“Avatar” in Real Life: The BBC’s Uranium Fear Mongering

I give the movie Avatar two thumbs up. It was spectacular in 3-D, and had an entertaining plot featuring noble good guys (native Na’vi, stewards of the environment dedicated to serving the life spirit of their home, the moon Pandora) and evil bad guys (minions of a greedy corporation bent on interstellar vandalism in the search for the precious mineral, unobtainium.) As fiction, it’s great, but if this article about uranium mining in Arizona is any indication, one of the BBC’s reporters saw the movie one too many times. It’s more a reflection of the prevailing ideological narrative at the “objective” BBC than of the real world.

The article, entitled “’Uranium Rush’ Prompts Grand Canyon Fears,” with the signature BBC quotation marks around “Uranium Rush,” is about the possible resumption of uranium mining in Arizona. It would have been more appropriate to put the quotation marks around “Grand Canyon.” According to the article, which appears beneath a lovely picture of the canyon itself,

The Grand Canyon region in the US state of Arizona holds one of the nation’s largest concentrations of high grade uranium, the fuel for nuclear power.

In fact, there is no imminent threat that mining for uranium or any other mineral will occur within the Grand Canyon watershed, because, as the BBC article fails to mention, the entire area was removed from mineral entry by the Arizona Wilderness Act of 1984.  In fact, over 55.6% of the total area of the State of Arizona is already withdrawn from mineral exploration and mining.
The article continues,

The US government is currently weighing the costs and benefits of mining, with Arizona Congressman Raul Grijalva proposing a ban on mining near the Grand Canyon.

Again, the Beeb is playing fast and loose with the truth. The key word here is “near.” At issue is mining in the Arizona strip near the northern border of the state. The “evil corporation” is the Denison Mines Corporation of Canada, operator of the Arizona 1 mine about 45 miles southwest of the city of Fredonia. You can see exactly what is meant by “near” by starting at this satellite view of the mine location and zooming out until you see the canyon to the south. The “Na’vi” are the Native Americans in the region. According to the article,

…Native American populations living near uranium mines fear exploration could contaminate their drinking water.

Unsurprisingly, the article fails to mention any credible basis for this fear. In fact, as noted in this report, the uranium deposits in the area are in breccia pipes a few hundred feet below the surface and generally about 1,000 feet above the local aquifer. The deposits and the aquifer are separated by the impermeable Supai formation. Hence there is little chance of the water being contaminated. There is little danger of runoff, because the region is in a desert, and the mining property is contained in a lined pond.

The article continues,

On a recent trip into the mine, none of the miners wore masks, and their hands and face were caked with uranium ore. “It washes off,” miner Cody Behuden, 28, told the BBC while licking his ore-caked lips.
Vice-president of US operations Harold Roberts said the miners were under no danger from ingesting uranium.

The implication here, of course, is that there really is a danger from ingesting uranium, and the “evil corporation” doesn’t care. In fact, there is credible evidence that uranium miners can suffer a high incidence of lung cancer from inhaling radon gas. There is very little that demonstrates a correlation between “ingesting” the ore and cancer or any other illness. I am certainly willing to believe that conditions in the mine are dangerous if any credible evidence to that effect is forthcoming. If the BBC has something more convincing than innuendo to make the case, let’s see it. The article continues,

Dr Lee Grier, a biologist at University of California at Riverside, said exposure to uranium can be harmful, and the Navajo Native American reservation nearby is still is grappling with contamination from previous uranium mining and milling done by other companies. Those companies now no longer exist.
“The danger with long term exposure is that people breathe it, ingest it or it seeps through the skin,” he said. “These particles start bombarding tissues and cause wild uncontrolled cell growth like cancer.”

In fact, the local Indians are under no danger of contamination, because the ore will be removed and taken out of state to be milled. However, let’s assume the “evil corporation” ignores our environmental laws and allows some uranium to escape into the environment in Utah where the milling operations will actually take place. What would the radioactive hazard be compared to the alternative? In the US, the alternative is coal, and the radioactive hazard of burning it, without even taking the risk of global warming and cancer causing particulates into account, is vastly greater than the risk of mining uranium. Every year a typical coal plant releases several tons of uranium and thorium, which are natural contaminants of coal, into the atmosphere in the form of particulates, highly dangerous because they are breathed in, coming directly into contact with sensitive lung tissue. Special scrubbers can be used to remove some of this, but in that case the captured ash will be radioactive, just like the uranium mill tailings, and will represent a comparable hazard. Are we to prefer solar or wind energy? They come with their own environmental hazards, such as heavy metal contamination and destruction of the fragile desert environments that would be ideal locations for them. They also don’t work if the sun isn’t shining or the wind isn’t blowing. How are we to make up the slack when they are off line?

The article continues:

The waste from the milling process is 80% more radioactive than yellow cake and has a half-life of 4.7 billion years. Thousands of tonnes of waste are buried in containers lined with 60mm (2.4in) of plastic.

Here, the author simply has no clue what she is talking about. 80% more radioactive than yellow cake? But isn’t yellow cake a uranium compound, and isn’t the ore radioactive to begin with because of the presence of a fraction of one percent of uranium? Yellow cake is more than half pure uranium by weight, and most of the uranium will have been extracted from the waste. How, then, could it conceivably be 80% more radioactive than yellow cake? Presumably by 4.7 billion years she means the half life of uranium 238, which is actually somewhat less than that, but if she’s talking about uranium, how could it be 80% more radioactive than uranium? The sentence is incomprehensible as it stands.

Of course, there is always a “theoretical risk” of anything one could name, and, sure enough,

“Theoretically uranium could get into the water supply,” said Andrea Alpine, senior adviser on the USGS uranium project.

It’s not only “theoretical,” but a fact that natural uranium gets into our food and water regardless, and we each ingest a microgram or two of the stuff every day. What the article fails to describe is a credible explanation of how significant amounts of uranium over and above this natural average would contaminate anyone’s water supply from the Denison mine, and what the risk of such a thing happening really is. The article continues,

When uranium comes into contact with oxygen it becomes soluble in water, which increases the chance of contamination. Radioactive dust can also be blown away by the wind or washed away by rain. This is what Carletta Tilousi of the Havasupai Indian tribe fears most. The Havasupai live on the bottom of the Grand Canyon and derive water from the rim.

What the author means by this is anybody’s guess. Uranium mined in Arizona usually comes in the form of U3O8, an oxide of uranium which has a very low solubility in water, and does not become more soluble on exposure to air. Possibly she’s talking about leaching operations, in which uranium compounds can be made more soluble by introducing oxygen into the leaching liquid. It really makes very little difference. Anti-nuclear ideologues often emphasize the solubility of uranium if it’s a question of telling scary stories about ground water contamination, but can make it insoluble with a wave of their magic wands if they prefer scary stories that require it to stay in place, as in contamination of small geographic locations or organs in the body. Once again, of course, the mine is not in the Grand Canyon watershed. We are not enlightened about why the Havasupai should, nevertheless, be afraid of water washing over the rim.

