Monthly Archives: January 2014


How Do You Smell

Last week a chemical spill polluted the drinking water of Charleston West Virginia. Over 7,000 gallons of a chemical used to process coal were dumped into the Elk river just upstream of the city’s water supply intake pipe. The leak was detected because the water took on the smell of licorice.

Among the traditional five senses; sight, hearing, touch, taste and smell, smell is unique. As it is an eminently chemical sense.

When you see a bowl of onion soup or for that matter a rotting possum by the side of the road, your perception is due to light reflected off the surface of these objects. Smelling either of these is chemical as it requires the movement of molecules from the object through the air and up into your nostrils. The molecules bind at specific sites, called receptors, which then causes the sending of signals through nerves to a specific area of the brain.

Different things smell differently because the molecules given off have different shapes and so bind at different receptors. Humans are though to have about 5 or 6 million receptors compared with rabbits, about 100 million, or dogs with over 200 million.



Smell is also unique in that it is difficult to quantify. How bright a light is can easily be measured in units of lumens and how loud a noise is in decibels. No such quantifiable scale exists for smells. We can talk about something smelling strongly or not but that is about all. And when it comes to qualitative measures it is difficult to get two people even to agree if something is an agreeable or a disagreeable odor.

Strangely the qualitative descriptor for a particular substance can depend on the concentration, that is, how many receptors bind with a substance. An extreme example is a molecule called skatole, which comes from feces, especially that of carnivores. Humans are very sensitive to this odor, probably because evolutionarily those individuals insensitive to the smell of the excrement of a saber-tooth tiger didn’t survive to produce offspring. Those sensitive individuals knew to clear out, and were more successful at producing progeny.

Here’s the crazy part. This same molecule known as skatole which is the essence of smelly animal poop, is used in perfumery! In very low concentrations it is perceived as an agreeable odor. Weird huh?

Smell is all about communication, from the simplest single celled organisms up to and through the plant and animal kingdoms. Sexual activity among animals is frequently modulated by chemical signals, called pheromones, from females to males.

The same is true in the arthropod world. Molecular trickery even exits. There are spiders which have evolved to produce the same pheromone as a prey moth. The spider sits in its web, emits the moth pheromone and then waits for the unsuspecting males moths looking for a good time.

Humans are no exception, but communication is on an unconscious level. Brain scans show that men and women react differently when exposed to the odor of certain hormones, even though they are not consciously aware. It’s been suggested that the use of perfume or cologne is not so much to smell nice as it is to disguise our true smells.

An odd feature of unconscious odor communication is the fact that women living in close physical proximity synchronize there menstrual cycles. There must be an evolutionary advantage but it is hard to imagine what that would be. One possibility considering that humans lived in small hunter-gathering societies 10 or 15 thousand years ago: Could it be that once a month all the men said -whoa boys, it’s that time of the month, maybe we should go off hunting for a few days.

wind turbine

Windy Arguments

The internet can be a veritable fount of information, but also a source of of disinformation. It is easy for an industry to hire bloggers to write confusing, disingenuous, and even deceptive posts about other industries to gain a competitive advantage in the marketplace. No where is this more obvious than the struggle between the fossil fuel industries and sustainable energy supplies such as wind and solar.

Wind generated power has taken a lot of derision, mostly undeserved, from the flacks for the fossil fuel industry, so let’s talk about wind energy.

Wind is expensive due to the production tax credit? Although the current production tax credit (2.3 cents per kWh) has expired, it may be reinstated. So, yes taxpayers are subsidizing wind power, to the tune of about six billion dollars a year. How does that compare to the subsidization of the fossil fuel industry? Just the health care costs due to burning fossil fuels is estimated to be the equivalent of 8 to 30 cents per kWh, or several hundred billion dollars a year.

Wind Turbines kill birds? Estimates are the wind turbines kill about 25 thousand birds a year, about 90 per cent songbirds, and the remainder raptors such as hawks and vultures. But is this rate of bird deaths important compared to other human caused bird mortalities? Total human caused bird mortalities are a billion birds a year. Collisions with buildings cause close to half a billion deaths. Cats, both pets and feral, kill about a 100 million. Cars, trains and planes cause another 100 million. When one considers total bird deaths, wind turbines would hardly rate a foot note.

