Archive for the ‘technology’ Category

History Close to Home

September 23, 2012 Leave a comment

One reason why I chose to live in New Mexico (or perhaps why the L of E chose me) is its rich history. I know, no matter where you live, you can find interesting historical tidbits about people and places, but something about that intersection of the three cultures here, played out amidst such amazing scenery, has captivated me since my first excursion to Santa Fe and Taos more than 15 years ago.

Unfortunately, of late I haven’t been exploring the area too much to experience some of that history firsthand. I rectified that a bit yesterday, with a trip to the Puye cliff dwellings followed by a drive to Los Alamos. It was a day of contrasts: the ancestral Pueblos and 20th-century Americans, pottery shards and detritus of the Cold War. But all of it was framed by the Jemez Mountains and a sense that this is truly a unique place.

The Puye Cliffs

The Puye cliff (and mesa) dwellings date back to about the 900s and were occupied for almost 700 years. Today’s descendants of the residents live just to the east and north at Santa Clara Pueblo. The Santa Clarans administer the cliff site today and provide the guides for the tour.

Before the tour, I wandered around the Exhibition Hall, which had a one-day treat. Two state archaeologists were on hand, displaying artifacts—genuine and replica—representing some 14,000 years of New Mexico history. The state, you may know, was the home of two paleo-Indian sites that gave their name to past cultures: Clovis and Folsom. We saw arrowheads from the era, some made from obsidian, which turns up frequently at Puye (the Spanish, when confronting the Aztecs to the south, quickly learned of the acute sharpness of weapons made from this volcanic rock, and in modern times surgeries have been done with obsidian tools, which leave behind smaller scars). The discussion included a short lesson on how the paleo-Indians hunted, and how the dry New Mexico climate has helped preserve artifacts that would have disintegrated in other parts of North America.

We also heard how the first New Mexicans used the atlatl, as people around the world did to increase the range and force of their thrown missiles. The diffusion of the atlatl is a mystery: was it spread by migration and/or trade contact, or did it originate independently in areas as distant as Australia and South America? I don’t know, but I do know I love to say atlatl. Atlatl, atlatl, atlatl!

Thank you for indulging my juvenile diversion.

The archaeologists went on to explain how the ancestral Pueblo people and their descendants made a fiber from yucca, which was used for shoes, clothing, and baskets, among other items. One of the archaeologists explained that waterproofed yucca vessels could be used as cooking pots, with hot rocks dropped inside to warm a stew. In recent years, some Indians of New Mexico have been turning to that fiber again.

On the mesa

I added to the collection of shards and obsidian started by tourists before me.

For the tour itself, I chose the mesa dwellings, since I’d already seen the larger and better known cliff dwellings at nearby Bandelier. Sam was our guide, and he took us inside the kiva on the mesa, which is surrounded by the ruins of several buildings with many small rooms, one fairly well-preserved larger building, and a spot where a reservoir once sat (farming went on down below the mesa). Sam explained that artifacts still cover the site. The Santa Clarans had halted an early dig there when the Anglo professor in charge, Edgar Hewitt, took all the bones his team found of the long-dead dwellers and less than respectfully threw them into a heap, which he then covered with rocks. Today, Sam said, some tourists take home pieces of pottery they find (which is against the rules), only to return home and begin experiencing odd, supernatural occurrences. The shards are returned post haste.

To return to the welcome center, we had a choice of taking a van or walking down, then using a ladder, as the Pueblos once did, for the final descent. One woman in our party was game, so the rest of us followed. That simple choice showed the serendipity one must rely on when traveling/exploring. Although I sometimes unsteadily navigated the foot holes long ago cut into the rock, I made it down to the ladder. And on the ledge Sam pointed out petroglyphs, including one he said is perhaps the earliest depiction of a Spaniard in what became the United States. He also showed us a tiny piece of turquoise he found on the trail. The gemstone, like the pieces of obsidian we saw all around, came from mines not far from the dwellings.

The Spaniard clutching a heart–religious symbolism, or something more nefarious?

Coyote and roadrunner, pre-Warner Brothers

The tour at Puye is not cheap–$20 for what was supposed to be an hour, though ours was more like 90 minutes, thanks to the walking descent. And Bandelier gets all the attention for cliff-dwelling attractions. But this little excursion barely an hour from my home was rewarding because of Sam—a person with direct ties to the people who once lived there. And like other ruins of ancient Southwest cultures or the surviving pueblos of New Mexico, Puye awed me again with the resourcefulness of people who could thrive in such seeming isolation in a challenging environmental setting.

Leaving Puye, I headed for Los Alamos, on a drive that offers some stunning scenery. In the town, I headed for spot decidedly less ancient than Puye and less stunning than the drive: the Black Hole. Something of a Los Alamos institution, I only heard about it because it was holding its going-out-of-business sale this weekend. The Black Hole was the all-consuming passion of “Atomic Ed” Grothus. He called it a military surplus store, but from what I saw, nothing of it was the guns and camo you usually find in such places. Grothus gathered much of his surplus from the nearby Los Alamos Nuclear Laboratory, birthplace of the atomic bomb (Grothus once worked at “the  Lab,” as everyone here calls it, until he decided he’d rather not be at a place associated with nuclear annihilation.)

