Thursday, June 25, 2009

Don't Stand Too Close to the TV!

I don’t know about you, but I grew up constantly being told by my parents not to stand too close to things. Don’t stand too close to the TV because it’ll hurt your eyes. Don’t stand too close to the microwave because it will give you cancer. I believed the TV thing so whole-heartedly that when my eyesight began to get bad in 6th grade and I had to get glasses, I was convinced it was related to my rebellious tendency to stare close range at the TV when my parents weren’t looking.

I’m sure if I had developed leukemia or something at 13, I would have been convinced it was from the microwave.

But is it actually dangerous to stand too close to a TV or a microwave? Does doing so expose one’s body to dangerous radiation that can do biological damage to eyes, body, and soul?

To figure out the answer to those questions, it is important to understand what radiation is. Most people think of radiation as some mysterious death ray that emanates from radioactive elements and atomic bombs.

To be sure, those things give off radiation, but so do microwaves, televisions, and radios. Does that mean that radiation coming from small electronics is the same as radiation coming from uranium, Hiroshima, or Three Mile Island?

Well, not exactly.

All radiation is measured on a scale that is referred by physicists as the Electromagnetic Spectrum. This spectrum categorizes radiation by its level of energy. The higher the energy of a radiation source, the higher on the EM Spectrum it goes.

There are seven categories of electromagnetic radiation. In order from lowest energy to highest energy, they are: radio waves, microwaves, infrared light, visible light, ultraviolet light, X-rays, and gamma rays. While each of these categories of “rays” has a different name, it is only the energy level that makes any difference between then. In other words, a radio wave is only different from a gamma ray because of a difference in energy level. The “ray” or “wave” itself is the same – it’s called a “photon” by physicists. It’s like the difference between boiling water and ice. Both are still just water; the only difference is the temperature. Similarly, both a gamma ray and a radio wave are electromagnetic photons, the only difference being the energy.

The energy between the various forms of EM radiation is enormous. Radio waves are the lowest on the list, and gamma rays are the highest – with six degrees of separation between them. But that doesn’t mean gamma rays are six times more energetic than radio waves. In fact, a radio wave has the frequency of 10,000 cycles per second, while a gamma ray, on the other hand, has 10-to-the-20th cycles per second. That would be 1 with 20 zeros behind it. To put that in perspective, many scientists figure there are about 10-to-the-17th grains of sand on earth. That’s 1 with only 17 zeros behind it.

Furthermore, the higher you get on the scale, the closer the categories are together. For instance, visible light, the middle category, has a frequency of 10-to-the-15th – 11 powers higher than radio waves, but only 5 powers less than gamma rays.

The energy determines how dangerous the photon is. The higher it is, the more dangerous it is. But it is not just energy that ultimately determines the risk to humans. Two other factors are also involved: quantity and duration.

A very high energy source of EM radiation may be harmless if the quantity of radiation is sufficiently low and the duration of exposure is sufficiently low. Radiation from a single gamma ray photon for one second – though highly energetic – is not likely to hurt you.

Similarly, a very low energy source of radiation could carry risks with high enough quantity and duration. In other words, radio waves – those photons that make your radio work – could theoretically kill someone if the quantity and duration were great enough, despite having inherently very low energy.

But that’s just in theory. The fact is, no radiation below the level of ultraviolet is known to cause biological damage to human tissue. And in the case of microwaves and the ovens that use them, microwaves are two steps below visible light on the electromagnetic spectrum. That means visible light – the light given off by light bulbs and the sun – is of higher energy than microwaves. That means light bulbs give off a more dangerous form of radiation than microwave ovens. And no one, of course, supposes that it is dangerous to stand beneath a light bulb.

A deadly source of radiation?

Did Mother get sterilized by the Oven o' Death?

The difference, however, between a light bulb and a microwave is not just about energy. Remember that quantity and duration matter too. A microwave oven puts out enormous amounts of microwave radiation, far more radiation than is given out by a light bulb. But since microwave radiation has far lower energy than visible light, and since the duration is usually only a minute or two, standing in front of a microwave for a few minutes is probably no more dangerous than sitting underneath a light bulb for a few hours.

But what about televisions? Does sitting too close to the TV cause eye problems?

In the modern age, you first have to distinguish what kind of TV one is discussing. Old TV’s – the so-called “tube” TV’s – give off radio waves, light rays, and X-rays.

Modern TV’s – flat screen televisions that use digital signals – don’t give off any form of radiation at all except for visible light. There are no radio waves or X-rays being given off.

