By Harry {doc} Babad, © Copyright 2011, All Rights Reserved.


I am again this week taking advantage of the harvest of clippings I gathered during March and April while I was tied up with other work and family matters. Do remember, yes I trust Wikipedia as a secondary source of information, but only if I’ve checkout most of an articles references for bias and accuracy!

You may wonder why there are a number, larger then usual in a non-nuclear specific article, of nuclear related items below? It my reaction to the media and the public’s Shakespearian overreaction to the Japanese Earthquake and Tsunami tragedy, which far out weights that from the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant accident.

What you ask?         It is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing. (Macbeth, Act 5, Scene 5.)


Titles, As Usual, in No Formal Order, for the New Snippets and Topics

  • Biofuels Aren’t Really Green N Cultivate inorganic energy sources instead of biofuels
  • Nuclear Energy Is A Disruptively Cheap And Simple Way To Boil Water
  • Can the U.S. Compete With China on Green Tech?  — A New York Times Debate Feature
  • The Hybrid Electric Car Victory – or at least its seemingly positive progress.
  • Small and Medium Reactors (SMRs) — The cases for and against
  • Assumptions for Land Needed by Wind and Solar — An Analysis
  • Stories vs. Statistics — A reality check

– – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – — – – – – – – – –

Biofuels Aren’t Really Green

Cultivate inorganic energy sources instead of biofuels

Interesting, although several a older studies have been published in peer reviewed sources, they appear to have been ignored by politico’s and silver bullet seeking subsidy hunters. Un-green biofuels also  goes against the current governmental biofuel creation goals and subsidy trends.

Has any done a recent updated system study on the effect of all variables on the issue of biofuel potential? The best of what I’ve googled focuses primarily on the transportation sector. Not often, and only weakly is there consideration given to its use for generating electrical power generation in which biofuel would replace, coal, natural gas and perhaps grid linked efficient solar or wind power.

Sustainable, green, renewable, organic—the words come up so often in energy and climate debates that they tend to sound as if they mean the same thing. But of course they don’t. Nuclear reactors emit no carbon and are therefore in a sense green, but uranium is nonrenewable; hydropower is green and renewable but may not always be sustainable, because the ecological consequences can be bad and reservoirs are not limitless; coal is organic, but its carbon emissions make it the very opposite of green. All that is obvious enough. But even so, it may be jarring to hear—as the authors have found and will describe — organic biofuels can’t possibly fuel a growing world economy in a sustainable manner, whereas, in principle, inorganic fuels could.

That inorganic might beat organic contradicts fashionable prejudice, which like all fashion changes with the season. Take the case of the United States: First came the enthusiasm for corn ethanol, its extravagant subsidization, and a farm-industrial miniboom. Then, when corn’s limits started to become better known and its costs more glaringly obvious, we started to hear about the promise of switch grass, a native species of the North American prairie that promises high energy-conversion efficiencies.

All of this knowledge ignored, in parallel to our scientifically trained American legislators allowing and by implication promoting the increased of corn based ethanol. To 15% in gasoline, despite marginal or perhaps negative fuel efficiencies, known engine corrosion problems and the shortage of corn for food world-wide. To mix metaphor, these folks really know which side of their bread is buttered. It’s a shame that there is no legal way to shame them and their staff, as well as the industry lobbyist into using the 15% adulterated fuel for six months to a year.

President George W. Bush first mentioned it in a 2006 speech to the nation. Before long, Al Gore was chiming in too, promising that with adequate government support for research, grass-based fuels could free us from the dual specters of energy shortage and runaway climate change.

In Germany rapeseed has been all the rage; in India, jatropha; and in Brazil, sugarcane ethanol. Yet the plain fact is that nobody really knows when or whether organic fuels will be competitive with hydrocarbon based fuels (gasoline and or natural gas, except under unique circumstance such as hold in Brazil.  Engineering breakthroughs, by their nature, are unpredictable—that’s what makes them exciting. So to evaluate whether organic fuels could ever be in a position to power the world, we looked at them purely in terms of physical resource availability, assuming that the costs would eventually become competitive. We asked how much land and water would be needed to make the quantities of biofuel that a prosperous world would need. We also asked whether there were other sources of fuel and energy that might put less strain on resources while adding less greenhouse gas to the atmosphere.

