science

Fukushima, Again

Yet again this week there has been another round of scare stories about what is happening at Japan’s Fukushima nuclear plant which was so catastrophically crippled by the tsunami following the 11 March 2011, magnitude 9.0 earthquake.

We had headlines and comments like:

Radiation levels in the Fukushima reactor are soaring unexpectedly [Science Alert]
Radiation In Fukushima Is Now At ‘Unimaginable’ Levels [Huffington Post]
The situation has suddenly taken a drastic turn for the worst [EcoWatch]
Fukushima nuclear reactor radiation at highest level since 2011 meltdown [Guardian]
Blazing radiation reading [Japan Times]
Radiation Levels Are Soaring Inside the Damaged Fukushima Nuclear Plant [Gizmodo]

As I suspected when I first saw the stories, and has been confirmed by Jonathan O’Callaghan at IFLScience and Azby Brown at Safecast, this is the usual sloppy, not to say totally misleading, reporting. (Both these reports are worth reading; neither is especially long or difficult.)

Yes, TEPCO (who are responsible for the plant) have measured incredibly high radiation readings (530 Sieverts an hour — with an error of +/- 30% — that’s enough to kill a human in seconds) inside Fukushima Daiichi Unit 2. To do this they have used a 10.5 metre robotic arm to image further inside the Unit 2 containment vessel that they ever have before. The images appear to show a 1 meter square grating melted by exposed fuel rods. From the data obtained TEPCO have estimated the radiation level. But this does NOT mean radiation levels there are rising. That is not what the data are indicating — they can’t say that as this area has not been measured before, so there is only this one reading.

As IFLScience reported:

Measurements in new locations … pin-point hot-spots and understand the nature of the radioactive materials within the reactor complex and to better inform us on suitable strategies for long-term decommissioning and clean-up … The purpose of this was to plot out a route for a robot [TEPCO] is planning to send into the reactor … But the robot is only able to survive an exposure of up to 1,000 Sieverts. At 530 Sieverts per hour, it would be destroyed in just two hours. Thus, this latest finding is likely to complicate [the decommissioning] even further.

They also point out:

While a higher level of radiation has been found inside the plant, levels around it are continuing to fall. This suggests no radiation is escaping from Fukushima into the surrounding environment … There are many people wandering around in Japan with radiation monitors and it would be very easy to see if there was an increase in radiation coming from the plant.

So note carefully: that despite all the problems and the environmental contamination, the various levels of containment vessels in the reactors essentially did their job. They have contained the vast, vast majority of the radioactive material under conditions which were way beyond their design.

That doesn’t take away from the human disasters nor from the unimaginable work which will have to be done over the next, probably, 50 years to decommission the site. But it does show that this was not the immense catastrophe so often painted by the media and environmental groups.

In a classic piece of understatement IFLScience conclude with:

So radiation levels aren’t soaring, but it’s a grim picture all around really. As the latest announcement from TEPCO shows, the clean-up of Fukushima is going to be anything but easy — and there’s a long, long way to go.

Time to stop panicking and enjoy the weekend!

Monthly Links

Apologies that due to an incursion of lurgy this month’s collection of links is somewhat late. Anyway here goes …

Science & Medicine

Unlike most other animals, roughly 90% of humans are right-handed. But why?

Another peculiarity of humans is that we are one of only a handful of species which has an appendix. Again, why?

Evidence is emerging that women with severe PMS, called premenstrual dysphoric disorder (PMDD), really do have an aberrant cellular response to their hormones.

How do doctors measure pain? Answer: inconsistently. And they’re trying to understand this better. [Long read]

I suspect most people don’t notice the pigeons around them, but there are three which are common in the UK: the feral pigeon (rock dove), wood pigeon, and collared dove. The first two are genuine natives, but the collard dove is a recent arrival from Asia which set out to conquer Europe.

Sexuality

Ten things you probably didn’t know about the clitoris.
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The here and there of (female) pubic hair through the ages.

On attitudes to masturbation in a relationship.

The BFI now has an archive of erotic films covering the late nineteenth century to around 1960s.

History

And bridging seamlessly into the really historical, it seems the Ancient Chinese were into sex toys, just as much as modern generations.

Researchers are getting really quite good at dating ancient objects and events. An ancient volcanic eruption has now been firmly dated using fossilised tree rings.

The myth of Medieval Small Beer — no, everyone didn’t drink beer, rather than water, in olden days.

Someone has found what is alleged to be the long-lost skirt from one of Queen Elizabeth I’s dresses being used as a church alter cloth.

