Do You Feel Lucky, Punk?

One line from a Clint Eastwood movie, but somehow appropriate as the world faces a sequence of crises, so much so that Physics World thought of it and I have followed suit and report some of the more distressing thoughts as the season for jollity approaches. When I was young, the biggest threat to civilization was considered to be nuclear war. We have avoided that, and it seemed as if that was under control, yet the most powerful country in the world has pulled out of treaties and appears to be developing new weapons. Not encouraging.

The biggest problem this year, the SARS-CoV-2 virus, looks like it is being dealt with as vaccines are now coming available. That was a record production of a vaccine, which shows we can respond to crises in a most rapid fashion. Or does it? Actually, these vaccines did not start from scratch. There have been previous potential outbreaks of dangerous coronaviruses that did not spread, and the pharmaceutical companies had been doing vaccine research for coronaviruses for some time. Yes, this was a new virus, so some new work was required, but the general methodology was established, and the companies would have had good expectations of what would work safely. The companies were prepared. The question now is, how well prepared are we for other disasters?

The most spectacular crisis, from a visual point of view, might be an equivalent to the Carrington event. This occurred in 1859, and corresponded to the sun throwing something like 100 million tonne of hydrogen plasma at us. This was spectacular visually; the northern lights were seen as far south as Colombia. Unfortunately, fast moving charged particles cause huge magnetic pulses that in turn induce serious current in electrical conductors. Back then, telegraph lines took on a life of their own. Now, think of all the conductors in our electrical distribution systems? Electric grids would be in real trouble as transformers burn out. Satellites would have their circuits fried, although the rubbish factor may be eased since the atmosphere would swell up and hopefully bring them down. So, how well prepared are we for this? How many spare transformers, etc, are there where we could get the electric systems going again? If the electric supplies ceased, what would be the effect? In short, we don’t know, we are unprepared, and one day we shall find out, but what are the politicians doing about it? How many politicians even care about what is not immediately in front of them?

We have made some preparation for a potential asteroid collision, in that we are studying and cataloguing asteroid trajectories. For any extinction events we shall have plenty of warning, and time to avoid the collision. Further, our space technology has been developed to the extent that avoiding this collision is plausible.

Politicians are now making noises about climate change, and are putting in place some things that will slow the production of greenhouse gases, but to what extent? Have they done the numbers? I have posted previously that the switch to electric vehicles may not be the long-term saviour some think when you integrate the gases over enough time, and include the gases emitted in making the vehicles, the batteries and the electricity. Nevertheless, it could be a step in the right direction if we worked out how to recycle and rebuild the batteries, and were prepared to pay the price of doing so. The problem is, recycling the batteries per vehicle will produce materials worth a few hundred dollars and probably cost thousands to do it. The obvious way around this is to put the appropriate cost of recovery on the batteries when sold, but that would make the electric vehicle so expensive nobody would buy them. As it is, how many realize they will have to replace the batteries in, say, eight years? How much research is being done into replacements? Take biofuels. Most research has been done by companies, and they have opted for the easiest research, and not that which is most likely to produce the largest supply of fuel. By focusing on ethanol from corn, which even blind Fred can see is not a good idea, it fouls the concept for authorities. How much research has been done into geoengineering? Not a lot. How much preparation has been made to ameliorate the effects of increased temperatures? Again, not a lot. The politicians make many speeches about how things will be OK by 2050, but seem remarkably unwilling to do the hard work now.

10 thoughts on “Do You Feel Lucky, Punk?

  1. I had never heard of the Carrington Event or coronal mass ejections as a potential disaster until I read a blog post on WordPress. The author of the post (Dave Cline) has written and published a book about the aftermath of such an event, called Blue Across the Sea. Another novel set in a post-CME Britain is A Summer in Amber by Chuck Litka. It combines a rather charming romance with the scientific elements. The setting is a place in the Scottish Highlands that is extremely prone to lightning storms. It turns out there is a rather interesting reason for that. I have reviewed both books on Goodreads.

    • It is really hard to guess what would happen. In principle. we would have a couple of days warning because NASA is watching the sun closely, and it would partly depend on what we did. If we removed all the transformers we might be able to recover, but what would happen t people that depended on electricity?

      • It would be diffiocult, Audrey. You may be interested to lnow i just downloaded some historical photos of where my mother’s father lived (and perforce, my mother early on). This was a mining town, and the houses were very pioneering-type. No electricity, at least initially. They were tough back then, but a lot of them would have died well before reaching my age now, so we are alot better off, but very dpendent on the things that make us better off.

