Archive for October, 2013

Do we really want lower energy prices?

October 31, 2013
Graph from the Daily Mail, 16th August 2013. It shows that increases in prices of electricity has resulted in a reduction in consumption. The question is

Graph from the Daily Mail, 16th August 2013. It shows that increases in prices of electricity has resulted in a reduction in consumption. The question is this: “Is this a good thing, a bad thing or just an ‘obviously true’ thing?”

The gist of news stories about our energy supply in the last few weeks is that energy – electricity and gas – is ‘too expensive’. However I disagree: I think that energy is not just ‘too cheap’, it is much too cheap. Let me explain.

Cheap energy feels great. When energy is cheap, poor people can keep warm in winter: in the vernacular of the press, they can heat and eat. And importantly they don’t worry about their fuel bills which makes them both warm and happy. Likewise transport becomes cheaper, and everything that we manufacture or grow becomes cheaper to produce and move – and so we make more things and sell more things to people who are not using their money to pay fuel bills. So the economy grows, and we all – on average – benefit.

However there are two problems with cheap energy. Firstly  when energy is cheap we use more of it. And then we spend less on things which helps us reduce energy consumption. For example, if energy is cheap it makes less sense to insulate houses well. Then when energy prices do rise, we will find ourselves doubly disadvantaged. The cause of this expected rise is not to do with the environment but simply that many more people on the planet want to use the finite amount of coal and gas to which we have access. Of course, if we took advantage of cheap energy to increase our investment in energy-saving measures then that would make sense: but sadly that is the opposite of what happens.

The second problem is that cheap energy is dirty energy. Cheap electricity comes from coal and gas and is associated with emissions of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. As I mentioned in a previous post, the amount of carbon dioxide emitted is phenomenal and rising year on year. To the best of our knowledge and understanding, it has, in our lifetimes, changed the climate of the planet and we expect the effects to increase over the coming decades. This effect is irreversible. Energy sources which don’t cause this pollution are all much more difficult in one way or another than burning fossil fuels. In other words, energy produced sustainably is more expensive.

So cheap energy feels good, makes everyone happy (except me), and gives rise to economic growth. However, it causes us to reduce investment in energy-saving measures and makes sustainable energy generation uneconomic. It also makes the effects of Global Warming – whatever they turn out to be – worse.

So what can we do? The only realistic way to reduce energy consumption is to increase the price of energy – see the graph at the head of the page. This makes sense in the long term, but results in suffering in the short term. Is it still possible to imagine a United Kingdom in which some sense of social justice could ameliorate the effects of increasing energy prices? I would like to think it is, but I am not sure.

Is this the worst journalism in the world?

October 28, 2013
Graph showing the extent of Sea ice in the month of September from 1980 to 2013. The Daily Mail reported the rise in September Sea Ice extent from last years minimum as evidence for 'global cooling'.

Graph showing the extent of Arctic sea ice in the month of September from 1980 to 2013. The Daily Mail reported the rise in September Sea Ice extent from last years minimum as evidence for ‘global cooling’. Data is from the US National Snow and Ice Data Centre.

Arctic Sea Ice Extent is an interesting climate variable because it is relatively simple to measure.

Each year sea-ice retreats in the Arctic summer, reaching a  minimum in the middle of September, and then grows back through the Arctic winter.

The data for September sea-ice extent are plotted in the graph at the head of the page. They clearly show a ‘melting’ trend: currently there are around 2.5 million square kilometres less sea ice in September than in the 1980s and 1990s.

Last year (2012) September sea-Ice extent reached a new minimum of 3.63 million square kilometres. This can be understood as partly resulting from the melting trend, and partly from year-to variability of around ±0.5 million square kilometres.

This year (2013) September sea ice extent ‘recovered’ to 5.35 million square kilometres, so 1.72 million square kilometres of sea ice was frozen this September that was unfrozen last September.

Looking at the data above, could anyone seriously conclude that this ‘recovery’ was evidence that the melting trend had halted and that we were embarked on a new phase of Global Cooling? Only an idiot would think so.

