The Perilous Business Of Predicting The Future

The National posted “Why Climate Change Won’t Matter in 20 Years”. They subtitled the posting “The perilous business of predicting the future.” The subtitle accurately depicts what happens when politicians or anyone for that matter, think they can safely make the future an extension of the present.

First of all, the warmers should be willing to take seriously the abject failure of their vaunted climate models to make prediction on any time frame. Yet they insist that the Earth in 2100 will be x degrees hotter and the sea level will be y meters higher than today because the climate models told them so. The odds are that they might do just as well talking to Madame Charmaine, the village palm reader.

The author of this posting, Josh Gelernter, put in a lot of effort into showing why projecting the present as a representation of the future is very unlikely to be successful. So I will let him speak:

“Michael Crichton — the brilliant novelist and thinker — posed this horsespulling streetcarquestion in a speech at Caltech in 2003, re climate predictions for 2100. What environmental problems would men in 1900 have predicted for 2000? Where to get enough horses, and what to do with all the manure. “Horse pollution was bad in 1900,” said Crichton. How much worse would someone in 1900 expect it to “be a century later, with so many more people riding horses?”

“But of course, within a few years, nobody rode horses except for sport. And in 2000, France was getting 80 percent of its power from an energy source that was unknown in 1900. Germany, Switzerland, Belgium, and Japan were getting more than 30 percent from this source, unknown in 1900. Remember, people in 1900 didn’t know what an atom was. They didn’t know its structure. They also didn’t know what a radio was, or an airport, or a movie, or a television, or a computer, or a cell phone, or a jet, an antibiotic, a rocket, a satellite, an MRI, ICU, IUD, IBM, IRA, ERA, EEG, EPA, IRS, DOD, PCP, HTML, Internet, interferon, instant replay, remote sensing, remote control, speed dialing, gene therapy, gene splicing, genes, spot welding, heat-seeking, bipolar, Prozac, leotards, lap dancing, e-mail, tape recorders, CDs, airbags, plastic explosive, plastic, robots, cars, liposuction, transduction, superconduction, dish antennas, step aerobics, smoothies, twelve-step, ultrasound, nylon, rayon, Teflon, fiber optics, carpal tunnel, laser surgery, laparoscopy, corneal transplant, kidney transplant, AIDS. None of this would have meant anything to a person in the year 1900. They wouldn’t know what you are talking about.”

Gelernter provided some very interesting thoughts about future power sources. They may or may not happen, but let us let him give us predictions:

“Right now, the bulk of our energy comes from fossil fuel, because it’s relatively easy to get, and to get energy out of. A gram of gasoline holds about twice as much energy as a gram of coal. A gram of uranium holds a little more than 1,652,173 times more energy than a gram of gasoline. Which is why nuclear power plants are so efficient. Unfortunately, uranium is very hard to come by, and very hard to squeeze energy out of. But uranium, and plutonium, are used to produce power through nuclear fission. There is an alternative: nuclear fusion. Fission power comes from the energy released by splitting the atoms of (certain) heavy elements. Fusion power comes from the energy released by the fusing of two atoms of (certain) light elements — conventionally, two isotopes of hydrogen: deuterium and tritium.

A normal hydrogen atom has no neutrons; a deuterium atom has one, and a  tritium atom, two. When you smash deuterium and tritium atoms together, you get helium-4 atoms, each with two protons and two neutrons. The third neutron is freed, along with a lot of energy that’s no longer needed to attach it to a nucleus. The helium-4 atom plus the free neutron weigh slightly less than the two original atoms; that difference in mass, multiplied by the speed of light squared, is equal to the energy the reaction releases: E = MC2. (How about that?) Even though deuterium is rare and tritium even rarer (tritium has to be manufactured, by using deuterium, or one of a few other elements), we won’t run out of them. One estimate says that, at current global energy use, we have enough naturally occurring fusionable deuterium in our seawater to last us 150 billion years (or: for 145 billion years after our sun dies). Fusion reactors will create enormous amounts of energy and produce no radioactive waste and no pollution. There’s only one problem: So far, they don’t work. Fusion reactors have produced energy, but, till recently, they all produced less energy than the immense quantity required to run them. But for the first time, in 2013, the Lawrence Livermore Lab in California created a fusion reaction that produced more energy than it cost. Just this week, a gigantic new fusion reactor was completed in Germany; it will go online next year, and hopes for net energy production are high. Meanwhile, a gigantic new reactor is being built in southern France (with our money, and money from the EU, the PRC, India, Japan, Russia, and South Korea). It’s called ITER, and it’s designed to be the basis for the first commercial fusion power plants. It’s planned to produce 500 megawatts while taking just 50 megawatts to run. It’s expected to come online in the 2020s.

Of course, ITER might not work. The German reactor might not work either. But the advance of science is inevitable — fusion reactors will work, one day, and I’d bet sooner rather than later. (I’d like to see an American president stand up and say: This nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before the next decade is out, of sustaining a fusion reaction and getting energy out of it.) When fusion power comes online, energy will become dirt cheap. No more energy will be generated using coal, or petroleum, or wind power. Every car will be powered by unbelievably cheap electricity. There will be no more fossil-fuel pollution, except by collectors’ classic cars.

I hope I am wrong, but I have been waiting a half of a life time for fusion reactors that provide more power out than power in for more than microseconds. It is alway, “just 20 years away”. That figure supposes that it will take 20 years to make a commercial fusion reaction system after the process is proven. I think that Mr Gelernter’s vision that energy will be dirt cheap is way off. The cost to build a fusion reaction system is likely to be very expensive. I doubt that one can duplicate the Sun cheaply. But in summary, I really liked Gelernter’s posting. cbdakota


One response to “The Perilous Business Of Predicting The Future

  1. Chuck: Thank you! Ed

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