Archive for July, 2023

Jul 31 2023

The Superconductor Flap of 2023

Published by under Technology

If you are at all interested in science and technology news, you have probably heard that a team from South Korea claims to have developed a material that is a superconductor at room temperature and ambient pressure. Interestingly, if you are someone who does not follow such news, you probably haven’t read this. As is often the case, I am as interested in how certain science news gets received and reported as the news itself, and this is an interesting case.

First, the claim being made here is beyond massive. If true (and that’s still a big if) this is the biggest science news so far this century. I would rank it above even CRISPR. This is a technological “holy grail” if ever there were one. A superconductor is a material that conducts electricity without resistance, so there is no energy loss or waste heat produced. It doesn’t take much of an imagination to figure out how useful this would be. We dedicated an entire chapter to this idea in our recent book on future technology. We have a massively and increasingly electrified civilization, and a practical superconducting material would benefit almost every aspect of it. It also makes some extreme technologies more plausible, such as fusion power. We (the world) are about to (hopefully) invest billions if not trillions into upgrading our electrical power grids, and this is the material we would use if these claims are true.

We already have superconductors. You might remember back in the 1980s when scientists discovered the first “high temperature” superconducting class of material. This was only relatively high temperature – raising the highest critical temperature (the temperature below which a substance is superconducting) above 77 K, the boiling point of liquid nitrogen. While still extremely cold, cooling with liquid nitrogen is much cheaper and more practical than liquid hydrogen or helium.  Since then other classes of material have been found with critical temperatures as 250 K, but these require extremely high pressures. They basically are not practical for anything, and are only useful for superconductivity research.

Here is the new paper – it’s a preprint, which means it has not been peer-reviewed. I think that’s one of the reasons the news isn’t headlined everywhere. The researchers claim to have produced essentially an alloy of lead, apatite, and copper that is a superconductor at room temperature, actually up to 127°C (261°F), at ambient pressure. Further, this is not some brittle ceramic, it’s a ductile metal. They report: Continue Reading »

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Jul 27 2023

More On Electric Vehicles

Published by under Technology

I recently wrote about electric vehicles, which sparked a lively discussion in the comments. There was enough discussion that I wanted to pull my responses together into a new post. Before I get to the details, some general observations. The conversation, in my opinion, nicely demonstrates a couple of general critical thinking principles. The first is that basically well-meaning people (meaning they are not a paid shill) can look at essentially the same collection of facts and come to a different opinion. This relates partly to another post I wrote recently, about how we can subjectively define “true” in order to support pre-existing narratives.

The other principle on clear display in the comments is our old friend confirmation bias (this cuts in all directions, although not necessarily symmetrically). We tend to seek out, accept, and remember bits of information that seem to support what we already believe or want to believe, while finding reasons to dismiss or ignore information that contradicts our narrative. The result is a powerful illusion of knowledge, that what we feel in our guts (or aligns with our ideology) is objectively and obviously true. Therefore, those who disagree with us must be suffering some catastrophic personal failing.

There are also external factors at play, because we are not living in a neutral or disinterested information ecosystem. Not only are we biased in how we gather facts, information is being curated for us with the specific purpose of influencing what we believe to be true. This is also a self-reinforcing phenomenon, because acceptance of curated information leads us to increasingly curated and extreme sources of information, sometimes leading to the infamous “information bubble”.

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Jul 25 2023

Giant Eels, Loch Ness, and Probability

Published by under Skepticism

At this point it is pretty clear that the Loch Ness Monster (Nessie) does not exist. I know, logically it is impossible to prove a negative, so if we want to be technical we can say that the probability of a large creature similar to that believed to be Nessie approaches zero. The original 1934 photograph that created the Nessie phenomenon is a confessed hoax. We have 89 years of exploration, including countless visitors hoping to get a glimpse of the creature, camera in hand, and sonar surveys, submarine explorations, multiple webcams, and most recently a DNA survey. The DNA survey is perhaps the most conclusive, because it captures the DNA signature of everything living in the lake. There is no evidence of anything that can be a giant reptile.

