random thoughts to oil the mind

Category: Science Page 1 of 2

[:en]Observations from an unqualified point-of-view.[:de]Unqualifizierte Äußerungen über naturwissenschaftliche Themen

Whose Syndrome is it Anyway? Apostrophes in Disease Names

In recent years the media enjoyed regaling us with the search for the Higgs boson, but I’m sure many people wondered what was so special about Mr Higg’s boson that we should all be so interested in him finding it again, let alone curious about how he lost it in the first place. Postulate a new thesis or make a new discovery and you’re liable to have your name enter the vernacular. Found a company associated with a new invention, and the name may even become standard for the innovation. Yet at what point does it all stop being yours? We all learn about Newton’s laws of gravitation in the classroom, whilst some go on to read up on Einstein’s theory of general relativity. Archimedes’ buoyancy principle, Kepler’s laws of planetary motion – it all seems so predictable, until it comes unstuck with the Heisenberg uncertainty principle. Not the laws of physics, the laws of English.

Daily Links

Beethoven’s Symphony No. 3 “Eroica” – A wonderful website devoted to one of the most important pieces in Beethoven’s career, and the history of the symphony. Courtesy of Michael Tilson Thomas and the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra, the website also features works by Copland, Tchaikovsky and Stravinsky.

Flash Earth – View the Earth using Google Earth, Microsoft Virtual Earth, Yahoo! Maps and more, and switch between them. The site claims to be experimental and works without official consent, so will not necessarily be around for long.

Tenth Dimension – Confused by string theory? Watch this simple and fascinating video explaining the ten dimensions—but be prepared to have forgotten it all inside of two minutes!

Zamzar – Convert between a good variety of audio, video, image, document and storage file types online for free. This includes videos available on a number of popular websites (e.g. YouTube, Metacafe and the like). The paid for version offers a number of improved features, but even the basic free version allows files of up to 100Mb to be converted, plenty adequate for most file types, though the result is emailed to an address of your choice, which could prove problematic for certain inboxes.

Government Verbal Backing for Nuclear

Finally some sense from the government on Britain’s energy problems. Of course, I’m a complete cynic when it comes to discussing ‘carbon footprints’ and ‘global warming’, but there can be little denying the potential problems facing Britain’s energy industry if nothing is planned to replace the current collection of ageing and decommissioned nuclear facilities. Many cite the inherent dangers of nuclear energy and point to the potential for a repeat of Chernobyl or Three Mile Island, and the issue of dealing with the radioactive waste materials. But since these issues affect the entire planet, it seems a rather moot point to debate whether nuclear energy is ‘safe’ to be used in Britain, since its nearest neighbour is a predominantly nuclear powered nation. Aside from promoting micro-generation and energy efficiency in the home, the idea of building a green energy economy principally based on wind power seems frankly absurd.

Sadly, the news doesn’t come without other considerations, since the government refuses any public funding to new nuclear plants except in cases of dangerous emergency.

Fishing the planet dry, by saving the dolphins

Feeding the dolphins

There are some pretty banal programmes on television at times, such is the role it plays, but Animal Park – Wild on the West Coast really caught my eye today. It served up the job of a nature programme from California, but it was a real eye opener to some of the ludicrous crap that gets spewed out, and of course funded, in the name of environmentalism. One segment showed how they looked after a sealion with some neurological disease, to the extent of giving the animal an MRI scan, ascertaining it wasn’t going to survive, and then putting it down. If anyone could explain the point of all that to me, I’d be impressed.

Yet the clip which really boiled my noodle was the one which showed how they were exercising bottlenosed dolphins in captivity, in order to measure their heart rates, and ultimately determine how many calories they needed whilst at rest and whilst active. They were then going to use this information to work out how many fish the animals required, and then pass this important information on to the fisheries in the region, essentially intimating that fisheries would be restricted or closed based on the feeding requirements of the dolphins. It really is amazing at times how random ‘research’ can become. It would seem that as long as those cute little dolphins get enough to eat, no one particularly gives a rat’s arse about whether the ecosystem at large is suffering as a result of fishing policies. Plus, you can bet a pretty penny that with all the statistical horse shit they would have to utilise to make any sense out of those pretty useless collections of figures, there will be little correlation between what they would have to tell the fisheries and reality!

