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Air pollution: the holy Hajj's health threat

Dr. Azhar Siddique

Dr. Azhar Siddique

Reporting this week at the annual American Geophysical Union, scientists from UC Irvine discussed air quality results from samples taken during the 2012 and 2013 Hajj.

The annual pilgrimage brings between 3-4 million people to the holy city of Mecca. Isobel Simpson, the lead researcher on this project, stated that, "The problem is that this intensifies the pollution that already exists. We measured among the highest concentrations [of smog-forming pollutants] our group has ever measured in urban areas – and we’ve studied 75 cities around the world in the past two decades.”

The worst locations were tunnels leading into the Grande Mosque where carbon monoxide levels were up to 300 times higher than baseline measurements, and pedestrians were often walking in large numbers alongside idling motor vehicles. Increases in carbon monoxide are linked to increased numbers of hospitalizations and deaths from heart failure. In addition to carbon monoxide, the team found elevated levels of benzene, black carbon, and other fine particulates that can affect lung function.

The main culprit here that can be addressed by the Saudi government is a lack of regulation over automobiles, gasolines, and exhausts. Currently, there is a significant lack of public transportation in the area, and nearly everyone owns a car. Those cars don't have the devices that are currently required and built into vehicles in the Unites States to limit pollution.

The easiest thing to fix would be separating pedestrians from cars in the tunnels, or at least spreading vehicles out more evenly among the tunnels leading to the Mosque, so that pollutants don't build up as much and negatively affect those walking in. Alternatively, improving ventilation in the tunnels would reduce deadly carbon monoxide build-up.

In the meantime, if you are planning to join the Hajj in the near-future, consider bringing an air-filtering face mask.

Black hole power in a lightning bolt

Have you ever been on a plane during a thunderstorm that experienced a direct lightning strike? While most commercial airliner will do their best to avoid thunderclouds delivering the wrath of the atmosphere, it's estimated that every plane in the U.S. is struck more than once per year.

Large commercial planes are equipped to route the electrical current from a lightning strike so that it avoids sensitive electronics, and most passengers may not even realize that a plane has been struck when it does occur. However, the electrical current and loud clap of thunder are not all that is produced by a bolt of lightning. It's only within the past 20 years that research has confirmed that lightning also emits x-rays and gamma-rays.

One source of x-rays is normal lightning, under normal atmospheric pressure that occurs near the ground. These x-rays are measured at strengths analogous to the energy range commonly emitted by CT scanning devices used in the health care industry. Then there are gamma-rays, high energy x-rays usually seen emitted by particle accelerators, exploding stars, and black holes, that have been detected as a continuous kind of glow within clouds. Additionally, a separate class of gamma-rays, called terrestrial gamma-ray flashes or TGFs, are even more powerful, brief bursts that can be seen by spacecraft and satellites in low earth orbit. TGFs are the most energetic phenomena on the planet, and are thought to be caused by intracloud lightning (lightning that occurs between clouds). TGFs appear all over the world where there are thunderstorms, but nobody understands exactly why or how.

Scientists at the University of Alabama in Huntsville reported in a press conference today at the 2014 American Geophysical Union that they have been delving into the world of these high energy particles associated with the  bursts of light, and have concluded that these TGFs can be produced by any type of storm from the "garden variety" to more extreme events. That weaker or moderate strength storms would produce TGFs was totally unexpected based on earlier theories.

While lightning strikes some 50 times per second around the globe, TGFs fire up to 1100 times per day based on data from NASA's FERMI Gamma-ray Burst Monitor (GBM). Separation of positive and negative charges between layer in the clouds leads to lighting, and sometimes when lighting does fire a surge of electrons is deflected upward. Those energetic electrons cause gamma ray flashes when they bump into other particles in the atmosphere. The TGFs that are measured by craft in low-earth orbit like NASA's FERMI GBM form between 7-9 miles high, but TGFs are likely to form at lower altitudes well. Although, because of attenuation in the atmosphere those at lower altitude are harder to detect from space, so the total numbers of TGFs are probably vastly underestimated.

