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Norman Sperling
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Norm Sperling’s Great Science Trek: 2014

San Luis Obispo
Santa Barbara
Palm Springs
Death Valley
El Paso
Corpus Christi
Baton Rouge
Key West
Winter Star Party, Scout Key

MARCH 2014:
up the Eastern seaboard

APRIL 2014:
near I-40, I-30, and I-20 westbound

MAY 2014:
near US-101 northbound
May 17-18: Maker Faire, San Mateo
May 23-26: BayCon, Santa Clara

California till midJune

JUNE 2014:
Pacific Northwest

JULY 2014:
Western Canada, eastbound

AUGUST 2014:
near the US/Can border, westbound
August 22-on: UC Berkeley

Speaking engagements welcome!
2014 and 2015 itineraries will probably cross several times.


Crowd-Source Testing

© Norman Sperling, February 8, 2015

Many kinds of contaminants and adulterants afflict products sold in the US and elsewhere, often imported from places with lower standards. The press reports most often on problems coming from China and Mexico, but I don’t doubt there are many other sources too. The salmonella peanuts that recently poisoned so many Americans were native-grown US products.

Contaminants include lead, melamine powder, and listeria. A lot of adulterants are chemically not too hard to identify. A lot of infections are biologically not too hard to identify.

Government inspectors inspect just the tiniest proportion of goods. Cheaters wheedle their way in, often with bribes, or discounts, or maybe just winks, from unscrupulous distributors and retailers.

Thanks to the advance of technology, and with only a minor change in law, we, the public, can now fix the bulk of this problem. Bring in citizen scientists and science students.

Professional societies should establish standard testing protocols that can be learned by high school students of their subject (such as chemistry and biology), and conducted with equipment typically found in high schools.

Those societies should establish standards for affordable kits for retailers. Encourage smartphone apps. Each kit should include “how to report”, to what institution or agency, etc. Open-source testing will teach citizen scientists and all America what it takes to determine scientific measurements, and the importance of getting the amounts right.

Make it a very common standard exercise to test products sold in stores and online. Tentative positive results should be brought to chemistry and biology teachers for re-testing. If they indeed look suspicious, bring the suspect stuff to the local college for more sophisticated testing. If adulteration is confirmed, ring the hotline of the professional society, USDA, FDA, US Attorney, or other appropriate agency.

Though food supplements and cosmetics are too-lightly regulated, crowd-sourced testing can clean up some of their acts, too. Where the FDA cannot or will not reject something dangerous, that danger violates plain laws against poisoning and infecting and mislabeling.

The project will need an initial grubstake, but should become self-funding as soon as court fines are collected. Set those to:
• repair the damage already done,
• penalize guilty businesses and imprison their guilty decision-makers so harshly that it will deter everyone from pulling a similar stunt, and
• award a share of the fine to the citizen scientists and testing labs who blew their whistle.

This should make manufacturers, importers, distributors, and retailers a lot more leery of under-the-table deals. Only fly-by-night risk-takers would dare to pull a fast one, and with the entire supply chain poised against them, even they would find it harder. Horrible negative publicity can put a company out of business, as happened with Arthur Anderson accountants. Competent individuals can bring down a big adulterator.

Testable products will become more correct, less poisonous, and less infectious. The resulting greater trust in products will INCREASE trade in those trusted items.

Funding should not run out unless there are no more violations found. What a wonderful problem to have!

Teaching to the Test Kills Your Dog

© Norman Sperling, March 17, 2012

When passing a test makes a big difference, instead of teaching a whole subject and its importance, teachers often focus on "teaching to the test": teaching students to pass the test. If the test accurately represents what it's supposed to, that's close to OK. But tests often don't test what they're supposed to. Sometimes it's a portion of the intended material, in which case the students learn part but not enough to make it all stick together as the intended whole.

And sometimes the test just tests a proxy. The test for protein content of dog food is such a test. It doesn't actually test for protein. Instead, it tests for the amine radical, which is abundant in protein. But that's also found in cheaper substances. Twice now, without looking for it, I've come across instances where the protein test was faked by major, large-scale, planned substitution of harmful, cheap amine-bearing materials.

In the mid-1980s I was told of a dog-food manufacturer which drenched its food in ammonia to pass this test. Ammonia is a smelly poison. The dog food passed the test, though it lacked much protein. Maybe the ammonia dissipated by the time the product got to the dogs, so maybe they weren't poisoned, but they weren't fed the intended, test-certified protein, either.

And in 2007-2008, the big melamine bulk-up turned out to have been deliberate. The "amine" in "melamine" would be measured as if it were an indicator of protein, instead of an indicator of polymer. Melamine is largely inert, which is why it's so popular for dishes. But in doses large enough to substitute for protein, it poisons dogs' kidneys.

