Welcome to the age of diminishing returns

Sunday, July 31, 2011

The question of Sovicille

Image above by Martin

My job often casts me the role of public speaker and that gives me a chance to visit very interesting places. Not long ago, I gave a talk in the small town of Sovicille, near Siena, in the beautiful countryside of central Tuscany. At this presentation, a member of the audience posed a question that gave me the occasion to elaborate on something that I had been thinking on for a while; that is, about why there is so much disagreement on so many issues, from resource depletion to climate change. In theory, the scientific method should lead us to find an agreement, in practice we seem to be engaged in an endless cycle of arguments that never goes anywhere. Why is it so? What follows is related from memory, but it is close to the actual debate of that evening. 


The question:


Professor, I liked your talk, but I am perplexed. You told us many interesting things about fossil fuels, energy and climate. I tend to agree with you and your conclusions seem to make sense. But I can't avoid noticing that I have heard other scientists arriving to different conclusions. I heard someone saying that people were predicting the end of fossil fuels already 20 years ago and they were wrong, of course, and therefore there is nothing to worry about today. And it is the same about climate; I heard someone saying that scientists were expecting an ice age in the 1970s, and they were wrong, of course. So, I am surprised that experts can have such different positions while, theoretically, they all have the same data. You see, professor, I used to teach philosophy in high school and I know that there are different philosophical schools and different ideas. And, of course, when we discuss religion or politics, people have different ideas and there is no way that one can demonstrate who is right and who is wrong. That is normal. But I expected that in science things would be different. So, why is that?

My answer:

First of all, thanks a lot for this question. It is a very interesting problem that goes to the core of the matter and perhaps it is funny that I had to come all the way to Sovicille to discuss this subject. So, you are right in noting that there is something wrong with the debate on many important issues, from resource depletion to climate change. We discuss and discuss and we don't seem to be going anywhere; people just remain entrenched in their positions. This is surprising under many respects because we are not discussing religion - these issues are not based on dogmas or on divine revelations. We have data and we have the scientific method that tells us how to interpret them. We should arrive to an agreement or, at least, to identify the areas of uncertainty. But, for some reason, it doesn't work that way. So, is this a failure of scientists, of the scientific method, or of what?

One thing that I can tell you is that I am often amazed to see how well the scientific method works. I'd say wonderfully well. There is the agreement that facts are the basis of consensus. Then, if new facts challenge the old view, well, the old view is abandoned. There are many cases in the history of science when at some moment there was some consensus on a wrong idea. But science always found the right course when new and better data became available. The scientific discussion may be harsh, tempers may flare - scientists are human beings, after all - but, in the end, it finds the right way. One of the beautiful things of science is that there is no humiliation involved in changing your mind. You have new data, you change your interpretation and nobody says that you are a flip-flop.

You see, the essence of the scientific method is about managing uncertainty. You want to reduce it as much as possible, but never exactly to zero. You want to leave always open the possibility to review and change even the most strongly established ideas. That is a bit subtle - many people don't understand it. That's very evident in an issue such as anthropogenic climate change, AGW. If you say that there remains a certain degree of uncertainty about AGW, then some people will tell you that, if it is uncertain, there is no need to do anything about it. But if you tell them that you are sure that AGW is real, then they tell you that you are not a good scientist, because a good scientist should know that in science nothing ever is absolutely certain. A nice trick to make sure that the debate never goes anywhere. 

So, this beauty of the scientific method is also, in a way, a problem. Because of the uncertainty that is supposed to remain in any issue, there is always a possibility to argue just about anything. Sure, it would be weird today to seriously argue that the Earth is flat, even though I think there is, somewhere, a "flat earth society." But other subjects, and I was mentioning resource depletion and climate change, are uncertain enough that there is plenty of space to argue. Which is fine, in principle; the problem is that the discussion should be about reducing this uncertainty, whereas some people seem to be interested only in keeping it as large as possible; if possible in enlarging it. And some people engaged in this task are scientists; and that is bad because the have the cultural resources to keep arguing and arguing and always stay away from a conclusion. This is, in a way, human, but you wouldn't expect this attitude from people trained as scientists. So, I think this is the core of your question and let's see if we can answer it.

One first hypothesis is that people take this attitude because of money. Maybe you heard that say which has that, "you can't expect someone to understand something if his or her salary depends on not understanding it." That sounds wise and it raises a question: can we explain the behavior of some scientists with corruption? Money corrupts, as we all know, and scientists are human beings. You probably read in the newspapers not long ago that the vote of an Italian senator can be bought for couple of hundred thousand dollars. I don't know if that is true but I am afraid it might. And if a senator can be bought for two hundred thousand dollars, why not a scientist, who makes much less money than a senator?

