Thursday, June 30, 2011

This Just In: SCIENCE!

Maybe I'm biased because of my job, but I do think that good science writing and science journalism is integral to the scientific process. The public wants and needs to know about what's happening in science including everything from the latest ground-breaking discoveries to the most divisive controversies. The more people understand how the universe works and what unanswered questions remain, the more people will want to find those answers. This is why a vibrant science press corps is so vital.

Fortunately, other people feel the same way I do. Over 700 of the world's top science journalists from 90 countries just finished meeting at the World Conference of Science Journalists in Doha, Qatar.

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Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Saturn struts its stuff

Why does Saturn intoxicate us so? Its rings are beautiful and its largest moon is like a little planet of its own. Here's a music video featuring our favorite gas giant that will make your heart pitter-patter a little faster. As if your love affair with Saturn needed more kindling...

CASSINI MISSION from Chris Abbas on Vimeo.

The photos from this music video that appeared on NASA's Astronomy Picture of the Day were compiled from images taken by the Cassini spacecraft - a space-based detective charged with full-time surveillance of Saturn and its many moons.

Cassini was launched in October 1997 and has been in orbit around Saturn for 7 years this Friday. Sadly, Cassini is scheduled for a self-destruct in 2017, when it will crash into Saturn. Until then, Cassini will hopefully continue to send back more beautiful (and informative) images of the beloved, ringed planet.
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Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Baby Star Blasts Jets of Water Into Space

Shooting water from the poles is part of birth process for new star.

Astronomers have found a nascent star 750 light years from earth that shoots colossal jets of water -- a cosmic fire hose -- out its poles in bullet-like pulses.

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Monday, June 27, 2011

Los Conchas fire nears Los Alamos Natl. Lab.

As of a 12:00 p.m. MDT press conference near Los Alamos, N.M., the Los Conchas fire that threatens the Los Alamos National Laboratory (LANL) in northern New Mexico still had not crossed over into lab property, though it was getting close.

[Timelapse video of the Las Conchas Fire near Los Alamos National Laboratory, filmed June 26. Video by Michael Zeiler.]

"Our priority is to protect this national asset," a lab spokesman said during the press conference streamed live on the web by local TV stations.

"If [the fire] spots on the lab," a Los Alamos County fire department spokesman said, "we'll get really aggressive about putting it out." During a helicopter ride this morning, the spokesman had seen the fire burning near state highway 4 - part of the lab's southern border - and guessed that the fire was a mere 50 feet from lab property.
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Friday, June 24, 2011

Lytro camera records the direction of light

Cameras, both old-school and digital, record light to produce an image. One thing they don't do, however, is record where the light is coming from, until now...

A new camera by a company called Lytro records not only the light of a scene, but also where the light is coming from, bouncing off of people's faces, flower petals, windows, etc. This is called capturing the light field.

Here is an explanation from the Lytro web site about how it works:

Recording light fields requires an innovative, entirely new kind of sensor called a light field sensor. The light field sensor captures the color, intensity and vector direction of the rays of light. This directional information is completely lost with traditional camera sensors, which simply add up all the light rays and record them as a single amount of light.

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Thursday, June 23, 2011

Beware the Evil Scientists

There are plenty of evil scientists in the movies, but Janette Sherman and Joseph Mangano are examples of at least two scientists who have gone bad in real life.

I've worked in science and with scientists my whole adult life. Most scientists are normal folk - some are smart and some stupid, some are lazy and some diligent, many are tall and many are short. Few, however, are evil. At least, I've never met an evil scientist as far as I know. Sadly, there a definitely some out there who I feel truly deserve the evil scientist label.

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Wednesday, June 22, 2011

How some birds keep their eyes on the prize

Hovering birds seem fairly stationary to the naked eye when in fact their bodies move around violently. Though scientists accept that birds’ nervous and musculoskeletal systems keep their eyes steady when hovering, engineers from National Taiwan University say that isn’t the whole story.

[High-speed video of Japanese white-eyes performing hovering flight. Video credit: Jian-Yuan Su, Shang-Chieh Ting, Yu-Hung Chang, and Jing-Tang Yang, National Taiwan Univ.]

