Duane Hoffmann / msnbc.com
|Research indicates that blog-reading can be habit-forming. Are you hooked yet?
Researchers are using experimental tools to study the very thing you're doing now - reading a blog. Among the findings: Checking your blogs can become as habit-forming as checking your e-mail, to such an extent that blog-reading turns into a wired sort of cigarette break.
The study also suggests how to make blog-reading better - and not surprisingly, some of those suggestions are already being put into effect.
The information-science researchers from the University of California at Irvine - Eric Baumer, Mark Sueyoshi and Professor Bill Tomlinson - say their study is the first to focus on how blogs are consumed rather than how they're created and connected. They cite figures from 2006 indicating that 57 million American adults read blogs, and all signs suggest that blog readership is increasing every month.
"While work has been done in areas such as analyzing conversations between blogs ... and applying social network analysis to blogs ... little work has been done examining the role of the reader in the blogging process," they wrote in a paper presented today in Florence, Italy, at the Association for Computing Machinery's Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems.
After the presentation, Tomlinson said the paper was well-received. "People from Blogger and Google were there," he told me from Florence.
In a UC-Irvine news release, Tomlinson said the paper was "really just the beginning" of an effort to analyze how online media readership (or, more accurately, usership) works. "With the rapid expansion of online social media such as Flickr and YouTube, understanding how people consume these media will be vital to understanding their broader social impacts."
The researchers concede that this study is a small beginning, based on qualitative rather than quantitative observations. Fifteen experimental subjects, ranging from 18 to 33 in age, were asked about their blog-reading habits. Of those 15, 12 turned out to be bloggers themselves, and 11 were students - which means the sample couldn't be regarded as representative of the general population, or even the general Internet-using population. Nevertheless, several themes emerged for further investigation.
Blog reading tended to become a routine almost on a par with "pottering" or "time-wasting" - driven by habit rather than a need to seek out specific content. One 22-year-old student told the researchers that "checking blogs is like checking one's e-mail," while a 24-year-old administrative assistant went even further down that road:
"I don't know if I look forward to [reading blogs] ... I don't really look forward to cigarettes anymore, but it's something that happens through the course of the day that I feel like I might need to do. It just becomes habit, I guess."
The subjects tended to scan their favorite blogs for the top postings in the pile, but didn't make much distinction between an up-to-the-minute post on one blog and a four-day-old post on another - as long as they were on top. The researchers called this "non-chronous" behavior, meaning that little regard was given to the time that the post was published.
The study's blog readers also tended to skim through postings - and they didn't mind much if they missed posts that were farther down the list. The rationale? They could always catch up with the lower posts later.
Age of the 'breader'
The fact that so many of the readers were also bloggers points to another key finding: that the line between creator and consumer is blurring out of existence. The readers said that "being a part" of the community was important to them - for example, by feeling a personal connection with the blog's author (welcome, friend!), or by making insightful comments (add yours below).
Most of the readers felt that the ability to participate in a community of commenters was one of the most important ingredients of a blog. I've certainly found that to be the case, so much so that some folks say they're blogging when they leave comments. As the line continues to blur, bloggers and readers are becoming, um, "breaders." (That word isn't in the study. I wish I could say I thought of it first, but I didn't.)
"Future work should examine the feeling of 'being a part' both in different social media, such as YouTube or Wikipedia, as well as in instances where the division between authors and readers is more nebulous or even nonexistent, such as social networking sites or Twitter," the researchers wrote.
Making blogging better
The researchers noted that user-friendly content tools such as Blogger and Movable Type have made writing a blog easy for a wide audience.
"But until the technology embraces the role of the audience, the full social potential of blogging remains untapped," Baumer said in today's news release. "One of the goals of this research is to stimulate the development of tools to foster that social potential in terms of both readers and bloggers."
One potential tool for blog-readers might be a software add-on that tracked their own reading habits, pointing up patterns they might not see otherwise. Bloggers, meanwhile, could set up logging tools to help them distinguish between different types of readers - and devise strategies for connecting better with their audiences.
I followed up on those suggestions with an e-mail asking about further implications for the blogging trade, and Baumer wrote back from Florence:
"I think there are two sets of implications. One set deals with the design of tools to support blog reading. Since this is still exploratory, we don't have any specific, concrete 'design recommendations,' but rather interesting areas for applications. The facilitation of richer, more nuanced interactions between bloggers and readers is, I think, a big one.
"Another one that I will likely be pursuing is developing tools to encourage reflection and critical engagement. We mention in the paper that blog reading often ends up being habitual and routinized. Readers were very reflective about why they read, but not so much what or how. I'm really interested in developing tools to jostle readers out of their routines, to get them to think critically not just about what is being said by the blogger's words, but what is between and behind the words."
