Locklin on science

Great physicists: Pyotr Kapitza

Posted in history, physics by Scott Locklin on May 8, 2021

Pyotr Kapitza is one of those physicists whose greatness isn’t fully appreciated. In fact, I think other than the memory of him in the low temperature community, weirdoes who are Nobel Prize autistes, and a few mentions in L&L books, he’s largely forgotten in the West (I assume there are Russian language biographies as his son ended up a famous TV personality ). Not only was he a very great physicist, he was also a great man in every way. Principled, a leader and talented in multiple fields; his enormous indirect influence was almost important as his direct contributions. A biography of Kapitza would make for wonderful reading.

He was a Russian-Pole who landed in Cambridge working for Rutherford in the 1920s. He proceeded to make big contributions in ultra-high magnetic field physics, low temperature physics (liquefaction of helium), and he created the enormously influential Kapitza club.

The idea of the Kapitza club was that young physicists were too deferential to older ones, and older ones too dismissive. The lectures were done informally with chalk and board only, with jokey Kapitza introductions to loosen people up. Guys like Dirac, Hartree and Heisenberg built courage and had big ideas here which changed the world. These were invite only affairs, done in student housing; much like early Christianity met in the catacombs to avoid detection by the establishment of the day. It was unapologetically elitist group (again; invite only), but also radically egalitarian. Kapitza would warm them up by making deliberate blunders in his introductory remarks which he encouraged shy people to correct to get into the spirit of things. Very much in the spirit of the ancient Greek philosophers.

“In setting up the Kapitza Club in October 1922, he [Kapitza] had shaken his postgraduate colleagues out of their lethargy and persuaded them to attend a weekly seminar on a topical subject in physics. The talks usually took place in Trinity College on Tuesday evenings, after a good dinner. The speakers, normally volunteers from the club’s members, spoke with the aid only of a piece of chalk and a blackboard mounted on an easel and had to be prepared for a series of interruptions, mediated by Kapitza with the quick wit and elan of a modern-day game-show host.”

Those of you who are still in the game should take note. In this era of mediocrities, “company men,” policed speech codes and professional and personal cowardice: such meetings and societies are the only way to drive scientific research forward. People have tried inclusiveness for decades now and the results are in: it doesn’t work. Forming tightly knit, non-hierarchical groups of elite minds who are interested in science rather than all the bullshit that goes with it in “fn-leeerb merp derp science” current year is the only way forward. I encourage all kinds of people to try this; exclude more people: exclude most people, you’ll get more done. Finding scientific shitlords willing to do a presentation via chalkboard is a great filter. Doing this for F=MA tier shit is difficult, having a bunch of fellow loons who will throw buns at your head when you goof up on some arcane and novel subject: even better.

Though Kapitza was primarily considered an experimental physicist, he could hang with the greatest theorists. He and Dirac came up with a cute quantum diffraction effect in one of these BS sessions which was later proved out. This is sort of the Platonic ideal of a physicist to my mind; you have to be able to roll with the theorists, but you have to be able to deal with matter. That’s what physics is, after all: the study of matter. Others who had this quality were Fermi and Oppenheimer. While some theoretical and experimental specialists were required even back in those days; it was expected that even the most allergic-to-experiment theorists like Wolfgang Pauli would be able to think deeply about matter and experimental apparatus. Even if such apparatus would spontaneously combust if Pauli were in the same room with it. This is something that is forgotten by contemporary noodle and symmetry fetishists playing in the particle soup.

Kapitza was kidnapped by the Soviets while visiting his parents and did most of his important work in the Soviet Union. As a pioneer in liquid helium research he was the first to discover superfluidity which he eventually won a Nobel Prize for (oddly shared with Penzias and Wilson). He also worked closely with Lev Landau whose book is why I remembered Kapitza -for a cute little effect called the Kapitza pendulum; a sort of mechanical phase locked loop that is marvelous and beautiful in its action.

