The Last Chapter?

At 5:56 AM this morning I watched the Atlantis touch down for the final time. As a child of the 60s and 70s, I grew up with the space program. I was a callow 16 year old trudging through the mountains of North Carolina with Outward Bound when our team leader told us that we had landed on the moon. I remember, like yesterday, driving down the highway when the shuttle exploded as it climbed toward orbit. I remember the men cavorting on the surface of the moon, swinging golf clubs, driving recklessly in their lunar rovers, and bobbing over the dusty surface while singing and conducting their scientific experiments.

And, now, no more. No trips to low earth orbit, no plans to revisit the moon or make an attempt to get to Mars. We have taken our eyes away from the stars, with all of the attendant hopes and dreams, to stare at the mundane. In focusing on the near, we have lost our vision.

A sad, sad day.


Bloggers and media types have taken to the internet today to praise the end of the shuttle program, noting that other space strivers like the Russians and Chinese shelved their shuttle designs due to the extreme cost and limited utility of the model. They observe that it is appropriate that private enterprise steps into the breach, and that efficiency and entrepeneurial spirit will provide the next burst of activity. Having had some time to reflect on that position, I can’t disagree.

So, come on Bert Rutan, et al! Let’s go to Mars and mine the rare minerals and make a huge profit!

Synthetic Biology

These are either the scariest words ever written or the announcement of our impending immortality…

"We make a genome from four bottles of chemicals; we put that synthetic genome into a cell; that synthetic genome takes over the cell," said Dr. Gibson. "The cell is entirely controlled by that new genome."

The scientists didn’t give the new organism its own species name, but they did give its synthetic genome an official version number, Mycoplasma mycoides JCVI-syn1.0.

To set this novel bacterium—and all its descendants—apart from any natural creation, Dr. Venter and his colleagues wrote their names into its chemical DNA code, along with three apt quotations from James Joyce and others. These genetic watermarks will, eventually, allow the researchers to assert ownership of the cells. "You have to have a way of tracking it," said Stanford ethicist Mildred Cho, who has studied the issues posed by the creation of such organisms.

In case you missed it, scientists working for Craig Venter have created, for the first time, a completely synthetic organism by writing computer code to create the desired gene sequences, made the DNA from the code, and then transplanted the DNA in an empty cell, which was taken over by the DNA.

This is literally a turning point in the relationship between man and nature," said molecular biologist Richard Ebright at Rutgers University, who wasn’t involved in the project. "For the first time, someone has generated an entire artificial cell with predetermined properties.

Read the whole story here and ponder what this means for mankind.

The Biggest Day in Motorsports

Jenson Button continued his unlikey conquest of Formula One at Monaco today. Billed as a race with little passing (overtaking for the knowledgable), the thrill comes from watching the drivers push their cars through the narrow, tortourous turns of the city squeezed between the mountains and the sea. As we saw this morning, the merest slip in focus and attention can wreak havoc with both car and driver. What a race!









This was sent by my brother-in-law from the Speedway:














His seats are in the Turn 2 Tower suites, perhaps the best seats in the house. The cars will come tearing down the front straight, reaching 240 miles per hour, and then take a 90 degree turn to the left. There is virtually no banking, so the drivers will depend on the tremendous downforce created by aerodynamics and what grip remains in their tires to keep the car on the correct path through the turn. Then there is the "short shute" and another 90 degree turn. The wayward driver who errs in the entry to Turn 1 will pay the price on the exit of Turn 2. We will be watching from the comfort of our den. Although we will have great views throughout the race via our television, the only life-sized aspect of the race experience will be this:


Here’s hoping Paul Tracy gets the justice he deserves today.

Of Man, Pigs, and Bacteria


Those brave few who find their way to this blog know that I have no truck with most of the columnists writing for the New York Times. But Nicholas Kristof, writing in today’s New York Times, reports on the rampant overuse of antibiotics in commercial pig-farming operations.

