Thursday, May 20, 2010

Simple Science is Sometimes the Best Science

Many people think that important science always involves sophisticated mathematics, high-powered supercomputers, or expensive technical instruments. A recent book demonstrates that this is not always the case. David MacKay, Professor of Physics at Cambridge University, published a very influential book in 2009 titled "Sustainable Energy: Without the hot air", available for free download at A review in Physics World stated it is 'a book every budding physicist should read - and perhaps also ... the one every working physicist would like to have written.' This book has probably had a greater impact on science and society than any other scientific publication in the last couple of years, but it involves physics no more complicated than application of Newton's laws of motion. MacKay uses data, logic, and simple math to arrive at important conclusions. He systematically calculates the maximum amounts of energy that can be produced by renewable energy sources in Britain and shows that it is not physically possible to meet Britain's energy needs using renewable energy alone. This conclusion is very important, but MacKay also shows why some forms of renewable energy such as solar are much more promising than others such as biofuels. His conclusions will help determine where future scientific research funds will be funneled and therefore what path research on renewable energy will take. Though the science MacKay used is simple, the conclusions are important enough that he was appointed as the chief scientific advisor to the UK Department of Energy and Climate Change shortly after the book was published. Britain is now conducting studies to decide whether to support large-scale deployment of tidal power, the form of renewable energy that MacKay most strongly endorsed for Britain in his book.

The enormous impact of MacKay's book may help dispel some misconceptions about science. Important science doesn't need to be expensive or complicated, and sometimes it is published in books rather than scientific journals (remember "The Origin of Species" by Charles Darwin and "PhilosophiƦ Naturalis Principia Mathematica" by Isaac Newton?). Society needs clear-headed thinkers like David MacKay to show us how to address some of the pressing scientific problems of our time such as global climate change and peak oil. And the general public can learn a lot about the future of society by reading MacKay’s book.

Sunday, May 2, 2010

Economic growth can be too fast, leading to attacks against children in China

Change as rapid as China is experiencing is destabilizing. Imagine you are Chinese peasant whose lifestyle does not change while everything changes around you. Your friends who became wealthy will no longer be friends with you; the girl you hoped to marry now spurns you because her family is now wealthy. The landmarks you grew up with have been torn down and replaced with modern buildings. You feel alienated and disempowered. What do you do? Perhaps these changes can explain the strange rash of copycat crimes in China that started in March 2010, when a man stabbed eight children to death while they waited for a bus outside their elementary school in the southeastern city of Nanping. At his trial the man said he was angry because he was jilted by a woman and treated badly by her wealthy family. On April 28 he was put to death, and on the same day the second attack occurred: a man in the southern city of Leizhou wounded 15 students and a teacher in a knife attack. The third attack occurred the next day in the eastern city of Taixing when a man slashed 28 children, two teachers and a security guard with an 8 inch knife. The following day a fourth attack occurred in Beijing, where a farmer attacked kindergarten students with a hammer, then burned himself to death.

According to experts, "outbursts against the defenseless are frequently due to social pressures... and growing feelings of social injustice in the fast-changing country. An avowedly egalitarian society only a generation ago, China's headlong rush to prosperity has sharpened differences between haves and have-nots (Bodeen, AP, 4/29/2010)". Change can be too fast for systems and people to adapt; even seemingly positive change like rapid economic growth is unsustainable because it is destabilizing and causes social upheaval.