Thursday, December 30, 2004

A proposed science initiative for Bush

Orson Scott Card has some observations about science. The first observation is that neither of the two major parties is the "pro science" or "anti science" party.

Both the Right and the Left in America are pushing political agendas that assail science on every side, banning whole swathes of research and treating other areas as if the final word had already been achieved.


(And let's just stop right now the silly idea that Republicans are somehow anti-science and Democrats pro-science. Both of them are for whatever science advances their own political agenda, and against any science that doesn't. Politics is invariably the natural enemy of science, and all parties are guilty of killing science for political ends – especially when they are shouting loudest about how their position is "supported by science.")

One suggestion he has is to make use of the Internet to democratize peer review.

Scientific research is, in fact, best handled by scientists -- and most effectively stifled by them. One huge help to science would be to break the stranglehold of the printed scientific journals. Right now, university libraries are crippled by the necessity of paying thousands of dollars a year for each single subscription to the leading scientific journals. There is simply no excuse for this. Peer review is not that expensive, and the internet would allow virtually free dissemination of scientific journals without them ever needing to incur the expense of printing. The government could transform the situation by declaring that no federal grant money could be used to pay for subscriptions to any scientific journal that is not made available in cheap -- i.e., nearly free -- electronic form. There will be screaming: "This is an attack on the core of scientific research!" but you have to ignore this. It is the death cry of the disease that you're hearing. There is no excuse whatsoever for access to scientific journals to be limited by money. Every college student in the world should have nearly-free access to any journal in any field, and the internet makes it possible, and our government can make it happen. It should be done, and done now. Peer review is the key; and in a world of cheap journals, the competition would cease to be for money, and instead would be for reviewers. Journals would compete with each other for prestige, which would come from having the most important innovative articles. Reputations would rise and fall. Political groups would lose their iron grip on various fields of research. Marginal journals would emerge and compete for attention. And big babies would complain that everything has gone to hell in a handbasket because it is no longer the way it was in the old days -- when a handful of editors in any given field could stifle research they didn't like.

Unlike the Libertarian wing of politics, Card sees a place for government funding of Big Programs.

At the same time, government can achieve great things by dumping money into massive projects – provided the projects actually matter. The space program of the '50's, '60's, and '70's not only got us the immediate results – footprints on the moon, a working shuttle, and enormous prestige – but also spun off vast areas of technology and science that would have been impossible without that huge burst of energy.

But the Mars mission is just more of the same.

What to support instead?


He makes a number of points, some of which are excellent, some of which are good, and some of which are not so good.

The reason [for energy research] is simple and clear. There is only so much extractable oil in the earth, and nobody's making any more. And oil is so useful for constructive purposes that it is criminal for us to have burnt so much of it already.

Some dispute the "nobody's making any more" claim. There is a persistent theory floating around that petroleum is being continuosly generated by abiotic processes, and we won't run out as long as the planet's core remains sufficently molten to support plate tectonics. Also, some researchers may have figured out a cheap way of converting miscellaneous organic matter into a good imitation of petroleum. "Cheap" is defined as costing much less energy than we can get from burning the stuff.

And if we're looking at oil as a source of carbon compounds for industry, the biological world is a very rich source of carbon compounds.
For instance, hydrogen as a fuel is a chimera: Because you can't drill for hydrogen, you have to make it, and that costs fuel. What fuel? Coal or natural gas or oil, of course. In other words, hydrogen is an energy storage device, not a source of energy -- in effect, a bulky, expensive battery. So even though hydrogen is the only combustible fuel that burns absolutely cleanly, it is never in itself going to solve the long term energy problem.


His comments about alternative energy sources show evidence of the bad science education available in our schools and our media. For example:

Nuclear energy has the grave problem of creating deadly waste that can go on killing for thousands and thousands of years.

If you're talking about radioactive waste, the waste from burning nuclear fuel decays pretty quickly right at the start. It slows down later as the short-lived components decay away, of course. After thousands of hears, the components that take thousands of years to decay still remain. But remember, the original uranium is radioactive, and it takes billions of years to decay. The question we have to look at is, what's the net effect?

As it happens, reactor waste will reach the level of radioactivity of the original uranium ore after a relatively short time – six hundred years.

And in addition, we need to consider the pollution released by the energy source we're already using. Petroleum releases its own share of deadly chemicals, and burning coal releases quite a bit of radioactive material into the environment.

Environmental groups and their "willing accomplices in the media" have worked tirelessly to convince everyone of the dangers of nuclear power, and it's worked.

Economic education is also pretty dismal, and it shows:

If we wait until oil is so rare and expensive that alternative sources of energy become financially competitive, it will be too late. Shamefully so. We have to find alternatives before the oil is gone. And that requires government action, because the free market, left to itself, will burn all the cheap oil – whereupon there is a high likelihood of an unrecoverable crash, because science cannot take place on the same timescale as market forces.

Um... no. Here, Card seems to be committing a common error. He's picturing a situation where there are two big barrels of oil, one marked "cheap" and one marked "expensive". In this vision, we will naturally buy from the "cheap" barrel until it's empty. Some day very soon, there will be a giant slurping sound as the last of the oil empties from the "cheap" barrel, and the world price will then rise to the "expensive" level.

In fact, the price of oil is a continuous variable, and oil is available at a range of prices. Some small amounts of oil are still very cheap to extract. Other oil is more expensive to extract, and some wells are going after oil that's well above the average price. The thing is, the average price of oil is an average, and it's made up of contributions from many different sources. As cheap sources are used up, the average price edges up slowly. You're not going to see a crunch. Prices will rise slowly, and people will respond accordingly, moving to those alternatives to oil that become cost-effective.

Card needs to read Julian Simon's book, The Ultimate Resource.

What about space?

Card advocates research to do something about the danger of asteroids on a collision course with Earth. So far, we've been lucky, and the worst strikes that have happened during human history have done little more than start dark ages. There are still planet killers out there, and over the long term, orbits are chaotic systems.

However, there's another reason to get out in space, and it ties to energy.

For the amount of money we've spent on the war in Iraq, we could orbit an array of photovoltaic satellites. We could beam power as microwaves into receivers in Nevada (90% of which is Federal land), convert it to electricity, and feed it into the power grid. For the sake of redundancy, we could put receivers at various points throughout the nation.

And we're not talking about a microwave death ray, either. At 10 mw/cm2, the maximum allowable leakage level, that's a power density of 100 watts per square meter. A square kilometer, a little over a third of a square mile, would receive 100 megawatts of power. At an efficiency of 1%, that's a megawatt of power. This would work out to 8700 megawatt-hours of energy per year from that one square kilometer – enough to supply the needs of 1700 people.

Los Angeles uses some 22 million megawatt hours per year, which could be met by a receiver 50 kilometers on a side.

Now this is all "worst case" analysis, assuming a pretty horrible conversion efficiency and very low power levels. A conversion efficiency of 10% and a power level of 100 mw/cm2 would shrink the receiver needed by L.A. to 5 km on a side.

Ultimately, for the same amount of money we spent to topple Saddam Hussein, we could turn the US into an energy exporter.

That would be a start.

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