To our own surprise, the authors note, the model we constructed showed that there is simply not enough land and water to support a prosperous biofueled world. At the same time, it suggested that inorganic sources, such as photovoltaic cells, could in principle do the job. There’s the rub… the words in principle.

There’s much more so read on — make up your own mind, but remember that the 2009 premises input to the authors’ model was already outdated when published. There is, as you all know no thing as constant as change itself. Also check out the last topic in this blog called “statistics and stories. (Doc.)

Article by Deepak Divan and Frank Kreikebaum, IEEE Spectrum November 2009.

See Also:

Biofuel from Wikipedia, 2011

Sustainable (Green) Energy from Wikipedia

– – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – — – – – – – – – –

Nuclear Energy Is A Disruptively Cheap And Simple Way To Boil Water

I’ve combined inputs from two of Rod Adam’s articles to give you a taste of his ideas on nuclear energy related issues. They include his views on nuclear related costs issues and other red flags. I am in total agreement with Rod’s thesis and logic, based on independent reading. No I’m not an economist, venture capitalist, or investment broker, but I am a pretty good systems engineer. Since I’m on a Shakespeare kick, Rod’s articles are as much about “much ado about nothing: but neither does it credit the impossible dream as American nuclear  naysayer preach.

Guys-Gals, France, China, Russia and India are not going either broke by supporting nuclear. Neither will Japan, after they slowly recover from the earthquake-tsunami. Owing ones soul to either the company store or to the international oil magnates is not my version of the American dream. Is it yours?

Why Select Rod’s Articles! — First, he writes for what Steve Jobs would call the rest of us. Experience wise, he is a pro-nuclear advocate with extensive small nuclear plant operating experience and a former engineer officer, USS Von Steuben. He is also the host and producer of The Atomic Show Podcast. Adams and is a frequent contributor to the ANS Nuclear Cafe.  …Mostly, although I’ve looked, I’ve not found any errors in the logic behind his analysis or the validity of his sources.

For the majority of human history, people used their own muscles to provide almost all of the work required for survival and development. A thin slice of humanity achieved a moderate amount of personal comfort and leisure because they were able, often through an accident of birth, to control a portion of the daily work output of hundreds to thousands of their fellow humans. The only sources of work—in the engineering sense—that were not either human or animal muscle came from capturing falling water or intermittently by capturing the breezes through devices like cloth sails or wind mills.

Humans understood fire. They used it to keep warm, to process their food, to produce some implements from metal, and as a weapon of destruction. It was not, however, until inventive people with names like Savery, Newcomen, and Watt started to work out ways of using the hot gas produced when fire boiled water that humans learned how to become masters of the earth’s vast store of combustible materials.

The seemingly simple act of boiling water provided humans the means necessary to gradually invent and manufacture their way out of a life of drudgery. Steam power was the key; H2O had always been important for people, but when they learned to pump it as a liquid, heat it into a pressurized gas, and condense it back down into a liquid, H2O became he vital working fluid that could turn heat into work and force machines to become the drudges in service of human beings. It is not an exaggeration to note that without the act of boiling water to create and use steam, getting rid of serfdom and slavery would have been virtually impossible.

I would bet that most of the people who nod their heads at that phrase have never had to cut and carry enough wood to boil a large pot of water, say for doing a week’s laundry. I am sure that few have ever spent much time watching a coal conveyor steadily feed a large boiler that is producing some of the electricity that feeds the electrical sockets and stoves in their homes. Boiling water is not only important, but it is not as simple as it may seem. It generally requires the consumption of a vast quantity of increasingly expensive materials and it requires a tacit {implied} agreement on the part of everyone in the area of the fire to accept their share of the waste products that are spread far and wide from every fire.

The exception to that general rule is the water that gets boiled by the heat released from atomic fission. Once the work of the talented engineers and builders is complete, operating a fission-heated boiler is a rather simple task. The task is not made simple by sets of complex automation or hard working pumps and conveyors; it is enabled by physics. Once a moderate amount of fuel is loaded into a nuclear reactor, it will reliably and simply produce heat for somewhere between 18 months and 33 years (the later for a Virginia class nuclear submarine) with relatively little additional effort.

