Freely fantasizing about solutions helps to clear up the barriers in our thinking
To my happiness, ever since (and doubtlessly already before) my Norway-climate panic caused by experiencing the high winter temperatures myself, ever more clever ideas are launched to reduce our CO2 emissions. One such an idea, perhaps as unpractical as my ideas above, are algae biopanel windows. But it is no problem, perhaps they will soon find solutions, and what is even better, freely coming up with ideas, however unpractical or undoable, helps to erase barriers in our thinking. We are running out of time so we desperately need that.
Cutting down emissions
Suggestions for cutting down emissions often use 1990 levels to compare with. That is arbitrary because we ultimately need to reduce to much earlier levels, but it is good to start with a goal which can be reached. If 1990 is also chosen for determining the surplus of CO2 in the air, from this weekly means graph we take the 2021 level as 416 ppm, and from this 60+ year graph that of 1990 as 354 ppm; then we have a surplus of 62 ppm.
This surplus of CO2 in the atmosphere, now a world wide waste-bin, is what we forgot to clean up, therewith creating a surplus greenhouse blanket.
The Earth needs such a blanket; without it it would be too cold for us. But the blanket is now so thick, and CO2 stays in the atmosphere so long, that even if, theoretically, we would reduce emissions to zero today, the weather would remain as erratic as it is now, and the ice still would keep melting. We simply lost the luxury of just having to reduce emissions.
But a trait of humanity is that we can deplete almost all raw materials. Let us use that normally unfavourable trait to clean up the atmosphere.
So capture the CO2 where you will use it,then recycle it into the bubbles in your soda,
and store it in CO2 containing bricks.
If we start now we may be just in time to save ourselves.
Summer 2022: Energy storage in sand as the way to reach net-zero CO2 emissions worldwide
Marvellous supernews is that in Finland people came up with a revolutionary simple idea: Store Wind and Solar Power as Heat in Sand. What an idea. We all know how hot sand can become on a sunny day, and if this technology can work in the Finnish winter, it certainly can in our nights. Within our limits and time frame it truly feels like the ultimate solution; it stores clean energy, which unavoidably comes in fluctuating amounts, in a clean way, sand is abundant, and then compare the CO2 emitted during construction with building nuclear power plants!
Because also solar panels are becoming ever more effective and less toxic, this certainly seems to be the most feasible solution for storing clean energy in the dark hours, and frees us from having to rely on enormous chemical accus, as seemed to be the only way to provide a stable level of energy supply.
Storing energy in sand might allow us all to stop using fossil and nuclear energy, and become CO2 zero-emitters. And then we can devote all our strength to cleaning up the planet. Extract the largest surplus of CO2 in non-toxic ways and store it in non-intrusive ways, and find effective ways to extract the other surpluses of greenhouse gases from the atmosphere. Yet of all the greenhouse gases CO2 is the most problematic one because it stays in the atmosphere for so long, so if we finally begin to extract it on a very large scale, we might in any case survive our dirty years.
Remarkable, my panic started in Norway, and the best solution until now comes from Finland. It is a nice touch that we might be saved by the people who know best what it is to live for weeks without seeing any sun, by a company called Polar Night Energy. I would say, spread the word, and release the world from money consuming and toxic fake solutions.
Very good news is that in May 2022 the world reached the predicted first terawatt of installed solar energy generation capacity. Zonnepanelendelen.nl (Sharing solar panels) comments: "The global annual production of all those panels is comparable to what 500 nuclear power stations as the one in Borssele would yield during the same period."
At the moment there are 439 nuclear power plants in the world. Using the Wikipedia data about 435 units, the total capacity is roughly 388,000 MW; with Borssele having a capacity of 482 MW, 500 times Borssele is 241,000 MW, or 62% of the total nuclear capacity. Because the solar capacity grew with 21% in 2021, it can be expected that very soon solar capacity will surpass nuclear capacity.
At some earlier times nuclear energy may have looked promising, yet the transition which should have gone hand-in-hand with it was impaired by the people earning staggering amounts of money in the fossil industries. The folly of still believing that nuclear energy can solve any of our current, pressing problems becomes apparent if the costs of an 21% increase of nuclear capacity, as was the increase of solar capacity in 2021, is considered. Such an increase would mean building 91 new plants; building one plant takes at least five years and costs at least five billion dollars, and therefore 91 plants would cost half a trillion; about one and a half times the total expenditure of the Dutch government. If in five years that amount of money would be used to solve the energy and distribution problems of solar energy we are far more likely to succeed in staying alive than if we spend it on nuclear capacity, which would even cost a lot more if the enormous and still unsolved nuclear waste problem is taken into account.
Something else might be nuclear fusion which reached a small but major breakthrough. Yet it would not become available on a large scale before 2025, and it is obviously preferred that by then we already achieved a completely adequate and sustainable energy supply.
The by far most simple way seems to be to just catch and transport sunlight itself using solar fiber optic systems. At the moment they are used for indoor sunlight, but the optical fiber cables can be as long as we need them to be. So simplifying and vastly extending these systems, they can be built wherever sunlight is plenty, and having enough plants around the world, sunlight will always be available from somewhere. If we can transport oil all over the world, and send data around all the time, we certainly can transport light all over the world. Countries which can sell sunlight will become as important as oil producing countries were and we will close contracts with them; every night we buy sunlight from places at the other side of the world for our night systems, which are built in such a way that no light leaks out while using it to generate solar energy locally.* There would hardly be need for accus to store solar energy; we would have access to solar energy all the time. The advantages would be that it can be a fair trade, no water or chemicals are used, and there is no toxic waste.
And even though I think satellites sending bundles of sunlight to the Earth’s surface is an exciting idea, transporting light around the world seems to be far more easy to accomplish on a very large scale.
* What if we cover the light entry rooms with mirrors and place converters in clever places, would we then be able to use the light for the full 100%? And can we use the enormous amounts of heat going with the process for a renewal of the heat networks, or district heating systems, which now warm houses and offices using fossil gas or burning wood?
Totally insane news is that at the moment, Summer 2021, there is, again, a CO2 shortage. According to the article CO2 is used for hundreds of products: to carbonate water, soft drinks and alcoholic drinks; to dispense drinks and beers in pubs; to promote the growth of plants - such as cucumbers - in greenhouses; to stun pigs and chickens before slaughter; for packaging meats, baby foods, fresh foods and baked products (CO2 extends shelf life by preventing bacteria); to keep food fresh in transport (CO2 is used in the form of dry ice and snow).
“The UK’s food industry has been told it must pay five times more for carbon dioxide in future.” Would this then finally lead to the very positive side-effect that it will be cheaper to buy some direct capture machines from ClimeWorks, place them on the factory premises, and be over with this ridiculousness? Recycling CO2 is good for the climate and good for the business, which becomes CO2 neutral in one stroke.
If we then remove unavoidable and historic CO2 from the air in a safe and permanent way by clever ways of using it, and we start doing that now, we might just make it after all.
Very very very good news is that Scotland is preparing for CO2 removal.
Good news, or for me it was news, is that urban farming is finally off the starting blocks. Farming on rooftops without using soil and much less water will be one of the ways to make room for nature again. If many of us live in high-rise buildings, and do not use land for farming wherever that is possible, nature can again recuperate. Forms of this kind of farming are hydroponics and aeroponics, either on rooftops or in indoor vertical farms. The differences between hydroponics and aeroponics are for instance described here and here.
The beauty in the video about indoor farming is at 6:40, namely when using optical fiber cables to channel sunlight directly indoors is mentioned. One of the problems of all greenhouse farming is of course that it seems that in these conditions all plants can grow throughout the year no matter what the weather conditions, but people in colder climates profit from eating the vegetables of the season. Moreover, plants need their rest. So if you use real sunlight, through cables to prevent illnesses and therefore chemicals, we have the best of both worlds.
The dangers of misusing new technologies and trying to force nature are as old as the world, or, actually, humanity. Especially when money comes in, as in the palm oil industry and biomass plants, but even when all is meant well; quick fixes are very often harming nature.