In order to address this issue, researchers attempted a gutsy experiment in which they actually flew an Airbus plane into a thunderstorm. The plane was equipped with a system called ILDAS to measure various properties of lightning strikes. The plane entered the thunderstorm to measure the radiation coming from the storm at approximately 10,000 feet, and over five hours experienced extreme turbulence and more than 20 direct lightning strikes. The data from the flight corroborates previous ground-based measurements linking gamma-rays and x-rays to lightning strikes. As long as there are enough brave pilots, this type of in-storm research will be one way that the scientists can get a better understanding of lower altitude TGFs.

There are many questions remaining about how and why these high energy particles are produced by storms, and how they influence other atmospheric phenomena. What we do know now is that x-rays and gamma-rays that are detected can be tracked back to their source, the lightning, to help us learn more about the dangerous, dramatic, and mesmerizing flashes of light.

How sound affects taste


White wine goes with fish and red wine goes with meat. But some new research from the Crossmodal Research Laboratory at the University of Oxford has apparently unearthed evidence of an implicit relationship between what we eat and what we hear -- between taste and pitch, as Scientific American reports.

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Anatomical cookie-cutters

Boetech makes custom, 3D printed cookie cutters: brains, hearts, and skulls (plus plenty of non-antomical designs, of course).

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Does water freeze or boil in space?


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The emergence of science hacking in Madagascar

Ariel Waldman reports on how one of the world's poorest countries is tackling developmental challenges. Read the rest

LISTEN: Systems thinking and medicine -- brilliant lecture on systemic problem-solving

The lecturer for the BBC's 2014 Reith lectures is Dr Atul Gawande, a celebrated author and MD whose book The Checklist Manifesto: How to Get Things Right is a classic on how to think about systemic problem solving (which pays attention to how different people and activities come together to make and solve problems).

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Detoxing is bullshit

It's true that people with substance abuse problems can "detox" when they get clean, but the kind of "detoxing" offered by stuff in the grocery store or pharmacy has no basis in science and is just a scammy way to scare you into opening your wallet (the companies that sell "detox" can't even say what "toxins" they're getting rid of).

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Why no one wants to hear from James Watson

The co-recipient of the Nobel for revealing the double-helix structure of DNA is selling his medal because "no one really wants to admit" he exists -- but why is that?

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Hour documentary about the nature of reality

From BBC One, an episode of Horizon exploring that good ol' mindfucking question "What is reality?"

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Physics, or sorcery?

This table is being held up by the weight of the buckets that are resting on it!

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Nature makes all its papers free to view

The premiere science publisher will make shareable "read-only" links to its all papers stretching back to 1869, using technology from a startup that its parent company, Macmillan, has invested in.

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Milky Way over Devils Tower


David Lane's absolutely stunning image of the Milky Way over Devils Tower. If everything's ready here on the Dark Side of the Moon... play the five tones.

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Creationist "just can't" with museum's evolution propaganda

This lady just can't with the Chicago Field Museum's evolution propaganda. She rambles on about it for over 30 minutes in this video—and it's as hilarious as you might imagine.

This comes via the Bilerico Project, who had this to say:

Anyone who follows the infuriating "debates" about topics like climate change, vaccinations, and the choice myth of sexual orientation -- where fear, misinformation, urban legends, and pseudoscience are presented alongside scientific consensus as though both "sides" are equally legitimate -- knows that we've got a serious idiocy problem here in America.... (She can't pronounce "eukaryotes," but she knows her facts, you guys!)

Read their full post on the video here.

XKCD versus neurobollocks

In his latest strip, fMRI, Randall "XKCD" Munroe nails the problems with brain imaging studies that claim to have found the neuroanatomical link between certain kinds of thoughts and regions of the brain (see 2013's Brainwashed: The Seductive Appeal of Mindless Neuroscience for more).

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A neural "off-switch" for pain documented

In Endogenous adenosine A3 receptor activation selectively alleviates persistent pain states, a paper in Brain by researchers led from the St Louis University Medical School, scientists document their work in switching off neural pain pathways by activating an adenosine receptor.

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