Category: technology

Science Sunday 7 August 2022

Science Sunday 7 August 2022

I had a science Sunday; the day revolved around experiencing and learning about science. My friend Claudia inspired us to have a wonderful day. A week ago, she suggested that we might visit The Infinite, a virtual reality (VR) experience centered on life in space. Users experience the project via Oculus VR goggles. I talked with my wife, Mary Ellen, and we thought it would make for a good outing. We met with our friends Claudia and Pat on a sunny morning and journeyed to Tacoma.

On the drive down to Tacoma, we started with a science appetizer. We listened to part of Claudia’s audiobook: “An Immense World: How Animal Senses Reveal the Hidden Realms Around Us” by Ed Yong. The section we listened to was about dogs’ sense of smell, the primary sense for dogs. Since I spend a fair amount of time with my granddog Juniper, it was eye-opening to learn how she views the world. I hadn’t realized that dogs have a separate pathway for air to smell and air to breathe. Different paths let a dog sniff and observe scent many times a second. It was a sound learning snippet on our drive.

When we arrived, we decided we all needed a snack. Pat knew his donuts and remembered a great donut shop, The Original Donut House. After consulting with Google and Siri, we decided the Donut House was defunct. Luckily, Le Duc Donuts was nearby. I fortified myself with a cake donut with coconut sprinkles and green tea.

We went on to The Infinite, a traveling exhibit hosted in the Tacoma Armory. It was interesting to have a cutting-edge technology exhibit hosted in a building constructed in 1908. We went through a brief introduction and then entered an area where we learned how to get the most out of our Oculus VR sets. I found that I needed to have my glasses on to see effectively. The VR set allowed my glasses to fit in, it was slightly uncomfortable, but I adapted quickly.

We got a minute to adjust to the VR set. In our view, our group of four appeared as gold avatars, other visitors as blue avatars, and exhibit staff as green avatars. White dots delineated the floor below us. I found I walked cautiously. We entered the exhibit, and I was awestruck; I was floating in orbit around the Earth with the heavens above. Wow.

In a minute, the outline of the International Space Station (ISS) appeared. I slowly walked towards it and entered.

The station pictured from the SpaceX Crew Dragon, 2021 Source: NASA

Floating around us were orbs; I touched my first orb. The astronaut explained what she was doing in a science experiment on the ISS. I went on to another orb and another. A favorite was the astronaut and cosmonauts preparing and eating appetizers; I was next to the table with them. In another experience, an astronaut was floating toward me. I could look up into another node of the station. I was well above the floor when I looked down. I floated gravity free on orbit around Earth.

Four chapters of seven minutes divide the Infinite experience: Adaptation, Progress, Unity, and Expansion. In between each chapter is a transition of a few minutes. You leave the confines of the station and float above the Earth. There’s some ethereal music coming in via your headphones. The ISS appears in front of you, and you enter the next chapter. I saw the Earth from the cupola, a domed viewing port added to let astronauts see the Earth through large viewing windows. I also floated outside the station; nearby, a SpaceX Crew Dragon capsule was docked, and the solar panels towered above me; what a view.

Most memorable were the crew interactions, the human element, and emotion. There was joy when a crew floated in; sadness when a crew departed. The station crews are “space people,” a term I learned from MIT researcher Ariel Ekblaw. [1]

Near the end, I had something upsetting happen. A message flashed that said a staff member wanted to talk with me. We connected after I lifted my headset. My VR set battery was 16%; I needed to change headsets. I struggled awkwardly to get the headset off; the headset captured my glasses. With my headset off, I was catapulted back to reality. There were a bunch of people standing in a warehouse. It was disconcerting. I asked to leave; I felt I would not reengage with the VR experience. The staff member guided me to an exit. I did talk with a manager and explained my concern; getting a partially charged headset that did not compute to me.

I think we just visited a section of the Metaverse; the experience was terrific despite the glitch. The exhibit is complex; taking it all in on a 35-minute visit is impossible. The good news is that I will get to come back and do the show again. In preparation for my next time, I bought a book about the exhibit: The Infinite, by Phoebe Greenberg and nine co-authors.

After our time in virtual reality, we needed lunch. We picked the Red Elm cafe in the Hilltop neighborhood of Tacoma. It was some great food; I had a vegan breakfast waffle with hashbrowns and a soy latte. Mary Ellen enjoyed a chicken avocado sandwich with a cold latte. The food was delicious, and the staff was friendly and attentive. We met Henry; he teaches crochet lessons. Some of his knitted art was on the wall of the cafe.

On our way home, Claudia gave us another recommendation – to see the documentary AlphaGo. I knew the general story about a Google DeepMind team building an artificial intelligence (AI) program that defeated the world’s best Go player. We started the documentary; I thought we might spend 15 minutes viewing this 90-minute film. Wrong. The film captivated us. I was intrigued by the development of neural networks; I had colleagues who worked in this field in the early 1990s. The struggles of Fan Hui and Lee Sedol against the AlphaGo program was mesmerizing. Sedol learned new insights from AlphaGo; perhaps humans and AIs will team up to reach new levels of learning in the game of Go.

