The Physics Police

The Physics Police

Friday, January 24, 2014

Ironic Iron Impoverishment

Mighty Morphin Power Ranger Mike Adams of Natural News reports Wheaties cereal ... can be levitated with magnets.
Adding shards of metal to a cereal is not nutritionally equivalent to nutritive minerals formed during the growth of grain-producing plants...
To understand this issue it helps to know why the body needs iron in the first place. Hemoglobin is the protein that our red blood cells use for oxygen transport. This protein contains for Heme B groups. These four organic molecules contain one iron atom at their center.

Heme B, an iron-containing compound found in hemoglobin.
Fe is the chemical symbol for iron.
According to the CDC, Iron deficiency is the most common nutritional deficiency and the leading cause of anemia in the United States [1]. This disease is easily preventable via fortification of foods like breakfast cereal with iron.

There are two basic kinds of iron used to fortify foods, elemental iron powder, and salts like iron sulfate. The iron enrichment in question must be ferromagnetic because it is attracted by a magnet. This means it is iron powder, which is ferromagnetic, not iron salts, which are paramagnetic.

In general, the powders have lower bio-availability than iron salts [2, 3]. This is not to say the powders are bad. You have to use a few times more substance, some of which passes through the digestive system without being absorbed. That's fine, because they are still less expensive. Also, powder may be preferred to salts because the later can contribute an undesired taste.

The differing bio-availability is well known [4] and  has been taken into consideration when they print the label since 1973 [5]. Iron atoms taken up from powders are nutritionally equivalent to any other source.

Anyway, finding iron in breakfast cereal is not news. It's a popular kids science experiment!

I'm sure Mike's parents are really proud of him.

I was curious why the bits of iron were large enough to see, because particles in food-grade iron powder range in size from 0.5 to 10 micrometers [4]. That's smaller than a red blood cell. This small size increases bio-availability [5].

Presumably the flecks in this kids science experiment are clumps of the powder that have stuck together due to magnetism, or were not fully dissolved when added to the cereal mixture.

As if this story weren't bizarre enough, it has one final twist. You see, I know someone who would really get upset that Mike Adams is telling cereal manufacturers to put less nutrition in their product.

His name is 2004 Mike Adams.

Friday, January 17, 2014

The Nature of Responsibility

In his blog post titled Rim-Laid Eggs Gary Patton writes about the black robin. This endangered species was saved from extinction by a breeding program starting with a single female bird.

This heroic effort had one side effect, though. As explained in a National Geographic article, many females laid eggs on the rim of the nest, where they were not properly incubated, and failed to hatch. Faced with a decision:
The team repositioned the ones on the rims... Under normal circumstances, natural selection would have quickly weeded out the alleles (versions of a gene) behind the behavior...
Gary argues that:
... by interfering with the normal rules of natural selection, the recovery effort increased the predominance of a gene that led to the rim-laid egg tendency, and that meant that the recovery was actually establishing a genetic characteristic that would guarantee species failure in the long run.
... It seems to me that it is a cautionary tale, and that the story of the black robin should make us think again about our often presumptuous ideas that human beings can properly run the natural world.
Gary seems to imply that interfering was a presumptuous, bad move. But as the article states:
Without this move, it’s unclear if the species would have made its dramatic recovery...
Clearly, survival for the not-so-fit is better than no survival at all! Saving the rim-layer's eggs was the right call. This isn't a cautionary tale, it's a victory thanks to the hard work of Don Merton and his team of conservationists.

The true cautionary tale is about a bird allowed to become severely endangered in the first place. After all, the closer a species is to extinction, the harder it is to save, and the longer its recovery.

The genetic origin of rim-laying does demonstrate the importance of genetic diversity within a species. Now that the population has grown to a safer level, natural selection will quickly reduce the rim-laying allele back to a normal level. If the non-rim-laying allele had been lost, the black robin would have been in real trouble. Luckily, no such recessive disease thwarted the recovery effort.

