In Sputnik’s Orbit

A few thoughts to tide you over…


How Much Radiation Leaks From Your Oven?

Very little, and it’s mostly in the form of light shining through the door.

“Radiation” just means anything projected through space. It includes potentially harmful neutron, gamma, and x-ray radiation, but it also includes sunlight, new ideas, and the petals of flowers.

The word “radiation” does not mean “magic death cooties,” and just because a device emits radiation doesn’t mean it can hurt you without falling off a counter and hitting your foot.

All electrical devices emit “radiation.” That’s because any oscillating movement of electrons—say like those in the wiring in your house—produces electromagnetic radiation.

This is not the sort of radiation that falls from the sky after a nuclear war or the type that bounces around inside a nuclear reactor or even the kind produced by traces of radioactive potassium in your bones—remnant of the stars that were here long before the Earth.

No, electromagnetic radiation comes in a range of frequencies or energy levels, from gamma rays at one end of the spectrum all the way down to radio at the other.

Gamma rays and x-rays, at the high end of the spectrum, can harm living things because photons of gamma ray or x-ray light are strong enough to break chemical bonds—and life is made out of chemistry.

Below X-rays on the spectrum is the so called “ultraviolet light.” UV light is right above the visible light part of the spectrum, and is right at the crossover point when electromagnetic radiation stops having the ability to break chemical bonds. The upper end of the UV band (called UV-C) can damage living things, and is used in hospital sterilizers for that reason. The rest of the UV band (UV-B and UV-A) can’t break chemical bonds, but can push them over the edge if they were about to break anyway, and so can damage living things in some cases. UV-B and UV-A is the light that gives you a tan and increase the risk of cancer—but it’s also important to normal vitamin D and cholesterol metabolism.

Below this, visible light is the middle part of the spectrum that we are evolved to perceive. We see in visible light frequencies because those are the frequencies that tend to be reflected off objects — higher and lower frequencies tend to pass right through solid objects, and so are less useful for looking around for dinner and harder to detect (because they pass through the detector too).

Visible light is the only kind of radiation that a normally operating microwave oven produces in any significant amount; it shines out through the door so you can see when your oatmeal boils over.

Radio and microwaves — at the low end of the spectrum — cannot break chemical bonds. The only way radio can hurt you is if you are not paying attention while listing to the top-40 hits on your daily run and fall down an open manhole. The only way microwaves can hurt you is if you break into a locked radar facility, climb up on the transmitter, and use it as your own personal microwave oven—and even that’s not very likely.

Microwaves (and radio) interact only weakly with matter. Microwave ovens actually required clever design even in order to heat up you burrito. If you were to defeat all the safeties and run a microwave oven with the door missing (don’t do that) the microwaves would mostly fly out through the room (radiate) and off down the street to interfere with the neighbor’s cordless phone.

To stop this from happening, microwave ovens are little microwave reflective boxes that bounce the microwaves back and forth and back and forth and back and forth and back and forth and back and forth and back and forth and back and forth and back and forth and back and forth and back and forth and back and forth and back and forth and back and forth and back and forth and back and forth and back and forth and back and forth and back and forth and back and forth and back and forth and until they finally soak into the freaking burrito already — adding a little heat.

When a few quintillion photons of microwave energy are absorbed by a burrito, it starts to warm up. If it warms up enough, it’ll cook and melt the cheese nice and soft the way you like it. If it warms up too much for too long, it’ll grow tough, dry out, burn, and maybe even catch fire—none of which has anything to do with radiation or how the heat was applied.

The only way you can tell this is happening is to look through the door. The door to a microwave oven is a Faraday shield—a conductive grid made with spaces far smaller than the 4.8 inch wavelength of the microwave “radiation” that prevents it from passing through.

Some leakage does occur. In the United States, federal law (21 CFR 1030.10) limits the leakage to 5 milliwatts per square centimeter at approximately 2 inches from the oven surface. Since EM radiation spreads out through space, this means the dosage would be no more than 0.05 milliwatts per square centimeter 20 inches from the oven, and of course that assume it’s operating.

Thus, for the poorest designed, crappiest maintained, most powerful microwave oven, there’s about 3,500 times more energy inside the oven than there is 2 inches from the door—and the energy inside the oven actually wouldn’t hurt you beyond warming you up. Microwaves are, in fact, used in certain medical applications to safely warm living tissue.

COVID-19 is not the Flu.

