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Diesel From Algae: The Future Of Fuel February 27, 2011

Posted by Metabiological in Ecology.
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Okay so first thing first I lied a little bit in the title.  A company in Massachusetts is claiming to have genetically engineered a species of cyanobacteria (once called blue-green algae, so only a little lie) that produces hydrocarbons when exposed to sunlight, water and CO2.  In other words where most autotrophs use photosynthesis to produce sugars like glucose these little guys make gasoline.

Now the idea of growing fuel, so to speak, is certainly not a new one and in many ways has become indicative of everything that is wrong with the renewable energy industry.  The first big attempt was a heavily government sponsored effort to produce biofuel using corn ethanol.  Considering what an incredibly inefficient process that is it turned out to be little more than a massive giveaway to the big agribusiness companies.  Other efforts using algae have looked more promising but have run into to problems of logistics and whether or not they can produce enough to actually be profitable.  According to the article that’s what makes this species so exciting:

Joule says they’ve eliminated the middleman that’s makes producing biofuels on a large scale so costly.

That middleman is the “biomass,” such as the untold tons of corn or algae that must be grown, harvested and destroyed to extract a fuel that still must be treated and refined to be used. Joule says its organisms secrete a completed product, already identical to diesel fuel or ethanol, then live on to keep producing it at remarkable rates.

Joule claims, for instance, that its cyanobacterium can produce 15,000 gallons of diesel full per acre annually, over four times more than the most efficient algal process for making fuel. And they say they can do it at $30 a barrel.

Sounds great doesn’t it?  Frankly yes it does but like all new ideas it must pass the gauntlet of skeptics before it can find its place in the general marketplace.  Most have been pointing out that while this technique solves the problem of biomass is runs into problems of its own:

Pienkos said his calculations, based on information in Joule’s recent paper, indicate that though they eliminate biomass problems, their technology leaves relatively small amounts of fuel in relatively large amounts of water, producing a sort of “sheen.” They may not be dealing with biomass, but the company is facing complicated “engineering issues” in order to recover large amounts of its fuel efficiently, he said.

However I have a different problem with this sort of technology.  First of all I admit to not being an expert on the process but it would seem to me that while biofuels may solve one problem, removing us from the economic and political shackles of foreign oil, it does nothing to address the rather large elephant in the room of climate change.  If the cyanobacteria are truly producing hydrocarbons than how exactly will the end result be any different from what we have now.  The transportation sector is one of the largest emitters of greenhouse gases and any attempt to address global climate change without addressing that fact is doomed from the start.  The article mentions using the CO2 emissions from power plants as a potential benefit but if the carbon is simply being released back into the atmosphere through tailpipes then I question whether there is a benefit at all.

This is my least favorite kind of post to write because when it comes right down to it I’m supportive of this kind of technology.  Used correctly it has the potential to be a powerful force for the kind of change we need to see if we want to prevent some of the serious problems were facing, not just climate change but the aforementioned ball and chain of foreign oil strangling our economic and political climate.  However we cannot be so proud of our own ingenuity that we become blind to what effects our creations will actually have on the world.

Mammalian Hearts Capable of Regrowing February 26, 2011

Posted by Metabiological in Longevity, Transhumanism.
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One of the primary reasons that heart disease is the number one killer in the developed world is the fact that once heart muscle is damaged it is incapable of regrowing.  Or so we thought.

The researchers found that within three weeks of removing 15 percent of the newborn mouse heart, the heart was able to completely grow back the lost tissue, and as a result looked and functioned just like a normal heart. The researchers believe that uninjured beating heart cells, called cardiomyocytes, are a major source of the new cells. They stop beating long enough to divide and provide the heart with fresh cardiomyocytes.

I’m somewhat surprised that rather than cardiac stem cells playing a role in the process the new cells seem to grow from existing mature heart tissue.  Considering the researchers mentioned the heart cells needing to stop beating in order for the division to take place it makes me wonder if that may have something to do with this feature being lost as we grow older.  For an adult individual needing to largely fend for itself the loss of some cardiac output could represent a severe loss in fitness, a difference that may not be overcome by the benefit of being able to regenerate damaged heart cells.

Now of course all the usual caveats apply.  This was in mice not humans.  Its only one study.  It only works in juvenile hearts.  But as a proof on concept it is very exciting especially given the aforementioned seriousness of heart disease as both an individual and societal problem for much of the west.