I also asked Baumer whether there might be better ways of measuring engagement or usership than just counting the page views. Were there other metrics that could come into play, or other ways to differentiate between types of blog readers? Here's how he answered:
"Potentially. The biggest splits come along lines of motivation. Was the reader keeping up on a friend, strengthening offline connections, looking for information or news, or something else?
"I agree that page views are a really impoverished metric. One might think about looking at comments, but in some cases we found that people were really hesitant to comment if they didn't feel they had anything to contribute.
"One could envision a sort of lo-fi feedback system, allowing readers to give the blogger a 'thumbs up' or similar positive feedback without having to compose a complete, well-thought-out comment."
Lots of folks are already using those sorts of feedback tools - starting with Slashdot's "meta-moderation" system and moving on to the one-click, thumbs-up system employed by sites ranging from Digg to Newsvine (which was recently purchased by msnbc.com).
Newsvine also makes an effort to "grow" on you - by bringing you into a community, developing cybercafes and giving a column to each user. Users who improve their reputation gain more status ("Vineacity") with time.
Further blurring the line between bloggers and readers, WordPress blogs can offer a feature that lets readers rate the comments of others, known as Comment Karma.
Have you seen other features that could come in handy for the next generation of online interaction? Use the comment box below to share your recommendations as well as your own blog-ological research reports. I'm relying on all you "breaders" to help me out here!
Update for 7:15 p.m. ET: Of course you're religiously checking every posting in Cosmic Log ... but just in case the researchers are correct and you've passed over today's other post, give a second look to "Doomsday and Other Double-Takes."
What's the latest from the Robot Hall of Fame, Science Debate 2008 and, of course, the "doomsday lawsuit" filed against the folks getting ready to start up the Large Hadron Collider? Here are some quick double-takes on some stories we've covered in the past:
RIT / msnbc.com
| Click for video: Watch
three black holes collide.
Researchers have created a first-ever simulation of three black holes circling and colliding, graphically demonstrating how Einstein's version of gravity differs from Newton's.
They say their supercomputer cluster can juggle the interactions of as many as 22 black holes – and help other researchers recognize the signatures of such rare phenomena on the cosmic frontier.
"Twenty-two is not going to happen in reality, but three or four can happen," Yosef Zlochower, a mathematician at the Rochester Institute of Technology's Center for Computational Relativity and Gravitation, said today in a news release. "We realized that the code itself didn't really care how many black holes there were. As long as we could specify where they were located - and had enough computer power - we could track them."
The computer power is key. Three years ago, the same RIT team - including Manuela Campanelli and Carlos Lousto as well as Zlochower - produced a simulation of two black holes colliding in accordance with Albert Einstein's general theory of relativity. Since then, other researchers have developed their own models for simulating black hole collisions.
RIT's newHorizons supercomputer cluster packs quite a punch: It consists of 85 interconnected nodes, each with its own dual processor. The cluster can draw upon 1.4 terabytes of memory and 36 terabytes of storage space. Nevertheless, doing a single simulation run with three black holes required a whole week's worth of time on the cluster, Lousto told me today.
"It's a very complicated system with many variables in four dimensions, including time, and we need good resolution to solve the problem," he said.
Triple-play for Einstein
Black holes are among the most unusual objects in the universe's menagerie - concentrations of matter so dense that nothing can escape its core, not even light. They are thought to come into existence when massive stars collapse upon themselves, or when galaxies are formed. On a completely different scale, some physicists think subatomic collisions could create microscopic black holes that wink in and out of existence in an instant - but that's another story.
The result of the triple-black-hole simulation turned out to be different from what Newtonian physics would have predicted.
"General relativity has stronger effects," Lousto explained. "It's stronger when massive objects - black holes, in this case - are closer. ... And so we see these effects that black holes may collapse altogether and form a larger black hole, rather than flying apart, as with Newtonian gravity."
Just for fun, the RIT team went on to simulate a much more complex interaction between black holes.
"We made an initial configuration of black holes that spelled R-I-T, and showed how they all collide," Lousto said. "If you do this with Newtonian gravity, they fly apart."
Hunting for gravity waves
So what's the big deal? The simulation could point scientists to the actual signature of a triple play in the cosmos - a signature that would be written with gravity waves.
Around the world, highly sensitive experiments are looking for evidence of gravity waves, a phenomenon that is predicted by Einstein's theories but has not yet been observed. The U.S. effort in this field - known as the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-wave Observatory, or LIGO - is conducted from multimillion-dollar facilities in Washington state and Louisiana.
