Saturday, July 17, 2010

Innovation

This morning, I read an editorial from the BBC Magazine on America's love of innovation. I typically read such things with trepidation, and today was no exception. In fact, the title (which ended in a preposition) was nearly enough to cull my interest. But I was intrigued by what a Brit might think of American innovation, so I swallowed my initial irritation and read.
Webb begins by explaining that innovation means different things across the Atlantic. That, in Europe and in America, the term itself connotes different meanings, different feelings. The understanding of it is taken in a cultural and social context.
In the New World it is a wholly positive word; it connotes the life-force itself. It speaks of what drives human beings to achieve. It suggests the conquering of disease and ignorance. It is at the core of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.
Of Europe, however, he says:
But innovation per se? Let us get back to you on that; let us see how it really turns out, this innovation of yours. Let us wonder out loud whether change is really necessary or whether in fact the old ways of doing things, stretching back to feudal times, are the best ways.
I began to see what he was getting at, and in my American brain a truth rang loud and clear: sometimes you must take that first blind step away from your comfortable past and toward your unknown future.
Webb continued, drawing (amusingly) on his own "European" past (though most Brits will tell you they loathe to be considered European). A bit of this English snobbery came out:
David Brooks, one of America's finest political commentators, suggested years ago that his countryfolk lived life in the future tense. That imperative to succeed, to see innovation as the core of the way things should be, is an American phenomenon. We Europeans live life at least partly in the past tense. We are fearful and careworn: experience tells us, we say, that this might not work. Americans, sans experience of anything much, reckon it might and reckon as well that it is worth giving it a go. Whatever it is.
I objected - "we have experience!" I thought defensively. But I caught myself and considered, and he's right. We've had wars, but not like Europeans have had wars; we've suffered terrorism, but not like Europeans have; we've had a busy couple hundred years, but they've had a busy couple thousand. It's not that we don't have experience, it's that our collection of it has, admittedly, a lot of catching up to do. That doesn't mean our limited experience is worth less, but only that it is just that - limited.
In the end, Webb even linked the American belief in innovation to our "weird religiosity." While Europeans are content with the empty, passive traditions of their old churches, Americans demand results: "in fact it merely represents, it seems to me, a truth about the [American] nation: the search for God is not just a search in the lazy passive European way: it is a search with an end in sight." And in a strange way, this touched me. My search for meaning in life has always been, and continues to be, almost frantic - every night I fall asleep with an unspoken hope that I can wake again in the morning and continue where I left off, even if I know full well that I may never reach any conclusion. That hunger will never be satiated, and I prefer it that way. If this frenetic, seeking hope is what is meant by innovation, then so be it. It makes me proud to be an American.

And to make a last little jab at the British (I just can't help it) - one commented, "The author is obviously misinformed. We Europeans are always and have always been at the forefront of innovation. We are just incredibly modest about it. A recent study by a Japanese University concluded that over 40% of all modern inventions were invented in Northern Europe with a large majority originating from the UK." The projected population of Europe for last year was about 800 million, whereas the American population is only 300 million. This makes the European "40% of all innovations" a bit piddly, considering all those people... not only that, it completely ignores the fact that many of those inventions were by Europeans who had moved to the US. And having to tell yourself that you're being modest only proves you're not.

Saturday, July 3, 2010

Oil

An interesting thought occurred to me late last night. Thanks to the "smoke and mirrors" nature of ionizing radiation (as well as the newer threat of terrorism), many people fear nuclear power. It is a taboo subject in the US since the 70's, with no new plants built since. But to make my point, I'd like to do a little comparison.

