Tag Archives: climate

Anti-Science

Conservatives are often accused (wrongly and idiotically) of being ‘anti-science’. There are so many thoughts I have here that it will be very hard to avoid digressions of every sort. Due to the massive ignorance pervasive in modern America it seems that, in fact, the most ‘anti-science’ institution int he country is the educational system. Fighting words, I know, but consider: the guiding belief of almost everyone who teaches in schools, elementary, high, and college, is that absolutes, truth, facts, do not really exist outside the reference frame, or narrative, of the person or people who believe it. I can hardly think of any philosophy more antithetical to science than that.

The infection of this belief into the academic disciplines is not uniform, but it is spreading. For instance, the humanities are almost entirely overwhelmed, since it is easier to subvert objective fact. (Witness Howard Zinn, who’s seminal work would not have even been glanced at if it had been instead ‘A Peoples Perspective of Inorganic Chemistry’ and contained several  sections that ‘played fast and loose with the facts’.) While it has yet to make its way into the main body of chemistry there is a serious attempt by some chemists and many non-scientists to mug the whole meaning of science and replace it with the idea that a consensus of smart people determines the facts, and questioning their agreement is ‘anti-science’. The serious trouble is that most people, who have been taught this philosophy of thought and truth treat science the same way as they treat anything else, as if some things can be true for some people and not all people.

And this brings me to the topic I really wanted to mention: what my new favorite (well, the only one I read) chemistry blog calls ‘chemophobia‘.

Personally, I think the greatest failure of our field over the past three decades has been the steady decline of the public image of chemistry. Our “brand” has steadily deteriorated from an apex of “better living through chemistry” in the 1970s to the ever-worsening current climate where “chemicals are bad” and products are nonsensically advertized as “chemical-free”.

These are people who don’t want fertilizer on the plants that grew their food, or pesticides, or fungicides, or genetic modifications. These are people who have been swept up in outright fear of anything chemistry. They want to be soothed by ‘all-natural’, ‘no GMO’ markings. They don’t know, or purposefully forget that these chemicals are why more and more people can eat from the agricultural produce of less and less land. They also seem happy to forget that every single medication they take, (every drag of marijuana), every breath of air, is chemistry. Its odd, and ChemBark has some theories as to why people are afraid of chemicals, and some thoughts of fighting back in the public awareness.

1939_A_BetterThings_Detail_Horizontal_960x766Better Things for Better Living… Through Chemistry

Here is one more theory. Some time ago, while chemistry was in its most recent hey-day, the professors of chemistry, the researchers, started receiving more and more of their money from government funding. This coupled with the growing dislike, and then even sometimes hatred, in the academic world of the kinds of companies that actually use chemistry (Oil companies , pharmaceuticals, etc…) caused chemistry’s best advocates to secluded themselves, doing arcane and sometimes pointless research. And so, little by little, even the chemists became embarrassed of chemistry, because everything chemistry that non-academic people were in contact with were things that they 1) had not financial or academic interest in, and 2) from business sectors that they found repugnant.

So, I think to help chemistry’s image, we chemists should do two things. First, gather together with all scientists and engineers and bite the awkward bullet that they will be making common cause with fundamentalist theologians, and fight for the recognition of knowable, absolute truth. And secondly, be proud enough ourselves of what chemists do for people in the industries that chemists are indispensable to. We should certainly teach students about the horrible things done with chemistry (Horrible only if you have an immutable moral truth, by the way…) but we should also teach them about the things that people have saved with chemistry. That and we shouldn’t stand for defective education, either in the sciences or in the humanities.

Bill Nye: The Red Car

Introducing red car Friday!
From now on, until I get bored of it, every Friday will feature a red car, like last week’s post on the middle ages. Also, whenever I can there will be other posts too… but here is today’s red car.
bmw-z4-red-car
Bill Nye… the science guy…. You see him here and there on the news, expounding, pontificating, telling people what they should believe and what they shouldn’t believe. Here he is at Smithsonian magazine where the subtitle is: ‘The famous scientist cuts through the global warming noise and lays out the facts.’

And by the way, if you go watch it (embedding wasn’t working for some reason.) the bottles are absolutely nothing like our atmosphere with its many, barely understood equilibration systems. It is a horrible example.

Anyway, that’s Bill Nye… ‘famous scientist’ here is another situation, at the commencement speech at Lehigh University, where he said that overpopulation is a huge world problem….

And Bill Nye, apparently a real scientist…. Talking about the OK tornado.

Bill Nye is an expert in basically everything!