"We expect LIGO will be able to detect gravitational waves within a few years from now," Campanelli told me.
Gravity waves could give scientists a new set of guideposts on the frontiers of physics. But first, they'd have to know exactly what they're looking for.
"In order to confirm the detection of gravitational waves, scientists need the modeling of gravitational waves coming from space," Campanelli said in today's release. "They need to know what to look for in the data they acquire - otherwise it will look like just noise. If you know what to look for, you can confirm the existence of gravitational waves. That's why they need all these theoretical predictions."
Gravity-wave signatures, in turn, could help scientists confirm what they think they know about black holes. "The waveforms are particularly interesting and far more complex than one expected," Campanelli said. If those waveforms show up in data from LIGO, or a yet-to-be-launched space probe called LISA, that would serve as a powerful reality check for decades' worth of theorizing about black holes.
In the years ahead, the RIT research may turn out to be more than just theoretical: Last year, astronomers reported the detection of a triple-quasar system, 10.5 billion light-years away in the constellation Virgo. Each of the quasars is thought to be lit up by superheated gas falling into a black hole at the center of a galaxy.
"This presumably represents the first observed supermassive black-hole triplet," Lousto said.
And there's probably more of them out there, waiting to be discovered. Some theoretical research has indicated that triple-black-hole interactions could occur in the observable universe as frequently as a few times per year. If that's the case, supercomputer simulations could reveal exactly how the cosmic juggling act is done.
The RIT team's research paper on the simulation, "Close Encounters of Three Black Holes," is due to appear in the May issue of Physical Review D. The research also will be presented next week at a meeting of the American Physical Society.
The call is going out for high-school students, and even elementary-school kids and college undergraduates, to take part in missions to Saturn and Mars.
If you have your heart set on Saturn, you can enter the "Cassini Scientist for a Day" contest, which is open to U.S. students in grades 5 through 12. And if you're mad about Mars, you can apply to be part of the Mars Exploration Student Data Teams, open to high-school and college students. Just last month, students involved in that program presented their research at the prestigious Lunar and Planetary Science Conference.
"We've been really impressed by the students' enthusiasm and ability to master complex concepts and software," Kim Seelos, a researcher at Johns Hopkins University's Applied Physics Laboratory and a mentor to one of the Mars research teams, said in a news release. "Working with us allows them to see how the scientific process works, while they also get a chance to make real contributions to an important NASA mission."
Both missions have been sending back important scientific data: The Red Planet program has students work with data from NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter. The Saturn program aims to get kids involved with the scientists and engineers behind the Cassini mission to Saturn and its moons.
Be a Saturn scientist
On June 10, Cassini is scheduled to target Saturn's icy moons Rhea and Enceladus, as well as a region of Saturn's rings that includes the tiny shepherd moon Pan - all in the space of 55 minutes. The students entering the "Scientist for a Day" contest will turn in essays explaining in 500 words or less which image would be the most scientifically interesting.
NASA / JPL-Caltech
|Accompanied by their teacher, Kathy Cooper,
students from Shirley Avenue Elementary School
in Reseda, Calif., gather in front of a half-scale
model of the Cassini spacecraft at NASA's Jet
Propulsion Laboratory. The students participated
in the pilot edition of "Cassini Scientist for a Day."
"It's a really fun way for kids to learn about Saturn and what the mission is doing," Rachel Zimmerman-Brachman, an education and public outreach specialist with NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, said last week. "Students have to do their own research to write their essay. That way, they learn how to ask questions about the solar system and what we still need to understand."
If I had to pick just one of those three targets, it'd be Enceladus: Cassini has already sent back data showing that geysers of water ice are spewing forth from fissures in the moon's south polar region - features that have been nicknamed "tiger stripes." Liquid water, and perhaps even some form of life, may exist beneath the moon's icy surface. Cassini will be in a good position to get a look at the moon's south pole during the June 10 opportunity.
Although Enceladus would be my prime target, the other two targets are anything but boring: Scientists recently found that Rhea may have a set of mini-rings reminiscent of Saturn's own. Studying the saucer-shaped Pan may yield new insights about the origin and development of those stunning rings. So there's plenty to write about, no matter which target you pick. Just be sure you get your essay in by the May 8 deadline.
A panel of scientists, mission planners and educators will judge the essays, and the winners will be invited to a teleconference with Cassini scientists. Everyone who sends in a valid entry for the contest will receive a certificate of participation. Check out NASA's Cassini Web site for complete information and rules.