A must for every home–the atomic toilet!

Grothus was not overly about selling his wares; he just liked to accumulate them. As he told NPR a few years back, his store’s name reflected the fact that things enter the Black Hole, but they never leave. I wandered through the collection of atomic-era relics, mostly wondering what I was looking at. But a group of what I assumed to be artists, at-home tinkerers, and curio buffs seemed to be finding things to their liking. When the sale is over, I wonder if some of this stuff will end up in a dump—or a museum.

Our archaeologists back at Puye said that the essence of their work is using artifacts to explain how people lived. The obsidian and shards on the mesa tell one tale. What will the electronic equipment and pumps and pipes Ed gathered say about us? At least we can say, with I hope some conviction, that the nuclear holocaust that seemed so imaginable during the Cold War is a distant memory. But what the Los Alamos scientists wrought will never go away, even if the Black Hole does. The histories of the modern era and the ancestral Pueblos will still sit side-by-side here in northern New Mexico, and the History Nerd is better for it.


Energy – Past, Present, and Future

November 25, 2009 Leave a comment

The next Spindletop or Prudhoe Bay is not filled with black gold. Instead, the next great domestic energy source (of the fossil-fuel variety, anyway) is probably the natural gas trapped inside shale beneath large parts of the United States. Compared to its oil reserves, the country is awash in natural gas, and T. Boone Pickens wants us to tap it, the sooner the better, to end our dependence on foreign oil.

The oilman and the Congressman

Pickens was in East Hartford yesterday, speaking at a forum sponsored by Congressman John Larson (D-Connecticut). Larson is a co-sponsor of HR 1835, which offers tax credits for alternative energy sources. The focus of the forum was on using natural gas to power vehicles, especially large trucks that now run on diesel. Switch 7 million trucks to natural gas, Boone said, and we could cut OPEC imports by 50 percent.

Friend T. Boone! And you can follow him on Twitter too!

Pickens had lots of numbers and facts, which he rolled out without notes or slides or a PowerPoint presentation. The man has made this effort his main focus since 2008. Then, he made a big splash by calling for a crash course in wind-power development. Now, he is gung-ho for natural gas. He claims he’s spent $62 million of his own money to spread the word about the need for energy independence, using the fuels we already have and technologies we can develop. (He has more on his “Pickens Plan” at his website.) Of course, he stands to profit from investments he’s made in wind and natural gas. But his concern for the country seems genuine. Pickens never served in the military, and he sees this effort as his “national service.” He, like many Americans, is galled by the idea of our sending billions of dollars each year to countries that don’t like us and in some cases are our enemies. He asserts: “We’re paying for both sides of this war,” though he didn’t clarify exactly which war. Iraq? Afghanistan? The general war on terror? But his point was, some of the money we pay for foreign oil trickles down to people trying to kill US troops.

Pickens had a comment on our friend in Venezuela, too. Hugo Chavez might not be arming terrorists (though he seems to be aiding Colombian rebels), but he’s certainly made it plain he wants to thwart the United States whenever he can. Pickens called Chavez a “cluck” as he lamented our buying oil from him.

But don’t let the folksy putdown and his oil-patch drawl fool you – Pickens is one sharp cookie. Trained as a geologist and successful in his field, he lays out the technical nuts and bolts as easily as he (“this old Republican”) tells stories about his new buddy, Al Gore. The former veep is pushing batteries as the next great power source for cars. Pickens prefers compressed natural gas (CNG ), but concedes the point to Al on smaller vehicles – for now. Getting the trucks to convert is Pickens’s first goal.

So, why natural gas? It’s cleaner than gasoline. We now have the largest reserves in the world. Building the infrastructure to run our vehicles on CNG will create jobs. But most importantly, as he and Larson stressed over and over again, it reduces the amount of money we send to OPEC.

Several times during the talk, Boone made reference to “40 years ago,” when we should have first come up with an energy policy that went beyond reliance on petroleum. I’m not sure why he chose that number, since the first major oil embargo came four years later. That’s when OPEC flexed its muscles and Americans realized the precarious position they were in: We did not control our own fate, when it came to this precious commodity around which we structured so much of our lives. (An earlier embargo, in 1967, had nowhere near the same impact. Perhaps that explains Boone’s “40 years”?) Of course, Boone’s point is we could have controlled our own fate since then, if we had developed a systematic policy, one that pushed forward on finding alternatives, whether oil soared to $147 a barrel or plunged down to $10.

We knew, as the years went on, that domestic oil sources would not solve the problem. Even now, the idea that offshore and Arctic drilling are panaceas is whistling in the dark, Pickens says. If we opened up all of it, maybe we could produce 2 million barrels a day. One expert he talked to laughed at that figure, and said the reality is more like 30,000 barrels. Currently, we import about 10 million barrels of oil per day, which is about 60 percent of our needs.

