A Planet Here Today and Gone Tomorrow

Or, a record for the biggest thing lost! Or, to loose your car keys is careless, but to lose a planet??

As some readers will know, I have my own theory of how planets form from the dust of the accretion disk around stars. The dust is actually micron sized, and finer than an average smoke distribution, and as the gas falls into the star, it gets hot, its potential energy lost being converted to heat, and when it gets hot enough it glows. Of course, it also glows by scattering light emitted by the forming star hence we observe those disks. Standard theory assumes planets form through gravity. The problem here is gravity is far too weak to aggregate this dust, so the standard theory assumes that somehow it forms planetesimals and there is an even distribution of these out to about 32 A.U. (one A.U. is the Earth-Sun distance) where their density falls off dramatically for some unknown reason, although it is necessary they do to prevent more planets being formed further than Neptune. While this is needed to make the theory fit the facts, it is not exactly enlightening, and it is far from clear why Neptune has far more mass than Uranus.

Anyway, I find all this unsatisfactory on many counts. My concept is that getting started involved chemistry, or physical chemistry, in which case what you get depends on the local temperature during accretion. In principle this is quite predictive; in practice not so much because we do not know what the temperatures were for a given system because all evidence of the disk for all systems older than 40 My is long gone. The temperatures depend on the potential energy converted, but that depends on how fast the star is accreting, i.e. the rate of conversion, and for a given size of star, this can vary by a factor of ten. However, there are proportional predictions, i.e. if you have a distribution of planets, it predicts how they should be spaced and what their relative properties should be. Thus besides explaining why Neptune is more massive than Uranus, and there are no planets further out (actually, it does predict the possibility of more, but very far out). It also predicts no life under ice at Europa because the theory predicts there are no significant amounts of nitrogen or carbon, which is verified by observation.

When I published my ebook on planetary formation in 2012, by and large the known observed data matched predicted data surprisingly well, although there was not that much respectable data on multiple systems and for single exoplanets, variation up to an order of magnitude was “tolerable”. However, much of what was generally predicted appeared right, thus red dwarfs, because they had much less material, were expected to have planets closer to the star, and they were. But there was one annoying feature. The star Fomalhaut has a rather odd accretion disk around it, and it appears with the brightest part as a ring very distant from the star. My guess is the star is in the process of ejecting the disk, but maybe that is wrong. Anyway, the disk had a planet that could be seen in a telescope. The problem was, it was somewhere between 100 – 250 A.U. from the star. That by itself was no problem; the star is huge, so planets will be well spread. The problem was, if it were that bright, you should be able to see others, and there were no others. As it happens, this week the problem has gone away because the planet has gone away. More specifically, it was never there. Maybe that should have been suspected. Its light distribution was quite odd, being surprisingly bright in the visible, but seemingly less so in the infrared, which was indicative of surprising heat. Newly formed gas giants can be very hot, due to the energy of the gas falling onto them, so nobody took much notice. However, after a very short time it faded, and now it cannot be seen. What we now think happened was that a collision took place between two objects about 250 km long, and we saw the extreme heat so generated. A very rare occurrence indeed.

Climate Change and International Transport

You probably feel that in terms of pollution and transport, shipping is one of the good guys. Think again. According to the Economist (March 11, 2017) the emissions of nitrogen and sulphur oxides from 15 of the world’s largest ships match those from all the cars on the planet. If the shipping industry were a country, it would rank as the sixth largest carbon dioxide emitter. Apparently 90%  of trade is seaborne, and in 2018, 90,000 ships burn two billion barrels of the dirtiest fuel oil, and contribute 2 – 3% of the world’s total greenhouse emissions. And shipping is excluded from the Paris agreement on climate change. (Exactly how they wangled that is unclear.) The International Maritime Organization wants to cut emissions by 50% by 2050, but prior to COVID-19, economic growth led to predictions of a six-fold increase by then!

Part of the problem is the fuel: heavy bunker oil, which is what is left over after refining takes everything else it can use. Apparently it contains 3,500 times as much sulphur as diesel fuel does. Currently, the sale of these high sulphur fuels has been banned, and sulphur content must be reduced to 0.5% (down from 3.5%) and some ships have been fitted with expensive scrubbers to remove pollutants. That may seem great until you realize 80% of these scrubbers simply dump the scrubbed material, a carcinogenic mix of various pollutants, into the sea. They also increase fuel consumption by about 2%, thus increasing carbon dioxide missions.

