Treating scientists as bags of mostly water
During the holiday season, it's natural to ask philosophical questions such as, "what is the essence of being human?" Well, one way to answer that question is purely scientifically. Humans are mostly water (ugly bags of mostly water, according to Microbrain, Stardate 41463.9, Star Trek: The Next Generation,, Episode 17). More than half the human body is made up of water, and we can use that fact to measure how many humans are present at large gatherings. Such an experiment was performed at the 2006 American Geophysical Union (AGU) meeting in San Francisco, as reported in a November 2007 paper by Darin Desilets et al. of the University of Arizona. The experiment made use of the fact that cosmic rays are continually bombarding the earth, creating fast neutrons as a by-product of nuclear disintegrations. When these neutrons encounter large concentrations of hydrogen (such as found in ugly bags of mostly water), they get scattered. One can look at the resulting scattering pattern and deduce how much hydrogen is present, and make an estimation of the number of people present.
Figure 1. Ugly bag of mostly water (and co-founder of the Weather Underground) Perry Samson (right) poses in front of his Poster at the 2007 AGU meeting. Also pictured: Russ Rew and Mohan Ramamurthy of Unidata. Fast cosmic ray neutrons scattered from their bodies were used to help estimate the number of people present at the 2006 meeting.
The equipment needed to do so costs about $10,000, and was set up in the Moscone Convention Center in San Francisco during the 2006 AGU meeting. The scientists were able to show when lunch breaks occurred by pointing out a sharp reduction in neutron scattering when all the scientists filed out to grab a bite to eat. Desilets et al. estimated about 1,700 scientists were present in the Exhibit Hall of the convention center during the height of the conference, which is probably a reasonable estimate, given the stated capacity of 3575 people. The technique can also be used to perform measurements of water content of snow and soil, and Desilets et al. advertise that they are open to paid invitations to count crowds at Rio de Janerio's Carnival, Pamplona's running of the bulls, and the next World Cup Finals.
Happy New Year, everyone! I'll be back with a new blog on January 2.
Desliets, D., M. Zreda, T. Ferre, 2007, Scientist Water Equivalent Measured With Cosmic Rays at 2006 AGU Fall Meeting, EOS, TRANSACTIONS AMERICAN GEOPHYSICAL UNION, VOL. 88, NO. 48, PAGE 521, 2007.