Monday, May 31, 2010

The hotelkeeper did it

kw: travel

Three days at a fancy hotel that is so proud of their Ethernet-only internet service that they charge $9.95 per day, well, I just decided to bag it. They do have a small wi-fi hot spot in one of the bars, but charge even more for that. The hotel? Jacksonville Hyatt Waterfront. We were at a church conference, which I'll have more to say about once I get to my backlog.

We spent the prior two days in Atlanta at the downtown Days Inn, which had free wi-fi in all rooms, and the bed was more comfortable to boot. Plus, it had microwave and refrigerator in all rooms, while the Hyatt did not. So for double the price, the Hyatt does have a bit more space, but you're mainly paying for granite countertops and a somewhat better TV. (While we didn't actually pay double, because there was a conference special price, the rack rate for the Hyatt is twice that of the Days Inn).

Fortunately, we had a great time in both Atlanta and Jacksonville. I've already posted about our visit to the Georgia Aquarium, in the prior post on the 28th. For now, I'll say good night and get to the 6-day backlog of laundry!

Friday, May 28, 2010

If only AI could

kw: computers, artificial intelligence

In a comment on my post AI apostles never give up, Mark Archer responds to the economic point I made, "Forgive me but that seems like a horrible argument for why Self-Aware machines will never proliferate." He goes on to say that things would be much simpler if an actual proof could be offered. I agree on both points.

My economic argument was a riff on an old story by Asimov, in which the U.S. Robotics people are tasked to develop ever-more-humanlike robots. Just when they produce one that seems perfect, the aliens come. An alien ambassador is shown the prototype, and he responds, "What is the point?" So let us pose my economic point as a question: Will manufacturing a machine that can reproduce human-level cognitive functions ever become less costly than raising and educating a child? An additional value argument runs thus: If the machine intelligence can be copied exactly, will that have sufficient added value that we can afford to make millions of them for the tasks we want to off-load to them?

But, I am really asking if this is possible at all, and Mr. Archer suggests a proof. I do not know how a proof that machine self-awareness is or is not possible might be constructed. I suspect it would be similar to proofs that demonstrate how certain computational problems are NP-complete. Such a proof must await the knowledge of exactly what self-awareness is, in computational terms. My own conviction is that self-awareness is not a computational function at all. If I understand him right (see the comment), Mr. Archer believes it is, or that it can be.

Animal brains, fully integrated as they are into their sensing bodies, are so fundamentally different from computational machinery that if the latter can become self-aware, it will be a very different experience from our own. For example, I think it likely that Orcas are self-aware, but I cannot imagine most of what they experience as everyday life, and they are wetware just as I am!

Self-awareness might arise in two ways: one as an emergent property of a sufficiently complex system (at least as complex as a Gray Parrot's brain/body, for the Gray Parrot is probably self-aware); the other is by deliberate programming, which requires us to know what to program. I contend we'll never know that, which is why I think the latter option will never be realized.

But if true AI does arise by a more serendipitous means, is hitting the Off switch tantamount to murder?

Thursday, May 27, 2010

The biggest fish tank

kw: photographs, travel notes

We are on the road, currently in Atlanta, Georgia. We spent most of today at the Georgia Aquarium. Its main tank is billed as the largest in the world. It is designed to accommodate six full-grown whale sharks. At the moment they have four juvenile whale sharks, ranging up to 22 feet (6.7 m) long.
This lovely specimen is probably Alice. A guide had just named them for us, but by the time I took this picture, I am not sure, so it might be Trixie. The two males are named Taroko and Yushan.

Adult whale sharks are from thirty to forty feet (9.1-12.2 m) long, just a little longer than the largest basking sharks, which also approach forty feet in length. While we saw many other things, they'll have to wait just now.

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

A walk for nests and trees

kw: photographs, wildlife

This was a nice day to get out with a colleague or two and check our "bluebird" boxes. The current inventory is
  • 2 boxes still empty
  • 2 boxes with Tree Swallows (6 eggs each)
  • 1 box with Chickadees (4 mostly-fledged young)
  • 1 box with Carolina Wrens (6 eggs)
The Tree Swallows are pretty bold. We've learned to talk as we approach the nest box. Then the sitting bird will poke her head out. That is how I got the following photo. She was pretty bold this time:

This photo is similar to one I posted a couple weeks ago, but was taken at much closer range. The original is thus much more clear. Once the mother fled the nest, she dive-bombed us until we left. We made quick work of counting the eggs and closing up the box.

The first time we looked in on the Chickadee, she didn't leave the nest, even after we knocked on the box. When we opened it, she was sitting there and did not leave. We closed up the box and left her alone. She hasn't been there when we checked the chicks. I think I will get a small sheet of Plexiglas so I can slide it up after just cracking open the box's movable wall. Then there is no danger of chicks falling out.

Today, the Wren didn't leave her box until we began to open the box. This is the first time we've seen her. Usually, we can just hear her mate's complex song from a nearby tree. He acts unconcerned while she sasses us: "chip chip".

Not far from the Wren box we stopped to look at the second-largest Tulip Poplar (Yellow Poplar) tree in Delaware. It is a Specimen tree, and the sign posted nearby states it probably first began growing in 1771. This is based on an estimate, because nobody had cored the tree to count the rings. Its breadth at chest height is more than four feet; the circumference is probably 13-14 feet.

My next-door neighbor has one of these, about half this size. It gets aphids in the Spring, which drop a lot of sugar on any car we park under it. This year so far it seems there have been enough ladybugs to keep the aphids down; lots less sugar.

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

My intro to Honorverse

kw: book reviews, science fiction, space fiction, military fiction, space opera

Many years ago, when I first read Foundation by Isaac Asimov, I was halfway through before I realized that it consisted almost entirely of dialogue. I slowed down for a while and took notice. Asimov was a master of writing dialogue. I have found nobody similarly skilled at writing stream-of-consciousness. I quickly tire of interior monologues.

I had not got far into Torch of Freedom, by David Weber and Eric Flint, before I realized that this is another book that is very heavy on the dialogue, but with less skill than Asimov (maybe that isn't saying much). It also contains lots of interior monologue, as the authors depict at least seven facets of a multilevel intrigue and attempt to bring a reader "inside the head" of at least one protagonist from each facet. I've made it sound like I didn't like it. Let's say it is an acquired taste, and with nearly 600 pages to acquire it, I did find myself enjoying the book.