Birds rely on steady eyes to help them see and avoid predators and to help them find food. When hovering, a bird’s body moves around quite a lot, and yet its eyes stay nearly fixed. The engineers in Taiwan said that in addition to their nervous and musculoskeletal systems, birds’ body movements also contribute to their steady gazes on both predators and prey.

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Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Shipping Sensor Goes to Work for Climate Science

A sensor developed by FedEx may help increase the rigor of measurements for climate scientists.

A device the size of a deck of playing cards that can track temperature, humidity, light and barometric pressure is moving from the shipping world to the realm of research to help develop a better understanding of how the climate is changing.

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Monday, June 20, 2011

Hold the wee, please.

A man was caught on camera urinating in a reservoir in Mount Tabor City Park in Portland, Ore. around 1:30 a.m. on Wednesday. In response, the Portland Water Bureau decided to drain the 7.8 million-gallon open reservoir – one of the city’s water sources – at a cost of nearly $36,000.

[Mount Tabor Reservoir. Photo by Eaaumi.]

David Shaff, the bureau’s administrator, told Time magazine that the bureau decided to drain the reservoir out of concern that residents would avoid drinking tap water.

There are three things that would make a person scratch their head at this. First off, urine is more or less chemically sterile and really no cause for concern, though of course, the thought of drinking someone else’s byproduct is not immediately appetizing. (Yet astronauts do it.)

Second, since the reservoir is open, birds and animals are free to do the same thing as this Oregonian did and likely do it every day.

Third, we know that the average person would encounter very little of this man’s wee.
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Thursday, June 16, 2011

Fun with Surface Tension

There's a new physicist in our office - a summer intern named Moriel. Over her first few days in the office, Moriel gave us each one of her unique business cards, unique because they include a built-in physics experiment. Impressive. Most impressive. So naturally, we had to try them out...

[Moriel's business card includes a physics experiment on the back!]

The card itself folds into a rudimentary boat. Just fold up along the two dotted lines to form the bow and you're ready for a race! The cards are better than just a water version of a paper airplane, though. They're business card jet skies! All you need is some dish soap:

[The business cards fold to become tiny water racers.]

And voila! Here's a video of our boat race between a soap-powered business card and a card without any propellant.

As you can see, the business card with dish soap on the stern (the one on top) took off like a, well, jet while the plain paper one was still until it was pushed aside in the wake*. Why does this happen?
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Dance of the Levitron

It's a bit of a mystery just who Mr. Kent is. His website is, to say the least, a bit chaotic and unclear. It appears that he's a chemistry teacher, perhaps at Grant Park High in Manitoba, or perhaps not (there's no one named Mr. Kent on the staff list).

I suppose it doesn't really matter - I just happen to dig his video. It's a little silly, a little artsy, a little physicsy, and generally fun, especially when he swallows the demo.

Now that I think about it, Mr. Kent kind of reminds me of my high school chem teacher, who we called Mr. K (because we couldn't pronounce his real Slavic name). That's cool because I recall that Mr. K did a lot more to inspire me to study physics than my actual high school physics teacher did.

Keep up the good work, Mr. Kent, whoever you are.

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Wednesday, June 15, 2011

The Graphite Guitar

If you live in a place where it’s cool and dry, you might not worry about your guitar being damaged or affected by the elements. If, however, you live in a place where the weather varies from hot to cold and dry to humid, or if you travel a lot, the weather may be more of a factor for your stringed instrument. For one former physicist, creating a guitar that could withstand the elements became a passion.

[The carbon fiber is clearly visible on this RainSong graphite guitar's soundboard.]

John Decker, who has doctorate in physics from Cambridge University, spent 10 years developing the graphite guitar - an acoustic guitar made of carbon fiber and epoxy resin which looks (and sounds) as good as the name implies. He started a company called RainSong Graphite Guitars that produces about 700 all-composite guitars a year.

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Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Time to Get Your Wrinklon

I've never bought curtains. As far as I can tell, they always come with the house, apartment or condo I move into. On one occasion or another, a girlfriend or roommate of mine may have put in new curtains, but I prefer to attribute such interior design changes to magical curtain fairies. I guess what I'm trying to say is curtain shopping has never really interested me . . . at all . . . ever. Until today, that it is.