If Nessie does not exist, then what have people been seeing all these years? I don’t think we need a concrete explanation for every single sighting. Hard evidence is one thing, but just eyewitness testimony is not really evidence. It is also well known that people misperceive things, confabulate, and are strongly influenced by expectations and desires. In short, if you look hard enough for the Loch Ness Monster, eventually you will see something and convince yourself that you saw the Loch Ness Monster. Even still, it is interesting to hypothesize about what phenomena might trigger alleged sightings, and not just of Nessie, but other lake monsters and cryptids.

One hypothesis is that some eye witnesses may have been seeing other aquatic creatures that might swim along the surface or breech. This includes large alligators, seals, groups of otters, and large fish such as sturgeon. The DNA evidence also ruled out these creatures for the Loch Ness (although they are still candidates for some other lake monsters). DNA, however, did raise the possibility that there are giant eels living in the Loch. Could an unusually giant eel have been mistaken for the neck or tail of Nessie?

A recent paper tests that hypothesis with some statistics. They used data for the European eel (Anguilla anguilla) to calculate likely size distributions. Eels grow throughout their lifespan, and can live over a hundred years. However, their growth is not linear, as it slows down as they age. They calculate that a sighting of a 1 meter long eel in Loch Ness has a probability of 1 in 50,000. Given the size of the lake and the fish stock, they conclude that such sightings are reasonable. So if you think a 1 meter eel could be mistaken for Nessie, it is a reasonable candidate, at least for some of the sightings over the years.

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Jul 24 2023

Making Computers More Efficient

Published by under Technology

An analysis in 2021 found that 10% of the world’s electricity production is used by computers, including personal use, data centers, the internet and communication centers. The same analysis projected that this was likely to increase to 20% by 2025. This may have been an underestimate because it did not factor in the recent explosion of AI and large language models. Just training a large language model can cost $4-5 million and expend a lot of energy.

I am not trying to doomsay these statistics. Civilization gets a lot of useful work out of all this computing power, and it likely displaces much less efficient ways of doing things. One Zoom meeting vs an in-person meeting can be a huge energy savings. In fact, as long as we use all that computing power reasonably, it’s all good. We can talk about the utility of specific applications, like mining Bitcoins, but overall the dramatic advance of computing is a good thing. But it does shift our energy use, and it does represent the electrification of some technology. We therefore have to factor it in when extrapolating our future electricity uses (just like we need to consider the effect of shifting our car fleet from burning gasoline to using electricity).

The situation also presents an opportunity. As more and more of our energy use is shifted to computers as our world becomes more digital, that means we can have increasing improvement in our overall energy efficiency just by targeting one technology. For example, if computers used 20% of the world’s electricity, a 50% improvement in computer efficiency would result in a 10% drop in our energy demand (once fully implemented). Obviously such improvements would be implemented over years, but it points out how high the stakes are becoming for computer power efficiency. This means the industry needs to focus not just on doing things bigger, better, faster, but also more efficiently. We also need to think twice before adopting wasteful practices.

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Jul 21 2023

Are Electric Vehicles Worth It

Published by under Technology

One of the key components of the plan to get our civilization to net zero by 2050 is to transform the motor vehicle fleet into all electric vehicles (EVs). This is a worthy goal, as it would eliminate burning gasoline for transportation. In fact it’s necessary if we want to get near net zero. Governments and the auto industry are responding with incentives for EVs, some regulations forcing the phasing out of internal combustion engine (ICE) vehicles, and investment of billions even trillions of dollars to change over production lines, secure raw material sources, and build charging stations.

But EVs have their critics. And some experts point out (a valid point I completely agree with) that we have to consider the optimal pathway to net zero, not just the destination. By 2050 EVs will be an even more mature technology than they are now, and batteries will have at least 4-5 times the energy density. We may also have battery designs that use more abundant and less problematic raw material.  Also by then there should be a robust infrastructure of charging stations, and a green energy grid to support them. So it’ easy to imagine the world of 2050 with an all EV transportation infrastructure that is as close to net zero as possible.

