Tuesday, 27 November 2012

Climate is changing faster than expected

You may have heard that global climate change is happening faster than predicted. A recent feature in the New Scientist (17 November, 2012), ‘Global warning’ by Michael Le Page, describes the current situation, as does this blog on the Scientific American website:

Polar melting is accelerating, as is sea level rise.

Climate models are having to be updated as more data is gathered worldwide and as methodology is refined. In 2007 the IPCC Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) predicted a  global temperature rise of 4 deg C by  2100 as a worst case scenario. More powerful models developed since then by the MIT in the USA  and the Met Office in the UK suggest that the 4 deg level will be reached by 2070 or before. By 2100 it could be as high as 7 deg C (10% chance).

Overall, the acceleration arises from both natural and man-made causes. The main points:


1. Arctic warming faster than expected

The Arctic is warming at twice the global average. The arctic ice cover is decreasing more rapidly than forecast  by the IPCC in 2007. At the 2012 summer minimum in September only one quarter of the Arctic Ocean was ice-covered, and the ice is getting thinner. This was not supposed to happen for several decades. The next IPCC report is in 2014. See also, Arctic warming: not all bad news
2. Jet stream weakening and moving

The jet stream is a current of air in the stratosphere (several miles high) driven by the temperature difference between arctic and tropical air masses. When these meet they try to intermix but the action of the Earth’s rotation deflects the south to north current of air to move roughly west to east. This stream of air guides and moves depressions across the North Atlantic. Because of the arctic warming the arctic-tropical temperature difference is less., so that the jet stream is deprived of its energy source.  The result is less predictable and more slowly moving cyclones.

3. Global water cycle is much greater than forecast

The water cycle is the circular process by which  water (mainly in the oceans) first evaporates, then condenses in cloud, then falls back to its source as rain or snow. This  is occurring at twice the  predicted rate, which has big effects not only on precipitation (see below) but on humidity.

4. Rain and snow increasing by more than expected.

 Rainfall and snow intensity in the N. hemisphere is an order of magnitude greater than climate models predicted as the air becomes more moisture-laden, a direct consequence of the accelerated water cycle. The duration of precipitation at any one place is also increasing. This is because the depressions associated with it are moving more slowly than only a decade go, which in turn is a result of the weakened jet stream.

5. More and longer droughts

Ironically, we are getting more droughts as well as more intense precipitation. The climate models always foresaw the increase in extremes, both in frequency and intensity, but the increases are exceeding those forecast. This obviously has implications for food production.

6. Worse heatwaves

The seriousness of a heat wave depends not only on temperature but on humidity. Examples: Europe in 2003, when Paris temperatures exceeded 40 deg C for 7 consecutive days; and Russia had a similarly severe heatwave in 2010. The humidity increases the stress on the body, causing vulnerable people to die and many more to work less productively. This arises as cooling evaporation from the skin (sweating) is prevented by the high moisture content of the air.

7. Sea level rising faster than predicted

The acceleration of glacier melting is causing the average sea level to rise faster than the rate computed using past climate models. Both the Arctic and Antarctic ice sheets are melting faster than forecast.  By 2100 sea level  is likely to have risen by 1 to 2 metres. Many low lying cities will be flooded or vulnerable to storm surges.

8. Hurricanes: more, bigger and stronger

These are becoming greater in frequency, size and severity as the ocean warms and the humidity of the air above it increases. Their tracks are complicated by jet stream movements which are difficult to predict.


The climate models did not take into account certain factors which subsequently were found to be important. For example, ponds on the surface of glaciers absorb solar heat more rapidly than a dry surface; and the release of strong greenhouse gases like methane from melting permafrost and methane hydrates in the sea bed.  Cloud cover, type and distribution are notoriously difficult to incorporate in models.

More importantly, natural trends (e.g.  changes in the Earth’s orbit) seem to be adding to the rate of climate change calculated by even the updated models and despite green measures the carbon emissions per capita are rising world-wide as the developing world seeks to emulate the extravagant life style of westerners.

There are so many variables involved in predicting climate and its effects that it is worth seeing what happened in practice when temperatures changed in previous epochs, given the restricted data we have about those times. The most important feature emerging is that  even small changes can trigger large ones very quickly. Three examples:

  • Only very small changes 5,500 years ago turned the savannahs and wetlands of N.Africa into the Sahara desert over a relatively short period - centuries, perhaps decades.
  • 5 to 3 million years ago the world was 2 to 4 deg C warmer than today. According to K Emanuel et al (MIT, USA) the rising number of hurricanes altered the distribution of heat in the oceans and tipped the global climate into a different state, with warmer tropics and hurricanes over a much larger area than today.

