Scientific Sense Podcast

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Solar maximum

Recent statistics issued by the Department of Energy (DOE) shows that the price of solar photovoltaic (PV) modules continue to decline at nearly 15% per year. Solar PV, however, still remains uneconomical without subsidies, costing over $6/W for residential systems and over $3/W at utility scale. The report also indicates that the Balance of System (BOS) costs including labor has been declining but they still represent nearly 1/3 of the total costs.

We are inching towards fossil fuel parity – requiring another 100% decline at utility scale and 200% at residential level. In addition to research in materials sciences to fundamentally change module design, one cannot ignore the need to further drive the BOS costs down. Simpler installation, lower losses in transmission & storage and better energy management systems can substantially reduce the costs of installation and maintenance. Reaching fossil parity for solar is a huge game changer – effectively eliminating green house concerns and ushering in the era of distributed generation – that is much more robust providing higher security and efficiency. Such a technology will also lift developing countries, clamoring for cheaper transportation and refrigeration.

It is important to solve this problem holistically. Let’s not ignore the design of the overall system – including wiring, labor, alternators, storage and maintenance in addition to the PV modules.

Thursday, November 22, 2012

Broken universe

A recent report from the journal of Physical Review Letters show data that point to an anticipated break in time symmetry. This rejects symmetry in any dimension of CPT and we are left with a broken universe with no mirror images in anything. So, there is no looking back after all and contemporary time should flow uninterrupted in a singular direction. This coupled with the current hypothesis that the universe will expand forever with an unimaginable and unending outcome of complete darkness completes the pessimistic view that humans have strived to reach for generations. We are completely and permanently sealed in an irrelevant corner of a fish bowl, that leaks.

Is such knowledge useful? Would the participants of a system with programmatic bad outcomes like to know them in advance? How could science bridge the gap between the limited lifespan of a human and her yearning to understand the future she does not control? Are we coming full circle to the beginning where ignorance was bliss? If knowledge cannot be shown to be any more utility maximizing than ignorance, why would we engage in such a process?

The reason, ironically, may be that humans are programmed to seek information. This is likely a property of the system and it is no different from entropy. It seems that knowledge and entropy will increase unambiguously along an unwavering direction of time. So, it is unavoidable that humans will fully internalize the inevitable but sad truth.

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Can you huddle?

A recent study from the American Physical Society’s Division of Fluid Dynamics demonstrates that penguins that face harsh Antarctica winters huddle optimally. There are two important findings. First, even though each individual penguin is driven by a selfish motivation to capture maximum available heat for itself, the ultimate outcome appears to result in democratic allocation of aggregate heat among the participants. And second, the shape of the societal huddle seems to be utility maximizing if all uncertainties are taken into account.

These findings have multiple implications. It reinforces the idea that a system, in which individual participants are local utility maximizers, tend toward societal optimum. Many have been concocting theories to explain the behavior of complex systems top down and they get lost in the process as the complexity of their own theories overtake them. The efficient market hypothesis, that argues prices tend toward optimal levels by the actions of selfish participants has been objected to those who think it is too simplistic. Similarly, the origins of planned and socialistic societies follow a consistent disbelief in the actions of the selfish individual and a misplaced trust in a few, who govern them.

Those who do not believe in the power of free markets, trade and societal organizations, may want to look South, where those less endowed have constructed better systems.

Saturday, November 17, 2012

Hardware or software?

A recent study seems to argue that the remarkable intellectual abilities demonstrated by Einstein are related to the unusual characteristics of his brain. The asymmetric shapes in prefrontal, somatosensory, primary motor, parietal, temporal and occipital cortices of his brain may have contributed to his success, the study portends. This may be premature.

By comparing the shape and structure of a singular brain against a cross section of ordinary brains, the study seems to find oddities. However, the cause and effect are not established. More importantly, the question will be whether such odd shapes exist in larger populations and if so, why such brains have not been able to push imagination to the limit. An alternative hypothesis has to be that the hardware of the brain has little to do with the demonstrated abilities of a human. It is the software – both the installed operating system – culture and societal effects and the applications – experience and curiosity that make each brain unique. It is neither the capacity to memorize nor the ability to process information fast that lead to remarkable innovations and discoveries.

Ordinary men and women will perish cutting and dicing a remarkable organ but finding nothing important. Meanwhile, the imagination that propelled the beautiful mind to eternity will wither away.

Saturday, November 3, 2012

Occam’s razor

In every field, from science to psychology and from education to entertainment, those with simpler ideas and fewer assumptions seem to do better. Theories that can be expressed on simpler terms, educational institutions with fewer constraints and movies, music and dramas, with simpler and enjoyable plots seem to win. Yes, economy and parsimony, terms considered anathematic by those reaching for the stars under city lights, may rule again. A complex theory that fails to explain what is observed certainly is inferior to one that is simple and equally incompetent. If observed complexity in a system can be attributed to a singular origin, such as God or dark matter, then one could argue that it is in a favorable direction to Occam’s razor. In a world basking in statistical noise from pharmaceuticals to astrophysics and from Wall Street to the forgotten alleys, one could anticipate a break from mediocrity but that is not certain. It is dangerous to open one’s mind in the middle of an open field in the midst of a storm and lightning.

Those who anticipate the impending singularity may be better advised to attempt to make sense out of confusion.

Saturday, October 6, 2012

Reality bites

Recent news that the Chandra observatory has produced data showing the Milky Way is embedded in a vast halo of hot gas extending many hundreds of thousands of light years and possibly forming a bridge across the Local Group, may help reintroduce reality and less fanciful speculation in Astrophysics. The field has been dominated by those adept at concocting undefined constructs – dark matter, energy and flow - to account for the missing baryons and the inexplicable tilt of the universe for many decades. Such a simple explanation – that one has to look harder to find the thin veil – if proven correct, may inject a much needed reality check, with many positive effects.

Occam’s razor rules and those who forget it in any field are not progressing knowledge, just introducing noise to constrain it. One can never underestimate the power of simplification and this is especially true in a regime of exponentially increasing data, driving every scientist into analysis-paralysis and pattern finding. Empiricism and speculation without a mathematical framework are unlikely to be useful. The tendency has been either to take the status-quo equation as sacrosanct and reject observations that do not fit or to use observations to create hypotheses without a mathematical foundation.

Next time, perhaps, it is better to seek simpler explanations for exotic phenomena and badly behaving equations.

Tuesday, October 2, 2012

Green Brain

Recent news from the universities of Sheffield and Sussex (1) about a highly ambitious project to replicate a honey bee brain, in an attempt to advance the stagnant field of Artificial Intelligence, is encouraging. Brains, driven largely by instincts are likely more amenable to replication by currently available techniques. However, such replication is closer to automation than intelligence. Research in this direction is useful to build more intelligent automatons. Adding a layer of cognition to machines could be useful. If this can be considered different from the larger vision of AI – an ability to replicate the human brain in all its grandeur, we may be able to advance both fields faster.

The engineering concept of Artificial Intelligence has been stuck, attempting to connect brain replication with automation, for many decades. One of the primary reasons is that the structure and semantics of contemporary software are not amenable to modeling holistic phenomena. It is easier to build an airplane or a robot from component parts systematically. Engineers have been trying to extend this basic idea to brains with very little success.

Advancing contemporary AI techniques to creating brains with high programmability, such as the honey bee brain, is a useful exercise to advance robotics. But it is unlikely to advance our understanding of complex brains.

(1) 'Green Brain' project to create an autonomous flying robot with a honey bee brain. Published: Monday, October 1, 2012 - 11:07 in Mathematics & Economics