February 27, 2014

"What does it matter whether Passenger Pigeon 2.0 is a real passenger pigeon or a persuasive impostor?"

"If the new, synthetically created bird enriches the ecology of the forests it populates, few people, including conservationists, will object. The genetically adjusted birds would hardly be the first aspect of the deciduous forest ecosystem to bear man’s influence; invasive species, disease, deforestation and a toxic atmosphere have engineered forests that would be unrecognizable to the continent’s earliest European settlers. When human beings first arrived, the continent was populated by camels, eight-foot beavers and 550-pound ground sloths. 'People grow up with this idea that the nature they see is "natural,"' Novak says, 'but there’s been no real "natural" element to the earth the entire time humans have been around.'"

From a NYT Magazine article titled "The Mammoth Cometh/Bringing extinct animals back to life is really happening — and it’s going to be very, very cool. Unless it ends up being very, very bad."

The whole idea seems so wrong to me, but I'm in a fear-of-science mood after getting thorough freaked out reading that New Yorker article "A Star in a Bottle/An audacious plan to create a new energy source could save the planet from catastrophe. But time is running out."
At [the core of the the International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor] densely packed high-precision equipment will encase a cavernous vacuum chamber, in which a super-hot cloud of heavy hydrogen will rotate faster than the speed of sound... the circulating hydrogen will become ionized, and achieve temperatures exceeding two hundred million degrees Celsius—more than ten times as hot as the sun at its blazing core.

... The zooming hydrogen atoms, in a state of extreme kinetic excitement, will [release] intense heat, gamma rays, X rays, a torrential flux of fast-moving neutrons propelled in every direction. There isn’t a physical substance that could contain such a thing. Metals, plastics, ceramics, concrete, even pure diamond—all would be obliterated on contact, and so the machine will hold the superheated cloud in a "magnetic bottle," using the largest system of superconducting magnets in the world. Just feet from the reactor’s core, the magnets will be cooled to two hundred and sixty-nine degrees below zero, nearly the temperature of deep space. Caught in the grip of their titanic forces, the artificial earthbound sun will be suspended, under tremendous pressure, in the pristine nothingness....
We're making something 10 times as hot as the sun that can't be contained inside any existing material so we'll contain it with... magnets?

Yeah, bitch, magnets....

68 comments:

The Cracker Emcee said...

The idea is so rife with unintended consequences i'm surprised they'd even consider it.

Sorun said...

"there’s been no real "natural" element to the earth the entire time humans have been around."

And there's been no real "natural" element to our streams and rivers the entire time beavers have been around.

Big Mike said...

I recommend that it be positioned directly under the federal offices in downtown DC (White House, Capitol, headquarters for various federal agencies) so that they focus more strongly on infrastructure hardening. 'Cause of the power to those magnets ever fails ...

Ignorance is Bliss said...

...in which a super-hot cloud of heavy hydrogen will rotate faster than the speed of sound...

I hate it when scientifically illiterate people write about science.

Michael said...

It would be a good idea to read up on the Passenger Pigeon before recreating it. There were, shall we say, more than a few of them.

Hagar said...

The passenger pigeon was a very social species and could not survive with less than a gadzillion individuals.

I read a ways down in the NYT article, but did not see any mention of the less attractive phenomena associated with passenger pigeon flocks - such as tree branches breaking under the weight of pigeon excrement, etc., f. ex.

Ron said...

Maybe we'll be creating eight foot Passenger Beaver Pigeons by accident!

Ann Althouse said...

My favorite phrase in the mammoths-and-passenger-pigeons article was "bear man’s influence."

What about bear man pig's influence?

MadisonMan said...

I think Passenger Pigeons -- then -- feasted, in part, on Chestnuts. Aren't so many of those around now. So what will they eat instead? Corn?

Gabriel Hanna said...

Yes, magnets can contain fusion and have been used in this way for decades. It's not new, risky or controversial.

