Random Stew It seemed like a good idea at the time.

29Aug/081

You Have *GOT* To Be Kidding

Stupid is as stupid does. --Mrs. Gump

As I'm often wont to do, I was watching The Discovery Channel the other evening, specifically an episode of the series Discovery Project Earth. The series bills itself as "eight crazy experiments bold enough to change the world". The experiments are ways to reduce or reverse the effects of global warming.

So, what are these bold, world-altering experiments? Well, I've seen three of the experiments so far.

  1. Save the glaciers. The scientists running this experiment propose to save glaciers from accelerated melting -- due to global warming -- by wrapping glaciers with a reflective plastic. The experiment was performed on a glacier in Greenland that was tagged as being endangered by global warming. The glacier actually had a large meltwater lake in the middle of it -- something I had never seen before. To be honest though, I'm not sure how saving glaciers was supposed to reduce or reverse the effects of global warming.
  2. Create more clouds. Clouds are much more reflective than water or land. So this proposal is to create automated fleets of ships that will atomize sea water, spraying the mist high into the air to form clouds. The computer simulations of this experiment showed this being performed off the west coast of Africa. In theory, a 10% increase in clouds would cool the Earth to pre-industrial levels.
  3. Diffract part of the sunlight that reaches Earth. This was, by far, the boldest idea. The proposal is to launch billions of refractive lenses into space between the Sun and Earth so that a portion of the sunlight that currently reaches Earth will instead be diffracted into space. A reduction of sunlight as small as 1-2% would cool the Earth to pre-industrial levels.

As I'm listening to each of these proposals, I was immediately struck by how amazingly stupid and ill-advised each one is. Not a single one of the ideas suggested discovering and addressing the root causes of global warming.

I know that the popular theory of the cause of global warming is a dramatic increase of CO2 levels in the atmosphere. And that might be true. But it's not proven. Yes, CO2 levels have increased along with global temperatures, but correlation does not imply causation. An alternative, tongue-in-cheek, yet statistically valid theory shows an inverse relationship between the population of swashbuckling pirates and global temperatures. Specifically, that a decrease in the pirate population has caused a rapid increase in global temperatures.

I'm not saying the alarming increase of atmospheric CO2 is not the cause of global warming. I'm saying that it appears to be a promising theory with a strong correlation, but we still don't know. The Earth has experienced temperature fluctuations before that were not caused by CO2. Are we sure this trend isn't one of those flucuations? I think these experiments should have been directed at finding the root cause of global warming and not these absurd ideas.

After all, wrapping a glacier in plastic is such a stupid idea that I can't believe it was even discussed -- so, I'm not going to.

As for creating more clouds, let's ask the survivors of Katrina whether pumping warm water vapor into the air off the west coast of Africa sounds like a good idea to them. Our understanding of climatic systems is embryonic, at best, so why even contemplate creating 10% more clouds? How can we possibly predict the global environmental impact?

Brilliant thinkerAnd diffracting some of the Sun's energy away from Earth? Let me think about that. Hmmm...every bit of the energy used on Earth comes from the Sun. And now we're discussing decreasing that energy source? By spending trillions of dollars to manufacture, launch, position, and maintain billions of strategically positioned lenses? Riiiiggghhhtt.

I have a couple of ideas to reduce global warming that would fit right into this TV series. What if we paint all the cities white! That will greatly reduce the heat absorption of all that pavement. Not to mention stimulating the economy by employing all the painters in the world.

Here's another "great" idea. A person breathing at the average rate of 12 breaths per minute, exhales 1.3 grams of CO2 every minute. What if everyone breathed slower? If every person would cut off 2 breaths per minute, their respiratory contribution to atmospheric CO2 would be reduced annually by over 116 kilograms. If everyone participated, the amount becomes 697,422,960 metric tons (1 metric ton = 1000 kgs)! The average American automobile annually spews 4.5 metric tons of C02 into the atmosphere. So merely by breathing a bit slower, we can effectively remove 154,982,880 automobiles from the road -- that's well over half the number of cars in the United States.

Thank you. You've been a great audience. I'll be here all week.