Again very bad news is that Earth’s declining ice is “without doubt one of the biggest casualties of climate change.” New research shows that sea ice in key Arctic coastal regions is thinning almost twice as fast than previously thought.
Alarming news is that the oceans, lakes, and rivers are losing oxygen. “The open oceans are losing oxygen because of climate change, whereas dead zones in coastal waters and seas are caused by excessive nutrients, which promote excessive growth of algae and eventually oxygen depletion.”
There are in fact two messages in these devastating observations. For the oceans it is imperative that we clean out the World Wide Waste-bin above our heads by removing the CO2 surplus, while for the lakes and the rivers we have to change the way we eat and farm. One of the reasons that actively taking out CO2 from the atmosphere is not supported by many environmental organisations, is that they fear it will hamper the efforts to reduce our emissions because people will believe everything is easily solved when we take out the CO2 surplus.
The reason why therefore this dramatic overview of dying water is at the same time amazingly positive is that it shows that actively removing the CO2 surplus does not mean we can go back to our former lifestyles; to bring the rivers and the lakes back to life we have to change our farming and our diets. Therewith it is the most vivid, dramatic, urgent call to do both, without delay. To save the waters, we need to clean up and change, and that change is precisely the change we need to reduce our emissions.
We have to start to live with nature again instead of above it, while at the same time cleaning up the mess we made.
It reminds of a comparison: suppose in one way or another, your household ran out of your control and you live in an ever messier and dirtier home. Some day you suddenly realise what you have been doing; the graduality meant you did not really notice until you were hindered in your movements. You make yourself a promise: from now on I will tidy up again after having used something. A month later you find to your amazement that your house did not become dirtier, but also not cleaner. Then you realise that changing your behaviour was not enough, somehow you also have to clean up the mess you made earlier.
This is of course exactly how we have to deal with Nature. We are mess makers, which is no problem if we realise that we have to clean up regularly. And that in times when it gets a bit out of hand, as it did now because the big companies fooled us and polluted gradually so we did not notice, we have to have a big clean-up. The Earth is our home, and taking care of it is exactly the same as taking care of our domestic homes.
(I was tempted to say, without the cleaning products, but that is not even true. No one would use a cleaning product which bites into the furniture, or kills the fish in the aquarium. So we should make the same decisions when cleaning up the mess we made in Nature.)
Very bad news is that large scale shoreline retreat is happening already; as ESA writes in March 2021, “A substantial proportion of the world’s sandy coastlines are already eroding owing to increased storm surges, flooding and sea level rise.”
Very good news is that ClimeWork’s technology is modular and therefore scalable, so the machines can be placed almost everywhere.
Really bad news is that we in the Netherlands, as the result of having been governed for many years now by mammon-worshipping political parties, cause the largest area of deforestation of all European countries; a staggering 18 m2 per year per capita. But of course not in our own backyard.
Very good news is that Microsoft has declared that the company will be carbon negative by 2030, and will have cleaned up their contribution to the waste mountain in 2050. Also very good news is that they see ClimeWorks' direct air capture technology as a key component of their carbon removal efforts.
Not so happy is the way they will store it; large-scale storage will do more harm than good. These plans show that the new methods of non-intrusive recycling and storage as supported and advocated by CO2value must be developed as quickly as possible; to recycle and store CO2 emissions yielding useful products such as chemicals and synthetic fuels (recycling) and building materials (storage). As well as every other very good idea,* such as for instance storage by using olivine. We must at least prevent the melting of the permafrost, and we therefore are in a hurry.
* Even though it is CO2 neutral, using nuclear energy is not a very wise thing to do. In an attempt to ease the public, on the website of the World Nuclear Association it is written, “Only a small volume of nuclear waste (~3% of the total) is long-lived and highly radioactive and requires isolation from the environment for many thousands of years.” Also from this website, “About 400,000 tonnes of used fuel has been discharged from reactors worldwide, with about one-third having been reprocessed.” That means that 266 million kilos have not been reprocessed, of which 8 million kilos have to be stored for many thousands of years, and that is what we produced until now; in a mere seventy years (since 1954). If to fight climate change we will build more plants there will be more waste, even when the reprocessing becomes more effective. And who thinks that is not a problem should contemplate for a moment the state of human kind in say -10.000 years; about the time of the Neolithic Revolution, or the building of the Göbekli Tepe. We usually think that Stonehenge was built a long time ago.
Apparently, many people have problems with the idea of using technology to extract CO2 from the air, afraid that it will soothe (other) (rich and powerful) people so much that they will not aim to reduce emitting greenhouse gases any more. Until some years ago that seemed to be a valid argument, but unfortunately the surplus of CO2 is now so large that we do not have any choice left.
For any last person still in doubt despite the fires, storms and floods, and otherwise because of its vivid instructiveness, this is how fast we did it: xkcd’s Earth Temperature Timeline.
Turn the rich and famous into major cleaners
The rich and famous people of this earth are and have always been the major polluters, yet we can turn them into major cleaners in very simple ways. The 99% has, after all, more members than the 1%; the famous need followers, the rich need consumers. What we should do first is convince the good people amongst them to start cleaning up their own mess. Taking into account the possibility that these people still do not realise what they are doing to the rest of us, perhaps thinking that ‘Nature’ is changing its climate instead of humanity, and still believe they can escape our common fate, we have to educate them. That should suffice to convince the good people amongst them to take action and, who knows, help clean up more than just their own mess.
Then it is time that we acknowledge that there are many very selfish people living amongst us, and that some of them are amongst the richest people on Earth. Some of them are known as persons, but many hide themselves behind big companies. We therefore have to realise even better that companies cannot think and decide, people do that. The state of the Earth has now clearly shown us that trying to convince these people to start caring for others, and wait with drastic measures until they will come into action themselves, will cost most of us our lives. The 1% way-too-rich people will be able to survive much longer than the average person, so waiting for them will be our death sentence. What we can do is criminalise their actions because they play with our lives, and force them to invest in cleaning up: we simply demand that all their plans and ways of living have to be extended with clean-up plans. The famous can be shamed into action, the rich can simply lose all cooperation if they do not present cleanup programs with their ventures.
So all the insanely rich people would be forced to have any plan for space or cars or whatever be accompanied by a cleaning up program: if you want to place 100 satellites in orbit, you have to take out the complete CO2 emissions of the production processes, together with an equal amount of pieces of space junk; ESA, NASA, JAXA, UAESA, Roscosmos, CSNA, ISRO etc. can easily make that a part of the permission processes and cooperation plans. And if the riches want to make electric cars, however useful in our transition, next to boasting about the CO2 not emitted while driving the cars they have to have a CO2 extraction plan for the production process, just as for the recycling processes of used materials. Countries for instance can simply make it a part of the permissions for new factories.
And generally, if they for instance fly in their (private) jets they have to take out as much CO2 out of the atmosphere than they spilt into it. That should not be regulated by ‘fair taxes’ because such taxes always hit the poorer people harder than the rich, and the honest people harder than the deceivers; we have to target the rich directly and make it a simple rule: we know who are the major polluters, and we know their plans. They may continue to play but they have to learn that, as every child knows, cleaning up is part of their playtime.
The reason to start with the insanely rich is simply because they are the big polluters, and they have the means to start cleaning up on a very large scale; a process that otherwise will take much time to evolve, time we do not have any more. So let us not squabble about details, it is completely obvious who have to be the first to come into action. Needless to say that also the rest of us has to adapt; only if we all do what we can we will survive. Yet we also have to acknowledge that emissions will not stop any time soon; many poorer people do not have any choice, and there are too many nasty persons amongst the riches and powerful of this world. The time is taken from us, by, yes, the rich people of the Shell companies of this world, to be able to wait until everyone agrees on what to do. We have to start as soon as possible on immensely large scales, before we reach a tipping point which may happen in the very near future.
