Student Questions: Free Energy and Faster-than-Light Neutrinos

Skeptoid answers another round of questions sent in by students all over the world.

Filed under Feedback & Questions

Skeptoid #298
February 21, 2012
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Once again this week, Skeptoid turns its skeptical eye on questions submitted by students all around the world. The image that most people have of me, that I sit here at my computer obsessively waiting for questions to trickle in, is perfectly accurate. My passion is the separation of science from pseudoscience, of fact from fiction, of reality from fantasy, and I'm here to share my conclusions with you. Today we're going to passionately dissect questions about the efficacy of drinking coffee, whether you should go swimming 30 minutes after eating, amber teething rings for babies, neutrinos that travel faster than light, the E-Cat cold fusion device, and whether the consumption of certain foods causes inflammation. Let's get started with a question that intrigues Starbucks customers every morning:

Hello, I'm Jason from Ohio and I'm 15 years old. I have a question about coffee. I enjoy drinking black coffee in the mornings, but my friends criticize me for it. They tell me that it stunts my growth, stains my teeth, and that it takes 50 times the amount of water to wash out the harmful effects from my system. My father, on the other hand, tells me that it's good, as it provides me with antioxidants, is calorie-free, and provides caffeine to wake me up. What is the truth about coffee? Do the cons outweigh the pros to the point that I shouldn't drink it? Any help is appreciated. I love the podcast.

Considering that so many people in the world drink so much coffee, observation alone makes it pretty hard to justify your friends' position. But let's look at the science. Most dentists will agree that coffee can stain teeth, but it's not a huge problem. Again, look at how many people around you drink coffee every day but manage to keep white teeth. As far as stunting your growth goes, this is just a myth and it has no factual basis whatsoever. Coffee's active ingredient is caffeine, which is a psychoactive stimulant. Its effect on the body is to increase alertness and resistance to fatigue, and this lasts for a few hours at most (depending on a number of biological factors).

This "waking up" result that you appreciate is the same reason many people drink coffee. It's real, and it's temporary. Caffeine is metabolized by your liver into low, safe levels of three compounds: paraxanthine, theobromine, and theophylline. Each of these is further metabolized into other compounds that are eventually discharged from the body. Your friends' suggestion that harmful substances are left behind that need to be washed out is not only unsupported, it's never been observed in medicine: just ask your doctor if he's ever heard of such a treatment.

But don't get too excited about coffee's antioxidant properties. The roasting of coffee beans does indeed produce one antioxidant compound (Methylpyridinium), but its anti-cancer properties come from a single in-vitro study from 2003. The overwhelming majority of research shows that antioxidant supplementation has no health benefits.

Hi Brian, this is Fo from Brock University in Ontario. I was wondering if there was any truth to that old myth about not going swimming for about 30 minutes after you eat something? Thanks.

The short answer is no, there is no sound reason to wait 30 minutes after eating. It's an old wive's tale that usually suggests muscle cramping will result from swimming within the mysterious 30-minute time limit, but eating has little relevance to cramps. Cramping is most likely to result from dehydration or from lactic acid buildup. If dehydration is your concern, you need to drink, not eat; and you need to have done it at least two hours prior to your swimming, not 30 minutes. There is no medical reason to think cramps are any more likely within the first 30 minutes after eating.

Really the only logical (though still wrong) interpretation of this is that eating gives you the strength you need to stay afloat, and you won't get that strength until after 30 minutes. But digestion takes at least several hours, so once again, the 30-minute waiting period is nonsensical.

Hey Brian, I have a friend who has a one year old child. I have noticed him wearing a beaded necklace on more than one occasion, and finally asked what it was all about. She claims that it is made from amber, and somehow helps with teething. I have since seen other kids wearing the same thing. Is there any actual science to this or is it 100% woo? Thanks!

Amber teething beads have been a New Age fad for some time. There are two basic claims about them: First, that they release some natural healing oil into the baby's mouth that relieves the pain of teething; and second, that they absorb harmful ions. The first is demonstrably untrue and implausible; the second is meaningless mumbo-jargon.

Some skeptics caution that giving small trachea-sized beads to a baby is a choking hazard, but this is probably not a serious concern. I've found no cases of babies being injured by this, and prehistoric amber is chemically inert (for all practical purposes, within your body) and would pass right through the digestive system with no known harmful effects. Still, a regular freezable teething ring (or even a frozen waffle) is a much better option. Icing actually does reduce pain; proper teething rings are too large to swallow; and they're far, far cheaper.