On the 19th February, 2020, the Royal Society put out a document advocating ammonia as a zero-carbon fuel, and suggested that the maritime industry could be an early adopter. What do you think of that?

First, ammonia is currently made by compressing nitrogen and hydrogen at higher temperatures over a catalyst (The Haber process). The compression requires electricity, and the hydrogen is made by steam reforming natural gas, which is not carbon free, however it could be made by electrolysing water, which would be a use for “green” electricity”. The making of hydrogen this way may well be sound, but running the Haber process probably is not. The problem with this process is it really has to be carried out continuously, and solar energy is not available at night, and the wind does not always blow. However, leaving that aside, that part of the scheme is plausible. Ammonia can be burnt in a motor, or more efficiently in a fuel cell to make electricity. If you could make this work there are some ships that use diesel to make electricity to power motors, so that might work. Ammonia has an energy content of 3 kWh/litre (liquid hydrogen is 2/3 this) while heavy fuel oil has an energy content of 10 kWh/l. The energy efficiency of converting combustion energy to work is much higher in a fuel cell.

Of course by now you will have all worked out why this concept is a non-starter. The problem is the ship, its fuel tanks and motors, are part of the construction and are deep within the ship. The cost of conversion would be horrendous so it is most unlikely to happen. Equally, if we were serious about climate change, we could convert ships to use nuclear power. Various navies around the world have shown how this can be done safely. Don’t hold your breath waiting for the environmentalists to endorse that idea.

However, converting to nuclear power has the same problem as converting to ammonia: a huge part of the ship has to be demolished and rebuilt, so that is a non-starter. So there is no way out? Not necessarily.  I have currently been spending my lockdown writing a chapter for a book in a series on hydrothermal treatment of algae. Now the interesting thing about the resultant biocrude is that while you can make very high octane petrol and high cetane diesel, there is a residue of heavy viscous fluid that can be mainly free of sulphur and nitrogen. What on earth could you do with that? It is a thick viscous oil, surprisingly like heavy bunker oil. Any guesses as to what I might be tempted to recommend?

Government bails them out, but then what?

In New Zealand, I am far from certain that anyone knows what to do when our lockdown ends. The economist thinks that the money supply will fix all things and reserve bank has done what it has not done before: embarked on quantitative easing, Many other governments have done the same and the world will be awash with money. Is this a solution? It is supposed to compensate for the lockdown Two questions: is the lockdown worth it, and is the money supply the answer? To the first question, here the answer appears to be so, if you value lives. After two weeks of lockdown, the number of new cases per day were clearly falling, and by Good Friday the number of new cases had dropped to almost a third of their peak. They continue to drop and the day before this post, there were only 20 new cases. However, if we look at the price, our Treasury Department has predicted the best case is something like 10% unemployment, and if the lockdown lasts significantly longer than the four weeks, unemployment may hit 26%.

To the second question, the jury is out. Around the world, Governments think yes. The US Congress has prepared a gigantic fiscal stimulus of $2 trillion, which is roughly 10% of GDP. Some European countries have made credit guarantees worth as much as 15% of GDP to stop a cascade of defaults. New Zealand is rather fortunate because its national debt was only about 28% of GDP prior to the virus. Some predict the stimulus may reach 22% of GDP, but it has room to move before reaching the heights of some other countries. However, it is far from clear that it will successfully prevent a raft of defaults.

First, defaults always happen. In the OECD about 8% of businesses go bust each year, while 10% of the workforce lose their jobs. Of course, since economies have been expanding there was an equal or greater creation of business and jobs before this virus. That won’t happen post virus. Take restaurants as an example. Restaurants closing down may well re-open under new management, without the old debt, and not so many workers. That may not happen post-virus because people under financial strain or fear that unemployment might be imminent will not eat out, and the tourists, who have to eat out, will not be here. Therein lies the problem. If people fear there will be a slump, there will be; such fear is self-fulfilling. 

There will be changes, and some may be guided by the virus problem. Some businesses will cut costs by specializing in home delivery, and they should be doing that now because first in that performs well probably wins. For manufacturing, the relief of the lockdown may well retain heavy restrictions, such as expecting people to devise a way for working so they remain two meters away from others. That requires significant investment to do this. Will it be worth it? It seriously raises costs, so will people buy the more expensive products? But will this happen? The basic problem for small business is that it is almost a waste of time planning until the government makes its future laws and regulations clear, and once stated, sticks to them. I have run a small business since 1986, and the one thing that has always made things difficult is a change of rules. You get to know how to operate in one set of rules, but when those change the small business has too many things for too few people to do, and a successful small business is light on management. The owner tends to do everything, and I found new regulations to be a complete pest.

