I started Do the Math in 2011 as a way to reach a larger audience than a handful of students every year or two in an energy course at UCSD. I had (and still have) deep concerns about the assumptions we make as a society based on our fossil fuel trajectory over the last century or so. Trying to steer policy from the top seemed a losing proposition: feckless politicians hew to their constituents’ desires via a mechanism we call democracy, so why not try to get people on board directly?
I never imagined creating a blog that would get millions of pageviews, although this by itself falls well short of having an impact on a grand scale. But I figured I owed it to myself to reach as many as I might. What I have found is that a select few seem to share my concerns. And some vocal contributors to comments strongly disagree that we need to worry (why then make the seemingly wasted effort to respond to—in their eyes—doomsaying kooks if in fact we need not be concerned?). But most people simply don’t care enough to tune in. They’ve learned to ignore prognostications of any flavor, perhaps. Lately, even fewer people are entertaining ideas of resource limits owing to increased global oil production (led almost entirely by U.S. shale oil) and a recovering economy.
But I think there is something more fundamental going on here. I think we’re dealing with personality traits cooked into human nature. Are we capable of mitigating a far-off potential calamity via proactive efforts decades ahead of a putative crisis? In this post, I’ll use some survey data suggesting that we may be in trouble.
It’s a bit off-topic for the series, but I can’t even go to Google now without being reminded of the World Cup and soccer this, soccer that. (Apologies to non-Americans who know the sport as football—but don’t get me started on football!) I have often wondered: given characteristic low score values, is soccer anything more than Poisson noise? When discussing this with colleagues, one pointed me to this XKCD comic, reproduced at right.
Any random process that produces discrete events in some time interval, with uniform probability per unit time follows a Poisson distribution. When the number of events becomes large, the distribution tends toward a Gaussian (normal) distribution.
My thesis is that soccer is an amalgam of random processes whose net effect produces rare events—those more-or-less unpredictable events spread more-or-less uniformly in time. Whether a good or bad bounce off the bar, a goal keeper who may or may not prevent a goal, a referee who may or may not see an illegal action, a pass that may or may not be intercepted, and on and on: the game is full of random, unpredictable events. So I expect soccer to behave similarly to a Poisson process and follow a Poisson distribution. By extension, I will claim that the attention devoted to the World Cup is founded on flimsy numerology and might even be called a tremendous waste of time and money.
Normally I allow comments on Do the Math for ten days after each post. I’ve tackled some controversial topics and stirred up emotional responses. Yet I predict that the outrage generated by my insinuation that watching soccer is a waste of time will absolutely dwarf the reactions to my saying that we may not be looking at a space-faring future, or that indeed we may face collapse of civilization. To the extent that this (untested) prediction is true, it would seem that soccer is more important than the fate of the world, in the eyes of many. Scary, if true. [After reconsideration, I enabled comments, but I won't have time to vet and respond with my usual level of attention.]
But getting back to soccer numerology, my question becomes: given a final score (which is taken to be the ultimate “truth” of the match) how likely is it that the victor is actually a better team?
A colleague pointed me toward an article in the LA Times last week, which lays out a plan to remove financial incentives legally bestowed on solar photovoltaics (PV) to the detriment of utility power companies. The plan is spearheaded by the Koch brothers and their political action group, Americans for Prosperity.
In summary, they target two laws that give a big boost to solar: net metering, and renewable mandates. Both impart crucial advantages to solar installations that can change the economics by a large factor.
The holiday season is upon us, and for many, this translates into a marked uptick in the consumption of tasty food treats. I’m no different, and can really pack it in on such occasions. For instance, the day after Thanksgiving this year, I stepped on the scale to find myself about 5 pounds (~2 kg) above normal weight. I kicked in my diet plan, and by Monday morning (3 days later) I was back to normal. Resume course. I use a simple formula, backed by physics, that works every single time. The topic is Do-the-Math-relevant for two reasons: it applies quantitative physics to everyday life, and it touches on attitudes relevant to energy/resource conservation.
Sometimes considered a taboo subject, the issue of population runs as an undercurrent in virtually all discussions of modern challenges. Naturally, resource use, environmental pressures, climate change, food and water supply, and the health of the world’s fish and wildlife populations would all be non-issues if Earth enjoyed a human population of 100 million or less.
The subject is taboo for a few reasons. The suggestion that a smaller number would be nice begs the question of who we should eliminate, and who gets to decide such things. Also, the vast majority of people bring children into the world, and perhaps feel a personal sting when it is implied that such actions are part of the problem. I myself come from a long line of breeders, and perhaps you do too.
Recently, participating in a panel discussion in front of a room full of physics educators, I made the simple statement that “surplus energy grows babies.” This is motivated by my recognition that population growth bent upwards when widespread use of coal ushered in the Industrial Revolution and bent again when fossil fuels entered global agriculture in a big way during the Green Revolution. These are really just facets of the broader Fossil Fuel Revolution. I was challenged by a member of the audience with the glaringly obvious statement that population growth rates subside in energy-rich nations—the so-called demographic transition. How do these sentiments square against one another?