Indeed, scientists can be bought and have been bought, at least occasionally. There is a good book that you can read on this point; it is titled "Merchants of Doubt." It is written by Naomi Oreskes and Erik Conway. It tells you, among other things, of the debate about the effect of smoking on people's health and how some scientists were on the payroll of the tobacco industry. That is, they were paid to lie to people telling them that smoking is not bad for health. And you can read in the same book how, later on, some of these scientists moved on to work for fossil fuel companies and they were paid to cast doubts on the science of climate change. We can call these people "scientists" and, unfortunately, some of them have the right credential to claim to be that. Scientists, maybe, but also criminals of the worst kind. They kill people for money. Money corrupts, as I said.

But let me say that there are very few corrupt scientists in the sense of being paid money to tell lies. You can see that because, in the end, the tobacco industry lost the battle on the health effects of smoking. If it were easy to buy scientists, the tobacco industry could have bought enough scientists to build a totally different consensus. By now, we would be all convinced that smoking is good for health; we would be all smoking right now! So, it seems to be very difficult to buy a scientist for money; it may be much more difficult than buying an Italian senator. And that makes me happy because I am a scientist and not a senator; but, of course, this is not the point we are discussing.

So, scientists are not - normally - corrupt, in the sense that they are paid money for telling lies. But there is still a problem related with money: many scientists are "embedded" in the industrial system. It doesn't mean that they get money in their pockets directly from industry. But to be a good scientist one must do research and doing research costs money. Suppose you are a scientist who works on petroleum. Suppose you have been involved in estimating oil resources and making scenarios for future production. Then you discover that peak oil is real and coming soon - that is, production will start declining in the near future. But these are not good news for the industry. You know, if peak oil is really coming soon, people might decide to stop investing in oil and invest in renewable energy, instead. That would be horrible news for the oil industry and surely it is hard to think that you would get a grant from an oil company to publish such results. Without grants, no research. Without research, no career. The life of the whistle-blower is difficult, as everyone knows.

So, you see, in the end money counts; as we all know. But I think this is not the whole story - there are factors that go beyond money in determining the behavior of people. Let me make another example. You may have heard of Freeman Dyson, he is a famous physicist. He wrote an interesting book where he tells of his experience in working with the British Bomber Command during the second world war. The task of Bomber Command was to carry out bombing raids against Germany and Dyson reports that he found himself working for a huge organization dedicated to killing people and not even doing the job well. But he could not disengage himself: he describes how he slowly retreated from one moral position to another until he had no moral position at all. The problem was that he felt that it was morally right to fight that war, but he found that, step by step, that moral stance led him to a position in which he was embedded with Bomber Command and because of that he found himself inventing justifications for burning alive German men, women and children. And, of course, on the other side there were surely people who were trying to find moral justifications for exterminating Jewish men, women and children. If people were unable to twist their morals in this way, nobody ever would fight wars.

In modern times, this mechanism, let's call it the "embedding trap" works just as well. It is for this reason that you rarely find a scientist working or doing research for the coal industry who is also active in promoting the need of reducing greenhouse gas emissions. That doesn't mean that the scientists working for the coal industry are evil or corrupt, just that they are human beings, just as we are. The insidious power of the embedding trap lies in the fact that it proceeds step by step towards a certain direction and the embedded person may not even realize that. There are many people denying AGW, scientists or not, who don't work for the coal industry and are not paid by the fossil fuel lobby. They are just embedded in an environment of like-minded persons who have led them to take positions from which they can't back off any more.

This is a major problem. As long as the situation stays as it is, there will always people who will exploit the natural uncertainty of science to bend or ignore facts and find "scientific" arguments against inconvenient truths, such as climate change and resource depletion. So, how do we beat the embedding trap?

This is a good question, again. My impression is that there have to be ways to avoid the trap. The main one is not to fall into it from the very beginning. I believe you can do first of all by sticking to the scientific method. But perhaps it is more important to use that quality that I could call "empathy". In order to avoid the embedding trap, you have to have a certain "feeling" about the world, the people, nature, everything. If you feel empathy towards your fellow human beings it is much more difficult to think that you'll find yourself justifying killing large numbers of them by carpet bombing or by the emissions of coal plants. But you have to avoid the trap from the beginning. If you fall into the embedding trap, it is extremely difficult to come out


I do think that it is possible to avoid the trap. When I read that 97% of climate scientists support real science in the face threats, intimidation, ridicule and legal harassment, well, that makes me proud of being a scientist or, at least, to be doing what I can to be one. So, I think that, as long as we stick to the scientific method, as scientists we'll always have something to say that is useful to the world and I believe that the world will have a good reason to trust us. So, there is hope to advance even in the face of the difficulties we face today.

In the end, there are many things that money can't buy - one is the Tuscan landscape around us and the kind of life that one can live here; even without a lot of money. And, perhaps, if we look at that, we can understand what I meant as "empathy" for nature and for human beings and that is a good way to avoid the embedding trap.



