Sunday, December 30, 2012

Three Things We Don’t Know About Physics (I)

As a science fiction writer and a devotee of science, although an English major,1 I am a person of immense technological optimism. I believe that, for all the scientific understanding humanity has gained in the past couple of centuries, and all the technical advances that make our lives easier, better, and more powerful than those of previous high civilizations, we’re still only scratching the surface.

I’ve been involved in recent discussions on social media about this. When Facebook friends disagree,2 they point out that we understand a tremendous amount of what’s going on in the physical world, and that past revolutions have not so much been a true overturning of past knowledge as its refinement and deepening.3 In planetary motion—our view of the stellar and interstellar world out there—the work of 17th century geniuses Johannes Kepler and Sir Isaac Newton is still relevant and is only advanced by the work of Albert Einstein. In quantum theory—our understanding of the building blocks of energy and matter—the work of 20th century physicists Max Planck, Niels Bohr, Werner Heisenberg, and many others has yet to be superseded.

While I do not deny this, I’m still uneasy about the state of our knowledge in three basic areas: the nature of gravity, space, and time. We can use these terms in sentences; we understand and can measure their effects quite accurately; we can use the measurements in equations. But as to their essential nature, what they are, we are still in doubt.

I am not one of those who insist that some things humans were not meant to know, either because our minds cannot encompass ultimate reality or because the truth is reserved to a higher order of being. I do believe that our mind—which evolved over time in relation to our physical senses and the nature of the world we can see, hear, taste, smell, and touch—places limits on how we usually think. But many humans can overcome this. Certainly Einstein showed this kind of imagination when he proposed “thought experiments” such as chasing a beam of light.


We know that gravity is some kind of force. It plays well in the basic physics equation governing force (F), where F=ma, or mass multiplied by acceleration. In that equation, gravity is an acceleration of whatever mass you’re dealing with. A pitcher’s arm also exerts force in throwing a fast ball. The measured force is equal to the mass of the baseball (a regulation 5 ounces, or 142 grams) multiplied by whatever acceleration may be required4 to arrive at the ball’s final, measured speed over the plate.

We understand what’s going on in a pitcher’s arm. Muscles are contracting in a way that whips his arm around. His fingers are clenched to cage the ball, then let it go at the point of maximum acceleration. And the interaction between his fingertips and the ball’s covering—which imparts whatever spin he puts on the ball—is governed by the electromagnetic forces in skin and leather that account for friction. We understand the underlying mechanism of a fast pitch very well.

But what’s the underlying mechanism of gravity? We detect no mechanical interaction, no muscles, no arm, no fingertips. In physics, gravity is considered a field force, like electricity and magnetism, which can create “action at a distance” without requiring physical contact between the atoms or particles involved.

But what does the word “field” really explain? To say that a force acts over a field suggests there may be a limit to its effective range. However, the fields governing two of the fundamental physical forces, electromagnetism and gravity, are assigned infinite ranges—that is, there’s no telling how far a photon may travel, or how far away from a galaxy you must travel before you stop feeling its pull, however faintly. You can write equations governing a force field’s strengths and its effects. But the mechanism by which they accomplish this is a lot less obvious than that of an arm hurling a baseball.

Einstein’s theory of General Relativity pictures gravity as a curvature of spacetime. An body with mass m1 exerts a gravity field that curves space around it, so that the path of an body with mass m2 which is traveling near the first object at a distance of d1 is deflected toward it by a distance of d2.5 I think I can understand that.

A planet like the Earth bends local space so that a satellite launched at a certain speed, rather than traveling in what we think would be a straight line, instead travels in a closed curve, an orbit around the planet’s center of mass. A star like the Sun bends local space so that planets travel around it in closed curves called ellipses. Stars create such strong bending force that they can even curve the path of a light beam.6 Galaxies create such strong distortions in spacetime that they can act as lenses of the light from more distant galaxies. I can intuitively understand motion in curved space.

But what about two objects standing still in relation to each other? When I stand on the Earth’s surface, I may be flying through space with the planet’s rotation and its revolution about the Sun, but with respect to the center of the planet, the two of us are not moving. Yet, according to the measurement of gravity, I am continuously accelerating toward that center at a rate of 32 feet per second per second (32 ft/s2, or 9.8 m/s2). I am accelerating without a change in relative speed. It might make perfect mathematical sense, but it leaves something to be desired in terms of common sense. In fact, if you think about it, gravity in this particular case really messes up your sense of time and distance.7

Quantum Mechanics has a different interpretation of gravity. According to its Standard Model, all forces and fields are represented by an associated particle. Electricity and magnetism are associated with the photon. The strong nuclear force—which holds protons and neutrons together in an atomic nucleus—is associated with the gluon. The weak nuclear force—which accounts for the decay of subatomic particles—is associated with emission or absorption of W and Z bosons. These particles have all been measured and detected. But the particle associated with gravity, called the “graviton,” remains hypothetical. According to the Standard Model, it should have an infinite range, a mass of 0, and a spin of 2—but it just hasn’t been seen.

Another particle, the Higgs boson, associated with mass, has also remained unseen—until last July. This particle is so massive that it supposedly hasn’t been around since the Big Bang. But scientists at the European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN), after many experiments involving highly energetic particle collisions and comparison of the data, believe they see trails of particles already decaying from a more massive particle that may indeed be the Higgs. Although the Higgs particle no longer exists naturally in the universe, its associated field accounts for how the various particles acquire mass. When we understand that trick—as opposed to simply being able to use the word “mass” in a sentence or use its value in an equation—we may be closer to understanding gravity.

Until then, while we can manipulate electricity and magnetism and observe the interaction of particles in a nuclear explosion, we are powerless over gravity. We know it exists and can measure its effects. But our understanding of the “pitcher’s arm” remains highly theoretical, mathematical, and abstract. In fact, until we can deal with gravity on the same terms as electromagnetism and the strong and weak nuclear forces, our physics remains broken between General Relativity’s spacetime and Quantum Mechanics’ array of particles.

I expect great things when we finally have a working definition of gravity. If that understanding follows the pattern of our knowledge of electromagnetism and the strong and weak nuclear forces, then soon after we define gravity we will be able to build technical applications that either capture and sequester live gravitons or manipulate spacetime in closed gravity curves. We will fly without wings and float up to heaven.

