Thursday, November 6, 2014

The People have spoken, but full speed ahead

Dear President Obama,
      "The Republicans had a good night"?  Where is your connection to reality?  It's not that you don't have your heart in the right place: it's that your staff and administration don't seem to be competent enough to handle the large job you have been elected to and you don't realize what you don't know.  You need help, not good intentions.  Shake up your staff.  Hire people with experience of, for instance, meeting a payroll, if you want to help the middle class.  
     There is another option than executive orders and saying that the ball is in Congress's court.  Those are copouts.  Assume that you do have the responsibility to the American public that you declared last night.  Put together a program and push it personally.  Lead! Personally!  Go over to the Congress, personally. Don't lecture them publicly.
     Is having a bourbon with McConnell a smirking joke?  Or having press conferences more often so obviously ironic?  Have them over to your place, often!  You are only 1/3rd of the government.  The Congress doesn't owe you anything.  Do you take responsibility for anything?  I didn't hear you take responsibility for the CDC bungling on Ebola, or the targeting of Tea Party people at the IRS, or the bungling of the Affordable Care Roll Out.  It's always somebody else's fault.  And then you lecture them in public.  
This is mainly a personal problem, not a conceptual or an organizational one.  You are the king of the platitude and it's hard to know when you have a real plan to get something accomplished and when you are whistling in the wind.
     Everything is not all right.  Our culture isn't supporting education and thoughtful government and our citizens, at least the ones in Wall Street, are excessively greedy with money as the final goal.  Please don't take credit for propping up badly run companies so that the same old cronies can make as much money with as little effort as possible.  That's not healthy.  Things like new energy sources, which is the major reason the economy (i.e. the rich people) is not in recession,  are not due to your clairvoyance.  In fact, you seem to be annoyed that carbon-based fuels even exist.  Treat alternative methods as what they are, alternatives.  And eliminate as many obstacles to nuclear as are based on the fear of a bomb.
     This leads to the final area where you are pushing an agenda that you don't understand.  The science of the climate is complicated and shaky, and is not well understood.  The claim that most scientists agree on the subject is just not true.  Just saying it more and more often doesn't make it true.  In my opinion as a high energy particle physicist who was one of a group of 10 or so to receive a Nobel Prize for the discovery of the quark and has followed the arguments in detail, the affect of the added CO2 to the atmosphere  is between vanishingly small and negative, i.e. might make it colder.  Objective studies aren't sure whether the feedback from CO2 is positive (makes it hotter) or negative (resists making it hotter).
I hope you will be allowed to read this, but am not hopeful.   However, the voters are saying that something needs to change. I hope you can figure out what it is and fix it.
Good luck.
Charles Jordan

Columbia University (1968)

Thursday, October 16, 2014

KQED and its Climate Change

Dear KQED, (on the eve of your panel on climate change)
I know you must feel pressed to hype the dangers of Catastrophic Anthropogenic Climate Change, the words are so “impressive”, but you have a reputation which I generally admire to investigate the latest trends in science and philosophy.  I do as well and I have an education and experience behind me which is at least equal to anyone in your organization. I was stimulated by an email at a university where I was teaching which suggested that they would give me the video “An Inconvenient Truth” made by Al Gore to show to my students if I wanted it.
Being a elementary particle physicist with some standards of scientific behavior (my group at SLAC won a Nobel Prize for discovering the quark), I realized a con job by a non-scientist politician when I saw one.  I replied that I wasn’t interested in the video, but if they had one of Richard Feynman’s  “Lectures on Physics”, I would be glad to have it. I was immediately challenged to debate what was in those days called global warming with another physics professor. I didn’t know much about it, but the attitude of these aggressive nonscientists annoyed me and just from listening to their rants I realized that they were wrong without knowing any particulars.

I then started researching the subject and have  continued ever since in amazement that an entire body of scientists could be so unscientific and political. They take the fact that carbon dioxide absorbs light energy from the sun and reemits it  as heat radiation  (infrared wavelengths) and they run with it. But because the problem is very difficult and they are not very smart, they miscalculate the effects on the global climate.  Three comments are appropriate. One–the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is very small and the amount of humanly generated carbon dioxide is much smaller than that. Two–in order for CO2 to make a difference, there has to be a mechanism called  positive feedback to amplify its effect. This feedback depends on the effect of clouds and analysis using data from clouds usually gives a negative feedback as do many effects in physics. Three–climate models based on a subset of the physics of our planet  do not reproduce past climate variations and do not agree with each other. Some reports of the IPCC have had to include as many as 30 different models because they disagreed so markedly.

