The Week That Was
May 3-9, 1999

The "dynamic duo," is in the news again, crusading against junk science:

Dr. Michael Gough, a former OTA scientist (the erstwhile Congressional scientific watchdog agency), has an enviable record of demolishing all sorts of phony scientific claims. But he saves his breath for the American Lung Association. Its medical arm, the American Thoracic Society, just decided to separate from the ALA and buy back its journal even though the financial cost was very high. Seems that in 1995 the ALA pressured two distinguished members of the society not to testify against the "science" used to shore up proposed EPA regulations on SO2. "Whether or not EPA’s awarding $3.7 million to the Washington ALA office contributed to the decision to pressure the scientists isn’t clear," Gough opines in a letter to the Wall Street Journal (5/5/99), "but it is clear that the ALA silenced them."

Unfazed by possible ethical conflicts, the ALA is upbeat and looking forward to even better times (i.e., more money). Its CEO says, regretfully, that even though "…asthma isn’t the disease that will make it for us," lung disease "is on the upswing…and could become the leading cause of death in the 21st century." What a cheering thought; just think of all the contributions from donors, and from taxpayers too, to the ALA’s fat budget.

In the meantime, Steve Milloy, publisher of the Junk Science Home Page attacks the "secret science" which EPA is using to back up its May-1 proposal. EPA aims to impose ever more stringent emission standards (on SUVs) and remove even more sulfur from motor fuels, requiring consumers to pay multi-billions in higher prices for cars and gas. Not that it’ll do much for air quality. Still, EPA claims up to $16 billion in annual net benefits, based on their wild assertion that 2400 lives would be saved annually. Trouble is that this number is based on a single, controversial statistical study (known as the "Pope study"), suspected of being junk science. The study is not available for independent examination, not even to the House Commerce Committee. This may soon be tested, however, by the Freedom of Information Act (signed by Clinton 1998.)

Sort of reminds us of the notorious EPA estimate for the "benefits" of avoiding a minor amount of ozone depletion. That number, given in testimony before two Congressional committees, was $32 TRILLION! (We kid you not). Needless to say, EPA testimony never substantiated this estimate; we are still looking for a scholarly publication in a peer-reviewed journal.

While we’re on junk science, we saw this droll Letter against food irradiation in the Washington Times. The writer warns of "food treated with radiation from some of the most toxic elements known to humankind." Should one laugh at this or cry because of the scientific ignorance displayed?

And radiation from electromagnetic fields still sparks interest. A massive new Canadian study showing no link between childhood leukemia and EMF confirms a monumental 1997 study by the National Cancer Institute. But will EMF fears die away and let people enjoy cell phones and electric blankets? Don’t bet on it.

The Paris-based International Energy Agency of the Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) predicts that world oil production will peak in as little as ten years and then begin a steady decline. It is not clear whether the IEA would like us to practice energy conservation so as to stretch out the available oil, or whether they want us to speed up its use to bring about the end of the fossil-fuel era as quickly as possible, and make room for solar cells and wind turbines. It’s not quite clear either how this will affect road and air transportation, which currently depend 100% on oil. Let’s just hope that the IEA is wrong, just like many other prophets who predicted the end of oil in the past. Now, if you mount a windmill on your car and go real fast, won’t that generate enough energy to run your car? We are waiting for an answer.

But Green power may be waning! Federal tax credits for wind energy are about to expire. After June 30, new projects (wind, solar, closed-loop biomass) no longer qualify for the subsidy of 1.8 cents per kilowatt-hour. Existing projects are still grandfathered, however; that subsidy, a gift of the Energy Policy Act of 1992, costs the tax payer about $100 million a year [estimated by David Wojick]. But never fear; the Administration’s new electricity bill would mandate a federal "Renewable Portfolio Standard," setting a quota for qualifying renewables (hydro is excluded!) of as much as 7.5% of the total electricity market. That will cost consumers a pretty penny. No wonder that the House Finance Committee is being lobbied to death by the wind folks. But if Chairman Bill Archer can withstand the hurricane, it may all blow over.

Talking of pennies: If wind loses accelerated depreciation (a 5-year write-off instead of 20), its true price becomes 6-8 cents per kWh, versus new natural gas capacity at 3 cents, and surplus power at 2 cents. (And wind energy is intermittent!) [Note to our Danske venner: Without subsidies, this will take their sales out of the wind.]

Some proposed energy schemes are really wild. Is Cold Fusion coming back? Look at what some call STAR IN A JAR.

A pulse of ultrasound passing through a liquid in which a gas is dissolved creates bubbles. In the rarefied phase of the sound wave, a bubble grows from about 5 microns to around 70 microns in diameter, about the thickness of a human hair. Then, as rarefaction gives way to compression, the bubble collapses with incredible force. The gas inside the bubble is rapidly compressed, raising its temperature to a stellar 30,000 K, creating a plasma of ions, neutral atoms and electrons and an intense flash of light, a phenomenon called sonoluminescence. Its physical basis has been controversial since it was first observed a decade ago. In a report in NATURE 1999, p402, Detlef Lohse of the University of Twente (Netherlands) and colleagues, extend the mathematical model conventionally used to explain bubble dynamics, and can now account quantitatively for many features of the observed behavior of the light emitted from collapsing bubbles.

This research may seem arcane, but could have immense consequences: as Robert Apfel of Yale University speculates in an accompanying News and Views article. The collapse of bubbles of a millimeter in diameter a factor of ten greater than those currently observed might create suitable conditions for table-top thermonuclear fusion. A "star in a jar" might be realized if the heavy hydrogen isotopes, deuterium and tritium, were the gases in the bubbles, creating little H-bombs. Nobody knows whether it is even possible, and given the hype attached to "cold fusion," a small community of sonoluminescence researchers is working quietly and methodically on the fearsome forces of tiny bubbles.

Cheers! Proost! Skal!

Next week: The mad, mad energy policy of the European Union…

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