Apr 252013

Twenty seven years ago tonight, an ill-prepared overnight crew at reactor #4 at the Chernobyl nuclear power station in the Ukraine began an unauthorized experiment, originally scheduled to run during the day, and designed to test how much power the reactor was able to supply while it was shutting down, keeping emergency systems powered while waiting for backup generators to kick in. Trouble is, this particular reactor type was known to have instabilities at low power even at the best of times. And these were not the best of times: the reactor was operated by an inexperienced crew and was suffering from “poisoning” by neutron-absorbing xenon gas due to prolonged low-power operations earlier and during the preparation for the test.

The rest, of course, is history: reactor #4 blew up in what remains the worst nuclear accident in history. A large area around the Chernobyl plant remains contaminated. The city of Pripyat remains a ghost town. And a great many people were exposed to radiation.

The number of people killed by the Chernobyl disaster remains a matter of dispute. Most studies I’ve read about estimate several thousands deaths that can be attributed to the accident and the resulting increased risk of cancer. But a recent paper by Kharecha and Hansen (to be published in Environ. Sci. Technol.) cites a surprisingly low figure of only 43 deaths directly attributable to the accident.

This paper, however, is notable for another reason: it argues that the number of lives saved by nuclear power vastly exceeds the number of people killed. They assert that nuclear power already prevented about 1.8 million pollution-related deaths, and that many million additional deaths can be prevented in the future.

I am sure this paper will be challenged but I find it refreshing. For what it’s worth, I’d much rather have a nuclear power plant in my own backyard than a coal-fired power station. Of course the more powerful our machines are, the bigger noise they make when they go kaboom; but this did not prevent us from using airplanes or automobiles either.

 Posted by at 9:34 pm
Apr 202013

It’s official (well, sort of): global warming slowed down significantly in the last decade and a half.

No, this does not mean that the climate skeptics were right all along. Far from it: their attacks on science, their ad hominem attacks on scientists, their conspiracy theories are all nonsense.

What it does mean, though, is that the climate alarmists were not exactly right either. Overstating the case did not help. Far from creating public support, it may have in fact fueled climate skepticism.

The basic science is not wrong. Take a gas like CO2 that is transparent to visible light but absorbs IR a little more efficiently. Pump it into the atmosphere. Visible sunlight still reaches the surface, but less heat escapes radiatively to space at night. So, the surface gets warmer. Simple. This much was known back in the 19th century, to people like Fourier in 1827, Tyndall in 1872, and last but not least, Arrhenius from Sweden who, in 1896, actually calculated the amount by which the Earth would warm up, or cool, if the amount of CO2 were to change in the atmosphere.

But the devil is in the details. The Earth’s atmosphere is not just a column of static, transparent air with various amounts of CO2. It is a turbulent thing, with many feedback mechanisms, some positive, some negative. The oceans play a big role. Foliage plays a big role. Changes in industrial practices, fewer particulates in the air, play a big role. And so on.

And we also know that the Earth’s climate is not exactly a fragile little thing. After all, it has been relatively stable over geological timescales, allowing life to flourish and evolve. So I always thought that it is rather preposterous to assume that a few hundred years of industrial pollution can do what geological upheavals, global catastrophes, and so on could not: tip the balance and cause a runaway effect.

So we are left with the basic questions. How much will the climate change in the foreseeable future? What are its effects on humanity? And what can we do about all this?

The answer, I fear, remains as elusive as ever. And ridiculous schemes like “carbon trading” don’t help either.

 Posted by at 10:40 pm
Apr 192013

Minutes ago, a tweet from the Boston Police Department: “Suspect in custody. Officers sweeping the area. Stand by for further info.”

If true: if these two were indeed the clowns who committed mass murder on Monday, then congratulations are in order. They may have shut down a major metropolis for a day, but the result was worth it. This was not a shutting-the-barn-door-after-the-horses-left overreaction, but appropriate action in light of the fact that an extremely dangerous clown with explosives was on the loose. If I lived in Boston, I’d seriously consider intercepting a random off-duty police officer and inviting him for a beer.

An interesting side note, though, about how information flows (or doesn’t flow) in the 21st century: despite the massive media presence and the non-stop breathless reporting, in the end Anderson Cooper broke the news by reading the above tweet from the Boston Police Department. Not sure what it says about the freedom of the press and the authorities’ ability to control the message in this day and age.

