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  • Writer's pictureJose Arrieta

Grand Opportunities Not Challenges

We live "in a world "on fire," says Rebecca Henderson. In the past 20 years, we have had two of the three biggest recessions, a pandemic, and basically all of the top hottest days in recorded history. The world IS on fire.


Rebecca's book calls for reimagining capitalism. As an org design scholar, I am all up for thinking about how to divide labor and integrate effort more efficiently. It is true that social sciences have helped in managing society's scarce resources. Yet, all resources are built at their core on some form of physical transformation or stock.


This is not new. In essence, everything that happens on Earth is the result of either a photon that came from space or nuclear decay from the unstable elements in our dirt. Without these two, nothing would change, and we would not exist. And here is where my physicist and electrical engineer hats come to play.


Thanos

During the past couple of decades, our movie theaters got infected with the MCU virus. This virus had its biggest outbreak on April 2019 when Avengers Endgame came out. In this movie, too many characters fought Thanos, a big meanie who has one strange idea. What if half the people stopped existing? Thanos spent the first of the Avangers movies looking for a series of McGuffins, after which he achieved his goal. "This made a lot of people very angry and been widely regarded as a bad move"


However, Thanos had one point. A point first introduced by the poster child for pessimism Robert Malthus. Bobby was a good deductive thinker, and based on all available data, he noticed that population would collapse. There was no way that society would continue to grow at the pace it was. People would, according to Bobby Malthus, die of hunger in record numbers.


Bobby was wrong but for no fault of his own. He died in 1834, along the "flat part" of the graph below. The energy use before was just as flat and extended hundreds of years. No sane person could imagine what happened next. And thus, when a famine hit Ireland, the people Bobby advised saw it as an opportunity to invoke their inner Thanos and let the Irish die. #empathy


Physics

Here is where most economics books would tell you that little Bobby fail to account for the advent of capitalism and bla bla. But I am not writing economics here but physics. See, around the time Bobby failed at forecasting, physics had undergone a plethora of revolutions. Electromagnetism was being put together, and so were thermodynamics and the engineering of precision. Together, they enabled humanity to access a hoard of energy that has fueled our existence ever since.


Solar Energy

There is a kink in the story. Namely, we have been using stored solar energy for the past hundreds of years to fuel our growth. The coal, oil, and gas we burn come from the remnants of the photosynthesis of plants and algae of prior eons. Fast forward a few industrial revolutions, and we are faced with a heating planet. Less than 0.1% of our atmosphere is carbon dioxide. However, that rounding number has immense effects on our world's temperatures. If we are not to burn coal, oil, and gas, we need to create sparse networks to extract renewable energy from where it lies.


But there is a problem there, as networks expand, interconnections grow, and transmission losses compound. Let me explain, the maximum power transfer theorem explains that the limit of how much power can be sent from a power source has a limit. At maximum capacity, only 50% of the energy can be used by the load (e.g., the users). To avoid losing so much energy, traditional power suppliers work at lower capacities, having, on average, between 5-10% losses.


Renewable energy requires sparse power generation as winds are faster on the coast, hydropower in the mountains, and solar panels in the tropics. Thus, the introduction of renewables involves an increase in losses. This is not a problem if the energy they bring in is plentiful. But if we are struggling to afford to build a renewable energy plant, low efficiency can be a problem.


Three-Body Problem

Liu Cixin's novel starts with a mystery. The world's top physicists committed death by suicide en masse. They did so because they learned our world was infected by a virus that did not allow any advancement in physics to come to fruition. These giants of science would discover nothing new in their lifetimes, and thus they killed themselves. #worklifebalancefail


As I study physics, I felt as many of Liu's physicists. Not suicidal, knock on wood, but saddened and hopeful. Saddened as immense holes in our understanding of the universe had been closed in the century prior, and the holes left felt small in comparison. (side note, I was/am very arrogant). Hopeful, as the last time we had this kind of problem, during the UV catastrophe, physics had gone through a revolution. At the time, there were many exciting avenues and experimental tools that might help us uncover new mysteries.


Two decades after, my state is similar. A mountain of evidence has been collected to validate the vanilla standard model of physics, and gravity continues to act strange. There are many cool things developed, like IceCube, JWST, and LIGO, but overall, I was born in a kind of ice age of physics, and that's fine.


Discontinuous Shifts

A benefit that ice has over water and its vapor is that it provides a solid foundation to build science. The past half-century has allowed cutting age physics to diffuse around the world. Through the use of dynamic functional theories, we have uncovered myriads of materials and chemical compounds that save lives and make our world better. These discoveries are discontinuous shifts in our knowledge that redefine how our lives goes.


In 2013, as a visiting scientist at MIT, I met Javier Sanchez-Yamagishi, a friendly doctoral student who worked with graphene, a wonder material at the time. Javier showed me around and talked to me about a hack he had developed. He would take a flake of graphene cover it with plexiglass, place another flake on top "at an angle," and then melt the plexiglass. As he did so, he would cross his fingers, hoping the two single-layers would remain on top of each other. This sounded kind of random to me. Who cares, would there not be loads of gunk and crap left over? Why Javier?


My advisor when I was in physics, became an ETH Professor after swearing he would show the first experimental signs of a Hofstader butterfly. But Javier's hack beat him to the punch. Not only that, Javier's twisted graphene led to the discovery of the "magic angle" in which graphene becomes an insulator. Javier is awesome and I am honored I met him as he was still playing around in the lab instead of filling NSF grants.