Space Shuttle Discovery Flies One Last Time February 24, 2011

Posted by Metabiological in Beyond Earth.
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This is it folks.  The beginning of the end.  Today, Thursday the 24th of February marked the final takeoff of space shuttle Discovery.  More than that though it signaled the start of the end of the shuttle era.  With only two ships left in the fleet (Endeavor and Atlantis) and only one flight left for each of them it won’t be long before all that remains of the US space program lies collecting dust in a museum.

Yes I am well aware that manned space flight will continue through private channels and on the whole I am supportive of that.  The shuttle program was intended to be the dump truck of space ferrying cargo back and forth between the ground and near earth orbit.  It failed in this regard both practically (delays and costs of the program are well know) and inspirationally (not many kids want to grow up to drive a dump truck.)   If the private sector can pick up the tab and the risk and allow NASA to get back to pushing the frontiers of human knowledge that you’ll hear nothing but support from me.

That being said I can’t face the end of the shuttle fleet without a pang of loss.  Like every young American boy, and lots of girls I wager, for at least some part of my childhood I wanted to be an astronaut.  I grew up immersed in science fiction, imagining a world in which Jedi’s and resurrected dinosaurs fought side by side, but I also grew up on NASA.  I still remember the day a man came to my school to tell us all about the new space plane they were working on, a craft that would be able to take you from California to Japan in a matter of hours.  The fact that the project (the X-30) never got off the metaphorical ground did nothing to diminish the sense of wonder it instilled in me.  To this day I still look up at the moon at night and can’t help but smile to myself at the fact that for one brief moment we stood on two worlds.

More than anything I guess the thing that NASA represented to me was the quest to expand our horizons for no other reason than because we wanted to.  There was no profit motive (at least none that I as a child could see), no political agenda (I grew up after the Cold War was essentially over) and no reason to go into space other than shear curiosity.  As you may have guessed I learned as I grew older that my original views had been somewhat naive but by then it was too late; the flag had been planted.  I never did become an astronaut but I can probably thank NASA at least in part for my current path in science and for the love of the universe they helped to instill in me.

The good news is that despite my nostalgia for the space shuttles NASA will move on to bigger and better things.  It has too large a role in the nations strategic goals to be left at the wayside and though it certainly has challenges ahead for it I have faith that the people who put a man on the moon can overcome them.  It may not be developing its own craft anymore but it will continue to what it does best: inspire us to look up into the sky and think “maybe, just maybe…”

Steering A Car With Your Mind February 22, 2011

Posted by Metabiological in Science.
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Not sure I want to see this on the road anytime soon, drivers scare me enough as it is, but as proof of the viability of this technology this is five kinds of awesome.

The scientists from Freie Universität first used the sensors for measuring brain waves in such a way that a person can move a virtual cube in different directions with the power of his or her thoughts. The test subject thinks of four situations that are associated with driving, for example, “turn left” or “accelerate.” In this way the person trained the computer to interpret bioelectrical wave patterns emitted from his or her brain and to link them to a command that could later be used to control the car. The computer scientists connected the measuring device with the steering, accelerator, and brakes of a computer-controlled vehicle, which made it possible for the subject to influence the movement of the car just using his or her thoughts.

Invasive Species: Harmful Or Helpful February 18, 2011

Posted by Metabiological in Ecology, Ethics.
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Its a well worn trope in the environmentalist movement: invasive species are bad for local ecosystems and must be destroyed and removed at all cost.  In many cases this argument holds true but we may be coming to the realization that this is not always the case.

A recent study out of Penn State found that the presence of an invasive species, in this case honeysuckle, actually resulted in a positive benefit to the ecosystem.  Not only was honeysuckle positively correlated with the abundance of fruit eating birds that fed on it but it also had a positive affect on other plant species.  That may seem counter intuitive since the major danger of invasive species is that they will outcompete local ones.  What seems to be happening in this case is that since birds congregated in areas rich in honeysuckle plants that shared the same space such as nightshade saw an increase in herbivory as well, thus increasing their seed dispersal.  Now it should be stated that this is one case and there is still plenty of evidence of invasive species being harmful to local ecosystems but it does represent of what I hope will be a change in the way we handle invasions.

