Thursday, November 12, 2009

Doomsday Machine or Waste of Money?

A year after last year's accident, the Large Hadron Collider is getting close to being operational again.

Now, before it does go fully operational, I want to put out my prediction that the doomsday scenarios are
wrong. I read them all: black holes, strangelets, exotic matter... the only one that ever seemed credible to me was the possibility of making a microscopic black hole that would suck in more and more matter and eventually the entire planet... leaving our moon orbiting a black hole that once was the Earth. (Which is an interesting mental image.)

But without going into the messy details (and I'm no physicist) I don't find that threat credible having
read that cosmic rays are at this very moment bombarding the Earth with as much energy as the proton beams of the LHC will when it is fully operational... In a nutshell, if these kinds of particle collisions made dangerous black holes, we wouldn't be here right now.

So why do some people believe the LHC will destroy us all?

First, consider the scale of the project. It is huge. This cannot be understated. The Large Hadron
Collider is the single largest, most complex structure ever built. It has taken a generation to construct: they started digging the tunnels in 1983. It is one of the Wonders of the Modern World. Looking at the size of it, I think I know the sort of awe the pyramids inspired in the ancients who constructed them.

It is truly a collossal machine. Using levels of energy never before created by humanity. Powerful enough that last year's incident, cutting through the scientific jargon, took place because the collider's own magnets tore it apart!

And it is not just a machine: it is an experiment. And when it is finally switched on at full power... no one knows exactly what will happen.

That's the problem. For those folks who fear that science is running amok, that technology is advancing too fast, that modern life is changing things too much... this is the sum of all their fears.

For those who
believe normal, everyday modern technology is already running amok, the LHC must be pure technological terror. How could the smartest scientists in the world build the largest machine ever, a monstrosity that dwarfs anything ever built before, and not know what will happen when it's switched on?

Put in those terms it's reminiscent of Dr. Frankenstein with his hand on the switch, about to wake up his
monster. So yes, I can understand the fear.

In fact, my biggest worry about the LHC is much the same: that it is
pushing the limits of technology too far.

But my fear isn't that the Large Hadron Collider could turn out to be the "doomsday machine"... my fear
is that the Large Hadron Collider will turn out to be a Large Waste of Money. Given the enormous forces and energies the LHC is dealing with, the way the entire ring is designed to go through a sort of juggling act to constantly keep the forces acting on it exactly the same on all sides so it doesn't tear itself apart (sort of like a soap bubble), I think the LHC is a much bigger threat to itself than the world... as last year's incident amply demonstrates.

The repairs over the last year were as rushed as they could be. But the design itself was unchanged. It's very possible the LHC might not work in it's current form. It might break down again, and have to be taken off-line for years to be modified. And even then, the supercollider might be just beyond the grasp of this century's technology. In that case, the LHC would never quite work right... leaving the physics community tinkering with the thing for decades until it is finally scrapped in faliure... a faliure costing billions of euros.

I don't fear for the world... I fear for the LHC.

Monday, September 7, 2009

Crumbling America

I watched the "Crumbling America" program on the History Channel recently, which was about the neglected infrastructure such as collapsing bridges and levees. (Which is being replayed this saturday and I highly recommend, as it is an issue not getting enough press.)

During the program it was said the electrical grid is also in need of repairs, and the number $1.5 trillion was floated out, to keep the grid running by 2030. If this isn't taken care of, basically, forget about internet, electric lighting, A/C, subways, hospitals, runnning water, or anything else from modern life. Now, if my figures are correct, we just paid that much money on the Stimulus Package. Combine that with my last entry on solar power and the Bailout Bill, and we just spent enough money on "bailouts" to have unlimited renewable energy for the next century. We threw $2 trillion into a money pit of an economy and have nothing to show for it, when we could have converted the whole power grid to solar & repaired all power lines and transformers in the country. It's not a pie-in-the-sky dream, that much money would have gotten it done. That's how much $2 trillion is worth.

Thursday, September 3, 2009

We Could Have Had Solar Power...

...for 1/4 the cost of the bailout!
In this month's National Geographic magazine article on solar power, a professor floated out the cost of $400 billion to build enough solar arrays in the desert of the American southwest to meet this country's energy needs. For reference, we just spent $700 billion on the recent bailout, and roughly $1.5 trillion on the economic stimulus package. Which comes to over 2 trillion dollars.

I'm not against spending large sums of money. I'm just against wasting it.

Saturday, August 15, 2009

"This is not moral decay, but ethical growth."

A homophobe posts a sarcastic rant in his LJ over the a TV station including a gay character in their new season's proposed programming. Then gets so swamped by opposing comments he deletes the comments and then the whole journal. Not a noteworthy occurence per se.

But one blog post in response to the rant is so eloquent, I am simply in awe of it. It doesn't just smackdown the homophobe, it doesn't just one-up his sarcasm with subtler sarcasm of its own; it explains ethics based on tolerance and empathy, and the elusiveness of morality based on cultural norms, far better than I have ever been able to. Things I felt to be my guiding principles, but was never quite able to articulate, were finally spelled out by someone.

Archive of the now deleted rant. (Some might find it offensive; I find it strangely entertaining.)

Screencap of deleted rant.

The awesome reply.

Monday, August 10, 2009

A Short Role-Playing Game (Part II)

Yesterday, August 9th, was the day the atomic bomb was dropped on Nagasaki, 3 days after the bombing of Hiroshima.

