Category Archives: Science

Carl Sagan on Skepticism

From the Skeptical Enquirer:  https://skepticalinquirer.org/1987/10/the-burden-of-skepticism/

I view skepticism as very much a part of critical thinking. This was written in 1987.  It’s called “The Burden of Skepticism,” which is a great title. A few excerpts:

If you were to drop down on Earth at any time during the tenure of humans you would find a set of popular, more or less similar, belief systems. They change, often very quickly, often on time scales of a few years: But sometimes belief systems of this sort last for many thousands of years. At least a few are always available. I think it’s fair to ask why. We are Homo sapiens. That’s the distinguishing characteristic about us, that sapiens part. We’re supposed to be smart. So why is this stuff always with us? Well, for one thing, a great many of these belief systems address real human needs that are not being met by our society. There are unsatisfied medical needs, spiritual needs, and needs for communion with the rest of the human community.

There may be more such failings in our society than in many others in human history. And so it is reasonable for people to poke around and try on for size various belief systems, to see if they help.

Skepticism challenges established institutions. If we teach everybody, let’s say high school students, the habit of being skeptical, perhaps they will not restrict their skepticism to aspirin commercials and 35,000-year-old channelers (or channelees). Maybe they’ll start asking awkward questions about economic, or social, or political, or religious institutions. Then where will we be? Skepticism is dangerous. That’s exactly its function, in my view. It is the business of skepticism to be dangerous. And that’s why there is a great reluctance to teach it in the schools. That’s why you don’t find a general fluency in skepticism in the media.

I want to say a little more about the burden of skepticism. You can get into a habit of thought in which you enjoy making fun of all those other people who don’t see things as clearly as you do. This is a potential social danger present in an organization like CSICOP. We have to guard carefully against it.

It seems to me what is called for is an exquisite balance between two conflicting needs: the most skeptical scrutiny of all hypotheses that are served up to us and at the same time a great openness to new ideas. Obviously those two modes of thought are in some tension. But if you are able to exercise only one of these modes, which ever one it is, you’re in deep trouble. If you are only skeptical, then no new ideas make it through to you. You never learn anything new. You become a crotchety old person convinced that nonsense is ruling the world. (There is, of course, much data to support you.) But every now and then, maybe once in a hundred cases, a new idea turns out to be on the mark, valid and wonderful. If you are too much in the habit of being skeptical about everything, you are going to miss or resent it, and either way you will be standing in the way of understanding and progress. On the other hand, if you are open to the point of gullibility and have not an ounce of skeptical sense in you, then you cannot distinguish the useful ideas from the worthless ones. If all ideas have equal validity then you are lost, because then, it seems to me, no ideas have any validity at all.

Some ideas are better than others. The machinery for distinguishing them is an essential tool in dealing with the world and especially in dealing with the future. And it is precisely the mix of these two modes of thought that is central to the success of science.

Propelling emotional predispositions on these issues are present, often unconsciously, in scientific debates. It is important to realize that scientific debates, just like pseudoscientific debates, can be awash with emotion, for these among many different reasons.

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Plastic Waste

Really interesting information from The Economist:

Last October scientists at the Helmholtz Centre for Environmental Research, in Germany, found that ten rivers—two in Africa and the rest in Asia—discharge 90% of all plastic marine debris. The Yangtze alone carries 1.5m tonnes a year.

Here’s one chart:

There’s more data and another fascinating chart if you click the link to the original article.

 

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Clean Energy from Hydrogen

Great article from Vox.

It is expensive, in both money and energy, to pry hydrogen loose from other elements, store it, and convert it back to useful energy. The value we get out of it has never quite justified what we invest in producing it. It is one of those technologies that seems perpetually on the verge of a breakthrough, but never quite there.

Seattle native Evan Johnson thinks he can change that. He thinks he’s finally figured out how to unlock a hydrogen economy.

Johnson is far from the first or only person with that goal. But after 10 years of tinkering, testing, and preparation, he has worked out a series of technologies and a practical business plan that chart a path to real commercial scale for hydrogen.

The best part is his 3 product plan:

HyTech Power, based in Redmond, Washington, intends to introduce three products over the next year or two.

