Pluto and Charon Up Close

I was born in June 1989. Just 2 months after that, the Voyager 2 spacecraft flew past Neptune on its way out of our solar system and for the first time ever we saw real close up pictures of the solar system’s outermost giant planet.

Of course, I was too young to remember this, but it means that as I’ve been growing up I’ve been able to see amazing and beautiful photos of the 8 planets of our solar system. Pluto is no longer classified as a planet, but nonetheless it has been conspicuously missing from this set for my whole life.

That is, until this week. After travelling for 9 1/2 years, the New Horizons spacecraft finally flew past the only remaining “classic planet” that we had not yet explored. We are seeing real close up pictures of a new world, one that we’ve never seen like this before. And it’s glorious:

Pluto
Pluto in glorious colour | Image by NASA

This image is made by compositing the high resolution black and white image taken from LORRI (LOng Range Reconnaissance Imager) and colour imagery taken from Ralph (New Horizons’ colour imager). It was sent back to Earth by New Horizons prior to its exciting flyby of Pluto on Tuesday night (closest approach was 11:50 pm Tuesday 2015/07/14, New Zealand time), having been taken 16 hours ahead of time.

It sent back data ahead of time because during the 24 hour flyby New Horizons was busy collecting data. All of its instrumentation is built into the body of the spacecraft, so in order to point them the whole spacecraft needs to rotate. This means that in order to talk to Earth it has to look away from Pluto, so we had to wait in patient agony while it was collecting data.

After the flyby, New Horizons sent a packet of telemetry data back to Earth, containing information about how its systems were doing. The flyby was the most dangerous part of the mission; travelling at about 14 kilometres per second, an impact with even a tiny piece of debris could absolutely destroy the spacecraft and near Pluto is the most likely place to encounter such debris. Since New Horizons was travelling into the unknown, no one could guarantee this wouldn’t happen, although NASA was confident that the chance of such a collision was very low.

The “Phone Home” signal reached Earth at 12:52:37 pm on Wednesday 2015/07/15 (New Zealand time), telling us that everything went perfectly. New Horizons survived the flyby! The next stage of the mission is to send down all the data it collected, but getting data back from Pluto is hard. Even at the speed of light signals take over 4 hours to cross the distance, and the transfer rate varies from just 1 kb/s to a whopping 4 kb/s. It’ll take around 16 months to get all the data from the flyby down to Earth.

This morning (7am Thursday 2015/07/16 New Zealand time) NASA held a press conference in which they released some new images, including a high resolution image of Pluto’s largest moon Charon:

Charon
Pluto’s largest moon Charon | Photo by NASA

There’s a lot of interesting stuff going on here, for example that little notch you can see in the upper right is a canyon that’s 6-10 kilometres deep. So deep that you’re looking through it to the space behind Charon. The dark polar region at the top, which has been informally named “Mordor”, is also interesting. The fact that impact craters allow lighter material to peek through makes it seem as though the dark material on the surface is just thin layer. Apparently one possible cause of this could be some form of atmospheric transfer from Pluto.

At the press conference, NASA also released a much higher resolution of an area in the “heart” region of Pluto. The heart has been named Tombaugh Regio after Clyde Tombaugh, who discovered Pluto in 1930. Although he died in 1997, New Horizons carried some of his ashes on board to honour his request for his ashes to be taken to space. Here’s the image:

Zoomed in on Tombaugh Regio, Pluto (rotated 90 degrees counterclockwise) | Photo by NASA
Zoomed in on Tombaugh Regio, Pluto (rotated 90 degrees counterclockwise) | Photo by NASA

This is a very interesting image. The first thing you might notice is the mountains. These are about 3.5 kilometres tall, and almost certainly made of water ice. Also, there are no impact craters in this photo. That’s strange, really strange. It means that Pluto’s surface is new, probably less than 100 million years old.

Pluto is the first icy world we’ve seen that isn’t also the moon of a gas giant. Icy moons like Saturn’s moon Enceladus get stretched and heated by the tidal forces placed on them due to their close proximity to much more massive bodies. Tidal forces are caused by a gradient in the strength of gravity – parts of a body closer to a source of gravity experience a stronger force than those further away, and when this gradient is strong (which happens when you’re nearby a much larger body) the tidal forces are greater. The Moon’s tidal influence on Earth drives our oceanic tides, and the extreme tidal forces you’d experience crossing the event horizon of a black hole are what would turn you into a space noodle.

But Pluto isn’t near any other large bodies that could exert this sort of tidal force on it. Charon is around half its size, but Pluto and Charon are both tidally locked to one another, meaning the same parts always face each other, so the tidal forces never change. There must be some other process driving geological activity on Pluto, and we don’t know what that is yet.

There’s a lot more interesting stuff coming out of the New Horizons mission, and of course much more to come now that we’re getting data back. I recommend you follow Emily Lakdawalla’s blog at the Planetary Society for up to date and accurate information. Her latest article is a great overview of what we learned at this morning’s NASA press conference.

This isn’t the end for New Horizons, even after the 16 month period of sending all its data down it’s going to continue into the outer region of the solar system known as the Kuiper belt, and hopefully visit one or two more icy worlds.

For now, though, we have finally completed our reconnaissance of the solar system. This is the end of the beginning.

Natural Curiosity: Stretching Reflections 2

After my earlier post on this topic, I talked to a few people about why they thought these stretching reflections happened. There were a few different ideas, and when I talked to my brother about it he pointed out something in one of the images on my last post that was inconsistent with my explanation.

Sun Reflection | Photo by oboejoe92 on Flickr CC BY-NC 2.0
Sun Reflection | Photo by oboejoe92 on Flickr CC BY-NC 2.0

My hypothesis would have predicted that reflections would stretch down, but not up. However, looking more carefully at this image, the reflection of the Sun is clearly both stretching down and stretching up to the horizon. So it can’t be explained just by the surface appearing to be rougher as it gets closer to the observer.

However, in that discussion we came up with a new hypothesis. As I said in my last post, if we imagine a rough surface as being made up of a lot of small flat mirrors at random angles, some of them will be at the correct angle to reflect light toward you so you’ll see a reflection in those places. The new hypothesis was that the angle required for this would be less extreme above and below the reflection than to the side of it.

In order to test this, I needed 3 things:

  1. A light source
  2. A flat reflective surface
  3. A wedge
  4. A flat surface to rest it all on

Luckily, these things were all readily at hand. For a light source, I used a nearby lamp. My phone’s screen made a good flat reflective surface. I used the alarm remote for my car as the wedge, and rested everything on the floor. I’m sure you could find similar objects to reproduce this experiment for yourself.

First, I lined up the lamp, my phone, and myself so that I could see the lamp’s reflection in the centre of my phone’s screen when it was sitting flat on the floor. Then, using my makeshift wedge I tiled the screen of my phone away from me, then moved the tilted reflective surface towards me until the lamps’ reflection was in the middle of the screen.

I then repeated this for the other directions – away from me, to the left, and to the right. Because my phone isn’t square, I also rotated it so it was landscape when I moved it towards me and away from me, but portrait when moving it left and right. That made it easier to judge when the reflection was in the centre of its screen.

What I found was that I had to move the phone a lot further toward me or away from me than I had to move it left or right in order to see the reflection again. I think this explains, at least in part, why reflections on rough surfaces appear to be stretched towards you.


