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January 6, 2010

The Math of Environmental Sustainability at Harvey Mudd

Posted by John Baez

Ever wonder what mathematicians can do to help solve the environmental problems facing all of us? I do. Maybe this will help:

From the conference webpage:

On Friday night, a panel of researchers from the Claremont Colleges and representatives from environmental groups in Claremont will share what research and development are happening in the Claremont community and at the colleges. On Saturday, we will have four speakers from a variety of disciplines who will pose problems and challenges of interest to the mathematics community. This collection of talks from the perspective of mathematics, engineering, physics, and atmospheric science will provide an overview of the cutting edge of research in energy and sustainability. A poster session will provide an opportunity for participants, including undergraduates, graduate students, postdocs, and faculty to share their research with attendees.

Posted at January 6, 2010 5:11 PM UTC

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Re: The Math of Environmental Sustainability at Harvey Mudd

As a related comment, aside from all the “deep” mathematical work on environmental issues, one area that hasn’t received as much attention as it deserves is the contextual numerical assessment of energy issues. By this I mean that it’s easy for enivronmental discussions to throw up isolated numbers that we don’t have an overall context for (eg, a nuclear power plant can produce 600MW: even though you may know technically what that means, relating it to other energy technologies and energy usage isn’t something we’re practiced at). Professor David McKay at Cambridge has produced a book (with a freedownload website for the book “Without hot air”, although you can also purchase conventionally published copies from bookstores/online) which attempts to put some order of magnitude estimates on both energy “generation” and energy usage in the UK, scaling things down to the per individual case so that it’s easier to see the effect of various items on both sides of the “balance sheet”. (Despite being able to pick the best brains in the top universities, McKay’s original research is in coding/machine learning and he’s not an specialist on any of the individual topics, so individual calculations may well be wrong. What’s brilliant is that he’s put the whole thing on a “whole system” numerical basis so that you can see what it might mean on the whole balance if, say, wind-power generation capacity was underestimated by a factor of five. Unfortunately critics seem to pick on individual calculations which may be inaccurate without taking the larger point of looking at the whole system numerically.)

I thought this was worthy of mentioning because it’s definitely not sexy mathematics, but it is an important contribution, and hopefully a lasting one, to the methodology of analysing enivronmental, and I applaud McKay for having the character to plug away at non-deep stuff to produce this.

Posted by: bane on January 7, 2010 3:19 AM | Permalink | Reply to this

Re: The Math of Environmental Sustainability at Harvey Mudd

Indeed, McKay’s book is very useful — we’ve talked about it a couple of times before, here. And I think that when it comes to saving the planet, it might be good to try to set aside some of our fondness for ‘sexy mathematics’ and ‘depth’, and use our abilities to do whatever has the biggest positive impact.

Posted by: John Baez on January 7, 2010 4:22 AM | Permalink | Reply to this

Re: The Math of Environmental Sustainability at Harvey Mudd

The comment about “non-sexy” was just making it clear that this is a different kind of mathematics applied to sustainability to that of the conference, not implying anything. As for what individuals could do, I think it’s a case of finding the optimum between what’s the biggest impact and what your skills and temperament does best so that the work you actually do has the biggest effect. I enjoyed reading the book, but I’m serious when I implied I wouldn’t have had the “endurance” to actually complete researching and writing it given the relative mathematical uninterestingness of the calculations.

Posted by: bane on January 7, 2010 6:13 AM | Permalink | Reply to this

Re: The Math of Environmental Sustainability at Harvey Mudd

I agree, we all need to take our own personalities and predilections into account when deciding what to do. But I think lots of things get more and more interesting the deeper we dig into them. Different subjects have their own different kinds of ‘depth’. So I think that we should not prematurely discount the possibility that we could enjoy working on subjects that are a bit different from the ones we’re used to. I think we get stuck in ruts as we get older — maybe because we’re a bit scared.

I’m thinking about this a lot these days, because I’m trying to decide what to work on. On the one hand it’d be very easy to keep working on pure math, since I’ve spent a lot of time on it, so it’s easy to come up with interesting projects. But on the other hand, I’ll probably be spending a year or two in Singapore, at the Centre for Quantum Technologies. So, it would make some sense to switch gears and focus on condensed matter physics, mathematical aspects of computation, and other vaguely ‘applied’ stuff. And it didn’t take long thinking about these things to realize that they’re plenty deep in their own way. I could have plenty of fun with them too!

But if it’s that easy to learn to enjoy different things, why not work on something that might help a little with the enormous problems our civilization is marching towards?