Join the Mars team
The program for Mars Exploration Student Data Teams is organized by NASA and Arizona State University, and focuses on the data being sent back by the Compact Reconnaissance Imaging Spectrometer for Mars, or CRISM. The spectrometer is an instrument on the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter that can reveal the composition of Mars' surface and even identify the ingredients of the planet's atmosphere.
This year, the program worked with four pilot schools in Missouri, New York and North Carolina.
"Two goals of MESDT are to provide high-school students the opportunity to perform authentic science and to take student-directed research to the next level, and they've certainly done that," project leader Brian Grigsby of Arizona State University's Mars Education Program. "It's really fascinating to see how the teams vary in their approaches because they are coming from different technical situations, yet all are doing a fantastic job."
This job requires much more than a 500-word essay: The students are given low-resolution data from CRISM, and on the basis of their analysis, targeted observations are made at higher resolution. One study mapped potential evidence of volcanic activity on ancient Mars, while another looked at outcrops of claylike minerals that hinted at the past presence of water.
During the next school year, NASA and ASU plan to widen their net. Yet another educational program, the Mars Student Imaging Project, is broadening its scope this year to offer distance-learning opportunities as well as sessions at ASU's Mars Space Flight Facility.
Teams of students, ranging from fifth-graders to college sophomores, will be able to work with scientists, mission planners and educators on projects involving the Thermal Emission Imaging System on NASA's Mars Odyssey orbiter. To get started, just fill out an application.
This year's biggest teachable moment for Mars is coming up on May 25, when the Phoenix Mars Lander is due to touch down in the Red Planet's north polar region. If you want to get in on the landing party during Memorial Day weekend, make your plans now for Planetfest 2008 in California ... or the Phoenix landing celebration at the University of Arizona ... or the Phoenix Mars landing event at Chicago's Adler Planetarium. Or you can click onto NASA Television via your computer and put on your own party.
Do you have other space-related educational opportunities to pass along? Something for Yuri's Night, perhaps? Share them with the class by leaving a comment below.
The aliens on the TV show "Battlestar Galactica," which starts its final season tonight on the SciFi Channel, aren't your usual extraterrestrial baddies: They're highly evolved robots, originally created by the humans they're now fighting against. How highly evolved? The robots are way sexier than the humans.
Justin Stephens / SciFi Channel
| The cyborg known as Six (Tricia Helfer) is
a fembot fatale on "Battlestar Galactica."
Some aspects of the "Galactica" universe may be as bogus as other science-fiction creations (such as spaceships with artificial gravity that instantly jump from one star system to another). But when it comes to the idea that the first intelligent aliens we meet may actually be machines, astronomers say the show is definitely on the right track.
"There are two kinds of encounters with aliens you can have," said Seth Shostak, senior astronomer at the California-based SETI Institute. "Either you pick up a signal, or you pick them up on the corner. But I think it's safe to say that in both instances they will be synthetic. They will be artificial constructions."
That may not be obvious to science-fiction fans who have grown up with soft, squishy aliens like "E.T.," or even noble humanoid visitors like Michael Rennie's Klaatu in "The Day the Earth Stood Still." But Shostak arrives at his conclusion by looking at how rapidly we're developing our own breeds of smarter machines.
"Within another 100 years we will presumably be making thinking machines ourselves," he said. And because we're almost certainly the new kids on the block when it comes to interstellar communication and travel, any civilization that makes contact with us would likely be much farther along.
Such a civilization could create swarms of robo-broadcasters to ping the surrounding habitable star systems, or "one giant machine that's sitting somewhere just belching out the local weather report," Shostak said. If the aliens felt the need to send out actual emissaries, an intelligent machine would be best suited for survival over the time scales required for interstellar flight.
"The chances that it's going to be a little green guy with big eyeballs is pretty remote," Shostak said.
Astronomer Jeffrey Bennett, author of the newly published book "Beyond UFOs," agreed with Shostak's assessment. In his book, Bennett speculates that there might be 100,000 Earthlike planets in our galaxy where intelligent life could have arisen over the past 5 billion years. If you average that out, that comes to one galactic civilization for every 50,000 years. His conclusion? The typical alien civilization will be at least 50,000 years older than ours.
"I find myself personally hesitant to imagine anything that far advanced," Bennett told me. "No one imagined the Internet 50 years ago, and we're trying to imagine what things would be like after 50,000 years of technological development? I just don't think we could make really good guesses, other than to say it will be incredible."
