Archive for the ‘Science & Technology’ Category

Look… up in the sky…

October 9, 2008 18 comments

John McCain’s trying to score political points; I understand that.  But on more than one occasion, he’s done so by showing that, after all, science doesn’t really matter to him.  He’s mocked the bear genetics study and just last week dismissed a planetarium projector as “an overhead projector”.  It’s not just a political fib, it’s a destructive lie.  Here, take a look at an example of what the candidate called “an overhead projector”.

Planetarium projectors are marvels of engineering and science in themselves, and over their approximately 40-year lifespan they can introduce hundreds of thousands of people to scientific wonders of our cosmos.  In our country, slipping as we are in so many areas of education, we need to let children know that something lies over the horizon.  And since most of our nation’s children live in brightly-lit urban areas, they may never truly see the night sky in its immensity, any other way.

“Never before was an instrument created which is so instructive as this; never before one so bewitching; and never before did an instrument speak so directly to the beholder. The machine itself is precious and aristocratic… The planetarium is school, theater, and cinema in one classroom under the eternal dome of the sky.”
- Elis Stromgren

Kids won’t be driven to stick to the toughest science and mathematics studies by the prospect of some unimaginable and unimaginably distant job in industry.  They need serious inspiration – the kind that lifts the soul above today’s discomfort and tomorrow’s obstacles.  They need museums and planetariums and chemistry classes and science programming and nature field trips.  And we need them to have those things. 

Obama gets it: he has been endorsed by 63 Nobel Prize winners in the sciences.  If we’re ever going to dig ourselves out of the economic hole in which we find ourselves, it won’t happen by plodding along with our eyes on the sidewalk.  We need to look farther ahead than that.

And there’s something else just as important as innovation and economic development.  Bill Clinton put it this way: “People the world over have always been more impressed by the power of our example than by the example of our power.”  It’s one thing not to put your light under a bushel, but you need to keep it burning, too.


Categories: Science & Technology

Offshore drilling is the answer

September 14, 2008 10 comments

Ike pays a visit to the Land Of Lincoln

September 14, 2008 2 comments

Hurricane Ike has settled down to a huge storm system making its way across the heartland, and it’s been on top of us for the last several hours.  I have some water in my basement, an inconvenience the abatement of which is not how I wanted to spend my Sunday.  But check out these pictures… I’d feel silly complaining to the residents of Galveston.  Something tells me a wet-vac and a little profanity isn’t going to fix it for them.

Bloomberg reports that oil production in the area is pretty much shut down.  Joseph at Corpus Callosum points out that we shouldn’t become complacent when the “Ike Spike” in fuel prices finally comes down:

My suggestion: whatever you do to adapt to the shortages, please keep doing that, even after the shortages are alleviated.  There will be a spike in shortages after Ike.  Then things will seem to return to normal.  But it is not really a spike; it’s a preview.

“It is not really a spike, it’s a preview”.  Oil demand is rising worldwide, and production is leveling off.  What’s that old saying?  “A word to the wise is sufficient.” 

The ecological cost of subsidies

September 13, 2008 5 comments

The declining condition of our fisheries is in large part due to the floating factories that pass for fishing boats now.  Using unsustainable methods, they “sweep the sea clean”, as The Simpson’s Montgomery Burns likes to say.

But it doesn’t have to be that way.  Turns out those monster fishing boats depend on subsidies granted for political, rather than economic or ecological reasons.  Shifting Baselines has the story: Funding Priorities: Big Barriers to Small-scale Fisheries

Small-scale fisheries use much less fuel than industrial fisheries. They also discard fewer fish, convert almost none of their catch into fishmeal (to feed farmed fish, pigs, and chicken), and favor the use of labor over capital. Despite these more ‘sustainable’ traits, small-scale fisheries are disadvantaged by subsidies that go to industrial fishing fleets and keep big boats out on the water. This bias occurs because, as Daniel Pauly says, “small-scale fishers don’t golf.”

The differential in resource efficiency between large and small fisheries is really quite striking – go check it out.

If we stopped all long-term production subsidies tomorrow, corn would still be grown, cars would still be built, oil would still be pumped out of the ground, minerals would still be mined, and fish would still be caught.  If any specific commodity cost more, at least consumers would pay for it directly instead of through taxes.

This would leave short-term subsidies, intended to weather a crisis or jump-start an industry deemed important for whatever reason.  And those subsidies, like a gallon of (subsidized) milk, should have expiration dates on them.

LHC Webcams

September 11, 2008 3 comments

From my friend Pete:

Some live web cams of the Large Hadron Collider in Switzerland. Pretty boring stuff…but thought you’d enjoy it.

He’s right, I geek out on this kind of stuff.

