Category Archives: Nature

Hello From the Year 2050. We Avoided the Worst of Climate Change — But Everything Is Different

By Bill McKibben – Let’s imagine for a moment that we’ve reached the middle of the century. It’s 2050, and we have a moment to reflect—the climate fight remains the consuming battle of our age, but its most intense phase may be in our rearview mirror. And so we can look back to see how we might have managed to dramatically change our society and economy. We had no other choice.

There was a point after 2020 when we began to collectively realize a few basic things.

One, we weren’t getting out of this unscathed. Climate change, even in its early stages, had begun to hurt: watching a California city literally called Paradise turn into hell inside of two hours made it clear that all Americans were at risk. When you breathe wildfire smoke half the summer in your Silicon Valley fortress, or struggle to find insurance for your Florida beach house, doubt creeps in even for those who imagined they were immune.

Two, there were actually some solutions. By 2020, renewable energy was the cheapest way to generate electricity around the planet—in fact, the cheapest way there ever had been. The engineers had done their job, taking sun and wind from quirky backyard DIY projects to cutting-edge technology. Batteries had plummeted down the same cost curve as renewable energy, so the fact that the sun went down at night no longer mattered quite so much—you could store its rays to use later.

And the third realization? People began to understand that the biggest reason we weren’t making full, fast use of these new technologies was the political power of the fossil-fuel industry. Investigative journalists had exposed its three-decade campaign of denial and disinformation, and attorneys general and plaintiffs’ lawyers were beginning to pick them apart. And just in time. more>

Updates from Chicago Booth

Humanity is carried on the voice
By Nicholas Epley – Hard-thinking people have spent millennia trying to articulate what distinguishes us from all other creatures. Is it having opposable thumbs? Walking upright? Using tools? Thinking analytically? This question finally got a fairly clear answer several years ago thanks to researchers at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology, in Germany, who brought in 105 human two-year-olds in order to compare their intellectual performance on essentially two different measures of IQ with that of 106 chimpanzees and, just for good measure, another 36 orangutans.

In tests that required reasoning about physical objects—things such as being able to track where a reward is placed under a cup, or being able to use a tool to solve a problem—the toddlers were basically neck and neck with the other primates in their performance. But in tasks where some social intelligence was involved, where subjects had to be able to track what was going on in someone else’s mind and respond accordingly—such as following the path of someone’s gaze, or understanding what someone was intending (but failed) to do—the human toddlers crushed the competition.

It makes sense that we’re good at this sort of social thinking: we are literally built for it. Our human brain stands out in the animal kingdom for its relatively gigantic neocortex—the fat part just above your eyes. What’s all that neural capacity good for? Lots and lots of things, but what it really seems to be designated for is social stuff.

If you look across primate species, what you see is that the size of the neocortex relative to the rest of the brain is positively correlated with the size of the social group that primate species inhabits. The larger the social group, the larger the neocortex relative to the rest of the brain. Human beings are the most social of all primates, and we also have the largest neocortex relative to the rest of the brain.

Living in large social groups requires having a tremendous amount of neural capacity to keep track of who knows what, who believes what, who likes what, who should be trusted and who should be avoided, and so on. Living in large social groups is also easier if you have some capacity to anticipate others’ actions before they make them, meaning that the ability to interpret somebody’s behavior in terms of an underlying mental state or goal is also invaluable. It’s our social intellect, not our thumbs, or our posture, or anything else, that makes human beings so special. more>


Universe in a bubble

Maybe we don’t have to speculate about what life is like inside a bubble. It might be the only cosmic reality we know.
By J Richard Gott – The explanation for the accelerating cosmic expansion, surprising as it was at first, was readily available from the theoretical toolbox of physicists. It traced back to an idea from Albert Einstein, called the cosmological constant. Einstein invented it in 1917, as part of a failed attempt to produce a static Universe based on his general theory of relativity. At that time, the data seemed to support such a model.

In 1922, the Russian mathematician Alexander Friedmann showed that relativity in its simplest form, without the cosmological constant, seemed to imply an expanding or contracting Universe. When Hubble’s observations showed conclusively that the Universe was expanding, Einstein abandoned the cosmological constant, but the possibility that it existed never went away.