Biofuels: Oil for Votes?

Where your next tankload is coming from?

Just where is the EU going with its agricultural policy? With the European Commission endorsing a plan to up the previous goal of a 5.75% market share for biofuels in the overall transport fuel supply by 2012, to 10% by 2020, one has to wonder which part of the EU’s goals is being pushed hardest. From the EU website:

The EU is supporting biofuels with the aim of reducing greenhouse gas emissions, boosting the decarbonisation of transport fuels, diversifying fuel supply sources, offering new income opportunities in rural areas and developing long-term replacements for fossil fuel.

Certainly all of these goals would be furthered by such a move by the EU, but which has prompted this raising of targets despite the estimate that most member states will not even achieve the original goal. As a long-term replacement for fossil fuels, the biofuels movement would appear to be unsustainable. Whilst it does offer a new ‘energy farmer’ role to those particularly in the developing world, the biofuels movement will likely set back the move towards sustainable agriculture, and has the potential through furthering intensive farming and monoculture techniques of causing greater environmental damage than the potential harms of global warming. 1If these are indeed caused by carbon dioxide emissions from the burning of fossil fuels. Technically the move may ultimately reduce greenhouse gas emissions, at least insofar as it prevents the further introduction of carbon deposits in fossil fuels from being added to the atmospheric carbon cycle, yet at the moment many biofuels in the market are so inefficient as to be net pollutants. 2And quite what is meant by ‘the decarbonisation of transport fuels’ is best left to the PR people.

All of which leaves the diversification of fuel supply sources. For the greatest efficiency, there is little doubt that biofuels should be burned in power stations rather than mobile internal combustion engines, yet that would appear to be only a secondary aim of this directive. Perhaps the recent EU spats with Russia offer a greater clue to the hasty attempts to diversify fuel supply sources, and leading the charge in this regard is Sweden. Their aim, to make Sweden an oil free society, and to break their dependence upon it by 2020, may seem outlandish. But it is not motivated by the fear that oil is running out.

In the earth’s interior there are very extensive coal-based energy resources, from methane hydrates deep in the oceans and in northerly permafrost areas to unexploited deposits of oil sands and shale oils. The superficial deposits of coal, oil and gas that man makes use of today are the tip of the planet’s enormous energy pyramid. Thus, oil will never run out, neither in a theoretical nor a practical sense.

Sweden’s aims are very similar to those of the EU:

  1. To reduce Sweden’s climate impact.
  2. To secure Sweden’s supply of energy in the long term.
  3. To become a leading nation in the development of new technology for sustainable use of energy and more efficient use of energy.
  4. To strengthen our international economic competitiveness.
  5. To use and develop the energy resources from forests and fields, “Sweden’s green gold”. 3Making Sweden an OIL-FREE Society, Commission on Oil Independence, 21 June 2006, p. 11. Highlights added.

It would appear then that the true aim of this EU directive has less to with cleaning up the economy through greater reliance on renewable energies, than an attempt to reduce the EU’s heavy reliance on the volatile world oil market. Burning (inefficient) biofuels in combustion engines is not an answer to carbon emissions, long or short term. Will logic intervene and see support for the use of biofuels as petroleum replacements decline? Or will the EU continue to intervene in the hopes that the big buzzwords climate change will allow them to push through seemingly popular policies, ultimately in the name of power politics?

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1. If these are indeed caused by carbon dioxide emissions from the burning of fossil fuels.
2. And quite what is meant by ‘the decarbonisation of transport fuels’ is best left to the PR people.
3. Making Sweden an OIL-FREE Society, Commission on Oil Independence, 21 June 2006, p. 11. Highlights added.

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