Friday, February 1, 2019

How Powerful we Have Become

The bad news is:

1. Homosapiens are fallible
2. Our planet's stability is fragile
3. We have attained a significant level of technological maturity

Our technology is powerful enough to alter our biosphere.  It did not happen in one year - it took one century.  The most dramatic changes occurred over the past few decades.  Unquestionably, if we continue along, status quo, this planet will become both unstable, and unrecognizable in a few more decades.  We will render ourselves powerless to stop it.  We will reduce in population size, not by choice, but by attrition.

Bottom line: our social and ethical maturity has not kept pace with that of our technology.

The good news is:

1. The future is unwritten
2. We can learn from our mistakes
3. New technologies can actually help if they are tempered with reasonable behaviour

I have faith in this species to which I belong.  As individuals, we are, by and large, quite dignified in our actions most of the time.  As a collective, we can be better, though we are, at times, worse.  Even when 10% act horrifically, if some of them command significant sway, it takes the other 90% to simply hold them at bay.

Bottom line: we must allow civilization to mature from a sociological standpoint, and make the kinds of decisions that give us the right to deem ourselves an intelligent species.

Thursday, January 17, 2019

What Would Happen if the World's Most Powerful Nation Elected a Narcissist?

D. T.'s two-year journey into our collective consciousness may be described as a reality show where the bumbling star is a walking study of narcissistic personality disorder.

I have tried very hard not to allow T - - - P's name to grace this blog, which is where beautiful ideas of science and engineering are supposed to be explored, but I cannot write about general relativity and the standard model (that is what I was hoping to do today) without first getting this nonsense out of the way.  Once through, I hope to be able to emerge from this fog and think clearly.  Some Americans might identify with that last sentence, and deem it applicable to the past three years of their lives.

It seems that this sad man has infiltrated our minds to the point where otherwise reasonable people have developed CNN addictions, tuning in for hours every day to witness the "Gotcha!" moment.  They want to know as soon as possible that the bully's alleged criminal activity has caused him to be stripped of his powers, and left him somewhere that he can no longer harm the planet.

And harm the planet he has, in almost every conceivable way.

At first, I thought his worst long term offence would be to remove the United States from The Paris Agreement that was established at the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC).  He has also attempted, and sometimes succeeded at tearing up other precautionary measures that seek to protect our fragile biosphere from us hominids.  Then, when he did all of that, it occurred to me that these would not be his most long term devastating affronts to the species.

This frightened tiger's legacy will likely be his battle against truth.  Any scientist with any care in the world should fear a future where regular people think facts are worthy of debate.  This man's presidency coincides with the introduction of the idea of the 'Alternative Fact'.  I still do not know what such a term means, but I do know what it attempts to accomplish.  This man who brags about his love for the uneducated has attempted to uneducate the educated, so he may love us all.

My message is simple: I care too much about myself, my family, my friends, and my students to let that happen.  D. T.'s time is short, and humanity's struggle to find its way is seemingly endless.  Our spirit is indefatigable.  Our collective efforts cannot be undermined by one narcissist and a few of his minions.  It is insulting for them to think that it might.

This brief but seemingly eternal fog will lift, and as an engineer, I cannot help but propose a solution for how it might end without violence.  I will close this rant by elucidating a potential solution...

The reason I refer to D. T. as a frightened tiger is because he is without critical thought, and he is presently cornered by his own absurdity.  What he has done thus far in such situations is to deny, deter and distract.  The only thing that might distract America sufficiently such that he may briefly escape this mess and go golfing is a far bigger mess he has the power to impose.

Here is how violence may be averted:

Someone must distract the frightened tiger, perhaps until Michael Cohen appears at the House Oversight Committee (currently set for February 7, get your popcorn ready), a day that may well lead to D. T.'s conviction.  It is essential that this event not be derailed by some horrific plot that intends to deter and distract.  I hope that some responsible adults who are not his minions have a close eye on him and his arsenal of weapons today and over the coming days.  Perhaps they can lie to him (it needs to be people he trusts, like right-wing media) that everything will be fine for him, so there is no need to do anything rash.

Then, when the dust settles, and D. T. possesses no power to speak of, a new leader must emerge.  He or she need not be bold, nor charismatic.  For all I care, he or she may be camera shy.  It is critical that the new leader be an adult who is committed to unity and has a steadfast determination to maintain civility during the transition from absolute chaos to more regular levels of chaos.

Perhaps, with some vision and leadership, the leaders of this world will help guide our species to an age of reason - this planet requires this of us if we are to inhabit it in such great numbers for an extended period of time.  Despite the many backwards steps we have all witnessed in recent years, and not just in America, I remain hopeful that this ship's course may be righted; all we need are some courageous captains, and a majority of willing passengers possessing critical thought and the resolve to visit voting stations when it counts.  Further, they need to keep a close eye on the captains they elect, and hold them accountable should they lack the resolve it takes to navigate this complex and delicate ocean.

I would like to fund a wall in the shape of a circle.  I propose that D. T. spend the remainder of his life inside the confines of this wall to protect the rest of us from him.  And while I am dreaming, can his new home block twitter access?


