Saturday, March 19, 2011

Of waves and particles

The devastating magnitude 9 earthquake with tsunami that hit the Northeast of Japan, and the unfolding nuclear crisis at the Fukuchima Daiichi power plant, is a human tragedy of immense proportions, and at the same time a powerful reminder of how limited our understanding of nature and our predictive power really is. It was long known that subduction zones can generate the most powerful earthquakes on the planet, but it was mistakenly assumed that only those corresponding to a younger oceanic crust (see the recent article on Nature) could reach the magnitude 9 level. An accurate (or more accurate) modeling of earthquakes determines our capacity to prepare and withstand the possibility of natural disasters, minimizing casualties: the Pacific coast of Northeastern Japan was perhaps the best prepared to face a tsunami (containment walls, escape routes, etc) yet not one with ten meters high waves.

The ongoing Japanese nuclear crisis is arguably the most transparently reported nuclear accident in history, yet how well is the technical information being transmitted to the general public? Is the accident really showing that nuclear reactors are inherently unsafe? There is a factual observation: the Fukushima reactors did not break down under a magnitude 9 earthquake, which is coming near the maximum intensity of earthquakes ever recorded on this planet: the reactor did switch off correctly. All through this crisis, the reactors had not been fissioning (another issue is to make sure that criticality, hence a new chain reaction in the fuel, is not ignited now, for example by the fires and overheating in the spent fuel ponds). It was the tsunami, not the earthquake that caused the most serious problems: while the facility had a tsunami wall, it did not stop a wave of that magnitude, which damaged the cooling system and started the overheating problems. So what does this mean? Are the reactors safe or unsafe? There is a meltdown happening: how bad will that be? In the last few days, there were a few sources of scant but reliable news (World Nuclear News, the International Atomic Energy Agency) and a lot of wild speculation by journalists with contradictory reports and little respect for technical reliability.

Finally, about a week after the earthquake and tsunami event, a very clear and detailed talk by nuclear physicist Benjamin Monreal, delivered at the Kavli Institute for Theoretical Physics in Santa Barbara, was made available as video with accompanying slides on the web. Why is this reporting so much better than anything that made it to the press? It is not a specialized talk for nuclear physics experts, but a presentation directed at a reasonably science-literate general public. It conveys precisely defined concepts, quantitatively meaningful notions of units of measures and their meaning, valuable and detailed comparisons with other situations of nuclear crisis (Three Mile Island, Chernobyl). Overall, what matters is the sense of conveying, as much as one possibly can in a potentially out of control and rapidly evolving situation, reliable and verifiable quantitatively stated and qualitatively unambiguous information. If one wants to strip it all down to the back bone, this is what science is about. Events like the ones being discussed bring to the forefront more forcefully than ever the sensitive issue of scientific literacy. We live in a world where things like nuclear energy and the functioning of nuclear reactors, plate tectonic and the likelihood of earthquakes, the complicated dynamics of nonlinear waves and tsunamis, as well as many other scientific issues involving medicine, energy, the environment, are or should be part of our daily preoccupations as informed citizens of the world.

The fascist current prime minister of a Southern European country delivered a highly embarrassing televised speech in which, while addressing the current situation in Japan, he revealed that he does not understand the difference between an atom and a cell and gave public display of several ridiculous misunderstandings of basic elementary school science. I wish I could ascribe this gross ignorance of science just to his being a fascist and a complete moron (at least he didn't try to claim that the Japanese earthquake was a communist conspiracy like he claims everything else in the world to be), but I am afraid that, unfortunately, not a few people who would recognize themselves with the political left would also, if pressed, sport an equally cavalier attitude towards scientific literacy. How comes? We may be all, at least those of us who are citizens of democratic or semi-democratic countries, be one day or another called to vote on issues like nuclear energy. Earthquake preparedness requires the investment of public funds: is it acceptable in Southern California to have nuclear reactors made to withstand intact a magnitude 7 earthquake? Because it is a logarithmic scale, the cost of upgrading from magnitude 7 to magnitude 9 escalates accordingly: is it needed? desirable? can one effectively evaluate the risk factor? Answering this question, in the positive or the negative, requires getting some technical knowledge: even that may well not be enough, as in the case of the present Japanese earthquake that defeated the known models of earthquake dynamics in subduction zones, but certainly gross misunderstandings can only make decisions worse.

The risk of criticality and of a chain reaction in spent fuel on fire in a nuclear facility may be faced effectively using the fact that the isotope 10 of the element boron is especially good at absorbing thermal neutrons and can be refined to near pure form out of the initial 20% occurrence in natural boron, and can be mixed, in the form of boric acid, with the reactor water based coolant. This type of intervention may or may not succeed in resolving the problem, depending on how serious the situation is. However, it is clear that the problem will not, by any means, be solved by some postmodernist mumbo-jumbo about different context-dependent truths and ontological relativism, not by invoking divine wrath (two faces of the same irrationalist coin). Like it or not, science is the only effective way humankind has ever had to face the uncertainties of the world and try to make reasonably informed decisions about it.

