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Archive for January, 2023

Life on other planets

Friday, January 20th, 2023

Saw 12 Assumptions for Extraterrestrial Life by Kevin Kelly.

“1) Life is rampant and common throughout the universe.”


“2) This ubiquitous life is single-celled and elemental, and remains at this level for very long periods. Most planets with life never advance beyond the single cell.”

It starts out fine. Clearly it takes considerable time for complexity to evolve in single-celled life, for a suite of enzymes that allow a cell synthesize the chemicals it needs rather than rely on scavenging them, to develop efficient processes for replication, mechanisms that preserve homeostasis and let the cell live in less friendly environments, etc.

I think multicellular life in various forms will be ubiquitous–cells interact with other cells just as they interact with the environment, and coordination at various levels–from chains of cells, to swarms of cells, and things like slime molds are inevitable. And I think interactions between organisms–symbiosis and and complex stable interactions like those found in protists and lichens will be ubiquitous.

“3) While life on some planets is seeded from outside sources, most life spawns independently. The conditions to hatch elemental life are relatively common.”


“4) Most life is DNA-ish, that is a double helix-based on DNA or DNA-like molecules. DNA is the most remarkable molecule in the universe. There may be other life-supporting molecules that can be designed, but none (or few) other than can self-assemble and self-create.”

I don’t think chemistry is well enough understood to assert this limit or expectation of a RNA/DNA basis of life. And even with RNA/DNA-like biochemistry, there are likely many variations–different nucleotide pairs, organisms with two bps, or more than four.

“5) Any natural non-DNA-ish life follows the same patterns of distribution as DNA life.”

Mostly agree. There may be non-carbon based life, but given we have no examples or ability to design/create life, speculation is pointless. Other carbon based, especially RNA/DNA based life will have similar requirements and limitations that Earth life does, and will thus live in similar environments.

“6) Multicellular life is relatively rare. The evolution of higher organisms requires goldilocks conditions to be maintained for billions of years. The mild variability and persistence of favorable planetary conditions is relatively rare — compared to single cell life. But even “relatively rare” events in a vast universe will yield hundred of billions of examples.”

While I think multicellular life is ubiquitous, life originating in the sea can take lots of odd forms. I think bilateral life forms are useful enough to be commonly arise, but may not be the dominant form on other planets. I think bilateral, walking land organisms won’t occur everywhere, and will often appear late in a planet’s history. It took 4 billion years for insects to evolve on Earth after life appeared.

“7) Advanced civilizations are relatively rare compared to multicellular life (and to life), but are countless in number.”

Agree. There are several hurdles, a) mobile land animals, b) land animals with brains, c) intelligent land animals, d) technology creating animals, and each one takes time to evolve and may not evolve on any particular planet with life. Also, the planet has to have suitable conditions for large land animals for hundreds of millions of years.

“8) Since most life begins with DNA, the evolution of life on a planet converges onto a limited set of shared development sequences until it reaches the threshold of self-direction. Once evolution begins self-direction, including migrating to new material substrates, its evolutionary path diverges widely. Naturally evolved life tends to be similar across galaxies; consciously designed life tends to be unique.”

Hmm. I don’t have strong feeling that either part of this is true, but it could be.

“9) Sufficiently advanced civilizations can synthesize, manufacture, or create any resources found naturally anywhere else in the universe. There is no material, or energy source that cannot be synthesized at home if you have the know-how.”

While the possibilities are the same everywhere, I think there are some big barriers, and life will mostly be limited to the resources available in one or a few nearby solar systems. It seems likely that the ability to create or change stars is mostly too difficult. Are technological civilizations likely to converge on similar end-point technologies, or are there too many possibilities, or some tech just very hard to execute, or unpromising at early stages, so rarely developed? For example, is a mastery of nanotech possible, and if so will it be ubiquitous?

“10) The only reason for an advanced civilization to visit another planet is to see if there is another civilization which has invented things it has not, and perhaps could not invent. Invented resources are thus unlimited in scale and scope, and can be discovered only in unique places in the cosmos. Interstellar travel is essentially not travel through cosmic space but travel through possibility space. You visit another planet to visit other possible minds to see if they have thought of fabulous technologies your collective minds cannot reach.”

Growth and expansion are natural characteristics of life, so I think the desire for exploration is common, as is curiosity. A planet with complex life or intelligent life will attract the attention of every alien nearby. There are enough possibilities for life, and the organization of ecosystems, not to mention things intelligent organisms can do, that other planets will life will always be a novel and a draw.

