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Blue Petroleum: Bio-fuel From Algae March 31, 2011

Posted by Metabiological in Ecology.
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Boy this technology seems to be getting a lot of news lately.  A Spanish firm is the latest company attempting to grow petroleum from phytoplankton.

At a time when companies are redoubling their efforts to find alternative energy sources, the idea is to reproduce and speed up a process which has taken millions of years and which has led to the production of fossil fuels.

“We are trying to simulate the conditions which existed millions of years ago, when the phytoplankton was transformed into oil,” said engineer Eloy Chapuli. “In this way, we obtain oil that is the same as oil today.”

Though similar to other stories I’ve commented on there are important difference in what these researchers are trying to do.  Rather than bioengineering a species of algae to naturally produce fuel through their own photosynthetic process these guys are trying to recreate the Devonian period and make this oil magic strike twice.  Honestly I’m not sure what to think of this method.  Though the article is a little hazy on the details from what I remember the original conditions that led to oil formation involved massive amounts of decaying plant matter with high pressure and temperature.  If these researchers are trying to recreate that then it seems like a far more difficult and intensive method than other ones I’ve seen.

More importantly though it doesn’t address the issue I mentioned with other methods of biofuel production; the fact that this does nothing to reduce atmospheric concentrations of CO2.  The article touts the fact that the carbon used in the process is taken from emissions from a nearby cement factory and therefore attempts to flout it’s green credentials.  However what it doesn’t mention, and what every example of this technology shares, is the fact that every bit of carbon taken up will be released back into the atmosphere when the fuel is burned.

At best this kind of technology is a stopgap measure, a way to buy us a little more time, not a solution.  Even if we switched all fuel use in the world over to petroleum grown in this method the best result we could achieve is to stabilize Co2 and therefore temperature at near future conditions.  Carbon present in the atmosphere will still be there and will remain for thousands of years.  The only real solutions are to adapt to a new baseline (considering our lack of foresight this is probably the path we will take) or to find a way to return the carbon to an inorganic form and take it out of the carbon cycle permanently.  To do so would require putting into a sedimentary form like calcium carbonate and sequestering it in a place (like the ocean floor) where the chance of it returning would be slim.

To those wondering about some of the other proposed solutions let me deal with them now.  Carbon capture technology is a load of crock.  Disregarding the fact that it’s being heavily pushed by the coal industry (perform a simple Bayesian analysis and tell me if there is a likely conflict of interest) the fact remains that carbon stored will still be in a gaseous form.  Given the right conditions it would easily return to the atmosphere.

Storing the carbon in plant biomass is a better option but still not a solution.  This line of thinking has been behind a whole lot of experiments ranging from planting trees in previously cut forests to saturating the ocean with iron to encourage phytoplankton blooms.  Obviously some of the methods work better than others with the important goals being to store the carbon in a form that is inedible to animals (if they eat it they’ll respire is back into the atmosphere) and relatively permanent (for obvious reasons).  Large woody trees with lots of bark satisfy both of these conditions well and would make them ideal candidates while short lived and easily eaten things like phytoplankton do not.  However even the best candidates are little more than a stop gap since the carbon is still present in the cycle, albeit in a relatively stable state, and will continue to cycle through the environment.  Like biofuels all this method would do is buy us time.

What we need is a technology that both powers our society at levels of current consumption (we’ll never reduce consumption to the degrees we need) and works to remove CO2 from the atmosphere.  The “artificial leaf” I talked about a little while ago would seem to be the holy grail in this regard and I hope it shows the ability to scale up.


Scientists Develop First Practical Artificial Leaf March 28, 2011

Posted by Metabiological in Ecology, Science.
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This is all kinds of awesome.  Researchers have developed the first practical example of an artificial device capable of producing electricity through the process of photosynthesis.  In short and artificial leaf.

About the shape of a poker card but thinner, the device is fashioned from silicon, electronics and catalysts, substances that accelerate chemical reactions that otherwise would not occur, or would run slowly. Placed in a single gallon of water in a bright sunlight, the device could produce enough electricity to supply a house in a developing country with electricity for a day, Nocera said. It does so by splitting water into its two components, hydrogen and oxygen.