It's wrong to say human beings should not run the natural world. First of all, it's poor philosophy of science to erect an artificial distinction between homo sapiens and their environment.

We're a part of the natural world, and the case for conservation is made much stronger as a result. When a species goes extinct due to habitat loss or hunting, it proves we are connected. The same goes the other way around. When our game animals or fish are hunted to extinction, we starve. When we vanish biodiversity by clear-cutting a million acres of rainforest, some potential medical boon, some scientific discovery, and much beauty is lost forever.

We are part of nature as nature is part of us.

Like Don Merton and his team, we have decisions to make. That doesn't mean we must become presumptuous masters of some imaginary world of nature. The "let them rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky" anxiety comes strait out of Genesis. This Old Testament thinking only makes sense if you believe man is meaningfully separate from nature.

In the bible, mankind has a soul, setting him apart from the beasts. In nature dualism, human beings lift themselves out of nature with their culture and technology. This is less supernatural, but also false. It's also inherently dangerous.

A dualist way of thinking leaves the door wide open for discrimination. If you're not of my religion, then you're going to hell. If you're not of my race, then you're inferior. If you're not of my species, you're going extinct. Gary is clearly not one to discriminate like this, but his philosophy leaves us impoverished when dealing this type of discrimination.

Now, I'm neither a member of PETA nor a vegetarian. I don't think all species are the same, and therefore deserve equal treatment. I just think setting aside human beings as dual to the rest of the world is wrong and ethically dubious.

Don Merton wasn't playing god by choosing to save the black robin. His program was conducted from compassion, not some biblical imperative to run the natural world.

He had an opportunity to save a species from extinction, so he took it.

That's the nature of our responsibility. To nature.

Astronomical Denial

This Week in Science is a fun radio show and podcast where the hosts discuss science news. Justin Jackson is one of the 3 co-hosts. He's particularly fascinated by physics and astrophysics. Bizarrely, he remains in denial over several major discoveries in these fields.

For example, he rejects the idea that gravity bents light and that black holes exist. He wrote a book predicting the LHC would fail to find the Higgs boson, and doesn't accept that what they found is indeed the Higgs. He hates the idea of a graviton enough to call for defunding of LIGO! He doesn't believe that Hubble's law is caused by the expansion of space. He also thinks dark matter is just some mistake.

In episode 446 Justin Jackson says,
I wouldn't be surprised at all if 5, 10, 20 years from now, we discovered the universe isn't expanding, and that it's not 13 billion years old, but infinitely old, that most of the dark matter is not actually matter... the point is that what we do know is based on a smaller observation than we're gonna have in the future...
This finger-crossing shows how his denial comes from misunderstanding the scientific process.

Let's start with his claim that future observations could do away with a finite, expanding universe.

Just as natural selection is the only theory that can explain the origin of species, the Big Bang theory leaves no room for other explanations for the observed expansion of the universe. However, there are several kinds of theories that attempt to do away with or get around the Big Bang singularity. Notice that these are extensions of the Big Bang theory, all of which contain the expansion of spacetime from a very dense beginning a finite time in the past.

First, you can play with coordinate systems to make the singularity go away, but you still have a finite time to the edge of your coordinate system. These get a lot of press because a universe without a big bang singularity sounds impressive. Never mind that it's just a mathematical trick. Anyway, this certainly isn't what Justin is talking about, because its a matter of theoretical interpretation, not future observation.

Second, there are cyclical cosmologies which have our big bang not as an origin of time, but as a boundary condition to causality in one iteration of an infinite series of universes. True, this sort of theory could be favored by future observations, but Justin wouldn't be satisfied by this, either.

Justin argues for a steady state universe where space isn't expanding from a bounce or bang. He dismisses the cosmological redshift as some trick of optics. He can't accept that it's a consequence of the Doppler effect due to the apparent velocity of objects in an expanding spacetime.

