, it has the potential to cause devastation to the United States, North America, the Western Hemisphere and even the entire world.  Those outside of North America would likely be spared the most direct effects, although there could be noticeable climate effects.  However, the sheer volume of North American farmland that would be devastated would result in a global food crisis.

There a reasonable possibility that Yellowstone will erupt some time in the next hundred thousand years, but the probability of it erupting in any of our lifetimes is miniscule.

Still, many are becoming extremely concerned after a number of videos showed up online reporting to show bison or other animals fleeing the Yellowstone area.  It must mean the whole thing is about to blow… right?   According to some it does.  Because these original videos were followed by many conspiracy-oriented videos claiming that the government is keeping down the information about the impending eruption.


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Project Iceworm: An Amazing Example of What Nuclear Energy Can Do

Friday, November 15th, 2013

In 1960, a project was undertaken by the US military the likes of which seem almost impossible today.  In fact, I doubt we would ever make it past an environmental impact study.  But back then, there seemed to be a more ambitious spirit for big feats of imagination and engineering.

Project Iceworm was an attempt to build a veritable city under the snow and ice of Greenland.  Tunnels were cut into the ice and buildings erected which housed hundreds of personnel.  The encampment, dubbed Camp Century,  had heated barracks, a kitchen, mess hall, medical center, laboratories.  The camp was staffed year round by more than 200.

All of this was made possible by a cutting edge nuclear reactor.  Keeping the camp powered by conventional means required the transport of enormous volumes of diesel fuel.  This was simply not sustainable for such a large a remotely-located facility.  The PM-2A was one of the first portable nuclear power systems ever created.  It was transported to the site and preformed well for the length of the project.   It provided ample electricity, which was used for everything from heating the structures to melting ice to provide drinking water.

A truly amazing film was made to document the project:



(If your browser does not support embedded video click here)

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New Report Claims Differences in Einstein’s Brain

Tuesday, October 8th, 2013

A new study has been published and is making the rounds in the media, claiming to have unlocked the secrets to Einstein’s genius based on the structure of the corpus callosum of his brain.


Via International Science Times:

Einstein’s Brain: ‘Unusually Well-Connected’ Hemispheres Led To His Genius, Study Suggests
Albert Einstein’s brain had unusually well-connected left and right hemispheres, according to a study published in the journal Brain. The study, led by Weiwei Men of East China Normal University’s Department of Physics, suggests that this connectivity in Einstein’s brain may have contributed to his genius. Men and his team drew this conclusion from detailing Einstein’s corpus callosum, the bundle of fibers connecting the two cerebral hemispheres, the first time such a analysis has been done on Einstein’s brain.

“This study, more than any other to date, really gets at the ‘inside’ of Einstein’s brain,” said Dean Falk, a Florida State University evolutionary anthropologist and a co-author of the study. “It provides new information that helps make sense of what is known about the surface of Einstein’s brain.”

Men’s team analyzed photographs of Einstein’s corpus callosum to measure its thickness, comparing these measurements to the corpus callosums of a group of 15 elderly men and a group of 52 26-year-old men. The latter age group was chosen because that was Einstein’s age in 1905, the “miracle year” in which he published four articles that shaped the foundation of modern physics.

The researchers found that parts of Einstein’s corpus callosum were thicker than the other subjects, indicating a larger number of nerves running between the two hemispheres. These connections were more extensive than the other subjects, something which is believed to lead to greater interhemispheric communication.

I should start by saying I am not a neurologist and therefore can’t give an expert opinion on this matter. However, having studied quite a bit of literature on Einstein’s brain for a previous post, I can only look at this study with extreme skepticism.

After Einstein’s death, his brain was studied extensively by Doctor Harry Zimmerman, a highly accomplished neuropathologist. Zimmerman never published anything about the brain, because he found nothing noteworthy. Both Zimmerman and other pathologists found the brain to be relatively average for a man of Einstein’s age. There were a few deviations from the average human brain. The lateral sulcus is shorter than most and some differences in the partial lobe had been found.

There have been a few studies on the brain, attempting to explain Einstein’s genius through both macroscopic and microscopic differences in his brain. One of the first claimed that a high number of gilial cells explained Einstein’s intellect. Yet this is disputed by the fact that gilial cells tend to increase with age and the brains Einstein’s was compared to were younger. Other studies have focused on the uncommon macroscopic features of Einstein’s brain.

Yet none of the features have really been especially striking, not even by the pathologists who spent the most time studying the actual brain after Einstein’s death. The human brain is a complex organ and no two are exactly the same. Few of us will have a brain that falls directly down the center of human averages, since the averages include extremes. Furthermore, the macroscopic structure of a brain does not necessarily reveal how it works internally. The brain can be very plastic and function is not obvious from post-mortum examination.

To say Einstein’s brain had features that are unusual would be like saying that a person who is 6’5″ is unusual. Yes, it is taller than most people. You could probably go all day without seeing someone that tall. But it is hardly extraordinary. There are, in fact, people that tall and it’s not something you’ll never see if you meet enough people.

Thus, I remain skeptical. I honestly think they are barking up the wrong tree. Einstein was a brilliant scientist, but his contributions likely have more to do with his education, upbringing, curiosity and the simple fact that he came up with some ideas nobody else had. It’s not likely the result of a structural difference in his brain.

Setting the Record Straight On Radiation Experiments

Saturday, June 8th, 2013

In the 1940′s and 1950′s, the United States government undertook a large number of experiments involving radiation, radiotoxicity and nuclear safety.  While most of this research was done within reasonable ethical standards, using animal models, tissue cultures and occasionally human volunteers, it is known that there were some experiments which involved human test subjects and which did not meet even the most basic standards for ethics.

The most infamous of these were the plutonium injection experiments.  Test subjects were injected with solutions containing trace amounts of plutonium in order to aid in the development of plutonium exposure tests.   Six employees at a Manhattan Project site were given water with small amounts of plutonium in order to determine how it would be absorbed in the digestive tract.   In one case, pregnant women were given what were called “vitamin drinks” in order to study how radioisotopes were transferred to the fetus.

These tests may not have included full disclosure to the test subjects.   It is still important to note that the levels present were bellow those which were supposed to be harmful.  None the less, the potential for harm existed, and today there is no question that the experiments would be considered unethical.

More about these disturbing experiments can be read here.

While we should not deny the existence of experiments of this type, it is also important not to exaggerate them.   Unfortunately, those who see this as some kind of reason to oppose nuclear energy have done just that.   Critical examination of many of the claims put forward show that there is much less to it than has been suggested.

Via City Watch:
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