The undeniably complex generation of clouds by our atmosphere is beyond the capability of models to reproduce, but inferring the  increase in global temperature due to a doubling of the CO2 in the atmosphere from data is continually being reduced (most around 1.3 degrees C) and may finally reach zero and go negative. The reason I think that it’s positive now is due to an assumption that the entire record of temperature change is dominated by carbon dioxide when that is in fact not the case. A very provocative possibility is that cosmic rays generate clouds and variations in cosmic rays generate varying amounts of clouds, more clouds meaning lower temperatures as we all know. Cosmic rays were low from the 50s to the 80s and so there were fewer clouds and higher temperatures.

Now the cosmic rays are up again and there has been no temperature change in the last 20 years. As long as there are few sunspots there will be more cosmic rays.  Other natural effects like changes in ocean currents, changes in green cover, and, as yet undefined, energy storage variations in the  planet Earth perhaps related to its hot core clearly affect the badly  defined global temperature. The analysis and predictions of the climate science community is clearly dominated by computer jocks with little experimental expertise. 

Finally my 15 second sound bite is  that  “the role of carbon dioxide in the development of the climate is small and probably suppresses changes in temperature rather than increasing them.  The role of human generated CO2 is even smaller.”

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Thunder and Corn, Earthquakes and Wine

Thunder and Corn, Earthquakes and Wine
Charles Jordan

Powerful lightning discharges electrify the neighborhood.  Rolling thunder's delay signals how close.Two megavolts discharges through ionizing vertical winds and menacing clouds up to 50,000 feet high.  The vertical winds sometimes wrap around themselves and form a tornadic vortex of dangerous energy, a possibility which forced the city’s fathers to install a warning siren, tested every Tuesday at 10 AM.  Despite this threatening power, this is just an ordinary Midwestern thunderstorm, one of half a dozen or so that may roll through Champaign, IL in a typical summer week. The pulsating illumination and loud crashes of close strikes that sound like huge tree limbs cracking, or perhaps exploding, are altogether quite intimidating as forces of impious nature, bringing to mind feelings of insecurity engendered by earthquakes in California where I live for most of the year, and they are much more common.

A thunderstorm’s towering clouds are a natural Van de Graaf accelerator with a 200-mph vertical wind as the charging belt—the wind ripping electrons off air molecules close to the ground and driving them to the top of the column of water vapor. As the charge reaching the top increases, the voltage compared to the ground  and the energy gets bigger and bigger.    Finally the air in between can't hold it back any longer, and the energy discharges with a current of around 50,000 amperes.  These events are driven by dramatic temperature differentials between heated moist air from the Gulf of Mexico (100+°F) rotating clockwise around a high pressure/high temperature center in the South—Arkansas, Tennessee, Louisiana, Alabama, etc.), and cooler air from Canada and the Rockies rotating around a low pressure center in the High Plains. This interface generates a line of thunderstorms that flows inexorably from Oklahoma  through St. Louis toward Chicago and Lake Michigan right over the general area of Champaign. The line of thunderstorms drifts slowly eastward as well as the low pressure bowl in the high plains pushes the high pressure before it. The cooler low pressure air brings an additional feeling of relief in the summer after the violence of the storms.

Meteorological details determine whether individual thunderstorms travel exactly over Champaign Illinois, the site of our wing in our daughter’s house near the University of Illinois campus, where she and our son-in-law are professors of music. Since the thunderstorm trajectory is rather consistent through the summer, a number of severe thunderstorms pass over, dumping electrons and water at sound levels equal to the operatic music frequently resounding in the music room.

The river of thunderstorms is rather narrow and they generally move fast, appearing and disappearing at a moment's notice (30 to 55 mph)  They rarely drop significant rainfall on our house, but when the center of a thunderstorm passes directly overhead, blinding precipitation can overwhelm downspouts and drainpipes, gutters, storm drains, and city streets in minutes, despite three well-engineered, large-scale municipal stormwater retention complexes. A few times a year, situations are such that the river of storm continues to flow over Champaign, and the lightning discharges continue for up to 30 minutes.

