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What is all around us, terrifies a lot of people, but adds enormously to the quality of life? Answer: chemistry. Almost everything that happens in the world, in transport, throughout agriculture and industry, to the flexing of a muscle and the framing of a thought involves chemical reactions in which one substance changes into another.
The growth of United States' shale oil and gas production over the last decade has been nothing short of phenomenal. Already the premier natural gas producer, Already the premier natural gas producer, the United States is poised to surpass Saudi Arabia and Russia as the largest oil producer and will likely become a net exporter of both oil and gas within a decade or more.
The Edwardian seer and futurologist, H. G. Wells, wondered whether aircrafts would ever be used commercially. He did the calculations and found that, yes, an airplane could be built and, yes, it would fly, but he proclaimed this would never be commercial.
Galileo and some of his contemporaries left careful records of their telescopic observations of sunspots – dark patches on the surface of the sun, the largest of which can be larger than the whole earth. Then in 1844 a German apothecary reported the unexpected discovery that the number of sunspots seen on the sun waxes and wanes with a period of about 11 years.
Initially nobody considered sunspots as anything more than an odd curiosity. However, by the end of the nineteenth century, scientists started gathering more and more data that sunspots affect us in strange ways that seemed to defy all known laws of physics. In 1859 Richard Carrington, while watching a sunspot, accidentally saw a powerful explosion above it, which was followed a few hours later by a geomagnetic storm – a sudden change in the earth’s magnetic field. Such explosions – known as solar flares – occur more often around the peak of the sunspot cycle when there are many sunspots. One of the benign effects of a large flare is the beautiful aurora seen around the earth’s poles. However, flares can have other disastrous consequences. A large flare in 1989 caused a major electrical blackout in Quebec affecting six million people.
Interestingly, Carrington’s flare of 1859, the first flare observed by any human being, has remained the most powerful flare so far observed by anybody. It is estimated that this flare was three times as powerful as the 1989 flare that caused the Quebec blackout. The world was technologically a much less developed place in 1859. If a flare of the same strength as Carrington’s 1859 flare unleashes its full fury on the earth today, it will simply cause havoc – disrupting electrical networks, radio transmission, high-altitude air flights and satellites, various communication channels – with damages running into many billions of dollars.
There are two natural cycles – the day-night cycle and the cycle of seasons – around which many human activities are organized. As our society becomes technologically more advanced, the 11-year cycle of sunspots is emerging as the third most important cycle affecting our lives, although we have been aware of its existence for less than two centuries. We have more solar disturbances when this cycle is at its peak. For about a century after its discovery, the 11-year sunspot cycle was a complete mystery to scientists. Nobody had any clue as to why the sun has spots and why spots have this cycle of 11 years.
A first breakthrough came in 1908 when Hale found that sunspots are regions of strong magnetic field – about 5000 times stronger than the magnetic field around the earth’s magnetic poles. Incidentally, this was the first discovery of a magnetic field in an astronomical object and was eventually to revolutionize astronomy, with subsequent discoveries that nearly all astronomical objects have magnetic fields. Hale’s discovery also made it clear that the 11-year sunspot cycle is the sun’s magnetic cycle.
Matter inside the sun exists in the plasma state – often called the fourth state of matter – in which electrons break out of atoms. Major developments in plasma physics within the last few decades at last enabled us to systematically address the questions of why sunspots exist and what causes their 11-year cycle. In 1955 Eugene Parker theoretically proposed a plasma process known as the dynamo process capable of generating magnetic fields within astronomical objects. Parker also came up with the first theoretical model of the 11-year cycle. It is only within the last 10 years or so that it has been possible to build sufficiently realistic and detailed theoretical dynamo models of the 11-year sunspot cycle.
Until about half a century ago, scientists believed that our solar system basically consisted of empty space around the sun through which planets were moving. The sun is surrounded by a million-degree hot corona – much hotter than the sun’s surface with a temperature of ‘only’ about 6000 K. Eugene Parker, in another of his seminal papers in 1958, showed that this corona will drive a wind of hot plasma from the sun – the solar wind – to blow through the entire solar system. Since the earth is immersed in this solar wind – and not surrounded by empty space as suspected earlier – the sun can affect the earth in complicated ways. Magnetic fields created by the dynamo process inside the sun can float up above the sun’s surface, producing beautiful magnetic arcades. By applying the basic principles of plasma physics, scientists have figured out that violent explosions can occur within these arcades, hurling huge chunks of plasma from the sun that can be carried to the earth by the solar wind.
The 11-year sunspot cycle is only approximately cyclic. Some cycles are stronger and some are weaker. Some are slightly longer than 11 years and some are shorter. During the seventeenth century, several sunspot cycles went missing and sunspots were not seen for about 70 years. There is evidence that Europe went through an unusually cold spell during this epoch. Was this a coincidence or did the missing sunspots have something to do with the cold climate? There is increasing evidence that sunspots affect the earth’s climate, though we do not yet understand how this happens.
Can we predict the strength of a sunspot cycle before its onset? The sunspot minimum around 2006–2009 was the first sunspot minimum when sufficiently sophisticated theoretical dynamo models of the sunspot cycle existed and whether these models could predict the upcoming cycle correctly became a challenge for these young theoretical models. We are now at the peak of the present sunspot cycle and its strength agrees remarkably with what my students and I predicted in 2007 from our dynamo model. This is the first such successful prediction from a theoretical model in the history of our subject. But is it merely a lucky accident that our prediction has been successful this time? If our methodology is used to predict more sunspot cycles in the future, will this success be repeated?
Headline image credit: A spectacular coronal mass ejection, by Steve Jurvetson. CC-BY-2.0 via Flickr.
Writing requires energy. Life requires energy! What fuel are you running on?
Many people these days are frantically running from place to place, working too many hours, volunteering for too many projects, working nights and weekends (partly) because of a need for approval.
They are fueled by sugar, caffeine, cigarettes and adrenaline to keep going. You might get more done short-term this way, but if this is your fuel, you’re injuring your health in the long run.
Last week in the online retreat workshop, we talked about “destressing the writing life.” Before we can do much, we have to destress life in general, I think.
I don’t need to tell you that we live “on alert” these days. We are bombarded from so many information sources. We allow ourselves to be at the beck and call of anyone who rings our cell phone or shoots us an email. Adrenaline is used like a drug, pushing tired bodies to work faster and harder. The end result is a crash-and-burn depletion of your reserves.
Go Against the Flow
Do you want to have a long-term writing life? Do you want to have enough energy to write longer than a 30-day NaNoWriMo stint? Then while you still have time–while you still have your health–I urge you to develop a counter-cultural lifestyle. Look at your life now. Make a list of the things that have stressed you out this past week.
