Ultimate Success

What success might look like? Image by Emma Farley from Pixabay.

In early fall 2020, I took a break from intense work on textbook preparation to immerse myself in nature, in the form of a month on the Olympic Peninsula. I spent periods of good weather in the backcountry, and therefore didn’t bother carrying a tent along in my already-too-heavy backpack. Somehow sleep is more precious when there’s some chance of being woken by a (black) bear’s slobbery breath in your face. But for the many dozens of times I’ve slept this way in the wilderness, I have not had a single nighttime bear encounter—being exceedingly careful to keep food smells well away from my sleeping site. Luckily, it would seem that my physical person does not smell like food.

I’m not an adrenaline junkie with a death wish, but exposing myself to some risk at the hands of nature brings a greater appreciation of the relationship between humans and the world of the wild. Being a temporary tourist in nature is not quite the same as fully being a part of nature, but it’s closer than many experience in our human-dominated artificial world.

One of my aims for the trip was to step back from the nitty-gritty focus on margin-notes and glossary items for the textbook and synthesize a broader picture. Being immersed in the wilderness really helped that process. Nature is so grand; so ancient; so indifferent. Nature is wild. Nature is mature.

Humans have embarked on a 10,000 year experiment to separate from nature: to build stores and access “old money” that Earth has banked for eons, providing a recent freedom to largely ignore annual, renewable flows in nature. The last several centuries have accelerated the divorce to an alarming degree. But the question I stumbled upon as my boots navigated rocks and roots on the trail was:

Is the 10,000-year-old human civilization in its infancy, or nearer its end than its beginning?

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Earth’s Real Treasure

Image by Gordon Johnson from Pixabay

A 2018 paper by  Bar-On, Phillips, and Milo in PNAS contains a fascinating figure (Figure 1) that bears staring at for some time. It shows the dry carbon biomass distribution of various forms of life on Earth. Plants account for 450 Gt (giga-ton; 1012 kg) of mass, while the sum of all animals adds to 2.5 Gt. Humans comprise only 2.4% of animal mass on the planet, but that’s almost ten times as large as wild mammal mass. Add human livestock (outweighing human mass) and wild mammals are only 4% of the human-livestock-mammal trio.

But this post is heading somewhere else: lament about the un-wilding of the planet on your own time (kidding aside, please do!). Let’s start by considering the following question. Which do you think is more valuable: the web of living animals on this planet, or all the gold accessible in the ground? If given a choice to eliminate one and preserve the other, which would you choose? Gold, among Earth’s mineral stocks, is used for this question because it has served as a physically-based monetary standard for many cultures throughout time.

What follows has absurd elements to it, but hopefully in forgivable service of a larger point about the value of life on this planet and in shining a glaring spotlight on current human values.

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Sir David Nails It

David Attenborough for A life on Our Planet

This is the TV poster for “David Attenborough: A Life on Our Planet.” (CNS photo/Netflix)

If you have not already watched A Life on Our Planet, serving as a witness statement from Sir David Attenborough, please find a way to do so. During his experience-rich lifetime, Attenborough has had a front row seat to the steady whittling down of nature. Any contemporary nature show will justifiably sound the climate change horn, as A Life on Our Planet does as well. But Sir David digs deeper, as few tend to do, and scoops up the essence of the matter.

I have now watched the show three times. The first instance resonated strongly with recent revelations and writings of my own, and I gladly watched it a second time with my wife. The third time, one hand hovered over the pause button while the other scribbled notes and captured key quotations. This post delivers said quotes and connects them to themes dear to my heart. Note: the quotes in the show are delivered verbally, so any formatting emphasis is my own.

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Textbook Tour

Energy Ambitions textbook coverLast week, in the first Do the Math post in years, I kept the post brief, only pointing out the new textbook: Energy and Human Ambitions on a Finite Planet, and giving a brief account of the backstory.

In this post, I take a bit more time to introduce new elements in the book that Do the Math readers have not seen represented in some form in earlier posts. In other words: what new insights or calculations lurk within the book?