It is both terrifying and outrageous. To wit:

We don’t add antibiotics to baby food and Cocoa Puffs so that children get fewer ear infections. That’s because we understand that the overuse of antibiotics is already creating “superbugs” resistant to medication…

Yet we continue to allow agribusiness companies to add antibiotics to animal feed so that piglets stay healthy and don’t get ear infections. Seventy percent of all antibiotics in the United States go to healthy livestock, according to a careful study by the Union of Concerned Scientists — and that’s one reason we’re seeing the rise of pathogens that defy antibiotics…

Yet the central problem here isn’t pigs, it’s humans. Unlike Europe and even South Korea, the United States still bows to agribusiness interests by permitting the nontherapeutic use of antibiotics in animal feed. That’s unconscionable.

The peer-reviewed Medical Clinics of North America concluded last year that antibiotics in livestock feed were “a major component” in the rise in antibiotic resistance. The article said that more antibiotics were fed to animals in North Carolina alone than were administered to the nation’s entire human population.

“We don’t give antibiotics to healthy humans,” said Robert Martin, who led a Pew Commission on industrial farming that examined antibiotic use. “So why give them to healthy animals just so we can keep them in crowded and unsanitary conditions?”

The answer is simple: politics.

Read it all. This is behavior that is so short-sighted, so selfish, and so wrong as to beggar description.

Here’s why:

Approximately 80 percent of the atmosphere is nitrogen gas (N2). Unfortunately, N2 is unusable by most living organisms. Plants, animals and microorganisms can die of nitrogen deficiency, surrounded by N2 they cannot use. All organisms use the ammonia (NH3) form of nitrogen to manufacture amino acids, proteins, nucleic acids and other nitrogen-containing components necessary for life. Biological nitrogen fixation is the process that changes inert N2 to biologically useful NH3. This process is mediated in nature only by bacteria.

Did you get that last bit? Without bacteria, all life forms on this planet would not be able to process Nitrogen. Without bacteria, all life forms on this planet will die.

More detail here. And this explains it nicely, with some pictures…

Nitrogen comprises 78.08 % of the atmosphere making it the largest constituent of the gaseous envelope that surrounds the Earth. Nitrogen is important in the make up of organic molecules like proteins. Unfortunately, nitrogen is inaccessible to most living organisms. Nitrogen must be “fixed” by soil bacteria living in association with the roots of particular plant like legumes, clover, alfalfa, soybeans, peas, peanuts, and beans. Living on nodules around the roots of legumes, the bacteria chemically combine nitrogen in the air to form nitrates (NO3) and ammonia (NH3) making it available to plants. Organisms that feed on the plants ingest the nitrogen and release it in organic wastes. Denitrifying bacteria frees the nitrogen from the wastes returning it to the atmosphere.

Nitrogen Cycle


We live in, and are part of, an enormously complex eco-system. Yes, there are many levels of redundancy built into our biological systems, but there are also pieces of Nature’s plan that provide important functions which can be easily destroyed if Man continues to act stupidly and selfishly. I’m not a tree hugger, and I’m not an environmental wacko, but we are playing with fire when it comes to antibiotics…..

At My Age…..

…..I can’t do the things I used to be able to do. Or so the saying goes. But now comes the news that things might not be so inevitable:

The question of what causes aging has spawned competing schools, with one side claiming that inborn genetic programs make organisms grow old. This theory has had trouble gaining traction because it implies that aging evolved, that natural selection pushed older organisms down a path of deterioration. However, natural selection works by favoring genes that help organisms produce lots of offspring. After reproduction ends, genes are beyond natural selection’s reach, so scientists argued that aging couldn’t be genetically programmed.

The alternate, competing theory holds that aging is an inevitable consequence of accumulated wear and tear: toxins, free-radical molecules, DNA-damaging radiation, disease and stress ravage the body to the point it can’t rebound. So far, this theory has dominated aging research.

But the Stanford team’s findings told a different story. “Our data just didn’t fit the current model of damage accumulation, and so we had to consider the alternative model of developmental drift,” Kim said.

If aging is not a cost of unavoidable chemistry but is instead driven by changes in regulatory genes, the aging process may not be inevitable. It is at least theoretically possible to slow down or stop developmental drift.

