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This blog is expressly directed to readers who do not have strong training or backgrounds in science, with the intent of helping them grasp the underpinnings of this important issue. I'm going to present an ongoing series of posts that will develop various aspects of the science of global warming, its causes and possible methods for minimizing its advance and overcoming at least partially its detrimental effects.

Each post will begin with a capsule summary. It will then proceed with captioned sections to amplify and justify the statements and conclusions of the summary. I'll present images and tables where helpful to develop a point, since "a picture is worth a thousand words".

Wednesday, May 31, 2017

Science and Technology in Modern Life

Summary. Our daily routines, as we go about our lives in the early 21st century, benefit from revolutionary changes wrought by science and technology in the last 200 years.  As a human endeavor, science consists of a framework of inquiry into the natural world based on open-minded investigation, rather than one in which scientists seek evidence or arguments that support preconceived biases and reject evidence that refutes those preconceptions. 
Certain phenomena came to light in recent decades that adversely affected human health or damaged the environment.  Rigorous scientific study showed that, in each case, human activity involving products or practices of large corporations turned out to be responsible.  Those commercial interests sought to invalidate the scientific results in the minds of the public, rather than continue further research to develop sound solutions to the problems.
We humans have welcomed the advances provided by science and technology.  We cannot justifiably select the science we like and dismiss the science that we don’t.
The Daily Routine

Janice gets up in the morning and gets ready to go to work.  She switches on the light and the TV to get the latest news and weather.  For breakfast, she takes a quick snack from the frig and heats it up in the microwave oven.  She gets into her battery-powered electric car, which she bought just a few weeks ago; she’s really impressed with its ease of use and responsiveness on the road.
Once in the office, Janice turns on a networked computer which contains more computing power than the massive main-frame computers of a generation ago.  Her coworkers include many colleagues scattered around the U. S., with whom she effortlessly teleconferences directly from her workspace.  This saves many hours that would be lost in travel time flying to another location for a face-to-face meeting, as well as travel expenses.  Her day is turning out to be highly productive as a result, and saves her company money in the process. 
Back home in the evening, Janice has a dinner composed of foods grown using advances in agriculture that promote higher crop yields; farmers benefit greatly from weather and climate research that helps them plan effectively for the best sowing and harvesting operations. 
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The Science and Technology That Janice Likely Takes for Granted

