Tag: Physics

Gravitational Waves

A long time ago, in a galaxy far far away, two black holes were orbitting each other. As time went on, they began to spiral into each other, in accord with our understanding of relativity. Eventually, they merged into a single black hole, an event an unimaginable violence. The physical laws of the universe would have been strained to their very limits. The collision was so violent, it created massive ripples in the fabric of spacetime itself.

Those ripples propagated out into the universe, growing fainter and fainter. Over 1.3 billion years after the event, they traversed an utterly insignificant little blue green planet orbiting a small unregarded yellow sun in the uncharted backwaters of the unfashionable end of the western spiral arm of the Galaxy.

Such things had probably happened billions of times in the history of the Universe. Only this time, the clever apes that occupy that planet were looking.

A team of physicists who can now count themselves as astronomers announced on Thursday that they had heard and recorded the sound of two black holes colliding a billion light-years away, a fleeting chirp that fulfilled the last prophecy of Einstein’s general theory of relativity.

That faint rising tone, physicists say, is the first direct evidence of gravitational waves, the ripples in the fabric of space-time that Einstein predicted a century ago (Listen to it here.). And it is a ringing (pun intended) confirmation of the nature of black holes, the bottomless gravitational pits from which not even light can escape, which were the most foreboding (and unwelcome) part of his theory.

More generally, it means that scientists have finally tapped into the deepest register of physical reality, where the weirdest and wildest implications of Einstein’s universe become manifest.

The search for gravitational waves has been going on for a couple of decades and through a previous version of LIGO. Each time, our sensitivity has not been quite good enough to pick up gravitational waves. This time, they were. In fact, this signal was detected very early on in the LIGO run, surprising everyone. At the time, there was a wide range of predictions for how many gravitational waves LIGO would detect. A lot of people thought it wouldn’t detect any. This was a very solid detection (and the paper is refereed, so it has been through the vetting process).


I was involved in this in a small way, helping look for the potential astronomical sources of the gravity waves. Almost a year ago, I was in Pasadena, meeting with a group of astronomers and physicists to try to figure out what to do if a gravitational wave was detected. We were cautiously pessimistic about whether one would be detected simply because detecting one is so damned hard. LIGO’s announcement of a clear detection (among four possible detections) is exciting and wonderful news. And now that we’ve found them, we’re looking ahead to the next run to see if we can find something even more spectacular. This one was very far away — 1.3 billion light years. Maybe the next one will be closer so that we can study it in depth.

(While in Pasadena, I got to see a smaller test version of LIGO. It was incredibly impressive. The real thing has two 4-kilometer long vacuum-tube laser arrays and can detect vibrations smaller than a proton. The engineering alone is worth a Nobel Prize.)

For more, you can read Phil Plait, who goes through how the experiment works. Or check out this video from PhD Comics.

Science. It works.

The Fusion Future … Always the Future

So earlier this week, Lockheed-Martin announced a potential breakthrough in the field of nuclear fusion:

Hidden away in the secret depths of the Skunk Works, a Lockheed Martin research team has been working quietly on a nuclear energy concept they believe has the potential to meet, if not eventually decrease, the world’s insatiable demand for power.

Dubbed the compact fusion reactor (CFR), the device is conceptually safer, cleaner and more powerful than much larger, current nuclear systems that rely on fission, the process of splitting atoms to release energy. Crucially, by being “compact,” Lockheed believes its scalable concept will also be small and practical enough for applications ranging from interplanetary spacecraft and commercial ships to city power stations. It may even revive the concept of large, nuclear-powered aircraft that virtually never require refueling—ideas of which were largely abandoned more than 50 years ago because of the dangers and complexities involved with nuclear fission reactors.

Lockheed says they could have a prototype within five years and be selling the things within ten.

I must admit … I am very skeptical. The Aviation Week articles goes into amazing detail and it … sounds plausible. But I am dubious that it will turn out to be practical, especially that they will have the materials necessary to do it. Still, it’s something to keep in mind for 2024.

