Thursday, December 1, 2016

A Skeptic at Heart

The following is a re-post of one I made on LinkedIn back in June 2014…
Whenever I see a new scientific gadget, I am immediately interested. So when my company recently trumpeted the installation of a new fuel cell system to help with electricity production at our headquarters facility, I started reading the internal news post with a small bit of excitement. Unfortunately, being a open skeptic and a staunch believer in the scientific method, my initial interest quickly turned into a critical analysis of what I was reading and watching.

The first few statements made by the manufacturer of the fuel cell system made me question my understanding of basic chemistry or at least my definition of a few words. I am not a Chemist, nor am I an expert in fuel cells, I just have a degree in EE with a minor in Physics. However, being an engineer I tend to work on the application of science to real world problems and while this topic seemed to touch more on classic Chemistry, that never keeps me from asking questions and learning more.

What was it that got me spun up? The claim that the manufacturer makes about the Bloom Energy Server [1]:
Next, an electrochemical reaction converts fuel and air into electricity without combustion.
I found that to be a misleading marketing "fluff" statement at best; unsound scientific reporting or a down-right false statement at worst. A second comment on the page and in the video seemed to fit into the same fluff category:
The oxygen ions combine with the reformed fuel to produce electricity, water, and small amounts of carbon dioxide.
From my old-school understanding, combustion is an exothermic chemical reaction that always releases thermal energy and in some cases (like this) also releases energy in the form of free electrons (electricity) and/or light. Combustion is synonymous with burning in our modern lexicon which implies a flame; but in Chemistry, "combustion" is just an oxidizing reaction (or redox reaction). The chemical equation that both Bloom and Wikipedia [2] show is: CH4(g) + 2O2(g) → CO2(g) + 2H2O(g). When I perform this chemical reaction in my kitchen with a gas range, it is usually call "burning" by the general public or "combustion" by nerds like me.

There is no magic here: methane, natural gas, CH4(g) is oxidized or combusted (the “+ 2O2(g)” part), and gives off CO2(g) and water vapor. Both of these gasses happen to be "a greenhouse gas" one is a major and the other is a minor greenhouse gas. Try to guess which is major—of course, that is a separate discussion that I may cover in a later post. The amount of CO2 given off does not come from the method of generating the reaction. So the “small amount" of carbon dioxide byproduct is no different when Bloom uses a fuel cell to oxidize methane than when I use a stove-top burner to combust natural gas. Mole for mole, the amount of carbon dioxide created is the same when consuming equivalent amounts of methane. By the way, I am willing to bet the Bloom Energy Server consumes a whole lot more natural gas than I do in my kitchen.

My understanding of the most efficient form of fuel cell combustion is the Alkaline Fuel Cell (AFC) which uses the reaction 2H2 + 4OH- → 4H2O + 4e- or the even simpler Proton Exchange Membrane Fuel Cell (PEMFC) with the reaction 2H2 + O2→ 2H2O. These PEMFCs were used in the Apollo and Space Shuttle programs and they were capable of producing electricity at nearly a 70% efficiency level [3] [4] [5]. Unfortunately it takes a high level of industrial energy (jet engine-style compressor) to produce liquefied hydrogen. The combustion of liquid hydrogen still gives off a greenhouse gas (water vapor) as a byproduct of the reaction, but there is no "nasty" CO2. This chemical process allows hydrogen to act as a nice battery—a method of storing a portion of that same industrial energy it took to produce. However, the inefficiencies in the production and the difficulty of storing hydrogen have not been solved to the extent that makes hydrogen fuel cells marketable to the public, thus our reliance on hydrocarbon versions.

