The Grey Chronicles


Scientific Myths and Realities

ORNL Review

ORNL Review

Recently received my copy of the Oak Ridge National Review. This issue featured a series of articles challenging scientific myths. Billy Stair, Director, Communications and External Relations Directorate, writing the editorial:

“Over time, . . . popular myths spread almost exclusively through word of mouth, often from generation to generation. . . Many of such myths are harmless . . . Unfortunately, the scientific community is confronted with another category of myths that on occasion can have far greater consequences for important public policy decisions. . . This issue of the ORNL Review is dedicated to research taking place at Oak Ridge National Laboratory that hopefully will change public attitudes about a number of contemporary scientific myths.”

Myth: Ethanol forces a choice between food and fuel.
Reality: A new generation of cellulosic ethanol will not require a reduction of the food supply.

Dawn Levy writes:

“First generation ethanol, the kind often blamed for food shortages, is produced from starchy grains, such as corn, in the United States and Europe and from sugarcane in Brazil. . . The next generation of ethanol is likely to be developed from a variety of nonfood crops riche in cellulose. . . Because much of the feedstock for cellulosic ethanol can be grown in marginal land, expanded use of biofuels would not require choosing between growing food or fuel crops on fertile land.” [pp. 4-7]

Annotations: The Philippines should pursue the production of cellulosic ethanol rather than continue with the corn- or sugarcane-based ethanol! The use of cellulosic ethanol would truly revolutionize the concept of e-Jeepney.

Myth: Alzheimer’s is an incurable disease.
Reality: Computer simulations indicate new drugs may reverse the course of the disease.

Dawn Levy writes:

“In 2007, ORNL researchers Edward Uberbacher and Phil LoCascio used 100,000 processor hours on the Laboratory’s Cray XT4 Jaguar supercomputer to investigate the mechanisms by which a new class of drugs acts. The drugs, called caprospinols, may stop the growth of Alzheimer’s fibrils and even disassemble the threadlike fibers. Results show promise.” [pp. 8-9]

Annotations: Aha! At least my memory will be safe! Maybe with caprospinols, I will not be forgetting names whenever I tell my stories.

Myth: Enormous supercomputers are making research impractical.
Reality: New techniques make it possible to handle staggering amounts of data.

Leo Williams writes:

“[Scott] Klasky is working with colleagues from Georgia Institute of Technology, Rutgers University and the Scientific Data Management Center—sponsored by DOE;s Scientific Discovery through Advanced Computing (SciDAC) program—to make the basic process of getting information in and out of a supercomputer easier and more effective. This approach is known as Adaptable I/O [input/output] System, or ADIOS, an application designed to give researchers fast, easy-to-use, portable performance. . .. Eventually, [the team] want to release the software as open source.” [pp. 12-13]

Annotations: When ADIOS is released as an open source, be prepared to meet enterprising individuals making mountains of money for a similar product. Remember Mosaic, the precursor of Netscape, which was “copied” by Microsoft and called it Internet Explorer?

Myth: Recycling spent nuclear fuel increases the risk of weapons proliferation.
Reality: New recycling technologies can reduce the inventory of plutonium.

Dawn Levy writes:

“ORNL research engineers are developing ways to recover and reuse valuable components of spent nuclear fuel, such as plutonium, neptunium and uranium. Their goal is to provide, for the first time, a sustainable method of managing and reusing the waste generated by the production of nuclear power . . . employ recycling—extract the plutonium and then reformulate it into a fuel that goes into a reactor for transmuting—we begin down the path of making substantial reductions in the volume and availability of plutonium.” [pp. 14-17]

Annotations: Unfortunately, the Bataan Nuclear Power Plant is never near operational! Oh, God forgive these politicians for they do not know what they do!

Myth: Only an engineer can operate a zero-energy house.
Reality: ORNL’s high-tech houses use low-tech operation.

Carolyn Krause writes:

“Jeff Christian has directed the design, construction and energy monitoring of five high-performance house for low-income families. . . The goal is an affordable zero-energy home—a house that in the course of a year generates as much electricity as it consumes . . . with technologies that the average American can manage easily.” [pp. 18-19]

Annotations: My dream house is still a dream: solar-paneled roof, foundation geothermal heat pump below ground for heating and cooling, methane digester for biogas cooking, and a horizontal windmill as spare energy provider. Unfortunately, Pag-ibig housing loans are too minuscule, it could not even buy a lot size fit for five: my wife and I plus my three sons.

Myth: Lighter cars less safe than heavier vehicles.
Reality: New materials can make cars lighter and as safe as heavier vehicles.

Carolyn Krause writes:

“Since the 1990s, studies [were conducted] to determine the safety impact of lighter cars made of advanced materials, such as high-strength steel, aluminum and magnesium. The auto manufacturers have been particularly interested in carbon-fiber composites because of [its] potential to reduce the weight of a car by more than 40% of a comparable steel vehicle’s weight. . . .Mike Starbuck says that experimental and computational crash results show that steel absorbs energy by bending, folding and deforming plastically. In contrast, carbon-fiber composites absorb energy by many mechanisms including delamination (splitting into layers) . . . [and] have higher specific energy absorption characteristics than metals.” [pp. 20-21]

Annotations: Is this a dire prediction of the end of the dominance of steel in automotive?

Myth: Wireless technologies are inherently unreliable.
Reality: Modern wireless technologies are actually cheaper and more reliable.

Carolyn Krause writes:

“The lingering reliability myth of wireless technology includes the belief that a turned-on cell phone can shutdown a wirelessly automated factory. Such an event is possible only if installers of a wireless networks do not follow explicit standards. . . Mounting evidence suggests that wireless technologies can help industry save energy and conserve materials.” [pp. 22-23]

Annotations: Turning off your cellphones while refueling on a gasoline station might also be a myth! Or had the construction crew skirted intrinsic wireless technology’ safety features for these refueling stations?


Krause, Carolyn [ed.] (2008). Scientific Myths, Oak Ridge National Laboratory Review. 41:3, Oak Ridge, Tennessee: UT-Battle, LLC, 2008. pp. 1, 4-9, 12-23. back to text

Disclaimer : The posts on this site are my own and doesn’t necessarily represent any organization’s positions, strategies or opinions.


1 Comment »

  1. […] Scientific Myths and Realities […]

    Pingback by The Scientific Manipulation of Our Reality « Therearenosunglasses’s Weblog — 2009.December.17 @ 19:35 | Reply

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