Incidentally he didn’t come up with the actual mechanical effect: someone told him about the effect described many decades ago. Kapitza was the one who sat down, did experiments and figured out the detailed math that explains it. This is the type of thing that could theoretically have been done by anyone using simple apparatus; it is literally F=MA tier physics. Kapitza, a man who had already done his Nobel prize winning work; arguably work which would earn him two Nobels in current year, a man who helped develop the Soviet atom bomb: he didn’t think it was beneath him to figure this out. Proper physicists rather than career drudges are actually curious. It’s on page 714 volume 2 of his collected works if you’re curious; a really beautiful piece of work. In fact open his collected works at random and it’s filled with treasures like this. The previous paper in this collection was on how the wind induces waves on the sea. First paper in volume 3 is a learned seminar on the Russian cod liver oil business.

For his next couple of important contributions he developed industrial scale processes for air liquefaction, microwave oscillators and new contributions in plasma physics. As a scientific administrator he made contributions to the Soviet nuclear program and founded multiple technical journals and the Kapitza Institute. Any of these contributions would have made him a first rate scientist, scientific administrator and technologist; the fact that he managed to fit them in one life is amazing and awesome.

Beyond all this, he was a badass with a life filled with appropriately Russian tragedy. He drove an ambulance on the Polish front in WW-1, his wife and two children died of the 1919 flu afterwords, and in Soviet times he both stood up to arch commie monster Beria and lived, and was the only member of the Russian academy of sciences who never joined the Communist party.

Kapitza was a universal man; not only did he contribute numerous physical and mathematical inventions to his field, he was a great administrator, and a good man who made the world and all the people around him better wherever he went. Despite great tragedy he lived an admirable and courageous life. People like this do not go into physics or any kind of scientific endeavor any more. Maybe a few applied math people in startups or hedge funds for considerably lower stakes.

The Physicists: a history of a scientific community in modern America

Posted in Book reviews, physics, Progress by Scott Locklin on April 8, 2021

My reading on innovation in technology lead me to this book by Daniel J. Kevles. I don’t know if I can recommend the thing unless you’re trying to build a thesis on how to create Klein’s Type-1 innovative organizations. The book suffers from many flaws; its fine focus on physics with only incidental mention of astronomy probably skews the view into the history of American physics. On the other hand it is a fairly unique historical document chronicling the rise and fall of a scientific community up to the 1970s. Nothing interesting has happened in physics since the 1970s, no major figures have risen up, and the social organization remains ossified since then, so it can probably be viewed as complete.

There are a couple of striking things about the subject I was only dimly aware of. American physics didn’t exist as a social program involving multiple collaborating scientists with useful technical journals until around the turn of the century. There were a few very productive individuals, and some government organizations and advisory boards (NAS was chartered in wartime to give advice to the government, and various naval and military laboratories existed), but America was mostly a shitty frontier area with no physics to speak of until after the civil war. Two important figures in the early days: Henry Rowland and Albert Michelson. Rowland can be considered the first important physicist to have been trained in the US (at RPI) who helped create the American physics community. He founded the physics department at the newly endowed Johns Hopkins university, and, like Michelson, received some of his training in Berlin. Michelson was a particularly amusing character; like so many great physicists, of Jewish descent; he grew up as a boxing nerd in a frontier town who got his first major educational experience in Annapolis. Both of these guys were tinkering experimental physicists; inventing various forms of interferometry, optical gratings and spectroscopy, doing various forms of precision measurement. There were a couple hundred mostly academic physicists in the US in those days, but most of what they did was only vaguely recognizable as physics; these two stood out as distinctly modern and world class figures in a subject that was mostly being developed in the UK and Germany at the time. Gibbs was the first great American theorist; he was mostly ignored until Rowland created a position for him at Johns Hopkins.

Rowland was father of American physics

There were various government funded efforts around this time (1880s); weather services, the National Bureau of Standards (the first national lab that wasn’t military related), geological and coastal surveys; physicists were involved in such government scientific programs from the get go. Various factions in the government thought these efforts were a waste of money (in particular populist types of the era, which was a time of economic difficulty with the great recession), and there were the typical internal political machinations in the scientific community designed to accrue power and influence over them; just like today. The NBS is worth a few words; the shopkeeps of the country were wildly corrupt at the time, and the physicists and chemists of the NBS were a hugely popular group of consumer protection crusaders for the common people.