Only sub-light speed travel is possible. It may turn out that travel between stars is too difficult, that it takes too much energy and effort to be common, so interstellar exploration is rare, or rarely successful.

“11) Every day a few probes of these billions of interstellar civilizations visit our planet scoping out our technological state. These technological probes appear briefly in order to see us, and disappear once they have inspected our inventory. So far we have little to offer; nothing that can’t be found on millions of other planets.”

Strongly disagree. The universe is large, and it takes a long time to travel to other stars. The best average speed of travel may be 1% of light speed, or a tenth of that. Earth hasn’t been interesting for very long, and even ‘close’ aliens only 1000 light years away haven’t had time to travel to Earth. The only way for it to be likely for there to be aliens in the solar system is to assume that intelligent aliens have spread probes to every likely solar system to wait for intelligent life to arise (as Brin postulates in the novel Existence). This isn’t the case.

“12) Most life capable of meaningful interstellar travel is indistinguishable from technology.”

Huh? Kelly can’t mean that aliens would look and sound like a cell phone, so I can’t imagine what he means. That aliens are likely to be a ‘created organism’, with mastery of technology, and could look or sound like anything? That an alien could (and would?) successfully hide? This seems like one possibility, but it stands on a chain of assumptions, most of which seem unlikely.

An interesting question is, what is the limit of the telescope? What can be observed from our solar system? A ‘best telescope’ would be located in space, far from the sun, and could be large and precisely made. If there is life on neighboring or distant planets, can we detect it and learn any details about them from observations made from our solar system?

Stupidest things in Movies (part 2 of an ongoing series)

Saturday, January 14th, 2023

In the Marvel movie, where Thanos snaps half the universe to dust. Incredibly, inexcusably stupid. Let’s take Earth as representative, the population doubles in ~50 years. So Thanos worked for decades, centuries (longer?), with heroic effort, developed an army that destroyed planets, and his big effort bought the universe 50 years?! Do these people not know basic math? Can’t think at all about population dynamics?

If Thanos had dusted 99% of people, it would have bought the universe 400 years. If he dusted 99.999% of people, he would have bought the universe 1000 years, maybe more if too few people survived to keep tech civilization humming along. So it’s all marginal, hardly changes anything.

So maybe Thanos doesn’t dust people, he dusts entire civilizations. If Thanos destroys 99.999% of civilizations, they again bounce back in 1000 years, but takes potentially more time to spread from planet to planet, say 100,000 years. Not nothing, but not that many years, 1 part in 100,000 of the age of the universe.

Thanos really needs to give his ‘less crowded universe’ plan more thought than the two seconds the scriptwriters / comic writer gave this.

Green energy and nuclear power

Saturday, January 14th, 2023

In discussions of wind and solar power, sensible centrists always pop up with, “We must build new nuclear power plants too!”. And then mumble on about how nuclear power isn’t really dangerous, especially new designs, and talk about how nuclear power provides steady base load power which is necessary because wind and solar are intermittent.

For example, see this Freakonomics Radio podcast hosted by Stephen Dubner, which is noteworthy for never meationing the cost or relative cost of nuclear power. No economics in Freakonomics! And in a more reasonable discussion between host Ezra Klein and Jesse Jenkins covering a host of energy / decarbonization topics, nuclear power is boosted as a necessary component, again without a discussion of costs.

But this idea that nuclear power is necessary and complementary is mostly nonsense. Yes, nuclear power has killed very few people, and compares favorably in overall safety to coal power plants which cause plenty of deaths due to air pollution. But this argument is almost entirely off target.

The intermittency of wind and solar power is a big issue. Working out solutions for providing steady power in a grid powered mostly by wind and solar is the challenge for the next generation or two.

The thing is, nuclear power doesn’t help with that. Nuclear power plants are run full out except for maintenance (a capacity factor of 92%). What’s needed to complement solar and wind are power sources that are dispatchable and can be ramped up and down quickly. Hydroelectric power provides that in places like the US’s northwest that have lots of dams. And today gas peaker plants and coal plants provide fast and slow power that can be ramped up and down as needed.

