Tag Archives: geoengineering

Ocean Fertilization redux… plus the politics of science

My last posting about Climate Change remediation got a lot of attention, positive and negative,  so let me emphasize: I do not consider any form of “geoengineering” to be a substitute for responsibly investing in energy efficiency and finding ways to maintain a great civilization without ruining our planet. Even if a few such methods are found that work well, without crackpot flaws and/or gruesome side effects, that won’t let us off the hook from our shared and individual responsibilities, which include seeking alternate, sustainable forms of energy to replace the irresponsible spewing of greenhouse pollutants into our atmosphere. Those who have been lured into participating in a War on Science must be introduced to its value. But the cynical men who are financing this cult are enemies of humankind.

PushPullOceanPumpsOnly now… some addition insights. A variant on ocean fertilization has been proposed by my friend William Calvin, one of the smartest guys I know. Bill agrees with me that the best approach for geoengineering and partial remediation of carbon driven climate change would be to emulate and enhance the method that Nature herself already uses, to pull CO2 out of the atmosphere.  That means doing it via natural processes at-sea, forming carbon rich solids and letting these settle as sediments to the ocean bottom.  (While, as a side-benefit, stimulating new fisheries.)  See Calvin’s Proposal: Emergency 20-year Drawdown of Excess CO2 via Push-Pull  Ocean Pumps.

Earlier we discussed the drawbacks of the bludgeon-like initial attempts at ocean fertilization, that have created crude plankton blooms by dumping iron powder into currents.  We also saw that care must be taken to make sure that (as when arid land is irrigated) the new zones of fecundity must be “well-drained” like the Grand Banks and Chile, and unlike the Mediterranean, the Black Sea and the Gulf of Mexico, where “fecundity” can translate into  a poisoned morass of algae and jellyfish.  My conclusion: if you want to emulate the main life-process that removes CO2 from the air, do it by lifting submerged nutrients to higher, sun-lit realms, exactly as Nature does it.  Several methods have been proposed and I showed a couple of them way back in in EARTH (1989).

Let me pause to add that there are non-living process that do the same thing, in parallel.  Even more effective at drawing down atmospheric CO2 is the weathering of continental rocks by the rain cycle, washing silicates to sea via river estuaries and sealing away carbon sediments without intervention by biology. (Indeed, this is the principal driver of the “Gala Balance” that makes a natural ocean world self-regulating.)  I have never seen any proposals to expand continental, river-carried weathering… though I imagine a lot of dust will go to sea if we continue to spread deserts… or if desertification results in nuclear war.

CarbonSoupBudgetBut let’s get back to Bill Calvin’s concept.  He starts with what I’ve been pushing… systems that emulate natural upwellings by bringing up nutrients from below, using either windmills or wave powered system.  (Have a look: some are very clever: especially using 3000 abandoned oil platforms in the Gulf of Mexico.)

He then deals with a serious problem, that most of the CO2 sequestered by a plankton bloom does not either sink or feed fish, but simply returns to the air after the plankton dies.  Calvin solves this by having another windmill-powered tube situated down-current from the upwelling one.  This second one pumps the carbon rich surface water back down again.  I’ll let him explain:

Calvin’s push-pull pumps:  “An easy-to-visualize method to do push-pull pumps uses floating windmills. Long pipes hang 15 to 30 stories down into the slowly moving depths. One windmill operates traditionally, pulling deep water up to the surface.  The nutrients in this cold water create a sustained bloom of algae (and algae thrive in cooler water). The other windmill pump pushes the enriched surface water down to where it cannot resurface for millennia. Pumping down stores the carbon in the brand-new algae as well as canceling out whatever carbon dioxide was first pulled up from below the thermocline. That’s the first big payoff from going with push-pull pumps.”

“Even more importantly, it sinks the 240x larger amounts of dissolved organic carbon (DOC) from the feces and cell debris. (Algaculture throws out the dissolved part of their organic crop.) DOC ordinarily becomes carbon dioxide within a week or two and then escapes into the air as winds stir the surface layer. Stashing it as well is the second big step up in efficiency achieved by push-pull pumps.”

These things merit discussion.  Do have a closer look.  Because reducing CO2 at the source will no longer suffice.  We have to push for that!  But it will take more.