What to do with the extracted CO2
Suppose that we succeed, and CO2 is taken from the atmosphere in large quantities, then despite all good intentions, mineralising it all may not be able to be done fast enough. Recycling and using the extracted CO2 for for instance building materials are sound ideas, but when the amounts of CO2 taken from the atmosphere really begin to be of some sensible amount we have to do something more drastic, and it is no problem that then a solution is only temporary. When we have cut emissions, and have brought the CO2 levels back to sustainable ones, we can focus again on recycling.
It is widely known that our huge amounts of toxic or radioactive waste cannot be disposed of by shooting it into space because any accident during launch could cause the very wide environment to become inhabitable. But that does not hold for CO2. If we send it to space in manageable amounts, packed in for instance canisters of recycled plastic, and something goes wrong, we just did not reduce CO2 levels.
An idea would be, using solar power, to catapult the packages into the Sun. The Sun can easily take on the whole Earth, therefore, whatever we shoot into it will be destroyed nicely. Yet it is difficult to really shoot something into the Sun because it will rather end up in orbit around the Sun, although for canisters containing CO2 that is not really a big problem. Still, we can make use of the CO2 itself, by using it as its own rocket fuel having applied exhaustion valves to the canisters; there is again not any problem with losing CO2 in space, it is neither toxic nor dangerous. I do not know how to prevent or control unexpected rotations of the canisters, but that can doubtlessly be solved.
What we can also do is catapult or shoot the canisters to the Moon. It appears that there is solid CO2 on the Moon, which together with the water ice at the poles can be used for future Moon colonies. But instead of the future Moon colonists having to collect the ‘dry ice’, it may be much simpler if CO2 is already there. Again, there is not any problem, if we send too much they can simply let it evaporate again, space will not care much for our relatively tiny bit of CO2. It would be nice to see if canisters can be shot to the Moon; it would be fun to try, and not a problem if every once in a while something goes wrong. We could learn a lot from it, especially if it was found that shooting goods to the colonists is easier than bring everything by using rockets. And if we then collect water from the rings of Saturn, we are finally growing towards Asimov’s future.
2020: How bad is the state of the atmosphere, and why are we in a hurry
In the middle of the nineteenth century it was discovered that the intensity of the sun’s radiation, directly linked to the number of sunspots, varies in cycles of eleven years. In the 1960s the idea dawned that sunspot cycles were correlated to variations of the Earth’s temperature, and in the 1970s such a correlation was found between periods of lower activity of the sun or even near absence of sunspots, and periods of colder temperatures in Europe, called the Little Ice Age, lasting from the early 14th century to the middle of the 19th century and shown in many famous paintings. Also for longer periods in the past correlations between weather and sunspots were found.
But at about the same time that it was discovered, in the 1960s, the correlation disappeared because the CO2 effect took over. As can be seen in the figure below, from about 1900 the number of sunspots had increased on average, and from about the 1960s it decreased again. But as can be seen in the second figure, instead of decreasing with it the temperature rose further, as we now know because of the greenhouse gases.
This means that for now the sun gave us a little respite, because of the cooling effect. But if in the near future the sunspot maxima will raise again we have a real problem, we thus have to solve the CO2 problem before the sun will become more active again.
We have been given a little respite by the Sun. But that will not last long, so let us gratefully use our extra time
The CO2 problem
There are several greenhouse gases; next to CO2 there are for instance methane (CH4), nitrous oxide (N2O), and larger molecules such as chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs). All these gases contribute to the warming of the earth in different ways; what varies is mainly their ability to absorb energy and, once emitted to the atmosphere, the time they remain there. There are very many details to tell about all the greenhouse gases, but some stand out.
All the other greenhouse gases can absorb more energy than CO2, and their effect on warming the earth is therewith stronger than that of CO2. Because of these large effects on the climate it is very important to reduce their emissions as much as possible, or capture the greenhouse gases at the sources, preventing them to escape to the atmosphere.
But what sets CO2 apart is its lifetime and abundance. While the other greenhouse gases stay in the atmospere for roughly a hundred years, once emitted CO2 will remain there for between 300 and 1000 years. The other problem is that we already emitted it in abundance by using fossil fuels.
Fossil fuels are the remains of plants which died millions of years ago, taking all that time to transform into coals or oil. All organisms or lifeforms, including plants, are full of so-called carbohydrates, organic molecules such as sugar, which are used to store energy in the organisms, hence the name organic molecules. Carbohydrates are mainly built from carbon (C), hydrogen (H) and oxygen (O).
Burning means, generally, reacting with atmospheric oxygen, O2. When the remains of the plants, the fossil fuels, are burnt deliberately to be able to use them as energy sources, O2 combines with the hydrogen, H, to form water, H2O, and with the carbon, C, to form CO2. These reactions take place while releasing much heat, and that is the enery we use, and have used, in abundance. The water entering the atmosphere is pure and thus poses no probem at all. But the CO2 produced is also emitted into the atmosphere; because no one could see it or smell it, until the 1970s hardly anyone realized that something was wrong.
The climate is changing very rapidly now, we are running from record to record. Reducing CO2 emissions, and measures such as re- and afforestation, are needed badly but it will not be enough. The atmosphere behaves as a blanket around the earth; a blanket which is necessary because without it we would freeze. But because not any large scale action was taken in the last decennia of the previous century, and the detrimental effects of the surplus of CO2 in the atmosphere started to be generally recognized only slowly early in this century, we now are living under an atmospheric blanket which has grown far too thick, and makes the ice on the poles melt. We therefore have no choice if we want to prevent the rising of the sea levels; we have to clean out this world wide waste-bin. What we brought into the atmosphere in the last fifty years could also be cleaned up again in fifty years. But we have to start now, or countries will have disappeared already, engulfed by the oceans.
Reduction and a bit of history
Reducing CO2 is an intricate problem. Changes of lifestyles are necessary, but if people have the feeling they almost have to stop living while big industries can simply continue polluting, motivation to change comfortable and familiar lifestyles is very hard to maintain.
Especially the large oil and gas companies have had a damaging impact, because they have inhibited and forestalled much-needed changes. We now know that already in 1962 Shell knew, and in in 1991 was fully aware of what was happening, and also, that the seemingly well-founded doubts about climate change were orchestrated by the oil companies. Fortunately, in 2020 Shell has been brought to trial, yet the fact that they could continue for such a long time has caused an enormous delay in cleaning up the atmosphere.
The magnitude of the problem only became known to the general public when the atmosheric CO2 levels started to run out of hand; 2020 was again one of the warmest years on record, and disasters are happening already, even in the Netherlands.
About positive, non-intrusive ways to capture, recycle and store CO2
To keep people motivated and hopeful it is important that ways are found to work on the energy transition in a non-harmful way, for both the people and the earth. Changing lifestyles is important, but the emphasis should not just be on changing them so drastically that people feel they will lose their self-determination. More emphasis should be given to making publicly known, and developing further, ways of capturing CO2 from the air, recycling the CO2 which is emitted now, and storing the CO2 that was emitted in previous years.
To store and recycle CO2 it must first be captured. One way to do that is called “direct capture”; the CO2 is simply extracted from the open air, see for instance Climeworks and how it works. The beauty of this method is that it does not need water or chemicals, and the energy can come from solar panels. The technology is modular and scalable, and it does not matter where the CO2 is captured because it rapidly diffuses throughout the whole atmosphere. That also means that not everyone has to cooperate; it is as if you bought a dirty house and have to clean up, but the previous owner is not there any more. Of course, spreading false information in the ways the oil companies did should be punished, and emitting CO2 now has to be disencouraged strongly in order to prevent further excessive emissions, but anyone can start with cleaning up today. If we delay it until trails are won we will be too late.
* It might seem trivial, but taking on average 25 mg CO2 per liter soda, and assuming that four billion people each drink 100 liter per year, a short calculation shows that that amounts to a hundred tousand tonnes per year. If the new ClimeWorks plant can store four thousand tonnes per year (leaving aside what we think of their method), we would need twenty-five of these plants to just account for our bubbles. And then beer has not yet been included, neither is transport of the CO2.