Well the Daily Mail thinks this so, and covers this story with the headline:

And now it’s global COOLING! Return of Arctic ice cap as it grows by 29% in a year

The article is pernicious: lacking in any understanding of the science, and full of attacks on the BBC and IPCC. It mocks any rational concern over Climate Change. Presumably the author is aware of how stupid the article makes him appear, but he just doesn’t seem to care.

I have written this article, but frankly, I am now lost for words and actually reduced to tears. I think this is actually the worst and most depressing piece of journalism I have ever read.


The data I have plotted comes from the Data Archives of the Arctic Sea Ice Section of the National Snow and Ice Data Centre in the USA. If you intend to re-plot some of these graphs then you need to be careful with the data – it comes in many forms and some files and folders are extremely large. But understanding the formats will help you to understand how the data is acquired and recorded.

Hinkley C: Is it a good deal?

October 21, 2013
A schematic diagram of the European Pressurised Water Reactor to be built at Hinkley Point. What could possibly go wrong?

A schematic diagram of the European Pressurised Water Reactor to be built at Hinkley Point. What could possibly go wrong? Click for a larger view. Image from AREVA – see link at end of article

So the UK is finally ready to embark on building some new nuclear power stations. I – like most people – don’t know whether this is a good thing or a bad thing. But I do feel a sense of relief that we have finally made a decision.

My thoughts consist of three tangled strands concerning the price of electricity; the wider issue of energy costs; and the barely mentioned issue of carbon dioxide emissions. For this evening, let’s just look at the costs.

The power station, planned to begin operating in 10 years time in 2023, consists of two massive plants each generating 1.6 GW of electricity. The build cost is estimated to be £16 billion  which French and Chinese government-owned companies will invest. Yes, this really is an investment backed by foreign governments.

The ‘strike price’ is the guaranteed minimum selling price of electricity generated by the stations and the figure agreed with the government is £92.50 per MWh – with the possibility that the figure will drop slightly if further reactors are built. This is equivalent to 9.25 pence per kWh – the electricity units on our electricity bills.

If the plants operate for 90% of time generating 3.2 GW of electricity then the guaranteed minimum income for the plant is £2.3 billion per year. Subtracting the operational costs – typically relatively low for nuclear plant – then after 10 years of no income and substantial risk of construction problems and delays, the operators should generate around 10% per annum return on their investment for 35 years.

Is the ‘strike price’ right? Well I obviously don’t know, but it is interesting to compare it with the current wholesale price of electricity which is quoted to be around  £55 per MWh. This price is dominated by the price of coal  which (as I write) is generating 43% of the UK’s electricity. Coal is not in short supply worldwide but it does emit lots of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere: nearly 1 tonne for every MWh of electricity produced.

The guaranteed  price of offshore wind power is currently £155 per MWh, although this will fall to £135 by 2018. Onshore wind is currently guaranteed £100 per MWh, falling to £95 in 2018, with large solar farms getting £125 per MWh, due to fall to £110 per MWh by 2018.

I am not an economist, but in this context £92.50 per MWh doesn’t seem a crazy price for electricity which has very low associated carbon dioxide emissions. That doesn’t mean that it’s the best possible thing we could do. But it is probably not the worst either.


John A. Wilson

October 14, 2013
John A Wilson, who died today.

John A Wilson, who died on Monday 14th October 2013 .

John A. Wilson died yesterday, Monday 14th October 2013. On hearing the news I just felt sad that his light had gone out, and so I thought I would write down a few memories of the kind man that gave me my first job, at Bristol University.

I met John in 1985. I was 25 years old, desperately struggling to finish my D.Phil., and very glad of the prospect of a job. I didn’t know what to make of John: he talked in a language I didn’t understand. And I expect he didn’t know what to make of me. But a job was a job – and I had never had never been employed as a physicist before!

From the start I was not at all clear what John wanted me to do: this was before the days of written ‘forward job plans’, and I think he thought I was more able and knowledgeable than I was. I think I was supposed  to help supervise his PhD students, but I was frankly useless. They were a very competent lot, so we just discussed what John might possibly want everyone to do. I learned a lot – in fact it was in these years that I came to understand the breadth of physics and the narrowness of my previous vision.