I wish to thank Marco Rustioni and Alfredo Camozzi for having invited me to speak in Sovicille in March 2011

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

The E-Cat loses steam



The "Energy Catalyser" (E-Cat) is a device that has been reported by two Italian scientists to be able to solve the world's energy problems by means of a nuclear fusion reaction. Unfortunately, there are serious doubts about these claims. In the figure above (from a paper by Peter Ekstrom ) you see one of the problems with the E-Cat: the trickle of the steam produced by the device in operation is way too small to indicate that it actually produces energy. (This post was published on "The Oil Drum" on 27 July 2011)
 

Andrea Rossi and Sergio Focardi have recently claimed the development of a device (the "energy catalyser" or "E-Cat") able to produce useful energy from low temperature nuclear fusion reactions. If it were to work as reported, the E-Cat would be a true revolution not only in science, but also in everyday life. We would have a simple device able to produce plenty of low cost energy without generating significant pollution and we could say good-bye to the energy crisis and to global warming as well. In a previous post of mine on "The Oil Drum," I examined the E-Cat leaving open the possibility that it was a real fusion device. Here, I re-examine the question on the basis of new data. It looks now very unlikely that the E-Cat can work as claimed.

The E-Cat idea is rooted in the early work by Martin Fleischmann and Stanley Pons who, in 1986, had claimed to have succeeded in fusing deuterium nuclei together ("cold fusion") and in obtaining an abundant source of cheap energy. However, the claims of Fleischmann and Pons were based on flawed experimental measurements and it turned out that there was no such thing as cold fusion in their setup. That didn't deter other scientists from looking for similar phenomena; a search that continues to this date. Rossi and Focardi have reported that they have been able to fuse nickel nuclei with hydrogen ones at low temperatures, generating copper nuclei and useful energy in the process. Accdording to their claims, the reaction must be started by providing some energy to the reaction cell, but the excess heat produced may be 30 times larger or even more.

The initial reactions to the claims by Rossi and Focardi were of cautious interest (for instance by myself and by Kjell Aleklett) or even of straight endorsement (e.g. by Hanno Essen and Sven Kullander ). However, these initial reactions were based mainly on the statements by the inventors of the E-Cat. In science, there is a shared belief that when a colleague tells you of something he/she has done, you don't assume right away that the measurement is wrong, a hoax, or a scam designed to make money. However, when the measurement is important; when it is crucial for the development a new theory or disproving an old one, then it must be shown in detail that it was correctly performed and that it can be independently repeated. Of course, inventors don't have to show how exactly their invention works, but it is in their best interest to show that it works.

So, let's examine the situation of the E-Cat as it stands at present. No direct evidence for a nuclear reaction inside the device has been reported, as would be, for instance, the emission of gamma rays. The only evidence available is indirect and it comes from the large amount of excess heat that is claimed to be produced by the reactor. As the only basis of the claim of nuclear reactions taking place, the excess heat (if any) produced by the reactor should have been measured with extreme care and with all the necessary precautions necessary to insure that it is significant. Unfortunately it appears that this is not the case. The set up for the heat measurements looks inadequate and amateurish; the results are unclear and repeatability has not been demonstrated. It appears legitimate to think that the claim of "cold fusion" by Rossi and Focardi rests on poor evidence, or even or no evidence at all.

A reasonably reliable calorimetric measurement of the heat produced by the E-Cat could be performed by cycling cooling water inside an insulated tank and measuring the temperature of the water. Knowing the amount of water, it would be possible to obtain a first estimate of the heat produced. That, in itself, would still not be enough. The heat measurement would have to be validated by replacing the E-Cat with a resistor and then measuring the power needed to heat the water at the same temperature as with the E-Cat in action. But the crucial test would be a "blank" one in which it would be shown that there is a significant difference in the heat generated by a functioning E-Cat and by a device where the "catalyser" is absent.

It is clear, however, that the inventors of the E-cat did nothing of that sort. They didn't close the cooling cycle, they let the steam vent out and they estimated the amount of heat created by assuming that all the water passing through the E-Cat is vaporized. That's obviously a very poor set-up that guarantees large errors simply because there is no way to be sure that all the water is vaporized. Yet, it is clear from this movie that this is the way the measurement was interpreted.

Even a poor experimental set-up can still tell you something if you use some elementary precautions. Simply using two E-cats, one "active" and the other without the catalyst, it may be possible to see a difference if the excess heat exists. But Rossi has refused to address the question of a blank test. It may be worth mentioning at this point that the downfall of the 1986 "cold fusion" claims by Fleischmann and Pons started when they could not demonstrate to have peformed a blank test in their experiment.

