science

How Green is Your Electricity?

A few years back I wrote about how driving an electric car isn’t necessarily the most climate-friendly choice.  That’s in a large part because the electricity used to power those cars is often generated by very carbon-intensive methods. Well today over in IFLScience University of Sydney Professor of Sustainability Research Manfred Lenzen provides a surprising chart of the greenhouse gas emissions of electricity generation technologies. 1From the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s Special Report on Renewable Energy Sources and Climate Change Mitigation.

Greenhouse Gas Emissions of Electricity Generation Technologies
Source: IPCC Special Report on Renewable Energy Sources and Climate Change Mitigation

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1. From the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s Special Report on Renewable Energy Sources and Climate Change Mitigation.

Math Shows That There Will Never Be Another You

Never AgainThis morning over on Eric Kaplan’s excellent philosophy and humor blog, I commented on a post in which he speculates on our fear of death in relation to the possibility that duplicates of our consciousness might exist. In my response I did some math to calculate that possibility. Keep this in mind for when you need to feel special:

Human brains are composed of nerve cells called neurons. Connections between two neurons are called synapses. Like a city’s streets and intersections, neurons and synapses map out our brains. So we can define a “unique brain” — i.e. you, assuming you’re a materialist — as a unique layout of synapses.

Biologists estimate that the human brain contains about 100 billion (1011) neurons. Because each neuron can connect to many other neurons, the number of synapses in the brain is 100 trillion (1014). We can use a simple formula to calculate the number of possible combinations of synapses:

\frac{n!}{r!(n-r)!}

That works out to approximately 5 x 1032 possible brains. 1That’s 500,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000.

Now let’s be unrealistically generous and say that human beings will survive until the Sun makes the Earth uninhabitable. That gives our species a lifespan of about 3 billion (3 x 109) years. To create 5 x 1032 different brains in 3 billion years would require making about 1023 new brains every year. To date, only 1011 humans have ever existed, and we’re only creating about 100 million (109) new people each year. In other words, if we want to make enough humans to create a duplicate brain before our species dies out, we’re working about 1000 times too slow.

There will never be another you.

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1. That’s 500,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000.

Stuff I’ve Read: Feb.-Mar. 2014

To regularly keep up with what I’m reading, please follow me on Goodreads.

The James Bond DossierThe James Bond Dossier
by Kingsley Amis

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I don’t have many opportunities to call things “jaunty,” so I’ll call this book a jaunty defense of Ian Fleming’s work, the kind you’d hear passionately laid out from one fanboy to another after several beers’ worth of debate in an alternate universe where all fanboys are Kingsley Amis, Stephen Fry, and Mark Gatiss as Mycroft Holmes. Like any good fanboy defense, and there aren’t any, Kingsley’s repeatedly turns into a mitigation, admitting to and excusing some of the worst qualities of Fleming’s work. This becomes a tad unbearable when Amis tries to mount a defense for, say, casual racism. But the rest of the time his lengthy essay is astute and harmless and a good time for anyone who’s read all of the original Bond books and wants some light critique of them, i.e. no one. (Barring me and some pasty men who died when Roger Moore still had human skin.)

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Cosmos Animation Producer Kara Vallow Talks to Me About Fending off Anti-Science Wackaloons

A moment in ancient  Mesopotamia, from an upcoming episode of Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey
A moment in ancient Mesopotamia, from an upcoming episode of Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey

For my very first job out of college I worked as an associate producer for the science radio series Pulse of the Planet, and for my very first assignment I was sent to interview the newly appointed director of New York’s Hayden Planetarium, Neil deGrasse Tyson. We talked about another new guy, Hale-Bopp, a recently discovered comet that eventually appeared so brightly in the sky that one night from the light-soaked streets of Manhattan I watched it blaze beside the peak of the Empire State Building. This week, 18 years later, Dr. Tyson spoke to me about comets again, though he was simultaneously talking to four million other people via the third episode of my new favorite show Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey on Fox. His description of our ancestors watching comets transform the sky into omens of doom was accompanied by startlingly beautiful animation of flaming death’s heads ripping through the night.

That animation was developed and produced by my pal Kara Vallow. Kara’s a TV cartoon guru and executive producer of Family Guy and American Dad!, but I first got to know her from her blogs Teen Sleuth and The Haunted Library. A few years ago I raved about her relentless curiosity, though she’s better known for her relentless progressivism. Kara’s notorious for her readiness to rip into politicians and ‘Mericans who trade intelligence and reason for willful ignorance and self-centered asshattery–the type of people who tried to refute Cosmos’s explanation of evolution, who called the show anti-Christian leftist propaganda, and who, when the next great comet swings by, will likely have Americans digging hidey-holes to shoot AR-15s at it from behind stacks of Lunchables and Vitamin Water.

With that in mind, Kara kindly exchanged a few emails with me about the rise of anti-science.

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You Maybe Just Swallowed a Bunch of Poison

In the latest underreported hilarious medical news, a study in the journal BMC Medicine found that many herbal supplement pills incontrovertibly offer no health benefits because the pills don’t actually contain any herbal supplements. The hilarious part is that the herbs have been replaced with stuff that will kill you. Sick burn, bro!

The study’s authors tested 44 herbal supplements 1Which, as you probably know, aren’t regulated by the FDA or anybody else. from 12 different companies and found that a full third of the products were entirely missing the ingredient on the label. Even more of them, 59%, included delicious mix-ins not listed on the label, stuff that the New York Times refers to as “little more than powdered rice and weeds.” To be fair, that’s not all they contained. Some pill manufacturers threw in premium additives like Parthenium hysterophorus, which can make you break out and fart; black walnut, which can kill people with nut allergies; and Actaea asiatica, which can kill everybody.

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1. Which, as you probably know, aren’t regulated by the FDA or anybody else.

Not Flying Does Not Not Help Global Warming, Does It Not? No.


I just heard this story on PRI’s The World about an American science and environment reporter who won’t be covering this week’s UN climate conference in Poland because he’s given up flying to reduce his carbon footprint. Eric Holthaus described the moment of his epiphany, reading the climate-change report that declared there we’re approaching irreversible global warming:

I was in San Francisco heading back from a week-long business trip, sitting there in the boarding zone, and I was on the phone with my wife, and the emotion of the moment hit me… I broke down in tears, and I thought, “this is like watching the end of the world in front row seats…” I thought, I have to do something that I’m going to feel good about myself.

Mr. Holthaus and his family canceled trips to Hawaii and Denmark, and he proudly declares, “In one action I cut my carbon footprint by fifty percent by not flying anymore… I want to do whatever I can — immediately — to reduce that impact.” Clearly Mr. Holthaus passionately cares about climate change and wants to do his part to help. So it’s too bad that his claim that he’s halved his contribution to global warming is bonkers.

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See Ya Later, Hollywood!

Cuz I’m off to tap into that bottomless keg of mathematical-thinking money!

My statement of accomplishment WITH DISTINCTION, Pally!

I just finished my first MOOC (Massive Open Online Course), the 10-week Introduction to Mathematical Thinking on Coursera, taught by Dr. Keith Devlin at Stanford. I loved it.

Little known fact: in 2000, I briefly went back to school to get a bachelor’s degree in mathematics at City College of New York. I didn’t make it past two part-time semesters, mostly because I got tried of scraping off all the hot women who’d latch onto me when they saw me reading a calculus textbook on the 90-minute subway/bus ride from Washington Heights to Bay Ridge. It’s a good thing that I quit, because I was really just taking a hobby too far during a time when I wasn’t sure what to do with my life. I was frustrated with the creative world and wanted to work on something in which right and wrong are definitive.

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