Recently in Science Category

Texas has 500 times more water underground than anything you see above the surface.  The question is, how much do we pump and how fast?
Late last year I reported on a project called Our Desired Future that focuses on issues surrounding groundwater conservation in Texas. I'm now happy to report that the new ODF website has launched, and one of its first video features is about the "rule of capture" in Texas, using Pecos County and Fort Stockton - my hometown - as examples of the complications that arise when people are allowed to legally pump all the water they can.

You can watch it on the ODF website, or you can view it right here:



Our Desired Future is an impressive and interesting resource for anyone interested in the potential impact of groundwater depletion in Texas. Most of our state is no longer in the grip of the years-long drought that emptied many of our lakes, but we're in no position to be complacent with respect to water usage. Education is key to combating complacency.

Regardless of where you come down on the issue of water ownership, the stories and statistics on the new website are worth spending time with.
For those who were unable to experience the joyous, mystical, deliriously magnificent spectacle of Venus crawling across the face of old Sol like a mobile blackhead, you'll get another chance to see it in about 105 years. But if you have other plans - like, say, washing your flying car or catching Betty White live on the 200th season of Dancing With The Stars - never fear. I've painstakingly rendered a faithful, um, rendering of today's astronomical anomaly, so that no one will have to miss out on this special event.

And, as is so often the case where serendipity smiles on the innocent bystander, I also managed to capture a concurrent astronomical event that happened so quickly that I doubt that anyone but me saw it, much less recorded it. What can I say? That's mi vida loco, you know. Anyway, scroll down and tell your grandkids you saw it here. (Bonus: If you scroll really, really fast, you'll get a special visual treat.)

Scientific Rendering
Scientific Rendering
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Scientific Rendering
As you've probably already heard, the Texas Railroad Commission (the oversight agency for the Texas oil and gas industry, for the non-Texians in the audience) today approved a regulation that will require the public disclosure of chemical ingredients used in hydraulic fracturing of oil and gas wells permitted on or after February 1, 2012 [read the RRC's news release]. This is a groundbreaking (no pun intended) move that, among other things, demonstrates that the industry can work in harmony with traditionally adversarial groups when it wants to. These regulations were widely supported not only by environmental and public advocacy groups, but also by oil and gas operators.

The report from the hearing [PDF] in which the final rules were approved makes for interesting reading, especially the sections documenting the public comments regarding the proposed regulations. (One item of note is Exxon's hearty approval of the rules, despite the fact that they are not one of the companies [PDF] who is currently voluntarily providing the information.) Update: Sorry; I just noticed that Exxon is actually listed under the entry for XTO Energy.

Many people may not realize that about eighty oil and gas companies doing business in Texas have already been voluntarily making these disclosures via a website called FracFocus. Not every well fracked by these companies is listed, but there's a big database already being built, and a very user-friendly interface for searching for wells in a given geographic area to find out what's being pumped into the ground to make the wells more productive. This same website will become the vehicle for the required reporting under the new regulations. 

I think it's safe to say that the Texas regulations will become a model for other states to follow as they deal with concerns over hydraulic fracturing (which, by the way, has been around for 60 years, has been applied to more than a million completions, and which has never - in Texas, anyway - been linked to groundwater contamination, regardless of what propaganda like the "documentary" Gasland would have us believe). This action will also probably head off federal intervention which would undoubtedly be more onerous and less logical.

I expressed support for public disclosure on this site a year ago. I thought it was a wise idea then, while I was a non-industry worker, and I still do, as an oil and gas company employee (a company that is already voluntarily disclosing frac ingredients via the FracFocus website).

However...

I doubt that disclosure of the list of chemical ingredients is going to be of much practical use to most people. A list of obscure compounds simply won't be meaningful to the layperson. For example, let's look at the Hydraulic Fracturing Fluid Product Component Information Disclosure sheet [PDF] for SM Energy's University 7 Berkley #6 well located in Andrews County, just north of Odessa. SM Energy is my employer, by the way; it's only fair to use one of our own wells in this example.

The Berkley #6 is an oil well with a vertical depth of almost two miles. During the completion process, the formation was fractured using a solution of over 700,000 gallons of water (an Olympic-sized swimming pool holds only about 600,000 gallons), into which was mixed a combination of 27 additional substances, ranging from the mundane (citric acid) to the exotic (dodecylbenzenesulfonic acid, cytclohexene, and alkylaryl ethoxylate). Some of these substances comprised as little as .0005% of the total injected volume, or the equivalent of less than four gallons. I don't know about you, but I really can't assess whether this concentration of 2-butoxyethanol or sodium metaborate is a bad thing or not. This stuff is 10,000' underground, with several million (billion?) tons of rock on top of it. How can I assess the risk of having a chemical that, for all I know, occurs naturally elsewhere, pumped in relatively minute quantities into a deep hole in the ground?

