Can’t stop 

I’ve been so busy today. Kids party, dog walking, dog bathing, shopping, some DIY for the family, some DIY at home, and then we’re taking the kids out this evening. (Not in a hitman way, ok?) 

I probably won’t get chance to write even a short blog post, so sorry for that in advance.  

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There’s a hint of spring in the air. That’s good, because spring is nice and warm and a forerunner of summer (yes, that happens here too). It’s not so great because we still need quite a lot of winter rain to fill up our dams.

Here’s spring-like quota photo of a Eurasian Blue Tit (Cyanistes caeruleus) exiting a nesting box last spring in Sheffield:

I’ll admit that I couldn’t remember the scientific name for this little guy, so I had to look it up. On the page was this:

Fullscreen capture 2016-08-26 022854 PM.bmp

Yeah. Bit generic, that second one.

Interestingly, the Common chaffinch (Fringilla coelebs) continues to be a problematic invasive species but only in certain parts of the Southern Suburbs:

The chaffinch was introduced from Britain into several of its overseas territories in the 19th century. In South Africa a very small breeding colony in the suburbs of Constantia, Hout Bay and Camps Bay in Cape Town is the only remnant of such an introduction.

I was shocked when I saw one in Bergvliet last year. Seeing a chaffinch was shocking, but worse was the sudden realisation that I was in Bergvliet.

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Let’s make electricity

Shall we? Well, we need to.

We’re short of electricity. We have been for a long while. Things have been better recently, but that’s mainly due to the economic downturn rather than any huge increase in generating power.

So, we need more electricity so that when things pick up again (lol!), we are ready to go and there are no further instances of “rolling blackouts” or “loadshedding”.

Much has been made of the SA Government’s insistence of going down the nuclear route. Currently, we have just one nuclear power station, just up the road at Koeberg. The alleged R1 trillion deal with Russia would add several more, and also the opportunity (so the cynics say, at least) for massive kickbacks, corruption and general naughtiness.

The cynics may well be right. But their fears are not what this post is about.

Brian Molefe, group chief executive of Eskom, allegedly recently stated that nuclear was “the cheapest option” and a local fact checking website went after him on that claim. They found, perhaps unsurprisingly, that his alleged claim was incorrect. But his inaccuracy is not what this post is about.

Here’s a screenshot of a graph that Africa Check’s data generated (geddit?):

Fullscreen capture 2016-08-25 120214 PM.bmp

And you can see that Brian was incorrect. Naughty Brian. Well done, Africa Check.

Thankfully, one thing everyone can agree is correct is that South Africa needs to generate more electricity. Oh, and that we really can’t afford to pay any more for it. So, what exactly are our options?

There’s hydroelectric. Clean, renewable, easy, cheap. It would be lovely to run our country with electricity from mountain streams and melting snow. But we don’t have mountains streams and melting snow. In fact, we have a few issues with the amount of water we have available for anything full stop. Put simply, there just isn’t enough water to make HEP a viable option.

There’s coal. Coal is cheap, we have lots of coal and we have lots of big coal-fired power stations. But coal is filthy. It makes shedloads of greenhouse gases and a billion other pollutants that no-one wants. Greenpeace says no to coal, and it’s just about the only thing I agree with them on. Going forward, coal should not be on the table (or in the furnace) for generating electricity.

Next up is gas. It’s there with wind and nuclear as a level levelised cost. Now, I happen to know that just under the Karoo is (conservatively estimating) about 450 000 000 000 000 cubic feet of shale gas. And I’d tap that gas. We could drop coal, drop our carbon emissions and make lovely, relatively clean, relatively cheap electricity. Except the green people aren’t happy with the plan to extract the shale gas. We’ve covered this… er… “extensively” on 6000 miles… I don’t think I need to go into again. Shale gas would be brilliant for SA. But the bunnyhuggers are determined that it won’t happen.

There’s nuclear – right there. Reasonably cheap, very clean, super reliable. Look at Koeberg – running without any big problems since 1984. There may be issues about corruption, but whatever methods we choose, this is electricity generating infrastructure on a massive scale. Sadly, there will always be those opportunities.