A huge misconception about the SARS-Cov-2 Coronavirus is that it’s similar to seasonal fluenza. Well, both are respiratory infections (as are colds) but that’s where the similarities stop. And the more we learn about this new virus, the stranger it appears.

  • The Flu’s R0 number is 1.3 whereas COVID-19 is 2-2.5, meaning it’s about twice as contagious;
  • The incubation period for the flu is four days whereas COVID-19 is 14 days; meaning it can spread far and wide before it’s detected.
  • The average flu hospitalization rate is 2% whereas COVID-19 is 19%; meaning that even for the young and healthy, it’s more likely to be costly and leave lasting disability.
  • The flu’s case fatality rate is 0.1% whereas COVID-19 is 1-3.4%;
  • Currently, there is no COVID-19 vaccine whereas there is are effective vaccines for most flu virus strains;

There is, however, one way that SARS-Cov-2 is like the flu — an infected person is most infectious before they develop symptoms. This has been known about flu for decades, and why it hasn’t influenced public health advice much during the pandemic is hard to fathom.

With social distancing now starting to pay dividends even in the US, many are starting to advocate for a return to normal, but they DO NOT understand the reality. This pandemic may slow, but will not end due to warm weather or social distancing along. If we simply go back to normal, we will certainly create a “second wave” and again overwhelm our health care system. So what about over countries that have weathered the first wave without a national lockdown? There are only a few, and they all had acted on the lessons of the SARS and MERS scares of recent years.

South Korea, for example, had 9,000 SARS-CoV-2 tests ready on the day the first indigenous case was reported, and quickly scaled up to delivering over 20,000 tests per day. They didn’t just test those who felt ill and requested it, but the second level contacts of those found to be infected. Then they published the locations of known cases–and the known movements of known carriers on a smart phone app so they citizens could avoid the infection without the need to stay home. They issue surgical masks to the general public (because the science of the last two decades has made clear that that works) and filled the airwaves and social media with training on how to use them and other measures effectively.

The results have been dramatic. After an initial spike, and despite crushing population density, South Korea has turned the COVID-19 growth curve on it’s head and started going back to normal.

We CAN do the same, but only the way they did–only be the use of science and common sense, and the advice of smart people.

How To Quarantine At Home

My wife was in class at Harvard University when the sirens went off. An Air-Force brat like me, the grinding wail of the rotary klaxon still makes her hair stand on end—still conjures visions of Cold War airmen rushing off into the night to call forth nuclear Armageddon. Usually, that’s overreaction. Usually, it’s just somebody testing the tornado alarms. Not today.

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COVID-19 Overreaction?

Still think the US is overreacting and COVID-19 is “just a bad flu?” Read on…

The COVID-19 response team at Imperial College in London obtained what appears to be the first accurate dataset of infection and death rates from China, Korea, and Italy. They plugged those numbers into widely available epidemic modelling software and simulated what would happen if the United States did absolutely nothing — if we treated COVID-19 like the flu, went about business as usual, and let the virus take its course?

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Coronavirus Fears Overblown?

Most years, flu virus causes between 12,000 and 60,000 deaths in the United States, has an R-naught of 1.3 (meaning on average, each infected person infects that many more people) and a mortality rate around .05%.

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Once And For All, It’s DUCK tape.

Once and for all folks, that gray stuff is ducK tape, not ducT tape.

Duck tape was developed by Johnson & Johnson’s Permacel division during WWII, in direct response to a military requirement for waterproof tape to seal ammunition cases during storage and transit into the tropical Pacific theater.

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Winter Pledge Drive

Harlan Ellison told the story of how once he, L Ron Hubbard, and a gaggle of other “Golden Age” writers were sitting around drinking and complaining (as writers do) about how impossible it was to survive on the going wage of a penny a word. As Harlan told it, Hubbard joked that the only way a writer could survive would be to start his own religion. The others laughed and spent the rest of their inebriation inventing ever more outlandish ideas with which this hypothetical scheme could squeeze blood from the stones of the gullible.  Some time later, Ellison told us, they were all horrified when Hubbard actually went out and did it–complete with all the outlandish blood squeezing.

This would have been some time around 1950, so a penny in those times would be worth almost eleven cents today. Friends, I can tell you with authority that genre writers today do not make almost eleven cents a word. The pro rate today is six cents a word, and the pulp market no longer exists, so it’s no longer possible to do what Hubbard did at his peak and sell 25 pro-rate stores a year.

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How Old is Earth?

The Earth solidified 4.54 billion years ago, plus or minus 1%. That’s a fact, and if your belief is not aligned to this fact, then you are what we call “wrong.”

