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According to ancient Chinese mythology, humankind was created by the benevolent snake-goddess Nüwa (who is one of my very favorite divinities in any pantheon, by the way). But keen readers wonder: where did Nüwa come from?  Whence came the ocean and the earth and the sea and the winds and the heavens.  Oh, there is a story behind that too, but it is strange and troubling—sad and incomplete and beautiful like so much of Chinese mythology and folklore.

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In the beginning there was nothing except for the universe egg—a vast perfect egg which contained everything.  Within the universe egg, yin and yang energies were mixed together so completely and perfectly that they were indistinguishable.  Then, through some unknown means, the egg changed—mayhap it became fertilized—and a being began to grow within it.  This was P’an Ku, the great primordial entity.  The yin and yang energy began to separate and build complex forms.  P’an Ku slowly grew and grew.  He started as something infinitely small but gradually he became larger and larger until eventually his vast arms came up against the sides of the everything egg.  The little embryo became a vast god. The walls of the egg became a prison.

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Then P’an Ku grabbed an axe (which appeared from who knows where).  Using all of his gargantuan might, he smashed a great blow through the shell of the egg, which exploded. He was born—as was the universe.  Beside him, in the gushing yolk, the primordial magical beings came into being—the dragon, the tortoise, the phoenix, and the quilin. These special creatures helped the first deity as he began to separate chaos into order.  P’an Ku split the yin into darkness and the yang into light. He laid the foundation stones of the vault of the everlasting sky and filled the ocean with the waters of creation dripping from the shattered egg shell.

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But as he built, a strange thing happened (though maybe not so strange to my fellow artists who can never quite craft their dreams into their works). The world he made became inimical to him. He aged. He suffered.  His creation was unfinished…and he died.  His breath became the clouds and the wind.  His body became the mountains and the plains of China. His eyes became the sun and the moon. The hair of his body and head became the plants and trees.

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It was in this corpse-world that the creator deities moved: Nüwa, a child born of P’an Ku’s genitals…or an alien outsider? Who knows? Who can say? What is important is that eggs are important. In Chinese myth they are the source of everything.  The beginning of the universe.

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Chinese mythology does not dwell on the end of the world quite the way other cosmologies do.  Our world is sad and broken enough that we don’t need to think about its ending. But there are ethereal hints from before the Chin emperor’s great purges which suggest that time is circular like an egg. Somehow, as we all began, so we will end back there again in the homogenized grey yolk of chaos.

 

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Furnace Edifice (Wayne Ferrebee, 2016, colored pencil and ink)

Here are two more funny drawings from my little book.  The first is a drawing from February, when I can never get warm enough.  A strange furnace edifice of ovens and stoves chugs away: its fires produce delightful heat.  Two monsters have come to bask in the warmth (maybe the anglerfish is part of the mechanism for fueling the array).  At the top an attendant pours water onto the furnaces to produce great clouds of steam.  I am not sure if this is about cleanliness or energy or entrapment…or maybe all three.

the cave beneath the icing

The Cave Beneath the Icing (Wayne Ferrebee, 2016, colored pencil and ink)

In the next picture a glistening pink temple made of melting pink icing glistens above a purple cavern.  In the depths of the cavern an addict grovels for drugs and medicine as an anglerfish lures him further down into the darkness.  A glistening glazed doughnut sits in the middle of the composition as an avatar of appetite. Is this picture about illicit drugs or about legitimate medicine or about money?  Does it matter?

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Many people complain that the news is all bad.  That is not true at all, but good news is sometimes harder to quantify or follow than bad tidings—plus human progress tends to be incremental.  I bring this up because this week did feature a good news story—and Ferrebeekeeper has been following along (as best we can) for years. The nuclear scientists at the National Ignition Facility (a part of Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory) have been attempting to use a vast laser array to heat/compress a deuterium and tritium fuel pellet to the extreme conditions necessary for nuclear fusion.

The container for the nuclear fuel

The container for the nuclear fuel

Nuclear fusion involves compressing/heating the elementary particles which make up atoms until the atoms fuse into new atoms.  Such a process releases outrageous amounts of energy but it does not start easily–indeed so much energy is required to begin the reaction that “hot” fusion typically requires a star or a nuclear fission detonator.  These items are dangerous and alarming to have lying around so scientists have been attempting to find a more controlled method of fusing atoms together.

