Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Scientific Literacy, Power Plants, and Shutdowns, Oh My!

The deadly and tragic earthquake in Miyagi was without a doubt the preeminent geological event of the year. (Aside: people are certainly still trying to rebuild the communities and towns swallowed up into the earth in March, please consider donating. The flow of cash has most likely slowed down now that we don't see it in the news on a daily basis. Need outlasts people's memories.)

But what continued to make headlines long after the fact was the meltdown at the Daiichi power plant. Nuclear power and the ramifications of it are already not well understood by the general public; add in sensationalist news stories and ill-informed bloggers calling Daiichi "the next Chernobyl" and drawing all kinds of conclusions and connections and the result is nothing good. People in California panicking and buying up potassium iodide supplies, for example, and now Germany is scrapping its nuclear program in favor of coal.

Coal. Coal is non-renewable, kind of dirty, and not terribly efficient.

And while they were already planning to take them offline, the speed-up in the shutdown is due pretty much to the panic over Daiichi.

I do not mean to understate the dangers of radiation or the living hell that is radiation sickness. But just because coal isn't radioactive doesn't mean it's inherently better, or safer.

A very scientifically literate friend of mine, Scott, laid it all out over at his blog. It's a clear, cogent, and entirely readable explanation of nuclear versus everything else; I'm reproducing it in part. (The entire entry, including comments from other readers, is here.)

You know what kills more people per year than nuclear plants?


According to the Clean Air Task Force, coal plants kill about thirty thousand people per year in the US through pollution (which causes respiratory disease). There are six hundred coal plants, so that's about 50 deaths per plant. These numbers are much higher - maybe even by an order of magnitude - in Chinese and third-world coal plants, which lack the US' stringent environmental restrictions.

So far there have been zero deaths from the crisis in Fukushima; this doesn't preclude deaths from cancer later on, but because of the speed of the evacuation I don't think it is too optimistic to hope the final death toll will be below fifty.

So think about that for a second. When you hit a nuclear plant with the fifth largest earthquake ever recorded, then immediately follow that with a twenty foot high tsunami, and then it explodes, it still kills fewer people than an average coal plant does every single year when everything goes perfectly.

I'm going to repeat that entire paragraph for emphasis. When you hit a nuclear plant with the fifth largest earthquake ever recorded, then immediately follow that with a twenty foot high tsunami, and then it explodes, it still kills fewer people than an average coal plant does every single year when everything goes perfectly.

Yet now Germany says they're going to suspend their nuclear program. You know what's probably going to replace it? Coal. And protestors in the US are agitating to close my home county's beloved nuclear plant of San Onofre. You know what's probably gonna replace it? More coal.

A useful measure of power plant capacity is the "terawatt", equal to one trillion watts. Coal kills 2500 times as many people per terawatt as nuclear. In fact, nuclear power has the lowest fatality per terawatt of any form of power in existence. Rooftop solar power has a per terawatt death rate ten times worse than nuclear power because of - I kid you not - people falling off roofs when installing the panel. Hydroelectric power has a worse fatality rate because of dams bursting and flooding people. Even wind power has a worse fatality per terawatt rate - seventy three people have died in windmill related accidents.


And everyone, please stop pretending like this somehow "proves" nuclear power doesn't work. Nuclear continues to be the safest and most environmentally responsible form of large-scale power generation ever invented. One incident, no matter how tragic, does not change that. The fact that "radiation" is a scary-sounding word does not change that. The fact that people can say things like "twenty times background radiation" or "almost a microsievert per hour" when what they really mean is "eight bananas" does not change that. And if people let their fears get the better of them and kill off nuclear projects, they'll be getting rid of one of our best hopes for a solution to climate change and the general problem of power production.

I will grant that uranium extraction may still be a major issue; what to do with nuclear waste is as well. (I vote for shooting it into space.) But until we perfect solar energy (our efficiency with solar, in terms of sun captured versus usable energy output, is pretty sad, although the synthetic leaf may change all of that), nuclear is probably our safest and most efficient shot. Internet fear mongers: give it a rest, please.

Also, on the related topic of encouraging scientific literacy in the general populace, check out this rad magazine called Guru. You can download it for pretty much anything, or page through a Flash version right on your PC. It's a cute balance between lifestyle and science (like an intellectually stimulating, useful, and not-offensive-to-feminist-sensibilities version of Cosmo) and the first issue, at least, is free!

Monday, May 30, 2011

Music Monday

Day 7—A song that reminds you of a certain event.

I went to see Roger Waters during his tour of The Wall last October. Imagine seeing this live and in your face and with fireworks and fog machines. AWESOME

Music Monday

Day 6—A song that reminds you of somewhere.

I have a habit of finding new music and, if I really like the song, listening to it non-stop for days. Such was the case with this song, which I would listen to on my runs around my neighborhood in Uijeongbu for a week or two. Even now, upon hearing this song, I involuntarily picture the main drag of the 'dong: dentist, banks, bakery, car dealership, bus stop, electronics store, the under-construction elevated train line...