See my article: Defining Climate “Deniers” and “Skeptics.” Without any doubt it is possible to be a skeptic who helps science by critiquing the flaws in any standard model. Such skepticism, propelled by curiosity and the natural competitiveness of science (indeed, science is the most ferociously competitive of all human endeavors) is natural and wholesome.  Alas, 95% of those calling themselves “climate skeptics” do not fit this description.  Their stance is driven by political loyalties and participation in an ever-deepening War on Science and everything that it stands for. And the worst example of all is…

== Politics and Science ==

The Science Committee of the U.S. House of Representatives — continuing its almost blemish-free record of jibbering inanity, with members from the majority party almost universally unqualified and propelled by fanatical dogmas.  Take Mississippi Republican Rep. Steven Palazzo, who chairs the Space Subcommittee. His revision of the Administration’s NASA budget request would slash the requested Earth science budget by a third (from about $1.8 billion to $1.2 billion) next year.  This from the party that proclaims “we need more research!” in order to determine whether human activity is promoting climate change and global warming.

researchfunds(This year’s Fox-declared dogma is to backpedal and admit (at last) that major global warming is obviously taking place, but continuing to declare human causes to be “unproved.” And further proclaiming that lemming-herd-like scientists are all cowardly-timid yelpers after teensy grants. Even though half of all climate researchers are doing great, earning nearly all of their funds from perfectly safe research into weather prediction, having accomplished the spectacular feat of transforming the old, two hour weather report into a ten day miracle. Geniuses, chivvied by their opposites.)

Keeping true to form, the targeted slashing of science continues. The Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy (ARPA-E), which supports the development and commercialization of new energy technologies, would receive $50 million, $215 million — or 81 percent — less than what was enacted in fiscal 2013.

This is not the science-loving GOP of 1980, but some aberration that has sabotaged Earth science for twenty consistent years. Indeed, they several times tried to remove Earth observation and ocean/climate studies from the mission statements of both NASA and NOAA.  Can any modern person rationalize this?  Or convince himself/herself that this has anything to do with “conservatism” anymore?

stormsofmygrandchildrenRead also how the Space Subcommittee Republicans demand that funds be shifted away from asteroidal research, which offers the possibility of accessing vast wealth and resources, — a new Gold-Platinum Rush in space — while providing a useful intermediate mission for astronauts to develop deep space skills.  Instead they prefer an utterly pointless return to the sterile-useless-heavy Moon, and then armwave talk of a Mars Mission that this generation is nowhere near ready to even design.

Who – on Earth or anywhere – would try so hard to ALWAYS be wrong?

== Science Miscellany ==

Astronomers from 11 different institutions in the UK have joined forces to hunt for alien life, setting up a network to coordinate their activity. The UK SETI Research Network will fund research that considers new ways to find extraterrestrial intelligence. The group will also buy listening time on radio telescopes.

IceFreeAlaskaNASANASA image shows nearly ice-free Alaska on a clear day.

NASA seeks backyard astronomers to help chart asteroids.

A telescope for your eye: new contact lens allows user to switch between magnified and normal vision.

An interesting article reviewing the early days when the discoverers of pulsars first thought that the signals might be coming from Little Green Men.

Wearable computers for soldiers could stop deaths by friendly fire.

Cool images of sand reacting to sound at varied frequencies.

==And Finally==

Striking correlation between infection and mood disorders: Researchers have found that every third person who is diagnosed for the first time with a mood disorder had been admitted to hospital with an infection prior to the diagnosis. That notion adds another facet to the “hygiene hypothesis” that links a variety of autoimmune conditions to an inflammatory response caused by the loss of healthy bacteria in the gut.

Changes to the English language so subtle you don’t notice; i.e. from “they started to walk” to “they started walking.”

“Standard IQ tests are problematic on many levels — not least, because they do very little to tell us about the quality of our thinking. Looking to overcome this oversight, psychologist Keith Stanovich has started to work on the first-ever Rationality Quotient test.” An interview that forges into deep territory, revealing just how difficult it is for humans to do the thing we are most proud-of.

Leave a comment

Filed under science

The Science of Climate and Geo-engineering… and more

On June 18 I joined a blue ribbon panel (via Google Hangout) on the topic of Reinventing Climate Management, led by scenario thinker Jamais Cascio, author of the book Hacking the Earth: Understanding Geoengineering. He moderated a terrific group of scientists and other innovators (plus me… for comic relief I guess) wrestling with this issue, joined by visitors from the web with questions and ideas.

