Student Questions: Free Energy and Faster-than-Light Neutrinos
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:
Does coffee have health effects?
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.
Swim 30 minutes after eating?
The short answer is no, there is no sound reason to wait 30 minutes after eating. It's an urban legend 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.
Amber teething beads
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.
You ask this question at an exciting and interesting time. As of this writing, the
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
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.)
The E-Cat cold fusion device
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.
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.
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.
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