Wednesday, March 4, 2015
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Nashua;44.0;http://forecast.weather.gov/images/wtf/small/few.png;2015-03-04 13:37:48

Drones get OK for inspection of power lines

Helicopter pilots won't like this news, but Illinois-based ComEd has just gotten FAA permission to use drones to keep an eye on its cross-country power lines. Report from Smartgrid News here.

The UAS will fly above power lines and substations taking videos and still photos, and providing an in-depth look at systems' condition. In addition to this camera, in the future, ComEd hopes to have an infrared camera mounted to identify hot spots on the lines. ... ComEd is also investigating the use of underground robots in its manholes, which can present significant risks to workers.

The FAA has a pretty good, if slightly defensive-sounding, FAQ about commercial use of drones.

U.S. will finally get an offshore wind farm - in Rhode Island waters

It looks like the U.S. is finally going to get an offshore wind farm, although not a particularly big one (30 MW). Deepwater Wind says it has gotten all the necessary financing, as well as permits, for its Block Island project, and has started construction.

It expects to be in operation with five turbines by fall of 2016, reports Vice: "The company has secured $290 million in financing, with funding from the likes of Key Bank and France's Société Générale, in part on the strength of its long-term power purchase agreement with US utility National Grid." Financing is what finally scuttled Cape Wind, the endlessly-debated massive wind project originally slated to be north of Martha's Vineyard and Nantucket.

The Bureau of Ocean Energy Management notes the appeal of offshore wind:

Offshore winds tend to blow harder and more uniformly than on land. The potential energy produced from wind is directly proportional to the cube of the wind speed. As a result, increased wind speeds of only a few miles per hour can produce a significantly larger amount of electricity. For instance, a turbine at a site with an average wind speed of 16 mph would produce 50% more electricity than at a site with the same turbine and average wind speeds of 14 mph.

Genetically modified organisms to be discussed in a bar (with GMO beer, maybe?)

Genetically modified organisms are a godsend, a disaster, a biogeek's delight, just an extension of what mankind has done since agriculture began - or maybe all of those, mashed together. This complexity makes them a fascinating topic, which is why Science on Tap, the science-cafe series run by SEE Science Center in Manchester, will tackle it next week.

The March 10 talk at the Shaskeen Pub, 909 Elm St. in Manchester, will discuss GMOs. Panelists are John E. Carroll, professor of environmental conservation in the Department of Natural Resources UNH, and Britt Lundgren, Director of Organic and Sustainable Agriculture at Stonyfield Farm (who, I suspect, will be less than enthusiastic). Doors open at 5:30 and the talk starts at 6; could be good, and the bar is excellent!

Personally, I'm in favor of modifiying the genetics of plants to make them more useful - Vitamin A-enhanced golden rice is the classic example - but I also favor strong government regulation so that the Monsantos of the world can't screw it up while chasing profits, leaving the rest of us to clean up the mess.

That includes mandatory labeling. If people want to know whether their food has GMO crops in it, let them know. Yes, it will cause some people to make stupid decisions about what to eat and what to buy and yes, it will interfere with food-company profits. Tough. Doubling down on "no labeling" will just delay and politicize GMOs.

Those you who are Science Cafe NH regulars in Nashua will remember that we discussed GMOs in Oct. 2013, with different panelists.

The joy of amateurs who "solve" high-level mathematics

If I had to be anybody except myself, I would like to be Underwood Dudley, the DePauw University mathematician best known for his books about mathematical cranks. His magnum opus, "Mathematical Cranks", is the rare work that informs you about human nature and modern mathematics at the same time, while making you laugh.

The closest I come is the occasional press release from somebody who has solved some famous scientific problem, usually in a way that shows they are smarter than Einstein. (They used to send letters, sometimes with diagrams, but now it's email, alas.)

