Monday, March 21, 2011

Scientific illiteracy and the Chevy Volt

Electric cars are quite popular these days... both in the public eye and in government. But I see this, not as good news, but as proof that those entities (the general public and government) are being fed misinformation. It's a demonstration of this country's scientific illiteracy that electric cars are so big. Sure, cars that don't need gas to generate power are great... but where does the power for the electric car come from?
Has anyone ever done a study of the complete fuel-cycle path for a gasoline-powered car and an electric car? Taking into account efficiencies for oil extraction, oil refinement, petroleum/gasoline distribution, and internal combustion engines on one hand, and efficiencies for oil/coal/gas/nuclear mining, electricity generation, electricity distribution, battery manufacture and electric motor performance on the other, and working out the difference? It could be that electric cars are, as a net effect, worse for the environment. But this is what science can tell us, and it's the important piece of the puzzle that seems to have simply been neglected.
In any case, I'm pretty proud of my fifteen-year-old Corolla. I get 32mpg city and 36mpg highway, without even trying, and at a minimal maintenance cost. And as soon as someone actually develops the Mr. Fusion, I'll have one of those instead.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

A note on Fukushima

With all of the sensationalist scare-mongering that takes place in the news, I have been remiss in providing a voice of reason (for the sake of reason, I encourage you to actually follow and read all of the included links). Of course, I do not wish to underestimate the magnitude of the disaster in Japan - the quake appears to be the largest in Japan's recorded history - and I feel it is a testament to the ingenuity and foresight of the Japanese people that more people have not lost their lives. But something must be said to cease the propagation of the "nuclear myth" in the face of the reactor accidents at Japan's Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant. In fact, a friend and colleague pointed out yesterday that Wolf Blitzer was debating the safety of nuclear reactors with an expert in nuclear engineering*... and so I must say something.

First off, let's begin with the facts (and nothing else!). One of the reactors (a GE Mark 1 Boiling Water Reactor) at Tokyo Electric Power Company's Fukushima Daiichi plant lost its emergency cooling system because of the tsunami resulting from Saturday's anomalously strong earthquake. The reactor was shut down safely and according to protocol, but because nuclear fuel is so energy-dense (in other words, you get lots of energy out of the amount of material you have), the fuel rods were very hot. This isn't something specific to nuclear reactors, either - when you burn coal, it gets so hot that it turns red. The heating itself is not a nuclear process, but instead a byproduct of energy production. Now, this isn't usually a problem, because a constant supply of cooling water keeps the heat of the fuel under control. But in this specific instance, because of the catastrophic earthquake and tsunami, power to the cooling water was knocked out, and the backup generators were also damaged (keep in mind, before trying to point out that these kinds of things should be designed to withstand a disaster, that it wasn't just the plant - power to hundreds of thousands of people along Japan's northeast coast was lost). So because of the sheer enormity of the quake, it was exceedingly difficult for the workers at the plant to restore power to the cooling water systems. Cut them some slack, folks. This earthquake managed to shift the whole of Japan. No kidding.
So while the cooling water was off, the fuel rods - which are uranium (the nuclear part) coated in zirconium (for chemical protection) - were still hot, and unfortunately hot enough to essentially catch fire. The zirconium coating (not the uranium) burned in the presence of the oxygen in air, creating zirconium oxide (basically ash) and hydrogen gas. The hydrogen gas built up in the cooling water pumping system (which was not full of water, as it should be) and eventually reached a critical limit where it caused an explosion. Again - and I cannot stress this enough - THE EXPLOSION WAS NOT NUCLEAR, IT WAS CHEMICAL.
Japan opted to act on the safe side and evacuate a region around the plant, as they worked out innovative ways to prevent more damage by pumping seawater into the reactor to cool it. While flooding the reactor vessels with water could potentially (and it appears did) cause additional pressure buildup - more hydrogen gas, as well as steam - the mass of water would cool the reactor fuel to the point that it was no longer a potential danger. That was a judgment call, and it's difficult to tell, even with the subsequent explosions, whether it was the right move or the wrong one.