The one thing that seems to have been enough to help me overcome my passionate disinterest in curtains is a new concept introduced in a paper published in Physical Review Letters a few weeks ago. In case you don't read PRL, I would like to present to you the wrinklon.

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Monday, June 13, 2011

The solar system: It's delicious

My darling mother sent me a clipping from Parade magazine in which Marilyn vos Savant of "Ask Marilyn" described the solar system using fruits and vegetables:

If the sun were a pumpkin about a foot wide, Mercury would be a tomato seed 50 feet away; Venus, a pea 75 feet away; Earth, a pea 100 feet away; Mars, a little raisin 175 feet away; Jupiter, an apple 550 feet away; Saturn, a peach 1,025 feet away; Uranus, a plum 2,050 feet away; and Neptune, a plum 3,225 feet away. Pluto stays in the fridge.
Poor Pluto.

[A bowl full of Earths. Photo by Dunemaire.]

Though this heart-healthy analogy of the solar system was terrific at relating the size of the planets and our sun, it didn't do much to help me understand the distance between the planets. Here, my colleague and former PhysicsBuzz contributor Quantum came to the rescue with this solar system calculator.

"I wonder if I could fit the whole solar system onto a tennis court," I thought.
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Friday, June 10, 2011

APS Presidents: 1899-1925

The American Physical Society has had 97 presidents since its inception in 1899. Some of them include big-name physicists familiar in households and classrooms while others retain more localized fame. All, however, were contributors to science. Here's a look - the first part in an ongoing series - at some of APS' former presidents from the last century.

1899 - Henry Augustus Rowland
Distinction: First president of the American Physical Society
Known for: Research on the diffraction of light
Interesting Facts: He was the first chair of physics at Johns Hopkins University, in Baltimore, MD and his house in Baltimore has been designated a U.S. National Historic Landmark

1901 - Albert Abraham Michelson
Distinction: Nobel Laureate in physics - He was the first American to receive the Nobel Prize in science
Known for: Work on measuring the speed of light and the Michelson-Morley experiment that showed evidence of the luminiferous aether, the medium through which light propagates
Interesting Facts: A graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy, Michelson was an instructor of physics and chemistry there; A sidewalk monument at the Academy shows the path of one of Michelson's experiments which measured the speed of light
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Thursday, June 09, 2011

Tornado Forecasting Pushes Scientific Limits

Predicting severe storms requires experience, technology -- and a lot of math.

Ernest Fawbush and Robert Miller made the first ever tornado forecast in March of 1948 using only paper, pencil, and a World War II-era radar -- but tornado forecasting has changed dramatically since that initial forecast 63 years ago.

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Wednesday, June 08, 2011

A different kind of Fermi problem

He's the Nobel Laureate who helped develop the world's first nuclear reactor. He, along with J. Robert Oppenheimer, is known as the father of the atomic bomb. He is also the former American Physical Society president we honor with our occasional Fermi Problem Friday posts. There's a national laboratory (Fermilab) and even an element on the periodic table (fermium) named after him. So what does a man with such credentials leave behind in a time capsule? Nothing too exciting, it turns out.

University of Chicago Opens Enrico Fermi Time Capsule,

Enrico Fermi, the Italian-born physicist who helped develop quantum theory, nuclear physics, particle physics and statistical mechanics, along with University of Chicago President Robert Hutchins, sealed a time capsule behind a cornerstone of the University's Research Institutes building on June 21, 1949. Sixty-two years later, on June 2, former acquaintances of the prominent scientist and several physics big wigs gathered among a crowd of 200 to see the capsule opened.

[Robert Fefferman (left), Riccardo Levi-Setti and Roger Hildebrand remove items from Fermi's time capsule. Levi-Setti and Hildebrand both knew the famed scientist. University of Chicago photo by Jason Smith.]

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Tuesday, June 07, 2011

'Feeling' Sound

The sense of hearing and touch may have evolved together.