We can get a rough approximation of the outline of a reflection on a rough surface by assuming it has a maximum roughness, i.e. the maximum angle at which one of those little mirrors that make up its rough surface could be tilted. Then, the approximate outline of the reflection would be along the curve where a mirror at that maximum angle, facing in the right direction, would reflect light toward you.

On a perfectly flat surface, this maximum angle is 0. So the shape of the reflection is exactly as you’d expect, undistorted.

However, as the maximum roughness of the surface increases, the outline moves out from the undistorted reflection. And the reflection doesn’t just get larger, it gets stretched towards you. It’s because the angle required to reflect it at you is less within that outline that reflections on rough surfaces appear to be stretched.

I’ve written a small JavaScript simulation to show this effect. Unfortunately WordPress doesn’t let me embed it in this post, but you can have a play with it by clicking on the image below:

Stretching reflection simulation
Stretching reflection simulation

If you’re interested, you can also take a look at the source on GitHub.

The simulation works by sending out rays from the observer to hit different parts of a horizontal reflective surface. When a ray hits the surface, the simulation calculates the angle that would be required at that point to cause the simulation’s light source (displayed as a red dot) to be reflected there. Places where there would be a reflection are shaded according to the required angle, with brighter yellow areas being flatter, and areas where there would be no reflection are black. The simulation also draws a reflected red dot to show where the reflection would be on a very flat surface.

There are a few numbers you can configure to see how the shape of the shadow changes under various scenarios:

Light source distance
The distance “into the screen” that the light source (the red dot) is from you.
Light source height
How much higher than you the light source is. You’ll want to make sure it’s higher than the reflector.
Reflector height
How much lower (using negative numbers) the reflective surface is than you. The simulation doesn’t look above horizontal for reflections, so this won’t work with positive numbers.
Maximum angle
The maximum amount of roughness the reflective surface can have. Higher numbers are rougher, lower numbers are flatter.
Step size
How far apart the rays are, in degrees. The default setting is 0.1 degrees. Larger step sizes will make the simulation run faster, but it will be less precise.

The simulation shows how reflections can be stretched vertically in this way, depending on the roughness of the reflecting surface and the relative positions of the observer and the light source. If you make the light source very far away and near the horizon, you’ll see that the reflection can stretch all the way up to the horizon just like the Sun’s reflection in that picture.

However, there’s still a decent amount of horizontal spreading so I don’t think this entirely explains the stretched reflections. Yesterday, I saw this beautiful photo on Twitter, taken by Ian Griffin of a sunset in Otago:

In this photo, there is pretty much no horizontal stretching. This can be seen in the black lines in the reflection caused by trees blocking the Sun’s light – if the reflection were stretching sideways then these would be blurred and wouldn’t have such a uniform thickness.

There could be a few things helping in this case. Because this particular example is taken with water being the reflective surface, and the observer was standing at the shore, the waves are mostly perpendicular to the line of sight. That would help minimise horizontal scattering.

It can’t be just that, though, because the same stretching is seen on rough surfaces where the roughness has no direction, such as wet roads:

Wet road reflections | Photo by Thomas Hawk on Flickr CC BY-NC 2.0
Wet road reflections | Photo by Thomas Hawk on Flickr CC BY-NC 2.0

I think the rest of this could possibly be explained by surfaces that reflect the light straight towards you from under the light source appearing larger, because they’re angled towards you. Surfaces to either side of the reflection could also reflect the light towards you, but perspective would cause them to be foreshortened and therefore contribute less to the overall picture.

What do you think?

Natural Curiosity: Stretching Reflections

Auckland reflection at night | Photo by 111 Emergency on Flickr CC BY 2.0
Auckland reflection at night | Photo by 111 Emergency on Flickr CC BY 2.0

On a rough reflective surface like the ocean or a dark wet road, reflections from bright lights like city lights, car brake lights, or the Moon appear stretched vertically. Why is this?

When a surface is perfectly flat, like a regular mirror, the image we see in the reflection isn’t distorted at all. Even if we put a mirror flat on the ground, we wouldn’t see a vertically stretched reflection like this.

Neither the road nor the ocean are perfectly flat though. Their surfaces are rough, and this rough surface scatters light when it’s reflected. If we imagine that each piece of the surface was a little flat mirror, with each piece facing in a random direction, some of these would be at the right angle to reflect light from a source (like the Sun) directly into our eyes, and most would not. We’d only see a reflection in those pieces that are at the correct angle to reflect the light into our eyes.

The further these little mirrors are from the area where we’d see the reflection in a flat mirror, the more extreme an angle they will need in order to still reflect the light at us. If every one of these little surfaces was really really tiny, what we’d expect to see is a blurry reflection. The smaller the pieces get, the less blurry the reflection would get.

We can actually see this in effect when we compare pictures of the Sun reflected off the ocean. When you’re quite near the ocean, all the different reflecting surfaces are relatively large so the reflection is quite blurry and broken (especially if there are lots of waves):

Sun Reflection | Photo by oboejoe92 on Flickr CC BY-NC 2.0
Sun Reflection | Photo by oboejoe92 on Flickr CC BY-NC 2.0

In comparison, if we look at a reflection of the Sun on the ocean that was taken from space, all the waves and ripples that distort the reflection are far too tiny to see, and as a result the reflection is quite clear and crisp:

Sun reflection from space | Photo from NASA
Sun reflection from space | Photo from NASA

Another difference that’s quite apparent between these photos is the vertical stretching that I’ve been wondering about. From up close, it’s very stretched. From a distance? Not so much. This gives me a thought, one that actually hadn’t occurred to me until I got to this point in writing this post and saw those images one after another:

What if it’s important that there’s a significant relative distance between the closest and furthest parts of the surface that are reflecting the light source?

From a long way away, these distances appear quite small. For example, if I’m 1 km away from a surface, then a 1 m distance between two points on that surface is really quite small. If I’m only a metre away myself though, then that’s a very significant distance.

As we just saw, reflections on non-flat surfaces are more blurry when they’re closer to you, so what if this vertical stretching is actually just the reflection getting more blurry towards the bottom, because that part of the road or ocean is closer? As it’s more blurry, this would let the edge of the reflection creep out further, and could look like stretching.

If I’m right, then I should be able to see the same type of stretching if I look at a reflection on a vertical surface, except the stretching would be horizontal in that case. I should also be able to replicate the same stretching effect if I can get a reflecting surface that is smooth on top and gets rougher towards the bottom, and look at a reflection of a light in it like I would a normal mirror (i.e. with the reflecting surface vertical and the light source behind me).

Let me know what you think of this idea in the comments, and if you have any ideas of your own for why we see these stretched reflections. Any ideas about how I could try to disprove my idea would be welcome too! In the meantime, I’ll try to do these experiments, and see if I can find an expert to talk to about this question.

I’ve written more on this topic in another article: Natural Curiosity: Stretching Reflections 2

Natural Curiosity

Blue Sky | Photo by Mohammed Tawsif Salam - CC BY-SA 3.0
Blue Sky | Photo by Mohammed Tawsif Salam – CC BY-SA 3.0

On the second Wednesday of every month, there’s a great Twitter chat on science communication in New Zealand: #SciCommNZ

Unfortunately I’m always busy on Wednesday evenings while this is going on, but I’ve tried to participate as much as I can by joining in late and reading through each discussion. The questions that have been asked have made me think about the things I write about on this blog, and some of the things I’d like to write about:

After having these thoughts churn around in my head for a few weeks, I’ve come up with something I’d like to try.