Michelson; uncle of American physics

Scientists of the current year who wonder why nobody respects them ought to remember this, and frankly, things like this are urgently needed in the US where everything from meat to vegetables is contaminated with disgusting chemicals, the big tech companies censor and spy on people for little reason, financial firms parasitize and dump risk on the common man, drug companies dump useless garbage on an increasingly medicated and unhealthy population and the “public health official” morons impose medical fascism on people who are in greater danger from eating too many cheeseburgers than the Wuhan coof. I mean there are obvious and enormous national health problems with …. obesity, autism, mental illness, rampant food allergies: people seem peculiarly incurious about all of these. Of course there are few scientists of the current year who could even stand up against regulatory capture of the candy industry, let alone the drug or soy industry, so I’m not holding my breath.

Contemporary with these fellows were America’s great inventors and industrialists, who were completely different people. Alexander Graham Bell, Westinghouse, Tesla, Edison: none of these guys had any sort of physics background, though eventually there was some social overlap. Similarly the great industrialists such as Stanford, Carnegie, Vanderbilt, Rockefeller were dumping their charity money into university endowments, grad schools (the Ph.D. was a fairly recent innovation), laboratories and foundations. Around this time, the early journals were started. Still weren’t too many physicists in the country, but it was coming; demand for physics coursework was high, from new engineering students. The giants at Johns Hopkins started planting seeds in other institutions in Chicago, Yale, Cornell, Harvard, Berkeley. George Hale’s Palomar observatory bred Caltech. In the decade of the 1890s, there were a total of 54 new physics Ph.D.s, but by 1909 it was 25 a year. Two years after Michelson became the first American physics Nobelist.

If you know physics history, you know these dates are the beginning period in the greatest flowering of physics creativity in human history. Most of the theory was done by Germans, many ethnic Jewish, while the US remained more or less a hub of experimental activity (similarly Britain I think). It was also a flowering of industrial activity; as larger areas became electrified and were hooked up to the new telephone technology. Industrial labs started hiring some of the new physicists, and they immediately began producing returns; even the humble light bulb was assisted by Irving Langmuir. Aircraft became a thing; also refrigeration, automobiles, vacuum cleaners, escalators, air conditioners, motion pictures, washing machines, safety razors; inventions which changed daily human life forever in ways which were absurdly huge. Radio; very classic physicist achievement (entirely by foreigners) it is worth remembering the distance from theory of Maxwell in 1865 to demonstration by Hertz in 1886 to practical implementations by Marconi in 1896 to widespread adoption after 1900 when contemplating imaginary bugaboos like quantum computing; (Benioff in 1982, to Shor in 1994; one of them should be the QC Maxwell and there still hasn’t been a Hertz yet).

Then the cataclysm of WW-1. I’ve always said this is the great changepoint of human history. Had it never happened the world would be completely different. It was a war fought with the new industrial technologies; a war of chemicals and steel production, of submarines,  telephones and airplanes. As soon as the war started, the US had an industrial policy; if nothing else, we (meaning we Americans, sorry overseas bros) needed to replace critical items which were unavailable due to British blockades and war needs. Political operators including Palomar’s George Hale began to advocate for government funding through the National Research Council. There were various political machinations between different factions in the US technological establishment, but in the end the war happened and the physicists were utilized and found helpful. Optical glass industry had to be grown and developed at home to replace all the Zeiss optics and whatever the British were using. But the most important innovations the American physicists delivered was submarine finder technologies.

Up to this moment in time, the only great theorist the US ever had was Gibbs, and he didn’t have any noteworthy descendants. Most American physicists were experimentalists; tinkerers in the same sense that the Edisons of the world were tinkerers, except they knew stuff like how sound travels in water, how to detect the electron’s charge to mass ratio using oil droplets, or how to make nice telescopes. There were a number of very amusing characters from those days; Max Mason of U Wisconsin is one who stuck with me; a clubbable type guy with talents including chess, golf, violin and billiards; he pretty much came up with the submarine passive detection systems we used today. Another pair of characters involved in artillery range-finding was Augustus Trowbridge and Theodore Lyman, a couple of Boston Brahmin types who had to teach a bunch of roughnecks “splendid specimens …. like the big trees of their native Oregon” about differentials and hyperbolas and such while having fine wines and a mess featuring a french cook in the trenches of evenings. Lyman didn’t mind being shelled at least, he had hunted big game dontchaknow. The miniature portraits of these fellows gives a vivid picture of the old WASP elites, more or less acting like American versions of Bertie Wooster and Augustus Fink-Nottle.