The NIF Target Chamber

The NIF Target Chamber

Earlier this week the science journal Nature published a paper which details how NIF scientists finally managed to produce more energy than was initially put into the fuel pellet (albeit not into the overall system).  This does not sound overwhelmingly exciting—yet it is farther than nuclear engineers have got in 50 years.  To quote the amazingly named head scientist, Omar Hurricane, “We’ve assembled that stick of dynamite and we’ve gotten the fuse to light…If we can get that fuse to burn all the way to the dynamite, it’s going to pack a wallop.”

Just dream what we could accomplish with such energy!

Just dream what we could accomplish with such energy!

Abundant safe energy from nuclear fusion would be an astonishingly transformative innovation for humankind.  Immediately our principle economic and environmental problems would be forever altered.  Additionally having such a cosmic wellspring of energy available would allow us to embark on engineering works of a vastly greater scale than any known so far.

Planetary Engineering!

Planetary Engineering!

A mosaic image taken by the Hubble Telescope of Messier 82 (NASA, ca. 2000)

A mosaic image taken by the Hubble Telescope of Messier 82 (NASA, ca. 2000)

Twelve million light years from Earth lies Messier 82, a starburst galaxy 5 times more luminous than the entire Milky Way galaxy.  Messier 82 (AKA M82) is a very happening and dynamic galaxy: stars are being created there at an exceptionally high rate—most likely because the galaxy is “interacting” (or possibly colliding) with its neighboring galaxy M81. In 2005, the Hubble Space Telescope detected nearly 200 massive starburst clusters near M82’s center. Within these huge masses of dust and gas, stars are being birthed (and dying) at an astonishing rate.  The high energy released by this cosmic upheaval is nearly constant and the outflow of charged particles from M82 is evocatively known as “superwind”.

Lovell Telescope, Jodrell Bank Observatory (Mike Peel; Jodrell Bank Centre for Astrophysics, University of Manchester)

In 2010, astronomers working at Jodrell Bank Observatory in England discovered a mystery at the heart of M82: an unknown object was emitting high energy electromagnetic radiation in a pattern unlike anything else so far observed in the universe.  The mystery object appeared to be moving at 4 times the speed of light (which is, of course, quite impossible according to the standard model of the universe.  Newscientist.com offered the following explanation (of sorts) for the mystery object’s perceived velocity:

Such apparent “superluminal” motion has been seen before in high-speed jets of material squirted out by some black holes. The stuff in these jets is moving towards us at a slight angle and travelling at a fair fraction of the speed of light, and the effects of relativity produce a kind of optical illusion that makes the motion appear superluminal.

At present, the best explanation astronomers have for the mystery is that it is some sort of microquasar or black hole which is interacting in an unusual way with the tumultuous mass within a starburst cluster.  At present, the mystery is unexplained.

A super-dramatic before-and-after animation of the type Ia supernova in M82

A super-dramatic before-and-after animation/photo of the type Ia supernova in M82

However, at present, M82 is doing entirely different things which have captured the attention of the international astronomy community.  On January 21st, 2014, Steve Fossey and a group of his students at University College London spotted a colossal explosion within M82.  The event was quickly identified as a type Ia supernova, a bright and consistently energetic star explosion which occurs in binary stars where at least one star is a white dwarf (the dead, but energetic fragment of a larger star).   CBS News explains the phenomenon and its historical significance:

[When a] white dwarf siphons off too much mass from its companion star, a runaway nuclear reaction begins inside the dead star, leading to a brilliant supernova. Because Type Ia supernovas are believed to shine with equal brightness at their peaks, they are used as “standard candles” to measure distances the universe.

The supernova in M82 is the nearest supernova of its type observed since Supernova 1987A was spotted in February 1987 in the Large Magellanic Cloud (the dwarf galaxy which is companion to the Milky Way).  Telescopes around Earth are turning towards Ursa Major (where M82 is located in the sky).  Although the supernova is big news here, it is a very stale story in M82 where this all happened 12 million years ago.

