Archive for the 'Technology' Category

Jan 31 2017

Are We Close to a Flying Car?

Published by under Technology

flying carThere is a good rule of thumb that whenever a headline is phrased as a question the answer is, “No.” This headline is no exception. You might not think this from reading a recent AP article titled: “A commuter’s dream: Entrepreneurs race to develop flying car.”

I am old enough now where I can say that I have been reading such headlines for literally decades. Since I was a nerdy teenage technophile I have been reading about, and dreaming about, flying cars. They are undeniably cool – one of the holy grails of future technology.  I still sometimes imagine myself rising above the congested roads during particularly bad traffic and flying to my destination unhindered.

The AP article, however, is an excellent example of the overhyped future technology trope. Often a dramatic new technology, like flying cars, requires that several different component technologies all work sufficiently so that the application is feasible. Skyscrapers could not be built until the elevator was invented. It didn’t matter if engineers had perfected ways of supporting really tall buildings if no one could get to the upper floors.

I have discussed this idea with batteries many times. A useful battery has to simultaneously have multiple properties: good energy density and capacity, stability, sufficiently rapid charge and discharge rates, many charge-discharge cycles, and be made of material that is not too expensive, heavy, rare, or toxic. There also has to be a way to economically mass produce them. Missing even one property can be a deal-killer.

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28 responses so far

Jan 20 2017

Questions on GMOs

Published by under Technology

gmo-cartoons-good-fat-100Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs) remain the one issue on which there is the greatest disparity of opinions between scientists and the general public. Even among self-identified skeptics, people who make a genuine effort to align their opinions with the scientific evidence, there remains great distrust of GMOs and the companies who produce them (such as Monsanto).

This disparity is partly due to the decades-long campaign by Greenpeace and the organic lobby to demonize GMOs. It is much easier to fearmonger than to reassure. I think we have started to crawl back toward reality on this issue, but we have a long way to go. We started with the low-hanging fruit, correcting the outright lies.

It is much more difficult to dispel the vague sense that there is something menacing about GMOs. We have a deep emotional connection to food that we perhaps don’t even recognize. It is easy to trigger our emotion of disgust, and we have apparently evolved to err on the side of avoiding anything that may be tainted. The image of unnatural “frankenfood” still clings to our culture and is hard to dispel.

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229 responses so far

Jan 19 2017

2016 Warmest Year on Record

Published by under Skepticism,Technology

giss-1880-2016It’s official – 2016 is the warmest year on record, since we have been tracking global temperatures since 1880. This is the third year in a row that the current year has been the warmest, 2014 and 2015 were also the warmest years on record. In fact, 15 of the warmest years on record have all been since 1998 inclusive. The last time we had a coldest year on record was 1911.

That the Earth is warming is now undeniable, but that does not stop people engaged in motivated reasoning from denying it. The graph to the right shows temperature variance from average since 1880. It is visually very compelling.

Here is how motivated reasoning works, however. Someone without ideological skin in the game would fairly assess all the data, acknowledge uncertainty and complexity, but arrive at the fairest conclusion. Motivated reasoning exploits uncertainty and complexity to deny the reality which is causing cognitive dissonance brought about by a conflict between reality and ideology.

As you might imagine, there is a lot of complexity in determining average global temperatures. It’s not as if the Earth has a magical thermostat. There are various places to measure temperature, from surface temperature, high altitude temperature, and ocean temperature. You can also use various methods, including ground stations and satellites. Further, you have to correct for any potential source of artifact. For example, there is the heat-island effect. As cities grow they generate more heat, and if you have a temperature measuring station near a city it will measure this heat.

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168 responses so far

Jan 17 2017

Gene Cernan, Last Man to Walk on the Moon, Dies

Published by under Technology

Cernan-Apollo17“We leave as we came and, God willing, as we shall return with peace and hope for all mankind.”