So in the spirit of looking at the numbers, let’s explore in particular various connections between population and energy. In the process I will expose the United States, rather than Africa, for instance, as the real problem when it comes to population growth.
Star Trek brainiac
People can be individually smart and collectively dumb. Or some may argue that people can be individually dumb yet collectively smart. When it comes to plotting a future path, I think we often get the worst of both worlds. In this post, I’ll look at the role that mental horsepower plays in our societal narratives, for better or for worse. We’ll explore two aspects to the problem: people who are so smart that they have dumb ideas; and smart people who are held captive by the manufactured “dumb” of society.
A word of warning: “smart” and “dumb” are loaded words, and even impolite. We place so much value on intelligence in our society that being called smart can make a person’s day, while being called dumb can cut to the core. We’re very sensitive to people’s perceptions of our intellectual standing, and some of the choicest insecurities are laid upon this foundation. I use “smart” and “dumb” as blunt instruments in this post, so if you’re particularly touchy on the topic, either steel yourself or skip the post and call it the smartest thing you did all day.
Let me preface what I am about to say by the disclaimer that most of this is conjecture. I have little data, relying instead on hunches about what makes people tick based on personal observations.
One other disclaimer: this isn’t a post whose veiled message is how smart I am. I might once have thought so, but then I met bona-fide geniuses when I was in grad school at Caltech. Fortunately, I was mature enough at that point for it not to cause a crisis of confidence or identity, and rather enjoyed the window I had into the off-scale brilliance of some individuals. So let’s go ahead and put me in the dumb box so we can move on to what I want to say.
Science is a phenomenal institution. Sometimes I can’t believe we created this construct that works so incredibly well. It manages to convert human imperfections into a remarkably robust machine that has aided our growth juggernaut. Yet science seeks truth, and sometimes the truth is not what we want to hear. How will we respond? Will we kill the messenger and penalize the scientific institution for what is bound to be an increasing barrage of bad news this century as Earth fills beyond capacity?
I think for many people in our society, personal contact with science is limited to science classes in school or perhaps the dreaded science fair—or maybe as adults watching shows like Nova or tuning in to Shark Week on the Discovery Channel.
So let me take a moment to explain science as I have come to understand it. (You can skip if you already have a firm grip.)
The principal challenge of this century, in my view, will be adapting to a life without abundant, cheap fossil fuels. It has been the lifeblood of our society, and turns out to have some really fantastic qualities. The jury is still out as to whether we will develop suitable/affordable replacements. But additional challenges loom in parallel. Water is very likely to be one of them, which is especially pertinent in my region. For true believers in the universality of substitution, let me suggest two things. First, come to terms with the finite compactness of the periodic table. Second, try substituting delicious H2O with H2O2. It has an extra oxygen atom, and we all know that oxygen is a vital requisite for life, so our new product will be super-easy to market. Never-mind the hydrogen peroxide taste, and the death that will surely visit anyone foolish enough to adopt this substitution. Sometimes we’re just stuck without substitutes.
Substitution silliness aside, water and energy are intimately related in what has been termed the Energy-Water Nexus (see for example the article by Michael Webber from this conference compilation; sorry about the paywall). We’ll explore aspects of this connection here, touching on pumping water, use of water for the production and extraction of energy, and desalination. As glaciers and snowpack melt and drought becomes more common in the face of climate change, our water practices will need to be modified, hitting energy right in the nexus.
When it comes up in casual conversation that I do not generally heat or cool my house, people either move to another seat or look at me with some mixture of admiration and disbelief. When non-Californians then find out that I live in San Diego, they might huff or spew, which often involves some embarrassing projectile escaping their mouth. But the locals are more consistently impressed—more so by my forsaking heat than AC (San Diego has very mild summers by U.S. standards). This summer, I turned on the AC for the first time since we bought the house three years ago. All in the name of science! I was blown away. Here is what I learned.
We humans owe much of our success to our ability to recognize patterns and extrapolate trends to anticipate a future state. My cats, on the other hand, will watch a tossed toy mouse travel toward them across the room—getting ever-bigger—all the way until it smacks them between the eyes (no, they’re not strapped down—I’m not that sort of scientist). But far beyond an ability to avoid projectiles, our ancestors were able to perceive and react to changes in local food and water supplies, herd movements, seasonal cues, etc. Yet this fine tool can be over-used, and I see a lot of what I call ruthless extrapolation. In almost every case, extrapolation works until it doesn’t. When the fundamental rules of the game change, watch out!
As with many aspects of human behavior, some of the finest commentary on the matter is served up by The Simpsons. In one episode, Lisa Simpson is taken to the orthodontist to evaluate whether or not she needs braces. The “doctor” runs a simulation based on current growth rates, producing an alarming graphic of teeth gone wild.
Marge shrieks and is ready to do whatever it takes to protect her daughter against this cruel fate. Extrapolation can, of course, be used to argue both for impending doom or future prosperity—sometimes based on the same data. I started this blog with an extrapolative foil to demonstrate the insanity of continued physical growth, in fact. A tangential follow-up illustrated the hopelessness of differentiating a steady-state energy future from an energy crash using current data (although a continued exponential rise is already a poor fit).