  • A mass extinction 250 million years ago is thought to have been caused by temperatures being too high for most animals.

So it seems we are going to have to live with severe disruptions to the climate whatever measures we take to offset it. The question now is what can be done  to deal with the extensive damage it will cause, both directly by injury and indirectly by its effect on food, water, infrastructure and the spreading of disease. Hopefully, some of the change may have beneficial effects by allowing certain areas of land and sea to yield more food instead of less and by forcing people to be more creative and less arrogant in the business of living.  And even the bad effects may concentrate our minds on the precious gift which God has granted us.

see also http://www.scientificamerican.com/article.cfm?id=how-the-ipcc-underestimated-climate-change

Author, 2077 AD
reach me at cosmik.jo@gmail.com

Friday, 23 November 2012

Radioactivity half-life is not a constant

Radioactivity is defined as the spontaneous disintegration of certain atomic nuclei (e.g. carbon-14) into more stable forms (e.g. nitrogen-14). Radioactivity half-life is a measure of how quickly this disintegration occurs, but not for an individual atom.

 It is only measurable and meaningful when considering a large number of radioactive atoms. Then one can talk about how long it takes for half the atoms to decay (i.e. for their nuclei to disintegrate); but looking at one single atom it is absolutely impossible to know whether its nucleus will have decayed in 1 second or 1000 years. One can only talk about the most probable lifetime.

For instance, radium 226 decays into polonium, lead, bismuth and other elements with a half-life of 1601 years. Carbon-14 decays into nitrogen with a half-life of 5,740 years. Yet these figures say nothing about any one atom of Ra-226 or C-14. They are statistical in nature.

Until recently it was assumed that the half-life of samples of elements were constants of nature. Nothing could change them. They reflected the quantum phenomena that go on inside the nucleus of an atom.

It is now looking as though this 80 year old assumption is wrong. There is growing evidence that the radioactivity half life varies with processes occurring inside the sun and the position of the earth in its orbit. This has been found independently in at least three different labs:

 Purdue University, Indiana (manganese-54)
 Brookhaven National Laboratory, NY State (silicon-32)
 German national metrology Institute, Braunschweig (radon-226).

The solar effects are very small – typically 0.1% .Also, they are confined to decay by beta-ray emission - no such effect is observed for decay by alpha- or gamma-ray emission. But they are definitely synchronised to the time when the earth is closest to and furthest from the sun’s northern hemisphere, which is February and August. The radioactive decay rate is higher in February and lower in August than at other times of the year. There is also a correlation with solar flares which could be the basis of a means of forecasting them.

Experiments need to be carried out on carbon-14 because this is used extensively in radiocarbon dating. Variations of a fraction of a percent would not seriously affect existing carbon dating data on archaeological or palaeontological samples. Yet we know that the sun’s activity has not been constant. It is thought to be 20 – 25 % more active now than at the time of the earth’s formation. If miniscule variations in solar activity affect radioactivity very slightly, what would be the effect of large variations? Perhaps none. But if not, the implications for history could be enormous.

Even the small effects discovered to date are inexplicable in terms of existing elementary particle physics. E.g. a new kind of neutrino, the neutrello, has been proposed to explain them but there is no evidence that such a particle exists. It may even be necessary to hypothesise a fifth force in addition to the four already known: electromagnetic, weak nuclear, strong nuclear and gravitational.

Another case of interesting times ahead for physics and possibly for history.

Author 2077 AD
See, for example,

proton size puzzle

Wednesday, 21 November 2012

3D printing of houses

 As floods, hurricanes, earthquakes and volcanoes destroy or damage urban areas with growing frequency large numbers of people will need to be rehoused. The proportion of people living in towns and cities is expected to keep growing – it is already over 50% - and many of these extreme natural events occur in or near them because they tend to be built close to

  •   Coastlines and rivers – to enable transport by ships
  •  Tectonic fault lines – because mineral wealth is concentrated in such places

How do you rehouse the population of a large shanty town flooded as the sea level rises? How do you rebuild a large part of a modern city demolished by an earthquake?

It is too late to undo the damage done by man already, in the sense of accentuated climate change and of shoddy architecture in the wrong places. Millions of people are likely to need rehousing in the coming decades as extreme climate events increase even faster than predicted and as people continue to flock into cities. Providentially, a new kind of building technology is evolving fast and could be ready for serious, in-field use within a decade: 3 dimensional printing of houses.