P. S. : I have already written two volumes out of a planned four in a Popular Science Book Series (in March, I intend to mail out a Book Proposal seeking a literary agent for representation), and I can proudly state that the only leaders I have referred to in any way in the text are people of true substance, like Carl Sagan.

Friday, January 11, 2019

The Unfathomable Power of Nuclear

Just months after publishing an article stating that space and time are relative quantities that depend on the speed of the observer, Einstein followed its trail of bread crumbs, which brought him to a realization that was equally spectacular: the rest (or intrinsic) mass and energy of any given thing is a fixed ratio.  What?  Did you get lost on the trail?  I did on my first pass, and I will only summarize why E0 = mc2 very briefly here (feel free to follow the trail on your own in most any modern physics textbook), and instead focus on what its consequences.

It is important to note that no one supported Einstein's special relativity, on which he based this new but equally controversial and perplexing notion.  In short, if special relativity was indeed correct, then in order for both momentum and energy conservation to hold in collisions, the rest energy of a given body when it is not moving (E0) must be equal to the rest mass of this body (m) multiplied by the square of the speed of light.  In short, he doubled down, stating that not only should you believe that the special relativity wild idea is true, it necessitates this other massively wild idea.

If the idea that a non-moving body has intrinsic energy is troubling, then I suppose you are equally troubled by a photon, which travels with great speed yet is itself a massless particle.  As that photon strikes another body, it actually transfers both energy and momentum to it (that is how solar sails in space work), increasing the body's total energy.  The now very slowly moving body retains its original rest energy, but added to that is its newly acquired kinetic energy.  Its newly gleaned momentum is achieved due to the change in the photon's momentum.

If we accept that E = mc2, and since it is the most famous equation on the planet (adding the subscript 0 after the E makes it less catchy), I suppose we should, we can deal with the practical consequences, which are as mind-boggling as the concept itself.  Let's start with this:

The equation says that if just one kilogram of the rest mass of anything were to be entirely converted into energy (also referred to as "annihilated"), the nuclear reaction would produce 9*1016 Joules; this amount of energy could power a 100-Watt light bulb for 30,000,000 years, or meet the world energy demand for about one hour (using the chemical energy derived from burning coal powers the one light bulb a mere eight hours).  To meet the entire world demand for one full year would only require the complete annihilation of less than ten metric tons.  This means that if we had the means to safely annihilate entire substances, we could power the globe for decades using only what my father has stashed away in his garage.

It is probably for the best that our species does not yet know how to manipulate nuclear reactions to a greater extent than we already do.  After all, look at the devastating impact of atom bombs, which manage to annihilate just a tiny fraction of their mass upon reaction.  Similarly, nuclear reactors only begin to tap into the promise of E = mc2, as they convert roughly 0.002% (using enriched uranium) of their mass to viable energy.  Over time, should humanity figure a way to release all of the energy within the mass of a given spec of matter in a controlled fashion, it would represent a major shift for society. The notion of an energy crisis would be replaced by a bottomless pit of energy, and ever more need to defend ourselves from ourselves.  Sigh.

Why is nuclear power so much more efficient than coal power?  It has to do with the nature of the reaction.  Burning coal is a chemical reaction known as combustion.  A fission reactor houses nuclear reactions, which involves the division of atomic nuclei.  The process of nuclear vs chemical is more than 650,000 times as mass efficient.  I want to pause for a moment here.

When an engineer optimizes a design, by accomplishing the same thing with 10% less mass, he or she might receive praise.  What was effectively done was to reduce the mass by a factor of 1.1.  To do so by 650,000 would be like 1.1 to the power of about 140.  Therefore, it may be stated, using logic and math, that replacing a coal-burning plant with a nuclear one should receive praise to the power of one hundred forty.  Of course, that same logic means that replacing them with solar technology of any type should receive praise to the power of infinity, because those photons are massless (they also travel a distance of one Astronautical unit for free).  While we are on the topic, solar energy has no waste to dump anywhere, so it wins, and the sooner we initiate a process to replace all energy infrastructure with solar (combined with large-scale energy on-site storage solutions), the sooner we can begin to think of ourselves as an intelligent species.
Large-scale energy production is a dangerous practice, and regardless of the production method, strict safety standards must be adhered to.  What we must put ahead of anything else is the equilibrium of our biosphere.  Our fossil fuel energy production over the past century has had a global effect on the carbon dioxide concentration in the atmosphere.  We must produce energy by an alternative means to fossil fuel burning, and while nuclear power can meet the demand, and do so efficiently, it is also a weapon, so it is best left in no one's hands.

If we are to become careful custodians of our planet, we must be more mindful of the reactions we initiate here on Earth, both chemical and nuclear.  Once Einstein realized the potential weaponry his famous equation could lend itself to, he was convinced it needed to be used by the 'right people'.  He regretted that this equation, so beautiful, could cause so much destruction.  But this was certainly not the only beautiful scientific discovery that has led to dangerous tech.  It is perhaps fortunate for us all that it is the most powerful one yet.