How strong would a magnetic field have to be to kill you?

Originally posted on Gravity and Levity:

There’s a great joke in Futurama, the cartoon comedy show, about a horror movie for robots.  In the movie, a planet of robots is terrorized by a giant “non-metallic being” (a monsterified human).  The human is finally defeated by a makeshift spear, which prompts the robot general to say:

“Funny, isn’t it?  The human was impervious to our most powerful magnetic fields, yet in the end he succumbed to a harmless sharpened stick.”

The joke, of course, is that the human body might seem much more fragile than a metallic machine, but to a robot our ability to withstand enormous magnetic fields would be like invincibility.

But this got me thinking: how strong would a magnetic field have to be before it killed a human?

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Unlike a computer hard drive, the human body doesn’t really make use of any magnetic states — there is nowhere in the body where important…

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A Day in the Life

Originally posted on Untold Stories:


It’s seven o’clock and Tierkidi refugee-camp is buzzling of early morning activity. It’s food distribution day, and Nyaboth (16) is patiently waiting for the queue in front of her to get smaller.

No one knows the exact number of refugees in the Gambell-region. But we are at least looking at 250.000. More than a quarter of a million people who are dependent on the food that World Food Program is distributing.

The line is moving slow, but Nyaboth isn’t in a hurry as long as she gets what she came for. Four hours later, she has collected all the items her family is entitled to this month. The previous four hours were more boring than exhausting. Now the tough part comes. The 16-year old has to get 150 kilos of flour, maize, oil, lentils and soap back to her tent a couple of kilometres away.

−I have to sell some…

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Crowdfunding Disability: Pay for the Change That You Want to See in the World

Originally posted on Matan Koch's Blog:

From those studying the medicinal benefits of centipede venom to those researching the existence of life bearing extrasolar moons, scientists have turned to crowdfunding for issues which have captured the popular imagination but have been overlooked by a traditional grant process.  Without commenting on the value of individual projects (one questionable project has funded a review of frog sounds in the Amazon), I’m fascinated by the phenomenon of crowdfunding allowing people to put their money where their passion is.

It’s a cliché that everything in our society costs money, but that doesn’t make it less true.  Rather than lament a reality that I can’t even see a way around, (after all, whether it’s rent, utilities, food, or equipment, most money for expenses goes to people who themselves have bills to pay) I love the idea that crowdfunding gives society the opportunity to pay for the things that they deem valuable…

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Exploring the Natural World

I am disappointed, if I’m being perfectly honest, at my current situation and the lack of spontaneity it allows me. I need to do extra planning for almost everything I set out to do. Luckily for me and the millions of other people who use wheelchairs, there has been a huge cultural and architectural transformation throughout the United States in the last quarter century. Unfortunately, it seems that the latter has proven much easier to change than the former but that’s a different story, one in which I am not currently concerned with (partly because I have spent a long time thinking about how to change the stigma and view of individuals with disabilities and partly because I have no idea how to change it). So, with the ADA legislation, there are many, many more places I can go to and activities I can participate in. There is one area of travel that I have not yet figured out how to over come. Of course there are many places I cannot really traverse practically (or at least without significant help) including: mountains with rocky or snowy inclines, beaches, dense jungles, etc. The limits I have to deal with in regards to exploring nature and immersing myself in the beautiful and diverse natural landscapes of Earth is definitely one of my major sources of despair. It’s a shame because there are so many incredible places to be explored and yet they are out of reach for me at the moment. Many places such as the Rocky Mountains, the Appalachian Mountains and the Grand Canyon offer accessible hiking trails and accessible transportation. This is fantastic and I think it is a great time to be disabled because of all the options made available. One problem though, is that the more accessible they make the park, or mountain or whatever, the more the landscape is ruined. The more paved roads and bathrooms and signs and parking lots they build the less natural the scene looks. In addition, I don’t want to just scratch the surface of these places, I don’t want to take the bunny slope down, I want to experience the wilderness deeply and fully, I want to be completely overwhelmed by the majesty of our planet, ideally alone. Perhaps this level of intimacy will have to wait for now.

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Reflection on Death

When a person dies it is a solemn reminder of how fragile life really is. Because we cant tell the future and we cant be sure when a disaster or tragedy will strike life is always precious, always fragile because of the very fact that we don’t know what tomorrow will bring. Our very mortality ensures that no moment can ever be re-lived no day will happen twice and this is what gives our lives immeasurable value and joy. It is the very knowing that our days are numbered that gives each day meaning. When a person dies we are forced into the sudden realization that life is finite. Time ceaselessly marches on. Things happen all the time, everywhere, but it’s different when theres a death. The permanence of death is ominous and often overwhelming. We feel like we have to care deeply when someone dies, because we can’t just let death go like the rest of the things that happen go. Death has to be sad, tragic and terrible. How could it not be anything but sad? If we don’t grieve and feel sorrow then no one will. The universe is completely indifferent, it could not care any less. If we don’t care, then no one cares and that can be hard to come to terms with. Death doesn’t have to be sad but it usually is especially when it happens to someone close to us. When it happens to someone we are not so close to it can serve as a sobering reminder of what really matters.