3D house printing is achieved in a manner similar in principle to the 3D printing already being used. For example, aircraft wings can be designed on a computer and printed layer by layer by extruding the appropriate material through a computer controlled nozzle. There is even a widely available 3D printer costing about a $1000 available to consumers, called the Cube.

It enables you to print out real, physical objects instead of symbols on paper. The set-up for constructing a house would require an overhead gantry from which the printing nozzle would be suspended. The movement of this nozzle, and the rate of supply of composite fibre concrete to it, would be controlled by software defining the structure of the house. This special concrete, which retains its shape while still wet, would be deposited layer by layer, gradually building up the walls. At intervals the printing would be paused to allow floors, insulation, wiring, plumbing and drainage pipes to be installed. The whole process should take less than a day. An engineering professor, Behrokh Khoshnevis, at the University of Southern California, is behind this idea. See this news item.

 Apart from helping communities to recover from disaster the 3D printing principle could be used for house building in normal situations. There are large numbers of people living with minimal protection against the elements and deprived of comforts most people reading this have come to expect. There must be some way of combining this method of building with the installation of sewage systems and power grids.


Khoshnevis also proposes using 3D printing as a way of building space colonies in advance of the intended inhabitants. I have not looked into this but it could be more cost effective than transporting prefabricated modules if you wanted to build a colony. It would be a matter of transporting one gantry plus the material rather than numerous modules which would have to be skilfully handled and put together. I suspect that the total freight storage space needed to transport the modules would be larger than for the 3D printing system.

One potential of present small scale 3D printing is its use as a basis for custom manufacturing units in shops to help regenerate High Streets. It could possibly be combined with skilled craftsmanship to finish off a basic form.

This is powerful technology and it is difficult to imagine it not being used in a big way somehow.


Author, 2077 AD
Reach me at cosmik.jo@gmail.com


Tuesday, 20 November 2012

Stop paying for bad news

One hears with increasing frequency of some new revelation about an organisation which casts doubt on its integrity and undermines trust in it to the extent that it is no longer able to function properly, either because the people within it no longer trust their colleagues or because society as a whole  no longer trusts the organisation.

For example, if a secret service X is devoted to protecting a parliamentary democracy from destruction by terrorists it must operate on a principle of total secrecy and total trust. It cannot possibly perform its role without keeping secret  the way it operates, the information it has obtained about those wishing to destroy society and the specific measures it has in place to infiltrate hostile groups, intercept their communications or destroy their operations. At the same time all the staff and operatives of X must be able to trust one another – in particular, not to divulge secrets.

But the society which X is trying to protect is a democracy with a free press. Suppose some journalists become so motivated by the need for career advancement that they actively seek out transgressions of the internal rules or overall objectives of X. A cost is incurred for every divulgence, true or false: enemies of the state learn something about X and its methods, or the employees suffer diminished trust in each other, which reduces the effectiveness of operations.

Consider a national medical service Y (e.g. the UK’s National Health Service) financed by taxation. It needs its staff to be devoted to the well being of all its patients and to trust each other. If a doctor or nurse or porter or cleaner or administrator reveals to a journalist some kind of misdemeanour or bad practice, no matter how rare and unrepresentative, the organisation’s culture is affected and the public becomes less willing to sanction the allocation of tax revenue. Moreover, the confidence of patients is undermined, which in itself can undermine medical treatment.

A multinational company Z has branches in several countries. A worker in one country airs grievances to a journalist and this causes a widespread belief that all employees are badly treated, which causes many previously satisfied employees to feel aggrieved. Potential customers then boycott products from Z, its profits fall and workers are made redundant and trust between employers and employees is undermined.

Whenever the member of any organisation divulges something negative about it there is a human cost over and above the actual problem reported.  And society is in a sense made up of organisations, so that society as a whole can be badly affected by over-reporting of negative news about the organisations within it. The negative effects are particularly marked when problems in one organisation lead to suspicion that similar organisations have the same problem.

Does this mean one should not report a misdemeanour to the press? No. But what I think is wrong is that the person reporting it should be financially rewarded by the media. If the injustice is so important that its divulgence outweighs in importance the negative impact on the organisation and society in general, then it should be reported regardless of any financial incentive. In general, if an incentive is needed it is, I would argue, questionable whether it should be fed to the public as circulation fodder for a newspaper or to boost the ratings of a TV news show.

 Ultimately, if it becomes normal for pedlars of bad news to be rewarded it could be that people start inventing it or distorting events within their employing organisation. In this situation readers would not trust the stories of bad practices and the journalists themselves would no longer profit from bad news they had paid for.