Overall, Peter Ekstrom has a convincing point when he shows that the E-Cat is not producing any excess heat. As an answer Rossi could find nothing better than calling Ekstrom "a clown". This answer was subsequently deleted from Rossi's blog, but it can still be found on the web, for instance here. This is just an example Mr. Rossi's general attitude regarding those who criticize him. To all this, we may add other suspicious elements. Steven Krivit has correctly described several of the weak points of the claims by Rossi and Focardi. Then, we may add that the measurements made in Sweden showed that the copper purportedly created by nuclear transmutation in the E-Cat has the same isotopic composition as natural copper. That is simply not possible.

Of course, all this does not prove that the E-Cat cannot work as described, but the burden of proof rests on the inventors and it is clear that they are far away from being able to show that their device is an energy producing machine based on nuclear fusion. It seems that the E-Cat story is rapidly moving to the realm of 'pathological science' . Grand claims of scientific revolutions supported by little or no evidence, ambitious recipes on how to save the world by some miracle machinery, gobbledygook masked as scientific theorizing, ad hominem insults to non-believers, etc.; it is a well known pattern. From now on, we may expect to see another wave of conspiracy theorizing related to the E-cat. That, too, shall pass.

Monday, July 25, 2011

Anders Breivik, the monster of Oslo was also a climate denier

Sorry for insisting with the Oslo tragedy, but I am deeply shocked by it. That doesn't mean there haven't been other similar tragedies - even worse ones in terms of carnage. It just seemed to me, however, that this particular event was especially evil because Anders Breivik did everything alone - or at least so it appears to be the case. And even if he was helped by someone, he was still theorizing all of it alone. I my view, it is mind boggling; I can't imagine how you can accumulate such hate, all by yourself, all in your mind. I am still bewildered because of this.

I am even more bewildered by discovering some paragraphs of Breivik's "manifesto" where he describes how climate change is a marxist scam using the whole set of legends surrounding climate change, from climategate to the speeches of Christopher Monckton. You know, it is easy to find this kind of statements on the web. And I had always thought that these people were harmless.

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Excerpts From Breivik's "Manifesto"

http://www.2shared.com/file/M-s-2fBD/2083-AEuropeanDeclarationofInd.html


2.72 Green is the new Red - Stop Enviro-Communism! 

You might know them as environmentalists, enviro-communists, ecoMarxists, neo-Communists or eco-fanatics. They all claim they want to save the world from global warming but their true agenda is to contribute to create a world government lead by the UN or in other ways increase the transfer of resources (redistribute resources) from the developed Western world to the third world. They hope to accomplish this through the distribution of misinformation (propaganda) which they hope will lead to increased taxation of already excessively taxed Europeans and US citizens. The neo-communist agenda uses politicised science to propagate the global warming scam in order to implement their true agenda; global Marxism. Marxism’s ultimate goal is to redistribute wealth from successful nations to failed nations, instead of actually trying to fix these broken nations. Politicised science is being used by the cultural Marxist hegemony to manipulate the unsuspecting masses. They are using our trust and faith in science to spread lies and hysteria that will allow Marxists to implement socialist “solutions” to a problem that never actually existed. 


<..>


That's exactly what is happening with the Anthropogenic Global Warming scam; too many people are too demoralised to assess true information about Socialism, Communism, and climate change to allow its use for other agendas on the hands of the useful idiots “the leftists” as former KGB agent Yuri Bezmenov calls them. Enviro-communism is a new twisted idea of redistribution of wealth through “environmental” policies and the Copenhagen Climate Change Conference 2009 is the perfect manifestation of it. Environmental Justice is the new Social Justice; Climate Debt is the new Redistribution of Wealth, Anthropogenic Global Warming scam is the Communism. 


<..>

Please see Lord Christopher Monckton's speech:
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PMe5dOgbu40&feature=player_embedded

<..>


Barak Obama received the Nobel Peace prize for exactly the same reason Al Gore did. The prize is given by Thorbjørn Jagland, Chair of the Nobel Committee who was also the Vice President of Socialist International. One can think they are pushing a global agenda of Enviro-Communism or Eco-Marxism that will force Europe and the US to cater for the global Eco-Marxist agenda. Their end goal is to “punish” European countries (US included) for capitalism and success. The Marxist agenda of the Climate Change Conference 2009 was to discuss the totalitarian idea of World Government, transfer of wealth from Western countries to 3rd world countries under what they call “Climate debt”, because allegedly western countries have been burning CO2 and 3rd world countries haven’t!