Max Mason

The aftermath of WW-1 demonstrated  a lot of analogues to current year problems. Thanks to the British propaganda agencies, Germans were demonized. America used to have a large German speaking minority; WW-1 ended this. Rather astoundingly Hale and his allies in the NRC tried demonizing and bureaucratically “canceling” German scientists in Germany who had the temerity to support their own country during the war. This was completely bonkers. In addition to it being a ridiculous nationalistic thing to do, disguised, as is usual with Anglos as moralistic preening,  the Germans were literally the leading members of the physics community. Hale instead of building bridges and returning physics to the international enterprise it always had been, was attempting to burn them; trying to get physicists from neutral countries to see things the Anglo-American perfidy way. All of it was ridiculous and disgusting, and is very much like current-year cancel culture.  It went on through the dawn of modern Quantum Mechanics; Hale wouldn’t even allow his organization to cosponsor a visit to America by Einstein, who was Swiss, but spoke with a German accent.

The 20s started the real rise of colleges as a sort of US cottage industry; land grant schools, R&D research, university presidents as fund raisers; this was the birth of the whole encrusted edifice that threatens to destroy its host population. It was also the rise of PR used as a tool by scientists in fundraising, and it was very consciously deployed as such. Mind you it was mostly baloney: physics took a lot of credit from, like chemists, electrical engineers and statisticians for the recent technological evolutions; but the physicists had better PR -a pattern which continues to the present day.

The 1930s were fairly hard times for the physics community as everyone else. By this time there was a fair amount of populist religious people (mitigated by the number of high profile Christian physicists such as Millikan and Compton) and left wing rumbling against the pretensions of scientist types and their affiliation with monied interests and wealthy foundations, as well as their perceived involvement in “progress” which caused economic dislocations. As such there were, for the first time, layoffs. There were also New Deal government efforts which are the origin of most “Big Science.” Cyclotron research also got bound up in health care back then; something that always confused me (it persists to this day despite its generally dubious utility), but which seemed to be a funding scam by Lawrence. Interestingly many physicists were extremely conservative and against the New Deal due to their associations with business. This is a sort of bifurcation that persists to this day: industrial and military physics people are different from the rest of the scientific establishment, which is mostly a product of New Deal organizations. Of course, they were all united in preparations for war, for different reasons; a microcosm of what was going on in the country at large.

Vannevar Bush (despite his engineering background, or perhaps because of it) was one of the most crucial people in the development both of wartime physics and American technology in general, and the book paints a decent outline of his flinty New England “grandson of a whaling captain” character and early achievements. Interestingly he was not a New Deal man, but he saw the utility in using government agencies directly instead of going through independent bodies like the NRC as happened in WW-1 research. He was able to sell it with a single sheet of paper in front of FDR in 1940 based on already-existing NACA (aka NASA later); originally called the NDRC which was more research oriented, it later changed its name to OSRD which was more production oriented. Rather than setting up new labs as was attempted in WW-1 era, the idea was to use already existing scientific facilities as much as possible. OSRD management techniques persisted into the 50s with a few hot spots of innovation like Skunkworks and China Lake, but they’re largely extinct now. Entirely Klein type-1 organizational principles, and entirely entrepreneurial. You look at national lab operations now: it’s basically a big welfare pyramid where people continue to work on …. the same funding priorities people have literally been working on since the 1950s. No moving fast and breaking things, no innovation, no shuffling people into concentrations of excellence; just a bunch of nervous bureaucrats feathering their beds and playing bureaucratic power games with each other.

One of the characters who came up here who was of crucial importance: Alfred L. Loomis; a retired investment banker who had his own hobby physics lab; cousin of the Secretary of War, who ended up leading up the radar efforts as well as inventing LORAN (Loomis Radio Navigation), muzzle velocity chronos and a number of other things which are forgotten. He was an absolute giant, a figure who would be familiar to the Ancient Greeks representing all that was heroic and good in men of his time: he was from a first rate family, served his country as a soldier in WW-1, got a law degree, bought an investment bank, funded electrification of rural America, was an astute trader who called market top in 1928, and taught himself how to be a goddamned experimental physicist in the 1930s. There is literally nobody alive today like this: all you retired quants need to get to work in your personal laboratories.