The following is organized into three sections. The first takes a brief tour of the book, pointing out large, new blocks that are not already covered by Do the Math in some form. The second highlights the results of new calculations or figures that bring new context to our understanding. Finally, I summarize some of the new big-picture framing that emerges in the book.

Rather than laboriously inserting associated graphics into this post, my intent is that you treat this as a companion to be used side-by-side with the downloadable PDF of the book.  References are to sections, figures, boxes, etc. rather than page numbers, which vary between electronic and print forms. So go ahead and get a version of the PDF up, and let’s jump in…

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Textbook Debut

Energy Ambitions textbook coverHello, all, and welcome (me) back! After years of radio silence, I am popping back up and have more to say in the coming months as I re-engage on topics relevant to this blog.

The first thing is to announce the launch of a textbook at eScholarship that is free to access electronically (can download PDF), or is available in paperback form for the cost of printing (royalty-free; at Lulu). Over the years, I received a number of encouragements to write a book collecting the ideas and analysis from Do the Math posts. I appreciated the sentiment, but given the substantial effort required to produce something that was already available for free on this site never rose to a high priority in the competition for limited time.

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Eclipsed, Lately

HDR composite of eclipse (Tom Murphy)In the event that anyone still checks this site for new posts (not sure whether to be proud or concerned), here’s an update. But mostly it’s a pointer to some photos I think some may enjoy.

While I remain concerned about the collision course between growth and resources, I have found ample distraction these past few years: research, teaching, administrative duties, bike commuting, and starting a company to make aircraft detectors. Oh, and politics. What a spectacle!

Speaking of spectacles, ever since traveling to Mexico in 1991 to see my first total solar eclipse, I’ve wanted another one. Just afterwards, a consultation of upcoming events suggested that the next one I was likely to see would have me waiting until 2017! As a 21-year-old, I wondered if I would even still be alive in that distant year, inconceivably old. I made it. And what was I thinking—old?!

So after much anticipation and preparation, I traveled north with a college friend, remote-camping/mobile and ready to pounce on the best weather prospects. We ended up in far eastern Oregon, on BLM (our) land. The experience was amazing: I automated my cameras so that I could largely just gawk. It was all too short: I needed a pause button to really take it all in. I’ll have to settle for future eclipses. And to that, I say Mexico (not the U.S.) in 2024—based on likely weather. Besides, it’s unclear whether the eclipse shadow will be able to get past the wall we keep hearing so much yakking about.

But you can see highlights of my photos from the recent glorious event here.

In other news, my Nickel-Iron batteries seem to be holding up well (I owe a post on some real analysis of these). I am “living the dream” in my daily commute. After 12 years off a bike (obvious routes are dangerous; hilly profile would require time-inefficient shower), I finally solved the problems: (longer) trail route and an e-bike (off-grid-solar-charged). Purists would say I’m cheating, but I say I’m back on a bike and working plenty hard. The rough-hewn route exposes me to wildlife (the occasional coyote or bobcat, even), has a few stream crossings, and enriches my life by offering a daily connection to the natural world. My propulsion energy is now free of direct contributions from fossil fuels, which I find to be rewarding—even if the materials/manufacture are still utterly dependent.

So that’s it for now. I haven’t given up on Do the Math, but have not had much new to say, and little available time in any case. I hope all is well with you all.

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You Call this Progress?

One of the prevailing narratives of our time is that we are innovating our way into the future at break-neck speed. It’s just dizzying how quickly the world around us is changing. Technology is this juggernaut that gets ever bigger, ever faster, and all we need to do is hold on for the wild ride into the infinitely cool. Problems get solved faster than we can blink.

But I’m going to claim that this is an old, outdated narrative. I think we have a tendency to latch onto a story of humanity that we find appealing or flattering, and stick with it long past its expiration date. Many readers at this point, in fact, may think that it’s sheer lunacy for me to challenge such an obvious truth about the world we live in. Perhaps this will encourage said souls to read on—eager to witness a spectacular failure as I attempt to pull off this seemingly impossible stunt.