Well, that’s a summary of science Sunday. I woke up Monday morning with the thought of capturing a wonderful day with Mary Ellen, Claudia, and Pat. I found it took me longer than I thought to capture my thoughts in writing; about 2.5 hours from start to finish.

My writing was aided and abetted by visits from Gus the cat, who decided I needed to take an occasional break.

[1] Ariel Ekblaw: Space Colonization and Self-Assembling Space Megastructures | Lex Fridman Podcast #271 One of my favorite podcasts; I always learn something when Lex interviews people.

Hydrogen Part 1 Today

Bill Gates wrote an insightful new blog post: “To cut emissions, use this Swiss Army Knife.” [1] He explains why hydrogen is essential now, how we might produce it without carbon dioxide, and why it may be more critical in our future. It’s worthwhile reading. My friend Christopher recently talked to me about future uses of hydrogen. Christopher and Bill Gates are both on to a good idea; they triggered me to start thinking more about hydrogen.

When I think about hydrogen, three things spring to mind: Lots of energy, easily made from water and electricity, and very dangerous. These were lessons I learned more than fifty years ago.

The energy available from hydrogen propelled the Apollo moon program. The Saturn V second and third-stage rockets used liquid hydrogen fuel; that was a lot of liquid hydrogen! I found that hydrogen was easy to make in my high school chemistry lab using electrolysis. The collected hydrogen would burn with a bit of pop.

I had seen proof of the dangers of hydrogen. A friend owned a melted piece of structural aluminum from the Hindenburg; this hydrogen-filled dirigible had burned while mooring in 1937. A more memorable use: the hydrogen-oxygen fuel cells on Apollo 13. The explosion of one of these fuel cells almost killed the crew and led to a remarkable space rescue effort. 

After reading Bill’s article and talking with my friend about the future of hydrogen, I decided it was time to upgrade my knowledge of hydrogen. I decided upon a four-part plan: How do we make hydrogen today? What are the current applications of hydrogen? How might we use hydrogen in the future? Finally, how would we produce hydrogen in the future? I divided this blog into two. The first part covers hydrogen production and application today; the second will address the future. My goal was to teach myself a bit more about hydrogen, and hopefully, it will interest readers.

So, how do we make industrial quantities of hydrogen today? I found an explanation from the Department of Energy of one method of making hydrogen. [2] Hydrogen is primarily made via a Steam-Methane Reforming reaction (SMR). Methane gas reacts with steam and heat to produce hydrogen and carbon monoxide:
CH4 + H2O (+ heat) → CO + 3H2
The remaining carbon monoxide reacts with steam in the Water-gas Shift (WGS) reaction. It produces more hydrogen and carbon dioxide:
CO + H2O → CO2 + H2 (+ heat)

Another method used to produce hydrogen is coal gasification. [3] In this process, oxygen combusts carbon in coal to produce carbon dioxide:
C + O2 → CO2 ( + heat)
The CO2 and heat react (gasification) to produce carbon monoxide:
C + CO2 (+ heat) → 2CO
The Water-gas Shift (WGS) reaction produces hydrogen and carbon dioxide:
CO + H2O → CO2 + H2 (+ heat)

In 2020, the world produced 70 million tons of hydrogen. According to the US Department of Energy, 76% of global hydrogen comes from the Steam-methane reforming reaction, 22% more from coal gasification, and 2% from electrolysis. [4]

Why change these processes? Bill Gates said that industrial hydrogen manufacture produces 1.6% of CO2 emissions. The  International Energy Agency (IEA) estimated that hydrogen generation would generate about 900 million tons of carbon dioxide in 2020. [5] Hydrogen produced from uncontrolled fossil fuels is referred to as “grey” hydrogen, as defined by researchers at Columbia University. [6]

I was surprised that petroleum refining is today’s most important use of hydrogen. The hydro-desulfurization reaction lowers the sulfur content of fossil fuels, thus using more than half the world’s hydrogen. The manufacture of ammonium nitrate fertilizer via the Haber process uses lots of hydrogen. Metal refining, chemicals  (acid, methanol, hydrogen peroxide), and hydrogenated oil food production also use hydrogen. [7]


[1] Gates, Bill. THE OTHER HYDRO POWER: To cut emissions, use this Swiss Army Knife. GatesNotes The Blog of Bill Gates, 21 June 2022.  Accessed 22 June 2022.

[2] US Department of Energy.  Hydrogen Production: Natural Gas Reforming. Accessed 22 June 2022. 

[3] Allen, Jessica. Explainer: how do we make hydrogen from coal, and is it really a clean fuel?, The Conversation website, 13 April 2018.  Accessed 25 June 2022.  

