Palm Oil Non Sequitur

Weird argument in the World Wildlife Fund’s magazine for why Swedes shouldn’t avoid buying palm oil.

“Sweden has such a small population that it doesn’t matter to the environment whether we buy environmentally destructive palm oil or not. The big markets are in other parts of the world. But if we buy environmentally certified palm oil, then we get to have a voice in the discussion about palm oil production.”

How would a small group of people buying certified oil have any impact on the market for uncertified oil? Makes no sense. I don’t want those producers to cultivate any oil palms whatsoever.

To protect the environment, I prefer to buy local rapeseed oil.

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The True Steel of the Ancestors

Above-ground atomic explosions and reactor leaks during the past century have produced a pretty funny atmosphere full of exotic heavy isotopes. In radiocarbon calibration this error source is called “bomb radiocarbon”. A few years ago it was suggested that a person’s age might be determined through looking at the amount of various isotopes in some bodily tissue (was it the eye’s lens?) and cross-referencing it with the historic data on spikes and troughs in the abundance of various isotopes.

Now the always readworthy Chris Catling tells the readers of Current Archaeology #265 (April) of another way that our sloppy ways with fissile material impact our lives – our cultural heritage, specifically!

“Metal theft doesn’t just take place on dry land; law abiding divers have been reporting an increase in theft from the wrecks of HMS Aboukir, Hogue and Cressy, sunk by a U-boat in the North Sea on 22 September 1914 with the loss of 1,459 lives. … apparently the steel structure of the ships … [T]he amount of radioactive isotopes in the atmosphere has increased, and these get into steel, making it weakly radioactive when air is blown into the furnace …

Some forms of scientific and medical equipment (such as Geiger counters and radiation-detecting body scanners) need what is known as “low-background steel“, the chief source of which is naval vessels constructed prior to 1945 and protected from contamination by the North Sea …

(pp. 46-47)

Global Population Speak-Out

This time of year I’ve repeatedly been taking part in the Global Population Speak-Out, reminding my Dear Readers that a lot of humanity’s main problems could (and will) be solved by shrinking the planet’s human population drastically. It’s up to us: either we quit having enough children to replace the people who die, thus easing population down over centuries, or our numbers will crash catastrophically though war, famine and pandemics. In other words: let’s turn down nativity or we will see mortality turned up on us, each producing similar effects.

It is in my opinion unethical for anyone to sire/bear more than two children. If you want a third and a fourth kid, adopt. And support girl schools: educated women have fewer babies.

Previously on Aard about overpopulation: 2008, 2009, 2010.

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2010 Enlightener & Obscurantist Awards

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The Swedish Skeptics’ annual awards for 2010 were just announced.

Åsa Vilbäck, MD, receives the Enlightener of the Year award,

“… who has described diseases and treatments in an unbiased and informative manner on her TV show Dr. Åsa on Swedish state television. By upholding a good popular science standard on her show, Åsa Vilbäck has emphasised clearly the importance of evidence-based medicine. She has also warned viewers of dangerous alternative medical methods.”

Enlightener Vilbäck receives a cash prize of SEK 25 000 ($3700, €2800).

The Stockholm Initiative lobby group receives the Obscurantist of the Year anti-award, as it

“… mainly works to deny the state of scientific knowledge in climate science, promote home-made and often contradictory theories about how climate ‘actually’ works, disseminate conspiracy theories and relay unsubstantiated rumours and unfounded accusations against climate scientists.”

See Sundsvalls Tidning, Nerikes Allehanda, Norran, Dagens Medicin. I will add links to more coverage as I find them.

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Dorrik Stow’s Vanished Ocean

i-7b12fe56cce214cfb99561d02d602c29-vanishedocean.jpgIn his fine new book Vanished Ocean, geologist Dorrik Stow uses the biography of one of our planet’s vanished oceans to teach the reader a wide range of veeery long-term perspectives on geological history. The ocean that geologists call the Tethys came into being when the Pangaea supercontinent coalesced in the Late Permian, 260 million years ago. Its last vestige finally disappeared when one of the Mediterranean sea’s forerunners dried up 6.5 million years ago.

Along the way, Stow explains plate tectonics, the birth and death of seas, deep-sea sedimentation (his research speciality) and a lot of palaeontology and palaeoecology. Stow describes his travels to relevant rock outcroppings around the world and takes some time at the start of each chapter to wax eloquent over the current scenery in each area, not forgetting to offer wine suggestions.

The main point of controversy that I could detect is that Stow does not believe that an impacting space rock caused the K-T mass extinction, nor that this extinction was a brief catastrophic event. In fact, he thinks that the public has been “thoroughly hoodwinked” on this issue (p. 180). Stow looks more to long-term ecological change and the Deccan supervolcanoes. To me his arguments appear sound, but I know that they don’t convince most of his colleagues, so I’ll just go with their consensus and continue to believe that an impact killed off the dinosaurs.

