Monday, June 7, 2010

Theory, Experiment, and Our n00bie President

Everybody needs to be able to make at least one big mistake.  One of my Spiritual Advisors, a dude named Jesus, says people should be able to make an infinite number of mistakes, of any size, and still be forgiven.  I have to be honest - granting that one is a pretty tough act for me.  But I'll try.  So I'm going to start with the President, who I will admit voting for.  And who, I will admit, may not get my vote again.  Nevertheless, I have FAITH and HOPE that he can learn from his mistakes.  Hopefully, he won't be making another one like the BP oil spill again.

One of the problems with this President is that he is a very smart guy.  Not everybody believes it.  Some people, in a backhandedly racist way, will tell you that Barack Obama is really just Bill Ayers.  Well, he's not.  Admittedly, Obama does have a very smart entourage who - quite literally - put words in his mouth.  But it's just as as much of a mistake to believe that EVERY word came from somebody else, as it is to believe that they ALL come from Barack Obama.  The crew knows how to speak "Obama" - not vice versa.  And they do it well.  In any case, the President is quite smart.  And he makes the classic mistakes of smart-guy Democrat presidents.

Obama likes to do his homework.  That's why he didn't cut and run in Afghanistan.  That's good.  It means he doesn't knee-jerk those big, long-term, trillion-dollar decisions.  But the problem with doing your homework, like a good Boy Scout, is that if you're not a real Boy Scout, then you don't realize that homework isn't the only thing Boy Scouts do.  When the sirens go off, the real Boy Scout doesn't keep doing his homework.  He doesn't try to figure out how to seed the clouds and make it rain.  He drops his homework like a goddamn hot potato and runs for the fire extinguisher.

And THAT is what Obama should have done.

Scientists like to let you think that they can solve all your problems.  Well, given an infinite amount of time, they - we - whatever - probably can.  In theory.  The trouble is, theory is NOT king.  Experiment is.  And, as the brilliant theoretician Richard Feynman liked to say, more or less, the test of truth is experiment.  Feynman was a great theoretician because he knew the limits of theory.  He knew that experiment is what really counts, and he pounded that message home whenever he could.

Whenever you try something you never tried before, what you are doing is controlled by theory.  That is how you VALIDATE theory.  It's risky.  But when you try something that has already been tried before - and worked - you are merely confirming an outcome that you can predict easily.  You have experiment on your side.  And experiment is king.  Hail to the king, baby.

We have experimental data on the stopping of runaway oil wells.  Lots and lots of data.  In fact, over a hundred years of data.  They've been stopped on land, and under the sea.  They've been stopped quickly, effectively, and with little environmental consequence.  And the data is crystal clear.

You blow the fuckers up.

It's simple, effective, and almost ALWAYS works.  And when it doesn't work, you just do it again.  And that's it.  It's over.  It's been done on land countless times with conventional explosives.  And it's been done at least 4 times with nuclear explosives, when people apparently didn't want to fuck around.


That's right - small nukes.  There is such a thing, and they are DAMN useful.  When you can't use multiple semi-truck-loads of chemical explosives, stacked up in a huge pyramid, you just use a small nuke.  It gives an explosion which is marginally bigger, and it's a whole lot easier to set up.

Why does blowing up a well work so well?  Simple.  The difficulty of drilling a well shows you just how problematic it is to create a reliable connection between the surface (on either land or seabed) and some place under thousands of feet of rock.  Getting that connection is very, very difficult.  And if there is just one little shift of the rock, somewhere along the way....  BAM.  No more connection.  It's not like breaking a straw - it's like breaking a thread, or a hollow fishing line.  If you don't care about saving the connection, it's very easy to fuck it up intentionally.  And explosives - of any kind - are a great way to fuck things up.  It has been tested, experimentally, over and over and over.  On oil wells, I mean.

Of course, redrilling an oil well is expensive.  Very, very expensive.  So don't think for a minute that there isn't a lot of incentive to try something risky.  To stall.  To delay.  To NOT do the one thing that was damn near guaranteed to shut down the spill.  Commercial concerns made it easy to say - essentially - save the money and screw the environment.

Obama could have shut this sucker off the old-fashioned way, with almost certain success, from the very beginning.  Whether he used a nuke or a bunker-buster, it would have been immaterial.  It would have worked, and it almost certainly would have worked the first time.  And, most ironically, it would have even worked politically.  But it takes the courage to do the right thing, in order to get the downhill slide that the right thing always offers in the end.

Imagine if Obama had called in the small nuke immediately.  Trust me - it would have worked.  Then what?

Well, he goes to press conference, crediting the Russians for bailing us out, since they told us what we had to do.  He credits the military for pulling it off.  He thanks BP for standing down and letting him take charge.  He GLORIES in how tough he has just been on big oil, who lost a ton of money, but - hey - better that than a spill.  Right?

He talks about how tough of a decision it was - to weigh the limited, quickly dissipating radiation against the far worse possibility of [fill in what is happening now].  He talks about the seriousness of this incident - a situation so bad that it made us use a nuke.  He immediately gets as much political capital against offshore drilling as he will get with the mega-spill - but without the damage to the gulf economy.

And, coincidentally, the schemers in China realize that they're up against a guy who will go to nukes when he has to do it, to save the people.  Which you'd damn well better hope is the case.

You see, when you are faced with a dangerous situation like this, you have to ask yourself one thing - does delaying make things better or worse?  Clearly, Obama's dithering did not pay off.  In a military standoff with both sides poised but staying sane - where the threat is something of a constant - delaying is likely to make things better as tensions ease.  But when you're up against a linearly escalating threat like this oil spill, you can't sit around and wait for a room full of eggheads to bail you out, 'cause it ain't gonna happen.  You identify the threat and you deal with it.  Using KNOWN methods that work.