I’m not the only one who is skeptical, of course. But what’s surprising is that a huge fraction of the liberal echosphere is not just skeptical, but hostile:

Therefore, I find it frustrating (and only wish I found it surprising) that ThinkProgress, run by people who consider themselves “progressives,” is rushing to pour cold water on the idea because the timeline can’t meet the arbitrary deadline someone in the global-warming PR business has dreamed up. (Really, of course, because cheap non-polluting energy would help reduce the relevance of a bunch of Green ideas about regulating this and subsidizing that, and because at some point after 1973 gloom and fear got to be the official emotions of the progressive movement, when by rights they belongs to conservatives.)

Since there’s no hope in Hell our current set of technical options, working under our current set of political and economic arrangements, are going to stop the rise of GHG levels by 2040, let alone 2020, bellyaching that a game-changing technology might come in a decade or so behind the current unattainable target is plain silly. If all we needed to deal with is a gap of a decade, or even two, there are geoengineering options that could be used to limit the damage in the meantime.

Basically, Think Regress believes that if we don’t cut greenhouse emissions by 2020, the planet is DOOMED. After correctly noting that efficiency has cut energy consumption massively (something that was mostly market-driven) they claim that solar, wind and grid technology could be deployed much faster than this tech could be developed.

As I have noted many times, that’s a liberal fantasy. The cost of switching to alternative energies is estimated to be some $6 trillion per year. That’s assuming you have the capacity to manufacture that tech and the rare earth minerals to build it with. That’s also assuming that you can find some way to store and easily transport energy (and they think fusion is a pipe dream) and that you can cut through the gigantic swathes of red tape.

But I sense more than that. There has always been a whiff of Ludditism in the radical environmental movement. A worship of primitivism and a hatred of modern civilization. In P.J. O’Rourke’s All the Trouble in The World he talks about this trend specifically in the context of nuclear fusion:

People with a mission to save the earth want the earth to seem worse than it is so their mission will look more important. In fact, there’s some evidence that these people want the earth to be worse than it is. Michael Fumento, author of Science Under Siege, has compiled additional damning quotations. Fumento notes that in 1990, when cold-fusion nonsense briefly promised an infinite supply of bargain-priced, ecologically harmless energy, environmental pest Jeremy Rifkin called this, “The worst thing that could happen to our planet.” This is not a new position among the pesky. In a 1977 issue of Mother Earth, Amory Lovins wrote, “it would be little short of disastrous for us to discover a source of clean, cheap, abundant energy because of what we might do with it.” And in 1978 the inevitable Paul Ehrlich said, in the Federation of American Scientists’ Public Interest Report, “Giving society cheap, abundant energy … would be the equivalent of giving an idiot child a machine gun.” (Not a meal, a bath, some toys, and a warm bed or anything like that.)

We’ve seen this split in the environmentalist movement before, over nuclear fission. Sensible environmentalists recognize fission as the lesser of two evils. The luddites oppose it ostensibly for safety but mostly because they don’t really want the problem of global warming to go away. What would they fundraise for and bash Republicans over? And a small faction just don’t want human society to exist at all, or at least not in its current state.

The odds that Lockheed’s breakthrough will work are very low. Even assuming the theory is right, it is likely to trip up on some impossible technical detail. If you want to make the case that we should plan as if nuclear fusion will never happen, go ahead. But to make the argument that nuclear fusion isn’t good enough boggles the mind.

CERN study more worried about politics than the scientific findings?

The U.K> based The Register has this article dealing with the recently published CERN paper entitled “Role of sulphuric acid, ammonia and galactic cosmic rays in atmospheric aerosol nucleation”. Their findings basically destroy the existing climate models used by the watermelon alarmists. Yes, the same ones we discovered where junk after the East Anglia scandal exposed them as rigged, are now going to need, according to the as politically correct as possible language being used to avoid pissing off the big government money machine banking on getting more power and control from selling the AGW myth, to quote the CERN scientists, some “major tweaking”.

CERN’s 8,000 scientists may not be able to find the hypothetical Higgs boson, but they have made an important contribution to climate physics, prompting climate models to be revised.