Lying in bed at night, one of the worst sounds a person can hear is the buzz of a nearby mosquito.

Concentrating on the buzzing might keep you from falling asleep, but it also seems to heighten the awareness of your skin to that inevitable moment when the critter actually lands. Scientists have now gathered information about why our sense of touch can be influenced by our sense of hearing.

The five known senses -- hearing, vision, taste, touch, and smell -- each have their corresponding sensory organs: ears, eyes, taste buds, skin, and olfactory bulb, respectively. They each possess a corresponding part of the brain where the incoming sensory information is processed and later passed along to our conscious mind.

Scientists have long suspected, however, that some of these sensory signals in the brain might have some circuits in common or might otherwise be related. Researchers can test these ideas with an array of tests and direct imaging of the brain. A session on this subject was held during a recent meeting of the Acoustical Society of America in Seattle.

One of the speakers, scientist Jeffrey M. Yau from Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, described experiments in which participants wearing headphones listened to sounds at two particular frequencies and were asked to tell which was at a higher pitch. Meanwhile, the participants' fingers were in contact with pads that were fed vibrations, also at several frequencies.

The ability of subjects to tell sounds apart was affected by the presence of fingertip vibrations, and vice versa.

"The interesting result is that audition and touch interact bi-directionally in frequency perception," Yau said. "This suggests that the brain is combining this information."

When perceiving the intensity of the sound or vibrations, rather than the frequency, the interaction between hearing and touch was not reciprocal.

"We hear with our ears and feel with our skin, but our brains may combine this information in specific ways," Yau said. "Frequency information from the two senses appears to be always combined."

Perception of intensity -- on the other hand -- doesn't always get a boost by combining sound and touch information.

Yau said that one practical benefit of his research might be the design of better headphones to be worn in noisy environments, such as airplane cockpits, and the design of better feedback from smartphones.

Psychology professor Tony Ro from The City College of New York, who also spoke at the meeting, monitored people hearing sounds over headphones and feeling vibrations through their hands and feet. Ro and his colleagues took pictures of the participants' brains during the experiment using a variety of equipment including electroencephalography and MRIs in order to measure the sensory responsiveness of the participants -- and, at the same time -- see which parts of their brains were active while responding to sound and touch stimulus.

Like the Johns Hopkins tests, Ro's tests see a connection between hearing and touching.

"We find in most of our experiments that sounds affect the way we feel, and can produce feeling sensations even when no touch was presented to them," Ro said.

Does that mean that in some sense we can "feel" with our ears or "listen" with our fingertips?

"On an abstract level we may feel with our ears, but most of this crossing of the senses, or 'synesthesia,' is actually happening in our brain rather than in the sensing organs like our ears or skin," Ro said.

Ro hopes that his studies can be used to develop sensory substitution techniques that help those who have impairments in one or more of their senses.

"I think that these results strongly suggest that hearing and feeling have the same underlying physical and neural underpinnings," Ro said. "Not only do the two senses use similar processing mechanisms in the body and in the brain, but our results imply that hearing actually evolved out of the sense of touch. Such findings could help develop therapies for the hearing and visually impaired by substituting touch sensations for lost hearing and vision and could aid rehabilitation after brain damage."

Phillip F. Schewe
Inside Science News Service

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Monday, June 06, 2011

Charge your phone, charge your car

While waiting to board a flight last week, I browsed the airport's newspaper/souvenir shop, selecting the June 2011 issue of Automobile magazine for my in-flight entertainment. This article about the experimental Rolls-Royce 102EX Phantom experimental electric car caught my eye.

[A Rolls-Royce Phantom in 2006; Rolls used the Phantom design in their experimental electric car, the 102EX. Photo credit: Brett Weinstein.]

The electric Rolls is cool enough on its own, but what makes it even cooler is the way its battery is charged. The car's 71 kWh lithium-ion battery (perhaps the biggest ever used in a family car, according to the manufacturer) can be charged wirelessly via an induction-charging plate mounted on the bottom of the car. To charge the car, the driver simply pulls into his or her garage, parking directly over the re-charging plate that's mounted to the garage floor.

Inductive charging is already used to charge things like iPhones, mp3 players, game controllers and electric toothbrushes. But how does it work?