An earthquake is also an exciting, frightening thing. During the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake (magnitude 6.9), a young man was sleeping when his house and the bed he was in slid a few hundred feet down the hill. Luckily, he was not harmed, though I doubt he will forget that event.  And many lives were lost on a double decker freeway in Oakland when the top roadway collapsed on the lower roadway. But earthquakes are over in a few minutes, and since 1989 there hadn’t been any earthquake as strong as the Loma Prieta earthquake. 

In 2014, a 6.1 magnitude earthquake occurred on August 25 in the Napa Valley wine country, not far from our West Coast home base on Highway 1 near Half Moon Bay. The national news networks widely and sympathetically reported from various wineries, where whole racks of expensive aged wine had crashed to the ground, and casks of un-bottled vintage wine, stacked to the rafters in storage sheds, some in Napa-Sonoma hill caves, tumbled to the floor as support racks failed with the shaking of the quake.

In the Midwest, repeated heavy storms can lead to localized or widespread flooding, many times with as much loss of life as that resulting from the earthquakes in California, and with great economic impact on Midwest agriculture and its most notable item, corn..  Perhaps the loss of corn isn’t as glamorous as the loss of wine and doesn’t lead to the same gnashing of teeth and feelings of personal tragedy among the general populace.  But consider that the corn market was $63.9B planted on 84 million acres in 2011, whereas the wine market was $34.6B planted on 878 thousand acres. The actual growing of grapes isn’t affected by an earthquake, only the wine, and by recent estimates, even the latest earthquake in Napa is not expected to have a large impact on the wine business. Yet the vintners in California had their psyches shattered as thoroughly as any corn farmer’s in a flood, because earthquakes don’t happen that often, and normally not in wine country. Locked storerooms leaking large volumes of magnificent vintage on the ground to be absorbed by the dust are not usual. Ashes to ashes, dust to dust…vintage irrigation! Oy vey!

Economics aside, in terms of excitement, the drama of watching megavolt/megaamp lightning discharges stokes the psyche as well or better than the response of the senses to a well-modulated, delicious, alcohol-rich glass of Pinot Noir or Cabernet Sauvignon or Zinfandel grape juice.

In the heat of the end of summer, as school starts, my grandchildren and other students at the non air-conditioned Central High School in Champaign, Illinois will be sent home at noon. Thoughts of the loss of wine due to an earthquake in California will probably not be on their minds, but they are likely to hope for a friendly thunderstorm to cool the air.  Many of their parents will root for that same rain to keep their gardens and the projected record corn crop on track.

The vintners of Napa will be scratching their heads trying to decide whether such an earthquake will happen again in their lifetime and what they can or should do about it. The rest of the nation might be reading their papers or iPhone news about something like ISIS in Syria with a glass of Chardonnay, and some snacks sweetened with corn syrup.

Friday, June 13, 2014

Are Warp Drives possible?-

Harold “Sunny” White and Miguel Alcubierre and Warp Drives
 A response
Charles Jordan

“Sunny” White, a frustrated propulsion designer unhappy with puny ion and plasma drives etc., seems to be trying to stimulate enthusiasm for the field of faster-than-light travel by making scale models of interplanetary or interstellar ships relying on an artifact of the ways of motion in a curved space by posting pictures of a concrete ship design to indicate that the idea is so good that the time is ripe to build a spaceship. It reminds me of some pictures of the block of a V-8 motor with tubes coming out of various ports sent by an ambitious inventor to my CPA brother to provide a concrete reason for him to invest in his company. This V-8 motor was going to initiate fusion reactions and use the heat to drive the car. The last I heard they were not successful.

Sunny is hanging his hat on an idea by Miguel Alcubierre, a theorist who asked the question, “What if there was a negative energy mass E= -mc^2?”  Well, it would be possible to generate a closed time like world line which allows you to get somewhere faster than light by going a little way in positive time direction and the rest of the way in the negative time direction allowing you to go between point A and point B in no time at all. 
But, the basis of all physics would be undermined, based as it is on the conservation of energy and that energy is the ability to do work.  This exotic negative energy matter is not antimatter, it is something that has never been seen, but just like the perpetual motion machine, I’ll believe it when I see it.

Problems with an Alcubierre warp drive.

