Monday, April 26, 2010

Do Radio Waves Cause Cancer?

This was a question a student asked last week during the electromagnetics class that I'm teaching for the first time this semester. Not wanting to turn the rest of the class period into an engineering ethics seminar, I said some brief words to this effect: "There have been many studies of that question, and although you will find people who disagree, the general conclusion is that there is no repeatable connection between radio waves and cancer." But I wish I had known about the article that journalist George Johnson published online in Slate last week. Not only did he look into the question, he tried to give himself an electromagnetic headache by camping in a nest of microwave towers in New Mexico one night. As it turned out, it didn't work.

Johnson was inspired to try this by a Los Alamos scientist who describes himself as "electrosensitive." The scientists claims that exposure to too much radio-frequency radiation gives him a variety of symptoms such as headaches and insomnia, though cancer was not on his list of complaints. So Johnson made the trek up Sandia Crest to the "Steel Forest" where dozens of radio, TV, and microwave transmitters broadcast to a large area of New Mexico. In the event, he slept well and suffered no headaches or other adverse symptoms.

Johnson explains that some of the complaints of so-called electrosensitives may be explained by a phenomenon known to historians as a hysterical epidemic. It turns out that some people with genuine but ill-defined physical complaints are prone to latch on to a current cultural phenomenon and become convinced that it is the source of their problems. This is not to say that the maladies are not subjectively real—if someone tells you they have a headache, there is no way to prove they are wrong. But the cause is another question altogether.

And most people are familiar with the psychiatric problems that lead some people to believe things that are clearly at odds with reality. For example, years ago when I taught microwave engineering in Massachusetts, one of my colleagues received a phone call from a woman who was convinced that the government had implanted a secret radio chip in her body. She wanted to know if we had any equipment that we could use to examine her in order to find the thing. Nobody volunteered, needless to say. Before the advent of miniature electronics, when radios were novel pieces of furniture in 1920s living rooms, some psychiatric sufferers would complain to their doctors that spies were "working wireless" on them. And I suspect that if you go back far enough in history, you might find a case of a person who thought people were telegraphing messages inside his head.

While it is almost impossible in some individual cases to establish the cause of a given subjective complaint, it is quite possible to do systematic large-scale studies of epidemiology and biological effects of electromagnetic radiation. Unlike shorter-wavelength radiation ranging from ultraviolet rays through X-rays, radio waves and microwaves cannot knock electrons loose from atoms in your body, under normal conditions. If the waves are not strong enough to cause localized heating (and no piece of equipment properly used and meeting FCC regulations produces such strong waves), then there is no obvious mechanism by which radio or microwave radiation could cause cancer, headaches, insomnia, or any of the other range of ailments that people sometimes suspect them of causing. Literally hundreds of research studies have been done over the years on this subject, and as Johnson reports, the World Health Organization recently concluded from a review of the world's scientific literature that there is no reason to be concerned about biohazards from the type of low-level radio or microwave radiation that people receive just by living in the modern world among cell phones, computer wireless links, and digital TV broadcasts.

But as engineering ethics has taught me, to know a technical fact is one thing, and to deal with lots of ordinary people who have concerns or even beliefs to the contrary is a completely different thing. The attitude shown by knowledgeable engineers toward lay persons with genuine concerns is crucial. An arrogant, blowoff type of response to a legitimate question can arouse suspicions—which may be entirely unfounded—that the engineer in question is trying to hide something. Every microwave engineer who deals with the general public should be sensitive to anxiety, concern, and even hostility from people who think cell phones or computers or digital TV broadcasts have caused them harm. This is especially true when dealing with situations such as cancer clusters, a statistical phenomenon which can lead to explosive reactions, protests, and lawsuits.

Suppose for example that a cell-phone tower is built in a new neighborhood. There is a non-zero chance that among the population of young children in that neighborhood, a higher than average number of them will come down with some horrible fatal disease such as brain cancer. If a few parents of such victims meet each other, it can happen that they start to suspect something geographic is to blame for their rare and tragic experiences. The need to find an answer to the agonized question, "Why my daughter?" or "Why my son?" in the face of death is a universal one. And sometimes people seize on things they don't understand as a kind of scapegoat or target for action.

