The Physics Police

The Physics Police

Thursday, February 27, 2014

Fukushima Lying Liars that Lie

There's a scare post by Turner Radio Network making its way around the Internet. The piece is called SURPRISE: You're Eating Fukushima Radiation and Bloody, Cancerous Tumors in Fish Contaminated By Radiation.

This ignorant bit of fear-propaganda relies on yucky pictures stolen from all over the Internet to convince readers that there are tangible effects of Fukushima radiation far away from Japan.

Of course, no such thing is happening. None of the pictures are of animals made sick from Fukushima radiation. Most of them were taken years before the nuclear disaster! The rest have just as little to do with Fukushima.

There are two lessons here regarding laziness.

First lesson, the people who make up these scare posts are super lazy. You don't have to get up very early in the morning to expose them as lying lairs that lie. Google image search did most of the work for me.

Second lesson, the suckers who read these scare posts are super lazy. They don't bother to do a simple fucking Google image search, which takes five fucking seconds. This is why the people who make up these scare posts put in so little effort; they aren't afraid of getting caught.

Scaring fraidy-cats is easy. It's like irradiating fish in a barrel!

(Warning: gross pictures below.)

Salmon caught in 2009, before the Fukushima disaster.
The post claims this salmon was caught by Brian Holter. In fact, it's a fish caught by someone named Morty who attached it to his 2009 post on a discussion forum, long before the Fukushima earthquake! The white stuff was caused by a parasite and is called Tapioca Disease.

Dr. David Schindler holding a fish from an inland river.
This fish is from the Athabasca River in Alberta, 500 miles from the Pacific Ocean! It's from a news article about the environmental impacts of oil sands, and has nothing to do with Fukushima. The coward who posted this scare piece cropped out the guy's face.

Pike caught in 2008, before the Fukushima disaster.
This pike was caught in 2008, long before the Fukushima earthquake! The picture is from a forum post by Barbwire asking about the infection, which was probably result from a rival fish bite.

Herring with an unknown infectious disease.
These bleeding herring were identified by Vancouver Island marine biologist Alexandra Morton as likely having some viral or bacterial infection. As she says in the article this picture is from, whatever the disease, it is clearly infectious, not caused by radiation.

Pickled herring from a food website.
This one is of a pickled herring, stolen from a cooking website! I think we, much like this fish, have more urgent problems than an infinitesimally increased lifetime risk of cancer from Fukushima radiation, which is vanishingly insignificant compared to background levels.

Chinook salmon from 2004, before the Fukushima disaster.
Here's yet another fish caught before the Fukushima earthquake! This one is from a website all about various fish pathogens. Oh, they have a nice (gross) section on that Tapioca Disease from earlier! Take my advice and finish eating before you check it out, though. You're welcome.

Point Lay walrus with skin lesions. Poor thing.
The sick walruses are from Point Lay. First of all, nobody in the scientific community thinks for a moment these skin sores are from radiation. Just to be sure, though, testing for radionuclides was added to the joint effort by NOAA and FWS to discover the cause of the illness. A 2013 update reported that:
... preliminary results confirm cesium 137 levels in one healthy and four UME seals are similar to cesium 137 levels in Alaskan seals sampled during the mid-1990's.
It will be interesting to see what the final results show. If "radiation" does have anything to do with it, then it will be UV from the ozone hole, not radionuclides from Fukushima.

First documented case of a great white shark with cancer.
The photo above is from a Discovery News article in 2013 about how sharks do in fact get cancer. The picture is important because it's the first time a tumor has been documented in the species. And no, I don't think many people are out eating great white sharks, even the ones with cancer.

Wednesday, February 19, 2014

The Lighthouse Nebula

Today I read an ABC Science article by Stuart Gary titled Runaway pulsar has astronomers scratching their heads which starts off:
A newly discovered fast-moving pulsar streaking across the galaxy with enormous x-ray jets, defies the laws of physics, according to scientists.
There are two red flags here.

First, things don't defy the laws of physics. Something can defy explanation within some particular model or theory. When this is the case, a journalist should just say which observation defied explanation by which model or theory!

