The Unexpected Perspective
The Implications of Darwin and the Big Bang for Christians ... and Everyone Else

Perspectives

The President wants to build a border wall that Democrats and others loathe. The funny thing is, the Democrats actually might want to help the President build biggest wall he can.

            Ever since I first heard the idea of building a wall on the US-Mexico border, I've been disgusted.  I know lots of other people are, too.  I also know people who think a big wall is absolutely essential, and long overdue. 

            It's just another one of the many issues where people find themselves resolutely on one side or the other. 

            Neither side wants to give an inch.   There's no middle ground … and there's nothing but stalemate.

            Until you figure out a way to get past the stalemate.  Let me suggest an unusual way to do it.  The main idea behind the "The Unexpected Perspective" blog is to start with the following question: could there be a reason to embrace some or many of the ideas of my opponent?  These days, that sounds very unusual because it is very unusual.  So let's try the idea out on the topic of Donald Trump's border wall.

            Could there be a reason why liberals and progressives would love to build Donald Trump's border wall?  Sounds like a ridiculous question, but the surprising answer is … absolutely, positively, yes!  Now let me explain to you how I've arrived at this highly unusual conclusion.

            Donald Trump prides himself on being a master negotiator.  In real estate, at least, looks as though he is really, really good.  So if the Democrats want to succeed, they probably should spend some time thinking about their negotiating strategy.  Trump is a bit unusual, so maybe it's time for some unusual negotiations. 

           Anyone who has ever taken a negotiating course knows the difference between a "zero sum" negotiation and a "win/win" one.  "Zero sum" means that "I win/you lose".  In the latter form, both parties can win.  I've taken a number of such courses and have never seen anyone advocate for "zero sum", they've all advocated some form of "win/win". 

            "Zero sum" usually doesn't work.  Either there is no agreement reached, or the agreement tends to get sabotaged.

            "Win/win" usually wins.  So how could that idea be applied to Donald Trump's border wall?  Let's go back to my earlier question, why would liberals and progressives ever want to have a border wall?  The answer: if in return they got something they really want. 

            Liberals have said they want the Dreamers – children brought illegally to the USA by their parents - to be able to stay in the USA.  There may be some signs that Trump will give them that in exchange for his wall.  Frankly, if that's the case, they're not bargaining hard enough with him.

            As I'll show you below, ironically, the Democrats would actually be better off not only with a wall, but with a bigger wall!  They can go to the President and offer the following: the more you're willing to work with us, the more we'll support your wall. 

            I've heard that the President really enjoys fast food, so let me describe some possible "deals" they might offer the President.  I'll describe them in terms of the Burger King menu.    After all, the President seems to know something or other about whoppers, so let's talk about the Whopper®.  Nancy Pelosi and Chuck Schumer can offer the President the following three Burger King choices:

            Choice #1: Hamburger, fries and a Coke

The President can build sections of the wall.  In return, the Dreamers will be allowed to stay in the USA and given a pathway to citizenship.  It's the "small meal" solution.

            Choice #2: Bacon & Cheese Whopper, fries and a Coke

The President can build a bigger wall than he can in choice #1.  In return, not only can the Dreamers stay, but so can their families, as well as Haitians, Salvadorans, and certain other illegals.  It's a bigger meal at Burger King, and it's a bigger solution for both the President and the Democrats. 

            Choice #3: Double Whopper, fries and a Coke

The President can build as big a wall as he wants.  In return, with the exception of those convicted of felonies, every illegal immigrant in the USA will be offered not only an opportunity to stay in the USA, but also a clearly defined pathway to citizenship.  This is "the whopper solution."

            You can see the idea.  The more the President wants his wall, the more he needs to concede on the other end.  The funny thing is, both parties would probably gain by heading as close as possible to choice #3: they'd both win more by giving the other side what it wants.

            Choice #3 sounds crazy, but that's not the right question to ask.  Instead, the right question to ask is, is it crazy enough?  Let's consider how both sides could win under choice #3.

            The President wins because he gets his wall.  He can fulfill a giant campaign promise to his base.  In theory, the wall will stop, or greatly reduce, illegal immigration and drug smuggling.  Not only that, he'll be in a position to claim that Mexico paid for the wall.  Now the government of Mexico won't be paying a nickel towards the wall.  Instead, by legalizing the illegals, the USA stands to gain a giant tax windfall.  Millions of workers who have been paid under the table will now be paid properly, and taxes will be withheld in a proper manner.  The President can surely claim the new taxes, collected from Mexican nationals in the process of becoming US citizens, will pay for his wall.

            Democrats win because they can get something they've been wanting for years – comprehensive immigration reform.  Businesses will also benefit hugely by that.  Cities and states can also benefit because people who were previously illegal will now be paying taxes.

            Illegal aliens will win, for the obvious reasons.  As part of a choice #3 deal, it would be important to charge those becoming legalized.  One side can describe that as a fine for illegal entry.  The other can characterize it as the cost of becoming legal – the cost of applying to become a US citizen. 

            Mexico wins because it will put to an end an issue that has created friction between both countries.

            As they already do, each side can go on TV and tell its own version.  The President can trumpet his wall on Fox.  Nancy Pelosi and Chuck Schumer can hail a comprehensive solution to immigration on MSNBC and CNN.  Everybody can win!

            But the win is only possible by re-framing the problem from a "zero sum" to "win/win".  And as I've pointed out, if properly structured, the ironic outcome is that the more the Democrats concede to the President on his wall, the more they can win, too.  Burger King choice #1 is a lousy deal.  Not such a great meal.  Choice #2 is definitely a better deal.  But choice #3 is definitely the best deal! 

            In terms of choice #3, each side can say: hey, 1400 calories plus tons of saturated fat, but look what we got?  

            Is building a wall still a stupid idea?  It all comes down to what you get in exchange for the wall.  Conversely, is legalizing a whole bunch of illegals a bad idea?  It all comes down to what you get in exchange.

            In this context, not only is a wall a good idea, a big wall is a better idea, and the biggest wall is the best ideaAnd the unexpected outcome is that the best way to accomplish what you want is by helping your opponent accomplish what he wants.  It's an old lesson in politics, and negotiation.  Hopefully, Mitch McConnell, Paul Ryan, Chuck Schumer, and Nancy Pelosi will each rediscover what they already knew.  And maybe they, along with the man who currently resides at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, will all get more of what they want.

post a comment

What's the best way to fight untruths and distortions? We'd like to think sharing facts will do it. This post explores the question and comes up with an unexpected answer.

            Don't "alternative facts" and other lies just drive you nuts?  How can so much junk be published every day?  How can so many people fall for all of this?  If we could just show them the facts, they'd see how wrong they are! 

            Sound familiar?  Absolutely!

            The funny thing is, this conversation occurs daily not just in progressive, Democratic households … the very same thing happens in conservative, very Republican ones.

            We're all convinced that the other side is ill-informed, even stupid. 

            Unfortunately, the real truth may be even worse: both sides are ill-informed, maybe even stupid.  But what I find most distressing is it applies to science oriented issues.  We all seem to think we have "science" on our side, and the other side has only "junk science", or "politically motivated science". 

            Sadly, that doesn't appear to be the case at all.

            Not only that, but the public as a whole is repeatedly deceived about science by highly motivated parties.

            That's bad news … and I've got even more bad news below.  Fortunately, I've also got some good news.  Some recent research suggests a possible way out of this.  The answer isn't that we need more and better dissemination of scientific information.  Instead, we need to figure out a way to increase our scientific curiosity, which isn't the same.  More about that below. 

            The good news is that we humans usually are very curious.  After all, "inquiring minds want to know"!   Which, curiously, may suggest that the way to overcome some of our political divides isn't to provide more "scientific facts".  Instead, maybe we just need to tell better stories.  Could we all learn something from the "National Enquirer" and TMZ?

            But before getting to the really good news, let's take a look at some sad history.  A few years ago the term "agnotology" was coined.  That's the study of culturally induced ignorance or doubt, particularly in the publication of misleading or inaccurate scientific data.  The classic case of this is what Big Tobacco did to counteract scientific information, first appearing in the early 1950's, that smoking was dangerous to health.  The Big Tobacco companies carried on a half century effort against those who sought to point out the health dangers of smoking.  They were masterfully successful.

            Many say that other organizations have been keen students of Big Tobacco.  These include Big Oil (trying to call climate change into question); and the National Rifle Association (trying to defend gun ownership).  I mention these as examples … there are certainly many more, and on both ends of the political spectrum.

            Lots of people get frustrated by these cases.  They're often muttering under their breath, "why can't these people be stopped?"  The same people reasonably believe that the prevarications and mis-representations of any extreme group they happen to disagree with can be exposed with facts, and the battle will be won.  Sadly, not the case. 

            Tim Harford, known as the "Undercover Economist", wrote about the problem several months ago in the Financial Times.  He observed three problems with what I'll call the "fighting lies with facts" strategy.  First, a simple untruth can beat off a complicated set of facts, just by being easier to understand and remember.  Sounds terrible, but it really does make sense.  The truth behind many things is complicated and hard to remember.  Soundbites … even patently patently false ones … are much easier to comprehend and remember.

            Now for what I think is the scary corollary of this.  According to Harford, there's evidence that repeating a false claim, even as part of debunking the false claim, can make the false claim stick.  Politifact, a movement to check the veracity of political pronouncements, may actually be its own worst enemy.  Politifact's term for an egregious untruth spoken by a politician is "Pants on Fire" … you no doubt know where that phrase came from.  Based upon what Harford is saying, every time Politifact attempts to shed the light of truth on a "Pants on Fire" comment, it may inadvertently be cementing the idea in the mind of the public even more. 

            No one understands this concept better than the President of the United States.  In fact, some people have made the argument that "the fact checkers are Trump's poodle".  Ouch!

            The second argument that Harford makes is something all of us learned in school: facts can be boring.  Not only that, the facts may be so boring that an awful lot of people just tune out.  There's some concern that news organizations slant their news to fit a particular viewpoint.  No doubt, there's some truth to that, but even a quick review of newspapers from the 18th, 19th and early 20th centuries shows that certainly isn't anything new.  After a brief perusal of some old newspapers, you could easily come away thinking that today's reporting actually pretty balanced!

