Welcome to the age of diminishing returns

Thursday, December 22, 2011

Chemistry of an Empire: the Last Roman Empress


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A 5th century medallion showing what is perhaps the only portrait we have of Galla Placidia (388-450 c.e.), the last (and the only) Western Roman Empress. The inscription says "Domina Nostra, Galla Placidia, Pia, Felix, Augusta," that is "Our Lady, Galla Placidia, Pious, Blessed and Venerable."  A contemporary of such figures as Saint Augustine, Saint Patrick, Attila the Hun, and – perhaps – King Arthur, Placidia had the rare chance of being able to do something that past Roman Emperors never could do; take the Empire to its next stage which was to be, unavoidably, its demise.


As I was preparing this essay on Empress Galla Placidia, I found myself giving an impromptu talk on the subject to my students in chemistry on the last lesson before Christmas. Later on, I thought that I could write my essay in the form of that talk. So, here it is. It is much expanded in comparison to what I said to my students on that occasion, but still it maintains the essence of it. I have added headings and some figures.



Introduction: chemistry of an empire

I think there won't be a lecture in chemistry, today.  We are close to Christmas, there are just a few of you, and so it is better to skip a long and boring lecture; we'll have it after the pause for the holidays. So, we could simply leave for a coffee but, maybe, we could use this time we have in a different way. You know, there is a subject that I work on when I have some free time: Roman history. So, I was thinking that, instead of giving you a lecture in chemistry, I could speak to you about that. How would you like to hear the story of a Roman princess who married a barbarian king and then became Empress of Rome?

Now, I see from your faces that - yes - you would like to be told this story! But note that perhaps it is a subject that is not so far from chemistry as you might think. You see, civilizations can be seen as huge chemical reactions and you know that chemical reactions tend to flare up and then subside; it is what we call "chemical kinetics," you have studied that. The same happens for empires; they tend to flare up and then disappear; that's what happened to the Roman Empire, as you know.  So, civilizations and chemical reactions can be studied using similar methods; it is a field of science that goes under the name of "system dynamics". In a sense, there are forces pushing people to do things just like there are forces pushing molecules to react. In chemistry we call those forces “chemical potentials”, about people we might use the term “destiny” or "karma" or something like that. But perhaps the difference is not so great.

But don't worry about equations. I said that today I was going to tell you a story, and I am going to do it. It is the story of Galla Placidia; born a Roman princess, then Queen of the Goths, and, in the end, Empress of Rome. It is a great story of love, sex, and war. So, let's start!


The fall of Rome.

Now, I am asking you to close your eyes and forget for a moment where you are. Forget that you are in a classroom, forget that you are students of chemistry, forget that you live in the 21st century. Try to imagine something that existed way back in time: ancient Rome in the first years of the 5th century of our era, fifteen hundred years ago.

Sunday, December 18, 2011

Peak E-Cat

Number of searches of the term "E-Cat" according to Google Trends

The interest in the "E-Cat", the supposed "cold fusion reactor" invented by Andrea Rossi and Sergio Focardi, is waning. You can perceive that clearly from the activity of the various sites dealing with it; while "Google Trends" confirms that the trend is indeed down. After a flare of curiosity that peaked in november 2011, people found that there was nothing to see about the E-Cat except some purported "demonstrations" that didn't really demonstrate anything. So, they lost interest. 

What remains of the E-Cat is a core of diehard supporters - especially in Italy. - who will likely keep the myth alive for a long time. It is typical and well known: "free energy" theories never die. Today, people are still discussing the supposed free energy devices attributed to Nikola Tesla and that go back to almost a century ago - poor Tesla is probably still rolling over in his grave. And, in the meantime, plenty more cranky theories have been proposed. In this field, the E-Cat will remain remarkable for the amount of noise it generated when compared to what little evidence (actually, none) was presented.

About the E-Cat, you may be interested in two well thought and in depth articles that demolish Rossi's claims at their basis.