There’s a tad more to this historic tale — click the first reference…

Rod concludes the fact is that nuclear energy is a cheap, clean, and even simple way to perform the vital act of boiling water

To get a taste of the economic issues, that red flag nuclear, check out the second link. Rod makes a lie out of many of ways the most virulent anti-nuclear activists have begun focusing almost exclusively on spreading the assumption that nuclear energy means expensive energy. They have been helped in this effort by statements from the established nuclear industry that claim that new plants are so expensive that they require government assistance and incentives in order to get them financed and built.

The fundamental aspect of nuclear energy that the rest of us need to understand is that fission heat is actually quite cheap. The average total production cost from a US nuclear power plant today is just 1.86 cents per kilowatt-hour. That total is normally broken into two pieces – fuel costs and non-fuel Operations and Maintenance costs. For 2008, nuclear plant owners in the US spent an average of just 0.49 cents per kilowatt-hour for fuel and 1.37 cents per kilowatt-hour for non-fuel operations & maintenance. Data from the Nuclear Energy Institute is provided in Rod’s article that describes what is included in those numbers.

Also enjoy the outdated, but still qualitatively appropriate data on US Government and State energy subsidies — =talk about picking favorite or free market distortions.

Okay enough said so just click through. Also relevant, but not part of this articles are the lowered costs when consider either small nuclear power plant (batteries) and modular reactors such as those being designed by Babcock & Wilcox Company for near future licensing.

Nuclear Energy Is A Disruptively Cheap And Simple Way To Boil Water. Posted on February 1, 2011 by Rod Adams in the ANS nuclear cafe Blog.

Nuclear Energy Is Cheap and Disruptive – Controlling the Initial Cost of Nuclear Power Plants is a Solvable Problem. Posted February 6, 2010 by Rod Adams for the Energy Collective.

– – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – — – – – – – – – –

Can the U.S. Compete With China on Green Tech?

— A New York Times Debate Feature

When reading this article or the ones I referenced, I wonder whether this competition stuff is a smokescreen. Does it really matter who the ever changing statistics is number one. By all estimates the projected markets are so huge that they can’t likely be monopolized. (Green tech, please note is different from controlling a narrow commodity such as rare earth elements (of recent headline fame) or OPEC and petroleum supplies. America is known for its inventiveness, creativity and ‘venturous’ spirit. However that does not mean that we don’t  need to re-assert, despite the risks, our ability to get our competitive manufacturing up to snuff; or we’re back to hind teat.

After all the jobs and profits go to those who manufacture, not the inventors. That why jobs are exported to the lowest cost technically savvy  ‘competent’ producer – iPad’s from China and flat screen TV’s from Japan and South Korea, with some of manufacturing in part outsourced to China. In addition everything I read, that is based on peer reviewed hard science is that small business do not have the ability to create more than a few jobs, it’s all about mega manufacturing, in America, that creates jobs and raises living standards — more of that in a future article.

The Obama administration has sought to promote green technology as a growth engine in the U.S. But even with some government support, new firms have a hard time competing with foreign producers. The U.S. currently accounts for just $1.6 billion of the world’s $29 billion market for solar panels, with China, using aggressive policies, to become the dominant maker of equipment like solar panels and wind turbines. Congress was so concerned about unfair trade practices harming American manufacturers that it recently approved a provision to require the Pentagon to buy only American-made solar panels. Anyone for a trade war?

What are the obstacles for American companies trying to win global markets in clean energy industries? Read the NYT discussion. Can green industries take off in the U.S. and compete globally? What might stand in the way? The topics discussed in the NT sponsored debate and Op-Ed include:

Pitfalls in Public Policies— Robert N. Stavins, Harvard UniversityWe Need a Manufacturing Agenda — Joan Fitzgerald, Northeastern University

Ways to Recapture the Lead — Robert E. Scott, Economic Policy Institute

How We Gain From China’s Advances  — Matthew Kahn, UCLA. Institute of the Environment

Government Should Be a CatalystVan Jones, author, “The Green Collar Economy”

Our Comparative Advantage — Frank A. Wolak, Stanford University

Understanding the ObjectiveDavid Roberts,



See Also:

Welcoming The Competition, Like It Or Not, The Economist, June 10th 2010

Senator Harry Reid: US Must Compete With China To Lead On Energy By Matthew Daly, Associated Press Posted Wed Apr 27, 2011.

Can the U.S. Compete With China on Green Tech? –We Need a Manufacturing Agenda, Posted on 19 January 2011 by Sara Haimowitz. For the ‘Trade Reform’ Blog.

