Saturday, October 30, 1999

Energy and Environment

On October 25, 1999, Peter E. Hodgson delivered a lecture entitled "Global Warming, the Energy Crisis and Nuclear Power" at a meeting sponsored by Osaka Nuclear Science Association and held at Osaka Science and Technology Center. I had an honor to be the chairperson of the lecture. Hodgson is Professor of theoretical nuclear physics at University of Oxford, and has been the member of the Atomic Scientists' Association for many years. He has written a number of books on nuclear physics as well as on the relation of nuclear physics and society [1].

He talked about the comparison of possible energy sources of the future by the five criteria of capacity, cost, reliability, safety and environment, quoting the following words of William Thomson (Lord Kelvin) and showing numerical data collected as much as possible.
I often say that when you can measure what you are speaking about, and express it in numbers, you know something about it; but when you cannot measure it, when you cannot express it in numbers, your knowledge is of a meagre and unsatisfactory kind.
The possible energy sources considered included coal, oil, gas, wind, solar, hydroelectric, tidal and nuclear power plants. The data presented showed that nuclear power was most promising in every respect. His calm and gentle manner of talking did not weaken his conclusion but strengthened it. The audience consisted mostly of nuclear and radiation scientists. At this time of intensifying mood of public opposition against nuclear power due to the Tokai accident, therefore, Hodgson's lecture must have given encouragement to most of the attendants.

The opponents of nuclear power should also discuss the matter scientifically on the basis of numerical data related to the scope of a wide range, if they wish to stand firmly against proponents. Hodgson writes in his paper [2], on which a large part of his lecture was based, "The onus of demonstrating a better way to combat global warming lies on the opponents of nuclear power."
  1. The latest of the latter kind of books is: Peter E. Hodgson, Nuclear Power, Energy and the Environment (Imperial College Press, 1999).
  2. P. E. Hodgson, Nuclear Energy, Vol. 38, No. 3, 147 (1999).
Related Site Further Reading Added Later
  1. H. Herzog, B. Eliasson and O. Kaarstad, "Capturing Greenhouse Gases," Scientific American Vol. 282, No. 2, pp. 54-61 (2000). The authors review the approach of burning fossil fuels without releasing carbon dioxide to the atmosphere by separating them underground or in the deep ocean.
  2. W. C. Sailor, D. Bodansky, C. Braun, S. Fetter and B. van der Zwaan, "A Nuclear Solution to Climate Change?" Science, Vol. 288, pp. 1177-1178 (2000).

Thursday, October 14, 1999

Femtosecond Spectroscopy and Top Quark

The Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences has awarded the 1999 Nobel Prize in Chemistry to Professor Ahmed H. Zewail, California Institute of Technology, Pasadena, USA, for showing that it is possible with rapid laser technique to see how atoms in a molecule move during a chemical reaction.

The Academy's citation [1] says that the Egyptian scientist Zewail won the prize "for his studies of the transition states of chemical reactions using femtosecond spectroscopy." I am glad that "femto" used in the name of my essays has become famous also among nonscientists by Zewail's winning of the prize.

The 1999 Nobel Prize in Physics was won jointly by Professor Gerardus 't Hooft, University of Utrecht, Utrecht, the Netherlands, and Professor Emeritus Martinus J.G. Veltman, Bilthoven, the Netherlands "for elucidating the quantum structure of electroweak interactions in physics."

One particular quantity obtained by the calculation method of 't Hooft and Veltman is the mass of the top quark [2] (quarks are the constituents of the proton, the neutron and the like, which were once considered to be elementary particles). This quark was observed directly for the first time in 1995 at the Fermilab in the USA [3], but its mass had been predicted several years earlier. Thus the correctness of their theory was established. It is to be noted that the work related to the existence of the top quark was initiated by the Japanese physicists M. Kobayashi and K. Maskawa [4].

Besides the predictions already confirmed, the Academy's press release [2] mentions also about an as yet unfound particle termed the Higgs particle, which is an important ingredient in the theory 't Hooft and Veltman have developed. The demonstration of this particle is expected to come around 2005 after the completion of an accelerator called the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) at the European high-energy physics center CERN.

Veltman is quoted as telling Dutch radio news, "The social benefit of my theory is absolutely nil -- you won't eat any more or less as a result." (CNN website news, 12 Oct, 1999). However, the understanding of one of the deepest levels of nature is very probable to open up new technological possibilities in the future.

