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 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.

November 7, 2013

Google invests in life extension

Filed under: Hard Science,News commentary,Op-eds — Stephen W. Browne @ 9:01 am

“I don’t want to achieve immortality through my work; I want to achieve immortality through not dying. I don’t want to live on in the hearts of my countrymen; I want to live on in my apartment.” – Woody Allen

For those who were wondering what they were going to get up to after Google Glass, Google announced in September a new startup Calico, dedicated to research on combating aging. And though they’re not splashing it all over the media, it’s pretty plain they don’t mean making old folks’ last years more active and comfortable, they mean giving us more years. Lots more years.

Google is reported to be funding this venture to the tune of hundreds of millions of dollars.

This actually doesn’t come as that much of a surprise. Last December I mentioned here that Google had hired Ray Kurzweil, Prophet of the Singularity. Immortality is one of the things Kurzweil says is within our grasp.

I’ve been following the discussion/debate on the life extension project since the mid-60s. During that time I’ve seen the notion go from the obsession of a few lonely cranks to one that’s being taken seriously by reputable scientists.

What we seem to have right now is in the words of one scientist, “a big bottle of hope.”

However that hope is on a bit firmer footing than it used to be. We’ve got a better handle on how to prepare ourselves for a more vigorous and healthy old age. Partly through the classic methods of good diet and healthy exercise and partly through the still controversial use of nutritional supplements.

Moreover, we have new tools available such as genetic analysis which can alert us of future health risks encoded in our genes that we can start planning how to deal with before they show up.

So is Google’s new venture going to give us the long-sought Fountain of Youth?

Who knows? I see three possibilities coming from the next few years of intensive, well-funded research:

1) A breakthrough in life extension adding decades, perhaps centuries to our potential lifespan, with all that implies.

2) Some advances in gerontology but with steadily diminishing expectations as problems prove intractable and the goal of significant extensions in lifespan recede into the indefinite future.

3) Convincing evidence that it’s just not going to happen. Bummer.

What I don’t see is any downside to it. Whatever the result, we won’t be worse off for having asked the question.

Note: This is cross-posted on my professional blog at the Marshall Independent.

November 1, 2012

Hurricane Sandy and World War II

Filed under: Hard Science,Science,Social Science & History — Stephen W. Browne @ 9:06 am

Note: cross-posted from my newspaper blog at The Marshall Independent.

I just came across a fascinating article on a device currently in development that might have kept the New York subway tunnels from flooding. (Well, fascinating for infrastructure geeks like me that is.)

“In all, seven New York subway tunnels and two commuter train tunnels flooded during Monday’s record flooding. Some of the tunnels were flooded from track to ceiling and “it is still too early to say how long it will take to restore the system to full service,” the Metropolitan Transit Authority, which operates the rail systems, said Wednesday.”

The device is basically a big inflatable balloon plug, and the idea was originally to protect tunnels from terrorist gas or firebomb attacks. Tests have been conducted with high-pressure water though, proving it would be effective in flood emergencies.

The fascinating thing to me is, I happen to know that this has been done before. To be precise, during World War II.

My son’s late godmother, and my daughter’s namesake, was an Englishwoman named Judith Hatton. She was among other things, the widow of a Russian spy from the KGB department known as SMERSH (“Smiyrt shpionem” or “Death to spies”) that James Bond used to tangle with – and that’s not even the most interesting thing about her.

During WWII she was the youngest censor at the BBC. Her father was an engineer who helped develop a way to protect the London subway tunnels from disastrous flooding.

During the Blitz this was a serious worry. Literally tens of thousands of people slept in the subway stations which were used as bomb shelters by the people of London. The danger was, three tunnels go under the Thames River. The Luftwaffe used to drop sticks of bombs on the river, hoping to rupture one of the tunnels, which would have flooded most or all of the system causing huge loss of life.

The solution was to install gates at either ends of the tunnels under the river. I’m not sure but I believe they were drop gates that could be slammed shut in seconds if needed.

Of course, if there were trains in transit under the river… The term in medicine is “triage.”

Judith was actually in a train in transit under the Thames during an air raid. Evidently during raids, the tube trains would stop moving for the duration. According to Judith people were cheerful and brave, telling jokes and sharing smokes and having a jolly good time sharing the very English camaraderie of tough times.

