How Statistics Turned a Harmless Nurse Into a Vicious Killer

Let’s do a thought experiment. Suppose you have 2 million coins at hand and a machine that will flip them all at the same time. After twenty flips, you evaluate and you come across one particular coin that showed heads twenty times in a row. Suspicious? Alarming? Is there something wrong with this coin? Let’s dig deeper. How likely is it that a coin shows heads twenty times in a row? Luckily, that’s not so hard to compute. For each flip there’s a 0.5 probability that the coin shows heads and the chance of seeing this twenty times in a row is just 0.5^20 = 0.000001 (rounded). So the odds of this happening are incredibly low. Indeed we stumbled across a very suspicious coin. Deep down I always knew there was something up with this coin. He just had this “crazy flip”, you know what I mean? Guilty as charged and end of story.

Not quite, you say? You are right. After all, we flipped 2 million coins. If the odds of twenty heads in a row are 0.000001, we should expect 0.000001 * 2,000,000 = 2 coins to show this unlikely string. It would be much more surprising not to find this string among the large number of trials. Suddenly, the coin with the supposedly “crazy flip” doesn’t seem so guilty anymore.

What’s the point of all this? Recently, I came across the case of Lucia De Berk, a dutch nurse who was accused of murdering patients in 2003. Over the course of one year, seven of her patients had died and a “sharp” medical expert concluded that there was only a 1 in 342 million chance of this happening. This number and some other pieces of “evidence” (among them, her “odd” diary entries and her “obsession” with Tarot cards) led the court in The Hague to conclude that she must be guilty as charged, end of story.

Not quite, you say? You are right. In 2010 came the not guilty verdict. Turns out (funny story), she never commited any murder, she was just a harmless nurse that was transformed into vicious killer by faulty statistics. Let’s go back to the thought experiment for a moment, imperfect for this case though it may be. Imagine that each coin represents a nurse and each flip a month of duty. It is estimated that there are around 300,000 hospitals worldwide, so we are talking about a lot of nurses/coins doing a lot of work/flips. Should we become suspicious when seeing a string of several deaths for a particular nurse? No, of course not. By pure chance, this will occur. It would be much more surprising not to find a nurse with a “suspicious” string of deaths among this large number of nurses. Focusing in on one nurse only blurs the big picture.

And, leaving statistics behind, the case also goes to show that you can always find something “odd” about a person if you want to. Faced with new information, even if not reliable, you interpret the present and past behavior in a “new light”. The “odd” diary entries, the “obsession” with Tarot cards … weren’t the signs always there?

Be careful to judge. Benjamin Franklin once said he should consider himself lucky if he’s right 50 % of the time. And that’s a genius talking, so I don’t even want to know my stats …

What is Mass? A Short and Simple Explanation

Mass is such a fundamental property of matter that it is hard to define without drifting into philosophical realms. Newton’s Second Law provides a great way to understand mass from a physical point of view. The law states that force F (in N) is the product of mass m (in kg) and acceleration a (in m/s²):

F = m · a

So according to this, mass is a measure of an object’s resistance to a change in speed. If the mass is small, a small force is sufficient to produce a noticeable acceleration. However, much more force is necessary to produce the same acceleration for a massive object.

Another way of looking at mass is provided by Newton’s Law of Gravitation. Newton found that the attracting gravitational force between two objects is proportional to the product of their masses m and M:

F ~ m · M

So additionally to creating resistance to changes in state of motion, mass is also the source of gravitational attraction. It seems obvious that in both cases we are talking about the same quantity. But is this actually the case? Is the inertial mass, the mass responsible for opposing changes in velocity, really the same as the gravitational mass, that gives rise to gravity?

This question has led to heated debates among physicist for centuries. All experiments conducted so far, with ever increasing accuracy, have shown that indeed the inertial mass is identical to the gravitational mass. Today, almost all physicists have accepted this equivalence as reality.

The SI unit of mass is kilograms. Ever since 1889, one kilogram has been defined as the mass of the international prototype kilogram (IPK) that is stored in the International Bureau of Weights and Measures in Paris. However, during the 24th General Conference on Weights and Measures that took place in 2011, physicists have agreed to redefine this unit by connecting it to the Planck constant.

Other units that are commonly used for mass are grams (1/1000 of a kilogram), the pound (equal to about 0.45 kilograms) and the tonne (equal to 1000 kilograms). For atoms and molecules scientists use the atomic mass unit u. One u is equivalent to 1.66 · 10-27 kg, which is roughly the mass of a neutron or proton.

(This was an excerpt from Physics! In Quantities and Examples)

Law Of The Lever – Explanation and Examples

Imagine a beam sitting on a fulcrum. We apply one force F'(1) = 20 N on the left side at a distance of r(1) = 0.1 m from the fulcrum and another force F'(2) = 5 N on the right side at a distance of r(2) = 0.2 m. In which direction, clockwise or anti-clockwise, will the beam move?