The Three Mile Island incident of 1979 severely hindered nuclear power in the United States, though - rather notably - no one died as a result of the accident. A partial core meltdown accidentally released some radioactivity into the surrounding areas, but, as the Nuclear Regulatory Commission's report explains,
Detailed studies of the radiological consequences of the accident have been conducted by the NRC, the Environmental Protection Agency, the Department of Health, Education and Welfare (now Health and Human Services), the Department of Energy, and the State of Pa.. Several independent studies have also been conducted. Estimates are that the average dose to about 2 million people in the area was only about 1 millirem. To put this into context, exposure from a chest x‑ray is about 6 millirem. Compared to the natural radioactive background dose of about 100‑125 millirem per year for the area [this is more like 300mrem per year for people living in places like Colorado], the collective dose to the community from the accident was very small. The maximum dose to a person at the site boundary would have been less than 100 millirem.
In addition, the effect of such a nuclear "accident" on the surrounding ecosystem was minimal; as the report states,
In the months following the accident, although questions were raised about possible adverse effects from radiation on human, animal, and plant life in the TMI area, none could be directly correlated to the accident. Thousands of environmental samples of air, water, milk, vegetation, soil, and foodstuffs were collected by various groups monitoring the area. Very low levels of radionuclides could be attributed to releases from the accident. However, comprehensive investigations and assessments by several well‑respected organizations have concluded that in spite of serious damage to the reactor, most of the radiation was contained and that the actual release had negligible effects on the physical health of individuals or the environment.
Even the once highly-contaminated Rocky Flats (a Superfund site) is now, 15 years after the start of clean-up, a wildlife refuge.

Now, let's consider the BP oil spill in the Gulf.



According to the various estimates, the spill (now likely far worse than the Exxon Valdez accident) is leaking about 2.5 million gallons of oil per day into the Gulf of Mexico, threatening 400 species of wildlife (30 species of birds), some of which are endangered, and thousands of miles of coastline (including 8 National Parks). 11 people died in the explosion on the Deepwater Horizon rig, 17 more were injured (in fact, chemical explosions have historically and statistically caused more deaths than accidents at nuclear plants: the Chernobyl disaster, by far the worst at a nuclear plant in history, resulted in "fewer than 50" direct deaths according to a joint IAEA/WHO report, whereas the chemical leak at Union Carbide plant in Bhopal resulted in somewhere between 2000 and 15,000 immediate deaths). Cleanup of oil-soaked ecosystems can take years, even decades (in 2007, nearly 20 years after the Exxon Valdez ran aground, an estimated 26,000 gallons of oil still remain mixed into the sandy beaches of Prince William Sound). The economic damage to the area near the Deepwater Horizon spill could end up in the billions of dollars. And while rural families still live successfully within a crow's flight of the defunct Chernobyl plant, a friend of mine in Baton Rouge can smell oil from her house. A Scientific American article on the BP spill concluded that "when an oil spill occurs, there are no good outcomes."

My point is this: we need to fear that which is more dangerous. Our dependence on energy is a given, but we have the power to alter where and how that energy is generated. We can choose nuclear power, wind power, solar power, geothermal power, hydroelectric power. We can choose to cut our ties with oil. And the devastation due to the BP oil spill - especially in comparison to the minimal damage from nuclear accidents, wind turbines, etc - should be the catalyst that we need to make it happen.

Thursday, July 1, 2010

Fireworks


In 1962, on the 9th of July, the US government tested a hydrogen bomb high above our atmosphere. 248 miles above Earth's surface, in fact. Starfish Prime, as it was known, was aimed at answering a few questions about the newly discovered Van Allen belts - trajectories of high energy charged particles that whip around our planet's magnetic field (it is at the poles, where the magnetic field concentrates charged particles from the solar wind, that we get the Aurora phenomena) - among other things. This test was one in a multitude of test explosions, above, on, and even below Earth's surface, conducted by both ourselves and the Russians - but this test was different. It changed things.

The 1.4 megaton explosion created an artificial expansion of the Van Allen belts, creating bands of charged particles, simultaneously glowing red, green (both oxygen) and blue (nitrogen) in the upper atmosphere. Across the Pacific (for hundreds of miles), a surreal light show (similar to the Aurora) graced the skies. It lasted nearly seven minutes. The resultant EMP knocked out electrical systems as far away as Oahu (roughly 800 miles distant). And yet people crowded onto rooftops, decks and verandas to see the spectacle. (All through the Cold War, in fact, people would travel to test sites to witness nuclear blasts; Las Vegas cashed in on much of the "atomic tourism" by designing specific packages to cater for those wishing to view tests at the Nevada test site.)

So this Fourth of July, when you sit in the park watching all of those rainbow-colored chemical explosions a few hundred feet above your head, remember the nuclear explosions conducted decades ago a hundred miles above your head. Celebrating our country's independence is no longer merely a matter of one small piece of history - it should be a memorial of all pieces of our country's history, the triumphant, the humbling, the dirty and the heroic. We didn't invent fireworks - the ancient Chinese did that - but we did invent the nuclear bomb.