One problem was that the strange language he spoke was ‘chemistry’, and we were all physicists. His knowledge was encyclopaedic: he knew the properties – or likely properties – of every compound you could imagine. And he understood their properties in terms of things I barely understood at the time e.g. ‘d’-band overlaps, s-f hybridisation, and spin-orbit coupling. And he wasn’t bluffing: he could really ‘see’ his way through the landscape of materials and was constantly searching for new compounds that might show hidden properties that no one else had bothered to notice.

John was really a prospector, but searching for interesting science rather than gold or oil. In the same way that a prospector can read a landscape, and tell a story about each stone, so John could understand the stories linking compounds and crystals.

His encyclopaedic knowledge was the result of reading extensively, and in the days before pdf and ENDNOTE, he had developed a filing system of bewildering complexity. Each paper had several symbols and letters (e.g. αθ4B-22) written on its top corner.  I never knew what his system was and he cannily never disclosed it. But he could find you papers on any compound you named: He would look upwards and ponder for a moment, and then stride over to the filing cabinet and produce the paper.

It was during my time at Bristol that high-temperature superconductivity was discovered, setting the condensed matter physics section all-a-flurry. And John was in his element – able to see his way through the complex crystal structures and chemical compounds better than anyone. But although John thought he could see the explanation, others were unable to see his vision.

In fact convincing other people of his vision was a persistent problem – probably to do with his use of ‘chemical’ descriptions rather than physical ones. But he didn’t help himself.

I remember him complaining about a research proposal not being funded, and the comment returned to him was that he had “not said what he planned to do”. His response was that he would never disclose which compounds he planned to investigate in a research proposal because the people on the research panel would steal his ideas!

Above all I remember him just being a kind man at a time when I personally needed kind people. I feel sad that I was probably a disappointment to him, but I think in the long run he probably wouldn’t have minded.

I don’t know how he died, but I hope it wasn’t anything to do with his feet: for several years he used to rest his feet on a box of Technetium which he kept under his desk. I recall him being a little surprised at the screech of the scintillation counter as the radiation safety officer checked the box, which was then swiftly moved to a more appropriate home.

I would not be at all surprised to find out that John had a plan for an investigation of technetium compounds and who knows – perhaps it would have been the elusive element to produce a new series of compounds showing a new kind of ordering. Time will tell.

Controlled Nuclear Fusion: Forget about it

October 13, 2013
Man or woman doing a technical thing with a thingy told with laser induced nuclear fusion.

Man or woman adjusting the ‘target positioner’ (I think) within the target chamber of the US Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory.

The future is very difficult to predict. But I am prepared to put on record my belief that controlled nuclear fusion as a source of power on Earth will never be achieved.

This is not something I want to believe. And the intermittent drip of news stories about ‘progress‘ and ‘breakthroughs‘ might make one think that the technique would eventually yield to humanity’s collective ingenuity.

But  in fact that just isn’t going to happen. Let me explain just some of the problems and you can judge for yourself whether you think it will ever work.

One option for controlled fusion is called Inertial Fusion Energy, and the centre of research is the US National Ignition Facility. Here the most powerful laser on Earth can be focussed onto a pellet of deuterium and tritium and the temperature and pressure reached induce fusion. The process releases neutrons and a flash of X-rays and UV light which are captured to produce heat which generates electricity using a conventional steam generator.

  • Reality Check#1: Currently one pellet can be hit every few hours. In order to make a one gigawatt power plant this process must be speeded up so that around 10 pellets every second are ignited. This is equivalent to firing a ‘machine gun’ into the centre of the high vacuum reaction chamber, but none of the ‘bullets’ must reach the other side of the chamber: every one must be tracked individually in-flight and blasted by the most powerful laser on Earth. No misses can be tolerated, otherwise a ‘bullet’ will hit the far side of the chamber. This process must continue night and day for months on end. The explosions will release energy at a rate of several gigawatts of thermal power, but this must not affect the vacuum through which the lasers reach their target. Every ‘bullet’ must be identical to within a manufacturing tolerance of 1 micrometre. Getting all this to work is IMHO impossible.

