RealClearScience Newton Blog

Why Does the U.S. Still Have So Many Lead Water Pipes?

Ross Pomeroy - October 17, 2019

Five years ago, the Flint Water Crisis woke Americans to the potential danger of lead in drinking water. Still, many onlookers might think that this is an isolated problem, endemic to a forlorn city long seen as an outlier  from the rest of America.

While it's true that America's drinking water is safe and generally well-managed, it's also true that tens of millions of Americans rely on public drinking water systems that utilize vast lines of aging lead pipes and maintain delicate systems which prevent that lead from leaching in. Should these safeguards fail, many people could find themselves drinking dangerously tainted water.

Today, we know lead to be a highly toxic metal, particularly dangerous to children, but more than a century ago, we knew it simply to be dense and durable yet also soft and malleable. Moreover, lead is nearly impervious to rust and doesn't decay from soil contact. These qualities made it perfect for smaller pipes called service lines that branch off from larger water mains and carry water to buildings, where they must twist and bend to get to sinks, showers, and toilets. Plumbers also became enamored with lead fittings and solder to rig piping within houses.

"Despite lead being more expensive than steel or other pipes, lead pipes were a better investment for municipalities and building owners because they lasted so much longer," author Seth M. Siegel described in his recently published book Troubled Water.

What If Yellowstone's Supervolcano Erupted?

Ross Pomeroy - October 10, 2019

With its spouting geysers, majestic mountains, awe-inspiring waterfalls, and panoramic views, Yellowstone National Park has the undeniable power to uplift.

But it also has an unparalleled potential to destroy.

Concealed beneath the park rests the Yellowstone Caldera, the largest supervolcano in North America. Each year, millions of visitors trek over a massive magma chamber that, according to the United States Geological Survey (USGS), stretches from 5 km to 17 km beneath the surface and is about 90 km long and about 40 km wide. A little deeper rests another chamber that's 4.5 times larger.

The Yellowstone supervolcano has unleashed three cataclysmic eruptions in the past 2.1 million years; all well before humans populated North America. The most recent was 640,000 years ago, which formed Yellowstone as we know it and spewed 240 cubic miles of ash, rock and pyroclastic materials over roughly half of what is now the United States.

Has Malaria Really Killed Half of Everyone Who Ever Lived?

Ross Pomeroy - October 3, 2019

Across Earth's history, our planet has been home to an estimated 109 billion human beings. And according to another oft-repeated factoid, half of all the people who have ever existed were killed by malaria, the worst mosquito-borne illness. Mosquitoes aren't merely annoyances, they are mass murderers.

But is this actually true?

There's little doubt that these hellacious insects are prodigious killers of humankind. The bloodsuckers spread all sorts of diseases – West Nile Virus, various kinds of Encephalitis, Dengue Fever, Yellow Fever, and Zika Virus, for example. However, the damage wrought by all of these diseases is piddling in comparison to malaria. Causing fever, tiredness, vomiting, headaches, and seizures, it struck 216 million people in 2016 alone, resulting in between 445,000 to 731,000 deaths. Believe it or not, that's an improvement over past years. In 2000, there were 262 million cases, resulting in at least 839,000 deaths.

Adding these devastating statistics together almost unequivocably places mosquitoes as the leading killer of human beings all time. But a historical death toll of roughly 54 billion - half of all humans ever? That seems a tad hard to believe, especially considering that malaria is presently responsible for perhaps 1% of all deaths worldwide each year.

What the Heck Is Terrence Howard Talking About?

Ross Pomeroy - September 26, 2019

Terrence Howard is an actor, and a fairly successful one. He's starred in acclaimed movies like Crash, Prisoners, Ray, and Iron Man. Most recently, he has been a regular on the wildly popular television show Empire, portraying music entertainment mogul Lucious Lyon.

Howard also apparently considers himself a revolutionary deep thinker. On Sunday, on the Emmy Awards red carpet, he explained to KTLA-5 television hosts why he had decided to quit acting after 37 years:

"I’ve made some discoveries in my own personal life with the science that, y’know, Pythagoras was searching for. I was able to open up the flower of life properly and find the real wave conjugations we’ve been looking for for 10,000 years. Why would I continue walking on water for tips when I’ve got an entire generation to teach a whole new world?"

