The Artistic Science

Breaking the Bars of Science and Art

Archive for the month “February, 2013”

The Nuclear Revolution – Why the World Must Change

power station edit

Since time immemorial doomsayers have been predicting the end of the world. From Mayan calendars to nuclear war, global destruction has never been far from the thoughts of many. So of course it is only natural that we exercise scepticism when talk of climate change ripples across the planet. We like to regard our home as a safe, dependable place – the sun rises and sets each day, the tide comes in and out – but it is not necessarily so predictable. Our climate goes through cycles of global cooling and warming, ice ages come and go whilst glaciers slip across our continents and slowly melt into nothing. At the moment we are reaching a natural peak in global temperature, the unfortunate thing is that this also coincides with a time where we are producing far more greenhouse gases then ever before.

The scientific community is generally agreed that if these emissions continue it will raise the Earth’s temperature beyond its natural maximum and so shift the cycle dramatically. Some suggest that a runaway process has already begun and that reducing emissions can no longer prevent the widespread drought and global flooding caused by rising temperatures and melting icecaps. A possible solution to this is to remove greenhouse gases from our atmosphere using  ‘carbon capture’, where carbon is effectively sponged out of the air using various methods, from replanting forests to more industrial processes. Whatever the case it is clear that our current reliance on fossil fuel is not sustainable, especially given its increasing scarcity.

Virtually all energy on our planet comes either from our sun or from geothermal processes below the Earth’s crust. Even fossil fuels, being the remains of biological organisms, originally gained their energy from these sources. Obviously the most efficient method of harnessing this energy, at least theoretically, is to harness it directly rather than collecting the scraps we can obtain from various plants and animals that have already harnessed it before us. In an ideal world we would collect solar and geological energy, or at least extract it from wind and tides driven by thermal energy. Unfortunately we are yet to do so on any reasonable scale and time is rapidly running out – our resources are dwindling whilst our power demands increase dramatically and our climate is changing faster than we can adapt. Our technology is not advanced enough to practically achieve total reliance on renewable energy and even if it were, we don’t have sufficient time to establish the necessary infrastructures.

We need a powerful, reliable energy source to carry us through the next few decades until we can improve our technology and begin to build a renewable energy network. Nuclear power offers just such a solution. Current nuclear generators utilise ‘fission’, the splitting of heavy elements into lighter atoms and collecting some of the energy that was previously being used to bind the atomic nucleus together. Furthermore the technology is now available to carry out power generation via fusion (combining very light elements into heavier ones) which yields far more energy in comparison to fission and requires relatively few rare materials. The most promising form of this utilises deuterium, which can be refined from seawater, and tritium which can be bred inside nuclear reactors. Though the technology and materials are now in place, fuel cells for these reactors are very difficult to make and no method has yet been devised to mass-produce them (mainly due to the fact that they have not yet been widely used). Hence they have very high manufacturing costs which would result in providers being forced to charge higher rates, this is the primary reason as to why fusion generators have not yet been brought into general use.

A method of mass-producing fuel cells will solve this problem and make fusion a viable option and until then fission reactors are sufficient for our purposes. However nuclear reactors are not renewable and even reactors which use such abundant materials as deuterium still produce nuclear waste – a by-product that remains hazardous to environments, wildlife and people for thousands, in some cases hundreds of thousands of years. This can be safely contained, provided sufficient care is taken, but it eliminates nuclear power as an indefinite solution as there is only finite space in which to dispose of it.

So we stand at a turning point in history, if we continue to use current energy generation methods we will soon find our world a dramatically different place as major cities are submerged and nations are parched with drought. However if we blindly switch to nuclear energy without investing in renewables we will eventually be faced with a waste crisis which could lead to severe political, environmental and public health problems. It is imperative that we phase out traditional power generation and switch to nuclear as a temporary measure with a view to becoming renewable-dependent by the end of the 21st century. In the UK this is most likely to be a combination of wind and tidal energy – although tidal power has received little attention or development as most developed countries are not as coastline-dominated as Britain. In sunnier climates solar panels will be the most effective means of power generation, especially as technology improves. Whilst governments and politicians debate the next move time is ticking on, our climate is being destroyed and our resources are running out. There is hope, in fact the future looks quite bright, but hard decisions need to be made and, one way or another, our world will change very soon.