He was willing to go along with the idea that an advanced alien species might be a hybrid of biology and cybernetics - an idea that I addressed a couple of years ago in a highly speculative look at future evolution. "When you look far out, you start to ask yourself where the robot ends and where the organism begins," Bennett said.
However, Bennett and Shostak were both pretty sure that a real alien cyborg wouldn't fill out a red dress the way Six (played by Tricia Helfer) does on "Battlestar Galactica."
"I think people get it wrong when they assume the aliens will be young lovelies," Shostak joked.
Sex and robots
Of course, the "Galactica" writers can explain why the cyborgs (known as Cylons on the show) are so darn good-looking: Because the robots were created by humans in the first place, they'd have a good idea what templates to use if they decided to transform themselves from the shiny toasters of 1978's original "Galactica" into sexy spies.
That sexiness applies to the Cylons' function as well as their form. Without getting too deeply into the series' spoilers, let's just say that the robots are capable of doing anything humans do - including falling in love, getting married and giving birth.
"Battlestar" isn't the first to address this in science fiction, of course. Romance with robots is a familiar plot line to anyone who has seen "Star Trek," "Blade Runner" or other sci-fi classics. But how realistic is the idea?
This topic isn't often addressed by astrobiologists. However, David Levy, an artificial-intelligence researcher at the University of Maastricht, explored the subject of robot-human intimacy in depth last year. His doctoral thesis on sexbots spawned a book titled "Love and Sex with Robots" - in which he contends that the age of robot-human unions may be closer than you think.
"My forecast is that around 2050, the state of Massachusetts will be the first jurisdiction to legalize marriages with robots," Levy told LiveScience.
It may sound outlandish - but then, so does the idea of a pregnant man.
Aliens 'R' Us?
So far, we've been talking about intelligent aliens - the kinds of aliens that make for the complex relationships and ripped-from-the-headlines relevance "Battlestar Galactica" has become famous for.
But the first aliens we're likely to encounter could be in our own celestial backyard, and much harder to figure out. Perhaps we'll find microbes deep beneath the Martian surface. Maybe there are critters lurking in the hidden seas of Jupiter's moons (say, Europa or Callisto) or Saturn's moons (Enceladus or Titan).
"The most likely place where we'd get the first evidence would be from Mars," Bennett said, simply because that's the closest potential target, with an armada of probes already looking for clues. One more probe, the Phoenix Mars Lander, is due to join the search next month.
If a future spacecraft does find something, determining whether it's alien life could be tricky. First of all, is it life, or merely a geological process? The debate over the "nanofossils" found on a Martian meteorite more than a decade ago illustrates how difficult answering that question can be.
If the signature of life happened to be earthlike, you'd have to ask whether that life was truly alien. "There's the possibility of terrestrial contamination, not necessarily from spacecraft, but from meteorites that have flown between the planets," Bennett said.
In fact, some scientists have speculated that life as we know it could have gotten its start on Mars, and then was transferred to Earth before the Red Planet turned dry and cold. If that's the case, we all could be aliens. And darn good-looking ones, too.
For more about Hollywood physics, check out our interactive gallery from Popular Science, plus this recent posting about teleportation in the movies. For more about the science behind "Battlestar Galactica," click your way through the Cinema Boffin postings by Kevin Grazier, a scientist at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory who is also an adviser for the show. And for more about how to spot a Cylon, consult this posting on the io9 blog. In the interest of full disclosure, I should note that the SciFi Channel is owned by NBC Universal, which is a partner along with Microsoft in the msnbc.com joint venture.
Science / Comstock / Corbis
A presidential campaign debate over sci-tech issues in Pennsylvania is looking less and less likely, but the activists behind Science Debate 2008 have a Plan B: If the candidates don't show up for this month's date in Philadelphia, organizers say the debate could still take place in early May during Oregon's vote-by-mail primary.
Those organizers have been working for months to line up the presidential candidates for an event focusing on the issues related to science and technology - issues that range from climate change and energy policy to stem cells, space spending and the role of government in fostering innovation.
"The voters have a right, and the candidates have a moral obligation, for this debate to occur, so that voters may assess the candidates on their positions on the most critical issues facing our nation and planet, the majority of which revolve around science," Shawn Lawrence Otto, a Minnesota screenwriter who is Science Debate Inc.'s chief executive officer, said in an e-mail.
"I have a 12-year-old son," Otto told me. "He is watching this race closely, too. He can't vote, but I am doing this for him. We are a nation that used to gather its children in school auditoriums to watch a moonshot and that prided itself on being the world leader in science. The candidates' reluctance to debate these issues more fully - what may be the most important issues they will have to face - is the very reason why this effort is so necessary."