Friday, December 16, 2011

The invisible toothpaste: overselling science



Justin Hall-Tipping CEO of "Nanoholdings" gives a presentation titled "The Future of Nano-Electric Power Generation". I was not impressed by the scientific content of the talk, but it think it can give us interesting insight on how communication works and how the public sees science and scientists.


The science of advertising is based on a number of fundamental laws; the most important one can be stated as, "don't just sell them a toothpaste, sell them a whole new way of life". You can see this law applied every day in TV. If you brush your teeth with a specific brand of toothpaste, you don't just get beautiful white teeth, but you'll become sexy and athletic. And you'll have a happy and smiling family, too!

Almost every one who works in advertising knows and applies the law, but if you want to see real mastery, do give a look to the video above. This guy is not just selling a toothpaste; he is selling a promise of a toothpaste to come; an invisible toothpaste. He is a true adept of the Art, a master. Look at the posture, the tone, the sense of the talk, the mix of scientific wonder and moral duty. Look at the faces of the people listening to the talk - totally enthralled. Look at the final stroke of genius, when he sorts out of his pocket the photo of a little girl from Sudan, dying of thirst. That borders on the sublime.

But what is exactly that this guy is selling? Well, my impression while watching the show was to be exposed to the output of a giant hair dryer. Of course, nanotubes are real and they have interesting properties. They do have promising future applications. But, in this talk we have no quantitative information anywhere, except for one point and, there, the given datum is wrong! (I leave it to readers to discover it as an exercise). I also went to the site of the company and there I found plenty of claims, but no details, no quantitative data, no products on sale. So, there is no way to say whether their products are real or something coming out of that giant hair drier I was mentioning before. 


Apart from that, what is hugely interesting in this talk, it is the way scientists are described. Notice when he says (8:15), ".. these incredibly brilliant and kind scientists .. they have a magic look of the world .. their discoveries are coming out of the lab, and into the world.... "

A truly brilliant choice of words: I think we have here a nice summary of the problem with the public perception of scientists. They are "brilliant and kind" as long as "their discoveries are coming out of the lab and into the world" in the form of assorted gadgetry. When it works, it is "magic." But, when scientists are not bringing gadgetry for free; when they warn us of inconvenient truths such as climate change or resource depletion, well, the magic is gone. They are not any more brilliant and kind; they are enemies of the people to be insulted and threatened.

With this attitude of the public, it is impossible to think that solutions based on voluntary restraints could ever work. But can we really solve our problems with nifty little gadgets? Surely not with windows that change color or glasses that let you find your car keys in the dark. Maybe nanotubes could give us a breakthrough in solar cells, just maybe; but don't forget that even if we could have cells at zero cost, a solar plant would still cost money because of all the rest that is needed, from supports to the electronics.  So, there are no miracles in science  and we are going to be badly disappointed if we expect science to solve all our problems by "magic." It is like expecting to whiten our teeth with an invisible toothpaste.



H-T: Neven

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

It gets boring running around being a Cassandra



Being a Cassandra is often boring in the sense that it is so predictable. You know from the start that whatever you say will be ignored and, when it is not ignored, it will generate all sorts of insults as a response. On the other hand, some of us seem to have taken this role and, just as the Cassandra of the Iliad, we keep trying to alert everyone of what is going on with climate change and resource depletion. Who knows, maybe not all Cassandras will always be ignored - after all, she was right! Here are some thoughts on climate change from Bruce Sterling's talk at the 2011 Art and Environment conference. The wolf is in the living room, he says. A true Cassandra; and perfectly right.

Bruce Sterling:

Climate change has lost all its sci-fi tinge in my lifetime and is now a melancholy and tiresome reality

There hasn’t been a year when I haven’t written about climate change. It’s one of the most obvious things to predict.

It’s just kind of a blunt reality that the fossil-fuel enterprise has done a regulatory capture of the entire planet, and we’re involved in a war for oil, and it’s the curse of oil, and it’s a war for a curse that’s endless and happening. You know, it gets boring running around being a Cassandra. Starting Earth Day in 1970 was a pretty late start considering the multicentury scope of this problem.