Gravity is, in my view, the first of the three things we don’t yet understand. Next week, I’ll tackle the other two—which seem to be intimately related to gravity: the structure of space and the nature of time.

1. Truth in advertising: I studied English literature at the university and my liberal arts math requirement was fulfilled by Philosophy 1, Introduction to Logic. But since then I’ve consistently worked in technical organizations—pharmaceuticals, applied biotechnology, engineering and construction, an electric and gas utility, and an oil refinery—and have had to learn a lot of math and science to keep up with the engineers and scientists. I’m an aficionado if not a practitioner of science.

2. Yes, you can have interesting discussions on Facebook. It’s not all pictures of kittens and ironic motivational posters.

3. One Facebook friend, an entrepreneur and expert in rocketry, aerospace, and orbital solar energy, has posted that he believes we know about 80% of what’s going on in the physical world, leaving 20% to be discovered. My response has been that those proportions depend on what you think constitutes the 100% of what there is to know—and hence the subject of this meditation.

4. Acceleration may be the hardest part of all this to understand for the mathematically challenged, because acceleration makes two references to time. Acceleration (a) is the change in velocity (v) over a measured period of time (t). That first component—your velocity or speed—is expressed as distance traveled divided by time elapsed (d/t, as in “so many feet per second,” or ft/s). The change in velocity during acceleration represents progress from the object moving at one speed, its initial velocity (vi, which may also be zero), to moving at a higher speed at its final velocity (vf). All of this is expressed as a fraction, a=(vf–vi)/t. Solving the equation and accounting for the “per-second” of that final velocity and the “per-second” of the acceleration yields the result in distance per-second-squared.

5. By extension, one imagines that all forces which work through fields must somehow alter the properties of supposedly “empty space” over their effective range.

6. Yes, the photon is supposed to be without mass, and therefore not subject to gravity’s effects. But that’s the “rest mass,” as if a photon ever stood still. The photon’s momentum at the speed of light gives it “apparent mass” and lets it participate in gravity equations.

7. I had fun with this in my recent novel The Children of Possibility when describing one possible method of traveling through time.

Sunday, December 23, 2012

Getting Serious About Gun Control

Following the mass murders perpetrated with firearms most recently in Connecticut and Oregon … and earlier in Colorado, Arizona, Virginia, Utah, and elsewhere, some at schools, some at shopping malls, some in theaters and at political rallies … we get an outpouring of pleas, arguments, and rants for more gun control. And then the counter-arguments and opposing rants from the Second Amendment and reasoning along the lines of “when swords are outlawed, only outlaws will carry swords.”1

Being a rather logical and obvious person with an inclination toward radical thinking,2 I find all this distressing. I dislike half-measures. I despise symbolic actions. If you are going to Canterbury, then go to Canterbury—or not. Don’t edge down the road toward Greenwich and Eltham, pretending you only want to go there and no further. And don’t take us all to Canterbury by half-measures, death by a cut here and a slice there, as if the ultimate stopping point—death—were not your intention all along. If you mean to remove guns from our society, then say so and plan effectively.

If you want to stop mass killings by crazed, suicidal shooters—and you think it’s preferable to remove readily available guns from society rather than to promote better identification and treatment of crazed, suicidal people—then let’s get serious about this. One more background check, one more registration form to complete, one more prohibition on a certain style or feature or type of firearm will not accomplish the purpose. Trying to legislate by focusing on the particular weapon used by the last mentally unstable person who reached out for the weapon at hand is simply ludicrous. And trying to prepare the American people for a complete gun ban by advocating limits on magazine capacity or additional background disclosures is like trying to go to Canterbury by making day trips to Greenwich.

This country is saturated with guns. The numbers quoted in recent news stories, blog postings, and rants are so diverse that one is left questioning whether anyone knows or they’re all just guessing. A quick stroll around Google on the question “Number of guns in the U.S.?” comes up with dozens of ways to parse the data: number of firearms applications, percentage of gun owners, average number of guns per so many people, number of guns confiscated at airports3—but no solid, believable numbers. So pick a number. Two hundred million guns? Two guns for every three people?

The actual number doesn’t matter. It’s a red herring. No one is keeping count. And the solution is not going to be rounding up the guns by sending out letters to gun owners, collecting the hardware, and matching serial numbers to registrations. At this point in our history and relationship with firearms, the only solution is a total gun ban and draconian measures to prevent their future ownership and use. Here are the required dimensions to make such a ban effective.

1. Repeal the Second Amendment. Hold a constitutional convention and make disarmament a priority. The concept of a civilian militia is meaningless in the nuclear age. The concept of a person’s right to own and carry military-style arms is dispensable in a society where hunting is a little-practiced and dubious pastime unnecessary to the supply of meat on the table,4 and technology has rendered firearms of every type much more lethal than the flintlock pistols and muskets of the 18th century. If these 27 words5 are all that keep alive antique notions of armed cowboys riding the plains and dealing out frontier justice, then let’s abolish them.

But what about natural rights? What about personal freedom? You have the natural right and personal freedom to live an orderly, nonviolent life. You do not have the right to defend yourself with violence because society, in the person of the state, reserves to itself the sole right to defend its citizens, as it reserves the sole right to dispense justice and deliver punishment. By disarming the populace, the state creates the greatest safety and opportunity for all to live orderly, nonviolent lives.

Ah, but what about that phrase “security of a free state”? Doesn’t that suggest the civilian populace needs arms to protect against an overweening government? Isn’t civilian disarmament the first step in every tyranny, from the Soviets to the Nazis and the British National Health Service? Well, yes—except that, whatever weaponry the man in the street can afford and acquire, the government can afford better (courtesy of your taxpayer dollars) and will have an incentive to acquire. In an arms race with Caesar, the average plebian is always going to be outmatched and outgunned. But the notion of defense against tyranny leads to my second point.

2. Disarm the country. No, I mean really. Don’t just take firearms away from law-abiding citizens. Force criminals of all stripes to surrender their weapons. And disarm the government, too, on the grounds that once the people are disarmed, public servants do not need to be heavily armed, either.