Too often our efforts to eliminate invaders is out of a misguided and somewhat naive desire to return environments to their original, “pristine” condition.  One doesn’t need to be a Vulcan to spot several huge logic flaws in this argument.  First of all is the notion that there ever was an original, pristine environment.  At one point or another every species on earth was an invader going all the way back to the first time life struggled out to the land.  More often than not though people don’t seek to return ecosystems to their mythical original state.  Rather restoration experiments usually seem to attempt to return the sites to their original state when humans arrived.  At times this can be for economic or culture reasons and at other times it can be completely arbitrary but it really doesn’t have much to do with the overall health of the ecosystem.  Please note that my objection is not to the idea that restoration cannot be beneficial, it can and often is, only that it is often driven by motivations other than those usually given.

Expanding on that is the rather obvious fact that if we truly cared about removing invasive species and returning them to there original state than there is one species in particular we should be turning our attention to: ourselves (this was actually the subject of a great paper I read and commented on a few months back.) Its no great secret that we are in the middle of the sixth mass extinction this planet has seen.  The difference is that this time it is being driven largely through the actions of a single species.  If we truly cared about this subject we would be advocating the widespread removal (read: destruction) of the vast majority of the human species.  Thankfully, outside of a few marginalized philosophers (Linkola comes to mind) this is not a very popular position.

Another reason often given is that the success of an invasive species is leading to the extinction of local ones.  This is another well worn trope in environmentalism, extinction is always bad, and is on far shakier ground.  Quite clearly the extinction of a species is not always a negative thing.  The eradication of smallpox and the ongoing genocide against polio have not been accompanied by the shedding of tears but rather shouts of joy.  The reason for this is simple: those organisms kill and maim millions of people all over the world and we are far better of without them.  On a similar and more controversial note some biologists have advocated the eradication of mosquitoes in order to contain the spread of malaria.  Leaving aside the massive practical difficulties and what effect this will have on the environments they inhabit (perhaps for another time) the idea should not be rejected out of hand simply for fear of causing an extinction.  After all, parasites are a serious problem.

Of course none of this means that invasive species are never harmful only that a more nuanced metric is need before deciding whether or not to remove them.  There are a variety of factors that need to be evaluated before such an action is taken; what environmental effects is the species having, is it a threat to local wildlife, will it damage the local economy, is there some cultural reason to have it removed?  From a strictly utilitarian perspective weighing the various costs and benefits is a simple (though by no means easy) task.  Of course that is remembering that it is not only the interests of humans that need to be taken into consideration.

I For One Agree With Ken Jennings February 18, 2011

Posted by Metabiological in Synthetic Intelligence.
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Have to give the guy credit for having a sense of humor.


P.S. There’s really nothing else to say on Watson.  Its an interesting PR piece, little more.

Do Plants Feel Pain? February 13, 2011

Posted by Metabiological in Ecology, Ethics.
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Okay I’ll expand on that.

A common though ultimately misguided argument against veganism that often crops up whenever the subject is being discussed is that vegans are hypocrites because they don’t care about the suffering of plants.  In practical terms this isn’t so much a logical point as it is an ad hominem but even were it not a fallacy it’s still based on a rather shaky assumption; namely that plants feel pain.

Let me say this right up front.  There is no empirical evidence of plants experiencing a sensation even remotely close to what we call pain.  Pain has a very specific definition that is often lost in the colloquial use of the word.  Simply put, pain is a negative sensation that occurs when an organism has suffered some sort of physical injury.  Pain signals travel from specialized sensors cells in the body, called nociceptors, through the sensory peripheral nervous system and to the brain.  Depending on the nature of the pain the response could be either unconscious, as when you pull your hand off a hot plate without thinking about it, or conscious, as when you stick your hand under freezing ice water for as long as you can on a dare (I know I’m not the only one to do this.)

I’m not sure where the idea that plants feel pain first originated.  The Jain religion of India teaches that all living things have a soul and preaches ahimsa (non-violence) towards all life.  An unusual (for western vegetarians) result of this philosophy is that Jains will abstain from eating root vegetables such as potatoes or onions because the death of the plant is required to harvest it.  However this practice has less to do with reducing suffering than it does respecting life, two very different things.  It may have had some influence on the idea but does not seem to be where it originated.

