Adventures in Science

Posts tagged ‘skepticism’

Awesome Heros Wield Pee Power

Duro-Aina Adebola, Akindele Abiola, Faleke Oluwatoyin, and Bello Eniola engineered this generator that turns urine into electricity.


A group of four girls ages 14-15 demonstrated their urine-powered generator at the recent Maker Faire Africa in Lagos. The girls’ project also generated a lot of excitement and interest on the web over this last week. Although it won’t be able to compete with the energy output of coal or gasoline, this technique puts forward the possibility that urine could be tapped as one of many (cough) um, clean energy sources. There is probably a stinky pee smell, but clean in this case means it doesn’t give off CO2 emissions or other pollutants.

Let’s take a look at their process—

The Maker Faire Africa blog listed their method as such:

  • Urine is put into an electrolytic cell, which separates out the hydrogen.
  • The hydrogen goes into a water filter for purification, which then gets pushed into the gas cylinder.
  • The gas cylinder pushes hydrogen into a cylinder of liquid borax, which is used to remove the moisture from the hydrogen gas.
  • This purified hydrogen gas is pushed into the generator.

Along the whole way there are one-way valves for security, but let’s be honest that this is something of an explosive device…

The generated electricity powers a light bulb which is mostly hidden by the middle girl’s knee in the picture above.

The girls designed their system based on this paper by scientists from the Department of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering, Ohio University. Here is a more reader-friendly article on the paper that you might want to check out before you decide to explore the  scientific paper.

There is also a good deal of scientific debate and skepticism over whether this is a useful or effective electricity generator. The comment thread below that blog post is a good sampling of the discussion.

Good science means hashing out the truth and not taking claims at face value.  The only way to know for sure if this process works is to replicate the girls’ setup. With appropriate mentoring and safety precautions, it would be great to see other kids working to recreate this idea. If it turns out that this works…awesome! Then young scientists can work to make improvements to the technique.

We look forward to the day we can feature the work of the first group of teens that powers a cell phone from this kind of pee-powered system. Game on.


Don’t harsh my placebo, man!


Hooray! Science hasn’t figured everything out yet. There is more to discover and explore about the world. The funny thing is, though, that when we don’t have an explanation for something it can seem pretty spooky. For example, our minds and bodies can do something very mysterious. Sometimes our bodies can be fooled into getting better when we are sick or in pain without proven treatment or even real surgery. A fake remedy for a physical or mental complaint is known as a placebo and placebo effect is what happens when the fake remedy actually works to make someone feel better.

For example, imagine that someone who suffers from headaches is given a prescription for sugar pills (sugar isn’t a medicine (you knew that)). She takes the sugar pill like an aspirin for a headache and the headache goes away.

Placebo researchers aren’t sure why placebos work. It could be because the medical problem was almost over anyway or that people are used to having medical problems relieved by pills, so the very act of taking a pill or getting a shot causes it to go away. Other researchers say that it is the belief or expectation that the treatment is going to help that causes our bodies to trigger a cascade of processes related to being treated and cured. Others suggest that going through the motions of seeking a remedy to a complaint is responsible for some relief. The coolest thing about the placebo effect is that even though it is unexplained and mysterious at this time, it is real and well-documented.

This video shows a dramatic example of the placebo effect:

This is like getting scientific proof of the benefits of witch doctoring. The act of going through the motion of invasive knee surgery was enough to relieve this man’s agonizing knee pain.

Don’t worry, surgeons in most countries are not allowed to pretend to operate on you unless you give them permission.

The placebo effect works enough under certain conditions to make it a very intriguing field of study. Perhaps someday soon the placebo effect can be used to relieve a percentage of minor health complaints. Maybe it could save people money, minimize side effects and drug interactions.

I already use a placebo a few times a week. My personal pet placebo has NEVER, EVER* been trashed by science for it is the one-true-most-effective-placebo-of-all-time. There is lots of evidence to support that my one-true-most-effective-placebo-of-all-time contributes to optimal health. I exercise. Over and above the scientifically verified benefits of exercise, I might be AM DEFINITELY enjoying an extra placebo kick of well being. Yes. Plus, it gives me a youthful glow, don’t you think?


