Thursday, November 6, 2008

Bill Nye, Science Guy

Back in mid-October we were at our son's parents' weekend at the Rochester Institute of Technology in upstate New York. We've attended the so-called Brick City Festival for each of the five years he's been there. No, we're not helicopter parents, we just like Central New York in October, the crisp days stimulating fond memories of college days in Syracuse so many years ago.

Among the many fun activities at the festival is an annual keynote speaker. Over the years we've heard from people like Robert Redford and Erin Brockovich. This year the speaker was Bill Nye, the Science Guy. I'd certainly heard of Bill and his famous TV show, but I don't think I ever actually watched it. His talk was entertaining and thought-provoking. He touched on many of the sort of things that have been on my mind lately, particularly alternative energy sources and wise use of resources. Knowing he was at a tech school, he exhorted (in a funny way) the hundreds of students in the audience to come up with solutions to many of the problems he discussed, telling them if they did, they would "GET RICH!". I'd like to touch on a few of the topics he discussed.

He talked at length about transportation and how we need to find ways to free ourselves of fossil-fuel powered vehicles. It will take some time to wean us off oil, but it is foolish not to use the technology we have NOW to slow the depletion of our oil reserves. Eventually, however, he sees us moving increasingly to electric vehicles and had an interesting idea. One of the problems of renewable energy is storage. How do we run things when the wind is not blowing and the sun is not shining? He imagines a day when we will all have plug-in electric cars with big batteries. When we're not driving, we'll plug the cars in and SHARE the power. When renewable energy is flowing, all the batteries will charge. When power is low, cars with full batteries will loan some electricity to those who need it. We'll all be part of a decentralized, mobile power company. You can imagine how we'd need plenty of techies to engineer a system like that.

He spent a bit of time on vehicle efficiency, talking about, say, the relative efficiency of his Prius and his neighbors Suburban. He also talked about the HKEV, the "highest-known-efficiency vehicle" - the bicycle. "One bowl of oatmeal - thirty miles!" For what we spend on a typical road engineered to bear 18-wheelers, we could build covered bikeways with big wind scoops so the cyclists would always have a tailwind.

Nanotechnology was another area he encouraged his young hosts to explore. He described how buckytubes of carbon might one day be used as super-low-resistance conductors that might vastly improve the efficiency of photovoltaic cells and all manner of electronic devices.

Regarding nuclear power, he was less optimistic. He pointed out that it is the most expensive source of electricity and that the waste problem remains unresolved. He acknowledged that France gets most of its power from nuclear plants, but got a chuckle from the crowd when he said they haven't solved the waste problem either. They just store it in caves in the mountains. Over near Germany.

I like it when people think about turning big problems into big opportunities. He described how huge quantities of fossil fuel are used to produce the nitrogen fertilizers we need to grow our food. Then he talked about the tremendous pollution that comes from huge pig farms in the South and how one farm can produce as much waste as a small city. Rather than view hog farm runoff as waste to be treated, why not collect it as a valuable resource to feed our crops? He didn't come right out and say it, but I think he meant us to understand that the same could be said of human waste. Why dump all that treated sewage into our waterways when it could be recycled onto farmland?

Now I'm not one who believes technology will solve all our problems, especially when that belief is used as an excuse to perpetuate old bad habits while we wait for high-tech salvation. But I do have some faith that visionary and courageous political leadership that supports scientific innovation can help us build a better world and a brighter future. I'm glad there are guys like Bill Nye out there spreading the word.

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