“The take-home message is that aging can be slowed and managed by manipulating signaling circuits within cells,” said Marc Tatar, PhD, a professor of biology and medicine at Brown University who was not involved in the research. “This is a new and potentially powerful circuit that has just been discovered for doing that.”

Kim added, “It’s a new way to think about how to slow the aging process.”

Where do I sign up?

Passing Wind

Via the New York Times, some information about wind power in Texas.

The story is found here, with a few highlights for your amusement:

Texas regulators have approved a $4.93 billion wind-power transmission project, providing a major lift to the development of wind energy in the state.

The planned web of transmission lines will carry electricity from remote western parts of the state to major population centers like Dallas, Houston, Austin and San Antonio. The lines can handle 18,500 megawatts of power, enough for 3.7 million homes on a hot day when air-conditioners are running.

The project will ease a bottleneck that has become a major obstacle to development of the wind-rich Texas Panhandle and other areas suitable for wind generation.

Texas is already the largest producer of wind power, with 5,300 installed megawatts — more than double the installed capacity of California, the next closest state. And Texas is fast expanding its capacity.

Wind developers reacted favorably…

“The lack of transmission has been a fundamental issue in Texas, and it’s becoming more and more of an issue elsewhere,” said Vanessa Kellogg, the Southwest regional development director for Horizon Wind Energy, which operates the Lone Star Wind Farm in West Texas and has more wind generation under development. “This is a great step in the right direction.”

Ms. Kellogg said that the project would be a boon for Texas power customers, whose electricity costs have risen in conjunction with soaring natural gas prices across the state. “There’s nothing volatile about the wind in terms of the price, because it’s free,” she said…

The transmission problem is so acute in Texas that turbines are sometimes shut off even when the wind is blowing.

“When the amount of generation exceeds the export capacity, you have to start turning off wind generators” to keep things in balance, said Hunter Armistead, head of the renewable energy division in North America at Babcock & Brown, a large wind developer and transmission provider. “We’ve reached that point in West Texas.”…

Lack of transmission is a severe problem in a number of states that, like Texas, want to develop their wind resources. Wind now accounts for 1 percent of the nation’s electricity generation but could rise to 20 percent by 2030, according to a recent Department of Energy report, if transmission lines are built and other challenges met.

But other states may find the Texas model difficult to emulate. The state is unique in having its own electricity grid. All other states fall under the jurisdiction of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, adding an extra layer of bureaucracy to any transmission proposals.

The exact route of the transmission lines has yet to be determined because the state has not yet acquired right-of-way, according to Mr. Withrow of the utility commission.

The project will almost certainly face concerns from landowners reluctant to have wires cutting across their property. “I would anticipate that some of these companies will have to use eminent domain,” he said, speaking of the companies that will be building the transmission lines.

It’s interesting to learn that the generation of power already exceeds the transmission capability. It is also interesting to learn that Texas, alone among the states, is not subject to regulatory review at the federal level. Lastly, this uninformed scribe asks why existing power lines cannot be used to transport the wind product, or why existing power line rights of way cannot be used with unique transmission lines.

Regardless, could we be on the verge of a significant increase in one of the alternative energy sources?

Engineering Our Way to Alternative Energy

Not so very long ago, Boone Pickens unleashed his vision for the future. Now we have heard from TheAlHimself. Their plans are noble, well-meaning, and surely offered in the spirit of altruism of the highest sort. My friend Xarker Dan “encourages” us all to climb on the progress train and get the ball rolling!

If only it was so simple. If only our enthusiasm and commitment and self-discipline could make it so.

Here is the scientific reality, delivered coolly and cruelly by Stephen Den Beste.

My least favorite subject about which to blog, back in the day, was “alternate energy”. I made a few posts about that and those are among the most-linked articles in the USS Clueless archive (for example, just today), and I get mail about those, too. The usual theme is, “Hey, did you see this? Ha! Now what do you think, eh? Ready to change your mind?” Sigh. Here’s one I got today:

I happened upon some old entries on USS Clueless in which you express considerable skepticism about the technical feasibility of large scale thermal solar plants. In some ways, I share your pessimism (see for example, my “Energy Independence Isn’t Very Green” – . But I can also see some possibilities for political and technical breakthroughs. I wonder if you’ve had occasion to revisit the question of large scale solar installations recently, and if so, would you refer me to the URLs.