So the short answer to your question is: no science, plenty of woo, and another example of separating laypeople from their money with impressive sounding language.

Hey Brian, this is Mark from the University of Houston. My question is in regards to the recent discoveries at the laboratories at CERN. They discovered that they found neutrinos traveling faster than the speed of light. Will this punch holes in Einstein's theory of relativity or special relativity? Thank you.

You ask this question at an exciting and interesting time. As of this writing, the CERN OPERA experimental results have still not been explained. You are correct, that if it is discovered that CERN OPERA neutrinos have indeed traveled faster than the speed of light, it would be a violation of special relativity. Special relativity is one of the most thoroughly tested, verified, and important theories of modern physics. Violating it would be truly profound.

Neutrinos are subatomic particles that have no electrical charge and only interact with gravity and the weak nuclear force. This lack of interactivity with either electromagnetism or the strong nuclear force allows them to travel through matter. Supernovas are perhaps the most powerful emitters of neutrinos, and always before, we've detected that those neutrinos travel no faster than light.

In a series of experiments at CERN's the OPERA instrument in 2011, neutrinos created at one facility were detected in a receiving facility quickly enough that they would have had to have traveled faster than light. CERN OPERA repeated the experiment a number of times and in different ways, they analyzed the data different ways, they allowed for every conceivable type of error, and always the results came back the same. They appealed to the international science community for help, and efforts are currently underway to reproduce the experiment at other facilities. As of now, preparations for this have not yet been completed. It is indeed very exciting; it remains unexplained; and its implications are indeed as momentous as you suggest. Fun times lie ahead.

UPDATE - The results have been provisionally explained... ONE DAY after this episode went live! If this explanation is correct, it was all due to a faulty cable connection. Read about it here.

CORRECTION - As noted by the strikeouts above, OPERA is not part of CERN. Almost all reporting media has made this same error, and I'm guilty of reporting what's common when I should have fact-checked even what appears obvious. (OPERA is an experiment in Italy that receives neutrinos sent from CERN, and is located 732 km away.)

Hi Brian, I'm Dave from the Minneapolis Community and Technical College in Minneapolis Minnesota and I've been reading about the E-Cat cold fusion device and it seems to claim that it makes more energy than it takes to run it and I was curious about what your take on this seeming violation of the laws of thermodynamics are. Thank you.

In 2011, Italian inventor Andrea Rossi announced a cold fusion machine he called the E-Cat, or Energy Catalyzer, a tabletop device that he claims produces heat through the exothermic nuclear transmutation of nickel into copper. (These days, cold fusion is usually called LENR - Low Energy Nuclear Reaction.) At this time it's not known whether Rossi is honestly mistaken or being deliberately deceptive, but what is known is that what he's claiming is not possible according to the known laws of physics. The primary argument against it, as ably described in a ScienceBlogs article by astrophysicist Ethan Siegel, is what's called the Coulomb barrier, which is the energy barrier that prevents charged nuclei from merging at lower than a given energy level. Copper can indeed be formed from nickel, but only at temperatures and pressures found inside stars that are at least eight times as massive as the sun, and not through the simple process that Rossi claims.

If Rossi has indeed managed to overturn physics, he has not yet convinced any meaningful number of experts, and he has not acted in a very scientific manner. He has refused to replicate his sales demonstrations under controlled conditions; he has threatened to sue people who elect not to invest in his machine; he has claimed to have sold some of his machines but declines to say to whom; and the results of his sales demonstrations have been found to have been rigged, in one case with some wires that he said were accidentally misconnected.

$2/mo $5/mo $10/mo One time

Everyone hopes that clean, free, limitless energy can be found as easily as Rossi says. But until someone proves it, it remains pie in the sky.

Hi this is Yihong from California. Do certain foods such as vegetable cooking oils cause chronic inflammation or leaky gut syndrome? Thanks a lot.

That's probably not something you need to worry too much about. First of all, "leaky gut syndrome" is not a medically recognized condition; it's really only promoted and trumpeted within alternative medicine circles, and usually to sell you some supplement product designed to treat it. There are indeed real medical conditions to which your intestines are susceptible, but "leaky gut syndrome" is not one of them.

