Friday, April 22, 2011

On Earth Day, Dreaming About The Future

Photo from the Galileo spacecraft, 1990.
I grew up with dreams of a dazzling future.  As children of the 20th century, I'm sure most of us did.  The future of my imagination had computers you could talk to, fabulous portable electronics, video phones, virtual reality, and people living in space.  Indeed, some of those dreams have become a reality.  In our time we have seen some remarkable technological advances -- the explosion of the internet, the dizzying leaps in computing power, the ubiquity of powerful personal electronics, and breathtaking discoveries in medicine, astronomy, and cosmology, for instance.  In spite of recent economic stagnation, there is the persistent sense that our best days are yet to come.  The future of our dreams holds untold technological wonders.

This future, of course, is predicated on the consumption of power.  Lots of power.  The technologically sophisticated lifestyles we have come to enjoy will require an unending supply of energy, on an enormous scale.  In 2005, the United States alone consumed about 100 quadrillion BTUs, roughly the energy contained in 800 billion gallons of gasoline or 3.6 billion tonnes of coal.  Annual world consumption is on the order of 450 quadrillion BTUs, and with the world population climbing ever upward, it's easy to see that the demand for energy will continue to swell.

But there's a problem.  Our power consumption is responsible for an obscene level of carbon emissions which threaten to alter the climate of the Earth, causing violent storms, coastal flooding, the destruction of ecosystems, the acidification of the oceans, and the widespread extinction of many species, which may have a profound impact on the food chain.  Fueled mainly by coal, oil and natural gas, this level of consumption is unsustainable at best, and extraordinarily reckless at worst. 

On Earth Day, much is made about the need for conservation.  Not only should we recycle and do what we can to minimize pollution, but we should also cut down on our energy consumption.  That's a great idea, and in 2011, that's what you must do if you're serious about saving the planet.  At a time when there is heartbreakingly little political will to make big changes in our energy economy, the only way to reduce our environmental impact is individual responsibility.  Earth Day is an important part of spreading that message, making sure people know what they can do to make a difference, but it may do little toward convincing the millions of Americans who are decidedly hostile toward environmentalism.  And so, even if every environmentalist in America were to minimize their carbon footprint, half of the population might persist in unchecked consumption. 

What is troubling about the energy conservation message, and what is understandably so unattractive to those on the right, is the austerity. 

Friday, April 8, 2011

The Clarity of Embarrassment.

Yesterday I sort of embarrassed myself in front of thousands of people in the twitterverse.  It might not have been such a big deal, but it was a lapse in critical thinking, and since this blog puts a lot of emphasis on skepticism, I couldn't help but feel like a fool.

Let me explain.  Yesterday, Richard Wiseman, author of an excellent blog featuring fantastic optical illusions and puzzles, posted a irresistible magic trick on his twitter page.  He invited readers to select one of five cards -- as he labeled them: 9C, 2H, 5C, 7D, and 10S -- and then he asked you to click on this link to see if he guessed it correctly.  Try it now... did it work for you?

Saturday, April 2, 2011


In case you were wondering, yesterday's post, "The Awesome Implications of Narwhal Telekinesis," was just an April Fool's joke.  I hope you enjoyed it.

Friday, April 1, 2011

The Awesome Implications of Narwhal Telekinesis.

In case you missed it, there's BIG news in the world of cetology.  Dr. Sven Sorensen of the Danish Research Institute for Whales, Dolphins, and Porpoises, has just announced a finding that will fundamentally alter our perception of our mammalian cousins in the sea.  NOAA is providing updates as they become available, be sure to follow them here.

Since 1988, Dr. Sorensen has been the world's leading expert on the narwhal, a tusked whale native to arctic waters, resembling something like a beluga crossed with a unicorn.  These fascinating creatures have remained somewhat of a mystery until recently, when Dr. Sorensen made a startling discovery.  You see, we've always known that whales are smart.  As mammals, they teach their young as we humans do, they engage in play and even problem-solving.  But no one could have expected what Dr. Sorensen has just discovered.