ReinventorsManaging the climate in the face of global warming is a wicked problem that requires getting almost every independent nation to coordinate. What would a system of global governance look like that’s up to the true challenges ahead? And how do we start thinking about whether we need to take more desperate steps in the form of geoengineering?

I came away from the discussion convinced, yet again, that some things merit much closer examination and experimentation.  Out of all of the ideas that have been raised for either removing carbon from the atmosphere or reducing the sunlight that feeds the greenhouse, only one would attempt to emulate nature’s own process for removing CO2, the way by far the largest amount has already been removed — through chemical and biological sequestration in the open ocean. That proposal is Ocean Fertilization.

Yes, yes we have all read about silly, half-baked “experiments” in which poorly instrumented boats dumped tons of iron dust into ocean currents. These created plankton blooms, all right, but also questionable after-effects. They did not get very good press.  And they poisoned the well – so to speak – for more intelligent proposals that would more closely emulate what Nature, herself does.

vanishing-face-of-gaia1And if anyone gets tentative rights to “speak for Mother Nature” it would be James Lovelock, author of the Gaia hypothesis.  With Chris Rapley, director of the Science Museum in London, Lovelock proposed trying an option that would place vertical pipes some 200 meters long in the sea to pump nutrient-rich water from depth to the surface, thus enhancing the growth of algae in the upper ocean. The algae, which are key in transporting carbon dioxide to the deep sea and producing dimethyl sulphide involved in the formation of sunlight-reflecting clouds, should help to prevent further warming. According to his note in Nature: “Although fertilizing the ocean with iron as a way of stimulating algal growth is being considered, the use of pipes to use the ocean’s existing nutrients as fertilizer is certainly novel.”

Well… novel? Except that ocean bi-layer nutrient mixing was shown to readers way back in my novel EARTH (1989).  Our friend, The Economist’s Oliver Morton, wrote an extensive blog on the Lovelock/Rapely proposal, which may get funding from the Gates Foundation for preliminary research.  And Morton fairly describes some of the critics, as well:

“The concept is flawed,” says Scott Doney, a marine chemist at WHOI. He says it neglects the fact that deeper waters with high nutrients also generally contain a lot of dissolved inorganic carbon, including dissolved CO2. Bringing these waters to the lower pressures of the surface would result in the CO2 bubbling out into the air.”

Well, then shouldn’t we look into it and find out?

ocean-pipes-1Might this concept be compatible with Nathan Myhrvold’s innovation… pumping warm surface water below the thermocline?  As reported by Oliver Morton, the system would be something a bit like a floating paddling pool with a long pipe dangling down from its centre. Because there will be waves outside the pool but not inside, water will splash in over its edge but not out, and so the water level inside the pool is higher than the level outside the pool, providing the downward force.  A company called Atmocean has in fact built prototype systems which aim to do it in almost exactly the opposite way to the Searete patents, by using wave power to pump cool water up, but the effect would be the same, spreading nutrients from below to where the sunlight is…

…exactly what happens in the world’s greatest fisheries, off Chile, the Grand Banks and Antarctica. Why do extra nutrients spur fecundity and ocean health in those places, but not in “dying seas” that suffer from eutrification (death by excess fertilizing runoff from agriculture), like the Gulf of Mexico, the Mediterranean and especially the Black Sea?  Well… just look at them!  The difference should be obvious to the eye. The choked seas do not “drain well.”

Let’s make a parallel.  It is said that ninety percent of the oceans are “desert” realms where very little lives, because of lack of nutrients to feed a food chain… mostly the stuff that you find in “dirt.” Now turn back onto the continents.  What do we sometimes do to make deserts bloom?  Onland we irrigated,  bringing water to soil.  At sea the proposal is to bring “soil” to the water in a sense. (The mouths of most river systems are also generally fecund.)

Ah, you answer, but hasn’t irrigation been a mixed blessing, and often a downright curse? Yes! Our ancestors ruined the so-called “Fertile Crescent” by pouring river water over fields, allowing salts and toxic metals to accumulate until the land died.  But this did not happen everywhere.  Many regions — e.g. the Ganges valley and the Yangtze — have been heavily irrigated for thousands of years without suffering desertification. Again, the reason should be eye-obvious: Those river valleys had good drainage, allowing salts to be washed away by monsoons.

