“It’s not true that we can’t solve big problems through technology; we can. We must. But all these elements must be present: political leaders and the public must care to solve a problem, our institutions must support its solution, it must really be a technological problem, and we must understand it,” writes Jason Pontin in Why We Can’t Solve Big Problems.
Of course, this resonates with what the great historian Arnold Toynbee said about why some civilizations thrive and others fail. After a lifetime studying societies spanning 6000 years and five continents, Toynbee wrote that the one common thread appeared to be whether both leaders and the people chose stodgy obstinacy or agile flexibility, whenever challenges loomed. And especially whether they gave support, invested resources, and enthusiastically backed-up their creative minorities.
And hence, this time we’ll peruse a potpourri of science marvels showing that agility and scientific creativity have not become endangered species — despite the efforts of some at both political extremes. Indeed, we’re still displaying an eagerness for pragmatic problem-solving may yet help us to thrive.
Let’s start with this interesting news. GM has demonstrated an energy storage system built from five used Chevy Volt batteries, which would be capable of providing two hours of backup power for three to five average homes. As the companies note, while they’re no longer suitable for use in an electric vehicle, the average end-of-life battery still retains about 30 percent of its charge, which can go a long way in other applications (especially when a few of them are linked together). Of course, this is all still just at the demonstration stage, but I am already interested! I’d love to have a cheap version to charge with a used solar panel… just enough to keep my fridge running for a few days of blackout. There’s a real commercial potential there. Hey GM, need a celebrity spokesman?
==Geosciences and the Earth==
First some very mixed good news. The boom in availability of natural gas in the U.S. from shale formations is not without (fracking) controversy. But it means the North American price of methane is less than half of what it is in Europe. In a boost to the U.S. economy, manufacturers have plans to invest as much as $80 billion in U.S. chemical, fertilizer, steel, aluminum, tire and plastics plants, according to Dow Chemical. And the main reason, said George J. Biltz, Dow Chemical’s vice president for energy and climate change, “comes back to the massive competitive advantage the United States has with natural gas today. One can hope that economic recovery will then allow calm people to start picking more carefully which areas to subject to these new processes and carefully supervise the professionalism of the frackers… and choose to protect sensitive realms that they must avoid.
These changes will also be geo-political, as U.S. imports of oil from the Middle-East have actually started to decline, reducing American dependence and…perhaps shifting our security focus. This in turn may affect political balances… and it will undermine the grip that coal has on the current economy. Since methane procuses half as much atmospheric carbon per unit of energy as coal, and much less of the ancillary poisons, this is guardedly good news, providing we not let this slow down our drive to research even better methods. Speaking of which…
Next year, when the California Ivanpah desert solar plant flips the on switch, it will nearly double the amount of solar thermal energy produced in the United States. According to Dr. Steven Koonin (my old Caltech classmate and recently under secretary of the U.S. Energy Department) solar thermal is the most under-rated sustainable energy system around, with great near-term potential for profitability, even despite cost pressures from the plummeting cost of natural gas.
The World’s largest offshore wind farm is coming online. The U.S. could have been the world leader by now, if the first decade of the 21st had not been wasted. But yay for this. And it’s not too late.
Now let’s swing toward the energetic… but weird! It’s possible that, at the microbial level, the deep seafloor is humming with current. Danish researchers have found bacteria that conduct electricity along microfilaments from the sea bottom’s surface to many centimeters down beneath. With so much electricity being transferred, are other organisms tapping the lines? Might the Desulfobulbaceae be a power source for entire as-yet-unappreciated deep-sea microbial ecologies, which in turn shape some of the planet’s fundamental biogeochemical processes? Hm… did I hint at this in EARTH?
== Ocean Fertilization: Right idea… wrong guy ==
In July, a rogue entrepreneur named Russ George dumped 100 tons of powdered iron into currents off British Columbia. The intent: to trigger plankton growth and aid in the recovery of salmon fishing, while also removing CO2 from the atmosphere. Marine scientists have termed his action “unscientific, irresponsible and probably in violation of international agreements.” A foolish stunt, indeed!
Yet, some of the outrage went too far. In Testing the Waters, Naomi Klein rails against any form of geo-engineering experiments, even those that mimic totally natural phenomena, the same phenomena that create the world’s great fisheries that feed a third of the planet. (70% of the oceans are mostly-dead deserts. But fertilizing updrafts off the Grand Banks, Chile, Antarctica etc create fecund, oceanic oases.) As an equal opportunity contrarian, I call on the left to back off a bit. Most of what Ms. Klein says is true… yet I find her polemical reflex is unhelpful and possibly toxic to our future.
That kneejerk reflex is to assume that technology-based solutions are automatically suspect, possibly evil, and that any palliation of the thing they are complaining about will reduce the need or desire or imperative to eliminate the problem at its source. That is illogical, self-righteous and lazy thinking, in the extreme. We need to be examining and dispassionately studying palliative measures both because they may be our last resort… and because they may help us transition, even if we apply our main efforts to doing the wise thing and stop befouling our planet.
In other words… I support limited, small scale ocean fertilization experiments that mimic natural phenomena by expanding the realm of life. They are, in essence, no different than irrigation that we do on land. Rife with potential problems, but a winning scenario, if done carefully.
