Archive for the ‘Science’ Category

Is nuclear power off the table?

Tuesday, January 31st, 2017

In my forthcoming novel, Gaia and the Goliaths, #7 in the “Detectives Chen and Castilblanco Series,” Detective Castilblanco considers some of the pros and cons about nuclear power. The novel’s main theme involves climate and environmental issues, pro-environmental activism, and attacks on the environment waged by corporations and their political sycophants.  Russia, known for its lack of concern about the environment and the Chernobyl disaster, plays an important role too. These issues are current ones now, considering the new U.S. administration that will invade Washington D.C.

Mr. Trump and his cabinet choices will probably set back any progress we’ve made on environmental issues, except for states like California that are far more progressive than Washington, and there are plenty of willing accomplices for Trump’s team in the GOP-dominated Congress. The new president thinks global warming is a hoax and climate control isn’t necessary. But questionable actions have been taken by Dems too. There is a general consensus among politicians that nuclear power is bad, so let’s get rid of it.

For example, Governor Cuomo of New York has championed the closing of the Indian Head power plant on the Hudson, mentioned in my novel, without having any viable alternative for replacing the power the plant generates. Many European countries depend on nuclear power, as does Japan. Is it dirty energy? Are nuclear power plants accidents waiting to happen? Have politicians created a Frankenstein monster in order to win votes from environmental activists?

First, let’s state for the record what affects global warming and is bad for the climate, namely fossil fuels. Presumably Cuomo, who has no technical background and is apparently channeling Van Helsing in his pursuit of nuclear energy as an evil vampire, will replace Indian Head’s power output with coal-burning or natural gas power plants. Those are worse for the environment. We need to reduce the carbon footprint, not augment it. Any environmental campaign must be anti-fossil fuels because there is no way to use them that won’t damage the environment. Period.


Irish Stew #56…

Monday, December 12th, 2016

[It’s been awhile. I use this potpourri of news when I want to make a lot of mini-op-eds about current affairs—hence the name. Or, if you like, my Irish temper blows, and then I stew. Because I already had a political op-ed set for tomorrow about the healthcare crisis, I decided to pair this with “Monday Words of Wisdom” and clear my writing to-do list a wee bit. Let’s go to it…]


More Saudi duplicity. I’ve often railed against the duplicitous Saudis in this blog. Sometimes I feel like a voice crying in the wilderness. Here’s yet another example of their duplicity: while we’ve been fighting the Taliban, among others, in Afghanistan for years, the Saudis have been playing both sides, but more in support of the Taliban! To quote a recent Times article: “Saudi Arabia is critical [in Afghanistan] because of its unique position in the Afghan conflict: It is on both sides.” Was Machiavelli a Saudi? They represent the primary source for destabilization in the Middle East and are indirectly (if not directly) responsible for countless tortures and murders of innocents. They are NOT our friends.

Taiwan calling. This is one case where government intervention was required—lots of it! During the election, Trump bloviated a lot about his loathing of the People’s Republic of China (like many communist naming inventions, it’s not a republic and certainly doesn’t belong to the people). He took a congratulatory call from the Taiwanese president. Big deal! Irony?  Obama can call a brutal and murdering dictator in Cuba and Trump is criticized for accepting a call from a democratically elected leader?


Cosmological distances…

Thursday, September 15th, 2016

Some excitement was caused recently by the announcement of an E-type exoplanet, Proxima b, a planet orbiting the red dwarf Proxima Centauri in the Alpha Centauri triple-star system (Alpha A is a G-type star like the sun, while B is a K-type star, but both are much brighter than Proxima). That system is about 4.3 light-years from Earth, or 40.14 trillion kilometers. (Conversion lesson: convert to statute miles.) The size of the Milky Way is about 100, 000 light-years, so Proxima is right around the corner. Right? Wrong! Even distances in our galaxy are “huuuuge,” to borrow a word abused by two recent presidential candidates and the SNL comics.

More excitement was caused by the report from scientists at the RATAN-600 radio telescope at Zelenchukskaya in Russia. They detected a strong signal apparently originating in the direction of the G-type star HD 1611595, known to have one warm Neptune-like planet (40-day orbit). This star is 94 light-years away. The Russian report to the SETI committee was made without many details.  The star might have rocky E-type planets too, so many UFO-ET enthusiasts and sci-fi addicts are in a frenzy, spurred on by the meaning of the acronym—“Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence.” While some other Russian scientists wrote the whole thing off as terrestrial interference (covering their butts?), the scientific jury is still out (comments updating this are welcome).  95 light-years is many times 4, of course, but still small in comparison relative to galactic distance markers—4 is a walk to your neighborhood convenience store; 95 is a short car ride to the nearby Dunkin’ Donuts.