Then the Belgian physicist Georges Lemaître showed that the cosmological constant could be interpreted in a physical way as the vacuum of empty space possessing a finite energy density accompanied by a negative pressure. That idea might sound rather bizarre at first. We are accustomed, after all, to thinking that the vacuum of empty space should have a zero energy density, since it has no matter in it. But suppose empty space had a finite but small energy density – there’s no inherent reason why such a thing could not be possible.

Negative pressure has a repulsive gravitational effect, but at the same time the energy itself has an attractive gravitational effect, since energy is equivalent to mass. (This is the relationship described by E=mc2, another implication of special relativity.) Operating in three directions – left-right, front-back, and up-down – the negative pressure creates repulsive effects three times as potent as the attractive effects of the vacuum energy, making the overall effect repulsive. We call this vacuum energy dark energy, because it produces no light. Dark energy is the widely accepted explanation for why the expansion rate of the Universe is speeding up.

Distant galaxies will flee from us because of the stretching of space between us and them. After a sufficient number of doublings, the space between them and us will be stretching so fast that their light will no longer be able to cross this ever-widening gap to reach us. Distant galaxies will fade from view and we will find ourselves seemingly alone in the visible Universe. more>

Updates from Siemens

Transforming the Capital Asset Lifecycle – Part 1
By John Lusty – “Innovate or die”. Three years ago, in the global oil & gas industry, this was the dire message communicated from the boardroom to the operating plant as falling commodity prices were hollowing out corporate income statements. The same story echoed through the supply chain as engineering contractors and equipment manufacturers fought for survival – trying to win enough work to remain healthy within a shrinking capital project market while creating greater value from the existing capital asset lifecycle.

The cost-cutting that ensued was ugly, and the job losses were substantial. In parallel, the appetite for innovative ideas sky-rocketed as producers worked to wring out costs and remain profitable at any price. This triggered a new behavior within the traditionally siloed energy industry, for the first-time visionaries started to look to other manufacturing industries for capabilities that could be adapted to their own companies.

What they saw was a shock. Despite years of investing in software and technology, capital asset owners in the energy and process industries still had a long way to go to get full value from their technical information compared to other, more mature, industries. Unlike their business information which, to a greater degree, had been consolidated following two decades of ERP implementations, the technical information supporting their plant assets was still scattered across different locations and incompatible file formats.

To make matters worse, data from multiple projects and facilities used software from a variety of vendors along with their own standards and specifications. Plants that came in through acquisitions and mergers were even more unique. more>


The end of us

By Thomas Moynihan – As ideas go, human extinction is a comparatively new one. It emerged first during the 18th and 19th centuries. Though understudied, the idea has an important history because it teaches us lessons on what it means to be human in the first place, in the sense of what is demanded of us by such a calling.

For to be a rational actor is to be a responsible actor, which involves acknowledging the risks one faces, and this allows us to see today’s growing responsiveness to existential risks as being of a piece with an ongoing and as-yet-unfinished project that we first began to set for ourselves during the Enlightenment.

Recollecting the story of how we came to care about our own extinction helps to establish precisely why we must continue to care; and care now, as never before, insofar as the oncoming century is to be the riskiest thus far.

The story of the discovery of our species’ precariousness is also the story of humanity’s progressive undertaking of responsibility for itself. One is only responsible for oneself to the extent that one understands the risks one faces and is thereby motivated to mitigate against them.

It was the philosopher Immanuel Kant who defined ‘Enlightenment’ itself as humanity’s assumption of self-responsibility. The history of the idea of human extinction is therefore also a history of enlightening. It concerns the modern loss of the ancient conviction that we live in a cosmos inherently imbued with value, and the connected realization that our human values would not be natural realities independently of our continued championing and guardianship of them.

But if human extinction was first spoken about in the 18th century, where was the notion prior to this point? What about the perennial tradition of end-of-the-world scenarios coming from religion? For a start, prophecies concerning religious apocalypse provide us with a final revelation upon the ultimate meaning of time. Prognoses concerning human extinction, instead, provide us with a prediction of the irreversible termination of meaning within time. Where apocalypse secures a sense of an ending, extinction anticipates the ending of sense. They are different in kind – not degree – and therefore different in their origins.

