Thursday, August 31, 2017

Saving The World


When we were kids, nobody worried about global warming, Kim Jong-un or even runaway asteroids headed for Earth.  Why should we?  We had Superman, who could fly at supersonic speed, create a giant vacuum and suck all the greenhouse gases off the planet, then refreeze the ice caps with one blast from his mighty breath.  Kim Fatty the Third?  Don’t make me laugh.  Clark Kent’s alter ego would poke him in both eyes with his super-index fingers and he’d be crying like a baby.  Errant asteroids?  Putty in Superman’s hands.  He could pulverize them with single punch or divert them with a gentle shove, take your pick.  Unfortunately for us, Superman hit the trail long ago, leaving us with a less awesome cast of characters.  Now we’ve got the X-Men, mutants who spend all their time fighting with other mutants.  Or the Hulk, not the brightest bulb on the planet, whose solution to any problem is to pound it to jelly, often with unsatisfactory results.  Thor has some good qualities but there’s only so much you can do with a Mighty Hammer.

Even Captain Marvel would help, but he’s gone, too.  Maybe Billy Batson got old, contracted Alzheimer’s and forgot how to say “SHAZAM!”  Do you think the old wizard is still sitting on that throne in an abandoned New York subway tunnel waiting for another prospect to come wandering down the tracks?  Is it possible superheroics might suddenly appear at this late date?  Can the world still be saved?  Maybe, maybe not.  But some modern-day superheroes are working on it.


O Canada!

Everyone knows that nuclear power can generate electricity free of carbon emissions.  Which is fine until an unlikely tidal wave batters the planet and spreads radioactive goobers all over the terrain, making a large swath of real estate unliveable for decades.  Ask the Japanese about that one.  Or Google “Chernobyl” to see what happens when the Russian version of The Three Stooges builds a nuclear plant with leftover Lada car parts.  Ta-ra-ra-boom-de-ay.  Is it too much to ask someone in the Kremlin to at least read Building Nuclear Plants For Dummies?

Fortunately for the rest of the world, there is nothing to do in Canada.  It’s cold all the time and everyone has to stay in the house.  So somebody in the wooly North, kicking around the basement on a Winter’s afternoon with plenty of time to kill, came up with an idea and took it to the boss at General Fusion.  And now that company is building the world’s first commercially viable nuclear-fusion-energy plant.  And get this: fusion produces zero greenhouse gas emissions, emitting only helium as exhaust.  It also requires less land than other renewable technologies.  Fusion energy is inherently safe, with zero possibility of a meltdown scenario and no long-lived waste, and there is enough fusion fuel to power the plant for hundreds of millions of years.  Altogether, shout it now!  There’s no one who can doubt it now!  So let’s tell the world about it now!  Happy days are here again!

Okay, you say, that takes care of a big hunk of the Earth-poisoning problem, but what about the evil auto, the cars and trucks which represent 23% of global energy-related CO2 emissions.  What about them, huh?  Elon Musk is doing his part with the battery-powered Tesla but the hefty majority of drivers aren’t interested in long recharging stops every 200 miles even if they’re lucky enough to find service available.

Well, back in jolly old England, researchers at the University of Surrey have made a scientific breakthrough in this area.  They have discovered new materials offering  an alternative to battery power and proven to be between 1,000 to 10,000 times more powerful than the existing battery alternative, a supercapacitor.

The new technology is believed to have the potential for electric cars to travel similar distances as petroleum-fueled vehicles and can recharge fully in the same time it takes to fill a regular car with gasoline.  Okay, that’s two biggies in a row, so let’s have a huge round of applause for the British Empire.


Let’s Eat!

About 25% of all global emissions arise from feeding the world’s 7 billion ravenous gullets and much of that, as all you tailgaters know, comes from the consumption of meat.  And there is no way to produce enough meat for that many people, let alone the ever-increasing population of the Third Planet from the Sun.  Besides, think of all the poor critters slaughtered in the process.  But Bill Gates, as usual, has a Plan.

The alternative is to start producing lab-grown meat and meat substitutes that look, taste and feel like the real thing.  Science fiction?  We think not.  Companies and investors alike are taking it all very seriously.  A company called Beyond Meat (okay, there’s room for improvement), supported by Gates, has created the world’s first meatburger which is entirely plant-based, consisting mainly of the vegetable protein found in peas.  What’s that racket?  Is that the sound of vegetarians dancing in the supermarket aisles?  And what’s next—the desecration of the Fenway Frank?