  2. The biggest catastrophe around is the Global Deep Plutocracy. It controls everything, including media and universities. Thus minds and hearts. And debates, thus intelligence itself.

    This is why nearly nobody young knows, or cares, and ponders why Biden wanted so much to kill three million people in Iraq, while Trump’s near pullouts of Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan infuriates so-called “progressives”… who have no idea whatsoever that what they progress towards is not just Neoconservatism, Neoliberalism, but even Neofeudalism… As long as they brandish the color of the skin of people (“Black Lives”), as their forebears, the exploiters of the Anglo-Saxon type have done for centuries, they feel morally righteous.

    A word on “new weapons”. They tend to be more precise. Are they morally incorrect? Were we better off with machine guns and thermonuclear bombs? Is the fact that the USA could intercept thousands of incoming warheads with the latest version of the Standard Missile embarked on dozens of cruisers and destroyers, a bad thing, as president Putin and presiding-dictator Xi have it?

    Roman civilization, however flawed, and however increasingly stupid, was still civilization. It went down when the technological gradient in weapons inverted: the Franks (and other Germans) had better weapons. If Xi and Putin had the military might of the USA, they would be tempted to use it, to foster their rule.

    Greco-Roman civilization went down to a great extent because of a refusal to fight. Had Rome made a levee en masse in 400 CE, it’s multi-million man army would have wiped out the 200,00 warriors all the German nations could have mustered.
    Had the Athenian captains not accepted the offer from Antipater they could not refuse, in their state of greed confusion, Athens could have shown the sort of enthusiasm it had against Persia, and defeated the Macedonians’ replacement of democracy by plutocracy.

    Technological superiority at the service of greater democracy is nothing to sneer at.

    And for the punks? The plutocrats at the top? They feel lucky. The corrupt style Obama administration is back, complete with Susan Rice, famous supporter of the war in the Congo, of her friend, sponsor and financier Kagame, himself a US plutocracy pawn who killed six million, in Congo alone… while producing lots of Coltan…

    • Yes, but I was looking at physical problems. Greed is sufficient for a separate post. Not sure about the concept that the US Navy would take out all warheads heading towards the US. In any war it is very dangerous to assume the other side does not have a counter.

      • Maybe not all the warheads, but apparently many of them… Enough to make Putin say very silly things… CMEs could probably be mitigated… But one needs to be able to shut down power quickly, and localize enrgy production…

      • Patrice, the first thing you discover in war is the opposition has some tricks you hadn’t thought of. I hope it doesn’t come to that, and there is absolutely no reason for Russia to start anything because it knows the only way to could finish without its losing is to destroy civilization. It knows it cannot win because it simply cannot get at the US.

        The CMEs could be averted, but everybody has to have a plan in place as to what to do. You will get something like a couple of days warning, and how many countries could, in practice, make good use of that warning?

  3. For CMEs it seems to me a simple countermeasure is to have circuit breakers, in particular around transformers. Now of course essential activities should have their own sources, independent of the grid. I made it so that the 500 apartment complex where I live has at least a week of autonomy (we are next to the world’s most famous fault).

    As far as war is concerned, Western Europe has not been invaded since Rome fell…. Differently from China… Which was invaded many times… by Uighurs, Jin/Jurgens, Mongols and Manchu… Let alone the French and British… This succession of invasion is both symbol and part consequence of civilizational degeneracy… Another point is that Rome fell only because its government, the plutocracy preferred to negotiate with the Barbarians rather do a levee en masse and crush them as the bugs they were.

    The history of Europe in the last 3,000 years shows that technological superiority entails, and can be combined, with (greater) democracy to make an undefeatable whole. Looking at the history of Egypt and the Fertile Crescent confirms this. The Gauls, for example, were divided and politically in a mess (60 states in Gallia Comida alone!) Paradoxically, they furnished the Roman army with military equipment (helmets, swords, etc.) This is why, after Caesar’s conquest, Gaul did not contest Romanitas, and embraced it (differently from the Jews). The Huns defeated the Germans and Alans mostly because of one trick added to their composite bows, it seems. Ultimately the Roman state fell from a refusal to go back to full democracy (only the law of the Republic was kept, as long as it didn’t interfere with the plutocracy…)

    • I am not an electrical engineer, but I suspect a circuit breaker would not be adequate. I think the transformers should be physically disconnected and earthed. Could be wrong.

      Disagree about democracy. Europe has not been wildly democratic until recently. Rome fell because the people could not be bothered fighting to please the political aspirations of the Generals. Plutocrats would be a fair contribution, but the masses who maintained their miserable wealth still could have fought, but they had no desire.

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