It may sound scary to those who chose not to pay attention in their science courses.

Henry said...

We need an energy source that feeds on pigeons. You could power Manhattan.

Ignorance is Bliss said...

My favorite phrase in the mammoths-and-passenger-pigeons article was "bear man’s influence."

Wasn't Andrew Sullivan mentioned in the foremost public intellectual thread?

gadfly said...

It is now time for Thorium reactors.

lgv said...

So what will they eat instead? Corn?

Humans, at least in the movie version.

What if the magnetic containment failed for some reason? Just asking. I'm sure it couldn't happen, just like Fukushima.



Amexpat said...

Why not cool it down with ice-nine?

RecChief said...

The Cracker Emcee said...
The idea is so rife with unintended consequences i'm surprised they'd even consider it.



Oh c'mon, is this your first day in this country?

Amichel said...

I wouldn't worry too much about the Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor. For all the evocative images of diamond or concrete obliterated by a miniature star, the reality of a fusion reactor is much less interesting. For all it's glory, the energy released by a fusion reaction like the sun's can only be maintained by the awesome pressure that gravity exerts on that enormous mass. Without that massive gravitational field, the fusion reaction would quickly blow the sun into a diffuse cloud of hydrogen and helium. In the same way, the heat and energy generated by fusing a few atoms in a ball of heavy hydrogen tends to blow itself apart, without hugely powerful magnetic forces holding them together. These magnets are necessary to press the gas cloud tighter and tighter together, and keep it that way so the reaction can continue. They are not meant as a safety measure to contain some terrible danger. If they fail, the worst that happens is the incredibly hot plasma is released, the reaction stops as the cloud is too diffuse to fuse anymore, and the hot plasma strikes the walls of the containment vessel. This might melt a bit of metal, and destroy part of the apparatus, but it wouldn't be as dangerous even as a conventional fission powerplant.

RecChief said...

gadfly said...
It is now time for Thorium reactors.

I know a guy at Oak Ridge.

They looked at Thorium Reactors recently. He explained the many problems but it was over my head. Bottom line was that in his research group, they didn't view it as much of a solution.

David said...

Those paragraphs are a really bad description of what happens inside a fusion reactor.

It's true there is a problem finding materials that can handle the heat flux at the edge of a sustained fusion reaction, but that's because only a tiny amount of stuff can be allowed to touch the plasma edge or it will kill the reaction. So the problem is really that normal materials can't handle the energy density over such a small surface area.

The vacuum and magnets are to help the plasma achieve fusion conditions, not protect us from something that "can't be contained."

Steven said...

A fusion reactor, such as ITER, would actually be safer in many ways than conventional nuclear fission reactors. This is because you can't have a runaway chain reaction. It's so hard to keep the plasma in the reactor hot enough, that if anything goes wrong the worst thing that happens is it damages the walls and stops reacting.

RecChief said...

what does Gaia think about it?

Gabriel Hanna said...

There's a difference between informed skepticism and ignorant skepticism.

An informed skeptic helps move things forward. An ignorant skeptic just gums things up.

If you're at the level where you know so little about magnetism that you can't see why it works to contain fusion, then there isn't anything you can contribute to the discussion of whether fusion is a good idea or not.

An analogy: a blogger commenting on the new CAFE standards she's skeptical that they're feasible because you need horses to get horsepower and there's nowhere on a car to attach them to.

Gabriel Hanna said...

Highly relevant to any discussion of science journalism is what Michael Crichton called "the Gell-Mann effect".

Briefly stated, the Gell-Mann Amnesia effect is as follows. You open the newspaper to an article on some subject you know well. In Murray’s case, physics. In mine, show business. You read the article and see the journalist has absolutely no understanding of either the facts or the issues. Often, the article is so wrong it actually presents the story backward—reversing cause and effect. I call these the “wet streets cause rain” stories. Paper’s full of them.