So, I’ll go to this Harvey Mudd conference and see what happens…

Posted by: John Baez on January 8, 2010 6:32 AM | Permalink | Reply to this

Re: The Math of Environmental Sustainability at Harvey Mudd

Order-of-magnitude estimates like bane is describing are very reminiscent of dimensional analysis (and of course, physicists and engineers use both extensively).

Is there a way to formalize the analogy?

Posted by: Neel Krishnaswami on January 8, 2010 9:14 AM | Permalink | Reply to this

Re: The Math of Environmental Sustainability at Harvey Mudd

I’ve recently been made redundant so I’m currently considering what to do next, likely with the added constraint that it must be sufficiently complete and compelling to be bought by consumers. As you say there’s a wide range of things that I could enjoy working on, some of which would be “virtuous” things, but there are also many “virtuous” things that I could start working on but I know I wouldn’t actually get to completing; in that case I think it’s better (for me at least) to acknowledge that at the start and do something I do think I’ll complete.

(FWIW, I’m thinking about things which may as a side effect help environmental issues, but equally may make no meaningful difference.)

Posted by: bane on January 8, 2010 1:51 PM | Permalink | Reply to this

Re: The Math of Environmental Sustainability at Harvey Mudd

So, I’ll go to this Harvey Mudd conference and see what happens…

Great!

Posted by: Bruce Bartlett on January 11, 2010 8:14 AM | Permalink | Reply to this

Re: The Math of Environmental Sustainability at Harvey Mudd

IMHO the problem that is most pressing, and that physicists can really help solving, is the energy supply problem. If you imagine that human kind had a cheap, clean, limitless energy source, most of the other problems discussed right now boil down to politics. That does not mean that they are easy to solve, that simply means that, in order to help, you will have to abandon physics :-)

John Baez said

But on the other hand, I’ll probably be spending a year or two in Singapore, at the Centre for Quantum Technologies.

There is no fusion reactor project in Singapore, or is there? (That would be my first choice).

But they developed a hydrofill fuel cell that will hit markets later this year, if you can belive the ads. In any case: Good luck and may you find the project you are looking for!

Posted by: Tim vB on January 11, 2010 2:11 PM | Permalink | Reply to this

Re: The Math of Environmental Sustainability at Harvey Mudd

IMHO the problem that is most pressing, and that physicists can really help solving, is the energy supply problem.

That really depends what your considered opinion about the likelihood of an energy “extraction” physics breakthrough. (One remembers the comment that “fusion is 10-15 years away from deployment, and it has been for the last 50 years”.) The other avenue is to look at ways of changing energy “use” (eg, modeling traffic patterns and “shaping” them to reduce energy wasted in congestion, etc) which inolves both technological components and, sometimes, a behaviour changing components. My personal opinion is that in the short term these are much more likely to yield bigger results.

Posted by: bane on January 11, 2010 5:48 PM | Permalink | Reply to this

Re: The Math of Environmental Sustainability at Harvey Mudd

Sure, any opinion on this matter is highly subjective.

And of course there are many other, more practical ideas to solve the energy problem besides the one you already mentioned (improving solar cells, help to improve existing power plants etc.).

There are two projects in Europe under way right now, an offshore windmill park scattered throughout the north sea (this is a collaboration of Great Britian, Norway, Germany and others) and a massive solar cell park in the Sahara (that is a “private” project, I don’t know exactly who is involved).

But the fusion reactor projects did make much progress in the last 50 years, although a breakthrough is not in sight. To me the use of highly sophisticated physics and numerical mathematics plus the long term nature of the project are appealing. The chances of success and the possible practical impact are IMHO more promising than those of quantum gravity (don’t shoot me, please?).

Anyway, primarily I wanted to point out to John that there is an interesting company with headquarters in Singapore, dedicated e.g. to clean prower saving devices, the chief scientist Dr. Arthur Koschany has a Ph.D. in theoretical physics from Regensburg, Germany. There is a good chance that he would accept an invitation to give a talk by a known scientific institution, that would be good advertisement for him and his company. I would expect that you can find many similar companies in Singapore, but I happen to know only about this one right now.

Posted by: Tim vB on January 11, 2010 6:02 PM | Permalink | Reply to this

Re: The Math of Environmental Sustainability at Harvey Mudd

Tim vB wrote:

There is no fusion reactor project in Singapore, or is there? (That would be my first choice).

I don’t know of work on fusion there.

I don’t feel particularly knowledgeable about magnetohydrodynamics, or particularly drawn to it. Big complicated nonlinear PDE that you need computers to solve — I’m no better at those than the next guy! I also have trouble believing that inertial confinement is anywhere near commercial breakeven, or that I can parachute into that subject and make a bunch of progress. Maybe I’m overly pessimistic! But that’s how I feel.