No groceries in the cupboard because a meeting ran late and you couldn’t stop at the store? Phone call from a teacher saying little Johnny forgot his required permission slip for the day’s field trip? A bounced check? Having to work late at night while everyone else is sleeping, just to keep life from derailing?
All of these things make us run on adrenaline that wears down our bodies. And much as we might argue otherwise, all of these things are preventable.
Replace the Old with the New
Habits that cause you to run on adrenaline are habits that need to be replaced. I can’t tell you which habits you need to exchange, but I can share some of mine.
For one thing, I’ve noticed that for six months, I’ve arrived places out of breath and a little bit late, and I go tearing into meetings or classes after the program has begun. So embarrassing. I sweat it on the way to the meeting, and backed-up traffic skyrockets my blood pressure. I hate to waste time, so I hate arriving somewhere early and waiting. Solution? To avoid the adrenaline rush, I plan to leave early enough to arrive early, but take work or a book along, stay in the parking lot and write or read, then walk in calmly ten minutes before the class starts.
I have also noticed that the days I DON’T run on adrenaline are the days I start with exercise and devotional reading and prayer. And yet, too many times lately, I’ve awakened feeling energetic, considered the two hours I’d lose if I stuck to my exercise/relaxation regimen, and jumped into work instead. Make hay while the sun shines, right? Mostly, I’ve made headaches and a sore back and neck. I need to remember that my health regimen actually saves me time in the long run. And I run those days, not on adrenaline, but on healthy energy supplies.
I am going to set a boundary on working in the evenings. I couldn’t see what difference it would make if, while watching a good movie with my husband or chatting, I also answered some email questions and deleted hundreds of blog spam and updated my websites. Most of it was “no think” activity, so what did it harm? A lot, I think now. My mind won’t shut off when I shut off the computer to go to bed. My neck and back hurt terribly by then. And
This guide is organized first by season, and within each season by these categories of activities: Nature Lover, Outdoor Fun and Games, Snug Inside, and Look to the Sky.
Kind of sad that the sort of "mucking about inventing our own fun and games" stuff we did when I was a kid needs categories and step-by-step instructions, but we need whatever it takes to get this generation of kids outside!
This is a good book for kids, but also a good book for Environmental Club leaders (me), Girl Scout Leaders, Day Camp Leaders, Home Schoolers, and parents.
This picture book is good for many ages. The main text is embedded in engaging illustrations, but the sidebar information about energy is good for 5th grade and up.
The Danish island of Samso is very windy. This book chronicles the long process the residents of that island went through to make the transition to being almost completely energy-independent by harnessing the power of the wind.
This gorgeously-illustrated picture book reminds me of A River Ran Wild by Lynne Cherry. They both are environmental histories about places in nature that humans came really really close to completely destroying...but didn't...and the slow and hopeful recovery process. Both have border illustrations that extend or elaborate on the main illustration or information on the page.
Through thousands of years of speculative philosophy and hundreds of years of hard empirical science, we have tended to think of mass as an innate property (a ‘primary quality’) of material substance. We figured that, whatever they might be, the basic building blocks of matter would surely consist of microscopic lumps of some kind of ‘stuff’.
But this is not quite how it has worked out. There was a clue in the title of one of Albert Einstein’s most famous research papers, published in 1905: ‘Does the inertia of a body depend on its energy content?’ This was the paper in which Einstein suggested that there was a deep connection between mass and energy, through what would subsequently become the world’s most famous equation, E = mc2.
We experience the mass of an object as inertia (the object’s resistance to acceleration) and Einstein was suggesting that the latter is determined not by mass as a primary quality, but rather by the energy that the object contains.
So, when an otherwise massless particle travelling at the speed of light interacts with the Higgs field, it is slowed down. The field ‘drags’ on it, as though the particle were moving through molasses. In other words, the energy of the interaction is manifested as a resistance to acceleration. The particle acquires inertia, and we think of this inertia in terms of the particle’s ‘mass’.
In the Higgs mechanism, mass loses its status as a primary quality. It becomes secondary — the result of massless particles interacting with the Higgs field.
So, does the Higgs mechanism explain all mass? Including the mass of me, you, and all the objects in the visible universe? No, it doesn’t. To see why, let’s just take a quick look at the origin of the mass of the heavy paperweight that sits on my desk in front of me.
The paperweight is made of glass. It has a complex molecular structure consisting primarily of a network of silicon and oxygen atoms bonded together. Obviously, we can trace its mass to the protons and neutrons which account for 99% of the mass of every silicon and oxygen atom in this structure.
According to the standard model, protons and neutrons are made of quarks. So, we might be tempted to conclude that the mass of the paperweight resides in the masses of the quarks from which the protons and neutrons are composed. But we’d be wrong again. Although it’s quite difficult to determine precisely the masses of the quarks, they are substantially smaller and lighter than the protons and neutrons that they comprise. We would estimate that the masses of the quarks, derived through their interaction with the Higgs field, account for only about 1% of the mass of a proton, for example.
But if 99% of the mass of a proton is not to be found in its constituent quarks, then where is it? The answer is that the rest of the proton’s mass resides in the energy of the massless gluons — the carriers of the strong nuclear force — that pass between the quarks and bind them together inside the proton.
What the standard model of particle physics tells us is quite bizarre. There appear to be ultimate building blocks which do have characteristic physical properties, but mass isn’t really one of them. Instead of mass we have interactions between elementary particles that would otherwise be massless and the Higgs field. These interactions slow the particles down, giving rise to inertia which we interpret as mass. As these elementary particles combine, the energy of the massless force particles passing between them builds, adding greatly to the impression of solidity and substance.
According to energy healing practices, healing is said to originate in the “heart” as opposed to the head. This is the heart chakra located in the chest, the energy node responsible for sending and receiving loving energy. According to Hindu tradition, it is also the meeting place for the transcendent energies coming from the higher chakras of the throat and head which mix with the lower energies coming from the base of the spine, pelvic area and solar plexus. Some consider it the place “where heaven and earth meet” as in the expression in the Lord’s Prayer, “on earth as it is in heaven.” Only when human beings connect with each other from this open, expanding and loving region of the heart center which holds all these energies together can a divine, healing and “making whole” experience, like heaven, be recreated in the human realm.
What I Learned in a Dream
An appearance of my own inner healer, portrayed in one of my revelatory dreams as a towering, well-built gray-haired male physician practicing in New York, told me that when he heals he heals from a space just above and to the left of the physical heart. While I did not understand at the time why I was given this dream, I understood it was conveying important information to me. I made sure to write it down. Not long after, when I was studying intuition under Dr. Henry Reed of the Edgar Cayce Institute for Intuitive Studies, I learned that the “heart space” is the receptor and sender of intuitive information which can help heal. I realized my dream had confirmed for me that the heart chakra, the locus for loving energy, was also the location for sending and receiving healing energy either to me or to others.