The article concludes with a perfect “Avatar” ending,

“Mining companies are pursuing uranium for their own profit,” she said. “But the only benefit that we are going to get is a source of contamination. We are concerned about the future of our children, that’s why we fight this.”

Apparently the Beeb is no longer worried that the future of our children is threatened by the emission of greenhouse gases that happen not to come from nuclear plants. I will await with interest their explanation of why they have become global warming deniers.

Stephen Hawking’s Issues with God

According to Reuters, theoretical physicist Stephen Hawking has deigned to inform the rest of us that it’s OK to be an infidel because, according to the most up-to-date physics models of the universe, God isn’t necessary:

In “The Grand Design,” co-authored with U.S. physicist Leonard Mlodinow, Hawking says a new series of theories made a creator of the universe redundant, according to the Times newspaper which published extracts on Thursday.

“Because there is a law such as gravity, the universe can and will create itself from nothing. Spontaneous creation is the reason there is something rather than nothing, why the universe exists, why we exist,” Hawking writes.

Hawking’s latest won’t be released until tomorrow, and I hesitate to commence panning him until I’ve read it, but this story smacks of a well-managed publicity stunt. In the first place, it’s a virtual carbon copy of the great urban myth about the exchange between the great French mathematician, Laplace, and Napoleon (hattip Wiki):

Laplace went in state to Napoleon to accept a copy of his work, and the following account of the interview is well authenticated, and so characteristic of all the parties concerned that I quote it in full. Someone had told Napoleon that the book contained no mention of the name of God; Napoleon, who was fond of putting embarrassing questions, received it with the remark, ‘M. Laplace, they tell me you have written this large book on the system of the universe, and have never even mentioned its Creator.’ Laplace, who, though the most supple of politicians, was as stiff as a martyr on every point of his philosophy, drew himself up and answered bluntly, ‘Je n’avais pas besoin de cette hypothèse-là.’ (“I had no need of that hypothesis.”) Napoleon, greatly amused, told this reply to Lagrange, who exclaimed, ‘Ah! c’est une belle hypothèse; ça explique beaucoup de choses.’ (“Ah, it is a fine hypothesis; it explains many things.”)

Well, it’s not really that well authenticated, but it still captures the substance of Laplace’s thought on the subject accurately enough.  In the second place, if that’s really all Hawking’s got, he was beaten to the punch by the brilliant Frenchman Jean Meslier in his Testament by more than 250 years:

Is it not more natural and more intelligible to deduce all which exists, from the bosom of matter, whose existence is demonstrated by all our senses, whose effects we feel at every moment, which we see act, move, communicate, motion, and constantly bring living things into existence, than to attribute the formation of things to an unknown force, to a spiritual being, who cannot draw from his ground that which he has not himself, and who, by the spiritual essence claimed for him, is incapable of making anything, and putting anything in motion.

Indeed, all of the best arguments of the likes of Dawkins, Hitchens, and Harris, appear in Meslier’s work, along with much else besides.  As an infidel myself, I fail to see what, if anything, Hawking is contributing to the discussion, assuming he’s being quoted accurately.  After all, how do physical laws prove anything?  Laws can have no disembodied existence of their own, floating around in nothingness.  If they don’t apply to any real thing, then they cease to exist themselves.  If they do apply to something real, it still begs the question, why do the real thing(s) exist to begin with?  We’re still left to wonder, “How did all this stuff get here?”

Earthlike Worlds…

The Kepler Mission has now identified more than 700 suspected new planets, some of them earthlike, in interstellar space.  As Insty would say, “faster please.” We should be searching for life forms on earth that are most likely to survive on these worlds and working on the technology to get them there as quickly as possible. At first these will be limited to single celled or simple multi-celled species that are small enough to accelerate to the speeds necessary for interstellar travel. While we’re doing that, we can work on the nano-technology required to self-assemble human nurseries on alien worlds capable of nurturing single human cells through birth to adulthood. The energy cost of sending fully developed human beings is prohibitive, and probably impossible at the moment. However, the technology required to send single living cells is within our grasp.

Every other challenge we face and all the great political, religious, and ideological issues that have captured our imaginations and whipped us into self-destructive frenzies since the dawn of human existence pale in significance compared to the ultimate challenge of carrying life into interstellar space.  Unless we meet the challenge, all our pompous babbling about morality and ethics will be as meaningless as the life of a soap bubble.  There can be nothing more immoral than failing to survive.

Darwin’s “Origin of Species”: A Book Review in 1860

Charles Darwin

I like to read old periodicals. They may have their own spin, but it has the virtue of being different from the all-too-familiar spin of today. Reading them also gives you a certain smug sense of superiority, because you know how things turned out. Many of them are well written and entertaining, and the authors are much more likely to tell you things you don’t already know than today’s lot. Occasionally, you run across some remarkable stuff.

For example, a couple of days ago I was reading through a volume of the Edinburgh Review for 1859 and 1860. The Edinburgh was one of the two great British literary, scientific, and political reviews of the first half of the 19th century, representing the Whig point of view along with its alter ego, the Tory Quarterly Review. The volume in question had interesting pieces on the state of the British navy (Britain was heading towards catastrophe), memoirs of George IV (you remember him, don’t you), and a comparison of the burden British and American taxation (we got off lightly but had the unfair advantage of no national debt). Then I ran into something that really caught my eye; a book review of Darwin’s “Origin of Species,” written for the April, 1860 issue, and appearing less than half a year after the book was published in November, 1859.

The review was obviously written by someone with expertise in the subject.  He was familiar with the developments and major players in the field.  Did he wonder at the revolutionary implications of the new theory?  No.  Did he applaud Darwin for the immense array of facts and personal observations he cited in support of natural selection?  No.  Did he congratulate the author on his elegant solution of problem that had puzzled generations of scientists for centuries?  Again, no.  He panned the book.

Here are some examples of the anonymous reviewer’s take on what we now know as one of the most remarkable and significant theories of all times.

…several, and perhaps the majority, of our younger naturalists have been seduced into the acceptance of the homoeopathic of the transmutative hypothesis now presented to them by Mr. Darwin, under the phrase of “natural selection.”

and, after citing a few passages in the book,

These are the most important original observations, recorded in the volume of 1859: they are, in our estimation, its real gems, – few indeed and far apart, and leaving determination of the origin of species very nearly where the author found it. (!)

Is it to be endured that every observer who points out a case to which transmutation (Darwin’s theory), under whatever term disguised, is inapplicable, is to be set down by the refuted theorist as a believer in a mode of manufacturing a species, which he never did believe in, and which may be inconceivable?