In the meantime, the CO2 as a by-product of industrial processes can be captured and stored. There are many ideas about how to store CO2; put it in empty gas fields, salt caverns, or let it be absorbed by rock in the earth’s mantle to form calcium carbonates. But most of these techniques are very intrusive; they have huge impacts on the earth and may have harmful side effects. Forcing the earth is, just like forcing people, hardly ever a sustainable idea. When I started to search for less harmful ways to store CO2, I recalled reading on the Climework’s website about storage in bricks, and adding that to my search words I found a little pdf on the web, CO2 mineralisation, which to my amazement was exactly what I had been looking for. It appeared to be a folder written by the above-mentioned group called CO2Value, a “think-and-do-tank, dedicated to Carbon Capture and Utilisation (CCU).” They discuss many ways of recycling and storage, and I think one of the best ideas is to use it in the building industries. People build very very much, and absorbing the CO2 surplus into bricks and concrete means permanent storage in a non-harmful way. If all around the world these methods would be used we could be quick enough to prevent catastrophes. A really encouraging news item was about the building of a footpath in Ghent, made from industrial waste and captured CO2; “1 m3 of carbstone bricks stores a net 350 kg of CO2.” If such ideas, including the making of furniture or even shoes, would catch on very quickly, we really have a chance. As we know by now humankind can deplete anything; there thus is no reason to assume that we cannot deplete the surplus of CO2 and thin the blanket around the earth. It would be the first time that our tendency to deplete everything would save us.
Observations in 1821 and 2020, and what it would have been in -1792
On 14 July 1821 Sir William Rowan Hamilton (1805-1865), or William Hamilton as he was called then, wrote a letter to his sister Eliza, about an observation he had made in Dublin from the house of 'Cousin Arthur' (first cousin once removed), of an occultation of a fixed star by the moon.
"Cousin Arthur procured me a good telescope from Mr. Mason the optician, with which I sat up on Saturday night, the 16th of June, till three o’clock the following morning, observing the moon and planets. That morning [...] I saw the planets Jupiter and Saturn in the east, remarkably near each other. Their conjunction took place on the 19th; the ring was very plain."
Today is 17 December 2020, and last week a colleague, Rob van Gent, had told me that it was the time of one of the great conjunctions of Jupiter and Saturn which happen every twenty years, and that this year is a special occasion because it will be the closest conjunction since 1623, or, because that conjunction was hardly visible due to its proximity to the sun, since 1226. This year it also coincides with the winter solstice.
Somewhat later, I realized that I had read that in 1821 Hamilton had seen Jupiter and Saturn “remarkably near each other,” and when I told Rob that that had been on 17 June he told me that two days later that conjunction had reached its minimal distance, as Hamilton had written indeed. I then asked him if he knew about a table showing Hamilton’s time, and he answered that he would make one. Rob made the table according to the DE431 ephemeris and using Aldo Vitagliano’s SOLEX software. (Update: because of developments I moved the tables, for dual and multiple conjunctions, down.)
In his letter to Eliza Hamilton mentioned that the conjunction of Jupiter and Saturn would take place on 19 June 1821, and in the tables it can be seen that this is correct. There were in fact two conjunctions that year, one on 19 June and another on 6 December. In the tables it can be seen that the one with the smallest distance was the conjunction of 19 June but Hamilton could not see it at the time of minimum; it happened at 14h18 Dublin mean time (UTC-25 minutes). He will have been able, if the weather allowed, to see the one in December, that one happened at 23h45 Dublin time. In his letter to Eliza Hamilton also mentioned that on 17 June the ring of Saturn had been very plain, which gives an idea about how well he could see the planets.
Assuming that the tables are still reliable for four thousand years ago, which they do seem to be,* one of the years in the tables stands out. In the year -1792 both the minimal distance between Jupiter and Saturn was the smallest of the period we looked at, -2000 to +4000 (5 MB, sorted on minimal distance), and the visibility was the best because it happened at the largest elongation, ie., distance from the sun. It did not happen simultaneously; on 1 May -1792 at 03h24 the minimal distance was the smallest, only 0.021 degrees, while on 19 January -1792 at 16h32 the elongation was the largest, 178 degrees. Nevertheless, with the very close conjunction of October -1793 it is the most close triple conjunction in this six thousand year period. It is unfortunate that we were not there to watch this extreme event, although we are fortunate that it can now be simulated. But if people then saw it, and without our light pollution they had very good views on the skies, they will have wondered what was happening. It would be great to know what they thought about it, and if traces of their conclusions still exist.
* According to the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, the planetary ephemeris DE431 “covers JED -3100015.5, (-13200 AUG 15) to JED 8000016.5, (17191 MAR 15),” making, as an understatement, -1793 and -1792 quite within its range.
A nice Hamilton twist here is, and I only found it while I was looking for a link to the ephemerides, that for reading them SPICE is recommended, of which we know that it contains quaternions. I then searched whether also Stellarium uses SPICE and therefore quaternions, for which I did not find an answer. But what I did find was that in the configuration window of Stellarium’s version 0.15.0, the one which is used here, the option of using the ephemerids DE430 (high accuracy) and DE431 (long-time data) is offered as experimental; if not installed or activated the program will use VSOP87/ELP2000-82B. This version 0.15.0 was the first version in which the ephemerids could be used; what a coincidence that it was also the last one with the time plugin I needed for Hamilton’s Dublin time. Suddenly Hamilton showed up again in a for me completely unexpected corner.
Visibility in 2020, as seen from the Netherlands
Even though at many locations the conjunction at minimal distance cannot be seen, Jupiter and Saturn do not move so fast that seeing them at almost the time of minimal distance woud be very different. Every day around minimal distance, clouds aside, is good for an exceptional and impressive view. For the Netherlands it will hold for Monday 21 December, the day of minimal distance which will occur at 18h20m58s UT, that sunset is at 16h29 UTC+1; at that time Jupiter and Saturn are in the south-southwest, at an altitude of about 14 degrees. Civil twilight will be at 17h10 with the planets at 11 degrees altitude, nautical twilight at 17h54 with the planets at 7 degrees altitude in the southwest, at astronomical twilight at 18h36 they will be at 2 degrees altitude. I made two Stellarium screenshots for Utrecht at the start of nautical twilight, one for a light polluted city view, and one for a clear sky if that can be found.
The settings for the Stellarium screenshots below are based on the following considerations, where a quest for beautiful images was combined with good astronomical views. Clicking on the images gives ones with a (somewhat) higher resolution.
1st row -- Happily, this afternoon at 17h50 UTC+1 on 17 Dec 2020, I could see the conjunction of the moon, Jupiter and Saturn from my flat in Utrecht. I was surprised that with just binoculars I could see one of the moons of Jupiter, but Stellarium showed that Jupiter’s moons Europe and Ganymede were very close together, greatly enhancing my chance to see something. I made a screenshot of a Stellarium simulation of what I had seen without the binoculars; this screenshot, the first of the seven screenshots shown below, has a smaller field of view than the other ‘overviews’ because the simulated moonlight interfered in a more zoomed-out view. It resembles what I saw quite good.
Note added 20 December 2020. I just saw Jupiter and Saturn again after two cloudy days; they are now much closer than I had expected! Saturn even becomes difficult to see in my light polluted surroundings.
Note added 21 December. Completely overcast. No conjunction for us alas.
In many of the news items today it was mentioned that this was the closest conjuction since 800 years, 1226, which is not true, it was since 1623. It is the closest one with a good visibility since 800 years. The conjunction in March 2080, often mentioned now as the next conjunction, will be a very close one, even closer than this one was. But it is not the next conjunction. That will occur in October 2040, yet its minimal distance will be larger.