Practical Application in Healing
After prayerfully requesting or intending a healing for myself or someone else, I use a simple meditation that will get me into the relaxed, open and trusting heart space like that of the intuitive small child. While I feel the expansion of the positive energy which occurs in this state, I imagine healing energy coming from an infinite source above my head, and allow it to enter through the top of my head. I visualize it flowing down to the heart and then mixing with the expanding energy of the heart chakra where it can ride on the wave of expanding energy. Then I release it, by either imagining it going where it needs to go or letting it go where greater wisdom determines.
Expect a Response
At this point, I may expect a response, knowing that it will come in any number of ways. The answer may come in the way of an event totally outside the body such as a serendipitous phone call or an accidental meeting. When the response comes through intuition it can come through sensations in the body, memories, thoughts, insights, an inner voice, or a dream.
During times of crisis, especially when serious health related issues are at stake, the occurrence of visions or other paranormal phenomenon is not as unusual as one might expect. Many people have been led to believe that seeing a vision either indicates saintliness or insanity—not a comfortable point of view to hold when an angel drops by! As a result, people tend to be very cautious about sharing their experience of visions. However, I found that quite a number of average people have visions. In my classes, many students recounted seeing visits by supernatural beings like Jesus or angels or the presence of a comforting divine light. For the most part, these experiences come at traumatic or life changing times in someone’s life.
These phenomena can be thought of as expressions of pure intuition, healing energy that breaks through when the veil between this world and other realities is made thin by the magnitude of a mind-bending reality a person is facing. The reality to be encountered can be traumatic such as life threatening surgery, a sexual assault, or death of a loved one. However, it may not necessarily be negative. It could be something profoundly wonderful such as the gifting of a special and life changing calling as Mary experienced with the visit of the Archangel Gabriel who heralded her role to be the mother of Jesus.
At these times, visions come to tell the distraught person that the overwhelming reality encountered is not all there is and will not have to be born alone—that something more abides giving comfort, love and insight. In Mary’s case, she was told she had found favor with God and that the power of the Most High would overshadow her.
Visions vs. Hallucinations
Some people may be confused by the difference between visions and hallucinations. According to Morton Kelsey, in Dreams: A Way to Listen to God, Paulist Press, 1978, visions and hallucinations are very different and easy to distinguish. He says the vision is “attributed to the inner world” by the beholder while a hallucination is “attributed to the physical world.” Visions can be very practical and helpful, tending to bring gifts like guidance and comfort. Hallucinations, on the other hand, are taken to be actually there in the physical world when they aren’t perceived by others, and tend to instill fear and other negative feelings into the beholder. Hallucinations can come as a side effect of certain drugs or medications.
“Someday, after mastering the winds, the waves, the tides and gravity, we shall harness for God the energies of love, and then, for a second time in the history of the world, man will have discovered fire.”
– Pierre Teilhard de Chardin
Reading this quote this morning made me more aware that a future direction of Christian theological reflection will be, as it is in physics and medicine, on the nature of energy. Energy is what underlies everything. Energy is what make the universe tick (e=mc²), energy is what gives life to the body and creates abundant health, and energy is the active component of both intuition and love.
I personally believe that as we explore the depths of human intuitive capabilities as they are grounded in empathetic love rather than in the showy but superficial distractions of ESP and some other extraneous psychic phenomenon, we will rewrite a new theology. Just as Thomistic theology and liberation theology represent significant philosophical and political points of view, I believe there will be a Christian theology of energy that may one day unite religion and science. Developing intuition and observing nature as concurrent and equally important tasks, along with being inspired by revelation, will be the keys for this unfolding.
Everything we have ever learned and will learn will come through our marvelous bodies which are receptors and communicators of healing energy. As humans we also have the ability to observe and reflect upon that energy and how it works, especially through intuition and dreams. They tap us into the universal power source and inform of us of this underlying energy that drives us both as individuals and as beings who are connected with every other being in the universe. Our challenge will be to integrate our new understandings of energy, especially the healing and loving kind, with divine revelation. Just as we have learned to harness atomic power, I do hope we learn to harness the power of intuition and dreams and use the insight we gain in the service of love. Then, we will have harnessed an exponentially greater fire than our ancestors did.
From Asian cultures we learn that the body is essentially an energy field connected directly or indirectly to all other energy fields in the universe. Because all fields are interconnected, they are capable of transferring information and energy. That means we have access to an infinite amount of information. We are all aware of how we receive and send information through the five senses of taste, touch, smell, sight and hearing. But what about the so-called sixth sense?
Receiving and Sending Intuitive Information and Energy
Many of us are not so aware how we can send and receive information and energy through intuition in the form meditation and dreams. The intuitive images, sounds, feelings, and sensations that we pick up spontaneously or receive in dreams and meditation are identifying symbols for unique, relevant information and energy within and without us that can be used to help ourselves and others. Any of the senses can be a vehicle for an intuitive message because our bodies are wonderfully designed to transmit information through the five senses as well as the sixth sense of intuition. Just as we pick up data through touch, sight, hearing, smell and taste coming from outside us, we can register intuitive data coming from within us through those same senses.
Sending intuitive information and loving energy is very much like using our senses to send and receive information about what we see or hear except we do it in an intuitive, altered state of awareness such as meditation, deep prayer or dreams. In these states we intend to receive or to transmit information or energy, and it happens! We can intend to have dreams that will help someone else by giving deeper understanding, clues to resolution or a diagnosis of the issue. While in meditation or prayer, we can send healing energy and even information to someone through the imagination and intention.
When you think of the body as a bundle of energy in addition to it’s amazing physical capabilities, it is truly amazing.
The Great Recession of 2008–09 badly shook the global market, changing the landscape for finance, trade, and economic growth in some important respects and imposing tremendous costs on average citizens throughout the world. The legacies of the crisis—high unemployment levels, massive excess capacities, low investment and high debt levels, increased income and wealth inequality—reduced the standard of living of millions of people. There is an emerging consensus that global economic governance, as well as national policies, needs to be reformed to better reflect the economic interests and welfare of citizens.
Global recovery is sluggish and the outlook uncertain. The economies of the Eurozone, which may have fallen into a “persistent stagnation trap,” and Japan remain highly vulnerable to deflation and another bout of recession; in the advanced economies that are growing, recovery remains uneven and fragile. Growth in emerging and developing economies is slowing, as a result of tighter global financial conditions, slow growth of world trade, and lower commodity prices. Because consumption and business investment have been tepid in many countries, the gradual global recovery has been too weak to create enough jobs. Official worldwide unemployment climbed to more than 200 million people in 2013, including nearly 75 million people aged 15–24.