The Gulf Stream, the Antarctic Current, and the fisheries near Chile are not enclosed seas — they flow.  So ocean fertilization experiments should start where strong currents can disperse the plankton blooms.  So let’s try some of the more natural-like layer mixing or bottom stirring proposals. And let’s see if we can make another Grand Banks somewhere.

== Another concept ==

PPS02A truly ambitious concept for ocean fertilization by layer mixing would go beyond those mentioned above.  It would use pipes more than 1000 meters long and power them by planting the bottom end right atop an oceanic hydrothermal (volcanic) vent!  

A thousand meters?  Atop a volcanic vent?  Well… I think we should try some simpler mixing methods, first.

== More factors ==

Again, Oliver Morton (in private correspondence) explained why  the first recourse in ocean fert has always been iron.: “Iron is interesting because its a *micro*nutrient. That gives it great stoichiometry — you can see in the literature estimates of C:Fe ratios of around 100,000:1, IIRC. That gets you a lot of C for a tonne of Fe. As I understood it you were suggesting mobilising phosphorous reserves in ocean sediments or deepwater. For phosphate fertilizaton the ratio is 106:1 — the ideal Redfield ratio of C to P in marine biomass. The practical ratio, given losses, would almost certainly be a lot less; for iron it is more than 10 times less. If that were true for macronutrient fertilization, you’d get only a few tonnes of C stored for every tonne of P mobilized. There have to be better ways of getting rid of a tonne of C than that. You might do better — 10 tonnes C, maybe 30? But that still means a vast mass-moving operation to work at the desired gigatonne C level, because you would have to mobiliza a lot of tonnes of sediment or bottom water to deliver one tonne of P. This is a very different and more extensive infrastructure than needed for iron fertilization.”   (See Morton’s survey of geoengineering schemes in Nature: Climate Crunch: Great White Hope .)

hackingTheEarthWow.  Okay. Look, I never doubted than iron fertilization was efficient, compared to ocean bottom stirring, or bi-layer mixing.  What I maintain is that not enough attention has been paid to studying the most effective parts of the ocean – e.g. the Grand Banks and Chile and Antarctica — to determine if they are also big net carbon sinks, as well as fantastic fisheries.  It does not seem to have occurred to anyone that there might be other places on Earth that have almost the right conditions and that might be tipped into similar fecundity with just a little help.

Instead, the reflex is to assume that all meddling is always bad, all the time.  Indeed, the metaphor I used was irrigation and that was the very reflex. We all know what shortsighted irrigation did to the Fertile Crescent… and that metaphor makes us ignore the lessons of other watersheds that remained productive and healthy for 4000 years.  Again, this is the main difference between Chile, Labrador, Antarctica… and the eutrophic dead zones in the Gulf of Mexico and Mediterranean and Black Sea.

To my knowledge, this consideration was not handled well in most of the iron experiments.

== More using natural forces: Solar Towers ==

Some great ideas have been around for a long time.  Way back in 1989 I talked about desert solar towers that use temperature differentials to suck greenhouse-heated air past turbines, generating electricity for free. A test unit was built in Spain 10 years ago.  Now plans are underway for a 2015 solar tower in Arizona of mammoth proportions.

== Climate Miscellany ==

Back to Oliver Morton again… his rather skeptical look at more geoengineering schemes, especially cloud-creation.

A fascinating survey of how past climate changes, especially in the 17th century, severely affected societies and people worldwide, in The Inevitable Climate Catastrophe by Geoffrey Parker on The Chronicle.

Some convincing charts about climate change. Plus see my earlier posting: Arguing with your crazy uncle about Climate Change.

Somebody go read this and review it for us here?  The Age of Global Warming: A History by Rupert Darwall.

==  Plus Science Miscellany! ==

TheVisoneers

With three terrestrial-mass planets in the habitable zone of this small, red star (they would all be tidal locked facing their sun), “the likelihood of one of them actually being habitable is tremendous.” Just 22 light years away.