Meanwhile, the governments of the world have some interesting choices. Historically, when governments intervene, they seldom let things go back to where they were. If governments get used to regulating, will they let go? If you prefer to leave it to market forces, will that lead to greater wealth for all? As I heard one man say on the radio today, those with money will be looking to buy up assets, i.e. company shares that have become somewhat undervalued. Unfortunately, while that makes some richer, it does nothing for the general public.All of which raises the question, what should they do? That depends on what is required to get out of the slump. The obvious answer is to start additional businesses to replace what has failed, but how do you do that? One of the things that is critically required is money, but while that is necessary, it is not sufficient.  Throwing money at such things is usually a waste. A business needs three basics: technology (more broadly, how to make whatever you are selling), the ability to sell whatever you are making, and management, which is essentially getting the best us of your money, staff, and other assets. Only a very moderate number of people are skilled in even one of those, very few can handle two, and nobody can cover all three well. This is why so many small businesses fail. And that raises the possibility that what governments need to do is to somehow bring the required people together. And that is something with which governments have no experience.

Ebook discount

From April 13 – 20, A Face on Cydonia,  the first in a series, will be discounted to 99c/99p on Amazon. In 2129, Fiona Bolton has her life before her. She is a world expert in sonic viewing with a corporation-funded University chair, but when her husband protests against that corporation she finds herself recording his murder. She wants justice.

Jonathon Munro so wants to be important in a corporation, but he has no talent that should be needed by any corporation, until he finds himself in a position to help a senior conceal a murder. If he wishes to advance he must ditch his girlfriend, Sharon Galloway, who is developing a special digging device. Meanwhile, there is growing pressure to explain why, on a TV program, a battered butte on Mars morphed into the classical face and winked. Grigori Timoshenko forms an expedition to settle this “face” for once and for all. He needs Fiona to image the interior of the rock, he needs Sharon and her digger, and he gets Jonathon anyway. With hidden agendas, a party in with members hating each other, the gloss of visiting another planet soon wears thin. A story of corruption, greed, murder, the maverick, the nature of Mars, and with the problem of why would an alien race be interested in such a disparate party. Book 1 of the First Contact trilogy.

Business Under Stress

In my last post, I outlined some of the problems as I see them on getting out of this virus problem. A clear example of the problems to be faced comes from what happened here within an hour of my posting. It turned out that the German conglomerate Bauer had bought up all the major magazines in New Zealand. It was one week into the lockdown when it said it was closing down the lot. Normally in tough economic times, weaker businesses can be expected to go under due to competition, but in this case, it was the strongest, the ones that had been going for up to eighty years, that go to the wall. Why? The stated reason was that due to lockdown, advertising revenue had dropped. Well, yes, but the lockdown will not last forever. It could have tried to last it out, and if everybody complies with the lockdown, the virus is supposed to die out in about four weeks. Bauer was seemingly buying up competition to its Australian magazines, and it needed the money. (Why it didn’t try to sell the NZ magazines is unclear.) It also probably thought the smaller New Zealand market would buy the Australian equivalent.

However, there were additional factors here that may apply more generally. The first is that in economic terms, if the owner is going to close down because that is inevitable, it is best to do it as soon as possible because all money spent in the intervening period between problem arising and submitting to it is money lost forever. A second factor is that the big conglomerate has no emotional link to its business; all it cares about is whether it is a sufficientlyprofitable business. Can it make more money by switching its resources elsewhere? In this case there is also a considerable cultural loss. Unfortunately, that is intangible, and only applies to the customers. The conglomerate seldom cares, and in this case since it is homed at the other side of the world, there is no benefit to it. Only dollars flowing in matter.

Looking at the consequences, a large number of journalists, proof-readers, etc. are unemployed, and at least for a limited amount of time, there is no further possible work for any of them. Nobody is likely to take over any of the magazines right now because of the lack of advertising revenue, although the lockdown period is likely to be over by the time all the legal complexities would be completed. There are downside consequences. The printer has just lost a very large amount of work, and maybe they cannot continue. Stores that sell magazines will not have any, and many of these stores would have magazines to attract people in who might not otherwise come, but when they do, they often buy other things. Also, a high fraction of the magazine sales would be on subscription. Subscribers have no comeback if the conglomerate does not refund unused money, but that would sour the field for anyone trying to resurrect such magazines.