Professor Roubini, one of the few economists who predicted the 2008 crisis, has argued that the global economy is like a four-engine jetliner that is operating with only one functioning engine, the “Anglosphere.” The plane can remain in the air, but it needs all four engines (the Anglosphere, the Eurozone, Japan, and emerging economies) to take off and stay clear of storms. He predicts serious challenges, including from rising debt and income inequality.
Relatively slow growth in the advanced economies and potential new barriers to trade over the medium term have significant adverse implications for growth and poverty reduction in many developing countries. Emerging economies, including China and India, that thrived in recent decades in part by engaging extensively in the international economy are at risk of finding lower demand for their output and greater volatility in international financial flows and investments. A combination of weaker domestic currencies against the US dollar and falling commodity prices could adversely affect the private sector in emerging economies that have large dollar-denominated liabilities.
Rising inequality is holding back consumption growth. The ratio of wealth to income, as well as the income shares of the top 1% of income earners, has risen sharply in Europe and the United States since 1980, as Professor Piketty has shown.
The ratio of the share of income earned by the top 10% to the share of income earned by the bottom 90% rose in a majority of OECD countries since 2008, a key factor behind the sluggish growth of their household consumption. During the first three years of the current recovery (2009–12), incomes of the bottom 90% of income earners actually fell in the United States: the top 10%, who tend to have much lower propensity to consume than average earners, captured all the income gains. In developing countries for which data were available for 2006–12, the increase in the income or consumption of the bottom 40% exceeded the country average in 58 of 86 countries, but in 18 countries, including some of the poorest economies, the income or consumption of the bottom 40% actually declined, according to a report by the World Bank and IMF.
Some signs of possible relief may lie ahead. In September 2014, leaders at the G20 summit in Brisbane agreed on measures to increase investment infrastructure, spur international trade and improve competition, boost employment, and adopt country-specific macroeconomic policies to encourage inclusive economic growth. If fully implemented, the measures could add 2.1% to global GDP (more than $2 trillion) by 2018 and create millions of jobs, according to IMF and OECD analysis. (These estimates need to be treated with caution, as the measures that underpin them and their potential impact are uncertain, and the nature and strength of the policy commitments vary considerably across individual country growth strategies.)
Another potential sign of hope is the sharp decline in the prices of energy, a reflection of both weaker global demand and increased supply (particularly of shale oil and gas from the United States). The more than $40 a barrel decline in Brent crude prices is likely to raise consumers’ purchasing power in oil-importing countries in the OECD area and elsewhere and spur growth, albeit at considerable cost (and destabilizing effects) for the more populous and poorer oil exporters. It could also be a harbinger of energy price spikes down the road, as the massive investments needed to ensure adequate supplies of energy may not be forthcoming as a result of their unprofitability at low prices.
Major global challenges have wide-ranging long-term implications for the average citizen. By 2030, the world’s population is projected to reach 8.3 billion people, two-thirds of whom will live in urban areas. Massive changes in the patterns of energy and resource (particularly water) use will be needed to accommodate this 1.3 billion person increase—and the elevation of 2–3 billion people to the middle class.
A citizen-centered policy agenda would need to reform national economies to spur growth and job creation, placing greater reliance on national and regional markets and the sustainable use of resources; emphasize social policies and the economic health of the lower and middle classes; invest in human capital and increase access to clean water, sanitation and quality social services, including a stronger foundation during the early years of life and support for aging with dignity and equity; improve labor market flexibility to employ young people productively; and enhance human rights and the freedom of people to move, internally and internationally. These policies would need to be complemented by policies that use collective action to mitigate risks to the global economy.
To prevent another global crisis, there is an urgent need to strengthen global economic governance, including through global trade agreements that favor the bottom half of income distribution; reform of the international monetary system, including the functioning and governance structure of the international financial institutions; encouragement of inclusive finance; and institution of policies to discourage asset bubbles. To achieve sustainable growth, all countries need to remove fossil fuels and other harmful subsidies and begin pricing carbon and other environmental externalities.
Worldwide surveys show that citizens everywhere are becoming more aware and active in seeking changes in the global norms and rules that could make the global system and the global economy fairer and less environmentally harmful. This sense is highest among the young and better-educated, suggesting that over time it will increase, potentially leading to equitable results for all citizens through better national and international policies.
Headline image: World Map – Abstract Acrylic, by Free Grunge Textures. CC-BY-2.0 via Flickr.
Thorium, element 90 on the Periodic Table of the Elements, is a lustrous, silvery-white metal that is only slightly radioactive. In fact, the mantle in the portable gas lamps that people use on camping trips contains thorium. The element was named for Thor, the Norse god of thunder. Thorium is a member of the actinides, which are found in the bottom row of the Periodic Table. The actinides, which include uranium, release particles (including neutrons) from the nucleus and decay into more stable elements. These neutrons can hit nearby atoms, causing them to split and release even more neutrons. This results in a chain reaction that releases energy. If the chain reaction is uncontrolled, the result is a nuclear explosion. By controlling the chain reaction, these elements can be used to generate power.
Thorium may be the element that solves the problems of generating energy using nuclear fuel. After thorium has been used to generate power, it leaves behind only a tiny amount of waste. In contrast to wastes generated by uranium-fueled plants, which must be stored for hundreds of thousands of years, the waste from thorium-fueled plants would need to be stored only for a few hundred years. Thorium is plentiful and virtually inexhaustible and does not require costly processing. In theory, it acts as a breeder, creating enough new fuel as it breaks down to sustain a high-temperature chain reaction indefinitely.
Thorium would used in a new type of reactor, a liquid fluoride thorium reactor, that would have no risk of meltdown. Alvin Weinberg, former director of the Oak Ridge National Lab, and his team built a similar reactor in 1965. In this working reactor, the byproducts of thorium were suspended in a molten salt bath.
Why haven’t uranium reactors been replaced by thorium reactors? Critics point out that because the reaction is sustained for a long time, the fuel needs special containers that are very durable and can withstand the corrosive molten salts. In addition, replacing the reactors already in service would be extremely expensive.
There is a compromise solution. Uranium reactors can be converted to seed-and-blanket reactors that use thorium oxide and uranium oxide rods. The core of the reactor is a seed of enriched uranium rods surrounded by a blanket of thorium oxide/uranium oxide rods. The result is a safer, longer-lived reaction than uranium rods alone. In addition, it produces less waste and the waste cannot be used for nuclear weapons.
It is a start. I hope they find a way soon to solve the technical problems of the liquid fluoride thorium reactor and replace all the uranium reactors.
We hear a lot about setting writing goals. Do any of you have secret thoughts like these? Setting goals is great, but I don’t have the energy to pursue themorI’m already so exhausted that I can’t add one more thing to my life—even something I love.