Now, for some commentary. First of all, the reactors in question are about forty years old - just old enough to have been designed before all of the lessons could be learned from Chernobyl and Three Mile Island. While that's true, however, they were built to the rigorous specifications of the day, such that
"The likelihood there will be a huge fire like at Chernobyl or a major environmental release like at Chernobyl, I think that's basically impossible," said James F. Stubbins, a nuclear energy professor at the University of Illinois.
This is really important, as it speaks directly one of the main tenets of the nuclear myth: nuclear energy is not safe. The number of nuclear reactor-related disasters worldwide can be counted on one hand, but because the word "nuclear" carries such a strangely voodoo-esque connotation, we think three disasters = unsafe. Think of all of the reactors out there which haven't failed. Think of the total number of hours they've been running in the last forty years. Statistically, nuclear energy is far safer than the more traditional oil, gas and coal plants (in fact, here are some of those stats), for many reasons (some of which may surprise you). And even radiation is not as scary or risky as you might think, as has been recently explained by a colleague of mine.
We don't need to look too far in order to see the magnitude of the imbalance: just a short distance along Japan's east coast is the Cosmo Oil refinery at Chiba, which on Saturday was consumed by flames due to the quake. Guess what? It's now Tuesday, and the fire at Chiba is still burning. But this apparently isn't as newsworthy as the word nuclear. And the fact that the news is enough to send stock markets all over the map is itself a disgusting and disappointing result.

So I'm making a stand for the future of nuclear energy. It's safe. It's reliable. It's clean. It's efficient. These things were true a week ago. And all of these things are still true.

What we need to be doing right now is not selling Japanese yen on the forex markets or buying shares in solar energy - we need to be helping the Japanese people recover.

*Wolf, you are yet another example of the reason so many people in the US distrust science and scientists, and you're contributing to the scientific illiteracy of the public. What right do you have as a reporter to debate an expert in a specific field? The reason you've brought them on the show to begin with is to provide expert opinion - and an expert, by definition, is someone who knows more about a given subject than probably anyone else. That includes you. This expert has spent his or her entire life studying the topic in question, and yet you, who has known nothing but the basic generalities of the topic for a mere seventeen minutes, think you're qualified to argue over the details? Shame on you. Of course an expert's opinion shouldn't be taken as gospel, so to speak, but it should be given the credence it rightly deserves. You, on the other hand, are a news reporter. Your job (strange as it may seem) is to report the news. Not debate it.
As someone rather eloquently stated the other day, "we call them 'news anchors' because they're slowly drowning us all."

Monday, March 7, 2011

Physicists and the future of humanity

Among my colleagues, being a jack-of-all-trades is absolutely necessary.

If you wish for someone to work with computers, we will debug your C++ code, interface your data acquisition system hardware with the software, design parts in CAD, write and run a monte carlo simulation and produce a beautifully formatted LaTeX file of our results. When you ask how, we will simply say, "I'm a physicist, I have to do it."

If you wish for someone to work hands-on with equipment, we will mount your expensive detectors, cable them and apply high voltage, set up a rack of power supplies and electronics modules, design and build a vacuum chamber, machine special components, mount all of the pumps with flanges and valves and power and cooling water, leak check the whole thing, stick targets on a ladder inside the middle and align them all perfectly. When you ask how, we will simply say, "I'm a physicist, I have to do it."

If you wish for someone to do chemistry, we will dissolve deuterated polyethylene in a p-xylene solution, spin the solution onto glass slides, float the films in water and mount them to target frames. When you ask how, we will simply say, "I'm a physicist, I have to do it."

If you wish for someone to do statistical analysis, we will compile our data and apply every rule, fit Gaussians and high-order polynomials and Lorentzian curves with low-energy tails, calculate systematic and statistical uncertainties due to innumerable contributions, display the data in curves, histograms, contours and scatter plots, and propagate the results through multiple steps of analysis. When you ask how, we will simply say, "I'm a physicist, I have to do it."

If you wish for someone to present, we will gather by the few or by the hundreds at international conferences, discuss and debate and cooperate and compete, write interesting and understandable posters and talks, publish proceedings, and organize the next conference somewhere else. When you ask how, we will simply say, "I'm a physicist, I have to do it."

If you wish for someone to handle money, we will write grant proposals, estimate budget shortfalls, purchase everything from two-cent pens to $200,000 compressors and million-dollar detector systems, operate facilities on tight budgets, and report our usage to the appropriate oversight committees. When you ask how, we will simply say, "I'm a physicist, I have to do it."

If you wish for someone to be an advocate, we will set up a website, twitter and facebook accounts for the cause, write dozens of letters to Congress and Senate (or Parliament and Ministry, or...), lobby on the Hill on our own dime, sign petitions for the cause, and get our peers to do the same. When you ask how, we will simply say, "I'm a physicist, I have to do it."

We are computer scientists, electricians, plumbers, machinists, financiers, construction workers, babysitters, debuggers, public speakers, beta-testers, lobbyists, drones, mathematicians, writers, illustrators, and thinkers. This is what it is to be a physicist. And this is why humanity needs us.

Friday, March 4, 2011

When science isn't enough

I'd like to begin with an example.