Alfred Lee Loomis

Other figures; Lee Dubridge founded MIT’s radiation lab where much radar and electronics oriented work got done: a middle class aw-shucks methodist who went on to a career managing other scientific facilities, most notably CalTech. Edward Bowles; former fur-trapper Missouri redneck EE professor who helped manage the growing enterprise. His experience as a hunter helped him manage growing Pentagon bureaucracy. Amusingly he hated all the physicists and didn’t get along well with flinty New England Bush very well either. His management and advice changed a bunch of key research directions and made the US much more effective in warfighting. Operations Research; aka 1940’s version of “data science” was founded by pioneers like Philip Morse. Amusingly, he was one of only a few of explicitly mathematical physicists who made large contributions, presumably by keeping to very practical real-world solutions. I always knew him as being one of the “Handbook of Mathematical Functions” guys, but he continued his work of managing large scale scientific enterprises. Ultimately this famous book probably came from wartime experience where people had to go look up Bessel functions in various other tomes; books like this were of vital importance before the existence of tools like Macsyma. Arguably still more useful. Donald Trump’s uncle John was also an important figure in these days.

Oppenheimer, Fermi and the Bomb are the most famous product of OSRD; everyone knows what happened there, but one highlight: the physicists, particularly Lawrence got cocky. The Calutrons were a preposterous waste of time and resources in hindsight. Because it was OSRD, they did have multiple approaches to deliver the final product, but it’s absolutely staggering how many resources were wasted in this efforts. It’s also hilarious redneck Ozarks ladies were more productive than physicists on similar equipment. Of course, plutonium chemistry at Hanford and the Gas diffusion efforts at Oak Ridge delivered the real product (the latter, further enriched by absurdly wasteful Calutrons). This is a great historical example to bring up when physicists try to get too fancy or egotistical about their ability to deliver some complicated atrocity where simpler techniques would do; humble chemists did most of the real work and other than a few guys like Seaborg (often mistaken for a physicist) got little of the credit. FWIIW Kevles just presented the facts; this is entirely my emphasis and interpretation of what happened. Similarly for subsequent comments.

Virgin physicists versus Chad Calutron Girls

Postwar physics, like postwar everything else, was a completely different civilization. It had almost nothing to do with what came before and the first decade after Bush’s 1945 “Science the endless frontier” define the field to this day. Bush opened the government funded research chuckwagon. It also did away with the OSRD practicality and urgency. Bush basically opened the funding trough as an ongoing national investment with zero expectation of return. And zero returns is basically what we’ve gotten. The high energy physics of the 1940s were the nuclear guys; they kept the highest prestige and funding, getting bigger and bigger particle accelerators, and more and more seats in the physics departments. WW-2 put a crimp in the supply of new physicists; they weren’t going to get any more European braniacs, and the war had stopped the Ph.D. pipeline. 1946 was probably peak year for power and prestige of the American physics community. There weren’t enough of them, they were well paid and actually had significant political power; enough to put the Atomic Energy Commission under their civilian control. It’s also very obviously been downhill since then. The 50s and early 60s saw some interesting if wildly impractical results; the field has plummeted since then, to the point where it is best known for inventing glass-bead games for imaginary computers.

People on college campuses resented the expensive physicists of the postwar era, and it was extremely obvious the field became a sort of cargo-cult prestige scam over time. Quoting Kevles:

The younger physicists seemed interested too little in physics and accomplishment, too much in pay scales and security. They also expected a remarkable degree of luxury in the conditions of re­search. At Brookhaven, everyone seemed to want a new $3,500 (1953 dollars) oscillo­scope. “Someone walked into my office the other day,” reported Samuel Goudsmit, who headed the laboratory physics department, “and complained that he had to share the one we’d got for him with another re­searcher.” The new recruits also seemed disturbingly content to submerge themselves in team research, publish papers jointly, often with as many as twenty other authors (lol; try 2000 now a days) — to become, in short, organization men.

We all know by now that the research program of the last two generations of high energy physicists have been an abject failure. It is little acknowledged when the sweet smelling putrefaction set in, not at some nebulous later date: post-WW-2 physics was largely a failure. By mid-1950s there were 21,000 practicing physicists in the US. These days the APS is about 60,000 people. In 1930 when things were actually happening there was 3,000. Even if we don’t think 60,000 physicists is too many for a country of 330 million, it’s abundantly obvious via the output (which is entirely …. papers) that the vast majority of these people are not engaged in any kind of useful work. While these people either loaf in some leafy ivory tower or scramble in some CERN slave factory horror show: even assuming they’re capable or hard headed enough to do useful work, they’re not mobilized to do so.