In any case, you read with exasperation or amusement the multiple errors in a story, and then turn the page to national or international affairs, and read as if the rest of the newspaper was somehow more accurate about Palestine than the baloney you just read. You turn the page, and forget what you know.

Fred Drinkwater said...

Fear of Fusion?
Hell's bells, Althouse. Magnetically contained fusion reactors have been around since the late 1960's. So far they've all been too small or weak to generate any significant net power. Any fusion engineer would cringe at the hyperbolic verbiage in that article.
But they sometimes make the regular news at budget time, since they are, also so far, VERY expensive.
Hmm, seems like only yesterday that I remarked on the hazards of having lawyers lead the legislative policy discussions on such topics...

lemondog said...

Genetically Modified Pigeon (GMP) is considered acceptable and natural but genetically modified foods is not ok? GMP’s will produce GMP poop that will contaminate soil growing vegetation for wildlife furthering contamination, and food for human consumption. How is that food not considered genetically modified? Can’t tinker in one area and not expect it to gradually have its affect in other areas.

Uh, oh.... GMP gone awry

Edmund said...

Sure the atoms in the fusion reactor are very, very hot and energetic. But there are so few of them the effect on the machinery would be like a drop of boiling water on a sheet of ice.

Unknown said...

There's a really good analogy here somewhere. Animal populations become "extinct" before they all disappear because there is some minimum number required to self-sustain, given biology and mortality. If you make a few "unnatural" pigeons, they will not survive as a species. Similarly, all fusion so far has involved a miniscule amount of material, and the process is not self-sustaining- it dies.

OTOH, homosexuals are a small fraction with huge mortality factor....

Dr Weevil said...

Could be worse. I keep reading tweets about plans to 'sequence the DNA' of Richard III. Probably they just want to make sure the body found under the parking lot is really his, but I have a nagging feeling that some of the scientists would like to go a step further and clone him.

When it comes to figures from British history, it's hard to think of many we'd less like to have back than Richard III. (Jack the Ripper, and . . . who else?)

It would make a good premise for a horror movie - the clone rules England again as Richard IV, after killing (or seducing) however many people it takes to get the job.

Marshal said...

Michael said...
It would be a good idea to read up on the Passenger Pigeon before recreating it. There were, shall we say, more than a few of them.


Don't worry, they made them all lysine deficient so if they don't receive their dietary supplements they die.

Unknown said...

I was born in Oak Ridge, TN. I grew up in Oak Ridge TN. Both my parents worked for our government at K25, X10 and Y12. I contracted at the Oak Ridge National Lab.

In fact, my father worked on the mathematical construct that would be the United States magnet design for the Tokomak reactor - designed by many nations to research fusion. So far, we have in fact been able to sustain fusion - for about 20 microseconds - and I may have overstated the length of time by orders of magnitude due to Old Mind.

And it is, has and will be done with magnetic containment. So my opinion (always worth at least what you paid for it) is you need not worry about this particular problem.

I have always maintained that the chemical companies will kill you before atomic energy does, and so far (except for war) that has been the case

Ann Althouse said...

So is the settled science consensus here that bringing back the passenger pigeon is more dangerous than the thermonuclear reactor?

For the record, I think science is scary. I don't like to think too much about the sun, for example. Or the fact that we're trusting gravity to keep us on the earth. It's all quite terrifying. You could call it awe-inspiring or worth devoting one's life to or whatever, but those are all aspects of the way it appears -- depending on the sort of mind you have -- scary.

Do you fear God? I question why those who profess to believe in God are not much, much more afraid.

That said, I do believe in science. But I don't believe that science loves me.

PB Reader said...

the "natural" element to the earth has been here all along. It's called reality, or what you see after you stop taking the blue pill. It's constantly changing, and it's not our fault.

Dr Weevil said...

Science loves me
This I know
'Cause Al Gore
He tells me so.

Nope - doesn't work for me.