A research student has been able to uncover the movements and exploits of a Renaissance spy, who successfully masqueraded as a garden designer to the rich and powerful.

London

Each year IanVisits provides a calendar of the gun salutes in London for the year.
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Crossrail have unearthed yet more archaeology in an unexpected place: jammed and pickled under the old Astoria nightclub.

There’s a section of tunnel under the Thames on the Northern line tube which was bombed and flooded in 1940. And it is still sealed shut.

To go with the previous item, here are a few vintage pictures of London tube stations.

And, just in time for your next pub quiz, here are a few things you may not know about London buses.

Lifestyle

Some thoughts on how to talk meaningfully with children. And not just children, I suggest.

Even the most macho bloke has his bit of feminine. Here are some on the feminine things men would do if they thought they wouldn’t be judged for it.

Unless you’re doing a really dirty job (like down a coal mine) it’s likely you’re showering much too often for the good of your skin.

And finally … Just what did those prudish Victorians have to hide?

More next month.

Storm in a Coffee Cup

So the FSA think we should give up toast and roast potatoes because there is a cancer risk from the acrylamide they contain.

As so often this is, at best, misleading science and quite probably total bollocks. Moreover the FSA is going beyond it’s brief in warning us about something which is basically an assumption based on evidence that’s struggling even to be flimsy.

Yes, acrylamide can cause cancer. This has only been conclusively demonstrated in laboratory rats fed thousands of times the dose we would consume. There is no real evidence of normal doses causing any problem for humans. Like all these things the dose is important and the evidence has to be taken in a sensible context.

There is apparently more acrylamide in coffee than toast or roast potatoes, and most people consume far more coffee at breakfast than they do burnt toast. Yet we aren’t being told to stop drinking coffee because of the acrylamide.

And how many women crave burnt toast when they’re pregnant? Anecdotally quite a lot. Are we really going to add toast to the ever growing list of things pregnant women aren’t allowed to even see? If so, we have to ask how we all managed to get here in the first place.

No. I for one shall be treating this advice with the contempt it deserves. Yet again the FSA is bringing itself, and by association all dietary advice, into disrepute.

For more background see:
Is acrylamide in your toast really going to give you cancer?
Why you don’t need to worry about eating brown toast
‘Alternative facts’ are now threatening our roast potatoes. Enough!

And remember: Research causes cancer in rats.

Book Review: Field Guide to Moths

Paul Waring & Martin Townsend
Field Guide to the Moths of Great Britain and Ireland
2nd edition; Bloomsbury; 2009

This is a magnificent tome, but not what I would define as a “field guide”: for an octavo paperback of almost 450 pages, on glossy paper and weighing almost 900 gm you would need a poacher’s pocket or a JCB to carry it around. It is a reference book — and a brilliant one at that — but as such it is not something to be read from cover to cover but explored when needed. It is an essential on the shelves of anyone with an interest in the huge diversity of the insect world, especially, obviously, moths.

Having said that, it doesn’t cover all moths but just the “macro-moths” (essentially anything with a forewing length over about 1 cm); micro-moths are covered elsewhere.

I’ve long wanted such a book (why didn’t I get this before?) as there was for many, many years a huge hole in the field guide coverage of British moths; I remember my mother complaining at least 40 years ago that there was no good, available, guide to moths — how she would have loved this book!

The book does what it sets out to do: describe for the naturalist (both professional and amateur) every known species of moth in the British Isles. The descriptions are organised by genus, with each species getting an entry of a third to half a page in quite small type. The descriptions cover mostly the adult moth, its habitat, lifecycle and distribution.

Strangely all the illustrations of adult moths occupy the central 20% of the book. This is not obvious from the colour-coding of the pages and I’ve found the only way to know quickly where the illustrations start is with a bookmark. Having said that, the illustrations (by Richard Lewington) are magnificent — much the best I’ve encountered — and they show the wonderful diversity and beauty of these important but much disliked insects. Moreover the illustrations show the adult moths in their normal sitting pose, unlike many guides which show the wings displayed as they would be in a museum case (something that’s not helpful to the non-specialist).

There is, however, one significant thing I don’t like about this book. In general it does not illustrate the larvae (caterpillars) of each species. Some (maybe 15%) of species have a photograph of the caterpillar along with the description (not with the illustrations). This I find curious. I know that many caterpillars look very similar (even more than adult moths) but why not illustrate them and have a complete section of the illustrations — separate from the adult moths would be OK — as an aid to identification. For me, this stops the book getting a top 5-star rating.

My only other gripe is the cost; at around £30 for the paperback this is beyond the reach of many.

