Archive for October, 2012

Energy Prices: Reality Bites

October 28, 2012
Dilbert Confusopoly

Dilbert explains how a confusopoly works.

Worldwide, governments are ‘in denial’ about the inevitability of higher energy prices. At least in public. Somehow – despite some intelligent policies – it has become impossible for politicians to speak honestly and with a longer term perspective.

  • The supply of energy is critical to a nation’s security and this is a responsibility which governments cannot abdicate.
  • But neither can governments wave a wand and make market forces disappear.
  • Climate change is a reality and – eventually – governments will have to respond no matter how unpopular this is.

In the UK David Cameron promised to insist that companies sell energy at the cheapest price to their customers. It seems like a simple enough promise, but I have great faith the confusopoly will survive. Why?

Well firstly, neither governments nor customers are in any position to argue. The government sold national energy assets decades ago and cannot afford to buy them back. And the UK does not possess a great excess of energy supply capacity over energy demand. So one way or another, the customers will have to pay. We are in a tight corner.

Secondly, the UK government committed itself reducing carbon emissions to 20% of its previous level by 2050. To achieve this it offers subsidies to producers of renewable electricity and to homeowners who insulate their homes. These subsidies are paid for by increasing the price of electricity. I think this is intelligent, but many do not.

In the USA I was astonished to see presidential candidates trading statistics about which of them would increase coal mining and gas extraction faster and so lower prices. The US elections are essentially a popularity contest and so it is not really surprising to see such exchanges. But in reality electricity generation from coal is an environmentally disastrous technology and – in part driven by rulings from the Environmental Protection Legislation – it is already being replaced in the US by gas – which in the US is probably (borderline) a good thing.

In France – Mr Hollande is introducing a system in which he seeks to hold back market forces and to make the price of electricity depend upon who you are and where you live. This is an extension of the US system I described a few months ago in which electricity becomes more expensive the more you use – a market-based system which discourages excess use. The problem with the French system is that – like the common agricultural policy – it is massively bureaucratic and encourages people to extract the maximum subsidy rather than to reduce use.

In my opinion – and this is why I have never been a popular person – we should welcome increased energy prices relative to  other costs. It means that renewable energy become more affordable. It means we will conserve energy more (while complaining I admit) and emit less carbon dioxide.

And if we want to spend money helping disadvantaged people – and I think we should – we should spend it to help them use less energy rather subsidising their use of more energy.


Confusopoly‘: a small number of firms make the price of their  offering so confusing that no one can work out which company offers the best deal. Mobile phone operators and Insurance Companies are the masters of this art, but Energy Companies give them a good run for their money.

What kind of journal publishes nonsense?

October 28, 2012
Extract from a mathematics paper which uses randomly generated 'Mathematics'  and yet which was accepted for publication in a mathematics journal. What kind of journal would publish such nonsense? Click for a larger version

Extract from a mathematics paper which uses randomly generated ‘Mathematics’ and yet which was accepted for publication in a mathematics journal. What kind of journal would publish such nonsense? Click for a larger version

I don’t know what your mathematics is like but the above symbols are utterly incomprehensible to me. Reassuringly they are also indeed utterly meaningless, having been randomly-generated by a computer program (MATHGEN) which produces grammatical, yet nonsensical, maths papers. Less reassuringly the paper was accepted for publication in Advances in Pure Mathematics.

You can read the story here and the full version of the paper here.

The paper is obviously complete baloney. I urge you read it – it makes no sense at all. Below is a pearl selected for its lack of maths symbols which I can’t reproduce on this blog:

We proceed by transfinite induction. Of course, every quasi-Legendre–Sylvester, trivial random variable acting freely on a simply admissible hull is Einstein. 

And the Editor’s response to this twaddle was to accept the paper while asking for some revisions. Amongst others:

For the abstract, I consider that the author can’t introduce the main idea and work of this topic specifically. We can’t catch the main thought from this abstract. So I suggest that the author can re-organize the descriptions and give the keywords of this paper.

To which the ‘author’ replies:

The referee’s objection is well taken; indeed, the abstract has not the slightest thing to do with the content of the paper.

How could this happen? Well, it happens because Advances in Pure Mathematics is an open access journal which means that if you pay them $500 – a low rate – they will publish your paper. As I mentioned previously, everything happens more smoothly if the quality barrier is as low as possible. The journal staff get paid, the author gets a publication on their publication list and everyone just hopes that they don’t apply Italian standards of judgement on the work.

This is not to universally condemn all open-access publishing: far from it. But it does demonstrate an inherent potential weakness in that publishing model.

Finally, a test for the reader. I have listed the titles of 13 papers below, 12 of which are genuine. Can you spot the randomly-generated impostor in the list?

