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Cow Week: Angry cows vs. angry mothers

Editorial note — Cow Week is a tongue-in-cheek look at risk analysis and why we fear the things we fear. It is inspired by the Discovery Channel's Shark Week, the popularity of which is largely driven by the public's fascination with and fear of sharks. Turns out, cows kill more people every year than sharks do. Each day, I will post about a cow-related death, and add to it some information about the bigger picture.

Now that we have three entries behind us, Cow Week is starting to fulfill its intended function—a format in which to talk about what we do and don't know about why we consider some things risky and some things safe.

Today, we're going to look at the way different emotions have different effects on how we perceive risk. But first, the cow-related violence:

In 2011, a British teenager named Emma Gregory was attacked by cows. Like yesterday's victim, Gregory was crossing a cow pasture with a dog in tow. (Bear in mind here, crossing cow-occupied pastures as part of moving around your community is a more normal thing in the United Kingdom than it is in the United States.) Gregory survived and her furious mother launched a campaign to change signage around the field and generally make sure that people are familiar with the fact that cows are not always docile, friendly, and adorable.

Mrs Gregory also wonders whether or not it would be “reasonably practicable” to install temporary fencing alongside the public right of way to keep ramblers and cattle separate.

“Yes, I accept cows are extremely protective about their calves, but people need to be warned about the dangers through signs, [she said]. “There was no indication this sort of thing can happen and I know it is not unusual for cows to go after dogs, but there should be more warnings.”

This angry mom who took a chance and tried to convince her community to change its norms reminded me of a 2001 research paper by scientists at Carnegie Mellon and University of California, Berkeley. In the paper, the researchers documented four different studies that lead them to a single conclusion: Fear and anger affect our judgement, decision-making, and perception of risk in different ways. Specifically, the researchers found that people who self-reported as carrying around a lot of feelings of fear thought about the world in a more pessimistic way, and were liable to make the choices they thought would help them to avoid risk. The problem: The "safest" option wasn't always as safe as it seemed. It just looked that way to people who felt like failure, or doom, was imminent.

Meanwhile, people who told the researchers they were angry a lot of the time had responses that were more like those of happy people—they were more optimistic; and they were more liable to take risks and try something new.

The catch is that this distinction was strongest when the subjects were dealing with ambiguous events—situations where it wasn't clear whether there was actually a risk or how big the risk was, and where it wasn't clear how much control the subject had over the situation. In those circumstances, fearful people basically clammed up and tried to avoid doing anything new. In contrast, happy people and angry people didn't assume that the worst was going to happen, so they were more willing to try a different approach to solving the problem—a "risk" that, ironically, might make them more safe.

Read the rest of the story about the attack on Emma Gregory at Get Surrey

Read the study on fear, anger, and risk

PREVIOUSLY
Cow kills Irish pensioner
Bull gores man, follows him until certain he is dead
Welsh cattle hate dog walkers

Image: cows, a Creative Commons Attribution (2.0) image from emmett_ns_tullos's photostream

Cow week: Welsh cattle hate dog walkers

Editorial note — Cow Week is a tongue-in-cheek look at risk analysis and why we fear the things we fear. It is inspired by the Discovery Channel’s Shark Week, the popularity of which is largely driven by the public’s fascination with and fear of sharks.

Read the rest

Cow Week: Bull gores man, follows him until certain he is dead

Editorial note — Cow Week is a tongue-in-cheek look at risk analysis and why we fear the things we fear. It is inspired by the Discovery Channel's Shark Week, the popularity of which is largely driven by the public's fascination with and fear of sharks. Turns out, cows kill more people every year than sharks do. Each day, I will post about a cow-related death, and add to it some information about the bigger picture.

Some cow-related deaths are accidental, or at least understandable. When humans and animals live and work in close proximity, it's not surprising that humans sometimes do things that startle or scare the animals. And when 500-pound animals are scared, bad things can happen.

