Answers to the Questions

Huh. Well, it seems that both presidential campaigns have finally got around to answering the questions about science and science policy that the ScienceDebate2008 team prepared a while back. (The team’s banner line on all this is “Who will be the best President for America in a science-dominated world?”. Who indeed. (In case you’re wondering, the “best” was in place when there were several more contenders.)) I hope it is more than just hot air and empty promises. Right now, it’s […] Click to continue reading this post

Some Science With Your Politics

Well, there’s all sorts of rhetoric on all various matters from the main presidential candidates, and there’s still a long way to go until November. It’s nice to hear a bit of chatter about global warming, gas prices, research into alternative fuels, cars with higher efficiency, and other issues that have a high degree of science playing a role in shaping our decisions about our policies and actions, in all aspects of society. (Although there is some occasional mention at some points at state level, it would be nice to hear a lot more about concerted thoughts about public transportation infrastructure, but perhaps that’s just way too much to ask in a society still rather naively obsessed with individualism at all costs.)

So what are the official positions of the candidates on science, across the board? Well, […] Click to continue reading this post

This is a Tough One

blog on a bikeWith the rise in gas prices, I’ve been seeing more and more people on the streets, walking and cycling, and more people using the subways and the buses. While I know that it has been producing real hardship for some people, I have to admit that it has been fantastic to see this change. So many streets and street corners have come to life. It has always been clear that higher gas prices would have this positive change, and I’ve hoped for it in some ways, but I wish that it had not come about in this way. I’d rather that it was because we’d managed to break out of a political climate so selfish and naive that nobody could propose raising taxes to an extent that would simultaneously give an incentive for people to use their cars less while at the same time providing much needed revenue with which to improve public transport infrastructure. Sadly, instead we’re just having high prices with nothing to show for it but a bunch of expressions of anger, while the oil companies and producers get fatter and fatter.

When I say I’d been hoping for higher prices, I need to clarify. I’m completely aware of […] Click to continue reading this post

No Debate on Science

Sheril talked a little bit about the lack of a debate on Science by the presidential hopefuls, and pointed to a number of articles on the matter. Recall (from my earlier posts and many other sources) that she is one of the movers and shakers behind ScienceDebate2008. The candidates simply punted the issues.

Shame really. The Franklin Institute’s good china was all laid out and the space made ready to host the debate, and several were hoping it might really happen… But it was politics as usual on all sides, with lots of silliness, and pandering to the much more powerful “Faith” constituency.

Or, as Bob Park put it in his excellent “What’s New” column of the 11th April:


Excellent title! He goes on to say: […] Click to continue reading this post

Science Debate 2008 – Closer to Reality

So Chris and Sheril have announced the next step in the journey to a real debate about science issues of note that intersect with the current political sphere. And they’ve come a long way in a short time! Here’s some of what they said in a recent post:

ScienceDebate2008 is now co-sponsored by the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the National Academies, and the Council on Competitiveness. We were looking at venues, and finally settled on an offer from the Philadelphia-based Franklin Institute–named, of course, after one of this country’s first and greatest scientists. We can’t think of a more appropriate venue.

And guess what?! They’ve actually invited the candidates: Hillary Clinton, Mike Huckabee, John McCain, and Barack Obama.

So the next step is to get the event (they suggest April 18, 2008) taken seriously by the […] Click to continue reading this post

Political Science

Ok, a sidestep into politics for a short, but important moment.

With all that’s going on with all the presidential debates and press conferences and other appearances, has anything struck you as a major topic (or class of topics) that is simply missing from the national discussion? A topic that affects our lives in so many ways, and helps shape our futures in a most profound manner?

I’m thinking of science. I’m thinking of it in all the forms in which it intersects with politics – where decisions made by the president involve policy directly related to science (climate change and stem cell research are two of the most obvious), scientific research (both basic and applied), safety and security issues (consider the EPA, Katrina and other natural disasters), resources (the ongoing and coming battles about water sources, for example, pollution and air quality go here too, as well as under other headings), and energy (well, take your pick of example issues there). There’s also science education, on which there ought to be coherent effort for many reasons […] Click to continue reading this post

Fourth IPCC Report

Don’t forget to look at the latest IPCC report released today! Full details including helpful digests and summaries can be found here.

News reports and discussions can be found all over the place.