Visibly flummoxed, KTLA’s Sam Rubin pressed Howard, "That’s a big remark. What do you intend to do?"

The Most Likely Way That Aliens Would Attack Us

Ross Pomeroy - September 24, 2019

Hollywood often depicts alien invasions as chaotic and apocalyptic. Who can forget the foreboding, heart-stopping sounds of the tripods in Steven Spielberg’s cinematic adaptation of H.G. Wells’ War of the Worlds, as they terrorized entire cities and vaporized frightened Earthlings with blazing lasers? And who didn’t enjoy watching fleets of fighter jets battling alien vessels in Independence Day after their enormous flying saucers blasted human landmarks to smithereens with ravenous firestorms?

The odds are good that Earth will never be attacked by extraterrestrials. After all, we haven’t even spotted any! Moreover, if an alien race were hostile, their likeliest form of assault would be nothing like in the movies. It would be far more subtle, but no less nefarious: a computer virus.

Astrophysicists Michael Hippke and John G. Learned considered this possibility in a paper published last year to the preprint server arXiv. Space is big, high-speed travel is difficult, and fleets of battleships are expensive, they reasoned, so the likeliest mode of attack for hypothetically malicious aliens would be code concealed in a message. Such code could contain an advanced A.I. that could sneak into computer systems and spread throughout the Internet, or a virus that would destabilize banking systems and electrical grids. Or perhaps, they suggested, an alien attack could simply be a panic-inducing prank, a statement like "We will make your sun go supernova tomorrow."

The only way to avoid this outcome is not to open a message from extraterrestrials, the cosmic equivalent of deleting a suspicious email.

The Biggest Problem With the American Diet

Ross Pomeroy - September 17, 2019

Ask Americans about what they think is the biggest problem with their diets and you'll probably hear a variety of responses...

"Too many calories." There's certainly a strong case for this. Americans consume an estimated 3,800 calories per day, roughly twice what is needed for sedentary adults.

"Processed foods." There's a growing case for this. Processed foods are often designed to be hyper-palatable, leading to massive overeating.

"Too many carbohydrates." There's less of a case for this. Processed carbohydrates and simple sugars are empty calories, but whole grain-based foods are quality additions to any diet.

The Fear That a Nuclear Bomb Could Ignite the Atmosphere

Ross Pomeroy - September 12, 2019

Early on in the Manhattan Project, the scientists taking part knew that they were pursuing a weapon that could give humankind the unprecedented ability to destroy itself. What they didn't know, however, was how this destruction might occur.

In 1942, Hungarian-American physicist Edward Teller, known now as "the father of the hydrogen bomb," entertained a devastating nightmare scenario: that an atomic bomb could ignite the atmosphere and the oceans. He reasoned that a nuclear fission bomb might create temperatures so extreme that it would cause the hydrogen atoms in the air and water to fuse together into helium, just like in our sun, generating a runaway reaction that would eventually engulf the globe, extinguishing all life and turning the Earth into a miniature star.

When Teller informed some of his colleagues of this possibility, he was greeted with both skepticism and fear. Hans Bethe immediately dismissed the idea, but according to author Pearl Buck, Nobel Prize-winning physicist Arthur Compton was so concerned that he told Robert Oppenheimer that if there were even the slightest chance of this "ultimate catastrophe" playing out, all work on the bomb should stop.

So a study was commissioned to explore the matter in detail, and six months before the Trinity test, the very first detonation of nuclear device, Edward Teller and Emil Konopinski announced their findings in a report with the ominous title "Ignition of the Atmosphere With Nuclear Bombs."

What Did Other Astronauts Say as They Took Their First Steps on the Moon?

Ross Pomeroy - September 5, 2019

"That's one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind."

We all know Neil Armstrong's famous first words as he took that pioneering step onto the surface of the Moon (or at least we think we do), but there were eleven other astronauts from five more Apollo missions who left their footprints in the lunar regolith. Surely they imparted some memorable words as well!

