Season’s greetings.

As this is my last post for 2014 (Christmas in summer is for relaxing and being indolent!) I thought I might look back at what I have posted. At first sight it might seem as if it is all over the place, but the primary theme that I hope I have got through, both here and in my fiction, is to show, when appropriate, why it is better to think logically. I know that logic has a hard time in Hollywood productions. In the original Star Trek series, Spock was proud of being logical, and he was often critical for dealing with problems for the ship and crew, even if the crew sniggered at him. But in a certain later series, a certain ship’s Vulcan had as his only form of entertainment the requirement to sit down and solve abstract puzzles. To get one thing straight, there is no reason why someone who applies logic to problems cannot enjoy themselves in more general ways. As an example of logic, one goal in life is to enjoy it, after all, what is the point of being miserable? Therefore it is logical to do things that maximize one’s enjoyment. This is why I put in, “when appropriate”.

I made a number of posts about the unrest in the world, and one place I focused on was Ukraine. The general attitude from a lot of people in the West is that Putin is some sort of tyrant, invading here and there, but let us look at the logic of it. To whose benefit is it if he should sit back and be a good little Russian and let NATO come in and get more missiles pointing into Russia? Which raises the question, why does NATO want to get missiles into Ukraine? The only possible target is Russia, so, in logic, why should this not worry Russia? Recall when the old Soviet Union put some missiles into Cuba? President Kennedy was prepared to set of a nuclear holocaust, so serious was he to have them removed. So why shouldn’t Putin be a little concerned? As it happens, now the Russian economy is hurting, and no doubt the West will feel pleased, and argue their sanctions are working. My question now is, who does this please, and why are they pleased? Who benefits? Or who thinks they will benefit? I suspect the answer to that question would be very illuminating.

Actually, the problem with the Russian economy would have happened anyway. The reason is that the US has suddenly become a major oil producer again, thanks to fracking, and the price of oil is tumbling. So, this is good? Well, in my view, no it is not. One of the biggest problems we all have is climate change (although, paradoxically enough, Russia is likely to be a major beneficiary). Suddenly, more cheap fossil fuels will probably kill the various projects that are trying to develop biofuels, those developments risk bankruptcies, and the bad part of all this is that all the knowledge they have accumulated gets lost. I know this happens because it happened in the 1980s. In the late seventies/early eighties I was involved in developing a process to make biofuels, but that ran out of money and interest, and there were a number of other promising technologies that all folded. When we became interested in biofuels again, only too much of that knowledge was lost, and all the previous mistakes had to be made again. To my mind, that was a major waste of money.

Towards the end of the year, I let my interest that came from my ebook Planetary Formation and Biogenesis intrude into this blog. This has been interesting for me because the standard theory of the formation of planets starts by assuming a starting position where planetesimals (bodies like moderate-sized asteroids) are evenly distributed radially from the sun. Nobody knows how these planetesimals could possibly form, but the distribution is used to computer model how they might form planets through gravitational interactions, even though the only time asteroids collide, the energy of the collision fragments them. So why did this not happen to the planetesimals? In my view, this is wrong, and the initial formation of bodies forms through chemistry, with relatively low energy coillisions fo small particles onto larger objects. The major difference between the theories is that there is no such even distribution of bodies in the chemical accretion model, but rather accretion occurs in narrow zones at different temperatures. Once you get an idea like that, of course, you tend to try to push it, after all, either you believe it or you do not. If you do not, why publish? If you do, why not tell everyone. Which may explain why I am enthusiastic about my own ideas. Which finally gets me to the point: you too should be enthusiastic about your ideas.

With that thought, I wish you all a very merry Christmas, and all the best for 2015. There will be further posts in mid January.

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Geoengineering: to do or not do?

