Some Science

December 12, 2007

The best of science, the worst of creationism

In 2000, a popular school textbook called Biology reluctantly dropped it’s prime example of evolution in action – industrial melanism in the peppered moth. Nothing in evolutionary biology had forced the change. The decision was entirely political,made in response to creationist attacks.

The loss of the peppered moth was a blow to science education in the US, as it is one of the easiest to understand examples of evolution by natural selection. So it is heartening to hear that biologists are fighting back. Thanks to their efforts, evidence that the moth is an example of evolution in action is more robust than ever.

This tawdry tale reveals much of what is good about science – and rotten about creationism. Creationists went gunning for the moth after a scientific disagreement over the fine detail of a seminal experiment done in the 1950s. They used the debate to portray the science behind industrial melanism as hopelessly flawed, if not fraudulent.

In response, one scientist patiently redid the experiment – it took him seven years. It is hard to think of another system of thought that is so stringently self-critical and self-correcting.

In science, everything is provisional . There are no preordained answers and fresh ideas are always welcome, so long as their proponents are happy for them to be tested.

That is not how creationists work. They already know the answer. They seek only evidence that confirms their conclusion, and distort or ignore the rest. Such an unreasoned approach is worthless. Creationists will keep trying to undermine the theory of evolution.

All science can do is continue, with dignity, to stick to it’s guns. As with the peppered moth, the best testable explanation will win out.

Conspiracy? Not in China

There’s no stopping a good conspiracy theory. For over 30 years, NASA has faced allegations that it faked the moon landings, and now it is the turn of the Chinese.

In October, the Chinese spacecraft Chang’e 1 entered lunar orbit, and last week the country released its first image of the lunar surface. Within hours of the picture’s release the internet rumour mill leapt into action on various Chinese blogs and forums, casting doubt on it’s validity and saying it bore an uncanny resemblance to a picture released by NASA in 2005.

The Chinese space agency replied that the pictures are similar because they are of the same part of the moon. NASA’s experience with conspiracy theories suggests that denying the rumour will only serve to keep it running. Ouying Ziyuan, chief scientist for the lunar probe, more or less guaranteed this by adding: “There is absolutely no forgery.”


Our solar future

In theory, solving the world’s energy problems should be pretty straightforward. Locate a piece of sun-drenched land about half the size of Texas, find a way to capture just 20 per cent of the solar energy that falls there and bingo – problem solved. You have enough power to replace the world’s entire energy needs using the cleanest, most renewable resource there is.

Can it really be that easy? For years, supporters of solar power have heralded every new technological breakthrough as a revolution in the making. Yet time and again it has failed to materialise, largely because the technology was too expensive and inefficient and, unlike alternatives such as nuclear and wind power, no substantial subsidies were available to kick-start a mass transition to solar energy. This time things are different. Aconfluence of political will, economic pressure and technological advances suggests that we are on the brink of an era of solar power.

The prospect of relying on the sun for all our power demands – conservatively estimated at 15 terawatts in 2005 – is finally becoming realistic thanks to the rising price of fossil fuels, an almost universal acceptance of the damage they cause, plus mushrooming investment in the development of solar cells and steady advances in their efficiency. The tried-and-tested method of using the heat of the sun to generate electricity is already hitting the big time but the really big breakthroughs are happening to photovoltaic (PV) cells.

Ever since the first PV cell was created by Bell Labs in 1954, the efficiency with which a cell can convert light into electricity has been the technology’s Achilles’ heel. The problem is rooted in the way PV cells work. At the heart of every PV cell is a semiconducting material, which when struck by a photon liberates an electron. This can be guided by a conductor into a circuit, leaving behind a “hole” which is filled by another electron from the other end of the circuit, creating an electric current.

Photons from the sun arrive at the semiconductor sporting many different energies, not all of which will liberate an electron. Each semiconducting material material has a characteristic “band gap” – an energy value which photons must exceed if they are to dislodge the semiconductor’s electrons. If the photons are too weak they pass through the material, and if they are too energetic then only part of their energy is converted to electricity, the rest into heat. Some are just right, and the closer the photons are to matching the band gap, the greater the efficiency of the PV cell.

Bell Labs discovered that silicon, which is cheap and easy to produce, has one of the best band gaps for the spectrum of photon energies in sunlight. Even so, their first cell had an efficiency of only 6 per cent. For a long time improvements were piecemeal, inching up to the mid-teens at best, and at a cost only military and space exploration programmes could afford. The past decade has seen a sea change as inexpensive cells with an efficiency of 20 per cent have become a commercial reality, while in the lab efficiencies are leaping forward still further.

Last year, Allen Barnett and colleagues at the university of Delaware, Newark, set a new record with a design that achieved 42.8 per cent energy conversion efficiency. Barnett says 50 per cent efficiency on a commercial scale is now within reach. Such designs, married to modern manufacturing techniques, mean costs are falling fast too.