These people can have the best of intentions, such as wanting to prevent future tragedies like the ones they have endured. But if they get an unfeeling response from a know-it-all engineer who keeps saying, "You just don't understand, you don't have the technical background that I have," and so on, they are not likely to be persuaded by anything he says, no matter how technically correct it is. Engineers need hearts as well as heads, and this aspect of engineering training is usually neglected.

So perhaps I will let my students know about the Slate article this week, and if they ever happen to run into similar questions, I hope their response is technically correct, of course. But even more, I hope they take the questioner's feelings and situation into consideration as well.

Sources: George Johnson's article "On Top of Microwave Mountain" appeared in the Apr. 21, 2010 online edition of Slate Magazine at

Monday, April 19, 2010

Obama's Speech to NASA: Clouds in the Sky

Last Thursday, President Obama spoke to present and former astronauts, NASA administrators, and members of the Florida congressional delegation on the future of NASA and U. S. space exploration. Even before taking office, Obama and his staff rubbed some at NASA the wrong way. And with the release of his proposed federal budget to be enacted next fall, NASA supporters discovered to their dismay that there were no funds to continue the development of the Constellation series of manned-flight rockets, which are the only plans presently in place to keep Americans in space with American hardware. So Obama faced a tough audience primed to criticize him.

According to the official NASA transcript, the President received applause at numerous points in his talk. But I imagine it was of a straw-grasping quality that embodied both the engineer's tendency to be polite in the face of properly constituted authority whenever possible, and the deep-dyed habit of trying to make the best of a bad situation. Because, for many reasons, NASA's situation under the Obama administration is pretty bad.

Things could be worse. Obama could have proposed one more extension of the superannuated Shuttle program, simply to be able to say that America was still able to fly its own people in orbit. Thankfully, he didn't do that, even though it would have preserved jobs, which is supposedly one of his high priorities these days. Trying to keep the Shuttle going after its presently scheduled termination this year would be like trying to keep driving a jalopy after two of its four wheels have fallen off. It has been an amazing run carried on too long, and hats off to everyone who made it possible, but we've really got to retire the thing according to plan before it provides yet another tragedy for the engineering-ethics textbooks.

The trouble is, in a well-run organization the Shuttle's replacement would have been designed about eight to ten years ago, the first unit built three to five years ago, and the fully tested replacement would be ready to launch into service right after the Shuttle retired. For various reasons having to do with NASA, accidents, politics, democracy, and other factors, we are not in that happy situation at all. Instead, we have spent some ten billion on the designs for what some people say is a kind of redesign of the Saturn V-era rockets, called Constellation. I agree that Constellation may not be the most innovative design around, but it kept our engineers busy, it's based on proven technology (sometimes conservatism is good in engineering), and it probably would have worked okay. Only now, we'll never know.

What the President proposes instead sounds good at first glance: let the market innovate. Let private companies compete and come up with the most cost-effective way to get there. Instead of NASA saying to firms like Boeing and Lockheed-Martin, "Hey, I want to get to the moon, sell me a rocket that will take me there," he wants NASA to say now, "Hey, I want to get to Mars, sell me a ticket to ride." There's just a few problems with this idea.

First off, for the free market to work, you need a market. One customer isn't a market, it's a thing called a "monopsony," kind of the inverse of a monopoly. Instead of one seller and many buyers, you have one buyer and many sellers (you hope). The Wikipedia article defining monopsony uses the single-payer health care system as a leading example of a monopsony. Everybody knows President Obama would have preferred a single-payer health care system to the mess he got, but he settled for the mess he could pass through Congress. This is no place to debate health care, but it is the place to point out that the President seems to think that whatever the role of private enterprise should be, the federal government must end up calling the shots.

