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Golden Scholars: Berkeley professors aim to assuage public fears of radiation and evaluate the efficacy of online ads

When is a watch not a watch? When it's a RadWatch. Berkeley researchers develop ways to monitor radiation levels and take a look at those online ads we all love.


Quick Links

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A look at the undergrads working on CalSol, our Solar Vehicle team

Sweet Pocketwatch

That's a pretty rad watch and all, but that's not important right now. RadWatch is actually a system to monitor and publicly provide radiation levels developed by nuclear engineering professor Kai Vetter.

[T]he latest development is the installation of a new and automated air-sampling system so that a constant stream of data from highly sensitive air monitors will be posted online for the public to see.

"Providing public access to this high-quality data on a nearly real-time basis makes RadWatch really unique," said Vetter, whose areas of expertise includes radiation detection, fundamental physics, biomedical imaging and homeland security. "We feel like more information is better than less. This project could potentially have a significant impact on public understanding about radiation, which for many people is a frightening topic."

One of the main goals of providing access to this information is to help the public understand the concept of radiation and become less afraid of it since we tend to fear what we don't understand, which is why I'm horrified by organic chemistry. KEEP THOSE IMINES AWAY FROM ME.

Their motivation is that most people are scared of the dangers or radiation (from your TV [wait, who watches TV anymore?], cell phone, etc.) without realizing that mundane objects you interact with on a daily basis (like a banana) give off more radiation.

"We are using state-of-the-art nuclear radiation detection instruments that can measure extremely small quantities of radioisotopes far before they pose any health risk," said Vetter. "Being able to detect or measure radiation does not mean there's a health risk, and that is what we want the public to understand."

The scientists pointed out that there are many sources of naturally occurring radioactive elements around us that affect the air we breathe, the foods we eat and the water we drink. Some, such as potassium-40, uranium and thorium, were created before Earth was formed, and their decay products, including radon, radium and polonium, remain today in the environment. Others, including carbon-14 and beryllium-7, are produced when atoms in the atmosphere interact with cosmic rays from our solar system.

With applications in public education and even danger assessment after an event like the Fukushima incident, there is definitely a good motivation behind this work, but I think the biggest barrier to success is getting an average or concerned citizen to check out their findings.

Buy Now!

The Internet is a big thing. You're probably on it right now and may have noticed it features advertisements of the virtual nature. And if you're like me, then you definitely click all of them because you don't know what they lead to, so there's always the chance they'll link you to some beautiful land filled with wonder. But we seem to be in the minority as a study co-authored by Berkeley business professor Steven Tadelis reports that search ads are mostly useless for the well-known, big-name companies.

This failure is attributed in part to traditional problems with marketing (Are increased holiday sales due to increased holiday advertising or because people are shopping anyway? If you're already Googling "Cal fight song bottle opener," then were you already likely to buy one regardless of the ad?), but there are also some inherent traits in Internet searches that could be responsible for the ineffective nature of these ads.

For instance, if somebody searches for "Amazon, banana slicer," and clicks on a search ad that pops up right next to his results, chances are he would have made it to Amazon's site without the extra nudge. Even if he never typed the word Amazon, he still might have gotten to the site through the natural power of search. In the end, it all comes down to the evergreen challenge of distinguishing correlation (e.g., a Facebook user saw an ad and then bought some shoes) from causation (e.g., a Facebook user bought some shoes because he saw an ad).

One of the strengths that Tadelis brought to this eBay-sponsored study was the decision to perform experiments, as opposed to traditional analytics companies who use statistical analysis. Their first test was fairly straightforwardget rid of the search ad that appears next to the search results that link to their own site and see how that affects traffic, finding it had a negligible effect, which means the money spent to provide those links was lost.

The second test was more intriguing, and more worrisome for Google. The group wanted to see what would happen if eBay stopped buying ads next to results for normal keyword searches that didn't include brand names, like "banana slicer," "shoes," or "electric guitar." In the name of science, the company then randomly shut down its Google ads in some geographic regions and left them running in others. The results here were a bit more nuanced. On average, the ads didn't seem to have much impact at all on frequent eBay users-they still made it to the site. But they did seem to lure a few new customers.

"For people who've never used eBay or never heard of eBay, those ads were extremely profitable," Tadelis said. "The problem was that for every one of those guys, there were dozens of guys who were going to eBay anyway." Add it all up, and eBay's search ads turned out to be a money-loser.

Tadelis's study may prompt the established companies to cool it on this type of ads, which may lower costs and open the doors for more online ads things like "Jim and Chuck's Discount Roast Beef," which is an ad I'd definitely click.