Steve said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Steve said...

This article and the associated comments make me want to jam a wooden shoe into the gears of the internet.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OvmvxAcT_Yc

This has all the same traits as the dihydrogen monoxide scare of a few years ago.

The Cracker Emcee said...

"Do you fear God? I question why those who profess to believe in God are not much, much more afraid."

Italicize the "believe" and you have your answer.

Amichel said...

I think the Israelites had it right when they said "the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom". If you truly believe in God, particularly a God that is intimately concerned with the moral actions of individual human beings, it really is wise to be afraid. Considering the shoddy treatment that most people inflict on each other from time to time, it is frightening to think of a truly just God who is there to settle accounts. The only reprieve from that kind of terror is the belief that He is also a God of mercy, and in fact gives us better than what we deserve.

Revenant said...

there’s been no real "natural" element to the earth the entire time humans have been around

Nothing unnatural exists.

Anyway, I think the idea of "resurrecting" extinct species is worth trying, if only as practice. Eventually we may lose a species we actually need, and it will be good to be able to "restore from save" in that situation.

Revenant said...

there’s been no real "natural" element to the earth the entire time humans have been around

Nah, that's not the REAL cause for concern. Heck, you could always tie yourself to a stake in the ground.

No, the real problem is that we're relying on gravity for the continued existence of the Earth and Sun! In the absence of gravity the sun would explode and the Earth would fling itself apart.

Crimso said...

"For the record, I think science is scary. I don't like to think too much about the sun, for example. Or the fact that we're trusting gravity to keep us on the earth. It's all quite terrifying."

You should see how many chemical reactions have to occur just right in the same place at the same time (and coordinately) for a living cell to continue living. If those other things scare you, metabolism would land you in a psychiatric ward for the duration. I know I can trust gravity. I don't trust proto-oncogenes, though I'm forced to live with and use them.

William said...

From the very beginning, the brightest people have become star gazers, and the star gazers have forever been warning us of how our evil ways will lead to our extinction. Back in the old days, venery was what inspired the wrath of God, but now environmental sins are fashionable.....I think there's a good possibility that it's the the hubris of star gazers more than the sins of man that will trigger the apocalypse. I was pleasantly surprised when the 20th century ended without a thermonuclear conflagration, but there can be no vouchsafing that the hydrogen bomb was a really bad idea.......I suppose some physicist will put the decimal in the wrong place and the hadron collider or fusion reactor will go haywire and destroy all life on earth.....God has a thudding sense of irony, and he has probably put the stargazers on earth to kill us all while proclaiming their higher morality.

Steven said...

What if the magnetic containment failed for some reason? Just asking. I'm sure it couldn't happen, just like Fukushima.

Oh, for fuck's sake.

1) For Fukushima, the increased dose of radiation for he people living right next to the reactor was enough to move those people's annual dose of radiation all the way up from the Japanese average background dose to the Colorado average background dose. More people (14) died from wind farm accidents in 2011 in the UK alone than will die worldwide from causes related to the Fukishima accident ever.

Fukushima was proof of how safe nuclear power is compared to all other sources; a "major disaster" that, over the course of the next century, will cause somewhere between zero and ten premature deaths.

2) If the magnetic containment of a fusion reaction fails, what happens is the stuff stops fusing. That's all. Because the magnetic containment isn't there to stop radiation from getting out, it's there to make the plasma stay dense and hot.

You know what's more dangerous than a fusion plant losing "containment"? One of the cylinders in your car's engine losing containment. Because that can result in accidents and fires that might possibly kill people.

clint said...

Ugh. That description of fusion is so incredibly bad.

"Hotter than the sun" -- keep in mind that the core of every single incandescent light bulb you've ever seen is also hotter than the surface of the sun. No substance known to man can hold the hot wire at the core of the light bulb -- so we surround it with utter vacuum, the very nothingness of Outer Space Itself!!! And when that vacuum fails, the terrible heat hotter than the Sun is held back only by a thin layer of fragile glass!

