Doubters wont disappear1 October 2004
The international flow of anecdotes will not be impeded
The late, great, philosopher of (among other things) science, Karl Popper, accepted that scientific method provides evidence for scientific hypotheses, theories, laws and so forth. But he argued that, however well these fit the available facts, the theories etc are not thereby proved to be true. A single new fact can falsify them, and it is the scientists’ job to seek out such falsifying facts in order to get more comprehensive theories.
That discouraging doctrine sprang disconcertingly into my mind when I read about certain research by the UK’s National Radiological Protection Board and the same country’s Brunel Institute for Bioengineering. This work* was done because of persistent worldwide reports, some of them supported by epidemiological studies, that childhood leukaemia seemed to be ‘weakly’ associated with exposure to power-frequency magnetic fields.
To test this association the researchers conducted a rigorous double blind study in which human blood lymphocytes were exposed to 50 Hz magnetic fields, accompanied on occasion by gamma rays. The fields were much stronger than those that reach people generally from power lines or domestic appliances. No evidence emerged of consequential chromosomal abnormalities. The hypothesis of a causal link between power-frequency magnetic fields and childhood leukaemia was found to lack factual support.
An announcement by the National Radiological Protection Board praised the ‘elegance’‚ of the experimental machine that was designed and built for this truly scientific investigation. But I doubt whether the international flow of anecdotes contradicting its findings will be impeded. And Popper’s dictum could be cited by every confident technophobe who thinks that he has detected new evidence near power lines or electrical appliances.
PS. I hear, on good authority, that a UK professor of building science is patenting an artefact, without any moving parts, for converting wind energy. I don’t know how. If he succeeds he will certainly disprove some theories of mine!
This measured progress is too slow
Globalisation irks some people, including some power and energy people, but there is one respect in which most of us might agree that it could usefully go further and faster: the standardisation of measuring units and their abbreviations. Progress towards a single world order has been made but the results remain patchy.
As far as I can see the official international measurement system, known as the SI†, has not seamlessly and at every level united the New World with the Old, the northern with the southern hemisphere, developed with developing countries (individually or in blocs), or general publics with special-interest groups.
Not all energy industries – and not even all electrical industries – are willing to give up their cosy habits for the sake of scientific and technological globalisation. What I have heard called ‘petroleum patois’ is still studded with survivals overqualified for superannuation. Some users will possibly go on speaking of oil quantities in barrels – whimsically abbreviated bbl – until the last drop of liquid fossil fuel is squeezed out of our parched and overheated planet. (Beer, wine and cranberry are also traded in barrel numbers, by the way, but those commodities’ handlers have not, to my knowledge, applied any affectionate diminutive like bbl to their measuring units.)
Readers of Petroleum Review, the journal of the UK’s old Institute of Petroleum (which has merged with the UK’s old Institute of Energy to form the UK’s new Energy Institute) have been for some time spared such abbreviations as BBLOE – which used to appear commonly in the hydrocarbon literature for barrels of oil equivalent. In the helpful list of abbreviations provided on the Review’s contents page, that unwieldy batch of initials was some time ago replaced by boe. In its spirit of rationalisation the paper banished all single-letter abbreviations from its definitive list and standardised on double-letter terms. It allowed kW, MW and GW, for instance, but shunned little things like W. This policy created a new meaning for the abbreviation cm, which was translated as cubic metres.
Which reminds me, for no really good reason, of another linear measure that can also do service for capacity. The yard is an ancient English unit, nearly as long as a metre, that is still quite popular in English-speaking countries. Popular in another sense is a long drink in a glass called, inevitably, a yard of ale.
*Reported by P Hone et al in British Journal of Cancer, Vol 88, No 12, 2003.
†The Système International d’Unités, or International System of Units.