Holy renewable energy Batman.  This is the holy grail of renewable energy research.  A device that enables us to power our society using the non-polluting and completely renewable energy of the sun AND it helps to bring down atmospheric concentrations of CO2.  This is so good that at first I wasn’t sure this wasn’t a prank or an early April Fools joke but it seems to be legitimate.

Now if you’ll allow me to come down from cloud 9 for a moment there are of course practical considerations that need to be addressed.  First and foremost is cost.  Though the article mentions that one of the things making this new “leaf” practical is the fact that it uses lower cost materials than previous models it still remains to be seen whether the technology can scale up and compete with more traditional fuel sources.

Secondly, and more important in my opinion, is the question of water.  The device splits water into it’s component parts (hydrogen and oxygen) and uses them to make energy.  This of course means that for the device to work it will need a steady and most likely substantial supply of water.  The problem is that the water crisis is the biggest environmental problem you’ve never heard of.  Humanity is already using more than half of all world runoff for our own purposes leaving very little for the rest of the natural world.  Adding another human use for water may push us over the edge in terms of our water consumption.

I’ll add one caveat to that.  The article didn’t mention if the water had to be fresh.  Terrestrial plants need to use fresh water for physiological reasons, primarily to maintain levels of salt concentrations in their tissues (I’m not going into the details, Google it if you’re interested).  However there doesn’t seem to be any reason apparent to me why these artificial leaves couldn’t use salt water for their purposes.  If that turns out to be the case then my water concern is largely moot since salt water is one thing this planet has plenty of.

Finally I will offer not so much a problem as an interesting thought experiment.  If this device works by splitting water into hydrogen and oxygen then presumably at least some of that oxygen will be released into the atmosphere.  Done on a large enough scale, like if this technology takes over as our primary power source, it could conceivably alter the composition of the atmosphere enough to produce changes in the biosphere.  An greater abundance of oxygen could be beneficial to certain species of animal life allowing them to extract more oxygen with fewer breaths and therefore generate more energy at a lower cost to themselves.  Incidentally this is also predicted to happen to plants as CO2 concentrations rise.  Of course a greater abundance of oxygen could also lead to a greater risk of wildfires and could lead to oxygen toxicity in vulnerable environments.

Difficulties aside I am completely supportive of this kind of technology and look forward to seeing it break into the mainstream.

Robert White: The Brain Transplant Surgeon March 26, 2011

Posted by Metabiological in Transhumanism.
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A common criticism of transhumanists is that we’re nothing but a bunch of technofetishists and utopian dreamers, convinced that the inevitable march of technological progress will bring about our wildest dreams.  As such it is also assumed that we as a movement welcome any and all scientific research, no matter what form it takes or the costs associated, as long as it increases our chances of living forever or uploading ourselves into a computer.

Robert White, the subject of a new documentary, would then at first glance seem to be a poster boy for transhumanism.  As a neurosurgeon working in the 1960’s White performed some of the early experiments on organ transplants.  While he seems to have been a good scientist in many ways he is no doubt best remembered for a different aspect of his research: attempting to transplant the head of one monkey onto the body of another. Yes, this is real.  Watch the video if you don’t believe me.

Watched it?  Good, now let me make myself abundantly clear.  I consider myself a transhumanist, for whatever that’s worth, and though I obviously cannot speak for the community as a whole I can state how I as a transhumanist view this type of research.  How do I view it you ask?  It sickens me.

Frequent readers of this blog (if I have any) will no doubt have surmised that I hold pretty staunchly to a negative utilitarian view of ethics and as such I believe that if the consequences of an action result in a lessening of suffering in the world we should perform said action.  In short, that which reduces suffering is good.  It would seem then that if Dr. White’s experiments, grotesque though they are, eliminated more suffering then they caused I would have no choice but to support them.

Here’s the problem with that sentiment.  Inflicting suffering to prevent suffering is always a slippery slope.  I will not deny that there are cases in which it is the right thing to do as such a stance is indefensible.  World War II, often cited as the perfect example of a just war, inflicted massive loss of life and suffering but also stopped what may be one of the few examples of a genuinely evil regime from carrying out a program of mass genocide.  For an example a little closer to home surgery inevitably involves inflicting a relatively minor wound in order to heal a greater one.