It may be fair for Bloom to argue that their system is more efficient at using a chemical reaction in a thermal cycle to produce electricity versus using the intermediate mechanical stage common in power plant-generated electricity, but it is not valid for them to claim it works without combustion. The efficiency argument is also scientifically questionable from my perspective. Our modern power industry can squeeze every bit of efficiency out of their plants by benefiting from scales of production. I assume Bloom must convert the DC electricity in their Server to AC line voltage (at three phases for industrial use?) which is inherently an inefficient process. Just for a comparison I found a table on Wikipedia [6]... Bloom claims over 60% efficacy, which as noted in the link, is pretty close to that of a “gas turbine plus steam turbine” (natural gas power plant). Economic and market games played by the electric utilities to convince consumers when best to place their load onto the grid (peak demand charges) is different than electricity production and transmission efficiencies. Thus, this new on-site power generator may be a good deal for my company, but not because of any magic with hydrocarbon-based electricity production.

If Bloom's customers are hoping to get an independent power source, controlled on-site, and driven by an alternative fuel, then this new fuel cell system seems to be a reasonable investment and should stand on those merits. However, I am not convinced this technology is any “greener”, nor more efficient, and I doubt it costs any less in the long run (a 100kW installation has an estimated cost of $700k-$800k [7]). In my mind this new fuel cell system may help to reduced the chance of a blackout or brown-out occurring on a business campus since it allows electricity to be generated on-site. However, it is still dependent on a utility, it just happens to be a natural gas provider rather than an electricity provider.

"Skeptic" is not a bad word in my dictionary, in fact I feel it embodies what we need more of today. The founder of Maxim, Jack Gifford had a set of principles that he lived by and founded the company on [8]; one of those was:
question everything and everybody
...caveat emptor; be a skeptic. These are wise words.

One of my personal principles is to not be a hypocrite and thus I try to keep an open mind, ready to change if I can be convinced with a sound, logical argument without fallacy. I may have the facts wrong, so please feel free to point out where I have misinterpreted the science. I am willing to be led through the description of a newly found "energy source” like the Bloom Energy Server, and maybe they will read this post and help lead me to a better understanding. However, the laws of Physics, Chemistry, and Thermodynamics often make it difficult to find a free lunch, even with a good guide.

The following are my references for the above text:

Sunday, November 27, 2016

The Truth Behind the 97% Number

A mirrored posting from Quora:

Based on an answer I provided on Quora and a subsequent discussion (, I finally decided to break down for others, my concern about bias from the original Cook et al study which is the source for the oft miss-quoted consensus number.

My deeper analysis started with a comment from Mr Tarr, and here is the statement that finally drove me to document my concerns:

"Cook et al conducted a scientifically rigorous analysis of published abstracts on climate science and reached a scientifically defensible conclusion that the abstracts showed a general consensus regarding AGW. I don’t know why you’d claim that’s not science."
Mr Tarr’s assumption was not much different than the others I have encountered on Quora and elsewhere.

For a link to the original Cook et al “letter” from which a number of quotes are taken directly:

The following is my step-by-step analysis of the Cook study, why it is biased ‘research’, how it goes off the rails, and why people should not blindly believe there is an all powerful consensus backing up their opinions…


To start, Cook's own assessment of the "type" of research the team was performing was not claimed to be rigorous science:
2. Methodology
This letter was conceived as a 'citizen science' project by volunteers contributing to the Skeptical Science website... we searched the ISI Web of Science for papers published from 1991–2011 using topic searches for 'global warming' or 'global climate change'.
As noted, these were"citizen scientists" doing a web search to gather a collection of papers which had "global warming" or "global climate change" listed as a topic in the ISI Web of Science database (Web Of Science).

The Cook et al methodology section goes on to describe how the initial team of 12 categorized and then rated the abstracts of about 11,530 of the 11,944 papers they found in their search. They worked in pairs and had a third reviewer join the rating effort if the initial two reviewers disagreed (which occurred 33% of the time).

