Fossil fuel? Nein, danke

I’ve just finished writing a comment piece for the Badger, Sussex University’s student newspaper, about University investment in oil & gas companies.  It’s part of a campaign that I and a few students from the School of Global Studies are undertaking to try to get the University to withdraw their funds (‘divest’) from such organisations.  I’ll be updating this blog with our progress.  Here’s the article:

Unless you’ve been hiding in a cave for the last decade or two, you’ll be aware of the very real threat to our civilisation posed by climate change, spurred on by the burning of fossil fuels to provide the services demanded by modern societies.  Perhaps less well-known, though, is the concept of ‘unburnable carbon’, and the colossal inertia we are faced with in trying to tackle the problem.

Some degree of global temperature rise is now unavoidable.  Indeed, it has already begun.  By now, the question is where the thermometer stops; international negotiation, underpinned by scientific research, has resulted in the verdict that 2°C is the most we can allow.  Many think of this as some description of a ‘safe limit’, though let’s be clear; even this modest level of warming poses significant risks to global food and water supply, habitats and coastlines.

Recent research, however, puts the scale of the challenge even further into perspective.  Climate change institutes have estimated that if we’re to stick to our target, humanity can afford to release another 560 – 880 billion tonnes (Gt) of carbon dioxide (CO2) into the atmosphere before 2050, with almost no emissions thereafter.  Compare this to the reserves of fossil fuels under the ground which coal, oil and gas companies worldwide have on their books; an amount equivalent to a mammoth 2860 GtCO2.  This means that of everything in the ground which companies know they can extract easily, burning about 20% would bring us to our target.  Anything more and we quite literally begin to cook the planet.  In the face of this, companies are still spending hundreds of billions of dollars a year trying to find more fossils under the ground to add to their reserves.  This wilful blindness desperately needs to be stopped.

You may be somewhat surprised, then, to discover that our University has hundreds of thousands of pounds invested in fossil fuel companies.  Nearly all such bodies do, as do churches, local authorities and public pension funds.  This is why student bodies across the globe have begun a movement to demand their institutions stop this practice of profiting from climate change and inadvertently endangering our futures.  The Fossil Free campaign, part of the organisation, has delivered scores of petitions to Vice Chancellors and their equivalents, and we plan to do the same.

A few hundred thousand pounds in isolation means nothing to the industry, but it sends a message that we will not stand for this.  The campaign is gathering momentum.  Universities and religious organisations are divesting; in January the chief of the World Bank, Jim Yong Kim suggested governments and businesses do the same.  Norwegian pension fund managers are looking to galvanise the support generated so far by divesting.  These are small steps, but with each new addition the impetus gathers.  Fossil fuels are a gargantuan industry, but the challenge our generation faces is greater.

If you are in support of encouraging Sussex to divest from fossil fuels and implement an ethical policy, please come along to our next meeting at 1630 on AprIl 2nd in Falmer Common Room, and sign the petition at

You’re on thin ice, sunshine

Here’s something to disquieten your day.  The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, a scientific agency within the US Government who do some very respectable work on climate, released this video recently showing the ages of different parts of Arctic ice over the last 27 years.  The whiter the ice, the older it is.  Make sure you watch it to the end.

You can see from the very dark blue that there’s still a wide area covered with ice, even at the end of Summer.  However, what’s less obvious is that this ice is thinning.  As that happens, that which has been buried deep for decades becomes exposed and melts.  News ‘articles’ like this love to point out that the 2013 coverage area was greater than the previous year (2012 took the trophy for lowest sea ice minimum on record).  To anyone who is inclined to believe the Daily Mail, I recommend looking up the phenomenon of regression to the mean.

Maybe this illustrates what I’m trying to get at more clearly:

We’re looking at an ice-free Summer Arctic within a decade.  When this happens, the climate takes a turn for the worse; Arctic sea ice – a shiny white surface covering a vast area of the planet – does an excellent job of reflecting the Sun’s intensity back into space.  When’s it’s gone during Summer months, the dark ocean absorbs the energy much more readily, accelerating the climatic warming process.  This is a well-understood ‘positive feedback’ effect, though there’s nothing positive about it.  It’s because of phenomena like this (and others) that climate scientists are increasingly worried about ‘runaway’ global warming; we face a tipping point some time in the future, where warming triggers these feedbacks and we end up with a temperature increase much greater than the 2 degrees many are trying desparately to avoid.