Disarming law-abiding citizens is simply a matter of calling in those registered guns. And that will be totally ineffective. Instead, offer an amnesty period of 90 or 120 days during which anyone can turn in any gun to be melted for scrap on the spot. No questions asked. No recording of serial numbers to link the weapon to previous crimes. No suspicion or detention. Just “Thank you, sir. Thank you, ma’am. And cook it, Joe!”

As part of the amnesty period, pass and enforce stringent laws against gun ownership. Discovery of a gun among personal effects or on private or institutional property is an automatic felony leading to automatic confiscation and destruction of the weapon, plus loss of liberty and loss of the property involved. Keep a gun in your car—the car will be impounded and sold. Keep a gun in your home—the house will be acquired by the state under court order and auctioned off. Keep a gun at a business, school, or other public place—and that property will be closed until it can be reorganized and put under new management. Have a gun in your immediate possession, and you go under detention for ten years. We don’t have to put you up in a nice jail or prison, either. You will wear an ankle bracelet, your movements will be tracked within a court-defined perimeter, you will lose all civil rights, and your life will become subject to any number of surprise searches and inspections. In short, gun owners automatically become criminals subject to state supervision as well as effective non-citizens. These rules will not be subject to negotiation, plea bargaining, mitigating circumstances, or other weaselly technicalities. Touch a gun, lose your rights.

That’s just for owning a gun. Use a gun to threaten or harm another person or institution, and you face comparatively harsher punishment. Since we’re trending away from the death penalty in this country, let’s not talk about automatic, summary executions. But certainly the loss of property and freedom associated with gun ownership might be extended to lifetime status. We might also enact laws that provide for exile—if another, more violence-tolerant country will have you.

In the discussion of disarmament, many law-abiding citizens will be made nervous by the requirement that they must surrender their defenses while criminals may do as they like until caught. Law abiding citizens will also feel naked while every public servant—every off-duty policeman, retired policeman, FBI analyst, TSA agent, prison guard, unlicensed security guard, “private investigator,” “security consultant,” and anyone else who can claim justification for carrying a weapon—is allowed to go armed. But under this disarmament plan, no one gets to own or carry a gun. It works for the British, whose bobbies are armed only with moral authority and a whistle.

For those who worry about tyranny and “a free society,” the amnesty and sanctions must extend to public servants in all branches of government. In a society where the most lethal weapon available is a knife or bludgeon, or perhaps a bow and arrow, the police, the FBI, the Secret Service, the Coast Guard, and anyone else operating domestically should be able to exercise their moral authority with just batons, tasers, and judo holds, along with modern surveillance and forensic techniques for observing, predicting, and punishing crimes. Rapid-fire killing weapons should be totally unnecessary.

Soldiers, aviators, marines, and others on active duty overseas will need to be armed to meet the threat offered by their designated enemies. They may train with firearms within our borders under the same conditions that they currently train with bazookas, Stinger missiles, and nuclear bombs: the weapons or their simulation may be used on the range and in practice; otherwise they are kept under lock and key with strict inventory control until the combat unit departs the United States on foreign deployment. If we can keep plutonium and hospital supplies of pharmaceutical-grade opiates off the street, we can seal army bases against proliferation of firearms and ammunition.

3. Disarm the culture. Removing weapons is a first step, but it must also be supported by removing the desire for and glorification of weapons and the violence they support. We’ve already gone a long way in this country to make smoking socially unacceptable by not only limiting places were smokers may practice their vice but by also curtailing its glorification in movies and television.

Screenplays, teleplays, books, video games, and magazines will all need a rating system. No, wait—that would just tell you where the glorification and titillation of gun violence is available. As with smoking, we need eradication programs, education on the dangers and potential damage derived from firearms and other forms of violence, and censorship of the media to prevent gun violence from being depicted in any way, positively or even negatively.

Moreover, remaking society’s attitude toward guns means controlling and eliminating the simulation of guns as well. Not just real firearms, which rely on projectiles propelled at certain high velocities under the impulse of explosive gases derived from chemical reactions, regardless of caliber or mechanism of operation. The ban, confiscation, and penalties must be extended to simulated guns like toy guns, cap guns, pellet guns, BB guns, paintball guns, zip guns, rail guns, and anything else that pushes out a bulletlike projectile—or pretends to—regardless of speed, lethality, or intended use.6

It can be done. We can make the fascination with guns and violence socially unacceptable. We can make the ownership and use of guns, along with threats and displays of violence, subject to crushing legal sanctions. We can make the meanest streets as polite and carefully orchestrated as a Victorian drawing room. Of course, then we’ll also have to stop paving our streets with bricks and decorating our gardens with nice, round river rocks.

Because the same conundrum will still apply: when rocks are outlawed, only outlaws—and mentally unstable people—will throw rocks.

1. Truth in advertising: I own several pistols, favoring the .45 semiautomatic for its power and compactness. My mother was a sharpshooter and member of her school rifle team. My grandfather was a gun collector as well as the county judge. When I was in high school in central Pennsylvania, the first day of deer season saw every boy but me, and more than half the girls, go out for their buck, using high-powered rifles similar to the military M1 Garand. I don’t hunt and only shoot at the range because I believe familiarity with serious weapons is everyone’s responsibility as part of preparing for life in a violent and uncertain world. I also routinely practice karate, which I learned at the university, and that practice includes the quarter-staff and short swords as preparation for improvising non-edged weapons. I’ve also taken fencing lessons to have familiarity with swords, and judo and aikido lessons to understand other styles of self-defense. I study military strategy and tactics. All of this gives depth to my books and writing, among other things. However, if the government decided tomorrow to confiscate my handguns, it would not diminish me in the slightest. The prepared mind of the warrior is paramount; the choice of weapon is secondary.

2. I mean “radical” in the nicest possible way, and shorn—with disdain—of any association with the covert agendas of progressivism, socialism, the Communist Party, or 1960s campus politics. I use the word in the meaning derived from its Latin root, “radix,” the source of our word “radish,” and itself meaning—curiously enough—“root.” You examine its roots to know a thing. And to kill a weed, you must pull it up by its root. To get to the root of a thing is to pierce its plantlike heart. In that sense, I am a radical.

3. I guess this statistic falls under the category of “Oops! Forgot I had that one on me!”

4. If people really, really want to kill live animals for fun, food, and pest control, let them use weapons requiring some skill and stealth: bow and arrow, atlatl, knife, bare teeth.