Apollo 15 Commander David Scott certainly endeavored to follow Armstrong's example.

"As I stand out here in the wonders of the unknown at Hadley, I sort of realize there's a fundamental truth to our nature," he said. "Man must explore. And this is exploration at its greatest."

John W. Young on the Moon during Apollo 16 mission. Charles M. Duke Jr. took this picture. The LM Orion is on the left. April 21, 1972

How Did Humans Survive Our Near Extinction?

Ross Pomeroy - August 27, 2019

Roughly 75,000 years ago, Indonesia exploded. A great supervolcano in Sumatra erupted, spewing an estimated 2,800 cubic kilometers of magma and rock into the air. Ash may have been deposited as far as the Indian Ocean, the South China Sea, and even Lake Malawi in Africa, perhaps farther. Gases ejected into the atmosphere may have caused global temperatures to drop by as much as 18 degrees for several years after the eruption, with a smaller degree of cooling continuing for a thousand years after.

The Toba supereruption, as this event is now called, was a hundred times larger than the eruption of Mount Tambora in 1815, the worst volcanic eruption on record, which caused the notorious "Year Without a Summer." Toba's infamous place in history is etched into the Earth itself as a crater lake (seen top). And as Toba scarred the Earth and altered global climates, it could have devastated life on Earth.

In his recently released book, End Times: A Brief Guide to the End of the World, science journalist Bryan Walsh summarized a 2009 research paper on Toba's potential climate effects.

"Precipitation would have fallen by 45 percent, and vegetation cover would have shrunk dramatically, with broadleaf evergreen trees and tropical deciduous trees dying out. Imagine a winter that lasted for years, like something out of Game of Thrones, shriveling life on land."

Why No Scientific Discovery Is Named After Its Discoverer

Ross Pomeroy - August 22, 2019

"Why No Scientific Discovery Is Named After Its Discoverer." This headline cannot be right... After all, there are so many examples that prove it to be wrong!

What about the Arrhenius equation, which describes the temperature dependence of reaction rates, named after Swedish chemist Svante Arrhenius? Or the Fibonacci numbers (1, 1, 2, 3, 5, 8, 13, 21, 34, 55...), named for the Italian mathematician Fibonacci? Or Dyson spheres, theoretical structures built around stars to harvest their energy, described in detail by American physicist Freeman Dyson?

Well, neither Arrhenius, Fibonacci, nor Dyson actually discovered those things. Arrhenius' equation was first proposed by the Dutch chemist J. H. van 't Hoff. The Fibonacci numbers were well-documented in Indian mathematics more than 1400 years before Fibonacci popularized them. And Freeman Dyson freely admits that he got the idea for "Dyson spheres" from British science fiction author Olaf Stapledon and merely it fleshed out and further popularized it.

These examples, and many dozens more, exemplify Stigler's law of eponymy, which holds that no scientific discovery is named after its original discoverer. And true to his own law, University of Chicago statistician Stephen Stigler credits his eponymous "discovery" to the eminent sociologist Robert K. Merton.

Can Humans Breathe Liquid?

Ross Pomeroy - August 15, 2019

Breathe it in – the air around you is roughly 78% nitrogen, 21% oxygen, and 1% argon. During your lifetime, you'll inhale and exhale this life-giving mixture 672,768,000 times. Give the air around you a big hug.

But have you ever wondered if you can breathe liquid? Sci-Fi stories have repeatedly portrayed this possibility, most famously in James Cameron's deep sea action flick The Abyss. Can it actually be done?

In fact, it can, and it already has.

Before we elucidate how, it may help to understand why we can't breathe in, say, water or milk. It has less to do with the physical differences between those substances and air, and far more to do with the fact that they don't contain enough dissolved oxygen. Our lungs operate by pulling oxygen out of the air, and they can't extract enough out of most liquids because most liquids simply don't contain very much. There are some, however, that soak up oxygen like a sponge...