There are a lot of “everyday science” questions that I see asked and answered fairly often. Common examples include “why is the sky blue?” (which is not quite as simple as you might think) and “how do rainbows work?”. I really like these questions, but I feel sometimes like they’ve all been done many times already.

Of course, they haven’t all been done many times already. But I do feel like I see the same “everyday science” questions over and over again. I think they’re great and really interesting the first time you encounter them, so I want more.

As a remedy to this, and as an attempt to do something different and (hopefully) interesting with my science communication, I’m going to start asking some of my own everyday science questions. This might be a bit grandiose, but I’m calling this little project of mine Natural Curiousity

The format may change as I get into it, but the way I see this happening is to take every question in two parts:

First, I’ll write a post framing the question and some of my own thoughts (as a non-scientist) on what the potential answers might be, and what some problems with those potential answers might be. I want to try to do this without any Googling, but I might try a few homemade experiments. My hope would be that posts like these could get some interesting discussion going, but I guess we’ll see.

After that, I’d like to talk with someone who is an expert in a relevant topic and get their thoughts on the question, both on the potential answers brought up in the first post and on what they think the answer probably is and why. This isn’t something I’ve done before, so I hope I’ll be able to find some experts who’ll be happy to find some time to talk to me about this.

If you have any everyday science questions that you’ve been wondering about, let me know in the comments. I’ll update this post with links to posts using this format as I publish them.

  1. Stretching Reflections
  2. Stretching Reflections 2

Finding Power and Balance: Proving and Disproving Claims

I’m very happy to have had an article published on the website of the New Zealand Science Teacher, the official publication of the New Zealand Association of Science Educators.

My article is about applied kinesiology, I’ve embedded the introduction below and you can read the whole thing on the NZST website: Finding Power and balance: proving and disproving claims

When reading a story about someone who has been scammed, it’s very easy to think ‘that could never happen to me’. From the outside, warning signs always appear obvious and the conclusion often seems untenable. It’s easy to assume that people who fall for scams or are otherwise misled must be unintelligent or gullible. The reality is less comfortable. We can all be fooled, even the best of us.

One historical example of someone very intelligent falling for what now seems to be clearly false, involves author and doctor Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, creator of Sherlock Holmes. Despite obviously understanding the principles of scepticism, Doyle became convinced in the early 20th century that fairies were real, based on a series of photographs of the “Cottingley Fairies”, which were revealed decades later to have been faked using paper cut-outs. Intelligence is no failsafe against being fooled.

More recently, many people, including Shaquille O’Neil and Bill Clinton, have been fooled by a plastic wristband: the makers of which claim it can improve a person’s strength and balance.

The ‘theory’ behind the tests used to promote these wristbands is also employed by various alternative health practitioners in attempts to evaluate treatment effects and to diagnose illnesses, allergies, and intolerances, despite the fact that there is no scientific proof behind it.

It’s known as ‘applied kinesiology’ and, if you don’t know any better, it can be very convincing.

Ethical Pharmacy Practice 3: Running Out of Excuses

Ethical pharmacy practice is something I have written about before. If you’ve read those posts, please bear with me as I cover some familiar background.

In New Zealand, we are lucky enough to have an industry code of ethics for pharmacists, published by the Pharmacy Council of New Zealand, which holds pharmacists to high ethical standards. This code of ethics is the Safe Effective Pharmacy Practice Code of Ethics. One of the most important parts of this code of ethics is section 6.9, which states:

[PHARMACISTS] MUST:… Only purchase, supply or promote any medicine, complementary therapy, herbal remedy or other healthcare product where there is no reason to doubt its quality or safety and when there is credible evidence of efficacy.

Pharmacy Council’s Safe Effective Pharmacy Practice Code of Ethics Section 6.9

The Pharmacy Council of New Zealand isn’t a voluntary member organisation like the Pharmacy Guild or the Pharmaceutical Society. Instead the council is established as part of the Health Practitioners Competence Assurance Act 2003. Their roles are set out in this act and include:

  • Registering pharmacists
  • Reviewing and maintaining the competence of pharmacists
  • Setting standards of clinical competence, cultural competence, and ethical conduct for pharmacists

Which means that the Safe Effective Pharmacy Practice Code of Ethics is not a voluntary code of ethics. It is published by the body whose legal duty it is to set the standards of ethical conduct for pharmacists. Yet all over New Zealand, many pharmacists ignore it.

Walk into any New Zealand pharmacy. Chances are that you will find a section where they advertise and sell a range of homeopathic products. To anyone familiar with the evidence for homeopathy, it will come as no surprise when I tell you that there is no credible evidence of efficacy for any homeopathic product. Therefore, it seems to me, New Zealand pharmacists have an ethical obligation not to promote or sell them.

Yesterday, the Australian National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC) issued their final statement on homeopathy, following an incredibly extensive and rigorous review of the literature. They looked at over 1,800 scientific papers, and found that 225 met their criteria for methodological rigour, sample size, and placebo control. Their main finding was:

there are no health conditions for which there is reliable evidence that homeopathy is effective.

NHMRC Statement: Statement on Homeopathy

As I said, this conclusion does not come as a surprise. This research is the latest in a long line of reviews of the evidence for homeopathy that drew essentially the same finding:

  • A 2002 systematic review of systematic reviews of homeopathy published in the British Journal of Clinical Pharmacology concluded that:

    the hypothesis that any given homeopathic remedy leads to clinical effects that are relevantly different from placebo or superior to other control interventions for any medical condition, is not supported by evidence from systematic reviews. Until more compelling results are available, homeopathy cannot be viewed as an evidence-based form of therapy.

    A systematic review of systematic reviews of homeopathy

  • A 2010 systematic review of systematic reviews of homeopathy published in the Medical Journal of Australia concluded:

    The findings of currently available Cochrane reviews of studies of homeopathy do not show that homeopathic medicines have effects beyond placebo.

    Homeopathy: what does the “best” evidence tell us?

  • A 2010 report from the UK House of Commons concluded:

    homeopathy is a placebo treatment.

    Evidence Check 2: Homeopathy

  • In 2013, the NHMRC published a report based on their research that found:

    There is a paucity of good-quality studies of sufficient size that examine the effectiveness of homeopathy as a treatment for any clinical condition in humans. The available evidence is not compelling and fails to demonstrate that homeopathy is an effective treatment for any of the reported clinical conditions in humans.

    Effectiveness of Homeopathy for Clinical Conditions: Evaluation of the Evidence

I could go on, but I hope by now you get the idea.


New Zealand pharmacists need to respond to the NHMRC’s research. And if they mean to practice responsibly and ethically, that response should be to immediately stop all promotion and sale of homeopathic products. The ethical standard to which they should be held is clear, and it is not consistent with promoting or supplying homeopathic products.