Other times, though, it really seems like the cows are out to get us. Take this story, related in the July 31st issue of The Times of India. Bhoop Narayan Prajapati, a 65-year-old resident of Deori Township in the Sagar district of Madhya Pradesh, was gored by a bull and later died of his wounds. But, the death turns out to be the culmination of a months-long feud between Prajapati and the bull, centered around Prajapati's attempts to get the bull to stop sitting in front of the door to his house.

Prajapati threw a cup of hot water at the bull one morning. The next day, the bull came back and gored him. But that wasn't quite enough.

Much to people's surprise, the bull reached the hospital following Prajapati. Deepak Chourasia, a town-dweller, said that when the mortal remains of the old man were being consigned to flames the bull again sprang a surprise by arriving at the crematorium.

There is a minor history between Prajapati and the bull. Six month ago, the bull had attacked the old man after he hit the animal with a stick. Prajapati was at that time admitted to a hospital where he stayed for more than a month due to leg injury, Deori police station inspector R P Sharma told TOI.

Yesterday, I told you about how cows kill more people every year than sharks, even though sharks are (by far) the more-feared species. Today, let's look at this from the shark's perspective. Turns out, sharks are actually threatened ... by us. Yes, they have pointy teeth, but we have harpoons and nets.

In a 2010 article for Our Amazing Planet, Charles Q. Choi reported that as many as 1/3 of all shark and ray species in the world are at risk of dying out. Most of the deaths are accidental. Sharks can simply end up caught in nets meant for other animals. But there's also a thriving trade in shark fins and plenty of money to be made in allowing fishermen to hunt sharks for sport. Overall, humans intentionally kill upwards of 73 million sharks a year, according to a 2009 New York Times editorial.

READ MORE
Read the rest of the Times of India cow death story
Read Charles Q. Choi's piece on the risk of shark extinction
Read the New York Times editorial on the death of sharks
Read a 2007 interview with Jean-Michel Cousteau on the threat to sharks and how to save them.

PREVIOUSLY
Cow Kills Irish Pensioner

Cow-related death story via Alston D'Silva

Image: Cows, a Creative Commons Attribution Share-Alike (2.0) image from jelles's photostream

Cow Week: Cow kills Irish pensioner

Last winter, I found out something really fascinating: Cows kill more people than sharks. It's true. Here's Popular Mechanics on the statistics:

Between 2003 and 2008, 108 people died from cattle-induced injuries across the United States, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. That's 27 times the whopping four people killed in shark attacks in the United States during the same time period, according to the International Shark Attack File. Nearly all those cow-related fatalities were caused by blunt force trauma to the head or chest; a third of the victims were working in enclosed spaces with cattle.

Pretty impressive for an animal usually described as mellow and passive.

It also throws some sharp relief on the way we talk about sharks. (And, for that matter, on the way we think about risk.) Much like the dichotomy between not-terribly-dangerous-but-highly-feared airplane travel and highly-dangerous-but-not-terribly-feared car travel, cows sneak in under our cultural radar—they kill effectively and relatively often, while we save up all our terror for the much, much less deadly shark.

I found out yesterday that August 12 through August 16 is Shark Week on the Discovery Channel. So I thought I'd provide a nice counterbalance here. From now through August 18 I will provide you with one example of cow-related killings every day. I should note that I'm not trying to make light of the incidents I post here. These are all very real deaths. People were hurt emotionally and that's not funny. What I'd like to do, though, is use these incidents to get us all thinking about how we assign risk to certain situations, and why some things are terrifying and others aren't and why that distinction is often entirely independent of the actual risks. We kick things off with an example from Ireland. This tragic case happened only a couple of months ago:

Michael O’Dea, 74, had gone to check on a calf with his son Eddie at their farm in Co Clare on Saturday morning. The crazed cow is understood to have turned on the younger man — and Mr O’Dea intervened to protect his son. The cow then attacked the pensioner who was fatally injured. It’s understood the animal kicked the helpless pensioner several times at the farm at Clonina near Cree.