Startling Facts About the Atomic Bombings of Hiroshima and Nagaski

Ross Pomeroy - August 6, 2019

Seventy-four years ago this week, the United States dropped two atomic bombs on the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, killing up to 226,000 people and leaving thousands more horribly disfigured by burns and radiation sickness. An estimated 2,000 more people would be diagnosed with radiation-linked cancer over the ensuing decades. The bombings and their terrifying effects forced Japan's surrender, effectively bringing World War II to a close.

A debate over whether or not the U.S. should have dropped those bombs persists to this day, but regardless of one's position in that discussion, we can all hope that these weapons will never be used again.

Here are five startling or surprising facts about the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki:

At the time this photo was made, smoke billowed 20,000 feet above Hiroshima while smoke from the burst of the first atomic bomb had spread over 10,000 feet on the target at the base of the rising column.

1. The destruction was sudden and swift. The atomic bombs dropped over Hiroshima and Nagasaki respectively released the energy equivalent to 15,000 and 20,000 tons of TNT. Almost all of that energy was released in the initial thirty seconds after detonation: 35% in the form of heat and light, 50% in a pressure shock wave, and 5% in nuclear radiation. The shock waves leveled almost all structures within a one mile radius from the bombs' detonation. People within 500 meters were instantly incinerated.

Four Debunked Religious "Miracles"

Ross Pomeroy - August 3, 2019

For thousands of years, people have been chalking up mysterious phenomena to religious "miracles," assuming these events to be the work of deities. Closer scrutiny invariably turns up a rational explanation, however. Here are four notable examples:

1. The "Weeping" Virgin Mary of Sicily. In 1953, a statue of the Virgin Mary in a couple's house in Syracuse, Sicily apparently started shedding human tears. The Roman Catholic Church later recognized the weeping as a genuine miracle, swiftly endowing the statue with celebrity status. Thousands flocked to see it. This fame persisted relatively unquestioned until 1995, when  Dr. Luigi Garlaschelli, a chemistry researcher at the University of Pavia, debunked the miracle. He found that the plaster statue readily absorbs water and can leak it out through scratches in the outer glazing. The Church later rescinded the miracle. Weeping or bleeding statues are very common "miracles," with dozens having been reported around the world.

Sundogs in Fargo, North Dakota. Taken February 18th, 2009.

2. The Sun Miracle of Fatima. In May 1917 in Fatima, Portugal, three children claimed to have encountered the Virgin Mary out in the countryside, who told them she would return on the thirteenth day over the next few months. Their tale grew in popularity, culminating with an estimated 70,000 people showing up at the site on October 13th, waiting for a miracle. On that day, the Virgin Mary "appeared", but only to the children – very suspicious. However, the other onlookers witnessed what has been called a "sun miracle". As investigator Joe Nickell recounted:

"Not everyone reported the same thing; some present claimed they saw the sun dance around the heavens; others said the sun zoomed toward Earth in a zigzag motion that caused them to fear that it might collide with our planet (or, more likely, burn it up). Some people reported seeing brilliant colors spin out of the sun in a psychedelic, pinwheel pattern, and thousands of others present didn't see anything unusual at all."

The Biggest Myth About Muscle "Burn" and Soreness

Ross Pomeroy - July 30, 2019

Most of us have, at one time or another, "felt the burn" during exercise, the point when our strained muscles cry out in agony and plead with us to pause for a rest. The reason for this unpleasant sensation is a buildup of lactic acid, conventional wisdom says. But though supplement makers, health magazines, and personal trainers have parroted this factoid for decades, it's actually incorrect!

Making this myth even more of a head-scratcher is the fact that studies in the scientific literature have been debunking it since the 1970s. In one study, when scientists injected lactic acid directly into muscles, they found no signs that it actually boosted fatigue.

As it turns out, lactic acid, and its far more common conjugate base, lactate, are actually quite useful substances to the body. Produced as a byproduct of the metabolic processes that power muscles, lactate gets rapidly recycled to produce even more fuel for exercising muscles, and the balance is sent to the liver to be converted into glucose, which can also be used to make more energy.