Sometimes cited as support is the fact that plants are certainly capable of responding to outside stimuli.  Sunflowers are able to move their flowers and track the sun across the sky while tress have been shown to shift nitrogen (important in photosynthesis) to leaves in heavier sunlight.  However from an anatomical and physiological point of view the idea that plants feel pain finds little support.  Plants lack pain receptors that would allow them to experience negative stimulation in the first place as well as lacking both a brain and a nervous system that would be required to analyze and respond to such sensory information.  There does seem to be evidence that plants release hormones after being damaged much in the same way animals will but plant hormones are quite different from those found in animals.  Furthermore this would not be evidence of a pain response in plants but rather an automatic reaction to stimuli.

More damning for the position though is the total lack a reason for plants to have evolved a pain response.  Pain is a useful adaptation for animals because it helps them avoid dangerous situations.  A perfect way to illustrate this is to look at humans born without the ability to feel it.  The condition is called congenital analgesia or congenital insensitivity to pain.  A rare genetic condition the prime symptom of which is the total lack of any ability to experience a pain response.  As you may have been able to guess suffers often do not live long and those that do must be carefully watched.  Broken bones may go untreated or infections unremarked upon if only because they have no reason to be concerned about them.  Without pain there is no reason to pull your hand out of the fire.

So if pain helps animals survive can the same be said for plants.  Of course not.  Lacking any ability to avoid danger if it arises, such as retracting a branch being munched on by an herbivore or uprooting to a new spot during a fire, the development of a pain response system would be an evolutionary waste.  It would add nothing the fitness of the organism (the ability to reproduce) and the resources that would be used to grow it could instead be put into growth and reproduction.   Plants certainly can respond to threats, many species of algae increase their production of defensive chemicals after suffering damage from herbivory, but such things only indicate a response to outside stimuli not pain.

Some objections, though none of them good, can be raised to the position I’ve offered.  One is that any negative experience qualifies as pain.  Since plants are able to respond to stimuli, and therefore must experience it in some way, and some stimuli are certainly negative plants then would be said to experience pain.  This however is conflating two separate issues; the question of panpsychism and the question of suffering.  As shown above it is quite possible for a human to possess the ability to experience while simultaneously lacking the ability to feel pain.  A similar situation is found in those lacking photoreceptors in the eyes (blind) or who have suffered damage to chemoreceptors in the nose (lack of smell).  One could hardly say that a blind person is able to experience sight or a deaf person able to experience sound even though they are certainly able to experience other stimuli for which they have the proper tools.  In a similar vein a computer is clearly able to respond to stimuli such as the introduction of a virus into its software but very few would say that such an event causes the computer any sort pain.

As it currently stands it makes little sense to extend our moral sphere to encompass plants but that does not mean we may ignore the role they have to play.  As primary producers all life on earth ultimately derives from the ability of plants to provide energy for the rest of us.  The continued happiness and prosperity of both us and the rest of the animal kingdom requires the continued health of the ecosystems we share.

The Singularity Hits the Front Page February 11, 2011

Posted by Metabiological in Transhumanism.
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Most people who care have probably already seen the article in TIME about Ray Kurzweil and by extension the Singularity movement.  As far as mainstream reports go this is probably the best one I’ve seen.  I especially appreciated the fact that they noted that not all transhumanists are desciples of Kurzweil.

The Singularity isn’t just an idea. it attracts people, and those people feel a bond with one another. Together they form a movement, a subculture; Kurzweil calls it a community. Once you decide to take the Singularity seriously, you will find that you have become part of a small but intense and globally distributed hive of like-minded thinkers known as Singularitarians.

Not all of them are Kurzweilians, not by a long chalk. There’s room inside Singularitarianism for considerable diversity of opinion about what the Singularity means and when and how it will or won’t happen. But Singularitarians share a worldview. They think in terms of deep time, they believe in the power of technology to shape history, they have little interest in the conventional wisdom about anything, and they cannot believe you’re walking around living your life and watching TV as if the artificial-intelligence revolution were not about to erupt and change absolutely everything.

I’ve had some disagreements with Kurzweil’s predictions (not that he cares, I’m just some shlub on the internet) but I can’t deny that he is the face of the transhumanist movement or that he’s a damn good one.  Lets just hope he’s right.

The Coal Question: An Old Problem For Our Time February 4, 2011

Posted by Metabiological in Ecology.
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I just finished reading an amazing book that clearly and articulately examines one of the most pressing issues facing the world today: the unsustainable use of fossil fuels as an energy source and how technological innovation may not be our savior after all.  Oh, did I mention the book was written in 1865?