Here it is, coming up to it as I would from my apartment building:

And, the song:

Monday, May 23, 2011

Music Monday

Day 5—A song that reminds you of someone.

While there's lots of songs I associate with a variety of people and places, this is the one that has the strongest (and oldest) association.

My oldest and most frequented Internet haunt is Room With a Moose, a fan site dedicated to the long-canceled Invader Zim. This was back in high school, and after a couple years of message boards and chatrooms we decided to make our Internet friendship a meatspace reality. The first "MooseCon" happened in 2003, and to mark the occasion we all submitted music to one member, who picked out the best song or two from a person, put it on a CD, and make us a soundtrack. Another member did cover art, and thus began a tradition of twenty-first century collaborative versions of mixtapes.

This was one of my favorite songs from the first one, which even today is pure magic to listen to.

And happy post-Rapture, everyone!

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

The Prince's New Ruby

Rubies are the rarest out of all of the gemstones. (Rarer even than diamonds, which are rare only due to the mind-boggling efficiency and ruthlessness of diamond cartels like de Beers.) Technically speaking, rubies (also called corundum) are aluminum oxide, or Al2O3:

Trivalent chromium occasionally replaces the aluminum, which is what makes a ruby red.

But this is a rare, rare situation indeed. Rarer even than older societies realized. Many stones that their expert jewelers and gem-setters took to be rubies (aluminum oxide with chromium) were actually red spinels, part of the aluminum group of spinels: A2Al2O4 (A2 representing a magnesium, iron, or zinc cation).

You can't fault them for the confusion, as rubies and red spinels are often found in the very same deposits. Red spinels occur more often, as the rubies will only begin to form after the red spinels have exhausted all the magnesium in that particular location. It's extremely difficult to tell the difference between the two without the sophisticated equipment and methods we have today. As a result, many of the world's most famous imperial decorations include not rubies, but red spinels.

The most famous of these is perhaps the Black Prince's Ruby, in the Crown Jewels of England.

black princes ruby red spinel

The link has the entire dramatic and bloody life of the stone, but in a nutshell: it was first mined in what is now Tajikistan, in the great ruby and spinel mine of Kuh-i-Lal.

The ruby made its way westward and eventually surfaced in Spain, where it changed hands a few times. Eventually it went to Edward of Woodstock, also known as "The Black Prince," and with him it went to England.

The ruby had a few narrow scrapes in England: it was almost lost in a military campaign against the French; it was almost junked (along with the rest of the original crown jewels of England) by Oliver Cromwell; it was nearly stolen by Thomas Blood; it was nearly consumed by fire in 1841, and was a point of concern during Hitler's blitzkrieg bombing of London.

Nonetheless, it survives as a brilliant and beautiful specimen, not of a ruby, but of a red spinel. Today, spinels are easily synthesized in labs. Because of the variety of color with which one can infuse them, spinels are often used as an imitation gemstone: sapphires, emeralds, alexandrites, and others, in addition to rubies. It might therefore be tempting to turn your nose up at a red spinel as a second-rate imitation, but remember this: those spinels were good enough for English, Russian, and Persian royalty—are you so snobby as to be above royalty?

This raises an interesting ontological point, then: is a ruby simply and only the aluminum oxide specimen with chromium? When many of what we consider to be the preeminent specimens of "rubies" technically aren't? What's more important, the chemical definition or the cultural shorthand marker? Remember, the most distinguished jeweler in field the 18th century would consider your lab-grown red spinel a fine and outstanding ruby.

More About Rubies:

Rubies on MinDat.org
Rubies on Flickr

More About (Red) Spinels:

Spinels on Minerals.net
Red spinels on Flickr
Spinels Buyer's Guide

Monday, May 16, 2011

Music Monday

Day 04—A song that makes you sad.

I'm going to cheat and put two, because I can't pick between them. Both of them are by Harry Chapin. My parents both love Harry Chapin. As the story goes, they were planning on going to the free concert Harry was going to give in New York when he had a heart attack on the Long Island Expressway. I grew up more on his brother Tom's cheerful (if borderline "black-footed hippie") children's music; I have infinite respect for Harry's master songwriting, but it seems that everything he does just about breaks my heart, so I don't listen to him as much as I should.

There's another video floating around on YouTube of him on Soundstage, doing a live performance. He gives a nice little intro to it, giving credit to his wife, and then he also echoes my sentiments entirely: "And frankly, this song scares me to death."

And here's the Soundstage performace of "Mr. Tanner," with a good long introduction. Based on a real review from the New York times of a debut singer, though with poetic license taken. I still can't listen to it without a lump in my throat.

