Saturday, October 22, 2016

The mother of all promises and how science failed to maintain it

"Energy too cheap to meter" was the mother of all promises (above, Disney's atomic genius from 1956).  Unfortunately, science failed utterly to deliver this and many other promises made during the "nuclear age," and even later. Eventually, people will realize how much hot air there is in the press releases about pretended scientific breakthroughs and, already today, we shouldn't be surprised if so many people don't trust what the scientists are telling them about climate change.

In the 1950s, during the high times of the "atomic age", someone had the unfortunate idea of claiming that nuclear technologies would give us, one day, "energy too cheap to meter." We might call it "the mother of all promises" and, of course, it was not maintained. But, as propaganda often does, it stuck in people's minds and it seems that many people still believe in the concept that energy too cheap to meter is just around the corner. Many seem to expect it to come with one of the many scams about "free energy" or "cold fusion" that litter the Internet today.

But breakthroughs bordering on miracles are claimed also in other fields of science and some scientists seem to have made a point in saving the world every two weeks or so. The latest scientific claim that went viral on the web is about a catalyst able to turn CO2 directly into ethanol. It is likely that many people understood as a miracle that would remove the dreaded CO2 from the air and transform it into something useful at little or no cost.

Yet, if you look at the original article, you will find nothing that suggests that this catalyst is ready for practical, real-world applications. There are no data about how long it can last in operating conditions, nor there are calculations that would tell us how efficient would be the whole process, considering that one has to saturate the electrolyte with CO2. The authors themselves state that "The overpotential (which might be lowered with the proper electrolyte, and by separating the hydrogen production to another catalyst) probably precludes economic viability for this catalyst." So, we have something that works in the lab, which is fine, of course, but we should never forget that the graveyard of failed inventions is littered with tombstones with the inscription "in the lab, it worked."

In the discussion that took place on Facebook about this story, some people asked me why I was criticizing this paper so much; after all, they said, it is a legitimate research report. It is true, but the problem is another one. What is the public supposed to think about this?

Most people will see only the press release and they lack the intellectual tools needed to understand and evaluate the original. And from the press release hey will understand that scientists are making a new claim of a further scientific miracle that will solve some important problem at some unspecified moment in the future. And then the whole story will be forgotten and the problems of climate, pollution, depletion, etc., will still be there; worse than before.

It is true that the myth of the scientific miracle is stubborn, mainly because it is a comfortable myth: nobody has to do anything except giving some money to our priests in white coats. But that can't last forever. Science, as all human enterprises, doesn't live in a vacuum, it lives on its reputation. People believe that science can do something good for them because science has done that in the past. But this reputation is being tarnished a little every time some hyped scientific claim falls into oblivion, as it is destined to do. The reserve of trust that science has accumulated in the past is not infinite.

Already today, you can see the decline of the reputation of science with the many people who believe that no man ever never walked on the moon. Even worse, you can see it with those (nearly 50% of the American public) who believe that human-caused climate change is an elaborate hoax created by a cabal of evil scientists who are only interested in their fat research grants.

So, what happens when the reserve of trust in science runs out for good? I don't know, but wouldn't it be a good thing for scientists to be a little more humble and stop promising things they know they can't maintain?

See also this recent post by Andrea Saltelli on the same subject

Sunday, October 16, 2016

Another Example of a Seneca Cliff: the Demise of Friendster

The results of a Google Trend search for "Friendster", an old social network. It is a nearly perfect "Seneca Shape," where decline is faster than growth.

"Friendster" was a social network that, in many ways, pre-dated Facebook. Friendster collapsed rapidly, starting in around 2009, providing us with an impressive example of a "Seneca Shape", a curve where decline is much faster than growth, or, as Seneca the philosopher said long ago, "ruin is rapid". 

The demise of Friendster has been studied in at least two recent papers. One by Garcia et al, (2013) "Social Resilience of online communities" and another by Yu et al., (2016) titled "System crash as dynamics of complex networks" These papers interpret the collapse in terms of the dynamic evolution of a network, whereas, earlier on, I had proposed a model where this specific shape could be derived from system dynamics.

Basically, there must be more than one way to skin a platypus: both the studies cited are based on collective feedback effects, which is the crucial factor that makes collapses occur. So, network theory is more detailed, system dynamics is more aggregated, but we are describing the same phenomenon, although from different viewpoints.

In both cases, anyway, we find that ruin is rapid. As long as it occurs to an obsolete social service, it is not a big problem. But if it were to occur to something massive and vital for civilization, such as the oil industry, then we could see something like this.... ouch.......

Friday, October 14, 2016

Aren't humans a little weird?