Let’s counter some knee-jerk reactions to these reports first. Coincidentally, SETI has a new focus on red dwarf stars. They can live billions of years longer than G-type stars, where SETI’s emphasis has traditionally been, because we know at least one G-type star, ours, has an intelligent civilization (although “intelligent” might be a questionable word to use sometimes). That extra stellar lifespan might allow a red dwarf like Proxima Centauri to be home to an ancient civilization far advanced beyond ours (and actually be intelligent?). The hurdles are enormous, though, for any kind of life in such a system, because livable E-type planets would have to orbit the parent star so closely that they would be tidally locked, one face always turned toward the star. That means life as we know it could only exist in that transition zone between eternal day and eternal night.

The second report is a bit more difficult to put down in this way: an E-type planet could exist farther out from HD 1611595 and have life. Without knowing the details of the signal (I only know it’s strong), one can’t use it to mark the source as being intelligent. If it were narrowband, seemingly coded, and beamed directly at us (how could they know to do that when radio had just been invented on Earth 90 years ago?), you might have something. But consider this: one scientist estimates that ten-to-the-thirtieth (one followed by thirty zeroes) watts would be needed to broadcast this signal if omnidirectional (i.e. not specifically aimed at us), and ten-to-the-fifteenth watts if beamed directly. The first corresponds to a Kardashev Type II civilization, one that harnesses all energy emitted by its sun (Dyson sphere?—that’s physicist Freeman Dyson, not my author-friend Scott Dyson); the second to Type I, a civilization that “only” harnesses all the energy falling on its planet.


Common sense in a nonsensical world…

Tuesday, September 6th, 2016

If your perception about U.S. policies is that they don’t make sense, you are correct—most of the time they don’t. Not necessarily in order of importance, here’s why: First, the courts are stuck in the 19th century because the laws are. Second, American foreign policy is still based on the credo that “the enemy of my enemy is my friend.” Third, the people running everything, the super-rich, don’t give a rat’s ass whether things are done right, as long as they get richer. I could go on, but you get the idea. Sure, problems in the 21st century are complex, but incompetent people and institutional resistance to change for the better make them more so.  My definition of conservative: someone who’s so satisfied with what they have that they don’t want any change. There’s a place for that attitude, but not in the three points I mentioned.

I’ve suffered in my life with both types of judicial systems, English and Roman. In the first, precedents are given weight so that there’s continuity to “justice” (the meaning given to that word could be a fourth problem–just ask the innocent victims of gun violence or those who think Hillary Clinton should be in jail). In the second, the system inherited from the Romans and popular in Latin countries, you can do anything the law doesn’t specifically prohibit (that’s why those countries’ constitutions, if they have one, are so long).  Both are unwieldy. The first practically precludes adapting to changing times, a conservative’s delight. For example, the internet was invented in 1983 (ARPANET) and only assumed something resembling today’s chaos in 1990—let’s give it thirty years. Adding to that the fact that most justices and juries (formed from users, not techies) have no tech background at all, you can see that the justice system can’t possibly make informed decisions about scientific and technical issues most of the time.

Roman justice has a similar problem. Its laws tend to be more “written in stone,” so new science and technologies occur without any control whatsoever. It’s impossible to prohibit something when it hasn’t even been invented yet, and when it is, it might be too late to prohibit it. Progress occurs so fast nowadays that neither judicial system can keep up. Unscrupulous people will take advantage of that, human nature being what it is. Common sense tells me that technical regulatory boards are called for to keep pace with the progresses in science and technology—groups of high-tech “philosopher kings” in the sense of Plato, incorruptible individuals serving limited terms. Again, given human nature, that word “incorruptible” is key. Do such individuals exist? But there’s no doubt the current system is broken and must be fixed.


Reasonable people thinking unreasonably…

Thursday, July 28th, 2016

If you think the world is going mad, it is. That’s another way of saying people are crazy. The recent Pokemon Go craze is just the tip of the iceberg. Like that minions game on the iPhone, I thought Pokemon Go was harmless until people started walking in front of trucks, getting robbed by thieves or molested by perverts, and in general looking like actors auditioning for The Walking Dead. Not so harmless are some of the other things occurring as reasonable people think unreasonably or believe things not based on fact.