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Brief History of the Discoveries of the Atom

Originally posted on A Few Things I've Been Thinking About:

Man has questioned his world and reality for as long as he has been around. One of the oldest questions ever asked was, “What, in it’s most basic form, is the nature of matter?”. We must travel back to ancient Greece for the first recorded answer. Philosophers debated on whether or not matter was indivisible or infinitely divisible. Around 460 BC, philosophers such as Democritus and Leucippus believed that matter was made up of tiny, indivisible parts, which is where we get the term ‘atom’ from, Greek for indivisible. Still, other thinkers such as Plato and Aristotle held that matter could be broken down an infinite number of times and no such indivisible atom existed. Back then there was really no experimental way of proving who was right so the winner was usually the best debater which in this case was Aristotle. Twenty-two thousand years of humanity would pass before…

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Brief History of the Discoveries of the Atom

Man has questioned his world and reality for as long as he has been around. One of the oldest questions ever asked was, “What, in it’s most basic form, is the nature of matter?”. We must travel back to ancient Greece for the first recorded answer. Philosophers debated on whether or not matter was indivisible or infinitely divisible. Around 460 BC, philosophers such as Democritus and Leucippus believed that matter was made up of tiny, indivisible parts, which is where we get the term ‘atom’ from, Greek for indivisible. Still, other thinkers such as Plato and Aristotle held that matter could be broken down an infinite number of times and no such indivisible atom existed. Back then there was really no experimental way of proving who was right so the winner was usually the best debater which in this case was Aristotle. Twenty-two thousand years of humanity would pass before anymore light was shed on this important question. In 1803, James Dalton, an English chemist, physicist and meteorologist proposed his famous Atomic Theory. Dalton had spent a lot of time studying various gases under different temperatures and pressures, eventually concluding that the vapor pressure for all liquids is equivalent under the same variation of temperature. As for his Atomic theory, a careful inspection of his lab notes tells us that the idea arose in his mind as a purely physical concept. The first mention of the atom was in a paper he wrote in 1803 (just 27 years after America became a country!): Why does not water admit its bulk of every kind of gas alike? This question I have duly considered, and though I am not able to satisfy myself completely I am nearly persuaded that the circumstance depends on the weight and number of the ultimate particles of the several gases. Dalton went on to weigh the atoms of various elements including hydrogen, oxygen, nitrogen and carbon. As for his atomic theory, Dalton proposed the following: 1) Elements are made of extremely small particles called atoms, 2) Atoms of a given element are identical in size, mass, and other properties, 3) Atoms cannot be subdivided, created, or destroyed, 4) Atoms of different elements combine in simple whole-number ratios to form chemical compounds, 5) In chemical reactions, atoms are combined, separated, or rearranged but never destroyed.