I admit I got it because of the cover, which depicts a spacecraft approaching "Fun City", a combination space station and roller coaster with a partly blacked-out marquee. It was a rather "splash in the pool" introduction to David Weber's Honorverse series. Fortunately an appendix lists and describes the dramatis personae and their allegiances, because you really do need the playbook to follow this game.

Honorverse is set in the 4000's, some 19 centuries "post diaspora"; presumably starship travel via hyperspace and wormholes was discovered in the 2100's, and star travel became as cheap, relatively speaking, as traveling to the New World via caravel in the mid-1600's. In some ways, the Honorverse milieu is similar to the 1600's. Slavery (of the genetic variety) is rampant in a large part of human space, the settled portion of the Galaxy is balkanized to an extent similar to Europe during the Enlightenment, and a new planet-nation of freed slaves has just been set up. This is Torch. Its freeing is the subject of an earlier novel in the series.

This novel focuses on and climaxes with the Battle of Torch, a space battle with laser-tipped missiles and giant warships that can accelerate at rates that make this old physics junkie shudder (hmmm: 200G of acceleration, with "inertial dampers" so the crew can survive, for a 2-million-ton craft… let's just say that you have to annihilate the mass of a small star to supply the energy needed for an hour's run)

I am less interested in the military aspects, though, compared to the social settings: one near-totalitarian state called Mesa that uses eugenic tinkering to produce its alpha, beta, and gamma "star lines"; the vastly powerful, but largely unaware Solarian empire; a slave-production "corporation" known as Manpower, Inc., which practices a kind of reverse eugenics and is allied with Mesa; and several smaller "star nations" with various allegiances—and two of them are at war; in addition to Torch. Once the pace quickens, about halfway through the book, the reader has seen the point of view of at least a couple of people from each of these constituencies.

The human stories focus on Queen Berry of Torch and several of her staff and allies, on "Ganny El" and her gypsy band that occupy the roller-coaster emporium, on two agents, Anton and Victor, who carry out intelligence-gathering on Mesa, and on a family with a brilliant but doomed foster daughter, a victim of eugenics that has overreached its limits. Interestingly, I can't recall a specific portrayal of any of the Manpower folk; that's probably on purpose.

Space opera fulfills its role best when events are too large for one planet to contain. This is such a case. Torch is not just a super-Liberia and Mesa is not just a super-Reich. The events of a book like this might have fit on Earth in the 1600's but cannot now, with every battlefield within a day's airplane ride from anywhere. In a faster-than-light setting, it takes plenty of space for travel to take days rather than hours, and for a Napoleonic sense of timing to bring together the forces for a dramatic climax. The Battle of Torch retains the freedom of the emerging star nation, setting the stage for as many novels as David Weber can write.

Monday, May 24, 2010

AI apostles never give up

kw: computers, artificial intelligence, predictions

Some thirty years ago, when I was an OS analyst for large mainframes and supercomputers, I visited my favorite aunt and uncle. At one point, my uncle asked, "Do you think computers will ever take over the Earth?" I replied, "The already have," and went on to explain how society would fall apart without them. But I also said there is no intentionality; the computers were not agents, but tools, very very fast and powerful tools indeed, but tools.

A few days ago, the June 2010 issue of Scientific American arrived, and I have just read the feature article, "12 Events that will Change Everything". One of the twelve is titled "Machine Self-Awareness" with the subtitle, 'what happens when robots start calling the shots?'. The writer of this piece is Larry Greenemeier. He quotes Hod Lipson of Cornell University, that as machines "get better at learning how to learn" (Greenemeier's phraseology), "I think that leads down the path to consciousness and self-awareness." (Lipsom quote)

To be short about it, I don't. Artificial Intelligence (AI) based on computers has been preached for more than fifty years, and seems no closer now than it was when Eniac was called an Electronic Brain. As it happens, heuristic programming remains as difficult as ever it was, and machine learning is very simple indeed. Remember HAL from 2001: A Space Odyssey? Nearly nothing predicted by Arthur Clarke in that screenplay has emerged, here nine years past that date. A few of the simpler goals of the Japanese Fifth Generation project were achieved, but the widespread adoption of Inference Engines never happened, because such Engines were never brought to fruition.

There is a critical difference between the hardware/software combination we call a computer, and the wetware, the brain/body system, we call an animal mind. The following is true not just of humans but of animals in general: a Mind is really, really good at finding similarities and recognizing familiar things, and really, really bad at numerical calculations and at finding subtle differences and distinctions. And the converse is true of all computational devices: a Computer is really, really good at numerical calculations and manipulations, and at finding subtle differences and distinctions, and really, really bad at finding similarity and at recognition. I have built a career upon this distinction, upon taking advantage of the synergy between a Mind and a Machine (or Computer). A slogan in my profession is "Let the singers sing and the dancers dance."

Self-awareness is hard. It requires a recognition task of the highest order. So far as we know, self-awareness is only found in humans, dogs, chimpanzees, and certain birds. All other animals show no signs of self-concept. Yet it takes only a circuit of three or four neurons in an animal brain to perform recognition tasks that require very sophisticated software in computers. For example, the face-recognition software in Picasa (one of my favorite Google tools), does a workmanlike job, but makes some spectacular blunders. A small fly with its few dozen neurons is as fast and more accurate. Of course, it is so far not possible to couple a fly's brain to an installation of Picasa.

It turns out that the behavior of just three neurons in a circuit is so complex that it takes a large, multi-multicore piece of hardware to run a program that accurately mimics it. Artificial neurons have proven very hard to produce. Let's suppose a true learning machine is one day developed. Upon what will it be based? Probably on some kind of artificial neurons. It will be a kind of artificial animal. What other life-systems must be provided for it to operate correctly?

I suspect that it will need sensory input to keep it sane. Any animal kept for too long in a sensory-deprivation environment becomes unbalanced, sometimes permanently. So, provide senses. Now it needs filters, so it is not overloaded by its senses, but can tune its awareness of them. Finally, you have, perhaps, an artificial cockroach, except it is the size of a lapdog. I hope advances in battery technology give it more than a half hour of operation before recharging is needed.

At that point you have an interesting laboratory curiosity, but cockroaches are easy to breed. Training animals is cheaper than replacing them with such contraptions. So my final contention is that it will never be economical to build a machine that is capable of self-awareness, and keep it running long enough to attain a useful amount of education. I simply don't believe silicon (or other technology) will replace carbon-based life. Ever. Sorry, Berserkers; Sorry, HAL; Sorry, Colossus; even Sorry, Friday (Heinlein's cyborg girl) and all the Borgs out there. You're fun fiction. Fiction you will stay.

