03 January 2007

Madonna was right

A campaign is under way to debunk some of the sillier personality endorsements of wacky science. First we read the item on the BBC web site Stars must 'check science facts', and then there is the article in The Guardian Neutralise radiation and stay off milk: the truth about celebrity health claims.

Unfortunately, the BBC story is thin on juicy bits. The anonymous item offers not one example of a celebrity suffering from scientific foot-in-mouth syndrome. We just get some quotes from some of the usual rent-a-gob mob of scientists and an exhortation from Tracey Brown, director of Sense About Science, urging celebs to call this shadowy outfit before they go public.

It would be much better if they urged the people who passed on this tosh to check it before putting it into their magazines and newspapers. But that would not garner quite as much publicity as going for the celebs.

If you want to read to examples of celebrity tosh, you will have to download the brochure promoting the venture. We like the one from Jo Wood "wife of famous musician" who is quoted as saying "what you put on your skin goes into your bloodstream". She is mouthing off about why she uses organic beauty products.

Sadly, the response is a bit unscientific for us. It quotes Dr Gary Moss, a pharmacologist from the University of Hertfordshire, as saying "Ingredients in cosmetics are normally quite large and cannot get across your skin and into your bloodstream." We think this is a reference to the size of the molecules in all that gunk. He is right, though, when he continues "Your skin feels different when you apply cosmetics because their effect is on the outer surface of the skin."

The Guardian picks up the same story. Unlike the BBC, James Randerson has some of the quotes from the brochure. For example, he includes Madonna's comments on nuclear waste. "I mean, one of the biggest problems that exists right now in the world is nuclear waste ... that's something I've been involved with for a while with a group of scientists - finding a way to neutralise radiation."

The response here is even more suspect. Nick Evans, an environmental radiochemist at Loughborough University tells us that "Radioactivity cannot be 'neutralised', it can only be moved from one place to another until it decays away at its own rate. It comes in many different types: some last for billions of years, others decay away in a few minutes. There are no magical solutions."

Up to a point Lord Copper. By coincidence, we recently read an item on the EU's excellent Cordis web site, German researchers find solution to radioactive waste disposal. This reports that "German physicists ... have come up with a way of speeding up the decay of nuclear waste. The technique involves embedding the waste in metal and cooling it to ultra-low temperatures."

He even puts numbers on the possible reduction in half life. Dr Rolfe says "We are currently investigating radium-226, a hazardous component of spent nuclear fuel with a half-life of 1,600 years. I calculate that using this technique could reduce the half-life to 100 years."

There have been other reports over the years of using accelerators and the like to transmute radioactive isotopes into something safer. Madonna may be talking tosh, but it is unwise to blind her with science that she can easily counter.

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