A good explanation for the layperson of the work done by 't Hooft and Veltman is found in a book by John Gribbin [5]. See also Physics New Update Nos. 452-1 and 452-2 for this year's Nobel Prizes in Physics and Chemistry [6, 7].
  1. Nobel Foundation, "The 1999 Nobel Prize in Chemistry"
  2. Nobel Foundation, "The 1999 Nobel Prize in Physics"
  3. T. M. Liss and P. L. Tipton, "The Discovery of the Top Quark" Sci. Amer. (September issue, 1997).
  4. G. 't Hooft, "In Search of the Ultimate Building Blocks" (Cambridge University Press, 1997).
  5. J. Gribbin, "The Search for Superstrings, Symmetry, and the Theory of Everything" (Little, Brown, 1998).
  6. The 1999 Nobel Prize for Physics, Physics News Update No. 452-1 (1999, American Institute of Physics)
  7. The 1999 Nobel Prize in Chemistry, Physics News Update No. 452-2 (1999, American Institute of Physics)

Monday, October 11, 1999

The Old Man and Superstrings

Superstrings are tiny entities of the size on the order of 10-33 cm. Not a small number of theoretical physicists suppose that these would be the ultimate building blocks of matter and that the superstring theory would lead to a Theory of Everything. Good introductory books and a website on the superstrings for laypersons are available [1-4].

As early as in 1988, BBC Radio 3 broadcast the program Desperately Seeking Superstrings to review the state of superstring research. The program included interviews with some of the leading proponents and critics of the superstring theory. The transcripts of the interviews were published as a book [5]. In this book we can read Richard Feynman's skeptic opinion on the superstrings. The interview with him was made just before the year of his death.

The interviewers asked if Feynman thought that theoretical physics was degenerating into philosophy because of financial difficulties experimentally to test the unification of nature's laws at the deepest level. Feynman said, "Maybe theoretical physics is degenerating but I don't know into what." Then, he added [5]:
I have noticed when I was younger, that lots of old man in the field couldn't understand new ideas very well ... such as Einstein not being able to take quantum mechanics. I'm an old man now, and these are new ideas, and they look crazy to me, ... So I could entertain future historians by saying I think all this superstring stuff is crazy and is in the wrong direction.
This was not Feynman's joke considering the following fact. One of the earliest developers of superstring theory, John Schwarz, recollects Feynman's advice given to him to discourage him from wasting his productive years on string theory [1], "Whenever we propose any theory, we must be our own severest critic."

I am a "superstring stuff" fan as well as a Feynman fan, and would like to see future historians being pleased to find that Feynman was really wrong about this stuff.
  1. M. Kaku and J. Thompson, "Beyond Einstein" (Oxford University Press, 1997; first edition by Bantam Books, 1987).
  2. J. Gribbin, "The Search for Superstrings, Symmetry, and the Theory of Everything" (Little, Brown, 1998).
  3. B. Greene, "The Elegant Universe" (W. W. Norton, 1999).
  4. "The Official String Theory Web Site" (U.S.A.)
  5. P. C. W. Davies and J. Brown, ed., "Superstrings" (Cambridge University Press, 1988).
Read essays related to Richard Feynman: "What Do I Care What Mr. Feynman Thinks?"

Saturday, October 02, 1999

The Real Cause of Nuclear Accident

On September 30, 1999, a nuclear chain reaction was set off at the uranium processing plant of JCO Co. in Tokaimura, and lasted for almost a day, contaminating dozens of workers and spewing radiation into the atmosphere. About 310,000 people living within 10 kilometers of the plant were warned to remain in their homes with windows and vents shut for more than a day. Some 80 people living within 350 meters of the plant, evacuated soon after the accident, were still barred from returning to their homes on 2 October. This was Japan's worst-ever nuclear accident.

Japanese newspapers quoted officials from the JCO Co. as saying at a news conference, "The nuclear chain reaction began around 10:35 a.m. 30 September when workers skipped a key step that would have prevented the start of the reaction. They apparently used buckets to transfer a uranium solution into a mixing tank. Because the employees were doing the job by hand, instead of using a required apparatus, they mistakenly loaded 16 kilograms of uranium into a container, nearly eight times the normal amount. They also appear to have transferred the uranium solution to the wrong tank." (Adapted from the website news of CNN.)

The above report gives us an impression that the accident was entirely caused by the workers' error, but fullest consideration should be given to the more basic reason that lead the human error to the disaster. Is it not a gross administrative failure to permit the establishment of a nuclear fuel plant without any fail-safe system against the fission chain reaction?

Related References
  • IAEA-WHO, Diagnosis and Treatment of Radiation Injuries, Safety Report Series, No. 2, IAEA, Vienna (1998).
  • IAEA-WHO, Planning the Medical Responses to Radiological Accidents, Safety Report Series, No. 4, IAEA, Vienna (1998).
  • IAEA-ILO-WHO, Health Surveillance of Persons Occupationally Exposed to Ionizing Radiation, Safety Report Series, No. 5, IAEA, Vienna (1998).