ITER – Another step forward to the world’s new normal

The announcement that the assembly of ITER, the world’s first device aiming to produce net energy from nuclear fusion, has started put a spring in the Badger’s step. Why? Because it’s an international joint experiment that will ultimately benefit everyone on the planet, and also because it has the support and cooperation of world powers who, in the wider sphere of global politics, often spend more time antagonising each other.  Perhaps naively, the Badger feels ITER provides a twinkle of light in the current sea of sour relationships amongst the world’s largest powers.

ITER will move us closer to the ultimate goal of large-scale carbon-free energy. It also represents a ‘moment’ for the Badger who has had a long-standing interest in the science, engineering, materials, and information technology aspects of workable fusion reactors. It’s a massive ‘Build & Systems Integration’ project and the software system that makes it function is just as critical as everything else in its construction. But ITER is also something else; it’s yet another illustration that 2020 is heralding a decade of enormous real change in what constitutes ‘normal’ in life across the world.  The ‘normal’ of six months ago has disappeared and a new ‘normal’ is evolving fast.   Change is very much in the air. Just ask those you bump into in the local supermarket and you’ll find they feel it too.

SpaceX’s recent success, missions to Mars, satellite networks,  health and wearable technologies, video technology for consultations with health professionals, battery and hydrogen powered vehicles, 5G, robotics and artificial intelligence are all examples of an enormous wave of technological advancement that is rippling throughout the world with extra momentum in 2020.  Reliance on fossil fuel is declining. The COVID-19 pandemic has shown that life goes on and the environment benefits with less planes in the sky and vehicles on the roads, that high street retail has changed for ever, and that working remotely from the office is effective and productive for many people.

Bosses and workers alike are now questioning the need for expensive offices in city centres and the daily commute. Cities and their transportation infrastructure are accordingly likely to change over the next decade.  The world order is changing too, with the USA and China jockeying for position as top dog and the EU in decline. The election of the oldest president in US history in the next few months doesn’t look as if it will change anything. The world order is increasingly distrustful of each other and the United Nations is largely toothless.

Everything above shows transition to a new ‘normal’ is fully underway. ITER is just one of many indicators of this and the speed with which world change is happening. No one can predict the future, but the Badger is certain of one thing. The first fusion plasma in ITER, scheduled for December 2025, will happen before fully autonomous vehicles are in widespread use on UK roads!

Hydrogen, Helium, Lithium, Beryllium…

Did you know that the Periodic Table of Elements has existed since Mendeleev shaped it in the 1860’s?  The world has changed significantly since then, but the Periodic Table  is still a fundamental foundation for the world we live in. In the UK it is part of the national curriculum and so anyone who attends school should be aware of the Periodic Table’s existence. At least that is what the Badger thought…until this week.

The Badger was walking with a companion in the local park which has a beautiful lake. It’s a popular place with all age groups.  We stopped for a sandwich and a drink at a park bench overlooking the lovely lake with its many different species of ducks, geese, and waders. Nearby a group of about a dozen millennials, just about the age to be leaving College for University, were having a picnic, and discussing their aspirations, beliefs, and ambitions.  One was dominating conversation in the group and proclaiming they were going to be an environment and planet sustainability ‘activist’. They seemed to be very vocal and have strong views about what governments must do to fix the world’s problems.  What passion…and naivety…the Badger thought as he threw a few bits of crust to a friendly mallard. (I know. Bread is junk food for ducks, but this mallard was clearly hungry).

The youngster droned on and on, and even the Badger’s walking companion commented that they liked the sound of their own voice too much for their own good.  And then a young lad in the group piped up with a killer question. ‘Do you know what the Periodic Table is?’, he asked. ‘No, and I don’t need to’, was the swift response. The young lad just said ‘The Periodic Table captures all the elements that make up our world. How can you be an environment or planet activist if you don’t know its elements?’