Regarding foods that cause inflammation, I see a lot of mixed information out there. Again, the vast majority of noise about this comes from the alternative medicine community, advising you to avoid prepared foods and to purchase supplement products. But in fact, the main way that a food can cause inflammation is through an allergic reaction: inflammation is, of course, an immune response. If you don't have an allergy to vegetable oil, there's little chance that a normal amount of it in your diet will have any noticeable health effects. Some research has shown that metabolic derivatives of vegetable oil can produce compounds that do assist in the body's immuno-inflammatory response, but this is not necessarily a bad thing, and it's not as simple as eating the food produces inflammation.

As with most nutrition questions, the best advice is simply to eat a balanced diet, watch the sugars and fats, and get plenty of exercise. There is no magic food or diet that easily makes you healthy or that always makes you sick.

Follow me on Twitter @BrianDunning.

Brian Dunning

© 2012 Skeptoid Media, Inc. Copyright information

References & Further Reading

American Chemical Society. "Highly Active Compound Found In Coffee May Prevent Colon Cancer." Science News. ScienceDaily LLC, 15 Oct. 2003. Web. 19 Feb. 2012. <http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2003/10/031015031251.htm>

Barrett, S. "Be Wary of Fad Diagnoses." Quackwatch. Stephen Barrett, MD, 14 Mar. 2009. Web. 20 Feb. 2012. <http://www.quackwatch.org/01QuackeryRelatedTopics/fad.html>

CERN. "About OPERA." OPERA. The OPERA Collaboration, 5 Dec. 2008. Web. 19 Feb. 2012. <http://operaweb.lngs.infn.it/>

Cooke, J. "Amber Jewelry Doesn’t Assist with Teething but Can Be Deadly." Young Australian Skeptics. Young Australian Skeptics, 12 Jan. 2006. Web. 20 Feb. 2012. <http://www.youngausskeptics.com/2012/01/amber-jewellery-doesnt-assist-with-teething-but-can-be-deadly/>

Leyner, M., Goldberg, B. Why Do Men Have Nipples? New York: Three Rivers Press, 2005. 189.

Novella, S. "Have You Had Your Antioxidants Today?" The Science of Medicine. The Committee for Skeptical Inquiry, 1 Nov. 2011. Web. 1 Mar. 2012. <http://www.csicop.org/si/show/have_you_had_your_antioxidants_today>

Siegel, E. "The Physics of why the e-Cat's Cold Fusion Claims Collapse." ScienceBlogs. ScienceBlogs LLC, 5 Dec. 2011. Web. 19 Feb. 2012. <http://scienceblogs.com/startswithabang/2011/12/the_nuclear_physics_of_why_we.php>

Reference this article:
Dunning, B. "Student Questions: Free Energy and Faster-than-Light Neutrinos." Skeptoid Podcast. Skeptoid Media, Inc., 21 Feb 2012. Web. 17 Apr 2014. <http://skeptoid.com/episodes/4298>

Discuss!

10 most recent comments | Show all 52 comments

The stomach cramps/swimming reply is misleading. Not necessarily cramps as such but do this test:

1. Eat a big meal
2. Put on your jogging shoes and do a hard run for a few K.

After your bend with stomach pain and nausea, contemplate what might have happened if you were several hundred meters off shore doing a vigorous swim and needed to get back onto land.

Anyway, excellent podcast, few mistakes. But this response could be potentially fatal to someone.

Will Nitschke, Sydney
April 04, 2012 2:58am

There are plenty of reasons to be skeptical of the E-Cat device, but that it overturns the laws of physics is not one of them. The Widom-Larsen theory(or should I say hypothesis?) is just one possible explanation for the excess heat claimed in these experiments that does not contradict any KNOWN laws. Even if the performance of any specific machine, or the result of any particular experiment, failed to live up to expectations one would still have to wonder why the effects predicted by these theories failed to materialize if said theories are consistent with contemporary physics. In that case, a null result would be a rebuke of our current view of the world and would necessitate new or modified laws.

