Monday, November 23, 2009

Hand of God II

While most of America spent last week worrying about trivia like health care reform and the stuttering economy, Europe was embroiled in a furore over a football match; France had pushed Ireland out of the World Cup by virtue of a goal resulting from a clear handball by Thierry Henri, aging French legend formerly of Arsenal fame. Not for the first time in recent memory had a French star tainted his legacy on the big stage - Zidane's nutting of the Italian at a crucial moment in the last final for supposedly insulting his mother being a more significant moment.

For us English of course any mention of "Hand of God" instantly summons up memories of Azteca stadium 1986 where England succumbed to bitter rival Argentina (remember the Falklands) at the hand, literally, of Diego Maradona in the quarter finals of the World Cup. In that match the first of two goals by Maradona went in off his hand, quite obvious in replays, but apparently obvious to the ref who allowed it. Maradona dissembled afterwards about the goal being assisted by the hand of God. The racist tendencies of the average Caucasian to view Latin footballers as villains and cheats, with one or two exceptions like Pele, were only reinforced by that moment.

There are some in the old country who cannot forgive Maradona for that sleight of hand and believe his legacy is ruined as a result. I do not hold with that view; in fact I bear no grudge against Maradona despite it costing England their opportunity of winning the World Cup once more; we still have to live on the memories of 1966, and frankly that is getting rather old. The critics want to wail cheat, cheat, cheat. Yet they are silent on the dozens of fouls that defenders meted out to skillful players like Maradona to neutralize them. The rules protecting players are much better today, though far from perfect, and the overall skill level is far higher than back then, when thuggery tended to rule the day. In 1966 the naive Brazilians came to England thinking that footballing skill was all that was required. They were kicked out of the cup in part by the Portuguese, who themselves had a sublime player in Eusebio.

So why begrudge Maradona his one little opportune moment to take revenge against the dozens of fouls that went quietly unnoticed. In any event, a few short minutes after the intervention of the "Hand of God." Maradona more than compensated with the finest individual goal I've ever seen (later rated as the FIFA Goal of the Century). Picking the ball up inside his own half he danced through the English defence (for such a talent he was a remarkably one-footed player) before sliding the ball behind Shilton at an improbably delicate angle.

Let's hope that England, having once again secured their date with destiny next summer, will not have to overcome the Almighty again; the likes of Germany, Brazil, and maybe even Argentina present enough challenges.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

High priests of denial

I was taking one the Fit in for its occasional service (I would like to say periodic but that would be an exaggeration; and maybe I could justify the long gaps between oil changes as doing our part to reduce consumption of precious fossil fuels) and had just turned on Moody Bible Radio (WMBI) only to hear the words "Lord Monckton." I almost parted with whatever remained of my Go Lean (but not lightly) breakfast, for I knew that could only mean trouble.

The timing was notable because just the other day I had been listening to a discussion about "Faith and the Environment" from one of my favourite programs, courtesy of BBC Radio Wales and iTunes, "All Things Considered" (not to be confused with the NPR program of that name). The program involved individuals from four faith groups discussing with our mellifluous host Roy Jenkins (who can heal all wounds with a single soft utterance) the importance of climate change on the eve of the big global meeting in Copenhagen. Roy asked each in turn where global warming registered for them on a scale of 1 - 10. While their faiths maybe diverse and perhaps irreconcilably different, their responses were remarkably unified in placing it around 10 or higher. There ensued a thoughtful, intelligent and informed discussion of the future and how people of faith should respond to it. It was particularly encouraging to hear that people primarily motivated by spiritual matters could recognize the importance of dealing with issues of such earthly consequence. I was left with the thought that two things in this show would be unlikely to be heard on a mainstream Christian radio station in America. One was actually having four different faith groups around the table in the first place; you might imagine having a Jew, the ancient connections after all, but Islam no way. Second, the mainstream Christian organizations in this country seem, for reasons yet to be fully understood, to be overwhelmingly aligned with the climate change skeptics, and so hearing church leaders in this country discussing the importance of dealing with global warming in passionate terms would be unlikely, even less likely than the Second Coming unfortunately.

And so this morning on WMBI it was QED; the discourse could not have been more diametrically opposed to All Things Considered. The utterer of the terrifying words "Lord Monckton" was one Dr. E. Calvin Beisner, National Spokesman for the Cornwall Alliance, an organization that describes itself as being "for the Stewardship of Creation." The rest of the spiel followed a depressingly predictable pattern, and the WMBI host was lapping it up like a thirsty hound. In short, according to Cornwall, The IPCC and its scientists are at best incompetent and at worst dishonest (more or less). The "true scientists," the thousands upon thousands we are told that know the real truth that this global warming business is all wrong, are denied a voice at conferences and meetings by the politically motivated IPCC and its cronies. Thus the truth is being suppressed. More than once "Lord" Monckton was referred to in almost messianic terms as being the voice of reason - the voice in the wilderness (but I think that is John the Baptist rather than the Messiah).