For those interested in science, and in global warming, a recent issue of Nature (vol 516, pp 20 – 21) showed some of the problems relating to geoengineering, which involves taking action to change the climate. Strictly speaking, we are already doing it. By burning fossil fuels we are warming the planet through the additional carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. The question is, can we reverse this warming in a controlled fashion? The argument behind geoengineering is simple: we can either try it or not try it. If we do, we have the potential to create massive new problems; if we do not, sea levels will eventually rise somewhere between 20 – 50 meters, drowning all our coastal cities, destroying a surprising amount of some of the most productive farmland, and altering rainfall distributions quite dramatically. Then, of course, there are more violent storms. So, what are the options?
One is to try to increase the amount of light reflected to space, which can be achieved by forming more clouds. One way to do this is to spray salt water into the air. This has the advantage of being easy to do, and easy to stop doing. It is harder to know the consequences, but we should be able to predict to some extent because volcanic eruptions will do something similar to what is being proposed. Climate scientists, however, complain that this may reduce rainfall in some regions and possibly worsen ozone depletion. Of course they also warn that rainfall will be reduced anyway. Meanwhile, a computer simulation produced results that indicated changes in rainfall consequent to geoengineering “could affect 25 – 65% of the world’s population”. Charming! No comment that the changes could be beneficial. No comment either about the fact that any given model has consistently failed to predict details of weather.
However, from my point of view, the most bizarre outcome came from the proposal to seed the oceans to grow microalgae, which grow very rapidly and take up carbon dioxide in doing so. When the algae die, they should sink to the ocean floor and trap carbon. Trouble was, in some of the few experiments, it seems they did not, possibly because the algae did not die, or possibly because the experimenters did not count it properly. One other outcome might be that they get eaten by fish, thus improving the world’s food supply, and another might be that they give off dimethyl sulphide (and use up quite a bit of solar energy in doing so) which goes to the atmosphere, gets oxidized by absorbing more light, and then forms clouds, which reflects light. Ideal?
As a potential means of fighting climate change, I admit to liking this idea, nevertheless there is a problem, but not what you might think. Or maybe you would. Yep, it is financial embarrassment. Entrepreneurs decided to seed the oceans this way to generate large volumes of carbon credits, which could be sold to those who wanted to burn more coal, a sure way of reducing greenhouse gases! Yeah, right! Anyway, that was headed off by an international treaty, in which this activity was stopped by labeling it “ocean pollution”, and no further experiments have taken place. Talk about useless politicians!
The problem is as I see it that the politicians cannot seem to recognize that a technical problem needs a technical solution. The economists cannot solve this, as shown by that response to an emissions trading scheme noted above. The problem is, changing the prices of forms of energy cannot in themselves generate energy. Conservation may be encouraged, and that is good, but ultimately our lifestyle requires a very high fraction of what we currently use. Worse, there is no point in denying the fact that the planet is warming, and the only solution is to cool it. Cutting emissions is definitely desirable, but it is not enough to retain our previous climate because the gases currently there produce net warming, and this extra warming would continue for at least a hundred years if no further gases were emitted during that time. If we do not want to do something, who pays the price for what happens?

Biogenesis: how did life get started?

Early next year I have been invited to give a talk on biogenesis. How life gets started is of interest, because now we know there are a number of planets around other stars, if we know how it can get started, we can know whether life could or should form on a given planet. Of course, nobody actually knows, which has the obvious benefit is that if I get something a little wrong, nobody (including me) will know, and the second one is, one can use logic to cut away a lot of some rather silly stuff being said elsewhere. The most obvious silly suggestion (in my opinion) to me is panspermia, which is when life came from somewhere else, travelled through space on a meteor, and landed on Earth, whereupon the life form flourished in a new environment. Supporters of this theory point out that very primitive life forms can survive in a vacuum, and that DNA has been shown to be able to survive through extended time in vacuum and radiation, if buried inside a rock.

So, what is wrong with this theory? First, let us think about “extended periods of time”. A number of meteorites have been found that originated on Mars, and these have taken millions of years to get here. (Not there has been any sign of viable life on them.) We have no evidence whatsoever that life forms could last that long, nor have we any reason to believe that Mars was a better place for life to get started than here. Had the life come from another solar system, it had to survive for hundreds, or thousands of millions of years, because of the huge distances in space. This also shows another problem: if they take that long to arrive, and there is not that many of them, the concentration of them is very low. Why does it take that long? Basically, because ejecta that escapes Mars goes into orbit around the sun, and stays in that orbit indefinitely until it hits something else. Compared with the size of the solar system, Earth is a tiny microscopic dot. If it comes from another star system, it will arrive with a velocity greater than the escape velocity of our star, so it will come in at extreme velocity and either hit the Earth or never pass it again.

The fact that DNA can survive (although it has hardly been shown to be viable for that length of time) is insufficient to bring life here. Life will contain a set of enzymes, and they get denatured on warming. Yes, there are special enzymes in hot pools, but these have evolved there. Most enzymes denature and then refuse to work if heated half-way to boiling, and a meteorite coming into the Earth’s atmosphere will get a lot hotter than that. But let us suppose it survives and either hits land or water. Now what? A life form has to support itself by consuming what it needs from its environment. It needs a boundary to contain it (skin, in our case), it needs chemicals to replace it, it needs some means of obtaining energy, and it needs chemicals to enable it to use energy. If any of these are missing, then the life form will die.

Energy for life on Earth comes from the sun, via photosynthesis. We know that on Earth life may well have been around in some form or other for something like a billion years before photosynthesis evolved. That means that if the original life forms came from space, they had no means of using solar energy that we know of, hence they would have to rely on chemical processing. There would then be the problem of finding nitrogen-rich organic compounds from which to make things like protein and more nucleic acids. Either those things were around or they were not. If they were not, the life form would die out, as it would be impossible to reproduce. If they were around, then why did they not evolve to form life? Thus any conditions present that would permit an alien life form to grow would also be sufficient for the life form to evolve from what is there. I cannot prove it did, but from Occam’s razor, life coming from outer space is an unnecessary assumption unless there is proof, and since it is sufficient for life to form here if the chemicals required for alien life to survive are here, it is simpler to assume that is what happened. I am convinced we are ourselves, and not some remnants of some space catastrophe.