US Must Cut $100 Billion from Defense to Compete with China on Clean Energy: Expert, by Brian Merchant, Brooklyn, New York  on January.12, 2011 for the Tree Hugger Blog11.

– – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – –

The Hybrid Electric Car Victoryor at least its seemingly positive progress. founder Felix Kramer tells the plug-in hybrid story in this re-post.  For background, see “Plug-in hybrids and electric cars — a core climate solution.”

The details:

(1) On the evolution of the hybrid electric car, and perhaps an all electric car.

(2) The lessons learned during their development by their major manufacturers and the

(3) Challenges ahead for this energy saving-petrochemical use reducing transportation alternative.

…All are described in an article entitled “The Hybrid Electric Car Victory” for the Energy Collective by Joseph Romm, Posted December 22, 2010.

Romm, as an early pioneer and advocate for hybrid cars, Romm’s narrative is folksy, anecdotal and easy to read — tune in you enjoy the doing so.

…And while I’m at it my next <used> car is a 5-7 year old Toyota Prius – Consumer Reports tested a 2002 (nine year old model) with 206,000 miles on the odometer and found minimal if any degradation of its operating systems including the battery. Alas, there hasn’t been a used Prius for sale in the used automobile advertisements for the last 6-9 months.


More Reading

Hybrid Vehicles, …And… Hybrid Electric Vehicles, In Wikipedia 2011.

How Hybrid Cars Work, by Karim Nice and Julia Layton in How Stuff Works. 2011.

Hybrid Vehicle, The Next Step In The Evolution of the Automobile! By Kjartan Bergsson, Blog Editor

–        – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – –

Small and Medium Reactors  — The cases for and against

Challenges in getting large nuclear projects off the ground seems to have renewed interest in small modular reactors. But not everyone is convinced there is a market for smaller plants. Can the SMR developers play ball with the big boys of nuclear?

This year the nuclear energy industry is thinking small, or at least a segment of it is. Everyone from the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) to Nuclear Energy Insider is staging an event or carrying out a study into small modular reactors (SMRs), while manufacturers are gearing up new product designs.

Is the hype justified? It depends who you ask.

SMRs (the acronym also stands for small and medium reactors, defined by the IAEA as having ratings of under 300MW and up to 700MW, respectively) have been around for a long time and have not exactly shown great commercial promise throughout their existence.

The article discusses a variety of efforts ranging from the failed pebble bed SMR to the ongoing active international approaches in a race that appears to be running almost neck-to-neck relative to technology alternatives. The one thing these designs have in common is the concept of using a small sized 50-100 MW nuclear battery maintenance free unit that is installed underground, used for it’s lifetime, retrieved and recycled by it’s manufacturer. No extra external cooling systems, earthquake proof to NRC or IAEA standards, no refueling, no active safety systems… it’s just a battery. The image is the Hyperon Reactor concept.

Take the Pebble Bed Modular Reactor originally planned in South Africa by the company of the same name, in association with African electrical giant Eskom. After six years of development the project was shelved last September, allegedly due to a lack of customers and investors. Poor management and planning, or the world economic downturn?

On the pro side, However, Steve Kidd (deputy director general of the World Nuclear Association) acknowledges that it is probably current energy generation economics that is driving current interest in SMRs: “You don’t need such a large dollop of front end capital to get a programme underway,” he accepts.

Adrian Heymer, executive director of strategic programs at the USA’s Nuclear Energy Institute, adds: “Interest is being driven in part by smaller utilities looking at different types of energy generation and which cannot afford a large nuclear plant. “If you add capacity in 50 MW to 300MW increments it’s easier on the planning. You can bring the units on in stages, so you are still getting 600MW to 700MW in a 10 to 15-year period but you can finance it as you go forward.”

Another advantage of an SMR design, Adrian says, is that because most of the components can be shipped ready-built from the manufacturer, “it doesn’t take as long to build. You can assemble most of the plant in a factory.”

According to Jay Harris, an independent consultant, a further reason why some utilities might be keen on SMRs is because they provide greater base load flexibility as intermittent renewable energy sources are increasingly integrated into the grid.

The danger for a utility that is bound by regulation to accept renewable energy is that if most of its base load comes from a single nuclear source then a peak in renewables could mean a portion of the base is no longer profitable, and there may be further costs if the plant has to shut.