Friday, May 13, 2011

A Practical Application of Prime Numbers: Cicadas and Web Design

Cicadas, those loud and pesky vuvuzelas of the insect world, are renown for breeding in cyclical patterns. ("Cicada" is actually a Latin word meaning "buzzer." The more you know!)

Where I live, they come out in 17-year cycles. Other parts of the US it's every 13. Why the prime numbers?

Prime numbers help cicadas avoid predators. According to the article:
Research has shown that the population of creatures that eat cicadas — typically birds, spiders, wasps, fish and snakes — often have shorter 2 – 6 year cycles of boom and bust.

So, if our cicadas were to emerge, say, every 12 years, any predator that works in either 2, 3, 4 or 6 year cycles would be able to synchronize their boom years with this regular cicada feast. In fact, they’d probably name a public holiday after it called Cicada Day.

That’s not much fun if you’re a cicada.

On the other hand, if a brood of 17-​​year cicadas was unlucky enough to emerge during a bumper 3-​​year wasp season, it will be 51 years before that event occurs again. In the intervening years, our cicadas can happily emerge in their tens of thousands, completely overwhelm the local predator population, and be mostly left in peace.

Resourceful little guys, eh?

DesignFestival than takes this concept of using prime numbers to avoid synchronizing into regular patterns and applies it to designing backgrounds and images for web pages. That's cool too, and Alex Walker has more detail on that in the original article. I just can't get over the use of prime numbers to outwit predators!

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

WIP: Avogadro Choker

I'd start a "Work In Progress Wednesday" but I very rarely have a project so complex that it remains "in progress" for very long. I either finish something right away or lose all interest. ;)

WIP Wednesday: Brass and Jasper Avogadro Choker:

chemistry jewelry avogadro number

Monday, May 9, 2011

Music Monday

Day 3—A Song That Makes You Happy

There's lots of music that makes me happy, at least some of the time. This is just one piece of many.

I was (am) an orch dork; I studied piano and other instruments to varying degrees of competency. "Small c" classical will always be a favorite of mine, with a special nod to "big C" Classical (as in, the actual "classical period" that spans from about 1750 to about 1825). Something about the repetition and firm sense of structure appeals to me, I suppose. I once compared listening to Mozart to "defragging your brain."

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Experiments in the Baking (Cooking) Arts: Gluten-Free Shells & Cheese

I decided to try my hand at making a gluten-free dish for my boss, whose husband recently passed away. And what better food than pasta with vodka sauce—grown up mac and cheese?

I decided to go with a vodka sauce recipe from Giada de Laurentiis, using a pre-made marinara sauce instead of the tomato sauce recipe she provided. It's pretty straightforward. I used more tomato sauce than the recipe called for simply because I didn't want the sauce to be too rich—I don't really see my boss eat that much in terms of cream sauces, even if she sprinkles parmesan cheese on her salads and veggies. It still came out okay, though probably not as thick as it should have been.

To be honest, I breathed a big sigh of relief when it came out tasty. There have been some horrible recipes on the Food Network shows over the years (Sandra Lee's Kwanzaa Cake, for example, is a full-blown Shakespearian tragedy of a dessert) and I didn't know if this would be one of them. Fortunately, Giada de Laurentiis fares better than Sandra Lee, at least in this case.

I baked the whole shebang (uncovered) at 350* F for twenty minutes, which you don't really have to do, I guess. Preliminary taste test yielded positive results, and Lawyer Mom agrees that it smells delicious. Yum!

Monday, May 2, 2011

Music Monday

Day 2 — Your Least Favorite Song

Like the first day, it's hard for me to choose a stand-out least favorite because that will change with time and taste as well. For example, right now I want to drown puppies every time I hear Adam Lambert, but only because the adult contemporary station plays that godawful single on a daily (sometimes twice-daily) basis. So again, like the first day, I'm going with a song that has the longest track record of annoying me:

Not because of anything wrong with the song itself (even though it was intended as a B-side filler and the songwriters themselves thought it was mediocre), but because this single has the worst production quality I've ever heard, ever. I remember hating this song when I was single digits in age, because the tracks are so poorly mixed—and even now I could barely stand to listen to more than five seconds in the video up there, just to confirm that it still bothered me. You can barely hear Tommy James over the scratchy and mind-numbingly boring rhythm guitar part; it's Phil Spector's "wall of sound" technique gone horribly, horribly wrong.

Because otherwise I enjoy Tommy James and the Shondells. There is a staggering gulf in the distance of production quality between singles like "Crimson and Clover" or "Sweet Cherry Wine" and...this. According to James:

I don't think anybody can record a song that bad and make it sound good. It had to sound amateurish like that. I think if we'd fooled with it too much we'd have fouled it up.

No. You wouldn't have fouled it up. You would have made it tolerable. Of course, when you record it at a radio station, you take what you can get. But I can't deal with this song at all, and I think if I had been working during the summer when this came out, I would have wanted to rip my ears off.