Thursday, August 30, 2012

Can scientists save the planet?

No. Businesses (small and large) are more likely saviours.

My January edition of Physics Today arrived in the snail mail this week!
Nevertheless, it was still worth reading.

The most interesting article were interviews with Steve Koonin, a former BP Chief Scientist and DOE Undersecretary for science and Ellen Williams, the current BP Chief Scientist. Two quotes from the Koonin interview particularly struck me
many of the people reading Physics Today are in the academic world, and if they want to really change energy, I would strongly recommend six months or a year out in the private sector, whether in a big company or a small startup. It really is a very different mindset than what a basic [academic] researcher has.... 
For some of our biggest problems, whether energy or other big problems in society, the technology is in many ways the easy part. The rate-limiting steps for many of our problems are societal: How people behave, what incentives there are, etc. I think the social sciences have a lot to bring to that discussion that has not really been exploited yet. That’s the direction I’m headed in; it’s still science, and it’s still in some ways goal-driven. But we’ve got to pay attention and better understand the human issues here: Policy, behavior, economics, perception, and how we fuse that with technology. 
This highlights something I (and some commenters on this blog) have said before. Perhaps there is too much emphasis (particularly in the chemistry community) on shifting basic research to trying to improve the efficiency of specific candidate materials and devices [e.g. Gratzel cells, bulk heterojunction organic solar cells, thermoelectric materials, hydrogen fuel cells, ...].
Picture is the 32 megawatt solar farm at Brookhaven National Lab.


  1. It amazes me an environmentalist would support chopping down trees to build a power station.

  2. Thanks for the comment, Tinos.
    You have an interesting observation. I did not even think about the fact that BP/Brookhaven chopped down trees to build the solar farm. I never said I supported it. I just posted the picture because I think it is interesting and impressive that there is already the technology to build and operate such things. We don't necessarily need scientific breakthroughs.

  3. I think it is true that we don't necessarily need scientific breakthroughs - or at least we shouldn't rely on them in our planning - since breakthroughs usually cannot be planned. We should use existing technology. However, I very much doubt that social science is a science - or rather to have it be a sufficiently developed science capable of informing policy would be assuming a much bigger breakthrough than being able to use fusion for energy. The social aspects do seem to me most important, but they remain an art.