I also have to say, I own a Tesla and it’s the best car I ever owned. The driving experience is great – once you get used to the regenerative breaking, you have more and easier control. Acceleration is instantaneous. Charging at home every night is easy, and you never have to visit a gas station. There is literally almost no maintenance – no oil changes, no tune-ups, no engine parts that wear out. The break pads last much longer because you very rarely use the breaks. At least along the East coast, long trips are no problem.

But what is the optimal path to get to full EV? And this is not just about getting there quickly. EVs may not be the best option for everyone right now. The optimal path may go through bridging technologies, most notably plug-in hybrids. What are the downsides to EVs?

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Jul 20 2023

A Galaxy Without Dark Matter

Published by under Astronomy

Dark matter is one of the greatest current scientific mysteries. It’s a fascinating story playing out in real time, although over years, so you have to be patient. Future generations might be able to binge the dark matter show, but not us. We have to wait for each episode to drop. Another episode did just drop, in the form of an analysis of the massive relic galaxy NGC 1277, but let’s get caught up before we watch this episode.

The term “dark matter” was coined by astronomer Fritz Zwicky in 1933 as one possible explanation for the rotation of the Coma Galaxy Cluster. The galaxies were essentially moving too quickly, implying that there was more gravity (and hence more matter) present in the cluster than was observed. This matter could not be seen, therefore it was dark. The notion was a mere footnote, however, until the 1970s when astronomer Vera Rubin analyzed the rotation curves of many individual galaxies. She found that galaxies were rotating too quickly. The stars should be flying apart because there was insufficient gravity to hold them together (or alternatively they should be rotating more slowly). There must be more gravity that can be seen. The notion of dark matter was therefore solidified, and has been a matter of debate ever since.

Half a century after Rubin confirmed the existence of dark matter, we still don’t know what it is. It must be some kind of particle that does not interact much with other stuff in the universe, does not give off or reflect radiation, but possesses significant mass and therefore gravity. There are candidate particles, such as wimps (weakly interacting massive particles), MACHOs (massive astrophysical compact halo object), axions (particles with a tiny amount of mass but could be very common) or perhaps even several particles currently not accounted for in the standard model of particle physics.

This is one of the exciting things about dark matter – when we figure out what dark matter is, it could break the standard model, pointing the way to a new and deeper understanding of physics. But how certain are we that dark matter exists? To a degree the existence of dark matter is an argument from ignorance – it is a placeholder filling in a gap in our knowledge. We can only infer its existence because we cannot explain with our current models of gravity how stuff is moving in the universe. Perhaps our current models of gravity are wrong?

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Jul 18 2023

How We Determine What to Believe as True

Psychologists have been studying a very basic cognitive function that appears to be of increasing importance – how do we choose what to believe as true or false? We live in a world awash in information, and access to essentially the world’s store of knowledge is now a trivial matter for many people, especially in developed parts of the world. The most important cognitive skill in the 21st century may arguably be not factual knowledge but truth discrimination. I would argue this is a skill that needs to be explicitly taught in school, and is more important than teaching students facts.

Knowing facts is still important, because you cannot think in a vacuum. Our internal model of the world is build on bricks of fact, but before we take a brick and place it in our wall of knowledge, we have to decide if it is probably true or not. I have come to think about this in terms of three categories of skills – domain knowledge (with scientific claims this is scientific literacy), critical thinking, and media savvy.

Domain knowledge, or scientific literacy, is important because without a working knowledge of a topic you have no basis for assessing the plausibility of a new claim. Does it even make basic sense? An easily refutable claim may be accepted simply because you don’t know it is easily refutable. Critical thinking skills involve an understanding of the heuristics we naturally use to estimate truth, our cognitive biases, cognitive pitfalls like conspiracy thinking, how motivation affects our thought processes, and mechanisms of self deception. Media savvy involves understanding how to assess the reliability of information sources, how information ecosystems work, and how information is used by others to deceive us.