2nd row -- In the above mentioned letter to his sister Hamilton wrote that on 17 June 1821 around 2h15 (Dublin time) he had been looking at the upcoming occultation of a star by the moon of which he could not see the exact moment he had calculated, 2h24, because of an obstruction by a wall. He also mentioned that he had seen Jupiter and Saturn “remarkably near each other.” The sun would rise at 3h30 and Hamilton went to bed at three o’clock; he thus may have seen the conjunction around 2h45 Dublin time. For the screenshot I chose less light pollution than Dublin has now, and the time settings were set to Dublin mean time, which was UTC-25m. Hamilton could not see the conjunction at the time of minimal distance, which was during the day at 14h18 Dublin time. The second screenshot in this row shows the time of minimal distance of the second close conjunction that year which occurred on 6 December 1821 at 0h10 UTC, thus on 5 December 23h45 Dublin time. The moon was at 86%, which dependent on the weather may have interfered, or enriched the view.
3rd row -- Moanda in Gabon was chosen for Monday 21 December 2020 because the conjunction can very well be seen there, and the altitude fits in nicely with my choice of screenshot dimensions. From the Lofoten the view gave the most beautiful configuration in my choices for the screenshots, yet I had to turn off the landscape setting because in fact it will not be possible to see it on Monday.
4th row -- For the smallest minimal distance between -2000 and +4000 I chose Charlotte in North Carolina because it could easily have been seen there in -1792, again in the for me convenient altitude. But in -1792 there was no light pollution, therefore I set that setting, and the fog, to the lowest one possible, and coloured the farm lights in the landscape setting a bit, hoping they would look like campfires. The time zone is UTC-5, therefore the date of minimal distance, as seen from our time-perspective, was 30 April. Finally, I showed the smallest distance in -1792 from Utrecht again; I liked the idea that it showed a configuration fitting in really beautifully with the screenshot dimensions. The configuration surpassed all my expectations; a moon of Jupiter apparently being closer to Saturn and vice versa is a view we will not see in our lifetimes, alas.
Updated 4 Jan 2021 -- In the days around the turn of the year Aldo Vitagliano updated his Solex program.* Also, only having been interested in beautiful views I had not realized that there is a special definition for a conjunction; I here use it for planets being apparently very close together. From Wikipedia: “a conjunction occurs when two astronomical objects [...] have either the same right ascension or the same ecliptic longitude.” It meant that with choosing conjunctions (/C) in the Solex settings I excluded situations in which the planets were close but did not reach the same right ascension or longitude. As an example, Vitagliano explained: “For Jupiter-Saturn in December 1821, there actually was no ecliptic conjunction. Jupiter came close to Saturn while both planets were in retrograde motion, but never got to the same longitude, turning back to direct motion before reaching Saturn. If you run the search with the /C option, you are searching for conjunctions, not for the minimum angular distance. So that’s why the (pseudo)conjunction is [...] not found with the /C option.”
I therefore made new runs; the dual conjunctions without the /M (multiple) or /C option, and the multiple conjunctions with only the /M option. I made large ones for -4000 to 8000, and smaller ones for -2000 to 4000. With the separation between the two involved planets less than 15 degrees Dual conjunctions 12000 yrs (23 MB), idem Dual Conjunctions 6000 yrs (12 MB). With the separation between the two outer planets less than 40 degrees Multiple Conjunctions 12000 yrs (11 MB), idem Multiple Conjunctions 6000 yrs (5 MB). Because the files for dual conjunctions are so large I also made one only containing info for the minimal distance and elongation, Dual Conjunctions 6000 yrs min dist & visibility (5 MB).
* One of the settings in the program is Delta T. For what that is see Rob’s page Delta T: Terrestrial Time, Universal Time and Algorithms for Historical Periods.
The tables are read-only, but when saved the copies can be used freely. Legends are included. They show some nice surprises such as two occultations of Saturn by Jupiter, one in -6856, and one in 7541. Vitagliano pointed out that there was and will not be any such occultation inbetween, making this a truly rare event. There also is something we may be able to see in November 2039; almost a year before the next close conjunction of Jupiter and Saturn Venus will be seen between them. Also the moon (49% illuminated) and Mars will be present then, but that can only be shown by even further distorting the view. A nice extra is that also Uranus will be present then, althought it cannot be seen without aids.
When playing with the files to find interesting events, especially taken into account should be the elongation, the distance from the sun in degrees, which preferrably should be more than larger than 25 degrees. That is regardless of a plus or minus sign; a negative elongation means that planets close to the sun rise before the sun, as in June 1821, while a positive elongation means that they set after sunset, as in December 2020. Yet the 25 degree limit should not be taken too absolute, in any case not for multiple conjunctions, when more than two planets are involved. Also important is that the maximum distance between the planets should not be too large, and the fact that Mercury does not contribute much if you just want to enjoy the view.
A very impressive sight was the quintuple conjunction on 13 May 2002; I remember having seen all five planets, but I do not recollect how well I could see Mercury. The moon was just new and hardly visible. Some perhaps interesting events in the near future, as seen from the Netherlands, will be Venus, Jupiter and Saturn in December 2021, Venus, Mars and Saturn in March 2022, and a multiple conjunction of Mars, Saturn, Venus and Jupiter, with the latter two very close together in May 2022.* Minimal distance cannot be seen, but also at times close to it there will be impressive views, if the weather permits. Especially for the latter two conjunctions the altitudes will be small; there thus are other locations with more favourable conditions to see these conjunctions. The freely available planetarium program Stellarium will be of great help in finding them. -- end of update
* The for me most impressive conjunction was that of Venus and Jupiter on 23 February 1999. Around 19h (UTC+1) we came back from the funeral of my sister-in-law Trees Sarkol, and walking to the family home Venus and Jupiter stood low in the west, perfectly horizontally aligned, the evening already very dark. I had not known about it beforehand, and it felt very symbolic for all of us.
The screenshot shows the limitations of simulation: I vividly remember Venus and Jupiter next to each other as very bright spots, perfectly separated, and no halo. In the simulation they melt together, brightness being shown by the size of the dots. This screenshot therefore is completely correct, but it does not show what it looked like. On the positive side, it thus is very well possible that the conjunction of Venus and Jupiter in May 2022 will be a more impressive view than it seems to be in the screenshots.
Today, 13 Oct 2020, our 2019 article for Hamilton Day, How a 19th century Irish mathematician helped NASA into space, was retweeted. But it was apparently not too clear that we had argued that there were no quaternions in the Apollo program, that they had entered space travel and exploration for the first time in the Space Shuttle Program, so there was a second tweet, that it should be noted that so far we had not found any evidence for quaternions in the Apollo code.
When in preparation for our article I had been searching for information about the Apollo program, I of course did online searches including the search word Hamilton, and found the story of Margaret Hamilton, of whom I had never heard. Intrigued by the story of the women in the Apollo program, the state of science then, and having seen the film Hidden figures, I made a short presentation for my astronomy club. Of course that had to contain nice pictures, and then I found something.
It is often claimed that in the “firing room” at Kennedy Space Center, when the Apollo 11 was launched, there was only one woman in the room, JoAnn Morgan. She was the first female engineer at Kennedy Space Center, and thereafter became the first female senior executive at the Space Center. She thus indeed was the only female engineer in the firing room on 17 July 1969, but she was not the only woman in the room.
In the larger photo two other women can be seen, and perhaps three. In the cutout below, towards the lower left corner is JoAnn Morgan, and towards the upper right corner the two or three women can be seen standing. Of course, these women probably did not have a direct task during launch, but ‘you and I’ would not have been allowed to be there. So now I am very curious, who were they, and why were they there? If any one has information, knows whether the person standing to the right of the two women is also a woman, or perhaps recognizes more women in the room, I would be very happy to be contacted about it.
This is how much solar energy is produced within the project (June 2022), in which anyone can ‘buy’ ‘parts-of-panels’; 34 parts equal one solar panel. Although Google translate is getting better by the year, what is says in Dutch is that in the past year, in total, sufficient electricity was produced for xxx households. For previous achievements, see June 2020, December 2020, June 2021.