<..>

Climategate incident – exposing the eco-Marxist scam 


On Thursday 19th November 2009 news began to circulate that hacked documents and communications from the University of East Anglia’s Hadley Climate Research Unit (aka CRU) had been published to the internet. The information revealed how top scientists conspired to falsify data in the face of declining global temperatures in order to prop up the premise that man-made factors are driving climate change. The documents and emails illustrated how prominent climatologists, affiliated with the UN’s International Panel on Climate Change, embarked on a venomous and coordinated campaign to ostracise climate skeptics and use their influence to keep dissenting reports from appearing in peer-reviewed journals, as well as using cronyism to avoid compliance with Freedom of Information Act requests. Here follows a compendium of articles and videos on what was quickly dubbed as “ClimateGate”. The full story: [3] 

Sources: 

1. http://www.foxnews.com/projects/pdf/113009_IISDreport.pdf 
2. http://www.europa-eu-un.org/articles/en/article_8975_en.htm 
3. http://www.prisonplanet.com/climate-bombshell-hacker-leaks-thousands-of-emails-showing-conspiracy-to-hide-the-realdata-on-manmade-climate-change.html 
4. http://www.prisonplanet.com/climategate-the-final-nail-in-the-coffin-of-anthropogenic-global-warming.html 
5. http://www.prisonplanet.com/hacked-e-mails-climate-scientists-discuss-hiding-decline-in-temperatures.html 
6. http://www.prisonplanet.com/mike%E2%80%99s-nature-trick.html 
7. http://www.prisonplanet.com/mcintyre-the-deleted-data-from-the-%e2%80%9chide-the-decline%e2%80%9d-trick.html 
8. http://www.prisonplanet.com/hide-the-decline-climategate.html 
9. http://www.prisonplanet.com/bishop-hill%E2%80%99s-compendium-of-cru-email-issues.html

Sunday, July 24, 2011

Complex system gone bad: the tragedy of Oslo


It is said that the human brain is the most complex system we know of in the universe. Complex systems, by their nature, are unpredictable and difficult to control. A feedback dominated system can stabilize in unexpected states. The brain of Anders Behring Breivik, the killer of Oslo, is a complex system that has reached a certain state of horrible lucidity. One can get some glimpse of this lucid folly from this document that he wrote under a transparent pseudonym.



http://www.scribd.com/doc/60743276/2083-A-European-Declaration-of-Independence

Of all the things I read in my life, this is the one that most closely fulfils the definition of "evil". It is not even so much for what Breivik did, but just for what he is, or at least for the way he appears to be from this document. What we get is a glimpse of a state of evilness that one wouldn't think possible. And yet, as I said, the human brain is the most complex thing of the universe and can reach even this state. Try to imagine the solitude of this man the way he describes it. Try to put yourself in this state of personal exaltation; being convinced that it is upon you, and you alone, to save Europe by killing Europe's enemies. And this from a man who calls himself "Christian".

Facing this, I can only cite Paul, in the letter to the Romans (1:30) when he says that "they invent ways of doing evil". The human brain, indeed, can invent new and ingenious ways of doing that. There is no doubt that Anders Breivik has invented an ingenious way of being evil.




(thanks to "Mago" for Paul's citation)

Friday, July 22, 2011

Peak Research

Joseph Tainter's model of decline is based on the idea that civilizations attempt to counter the effect of declining resources by creating more complex structures. That strategy fails to bring the desired results because of the diminishing returns of complexity. The same factors may be causing a decline in the worldwide effectiveness of scientific research, plagued by bureaucracy, strangled by excess of rules and controls, and weighed down by lack of resources. (My detailed interpretation of Tainter's model can be found in a post titled "Tainter's law, where is the physics?")


Life has been very hard for scientists during the last few years. Already, the life of an active scientist was a rat race in which you had to run in circles, trying to get grants that would allow you to pay students and postdocs and they would help you write more papers that then would be used to support proposal that would provide you grants that would allow you to pay students.....  It has always been like that, but in the last few years it has become hell. More and more bureaucracy, tight controls, guidelines to follow, time schedules to keep and less and less money. And, of course, any attempt to do something creative and a little outside the known schemes seems to be becoming impossible to finance.

I think that the situation is like that everywhere in Europe and the US, at least from what I hear from my colleagues: reduced budgets, more paperwork, and the sensation to be running a rat race. I couldn't find data about the worldwide situation, but these data from the US do suggest that we may have peaked in terms of resources available for scientific research or, at least, we are plateauing. (source: Task Force in American Innovation)


But the question of resources may not be the most important one. What I perceive is, rather, a declining quality of the research being performed. I may be wrong, because it is hard to quantify an entity such as "quality of research". But my impression is that it is becoming increasingly difficult to perform original and innovative research within a system that provides resources for doing that only if researchers submit to a series of tight constraints. Not long ago, I was hearing a talk by a well intentioned presenter who endeavoured to teach to young scientists how to successfully apply for research grants. I don't know what the young scientists thought of that. My impression was that the presenter could have been described the rituals of an esoteric cult dedicated to adoring the God Quetzalcoatl; human sacrifices were not requested, but almost.