Nevertheless this is a reference book which will live on the shelf over my desk and quite likely become well used.

Overall Rating: ★★★★☆

Your Monthly Links

We’re starting the New Year with our monthly collection of links to articles which have caught our eye over the last month. Science-y stuff first — it’s not hard, but it is downhill from there.

Science & Medicine

Scientists have been hard at work over the last couple of years reconstructing the evolutionary history of elves and elf-like creatures. Here’s a summary and here’s the original work. I note, however that they have not included the Common Garden Gnome!

Synaesthesia is a strange affliction where people see words as colours, or hear sounds as smells. Just to make things even more bizarre, here’s a story about a woman who sees the calendar as a hula-hoop.

It has long been supposed that women who live together synchronise their menstrual cycles. Kate Clancy lifts the lid on a total lack of convincing evidence.

Meanwhile at the other end of lady things, it seems that pregnancy causes long-term changes to brain structure. Which could explain a lot!

Sexuality

Some students at Bristol University have made a (very short) film to get girls talking about pubic hair and why the do (or don’t) remove it.

Why do we have orgasms? Apart from the obvious need in men, it is being suggested that orgasm is like a sexual currency — reward, payment and cementing the contract.

Environment

Deep in the woods there are still pagans living in Europe, and they’ve been there a looooong time!

Art & Literature

A rare painting of Henry VIII’s Nonsuch Palace has been acquired by the V&A for the nation and saved from export.

The Madras Literary Society Library is a 200-year-old circulating and contains unknown treasures which are decaying through neglect. Now a group of volunteer members are working on the task of conserving as much of the material as possible.

History

Anyone who has delved into their family history will no doubt have noticed more than a few Christmas Day weddings. Findmypast explains why this was so popular.

London

London Underground’s Piccadilly Line has been struggling recently. London Reconnections explains what’s happened.

­Here are 13 things you probably didn’t know about Waterloo Bridge.

So who thought the River Thames was filthy and lifeless? Not so any more as it seems there is a lot move going on under the surface than we think.

Anyone who knows Kensington High Street or Notting Hill Gate areas of London has probably been past The Churchill Arms pub because it is always decked out in cascades of flowers. Here are some other things you didn’t know about the pub. (One day I will stop and have a pint there!)

Lifestyle

This collection wouldn’t be complete without the obligatory piece on nudism, so here’s a piece on improving body confidence by going nude.

Which reminds me … why is it so popularly believed that at Christmas/Winter Solstice/Yule/New Year we should all get naked, drink mead and party like a Pagan?

Here is a collection of life-saving tips which are mostly obvious when you know them!

Shock, Horror, Humour

And finally, the great German Christmas pickled cucumber tradition, Weihnachtsgurke. Rapido, where art thou?

More next month!

Your Monthly Links

Here’s this month’s instalment of links to items of interest, or amusement, you may have missed he first time round.

Science & Medicine

Who thought leprosy was only a biblical and medieval affliction? Well it ain’t, ‘cos it seems British red squirrels carry leprosy — only the third known species after humans and nine-banded armadillos.

Who’d be a scientist’s cat? Not content with abuse by Schrödinger, scientists continue to drop cats in aid properly understanding their self-righting mechanism.

Trees do it in secret. Communicate, that is. Ecologist Peter Wohlleben thinks he knows what trees feel and how they communicate. It’s not as far-fetched as it sounds.

The Guardian has a very interesting page which (goes some way) to showing you how visually impaired people see the world.

So why is it that French mothers don’t suffer from bladder incontinence? It sounds deeply dodgy, but it does appear to be a thing.

So there was this contemporary of Isaac Newton who produced the foundations of the current Information Age. Yes, Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz.

Sexuality

So here’s yet another article suggesting that women don’t actually know what orgasm is. I had hoped we’d got past all this by now!

Environment

So here are ten things about our cutest invasive species: cats. If they weren’t so cute they’d not get away with half what they do.

There’s an interesting new theory about how the brown rat has conquered every city around the globe.

Language

Oxford University Press have recently published a massive new dictionary. It lists every surname found in the UK (including imported ones like Patel) which is held by 100 or more people. That’s almost 50,000. Not just that, but the OUP and academics have done deep research into all these names to determine their origins, often finding previously unknown documentary evidence. Want a copy? OK, well it’s four volumes and will set you back £400. But they reckon there will be an online accessible version.

Art & Literature

Prepare to be amazed. Artist Charles Young has created a complete animated metropolis from paper.

History

It seems the Romans really were ahead of the game. Researchers have discovered metallic ink used on some of the scrolls from Herculaneum (neighbour of Pompeii). That’s around 500 years earlier than previously thought.