Interstellar Visioneers and a limitless future: Read a review on Centauri Dreams of UCSB Professor W. Patrick McCray’s new book called The Visioneers: How A Group of Elite Scientists Pursued Space Colonies, Nanotechnologies and a Limitless Future on the lives of  Gerard O’Neill and Eric Drexler, and how their innovative visions and research into space colonies and nanotechnologies transformed society — and shaped our future.

Anthropologists see evidence that developing the ability to throw well was a major evolutionary driver.  Something that Bill Calvin hypothesized 20 + years ago in The Throwing Madonna: Essays on the Brain.  Indeed, throwing is one of our many prodigious skills that made us formidable and scary, even discounting “intelligence.”

A fascinating (if highbrow) appraisal of the radical roots of the Enlightenment. 

John Hodgman narrates a Cory Doctorow animated short about NSA spies.

== call my agent… quick! ==

BrainScansPast Brain Activation Revealed in Scans: What if experts could dig into the brain, like archaeologists, and uncover the history of past experiences? This ability might reveal what makes each of us a unique individual, and it could enable the objective diagnosis of a wide range of neuropsychological diseases. New research at the Weizmann Institute hints that such a scenario is within the realm of possibility: It shows that spontaneous waves of neuronal activity in the brain bear the imprints of earlier events for at least 24 hours after the experience has taken place.

2 Comments

Filed under science

Science – nostalgia and foresight

got_civilization_magnetFirst some nostalgia for the future!  Need that gift for your nerdy sci fi friend? Underbrain offers T-shirts, mugs and caps with all sorts of logos from David Brin’s Uplift Universe – symbols of the Five Galaxies, dolphins & chimps posing for the Uplift Center, and the Terragens Marines patch! And the Eye-Q symbol for the Quantum Eye oracle computer in Existence. Got civilization? This will ensure that you do!

Ah, but the future used to be so cool! Some of us old timers recall the Sunday newspaper comic “Our New Age“, a shining example of techno-utopian idealism written by Dr. Athelstan Spilhaus between 1958  and 1975. Spilhaus, a distinguished academic whom JFK appointed to help run Worlds’ Fairs, responded to questions about his wide range of activities with the following quotation that I find especially apropos and inspiring:

“I don’t do ‘so many things.’ I do one. I think about the future.” — Athelstan Spilhaus, creator of the Our New Age series of science comic strips in the 1950s. Some of the strip’s predictions – e.g. consulting books electronically at vast distances – were on target.  Less so this one suggesting intelligent trained kangaroos as waiters and butlers by 2056!

== Distributed Science? ==

A sky-monitoring project, called SpaceView, is a Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) program that enrolls the talents of amateur astronomers to help protect American space assets from orbital trash. DARPA has been becoming way, way cool in the last 4 years, sponsoring the Maker Movement and dozens of citizen-empowerment or distributed inventiveness endeavors. This has long been a focus of mine. I quoted DARPA’s  director discussing this, in my graphic novel about citizen-level manufacturing, TINKERERS.

A field that should be especially ripe for this? Distributed SETI! See how the SETI League’s Project Argus would (with help from some millionaire) get 5000 amateur radio telescopes set up around the world, watching the whole sky, instead of a tiny patch at a time.  Nothing could ever sneak up on us!  Take that you nasty UFOs.

And if we ever find nasty science-villains?  Well then. Get yer Heroes of Science action figures! Max Planck! J. Robert Oppenheimer!  Marie Curie! Alas, they’re Photoshopped, and not actual plastic … but perhaps with a Kickstarter campaign they might attain reality? We need double as many, just for starters.  Galileo and Newton and Jonas Salk and Craig Venter and Kip Thorne and Louis Pasteur…. But… but what about sci fi authors? What about scientist sci fi authors?

Take this hero, for example! In Slate: Kim Stanley Robinson shows us the path of reasonableness on geoengineering, or  “terraforming” the Earth.  It should not substitue or reduce a scintilla our determination to do better at not polluting out nest.  But KSR also wisely suggests we should explore one or two ways to have a “Plan B.”

