Monday, March 11, 2013

Questions I am frequently asked about… (Part III) Brin Books, The Postman etc.

Continuing this compilation (from Part 1 and Part 2) of questions that I’m frequently asked by interviewers. This time about…


 --Which of your own novels is your personal favorite? 

DBBooksMontageThat’s like asking: Which of your children do you like best? Glory Season is my brave, indomitable daughter. The Postman is my courageous, civilization-saving son. Earth is the child who combined science and nature to become a planet. The Uplift War…well, I never had a better character than Fiben the earthy-intellectual chimp!

 --Were you happy with the Kevin Costner adaptation of your post-apocalyptic novel The Postman? 

PostmanPBThe Postman was written as an answer to all those post-apocalypse books and films that seem to revel in the idea of civilization’s fall. It’s a story about how much we take for granted – and how desperately we would miss the little, gracious things that connect us today. It is a story about the last idealist in a fallen America. One who cannot let go of a dream we all once shared. Who sparks restored faith that we can recover, and perhaps even become better than we were. 

Was The Postman film faithful to this? Well, despite several scenes that can only be called self-indulgent, or even goofy… plus the fact that I was never consulted, even once… I nevertheless came away more pleased than unhappy with what Costner created. Though flawed, it’s a pretty good flick – if you let yourself get into it. One that deals (a bit simplistically) with important issues and is more faithful to the book's inner heart than I expected at any point during the long decade before it was released. 

Costner’s postman is a man of decency, a calloused idealist, not particularly courageous, who has to learn the hard way about responsibility and what it means to be a hero. The movie is filled with scenes that convey how deeply we would miss the little things… and big ones like freedom and justice. In fact, it includes some clever or touching moments that I wish I’d thought of, when writing the book. 

Visually and musically, it’s as beautiful as Dances with Wolves. Kevin Costner is foremost a cinematographer, I will gladly grant him that. Rent and watch it on a wide screen.

VideoPostmanBrinWould I have done things differently? You bet! In a million ways. But I didn’t have the 80 million dollars to make it, and in keeping true to the heart of the book, Costner earned some leeway when it came to brains. Anyway, life is filled with compromises. I’d rather look for reasons to be happy. 

I have posted my full response, discussing the book and the movie, on my website: 

--Are you planning on returning to the Uplift Universe? 

Yes.  Soon, even!  Next big thing.  Have a look at the Uplift Universe Web Site.

--Can you reveal some of the inspirations behind the Uplift Saga? How did you come up with the idea? 

If we don't find intelligent life in the galaxy, humanity will create it. We might contrive new entities through artificial intelligence. It could happen the American way - by encouraging more and more of us to diversify in new directions, with new interests and passions and quirky viewpoints. And of course, diversity spreads whenever we add new intelligent life forms called our children. 

Then there is the idea of creating other kinds of beings to talk to through some change in the animal species that already exist around us. 

Other authors have poked at this idea before. Cordwainer Smith and Pierre Boulle and H.G. Wells. Boulle’s Planet of the Apes and Wells's The Food of the Gods or The Island of Dr. Moreau, and all other attempts to deal with this topic did stick to just one perspective, however.  Just one dire warning. 

They all  portray the power to bestow speech being executed in secret by mad scientists, then horribly abused by turning these new intelligent life forms into slaves. 

FoodI believe that - partly because of these cautionary tales - that's not what we will do. Because of those self-preventing prophecies, I wanted to show something else instead. What if we try to uplift other creatures with good intentions? With the aim of making them fellow citizens, interesting people, accepting that in some ways they might be better than us? 

Certainly that's worth a thought experiment too? Adding to the diversity and perspective and wisdom of an ever-widening Earth culture? 

 Wouldn't those creatures still have interesting problems? Of course they would!  More complex and interesting than mere slavery.  At least, that is what I hoped to explore. 

=====     =====     =====


locumranch said...

Uplift has always been an interesting concept. The question is, though, "Would other species appreciate the additional burden of intellect?" as happiness seems inversely related to intelligence.

To paraphrase Futurama's super-intelligent monkey, "I'd rather be a happy monkey of moderate intelligence than an unhappy super-intelligent one".


matthew said...