All of Daltons points have been proven correct except for the third one. But before we can sub-divide the atom we need to look at how it’s fundamental particles can be divided. Another hundred years would pass before the next big atomic discovery would happen. In 1897 J.J. Thomson sent ionized gas particles through a magnetic field (which he knew would interact with the particles from Maxwell’s work) in order to observe how they behaved. He noticed that the particles were deflected towards the positive side of the glass tube, meaning that they must have a negative charge. Thus he discovered the electron. Thomson went on to develop his plum-pudding model of the atom which said that atoms are a positively charged sphere spiked with electrons buzzing around inside. Then, about 10 years later, a New Zealand physicist by the name of Ernest Rutherford conducted a ground breaking experiment. He shot alpha particles, which are two protons and two neutrons stuck together (an atom of Helium without the electrons), at a very thin sheet of gold foil and set up a 360 degree wall around the experiment to track where the particles landed. Because gold is so ductile it can be hammered into sheets no more than 0.00004 cm thick. As Rutherford expected the large majority of alpha particles went right through the thin gold sheet (even though they had to pass through roughly 2,000 gold atoms) being deflected minimally or not at all. A very small amount of the alpha particles were deflected and sent flying at an angle towards the wall. However, an even smaller amount of alpha particles, perhaps 1/20,000 bounced off the gold foil and flew back towards Rutherford. From these data he declared that atoms were almost completely empty space and that there was a very small dense center with a positive charge. Rutherford had discovered the nucleus. He concluded that the radius of the nucleus is at least 10,000 times smaller than that of the atom. Realizing how much empty space there is in the atom, it is rumored that Rutherford reluctantly stepped out of bed the next morning half expecting his foot to pass right through his floorboards-such is the case when you are the first person and perhaps the only person alive to understand a physical law so intimately. It turns out Rutherford had good reason to be afraid-we now know that an atom is 99.999999999999% empty space. For some perspective, if a BB was the nucleus of an atom, sitting on a dugout in a baseball stadium, then the actual atom would be the size of the entire stadium. So, why do things not constantly fall through each other if matter is almost completely empty space? The answer, interestingly enough, is that matter actually levitates on an electrostatic field. For instance, when you are sitting on a chair, you are not really touching the chair with your pants- at least on the atomic level. Every atom in your pants and on the chair is surrounded by an electron shell (or cloud). Hence, because both surfaces (and every surface) has a negative charge, the two cannot pass through each other, in fact they really cant touch each other at all. This is actually a very useful characteristic of nature, imagine if surfaces could pass through each other, what a mess our universe would be. In addition to the nucleus, Ernest Rutherford named the positively charged particles protons and knowing that there had to be more mass than was accounted for with only the electrons and protons, named the neutral particles in the atom neutrons. So, Rutherford was really a ground-breaking scientist, literally redefining how we look at the ground-and all surfaces for that matter! The next superstar physicist to make a major break through came from Denmark and went by the name Neils Bohr. He received his masters and doctorate in physics from the University of Copenhagen in 1911 before working at the Cavendish Laboratory in England under J.J. Thomson and later Rutherford. He worked out details of the atomic structure of the atom and described specifically the electron orbital’s and went on to win a Nobel prize for his work. He was a pioneer of quantum physics along with other physicists such as Edwin Schrodinger, Werner Heisenberg and of course the almighty Einstein. The first three decades of the 20th century proved to be a monumental time in physics with possibly the most significant discoveries made in the shortest amount of time that the world had (and has) seen.

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Richard Feynman On Magnetism and Understanding

One of the most advantageous (and enjoyable) traits to have or acquire, especially in the realm of science, is curiousness. To be perpetually curious is to be always wondering, questioning, imagining and asking why something is the way it is, why the world works the way it does. Like a child asking his or her parent an endless chain of why’s, it can be very interesting and wonderful to play this game scientifically. For example, in a Youtube video a man asks Richard Feynman to explain why magnets attract and repel eachother. Feynman refuses to answer the question because, as he explains, there are certain levels of understanding and certain circumstances and laws you need to realize and understand and comprehend before you can really understand how magnets work. The analogy Feynman uses (he is great at using analogies for teaching people and students) is this: There is a woman in the hospital. And the question is, well, why is she in the hospital? Well, because she has a broken hip. Why does she have a broken hip? Because she slipped on some ice. And then Feynman explains that if you were from a different planet you would be lost at this point (just as the interviewer and non-physics students would be lost as Feynman explains all the complicated laws associated with magnetism). So, Feynman explains how the alien, not understanding any of the story about the woman and her broken hip, would be asking all kinds of questions, why this, why that, how did that happen…eventually getting deeper and deeper and closer and closer to a more comprehensive understanding of what happened to the woman (or analogously how magnetism works). The alien might ask, why did the woman fall? Well, because ice is slippery. Well, why is ice slippery? And here Feynman suggests, is where things get interesting. You see, he says my idea is that the deeper you go down the more interesting the answers and explanations become. He goes on to explain how the slippery property of ice is basically one of a kind (because other slippery things are kind of greasy and slimy, but not ice). He says that because water expands when it goes from a liquid to solid and freezes, actually expands due to the way the hydrogen and oxygen molecules arrange themselves. So when the woman (or anyone) puts there foot on the ice the ice melts just a little to try and release some of the pressure from its molecular arrangement which makes it very slippery. Other solids are happy to support your weight and only crack or bend slightly when you put pressure on them. He continues, now the alien may ask why the woman fell downwards because on his planet the gravity is much, much weaker and they float around. Well, that’s due to the gravitational force and mass and all kinds of other things, nevermind that Feynman says. Eventually he says he cannot explain magnetism effectively or at all because he cannot relate it to anything the interviewer is familiar with (no decent analogies can be made). I love this little talk Feynman gives and the way he enjoys explaining the different levels of understanding and how he relates them to physics.