What I’m actually good at, apparently, is learning stuff and explaining it. So whatever I do, it should probably involve that.

The chances of success and the possible practical impact are IMHO more promising than those of quantum gravity (don’t shoot me, please?).

Yeah, that’s why I’m glad I quit working on quantum gravity — but it’s not necessarily a great reason to start working on fusion.

Anyway, primarily I wanted to point out to John that there is an interesting company with headquarters in Singapore, dedicated e.g. to clean prower saving devices, the chief scientist Dr. Arthur Koschany has a Ph.D. in theoretical physics from Regensburg, Germany.

Thanks! And giving a talk there would really just be an excuse to meet some people and find out what they’re doing. It can be very hard to decide what to work on when I try to imagine all the possibilities abstractly. But when I get into conversations with people, specific opportunities become visible, and sometimes one of them becomes irresistibly attractive. It’s sort of like the difference between trying to decide who to marry based on pure logic and considering all 3 billion possibilities, versus meeting someone and falling in love.

Posted by: John Baez on January 11, 2010 10:24 PM | Permalink | Reply to this

Re: The Math of Environmental Sustainability at Harvey Mudd

John Baez said:

I don’t feel particularly knowledgeable…

Ok, but finding a topic that is reasonably new to you, and where this feeling isn’t overwhelming, will be hard :-)

John Baez said:

And giving a talk there would really just be an excuse to meet some people and find out what they’re doing.

I was thinking more about inviting them to give talks, but the other way round is just fine as well. Here are a few prejudices of mine:

  • If you are interested in what mathematics or physics could do to solve environmental issues, it could be a good start to take a look outside academia.

  • Outside of the USA, in Europe and Asia, there has been much effort and progress to develop technologies that help to “save the planet”, e.g. the gas consumption of cars has been a topic since the 1970ties in Germany and has been one of the most important parameters for customers for a few years now. That’s why my educated guess is that you will find many interesting companies in Singapore.

  • Companies developing and selling high-tech products are very interested in decorating themselves with academic contacts.

This is why I think it should be possible to organize a similar event like the Harvey Mudd conference in Singapore, but with the participation of scientists working outside of academia. If you are lucky, you’ll find a company that is big enough to have a nice location and enough budget to organize this for you (as I said before, there will be enough companies that will consider this to be a perfect opportunity to get high impact advertisement at a reasonable price).

If you are even more lucky, something like this exists already :-)

Posted by: Tim vB on January 12, 2010 10:33 AM | Permalink | Reply to this

Re: The Math of Environmental Sustainability at Harvey Mudd

John wrote:

I don’t feel particularly knowledgeable about magnetohydrodynamics, or particularly drawn to it.

Tim vB wrote:

Ok, but finding a topic that is reasonably new to you, and where this feeling isn’t overwhelming, will be hard :-)

You probably underestimate my effrontery. I love to dive into subjects I know nothing about, learn about them, start acting like an expert before I really am, make mistakes, learn more, etcetera. I’d have no fear of working on biotechnology, nanotechnology, energy conservation, climate change research, figuring out ways to save endangered species…

… there’s just something about magnetically confined fusion that makes me feel pessimistic. Perhaps it’s an irrational feeling! But there it is.

I was thinking more about inviting them to give talks…

Oh — sorry, I misunderstood you. You see, I’m used to giving talks, not asking other people to give talks.

If you are interested in what mathematics or physics could do to solve environmental issues, it could be a good start to take a look outside academia.

I agree with you!

This is why I think it should be possible to organize a similar event like the Harvey Mudd conference in Singapore, but with the participation of scientists working outside of academia.

That’s a nice idea! The Centre for Quantum Technologies is not the obvious forum for a conference on environmental sustainability. But I could either team up with folks at some other departments at the National University of Singapore, or do what you suggest: “find a company that is big enough to have a nice location and enough budget to organize this for you.” Or both! In fact, it makes a lot of sense to try both.

So, okay — that’s what I’ll try to do.

Posted by: John Baez on January 13, 2010 3:02 AM | Permalink | Reply to this

Re: The Math of Environmental Sustainability at Harvey Mudd

John Baez wrote:

You probably underestimate my effrontery.

Indeed, my knowledge of human nature must have suffered a blackout

So my favourite topic is one of the very few that you don’t like to venture to come near to, that was bad luck - but I’m glad to hear that it is an excemption.

I have never been to Singapore, but from what I know they should have all kinds of different organizations, and projects underway, that you could look into, like

Geez!

Looks as if the hard choice is to determine where to start!?