In the last days of 2019 and the first weeks of 2020 my brother and I visited north Norway. We drove there in my brother’s Tesla, model 3, going from supercharger to supercharger. There were enough Tesla chargers to enable us to go north, from Malmö via Skellefteå in Sweden to the Lofoten in Norway where we visited the Polarlightcenter in Straumnes, Laukvik, on the island of Austvågøya, then to the most northern Tesla supercharger in the world, which is in Sørkjosen. We chose our route in such a way that there was never more than a 2.5h drive between two Tesla superchargers, only once we had to charge at a compatible charger, which took a bit longer to charge but not that much (yet it disconnected us after 0.5h of charging).
Still, our experience was not by any means what we had expected; we had taken very warm clothing with us, but hardly needed it. Visiting a relative in Setermoen we heard that it often is around -25°C in January (with an average in January of -8°C)*, now it was +2°C. The same thing in Ulvsvåg; someone told us that normally around this time the weather is quiet, cold and dry, but now it was raining and snowing for weeks already. And in Levanger; where it usually is around -4°C in January, at 09h in the morning it was +7°C. We were obviously not the only ones becoming concerned. In Skibotn someone made the remark that the Norwegian government does not want to give up on its petrol, and in Levanger that the government is still in denial about the human impact on the climate.**
The almost permanent cloud cover sadly meant that we did not see much of the Northern Lights. Yet we did see it, which was already marvellous in itself, and learning more about it at the Polarlightcenter made it absolutely worthwile. It was explained why the polar lights are also visible when the sun is very quiet, as she is now, at the beginning of the 25th sunspot cycle, and we saw the marvellous setup of solely analogue instruments, measuring and showing fluctuations in the Earth’s magnetosphere which are induced by variations in the magnetic fields from the Sun, and may precede displays of northern lights. Sadly, due to cloud cover we missed the exceptional display on the 6th of January although we knew it had to come due to the highly fluctuating magnetic currents, as shown by the measuring instruments. It was an impressive moment, standing before the paper and seeing the needle move so fast.
Because of the cloudy weather which lasted for our entire journey, despite being for almost three weeks in the darkest places I had ever been I hardly saw any stars except on the Lofoten, where there were some patches of clear sky. Once, further south again, I could see Andromeda, but only because I knew it had to be there, and again only between clouds. It is a good thing that my dream was to experience a day without sun, and my brother’s to charge his car at the most northern Tesla supercharger; two goals which had nothing to do with the local weather. Perhaps we are Dutch enough, knowing very well that rain and clouds may spoil the view.
About driving north in a Tesla, it could easily be argued that we would not have been able to make this trip if the temperatures had been much lower. Still we think we would have been able to; in this relatively warm weather we never arrived at the next supercharger with less than 140 km left. For certainty, we always slept in hotels close to superchargers, so we would have been able to warm the inside of the car (the lowest setting is 16°C) at the cost of about 300 km a day (two times 140 km or more), and if at night the car would have to take care that its batteries would not freeze over at the cost of again many kilometres, in the morning we could have charged it again. We also could have taken more time to drive this far than we did now.
In any case, whether or not due to these very high temperatures my dream of experiencing a day without sun succeeded, and to my surprise it even became five days. I had understood that the sun would rise at Straumness on the 5th of January, but it turned out to be on the 6th, which means that, leaving Bognes early in the morning of the 3rd to go by boat to Lødingen and drive to the Polarlightcenter on the Lofoten, we had one day without sun before we arrived there, and two during our stay at the Polarlightcenter. After the Lofoten, where we did try to see the first sunlight of the winter in Svolvær on the 6th but it was too cloudy to see it, we drove further north, via Setermoen and Skibotn to Sørkjosen, back into the polar night; I had not realised that in Setermoen the sun had not risen yet. The fifth day was when we drove back to the south and stayed in Bardufoss where the sun also had not risen yet, it would rise there on 12 January. That was our last day without sun; going further south, we drove out of the polar night again.***
My brother’s dream of charging at the most northern Tesla supercharger in the world also succeeded, despite the heavy snowstorms on especially the last part of our journey up. Three times we could not see anything any more in front of us, and for large parts we drove with 35 km/h, on a motorway. But we safely reached the remarkable supercharger.
There still is a lot for Tesla to develop, next to some minor issues which they hopefully will be able to solve quickly. But what I really hope is that Tesla will soon have all their superchargers deliver only solar power. How I do not know in practice,**** but using only solar power such a trip as we made would really be clean.
* Setermoen is just south-southwest of Tromsø, and above the Lofoten. Playing with the data on Meteologix gives some insight into the high local variability of the Norwegian climate, the rising temperatures can therefore only be deduced from averages (a difference of 4° Fahrenheit is a difference of about 2° Celsius). From these visualizations it can be seen that, even if there is much variation in local temperatures during the day, +2°C in Setermoen in January is in any case unusual. We clearly were not the only ones noticing it, on 20 January 2020 the Norwegian Meteorological Institute tweeted about the very mild weather. Further to the north of Norway the effect of climate change is even stonger; according to the Royal Netherlands Meteorological Institute (KNMI), Svalbard (Spitsbergen) is the fastest warming place on Earth.
** That the government is in denial is illustrated by these rather shocking articles, just having experienced the very abnormal weather in Norway, about the profitability of new pipelines to the Barentz Sea, and Norway’s Oil & Energy Minister Sylvi Listhaug calling the warnings of environmental organizations doomsday prophecies. But fortunately, many people do not wait for their governments and are taking action themselves. We stayed for a night in Levanger, and the people who own a ‘herberge’ (inn) there, consisting of old wooden buildings from the seventeenth and nineteenth century, had an enormous amount of solar panels on the very large roof of the barn. That also happens in the Netherlands; although to our shame the government had to be forced to finally reduce emissions, people are taking action such as for instance in ZonnepanelenDelen, or various Citizen Initiatives. Still, clearly also not everyone, politician or civilian, is convinced we have a problem. In one of the places we stayed for the night our rooms had no heater of their own, and no thermostat; the rooms were extremely hot. Having searched in vain for a way to cool my room off a bit, I decided to open the window. It was -2°C outside, and in slightly over an hour the room was cooled to perhaps 21°C or so. I slept with the window open, and felt sorry for heating the open air.
*** The polar circle is officially at 66°33, but due to deflection of the sunlight “the boundary for the Polar Night is slightly north of the Arctic Circle, while the boundary for the Midnight Sun is slightly south of the Arctic Circle. Consequently, Bodø has Midnight Sun but no Polar Night,” see p. 17 of the Bodø and Salten Guide 2020. The deflection of the sunlight means that when the sun is just below the horizon, both at sunrise and sunset, it can be seen just above it, hence the effect. It does cause some confusion in finding the exact dates of the first day of sunrise after polar night for specific locations, because without mentioning it the one website chooses the official date while another chooses the dates one can really see it, thus accounting for the deflection by refraction.
**** What about using optical fiber cables through pipelines (old oil pipelines?) to bring light from parts of the world where the sun is shining to darker places; if Africa, Australia and South America would work together they could sell sunlight at any time, all day and night, during all seasons. Imagine a factory where light is shining on solar panels in the night (or something like that, in any case as effective as possible), well shielded of course not to disturb the darkness outside. We then could produce our own solar energy in the daytime, and use the transported light in the nighttime. If it was done with oil, then why not with light? It is much easier to transport.
When I stumbled on Hamilton’s bizarre reputation I was, next to my work, studying physics, and I wanted to become a cosmologist. As many students do, I hoped to make a great discovery some day, or if that would not happen, at least a tiny one. Little had I expected what ‘my discovery’ would look like, and how much it had nothing to do with the universe. Still, as a variation on what Isaac Asimov seems to have said about crying out “Eureka” or mumbling “that is funny,” it appeared that thinking “that is odd” can also ‘herald’ years of work.