            No, the problem with facts could actually be worse.  It may be that lots of people simply aren't getting any facts at all.  In 2016 researchers Seth Flaxman, Sharad Goel and Justin Roe published a study of how people read news online.  The objective was to study the online news reading habits of 1.2 million people and assess bias in news reporting.  Unfortunately, their sample of 1.2 million people ended up reduced to 50,000.  The sad truth?  Only about 4% of the 1.2 million people in their study read enough serious news to be included in the study!  You may ask, how much serious news did one have to read in order to qualify to be in the 50,000 sample? It was 10 news articles and 2 opinion pieces over 90 days.  That's less than one news story per week!  In citing the study, Harford noted: "Many commentators worry that we're segregating ourselves in ideological bubbles, exposed only to the views of those who think the same way we do. There's something in that concern. But for 96 per cent of these web surfers the bubble that mattered wasn't liberal or conservative, it was: 'Don't bother with the news.'"  Double ouch!

            Harford's third argument is that the truth can be threatening.   He observed: "The problem here is that while we like to think of ourselves as rational beings, our rationality didn't just evolve to solve practical problems, such as building an elephant trap, but to navigate social situations. We need to keep others on our side. Practical reasoning is often less about figuring out what's true, and more about staying in the right tribe."  Harford cites a classic 1954 study called "They Saw a Game".  Researchers from Dartmouth College (my alma mater) and Princeton studied a football game between their respective schools played on November 23, 1951.  The reaction to the game was largely colored by one's school loyalty.  Needless to say, the researchers found the Dartmouth students overlooked fouls committed by the Dartmouth players and complained about how some of the penalties assessed against their team.  Princeton supporters did the exact reverse.  Anyone who watches sports in the early 21st century will say, "that's a flash of the blindingly obvious"!  Needless to say, our tribal affiliations trump our scientific objectivity..

            If Harford and other researchers are correct, we really shouldn't be surprised that "determined obfuscators" (my term) like Big Tobacco on smoking, and Big Oil with climate change, are successful in their efforts.

            Which is all bad, but it actually gets worse before it gets better.  According to Dan Kahan, a professor of law and psychology at Yale University, "groups with opposing values often become more polarized, not less, when exposed to scientifically sound information."  Climate change is a perfect example.  Liberals seem to believe that if conservatives would pay attention to the scientific facts about global warming, they'd "see the light."  Guess what?  When scientifically literate conservatives are presented with the facts liberals want them to see, they actually become even more opposed to arguments about global warming!  So much for "the facts".

            All of which seems to explain a lot of what we observe.  The question is, can anything be done about it?  Can we somehow not be taken in by companies trying to mis-lead us?  Can we show more interest in scientific matters?  Can we overcome our boredom with facts?  Can we place scientific objectivity ahead of our tribal loyalties?  Can we somehow reduce the polarization, especially about matters of science?

            Now for the good news I promised you earlier.  The answer is, yes, there may be a way to overcome this.  Dan Kahan, the Yale professor cited earlier, wrote an interesting article early in 2017 suggesting a way.  Kahan and his fellow researchers concluded that increasing scientific literacy isn't the way to do it: "higher proficiency in science comprehension accentuates identity affirming rather than truth convergent forms of political information processing."  I guess that's a professorial way to say, people who are scientifically literate are just as likely, even more likely, to base their science views on their tribal and political affiliations, not science.   

            So if scientific literacy isn't the solution, what is?  According to Kahan and his associates, the answer has to do with "scientific curiosity."  Scientific curiosity isn't the same thing as scientific literacy.  In fact, one doesn't have to have a lot of science training to be scientifically curious.  Moreover, Kahan also found that people who are scientifically literate aren't necessarily highly scientifically curious.

            Kahan and his team created what they call a "scientific curiosity scale."  People who are "scientifically curious" are more willing to set aside tribal and political affiliations and be more objective.

            Let's assume Kahan and his fellow researchers are correct.  If so, then the key may be to increase scientific curiosity.  How do you do that?  That will likely take more research.  The good news, however, is that humans are naturally curious … and there are some things about which we're probably all very curious.  You probably won't like the answer, but it seems that we're almost uniformly curious when it comes to sex, scandal, and gossip.  Other things, too, but those are the first things that come to mind. 

            You can't explain "The National Enquirer" or the Kardashians any other way.   That doesn't sound like it has anything to do with big science … or any other truly important issues, except it really does … IF you buy into Kahan's argument that the key is to increase curiosity.  Somehow, some way, we don't necessarily need to present more scientific facts, we need to find a way to encourage people to be more curious.  Harford notes, "We journalists and policy wonks can't force anyone to pay attention to the facts. We have to find a way to make people want to seek them out. Curiosity is the seed from which sensible democratic decisions can grow. It seems to be one of the only cures for politically motivated reasoning but it's also, into the bargain, the cure for a society where most people just don't pay attention to the news because they find it boring or confusing." 

            So maybe we're all ill informed and stupid, just not for the reasons for which we accuse each other.  And the solution isn't what we think.

            If we really want to persuade our opponents to reconsider their science views, the key may to increase our scientific curiosity.  And to learn about how that might be done, maybe our first step should be to pull a page out of TMZ's playbook, or learn something about how it's done to us in the supermarket checkout line.

 

post a comment

As 2017 ends and we welcome 2018, some possibly unexpected thoughts on technology

            Once again we say good bye to one year and hello to a new one.  It's always common at the end of December to see lists of good and bad things that have happened over the year then ending, and a similar list of projections for the upcoming year.  I'd like to do this a slightly different way.  The first difference is that I don't want to talk about the year just ending.  The second difference is that while I'll talk about some technologies with which you're probably already familiar, I want to give more of my attention on upcoming trends that are getting less attention.  My focus will be on technology.  I've given up on making sports predictions … and any ones I might make on entertainment would be laughable at best.

            Since we're entering 2018, let's talk about 18 things to expect in technology this coming year: eight trends that you may well have heard about, and ten more that may be less familiar.  In each case, I'll share with you the thoughts of others who focus on each area.  Let's start with eight more familiar ones:

#1: Non-financial blockchain applications

            Unless you've been vacationing on a remote Pacific island, you've probably heard about Bitcoin, and you may also have heard about some of the related financial products based upon a technology called blockchain.  What you might not have heard is that blockchain is being used to develop a whole range of non-financial applications. 

            There's a very good chance that Bitcoin is going to go the way of tulips in 17th century Holland.  The bubble will burst and the price of Bitcoin will crash, just as tulips did.  It's unclear whether Bitcoin and related financial products based upon blockchain will survive.  On the other hand, it looks as though the non-financial applications have a very bright future.  I suggest you read Elena Mesropyan, who has written about 30 non-financial applications of blockchain technology. 

#2: AI/AR/VR applications

 

            There have been lots of new developments in artificial intelligence, augmented reality, and virtual reality.  Inventor and product architect George Krasadakis sees some interesting connections between them.  Likewise, the Gartner Group foresees these various technologies coming together to form a digital mesh that will provide new forms of support for digital businesses.

#3 IoT becomes BIot

            Devices and products you use every day, including your TV, thermostat, even refrigerator, now increasingly now include connections to the Internet.  Prognosticators at Fortune magazine now see a link between IoT and non-financial applications of blockchain (trend #1 above) to create BIot (blockchain Internet of things).

#4: Crispr CAS9

            You've very likely heard about Crispr CAS9, the revolutionary new gene editing technology which offers the promise, and peril, of eliminating genetic defects.  Even though the technology is still quite young, real life applications are presently being developed.  One very interesting one, reported in Digital Trends, is the application of Crispr to treat ALS (Lou Gehrig's Disease), hitherto untreatable.

#5: 3D Printing

            The 3D printing industry continues to move from hobbyist and experimental applications to more mainstream ones.  3D Print magazine suggests some emerging trends in the technology for 2018

#6: Microbiome

            Scientists continue to discover more ways in which the microbiome is critical to health.  At the same time, there is increasing interest personalized diet and medicine.  Tech Crunch magazine sees connections between the two.

#7: Open source software

            Open source software applications continue to proliferate.  Opensource.com forecasts a number of important developments continuing into 2018.

#8: Biofuels

            Biofuels have long been seen as a potential alternative to oil and gas.  Unfortunately, using corn as a feedstock for ethanol hasn't worked out as planned, creating a whole series of problems along the way.  Scientists have gone back to the drawing boards to identify better biofuel feedstocks.  While biofuels reduce the use of oil and gas, they do still create greenhouse gases.  BP, however, believes it has identified a biofuel feedstock in Brazil with a better greenhouse gas profile.

Ten Possibly Less Familiar Technology Trends

            Now let's consider ten tech trends that you might not be familiar with.

#1: Transparent solar

            Solar energy is becoming an increasingly mature industry, and its share of energy production is growing rapidly.  Most everyone has seen a solar panel or a solar farm, but there are some less familiar solar technologies that are emerging.  One of them is called "transparent solar".  Singularityhub sees this as an emerging technology in 2018.

#2: Floating wind farms

            Likewise, most everyone has seen a wind farm.  These farms provide cost effective clean energy.  So why aren't there a lot more of them?  The simple answer: virtually no one wants to have a wind farm in his or her backyard.  One of the solutions to that is to put wind farms out of sight.  Singularityhub reports on a strategy to get your typical wind farm out of sight – floating wind farms.

#3: African technological leap-frogging

            We in the developed world often have mental images of Africa as extremely poor and completely backward in technology.  While Africa is comparatively poor, it isn't as technologically backward as we envision.  In fact, there are signs that Africans are leapfrogging from backwardness to state of the art applications, all in a single bound.  Disruptionhub offers some great examples.

#4: Graphene based batteries

            Tesla and others have ushered in a new world of electric vehicles and battery storage, promising to revolutionize several industries.  The key ingredient in that revolution has been the development of lithium ion battery technology.  But what if there is an even better technology than lithium ion?  An emerging candidate is graphene based batteries.  Disruptionhub offers some interesting insights into this emerging technology.

#5: Technology innovation hubs outside the USA

            Disruptionhub pointed out that there are now some 300 innovation centers spread throughout Africa.  They're likely to spawn some very interesting technologies, and companies, but I doubt many people in Silicon Valley are very worried about them.  But they may be a little concerned about another emerging trend – Silicon Valley style hubs in major developed countries outside the USA.  One example is Station F in Paris.  Expect to see some interesting things coming from these emerging hubs.

#6: Developing world alternative energy projects

            The developed world is making pretty good progress in reducing greenhouse gas emissions, but the developing world is a significant question mark.  The good news is, there are a number of important alternative energy projects underway in the developing world.  Mashable reports on a number of them.  As with most new technology, many of them will probably not be commercialized, but at least a few may produce great results. 

#7: Electric trucks

The emergence of all electric automobiles is now an old story, but what about

trucks?  Trucks pose some significant challenges not present in automobiles.  Nevertheless, Inside Climate News reports on some important new developments are emerging, pointing towards a future with lots of electric trucks.

#8: Impact investing

            In the past, donors to charities have never expected to see their contributions returned to them.  Increasingly, that is no longer true.  The concept of "impact investing" has emerged.  It's now going from fringe to mainstream.   