A recent study involves one aspect of this latter category – how do we assess the reliability of information sources and how this affects our bottom line assessment of whether or not something is true. The researchers did two studies involving 1,181 subjects. They gave the subjects factual information, then presented them with claims made by a media outlet. They were further told whether the media outlet intended to inform or deceive on this topic. They studies claims that are considered highly politicized and those that were not.

What they found is that subjects were more likely to deem a claim true if it came from a source considered to be trying to inform, and more likely to be false when the source was characterized as trying to deceive – even if the claims were the same. At first this result seems strange because the subjects were told the actual facts, so they knew absolutely (within the confines of the study) whether or not the claim was true.

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Jul 17 2023

Using Genetic Engineering To Fight Malaria

Despite robust efforts to fight it, malaria remains one of the most significant infectious diseases affecting humans. According to UNICEF – ” In 2021, there were 247 million malaria cases globally that led to 619,000 deaths in total. Of these deaths, 77 per cent were children under 5 years of age.” Efforts to minimize malaria cost about $7 billion per year, through vaccination, drug therapy, and spraying pesticides to kill the mosquitos that carry the disease. Mosquito populations are developing resistance to the pesticides, however, which could raise the costs of control, while available funds can fluctuate.

One potential solution is using genetic engineering to fight malaria, and there are several approaches being developed that are close to being ready for deployment. They all use an approach known as a gene drive, which causes a desired trait to spread more quickly through a population than regular Mendelian genetics would allow. This idea is actually 60 years old, but newer techniques, such as CRISPR, are making it much easier and more powerful.

With sexual reproduction, each offspring has two sets of chromosomes, one from each parent. So organisms have two copies of each gene (each copy is called an allele). They then pass one of their two copies onto each offspring. Mendelian genetics assumes that there is a 50% chance for each allele to be inherited, and this is mostly true. The gene drive phenomenon refers to situations in which one allele has an advantage over the other, so it is more likely to be inherited. There are naturally occurring gene drives, but we’re going to focus on the latest synthetic gene drive, which involves CRISPR.

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Jul 14 2023

Magnetohydrodynamic Drive – Silent Water Propulsion

Published by under Technology

DARPA, the US Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, is now working on developing a magnet-driven silent water propulsion system – the magnetohydrodynamic (MHD) drive. The primary reason is to develop silent military naval craft. Imagine a nuclear submarine with an MHD drive, without moving parts, that can slice through the water silently. No moving parts also means much less maintenance (a bonus I can attest to, owning a fully electric vehicle).

But don’t be distracted by the obvious military application – if DARPA research leads to a successful MHD drive there are implications beyond the military, and there are a lot of interesting elements to this story. Let’s start, however, with the technology itself. How does the MHD work?

The drive was first imagined in the 1960s. That’s generic technology lesson #1 – technology often has deeper roots than you imagine, because development often takes a lot longer than initial hype would suggest. In 1992 Japan built the Yamato-1, a prototype ship with an MHD drive that worked. It was an important proof of concept, but was not practical. Even over 30 years later, we are not there yet. The drive works through powerful magnetic fields, which are place at right angles to an electrical current, producing a Lorentz force. This is a force produced on a particle moving through both an electrical and magnetic field, at right angles to both. Salt water contains charged particles which would feel this Lorentz force. Therefore, if arranged properly, the magnetic and electrical fields could push water toward the back of the ship, providing propulsion.

Sounds pretty straight forward, so what’s the holdup? Well, there are several. The most important aspect of the Yamato-1 is that is provided great research into all the technical hurdles for this technology. The first is that the MHD drive is horribly energy inefficient, which means it was very expensive to operate. What was mainly needed to improve efficiency was more powerful and more efficient magnets. Here we get to generic technology lesson #2 – basic technology developed for one application may have other or even greater utility for other applications. In this case the MHD is partly benefiting from the fusion energy industry, which requires powerful efficient magnets. We can take those same magnet innovations and apply them to MHD drives, making them energy and cost effective.