She told me once she actually considered telling people about the gates on either side of them ready to drop if the tunnel ruptured, but then just shrugged and thought, “Oh why spoil the fun since there’s nothing we can do about it anyway?”

December 4, 2009

Climategate, a new record in scientific fraud

Filed under: Hard Science,Politics — Tags: , — Stephen W. Browne @ 8:45 am

Note: My weekend op-ed. This has got to be a record for the greatest scientific fraud ever, by any criteria you care to name: number of people involved in falsifying data, the amount of money involved, the consequences of acting on the doctored data, the number of people who fell for it, etc.

“If you make a theory, for example, and advertise it, or put it out, then you must also put down all the facts that disagree with it, as well as those that agree with it.”
– Richard Feynman, Nobel Laureate in physics, on scientific integrity

The greatest scandal in the history of science is breaking, and I’m standing aghast while the world spins around me merrily unconcerned.

A hacker, or internal whistle-blower at the University of East Anglia Climate Research Unit in England, published on-line over 1,000 emails and about 3,500 files from the CRU. These show the world’s most prominent climate scientists promoting the Global Warming hypothesis have engaged in deliberate manipulation of the evidence. They’ve conspired to suppress data that doesn’t support their conclusions, exclude contrary opinions from scientific journals, destroy records before they could be revealed, slander and get global warming dissenters dismissed from their jobs.

And, they destroyed the raw research data. That is never done in respectable science. Not. Ever.

Some involved have offered explanations – which hold water like a sieve.

So what? Why should you care if you’re not a scientist?

Well, consider Joyce Gilchrist, a former forensic chemist for 21 years at the Oklahoma City police department, who provided evidence in over 3,000 criminal cases. Gilchrist falsified evidence – lots of it. Her testimony got 23 people sentenced to death. Eleven of them were executed. At least one of the dead is all-but-proven innocent. Another was released after 10 years on death row. You see, she just knew those people were guilty, and that justified “improving” uncertain evidence.

Now imagine your police department has Joyce Gilchrist running the crime lab.

From 1999 to 2003 Jayson Blair wrote hundreds of stories for the New York times which were error-ridden, blatantly plagiarized, or just plain made up.

From 1995 to 1998, Stephen Glass, writer for the prestigious magazine The New Republic, fabricated quotations, sources, and entire events out of the whole cloth for articles.

Janet Cooke, reporter for the Washington Post, won a Pulitzer Prize in 1980 for a story later found to be a total fabrication.

Now imagine every third journalist is Jayson Blair. The first and second are Stephen Glass and Janet Cooke.

This is worse. This affects all of us.

But why would any scientist risk their reputation and credibility by committing fraud?

One reason, lying because they sincerely believe the world is in danger. The data stubbornly doesn’t provide convincing proof. We laymen are too dumb to appreciate the uncertainty in any scientific conclusion and have to be scared into supporting necessary action, etc.

Two, sheer self-interest: jobs, money, and power. A looming disaster requires further study. Which requires lots of grant money. The government needs the power to force people to do something about it. Which means jobs for enforcers, etc.

According to the Global Warming establishment:
1)The average temperature of the earth is increasing rapidly.
2)The increase is not caused by natural climate cycles but by human industrial activity.
3)The increase will result in world-wide catastrophe and the deaths of millions or billions of people.
4)Preventing this demands a huge expansion of regulation and taxation worldwide. An expansion that would admittedly raise the cost of everything from food to consumer goods, cripple the economy of industrialized nations, and kill any chance for Third World nations to rise out of backwardness and poverty.
5)There is no scientifically respectable disagreement with any of the above.

If this is true, then we obviously have to bite the bullet and accept the price. But what if it’s not?

Claim five is a flat-out lie. There is plenty of dispute by reputable scientists in the relevant fields about claims one through four. They haven’t gotten as much press because, 1) disaster is sexy for the media, and 2) Global Warming skeptics have to be very, very careful about what they say because dissent is dangerous to careers.

But what if Global Warming is real? Then these dishonest “scientists” have poisoned any rational discussion of the problem and damaged public trust in the credibility of all science.

Note: The emails and documents referred to can be searched here .

Without an index, you’ll have to dig.

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