Read the full story of Michael O'Dea at The Irish Sun

Read Popular Mechanics' cow attack survival guide

Image: Cow, a Creative Commons Attribution (2.0) image from jelles's photostream

The whooping cough vaccine your children get may not work as well as the one you got as a kid

About 20 years ago, the United States and a few other countries started using a different pertussis vaccine than had been used previously. The change was in response to public fear about some very rare neurological disorders that may or may not have had a relationship to that older vaccine (it couldn't ever be proven one way or the other).

The vaccine we use today was created to get around any possible mechanism for those disorders and, along the way, ended up having lower rates of the less-troubling (and far, far more common) sort of side effects, as well. Think short-term redness, swelling, or pain at the site of injection.

The downside, reports Maryn McKenna, is that this new vaccine might not be as effective as the old one. In fact, scientists at the Centers for Disease Control, Kaiser Permanente Medical Center in San Rafael, Calif., and Australia's University of Queensland’s Children’s Medical Research Unit, are raising the possibility that a less effective vaccine could be part of why we're now seeing a big increase in pertussis outbreaks.

In the most recent research, a letter published Tuesday night in JAMA, researchers in Queensland, Australia examined the incidence of whooping cough in children who were born in 1998, the year in which that province began phasing out whole-cell pertussis vaccine (known as there as DTwP) in favor of less-reactive acellular vaccine (known as DTaP). Children who were born in that year and received a complete series of infant pertussis shots (at 2, 4 and 6 months) might have received all-whole cell, all-acellular, or a mix — and because of the excellent record-keeping of the state-based healthcare system, researchers were able to confirm which children received which shots.

The researchers were prompted to investigate because, like the US, Australia is enduring a ferocious pertussis epidemic. When they examined the disease history for 40,694 children whose vaccine history could be verified, they found 267 pertussis cases between 1999 and 2011. They said:

"Children who received a 3-dose DTaP primary course had higher rates of pertussis than those who received a 3-dose DTwP primary course in the preepidemic and outbreak periods. Among those who received mixed courses, rates in the current epidemic were highest for children receiving DTaP as their first dose. This pattern remained when looking at subgroups with 1 or 2 DTwP doses in the first year of life, although it did not reach statistical significance. Children who received a mixed course with DTwP as the initial dose had incidence rates that were between rates for the pure course DTwP and DTaP cohorts."

You can read the rest of the story at Maryn's Superbug blog

A key thing to remember: This is a nuanced theory that may or may not turn out to be right. But, if it does turn out that this vaccine isn't as effective as we want it to be, that's not a dark mark against vaccines, in general. Sometimes, medicine doesn't work as well as intended. It's a risk of medicine. And the fact that it's major research institutions pointing this possibility out, should give people some comfort in the scientific process. If doctors and organizations who promote childhood vaccination are all in the pockets of an evil conspiracy then there would be no reason why they'd ever do research like this, or talk about it publicly.

Image: Day 59, Project 365 - 12.18.09, a Creative Commons Attribution (2.0) image from williambrawley's photostream

Four people dead on Mt. Everest, one still missing

A long line of climbers follow each other up Mt. Everest. Image: Ralf Dujmovits.

1996 was the deadliest year in the history of modern climbing on Mt. Everest. In one May weekend, eight people died when they were caught on the mountain in a storm. Over the course of the year, the death toll climbed to 15 total.

In the wake of that year, people tried to make sense of what had happened—particularly when it came to the May 10/11 deaths. All the reporting brought some internal mountaineering debates into the public eye in a big way for the first time. Is it really a good idea to treat Mt. Everest as an adventure-minded tourist attraction, suitable for anyone with a little climbing experience and enough money? What are the risks of having lots of inexperienced, guided trekkers up on the mountain at the same time? Do those climbers have enough climbing instincts to make the right decisions about going on or turning back when they're exhausted and under the influence of a low-oxygen environment? What can their guides do, under those circumstances, to force a right decision? Remember: This isn't a place where help is readily available if you get into trouble. Helicopters can only go so high up the mountain. And if you collapse, the chances of somebody else being able to carry you down are pretty slim.