24Jul/080

To Boldly Go…

I believe this nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to Earth. --President John F. Kennedy to a special joint session of Congress on May 25, 1961

On this date 39 years ago, the national goal set to us by Kennedy was accomplished when Apollo 11, carrying Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin, and Michael Collins, splashed down safely in the Pacific Ocean. Over eight years of singularly focused scientific and engineering discovery was realized in this achievement. Many people say it's still the greatest achievement of mankind.

Kennedy's challenge to the nation became a calling for a Cause and fired our national imagination. It forged the will within the nation such that nothing could stop the Cause. 1968 Democratic Convention in ChicagoNot the daunting technical challenges. Not the tragic deaths of the Apollo 1 crew in a capsule fire during testing. Not the naysayers who cried the project was too expensive. Not the turbulent social upheaval of the 1960's. Not the Cuban Missile Crisis. Not the Vietnam War. Not the murder of John F. Kennedy, nor Martin Luther King, nor Robert Kennedy.

World War II was unquestionably the greatest focal period of the nation's collective spirit during the 20th century, but the Apollo program of the 1960's was surely the second. German soldiers goosestepping in Warsaw.And at least during WWII, the need of singular focus on winning the war was obvious. And while the Apollo program was partially driven by Russianphobia, the benefits were certainly less nebulous than winning a war against the Axis Powers.

And the costs! According to Project Apollo article on Wikipedia, the final cost of the project was about $23 Billion in 1969 dollars ($135 Billion in 2005 dollars)! Again, other than war, when has any country committed itself to such an endeavor?

Kennedy knew the magnitude of the task he was setting, but as he said in his famous speech at Rice University:

Kennedy speaking at Rice UniversiteWe choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win, and the others, too.

Setting such a bold goal for the country was a sign of great leadership. Somehow inspiring the public imagination and national will to actually accomplish the single greatest peacetime achievement in history, is, most assuredly, leadership truly worthy of being called presidential.

Something to think about in this election year.

7Apr/080

Now you see it…

File this entry under "what I learned today".

From the show Understanding on the Science Channel:

If you were to represent the entire electromagnetic spectrum (from radio waves to gamma rays) as a 2500 mile long roll of movie film, the section of visible light would be one frame of film. Amazingly, most of the electromagnetic radiation emitted by stars falls within that one frame.

11Jan/081

Starstruck

I recently viewed an exhibit about the Hubble Space Telescope at the S.C. State Museum. I've always been fascinated with astronomy, physics, and science in general. To be honest, though, I found the exhibit shallow and disappointing; however, the exhibit did impress upon me, once again, the sheer enormity of space.

"Yeah, yeah, yeah", you're thinking, "we all know space is big. DUH!" And you're right. Everyone does know the distances are huge, but I don't think they really comprehend the size. For instance, Alpha Centauri is the nearest neighboring star to our Sun at only 4.3 light years away. Only 4.3 light years equates to 25,265,838,509,316.77 miles! That's 25 trillion miles! Then again, somehow the concept of a trillion doesn't convey the magnitude (pun intended) of the number. Imagine a stack of paper 25 trillion sheets high. Any idea how tall that stack would be? A sheet of standard copier paper is 0.0038" thick so a stack of 25 trillion sheets would be 1,499,368 miles high -- or a little over 6 times the distance to the moon!

As I said, it's 25 trillion miles (4.3 light years) to the nearest star other than the Sun, The Milky Waybut this is a mere speck compared to the size of our galaxy. The Milky Way is 100,000 light years in diameter, over 23,000 times the distance from the Sun to Alpha Centauri -- 587,577,639,751,552,790 miles. Now that corresponding stack of paper is 34,485,464,000 (34 billion) miles high, roughly 7.5 times the radius of our solar system!

The farthest astronomical object yet discovered is a galaxy estimated to be 13 billion light years distant. That distance is 130,000 times greater than the diameter of the Milky Way. Now the corresponding stack of paper is 4,483,110,320,000,000 miles high -- over 177 times the distance to Alpha Centauri!

Hubble Telescope image of distant galaxies.It's not just distances that are mind-boggling. It's estimated that the Milky Way contains 200 billion stars. And the Milky Way is just one of an estimated 125 billion galaxies! In all, the estimated number of stars in the known universe is 1021 -- that's 1,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 stars. Interestingly, depending on whose estimate you use, that's roughly equivalent to the number of grains of sand on Earth.

...as the stars of the heaven, and as the sand which is upon the sea shore... --Genesis 22:17