I think the trope of "The smarter you get, the more unhappy you are" is directly related to the war on the professional class. "Don't be too smart, geek, or you'll be unhappy."
I've known more than my share of super geniuses and I include almost all of my extended family in their number. Are we unhappy? Mostly no. Are we perhaps more prone to mental illness, perhaps.
Show me a peer reviewed paper or two that links increased intelligence with a lowered quality of life and I might believe in the effect. Hand wave and I think you've bought into the Fox effect and schoolyard bullies' taunts.

Tim H. said...

Much human unhappiness can be laid at the door of the dominance games so many of us do. An uplifted bonobo might have an entirely different outlook, If there's any link between intelligence and unhappiness, it may have more to do with the fluency with which we can complain.

Ian said...

Here's another: which of your works (other than The Postman) would you most like to see adapted for the cinema or television?

(Personally i'd love to see a miniseries based on Existence or a movie based on Kiln People.)

David Brin said...

commenting from the NASA NIAC meeting in chi: I'd love to see dramatized versions of stories like "Dr. Pak's Preschool" and "The Loom of Thessaly" that'd be very inexpensive to produce and that would build the cred of my brand toward the lavish core items like Startide.

matthew said...

I vote for "Senses Three and Six," as a great short to be adapted as a feature film. Lots of room to be be built upon, great backstory. The flashbacks are very cinematic to start with, the present-day characters are so very sympathetic. Lots of depth to the subtext. Could be a winner, even in shallow movie-land.

matthew said...

S3&6 is so ripe with opportunity to show the after-effects of the failed mission and cover up (being a little vague for those that haven't picked up The River of Time). A Paul Verhovian-style fake Fox tv running all the time in the background of our heroes' apartment (get Bill O'Reilly to cameo as "himself", increasing misinformation in short tv adds, a la robocop. Late in the flashbacks sequences show him in on the big secret, as a correspondent before the launch.) Do not try to take the film too much beyond the short, but spend a lot of time contrasting the hopefulness of the flashbacks with the bleak present. Would be lots of fun

bobsandiego said...

Dr Brin.
I think you may have missed the mark slightly with The Island of Dr. Moreau. I think Wells' was making a statement about the cruelty of God, using Moreau as stand-in for the devine creator. I do not think Wells is warning us that creating intelligent beings will lead to abuse but rather that any being that creates a universe of pain is cruel. This all times in neatly when the narrator is resuced and returns to England and is unable to shake the 'delusion' that all the people are really animals acting like people.
But that's just my opinion and your milage may vary.

sociotard said...

I always thought "lungfish" would be interesting as a play. Have Seeker and company in blue light to remind the audience the actors are just metaphors for programs operating on a very old computer. It'd be a little weird, but I think it could work.

David Brin said...

Kewl ideas guys!

bobsandiego said...

Dr Brin:

if you have not seen this already - some very interesting news from Sri Lanka

PrTheodose said...

The tropes associated with cautionary tales generally means that protagonists will carry the Idiot Ball with determination. A wall-banging feature in "The island of Dr. Moreau" is that the eponymous doctor seems to do every stupid thing possible to get eaten at the end... One of the reasons why I'm researching practical and ethical ways for uplift !

I largely prefer Olaf Stapledon's "Sirius, A Fantasy of Love and Discord" as a more neutral take on uplifting :
- The creator of Sirius started his uplifting program half-openly and with good intentions.
- His objectives are both scientific (better understanding of the canine um-welt) and utilitarian (create a race of autonomous super-sheepdogs)
- He treats its creatures fairly and tries to adjust its attitude depending of their mental maturation.
- The socialization of the uplifted dogs with human and normal dogs is done as early as possible, with the goal to obtain a correct integration into the human society.

In this case, the uplifted dog's downfall comes more from external circumstances (WWII, abusive shepherds, poisonous rumours of inappropriate human-animal relationships) and the difficulty to find an environment suitable for its hybrid psyche, rather than the inherent wrongness of its dual nature or a revenge against its creator.

Paul451 said...

If we're doing the short-stories, RoT itself would have made a good Twilight Zone half hour. Toujours Voir would make a good short, appropriately enough.