5. “A well regulated militia being necessary to the security of a free state, the right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed.” That’s it. That’s all it says.

6. For now, we’ll except bows and arrows, crossbows, slingshots, and throwing knives, as they require some personal skill and are not susceptible to rapid-fire use. However, some countries—most notably Britain—and certain jurisdictions like New York City have extended their gun bans to all weapons and their use, similar to the Transportation Security Administration’s banning of nail files and screw drivers as potential weapons. I say, let’s first get the firearms off the streets and out of the culture, then we’ll see what other weapons need to be controlled. The trouble with a total weapons ban is that certain common tools are too easily wielded as weapons. The kitchen knife is an essential tool—try cutting meat with a potato peeler. And construction would virtually cease without the hammer, nail gun, circular saw, and other handy weapons.

Sunday, December 16, 2012

Getting Serious About Global Warming

First, truth in advertising. I am what modern progressives call a “global warming denier.” This is not to say that I deny the climate is changing—it has certainly changed over the course of recorded human history and even earlier.1 What I deny is that we are experiencing an abrupt and unprecedented warming period caused solely by human activity, specifically the burning of fossil fuels in the context of the rise of technology and western civilization. I have various reasons for this belief.2

Correlation is not causation. This is a principle in science, captured in the logical fallacy post hoc ergo propter hoc, or “after this therefore because of this.” Yes, carbon dioxide levels have increased in the atmosphere. Yes, temperatures seem to have risen in the 20th century. But carbon dioxide is a weak greenhouse gas, affecting heat radiation much less than either water vapor or methane, which are also present in the atmosphere. And other causes could explain the temperature rise.

One is the sun. Sunspots are directly related to solar output—more spots means more radiated energy. The number of sunspots at the peak of each eleven-year cycle, which have been recorded over the 23 cycles since spots were first noticed in the 17th century, has been gradually increasing as the sun recovered from a Maunder minimum, when very few spots were observed at all. The maximum of these increasing peaks seems to have occurred in cycle 23, at the start of the 21st century, which also coincides with the greatest recorded warming. The current cycle, number 24, may be much lower. And long-range predictions are for a much less active solar output in future cycles.

Another possible explanation lies in the tendency of weather stations to be located in or near cities. The recorded temperature rise in the late 20th century also coincides with a worldwide trend toward controlling the temperature of our indoor environments. Anyone who has stood next to an air-conditioner knows that to make the indoors cooler, you must expel heat to the outdoors. This and the longer-range urban heat island (UHI) effect—where cities are warmer than the countryside because their infrastructure includes heat-radiating pavements and building materials that retain daytime solar radiation—may contribute to the recorded temperature rise in the Industrial Age.

However, both sunspots and urban heating are also cases of correlation, not necessarily causation. For me, the origin of any change in climate may be suggested but cannot be proven except by massive experimentation. And tinkering with the climate in such experiments would likely change the nature of the conditions originally to be observed.

Computer models are not proof. All of the projections of where the recently observed warming trend will lead are based on computer modeling. Computers are not magical machines which never make mistakes, and even the most thoughtful and comprehensive models are not reality. Weather is an incredibly complex system, full of variables and influences that often conflict with and cancel each other. If it is difficult to predict weather patterns out for more than a few weeks, it is much more difficult to predict climate changes out for a century. There are too many variables we don’t understand, too many patterns we have observed for only a couple of hundred years.3

Every model makes certain assumptions and tries to control certain variables in order to avoid the chaos of this complexity. Even with the best will and intention of remaining perfectly neutral in choosing these assumptions, so as not to influence the outcome, the model make still has to make some choices. Models always come with margins of error and probability. They are rough guides, not predictions. And the more complex the system to be modeled, the more error-prone the model will be.

Consensus is not science. Much political talk about climate change mentions the “scientific consensus.” Like belief, the word “consensus” has no place in science. Until the late 1700s, when Antoine Lavoisier demonstrated the role of oxygen in respiration and combustion, the scientific consensus held that an element called phlogiston was released in a fire. Until the late 1600s, when Newton demonstrated his laws of motion, the scientific consensus held with Aristotle that objects fell to earth because they were attracted to the center of the universe, which happened to be this planet.

The only scientists who speak with authority on the matter of climate change are the tight-knit group of those who are actively sampling climate data and making models, and not all of them agree with the results of the most popular models. Ten thousand geologists, astrophysicists, sociologists, and linguists who happen to concur with the dominant view do not make it so.

But I’m willing to have an open mind. Even though I believe the case for looking ahead to the year 2100 and confidently predicting a rise in temperature of 3°C and a rise in sea level of 6 meters is far from proven, and even though I believe the resulting conditions won’t mean the end of productive human life, merely a change in the patterns we know today,4 let’s agree that carbon burning is a real problem and that we must do something serious about it starting now—if now isn’t actually too late.

But let’s also agree that the solution won’t be achieved by polite half-measures like driving a Prius, adjusting the thermostat, or remembering to turn out the lights when you leave a room. If we want to avoid the catastrophic predictions of the climate models, we’re all going to have to sacrifice. A lot.

Our civilization isn’t based largely on carbon burning because coal companies and oil companies are greedy and vicious and have duped the rest of us into doing a bad thing. We burn carbon because it’s a chemically active element that enthusiastically makes and breaks atomic bonds and releases large amounts of energy—less than the burning of hydrogen and oxygen, to be sure, but more than almost any other element. We humans arrived at burning fossil carbon deposits after millennia of trying the renewables: burning wood, grass, and various animal waxes, fats, and dungs for light and heat, or turning wheels with dammed up water and catching the wind for motive power. These energies drove the Egyptians, Persians, Greeks, Romans, and other cultures to a certain level of technology and quality of life. But it wasn’t until western civilization discovered the energy density of coal and oil that we could begin applying science and technology to solving life’s problems.

