Welcome to the age of diminishing returns

Monday, March 26, 2012

Nuclear fusion and the "three years law" of scientific research

As part of a mini-series on nuclear fusion on the Cassandra blog, here is a brief discussion on the status of the approach to fusion based on hot plasmas; the so called "tokamak" configuration. This technology is progressing at a very slow rate: the first energy producing plants are planned to appear not earlier than in several decades from now (if ever). Given the situation, we may be making a big communication mistake if we present this approach as the solution to the world's energy problems. At this rate of progress, many people have already lost their patience and are taking refuge in pseudoscience and outright scams. (image above from an article by Jean Pierre Petit). 

There is an unwritten law that rules industrial research and development. It says that you have to demonstrate that your idea can work in no more than three years. In exceptional cases, five years may be the limit but, normally, no industrial research project lasts more than that. If a project produces no useful results in five years, then there are good chances that it never will.

There are several examples of the "three years law" (or, maybe, "five years law").  Think of the Wright brothers: their first glider flew in 1900 and three years later they flew the first engine powered plane in the world. Think of nuclear fission; the Manhattan project was active from 1942 to 1946 and in less than three years it created both the first nuclear bomb and the first nuclear reactor. The law seems to hold independently of the ambition of the project: whether it is a bicycle or a spaceship, it has to show that it can work in a few years.

Conversely, consider the "War on Cancer", launched in 1971 by President Nixon. In more than 40 years, a lot of progress has been made in basic research on cancer, sure, but the war has not been won. Think of hydrogen as fuel. The idea of a "hydrogen based economy" goes back to the 1960s but, so far, nothing practical exists on the market. This kind of long range projects can generate good basic research, but it can hardly produce practical results.

So, let's examine the idea of controlled nuclear fusion in this light. We are still working, mostly, on the "tokamak" concept, proposed in the 1950s by the Russian physicist Andrei Sakharov. There is no doubt that tokamaks can produce nuclear fusions but, in more than 50 years of work, we haven't been able to reach the "breakeven" point, that is the condition when the ratio of the energy produced by fusion is the same as the energy needed to keep the plasma in steady state. The European ITER project on nuclear fusion is supposed to reach and exceed that point when it becomes fully operational in 2026, that is about 20 years after the start of the project. The whole ITER project should last until 2038. These are anomalously long times for an industrial research project. Consider also that, even if ITER attains its goals, we are orders of magnitude away from a device actually able to produce useful energy.

Now, of course, it is impossible to say that tokamaks will never produce useful energy. But look at the figure at the beginning of this post. Doesn't it make you wonder? It looks like we are just making the same machine bigger and bigger, in the hope that, eventually, it will work. Think if a 747 were to look just like the Wright plane, just bigger. It is not impossible to argue that we have taken a no way out road with tokamaks, as discussed in a recent article by Jean Pierre Petit. Other physicists, such as Luigi Sertorio, are also very skeptical about these nuclear fusion efforts.

In short, the ITER project is not an industrial research project: it is a basic research project. Of course, there is nothing wrong in studying nuclear fusion, very high temperature plasmas, and the like. It is good science performed by competent people and we can learn a lot of useful things from this work. And, in doing that, we might even find the way to obtain useful energy. But we can't think of ITER (or similar fusion research efforts) as something directly aimed at solving the world's energy problems.

The problem is that few people may know the "three years law" of scientific research, but there are limits to human patience. From the dawn of the "nuclear age," people have been told that science can solve the world's energy problems with nuclear fusion. But they haven't seen anything that works in 50 years. Now, they are being told that they have to wait for several decades more. At this point, it is not surprising that we see so many people seeking refuge in pseudoscience and in the outright scams of the recent craze on "cold fusion." That's a disaster, because people become easily convinced that there are miracle solutions to the energy problem and they tend to neglect technologies, such as renewables, that are not so glamorous but that do produce energy. But there are no miracles in science and we must do with what we have now.

Friday, March 16, 2012

The sinking of the E-Cat

This post is a modified version of a post by the author which appeared in Italian on "NuoveTecnologieEnergetiche"

Above: the cruise ship "Costa Concordia", Italian technological marvel, sunken after hitting a reef in front of the "Giglio" Island in January 2012. Recently, we saw the sinking of another pretended technological marvel from Italy, the cold fusion reactor called "E-Cat;" destroyed by its own contradictions.

It was Captain Kirk of the starship "Enterprise" who said that it is not a good idea to put oneself in a no-win situation. Good advice that was not taken by Mr. Andrea Rossi, inventor of the "E-Cat," the cold fusion device that he claimed to be able to solve the world's energy problems. After having been unable to show that his device produces energy, Mr. Rossi stated that he didn't need any more tests because he could now proceed to market it in millions of pieces. But, in reality, Mr. Rossi had simply placed himself in a no-win situation. The E-Cat is now fast sinking, hit by the contradictions of its inventor.