He also really hates the idea of creationism

So, Bill Nye is apparently an expert in: Climate science, Evolutionary biology, demographics, basically he’s like a scientist at everything!!!! So I wondered… what, exactly, are his credentials as a scientist (other than, you know, being called ‘the science guy’ which is catchy and cool because it rhymes with his last name…)

Well, according to Wikipedia

‘He studied mechanical engineering at Cornell University (where one of his professors was Carl Sagan)[9] and graduated with a Bachelor of Science in 1977.[10] Nye began his career in Seattle at Boeing, where, among other things, he starred in training films and developed a hydraulic pressure resonance suppressor still used in the 747. Later, he worked as a consultant in the aeronautics industry. In 1999 he told the St. Petersburg Times that he applied to be a NASA astronaut every few years, but was always rejected.[11]

I see… he took a class from a real physicist… and… he was repeatedly rejected by NASA so, that makes him a real scientist I guess. I don’t want to deny the possibilities of him being an autodidact, and mechanical engineers are certainly practical and solid thinkers by and large…. But his scientific credentials are remarkably…. thin. For instance in his scientific work, he made a sundial for the Mars rover… which sounds exactly like a project that would be given to a person who was included for the celebrity, rather than for their science…

It seems to me that his scientific credentials are:
1: He has a catchy name with Science in it
2: He endlessly repeats the most popular scientific shibboleths
3: ?????

Am I missing something that would give us good reason to listen to what Bill Nye (Real Scientist) says over someone (anyone) else?

The Belly of the Dragon

In days long past people actually believed in dragons. Today people that ‘believe’ in dragons are usually mindless hippie-mystics. However, the being of a dragon is a perfect analogy for many things. Imagine a giant green dragon. It lies like Smaug on its pile of spoils and stolen treasure. It breathes smoke and fire at anyone who approaches. This massive worm goes by many names, most of the soft and friendly sounding. Many of them sound responsible and good. This dragon masquerades as a great protecting spirit: Green energy, Renewable Fuel, Environmentalism, Sustainability… who wouldn’t want to be sustainable and responsible with the resources we have? It is an unbeatable question, and also a lie. It is a clever lie, one that hides and is not even spoken. The lie is that the only way to be responsible is complete submission to the dragon.

Smaug

The good (and in some ways bad) news is that the dragon, also like Smaug, has a soft underbelly.  There are actually a number of spots without scales and protection; they are just hidden through the incessant effort of the media leaving people uninformed and, unfortunately complicit scientists. Like I mentioned in ‘Modern Philosopher’s Stone’ scientists frequently do not discuss the actual feasibility of their research for a few reasons, some perfectly innocent. The major reason is that they need only mention the difficulties since other scientists already know. However, people (many of whom are supporting the research involuntarily through taxes and debt) have no idea how feasible or truly sustainable these government lead innovations are. A connection that I see made rather frequently in at least conservative media is the connection between bio-fuel and world hunger. This is very real, but almost never mentioned. In any given year, there is a finite amount of corn. The corn that America grows (and can grow) is more than we eat, however, the more we burn the more tortillas cost in Mexico, the less oil-poor Arab countries can eat, etc etc… all to feed the Green Dragon its bio-fuel.

However, here is another one that I look around for, trying to find people talking about rare earth metals. There are basically two things that make the modern world work. And work it does, we emit less pollution, are less devastated by natural disasters, we grow more food than we eat, the modern first world has many good things that environmentalists would like if they only looked. These two things are oil and rare earth metals. Out of oil comes most of your clothes, your car, all transportation, the soles of your shoes… that acetaminophen that you take for pain relief… comes from oil. Every fine chemical, you know the ones that make ‘miracle drugs’ almost invariably are made with oil derived starting materials. (I think someone should write a poem about oil, and the ease of modern life which is a direct result of oil…)

Rare earth metals make modern technology function.  According to Popular mechanics (for the actual amount) there is 10 pounds of lanthanum in a Prius. Also, absolutely everything seems to have neodymium magnets in it. For example: windmills. That’s right, every single ‘green energy’ windmill requires a large quantity of neodymium. (Also, I believe the Prius uses a large amount of this one too…) Anything that takes electricity and makes something spin (or the other way around for windmills) is almost guaranteed to have neodymium in it.

So, electric cars, windmills, the two current obsessions of the great dragon environmentalism require these rare earths. Where do they come from and how do we get them? Well, the second question helps to answer the first. They are mined in a nasty way, which as of now is the only way. The waste from a rare earth mine is full of cesium and strong acids and radioactive elements. That is because they are all chemically (atomically) very similar in interactions, so a deposit of rare earths is full of other things. Due to this, and the vociferous and strident insistence that nasty things never be done in ‘my backyard’ which for the worshipers of environmentalism is all of America, there is only one operating rare earth mine in America. Somewhere around 90+% of rare earths come from…. China. It is not that we don’t have deposits of rare earths, it is that the EPA will not let anyone open a mine for them.