Here is the link to the talk:

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Oh What a Feeling (Breaking My Neck at 15)

At the time I did not see myself as a child, in fact anything but. I did not yet see myself as an adult but in my young and naïve eyes I was most certainly not a child. I was to handle the situation as it came, as it manifested itself, blanketed itself over me and my petty existence, immediately and devastatingly at first, and then quietly and slowly in the decade to come. I was to deal with what had happened like an adult and not as a child because as far as I knew I had not been a child for at least three years. Whether or not this premature position of consciousness was of any help I do not know. In retrospect of course I was not at all an adult, a decade and a half of living renders me more of an infant than an adult. Indeed I was but a child. A baby really, a baby in a young teenagers body who thought no doubt he had seen the world and everything in it. I’ll tell you what though at the point of impact the severance of motor movement mattered hardly for the fear it awoke within me was enough to paralyze my soul ten-fold. Yes, the terror was quite literally a deafening roar, engulfing my body, my mind. An earthquake of enormous power devastated my reality as I tried to grip my surroundings physically and emotionally. While reminiscing now my mind wants tenaciously for me to remember a life-flashing moment but contrary to popular belief I had no such experience. I’m afraid my account was quite conscious and lucid through and through unfortunately. As terrible as the first shockwave of fear was the secondary quakes killed me existentially five times over. For the time lying on that ice allowed my mind the freedom to wander and explore my novel reality indefinitely. Thoughts and worries pinged around inside my skull like a pin-ball inside a broken machine. With each ping my reflection of the situation snow-balled growing larger and denser as the seconds ticked by. Very quickly however, in maybe five or six seconds, the impossible realization I had come to cast a shadow over my (entire) future so wide and so dark it was all my mind could do to let it go. No sooner than my subconscious had saved me from that unimaginable torture had my racing brain pinged another equally horrifying reality into existence. And so my mind went. Five or six seconds of escalading unbelievable terror and depression, until I dropped it, followed by one or two seconds of horrid stimuli (re)processing until the dance started again. This game perpetuated itself for God knows how long, through gliding ice skates and adult faces coming in and out of focus until I saw a familiar one, jolting me out of my stupor. My father stood above me peering down, his eyes screaming in my direction. His mouth moved, but I know not what came out. My mind was split between the game and my future and the now of the situation. Dads face didn’t look sad. It didn’t look upset either…What I saw, what I remember was like looking in a mirror, a face so scared it couldn’t function right. He looked frightened, petrified really. The look haunts me still, I can’t fathom what keeps him up at night. The paramedics showed up an amount of time later. I was rolled up onto the board, neck stabilized. Out I rolled, off the ice, through the rink doors into an ambulance. If only I knew. If only dad knew. We had no idea what had just detonated in our faces, blown up in our lives. We had no idea that by far the greatest fight of both our lives had just begun. How could we?

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On Understanding

I have come across a very important and relevant fact of the idea of understanding things. We do not simply understand something and be done with it. We say we understand something, maybe something for one of our classes, or something we see on TV. We tell ourselves that we understand and in a sense we may be right. What I think is important to realize is that understanding something isn’t a yes or no concept it is not black or white. Rather there is a spectrum, or varying degrees of understanding. For example, while reading Six Easy Pieces by Richard Feynman, I came across many instances of Feynman admitting that physicists do not understand some phenomena, like what energy is, why it is conserved, the relationship between gravity and the quantum world, and even gravity in general. These areas of physics and astronomy are not new and it took my by surprise when Feynman said that we do not understand them. Upon further reading of Feynmans explanations it soon became apparent as to what he meant. You see there are different levels, or degrees of understanding. You can understand how something works, say for instance, an fMRI machine. I have done a good amount of research on this topic interning at FI. I know that an MRI machine is essentially a giant magnet that aligns the nucleus of hydrogen atoms into an equilibrium state. A radio wave then quickly blasts the atoms out of equilibrium into a higher energy level. As the radio wave stops the atoms come back down into equilibrium, a stable energy level, giving off energy. This energy is read by the machine which creates a picture. Now for any regular person this seems to be a pretty good understanding. But what about the engineer making the MRI machine. He might need to know a little more about what it is he’s doing. I am useless to the engineer building the machine because my level of understanding is not complete. It is partial. I might even say it is merely fractional of the engineer. This is why Feynman once said, “that which I cannot create I do not understand”. A perspective I like to look at this idea of understanding from is that of a child. Recall the wonderment of a child, asking why, why, why endlessly. I have no began judging my own comprehension on how many why’s I can answer about a certain subject. Going back to the MRI machine I think I would be able to answer only a few why’s at most. I do not understand magnetism well at all and I do not understand electromagnetic radiation, let alone radio waves well either. I really do not know how an MRI machine works, I only know how its major parts work. I think eventually, down the endless chain of why’s we will always hit a dead end where we must admit to our tiny inquirer that we do not know the next why and must subsequently admit we don’t know and that is just the way it is.


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