Michael B. Duff

Lubbock's answer to a question no one asked

Archive for the ‘Science’ Category

The end of cheap oil doesn’t have to be the end of the world

One of the guys at Zerohedge just bought a Nissan Leaf and was crowing about the possibility of driving 100 miles at 24 cents a gallon.

This created a fascinating conflict as the Utopian conspiracy nuts went to war with the angry cynics. This thread made me realize I’m a bit more optimistic about this whole “running out of oil” thing than most of my libertarian peers.

Not really fair to call this optimism. But in this day and age, I guess an absence of cynicism might as well be optimism.

The transition won’t be easy, cheap or fun but I think it can be done, and I don’t think the resulting “energy poor” world will be that awful to live in.

First, it won’t happen overnight. They’re not going to flip a switch and turn the oil off. Oil will slowly increase in price, providing incentives for people to use less and come up with alternatives.

Our electrical grid would collapse if everybody switched to electric cars overnight, but it won’t happen like that. Consumers will start with hybrids, early adopters will buy recharge stations and we’ll have a decade or so to improve the grid. It’s in terrible shape and needs to be reworked anyway. We just need an excuse to spend some of that teacher pension money on infrastructure. Skyrocketing oil prices will provide a lovely excuse.

Things aren’t likely to change until we see prices at the pump hover above $6 for a while but once that happens, it shouldn’t be hard to find the political will. Modern nuclear reactors and “clean coal” plants will spring up, while research into alternative energy and battery technology accelerates.

This will change consumer behavior, of course. I can imagine a world where families own electric cars for their daily city driving and rent vehicles for out of town trips. Suburbs will fragment into hub and spoke community structures and a lot of young people will move back downtown. Telecommuting could offer the best of both worlds for stay-at-home parents and video conferencing will replace a lot of recreational and business travel.

The biggest problem will be trucking, and the transport of basic goods in and out of cities. But we had a pretty good system for this before the internal combustion engine changed the world and I don’t see why we couldn’t go back to it, if the economic incentives were right. It’s hard to run an 18-wheeler on batteries, but why couldn’t we rebuild the railroads?

Electrified railways aren’t perfect, but they work. And let’s be honest. Do you really expect to see fewer government projects and infrastructure improvement programs in the next 20 years? Governments are bending over backwards trying to find big projects to spend stimulus money on. I don’t expect to see smaller government in a world of $10 gas.

Yes, fixing the electrical grid, building nuclear plants and installing new rail lines will be big jobs, but how long did it take us to wire our neighborhoods for Internet, cell phones and cable TV? How much did we spend on those projects, voluntarily, in our monthly entertainment and communications bills?

The point is, this is a world we can live in, and it doesn’t require any giant theoretical breakthroughs to make it work. We’ll have to consume less oil, of course, but we don’t have to go back to the dark ages. And if we do end up with a giant theoretical breakthough in the next 20 years, well, so much the better.

Written by Michael B. Duff

October 17, 2010 at 19:02

Posted in Science

This is a job for Mythbusters

The minute that kid was found safe Adam Savage turned to his wife and said, “Oh god, Jamie’s gonna strap me to a balloon. If the producers call, tell them I’m sick.”

And here’s a quote from @MikeNelson on Twitter: “Science literacy matters: No one in #balloonboy story did the easy calculation to show that a 10-ft. balloon can’t lift a 60-80 lb kid!”

Meanwhile, back at the studio:

“How many Mylar balloons do we have in the shop?”

“Twelve, sir!”

“We’ll need more! And get me 50 garden gnomes filled with sand!”

Written by Michael B. Duff

October 16, 2009 at 07:53

Posted in Science, TV, Twitter

Duff: Surfer dude discovers theory of everything – maybe

Roger Highfield, science editor for the UK Telegraph, has discovered the next Einstein – or not.

On Nov. 14, Highfield published a story with the magnificent headline, “Surfer dude stuns physicists with theory of everything.”

The theory has something to do with E8, a mathematical shape that occurs at many different levels of physics. Garrett Lisi thinks the universe is shaped like E8 and that this shape will become the dominant framework in physics – a kind of Periodic Table for subatomic particles.

The source material includes pretty pictures and contains many big words. I’d like to tell you more about it, but the truth is, I dove into this research and was in over my head so fast, it felt like a ride at Texas Water Rampage.

I took some courses in college, but now my knowledge of physics can be summed up in one phrase: “Fire is hot, and sometimes when I drop things, they fall.”

I realized I was out of my depth, so like any good geek, I Googled it. Here is a summary of my findings: “Garrett Lisi is the next Einstein!” “Yes he is!” “No he’s not!” “Yes he is!” “No he’s not!” And so on.

Look for details of this search in my upcoming paper, “Limitations of Google as a tool for scientific research.”

Internet research wasn’t going to cut it this time. I needed a physicist, and fortunately, I have one on speed dial. One of my favorite professors at Tech was Dr. David Lamp in the physics department.