The reviewer “refutes” Darwin’s theory by pointing out that the simplest possible life forms are still on the planet, and thus could not have been the primordial life form suggested in his theory, e.g.,

…if its nature (the primordial life form) is not to be left wholly to the unregulated fancies of dreamy speculation – we should say that the form and comdition of life which are common, at one period of existence to every known kind and grade of organism, would be the only conceivable form and condition of the one primorial being from which “Natural Selection” infers that all the organisms which have ever lived on this earth have descended. Now the form in question is the nucleated cell.

Of course, we now know that these “simple,” one-celled, nucleated life forms are incredibly complex, and poor candidates indeed for a “primordial life form.”  No matter, the reviewer proclaims that, because this “simplest possible life form,” than which only “the unregulated fancies of dreamy speculation” could come up with a simpler, has not only not evolved into something more complex, but is indeed one of the dominant life forms on the planet, Darwin must be mistaken:

But do the facts of actual organic nature square with the Darwinian hypothesis? Are all the recognised organic forms of the present date, so differentiated, so complex, so superior to conceivable primordial simplicity of form and structure, as to testify to the effects of Natural Selection continuously operating through untold time? Unquestionably not. The most numerous living beings now on the globe are precisely those which offer such a simplicity of form and structure , as best agrees, and we take leave to affirm can only agree, with that ideal prototype from which, by any hypothesis of natural law, the series of vegetable and animal life might have diverged.

In a word, while it is clear from the review that the author is what passed for an expert in the field in those days, he was utterly lacking in imagination.  He couldn’t conceive of anything “simpler” than the single-celled life forms described by the microscopists of his day. 

On the strength of his non-argument, the reviewer trimphantly concludes,

Such are the signs of defective information which contribute, almost at each chapter, to check our confidence in the teachings and advocacy of the hypothesis of “Natural Selection.”

Noting the argument that, after all, changes in species had been observed in the fossil record, even in his day, the reviewer grasps at another straw;

But here lies the fallacy: it merely proves that species are changed, it gives us no evidence as to the mode of change; transmutation, gradual or abrupt, is in this case, mere assumption.

I suspect the learned author would have changed his tune had he been able to peruse Gregor Mendel’s famous paper.  Not unexpectedly, given his own apparent knowledge of previous work in the field, the author takes umbrage at the fact that Darwin hasn’t devoted enough attention to competing theories.  One such author, whose work is frequently cited as “refuting” Darwin in the article, is Richard Owen, a famous biologist and palaeontologist of the time.  For example,

We are aware that Professor Owen and others, who have more especially studied the recently discovered astounding phenomena of generation summed up under the terms Parthenogenesis and Alternation of Generations, have pronounced against those phenomena having, as yet, helped us “to penetrate the mystery of the origin of different species of animals,” and have affirmed, at least so far as observation has yet extended, that “the cycle of changes is definitely closed…”

Now, in those days, it was the fashion for the writers of reviews to remain anonymous.  Of course, it is hardly to be expected that Darwin’s biographers would have failed to notice a piece as significant as the one addressed here.  In fact, they did not fail to notice it, and, in the fullness of time, they managed to identify the anonymous author.  It was none other than Professor Owen himself!  It appears the learned professor was not at all pleased by being upstaged by an upstart like Darwin, and conceived a life-long hatred for him.

Darwin was lucky.  His theory was too compelling to be dismissed with a wave of the hand by stalwarts of the scientific establishment like Owen.  However, he represents a phenomena that has hardly disappeared in our own day.  An interesting manifestation thereof closer to our own time was the furious reaction of the prevailing experts to the announcement of cold fusion.  In that case, the result was different.  Intriguing hints of some as yet unknown nuclear process were reported from all over the world – but the experiments weren’t repeatable.  The old guard won.  Or at least they won for the time being.  Experiments continue beneath the radar of “those who know better” in the field, and new intriguing hints continue to turn up.  It may well be the cold fusion crowd has been chasing a chimera all these years.  On the other hand, there’s a finite chance that the last word has still not been spoken on the legacy of Pons and Fleischman.

I suppose the moral of the story is that it’s a good idea to keep an open mind.  Occasionally it turns out that the upstarts were right all along.

Update: Anne Sasso has some interesting thoughts on the reaction of the scientific establishment to game-changing new insights and theories at the Science Magazine website.

You should Decide to Read this Book: “How We Decide,” by Jonah Lehrer

I find some of the books that are being published these days mind-boggling. “How We Decide,” by Jonah Lehrer, is one of them. Perhaps it’s not really the book that’s mind-boggling, fascinating as it is. What’s really astounding is the public reception it’s received. Consider, for example, its review in the New York Times. It’s positive, even enthusiastic, cites a few interesting tidbits from the book, and then closes with some suggestions about questions Lehrer might take up in future works. The astounding thing is that there is no allusion whatsoever to matters of political correctness, no suggestion that the author is a minion of fascism, no dark hints that his conclusions border on racism, and no tut-tutting about his general lack of moral uprightness.

All this is mind-boggling because it attests to a sea change in public attitudes, to a transformational change in the way certain seemingly obvious truths are received. Changes like that don’t happen over years. It takes decades, and I suspect you have to be around for decades yourself to notice them. Underlying every anecdote, every example, and every assertion in the book is the tacit assumption that our behavior, outside of such fundamental traits as hunger and sexual desire, is not just an artifact of our environment, a reflection of our culture, imprinted on minds of almost unlimited malleability. Rather, its underlying theme is that much of our behavior is conditioned by innate characteristics hard-wired in the circuitry of our brains. Forty or fifty years ago, many books with a similar theme were published by the likes of Konrad Lorenz, Niko Tinbergen, and Robert Ardrey. Inevitably, whenever a new one turned up, secular religious fanatics of the Marxist and related schools began frothing at the mouth. Their authors were demonized and denounced as perpetrators of every sort of evil and immorality. Any suggestion that certain aspects of human nature were innate posed a threat to their plans to create an earthly paradise for us, and then “re-educate” us to like it. In a word, it threatened the whole concept of the “New Soviet Man.” They became just as furious as any fundamentalist Christian at the suggestion that the earth is more than 7,000 years old. Richard Dawkins has done a particularly able job of dissecting one of the literary artifacts of this school of thought, “Not in our Genes,” by R. Lewontin, et. al., demonstrating his virtuosity at dissecting secular as well as traditional religions.

Secular religions have certain disadvantages not shared by the more traditional, “spiritual” varieties. For example, they promise heaven in this life instead of the next, and so are subject to fact-checking. The history of the Soviet Union is a case in point. They are also more vulnerable to demonstrable scientific facts, because they cannot point to a superhuman authority with the power to veto common sense, and they typically claim to be “scientific” themselves. All of these have contributed to the sea change in attitudes I refer to, but I suspect the great scientific advances of recent years in neuroscience and evolutionary psychology have played the most decisive role. Many of those advances have been enabled by sophisticated scanning devices, with which we can now peer deep into the brain and watch its workings in real time down to the molecular level. Lehrer cites many examples in his book. The facts are there, in the form of repeatable experiments. Lehrer cites the evidence, treating the innate in human behavior, not as a heresy, but as a commonplace, obvious on the face of it. I can but wonder at how rapidly the transformation has taken place.