re-consumer-products

So why is this the belly of the dragon? Just as the reports of windmills slaughtering migratory birds, the need to consume these metals shows the whole movement a farce. Wishing to actually take care of the earth (rather, the parts of it we can affect through electing our leaders) would lead people to try something, evaluate if it works, and if it does not work or is a net loss change how they do things. Instead I am very much afraid that environmentalism is one of the many disguises of totalitarianism: that disgusting philosophy that lets one set of people with the ‘right’ ideas to dominate everyone else. They pretend that these things like windmills are sustainable energy when, in fact, they are at least as unsustainable as oil and not a particularly stable energy supply. It calms the masses and gives the entitled elite something to shout about when rubes like me want to burn oil. (If you haven’t seen the newest news, US carbon emissions are going down… due to natural gas replacing coal since natural gas is cheap…. Due to fracking.) However this is even more a soft spot for environmentalism, since windmills killing birds has little geopolitical considerations. However China, no matter how stable they tried to make that country seem in you history classes, has a long history of horribly huge upheavals. Sure the Chinese have been around a very very long time, but if China decides to have to have another civil war, or Taiping rebellion or any war really, the global cost of rare earths will be so affected there is no real analogy to oil and war in the middle east. Those of us who believe that we should use resources (while protecting our rivers from burning…) should start thinking about the rare earth mining, and the EPA.

Update: China Prepares for War The writer is usually quite glum about the state of the world affairs… but still, There is frequent unsettling news from China.

Modern Philosopher’s Stone

Long long ago, when chemists were still Alchemists, and real men wore beards and magnificent mustaches (looking right at you Tycho Brahe), brilliant and methodical men wasted much time searching for the philosopher’s stone. This, for anyone without any fantasy knowledge, is some material (not necessarily a stone) that would transmute lead or other base metals into gold. Many times, this was also used as a metaphor for the philosopher/alchemist who sought some way to transmute their base instincts into noble characteristics. (See my poem: The Disappointed Alchemist)

The unattainable dream of the philosopher’s stone actually drove much invention, and yet it also caused much wasted time. I don’t mind that really, since alchemists were funded like any artist at the time, by people with money who wanted to look cool. Today’s alchemists, however, use taxes to fund their dreams, which is why I wanted to discuss one branch of research which is very common, and seems to be a modern philosopher’s stone: hydrogen power.

The appeal is certainly very large. Combustion, the simplest way to eke power out of nature is the rapid oxidation (with oxygen no less) of a chemical. For instance, the combustion of octane is written chemically like this:

Lots of carbon dioxide, and to make it worse, gasoline combustion is never this tidy. There are a massive number of different hydrocarbons in gasoline, some of which contain sulfur, nitrogen etc., giving as product (or exhaust) oxides of nitrogen, sulfur, and carbon monoxide. The appealing part about hydrogen combustion is that it yields no products other than water.

That means power with no pollution whatsoever! Which is, admittedly, a very attractive idea. Now, while technically possible, and definitely appealing, every chemist will readily admit many serious drawbacks. However, this blog is not for chemists, this is for non-chemists who have probably at some point read glowing articles in Popular Mechanics or Popular Science, or some article on the economy predicting the coming dominance of the hydrogen economy, and for those people, I want to lay out one of the theoretical difficulties with the whole idea. The other problems I list and the end because I am too tired to discuss them now.

Problem: Where do we get hydrogen? Well, right now we get hydrogen by putting a lot of energy into… methane… fossil fuels.  This means that currently, to use hydrogen as a fuel we would have to take a pre-existing fuel, use energy to lower the energy density of the fuel, and then use the fuel. Not something anyone other than a bureaucrat would do.  (Don’t get me started on Ethanol… ok, maybe sometime I will get there.)

Theoretical solution: This is the most philosopher stone like: water splitting. See the idea is this, use solar energy (it has to be not fossil fuel based to make any sense, so solar or nuclear energy is about it.) to drive a catalytic reaction that splits water into hydrogen and oxygen. The technical difficulties of water splitting are not really a subject I think I should go into here. In a nutshell, there are two distinct steps to the process, the hydrogen side and the oxygen side, and so far, every experiment is practically a proof of concept doing one side or the other and using massively expensive, typically non-reusable catalysts such as ruthenium based or rhodium or iridium based catalysts. (These are rare earth metals and very, very expensive.)

However, to me, the whole water splitting for hydrogen fuels looks like a big impossible circle.

Now I fully and unequivocally believe that scientists should try to do impossible things. Many times what seems impossible becomes possible because stubborn hard headed scientists keep trying to do them. That is perhaps one of the most admirable things about science, persistence in the face of overwhelming odds.

What bothers me is when people, scientists included, behave as if their experiments are funded magically, and that (more often than not in water splitting research) the concerns of those actually funding the work (taxpayers, not DOE or NSF or DOD) are unimportant. I believe that people, taxpayers, should know that things like this are very very improbable, and I also believe that if taxpayers do not want to fund something, they should not have to.

So, philosophically, I find the reasons for tax funding hollow. And as for those people who do not understand the scientific problems behind hydrogen (of which there are many others*) and yet proclaim it to be the ‘next thing’ and breathlessly tell us that as soon as we figure out distribution and sales, all will be well… those false prophets I find as ridiculous as Rabadash.

*1. Hydrogen Production (briefly discussed above)
2. Hydrogen storage (its nasty difficult)
3. Fuel cell or standard combustion efficiency
probably more… 🙂

Each part of the process is fraught with problems, and each step is used to justify many government grants… just so you know.