These questions are likely to come back into the spotlight now. Between May 18th and 20th—last weekend—four people died on Mt. Everest. One is still missing. This time, there was no storm. Instead, the problems seem to be a combination of human error, "everyday" harsh conditions, and the fact that 300 people were trying to summit the mountain all at the same time.

Grayson Schaffer, an editor for Outside has been in the Everest Base Camp for the better part of a month. He's not attempting to climb up the mountain, himself. His story on the deaths is very much worth reading.

"THIS IS THE FIRST TIME I've seen it like this," says Onzchhu Sherpa, 31. Starting on the night of May 18 and going through the 20th, roughly 300 climbers, guides, and Sherpas crowded onto the upper slopes of Everest's Southeast Ridge. From the 19,000-foot shoulder of a neighboring peak, where I was watching, Everest appeared to be lit up like a Christmas tree with the headlamps of climbers converging from the mountain's north and south sides.

... What I can tell you is that the mood at Base Camp has been overridingly gloomy since the news of the mishaps first began trickling down the mountain. On the 19th the air may have been filled with the customary bell ringing that that signifies a team member has just radioed in from the summit, but later in the evening I heard loud sobs coming from the direction of the Korean camp. Even now, two days after the chaotic events, the details are foggy. That's because of inherently poor communications and the fact that many climbers are so exhausted and woozy from their efforts at altitude that they have a hard time even remembering what happened during their own climbs, let alone those of their teammates and strangers. With radio communications further hampered by geology and an endless stream of information that’s difficult to verify, it would be easier to report on a moon landing.

Read Grayson Shaffer's full account of the deaths on Mt. Everest

Thinking in a different language affects how you make decisions

Back in 2002, psychologist Daniel Kahneman won the economics Nobel Prize for showing that human beings don't have a really good intuitive grasp of risk. Basically, the decisions we make when faced with a risky proposition depend more on how the question is framed than on what the actual outcome might be.

The classic example is to tell a subject that there's going to be a disaster. Out of 600 people, she has a chance of saving 200 if she takes x risk. If she doesn't take the risk, everybody dies. Most people will take the risk in that scenario, but if you present the same situation and frame it differently—"If you take this risk, 400 people will die"—the decisions suddenly flip in the other direction. Nothing has changed about the outcome. But everything has changed in terms of how people feel about the decision they have to make. This is the kind of thing that matters a lot to economics because it helps to explain why economic behavior in the real world isn't always as rational and self-interested as it is in theory.

There's a new study out in the journal Psychological Science that might add another layer of complexity to Kahneman's research. If you're thinking and talking in your native language, you're likely to respond to a risky situation pretty much exactly as in the classic example. But, these researchers found that if you're thinking and talking about the situation in a second language, things change. At Wired, Brandon Keim explains:

The first experiment involved 121 American students who learned Japanese as a second language. Some were presented in English with a hypothetical choice: To fight a disease that would kill 600,000 people, doctors could either develop a medicine that saved 200,000 lives, or a medicine with a 33.3 percent chance of saving 600,000 lives and a 66.6 percent chance of saving no lives at all.

Nearly 80 percent of the students chose the safe option. When the problem was framed in terms of losing rather than saving lives, the safe-option number dropped to 47 percent. When considering the same situation in Japanese, however, the safe-option number hovered around 40 percent, regardless of how choices were framed. The role of instinct appeared reduced.

That's interesting. The researchers tried this basic thing with several different groups of people—mostly native English speakers—and used several different risk scenarios, some involving loss of life, others involving loss of a job, and others involving decisions about betting money on a coin toss. They saw the same results in all the tests: People thinking in their second language weren't as swayed by the emotional impact of framing devices.

