Review – The Power to Save the World: The Truth About Nuclear Energy

Power to Save the World Power to Save the World: The Truth About Nuclear EnergyGwyneth Cravens; Knopf 2007WorldCatRead OnlineLibraryThingGoogle BooksBookFinder 

Gwyneth Cravens was a writer who knew next to nothing about nuclear power, and like most people who don’t know very much about it, was against it. Then, she decided to learn as much as she could by touring various facilities and talking to lots of scientists, before finally concluding that nuclear is the only option that allows us to keep using electricity without global warming the planet to death.

Like many books about nuclear power, this one is overlong with too much detail. The problem is that the pro-nuclear camp is making an argument that nobody wants to hear, so they make it very comprehensively. It was also written before Fukushima, which renders it alarmingly out of date. If she thought people didn’t understand the risks and benefits of nuclear power before, that perception has only worsened.

That said, much of it is still true, and I would argue Fukushima doesn’t change the basic arguments all that much. The fossil fuel industry creates orders of magnitude more hazardous waste and is less careful about dealing with it. There are permanent disposal places that are more or less perfectly safe. Especially if we reprocess fuel and only store the truly not useful stuff, we will never run out of space because the volume of the waste is so incredibly small.

Another interesting point that I’d have liked to see discussed in light of Fukushima is all of the natural disasters that nuclear plants have survived. Three operating power reactors were hit by Katrina with no problems, according to this book. I’d like to see someone talk about others. And natural disasters will only get worse as the climate gets more unstable, which is precisely the thing relying more on nuclear power, at least as a transitional technology, is intended to prevent.

But in the end, although she was ideally suited to discuss the public misperceptions and what can be done about them, she was still applying the same technique scientists have been for years. Show the public lots of data and they will understand. I was hoping she would have written something a little less technical and a little more emotional.

Graphing a Spiral in Excel

By definition, a function must be single valued. That is, for any given x, there can be only one y. The same y can appear for multiple x‘s, like in every periodic function ever, but not the other way around. So, that’s pretty limiting. What if you want to graph a circle? Or a cardioid? Or a spiral?

The trick is to generate two separate function of a different variable. So $latex x=x(t)$ and $latex y=y(t)$. These are known as parametric equations.

One way to make Excel spit at you while trying to graph parametric equations is to graph them as a line plot rather than a scatter plot. This is confusing for me personally because I swear those used to do the same thing. But that’s the trouble with getting old. Things change, and you are cursed with the memory of how they used to work.

By way of example, let’s graph a spiral.

First, generate a column of t‘s. In our case, these are going to be angles in radians. You can use any step you like, but beware using a tiny step because it took me 200 data points to get around the spiral once.

You’ll also need to generate a gradually increasing r. This can be a constant times your angle step, or if you’re really fancy, it can be something more complex like $latex r=ct^2$. If your t‘s are in column A, starting in row 2, your formula for r would look like this: =4*A2 . For the rest of the discussion, assume I have put this formula in column B

Next, you generate your parametric equations: $latex x=r\cos(t)$ and $latex y=r\sin(t)$. In Excel, these will look like this: =B2*COS(A2) and =B2*SIN(A2) respectively.

Finally, you graph your x column and y column as a scatter plot, and you receive spirals as payment.

If your r increases by equal increments, you get a spiral that looks like this:




And if you graph a spiral with increasing r increments, you get something like this:



Fun right? Feel free to download the sheet I used to make these guys. If you have any questions, leave them in the comments.

Review: Rich Food, Poor Food

Jayson Calton and Mira Calton – Rich Food, Poor Food: The Ultimate Grocery Purchasing System (GPS): Shop Smart, Shop Healthy, Save Time, Save Money ….. Avoid Hype and Harmful Ingredients

Man, I hate nutrition books. It’s even less fun for someone who has to be in the room with me while I’m reading them. There’s a lot of cries of frustration, hair pulling, and exclamations of, “That’s not how chemistry works! UGH!”

Let me give you an example. During their discussion of “Banned Bad Boys,” because who can take an author seriously if they don’t use alliteration, they tell you how terrible brominated vegetable oil and potassium bromate are, because bromine is bad. Let me show you some pictures.

This is what potassium bromate looks like:

File:Bromičnan draselný.JPG

This is what bromine looks like:

File:Bromine 25ml.jpg

Did you notice something? Perhaps the fact that they look nothing alike? That is because, in chemistry, typically compounds act absolutely nothing like their elemental forms. Sodium and potassium, both (in ionic form) micronutrients without which you would die, in their elemental forms literally explode when they touch water.

I couldn’t find any pictures of brominated vegetable oil, just a bunch of pictures of nutrition labels, bromine, and poison symbols, but that is probably because it probably looks exactly like ordinary vegetable oil.

So, I’d forgive them for being confused, except that they really hammer the point in. Let me quote: Brominated vegetable oil “is composed mainly of bromine, a poisonous chemical whose vapors are considered both corrosive and toxic.” And yes, bromine is a huge jerk. I have worked with it, and it’s fucking evil. You’re pouring it and these terrifying dark red gasses are flying up into the air, and you’re wearing a mask and the sash on the fume hood is all the way down and you’re still a little freaked out because it looks like you’re in a bad mad science movie. But once it’s in a compound, it no longer gives off vapors. I promise. And “mainly”? Define “mainly”, because I am pretty sure it is “mainly” vegetable oil.

But I mean, seriously. I’m not even arguing about whether BVO is bad for you. It probably is. It’s banned in a bunch of other countries. That’s good enough for me. But why the bad chemistry facts? This guy has a PhD in nutrition, and he doesn’t know how chemistry works? And it didn’t even occur to him to maybe CHECK THE INTERNET before publishing this garbage? How am I supposed to believe a single other thing he says?

I have a lot more to say about how nutrition books are bad in general and this one specifically, but I’m tired and I want to go home.

Review: The End of Leadership

Barbara Kellerman – The End of Leadership

This was a really cool book. She talks about how technology is changing the world and making us completely unleadable. She also questions the business of teaching leadership, which is clearly not working, as leaders lose more and more powerful the more educated (as a group) they get. I’m not saying it as well as she did, so you should read the book.

Review: Forecast

Mark Buchanan – Forecast: What Physics, Meteorology, and the Natural Sciences, Can Teach Us About Economics

I have a request, plz. More physicists write more books about things that are not physics. Please and thank you. I want to hug him, because he brings out new science metaphors. Not the same old ones we’ve all heard before, but brand new ones. Hugs. If he wants them, of course.

This guy is pretty smart, and he has some smart things to say about economics. Specifically, that most of economic theory is stupid, and that economists keep throwing good money after bad (see what I did there?).

Specifically: The belief that markets reach equilibrium and return to equilibrium when perturbed is bullshit. Markets are chaotic, unpredictable, and tiny perturbations can make them explode. Like the weather. And market predictions fail for the same reason that meteorological ones always used to, before meteorologists accepted that they even if they had 100% of all the information about all the mosquitos in the world, they were still not going to be able to predict the weather perfectly.

So, the book has some tools for prediction that actually work, and talks about how one would go about making additional tools. It also spends many, many words whining about how dumb social scientists are. If you’re a hard scientist, you’re used to that and it feels like home, but everyone else might find it a little off-putting.

I like and approve of this book.