Is that you? Then you’ve come to the right place.
Plug the Drains
Years ago I had a car that guzzled oil. I added a quart every Monday, but by Saturday the oil light was back on. It did no good to add oil without fixing the leak. The same holds true for your energy level. You can set goals, shore up your willpower, and grit your teeth, but you won’t have any more get-up-and-go until you plug your energy leaks.
We usually lose energy in two ways: enduring annoying or toxic behaviors in other people, and tolerating conduct in ourselves that is harmful (overeating, no exercise, over-due bills, or keeping a cluttered office.) One essential skill is learning how to set boundaries on yourself, such as: no sugar or caffeine before 5 p.m., bedtime by 10 p.m., straighten your desk when you quit work for the day, or pay bills the day they arrive.
You can also set and enforce boundaries with people who steal your energy. Limit your availability, for instance. If you have a cell phone, give the number only to those who really must have it. Your cell phone is to serve you—not the rest of the world. Other people can also drain us with their foul moods, irritating habits, and constant crises demanding our attention.
Learn to set boundaries in these situations; keep your energy inside (where it is useful) instead of spilling out on other people. Believe it or not, family members and friends can be expected to “fix” their own bad moods and self-created crises. (Memorize this: Lack of planning on their part does not constitute an emergency on my part.) If you need help with this essential relationship skill, read Boundaries by Henry Cloud and John Townsend.
Remember: the goal is to find more energy for your writing. You must plug the unnecessary energy drains first. Then you’ll be ready to recover your ability to function with ease.
Get in Shape
You’ll be tempted to skip this step, but I hope you won’t. It’s far more important than most writers realize. Just like you need to maintain your car (oil, spark plugs, belts, brakes) if you expect it to run smoothly, you need to maintain a healthy body if you expect to write in flow, enjoy your work, and be productive.
Are you health conscious? “I watch what I put into my body—no alcohol, drugs, caffeine,” says Sophy Burnham in For Writers Only. “I have become so sensitive to my body’s claims that now I actually often eat when hungry (imagine!), stop and lie down when tired. It has taken me years to learn to listen for those two simple demands, knowing that I write better when the machinery’s warmed up, oiled, clean.”
We all write better in that state. I encourage you to take a “health inventory” right now—and do whatever is necessary to turn you into a lean, clean writing machine.
After you’ve plugged the leaks and kicked your health up a notch, it’s time to actually create energy instead of wasting it. If you have set (and enforced) boundaries on yourself and others, you’re no longer tied to energy-draining habits and situations. This should
As I age, I am beginning to be more aware of the importance of protecting myself from the sun. I wear sunscreen, even in the winter. However I am not really good about putting on my sunglasses. I do have an anti-UV coating on my bifocals, which I hope is helpful, and when I remember them, I have stylish clip-on polarized sunglasses. I recently read an article that got me thinking more about sunglasses and ultraviolet radiation (UV).
As you can see from the top bar in the diagram above, there are different forms of light, ultraviolet and visible. Human eyes detect visible light, which divides into blue, green, and red, as shown on the bottom bar. (We detect infrared as heat.) Ultraviolet light is part of the spectrum of light; its wavelength is shorter than that of visible light. Some animals, such as bees and some birds can see in ultraviolet light, and many flowers and birds have patterns that are only visible in ultraviolet light. Humans cannot see ultraviolet light. However, parts of the eye such as the cornea, the lens, and the retina can be damaged when they absorb too much UV light. Some scientists think that exposure to UV light may cause cataracts, a clouding of the lens of the eye.
All UV light is more energetic than visible light, which is why it causes damage. The shorter the wavelength of light, the more energetic it is. The more energetic the light is, the more damage it can cause. As you can see from the bottom part of the diagram, there are several types of ultraviolet light. Because our atmosphere protects us from the most of the other forms of ultraviolet radiation, we should be most concerned with UVA and UVB. UVA has a longer wavelength than UVB. In addition to damaging our eyes, UVA and UVB cause sunburn and skin cancer.
With this in mind, I went to my ophthalmologist to have my eyes checked. He gave me a new prescription for lenses. I took my prescription to a local eyeglass shop (Wize Eyes), where the friendly saleswoman helped me pick out stylish new frames. Knowing that I tend to forget to put on my sunglasses, I chose lenses that darken in sunlight and protect my eyes from UV light. This picture was taken in a cloudy evening, so the lenses do not look very dark.
There is a Jane Austen-esque phrase in my book: “it is a ceaseless wonder that our universal and objective science comes out of human – sometimes all too human – enquiry”. Physics is rather hard to blog, so I’ll write instead about the practitioners of science – what are they like? Are there certain personality types that do science? Does the science from different countries end up being different?
Without question there are fewer women physicists than men physicists and, also without question, this is a result of both nature and nurture. Does it really matter how much of the ‘blame’ should be apportioned to nature and how much to nurture? Societies have evolved the way they have for a reason, and they have evolved to have less women pursuing science than men (at present). Perhaps ‘intelligence’ has even been defined in terms of what men are good at?
Do a disproportionate number of physicists suffer from Asperger Syndrome (AS)? I deplore the fashion for retrospectively diagnosing the most famous physicists, such as Newton and Einstein, as suffering in this way. However, I’ll jump on the bandwagon and offer my own diagnosis: these two had a different ‘syndrome’ – they were geniuses, period. Contrary to common supposition, it would not be an asset for a scientist to have AS. Being single-minded and having an eye for detail – good, but having a narrow focus of interest and missing too much of the rich tapestry of social and worldly interactions – not good, and less likely to lead to great heights of creativity.
In the late 18th and early 19th centuries, the science of energy was concentrated in two nations, England and France. The respective scientists had different characteristics. In England (strictly, Britain) the scientists were made up from an undue number of lone eccentrics, such as the rich Gentleman-scientists, carrying out researches in their own, privately–funded laboratories (e.g. Brook Taylor, Erasmus Darwin, Henry Cavendish and James Joule) and also religious non-conformists, of average or modest financial means (e.g. Newton, Dalton, Priestley and Faraday). This contrasts with France, where, post-revolution, the scientist was a salaried professional and worked on applied problems in the new state institutions (e.g. the French Institute and the École Polytechnique). The quality and number of names concentrated into one short period and one place (Paris), particularly in applied mathematics, has never been equalled: Lagrange, Laplace, Legendre, Lavoisier and Lamarck, – and these are only the L’s. As the historian of science, Henry Guerlac, remarked, science wasn’t merely a product of the French Revolution, it was the chief cultural expression of it.
There was another difference between the English and French scientists, as sloganized by the science historian Charles Gillispie: “the French…formulate things, and the English do them.” For example, Lavoisier developed a system of chemistry, including a new nomenclature, while James Watt designed and built the steam engine.
