Archive | September 2013

More guns do not mean more safety

After Monday’s shooting spree at the Washington Navy Yard, it seems natural for the nation to want ways to be safer. However, more guns are not the answer, says a new study in The American Journal of Medicine.

In the study, Sripal Bangalore at New York University School of Medicine and Franz Messerli at St. Luke’s Roosevelt Hospital, Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons, examined data from 27 developed countries. They focused on the number of guns per capita and rates for gun-related deaths, crime, and mental illness.

With 88.8 guns per 100 people, the United States had the highest rate of gun ownership among the 27 countries. The United States also had the highest rate of firearms-related deaths, with 10.2 per 100,000 people.

After analyzing their data, the study authors conclude:

“The present data suggest that the number of guns per capita per country correlated strongly and was an independent predictor of firearm-related deaths.”

The authors acknowledge that “correlation is not synonymous with causation.” Nonetheless, they write, “it seems conceivable that abundant gun availability facilitates firearm-related deaths.”

In any case, the study authors say, their research “debunks” the popular notion that guns make a nation safer.

The authors’ data and analysis appear sound. Yet I also note that the most persuasive graph in the AJM study is done on a logarithmic scale. In this case, the distribution of data makes this approach reasonable.

Bangalore & Messerli, "Gun Ownership and Firearm-related Deaths," American Journal of Medicine, 2013.

Bangalore & Messerli, “Gun Ownership and Firearm-related Deaths,” American Journal of Medicine, 2013.

Gun ownership data range from 0.6 per hundred people for Japan to 88.8 per hundred for the United States. However, more than half the values were less than 16. And the next two highest values after the United States were 45.7 per hundred for Switzerland  and 45.3 for Finland. The logarithmic trendline is a good way to present such data, and it makes the correlation clear.

Nonetheless, I can foresee some groups and advocates dissing the math and arguing instead that the graph is misleading. This would be unfortunate. For one thing, it would further confuse a public that already has dubious math literacy. More importantly, it would distract people from focusing on how the country can best counter gun violence.

Too many people have already died from gun violence. Let’s deal with the problem now—before more tragedies occur.


Voyager Sails Out of the Solar System

Artist's concept of Voyager 1. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Artist’s concept of Voyager 1. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech


Ladies and gentlemen, Voyager 1 hasn’t just left the building. After 36 years, the spacecraft has now left the solar system.

When Voyager 1 and 2 launched in 1977, Jimmy Carter was president. Ted Turner was suspended from baseball for a year. The original Star Trek series had ended eight years earlier. And Star Trek Next Generation wouldn’t debut for another ten years.

Voyager 1 let NASA do some spectacular science in those three dozen years. Among other things, the spacecraft sent back measurements and amazing images of Jupiter and Saturn. It helped scientists study the plasma, or ionized gas, at the edge of the solar system. And, on a more philosophical note, the spacecraft’s “pale blue dot” image from 1990 reminds us how tiny Earth is in the vastness of space.

The spacecraft also carries a “golden record.” The gold-plated copper disk contains sounds and images of Earth, along with greetings in 55 languages and data on Earth’s location.

I think it was humorist Dave Barry who questioned whether we really want any hostile aliens to know where we are. And now they’ll also get all that data stored on the spacecraft’s glitzy 8-track tape.

Anyway, just two years after Voyager 1 launched, it came back to haunt Earth in 1979’s Star Trek: The Motion Picture.  Granted, that was fiction, but still, you have to wonder. That movie’s director, Robert Wise, also directed the original The Day the Earth Stood Still, as well as The Sound of Music. As Voyager 1 continues to sail beyond the solar system, I find myself remembering that movie’s famous quip: “Somewhere out there is a lady who I think will never be a nun.”

Without any disrespect to the late Mr. Wise, I personally prefer J.J. Abrams’ more recent Star Trek movies. My own view is that William Shatner came off as too egotistical and unbelievable in his “God’s gift to woman” portrayal of Kirk. Chris Pine is much more likable in the role, and even the arrogant bits are all done with a wink to the audience. And yes, I already have a review copy of the just-released DVD for Star Trek: Into Darkness. I’ll use it for research on writing projects—and also for enjoyment.

So, so long Voyager 1. If aliens out there do find you, it will be interesting to see if they bother playing the golden record. “Hello from the children of planet Earth.”

Voyager's signal as recorded by Earth radio telescopes. Credit: NRAO/AUI/NSF/ . See

Voyager’s signal as recorded by Earth radio telescopes. Credit: NRAO/AUI/NSF/ . See

Radioactive Waste Near the Great Lakes?

My latest article in Midwest Energy News explores new geology research on the area where Ontario Power Generation plans to put radioactive waste and considers the implications for the Midwest:

Study supports nuclear waste disposal near Great Lakes

Posted on 09/09/2013 by        

(Photo by Samat Jain via Creative Commons)

(Photo by Samat Jain via Creative Commons)

New geology research says radioactive wastes are unlikely to enter groundwater from a proposed Canadian disposal site less than a mile from Lake Huron.

The research raises questions about future disposal on both sides of the border as radioactive waste continues to sit at power plants around the Great Lakes. . . .

Read more…

Yes, Dear?

Loving husbands and wives may only have eyes for each other. Their ears may be another story.

New research in the journal Psychological Science suggests spouses generally do a better job of picking each other’s voices out in a crowd. To test this, researchers asked people to pick out what their spouse said when a competing, unfamiliar voice was speaking. The researchers also asked some people to pick out what the unfamiliar person was saying.

Spouses aged 44 to 79 generally did much better at understanding their spouses’ words when a stranger was speaking. Yet when asked to focus on what someone else was saying, middle-aged people did a better job than the elderly in ignoring their spouses to listen to an unfamiliar voice.

“These findings speak to a problem that is very common amongst older individuals—difficulty hearing speech when there is background sound,” said Queens University’s Ingrid Johnsrud in a press release announcing the results. “Our study identifies a cognitive factor—voice familiarity—that could help older listeners to hear better in these situations.”

Additional trials might better test the hypothesis. For example, did middle-age speakers also perform better at picking out one unfamiliar speaker’s words when a competing speaker was also unfamiliar? If so, how much better?

Also, how familiar would the other speaker have to be in order for his or her words to be easier to discern than a stranger’s? Would it need to be a close relative or good friend? Or would it be enough to have heard the voice several times before?

I suspect that what’s being said also makes a difference.

Several times I’ve found myself in a store or other public place when a child suddenly says, “Mom!” Even though my own kids are older, I still find my head turning towards the sound—along with those of several other women.

I guess it just goes with the territory of being a mom.