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The Nuclear Comments Section

In Pandora’s Boxes, I discussed a debate (available on Youtube) between Pandora’s Promise Director Robert Stone and Robert F. Kennedy, Jr. A recent Dot Earth article features another critique of Pandora’s Promise by Dr John Miller:

When I saw “Pandora’s Promise,” I didn’t believe a word of it. I served as a submarine nuclear engineering officer for my four-year stint in the Navy years ago. I qualified as an Engineering Officer of the Watch (a guy who’s in charge of the plant and its other technicians during four-hour shifts) on two different sub reactors. I know the truth about reactors, and the movie replaces it with the demonstrably false Nuclear Dream, a just-so mythical story claiming that nukes are safe, clean and cheap.

Almost 500 commenters, many identifying themselves as from within the nuclear industry, quickly lined up to take ad hominem shots at Miller’s sociology degree. I used to have a great deal of interest in the additional viewpoints added by comments, but in many sites I feel stupider the more comments I read. Nevertheless in my opinion two comments do bear reading:

GolddiggerSydney, Australia

As a geologist, I can unequivocally tell you that the bitter end at Fukushima was easily predictable: Tsunami of that size must be recorded in the inland hills surrounding the plants location. However, greed led to compromised decisions, which led to a total disaster.
Nuclear power may be theoretically safe, but the execution of it will always be flawed. One simple example of that is our current inability to deal in a meaningful way with waste. A good geologic isolation area is available, but politically motivated groups have stopped implementation of Yucca Mountain. If nothing else we should not move forward on the reactor side of the issue until we pony-up to dealing with the waste (are you listening Mr Reid?). No accurate economic calculation of costs can be done until we know what the cost of long-term isolation is.
We have alternatives, good ones, that are more cost effective, and have fewer political and human issues attached. Sadly, greed seems to give them the back seat, while we recklessly plunge headlong into building untested models. We will reap the seeds we sow, but unfortunately it is not just humans we destroy.

Dr. L. Harrison, PhDAlbany NY

Nuclear power is very complex. The safety issues of both the reactor itself and then the waste handing are remarkably complicated, and there are very difficult corrosion chemistry issues which dominate the question of what are (and aren’t) practical reactor systems in many cases.

Glib claims from either “side” are almost universally wrong, depend on it.

As a practical matter, the current APS reactors started in the US are “nuclear power’s last stand” in our generation, in the US. If these can be brought in reasonably on time and on budget, then there may be a ‘second round” for nuclear power in the US. If they get into trouble, then I think nuclear power is done … except for cleaning up the mess.

Update 20130823: Wired article Comment Sections Are Wastelands Ruled by Trolls. Here Are Alternatives:

A decade or more ago, Internet publishers entered into what now seems like a collective delusion: That a comments section is a necessary component of a web page. Granted, that notion is a relic of an era predating social media, when there was no effective way to talk publicly about what we read online. But it persists with zombie determination. We’ve bought into the fallacy of comments so completely that they remain nearly universal—and universally terrible. A lot of people have tried to fix them. Yet, as Digg CEO Andrew McLaughlin says, “everyone who runs a commenting system ends up killing themselves or shooting up a post office.” It’s hyperbole, sure, but trying to wrangle online conversations is a messy, frustrating, and typically thankless affair that involves more time than most people have. Even a dedicated team of moderators can hardly compete with legions of trolls and spambots. Nonetheless, lots of people are trying to make you read the comments again—because in those rare moments when comments are great, they are some of the best parts of the Internet.

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Tonto & Higgs

Smithsonian offers a balanced review of The Lone Ranger by a descendant of the Pawnee:

Johnny Depp’s Tonto Isn’t Offensive, Just Weird, Says the Director of the American Indian Museum

Mr. Depp’s Tonto is understood by all—especially the Comanches in the movie—to be a very strange man. We learn from the plot that his eccentricity is actually a mostly good-natured madness arising from a childhood trauma. So Tonto’s weird dead-bird headdress, which has generated much discussion among Indian cultural critics, is not presented as traditional Indian dress. Rather, it is a manifestation of Tonto’s madness.

