Thorium Plug

February 27, 2013

As I emerged from my slumbers this morning, I absorbed the latest radio chatter about British Gas – investing wisely, or fleecing the consumer ? All a bit sensitive because of the Government “dash for gas”, what with those EDF Frenchies sueing protesters and so on. (See this Monbiot article). Contrast yesterday morning, when Sue Ion was featured on the rather wonderful Life Scientific. I came across her on PPARC Council when I did my tour of duty – she was a sane and useful voice. (Wommers – get her back !)   She is a stalwart of BNFL, and made a strong case for a mixed energy strategy, with off-shore wind accompanying nuclear. Many greenies are reluctantly backing nuclear – despite its problems,  a window is closing, and we may have no choice.

Meanwhile I am finally reading a book I got for Christmas – Physics of the Future by Michio Kaku. Mostly this is about nanobots and tricorders and ubiqitous computing in our socks and so on, but there is also a chapter about energy, which is distinctly less upbeat than the rest of the book, and indeed may make the rest of the book pointless as civilisation collapses. Kaku is a fan of the hydrogen economy, and that may cure us of our oil addiction,  but of course you need an energy source behind it. Kaku assumes that it pretty much has to be nuclear, but starkly spells out the problems – dealing with waste, and nuclear weapons proliferation.

So what puzzles me is – why does nobody ever mention Thorium? Since the 1940s we have known two things. (1) Molten salt reactors have many advantages over fuel rods – no meltdown problem, no high pressures, basically far safer. (2) Using the Thorium fuel cycle has to be the best way to go. You bombard  Th-232 with neutrons and get U-233, which is the fissile material. Thorium is much more abundant than uranium, there is much less waste, the lifetime is much shorter, and there is no weapons grade material for terrorists to steal.

So now we get to the depressing part. That last advantage is why governments are not interested – there is no weapons grade by-product. It seems to be why the US government abandoned this technology in the 1970s. We are ignoring the technology that will save civilisation because we want bombs. Hey, wouldn’t it be easy to solve the Iran dilemma ? “We only want nuclear technology for peaceful purposes”. “Okey dokey – here, have this LFTR design. Its dead easy, You don’t need any of those tricky centrifuges! Our guys can come over and help you build it.”

Here is a wikipedia page about the Thorium fuel cycle, and here are two useful web sites about sane nuclear energy : here, and here

Interestingly, the two governments that are investing in this technology are China and India. I feel the future-train whistling past our ears.

Softly Fading

February 21, 2013

Kevin Ayers died yesterday. If you search out the page you arrive at says “this domain has expired”.  A grim accidental joke. There is a rather good obituary in the Guardian. It seems that by his bed a note was found that said “you can’t shine if you don’t burn”. Ohhhh…. shivers. So … Kevin … why why why are you sleeping ??

When a lad, Soft Machine was my favourite band. The whole journey from psychedelia to jazz fusion to burn out was only a few years, but thats when my neurons were connecting like crazy. Pretentious? Yes. Still fascinating? Yes. So… Kevin Ayers is dead, we know not why. Hugh Hopper died of Leukaemia in 2009. Daevid Allen is somewhere lost on Planet Gong. Robert Wyatt is a National Treasure. But but but … where is Mike Ratledge??? How can someone with such cool sunglasses have been lost to modern culture? There have been rumours that he writes tunes for commercials. Can this really be true?

Here is Wyatt performing “Gharbadzegi”. We get so out of touch, words take the place of meaning.

Here is some classic Ratledge just before he vanished : Gesolreut. I think I could play that on an endless loop and be a happy boy.

(Don’t know why this won’t embed properly, but the link works.)

Anyhoo. Bye bye Kevin and thanks for everything,

Tieless in Gaza

February 7, 2013

Party at Professor P’s house last night. We were celebrating our three new appointments and bonding and stuff. Three? Well, our REF gamble is going to work, don’t you know. Of course one of those three is what our American chums call “Faculty shuffle” – or perhaps electron-hole jumping in a a semiconductor is a better analogy. Professor H went orff to Imperial; Prof L left Sussex to come here; Professor C left Cardiff to fill the hole in Sussex. Professor WT had already left Cardiff City for Preston North End, so things might get exciting in Wales.

I was a bit late because I had been gulping vino at government expense at the Scottish Parliament, where there was a reception attached to an exhibition about the Large Hadron Collider. (You can see the exhibition on Parliament TV ! Check out the “Partical Physicist”) Earlier in the day, Wommers had I understand been giving the Science and Technology Committee a pitch on how good this stuff is for the Scottish Economy. He also gave a wee speech at the reception of course, but was correctly upstaged by the (late) appearance of Peter Higgs. Yesterday I referred to Peter as being “quarter house trained” but really should have explained that Peter has  got it just right. He allows himself to be paraded around and lionised wherever this is good for science, but never loses his shyness, modesty and general nice guyness. In his speech he basically told us to be proud of the engineers who built the LHC. He did also apologise for all the work that “we theoreticians” had put them too. Wommers picked up on this but added that he wasn’t so sure about “who-ever invented supersymmetry”.