In discussing it with Dulcie (also an avid listener to WMBI) we were unable to explain the apparent coalescence of conservative Christianity and climate change denial. What is the motivation here? Can it be an extension of the anti-scientific attitude towards biologists and evolution? Are all mainstream scientists regarded as atheists, tools of Satan, and thus to be distrusted regardless of the issue? Whatever the cause, I find it dishonest that an influential radiostation like WMBI should be passing off propaganda in the guise of reasoned argument.

Americans seem to be particularly susceptible to the dubious charms of fake English gentry (I should know better than most), and the odious Monckton recently made an appearance at the "Free Market Alliance" in Minnesota. I imagine that Garrison Keillor would be having nightmares if he knew how many of his people were lining up to soak up the nutty Viscount's message. The performance is available on YouTube, and he comes across as a more intelligent latter-day Bertie Wooster. Yet, beneath the unctuous, dapper breeding, there is a venom, a nastiness, not to mention fraudulence and fakery. Regarding the banning of DDT, Monckton proclaims, "The left, the environmental left, the intolerant, communistic narrow minded faction that does not care how many children it kills it is campaigning once again for DDT to be banned. Because they do not want children to be born in the Third World. They want as much of humanity as possible, it sometimes seems to me, to be wiped off the face of the planet." Irony indeed that this self-proclaimed champion of the poor is campaigning against policies to limit global warming at a time when the first generation of climate change refugees in Africa are facing an uncertain future as their livelihoods have been wiped out by the very thing that Monckton and his ilk deny. Not exactly sure what Jesus would say about that.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Beware the anti-climate change alarmists

After sitting through a thoughtful, considered, authoritative exposition of the challenges involving energy facing society in the next few decades given by one of the directors at Oak Ridge National Laboratory on Sunday night (the price one has to pay for an expenses-paid trip to SERCh), it was more than doubly depressing to open the Tribune Tuesday morning still bleary from the exertions of the weekend. Dennis Byrne is urging us to beware the climate change "alarmists." Already one knows from the emotive language where this is going.

The director at Oak Ridge described energy as the "defining issue" of our time. It is not difficult to sustain the argument: demand is growing and supplies of the fossil-derived variety are peaking and at some time in the not-too-distant future will decline. That equation represents a terrifying prospect. Adding into the mix the consequences of increasing fossil fuel consumption on climate change presents an even greater need to take action. So why is there such entrenched opposition to the idea of change, particularly among those on the right, even to the point of adopting almost untenable positions in denying the reality of climate change? It boggles the mind, and drives one mad.

As a skeptic about most things myself I can rationalize why we should take action even without necessarily believing the worst prognostications. Ironically, Christian conservatives, many of whom are among the more ardent climate change deniers, might be familiar with the argument. I can apply Pascal's wager equally well to climate change as to faith. If I bet on it being right, but am eventually proved wrong, what have I lost? Nothing. By taking aggressive action to develop "green" sustainable alternative energy sources, the nation will be well-placed to profit when the fossil varieties run scarce. Why would we wish to be beholden, as we are now to largely disreputable oil-rich nations, to other countries for energy because we haven't bothered to invest in their development? On the other hand, as Pascal argued when considering the existence of God, if I bet on it being wrong, but was eventually proved wrong, then I have lost everything. The likes of Mr, Byrne and the rest of them seem satisfied, nay even proud, of taking that wager.

Further reading of Mr. Byrne's column turned up some familiar chestnuts. Firstly there is the sneering demeaning language, characterizing the thousands of hours of work by professional scientists as 'alleged "scientific" evidence...incomplete at best and...manipulated for political reasons'. Rarely, if ever, is scientific work complete as each discovery tends to bring forth new questions. Not even something as successful, long-standing and rock solid as the quantum theory is by any means complete or certain. So, are we to bide our time until "completeness" can be obtained? Of course not. While there are many uncertainties pertaining to the time scale and magnitude of the outcomes, I am satisfied that the consensus of there being a ninety percent probability of the connection between greenhouse gases and global warming being correct is sufficient to merit doing something.

I am further puzzled as to why the likes of Mr. Byrne and others are so convinced that evil politicians are gladly manipulating data for political reasons. Surely it is politically expedient to deny climate change and avoid taking action. Why would governments wish to take the politically unpopular but necessary steps of making changes that will have costs to their constituents?

