October 15, 2007

The Potsdam Conference on the Climate, Currently at a Venue Nowhere Near You

"Next speaker was the German Chancellor Angela Merkel, herself a theoretical physicist by training. She pointed out that inaction on the climate issue would be at least five times more costly than reducing emissions, and she called for a reduction of global emissions by 50% by the year 2050. She reaffirmed that the European Union has pledged to reduce its emissions by 30% by the year 2020 if others join in, and that the target of the German government is a 40% reduction by 2020...Several physics and chemistry Nobel laureates highlighted the tremendous potential of solar power for solving the world's energy and climate problems. Carlo Rubbia (NP physics 1984) pointed out that a square of the size 210 x 210 km receives as much solar power as the whole world consumes in energy today. This is just a small pixel on the world map he showed, and just 0.13 % of the world's desert area. Walter Kohn (Nobel Prize Chemistry 1998) reported from a meeting in China a few weeks ago, presenting a number of interesting facts, such as that the solar cell production in China is growing at a rate of 40% per year. Alan Heeger (Nobel Prize chemistry 2000) presented an inspiring lecture on cheap plastic solar cells - his lab is working on solar cells that can literally be printed on a roll of plastic sheeting, from a polymer solution. Present status is that they achieve an efficiency of 6.5 % with these printed solar cells, with much promise for rapid improvements."

I know. You're trying to get your mind around the idea of a major Western country with a theoretical physicist as its head of state. There are 15 Nobel laureates at this Potsdam Conference, and I'm thinking: Angela Merkel not only understands, in rigorous detail, what they're talking about, she probably can follow them in their native languages. Can you imagine? Suppose we had a president in this country who not only knew what the double-slit/electron experiment of quantum physics was, but could explain it to you in entertaining and clever detail, instead of telling you that childrens do learn and acknowledging how hard it is to put food on your family. A theoretical physicist making decisions at the top of government. What would public discourse have been like if Richard Feynman had ever been president of this country? He actually told us in one of the last books he ever wrote. He said when he had a problem to solve, he'd get the smartest people he knew within the field of inquiry to research the hell out of it and then make suggestions on the best approach. Then he would decide. I guess my question is: why is it ever done any other way?

Meanwhile, back in the U.S.A., we must first explain a couple of things to W. For example, .13% of the world's desert area is not the same as "thirteen percent" of the world's desert area. It is thirteen one-hundreths of one percent. Okay, let's try that again. Suppose, Mr. President, you had ten thousand marbles. You'd have all your marbles! Get it? Okay, let's move on. If you gave away thirteen, you'd still have...how many? That's right, math was your higher...reported score on the SAT. 9,987 marbles. Perfect. (While we're doing this at the easel with a marker pen, Angela Merkel is sitting in a comfortable chair near the window reading a book in French about string theory.) Why did I use ten thousand? I multiplied 100 by 100, thinking that each of the 100 percentage points had one hundred parts, and then...no, you're right, Mr. President. Too much information! Cut to the chase: we'd still have 99.87% of the world's desert left for unmolested use by camels, gila monsters, and all-terrain three-wheelers, if we can capture the solar power falling on a square...oh no, here we go again. Can you look over this way for a minute and stop waving at those people through the window? Those aren't really people. They're statues along the roof line of that old building across the street, actually. They used to build a lot of that stuff like that here in Europe.That "km" that Signor Rubbia is talking about is a metric measurement, but it's not one of Donald Rumsfeld's "metrics," you know, that word he would use to talk about "progress" in Iraq because he thought it sounded smarter than "measurement." The Nobel Prize winner (don't worry, that's one award they'll never bother you with) is referring to kilometers. Most of the world uses the metric system; we use it here, in fact, in science and medicine, two activities which I know you oppose. A kilometer equals one thousand meters, and it's about 62% of a mile. Can we try multiplying 210 by point 62? Why? To get an equivalent...look, Mr. President, take my word for it. We're almost done here. You could build this power plant near Midland, and it could get lost out there. I mean, as a practical matter, you'd build a whole bunch, but the idea is...the idea is...I'm going down to the ratskellar and see if I can score ein grosses helles Bier, Mr. President. I'm gonna try and get Angela to explain to you about why it's cheaper to cut emissions now, by a factor of five...huh? Factor is like "times." No, it has nothing to do with Bill O'Reilly. What? Oh. He's okay, I guess. Not really, but I gotta run.

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