From the mid-19th century onwards German science took a more leading role and especially noteworthy was the rise of new universities and technical institutes. While many German scientists had religious affiliations (for example Clausius was a Lutheran), their science was neutral with regards to religion, and this was different to the trend in Britain. For example, Thomson (later Lord Kelvin) talked of the Earth “waxing old” and other quotes from the Bible, and, although he was not explicit, appears to have had religious objections to Darwin’s Theory of Evolution (at any rate, he wanted his ‘age of the Earth calculations’ to contradict Darwin’s Theory).
Whereas personal, cultural, social, economic and political factors will undoubtedly influence the course of science, the ultimate laws must be free of all such associations. Presumably the laws of Thermodynamics would still
Energy is the go of things, the driver of engines, devices and all physical processes. It can come in various forms (electrical, chemical, rest mass, curvature of spacetime, light, heat and so on) and change between these forms, but the total is always conserved. Newton missed energy and it was Leibniz who discovered kinetic energy (he called it vis viva). The idea was promoted on the continent, chiefly by one family, the Swiss family of feuding mathematicians, the Bernoullis, in the first half of the 18th century. The more subtle concept, potential energy, slipped in over a hundred years, uninvited, like the 13th fairy at the party.
In Feynman’s profound allegory (‘Dennis the Menace’ playing with blocks), energy is defined by its property of being conserved. But, this doesn’t answer to all our intuitions about energy. Why does it change smoothly between its various forms? For example, when a child swings on a swing, her kinetic energy decreases as the swing climbs (and gains gravitational potential energy) and then, as the swing descends, she goes faster and faster.
A different approach holds the answer. Consider the walk to the shops. You could take the shortest route or you could optimize other aspects, e.g. take a longer route but less hilly, or more shady or with the least number of road-crossings. Nature also works in this optimizing way: it tries to minimize the total ‘action’ between a starting place and a final destination. ‘Action’ is defined as ‘energy’ times ‘time’, and, in order to minimize action, the energy must be able to change in a prescribed way, smoothly and continuously, between its two forms, kinetic and potential energy, (The Principle of Least Action was discovered by an eccentric Frenchman, Pierre-Louis Moreau de Maupertuis, while head of the Berlin Academy of Science, in the mid 18th century.)
What are kinetic and potential energy? Kinetic energy is the energy of motion of an individual body whereas potential energy is the energy of interaction of parts within a system. Potential energy must be specified for each new scenario, but kinetic energy comes in one essential form and is more fundamental in this sense. However, as potential energy relates to internal aspects (of a system), it doesn’t usually change for differently moving ‘observers’. For example, the game of billiards in the lounge of the ocean liner continues unaffected, whether that liner is coasting smoothly at 30 kph or whether it’s moored to a buoy. The kinetic energy of the liner is vastly different in the two cases.
But sometimes potential energy and even mass do change from one ‘reference frame’ to another. The more fundamental quantity is the ‘least action’, as this stays the same, whatever the (valid) ‘observer’.
Heat energy is the sum of the individual microscopic kinetic energies. But the heat energy and the kinetic energy of an everyday object are very different (e.g. the kinetic energy of a kicked football and the heat energy of a football left to warm in the sun). In fact, for the early 19th century natural philosophers, considering heat as a form of energy was like committing a category error. The slow bridging of this error by people like Daniel Bernoulli, Count Rumford, Robert Julius Mayer and James Joule makes a very interesting tale.
With regards to the looming energy crisis and global warming, here are the things we must remember:
1. Nature always counts the true cost, even if we don’t
2. There is no such thing as safe energy – it is energetic, after all
3. As the sink of all our activities becomes warmer, so all our ‘engines’, cars and humans etc, will run less efficiently
4. We must consider not only energy but also ‘least action’ – and take action.
The world’s total annual consumption of crude oil is one cubic mile of oil (CMO). The world’s total annual energy consumption – from all energy sources – is currently 3 CMO. By the middle of this century the world will need between 6 and 9 CMO of energy per year to provide for its citizens.
In their new book, Hewitt Crane, Edwin Kinderman, and Ripudaman Malhotra introduce this brand new measuring unit and show that the use of CMO replaces mind-numbing multipliers (such as billions, trillions, and quadrillions) with an easy-to-understand volumetric unit. It evokes a visceral response and allows experts, policy makers and the general public alike to form a mental picture of the magnitude of the challenge we face.
Here, Ripu Malhotra answers some questions we had about oil, energy, climate change, and more.
Q: What is the goal of your book, A Cubic Mile of Oil?
A: Raising literacy about energy in the general public. Meeting the global demand for energy is going to be a daunting challenge, and the way we choose to do it, namely the energy sources that we choose to employ will have a profound effect on the lives of millions of people. We have tried to provide an unvarnished look at the different energy sources so people can engage in an informed dialog about the choices we make. People have to be involved in making the choice, or the choice will be made for them.
Q: Why introduce a cubic mile of oil as another unit of energy? There are so many units for energy already.
A: True, there are way too many units of energy in use. Furthermore, different sources of energy are often expressed in different sets of units: kilowatt-hours of electricity, barrels of oil, cubic feet of gas, tons of coal, and so on. Each of these units represents a relatively small amount of energy, and in order to express production and consumption at a global or national scale, we have to use mind-numbing multipliers like millions, billions, trillions and quadrillions. To add to the confusion, a billion and a trillion mean different things in different parts of the world. It gets very difficult to keep it straight.
Q: Who coined the term CMO?
A: Hew Crane came up with this term. He was waiting in a gas line in 1973 when he began contemplating how much oil the world was then using annually. He made some guesses of the number cars, and the miles driven by each, etc., and came up with an estimate approaching a trillion gallons. How large a pool would hold that quantity, he next pondered. A few slide rule strokes later realized that the pool would have to a mile long, a mile wide and a mile deep—a cubic mile!
Q: What is your overall message?
A: Currently, the global annual consumption of oil stands at 1 cubic mile. Additionally, the world uses 0.8 CMO of energy from coal, 0.6 from natural gas, roughly 0.2 from each of hydro, nuclear, and wood for a grand total of 3 CMO. Solar, wind, and biofuels barely register on this scale; combined they produced a total of 0.03 CMO i
Science can create a better world. We are no playthings in the Earth’s fate. Here are my personal top 10 breakthroughs that are badly needed to ensure our future.
1. Smart irrigation
When farmers irrigate their land, they usually water it 100 percent of the time. But isn’t it silly for farmers to ignore the rain? Often they have no alternative, as reliable rain forecasts are not available. Ethiopia, for example, has only a dozen weather stations that report online. But nowadays many farmers own a cell phone. Google.org came up with a simple, yet brilliant idea: let farmers text their own weather observations to a central computer. That will allow experts to make a forecast and text an irrigation advice to the farmers. This is only the beginning for how information technology can revolutionize farming.