Just a little note about something I noticed a few days ago in a hotel room. Note the ubiquitous sign where they ask you whether you want to be environmentally friendly by not having your towel replaced. I don't think there remains a single hotel in the whole world where they don't ask you that.

But, in this case, the sign is placed right near the tower rail heating system; it is electric, not part of the room heating system. And there is no obvious way to turn it off in case you feel that your towels are warm enough at the temperature of the room.

Maybe you could make an LCA study that will tell you that an electric rail-heating system is less energy hungry than having a towel washed. Or maybe not. But it is funny that how successful a plea for being environmentally friendly can be. And how meaningless, considering the amount of energy that the people staying in hotels must have used to get there.

So, in the end, asking you if you want your towel washed or not seems more than all a little propitiatory spell to make you feel good. Maybe you flew there all the way from the other side of the world, spwing untold amounts of CO2 into the atmosphere. But, what the hell, you are a friend of the environment and you will keep your wet towels on that electrically heated rail!

Aren't humans a little weird?

Wednesday, October 12, 2016

Jorgen Randers: updating "2052"

Jorgen Randers speaking in Cambridge, 12 Oct 2016

Today, in Cambridge, a meeting was held with several of the authors of the "Glimpses" that were part of the "2052" book by Jorgen Randers. The idea was to update the forecasts that were published in 2012.

Randers showed the update of his model, obtained with new data and with some modifications of the model itself. In five years, there have been modest changes and the basic results of the initial model are confirmed. Basically:

1. Randers' model sees the growth of both the economy (in terms of GDP) and of the population up to 2052; although the forecasted population is less than 9 billion people, much lower than the UN predictions.

2. Randers' model doesn't see scarcity for any resource, at least up to 2052

3. Inequality and poverty will remain as significant problems.

4. The model clearly says that we are NOT staying below the 2 degrees limits. Renewables will be growing fast, but so will do fossil fuels at least for another couple of decades. Randers' climate model (a different one) doesn't produce a "climate tipping point" for the rest of the century, but the raising temperatures will do enormous damage to the world's economy and to people.

Of course, forecasts are always difficult, especially when dealing with the future. My modest opinion is that Randers' model is good and I was impressed by the work that was done and that's being done to keep it up to date and to improve it; so I think that these results should be carefully studied and understood.

Then, still according to my modest opinion, there remains a fundamental problem: models based on system dynamics are not really made to catch tipping points. I think Randers is right when he says that we won't see the climate "catching fire" during this century. We may well be on our way to an ice free planet (and the corresponding 70 m of sea level rise) but that will not be for this century (hopefully!). The kind of tipping points that we are more likely to see are the result of coupling between the climate system and the socio-economic system. For instance, no model could predict the Syrian disaster, and yet its root cause is the double whammy of global warming and oil depletion. What can happen in the future as temperatures keep rising and resources being depleted, it is probably impossible to predict by any model.

But the meeting of today produced also elements of hope. The idea that renewables can make it seem to be diffusing and I myself presented the results of the study that we performed with Sgouridis and Csala that demonstrates just that. Others argued that the financial system is gearing up to provide the necessary resources for the transition. And, who knows? We might really make it! The future cannot be predicted, but we can always hope for a good future!

Saturday, October 8, 2016

An AWEsome energy source: where do we stand with airborne wind energy?

Kite surfing on the ─▓sselmeer lake, in the Netherlands; a picture that I took a couple of weeks ago. These are not kites for airborne wind energy (AWE) but, for some reason, Holland is the country where the idea of energy kites seems to be most popular; in particular because of the work of the late Wubbo Ockels (1946 – 2014), pioneer of wind energy. The technology is promising, but there is a long way to go before it will become a commercial reality.

I have been following the development of airborne wind energy (AWE) for more than 10 years and I keep following it. This summer, I visited the campus of the Technical University of Delft, in Holland, where I met the people of "Enevate", the university spinoff dedicated to kite power, a field in which the university of Delft has been active for a long time. I found a dedicated group of young people, enthusiastic and competent, working hard at developing the concept. Recently, they scored a remarkable success obtaining the support of the EU Horizon program for the project "REACH" dedicated to airborne wind energy.

But where do we stand, today, with this technology? The idea of AWE is both simple and promising. The current generation of wind turbines work relatively well, but it is also a technology that's rapidly reaching its technical limits, given by the weight and the cost of the tower that supports the rotor. So, why can't we just get rid of the tower and have the rotor fly in the air? Think how much money we could save!