Friday, May 21, 2010

As free as verse gets

kw: book reviews, poetry, free verse

Free verse puzzles me. I must not
Have the right kind of mind for it.
Rhyme and reason (rhythm) comfort me.

But blank verse has a certain Majesty.
Though rhyme be missing, still its rhythms soothe
My searching heart; they carry me along.

But enough of that. I like sonnets and other structured poems best, but I'm rather bad at producing them. I appreciate artistry in any mode. In The Bride of E by Mary Jo Bang, I read over page after page with little affect, then found nuggets of brilliant imagery:
. . . Look at him. He's on a stage.
He is silently sizing up the table he takes in
As he stares down. This is the world
When it's reduced down to a moment.
(from "F is for Forgetting")
This touched me particularly because it evokes the emotions I've seen on the faces of Alzheimer's Syndrome sufferers. The moment is all they have. But the author's work is as frequently parodic and humorous, as "Quoth the raven, 'Give me more—.'" followed a few stanzas later by "Her name is Lenore Nevermore."

The first part of the book, some 80% of the whole, is "traditional" free verse titled in acrostic order, usually several to a letter (e.g. "P Equals Pie" followed by "In the Present and Probably Future"). The second comprises five mostly longer pieces without the free verse line breaks. They could have been broken up, but instead run on thus:
A feeling I would be exposed. It stayed in my mind as a central element. The stage. The silver screen. Profound and pervasive coloring. At a distance from myself. I was born and raised to be set in relief. (1/4 of a paragraph from "G is Going")
The author's work is apparently very well received. This is her sixth book of poetry. I don't read a lot of poetry, and usually prefer more tightly structured work, but the artistry in this book is evident, and I'm glad I read it.

Thursday, May 20, 2010

What do you wear when you mow?

kw: safety

This picture was taken by a colleague, who passed it along via e-mail to all of us. The boot belongs to a construction worker who habitually wears his steel-toed boots when lawn mowing. It is a good thing he does so. He had an incident a day or two ago that resulted in a riding mower running over his foot. The mower blade ripped the steel toe out of his boot. Three of his toes were cut, but not too badly, probably by the steel toe as it made its exit. Had he been wearing sneakers, it is likely he would have lost all the toes on that foot. You can see where the blade hit the boot…

The average rotary mower has a five-to-seven horsepower engine, and the kinetic energy in the whirling blade is similar to a stick of dynamite. Riding mowers are roughly twice as powerful. Think about it the next time you mow barefoot.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Is there a better place?

kw: observations, culture

A friend of mine who is much enamored of various conspiracy theories has decided to move out of the United States. He was asking my advice about Belize, I guess because it is still connected to Britain. I directed him to The World Factbook, a service of the CIA. Whether he will give the CIA any credence is another story, of course.

Besides its ties to the U.K., Belize has an economy that breaks down thus:
  • 29% Agriculture
  • 17% Industry
  • 54% Services
That is encouraging, a service economy. However, there is one big red flag. Belize shares with Guatemala the distinction of being a source of human trafficking (sexual and forced-labor slavery), and the government isn't doing quite enough to take this scourge off the world's radar screens. I told him Costa Rica might be a bit more salutary environment: Also a service economy and the most stable democratic government in Central America. It didn't occur to me to ask if he speaks Spanish.

Monday, May 17, 2010

Exploring a zoo of sounds

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, physics, particle physics, string theory

Many people have seen one or both (1951 & 2008) versions of the science fiction classic movie The Day the Earth Stood Still, based on a 1940 story, "Farewell to the Master" by Harry Bates. In the 1951 movie, Klaatu is assassinated, and the robot Gort temporarily resurrects him by means not specified (I haven't seen the 2008 remake). In the 1940 story, the robot is named Gnut, and the resurrection technique involves sound. Much of the story's plot concerns finding the best sound recordings of Klaatu's voice and a high-fidelity tape player, so that Gnut can use the least details of the sound to restore his Master to life, at least for a bit.

I've just finished reading The Little Book of String Theory by Steven S. Gubser, and just as I finished, I recognized the frustrated feeling I've always had when reading about strings, superstrings, and how they are supposed to lead to a theory that explains "everything"…except that we don't have any experiments yet that verify any predictions made by any of the many, many string theories (there are a lot of them), and it is actually close to impossible to use any of the theories to predict anything that can be tested!

Since Dr. Gubser's book is composed of a long series of analogies, let's analogize from my first paragraph. The frustrated feeling I get is akin to being led through a zoo blindfolded, and trying to infer what the creatures look like by the sounds they make. I view the well-populated madhouse of string theories as attempts by many, many means to restore Klaatu from the sound of his voice ("Klaatu" being just one kind of string, or brane, or whatever else).

I must give the author credit. His task is nearly insurmountable, to produce a popular book that explains string theory so as to produce some kind of "understanding" in a lay audience. I am hardly a layman, and I found it difficult. Yet, he did show me a thing or two. I'll mention one point that came through most easily:

I bridle at the thought of rolled-up dimensions. It turns out they do have their uses. One is to determine the duality of electric charge. A particle on a tiny (millions of times tinier than an atom) circular dimension, if it traverses it in one direction, can be a + charge, and in the other direction, a - charge. Since there are only two directions one may turn, there are only two kinds of charge, + and - .

After that, I began to wonder how quark colors were constrained, since there are three. The ensuing discussion of chromodynamics mentioned eight color "motions" (or "connections"?), but I never got clear how this leads to three quark colors.

Let's be clear, I am a failed physicist. In 1970, frustrated with the total emphasis on particle physics at my university, I changed majors to Geology. I needed a subject I could walk up to and hit with a hammer. (Now, I am very good at calculus, but there are levels of math to which particle physics ascends that had me floundering. I had 'way too much math for a Geology degree, but they forgave me and gave it to me anyway, in 1972.)

Fortunately, for those who have good skills at "getting" analogies, this book is the most readable account of string theory we are likely to see. You may not understand S-theory and D-branes and so forth after reading it, but they'll probably be a tad more familiar at least. Now, if they'd just say, "You smack this particle into that one, a few zillion times, and you'll have a blob of Z-stuff you can hit with a hammer," they'll have me.

Friday, May 14, 2010

Real from the skin out

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, animals, art, taxidermy

I've always loved museums, formal or informal. I have a mini-museum of my own mineral and fossil specimens, and a few skulls I found (house cat, shrew, robin). I even like those displays one sees in some restaurants of trophy heads of deer, moose, whatever, or plaques with prize-winning fish. But I particularly like large museums with their dioramas of animal scenes and rooms full of skeletons, dinosaur or otherwise. The last time I was at Wall Drug in South Dakota I almost bought a jackalope; that is a large stuffed rabbit with antelope horns attached, sometimes also with pheasant wings; an amusing conceit. But I really have no place to put it on display.