The first will use hydrogen to clean up existing diesel engines, increasing their fuel efficiency by a third and eliminating over half their air pollution, with an average nine-month payback, the company says. That’s a potentially enormous market with plenty of existing demand, which HyTech hopes will capitalize its second product, a retrofit that will transform any internal combustion vehicle into a zero-emissions vehicle (ZEV) by enabling it to run on pure hydrogen. That will primarily be targeted at large fleets.

And that will tee up the third product — the one Johnson’s had his eye on from the beginning, the one that could revolutionize and decentralize the energy system — a stationary energy-storage product meant to compete with, and eventually outcompete, big batteries like Tesla’s Powerwall.

This is all very exciting.  If ICE can be converted, then that would immediately accelerate the elimination of fossil fuel usage.  The big issue with electric cars isn’t that they won’t happen, but that they can’t happen fast enough.  There are around 270 million cars in the USA, and around 6 million new cars sold each year.  All 3 of these products will have huge impacts on the entire transportation industry.  And there’s plenty of room for electric cars and this.

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Coal vs. Renewable Energy

OK, so solar just took a blow via new tariffs.  Here’s a story about renewables to brighten your day.  From ThinkProgress 1/10/18:

Solar, wind, and battery prices are dropping so fast that, in Colorado, building new renewable power plus battery storage is now cheaper than running old coal plants. This increasingly renders existing coal plants obsolete.

Two weeks ago, Xcel Energy quietly reported dozens of shockingly low bids it had received for building new solar and wind farms, many with battery storage (see table below).

The median bid price in 2017 for wind plus battery storage was $21 per megawatt-hour, which is 2.1 cents per kilowatt-hour. As Carbon Tracker noted, this “appears to be lower than the operating cost of all coal plants currently in Colorado.”

The median bid price for solar plus battery storage was $36/MWh (3.6 cents/kwh), which may be lower than about three-fourths of operating coal capacity.  For context, the average U.S. residential price for electricity is 12 cents/kWh.

Bid summary from XCEL's 2017 solicitation (part of its 2016 Energy Resource Plan).
Bid summary from XCEL’s 2017 solicitation (part of its 2016 Energy Resource Plan).

Note that by definition, half of the bids are below the median price — and there were 87 bids for solar plus storage, meaning many bids were quite low (see table above).

There were 96 bids for wind power alone — at a median price of 1.8 cents/kwh — which means some were very low-priced indeed. The tremendous number of bids in Colorado reveal the power of competition in driving prices down.

But it’s not just Colorado whose energy markets have been turned upside down. In November, we reported on the remarkable findings of the financial firm Lazard Ltd., which found that in many regions of North America, “the full-lifecycle costs of building and operating renewables-based projects have dropped below the operating costs alone of conventional generation technologies such as coal or nuclear.”

Moreover, Bloomberg New Energy Finance projects battery prices are projected to drop another 75 percent by 2030, even as solar and wind prices also keep dropping sharply. As a result, the price for dependable power from renewable energy sources is just going to keep going lower and lower.

 

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Natural Gas mini plants

From Quartz:

On an acre and half, FuelCell had built a natural-gas power plant that feeds into Bridgeport’s city grid. It produces 15MW of power, enough for 1,500 American homes. Just blocks away, I saw rows of suburban homes.

Typically, you wouldn’t want a house that close to a fossil-fuel power plant in order to avoid exposure to harmful gases containing sulfur and nitrogen. FuelCell, as its name implies, sells fuel cells, similar to those in hydrogen-powered cars. But instead of hydrogen, FuelCell’s products burn natural gas without the harmful emissions.

 

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Cars of the future

Maybe not flying yet like Jetsons or Back to the Future, but advances are in process and inevitable.

From Zacks Investment Management:

Self-Driving Cars Reach New Milestone – for those readers who are still reluctant to believe in the electric car and self-driving car revolutions, we understand (but it’s time to start believing). Where the U.S. government is generally snail-pace slow in legislating in lockstep with technological change, they have passed a bill that creates a national framework of regulations for the industry. The bill includes amendments covering cybersecurity issues and allows automakers to sell up to 80,000 self-driving vehicles annually, assuming that safety standards are met. On the automakers front, it’s been an active week as Ford detailed a strategy for future investment of research and resources into self-driving cars. General Motors followed suit by indicating that its ‘Cruise Automation’ business is making rapid progress on fully autonomous driving capabilities.