The first results from the lab’s CLOUD (“Cosmics Leaving OUtdoor Droplets”) experiment published in Nature today confirm that cosmic rays spur the formation of clouds through ion-induced nucleation. Current thinking posits that half of the Earth’s clouds are formed through nucleation. The paper is entitled Role of sulphuric acid, ammonia and galactic cosmic rays in atmospheric aerosol nucleation.

This has significant implications for climate science because water vapour and clouds play a large role in determining global temperatures. Tiny changes in overall cloud cover can result in relatively large temperature changes.

Unsurprisingly, it’s a politically sensitive topic, as it provides support for a “heliocentric” rather than “anthropogenic” approach to climate change: the sun plays a large role in modulating the quantity of cosmic rays reaching the upper atmosphere of the Earth.

CERN’s director-general Rolf-Dieter Heuer warned his scientists “to present the results clearly but not interpret them”. Readers can judge whether CLOUD’s lead physicist Jasper Kirkby has followed his boss’s warning.

“Ion-induced nucleation will manifest itself as a steady production of new particles that is difficult to isolate in atmospheric observations because of other sources of variability but is nevertheless taking place and could be quite large when averaged globally over the troposphere.”

So far their study validated that those of us that have been pointing out that solar activity – that’s practically where all of earth’s exposure to cosmic radiation comes from, for you rubes – was a massive driver of temperature and temperature/climate changes, completely undermining the decade old attempt by the watermelons to minimize solar impact in order to sustain that man-made narrative they plan to ride into more power, was correct. As it stands they determined that changes in this radiation from solar activity, even small ones, can have massive impact on the amount of cloud formation and hence drastically affect the amount of heat trapped or released. They even have to admit the role of water vapor, the most prolific greenhouse gas, in this newly revealed – that was sarcasm on my part – equation! Basically their study has yet again found/provided scientific evidence that solar activity affects water vapor content, it drives cloud formation, and that this cloud formation drastically impacts how much heat is trapped or released by the atmosphere, and hence remains the dominant and most important, if not outright exclusive, player in climate change and global temperatures. Not new to those of us that understood this relationship, but apparently something that if you want to be generous to the AGW cultists is seriously flawed in their models. The good research dealing with the impact of the cosmic radiation on the oceans, and the relationship between clouds and trapped heat, is out there and plentiful BTW, and I certainly feel no need to rehash it all here. Google it.

However, to me at least, the most telling revelation, and what I see is the most disastrous one for the AGW cultists, is the admission by Kirby of the “political sensitivity of these findings”. Why should these findings be politically sensitive? So “sensitive” that they have to be explained in a scientific paper that tries its best to do a kabuki dance not to offend those that have dismissed the role of solar radiation and cloud formation in the past. So, how does politics factor into the scientific equation, if this is all about science?

Should not the paper and the research be completely about facts and the rigorous application of the scientific method and totally about what the results and facts obtained through that scientific process tells us? Why would the political class suddenly not like these findings that drastically undermine their premise that man is to blame for climate change, unless they have a plan predicated on that remaining the scientific consensus? The cultists have been telling us now for a long time that the science was settled and on their side, and that anyone that said otherwise was a denier, usually one motivated by politics and greed to boot, so is that why these CERN scientists felt the need to be political? Could avoiding that “denier” tag be the political sensitivity Kirby speaks about?

For those of us, of course, that realized that the exclusive and laser-like focus on CO2 – to the exclusion of all else – that is behind this schism dividing the two camps arguing about what was/is causing climate change, it was very clear that those refuting anything but the CO2 model pushed by the AGW proponents wasn’t based on much real respect for science, and clear that politics had tainted that “settled science” from the beginning, these findings of this aren’t a surprise at all. I would even hazard that it is not a surprise to the clergy of the AGW cult either. However, I don’t expect them to do anything but double down on their settled science, and come out with guns blazing over these findings. Well, that is, once they finally get to reporting on it, which I suspect will not happen until someone comes up with something that they figure allows them to dismiss the findings of this CERN study in the first place.

Think they will fix their broken models to account for these new revelations – to give cloud formation fueled by solar radiation the proper weight in them – then share them with us, though? No, me neither. I do expect them to tell us, regardless of any findings that undermine their plan, that we need to let them keep going with their program to control CO2 emissions with one or another kind of wealth redistribution scheme. At least we know that if we get more Sulfides into the air it will cause more clouds and thus more cooling. Let the games begin!

