Taipei’s 728-Ton Pendulum– In Motion

Transmitted on Jun 27 2008 to design & architecture

Many (if not all) high-rise buildings are designed to withstand tremendous shock by “flexing” in respond to wind and events on the ground. Newer and much larger buildings, such as those currently going up in Dubai, Beijing and Bangalore, include massive counterweights to re-stabilize afterwards. These are referred to as “tuned mass dampers” or “harmonic absorbers”, and are also used in restabilizing cars and airplanes.

One of the more beautiful of these, linked from the Long Now blog, is the 728-ton mass damper in use in Taiwan’s “Taipei 101″ building. During the recent earthquakes, someone was able to film this massive pendulum in action. Pretty amazing.

Alternative Energy Gets a Reality Check

Transmitted on Jun 26 2008 to earth & nature

Physics professor David McKay has been trying to find the best sustainable energy source to power England. Unlike the vast majority of sustainability advocates, however, he brings some pretty cold logic to the table:

If we covered the windiest 10 per cent [of the UK] with windmills, we might be able to generate half of the energy used by driving a car 50 km [31 miles] per day each. Britain’s onshore wind energy resource may be “huge,” but it’s not as huge as our huge consumption. I should emphasize how audacious an assumption I’m making. [...] The windmills required [...] are fifty times the entire wind hardware of Denmark; seven times all the windfarms of Germany; and double the entire fleet of all wind turbines in the world.

Kay moves on to dismantle (or is it dismember?) various alternative energy models, including solar power (which requires obscene amounts of space, especially in a place as sunless as England) and biofuel, which is scarcely better.

The most efficient plants … deliver an average power of 0.5W/m2. Let’s cover 75 per cent of the country with quality green stuff. That’s 3000m2 per person devoted to bio-energy. This is the same as the British land area currently devoted to agriculture. So the maximum energy available, ignoring all the additional costs of growing, harvesting, and processing the greenery, is … 36 kWh/d per person.

Wow. That’s not very much, considering the outrageously generous assumptions we just made [in order] to get a big number.

One interesting suggestion involves using land in North Africa for solar power and routing the current over the sea, counteracting the limited space available for solar panels in Europe. This still doesn’t deliver a whole lot of energy, but it’s feasible.

Part of my respect for Dr. Kay comes from his sheer level of thinking. All of his calculations are based on the assumption that everything is used to its fullest potential– making the results even more scary. In considering hydroelectric power, Kay envisions “millions” of water pumps moving water uphill, poised to create waterfalls-on-demand should the hydro systems fail. Kay’s contribution to the clean-energy discussion is bound to generate some exceptional new ideas–and, perhaps, some much-needed perspective.

Kay’s book, Without the Hot Air, is freely downloadable (still in progress, he claims) here. Well worth a read.

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“Nanophotography” Captures Nature’s Microscopic Beauty

Transmitted on Apr 28 2008 to technology

A new gallery of microscopic photography over at Wired presents some stunning glimpses of the very small. This gold crystal was captured through a state-of-the-art imaging process which runs tiny lasers back and forth across a surface, detecting even the smallest textural detail. Beautiful work.


Farewell, Clarke

Transmitted on Mar 18 2008 to technology

Arthur C. Clarke, one of the pioneering minds of science fiction and a significant scientist and inventor, passed away at the age of 90 today. Many of his words have served me in my deepest inspirations over the years, and his startlingly prescient novels somehow become more relevant with time. From 2001 to Childhood’s End to (my favorite) The Light of Other Days (coauthored with Stephen Baxter), Clarke’s stories entangled Eastern thought with a Science both powerful and savagely human; his characters, flawed and often unaware of the significance of their actions, confronted awe-inspiring and immeasurable ethical, spiritual, and moral challenges with ingenuity, maturity, and of course, incredible new technologies that, more often than not, caused more problems than they solved. Ultimately mankind, at least in Clarke’s mind, would always rise to the occasion… even if it meant growing up a little.

Rest in peace, Arthur. We owe our future to you.

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