Then I submit the team's own assessment of bias (emphasis is mine):
Two sources of rating bias can be cited: first, given that the raters themselves endorsed the scientific consensus on AGW, they may have been more likely to classify papers as sharing that endorsement. Second, scientific reticence ... or 'erring on the side of least drama' (ESLD...) may have exerted an opposite effect by biasing raters towards a 'no position' classification. These sources of bias were partially addressed by the use of multiple independent raters and by comparing abstract rating results to author self-ratings.
As noted, the Cook et al team readily admits they are biased. Unfortunately they do not provide any information on how they validated the unbiased perspective of the"multiple independent raters" nor did they indicate who these raters were or how many were involved. As for the "ESLD"—that is a term (and paper: Climate change prediction: Erring on the side of least drama?) arising from the Climate Change community itself and has very little credibility as a means to prove "an opposite effect [of bias]". Circular arguments are not usually permitted in a logical deduction and I see this self-ascribed anti-bias as little more than an excuse to be scientifically lazy.

With the above indications from the Cook et al team, I hold a high level of skepticism which AGW believers may not. As Mr Tarr had previous posted, Cook et al conducted a "scientifically rigorous analysis…" "and reached a scientifically defensible conclusion" ...and thus accused me (rightly) of "…suggesting that the scientists who found a 97% consensus WEREN’T QUALIFIED to conduct or interpret their study."

So let us see how qualified and biased these 'scientists' may have been. Here is a list of the lead authors to Cook et al and their qualifications:
  • Cook - BS Physics -blogger, author, cartoonist 
  • Nuccitelli - BS Astrophysics, MS Physics - researcher, author 
  • Green - Environmental Chemist - faculty Michigan Tech U 
  • Richardson - Physics,PhD Climate - NASA JPL developer 
  • Winkler - ? - blogger, zoo volunteer 
  • Painting - ? - police officer, environmentalist 
  • Way - BA Geography -student, researcher 
  • Jacobs - MS Environmental Science and Policy - student, researcher 
  • Skuce - BSc Geology, MSc Geophysics - consultant, surveyor, author 
Note that every one of these people are associated with the SkepticalScience web site and blog ( I would draw attention to the fact that 3 of 8 may not have the typical credentials needed to qualify them as 'scientists' let alone 'climate scientists' or 'experts'.

Here is the list of people who were claimed to have "collect[ed] email and rat[ed] abstracts":
  • Jokimaki - BSc Computer Engineering - blogger, author * 
  • Reitano - PhD Physics- materials research * 
  • Honeycutt - ? -entrepreneur * 
  • Cook - ? - ? 
  • Scadden - BSc Geology- thermal modelling, geochemistry 
  • Tamblyn - Mechanical Engineering - researcher, IT * 
  • Blackburn - BSc Environmental Policy - blogger * 
  • Hartz - ? - blogger 
  • Brown - BSc Geosciences - IT security, student * 
  • Morrison - ? - ? 
  • Coulter - Earth Sys Science and Engineering - student 
  • Stolpe - Climatology,Meteorology - researcher 
Note that 6 of 12 (marked with *) are also directly associated with the SkepticalScience web site and blog. In this list, 4 of 12 do not seem to be 'credentialed'.

I will not speak negatively on those who do not have a technical degree nor are directly educated in the field of 'climate science' because I have not ascribed a valid definition of such a thing and I do not care about authority, I simply care about the data and the science. I presume that anyone who took basic, university-level courses in the hard sciences (Physics, Chemistry, Biology) should be more than qualified to speak to these papers’ conclusions. I will leave it to the reader to decide if they are willing to accept the conclusions of bloggers, volunteers, environmentalists, entrepreneurs, and students—heretofore refer to as non-accredited—as credible researchers and 'scientists'.

Given that Cook et al used an initial pool of 12 reviewers with each abstract being initially assigned to two of those 12—I calculate that they could have had one of every 22 abstracts reviewed by two non-accredited individuals (3/12 x 2/11 = 0.0455 assuming 3 in 12 were non-accredited). Similarly about 1 out of 4 abstracts could have had at least one non-accredited reviewer.