Of course, you have some experience with light bulbs, and realize that when the vacuum containment system fails, the lightbulb usually just goes out.

Similarly, if the magnetic containment fails, you've got a hot mess, but the plasma inside isn't going to blow up the universe. It's going to heat up the inner layers of the containment vessel.

Really.

Very, very basic laws like the Conservation of Energy prevent a 100 Watt light bulb from blowing up your block when it fails. The very same laws apply to less common devices like fusion reactors.

Paco Wové said...

"If those other things scare you, metabolism would land you in a psychiatric ward for the duration."

Years of teaching anatomy & physiology left me amazed that anybody made it to their 10th birthday without something horrible going wrong.

JPS said...

Clint, thank you for the wonderfully melodramatic description of the incandescent light bulb (aka the choice we are taking away because it allows people to waste their money, in the words of a Nobel laureate of physics). Very nice analogy!

Paco Wové said...

"But I don't believe that science loves me."

It's not "science" that doesn't love you, Althouse. It's the universe. Science is just the messenger bringing you that news.

netmarcos said...

there’s been no real "natural" element to the earth the entire time humans have been around
This is such a vacuous statement. Either (a) man is a natural product of the earth itself and, therefore, as much a part of the natural world as any other life form; (b) is the creation of God who put him here for His own purpose and is, therefore, entitled to be here by the will of the Almighty; or (c) some alien offspring and all bets are off.

Patrick O said...

"they made them all lysine deficient..."

And all females...

cubanbob said...

For the record, I think science is scary. I don't like to think too much about the sun, for example. Or the fact that we're trusting gravity to keep us on the earth. It's all quite terrifying. You could call it awe-inspiring or worth devoting one's life to or whatever, but those are all aspects of the way it appears -- depending on the sort of mind you have -- scary."

No offense professor but I have far more faith and trust in the law of gravity and the laws of nature than anything the legal system and profession have had or will ever come up with. I find the law of gravity comforting. It is always predictable- it never fails and is never subjective or ambiguous and always equally applicable to all. Can yours claim that?

Roughcoat said...

I love mammoths. I want mammoths brought back to life and I want this to happen before I die. I'm not afraid of the consequences because I can't imagine them and even if I could it would be only my imagination and I'm not afraid of that. I want to see a mammoth. I want to see a herd of mammoths. I want to hang out with mammoths.

There is lots of room for mammoths in America. Wyoming, for example. That state is almost the size of France but has a population density of about two people per square mile. And most of them are concentrated in a few cities and towns on I-80. You could get the Indians to tend the herds and hunt them just like in Ice Age times. Except you'd have to monitor the Indians to make sure they didn't hunt them to extinction--just like in Ice Age times.

I also want scientists to genetically modify border collies so they can talk. My border collie is on the verge of speech and I know it would be very useful to hear her spoken objections to the faulty commands I give her in sheepherding competitions in Wisconsin.

Tibore said...

"For the record, I think science is scary."

That's sort of like saying "Philosophy is scary". Both are processes to generate knowledge, and it's that product of efforts that you're reacting to here. What you cited as fear inducing is the perceived extremity of the physics involved, not the science generating the engineering knowledge to create the reactor.

Sorun said...

"For the record, I think science is scary."

I know! I lie on my back at night, looking at the stars, and realize that nothing is separating me from cold dark space and certain death but some "air". That's some scary shit.

Jay Vogt said...

I read that article last night because I like reading about science. What was terrifying about the Tokomak reactor was the disfunctional governance and executive incompetence. If an accurate depiction was given, it's hard to believe it could work well if at all.

Jay Vogt said...

I read that article last night because I like reading about science. What was terrifying about the Tokomak reactor was the disfunctional governance and executive incompetence. If an accurate depiction was given, it's hard to believe it could work well if at all.