Clearly causing suffering can sometimes be justified if the suffering prevented is greater.  My problem with Dr. White’s research is that I’m not sure that can be said in this case.  Even if the knowledge gained by transplanting the head of one monkey onto the body of another resulted in knowledge that has saved lives, something I highly doubt, I cannot believe that this knowledge could not have been gained through a less barbaric path.

An Extinction Event For Religion? March 22, 2011

Posted by Metabiological in Transhumanism.
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Full disclosure:  In case you couldn’t tell from this blog I am an atheist and a transhumanist.

I have to admit that when I first saw this article I laughed out loud.  The idea of someone predicting the death of religion in countries across the globe, and calling it extinction no less, struck me as completely absurd.  Now I’ve actually read the article and I have to say…yeah I still think its a pretty stupid premise.

Here’s the thing.  It is true that in much of the Western world there has been a marked trend over the past few decades towards greater secularism and a decreased prevalence of religious activity.  The United States is somewhat of an anamoly in this regard but the trend certainly seems to be clear.  What exactly is causing it is somewhat still up for debate.  Arguments that greater prosperity leads to an abandoning of religion due to less need for what it offers (a feeling of security in the face of a troubling world and etc.) are underminded by the aforementioned continued prevalence of religion in the US and by its strengthening in many developing nations.  More likely is the idea that Europe and Western Europe in particular provides a fertile ground for this sort of thing.  This is after all the culture that gave us the Enlightenment and where the church has often functioned in more of a political role than a spiritual one.  However this is all irrelevant to the question at hand.

Is religion going extinct in certain countries as this article implies?  Maybe, but don’t start jumping for joy all my atheist friends.  There are two reasons why this sort of news should not be met with blind joy.  First is the question of what the study actually measured.  According to the article the researchers looked at the number of people over time who identify themselves as “not affiliated with a religion” and extrapolated a growth of that group in the coming decades.  The problem is that that “not affiliated with a religion” is not the same thing as atheist.  The trend away from organized religion is distinct from the trend away from religion itself.  Even in America, the bastion of religious faith in the developed world, traditional churches are scrambling to prevent there congregations from deserting them for newer, independent groups.  Lack of religion does not mean a lack of spirituality and indeed one of the largest growing groups over recent years has been in the “spiritual but not religious” category.

On that note lets come to the second reason to look askew at this study: a decrease in religion does not mean an increase in logic or rationality.  This is something I see many in the atheist community not really getting.  The idea that religion is the source of all our problems and that its removal will coincide with a renaissance of freethought and reason is a wonderful story that has about as much chance of being true as one guy building a boat to house two of every animal on earth.  Non-religious people can be just as boneheaded and given to leaps of logic and outright blind faith in the ridiculous as religious people.  Need proof?  Look at the prevalence of homeopathy in developed nations or the number of people who believe that astrology is a legitimate science.  Not religious does not equal rational.

Reading this article I’m reminded of a study that supposedly showed that people of higher intelligence tend to be liberal and atheists.  Like that study I have problems with both the sampling and methods of the article today and like that study I expect people to either shout this article from the rooftops or condemn it to the depths of hell depending on which side of the political spectrum they are.  Is religion on its way to extinction?  Maybe but probably not.  The search for meaning is a very powerful force in the human psyche, perhaps the most powerful, and atheism is and always has been a difficult path walked only by a small minority.  Some have said that transhumans or posthumans will likely have no need for religion and disregard with it entirely.  Without going into too much detail, that’s a whole different article, I strongly disagree.  As long as being still strive to understand things beyond their comprehension religion, though it may resemble nothing like what we have today, will find a place in the universe.

Transhumanist Media: Limitless March 20, 2011

Posted by Metabiological in Transhumanism.
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As transhumanism moves farther and farther into the mainstream we are beginning to see more explicit examples of the philosophy in the mass media.  While very few of them actually refer to their subject matter as such the influence of the transhumanist movement on much of modern science fiction is hard to discount.  Last year gave us three movies that dealt with the possibility of mind-machine interfaces and one of them, James Cameron’s Avatar, ended up being one of the biggest hits of the year and a Best Picture nominee.