Anonymous, Undisclosed
April 12, 2012 10:05am

Brian I love your show and have been listening non-stop since I found it via TuneIn Radio. I just finished #298 and had a question/problem with your closing statement on the issue of whether vegetable oil can cause chronic inflammation or "leaky gut". "There is no magic food or diet that easily makes you healthy or that always makes you sick." This is the first time I have heard of this particular health issue but I am familiar with the autoimmune disease Coeliac. Coeliac sufferers, upon ingesting foods containing the wheat protein gliadin, exhibit an auto immune response which leads to intestinal inflammation and various other symptoms. I assume that your statement that there is no "...magic food or diet" that "...always makes you sick." is referring to the average person free of such auto immune diseases such as Coeliac because, in the case of an individual with Coeliac, a diet that includes wheat/gliadin would indeed "always" make them sick, or at least more-often-than not, until this particular "food" was eliminated from their diet. It is interesting to note that before gluten/gliadin was identified as the cause of the collective symptoms known as Coeliac there were many theories that falsy identified various foods as the cause. In one case highly starched foods were identified as the culprit, leading to a diet free of rice, fruit, vegetables, etc. I just wanted clarification on your closing statement and look forward to your response. Thanks for the great show!

SkepticalPiranha, United States
April 29, 2012 8:01am

I said functional lung capacity. Your full stomach prevents your diphragm from decending. Try this Suck in your stomach (this lifts your diaphragm) now breath in and out without lowering your diaphragm. How much functional lung capacity do you have? Thats why singers don't eat until after the show.

Peter Lindsay, Newcastle Aus
May 01, 2012 7:25pm

"There are plenty of reasons to be skeptical of the E-Cat device, but that it overturns the laws of physics is not one of them. The Widom-Larsen theory(or should I say hypothesis?) is just one possible explanation for the excess heat claimed in these experiments that does not contradict any KNOWN laws."

You miss the point entirely. What is claimed to be causing the excess heat is physically impossible to achieve on earth. The transition from nickel into copper would require more mass than is available in our entire solar system. More proof that just because you look up some scientific sounding mumbo jumbo, it doesn't make you smart or right.

The fact of the matter is that no matter can be created or destroyed. Matter can become energy and vise versa. Therefore the sum can never equal more than it's original parts. To do otherwise would be creating new energy or mass which is impossible.

justin, earth
May 07, 2012 9:19pm

Peter, we have covered this. You are "cherry picking" just one part of your physiological set when it comes to breathing.

Sure a chrissie feed will make you unenthused about going for a swim or a 10km run.

It doesnt affect the amount of O2 you drag by much.

I must admit, even in glorious OZ, most people arent good for a 50m dash in water or land.

I am not unsurprised by our drowning rates.

I'd defy most who haventt kept up training to attempt to save their lives in a 200m dash at their local pool. Lunch hasnt got a thing to do with it. Fitness has.


Justin, put the boot in for the earthlings. Add to the debate, the proposed energetic mechanism is not explained and will not be explained.

The comparison should be, how does this technology compare in cost to current?

If one doesnt publish, one has to be overwhelmingly deft in explaining these things.

mud, Forbidden state, Oz
June 15, 2012 10:07pm

It's ironic that you deny "leaky gut syndrome" (a.k.a. increased intestinal permeability in medical terms) and use Science Daily as a source when this exact same source clearly confirms that leaky gut syndrome very much exists and may the root cause to some cancers.

"If the intestinal barrier breaks down, it becomes a portal for stuff in the outside world to leak into the inside world," said Dr. Waldman. "When these worlds collide, it can cause many diseases, like inflammation and cancer."

http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2012/02/120221212345.htm

Of course leaky gut syndrome is real. To claim anything else is just rubbish. Search i.e. PubMed if you need research to convince yourself.

And increased intestinal permeability has nothing to do with alternative medicine. It has to do with medicine in general - that's all.

A., Sweden
July 21, 2012 1:40am

Pub med is just a data base. You'll find many contradictory articles there. The challenge is to ascertain the veracity of the article.

The same goes for science daily. Science daly is a media outlet. You will find a hell of a lot of reporter import into these articles.

Mud, At virtually missing point, NSW, OZ,
September 05, 2012 2:44am

Theory of relativity is in danger-it was discovered in a research published in the year 2011 but we haven't got enough evidence on it.

If the result turns to be true then it will be an end of era-End of Einstein era,just like Issac Newton's era ended in the year 1905.

SAMPAN CHAKRABORTY, NJ
July 23, 2013 6:28am

Sampan, I think you have over extended yourself at the word "theory".

Mortal Dilpin, Greenacres by the sea Oz
September 11, 2013 6:49pm

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