The Cracker Emcee said...


RecChief said...
The Cracker Emcee said...
The idea is so rife with unintended consequences i'm surprised they'd even consider it.



Oh c'mon, is this your first day in this country?

2/27/14, 10:44 AM

Touche'!

SteveBrooklineMA said...

How come nobody wants to bring back this guy?

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rocky_Mountain_locust

He was super-abundant too... then poof.

chickenlittle said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
chickenlittle said...

I think it a bit hyperbolic to pronounce that the ITER fuels -- lithium and deuterium -- are without issues. Deuterium must be separated from ordinary hydrogen in water at no little expense (have you priced out a liter of D2O lately?). And while lithium is abundant enough, it is unequally found among squabbling nations and must be mined or quarried. Moreover, lithium is an ideal battery material and is conceivably too precious to burn away into helium.

David said...

Cue Hitchcock.



Smilin' Jack said...

So is the settled science consensus here that bringing back the passenger pigeon is more dangerous than the thermonuclear reactor?

Don't worry about the thermonuclear reactor; it isn't going to work.

Do you fear God? I question why those who profess to believe in God are not much, much more afraid.

I think we're safe as long as there are still ten men who don't support gay rights.

BrianE said...

Interestingly, I watched a talk this morning by Mark Suppes,who built a magnetic containment fusion reactor called a Polywell in his shop.
Prior to becoming an amateur nuclear physicist, he was a web developer.

Here's a short video showing his reactor.
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AKYS_L5frbE

No reason to be afraid.

roundeye said...

Has anyone ever read "In the Moutains of Madness?" I am by no means a Lovecraft expert or Cluthulu mythos expert, but remaking animals via dna is kinda like what the Elder Gods did when they made the shoggaths, which eventually rebelled against their slavery.

Very Dr. Moreau.

We expect expert systems and AI to serve us. What if we are unworthy?

JPS said...

chickenlittle:

"Deuterium must be separated from ordinary hydrogen in water at no little expense (have you priced out a liter of D2O lately?)"

Good point, but consider: Most of the expense of separating deuterium comes from the ridiculous amount of energy wasted in doing so (electrolysis or distillation, each having just a slight preference to leave D2O behind).

Now imagine they finally get a self-sustaining fusion reactor going. The sunk cost of the energy you get is huge, but the marginal cost is about zero. So you use it to power its own deuterium separation plant, and the energy you divert is trivial compared to what you can get out.

Big Mike said...

Bringing the mammoths back to life in the 21st century may have unintended consequences (from the BBC show "Primeval").

Gahrie said...

I don't trust proto-oncogenes, though I'm forced to live with and use them.

It's the fucking quarks and anti-quarks I don't trust......

Rusty said...

What if the magnetic containment failed for some reason? Just asking. I'm sure it couldn't happen, just like Fukushima.

The object is to compress a pellet of deuterium until it fuses into something else. If the process of compression is interrupted the fusion stops. The reaction cannot run away. No reaction occurs. Unlike nuclear fission. A fission reaction doesn't stop until all the fuel has been consumed.

There was an excellent article in the old "Wisconsin Outdoor Journal" about the demise of the passenger pigeon. Which had more to do with deforestation than market hunting.

David said...

When (not if) the magnetic confinement fails, The kinetic energy of the atoms that make up the plasma is absorbed by the inner surfaces of the vacuum chamber. The chamber is designed to withstand many blows. The inner surfaces can be weakened over time by neutron bombardment and are designed to be replaced as needed.

The most dangerous event that could occur at a fusion reactor site would be a tritium leak into the atmosphere, and the most likely cause of that would not involve the reactor itself but some sort of plumbing problem. Tritium is a low energy beta emitter. The radiation will not penetrate the skin. It would be a hazardous condition but not a public health risk.

Nichevo said...

For the record, I think science is scary."


Ohhhh! THAT'S why I think you're stupid!