            In impact investing, instead of making a financial gift to a charity, the donor invests the money in a company that will provide a product or service that substitutes for the traditional charitable activity.  As an example, the donors might invest in a power plant that will focus on providing power to the underserved in a developing world country.  The company is expected to make money, and the power it produces will provide real benefits to the customers. 

            In many cases, the investor is a traditional charity.  The money it invests will then eventually be returned to the charity, and the charity can then use the money for additional chartiable purposes.

            Why I am including this in the list?  It's because many of the companies receiving impact investments utilize technology to solve social problems.

The Global Impact Investing Network projects dramatic growth in the field during 2018.  Here's a link to their report.

#9: Quantum computing

            Quantum computing is beginning to move from the purely conceptual stage to real life applications.  Technology Review suggests that real life quantum computers will soon be emerging.

#10: Livestreaming

            Video streaming has been around the Internet for several years.  It now appears to be emerging as a serious technology.  Neil Patel offers thoughts on why it's an important technology to watch in 2018

Final Thoughts

            Will all of these things happen in 2018?  Well, if they do, the most surprised person of all will be me.  After all, venture capitalists and angel investors never expect more than a fraction of the companies they invest in to be successful.  But they do expect at least a certain percentage of their investments to provide big payoffs.  Likewise, looking at the list above, I expect at least of few of these be major winners in 2018.

            And I also expect there will be some winning technologies in 2018 that aren't on the list.  You and I may not even know they exist.  They're still under development in someone's lab.  But that's the nature of technology.  There's always an opportunity for surprise and wonder.

            Happy New Year.  May 2018 bring blessings to you, your friends and co-workers, and your loved ones; and may it be filled with surprise and wonder.

 

 

 

 

 

 

post a comment

Christians and non-Christians alike are celebrating Christmas. Here are some possibly surprising observations.

            This week people all over the world will celebrate Christmas, the date that Christians believe was the birth of Jesus Christ.  Both Christians and non-Christians celebrate the occasion. 

            I think it points to something very interesting: people have all kinds of different beliefs about Jesus, yet they all seem agree that he was a real person.  Pretty much everyone agrees that he was born near Jerusalem, most likely in a stable, about 2000 years ago, to a teenage girl.  He grew up near Nazareth, became a carpenter, then spent three years as a teacher, prophet and healer.  He was betrayed by one of his followers, crucified on a cross, and died.  Not only that, people of widely different beliefs – even atheists – acknowledge that he had a profound message that possesses great merit to this day.

            What they don't agree upon is whether Jesus was God coming to Earth as a man.  Not only that, lots of people definitely don't think that after being crucified, Jesus rose from the dead and ascended back into Heaven.  There are disagreements about lots of things, such as whether Jesus was born to a virgin, but those are really mere details to the big question about Jesus as Son of God.

            So if pretty much everyone agrees on the basic facts about the life of Jesus, why do Christians believe what I'll call "additional facts" (i.e., that He was the Son of God coming to Earth, dying, and rising again)?

            Christians like me believe these "additional facts" because we believe two other things.  First, that humankind, from the very first humans onward, is sinful.  Second, we believe that humans can't by themselves overcome this inherent sinfulness.  They can only do it through the help of God.  If you don't believe in the "additional facts", there's no reason for you to believe Jesus was the Son of God.  If you do believe them, then you hope and pray that Jesus is in fact the Son of God.

            These ideas are at the core of what Christians believe, so what evidence is there of this?  Historically, the evidence of these beliefs has come from the Christian Bible.  Of course, lots and lots of people don't believe that people are inherently sinful and that humans can't overcome their basic sinfulness on their own.  Thus, the big question: other than what's in the Bible, is there any evidence to support what Christians claim?

            For the past 150 or so years, many people have claimed that modern science has debunked the Christian Bible.   They've told everyone there's an either/or choice: you can either believe what modern science says, or you can believe what the Christian Bible says.  So if you accept modern science, you can't believe the Bible.  For many who believe in modern science, it became time to give up on Christianity. The funny thing is, besides atheists, many evangelical Christians have bought into the same "either/or", just approaching it from the opposite direction: if you're a Christian, you can't believe in "atheistic science". 

            The problem is, it's a false choice, but lots of people have bought into this "false choice", chosen science, and given up their Christian beliefs; or they stuck with the Bible and decided that Darwin must be a "tool of the devil".

            But here's the surprising thing: one can make an argument that that very same science actually supports the Christian ideas that humans are inherently sinful and that they can't overcome it on their own.   Mind you, I'm not talking about "junk science" like Intelligent Design.  I'm talking about taking the exact same science embraced by people like Richard Dawkins.  For years, everyone has been trying to build the case that science proves that religion is bunk, but what if that science actually appears to back up what Christians have said all along?

            What?  How can that be?

            Let me show you how and why.

            It starts with the Big Bang.  The obvious question is, what caused the Big Bang?  Christians, and adherents of other religions, of course say that it was God.  Atheists tend to say, it all just happened by chance, or the universe has always existed.  Neither side can prove the case one way or another.  Ultimately, each side has a set of beliefs about the cause, but absolutely no proof.  In effect, both atheists and religious people make faith claims about the cause of the Big Bang.  So when it comes to the Big Bang, neither side can claim that science is conclusively on their side.  A draw.

            But some interesting things happened soon after the Big Bang: a series of scientific laws quickly emerged to govern the behavior of all matter and energy.  Among other things, these include gravity, electromagnetism, and what's called the "strong nuclear force".  If any of these constants were just slightly different, our universe would be drastically different.  In fact, the universe as we know it may never have formed.  For example, if the strong nuclear force were just a tiny bit different, stars could never have formed.

            The fact that such tiny changes could so drastically change the universe suggests the hand of a Creator God.  Doesn't prove it, just makes it highly suggestive.  The conclusion: science, at least in this case, points towards the reality of a pre-existent God.  Score one point for the religiously inclined.

            But that's still a long way from the claims Christians make about Jesus.  After all, you could easily have God cause the Big Bang, establish the scientific constants, then have God sit back, relax, or "go play a round of cosmic golf".  That's pretty much what Deists believe.  They believe God created the universe, but soon thereafter took a completely hands off attitude about the creation, one that continues to this day.  And it's a long way from what Christians claim about Jesus.

            So what could possibly be the scientific evidence that backs up those core ideas that Christians believe, namely that humans are inherently sinful and that they can't overcome that on their own? 

            The surprising answer is the science that lots of people have been trying to use as a bludgeon against Christianity for 150 years: Charles Darwin's theory of evolution by natural selection. 

            What?  Are you serious?  How could that be?

            Here's how.  Supporters of Darwin make that argument that all life has emerged as the result of evolution through natural selection.  Homo sapiens – we humans – have emerged in the very same way as every other form of life.  Our nearest genetic cousins are the non-human mammals such as apes, monkeys, and baboons.  We humans share about 98% of our DNA with these non-human mammals.  We're not direct descendants of monkeys, as so many people have feared, but we are actually genetic "cousins". We all share a common ancestor who lived about 100 million years ago.

            Many scientists study monkeys, apes, and similar mammals.  They've made the interesting observation that these animals often steal things and practice deception.  Why do they do these things?  Obviously, they steal and deceive in order to survive.  The better they are at theft and deception, the more likely they are to survive. 

            The argument is that our human ancestors – and their ancestors - did the same kinds of things in order to survive. 

            So you can think about something like deception in terms of a coin.  Every coin has a head and a tail.  The head of the coin represents the positive side of the behavior.  The positive side, of course, is that the behavior let's the animal survive another day, maybe long enough to reproduce.  The tail – the opposite side of the coin – represents the negative side of the behavior.  In this case, we all know what's wrong with theft.

            Though we humans share a lot of DNA with our non-human "cousins", we're obviously different.  What's the real difference?  Of course, humans have much bigger, more sophisticated brains. These brains give us a higher level of consciousness, the ability to know the difference between right and wrong, and most importantly, the ability to do something even when we know it's wrong!

            Thus the theory: what Christians call sin is really just a by-product of evolution.  The behaviors that have helped us to survive are also the very things that we call sin.  In theory, we humans, given our bigger brains, should know when we shouldn't do certain things, but we all still do those wrong things from time to time.  Welcome to "being human".  You can apply the coin analogy to pretty much every human behavior.  Each behavior has a positive side that is evolutionarily beneficial, but each behavior also has a negative, sinful side.

            So Darwin's theory can be used to explain why Christians believe humankind is inherently sinful.  Which leads to the second part: what can we do about it?  Well if human behavior is like a coin, with a head and a tail, then the answer is: nothing!  That's because bad behavior is really just the flip side of the good behavior that helped us to survive and reproduce.  Get rid of one and you get rid of the other!

            Thus, the argument becomes, humans can know that some things are wrong, but we can't stop doing those things.  Oh, on any given day we can know we shouldn't do certain things and actually don't do those bad things.  Unfortunately, on other days, we seem to forget and each of us does bad things.  Nobody's perfect.  Thus, we can each vow to be better, and actually behavior a little bit better, but we never overcome our inherent nature.  We all have the capacity to do and be good, but we also have our bad sides.

            Which is precisely the argument that Christians make: we are this way, and we can never overcome it on our own.  We need the help of God.

            Now that in no way proves that Jesus Christ is the Son of God.  It merely suggests that humankind needs someone like Jesus.  Of course, Christians like me say that Jesus did exactly what was needed: died to atone for the sins of humanity, then rose again.  Can't prove it, I, and my fellow Christians, can just believe it.

            What it also says is that humans aren't inherently good.  If we were inherently good, we likely wouldn't have survived.  While we have the capacity to be good, the necessity to survive long enough to reproduce has always meant we've each got a bad side.

            Looks like science scores another point for religion.

            Thus, in my mind, there is a supreme irony in all of this.  People of all backgrounds and beliefs have no problem believing and accepting the historical reality of Jesus.  The irony is that non-Christians have claimed science as the backstop for their beliefs that Jesus wasn't who he claimed to be, but science may actually point in the direction that Jesus really was necessary for the world. 

            But remember, Christmas is still a birthday party, not a science lecture.  We should all celebrate in the manner we believe appropriate.  For Christians who are skeptical of the science about evolution, I hope you'll pause long enough to reconsider some of your fears and objections.  Charles Darwin may actually be your new best friend.  For non-Christians who do embrace modern science, I hope you'll pause long enough to consider that modern science isn't showing that humans are basically good and that religion is inherently bad.  For the atheist, faith in Darwin and other modern science might actually point down a different path.