(On a personal note: Private companies tend to have much better coffee, and different sorts too, like Macciato).

Posted by: Tim vB on January 13, 2010 4:30 PM | Permalink | Reply to this

Re: The Math of Environmental Sustainability at Harvey Mudd

Thanks for the links! I think Singapore is bursting with technology initatives, in part because their traditional money-making industry — namely, shipping — is under threat by the rise of Shanghai and also Malaysia. This is why the government is starting things like the Centre for Quantum Technologies and the Nanoscience and Nanotechnology Inititative. There are also lots of smart businessmen around there. And, curiously, they are very interested in water conservation, even though it rains a lot there, because it’s a small country without many reservoirs, and it gets most of its water from Malaysia.

On a personal note: Private companies tend to have much better coffee, and different sorts too, like Macciato.

I’ll keep that in mind. It’s a bit hard to get good coffee in Asia. In Shanghai it tends to be treated as an extremely expensive foreign delicacy — and it’s usually not very good, either! I’m less familiar with Singapore. But, I’ll try to see if your rule of thumb holds true there.

Of course, in Asia it makes sense to become a connoisseur of tea. My wife is becoming a real expert, but I’m lagging behind a bit.

Posted by: John Baez on January 13, 2010 8:52 PM | Permalink | Reply to this

Re: The Math of Environmental Sustainability at Harvey Mudd

website for the book “Without hot air”

509 Bandwidth Limit Exceeded

Dear me, did bane just slashdot the poor professor?

Posted by: Toby Bartels on January 7, 2010 10:46 PM | Permalink | Reply to this

Re: The Math of Environmental Sustainability at Harvey Mudd

No, a big boy did it and then ran away, leaving me here to take the rap. :-)

I’m pretty sure I didn’t because I verified the link as I posted and got “bandwidth exceeded” at that time (which reassures me that I’d got the right address, even if it was currently useless). I’d hoped that it was something that would be resolved soon, but obviously it hasn’t. There’s an online-html version here, although obviously it’s annoying for flicking back and forth when reading.

I suspect that McKay recently becoming a chief scientific advisor to the UK Department of Energy and Climate Change has led to publicity that has exploded the bandwidth on what’s probably a privately paid for server.

Posted by: bane on January 8, 2010 2:00 AM | Permalink | Reply to this

Re: The Math of Environmental Sustainability at Harvey Mudd

Apparently known problem. There’s a temporary backup here.

Posted by: bane on January 8, 2010 2:16 AM | Permalink | Reply to this

Re: The Math of Environmental Sustainability at Harvey Mudd

Unless you get the Los Angeles Time in Singapore, you may have missed this.

You can thank Arthur Rosenfeld for energy savings

“… In 1954, Rosenfeld took a position at UC Berkeley at what was to become the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, joining Luis Alvarez in the development of hydrogen bubble chambers for detecting subatomic particles. ‘Fermi wrote me a wonderful recommendation as his “second-most promising graduate student,” ’ Rosenfeld said. He recalled that Fermi, who would die soon after, ‘coyly declined to identify his first.’”

“Fifteen years later, Alvarez, backed by a team of scientists that included Rosenfeld, won the Nobel Prize for physics. But climbing to the heights of quantum physics research was not to be Rosenfeld’s destiny.”

“The turning point came on a cool Friday night in November 1973 during the second Arab oil embargo. Television screens beamed images of frustrated Americans in gigantic cars queuing up for fuel. Pained to see his nation humbled by its spendthrift habits, Rosenfeld looked around his own building. Most of his colleagues had departed hours before, not bothering to turn off the lights. Rosenfeld went from office to office flipping switches. His life’s mission suddenly clicked. ‘The cheapest energy is what you don’t use’ became Rosenfeld’s guiding mantra from that night on. ‘It would be more profitable to attack our own wasteful energy use than to attack OPEC.’”

“He set out on a mission to engineer U.S. appliances and buildings to use less energy. It wouldn’t be easy. Pressure was mounting to build massive nuclear facilities to meet California’s growing needs. Manufacturers and builders would undoubtedly balk at tough efficiency standards. The key, Rosenfeld concluded, lay in government policy that could force these changes….”

Posted by: Jonathan Vos Post on January 16, 2010 8:56 PM | Permalink | Reply to this

Re: The Math of Environmental Sustainability at Harvey Mudd

Jonathan wrote:

Unless you get the Los Angeles Time in Singapore, you may have missed this.

Thanks! I’m going to Singapore in July — I’m not there yet. But I often don’t read the LA Times, so I did indeed miss this article.

Posted by: John Baez on January 16, 2010 10:10 PM | Permalink | Reply to this

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