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"Aiming to First Do No Harm: The Education of Electronics Users"

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Katie Singer and Gary Olhoeft, Boulder, CO, April 7, 2015
Katie Singer and Gary Olhoeft, Boulder, CO, April 7, 2015
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"Aiming to First Do No Harm: The Education of Electronics Users" looks at four generations of education and regulation around electronics, including regulation around electronic interference with medical implants. (According to NIH, in 2000, 8-10% of the American population had an implant--i.e. a cardiac pacemaker or insulin pump.) Walking through metal detectors, driving a Prius, being near "smart" meters can reprogram or shut off medical implants like deep-brain stimulators.


Would everyone please turn off their cell phones? Is there anyone here who can't do that or does not know how to do so?

I am truly glad to be here tonight. Thank you to Colorado Chautauqua for inviting me. And thanks to everyone for coming.

When I began writing An Electronic Silent Spring, I wanted one chapter to describe how electricity gets to a breaker box and how wireless devices work. I read physics textbooks and electricians' manuals and sent my chapter to three physicists. Each man declared me a genius.

Then I sent the chapter to an electrical engineer and two electricians who write trade manuals. Each of them declared me an idiot.

And so I really began to see how complicated this stuff is. Electrical power is necessary, invisible and barely understood. Just asking questions about it can upset people, kind of like asking about money.

A chemist read my chapter and declared it fantastic.

Then he called back the next day with second thoughts. "You can't explain electricity simply," he explained, "without making grossly inaccurate statements."

I still sensed that my book would be incomplete without describing how mobile phones and Wi-Fi work. So I called Gary Olhoeft. Gary is a physicist with two degrees in electrical engineering. When I asked if he could edit my technical chapter, he'd just retired from teaching at the Colorado School of Mines. And so, this novelist who's also written about menstrual cycle health began a very unlikely tutorial.

I should clarify that even tonight, I am still trying to describe massively complex issues in simple terms in a short amount of time. Please bear with me.

My first lessons from Gary Olhoeft take us back a few billion years, before man-made laws or mobile phones, when this planet was a mass of gasses, water, dust and rock. After a buildup of charge, lightning began to strike. A bombardment of lightning storms led to nucleic and amino acids, the building blocks of life. Early plants made oxygen and paved the way for animals.

Plants and animals still function by electro-chemical signals. So do our brains and hearts. Even at rest, all cells have measurable voltage. In other words, without electromagnetic energy, none of us would be here.

The ancient Greeks knew how to generate electricity, but not how to store or transmit it. The Greeks also created a regulatory system for health that included the direction to First, do no harm.

Humans figured out how to store electrical energy around 1750. By 1880, we also knew how to transmit it over long distances. We created batteries, motors and electric lights and built things like refrigerators. We transitioned from visible, mechanical technologies powered by horse and human muscle, then steam and hydropower, to electromagnetic technologies, whose power is invisible.

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Katie Singer writes about nature and technology in Letters to Greta. She spoke about the Internet's footprint in 2018, at the United Nations' Forum on Science, Technology & Innovation, and, in 2019, on a panel with the climatologist Dr. (more...)

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