Last year, I complained to the Advertising Standards Authority under the auspices of the Society for Science Based Healthcare about a homeopathic product for preventing jet lag (No-Jet-Lag) that was advertised in Parnell Pharmacy. The pharmacy responded by removing the advertisement, and agreeing to stop selling the product if it was found that the claims were not supported by credible evidence, and my complaint was upheld. Unsurprisingly, my complaint was upheld when the ASA decided claims such as “it really works” were not supported by credible evidence. However, despite Parnell Pharmacy’s example, many New Zealand pharmacies still sell this exact product.

The NHMRC’s report represents the same finding, but on a larger scale. New Zealand pharmacists who promote and sell homeopathic products should follow the responsible example of Parnell Pharmacy, and remove homeopathic products from their shelves.

When Marketing Trumps Science

Recently I’ve run across a couple of New Zealand companies that sell therapeutic products – one a weight loss pill, the other a jet lag drink – that seem to put marketing first and let science take the back seat. This is by no means new behaviour, but I want to use them as examples to illustrate this widespread problem and suggest what can be done to combat it.

Before promoting a therapeutic product, you should first have good reason to believe that it works. This, I hope, is common sense, but it’s also enshrined in the Fair Trading Act and the Therapeutic Products Advertising Code as they prohibit unsubstantiated claims. This means you have to test the product, and do so rigorously. Rigorous clinical trials are expensive to undertake though, so they’re quite a prohibitive first step.

Instead of jumping straight into the deep end, a useful first step can be to undertake a smaller and less rigorous (and therefore less expensive) experiment. In order to answer the question of whether or not a product actually works you need to conduct a more rigorous trial. There’s a great cost involved in doing this, but if the results of a preliminary trial are optimistic then you have reason to expect a more rigorous trial might give similar results, so the expense might be worth it. You may even be able to get some funding to help with a more rigorous trial on the basis that the preliminary results were positive.


This is what Tuatara Natural Products has been doing with their weight loss pill “Satisfax”. They have completed a low quality preliminary trial on their product, which has been colloquially dubbed the “Fat Mates” trial. Although I don’t believe it has yet been published in a journal at the time I’m writing this article, it was registered retrospectively in the Australian New Zealand Clinical Trials Registry: Effect of the dietary supplement Satisfax (Registered Trademark) on weight loss in overweight volunteers. Some information on the data in the trial can be found on their website as part of an analysis by Dr Chris Frampton: Analysis of Satisfax® Clinical trial

As you can see on the trial registration page, this was an uncontrolled trial on overweight adults. The original plan was to recruit 100 volunteers with the hope that at least 60 will complete the trial. I have to say I’m a bit confused about how many people were in the trial, as apparently the recruitment was increased to 200 applicants after applications opened (a change that has not been reflected in the trial’s registration) yet apparently about 400 people applied. One article claims there were 200 participants, a later media release from Tuatara Natural Products seems to imply 100 were recruited, and the analysis of the trial says there were only 81 participants. Either way, 81 participants completed the full 8 weeks, and 52 of them took the recommended dose for the whole duration of the trial.

If there were 19 or 119 participants who didn’t complete the trial, the statistical analysis seems to ignore them with no justification given. This is unusual – a 19% drop out rate is significant and shouldn’t be swept under the rug. A lot of the time Tuatara also seems to ignore the 29 participants who didn’t drop out but also didn’t take the full dose for the whole duration.

The Science Media Centre posted the responses of 2 experts, Associate Professor Andrew Jull and Professor Thomas Lumley, to a press release from Tuatara Natural Products in February. It’s a good analysis of some of the weaknesses with the study, and I recommend you read it: Kiwi diet pill claims – experts respond

This trial was uncontrolled, and therefore also unblinded and unrandomised. As Professor Lumley explains, this is a problem if you want to draw strong conclusions from its results. It is of low methodological quality, but that’s okay. There is no problem with doing less rigorous trials first if they’re done in order to determine if more rigorous trials are necessary. Dr Glenn Vile, Chief Technical Officer of Tuatara Natural Products and the principal investigator for this study, wrote the following in a comment on a post on the “Fat Mates” trial by Dr John Pickering:

The Fat Mates trial was designed by clinical trial specialists to generate information about the Satisfax® capsules that would help Tuatara Natural Products plan a larger and longer double blind, cross over, placebo controlled trial.

We will use this information to proceed with the next clinical trial, but in the meantime we were so excited the weight loss achieved by most of our Fat Mates was much greater than the placebo effect seen in other weight loss clinical trials that we decided to launch the product so that anybody who is overweight can try Satisfax® for themselves.

Dr Glenn Vile

I think the first part of what I’ve quoted above describes exactly what Tuatara Natural Products should be doing. They’ve conducted their low quality trial, and intend to use its results to proceed with a larger, longer, and more rigorous clinical trial. This is the right way to proceed – they now have an indication that their product might be effective, so they should do the research to find out.

The problem is that that’s not all they’re doing. After performing only a small low-quality trial, they’ve released their product for sale online and have been making a lot of noise about it. In my opinion, they’ve been significantly overstepping the results of their clinical trial. For example, in his comment Dr Vile also said:

our initial trial has shown [Satisfax] to be extremely effective in some overweight people.

Dr Glenn Vile

In their media release on the 20th of February, they reported the average weight lost only by the 52 participants who took the full dose to completion (rounded up from 2.9 kg to “close to 3kg”) but not the average weight lost by all participants. They then reported in bold that the top 26 participants lost more weight, and the top two participants lost even more weight than that!

This cherry picking of the best results appears to have been part of Tuatara Natural Products’ marketing strategy for at least a few months now. In January, Stuff published an article on the trial highlighting the single person who lost the most while participating in it: Blenheim ‘fat mate’ loses 13.5kg in 8 weeks.

That article particularly highlights the person who lost the most weight out of all those in the trial, at 13.5 kg (confusingly, the maximum weight loss reported in the analysis of the trial’s results is 13.3 kg). However, she was one of only 2 participants who lost over 10 kg, and on average the 52 participants who took the recommended dose for the full eight weeks lost 2.9 kg. Losing 13.5 kg is very far from a representative example. I’m not surprised that they didn’t choose instead to focus on the participant who gained 1.2 kg despite taking the recommended dose for the whole duration, but that is actually much closer to the mean change in weight.

The article is, for all intents and purposes, one big testimonial in favour of Satisfax. It was an article, not an advertisement, which is important because in New Zealand it’s illegal to publish any medical advertisement that:

directly or by implication claims, indicates, or suggests that a medicine of the description, or a medical device of the kind, or the method of treatment, advertised… has beneficially affected the health of a particular person or class of persons, whether named or unnamed, and whether real or fictitious, referred to in the advertisement

Medicines Act 1981 Section 58(1)(c)(iii)

This effectively bans all health testimonials from advertisements. I think this is a good part of the law, as testimonials can be both very convincing and completely misleading; a quack’s dream. Banning them should force businesses to instead focus on the results of research on their products, but this hasn’t stopped Tuatara Natural Products from getting stories written about the most extreme testimonials they could find from people who have lost weight at the same time as they were taking Satisfax.

More recently, Tuatara Natural Products has put out a press release multiple times (at least on the 20th of February and again on the 4th of March) that I think rather oversteps the results of their small preliminary trial:

A NEW ZEALAND SOLUTION TO A GLOBAL PROBLEM A little pill is providing an exciting answer to one of the worlds greatest and fastest growing problems: Obesity.A NEW ZEALAND SOLUTION TO A GLOBAL PROBLEM

A little pill is providing an exciting answer to one of the world’s greatest and fastest growing problems: Obesity.

