Not Enough Disruption?

For the past few weeks, a paper in Nature has provoked vapors among those who want more scientific disruption. Bill Broad summarized it in the New York Times.

The paper defined “disruption” by a pattern of citations in the scientific literature. Horrifyingly to some, those disruptions have decreased since 1950.

There are layers of assumptions. First, that a pattern of citations in scientific papers is a measure of disruption. Next, that disruption is good and necessary for science. The overall goal of this disruption is not made explicit. To better our lives? In what way? For an abstract ideal of progress? For personal glory?

Four examples are given in Johnson’s thread: the DNA helix, relativity, quantum mechanics, and space flight. None were developed in a single paper. All emerged after long histories of related work. The first two are associated with single historic papers. The last two aren’t.

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How Can They Do That?

Moderna has announced an increase in the price of their m-RNA vaccine against SARS-CoV-2 from the $26 per dose that the government has been paying to something like $130 per dose. This will affect insured people only indirectly, increasing their insurance companies’ costs, but the uninsured will pay the whole price.

Much of the research the m-RNA vaccines are based on was done under government grants or contracts, in government laboratories. The government guaranteed an initial market. So why is Moderna setting the price?

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Cleaning Up One Of The Soviet Union’s Messes

If you’ve followed me for a while, you’ve probably seen parts of this story. A longer version was posted for a while, but then Stanford University cleaned out all websites that used Drupal, so it’s gone now.

This week I refound a video that I like because it explains a lot about the Silmet rare-earths refining plant at Sillamäe, Estonia.

I became involved with Sillamäe in 1998, when NATO wanted Los Alamos to hold more of its Advanced Research Workshops with the recently independent states that came out of the Soviet Union. We held an ARW in Tallinn in October 1998 on how to remediate the kilometer-long tailings pond from the plant.

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Healing The Ozone Layer

The ozone layer in our atmosphere absorbs ultraviolet light from the sun that could damage life on earth. Back in the 1970s and 1980s, it became evident that chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs), widely used in refrigerators and air conditioners, were destroying ozone in the upper atmosphere.

The Montreal Protocol banning CFCs was adopted unanimously in 1987 by the nations of the world. Production of CFCs was banned, and they began to disappear from the atmosphere. The ozone holes that had been observed over the earth’s poles narrowed. But in 2012, CFCs began to increase again.

Long story short, they were being produced in China. Continuing atmospheric monitoring, part of the Protocol, showed that. The measurements and likely source were publicized, and, without fanfare, the levels of CFCs started going down again.

This is the kind of thing we are going to have to do for carbon dioxide. It will be much more difficult, because there are so many sources of carbon dioxide and wealthy beneficiaries who are fighting to keep the status quo. But we have the CFC success to look to.

The New York Times reports. Gift link, should get past the paywall.

Cross-posted to Lawyers, Guns & Money

Five Tropes I Hope Not To See In The New Year (But We Will)

It’s harder to analyze events than to paste labels on them. Events come thick and fast, and pundits have to say something. It’s mostly pundits I’m talking about, but not entirely. History may not repeat, but it does rhyme, they say, and then they reach for one of these tropes. When the tropes are repeated again and again, they can influence policymakers. They flatten everyone’s thinking.

Here are five that I find particularly irritating.

Red Lines. Although they frequently appear in op-eds, nobody has identified these precious markers. Party A has a red line that Party B must not cross, or package of responses C will ensue. War doesn’t work this way. Most diplomacy doesn’t work this way. Each side has a number of options to choose from that depend on the situation in which a decision is made: timing, balance of interests, balance of power. The New York Times has an excellent explainer on red lines, although they couldn’t resist writing the headline as if the trope was worth considering.

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The Waste Land

T.S. Eliot’s famous poem was published in the December 1922 issue of Criterion, 100 years ago. There’s a lot in it, and people focus on different parts. The first few lines get a workout every April, when people try to make them mean that April weather is changeable, but if you read the first four lines, and even better seven, it’s clear that that’s not what they mean.

The rest of the poem is harder. It’s fragmented, and thus easy to pluck pieces out, which is what people do.

But perhaps Eliot and his famous editor, Ezra Pound, had a thought that unified the poem. Let’s look at the title: The Waste Land. We can see that theme throughout: the dry red rocks, the inability of people to connect, water and death, and finally, in line 424 of 437, we meet the Fisher King, who rules the Waste Land and who suffers a wound that will not heal.

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Russia’s War On Ukraine in 2023

It’s hard to see how Russia’s war on Ukraine ends. It could end today, with an edict from Vladimir Putin that the Russian military stand down and begin a withdrawal from all Ukrainian territories. Negotiation would be needed to assure safe passage back to Russia, but the shelling could end today.

It’s hard to see how the war ends because it has reversed so many of our expectations. That we had come to the end of imperial wars. That Russia was a competent military power. It would be good to make 2023 the year we recognize that much we believed no longer holds. That goes beyond the war.

Ruth Deyermond, a Senior Lecturer at the Department of War Studies in King’s College London, specializes in Russian foreign and security policy, US-Russia relations, and European security. She wrote an outstanding Twitter thread that I mostly agree with, so I’ll use it as the framework for a turn-of-the-year post on Russia’s war.

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Furiously Writing Deterrence Theory

This is…not good.

The United States is “furiously” writing a new nuclear deterrence theory that simultaneously faces Russia and China, said the top commander of America’s nuclear arsenal—and needs more Americans working on how to prevent nuclear war.

The quote is from Navy Admiral Chas Richard, the head of STRATCOM, the United States Strategic Command, which is responsible for strategic nuclear deterrence, the conventional-weapon global strike, and operating the Defense Department’s Global Information Grid.

Writing “a new nuclear deterrence theory” is not a college essay. Nor can it “furiously” be done overnight, as if that essay were due tomorrow.

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The Volga-Don Canal Connects the Caspian Sea And The Sea Of Azov

Kazakhstan is isolated from the world’s oceans, but borders the Caspian Sea on its west. The Soviet Union completed the Volga-Don Canal in 1952 to allow shipping between the Caspian Sea and the Sea of Azov, the northeastern arm of the Black Sea that connects through the Kerch Strait, across which Russia built a recently damaged bridge to occupied Crimea. From there, Kazakhstani ships can reach the Mediterranean.

Russia has recently granted Kazakhstan permission to use the Volga-Don Canal for its commercial ships, which will be carrying mainly Chinese goods. Those two countries now have an interest in keeping the Black Sea and the Kerch Strait open.

A shorter route has been proposed (red line on map), but it’s not clear when that could be built.

Sergei Prokofiev wrote the tone poem The Meeting of the Volga and the Don to celebrate its completion. The Wikipedia article is worth reading.

The header image is the Volga-Don Canal in Volgograd, from the Wikipedia article.

Cross-posted to Lawyers, Guns & Money