[Funny physics-related Powermat commercial.]

Inductive charging takes advantage of the electromagnetic (EM) field, one of the fundamental forces of nature along with gravity, the strong interaction and weak interaction. When electricity passes through a wire, it creates a magnetic field surrounding the wire. Winding the wire into coils makes a larger magnetic field.

Charging mats, like the Powermat or the Getpowerpad pictured at right, contain a series of coils embedded in the mat. The coils produce an electromagnetic field that's strong enough to charge electronics but too weak to hurt people.

When you put a free-floating coil near the coils in the pad, the magnetic field induces a current in the free-floating coil that is used to charge a battery.
For electronics that don't have a coil embedded, an adapter - like the Getpowerpad one attached to an iPhone at left - connects a coil to an object's battery.

For the Rolls, charging the battery completely via induction takes about 20 hours (yikes!), about the same as charging it the old-fashioned way (can we say that yet?) - via the plug. That charge gives the 389 horsepower luxury behemoth a range of 125 miles - not as good as the average bear but enough to get you to work and back.

The only problem is that it will take more than one night's repose to recharge the thing.
Oh well, just take the Rolls to work every other day.

Perhaps when you and I are old and gray, we'll be free of wires. Re-charging mats will be standard in our garage floors and kitchen counter tops and EM coils will be embedded in all major roadways, charging cars on the go. But by then, of course, the robots will have taken over and we'll no longer need cars. But I digress...

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Thursday, June 02, 2011

Magnets Might Help Prevent Heart Attacks

For people at risk of a heart attack or stroke, the common preventative treatment is to take aspirin or another blood-thinning medicine. With these medicines, though, can come unwanted side-effects, like ulcers. Now two physicists have come up with a mechanical treatment that might offer an alternative to the traditional medicinal one.

[Applying a magnetic field to blood causes red blood cells to form links that help blood flow better. Photo credit: R. Tao and K. Huang, PRE.]

Blood, like the motor oil in a car’s engine, has an ideal viscosity, or thickness, that keeps the body’s circulatory system running smoothly. When a person’s blood is too viscous (too thick and sticky) his or her blood vessels build up more plaque leading to a greater risk of heart attack. Finding a way to decrease the blood’s viscosity, by taking aspirin for example, reduces those risks. The problem with aspirin, though, is that it may cause as much harm as it does help.

Rongjia Tao, chair of the Department of Physics at Temple University, and his former student have found a mechanical alternative to aspirin to thin highly viscous blood.

“It’s quite simple,” Tao said of the technique. He uses a magnetic field to rearrange a person’s red blood cells, streamlining blood that is too thick. A magnetic field of 1.3 Tesla (about the same as an MRI – magnetic resonance imaging - machine) applied to blood for about one minute can reduce its viscosity by 20 to 30 percent.

It works because red blood cells contain iron. “Iron responds to magnetic fields very well,” said Tao’s former student, Ke “Colin” Huang who is now a medical physics resident in the Department of Radiation Oncology at the University of Michigan.

Huang and Tao tested the technique on human blood samples acquired from Temple University. Once a sample arrived at the lab, it was kept refrigerated until the experiment started. Then, a water bath brought the sample up to human temperature. A huge magnet, weighing near a thousand pounds, created a magnetic field that was applied to the sample with the magnetic field pointed in the blood flow direction.

When applied, the magnetic field polarizes the red blood cells causing them to link together in short chains. Because the field is aligned to the blood flow direction, the chains also form in the same direction, streamlining the movement of the blood. Additionally, because the chains are larger than the single blood cells, they tend to flow down the center of the tube reducing the friction against the walls of the blood vessels. The combined effects reduce the viscosity of the blood, helping it to flow more freely.

[This series of images shows (a) red blood cells randomly distributed before the magnetic field is applied, (b) the formation of short red blood cell chains after a magnetic field was applied for one minute and (c) the formation of long red blood cell chains after a magnetic field was applied for 12 minutes. Photo credit: R. Tao and K. Huang, PRE.]