What about human deaths? One can compare just how deadly wind turbines are by comparing the death rate per unit of electrical energy used. Wind deaths are 0.15 deaths per TeraWatt-hours per year. Competing technologies such as electrical energy from burning coal are 15 deaths per TWh/year and for Oil 36 deaths per TWh/year. Burning fossil fuels produces hundreds of times as many deaths.

And Jobs? Here we compare jobs created per million dollars spent on energy. Oil and gas, one job; coal, two jobs; wind five jobs. Interestingly building retrofits to save the same amount of money on energy is the winner with eleven jobs.

Wind turbines are noisy?

wind noise

wind noise

But just how noisy? Modern turbines have incorporated features that reduce noise from the swooshing blades and squeaking generators. The noise level at a distance of only three turbine blade lengths is rated as acceptable. The noise from a turbine a few suburban lots distant would be no louder than standing near a humming refrigerator, about 45 decibels.

But they’re ugly?

Nantucket site

Nantucket site

A large off shore wind project in Nantucket Sound will supply much of the electrical energy of Cape Cod, MA. It has been resisted by some local residents as unsightly. Not surprisingly Bill Koch, a coal and oil magnate, has provided 1.5 million dollars to lobbyists and a group called the Alliance to Protect Nantucket Sound.


Global Warming Denial

I’m old enough to remember commercials such as “More doctors smoke Camels than any other cigarette” – obviously if doctors smoke it has to be healthy. Or “when temped with indulgence, reach for a Lucky Strike” as if a cigarette is a healthy alternative to candy. One might excuse this as due to ignorance, but the hazards of smoking were known long before these commercials were aired.

Even today the deception continues, albeit more surreptitiously. Instead of advertising directly or acting under their own masthead to defeat anti-smoking legislation, they employ any number of front groups with names that imply that the represent consumers, or even health groups.

Robert Proctor, a professor of the History of Science coined a term for this kind of deceit: Agnotology – the study of culturally induced ignorance or doubt, particularly by the use of inaccurate or misleading scientific data.

Similar agents are at work in the realm of climate change denial. Fossil fuel industries hire lobbyists to influence congress and front groups to influence consumers. Make no mistake, the overwhelming majority of scientists around the world recognize that the climate is changing and we are responsible.

The public is told all too often that there is no problem, or even if the climate is changing it’s not fault. Unscientific positive effects are trotted out as real. We are told that scientists disagree. No where is it made clear that these views are a product, bought and paid for by the extractive industries.

This PR is presented as if it is a scientifically relevant alternative and all too frequently goes unchallenged by the media. The information superhighway can deliver deception more easily than
reality. In fact, front groups have in effect Balkanized the web. Now everybody can go and find just the view that supports their relatively uninformed preconceptions, not those which are the most valid. A couple recent examples are illustrious.

A research vessel studying climate change becomes stuck in antarctic ice. Certain news outlets tout this as proof that global warming isn’t happening. HA-HA, the poor saps trying to prove that the ice is melting get trapped in ice. The reality is that the ice they were trapped in was old ice, part of a seventy five mile long ice berg that broke off the Antarctic ice shelf, most likely due to global warming.

The recent cold snap paralyzing much of the United States is due to the temporary displacement of the Polar Vortex. It is an uncommon but well know meteorological phenomenon. The cold air is displaced to the south so that it is colder in Little Rock, Arkansas than Anchorage, Alaska. The denialist PR industry however would have you believe that the temporarily cold south means that global warming isn’t happening.

One final confounding principle is that the general public doesn’t read scientific journals, at best they listen to the evening news. The well funded front groups have convinced the media of the need for “on the other hand” and therefore get their message presented as balance.

The public is being lied to by a massive, well funded, PR campaign to prop up the sales of fossil fuels, to the detriment of us all.


Worried Sick- the Nocebo Effect

A synthetic form of thyroxine called Eltroxin, chemically and biologically identical to natural thyroxine, has been in use for over forty years. It is used effectively to treat hypothyroidism which if left untreated can result in a range of symptoms up to and including heart disease. In 2007 GlaxoSmithKline moved its manufacture from Canada to Germany. At the same time they updated the actual tablet, changing its physical form but leaving the active ingredient the same.

Shortly thereafter in New Zealand a trickle of reports of adverse side effects not seen before were received by a health monitoring organization. After the new side effects began to show up in the press, reports of the new symptoms skyrocketed over a thousand fold even though the only difference was the appearance of the pills, not the chemistry.