So, we fly a kite. The kite catches the wind energy and transmits it down to earth either by onboard generators or by pulling cables that act on a ground-based generator. This technology is called in various ways, but the term "Airborne Wind Energy" seems to have become the most common one. The development of this field has been going on for at least ten years. Some years ago, I wrote an early (rather overoptimistic) paper on the concept on "The Oil Drum." Recently, Euan Mearns wrote an also rather optimistic, but reasonably well-balanced, post on the subject. A much more negative review of AWE appeared in "GreenTech" as well as in another article published by some researchers of the Max Planck institute. You can find a recent review of the various technical implementations of the idea in a paper written by Cherubini et al.

So, where do we stand, today? There is no doubt that the concept of AWE is alive and well and that research on it is being performed in several laboratories all over the world with the support of governments and companies. The problem with all promising technologies is always the same: the promise must be kept. The technology must work and we can say that it does only if we have something that works and can be tested for a relatively long time. We don't seem to have arrived at that stage yet with AWE, but it is normal: research and development is a slow and expensive process; not something for mad scientists building spaceships in their basement. In my opinion, some early dreams of tapping the wind at very high altitudes, even getting energy from the jet stream, were much too ambitious. But that doesn't mean that the technology can't work. What can be done at the present stage is to work on small systems that go no higher than about 1000 m and that are manageable and relatively simple. Even for these systems, it takes time; there are still plenty of problems to solve. As somebody said, research is "1% inspiration and 99% perspiration". With AWE, there is still a lot of perspiration to do.

One problem when dealing with energy producing technologies is the "miracle trap." We all know that we have an enormous problem with fossil fuels in terms of both depletion and pollution. We need to replace them with renewable energy as fast as possible and most of us understand that it won't be easy (although not impossible). So, some people are actively searching for miracles and some found them in outright scams about cold fusion or mysterious unknown nuclear processes. Others use their faith on the miracles that will come as an excuse for doing nothing. And, finally, others have fallen into the opposite trap and tend to consider as a scam anything and everything that hasn't yet fulfilled its initial promises. Some people seem to have developed this attitude even toward AWE. But AWE is neither a scam nor a miracle. It is a technology being developed that needs to be studied and evaluated.

AWE may well fulfill an important role in energy production in the future but, for the time being, we need to deploy what works, and keep working on what's promising. And if we keep a cool head, we can make it even with what we have. We don't need miracles; we need to work for our future. And we need to start right now.


Wednesday, October 5, 2016

Malthus the prophet of doom: why bother with reading the original when you can simply cut and paste from the Internet?

An excerpt from the book I am writing, "The Seneca Effect," that contains a chapter dedicated to the Irish famines. Above, the reverend Thomas Malthus (1766 - 1834)

The demolition of Thomas Malthus' work in our times is often based on accusing him of having predicted some awful catastrophe to occur in the near future, sometimes on a specific date. Then, since the catastrophe didn't occur, there follows that Malthus was completely wrong and nothing in his work can be salvaged. It is a well-tested method that was used with great success against "The Limits to Growth", the report to the Club of Rome that appeared in 1972.

Except that Malthus never made the "wrong predictions" attributed to him, just as "The Limits to Growth" never made wrong predictions, either. There are no specific dates in Malthus' book "An essay on the Principle of Population" for where and when famines or other catastrophes should take place. For instance, Malthus says that,
Famine seems to be the last, the most dreadful resource of nature. The power of population is so superior to the power in the Earth to produce subsistence for man, that premature death must in some shape or other visit the human race. The vices of mankind are active and able ministers of depopulation. They are the precursors in the great army of destruction; and often finish the dreadful work themselves. But should they fail in this war of extermination, sickly seasons, epidemics, pestilence, and plague, advance in terrific array, and sweep off their thousands and ten thousands. Should success be still incomplete, gigantic inevitable famine stalks in the rear, and with one mighty blow levels the population with the food of the world.

— Malthus T.R. 1798. An Essay on the Principle of Population. Chapter 7, p 44

Doomerish, you can surely say, but not something that you can define as a "wrong prediction". Events similar to Malthus' description really occurred before Malthus times and in the “Essay” he normally refers to historical cases, especially those that had occurred in China.

So, Malthus was not babbling about dark and dire things to come; he was describing and analyzing events that were well known in his times. But few people, today, seem to be interested in looking up the original text and prefer to maintain that “Malthus was wrong” by repeating the legend. And, by the way, even if Malthus had been guilty of “wrong predictions”, that doesn't mean that infinite population growth could take place on a finite planet.