Those were the last words that Eugene Cernan spoke while on the moon, the last person to step foot there. Twelve people total walked on the moon during the Apollo missions: Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin, Pete Conrad, Alan Bean, Alan Shepard, Edgar Mitchell, David Scott, James Irwin, John Young, Charles Duke, Eugene Cernan, and Harrison Schmitt. Cernan was one of only three who went to the moon twice. Of the twelve, six are now still alive.

Cernan and Schmitt were the two astronauts of the Apollo 17 mission, the last mission of the Apollo program, to walk on the moon. They lifted off from the lunar surface on December 14, 1972. That means this year it will be 45 years since a person last walked on the moon. We are fast approaching half a century since the end of the Apollo missions.

I was only 8 years old in 1972, but I avidly followed the Apollo program. From my perspective at that age the Apollo program had existed my entire conscious life. To me it was just something that we did. I remained a fan of NASA, the space program, and all things having to do with space travel since then. I would have considered it unthinkable that we would not return to the moon in the next 50 years. Surely by 2001, which seemed far in the future, Kubrick and Clarke’s vision of a permanent moon base was likely a reasonable extrapolation.

So why haven’t we been back to the moon? Should we return to the moon?

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17 responses so far

Dec 20 2016

New Radiation Resistant Metals

Published by under Technology

radiation-alloysThis is a bit of a wonky technical post, but that is actually a point I want to make. Often I find that the scientific advances that have the most potential get the least coverage, while interesting but incremental advances, or one-off findings, are given broad coverage with sensational headlines. This is an unfortunate artifact of how scientific news is communicated. First, a company’s or institution’s press office will determine if the new study or finding is press-worthy, and if so they will compose a press release. Then journalists and news outlets will decide if it is worth publishing, which usually means – can they spin it as a major breakthrough, creating or solving some “mystery”, a potential cure for some disease, or tie it to some science-fiction technology.

Meanwhile, real advances that are not “sexy” get overlooked. So when I saw this item I thought, this is likely to be one of those advances with huge potential but very little press coverage.

Researchers have figured out how to make metal alloys that are far more resistant to radiation damage than existing alloys. The key is mixing three or more different metals in equal proportions. They compared nickel to nickel-iron, nickel-cobalt-iron, and nickel-cobalt-iron-manganese-chromium. The alloys with three or more metals were 100 times more resistant to radiation damage than the pure nickel.

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11 responses so far

Dec 12 2016

The Energy Storage Gap

Published by under Technology

hourly_bigWe live in a time of rapid technological advance, so much so that we take it for granted. This also means we are more sensitive to situations in which a particular technology seems to be lagging.

Right now arguably the most critical technology that is lagging behind other related technologies is energy storage. As we try to update our energy infrastructure, specifically with the goal of incorporating more renewable sources, energy storage appears to be the main limiting factor.

Why Is Energy Storage So Important?

Even with our current energy infrastructure, having the ability to efficiently store large amounts of energy for later use would be a huge advantage. Energy production needs to be matched to energy demand, and demand fluctuates throughout the day. The chart above shows energy demand for New England, which peaks around 7:30 pm and bottoms out  at around 4 am. Peak demand is about 50% more than trough demand.

Energy producers have to constantly match production with this demand. This means they need to have additional power production on standby which they can bring online as needed. This causes inefficiency. For one thing, energy producers will use the most efficient energy production methods for baseline production, then bring on the less efficient production just for peak demand. Peak energy is therefore more expensive than off peak. This partly derives from the fact that peak production needs to come from sources that can be turned on quickly, while baseload sources do not need this feature.

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14 responses so far

Dec 06 2016

Instacharge – There Is Not An App For That

instacharge-appEnergy is the ultimate currency of our civilization. It takes energy to do stuff, by definition. Food is energy for manual labor, and it takes energy to make food. In many ways energy is a limiting factor for our technology. It is difficult to think of any one thing that would have a more wide ranging benefit than a new technology that affords cheap, clean, abundant energy.

This is the appeal of free energy. No description of an alleged free energy device is complete without a discussion of the impact the device would have on civilization. The appeal suckers investors and draws media attention. It kept Steorn going for ten years (they have finally liquidated), attracting 23 million Euros in investment. They had nothing, and never did – the 23 million was based entirely on a transparently empty promise.