“How We Decide” is a pleasure to read, and it will surely make you think. I found the chapter on “The Moral Mind” particularly interesting. Among other things, it demonstrates the absurdity of the misperception, shared by so many otherwise highly intelligent people from ancient to modern times, that we will not act morally unless we have some rational reason for doing so, such as the dictates of a God, or the systems of philosophers. As Lehrer puts it,

Religious believers assume that God invented the moral code. It was given to Moses on Mount Sinai, a list of imperatives inscribed in stone. (As Dostoyevsky put it, “If there is no God, then we are lost in a moral chaos. Everything is permitted.”) But this cultural narrative gets the causality backward. Moral emotions existed long before Moses.

Lehrer also cites some of the many great thinkers who have, throughout our history, drawn attention to the remarkable similarities in our moral behavior that transcend culture, and came to the common conclusion that there was something innate about morality. For example, quoting from the book,

Although (Adam) Smith is best known for his economic treatise “The Wealth of Nations,” he was most proud of “The Theory of Moral Sentiments,” his sprawling investigation into the psychology of morality. Like his friend David Hume, Smith was convinced that our moral decisions were shaped by our emotional instincts. People were good for essentially irrational reasons.

What Smith and Hume couldn’t know was how morality is innate, or why. Now, as Lehrer shows us, we are finally beginning to find out.

Do yourself a favor and read the book.

Crunch Time for the National Ignition Facility

ICFThe news from California is encouraging.  In an article recently published in Science and summarized on the website of Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory (LLNL), scientists working at the National Ignition Facility (NIF) report efficient coupling of energy from all 192 beams of the giant facility into a hohlraum target similar to the one that will be used later this year in the first attempts to achieve fusion ignition and “breakeven,” usually defined as more energy production from fusion than was carried in the laser beams used to hit the target.  The design energy of the NIF is 1.8 megajoules, and, according to the latest reports from Livermore, the threshold of one megajoule has already been achieved. 

In inertial confinement fusion, or ICF, the target, a thin, spherical shell containing a mixture of deuterium and tritium, two heavy isotopes of hydrogen, is first compressed and imploded to very high densities.  A series of converging shocks then create a “hot spot” in the center of the compressed material, setting off fusion reactions which release enough energy to set off a “burn wave.”  This wave propagates out through the remaining fuel material, heating it to fusion energies as well.  The process is known as inertial confinement fusion because it takes place so fast (on the order of a nanosecond) that the material’s own inertia holds it in place long enough for the fusion reactions to occur.  There are two basic approaches; direct drive, in which the laser beams hit the fusion target directly, and indirect drive, the process that will be used in the upcoming Livermore ignition experiments, in which the beams are shot into a hollow can or “hohlraum,” producing x-rays when they hit the inner walls.  These x-rays then implode and ignite the target.  

A potential problem that must be overcome in ICF is known as laser plasma interactions (LPI).  These are parasitic interactions which can soak up laser energy and quench the fusion process.  According to the Livermore paper, special grids at the hohlraum entrance holes were used in the latest experiments, allowing the use of LPI to “tweak” the incoming beams, steering them to just the right spots.  This recent (and elegant) innovation allows the exploitation of a process that has always been considered a major headache in the past to actually improve the chances of achieving igntion.

The BBC and Spiegel both have articles about the latest experiments today, conflating the energy and military applications of the NIF as usual.  According to the Spiegel article, for example, it will be necessary for the lasers in a fusion reactor to hit the target ten times a second, whereas hours are necessary between shots at the NIF.  The reason, of course, is that the NIF was never designed as an energy project, but is being funded by the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) to conduct nuclear weapons experiments.  If ignition is achieved, the prospects for fusion energy will certainly be improved, but the prospects aren’t nearly as bright as the press releases from LLNL would imply.  It will still be necessary to overcome a great number of scientific and engineering hurdles before the process can ever become useful and economical as a source of energy.

I am not optimistic about the success of the upcoming experiments.  I suspect it will be too difficult to achieve the fine beam energy balance and symmetry that will be necessary to ignite the central “hot spot.”  It will take more than one converging shock to do the job.  Several will be necessary, moving inward through the target material at just the right speed to converge at a small spot at the center.  If they really pull it off, I will be surprised, but will be more than happy to eat crow.  A lot of very talented scientists have dedicated their careers to the quest for fusion, and I’m keeping my fingers crossed for them. 

Even if these ignition experiments fail, it won’t mean the end for fusion by a long shot.  We know we can achieve the high fuel densities needed for inertial fusion, and there are other ways of creating the “hot spot” needed to achieve ignition, such as “fast ignitor.”  Other approaches to fusion keep showing up in the scientific literature, and I can’t help but think that, eventually, one of them will succeed.

Biocentrism and Other Quantum Mechanical Artifacts

Given the massive scientific, technological and philosophical significance of the great discoveries in the field of quantum mechanics since Max Planck saved us from the Ultraviolet Catastrophe, it’s odd how little of that knowledge has percolated down through even the more educated and well-informed strata of society. Occasionally you might run across someone who’s heard about the quantized energies, quantum states, and quantum numbers that Planck postulated more than a century ago. However, the stunning theories about the wave nature of matter developed by the likes of de Broglie, Schrödinger, Pauli, Heisenberg, and many of the other giants of 20th century physics are usually terra incognita for anyone other than physical scientists. It’s a shame, because the implications of what they revealed to us are profound. Among other things, the purely deterministic universe of classical physics is no more. It is no longer quite so “obvious” that, as so eloquently put by Edward Fitzgerald in his translation of the Rubaiyat,

With earth’s first clay, they did the last man’s knead,
And then of the last harvest sowed the seed,
Yea the first morning of creation wrote,
What the last dawn of reckoning shall read

We have discovered that the reality of the universe does not exactly correspond to the picture our senses present to us, and we are still far from knowing what all this stuff around us really is, and why it exists to begin with. It is a strange reality of fields, wave functions and space and time whose measurements depend on who is doing the measuring. It’s too bad most of us are so unaware of all these developments. There are many good books out there, including some that should be easily comprehensible to an intelligent undergraduate and even high school student, that could clear up a lot of the mystery.  It would be well if our schools devoted more time to teaching some of this material. 

Meanwhile, all sorts of fanciful notions are floating about to charm the unwary and impose on the gullible.  Among these is the idea of biocentrism, according to which the universe has no independent existence, but is created by life, or, more specifically, consciousness, and could not exist without it.  The modern incarnation of this Berkelian universe was recently set forth by Robert Lanza and Bob Berman in a book entitled, “Biocentrism:  How Life and Consciousness Are the Keys to Understanding the True Nature of the Universe.”