Birth by C-section is rather (too?) common these days. But in days of yore, before modern medicine, C-sections were only performed in order to save a child by sacrificing the mother. It was rare for the mother to survive. But new evidence suggests that Beatrice of Bourbon survived a C-section as early as 1337. The previous record was of a Swiss case in 1500.

London

London blogger IanVisits walks the route London’s Roman Wall.

In which Diamond Geezer considers becoming a London cabbie.

Many pubs have dutiful dogs to look after them, but there are London pubs with characterful cats too.

Lifestyle

Just in case you hadn’t realised, there are actually good scientific reasons why you should always be naked. What’s more I can vouch for this from personal experience.

It seems we have it all wrong about addiction. We need to build “rat heaven” for humans rather than prison cells, as this video explains.

To quote poet Philip Larkin: They fuck you up, your mum and dad / They may not mean to, but they do / They fill you with the faults they had / And add some extra, just for you. So yes, here are 30 ways in which your childhood can affect your success as an adult. Which explains a lot.

I have a dream that one day the medical profession will make up their minds about alcohol consumption. Now some new research suggests a beer a day helps prevent stroke and heart disease.

Not content with London, Diamond Geezer takes an away-day to Lowestoft, Mrs M’s home town.

Shock, Horror, Humour

And finally … it seems that in the Middle Ages witches stole penises and kept them as pets or even grew them on trees as fruit. [The mind boggles over whether the fruit would be sold by the butcher or the greengrocer!]

More next month …

Thinking Thursday: Kaprekar’s Constant

Another in our very occasional series “Thinking Thursday” …

The number 6174 is known as Kaprekar’s constant after the Indian mathematician DR Kaprekar. This number is notable for the following property:

  1. Take any four-digit number, using at least two different digits. (Leading zeros are allowed.)
  2. Arrange the digits in ascending and then in descending order to get two four-digit numbers, adding leading zeros if necessary.
  3. Subtract the smaller number from the bigger number.
  4. Go back to step 2 and repeat.

The above process, known as Kaprekar’s routine, will always reach 6174 in at most 7 iterations. Once 6174 is reached, the process will continue yielding 7641 – 1467 = 6174. For example, choose 3524:

5432 – 2345 = 3087
8730 – 0378 = 8352
8532 – 2358 = 6174

The only four-digit numbers for which Kaprekar’s routine does not reach 6174 are repeated digits such as 1111, which give the result 0 after a single iteration. All other four-digit numbers eventually reach 6174 if leading zeros are used to keep the number of digits at 4.

In each iteration of Kaprekar’s routine, the two numbers being subtracted one from the other have the same digit sum and hence the same remainder modulo 9. Therefore the result of each iteration of Kaprekar’s routine is a multiple of 9.

the equivalent constant for three-digit numbers is 495.

For five-digit numbers and above, there is no single equivalent constant; for each digit length the routine may terminate at one of several fixed values or may enter one of several loops instead.

Your Interesting Links

Science & Medicine

The medical profession has come to the conclusion that there are at least 40 common treatments which are not necessary (or don’t do any good).

In an interesting study, researchers conclude that there might be a relationship between migraines and gut bacterial species.

AIDS was brought to the USA by one promiscuous homosexual in 1980-81, right? Wrong; it had been there undetected for years!

So that’s how thy mummified the Egyptians.

Yes, cats obviously do get high on catnip, but not for long.

When is a monkey like a human? When it make stone tools. Yes, monkeys have been discovered making sharp stone tools, but do they know what they’re doing?

Lads, eat your heart out! This newly discovered millipede has four penises — but also 414 legs to get in the way.

OK, so from the animal to the mineral … Scientists have accidentally discovered how to turn CO2 into fuel.

As if we hadn’t guessed it, an ancient book confirms that the whole of the Himalayas is an earthquake zone.

Environment

The River Severn looks set to see Henry III’s favourite fish, the Shad, return after a project to install fish passes at a number of weirs gets funding.

History

A Stone Age dog’s tooth provides evidence of the UK’s earliest known journey.

The Museum of London has acquired a rare and unusual document: verbatim minutes of a report to Parliament on the Great Fire of 1666.

William Hogarth, entrepreneurial Londoner.
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It seems no-one knew there were some huge holes underneath the Clifton Suspension Bridge.

London

What Is London’s Oldest Church? Define “oldest”. Define “church” even.

It seems that procrastination and fudge are not the preserve of modern major civil engineering wroks. Here’s a brief history of the Regent’s Canal.

And the same again for the Underground’s Northern Line.