(And maybe Detritus Affected, so I can finally figure out what the hell was going on. Definitely felt a bit like the narrator by the end. Fundamentally different kind of non-reveal than Lungfish's. Why you hurt brain? What brain do to you?)

But I'm surprised Kiln People didn't get picked up when Surrogates was being produced in 2007 or 2008 (or whenever it was being shopped around.) It's quite common for two studios to pick up on the same basic idea at the same time. "Hey, Studio X is working on a movie about asteroids, didn't we have a script about that?" (Speaking of Bruce Willis.)

Paul451 said...

The Sri Lankan meteor fossils have been debunked pretty hard already. It's from Chandra Wickramasinghe's team. And he's... well, he's got his own thing, if you know what I mean.

To quote from Phil Plait's: "In a nutshell, they don't establish the samples they examined were actually meteorites. They don't establish they were from the claimed meteor event over Sri Lanka in December 2012. And perhaps most telling, they don't eliminate the possibility of contamination; that is, diatoms got into the samples because those rocks were sitting on the Earth where diatoms are everywhere. There's more, too, including some unusual methods if you're trying to establish a paradigm-overthrowing claim: They don't consult with outside experts (including those in the fields of meteorites and diatoms), they don't get independent confirmation from an outside lab, and they published in a journal that is, um, somewhat outside the mainstream of science."

While science is open to outsider-art, there's a point where you've published so much debunked nonsense that, unless you live in a reality bubble, you realise that you need to be "more Catholic than the Pope" in order to be taken seriously. To be as sloppy as NCW's team apparently were suggests there's not a lot of "peer review" going on within the team.

[And I say this as someone who thinks some variant of panspermia is likely, and often bemoans NASA's fear of adding simple tests for Earth-like life on probes and landers.]

Stefan Jones said...

I'll second PrTheodose's thoughts about Sirius. Olaf Stapledon, while a philosopher by education, was incredibly well read and painstakingly researched the science in his SF. Sirius is also the most novel-like of his novels, with the most memorable characters.

I wrote an essay comparing Sirius with Kirsten Bakis's Lives of the Monster Dogs: Serious Dogs

LarryHart said...


I think the trope of "The smarter you get, the more unhappy you are" is directly related to the war on the professional class. "Don't be too smart, geek, or you'll be unhappy."
I've known more than my share of super geniuses and I include almost all of my extended family in their number. Are we unhappy? Mostly no. Are we perhaps more prone to mental illness, perhaps.

When my very intelligent daughter was a toddler, my wife and I used to notice that she worried about possibilities that would never even enter the minds of her friends. We used to say she was too smart for her own good.

She's the most well-adjusted 11-year-old I know, though, so I wouldn't say smart people are necessarily unhappy. They (we?) may have more potential for seeing the downside than most people do. I'd like to think we also have that potential to see the upside.

sociotard said...

Interesting. Even though the Google Glasses aren't slated for release until much later, some bars are already banning the things, citing privacy and the chilling effect of sousveillance on freedom.

locumranch said...

LarryHart (who equivocates less than some) is right to assert that Happiness has less to do with intelligence than many seem to believe.

Happiness (or the possession thereof) is not directly tied to intelligence. Instead, Happiness (H) is the causal product of expectation & circumstance, given by the following formula H=C>E.

We believe ourselves to be happy when our circumstance exceeds our expectations (H=C>E). Or conversely, we believe ourselves to be Unhappy (U) when our expectations exceed our circumstance (U=C<E), regardless of our innate degree of intelligence or stupidity.

This is why I find the of idea of 'beneficent' Uplift to be somewhat facile (because) Intelligence has little to do with our perception of Happiness. It therefore follows that HG Wells was most likely more prescient regarding the consequences of 'Uplift' than we tend to give him credit for.

Similarly, I find the idea behind the 'Flynn Effect' to be equally facile because our current crop of IQ tests only measure the combined effect of education on intelligence rather than intelligence in isolation, so the increased IQ scores of the so-called 'Flynn Effect' only represent insignificant improvements in education rather than intelligence.