A review of the book appears on the website of Discover Magazine with the byline, “Stem-cell guru Robert Lanza presents a radical new view of the universe and everything in it.”  Terms like “radical” and “new” are a bit of a stretch.  Berkelian ideas supposedly informed by quantum discoveries have been around since at least the days when Schrödinger came up with his famous parable of the cat.  We can forgive the authors for a bit of hype though, as it is unlikely that something more realistic, like “hackneyed old view,”  would have encouraged sales of their book.  In any case, according to Lanza,

For centuries, scientists regarded Berkeley’s argument as a philosophical sideshow and continued to build physical models based on the assumption of a separate universe “out there” into which we have each individually arrived. These models presume the existence of one essential reality that prevails with us or without us. Yet since the 1920s, quantum physics experiments have routinely shown the opposite: Results do depend on whether anyone is observing. This is perhaps most vividly illustrated by the famous two-slit experiment. When someone watches a subatomic particle or a bit of light pass through the slits, the particle behaves like a bullet, passing through one hole or the other. But if no one observes the particle, it exhibits the behavior of a wave that can inhabit all possibilities—including somehow passing through both holes at the same time.

Some of the greatest physicists have described these results as so confounding they are impossible to comprehend fully, beyond the reach of metaphor, visualization, and language itself. But there is another interpretation that makes them sensible. Instead of assuming a reality that predates life and even creates it, we propose a biocentric picture of reality. From this point of view, life—particularly consciousness—creates the universe, and the universe could not exist without us.

Here it is hard to avoid the conclusion that Lanza is deliberately imposing on the reader’s credulity.  The only other conclusion is that he simply doesn’t know what he’s talking about.  The results of the “famous two slit experiment” have been well understood since at least the time that Heisenberg proposed his famous Uncertainty Principle.  It is well known that a measuring device capable of detecting a particle at either of the two slits could not measure its passage without interacting with it, and that if it had sufficient spatial resolution to determine which slit it passed through, it would necessary disturb the particle’s momentum so much that the double-slit interference pattern would be destroyed.  If any “great physicists” are still “confounded” by these results, I would like to know who they are.  How a biocentric view of the universe somehow explains this imaginary paradox is beyond me.  Continuing with Lanza:

In 1997 University of Geneva physicist Nicolas Gisin sent two entangled photons zooming along optical fibers until they were seven miles apart. One photon then hit a two-way mirror where it had a choice: either bounce off or go through. Detectors recorded what it randomly did. But whatever action it took, its entangled twin always performed the complementary action. The communication between the two happened at least 10,000 times faster than the speed of light. It seems that quantum news travels instantaneously, limited by no external constraints—not even the speed of light. Since then, other researchers have duplicated and refined Gisin’s work. Today no one questions the immediate nature of this connectedness between bits of light or matter, or even entire clusters of atoms.

Before these experiments most physicists believed in an objective, independent universe. They still clung to the assumption that physical states exist in some absolute sense before they are measured.

All of this is now gone for keeps.

In the first place, the belief in an objective, independent universe is not the same thing as the assumption that physical states exist in some absolute sense before they are measured.  In the second, “All this” is not gone for keeps in either case.  Such comments have nothing in common with scientific hypotheses.  Rather, they are ideological statements of faith.  Lanza continues with a discussion of the so-called Goldilocks principle:

The strangeness of quantum reality is far from the only argument against the old model of reality. There is also the matter of the fine-tuning of the cosmos. Many fundamental traits, forces, and physical constants—like the charge of the electron or the strength of gravity—make it appear as if everything about the physical state of the universe were tailor-made for life. Some researchers call this revelation the Goldilocks principle, because the cosmos is not “too this” or “too that” but rather “just right for life.”

At the moment there are only four explanations for this mystery. The first two give us little to work with from a scientific perspective. One is simply to argue for incredible coincidence. Another is to say, “God did it,” which explains nothing even if it is true.

The third explanation invokes a concept called the anthropic principle, first articulated by Cambridge astrophysicist Brandon Carter in 1973. This principle holds that we must find the right conditions for life in our universe, because if such life did not exist, we would not be here to find those conditions. Some cosmologists have tried to wed the anthropic principle with the recent theories that suggest our universe is just one of a vast multitude of universes, each with its own physical laws. Through sheer numbers, then, it would not be surprising that one of these universes would have the right qualities for life. But so far there is no direct evidence whatsoever for other universes.

The final option is biocentrism, which holds that the universe is created by life and not the other way around.

Why biocentrism, which explains none of the observed phenomena mentioned in the article, must be considered the “final option” is beyond me.  Allow me to suggest a fifth option:  Our knowledge of the physical universe is imperfect, and, as yet, we lack the physical insight to explain everything we observe or to grasp the physical essence of a universe of which our senses give us but a clouded perception.  While I am not quite as convinced as Einstein that “God does not play dice with the universe,” it seems to me that the words of de Broglie, a great physicist who first proposed the theory of matter waves, are well worth heeding:

We can reasonably accept that the attitude adopted for nearly 30 years by theoretical quantum physicists is, at least in appearance, the exact counterpart of information which experiment has given us of the atomic world. At the level now reached by research in microphysics, it is certain that methods of measurement do not allow us to determine simultaneously all the magnitudes which would be necessary to obtain a picture of the classical type of corpuscles (this can be deduced from Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle), and that the perturbations introduced by the measurement, which are impossible to eliminate, prevent us in general from predicting precisely the result which it will produce and allow only statistical predictions. The construction of purely probabilistic formulae that all theoreticians use today was thus completely justified. However, the majority of them, often under the influence of preconceived ideas derived from positivist doctrine, have thought that they could go further and assert that the uncertain and incomplete character of the knowledge that experiment at its present stage gives us about what really happens in microphysics is the result of a real indeterminacy of the physical states and of their evolution. Such an extrapolation does not appear in any way to be justified. It is possible that looking into the future to a deeper level of physical reality we will be able to interpret the laws of probability and quantum physics as being the statistical results of the development of completely determined values of variables which are at present hidden from us. It may be that the powerful means we are beginning to use to break up the structure of the nucleus and to make new particles appear will give us one day a direct knowledge which we do not now have at this deeper level. To try to stop all attempts to pass beyond the present viewpoint of quantum physics could be very dangerous for the progress of science and would furthermore be contrary to the lessons we may learn from the history of science. This teaches us, in effect, that the actual state of our knowledge is always provisional and that there must be, beyond what is actually known, immense new regions to discover.

Well said by a great physicist and a great thinker, who, in spite of his fame, still had the humility to present his ideas as hypotheses instead of dogmas set forth imperiously as “the final option.”