== New Minds on the Horizon ==

The Navy is pondering retiring its program enlisting dolphins and sea lions to do sophisticated security work, finding mines, recovering objects and guarding against sneak attacks. The program is very successful and adaptable and I’ve met some of the animals who are kept healthy by a very extensive — and expensive — infrastructure of support staff. Only now the Navy is building an inventory of underwater robots that can do many of the same things at lower cost.  And yet…some very important studies  and insights have come out of the marine mammal programs. All the dolphins were born there and always come back of their own free will. There’s no program like it. And there may be long range outcomes…

Speaking of which. Ray Kurzweil’s new book, How to Create a Mind: The Science of Human Thought Revealed presents a discussion of artificial intelligence, exploring how the brain works…and how we can reverse engineer the human brain to produce a non-biological brain.

Along those lines…IBM recently announced a simulation of 530 billion neurons, 100 trillion synapses on supercomputer. Of course, all of this assumes that synapses are the only features that must be emulated in the “connectome” to simulate human consciousness. Therer are hints of intra-cellular computing within neurons and astrocytes… but let’s not spoil the celebration.

And the world’s new fastest computer, Titan, housed at Oak Ridge National Laboratory, owes its rapid computing power to graphics processing units (GPUs) — developed for video games.

== Your Potpourri of Cool Advances ==

Only now, extrapolating… a little Uplift anyone? A newly discovered gene appears to have played a crucial role in human brain development and may shed light on how we learned to use tools and language. Apparently, the gene emerged fully functional out of non-coding genetic material, previously termed “junk DNA”, in a startlingly brief interval of evolutionary time. Until now, it has been remarkably difficult to see this process in action. This new molecule sprang from nowhere (or was “donated?) at a time when our species was undergoing dramatic changes: living longer, walking upright, learning how to use tools and how to communicate.

The key thing about disasters is to learn from them and plan to do better next time.  And perhaps the next time a super-storm hits Manhattan — and other urban areas — super-sized balloons will be on-hand to inflate and prevent flooding of transportation tunnels.

New battery-capacitor technology based on graphene: SMCs gets their amazing performance by using a cathode and anode that contain very large graphene surfaces. When fabricating the cell, the researchers put lithium metal (in the form of particles or foil) at the anode. Now, we can expect a lot of news items like this one and the odds are that a majority will be false leads or busts or disappointments.  But the curves are already fantastic.  Next year’s Tesla cars will have vastly improved range and the next year’s will have reduced battery weight. And within five years no one will be wanting internal combustion cars for their commute or drive-around-town car.  Get used to the idea!

Electrochromic windows promise to cut energy costs and respond to inhabitants’ needs with the speed of electric current. A thin layer of tungsten oxide sandwiched between two glass panes can make it shine as-u-like.

New artificial muscles made from nanotech yarns and infused with paraffin wax can lift more than 100,000 times their own weight and generate 85 times more mechanical power than the same size natural muscle.

Hydrogen is an attractive fuel source because it can easily be converted into electric energy and gives off no greenhouse emissions. New results now increase the output and lower cost of current light-driven hydrogen-production systems. The chemists say their work advances what is sometimes considered the “holy grail” of energy science—efficiently using sunlight to provide clean, carbon-free energy for vehicles and anything that requires electricity. Still a long way to go.

Companies that have built multimillion-dollar factories say they are very close to beginning large-scale, commercial production of these so-called cellulosic biofuels, and others are predicting success in the months to come.

Although the overall size and asymmetrical shape of Einstein’s brain were normal, the prefrontal, somatosensory, primary motor, parietal, temporal and occipital cortices were extraordinary. These may have provided the neurological underpinnings for some of his visuospatial and mathematical abilities… and his penchant for “thought experiments” projecting himself into hypothetical realms.

Recall the “OttoDogs” in EXISTENCE? Now comes a detector that uses microfluidic nanotechnology to mimic the biological mechanism behind canine scent receptors. The device is both highly sensitive to trace amounts of certain vapor molecules, and able to tell a specific substance apart from similar molecules.

Three innovative new energy technologies are explored in the current issue of Technology and Innovation — Proceedings of the National Academy of Inventors:

  • Tidal currents and ocean waves that can be recovered using ocean thermal conversion technology.
  • Infrared thermal radiation (more than half of the power provided by the Sun).
  • A new nanophosphor-based electroluminesence lighting device that caters to the exact wavelengths of light required for photosynthesis in indoor, hydroponic agriculture.