            Whatever your beliefs, I wish you and your loved ones a safe and joyful Christmas.  After all, it's a birthday party.

post a comment

The construction of a giant fusion reactor in France is now 50% complete. It may pave the way to a viable new energy source.

            Why are some predictions amazingly accurate but others wildly off the mark?

            In 1783, at the end of the American Revolution, the president of Yale University predicted that the US population would grow to 300 million by 1983.  It reached 300 million within 20 years of the date predicted 200 years earlier.  Likewise, in 1863 Russian Dmitri Mendeleev organized the 60 known elements into the periodic table, predicting what the next 40 elements – then undiscovered – would look like. 

            Mendeleev and Yale's president were amazingly accurate!  

            But most of the time, our prognosticators are way off the mark.  For example, in 1949 Popular Mechanics magazine made the following prediction: "where a calculator like ENIAC today is equipped with 18,000 vacuum tubes and weighs 30 tons, computers in the future may have only 1,000 vacuum tubes and weigh 1.5 tons.

            Likewise, Robert Metcalf, the co-inventor of Ethernet, predicted that the Internet would grow exponentially but then collapse.

            Two amazingly good predictions and two incredibly bad ones.  What's the difference?  In a word: unexpected changes in technology.  In all four cases, extrapolations of known data were made.  The difference was that in two of the cases, technology changed in unexpected ways that rendered the inaccurate predictions wildly wrong.  And it's not because the prognosticators were stupid … they certainly weren't … it's just that new technology emerged that couldn't have been predicted.  In the case of computer technology, it was transistors and Moore's Law. 

            The same is probably true today.  Numerous predictions are being made about catastrophic climate change due to greenhouse gases.  As in the earlier predictions, the technology of the time is being used to project forward.  As with the two successful predictions above, the greenhouse gas models will likely prove out IF there are no technological discontinuities … ones like Moore's Law, integrated circuits, and fiber optics. 

The funny … and potentially very hopeful - thing is there are some technological discontinuities on the horizon.  Some, such as the battery technology that is making electric vehicles feasible … are pretty well known.  Other emerging technology, however, isn't. 

            Let's talk about a new technology that hasn't gotten much attention for a while, but which could be an absolute game changer: nuclear fusion.

            Perhaps the best known example of nuclear fusion is what happens 24 hours/day, 365 days a year with our Sun.  Nuclear particles fuse together, releasing tremendous amounts of energy that provides light and heat to our planet.  In contrast to nuclear fusion is nuclear fission, what happens in nuclear bombs such as those dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

           Besides bombs, nuclear fission is an everyday process in nuclear power plants around the world.  Such plants produce lots of energy – about 9% of the US total electric power grid with zero greenhouse gas emissions – but such plants have three very big drawbacks: 1) incredible expense; 2) highly toxic waste products; and 3) catastrophic risks when accidents occur.  Anyone remember Chernobyl, Three Mile Island and Fukushima?

            Fusion could be to energy generation what the transistor/integrated circuit has been to computer technology – a mind-boggling game changer.  The power source of nuclear fusion is typically hydrogen.  It's estimated that a pineapple size amount of hydrogen could generate as much energy as 10,000 tons of coal – with zero carbon emissions!

            While it doesn't get much press, scientists have been pursuing the fusion "Holy Grail" continuously for more than half a century.  An early fusion device was developed by Philo T. Farnsworth, perhaps best known as the inventor of the cathode ray tube (CRT). Those younger than 30 may never have seen CRT's, except possibly in a museum or at a yard sale, but those of us on the other side of thirty grew up with the greenish glow of CRT's in our TV's.  Farnsworth built a prototype fusion device called a fusor in 1959.  His employer – a company called ITT – cut off his research money before the fusor could be commercialized.

            The field of fusion research unfortunately took a giant step backward in the late 1980's.  Two researchers in Utah – Martin Fleischman and Stanley Pons – excitedly published research showing positive results using what they called "cold fusion".  It wasn't really cold, just a fusion process at temperatures far below those on the Sun.  What got everyone excited was the possibility of generating more energy from cold fusion than was required to create the reaction, meaning that a net positive amount of energy was released by the reaction.  Not only that, but the apparatus the two utilized was really very simple.  Fleischman and Pons created a media sensation at the time. 

            Things sounded incredibly positive, until other scientists reported they couldn't replicate the findings of the Utah researchers.  Cold fusion turned out to be just a chimera in the desert.

            Despite the setback, research on nuclear fusion has continued.  Unfortunately, though there have been some very positive developments, as one commentator put it, "nuclear fusion is always 30 years away."

            But that may finally be changing.  Cold fusion didn't work, but new approaches to hot fusion seem to show real promise.  The new approach pulls a page from our Sun's playbook: heat hydrogen to extreme temperatures such that the hydrogen will fuse and give off energy. 

How much heating?  How about heating the hydrogen to over 100 million degrees Fahrenheit?  Seems incredible, but it has actually been done.  The Max Planck Institute in Germany has constructed the Wendelstein 7-X reactor.  They heated hydrogen in the reactor to about 180 million degrees Fahrenheit and created hydrogen plasma.  Not very long, mind you – just for about a quarter of a second – but that was a milestone.  Their goal is to heat the plasma for up to 30 minutes.

            An even bigger experiment is underway.  The Paris Climate Accord is certainly well known, and nearly every country in the world has signed it.  There's another international cooperative group working in France – ITER.  It's a group of 35 countries, including the USA, which has pledged to work for at least 35 years to create viable nuclear fusion.  In Southern France the cooperative is building a tokamak, a giant device in which to carry out nuclear fusion.  The first tokamak's were developed in the Soviet Union in the 1950's, and the ITER one will be the largest ever.

            ITER is an acronym for International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor.  The acronym means "the way" in Latin.  Construction is about 50% complete.  When finished, it will heat hydrogen to about 270 million degrees Fahrenheit.  To put that in perspective, that's about 10 times the temperature at the core of our Sun.  It won't be ordinary hydrogen – the kind that has one proton and one electron.  Instead, it will be composed of deuterium (hydrogen with one proton and one neutron) and tritium (hydrogen with one proton and two neutrons).  The deuterium and tritium will be heated to the target temperature and the resultant gas mixture will pass by giant magnets.  This should cause the tritium and deuterium to fuse, releasing tremendous amounts of energy.

            The goal is to release substantially more energy than is required to make the tokamak work.  Keep in mind, it's going to take a tremendous amount of energy to heat the deuterium and tritium to 270 million degrees Fahrenheit, as well as power all of the equipment in the facility, but if it can produce substantially more energy than is required to start the reaction, it will certainly be adjudged a success.

            That will be energy with zero carbon emissions.  It will be the energy equivalent of the transistor and integrated circuit: a total game-changer.  And if it works, it will render all of the forecasts about carbon emissions completely worthless, much like the Popular Mechanics prediction concerning the number of vacuum tubes in a computer, and the weight of the machine.

            Of course, the nuclear fusion research is highly speculative.  It may not work.  However, as Wayne Gretzky, the famous Canadian hockey player always says, you miss 100% of the shots you don't take.  The ITER fusion "shot" could be wide of the goal, but given the incredible potential payoff, definitely worth taking, and taking seriously.

            The USA and other countries should probably be investigating other radical technologies that, if successful, could be applied to deal with greenhouse gases.  This is potentially the most positive role that governments can play – underwriting basic research.  Venture capitalists and angel investors are willing to take big gambles on promising new companies, but not on very expensive, promising, yet unproven technologies such as this.  This is where government fits perfectly and where inter-governmental cooperation could make a huge difference.

            Venture capitalists and angel investors usually attempt to construct a portfolio of promising investments – usually at least 20.  The expectation is that half of them will be complete failures, but a certain small percentage will be highly successful, making the overall portfolio highly successful.  Governments should apply this type of thinking to research into promising clean energy technologies.

            No, government shouldn't be investing in the companies themselves the way venture capitalists and angel investors do.  Instead, government should focus on underwriting a portfolio of promising technologies.  Yes, likely at least half of the technologies will bomb out. The taxpayers will foot the bill for a giant "goose egg".  But a properly constructed portfolio of basic research investments into clean energy technology should yield at least one huge success.  It might be fusion.  It might just be batteries for electric vehicles.  It could be both, or something else entirely. 

            Will our predictions about the environment in 50 years be accurate?  If we don't invest in basic research, technology won't change much.  Our predictions about greenhouse gases will be more like the USA population prediction made in 1783.  But if we're successful with technological innovation, today's predictions about greenhouse gases will probably sound as humorous as the prediction about the size and weight of the computer at your fingertips. 

            So if we really want to get carbon out of the atmosphere, gambles such as the ITER fusion reactor are definitely worth taking.

 

           

post a comment

Countries like France and the United Kingdom will ban petroleum powered vehicles in a few years? Should the USA follow suit?

            The risk of climate change has a lot of people around the world scared.  Scared to the point that some governments are even planning to ban petroleum powered vehicles.  Both the France and the United Kingdom have recently passed legislation that will ban gas and diesel powered vehicles in 2040, a mere 23 years from now.  Norway and India plan to do it even sooner, as early as 2025. 

            Should the USA be doing the same?  Some people emphatically say we should, especially liberals and progressives.  Conservatives are equally emphatic that it shouldn't happen. 

            Like others, I want us to get as quickly as possible to a world in which petroleum powered vehicles are a distant memory, but placing governmental bans isn't the best way to get there.  Rather than imposing bans, governments would do much better if they instead focused their efforts on helping Silicon Valley create an electric powered future.  Let me explain why.

            The question of the best way to get to an all electric vehicle future actually is a great example of a bigger question: what is the proper role of government in fostering technological change?

            Let me begin by noting the two ends of the spectrum.  At one end are those who believe that governments should be leading the effort.  Those leaning towards that end of the spectrum tend to believe that the Federal government needs to be heavily involved in addressing climate change, coordinating efforts with other governments.  At the other extreme are those who believe that governmental efforts don't tend to be particularly effective.  Unfortunately, I believe many have mis-characterized the debate about the Paris Climate Treaty, claiming that if one believes in climate change, then one must believe in the Paris Climate Treaty, and if one doesn't believe in the Paris Climate Treaty, then one must be a climate change denier.

            That's a false dichotomy.  One can be 100% committed to fighting climate change without necessarily believing in the Paris Climate Treaty.  I'm one of those people.  It's not that I don't like the Paris Accord, it's just that I think it isn't going to solve the problem the way so many people think it will.

            Let me be clear, we absolutely need to solve the problem of climate change, so what's the best way to do it?  Instead of relying upon governmental mandates to abolish petroleum powered vehicles, I think we should our efforts on helping Silicon Valley solve the problem.  They have the means to get the job done.