Stephen Hawking, Genetic Engineering, and the Future of Mankind

The Daily Galaxy has chosen Stephen Hawking’s contention that the human species has entered a new stage of evolution as the top story of 2009.  It was included in his Life in the Universe lecture, along with many other thought provoking observations about the human condition.  I don’t agree with his suggestion that we need to redefine the word “evolution” to include the collective knowledge we’ve accumulated since the invention of written language.  The old definition will do just fine, and conflating it with something different can only lead to confusion.  Still, if “top story” billing will get more people to read the lecture, I’m all in favor of it, because it’s well worth the effort.  Agree with him or not, Hawking has a keen eye for picking topics of cosmic importance.  By “cosmic importance,” I mean more likely to retain their relevance 100 years from now than, say, the latest wrinkles in the health care debate or the minutiae of Tiger Woods’ sex life.

Hawking begins with a salutary demolition of the Creationist argument that life could not have evolved because of the Second Law of Thermodynamics.  The fact that the use of this argument implies ignorance of the relevant theory has done little to deter religious obscurantists from using it, so the more scientists of Hawking’s stature point out its absurdity, the better. 

The lecture continues with some observations on the possible reasons we have not yet detected intelligent life outside our own planet.  These reasons are summarized as follows:

1. The probability of life appearing is very low
2. The probability of life is reasonable, but the probability of intelligence is low
3. The probability of evolving to our present state is reasonable, but then civilization destroys itself
4. There is other intelligent life in the galaxy, but it has not bothered to come here

My two cents worth:  I think the probability of life appearing is low, but the probability that it is limited to earth is also low.  It would be surprising if life only evolved on one planet, but managed to survive long enough on that one planet for intelligent beings like ourselves to evolve.  On the other hand, we may be the only intelligent life form in the universe.  If not, why haven’t we heard from or detected the others?  Let us hope that the proponents of the third possibility are overly pessimistic.

Later in the lecture, after noting the explosion of human knowledge over the last 300 years, Hawking observes:

This has meant that no one person can be the master of more than a small corner of human knowledge. People have to specialise, in narrower and narrower fields. This is likely to be a major limitation in the future. We certainly cannot continue, for long, with the exponential rate of growth of knowledge that we have had in the last three hundred years. An even greater limitation and danger for future generations, is that we still have the instincts, and in particular, the aggressive impulses, that we had in cave man days. Aggression, in the form of subjugating or killing other men, and taking their women and food, has had definite survival advantage, up to the present time. But now it could destroy the entire human race, and much of the rest of life on Earth. A nuclear war is still the most immediate danger, but there are others, such as the release of a genetically engineered virus. Or the green house effect becoming unstable.

I would differ with him on some of the details here.  For example, the bit about aggression oversimplifies the evolution of innate predispositions.  Back in the day when Konrad Lorenz published “On Aggression,” the behaviorists would have dismissed even a gentle soul like Hawking as a “fascist” for speaking of an “instinct” of aggression in such indelicate terms.  Nevertheless, when it comes to the basic premise of the sentence, Hawking gets it right.  We are not purely rational beings, nor is our behavior determined solely by culture and environment.  Rather, we act in response to predispositions that were hard-wired in our brains at a time when our manner of existence was vastly different than it is today.  They had survival value then.  They may doom us in the world of today unless we learn to understand and control them.

Hawking continues:

There is no time, to wait for Darwinian evolution, to make us more intelligent, and better natured. But we are now entering a new phase, of what might be called, self designed evolution, in which we will be able to change and improve our DNA. There is a project now on, to map the entire sequence of human DNA. It will cost a few billion dollars, but that is chicken feed, for a project of this importance. Once we have read the book of life, we will start writing in corrections. At first, these changes will be confined to the repair of genetic defects, like cystic fibrosis, and muscular dystrophy. These are controlled by single genes, and so are fairly easy to identify, and correct. Other qualities, such as intelligence, are probably controlled by a large number of genes. It will be much more difficult to find them, and work out the relations between them. Nevertheless, I am sure that during the next century, people will discover how to modify both intelligence, and instincts like aggression.

Laws will be passed against genetic engineering with humans. But some people won’t be able to resist the temptation, to improve human characteristics, such as size of memory, resistance to disease, and length of life. Once such super humans appear, there are going to be major political problems, with the unimproved humans, who won’t be able to compete. Presumably, they will die out, or become unimportant. Instead, there will be a race of self-designing beings, who are improving themselves at an ever-increasing rate.

Here, he is right on.  Unless we manage to destroy ourselves in the near future, or at least our highly developed technological societies, individuals will inevitably begin to take advantage of the potential of genetic engineering.  That is a good thing, to the extent that our survival is a good thing, because we are unlikely to survive unless we do develop into what Hawking calls “self-designing beings.”  We have certainly made a hash of things at our present level of development in a very short time.  We can’t go on long the way we are now. 

Continuing with Hawking:

If this race manages to redesign itself, to reduce or eliminate the risk of self-destruction, it will probably spread out, and colonise other planets and stars. However, long distance space travel, will be difficult for chemically based life forms, like DNA. The natural lifetime for such beings is short, compared to the travel time. According to the theory of relativity, nothing can travel faster than light. So the round trip to the nearest star would take at least 8 years, and to the centre of the galaxy, about a hundred thousand years. In science fiction, they overcome this difficulty, by space warps, or travel through extra dimensions. But I don’t think these will ever be possible, no matter how intelligent life becomes. In the theory of relativity, if one can travel faster than light, one can also travel back in time. This would lead to problems with people going back, and changing the past. One would also expect to have seen large numbers of tourists from the future, curious to look at our quaint, old-fashioned ways.

In fact, covering galactic and inter-galactic distances is not theoretically out of the question.  One may not be able to exceed the speed of light, but one can reduce the distances one has to travel via the Lorenz contraction.  Thus, if I could find some means to accelerate myself to nearly the speed of light, the apparent distance to, for example, the Andromeda galaxy would shrink until, finally, I could reach it in a time short compared to a human lifetime.  The only problem is, if I were able to turn around and come back the same way, the Milky Way would be about 3 million years older than when I left.  Accelerating objects the size of a human being to nearly the speed of light and ensuring their survival over large distances would not be easy.  However, accelerating the DNA required to create a human being, along with, say, self-replicating nano-machinery that could create an environment for and then use the DNA to bring a human being to life would be much easier, and, I think plausible.  It may be the way we eventually colonize distant star systems with suitable earth-like planets.  I am not on board with the alternative suggested by Hawking:

It might be possible to use genetic engineering, to make DNA based life survive indefinitely, or at least for a hundred thousand years. But an easier way, which is almost within our capabilities already, would be to send machines. These could be designed to last long enough for interstellar travel. When they arrived at a new star, they could land on a suitable planet, and mine material to produce more machines, which could be sent on to yet more stars. These machines would be a new form of life, based on mechanical and electronic components, rather than macromolecules. They could eventually replace DNA based life, just as DNA may have replaced an earlier form of life.