There lot’s more here to tweak your interest, and while you’re reading check out the supplementary references. Of particular interest are the enhanced safety features, and life cycle, including low construction costs and minimal maintainability, advantages. These are in essence small On the negative side, a terrorists may chose to fly a large helicopter with a sky hook and lift it top drop it where it will ‘scare people’.

It’s Just a BIG Battery

ThreeMmodules in the  B&W Concept

Note that what I report in this topical is not the modular reactor concept, which will be the source of another future article. Modular reactor are large scale reactors which can be built and centrally operated using some installed prefabricated modules to fit power needs, but closely resemble the newer generation of standard nuclear power plants. These are being explored as a means of lowering up front capital costs without a need to significantly change the licensing requirements and regulatory approval process

Nuclear Energy Industry Insight, by Jason Deign, February 9, 2011.

More Reading

Small Modular Reactors.           …And…         List Of Small Nuclear Reactor Designs. Wikipedia 2011.

Small Nuclear Power Reactors. World Nuclear Association, April 2011

Are Small Nuclear Reactors Safer? The Celsias (climate) Blog, by Timothy B. Hurst

Interim Report Of The American Nuclear Society President’s Special Committee On Small And Medium Sized Reactor (SMR) Generic Licensing Issues, July 2010.

The economy of small: how SMRs have captured the imagination of US policy makers and industry leaders. By Jack Craze, October 18, 2010, for the Nuclear Energy Insider.

Small Nuclear Reactors Are Becoming Big Business – The race is on to develop refrigerator-size reactors that could power small towns or plants. Published in Bloomberg Businessweek, By Jeremy van Loon and Alex Morales, May 20, 2010. – IEER/PSR: ‘Small Modular Reactors’ No Panacea for What Ails Nuclear Power (An alternate View), by Arjun Makhijani of the anti-nuclear IEER, Posted October 1, 2010.            …And…         Small Modular Reactors – No Solution for the Cost, Safety, and Waste Problems of Nuclear Power. Fact Sheet by Arjun Makhijani And Michele Boyd for the Institute for Energy and Environmental Research [IEER], September 2010.

The Gates Path to an Energy Revolution By Andrew C. Revkin, August 24, 2010 for The New York Times

Bill Gates and Toshiba building commercial mini nuclear reactors. By Leslie Shapiro for the DEVICE Blog, Mar 23, 2010.

– – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – –

Assumptions for Land Needed by Wind and Solar — An Analysis

Abstracted from Martin LaMonica‘s CNET article::

Imagine if your country had an unlimited budget but a limited amount of land: what renewable energy has the most potential? Rutgers University professor Clinton Andrews and colleagues ran the numbers on this thought experiment and came up with some surprises.

The authors identified clear limits on some technologies, notably biofuels, but concluded that the bigger challenges to renewable energy and land relate to siting energy facilities, particularly transmission lines. Andrews presented an early version of the paper at the Lincoln Institute of Land Policy conference. The goal of the analysis and others like it is to size up the land requirements for different renewable-energy sources which in many cases require more land than fossil fuels and nuclear power. As the U.S. and other countries seek to ramp up renewable-energy production, land use is becoming a more contentious issue. Already plans to build large-scale solar plants and wind farms in the U.S. have been opposed for aesthetic and environmental reasons.

Even for distributed energy sources, such as rooftop panels, permitting and siting issues stand to loom large because upgrades to the electricity grid are needed, the study found. “It’s not so much the land that we need for producing the energy. It’s how we move to where we want to use it,” according to the analysis that Andrews presented.

Professor Andrews goes on to discuss land use associated with

  • The small land needs for Geothermal and concentrating solar thermal production.
  • Alas, the largest energy associated land hog is biofuels, particularly biodiesel.

There’s more so click though and get the rest of the story. I wish that the reporter who shared Professor Andrew’s work had more directly included coal, natural gas and nuclear in the CNET analysis, but that seemed beyond the scope of the reporter interests. Never the less from the material provided in other references I checked in passing, the land use patterns are very clear. The image is from a 2011 C&EN article.

