A day in my life

Siri Carpenter interviewed me for The Open Notebook, a fantastic resource for journalists—professional and aspiring—that helps lift the veil on the craft. Head on over if you’re curious about what I do during a typical day.

New life for the artificial leaf?

Three years ago, the world was wowed by the advances in building artificial leaves—essentially solar cells that convert water and sunlight into energy. Reality fell short of the promise, but, as Phil McKenna reports for Ensia, there may be new hope for the promise. 

What happened to Google’s renewable energy moonshot?

Ross Koningstein and David Fork, two Google engineers, writing at IEEE Spectrum:

Google’s boldest energy move was an effort known as RE<C, which aimed to develop renewable energy sources that would generate electricity more cheaply than coal-fired power plants do. The company announced that Google would help promising technologies mature by investing in start-ups and conducting its own internal R&D. Its aspirational goal: to produce a gigawatt of renewable power more cheaply than a coal-fired plant could, and to achieve this in years, not decades.

Unfortunately, not every Google moon shot leaves Earth orbit. In 2011, the company decided that RE<C was not on track to meet its target and shut down the initiative. The two of us, who worked as engineers on the internal RE<C projects, were then forced to reexamine our assumptions.

At the start of RE<C, we had shared the attitude of many stalwart environmentalists: We felt that with steady improvements to today’s renewable energy technologies, our society could stave off catastrophic climate change. We now know that to be a false hope—but that doesn’t mean the planet is doomed.

Why Doesn’t Everyone Believe Humans Are Causing Climate Change?

Brad Balukjian, reporting for NOVA Next:

Only 40% of Americans attribute global warming to human activity, according to a recent Pew Research Center poll. This, despite decades of scientific evidence and the fact that Americans generally trust climate scientists.

That apparent cognitive dissonance has vexed two scientists in particular: Michael Ranney, a professor of education at the University of California, Berkeley, and Dan Kahan, a professor of law at Yale University. According to both, we haven’t been asking the right questions. But they disagree on what, exactly, those questions should be. If one or both of them are right, the shift in tone could transform our society’s debate over climate change.

China’s Island Factory

China is in the midst of a land boom. Not of the real estate kind, but the ocean-dredging, reef-filling, artificial island kind. It’s all part of the country’s push to establish a claim to vast portions of the South China Sea, and the BBC has a fantastically-detailed multimedia piece on the island building efforts.

The city is an ecosystem, pipes and all

Courtney Humphries, reporting for the Boston Globe:

As researchers delve into this world, they’re uncovering some surprises—like the unusual nitrogen cycles caused by homeowners raking up leaves in the fall, or the fast-growing urban trees. (BU ecologist Lucy Hutyra isn’t sure this is such a good thing: “Trees may be growing faster, but they could be dying faster,” she points out.) They are also, gingerly, suggesting that this gives us a new way to think about the future of cities. Living systems don’t just exist: They evolve, responding to changes in the rules that govern their existence. And as we try to design more sustainable cities for the future, understanding the full picture of urban ecosystems just might give us a smarter way to shape them.

While the study of urban ecology is old hat to regular PSM readers, Humphries’s piece is a great overview of the field, covering some genuinely interesting research.

Where Stuff Went Wrong for Missing Planes

My colleague Allison Eck and I assembled a map of the presumed locations of the accidents that led to the disappearance of the 28 passenger planes that have vanished since 1948.

Venice of the East Coast?

Casey Ross, reporting for the Boston Globe:

A report scheduled to be released Tuesday about preparing Boston for climate change suggests that building canals through the Back Bay neighborhood would help it withstand water levels that could rise as much as 7 feet by 2100. Some roads and public alleys, such as Clarendon Street, could be turned into narrow waterways, the report suggests, allowing the neighborhood to absorb the rising sea with clever engineering projects that double as public amenities.

The Musk Family Plan for Transforming the World’s Energy

Christopher Mims, writing at the Wall Street Journal about cousins Elon Musk, CEO of Tesla, and Lyndon Rive, CEO of SolarCity:

Mr. Musk’s Tesla makes cars, but it also—in the not too distant future—will make batteries. Lots of them. Tesla is building a $5 billion “gigafactory” in Nevada for batteries. A factory so large that it will, says Mr. Musk, be larger than the whole of Earth’s current capacity for manufacturing lithium-ion batteries. Most such batteries currently go into phones, tablets, laptops and other mobile devices.