One study doesn't prove this is universally true. Even if it is true, nobody knows yet exactly why. But Keim says that the researchers think the difference lies in emotional distance. If you have to pause and really put some brain power into thinking about grammar and vocabulary, you can't just jump straight into the knee-jerk reaction.

Read the rest of Keim's write-up on the study at Wired.com

Via Marilyn Terrell

Climate change isn't liberal or conservative: It's reality

Paul Douglas is a Minneapolis/St.Paul meteorologist. Meteorologists don't study the same things as climate scientists—remember, weather and climate are different things—but Douglas is a meteorologist who has taken the time to look at research published by climate scientists and listen to their expertise. Combined with the patterns he's seen in weather, that information has led Douglas to accept that climate change is real, and that it's something we need to be addressing.

Paul Douglas is also a conservative. In a recent guest blog post on Climate Progress, he explains why climate isn't (or, anyway, shouldn't be) a matter of political identity. We'll get back to that, but first I want to call attention to a really great analogy that Douglas uses to explain weather, climate, and the relationship between the two.

You can’t point to any one weather extreme and say “that’s climate change”. But a warmer atmosphere loads the dice, increasing the potential for historic spikes in temperature and more frequent and bizarre weather extremes. You can’t prove that any one of Barry Bond’s 762 home runs was sparked by (alleged) steroid use. But it did increase his “base state,” raising the overall odds of hitting a home run.

Mr. Douglas, I'm going to be stealing that analogy. (Don't worry, I credit!)

A few weeks ago, I linked you to the introduction from my new book, Before the Lights Go Out, where I argue that there are reasons for people to care about energy, even if they don't believe in climate change—and that we need to use those points of overlap to start making energy changes that everyone can agree on, even if we all don't agree on why we're changing.

But there's another, related, idea, which Paul Douglas' essay gets right to the heart of. Just like there's more than one reason to care about energy, there's also more than one way to care about climate. Concern for the environment—and for the impact changes to the environment could have on us—is not a concept that can only be expressed in the terms of lefty environmentalism.

You and I can think about the environment in very different ways. We can have very different identities, and disagree on lots of cultural and political issues. All of those things can be true—and, yet, we can still come to the same, basic conclusions about climate, risk, and what must be done. Here's Douglas' perspective:

I’m a Christian, and I can’t understand how people who profess to love and follow God roll their eyes when the subject of climate change comes up. Actions have consequences. Were we really put here to plunder the Earth, no questions asked? Isn’t that the definition of greed? In the Bible, Luke 16:2 says, “Man has been appointed as a steward for the management of God’s property, and ultimately he will give account for his stewardship.” Future generations will hold us responsible for today’s decisions.

This concept—Creation Care—is something that I've summed up as, "Your heavenly father wants you clean up after yourself." It's not a message that is going to make sense to everybody. But it's an important message, nonetheless, because it has the potential to reach people who might not otherwise see a place for themselves at this table.

Too often, both liberals and conservatives approach climate change as something that is tangled up in a lot of lifestyle, political, and cultural choices it has nothing to do with. Those assumptions lead the right to feel like they can't accept the reality of climate change without rejecting every other part of their identities and belief systems. Those same assumptions lead the left to spend way too much time preaching to choir—while being confused about why people outside the congregation aren't responding to their message.

That's why essays like Douglas' are so important. We look at the world in different ways. We come by our values for different reasons. But even though we might take different paths, we can come to some of the same places. Let's respect that. And let's have those conversations. Climate change is about facts, not ideologies. It's about risks that affect everyone. We need to do a better job of discussing climate change in a way that makes this clear. And that means reaching out to people with language and perspectives that they can identify with.

Read Paul Douglas' full post on Climate Progress.

