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Tuesday, March 30, 2004

Prelude to interplanetary travel 

I'm still in the middle of reading Robert Zimmerman's "Leaving Earth" (review at the above link) but we did get an overview of the book at his talk. By the way, the location, the 56th Fighter Group Restaurant was rather interesting - a reproduction of a World War II British air base, complete with Spitfire's parked outside. The food was pretty good too!

Tuesday, March 16, 2004

Dad's comments on the transistor 

Hi Dad :-)

Having some experience in semiconductor research, he had the following comments:

I worked in the transistor area between 1960 and 1964, and some of
my experiments were with the field effect on the surface of a semicondutor.
My understanding is that the DISCOVERY of transistor action by Shockley and
others was an accident arising from experiments on this surface field
effect. Of course, the investigation of semiconductor properties was
carried out at Bell Labs and at other similar institutions like Philips in
Eindhoven and IBM, Texas Instruments, etc. So one could argue that the
DEVELOPMENT of transistors at A.T & T. was done, as you say, to create
something new. That it was not pure research once the discovery had been
I believe the big breakthrough came when photolithography was
applied to the problem. I believe the first company to do this was
Fairchild (Camera), in California. I don't know what links there are from
that company to Intel etc. But I do know that at the company I was with,
Mullard, a subsidiary of Philips, the view was that microminiaturisation
would be done by evaporating metals onto the surface of a semiconductor.
There was much work going on using diffusion of elements into
semiconductors, but the idea of using photographic techniques was not
seriously entertained.
Another comment, I'd like to make: a 19th century scientist I have
a great deal of admiration for is Michael Faraday. His work was done almost
entirely alone. He had one man to help him, that is all. His investigations
cover large areas of physics, physical chemistry and organic chemistry as
well. He, therefore, had little need for vast funding as is the case today,
partly to pay all the employees on a project. I think a great deal of
funding needs are probably exaggerated these days.
One final thought: with regard to the cost of PV, wouldn't you
agree that further reductions in price will come from much larger scale
manufacture and sales, rather than from new technology


Snow again! 

Just as our first (poor, tiny, small mammal-eaten) crocuses were starting to flower. Oh well... I hope the daffodils survive - their leaves were a couple of inches high.

Joshua loves the snow though - he always likes to be outdoors, but I don't remember the other two ever being so excited at such an early age by snowfall. He was out tonight trying to throw snowballs at his big brother, having a blast!

Sunday, March 07, 2004

An amazing game 

Ben's basketball team won their second straight game yesterday - apparently against the second-best team in the league! Not bad for a team where about half the players had never played before (Ben's previous experience consisted of throwing balls at a 7-foot basket in our driveway - and missing most of the time). As Coach Sweeney had warned, some of the teams were a bit stacked this year, with big experienced players picked out for a select few teams; in this case, all but one or two of the players on the other team was bigger and bulkier than every one of our players.

It didn't look good at the start. The other team scored quickly and repeatedly, with their players hitting the basket on every shot - the score stood at 8-0 after a couple of minutes. A couple of the other parents near me shared a grimace - this was going to be over quickly. But then Ben's team got really tight on defense, got the ball down to the basket, and were fouled on a shot, and had free throws; both of them went in. Suddenly the tables seemed turned - our little guys were getting the ball in the basket, dribbling circles around the big guys - and they were getting too scared to foul us. The score was 9-14 near the end of the first half, when Ben was fouled - and then made one of his free throws, and then shortly after got a rebound to make another basket - 9-17 at the end of the first half!

We got the first basket at the beginning of the second half, and another one not long after, but they had started scoring again and brought it up to 20-21. They were back in the lead at 26-25 briefly, then again at 30-29, but there wasn't much time left then and Ben's team had one more basket in them - final score: 30-31!

Pretty amazing game for a bunch of 9 and 10-year-olds!

Friday, March 05, 2004

Comments added 

Seems to be easy to add comments using the haloscan code :-) Trying it out anyway.

Science for its own sake, or not? 

Prompted by my Suffolk Life letter, I've been debating with a friend on my apparent downplaying of the importance of space activities, and science, for their own sake, rather than for practical benefit. Excerpting from our debate a bit:

[Can funding for science by justified by its "beauty"?] The National Endowment for the Arts gets barely over $100 million per year, and that's about it for federal funding for the arts.

The National Science Foundation alone receives well over $5 billion/year; that's a factor of 50 that's hard to justify on "beauty". Adding in NASA, the Dept. of Energy, NIH and research at the Department of Defense, the Dept. of Commerce's NIST and NOAA labs, etc. and total funding for what is nominally "science" is around $100 billion/year, or a factor of about 1000. We scientists are always complaining that's not enough of course :-)

There is certainly engineering value in doing science for its own sake. Pure science has been the realm of the greatest advances in science that were later used in engineering.

Consider how Maxwell gave us a much better understanding of electricity and magnetism. It was because of his work that we later discovered radio waves.

This is certainly a good example - it's amazing what a true understanding of nature, that science provides, can allow us to do. The question to me is, are we pursuing those new things we can do, to the extent that we should be with all the knowledge we now have?

Our world is forever changed as a result. Consider, also, the discovery of quantum mechanics. The earliest proponents were certainly not looking for any engineering application. Yet, no modern computer would work if quantum mechanics were not true.

Well, it did take 40 years from Einstein's photo-electric effect to the transistor; the connection is not very direct. How much of that intervening effort was pure science and how much was materials engineering? The transistor is certainly an example of a very focused development effort to create something new - effectively government-supported since it was done at the sort of regulated government monopoly (AT&T) which isn't really allowed to exist any more.