So, what we are left with is a growing disconnect between our current circumstance (what is) and our expectations (what we wish to be true) which we then support and justify by telling ourselves the following lies and half-truths in consolation:

(1) Intelligence equals Expectation (I=E);
(2) Happiness equals Intelligence (H=I);
(3) Expectation equals Success (E=S); and
(4) Humans are becoming more Intelligent.

But this is simply not the case because I, E, H and S are not necessarily equal, leaving us with growing sense of cultural dissatisfaction (political; economic; intellectual; physical; sexual), personal unhappiness and social instability.

So much for the appropriateness of positive thinking.


matthew said...

@ locumranch - so now you are arguing the opposite of your first post? Oh, well, consitency, hobgoblins, etc.

Alfred Differ said...

Maybe he was smart enough to recognize he was unhappy about it. 8)

Happiness is a synthesized state and always transitory. Intelligence might help make the lemonade from lemons, but it might also notice the lemons and find them annoying after receiving them by the ton.

The sources of unhappiness are easier to explain. I know I'm supposed to keep my wife apart from her sister to avoid having them compare notes on their husbands. If I fail to do that, I have to keep tabs on my brother-in-law and stay ahead of him. The Jones don't matter. He does. 8)

In all seriousness, I'm fortunate that my wife knows the dangers of comparing notes. She still does it, but recognizes there is no simple quantifier.

LarryHart said...


Happiness (or the possession thereof) is not directly tied to intelligence. Instead, Happiness (H) is the causal product of expectation & circumstance, given by the following formula H=C>E.

We believe ourselves to be happy when our circumstance exceeds our expectations (H=C>E). Or conversely, we believe ourselves to be Unhappy (U) when our expectations exceed our circumstance (U=C wonderful evening with the wife, and my expectations are precisely met, I'm going to be extremely happy. Even if expectations are not quite met, I'll still be pretty darned happy.

Contrawise, someone undergoing physical torture is unhappy, even if it's not quite as bad as he imagines it might be.

I'm not saying you are without a point, but I am saying it's not as simple as that.

Comic book character Cerebus The Aardvark was fond of saying "Sometimes you can get what you want and still not be very happy." There's something to that.

LarryHart said...

That last post got messed up, I think because of the greater-than and less-than signs in the quote.

However, I think my point is legible, if you squint a bit.

Jumper said...

"Most people are about as happy as they make up their minds to be." I guess the key word is "most." Flood, famine, war tend to have effects.

Here DARPA inches closer to satellite recycling:

locumranch said...

I admit to a little trolling when I quipped that "happiness seems inversely related to intelligence" but, then again, I never claimed that things are always as they seem.

My point is that human happiness and/or good fortune does not correlate well with what we define as human intelligence -- nor does scientific advancement for that matter -- but an increase in human intelligence does tend to go hand-in-hand with increasingly unrealistic (and therefore unhappy) expectations.

I believe that we already have all the smarts we need to solve all of our world's problems at this very instant, and I put it to you that an increasing complexity of thought (or 'superior intelligence') is not the answer. So, instead of looking to (for) a magical human, alien, AI intelligence that can solve all our problems by 'thinking better' than we can now, we should concentrate our attentions on existent human intelligence that merely thinks differently.

That means we have to rethink our current definition of what constitutes 'intelligence', turn away from educational hegemony and reject our hierarchical institutions of higher learning (in which 'learning' is defined as 'I'll learn ya good'. The old has to make way for the new.

Only then can our society and its technology be born anew, revitalized by our children's image rather than our own.


Jumper said...

Yes, a great cleansing of the eschatologists, that's what we need.

sociotard said...

Well this can't end badly.

Japan starts harvesting methane hydrates.

Anonymous said...

Sociotard, if the technology can be found to extract methane from hydrates safely (and not trigger a clathrate gun), this can only be a good thing.

As a chemical reaction, burning methane creates half as much GHG per BTU generated. Furthermore, natural gas power plants are 20% to 30% more efficient than coal in terms of kWh generated per BTU.

I for one hope fracking puts coal out of business. Coal kills people, like at the Massey mine disaster over a year ago. Coal mining chops off mountain tops and fills valleys in Appalachia with acidic mine waste.