Science.  As a human endeavor, science is a framework of thought and experiment carried out in an open-ended, fact-based fashion.  Scientists seek to make sense of our physical world, both animate and inanimate.  By not having preconceived notions of how they want an investigation to turn out, they probe physical reality in ways that add to our body of knowledge, and that suggest further investigation of questions that may have arisen in earlier work.  New information obtained from these efforts may have direct practical significance having the potential to lead to products that improve our lives.
Technology, or applied science, seeks to optimize characteristics of a system to solve a specific practical problem or to make a specific article with an intended practical use. 
Modern life.  Like Janice, we all benefit from the progress of science and technology in our daily lives, and relish the conveniences and capabilities of new devices or processes as they reach the market.  We, the public at large, accept these with open arms, whether we “understand” the scientific principles that govern their operation or not.  We do not question the truth or validity of the science that undergirds these objects that ease our daily life; indeed, we welcome it with open arms because of the benefits that it brings to our lives.
The scientific basis underlying some of the items and phenomena that Janice encounters in her daily routine are set forth at the end of this post in the Details section.
But some scientific questions, or technological accomplishments, have turned out to provide adverse consequences.  Smoking tobacco became associated with lung disease, including cancer.  Pristine forests and fish in lakes downwind of coal-fired electric generating plants began to die inexplicably, which was ultimately attributed to acid rain from burning coal.  The ozone in the stratosphere, which absorbs harmful ultraviolet radiation in sunlight, became depleted relatively suddenly.  Research showed that certain chemicals developed to serve as propellants in spray cans were responsible. 
Each of these cases is associated with a powerful and lucrative industry.  Careful scientific investigation, using the same conceptual approaches as outlined above, in these cases succeeded in providing a sound scientific basis for the harm that each phenomenon produced.  Yet the industries involved mounted strong public relations campaigns (not based on science) to discredit the science in order to sow doubts about the scientific explanations. 
But we cannot cherry pick which science we like and which science we disavow.  Open-ended, unbiased investigation leads us universally to the scientific progress we welcome and depend on.  In the examples above, scientific study not only explained the origin of the respective adverse effects but also suggested how to remedy the problems.  Thus, here too the scientific method has led to benefits that promote our wellbeing and the integrity of the physical world we inhabit.
Electricity.  The laws of physics governing the interactions between electrically conducting materials (such as metal wires) and magnetic fields were identified during the nineteenth century.  The phenomena are reciprocal: wires moving through a magnetic field generate electrical current, and electrical current flowing through wires generate strong magnetic fields when wound around a core.  In other words, the opposite of generating electricity is the use of wire-wound motors to provide rotational mechanical motion by passing electrical current through them. 
Thomas Edison on the one hand, and Nikola Tesla and Charles Steinmetz on the other, developed differing ways of generating electricity.  Tesla joined the Westinghouse company; their technology won out. Steinmetz joined the General Electric Research Laboratories.
Refrigerators.  The intrinsic physical properties of most gases are such that when the gas is compressed it releases heat to its environment, and when the pressurized gas expands it cools down, absorbing heat from the environment.  Refrigerators work by expanding the gas in the chamber that needs cooling, absorbing heat from the food in the chamber so that the food is cooled.  The refrigerator then compresses the gas outside the chamber, releasing the heat to the environment.  (In recent decades, the reciprocal process has been applied in heat pumps: a gas is expanded in an external environment, absorbing heat, and compressed inside a home, releasing heat to warm the interior space.) 
Microwave ovens.  Physicists whose understanding led to generation of electricity pursued their studies leading to suitable instruments that emit microwaves.  A second group of physicists who developed quantum theory over several decades in the early twentieth century understood that materials could specifically absorb microwaves (among other forms of energy) according to the laws of quantum physics.  Water is one such substance, which is warmed in the process.  A microwave oven generates the specific type of microwave radiation that water absorbs.  Specifically, the oven works by efficiently warming the water contained in various foods using microwave energy.
Electric cars.  Electric cars depend critically on high capacity batteries.  To date these are based on lithium.  The basis for this technology originates in fundamental investigations by chemists, mostly in the nineteenth century.  One contribution was developing the systematics of the chemical periodic table.  Lithium is a very light material, atom for atom, a first physical property favorable for use in batteries.  Second, chemists found that the intrinsic ability of lithium to provide electrical energy is among the highest of all among the chemical elements.  These two inherent physical attributes of lithium make it an optimal choice for use in electric car batteries.  Current research and development is directed to making the batteries as efficient and long-lasting as possible.
Agricultural production.  The Austrian friar Gregor Mendel was the first to discover the laws that govern inheritance of traits in organisms.  Working with pea plants he showed by conventional breeding experiments that intrinsic factors (now called genes) govern how physical traits are passed from generation to generation.  (His work was clearly painstakingly slow, since only one generation of pea plants can grow per year.) 
Agricultural breeders utilize Mendelian genetics to enhance the properties of commercially significant plants and animals.  These properties may include nutritional value, hardiness, and drought and/or heat tolerance, for example.  The results of these projects benefit us, the consumers, as we make our grocery purchases.
The Agricultural Research Service (ARS), a division of the U. S. Department of Agriculture, conducts ongoing characterization and forecasting of near-term weather as well as the longer-term seasonal climate.  Farmers use the information provided by these projects advantageously to plan their activities: planting, fertilizing, and harvesting.  The work of the ARS is summarized in the pamphlet “Science in Your Shopping Cart” .
© 2017 Henry Auer