London has a new museum. It’s out at Pinner and celebrates the illustrator William Heath Robinson. Diamond Geezer when to investigate. [PS. The chiropractor mentioned is my osteopath.]


A Heath Robinson landscape painting

Westminster Bridge holds some secrets; here are 11 of them.

And another well kept secret is St Paul Cathedral’s triforium. Yet again, IanVisits went to see.

There are many facts about London, and indeed many about the Underground. Here are some Underground facts that aren’t.

Somewhere near Perivale there’s a fighter plane on a rooftop. except tat it isn’t always there.

Finally for this section, a happy 10th birthday to one of our favourite London blogs, IanVisits.

Lifestyle

How to confuse yourself about nothing and also about emptiness. Well that’s Zen for you!

Food & Drink

You mean you didn’t know that you shouldn’t put tomatoes in the fridge? Tut, tut!

Shock, Horror, Humour

Following on from our first item, here are 40 worthless everyday things you can stop doing right now.

More next month.

Monthly Interesting Links

You just can’t get the staff these days. This month’s issue of interesting links to items you may have missed is late again. Apologies. And there is a lot in this month, so let’s get going.

Science & Medicine

Our first item is a bit technical, but interesting … It seems that neural networks (models for what makes our brains work) have a deep connection with the nature of the Universe.

And now to some much easier topics …

We all get paper cuts from time to time, but why are they so painful?

Something else we all get from time to time is bags under the eyes. But why?

And in another BBC magazine story here’s something slightly scary … just what does live under our fingernails?

There’s a very odd and rare condition where people’s internal organs are arranged the wrong way round, in mirror image — it’s called situs inversus. This piece is about what it means and what it’s like if you have it.

One of the most demanding, important, and mostly unseen, medical specialisms is being an anaesthetist. No surgery can happen without them and your life really is in their hands. This is what it means to be an anaesthetist.

Sexuality

The clitoris is so often not understood and doesn’t get the attention it should (from its owner as well as from men). This piece talks about why this is important.

After a change in the law, Italy’s Supreme Court has ruled that public masturbation is not a crime as long as it isn’t done in the presence of minors. This could <cough> get interesting.

So why do polyamorous people fear ‘coming out’? Spoiler: mostly misunderstandings.

Lest anyone doubt it, sex workers are ordinary people like the rest of us. This was realised by a New York Times reporter who was investigating whether prostitution should be a crime (in the USA).

Environment

OK, so now for a complete change of tone. Here’s a forester and environmentalist who ​thinks trees talk to each other.

Things have always come in standard sizes, haven’t they? Well no, the concept of standard sizes really only starts with a German architect in the 1920s.

Social Sciences & Business

In case you’ve not caught up with it yet, here’s a piece on the UK’s new £5 note.

London

Did you know that London’s Monument (to the Great Fire on 1666) contains a secret laboratory?

Here are ten secrets about the Thames which you probably didn’t know.

And equally fascinating, just how do London bus routes get their numbers?

OK, so more secrets: here are ten places in London you’ll probably never visit.

Lifestyle

Not all of us see them as a necessity, so why do we bother with clothes? And no, it isn’t all about keeping warm.

Here’s another take on the health benefits of being a nudist.

Food & Drink

I bet we all do this, but here’s why you shouldn’t wrap food in aluminium foil before cooking it. Yes, its the appliance of science!

The Five Second Rule. Myth or not?

Here’s the latest finding: against all expectations it seems that hard-fat cheese is good for us.

Chris Leftwich is the one man in London who knows everything about fish and seafood. Londonist has the story.

Shock, Horror, Humour

And finally for this month, here are the winners of this year’s Ig Nobel prizes for research which makes you laugh and then think.

Toodle, pip!

Hinkley Point

After halting everything for a few weeks to allow time for a review, Prime Minister Theresa May has now given the go-ahead for the Hinkley Point C nuclear power station.

And I have to say, about bloody time too!

While I accept that nuclear power presents us with long-term waste storage issues, we desperately need nuclear for electricity generation. Renewables, in my estimation, aren’t going to hack it even if we do cover the country in windmills and manage to constrain our thirst for ever more energy.

No, nuclear isn’t without its challenges, but it is a whole bunch cleaner, less productive of “greenhouse gases”, and indeed overall safer, than coal, oil, gas or even biomass generation.

And yes, like many, I’m not entirely happy with the major involvement of a French energy company (EDF) or the need for Chinese funding and technology — but then we go longer have the skills etc., largely due to past government neglect of science and technology. So I still believe this is, overall, the right decision for both the country and the environment.