It’s also better environmentally than solar based renewables. To produce the same amount of electricity generated by a single natural gas power plant whose footprint (including the employee parking lot) is only a dozen acres you would need wind farms and solar arrays covering hundreds of square miles. Each component will need access roads, regraded topography, drainage structures, utility hook ups and easements, etc. That is a lot of destroyed habitat.

And then there are the economic impacts of solar energy. The cost of a complete conversion to renewables will make us all poorer in real terms. The operating and capital costs (especially land requirements) of equivalent solar energy sources are such that these additional costs would throw the world economy into a major depression.

The economic benefits of methane OTOH are uncontestable. It’s cheaper than coal (with less than half the GHG per kWh generated) cheaper than nuclear, and waaaay cheaper than solar, wind, tides, PVCs or biomass.

Permitting is not much of an issue (providing we get some stricter standards for siting brine disposal wells – or require brine recycling – and improve the quality of well casing construction). We already have an extensive infrastructure in place to transport natural gas across the country. Its so cheap American chemical companies who rely on methane as a chemical stock) are exporting chemicals competitively worldwide. It has triggered an industrial renaissance in the Rust Belt where steel mills even in blighted Youngstown, Ohio are working three shifts to meet demand for piping.

And you can forget about electrical cars. CNG vehicles are far more efficient, cost effective and environmentally safe. Don't plug in your hybrid, tap it into your home's gas line. EV's a just giant mobile batteries and all batteries wear out over time. And when batteries wear out they become toxic waste. Imagine the toxic waste disposal problems from millins of junked EVs every year.

Sorry, sociotard, but methane is good. Methane is our friend.

Anonymous said...

What is very cool about the Uplift concept is that it makes a space opera that does not rely on magical physics like warp drive or hyperspace.

Hundreds of "alien" species could be created by uplifting. You want the Kzin, uplift tigers. You want the Ferengi, uplift rats. You want Klingons, uplift nasty agressive chimps. You want Wookies, uplift orangutans. Throw in genetic modifications (eliminate emotions - or induce slight Aspergers - in humans to create Vulcans) or cyborg add ons (voila, the Borg). Most aliens in SF are just humans with bumpy foreheads anyways.

Now place these "alien" species on hundreds of terraformed and paraterraformed planets, moons, asteroids, KBOS, Oort cloud planetoids, and moons orbiting nearbye brown dwarfs and you have a pocket-sized space opera that can utilize simple radio for communication and feasible sublight nuclear rockets for propulsion.

In such a setting, the nearest stars would be analogous to the closest galaxies in a traditional galactic space opera. Maybe Capt. Kirk and Darth Vader would be unimpressed, but your could create a true space opeare that doesn't break any rules or violate physical laws.

matthew said...

@ anonymous, you are correct about the uplift - near space opera. In addition to it making a great setting, it is the most viable and probable path for our "optimistic" futures, imo. We are likely to live in this ripe of universe if we don't manage to exterminate ourselves.
And @ locumranch, now there is a post I agree with. Cogent and insightful.

Tony Fisk said...

" To produce the same amount of electricity generated by a single natural gas power plant whose footprint (including the employee parking lot) is only a dozen acres you would need wind farms and solar arrays covering hundreds of square miles. "

I think I detect a little hyperbole in that claim. You may detect a little understatement in that last sentence.

Ian said...

"My point is that human happiness and/or good fortune does not correlate well with what we define as human intelligence -- nor does scientific advancement for that matter -- but an increase in human intelligence does tend to go hand-in-hand with increasingly unrealistic (and therefore unhappy) expectations."

A quick look at the empirical evidence suggests that happiness at the national level correlates pretty closely with scientific advancement - and even more so with social democracy.

Ian said...

Neuhardengberg solar plant on wikipedia; 145 MW nominal capacity 245 hectares (0.95 square miles).

Also in many locaitons you can build solar panels on top of buildings, roads etc.

As for electric car batteries; current recycling rates exceed 95%.

Anonymous said...

Ian, first the nominal power sited of 145 mW is the "watt-peak", which is energy production under ideal conditions.