Nancy Reagan believed in astrology; many people do. They believe the zodiac signs determine their personal fates; Nancy Reagan used them to advise Ronnie about global affairs! People hold similar beliefs about Tarot cards, séances, and palm readings. Some people would never own a black cat or walk under a ladder. All these superstitious beliefs have zero science behind them. It is amazing that our science and technology have come this far with all these nuts around. Even so-called scientists can believe really stupid things. It’s embarrassing. Despite the pics from ISS and imaging satellites, there are still people who think that the Earth is flat and the center of the Universe. And I’m talking about otherwise sensible people, not primitive tribe members in Africa, Australia, or South America.


Irish Stew #55…

Tuesday, July 19th, 2016


Saudi duplicity. The Kingdom has an agenda. They try to pretend they’re friends, but they push a 6th century version of Islam just as much as ISIS. Most of the al Qaeda murderers who plotted 9/11 were Saudi, and the Saudi government helped them, not to mention the training in the Saudi’s religious schools that teaches young men to hate the West. They are also trying to radicalize Muslims in Bosnia and Kosovo and those in the old Islamic USSR countries. Their agenda is clear: time travel back to that 6th century caliphate. And you thought ISIS was the problem?

This last weekend, the government finally released the full 28 pages of the 9/11 report originally deemed TOP SECRET because they embarrassed our “Saudi friends” (with friends like that, who needs enemies?). I downloaded a copy and will peruse it in detail. At first glance, it seems nebulous and full of doublespeak, par for the course when it comes to national security. Here’s a quote from the Times article describing it: “Subsequent investigations…pursued the leads described…and found that many had no basis in fact.” Pox on the Times for bad reporting. What investigations? Do we have access? Many, but some did. Which ones? Really bad reporting. And people wonder why we have conspiracy theories! It’s only paranoia if it’s…you finish the phrase.

BREXIT and the new PM. Looks like the Brits have to live with their choices. I found it amusing the story about a town that had voted Labour for many decades voting to leave the EU in spite of that party’s pleas. Both Sanders and Trump here in the U.S. tapped into similar sentiments, but Hillary is still supporting TPP because Wall Street does.

I don’t expect the new PM to last long, although both Labour and Conservative parties should be walking the halls of Parliament like Lady Macbeth—they have blood on their hands, but Macbeth has already died. “Double, double, toil and trouble, pot boil and cauldron bubble….” British politics is more like a pressure cooker now.


Where are they?

Tuesday, June 21st, 2016

Most sci-fi readers and writers are familiar with the Fermi paradox, summarized by the question in the title, and the associated Drake equation that tried to resolve it. For those who are not, let me review that history first before going on to discuss a different take on the Drake equation that I found interesting.

The Fermi paradox first appears in my sci-fi books in the second book of the “Chaos Chronicles Trilogy.” In Sing a Samba Galactica, Earth colonists on New Haven, an E-type planet in the 82 Eridani system, have evidence for some local ETs and try to figure out how to communicate with them. Here’s the excerpt:


They had an informal meeting in the bachelors’ dining area.  Takahashi watched as Malenkov, ever the showman, pinged his beer mug with a laser pointer and then stood on top of a chair.

“At Los Alamos, in 1950,” he began, in his best orator’s voice, “the great Italian physicist Enrico Fermi asked Emil Konopinski, Edward Teller, and Herbert York, as well as other physicists working on the atomic bomb project, this provocative question:  If life is so common in the universe, where are they?”

Malenkov waited for some chuckles to subside, gulped some beer, and continued.

“Fermi noted there are plenty of stars older than our sun.  If life were so plentiful, it would have begun on planets around these stars billions of years before it began on Earth.  In that case, shouldn’t Earth have been visited or colonized by a race much older than our own?  Even with slow means of space travel like what we used to come to New Haven, a civilization with a will to homestead could settle a large fraction of the galaxy in a million years or so.”

Malenkov looked out at his audience.  Takahashi, sitting in the cafeteria’s front row, smiled at him.  So which one of us is Holmes and which one Watson?


Educating the world…

Thursday, June 2nd, 2016

Last Friday I reviewed the film The Man Who Knew Infinity about English mathematician Hardy’s “discovery” of the great Indian number theory genius Ramanujan.  The movie is based on the book with the same title by Robert Kanigel.  I read Hardy’s A Mathematician’s Apology decades ago, so the release of the film stirred some old memories, including some about importing scientists.  The U.S. does it all the time; so do more industrialized countries in the E.U.; the U.K. does it to all the Commonwealth countries.  And industrialized nations steal scientists from all over the world, especially the Third World.  There are often more ads for physics positions in China than in the U.S. in Physics Today.  Mr. Obama spoke to the “brain drain” while in Vietnam.