Now, here is the trickery they used to get their 97% number…

First they categorized the abstracts of 11,944 papers with their own arbitrary system and “found” the following results:
We find that 66.4% of abstracts expressed no position on AGW, 32.6% endorsed AGW, 0.7% rejected AGW and 0.3% were uncertain about the cause of global warming.

(BTW, these are my graphs. The Cook team did not seem to be interested in providing data visually—maybe because it does not help their argument)

Then they took the sub-categorized abstracts and found that within those 3896 papers; 3783 of the original papers explicitly expressed that position (my emphasis) :
Among abstracts expressing a position on AGW, 97.1% endorsed the consensus position that humans are causing global warming.

There it is: 3783 papers of 11944 papers endorsed the consensus AGW and expressed such a position in the abstract—clear as you would expect from any scientific research paper, right?

Note that the final percentage of papers that “endorse the consensus” out of all the papers reviewed is 31.7% (3783/11944), not 97.1%.

Plus you need to remember, these results are all based on the opinions of the Cook et al team. What is amusing is that the ‘research team’ was able to compare their opinions to some actual authors and found that they were no better than chance at rating the abstracts. As noted in Table 5, based on direct responses from the authors (discussed below), half of the abstract ratings were mis-categorized—they would have saved more time by rolling dice.


I argued with Mr Tarr that rather than using their own rating system, the Cook team could have conducted an actual direct poll of the researchers responsible for each of the abstracts / papers they assembled. As it turns out, to some extent they did exactly that (reference the Supplementary Information document,section S2):
S2. Survey of authors
Email addresses ... were determined for [8547] scientists... The text of the self-rating survey form provided to authors follows. 
... and in the report, these self-ratings were summarized thus:
... 2142 papers received self-ratings from 1189 authors. The self-rated levels of endorsement are shown in table 4. Among self-rated papers that stated a [Cook et al] position on AGW, 97.2% endorsed the consensus. Among self-rated papers not expressing a [Cook et al] position on AGW in the abstract, 53.8% were self-rated as endorsing the consensus.
Unfortunately for Cook's team the response rate from 1189 authors was not as impressive a number as the original 11,944 papers that they started with. Also unfortunate for the ‘science’ aspects of their citizen project, rather than reporting on the survey data they collected (ie which authors responded with what endorsements), the Cook 'research team' applied a number of biases to those direct-email poll results:
  1. they did not provide the direct-poll data as a reference in their paper 
  2. they summarily dismissed the mediocre 'consensus' response 
  3. they arbitrarily re-categorized the direct-poll responses in order to gain a larger 'consensus' percentage 
  4. they claim the trend was toward more endorsements of the AGW position yet their own data show it trending down over the time period of their investigation (Figures 1b and 2b) 
Table 4 shows this relevant information:
% of respondents [of the 2142 papers that:]
"Endorse AGW" = 62.7%
[hold] "No AGW position" = 34.9%
"Reject AGW" = 2.4%
Re-read those results because they come directly from the paper's authors—The consensus of scientists that endorse AGW from the direct poll is less than 63%!

Taking either their own rating system or the direct responses from authors, the 97% consensus number is completely indefensible and is essentially made-up by the Cook et al ‘citizen science’ team.

One could argue that the author response rate to the poll would be biased in favor of those who endorsed the AGW perspective. Because of the public reputation of the Cook et al team at the time and the language of the survey (noted in the S2 supplementary information section), this would not be a surprise. Even if it was not slanted, the absolute most Cook et al could claim would be a 63% endorsement, not 97%.

Unfortunately 63% endorsement does not make for sensational headlines, nor does it really indicate much of a consensus. So Cook et al, plays one more trick to get back to their original number. Again, by cherry-picking an arbitrary category of authors “among papers with [an] AGW position” they return to a 97.2% of authors “Endorse AGW”.