To use Wikipedia again: "The maximum power measured is the nominal power of the module in "Wp". The nominal power divided by the light power that falls on the module (area x 1000 W/m2) is the efficiency. Watts peak is a convenient measure because it enables one to compare one module with another and track industry capacities and shipments. Equivalent measures can be used for wind electricity generators, though obviously the specification of ideal conditions is different."

The facility in question is a PV facility generating DC. Homes and appliances have to be run on AC. This necessitates running the DC through a converter.

Converters transform AC into DC and vice versa. There are two types of converters—rectifiers and inverters. Rectifiers use diodes in various configurations to perform the conversion. The more complicated inverters rely on microprocessor circuits and transistors.

DC is converted to AC by means of an inverter. The output waveform (voltage over time) varies with the quality and cost of the inverter from rectangular (poorest quality and least cost) or trapezoidal (better quality and more cost) to a true sine wave identical to that directly produced by an AC generator (best quality and most expensive). Inverters can be connected either in parallel for higher power or in series for higher voltage. The operating power of an inverter varies with voltage; typically a 100-W inverter will operate at 12–48 V.(see my article at:

Anonymous said...


Which then brings to the issue of operational efficiency. An inverter's efficiency may vary from something just over 50% when a trickle of power is being used, to something over 90% when the output is approaching the inverters rated output. An inverter will use some power from your batteries even when you are not drawing any AC power from it. This results in the low efficiencies at low power levels.

Typical inverter efficiency will be around 60% on most days, and each day will see variable DC output due to variable sunshine (more on that below). So that 145 nominal mW becomes an average, typical DC to AC inverted power production of 87 mW.

Even on bright sunny days, the average solar power gain is considerably less than the peak used to determine nominal power in watts-peak (due to movement of the sun, latitude, season, etc.). For example, from David MacKay's analysis in "Sustainable Energy without all the Hot Air":

"The power of raw sunshine at midday on a cloudless day is 1000 W per square metre. That’s 1000 W per m2 of area oriented towards the sun, not per m2 of land area. To get the power per m2 of land area in Britain, we must make several corrections. We need to compensate for the tilt between the sun and the land, which reduces the intensity of midday sun to about 60% of its value at the equator (figure 6.1). We also lose out because it is not midday all the time. On a cloud-free day in March or September, the ratio of the average intensity to the midday intensity is about 32%. Finally, we lose power because of cloud cover. In a typical UK location the sun shines during just 34% of daylight hours. The combined effect of these three factors and the additional complication of the wobble of the seasons is that the average raw power of sunshine per square metre of south-facing roof in Britain is roughly 110 W/m2 and the average raw power of sunshine per square metre of flat ground is roughly 100 W/m2.” (see:

Anonymous said...


So let’s take the 87 mW of inverted AC production and reduce it to 32% to account for average solar intensity. This reduces actual output to 28 mW. Then again reduce this amount to 32% to account for cloudy days (England having roughly similar climate and latitude as northern Germany). This gives us a. amount of 9.5 mW.

So after accounting for reductions for DC to AC conversion, latitude and climate, the facility’s actual POWER production is only 6.5% of its rated nominal power in Watts-peak under ideal conditions. If this facility’s average AC output was to be equal to it nominal 145 Mw it would need a land area almost 16 times greater than 0.95 square miles, an area equal to almost 15 square miles.

Note that daylight hours only account for half of a 24 hour day on average, resulting in a further 50% reduction in ENERGY production as measured in kW-hours. So increase the area required by a factor of 2 to 30 square miles.

But since energy created by the PV system will still be needed at night (indeed its heaviest demand load will be at night for heating and illumination) it will need to produce enough energy to store for later use at night. With a typical charger efficiency and battery efficiency of 80% and 70%, the overall energy storage efficiency comes to 56% under ideal conditions. To account for energy storage inefficiency the required land area has to double again to 60 square miles – about 38,400 acres.

Now a typical natural gas power plant produces 10s to 100s of mW, 24 hours a day, irrespective of climate or location, and without the need to store power. For example, the proposed Apex Matagorda Energy Center natural gas power plant will have a capacity of 317 mW and a 22 acre footprint (see That’s twice the capacity of the German PV facility, or half the equivalent are per power output of only 11 acres.

To produce the same amount of energy as an equivalent natural gas power plant, a PV solar array would require a footprint 3,000 to 4,000 times greater in extent.