The job of a journalist is to proactively unearth news and report it in a balanced and fair way, not to offer incentives to deliver it and in so doing damage the society in which he or she operates.

 Journalist should stop paying for bad news. There may be execptions but in general bringing a genuine injustice to the attention of society should be its own reward.


Author, the novel 2077 AD (this is being revised and is not currently available).

Reach me at

Saturday, 17 November 2012

Ethical banks vs ethical banking

Money is an essential age-old means by which civilisation is able to function and advance. Without a reliable means of exchange the various parts of an economy of any kind cannot work together to create value.
Banks are obviously integral to the storage, flow and investment of money. They are crucial to the wise allocation of funds for creative and worthwhile enterprises such as

Charities to rescue those who suffer from deprivation

Companies providing products and services to enhance our lives

Government and public institutions (e.g. NHS in the UK)

Over the last decade or so I have increasingly heard about ethical banks. Recently I came across Triodos while reading Christian Aid News. This has savers (e.g. 30,000 in the UK) who want their money to build a sustainable society and help such organisations as
  • Cafedirect, the Fairtrade tea and coffee producer

  • Ecotricity, which provides green energy across the UK
It publishes details of all the businesses it lends to and does not provide contractual bonuses to its employees.

 Such organisations are beacons of light in a dark financial world. What is sad is that it is necessary to categorise a small number of these under the heading ‘ethical banks’.  All banks should be ethical, adhering to values of truth, innovation, compassion, loyalty, sustainability and vision for a better future, either as a step towards these values becoming more widespread, or better, as a symptom of a society in which such values prevail.
In this kind of society all institutions would function so much more efficiently. So how do we get there?
For these values to become widespread in any nation there needs to be moral leadership, inspiration and sound education for all, irrespective of class, gender or race. So it falls on churches, youth groups, schools and universities to guide young people towards these values, which in turn requires leaders to find within themselves the power to lead us in the right direction, a power which, I believe, must ultimately come from faith in our Creator.

In the long run we need to make redundant the ethical banking sector by making ethical banking the norm.

Author of the novel 2077 AD.
Reach me at cosmik.jo@gmail.com

Wednesday, 14 November 2012

Wealth inequality means economic inefficiency

It is well known that wealth inequality in the USA and UK has grown greatly in recent decades.  E.g. the index of inequality in disposable income over 1975-2009 has risen in both countries:

UK: from 0.25 to over 0.34
US: from 0.31 to 0.37

Capital wealth has also come to be more unequally distributed. The same trends, though less marked, have occurred across Europe. In Russia and China the inequalities are also, I suspect, increasing but I don’t have comparable data on these.

I do not see wealth differentials as intrinsically wrong as long as those at the bottom of the ladder are above a minimum standard of living. If people want to devote their lives to building up personal fortunes, with multiple yachts and houses, that to me is their misfortune as slaves to materialism. Pursuit of wealth for its own sake is destructive of the individual and the society around him or her. Becoming wealthy as an incidental part of seeking to build up the world or add value to it and its people is just something that happens, though the degree of wealth is not in proportion to the worthiness of the activity. People who acquire wealth this way presumably enjoy it. On the other hand there are children living on rubbish tips in India who seem happier than most westerners living in luxury.

But these mounting and extreme inequalities are morally wrong, economically unhealthy and socially divisive, a consequence of obsession with gain per se. Society cannot exist without hierarchy but it is not acceptable to consign millions of people to a life without hope, unable to earn a living, and in a constant state of insecurity about housing, food, health, elderly care and the education of their children. Such a society does not reflect the values of Christ.

Insight into the problem of wealth inequality in the Anglo-American world and how to deal with it emerged from a recent one page book review by Richard Lambert, former editor of the Financial Times. It appeared in the August 2012 issue of Prospect and the book in question is The Price of Inequality by the Nobel laureate Joseph Stiglitz.

This is what I got from it:

Inequality is happening because

  •  the new rich use their political power to gain a larger share of wealth

  •  IT increases the productivity of those who can use it while replacing the jobs of those who can’t

  •  globalisation increases and therefore cheapens the supply of labour

Joseph Stiglitz
The result is not only that a minority get a disproportionately large slice of the wealth cake but that the size of the cake gets smaller because  the rich spend a smaller proportion of their income. Typically they save 15% to 20% of it while the poorest save nothing because they have no spare income. Consequently less money is injected back into the economy and this leads to less economic activity, less wealth generation and more unemployment, unless the savings of the rich find their way into productive investment, which is often far from the case in an economy weighted heavily towards  financial services rather than more value-generating activity.