A smaller point of contention is that Stow repeatedly compares the last land-lubbing ancestor of whales and dolphins to a hyaena. This may be true in the outward shape of the beast in question, but taxonomically speaking it was an ungulate, not a member of the Carnivora. This would have been worth mentioning.

An extensive glossary and an alphabetical index add to the book’s value.

My main complaint with the book has to do with copy editing: Dorrik Stow has a tendency to purple prose and sometimes doesn’t appear to know quite what certain big words mean. He would have come across as a more trustworthy narrator if someone had helped him weed out expressions like “oceans are bathed”, “island archipelago”, “those halcyon seas”, “rich pastiche of history”, “fought for prowess in the sky”, “we can measure and even quantify”, and “We have dwelt too long in the opulence and security of her balmy central gyres and so seen pernicious death descend”.

Then there’s the whole poetry thing. I’m not a fan of Pablo Neruda, but the man is a legendary poet and a Nobel laureate, and so it’s no surprise that his collection Stones of the Sky has supplied a number of chapter mottoes. But there’s another poet who gets to introduce almost as many chapters – Dorrik Stow himself. His bits aren’t bad, but quoting your own poetry about palaeontology, and putting it alongside excerpts from Pablo Neruda, does look a bit self-congratulatory.

All in all though, I found Vanished Ocean to be a lively, engaging and solidly informative read, which even manages to make deep-ocean sedimentology look pretty exciting. And that is no small achievement.

Dorrik Stow, Vanished Ocean. How Tethys Reshaped the World. Oxford University Press 2010. 300 pp. ISBN 978-0-19-921428-0.

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The Earth After Us

i-3e74c05bd3373b3b19d8353aac2e3b97-zalasiewicz_the_earth_after_us.jpgJan Zalasiewicz is a geologist active at the University of Leicester. His 2008 book The Earth After Us: What Legacy Will Humans Leave in the Rocks? is an interesting read even though the title does not correspond very well to the contents. Zalasiewicz does answer the question about what legacy humans will leave in the rocks. But on their own, these answers would only provide material for a magazine article. The bulk of the book is instead an introduction to geology which allows the neophyte to understand what will happen to the remains of today’s world as millions of years pass.

Having no geological training, I learned a lot from the book. An idea that I found particularly interesting was that sedimentary strata show a periodicity linked to the Earth’s movement through the solar system, the Milankovitch cycles. Another was that palaeontology’s source material is partly determined by what rocks happen to be currently available for inspection at the surface. Another was that anything that spends a lot of time at the surface of the Earth will soon erode away, which means that a few million years from now it will be impossible to study humanity’s hominid ancestry. Highland ecologies rarely fossilise.

But to me, the book’s take-home message is that humanity’s reign on Earth will mainly show up in the palaeontological record not as a stratum, but as an interface between geological periods. Such a period interface is defined as a place in a stratigraphic column where ecology shifts dramatically, many species go extinct and new ones evolve in their place. Zalasiewicz is quietly convinced that we are a blip on the timeline, with no chance whatsoever of sustaining our great numbers and high technology for more than another few centuries. To future geology, the heyday of Homo sapiens will just be one of several instantaneous mass extinction events in the planet’s history.

See also my review of Alan Weisman’s 2007 book The World Without Us.

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The Value of Biodiversity

Occasioned by a comment on my recent entry on the movie Avatar and the Gaia hypothesis, here’s a re-run of a blog entry from March 2006.


As comments to a recent entry, I’ve had an interesting discussion about environmentalism with a friend. We both agree that biodiversity and ecological systems should be preserved. But we disagree as to the reason for this.

If I understand my friend correctly, her opinion is that we should preserve biodiversity because it is precious (or even holy?) without reference to the needs and wishes of humans. Let’s say she feels biodiversity is an abstract good.

My opinion is that there is no such thing as abstract good. My reason for thinking we should preserve biodiversity is that it would be dangerous and aesthetically dissatisfying for humans if we lost it. I believe that the concept of value is only at all applicable from the perspective of an intelligent observer.

Consider the planet Octavia, far, far away. It sported a radiant ecosystem with innumerable species of exquisite beauty — until yesterday. A nearby star and the local black hole bumped uglies, producing an extended shower of hard radiation, killing every living thing on Octavia as the planet rotated. The planet now has innumerable fossils of exquisite beauty. And in a few years, Octavia’s entire star system will be swallowed by the black hole, obliterating it.

Now, is this a tragedy? No. It’s a non-event. Let me add two crucial pieces of information.