Press Release – Tuatara Natural Products

I simply don’t think they are at all justified in saying that their new product is “providing an exciting answer to… Obesity”. They are putting marketing ahead of science, and that’s not okay.


Another company that seems to put marketing before research is 1Above. They make a drink which they claim can help you recover faster from jet lag, and have recently been in the news for signing a sponsorship deal with the fantastically successful golfer Lydia Ko.

At the end of that article about their sponsorship deal the reporter, Richard Meadows, made some comments regarding the science behind jet lag relief products and asked some good questions of 1Above’s CEO, Stephen Smith (emphasis mine):

[1Above’s] product contains a mixture of vitamins B and C, electrolytes, and Pycnogenol, a pine bark extract.

The efficacy of flight drinks to combat the effects of jetlag is unproven.

Late last year pharmacists were warned after the Advertising Standards Authority upheld a complaint against an ad saying a homeopathic anti-jet lag pill really worked.

[1Above CEO Stephen] Smith said 1Above would not be doing clinical trials, which were highly expensive and not necessary.

“What we tend to use is testimonials from people who have used the product and swear by it.”

Smith said the key ingredient, Pycnogenol, had itself had been tested in dozens of trials, including its effects on reducing jetlag.

Kiwi startup 1Above signs golf No 1 Lydia Ko

Yes, you read that correctly. The CEO of 1Above literally said that they won’t be doing clinical trials because they are “not necessary” and that they use testimonials instead.

As I said before, using testimonials to promote a therapeutic product, like a drink to help you recover faster from jet lag, can be both very convincing and completely misleading. There’s a reason why testimonials implying health benefits are illegal in New Zealand, and I hope that 1Above’s marketing will not violate this regulation.

Not all testimonials are prohibited, of course. It’s entirely acceptably to provide a testimonial from someone who thinks their drink tastes great, or that they provide great service. Basically anything for which a single person’s experience can provide a useful insight. Therapeutic effects, almost without exception, do not fall into this category, which is a big part of why we need to do clinical trials in the first place. If they quote someone in saying that their product helped them recover faster from jet lag, they may be in danger of breaching the Medicines Act.

For example, I’d expect they probably shouldn’t use a testimonial that says this:

Testimonial on the 1Above website, collected 2015/03/05
Testimonial on the 1Above website, collected 2015/03/05

On their website, 1Above currently does refer to research on one of the ingredients in their product, “pycnogenol”. Professor Lumley recently wrote a post about this on his other blog, Biased and Inefficient, regarding these studies and how they are used by 1Above: Clinically Proven Ingredients

I recently contacted 1Above to ask about some discrepancies I found between the abstract of the study they cited for showing pycnogenol reduced the duration of jet lag and their description of it on their website:

I was interested to see the claim your company made that Pycnogenol® has been shown to support circulation and reduce the length and severity of jet lag.

I have found the study “Jet-lag: prevention with Pycnogenol. Preliminary report: evaluation in healthy individuals and in hypertensive patients” that is mentioned on your website as the source for this claim, but I am only able to access the abstract of this preliminary report. Unfortunately, as far as I can tell, the study protocol didn’t involve blinding of participants or researchers.

The participants in the study took 50 mg Pycnogenol 3 times per day, but I haven’t been able to find out how much is contained in your products. Is this information available anywhere on your website? I notice the study also says the participants took this regimen for 7 days, starting 2 days prior to departure. Is this comparable with how your product is intended to be used?

I also noticed some differences between the description of the study and its results between the abstract and your website, I would be grateful if you could explain to me the source of these differences.

The abstract states the control group took, on average, 39.3 hours to recover and the experimental group took, on average, 18.2 hours to recover. However your website reports these as 40 and 17 hours respectively.

Also, your website states that the study involved 133 passengers (it’s not clear from the description on your website if they all took Pycnogenol or if some of them were in the control group) who reported the time it took them to recover from jetlag. However, the study’s abstract states that in the first experiment, which is the only one that involved the reporting of the time taken to recover from jetlag, only involved 68 participants – 30 in the control group and 38 in the experimental group.

I would be grateful if you could explain these differences to me, and if you could send me any other relevant scientific information that supports this claim.

To their credit, since receiving my message they did update their website to fix the discrepancies in the reported number of participants and times taken to recover from jet lag, and their CEO replied to thank me for pointing these discrepancies out.

However, they didn’t respond to my other questions about the amount of pycnogenol in their products or the study involving the participants taking pycnogenol for 7 consecutive days, starting 2 days before their flight, which is inconsistent with how 1Above recommends their products be used.

This is just one more company basing their marketing on preliminary trials instead of using them as the basis for research that could actually answer the question of whether or not a product is useful. Worse than Tuatara Natural Products, they even go so far as to consider clinical trials “not necessary” and apparently intend to rely on testimonials instead. It would be much more appropriate for them to spend some of their $2.4 million annualised income on researching their product rather than paying for a sporting celebrity to endorse them.


I try to make my rants constructive, so I want to end this article with the question “What can we do about this?”. If you have any suggestions, I’d love to hear them in the comments section.

I think the most important thing that anyone can do to address this problem is to ask for evidence. If you see a claim made about a product that you think you might buy, then get in touch with the company selling it to let them know you’re considering buying it and to ask for evidence. If they don’t have a good enough answer, then let them know that’s why you won’t be buying their product. If they give you evidence to back up their claim, then great!

The UK organisation Sense about Science has created a website for just this purpose: www.askforevidence.org

Asking for evidence doesn’t have to be a big deal, involving a formal letter or anything like that. When you see a weight loss product advertised on a one day deal site, a copper bracelet that apparently offers pain relief advertised on a store counter, or a jet lag cure promoted on Twitter, make your first response be to politely ask for evidence.

This isn’t a problem that’s going away any time soon. As consumers, we deserve to be able to make informed decisions about the products we buy, and when companies put marketing before research it becomes harder to make these informed choices. But if we work together then we can encourage companies like Tuatara Natural Products and 1Above to improve their behaviour and attitudes toward marketing and research.

Let’s turn “what’s the evidence?” into a frequently asked question for all companies that sell therapeutic products.

How Well Do You Know Your Moon?

Phil Plait, who writes the wonderful Bad Astronomy blog over on Slate, noticed something interesting in a recent episode of The Simpsons:

Photo by 20th Century Fox Film Corp.
Photo by 20th Century Fox Film Corp.

To the untrained eye, nothing about this cartoon image is likely to seem unusual. But if you spend a lot of time looking at the sky, and you have the additional context that this scene occurred in the evening, then the Moon is actually quite revealing.

(For those of you thinking “it’s just a cartoon, don’t expect it to be accurate”, I realise that. But if you decide to treat it as though it must be accurate then it can be interesting to think about so bear with me.)

To understand why that is and how we know, we have to have a think about how we look at the Moon.

The Moon orbits the Earth in a plane that’s pretty well aligned with the plane of the solar system. This means if you drawn a line in the sky tracing the path of the Moon, you’ll also find the Sun and the planets roughly on that line. This is why we experience solar and lunar eclipses, which happen when the Sun and Moon are lined up particularly well with the Earth. Because the line is where eclipses happen, it’s called the ecliptic by astronomers.