            What I mean by this is that we should do everything we can to help Silicon Valley – and other entrepreneurial hubs both around the USA and around the world – to come up with solutions.  As part of that effort, governments at all levels should help to create the conditions that will help entrepreneurs in places like Silicon Valley succeed.

            So just what has made Silicon Valley, and other entrepreneurial hubs, successful?  It's a combination of the following factors: 1) strong, research based universities such as Stanford; 2) a community that encourages entrepreneurship; 3) a strong group of venture capital and angel investors; 4) a welcoming environment for well educated foreigners; and 5) an environment that encourages experimentation and rapid recovery from failure.  Silicon Valley has all of these things, in spades, but other such communities have emerged.  Interestingly, a strong one is now emerging in, of all places, Paris, France.

            How has government helped Silicon Valley and its counterparts?  Surprisingly, it's role has been both positive and negative.  On the positive side, the government has provided basic research funding to major universities such as Stanford.  It's also provided funding to help the Departments of Defense and Energy, as well as NASA.  These have provided positive spillover effects.  The other positive thing government has done is to encourage foreign students to attend US universities, then permit them to stay after graduation.

            But government has also had a negative effect on Silicon Valley.  It's a ridiculously expensive place to live, in part because zoning regulations have constricted the housing supply and driven up prices; and taxes in California are absurdly high.  Now, the government is going a step further by trying to restrict immigration, having the unintended effect of driving promising foreign students away from US universities. 

            What is Silicon Valley's role in creating the electric vehicle industry?  In a word, it's Tesla, founded by Elon Musk.  Musk is, himself, an immigrant to the USA who attended Stanford.  The company has revolutionized the industry by developing amazing new battery technology.  Of course, Tesla isn't the only company involved in this.  In fact, now that Tesla has taken the lead in the industry, the traditional auto industry is responding in kind.  All you need to do is look at the offerings of the major auto companies today to realize the landscape has dramatically changed, in just a few years.

            All electric and hybrid vehicles are growing rapidly, but they're still a pretty small portion of the overall market.  What assurance do we have that they'll become the dominant form of transport?  Don't we still need governments to ban petroleum powered vehicles?

            The reason I don't think governmental bans are the appropriate path to take is because they smack of "industrial policy" – the idea that government bureaucrats can sit in an office and determine what the economy should look like, and who the winners and losers should be.  The argument in favor of industrial policy is that government actions can help direct where the economy can and should be going.  Unfortunately, it doesn't work.  In fact, the Brookings Institution, a liberal leaning think tank, has done a study suggesting three key reasons why it doesn't work.   Unfortunately, as Brookings notes, industrial policy often has lots of unintended consequences. 

            One unintended consequence could be that government backs the wrong technology and/or the wrong company.  So we could end up eliminating petroleum powered vehicles, but then be stuck with lousy, underpowered electric vehicles that nobody likes: America's version of the Lada, the auto of the old Soviet Union (see photo above).  Bet you'd really be excited to have that vehicle in your driveway!  Governments have an awful record of picking winning technology for the marketplace.

            Better to have Silicon Valley get us to the electric-powered future, with government lending a hand. 

            But if government doesn't mandate the change, how do we know it will happen?  Moreover, if we don't mandate it, what might prevent it from happening?  In the case of electric vehicle adoption, there are four potential impediments: 1) range anxiety; 2) cost; 3) convenience; and 4) resale anxiety.  Let's consider each.

            "Range anxiety" is the fear that you'll run out of power while driving and won't have easy access to a recharging station.  Up until recently, all electric vehicles had a range of under 100 miles.  That's changing rapidly with newer models getting over 200 miles.  The related problem is a lack of charging stations, as well as the speed of recharging.  Mobile phone apps are beginning to appear that show a driver where the nearest recharging station is.  That should certainly help.  High speed recharging stations are also starting to appear.  New, home-based charging systems are also appearing.

            The second big problem is the cost of all electric and hybrid vehicles.  Up until now, they've simply cost too much, and adoption has been limited.  Yes, Tesla has a very high powered all-electric roadster, but you have to live in a fairly exclusive zip code to afford it.  Newer models, however, are appearing that will solve that problem. 

            While purchase cost has been an impediment, it's becoming very clear that the cost to power an electric vehicle is a good deal less than one with an internal combustion engine.  The US Department of Energy cost calculator compares the costs of gasoline versus electric.  At the time of writing, the US average cost of gas was $ 2.50/gallon.  The cost to drive an electric vehicle the same distance, however, was $ 1.21, less than half.  Maintenance costs on an electric motor are a good deal less than a gas powered engine. 

            Here's a quick analysis to compare costs.  The average American driver travels 12,000 miles/year.  According to the American Automobile Association, it costs the average auto owner 59.2 cents/mile, $ 7,104/year.  So for an electric vehicle to be competitive, it must cost less than that.  Using the cost calculator from the Department of Energy, the average cost to power an all electric vehicle the same average 12,000 miles/year would be $ 484.  The average automobile in the USA is 11.5 years old.  Assuming the average person owns a vehicle just 10 years, and the average electric vehicle cost $ 35,000 to buy, then the cost of owning and operating an all electric vehicle should be substantially less than the gas powered equivalent.

            The operating cost differential may create interesting new opportunities for electric vehicle leasing.  Instead of selling electric vehicles, entrepreneurs might take a page out of the Uber or Lyft playbook and lease vehicles by the mile.  In other words, rather than buying a vehicle, one might agree to purchase 12,000 miles of vehicle usage in a given time period, electric costs included.   With the upcoming advent of self-driving vehicles, that's probably just what Uber and Lyft will offer.  The lower per mile operating cost of the electric vehicle should pretty well assure adoption.

            Convenience is the third issue.  Unquestionably, it's still easier to pull your automobile up to a gasoline pump to refill it.  Recharging your electric vehicle is a little harder.  Hybrids provide an excellent interim solution to that problem.  Creating a broad network of high speed charging stations will take time, but appears on the horizon.  Tesla already has a network in place.  But the Uber or Lyft alternative could easily solve the convenience issue.  Why bother owning your car when you can call up any type of all electric vehicle from Uber or Lyft, have the vehicle at your home or place of business within five minutes, then simply pay by the mile?  What could be more convenient than that? 

            Not only that, but let's go back to the average cost of owning your gas powered auto - $ 7,104/year.  Let's assume you want to get that down to $ 6,000/year, a 15.5% reduction.  If you could contract with Uber or Lyft to provide you transport at 50 cents/mile, you'd get your cost reduction, as well as eliminate all the other hassles of auto ownership.  The question is, could Uber or Lyft make money?  If the power to go 12,000 miles only costs $ 484, and there's a robot driving the car, they should make a bundle if the all in cost is 50 cents/mile driven.

            The fourth concern is an interesting one.  Researchers several years ago found that resale value might inhibit the growth of electric vehicles.  This shouldn't be surprising for a very small market.  However, as the size of the electric market grows, it should be less and less of a problem.       

            The numbers cited above should make it abundantly clear that all electric vehicles make compelling sense.  We really don't need governments to ban gasoline and diesel powered vehicles.  Savvy consumers will produce the same result.   

            So I'm confident we can look forward to an electric vehicle powered future.  What is, however, a little less certain, is the power source of all that energy.  It won't be petroleum, but will it instead be coal and natural gas from the power plant?   Many people are very concerned that it will be the former.  I don't think so, and the reason I don't think so follows the same reasoning presented above.

            We really don't need governments to ban coal plants.  That's because the economics of renewal energy are far more compelling than coal.  We can ensure that if we focus on encouraging Silicon Valley to make ongoing innovations in renewable energy.  They've been doing it, and more won't hurt.

            At the end of the day, the solution to greenhouse gases is better technology, not more government.  The best role government can play is to help ensure the success of places like Silicon Valley, not by mandating what vehicles we'll drive, or what power sources we'll use.  If we focus on that, other things will take care of themselves.  Let the French and the Brits ban the internal combustion engine.  We'll still beat them.

post a comment

There may now be a realistic way to eliminate fossil fuels from electricity generation

           Tesla Battery Plant in South Australia (REUTERS)

            How do you eat an elephant?  Of course, one bite at a time.

            How do you solve the problem of greenhouse gases?  Maybe the same way you eat an elephant.   That may be an unexpected conclusion from the big news this week that Tesla has installed a gigantic battery in South Australia. 

            And it may represent another great solution to greenhouse gas emissions that has nothing to do with the Paris Climate Treaty.

            You probably heard that Tesla built the world's largest battery -100 MW/129 MWh – and capable of powering up to 33,000 homes.  Much of the announcement focused on Elon Musk's promise to build the entire plant in 100 days or it would be done at no charge to the South Australian government.  A pretty big claim, but Tesla did it.

            Great headline, but the real reason the plant is so newsworthy is because it provides a solution to the biggest problem of renewable energy – storage.  Solar and wind power have both now become very cost competitive.  But each has its own Achilles Heel.  In the case of solar power, it's the fact that the sun sets every day and can't power solar cells half of each day.  In the case of wind power, it's that while the wind blows strongly sometimes, its still much of the rest of the time.   So you can't count on either source much of the time.  Therefore, you can't make either solar or wind power the core of an electricity generating plan.  You have to depend upon greenhouse gas emitting fuels to provide the needed reliability.

            Until now.  The Tesla battery in South Australia may represent the key to making solar and wind far bigger components of our energy generation, maybe even the core.  The reason is because giant batteries such as the set up in South Australia provide a way to overcome the limitations of solar and wind power described above.   With effective battery storage, solar and wind power can charge the Tesla batteries, then provide battery power when either the sun doesn't shine or the wind is calm. 

            These batteries also can provide another important benefit: load leveling.  The amount of power required varies over the course of a typical day.  The demand is typically high during the day, when factories are humming and people are at work or school.   Conversely, energy demand is usually pretty low at 3 am when the average person is sound asleep.

            Peak demand differs around the country.  In places like Florida and Arizona, it typically occurs in the afternoon of hot summer days in July and August when air conditioners are blasting away.  Conversely, in New England it typically occurs in the early evening in January or February when huge amounts of power are needed for heating. 

            The electric utility, of course, has to be prepared for both the peaks and valleys.  Dealing with low demand at 3 am isn't a problem, but having enough capacity for the peak usage times is essential.   Up to now the typical electric utility had two options.  Option 1 is to build and maintain backup plants to provide power for these peaks.  Option 2 is to buy power on the open market.  Both options are often very expensive.

 

            Tesla style batteries now could provide a third option.  The batteries could be charged in the middle of the night, then drawn upon to cover peak demand.  The chart above shows the benefit of that.  You can see the traditional peak would be supplied by battery storage.