Lamp has a gift for explaining complex things in plain English, which is probably why he got stuck with the “Physics for Misunderstood Artists” course that I took in college.

I rang up Dr. Lamp and asked if he remembered his favorite C-student. This kind of thing isn’t really his specialty, so he directed me to Richard Wigmans with the High Energy Experimental Particle Physics group.

Internet critics have alternately canonized and crucified Lisi, but Wigmans is taking a wait-and-see approach. Physics profs hear theories like this every day, but Wigmans said, “The difference in this case is that the author is a person with a respectable scientific background. He holds a Ph.D in physics from a good university, and this is the reason that other respectable scientists go through the trouble of reacting to his article.”

Wigmans works in experimental physics and is not particularly concerned with theory.

“Until now, string theory has not provided anything in terms of verifiable predictions, and is therefore not considered very meaningful by experimentalists such as me,” he said. “From what I read, it seems that some aspects of Dr. Lisi’s theory might be experimentally tested. In that case, the Large Hadron Collider at CERN which will start operations next year – and in which my TTU group is heavily involved – may provide some judgment.”

Right or wrong, Lisi’s theory can be tested, and when the data come in, representatives from Texas Tech will be on the front line.

While the media is fueling the hype around this theory, Lisi himself is trying to tone it down.

“I hope people can keep in mind that this is just a theory,” Lisi writes. “It has no experimental support, and it might be wrong. I think it’s got a shot, which is why I work on it.” He warns, “Don’t go crazy, people; but yes, it is pretty damn cool.”

Local experts are willing to wait for evidence and give this theory a chance, but for many casual readers, the issue has already been decided.

Hey, I saw “Good Will Hunting.” I know how this stuff works. The cool guy with the surf board is always right and the boring old guys at the university are always wrong.

It’s a fundamental law of the universe – the physics undergrad version of the American dream. But judging theories based on Hollywood story conventions is not good science or good journalism.

Garrett Lisi is a great story. Writing about him doesn’t make Roger Highfield a bad journalist, but making up your mind too quickly might make you a bad reader.

That’s the great thing about science. It’s the one place left in society where evidence counts for more than authority, where being proved wrong may be the greatest moment in a man’s life.

Maybe the critics are right and string theory is our best tool for understanding the universe, or maybe E8 is a Rosetta Stone and Garrett Lisi will have the last laugh.

The question will ultimately be decided by evidence, so in the meantime, don’t believe everything you read.

Written by Michael B. Duff

December 7, 2007 at 18:11

Posted in Best Of, Columns, Science

Physics for Misunderstood Artists (Final Exam)

1. You need to hurl your demo tape through the open window of a record executive's SUV, traveling at 60 KPH. Assuming no wind, what is the optimum arc for your throw?

2. The lead singer of Fall Out Boy has decided to fill the Grand Canyon with his tears. How many tears will this take and how long does he need to cry?

3. You need to destroy a canvas before your boyfriend realizes you have painted him naked. How many milliliters of spray paint will it take to hide your shame?

4. Your mom caught you smoking pot and wants to burn your novella about death. How hot should the oven be and how long does it need to burn?

5. You have purchased a trumpet to interrupt a George Bush speech during commencement. How many decibels will it take to drown him out?

6. The cops are beating the crap out of you after you have interrupted a George Bush speech during commencement. How much force can they apply to your bones before you need to go to the hospital?

7. Marilyn Manson has decided to honor Satan by bathing in the blood of Michael Bolton. How big a container will he need to hold it?

8. The campus health service has refused to renew your prescription for antidepressants, so you have decided to break one of their windows. How big a rock do you need?

9. You are spiking the punch at a residence hall party and want to render the TA unconscious for 2 hours. How many milligrams of Everclear do you need?

10. You think you see Avril Lavigne sucking down a chili dog at Wienerschnitzel. How close should you be to get a good picture?

EXTRA CREDIT: If REM is walking in a forest and a tree falls on Michael Stipe, what octave will his screams be in?

Written by Michael B. Duff

December 7, 2007 at 10:56

Posted in Humor, Science

How to scare an atheist

Publish a story with the headline, “Gaping hole in universe discovered

“What we've found is not normal, based on either observational studies or on computer simulations of the large-scale evolution of the universe,” Williams said in a statement.

The astronomers said the region even appeared to lack dark matter, which cannot be seen directly but is usually detected by measuring gravitational forces.

The void is in a region of sky in the constellation Eridanus, southwest of Orion.

Scientists will quickly find a rational explanation for this, but I already know. Obviously something came through that hole, ATE ALL OTHER INTELLIGENT LIFE IN THE UNIVERSE, and will one day come for us.

Planet Earth must immediately cease all radio broadcasts. Maybe we can hide until the sun goes out.

Written by Michael B. Duff

August 24, 2007 at 08:24

Posted in Science