It happened when I was enrolled in the first course for my masters, History of Vector Analysis. I then heard about Hamilton as an alcoholic, who had married some ‘lass’ from across the fields just to be married, and after his discovery of quaternions only had eye for them for the rest of his life (however useful that was). I vividly remember the picture I had formed in my mind, of a man looking at beautiful sloping green fields from behind his desk but seeing nothing but quaternions. I also remember that I wondered when he drank all that alcohol, perhaps in the evening, still sitting at his desk, and that I pitied that poor lonely village girl. Until I read about Hamilton’s suprisingly peaceful description of the walk with his wife along the Royal Canal where he had his Eureka moment. I then imagined that thinking “Woman, go away again and leave me in peace instead of annoying me even on my quiet walk along this canal” would most likely have prevented any Eureka moment. It was the start of a two weeks’ frenzy filled with sudden realizations, “Impossible! That is simply utterly illogical!” Thereafter, no physics for me any more; reputations, gossip, Victorian times and the difficult lives of married Victorian women kept me busy for years.
Every now and then I give a presentation about the subject I had chosen in the bachelor cosmology seminar I had been enrolled in before receiving my bachelor’s degree. The subject had been the ‘inflationary universe,’ and I adapted and extended my bachelor’s presentation to an evening presentation for local groups of the KNVWS, of which I am a member. When I had finished writing about Hamilton what I had thought I had to write, and again was invited to give my presentation, I was very happy to be back in the universe. But knowing that continuing my studies is not in any way realizable in the near future, I also started to think that perhaps I do not want to become a cosmologist any more; I am, as we say, “not twenty any more.”
Already from the first time I gave my presentation about the inflationary universe I have introduced myself by telling the audience that I do not believe inflation can be true, but that I am very happy to explain the theory to them, including why the problems with the Big Bang theory seemed to be solved so neatly. Also, that I obviously cannot prove that inflation is not true, yet that it just does not make much sense to me. But what happened while I was working on Hamilton’s reputation was that I became more convinced that Erik Verlinde* may be right (and not just because the first course in relativity I was enrolled in was given by him :). I can proudly say that already before handing in my bachelor’s essay (August 2013) I told my mentor that if I had money (which I do not have) I would bet on Verlinde’s theory, against inflation. So I figured that instead of becoming a cosmologist myself it would be better to try to learn to explain his theory to my fellow KNVWS members. Some people do that very well already, but it would give me focus.
But that will also take much time, and therefore my brother Rein thought that in the meantime it would be a nice idea (as a consolation for lost physics?) to also make a BookReader for my bachelor physics essays, which I once did love to write. One of them, an essay on Teleportation, is now in the BookReader even though it is obviously not a book, and some day I will also add my bachelor’s thesis, about relativity, which should have formed a diptych with my master’s thesis; it must be rewritten into an independent whole because I will not write a master’s thesis about inflation any more. I look forward to immersing myself into relativity again and rewriting that essay.
Teleportation is about how teleportation could work in theory, but also, however much I would prefer Star Trek-like teleportation I argue that if, or when, our computers become powerful enough (at the time of writing, 2010, the year 2096 seemed reasonable), perhaps teleportation is not necessary any more because we then can just store all our data, have it sent to where we want to go, and then be reassembled again. That is not as unthinkable as it now may seem; who would have thought in say the 1970s that you could receive a letter from a friend almost instantaneously without even knowing where on earth (literally) that friend is. And since the covid-19 pandemic we have quickly learned to even skype/zoom/etc. without knowing where the person is we are talking to. But there is one problem; having sent your own configuration to some planet and be reassembled again would circumvent the ‘no cloning theorem’ of quantum mechanics, giving our descendants some very difficult issues to deal with.
I now also translated an essay I wrote in 2012 when following a course in particle physics, T4T and the curious Higgs particle, originally in Duch, but while translating I made many corrections. It is about the Standard Model of particle physics, about forces and fields, real and virtual particles, and why the Higgs boson was necessary. It is aimed at the interested layperson; I left out everything I could not explain in about thirty pages. I tried to make the Dutch and the English version as similar as possible, which was also just fun to do.
There were some surprising coincidences. While writing the original essay in 2012 the Higgs boson was found 😃, and while correcting it in 2020 Seti@home stopped after 21 years 😢. That project was the first of what now is called ‘citizen science’ that I participated in, and thereafter I joined quite some BOINC projects. One of these projects was T4T@home,** which became the incentive to choose the Higgs boson as a subject when I had to write the essay, as can be read in the preface.
And something seems to be wrong in the Seti@home’s WikiPage. It is written there that Seti@home started on 17 May 1999, which would mean that I joined already the next day. That would need many coincidences: the salesperson then must have joined the same day or one day after it started, and I then talked with him the same or the next day. That seems to be extremely improbable. So I started a search, reasoning that someone having joined very early could now have very much credit. It was a wild guess but I found that the present number one is from the Class of 29 April 1999. So whenever it started, it was earlier than the WikiPage claims. But I do seem to have been one of the first, thanks to the salesperson in ’s-Hertogenbosch. Nice. (Later: I have made a remark about this on the talk page of the Wikipedia article. I am curious if someone will know or find what the date of the very first class was.)
* I was curious about Schrödinger’s remark, “I daresay not a day passes - and seldom an hour - without somebody, somewhere on this globe, pronouncing or reading or writing or printing Hamilton’s name,” and whether that still holds. As an admittedly rather skewed sample I looked at the 71 articles of which Erik Verlinde was author or co-author and which were open access, as remarkably most of them were. And indeed, the Hamiltonian was mentioned in 34 articles.
** The original posts by the LHC@home 2.0 team about Test4Theory@home, the “rogue” systems and the team having been “flabbergasted” as mentioned in the Preface, can be found at the BOINCstats/BAM! page for vLHCathome including links to the original articles. I had paraphrased the LHC@Home 2.0 Team’s first post of 11-08-2011, but it is too historical not to write it out once more: “WE HAVE A PROBLEM. WE BELIEVE SOME “ROGUE” SYSTEMS ARE SUCKING OUR QUEUES DRY AND THUS OVERLOADING THE SUPPLY OF JOBS TO EVERYONE ELSE. Please be patient - we will try to fix this as soon as possible. Until this problem is understood, we have disabled the creation of new jobs and users for the moment. As soon as the system is recovered, the work unit flow will be restored.”
This is the 11 August 2011 BBC article calling on volunteers, LHC@home allows public to help hunt for Higgs particle. How appealing can you be! No wonder the servers were overloaded (even if everyone, including me, had understood the need for VMs and thus not crashed the first work units). The BBC article linked to the LHC@home home page, but the link to the T4T page containing the quotation I used, “The Test4Theory@home project seeks to engage volunteers in theoretical physics computations for the Large Hadron Collider at CERN,” does not exist any more but happily, it still is visible in the Wayback Machine, About Test4Theory. The capture being of the page as it was two years later, it also contains the later warning: “Before Attaching to us you must first have an up to date installed version of the VIRTUAL BOX software package. To download Virtual Box if needed see instructions here”.
With the coming of the ebooks, many people expected that paper books would disappear. They did not.
It appeared that people who want to work out of a book, needing only a few sentences or little parts, prefer ebooks because they can easily be searched. But in case a book is going to be read cover to cover paper books are highly preferred. Paper books are also preferred by people who want to feel and smell the book, or in case the book is full of symbols which are hard to search for, or when many little parts on different pages are used at the same time, as in case of mathematics or physics books. It also appeared that students remember texts from a paper book better than from an ebook.
Still, even in the cases in which they are preferred, it is a problem that paper books are not searchable. For instance when you are in a bookstore or a library, looking for a book containing something very specific such as one special sentence you remember; such a search could cost hours. Or, when you are reading a detective while sitting lazily on your couch, and suddenly you realize that someone said something which could be a clue, but you do not remember who or when.
Of course, you can try to find sentences or quotes on the internet, but then the atmosphere you were in is lost, whether you were studying hard or you were captivated by the story. Moreover, if it is an older book there is a good chance that it is not in the public domain, and you end up searching, in vain, as long as when you would have searched in the book itself by turning its pages.
To make paper books searchable, Search Tags can be added to the books. There is nothing new about having tags in books; library books have security tags which react when you, accidentally of course, leave the library without having borrowed the book.