First, it requires a negative energy density.  If E = mc^2, then negative energy means that there is  negative or “exotic” mass with the value m which has never been observed. The idea is similar to other more successful  reinterpretations of a mathematical physics equations like where the negative of a square root led to a prediction of antimatter. This negative mass is not antimatter.  In order to propel the ship of exotic materials (the object is called a time-warp bubble) on a one way trip, matter has to be distributed along the path at faster than light speeds (tachyons). In fact, I think this Alcubierre idea is the tachyon idea regurgitated.  A semi-intense search for tachyons by Leon Lederman, Jack Steinberger, and Sam Ting suggested and named by my quantum mechanics teacher at Columbia, Gerald Feinberg, hasn’t done anything but expose the weakness of such an idea. So to make a faster than light machine you need a faster than light machine and in the simplest case, -1064 kg of material. That is many orders of magnitude greater than the mass of the observable universe.

To  control the ship, the various parts need to talk to each other, which is impossible if you are traveling faster than the speed of light.

Extremely high temperatures caused by Hawking radiation on the surface of the ship would destroy anything inside the bubble anyway and the particles accumulated on the trip would vaporize the destination of the ship as it decelerates upon arrival.

The exotic matter (10 billion times the universe’s mass), must have a wall thickness of 10-32 m, almost as thin as the Planck length 1.6 x 10-35 m. It’s not easy to machine something that thin. (That’s a joke, it’s impossible.)

These warp bubbles could create closed time like curves which means they could be used for backwards time travel, making a mess of causality and undermining the very equations you are using. As Miguel Alcubierre says, “That doesn’t mean you can’t go faster than the speed of light, it’s just that  something bad will happens (to the math) when you do.”

To this incomplete list of problems, I add one last item,. The space-time metric this conjecture is based on,  is not a solution to Einstein's equation.

One last hope is an unusual effect suggested by Hendrick Casimir. Two parallel plates out in space provide a resonating geometry sort of like an organ pipe, not for sound but for the virtual electromagnetic fluctuations of the vacuum.  Even though there is nothing physical in between the plates there are virtual energy oscillations in there and around it in space due to the uncertainty principle. These oscillations cancel each other out on average.  Since some of the oscillations don't fit neatly inside the gap, some energy is missing inside.  This reduces the energy inside from zero to negative. That is what you need, negative energy density. To fit inside means that the gap emphasizes wavelengths (essentially all wavelengths are available in the vacuum) which are submultiples of the gap width.  Sunny has some tenuous ideas and hopes that an interferometer test which is based on a changing gap can show how to use this force.  
However, everyone besides Mr, White who can do these types of calculations are dubious.  A significant force requires a gap of less than 10 nm or the width of 100 atoms. The force in such a gap is one atmosphere.  That’s a good force, but the total energy is density times volume and the energy between 2 one meter squared plates is 10-4 J.  A car going 30 mph has about 200,000 J of energy.  A spaceship the size of a car going at 0.9 times the speed of light has an energy of 1.16 x 1010 J.  And I don’t know how you cycle this effect, perhaps with a motor which resets the gap after using its energy.  Somehow you always need real energy, not negative energy, to get work done.   It’s hard for a trained scientist to ignore conservation of energy when you are trying figure how to get something done. Normally space travel ideas wreck on the problem of how you transport enough fuel to travel long distances.

My opinion is that this subject is great for science fiction and is used in a good new book called “Terms of Enlistment” by Marko Kloos which I have just read and enjoyed.

However, for Mr. White to put out a concrete image of a warp drive spaceship and say this isn’t science fiction is misleading in the extreme. Notice he is not claiming it would go faster than light. Is that a warp drive? This reduces some of the above mentioned problems, but not nearly all. The idea is based on things which don’t exist and reminds me of the wormhole approach to traveling superluminally which require millions of solar masses for their realization. Its probability of happening is smaller than the chance of you living forever.

Reference books
“The Physics of Star Trek” by Lawrence M. Krauss

“Faster than Light: Superluminal Loopholes in Physics” by Nick Herbert, a good book to go with his “Quantum Reality”.  He is a brilliant local guy who eschews the academic grind to think and innovate..