Who would do such a thing? One whose ethics see only as far as passing the immediate test, and not as far as the long-range, overall purpose. One who only teaches to the test.

It's way past time to update the protein test.

What Food Ingredient Does What to Your Body?

© Norman Sperling, January 19, 2012

Over the decades, I've suffered from a variety of afflictions. Doctors know how to fix some of them. Others have no known cause (that's called "idiopathic"). Some treatments are expensive, some treatments are ineffective. And some of my ailments and frailments not only have no known cause, they have no known treatment.

I discovered long ago that 2 of my problems trace to conventional foods that are widely regarded as "healthy". I discovered one of those entirely by accident, when the price of that favorite food skyrocketed and I boycotted it for a month ... and felt much better! Trying variations on the theme of that food isolated the components that hurt me. I've never found an antidote, so I strictly avoid the stuff.

I've recently discovered that a newer ailment traces to 2 other very common food chemicals. Eliminating those chemicals enormously reduced my affliction ... and also made a marked improvement in my general "aches and pains" – call it "creakiness" – of advancing age. The affliction I minimized seems quite rare, but the creakiness of old age is famously widespread.

So if you're not in perfect health, I recommend conducting a series of experiments on yourself, by eliminating for 2 weeks all foods that contain a selected ingredient. Pick one of the listed items below (or something else that you suspect might trigger problems), read every label in your food supply, and only eat things without that one ingredient for the next 2 weeks. Keep scrupulous notes. For many, I suspect there will be no health difference, meaning that that's not an ingredient that hurts you. Restore benign ingredients to your diet, and move on to another item for another 2 weeks and see if that makes any difference.

Of the dozen ingredients below, 4 definitely hurt me. I take an antidote for one, and avoid the other 3. I have little idea why those 3 substances hurt me, or why now instead of long ago – perhaps my body chemistry has changed. Figuring that out might enable a smarter response than pure avoidance. I won't bias your experiments by telling you which ingredients hurt me; your body isn't quite the same as mine so that shouldn't be an issue anyway.

sodium bicarbonate
salt (reduce to recommended daily dose; don't eliminate, because some is vital)
fructose, or high-fructose corn syrup
sodium nitrate (usually comes with sodium nitrite)
citric acid or a citrate

Note that this experiment should be safe because you're not adding a new chemical, you're subtracting one. You definitely must read every label. Finding alternatives may bring somewhat greater variety in your diet.

If a change makes something happen that feels bad, STOP! Go back to your old ways, and maybe move on to another item on the list (or from your own list).

Results of changes noted, and of no-changes noted, are both valuable. Please let me know.

Great Guidebooks for Scientific Travelers

Reviewed and © by Norman Sperling, October 3, 2011

Duane S. Nickell: Guidebook for the Scientific Traveler: Visiting Physics and Chemistry Sites Across America. Rutgers U. Press 2010. Paperback $19.95. 978-0-8135-4730-5.

and Guidebook for the Scientific Traveler: Visiting Astronomy and Space Exploration Sites Across America. Rutgers U. Press 2008. Paperback $21.95. 978-0-8135-4374-1.

Most of the travel books I've filtered through in planning my Great Science Trek specialize in factories, oddities, architecture, history, pop culture, technology, and politics. Travel books for scientists are rare - just a few on geology and observatories. Do you know any others? Duane S. Nickell is starting a series to fill this niche. Rutgers University Press has set up "The Scientific Traveler" series, and Nickell has written its first 2 volumes.

Each chapter begins with a gem-quality tutorial. To understand gigantic particle accelerators, start with the essay on particle physics. To get why you should examine meteorite collections, start with the essay on meteorites.

Taking advantage of his modern, tech-savvy audience, Nickell wastes no space on maps or directions. He gives addresses, phone numbers, and websites, from which visitors can get all they need. He cites admission fees as of presstime, which everybody knows can change.

Nickell found a whole lot of chemistry places I'd never heard of, and points out aspects of astronomy and physics places that I never thought of - such as rooms where important things occurred on the campus where I teach (certainly not my room). He has chapters on the scientists themselves plus their universities, labs, accelerators, museums, and monuments. "Chemicals in Industry", for example, features places that make glass, borax, paper, cosmetics, pharmaceuticals, toothpaste, beer, and whiskey.

Some kinds of technology lie in plain sight but go uninterpreted. Wind farms, for example, occupy impressive stretches of hills and deserts, but none has a visitor center or even a gift counter. A display of varieties of windmills, a demonstration of a generator, and a few relevant models and publications for sale, would make a respectable roadside stop. Other energy forms with sites-to-see include oil, coal, nuclear, hydroelectric, and solar.