So, why was human extinction and existential catastrophe not a topic of conversation and speculation prior to the Enlightenment? more>

Updates from Georgia Tech

Tiny Vibration-Powered Robots Are the Size of the World’s Smallest Ant
By John Toon – Researchers have created a new type of tiny 3D-printed robot that moves by harnessing vibration from piezoelectric actuators, ultrasound sources or even tiny speakers. Swarms of these “micro-bristle-bots” might work together to sense environmental changes, move materials – or perhaps one day repair injuries inside the human body.

The prototype robots respond to different vibration frequencies depending on their configurations, allowing researchers to control individual bots by adjusting the vibration. Approximately two millimeters long – about the size of the world’s smallest ant – the bots can cover four times their own length in a second despite the physical limitations of their small size.

“We are working to make the technology robust, and we have a lot of potential applications in mind,” said Azadeh Ansari, an assistant professor in the School of Electrical and Computer Engineering at the Georgia Institute of Technology. “We are working at the intersection of mechanics, electronics, biology and physics. It’s a very rich area and there’s a lot of room for multidisciplinary concepts.”

A paper describing the micro-bristle-bots has been accepted for publication in the Journal of Micromechanics and Microengineering. The research was supported by a seed grant from Georgia Tech’s Institute for Electronics and Nanotechnology. In addition to Ansari, the research team includes George W. Woodruff School of Mechanical Engineering Associate Professor Jun Ueda and graduate students DeaGyu Kim and Zhijian (Chris) Hao. more>


Updates from ITU

If we want to solve climate change, water governance is our blueprint
By Elizabeth Taylor – The phrase “fail to prepare or prepare to fail” comes to mind as we enter an era in which governments and communities must band together to mitigate climate change. Part of what makes our next steps so uncertain is knowing we must work together in ways that we have – so far – failed to do. We either stall, or offer up “too little, too late” strategies.

These strategies include cap-and-trade economic incentive programs, like the Kyoto Protocol and other international treaties. Insightful leaders have drawn attention to the issue, but lukewarm political will means that they are only able to defer greenhouse gas emissions-reduction targets in the future. A global crisis demands global commitment. How can we work together to face a universal threat? What of the complex challenges that demand unified monitoring and responses?

One principal impediment is the lack of coherent technical infrastructure.

Currently, our arsenal for facilitating collective action is understocked. Our policies are unable to invoke tide-turning change because they lack a cohesive infrastructure. In the absence of satisfactory tools to make them happen, our policies and pledges become feelgood initiatives rather than reaching full effectiveness.

What tools might lead us to act collectively against climate change? It’s easy to focus on the enormous scale of global cooperation needed, or the up-front investments it will take to mitigate the crisis. But as the writer E.L. Doctorow reminded us, we can’t be intimidated by the process: “Writing a novel is like driving a car at night,” he said. “You can see only as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.”

We don’t have to possess all the answers as we set out to save our communities. We don’t have to know exactly what we will meet along the way. At a minimum, we must only understand how to use our headlights to see the first few feet ahead of us.

So what is the first step on our path?

It is the substance that underpins our industry, health and survival. It remains a central source of conflict around the world, yet it also creates partnerships. Our first step is water.

Water challenges us with issues of scarcity, quality and distribution. It may seem to be a local issue, but combined with local tensions and a globalized economy, water governance is set to become one of our greatest tests of diplomatic finesse and technological synergy.

If we can properly align local and global water governance and management, we can prepare the tools, the organizational blueprint and the political momentum needed to solve climate change. more>


Updates from Chicago Booth

Why banning plastic bags doesn’t work as intended
Benefits of bag regulations are mitigated by changes in consumer behavior
By Rebecca Stropoli – As well-intentioned bans on plastic shopping bags roll out across the United States, there’s an unintended consequence that policy makers should take into account. It turns out that when shoppers stop receiving free bags from supermarkets and other retailers, they make up for it by buying more plastic trash bags, significantly reducing the environmental effectiveness of bag bans by substituting one form of plastic film for another, according to University of Sydney’s Rebecca L. C. Taylor.