The organizers went so far as to reserve Philadelphia's Franklin Institute on April 18, just four days before the crucial Pennsylvania primary, just in case they could get the leading candidates on board. The institute saw the political event as the perfect capper for a week set aside to celebrate science's best and brightest.
On the Democratic side, Hillary Clinton's campaign has been noncommittal, while Barack Obama's campaign took a pass, Otto said. The problem is that there's already a debate planned for Philadelphia two days earlier - and yet another debate is being talked about for North Carolina later in the month. That doesn't leave a lot of logistical room for an event focusing on science on April 18.
"The Franklin Institute is continuing to work to make the event happen and remains hopeful they can get a commitment from Clinton, at which point Obama would have to at least re-evaluate," Otto said.
Meanwhile, on the GOP side, presumptive nominee John McCain's campaign has not responded to the Science Debate invitation, Otto said.
If the candidates pass up the Pennsylvania opening, Science Debate 2008 will shift its focus to Oregon, Otto said. Portland State University is being lined up as the proposed venue. Otto said the media partners in the effort would be "Nova," the venerable public-TV science program; and "Now," a more recent public-affairs series on PBS. A panel of scientists and engineers would be asking the questions, with "Now" host David Brancaccio serving as moderator, Otto said.
He said the "Nova"/"Now" pairing would be "a really good marriage between science and public policy."
Mail-in ballots for Oregon's primary are due to go out at the beginning of May, and are supposed to be sent in by primary day on May 20. Otto said organizers were proposing debate dates in early May - just as the voters are giving a close look to those ballots, and just as the Democratic candidates enter the home stretch of the primary campaign.
"The ball is in their court," Otto said.
If the candidates pass up the Franklin Institute event, as now appears likely, the Science Debate deliberations may have to go into wait-and-see mode until the Pennsylvania primary sorts things out (or not). In any case, there's still hope that voters will get their chance to hear what the candidates say about how they would address America's future as well as its present troubles.
Does science have anything to say about the futures of the candidates themselves? That question has been on a lot of minds this week - and to judge by the Iowa Electronic Markets' trading in political futures, things could get more interesting in the weeks ahead. Obama has a widening lead in the handicapping for the Democratic nomination, but the GOP is closing the gap in the expectation game for the November election.
"The numbers have been moving closer together as the nomination process in the Democratic Party becomes more protracted and nominees Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama trade increasingly sharper barbs," the University of Iowa said in a news release this week.
Sean Ahern / ORNL
|This visualization shows how the plasma within the ITER reactor would be heated
by radio frequency waves. Click here to watch a video of the simulation.
The long-term future of energy may well lie in clean, plentiful fusion power - but will the reactors that produce that power carry a "Made in the USA" label? That's a big issue on the agenda for the U.S. ITER program, which is cooperating with six international partners to build the first power-generating fusion prototype in France by 2016.
The year 2016 may sound like a long time from now, but the "Made in the USA" issue isn't something that can be put off for eight years. It needs to be addressed right now - and that's a big problem for Ned Sauthoff, the head of the U.S. ITER Project Office at Oak Ridge National Laboratory.
Here's why the next few months are important: The design for the eight-story-high plasma containment vessel has been in the works for years. After dealing with some last-minute uh-ohs, such as a nasty potential problem with burping plasma, the seven parties in the $13 billion ITER project have finally addressed "most, if not all, of the major construction issues," Sauthoff told me last week during my visit to his headquarters in Tennessee.
Sauthoff said the design outline is expected to become frozen in place around June, when representatives of the project's seven parties (the United States, China, Europe, India, Japan, Russia and South Korea) meet in Japan.
"The schedule would say it has to be frozen this summer," he said. Then the specs would be reviewed by the parties and sent out to contractors by the end of the year. (ITER used to stand for International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor, but nowadays the effort's publicity material downplays the acronym and plays up the idea that it's a Latin word for "the way." The June meeting is the next milestone along the way.)
Each of the parties behind ITER has been given responsibility for jobs that add up to a percentage of the total project. For the United States, that amounts to 9.1 percent - taking in parts of the doughnut-shaped reactor vessel as well as vacuum pumps and some of the plumbing, superconducting cables and more. Different nations will provide some of the same components for the reactor.
That piecemeal approach is deliberate, Sauthoff said. "ITER is not in itself designed to do things in the most cost-effective way," he admitted. Rather, it's designed to give all the partners a piece of the technological action.
"Everybody wants to make their own ITER at the end of the day," Sauthoff explained.