At least he was a lot less confrontational than many of them. Here’s the reply I sent him:

I don’t blog about that kind of thing anymore. I never enjoyed blogging about energy, anyway, because for too many people “alternate energy” is more about religion than about physics. They believe that if we are just creative enough, we can overcome fundamental physical limitations — and it’s not that easy.

In order for “alternate energy” to become feasible, it has to satisfy all of the following criteria:

1. It has to be huge (in terms of both energy and power)
2. It has to be reliable (not intermittent or unschedulable)
3. It has to be concentrated (not diffuse)
4. It has to be possible to utilize it efficiently
5. The capital investment and operating cost to utilize it has to be comparable to existing energy sources (per gigawatt, and per terajoule).

If it fails to satisfy any of those, then it can’t scale enough to make any difference. Solar power fails #3, and currently it also fails #5. (It also partially fails #2, but there are ways to work around that.)

The only sources of energy available to us now that satisfy all five are petroleum, coal, hydro, and nuclear.

My rule of thumb is that I’m not interested in any “alternate energy” until someone shows me how to scale it to produce at least 1% of our current energy usage. America right now uses about 3.6 terawatts average, so 1% of that is about 36 gigawatts average.

Show me a plan to produce 36 gigawatts (average, not peak) using solar power, at a price no more than 30% greater than coal generation of comparable capacity, which can be implemented at that scale in 10-15 years. Then I’ll pay attention.

Since solar power installations can only produce power for about 10 hours per day on average, that means that peak power production would need to be in the range of about 85 gigawatts to reach that 1%.

Without that, it’s just religion, like all the people fascinated with wind and with biomass. And even if it did reach 1%, that still leaves the other 99% of our energy production to petroleum, coal, hydro, and nuclear.

The problems facing “alternate energy” are fundamental, deep, and are show-stoppers. They are not things that will be surmounted by one lone incremental improvement in one small area, announced breathlessly by a startup which is trying to drum up funding.

The way you can tell that a fan of “alternate energy” is a religious cultist is to ask them this question: If your preferred alternate source of energy is practical, why isn’t it already in use?

Why not? Because of The Conspiracy™. The big oil companies don’t want it to happen, and have been suppressing all this live-saving green people’s energy all this time for their own nefarious purposes.

As soon as you hear any reference to The Conspiracy™, you know you’re talking to someone who is living in a morality play. That isn’t engineering any more, that’s religion. And while religion is an important part of many people’s lives, it has no place in engineering discussions.

UPDATE: There’s actually another common answer to the “Why not” question. It’s because you engineers are just too hidebound and conservative and unimaginative. If you’d just get on board and recognize how utterly cool and romantic these other ways of producing energy would be, then you could wave your magic engineering wand and make it happen.

That’s another kind of religion. It’s not a religious struggle against evil (as personified by Big Oil) so much as a religious image of paradise. If the adherents of this kind of religion can just convert enough doubters, then paradise can happen. If you just believe, we can all be saved! Hallelujah, baby! Praise Gaia and pass the biodiesel!

Thanks, but no thanks. My “conservatism” on this subject is due to my understanding of the laws of physics and the principles of engineering, not to me being hidebound and unimaginative.

That’s a slap in the face of Al et al, but before you leave thinking me a complete loser with a negative attitude, let me ask this question, in the spirit of Xark:

Where are we in the War on Cancer, the War on AIDS, the War on Drugs, and the War on Poverty?

Notwithstanding the results of the aforementioned, I would offer one idea. Let’s stop spending money on earmarks for buidlings to be named after our congressmen, on favored highway projects, and on not-for-profits who employ the relatives and friends of said congressmen. Let’s take the billions of dollars siphoned off for whatever reason, and let’s spend all of that money on investing in alternative energy solutions. Because, as Den Beste says, it’s all about the engineering.