Today the U.S. economy generates more than 50% of its electricity from coal burning, and more than 90% of our transportation depends on oil. While cleaner-burning natural gas can substitute for either of these resources,5 and natural gas is becoming more available in this century because of hydraulic fracturing of deep shale deposits, using natural gas means we are still dependent on fossil carbon. To break from carbon completely requires our technology to endure a double-whammy. First, we would have to replace half of our existing generation with solar, wind, or biomass—sources that are less energy-dense and so would require more infrastructure and inputs than the coal-fired power plants they replace. Second, we would have to increase our electric generation overall, because electricity—whether by beam, wire, or battery—is the obvious replacement for petroleum in our transportation system.6 Our electric grid will have to deal with much higher demand from less energetic resources.7

I’m not saying it can’t be done. The transition can be effected over time, both by building new infrastructure and by reforming the way humans now use energy. My own favorite solution is to use photovoltaic satellites to harvest solar energy from orbit—where the radiation intensity is about ten times stronger than on the planet’s surface—both to fill the energy grid and to electrolyze seawater into oxygen and hydrogen for use as a motor fuel. These systems would be relatively inefficient but they would have the advantages of continuous operation, no moving parts, low maintenance, long operating life, and pure capital investment without operating or fuel costs. For a path to this, see my novel Sunflowers.

But over the short term, in the next ten to twenty years, which is when we will have to remake the world’s—not just the U.S.’s—energy infrastructure if we are to avoid catastrophe in the year 2100, the transition will not be gradual or seamless.

If we have to take down 50% of the U.S. electric supply over the next five or ten years—as some scientists and politicians have proposed—that means halving the amount of energy available. Unless you already have a roof made out of photovoltaic tiles, you would be faced with getting by on half the electric energy you use now. Think of the utility offering you the choice of service either mornings or evenings, or on Monday-Wednesday-Friday vs. Tuesday-Thursday-Saturday. And no falling back on lighting candles or using a gas-powered generator, as they do in Baghdad when the power’s out, because those sources would put huge amounts of carbon into the air. For the rest of the time you can either sleep or go for a walk. Think of being allowed to buy gasoline at the level of a World War II “nonessential use” ration card: four gallons a week. That’s fine if you ride a scooter and get 90 mpg, terrible if you drive an SUV and get about 17 mpg.8 For the rest of us, the choice is to cram onto inadequately designed buses and public transit systems. Air travel, railroads, and similar long-distance transportation would go under similar rationing.

Achieving an adequate response to global warming would require the federal government to assume wartime powers in peacetime. It can be done. America did it in the 1940s. England put up with wartime rationing until well into the 1950s. You could say the Soviet Union put up with conditions even more extreme during most of the 20th century. And places like Afghanistan, Ethiopia, Angola, and Mongolia live with vastly reduced carbon footprints to this day.

As far as I’m concerned, the economic catastrophe of dealing with global warming is worse than the prospect of wheat farming in northern Siberia and Saskatchewan, enduring an orderly evacuation of Florida and Louisiana, and paying for eventual redevelopment among the Hudson Valley highlands. Over the next four generations we will have time to adjust, ameliorate, compensate, and relocate. … And maybe the horse won’t sing after all.9

1. Indications from recorded history suggest warming periods in Roman times and the late Middle Ages (the latter perhaps coinciding with the collapse of Mayan civilization in Mesoamerica and other native American populations in the U.S. Southwest due to drought), and of cooling periods in the early Dark Ages and at the start of the Enlightenment in Europe (particularly the “Little Ice Age” of the 17th and 18th centuries). These indications would tend to prove that weather patterns shift every couple of centuries. We also have the fact of the corpse dated to about 3,300 B.C. in the Ötztal Alps, from a man who lay down in a hollow, died and was covered by snow that became a glacier, and was exposed by the melting of that glacier in 1991. The question, for me, is not whether human carbon burning caused the melting, but what forces caused that hollow to be free of ice 53 centuries ago.

2. And yes, the word “belief” has no place in science, which depends on observation, hypothesis, and proof through experiment. But as the following examples suggest, belief has a lot to do with the interpretation of what’s really going on with our climate.

3. Much discussion of climate change focuses on the fact that polar sea ice is visibly melting in our satellite surveys. But we’ve been watching with satellites for only about forty years, and scientists have been visiting and recording conditions in the polar regions for less than two centuries. If there are long-range cycles associated with glaciation and sea ice, we haven’t been around long enough to understand them.

4. It would be a catastrophe if the temperature and the sea rose all at once, but they won’t. Humanity will have about 90 years to adjust to fading property values in Florida, Louisiana, Bangladesh, and Vietnam and to relocate from high-value coastal cities whose waterfronts today command billions of dollars in real estate prices. Two hundred years ago, much of that land was swamp. A hundred years from now, much will lie out beyond the seacoast. But higher carbon dioxide levels and a warmer planet will provide benefits, too: accelerated vegetation growth, improved use of lands now lost to tundra and freezing winters, and lower costs for heating and snow removal. One man’s catastrophe will be another’s opportunity.

5. Cleaner burning means two things. First, breaking the hydrogen bonds around the carbon atom in methane and then replacing them with the oxygen bonds in making carbon dioxide yields more heat energy that simply forming the oxygen bond when burning coal. So natural gas produces less carbon dioxide for a given energy yield. Second, methane as a gas has none of the residual slag (i.e., non-carbon material) in unprocessed coal that puts fly ash and radionuclides into the atmosphere.

6. I have seen presentations about growing genetically modified algae in tanks that would produce and secrete an oil-like lipid that could be refined as fuel. One estimate suggested that an algae farm the size of the state of Maryland, placed under the brilliant sunshine of the Nevada desert, could replace all of the U.S.’s energy needs. I see only two problems with this. First, algae need carbon dioxide to grow, and adequate amounts would not be available in the ambient atmosphere over a Maryland-sized set of ponds; the operators would have to capture the gas elsewhere and pipe it into the pond. Second, the one thing conspicuously missing from the Nevada desert is water. Depending upon the algae’s tolerance for salt, the operators would have to pump brackish seawater in from the coast, and perhaps take the extra step of desalinating it, all at a great expense in energy. Most of these alternative energy schemes are still at the stage of conceptual engineering—which means that the proponents have worked out the basic theory, but we’re a long way from solving the practical problems.