Don't get me wrong: I am not saying that I don't like to do research any more. I love doing research and I wanted to be a scientist from the time I read my first science fiction novel; I think that was when I was about six. And I am not saying that science is not progressing any more. Absolutely not. I am amazed by the progress being done in many fields, for instance, in climate science. And that is done despite climate scientists being threatened, harassed and insulted for what they are doing.

What I am saying is that the state of scientific research in the world seems to be a nice example of Tainter's interpretation of the diminishing returns of complexity. Tainter had devised his model to explain the fall of civilizations - he had mostly in mind the Roman Empire. His idea is that when civilizations face diminishing resources, they react by building up more and more complex structure to cope with the problem. But there is a diminishing return to complexity; these structures become burdens rather than solutions and help bringing down the whole system (a discussion of mine on Tainter's model can be found here).

Tainter's model has a certain "fractal" quality; that is it applies to subsystems just as it does to the whole system. If you look at the Roman Empire, you see that all its subsectors where declining together. Can you cite a Roman poet after Virgil? Most likely, you can't. Not that there were no poets after Virgil, but  Roman literature declined with the decline of the Empire and we found little or no interest in refined but shallow poems such as those written by Claudian in the 5th century AD.

Something similar seems to be happening in our times with scientific research (and possibly also with literature). It seems that, facing a declining supply of resources, the structures that manage scientific research try to compensate by building up a new layer of bureaucracy aimed at "optimizing" research - just as they are trying to optimize teaching. It means that, when you obtain a research grant, you are told in exquisite detail exactly what you are to do, how, for how long and that any departure from the plan must be justified. It seems that the very concept of "research," intended as looking for something new, is not allowed any more in these plans. You can't get funded unless you already know what you are going to find.

That's the perfect recipe for that "excellent mediocrity" which is the bane of scientific research. It was already a problem with the phenomenon known as "publish or perish", but with the bureaucratization of research it has gotten much worse. I could give you a series of funny (or tragic) examples from my own experience, but let me skip that. It just seems to me the system is becoming innovation-averse; it is like if "research" had become an oxymoron all by itself. The point is, could we do something about that? Don't get me wrong, I am not saying that scientists should be like Dr. Zarkov in the first episode of "Flash Gordon," where he builds an interplanetary spaceship in his basement. Science is a collective task that requires coordination, planning and some degree of control. But how to turn research into something that can change the world for real? Something that may help us to attain sustainability and stop destroying the ecosystem?

That's difficult of course. Bureaucracy is a tool to keep the world as it is, not to change it. So, in perfect Tainter-style, the system works hard to avoid innovation, not to promote it. It is almost impossible to be financed to study resource depletion; that would highlight problems that would require changes and that's a no-no. Instead, it is still possible to obtain research grants as long as there is no risk that the results will threaten the status quo. Hydrogen as a fuel is a good example. It is high-tech, fashionable, sophisticated, popular, environmentally friendly, and it doesn't work. This last characteristic makes sure that its development will bring no changes whatsoever. Absolutely perfect for the bureaucrats who manage the research grant system.

Thinking about that, I feel like the centurion of Kipling's story, the one who dedicated his life to the defense of Hadrian's wall in Northern England.  The Romans could not reform their Empire to survive decline; they fell in the trap of diminishing returns described by Tainter. And if the Romans failed in reforming their empire, who are we to think that we can reform research?  Tainter's law is harsh.

But, if the idea is to make research more creative, we should think creatively. About the problems of the Roman empire, I said that there was only one solution and that was called "Middle Ages". The only way to save the Empire, intended as its culture, art, laws and all what goes under the name of "civilization", was to break it apart. In a way the solution to keep the Empire alive was to kill it. As the Zen Masters say, "when you meet the Buddha on the road, kill him!"

Could we think of something just as drastic for scientific research? Yes, it would mean to leave the tight world of the research grants and find new ways to perform better research - more independent, more creative. Moving, in a way, to an equivalent of "Middle Ages" intended as the break-up of the old, tight structure. And, think about that a moment, maybe there are already examples of this approach. Think of Wikipedia - it was not created by bureaucrats; it is a free sharing of information done by people who work for free. Think of "free and open source software," that has generated the Ubuntu operating system which I am using to write this post. Probably there are more examples of good work that can be performed not because you are paid to do it. It is said, after all, that "things done illegally are done most efficiently."

That doesn't mean that it is illegal to do scientific research without being told to do it by some bureaucrat, at least so far. But I think that some of the best scientific work I've done in my life (or perhaps the least bad work I did) has been done outside the boundaries of the granting system. A couple of examples are the papers on resource depletion that I and my coworkers recently published  (here and here). All done on a strictly zero budget - but so what? Scientific research is about sharing, after all. I think we should at least try this approach.