Today I got one via PRNewswire, which reprints anything, about a Nevada man who has "solved" Bertrand Russell's paradox - the one that gets all tied up when you consider the set of all sets that don't contain itself - and Cantor's continuum hypothesis. I didn't know the latter needed to be solved, since it is a foundation piece of modern set theory, but it involves infinite quantities, which as Dudley notes tend to give cranks the heebie-jeebies. It's common for amateurs to "solve" mathematical theorems in ways that let them pretend transfinite numbers don't exist.

How does this fellow do it? "In his essay two concepts are used: Ispace (the imagination) and Tspace (three dimensional reality, where all things real exist), in order to shed new light on the problems of set theory, the Continuum Hypothesis, and the related paradoxes. This is a new method for solving these problems."

In other words, define things away - that's imagination, and that's reality - and we can live in a comfortable finite universe again.

The author, incidentally, is described thusly: "Dabbles in science, loves philosophy, and writes eBooks - mostly science fiction and fantasy."

Tackle those free-floating ions the high-tech way: Wash your darn car

I spent $800 replacing rusted body panels on one of our cars this winter, so my column today in the Telegraph is heartfelt: It looks at the chemistry of rust caused by road salt and advocates a high-tech solution:

I hate to take the time, and pay the money, for a car wash and since it’s too cold to use a hose in winter, I don’t wash my station wagon very often.

There’s a word for such behavior: Really stupid. (OK, two words.) Shelling out 10 bucks every couple of weeks, or more often in a winter like this one, for a car wash is a lot cheaper than paying for new wheel wells or exhaust pipes. I’m trying to learn.

Alas, the cooler-sounding electronic rust prevention, or cathodic protection, doesn't work.

In a way, Boston really did steal Alaska's winter 

It's hard for us in the East to realize it, but a majority of the U.S. geographically is having a warm, dry winter. Ski areas out in the west and Pacific northwest are hurting big time, and drought is really going to be worse this summer without much snowmelt.

The Globe has a nice perspective on it today: A story about how Anchorage is suffering through its worst-ever snowless winter:

As of Friday, less than an inch had fallen here in February. The joke on the streets is that the two cities have swapped winters.

It’s more or less true. The cause of Alaska’s mild winter is the same as has created Boston’s punishing one — the “wonky jet stream,” as a headline in Friday’s Alaska Dispatch News described it. High atmospheric pressure in the western US and low pressure in the east are combining to draw arctic air down through Canada to New England, literally rerouting Anchorage’s winter to Boston while basking south coastal Alaska in weather warmed by Pacific Ocean currents.

Nashua, meanwhile, broke all-time records for cold weather in February, and records for a combination of cold and snow (usually the coldest months aren't too snowy because of jet stream patterns.)

LED lights find a big new market: Marijuana growers (maybe other farmers, too) 

The push to legalize marijuana could help the LED lighting industry, reports Greentech Media:

The overall LED grow-light module market is expected to move from $395 million in 2013 to $3.6 billion by 2020, according to WinterGreen Research. That upward trend will largely be driven by weed. One LED startup, Intelligent Light Source, is targeting the legal (and perhaps indirectly, the not-so-legal) grow ops of individuals and businesses with lights that are tailored to help them get the most from their bud.

But New Scientist has a wet-blanket look at using LEDs indoor to grow conventional crops. Despite the fact that tailoring LED lighting can produce startling output per square foot of soil, and lack of heat output means you can stack trays of herbs or lettuce or other short crops very close together, the cost and environmental impact of the electricity makes "vertical indoor farming" a bad idea most of the time, the article says. You have to be a subscriber to read it all, but it's a cautionary tale.

What will a solar ecipse due to solar power? In Europe, cut output by 400 MW per minute!

New technologies bring new problems. Here's an interesting example: Europe uses so much solar power now that the March 20 solar eclipse will be a major issue even though it only lasts a couple of hours. (The eclipse won't hit us.)

As Grist reports in a fascinating story: "The (European) grid will be losing 400 MW/minute on the front end and gaining 700 MW/minute on the back end." That means the equivalent of all the solar power in New Hampshire will shut down within five minutes, and then turn back on again in three minutes. Not trivial.

On the other hand, people also stop what they're doing and go outside to look at solar eclipses, so the demand for electricity will also dip. They have to factor that in, too.