This just goes to prove:
"There are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies, and statistics.
—Benjamin Disraeli (Lies, damned lies, and statistics - Wikipedia)

I personally reject the sub-categorization of "% among respondents with AGW position” shown in Table 4. Remember, the self-admitted, biased authors of Cook et al were the ones who categorized papers as "endorsing AGW"; they cherry-picked a sub-category to strengthen their 'consensus' number. What difference does it make if an author's abstract was deemed to endorse AGW, as judged from the perspective of Cook’s team? Is it not more important that the authors STATE they endorse AGW?

What may have been more relevant was the qualification of the papers' authors as 'climate scientists'. Cook himself frequently uses that term throughout the propaganda which followed the public release of Cook et al—but no where in the paper do they provide backing for which scientists were ‘climate scientists’.

Remember, the “abstracts expressing a position on AGW” is their own sub-category and they chose it to be 97%! It could be whatever they wanted it to be. Cook's team does not even expressly state that 97% of 'climate scientists' endorse AGW, only that their team’s metric of "expressing a position on AGW" in the original abstract is sufficient.

So it is my opinion that the Cook et al team demonstrates and admits to being biased, that they misrepresent the poll numbers which they collected but did not share, AND they continue to spread misinformation through the media to the point that John Cook brags about President Obama's slanted tweet:
He also lead-authored the paper [...], which was tweeted by President Obama
President Obama's Tweet (my emphasis):
Ninety-seven percent of scientists agree: #climate change is real, man-made and dangerous. Read more:...
No Mr Obama, 97% of scientists did not agree that “climate change is real, man-made and dangerous”; but Cook et al wants you to believe they did.

Hopefully that explains my perspective on Cook et al's ‘citizen science’ project.

Saturday, July 21, 2012

Thinking about the Aurora shooting

After waking to the radio alarm Friday morning and groggily hearing about “another shooting”, I was a little apathetic but also had that pang of sorrow for innocent lives lost at the hands of a another crazed gunman. Not catching the full story of the tragedy, it was after coming down for breakfast that my wife mentioned the shooting was in Denver. Before heading out the door I took a few minutes to quickly skim the headlines to learn a few reported details about the incident which had struck Aurora Colorado, right on the heels of the wildfire tragedies in Colorado Springs.
I do not want to distract or reduce the attention that should be paid to the victims and families of this heinous crime—everyone should be given their time to grieve and heal.
For disclosure: I am a member of a local Izaak Walton “gun club” and go target shooting with my friends and family on a semi-regular basis. I own a number of firearms including a Winchester shotgun and a Glock semiautomatic pistol (G20) supposedly similar to those used in the shooting. A number of my friends hold concealed carry permits (CCWs), I even had one myself in the past, and I am now considering a renewal. I am a firm (but not very vocal) believer in the “individual” 2nd amendment to our constitution.
After an initial sharing of sorrow with a few friends at the office, the discussion inevitably turned to speculation that one concealed carry movie-goer may have been able to lessen this tragedy—and apparently we were not the only ones thinking that [1]. Since politics are not a shy subject at work either, the discussion also edged toward how this incident would likely be jumped on by the gun-control lobby as one more piece of evidence for regulation. After hearing that evening that the discussions had already heated up on the radio waves and that the theater at which this shooting occurred my have had carry restrictions, I figured it was time to do some “internet fact checking” myself.
So my understanding is that the Century 16 operated by Cinemark Century Theaters, does seem to have an unpublished “gun-free” policy [2[3]. To me this seems to indicate why there were no “return shots” fired. I do not claim that things would have turned out better had this policy not been in place, merely speculated on what I would have or could have done had I been there with my family or friends. What would you have done? Would any of the victims’ families wished that this 71yr old Florida man was there?
What we all should keep in mind is that focusing our laws on an inanimate object will not prevent this from happening, just like making drugs illegal does not stop the use. And I feel the exploitation of emotion around this event is sickening.
Congress should “prevent future tragedies” and pass stricter gun control laws in response to the movie theater shooting, Dan Gross [4], head of the Brady Center to Prevent Gun Violence, said in a statement. The Washington-based group describes itself as the country’s largest pro-gun-control lobby. [5] [6]
The folks over at the Brady Campaign feel that:
This is yet another horrific reminder that guns enable mass killings [7]
Look—I understand the position of the Brady Campaign folks. I also understand the position of the NRA (I am a lifetime member). But this kind of non-discussion, sound-bite oriented back-and-forth will not bring back the victims of this shooting. New limitations will not stop crime, it will not prevent people from dying, and it will most certainly not prevent suffering. As much as people would like to live in a perfect utopian society, history has taught us otherwise. Though the feel-good, knee-jerk reaction to “join together in calling for restrictions on the sale and possession of deadly weapons” [8] may make people feel safer, it is an illusion. I can guess at the consequences of limiting or revoking the rights of legally abiding citizens to protect themselves: it is not good for the citizen, it is not good for the moral framework of this country, and it is not going to keep a deranged, mis-guided individual from committing a crime. It displaces the problem from a person to an object—it is a lot easier to hate an object than it is to hate a person. Remember, the crime of murder is already illegal. The crime of assault with a deadly weapon is already illegal. And unfortunately a deadly weapon can be a car [9], a bat [10], or a spatula [11]. Granted, the ability of some to murder on a greater scale is exacerbated by the use of modern firearms, but that genie has been out of the bottle for a very long time [12]. AND this should not be a question about the method, but about the motive. Remove the motive and the crime will not be committed. 