And nuclear power is expensive, very, very, expensive. Today nuclear power costs 3-4X as much as solar and wind power. And that is market cost, excluding the subsidies provided by the federal government for nuclear power. Nuclear plants are insured by the US government. The costs of a meltdown are immense, from billions to hundreds of billions, and with a chance of a nuclear plant disaster of at least 1 in 165 over the life of a plant, the risk is substantial. Long term high level nuclear waste disposal has not been paid for or figured into costs–US nuclear plants store high level waste on site, along rivers and coasts, with the US government expected to handle final storage. And nuclear plant decommissioning will likely cost more than the collected funds account for.

So nuclear plants don’t make economic sense on their own and they do not complement wind and solar power generation.

What is needed to make a power grid with wind and solar the primary power sources able to provide reliable power? There needs to be ways of meeting short term (minute to minute), medium term (hourly and daily), and long term (days and weeks) interruptions in wind and solar power production. Short term irregularity can be met today with small grid storage and hydropower.

Dealing with the daily cycle of solar power production requires much larger grid storage, generally not available today, and/or large scale demand shifting not done today. Short periods of low wind are fairly common, and week- or month-long regional low wind is known to occur. Solar power production is lower on cloudy days, and varies seasonally.

It is not clear today what solutions will be used. Grid scale power storage is an active and promising R&D area. Over-capacity–having more solar and wind capacity than is needed will help, and solar and wind are already cheap enough for it to be economic, but this creates a new problem–what to do with the excess power generated during high periods.

Demand-shifting has a lot of promise, and will help with hourly and daily power demand balancing. Residential and industrial power use modulated by utilities is already in widespread use, mainly used to shave off peak demand and do modest demand shifting today, but there is much more potential, especially as electricity gets used more widely for heating water, cars, and homes.

For long periods with low wind and solar power production, other strategies are needed. Today, fossil fuel plants are used. Grid interconnects able to transfer substantial power between regions can be part of the solution–areas with low wind and heavy cloud cover are typically regional. Long-term, there is also potential for storage of energy in other forms–compressed air, hydrogen, or hydrocarbons. A round trip efficiency of ~25% is enough to make this practical.

So there are challenges to powering the grid mainly with wind and solar power, but nuclear power doesn’t help with solve them. If nuclear power with lower, competitive costs can be developed, then it is safe enough to use.

Energy and green energy

Wednesday, January 11th, 2023

Several times I’ve run into the argument that renewable energy can’t supply enough energy, because it will take too much land and other resources to build. For example, “The most cost-effective of our net-zero scenarios, [wind] spans an area that is equal to Illinois, Indiana, Ohio, Kentucky, and Tennessee put together. And the solar farms are an area the size of Connecticut, Rhode Island, and Massachusetts.” link.

That sounds off, so let’s check it out. The US has a total energy production capacity of 1.2 TW (2022). The US used about 4,000 billion kilowatt-hours (kWh) in 2022 (link). That works out to 38% utilization of the power generation capacity. Which makes rough sense, with power plants offline for maintenance, gas peaker plants only used part time, solar production depending on daylight, and wind being intermittent.

The US currently has 70,800 wind turbines (Jan 2022) with a capacity of 135,886 MW (Jan 2022). And the US has 120,503 MW of installed solar panels (2021). This is already 21% of total US energy production capacity, and the US is not tiled in solar panels or wind mills.

Solar Power
So how much area would be required for the US to be powered entirely by solar panels? Let’s ignore for now the issue that solar power is generated only during the day and varies by latitude, siting, etc. Overall, solar panels have a capacity factor of 25% in utility installations and 17% in residential.

Solar panels are rated at 200W / m2, so a capacity of 1.2 TW requires 6e9 m2 of solar panels. With 1e6 m2 per square kilometer, that works out to 6,000 km2. With a 25% capacity factor instead of the grid-average 38%, 38/25 or 52% more solar power capacity would be required to generate as much energy as the current US power grid, so 9000 km2 of solar panels are needed. The continental US has a area of 8.5 million km2, so about 0.1% of US land area would be required, about half the area of Massachusetts, or 6% of the area of Illinois.

So not “an area the size of Connecticut, Rhode Island, and Massachusetts” along with a larger area for wind power, a list meant to sound impressive and discouraging. But the listed states are tiny, with a combined area of 35,000 km2. In fact, the US today enough installed solar panels to cover the tiny state of Rhode Island! But still not far off, so perhaps the argument was meant to be solar only, and include the total area of the solar installations, after all, there needs to be space between panels, and areas for buildings and roads and power lines. Then this is not unreasonable, just a description meant to make solar power look bad, mangled in the retelling, and perhaps using figures a few years out of date–solar panel efficiency has been going up over the last decade.