            This could be done by the electric utility for its entire system, but it could also be done on a smaller scale.  For example, individual businesses could buy batteries, draw power from the grid to charge those batteries in the middle of the night, then draw upon the batteries at peak times.  This could be especially beneficial to the business because it will reduce the "demand charge" that the business pays to the electric utility.

            Many people are not familiar with a demand charge.  While the average residential customer pays for the number of kilowatt hours (KWH) consumed, the typical business pays not only for KWH consumed, it also pays a charge each month for the peak amount of power consumed.  The company may only use this peak amount of power for a minute or two, but the electric utility charges for that momentary peak usage.  The reason is because the utility has to have its system prepared to deal with the spikes, irrespective of cost.

            Having a battery on site at the business could help to reduce that demand charge.  The company will still pay for the same number of kilowatt hours consumed, but the peak will be lower so the overall power bill will be lower.

            In the case of residential customers who have to pay a demand charge, the same thing is true.  Having a battery in the garage could be useful for smoothing out electric demand.  The other way it could be beneficial is if the electric utility charges different rates at different times of the day.  If power is cheapest at 3 am, when demand is low, the batteries can be recharged, then discharged again when demand is high and/or prices are highest.

            With Tesla style storage batteries, the entire electric grid could now theoretically run with solar and wind power as the core, and without any fossil fuels.  The Energy Information Administration of the US Department of Energy reports that the USA uses about 4 trillion KWH of electricity.  What would have to happen for the USA electric grid to eliminate all fossil fuels and rely strictly on wind, solar, hydro, and existing nuclear installations?  That would get the USA to zero emissions. 

            About 20% of electric power is generated either by hydropower or nuclear, meaning that 80%, about 3.2 trillion KWH, come from fossil fuels.  Assume that 60% of that consumption occurs during either daylight hours, or when the wind is blowing strongly, and the remaining 40% is when it's either dark or the wind isn't blowing.  That means that there would have to be 40% * 3.2 trillion or about 1.33 trillion KWH of storage.  All that storage would power the grid when the sun isn't shining and the wind isn't blowing.   

            The South Australian Tesla plant can store 129 MWh or 129,000 KWH.  Thus, it would take about 10 million of these South Australian Tesla plants to provide adequate storage so the USA could theoretically eliminate all greenhouse gas generating electric power.  This, of course, assumes no additional usage of electric energy to power Tesla automobiles or other electric vehicles.  Looks unrealistic.

            In other words, we have an elephant – the need for a massive number of battery storage units to permit the elimination of fossil fuels.  So how do we "eat the elephant"?  Obviously, one bite at a time.  Let's take a look at how the elephant might be sliced into reasonable bites.

            There are about 1,000 electric utilities in the USA that generate electric power.  Some are obviously larger than others.  That would mean the average USA electric utility would need about 10,000 of these Tesla South Australian plants.  Once again, probably unrealistic, at least in the short run.  However, in the longer run, it really isn't unrealistic.

Here's why.

            Electric utilities have built in incentives to build or buy assets.  That's because utility rate-setters set electric utility rates in part based upon the value of the assets the utility has in place times an allowable rate of return on those assets.  The thinking is that it will pay for the cost of the debt capital the utility has borrowed from banks and other institutions, as well as pay a rate of return on the capital invested by shareholders.  Other things being equal, utilities like to increase the amount of assets in place because it means they'll generate more revenue.

            If we want to eliminate greenhouse gases from electric power generation, we need to expand the job to include power storage, not just power generation and distribution.

            When you think about it, electric utilities should love the idea of building Tesla style battery farms.  Of course, one reason is the benefit of providing protection against blackouts, as well as load-levelling.  The utility will tout these benefits to the public, and everyone will sleep better at night knowing that when each of us plugs an appliance into the wall socket, it will likely work, and it won't cause a blackout. 

            But electric utilities should also love battery farms because they'll increase the revenue of the utility.  This is because the revenue the utility generates is partly a function of how much capital the utility has invested.  More capital usually means more revenue.

            The utility customers, of course, will be paying for these battery farms, but everyone really should be happy with this arrangement.

            But electric utilities, of course, only have so much capital.  The average electric utility generator will be able to afford many of these battery farms, just not likely an average of 10,000 each.  Moreover, it probably makes sense for electric utilities to focus their attention on building highly efficient solar and wind farms.  There's no question that large scale solar and wind farms are probably far more efficient than rooftop solar systems.  And the economics increasingly make large scale solar and wind farms highly attractive to utilities.

            But there are actually two different "elephants" here.  One "elephant" is how to generate enough wind and solar power to meet all power needs without relying on fossil fuels.  The other "elephant" is the one concerning how to store that power overnight or when wind power isn't available. 

            Once again, let's remember how to eat an elephant: one bite at a time, whether it's the renewal energy generation elephant or the renewable energy storage elephant.  When it comes to the storage "elephant", consider that individual consumers and businesses could also finance some of these battery farms.  Let's consider residential usage.  In 2016, the average residence in the USA used 10,766 KWH of electricity, or 897 KWH/month.  On a daily basis, that's about 30 KWH.  Assume, for a moment, that the average residence is on a grid that only has access to solar power.  Since the sun only shines about 12 hours/day, then the typical residence would have to draw in its 30 KWH during daylight hours, then drawn down the battery during the dark hours.  Batteries are available today that can handle that type of load in the average home. 

            Many people have outfitted their homes with solar panels and dramatically reduced their dependence on purchasing electricity from the utility.  Now with battery systems such as Tesla's, the homeowner could both generate his own power, as well as store it when the sun isn't shining. 

            Which is where things start to become problematic.  Many utilities see this as a threat to their traditional business models and have fought such systems.  Instead, many utilities have lobbied to maintain complete control over electricity generation.  In my mind, it's shortsighted, but a reality.

            The key takeaway, however, is that the Tesla South Australian facility points towards the possibility of moving to an entirely non-fossil fuel energy generation system.  When you factor in the potential of electric vehicles, it points the way to eliminate fossil fuel usage for automobiles and trucks, as well as electricity generation. Combined, that would represent more than 50% of all greenhouse gas emissions in the USA.  If and when that happens, the USA will largely have resolved its greenhouse gas emissions problem.

            The economics increasingly work in favor of renewables, so utilities should have plenty of incentive to build renewables plants.  Now we just need to make sure there are proper incentives to build the battery storage capacity that will permit the growth in renewables energy.

            Admittedly, that's a huge undertaking.  Two giant elephants.  Again, however, how do you eat an elephant: one bite at a time.  The Tesla battery plant points towards a way that the USA, as well as other countries, could pretty well solve the greenhouse gas problem by switching almost entirely to electric vehicles for ground transportation, and switching pretty much all electricity generation to renewables while maintaining current investments in hydropower and nuclear.  It could do this by creating the means to cut the elephant down into bite sized portions. 

            Yes, it sounds crazy.  But as an old friend of mine likes to say, the question isn't whether it's crazy, is it crazy enough?  I think it is.

post a comment

While the USA won't be part of the Paris Climate Treaty, we're still generating lots of creative solutions to the problem. Here are two of them.

            The USA is the only country that is unwilling to participate in the Paris Climate Treaty.  Sad.  But all is not lost. 

            In fact, it might be a very good thing, but not for the reasons you're probably thinking.

            Instead, even though the USA won't be part of the Paris Accord, we could still maintain the role we've had for the past twenty years: the world leader in reducing greenhouse gas emissions. 

            Huh?  How could that be? 

            The USA has led the world in greenhouse gas reductions over the past 20 years, most likely because lots of people have been working on all kinds of possible solutions, both government and private sector based.

            Let me suggest a couple of new ways we could maintain our role as the innovator in ways to solve the problem.

            Economists generally maintain that the best way to deal with global warming is to impose some type of a tax on carbon released into the air.  Assuming that carbon release into the air is a bad thing – in my mind, a more than reasonable assumption – then penalizing those who do it certainly makes sense. 

            The idea of a tax on carbon has been around for a number of years, yet few countries seem to want to implement such taxes.  Among those few that have that are the United Kingdom, Ireland, Sweden, Australia, and Chile.  Here's the complete list.  Australia had a carbon tax, but then got rid of it. 

            As a solution to carbon emissions in the USA, the typical carbon tax is pretty much "dead on arrival".  Republicans find tax increases, in general, to be distasteful, but your typical carbon tax is especially repugnant. 

            An alternative to a straight carbon tax is a carbon trading scheme.  This has been tried out in various countries.  Unfortunately, some of the trading schemes have been poorly thought through, and clever arbitrageurs have found ways to circumvent the intent of the schemes.

            These ways to reduce carbon emissions haven't gained the desired traction, so what else might be considered?

            How about instead of penalizing carbon emitters we find a way to reward them instead?  Sounds ridiculous, but bear with me, because I'm going to propose a way to reduce carbon emissions by providing an unusual incentive to those who are presently the worst offenders.

            Here's the basic idea.  Take your typical coal burning power plant in the USA.  In any given year, the power plant will burn a certain amount of coal to generate electricity.  My proposal begins the same place that the typical carbon tax does: calculate the total greenhouse gas emissions of the plant over a given period of time, likely one year.  A good estimate of this can be determined by taking the total megawatt hours generated by plant into a year, then multiplied by 1640.7.  The 1640.7 factor was calculated by the US Environmental Protection Agency.  Having calculated this, the next challenge is to place an environmental cost on each ton of CO2 emitted.  That number is variously estimated to be between $ 37 and $ 200/ton.  Having then determined that, the effective environmental cost of running the coal plant can be determined.

            Let's say that the last calculation yields a total cost of $ 100 million for running the coal plant.  Instead of penalizing the coal plant operator, I instead propose the following "reward".  To continue running the coal plant, its owner will then be expected to build a renewable energy facility somewhere in the world that costs the same amount as the emissions from the coal plant.  The coal power generator will own the new plant.  The company can build the renewables plant on its own, or have it built by another party.  Once complete, the coal power operator will be able either to operate the plant itself or sell it to another party.

            It may be unrealistic to expect the coal plant operator to spend that much on a clean energy plant each year.   Instead, I propose two possible solutions.  In the first, to continue operating the coal plant, the owner must build a renewables plant that can generate at least 5% of the capacity of the existing coal plant.  If the coal plant is operated for 20 years, it will mean the entire capacity of the coal plant will be replicated in renewables. 

            The second alternative is to require the coal plant owner to invest the same amount in a renewables plant that the coal owner claims in depreciation on the coal plant. A coal plant operator wants to claim as much depreciation as possible each year because that tends to reduce the tax burden without negatively affecting cash flow.  The bargain could then be, Mr. Coal Plant Operator, claim as much depreciation as you want, but you must offset that with an equivalent investment in renewables capacity … every year.