Wednesday, February 26, 2014

The Aha! moment

Waiting for the next Aha!
 Charles Jordan

 Aha! or I get it! could be the moment when you commit to a new understanding, or the larger idea of a new direction in life, a different paradigm of seeing the world, or a redefinition of what’s important.

Sometimes the discovery leads you into a stable worldview which you hang on to for the rest of your life, a self-identity which you are happy to dig into and make as much out of it as you can manage. But there is another possibility, that you get hooked on Aha! moments and seek to have more and more of these exhilarating experiences as you go through life. Such a tendency leads to a somewhat fractured personality, or, in a more positive vein, a broadly attentive and flexible worldview more capable of handling rapid cultural changes which are typical of today’s lifestyle, be it technological, religious, musical, gastronomical, or physical.

In my case, growing up has involved many Aha!s due to the cultural and educational distance I had to travel to get where I am today. In the beginning you just absorb from your parents whose DNA you inherit and whose culture you emulate. Your world is their world, your worldview is theirs. As your education is taken over mainly by school teachers, choices must be made of what you study, since a teacher’s time is limited.

In high school I eliminated biology from my list as well as others like home economics, debate, and extemporaneous speech, but at this phase geographically and culturally everything was South Texas. However, some choices had been made and my worldview was narrowed a bit.

The University of Texas is located in Austin, 220 miles away and attending school there was a geographical Aha!  I remember thinking that, for the first time, my parents can’t come and get me easily any more as they drove away. Then there was the Aha! of choosing a major course of study which seriously limits your education. The arts and sports, even though they require a lot of time, are considered not to be academic but a rounding of your interaction with the world. Academic classes can be redesigned so that a broader range of subjects could be addressed to round out your “academic” understanding as well, and there are attempts to do just that around the world and at Texas when I was there. This type of curriculum was called a liberal arts education in Texas and something similar around the US.  All the English and other language areas, government and civics, philosophy and history are covered broadly, but science was hardly covered at all and math superficially. 
I tried to put together a liberal/science education on my own by taking many hours of courses, but still ended up undereducated in history, philosophy and the classics. I did take Russian and German to understand some of the groundbreaking new directions in physics.  Where is the education program which enables a recovery when the economy takes a right turn away from your chosen channel of learning?  Where is the realization that the discovery of the J/ψ meson may not have any memorable or effective consequence even though it earned my thesis advisor the Nobel Prize?  Due to this event, he is now the leader of two groups of young graduate students and bandwagon professors numbering around 1000 souls, mostly very intelligent and extremely motivated to understand what the world is about. 

Lately I have mentored a young man attending UC San Diego who is taking what might be called a liberal science curriculum covering a little of everything in addition to a broad arts agenda. Maybe others are starting to appreciate the blind alleys so many people go down and the worthlessness of so many PhDs, especially in physics.  It is not that they got a bad education, but there are no jobs from these people and they are not prepared to be flexible in their world view.

Generating a competency in one particular field after a personal Aha! moment has been seen as a prerequisite to getting a job and settling down into a career. As time has gone on, colleges haven’t focused hard enough to provide a education sufficient to actually function in many jobs with success so graduate school is necessary.  Even after graduate school  some lines of study are are limited to the specific expertise of one professor, and he could be the only one doing anything like that.

Most of the preceding comments about graduate school refer to a science career. A doctorate in English, for example, has similar problems, but with an even more inflexible result. The curriculum is narrowly English, limiting severely any science or mathematics and most broad-based areas like business, government, finance, and management making it difficult to establish anything like a career.

In my world after high school, the school of arts and sciences (remember when they used to be together?) required the definition of a major. For me it came down to what I didn’t want to do.  Biology was basically memorizing and chemistry stank! So I chose physics. I said my reason was simply because it  was the hardest course available, but essentially it was the only science left–engineering was never an option.

At the same time I was plowing through more detailed physics courses,  I was singing in the Men’s Glee Club and the Longhorn Singers, a mixed choir.  I was spending many hours lifting weights, throwing the shot put which I had done well in high school, and learning to throw the javelin without the direction of a coach. Throwing the javelin was a lot like throwing a baseball which I had done well, but with no coach to teach me best technique, I was beaten in the Southwest Conference Meet by Ed Red who threw for Rice after attending high school in Louisiana where they had javelin coaches. Texas had outlawed javelin in high school after a couple of people got skewered.