Melissa Milgrom, initially spurred by a chance comment, spent more than two years doing a lot more than looking. She dug into the world of taxidermy, taxidermists, and a couple of "taxidermologists" (the Schwendemans, father and son), and taxidermy shows and contests. She wound up preparing a New Jersey squirrel, mentored by Bruce Schwendeman, and entering it in a show in the Novice division.

Taxidermy is a pursuit that partakes equally of art and skill. Those who do it best have the eye of an artist and the skilled hands of a sculptor. At one time it was necessary for any aspiring naturalist to practice taxidermy. While that means many naturalists did a lot of shooting, some eschewed killing and used only the "naturally dead" for their specimens. In fact, collecting road kill is how many of them got their start.

In Still Life: Adventures in Taxidermy, Ms. Milgrom has written of all facets of the hobby of preserving an animal and trying to reproduce its "life look". Hobbyists abound, and hunters who learn to mount their own trophies sometimes go on to win recognition in this misunderstood fraternity. So many people are repulsed by "stuffed animals" that it is hard for a taxidermist to get much respect. But in their own circle, the gifted amateur can gain respect equal to many professionals.

Taxidermy initially became popular during the early Victorian period when every aristocrat (and many aspiring wannabees) had a "cabinet of curiosities", which included not just shells, rocks and bones, but mounted animal and fish specimens. Things have gone both down and up ever since, and there is perhaps a bit of a recent upsurge, as museums, for example, have found that you can't do everything with lasers and computers. People still love the dioramas packed with animals that look like they are doing what animals do. The "fierce beast" fashion for mounting with every tooth and claw ready to rend is, thankfully, passing away.

Standards of technique have also morphed over the years. When the author took her squirrel to a World Taxidermy Championships (WTC) show, a friend quickly pointed out that she'd been taught an out-of-date technique, relying on wax where she ought to have used epoxy. She barely had time to re-mold the odd bit here and there before the judging. But one friend—what's the word for a female curmudgeon? Emily Mayer just calls herself a Bitch—has developed a technique of "erosion molding". Somehow, only the hair itself is preserved, so "taxidermy", which means "manipulated skin" doesn't really apply; there is no skin in the finished product. At the moment, her innovation is denigrated by show judges, but she is gaining respect.

I was quite interested to read the stories of some of the greats of museum preparation. Many of them had such passion for their craft that they had cut short on formal schooling, yet rose to pinnacles of respect usually reserved for PhD's. Hornaday and Astley come to mind. It was equally interesting to read about the passionate amateurs who mount various animals as a sideline of providing wild food for their families, or who mount only "found" specimens. A few have the privilege of producing specimens for museums. Some will mount your favorite pet when it dies. Some folks make a business of producing mainly curios (see below).

I am most taken by mounts, such as this, that simply capture a moment in the life of a creature. This muskrat was probably shot for the purpose, but it is his life that is celebrated by this preparation. He's just chewing the bark off a twig, after all.

Exceptionally well done slice-of-life mounts often earn the WTC best-of-show, edging out tours de force such as a re-created Irish Elk (there is a special category for specimens that are either made up or created from parts of other animals, so that a Panda mount might contain no panda parts, being a combination from various white- and black-furred bears or bearlike mammals).

A curio such as this canoeing muskrat can be quite popular. We like to anthropomorphize animals. Some folks specialize in it. One chapter of the book documents the auction of Mr. Potter's Museum of Curiosities, which included The Death and Burial of Cock Robin, complete with a bird parson, birds digging the grave, mourners and so forth. When the collection was sold off, the world lost the last of the Cabinets of Curiosities.

Preserved and mounted specimens are getting popular again. Whether one wants a realistic pheasant or wildcat, or to have a favorite pet stuffed (I couldn't bear to do so myself), or an anthropomorphic critter, such mounts can be purchased or commissioned at establishments such as Mac's Taxidermy, where I got these images. This is one of many, many taxidermy businesses whose products range from novelties to serious scientific specimens.

And just by the bye, nearly all mounted fish one sees are casts. It isn't possible to remove the oils from fish skin like you can for birds and mammals. Making the attempt destroys the skin.

Thursday, May 13, 2010

Flash! - See new Google Maps

kw: news, software

OK, you can't quite see the words "Georgia Aquarium" in this image, but you can in the full size clip you'll see by clicking. The "Earth" enhancement to Google Maps just came out today, in the past hour or two. It is Google Earth running inside Maps. You can get directions, then have the blue track shown in 3D, with 3D buildings in the cities. The green symbol is the end of a trip I plan to take in a few weeks, to see the new aquarium in Atlanta.

Google Maps has become indispensable to me in recent years. This adds the ability to preview in even more realistic ways. I can take a look at a hotel I might stay at, if it isn't already shown on Street View. As in this case, I can verify that the target shown is in the right place. Very cool!

Warming from the inside

kw: earth, history, geology, radioactivity

It didn't require much sideways thinking, after yesterday's post about uranium and radioactive decay, to recall the history of these elements in the Earth. The age of the planet is 4.5 billion years (Gy), and even these long-lived isotopes must have changed over time. One question that comes up sometimes in Freshman Earth Science courses is, "How much does radioactivity affect the Earth's temperature?" A more thoughtful student may also ask whether it was much greater in the past.

The short answer to the first question is, "Not much." In spite of a century of intensive Geological exploration, the total heat flow from Earth's interior is known only within a factor of about 2, as between 30 and 60 Terawatts (3-6x1013W). A commonly accepted figure it 40 TW. About 75% of this is thought to be radiogenic heat.

This diagram, representing a view toward the upper end (60TW), has radiogenic heating near 52TW, and gives the breakdown by the four isotopes that contribute significantly. The source of the image is this Jrank article. In spite of this diagram, the article's author, David Rothery, considers the total heat flux from Earth's interior to be closer to 40 TW.

Let us first compare that to solar influx. The Solar Constant (which is variable in a narrow range) is about 1,350 W/m2, or 1.35x109 W/km2. The Earth's nominal radius is 6,370 km, so it intercepts 1.275 km2 of sunlight, a total of 1.72x1017 W. One-third of this is reflected outright by clouds and ice, leaving about 1.1x1017 to reach the ground and heat the surface. Divide this by 40 TW, and we see it is 2,800 times the internal heat flow.