As a result, in parts of Japan, California and Italy, where the retail price of electricity is among the world’s highest, the cost of solar-generated electricity is now close to, and in some cases matches, that of electricity generated from natural gas and nuclear power, says Michael Rogol, a solar industry analyst with Photon Consulting, based in Aachen, Germany. For example, in the US the average price of conventionally generated electricity is around 10 cents per kilowatt-hour. The cost of solar-generated electricity has fallen to roughly double that. This has created a booming market for PV cells – now growing by around 35 per cent annually – and private investors are starting to take a serious interest. The value of stocks in companies whose business focuses primarily on solar power has grown from $40 billion in January 2006 to more than $140 billion today, making solar power the fastest-growing sector in the global marketplace.

George W. Bush has acknowledged this new dawn, setting aside $168 million of federal funds for the Solar America Initiative, a research programme that aims to make the cost of PV technology competitive with other energy technologies in the US by 2015. Rogol thinks Bush’s target is achievable. He says the cost of manufacturing PV equipment has fallen to the point where, in some places, PV-generated electricity could already be produced for less than conventional electricity. Manufacturing PV cells at $1 per watt of generating capacity and the cost should be competitive everywhere.

Perhaps surprisingly, given its less than cloudless skies, one of the countries leading the solar revolution is Germany. In November 2003, amid rising oil and gas prices and growing concern over global warming, its parliament agreed a “feed-in-tariff” programme, which guarantees a market for solar power. Anyone who produces electricity from solar power can sell it to the national grid for between €0.45 and €0.57 per kilowatt-hour, which is almost three times what consumers pay for their electricity, roughly €0.19 per kilowatt-hour. Germany’s power-generating companies are required by law to pay this premium which is guaranteed until 2024. This guarantee has spurred enterprising individuals to invest in solar panels, confident of earning back the cost of their systems.

Source:  New Scientist


September 15, 2007

I have been reading an article in The New Scientist:

Innovate or watch them die

Radical measures are required if we are to prevent thousands of species from becoming extinct

It is one of the most depressing lists ever created. Species by species, the World Conservation Union’s Red List, published this week, details the huge swathe of life being driven towrards oblivion.

According to the list, 16,306 species are now defined as vulnerable, endangered or critically endangered. According to the best available data, 51 per cent of invertebrate species, 39 per cent of fish, 31 per cent of reptiles and amphibians, 20 per cent of mammals and 12 per cent of birds are threatened. “We’re losing the battle on almost every front,” says Gretchen Daily of Stanford University, California.

However, while the Red List details a biodiversity crisis that is all too familiar, the tactics required to tackle it are not. “Traditional approaches on their own are utterly doomed to failure,” says Daily. So she and other conservationists are introducing a raft of innovative policies in a bid to save as many species as they can.

New Scientist #2621

It’s a nightmare situation really. One of the solutions seems novel and something that could work.

The idea is to put a monetary value on the services that healthy ecosystems provide for human populations – from the role of forest cover in preventing soil erosion and flooding, to the pollination of crops by insects, and revenues from ecotourism. Conservationists would then work with local governments, industry and the finanical markets to set up incentives encouraging measures for the protection of ecosystems and the vital services they provide.

It sounds like a tax, and people hate taxes, but when current methods fail and things reach a point of no return these kind of measures may be the only way forward, and when you think about it the companies and areas that the money is diverted from reap the rewards. I like the idea.

Large Scale Solar Plants are here


Is solar a viable alternative energy source on a mass scale? Spain’s opening of a commercial solar power plant and a test facility with another plant due to open this month. Powering 5000 homes from its 11 megawatt production.

With the number of commercial solar plants growing at a rapid rate and the huge investment into research and development to make solar energy more affordable it seems that yes, solar has the potential to become a viable alternative energy source on a mass scale. Solar is a particularly attractive option for countries with vast expanses of uninhabitable desert. With the sun being one of our few freely available, infinite resources, it will be vital to our future survival to harness the power of the sun and alleviate our current reliance on finite resources which are fast running out.

Hog Futures
How the meat industry thrives, even as costs rise


When corn prices spiked last fall, things looked dire for industrial meat processors.

These enormous companies thrive by confining (or contracting with farmers to confine) livestock into tightly packed quarters and stuffing them with corn. Pricier corn — in this case, pushed up by the government-backed surge in ethanol production — seemed to translate to lower profits for the industrial meat giants. On cue, Big Meat executives like Tyson’s Richard Bond complained bitterly about the end of cheap corn.

I, for one, looked forward to a slowdown in one of the globe’s most environmentally destructive industries. (As the U.N.’s Food and Agriculture Organization pointed out last fall, feedlot meat production spews more greenhouse gases even than automobile use.)

If nothing else useful came out of the ethanol boom, I thought to myself, at least industrial meat would take a hard hit. But a funny thing has happened on the way to my industrial-meat schadenfreude: the meat titans are shaking off higher corn prices and thriving. And now I’m the one complaining bitterly.

Smithfield Foods, the world’s largest pork processor and among the largest beef and poultry producers, recently reported that its earnings for the May to July 2007 quarter more than doubled

Its rival Tyson — the world’s largest chicken producer, and a leader in pork and beef — also reported

What happened?