Categories: Science & Technology

Fungible innovation

September 7, 2008 4 comments

We learn about Sir David King, former UK Chief Scientist making a remarkably stupid point in the BBC report, “Climate Crisis needs brain gain”.  He really doesn’t seem to understand how innovation works:

“It’s all very well to demonstrate that we can land a craft on Mars, it’s all very well to discover whether or not there is a Higgs boson (a potential mass mechanism); but I would just suggest that we need to pull people towards perhaps the bigger challenges where the outcome for our civilisation is really crucial.”

He wonders; “What if Tim Berners-Lee were working in a Solar Power laboratory?

Well, Sir King, then we’d have neither solar cells or the world wide web.  Intelligence isn’t fungible like oil; you can’t just pour it into a tanker and move it to another field. If anything, it may be impossible to solve the climate crisis without the collaborative properties enabled by the World Wide Web.  And space exploration has let us learn about the climate on other worlds, and put instruments in a position to gather vital data from our own.  To say nothing of spinoff energy and materials’ technologies.

I have no idea what practical use the LHC will turn out to be; maybe nothing.  But it’s 10 billion dollars, or just about a month of funding the Iraq war.  Seems like a small price for a chance to pull back the curtain on physical reality.  There’s no telling where that knowledge could lead.

King also appears to be assuming there are a fixed number of great scientists in the world.  But billions of people toil in poverty.  How many of them are potential physicists, chemists, biologists, or computer scientists?  Do something about the poverty.

I agree we need to prioritize climate research.  Simply observing that environmental catastrophe is a national defense issue should do the trick.  If you think Al Queda is a threat to our civilization, just wait until you see what Mother Nature can do when you really get her pissed off.  That should open the spigots of Pentagon funding and push things along a bit.

But the main issue isn’t even technological; it’s social.  We already have the technologies to solve most of the climate crisis.  We also have a population that doesn’t understand it is real; wouldn’t walk 20 steps to recycle an aluminum can and save 700 watt-hours.  That’s the “bigger problem” King should be thinking about.  In some ways, a much tougher problem to solve.

Categories: Science & Technology

Gustav looks really bad - UPDATE

August 30, 2008 4 comments

Update: it probably did a lot of damage but nothing like what they were worried about.  Expect to hear a lot of second-guessing about the evacuation orders.  Hopefully now the RNC can get on with the important business of making Sarah Palin come across as a better Veep choice than Joe Biden.

Original post: I don’t know how accurate these predictions are but three days out, they’re saying Gustav is headed straight for New Orleans.  Any chance it will just get to the middle of the Gulf, decide it likes the view and stay there and not hit land?

Mayor Nagin, whatever his shortcomings, can apparently read the writing on the wall.  He says everybody in New Orleans had better hit the road before Gustav shows up.  Even emergency personnel – if you’re dumb enough to stay, you are on your own.

Except, according to the BBC, fewer than 50 city employees will remain.  What could possibly be important enough to require somebody to hang around while the city gets hit by a Cat 5 hurricane?  And what could they possibly do, except not die, if they’re lucky?  Seriously, I want to know.


  • Might hit 2am Monday, a cat4

  • Cajun updates the preparations that his company (think energy infrastructure) are making.  This makes for very interesting reading when you consider the amount of industry in the Gulf.  And in his updates #2 he discusses the difficult logic of evacuation.  In Sunday Evening update #6 he says the storm has veered West and will hit a marshland area “containing mostly frogsh*t and seeweed”, but also a lot of oil infrastructure that was “built with hurricanes in mind”.  But power will probably be out for a week so “expect a bump a bump at the pump”.


Charcoal and topsoil loss

August 24, 2008 6 comments

When I read stories like “Where Food Begins” I want to add National Geographic to the president’s reading list. Because, his one-page “intelligence briefings” just aren’t doing the job.  Here’s a real, tangible threat to national and global security – one we can do something about for very little money (but which the free market won’t fix) – so you’d think that “conservatives” would want to do something about it.

Turns out, the ancient Amazonians knew how to do something about it.  They systematically buried pottery and charcoal in their fields over a two thousand year period.  Weird, but get this – the result was rich soil six feet deep instead of 8 inches like the rest of the Amazon basin.  And if we did something similar in our mechanized fields, we could lock up enough carbon in the soil to offset a huge chunk of our carbon dioxide output in the bargain. 

See also:

Awesome lightning pictures

August 10, 2008 3 comments

Chicago had an unusually intense lightning storm a few nights ago, and Chicago Tribune readers sent in their pictures.  Beautiful, amazing stuff.

Damn, now we’ll never find out

August 6, 2008 1 comment

BBC News reports that NASA is promising to share what they’ve found on Mars and what it probably means for the question of life there.  Unfortunately they told the White House first, and now they’re “promising” to be up-front about it.

Crap.  And I really wanted to know.

Maybe they found little green men holding “Obama!” signs…

Categories: Science & Technology