A study by a team of Italian gastroenterologists involved patients who were lactose intolerant and a control group who weren’t. The subjects were told that the study involved examining the effects of lactose on the gut. Even though the subjects were given only a glucose tablet which can not cause symptoms, forty four percent of those intolerant and and 26 percent of those tolerant, reported gastrointestinal problems.

Many here in the US and overseas suffer from a so called WiFi syndrome. A range of symptoms including nausea, head aches, joint pain etc. occur when they know they are exposed to electromagnetic fields, but only if they know they are exposed. There is absolutely no evidence that the EMF can cause these symptoms.

These examples are only three of hundreds of examples of what is know as the nocebo effect, from latin for “I shall harm”. In years past this may have been referred to as a form of mass hysteria, now more benignly called a psychogenic illness. In some cases it has been shown that the mere suggestion of a possible symptom or side effect can cause a biochemical change in the body which results in the symptom, but only from the suggestion.

This was shown elegantly in an animal model using rats. They were trained by classical Pavlovian training to become asthmatic. First the experimenters gave the rats a natural substance, histamine, which causes an asthma reaction and paired that with the ringing of a bell. In subsequent trials just the bell ringing would cause the rats to release excess histamine into their blood, thus triggering an asthma attack. If rats can be trained to become asthmatic, shouldn’t it be true that people who have asthma reactions could be trained to not react?

The nocebo effect is the evil twin of the better known placebo effect, latin for “I shall please”.

nocebo and placebo

nocebo and placebo

Any benefits of homeopathic medicine, and much folk medicine are a result of the placebo effect, including modern day agents associated with Traditional Chinese Medicine, acupuncture, much of chiropractic, and over the counter medications called nutritional supplements.

The question as to whether society should allow profit from the sale of placebos is a moral one. Should some one make money by suggesting that a nostrum will do something, even if it only works for believers? It sure works for Madison Avenue. Ca-ching.

Environmental Stewardship

This time of year we tend to look back on the past year, resolve to do better next year, or at least think about what the future will bring. In terms of energy supplies, we have in past years continued our reliance on highly subsidized fossils fuels, the use of which endangers the environment and contributes to our spiraling health care costs. Will we in the future resolve to be less wasteful? Will we resolve to do better as stewards of the planet, for our children’s sake?

The twentieth century will be looked upon as the heyday of fossil fuels, first coal, then oil and now increasingly natural gas. The availability of these fuels produced in North America is increasing which is good for the economy, but bad because the increase utilization of fossil fuels. This is bad for the environment and our health. There are two broad alternative futures;

hard vs soft energy paths

hard vs soft energy paths

business as usual where we favor big solutions like increasing reliance on nuclear reactors and abundant coal reserves, or what Amory Lovins described as the “soft energy path”. In this alternate future energy will be supplied by sustainable, dispersed energy sources such as wind and solar.

The big solution is basically a supply side, large scale strategy which favors production to meet demand, rather than the management of demand to impact production. Nuclear power in one form or another is realistically the only long term solution in this pathway. Due to economy of scale issues, nuclear reactors are very large, when measured by energy output. And unlike the suggestions of the fifties, nuclear power is not and will never be “too cheap to meter.”

And of course there is the yet to be solved problem of high level nuclear waste. Because of these problems the industry is both highly regulated and highly subsidized. The nuclear industry of the future, if it has a future, will be regulated so that the consumer is protected somewhat from the economic and environmental vagaries of energy production, but that will result in a larger governmental role to oversee said industries. This is the classic big industry, big government system which has been the historical trend over several generations. And it has worked more or less in not only the energy industry specifically but the economy in general. OK, there is the problem with the rich getting richer and the poor getting poorer, but that has also been the trend of late.

The soft energy path envisions power production to be greatly decentralized. When power is coming from wind turbines or solar panels economies of scale are not nearly as significant. Solar and wind will be done on a much smaller scale, as suggested by Kirkpatrick Sale in his book “Human Scale”. Power will be produced by individuals or local coops, with less need of big government oversight as the risks are considerably less. Production will be controlled by demand management through more emphasis on efficiency. In this strategy there is less need for big government, and less likelihood of extremes in wealth accumulation, at least in the energy sector.

So these are our possible energy futures as viewed through two extremes. I prefer the latter, but we will see what the future brings.