If you looked at the above-linked PDF, you may have noticed a column labeled "Chemical Abstract Service Number (CAS #)." The CAS is a division of the American Chemical Society, and it maintains a database (registry) of more than 60 million substances. If you can access this database, you can learn a bit about the nature of these substances. Unfortunately, you have to be a paid subscriber to access the official CAS registry; fortunately, other organizations are more altruistic and offer alternative methods of access. The best CAS search engine I've found is provided by the National Institute of Health's PubChem service. Simply type the CAS # into the search box, click "Go," and on the resulting page, click the "Full Report" link to get more information about the chemical than you probably ever wanted to know.

I'm of the opinion that giving the public more information is almost always better than giving it less, even if that information might be subject to misinterpretation or even misuse. Our industry stands to lose a lot more than it might gain by continuing to keep fracking contents secret.
As we creep inexorably toward the one-year mark without meaningful rainfall (how mind-boggling is that, anyway?), ideas that were once bandied about in sci-fi mode now start to take on some semblance of credibility. Like, for example, the idea that we have plenty of water available to Texas, it's just a bit on the salty side. So, let's build some big honkin' desalination plants like Saudi Arabia has and we can solve a bunch of our water shortage issues.

Unfortunately, the reality is depressingly ironic. As this Reuters article points out, the Saudis are starting to worry more about peak water than peak oil, and the cost of desalination is starting to make a significant dent in their oil-derived riches.

It's an understatement to say that the Saudis are ginning out a lot of desalinated water. The quoted figure of 3.36 million cubic meters per day equates to almost 900 million gallons per day, enough to supply the equivalent of five cities the size of Midland with their entire water usage. The problem is the expense of producing that water. Using today's currency exchange rate, it's costing almost $2.4 million per day to make the water, and that doesn't include the cost of transporting it.

Of course, the Saudis are hit with a "double dip," as they're using oil and gas to produce the water that they would otherwise have been selling to us. The article estimates that about half the cost of desalination is energy-related.

Desalination is still something that needs to be considered as a way of mitigating the effects of our extreme drought, but it's not only a long-term solution, but also an expensive one. On the other hand, all the cheap alternatives are gone.

Playing with Uranus
April 6, 2011 2:34 PM | Posted in: ,

Hey, they started it!

Nevertheless, I think you'll be impressed by this interactive 3D model of the solar system.

What did you think I was talking about?

Is it time for Al Gore to return his Nobel?
December 22, 2009 5:50 PM | Posted in:

Roger L. Simon focuses on some very interesting new research regarding so-called "global warming" (and, yes, I use the scare quotes intentionally):
In his paper, Qing-Bin Lu, a professor of physics and astronomy, shows how CFCs - compounds once widely used as refrigerants - and cosmic rays - energy particles originating in outer space - are mostly to blame for climate change, rather than carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions. His paper, derived from observations of satellite, ground-based and balloon measurements as well as an innovative use of an established mechanism, was published online in the prestigious journal Physics Reports.
Lu's paper goes on to state that while the earth did indeed experience warming from 1950-2000, it has been cooling since 2000 and he predicts that trend will continue for another 50 years.

So, will Gore return his Nobel Prize? The likelihood of that happening is about the same as Lu's research and findings getting significant legacy media coverage.

Seeing is Disbelieving
November 7, 2009 11:26 AM | Posted in:

Brains are funny things [Via Neatorama].


The Anatomy of a Curve Ball
November 1, 2009 6:29 PM | Posted in: ,

In honor of the World Series (which I understand is being contested now between two teams indistinguishable from Yankees, regardless of what they're called, and thus is of absolutely no consequence to your scribe) here's an analysis of why a well-pitched curve ball is the stuff of batters' nightmares. The animated visual is particularly remarkable.

The linked post postulates that there are two aspects of a curve ball that confound batters. There is an actual physical phenomenon that causes the ball to move along a non-straight route, but its trickiness is compounded by a perceptual trick that exaggerates the effect for batters. I wonder if the better hitters are able to either compensate for or completely overcome this perceptual "puzzle."