It puzzles me that someone as brilliant as Hawking could find such a vision of the future attractive.  Perhaps he has made the mistake of conflating our consciousness with ourselves, and thinks that “eternal life” is merely a matter of perpetuating consciousness in machines.  In fact, consciousness is just an evolved trait.  Like all our other evolved traits, it exists because it helped to promote our survival.  “We” are not our consciousness.  “We” are our genetic material.  That “we” has lived for many hundreds of millions of years, and is potentially immortal.  Consciousness is just a trait that comes and goes with each reproductive cycle.  If our consciousness fools us into believing that it is really the substantial and important thing about us, and its perpetuation is a good in itself, it may mean the emergence of a new race of machines.  Regardless of their consciousness, however, they won’t be “us.”  Rather, “we” will have finally succeeded in annihilating ourselves, and the future evolution of the universe will have become as pointless as far as we are concerned as if life had never evolved at all.

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Human Enhancement and Morality: Another Day in the Asylum

The Next Big Future site links to a report released by a bevy of professors that, we are told, is to serve “…as a convenient and accessible starting point for both public and classroom discussions, such as in bioethics seminars.” The report itself may be found here. It contains “25 Questions & Answers,” many of which relate to moral and ethical issues related to human enhancement. For example,

1. What is human enhancement?
2. Is the natural/artificial distinction morally significant in this debate?
3. Is the internal/external distinction morally significant in this debate?
4. Is the therapy/enhancement distinction morally significant in this debate?
9. Could we justify human enhancement technologies by appealing to our right to be free?
10. Could we justify enhancing humans if it harms no one other than perhaps the individual?

You get the idea. Now, search through the report and try to find a few clues about what the authors are talking about when they use the term “morality.” There are precious few. Under question 25 (Will we need to rethink ethics itself?) we read,

To a large extent, our ethics depends on the kinds of creatures that we are. Philosophers traditionally have based ethical theories on assumptions about human nature. With enhancements we may become relevantly different creatures and therefore need to re-think our basic ethical positions.

This is certainly sufficiently coy. There is no mention of the basis we are supposed to use to do the re-thinking. If we look through some of the other articles and reports published by the authors, we find other hints. For example, in “Why We Need Better Ethics for Emerging Technologies” in “Ethics and Information Technology” by Prof. James H. Moor of Dartmouth we find,

… first, we need realistically to take into account that ethics is an ongoing and dynamic enterprise. Second, we can improve ethics by establishing better collaborations among ethicists, scientists, social scientists, and technologists. We need a multi-disciplinary approach (Brey, 2000). The third improvement for ethics would be to develop more sophisticated ethical analyses. Ethical theories themselves are often simplistic and do not give much guidance to particular situations. Often the alternative is to do technological assessment in terms of cost/benefit analysis. This approach too easily invites evaluation in terms of money while ignoring or discounting moral values which are difficult to represent or translate into monetary terms. At the very least, we need to be more proactive and less reactive in doing ethics.

Great! I’m all for proactivity. But if we “do” ethics, what is to be the basis on which we “do” them. If we are to have such a basis, do we not first need to understand the morality on which ethical rules are based? What we have here is another effort by “experts on ethics” who apparently have no clue about the morality that must be the basis for the ethical rules they discuss so wisely if they are to have any legitimacy. If they do have a clue, they are being extremely careful to make sure we are not aware of it. Apparently we are to trust them because, after all, they are recognized “experts.” They don’t want us to peek at the “man behind the curtain.”

This is an excellent example of what E. O. Wilson was referring to when he inveighed against the failure of these “experts” to “put their cards on the table” in his book, “Consilience.” The authors never inform us whether they believe the morality they refer to with such gravity is an object, a thing-in-itself, or, on the contrary, is an evolved, subjective construct, as their vague allusion to a basis in “human nature” would seem to imply. Like so many other similar “experts” in morality and ethics, they are confident that most people will “know what they mean” when they refer to these things and will not press them to explain themselves. After all, they are “experts.” They have the professorial titles and NSF grants to prove it. When it comes to actually explaining what they mean when they refer to morality, to informing us what they think it actually is, and how and why it exists, they become as vague as the Oracle of Delphi.

Read John Stuart Mill’s “Utilitarianism,” and you will quickly see the difference between the poseurs and someone who knows what he’s talking about. Mill was not able to sit on the shoulders of giants like Darwin and the moral theorists who based their ideas on his work, not to mention our modern neuroscientists. Yet, in spite of the fact that these transformational insights came too late to inform his work, he had a clear and focused grasp of his subject. He knew that it was not enough to simply assume others knew what he meant when he spoke of morality. In reading his short essay we learn that he knew the difference between transcendental and subjective morality, that he was aware of and had thought deeply about the theories of those who claimed (long before Darwin) that morality was a manifestation of human nature, and that one could not claim the validity or legitimacy of moral rules without establishing the basis for that legitimacy. In other words, Mill did lay his cards on the table in “Utilitarianism.” Somehow, the essay seems strangely apologetic. Often it seems he is saying, “Well, I know my logic is a bit weak here, but I have done at least as well as the others.” Genius that he was, Mill knew that there was an essential something missing from his moral theories. If he had lived a few decades later, I am confident he would have found it.

Those who would be taken seriously when they discuss morality must first make it quite clear they know what morality is. As those who have read my posts on the topic know, I, too, have laid my cards on the table. I consider morality an evolved human trait, with no absolute legitimacy whatsoever beyond that implied by its evolutionary origin at a time long before the emergence of modern human societies, or any notion of transhumanism or human enhancements. As such, it can have no relevance or connection whatsoever to such topics other than as an emotional response to an issue to which that emotion, an evolved response like all our other emotions, was never “designed” to apply.

Alternative Energy Myths and the Nuclear Orphan

Another interesting article turned up in Foreign Policy recently entitled “Seven Myths about Alternative Energy,” by legacy media environmental journalist Michael Grunwald. His collection of “myths” provides a revealing look at the psychology of the “green” would be saviors of the planet. Let’s run down his list.

Myth number one is, “We need to do everything possible to promote alternative energy.” Grunwald prefers a different emphasis: “…though the world should do everything sensible to promote alternative energy, there’s no point trying to do everything possible.” The information content of this bit of wordsmithing as it stands is epsilon (a very small number). From the left to the right of the ideological spectrum, I have never encountered anyone who proposes that we should do everything possible to promote alternative energy, including things that don’t make sense. Reading on, one notes that, in a blurb that is supposed to be about alternative energy, Grunwald studiously avoids any mention of such credible candidates as wind, solar, and geothermal. Rather, he directs his ire at alternatives that aren’t quite ready for prime time: “Hydrogen cars, cold fusion, and other speculative technologies might sound cool, but they could divert valuable resources from ideas that are already achievable and cost-effective.” This statement is logically absurd.