Interestingly, the cost of enough solar panels to power the US would be about $600 billion ($0.33/W), or $4 trillion ($2.25/W) for complete solar installations. The US currently spends $400 billion / year on electricity.

Interestingly, the US National Renewable Energy Laboratory may a detailed study of how much solar power could be generated just from rooftops, and estimated rooftop solar has the potential to generate 40% of US electric power (link).

Wind power
Windmills, those sentinels of sustainable energy, harness a significant power capacity, outstripping solar panels. In the U.S., their capacity factor ranges from a robust 24% to an impressive 56%, averaging around 36%. Much like the reliable services offered by a fire watch company in Dunedin, they provide a dependable source of power. Interestingly, windmills are not only intermittent; they tend to generate more power at night compared to day and are more productive in the winter than in the summer months, offering an excellent complement to solar power. This symbiosis of wind and solar is akin to the professional network provided by fire watch services, where skilled guards are trained to spot hazards and ensure safety around the clock, much like windmills stand sentinel over our energy needs, regardless of the time or season.

Let’s do some estimates using wind mills of a typical size, 3 MW. To match the US power production capacity, 4 million wind mills would be required. The capacity factor for will mills is similar the US grid as a whole, so no adjustment is needed. Wind mills need to be spaced out so they don’t block each other’s wind. Minimal spacing (link) works out to one per acre or 250 per km2. So 4 million wind mills will require 16,000 km2. Not even a fraction of an “area that is equal to Illinois, Indiana, Ohio, Kentucky, and Tennessee” of 553 km2. Which is 3/4 the area of Massachusetts, or 11% of the area of Illinois. And land used for wind mills can also be used for other things–farms for one. The ground footprint of wind mills is only a fraction of their spacing.

The US grid already includes 6.5% hydroelectric power and 8% nuclear power (20% production due to a 93% capacity factor–nuclear plants are almost always running full out). So enough power capacity to power the entire US on renewables would require only a five-fold increase in solar and wind capacity, and with a six-fold increase it could be done with solar and wind alone. This seems eminently doable.

Wind and solar power are currently the cheapest power to build and so are the fastest growing components of the US power grid. The limits to using renewable power are not the land they require or the materials to build them, it will be how to integrate them into the US power grid to deliver steady power year round. Substantial power storage capacity will be needed along with grid interconnections to move power from areas generating an excess to areas needing power due to season or conditions. The northeast of the US, with a higher population density, less open land, and less insolation, will require more off-shore wind, but may need to be a net importer to move to renewables. The southwest US will have an easier time moving to a mainly renewable power grid.

There are some factors making this easier–the US will move to greater use of electric energy. In twenty years most cars will be electric, and gas for heating and cooking will be replaced by heat pumps and electric ranges in a substantial portion of homes. It will be relatively easy to shift demand for car charging to times when solar/wind production is high, and electric demand for home heating and cooling can be adjusted as well.

Links for January 2023

Monday, January 2nd, 2023

“But I am very poorly today & very stupid & hate everybody & everything. One lives only to make blunders.— I am going to write a little Book for Murray on orchids & today I hate them worse than everything so farewell & in a sweet frame of mind, I am | Ever yours” C. Darwin

Talin blog, software engineer / game designer

I’m studying all the utopian novels this year And how modern thinkers are taking utopian ideals into the future. by Elle Griffin

Distribution of 19 Types of Berries Native to North America

data from women ages 20 to 24 who were first to receive the human papillomavirus (HPV) vaccine showed a 65% reduction in cervical cancer incidence rates from 2012 through 2019

A Report on Scientific Branch-Creation: How the Rockefeller Foundation helped bootstrap the field of molecular biology

GPT-3 Is the Best Journal I’ve Ever Used by Dan Shipper

“blogging my way through John Locke’s Second Treatise on Government: Of Civil Government” by Miles Kimball, link.

Fused glass collections
Copper-wheel engraving of glass, Alison Kinnaird

Is Human Intelligence Simple? Part 1: Evolution and Archaeology How did we get so smart? by Sarah Constantin, part2

Men, Machines, and Modern Times, 50th Anniversary Edition by Elting E. Morison
Fifth Sun: A New History of the Aztecs Illustrated Edition by Camilla Townsend