The orator shut up. The Badger almost clapped. The young lad asking the question will go far!  But isn’t it a bit worrying that someone can go through an education system, aspiring to be a green activist, and not know something about the Periodic Table?  If you want to be a young ‘green’ activist – and there’s nothing wrong with that – then surely you cannot say ‘I don’t need to know’ about the Periodic Table of elements that are at the heart of  the gadgets we use and all life on the planet?

Anyone aspiring to be any kind of green activist should needs an awareness of the Periodic Table to be credible.  In fact, perhaps we should all remind ourselves of the elements (and their scarcity) that underpin everything on the planet by refreshing our knowledge of the Periodic Table. You can find it on the Royal Society of Chemistry’s site here.  

 

The most powerful people in the world are not who you think…

With coffee in hand, laptop on the knee, thunder overhead, and ‘what is wrong with people’ news on the radio, the Badger sat in his conservatory watching rain pummel the garden flowers and had a thoughtful moment. As the petals of a large peony disintegrated in the rain, one thing came to the fore in the Badger’s mind – that the world is in the grip of non-biological pandemics, not just the biological COVID-19 one!

There’s a pandemic of misinformation, disinformation and distortion, an escalating pandemic of disrespect for law and order, and a pandemic of the ‘human stupidity’ virus – a virus which appears to spread much faster than even COVID-19! Rational evidence for all this is easy to find. For example, this week  UK House of Lords peers led by Lord Puttenham issued a report demanding legislation because misinformation, disinformation and distortion is threatening lives and democracy,  the press is full of examples of unnecessary thuggery,  and Bournemouth beach illustrated just how quickly the ‘human stupidity’ virus has taken hold.  It seems to be similar in other countries too! On a more positive note, however, there is also a pandemic of appreciation that if human behaviour doesn’t change then our planet will be unsustainable, and we will be responsible for our own extinction.

The Badger sipped his coffee, watched a Blackbird tug at a worm in the lawn, and pondered on whether the most powerful people in the world are capable of addressing our problems. But who are the most powerful people in the world? A quick scan down the list here – where power is about control over resources to drive the world in a particular direction – doesn’t inspire confidence. The Badger found himself thinking laterally and deciding that these aren’t the most powerful people in the world! So, who are? The answer is real scientists and engineers, most of whom are not and never will be household names.

Chris Packham’s stirring and inspiring speech on why Alan Turing is the Greatest Person of the 20th Century, makes the point that scientists, not high-profile politicians, corporate leaders, media stars, musicians, sportsmen, or celebrities of any kind, are the only hope for the future.  The Badger agrees.  With deference to the last section of Chris’s speech, just pick up your phone, stare at it, and know that it only exists because of scientists and engineers.  If you are a youngster considering education choices, marvel at the device in your hand and know that if you study STEM subjects then you will become one of the most powerful people in the world. You will also be our hope for the future.

Where have all the STEM-educated news correspondents gone?

The BBC’s Director-General recently said ‘People have turned to the BBC in their droves in recent weeks’, especially the young. Hardly surprising when people are locked down at home and the corporation, funded by mandatory TV Licence fee, broadcasts diverse radio and television programmes that are also accessible on-demand via iPlayer or Sounds.

The Badger’s consumption of BBC material throughout this pandemic has actually reduced, seemingly going against the tide. Yesterday the Badger and his wife debated why this was the case and concluded that the reduction boils down to consuming much fewer BBC News and current affairs programmes. Rather than consume an entire BBC News programme, the Badger now absorbs just the opening headlines and that’s it! Part of the reason, as the Badger’s wife wryly pointed out, is that hearing someone interviewed on Radio 4’s Today radio programme at 7:00am, and then hearing the exact same item repeated with video on the lunchtime, early and late evening TV news programmes is not news by midday, just time filler! Another part of the reason is that it’s become quite entertaining to sample many different sources of ‘impartial’ news to decide which you believe is balanced, fake, misinformation, or political or commercial propaganda!