Let's start with what Rossi himself had declared about his E-Cat. He said that it is based on the fusion of hydrogen and nickel nuclei (see Rossi's patent) and that gamma rays are produced during operation (see here) so that lead shields had to be placed inside the device. Rossi also said that he was building a factory in the United States where he would produce E-Cats by the millions; to be sold as water heaters for people's homes. According to some recent statements by Rossi, the device had been undergoing safety testing for months at Underwriters Laboratory. 

It couldn't go unnoticed in Florida that someone was claiming to be producing nuclear reactors in large numbers. On February 24, an officer of the State of Florida Bureau of Radiation Control went to investigate what was going on in the pretended "E-Cat factory" in Miami. There, he found no factory, but an apartment and Andrea Rossi in person. Questioned on the E-Cat, Rossi declared that "no nuclear reactions occur inside the device." Rossi also stated that all the facilities for testing and production are "overseas," and that safety certification with Underwriters Laboratory will be arranged in the future. The officer then left, writing in his report that his bureau has no jurisdiction over a device which has nothing nuclear inside. (The complete documentation is here, comments can be found here and here. Rossi himself confirmed the story here.)

No matter how we want to see this story, it is clear that Rossi has been victim of his own "no-win" strategy. First, he claimed that he had developed a nuclear device, but he never could provide convincing proof. So he said that he didn't need proof because he could just produce and sell the device - the market would judge it. But if he wanted to produce and sell the device, then he would have to obtain the necessary certifications. And how to obtain the necessary certifications after having declared that the device is based on nuclear reactions and it emits gamma rays? Surely, Rossi's word is not enough to prove that shielding with lead foil is sufficient to remove gamma rays. Maybe there are arcane reasons (as claimed in this paper) that reduce, or even eliminate, gamma ray emission. But just the possibility of such an emission would required extensive investigations and years of work in order to provide the necessary certifications. So, you see? If it is nuclear, Rossi can't sell it. If it is not nuclear, who would buy it? A classic no-win situation. 

In the end, lacking experimental proof, the idea that the E-Cat produces energy rests only on Rossi's statements that say, basically, just "trust me". But after the Florida story, it is clear that this is, also, a no-win strategy. How can you trust Rossi after so many contradictions? Where is the E-Cat factory that he said was in the US and then, no, it is overseas? And where is the safety testing (not) being done? Incidentally, if, hypothetically, the E-Cat were really producing nuclear reactions, we should think of Rossi as a dangerous criminal who lied to the Florida officer about his plans to produce and sell without the necessary safety certifications a device that generates gamma rays. That Rossi can't be trusted has been clearly perceived also by Rossi's supporters, who have been abandoning the sinking ship: for instance Sterling Allan. The University of Bologna had wisely disengaged from Rossi already in January.

So, the E-Cat has reached the end of the line. It still maintains some faithful supporters, but, most likely, it will soon fade away in the darkness of pathological science, where it belongs. There remains a question: how is it possible that so much time and energy has been lost in this incredibly story?  Well, there has to be something wired wrong in the human mind but, at least, from this story we can learn what mistakes we should avoid. As Captain Kirk said, never put yourself in a no-win situation by believing without proof in salvific inventions.

Other posts on the E-Cat story on "Cassandra's Legacy"

The E-Cat loses steam (July 2011)
Peak E-Cat (Dec 2011)
 The Anti-Cassandra Curse (March 2012)
The E-Cat horror (March 2012)

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

The E-Cat Horror

In a horror movie, when a young lady decides to undress and take a shower while alone in the house, well, you know exactly what's going to happen to her. It is the predictability of horror.  (above, from the 1960 movie "Psycho")

Some things, in life as in fiction, are highly predictable. One of these is the plot of horror movies. As the story moves on, you know exactly the destiny of the young lady who decides to undress and take a shower while alone in the house. And you know exactly what's going to happen to the hapless character who, while exploring the haunted house, says, "Hey! I heard a strange noise coming from the basement. You stay here, I'll go down there to investigate". It is part of the fascination of this kind of movies: rational judgment is suspended as the plot unfolds and you keep watching without asking yourself why exactly those people found themselves at midnight in that cemetery, in the moonlight, while a horde of zombies is approaching.

It is with the same kind of fascination that you may have been watching the plot of the "Energy Catalyser," or "E-Cat" unfold, the weird device that Andrea Rossi claimed to be a nuclear reactor, able to solve all the energy problems of humankind. A real horror movie set in Bologna, Italy, where plenty of hapless characters have been sucked in and metaphorically devoured by the E-Cat horror. The plot has followed all the predictable steps for this kind of stories. First, in January 2011, there was the announcement of the discovery of the home-made nuclear reactor. That attracted plenty of hopeful people looking for a solution for the energy crisis just as, in movies, old haunted houses attract scantly clad young ladies.

