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.
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.
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.
I 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:
Can nuclear energy be done responsibly?
What would it take for it to scale up meaningfully?
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.
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.
Pinko bastion spawns capitalist solution to solar financing – Boulder city/county passed the same kind of property-tax based financing of energy efficiency (and solar) improvements on the Nov. ballot too – modeled on Berkeley, but with enabling legislation at the state level (to avoid the kind of lawsuit Berkeley had to fight over whether or not they had the power to issue such bonds). The biggest worry I had in reading the Boulder initiative though, was that they had not yet come up with a good mechanism for ensuring that the improvements which were being proposed (more insulation, solar hot water, whatever) would necessarily save enough energy in order to justify the value of the bond being created. Hopefully they’ve fleshed that metric of value out much better by now (in both Boulder and Berkeley) and it’s not possible to abuse it… otherwise I suspect you’ll get deployment of faddish fixes (e.g. sexy-sexy PV instead of solar hot water, or better insulation, or super-windows, etc) instead of the best energy improvement per dollar invested. (tagged: financecapitalisminvestingenergyefficiencysustainabilitygreensolarberkeleyboulderbonds )
Campaign for a Car-Free Lincoln Park, Pt. 2 – A lack of car-free options for arriving at Lincoln Park, coupled with poorly lit, unsafe parking far away from the park's main attraction means everyone just drives their cars all over the park, on the grass. Across the street, the DMV has a huge parking lot which is totally unused after business hours, which is when the park gets the overwhelming majority of its use. Why not (gasp!) timeshare the DMV lot? Hopefully no small children have to get crushed by the marauding death machines for someone in the state and city government to take this idea seriously. (tagged: carsparkingtransportationurbanplanningdesign )
FlyingConcrete – Beautiful biomimetic architecture. Curving vaulted ceilings and stairways. Rounded sleeping nooks and pillars like trees. Traditional rectilinear construction is so boring. This is lightweight concrete (cement with perlite, pumice, and other lightweight filler added instead of sand and gravel) laid up on a mesh that's been shaped such that when the cement hardens, it's a load bearing compressive structure. (tagged: architectureartconcretedesignconstructionbuildingssculpture )
Transparency means nothing without justice – Government transparency is necessary, but not sufficient. If police violence is recorded and publicized, and nobody cares, it doesn't matter. This is in come sense emblematic of the coup in western propaganda. You don't need to control the media as the Soviets did or the Chinese do, if your population is comfortable enough not to care what's happening out there to someone else, and if their voting patterns are firmly tied to other issues (especially social issues like abortion), the idea of a democratic revolt becomes fairly abstract. I think this where a lot of the government's fear of economic recessions comes from. When people are out of work, or even hungry, suddenly they become a lot more excitable. (tagged: transparencylawpolicepoliticstechnologyinternet )
Condensing steam without water – Concentrating solar thermal power stations are ultimately designed to run a steam turbine, just like a gas-fired power plant. That means they need water (to turn into steam). Problematically, most such plants use water as a condensing coolant (70% of Caltech's water usage is as coolant for our 14MW worth of gas-fired power)… which is going to be hard to come by in the desert, where CSP will be built. Thankfully, there's a way to recondense steam without using a water coolant – but it does require a huge cooling tower. Not so great in Pasadena, but probably fine in the Mojave, next to acres and acres of mirrors. (tagged: solarenergytechnologysustainabilitygreenelectricitywater )
Rousing a Latent Defense Mechanism to Fight HIV – It turns out there is a gene in humans that produces a protein which inhibits infection by HIV, but it has a mutation – a premature stop codon – which prevents it from being effectively synthesized. This mutation doesn't exist in most Old World monkeys (and that's apparently why they can't get HIV). Undoing the mutation allows the protein to be synthesized, and grants HIV immunity to human cells. I imagine that undoing bad mutations like this, and our inability to synthesize vitamin C, might be the first place we see human germ-line engineering outside of disease avoidance (preventing e.g. cystic fibrosis). Really, these mutations are hard to distinguish from genetic diseases – they're just diseases that we, as a species, have learned to live with. (tagged: geneticengineeringhivaidsbiologyscienceresearchplosmedicine )
Anna in the Middle East – Anna Baltzer is a Jewish American who got a Fulbright fellowship to live in the West Bank in 2005, and document the experiences of Palestinians. She's been giving presentations about it ever since. Some parts of her presentation are available via YouTube too. From the 15 minutes I watched she seemed like a level headed critic. She's speaking in Boulder and Denver in May. (tagged: israelpalestinepoliticsfulbrightpeacewar )
Twitter + Stimulus = Humans are Gullible – A wonderful demonstration of the power of the confirmatory bias. Twitter is the perfect platform for the injection of random falsehoods. Too short for citations. Instantaneous distribution. Make sure your followers are predisposed to agree with what you say, and you can get them to believe just about anything – within that constraint. Too bad the author seems to think this only applies to conservatives. (tagged: politicstwitterstatisticspropaganda )