7. What about nuclear power? Don’t get me started on nuclear! Everyone thinks utilities went off nuclear power in the 1980s after the partial meltdown at Three Mile Island. Actually, utilities stopped ordering new nuclear plants in the early 1970s, when the true economics of the fuel cycle became clear. Having been told in the ’50s and ’60s that nuclear generation would be “too cheap to meter” because of its low fuel cost, utilities started massive building programs. What became evident by the late ’60s, however, was that the combined carbon and electrical energy inputs required for mining uranium ore, purifying it to the uranium oxide called “yellowcake,” converting that to uranium hexafluoride gas, concentrating the gas in centrifuges, converting the concentrated gas to metal pellets, and assembling those pellets into fuel rods—all consumed more energy than could be obtained by fissioning the unstable uranium inside the rods. Add in the high capital cost of the power plant with all its safety measures and the problems of storing or reprocessing the hot spent fuel, and the resource becomes uneconomic. People keep proposing new designs and technologies hoping to make nuclear attractive, but it remains a complicated way to burn diesel fuel out in the desert so as not to create carbon-dioxide pollution along our coasts and rivers.

8. President Obama has talked about how gasoline prices “would necessarily skyrocket.” But that’s economically backward. Finding ways to raise the price to restrict use will simply penalize the poorest among us, force those in the middle class to make canny tradeoffs between the residual value in their SUVs and the price of fueling them, and leave the richest unaffected. If you really want to restrict the use of a commodity, you set an artificially low price and then diligently prosecute any supplier who charges more. If the federal government mandated a price of 50 cents per gallon, it would drive the oil refiners out of business. Of course, we would experience a brief black market in super-priced fuel. But the infrastructure of refining, transporting, and dispensing gasoline and diesel oil would be harder to conceal than the manufacture, smuggling, and sale of potable alcohol during Prohibition.

9. Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle’s wonderful novel The Mote in God’s Eye attributes to Herodotus the story of a thief brought up before the king. He bargains with the king to spare his life if within a year the thief can teach the king’s favorite horse to sing hymns. When the thief is taken back to jail, another prisoner tells him what a fool’s bargain he has made, because the horse will never sing. But the thief says a lot can happen within the year: the king might die; the horse might die; or he himself might die. And maybe the horse will sing.

Sunday, December 9, 2012

Asymmetry and Imbalance

The human mind likes things to be neat, orderly, symmetrical, balanced, complete, and tied up with a bow. Our logic and mathematics reek of symmetries, equivalences, and balances. They assure us that the world is stable, strong, secure, and not likely to collapse anytime soon. And they’re wrong.

In algebra, and in all the math and science calculations that follow from it, one side of the equation must, by definition, always equal the other in all respects and in every detail. There are no loose ends, no factors unaccounted for, no missing participants or forces. And if the mathematician or physicist should find some factor or force he can’t quite explain, he is allowed to add a constant—what schoolboys would call a “fudge factor”—that makes the numbers balance anyway.

Although constants are usually numbers whose values do not change despite circumstances—the most famous being π or “pi,” the ratio of a circle’s diameter to its circumference, always 3.1416…—some constants are not so obviously derived nor easily calculated. Einstein famously added to his original theory of general relativity the “cosmological constant”—Λ or “Lambda,” equivalent to an energy density in empty space. He did this because the pull of gravity otherwise skewed his assumption, which was everyone’s assumption in those days, that the universe was in a steady state of unchanging dimension, neither collapsing nor expanding.1

A business ledger maintained under double-entry bookkeeping matches every penny of assets—cash on hand, daily receipts, invoices awaiting collection—with some equal and opposite liability—investor funding, bank debt, salaries and rents, bills waiting to be paid. While the amounts vary from day to day, every entry must balance some other entry in the overall picture of the company. And here too we find a fudge factor: “good will,” which usually arises in negotiations for selling or buying the company. Good will is a totally intangible asset, presumed to represent the value which customers place on a brand or the esteem in which they hold the company itself. Good will as an asset balances actual cash outlays for things like non-product advertising, donations to public charities, and “corporate citizenship” programs.

If you think about this too much, your head starts to hurt. What, if anything, in the world we know and the universe beyond it is actually in balance, so that all forces cancel out and every debt is paid?

Look at the Sun or, for that matter, every other star. The Sun represents a state of stability and balance upon which we depend not only for our daily lives and the ultimate source of all the energy our civilization uses, but also for the continued existence of the Earth as a working proposition and human beings as a species.

Stars are a wonder of apparent balance. As the minute perturbations within a cloud of interstellar dust and gas shift the molecules this way and that, gravity takes hold and begins to draw them together. Given a big enough cloud, gravity will eventually take over and pull all the molecules into a ball. They might ultimately collapse right down into a dense solid, or even to a mass of collapsed atomic nuclei called neutronium, or—with enough mass doing the pulling—into a black hole … except that, along the way, the friction of those jostling molecules creates heat, which pushes back against gravity. Eventually, the compression at the center of the mass forces the lighter molecules to fuse into heavier molecules, a nuclear reaction that creates even more heat. When the pressure of gravity pulling down ignites a fusion reaction in the central core, creating a huge amount of thermal energy pushing outward, a star is born.

But stars are not stable and immutable. Some stars are so unstable that they cycle their energy output in a matter of days or weeks. Although humans have always assumed that our Sun was stable and immutable, astronomers are finding out more and more about our own star, and it’s not a simple picture.

Temperature variations within its layers give rise to convection cells, and their roiling of the plasma in turn creates a magnetic field. This field has the shape of the big loops around the ends of a bar magnet, with a positive pole at one end, negative at the other. Because of the star’s spin and the resulting alignment of those convection cells, the magnetic field usually sits on top of the axis of spin. But a magnetic field is a real thing, not an imaginary force, and sometimes one of those convection cells will capture a loop of the magnetic field and drag it outward and down, away from the slower-spinning axial regions toward the faster-moving equatorial regions of the star. The result is disruption in the star’s surface layers which appear as dark spots, called sunspots.2 These misalignments rise and fall in recognizable eleven-year cycles. Solar astronomers and climatologists are now detecting that even these shorter cycles seem to strengthen and weaken in longer cycles of perhaps two to four centuries. We live under a long-duration variable star.