  1. An Essay on the Double Nature of the Probability
  2. On Discrete Adomian Decomposition Method with Chebyshev Abscissa for Nonlinear Integral Equations of Hammerstein Type
  3. Existence of a Nontrivial Solution for a Class of Superquadratic Elliptic Problems
  4. Independent, Negative, Canonically Turing Arrows of Equations and Problems in Applied Formal PDE
  5. On the Generality of Orthogonal Projections and e-Projections in Banach Algebras
  6. Differential Sandwich Theorems for Analytic Functions Defined by an Extended Multiplier Transformation
  7. Second Order Periodic Boundary Value Problems Involving the Distributional Henstock-Kurzweil Integral
  8. Certain Properties of Trigonometrically ρ-Convex Functions
  9. Some Criteria for the Asymptotic Behavior of a Certain Second Order Nonlinear Perturbed Differential Equation
  10. The Primary Radical of a Submodule
  11. On the Infinite Products of Matrices
  12. On Some Properties of the Heisenberg Laplacian
  13. Global Attractor for a Non-Autonomous Beam Equation

Not so easy heh?

The Safety of Liquid Nitrogen Cocktails

October 28, 2012
Cocktails cooled with liquid nitrogen

Cocktails cooled with liquid nitrogen. Picture from Canadian Content

I was horrified to hear of the young woman, Gaby Scanlon, who suffered stomach injuries after drinking a cocktail laced with liquid nitrogen.

My interest in this case is to find out exactly how Ms. Scanlon came to be harmed. I often use liquid nitrogen for both scientific applications (cooling) and for scientific demonstrations. And over 30 years I have never heard of anyone who has suffered anything other than the most minor of injuries, so I was shocked to hear this news. How had it happened?

Liquid nitrogen can cause harm in one of three ways. The first and most obvious way is that it can cause cold burns. The second is that it can displace oxygen in the air and asphyxiate people. And the third is that it when it turns to a room temperature gas – which it can do rapidly – it increases in volume by a factor of roughly 600.

Normally the extreme cold is viewed as the primary hazard, but in fact that is usually not the case. The reason is that even though liquid nitrogen at -196 °C is extremely cold, on contact with objects at room temperature it immediately turns to gas. The gas has a low thermal conductivity and transiently insulates the hot object from the extreme cold. This film-boiling or Leidenfrost effect usually makes the handling of small quantities of liquid nitrogen extremely safe – much safer than the handling of hot coffee.

The effect is so strong that one can pour liquid nitrogen over one’s hand and barely feel the cold. However, after a second or two, the gas film collapses, and the cooling rate of the hot object increases dramatically. So prolonged contact – more than a second or so – with the liquid will rapidly cause cold burns or frostbite.

My speculation is that in this case, Ms. Scanlon swallowed the drink relatively quickly and because of the Leidenfrost effect, she recieved no feedback in her mouth about how cold the liquid was. The nitrogen would have travelled in droplets along with the cocktail into her stomach, probably relatively harmlessly. At this point the liquid – probably only a cubic centimetre of so – was trapped in a confined volume, and would have rapidly turned to more than 500 cubic centimetres of gas. I suspect it was this rapid expansion which caused the damage to her stomach.

Apparently the use liquid nitrogen in cocktails is commonplace. Wow! That passed me by! And so it is somehow shocking that Ms Scanlon was the first casualty – because there is no way to drink liquid nitrogen safely. But there is a way to safely consume drinks which are bubbling with gas and emanating large amounts of mist.

The key is to use dry ice -solid carbon dioxide – not liquid nitrogen. The difference is that liquid nitrogen floats on drinks – and so it is impossible to consume the drink without the possibility of ingesting a small droplet of the liquid nitrogen. In contrast, solid carbon dioxide sinks in water.

Michael de Podesta safely drinking 'potion'

Michael de Podesta preparing to safely drink ‘potion’

But there is a trick! The trick is to use both a glass and a liquid which are transparent and to put in just a single large piece of solid carbon dioxide. By large I mean roughly a cubic centimetre. The reason that a large piece is necessary is that the solid carbon dioxide immediately freezes water around it and if a small piece of solid carbon dioxide is used – the ice will cause the carbon dioxide to float. If prepared correctly one can see the single large piece of dry ice in the base of the beaker – and be sure that there are no other pieces lurking on the surface of the liquid.

Here’s to your health… Cheers

I told you so

October 20, 2012
In 1981 Hansen et al made predictions for the change in global mean temperature expected over the course of the coming century. The figure shows their predictions along side 4 independent estimates of what has actually happened.

In 1981 Hansen et al made predictions for the change in global mean temperature expected over the course of the coming century. The figure shows their predictions along side four independent estimates of what has actually happened.

According to Gore Vidal, the four most beautiful words in the English language are “I told you so”. My hero James Hansen can justifiably speak those words, but I am sure they don’t feel beautiful to him.