I wouldn't know, personally, because the curve ball is only one of a long list of pitches I cannot now and never could hit.
...the goal of reading is to go beyond the author's ideas to thoughts that are increasingly autonomous, transformative, and ultimately independent of the written text. ... The experience of reading is not so much an end in itself as it is our best vehicle to a transformed mind, and, literally and figuratively, to a changed brain.
We were never born to read. [With the invention of reading] we rearranged the very organization of our brain, which in turn expanded the ways we were able to think, which altered the intellectual evolution of our species.

Proust and the Squid: The Story and Science of the Reading Brain is a delightful rarity: a treatise that will pass the strictest scholarly and scientific scrutiny while being completely accessible - and fascinating - to the layperson. The author, Maryanne Wolf, is a professor of child development at Tufts University near Boston, and she also directs the Center for Reading and Language Research. Her passion is developing a better understanding of how the human brain re-organized (and re-organizes) its own circuitry to permit people to communicate through the written word. But her research isn't limited to the historical or theoretical; she's also determined to find ways to cope "when the brain can't learn to read." And her focus isn't limited to the past or present; she's doing her best to look into the future to see how our transformation into a digital society might affect our reading skills.

The book is less than 250 pages (with another sixty pages devoted to notes, sparing the casual reader a slog through the omnipresent footnotes that mark an academic text), but its breadth and scope are expansive. Wolf takes us through the known history of writing, starting with clay tokens dating to 8,000 BC and which represented the first accounting records; to Sumerian cuneiforms and Egyptian hieroglyphics; to the first alphabet (attributed to Semitic workers living in Egypt around 1,900 BC); with a detour through Greece to explore the surprising condemnation of writing by none other than Socrates, who believed that the access to unsupervised reading would lead to undisciplined thinking, erroneous conclusions, and the destruction of memory.

The author then describes at length what goes on inside the brain when we read. Thanks to advances in brain mapping, scientists can now literally see the process of reading played out across the brain, beginning with visual recognition of the words, followed by word-specific activation, phonological processing (connecting letters to sounds), and, finally, semantic processing (assessing varied meanings and associations), all of which takes place in the normal reading brain in .2-.5 of a second. If this sounds overwhelming, never fear. Wolf considerately places this jargon-heavy science into a neat package of italicized text, and points out that those who aren't all that interested can skip to the next section and be no worse for having done so.

Then, having described how the brain is supposed to handle the process of reading, she delves into those situations where it doesn't work that way. She spends a great deal of time on dyslexia, a syndrome that still isn't fully understood although great strides are being made in that direction. If nothing else, Wolf offers great hope to those who have children or other loved ones who are having difficulty learning to read. She urges calmness and patience in the case of children who seem to be "behind the curve," as the acquisition of reading skills varies greatly among individuals.

Wolf comes by this advice honestly; her children are dyslexic, and she and her husband had several dyslexic ancestors. She presents compelling evidence that dyslexia isn't an unmitigated curse, as there are too many examples of brilliant dyslexics whose contributions to culture and society through the ages are unmistakable and invaluable. In her words, dyslexia, with its seemingly untidy mix of genetic talents and cultural weaknesses, exemplifies human diversity├▒with all the important gifts this diversity bestows on human culture.

Finally, Wolf ponders the implications of a digital society, where the traditional written word has been replaced by pixels and sound bites. If the book has a weakness, it comes here, as the subject is given relatively short shrift. But at least one set of questions illuminates one significant source of concern:

Will unguided information lead to an illusion of knowledge, and thus curtail the more difficult, time-consuming, critical thought processes that lead to knowledge itself? Will the split-second immediacy of information gained from a search engine and the sheer volume of what is available derail the slower, more deliberative processes that deepen our understanding of complex concepts, of another's inner thought processes, and of our own consciousness?

I can't think of anyone to whom I wouldn't recommend this book, but I think it's an especially valuable and enlightening resource to three groups. First, educators who teach reading will benefit from the author's insights about how the human brain learns to comprehend the written word. Second, parents of young, pre-literate children need to understand the long-term significance of that seemingly simple things - like merely talking to their children - can have on their ability to achieve effective literacy (pay close attention to her thoughts about "the war on word poverty").

The third group is perhaps less obvious. I think that writers, professional and otherwise, will benefit from Wolf's perspective about the purposes of reading. Writers would do well to internalize the quote that introduces this post and ponder the implication that their words are most successful when they provide not an end, but a beginning ├▒ a jumping off point where their readers build upon a foundation in ways that the author may not be able to conceive.

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