Having said that, let me add that in the specific case in question, I think it was a doltish, oafish stunt, in the wrong place and the wrong time. And illegal to boot. But you can expect more such experiments in the future, under the protection and auspices of countries like Nauru that are threatened by rising oceans. And, if I lived in such a place, I would be investing in better versions of the idea — like wave-powered bottom stirrers to bring up natural sediments, more closely imitating the natural updrafts off Chile and the Grand Banks. (I depicted the method in my 1989 novel EARTH.) And I would tell Ms. Klein to go turn her ire on Fox and the Kochs, but practice a little humility and patience toward those who agree with her that the world needs to be saved! They just want a backup option. A Plan B.
==Biosciences & Medical Advances==
In 1773, when Benjamin Franklin’s work had moved from printing to science and politics, he corresponded with a French scientist, Jacques Barbeu-Dubourg, on the subject of preserving the dead for later revival by more advanced scientific methods, writing:
I should prefer to an ordinary death, being immersed with a few friends in a cask of Madeira, until that time, then to be recalled to life by the solar warmth of my dear country! But in all probability, we live in a century too little advanced, and too near the infancy of science, to see such an art brought in our time to its perfection. (Extended excerpt also online. )
Wow… what a guy. Preserved in Madeira? Okay. Unlikely, but a pretty great image.
== The future is fun! The future is Fair! ==
Did anyone notice the “More Science” part of this posting’s title? I recently had the good fortune to meet Phil Proctor of the Firesign Theater. Brought back memories of Bozos and Nick Danger and… more science!
Which somehow segues into this: neuroscientists identify how zebrafish regenerate brains and other organs after trauma. (Yeah, back in the 1960s I often needed brain regeneration!)
And more! Yay science! German brain researchers have successfully induced Tourette’s syndrome symptoms in healthy people for the first time, using powerful magnetic pulses. Oh yeah? Well f#@k ain’t that f#@king great?
== And it’s Science Miscellany time! ==
A prototype ultra-sensitive sensor would enable doctors to detect the early stages of diseases and viruses with the naked eye.
Tiny 3-D printed bio-bots will crawl through your body, targeting toxins.
The protein folding problem has been a Grail of biology some time. Now a team claims they can predict how one will loop and fold, in advance. A big deal.
And some health advice: Cool your palms and build muscles and lose weight? Heads up to keep an eye on this. Exercise does more for you if you cool your palms and the soles of your feet? Huh. Some of you write in and tell your results.
Oh and I hear that healthy young adults ages 18–25 can improve their working memory by increasing their Omega-3 fatty acid intake.
What we die of: A graphical look at the primary causes of death in 2011.
Germany is set to advance a bill Wednesday imposing a spate of new rules on high-frequency trading, escalating Europe’s sweeping response to concerns that speedy traders have brought instability to the markets. As I have said, this may be more important than anyone as yet knows.
This is kinda neat. The BioLite stove burns regular wood or twigs etc to cook with… but also generates electricity for a charging unit. Volunteers took several into areas blacked out by Hurricane Sandy and made so many friends their sales are booked into next year. Great for the next disaster…or that unforeseen Zombie Apocalypse.
Tentacled robot mimics the movement and capabilities of a soft-armed octopus.
A small but growing cadre of savvy technologists argue that, at least in measured doses, encounters with imaginary worlds and futuristic devices could have a decisive influence on innovation. David Brian Johnson, Intel’s staff futurist, even insists in a recent book, Science Fiction Prototyping, that by writing stories about future products, engineers can do a better job of actually making them.
It will likely take a decade, but improvements to lithium-ion batteries could lead to much cheaper electric vehicles.
A new approach to create panoramas from live camera feed on mobile phones.
A whopping 100,000 entangled photons have been detected for the first time, beating the previous record of just 12. The technique for spotting this delicate quantum link among so many photons could prove useful for safely sharing keys used in encrypted communications.
The Counter-electronics High-powered Microwave Advanced Missile Project (CHAMP) renders electronic targets useless, a “non-kinetic alternative to traditional explosive weapons that use the energy of motion to defeat a target,” CHAMP emits bursts of high-powered energy, effectively knocking out the target’s data and electronic subsystems. Most press reports have incorrectly described this as an electromagnetic pulse (EMP) weapon. High power microwave (HPM) is a different technology that uses a microwave beam that can be focused tightly to hit designated short-range targets.
How cool is this? Reminds me of George Gamow’s Mr. Tompkins in Wonderland. MIT video game lets you play with relativity, changing speed of light.
==Science and Society==
The U.S. used to by far have the highest ratio of college grads, but that is hard to maintain while absorbing half of the world’s immigrants. Funny thing though, the country that is now number one, with 51% of adults having a degree is the other great land of immigration, Canada. The US is still a very respectable 4th place. Actually pretty amazing, all considered.
Especially after hearing that science literacy is actually improving and apparently because of those sappy “breadth requirement” science survey courses that non-science majors are required to take in U.S. universities (but not, apparently, in most European or Asian colleges.). In fact, because of those few college breadth requirements, the US scored first in adult science literacy! Of course, one could argue whether this applies to all the different Americas, red or blue or…
Still. Take that you cynics. As for the rest of you, keep plugging for more science!