Nordic Track Book Club Review: Present at the Future

In Present at the Future, NPR Science Friday host Ira Flatow writes about trends in science and technology.  The book covers issues in nanotechnology, space travel, global warming, alternative energies, stem cell research, and using the universe as a super–super computer.  Geeky and illuminating.  4 out of 5 stars.


p.10 Magnetic resonance images are good at detecting changes in the brain which occur every time you learn something new.

p.16 Those dendritic trees make up different memory systems in our brain.  When you experience something the information enters your brain through different sensory pathways.  The information fuses at some point into an integrated perception.  When you remember something your brain is stimulated to activate a certain pattern of neurons.

p.19 If you stay mentally active you build up connectivity in the brain that can protect you against a siege of disease.

Everything that we know that’s good for the heart is also good for the brain.  So promoting optimal diet, exercise and managing stress, these all will help insure brain health as we age.

p.106 (On energy.) I don’t think most people realize how much grain it takes to run an automobile, but the grain required to fill a 25-gallon SUV tank with ethanol will feed one person for a year.  Our best bet for developing ethanol is not to use food crops to produce it but to use other plants that we don’t eat such as switchgrass or some agricultural residues, or wood chips that will not compete directly with the food supply.

Just as forests are grown and harvested for wood pulp, forests can be harvested for fuel.  We can start with a 6-inch willow sprig and literally in 3 years it’s 30-feet tall.

There will be no source of ethanol, nor cellulosic ethanol that will be able to compete with the equivalent of a one-dollar-per-gallon wind energy.  Wind turbines can produce at under 5-cents per kilowatt hour, making your plug-in auto cheaper to run than a gas-powered model.

p.117 We are seeing some environmentalists who were once originally opposed to nuclear power now saying that compared with global warming, nuclear energy poses a much smaller threat.  (Discussion of the small-scale pebble bed reactors follows.)

p.133 But what really makes coal an option for the future is the potential to clean up the coal-fired power plants so that they emit no more pollutants.

p.142 Froetschner, a farmer in Spearville, Kansas has 16 spinning wind turbines on his farm north of town.  Over the next 30 years the local electricity utility will pay the farmers and the county almost 10 million for the use of their land.  So while Froetschner pumps out electricity, the utility company pumps currency back into the local economy.

According to the Department of Energy, just 3 states–Texas, Kansas and North Dakata–have enough wind-power potential to provide power to the rest of the United States.  One solution to distributing all of that electricity is to extend the grid to those remote regions.  But if already spending billions of dollars, why not think bigger?  Why not something new?  Why not convert the electricity into hydrogen and pipe or truck it to service stations to be pumped into electric cars or plants running on fuel cells.  In other words, don’t think of hydrogen as the energy.  Think of hydrogen as the carrier of the energy, the universal storage system of electricity.

p.148 A company called Nanosolar has found a way to coat strips or sheets of thin metal with photovoltaic plastic, akin to printing ink on paper, opening up the possibility that solar panels could be placed on any building surface exposed to the sun.

In the space program, milestones were set and met.  Technologies were developed to meet each target.  The same needs to be done in energy, says Jaffe.  We need to set goals and targets.  We need to know where we need to be in what year.  We need to lay these things down together so that we understand the science that’s possible at which time, in which fields, so that we understand what fuels are going to provide us an escape from emissions and which ones aren’t and that we have a coordinated national policy.

p.180 It’s time to turn space travel over to the private sector where it can be commercialized.  Let’s stop NASA from doing any launches, human or otherwise, from earth to low-earth orbit, and from low-earth orbit to the moon.  Let them focus their energy and attention on those types of transportation systems that would be a huge spur to this industry.


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A long time developer, I was an early adopter of Linux in the mid-90's for a few years until I entered corporate environments and worked with Microsoft technologies like ASP, then .NET. In 2008 I released Sueetie, an Online Community Platform built in .NET. In late 2012 I returned to my Linux roots and locked in on Java development. Much of my work is available on GitHub.