Then, the plot moved on, according to well known rules. We saw plenty of scenes in which inventor Andrea Rossi attempted to demonstrate how his device was supposed to produce energy. He looked very much like Gene Wilder in "Young Frankenstein", while trying to revive the monster (Image by Renzo B, from 22passi: Frankenstein and Igor on the left, Andrea Rossi and Sergio Focardi on the right). And what we heard from Rossi about the innards of his machine sounded very much like the introduction speech about space vampires in the famous movie "Plan 9 from outer space"

Some of the cheap effects of the movie were easy for everybody to detect. Just think of the gas heater used to warm the factory when the nuclear reactor was supposed to do the job alone. Nevertheless, the interest in the movie never waned: with plenty of twists in the plot, evil characters, monsters, conspiracies, mysteries, the military, secret services, and more.

Still, even a good horror movie must end at some moment: after a couple of hours, you go home and you forget about zombies and vampires. So, the E-Cat movie arrived to a close, with recent events leading to the final showdown. The villain has confessed his crime, the secret has been revealed. Is it the end of the E-Cat horror?

Maybe it is the end, but we can't really say. Maybe there will be a sequel. It will have new twists in the plot: most likely, we'll see how the efforts of the savior of mankind have been  thwarted by the evil conspiracy of oil companies or the lobby of renewable energy. The E-Cat horror still lurks in the shadows! 

In case you are interested in the real world, rather than in fiction, you can read an excellent confutation of Andrea Rossi's claims about the E-cat in an article by Antonio Turiel. The recent events, in which Rossi confessed that his device is not a nuclear reactors are described here and here. The complete documentation can be found here. Rossi himself confirmed everything here here.  

h/t to Antonella for providing the inspiration for this post.

Friday, March 9, 2012

The "anti-Cassandra" curse: being always believed

It is well known that Cassandra was cursed so that her prophecies would never be believed. But there exists also an opposite curse affecting charismatic leaders who are always believed by their followers. In the long run, leaders are deluded into believing themselves infallible and the results are often disastrous. We could call that the "anti-Cassandra" curse.

People are easily duped into following charismatic leaders, as it is well known. But, while the psychology of adepts is not so difficult to understand (we all may fall in the trap, at least occasionally), it is less clear what passes in the minds of leaders. Do they really believe that they are as smart and powerful as they present themselves to their followers? Or are they consciously misleading their adepts for personal gains? Of course, both possibilities may be true in different circumstances, but a recent posting by Sam Harris convinced me that, in many cases, the leader is even more deluded than his/her followers.

Let me explain this point. First of all, give a look to this clip, taken from Sam Harris's blog. (No need to watch it all, just the first minute or so)

Now, I think you'll agree with me that what we are seeing looks very much like a staged fight. It is hard to say what exactly these guys are doing: maybe it is a show or maybe they are training as actors for some Chinese Kung-Fu movie. For sure, it seems unthinkable that their black-clad leader, Mr. Yanagi Ryuken, would believe that he can really defeat people in this way; without even touching them.

Really? Well, then give a look to this clip where we see again "master" Ryuken, but in a very different situation: fighting against a tough opponent who doesn't accept to be intimidated by Ryuken's alleged power. (note: be careful because it is really disturbing.)

How was that Master Ryuken agreed to submit himself to this punishment? The only explanation I can think of is that he really believed in his magic chi power.  This is also the opinion of Sam Harris, who states:

Master Ryuken apparently believed himself capable of defeating multiple attackers without deigning to touch them. Rather, he could rely upon the magic power of chi. Video of him demonstrating his devastating abilities shows that his students were grotesquely complicit in what must have been a long and colorful process of self-deception. Did these young athletes actually think that they were being hurled to the ground against their will? It is hard to know. What seems certain, however, is that Master Ryuken came to believe that he was invincible; otherwise he wouldn’t have invited a martial artist from another school to come test his powers.

I think this is a very general principle: leaders are easily subjected to this kind of self-delusion that we could call the "anti-Cassandra" curse. Whereas Cassandra was cursed so that she was never believed, charismatic leaders are cursed so that they are continuously believed and praised by their followers. Apparently, at some point something goes short-circuit in their minds and they start thinking that they really are invincible geniuses able to perform miraculous feats. Mr. Ryuken gives us an especially impressive example in the area of martial arts.

But the anti-Cassandra effect is active in many fields and it may be especially common in politics. Think of Benito Mussolini; Italy's charismatic leader for more than 20 years. During those times, a common political slogan in Italy was "Mussolini is always right."  In the end, it backfired, affecting Mussolini's mind and the disastrous results are well known. From Hitler's invasion of Russia to Saddam Hussein's invasion of Kuwait, country leaders consistently overestimate their power, most likely being misled by the aura of power that their own propaganda creates. 