No Bones About It

For one thing, Smithfield and Tyson have managed to raise meat prices, forcing consumers to carry the costs of pricier corn. As the investment site Motley Fool put it, “It’s been relatively easy for Tyson to push price increases through to its customers [i.e., large food retailers like Wal-Mart], who in turn have pushed through food inflation to consumers.”

The second factor propping up the meat giants is that they have entered what seems like the early stages of a long-term export boom: They’re swamping Eastern Europe and parts of Asia with U.S.-raised meat. In the most recent quarter, Tyson increased its export sales by nearly a third. Smithfield, meanwhile, reported a jump in operating profit for its international unit — and promptly announced a sizable sale of U.S.-grown pork to China.

Note the contrast to the plight of large-scale U.S. vegetable farmers, which I laid out in the previous Victual Reality. Like meat processors, vegetable farmers have also seen the price of a key input rise: in their case, labor costs are up because of a crackdown on undocumented workers.

But unlike meat processors, vegetable growers can’t easily pass higher costs onto the big buyers like Wal-Mart and other food retailing giants. Those buyers can simply reject pricier U.S.-grown goods and buy produce from other countries where labor costs are lower, such as Mexico and China.

Meat is a different story. Whereas thousands of U.S. vegetable farmers compete among themselves and foreign rivals for space in Wal-Mart’s produce section, a precious few companies control the meat trade. Just two companies — Smithfield and Tyson — process 43 percent of pork consumed in the U.S. Their three largest competitors, Swift, Cargill, and Hormel, have together sewn up another 27 percent of the pork market. When players this big experience higher costs, not even a giant like Wal-Mart can say no to higher prices.

Moreover, while U.S. vegetable farmers rightly fear cheap imports from foreign competitors, the opposite holds true with meat. The U.N.’s Food and Agriculture Organization projects that U.S. producers will “dominate” the growing global pork market over the next decade. By 2016, the FAO predicts, nearly one of every three pounds of pork traded globally will originate in the U.S. The FAO also expects the nation’s beef and poultry production to thrive in the global market.

The lowly state of the U.S. dollar — widely projected to remain weak over the next decade — explains part of the power of the U.S. meat-exporting machine. A weaker dollar makes our exports cheaper, and thus more competitive, overseas.

But an even more important factor, I think, is that our huge and highly consolidated meat giants have managed to establish classic “Third World” labor and environmental conditions right here in the United States.

Have You Seen the Little Piggies?

In Iowa, the nation’s leading pork-producing state, confined-hog operations churn out 50 million tons of excrement each year, the great bulk of which festers in massive lagoons, belching putrid fumes into surrounding communities and leaking into groundwater. In Hardin County, where I visited this summer, 18,000 residents live amid more than a million confined hogs and hundreds of manure lagoons. The county’s once-teeming creeks and waterways have become dead zones, and an eye-stinging stench hangs in the air. It reminds you who benefits from the arrangement — not the remaining residents or the hogs, but rather the confinement owners and the companies they work for under contract: Smithfield and its few meat-packing peers.

In North Carolina, the No. 2 hog-producing state, similar conditions hold sway. And there, just as in the “Third World,” the poor pay dearest for highly profitable environmental banditry. According to a University of North Carolina study, “There are 18.9 times as many hog operations in the highest quintile of poverty as compared to the lowest.” People of color get it worst of all: “The excess of hog operations is greatest in areas with both high poverty and high percentage non-whites.”

Labor conditions, too, resemble those that might hold sway under a miserable dictatorship run by blinkered elites in thrall to foreign investors. In 2005, Human Rights Watch issued a blistering report on labor issues in U.S. slaughterhouses. “Meat-packing is the most dangerous factory job in America,” the report declared. “Dangerous conditions are cheaper for companies — and the government does next to nothing.” The report also documents meat-packers’ heroic efforts to squash unions.

Indeed, in its anti-unionism, the meat industry takes a hint from practices used during the 1980s-era heyday of death squads in Central America. Speaking of a Smithfield plant in North Carolina, one Salvadoran worker told Human Rights Watch that, “The company has armed police walking around the plant to intimidate us … It’s especially frightening for those of us from Central America. Where we come from, the police shoot trade unionists.”

Thus, it turns out, it will take much more than pricy corn to cut down the U.S. industrial-meat behemoth. Global demand for meat is rising, and U.S. producers are well positioned to dominate the market. But why let the U.S. become manure lagoon to the world?

Without access to exploitable labor and comically lax environmental codes, the industrial-meat complex would surely wither away — and the world would be a better place. What can ordinary citizens do? Rejecting industrial meat is a necessary but insufficient step. Efforts to organize meat-packing workers deserve broad public support, as does the movement to force the industry to take responsibility for the extraordinary environmental costs now being borne by people who live near its feedlots.
over the same period a year ago. what analysts hailed as a “stellar” quarter, handily exceeding Wall Street’s performance expectations.[/spoiler]

I really dislike the meat industry as a whole. It’s exploitive in every aspect of it’s operation. I make a point of trying to just state the facts and use my opinions in this blog without trying to say ‘You must do this, and you should do that.’ But in some cases the I wouldn’t even need to. The brute facts speak for themselves.