Hiske Overweg, started as a PhD student a week or two after I got fired from my job in physics. Hiske solved a problem that annoyed the whole physics community for over a decade. Graphene was a great conductor, but to make anything interesting, one needed it to stop conducting at one's will to make it semiconductor. This was possible but somehow, the results looked as if the graphene was dirty. No one knew why, or at least not exactly. People tried loads of things to isolate the graphene and remove this trouble. But they needed to wait for Hiske. Hiske simply placed a chunk of graphite covered in a single layer of an insulator and put the graphene circuitry on top. This was a kind of weird trick if there was a leak, the whole circuit would be short-circuited.


What happened? Well, from day one Hiske's devices outperformed everything else out there. The signals looked as the simulations theoretical physicists drew. The promises from graphene were now testable in a neat and clean manner.


So what?

Just as Javier and Hiske, a battalion of physicists, have been fighting to solve the world's biggest empirical questions. One of which was **potentially** solved last week. A group in Korea showed evidence of a "boiling water superconductor," a material that has Cooper pairs so strong that they survive temperatures at which even water boils and at room-pressure: LK-99 (https://arxiv.org/abs/2307.12008). Their claims have been replicated and their patent granted in the past days signaling that their results existed for a while already and they are somehow real.


For decades, physicists have been trying to synthesize a room-temperature superconductor. Great advances happened in the 80s when YBCO was created, a material that would superconduct when cooled with liquid nitrogen. Nitrogen was common enough, so superconductivity went mainstream. Side effects of it being the field of neuroscience (i.e., MRI machines) and the empirical measurement of the Higgs boson (i.e., CERN).


However, cooling nitrogen to a liquid state takes energy. If the material could be superconducting at 150C as LK-99 is supposed to work, we could just drop it outside and connect huge infrastructures with no loss of energy at all! We could power loops of the material and induce a magnetic field to cushion trains, cars, and buildings. Transmission losses would still exist but we could build "LK99 to the home" solutions that mimic the fiber-to-the-home solutions Internet providers give to achieve GBPS speed and decrease most heating outside our households. This is important because it provides a new avenue to organize our society.


Solar panels, batteries, electric motors

Ages ago, while I studied physics in Costa Rica, I talked with my mentor about long-term plans to fight climate change. I stated that I could not understand why we invested in so many random things if there were clear solutions. We needed better solar panels, batteries, and electric motors. I was very naive, but the funny thing is that the three have improved dramatically in the meantime, to the point that electric cars are a common aspect of our society, and off-the-grid housing is a viable solution.


I did not imagine that "boiling water superconductors" would come about. If they come into play, the mix of solutions could vary. For example, huge arrays of solar panels could not be made in the ocean or the Sahara desert at little to no energy loss. Or, one could create superconducting batteries that store energy without getting hot. Electric motors would work much betters as internal losses would dwindle. The world would have been too different. As it is today.


Fusion

Nuclear energy has always been the panacea in my mind. Be it fission or fusion, it provides such an output that I always saw it as a solution to our energy needs. Fusion has been far away in the future for decades, but it might be that within our lifetimes, these reactors were to function. And I wonder what we should do to help society if they were to exist.


Fusion energy is kind of an engineering problem. Scientists learn through trial and error, but each trial costs billions, and thus we can afford few errors at the societal level. This is bad for learning and building hope for the solutions they provide. But, let's imagine that just as in the case of LK-99, I was mistaken about fusion energy, and tomorrow a startup shows its scientific paper showing 1MW net output from nuclear fusion. What would society need to do after?


This is a question that haunts me. Clearly, it is a question of scale. How can we scale the reactors to get tera Watts? Or how can we build smaller ones fast enough to avoid burning fossil fuel? Basically, the advent of fusion energy would require a redesign of our power system. If workable, we would not need fossil fuel anymore, nor renewables either. It runs on water (unstable water but water all the same). We would need some ways of filtering heavy water from the ocean but other than that, solar panels would be dead. Carbon emissions are just the same, we would just need batteries and electric motors.


CODA

Organization theory is central to the fight against climate change. We have the resources and the technology to win this battle. But in the absence of scarcity, our theories lack the economic foundation that has limited our way of thought. We scholars are to blame. We listen to economists and believe their ideas so much that in a world without scarcity of resources or technology, we are still faced with a crisis we might not solve. Climate change is a problem of lack of organizing and lack of design. It is shameful that we have no models to solve it. We can call this a grand challenge, even if it is just blatant ignorance.


To put it mildly, we face grand challenges that require a redefinition of our social sciences. But what if physics were to make discoveries that solve said challenges? In a world with "boiling water superconductors," transportation would change dramatically, Hyperloop would be a trivial problem to solve. In a world with nuclear fusion, fossil fuel and renewables would be unnecessary. What would we do with all the land we save?


What would it mean for our field of study if physicists save us from our ignorance? I guess, I, for one, should be less mean to Bobby Malthus, He failed to imagine a future that had never existed, and I have as well. He freaked out about a challenge that did not materialize. Ah, well, I guess there is a difference there, as basically all the hottest days since records happened in the past decades. Thus our ignorance does have a much higher death toll than Bobby's. Maybe we should ask our governments to fund more PhDs in Physics, had we funded more people like Javier and Hiske, we might have found LK-99 earlier, or we could be running more experiments such as ITER and NIF.. I guess this gives me an excuse to miss the next funding Dutch VENI funding round. Give it to a physicist instead.


Post-Script

I got fired from physics because I failed once a test on "advanced solid state physics", most of the class was about high-temperature superconductors. So, please read at your own peril, I was literally fired from my ideas on this topic.



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