The other option for controlled fusion is called magnetic plasma confinement, and the centre of research is ITER being built near Marseille in the south of France. Here a plasma of deuterium and tritium is heated to around 150 million °C (about 10 times hotter than the centre of the Sun).

  • Reality Check#2: About one metre away from the 150 million degree plasma releasing neutrons with several gigawatts of energy are gigantic superconducting magnets at approximately 4 degrees above absolute zero. Superconducting materials are sensitive to radiation and their special property will be lost if they are intensely irradiated. To visualise the  temperature, think of about 1 million one kilowatt heaters trapped in a room the size of a small theatre. The plasma must not touch the walls of its container ever. Once initiated, the facility will become intensely radioactive and humans can never enter it again, and the hot plasma must remain confined for months on end exceeding the few seconds that have been achieved to date. Getting all this to work is IMHO impossible.

And even if we suppose these impossible things were somehow made possible by the application of ingenuity, good fortune and cash, there is one more ‘show stopper’: the availability of tritium.  In either approach, deuterium (which is found in seawater) is fused with tritium (which is not found naturally at all). Where will all the tritium come from?

  • Reality Check#3: The tritium must be generated by capturing every neutron released in the fusion reaction in a blanket of lithium metal (or a salt containing lithium). The neutrons from the miniature star in the reactor induce a reaction in the nucleus of one of the isotopes of lithium (7) which causes it to split in two, releasing helium and tritium. The tritium must be captured and fed back into the fusion reaction. This process must operate close to 100% efficiency otherwise the plant will run out of tritium. Getting all this to work is IMHO impossible.

I am a technological utopian: I think technology can make life better for people. And I would really like to believe that fusion will ‘somehow work’. But when I look at these obstacles, I just can’t see how anyone can overcome them.

As Sherlock Holmes might have said:

When you have eliminated all which is impossible, then whatever remains, however disappointing, must be the truth. 

A Farewell to Light Switches

October 11, 2013
A blank wall plate where a light switch used to be.

A blank wall plate where a light switch used to be.

At NPL the lighting systems are being upgraded so that most lights – and eventually all of them – will be LEDs. This has several advantages – most notably savings in electricity. But there is one aspect of the change that I am finding hard to cope with: the loss of light switches.

When the refurbishment is complete, the corridors and many offices will have no light switches. The decision to switch lights on or off will be made by a ‘building management computer’ (BMC) based on readings of sensors indicating whether people are in the area. Additionally the brightness of the lights can be changed so that (based on sensors indicating the ambient light level) the ceiling light can be set to supplement daylight rather than replace it.

Even in the places where light switches remain, they will no longer be actual switches controlling the electrical current through a light fitting. Instead the light ‘switch’ will signal to the BMC that a ‘user’ would like a pre-programmed combination of lights powered on or off.

Now I have to admit this change makes sense: it feels like progress and the new lights look smart. But I also have to admit that it makes me uncomfortable.

When there was a real switch on the wall, I was the ‘Master of the Lights’. When the switches are gone I will merely be a ‘user’ requesting illumination from the real ‘Master of All Lights’, the BMC.

I guess it is because I am an old fogey that I find this change discomfiting. And I dismiss my own concerns as being ‘just me: I am sure I will get used to this ‘Brave New World’ eventually. But the new BMC-based technology needs to work at least as well as the old technology, and ideally better, if it is become popular with users.

For example, the new technology might have ‘programming errors’ or the BMC might be ‘busy’ and wait for a short while before responding to a ‘user request’.  If these things happen (and it all seems OK so far) then the benefits of the system will accrue to the building owner but not the building users and the technology will inevitably become unpopular.

This simple change is a reminder that even relatively benign ‘new technology’ can make people feel uncomfortable for apparently irrational reasons. And if people feel uncomfortable about technologies they are less likely to adopt them.