Moreover, lactic acid is not involved with delayed onset muscle soreness, or DOMS, the soreness that can hobble exercisers for days after a strenuous bout of physical activity. Numerous studies have dismantled this hypothesis, but the most convincing was published in 1983. Researchers had subjects run on a treadmill for 45 minutes on a level incline as well as a slight decline. They then assessed participants' soreness and lactic acid levels at set intervals for the following 72 hours.

Is Ideology Ruining Sex Science ?

Ross Pomeroy - July 27, 2019

On November 10, 2018, a controversy erupted in the field of sex science.

Kevin Hsu, a graduate student in psychology at the University of Northwestern, was on the podium at the annual meeting of the Society for the Scientific Study of Sexuality (SSSS) in Montreal. Hsu was being awarded the Ira and Harriet Reiss Theory Award for “the best social science article, chapter, or book published in the previous year in which theoretical explanations of human sexual attitudes and behaviors are developed.” He was in the midst of explaining the research for which he garnered the prize, a study of men attracted to trans-women who have not had vaginoplasty but have penises, when he was interrupted by an attendee, Christine Milrod, a sex therapist and independent researcher from Los Angeles. 

Milrod took umbrage with Hsu's presentation, particularly Hsu's finding that men attracted to trans-women and men with gender dysphoria – distress a person feels due to their birth-assigned sex and gender not matching their gender identity – may be sexually aroused by the notion of being a woman, termed autogynephilia. Many dislike the notion of autogynephilia because they feel it insults and degrades trans-women by suggesting that their transition from male to female was to fulfill a sexual fetish.

Touting this belief, Milrod repeatedly and aggressively shouted down Hsu at the conference, despite being urged by the moderator and audience members to let Hsu speak.

After Microbes Die, What Happens to Their Corpses?

Ross Pomeroy - July 22, 2019

When a deceased whale washes up onshore or a deer dies in the woods, decomposers rush in to clean up the remains. Specifically, fungi and bacteria absorb the available nutrients via chemical and biological means, breaking down the creature's matter in the process. But what decomposes these microscopic decomposers?

Redirecting this question closer to home, there are as many as a trillion bacteria inhabiting the skin of an adult human. These single-celled microorganisms don't live forever, of course, so what happens to their corpses? Clearly, they don't pile up over the years, gradually transforming humans into walking and talking reservoirs of bacterial husks. So where do they go?

The answer: They get recycled. Unlike larger organisms, when single-celled organisms die, they usually undergo a process called lysis, in which the cell membrane disintegrates. Once ruptured, the bacterium's innards – the cytoplasm, ribosomes, and DNA – all spill out. Where once there was a bacterium, there is now a pile of goo composed of precious materials like amino acids, DNA, lipids, and proteins – a veritable feast! Nearby bacteria swoop in to consume it.

Microbiologist James Weiss captured a single-celled microbe called Blepharisma lysing in spectacular detail.

Why It's Probably Better for the Planet to Throw Plastic in the Trash

Ross Pomeroy - July 15, 2019

Millions of Americans dutifully fill their recycling bins each week, motivated by the knowledge that they're doing something good for the environment. But little do they know, there's a recycling crisis unfolding.

Starting as early as 2017, municipalities across the country, from Douglas County, Oregon to Nogales, Arizona to Broadway, Virginia, to Franklin, New Hampshire, began landfilling many recyclables or simply canceling their recycling programs altogether. The impetus for this disconcerting change? China.

For decades, the country was content to accept, process, and transform recycled materials from across the globe, but no longer. In July 2017, the government announced new policies that would effectively ban imports of most recyclables, particularly plastics. They went into effect last March. Considering that China has imported a cumulative 45% of plastic waste since 1992, this is a huge deal.

Where once China offered a market for the world's plastic bottles, tubs, and other packaging to be turned into – for example – polyester clothing, now, that market is gone. This means that recycling costs have skyrocketed. A few years ago, Franklin, New Hampsire could sell recyclables for $6 per ton. Now, it costs the town $125 per ton to recycle that same stuff!