An Artist's Conception of a Type Ia Supernova

An Artist’s Conception of a Type Ia Supernova

Ghosts and the disquieted dead abound in China and, as elsewhere, these manifold specters hold up a dark mirror to society as a whole.  Chinese folklore features hungry ghosts, hanged ghosts, sexually abused ghosts, and happy, helpful servant ghosts.  There are the wrongfully dead ghosts who were denied justice by merciless bureaucrats and there are drowned ghosts who always lurk in the water grabbing at things.  There are ghost brides, ghost thieves, and ghost hunters.  All of this is in addition to the countless fiends, demons, nature spirits, immortals, monsters, gods, and supernatural animals which make up the endlessly invigorating Chinese pantheon.    Yet out of all the many sorts of ghosts and revenants, one particular category of Chinese apparition stands out as an exemplary type specimen of the undead.   These are the jiāng shī, the hopping reanimated corpses which are analogous to the vampires and mummies of western horror.  In English such undead beings are called hopping ghosts or Chinese vampires.

Here’s a diagram?

Like vampires, jiāng shī feed off of the life energy of the living and command supernatural powers, but there are some big differences.  Jiāng shī are created in many different supernatural ways when the po, an aspect of the soul, is returned to the body (this often involves a shock of yin energy from cats or the moon), but they are essentially of two varieties:  1) recently dead souls who died far from home and literally hop back to where they are from sometimes with the help of a Taoist sorcerers, and sometimes through pure homesickness ; and 2) ancient corpses which have gone so long without decaying that they become reanimated by dark yin magic.  The Chinese name means “stiff corpse” and the undead monsters are literally stiff from rigor mortis.  Because of this handicap, jiāng shī have a hard time with mobility and their movements are often unnatural and erratic—hence they are believed to move by means of hopping (although some of the more powerful and ancient ones are also reputed to fly).   Unfortunately their lack of agility is more than made up for by superhuman strength.

They are not ladies’ men like western vampires and–hey! What’s going on here?

Contemporary hopping ghosts look like contemporary corpses–except for the fact that they are animated and are hopping violently and quickly towards you to suck out your qi energy (oh and they have long sharp fingernails).  Ancient jiāng shī, however, have a very distinctive and operatic look:  they are dressed in Qing dynasty graveclothes and they have pale green skin and white hair (as well as claws and fangs).  Both sorts of hopping ghosts bear an overwhelming smell of putrefaction with them—which is so appalling that it is occasionally fatal.  They feed on qi energy which they strangle/gouge out of their victims, either manually or by hopping on top of the heads of sleepers.

If you are having trouble with hopping ghosts, there are several ways of dealing with them.  The animated corpses are driven off by Taoist mirrors, brooms made with real straw, rice, or fresh chicken blood.  Sometimes applying a yellow and red Chinese death blessing to their forehead will give the jiāng shī peace (although this should be attempted only in extreme circumstances!).  They cannot abide the light of the sun.  In the end though there is only one sovereign remedy to permanently get rid of jiāng shī, and it is the ultimate solution to any undead problems.  If you burn a jiāng shī and all of its accessories (creepy funeral suit, coffin, etc.) you will be permanently rid of the monster.

Good old fire!

Magpies and Hare (Ts’ui Po, 1061 AD, ink and watercolor on silk)

Here is an exquisite painting by the Song dynasty master Ts’ui Po which shows two magpies haranguing a passing hare.  It is strange to think that this delicate and refined work was painted 5 years before the battle of Hastings.  The word for magpie is homonymous with the word for happiness—so two magpies represent double happiness–shuāngxǐ—which is one of the most universal Chinese concepts. Lucky shuāngxǐ symbols are plastered all over all sorts of Chinese establishments and goods (I put one at the bottom of this post and I’m sure you’ll recognize it).  Ts’ui Po was famed for his ability to find the underlying rhythm in natural subjects and express it with simple fluid brushwork:  the entire painting is structured as a gentle S-shaped curve, but within that compositional framework the hare and the magpies have their own calligraphic energy.  Also note how wind is blowing back the branches, leaves, and weeds in the painting.   Ts’ui Po captured the tao moving within a small ephemeral moment of natural beauty.

So, it is not easy to do what has never been done before. In October of 2010, I wrote about the National Ignition Facility, a joint scientific project run by Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in Livermore California.  The National Ignition Facility aims to recreate the heat and pressure of stars and hydrogen bombs on a microscopic controlled scale.   The project is ostensibly designed as a United States defense project to model the nation’s next generation nuclear arsenal without use of (treaty-prohibited) nuclear testing, but cognoscenti have long suspected that it is a way that our country can pursue fundamental energy and physics research despite the apathy (or outright animosity) of a do-nothing congress and politically divided citizenry.