Limitless is a movie that definitely crosses into transhumanist territory even if it never explicitly uses that word, examining one of the corner stones of modern transhumanist futurism in the possibility and ramifications of intelligence enhancement.  Starring Bradley Cooper as an aspiring (read unemployed) writer who through a twist of fate ends up with the hottest new drug being primed to hit the market: a pill that can increase a person’s intellect to unnatural levels.  With a stash in hand Cooper decides to do what I assume many of us would if we found ourselves instantly turned into the smartest man on the planet; he joins a Wall Street firm and proceeds to make himself obscenely wealthy.  Of course if this was all there was to the movie it would be pretty damn boring so no bonus points for guessing that the drug quickly turns out to have side effects that reek havoc with Cooper’s new found prosperity.

Let me say that I definitely think Limitless is a good movie.  The acting is uniformly good including a nice turn by Robert de Niro as a powerful and dangerous Wall Street executive.  The cinematography is particularly noteworthy with some brilliant use of color and tone to differentiate Cooper’s up moments while on the drug to his down moments at all other times.  If the film has a problem, and it does, it’s that its not nearly as deep as it seems to think it is or want to be.

Lets start with the basic premise.  The movie’s explanation for the drug’s amazing ability is that it allows an average person, who only uses 20% of their brain, to access the other 80% and utilize their full capabilities.  No, really.  I seriously hope that no one in the audience or on the script team actually believes that old urban legend but that fact that the use it as their basis is not very inspiring.

Secondly is what the drug actually does.  Though the film is very hazy on the details (this is soft sci-fi through and through) it appears to be some sort of super stimulant, a sort of Ritalin on steroids if you’ll pardon the expression.  It allows the user to concentrate on their tasks at an almost supernatural level, gives them access to every memory they have ever had including ones they can’t remember when off the drug and gives powers of deductive reasoning that make Sherlock Holmes look like Sarah Palin.  Disregarding the fact that the film never explains how the drug does all this to any sort of satisfaction (again, soft sci-fi) my big problem is that the effects of the drug seem limited only to his intelligence.  Outside of developing a severe case of narcissism there seems to be no effect on a persons personality or emotional intelligence.  Now of course analytic intelligence is  a distinct feature I personally find it hard to believe that such a major change in one facet of a person would not produce a similarly major change in other facets.

Those who have seen the movie will probably think I’m being overly critical towards it and in many ways I am.  Its not 2001 or Blade Runner and it really isn’t trying to be so if you go in expecting an interesting story briskly told then you should walk out feeling like you got your moneys worth.  Finally I will say that despite spending a good portion of its screen time on the dangers of intelligence enhancement the film ends on what is almost a positive endorsement of the idea.  SPOILER WARNING: though he has to give up the drug due to the negative side effects he tinkers with the formula and develops a safer version that allows him to stop taking it and retain his newfound mental acumen.  In a time when so much science fiction is about how new technologies will destroy us that ending is enough for me to support the film.

NASA Scientist Claims To Have Found Alien Life March 5, 2011

Posted by Metabiological in Beyond Earth.
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Having already got my hopes up once this year about the possibility of extraterrestrial life only to be brought down by an admittedly cool new life form I’m now very skeptical of any news of this sort coming from anyone involved with NASA.

Short version: a scientist working for NASA has claimed to have discovered fossil evidence of alien life within meteorites.  When I first heard this I immediately had flashbacks, as I’m sure most of you did, to an eerily similar incident over a decade ago regarding life found in martian rocks.  You may remember that the President Clinton actually addressed the nation on the discovery (which has since been largely debunked.)

I’m sure many people will make a big deal of the fact that some of the supposed fossils resemble primitive earth life such as cyanobacteria.  I can almost hear the cries of “how do you know it didn’t just come from earth?”  While not an outright stupid question I don’t think its a deal breaker either.  Cyanobacteria are a very primitive and ancient life form and it would stand to reason that primitive alien life would take a largely similar form (assuming of course similar biochemistry).  In addition some of the other fossils appear to be nothing like anything seen on earth.

In the end something about this just doesn’t smell right for it to be an actual discovery.  Why is this being published in an online journal rather than say Science?  Why isn’t NASA making a much bigger deal about this than it is?  Why did I first hear about this through a ticker story on the Yahoo website?  Maybe I’m just jaded due to the aforementioned let down but I really don’t expect this to turn out to be anything.  Still, one can hope.