Taking 21+ hours of courses during the day, starting track workouts about 3 PM and walking a mile back to my boarding house afterwards, I was able to get to my studies bout 10pm after eating dinner and socializing about the day’s news and Texas politics. Studying lasted until about 2 AM listening to Jorge Morel playing guitar on Lady Bird Johnson’s radio station now called KLBJ. As a freshman I also signed up for the Air Forces Reserved Officer Training Corp (ROTC) which involved a special officer’s speech class at 7 AM. Getting to sleep at 2 a.m. was not conducive to a coherent speech at 7 AM, so ROTC slid off my schedule the second semester, another Aha! moment.

Complications compounded with track-and-field meets on Saturdays somewhere around Texas and the Men’s Glee Club singing special gigs and touring to Mexico, so physics, while important, was not an obsession at this point.   But it continued to be up front as I became a junior when an opportunity arose to earn some money grading freshman and sophomore exams.  Getting together with guys of such similar interests led to a social organization for beer drinking purposes which we named the Grand, Royal, and Exalted Association of Texas physics graders,or which continues to associate even today, at least in theory. My fellow graders have had successful careers in physics following specialties not far from mine in elementary particle physics, but with much less emphasis on sports or the arts.  However, some of them ended up at some administrative job in science, mainly at the federal level.

At the next level, graduate school, athletics and music took a hit due to the fact that they didn’t generate financial support, at least not much. The only track at Columbia, where I attended graduate school, was indoors and elevated over the basketball court in Lowe Library which sits behind the statue of Alma Mater in the middle of the Columbia campus. I ran around the track, but sports is difficult to support in New York City. The sports fields for the undergraduates are on 242nd St. while the university is at 116th St.

My wife and I did manage to stay involved in music, singing in the paid choir at Riverside Church on Morningside Drive where we sang major works every Sunday afternoon and where major organ composers and players from all over the world gave concerts.  Connections with this choir led to the opportunity to sing with the New York Philharmonic in the very first concerts in the park in 1965 which are still a big deal in New York.  We attended the Metropolitan Opera, the New York Philharmonic concerts at Lincoln Center, theater on Broadway and around Times Square, an amazing series of concerts at Carnegie Hall, and various eclectic performances in Greenwich Village. I studied opera acting with Gunda Mordan and took voice lessons from Richard Weagly, the conductor of the Riverside choir and partner of one of the most famous organists of the time, Virgil Fox.  Music was very attractive, but a career?  Could I make money singing?  Did I want to do just that?  Performance is exciting, but one dimensional, and you’re only as good as your last performance.

Physics activity was beginning to be more personal–not just studying, but performing real research. Even then somehow the research activity seemed to be like a performance to me, much like studying had been in college. Obviously part of the problem was the fact that my wife was a musician and did not relate well to science. She loved talking to interesting scientists, but she didn’t talk about science.  And whenever we had time off, we tended to go to something musical.

As my graduate school experience moved into the thesis stage presumably requiring new  experiments instigated by me–original research, it turned out they they were accomplished at a German accelerator. My advisor, Sam Ting, advised me to get my degree is a soon as possible so that I could take charge of my own future, as he did. I did get out pretty quickly, taking only three years for  graduate school, but there were no thoughts of personal control running around in my head. I would just as well have developed a reliable high C as become leader  of a research group. The physics was still enjoyable, but it was more like an experience rather than a career. Due to the developments at that time in science in the US, accelerators, detectors, and software, researchers all around me were doing Nobel prize work, but I was happy to take responsibility without taking credit. Maybe taking credit and getting awards  not a reasonable expectation, I don’t know, but I felt like physics research was about learning for my own pleasure, not achieving control.

I still teach a little physics now and then and look for more Aha! moments, for instance by finding weaknesses in politically correct, but scientifically bogus media driven brainwashing, in things like climate change, holes in the ozone layer, radiation and  cancer, and cold-fusion. Music still inspires. Directing a men’s chorus, writing poetry, arranging songs, dabbling with drawing, composing original music, acting ,directing, and writing plays have been satisfying. And I have been teased lately by the thought that the next Aha! may be imminent requiring a real commitment by me to a government of the people, by the people, and for the people. Maybe I can finally throw all caution to the wind and try to make a difference.

Saturday, February 15, 2014

Laser Fusion Breaktrhough at LLNL?