Modern Life May Be Shrinking the Hippocampus. Here's How to Grow It

Ross Pomeroy - July 11, 2019

Locked away within the recesses of your brain is the seahorse-sized hippocampus. Its two interlocking parts are small relative to the rest of the brain, but they perform outsized roles in cognitive function. Decades of research have revealed the hippocampus to regulate impulses and self-control, memory of times, places, and associated emotions, as well as spatial memory and navigation. Put more simply, the hippocampus is a pivotal determinant in how we interact with and remember the world around us. Moreover, it's extremely plastic, meaning that it changes throughout life depending on factors like environmental stimuli, damage, learning, and use.

That's why Véronique Bohbot, a researcher at the Douglas Mental Health University Institute and an associate professor in the department of Psychiatry at McGill University, is mildly concerned with what she sees as a growing trend of hippocampal disuse. As Bohbot told journalist M.R. O'Connor for O'Connor's new book Wayfinding: The Science and Mystery of How Humans Navigate the World , "the sedentary, habitual, and technology-dependent conditions of modern living today are changing how children and adults use their brains."

She continued:

"People who have shrunk hippocampus are more at risk for PTSD, Alzheimer's, schizophrenia, and depression. For a long time we thought the disease causes shrinkage in the hippocampus. But studies show that the shrunk hippocampus can be there before the disease."

The 3 Biggest Myths About Nuclear Power

Ross Pomeroy - July 2, 2019

Earlier this year, an enormous confinement structure was completed and commissioned to seal away the highly radioactive ruins of Chernobyl's number four nuclear reactor, a permanent reminder of the awesome – and potentially terrible – power of nuclear energy.  More recently, Home Box Office (HBO) broadcast an even more penetrating reminder – the network's television show Chernobyl garnered rave reviews and enthralled a wide audience. Nuclear power has once again been thrust to the forefront of society's collective thoughts.

A memorial sign to builders who made the first hastily constructed sarcophagus over the 4th reactor destroyed in the 1986 fatal explosion stands at the Chernobyl nuclear plant, in Chernobyl, Ukraine, Friday, April 20, 2018. April 26 marks the 32nd anniversary of the Chernobyl nuclear disaster. A reactor at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant exploded on April 26, 1986, leading to an explosion and the subsequent fire spewed a radioactive plume over much of northern Europe. (AP Photo/Efrem Lukatsky)

That makes this a great opportunity to shine the light of evidence on an issue clouded by confusion. For its rare, yet resonating disasters, nuclear energy prompts fear. But is that fear warranted?

Here are three common myths about nuclear power:

Myth #1. Nuclear is dangerous. In the minds of many, the examples of Three Mile Island, Fukushima-Daiichi, and Chernobyl, are enough to cement this statement as fact. But a full and rational examination of nuclear's operational history swiftly dispels this common myth. As a variety of different analyses have shown, even when you factor in nuclear's memorable accidents, it is vastly safer than any fossil fuel energy source. A NASA study in 2013 reported that "nuclear power prevented an average of over 1.8 million net deaths worldwide between 1971-2009" by displacing fossil fuel-based power stations and their associated dangers for miners, workers, and the general public. Nuclear may even be safer than renewable energy sources like wind and solar, as it reduces the need for hazardous mining.

Can Fish Survive in Milk?

Ross Pomeroy - June 19, 2019

Fish live in water, and skim milk is roughly 90.4% water, so could fish live, or at least respire, in milk?

A curious Redditor recently posed this simple, yet thought-provoking question to the AskScience subreddit. The simple answer is "no," but the nuanced response sheds light on how fish, and all other organisms, function.

Fish have evolved over many millions of years to survive in water with a certain amount of dissolved oxygen, acidity, and other trace molecules. So, though skim milk is nine-tenths water, it still would be entirely insufficient to support a fish for long. The differences in acidity and dissolved oxygen, not to mention all of the fat, proteins, carbohydrates, and other minerals in the milk that might clog the creature's gills, would quickly spell trouble. The animal would likely die within minutes, if not sooner.

If you think about it, skim milk is essentially just heavily polluted water. And even relatively mild pollution can bring about massive fish kills.

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