 Posted by at 8:58 pm
Apr 162013

My friend and high school classmate, Laszlo Varro, teaches mathematics these days at the Chinese International School in Hong Kong. He is also an avid traveler, occasionally sending missives from far off places like a small village in Vietnam, a spot off the beaten track in the Arizona desert, or a mountainside in the Andes.

Perhaps this is how it came to be that recently, Laszlo led a group of his students to, of all places, North Korea. They came back with many memories to share, and plenty of pictures and videos. Laszlo put some of those on YouTube.

Of the four clips, perhaps my favorite is the one he titled “Fun in North Korea”, because this is the one clip that offers the most background glimpses at daily lives in the Hermit Kingdom. The daily lives of the privileged, I hasten to add; Pyongyang is a privileged city, and we must not forget that even as we watch these clips, there are tens if not hundreds of thousands who suffer in North Korean labor camps (many born there) and many others may be near starvation.

One thing I found particularly interesting… the North Koreans are elegant. For instance, when schoolgirls sing to honored guests at a school concert, they do so with an almost Japanese grace. Perhaps this, more than anything, indicates to me that North Korean communism is not simply a copy of Eastern European communism, with oafish workers representing the best of the proletariat.

But my friend’s most important message is that Kim Jong-un’s boastful rhetoric notwithstanding, North Korea did not appear to him as a country preparing for war.

 Posted by at 3:48 pm
Apr 162013

There is another ambitious Mars project in the works: unlike Inspiration Mars, the Mars One project aims to send colonists to Mars, people determined to live out the rest of their lives on the Red Planet, with no return ticket.


I wrote about how I would be willing to risk a very dangerous, very uncomfortable 501-day flight to Mars and back. But staying there for good? Now that’s another matter. Leaving the Earth in the company of a dozen or so other people, knowing that from now on, those will be the only people you will ever see face to face? That you will never see a blue sky again, hear a bird sing, or swim in the sea?

Fortunately, this is not a choice I’ll ever have to make. Unlike Inspiration Mars, the Mars One project is not (to the best of my knowledge) looking for middle-aged couples as participants.

 Posted by at 3:29 pm
Apr 162013

One of my favorite cartoonists is the unforgettable Bernard Kliban (B. Kliban, as per his signature) whose unique cats always make me laugh.

The other day, my wife wondered: Could it be that Kliban is of Czech descent? She was asking because there is another amazing cartoonist, Miroslav Bartak, whose irreverent humor is not altogether unlike Kliban’s. Indeed, as anyone who read the story of The Good Soldier Švejk by Jaroslav Hašek can testify, there is something uniquely funny about Czech humor… and at least some of Kliban’s cats do remind us of that humor.

So I checked, and… close. Kliban was born in the US, of course, but the family name apparently is a Jewish name of Western Ukrainian origin. So perhaps the cultural roots of Messrs. Bartak and Kliban are not that far apart after all.

 Posted by at 2:23 pm
Apr 162013

In all the excitement (okay, I wasn’t that excited. But, I was busy) I almost forgot to celebrate an anniversary: it was 40 years ago on April 5 that Pioneer 11 was launched at Cape Canaveral.

In a recent Letter to the Editor published in the newsletter of the American Physical Society, a correspondent suggested that Pioneer 11 may still reveal some anomalous behavior. I do not believe this to be the case. While it is true that our investigation of Pioneer 11 was not as thorough as our investigation of Pioneer 10 (due, in part, to the fact that we have less Doppler data from Pioneer 11) there are no statistically significant inconsistencies.

This Letter also reveals two misconceptions about the anomaly. One is that if the anomaly is Earth directed, which would presumably be inconsistent with a thermal cause. This is not so: quite the contrary, since the spin axis and the Earth direction mostly coincide, an Earth directed anomaly is exactly what one would expect to see in case of a thermal cause. Second, I don’t think it is even relevant to say that “a new physics cause may still be possible”. Of course new physics is always possible. But before one can speculate about new physics, “old physics” must be excluded, i.e., there must be an incontrovertible demonstration that conventional physics cannot account for the observed phenomena. This is not the case for the Pioneer anomaly: conventional physics comfortably accounts for the anomalous acceleration. Sure, there are small discrepancies that are within the margin of error, but you don’t fish for new physics within the margine of error. That’s not the way science is supposed to work.