Consider fusion for example. The amount of resources being “diverted” worldwide to the energy applications of fusion, including both its hot and cold flavors, is utterly insignificant in comparison to the amount we spend on energy production, the total amount we spend on research, or any other number one could reasonably compare it to. I am no fusion true believer. It is a high risk technology, and one that will almost certainly not figure in the world’s energy equation before Grunwald’s target date of 2050. If, on the other hand, we can overcome the daunting technological hurdles Mother Nature has put in our path and find a way to use it, fusion has the potential to meet the world’s energy needs indefinitely while releasing no greenhouse gases and with an insignificant radiological hazard compared to nuclear and coal. There are many interesting research efforts afoot to finesse the technological problems that beset such “traditional” approaches as magnetic and inertial confinement fusion. The amount of research dollars being devoted to these efforts is miniscule. They can all be characterized as high risk, but it is hardly implausible to suggest that, eventually, one of them will succeed. If so, the payoff will be enormous. The problem of greenhouse gas emissions might be solved once and for all, without the severe environmental impact of covering massive areas with wind farms and solar collectors. In a word, if we are truly worried about global warming, it would be utterly reckless and senseless to eliminate the tiny resources we currently devote to energy applications of fusion. As we shall see, Grunwald’s reasons for rejecting such alternatives, not to mention the seeming lack of interest in such immediately available sources such as wind, solar and geothermal have more to do with psychology than logic.

Moving on to myths 2 and 3, Grunwald turns his ire on biofuels, such as ethanol derived from corn. No surprise there, as he has often hammered the “clean energy” hype emanating from that sector in the past. He notes that such “renewable fuels” have been heavily promoted by governments around the world, including ours, but points out, “…so far in the real world, the cures — mostly ethanol derived from corn in the United States or biodiesel derived from palm oil, soybeans, and rapeseed in Europe — have been significantly worse than the disease.” So far, so good. I have yet to see a convincing argument in favor of biofuels that seriously addresses such problems as the facts that their production results in a net loss in energy, horrific environmental damage, and a reduction in the world’s food supply. The problem with myths 2 and 3 is that they are strawmen. I know of no credible authority outside of industry advocates who is seriously suggesting that biofuels are a plausible solution to global warming.

Grunwald’s myth 4 is, “Nuclear power is the cure for our addiction to coal.” This seems counterintuitive, since, according to the most reliable studies, the carbon footprint of nuclear plants is a small fraction of that of its fossil fuel alternatives. Among the reasons Grunwald cites for dismissing the nuclear alternative is the fact that it will be too slow coming on line to make a dent in carbon emissions in the near term. That’s quite true, but while one may certainly point to it as an unfortunate fact of life, it is certainly no reason to abandon nuclear altogether. If global warming is really the problem Grunwald claims it is, than surely late is better than never.

Be that as it may, Grunwald cites cost as the real show stopper for nuclear power. As he puts it,

Nuke plants are supposed to be expensive to build but cheap to operate. Unfortunately, they’re turning out to be really, really expensive to build; their cost estimates have quadrupled in less than a decade. Energy guru Amory Lovins has calculated that new nukes will cost nearly three times as much as wind — and that was before their construction costs exploded for a variety of reasons, including the global credit crunch, the atrophying of the nuclear labor force, and a supplier squeeze symbolized by a Japanese company’s worldwide monopoly on steel-forging for reactors.

At this point, the familiar anti-nuclear “green” narrative emerges from the mist, and Grunwald leaves logical argument in the dust. Amory Lovins is certainly someone worth listening to. He is also one of the legacy media’s beloved “mavericks,” and hardly someone whose cost estimates represent the final word on the subject. In fact, if one looks at the credible cost estimates of nuclear versus its alternatives, not just from sources connected with the industry, but, for example, from a study done in 2003 by an interdisciplinary group of MIT professors and updated in 2009, the suggestion that nuclear is “really, really expensive” compared to the alternatives may be dismissed as bunk. Grunwald might have had some credibility if he had taken the trouble to dispute these estimates with arguments more substantial than anecdotes about Japanese steel monopolies. As it is, it is clear that his rejection of nuclear has nothing to do with its intrinsic merits or lack thereof. Rather, it simply doesn’t fit in the “conservation and efficiency” narrative he shares with Lovins. Grunwald uses myths 5 through 7 to outline the narrative.

It turns out that myth 5, “There is no silver bullet to the energy crisis,” is only a pseudo-myth. As Grunwald himself admits, “Probably not.” Be that as it may, he clearly has a silver bullet in mind; efficiency. In his words,

But some bullets are a lot better than others; we ought to give them our best shot before we commit to evidently inferior bullets. And one renewable energy resource is the cleanest, cheapest, and most abundant of them all. It doesn’t induce deforestation or require elaborate security. It doesn’t depend on the weather. And it won’t take years to build or bring to market; it’s already universally available. It is called “efficiency.”

Conservation and energy efficiency are certainly laudable goals, and ones that should be pursued aggressively. However, Grunwald’s problem is that he sees them in typical journalistic black and white. They are the one true path to salvation, as opposed to the “inferior bullets.” This setting up of artificial barriers separating the plausible alternatives to solving our energy problems into a “good” approach standing in opposition to other “bad” approaches is more a reflection of human psychology than logic. For example, the hard fact is that rejection of nuclear power has and will continue to result in the building of more fossil-fired generation capacity. That is precisely what is going on in Germany, whose “Greens” have forced the foolhardy decision to shut down nuclear plants rather than refurbish them and keep them on line, resulting in the building of new coal plants even as we speak, and in defiance of these same “Greens” warm, fuzzy rhetoric about the virtues of alternative energy. Similarly, Grunwald’s blasé attitude towards alternatives such as wind, solar, and geothermal is more likely to encourage complacency than, for example, an aggressive approach to building the power transmission infrastructure we need to accommodate these new technologies. According to Grunwald,

Al Gore has a reasonably plausible plan for zero-emissions power by 2020; he envisions an ambitious 28 percent decrease in demand through efficiency, plus some ambitious increases in supply from wind, solar, and geothermal energy. But we don’t even have to reduce our fossil fuel use to zero to reach our 2020 targets. We just have to use less.

Al Gore may be right, but he may also be wrong. Regardless, it would be foolish of us to put all of our eggs in one basket. In particular, it would be very foolish to cut off the already miniscule support we are currently giving to high risk, high payoff technologies such as fusion. It is highly unlikely that global energy demand will go down as the world’s population continues to increase, or that the citizens of emerging economic powers such as India and China will continue to be satisfied with a third world lifestyle. Ignoring technologies that could plausibly solve the problem of global warming because Grunwald thinks they are dumb would be both illogical and, potentially, suicidal. His attitude is typical of the representatives of what H. L. Mencken used to call the “uplift” on the left. Though I suspect most of them don’t realize it themselves, they are far more interested in posing as saviors of mankind than in actually saving mankind. Hence, for example, the hand waving dismissal of nuclear technology. The Grunwalds of the world will continue to dismiss it, not because it is not a plausible piece of an overall solution to the problem of global warming, but because it is unfashionable. If one would strike a truly heroic pose, one cannot afford to be unfashionable.