There have been reasons floated for not using explosives, but those reasons are crap.  They are not only politically motivated - they are designed to perform CYA for Obama's first REALLY big blunder.  Well, screw that.  You can't learn from your mistakes unless you face them.  So let's dispatch those false reasons using EXPERIMENT.  We will use the simplest of thought experiments and the history of real experiments to show that those reasons are pure crap.

(1) If you use a nuke, it's environmentally unacceptable.

Sorry, the real experimental data says this is bullshit.  Remember - the Russians did this at least 4 times.  Which one of the 4 times created a greater ecological disaster than this oil spill?  Which one made the evening news?  Which one did you even hear about?  Which one was as bad as ANY nuclear test, which, BTW, used to be done by the HUNDREDS - a few miles from major cities like Las Vegas?

Exactly.  In terms of long-term or widely spread ecological damage, nukes just aren't that bad - and the modern ones are even less damaging than what the Russians probably used way back when.  Surprising, but not so surprising.  Just like nuclear power plants are cleaner than corresponding coal plants, a quickly dissipating nuke in water or deep earth ends up being a lot cleaner overall than a gulf full of oil.

And you don't even have to use a nuke anyway...

(2) Conventional explosives wouldn't work.

Sorry - they work on land, and you could almost certainly scale up the explosion if you needed to make it bigger underwater.   Plus, we have some modern conventional stuff that would most likely blow the doors off a nuke in terms of precision placement in 3 dimensions.

Still, if you're worried, why not try conventional first, and use the nuke immediately afterwards if that doesn't work?  Agreed, there might be some trickiness to a bomb underwater that we're not prepared for, but if you have the tried and true, experimentally validated mini-nuke method as a back up, what's the harm?

(3) Explosives might somehow "open up" the oil reservoir and make things worse.

Fear-mongering.  That's all this is.  It's propaganda of the highest order.  It's bad geology from the word go, designed to scare people who might question the administration's loopy reasoning.  No, children - the oil is not just waiting for us under a few yards of rock.  IT'S WAY THE  HELL DOWN THERE.  You will not be strip-mining this oil any time soon.  Thank goodness.

But the most important thing is the experimental data.  The idea that it "might" make things worse is not supported by the data.  Blowing up oil wells works.  That's what the data says.

So - what the hell is going on?  Why aren't they doing the obvious thing?  At first, I was thinking it was some kind of cynical ploy by Obama to milk this thing for all it's worth, in an effort to magnify the pain, and to once and for all end offshore oil drilling.  However, as I watch him squirm, it's pretty clear that he's not capable of such commie sickness.  He really wants this over.

BP, of course is hoping for a recovery somehow.  I question, however, whether Obama is giving them the option to blow the well.  If Obama is NOT giving BP the option to blow the well, then I hate to say this, folks, but BP walks off scot free in the end.  If blowing it up was kept off the table by Obama or his crew, then it is NO LONGER the fault of BP.

So what's the deal?

My only guess is one speculation that I read somewhere else - that Obama is simply incapable of ordering the nuke because of message conflict with all his big anti-nuke projects.  The idea is that Obama is SO COMMITTED to nuclear disarmament, and his various pet ideas associated with it, that his mind simply won't allow pushing a peaceful nuke option.

Obama may have Nobel Prize-winners at the table, but he has no Russian oil riggers.  As far as this branch of science is concerned, he has all theoreticians and no hardcore experimentalists.  He needs somebody pounding the table, saying "DO WHAT WORKS, DAMN IT!", and walking out of the meeting on the spot.  Somebody who might actually disagree with him.  ON NUKES.  Obama was smart enough to pick Clapper for DNI because, as Obama tells it, Clapper tells him what he doesn't want to hear.  That's smart.  But Obama doesn't always do that, and now he's paying for it.

There was a physicist who was cut from the oil spill team for political reasons.  His name is Jonathan Katz.  The guy has writings on the side, unrelated to physics, and some of his opinions are quite rightly characterized as homophobic.  I don't know what this Katz fellow might have done on the team, but it's entirely possible that HE would have been the one guy who would have pounded the desk and said "DO WHAT WORKS, DAMN IT!"  I mean, any guy or gal who has the guts - however unenlightened - to be a religious homophobe in today's ridiculously politically correct climate, probably has the guts to say "use the nuke - it's the only thing that we know works".  In fact, now that we're being completely honest about things, there are certain analogies.  Bear with me and you'll see...

In more primitive times, when medicines were crude and our understanding of science was small, the science of common sense probably told people that male homosexuality was a bad idea due to STDs.  I mean, it's almost stated that bluntly in biblical verse.  Which is still Katz's point.  Knowing nothing about "left-handed" sexual orientations, nor the simple but easily overlooked logic that MARRIAGE is designed not only for procreation, but to protect us from things like STDs, it's clear why religions of yore became homophobic.  So there IS some truth in Katz's homophobic writings, and through it I am led to what I believe is a better conclusion - that this is precisely WHY we need gay marriage - to provide gays with the same moral, emotional, and physical protections that marriage gives the rest of us.  I would argue, as a scientist who believes deeply in God, that we must be careful to consider the extraordinary possiblity that DENIAL of marriage to gays may be the affront to God.  That if certain men and women are born innocent in their attractions toward their own kind, then denying them the protections of marriage may be the real sin.  Denying protection from death and suffering to gays may very well be the beam in our moral eye which dwarfs the mote in their genetic makeup.  A mote which - I might add - may even have specific purpose for the preservation of our species against Malthusian crisis.

And this is why science suffers from political correctness.  We must face ALL TRUTHS.  Even the ones we don't like.  The truths that bother us almost invariably are the ones that have the answers we need.

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