Anonymous said...


The destroyed habitat alone makes PV a bad environmental choice. The PV cells themselves are doped with toxic materials. Until recently, PV meant flat-panel cells and modules. While this allows for some saving in production costs due to inexpensive roll-to-roll fabrication, the material costs are much higher, since almost the entire cell needs to be lined with doped silicon. The doping often involves the introduction of relatively expensive materials, such as gallium arsenide or indium selenide. (see my article at:

PC cells do not last for ever. current warranties run for about 10to 20 years of operation, after which they have to be disposed of and replaced. A complete conversion to PV energy spources would present us with a serious toxic waste disposal problem.

No matter how you look at it, habitat destroying footprint, toxic pollutants, need for additional infrastructure, etc. - methane is better for the environment than PV. Solar energy is a pipe dream. We simply cannot run a modern industrial civilization on renewables.

The numbers just don’t add up.

Acacia H. said...

No power plant lasts forever. Repairs are needed to ensure operating efficiency. Methane has added externalities to consider, including the effect extra carbon dioxide in the atmosphere will have. Seeing methane is a less efficient fuel source compared to coal before externalities of coal are factored in, you end up needing to burn more methane to achieve the needed energy.

Now let's add in the question: what if carbon capture becomes the law of the land? Now you suddenly have an extra cost added to methane that is not found with solar or wind. In addition, various technological advancements are allowing strategic use of photovoltaic cells along the edges of windows and adding a film on the window so that some of the sunlight hitting the window treats the window as a fiber optic and bounces to the edge... and converts to electricity. All at once, entire buildings start generating additional power - not enough to add to the grid, but enough to reduce the power requirements of that building.

Let's consider the top of high-rise buildings. It's often windy up there. So why not design the building to include a couple wind turbines to take advantage of that wind and generate even more power?

There is also a huge amount of unused real estate that could be used for photovoltaic power systems that could be developed within ten years that will have minimal environmental impacts: space. Start building space-based solar plants. You can even beam the energy off-shore if you're worried about vaping birds and the like, and the space industry would flourish in developing robotic craft to tend the orbital solar panel arrays.

There is one last system to consider: Hybrid fusion-fission power, which has the added benefit of being able to process depleted uranium and other materials and thus deal with our growing radioactive waste problem generated both by the medical industry and the nuclear power industry.

Rob H.

duncan cairncross said...

All of antonymous's comments about solar and PV are negated by the fact that those systems typically don't cover land

Solar is normally installed on roofs - in other words it uses zero net land

Wind power is consists of small pylons with the surrounding land still available for farming -
By the time the access roads are taken into account ~ 5% of the land is "used"

Acacia H. said...

BTW, here's an interesting article concerning human brain cells used to increase the intelligence of mice... which makes me wonder if something similar could be done to enhance the intelligence of dogs, cats, and dolphins. It might be a "safe" method of Uplift as it wouldn't breed true as genetic modification would. And thus you'd also have custom-designer pets eventually. ^^;;

Rob H.

Ian said...

I wish people could get their heads around the idea there's no answer to the problems of fossil fuel depletion and Carbon dioxide emissions.

There are a bunch of partial answers none of which is sufficient in itself.

So we'll burn more gas AND we'll build more nucler power plants AND we'll build more solar plants AND we'll use more wind power AND we'll continue to use coal but at a much lower rate and in a far more efficient manner.

Tony Fisk said...

Wow! Anon's calculations suggest that Germany's been powering itself with 6000K glowing white elephants! What were they thinking!?

Actually, the efficiency loss from cloud isn't that great for non-concentrating solar since the light is scattered rather than absorbed.

Large scale commercial plants choose locations with high average insolation, so it's a bit disingenious to apply the efficiencies expected from Sunnye Englande to them.

I see the inverter problem as an untapped opportunity, since the first thing that most electrical equipment does with its AC power source is... convert it back to DC! Why do the trip?

I quirk an eyebrow at the point about toxic dopants in PVs (small amounts, held in situ for 20-30 years). Coal plants also release significant amounts of arsenic (and lots more besides). What impurities get burned in a gas plant?