The impending threat of global warming has raised the stakes even higher. Much of our cheap abundant energy is not clean, and putting previously sequestered CO2 back into the atmosphere is another limiting factor. Personal electronic devices also raise the stakes for the average consumer. We all want our smartphones and laptops to last longer on a charge. We will also soon want more mileage out of our electric cars.

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12 responses so far

Dec 05 2016

Westworld and Consciousness

westworld1The season finale of Westworld aired last night, a series based on a Michael Crichton book which was made into a 1973 film. I won’t give much away, so only very mild spoilers for those who haven’t seen it. I will say the last episode was probably the best of the season.

The basic premise of the book/film/series is that it takes place in a futuristic theme park in which guests can visit the old west populated by robots that are there solely for their pleasure.  They exist to lose gunfights, for sexual pleasure, to be victims or fill whatever role the guests want, and then be recycled to run through their plot loop all over again.

The HBO series uses the story line as an opportunity to explore the basic question of sentience. The robots are hyperrealistic. Unless you cut them open, you cannot tell them from a living human. They are extremely realistic in their behavior as well.

The robots clearly have a very advanced form of artificial intelligence, but are they self-aware? That is a central theme of the series. They have complex behavioral algorithms, they can reason, they express the full range of human emotions, and they have memory. They are kept under control largely by wiping their memory each time they are repaired, so that they don’t remember the horrible things that were done to them.

Some of the robots, however, start to break out of their confines. They “feel” as if they are trapped in a recurring nightmare, and have flashes of memory from their previous loops.

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60 responses so far

Nov 21 2016

The EM Drive – Again

Published by under Technology

The Eagleworks team at NASA have just published a peer-reviewed paper that claims to show net thrust from the EM drive, which is an alleged reactionless thruster – Measurement of Impulsive Thrust from a Closed Radio-Frequency Cavity in Vacuum. They conclude:

Thrust data from forward, reverse, and null suggested that the system was consistently performing with a thrust-to-power ratio of 1.2±0.1  mN/kW1.2±0.1 mN/kW.

The paper concludes that they measured a consistent, although very small, amount of thrust in one direction. This claim remains highly controversial, for good reason. The claim is that they can convert electricity into thrust by creating a tapered resonant chamber. The radio waves produced bounce around the chamber, but because of its tapered shape they push off one side more than the other.

The problem with this claim, and the reason it remains controversial, is because it would break the laws of physics as we currently understand them. Specifically it would break the conservation of momentum – for every action there is an opposite and equal reaction (hence “reactionless” drive).

Further, such a drive could potentially result in a free energy machine. At high enough speed the energy of the momentum generated by the thrust would be greater than the electrical energy used, therefore creating net energy. You could argue that at higher speeds the drive is less and less effective, but there is no reason to suspect that would be the case.

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10 responses so far

Nov 18 2016

Improving Photosynthesis and Crop Yield

Published by under Technology

photosynthesisNo GMO currently on the market has a trait that is designed to increase crop yield. What some traits do, usually by incorporating pest resistance or drought resistance, is to reduce crop loss and improve the predictability of crop yield, which is critical for farmers.

One of the promises of GM technology, however, is that it will produce traits that will increase the potential yield of crops, allowing for the production of more food from a given amount of land. A recent study published in Science reports a significant success in doing just that, using a modification that I have not even heard of before.

I always love when that happens. I read a lot of science news, and therefore I tend to see any big advances coming because there is often a buzz for many years before the technology is ready. Every now and then a new technology or discovery hits without warning. It reminds me that there are researchers working away without hype or attention but with the potential for significant discoveries at any time.

Improving Photosynthesis

If we want to increase the amount of plant matter that can be produced from one plot of land, then we will need to increase the efficiency by which those plants convert sunlight into food. There are many potential ways to do that, but the most direct way is to improve the efficiency of photosynthesis itself. Sunlight is a fairly fixed input, so we want to turn as much of that sunlight as possible into food.

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25 responses so far

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