Moreover, as large wealth differences set in it leads to a decline in social mobility which in turn leads to fewer talented people getting into positions where these talents can be utilised for wealth creation.

Thus large inequalities of wealth mean lower economic efficiency, to the detriment of all. They also have bad social consequences. Stiglitz describes a grim future in which society is divided into haves and have-nots: the rich living in gated communities, the rest in a world marked by insecurity, poor healthcare and mediocre education. At the bottom are millions of young people alienated and without hope.’


Three remedies are suggested, particularly for the UK but no doubt they have a more general relevance to the USA and other nations :


/1/ help young people in houses where no one works to find their way into work

/2/ increase the incentives to take on and train British workers

/3/ reform the tax system, making it simpler, more progressive and free of tax havens

 Lambert does not mention direct investment by the government in large enterprises. Personally, I think there is a role for major flagship projects which generate technological spin offs, create valuable skills and provide inspiration. The American space programme did this. The revolutionary engine propulsion technology developed by the Skylon project, for example, could employ 70,000 people if a government would support it.(No private investors seem interested, possibly because of bureaucratic or political factors or because they don't understand the technology.)
The most just economy is also the most efficient and I don’t believe this is coincidence. It is the way reality has been set up.

Reach me at cosmik.jo@gmail.com

Saturday, 3 November 2012

Clothes for a cleaner future

One thing that all seven billion people possess is clothing. If this could be made to perform some function which helps the environment it could significantly compensate for the damage we do as human beings.
Moves in this direction are currently underway and not too far from the shops.

Denim which absorbs Nox

Nitrogen mono-oxide and nitrogen dioxide are atmospheric pollutants produced by traffic and factories. Generically they are known as NOx and they damage both health (nausea, irritated eyes, respiratory problems) and the environment (acid rain, global warming, inhibition of plant growth). They can also react with aerosols from cans in a harmful way.

 Since over half the world population live in cities it is becoming increasingly important to remove them from the air.

The natural world provides us with the means: titanium dioxide, which is found mainly in two kinds of ore – ilmenite and rutile – and is used in catalytic converters to remove NOx from engine exhaust gases, as well as in paving stones, glass and sun cream. A small company in the UK called Catalytic Clothing discovered that by spraying nanometric titanium dioxide particles onto denim they had invented a form of clothing which absorbs NOx from the air. The more the clothing is subjected to movement while being worn the more NOx is absorbed and converted into harmless water soluble nitrates. Presumably, someone jogging in titanium oxide coated denim clothes would extract more NOx the faster they jogged.

The most encouraging thing about this development is that it is not far from market. ‘Field of Jeans’ has just been exhibited at the Manchester Science Festival, UK (27 Oct – 4 November, 2012).

As well as making new clothes with the specially coated denim (and other materials?) the same company is working with the detergent company Ecover to produce a washing powder additive called CatClo. If this became universally available and could work on other fabrics as well as denim the benefit to city air quality could be considerable and in the near future.

Converting pressure, heat and sunlight into electricity

These products could be on the market within 2-3 years. If they took off it might speed up the manufacture and marketing of piezoelectric clothing and shoes. A lot of research is going on in this area. The idea is to utilise the piezoelectric effect by which pressure on a material is converted into electricity. When a person moves it causes pressure to build up in parts of the clothes worn and this pressure can be used to power small electronic devices such as mobile phones or batteries. Pressure in the soles of shoes can also be used to generate electrical power as the person walks. See, for example, http://www.nsf.gov/news/news_summ.jsp?cntn_id=111038

This would indirectly benefit the environment by reducing the need to make batteries, a very energy intensive process which generates waste and global warming emissions.  The pioezoelectric effect is already being incorporated into fashion designs.

The thermoelectric effect could also be used. This is the conversion of differences in temperature across the interface between two different materials into an electric voltage. E.g. the inside of a shoe being worn is hotter than the outside. The same principle of deriving electricity from heat  could be used wherever otherwise wasted heat is available - a hot water pipe for instance. The solar voltaic effect – by which sunlight is converted into electricity, is another possibility.

Hydrophobic clothing

There have been startling developments in spray-on technology to make fabric able to completely repel water. The same method can be used to make all sorts of equipment fully water proof e.g. by applying hydrophobic coatings to the outside and inside of a mobile phone it will still work underwater as long as the signal is strong enough. Hydrophic clothes  help the environment by reducing, if not eliminating, the need to clean them.

author of  the novel 2077 AD which is now being revised and expanded
Reach me at cosmik.jo@gmail.com