From our observations of other stars, we know that every star has a life cycle and a destiny, governed by its mass. The life of a star is dictated by the amount of fuel it contains and the mass pressing on its core, forcing it through various cycles of fusion reaction: from hydrogen atoms to helium, helium to carbon, carbon to oxygen, and on up through neon, magnesium, silicon, and iron in the most massive stars. Eventually the readily available fuel comes to an end. Oh, the star still might have traces of lighter elements lingering at its core, but they are not enough or are too widely separated to fuse efficiently, and there is not enough gravity pressure to force them to react. The star reaches the end of its balancing act. Gravity wins, and the star collapses in a nova or supernova, blowing off its outer layers and compressing its core.

If stars are ultimately unstable, holding to only a temporary balance, so is the universe itself. If the Big Bang theory is correct, the universe in which we live was born in a messy explosion that left variable densities of matter that formed galaxies, galaxy clusters, and deserts of relatively empty space in between. Not only was the distribution of matter in this universe asymmetrical, it’s also becoming apparent—at least in some theories of cosmology—that the types of matter in the universe are also asymmetrical.

Everything we can see in the galaxy around us—stars, glowing clouds of gas, veils of dust—is apparently the one type of matter which we can detect and with which we can interact. But from the way the stars in a galaxy spin—locked in position, as if they were painted on the solid surface of a phonograph record, rather than freely interacting, like objects floating on the variably spinning surface of a whirlpool—astronomers have surmised that a much larger amount of material must generate this extra gravitational force. They call this extra material “dark matter,” because we cannot otherwise detect it.

And the apparent fact that the galaxies around us—both in our local neighborhood and out at the edge of the universe—are all flying away from each other, not at a steady rate but under some acceleration, suggests that there is a kind of energy in the vacuum of empty space, “dark energy,” that we cannot otherwise detect or measure.

Although stellar collapse, galactic spin, and universal cohesion are forces in apparent balance, these effects are only snapshots over a span of time. That span may be huge in terms of individual human experience, but fleeting on a cosmological scale. And these apparent balances fall apart at the farthest reaches of human understanding.

At the most human scale, too—within the framework of our bodies—we find apparent balance. As we grow from a single-cell fertilized egg into a fully functioning organism, the processes of cellular division and diversification necessarily outpace the processes of cell death by a huge margin. But then we reach a stasis point, sometime in our late twenties to late forties, where cell birth is matched by cell death. New cells are created by replication of the DNA apparatus and bifurcation and division of cell membranes, creating two cells, each with a starter set of materials. Old cells die, wither, and their components are phaged or scavenged away by implanted chemicals, organelles called lysosomes, and other bodily processes. For a time, these processes are in balance. For a time, too, our metabolisms are in balance: our hunger matches our food intake; our bodies either use the energy we consume immediately or store it away against a future time of need or starvation. Life as we know it is a temporary reversal of the ultimate dispersion of matter and energy into chaos that physicists call entropy.

But eventually the human body’s balance breaks down. The telomeres on chromosomes are worn away and replication is no longer possible. Heavy metals and other debris from dead cells are no longer effectively removed from the body and begin to collect and poison the tissues. Bones, ligaments, and connective tissues become worn. Appetites lag or go awry. Cell death exceeds cell birth. The body begins failing. We fall apart.

Nothing stays in balance forever, not stars or galaxies, and not our bodies. We might overcome the asymmetries for a while, but then they reappear. And this leads me to a curious thought—one that goes beyond science and observation and gropes toward the deeper nature of reality.

What would happen if forces were always in balance, if gravity and heat energy within stars remained in stasis, if cell birth and cell death within bodies could be so designed to remain in perfect equilibrium, if the universe were truly a steady-state machine, neither expanding nor contracting? What would happen if the world we know and everything in it were to function like a giant equation, with all the constants in place, or like a massive enterprise run by double-entry bookkeeping, with all the intangible assets fully counted?

I think … nothing. No, I don’t mean a little nothing, in terms of life going on placidly as before. It would be a huge, zero-sum NOTHING. The world as we know it would not exist.

With no unevenness in the tension holding forces in play, from stars to the universe to the chemical processes that we collectively call life, there would be no change, no progress or regression, no creation or destruction. Time would have no meaning, because there would be nothing, no activity, to measure. Probability would have no impact, because there could be no possible alternative outcome in any encounter. The world would freeze solid, like an ice crystal, like a diamond, like a standing wave in a beam of light at a single, everlasting frequency. The universe would hum on a single note, unchanging, forever.

Oh, worse than nothing! With no imbalance of forces, the Big Bang—assuming that’s how the universe really began—would never precipitate. No outpouring of light and chaos, no crystallization of matter, either light or dark, into the clumping of galaxies. The random gravitic swirls in a gas cloud that precede a star’s formation would never budge. The temporary flux of chemical activity that precedes the complex reactions that we collectively call life would never occur.

We owe our existence to imbalances, asymmetries, uneven distributions of mass and energy, fudge factors that were never allowed for in the original equations, and random exchanges that screw up the bookkeeping. The human mind might crave order, balance, and symmetry and want everything tied up with a bow. Thank Finagle or God or Whomever, things just don’t happen that way.

1. After Edwin Hubble detected a red shift in the light of distant galaxies and suggested that the universe was expanding, Einstein abandoned the cosmological constant and called it a mistake. Now, with more recent observations suggesting that not only is the universe expanding, but the expansion is accelerating, the cosmological constant is back in favor—along with the concept of “dark energy” and the notion that the vacuum of space is not nothing but instead a highly structured something.

2. Sunspots appear darker than the surrounding area of the photosphere because the loop of the magnetic field suppresses the convective flow of energy from lower levels to the surface. One would think that being pocked with these cooler sunspots would mean the Sun is giving off less energy. But the suppressed spot transfers its heat into the surrounding area, causing that part of the photosphere to glow more brightly than the cooler spot. The Sun when filled with sunspots actually puts out more energy than the blank-faced Sun.

Sunday, December 2, 2012

When You Call 911

We had a medical emergency at home about nine o’clock in the evening on the Wednesday before Thanksgiving. I won’t go into the medical details, which are private and not really relevant to this posting, but I do want to recount our experience with calling 911 and dealing with our town’s emergency medical technician (EMT) team, which as in most towns is run by the fire department.