There is also a dark side to his madness. He believes his destiny is to hunt and kill men like bad-guy Butch Cavendish. Tonto believes the villain is a supernaturally evil creature that can only be destroyed by a silver bullet. Unfortunately, in what seems to be a failed attempt at authenticity, he refers to Cavendish as a “wendigo.” That is a mythological creature in a number of northern woodlands cultures, but not a part of Comanche culture.

I read elsewhere that the movie flopped financially, so maybe it will show up on Netflix.

Stretching our evolution-restricted brains, Smithsonian has another article on the conception of and effort to find more objective knowledge of the cosmos. In this case, the Higgs Boson:

Nearly a half-century ago, Peter Higgs and a handful of other physicists were trying to understand the origin of a basic physical feature: mass. You can think of mass as an object’s heft or, a little more precisely, as the resistance it offers to having its motion changed. Push on a freight train (or a feather) to increase its speed, and the resistance you feel reflects its mass. At a microscopic level, the freight train’s mass comes from its constituent molecules and atoms, which are themselves built from fundamental particles, electrons and quarks. But where do the masses of these and other fundamental particles come from?

When physicists in the 1960s modeled the behavior of these particles using equations rooted in quantum physics, they encountered a puzzle. If they imagined that the particles were all massless, then each term in the equations clicked into a perfectly symmetric pattern, like the tips of a perfect snowflake. And this symmetry was not just mathematically elegant. It explained patterns evident in the experimental data. But—and here’s the puzzle—physicists knew that the particles did have mass, and when they modified the equations to account for this fact, the mathematical harmony was spoiled. The equations became complex and unwieldy and, worse still, inconsistent.

The Bigg Hose-On

If you’ve always wondered what the Higgs Boson is all about, but stopped your physics studies with electrons, protons and neutrons, the New York Times offers a fairly accessible description of the theory and a personality-driven account of the efforts of two competing teams at CERN to “prove” or at least confidently infer the existence of the theorized particle.

Chasing the Higgs Boson

We’ve made many discoveries, most of them false.

In the early 1990s, I had a casual conversation with a physicist from CERN while we were each waiting for flights at Orly airport. I said I had been reading about Paul Dirac, so he told me that he had once studied under the great man himself, and then explained his current bombardment experiment. I forget the specifics, but he said they hit one atom with a particle, and I guessed which sort of particles came out. He said no, but his assistant chimed in to say I was right, so he thought for a few seconds, then said Yeah, but the other particles were just noise.

I didn’t know then that Richard Feynman once said, “I think I can safely say that nobody understands quantum mechanics.” Or that he also developed Feynman diagrams, which appeal to my graphic sensibilities and may help me understand a tiny bit about quantum mechanics. Here, Flip Tanedo at Quantum Diaries uses Feynman diagrams to begin to explain the Higgs Boson.

Later, Flip gets to my internal struggle to accept that the vacuum of space is not empty.

Now we get to the idea of the vacuum—space when there isn’t any stuff in it. Usually when you think of the vacuum of empty space you’re supposed to think of nothingness. It turns out that the vacuum is a rather busy place on small scales because of quantum fluctuations: there are virtual particle–anti-particle pairs that keep popping into existence and then annihilating. Further still, vacuum is also filled with cosmic microwave background radiation at 2.725 Kelvin. But for now we’re going to ignore both of these effects. It turns out that there’s something much more surprising about the vacuum:

It’s full of Higgs bosons.

“It’s full of stars!” The ancients believed in the aether, and Dirac once postulated a sea of negatively-charged particles, before Quantum Field Theory cleaned up his math. To me a universe that is mostly vacuum, but full of bosons seems odd and rather wasteful, but that’s what the man just said.

Update 2013.03.07: I also wonder, was this field of bosons created, and evenly distributed, by the Big Bang, or was a field of bosons already there – already everywhere?