Is it for real this time?

What do you ask? Well, the claim that we have finally mastered Fusion:

From the other side of a wide glass window on the third story of the National Ignition Facility (NIF), the world’s largest laser array looks an awful lot like the world’s largest plumbing project. Row after row of 16-inch-diameter pipes are packed into a room like cigarettes in a box—only the box is the size of three football fields. A catwalk thick with miles of cable runs through the center. Large metal ducts snake overhead and along the walls. I have to take it on faith that the pipes, called beam tubes, don’t contain water or gas, but 192 separate laser beams zipping back and forth. When the beams finally exit the room, their strength amplified more than a quadrillion times, they will converge on a pencil-eraser-size target in one short, powerful pulse. And in those 20-billionths of a second, I’m told, atoms of hydrogen will smash together with such force that they’ll essentially create a star.

It sounds impressive—and certainly looks imposing—but society has been taking promises of fusion on faith for more than five decades. If fusion works as proponents claim, it could produce enough clean energy to power the world for hundreds and hundreds of years to come. One of the first hurdles is the tiniest component, the fuel: Hydrogen isotopes, such as deuterium and tritium, adamantly resist uniting, regardless of the amount of heat and steel and funding thrown into the effort.

But this past fall, physicists at NIF, based at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California, made an important advance with their elaborate building and enormous laser: They fired 121 kilojoules of ultraviolet light into the $3.5 billion facility’s target chamber, causing deuterium and tritium nuclei to fuse into helium atoms, releasing 300 trillion high-energy neutrons. Even though NIF and other labs have created fusion before, the achievement brings researchers a step closer to conquering the ultimate challenge: a fusion reaction that produces more energy than is required to start it.

Expensive megaprograms such as NIF aren’t the only ventures making progress. At the other end of the funding spectrum, a number of innovative startups have also begun to yield promising results. After decades of frustratingly slow research, the emergence of real, practical fusion power may come down to a race between these entrepreneurial Davids and the government-run Goliaths.

Hope this pans out, because we need that energy and will need a lot more of it as more people start enjoying the wonders of a modern society, because just like those that point out teaching abstinence doesn’t work too well, the advice of some crazy guy about how people should just not reproduce isn’t the answer. Now if I could just figure out how much energy those 300 trillion high-energy neutrons really equate to…..

The Earth Metal Problem

Freakonomics has a great post up that should give the environmentalist weenies fits:

Electric cars are all the rage today, but some of the smartest people I know believe that moving towards electric vehicles is a terrible idea. Looking casually as an outsider at the unappealing economics of electric vehicles (the need for a new and immensely expensive infrastructure, cars that cost much more than either traditional gas engines or hybrids, limited ranges and long recharging times), I find it hard to understand why the Obama administration is pushing electric cars.

One argument I’ve heard is “national security,” the idea being that electric vehicles would make the United States less dependent on imported oil. Be careful what you wish for, however, because if electric cars become a mainstay, we may be trading one dependence for another that is even more troubling. Ninety-five percent of the world’s output of rare-earth metals today comes from one country: China. By some estimates, demand will outstrip supply within five years. At least with oil we know there are fifty years of oil reserves readily available. Moreover, oil is produced all over the world, limiting the monopoly power of any one country.

To be fair, elements like dysprosium and praseodymium — how geeky is it that I can spell those correctly from memory? — are not economically viable to dig up unless you have a steady supply of slave cheap labor, which China has. As demand for these metals surges, the price will go up and domestic mining will become more feasible. Of course, our government is currently subsidizing electric cars and therefore distorting the market. And China’s embargo on Japan has already caused a mad scramble for metals.

What this story really demonstrates the stunning lack of thought that goes into so-called green industries. Rare earth metals are a pretty significant thing to be thinking about when it comes to electric cars. We can’t just wish them out of the ground through the power of positive liberal thinking. At some point, we’re going to have to start mining them — with all the pollution that entails. What will the greens do then?