Lots of hate on Tesla and Elon Musk is a continuing theme, but Tesla just keeps on keepin’ on.  As soon as production of the Model 3 ramps up to plan, electric cars are a done deal and cannot be stopped.  I’m not sure why Zero Hedge has such an axe to grind (lots of MLP and energy positions, perhaps?), but they sure do.  Here’s a couple of the latest screeds:  http://www.zerohedge.com/news/2017-10-07/visualizing-many-failures-elon-musk

http://www.zerohedge.com/news/2017-10-06/teslas-big-secret-its-building-model-3s-hand

Meanwhile, the production line continues to go through development and troubleshooting:

And GM, Volvo, and Jaguar have also already announced they will be eliminating internal combustion engines completely.  https://www.wired.com/story/general-motors-electric-cars-plan-gm?mbid=social_twitter

 

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More EV confirmation

I recognize this is just me finding more confirmation of my existing beliefs, but, from Zacks Investment Management...

Electric Car Announcements – two European nations gave new meaning to the phrase “plug and play” this week, when both France and Britain made announcements about new rules banning all gas and diesel vehicle sales. France’s announcement came a day after the automaker Volvo said it would phase out the internal combustible engine, and both countries have made this pledge applicable to 2040. Meanwhile, the second largest automaker in the world, Toyota, said they are working on an electric car with an improved driving range and a fast-charging battery. The Japanese automaker wants to build an electric vehicle (EV) using solid-state batteries that can be recharged in minutes, with expectations for the new model to arrive as early as 2022. It appears the question is no longer if automakers are shifting to hybrids and EVs, but rather how soon. The race to electric should be fun to watch.

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Vertical Farming

This is really cool, and great news in a lot of ways.  From impactalpha.com:

Bowery Farming raises $20 million for vertical farm expansion. Indoor farming is still small but investors think it’s poised for growth with rising global food need and the environmental strain of traditional agriculture. Bowery Farming, based in Kearny, N.J., calls itself a tech venture focused on the future of food and claims its approach grows 100 times more produce than a similarly-sized outdoor farm. It has raised $27.5 million to date for its approach to growing greens indoors. The process uses LED lighting, robotics and specially-developed software. The latest funding round was backed by Google’s venture fund, GV; General Catalyst; and GGV Capital—a venture capital firm focused on the U.S. and China. Vertical farming “is no longer just a pie-in-the-sky theory,” says GGV’s Hans Tung. “It has the chance to scale in the next five years.” Earlier this month, AeroFarms, another New Jersey indoor farming operation, raised $34 million from Emirati investors interested in bringing the technology to the desert-covered Gulf region.

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Electric Airplanes

From Real Assets Advisor.  Electric planes are under serious development.  This is amazing.  Will they be covered in solar energy capturing PV panels?  How can they carry enough batteries and still fly?

“Easyjet has had discussions with Wright Electric and is actively providing an airline operator’s perspective on the development of this exciting technology,” the airline told the BBC.

Founded in 2016, Wright Electric says the first plane, the Wright One, is being designed for flights that cover air corridors such as New York-to-Boston, London-to-Paris, and Seoul-to-Jeju.

“Our plane has to be so much cheaper that it’s a no-brainer,” the company wrote in a recent blog post. “For context, Boeing built the 787 to achieve 20 percent fuel savings over the 767. Fuel is such an expensive component of flying that 20 percent was considered sufficient to justify the development costs of a new plane. In our case, the Wright One has the potential to achieve fuel savings of as much as 50 percent.”

Wright Electric hired a team that had been previously funded by NASA to investigate the potential for electric planes, which company co-founder Jeff Engler says puts the startup years ahead of the competition.

 

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Yale Brain Research

So, there are specific and separate “hunt” and “kill” neurons?  Each of those behaviors is complex, not simple.    From FT:

Scientists turn mild-mannered mice into killers

The researchers at Yale University used “optogenetic” technology, which switches specific neurons on and off in genetically engineered animals with laser light, to tap into brain mechanisms that control predatory hunting.

By manipulating brain cells in this region through optogenetics, the Yale team found one distinct set of neurons controlled pursuit and another controlled the kill. If the hunting neurons were switched on and the biting set inactivated, the mice pursued prey but could not deliver the killer bite to finish it off.

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