Of course, if we waited for private enterprise to get us to the moon or Mars with no government intervention whatever, we would wait a very long time. There is at present no commercial interest in going to the moon or Mars, simply as a paying proposition independent of government intervention. At least Columbus and the great seafaring explorers of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries had some prospect of profit in the backs of their minds, although few if any realized on their bets. So government must take the lead in an economy-transcending type of activity such as space exploration, which in the past has served to unite the nation much as wars do, but with much less bloodshed.

There are both tactical and strategic flaws in Obama's plans for NASA. The tactical one of trashing Constellation has raised howls of protest from numerous astronauts all the way up to the Great Silent Engineer himself, Neil Armstrong, the first man to set foot on the moon. As practical men, they see ten billion dollars' worth of creditable engineering going down the toilet at a critical time when we should be way ahead of where we are. And now Obama is saying, no, let's start from scratch and do it really well.

And that leads into the strategic aspect. It may be (though this is just a guess on my part) that Obama thinks NASA is beyond salvaging; that it is an old, worn-out, patched-over organization that needs to take a back seat to new, fresh leadership from the private sector. He may be right in at least this, that NASA needs a shock, something more than the same old same old, to get the nation's space vision back in order. But it is far from clear that private companies, working not just as contractors for hardware but as overall system planners, builders, and executors, will be willing to take on challenges that have proved daunting even to an organization as experienced and resourceful as NASA. Especially if their only customer, the government, turns around and changes its mind after the next Presidential election, which is entirely possible.

Unelected dictatorships have numerous disadvantages, but one of the few advantages is the ability to maintain long-term consistency in plans and projects. The otherwise deplorable government of the Peoples' Republic of China has the luxury of making long-term space exploration plans without having to check with its Congress or its public. The way things look now, the next words we hear from the moon will be in Chinese, if not Russian. And then see how hard it will be to catch up.

Sources: Obama's speech on April 15, 2010 is reproduced in transcript at the NASA website The letter to the President signed by Neil Armstrong, James Lovell, and Eugene Cernan can be read at Another letter from several prominent astronauts and former NASA leaders can be found at

Monday, April 12, 2010

Toyota Revisited: Unintended Acceleration of Judgment?

On April 5 the U. S. Secretary of Transportation announced the intention of the federal government to assess a $16 million fine against Toyota, the maximum allowable penalty in such a case. The government alleges that the car maker failed to notify the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration within five days of identifying the defect that causes unintended acceleration, as U. S. law requires. Toyota has two weeks in which to either accept or contest the fine.

About a month ago, I addressed this issue with a blog that criticized Toyota for its foot-dragging and circle-the-wagons mentality concerning the unintended acceleration incidents that have come to light in the past year or so. What I failed to do then is what many news sources are still failing to do now, which is to put this situation in a historical context, as columnist Walter Olson did in a recent issue of National Review.

Olson points out that at least part of the sudden appearance of wildly accelerating Toyotas everywhere is due to mass psychology, on the part of the public in general and the media and lawyers in particular. Once the issue hits the newsstands, drivers and their lawyers are primed to look for it, and so often what you look for you will find. Back in 1993, a similar flap blew up about suspected unintended acceleration in Audis. Despite extensive coverage, investigations, and government inquiries, no cause for the documented cases of Audi acceleration was ever found other than operator error: in other words, people were hitting the gas pedal by mistake.

This kind of thing happens all the time, often with older or less experienced drivers. Olson cites a Los Angeles Times study of twenty years' worth of Toyota unintended acceleration cases, and of those in which the driver's age could be determined, the median age was 60. Since the typical auto accident victim is in his late twenties, there is clearly an age-related factor involved.

None of this is to say that there may not be a genuine problem, or array of problems, that are causing the deaths and near-accidents that we have heard so much about recently in Toyotas. The carmaker itself has identified and gone to a lot of trouble with recalls to fix a carpet-pedal interference issue that evidently accounts for at least some of the acceleration incidents. But so far the firm has steadfastly denied that there is a problem with the electronics, in particular the software that runs the car. Two separate scientific panels have been convened by the U. S. government to look into that issue, and although they will take a while (one is set to run for over a year), we have hopes of getting to the bottom of that particular question.