With the gradual collapse of the Roman Empire, Roman poets such as Claudian could only write elaborate and shallow praises of those who paid them. That wasn't the end of poetry in Europe: at the same time, the great sagas of King Arthur and of Sigfried were being written outside the Empire's borders by unknown poets who knew nothing of the elaborate rules of Latin poetry. So great was their creative energy that their stories were told for millennia after them and are still known today. So, creative energies can survive declining times and that is perhaps true also for scientific research in our times.

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Note: you may wonder why I am citing so much the Roman poet Claudian in this post about scientific research. Well, it is because I am preparing a post on the figure of Galla Placidia, the last Roman Empress who lived in the 5th century A.D. The historical sources from that period are scant and, therefore, even the poet Claudian may be used as a source of data. And perhaps I have been too harsh in my judgement; his poems have some charm.... ahem.... occasionally.  

Friday, July 15, 2011

Hard times for science



Skip the mumbo-jumbo of the neuronally challenged guy; go to minute 1:00 and watch the noose presented to the speaking scientist.

All right; just a few madmen, their threat is not to be exaggerated. But, think about that just one moment. Doesn't that scene eerily remind you of the movie "Hypatia"? Yes, in the age of the decline of the Roman Empire, Hypatia, scientist and philosopher, was first threatened and eventually killed by a group of madmen just for the fact of being a scientist.

Now, of course that can't happen here. Sure. It can't............

(from Deltoid)

Monday, July 11, 2011

The Great Haboob


The Phoenix Haboob of July 5th, 2011 from Mike Olbinski on Vimeo.

Now, you can say, of course, that a single event proves nothing about the importance of anthropogenic effects on the ecosystem. Yeah... sure....

Saturday, July 9, 2011

Peak University

Students attending the IISCABC graduate school on the chemistry of the environment and of cultural heritage in Feltre (Italy) on July 8, 2011

Sometimes, they ask me "are you a teacher?" My usual answer is, "Well, let's say that sometimes I enter a room where there are young people sitting. I say things, they look at me and, sometimes, they write down something on their notepads. Whether that qualifies as 'teaching' is open to discussion."

Over the years, my doubts about what I am doing as a teacher (so to say) have been increasing. This impression has been reinforced by my experience with two summer schools, this year. In both cases, the class was arranged in the way you see in the picture above. Students sit behind computer screens. As a lecturer, I can't possibly know what they are doing; I can only see that they are typing something and moving their mouses. I know that they are connected to the Internet. Are they chatting with their friends? Answering e-mails? Looking at the latest news? Who knows? But that kind of arrangement is becoming more and more common in classrooms.

In some respects, having the students half hidden and doing something unfathomable may well be an improvement in comparison with the old style. Normally, they have been sitting in class while looking at you with vitreous eyes, scribbling something on their notepads (what are they writing? Prose? Poetry? Magic formulas? Invocations to obscure deities?). If they have a computer and an internet connection, they can at least use Facebook to evade for a while from the boredom of the average university lecture. (and think that I am teaching chemistry: that's boring almost by definition.)

Of course, we might forbid students to surf the web while in class. That, however, won't get rid of the simple fact that, with a few simple clicks on Wikipedia, Google scholar, or the like, the students can access a wealth of information that is way more complete, updated, better organized, rationally presented (and more) than anything that can be provided by a single person standing in front of them.

That is true, at least, when the idea is to teach the basis of wide field; things change when you go into specialized subjects, where a specific researcher may know more than anything you can find on Wikipedia. But there is a limit to the usefulness of teaching specialized matters to average students. So, no wonder that students find their time in the classroom an abyss of boredom. I am sure they do; I remember perfectly how boring it was when I was a students and I think things haven't changed today. If you are not convinced, just go give a look to sites like "ratemyprofessor". If you are a teacher (or, at least, you emit sounds in those rooms called "classrooms") and you can find your name in there, most likely your self-esteem will take a bad hit. (I am lucky that my students can't write in English!).

So, I think that a certain model of passing knowledge from one another is hopelessly passé. The university as a repository of knowledge may well have peaked and be rapidly going the same way as slide rulers and mechanical typewriters went. Disappeared; surpassed by faster, better, wider ranging instruments. We need to think of new an more dynamic ways to pass knowledge; we need to stop this weird ritual in which you say things to young people who look at you, but you have no way to know whether they are actually decoding the sounds you are uttering. We should rather focus on the direct, human contact with a teacher. The relation with a mentor has been fundamental in history and it is likely to remain the master way to attain knowledge. But that happens outside classrooms; it has always been like that, and it always will be.

Unfortunately, the organization of teaching in most universities seems to be in the grips of an asphyxiating bureaucracy that forces researchers to mould to specific roles. As I see things around me, universities seem to be moving towards that "scripted teaching" which is becoming more and more common in elementary and high schools. A kind of teaching where teachers are told exactly - sometimes word by word - what to teach. It may be an effective way of teaching basic concepts, but it is the perfect antithesis to building that kind of mentor-pupil relation that is the basis of all true learning. Besides, if I am not forced to a script, I can still tell to my students about peak oil and about other subject that keep them awake and away from on-line chatting.

