Burnt Out - Energy Week


By Timothy Dillon

Photo courtesy of Magnus Manske.

Technological innovation will save us all. This is optimism based on history. So far, every technological advancement we have made as a society has proven to progress our lives and propel us forward in ways we had not imagined. Of course there are the always the unwanted side effects, like weapons and war and for every couple of steps forward there is a step back.

However, the United States no longer seems to be taking steps forward, only back. This claim is based on the fact that the US has failed to properly innovate any major technology in recent history that would diffuse the biggest time bomb of our time: the energy crisis.

Even though nine of the last 11 Nobel Prize winners in science and economics were American that does not mean we are bringing any new science to the table. Furthermore, we are no longer building the machines and technology that is prerequisite for making these discoveries and advances. One Nobel Prize recipient from this past year that we should pay extra close attention to, is Scottish physicist Peter W. Higgs.

Higgs accepted his Nobel Prize simply because he was able to correctly predict the existence of an elusive subatomic particle thought to give matter the property of mass. However, this particle was seen in Switzerland at the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) at CERN. But did it have to be?

Superconducting Super Collider

Being the geek that I am, I stumble across stories all the time on the internet regarding failed US innovation. I don’t even need to stick with current events like Solyndra or the false hope known as fracking. I can go back two decades and point to exactly when the US decided to turn its back on pioneering science.

The Superconducting Super Collider (SCSC) was supposed to be built around Waxahachie, Texas, a small town about 20 miles south of Dallas. The Department of Energy spent $2 billion in addition to the $400 million spent by the state of Texas itself to dig over 12 miles of massive caves. The project had the potential to give the state and small town 13,000 jobs, and at the time it was cancelled, it was already employing 2,000 people.

This project has less to do with energy innovation and more to do with scientific exploration. Recently, John Gunion PhD, a professor of Theoretical high energy physics told Scientific American that the SCSC “would have had five times the energy of even today’s LHC collisions. That design had only one tenth the beam luminosity of the LHC, but because of its higher energy, it would have produced about half the Higgs events seen at CERN.” Gunion suggests that had this project not stalled two decades ago, an American lab would have found the Higgs. What’s more, it would have the energy capacity to explore the dark side of the Higgs: supersymmetric and even dark matter.

The very fabric of the universe was within our grasp twenty years before it was fashionable. Now we have to settle for some very elaborate holes in the ground.

Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Now, while it is inconvenient that we had to wait years before we could touch the Higgs threshold, the real tragedy in this project was the local economy and potential jobs that were lost due to government funds being slashed from energy investment. What could have been a real jolt to the economy turned into a waste of tax payer money with zero return.

Apathy For (New) Science

As doubtful as it may seem, I don’t think America is beyond trying to live carbon consciously. I’ve lived in enough parts of the country, signed enough petitions, and have always opted for the “green” option on my electric bill to believe that people want to be able to consume their power and they would also like it to hurt our world less.

Browsing TED Talks on YouTube will yield you a rocket scientist in 2012 talking about algae pods that will sweat biofuel and remove carbon from the air. Fall back to 2009, Steven Cowley of the Culham Fusion Science Center, discusses why and how fusion will be the green energy alternative to power the world. Which is hilarious considering only three years later Taylor Wilson built a fusion reactor in his garage.

But as readers of BTR will know, Wilson wasn’t satisfied with an earlier nuclear technology, fission, and returned to TED with plans to launch a new company to mass produce safe, sub weapons grade, fusion reactors all over the world. For those of you who haven’t kept up with Wilson’s going’s on via BTR or otherwise, he is only 19 years old.

It would be silly to look at people who are trying to innovate with kites and say there is a lack of enthusiasm for new types of energy among people of this country. The problem unfortunately does not fall on the enthusiasts and scientists. To push forward with expensive scientific endeavors, it comes down to an issue of funding. The problem with investment in energy is really just the problem this nation has with investment in science.

Signs of this have been on the rise, as youth today in this country, while very efficient with technology and interface, lack the mathematics and science background to understand the actual components. The US while scoring close to the international average, was out done this year, primarily by China, Japan, Germany and Switzerland. Say what you will about their governments, these are nations that are technocratically minded, and we can see it in how their students test and their recent accomplishments.

China just went back to the moon. They are apparently exploring it for the purposes of precious minerals and natural resources.

If you look to Elon Musk as our Tony Stark, one who will redeem us with his impractical railway, SpaceX, and Amazon drones. I would take comfort in his innovation if I thought he was going to make something that could actually get a more science minded generation going. In truth, I wouldn’t be surprised if, in a decades time, SpaceX is launching Chinese Moon miners and missions to the international space station.

This isn’t to say that an international venture to capitalize on the moons possible resources is bad. I just don’t see America’s role in it. In a very sad, almost Sorkin sense, we have lost our nerve to explore the frontiers of our own knowledge.

Where The Hell Is My Flying Skateboard

Photo courtesy of Nicholas Rumas.

At BTR, some of us enjoy measuring innovation by how it has been able to match Hollywood’s projections of technology in the future. Fictional “bars” for how well we are doing scientifically.

So when we hear about how scientists recently discovered light matter that behaves much like a lightsaber, we feel pretty good about our progress. Even the progress on drones is something out of The Matrix, like drones that can hack each other and swarm targets.

However, there is one benchmark that is fast approaching that we have yet to meet. In Robert Zemeckis’ Back to the Future Part II, Marty McFly travels to 2015 where we get to see 10-year-old boys’ most coveted invention: the flying skateboard.

This deadline is fast approaching and unfortunately it doesn’t look likely I’ll be smoothly gliding anywhere, anytime soon.

The country has run out of gas in terms of investing in science. Instead of pushing for more money in jobs that involve math and science, we are still trying to bolster an auto economy that can’t sustain itself in a future with eventual diminishing oil supplies. In essence we are spending money that by the future’s standards will be obsolete. It is no wonder that China has started to catch up in terms of innovation.

It is only by taking up projects like the SCSC that we really progress scientifically, and yet we have instead stopped sending men into space, subjected the supercomputing sector to a crippling government shutdown, and have refused to move beyond science issues that don’t involve reproduction. This infuriating mess is brought to you by a country’s government that lacks the energy to educate people on the correct scientific direction for this country and we are feeling the impact.

For huge advances in science, and not to mention a boom in jobs, the grass really is greener on the other side. (They mow it with their lightsabers on their flying skateboards.)