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How The Moon Was Won

In eight short Cold War years, the USA went from second fiddle in space to The Nation That Put Man On The Moon. How?

The Americans were smart, loved their country, and had good German rocket scientists. The Soviets were smart, loved their country, and had good German rocket scientists. So what happened?

Part of it is simply that a big part of World War II was fought on Soviet soil and a big part with American supplies and arms. So while Soviet industrial infrastructure, already in poor shape for historical and political reasons, was decimated by the war, America’s was bolstered and increased.

But that aside, the Soviets made some impressive first steps, and were clearly ahead of US efforts at least up through the first few manned flights. But when it came to the moon landing, the US, bastion of capitalism and private enterprise that it is, committed itself to a single, centrally-controlled program to reach the moon. The Soviets, communists and socialists who lived and died by a centrally controlled economy, fought internally over who would do what. Weird, huh?

Paradoxically, the US beat the Soviets by launching a bigger, more coherent government program than the Soviets (who one would think would have been the preeminent leaders in big government programs).

Korolev only got funding to launch Satellites and men into space because it proved to the world they could deliver atomic bombs. But he had to have his engineers build roads and sewage treatment plants before he could do it, and like Von Braun during the earliest years of the US space program, he had to fight politics to get resources over other design bureaus.

We (the US) let pride, internal competition and, frankly, a failure of vision, cost us getting the first man in space, but made up for it by assembling the full might of our economy behind a single purpose. The Soviets made early inroads through bold action, genius, and personal initiative, but while Khrushchev was quick to make propaganda hay out of these achievements, he simply could not devote the kind of resources to a moon landing that the US could.

And because Kennedy publicly committed the nation, we all rallied to the cause. MIT designed the computers. Brassiere makers worked with industrial controls experts to build the Apollo space suit. Aerospace engineers called in surf board makers for help making cryogenic tanks.

The Soviets were late to commit to a moon landing, then they tried to do it in secret so they could pretend it never happened if it didn’t work out (which it didn’t, and they did for a long time). We (the US) had started working on the F1 engine in 1955 when we (and the Soviets) foresaw the need for giant rockets to deliver giant bombs. Although that work was abandoned as bombs quickly got smaller, it was an ace in our sleeve for the moon landing.

The Soviets, on the other hand, had addressed the same problem by clustering smaller rocket engines, and had stuck to technologically simpler hypergolic propellants. That put them a decade behind in building an engine suitable for a moon shot.

In the end, they turned to a jet engine maker to design a new big rocket engine, and he designed one so revolutionary, its principles have only become mainstream in the last decade. But you really can’t skip ahead in rocket science, and boldness and ingenuity had taken the USSR as far as it could.

So this

turned into a smoking hole. Then did it again. And again. Until it was chopped up and turned into storage buildings. Even had the N1 been a success, it could only lift 2/3 the payload of a Saturn V, or send half the payload to the moon. The most ambitious of Soviet moon plans (and there were several) had one man landing alone with minimal equipment. Apollo was designed to build moon bases, and could have, too, had the price tag not been so high.

It would be unfair to say that communism lost the USSR the space race, though the inherent inefficiency of centrally planned economics certainly handicapped its efforts to recover from the ravages of the war and Stalin’s purges. But ironically, it was America’s ability to marshal its vast economic and technical infrastructure to a common, centrally-planned goal that won the moon.

On the other hand, it was that very central control and the rush to the moon that ballooned the cost of the Apollo program and led us to abandon a perfectly good space exploration system in favor of a classic example of American overdesign (the Shuttle, no offense), thirty years of bureaucratic stagnation, and the loss of two orbiters and their crews.

Meanwhile, the Russians still make the Soyuz, and until very recently, could put a pound into orbit cheaper than anyone.

Stalin and Hitler determined the space race as surely as President Kennedy. But Kennedy figured out something we can still benefit from to this day. For all their differences, our two great nations are greater still when we work together.

Meanwhile, the whole episode illustrated something we should all keep in mind in the new millennium: Neither approach to government works very well when taken too far to extremes.

If you like space, you might enjoy my free award-winning scifi sampler.

Goodbye D.C. Goodbye Dorothy.

I will never get a change to tell D.C. Fontana what she meant to me as a little boy growing up in turbulent times, or as a grown man tempted by the writing bug. Dorothy, who wrote under the byline “D.C.” because the world isn’t what it ought to be, has died at the age of 80.

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