Our popular culture is filled with examples of how most city services—and indeed any local, state, or federal bureaucracy—are run by incompetents. To quote from a desperate Sarah Connor in the first Terminator movie, “Don’t put me on hold and don’t transfer me to another department.” There’s a reason for this perception, one that I understand as a writer of fiction: if everything goes smoothly, there is no story. If you can pick up the phone and get medical or police help in a matter of minutes, then you as the main character are not thrown back into an atavistic struggle for survival, requiring all your daring and resourcefulness to achieve a resolution. Getting jacked around by the 911 operator or the cop on the beat or the emergency room nurse is the starting point for many a fictional urban adventure.

I’m glad to say that—at least from my research sample of one, and my intuition based on that experience—incompetence is far from the norm in the real world.

From the first seconds of the call, I was impressed with how calmly efficient the operators were. The first person who answered 911 asked what the problem was. Upon learning that my issue was medical rather than crime, accident, or fire related, she transferred me to the EMT department. She not only transferred me, but she told me she was transferring me and why. Now, from the comfort of your chair, you may think that’s obvious. But when you’re standing by the phone and seconds are ticking away, it’s reassuring to be told what’s going to happen, rather than just hearing click-click!

Making You Part of the Solution

The EMT operator immediately introduced himself—not by name, like some customer services representative, but by function. That made it instantly clear to me who was speaking and why. He then asked me to explain the problem, and I stammered out a sentence or two. Being a writer, I tend to think in story form and begin at the beginning. As soon as he knew what kind of trauma and what part of the body were involved, he took over and began asking specific questions. On reflection, I recognize them as being part of a decision tree, a diagnostic technique. Unlike an old-fashioned doctor, who might try to impress you by saying “edema” instead of “swelling,” the EMT operator used plain language, common descriptions, and simple, direct, one-at-a-time instructions. Our exchange was maximized for clarity.

More than that, the exchange was maximized for time. He made me take action and save minutes by asking about things I could check, answer, and settle before the actual medical team arrived on site. He gave me simple directions for administering in-home first aid and preparing the person in distress for the team. All of this was delivered in a calm and authoritative voice, designed and no-doubt practiced through training to minimize stress and produce simple, direct action.

He told me exactly how soon the EMT team would arrive, so I’m sure he was in contact with them by radio and giving them information from my call. He also told me to prepare for their arrival by unlocking the front door, turning on the lights, securing any pets, and gathering up the patient’s medications. There wasn’t any reassuring blather about “You’re in good hands, sir,” while I was expected to stand by, waiting helplessly. They made me part of the solution, and that maximized the efficiency of the medical response and was reassurance in itself.

Performing a Manual Ballet

The two young men who arrived from the fire department—although they might as easily have been women—walked through the door with exactly the equipment they needed. This was no doubt due to the operator’s describing the nature of the emergency. They located the patient and moved the person quickly to just the right place and position to administer help.

Out of the four cases they were carrying came just the right equipment and medicines. What impressed me was that the two men didn’t have to confer with each other at all. There was no “Well, what do you think?” and “You do this while I’ll do that.” Their focus was on the patient. One took vital signs and performed the kinds of sophisticated tests you see in a hospital.1 The other administered medication, first aid, and common supports like oxygen and an intravenous drip. All of this medical technology was coming out of just those four cases.

Their movements were a fascinating manual ballet. They never fumbled or got in each other’s way. They never paused. It was clear they had trained and worked together to perfect these techniques. And I sense that they weren’t prepared for just this particular emergency. For any one of a dozen bad things that can happen to you, these men had the solutions and the routines for optimum delivery of treatment in minimum time.

As with the EMT phone operator, their voices, their questions and instructions were a curious mixture of brusqueness and compassion. They didn’t waste any time on the social niceties. I never learned their names, because names weren’t important. Their instructions to me and to the patient, their explanations about what they were doing and what would come next were delivered in calm, professional voices that lacked any sense of urgency or hysteria. Yet they were encouraging and gentle in their tone and their touch.

When the ambulance with a stretcher2 arrived to take the patient to the hospital, it appeared to be from another place or another department. It wasn’t at all clear that the two teams even knew each other, yet they worked together seamlessly. They told me where the patient would be taken—which was the regional center for that kind of trauma—and exactly what I needed to bring in support.

And as the ambulance team wheeled the patient out, the EMTs secured the area, repacking their equipment and policing up sterile wrappers and packaging. They and the clutter of the treatment process were gone as quickly, quietly, and efficiently as they had come.

This might have been an unusual occurrence. Certainly, it was unusual for our family, which has been blessed with good health. But I could easily see how well trained and practiced these young men—and, I’m sure, women in similar situations—were at their jobs. Their execution was perfect in thought, word, and deed.

From that, I apply simple logic. I don’t live in a special town—a good one, but not a rich community with high taxes and expectations of elaborate services. And I am not a special person, so that operators and public servants hear my name, get all kinds of giddy, and pull out the stops to impress me. It’s clear to me that this kind of sober, efficient, encouraging treatment is the norm in well-run communities rather than the exception.

This recent experience underscores my basic belief that most people are serious about their jobs, take pride in their work, and care about serving clients and customers.3 It’s easy to picture public servants as fools and incompetents, filling jobs in a government that’s the employer of last resort, and to depict them that way in popular fiction. But in the world I inhabit the popular stereotype turned out not to be the case. And for that I am truly thankful.

1. If you haven’t been around doctors and hospitals lately—lucky you!—you would be amazed at how computerization, cellularization, Bluetooth, and disposables have compressed, compacted, and miniaturized the nature of emergency medicine. Everything that touches the patient’s body and bodily fluids is plastic-wrapped, sterile, and disposable. The added cost is a guarantee of standardized service and minimized potential for infection.

2. Like all modern medical equipment, the stretcher is a marvel of technology: collapsible, expandable, flexible, maneuverable, and designed to fit in tight spaces and around corners. And it’s painted international emergency yellow, so it can’t be confused with anything else.

3. I see this even at the Department of Motor Vehicles. If any government function is less involved in making life-and-death decisions and more involved in following rules and pushing paper, I can’t imagine it. And yet the people at the DMV—at least in California—make an effort to streamline the process with plentiful online services, a system of appointments, and good on-site communications. They may be bureaucrats, but they have a sense of purpose and demonstrate efficiency.