Astronomers flock to places with the darkest skies, and buy up all the land to prevent disturbing lights from encroaching. Several such astronomy villages have sprung up. I can only think of one other place where followers of a science build their vacation homes together: Scientist's Cliffs, Maryland. Are there others?

The books are well-produced, well-illustrated, and reasonably priced. The rare misspellings won't cause any problems. But use an actual map rather than trust a statement like "15 miles southeast" because it might not be southeast.

Science people should consult these both for novel day-trips in their own areas, and for sights to visit while traveling. I tallied the listings I've visited so far: 36 of 57 in the Astronomy/Space volume, but only 25 of 92 in Physics/Chemistry. I'm going to enjoy some more sights!

With a Pinch of Salt

© Norman Sperling, September 10, 2011

Reuters has a new report on the salt controversy that has been simmering for decades.

The conventional wisdom that people in general should reduce their salt intake looks suspicious. Because everyone in my family loves rather a lot of salt, and none of us has high blood pressure, nor related heart disease, I've kept my antennae up for a large, convincing scientific study that showed that people with normal blood pressure need to reduce salt. I never spotted one, so I haven't urged my family to cut back.

The Reuters report even undercuts the high-blood-pressure link: reducing salt to reduce blood pressure may not lengthen life span anyway.

The sides in the Reuters report are way too polarized. The effect is clearly smaller than claimed. A definitive study should be ethical and affordable for our culture. Take the money presently being spent by reduced-salt advocates, plus contributions from the salt industry. Have 3 highest-reputation organizations run a large, impeccable study, and get a trustworthy recommendation for the safest range of salt intake for conventional humans, and those with assorted risks. The same study might update the optimum dose for iodine. Settle the issue with Science, not shouting.

Yesterday's Dumps, Tomorrow's Mines: Minerals and MinURLs

© Norm Sperling, November 1, 2010

The world's market for rare-Earth metals is now dominated - 97%! - by China. China says it will continue selling them, but neighboring Japan now suddenly seeks to buy from Viet Nam instead. A lot of high-tech consumers worry about how much they will be able to obtain, and for how long.

2 major sources have not been properly surveyed and exploited.

Many of those rare-Earth elements go into high-tech devices. Those devices wear out or become outmoded, are discarded, and go into dumps. We build up enormous dumps, filling valleys and building "Mount Trashmore"s.

When rare-Earth resources run out, or become scarce for ecological or political reasons, it should be more practical to mine old dumps and extract the needed elements from today's discards. Over centuries, I suspect that today's polluted dumps will be reclaimed, re-exploited, and re-consumed as resources.

At identifiable strata and pits in dumps, one can find the discards from datable years. And we know when certain chemicals were used. To facilitate reclamation, dumps should be mapped as accurately as practical in 4 dimensions. Zones should be labeled by dumping dates, and any other distinguishing characteristics, too. Time-lapse photos taken from standard vantage points should help the mapping. Seekers of a rare-Earth element can excavate the zones buried a few years after it was used, without having to slog expensively through unlikely zones.

To what degree is it practical to map older dumps? Many capped landfills are turned into parks after their initial organic outgassing subsides. How closely do their records of filling match new drill-core logs? How do those compare to ground-penetrating-radar scans?

Another waste source is ignored even more: mine tailings. Where nature concentrated a valuable mineral, well enough for miners to extract it, the discards simply got dumped. These mine tailings are often eyesores and sometimes accused of fouling their environment. It's time to take modern, high-quality chemical analyses of tailings from each mine. Surely something valuable will show up somewhere. Mineralogists and geochemists will discover new correlations.

Re-mining tailings has many advantages: they're already concentrated, they're already pulverized and therefore easy to process, and the (re-)remaindered tailings should be (re-)discarded in a much safer manner, which the newly-extracted fraction should pay for. Perhaps robots can stuff tailings that contain nothing likely to become valuable back into the depleted mines they came from, reducing the hazard of collapse.

Mapping dumps, and screening mine tailings, will produce new mineral resource locators - minURLs!

Songs With Good Chemistry

Parodies and Commentaries, by David Kritchevsky. AOCS Press, Champaign, Illinois, 2003. ISBN 1-893997-46-4. 46 pages. $5.00. Order through www.aocs.org/catalog/product.asp?ID=wdk&dept=90

reviewed by Norman Sperling, JIR v49 #6, November 2005, p28.

Tucked away under a host of worthy technical volumes like Healthful Lipids and The Biodiesel Handbook, The American Oil Chemists' Society also publishes this songbook by a major scholar at Philadelphia's Wistar Institute.

The Journal of Irreproducible Results
This Book Warps Space and Time
What Your Astronomy Textbook Won't Tell You

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