I will pass the rest of my lifetime in the shadow of climate change. It’s not about warning people in 2011, or trying to avert or defuse a misfortune. The wolf is beyond the door. The wolf is in the living room. This is the anthropocenic condition. This is how we live. This is force majeure. It’s here. It’s very obvious.

There are no national forests. You cannot protect a forest with a nation. There are forests that protect nations.

The global climate crisis is the climate crisis and it’s global because the globe is an externality. “Don’t pollute you, don’t pollute me, pollute that fellow behind me.” Just throw that into the atmosphere because the atmosphere is somebody else’s problem."


The thing that encourages me or sort of offers daylight is there’s no pro-climate crisis party. There’s no government that actually likes the idea of wrecking the climate. It doesn’t really benefit anybody. It really is an externality. It’s just something that’s entropic.


h/t Big Gav

Sunday, December 11, 2011

Durban: good science always wins






It will take some time before we can digest and understand the actual significance of the agreements of Durban. As usual, some people will see the glass half full, others half empty. But there is an element that gives us hope: the effort to stop climate change continues.

The effort continues despite the opposition of the fossil fuel lobbies, despite the propaganda action of "Climategate 2.0", despite the continuous attacks against science in the media, despite the fact that in the US the whole spectrum of Republican candidates has taken an anti-science position on climate. There was a whole alliance of powerful forces that were trying as hard as they could to sabotage the Durban Conference. They didn't succeed, and not for lack of trying: Christopher Monckton, the arch-enemy of climate science, was so desperate to get attention that he resorted to parachuting himself to Durban. He was ignored, anyway.

Given the coalition that had gathered against science, we can see as an almost incredible success that the conference ended up with a structured agreement that keeps the negotiations ongoing. Evidently, the gravity of the situation is becoming more and more clear: people are getting the message. As I said, climate science is good science and good science always wins in the end.

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Climategate 2.0: fool me once.....


Number of searches of the term "Climategate" according to Google Trends. The second release of stolen e-mails, last month ("Climategate-2.0") didn't generate anything like the spike of interest of the first release ("Climategate"), in 2009.


The so-called "Climategate" case of 2009 will remain in history as an example of a highly successful "spin campaign". It had a strong negative effect on public beliefs in global warming and trust in scientists and it played an important role in the failure of the Copenhagen climate talks. However, the public has reacted with a big yawn to the second batch of email messages released last month ("Climategate 2.0"). We can see that using "Google Trends" as shown above and also below. The modest spike that correspond to frantic attempts to ignite the interest of the public in Climategate 2.0 is nothing even remotely comparable to the giant spike of the first Climategate.




Apparently in these things there holds the old say, "fool me once...." That is, it is very difficult to fool people twice with the same trick and, indeed, "Climategate 2.0" is turning out to be a big flop.

The most recent polls indicate that concerns about global warming are climbing up again with the public and that's more evidence that you can't fool people forever. So, we still have a chance to win this battle. We need to keep fighting it.

Sunday, December 4, 2011

Recognizing good science when you see it: climate change seen by depletion scientists


The panel of discussants at the first session of ASPO-9 in Brussels. From left to right, Pierre Mauriaud (Total); Jean-Pascal van Ypersele (IPCC); Kjell Aleklett (ASPO); Colin Campbell (ASPO); Paul Hohnen (Greenpeace). During the discussion,  Colin Campbell, founder and honorary chairman of ASPO, said "I am convinced," referring to the talk on climate change by Van Ypersele. A good scientist can always recognize good science when he sees it. Unfortunately, it seems that many people involved with peak oil studies don't often interact with serious climate science and their view of it remains linked to the distorsions presented in the mainstream media


One of the most interesting talks at the recent meeting on Energy organized by the Club of Rome in Basel, was the one given by Ian Dunlop, of ASPO Australia (photo on the right). It was not so much on energy, but on the interconnection of energy and climate change. It was up to date and saying the things that needed to be said. That is, Ian Dunlop didn't shy away from saying that climate change is threatening the very existence of our civilization and that we must do something quick about it. It was an excellent talk; give a look to the slides if you have a moment, here is the link.