Exponential Trouble

October 9, 2013

I was researching one of the graphs in the IPCC report for policy makers when I came across two terrifying graphs with a terrifying relationship.

The first graph shows the estimated annual emissions of carbon dioxide as a result of human activity versus the year of emission. The data runs from 1750 until 2010.

Annual human emissions of carbon (mainly in carbon dioxide) versus year of emission. Notice the nature of the catastrophic events which cause a deviation from the rising trend.

Annual human emissions of carbon (mainly in carbon dioxide) versus year of emission. Notice the nature of the catastrophic events which cause a deviation from the rising trend.

The terrifying feature of this graph is that the only events to interrupt the rise are catastrophic events such as world wars, depressions, and the oil crisis of the mid-1970s.

The second graph shows the cumulative total of annual emissions of carbon dioxide as a result of human activity versus the year to date.

Cumulative human emissions of carbon (mainly in carbon dioxide) versus year of emission. Notice that not even catastrophic events slow the inexorable rising trend.

Cumulative human emissions of carbon (mainly in carbon dioxide) versus year of emission. Notice that not even catastrophic events slow the inexorable rising trend.

The terrifying feature of this graph is its inexorable rise. Even the wars and depressions which are visible in the annual emissions graph are barely detectable.

And the terrifying relationship between the two graphs can be seen if they both plotted together.

Annual Emissions and Cumulative emissions plotted on the same graph but with different vertical scales

Annual Emissions and Cumulative Emissions plotted on the same graph but with different vertical scales. The curves overlap tolerably well indicating that the rise is exponential.

This third graph merely confirms that the rate of emission of carbon dioxide is not just increasing, but the rate at which it is increasing is increasing. A curve of this form in which the rate of rise of a quantity increases as the quantity itself rises is called exponential.

It is of course physically impossible for these graphs to continue rising indefinitely: eventually we run out carbon! But we are still hundreds of years away from the limit. What strikes me is that for all our concern about carbon emissions, there is not even a detectable blip on either curve resulting from our goodwill.

And given the scale of events which have affected global emissions in the last 100 years, I really don’t know which terrifies me more: the prospect that we will fail to agree to cut emissions; or the prospect that we will succeed.


Protons for Breakfast: it’s good to talk.

October 6, 2013
A conversation taking place at Protons for Breakfast

A conversation taking place at Protons for Breakfast

In just one month (Wednesday 6th November 2013) the Protons for Breakfast course will begin again for the 18th time. Amazingly we already have 102 people signed up and the lecture theatre can only take 120. So if you are thinking of attending, you should probably register soon.

I have thought a good deal about what has made the course successful. There are the wizzy PowerPoint slides of course; the excellent music; the fulsome answers to questions; the hands-on sessions; the discussions; the experts; and the presence of so many helpers. However, I don’t think it is any one of these things, although they all help.  I think that all these things are reflections of a fundamental respect for the people attending the course.

People attending Protons for Breakfast have a wide range of backgrounds and experience: the typical age range is from 12 to 70. But what they have in common is that they feel themselves to be ignorant in some way. My belief is that that the experience of ‘feeling ignorant’ is fundamentally like ‘feeling lost’. The key similarity is that when you are ‘lost’, you can’t tell someone ‘where you are’ in order for them to give you directions. Similarly, when you don’t understand something it can be very hard to explain to someone what it is that you don’t understand.

I have written about this at length before and there are lots of ways of getting around this impasse. But one of the best ways is to have a conversation about the thing you don’t understand. Even if the other person doesn’t know ‘the answer’ a conversation can be helpful. However, if other person has even a small amount of knowledge the conversation can be profound.

The power of ‘conversation’ is that by a two-way exchange of information, you come closer to finding out ‘where you are’, and when you know that, you can begin the journey to ‘where you want to go’.

As I get older and older and older and older I feel ever more strongly, that it really is ‘good to talk’.

Is the global temperature ‘hiatus’ significant?