Fusion and financial frustrations
This is where Sauthoff is facing a dilemma: He and his colleagues at U.S. ITER are responsible for providing the components they've promised, whether they're built in the United States or elsewhere.
"Our desire is to spend the U.S. money, as much as possible, in the U.S.," Sauthoff said. But different countries have different ways of making things.
For instance, consider one of the high-tech blanket shield modules for the reactor vessel. Making that module is much like making an engine for an automobile, Sauthoff said. There are several ways to do it - casting the module from alloy, forging a block and then drilling it out, or even creating it from metal powder using a technology called hot isostatic processing.
|Ned Sauthoff heads
the U.S. ITER project.
Automakers might well be in a good position to make those modules, but would they be U.S., Japanese or American automakers? If the components can't be made in America to fit the international specifications, they'd have to be made somewhere else - with the American taxpayer footing the bill.
Sauthoff had been planning to work with potential U.S. manufacturers this year to make sure they could meet the specs. Then, in a surprise move, Congress axed virtually all the money that was set aside for ITER operations during the current fiscal year. That left the manufacturers in the dark.
"We were expecting to do $50 [million] to $100 million worth of industrial presentations. ... That's the major consequence of our little bump in the road," Sauthoff said.
U.S. ITER's industrial efforts haven't completely come to a standstill. "I had a little bit of a war chest put away," Sauthoff said. But he's really hoping for some of the money to be restored in a supplemental appropriation, which may be attached to a war-funding measure expected to come up in Congress sometime in the next couple of months. And he's absolutely counting on Congress to come through with the money sought for the next fiscal year.
He isn't the only one in wait-and-see mode. So far, the other ITER parties have been sympathetic to Sauthoff's political plight, but he said "their patience will not extend into '09."
Is this trip necessary?
Is commercial fusion power worth getting impatient about? After all, there are lots of other energy sources out there, ranging from biofuels and cleaner coal to resurgent nuclear fission power and renewable solar and wind power.
ITER / ORNL
|This artist's conception shows a cutaway of the ITER
plasma containment vessel. A human figure is
included at lower right to provide a sense of scale.
Click on the image for a larger version.
Sauthoff agrees that fusion won't be the magic solution to the energy problems, even in the year 2050. "This problem is bigger than what any single technology will solve," he said.
However, if ITER and its successors work the way engineers think they will, fusion could fit a big niche now occupied by oil-fired, gas-fired, coal-fired and nuclear power plants - the very niche that will need something totally new in the next few decades.
At the currently projected rate of growth in energy consumption, the world will be using 50 to 100 times as much energy in the 2050-2100 time frame. "In roughly 50 years, we better change a large part of the way we produce energy, particularly if the developing world is going to be striving to get the energy consumption of the developed world," Sauthoff said.
If the fusion reaction can be perfected by that time, the technology would offer a huge advantage: The fuel for fusion - isotopes of hydrogen that are combined to produce helium plus surplus energy - can be isolated from sea water. And it doesn't take much of that fuel.
In order to generate 1,000 megawatts of electricity in a day, you could burn 9,000 tons of coal, liberating 30,000 tons of carbon dioxide in the process. Or you could take a few pounds of deuterium and tritium, and turn that into a slightly smaller amount of helium - without producing any greenhouse gases.
Forever in the future?
When you get right down to it, even oil and gas, wind and solar power can be traced back to the closest working fusion reactor we know: the sun. Scientists have been working for decades to capture that solar-style power plant in a magnetic bottle.
Sauthoff has heard the old joke: "Fusion is the energy source of the future, and always will be." He admits that 20 years ago, his predecessors were saying commercial fusion power was just 20 years away. But the way he sees it, those estimates were stated in the wrong way.
"We measure progress by dollars," he said. Thus, the old estimates should have been cast as projecting commercial fusion power after 20 years, based on annual funding of $2 billion, he said. Today, Sauthoff estimates that commercial fusion is about 35 years away, based on the current funding plan.
The U.S. Department of Energy's plan calls for spending $214.5 million on ITER in the coming fiscal year, with the total U.S. project cost for the construction phase amounting to between $1.45 billion and $2.2 billion by 2015. (Remember, that figure should represent 9.1 percent of the full ITER cost.)
The U.S. share of operating costs would amount to about $80 million a year between 2015 and 2034, according to the Energy Department's plan, and decommissioning ITER would cost the federal government $1.25 billion.
Can scientists and engineers actually figure out how to create a controlled fusion reaction with a net energy gain? So far, we've just been talking about the ITER approach to the fusion puzzle - but the government is funding two other approaches as well:
Sauthoff said he welcomed those alternative efforts to solve the puzzle.