Read more about energy, climate, and what we can do to make the message of climate science more universal in my book, Before the Lights Go Out.

Image: Weather, a Creative Commons Attribution (2.0) image from 66770481@N02's photostream

The war at home: Energy crisis and risk in America

Here are two myths you need to let go of:

The solution to high gas prices is more oil.

Climate change is something that happens to polar bears and people from Kiribati.

The truth is that fossil fuels are extremely useful and valuable. And, by their very nature, the supplies are limited. Likewise, climate change isn't just something that's going happen—it's already taking place, and you can see the effects in your own backyard.

Too often, I think, we talk about the risks of fossil fuel dependence and climate change in ways that make them seem abstract to the very people who use the most fossil fuels and create the most greenhouse gases. That's a problem. There are lots of reasons to care about energy. But I think that fossil fuel limits and climate change are the most pressing reasons. And I think it's incredibly important to discuss those very real risks in a way that actually feels very real.

This isn't about morality, or lifestyle choices, or maintaining populations of cute, fuzzy animals. (Or, rather, it's not just about those things.) Instead, we have to consider what will happen to us and how much money we will have to spend if we choose to do nothing to change the way we make and use energy.

Over at Scientific American, you can read an excerpt from my upcoming book, Before the Lights Go Out. In it, you'll read about the energy risks hanging over the Kansas City metro area—a place that, in many ways, resembles the places and lifestyles shared by a majority of Americans. You've probably never been to Merriam, Kansas. But you can look at Merriam and see what could happen in your hometown.

Merriam isn't a small town. There's nothing really recognizable as a small town central business district. Instead, Merriam's stores and offices are mostly concentrated along two major thoroughfares—Shawnee Mission Parkway and Johnson Drive. These wide, multilane roads are dotted with clusters of shopping centers and big box stores, like necklaces strung with fat pearls. The municipal building and the police station are a couple of nondescript offices that sit off the frontage of Shawnee Mission Parkway, on a ridge overlooking the Interstate. Nothing about that says, "Classic Americana."

Yet Merriam isn't a suburb, either—or an urban city. It's too dense to be the first and not dense enough to be the latter. Merriam has a mixture of house styles. Drive down one street, and you'll see a 1930s bungalow standing shoulder to shoulder with a spare little 1950s Cape Cod. Next to that, there's a 1980s split-level with windows on the front and the back but none on the sides. More than three generations of the American Dream are living here.

It's ironic that Merriam doesn't really fit any of the classic American paradigms, because, quite frankly, most of us have already left those paradigms behind. We talk about this country as if it's full of neatly defined small towns, big cities, and tidy suburbs. In reality, the places where we live are lot mushier than that. Merriam isn't the exception. Merriam is the rule.

Read the rest of this excerpt from Before the Lights Go Out at Scientific American.

Image: Kansas City Photos, a Creative Commons Attribution Share-Alike (2.0) image from publicworksgroup's photostream

Listen to a sane debate about nuclear energy

What happens when you get the chairman of the UK Atomic Energy Authority, the chief scientist of Greenpeace, an energy and environmental policy expert, and an environmental activist/politician in a room together to talk about nuclear energy?

You can listen to the whole (very, very interesting) conversation—part of the Science Question Time series—which was recorded last Thursday at the Institute of Physics in London.

I recently started describing my position on nuclear energy as "frienemies"—I'm not strictly against it, and think we're likely to need it, but I also have some serious issues with how safety is regulated and what we will do with the waste. I think this nuanced discussion did a nice job of laying out the benefits and detriments in a reasonable way. The discussion gets heated, but it is pleasantly lacking in the sort of wild-eyed propaganda and not-particularly-comforting-corporate-pronouncements that tend to characterize these sorts of debates. (Or, rather, it would be, were it not for one memorable audience heckler.)

Download the audio file.

Visit the Biochemical Society's website for updates about future Science Question Time events.

What happens when a Coronal Mass Ejection hits the Earth?