== And finally: Science weeps =

Tea Party senatorial candidates (and troglodytes) Todd Akin and Richard Mourdock were not anomalies, alas. It seems that every anti-science cultist in the U.S. House of Representatives GOP Caucus is eager to join the House Science Committee, packing it not only with Climate Change denialists, but men (entirely) who proclaim the Earth to be six or nine thousand years old, who repeat bizarre theories about rape, who decry vaccination, who rail against genetic research and who denounce sciences as diverse as geology, ecology and meteorology. Do not blame the people. The total number of national votes for the two major parties’ congressional  candidates was not won by the GOP.  Blame Gerrymandering.

As I’ve long emphasized, things weren’t always this uniform on the right.  Sure, there were witch hunts against scientists in the 1950s… balanced by the fact that Jonas Salk was the most popular man in America and soon so would be the NASA techies.  And a bipartisan consensus in Congress supported Adm Hyman Rickover’s upheaval of the US Navy to go nuclear. For every idiot decying the inherent inequality of minorities, there was a William F. Buckley inviting great minds on his show.  And not all Republicans helped Big Tobacco and Big Smog do their multli-decade obstruction campaigns. (So similar to climate denialism, today, using some of the same tactics and firms.)

This past diversity among Republicans is illustrated in a fascinating piece in The Chronicle: Why Conservatives turned against science: early environmental issues were bipartisan, by Erik M. Conway and Naomi Oreskes.

Summary: “Climate scientists came under attack not just because their research threatened the oil industry (although it certainly did that), but also because they had exposed significant market failures. Pollution is a market failure because, in general, polluters do not pay a price for environmental damage (and this includes not just polluting industries, like electrical utilities, but also anyone who uses a product—like gasoline—that takes up a portion of the planetary sink without paying for it). Nicholas Stern, a former chief economist at the World Bank, has declared climate change “the greatest and widest-ranging market failure ever seen.”

And this: “Accepting the need to correct market failures required one to concede the need to reform capitalism—in short, to concede the reality of market failure and limits. This became increasingly difficult for Republicans during the 1990s and 2000s. Party leadership began supporting primary challenges against party members deemed insufficiently conservative, driving many moderates into retirement, and some out of the party entirely. Some Republicans who had acknowledged the reality of global warming lost their seats; others—including Mitt Romney—began to deny the problem, knowing that if they didn’t they would not be electable as Republicans….”

Ah, but there is movement elsewhere.  That core institution of international capitalism, the World Bank, has issued a major report examining the likely economic outcomes  (mostly disastrous) expected from Global Climate Change.

Remember, the recent election was not the core event, but a sideshow to the main battle. A “culture war” that was not chosen or started by those who side with science and reason and evidenc-based thinking But it has becomes clear, that kind of thinking — and a civilization that supports it — is fighting for its life. And as the great historian Arnold Toynbee said.  When a society turns its back on its “creative minority”… that is when most kingdoms, nations, empires and commonwealths fail.

Leave a comment

Filed under science

Ocean fertilization? Other palliative measures… and more science!

solveIt’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. [133])

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.

==Technology==

Rollable-foldable electronic devices!  As predicted in EARTH (1989) and in EXISTENCE!

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.

==Physics Miscellany!==

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 WonderlandMIT 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!

1 Comment

Filed under science

Geoengineering the Earth: Should we take aggressive action?

A bipartisan group of scientists and national security experts has recommended further research and testing of extreme geoengineering projects, or climate remediation, to assertively lessen the effects of global warming before it “reaches a tipping point.”

However, the General Accounting Office recently issued a report on varied proposals for geoengineering the Earth — to reduce carbon dioxide, adapt to climate change, and develop strategies for climate intervention. They reviewed current scientific research, and considered such technologies at the present time to be “immature”. The report cautioned that major uncertainties remain on the possible consequences, stating: “Climate engineering technologies do not now offer a viable response to climate change. Experts advocating research to develop and evaluate the technologies believe research might provide an insurance policy against worst case scenarios — but caution that the misuse could bring new risks.” See the abstract from the GAO report.

I don’t disagree with the GAO’s overall conclusion… No proposed geoengineering endeavor scored higher than a 3 out of 9. Research must continue, but zealots should not be empowered when potential side effects are huge.  One experiment that clearly should proceed on an intermediate scale is to create “white cities”… by whitening rooftops in a few warm climate metropolitan areas and see if the effects are positive. The data would be useful, and it’s an inexpensive measure with few conceivable downsides.