What I found surprising were the several comments that I heard later on from people attending the meeting. Some of those who didn't have a specific background in climate science seemed to be shocked. They didn't know, it seems, that the climate situation is so bad and that it is so urgent to act - but they now recognized the problem. This experience of mine in Basel parallels well the one I had in Brussels for the ASPO-9 conference, when climate scientist Jean-Pascal van Ypersele gave a good talk on climate change. Also there, the reaction of some of the people attending the conference was of surprise; they never had a chance, apparently, to hear a comprehensive report on the climate situation.

Of course, I have no statistics about the average competence in climate science of the people who work with peak oil and similar subjects (let's call them "depletion scientists"). But my experience with this issue has been often disheartening: many depletion scientists are badly outdated in what they know about climate science. A few (just a few, fortunately!) make a banner of their ignorance and they fall for the most obvious propaganda tricks diffused by denialists or scoff at the whole idea with the simplistic statement "not enough oil for climate change". Alas, things are much more complex than that!

That doesn't mean that depletion scientists are not smart people; by all means they are. And it doesn't mean that there doesn't exist a parallel bias on the part of climate scientists who, often, appear to be totally oblivious of the situation in terms of resource depletion. The point is that we all suffer of narrow vision. The Internet is vast and we tend to go in depth only in the areas that we know well; the rest of our information often comes by a haphazard mix of what we read in the media. In this, we all suffer of "confirmation bias."  (see below)

So, what you get from the media about climate change is that it is all a question of small details: did we see a warming during the past 10 years? What is the meaning of "hide the decline"? Didn't scientists fear "global cooling" in the 1970s? And so on. Even people who are on the side of climate science often seem to engage in the debate worrying about minor details. How many tons of CO2 can we save if we install double paned glasses in public buildings? Should we use public transportation instead of a private car for commuting? So, the general impression that you can get is that climate change is a minor issue affected by great uncertainties.

That the results of more than half a century of work in climate science have been reduced to such narrow terms in the media is a victory for denial: it is a way to keep people in the dark about what is really happening. But climate change is not something that can be stopped by double paned windows. It is a major upheaval of the whole earth ecosystem and it has the potential to do to us immense damage. The problem must be faced for what it is, in its complexity, and with the risks that come with it. Uncertainty is not an excuse for doing nothing: what we don't know is what is most dangerous for us.

So, it is very good to see that a good scientist can always recognize good science when he sees it. It has been the case of Colin Campbell (left), founder and honorary chairman of ASPO, who stated to the audience "I am convinced" after having heard the talk by Van Ypersele at the ASPO-9 Brussels conference.  It was the same for several colleagues at the Basel meeting after the heard the talk by Ian Dunlop. I also noticed in other occasions that climate scientists can understand the depletion message when they hear it presented for what it is. They are good scientists, too.

So, it is time to recognize good science when we see it. And it is time to tell everyone how things stand, just as Ian Dunlop did in Basel.


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About confirmation bias:
From the Washington Post, by Ramesh Srinivasan

We’ve long heard that the Internet was supposed to unite people of different cultural and political persuasions. Yet, despite the explosion of online voices, social-media users rarely access opinions that differ from their own, and many social-media sites — with their bifurcated like/dislike, join/don’t join ethos — only perpetuate the sound-bite culture of older media.

Not only are our Facebook friends similar to us (we usually connect through mutual friends and shared interests), but researcher Ethan Zuckerman has shown that the sites we visit reaffirm our political and cultural preconceptions. This homogenization reaches the very machinery of social media — its algorithms — which tailor search results or Facebook feeds according to what the systems “think” users will find most interesting.

Bridging disparate cultural and political backgrounds remains a challenge for social media. To learn from differing viewpoints, the technologies and cultures of social media must evolve so that they bring people together rather than keeping us in digital silos.