Second, there is no such group as scientists to which things can accord. When reporting on a published paper, a journalist should name at least the lead author and include the title of the paper as a link to the paper. Here's how it's done:

The paper in question is titled The long helical jet of the Lighthouse nebula, IGR J11014-6103 by Lucia Pavan et al.

I've found that tantalizing and vague language doesn't earn the reader's trust or attention. It only serves to alienate readers who would take the article seriously. I think that should include just about all of them! Why would anyone bother reading the science section unless they are ready to take it seriously?

Red flags aside, the statement is also false. This pulsar, known as the Lighthouse Nebula (designated IGR J11014-6103) was discovered back in 2011! It's no more newly discovered than the first Thor movie. Oh, and in the article, its name was mistyped the star's designation! (UPDATE: I sent a letter to the editor and they promptly fixed this typo.)

Anyway, the article goes on to quote Miroslav Filipovic, coauthor on the 2011 and 2014 papers:
One of the biggest mysteries is that we only see these jets in x-rays, there's no radio signature, that's totally shocking to us ... this is extremely difficult to explain through any theories we have at the moment.
Okay, two things.

First, there most certainly is a radio signature, that's what the whole paper is about!

Left panel shows the Lighthouse Nebula's X-ray signature.
Right panel shows the Lighthouse Nebula's radio signature.
It's right there. In the paper. The paper you published. Come on bro! I can't imagine how this quote came about. It doesn't seem out of context or anything. Maybe Filipovic was referring to the 2011 paper? But no, that paper's abstract says quite clearly:
A possible radio counterpart positionally coincident with the source was also identified.
That doesn't sound like "no radio signature" to me. If the quote isn't taken out of context, or entirely fabricated, then Filipovic might have been showboating. Either way, someone is being dishonest.

Second, the data are not at all difficult to explain. That's the whole point of the paper! You see, a 2012 paper proposed that this pulsar was propelled to a high velocity by its neighbor that went supernova. What's new in this 2014 paper is fitting both X-ray and radio data to a model of the pulsar's spin and velocity.

The radio and X-ray profiles peak at different positions.
This can be explained by the cooling of the emitting particles.
Alignment favors a pulsar high velocity greater than 1,000 km/s.
There's no unexplained, shocking mystery at all! The data easily fit a model where the pulsar is flying away from its companion at high velocity. Not only that, but the spin axis of the pulsar is perpendicular to the direction it's moving.

Think of the jets like the smoke coming from a train's smoke stack. It's really hot when it first shoots out, then expands and cools, forming a slowly fading tail as its source zips on ahead.

This is a great paper. It shows how subtle clues can reveal the nature of an incredibly distant object. You don't have to see the pulsar in detail to know which direction its jets are facing, or how fast it's moving. Science rules!

But this spectacular deductive reasoning is utterly lost to readers of the news article. It's a tragedy of incompetence. Sure, readers get a puff of mystery that alights their human urge to discover. But they won't be given the satisfaction of actual discovery.

Even after reading all three papers, I feel similarly unsatisfied by a question that keeps coming back to me. Why does this news article go out of its way to make Filipovic sound oblivious to the paper's very thesis?

This question really has me scratching my head.

UPDATE: As you can read in the comments below, Miroslav has kindly explained to me that the first picture above is actually the pulsar wind nebula, not one of the the pulsar jets. The pulsar wind nebula is a standing shock wave of charged particles accelerated by the magnetic field, but is an independent feature from the pair of jets. This wind shows up clearly in the radio spectrum. More importantly, Miroslav was correct that there's no radio source of the jets, themselves! My bad.

Though I'm yet to be convinced that a missing jet radio signal is truly unexpected, since the paper seems to indicate otherwise. Also, this quote from the ABC article seems to conflate the radio signal from the jets with any signal from the pulsar itself:
Pulsars were first discovered because of their characteristic radio signals, so this is extremely difficult to explain through any theories we have at the moment.
These quotes have me scratching my head, too:
It's impossible to easily explain all these crazy things we've seen in this object.
Not according to the paper!
One of the problems is, it's impossible to prove any of these ideas.
Not something you do in science!