Now, whether radiogenic heating is 52 TW, as shown in this diagram, or closer to 30 TW (0.75x40 TW), it doesn't contribute much heat compared to the Sun. How about in the past? The diagram shows that when Earth first came together, radioactive heating from these four isotopes was 8x what it is today. There were other short-lived isotopes that no doubt added significantly to this, but they didn't last long and we have no evidence how abundant they were 4.5 billion years ago (Ga).

Now, the Sun was 40% fainter then, but we don't know how much of its radiation reached the surface. At least during the Hadean period, between 4 and 4.5 Ga, when the entire planet was molten, there were not likely any water clouds in the atmosphere, but we don't know what the atmosphere was like. Still, the radiogenic heat probably never supplied more than about 1/400th of Solar heat. It has never been much of a factor in the planet's temperature.

However, today it supplies about 3/4 of the energy that drives plate tectonics. The other quarter is remnant primordial heat and the heat of crystallization as the outer liquid core slowly freezes onto the solid inner core. Two billion years ago, radiogenic heat was more than twice what it is today, and I expect that plate tectonics ran at a brisker clip. There was also more volcanism than today.

Can we predict the future? I don't have a good handle on how much internal heating is required to keep plate tectonics going. Without it, the biosphere and atmosphere would change a lot, and the continents would erode down to just below sea level, leaving an ocean planet. If the critical value is half of today's amount (this is a wild guess), we can predict that such a level will be reached in about two more billion years. That's the time we have left to figure out how to live on an ocean planet, or how to leave the planet altogether. Given humanity's tendency to procrastinate, it probably isn't enough time!

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

The long way to make a lead brick

kw: observations, analysis, science fiction

Many years ago I read something in a science fiction story that I passed over at the time. Since then, having learned a little more, I am kind of tickled by it. It seems people were exploring a long-abandoned alien planet, and someone turned up a block of heavy metal. They determine that it is lead, and somehow someone concludes that it started out as a block of uranium, which has completely decayed, as there is nearly no residual radioactivity.

The two uranium isotopes that have long enough half-lives for this to be impressive are 238U (4.5 Gy half life) and 235U (710 My). Now, how long has it been since the big bang? About 13.7 Gy (plus or minus a half Gy). The first generation of stars produced small (by modern comparison) amounts of all elements by about 12.5 Gy ago. So let's give some really ancient aliens the benefit of the doubt, that they could have arisen very quickly, let's say by 12 Gy ago, and they had enough uranium available that they could make a block of it as a really long-measuring clock. 12 Gy is 2.67 half-lives of 238U and 16.9 half-lives for 235U.

From this point the calculation is simple. After 2.67 half-lives, the first isotope has decayed to 0.157 (15.7%) of its former amount, and the second, which decays faster, has been reduced to 0.0000082 (0.00082% or one part in 122,000). In the first instance, having 1/6 of the original uranium still present would leave plenty of residual radiation. In the second, the story's point is more plausible, though one would not want to leave a very large block of 235U around, as it would self-fission and melt things, for many years (A nearly critical mass is a very interesting heat source).

But there is an added point. Nearly pure 238U, called "depleted uranium" these days, behaves one way, and the other isotope, "enriched uranium", in another, even in small amounts. I learned the following from a relative who has been a "nuke spook", someone who takes nuclear bombs apart and cleans the uranium or plutonium pieces periodically. Enriched nuclear fuel needs cleaning!

A piece of a self-fissile isotope gets dirty. The spontaneous fission produces all kinds of elements, particularly those in the middle of the periodic table, which are the transition metals, heavy metals, and "rare earth" elements. In the interior of a block of such material, the new isotopes just stay there, but near the surface, they are moving fast enough to escape. They slowly glom together into metallic oxides of all kinds, and the uranium block gets coated with fine dust. A nuke spook must brush this dust off and dispose of it as highly hazardous waste, every few years.

A block of 235U that sat around for ten or twelve billion years would have become a pile of dust by now. It would not be a lead block. So this story's lead block had to start out as 238U. But it would take much longer than the age of the universe for it to decay away as the story suggested.

I think very few people know about the different behavior of different kinds of uranium, so other than this entertaining quibble, the story is a good yarn. Now if I could just remember its title…

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Bird nest season again

kw: observations, bird watching, photographs

'Tis the season for checking bluebird boxes again. Two colleagues and I get to take a stroll weekly to check six boxes. I have a different set of boxes to monitor this year.

One of the boxes houses a family of swallows. Here is Mom watching us approach. I could have gotten an even closer picture (this was more than twelve feet away), because she didn't bolt until I was within three feet. Inside the box, we saw four eggs.

This is the only swallow family in this group of boxes. Three boxes are empty so far, which is puzzling. Nice cavity nests like these are usually a hot commodity.

One nest had a moss nest with chickadee eggs in it two weeks ago, but last week they were gone, and a twiggy nest was built atop the moss. This week more twigs were evident, and we saw a wren leave the box as we approached. The nest fills the box so tightly that we couldn't get a mirror in to see if there are eggs.

One other box has a chickadee family, and if you count carefully, you'll see five little ones in this picture. I was expecting the eggs we saw for the past two weeks to have hatched, so we opened the nest quickly, with camera ready, snapped (no flash) and closed it back up. These chicks must have hatched just yesterday or the day before. We'll leave them alone for a couple of weeks to grow undisturbed, and make one more visit when they're due to be almost fledged out.

Monday, May 10, 2010

Gardening the atmosphere

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, global warming, geoengineering

A new book about global warming, pro or con, seems to come out every week. I've come to avoid them. One can only endure so many polemics. How to Cool the Planet: Geoengineering and the Audacious Quest to Fix Earth's Climate by Jeff Goodell is a middle-ground book. He takes human-caused global warming as a premise, and asks, "What can we do about it?"

It turns out there are just three approaches that could make a substantial difference:
  1. Reduce carbon dioxide emissions
  2. Shield the earth with a reflecting layer (AKA geoengineering)
  3. Extract carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and store it somewhere (sometimes AKA geoengineering)
It has proven politically impossible to get anywhere with #1. #3 appears to be extremely costly. Now #2, well, it is cheap, but only in a monetary sense. It has so far proven too politically costly for anyone with the temerity to try an experiment. Also, the "mitigating" approaches, #2 and #3, are seen by many as a way for "big oil" to claim we don't need to do anything about carbon emissions: "just balance the emissions with sufficient geoengineering efforts and everything will be all right." Of course, "big oil" also claims carbon emissions aren't doing any harm in the first place.

