Education will not be fixed, it will evolve

It seems like there have been calls to “fix” our education system in the US for decades.  The Apollo program’s Saturn V engines were largely built by young engineers and scientists.  Their educations were influenced by the Sputnik-inspired National Defense Education Act of 1958, which despite its codified McCarthyism was probably a good thing.  Those kids of my parents’ generation were probably also directly inspired by Sputnik, and the Amazing Stories of Arthur C. Clarke and Isaac Asimov.  Even my Seventh Day Adventist dad wanted to study physics in college, until he encountered the associated math.

Sputnik 1

If it takes a Sputnik moment to “fix” education, we may be out of luck this time around.

This burst of attention to (and funding for) science and mathematics education was, like the entire Apollo program, the product of a nationalist fear that we were “falling behind” the Soviets.  Despite Thomas Friedman’s ongoing attempts to frame China’s production and adoption of clean energy technologies and as a modern Sputnik Moment, I doubt it’s in the cards.  Not without some pretty dramatic focusing moment, and not without exiling the fossil fuel industries from US politics.  It’s also just not the same kind of story as your newly atomic ideological arch nemesis lobbing rocks over your territorial boundaries, well out of reach.  We will not be terrified by China’s solar panels, nor even, it seems, by their monopoly on the production of rare earths.

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Into Eternity by Michael Madsen

I am now in this place where you should never come.  We call it Onkalo.  Onkalo means hiding place.  In my time it is still unfinished, though work began in the 20th century when I was just a child.  Work will be completed in the 22nd century, long after my death.  Onkalo must last 100,000 years. Nothing built by man has lasted even a tenth of that time span.  But we consider ourselves a very potent civilization.

If we succeed, Onkalo will most likely be the longest lasting remains of our civilization.  If you, some time far into the future find this, what will it tell you about us?

It isn’t often that you find people seriously thinking about deep time in a concrete way.  Usually it’s abstract, just a thought experiment, not an engineering problem or a gut wrenching moral quandry.  But this is apparently not the case for the Scandinavians who have taken on the task of storing their spent nuclear fuel.  Finland has decided to go forward with permanent storage, in a typically responsible, deliberate, earnest Nordic way.

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Links for the week of February 26th, 2010

If you want to follow my shared links in real time instead of as a weekly digest, head over to Delicious. You can search them there easily too.
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Nuclear Energy by David Bodansky

Nuclear Energy by David BodanskyI just finished David Bodansky’s 600+ page tome Nuclear Energy.  It’s almost a textbook, but not quite.  I don’t know who the intended audience is really.  Other than me.  Similar genre, broadly, as The High Cost of Free Parking.  A comprehensive overview of a technical topic, for those with a long attention span and no fear of numbers.  I decided to read the book because of the recent turn toward nuclear power that some environmentalists have taken.  There are many publics that react strongly, and negatively, to the idea, but I don’t trust public sentiment to be rational any more than I can manipulate it.  Bodansky did an admirable job of remaining neutral throughout the book, on a topic that almost universally devolves into something resembling a religious debate.  As a result of this reading, I’m much more positive (or rather, less negative) about nuclear energy than I was before.  I think that my position, which I hope can count as an informed one, now closely resembles that of Ralph Cavanagh, as articulated in this debate with Peter Schwartz hosted by the Long Now Foundation.

The main questions I had coming into the book were:

  1. Can nuclear energy be done responsibly?
  2. What would it take for it to scale up meaningfully?
  3. How would it compare in costs and risks to renewable energy sources, if it were done responsibly at scale?

The answers I came away with were that yes, it probably can be done responsibly, and at the scale necessary for it to be meaninful as a long term source of primary power globally.  However, if it were to scale up responsibly in the long term, it seems that the associated costs would likely end up being greater than for renewable energy sources.  So I guess I’m supportive of having the so-called “nuclear option” on the table, in competition with any other carbon free power source, with the significant caveat that the cost of the nuclear power being considered correspond to a responsible, long term, large scale deployment.  The scenario I foresee needing to be avoided is ending up with an unfair comparison, between short-term and/or irresponsible and/or non-scalable nuclear power, and renewables — especially renewables as priced before the solar power industry has obtained whatever economies of scale there are to be had in their niche.  One might be able to make a persuasive argument that we need to use nuclear power as a bridge between fossil fuels and renewables at scale, but I haven’t heard that argument made yet.

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Genes are sentences and genomes books

It’s really a pleasure to talk to smart people who don’t have any idea what you’re talking about.  I think it forces you to come up with the best analogies and metaphors.  The most essential explanations.  It turned out that Sally read my post on watching the Long Now synthetic biology debate, and so she went and watched it too.  We talked about it on and off over a walk today, and I ended up making this analogy, which I liked a lot.

Every gene is like a sentence.  It’s the smallest unit of biology that expresses a meaningful biological idea, in the same way that it’s hard to say something interesting without constructing a whole sentence.  Of course, more complex ideas require many sentences to convey, and similarly, metabolic pathways require many genes to encode.  A genome is like a whole book, conveying a large system of interconnected biological ideas into a coherent entity.

Synthetic biology is the business, or art, of writing new biological books, using only sentences that you copied from somewhere else.  It’s as if you were given the complete works of Shakespeare, and told to write a new play, using only his own lines, but reorganized however you saw fit.  With a big enough library of books, it would be possible to pick and choose sentences, paragraphs, or entire sections or chapters, to convey pretty much any idea of your own, in someone else’s words, especially if your idea had anything to do with love, or loss, or war, or the human condition in general.  As it is now, we’re just making variations on a theme, inserting whole chapters from Moby Dick into some tract by Nietzsche or a poem by Lao Tze, but we’ll get more subtle and creative as time goes on.

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