My goal here was to try to spark some thought about the bomings in a different way. I stripped away all the historical details because most people seem to have already made up their minds about the morality of the atomic bombings. In effect, I tried to put readers into the shoes of President Harry Truman, finding himself the Commander-In-Chief of the war effort after the death of FDR, and not having the intuitive knowledge the general public has nowadays about what an atomic bomb is.
I have seen, time and again, a tendency to judge the United States's use of the atomic bomb on Japan with Cold War or post-Cold War ethics. Since this is the weapon that looms over our heads at all hours, and could annihilate us all in WWIII, then how dare the Americans use it... over 55 years ago, that is. In 1945 the atomic bomb was a band-new weapon... no one, including the scientists who invented it, really knew what to expect from it... the idea of "radiation" was abstract to US war planners, the spectre of nuclear fallout not known about until the weapon was used. The world, and the United States government, didn't really get the idea of just how terrible an atomic bomb was until the fifties, after the bombings and their aftereffects had years to sink into people's minds.

I have also seen a strange, vindictive mixing of past and present. It goes something like "You Americans are warmongers! The United States is the only country to use the atomic bomb in wartime!" What a wonderful injection of a past war into the present, as if something that was done in the desperate days of WWII actually happened yesterday, and somehow me and every other American alive today supported it. I could go on, but in principle, I don't believe that anyone alive today should be held responsible for something their ancestors did generations ago. In this case, Harry Truman and all the WWII generals who ordered the bombing are no longer around. The ones to blame are already dead.

In answer to my own question, I decided if I were in Truman's shoes, I would have dropped the bomb. Yes, it is an awful incident taken by itself, but in the middle of the most destructive war the world has ever seen, the bombing of a city or two to ash wasn't that unusual... many of Europe's cities had been obliterated by conventional methods. There was already an effort to destroy every last Japanese city by incendiary bombs, and now comes along a bigger bomb to do it that much quicker... of course I would use it! If I'd heard any scientists talk of radiation, I think I would have actually considered it a bonus since it increases the weapon's killing power.

In a strange way, the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki did save lives. It has been estimated that 1 million American soldiers and perhaps 12 million Japanese lives would have been lost in the invasion of Japan. One could think of the sacrifice of the nearly 200,000 civilians in those cities as a "fair exchange" for the millions of lives saved when Japan surrendered. The Japanese military leaders were willing to fight to the last man, literally, when they knew they would take many American lives with them... but waiting to be incinerated by bombs from far away was another matter.

Of course, I'm not saying I'd advocate using such a weapon now... far from it. I was born
into a world faced with in the dread of WWIII and fallout poisoning the world... and find, for example, the short-fused nuclear standoff between India and Pakistan a cause for worry: the US and the Soviet Union had 20 minutes, as the ICBM flies, to talk things over... India and Pakistan have just 8, though that's a whole other story.

But I'm just not presumptuous enough to say I'd have known better if I'd been part of the war planning back then, when the atomic bomb was some strange new weapon.

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

A Short Role-Playing Game (Part I)

This is a sort of morality question... there'll be a couple days before the "answer" is revealed. (Yes, I know that with these sorts of morality questions there are no right or wrong answers per se, only different opinions. I just want you to think about this, and please comment.)

Imagine you have just become the new leader of a powerful modern country... at war. Picture this with whatever images come to mind.

Your enemy is another modern country, with weapons and military technology on par with your own... sometimes even surpassing yours. The enemy is also ruthless... they started the war, and have been known to treat prisoners of war, and the population of captured cities, with terrible atrocities. Nevertheless, the soldiers of the enemy nation are as dedicated to their cause as yours, and sometimes fight to the last man. Millions have died on both sides.

Fortunately, your side has been winning. After years of fighting, the enemy has been beaten back to their home country... but still refuses to negotiate a cease-fire. Your generals now estimate that the final battle in the enemy's homeland will kill millions more than all the previous fighting, on both sides.

One more thing. Since the beginning of the war, your country's scientists have been secretly working on a new unconventional weapon, capable of devestating huge areas while your soldiers could remain out of harm's way. It has finally been completed.

Would you use this new weapon? Or continue to fight on with conventional forces?

Friday, July 10, 2009

How To Change The World (In 1 Easy Step!)

Somewhere between this essay,

and this podcast video,
(yes, she explodes onscreen and is a bit annoying to listen to, but trust me, it's worth it.)

is an idea that could change the world...

In my own words:

Being a minority, or outcast, and not getting in people's faces about it never did a minority group or outcast any good. Especially if you have say, a sexual orientation, or a religion, or a lifestyle, or even the odd hobby outside the mainstream. This doesn't necessarily mean being confrontational, or shouting about your private life from the rooftops, but it means not hiding. Not hiding who you are, just because you're afraid of what someone might say to you because they might get offended if they knew exactly who you really were. (And that's a lot of "mights" and "ifs".)

If you have a secret like this, and let slip to all your friends and even half of them remain friends with you... then you just might have gained a few allies who will support your rights when the time comes... but would have chosen otherwise out of ignorance! What's the alternative? Staying in the closet, shivering with fear over what others might think, until the day comes everything you hold dear is made illegal... because you never took the time to try and educate those around you... to help them understand you. The real you. All for what? The preservation of some average lifestyle that's about as accurate a reflection of real life as the .4th of a child in the average family of 2.4 children?

In my experience,
finally overcoming the fear of what the illusive "mainstream" people might think, and being openly yourself, will only attract like-minded people. Yes, you will have a bit less friends, but the friends you make will be friends not with a fake person you project in order to "fit in", but friends with you. The real you. Those who are actually offended by you personally will generally be out of your life before you can hear much of anything from them anyway.

Live like you're a hated freak, and you will be hated. Live like your beliefs and lifestyle are no big deal... and they'll be accepted.

In other words, come out the closet and be yourself and
you'll eventually change the world...