Over in Manufacturing, we’re putting another strain on the ecology.  About 30% of those nasty emissions come from Industry.  But what if we could take the CO2 emissions right out of the air.  Oooh, that’s a big one!  Well, guess what?  Those feisty Canadians, never ones to let moss grow under their parkas, have been at it again.  A Canuck startup called Carbon Engineering has been working on exactly that---taking carbon dioxide directly from the atmosphere and using it to produce fuel.  According to the company, “direct air capture can remove far more CO2 per acre of land than trees and plants.”  The company is already operating a demonstration plant in lovely Squamish, British Columbia, which is removing one ton of CO2 from the air every day.  Seems that’s what people in Canada do.  While the rest of us sit on the couch, wring our hands and wail over Donald Trump’s upcoming destruction of the universe.  Maybe we’ll put those wily Canadians on that one, too.


Smarter Cities

Google, in case you haven’t noticed, is not fooling around.  The honchos there grew weary of mere Internet search activities and online advertising and decided to have some fun.  They made a decision to start BIG, delving into the realm of life-extension with their billion-dollar Calico, an acronym for California Life Company.  Then, just in case extending lives turned out to be too easy, they ventured into the autonomous (driverless) car business via another company, Waymo.  You can’t say these guys aren’t up for a challenge.  And now they’ve got another one---city-building---and a new company to tackle it named Sidewalk Labs.  The founders describe Sidewalk Labs as an urban innovation company that will pursue technologies to cut pollution, curb energy use, streamline transportation and reduce the cost of city living.  To achieve those ends, they engaged the services of Daniel L. Doctoroff, former deputy mayor of New York City for economic development and former chief executive of Bloomberg L.P., who jointly conceived the idea for the company with Google CEO Larry Page. 

“The timing for Sidewalk Labs is right,” Doctoroff says, “because we’re on the verge of a historic moment for cities” when technologies are rapidly maturing to help address needs like the environment, health and affordable housing.  A City of the Future may soon start to take shape in Toronto, where Sidewalk Labs recently made a bid to develop a 12-acre stretch of the Canadian city’s downtown.  Bill Killeen, of Fairfield, Florida is thinking of going onboard to remind everyone that a city is nothing without its funky parts.



I Dream Of Gene-y With The Light Brown Hair 

The next few years will see explosive growth in reading and writing genomes, organs and ecosystems, if good old George Church has anything to say about it.  Dr. Church, a professor of genetics at Harvard Medical School, is the director of an outfit called and the author of a spiffy piece of business called “Regenesis: How Synthetic Biology Will Reinvent Nature and Ourselves.”  Whoa.

According to Dr. George, we’re about to move beyond mere genome edits to large-scale “writing” with huge practical consequences, including resistance to all viruses.  That’s right, all viruses.  For organs, new microscopy methods will enable molecular atlases of whole bodies during normal development from eggs to adults and pathological states like cancer.  Leveraging such body atlases will be recipes for constructing any tissue type and transplanting it successfully between species.  For ecosystems, we will see growing numbers of tests of safety and effectiveness of genetic strategies for controlling agents (mosquitoes, worms, mice) of deadly diseases like malaria, filariasis and Lyme disease.

Even though they won’t like it in Kansas, we will also see great progress in the use of genetic engineering to reverse processes that had seemed irreversible: aging and extinction.  And supercompact encoding of the DNA-storage will transform our ability to record video and interface with brains, perhaps aiding us in figuring out why the Red Sox aren’t hitting very many home runs this year.


Here We Go Again

Okay, so every column needs a little comic relief, and here to present it is Dr. Carlo Ratti, a professor at brainy MIT where he directs the Senseable City Lab.  He is also the author of “The City of Tomorrow: Sensors, Networks, Hackers and the Future of Urban Life.”  Dr. Ratti is a big believer in driverless cars.  Otherwise, he is a pretty smart guy.  This is what he has to say:

“Forget about the difficulties we saw with Uber’s fleet of self-driving vehicles in San Francisco.  This is soooo 2016!  2017 will be the year of self-driving and of the exploration of its impact on our cities.

Self-driving vehicles promise to blur the distinction between private and public modes of transportation.  ‘Your’ car could give you a lift to work in the morning and then, rather than sitting idle in a parking lot, give a lift to someone else in your family---or, for that matter, to anyone else in your neighborhood, social-media community or city.

This implies a city in which we could travel on demand with just a fraction of the number of cars in use today.  Such reductions in car numbers are just theoretical.  However, they could potentially lower the cost of our mobility infrastructure and the embodied energy associated with building and maintaining it.

Furthermore, driverless cars could have a big impact on our lifestyle and daily activities: they could be transformed into extensions of our homes.  While traveling, we might be able to do a lot of activities we used to do at home---read a book, take a nap, eat, text or make love.”

Gee, that’s sounds ambitious.  But who knows?  Maybe it’s time to call Joni Mitchell and give her the good news.  Pretty soon, somebody might be unpaving paradise and tearing down a parking lot.

That’s all, folks….