Great Formulas II_html_m2eb595ec

(Before reading on, please make sure that you understand the concept of torque)

To find that out we can take a look at the corresponding torques. The torque on the left side is:

T(1) = 0.1 m · 20 N = 2 Nm

For the right side we get:

T(2) = 0.2 · 5 N = 1 Nm

So the rotational push caused by force 1 (left side) exceeds that of force 2 (right side). Hence, the beam will turn anti-clockwise. If we don’t want that to happen and instead want to achieve equilibrium, we need to increase force 2 to F'(2) = 10 N. In this case the torques would be equal and the opposite rotational pushes would cancel each other. So in general, this equation needs to be satisfied to achieve a state of equilibrium:

r(1) · F'(1) = r(2) · F'(2)

This is the law of the lever in its simplest form. Let’s see how and where we can apply it.


A great example for the usefulness of the law of the lever is provided by cranes. On one side, let’s set r(1) = 30 m, it lifts objects. Since we don’t want it to fall over, we stabilize the crane using a 20,000 kg concrete block at a distance of r(2) = 2 m from the axis. What is the maximum mass we can lift with this crane?

First we need to compute the gravitational force of the concrete block.

F'(2) = 20,000 kg · 9.81 m/s² = 196,200 N

Now we can use the law of the lever to find out what maximum force we can apply on the opposite site:

r(1) · F'(1) = r(2) · F'(2)

30 m · F'(1) = 2 m · 196,200 N

30 m · F'(1) = 392,400 Nm

Divide by 30 m:

F'(1) = 13,080 N

As long as we don’t exceed this, the torque caused by the concrete block will exceed that of the lifted object and the crane will not fall over. The maximum mass we can lift is now easy to find. We use the formula for the gravitational force one more time:

13,080 N = m · 9.81 m/s²

Divide by 9.81:

m ≈ 1330 kg

To lift even heavier objects, we need to use either a heavier concrete block or put it at a larger distance from the axis.


The law of the lever shows why we can interpret a lever as a tool to amplify forces. Suppose you want use a force of F'(1) = 100 N to lift a heavy object with the gravitational pull F'(2) = 2000 N. Not possible you say? With a lever you can do this by applying the smaller force at a larger distance to the axis and the larger force at a shorter distance.

Suppose the heavy object sits at a distance r(2) = 0.1 m to the axis. At what what distance r(1) should we apply the 100 N to be able to lift it? We can use the law of the lever to find the minimum distance required.

r(1) · 100 N = 0.1 m · 2000 N

r(1) · 100 N = 200 Nm

r(1) = 2 m

So as long as we apply the force at a distance of over 2 m, we can lift the object. We effectively amplified the force by a factor of 20. Scientists believe that the principle of force amplification using levers was already used by the Egyptians to build the pyramids. Given a long enough lever, we could lift basically anything even with a moderate force.


This was an excerpt from More Great Formulas Explained.

Check out my BEST OF for more interesting physics articles.

Space Shuttle Launch and Sound Suppression

The Space Shuttle’s first flight (STS-1) in 1981 was considered a great success as almost all the technical and scientific goals were achieved. However, post flight analysis showed one potentially fatal problem: 16 heat shield tiles had been destroyed and another 148 damaged. How did that happen? The culprit was quickly determined to be sound. During launch the shuttle’s main engine and the SRBs (Solid Rocket Boosters) produce intense sound waves which cause strong vibrations. A sound suppression system was needed to protect the shuttle from acoustically induced damage such as cracks and mechanical fatigue. But how do you suppress the sound coming from a jet engine?

Let’s take a step back. What is the source of this sound? When the hot exhaust gas meets the ambient air, mixing occurs. This leads to the formation of a large number of eddies. The small-scale eddies close to the engine are responsible for high frequency noise, while the large-scale eddies that appear downstream cause intense low-frequency noise. Lighthill showed that the power P (in W) of the sound increases with the jet velocity v (in m/s) and the size s (in m) of the eddies:

P = K * D * c-5 * s2 * v8

with K being a constant, D the exhaust gas density and c the speed of sound. Note the extremely strong dependence of acoustic power on jet velocity: if you double the velocity, the power increases by a factor of 256. Such a strong relationship is very unusual in physics. The dependence on eddy size is also significant, doubling the size leads to a quadrupling in power. The formula tells us what we must do to effectively suppress sound: reduce jet velocity and the size of the eddies. Water injection into the exhaust gas achieves both. The water droplets absorb kinetic energy from the gas molecules, thus slowing them down. At the same time, the water breaks down the eddies.

During the second Space Shuttle launch (STS-2) a water injection system was used to suppress potentially catastrophic acoustic vibrations. This proved to be successful, it reduced the sound level by 10 – 20 dB (depending on location), and accordingly was used during every launch since then. But large amounts of water are needed to accomplish this reduction. The tank at the launch pad holds about 300,000 gallons. The flow starts at T minus 6.6 seconds and last for about 20 seconds. The peak flow rate is roughly 15,000 gallons per seconds. That’s a lot of water!

The video below shows a test run of the sound suppression system:

Sources and further reading:

Click to access art09.pdf

Click to access CAE_XUYue_Investigation-of-Flow-Control-with-Fluidic-injection-for-Jet-Noise-Reduction.pdf