Little is said of the efficiency losses of an equivalent gas plant.

Nothing is said of efficiency of the solar tech. itself (expect 10-20% from Si, 25-30% from doped Si, 40%+ from triple junction solar concentrators) much of the attraction of domestic solar, though, is best seen in the overall cost of using a solar kW over the life of the system. This is now at or near grid parity in Australia. Not bad for numbers that don't add up.

Acacia H. said...

The Fossil Fuel Trolls often leave after we start tossing terms around like "externalities" and the like because they realize we actually are educated and can effectively refute their arguments. It's the people who say "but we're poisoning the planet with fossil fuel!" without knowing the specifics behind it that are the targets of these trolls by creating an argument that "feels" correct.

Rob H.

locumranch said...

The Fossil Fuel Trolls (FFT) and Climate Change marionettes (CCM) share the same neurosis: They refuse to accept 'the end of the world'.

But this world (aka 'the world to end all worlds') must end so a new world can begin, just as books like 'The Postman' begin with an ending and every mammalian conception must begin with the 'Little Death'.

Of course, these 'little deaths' need not be the earth-shattering cataclysms of biblical lore. They may merely represent the end of an era like the age of iron, the age of the horse, the age of industry, the space shuttle or globalization.

Yet, groups like the FFT & CCM refuse to accept this: They refuse to go quietly into this goodnight; they pretend that 'what is' will always be'; and they deny a future that is non-contiguous with the past. They wish to live forever.


Ian said...

David, I forget: In Existence in your comprehensive working through of all the possible reasons for why ETs would not make themselves known, did you cover the possibility that they had revealed themselves to human governments and it was a joint decision not ot reveal themselves to the rest of humanity/

Paul451 said...

That idea still requires that the aliens only just got here, which is a hell of a coincidence. So you still need to explain the previous few billion years of non-colonisation.

Anonymous said...

Tony said: "Large scale commercial plants choose locations with high average insolation, so it's a bit disingenious to apply the efficiencies expected from Sunnye Englande to them."

Nearby Berlin has an average of 1625 hours of sunshine annually (see

With annual daylight of 365 x 12 = 4,380 hours, this is equivalent to 37%. This is roughly equal to that of England with 34%

Anonymous said...

robert, my emphasis IS on externalities such as the destroyed habitat created by large renewable energy sites. These are the externalities conventiently ignored by pro-solar, tree hugging hippies who have never taken a physics class in their lives.

Anonymous said...

To summarize, in order to effectively produce power equivalent to the nominal 145 kW, the area devoted to collectors has to be increased to compensate for losses incurred by:

a. conversion from DC to AC (60%)
b. latitude (32%)
c. cloud cover (34%)
d. only operating during daylight (50%)
e. battery storage (56%)

This is a total reduction of about 98%, necessitating a 55x increase in collector surface area to produce power equiavlent to its nominal rating. In this case about 55 to 60 square miles instead of the actual 0.95 square miles.

Furthermore, the average European uses 0.688 kW of energy (Americans use 1.363). So the 145 kW facility covering 55 to 60 square miles provides enough electricty for 210 Europeans (approximately 50 households). Germany has a population density of 609 people per square mile.

So tell me why this makes any kind of sense, either environmentally or economically.

Anonymous said...

For a nice summary of the adverse ecological impacts of Germany's renewable energy program, see this article from last weeks Der Spiegel:

It was in this way that, in 2009, Germany's largest solar park to date arose right in the middle of the Lieberoser Heide, a bird sanctuary about a 100 kilometers (62 miles) southeast of Berlin. Since German reunification in 1990, more than 200 endangered species have settled in the former military training grounds. But that didn't seem to matter. In spite of all the protests by environmentalists, huge areas of ancient pine trees were clear cut in order to make room for solar collectors bigger than soccer fields.

A similar thing happened in Baden-Württemberg, even though the southwestern state has been led for almost two years by Winfried Kretschmann, the first state governor in Germany belonging to the Green Party. In 2012, it was the Greens there who passed a wind-energy decree that aims to boost the number of wind turbines in the state from 400 to roughly 2,500 by 2020. And in the party's reckoning, nature is standing in the way.