Please, let us first help comfort those that are suffering from this tragedy. If you know someone who is impacted, give them your support—I know how this can help [13].
Then, if we must, let us discuss changes to “gun laws”, not shout past each other. Do we need to change how we sell firearms, who we sell them to, what is manufactured, what is available? Maybe. What we more likely need to do is look inside ourselves, look at society, and ask why a PhD candidate with no background of violence snapped and decided to shoot up a movie theater killing, wounding, and imposing massive suffering that radiates beyond Aurora. Answer that question and you may be closer to the utopia you dream of—though I doubt it.  
From my view, more government is not an answer it is an aversion.

Monday, May 30, 2011

Memorial Day in Space

Here we are, one launch away from not having a manned space program. My last post was almost two years ago and at that time I was concerned with the lack of progress in the past 40 years--two more did not make much of a difference. Endeavour is on its way home today, Memorial Day, 2011. That leaves Atlantis in STS-135 as our last shot into space. A "resupply" and minor upgrade to the International Space Station.
At least we had the fortitude to complete the ISS.
This country is so fickle and it amazes me that we can be so heads-down on cell phones, video games, and the latest portable electronics and not look up at that vast open expanse and see the countless stars--then ignore it all and demand our government provide high-speed connections to read our e-mail.
We will shortly be left with no way to get an American into LEO on our own, let alone to the Moon or beyond. What a legacy to leave behind for our aging space adventurers; what a sad story to tell the the children and grandchildren of those who died, giving their life for the exploration of space. I visited the memorial before it was carved with the names of the Columbia crew. That is what we have on this Memorial Day: a legacy of triumph followed by loss--loss of a dream.

Thursday, July 23, 2009

Space Exploration - 40 Years Later

What would you say if you were part of man's greatest triumph ever, and yet after 40 years of scientific achievement, unimaginable advancements in chemistry, physics, and biology, along with other peripheral sciences, you could not repeat that feat even if it meant the preservation of the human race? I am referring to our human exploration of the Moon. As most people know by now, it started with Apollo 11, 40 years ago on 20 Jul 1969--six months before I was born; and it ended with the last mission, Apollo 17 on 19 Dec 1972--only weeks before my third birthday.

In a 2001 interview [19 Sep 2001, Johnson Space Center Oral History Project, Neil A. Armstrong] Armstrong stated "Well, had you asked me that question thirty years ago, I probably would have said, no, I can't imagine that we'll make such a small number of steps over the next three decades. " Though he also noted that he understood why the manned missions, or any missions to the Moon had fallen out of favor (due to "conflicting requirements for resources that the country has"), I suspect that he was being gentle with NASA and the various administrations between 1972 and that day.