Here is Ben Goldacre discussing the current findings of research into the placebo effect, as well as the ethics surrounding the use of placebos:

He also did a two-part radio program on placebos that you can find here.

I also recommend Bad Science: Quacks, Hacks, and Big Pharma Flacks by Ben Goldacre. It has a whole chapter on the placebo effect. This book is also a very good easy-to-read primer on using the scientific method to weed out bad solutions to health problems.

*If it has, be nice and don’t tell me.

The Baloney-Detection Kit

"Any way you slice it, it's still baloney."

Sometimes, people pass around untrue information. It’s often hard to disagree with a nice person or a person in authority when they seem so sure that what they are telling you is true.

Say, for example, one day you are listening to the radio or television and someone tells you that the astronauts never went to the moon and the whole moon landing was faked. For you, that would be a very surprising thing for someone to tell you since you’ve seen videos of the moon landings and heard interviews with the astronauts. Perhaps you have read books about the NASA missions to the moon in the late 1960’s and early 1970’s. Perhaps you’ve even been to a museum and have seen the battered part of the spacecraft that splashed into the ocean upon returning the astronauts to Earth. You would probably think, “This guy is full of it,” or “This guy is full of baloney.” You would be right!


Baloney, phony baloney, and full of baloney are all words and phrases used to describe something as nonsense, silly, misleading, or untrue.

In his book, The Demon Haunted World, Dr. Carl Sagan wrote a list of steps he called the Baloney Detection Kit to think through when you hear or learn of some information that you suspect is untrue. Here is a link to Carl Sagan’s original Baloney Detection Kit on his official web site.

Not a Ronco® product. Maybe Wham-O®?

The original BDK has a lot of big words and phrases that may be unfamiliar to you. Dr. Michael Shermer kindly made a Baloney Detection Kit video that is a little easier to understand and he simplifies the basic ideas of BDK into 10 questions you can use to decide whether something is true or baloney.

Did you catch that? That college professor is asking you to think for yourself because even authorities with impressive credentials like him are sometimes wrong. That’s good advice.

The Ten Questions

  1. How reliable is the source of the claim?
  2. Does the source make similar claims?
  3. Have the claims been verified by somebody else?
  4. Does this fit with the way the world works?
  5. Has anyone tried to disprove the claim?
  6. Where does the preponderance of evidence point?
  7. Is the claimant playing by the rules of science?
  8. Is the claimant providing positive evidence?
  9. Does the new theory account for as many phenomena as the old theory?
  10. Are personal beliefs driving the claim?


Important words from the video and The Ten Questions are:

A claim is an unproven statement that something is true.

A claimant is someone who makes a claim.

Something that has been proven true or possible is verified.

Preponderance, at its simplest, means largest amount.

Evidence is proof used to judge whether something is true.

Direct evidence is actual straightforward proof of a claim.

A Theory is something that is accepted as true that is meant to explain something.

Phenomena are facts, events, or states of being that can be seen, watched, noticed, or observed.


Pwned….by science!

Image: My L'il Pwny by KeyzerSoze on DeviantArt

A couple of weeks ago 18-y.o. Stephen Thomas uploaded a video of his high school physics presentation to YouTube and it went viral. He’s taken his favorite show, My Little Pony, and with his knowledge of physics determined whether some of the ponies’ adventures and misadventures were possible. He did a pretty good job.

Even though Stephen Thomas debunked the Sonic Rainboom *whimper*, One Giant Leap of Awesome names him an


The picture above is not an animation. Those circles around the cute smiley guy aren’t really moving!

When we look at things with special patterns, color mixes, or points of view our brains get confused or lazy and start assuming things. That’s when we start to see still pictures move.

I found this optical illusion on Prof. Richard Wiseman’s blog. He is a psychologist and a magician and his blog is awesome because he blogs a lot about puzzles, optical illusions, and magic.

Here is one of Prof. Wiseman’s magic tricks. At the end he shows us how the trick was done.

Epic magic trick!

Here is another very tricky video:

Owned! I was so busy watching the cards I didn’t see any of the other changes.  How about you?