Older TV’s use a cathode ray tube and a radio antenna to produce the picture. The cathode ray tube, in addition to transforming the radio signal into a picture, emits X-rays. Those X-rays definitely have an energy level that falls into the “dangerous” realm. But the quantity of X-rays produced in old televisions is very low, and those televisions also have a leaded screen on the front that absorbs the few X-rays that are being produced. The visible light and radio waves emitted from the television are so low in energy and quantity that they would not do biological damage to the body or the eyes.

Modern televisions, because they only give off visible light waves, are not dangerous either.

So what we are left with is an example of an old myth dying hard. Televisions never were dangerous for the eyes, and they especially aren’t dangerous in modern, digital versions. In addition, microwaves give off forms of radiation that are very low energy, and despite the high quantities of radiation involved in running a microwave oven, the duration and energy are low enough that there is no legitimate danger in standing in front of a microwave. It is also important to remember that much of the radiation coming from a microwave oven would be absorbed in the metal and plastic that encases the oven, so it never reaches someone standing in front of it anyway.

In the end, I wouldn’t worry much about standing in front of microwaves or sitting too close to the TV. You might want to turn that lamp off on your desk though.

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

The Meeting of the Southern Baptist Convention

This week, the Southern Baptist Convention - the nation's largest Protestant body - is holding their annual meeting in Louisville, Kentucky.

Infamous in the past for hardline stances against Bill Clinton, insistence on a wife's "submission" to her husband, and calling for a denomination-wide boycott of Disney because of its toleration of homosexuality, the SBC this week is attempting to soften its imagine into a kinder, gentler Southern Baptist Convention.

They passed a resolution praising the election of Barack Obama as the nation's first black president, although they made clear their disagreement with his stances on abortion and embryonic stem cell research. Daniel Akin, one of the SBC's top leaders, said: "I think it would have actually been irresponsible for us not to speak to the election of the first African American president."

Even as I attempt to analyze the SBC's meeting this week with as little bias as possible (I'm an ex-Southern Baptist), I couldn't help but raise an eyebrow over Akin's statement. He almost sounds apologetic and defensive. Apparently the SBC only praised Obama's election because it would have been socially irresponsible for them not to. I almost have to wonder if his statement wasn't an attempt to deflect criticism from the countless white southerners who make up the majority of the SBC. By no means am I implying that these white, southern SBC members are universally racist. But I have no doubt that many of them are. I personally know at least a few.

Despite praising Obama's election, the SBC did not ask Obama to speak, as they did George W. Bush a number of times during his presidency. In their defense, however, they also did not invite any prominent Republican leaders to speak. Apparently they are attempting to come off less politically-divisive than in years past. As an Associated Press article put it, the SBC is "signaling a desire to stay out of politics."

Their desire to stay out of politics, however, does not mean they haven't managed to pull a few of the punches they are infamous for. Let me tell you two stories.

Rev. Wiley Drake is the pastor of a Southern Baptist church in California and also hosts a radio show. In the past, he has served in leadership roles within the Southern Baptist Convention. He actually drafted the 1996 resolution from the SBC calling for the boycott of Disney over its stance on homosexuals. As recently as 2006-2007, he served as the convention's second vice president.

In January, upon the announcement that Rick Warren, a Southern Baptist megachurch leader in California, was giving the convocation at Obama's inauguration, Drake predicted that God would punish him severely for the "abomination" of associating with Obama, whom he called an "evil, illegal alien."

In May, when Dr. George Tiller, an abortion doctor, was murdered in a Kansas church, Drake praised the murder, saying he was "glad" and "grateful to God" that George Tiller was killed. He further went on to compare Tiller to Hitler, stating that Tiller was a "brutal, murdering monster" who was "far greater in his atrocities than Adolph Hitler."

A few days later, on June 5, Drake was interviewed by Fox's Alan Colmes, and was asked about Barack Obama. Drake stated: "If he does not turn to God and does not turn his life around, I am asking God to enforce imprecatory prayers that are throughout the Scripture that would cause him death." When Colmes asked him point blank if he was praying for Obama to die, Drake answered: "Yes."

I trust those remarks are as disturbing to you as they are to me.

That was my first story. The second story concerns a Southern Baptist church in Fort Worth, Texas. This church is called Broadway Baptist, and is a moderately large church with some 2,000 members.

Some time back, they began discussing the possibility of allowing same-sex couples within their church to be pictured together in the church directory. Ultimately, they decided not to do this, replacing the pictures in question with group pictures of church members. Although it is not clear how many openly gay members attend Broadway Baptist, they apparently have at least a few, two of whom have served on church committees.

Now, with those two stories in mind, I return to the SBC annual meeting this week. In regards to Wiley Drake, an SBC leader said: "Wiley Drake is far out of the mainstream, in fact, he's in a drainage ditch somewhere."

Fair enough.