October 4, 2013
The 'anomaly' of the air temperature above the land surfaces of the Earth. The area highlighted at the top right shows temperature estimates in recent years. The 'zero' corresponds to the average value between 1961 and 1990.

The ‘anomaly’ of the air temperature above the land surfaces of the Earth. The area highlighted at the top right shows temperature estimates in recent years. The ‘zero’ corresponds to the average value between 1961 and 1990.

Much of the media discussion about last week’s Fifth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change centred on the ‘slowdown’ in the rate of rise of Global Mean Temperature. This was held up by sceptics as evidence that climate models were unreliable.

While preparing for a forthcoming conference, I re-plotted the data for the temperature rise above the land surfaces of the Earth and took a close look at the graph. I was shocked at just how insignificant this ‘temperature hiatus’ appeared to be. You can judge its significance for yourself. The ‘details’ section below has … wait for it… ‘detailed information’ about the data.

The black dots represent the best estimate of the ‘anomaly’ for each year. i.e. the difference from the average value between 1961 and 1990. The red lines join the dots to give an unbiased impression of ‘trend’. The grey bars above and below each point show the range of values within which the team at the Climate Research Unit are confident that the true value lies.

After recovering from my surprise I had three thoughts:

  • My first thought was to reflect that when we discuss this issue in Protons for Breakfast we pay almost no attention to this data. Although the graph is iconic it really is not part of the main discussion. In fact it is really a triumph of scientific endeavour that we have managed to reconstruct it all!
  • My second thought was how interesting it was that  sceptics have moved on from saying this graph is unbelievable because it is based on unreliable data and analyses. Now they say they believe it and find significance in essentially random details that support their view that climate science is somehow ‘wrong’.
  • My third thought was to wonder what will happen next: And of course the answer is “we don’t know” – its the future, and climate is complicated.

But whether you can see a ‘hiatus’ in this data or not, it is clear that rate of temperature change is much slower than the rate at which governments change, but still fast enough to be significant within a single lifetime. Even for a 53 year-old like me.


The data plotted is from the so-called CRUTEM3 analysis of land surface temperatures. The ‘CRU’ refers to the Climatic Research Unit of East Anglia University. The  ‘TEM’ refers to temperature and the ‘3’ is the version number.

CRUTEM3 is an analysis of historical meteorological data of the air temperature approximately one metre above the land surfaces of the Earth.  The input to the analysis are thousands of data series from individual meterological stations. The analysis searches for errors in these series (and there are lots!) and attempts to find trends in the data.

You can download the data from this page of the Met Office Web SIte. This page also has an analysis of the sea surface temperatures, and the combined sea and land surfaces of the Earth.

Downloading and plotting graphs can be tricky because the data is in a very basic format (described here) but it is interesting. The data are archived in this primitive form in order to keep them universally accessible. However if you prefer to look at the data using a  commercial spreadsheet, you can download the spreadsheet (.xslx) into which I put the data here: CRUTEM 3 Anomaly.

Nothing was delivered

October 2, 2013
An envelope was delivered to my place of work containing nothing.

An envelope was delivered to my place of work containing nothing.

The other day I received a mysterious black envelope. On opening it I found it contained nothing. Literally.

This is what the envelope contained.

This is what the envelope contained.

So I immediately assumed I had dropped the contents and began searching. But after a few moments, I made a connection with an article about Absolute Zero that I had written for New Scientist editor Jeremy Webb earlier in the year. Jeremy told me that it was for a yet-to-be-published book they had tentatively entitled  The New Scientist Book of Nothing. Since then I had heard nothing about the likely publication date, and I guess I still haven’t.

If this is publicity for the book (and I really know nothing about whether it is or isn’t) I feel sure it will be very popular. As the words in this article make clear, the concept of ‘nothing’ is fascinating but difficult to discuss. Even naming ‘nothing’ implies an existence when what we want to talk about is ‘absence’.

A page has recently appeared on the New Scientist website on the topic of ‘nothing’ and so it is plausible that this could be the first wave of publicity for the book. More intriguingly, it could be something more mysterious – I don’t know which would be more exciting!

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