It’s a weird sort of irony that Vannevar Bush mobilized one of the great technological and scientific leaps forward in history, then killed physics with welfare cheese because he … more or less forgot how the Promethean fire was created. He remembered the money part, but that was only useful for certain kinds of problems, and only with the correct management, correct social structure and correct people. These days you can’t even get the correct people, and people labor away LARPing as Einsteins or Oppenheimers. The rest of the book goes into the various hippy protests against physicists and grubby rooting around for new sources of funding.

Assuming the US continues as an identifiable polity in 100 years, I’m pretty sure “physics as scam” rather than “physics as a study of nature and how it may be put to use by humanity” will continue. They’ll continue screwing around with particle accelerators because Livermore did. They’ll continue ridiculous mathemagical nonsense like noodle theory because they don’t know how to do anything else, other than live action role play they’re Einstein. The only way I could see it changing for the better is a geopolitical upheaval which would effectively end what remains of the post WW-2 order and the current reign of corrupt imbeciles running the US.  Most of the West basically does what the US does. I suppose there could be new progress in China, Japan or Russia, but I don’t see much happening here for the next 50 or 100 years on the present trajectory.

Anyway, good book; depressing, but good.

Humble tokamak physicist owns generations of cosmological wankers

Posted in astronomy, physics, physics anomalies by Scott Locklin on March 12, 2021

It’s not often I get excited about papers from the physics community. The field I used to love has turned into a dreary ghetto of noodle-theory wankers, experimental particle physics bureaucrats, cosmological mountebanks, “phenomenologists” and quantum computing charlatans. But I’m excited about this paper:


The author, Gerson Otto Ludwig, is a lifelong plasma physicist from Brazil; a noble profession, even if controlled nuclear fusion is unlikely as a near future energy source. Plasma physics is a fiendishly difficult field; it is both mathematically difficult and unlike the more “woo” grandiose kinds of physics hiding behind formalism, your ideas are generally testable by experiment. Maybe some cosmological wanker pissed him off, and he said “segure minha cerveja.” Maybe he just noticed something from fooling around with magnetohydrodynamic models all day. But if he’s right, he’s basically written the most dramatic single paper own of the physics and astronomy community, like ever.  Assuming this paper is correct, it is a literal extinction event for thousands of wankers; a fiery asteroid across the sky, with a bunch of cud-chewing cosmological dinosaurs staring at it in dumb disbelief.

One of the things cosmologists, noodle theorists and astronomers worry a lot about is “dark matter.” When you look out in space at rotating galaxies, they appear to contain more mass than we can actually see; even weirder, the mass appears to not be in the bright centroid for some reason. Something is making those galaxies stick together and rotate in funny ways and we can’t see it. If you do a physics major and your professor isn’t incompetent, they’ll probably make you work through an example of this. I remember doing so, thinking, “huh that’s pretty weird” then proceeded to attempt a career on objects about 10^68 times smaller than a galaxy. I had always assumed that someone had worked through the General Relativity version of this calculation in detail or at least given a reason why GR doesn’t apply. But I guess nobody did. There’s a larger issue here; why do galaxies look that way at all? You can mumble a bit about angular momentum and so on, but it is kind of peculiar there are so many things out there that look like this. When you read books on Galactic dynamics, there will always be a chapter wondering why galaxies are spirals; lots of hand wavey theories are given, but it’s pretty obvious nobody has a good idea.

I never studied GR; had the opportunity to do so with the great Ezra Newman and Carlo Rovelli. Skipping that for a dumb quantum optics course or whatever my excuse was, was an error. However one picks up a smattering of these things. There are analogies to the classical Maxwell equations in GR. It’s obvious there must be a component that works like electrostatics since Newtonian gravity looks exactly like Coulomb’s law with different constants, and mass substituting for electrical charge. What isn’t obvious is that there is also a gravitomagnetic term, which looks like Ampere’s law, relating the motion of charged particles to the magnetic field. So, there is a sort of gravitational analog to the magnetic field that happens when masses flow; old idea, people think it has something to do with quasars.