More than one person raised an eyebrow at my lack of tie at this august gathering. OK, couldn’t resist the title. Never read Milton, but a big Aldous Huxley fan. Not that I am suggesting that at the reception I was in chains and pulled down the temple and all that. Just got a few sniffy looks.  Later at Professor P’s party, Dr F said that I shouldn’t go thinking of myself as a dangerous radical, otherwise I would have worn a skirt.

The Big REF gamble

February 6, 2013

Three days in a row? Crumbs. Better do some real work soon.

Interesting but perhaps not surprising that the reactions to yesterdays Tricky Dicky post were all about University PR and Corporatism. Universities are in a tricky situation; its quite right that they should be more business-like, but not that they should be run as businesses. Education is not simply a commercial transaction; but we do have to balance the books, attract students, maintain a brand, and so on.

The public worry tends to concentrate on what the evolution of student fees is doing to the university infrastructure. (Or at least the English infrastructure; Scotland is a kind of giant experimental control…) Everybody is obsessed with bums on seats, and with the ghastly Key Information Sets etc (see this post). Market forces will mean that some thrive and some sink.

But thats only half of it. The other half of our income comes from research funding, and most of that still comes through HEFCE, SFC etc. This is why we are all panicking about the upcoming Research Excellence Framework (REF). The money we get will depend in an unknown but certainly highly non-linear way on our gradings. Universities are being very entrepreneurial about this : there has been a burst of academic recruitments, getting fresh young stars in just in time to count their papers.

If this works, you are in the money; if however your grading comes out low, you are stuffed. Stuck with a salary bill you can’t pay.

Maybe, like RBS, when some big universities fail, the government will buy 80% of them.

Tricky Dick, Leicester’s own

February 5, 2013

Except he wasn’t of course. Just murdered and buried there, poor sod. He should be re-buried in Yorkshire. Anyhoo, by majority vote, the Leicester archaeology team did a fine job. It was all very exciting and splendid, and a lovely boost for my second Alma Mater… so of course here are a few carpings : (is carping a noun? Ed)

(1) Did you see the Channel 4 documentary? It was both fun and worrying – all that nervous weeping, buried-under-the-R stuff, and interviews with nutty Ricardians. I guess it was planned as a jokey look at over-keen amateurs and the usual “aren’t the eggheads funny”  stuff, presented by a comedian, but bugger me they spoiled the plot by actually finding the bastard. Still… it was enjoyable.

(2) Big press release before the paper is refereed? Oooohhh dear …. Martian meteorite anyone? As far as I can tell, the team did do a very thorough job, but you never know. Somewhere I saw some dark mutterings about “only thirty base pairs”. Where was that? Probably somewhere in the Grauniad, but unless @wikimir points me to the right page, I don’t know where to look. Anyway, with something as big as this, they probably had no choice.

(3) The only bit that grated for me was the  corporate wording of the announcement. “So, the academic conclusions of the University of Leicester are..”. Not, you’ll notice  “..the conclusion that I, learned scholar, have come to is…”. Boy those Leicester people have their scientists well trained ! There was me thinking that universities are multilithic cultures, convenient agglomerations of scholars. Well of course we are all under pressure, so one can’t blame an organisation for trying. My first Alma Mater and current employer has got about a quarter of the way towards house training Peter Higgs. But somehow I can’t help feeling it could be done with a little more subtlety. You don’t find starlets on chat shows saying “well, in my latest Warners Bros movie…” but somehow Warner Bros make a decent living …

More Java hair tearing

February 4, 2013

Another episode in the war between Apple and Java, with Mozilla/Firefox joining in. I almost wrote “The Alliance”, or maybe “The Axis Powers”. Who are the bad guys?

Late on Friday I got an email from the nice support folk at Liverpool Telescope, warning me that their Phase 2 GUI tool might stop working for me. Checking out their news item, its an issue for anybody using a Mac, and anybody using Firefox. They link to some news items here, here, and here. As usual, not only did Apple do this very suddenly, they did it WITHOUT TELLING THEIR CUSTOMERS. Stuff just stopped working.

My geekier readers will remember an earlier possibly somewhat alarmist post by moi, within the comment stream of which it became clarified that the problems concerned the Java plugin for web browsers, not regular Java Apps using the JRE.  Now the LT GUI is not an in-browser thing – its Java Webstart, which is just a fancy way of providing a link to the latest version of a Java App. Brief panic while I tried out Topcat and Aladin. If Topcat stops working I am fucked. (This is Mark Taylor’s evil plan of course). However, T&A are fine.

It seems Apple stopped any webby-Java things work using the Xprotect list, including webstart. I have no idea what Xprotect is. Alex, you now have permission to pontificate. I hear a dark rumour that if you know which plist to edit you can work round this.

Meanwhile, I have a virtual machine running Debian and the delightfully spartan Enlightenment window manager, and I can carry on loading up more PanSTARRS transients into the LT database…

Update Monday evening. Gets more confusing. The LT folk sent round an email saying that Apple had released a software patch, explained here, and available through the usual Software Update tool. However … no such update was offered to me…  After consulting a few users, it seems people 10.8 never saw a problem at all; those with 10.6 were totally blocked, but are now fixed by the patch; but those of us with 10.7 have not been offered a patch ?

Meanwhile I am playing with about eighteen different Linux window managers to see which one I like best.


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