After a lab sample was exposed to the magnetic field for anywhere from one to twelve minutes Tao and Huang compared the blood’s post-test viscosity to its original value. Multiple experiments showed a reduction in blood viscosity thanks to the magnetic field. The blood samples do, however, slowly return to their original viscosities after a few hours, but the process, the researchers said, is repeatable.

Unlike the magnets found on a refrigerator door, the magnet used in this technique is not a permanent magnet but instead a coil. Electrical current going through the coil turns it into an electromagnet capable of producing a very high magnetic field. The same coil-type magnet is found in MRI machines which use magnetic fields to image the inside of the body.

Just like in an MRI, the magnet Tao and Huang used does not have the ionizing radiation, like that found in CT scans, which can be harmful to the body. The technique also does not interfere with the normal oxygen delivery and waste removal function of the red blood cells, the researchers said, and is not dependent on blood type.

Tao is still doing research on the technique and hopes that clinical trials will soon follow. Tao and Huang’s research will appear in Physical Review E.

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Wednesday, June 01, 2011

Guess WHO got the cell phone cancer issue wrong . . .

That's right, WHO (the World Health Organization) decided to throw science to the wind and declare cell phones a cancer risk comparable to lead, car exhaust and chloroform. I have to wonder, have they suddenly lost their minds?

Read this part very slowly - there's no evidence that cell phones are carcinogenic.

There are two reasons I say this with such confidence:

1. The National Cancer Institute says there's no clear evidence that cell phones cause cancer.

In fact, they announced the most comprehensive analysis of the issue ever - less than 2 weeks ago - making this very point!

To quote the NCI, "Research studies have not shown a consistent link between cell phone use and cancer. A large international study (Interphone) published in 2010 found that, overall, cell phone users have no increased risk for two of the most common types of brain tumo - glioma and meningioma. For the small proportion of study participants who reported spending the most total time on cell phone calls there was some increased risk of glioma, but the researchers considered this finding inconclusive."

Now you may find terms like "inconclusive" less than satisfying, but bear in mind that the WHO isn't saying that they don't know if cell phones are dangerous. They're equating cell phones to things we know to be dangerous, despite the fact that there's no significant science backing up the cell phone/cancer claims.

2. Physics tells us that cell phone emissions can't cause cancer.

The type of signals that cell phones produce of made of photons. Those photons are too low in energy to damage your DNA. Put another way, the photons from a cell phone are simply too big to interact with DNA. If they can't affect your DNA, they can't cause cancer.

My favorite physics curmudgeon, Bob Park, has explained this much better than I could ever hope to, and he's done so many, many times. I'll say this, if you can pass high school physics, then you should be able to understand Bob's explanations about why cell phone radiation doesn't cause cancer. (Even if you failed physics, but can read this sentence, you should be able to understand the National Cancer Institute summary of the research data.)

Yes, cell phones get warm. Yes, they can transfer that warmth to your head. But your pillow gets warm too. You probably prefer a warm shower over a cold one. And when you were a baby, you probably snuggled against the warmth of your momma or daddy. None of these things cause cancer because your body is great at whisking away excess warmth to keep most of you, and especially your brain, at a very constant temperature. Heat has been shown to damage DNA in tissue - when you cook it - but you would be screaming in pain long before you'd have to worry about heat-induced DNA damage. The last I checked, my cell phone was nowhere near red hot.

So, what's the harm in the WHO's absurd statements? Even if the evidence for cell phone induced cancer is essentially non-existent, why should I care? If you want to wrap your head in aluminum foil to protect yourself from cell tower emissions, or alien voices, or micrometeorites, what business is it of mine?

The primary problem I have with this whole issue is that ignorance and stupidity suck. The people who should know better at the WHO are being stupid, and it resonates with the ignorant people who rely on the WHO for good information.

I'm particularly upset because I readily admit that I'm ignorant about so many other medical things that I would have considered consulting the WHO about. But when I see the WHO make an idiotic proclamation like this, I have to wonder how many other idiotic things they're doing.

I now have one definitive piece of data that tells me the WHO lacks credibility. From this point on, I'm crossing them off the list of experts that I'm going to turn to when I need health and medical advice.

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