Mercury and formaldehyde in vaccines?

The anti-vax community runs regular scare campaigns regarding “toxins in vaccines.” Mercury and formaldehyde are the two most often mentioned. Mercury occurs in the form of the antibacterial thiomersal (thimerosal), but not in vaccines routinely administered to children. Thiomersal is present in multi-dose vials (not in single-use vials) of influenza vaccine, typically at a level of 25 micrograms (0.025 milligrams) per dose. For comparison, though, the normal mercury intake is about 2410 micrograms (2.41 milligrams) per year, so an annual “flu shot” adds very little extra. And even that exaggerates the risk, because thiomersal breaks down into ethylmercury, which is less dangerous than other forms.

Formaldehyde, though toxic in moderate to large quantities, is naturally produced and consumed as part of human metabolism, with a turnover of about 50 grams of formaldehyde per day for a person weighing 50 kg. Formaldehyde occurs naturally in blood at levels of about 2.6 milligrams per litre. Even for a 3.5 kg newborn baby (with 85 mL/kg of blood), that comes to 0.77 milligrams of formaldehyde (and there’s more in body tissue). Vaccines contain at most 100 micrograms (0.1 milligrams) of formaldehyde, and so add very little to the blood (and that is very quickly eliminated). That’s even more true for older children, with their much greater blood volume.

Part of the problem here, I suspect, is widespread confusion between grams, milligrams, and micrograms. At the other end, of course, some people also have problems in economics with understanding the difference between millions, billions, and trillions.

Praising Leuven

KU Leuven library

The Katholieke Universiteit Leuven (KU Leuven) was founded in 1425, 1834, or 1968, depending on your point of view. The original university was closed by the French in 1797, but a new State University was established under Dutch rule during 1816–1835. After Belgium became independent, the Catholic University of Leuven took over. Campaigns in the 1950s and 1960s demanding equals rights for Flemish Belgians led to a 1968 split of the university into the French-language Université catholique de Louvain and the Dutch-language KU Leuven.

KU Leuven states that “From its Christian view of the world and the human, KU Leuven endeavours to be a place for open discussion of social, philosophical and ethical issues and a critical centre of reflection in and for the Catholic community. KU Leuven offers its students an academic education based on high-level research, with the aim of preparing them to assume their social responsibilities. KU Leuven is a research-intensive, internationally oriented university that carries out both fundamental and applied research. It is strongly inter- and multidisciplinary in focus and strives for international excellence. To this end, KU Leuven works together actively with its research partners at home and abroad.

The university certainly achieves its high-tech goals, being ranked 28th in the world on the Times Higher Education list of engineering institutions. It is home to the Punch Powertrain Solar Team (

KU Leuven comes 5th in the 2015 World Solar Challenge (my photo)

Maphead by Ken Jennings: a book review

Maphead by Ken Jennings

I recently read Maphead: Charting the Wide, Weird World of Geography Wonks by former game show contestant Ken Jennings. The book covers a miscellany of topics related to maps and to the people who love them. Among the actual maps that Jennings mentions are these (click images to zoom):

Top left: a stick map from the Marshall Islands in the National Museum of Natural History, Washington, DC (my photo); top right: the two Koreas at night (NASA image); bottom left: detail of the 1507 Waldseemüller map (Library of Congress); bottom right: Vermeer’s Officer and Laughing Girl

Jennings also includes several geographical anecdotes, including (of course) a reference to this:

Miss Teen South Carolina 2007 answers the question “Recent polls have shown a fifth of Americans can’t locate the U.S. on a world map. Why do you think this is?

There are also chapters on map collecting, geocaching, and the National Geographic Bee:

Map resources referred to (in passing) in the book include:

Overall, the book was fun, but a little light (the Wall Street Journal called it “an occasionally entertaining book that lacks a compass”). I’m giving it three stars. See Slate and The Atlantic for other reviews.

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Maphead by Ken Jennings: 3 stars

Praising Eindhoven

Eindhoven University of Technology campus (photo: Arno van den Tillaart)

The Eindhoven University of Technology (TU/e) is one of the world’s premier technical institutions. It is ranked 62nd in the world on the Times Higher Education list of engineering institutions. I have been privileged to meet students from TU/e on a number of occasions, and they are among the best in the world.

TU/e was founded in 1956. The city of Eindhoven is home to Philips, DAF Trucks, and the High Tech Campus Eindhoven. Among other things, the university acts as a feeder school to those companies, and this requires both a practical focus and a solid basis in mathematics and theory.

TU/e is one of three Dutch technical universities (Delft and Twente being the others). All three run solar car teams, which showcase the students’ technical expertise. Eindhoven’s team has won the World Solar Challenge Cruiser class in both 2013 and 2015, with their “solar family cars” (see this article in IEEE Spectrum).

Eindhoven’s solar car Stella Lux at the 2015 World Solar Challenge, where it won the Cruiser class (my photo)

Praising Twente

The green University of Twente campus (photo: “Galaufs”)

The University of Twente is located near Enschede, in the eastern Netherlands. The university has one of my favourite solar car teams, and is ranked equal 82nd in the world on the Times Higher Education list of engineering institutions.

Artwork on the University of Twente campus (photo: “Daiancita”)

The University of Twente was founded in 1961 as the Technische Hogeschool Twente, joining similar technical institutions at Delft and Eindhoven. Today, the university teaches a number of subjects beyond Engineering, and the current name reflects this broader focus, which includes Health, Administration, IT, and Behavioural Sciences.

Twente’s solar car Red One comes 2nd in the 2015 World Solar Challenge (my photo)