I have been a space fanatic for most of my life. I think it may have started with movies like Star Wars in 1977, my first viewing of 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), or the likes of The Right Stuff (1983), all of which inspired me to learn more about space. In my early grade school years my family was living in Maryland, just a stone's throw from the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum. I was an active member of the Rocket Club in junior high and high school, developing my own designs and flying them when I could afford engines. I also participated in many of the monthly model rocket launches at Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt when I could convince my mom to drive me down there. At some point I told my dad, an Aerospace Engineer working for the USAF, that I wanted to become a "space architect". I followed the early adventures of the new Space Transportation System (STS, better known as the Space Shuttle), the crews, and the missions themselves. I remember where I was when the Challenger was lost--it was my young generation's equivalent to Kennedy.

Later, my interest turned into serious efforts to pursue the same engineering degree my father had received but mine would come from the University of Colorado at Boulder. First semester, freshman year was when my dreams encountered reality. Beyond the fact that I was shortly thrown out on my ear from the College of Engineering, I also began to understand the true reason for the US space program. I learned that the space race, the Mercury and Apollo missions were started more for political reasons than for reasons of true science or exploration. I became disillusioned with NASA and what it stood for. As I tried to sweep up my shattered dreams of being a proud member of the armed forces (Air Force ROTC) and a member of the next generation of "rocket science" engineers, I continued in fits-and-starts with my education at CU Colorado Springs. I stayed abreast of space activities through memberships in the National Space Society and the Planetary Society. I read about the current happenings in Aviation Week and Scientific American, all the while fighting my way through the morass of higher education. Eventually I migrated from my interim studies as a Physicist, back into the school of engineering and finally graduated with a BSEE.

In the mean time I had thought of getting my private pilots license, of joining a group of private aviation developers (Eclipse Aviation, Adam Aircraft), anything to get back into my dream of aviation and space science. Eventually I was left with living vicariously through my friends who had jobs in the aviation community--a community that I still had not obtained citizenship to.

That is where I come back to on this 40 year anniversary. I have not witnessed a man on the Moon in my personal memory--oh sure, there is the footage, the photos, the sounds; but the closest I have come is my memories of Pathfinder's landing on Mars (4 Jul 1997). Its success, of course was shortly followed by the losses of the Mars Climate Orbiter (23 Sep 1999), the Mars Polar Lander (3 Dec 1999), and later the disastrous loss of our second, original STS OV, Columbia on 1 Feb 2003. NASA finally got the "recovery" boost it needed with the successes of Sprit (4 Jan 2004) and Opportunity (25 Jan 2004) landing on Mars--two semi-autonomous robots, not humans.

It was with Columbia that I finally gave up on NASA and turned to the possibilities offered by private enterprise. After following the highlights of the X-Prize and the various competitors vying for press and money, it was obvious where that trophy would go: the future winner had finally thrown their hat into the ring when Scaled Composites joined the race. I had the chance to witness this best new prospect for private space exploration when Scaled took their first baby steps with the White Knight and SpaceShipOne. I actually got to see the toddler walk when Robert, Jeff, and I flew out to the Mojave Desert to witness the first private attempt to graze the firmament by the space-plane marked N328KF (21 Jun 2004). Not long after that, we learned that the design was to swing into full production with the SpaceShipTwo, under the guidance (and with the finances) of Sir Richard Branson and Virgin Galactic. There has been progress but not the grand leaps that I expected from the commercialization of such a bold venture. It seems that private space may be plagued by failure as much as NASA. Scaled suffered an accident, loosing three members of their team on 26 Jul 2007. And later that year a valued member the modern-day explorers club, Steve Fossett, was lost to the wild blue yonder (c. 3 Sep 2007).

