You Didn’t Build That

A Century of Government-Supported Technologies

On July 13, 2012, during the heat of the presidential election, President Barack Obama was making the point that entrepreneurs are always dependent on investments by the public in infrastructure, education, and science and technology. Describing a highway that enables a small business to ship its goods to market, the president memorably declared: “You didn’t build that.”

 

 

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Bruno Latour Wins Prestigious Holberg Prize

Breakthrough Senior Fellow ‘Completely Re-imagined Science Studies’

Breakthrough Senior Fellow Bruno Latour, the French anthropologist and sociologist, has been announced as the winner of the 2013 Holberg International Memorial Prize, one of the most distinguished awards in the arts and humanities. The prize committee recognized Latour as a “creative” and “unpredictable” scholar who has “undertaken an ambitious analysis and reinterpretation of modernity, challenging the most fundamental categories such as the distinction between modern and pre-modern, nature and society, human and non-human.”

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Tech Breakthroughs Needed to Address Global Warming

New Analysis Concludes Socolow/Pacala Wedges Underestimate the Energy Challenge

Carbon dioxide emissions need to be reduced far more and far faster than previously thought if a global temperature rise is to be kept under 2 °C, according to a report in Environmental Research Letters. The researchers say that scaling up existing technology won’t be good enough to meet the goals. Instead, we need new technological breakthroughs.

 

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America’s Nuclear Future

Nobelist Burton Richter on Why the US is Falling Behind

When it comes to nuclear energy, Dr. Burton Richter is Mr. Credible. Winner of the 1976 Nobel Prize for discovering a new sub-atomic particle, Richter has advised presidents and policymakers for almost 40 years. Richter has been a Breakthrough Senior Fellow since 2011, and is technical adviser to the forthcoming documentary, "Pandora's Promise," about pro-nuclear environmentalists.

Breakthrough interviewed Richter recently to get his opinion on next generation nuclear reactors, and why so many of them are being developed abroad and not by the Department of Energy in the United States. "The DOE is too screwed up to go into a partnership and do this in the US," the blunt Richter told us, referring to the Bill Gates-backed nuclear design pursued in China by Terrapower. 

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The Rise of the ‘Modernist Greens’

Slate Features Breakthrough Institute and Allies

A growing movement of “modernist greens,” made up of cutting edge scientists and thinkers, innovative activists and policy experts, has reimagined environmentalism over the past decade and is today actively creating a powerful new ecological politics for the twenty-first century.

These efforts, profiled expertly by former Audubon editor Keith Kloor last week in Slate, are fashioning a “radical departure from the nature-centric framework that has long dominated environmental politics and policy.”

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It’s Not About the Machines

How Leading Economists Misunderstand Productivity and Jobs

Writing in the New York Times last week, Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee argue that “a wonderful ride” began to unravel in the late 1990s when employment growth became “decoupled” from productivity growth.

Their contention is that something fundamental has changed in the economy over the past decade, illustrated in the following graph by the increasing gap between gains in productivity and employment, described ominously as the “jaws of the snake.”

A closer look at the data shows, however, that the “jaws of the snake” have been open for more than 30 years. More fundamentally, rather than a “great decoupling” between trends in employment and productivity, it is clear that productivity and employment have been diverging for a very long time as the composition of the economy has changed.

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Unequal at Any Speed

How the Beltway's New 'Hot Lanes' Divide Us into Speed-Rich and Speed-Poor

Advances in real-time data acquisition, processing, and display technologies means that it is possible to design a toll-road that can continually change prices to control how many cars are on the road and how fast they are going.  These “hot lanes” have just been opened along a part of the Washington, DC Beltway, the 10-lane, traffic-infested artery that to normal humans is a metaphorical boundary between the real, outside-the-Beltway world and the weird, political one on the inside.  (For those of us who live around Washington and must drive on it, however, the Beltway is a very concrete indeed, a daily flirtation with delay and frustration, homicidal instincts, and death itself.)

At a cost of two billion dollars, a private sector partnership (which gets to keep the tolls) has built a 14-mile-long, 4-laned section of highway, parallel to the main lanes of the toll-free Beltway, and has guaranteed to the state of Virginia that it will always keep traffic moving at no less that 45 mph along its length.  They do this by continuously monitoring the number of cars (which must be equipped with EZ-Pass transponders) and their speed, and by raising toll prices as necessary to keep the number of cars on the road at a level that will allow the speed to stay at or above the guaranteed minimum.  The dynamic toll prices are displayed on huge signs near the entrances to the smart-highway lanes, so drivers get to decide at the last minute whether they want to spend the money to go faster or not.  As the traffic on the toll-free Beltway lanes gets worse, some drivers will be willing to spend more to go faster.  The worse the traffic is, the more they’ll have to spend.  (In the early days of this new technology, numerous accidents were caused by drivers trying to decide how much they were willing to pay, but no doubt this initial problem will sort itself out as people get used to driving-while-economically-rational.)

Of course economic rationality benefits some more than others.  As long ago as 1973, the philosopher Ivan Illich recognized that speed was an issue at the intersection of technology and justice. In his extended essay “Energy and Equity,” Illich observed presciently, if somewhat obscurely, that the quest for speed in transportation was an unrecognized domain in which technological advance itself led to increasing inequity of distribution of social and economic opportunity:

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How Solar Panels Became Cheap

Larger Factories and More Efficient Panels Were the Key

We hear a lot about energy research and development. Perhaps that's because it's the one sort of policy that Republicans and Democrats generally agree on. But there's a different kind of research that I'd like to see get a lot more attention and funding. I'm talking about research into what various kinds of energy policies actually *do* to shape the technical possibilities open to humanity.

In my time researching energy, most of the people who actually care about where we get our energy from have committed to an energy source, be it oil, gas, traditional nuclear, wind, solar, geothermal, or thorium. Then, they go looking for policies that would benefit their technology. I've also run into a lot of people who believe in inexorable laws of change in energy, whether that's decarbonization or the inevitable rise of natural gas or nuclear power. And I've run into a lot of energy experts who believe in a fairly simple relationship between research money going in and technologies coming out.

Unfortunately, none of these three groups of people is likely to produce very good energy policy. To put it in more mainstream terms, we've got a lot of energy pundits and very few energy Nate Silvers, who put reality (i.e. good data) ahead of ideology and intuition. Don't get me wrong: everyone in energy loves them some data, but few people are interested in using it the way Silver does.

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