Charles writes, "It's hard to imagine how we would have gotten all of the whiz-bang technology we enjoy today without the discovery of probability and statistics. From vaccines to the Internet, we owe a lot to the probabilistic revolution, and every great revolution deserves a great story!
"The Fields Institute for Research in Mathematical Sciences has partnered up with the American Statistical Association in launching a speculative fiction competition that calls on writers to imagine a world where the Normal Curve had never been discovered. Stories will be following in the tradition of Gibson and Sterling's steampunk classic, The Difference Engine, in creating an imaginative alternate history that sparks the imagination. The winning story will receive a $2000 grand prize, with an additional $1500 in cash available for youth submissions."
What would the world be like if the Normal Curve had never been discovered? (Thanks, Charles!)
The stuff you use to make sex a little more smooth might have some serious drawbacks. Nothing has been proven yet — most of the data comes from disembodied cell cultures and animal testing, which doesn't necessarily give you an accurate picture of what's happening in humans — but several studies over the last few years have drawn connections between lubricant use and increased rates of STD transmission. (It also looks like some lubricants might kill off natural vaginal flora — the good bacteria that live "up there" and make the difference between a healthy vagina and, say, a raging yeast infection.)
Some of these studies have provided evidence suggesting that the ingredients in lubricants damage the cells lining the vagina and rectum — which would explain why those lubricants might facilitate STD transmission.
At Chemical and Engineering News, Lauren Wolf has a really well-researched, well-written story that will give you the low-down on this research without hype and without fear-mongering. Her story is easy to understand and explains what we know, what we don't know, and why this matters (besides the obvious, lubricants have been proposed as a possible means of applying topical anti-microbial STD preventatives).
Right now, the Food & Drug Administration doesn’t typically require testing of personal lubricants in humans. The agency classifies them as medical devices, so the sex aids have to be tested on animals such as rabbits and guinea pigs. Rectal use of lubricants is viewed by the agency as an “off-label” application—use at your own risk.
Questions about lubricant safety arose nearly a decade ago when microbicide developers were testing whether the detergent nonoxynol-9 could block HIV transmission. Manufacturers had been incorporating the compound into spermicidal lubricants for years because of its ability to punch holes in the cell membranes of sperm. In 2002, however, a Phase II/III clinical trial of a nonoxynol-9 vaginal gel failed to protect women from HIV infection. Not only that, but the detergent actually increased the risk of HIV infection in the sex workers tested—women living in countries such as South Africa and Thailand who used the product three or four times per day.
Lab work eventually revealed the reason for the paradoxical increase: Nonoxynol-9 is so good at punching holes in cell membranes that it not only bores into sperm but also into the cells lining the vagina and rectum. The mucosal lining of the vagina is a good barrier to infection all by itself, says Richard A. Cone, a biophysicist at Johns Hopkins University. But if that barrier gets compromised, all bets are off, he explains. After nonoxynol-9—still used on some condoms today—went from promising microbicide candidate to malevolent cell killer, scientists like Cone began to question the safety of other supposedly innocuous spermicide and personal lubricant ingredients.
Via David Kroll
In 1993, Stanley Williams survived a close-encounter with a volcano. A volcanologist, he was standing on the rim of Colombia's Galeras volcano when it erupted with little warning. Six of his scientific colleagues and three tourists were killed. Williams fled down the mountain's slope — until flying rocks and boulders broke both his legs. With a fractured skull, he managed to stay conscious enough to huddle behind some other large boulders and dodge flying debris until the eruption ended and his grad students rescued him.
Williams and the other scientists were there to study Galeras, and hopefully get a better idea of what signals predicted the onset of eruptions.
This is something we still don't understand well.
While volcanologists have identified some signals — like distinctive patterns of small earthquakes — that increase the likelihood of an oncoming eruption, those signals aren't foolproof predictions. There are still volcanoes like Galeras that give no warning. And volcanoes like Mt. St. Helens. In 2004, that volcano gave signals that it would erupt. And it did. Sort of. The Seattle Times described it as "two small burps and a lava flow". Basically, the signals don't always precede an eruption, and even when they do happen it doesn't tell you much about how big any ensuing eruption will be.
And that presents an interesting question, writes Erik Klemetti at Wired's Eruptions blog. How close to volcanoes should tourists really be? That's a question with real-world applications. This year, New Zealand's White Island volcano has been ... rather grumbly. Even as tourist boats continued to ferry people over for a view of the crater.
There has always been a fragile relationship between volcanoes and tourism. Volcanic features are some of the most fascinating in the world – just look at the millions of people who visit Yellowstone or Crater Lake National Parks for but two examples of hundreds of volcanic tourist attractions around the world (and that doesn’t even consider all the extinct volcanoes or volcanic deposits that can create amazing landscapes as well). However, with the splendor of volcanic features comes the danger that you, as a tourist, are visiting an active volcano. Sometimes, that danger is low, where either the volcano has been dormant for thousands of years, but the signs of magma beneath are still visible. However, the danger can appear to be low in some places but in reality, you are literally putting your lives in the hands of tour operators when you make the visit.
Read Stanley Williams' account of surviving the Galeras volcano
Photo by Michael Rogers, via GFDL and CC
I'm a nervous flyer. But I'm a lot better at it then I used to be. That's because, a few years ago, I learned that it's actually pretty common to survive a plane crash. Like most people, I'd assumed that the safety in flying came from how seldom accidents happened. Once you were in a crash situation, though, I figured you were probably screwed. But that's not the case.
Looking at all the commercial airline accidents between 1983 and 2000, the National Transportation Safety Board found that 95.7% of the people involved survived. Even when they narrowed down to look at only the worst accidents, the overall survival rate was 76.6%. Yes, some plane crashes kill everyone on board. But those aren't the norm. So you're even safer than you think. Not only are crashes incredibly rare, you're more likely to survive a crash than not. In fact, out of 568 accidents during those 17 years, only 71 resulted in any fatalities at all.
I was talking about this fact with a pilot friend over the weekend, and he mentioned one crash in particular that is an excellent example of the statistics in action. On July 19, 1989, United Airlines Flight 232 lost all its hydraulic controls and landed in Sioux City, Iowa, going more than 100 mph faster than it should have been. You can see the plane breaking apart and bursting into flames in the video above. Turns out, that's what a 62% survival rate looks like. (All the pilots you can hear talking in the video survived, too.)
In 2007, Popular Mechanics examined 36 years of NTSB reports and found that the majority of surviving passengers were sitting in the back of the plane. But that seems to depend a lot on the specifics of the crash and may not be a reliable predictor of future results.