One of four banks of giant capacitors which power the laser microburst

Unfortunately the facility experienced a series of setbacks, and the massive laser array did not deliver the promised energy output.  However, this month all that changed!  On July 5th the facility briefly powered up its 192 lasers to deliver a 1.85-megajoule blast that released more than 500 trillion watts of power. Although the laser beam was only active for a miniscule fraction of a second, during that brief time it was focusing a thousand times more energy than the rest of the entire United States was actively using.  Remember Doc Brown from “Back to the Future” shouting about “1.21 gigawatts!” and desperately running his hands through his hair? Well, a gigawatt is a billion watts.  This laser beam produced a 500 terrawatt blast–500 trillion watts.  So just imagine Doc shouting “1.21 gigawatts!” four hundred thousand plus times!

The successful test firing brings the NIF within tantalizing reach of their desired ignition breakthrough—the glorious moment when scientists flip a switch and create a controlled, contained fusion reaction.  Building such a “star in a jar” is the first step on a road to titanic engineering and energy-creation achievements which could reshape humanity’s place in the universe.

While thinking of how to sum up 2011, I looked backwards to my last blog post from 2010 and was jarred by the similarity of the two years.  There it all was again: the same sort of political scandals, the same news of war in the Middle East, the same tedious celebrity hijinks–only the world shaking environmental catastrophe had changed (the Gulf of Mexico oil spill was supplanted by the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster).  It made me question the optimism of last year’s New Year’s post, in which I ultimately concluded that technology was rolling forward and thereby bringing us both knowledge and the resources needed to live a better happier life.

So this year I am going to base my final post around the worst thing that happened in 2011: the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster.  This spring, three nuclear reactors on the northeast coast of Honshu melted down after being shaken by an earthquake and inundated by a once-in-a-lifetime tsunami. Designed in the sixties and manufactured in the early seventies, the reactors were an old design.  Mistakes made by engineers trying to rectify the situation initially compounded the problem.  This event has already been responsible for several worker deaths (although those occurred not as a result of radiation but rather from disaster conditions caused by the earthquake and flood).  It is estimated that, over the coming decades, fatalities from cancer could ultimately stretch up into the tens or perhaps even the hundreds!

Hindsight is 20/20, but, seriously, was this the best place for a series of fission reactors?

The fear generated by the incident has caused a global anti-nuclear backlash.  Plans for next-generation nuclear plants have been put on hold while existing power plants have been shut down.  Germany is exiting the nuclear energy business entirely.  Japan is building a host of ineffective wind plants and setting its advantages in fission power aside.  Developing nations like India, Brazil, and South Africa are reassessing their nuclear power plans.  The United States is suddenly building more gas power plants.  Even France is backing away from nuclear energy.

Anti-nuclear demonstrators march in Cologne (AP Photo/dapd/Roberto Pfeil)

Of course cold-blooded, analytically-minded readers who missed out on the media circus around the Fukushima incident might be wondering why a few (potential) deaths outweigh the 20,000 victims who were killed by the tsunami outright, or the hundreds of thousands of people killed worldwide in traffic accidents, or the millions of victims of North Korean famine.  Those kinds of casualties are all very ordinary and dull whereas the people who (might possibly) die (someday) from nuclear contamination face a very unusual, rare, and scary end.

Isn’t it worse that ten men might someday die of cancer then 10,000 men die outright from coal mining accidents?

Well no, not really.  The hype around nuclear accidents was used by fear-mongers to peddle their energy agenda–on the surface this might seem to be earth-friendly green energy, but since such a thing doesn’t really exist yet, the beneficiaries of nuclear power’s decline will be oil and gas producers, who are already operating the largest and most lucrative industry on earth.  Additionally the whole crisis allowed media sources to garner viewers and readers by means of frightening headlines (in fact that’s what I’m doing with this post).  The nuclear industry must become bigger to fit the needs of a world running out of fossil fuel (but with a quickly growing population of consumers).  Additionally our next generation of technology will likely require more energy rather than less.

Nigerians fight an oil pipeline explosion which burned hundreds of people to death

But, thanks to a disaster involving equipment that was four decades out of date which killed two people (from blood loss and contusion), humankind is abandoning the pursuit of inexpensive inexhaustible green energy for the foreseeable future.  At best, the next-generation nuclear designs now on the drawing boards or in early stages of construction will be reevaluated and made safer, but at worst we will fall into a long era of dependence of frac gas and foreign oil–a gray age of stagnation. Our leaders will greenwash this development by pretending that solar and wind energy are becoming more effective—but so far this has not been true at all.