I note that Al Gore is mentioned, implying that all scientists that are concerned about climate change are Al's disciples. This is just not so. Mr. Gore may have served some value in heightening awareness, but it does not mean that the real science is defective because his film was flawed. Don't tar everything with one brush.

Why was I not surprised to see the Nongovernmental International Panel on Climate Change rear its ugly head in this article. I wouldn't be surprised if it had sent Mr. Byrne the script. In that author's eyes, the NIPCC contains the true scientists and all the rest are clueless nitwits. Mr. Byrne refers in adoring tones to the "two-inch thick volume" called "Climate Change Reconsidered."

The NIPCC is the faux authority ghosted by the Heartland Institute, regrettably based in Chicago that I have chronicled in these pages previously. Interestingly, while Mr. Byrne pours scorn on all the climate change alarmists (all scientists who have concern about the state of the climate), he pours lavish praise in equal measure on the NIPCC folks. He laments that people will not bother to obtain a copy to educate themselves. Really, why would one bother? There is real science and there is fake science. To admit the NIPCC into the same arena would be equivalent to admitting scientific creationists into a discussion about the origins of life; there is no point to it. You can dress nonsense up with fancy graphs and persuasive jargon but it is still nonsense. Who was it who said something about lipstick on a pig?

The tag line in Mr. Byrne's article warns us to beware of any science that claims to fully describe (hate the split infinitive) in single theory any phenomenon as complex as global climate change. Is this being done by the thousands of scientists working on this issue? I think not. Lots of models and lots of arguments are going on. There may be consensus on the overall picture, but I believe that there is very healthy debate about the details. It is the simple-minded that are prone to be conned by the mischievous members of the fake NIPCC.

Sunday, November 8, 2009

Food for thought

After enduring a number of lengthy and largely unproductive sessions sitting on hot, stationery, idling buses waiting for something to happen, the participants in the Second Annual SERCh competition arrived at Oak Ridge National Labs for the evening festivities. Posters were carefully pinned up and the competition furtively scanned. The next agenda item was a tour of one's choice and, having seen the neutron spallation source (spectacular) last year, and having seen a lot of nanoscience stuff (it's really not that special looking), I chose a presentation on super-hydrophobicity. That means stuff that hates water in the worst possible way. Turns out that most materials are relatively hydrophilic - likes water to some degree - so hydrophobic is comparatively rare. Grease is the material we all confront daily in doing the washing up. A super-hydrophobic material is one that makes water bead up into an almost perfect sphere. Our host showed some interesting examples of materials that ranged from the highly engineered to naturally occurring diatomaceous earth. Some amusing little demos were very convincing as to the efficacy of these materials. Trousers made from this kind of stuff would eliminate the need for umbrellas. The group has also been working on transparent coatings; imagine driving in a rainstorm without need for wipers.

After dinner, we were serenaded by a presentation from Jim Roberto of Oak Ridge on energy challenges for the 21st century. The thesis of the talk was that energy is the number one defining issue facing society today. No argument here. He presented matter-of-factly the kinds of data that intelligent, thoughtful people will tend to accept without argument: fossil fuels are not increasing; climate change is a reality. I wanted to stop him and ask why it is that so many wish to be in denial on this. He then laid out the avenues being followed at Oak Ridge and its partners. Solar, cellulosic ethanol, batteries and nuclear (fission and fusion) featured prominently. Notably fuel cells and hydrogen did not. I asked him about this. The response revealed something of the bias that inevitably accompanies these discussions of energy solutions. Quite correctly he pointed out that hydrogen is not a power source but needs to be created; and if there are decent batteries then the need for hydrogen and fuel cells is obviated. Clearly his belief is that "decent" batteries will be made. "Decent" means about an order of magnitude or more improvement over today's batteries. Given the rate of progress over the past thirty years one wonders about the reality of this. A "perfect" battery would perform like a gas tank in terms of weight and time of recharge. Given that the prototype Tesla's battery pack weighs 400 kilos compared with a gas tank's 50 kilos, this seems like an impossible dream.

The pros and cons of all the non-fossil-fuel sources can be debated endlessly. What is not arguable is that the magnitude of the challenge is mammoth. Mr. Roberto's concluding words were sobering. Incremental improvements will not suffice he said, meaning that major breakthroughs are required. The trouble is that science advances mostly on incremental breakthroughs, with only occasional and unpredictable giant leaps intervening. Even when they occur, high-temperature superconductivity being a dramatic example, benefits to society do not necessarily follow. After the giddy talk of levitated railways and endless repetition of the fact that liquid nitrogen was cheaper than milk in the early days of the high-temperature superconductor discovery, decades have now passed and little is to show for all the wonderful science.