And yet, a majority of climate scientists agree that humans are already modifying earth’s climate. Jane Long, director of the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, stated that “We are doing it accidentally….Going forward in ignorance is not an option.”

My biggest complaint? There is one proposed geoengineering project that gets short-shrift in every single appraisal I have seen, and this GAO report is no different. It is the only method that would directly imitate a natural process that is already known to remove megatons of carbon from the air, every year. A natural process that has no negative side effects but dozens of positive ones — like helping to feed the world.  That process is Ocean Fertilization.

Ocean fertilization involves adding micronutrients to the oceans to stimulate biological productivity, which removes carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, sequestering it as sediment in the deep ocean. This could also reverse a widespread decline in phytoplankton, the basis of oceanic food chains. Preliminary trials were highly localized, but indicated that the potential for iron-induced carbon sequestration may be lower than originally hoped – but this has not been systematically pursued.

And yet — can anyone explain to me why the only ocean fertilization experiments were crude, blunt dumping of powdered IRON? How does that emulate nature? Sure it’s a critical bottleneck nutrient. Still, I’ve seen other proposals, such as wave powered, one-way siphons to raise cool, nutrient rich bottom water above the thermocline. Or using wave power to drive bottom-stirrers, sending mud plumes rising — just like what happens off the great fisheries of Peru. (I described such processes in my novel, EARTH, published 1989). The energy profiles may or may not be efficient… we’ll see… but no one can argue that those two don’t emulate precisely the most healthy, wholesome and natural way that the Earth already pulls down megatons of CO2.

Of course, we must beware of unintended consequences of such large scale engineering. Ken Caldera, a climate expert at Stanford University, cautions, “The real question is what are the unknown unknowns: Are you creating more risk than you are alleviating?” We need to be collecting the data that will allow us to make informed decisions.

==Powering the Earth==

One futuristic solution to our energy crisis? Shimizu, a Japanese company, proposes the LUNA RING, a belt of photovoltaic panels placed on the moon’s surface. To avoid launch costs, the solar panels would be constructed on moon, by remote-controlled robots, directly out of lunar soil (which is 23% silicon). Power would be beamed to receiving stations on Earth (220 terawatts annually).

By treaty, any such project on the moon would belong to all nations. I know Dave Criswell who first offered this idea, years ago. If completed, the LUNA RING would represent the most grandiose engineering project in humanity’s history. Not yet feasible, it requires some major breakthroughs. And, frankly, the math may not add up. But it’s the kind of forward-looking thinking that at least stimulates the mind. It reminds us we’re a bold race. A competing concept is Space Based Solar Power — with panels placed in orbit around the earth.

==Technology Updates==

SpaceX has a bold new plan for reusing their Falcon rockets. After upper stages (and cargo) separate, the first stage will re-ignite engines & return to the launch site, slow & land vertically. A process pioneered by the lamented DCX a decade back. This will also let them do test flights – verifying equipment before launch with critical payloads. Even better if you have an island recovery site down-range! Ingenious.

A bacterium that transforms ammonium, an ingredient in urine, into hydrazine, rocket fuel. Apparently NASA lost interest when they realized it would be difficult to generate large quantities of hydrazine.

A new version of Moore’s Law? Koomey’s Law states it’s energy efficiency of computers, not just processing power that doubles every 18 months. Particularly relevant as portable battery-powered portable devices fill our lives. (Brin’s Corollary? CAMERAS get smaller/cheaper/faster/more numerous and mobile even faster than Moore’s Law!)  What’s not keeping up?  Software.  Never has.  Maybe never will.

Exploiting a novel technique called phase discontinuity – etching gold nano-antennas onto silicon – researchers at Harvard have induced light rays to behave in a way that defies the centuries-old laws of reflection and refraction.  Read the sci fi of Wil McCarthy about “programmable matter”…. this is a subset.

You can now hold your brain in the palm of your hand, with this portable brain scanner. For the first time, a scanner powered by a smartphone will let you monitor your neural signals on the go.  Quoth one bright commentator: “And, in the category of things that belong in the novel “Earth”…”

7 Comments

Filed under science