“The Coal Question” by British economist William Jevons was at the time a topical examination of Britain’s dominant position in the world and how the might of the British Empire was in many ways tied to its easy access to high quality coal.  In the 19th century the British coal fields helped to drive the wave of industrialization that swept across the Western world, making Britain quite wealthy in the process.  Jevons breaks down both Britain’s reliance on coal and the implications that come with its exponential usage and eventual exhaustion.

Much of what Jevons writes would be immediately recognizable to anyone today who keeps up with the debates going on in the world of climate change and energy policy.  He noted that the exponential growth of coal usage in the UK could not be sustained indefinitely and that then current estimates of how long the supply would last were grossly wrong due to their plotting the increase in usage in additive terms rather than exponential.  He also pointed out that it wasn’t simply a lack of coal that threatened Britain’s superiority but a lack of cheap, high quality coal.  This is an important idea to keep in mind today when discussing peak oil because as anyone who works in the oil industry would tell you there is still a lot of oil left in the world.  The problem is that said deposits are either poor quality or in incredibly inaccessible places, either of which makes the mining and refining uneconomical.  It’s not just oil that drives our economy but cheap oil.  Take that away, without a substitute waiting in the wings, and our society grinds to a halt.

Oddly enough Jevons actually did examine alternative energy methods, though he does so in order to show their unsuitability.  Wind and wave energy he criticized for there intermitency and there lack of energy storage ability, essentially the same problems that plague those technologies today.  Hydroelectric power he was more favorable towards but ultimately rejected due to the need fow an appropriate site for the factories.  Oil was also rejected due to the limitations it possessed in his day.

It may be easy to criticize Jevons as just another Malthus for all the things he didn’t get right.  Though he was correct that Britain would eventually lose its status as the global superpower due in part to the end of its supply of cheap coal he was incorrect in predicting the end of prosperity.  He didn’t (and couldn’t have) foreseen the rise of oil and the development of nuclear energy.  However for all he got wrong it’s what he got right that makes him so applicable to this day and age and one idea in particular stands out: Jevon’s Paradox.

A common response both then and now to arguments like Jevon’s is that as technology advances it will allow us to use resources like coal more efficiently, using less of the resource to achieve the same result.  In short, technological progress with save us from our consumption.  What Jevon noticed is that while technological innovation does result in greater efficiency it does not result in a decrease in the products consumption but rather increases it.  The reason for this is simple: as technology makes it easier to extract and utilize a resource the price of said resource drops and as the price drops more people tend to use it.  More importantly though as the price drops people tend to find new uses for the product that had previously been prevented by cost limitations.  Thus even with increases in efficiency the use of something like coal can continue to grow exponentially.

This is the problem facing today’s world.  Even with the large amount of oil still out there (and as I mentioned there is a lot) technological progress that allows us to extract it economically and use it more efficiently will not save us.  With demand continuing to rise due to the growth of new economies it can at best maintain our usage, never decrease it.

Fossil fuels will run out and sooner than many people think but the major threat to our civilization is not the end of oil but the end of cheap oil.  Will another power source rise to take its place?  Honestly I don’t know.  Nuclear power has the potential but is very expensive to build and comes with its own set of problems.  Will wind, wave and solar overcome their intermittent nature and power storage issues?  Will anyone actually develop fusion power?

Right now no other option is ready to take over for oil and though a mixture of different methods (solar, wind, biofuels) will definitely go a long way towards doing so we must be prudent in the use of our most important resource.  Cutting back on personal demand by doing all the things experts keep telling us to do (drive as little as possible, buy local foods to reduce travel time, recycle, etc.) is a good place to start but unlikely to make much of a dent in global consumption.  Partly this is due to the relatively small percentage of oil use taken up by residential areas, with industry and agriculture making up the vast majority.  More importantly though is that  cutting back on personal usage would require a large segment of the population in order to be effective, something unlikely to happen in the numbers needed.

To truly reduce the amount of oil we use will require a two-pronged approach: technological advances that allow us to use less oil to achieve the same effect and social policy that keeps that keeps the price higher enough to discourage mass consumption.  Is this a great solution? No, frankly it’s not but it may buy us the time we need to create a better energy future.