The (slightly overstated) claim is that no major new inventions have come to bear in my 45-year lifespan. The 45 years prior, however, were chock-full of monumental breakthroughs.

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My Chicken of an EV

Yes, that's my chicken atop my car.

Yes, that’s my chicken atop my car.

A little over two years ago, my wife and I entered a new phase of life in two respects: we got three chickens, and we got a plug-in hybrid vehicle. They have more in common than I would have thought. We see flagging performance in both (egg-laying and battery capacity). We knew the chickens would only last/live for something like 4 years. It’s looking like the EV battery may be similar! Both are happiest pipkining around: plodding about at a leisurely pace. And perhaps like some children, they both disappoint us at times, but we are fond of them all the same. They’re good girls, we tell ourselves.

It may come as no surprise to you that I’ve been collecting data (yes, on both “experiments,” but I’ll spare you egg masses and laying schedules). It takes a little time to do, but recording/resetting the trip meter for every charge, noting charge time and energy delivered, and convincing the wife to go along does pay off, as you will hopefully be convinced.

From the data, I see that the battery capacity is at about 85% of its original condition. While extrapolation is highly risky, it would seem that I can expect zero capacity on the scale of six years, based on its accelerating decline. At this point, we have put about 500 full-cycle-equivalent charges on the battery in about 700 charge events (just shy of one per day, typically about 70% depth). So perhaps it’s not surprising: few batteries can withstand more than 1–2000 charge cycles before giving out.

Want to see some data?

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Global Perspective

For some light summer amusement, I thought I would share a map I made a while back to satisfy my curiosity. I’ve had the plot in my office for several years and occasionally think to pull it out for visitors I suspect will enjoy it. I usually just hand it to them and let them puzzle over its meaning before I explain anything. It’s not meant to be an IQ test—although doubtless some feel that way—but rather a chance to delight in self discovery. I “discovered” the 7-24-25 Pythagorean triangle the other day quite by accident while constructing a relativity problem and was delighted by the find—even though Wikipedia has an exhaustive list of other sets wholly unknown to me. Likewise, I “discovered” Saturn as a 15-year-old on a summer night with a small telescope just poking around an unfamiliar sky. I danced around the yard in delight. My point is that discovery is personal, even if not original.

So here’s a chance to discover what the map is meant to convey. I’ll naturally explain later.

wmap-0

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Programmed to Ignore?

[An updated treatment of some of this material appears in Chapter 18 of the Energy and Human Ambitions on a Finite Planet (free) textbook.]

640px-CognitiveFunctions

I started Do the Math in 2011 as a way to reach a larger audience than a handful of students every year or two in an energy course at UCSD. I had (and still have) deep concerns about the assumptions we make as a society based on our fossil fuel trajectory over the last century or so. Trying to steer policy from the top seemed a losing proposition: feckless politicians hew to their constituents’ desires via a mechanism we call democracy, so why not try to get people on board directly?

I never imagined creating a blog that would get millions of pageviews, although this by itself falls well short of having an impact on a grand scale. But I figured I owed it to myself to reach as many as I might. What I have found is that a select few seem to share my concerns. And some vocal contributors to comments strongly disagree that we need to worry (why then make the seemingly wasted effort to respond to—in their eyes—doomsaying kooks if in fact we need not be concerned?). But most people simply don’t care enough to tune in. They’ve learned to ignore prognostications of any flavor, perhaps. Lately, even fewer people are entertaining ideas of resource limits owing to increased global oil production (led almost entirely by U.S. shale oil) and a recovering economy.

But I think there is something more fundamental going on here. I think we’re dealing with personality traits cooked into human nature. Are we capable of mitigating a far-off potential calamity via proactive efforts decades ahead of a putative crisis? In this post, I’ll use some survey data suggesting that we may be in trouble.

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