"First you do the physics," he said. "You get yourself a burning plasma. Once you've gotten a burning plasma, then it's a matter for the politicians to decide, do they want to invest in the technology? ... Let's just play by the same rules."
Do those sound like rules to live by? Feel free to weigh in on the promise and the puffery surrounding fusion research by leaving your comments below.
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SNS / ORNL
|This graphic shows components from various national labs that were put together
to create the $1.4 billion Spallation Neutron Source at Oak Ridge in Tennessee.
Technically speaking, the $1.4 billion Spallation Neutron Source is the world's most powerful accelerator-based source of neutrons - but the people who run the sprawling facility prefer to think of it as one of the highest-resolution microscopes ever built.
"You can think of this as a better, and better, and better digital camera," operations manager Frank Kornegay said last week, during a tour of the 80-acre site at Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee. "You can actually see electrons change state."
These snapshots aren't just for fun, however. The neutron-scattering patterns produced by the device show how materials ranging from industrial alloys to drug molecules are structured at the molecular level - and how they hold up under stressful conditions.
That could lead to better breeds of DVDs and other data storage media ... sturdier metals for engine parts ... more resilient skins for cars and airplanes ... new superconducting materials that work at higher temperatures ... plastics that stand up better to wear and tear, or degrade more easily when they're thrown away ... more effective medicines, and longer-lasting artificial joints.
Kornegay ushered me through the Spallation Neutron Source's industrial-style headquarters last week as if it were a fancy new home - and it is fancy and new, as nuclear physics facilities go. The place produced its first neutrons less than two years ago, and there are a couple of spots still open for beamline instruments.
Researchers put in proposals to use the facility, and business is brisk. Like the Hubble Space Telescope, the Spallation Neutron Source has a panel of experts who select which experiments get to use time on the machine. "We're oversubscribed by a factor of three," Kornegay said.
How it works
Neutron sources may not get as much press as particle accelerators such as the Tevatron and the Large Hadron Collider, but they have a lot of technology in common - and the practical applications are more obvious.
Lynn Freeny / ORNL
|Samuel McKenzie examines a magnet used
to accelerate ions in the Spallation Neutron
Source, a sprawling facility at Oak Ridge
National Laboratory in Tennessee.
The front end of the Spallation Neutron Source is a 1,000-foot-long (330-meter-long) underground linear accelerator (or "linac") that blasts out negatively charged hydrogen ions. At the far end of the linac, the ions zoom through a foil that strips away the electrons, and the protons that remain are revved up in an accelerator ring to about 86 percent of the speed of light.
Pulses of protons - about a quadrillion protons per second - are fired at a container of liquid mercury. Each proton knocks about 20 neutrons off the mercury nuclei, much as one cue ball scatters the other balls lined up on a pool table. That's what's known as spallation.
The spalled, or scattered, neutrons are channeled through multiple beam lines to an array of instruments that works like a Swiss army knife for physics experiments: spectrometers and diffractometers over here, reflectometers and choppers over there. The "blades" of this all-purpose knife are spread out inside an industrial hall about as big as a college basketball gym.
"Each beam line is 12 million to 20 million bucks," Kornegay said.
How it's used
Inside the instruments, researchers place samples of the materials they want to study - for example, a new copper alloy that is being considered for use in engine radiators. When the neutron beam hits that alloy, the pattern of scattering can show exactly how the atoms of copper and other metals are lined up in the alloy. The researchers can read the patterns to find out if the composition of the alloy is what they were expecting - and figure out how to change the composition to make the material stronger.
Kornegay gave another example: Suppose a medical researcher wanted to encapsulate molecules of insulin in carbon nanotubes to create a new drug delivery system for diabetics. The neutron microscope could show whether or not the manufacturing process put the insulin in the right place - and whether or not the insulin is released as expected.
Researchers can monitor molecular changes in real time. "You can actually see proteins and enzymes in action," Kornegay said. "Nobody's wanted to put something alive in here, but I know that's coming."
The Spallation Neutron Source has already been recognized by the Guinness Book of World Records as the most powerful facility of its kind, wresting the title away from Britain's Rutherford Appleton Laboratory. The first peer-reviewed article based on research from the facility has just been published in Physical Review Letters. But for Kornegay and his colleagues, all this is only the beginning.
Oak Ridge is looking into ways to bring in research on a proprietary basis for a dollars-per-hour rate - which could attract business from some of the country's biggest industrial players. Kornegay expects the Spallation Nuclear Source to be in business for a long, long time: 40 years, to be exact.
"This is the microscope of the 21st century," he said.
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