1) The smartest being that ever evolved on vibrant Octavia was a blue armadillo-like creature with the brains of a fish. And it didn’t suffer one bit when the radiation hit it.

2) No intelligent being from another star system ever came close enough to Octavia to even notice that it had life.

Or consider a species of yellow toad restricted to a single valley in Papua New Guinea. Its habitat is severely threatened by logging, and chances are it’ll be extinct in a few years. The passing of this rare toad species is of no practical concern to humans, and the locals won’t miss it. But people in the West, like me, will mourn the toad. Not because it had any intrinsic value, but because it was a fun animal to study.

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Dan Simmons’s Scientific Let-Down

Dan Simmons published a wonderful, galaxy-spanning, mind-blowing sf novel in 1989: Hyperion. Then he followed it up with three more novels of which I have read two. They’re OK, but not as good as the first book.

Science fiction is of course stories where fabulous things happen and are explained by science and technology rather than magic. There are two ways to do this: either you offer an explanation that is actually in line with what we know now and sort of makes sense, or you use technobabble to cover the fact that you, the writer, do not actually have any idea of how for instance space ships move instantaneously from one star to another. Both ways are in my opinion fine. And Simmons uses the technobabble technique with poetic flair: “torch ship”, “lance the ground troops from orbit”, “spin down into the system”, “hyper-entropic field”.

But in the third of the Hyperion novels, Endymion (1996), he does something that jarred me awake to the fact that Simmons apparently does not know basic science at all. He tells us that a couple of fabulous things happen and offers neither technobabble nor believable scientific explanations.

We’re on the planet Sol Draconi Septem. Having once been terraformed, thus receiving a breathable atmosphere, it has now relapsed (over a few centuries) into a chilly state where its atmosphere has frozen solid, collapsed onto the surface and formed glaciers. There is hardly any gaseous matter there any more. Those glaciers seem to consist largely of solid nitrogen. Yet Simmons tells us that there is breathable air and liquid salty water in tunnels dug through the ice by a species of large animal, the ice wraiths. And on top of the glaciers, where it is impossible to breathe, intense blizzards blow. So there is wind in a vacuum, and there is precipitation without an atmosphere. Ouch.

The ecology of Sol Draconi Septem is also magical. It consists only of two species of carnivore that hunt each other: ice wraiths and humans. No plants and no herbivores. Simmons does mention that the human population is shrinking, which suggests that he understands that a system without energy input will dwindle and eventually stop running. But as far as I can see he’s vastly overestimated the longevity of such a system. It is after all the equivalent of fencing a desert in, removing all animals and filling it with lions and tigers. And it’s not just a matter of energy efficiency, but also one of materials: if a tiger eats a lion, far from all of the lion’s building blocks become incorporated into the tiger.

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Unsuccessfully Greening Public Transport

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Skiing Break was action packed for the kids. Monday museum, Tuesday playland, Wednesday skiing with grampa, Thursday swimming, Friday museum & puppet theatre and a museum-organised LAN party for the 10-y-o.

Yesterday’s museum was the Public Transport Museum which shares an entrance and a ticket with the Toy Museum. Lots of buses and trams, including one bus standing on a service pit where you can descend and check out the under side of the vehicle. Juniorette and I made a pink train carriage in the children’s workshop.

One thing that caught my eye was a mothballed experimental hybrid bus, part of a long-running project to improve the environmental footprint of the city’s public transport. It has a car engine running at constant RPM, which charges a large battery, which in turn drives an electrical engine, which drives the bus. Among its strengths is an ability to drive silently in sensitive areas. Among its weaknesses: a 110% fuel consumption compared to a normal diesel engine. Back to the drawing board.

According to a signpost, the fuel-guzzling hybrid is just one of a series of designs that have fallen by the road side during the project. The best solution so far has turned out to be ethanol buses, which are quite common, unmistakable with their smell of old drunk. But as everybody knows by now, ethanol is a useless replacement for fossil fuels as its production uses up loads of them. So it seems that the Stockholm program has yet to find even one working solution. Good to know that they’re trying, though.

In the future, we may see buses running on methane from the Henriksdal sewage plant. It’s inside a mountain that my commuter train passes through every day, and the housing area on its top (once the site of a 1st Millennium hillfort) is colloquially known as the Toilet Lid. Hope that idea pans out.

Swedes Produce Hot Water, Dump It Into Sea

For historical reasons having nothing to do with engineering or rationality, Swedish nuclear power plants dump a lot of warm cooling water into the sea. In a revealing blog entry, Paddy K offers an estimate of just how much energy that cooling water contains.

It’s one third of the energy produced in the country.

I suddenly don’t feel very motivated to keep my morning showers brief.

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