Taking the opposite approach, perhaps some old models could be rejuvenated and found to be more suitable for exploiting "the cloud" where most information is being moving to. "Long distance learning" used to be a 2nd class kind of university; but it does have the good feature that it doesn't require the kind of ritualized and boring lecturing that regular universities require. An long distance teaching institution like the "UNED" in Spain, may be an interesting case to examine - they have been doing good work in areas such as peak oil. In this kind of university, students don't sit in classrooms, at least most of the time. They study at home and then they spend a couple of weeks of intense interaction with their teachers at the school site. Maybe it could be a way to go; although at present these schools are still rare and not valued for the potential they have.

And how about research? I spoke about "peak university" as related to teaching, but that's not the only activity in universities - of course we do also research. About that, let me just say that I believe that we have peaked in research just as well. Research has become an elaborate game that we play with bureaucrats and has mostly to do with getting money that then must be used to follow arcane rules that involve charts, milestones and targets. The whole enterprise, mainly, leads to ponderous reports that nobody reads. It all reminds me of state-supported poetry at the time of the Soviet Union. 

So, if you arrived all the way to here, I think I have to apologize for this little rant of mine. It was written in a single stretch as soon as I was back home from that school in Feltre that I mentioned at the beginning. It is not supposed to be a complete discussion of this matter and let me say, in addition, that it is not meant at all to disparage the competent and dedicated organizers of this interesting school, nor the bright, caring and attentive students who attended it. Maybe we can discuss more about these matters it in the comments.

Friday, July 1, 2011

Peak oil joke


I know, I know, this is not an original joke; it is an old one, readapted. But there are not so many jokes on peak oil, actually none I know about - so now there is at least one. It came up over a few beers after the social dinner at the Barbastro conference on peak oil. If I remember correctly (you know, all those beers....) I told a first version of the joke in that occasion, then Pilar Carrero improved it on the spot with a better punchline. So, here it is; a lighter side of the peak oil problem!


An geologist is prospecting for crude oil, somewhere in a desert. Digging here and there, he finds an old oil lamp. He uncorks it and, suddenly, a big, mean genie comes out. Towering over the geologist, the genie speaks to him in a thundering voice:

Genie - Mortal, you freed me from a thousand years of imprisonment in this old lamp. I had sworn that I would fulfil a wish to anyone who would free me; so now, express your wish!

Geol. - "Oh, genie, that's very nice of you........"

Genie - "Then, Mortal, speak!"

Geol. - "Well, I think I don't want anything for me. I'd rather ask for something useful for everybody. So, Genie, could you solve the peak oil problem?"

Genie - "Mortal, consider that I have been locked inside that stupid lamp for one thousand years. Pray, explain to me what is the "peak oil problem"

Geol. - "Ah... see, it has to do with crude oil......"

Genie - "Which is.....?"

Geol. - "It is like the oil for those lamps - the one you came out from. But we use it for a lot more things, like cars...."

Genie - "Cars?"

Geologist - "Sort of magic carpets, but on wheels."

Genie - "I see."

Geol. - "And then, you see, we need a lot of this oil, because we have many cars...."

Genie - "And the problem is....?"

Geol. - "Well, you know, oil has been formed long time ago as the result of sedimentation of organic material in anoxic conditions. The process called diagenesis leads to the formation of kerogene and then, at sufficiently high temperatures and pressures, to the formation of long chain hydrocarbons that collect in formations called anticlines.....

Genie - "Anticlines?"

Geol. - "Yes, anticlines. Salt domes, usually, a fold in which oil collects by buoyancy. It is from there that we extract crude oil and, you see, what we would need is a way to fill up again those anticlines......"

Genie - "Hold on, mister. You know, I am a desert genie. I know nothing about crude oil, diagenesis, anticlines.... I mean, I can do things; I am a supernatural being, after all. But what you are asking me; what the heck; it is too much - filling up the anticlines with crude oil? Couldn't you think of something simpler for your wish?

Geol. "Hmmm..... yes, I understand. Sorry, I have been asking for something very difficult. Maybe I could think of something simpler.

Genie. "Thanks......"

Geol. "Let me see.... Yes, there is one thing I had always wanted. I would like to be able to understand women."

Genie - "........."

Geol. - ".........."


Genie - "Let's see...... could you tell me more about those anticlines?"


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If you are curious about the co-developer of this peak oil joke, here is a picture of Pilar (Pili) Carrero, who did an excellent job with the organization of the Barbastro peak oil conference. Pili also interviewed several of the speakers (see the interviews at this link), including the modest me whom you can admire (so to say) while desperately trying to speak Spanish, here.