How sensational are you? Let me count the ways…

Science is a hard sell for the media. Most people think the slow, plodding, specialized, scientific process is boring.

It is.

And so writers, professional and otherwise, try to spice science up by saying whatever it is they think will make people care.  This bastardization of truth is nowhere else, not in politics, sports, local news, or the classifieds,  so bastardly bastardized.  Here’s a brief case study, taken from a moderately popular submission to digg/reddit yesterday.

Human Cells Found to have Electric Fields as Powerful as Lighting Bolts

Let’s start with the easy stuff.  Ever seen a lighting bolt? I haven’t.  That’s because you spell the term with an “n.” Lightning bolt.  I should have stopped reading at this point.  I digress.

Continuing with our assault on the title, let’s take a look at the word “power.”  In English, power means strength, and pizazz, and BAM LIGHTING BOLT BOOM.  In science, specifically the study of electricity, power is a unit of work/time and is measured in Wattage (i.e. a 60 Watt light bulb has 60 Watts of power).  Here’s where the bastardization gets rolling.  Even if we take the term power in its dictionary form,  It makes no sense to say an Electric field is as powerful as a lightning bolt. Electric fields are measured in units of potential/distance, or Volts/meter.  For the less scientifically inclined, the English equivalent of the title might be the claim that a horse’s leg has as much power as 4 cabinet knobs, or that the Honda Civic has as much compunction as a tire swing.  But we wouldn’t get the internet’s attention with a title like “Human Cells Found to have Electric Fields on the order of the Electric Field Produced by a Lightning Bolt”, would we?

Watts that you say? (thanks folks, thanks, I’ll be here all night, you’ve been a great audience)  These are just nitpicking flaws?  I’ll bite.  Let’s look at some elementary math.  In particular, let’s see why a high electric field should not impress you in the least.  Here’s the meat that backs the title,

Testing these nanoparticles in the internal fluid of brain-cancer cells, Kopelman found electric fields as strong as 15 million volts per meter, up to five times stronger than the field found in a lightning bolt.

To achieve a field of 15 million volts per meter (15MV/m), one can have 15MV over one meter, or 15V over a millionth of a meter (one µm), or 1.5V across 0.1µm (thanks to reddit user d3ns for running the numbers).  And there goes the “wow” factor.  A regular old AAA battery voltage applied over a small enough distance produces LIGHTNING BOLT FURY KILL DEATH MEGA POWER.

Ok, but a lightning bolt has thousands upon thousands of bear-blasting Volts, right?  You know what else has thousands and thousands of Volts?  The shock you get from walking on the carpet in socks.  That sound you just heard was more “wow” factor leaking from the our sensationalist article.  Should we change the title to “Human Cells Found to have Electric Fields on the order of the Electric Field Produced by a Doorknob Shock”?

Why does the truth have to be so gosh darn unsensational?

Public Service Announcement:  It is the electrical current (a measure of the amount of charge moving per unit time, measured in Amperes) that kills people in lightning strikes. This is the reason you can make your hair stand on edge with a low current, high voltage Van de Graaff generator, but can’t survive sticking a fork in a 120V, high current power socket.

~ by wcuk on July 31, 2008.

5 Responses to “How sensational are you? Let me count the ways…”

  1. I tried killing my undergrad with 30 kV yesterday. He lived?!?! Killing undrgrad, Iz doin it wrong. No longer!!1! Thanks Wuck!

  2. I electrocuted myself with a sponge. True story, the sponge was wet and contacted the side terminals of an electrical outlet (I was grouting tile) and I got shocked. Perhaps I should write a study on the dangers of sponges and ignore the fact that the conduction was due to the water in the sponge.

  3. I love your blog…really. Did you already hear about water on mars? 🙂

  4. Great band name… “Doorknob Shock”

  5. Hello, I read your story on net. I’d like to ask what happened to me yesterday and today because yesterday I experienced 4times electrical shock maybe.

    At first yesterday when
    1. I opened my wooden drawer I felt electricity shock in my hand. .
    2. When my pupil’s hand and mine touched.
    3. When my friend gave to me the stapler we felt electricity and a low spark sound.

    Second day-today when I opened the door holding the door knob.

    Please help me understand what happening to me.
    Thanks in advance.


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