Think Before You Speak – Language is Beautiful

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The phrase ‘actions speak louder than words’ has always troubled me somewhat. Of course our actions should be in line with what we say, anything else is simply hypocrisy, but to reverse the order and regard action as of primary importance is to replace truth with efficacy. Language is intrinsic to society. Universally, every culture develops language of some description and many believe our ability to communicate in complex, seemingly unnecessary ways, is what makes humans so distinct from every other form of life on our planet.

At its heart language exists to convey information; to warn, to instruct and to request aid. However we use our words to do much more than this, instead we weave them into beautiful structures through poetry and song, we fence with them in debate and we build up relationships through conversation. It seems that language is far more versatile than necessary. Take German for example, its extremely flexible sentence structure allowing the speaker to rearrange articles in order to place emphasis where required. Word-order within a statement can be altered fairly freely without changing the information conveyed within and yet swapping two words can cause a tremendous shift in tone. In this way a discouragement quickly becomes an inspirational quote and a despairing comment can be turned into a happy declaration. This creates fantastic opportunities for creativity, where we can express our inmost thoughts and feelings, convey abstract ideas and encourage great progress.

Unfortunately, as with all things, this can also be abused. Language can be used to undermine and to control. Language can even be used to alter peoples thoughts, beliefs and desires – as we see every day through advertisements and propaganda. The rough separation of strong, ‘men’s’ and deferential, ‘women’s’ words in Japanese demonstrates this well. Some believe that this innate sexism promotes a constant subliminal message that women are inferior to men – although it is worth pointing out that this is an integral part of the Japanese language and is not intentionally created, nor would it be possible to remove it over any reasonable time period.

Understanding the importance of words is paramount to progress. Of course disciplines such as literature and sociology are more than familiar with this fact, but many parts of the scientific community are seemingly oblivious to it. Some scientists even go so far as to present their work in an opaque fashion in order to appear more intellectual. This thoughtlessness to others drives the wedge between various cultures even deeper. Instead we should aim to explain our work in an accessible manner, spending careful thought on the terminology we use and the structure of our communication. Anybody who has tried to understand large chunks of foreign texts using online translation sites knows the frustration of the underestimation of words. Take, for example, the concept of beauty in English – we have many words that convey beauty: ‘pretty’, ‘appealing’, ‘gorgeous’ etc. and yet each different word carries with it numerous connotations. You would rarely call a masterpiece ‘gorgeous’ and yet telling your partner they’re simply ‘appealing’ may land you in hot water for lack of sentiment. On my last visit to Romania a friend of mine tried to thank a shopkeeper for some ice-cream but was unfortunately ignorant of the fact that the expression he was using so fervently was literally telling her that she was beautiful. Though at first flattered, she soon became slightly disturbed by his enthusiasm and so we made a quick exit before her partner returned. It is clear that our communication is not only about the message we deliver but is just as dependent on the words we use, the connotations they carry and the tone in which it is said. 

Furthermore our language is not only limited to words in the conventional sense, but to other notations also. Mathematical equations can encapsulate wonderful truths that teach us otherwise inexpressible things about our universe, chemical formulae succinctly describe structures of the building blocks of life and logical operators summarise complex arguments in a few lines. In many ways these are simply other languages alongside the more familiar English, French, Mandarin etc., although of course their purpose is much more defined and thus they are less flexible. If we are to have any hope of progress we must throw off the urge to dismiss language as replaceable. Translation is reliable to an extent, but deeper meaning is inevitably lost without further study and so we must seek to understand people on their own terms.

So do actions speak louder than words? Perhaps they do. Perhaps they are more noticeable, but are they more sensible? Action grabs attention and is memorable, but it conveys little information. A man who grabs somebody on the street could easily be a criminal or an undercover policeman depending on the circumstances – the action alone leaves us in the dark. This is my conviction and my plea to society as a whole, let us again realise the importance of communication. Twitter, Facebook, even blogs have become a source for people to satisfy their own urge to be heard rather than a constructive means of communication. In the meaningless chatter of talk-shows, advertisements and social media that drowns our culture, we have drifted away from the importance of communication and as such have devalued our language. Words are powerful things and so we should pay careful attention, seeking to understand others and to communicate constructively.