No new evidence can ever be discovered that is consistent with this steady state fantasy. Future measurements of stars aren't going to suddenly show a reverse in Doppler shift, so that when added to previous observations, the shift averages out to zero. That may have been conceivable to Milton Humason when he first sat down to start comparing the distances of the galaxies that he had measured with their radial velocities. However, all hope for the steady state theory were dashed the moment he analyzed a statistically significant number of galaxies. Then came Penzias and Wilson...

Justin also rejects the fact of the acceleration of the expansion of the universe. There are competing theories to explain this fact, like the Cosmological Constant, which may or may not be correct. But just as before, there has been no hope that future observations might contradict the truth of this fact since Saul Perlmutter, Brian Schmidt and Adam Riess received their Nobel prize. No future observations of stars can ever reverse the statistical trend showing an increased in the rate of expansion of the universe. That kind of thing doesn't happen in science because it doesn't happen in nature.

I don't know what he means by dark matter not actually being matter. There's missing gravitational mass/energy needed to explain galaxy rotation, velocities of galaxy clusters, gravitational lensing observations, and anisotropies in the CMBR. All of these lines of evidence point to the the same amount of missing mass/energy, acting like a cold gas. It might be made of WIMPs, or it might be something else. Either way, if cold gas carrying mass/energy counts as matter, then it's matter.

Justin isn't really concerned with the definition of matter. He just doesn't believe that the evidence for dark matter requires new physics. He thinks it's all a big mistake, or something.

From personal dislike for these theories, he rejects mountains of clear and unambiguous evidence.

That must take an astronomical level of denial.

Friday, January 10, 2014

Our Brains Make Us Human

Pseudointellectual Gary Patton posted on the topic of What Makes Us Human in response to an article posted by Richard Dawkins titled Apes with big brains.

Gary claims that our culture defines us as human. He has it backwards. He's also deeply misunderstood the purpose of Dawkins's post.

A baby chimp raised in human culture will not grow into a human. Why not? Because of genetic differences, and the resulting physical characteristics (like "big brains").

Also, there is no single human culture. People in different countries have different cultures, but are all equally human. Why? Because they all have human genes, therefore human brains, and human minds.

Obviously, it's the human brain that makes us human beings. Our tools, farms, cities, knowledge, etc. came later, as a consequence. Anyone living 50,000 years ago, with none of our modern culture, was still as human as you or I.

Considering some make-believe "human" world separate from the "World of Nature" is useless dualism. It does nothing to help understand the brain or its evolutionary origin, which is the wonderful mystery Dawkins wrote about.

Monday, January 6, 2014

On GMO Labeling

Gary Patton argues that GMO foods should require a label because they are unnatural.

First of all, this is special pleading because none of the crops we grow are natural. They have all been artificially selected for desirable traits, some over thousands of years. Natural wheat is called grass, and natural corn is called teosinte. Also, many seed lineages were produced by irradiation to increase the rate of mutation, etc.

Not that it mattes, because food labels aren't there to tell you which technologies were used to produce your food. They're purpose is (and should remain) to convey information relevant to human health. Labeling something "unnatural" does not imply the thing is bad or dangerous. It tells you nothing about the impact of that thing on human health. So the fact that GMO is unnatural is no reason to mandate labeling.

Gary makes an argument for application of the precautionary principle. This puts the burden of proof on the GMO seed producers to demonstrate that there is no increased risk no risk to human health from GMO over conventional. I agree.

As it happens, the precautionary principle has indeed been satisfied by decades of careful study, finding approved GMO crops as safe as conventional. The burden of proof has been lofted by hundreds of scientific studies showing this clearly and definitively.

So say the European Union, World Health Organization, the National Academy of Sciences, the Royal Society of Medicine and the American Association for the Advancement of Science. (Source)

Since the risk to human health from GMO is equivalent to that from conventional, it needs no label.

Gary ruins his case for GMO labeling by falling back on the appeal to nature fallacy, and by denying the scientific consensus.

Gary, we've got a problem!!