Stephen W. Browne Rants and Raves

October 22, 2014

Is this the day the world changed?

Filed under: Hard Science,Op-eds — Stephen W. Browne @ 10:42 pm

Last week we science fiction geeks got news that made our day. Skunk Works, an autonomous research division of aircraft giant Lockheed-Martin, announced they were hot on the trail of practical hydrogen fusion power. They said a working model in five years, production models in ten. If they could get the funding.

The initial euphoria dampened almost as soon as we pushed the “like” button on Facebook when we remembered that forty years ago fusion, like strong AI, was “just around the corner.”

(Strong AI, “artificial intelligence” means the day you can discuss the meaning of life with your laptop.)

Fusion is the nuclear reaction that powers the sun. Unlike fission which releases power from the splitting apart of heavy atoms into lighter atoms, fusion is the combining of light atoms, isotopes of hydrogen, into heavier helium atoms releasing heat and neutrons.

There is a lot of potential heartbreak in this. On the one hand, the Skunk Works, a.k.a. the Advanced Development Programs, is an old and established research organization with a solid record of accomplishment. Their best known product is the U2 spy plane. Others include the SR-71 Blackbird, the F-117 Nighthawk, and the F-22 Raptor.

Better still, Lockheed-Martin claims their unit will be small-scale and portable, small enough to fit in a pickup truck bed, and generate enough power to run a small city or a big ship.

All other fusion research such as the International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor (ITER), funded by the European Union, China, Japan, Russia, South Korea, India, and the United States, focuses on giant power plant applications.

And why is China throwing in with the U.S. the EU and other countries it is not necessarily on good terms with?

Because there is no downside. A hydrogen fusion reactor is not a bomb and can’t be made into one. If the reactor malfunctions, it just stops. Mildly radioactive byproducts are short-lived and easily disposed of.

Then comes the downer.

There is a lot of skepticism in scientific circles and “breakthroughs” in fusion technology have a history of disappointment.

Some have pointed out, if this is so great why is the Skunk Works looking for outside funding?

But just suppose they’re on to something and the time frame is realistic.

Then the whole world changes forever.

For one, the green energy agenda is moot. No more debate about windmills, solar, etc.

For another, the coal and petroleum industry is still there, not for energy but as sources of an almost endless number of different organic molecules.

We may keep gasoline to run our cars, or we may choose to switch to hydrogen produced locally by electrolysis.

No part of the world will be without power. Our civilization will start to radically decentralize with social and political consequences we can’t imagine yet.

We can build great ships that are essentially floating cities, capable of staying at sea indefinitely. Fast ship designs will become economical, vastly speeding up ocean cargo transport.

We can build great airplanes, perhaps with electric motors driving propellers or turbines, which can stay aloft indefinitely.

And space travel may at last come within reach of ordinary people with pioneering spirit if we can use fusion to power a practical laser or electromagnetic launching system to lower the cost of transport to orbit, which is 99 percent of the cost to getting anywhere in the solar system.

But though the reactor itself cannot be weaponized, the power produced will make practical cheap electric-powered weapons such as rail guns which shoot projectiles at literally meteoric speeds.

Economically, the cost of almost everything will come down by orders of magnitude.

Will we remember this as the day the world changed?

We’ll see.

October 13, 2014

What Nobody Considers

Filed under: Op-eds — Stephen W. Browne @ 11:47 am

Arguing is one of the great pleasures of my life, one which unfortunately I don’t get to enjoy much. Nobody wants to argue much these days.

“Huh? Haven’t you heard of Facebook?” I hear from a thousand incredulous voices.

Well yes. But what I meant was a formal ARGUMENT. That is, a set of propositions one of which, the conclusion, is claimed to necessarily follow from the others.

Logic is the study of the proposition, “it follows from.”
Logic was invented by a bunch of Greeks a long time ago, chief of whom was a guy named Aristotle.

Aristotle also wrote about something called “rhetoric,” the study of how to make your conclusions sound persuasive. Because it’s one thing to arrive at a correct, or at least supportable conclusion, it’s quite another to get people to buy into it.

“Would you rather have a nice thick juicy steak, or a segment of muscle tissue cut from the corpse of an immature castrated bull?” asked author Robert Heinlein.

What I’m reading a lot these days (on Facebook of course) are counterfeit “arguments” introduced by an attack.

“These people are awful and they’re the reason everything sucks.”

These awful people are depending on your politics, are somewhere between 20 to 50 percent of your countrymen. They’re either awful because they’re awful, or more charitably because they’re “brainwashed.”

This is then followed by a set of unsupported claims, just assumed to be true, with an attribution of motive.

“These congressmen voted this way because they want poor people to starve, they want America to go down the tubes, and they want the San Andreas Fault to open up and swallow the country.”

Counter-arguments are dismissed. “They just say that because they want to make money oppressing the poor and destroying the earth.”

This is a caricature of course. Sadly not all that much of one.

Oddly, some of the worst examples of this kind of counterfeit argument I’ve come across came from very successful attorneys. I’m not sure what that means but I wonder if they argue like that in court – and how well it works.