Remember that land use is only one of the trade-offs needing to be considered while planning our hopefully independent energy future and controlling climate change. The obvious cost of the energy produced, when off set by some sort of charge for pollution needs to be considered. Unfortunately the bureaucrats and industrialists of the world seem to be blind-siding this issue, creating a false balance sheet of costs for energy alternative. “Gaia doesn’t care, the laws of nature will take their coursed whether we believe them or not.

A perhaps more scholarly study, the second reference further highlights energy production  land use issues:

Concern over climate change has led the U.S. to consider a cap-and-trade system to regulate emissions. In the referenced articles we illustrate the land-use impact to U.S. habitat types of new energy development resulting from different U.S. energy policies. The authors estimated the total new land area needed by 2030 to produce energy, under current law and under various cap-and-trade policies, and then partitioned the area impacted among habitat types with geospatial data on the feasibility of production.

The land-use intensity of different energy production techniques varies over three orders of magnitude, from 1.9–2.8 km2/TW hr/yr for nuclear power to 788–1000 km2/TW hr/yr for biodiesel from soy. In all scenarios, temperate deciduous forests and temperate grasslands will be most impacted by future energy development, although the magnitude of impact by wind, biomass, and coal to different habitat types is policy-specific.

Regardless of the existence or structure of a cap-and-trade bill, at least 206,000 km2 will be impacted without substantial increases in energy efficiency, which saves at least 7.6 km2 per TW hr of electricity conserved annually and 27.5 km2 per TW/hr of liquid fuels conserved annually.

Climate policy that reduces carbon dioxide emissions may increase the areal impact of energy, although the magnitude of this potential side effect may be substantially mitigated by increases in energy efficiency. The possibility of widespread energy sprawl increases the need for energy conservation, appropriate siting, sustainable production practices, and compensatory mitigation offsets.

Caveat Lector:  I could not Google a copy of the original Rutgers Study by Professor Clinton Andrews, so can not attest to the underlying technical detains in the original article. All posted information was a variation of the LaMonica CNET report

Figuring land use into renewable-energy equation. Reported n the Green Tech Blog

By Martin LaMonica, May 29, 2010.

Energy Sprawl or Energy Efficiency: Climate Policy Impacts on Natural Habitat for the United States of America. The Plosone Blog, by Robert I. McDonald, Joseph Fargione, Joe Kiesecker3 William M. Miller, and Jimmie Powell; August 2009.

Nuclear Energy: The Antidote to Energy Sprawl, Nuclear Energy Insight, Nuclear Energy Institute, September 2010.

–       – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – –

Stories vs. StatisticsA reality check

Years ago I took a graduate school course, at the University of Denver from my favorite faculty friend and colleague Dr. Albert Ritter. The course combined an introduction to the principals of symbolic logic, dipped into the basis of the scientific method and added what appeared to be a segment on ‘how to lie with statistics.” Although I would not have passed the course being simultaneously being overwhelmed with life’s realities. I was simultaneously teaching, developing an organic chemistry Ph. D. curriculum, chasing funding and then building myself a research laboratory, and enjoying a new marriage. Non-the less, the course changed my approach to what I read and how I approached scientific life!   

Many year later, a book “Damned Lies and Statistics: Untangling Numbers from the Media, Politicians, and Activists”, by Joel Best, University of California Press; 1 edition (May 8, 2001) added another nail to my sense of disbelief of ‘public’ infomercials’ on the numerics and cherry-pickled statistics provided by talking heads what ever their titles or positions.


Therefor the following NY Times article touched on a nerve, always, especially after elections or congressional debates, raw and bleeding.


Half a century ago the British scientist and novelist C. P. Snow bemoaned the estrangement of what he termed the “two cultures” in modern society — the literary and the scientific. These days, there is some reason to celebrate better communication between these domains, if only because of the increasingly visible salience of scientific ideas. Still a gap remains, and so I’d like here to take an oblique look at a few lesser known contrasts and divisions between subdomains of the two cultures, specifically, those between stories and statistics.

Dr. Paulos begins by noting that the notions of probability and statistics are not alien to storytelling. From the earliest of recorded histories there were glimmerings of these concepts, which were reflected in everyday words and stories. Consider the notions of central tendency — average, median, mode, to name a few.

They most certainly grew out of workaday activities and led to words such as (in English) “usual,” “typical.” “customary,” “most,” “standard,” “expected,” “normal,” “ordinary,” “medium,” “commonplace,” “so-so,” and so on.

