Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Graduation speech (La Trobe University)

Although I have been a solar energy inventor since 2004, I occasionally receive invitations that result from my prior working life as an applied mathematician.  One such invitation was to give the occasional address for science and engineering graduates at La Trobe University in Melbourne. 

I was pleased to receive the invitation, since it gave me the chance to prepare some careful thoughts about why I do the things I do.  The text of the speech, as given yesterday (16 May 2012), follows.

Vice-Chancellor, Deputy Vice-Chancellor, Distinguished Guests, Graduates and their supporters

I offer my congratulations to all graduates, as well as to their parents, friends and family members.  I expect you all have a sense of accomplishment and pride at the moment, and rightfully so.  Personally, I’m in awe of the collective achievements celebrated here today.

To introduce my remarks, I ask you to take part in an imagination exercise.  Close your eyes for a few moments if that will help.

Imagine planet Earth in orbit around the sun.  The Earth is a ball of rock, 12,700 km in diameter, with extensive oceans and a molten iron core.  The sun, 1.4 million km across and 150 million km from Earth, is a massive nuclear fusion reactor half-way through its 10 billion year lifetime.  In each second, the sun radiates some 10,000 times the total energy content of Earth’s fossil fuel resources as estimated in 2010. 

More than 70% of the Earth’s surface is water, and there’s a shimmer of atmosphere, which for most purposes stretches only a few dozen km above the surface.  So in your imagination you can see a brilliant yellow star, and a mainly blue planet with weather patterns and some land mass.

That’s it – our spaceship home!  It has all we need to sustain us.  Provided we are good custodians, it will sustain us for a very long time.

Within the context of caring for our planet, I want to make some comments today in defence of science and engineering.

For 30 years, I was a mathematician employed in academia and then CSIRO, where I managed CSIRO’s applied mathematicians for a dozen years.  My lifetime’s professional experience involves application of mathematical models to physical and industrial processes.  I can cite numerous case studies across all industry sectors showing the benefits of these models developed in collaboration with experts from other disciplines.  Typical benefits include greater efficiency, increased profits, or better management of the physical world around us. 

Eight years ago, I resigned from CSIRO and set up my own business, Sunoba Pty Ltd.  I’d become concerned about the prospects for our planet, and I’d decided to spend my remaining productive years working on renewable energy devices for power generation and desalination.  In particular, I was looking for ways to exploit Australia’s unique advantages – bountiful sunshine, abundant land.  I was looking for breakthroughs, not incremental improvements.

I’m about to describe a big trap.  It’s easy to ignore because it’s not having an immediate impact on us.  But the logic of it all is clear, and that’s the message I want to communicate today.

Although our planet is large, it is of course finite.  If humankind adopts a Business-As-Usual pathway for another 100 years, our treasure of resources will be extensively depleted, exhausted in some instances, and we’ll have to feed a population of perhaps 10-12 billion.  Two issues are obvious.

Firstly, Climate Change.  This “debate”, in inverted commas, is a strange beast.  Several weeks ago, ABC TV ran a program entitled “I can change your mind … about climate change”.  The impression was that both sides of the debate have equal plausibility, so warmists and deniers were given equal billing.  But equal plausibility is only the public perception, and it’s fanned by groups with narrow sectional interests and by mainstream media that is sensationalist and uncritical.  In contrast, many prestigious scientific societies around the world state that climate change is happening and that humans are responsible.  Amongst professional climate scientists, that view is effectively unanimous.

And here’s where the science and engineering come in.  Experts develop mathematical and computational models for combustion of fossil fuels, then models for the spread and persistence of CO2 in the atmosphere, models for the absorption of infra-red radiation by CO2, models for heat dispersal in the atmosphere and oceans, models for feedbacks, models for water vapour, and so on.  I know about these models; I can assure you that climate science is a triumph of the human intellect.  I admit the models are a work in progress, but there’s a consistent message from them.

The models predict outcomes that are slow on human timescales but lightning fast in a geological sense.  They show that Business-As-Usual will see our planet warm by between 2 and 4.5 degrees Celcius by mid-late 21st century.  And what will be the consequences?  The climate will change, the sea levels will rise and there will be major effects on health, infrastructure, agriculture and biodiversity.  Maybe, and it’s a big maybe, the rich countries might survive without too much disruption, but I expect the poor citizens of the planet will suffer dreadfully.