Fusion Breakthrough at LLNL?
Charles Jordan

After hearing a talk by the head of Livermore Edward Moses last year, I retain my long term negative feeling about the National Ignition Facility approach to energy generation through fusion, but am encouraged that the problem is just a very difficult one, rather that an impossible one.  The achievement of scientific break-even is a breakthrough in small letters. Other methods tend to have closer contact between scientific and engineering break-even.  In laser fusion, the difference is huge.   Most methods have been fusing tritium and deuterium into helium and neutrons  for a long time.  

One of the latest approaches was to reduce the time of the implosion.  The wavelength of the high power CO2 lasers at LLNL is 1.06 micrometers.  That gives time for the target to react to the pressure from the light and resist it, boiling off electrons, developing hydrodynamic instabilities, etc. So they tripled the laser frequency (divide the wavelength by 3) to make the impact shorter in time.  Now they have managed to compress the gas inside the micro-balloon of glass containing the deuterium and tritium without breaking it and have been fortunate that the alpha particles which are produced (deuterium + tritium gives alpha + neutron) feed back their kinetic energy into the reaction to a certain extent.  More of that is needed.

Not bad, but the gorilla in the room is this.  The laser system which does this can be fired once or twice a day.  In order to achieve engineering break even, it needs to fire once or twice a second.  And there is no method that I know to cool down the 192 glass-amplified beams in a building bigger that a football field at a rate that keep the temperature constant at a value which doesn't crack the laser glass. Note:  A small defect in the glass or a variation in the intensity across the face of the beam can generate a nonlinear amplification in the glass which will destroy the laser after one shot.

At Ed Moses’ talk, I was waiting to throw as much cold water on his project as I could.  Some years ago, I had been in the control room of the laser in preparation for an experimental test, but I had to step outside just as the shot happened because the real source of revenue and the reason the lab still exists is that the Defense Dept. which wants to maximize yields on hydrogen bombs without dropping one.  This is the only way they can test various ideas with the moratorium on atomic testing.  The National Security guys let me back in as soon as the shot was over.

But in his talk, Mr. Moses surprised me.  He pulled out a model of a laser which can generate 15  kilowatts of energy continuously.  I got to hold it and look at the details (just a model).  It is about 2.5 inches long by 1/2 in square.  My mouth fell open and I asked him some questions about whether this thing actually worked and, though he was positive about it,  he wasn't bullish about something which would change the whole ball game.  You would have to use many of them, but they are small.  The whole apparatus becomes drastically smaller, there is no glass to cool, the micro-balloons can be dropped into the laser focus easily one or two per second.  Of course there is a massive engineering problem of getting the energy of the neutron, which carries away most of the energy of the fusion, transformed into heat and removed from the implosion chamber.  Absorb the neutron's kinetic energy in a molten salt like sodium or potassium and put the liquid out to heat exchangers?  Are there material problems and residual radiation levels due to the large amount of energy generated  in a small space making frequency of repair a major impediment to using this fusion method?
Then I asked another friend of mine at the talk, Richard Muller, a Berkeley physics professor who has been in the news lately testifying in Congress about climate change, whether the laser was a real option and he said the laser had a lot of problems.  He should know since LBL and LLNL physics people get together a lot.
If such a laser were developed, that would be a breakthrough in capital letters.
200 such lasers could provide 3 MJoules per second of input while the shot just reported was 1.8 MJ per 4 hours. 
Breakeven would be the production of 8x10^17 14-MeV neutrons.  That's a gain of 1 which is of no use. Obtaining gain of 10 is non-trivial and requires many more of those tricks I mentioned before, but if it were possible, the glass laser output would average 1.25 kilowatts.  With the continuous lasers ( say two hundred which would be about the same number of beams as the present glass laser), the rate could approach 30 MWatts.  But the machine is smaller and 33 modules together would yield a Gigawatt before converting that heat into electricity, which is what you need for a large power generation plant.  The smaller size of 30 MWatts is about the size of General Electric gas fired turbine generators and could be distributed around with the advantage of low fuel cost.  The complication of radiation, complexity, and the cost of the input electrical energy from the cooling towers are daunting.

Here's hoping, but in my opinion, cold fusion is just as likely to actually bring fusion energy into the picture.

Thursday, January 9, 2014

Tax Carbon as pollution? Barbara Boxer asks, coyly.