In 1981, together with six NASA colleagues, he published a paper in Science magazine entitled ‘Climatic Impact of Increasing Atmospheric Carbon dioxide‘. Science magazine won’t let you read it but it is available online here. The paper is not that difficult to understand and if you are curious about these things, it’s a good read. I particularly liked the inclusion of a simple analogy:

“The surface temperature resulting from the greenhouse effect is analogous to the depth of water in a leaky bucket with constant inflow rate. If the holes in the bucket are reduced slightly in size the water depth and water pressure will increase until the flow rate out of the holes once again equals the inflow rate. Analogously, if the atmospheric infrared opacity  increases, the temperature of the surface and the atmosphere will increase until the emission of radiation from the planet again equals the absorbed solar energy.”

The figure at the top of the page shows Figure 6 from their paper on which I have overlaid four independent estimates of what has actually happened since then. At the time the paper was published,  global mean temperature was declining and the predictions were thus extremely bold. However, looking back the authors predictions now seem conservative. And indeed the authors were careful and conservative, though clear about specific predictions.

In the summary they state

“Potential effects on the climate in the 21st Century include the creation of drought-prone regions in North America and central Asia … erosion of the West Antarctic Ice Sheet … and an opening of the fabled NorthWest passage”

Well, North America has been prone to drought, and the North West passage now regularly opens in summer. Thankfully the West Antarctic Ice Sheet seems relatively stable.

All through the paper the authors consider the uncertainties arising from the simplicity of their model and the many poorly-understood effects – such as cloud cover and solar variability – which affect climate. However, they test their predictions against plausible variations in these factors and find that the predictions of warming are robust against a wide range of plausible feedback effects. They conclude with a wider non-scientific perspective

Political and economic forces affecting energy use and fuel choice make it unlikely that the CO2 issue will have a major impact on energy policies until convincing observations of global warming at in hand. In light of historical evidence that it takes several decades to complete a major change in fuel use this makes large climate change almost inevitable.

However the degree of warming will depend strongly on the energy growth rate and the choice of fuels for the next century. Thus CO2 effects on climate may make full exploitation of coal resources undesirable. An appropriate strategy may be to encourage energy conservation and develop alternative energy sources while using fossil fuels as necessary during the next few decades.

The Climate change induced by anthropogenic release of CO2 is likely to be the most fascinating global geophysical experiment that man will ever conduct. The scientific task is to help determine the nature of future climatic effects as early as possible. The required efforts in global observations and climate analyses are challenging, but the benefits from improved understanding of climate will surely warrant the work involved.

To me these views seem modest, realistic and optimistic. But I bet that although James Hansen and his colleagues predicted the climate 30 years ahead, they never guessed that in the 21st Century the US would have senators such as Paul Brown.

To understand such ignorance we have to turn again to Gore Vidal:

The United States was founded by the brightest people in the country – and we haven’t seen them since.

Acknowledgement: This article is based on a blog story at Real Climate:

Teacher Training

October 1, 2012
Teachers in Leicester gathered for a 'Stimulating Physics' session

Teachers in Leicester gathered for a ‘Stimulating Physics’ session.

This Saturday morning I spoke to nearly 100 teachers at a school in Leicester about how exactly we get to know what the temperature is. This is a subject which I find fascinating, but I don’t honestly expect other people to share my fascination. However, this group were amazingly enthusiastic and I felt really quite humbled meeting them.

The ‘Leader of the Gang’ was Helen Pollard, a woman who radiated competence and kindness. At the end of my talk she addressed the teachers and said that when their colleagues complained in the staff room that some child had taken 25 minutes to measure a temperature, they would be able to say “That’s nothing! I met a man at the weekend who spent five years trying to measure one temperature!”.

My talk wasn’t the main attraction. The rest of the day – part of the Institute of PhysicsStimulating Physics‘ Initiative – involved classes of teachers learning a variety of hands-on experiments that they could then show to students. This is a really admirable attempt to acknowledge that the educational landscape has changed, and to accept that Physics in school is no longer being taught by specialist physicists. Based on the people I met, it is being taught by some physicists, some chemists, some biologists and some ex-tap-dance tutors! But this initiative seemed to focus on the positive aspects of this diversity rather than harking back to an imagined golden age, which definitely did not exist.

My main conclusion was that this was a pretty bright group of people. And I felt heartened. Here they were on a Saturday morning – many having travelled long distances – just keen to learn. As a member of the Institute of Physics I rarely feel proud of what my Institute does. But in this case, I feel honoured to have been able to help a really noble effort. It seemed that this group was re-inventing a physics teaching culture that is diverse, bubbling, and above all, alive.

I attended one of the sessions before heading home and saw people making a cloud chamber out of an upside down-aquarium. Nothing could exemplify the idea of building a new culture better than this. Using basic household items plus a special ingredient (solid carbon dioxide or ‘dry ice’) to reveal the nuclear events taking place all around us. Anyone who could make such a thing must surely feel that they are a member of the cognoscenti.

A cloud-chamber made from an upside-down aquarium.

A cloud-chamber made from an upside-down aquarium.

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