But there is still one major and one minor problem remaining. The major problem is the electrodes and electronics necessary to generate the electrical current. Electronics and salt water don’t mix – the salt water is highly corrosive, more so when exposed to magnetic fields and electrical current. We therefore need to develop highly corrosive-resistant electrodes. Fortunately, such development is already underway in the battery industry, that also needs robust electrodes. Apparently we are not there yet when it comes to MHD, and that will be a major focus of DARPA research.

There is also the minor problem of the electrodes electrolyzing the salt water, creating bubbles of hydrogen and oxygen. This reduces the efficiency of the system – not a deal-killer, but it would be nice to reduce this effect. I immediately wondered if the created gases can be captured somehow, both solving the problem and making green hydrogen from the shipping industry. In any case, that’s problem #2 for DARPA to solve.

If all goes well, we are probably 10-20 years (or more) still away from working MHD drives on ships. Probably the military applications will come first. I hope they don’t hog the technology, which they might in order to maintain their military technological dominance, but the civilian applications can be huge. The noise generated by shipping has massive negative consequences on marine life, especially whales and other cetaceans who rely on long distance sound to communicate with each other, to navigate, and to migrate. Propellers churning up water is also an ecological problem. If it ever becomes cost effective enough, a working MHD drive could revolutionize ocean travel and shipping. Electrifying ocean propulsion could also help reduce GHG emissions.

Plus, there might be other downstream benefits from the DARPA research. Those robust corrosion resistant electrodes will likely have many applications. It may feed back into battery technology. It may also lead to better electrodes for a brain-machine interface. This reminds me of the book and TV series Connections, by James Burke. This is a brilliant series I have not seen in a while and should probably watch again. It traces long chains of technological developments, from one application to the next, showing how extensively technologies cross-fertilize. A need in one area leads to an advance that makes a completely different application feasible – and so on and so on. I guess that’s generic technology lesson #3.

DARPA has a solid history of accelerating specific technologies in order to bring new industries to fruition more quickly. Hopefully they will be successful here as well. The downstream benefits of an MHD drive could be significant, with spin-off benefits to many industries.

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Jul 13 2023

About Those Lab Leak Documents

Published by under Conspiracy Theories

It was recently revealed that the House subcommittee probing the origins of COVID-19 accidentally released a “trove” of documents related to their investigations. The documents include e-mails and internal communications among the scientists and experts who put together the first analysis of the proximal origin of SARS-CoV-2, published in Nature in March 2020. The documents reveal that there was a lot more discussion and credence given to the lab origin theory of SARS-CoV-2 in February 2020 than was reflected in the final published paper, which some see as evidence of a deliberate coverup. Further, because the documents are now publicly available, an army of online sleuths can pour over every word to find more evidence of something sinister.

Having looked through the reports myself, I don’t see anything unusual at all. Here is a typical exchange:

“I believe RaTG13 is from Yuanan, which is about as far away from Wuhan as you can be and still be in China,” Andersen wrote, referring to a virus that produced Covid-like symptoms in miners in 2013, a strain that was later stored and researched at the Wuhan Institute of Virology. “What are the chances of finding a viruses that are 96% identical given that distance? Seems strange given how many SARS-like viruses we have in bats.”

Rambaut responded on Slack suggesting they back off such interrogation. “I personally think we should get away from all the strange coincidence stuff. I agree it smells really fishy but without a smoking gun it will not do us any good,” he wrote. “The truth is never going to come out (if [lab] escape is the truth). Would need irrefutable evidence. My position is that the natural evolution is entirely plausible and we will have to leave it at that. Lab passaging might also generate this mutation but we have no evidence that that happened.”

These are scientists discussing through various possibilities. Remember, this was February 2020 – we knew virtually nothing about the virus, the origin of COVID, the source of the virus (we are still not sure about the animal vector), or what was happening at the Wuhan lab. We have the genetic sequence of the virus, that was it. You’ll note they are still talking about bats, a theory that was later refuted.

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