“Time for Congress to put a price on carbon pollution?”  Barbara Boxer and Bernie Saunders  San Francisco Chronicle 1/9/2014
- A rebuttal by Charles Jordan

First of all, these two politically correct politicos aren’t talking about carbon, they are talking about carbon dioxide, not about the heavy hydrocarbons you used to hear about regarding air pollution due to incomplete burning of fossil fuels.  The theory is KISS “keep it simple stupid” and identify a simple villain, the goal of all politicians except when they need to obfuscate.

But carbon dioxide is not a pollutant.  Is water vapor a pollutant?  It is a much more potent greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide.  But it has other uses as does carbon dioxide.  Both are central to life on earth, coming together particularly in plants.  My motto is “You can’t be green without carbon dioxide!”  To state the obvious, plants need carbon dioxide to grow.  Every fall, huge amounts of carbon dioxide go back into the atmosphere when leaves decay.  Do you notice it getting warmer in the fall? 

 Still the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, percentage-wise it’s 0.04%, is very small even when seemingly large amounts of carbon dioxide are generated by burning fossil fuels.  Right now 38.2 billion tons of carbon dioxide per year are generated by autos, power plants, trucks, etc. serving human activity which weren’t generated before the industrial revolution.  Sounds like a lot doesn’t it? (By the way,  only 10.4 Billion tons of that is carbon.  73% or 26 billion tons is oxygen which burning fossil fuels generates for the plants.)   Whenever we compare such a number to a reference like the .01 ton mass of the human body such numbers are impressive.  But comparing to a human reference is the classical mistake humans always make.  If we use our individual selves or even the total human endeavor as the reference, we risk overestimating our place in the universe. The total mass of the atmosphere is 5.3 Million Billion tons, so that new carbon dioxide is .0000072 of the present mass of the atmosphere per year.  And the mass of the atmosphere is one millionth of the mass of the planet.  We are indeed small fry compared to the earth. The sum of all the masses of all the humans (.01 tons each) is .018 of the carbon dioxide produced per year, .132/Billion of the atmosphere, and .132/million billion of the mass of the earth.  

Scientists have used what are called proxies (ratios of various isotopes)  to estimate the carbon dioxide levels millions of years ago to compare against the large temperature swings associated with major ice ages.  These estimates indicate that carbon dioxide has been at much higher levels earlier in the history of the earth, up to a factor of 20 times today’s level, even during major ice ages.

Even though the global temperature levels are up on the plateau associated with a non-ice age, this same plateau has been reached after the 4 major ice ages covering millions of years.  The actual measured global warming, an average over 100 years is an increase of less than 1/2 degree Celsius higher than that of the little ice age we are emerging from.  And, even though the carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is rising smoothly, the temperature swings are oscillating rapidly with no particular correlation to the rise in carbon dioxide.  In fact, the average of the temperature oscillations has not increased in the latest 15 years and the oscillations seem to be more correlated to the oscillations in the water currents (El Niño, La Niña) than with carbon dioxide.

Climate scientists will tell you that their models (i.e. guesses about future developments which are not based on pure physics calculations, due to the lack of relevant starting values,an incomplete set of physical processes, and the lack of a comprehensive understanding of areas in which they are not trained) are inaccurate due to the magnitude of the problem and the power of their computers.  Computer runs on the absolutely fastest computers in the world like Blue Waters (the petascale computer at the University of Illinois) take up to a month.  Then prediction of different models differ by as much as a factor of 5.  In addition due to computational approach, the models are completely incompetent at describing local events like tornados, thunderstorms, hurricanes, monsoons, etc.   Pontifications about newsworthy events like the amount of rain, number of tornados, big hurricanes, power of monsoons, are manufactured out of whole cloth, handwaving arguments on general principles after the answer has been assumed.

Should we study climate change?  Absolutely!  Should we support alternative energy sources at a reasonable level?  Yes!  Do we know what we don’t know about the effect of increased carbon dioxide in the atmosphere? No!  There are alternative guesses which project cooling rather than heating as we go forward and that is a lot more scary.  Should we tax the energy companies, the automobile manufacturers, and anyone who uses energy derived from burning carbon because carbon dioxide is a pollutant and give it to alternative technologies whose energy capacity will always be also-ran?  No!