Goal-directed research (rather than curiosity-driven) is clearly directly responsible for some of our greatest technologies - the major World-War-II innovations (nuclear power, radar, jet engines, and von Braun's rockets) are obviously big examples. Turing's WWII work on cryptography led to the theoretical foundation and real inspiration for computing. Apollo achieved a remarkable feat on time and within budget; while not really inventing new technologies it did greatly expand the capabilities of a variety of pre-existing inventions - fuel cells, and computers again, for example.

Science benefits practical application, but practical application benefits science enormously too - there's a need for balance. To go back to Maxwell - true, his theory preceded the discovery of radio. But Faraday's electric generator preceded Maxwell's theory; application of that discovery took many years, but without widely available electricity almost no modern science would even be possible!

So, if pressed for engineering applications coming from pure science, they could certainly be impressively given. However, if that were the aim of these scientists, these discoveries would likely not have been made. So, science for science's sake is essential to our technological progress. I believe that as we advertise our profession, it is crucial that we help them to understand this. People should not be lead to believe that the only important science is that which has immediate engineering applications.

Obviously a sensitive point! Balance, balance - to me the balance in the last 20 years or so has tilted, at least at the highest levels of our government, much much too far in favor of "science for science's sake", to the extent that even the smallest attempts to try to set national technology goals (except in trendy so-far-inapplicable areas like "nanotechnology" or, sadly, the "hydrogen economy") are met with howls of disapproval and steadily disappearing funding. Example - the history of the "Advanced Technology Program" at the Department of Commerce - http://www.aip.org/enews/fyi/2000/fyi00.080.htm - perhaps it could have been administered better, but note the attacks on goal-directed research there...

we are in the business of the search of truth. And, as a body, I have found the scientific community to be the most objective about truth, but not wholly. Thank goodness that we have experiment to finally decide "what is truth". We are in the search of experimentally verifiable truth. In fact, that is the definition of science - the search for experimentally verifiable truth. That is not what engineers do. They search for ways to use truth to improve our world. The mindset is totally different (and good). I appreciate what engineers do and certainly don't want a world with only scientists and no engineers. We need them both. They are both vital to the improvement of our world.

Yup. But engineers are easily enamored of "cool" stuff - doing everything with the latest technology, hitting the highest performance measures, cutting the tightest safety boundaries; they are not necessarily very practical either. My concern, relating to the original NASA issue, is more distinguishing between "science and engineering for their own sake" (which is how most of the $100 billion currently spent on public R&D every year in the US goes) and "science and engineering directed towards a common, near-term, achievable goal" (for example, fixing global warming). Aside from medicine, where I really don't know enough to comment, we don't seem to be doing much of this any more.

An example: high government funding for photovoltaics research under the Carter administration saw huge decreases in cost of the components and real practical applications in just a few years - and then right after that government funding for R&D in photovoltaics was cut way back, and costs improved much more slowly - if you look at the graph of technology funding and component cost it's a very clear relationship.

There's a text version of the history here: http://www.eia.doe.gov/cneaf/solar.renewables/renewable.energy.annual/backgrnd/chap11i.htm.

Note the 1978 "Solar Photovoltaic Energy, Research, Development, and Demonstration Act", which committed $1.2 billion to the field, and the price of photovoltaics falling to $10/Watt by 1984. It was down to $5/Watt in 1992; current prices are at best about $2.50/Watt. In the early 1970s, module prices had been $100/Watt or more (in 1992 dollars).

A graph of funding in the US and other countries, starting in 1981 (not adjusted for inflation - i.e. it's fallen much more than it looks): http://www.eia.doe.gov/cneaf/solar.renewables/rea_issues/fig8s.html

[Actually, here's a graph from the same report of PV prices since 1975 or so, when they were $30/W in 1975 dollars:http://www.eia.doe.gov/cneaf/solar.renewables/rea_issues/fig1s.html]

Another factor of 2-3 price improvement is all that is needed for a real revolution in renewable energy at the gigawatt scale of utilities, instead of the megawatt scale you see now, but it'll be 30 years away at current improvement rates.

On the space front, NASA had a program a few years ago, the Space Launch Initiative, to cut the cost to orbit by a factor of 10. There was some promise that it could work by greatly automating things and reducing manpower requirements for preparation for launch - but after spending about a billion dollars, it was cancelled. There's a litany of failed attempts of this sort, which seem to be stymied by the influence of the big aerospace contractors, who only care about the money, not what practical use comes out of it, and the congress, who mostly care about the jobs, and getting reelected themselves. And NASA managers are probably to blame too - for being too in love with engineering rather than practical goals. Perhaps that will change...


Wednesday, March 03, 2004

Suffolk Life letter too 

I like the title they picked: "Enormous Untapped Benefits"!
However, they did precede it with another letter calling the space program an Outrageously Overpriced Media Show. Oh well... I wish they'd review these things for facts before publishing, but it's not that sort of paper.

Longer version of Review #3 

I had prepared a rather long review first (actually this was the first one I started working on, but the last one published) - it's a lengthy book, and rather interesting. Then I noticed the Huntsville Times had a 300 word suggested length, and attempted some radical cuts. I rather liked the long version though.

We do seem to be over the flu here, thank goodness!

Tuesday, March 02, 2004

Feathered adventures 

While I've been recovering from the flu the last few days, my Dad sent the following report of their activities in the woods near St. John's:

Today we had a wonderful walk in the woods and Mum held out her
gloved hand and twice a red-breasted nuthatch landed and ate a sunflower
seed from her. They are sweet little birds and suffer from aggressive
behaviour of juncos and chickadees which are larger!

He might have been able to catch it on camera too; we have to wait and see.

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