Science Interviews


Sun, 24th Jun 2007

It's GigaCurtains for us!

Joel Veitch,

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Last year, Joel Veitch of wrote to New Scientist magazine with a suggestion for a scale of ‘Hazardicity’, measured using a unit he defined as the Curtain.

CurtainsJoel -   I did notice that people were starting to talk about nanohazards and whether there should be warning signs for them and that sort of thing.  It struck me that really no one has defined what a nanohazard actually is because it turns out that there is no SI unit for the measurement of hazard.  An SI unit is, like a metre is the SI unit of length, for example.

Chris -   So what are you proposing?

Joel -   Well, I had a look into the statistics, because without statistics science is nothing, and I thought that really what we should do is find something which poses a decent amount of hazard to a large number of people.  Having looked through I realised that curtains, which are something that, of course, most people are exposed to on an almost daily basis…

Chris -   What sort of curtains did you have in mind?

Joel -   Actually, it’s non-specific, it’s any kind of curtain.  So if you have curtains in the home then this is a hazard which applies to you, obviously.  Looking at the statistics for 2002, they actually caused 4080 injuries in one year.

Chris -   So what, people closing them, opening them?  This is a classic joke when someone goes to the doctor and says:  “Doctor, doctor I feel like a pair of curtains” and the doctor says “Pull yourself together!”  This is what I’d like to say to whoever did this survey!

Joel -   It doesn’t specify the kinds of injuries.  I mean, one can only guess, but it does specify an awful lot of other things that can cause injuries and I hate to imagine what those injuries might be.

Chris -   I had a look at the Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents’ [RoSPA] website, on which they publish some of these details, and not surprisingly ‘Building and DIY’ causes about a million accidents a year nationally.  But then I had a look further down, and looking at this, bread bins are actually lethal – 185 people a year are injuring themselves on bread bins!  We need some kind of warning and regulation on bread bins!

Joel -   It’s true, we should, we should!  And interestingly, having another look through there, you will see that some things which you would have thought would be inherently evil are, in fact, quite benign.

Chris -   Well compasses and dividers, you know a compass has nice big pointy spikes on it, the kind of things that teachers would like to ban from classrooms; Zero accidents last year.  We need people injuring themselves with these things so that we get them banned.

Joel -   It’s true… A mincer – just one accident with a mincer, and again with a mangle.  [laughs]

Chris -   Well paper clips apparently caused 62 injuries last year, which is devastating, maybe we should ban those?

Joel -   Maybe we should, I’ve never found them terrifying myself…

Chris -   Returning to the curtain issue, what did you propose that we should do in terms of coming up with some kind of nomenclature and unit of risk?

Joel -   Well yes, assuming that we actually need a unit for the measurement of hazardicity, or risk as we could say, I would say the risk posed by a curtain over one year, being substantial as we now know, should be the unit of measurement.  So one Curtain would be that amount of risk.  Then we could measure the risks posed by other things in relation to their hazardicity compared to curtains.

Chris -   So building and DIY would be like a Megacurtain?

Joel -   Yeah, or possibly even a Gigacurtain!

Chris -   Do you remember when you used to go to the theatre and they would have a smoking curtain?

Joel -   Yes.

Chris -   Well that’s going to go out on the 1st of July, which is a bit of a shame really [although it will no longer pose a risk to theatre goers].  Vacuum cleaners cause 10,000 injuries every year – perish the thought why, if people didn’t hoover naked I suppose it wouldn’t happen, but on your scale that would be roughly 2 Curtains of risk?

Joel -   Yeah, just over 2 Curtains.

Chris -   So what’s a really small risk?

Joel -   One good example would be an artists brush.

Chris -   How harmful is that?

Joel -   In fact, that it how sensitive the data set is.  By that I mean that the data we’ve got only goes down to one accident per year in the UK, or in fact 21 as it’s only one in 21 people covered by the survey.  There’s only 60 million people in the country, which means that you can’t have literally every possible hazard, because if there’s no one injured by something in this country, then it doesn’t figure on the stats.

Chris -   You can’t quantify it.

Joel -   Exactly.  So we can go down to, for example, an airbed poses a risk of exactly one Centicurtain, pretty much.  So one hundredth as dangerous as a curtain.

Chris -   How do you injure yourself with an airbed?  It takes a bit of imagination.

Joel -   Well, I imagine it’s something to do with bouncing.  Although, I have gone a bit faint trying to inflate them myself.  I can see how that can result in a falling over incident…

Chris -   So what do you think are the chances of Downing Street embracing your proposal and having a warning system based on the Curtain level of risk?

Joel -   Well I think that depends on how much of a fuss we kick up really, doesn’t it?

Chris -   Are you going to take this to the House of Commons?

Joel -   Well we should, it occurs to me that we have a new premier coming in, so maybe we should give him the opportunity to show his mettle.

Chris -   This government is really quite into regulations and things, aren’t they?  I also noticed that on RoSPA’s website that a real hot spot for accidents and damage is in cemeteries, which I think is quite appropriate really.  You’re in the right place to injure yourself because if it’s really fatal you can just fall into a hole and that’s that.

Joel -   [Laughs] Yeah, I suppose so!

Chris -   Thank you very much Joel, it’s been really good to have you on the programme.


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