Earth’s axis is tilted by 23.5° relative to this plane, but if you’re not too close to the equator (for example, if you’re in New Zealand or the USA) then you can say that if you projected the equator into the sky it would be in roughly the same position as the ecliptic. If you’re in the southern hemisphere, that means it’s to the north, and if you’re in the northern hemisphere, it’s to your south.

So, if you’re looking at the Moon from New Zealand, you must be looking roughly to the north. If you’re looking at it from the USA, you must be looking roughly to the south. This also means the Sun and Moon, moving east to west across the sky as the Earth spins, appear to move right to left from the southern hemisphere and left to right from the northern hemisphere.

When we look at the Moon, we’re seeing the same thing no matter where we are on Earth except for one thing: which way is “down”. The “bottom” of the Moon in the part that’s closest to the horizon. If you travel to the other hemisphere, and you’re familiar enough with the Moon, you may notice that it appears upside down. That’s because the direction of “down” has swapped – from roughly north to roughly south (or vice versa if you’ve travelled from north to south). If you want to see what the Moon looks like from the other half of the world, you have to bend over backwards (or lie on the ground). This is also why the Moon will appear to have rotated if you compare it when it’s rising to when it’s setting.

One more thing: the Moon orbits us in the same direction as we’re spinning, which means it moves across the sky slightly slower than the Sun. Each day, the Moon rises roughly 50 minutes later than the day before, so that over its 28 day cycle of phases this sums to 24 hours.


Now, getting back to that image from the Simpsons episode. That scene was apparently in the evening, and the Moon is low on the horizon. That means the Moon must either be about to set or have just risen. If it had just risen after sunset, then it was recently full (because a full moon rises at sunset and the moon rises later each day), which means its phase would be a waning gibbous. Waning refers to the fact that it is on its way from being full to being new, and a gibbous is the shape made by a circle with a crescent cut out from it.

In the picture, the Moon is obviously a crescent, so it can’t have just risen. If it’s just about to set after sunset, then is must just have been a new moon (because a new moon sets at sunset and the moon rises later each day), which means its phase would be a waxing crescent. Waxing refers to the fact that it is on its way from being new to being full, and the crescent refers to its curved shape.

Another thing we know about the Moon is that its lit side always faces the Sun. For example, the lit side of a full moon points right back at us, because from its perspective the Sun shines on it from behind us. If the Sun has just set, and the Moon is just about to set as well, then the lit side of the Moon must be facing the Sun. As the Sun sets in the west, this means the lit side of the Moon should also be facing west if it is a waxing crescent.

In the picture from the Simpsons, which we’ve established should be a waxing crescent, the lit side of the Moon is facing to the left. But remember, if you look at the Moon from the northern hemisphere you must be looking to your south, so west should be on your right. So if the waxing crescent moon is lit on its left, then you must be looking north to see it, which means you’re in the southern hemisphere.


Unfortunately, a lot of pop culture doesn’t get the Moon and its phases right. I know it’s such a tiny thing, and typically when they don’t get it quite right I can’t say I mind too much (although I often can’t help but notice), but I really love it when they put in that extra bit of effort to get it correct.

Almost all video games with day/night cycles where you can see the sky have the Moon orbit in 24 hours. Some of them include phases, although technically if your Moon always rises at sunset then it should always be full. I can forgive video games fairly easily though, I’m probably the only person who cares and I understand it could take significant development time to get proper lunar phases in. The only example I can think of that gets it right is Kerbal Space Program, where accurate celestial mechanics is an important part of the game.

Some books have issues with the Moon as well. Last year I was reading the book Ship of Theseus, and one scene describes the protagonist seeing the crescent moon rise as it gets dark. But crescent moons never rise as the Sun sets, light simply doesn’t work that way.

Movies often have trouble with it as well. The worst offender I’ve seen is the final scene from the movie Cloud Atlas:

Final scene from the movie Cloud Atlas
Final scene from the movie Cloud Atlas

Remembering that the lit side of a moon points towards its sun, and this applies even with multiple moons, that image implies some very strange things about the nature of light.

I’d love to see more media put more effort into getting this right. I know that one author who paid particular attention to this detail was J.R.R. Tolkien, who tried hard to get the phases of the Moon consistent with his dates when writing The Lord of the Rings and apparently did a pretty good job of it too.

My favourite example of well-documented in-depth world building doesn’t involve the Moon but I’d like to share it here anyway. My brother Jeremy (who’s currently working as a concept artist at Weta Workshop, a job he got soon after leaving Uni) worked on creating a deep and internally consistent fictional history to earn his masters degree in 2013. He ended up creating a fake National Geographic article from 1932 recounting the reporter’s visit to the settlement of Elkwood. The article only scratched the surface of all the thought he put into the work, if you want to see what he came up with you can read both the article and his exegesis explaining his research methods here: Creating Elkwood: building an alternate history

When fictional worlds are deep and internally consistent they become that much more enriched. If you know of any that have represented lunar cycles particularly well (or particularly poorly) let me know in the comments.

Irradiation of Food and Compulsory Labelling

Queensland Fruit Fly | Photo by James Niland
Queensland Fruit Fly | Photo by James Niland

Biosecurity is a big issue for New Zealand. Being a group of islands fairly isolated from all other landmasses and having quite a unique native ecosystem (many native birds with no native mammalian predators and few native land mammals), we have a lot to lose from introduced species. There are also biological threats to industry that we have to try really hard to keep out of the country, such as Queensland fruit fly. There’s good reason why the Ministry for Primary Industries (MPI, formerly MAF) reacted so strongly when one of these flies was found in Whangarei in April 2014. If enough of these flies made it into New Zealand to self perpetuate, they could cause massive damage to New Zealand’s $5 billion horticulture industry.

In order to kill off any biosecurity risks, including disease-causing organisms and foodborne pests, various treatments (also known as “phytosanitary actions” when used on plant products) can be used when importing products into New Zealand. Different products that can be imported each have an Import Health Standard (IHS) that documents the process of importing them.

For fruit and vegetables being imported, they need to come with a phytosanitary certificate from their country of origin, to say that either they have been inspected by someone from MPI and they couldn’t find any pests, they come from a certified pest free area, or they have been treated to kill any pests. A sample of the products is also inspected by MPI when arriving in New Zealand, and if any pests are found then the products will have to be treated if they are to enter New Zealand.

The treatment used depends on a few things, such as what pest was found that they’re trying to kill. For example, assuming I’m interpreting the IHS correctly, if Thrips palmi is found in a shipment of capsicum from Australia it would be fumigated with methyl bromide at 32 g/m3 for 2 hours. Whereas if Conogethes punctiferalis were found, then the capsicum would be irradiated with a minimum dose of 250 Gy (Grays; 1 Gray is equivalent to 1 Joule of energy absorbed per kg of food).