In regards to Broadway Baptist Church, a motion was made to break its 127-year-old ties with the church over its homosexual leniency, and the resolution was passed without even the need for any discussion.

An SBC committee member said: "[Broadway Baptist was] allowing members and also people in leadership that were homosexual...The church was in effect saying that it was OK to have members who are open homosexuals."

I will save any long drawn out commentary on this issue because if it requires long drawn out commentary, then something is definitely wrong. I'll point out only that while the SBC basically ignored Wiley Drake and his hate-filled, politically-motivated, almost bordering on criminal remarks, they literally broke ties with Broadway Baptist because Broadway allows homosexuals to be members of their church. Praying for Obama to die vs. letting homosexuals worship God. When the SBC weighed those two things, they evidently decided the homosexual issue was more important and problematic than an SBC pastor and convention leader praying for the president of the United States to die. So problematic, in fact, they essentially excommunicated the church, while leaving Wiley Drake to continue waving the flag of Southern Baptist values.

I was born and raised a Southern Baptist. I attended private Southern Baptist schools and Southern Baptist churches. I went to Southern Baptist church camps. I went to college and got a degree from a Southern Baptist institution.

But I'm not a Southern Baptist, and haven't been one for a long time now. I don't think I need to say why.

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

The Real Lincoln Log Cabin: Fact or Fantasy?

That Abraham Lincoln was born in 1809 inside a log cabin on a farm near Hodgenville, Kentucky is an undisputed fact of history. That this log cabin is still in existence, preserved inside a Beaux-Arts structure in Hodgenville, is another story.

The mythos of the Lincoln Log Cabin literally goes back to Abraham Lincoln himself. When running for president in 1860, Lincoln frequently drew on his humble roots, his birth in a log cabin in rural Kentucky, to find common ground with the common man, and to demonstrate his self-made success. He had risen literally from the humblest of beginnings.

After he was elected, interest in this storied log cabin naturally grew. Was it still there in rural Kentucky for anyone to see? Stories from the Civil War suggest that Confederate soldiers moving through the area even went so far as to look for the cabin in order to destroy it.

After the war and Lincoln’s assassination, interest in his birthplace grew even more. It was known that Lincoln’s family had moved to a neighboring farm a few years after his birth, leaving his birth cabin behind, but local residents in the area told cabin-hunters that the original cabin belonging to the Lincoln family had been dismantled by later owners and reused in a much larger home a short distance away.

Subsequently, this dwelling, believed to be built in part from the original cabin, became a sort of shrine for Lincoln enthusiasts in the latter half of the 19th century.

As interest and pilgrimages to the Lincoln farm grew, a New York businessman (of course he was from New York!) named A.W. Dennett came up with the bright idea of making some money off of it. In 1894, he purchased the farm, dismantled the dwelling there, and used what he believed were the original cabin logs to rebuild the cabin itself. How did he know which logs belonged to the original cabin? The answer to that question is anybody’s guess. Presumably Dennett chose the logs that looked the oldest, or perhaps those logs which could, together, be used to construct a cabin. Obviously, any material that was not a log (for instance, a wooden slat) would have been rejected, as would any material that did not meet the appropriate lengths, etc.

As for how he knew what the cabin would have looked like when it was in its original form, that would have been easy enough to determine simply from engineering knowledge about log cabin dimensions in west-central Kentucky in the early 1800’s. This knowledge may also have helped in choosing which logs were original and which were later designs.

Unfortunately for Dennett, the reconstruction of the cabin on the Lincoln farm did not produce the crowds of tourists he had hoped for, so he took the show on the road. Dismantling the cabin, and loading it onto a train, he toured around the country, displaying the cabin at various expositions in major cities throughout the late 1890’s. This proved much more successful for Dennett, and he eventually added a second cabin to the show – one which he claimed had been the birthplace cabin of Jefferson Davis, Lincoln’s presidential counterpart in the Confederacy during the Civil War, and also born in western Kentucky about eight months before Lincoln. Both cabins were assembled and dismantled at the beginning and end of each show, stowed in separate train cars while on the move to ensure that the logs didn’t get mixed.

After four or five years on the road, and with interest in the cabins waning, Dennett hung up his traveling clothes, stuck the cabins in storage, and moved on to bigger and better things. While in storage, the various logs from the two cabins were not separated.

A few years later, around 1906, a historical society decided to try Dennett’s first idea again – to put the cabin in its original place on the original farm, and advertise it as a tourist attraction. They purchased the cabin at auction (Dennett had gone bankrupt) and had it taken out of storage, not realizing that it was now mixed together with the logs from the Davis log cabin. Upon trying to reassemble the cabin, of course, they quickly realized the problem.