Let us then look more closely at some of the issues involved in the present crisis: how would a reasonably scientifically literate person go about getting some more specific information on the matters at hand? To define my terms let us say that, by "scientifically literate" I mean someone who would not run screaming at the sight of something that requires some basic calculus to understand. I will argue later on why in the world of today one should aim at this level of understanding of science at least, for a democratically engaged and informed population.

Earthquake and tsunami first: in the wake of the 2006 tsunami, a couple of quality books were published, which survey the present understanding and models of nonlinear waves and tsunami phenomena. Two volumes of this type that I (as a non-expert) am aware of are "Tsunami and nonlinear waves" by Anjan Kundu, and "Physics of tsunamis" by Boris Levin and Mikhail Nosov, the latter coming out of the Russian school of fluid dynamics.

The interested reader who may be willing to take a closer look at this kind of literature, however, will immediately encounter one of the most obvious obstacles in increasing general literacy on scientific topics of wider societal impact: scientific literature ain't cheap! Each of the two volumes mentioned above sells at around $150, used or new. If you are an even more mathematically inclined reader, you may in fact be luckier, and get away with "just" around $60 for "Tsunamis and hurricanes: a mathematical approach" by Ferdinand Cap. You are similarly "lucky" if you decide that you don't really care about the dynamics of anomalous waves and you only want to get a good idea of plate tectonics. In that case you may for instance get, again for around $70 bucks, a book like "Plate tectonics" by Wolfgang Frisch, Martin Meschede, and Ronald Blakey.

I am not suggesting that you should run off to your nearest bookstore or jump on your favorite web browser and online store and get hold of these expensive books if you want to read something about how tsunamis and earthquakes actually happen. Fortunately, most of us have a less expensive alternative to buying science books, which is to walk over to the nearest university library and hope that, if not the exact title you're looking for, they would have something along those lines you can browse and read (though probably not borrow if you don't have a university affiliation). However, how likely is that to happen? How often do people actually go and look for technical literature at a university library when they want to know more about some piece of news involving natural phenomena? I can only guess, not having any data or statistics available, but I am doubtful that this would be a frequent occurrence.

What I am trying to argue here is that the out-of-control prices of technical and scientific literature and the monopoly that a few publishing houses have on the market of specialized scientific literature is one of the factors that contribute to hinder wider dissemination of science. Given the generally prohibitive prices of good scientific literature, all people are left with is the cheaper alternative of popular science, which is generally a low quality product, full of inaccuracies if not outright misconceptions. Part of the unfulfilled dreams of socialists and communist visions of the future of humankind was to achieve a widespread high level of scientific literacy all over the population (see Yefremov's "Andromeda" for a powerful literary representation of that dream in a science-fictional context). This ideal at least brought about the existence, in those days in the Eastern European block, of a broad range of easily accessible, low cost, high-quality scientific publications, at all levels of specialization. The trickling of many of those books across the Iron Curtain made it possible for many of us who grew up in Western Europe to achieve a degree of scientific literacy that would have otherwise remained inaccessible. If any of the books mentioned above would cost between 5 and 15 dollars instead of costing between 60 and 150, it would be reasonable to imagine that a reasonably scientifically literate person, who's had a minimum amount of calculus level education in science, may be willing to invest the time and mental energy needed to read at least the more accessible parts of a real scientific book on a topic close to immediate real-world events. Subsidizing the cost of scientific publishing would perhaps be one of the best investments towards increasing the rate of scientific literacy.

Let me comment briefly on the "calculus level" remark I made above. The capacity to understand what a derivative, an integral, or a differential equation mean is a fundamental and basic skill that allows people to make sense of systems evolving in time, rate of change, averages, conservation properties: all concept that are absolutely necessary in order to make any kind of quantitative prediction about the future behavior of a simple or complex system on the basis of data available at a given time. This is three hundred year old science, which was once the frontier of human understanding (at the time of Newton and Leibniz) but is now so well understood that it can be routinely taught to any high school kid. So it is not an unreasonable pretense to expect that the scientific literacy level of a well informed population of a democratic country should start out from what one may call the "calculus level" and grow from there towards more advanced topics, cultivating the capacity of people to routinely access and read scientific text (real ones, not crappy popularization!). People should not be puzzled at why one should put water in a nuclear reactor or on what boron is and what it has to do with it; they need not wonder on whether the lunar perigee represents a danger, or on what is or is not an issue worthy of attention. Scientific information is available of course: there is now plenty of information online which is not restricted to subscribers: scientific journals are sadly under control of the same publishing monopolies that impose on them far more outrageous prices than for books, but freely available preprints abound and more and more lectures by scientists are freely available as videos, as in the case of the beautiful lecture by Benjamin Monreal on the Fukushima reactor mentioned above. The problem with this type of online information is that it is often difficult for the non-specialized public to be able to locate and pick up the real scientific information in the middle of the veritable deluge of crap and pseudoscience of which the web is routinely inundated. This calls for some intervention on the side of scientists, in finding ways of making repositories of reliable scientific information online clearly visible and accessible to internet users that do not naturally gravitate around the academic sources of information. How to create "pointers" that can effectively guide people towards serious science resources is an important issue, probably one of the most pressing in the current social implications of science and science literacy.