The other way to demolish Malthus's ideas is to paint him as evil, in the sense that he had proposed, or favored, mass extermination as a consequence of his ideas. This is, also, a common legend and also a great injustice done to Malthus. Over the great corpus written by Malthus, it is perfectly possible to find parts that we find objectionable today, especially in his description of “primitive” people whom he calls “wretched”. In this respect, Malthus was a man of his times and that was the prevalent opinion of Europeans in regard to non-Europeans (and maybe, in some cases, still is, as described in the book “Can Non-Europeans Think?” (Dabashi and Mignolo 2015).

Apart from that, Malthus’ writings are clearly the work of a compassionate man who saw a future that he didn't like but that he felt was his duty to describe. Surely, there is no justification in criticizing him for things that he never said, as it can be done by cutting and pasting fragments of his work and interpreting them out of context. For instance, Joel Mokyr in his otherwise excellent book titled “Why Ireland Starved”⁠ (Mokyr 1983) reports this sentence from a letter that Malthus wrote to his friend David Ricardo,

The land in Ireland is infinitely more peopled than in England; and to give full effect to the natural resources of the country, a great part of the population should be swept from the soil.

Clearly, this sentence gives the impression that Malthus was advocating the extermination of the Irish. But the actual sentence that Malthus wrote reads, rather (Ricardo 2005)⁠ (emphasis added):

The land in Ireland is infinitely more peopled than in England; and to give full effect to the natural resources of the country, a great part of the population should be swept from the soil into large manufacturing and commercial Towns.
So, you see that Malthus wasn't proposing to kill anyone, rather, he was proposing the industrialization of Ireland in order to create prosperity in the country. Nevertheless, legends spread easily on the web and you can see the truncated sentence by Malthus repeated over and over to demonstrate that Malthus was an evil person who proposed the extermination of the poor. I can't think that Professor Mokyr truncated this phrase himself, but he was at least careless in cutting and pasting something that he read on the Web without worrying too much about verifying the original source.

The Web, indeed, is full of insults against Malthus. You can find an especially nasty (and misinformed one) attack against him at this link where you can read that, yes, the Irish famine was all a fault of Malthus who misinformed the British government, who then refused to help the poor Irish, who then starved - all based on that truncated sentence.

Sometimes, I have the feeling that we are swimming in propaganda, drinking propaganda, eating propaganda, and even being happy about doing that.


Dabashi H, Mignolo W (2015) Can Non-Europeans Think? Zed Books

Mokyr J (1983) Why Ireland Starved. Routledge, London and New York

Ricardo D (2005) The Works and Correspondence of David Ricardo. Liberty Fund, Indianapolis

Sunday, October 2, 2016

The Emperor and the Druid

This text was originally part of the book that I am writing, "The Seneca Effect", where it was meant to illustrate how new technologies can worsen problems, rather than solve them. Then, the book took an aspect and a structure where this piece wouldn't fit, so I removed it. But it can fit in the Cassandra Blog. Image above, Merlin advising King Arthur,  from "mythencyclopedia"

Have you ever been dreaming of living in Roman times? Yes, those ancient and glorious times when the Romans had conquered all the known world and were ruling it by means of their legions, their laws, and their culture. But, if you were an ancient Roman, you would have known that you had a problem: the Roman Empire has often been under threat: rebellions, barbarians, all that. And, as a 21st-century person dreaming of those ancient times, you know that, eventually, the empire will fall. You know that Rome will be taken and sacked, that the Roman legion will be defeated and scattered, that the Roman ways will be lost and forgotten. It was the way history went but was it really unavoidable? Or could a wise emperor have done something to avoid that?

So, imagine that some powerful magic has you transferred to those remote times in the form of a Druid living in foggy Britannia, an ancestor of Merlin the wise, smart enough to figure out that something is rotten in the Roman Empire. Then, you know that it is a tradition of Druids to alert kings and rulers of the dangers ahead. After al, it is what Merlin did that for King Arthur. So, you want to do the same for the Roman Emperor. You want to use your 21st-century knowledge in order to save the empire.

Let's imagine that this druid lives during the golden age of the Empire, the time of the wise emperors. And let's imagine that the ruling wise emperor is actually Marcus Aurelius, the philosopher-emperor who left us his thoughts that we still read today. So, you, as that druid, leave your town of Eburacum (that today we call York) in foggy Britannia and you march all the way to Rome. Your fame has preceded you and, when you arrive in Rome, the Emperor receives you, happy to meet such a wise man from a remote province of the Empire. So, you are in front of the emperor. He looks wise, too, with his gray beard and his solemn “trabea” toga, all dyed in the sacred purple, as it befits to a reigning emperor. Maybe you would tell him something like this.