The challenge of such an investigation is that software glitches, especially if there is a random hardware effect involved such as electromagnetic interference, can be extremely hard to detect or fix. In principle, computer software follows an exact mathematical deterministic path: if you set up the same initial conditions every time, you will get the same result. But when software is embedded in the roaring, buzzing, mechanically dynamic environment under the hood of a car, the goal of "same initial conditions" can be elusive. You can always do lab tests, but to the extent they are more tightly controlled, they are just as much more removed from the reality in which the accidents supposedly occurred. If such a problem is found, it will likely be the at the end of a long and intricate detective effort on the part of the investigators. And Toyota will need to cooperate fully in revealing its proprietary software and hardware, unless it wants to actively hinder the work of the safety investigators. So far, the firm's track record in this area has not been stellar, but under the present conditions of intense political and legal pressure, a vindication by an outside panel would be worth whatever bean-spilling of secrets that Toyota has been so reluctant to do up to now.

An interesting system-wide question that no one so far has brought up would be a comparison of the way automakers vet their control software with the methods used by aircraft manufacturers. Back when "fly-by-wire" software was first being adopted, there was a lot of concern on the part of pilots that when they pushed the stick, they would no longer be directly moving flaps or ailerons or whatever—instead, they would be simply sending instructions to a computer, which would interpret the pilot's action along with everything else going on and issue the orders it thought best to the control surfaces. This idea seemed to rub a lot of pilots the wrong way, and it took a while for fly-by-wire systems to be accepted. There were one or two problems with it along the way, but then as now, the bulk of airplane accidents involve at least some personal responsibility on the part of the pilot.

It's ironic, but automobile drivers as a group probably carry a lot less clout with the automakers than airline pilots do with aircraft companies. I sense that the automakers regard their customers as, if not quite sheep, then certainly uneducated in the technicalities of automotive engineering. The transition from the day when the connection between the accelerator and the carburetor (as it was way back then) was just a pull wire, to the present situation where a computer sits between your foot and the engine—this transition came silently and unheralded, possibly out of fear that people would not be comfortable with it. Such silence may have made the present situation worse as folks discover the fact for the first time, and find that they don't like it—especially those who believe their problems with unintended acceleration are the fault of the automobile, and not due to inappropriate actions of their own.

As Walter Olson pointed out, it took years for the Audi flap to die down, and we can expect the Toyota situation to linger at least that long—longer, if the investigations into software problems are as complex as I expect they will be, and if Toyota is less than fully cooperative in them. The only sure thing is that lawyers will be making money off this situation for a long time to come.

Sources: A report on the $16 million fine appeared in the Washington Post online edition at Walter Olson's article in the Mar. 15, 2010 issue of National Review is online at

Monday, April 05, 2010

Ethics According to Feynman

Richard P. Feynman (1918-1988) was a Nobel Prize-winning physicist, bongo player, and all-around character. He achieved lasting public renown when he showed how the Challenger's O-ring material stiffened in a glass of ice water, accounting for the fatal explosion of that space shuttle. Possessed of a boundless curiosity and enthusiasm, he would freely expound on things both within and outside his professional field, only warning people that when he spoke on matters other than physics, his opinion was not to be taken any more seriously than that of the guy down the street. But sometimes I think he put on false modesty, such as when he gave a series of three lectures at the University of Washington in Seattle in April 1963 on science, values, and philosophy. Published later as The Meaning of It All: Thoughts of a Citizen Scientist, these lectures were one of the few times when Feynman set down his considered opinions and ideas on the basis of right and wrong, and how scientists (and by implication, engineers) should take values into account. As one of the most admired and brilliant scientists of the twentieth century, Feynman's thoughts on ethics are worth our attention, however brief.

