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Science Friday: creation, pain, plastics, energy technology and disaster preparedness

November 16, 2007

Just a few unrelated cool items this week:

  • John Scalzi visited the Creation Museum in Petersburg, Kentucky, and suffice to say, he had a lot of fun.  Oh, you could probably skip the first few paragraphs where he compares it to equine excrement, but it was apparently worth every penny of the $27m they spent trying to present the first chapter of Genesis as a science textbook. Be sure to take the photo tour.

  • Of considerable interest to me is the use of brain imaging studies to understand chronic pain.  Of course this is early stuff but it turns out there are structural differences in the brains of chronic pain sufferers.  It might suggest future research directions.  Maybe they’ll come up with really effective treatments by the time it just doesn’t matter anymore, at least to me.
  • What to do with all that excess carbon dioxide?  How about make plastic with it?  Someone found out how to use a zinc-based catalyst to use CO2 as a feedstock at low temperatures and pressures.  Thing is, even if we made all our roads and buildings and trains and cars and houses out of CO2 plastic, it would hardly make a dent.  At least it’s biodegradable, which I assume means it would produce methane.  Oh well, it is still a very cool technology and may lead to other things.  A startup has venture capital to build a pilot program using the new process.
  • In a country where ‘high ground’ means getting up on top of a car, it looked like cyclone Sidr was going to cause mass casualties like the one in the 1970’s that killed a half-million people.  But preparations have been made since then and even though huge destruction is occurring, it looks like loss of life will be much less this time around.  Maybe FEMA could learn something from them about preparation, since the agency started economizing on preparedness when the current administration took over from Clinton.
  • BBC has a neat animated page on hurricanes and cyclones (same thing).  On slide 8 you can see the damage differential for different levels.  Sidr made landfall as a 5 and dropped to a 3 inline – still no joke where high ground is rare and reinforced structures in the minority.
  • Here’s an idea I just love – spherical solar cells.  Tiny ones, each in its own itty-bitty scale hexagonal reflector.  It uses one-fifth the amount of silicon as conventional cells, should have better efficiency, and goes on a flexible foil substrate.  They are going on sale now, and the goal is to make them half the price of conventional cells by 2010. 
    Why is this so cool?  First because using less silicon will reduce the carbon imprint and lower costs.  But also because they can be shaped to anything, like the roof of a car or tiles on a house.  The sun has been dumping free energy on us all this time, and we should start snagging it.
  • Oh, one other thing: the new IPCC report is due out soon and it looks bad.  But hey, let’s keep denying and evading and stalling. 

  1. November 17, 2007 at 00:02 | #1

    OK, those solar cells are too cool for words!  I sense this to be the breakthrough in PV cells that I’ve been anticipating … or at least a great first step.

  2. james old guy
    November 17, 2007 at 13:24 | #2

    It seems the IPPC has some members who do not share the same view.

  3. Lucas
    November 17, 2007 at 14:01 | #3

    Creation museum—incredibly funny.

    CO2 plastic – This sounds like it’s in no way a solution to global warming (in requires premade epoxides, which probably have a high carbon footprint), but it may reduce the cost of my polycarbonate lenses next time I get glasses.

  4. November 17, 2007 at 14:20 | #4

    It would be very odd (and a bit suspicious) if a group that large did not contain a contrarian or two.  And while it is tempting to speculate that Christy’s odd background (how many former Baptist missionaries also have a PhD in atmospheric science?) affects his scientific judgment, it really just boils down to a question of “how much?”

    Christy has said:

    It is scientifically inconceivable that after changing forests into cities, turning millions of acres into irrigated farmland, putting massive quantities of soot and dust into the air, and putting extra greenhouse gases into the air, that the natural course of climate has not changed in some way.

    His main disagreement with the rest of the panel is the question of how much certainty to attach to the predictions.  And here I feel pretty comfortable saying; “OK, here’s a scientist who agrees with the basic premise of his panel but says the expressed degree of certainty is too high.  We can’t afford to ignore the catastrophe that the other scientists predict.”

    We should be showing leadership on a very likely threat instead of searching for loopholes with a microscope.  New technology is a good opportunity to get rich anyway. Carbon-burning is old and busted.

  5. james old guy
    November 17, 2007 at 14:56 | #5

    The majority of scientist said the earth was flat and then that the sun orbited the earth. I am not saying the climate isn’t changing, it is always changing. How much man has to play in this global climate change has become and emotional issue with very little hard data to back up a lot of political issues. Its and easy card to play just like education,the actual data can be read a thousand different ways and bent to any point of view. The actual issue is how come up with a alternative energy source since the one we are currently using is a limited supply.

  6. November 17, 2007 at 15:48 | #6

    Simply not true.  The ancient Greeks not only knew the world was round, they worked out its diameter to within reasonable accuracy.  Not bad since they lacked the instruments to derive the true structure of the solar system.  But the errors of church officials in the middle ages don’t have a lot to do with our present predicament. Other than providing a red herring for argument.

    It is also not true that there’s any lack of data on global warming.  There’s lots of data, and even the super-religious Christy agrees that the data shows man is affecting the climate.  He is just not sure how much.  Or doesn’t want to be sure.

    Of course, we could be really sure, if we’d launch the DSCOVR satellite to make real measurements of the Earth’s albedo from space.  The satellite is already built, can provide a real answer on the hottest issue of the day, and other nations have offered to launch it for us since the Bush administration has it socked away in a warehouse.  I can only conclude they don’t want to know.  and they don’t want anyone else to know, either.

  7. james old guy
    November 18, 2007 at 12:59 | #7
  8. November 18, 2007 at 13:42 | #8

    Yes, everyone is aware that there have been huge climate swings due to natural causes, like comet impacts, mega-volcanoes (Yellowstone for one) and other reasons.  If one of those happens we’re totally screwed, game over and damn we’re out of quarters.  But why trigger one ourselves?  In another couple generations, we’ll even be able to prevent the other kind.  It would be ironic to screw it up now.

    On a related note, does it bother you to speculate that the worlds’ scientists are in on some huge grant-money-driven conspiracy (an idea which makes every scientist I know double over with laughter) and then ignore the carbon-energy funding connection to the major “climate-skeptic” think-tanks and lobbying organizations?

  9. Lucas
    November 18, 2007 at 16:12 | #9

    “The majority of scientist said the earth was flat and then that the sun orbited the earth. I am not saying the climate isn’t changing, it is always changing.”

    Flat?  This is mostly a myth: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Flat_Earth_mythology

    Indeed, a round earth is essential to Ptolemaic astronomy, a theory which was universally accepted for about 2000 years.  It wasn’t accepted because it seemed like a good idea, it was accepted because it was incredibly accurate—substantially more so than Copernicus’ theory was at the beginning.  How this frequently cited canard says anything bad about science continues to amaze me.  It’s as though you’re saying:

    “Well, scientists used to believe a theory which was almost as accurate at making predictions as our current theory, but had the wrong underlying structure.  Our current theory is better.  Therefore, we shouldn’t listen to scientists.”

    I don’t quite see the logic.

  10. November 18, 2007 at 22:06 | #10

    Lucas:  It’s not about logic for those who, emotionally, want to not accept responsibility.  It’s really easy to be an ostrich.  It’s just that when there is a whole world wide web available, one can create sites that mix pseudo-science with the sand in which one’s head is buried.

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