The Badger’s found BBC News coverage throughout this pandemic frustrating, and the approach of well-known journalists – from the BBC and elsewhere – at the televised daily No 10 pandemic briefings predictable and an amusing illustration of well-known human behaviour. Their fixation on berating scientific advisors and politicians for any perceived difficulty in an unprecedented national crisis and reluctance to properly acknowledge and encourage the many magnificent things that everyone has achieved is a wonderful example of the psychological phenomenon of negativity bias! Over the Summer, Times Radio is arriving on the scene to compete with Radio 4’s Today programme using a different style and feel. It will be interesting to see if this manages to avoid the same trap.

But something else has also contributed to the Badger’s reduced consumption of BBC News. It came to the fore when the wife asked, ‘What is a PPE degree?’ PPE is Philosophy, Politics and Economics, and most news journalists – including Health, Science, and Technology correspondents – have this, History, Journalism, Medieval Language, or English degrees rather than degrees in STEM subjects. STEM not only underpins our lives, but also our salvation from pandemic apocalypse, and yet mainstream news journalism is devoid of visible STEM talent, instinct, or psyche. The Badger sees this lack of educational diversity as a problem and a factor in his reducing news consumption.

So ‘Where have all the STEM-educated news correspondents gone?’ Nowhere. They weren’t there in the first place. But they should be. STEM educated people are under-represented and just as capable as those with other backgrounds. Indeed, in today’s world when every politician, leader, and commentator can interact directly with the public using readily available digital tools it can’t be long before the younger generation force this imbalance to change.

From OneWeb to Hydrogen Fuel Cells…

When OneWeb, a company aiming to bring connectivity to everyone everywhere using an enormous constellation of Low-Earth Orbiting satellites, announced it was filing for bankruptcy the Badger was unsurprised. Why? Because it always felt that the business case was somewhat dubious. Investors now seem to have decided likewise and have ‘drawn stumps’ – to use a cricket metaphor. Others closer to the space industry than the Badger also seem unsurprised by what’s happened – see here for example. It’s sad, of course for everyone working for OneWeb, but in the end this a simple reminder that viable technology isn’t a guarantee of business success. Business is about the juxtaposition of risk and commercial gain, and stakeholders rarely flinch from hard business decisions when the two are out of kilter.

OneWeb cited market and financial turbulence related to the COVID-19 as a factor in failing to attract further funding. With this in his mind, the Badger found himself musing on the combination of technology and business in the post-pandemic world while he walked down the middle of an empty road getting exercise in line with the UK pandemic guidance. The complete absence of traffic on the normally hectic road plus a news item about an advance in materials significant for hydrogen fuel cells, triggered thoughts about whether we will see changes in investment priorities when it comes to vehicular technology after the pandemic is over.

Why would there be, you may ask? Because if you holistically look at, for example, the Royal Society’s briefing on options for producing low-carbon hydrogen at scale, real world experience of using electric and hydrogen fuelled vehicles (e.g. see here), and the relatively slow take up of electric vehicles powered by batteries, then you realise this kind of ‘material’ breakthrough should create an even more enticing investment and business opportunity for vehicle manufacturers and fossil fuel companies (who produce hydrogen) alike. The Badger, whose early roots were in materials technology, senses that the real scientific and engineering advances that could flow from the news item will significantly boost the business case for adopting hydrogen fuel cells for transportation and, accordingly, we will see business investment in this arena rise significantly in the coming years.

By the time the Badger had finished walking down the middle of the road, he had decided that everyone is more likely to be driving cars powered by a hydrogen fuel cell by the end of the decade than to have embraced driverless cars on public roads. (Tomorrow’s exercise might, of course, modify this conclusion!) As OneWeb shows, technology doesn’t mean business success, but any company that has bet the farm on the dominance of battery-powered vehicles should watch out, because hydrogen fuel cells are definitely coming along to eat your lunch…