In the lecture entitled "The Uncertainty of Values," he starts from the sadness we all feel when we consider how humanity falls short of its potential. We have tremendous potential power over nature and the ability to cure, heal, feed, and educate billions, but instead we have depressions, poverty, sickness, terrorism, and wars. Why is this? In asking this question, Feynman follows in the footsteps of Pascal, who said, "The more enlightened we are, the more greatness and vileness we discover in man." According to Feynman, it's because our potentials and capabilities don't come with instructions. As he puts it, "The sciences do not directly teach good and bad." So how can we figure out what is good and what is bad, and even if we do that, how can we manage to do the good and avoid the bad?

Whatever the answer is, Feynman thinks we must always allow for the possibility that we're wrong. Because only in that way can we try different things and learn from our mistakes.

Despite the fact that he was not a believer in any religion, he has some nice things to say about religion, which he divides into three aspects: the metaphysical, the ethical, and the inspirational. As far as he can tell, the metaphysical aspects of religion—what it says about God, about why there is anything at all, and so on—are independent of the ethical aspects. But in practice, you have to have all three, because most people need emotional inspiration to obey the ethics, and the metaphysics gives you logical reasons to obey.

Then he runs into a paradox. It seems to Feynman that the people for whom religion "works" the best manage to have an absolute faith in the metaphysical aspect: they really believe in the God of the Bible, for instance. And while Feynman allows that science can't disprove the existence of God, it can't prove it either, and sometimes science comes up with results that seem to contradict one or another of the metaphysical aspects of religion, or sometimes even the ethical ones. So can you be both a good scientist and a good believer? Feynman thinks it's possible, but it takes a lot of work.

He says Western civilization "stands by two great heritages. One is the scientific spirit of adventure—. . . humility of the intellect. The other great heritage is Christian ethics—the basis of action on love, the brotherhood of all men, the value of the individual, the humility of the spirit. These two heritages are logically, thoroughly consistent." But the problem comes when one heritage attacks the values of the other. (The recent fuss over evolution and intelligent design is an example of this kind of battle.)

In the midst of the Cold War, Feynman saw the USSR as an example of how government control of both science and religion led to problems. He said that government should not "limit the forms of literary or artistic expression. Nor should it pronounce on the validity of economic, historic, religious, or philosophical doctrines." The place of government was to maintain freedom for its citizens to contribute to the adventure of intellectual development.

For one of the leading thinkers of the twentieth century to say publicly "I don't know," as Feynman did several times in these lectures, shows a humility of spirit that is exceptional. Feynman was well aware of how famous people could make fools of themselves with careless pronouncements outside their fields of expertise. So he felt free to admit that he saw no farther than the ancients when he faced the problem of why there is evil in a world full of good, capable people, or how you could logically justify doing good while not believing in God. As one of the scientists who worked on the atomic bomb during World War II, Feyman could have wrapped himself in doubts and agonized over the past. Instead, he freely admitted war was terrible, but sometimes necessary in order to defend things we know are right, though we don't know moral principles in the same way we know the theory of relativity.

What I find impressive is his endorsement of Christian ethics as one of the twin pillars of Western civilization, the other being freedom of intellectual and scientific inquiry. In this he agrees with Alfred North Whitehead, a philosopher who saw the roots of the Scientific Revolution in the Christian faith of the Middle Ages that maintained the universe was ordered by a Mind Who followed logical laws that our minds could eventually figure out.

Those who would combat religion as a bane of civilization that should be allowed to wither and die would do well to contemplate the words of Richard Feynman, great scientist and non-believer, who nevertheless acknowledged Christianity as the giver of the best guide to conduct, for scientists and everyone else.

Sources: My thanks to Bill Birnie for bringing my attention to this work of Feynman's, The Meaning of It All (Reading, Mass: Perseus Books, 1998). The quotation from the Pensées of Blaise Pascal (1623-1662) is from no. 613 in P. Kreeft, Christianity for Modern Pagans (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1993).