(And by the way, it irritates me to no end to be told I’m “supporting the one percent” by someone who makes more money off a single case than I do in a year’s worth of writing. But I digress.)

Like everyone, I have a side I prefer of course. I also think the side I incline towards generally does a better job of constructing valid arguments. Furthermore I think it’s because they hang around with people they disagree with, so they have to support their convictions a lot more than folks who associate with people they agree with all the time.

But there’s a couple of things I don’t think anybody considers.

One, could it be that the reason things suck is not because of awful people but because it is the nature of things to suck, and there are limits to what can be done about it?

“The poor we will always have with us,” a teacher who quit his day job as a carpenter once said.
We have made great strides in this country improving the lot of, well everybody. If you don’t think so, find me an American doctor who has seen first-hand beri-beri, pellagra, or scurvy.

But our good fortune has not spread evenly throughout the world, nor have we ever succeeded in creating a system without cracks that some people fall through.

Two, people arguing passionately for their beliefs almost never consider that they might both be right.

The argument for a social welfare state is (roughly) that modern society does not have a network of family and private charity sufficient to meet the needs of the destitute, handicapped, mentally ill or merely unfortunate. That government must meet those needs for ethical reasons, and practically to maintain minimal social stability.

The counter argument goes that welfare statism creates a culture of dependency resulting in an ever-growing underclass who become clients not citizens, to the eventual ruination of the state.

Has anybody noticed there is nothing mutually exclusive about these positions?

“But that would mean no state is stable in the long run!”

Looks that way to me too.

That carpenter turned teacher said, “The truth shall make you free,” he did not say it would make you comfortable.

October 6, 2014


Filed under: Hard Science,Op-eds,Social Science & History — Stephen W. Browne @ 1:17 pm

The first ebola cases have been found in the U.S. but the government is assuring us there is no reason to panic, about a disease with a greater than 70 percent mortality rate.

We’d better not panic, this is a time for mature reflection – but we’d better do that mature reflecting in a hurry.

The reason nobody is panicking is there is now almost no one in the Western world who remembers a pandemic disease. I am fortunate enough to have interviewed a man on the occasion of his 105th birthday who told me a bit about the Spanish flu pandemic of 1918 – 1920.

Spanish flu hit towards the end of World War I, and spread to every corner of the world including the arctic and remote Pacific Islands. It infected 500 million people and resulted in an estimated 50 to 100 million deaths. That would be three to five percent of the world’s population at the time.

By the way, the disease’s origin is not known. The connection with Spain is only because Spain as a neutral country did not have wartime censorship. Thus the false impression grew that Spain had been especially hard hit.

Mortality rates for the flu ranged from 23 percent to 71 percent, and oddly the overwhelming majority among young people. Of pregnant women who survived the flu, a quarter miscarried.

When comparing the two diseases, the alarming thing is how much is speculated but how little is known for sure. Where it came from, how it killed, how many deaths were caused by overmedication if any, and why it disappeared as suddenly as it appeared.

Almost a century later with the incredible technology we have available, there is so much we just don’t know about the Ebola/Marburg virus and how it kills.

It does seem to come from the Hot Zone, the tropics of Africa. Versions of the virus are found in monkeys, pigs, and bats. There is a less virulent strain found in monkeys and pigs in the Philippines.

It is spread by contact with body fluids, which leak explosively from the victim in the final stages of the disease.

According to the World Health Organization, “The incubation period, that is, the time interval from infection with the virus to onset of symptoms is 2 to 21 days. Humans are not infectious until they develop symptoms. First symptoms are the sudden onset of fever fatigue, muscle pain, headache and sore throat. This is followed by vomiting, diarrhea, rash, symptoms of impaired kidney and liver function, and in some cases, both internal and external bleeding (e.g. oozing from the gums, blood in the stools).”

That’s good news about the incubation period, you can’t spread the disease until it’s evident you’ve got it.

The bad news is, it may be very difficult to contain. Some reports have it that surgical gloves and masks may not be enough and recommend full Hazmat suits. One of the highest at-risk groups has been medical personnel.

The worst news is, if an infected person does not show symptoms until up to three weeks after exposure that’s plenty of time to fly somewhere else and spread it. But so far the governments of the U.S. and Europe have ruled out suspending air travel from affected areas.

The administration has however announced plans to send 3,000 soldiers to Africa.

And if any of them become infected…?

In the developed world we’ve pretty much controlled the historically common plague vectors: contaminated water, droplet infection, and insects.

Incurable sexually transmitted disease reemerged with AIDS, but can be prevented by changing behavior. (With difficulty for sure.)

Ebola could be the wild card which potentially overwhelms our public health infrastructure if it ever gets a foothold.

I have no answers, but I’m going to recommend a very good book, “Plagues and Peoples” by William McNeill. And if you get ambitious, Hans Zinsser’s classic, “Rats, Lice and History: A Chronicle of Pestilence and Plagues.”

We can’t all be public health professionals, but we can start educating ourselves to have an intelligent discussion about this before it’s too late.

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