It’s not clear that Britain received any great benefit from Ramanujan’s country-hopping.  Trinity College benefitted in prestige, I suppose, but no great jump in industrial or technological advantage occurred.  His work isn’t exactly esoteric, though.  Number theory is tightly coupled with modern day encryption techniques, and Ramanujan loved his prime numbers.  And a written epilogue at the end of the film mentions the relationship of some unusual Ramanujan-discovered functions to the theory of black holes (see the review).  Other “stolen scientists” make more of a difference in producing society’s paradigm shifts.  In the U.S., our space effort received a kick in the butt from von Braun and other Nazi rocket scientists we stole.  Italian physicist Fermi was a key person in the Manhattan project.


Thinking like ETs…

Wednesday, May 11th, 2016

As more and more planets are discovered, some in their star’s E-zone (Earth-like conditions stretched a little, but always with liquid water), it becomes almost a certainty that life exists “out there.”  Earth isn’t the center of the Universe, it might not be all that special, and human beings better start giving any gods they’ve created a little more credit, or create new ones with a more universal outlook.  That said, what about intelligent life?

Fermi’s paradox, summarized succinctly by “Where are they?”, isn’t really a paradox.  If you assume the ETs are subject to our same physical laws—in other words, they’re limited by the speed of light and the immense distance even to nearby stars—they can’t visit us anymore than we can visit them.  Many ET civilizations might have come and gone.  Their people might have wondered if there’s someone “out there,” or they didn’t give an ET rat’s ass—maybe they were so xenophobic they didn’t want to meet anyone else, or their planet was shrouded by thick fog and they didn’t even know anything outside the atmosphere existed.  Intelligent life just might not be that intelligent.

Or, it might be a lot more intelligent and technically more advanced than we are, pushing beyond the limitations of physical laws as we currently understand them.  In my “Chaos Chronicles Trilogy” (CCT), I postulate some colonization in near Earth-space via trips lasting hundreds of years, followed by an ET-Human collaboration that figures out to hop around the multiverses, a type of faster-than-light travel that doesn’t make old Einstein turn over in his grave.


Scientists and mathematicians #3…

Thursday, April 14th, 2016

Some theoretical physicists play loose with mathematics.  Feynman, for example, never worried about the convergence of the series needed to calculate things in QED (that’s quantum electrodynamics); in fact, he designed a technique, now called Feynman diagrams, to allow him to throw away infinities easily and just hoped things would work out.  That’s called renormalization.  The renormalization of quantum field theories became a big deal.  The electro-weak theory of Weinberg, Glashow, and Salam, designed to explain and combine the electromagnetic and the weak forces, for example, was never fully accepted until ‘t Hooft proved it could be “renormalized.”

Dirac’s bras and kets were just vectors and linear functionals on a Hilbert space, but I doubt he worried too much about functional analysis, the study of infinite-dimensional vector spaces and their linear operators.  Even Maxwell’s brilliant synthesis of all classical electromagnetic phenomena—gamma rays, x-rays, visible light, electricity, and magnetism—had to wait years until vector calculus was invented by Gibbs before its true beauty could be seen.  A classical vector field is determined by its curl and divergence, and that’s exactly what Maxwell’s equations say about the electric and magnetic fields.

Sometimes physics gets ahead of mathematics.  Sometimes it’s the reverse.  The key to quantum chromodynamics isn’t Gell-Mann’s Eightfold Way.  The representations for the special unitary group SU(3) he used to organize hadrons into composites of quarks already existed.  His contribution was to recognize that the representations could organize the hadronic particle zoo.  Similarly, I always thought that algebraic topology was an esoteric branch of mathematics, and yet it has found multiple uses in particle physics.

On the flip side, Ed Witten’s treatment of string theory (part of quantum field theory) has led into many breakthroughs in the theory of knots, an unusually esoteric mathematical subject, so much so that Witten received the Fields Medal, the prestigious mathematics equivalent of a Nobel prize (the story about why Nobel didn’t want to give a prize to mathematicians seems apocryphal).  Much earlier, Einstein’s General Theory of Relativity wouldn’t have gone anywhere without tensor calculus—his friend Grossman, a mathematician, even helped him with the math.