You can see where this is going: plasma physicists think about Lorentz forces on gasses of charged particles all goddamned day.  Professor Ludwig related all this gravitic stuff to some equations from magnetohydrodynamics, ran the numbers, and realized the weird dark matter forces are probably a consequence of the geometry of spacetime. Theoretically any ambitious grad student of the last 50 years could have thought of it. I never studied magnetohydrodynamics myself, or GR, but if I were sitting around thinking about why Galaxies look weird or dork matter, and I know there was such a thing as gravitomagnetic effects, I might be …. slightly curious about what plasma physicists have come up with. It’s not like the z-pinch effect or tokamaks are particularly secret ideas; tokamaks at least have been bellowed about for decades.

Anyway, unless I’m missing something big here, it’s all straightforward stuff; a workman like piece of physics scholarship, and it seems to give the right answer (I haven’t checked). If he’s right, it’s going to make lots of people real mad, then sad for their wasted lives. The type of people who deserve a comeuppance. I will be unspeakably happy if this is true and the man wins the Nobel for it, making fools of a field filled with fools.


Texas energy markets: several bad ideas

Posted in energy by Scott Locklin on February 20, 2021

Since everything in the US is politicized right now, you’d be hard pressed to understand why Texas is in the dark. Right wingnats blame renewables. Left wingnats blame deregulation. Establishment monkeys blame the fact that Texas isn’t regulated by the federal government. As usual, both the left and the right ideologues have stumbled on part of the truth, and the establishment are retards who should go fuck themselves.

Basic facts: Texas is not connected to the rest of the US energy grid. Because the US government only has power over states in so far as it regulates interstate commerce, this means they can govern their own affairs. This happened partly organically: Texas is huge, has a large coastline and not well connected to the rest of the US geographically due to natural geography and the fact that no other state has any large cities near the Texas border. Mostly, though, it was a political decision: FDR’s massive dictatorial power grab in the 1930s was not universally appreciated as current-year regime loyalists would have you believe, and Texans preferred that East Coast mandarins not have any authority over the energy grid they built. Theoretically Texas should do fine on its own as the potential power grid connections would be pretty sparse anyway, just as they are in similarly huge California, due to the mountain range in the way, and lack of dense populations at the California border. In fact, Texas actually does have power connections outside the state: with Mexico, which is more connected to it geographically with Neuvo Laredo and Matamoros sharing close borders. It also has a little connection with the east coast for such emergencies, but obviously, it was pretty cold there too, so not much help to be had. There are not good maps of this out there, but here’s one that more or less gives you the basic idea. Or you can look at a very good map of the Europe power grid for ideas of how it actually works in the US; geography and the location of industry and cities is tremendously important.

When demand exceeds supply on a power grid, things catch on fire, and you might have no power for months. That needs to be avoided at all costs, even if someone’s pipes freeze. You can imagine what might happen in current year America, a country which couldn’t produce enough masks for the Wuhan coof, if there were a bunch of simultaneous orders for new transformers and generators. Months might turn into years.

The Polar Jet Stream is misbehaving itself this year. It’s not just hammering North America with cold; it’s unseasonably cold everywhere in the north. Usually it keeps the cold air bottled up in the Arctic; this year it’s unstable and making it colder than usual everywhere. Of course dipshits are saying this is happening due to CO2 induced global warming (“climate change” is a meaningless doublethink tautology), but that’s far from clear. Really, the same sort of thing that happens before a new Ice Age. Doesn’t matter: the weather is unpredictable, and while grousing about the fact that there is weather is apparently a political winner due to the profusion of stupid people, we don’t do that around here.

So, it’s cold in Texas; shouldn’t be a problem. Except usually it’s hot in Texas; the grid is designed with that in mind. When it’s hot out, there’s lots of wind and the 20% of the power grid that depends on windmills is well suited to running the numerous air conditioners that are the general cause of peak load conditions. Beyond that, Texas is a natural gas state; it produces megatons of the stuff, and so about 50% of its power comes from gas, just like most of the rest of the country. Gas wells shut down when it’s really cold out, so, no gas for the gas plants. Coal (20%) and nuclear (10%). Texas electrical grid isn’t that different in energy sources than the rest of the country: it’s light on nuclear and hydro, heavy on wind, which they generally have in abundance. The main problem it has is the energy sources don’t work as well when it’s cold out. The main blunder here is that it assumes peak load happens when it’s hot out, and depends on it actually being hot out. Other states use multifuel turbines and have stored fuel on site for such peak load emergencies. Texas could have stored more natgas on site; and it probably will in the future, as this is the cheapest most sane thing to do. Tanks are cheap. Building an extension cord to Louisiana (which probably had similar problems) isn’t.