[4] US Department of Energy. Hydrogen Strategy, July, 2020. Accessed 22 June 2022.

[5] Bermudez, Jose M.; Hannula, Ikulla et. al. Hydrogen – More efforts needed. International Energy Agency, November, 2021. Accessed 25 June 2022. 

[6] Ochu, Emeka; Braverman, Sarah; Smith, Griffin; and Friedman, Julio. Hydrogen Fact Sheet: Production of Low-Carbon Hydrogen. Columbia University,  17 June 2021. Accessed 22 June 2022.

[7] Brown, Andy. Uses of Hydrogen in Industry. The Chemical Engineer, 16 July 2019. Accessed 25 June 2022. 

Book Review Army of None: by Paul Scharre

Book Review Army of None: Autonomous Weapons and the Future of War by Paul Scharre (reviewed 8 July 2019)

We are witnessing the evolution of autonomous technologies in our world. As in much of technological evolution, military needs drive much of this development. Peter Scharre has done a remarkable job to explain autonomous technologies and how military establishment embrace autonomy: past, present and future. A critical question: “Would a robot know when it is lawful to kill, but wrong?”

Let me jump to Scharre’s conclusion first: “Machines can do many things, but they cannot create meaning. They cannot answer these questions for us. Machines cannot tell us what we value, what choices we should make. The world we are creating is one that will have intelligent machines in it, but it is not for them. It is a world for us.” The author has done a remarkable job to explain what an autonomous world might look like.

Scharre spends considerable time to define and explain autonomy, here’s a cogent summary:

  • “Autonomy encompasses three distinct concepts: the type of task the machine is performing; the relationship of the human to the machine when performing that task; and the sophistication of the machine’s decision-making when performing the task. This means there are three different dimensions of autonomy. These dimensions are independent, and a machine can be “more autonomous” by increasing the amount of autonomy along any of these spectrums.”

These two quotes summarize some concerns about make autonomous systems fail-safe. (Spoiler alert: it can’t be done…)

  • “Failures may be unlikely, but over a long enough timeline they are inevitable. Engineers refer to these incidents as “normal accidents” because their occurrence is inevitable, even normal, in complex systems. “Why would autonomous systems be any different?” Borrie asked. The textbook example of a normal accident is the Three Mile Island nuclear power plant meltdown in 1979.”
  • “In 2017, a group of scientific experts called JASON tasked with studying the implications of AI for the Defense Department came to a similar conclusion. After an exhaustive analysis of the current state of the art in AI, they concluded: [T]he sheer magnitude, millions or billions of parameters (i.e. weights/biases/etc.), which are learned as part of the training of the net . . . makes it impossible to really understand exactly how the network does what it does. Thus the response of the network to all possible inputs is unknowable.”

Here are several passages capturing the future of autnomy. I’m trying to summarize a lot of the author’s work into just a few quotes:

  • “Artificial general intelligence (AGI) is a hypothetical future AI that would exhibit human-level intelligence across the full range of cognitive tasks. AGI could be applied to solving humanity’s toughest problems, including those that involve nuance, ambiguity, and uncertainty.”
  • ““intelligence explosion.” The concept was first outlined by I. J. Good in 1964: Let an ultraintelligent machine be defined as a machine that can far surpass all the intellectual activities of any man however clever. Since the design of machines is one of these intellectual activities, an ultraintelligent machine could design even better machines; there would then unquestionably be an “intelligence explosion,” and the intelligence of man would be left far behind. Thus the first ultraintelligent machine is the last invention that man need ever make, provided that the machine is docile enough to tell us how to keep it under control.” (This is also known as the Technological Singularity)
  • “Hybrid human-machine cognitive systems, often called “centaur warfighters” after the classic Greek myth of the half-human, half-horse creature, can leverage the precision and reliability of automation without sacrificing the robustness and flexibility of human intelligence.”

In summary, “Army of None” is well worth reading to gain an understanding of how autonomous technologies impact our world, now and in the future.

Brewbooks – Ramblings of John Brew

Brewbooks – Ramblings of John Brew

My goal is to learn about the world my entire life. “Each one of us adds a little to our understanding of Nature, and from all the facts assembled arises a certain grandeur.” – Aristotle as quoted by Bradford Washburn.

My tendency is to analyze whatever I come across.  My guess is I over quantify the world; probably a result of over forty years as an engineer.

This site focuses on capturing what I learn. My interests include

  • Books – mainly nonfiction
  • Fitness: hiking, running, and walking. How to maintain fitness as we age
  • History and Politics
  • Investing and Economic history
  • Nature: Learning about the flora, fauna, and geology wherever I travel
  • Religion and Philosophy
  • Science: biology, botany, neuroscience, physics
  • Technology: electronics, neural engineering
  • Travel – Learning from around the world

Well, that’s a little about me. Hope to see you on a hike or walk.