Saturday, November 13, 2004

How I defended science, and saved the day

There I was, reading my morning list of blogs, using the "open in tabs" feature of FireFox, when I got to the BoingBoing entry titled
Eat Less, Breath More, Lose Weight. It was an excerpt of an article by Richard A. Muller, entitled The Physics of Gluttony which I repeat here:
Let me address this issue by invoking another physics principle: conservation of mass. More specifically, let me talk about the conservation of carbon atoms. When you digest food, its carbon atoms enter your blood. Unless they are expelled from your body, they add to your weight. But here is the salient observation: the only effective way your body has to get rid of digested carbon is to combine it with oxygen to form carbon dioxide, and then expel it through your lungs. Unless you breathe out the carbon, you gain weight.

Here are some numbers, taken from books on exercise physiology. Fat, protein, and sugar all contain about 0.1 gram of carbon per food calorie consumed. So if you digest 2,000 calories of food (a typical daily diet for adults) then you take in about 200 grams of carbon. At rest, each breath exhales about 0.5 liter of air containing about 1 percent carbon, for about five milligrams per breath. After a day at 12 breaths per minute, you get rid of about 120 grams of carbon. That’s less than you ate, so you’ll gain weight.

The gross scale of oversimplification was immediately apparent to me, and had me in a tizzy!

The concept was simple, too simple. While simplifcations like this have appeal to the masses, but are dangerous, especially when they are as wrong as this one. I couldn't let something like this go unchecked. I immediately mobilized my forces, and put on my superblogger cape to defend science!

I immediately started to Google around to build a response. My first, and correct, suspicion was that Urea, a major component of urine, was an organic compound. Since all organic compounds, by definition, contain carbon, I knew I was safe. I then proceeded to fill in the details. I started to work on the other end of things. I followed the trail to feces, which has a very high carbon content as well.

Still, it seemed that it might actually be satire... and I had to be sure. I followed the links back a few more steps, and actually read the original article, quickly calmed down when he stated:

This month I want to talk about diet and exercise for weight loss, and I'm going to oversimplify on purpose. Consider a spherical physicist….

so... it was intended as satire after all... whew! Time to put the superblogger cape away, and calm back down!

So, instead of my saving humanity, you instead get a view of the thought processes of a middle aged self described "technologist" living in the midwest. I'm very glad I edited this thing before I posted, and I'm sure you, gentle reader, are as well. Thanks for following me on my morning adventure. Join me at another time when I race off to type a blog and save humanity. 8)

Via BoingBoing, and MIT Technology Review and this blog.

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