Windmills: they don’t work when there is no wind. Ice meme is solid though.

This actually happened before: in 2011 there were other blackouts in February. Which brings me to the final point: Texas energy grid is a libertardian wet dream of insane free-marketism on an essential piece of state infrastructure. Power grids are really the type of thing that should have some regulation; preferably local regulation via a Public Utility Commission.  Texas has one which looks a lot like others on paper, but it gave up its power to effectively regulate anything in the late 20th century.

Texans get their bills from an insane patchwork of energy options “suppliers” which are options companies that basically bet against the consumer. There are literally thousands of “plans” that one can switch on a weekly basis. What is the rationale for this? The idea is the different “plans” will cause the free market of consumers to adjust their energy usage to suit the power producers using price signals, so power producers don’t have to build excess capacity for use during peak hours. It’s a capital investment and so there are maintenance problems, debt servicing problems; geez, the lives of power companies would be much easier if you stupid monkeys would just use a predictable amount of power at all times. This is, of course, barking lunacy, courtesy of modern economists; aka bribed ideologues.

When it’s cold out people will turn the heat on. When it’s hot out, people will turn the air conditioners on. The ideology which states this kind of “free market” will do otherwise, is obviously false and produces no such efficiencies, and mostly makes everyone miserable by having an extra-complex thing they have to manage. It also removes the risk from power producers; if power producers are required to provide electricity including peak load electricity, they’ll invest in their infrastructure enough to make sure they can always do so: passing on the costs, of course, to the general public, who actually would like to be able to turn the heat on when it’s cold outside. If they think they can train the 30 million monkeys to fiddle with their power usage through various “smart grid” mechanisms and price signals, they will not invest in their infrastructure to make this possible.  There are even startups to help you manage this ridiculous complexity.To give you an idea of what I’m talking about, right now there is a huge demand and no supply for power in Texas. As a result those who use some power are going to get HUGE bills; it’s really absurd. That’s the power company telling you to let your pipes freeze because they’re having a hard time right now.

Actual free markets work to social benefit when there is competition between producers. Offloading monopolistic risks and expenses to consumers has zero social benefit. People really don’t turn the heat off when it’s cold out, no matter what the price signals are, no matter how much the morons in the utility companies wish they would. This isn’t a uniquely Texas problem; it’s being pushed by …. power companies, with Green veneer on it. I became aware of this in 2010 and thought it was absolutely bonkers, and anyone who defends it is a gibbering moron or a profiteering power company executive. I can even point you to falsified analysis used to pitch this idea on a pilot program. You can see exactly what happened; everyone complied with the smart grid directives to turn off the power when it’s hot out (peak load in the region studied) the first time it happened, because muh technology I guess. They literally never did it again. The ice cream melting in the freezer in Wally world (shops and large facilities used vastly more power than consumers) demonstrated how bad an idea this was. The one thing that did happen was the factories moved people to a night shift. Through creative statistics this was presented to the PUC as a huge success, basically because the people involved in the analysis bet their careers on it. No doubt they continue to advocate for it. They should be sent to China to pitch the idea.

The free market doesn’t work here because you can’t build a new power plant to profit from these $10,000 a month power bills. The price signal only works one way, and it won’t be heeded by the people it’s directed at; it just tortures ordinary people. The free market won’t induce power companies to float bonds to profit from unpredictable peak loads. Regulators could though, and regulation is exactly what is needed in this situation. Blaming the stationary windmills is pretty silly, though over reliance on them is definitely part of the problem; other countries use lots of windmills and do fine, even when it’s cold out, because they have regulators who make sure there’s plenty of all kinds of electricity. If you want the free market to work properly, let the power companies buy natgas when it’s cheap and store it in tanks instead of offloading this risk on consumers.