2. New energy from the earth
This century we will probably say goodbye to oil. I have great hopes for deep geothermal energy, but it doesn’t feature in many energy scenarios. Planners usually base their ideas on existing technologies. A breakthrough may make it possible to tap the heath of the Earth. If we can really learn how to drill 5 to 10 kilometers through hard rock, we can make many artificial geysers. That would make large amounts of energy available within the next 20 years. A few trials are already underway. If they succeed, we’ll have to completely revise our energy future.
3. Solar cells printed on rollers
For solar energy to provide 5 percent of the world’s energy needs, we would need to cover a surface as large as California with solar cells. We have no way of doing that with current solar cell technology, except if we start using plastic or other thin materials that can be processed on rollers. That means you can use printing techniques, which allow for faster production. Plastic solar cells have progressed over the past decade from a scientific curiosity to a promising breakthrough technology. But we need to improve their lifespan and efficiency.
4. A factory in a shoebox
Size matters. Modern electronics makes it perfectly viable to minimize the size of a chemical plant without sacrificing efficiency. So why not reverse the trend of sizing up installations and start shrinking the equipment? You can miniaturize all the vessels, pipes, and distillation columns that make up a chemical plant—down to the size of a shoebox. The local supermarket could produce your washing powder. No logistics required.
5. Personal genetic profile
Long before 2030, all parents in the US will probably be able to afford to have their baby’s DNA sequenced. Knowing the details of the DNA will make it easier to predict the effects of pharmaceuticals. And it will generate a mass of significant data for scientific research, which will further accelerate progress. Probably we’ll learn that nurture may compensate for our genetic nature. When DNA tells us where our weaknesses lie, we’ll probably start training to improve on that. Learning from DNA will make us less dependent on our genetic fate.
6. Fertilizer factories in Africa
Africa currently imports most of its fertilizers. So why not produce them locally? This would reduce the hassle of transportation on bad roads and connecting to international markets. It would bring the benefits of the Green Revolution to rural communities. Technically, we ‘would have to scale down the chemical installations to meet the local requirements, but new developments in chemistry will make that possible.
7. Antidote for the real pandemic
Not much happened in the 2009 pandemic. But we learned that 85 percent of the world’s population has little
I am really excited about introducing you to the second edition of Earth Science: The Physical Settingby Thomas McGuire. It has been my pleasure to work with Mr. McGuire to make this edition even better than the original. If you liked the first edition, you will love the second. We have made many changes. The cover, shown above, features a photograph of the Eyjafjallajokull volcano in Iceland.
What’s New in Amsco’s Earth Science: The Physical Setting, Second Edition?
New color photographs specifically illustrate concepts in the text.
The new colorul design features Unit Openers that set the stage for what follows.
The reorganized Table of Contents puts chapters on weathering, erosion, deposition, rivers, groundwater, oceans, coastal processes, and landscapes before chapters on earthquakes, plate tectonics, and geologic hazards.
The 28 chapters of the textbook are now arranged into 8 units: 1. Earth Measures and Models 2. Minerals, Rocks, and Resources 3. Weathering and Erosion 4. Water Shapes Earth’s Surface 5. Earth’s Internal Heat Engine <
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Overoptimism and overpessimism sells. But let’s face reality. Here are 10 things we won’t have by 2030:
1. Asteroid bomb
Asteroids with a diameter of more than 100 m (109 yd) reach our planet once every 2000 years. Distressing as that may be, their impact remains local. Bad luck if this asteroid hits Washington DC, but humankind as a whole will be able to survive that. The likelihood of a collision that has a real global impact is still 1000 times smaller. So we’d better prepare for more likely catastrophes, like flu pandemics and water shortages.
2. Moore’s law
The incredible miniaturization of microelectronics will inevitably come to a halt. Extrapolating the current pace, we will reach components of atomic sizes by 2020. But long before that, we will have given up the endeavor of making electronics smaller. We face tremendous technical difficulties in the next steps of miniaturization. Even if we succeed, the costs would be staggering. The speed of single processors already stalled at a few gigahertz. We would be better off investing in connecting processors with sensors and small motors, which would make clever devices that interact with us better.
3. Population stabilization
In many countries, birth and death rates are declining, but not at the same pace. It would require careful tuning of the number of babies to achieve demographic stabilization. There is no such stabilization in natural ecosystems, and we won’t see it in human society either. So be prepared for population growth, population decline, and an uneven age distribution in societies. All of these are concerning.
Will machines outwit humans and take over our civilization? For robots to procreate, they would have to take possession of mines, material plants, microelectronics foundries, assembling sites, and probably some military facilities as well. The collective power of 8 billion human minds will certainly prevent that in the next decades and defeat any machine “gone wild”. And what about our PCs, brain aids, and other appliances becoming increasingly part of us? I think we already crossed that boundary when we started to use cells. We live in a symbiotic relationship with technology, which means that we continuously have to nurture it. Technological evolution is about mastering science, not about submission to it.
5. The greenhouse flood
I live below sea level, as do many people in the Netherlands. The water authorities are already raising the dikes in preparation for climate change. By 2030 the sea level will have risen by only 4 cm (1.6″). So I needn’t be afraid for my house. Climate change is slow compared to the length of a human life. Precisely that makes it difficult for us to act. Also, counteractions only take effect slowly. But I am worried for the generations to come. The last time the earth saw a CO2 level comparable to what we are experiencing now, seas were 70 m (77 yd) higher. Long after 2030, we’ll probably have to give up the lowest parts of my home country. The same is probably true for cities like New Orleans.
6. Clean electric cars
Even in the most optimistic of scenarios, only 10 percent of all cars in Western societies will be electric by 2030. And even these cars won’t really be clean as they depend on fuels burnt in power plants. Worldwide we are still building two new coal-fired power plants a week; the pace of installing renewable power is much, much slower. Moving away from fossil energy is a huge task that requires more than adjustments. We have to prepare for a transformation that touches all aspects of society. Probably we’ll have to rethink the very concept of moving by car.
Do you ever wonder if you’re a REAL writer? If you have doubts, it might be because you have a bad case of the “shoulds.”
Symptoms of the “shoulds” include:
You should write first thing in the morning.
You should write daily.
You should keep a journal.
You should write down your dreams every morning.
You should have a room of your own and be organized!
You should write for publication.
What if some of the “shoulds” just go against your grain? Are you not a real writer then? What if you write best after 10 p.m. instead of first thing in the morning? What if you start journals repeatedly and never last more than three days? What if you can’t remember your dreams? What if an organized office makes you freeze and you secretly prefer writing in chaos?