Still, wind looks like an option. Until you do the sums, that is. Remember that the nuclear option is for 9.6GW of electricity generation. Now look at this:

At 3MW per massive 145 metre (90m hub + 55m blade) turbine, you’d need 3,200 turbines! And that’s assuming 100% efficiency. Wind farms don’t do 100% efficiency. Wind farms only do about 30% efficiency (and I’m being nice here). So basically 10,000 turbines to guarantee that 9.6GW figure. If you’ve seen the blot on the landscape that is the Dassiesklip Wind Farm near Caledon, you’ll see how much of an eyesore just 9 (nine) turbines can be. And how much space they take up.
Dream on.

Look at the left hand side of that bar chart. Realistically, you’d probably have to rule out solar on the grounds of price. Oh, and also, the ridiculous scale required:

To achieve the 9.6GW capacity planned for this nuclear thing, we’d need something about 33 times the size of the current largest solar park in the world. That would cover 32,043 hectares and would cost about $33 billion.

So, no. Nuclear might not be the cheapest option for generating electricity in South Africa. And Brian Molefe shouldn’t be saying that it is. But until someone comes up with any other viable option – and I really don’t see anything reasonable on the table or anywhere close – it might well be the best option for electricity generation in South Africa.

Whether you like it or not.

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Communicating science

Last night, just before switching the lights out at Chez 6000, I caught sight of this link telling me “why scientists are losing the fight to communicate science to the public”, and shared by Jacques, along with this excerpt:

Tellingly, Gawande refers to the ‘scientific community’; and he’s absolutely right, there. Most science communication isn’t about persuading people; it’s self-affirmation for those already on the inside. Look at us, it says, aren’t we clever?
That’s not communication. It’s not changing minds and it’s certainly not winning hearts and minds.
It’s tribalism.

Well, I thought, that should be good for a read. And then I fell asleep.
Understandably too: it had been a long day in the lab.

So, when I woke up today, and once my morning duties were out of the way, I did read it.

“Hmm,” I thought, “Not quite, mate.”

And then I wrote this.

It’s not that I disagree with everything that Richard P Grant says. Not at all. It’s just that, for me, he misses out on several important points regarding “scientists” “communicating” “science” to the “public”.

Scientists, by definition, do science. If they are in a position whereby they have done science to such a point that it’s something considered worth communicating to the public, then it would seem reasonable to assume that they are pretty good at doing science. At no point, however, does it follow that they are good at communicating this, especially to the public.
So who do we appoint to communicate our science to the public? Well, that’s where things begin to fall apart.

A lot of science is pretty technical, and there’s definitely a skill in being able to translate that technical language into something that the general public can understand. That’s not belittling the public (not intentionally, anyway). Every profession has its own specialised terms and language: legal, building, engineering, accounting, retail, whatever. The scientist above is fluent in Sciencese – they speak it every working day and have done for years. But they might as well be speaking Azerbaijani if they’re going to use it to communicate their exciting findings to the public. (Obviously, this point assumes that the presentation in question is not taking place in Baku.)
Thus, 99% of the time, using the scientist to communicate science to the public is out. After all, when we try it, it can go horribly wrong. (Sidenote: I still get angry about that story.)

“Fortunately”, we now have celebrity scientists like the Peter Pan-esque Brian Cox; celebrity scientists who are gainfully employed in the art of wandering past radio telescopes in far-flung lands, speaking slowly and waving their hands, demystifying science and providing it in an understandable, bitesize format to the general public. But there are problems here as well: often, the science is so dumbed-down that it’s near unrecognisable as actual science. Again, not necessarily Prof Cox’s fault. However, Grant’s use of the phrase describing Cox as “performing a smackdown” highlights another issue – these scientists are primarily celebs now – it’s about performing and drawing viewers, and the science is often lost, buried in the making of a popular show.

We could go to the newspapers. Or… er… not. Because then, we have to add another dash of sensationalism (along with the inevitable misunderstanding and inaccuracy) to the mix. In my experience, many of the journalists writing about science in the popular press don’t really actually understand the science they are writing about. Certainly in newspaper reports about the science that I know about, the stories regularly miss the point, and filled with wild misinterpretations and are, in a lot of cases, simply not correct. When you’re writing about a field that is founded on logic and rationale – “cutting through bullshit and getting to the truth of the matter is pretty much the job description” – inaccurate reporting is actually worse than not reporting at all.

But the fact is that most science is really rather dull. It’s mundane, routine stuff. Landing a washing machine sized satellite on a comet half a billion kilometers from earth really is the sharp end of things. Most of the stuff we do on a daily basis leaves us cold and unfulfilled, let alone the public.

But then, the public to whom we’re allegedly losing the fight to communicate science. In addition to the challenges I’ve described above, what about them?