At approximately 11:00 am Eastern time (15 minutes from now as I type this), the Earth will come into contact with the largest Coronal Mass Ejection since 2005—a huge burst of charged particles and magnetic fields that exploded off the surface of the sun Sunday night.

Scientists have been tracking it as it headed our way. In fact, intrepid astronomy reporter Lee Billings contacted me this morning to tell me that ejection had just passed our Advanced Composition Explorer satellite, which is why we have such a precise estimate of when it would hit Earth. Despite the size of this CME, Billings says it probably won't cause any major damage. However, a larger CME that hit us with less warning very well could be a huge problem. That's because CME's can interfere, to varying degrees, with radio communications, GPS signals, and lots of other electronic stuff that we've come to rely on. What's more, Billings says, our warning system is aging fast. That ACE satellite, for instance, has enough fuel to survive to 2024, but it's equipment is old enough that it's likely to fail at any time.

Lee has written a great piece on Coronal Mass Ejections and the very real risks they pose to modern technology over at Popular Mechanics. It's a great breakdown of what CME's can do and what we do to prepare for them that manages to get the risks right, without becoming too hyperbolic and apocalyptic-y. It's 10:59 AM now. Happy CME!

A geomagnetic storm produces dangerous electrical currents in a manner analogous to a moving bar magnet raising currents in a coil of wire. When a CME hits the Earth’s magnetic field and sends it oscillating, those undulating magnetic fields raise currents in conductive material within and on the Earth itself. The currents that ripple through our planet can easily enter transformers that serve as nodes in regional, national, and global power grids. They can also seep into and corrode the steel in lengthy stretches of oil and gas pipeline.

On October 29, 2003, power grids around the world felt the strain from the geomagnetic currents. In North America, utility companies scaled back electricity generation to protect the grid. In Sweden, a fraction of a CME-induced electric current overloaded a high-voltage transformer, and blacked out the city of Malmo for almost an hour. The CME dumped an even larger mass of energetic particles into Earth’s upper atmosphere and orbital environment, where satellites began to fail because of cascading electronics glitches and anomalies. Most were recovered, but not all. Astronauts in low-Earth orbit inside the International Space Station retreated to the Station’s shielded core to wait out the space-weather storm. Even there, the astronauts received elevated doses of radiation, and occasionally saw brief flashes of brilliant white and blue—bursts of secondary radiation caused when a stray particle passed directly through the vitreous humor of the astronauts’ eyes at nearly light-speed.

Flares and CMEs from the Sun continued to bombard the Earth until early November of that year, when at last our star’s most active surface regions rotated out of alignment with our planet. No lives were lost, but many hundreds of millions of dollars in damages had been sustained.

The event, now known as the Halloween Storm of 2003, deeply worried John Kappenman, an engineer and expert in geomagnetic storm effects. The Sun had fired a clear warning shot. Its activity roughly follows an 11-year cycle, and severe space weather tends to cluster around each cycle’s peak. The Sun’s next activity peak is expected to occur this year or next, and the chance of more disruptive geomagnetic storms will consequently increase

The video above shows what the last big CME, in 2005, looked like. Video Link

Disaster book club: What you need to read to understand the crash of Air France 447

Right now, I’m reading a book about why catastrophic technological failures happen and what, if anything, we can actually do about them.

Read the rest

The future of energy and the future of risk

I got to have another great conversation with synthetic biologist and blogger Christina Agapakis on Bloggingheads.tv's Science Saturday. Christina and I chatted about some of the issues that came up at an energy conference I spoke at recently, examined the possibility of using synthetic biology to create fuel, and talked about how we navigate the often-confusing questions of technology and risk.

Fukushima: The first 24 hours

IEEE Spectrum has a big special feature online now about the Fukushima nuclear disaster and its after-effects. It includes an interactive map showing the impact that Fukushima has had on evacuation of residents, contamination of soil, and contamination of food and water supplies.