EDIT 2015/02/01:

The previous paragraph is incorrect. Those treatments are the ones that should appear on the phytosanitary certificate, having been performed in the country of origin. The treatments done if a pest is found when they arrive in New Zealand are determined in the Approved Biosecurity Treatments Standard. So for fresh fruit and vegetables (page 37), if insects except for fruit flies (not slugs and spiders) are found then they have to be fumigated with methyl bromide at a particular rate and temperature for a particular duration (presumably depending on the pest and the produce). Looking at this standard, it seems human food doesn’t get irradiated if pests are found when it arrives in New Zealand. According to MPI’s list of treatment providers (direct PDF download), there is only one facility in New Zealand able to provide food irradiation, which is in Wellington.


Methyl bromide is an insecticide, and it’s also recognised as an ozone-depleting substance. Because of this, its use is tightly controlled. It’s only allowed to be used for a few specific purposes, one of which is quarantine, and New Zealand has to provide statistical data to the Ozone Secretariat on the annual amount of methyl bromide that we use. It’s nasty stuff – even skin contact with high enough concentration of the gas can cause severe blistering – but after being used to fumigate food it apparently dissipates fairly rapidly. There are some objects that MPI won’t fumigate with methyl bromide for various reasons, which are described in their info sheet I linked to above.

Irradiation is quite different. Using either Cobalt 60, x-rays, or an electron beam food is blasted with a specific amount of ionising radiation. Cobalt 60 is a radioactive source of this radiation, but as it emits gamma rays instead of neutrons it doesn’t make anything else around it radioactive. Both x-rays and electron beams are created by non-radioactive sources and can be switched on and off.

When food is irradiated, the process kills any organisms that are living in the food, including disease-causing organisms and pests. The food does not become radioactive, instead it will just be slightly warmed from the energy it absorbs. Also, the radiation will trigger some chemical changes, but these occur only in amounts comparable to heat treatments. In this way it’s quite similar to the process of pasteurisation used to make milk safe to drink.

In 2010, following an extensive literature search, the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) published their Scientific Opinion on the Chemical Safety of Irradiation of Food. They found that the new evidence published since their previous decision in 2003 wasn’t enough to change their opinion that “there is not an immediate cause for concern” regarding the safety of irradiated food.

Irradiated Food symbol | FSANZ
Irradiated Food symbol | FSANZ

The strongest negative evidence they found seemed to be a case in which cats ate a diet consisting largely or entirely of highly irradiated (25.7 to 53.6 kGy, i.e. 100 to 200 times as much as in the capsicum example from earlier) cat food and subsequently suffered from leukoencephalomyelopathy (LEM). This evidence doesn’t necessarily have any relevance to humans though; in another report dogs ate the same pet food and didn’t exhibit LEM. Also, as the incident was only linked to one specific lot of one specific brand of pet food it’s unclear if irradiation was the culprit at all.

Even though irradiated food appears to be entirely safe to eat and not significantly different from food that hasn’t been irradiated, it is currently compulsory to label irradiated food in New Zealand under the Australia New Zealand Food Standards Code Standard 1.5.3.

MPI’s Food Smart website has an informative page on food irradiation. It’s quite clear on several important points (you can read their full answers on the page):

Does irradiation change food?

At the approved doses, changes to the nutritional value of the food caused by irradiation are insignificant and do not pose any public health and safety concerns.

Some treated foods may taste slightly different, just as pasteurized milk tastes slightly different from unpasteurized milk. There are no other significant changes to these foods.

Does irradiation make food radioactive?

No.

Is it safe to eat irradiated food?

Yes. Irradiation of food does not make the food unsafe to eat.

The World Health Organisation, the Food and Drug Administration in the US and the American Medical Association all agree that irradiated food products are safe to eat.

The FDA’s page on food irradition has an informative “Debunking Irradiation Myths” inset:

Irradiation does not make foods radioactive, compromise nutritional quality, or noticeably change the taste, texture, or appearance of food. In fact, any changes made by irradiation are so minimal that it is not easy to tell if a food has been irradiated.

FDA

It also states that:

FDA has evaluated the safety of irradiated food for more than thirty years and has found the process to be safe. The World Health Organization (WHO), the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) have also endorsed the safety of irradiated food.

FDA


Earlier this week, the Herald published an article by Sue Kedgley on irradiated food. In my opinion that article is a load of unscientific scaremongering. Here are a few excerpts that appear clearly intended to be more emotive than informative:

But irradiated food is anything but fresh. It’s been exposed to radiation doses that are between three and 15 million times the strength of x-rays. The Brisbane radiation facility uses Cobalt 60 to irradiate food, a radioactive material that is manufactured in Canadian nuclear reactors, and shipped to Australia in special unbreakable steel canisters.

I visited the Brisbane irradiation facility in 2004. Boxes of food travel by conveyor belt into an irradiation “chamber”. The irradiation process breaks down the molecular structure of food; destroys vitamins in food, and creates free radicals and other “radiolytic compounds” that have never been found in nature, and whose effect on human health is not known.

Also of concern is the fact that in 2008 the Australian Government was forced to ban irradiated cat food after more than 80 cats died or became seriously ill after eating irradiated cat food.

This begs the question – if cats can die, or become ill from eating irradiated cat food, what could be the cumulative effect on humans of eating significant quantities of irradiated food? There’s no benefit to New Zealand consumers, and only risks to our growers, from imported irradiated produce.

Her comment that irradiation “breaks down the molecular structure of food [and] destroys vitamins in food” is quite at odds with the evidence that the nutritional content of irradiated foods are not changed significantly. This statement is entirely blown out of proportion, it’s like describing a papercut as having “ripped my flesh apart”.

She also doesn’t mention any of the details regarding the cat food incident, such as that their diet consisted largely or wholly of food irradiated 100-200 times as much as human food generally is, that the same food seemed to have no negative effects when eaten by dogs, or that the incident was only linked to one specific lot of one brand of cat food. How it relates to humans consuming irradiated food, if it has any implications on that at all, is not clear but her reaction is just scaremongering.

Her article appears to have been prompted by a couple of changes to the regulations that are being considered:

FSANZ is currently assessing Application A1092 seeking permission to irradiate twelve specific fruits and vegetables. A call for submissions on our assessment is expected to be released in the second half of 2014.

Food Standards Australia New Zealand | Food irradiation

FSANZ plans to start work on recommendation 34 (that the requirement for mandatory labelling of irradiated food be reviewed) later this year.

Food Standards Australia New Zealand | Labelling review

Here’s a link to Application A1092. That page specifies the 12 fruits and vegetables involved as apple, apricot, cherry, nectarine, peach, plum, honeydew, rockmelon, strawberry, table grape, zucchini, and scallopini (squash).

Ms Kedgley describes these potential changes as:

the Government is about to approve the importation of irradiated apples, peaches, apricots and nine other fruit and vegetables from fruit fly-infested Queensland.

If they succeed, retailers will be able to sneak irradiated produce into the food chain, and it will be sold, unlabelled, as if it was “fresh”.

Surely consumers have a right to know whether the apples they are buying are fresh, or have been imported from Queensland and exposed to high doses of radiation to sterilise them and kill off potential fruit fly lava?

Red apple
Red apple | Photo by Abhijit Tembhekar

Looking at the IHS for fresh fruit and vegetables (direct PDF download), you can see that honeydew, rockmelon, strawberry, grape, zucchini, and scallopini are already included, they just aren’t yet allowed to be treated via irradiation. As far as I can tell the others – apple, apricot, cherry, nectarine, peach, and plum – can’t currently be imported from Australia.