At the conference Wednesday, Mr. Musk disclosed that a portion of the gigafactory’s capacity will be set aside for building “grid-scale storage.”

In other words, Tesla is going to continue its tradition of manufacturing battery packs for SolarCity, only on a much grander scale.

World population could hit 11 billion

After years of everyone growing comfortable with a global population of 9.5 billion, a new study claims we’ll fly right past that. Damian Carrington, reporting for the Guardian:

The work overturns 20 years of consensus that global population, and the stresses it brings, will peak by 2050 at about 9bn people. “The previous projections said this problem was going to go away so it took the focus off the population issue,” said Prof Adrian Raftery, at the University of Washington, who led the international research team. “There is now a strong argument that population should return to the top of the international agenda. Population is the driver of just about everything else and rapid population growth can exacerbate all kinds of challenges.” Lack of healthcare, poverty, pollution and rising unrest and crime are all problems linked to booming populations, he said.

So what changed? Our assumptions about the rate of population growth in Africa. Fertility rates there fell in the 1980s, but the trend hasn’t continued as many expected. And, more darkly, HIV/AIDS hasn’t claimed as many lives there as once projected. Combined, sub-Saharan Africa will hit 5 billion, according to this new study.

But the situation could change dramatically if education and access to contraceptives improves. (Women who attain higher levels of education tend to have fewer children; contraceptives, well, the effect is obvious.) If couples had on average 0.5 fewer children, the world population could drop to 6 billion, a number last seen in 1999. But 0.5 more per couple and it could spike to over 16 billion.

At least 150 companies prep for carbon prices

Wendy Koch, reporting for USA Today:

At least 150 major companies worldwide — including ExxonMobil, Google, Microsoft and 26 others in the United States — are already making business plans that assume they will be taxed on their carbon pollution, a report out today says.

It seems like national governments will be the last ones to act.

Climate change fixes may be free—or better

Justin Gillis, reporting for the New York Times:

A global commission will announce its finding on Tuesday that an ambitious series of measures to limit emissions would cost $4 trillion or so over the next 15 years, an increase of roughly 5 percent over the amount that would likely be spent anyway on new power plants, transit systems and other infrastructure.

When the secondary benefits of greener policies — like lower fuel costs, fewer premature deaths from air pollution and reduced medical bills — are taken into account, the changes might wind up saving money, according to the findings of the group, the Global Commission on the Economy and Climate.

Where the carbon dioxide comes from

We know approximately where most of the CO2 in the atmosphere comes from—developed and more advanced developing nations. But beyond that, things have been less certain. Now, though, NASA, NOAA, and a collection of universities have developed a map using satellite data that more precisely pinpoints where emissions originate.


Source: ASU

Summer vacation is an urban creation

Sam Weber and Saskia De Melker, reporting for PBS Newshour:

“The whole idea of an agrarian calendar makes it sound like it was an unthinking decision but the current school year was really a conscious creation,” said Gold, who is the author of “School’s In: The History of Summer Education in American Public Schools.”

Urban schools had a very different school schedule, but also included summer. School was essentially open year round, but was not mandatory, and children came when they could. In 1842, New York City schools were open 248 days a year, dramatically more than the 180 or so that they are open today.

In the days before air conditioning, schools and entire cities could be sweltering places during the hot summer months. Wealthy and eventually middle-class urbanites also usually made plans to flee the city’s heat, making those months the logical time in cities to suspend school.

“It was the year 2183…”

Everyone’s favorite infographic climbed the ranks of TIL over at Reddit a couple of weeks ago, and redditor FuturePrimitive penned this alternative future based on it:

It was the year 2183. Most of the planet had become uninhabitable. Since the mid 21st century, the world’s populations gradually became refugees of severe climate change, environmental collapse, unprecedented natural disasters, subsequent mass unrest/warfare, and generally intolerable levels of pollution. Only one corner of planet Earth remained remotely hospitable… a small nation-state, formed in the year 2051 after seceding from what was formerly the United States of America; a nation called TEXAS.