I hope my flippant tone has not made it seem like I am making light of the tragedy that befell Japan, a peace-loving nation which is an unparalleled ally and friend.  I really am sad for every soul lost to the tsunami and I feel terrible for people who are now forced to live with the nebulous fear of cancer (especially the brave workers who raced in to known danger to fix the stricken plant).  Similarly, I worry about the Nigerians burned to death in pipeline accidents, the Pakistanis killed in friendly fire accidents, and the bicyclists run over by minivan drivers. To care about the world is to worry and face grief.

Tsunami Memorial Stone

But coping with such worries and sadness is the point of this essay.  Our fears must not outweigh our bright hopes. We must keep perspective on the actual extent of our setbacks and not allow them to scare us away from future progress. Only bravery combined with clear-headed thought will allow us to move forward.  Undoing this year’s mistakes is impossible but is still possible to learn from them and not live in fear of trying again.  I wrote about the energy sector because of its primacy within the world economy—but I dare say most industries are facing such a crisis to one extent or the other.

If we turn back or freeze in place, we will be lost–so onwards to 2012 and upward to great things.  And of course happy new year to all of my readers!

[And as always–if you feel I am utterly misguided in my energy policy or any other particular, just say so below.]

I once read a science fiction book about nanotechnology and biotechnology so powerful that intelligent materials could mold themselves into fantastical cities in the shape of cyclopean indestructible flowers.  One merely had to plant a special seed and the replicating nanoparticles therein would usurp all nearby matter and form it into a self-sufficient flower city.  It was a terrifying world—if you touched the wrong pillar you could be reconstructed and permanently built into a wall or a huge solar panel that looked like a leaf. On the other hand, it was a world where humanity had stretched out to build flamboyant botanical cities on the moon and beyond.

So far our steps into bioengineering and nanotechnology have been falteringly slow…but I mention the imaginary flower cities for a reason. This week I have been writing about builders of the past and the present, but what about the future?  What lies beyond the mega skyscrapers, experimental fusion labs, and radio telescopes that define the limits of what humankind can build now?  When I was a child I dreamed that I would end up living in a terrarium on a space station or I would bioengineer myself to have gills so I could dwell in a garden made of kelp and coral in a sea-city.  I live instead in a building that was made before I was born (in fact my last ten residences have pre-dated me).  The oceans are becoming waste lands and space exploration is on the back burner. The time of the arcologies and the domed cities is not here yet, but the population is growing so fast that prefabricated suburban sprawls will not be a suitable habitat for our teeming billions within only a few generations.

Builders are working to create structures which fit in harmony with the natural ecosystems of the planet, but it is less easy than it sounds.  I always remember my experience as a volunteer at a synthetic ecosystem built by the Smithsonian–despite immense ingenuity on the part of the designers, the life cycles of the organisms inside the system quickly veered into strange arrhythmic feedback loops. Today’s green movement does not exhibit any such ingenuity and the results are predictably nugatory. So far sustainable buildings and eco-friendly cities have been little more than shams designed to ease the conscience of affluent buyers.  I have a friend who visited Masdar City, an arcology community in the UAE which is designed to be powered entirely by renewable energy. The hereditary nobility who rule Abu Dhabi ordained that Masdar City should be the international showpiece of green living. Unfortunately the solar panels which have been installed do not work because of the dust and wind from the desert.  The other renewable energy sources have not even made an appearance.  The community is currently run on fossil fuel.  The personal transit pods souind intriguing but they don’t seem to have appeared yet either.

Masdar City: The future is...not here yet it would seem.

All of this that could and will change as technology improves (or it could change instantly if energy became inexpensive and clean).   The age of suburbs and slums must give way to a time of more efficient human habitats.  The arcologies are coming (unless of course the world spins into a dark age).  I am pleased that we have not yet seen their shape, but I am anxious that the shape might not be very pleasing.  Imagine the structure that you wish to see most.  Is it a Victorian mansion, an immense metal pylon, or a delicate Faberge egg? Perhaps it is colossal statue, a basalt temple, or a giant space torus?  Really, really look in your heart and ask yourself what you want.  Once you have decided, you should start talking about it with everyone.  Looking at Masdar City makes me realize that the people who design the great human habitats of the next age need more ideas as quickly as possible!

I guess we still have the International Space Station...

 

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