Economists call this phenomenon “leakage”—when partial regulation of a product results in increased consumption of unregulated goods, Taylor writes. But her research focusing on the rollout of bag bans across 139 California cities and counties from 2007 to 2015 puts a figure on the leakage and develops an estimate for how much consumers already reuse those flimsy plastic shopping bags.

This is a live issue. After all those localities banned disposable bags, California outlawed them statewide, in 2016. In April 2019, New York became the second US state to impose a broad ban on single-use plastic bags. Since 2007, more than 240 local governments in the US have enacted similar policies.

She finds that the bag bans reduced the use of disposable shopping bags by 40 million pounds a year. But purchases of trash bags increased by almost 12 million pounds annually, offsetting about 29 percent of the benefit, her model demonstrates. Sales of small trash bags jumped 120 percent, of medium bags, 64 percent, and of tall kitchen garbage bags, 6 percent. Moreover, use of paper bags rose by more than 80 million pounds, or 652 million sacks, she finds. more>


Updates from Siemens

Well control equipment: Metal hat, Fireproof coveralls… CFD
nullBy Gaetan Bouzard – In the Oil & Gas industry, the integration of possible risk linked with well control — such as subsea plume, atmospheric dispersion, fire and explosion — is critical for minimizing impact on the entire system or on operations efficiency, and for ensuring worker health and safety. Risk to system integrity must be prevented at the design phase, but also addressed in case hazards happen along equipment lifetime or system in operation.

Last September 25th, Mr. Alistair E. Gill, from company Wild Well Control demonstrates the value of advanced structural and fluid dynamics mechanics simulation for well controls, emergency response and planning, as part of a Live Webinar organized by Siemens and Society of Petroleum Engineers. In this article I will try to summarize his presentation. To have more insights feel free to watch our On-Demand Webinar.

To be honest when talking about well control for Oil & Gas industry, people usual conception is that some disaster happened and guys wearing protections are trying to light off a big fire. Actually companies such as Wild Well Control are using modern and innovative techniques as Computational Fluid Dynamics (CFD) simulation to support practical team on a well control incident trying to keep asset integrity at the same time.

Mr. Gill provides several examples to demonstrate simulation techniques that were used from

  • Subsea plume and gas dispersion modeling to understand where hydrocarbons go in the event of a blow out
  • Radiant heat modeling in case of a fire
  • Erosion modeling
  • Thermal as well as Structural analysis

There is basically three major categories of simulation used, starting with everything related to the flow within the well bore, looking at kick tolerance, dynamic kill or bull heading; next anything to do with 3D flow using CFD simulation which is the main focus of this article; finally structural analysis using Finite Element modeling. more>


Updates from Georgia Tech

He Quieted Deafening Jets
By Ben Brumfield – In 1969, the roar of a passing jet airliner broke a bone in Carolyn Brobrek’s inner ear, as she sat in the living room of her East Boston home. Many flights took off too close to rooftops then, but even at a distance, jet engines were a notorious source of permanent hearing loss.

For decades, Krishan Ahuja tamed jet noise, for which the National Academy of Engineering elected him as a new member this year. Today, Ahuja is an esteemed researcher at the Georgia Institute of Technology, but he got his start more than 50 years ago as an engineering apprentice in Rolls Royce’s aero-engine division, eventually landing in its jet noise research department.

Jet-setters had been a rare elite, but early in Ahuja’s career in the 1970s, air travel went mainstream, connecting the globe. The number of flights multiplied over the years, and jet engine thrust grew stronger, but remarkably, human exposure to passenger jet noise in the same time period plummeted to a fraction of what it had once been, according to the Federal Aviation Administration.

Ahuja not only had a major hand in it, he also has felt the transition himself.

“In those days, if jets went over your house and you were outside, you’d feel like you needed to put your hands over your ears. Not today,” said Ahuja, who is a Regents Researcher at the Georgia Tech Research Institute (GTRI) and Regents Professor in Georgia Tech’s Daniel Guggenheim School of Aerospace Engineering. more>