Again, how they ultimately decided which logs had belonged to the Lincoln cabin, and which logs had belonged to the Davis cabin, is anyone’s guess. Dimensions and wood type were no doubt taken into consideration.

A memorial building was erected on the Lincoln farm, in the spot where the original cabin had once stood. The cabin’s actual geographic location on the farm was easy to determine by looking at the original plats of the land, drawn up when the Lincoln family purchased it in 1807.

Once the memorial building was complete (Theodore Roosevelt laid its cornerstone in 1909), the cabin was put inside it. Unfortunately, an immediate problem arose. When rebuilt to its original dimensions (that is, the original dimensions used by Dennett), there was not adequate space around it for tourists. That problem was easily overcome by simply chopping off four feet from one side and one foot from the other. What had originally been 16x18 was now 12x17. Thus, the cabin in its present form is narrower than Dennett’s had been, and narrower than it would have been in 1809.

The memorial building, with the smaller cabin inside, was dedicated by William Howard Taft in 1911, and has now been a tourist attraction for nearly a century.

But the vital question still remains: Is the cabin really the same cabin that Lincoln was born in? Numerous assemblies and disassemblies and a trimming of the dimensions aside, is the cabin one sees inside the big stone building in Hodgenville, Kentucky built from the same logs that Lincoln’s original birthplace cabin was built from? Clearly the logs today are not necessarily in the same locations relative to one another as they may have been in Lincoln’s day, but are they at least the same logs? Did Lincoln’s father lean against those logs to take a rest from the noonday sun? Did the infant Lincoln himself crawl the dirt floor beneath and within those logs?

The answer to those questions has been the matter of much debate for quite a long time. With such a sordid history surrounding the origins and maintenance of those logs, it has been difficult, in the past, to do much more than speculate.

Recently, however, historians have moved a bit more closely to the truth. After decades of requests by various researchers, the historical society that maintains the site finally conceded to letting several scientists come in to take core samples from the logs for laboratory study.

The wood in the logs proved to be in remarkably poor condition. For a time, it even appeared that the researchers might not be able to get a viable core sample because of the extreme state of deterioration. But they persevered and managed to get several good samples from two or three different logs.

The samples were put through a litany of laboratory tests, and the results were fairly conclusive: the “Lincoln Log Cabin” needs to be renamed the “Anonymous Log Cabin.”

The tests on these core samples showed that the trees used to make the logs were cut down no earlier than 1848. That’s 40 years too late for Lincoln’s actual birthplace. The age of the trees at the time they were cut down would have made them, at best, small saplings at the time of Lincoln’s birth. The tests did confirm, however, that the logs came from trees native to the area of Kentucky where Lincoln was born. This means, at the very least, that the logs making up the cabin today did come from Dennett’s Lincoln cabin, and not from his Davis cabin. One of two conclusions is apparent: the 19th century locals were wrong when they claimed that Lincoln’s cabin had been used later to build a larger home, or Dennett chose the wrong logs.

Of course, some dissenters, spurred by romantic ideas of the cabin’s originality, might argue that these tests only prove that those specific logs were not original to the cabin. The cores, remember, only came from a few logs, because most of the logs were in such bad shape that they were untestable. Perhaps the cabin is composed of both original and non-original material. That certainly remains a possibility, but the scientific evidence, coupled with what is already known about the sordid history of the cabin itself, make any hope for original Lincoln materials in the Hodgenville cabin remote indeed.

In fact, as a result of these tests, the cabin is now billed not as Lincoln’s actual birthplace, but as a symbol of Lincoln’s humble beginnings, a replica – albeit a very early replica.

And that last phrase is the important part. As a historian with a flair for the romance of history, it is disappointing for me to know that the cabin in Hodgenville is not actually the cabin Lincoln was born in. But even if it is not Lincoln’s own cabin, it is still a very old dwelling, preserved for history in Hodgenville. Built in the late 1840’s, it remains one of the oldest log dwellings in America, even if its current form is different than its original.

Log dwellings, of course, are abundant today throughout historical sites in states like Kentucky, Virginia, and Tennessee. But most of these structures are relatively modern replicas, built in the 20th century with 20th century technology and 20th century preservation techniques. They were never real log dwellings that real people in the real 19th century built for themselves and lived in.

The Lincoln Log Cabin, however, is just such a dwelling. Even if it wasn’t Lincoln’s family who lived in it, it was somebody’s family who cut the trees down, fashioned the wood, built the structure, and lived in it. And they did so more than 160 years ago, in a time when no one had ever heard of Abraham Lincoln, and slavery was still a thriving business in America.

That makes the dwelling historically important, and romantically significant, even if Lincoln himself never saw it.