News reports and discussions can be found all over the place. (Update: there’s an NPR report, with audio, here.) A report on the BBC by Richard Black begins:
[…] Click to continue reading this post

The Man of Tomorrow?

[Updated with a bit of video!]

Earlier this week I went for a walk with Nick Halmagyi to chat about physics, and since he had not been down to the meadows and gardens over by the neighbouring Aspen Institute, we wandered down that way. It was just after lunchtime, and a very hot day, and as we got near the Institute, we diverted away from physics so that I could tell him briefly what the significance of the Aspen Institute is. I explained that it was an important “think tank”, host to thinkers in the humanities, sciences, and diplomats, presidents, ex-presidents, and other dignitaries, who come and think great thoughts about the problems of the world. Well, let me use their own words from their website:

The Aspen Institute, founded in 1950, is an international nonprofit organization dedicated to fostering enlightened leadership and open-minded dialogue.

As an example, I explained, it is probably the sort of place that Al Gore might have come to in order to think deeply about the environmental issues he champions. It is nice that the Aspen Institute is right next to the Aspen Center for Physics, and the two organizations, while now independent (but the Center actually grew out of the Institute, see here) sometimes work together on various matters including public outreach. The public lecture I gave here last year as part of the Heinz Pagels Memorial Lecture series (see e.g. here and here), for example, was actually over in the Paepke auditorium, one of their buildings.

We approached the main grounds of the Institute, near their residence buildings, and were greeted by a most frustrating -and ironic- sight. Their sprinkler system was fully on, spraying water unnecessarily into the air and onto the asphalted walks, with some making it onto their lawns, where even there it would mostly evaporate (in addition to aiding the hot sun in scorching the grass somewhat). For once, I did not have my camera and so cannot share this horrible sight with you. For a moment it was as though I was back in LA, but this was Aspen, where everyone talks about the environment. Then I remembered – everyone talks about the environment. At the same time, there are more and more SUVs every time I come here (rental companies even try to force SUVs on you when you try to rent a regular compact car – did you read my story of that last year?), more and more land seems to be cleared to build ever-larger houses, and so forth. On the other hand, bicycle use is very high here, there’s an excellent free bus system, an enforced reduction of individual car access to the Maroon Bells wilderness area, and I imagine several other worthy environmental efforts that I have not seen are being made. So it is a tale of two communities and mind sets. It’s complicated, as with any populate. But you’d have thought the Aspen Institute would be “fostering enlightened leadership” by not watering their lawns and (sidewalks) with vast amounts of water at the maximally worst time of day to do so in terms of effectiveness. (Frankly, given the environmental disaster most lawns are, one could go further and hope that in the spirit of leadership, they’d turn more of their expanse of lawns into other use, perhaps expanding the excellent wildflower garden they have in one corner, or letting more of the surrounding meadows repopulate the grounds. It could be rather beautiful.)

wild flower gardens at aspen institute

Anyway, we shook our heads at the irony of the sight and we wandered off toward the river, continuing our chat about matters in other dimensions (no, really). The next day I came back at that same time to check the sprinklers again (with camera), since such systems are often on timers, but had it rained very heavily the previous night and so -happily- it did not seem that the sprinklers had been used.

On Wednesday I returned once more. The sun was overhead and strong again (not as much as Monday) and the main system was not on. But once again I noticed signs of watering, and saw a smaller component of the lawn being watered by a hose-driven system. I now think that it might be that they were sprinkling (well, gushing) on Monday (and partly on Wednesday) in the mistaken belief that pouring water (and into the air, where it rapidly evaporates) on the lawn while the sun is baking it will somehow help, and they did it on an ad hoc basis, but I can’t be sure. Either way, it is a terrible waste of water resource by an organization that is committed to leadership in matters of importance, such as the environment.

Then I noticed that many people wearing name badges were heading from the Institute toward the direction of the auditorium and the Aspen Music tent. This fit with the next deliciously ironic thing: Al Gore was going to be talking! He’d been at the Aspen Institute (I’d no idea of his presence or the event until a radio announcement on Wednesday morning), and the sprinkler matter, this was remarkable. Convenient, one might say.

It turned out that it was not taking place in the Paepke auditorium, as I thought it […] Click to continue reading this post

The Future is Orange

I don’t know if you’ve already heard about it, but the first commercial solar energy plant, (located near Seville, Spain) was inaugurated a while ago (30th March). It is an 11 Megawatt plant, called PS10 and:

solar tower…the project produces electricity with 624 large movable mirrors called heliostats.