Cats, computers and government surveillance

Last year I shared a stop-motion animation made using single trapped molecules by researchers at IBM.  I went on to briefly talk about the technique’s application in quantum computing, but in retrospect I don’t feel like I did the technology justice.  QC provides an enormous potential to scale down the size of computers, as I mentioned.  This, though, is only half the magic (because it is, basically, magic).  The reality-bending nature of quantum mechanics allows an object to be in more than one state at the same time (explanation of ‘state’ to come), which can cause some astounding things to be made possible.  A company called D-Wave who purport to be the world’s first and only quantum computing company (I say ‘purport’ as there’s a bit of controversy surrounding whether or not the computers they use are actually based on quantum mechanics) have produced their own video which explains the process quite well.  For my own explanation, I will invoke the (somewhat tired) analogy of Schrödinger’s Cat:

Schrödinger’s Cat is a thought experiment devised by the Austrian physicist after whom the experiment is named.  Our unfortunate feline finds itself trapped inside a sealed box, into which the outside observer has absolutely no way of observing.  Next to the cat is a single radioactive atom, a Geiger counter (which detects radiation) and a vial of poison.  Radioactivity is very much a statistical phenomenon – given a certain length of time, there is a certain probability the atom will ‘decay’ (and give out radiation) and a certain probability it won’t.  If the atom decays, the Geiger counter observes it, causing the vial to break.  The cat becomes, to use the wise words of John Cleese, an ex-cat.

Or does it? Quantum mechanics dictates to us that, whilst the box is closed and nobody can see inside, the cat is nether alive, nor dead, but a combination of both alive and dead – in what physicists call a ‘superposition state’.  It’s only when one opens the box and observes the cat that it is essentially forced into a state of either life or death.  Bizarre?  Well, if you’ve ever heard someone talking about the ‘strange nature’ of quantum mechanics, this thought experiment essentially underpins that strangeness.  When you get down to a quantum mechanical level, things just don’t behave the way you’d expect. For example, a single electron attached to the nucleus of an atom cannot be located to one single place, instead it has a ‘probability distribution’ – areas where it is likely to be, and areas where it isn’t likely to be.  It’s not until you actually try and observe this property (‘opening the box’) that it is forced to take a precise location.  The same goes for its speed – as it ‘orbits’ around the nucleus, it’s likely to be at a specific speed, though you can’t be sure, and the further away from that speed, the less likely it is. When you measure the speed, it takes a certain value.  This goes for just about every other parameter relating to the particle.

Now, I should state that in reality, were someone to be so ruthless as to actually do this to a cat (in the name of sciece!) then it would be plain old dead or alive, as we’d expect.  This non-intuitive behaviour only occurs at the quantum level, i.e. really, really, really small – so when an object is said to behave ‘quantum mechanically’, it’s generally something like a single particle.  In the (relatively enormous) biological system which constitutes a cat, the probabilistic nature (‘likely to do this, not likely to do that’) of a single (quantum-mechanical) particle is summed up over the vast number of particles, resulting in a life or death probability which is so enormously high that it’s vitually certain it’ll be either alive or dead.  By the same token, though, that means that quantum mechanically, virtually anything is possible (or, at the very least, it isn’t impossible).  To use an analogy by John Gribbin, if I’m looking at a granite statue, it’s not impossible that the atoms in its hand could suddenly rearrange themselves such that it appears to wave at me. Mind-boggling stuff.

Fundamental explanation of quantum mechanics aside, what’s so magic (I hope you now agree with me about the magic sentiment) about quantum computers?  Think, if you will, about the ‘bits’ (ones and zeroes) in your computer, each stored within a single capacitor.  Millions of these combined form data.  As I’ve previously mentioned, the QC uses the ‘qubit’ – similar to the bit, but far more useful.  This is because not only can the qubit store a zero or one (often, but not exclusively, via its spin-state), but also a superposition state between the two (as in the dead/alive quantum cat).  So now, where a classical computer is contrained to searching for individual combinations of zeroes and ones, its quantum equivalent can search through multiple combinations simultaneously.  Again, the video by D-Wave explains this quite well but you could maybe think of it in terms of coins.  If I have 10,000 coins in a row and am looking for a unique combination of heads and tails, as a classical computer I’d have to move all 10,000 coins into one composition; if that’s not the right one I’d have to move all 10,000 into another composition, and continue this process until I find the right setup.  As a shiny quantum computer though, I’d be able to look at multiple combinations at once – so I’d have multiple rows of 10,000 which I could move simultaneously.  The possible reductions in computation time are astronomical.

The scaled-down size and enormous speed allowed by this technology have huge potential implications.  It names quite a few in the video, though I particularly like the example given where a natural disaster has recently struck and the most efficient distribution of rescue resources has to be computed.  Such a huge number of alternative scenarios demands an enormous computing power, which only a QC could provide in a reasonable timeframe.  Huge numbers of lives could be saved.  One thing which did make me slightly uneasy, though, was the mention of the potential to sift through huge datasets ‘to catch bad guys’.  After everything we’ve heard about the misdeeds of various governments over the last couple of years I’m not sure I want GCHQ or the NSA to have that kind of snooping ability at their fingertips.  Perhaps if they were catching cat-killers my mind would be more at ease?