Then we need to ask the question, whose ox is being gored here? What of people who think global warming (should it be happening) is a good thing? After all, other than the lack of air conditioning, and a little political bad news called feudalism, things were pretty good during the Medieval Climate Optimum a thousand years ago, when global temperatures were about two degrees C warmer than they are right now. (Personally, I prefer a slightly cooler climate. I am living about as far south as I can tolerate already. Maybe it is time to buy land in Canada!)

The author is wise to set aside the "reduce carbon emissions" argument. There are books aplenty on the subject, and a realistic look at the Montreal and Copenhagen debacles shows just how unlikely it is that the U.S., China, India and Japan will enact any significant changes in their economies. And there is nearly nobody else who matters, in this arena, just the E.U., but they are a distant fifth place in emissions; were they to emit zero carbon starting tomorrow, the effect would be pretty small. So instead, we are treated to an interesting tour of the various geoengineering methods and their proponents.

Carbon sequestration has two flavors: chemical extraction and storage, and "getting the plants to do it". In his second chapter, Goodell presents the work of David Keith in Calgary. Dr. Keith is building a prototype chemical extraction device. A test run in the author's presence reduced CO2 by one part per million, or about 1/3 percent of its abundance. Dr. Keith is optimistic that engineering improvements can increase efficiency to a level near 10ppm (3% of total abundance).

The machine uses cheap chemicals, but in large amounts. To reduce atmospheric carbon from the current level (380ppm) to a pre-industrial level (280ppm), you'd have to pass the entire atmosphere through an array of these machines, ten times. Let's think about this. The weight of the atmosphere is 14.7 pounds per square inch, or 1.03 kg/cm². We want to remove 100ppm of it, or a portion of 0.0001; 0.0235 oz/in² or 0.103 g/cm². Let's go metric from here.

The surface area of Earth is half a billion square kilometers. A km is 100,000 cm. The math produces a requirement to "capture" more than 500 trillion kg, or 500 billion metric tonnes, of carbon dioxide. Dr. Keith's machine converts the gas to limestone, CaCO3. 56% of the limestone is calcium oxide, CaO, so the end result would be 1.2 trillion tonnes of limestone. Let's see, the stuff has a specific gravity of 2.7, so a cubic meter weighs 2.7 tonnes; the volume is about 440 billion m3 or 440 km3. Anybody need a second White Cliffs of Dover, or have a place to put one? Maybe we could re-fill old open-pit mines. This is the amount of carbon storage needed to remove 100ppm from the atmosphere, whether it is to yield a pre-industrial atmosphere, or to keep the next 100ppm from accumulating in the first place.

How 'bout getting the trees to do it? You don't have to tie up half a trillion tons of calcium oxide to get this one to work; the gas gets converted to cellulose. Cellulose, however, is light. Hardwoods have specific gravities in the range 0.6-0.85. Let's pick 0.7 as an average. Here, you are tying up water with carbon dioxide in a 1:1 ratio, but releasing oxygen, so 44 grams of CO2 produces 30 grams of cellulose. This is a benefit; you "only" need to produce 360 billion tonnes of wood to take 100ppm out of the atmosphere. But the volume of that wood is greater than the volume of the limestone above, just over 500 km3. Anybody ready to plant about ten trillion trees?

Fertilizing the oceans has also been seen as a possible solution. Iron is the rate-limiting nutrient in many parts of the open ocean. Here, experiments have actually been done, but not with geoengineering in mind. Impressive plankton blooms, visible to satellites, have resulted. But you still have the volume problem. How many cubic km of diatoms and coccolithophorids do you have to produce for half a thousand km3 of them to fall to the ocean floor and stay there?

So we come to global shields, of two types. Half the book investigates the scientific, political, and social aspects of these. One method is cloud-brightening, the other is sulfate-aerosol-blocking. In the book the author reports that it takes not millions but billions of condensation nuclei to make a cloud whiter so it reflects more sunlight. Actually, nuclei of the right size require droplets just under a micron in diameter; there are about a quadrillion such droplets produced from each liter of sea water one sprays. A quadrillion is a million billion (in American numbering, anyway). It takes thousands of liters of spray to make a substantial effect over a few square km of area. So far, no experiment has been tried, because of huge fears by environmentalists.

So: sulfate aerosols. This is potentially the cheapest method. Pump a lot of micron-size sulfur dioxide droplets into the stratosphere, and they'll stay there for 3-5 years, reflecting extra sunlight all the while. I wonder what astronomers think of the idea? Globally, some $20 billion have been invested in large telescopes in the past twenty years. How many of them would be rendered a lot less useful by a sulfate haze? The primary selling point of this approach is that we're not moving half a thousand cubic km of stuff, just a few thousand cubic meters.

The numerical analyses above are my own, not the author's. In a few places, he calls some of these methods akin to bad science fiction. He also worries about military uses of geoengineering technologies. There doesn't seem to be a good way of dealing with global warming. Yet his is a hopeful book. Human nature being what it is, we are likely to do something heroic when we really need to. As usual, heroes are a vanishingly small minority, so when the true crunch arrives (such as the imminent flooding of NYC or Bangladesh), a few visionaries will likely drag the rest of the human race, kicking and screaming, into a new kind of global economy. Let's hope the death toll is less than half of humanity.

I am hopeful in another way. The Medieval Climate Optimum showed that significant warming did not heat the ocean enough to make it rise much, at least not during that 400-year warming event. The real danger is melting ice caps, the ones on land, which are Greenland and Antarctica. They didn't melt much a thousand years ago.

All kinds of dreary forecasts are based on positive feedback effects. Negative feedback seems to be less well known, or ignored. I expect a warmer total climate to produce more polar snowfall, perhaps building Antarctica faster than it is being melted at the edges. Will a warmer planet be a cloudier planet? That's a possible negative feedback effect. Nobody at present knows. There is not one "global climate model" that models clouds properly. Cloud dynamics are still poorly known.

However, I am in favor of experimentation. How are we to know the effects of nano-nucleation of clouds without actually nucleating some clouds? Macronucleation for rainmaking purposes didn't work too well, but maybe cloud brightening can be one useful tool. Maybe sulfate aerosols can be "spot applied" in the stratosphere, and maybe not. We don't know if it could be helpful, or even possible, without trying. Can iron fertilization of ocean water do any good, or do enough good? Can't know until we try. The prime virtue of all these is, if things go bad, you just stop. In short order, natural processes will eliminate the change.