Science is not immune to the anti-Cassandra curse. Think of the recent case of the "Energy Catalyser" or "E-Cat," the miracle nuclear device invented by Mr. Andrea Rossi. The lack of evidence on the powers of the E-Cat is rapidly consigning the device to the depths of "pathological science", where it belongs. Nevertheless, Rossi still claims that his invention is a nuclear reactor and he maintains a number of faithful followers who heap lavish praise on him (see here - in Italian). Does Mr. Rossi actually believe in the E-Cat power, just as Mr. Ryuken believed in his own chi power? Of course, we can't say for sure, but there are hints that Rossi may be a believer, not a scammer. If he had been consciously cheating, he could easily have used tricks to make his device appear to produce plenty of energy. Instead, what we see in the purported "demonstrations" of the E-Cat operation is simply a poor set-up that can't demonstrate anything. That, of course, leaves space for the believers to keep their faith intact. That's a group which may well include Mr. Rossi himself.

There are many more examples of the Anti-Cassandra effect at work, but at this point the mechanism should be clear. It is the result of a feedback which occurs between the leader and his (rarely her) followers. It is self-sustaining: as leaders are praised by their followers, they become more convinced of their own powers. This makes them very sure of themselves and that affects their followers who believe more and more in the power of their leaders. The end result can only be disaster. We could use the term "Ryuken effect", to define the sad fate of a lone deluded leader. But, more often, the disaster strikes also followers and innocent bystanders.

In the end, perhaps it is better to be a regular Cassandra. Nobody believes you, of course, but, at least, you don't overestimate your powers!

Monday, March 5, 2012

William Nordhaus on climate change: the wisdom of economics

The Stern Review (2006) is a good example of the attitude of economists towards climate change. Economists may not be familiar with climate modeling, but they can notice a trend when they see one and they didn't miss that the ongoing rapid rise in the world's temperature is leading us to no good.

"Economist bashing" is rather fashionable nowadays (for a particularly scathing example, see here). I must confess that, occasionally, I have indulged in this habit, too. However, on the whole I agree with Lou that it is not a good idea.

True, economics as a science has a lot of problems and it is rarely able to come up with good models that take into account resource depletion. But there is a redeeming grace in the approach of economists to science: it is their nearly religious respect for the data.  Economists may not be familiar with climate models, but their respect for data makes them able to understand that the temperature record shows a robust warming trend. They also understand that global warming is leading us to no good. The consequence is that several economists are actively supporting real science in the debate on climate change. One needs only to mention the role of Nicholas Stern, with his "Stern Report."

Now, William Nordhaus, professor of economics at Yale University, comes up strongly in defense of science after having been misquoted in an article published on the Wall Street journal. Nordhaus does very well in highlighting the contradictions and the falsities of the global warming "skeptics" in this article. There is wisdom in economic sciences!


Why the Global Warming Skeptics Are Wrong

March 22, 2012

William D. Nordhaus

The threat of climate change is an increasingly important environmental issue for the globe. Because the economic questions involved have received relatively little attention, I have been writing a nontechnical book for people who would like to see how market-based approaches could be used to formulate policy on climate change. When I showed an early draft to colleagues, their response was that I had left out the arguments of skeptics about climate change, and I accordingly addressed this at length.

But one of the difficulties I found in examining the views of climate skeptics is that they are scattered widely in blogs, talks, and pamphlets. Then, I saw an opinion piece in The Wall Street Journal of January 27, 2012, by a group of sixteen scientists, entitled “No Need to Panic About Global Warming.” This is useful because it contains many of the standard criticisms in a succinct statement. The basic message of the article is that the globe is not warming, that dissident voices are being suppressed, and that delaying policies to slow climate change for fifty years will have no serious economic or environment consequences.

My response is primarily designed to correct their misleading description of my own research; but it also is directed more broadly at their attempt to discredit scientists and scientific research on climate change.1 I have identified six key issues that are raised in the article, and I provide commentary about their substance and accuracy. They are:

    • Is the planet in fact warming?

    • Are human influences an important contributor to warming?

    • Is carbon dioxide a pollutant?

    • Are we seeing a regime of fear for skeptical climate scientists?

    • Are the views of mainstream climate scientists driven primarily by the desire for financial gain?

    • Is it true that more carbon dioxide and additional warming will be beneficial?

As I will indicate below, on each of these questions, the sixteen scientists provide incorrect or misleading answers. At a time when we need to clarify public confusions about the science and economics of climate change, they have muddied the waters. I will describe their mistakes and explain the findings of current climate science and economics.

Read the rest of this article on "The New York Times"

Sunday, March 4, 2012

Boycotting Elsevier

I said I would do it; and I am doing it. I wonder how many of these letters they are receiving and what they are thinking about that.