And you thought running a power grid was easy.

Thru-hiking the Appalachian Trail is getting so popular that there's now an online register

The Appalachian Trail Conservancy has set up a voluntary online scheduling system for Appalachian Trail thru-hikers, to help them know when the various shelters and campsites might be full.

Here's an explanation and the set-up. This is an amazing indication of how popular thru-hiking the 2,200-mile-long AT has become. Anybody who has stayed at AMC huts in the White Mountains in mid- to late summer, which thru-hikers clamor to trade a little dish-washing time for the chance to sleep indoors, knows how many of these tired and smelly, but focused, people exist.

The Conservancy says they expect the success of the movie "Wild", about a woman's long-distance hike, may spur more people to try it this year.

Note that you can't start south from Katahdin in Maine until May 15 at the earliest ... wonder if the snow will be gone by then?

Can real-time computer analysis make chess a good spectator sport?

Some fokls at the MIT Media Lab have a cool "playful" project in development, called DeepView, a pun on chess computer Deep Blue. They're trying to use statitics and game play analysis to provide real time charts and stats for viewers so we can better follow live games and thus enjoy it more.

It's the chess equivalent of those virtual first-down line shown on TV during football games, which make it clearer how far the team with the ball has to go and thus increases the interest and excitement from us spectators.

We gathered an archive of more than 750,000 games from chessgames.com including extensive collections of games played by each of the grandmasters in the tournament. We then used the Stockfish open source chess engine to analyze the details of each move within these games. We combined these results into a comprehensive statistical analysis that provided us with meaningful and compelling information to pass on to viewers and to provide to chess comentators to aid in their work.

They're also trying to develop an ongoing "score" for the game, so you have a better sense of who's ahead and how close the game is.

A very neat idea. I look forward to trying to beta.

I learned about it from this BBC item, which has a good short video interview explaining the concept, if not the geeky details.

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About this blog

David Brooks has written a science column for the Nashua (N.H.) Telegraph since 1991 - yes, that long - and has overseen this blog since 2006.

He chats weekly with New Hampshire Public Radio about GraniteGeek topics, around 5:50 p.m. on Tuesdays. You can listen to old sessions here.

Contact:   E-mail or call 603-594-6531.

ggScienceCafeSidebar

Free, informal get-togethers at a bar that feature discussion among the audience (everybody is welcome) and experts in various fields. Check the website here.

NEXT CAFE: Wednesday, March 18

TOPIC: Why are roads built where, and how, they are?

Location: Killarney's Irish Pub, 9 Northeastern Boulevard (Holiday Inn, just west of Exit 4 on the turnpike).

PAST TOPICS:

2015:

February: The science of sugar. January: Geothermal energy.

2014:

November: Medical screening; how much is too much? October: Flexible and printed electronics. September: The science of marijuana. June: Fluoridation in public water. May: Organic gardening. April: Tele-medicine, or doctoring from afar. March: Bitcoin - what is it? February: The science of allergies. January: Electric cars.

2013:
November:
Multiple sclerosis. October: Genetically modified organisms. September: Aquaponics. June: Flying robots (drones!) May: PTSD and brain tauma in veterans. April: Cats vs. wildlife in NH. March: Mosquito-borne disease. February: The science of brewing. January: 3-D printing, with MakeIt Labs.

2012:
November:
"Dark skies and light pollution" with Discovery Center. October: "The science of concussion." September: "The science of pain management." June: "Arsenic in our environment." May: "Invasive species in New Hampshire" April: "Nanotechnology in business and the lab". March: "Lyme disease in NH". Feb: "Seasonal Affective Disorder." Jan: "Biomass energy"

2011:
Nov.: "Science of Polling." Oct.: "Digital Privacy." Sept: "Vaccinations." June: "Future of Food." May 2011: "Climate Change"

ggScienceCafeSidebar

Alternative power map

Click here to see my alternative-power Google map showing large-scale solar, wind, hydro and nuclear plants in N.H., plus intriguing alternative-power items.

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