This book takes you through exercises to find the real writer who lives inside you. You’ll explore the ten components that make up a writer’s “type.” They include such things as tolerance for solitude, best time of day to write, amount of time, need for variety, level of energy, and level of commitment. Finding your own personal combination of traits helps you build a writer’s life where you can be your most productive and creative.
Free to Be Me
To be honest, the exercises with switching hands (right brain/left brain) didn’t help me as much as the discussions about each trait. I could usually identify my inner preferences quite easily through the discussion. It gave me freedom to be myself as a writer. It also helped me pinpoint a few areas where I believed some “shoulds” that didn’t work for me, where I was trying to force this square peg writer into a round hole and could stop!
We’re all different–no surprise!–but we published writers are sometimes too quick to pass along our own personal experience in the form of “shoulds.” You should write first thing in the morning should actually be stated, It works well for ME to write first thing in the morning, so you might try that.
What About You?
Have you come up against traits of “real writers” that just don’t seem to fit you? Do you like to flit from one unfinished project to another instead of sticking to one story until it’s finished and submitted? Do you need noise around you and get the heebie jeebies when it’s too quiet?
If you have time, leave a comment concerning one or two areas where you have struggled in the pas
It began with the sound of a tyre rim grinding on the surface of the cycle path I’d been travelling along, and a sudden sensation of being on a bike that was moving through treacle rather than through air. My rear tyre had punctured and, not for the first time of late, I found myself resenting the seeming futility of life: of having the bad luck to get the puncture, of having to spend time and effort buying and fitting a new inner tube – of my life being enriched not one iota by the whole experience.
As I trudged home that evening, wheeling the now-useless bike beside me, I reflected on the many situations we encounter that mirror this experience – when we find ourselves having to invest energy, only to be no further forward, in real terms, having done so.
Why is it that we have to invest energy merely to maintain the status quo? Why do we find ourselves running, effectively only to stand still? The answer lies in an intrinsic property of all matter, a universal truth so fundamental to our existence that it is captured by its own law: the Second Law of Thermodynamics. This law tells us, in a nutshell, that we are living in a perpetual downward spiral, in which things just get worse. A cheery outlook on life, if ever there was one. But it is an outlook from which there is no escape: the universe, and everything in it, is gradually crumbling into a state of ever-increasing disorder.
This property of all matter – this collapse into disorder – is given a name: entropy. Things that are disordered have greater entropy than things that are relatively more organized. A glass of water, in which the molecules of water itself can move around relatively freely, is more disorganized – has greater entropy – than a block of ice, in which the molecules of water are trapped into a rigid, organized array.
A process that increases disorder, with its associated increase in entropy, is a spontaneous one: one that happens without having to do work to bring it about. This fact has one important corollary: a decrease in entropy – a move towards a more organized state – requires us doing work to bring it about. This is arguably why housework feels like a chore: a living room doesn’t spontaneously tidy itself. We need to invest effort to reverse the spread of disorder, and bring order to whatever degree of chaos had befallen our living space since we last made the effort to tidy up. We are essentially swimming against the natural tide of entropy, with disorder setting in the moment we take our foot off the pedal.
When we look at life at the scale of the molecules and cells of our bodies we continue to see an ongoing battle with entropy: a tussle between order and disorder. Consider proteins, the molecular machines that carry out many important functions in the cell. As they are first being manufactured (or ‘synthesised’) in the cell, proteins exist as elongated chains of conjoined amino acid subunits, much like links of sausages as they are extruded from a sausage-making machine. However, these elongated protein chains must fold into specific three-dimensional shapes to function correctly. This folding represents an increase in order, and hence a decrease in entropy. As we note above, though, swimming against the tide of entropy comes at a cost: the cell must do work to drive such a process forward.
This battle against entropy is essentially why we must eat on a regular basis: to give the cells of our body the energy they need to drive forward those processes that won’t happen spontaneously.
Even the very continuation of life is a battle against disorder. Successful reproduction relies on the passing of biological information from one generation to the next. Every time a cell divides, it must pass on a copy of its
Is nuclear power too risky in earthquake-prone countries such as Japan? On March 11, a massive 8.9-magnitude earthquake shook Japan and caused widespread damage especially in the northeastern region of Honshu, the largest Japanese island. Nuclear power plants throughout that region automatically shut down when the plants’ seismometers registered ground accelerations above safety thresholds.
But all the shutdowns did not go perfectly. Reactor unit 1 at the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Station experienced a mechanical failure in the emergency safety system. In response, officials ordered the evacuation of residents who live within two miles of the plant. Also, people living between two to 10 miles were ordered to stay indoors. The Japanese government described this order as a precautionary measure.
A worst-case accident would release substantial amounts of radioactive materials into the environment. This is unlikely to happen, but is still possible. Modern commercial nuclear power plants like the Fukushima plant use defense-in-depth safety measures. The first line of defense is fuel cladding that provides a barrier to release of highly radioactive fission products. Because these materials generate a substantial amount of heat, coolant is essential. Thus, the next lines of defense are to ensure that enough cooling water is available. The reactor coolant pumps are designed to keep water flowing through the hot core. But loss of electric power to the pumps will stop this flow. Backup electric power sources such as off-site power and on-site emergency diesel generators offer another layer of defense.
Unfortunately, these emergency power sources were knocked out about one hour after the plant shut down. Although it is unclear from the reporting to date, this power outage appears to have occurred at about the same time that a huge tsunami, triggered by the earthquake, hit that part of Japan.
Sustained loss of electric power could result in the core overheating and the fuel melting. However, three other backup systems provide additional layers of defense. First, the plant has batteries to supply power for about four hours. Second, the emergency core cooling system can inject water into the core. Finally, the containment structure, made of strong reinforced concrete, surrounds the reactor and can under even the most severe conditions prevent radioactive materials from entering the environment.
But the earthquake — the largest in the 140 years of recorded history of Japanese earthquakes — might have caused some damage to the containment structure. Japanese authorities announced that they will vent some steam from the containment structure to reduce the pressure buildup. This action may release small amounts of radioactive gas. The authorities do not expect any threat to the public.
Although a meltdown will most likely not occur, this incident will surely result in significant financial harm and potential loss of public confidence. For example, it was less than four years ago, in July 2007, when the Kashiwazaki-Kariwa Nuclear Power Plant, Japan’s largest, suffered shaking beyond its design basis acceleration. The plant’s seven reactors were shut down for 21 months while authorities carefully investigated the extent of the damage. Fortunately, public safety was not harmed and the plant experienced no major damage. However, the government accepted responsibility for approving construction of the first reactor near a geological fault line, which was unknown at the time of construction. The