The same is true about the notions of statistical variation — standard deviation, variance, and the like. Words such as “unusual,” “peculiar,” “strange,” “original,” “extreme,” “special,” “unlike,” “deviant,” “dissimilar” and “different” come to mind.

It is hard to imagine even prehistoric humans not possessing some sort of rudimentary idea of the typical or of the unusual. Any situation or entity — storms, animals, and rock patterns — that recurred again and again would, it seems, lead naturally to these notions. These and other fundamentally scientific concepts have in one way or another been embedded in the very idea of what a story is — an event distinctive enough to merit retelling — from cave paintings to “Gilgamesh” to “The Canterbury Tales,” onward.

The idea of probability itself is present in such words as “chance,” “likelihood,” “fate,” “odds,” “gods,” “fortune,” “luck,” “happenstance,” “random,” and many others. A mere acceptance of the idea of alternative possibilities almost entails some notion of probability, since some alternatives will be come to be judged more likely than others.

Likewise, the idea of sampling is implicit in words like “instance,” “case,” “example,” “cross-section,” “specimen” and “swatch,” and that of correlation is reflected in “connection,” “relation,” “linkage,” “conjunction,” “dependence” and the ever too ready “cause.”

Even (science based) hypothesis testing and Bayesian analysis possess linguistic echoes in common phrases and ideas that are an integral part of human cognition and storytelling. … Despite the naturalness of these notions, however, there is a tension between stories and statistics. One under-appreciated contrast between them is simply the mindset with which we approach them. In listening to stories we tend to suspend disbelief in order to be entertained. Whereas, in evaluating statistics we generally have an opposite inclination to suspend belief in order not to be beguiled.

A drily named distinction from formal statistics is relevant: we’re said to commit a Type I error when we observe something that is not really there and a Type II error when we fail to observe something that is there. There is no way to always avoid both types, and we have different error thresholds in different endeavors, but the type of error people feel more comfortable may be telling. It gives some indication of their intellectual personality type; on which side of the two cultures (or maybe two cultures) divide they’re most comfortable. Check Wikipedia,

Okay, that’s right; if the author’s thesis catches your fancy read on… after all there are both philosopher kings and philosophical scientists, although Plato did not distinguish between them.

Article by John Allen Paulos, in the New York Times Opinionator Column, October 24, 2010.

– – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – –


Copyright Notice: Product and company names and logos in this review may be registered trademarks of their respective companies.

Some of the articles listed in this column are copyright protected – their use is both acknowledge and is limited to educational related purposes, which this column provides.

Sources & Credits:  — Many of these items were found by way of the links in the newsletter NewsBridge of ‘articles of interest’ to the national labs library technical and regulatory agency users. NewsBridge is electronically published by the Pacific Northwest National Laboratories, in Richland WA.  If using NewsBridge as a starting point, I follow the provided link to the source of the information and edit its content (mostly by shortening the details) for information for our readers. I also both follow any contained links, where appropriate, in the actual article, and provide you those references as well as those gleaned from a short trip to Google-land. Obviously if my source is a magazine or blog that the material I work with.

In addition, when copying materials that I cite, I do not fill the sourced ‘quoted’ words with quotation marks, the only place I keep quotes intact is where the original article ‘quotes’ another secondary source external to itself.  Remember, when Doc sticks his two bits in, its in italics and usually indented.

In Closing

Readers please read about my paradigms views, prejudices and snarky attitudes at:

The materials I share in the topical snippets that follow come from the various weekly science and environmental magazines and newsletters, both pro or anti any given subject’s focus or technologies; as well as excerpts from blogs and ‘lists’ to which I subscribe.

Article selection (my article – my choice} are obviously and admittedly biased by my training, experience and at rare times my emotional and philosophical intuitive views of what works and what will not… But if you have a topic I neglect, send me feedback and I’ll give it a shot.

Since my topic segments are only a partial look at the original materials, click on-through the provided link if you want more details, as well as <often> to check out other background references on the topic(s).          Doc!

QUOTES de Mois —

  • The first principle is that you must not fool yourself and you are the easiest person to fool.
  • For a successful technology, reality must take precedence over public relations, for Nature cannot be fooled.
  • It doesn’t matter how beautiful your theory is, it doesn’t matter how smart you are. If it doesn’t agree with experiment, it’s wrong.  Richard P. Feynman

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s