Goodell makes a good analogy here, that we ought to consider carefully. We are already engineering the atmosphere, as a by-product of energy use. Geoengineering methods that attempt to gain more control of the global thermostat are akin to gardening. There is no question that a garden is not a natural landscape. But it is not entirely artifice either. It is a synergy of human planning and natural processes, a compromise between gardener and nature. We will probably never be able to "produce" a pleasant, sunny day on demand in any particular location, nor order up a centimeter of rain when and where it is urgently needed. But we may be able to modify overall probabilities, to "tilt the roulette wheel" a little. Maybe.

In the longest of long runs, we'll run out of carbon based fuels. We won't add any more carbon to the atmosphere because we won't have any to add. What kind of world will that be? Will we have had the foresight to develop truly renewable and sustainable energy-production methods? Or will it be a return to horse-and-buggy days? Will anyone still have air conditioning? How much CO2 will the atmosphere hold by then? 1000ppm? Things could be a lot different.

Saturday, May 08, 2010

Windy sunset

kw: photographs, photography, nature

The nice thing about wind at sunset is that the clouds move, so the view changes frequently. The trouble with wind at sunset is that the clouds move, which causes jitter in HDR images. I'll be teaching photography classes this Summer, and there is always demand for learning special techniques such as HDR. Sunsets are good for that, and I knew a cloudy, windy day would probably have a nice sunset. I popped over to a wildlife refuge in New Castle County to see if I could get a few example image sets.

By the way, HDR, for High Dynamic Range, ought to be called CDR, for Compressed Dynamic Range, because that is actually what you are doing. You are bringing in the washed-out highlights and the blacked-out lowlights to show more of the details the eye can see better than a one-image camera can. The software I use is EasyHDR Basic (the free version). My camera can exposure compensate beyond the +2EV/-2EV limit of most cameras, so I tried one image with five exposures (-3EV, -1.3EV, 0, +1.7EV, +3EV) and the software did its thing just fine. I won't be showing that here, though, but two of the 3-image (-2,0,+2) sets and singles for comparison.

Early on, just after the Sun moved behind the bar of clouds near the horizon, I shot a series that included this, which the camera tells me is its best exposure. One has to peer closely to see any detail in the nearly black foreground, and the reddish area below the clouds is washed out.

I optimized this HDR image to emphasize the sky colors, so the foreground is still rather dark. However, the red area below the clouds shows up much better. Note that the clouds look "stuttery" compared to the first image. That is due to cloud motion between shots. The wind was 40+mph at ground level; there's no telling how fast the clouds were moving!

Here is a zoomed-in image, a single again, with the Sun just peeking through the trees. The light meter in the camera was pointed at the sky above the clouds. I like this image. Let's see if HDR can do better.

This is closer to what I could see, though still not quite what I'd like. The red area is very nice, more balanced, and the sky looks good. It is pretty hard to get the foreground to show anything. The car in this image was in just one of the images used for this composite.

OK, one more bit of tinkering. I cropped a chunk out of the middle of the prior image and boosted the lowlights a little with the "brighten" function in Irfanview. There is little detail in the clouds, so the image still lacks something. It might benefit from a heavy dose of Unsharp Masking, which Gimp can do (also Photoshop, but Gimp is free), but at this point, it is probably better to await the next pretty sunset.

Thursday, May 06, 2010

Oil down that hedge

kw: gardening, hedges, pests

This little mite, seen here in an image from Branching Out at Cornell, bedevils privet, camellia and similar plants. It takes a strong magnifier or microscope just to see them; they are less than a quarter of a millimeter long (about 1/100 inch). Eryophyid mites are unusual in having only four legs. They crawl very slowly and some call them "worm mites", but they are smaller than even the tiny C. Elegans nematode.

I have about 400 feet of privet hedge, and though I sprayed with oil last fall, I see signs of privet rust mite damage. So I bought two quarts of horticultural oil today, and I plan to spray both sides of all the hedge plants tomorrow. Fortunately, this oil is not toxic, just a bit messy. It smothers the little critters.

Last fall, shortly after spraying, I cut back the hedge on one side where it fronts a sidewalk, that it was overlapping rather seriously. The open side is beginning to fill in with new growth, so this is the perfect time to spray through the hedge to the back side of the leaves on the other side.

Wednesday, May 05, 2010

Not quite the same stuff

kw: observations, food, fads

On two occasions in the past, my wife brought home one or two cups of a new brand of yogurt, Chobani, a Greek style yogurt. It was OK, but I am used to more "traditional" yogurt (can't believe I never had yogurt of any kind before about twenty years ago), which I understand is based on Bulgarian practice...but with fruit added. All I could tell about Chobani was that it is thicker and a little less sweet.

Today she got some by Dannon that is proudly titled "Greek Yogurt", and I had to find out more. The phrase "Greek Yogurt" gleans a third of a million hits on Google. It turns out there are two similar product lines that bear the same title.

Firstly, there is strained yogurt made with whole milk or enriched milk, having a milk fat content anywhere from 4-9%. "Ordinary" yogurt is strained through muslin to remove some of the whey, making it thicker and smoother. Then any fruit or other flavorings are added.

Secondly, the Dannon product is zero fat, as are brands such as Stonyfield Farms. As well as I can determine, these products are made from nonfat yogurt that is strained. I don't know what becomes of the whey, but I suspect the producers have some use for it. (BTW, the whey extracted from making tofu in Japan is popular with children there.)

Either way, the extra processing is sure to result in higher cost once the initial "loss leader" products develop a market for Greek yogurt. Thus, it is likely to remain a niche product in the US, particularly in these value-conscious times. For myself, I happen to like the older product better.

Tuesday, May 04, 2010

Students in the middle

kw: education, business

Last year I applied to become an online faculty member for a for-profit university. I wasn't accepted. They have plenty of applicants with backgrounds as good as mine. But I know someone who works for the university's administration through a Toastmasters club; she advised me to keep trying. They are expanding several percent yearly. Tonight I saw a PBS Frontline special on for-profit schools, which was conducted pretty much as an exposé. There is plenty to expose. By the way, I do plan to apply again; there is a lot to like in the online university operation. But there are valid concerns, as the Frontline program pointed out.

The original for-profit school is University of Phoenix, which has campuses scattered throughout the Southwest, but has an even larger online presence. Though they have paid an out-of-court settlement ("admitting no guilt") based on charges of unfair practices, they are actually pretty clean. Many schools were shown to use heavy-handed recruiting, and some claim to be accredited when they are not.