            What's the outcome of this?  First of all, the world will have just that much additional renewables capacity available.  It won't eliminate the original offending plant, but at least it will result in the addition of more clean energy.  In a sense, it's a penalty for the coal operator, but the coal operator can turn it into a financial win. 

            Faced with this, the coal operator has an incentive to build the best possible renewables plant that it can.  That's because if it chooses to sell the plant to a third party, it will want a very good plant so it can obtain the best possible sales price.  If it chooses to operate the plant, it will also want the plant to be very efficient because the coal company will want to make as much money as possible on its new investment.

            Let's try a real world example.  Duke Energy, one of the USA's largest utilities, and a major coal plant operator, owns a coal power plant at Belews Creek, North Carolina, not far from where my family used to live.  Belews Creek is rated to generate 2.24 gigawatts of power.  In 2016, it reportedly generated a little over 14 million tons of greenhouse gases.  If Duke is required each it operates Belews Creek to build a renewables plant, that means it will create a 112 MW solar or wind plant every year (i.e., a renwables plant that can generate 5% of the capacity of Belews Creek).  Cost of new plant construction will vary around the world, but a 112 MW plant would probably cost $ 100 - $ 150 million, something that's very realistic for Duke to be able to finance.  If the cost of the plant is $ 125 million, for example, that is equivalent to Duke paying approximately $ 7.81/ton of greenhouse gases emitted by the Belews Creek plant.

            Some environmentalists will howl, saying that this isn't getting rid of the original bad coal plant, and it's providing some type of financial reward to the coal operator.  Well, correct, the new plant won't get rid of the original coal plant, at least right away, but it will cause the coal operator to think very carefully about future coal plant investments.  This is because it will direct at least part of the coal company's capital budget to renewables.  It will result in greater renewables capacity, a definite benefit for all.  It will also force the coal company to devote managerial resources towards a renewables plant.  In effect, it will push the coal plant operator to direct future investments towards renewables. 

            The same principal might also be applied to other carbon emitting plants, for example, plants that burn oil: require the operator to invest in a renewables plant an amount each year equivalent to 5% of the generating capacity of the current plant, or the amount of depreciation claimed.

            If plant operators have to make these renewables investments each year, they'll effectively replace all of those greenhouse emitting plants within 20 years.  It will likely happen more quickly.

            Assuming this is a good idea, how might it be implemented?  It could be done on a state by state basis.  Alternatively, it could be legislated by Congress and apply to plants all across the USA.  Other countries could also employ the same strategy.

            Conservatives should like this solution because it does not involve any forms of tax.  It also doesn't stop companies from making decisions on their own.  It merely forces companies to make investments in renewable capacity, but the companies will own the improvements themselves. 

            Environmentalists should also like it, for two reasons.  First, it will force the companies creating greenhouse gases to make investments in renewables.  The companies otherwise might not make those investments.  Second, it will increase the overall base of renewables. 

            There's another interesting way to solve the problem, one that's more comprehensive than my idea.  It looks like a carbon tax, but it actually is a giant transfer payment, meaning the money collected as a tax is then re-distributed to someone else.

            The idea was developed by Ted Halstead and presented in his much watched TED Talk.  Halstead's idea is to impose a carbon tax, beginning at about $ 40/ton of greenhouse gas, then increase the "tax" each year.  You'd think that idea would be "dead on arrival", but there's an important twist.  At the end of each year, the amount collected in carbon tax is distributed equally to every US citizen.  Thus, it's not a tax, it's a giant transfer payment, much like Social Security.  It is definitely a clever idea and could be a great solution to the problem.

            There's something even more interesting about Halstead's plan.  It's a Republican one.

            Are either of these ideas panaceas?  Definitely not, but then the Paris Climate Accord isn't a panacea either, though you'd never know that based upon the hype surrounding it.  As Halstead noted in his TED Talk, even countries that are absolutely, totally committed the Paris Agreement – countries like Germany – are highly unlikely to achieve their greenhouse gas reduction goals.  It isn't for lack of desire, it simply is that government imposed mandates aren't likely to solve the problem. 

            Which is why it isn't necessarily terrible that the USA won't be part of the Paris Climate Treaty.  Apart from the Paris Treaty, the USA can pursue all kinds of alternative solutions, particularly market-based ones.  It already is, and while some people don't like to acknowledge it, the USA IS the world leader in greenhouse gas reduction.  As a government-based initiative, the Paris accord will likely lead to lots of top-down, government imposed solutions.  Some of those government imposed solutions will work, but lots will likely be pretty bad. 

            Yes, the USA is the only country not part of the Paris Climate accord.  But it could still lead the world in solving the greenhouse gas problem. 

                 

 

           

           

post a comment

Medical breakthroughs have brought some unintended consequences, but also some exciting though unexpected possibilities,

            Needless to say, improvements in medical technology and medical care are nothing less than astounding.   While in the past the cause and effective treatment of a broad range of diseases eluded even the best medical researchers, progress now seems to occur almost daily.  Yet even though there has been huge progress, surprises still abound.

            One of the best examples is in what has come to be referred to as the microbiome.  These are the trillions of bacteria that live within, as well as on the skin of, every human, as well as other animals.   In my last post, I discussed how medical researchers have concluded that bacteria in the vaginal canal appears to provide protection to the baby against obesity and allergies.  The evidence of this is that children born via Caesarian section tend to have a greater risk of obesity, the reason being because the C-section children weren't exposed to beneficial bacteria in the birth canal.

            Not only are there a significant number of important bacteria and other organisms in each of us, scientists are finding incredible genetic diversity therein.  In fact, it's hypothesized that the genetic information contained in the typical human microbiome is 150 times the genetic data in the typical human genome alone!  Realizing the potential, the US National Institutes of Health has established a Human Microbiome Project, likely modeled on the hugely successful Human Genome Project.

            Long before anyone knew there was something called the human genome, it was understood that the gut contains some beneficial things.  As far back as 1700 years ago, Chinese doctors – at least what they called doctors at the time – concocted what was euphemistically referred to as "yellow soup".  It was taken from a healthy individual and given to someone with diarrhea.   While it sounds disgusting, apparently it worked!  Independently of the Chinese, other "doctors" discovered that camel dung could effectively treat dysentery in humans.

The point of these three examples – the two treatments for dysentery/diarrhea and the apparent value of vaginal fluid in preventing obesity – is that microbiomes of healthy humans and other animals appear to provide significant health benefits.  When you couple these with the fact that there is such incredible genetic diversity in the human microbiome, it suggests that drug companies ought to look very closely at the human gut, and maybe even those of other animals, to find solutions to many maladies. 

            My wife, a nurse, always like to say that buried somewhere in the Amazonian rainforest is the cure for cancer.  Maybe so, but maybe it's much closer than that, as close even as the human gut.

            Makes sense, if we can just overcome our natural negative reaction to the "yuck" aspect of this.  A number of companies are investigating the possibilities.  The field has gotten so hot that a French venture capital firm, called Seventure, is focusing on microbiome related investments.

            One strategy goes by the name FMTS.  Some PR person deserves a big bonus for that, because FMTS is an acronym for fecal microbial transplants.  Sounds pretty awful, unless you happen to suffer from something called Clostridium difficile, or C. diff, a bug that causes very serious, even life threatening, diarrhea.  One novel way to address C. diff is using FMTS.  A company in Roseville, Minnesota called Rebiotix is developing a FMTS that is a standardized liquid suspension of healthy gut bacteria.  Another company called Seres Therapeutics, based in Cambridge, Massachusetts, is developing a FMTS for C. Difficile and also ulcerative colitis.

            Diarrhea is certainly an unpleasant affliction, but for most people it is a temporary problem.   A potentially more serious problem is tooth decay.  Nearly everyone has suffered this, and flinches at the thought of seeing a dentist to have cavities filled.  A possible solution is under evaluation by C3J Therapeutics, a company based in Marina del Rey, California.  C3J's strategy is to identify "good" bacteria from one part of the microbiome to create what is called an antimicrobial peptide aimed at Streptococcus mutans, the bug in our mouths that's believed to cause cavities. 

            Sometimes the cause of a health problem is that something important is missing, such as certain enzymes.  If the proper enzymes can be inserted, the problem may clear up.  To deal with this, another approach is to harness the power of certain viruses that occur naturally in the body and put them to work doing something else.  Blue Turtle Bio in San Francisco, and Synlogic

 in Cambridge, Massachusetts, are trying to get bacteria in the body to transport things like enzymes.

            As previously noted, scientists have identified a link between obesity, allergies, and the microbiome.  How about autism?  In fact, at least one company – Second Genome (www.secondgenome.com) in San Francisco – to see if there is in fact such a link.  If the link is confirmed, that would suggest the possibility of harnessing the power of a healthy microbiome to resolve the problem.

            There may even be a link between the microbiome and cancer.  At least there is the hope that the human microbiome can be harnessed to develop new oncologic drugs.  Perhaps the most exciting new develop in the treatment of cancer is immunotherapy.  This approach may be much more effective than traditional chemotherapy.  However, patients respond differently to immunotherapy, some very positively but some not so.  Interestingly, recent research, published in Scienceshows that human gut microbes can influence how the patient responds to immunotherapy.  One of the studies found that when patients were being treated with immunotherapies designed to block PD-1 and PD-L1 proteins, patients who were receiving antibiotics for unrelated issues responded less well to the immunotherapy treatment.  In other words, the antibiotics somehow had a deleterious impact.  The study also found that patients who had greater concentrations of a bacterium called Clostridiales responded better than those with higher concentrations of Bacteroidales. A second study showed that people who received antibiotics to treat infections shortly before or after starting immunotherapy did not respond as well to PD-1-blocking therapies. The researchers — led by cancer immunologist Laurence Zitvogel and cancer biologist Guido Kroemer, both of the Gustave Roussy Cancer Campus in Villejuif, France — also found that the presence of the bacterium Akkermansia muciniphila in both humans and mice was linked to better responses to immunotherapy.

            These studies appear to suggest two things.  First, the presence or absence of certain types of bacteria in the microbiome can influence the effectiveness of other treatments.  Second, the use of antibiotics, even ones unrelated to the primary treatment, can negatively affect treatment.

            Given that the microbiome seems to play an important role in human health, we may be witnessing a giant game of "unintended consequences".  As previously noted, bacteria in the gut may perform a range of regulatory functions.  Consider, however, what we've been doing over the past 60+ years.  Since the accidental discovery of penicillin in the 1920's, we've revolutionized healthcare through antibiotics.  Countless millions of lives have been saved because of antibiotics.  Where people routinely died from the sudden onset of an infection, the risk of that has dramatically decreased.   