Yeah, they’re problematic.

Can I be honest here? Because it’s not just (as Grant points out) that “people don’t like being told what to do”. Sure, that is a factor, but there are a couple of bigger elephants in the room: generally, the public don’t actually care about science, and generally they are too stupid to understand it anyway oops – I mean: “you’ve got a population that is – on the whole – not scientifically literate”. Yeah. That’s it.

But then, do the public actually need to have science communicated to them? When I walk into a lift in a tall building, I don’t need to know how the motor works, nor why the cable chosen was the cable chosen. I just assume (hopefully correctly) that there is an expert who has made these decisions for me (hopefully correctly). I don’t need to know why, and actually, I’m fairly uninterested as well. Maybe scientists need to understand that people actually don’t care about what we do and what we achieve. They just want to go to the doctor and be given the correct antibiotic or other drug, they don’t care how it was discovered.
This “fight to communicate science to the public” – does it really need fighting?

For me, perhaps, the saving grace in all of this are popular science magazines. The higher end ones: New Scientist, Scientific American, DiscoverNat Geo (to a point, anyway). These are scientists best bet in communicating science to the public. They’re technical enough to be challenging and to help people learn, but without being inaccessible. And, perhaps more importantly, because they are voluntarily purchased and read by those individuals who want to be told about these things.

As for the excerpt shared by Jacques and which opened this rather long op-ed (sorry), well yes, a lot of science communication is amongst the “scientific community”, and maybe some of it is for self-affirmation and validation. A lot of it is essential to establish collaborative and symbiotic research and progress though. And anyway, that aspect of scientific communication isn’t what Grant’s otherwise generally valid article is about: it comes across as a bit of an unnecessary (if not entirely inaccurate) dig. There’s a whole other piece to be written about the way science is funded, communicated and carried out in academic and/or research institutions. It’s a lot longer and more boring than this one, I promise. And I’m not going to write it.

In the meantime, that line on scientific communication: “Look at us, it says, aren’t we clever?”
Well yes, actually we are – it’s just that we’re not very good at telling you about it and you don’t really care anyway.

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Death by bagpipes

Not the irritating, droning, invasive noise that they produce. No, the microbiological, mycological nastiness that lurks inside them if you don’t clean your instrument often enough.

This paper from Thorax – which is “one of the world’s leading respiratory medicine journals, publishing clinical and experimental research articles on respiratory medicine, paediatrics, immunology, pharmacology, pathology, and surgery, and the official journal of the British Thoracic Society” – fills us in on all the details.

The subject was a 61-year old man who exhibited signs of Hypersensitivity* Pneumonitis (HP) – a sort of allergic reaction to “something”, which damages the lungs and causes difficulty with breathing. Keeping birds can be the trigger for HP – it’s called “Pigeon Fancier’s Lung”, and it is relatively common amongst, well, pigeon fanciers. But upon investigation, our 61-year-old didn’t fancy pigeons.

Fungi can also be implicated as the “something” which sets HP off, but they checked his house out and there was no mould or water damage. There must be some other trigger…

This case highlights the importance of a careful clinical history including hobbies, because in this case, playing the bagpipes, we feel, was very relevant to the development of HP.

Yeah. Look, the title of the post had kinda given the game away anyway.

But yes:

The clinical history of daily bagpipe-playing coupled with marked symptomatic improvement when this exposure was removed and the identification of multiple potential precipitating antigens isolated from the bagpipes make this the likely cause.

And boy, oh boy, did they identify multiple potential precipitating antigens from the bagpipes, including (but not limited to) Paecilomyces variotti, Fusarium oxysporum, Penicillium species, Rhodotorula mucilaginosa, Trichosporon mucoides, pink yeast and Exophiala dermatitidis.

Fullscreen capture 2016-08-23 104547 AM.bmp


So, if you play the bagpipes, for the love of god, please stop. But if you must continue, then at least clean your instrument regularly. And that goes for any other instrument you put in your mouth as well.
Stop sniggering at the back.

Wind instrument players need to be aware of the importance of regularly cleaning their instruments and of potential risks. Physicians should be aware of this potential risk factor and promote wind instrument hygiene.

So then, bagpipes – now added to the list of things which are trying to (and succeeding in) killing you.

* “hypersensitivity” here referring to an overzealous immune reaction, not people seeking attention and validation by “getting offended” over nothing on twitter.

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