The Obama administration's education secretary Arne Duncan is pressing Congress to pass a measure called the "gainful employment" rule, that reduces students' liability and puts more of the onus on the school, when graduates emerge from an education program ill-prepared for the work they were aiming at. Because of rampant loans to students, many are complaining they get no work but are still expected to pay off huge loans. Some find that, because their degree is not from an accredited institution, they are actually barred from working in the field. This is particularly true of nursing programs.

So you're poor, you just went to school for two or three years, you owe $80,000, and you still can't get work that pays more than $10,000 yearly. Now what? Many default. The gainful employment rule is intended to reduce defaults, but the schools are fighting it. Why am I not surprised?

For-profit education is a rather new product. We're just getting to the wild-west stage, where huge profits are being made by people who enjoy almost no oversight. Of course their profits will take a hit when a modicum of proper oversight is imposed. But it needs to be imposed.

I dug around on the Web a little before coming to a conclusion. I don't trust PBS entirely, just as I don't trust any single source. But I have concluded that the gainful employment rule is a good thing; it is not enough, but it is the least we can do for a start. I very seldom urge political action, but in this case, I urge you to let your Senators and Representatives know you are in favor of the gainful employment rule.

Monday, May 03, 2010

When to

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, advice

Got a hankering for a night out? What's the best evening to eat out? Try this:
Tuesday. Most restaurants don't receive deliveries on Saturdays or Sundays, and many are closed on Mondays. Restaurants that are open on Sundays and Mondays are cleaning out their refrigerators and serving food that may not be fresh. Food deliveries start early in the week, so the food served on Tuesday is fresh. Bonus: Most restaurants aren't crowded that day.
That is one of about 400 blurbs of good advice you'll find in Buy Ketchup in May and Fly at Noon: A Guide to the Best Time to Buy This, Do That and Go There by Mark Di Vincenzo. In a world full of "How To" books, this is a "When To" book. You'll find out when to buy a camera, TV, or a horse, when to call 911, and when to visit the Grand Canyon or Magic Kingdom.

Some questions are answered more than one way: what day of the week, what day in the month, which month of the year, for example. Others have a more conceptual answer. To the question "When is the best time to buy gold?", the short answer is "When the economy is stable." Prices rise with the level of fear.

The advice in this book isn't just a compendium of the author's opinions. The last 27 pages give his sources for all the blurbs. He notes that he had to break a few ties, and in the text he sometimes cites alternate views.

This was an enjoyable read, but it is also a good resource to keep handy. What is the best time to read this book? Whenever you know how, but don't know when.

Saturday, May 01, 2010

Finding out what is really down there

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, oceanography, photographs

In 2000, hundreds of scientists began a ten-year project to take a census of The Ocean. Considering that less than 5% of Ocean has been surveyed in any way, the aim was not to find every living thing—we can't even do that on land—but to sample intensively, comparing what was found to what had been recorded earlier to get some sense of the true number of species and their distribution.

While it would indeed be nice to have a record of every little fish, jelly, star, coral and squid (like this little Histioteuthis bonelli), that's going to take quite a bit longer, and involve many more people.

Had they just divided Ocean equally among them, each scientist would have had a space comparable in area to Belgium to explore, but consider this: About every ten meters in depth you descend, different creatures are seen. A patch of ocean over the 5-km-deep abyssal plain could be thought of as five hundred Belgiums. The average mid-water denizen seems to be more like this 5-cm squid than like the mighty bluefin tuna, but the most populous are the plankton (less than 1mm size plants and animals), bacteria (less than a 1/20 mm), and viruses, which may outnumber everything and even outweigh, in aggregate, many species of much larger size.

Now that we are well into 2010, the first books on the Census of Marine Life are being published, and the coffee-table-sized World Ocean Census: A Global Survey of Marine Life, by Darlene Trew Crist, Gail Scowcroft, and James M Harding Jr, has just been issued by Firefly Books (printed in China I might add).

This map, from page 169, shows many of the census sampling sites located over abyssal plains. These seemingly placid deeps are one of six zones into which Ocean was divided, to provide some systematic framework for the survey. Chapter seven of the book, "Unexplored Ecosystems", bravely provides a peek into the environments found in the perpetual darkness that pervades most of Ocean. The little squid shown above was found in open, deep water, most of which is "passing-through waters" to faster critters of every kind, but a permanent home to bacteria and small floating animals that feed on the rain of detritus from the plants (phytoplankton) living in the lighted zone near the surface.

We are much more familiar with plants and animals that live on or near the bottom, though this array of deep-water lobsters seems a bit bizarre. Most of us in the US know about the Maine lobsters found in supermarket tanks, and the spiny lobsters kept in some aquariums. Though there are about 35 species of clawed lobster and 60 of spiny lobster known, the relative ease with which dozens of new species were found indicates that there could be a thousand lobster species total. The frustrating thing about such a census is that we must rely on pretty radical extrapolations to make sense of the data. Frustrating, but also exciting!

These fish, swimming above manganese nodules atop a seamount in the open ocean, are Orange Roughy, a popular food fish. Don't let the small scale of the photo fool you. This species can get rather large, a couple of feet at least, so what appear to be twiggy corals on the bottom are really rather substantial hydroids and other species among pillow-sized nodules. Besides, the depth here is too great for corals to live. The main thing we know about seamounts is that they host large concentrations of fish, and are thus heavily trawled. None is known in an undisturbed state, making census-taking particularly difficult.

The strangest deepwater communities are found at hydrothermal vents on the ocean floor. This black smoker is fed by water that can be as hot as several hundred degrees, but just a short distance away, where the water's temperature is "merely" 100°C or so, bacteria thrive, fed by minerals in the emitted water, and they soon give way to incredible masses of "tube worms", pale crabs and other creatures entirely unknown before 1977.

These are fringe communities that I chose to emphasize the challenge these scientists faced over the past decade. 100 years ago Edison observed, "We don’t know one tenth of one percent of anything." The Census of Marine Life has demonstrated just how true this is. One researcher reported that he discovered a new species for about each seven hours of work. That is just one person of a thousand (the effort peaked at 2,000), and indicates that there must be millions of species still to be found. Yet the trends are more meaningful yet. Over the ten years, there was a noticeable decline in not just fish numbers (overfishing does continue unabated over most of Ocean), but many kinds of life in the open sea, and an increase in jellies (AKA jellyfish). Some speculate that jellies will come to dominate mid-Ocean species in another ten to twenty years.

Whether they are recording Ocean as it is, or archiving a "what once was" for future generations, the effort continues. Follow-on projects are being funded. Perhaps the most valuable result of this past decade's effort has been learning how to learn about The Ocean.