This administration has allocated a lot of money to new energy sources. Unfortunately it is impossible to legislate breakthroughs.

SSCP in Oak Ridge II

Last year my readers will recollect I spent a gruelling tax-payer-funded weekend courtesy of the Dept. Of Energy at the first annual Science and Engineering Research Challenge. Fortunately for me, another student that did an internship at Argonne this past summer had her work accepted for the second annual edition; so off to Oak Ridge I am again. Fortunately flight is at a much more civilized hour and is also direct. I have at this moment navigated TSA without incident, even using a feature of my Crackberry that allows it to be used as a boarding pass; no more battling with recalcitrant machines to try and print one. Espied an interesting sign advertizing "Family Companion Restroom Facility". I'm wondering if this a take on Britain's "Save water shower with a friend" campaign in the great drought of '76.
Sent from my Verizon Wireless BlackBerry

Thursday, November 5, 2009

Fifty thousand satisfied customers

A small, barely detectable moment in the history of the internet occurred some time in the early hours of the night when visitor number 50,000 to my website was recorded. With my nifty StatCounter I can spy upon the visitors, tracking their locations and what they are visiting for. Recent visitors hail from as far flung places as Perth, Western Australia and Manila, not to mention the U.K. I hope their visits have not been in vain. Now if only the students would visit...

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Is that nanotechnology in your trousers?

I have been tempted to open my lecture on nanotechnology with the subject line above, adapted reverently from the legendary non-quote of Mae West, as a way to grab the audience's attention, but I have lacked the testicular virility, to borrow from that legendary Shakespearean, the Thane of Ravenswood, known to most as disgraced and indicted former governor of Illinois, to complete the line. But I do raise the topic of trousers by way of showing that something as esoteric-sounding as nanotechnology has impacts at the mundane level - if you consider trousers mundane.

The reputation of the Super Savvy Cyber Professor has apparently spread as far and as wide as Del Webb's Sun City, located in far-flung (it's a stretch to call it picturesque) Huntley on Route 47. For I was invited recently to give a talk on the very subject of nanotechnology as part of their monthly series. While I might not exactly be following in Chad Mirkin's mighty footsteps on the lecture circuit, this talk did number my third on this subject, the other audiences being a group of fifth graders and the octogenarian garden club in Wheaton some months past.

Sun City turned out to be a little piece of Florida in Illinois, acres of little white villas set amongst rolling fairways. A sign at the entrance warns of motorized golf carts. I learned that Sun City is home to over nine thousand mature residents. All that appears to be locally available is a solitary Jewel across from the entrance. The clubhouse, wherein I was to present, was, on the other hand, lavish beyond expectation. The audience proved to be attentive and not short on penetrating and probing questions. Would that the youth were so intentional about being informed.

While the current market place for "nanotechnology" is largely low-tech, featuring stain-proofing fabrics (hence the trouser reference), tennis rackets, car waxes and numerous other products that have largely been long in existence and only recently renamed to embrace the nano boom, the real future, I suppose, is hoped to be in much more exotic and useful applications such as healthcare. I imagined that the more senior segments of society would be particularly interested in those. A website called lists some twelve companies developing nano products for various health-related applications. These include things like, gold nanoparticles for targeted delivery of drugs to tumors; nanoparticles that, when irradiated by X-rays, generate electrons which cause localized destruction of the tumor cells; disease identification using gold nanoparticles; nanoparticles for improving the performance of drug delivery; magnetically responsive nanoparticles for targeted drug delivery and other applications; quantum dots for medical imaging; diagnostic testing using gold nanoparticles to detect low levels of proteins indicating particular diseases. And that is just a partial list.

Nanotechnology is being hailed as opening up new possibilities for advanced identification of diseases, thus permitting earlier and presumably more successful treatment. Will these new capabilities further complicate the healthcare business? Are we not already prone to somewhat indiscriminate use of test procedures just because someone else tends to foot the bill? Medicine has long been an irresistible attraction to developers of new technology. I suppose it is the thought of huge markets, vast mark-ups and a largely captive audience that attracts them. A couple of decades ago, the laser business descended upon unsuspecting doctors offering improved (and expensive) alternatives to low-tech scalpels in any number of applications. It is probably fair to say that, overall with a few exceptions, the scalpels tended to have won out. Lasers did not deliver on the promises and ended up creating a population of medical practitioners rather skeptical about adopting new technology. I hope that gold nanospheres suffer a better fate. There is genuine hope because they do seem to offer unique approaches, rather than a fancier and more expensive way of making incisions.