When we teach children mathematics, we start at the very bottom: simple addition and subtraction, 2+2 and 5-3. We move on to multiplication and division and describing geometry in simple, qualitative terms (circle, triangle, parallelogram). The next step is to make easy abstractions: instead of 2+2 = x, we move the unknown to the left hand side of the equation and make 2+x=4 instead. With increasing difficulty in algebra and trigonometry, we increase the level of abstraction: 5.9x+y = 14, tan(z) = 0.24. Soon, we reach pre-calc (also known as infinite series and limits), calculus, then perhaps (if we continue) multidimensional calculus, multi-variable calculus, complex math (you know - square root of -1), and finally topologies, gauge theories and group theories, with their beautifully simple – but completely abstract – symmetries. Once we've reached this point, we suddenly realize that the basic algebra we began with was merely a specific, small-scale example of the larger group theory we've come to know. In essence, we begin with the specific and concrete, and end with the general and abstract.
Once we've learned the abstraction, the powerful general theory, it's not unreasonable to ask: why don't we start with this? I've argued this before – that we should start teaching children group theory, and then specialize (this is how we teach college/graduate level physics, after all – what's more specialized than your thesis project?) to algebra. It's not too difficult for children to be taught group theory. We just think so because we're accustomed to being taught group theory at a very, very high academic level. But that's just cultural ingraining.
But there is a reason that children are taught math this way, and it's because this – the progression from specific, concrete example to general, abstract theory – is how the human brain works. At a very fundamental level, humans are "built" to abstract from specific, real-world, experiential examples. And this fact can be found built-in at the deepest level to the "scientific method."
The scientific method, that invention above all inventions, that way which is supposed to be the most logical, reasonable, unbiased and objective means of observing the world, has at its core this fundamental "flaw" (if you will) – it's based on us humans. Because we think from example to general theory, we have built science to follow this rule. Experiment, holding everything constant but one variable. Repeat. After enough repetition, we can start to make generalizations. After even more repetition, we can build a theory. And this isn't a bad thing. We need to be rigorous and structured and specific when we're doing science. But here’s the catch. Science isn't enough.

Consider two of the most incredible strides forward in physics in the last century – so important that even non-scientists have heard of them – the discoveries of general relativity and quantum mechanics. When Einstein proposed his theory of general relativity, it shook the Newtonian ground beneath his feet: Newton's universal law of gravitation had held for so long, hundreds of years, that to even think to question it was beyond many scientists. But experiment later (and that's the important point) bore out Einstein's suppositions. General relativity was right, and it had started as something tremendously abstract (mathematics), only to be verified by specific examples later (general relativity was so abstract, in fact, that people are still coming up with particular solutions to its equations). Similarly, the idea of quantum mechanics (thanks to Feynman, Heisenberg, Schroedinger, Planck, Bohr, Pauli, Dirac, etc) was born out of a mathematical oddity – when matter and energy was thought of as continuous, why should a quantized (hence the term "quantum" mechanics) equation better describe it at the atomic level? The theory grew much faster than the specific experiments could keep up. We're still "testing" quantum mechanics, but again, so far, it's been completely correct. But neither of these two discoveries came about via the "traditional" scientific method. They involved – nay, required – a view which surpassed and complemented the scientific method. Don't get me wrong; of course, these theories eventually need to be experimentally tested, but that requirement doesn't preclude a top-down approach to building the theory in the first place.
In today's society, I'm beginning to believe that we might never again see the likes of Einstein or Feynman, because we are taught (in science) that the scientific method is the be-all-end-all of thought and inquiry (a fact which in and of itself causes all manner of problems, this one notwithstanding). Even those we think of as greats, such as Stephen Hawking, declare the scientific method as the only solution... even going so far as calling philosophy "dead" (in fact, Hawking has on several instances over the last few decades proclaimed the imminent end of theoretical physics, only to rescind his announcement at the news of yet another breakthrough in theoretical physics). But if philosophy is dead, science is dead with it! If we have no other method of thought, nothing which supersedes our "specific example to general theory," concrete-to-abstract way of viewing the universe, then we are nothing more than just bean counters and stamp collectors. Science will have lost one of its most important attributes: novelty (part of the success of general relativity and quantum mechanics both was the ability to break out of the traditional mode of thinking to create something different, yet even better). We will have killed science by demanding that science conform to the scientific method. (I believe this is why there is such hostility to string theory within the scientific community, even as it is greeted with amazement by the general public.)

In other words, science simply isn't enough.

We have put on these blinders by choice, but now we've gone so far that we don't even recognize the view of the world once the blinders are off. We have to learn to see the world from both the specific and concrete and the general and abstract points of view, or else we will never have a complete view of the world.

As the famous physicist Max Planck said, "Science [ie, the scientific method] cannot solve the ultimate mystery of Nature. And it is because in the last analysis we ourselves are part of the mystery we are trying to solve." We have to acknowledge that the scientific method isn't everything - we have to acknowledge that our view of the universe and existence is ultimately, and unfailingly, subjective.