I started writing this blog entry back in July of this year and got depressed. I found myself putting it off until now. Why? Because, I have had to contemplate the thought that the flame of exploration is dead. I had hoped it was not, but I fear that I no longer have the drive which I once did back in the 1980s—back then I thought I could change the world and I thought I would be a member of the first generation to know space as a homestead for my children. Now I see that four decades have pass for the most well know of the astronaut generation. Neither he nor I have seen anything more impressive than an expensive looking glass in orbit around our wet orb, peering at the prize but no longer seeking to land on its shores.

Thursday, April 16, 2009

Volumes in Perspective

I was talking with Paul Kalthoff today about the “biomass” of the human race. I was driving into work and looking over at Pikes Peak (since traffic was running slow on the highway), and thought to myself that we humans really are small compared to that mountain. In fact, I thought to myself, I bet we could throw the whole human race into some imaginary volume hidden behind the peak. Little did I know how much I over estimated, after spending about 10 minutes with Paul doing mental calculations we figured that the whole of the human race would take up only around a cubic kilometer. Here is what I found later that evening:

An accurate estimate of the average volume of a human being was a little hard to come by. However, a rough estimate was proposed in a number of sites found in a Google search that hypothesized the following: the human body is approximately the density of water (1.01kg/l []), the average mass of the human body is around 70kg [], so the average volume of a human comes in around 70.7 liters.

Next is the simple math of translating a human into a cubic meter:
1hu = 70.7l = 0.0707m^3
1m^3 can hold a little more than 14 people (assuming you hit the puree button on the blender):
1m^3 = 14.1443hu

So how many people are on this planet? That you can find all over the internet:
6.790062216E+9 (July 2009 estimate [])

So, again some simple math shows that we human beings, one of the most prolific forms of dry-land life, would take up the massive volume of around:
480E+6m^3 which of course equates to 0.48km^3

That’s right! We add up to less than half a cubic kilometer.

When you read articles that state “The biomass of human bodies now exceeds by a hundred times that of any large animal species that ever existed on land.” []
You are left with comparing that to what: how much we use in resources? How about how much biomass was morphed into coal?

Just for some perspective, comparing the human race to the volume of coal mined on a yearly basis [], I found this interesting article that noted in 2004 approximately 2.1km^3 were mined. So we could pack the mass of the human race into the hole left over from three months of mining coal.

So it would take just a small portion of the top of Pikes Peak (think about a 1km x 1km x 480m box) to hide the whole of the human race.

If you are a visual person, click on the capture of Google Earth where I mapped a 1km line across the Peak.

We are so small.
And yes, I know I’m weird.


Thursday, April 2, 2009

Manmade global warming, huh?

What happens when a non-scientist (Seth Borenstein, Boston University, BS Journalism []) reports on science: [original link is dead, try this one:,4675,SCIQuietSun,00.html]

Note the second sentence in the AP report…

WASHINGTON – The sun has been unusually quiet lately, with fewer sunspots and weaker magnetic fields than in nearly a century. A quiet sun is good for Earth: GPS systems are more accurate, satellites stay in orbit longer; even the effects of manmade global warming are marginally reduced, though just by three-tenths of a degree at most. [emphasis added]

If I am not mistaken, the sentence is drawing a connection between fewer sunspots and a lower temperature. Is that not reducing the effects of sun-made global warming?

Also, I think the effects of global warming are supposed to be on the order of about 0.1ºC to 1.0 ºC per decade over 50 years [] or 1.4ºC to 5.8ºC over the next century [], or 0.74ºC over the last century and 2.4ºC to 6.4ºC in the 21st century worst-case [], depending which source of hysteria you reference.

Hmmm, sunspot activity accounts for 0.36ºC to 0.54ºC in one year (main statement in first paragraph does not use units, forth paragraph from bottom notes Fahrenheit) and Cicerone states that “manmade heating effects are 13 times greater than the variations from solar activity.”
That would mean that manmade heating is expected to move temperatures by 4.68ºC to 7.02ºC a year!

Does nobody actually check these numbers?
I guess the general public is just willing to swallow whatever they are fed, as long as it sounds official.