 Posted by at 9:55 am
Apr 132013

So pretend for a moment the following: In Moscow, the French ambassador gives an interview to a local French-language TV program that is broadcast to the expatriate French community in Russia. As he speaks, you notice that the flag behind him is not the French tricolor but Quebec’s flag, the Fleurdelisé. How would you interpret this? Exactly what is the ambassador trying to say?

Of course France’s ambassadors are generally more diplomatic than that. Even if they were to support Quebec’s independence from Canada, I doubt they would do so in such a crudely undiplomatic manner.

So then, when Hungary’s ambassador here in Ottawa gave an interview to Magyar Képek, a Hungarian-language television program broadcast on OMNI TV throughout Canada, why did he choose to do so standing in front of not Hungary’s tricolor, but the flag of Székely Land (also known as Szekler Land, or Székelyföld in Hungarian, a territory in Eastern Transylvania inhabited by Hungarian-speaking ethnic Székelys)?

I cannot help but wonder about the thinking behind this.

 Posted by at 10:27 pm
Apr 112013

The National Post has an interesting set of infographics detailing the strength of North Korea’s conventional forces.

I made an attempt to create a condensed version:

But if it’s too condensed, it kind of loses its punch, so it might be wiser to study the original. The bottom line: they have a scary number of surface ships, submarines, landing craft, torpedoes, aircraft both relatively modern (e.g., Mig-29) and ancient (biplanes!), and a huge army with a large number of artillery pieces, shoulder-launched surface-to-air missiles, SCUDs, you name it. Probably some non-conventional (chemical) stuff, too, that they would not hesitate to use. And on top of that, maybe a few crude nukes, albeit without decent delivery systems.

Then again… remember Saddam Hussein’s scary conventional army back in 1991, the world’s third or fourth largest at the time, and battle-tested during the Iraq-Iran war, equipped with SCUDs and WMDs? Didn’t do him much good, did it. Seeing SCUDs arrive in Saudi neighborhoods was a scary sight, but in the end, the damage they did was negligible. So maybe the numbers do not tell the whole story after all.

Still, a war in the Korean peninsula would be devastating for South Korea especially, but also for the world economy. And although I have no doubt that North Korea would vanish as a result, reintegrating the North would be a task that’s perhaps even harder than winning the war.

 Posted by at 9:04 am
Apr 102013

A few moments ago, my wife looked up through our skylight and lo and behold, saw a moving star.

Not just any moving star; it turned out to be the International Space Station, in all its still sunlit glory over the late evening Ottawa sky.

I once managed to capture the ISS through my cellphone; the picture turned out to be surprisingly good, even showing (I think) the somewhat rectangular shape of the station.

Anyhow, I hope Chris Hadfield is having a great time up there.

 Posted by at 9:45 pm
Apr 082013

Here is a beautiful military relic, a gift from a family friend who knew that I was a sucker for old technology:

It is a very conventional compass, floating in oil in a non-magnetic brass casing. Our friend was concerned about the radiation symbol on the cover: as it turns out, this particular compass had fluorescent markings that were illuminated by the presence of small amounts of radioactive tritium.

As tritium is a low-energy beta emitter, it poses almost no health risk (unless you happen to inhale or consume some quantities of it) and thus it is safe for use as a form of “permanent illumination”. Unfortunately, tritium is also used in thermonuclear weapons, so its possession and sale are often regulated. In any case, this old compass is long past its “use before” date; I don’t know how old it actually is, but its inspection sticker dates back from 1994. The tritium appears to be long gone (not exactly a surprise, given tritium’s relatively short, 12.3 year half life), as the marking are completely dark.

Still it is a beautiful device, and I am very grateful to our friend for offering this to me as a gift. It will be cherished.

 Posted by at 4:23 pm
Apr 052013

After another 550 km drive at the end of an already very long day, I finally made it home late last night, concluding a very productive 3-day visit at the Perimeter Institute.

While there, I gave another talk on the Pioneer anomaly. I felt that it went well and as far as I can tell, it was very well received.

All in all, it was time well spent.

 Posted by at 9:49 pm