It also includes a blow-by-blow account of what happened during the first 24-hours of the disaster. This solid investigative reporting by Eliza Strickland highlights several key points where simple changes could have lead to a very different outcome than the one we got.

True, the antinuclear forces will find plenty in the Fukushima saga to bolster their arguments. The interlocked and cascading chain of mishaps seems to be a textbook validation of the "normal accidents" hypothesis developed by Charles Perrow after Three Mile Island. Perrow, a Yale University sociologist, identified the nuclear power plant as the canonical tightly coupled system, in which the occasional catastrophic failure is inevitable.

On the other hand, close study of the disaster's first 24 hours, before the cascade of failures carried reactor 1 beyond any hope of salvation, reveals clear inflection points where minor differences would have prevented events from spiraling out of control. Some of these are astonishingly simple: If the emergency generators had been installed on upper floors rather than in basements, for example, the disaster would have stopped before it began. And if workers had been able to vent gases in reactor 1 sooner, the rest of the plant's destruction might well have been averted.

The world's three major nuclear accidents had very different causes, but they have one important thing in common: In each case, the company or government agency in charge withheld critical information from the public. And in the absence of information, the panicked public began to associate all nuclear power with horror and radiation nightmares. The owner of the Fukushima plant, the Tokyo Electric Power Co. (TEPCO), has only made the situation worse by presenting the Japanese and global public with obfuscations instead of a clear-eyed accounting.

Citing a government investigation, TEPCO has steadfastly refused to make workers available for interviews and is barely answering questions about the accident. By piecing together as best we can the story of what happened during the first 24 hours, when reactor 1 was spiraling toward catastrophe, we hope to facilitate the process of learning-by-disaster.

I'm reading Perrow's Normal Accidents: Living with High-Risk Technologies right now. I'm not very far into it yet, but it will be interesting to contrast the thesis I see him putting together— i.e., you're never going to account for all those simple-in-retrospect things that could have stopped a disaster and, in fact, trying to solve some of those lapses actually causes others—with Strickland's riveting account of the first day of Fukushima.

Image: Fukushima 1 Nuclear Power Plant_27, a Creative Commons Attribution (2.0) image from hige2's photostream

A new system for studying the effects of climate change

I've talked here before about how difficult it is to attribute any individual climactic catastrophe to climate change, particularly in the short term. Patterns and trends can be said to link to a rise in global temperature, which is linked to a rise in greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere. But a heatwave, or a tornado, or a flood? How can you say which would have happened without a rising global temperature, and which wouldn't?

Some German researchers are trying to make that process a little easier, using a computer model and a whole lot of probability power. They published a paper about this method recently, using their system to estimate an 80% likelihood that the 2010 Russian heatwave was the result of climate change. Wired's Brandon Keim explains how the system works:

The new method, described by Rahmstorf and Potsdam geophysicist Dim Coumou in an Oct. 25 Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences study, relies on a computational approach called Monte Carlo modeling. Named for that city’s famous casinos, it’s a tool for investigating tricky, probabilistic processes involving both defined and random influences: Make a model, run it enough times, and trends emerge.

“If you roll dice only once, it doesn’t tell you anything about probabilities,” said Rahmstorf. “Roll them 100,000 times, and afterwards I can say, on average, how many times I’ll roll a six.”

Rahmstorf and Comou’s “dice” were a simulation made from a century of average July temperatures in Moscow. These provided a baseline temperature trend. Parameters for random variability came from the extent to which each individual July was warmer or cooler than usual.

After running the simulation 100,000 times, “we could see how many times we got an extreme temperature like the one in 2010,” said Rahmstorf. After that, the researchers ran a simulation that didn’t include the warming trend, then compared the results.

“For every five new records observed in the last few years, one would happen without climate change. An additional four happen with climate change,” said Rahmstorf. “There’s an 80 percent probability” that climate change produced the Russian heat wave.