Another problem for exports comes from the fact that many fruit such as kiwifruit and pip fruit are due to be harvested about now. With lockdown, pickers are in short supply, and the requirement for them to keep two meters apart can be a problem. If the fruit are not picked, the farmer loses valuable income, and that income only comes once a year. Owners of tourism ventures will be pulling out their hair because movement is forbidden, and when the lockdown is over, who will come?

The overall consequences of stories such as these is that only too many people are going to be short of money. That makes investment in new businesses very difficult to raise. There will be many rich people with lots of spare cash, and the ability to raise a lot more through banks, but that may not be available to start new businesses, as what that sort of money tends to do is to buy up existing assets that happen to be very cheap. The virus has brought a lot of problems, but such problems may also be opportunities. The difficulty is to see them, and act on them. Thus it is obvious that New Zealand has an opportunity for a new magazine, or maybe a continuation of the more successful of the old ones. Will that happen? Watch this space.Finally, in these testing times, Easter is upon us, and I wish you all a pleasant Easter.

Lockdown! Now What?

By now, everyone should be aware there is a virus out there, and it has been generally agreed that action was needed to protect citizens. So far there is no vaccine, and in some cases the treatment required to preserve life is restricted. In New Zealand, thanks to various travellers bringing it here, we are starting to feel the effects. It is easy to flash around figures but with a population of about 5 million, one estimate is that if nothing were done, about 70% of the population would get it, and about 80,000 would die. The reason is, if all those got it about the same time, say over a two-month period, there are insufficient ventilators, etc. for them. If they got it one at a time, most of those 80,000 would not die.  Our hospitals did not have 20,000 ventilators sitting around waiting for this event. So what we have done (as have many other countries) is we have initiated a lockdown, the idea being that by breaking the possible chains of transmission the virus will die out. The associated problem is, so will many businesses that cannot earn during this period. So the question is, what will emerge from this, or perhaps a more reasonable question is, what is more probable to arise from this?

The average estimate here is that unemployment will rise to about 9%, and many small businesses will go under. Life will be particularly difficult for restaurants, etc. because many of them tend to operate on slim margins, and they are more designed to offer the owners a life-style rather than direct them to be a developing business owner. Our airline will shrink down to 10% of what it was because international travel will almost disappear. One slight bright sign for them lies in the domestic market: their major competitor has already decided to call it quits here. Such competitors restricted themselves to the major intercity services and left the minor spots alone. The price for those tickets will now rise, but with the far lower ticket sales there would have been blood on the floor had such cheaper flights continued for that many aircraft. There will be a great reduction in the number of tourists for some time, because even if our lockdown works, what happens if other countries have not gone as hard? Do we want to succeed, at great cost, then let in fresh infection?

One of the other things that has happened is we have discovered the “just in time” purchasing ethic has a cost. One slightly ironic fact is there was a claim we were running low on hospital gowns, and the biggest manufacturer anywhere of hospital gowns is in Wuhan, except it closed because of the virus. Apparently, a couple of small manufacturers are switching to make some of this necessary equipment, including ventilators, but that will not continue because they cannot compete on price with China, and in any case, the hospitals will not need more when this dies down.

On the issue of more general manufacturing, I heard one small manufacturer say that in response to the difficulties some are having in getting certain things, he has ordered a major robotic machine. The capital cost is higher, but the wage bill is much lower, and if the equipment is sufficiently flexible, the major expenditure, apart from raw materials and capital cost, will be in paying designers. This suggests this pandemic may well be the straw that broke the back of the current way of making goods. Strategic niche manufacturing, manufacturing close to raw materials, and the use of brains may be the key factors in future prosperity.That raises the question of what happens to current workers. If half the small businesses go to the wall, there will be a lot of workers who have few resources and only limited skills. There will also be a number of highly skilled people who are unemployed. Think of the airlines. Where do pilots and cabin crew of the big jets find jobs? Nobody else will want them because all the other airlines are in the same boat, and it has nothing to do with management or mistakes. It is going to require a lot of imagination and investment to get out of this, and both may be in rather short supply. Also, new businesses need customers, and who is going to have spare money when this wrings out?