Over previous decades, humanity trickled, and then flooded, into Texas during mass migrations. First establishing vast, hundred mile stretches of shanty towns, now burgeoning into what is known as the TEXAS ULTRALOPOLIS: mankind’s last oasis of life in a shrinking puddle that is evaporating within the literal and figurative desert of centuries civilization’s consequences…


Shinkansen turns 50

Missed this one from Alan Flippen at the New York Times:

Fifty years ago this week, Japan conducted the first full-length test run of the Shinkansen, or what became known in English as the bullet train. A 12-car train ran from Tokyo to Osaka and back at an average speed of just over 80 miles per hour and a peak speed of 135 m.p.h. (217 kilometers per hour).

Even then, it hit speeds that would qualify today as high-speed rail.

How much has San Francisco changed? I’ll let you know


Ten years ago this month, I packed my things, said goodbye to my good friends, and started my trip halfway across the country to San Francisco. When I arrived, I found a city robed in fog and suffused by a cool so damp that only a native San Franciscan would recognize it as summer. I had left Minnesota with some hesitation, and the weather I found there certainly wasn’t reinforcing my confidence my decision.

Over the next several months, the weather didn’t change much, but my opinion did. Slowly, the city revealed itself. I discovered a city that, once confident, suddenly it wasn’t so sure of itself. I could tell that the dot-com boom was still a raw memory. Software engineers still prowled the city, but probably with less confidence than a few years previous and almost certainly with less swagger than today. As a grad student, money was tight for me, but the city in 2004 was still accessible. I ate out on weekends (frugally), frequented bars (that served cheap beer), and hosted barbecues by firing up our stove’s broiler and throwing open the kitchen window (outdoor space was a luxury I couldn’t afford.)

I lasted ten months in San Francisco before the weight of a 45-minute commute and the draw of grad-school friends finally coaxed me across the Bay to Berkeley. June 2005 was the last time I spent any significant amount of time in the city. Sure, I would return to bars with my friends or spend a few hours at a concert in Golden Gate Park or wander the Haight or North Beach like a good little tourist. But usually I spent just long enough to remind myself why I had moved away—everything was so expensive and there were so many people.

Now, having hopscotched my way across the continent, I’m heading back. Just for a week, but it will be more time than I have spent there in nine years. I’ve certainly changed—I have a job, for one, and I’ve now lived in dense cities for over a decade. From what I’ve been hearing, San Francisco has changed, too. The money that was thrown around before—that turned me off before—has only multiplied. Neighborhoods have gentrified, private buses have proliferated, and old-timers have chafed at the new round of changes. These things have all been well documented in everything from Boom to Gawker to the New Yorker.

But I’m curious to see for myself. I’m wondering if, as a visitor, San Francisco’s transformation will be apparent. Is it superficial enough to pick up on in just one week? Has ten years been long enough to throw the city’s changes into relief? Or can they really only be understood with a deeper understanding of the place, the sort that requires years to acquire?

My days will be packed with reporting fresh stories for NOVA Next, but my nights will be spent catching up with old friends, revisiting favorite haunts, and getting to know parts of the city I hadn’t known that well. I’ll be snapping photos, taking notes, keeping my eyes open, and reporting back. Think of it as an amateur ethnography, sketched quickly and by an interested observer. It won’t be scientific by any means, but I’ll let you know what I find.

Photo by Marc Dalmuder

Related posts:

Ghosts of geography

Keep your eyes to yourself

Interview: Jon Christensen on California’s cities

Low testosterone could be what made us civilized humans

Rachel Feltman, writing for the Washington Post:

According to a study published in Current Anthropology, our transition into modern civilization might have coincided with our species’ drop in testosterone.

The hormone, associated with both biologically male characteristics and aggression, makes skulls grow those heavy brows we associate with our evolutionary ancestors. Lead author Robert Cieri, a graduate student of biology at the University of Utah, said in a news release that a study of 1,400 modern and ancient skulls provided insight into how these changes might have overlapped with cultural shifts.