Emperor, greetings from remote Britannia! Greetings from a druid whom more than a few say is wise. Good Marcus, I walked all the way from Eburacum to Rome to advise you; hear my words! The Empire is in trouble, in great trouble. The gold mines of Iberia do not produce any more gold in such an abundance as they did long ago and the coffers of the state are becoming empty. And, without much gold and silver to pay the legionnaires, the legions are not any more so numerous as they used to be. And the people of the Empire suffer under weight of the taxation that's needed to keep manned the fortifications that protect the Empire from its enemies. Emperor, the legions are becoming smaller, the people poorer, and the fortification less safe. And the barbarians surrounding the empire are numerous and warlike and everyday they become more numerous and more warlike. Emperor, if you don't do something, one day the barbarians will overrun the fortifications, they will defeat and disperse the legions, and they will besiege and take Rome. And the great Roman Empire will be no more.
But, Emperor, I have wisdom that I can access by the powers I have as a druid, and it is wisdom that can help the empire! First of all, I can tell you that there are lands on the other side of the Great Ocean. It is a long travel to there, but if you send ships to those remote lands, you can find gold in abundance and replenish the coffers of the empire and with this gold you can pay the legionnaires and the Roman Army will be again as strong as it was in the old times. Then, Emperor, I can tell you that in the land I come from, there are black stones that burn. And these black stones are incredibly abundant. If you can send people to dig for them, with these black stones you can build great metal machines which, in turn, will build bigger and bigger machines. And these machines will do the work of many men and bring prosperity to the Empire. And, finally, emperor, I can tell you how to create a powder that burns; and it burns so fast that it makes a great noise and a great gust of wind comes out of it. And this powder can be made to catch fire inside a metal tube. And if one side of the tube is kept sealed and the other is open, you can place a lead ball into the tube, and the fire of the powder will project the ball fast and at a great distance and kill your enemies. And with this weapon your legions will easily defeat the barbarians. And this is the wisdom that i am bringing to you, Emperor. ”
The emperor looks at you, perplexed. He caresses his gray beard for a while. Then he speaks:
“Druid, I see that you know many things, and some of these things are truly wondrous to hear. And maybe, Druid, you are truly wise as some say you are. Yet, I daresay that this knowledge of yours may not be wisdom, after all. Let me tell you something about what you propose. First of all, it may be true that there are lands on the other side of the Great Ocean. And it may also be true that there is gold in these lands. But, Druid, there is gold also in much closer lands; and you should know that my predecessor, the good Emperor Trajan, may the Gods bless his memory, endeavored to invade the land that we call Dacia in order to obtain the gold that we knew was there. And you should know, druid, that the Roman legions fought hard and for a long time and covered themselves in glory and conquered that land and brought back much gold to Rome, But, druid, let me also tell you that the effort was great and the gold that could be brought to Rome was not so much that it could justify it. And so, if getting gold from a close land was so difficult and so expensive, how much more effort will take to get it from a much more remote one, on the other side of the Ocean, as you propose?
Then, druid, let me tell you something about the great machines that you propose to build and to power using those black stones that indeed I know exist in remote Britannia. Yes, maybe that would be possible. But the work of many men would be necessary to dig out the black stones. Would we have to weaken our fortifications or take men from farming to do that? And to bring the stones here, we would need a fleet of ships, but the fleet we have is engaged in bringing grain to Rome in order to feed the Romans. And, if we send the fleet to Britannia to load the black stones and carry them to Rome, what will the Romans eat? Would you want them to eat stones?
And, finally, druid, about those metal tubes that can kill people at a distance; yes, I understand that they could be a powerful weapon. But, druid, what would prevent our enemies, the barbarians, from getting those tubes themselves and using them against us? And if they were to build truly large ones, would they use them to bring down the great walls that defend the empire and the city of Rome?
The emperor keeps caressing his gray beard, looking at you. He remains silent for a while, then he speaks again, looking very solemn in his purple toga.
Druid, I understand that you may be sincere in telling me the things you told me and that you may really wishing to help the empire. Yet, I think that this pretended wisdom of yours is not useful to the empire and perhaps it is even dangerous for it. And, Druid, you should understand that I am the emperor of the Romans and I have power of life and death on everyone in the city of Rome and also on everyone within the limes of the Empire. And if I use my power it is to protect the empire from things that I judge dangerous for the empire. And so I was thinking that I could use this power to have your head lopped off, so that this knowledge of yours would not be a danger anymore for the Empire. But since I am steeped in the ways of philosophy and I know the sacredness of life, I will not do that. So, let me offer to you an escort that will lead you back to the town of Eburacum, in remote Britannia, where I trust you will stay and from where you will never come back here again.


Ugo Bardi is a member of the Club of Rome and the author of "Extracted: how the quest for mineral resources is plundering the Planet" (Chelsea Green 2014)