A Search Tag for a specific book contains all the metadata of the book, and its content ordered by page number. The tag can only send metadata and page numbers to a “Search Tag app” on your mobile, or perhaps on some other gadget containing the app, such as a book ribbon with a nice, small and flexible keyboard and display which comes with the book.
Having downloaded the Search Tag app, when you are standing before a collection of books, in a bookstore or a library, and would like to know if something specific is in one of the books, you open the Search Tag app, and type in some search words, or (part of) a sentence. The books containing the search words then send you their Author, Title, Year, and the numbers of the pages containing the search result. You indeed can receive answers of many books at once.
Or when you are sitting cosily on the couch reading a detective, and you start to suspect that the butler committed the murder, you can use your phone or the book ribbon to search in earlier pages. You do not have to go to the internet with all its distractions such as a new interesting message, or worse, accidentlly stumbling on a spoiler; you just see pages where your answer might be found, allowing you to happily discover that you were right without having lost the bond with your book.
Tagging and copyright
Tagging the paper books is of course very easy for new books because the publishers can add the Search Tags, but also earlier paper books can be tagged, when scanned and OCRred. It is allowed for libraries to scan their own books even when they still are under copyright, as long as the scans remain behind the library proxy.
Using the Search Tags in the library, which is after all more or less a public space, does not lead to copyright issues because the tags cannot be hacked; they do not send the text, only page numbers, and they can be programmed in such a way that they stop reacting in case something is altered in the way they are approached. Moreover, having some limited range the tags are in fact a property of the book itself; they can only communicate with the Search Tag app when that is in the vicinity of the paper book.
Having scanned the books to be able to make the Search Tags, to further bring paper library books into the digital world by making the books appear in internet searches, small parts of the scans which are made for the tags can be put on the library’s websites, for instance containing the table of contents, a part of the first chapter, and the bibliography. And if server capacity is a problem, these parts of the scans can be sent to Google Books where it is customary to show books that way.
Scanning many more library books would be in any case a very good idea; I have regularly found new books by authors who were apparently completely oblivious of some earlier work about that subject, simply because these books are not online, and not available in libraries the authors know or can visit. I am worried about very many good books between the 1930s and 2000; they exist on some shelves as they always did, but at the same time they have disappeared from sight because we all search digitally now. So scanning them and tagging them would finally bring them into the digital world without losing their individuality as paper books.
A plea for digitally opening up paper books on library shelves should also be made when realizing that these books were all selected by hand, as worthy to become a library book. In the paper days books were never bought in packages; each book was selected and paid for. That alone should make it important enough to scan them all.
There would also be other advantages. Inter Library Loan is often a problem; even though a library is willing to send some book to someone’s library, there are many books not yet in the public domain about which the library is not willing to take the risk of no return, or the books are in no condition to be sent around the world.
If libraries thus make a database of the original scans of their own books they can put that database behind the library proxy, which is allowed in any case in Europe, and open them the moment the book enters the public domain. In the meantime, while they still are in copyright, people can loan the scans through ILL in the same way as books can now be read on ebook platforms. No more paper books will have to be sent unless in special occasions.
The Search Tag and deadlines
A last, very important reason to introduce the Search Tag in the academic world are the time consuming searches for very specific quotes to be used in new books or articles. Especially when you have deadlines.
When we started to write our gossip article about Hamilton, my co-author had asked me to prove what I was claiming, namely that the contemporary view on Hamilton’s private life is almost completely built on on the 1866 story by his eldest son William Edwin Hamilton, mixed with the criticisms of Hamilton’s main biographer, Robert Graves. Steven specifically asked me to find six books in the library which were spread over the years and contained new gossip, in order to quote them literally. It took me many hours to find them. I had to guess whether Hamilton would be mentioned, take the book from the shelf, search the index, search the pages, judge, and in most of the cases put it back. The books being from throughout the 20th century, in hindsight some of them were searchable on the internet, but not after I already knew what the quotes were. Others were completely closed.
That also held for Hankins’ biography; it is not searchable online unless you have an Amazon account, which you can only acquire by buying a book from them, for which you need a credit card which I do not have. While writing my AVM I had borrowed the library copy of Hankins’ biography, and a number of times I had to search for over an hour. For instance when I wanted to use a sentence but Hankins had mentioned it in another chapter than I expected. Graves’ biography was on the Internet Archive and therefore searchable, and the difference between them had made me wonder why it had to be so difficult.
The later long search in the library made me wish for a way to look into the books without having to take them from the shelves, and that is where the Search Tag idea saw its first light.
Making this a reality
Unfortunately I do not have any means to convert this idea into reality, so I figured to describe it here. If any one thinks this is a good idea, please contact me.
Now that the book about Catherine Disney is ready for some time I realize that I am happy that it is finished. It was difficult to immerse myself in such a sad life for such a long time. How it must be to be forced to marry against one’s will is almost unfathomable for any one who is free to choose; it should just not be possible anywhere.
Published in the Dublin Penny Journal, about ten days before Hamilton’s wedding. “We present our readers with a portrait of a singularly large bird, a variety of the Swift, which was caught in the neighbourhood of Rathfarnham in the month of February, 1832. From its great sweep of wing, as well as the circumstance of its appearing at a time of the year when swallows are rarely, if ever, to be seen, it was at first supposed to be a hawk by a boy who perceived it flying about. He pursued it to an outhouse, into which it had flown, but was too late to rescue it unhurt from the murderous talons of a cat that had seized it, as it died soon afterwards. Its colour is exactly that of the common Swift; and the spot on the throat of the same dirty white, but rather larger, and much more distinctly and better marked. Its mouth is considerably larger than even that of the night-jar, or goat-sucker, of the same tribe; it extends far back, quite beneath the eye. The quill feathers of the wings, as well as those of the tail, are very pointed. The tail, which consists of ten feathers, is remarkably different from that of the common swift, the feathers being all nearly of an equal length. This bird measured ten inches from the point of its bill to its tail, and twenty-one inches from tip to tip of its wings. It is preserved in the fine collection of Irish birds of T.W. Warren, Esq.”
It is quite difficult to imagine that the photo in the middle is the same as the left side of both the left and the right photo. The photo in the middle is rotated counter clockwise a little, making Hamilton look slightly different, yet from the details it is clear that it indeed is the same as the left part of the other two photos. That the woman is Hamilton’s daughter Helen Eliza Amelia is known from the description given by Graves. Helen had been ill for long time already, and “at the end of July  Hamilton escorted his daughter, still an invalid, to stay for some time with the Keating family, relations on her mother’s side, at Rhyl, in North Wales. In the beginning of September he carried her off from these kind friends to become the guest of his own maternal relations, Mr. and Mrs. Joseph Willey, at Fulneck, the Moravian settlement near Leeds. Here she was to remain while he attended the Meeting of the British Association at Aberdeen.
“[After the meeting having made various visits,] to rejoin his own daughter at Fulneck was now his aim, and at this Institution he again spent some days, the principal incidents of which were his giving a Lecture on Astronomy to the youthful pupils of both sexes (from whom letters of thanks were addressed to him), and by his sitting, with his daughter standing at his side, for the photographic likeness from which an autotype reproduction has been placed as a frontispiece to the second volume of this work. [...] Hamilton had now the happiness of recognising that the visits in England of his beloved child had been attended by the wished-for result, and in restored health she accompanied him on his return to the Observatory at Dunsink.” But Hamilton in the meantime had heard that his friend John Pringle Nichols had died, and it seems to show that he had been very tired from the meeting and the visits afterwards. Travelling in those days was not easy indeed.
Inbetween Graves had made a remark about the middle photograph, which he chose as a frontispiece in his biography, “And here I take the opportunity of expressing my opinion that this representation of his features stands out from all other photographs of him which I have seen (and I believe I have seen almost all that were taken), as alone doing something like justice to the combined intellectual and moral character of the subject. It exhibits, I think, both in conformation and expression, the profound thinker, the reverent benevolent sage.” Not many photos of Hamilton having been made, this will indeed be the reason that this is the most famous photo of Hamilton.