Secondly, take our fossil fuel reserves.  Just at the moment, there’s a pervasive bullishness in the media about recent discoveries of unconventional oil and gas.  According to this view, shale oil and gas, coal-seam gas, and uncooked oil in shale rocks are present in stupendously large amounts, just waiting for exploitation.  And there will be other coal supplies we haven’t yet found.  In short, if you accept the narrative, the good times powered by fossil fuels can roll on for hundreds more years.

By the way, let me point out that science and engineering have long been heavily involved in the fossil fuel industries.  Think of the science of seismic exploration, think of the operations of drilling and excavating, think of computer models to control the operation of refineries.  These issues require specialised mathematical input, of course in collaboration with people with expert domain knowledge.   The technical people in the fossil fuel industry, the scientists and engineers, are by no means as optimistic as the mainstream media about the bullish narrative.

And so we come to the trap!  The mainstream view in Australia is that we need not make expensive changes today for something that won’t have an impact for decades.   A good analogy is to think of a comfortable car accelerating towards a cliff.  So far, so good!

If we continue to burn the fossil fuels, there will come a day when not enough remains for our lifestyle.  Moreover, if we burn the planet’s supply, then climate science says the consequences will be extremely uncomfortable at best, likely much worse, and perhaps catastrophic.  I remind you that we are dealing with physical and economic systems that have incredibly large inertia; like the proverbial ocean liner it takes a long time to build up speed and then to change direction.

And we will have used up the one-off treasure of fossilised solar energy that has been the springboard for economic growth on the planet since the industrial revolution.

The clean energy infrastructure of the future, that we have to build sooner or later, will require major investments over a few decades.  While we have the opportunity, we should use some of our fossil fuel treasure to accomplish the task.  The remainder of the fossil fuels should be left in the ground until eventually put to good use as a feedstock for emissions-free chemical industry.

We readily accept some everyday examples of long-term action based on mathematical models.  To cite two examples, many Australians are paying off the mortgage on the family home and saving today for retirement in 40 years’ time.  We accept mathematical concepts relating to compound interest and paying down a loan, even though incremental changes from year to year seem extremely slow.  Why are we so resistive when the future of the whole planet is at stake?  I commend that question to the psychologists in the audience.

With our analytical skills and models we can look into the future, and what we see is profoundly disturbing.
I call on you all to take action as best you can.  Put aside the clamour of mainstream media and narrow sectional interests.  Think coolly, logically.  Make a careful assessment of long-term risks caused by our likely actions over the next few decades.  Don’t think that your individual viewpoint is unimportant.  Don’t accept that you won’t make a difference.

For me, I was ready and happy in 2004 to see if my skills might make a difference, even if they were threatened by advancing decrepitude.  So my mission was to work on new ideas for electricity generation from passive solar heat collection.  I invented a thermodynamic cycle that might be useful, and my task is to take that from concept to prototype to market. 

I’ve enjoyed my journey as an inventor – particularly since I’m able to combine my passions for applied mathematics and solar energy.  And that’s a piece of advice I give freely to all here today – the journey has its own rewards.

My take-home message is to the graduates.  In forming your expectations for the future, please think deeply about the Business-As-Usual trap for our planet that I have sketched out today.

I congratulate the graduates again and thank you for your attention.

Brief biographical details of the author, as announced by the Vice-Chancellor prior to the speech.

Noel Barton BSc PhD DUniv (h.c.) FAustMS AM
Managing Director
Sunoba Pty Ltd

Noel Barton was educated at the University of Western Australia, finishing in 1973 with a PhD in applied mathematics.  Prior to becoming a full-time inventor, he worked at the University of New South Wales (1975-81) and CSIRO Australia (1981-2003), where he led the Organisation’s applied mathematicians from 1987-99.

Since 2004, Dr Barton’s passion has been shared between applied mathematics and solar energy, culminating in a new heat engine based on passive solar heat collection under a transparent insulated canopy.  Current work involves simulation of the engine’s performance, including thermal storage in rock beds.

His work for professional associations included:
·         seven-time Director from 1985-92 of the Australian Mathematics-in-Industry Study Group,
·         Editor in 1994-95 of a review of the mathematical sciences in Australia, and
·         Director of the 5th International Congress on Industrial and Applied Mathematics, a major congress attracting nearly 1,800 delegates from 60 countries to Sydney in 2003.

He is currently President of the NSW Branch of the Australian Solar Energy Society.

Dr Barton is a Fellow and Honorary Life Member of the Australian Mathematical Society, and in 2004 was awarded an Honorary Doctorate by Queensland University of Technology.  In 2002 he was made a Member of the Order of Australia for his services to mathematics.

1 comment:

  1. This is a very informative post! I usually do not reply but in this case you deserve it.

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