Sunday, April 8, 2007

Good Future, Bad Future (Part 1 of Infinity)

"Among cultural intellectuals, pessimism is the style," he says with a tinge of scorn. "You're not a paid-up member unless you're gloomy." But when it comes to climate change, he finds (quoting the Italian revolutionary Gramsci) that scientists can combine "pessimism of the intellect" with "optimism of the will". "Science is an intrinsically optimistic project. You can't be curious and depressed. Curiosity is itself a sure stake in life. And science is often quite conscious of intellectual pleasure, in a way that the humanities are not."

- Ian McEwan, interview in The Independent

While The Independent was wasting my time with a long and rambling interview, the Economist was publishing its quarterly Technology Review (subscription required).

It's worth a read, if you have the March 10th copy of the magazine sitting around, and twenty minutes to kill. Two short notes. The article "Plan B for global warming" focuses on possible technological solutions to climate change that involve purposefully cooling the earth. While in the abstract, this doesn't sound bad, and then, on second thought, still in the abstract, it sounds like a disaster, it's important to consider the merits of the various proposed technologies:

For example, Dr. Paul Crutzen, a Nobel prize-winning atmospheric chemist would like to spread tiny particles in the upper atmosphere to reflect the sun's rays, not unlike the fine sulphate particles ejected by large volcanic eruptions like that of Mount Pinatubo, in 1991.

John Latham, a scientist at the National Center for Atmospheric Research in Colorado suggests blasting tiny droplets of seawater into the air to stimulate the formation of highly reflective, low-lying marine clouds. Stephen Salter of the University of Edinburgh one ups Dr. Latham, having already designed an unmanned vessel to do just that. As the Economist notes, blue skies would be less frequent, but the sunsets would be prettier.

Finally, Dr. Roger Angel, an astronomer at the University of Arizona, has suggested assembling a cloud of millions of small, reflecting spacecraft less than a meter across at the inner Lagrange point, where the spacecraft would block out 1.8% of the sun's rays.

It sounds like a good idea, but maybe we should first consult with Montgomery Burns?In other news about villains with unfair reputations, apparently in 1972 Richard Nixon insisted that if American ingenuity could transport three men 200,000 miles to the moon, it could also find a better way to transport 200,000 men three miles to work.

Amen, Mr. Nixon.

Apparently, only the University of West Virginia took up the challenge. The Morgantown Personal Rapid Transit system is, in fact, the city of the future. Here it comes. And, according to the Economist, it is coming again... Thank you Mr. Nixon, and thank you, Epcot Center.

Road trip to Morgantown, anybody?

1 comment:

dvdandmedia,com said...

Jesus, this has been going on for how long, and I only learn of it now?

As for Ian McEwan I'd respond that the difference between intellectuals and scientists is that intellectuals (read Ian McEwan) can come up with seemingly compelling but ultimately empty statements like that one because they're intellectuals and what they say must be important. This is especially the case if they're also artists, because then they can claim to have the ability to see things in the world that we mere mortals cannot. Then, if we're really lucky, they can make wonderful (terrible) conceptual art that shocks (annoys or baffles) us out of our preconceptions and shows us the truth (bullshit).

Scientists (read economists because I know nothing of any other kinds) could also come up with a statement like that, but they'd have to keep inventing assumptions until it was true. Data mining would also help, but is not essential if you're model ultimately supports neoclassical theory (also bullshit) or has a nifty phase diagram.

Agreed, geo-engineering seems cool, but there are too many sci-fi movies I've seen where technology ends up turning against us. So we probably shouldn't do it because I fear the use of technology on such a grand scale (no sarcasm intended in this sentence).