Wednesday, August 11, 2010

The "Big Fixes": High-Tech R&D and Behavioral Changes

While technology always holds the potential for breakthroughs which quickly scale up and are distributed widely enough to create large-scale change, small-scale behavioral changes are more reliable sources of large-scale solutions.

We have been trained by 150 years of technological advances and cheap oil to expect all major problems of our society to have a technological "fix." If kids aren't learning, then the solution is to transform videogames (which kids love to play) into teaching tools.

If we are indeed unable to produce any more oil/natural gas and face declining supply, then the high-tech "fix" is biofuels based on algae or some equivalent "magic."

Recall that magic is simply technology we don't understand.

The fundamental premise of this faith in high-tech solutions is that we won't need to change our behaviors in any meaningful way. Rather than face the stark choice offered by Nature--lose weight or die--then we expect modern technology and biotechnology to offer up a cheap (or at least "free" to us) fix to obesity-related diseases.

And sure enough, various pundits are hyping nanotechnology as the "fix"--little machines which will be injected into the body to chomp away the plaque lining the arteries, etc.

The vast majority of these "magical fixes" have fundamental limits of physics and chemistry. Unfortunately, science education is so abysmal in the U.S. that the average citizen has no grasp of basic physics, chemistry, biochemistry, or indeed any useful scientific foundation. The average citizen expects "magic" to be supplied by unseen wizards, somewhere.

I have met many such wizards. They are known as post-docs--post-doctorate researchers. Most of the R&D (research and development) performed in the U.S. and the world is performed by researchers who went through a highly structured educational process in which they achieve specialized mastery of extremely complex technologies and fields of scientific knowledge.

After four years of university, they received a "bac" (4-year degree) and then entered a 4-5 year program to earn a PhD. After earning their PhD, they become a post-doc in a lab run by a leading professor/researcher. This lead researcher is the key mentor in the post-doc's career. If the post-doc engages in successful research, then they will be credited in key papers published in prestigious scientific journals. (Each field has its own panoply of important journals.)

The number of published papers--and the number of papers published in prestigious journals--earned by post-docs are key to their career path. Academic "superstars" with many citations are fast-tracked to major universities and groomed to take on their own labs and post-doc researchers. Those who prefer research to teaching and grants management seek work in the corporate world.

The University of California system employs about 6,000 post-docs, which is about 10% of the entire post-doc workforce. Post-docs are the worker-bees of R&D, accepting low pay (around $35,000-$40,000 a year) for years in order to build experience and published citations.

If you are fortunate enough to speak to these "best and the brightest," you will find no hype about "magical fixes"--instead, you will find a very sober skepticism. These people know the complexities of the science required to generate "magic fixes."

I have only high school physics and chemistry (and a few university courses in specific fields like oceanography and astronomy), but that is enough to grasp the basics of these young researchers' work. Recently I spoke with a young man working on catalyzing methane--the shortest hydrocarbon--into longer hydrocarbons such as octane--the 8-carbon chain we know as gasoline. Methane is biologically produced in the guts of cows, people, termites, etc. and could be produced via large-scale biochemical industrial processes.

To be really useful in the existing infrastructure, methane needs to be "lengthened" into longer hydrocarbon chains. The standard procedure is to apply "brute-force" via dollops of energy. A metallic catalyst that would add carbon chains to methane with very low quanitities of energy would be a very positive "magic."

There is no guarantee that this reaction can be catalyzed in a fashion that is scalable.

Recall that the U.S. consumes 380 million gallons of gasoline a day. That is a lot of energy to be catalyzed or extracted from algae, etc.

As for nanotechnology, the fundamental limit is the energy source. What will power that microscopic machine which is supposed to chomp away the plaque in our arteries? There are no good answers and there may never be an answer. "Magic" has to work within existing laws of physics.

As for algae-based fuels which are often hyped as the replacement for those 380 million gallons a day of gasoline: algae need sunlight and food to grow. In essence, they are solar-powered cells. Thus collecting and processing algae is in effect one method of harvesting solar energy. Algae-based fuel is a solar-power storage system.

If we understand this, then we have to ask if algae is the most efficient system for collecting and storing solar energy. We also have to ask if it can be scaled up to produce tens of millions of gallons of liquid fuel a day.

To summarize: the more you know about the real science behind the hyped "magical fixes," the less confident you are in the future potential of the "magic" to scale up to industrial levels of production.

Meanwhile, simple behavioral solutions to problems are ignored because they're "too difficult." For example, encouraging employees to live close to their place of work would save millions of gallons of gasoline. The cost of moving is the initial investment cost, and if the employee did not move again in a few months then the investment would soon reap substantial returns in reduced commuting time and energy costs. (Working remotely from home offers similar reductions in energy/commute time.)

Reducing caloric intake and increasing caloric consumption via exercise reduces plaque, obesity, heart disease, etc. without depending on the "magic" of chemical concoctions which either lose effectiveness with time, have serious side effects or or which mask symptoms rather than actually "cure" the behaviorial disease.

One aspect of the permanent adolescence which has taken hold in American society is that we demand "easy techno-medical fixes" to what are fundamentally behavioral problems. Rather than address the underlying behavioral/built-environment/governance causes, we seek the solace of some future technological or biochemical wizardry.

Yes, there have been magical advancements--cataract surgery, for instance, now routine but definitely still magical in its profoundly positive results. But we have to be careful not to extend a false analogy that scientific advances will inevitably conquer every problem in ways that don't require any changes in our behavior. There may not be practical technological "magic" to fix all our problems, especially in health, energy, governance, finance and education.

Or, the solutions will remain costly due to high energy inputs. If the cost remains high, then it ultimately isn't practical. Burning one BTU of natural gas to produce one BTU of oil from tar sands is neither "magic" nor is it a solution. Conserving that BTU of energy via "cheap" modifications in behavior is a solution.

We should continue to keep this bit of wisdom in mind: "Everyone thinks of changing the world, but no one thinks of changing himself." (Leo Tolstoy)

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