Each of the mirrors has a surface measuring 120 square meters (1,290 square feet) that concentrates the Sun’s rays to the top of a 115 meter (377 foot) high tower where a solar receiver and a steam turbine are located. The turbine drives a generator, producing electricity.

I got that quote from an excellent article here. You can read a lot more there about some of the future plans of the EU for solar power there. Go directly to the website of the company that built it, Solucar, for more information and images of the plant.

solar mirrors

The 625 mirrors with the central tower, all glowing from the reflected sunlight, is quite […] Click to continue reading this post


carbonNPR’s Robert Krulwich does it again. As part of a long special series that NPR has begun about carbon and climate change, he starts out with a really really good piece (with his usual level of humour and sound effects – and graphics on their website) on carbon. What is it with carbon that makes it such a special element to us, our biology, our planet? What is it about carbon that makes it so happy to stably bond into chains (storing energy), and so stably that we get huge reserves of energy stored underground in the form of fossil fuels (oil, etc). […] Click to continue reading this post

Light Seen Down Under?

compact fluorescent bulbincandescent bulbI’ve been meaning to post about this for a few days*. It has since made it to rather high visibility in the news, I’m pleased to see, generating a lot of interesting discussion. The Australians (another nation not part of the original Kyoto agreement, notably) have pushed ahead on the issue of trying to legislatively encourage (shall we say) the use of compact fluorescent light bulbs over the more wasteful traditional incandescent bulbs.

You’ll recall my posting about this idea not long ago, in the context of proposed California legislation (so yes, I used the same images in the same way). Now, I’ll admit that I was thinking of that as a test case, and when things are ironed out into a workable legislation there one would imagine the model being rolled out to the rest of the world to adopt in their own fashion. I did not expect an entire country to adopt it so soon and at such a rate (they propose to stop sales of incandescents by 2010!).

We had a lot of discussion in that earlier thread about the pros and cons of this. Commenter IrrationalPoint (IP), for example, seems convinced that this represents a serious access problem for people who respond less favourably to the new lights. Such legislation is therefore discriminatory. My response to that was in several parts. The first is that I was not convinced that the cited flicker problems were really problems that referred to the new bulbs. They don’t work like the old nasty fluorescents we remember from years back, or that are still to be found in a lot of public spaces. Their flicker rate is up at tens of KHz, not the 60 Hz of old. IP (and one or two others) then suggested that the issues were with the spectrum. My response there was that the spectrum is quite a bit different from a lot fo the old lights, and where some discomfort might arise with the new ones, this is possibly only a problem for some if direct lighting from the light bulb is used. (I personally find direct light from incandescents pretty disturbing in a lot of cases too.) Why not use the bulbs in conjunction with a simple filter or other decorative fixture that can modify the light to your tastes?

But I am keeping an open mind on this. Perhaps I’m just wrong, and the whole idea of banning incandescents is unworkable and insensitive, but I am not convinced that work cannot be done to make sure that it works well for all concerned.

One of the biggest problems with the discussion is that nobody could point to good […] Click to continue reading this post

Fresh Air From Gore

al gore by eric leeAs you may know, Al Gore’s movie “An Inconvenient Truth” has been nominated for an Oscar. If you want to hear more from the man himself (see also his remarks in the previous post), here’s an interview with him on NPR’s Fresh Air. It first aired last year, but it is very current. It’s so good to hear a politician speak so intelligently on these matters

You know, the last few weeks […] Click to continue reading this post

How Many Legislators Does it Take to Change a Lightbulb?

This is a joke (the title) that works rather well, while being a serious issue as well. It’s all about trying to reduce our energy waste here in California, and contribute to the commitment to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. The idea is to change from the garden variety incandescent bulbs … Click to continue reading this post


Recall that a little over a month ago I reported about the Tesla electric car to you? In that article, I congratulated the car makers on their choice of name, and speculated about what other names might be used in the future when more car manufacturers get into the game. One of my favourites was the “Volt”. Well, today, GM announced a new electric car in development, and guess what they called it? The Volt! I was rather prescient, it seems! More on the announcement of the Chevy Volt at Newsweek (I borrowed the picture from there) and the San Jose Mercury News.

chevy volt

What will the Volt do? It is a hybrid, but the driving mechanism is purely electric. This is different from what other well-known hybrids do”: […] Click to continue reading this post