Given that the entire function of irradiating food is to kill unwanted organisms such as Queensland fruit fly larva, I think it seems disingenuous of Ms Kedgley to repeatedly refer to it as though allowing these products in will bring Queensland fruit fly to New Zealand. The reason why we can’t currently import these products is because of that fly, but allowing them to be treated by irradiation would let us safely import them.

On the issue of labelling, this seems to be a very similar issue to compulsory labelling of genetically modified foods and foods containing genetically modified ingredients (this is currently mostly compulsory in New Zealand). In that case, as with food irradiation, opposition generally seems to be driven by idealogical issues with the technology used or misinformed beliefs that it’s somehow unsafe, even though it’s entirely safe. It’s effectively a lose/lose situation – if labelling isn’t mandatory then “What are they trying to hide?” but if it is mandatory then “They wouldn’t have to put it on the label if it wasn’t bad for you”.

If you want to oppose the addition of those 6 new fruits to the list of foods that can be imported from Australia on the basis of supporting New Zealand farmers then okay, that’s a different argument altogether that has nothing to do with irradiation. There doesn’t seem to be much reason to oppose this on grounds that irradiated food may be unsafe to eat though.

Foods are not allowed to be irradiated unless they have been through a pre-market safety assessment process conducted by FSANZ

http://www.foodsmart.govt.nz/elibrary/food_irradiation_.htm

Given that irradiated food doesn’t appear to be unsafe, is there really any reason to keep labelling of irradiated food compulsory? If anything, isn’t compulsory labelling most likely to make people think that means it’s bad or unsafe when it isn’t? If it’s all about allowing consumers to make informed decisions, that would be rather counterproductive.


I’m lucky enough to know someone who’s a food scientist. Claire Suen has an MSc in Food Science from the University of Auckland, and I contacted her to ask for her thoughts on the process of food irradiation. Here are some of the things she had to say in response to some of the common arguments opposing food irradiation:

[Irradiation] changes the nature of food: carcinogenic, loss of nutrients etc.

So does cooking, burning toast, deep frying, etc. Irradiation causes minute changes to the food and some loss of nutrients such as vitamins, but these have all been thoroughly researched and the results are readily available. In short, no significant changes to the food have been found.

Regarding the lost of nutrients, I usually point out to people that this is negligible considering the nature of the food.

FSANZ have published some comprehensive risk assessment reports in the past, and using the latest report on tomato as an example:

Nevertheless, even assuming an upper estimate of vitamin A and C loss of 15% following irradiation from all fresh tomatoes, capsicums and tropical fruits (with existing irradiation permissions), estimated mean dietary intakes of these vitamins would decrease by 2% or less and remain above Estimated Average Requirements following irradiation at doses up to 1 kGy, with dietary intake typically derived from a wide range of foods.

The impact of cooking and storage time on nutrients in food is far more severe than the effects of irradiation.

Here’s a link to that FSANZ report on Irradiation of Tomatoes & Capsicums (direct DOC download)

There are better alternatives

Irradiated food saves cost for the manufacturers/importers/supermarkets because it eliminates otherwise costly alternatives.

Methyl bromide for example, is not 100% effective against insect eggs and larva, particularly if they are buried inside the fruit or seed. Storage pest such as beetles and weevils are extremely difficult to control and often need a combination of methods such as heat treatment, and fumigation. For herbs and spices, irradiation can be used to control pathogens such as salmonella and E. coli. No other method is as effective. But because consumers in NZ are against it, we have to use methods such as steam sterilisation and heat treatment, which impacts on the flavour and quality of the product. Consumers sometimes do not understand the amount of work MPI and the importers have to do to make sure foreign organisms do not get in the country. All it will take is a slack importer, a missed check, or an incomplete fumigation. What of the products that have to be destroyed due to microorganism contamination, or spoilage? If they had been irradiated, this wastage wouldn’t happen.

We don’t need irradiation since we can just buy local products

Unfortunately NZ is a small country and we have limited produce. I’m not saying we can’t get by without EVER importing anything, but, it seems to me that these people don’t realise just what the consequences are. Sure, we don’t have to import apples, or nectarines, but what about the tropical fruits not grown locally? Or spices? Let’s not eat fresh mango again, or curries, since pepper used to be worth its weight in gold because it’s not grown in Europe. We can’t get away from importing and by not using irradiation, NZ business have to use more costly, and less effective alternatives, which means all these cost are passed ultimately onto the consumers. I understand people’s concern that this will hurt local producers, but that is a question of economy and has nothing to do with the safety of irradiated food.

Now coming to the question of labelling

Unfortunately, it’s a no-win situation. If we label then consumers will think something is wrong with it, if we don’t label it’s as if we are hiding something. There is simply no way to beat that logic. In my opinion, if we don’t label products which have been heat treated, or fumigated, then we shouldn’t need to label for irradiation. But because consumer backlash is so strong, I wouldn’t want to give haters a chance to play the “Ah ha you are hiding something” or “give me my freedom of choice” card.

I say let’s put irradiated fruits on the shelves and label it as such so I can chose to buy it because it will be cheaper and better!

I think that last point says it all really. As a food scientist, Claire is quite familiar with the topic of food irradiation, and she would choose to preferentially buy irradiated food because she understands the process to be safe, effective, and not detrimental to the food.

We Landed on a Comet

So, last night was exciting. The European Space Agency’s (ESA) robotic spaceship Rosetta arrived at the comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko in early August, after an amazing journey comprising of over 10 years and four gravity slingshots. Last night, it separated from its lander module, Philae, and sent it to touch down on the surface of the comet.

What I’ve been able to gather from watching the live stream last night and what I saw on Twitter when I woke up groggily for 2 minutes at 5:15 this morning is that not everything went to plan, but the landing seems to have been successful.

Philae (the lander) has several devices to make the landing easier. One of these is a “cold gas thruster”, a small engine to push it gently into the surface of the comet so it wouldn’t bounce off (remember the comet has extremely little gravity relative to something like the Earth or Moon). This engine failed to start working before the spacecraft separated, but the team decided to go ahead with the landing anyway.

Another device Philae has to help with the landing is a pair of harpoons to skewer the surface, but these also failed to fire. As far as I know they’re not sure yet why they failed, but Philae did make it to the surface, so the comet landing was a success.

The ESA be getting data back from Philae but I don’t think they know yet how it landed or where exactly it is relative to the landing site. There’s a danger it could be on its side, for example, which would prevent some of the experiments it’s carrying on board from going ahead. Time will tell, though.

A photo of the comet taken from Philae when it was only 3 km away has been posted to the official Twitter account:

Photo credit to European Space Agency, ROLIS camera on Philae

Photo credit to European Space Agency, ROLIS camera on Philae

UPDATE 2014/11/14

Since the landing a few other things have come to light. First, presumably because the harpoons failed to fire, Philae bounced of the surface twice. Although it bounced pretty much straight up, the comet was rotating beneath it so its final landing zone is a few hundred metres away.

Also, Philae has landed on its side. It’s still taking photographs and sending back data, so that’s good, but the fact that it’s on its side may mean that some of its experiments may not be able to go ahead. Phil Plait has a good write up explaining these updated on Bad Astronomy and Emily Lakdawalla has a more detailed one on her blog the Planetary Society.