The Life Vault – Cracking the Safe

Mt. ErebusLast week saw an interesting turn of events as over 24 hours scientists finally reached the ancient lake Whillans buried under 800 metres of ice in Antarctica whilst NASA released the latest photograph of one of Saturn’s moons, Titan. What do these two radically different places have in common? They each hold secrets which could unravel a whole new understanding of life as we know it.

Though now a frozen desert with harsh winds and temperatures dropping to nearly -90°C, Antarctica was not always such a hostile environment. Fossils of several animals and plants which thrived in mild conditions have been discovered on the continent suggesting that this largely barren land once flourished with life. Over the past few decades, airborne and satellite surveys have revealed a whole new world beneath the ice with the discovery of nearly 150 sub-glacial lakes – and counting. These lakes are warmed by geothermal energy from below and kept insulated by thick ice sheets flowing across the surface whilst the huge pressure caused by the tonnes of ice above keeps the water from freezing even at -3°C. It is here in these extreme environments, some cut off from the world for millennia, that we could find life in forms never seen before.

Though the depths of Antarctica may seem a long way from space, NASA has taken a special interest in Antarctic drilling projects  in order to hunt for ‘extremophiles’ – life forms that thrive in seemingly impossible circumstances. Previously it was thought that life could only be found in the ‘goldilocks zone’ – where temperature, pressure, pH level and many other variables met very specific criteria. However in recent years micro-organisms have been discovered in the most unlikely environments, from the depths of our oceans to the radioactive coolant in nuclear reactors, forcing scientists to rethink how we view life on our planet and indeed in our universe.

Icy plumes erupt from the surface of Enceladus.[Courtesy NASA]

Icy plumes erupt from the surface of Enceladus.
Courtesy NASA

Now a whole new wave of research and scientific thought is about to break as moons like Saturn’s Enceladus and Titan or even the ice caps of Mars appear more and more hospitable to these wonderful creatures. Enceladus is in many ways similar to Antarctica  – its barren, frozen surface hiding an extreme aquatic environment below. However there are differences, for example the atmosphere of Enceladus is virtually non-existent and, fortunately, the possibly life-sustaining waters aren’t locked away quite as tightly as we might at first think. Huge pressures below the surface sometimes cause the ice above to crack and water to rush upwards from below resulting in giant ‘ice volcanoes’ jetting out into space. Any creatures which do inhabit Enceladus would almost certainly live below the surface and these jets allow us to analyse the composition of the oceans below and provide a window into an otherwise unreachable habitat.

Titan is a thorough contrast to its neighbour in almost every way. Here the atmosphere is so thick and the gravity so light that, theoretically, a human could easily fly about using only a set of artificial wings. Carbon and other organic materials are fairly abundant on the moon’s surface and rivers and lakes of liquid ethane and methane are common – some scientists theorise that where life on earth is chiefly orientated around the presence of liquid water, here we might see a very similar ecosystem based on methane.

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Latest image of Saturn’s mysterious moon, Titan.
Courtesy NASA/JPL-Caltech

So why are we wasting time drilling holes in our own ice caps? Surely we should be out there seeking out these extremophiles in our solar system? Well last month NASA’s rover, Curiosity, finally began to do just that as it carried out a test drill on the surface of Mars. However we can never hope to understand what we see out there if we don’t investigate our own planet. NASA’s realisation of this is an extremely encouraging example of how those from different areas of research can come together to learn from one another and to further the advance of their individual studies. Thanks to this collaboration we can see the potential of our solar system much more clearly whilst also learning about our own planet. Nevertheless there are still daunting new frontiers to cross; we know little of Titan’s rocky surface as its atmosphere prevents much study from the earth, Enceladus has oceans still to be explored and Antarctica’s largest and perhaps most promising lake, lake Vostok, is yet to be sampled.

The increased cooperation between these seemingly divergent subjects is yielding exciting results so far and promises of many more to come.The scientific community and indeed humanity as a whole should be waiting with bated breath as over the next few decades we really start to address the mystery of life in our universe.

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