            Antibiotics kill bacteria, usually very effectively.  We've, however, come to the realization that there are both good bacteria and bad bacteria, but antibiotics generally can't discriminate.  So while we've deployed a range of antibiotics against the bad bacteria, those very same antibiotics have also killed lots of good bacteria, setting up a whole bunch of unintended consequences.

            We've probably already dramatically altered our human microbiomes in lots of unexpected ways.  If the microbiome plays that big a role in human health, we may have already inflicted a lot of collateral damage.  There's already evidence that there have been lots of unintended consequences to the heavy use of antibiotics over the past 60+ years.  An excellent example of this is a CDC study that found that 71% of severe C. Difficile infections in children, ones that caused severe diarrhea, were traceable to improper use of antibiotics.

            There's an old saying, when the only tool you have in your toolbox is a hammer, every problem looks like a nail.  To a certain extent, maybe we've come to think of antibiotics as the only tool in arsenal, so too many problems have been "solved" with them.  If that's the case, then in a strange way, maybe it's actually beneficial that we're seeking increased antibiotic resistance, and more antibiotics rendered ineffective. 

            Well, in the short term, it's clearly not good.   In the longer term, however, it suggests that rather than try to develop the next generation of antibiotics, maybe we should focus our attention elsewhere.  That "elsewhere" could be the microbiome.  In other words, focus attention on how a healthy microbiome defends against disease.  The incredible amount of genetic material in the typical microbiome represents the result of millions of years of evolution.  If we gain a better understanding of how the healthy microbiome works, we'll gain more and more clues on how it can be harnessed to deal with disease.  Please understand, I'm not suggesting that we abandon antibiotics on a wholesale basis.  Far from it.  Instead, we need to avoid treating antibiotics as the "universal tool" in our toolbox and search for other approaches. 

            Yes, the cures to cancer and other diseases may well rest in the wilds of the Amazon, and other remote places, but those very same cures may reside just below our collective waistlines, too.

post a comment

Some exciting new research that might help prevent obesity, but probably won't

 

            Scientists have been discovering some interesting things about obesity.  In fact, whether a child is born naturally or via Caesarian section may play a very important role.  New research suggests that some simple steps taken during a C-section operation could make a lifetime of difference.  Unfortunately, it probably won't.

            Americans are well aware that the country is suffering the effects of an increasingly obese population.   It's well known that healthcare costs are skyrocketing.  While there are many reasons healthcare costs are out of control, one that is gaining increasing recognition is obesity.  

Medical experts have suspected for a while that those born via C-section – typically about 10 – 15% of births – tend to be more prone to asthma, autoimmune diseases, and obesity.  The question, of course, is why.  Once the "why" is understood, can something then be done?

            A theory that's emerged in the past few years is that one's microbiome – the constellation of bacteria each of us has both over and within our bodies – plays an important role.  The bacteria in our individual microbiomes have an influence on how food is digested, and there's evidence that many people are cursed by biomes that increase the propensity for weight gain.  To some extent, we inherit our biomes from our mother.

            As part of the birth process, it appears that at least part of the mother's microbiome passes to the baby.  But the outcome appears to be different depending upon whether there is a natural birth or a C-section.  Doctors and other medical researchers have determined that in natural birth, the baby picks up the mother's microbiome.  In contrast, children born via C-section seem only to pick up the microbiome of the mother's skin, so the C-section baby doesn't pick up as much protection.  The question is, why?

            Two hypotheses have been proposed.  One is that the C-section process itself somehow robs the child of the additional microbiome protection.  One theory is that as the baby passes through the birth canal, it gains protection, almost an "extra protective coating".  The other hypothesis is that the antibiotics used as part of the C-section surgery itself may kill off parts of the mother's microbiome that would otherwise be transferred to the baby.  An obvious way to test this would be to do some C-sections without antibiotics – a form of controlled experiment – but the attendant risks make that type of experiment unacceptable.

            Dr. Maria Gloria Dominguez-Bello has been performing some interesting experiments to try to figure out the answer.  In one set of experiments, she and her associates put a piece of sterile gauze in the vagina of the mother about one hour before the C-section surgery was to be performed.  The gauze was left in place until just before the surgery began.  Once removed, the gauze was placed in a sterile container.  After the baby's birth, doctors then swabbed the gauze over the newborn baby, beginning with the eyes and lips, then other parts of the body.  In effect, the goal was to simulate the "coating" of the baby's body with the mother's microbiome as the baby passed through the birth canal.

            Dominguez-Bello and her team studied 18 births.  Of these, 7 were born vaginally and 11 by C-section.  Of those born via C-section, 4 were exposed to the mother's vaginal fluid using the gauze and 7 were not.  The results?  The team tested the C-section infants and found that their microbiomes looked like those of the vaginally delivered infants, and contrasted with the C-section infants who were not swabbed.  This suggests that the trip through the birth canal makes a real difference.  The results were published in March, 2016. 

            Do the antibiotics of a typical C-section make a difference?  To test that hypothesis, Dominguez-Bello and her team conducted another study, published in Science Advances in October, 2017.   In this experiment, the scientists compared 35 natural mouse births with 34 births via C-section.  No antibiotics were used in the 34 C-section births.  It was determined that the C-section mice did not inherit the microbiomes of their mothers in the same way that the natural birth mice did.  Since no antibiotics were used, one can then rule out the possibility that antibiotics somehow killed off the "biome transfer" as an unintended side effect of the C-section.

            These are promising experiments.  The scientists, however, expressed a note of caution because the sample sizes were very small.  The preliminary conclusion is that the natural birth process does seem to confer a benefit on the baby, which seems to translate into a lower risk of obesity later in life.  Based upon the "gauze experiment", it might not be surprising to see "baby swabbing" as an additional procedure conducted as part of ordinary C-section births in the future.

            That might provide some benefits, but it certainly won't be a "magic bullet".  In fact, by the time the baby is about to be born, the "obesity dice" may already have been cast. The Harvard School of Public Health has identified three other key factors, each of which seems to come into play during pregnancy and before the birth event itself:

  • Maternal smoking
  • Gestational weight gain
  • Mother's blood sugar during pregnancy.

A meta-analysis of 14 pre-natal smoking studies found a 50% higher risk of obesity in offspring whose mother's smoked.  Likewise, the Harvard researchers also found that if the mother had excessive weight gain during pregnancy, the child was four times as likely to be overweight at age 3.  Blood sugar levels of the mother during pregnancy also seemed to predict excess weight in the child.

            Then there seem to be another set of factors that come into play after the baby is born, irrespective of whether the child was born naturally or via C-section.  Three post-birth factors appear to be most important:

  • #1: How rapidly the child gains weight after birth
  • #2: How long the child is breast fed
  • #3: How much sleep the child gets.

With respect to #1, researchers found that if a child gains weight too rapidly, there is a greater risk of later life obesity.  Breast feeding, as well as how long a child is breast fed, are also factors.  Breast feeding seems to reduce the risk of later obesity, particularly if it occurs for at least 12 months.  In terms of sleeping, the more sleep a child gets in the first year of life, the lower the risk of later obesity.

            Combining all of these factors together, a study called Project Viva found that the children whose mothers didn't smoke during pregnancy, did not gain too much weight, were breastfed for at least one year, and who got an average of at least 12 hours of sleep per night, had only a 6% chance of becoming obese.  Given that 10-15% of all births are by C-section, there's a good chance that 1% of those 6% might have become obese only because they were born via C-section. 

            Preventing obesity early in life certainly makes sense, but combining all of this together suggests that it won't be easy because there are so many possible factors involved, including pre-natal, the birth process itself, and post-natal.

            At the same time, with the possible exception of C-sections themselves, every one of the risk factors cited seems to involve fairly commonsense things that shouldn't be controversial, and should not be difficult to implement.  After all, it's common sense that:

  • Women who are pregnant should not smoke, should not gain too much weight during pregnancy, and should be careful about their blood sugar levels;
  • Mothers with infants should to take steps to avoid too much weigh gain in the child; should breast feed the child, preferably for a year; and should make sure the child gets at least 12 hours of sleep/might.

Except that it doesn't seem to be happening, at least for a fairly significant percentage of mothers.  The Project Viva data, cited earlier, suggested that only about 6% of young children should be obese.  Unfortunately, data suggest that over the past decade, about 17% of children are obese.  In the case of Latinos, it's around 21%.

            The rates of obesity seem to be increasing.  Data show that for children aged 6 – 11 years, the obesity rate has increased from 4% in the 1971-74 time frame to 18% in 2009-10.  For adolescents, it's gone from 6.1% to 18.4%. 

            So attention can, and should, be focused on getting children off to a healthy start in life, through proper pre-natal care, good birth care, and early life care. But if close to one fifth of adolescents are obese, we've got a problem that extends way beyond how mothers are caring for children through the first year of life.

            What makes this especially scary is when you consider the financial cost of obesity.  Most everyone realizes that waistlines are getting bigger, but how does that translate in terms of total healthcare spending?  Recently, it was estimated that fully 21% of medical spending in the USA is somehow related to obesity - $ 190.2 billion in the latest reported year.   To put that in perspective, this "obesity related healthcare spending" represents more than the entire economies of the majority of countries in the world!

            A good example of the problem is what happens when ordinary people show up at a hospital emergency room with chest pains.  If someone is overweight, the cost pretty much automatically goes up.  How much?  Here's a comparison of cost versus the cost of a person of normal weight:

- Overweight (but not obese)                          22% more

- Obese                                                            28% more

- Severely obese                                              41% more.

            Most healthcare spending is on the elderly.  Nothing surprising about that.  But think back to those statistics I cited earlier about the change in obesity levels over time.  Back in 1971-74, 4% of children were obese.  Four to five times as many are obese today.  If we're spending at our current rate on healthcare, and a fifth of spending is on obesity-related conditions, what's going to happen when the percentage of elderly people who were themselves obese as children quintuples? 

            I don't have an answer.  The Dominguez-Bello research cited earlier is certainly exciting, and may provide part of the answer.  I just think we need to realize there's no simple answer to the problem of obesity, but the problem is so big and scary, we need to find the answers to it. 

 

post a comment

Buy the Book Now

Westbow Press · Amazon · Barnes & Noble

Get Carl's Updates In Your Inbox

Subscribe to our free e-mail updates and receive a free chapter from his latest book, The Unexpected Perspective.

Carl Treleaven is an entrepreneur, author, strong supporter of various non-profits, and committed Christian. He is CEO of Westlake Ventures, Inc., a company with diversified investments in printing and software.

CONNECT WITH CARL

© 2016 - 2018 Unexpected Perspective - All Rights Reserved.