After 9/11, some people talked of a “Manhattan Project” for developing energy alternatives, to stanch the flow of U.S. dollars overseas. Eight years later, do we have a plan in place that will create energy independence? Pickens says no. To be fair, both Bush and Obama did call for spending more on research and providing tax credits, but the amounts are pretty small, compared to what’s needed to make a huge dent in our oil imports. (And Pickens recounted meeting Bush in 2008 and telling him that his legacy as the “ethanol president” would not exactly be one for the ages….)

Pickens and Larson admitted that natural gas is not the total solution either. The representative sees it as a transitional energy source until we have hydrogen cars. And both men admitted that money for mass transit would help. Left unsaid was the potential environmental risks of extracting the huge reserves of shale gas that seem to offer so much promise. Getting the gas to the surface requires piping in large quantities of water treated with chemicals. The problem: Some of the water returns to the surface, picking up harmful minerals that blend with the chemicals, creating quite a toxic stew. The government calls this “produced water,” and the brew from the gas production is more dangerous than what comes from oil production. Produced water from natural gas operations has led to contaminated wells and polluted streams in Pennsylvania. A few scientists also fear the produced water could kill the helpful microbes used at water treatment plants.

Honda Civic, powered with CNG and on the road today.

The hope natural gas seems to provide brings up the issue we face with all our sources of power – nothing is perfect. Even such “green” technologies as wind and ocean power raise concerns about dangers to wildlife or humans. The solution seems to be, find the least-worst alternatives. So, maybe it makes sense to push for more CNG and propane (LPG) vehicles and filling stations. The cars are already out there, though the number in the U.S. is paltry (just 130,000, out of 10 million worldwide). Work for better electric cars, though we still have to generate the electricity to recharge the batteries, yes? And that means burning coal and natural gas…unless we ramp up with nuclear, which has its own issues, mostly political/psychological. (Remember Three Mile Island and the China Syndrome.) Keep working on fuel cells and that transition to hydrogen. But the key seems to be, as Pickens says, have a policy dedicated to reducing our reliance on foreign oil. I would add, and one that calls for lessening our dependency on all fossil fuel. One day, folks, it will all be gone; no more Spindletops or shale deposits to feed our growing needs.

The Technology of War

November 16, 2009 2 comments

The remains of the I-14For more than 60 years, they sat deep in the waters off Hawaii. Their existence wasn’t a mystery – just their exact location. Now, research submersibles from the University of Hawaii have found the last resting place of two of Japan’s most advanced submarines from World War II.

At the end of the war, at Pearl Harbor, the United States studied five sample vessels from three classes of Japanese subs. Then, after whatever technological secrets they held were revealed, the Americans torpedoed them. Partly because the vessels were not seaworthy, but perhaps mostly to make sure the Russkies didn’t get a hold of the technology. After all, with one war over, another was already under way: the Cold War, which shaped American politics and culture for more than 40 years.

[A parenthetical query, from someone who has written many books about the Cold War for kids: Do students today really get the tensions, fears, of that era? Can the threat of random terrorist acts match the concerns over a military miscalculation or plain, dumb human error leading to global annihilation? Just wondering…]

A Japanese illustration of part of the I-400

A Japanese illustration showing part of the I-400 and one of its planes

The Japanese subs were ahead of their time. The I-201 was faster than any US sub of the era and had rubber covering its outer shell, to hide it from enemy sonar and radar. The I-14, its companion under the Hawaiian waters, was an undersea aircraft carrier; it held two small, foldable bomber planes that could be launched on the surface. The I-401, discovered four years earlier not too far away, was the largest sub of the day. The two members of the 1-400 class carried three planes and enough fuel to circle the world 1.5 times without refueling. The subs arrived too late in the war to help Japan. And U.S. intelligence was so precise, experts say, it’s doubtful the subs could have gotten close to U.S. mainland targets, as the Japanese hoped.

Thomas Paine, who rode on the I-401’s sister ship on its postwar trip to Hawaii, later wrote, “To anyone who would listen I argued the case for refitting the I-400 for submerged operation and evaluation. I was convinced that we should find out how such a huge submarine handled submerged, how her automatic trim system worked, what lessons her Japanese naval constructors had incorporated into her design from their long experience with big submarines, and all of the other things I felt she could teach us.” (Read more of Paine’s account here.)

Despite Paine’s pleas, the ships were scuttled, and the articles I’ve seen on the discovery didn’t mention what, if anything, the Americans learned from the Japanese subs. But the reports of the find off Hawaii did get me thinking about a very useful poaching of an enemy’s advanced technology: Operation Paperclip.

Built in America, designed in Germany

As World War II in Europe drew to a close, the Americans (and British) and the Russians raced through Germany from opposite ends. The Russians were interested in securing factories and other material goods that would serve as reparations; they and the Americans also wanted to scoop up German technology and the scientists who created it. In Operation Paperclip, U.S. intelligence officials covered up the Nazi past of several key scientists – most notably, Wernher Von Braun – and whisked them to America. Once again, the goal was twofold: use their knowledge for ourselves and keep it out of the hand of our new enemies. Nazi German know-how led to the first U.S. rockets and the space program. It also helped us build stealth planes. Other German military projects under way as the war drew to close: hardened armor, guided missiles, and nerve gas.

(Some fringe folks also claim the Nazi technology was at the bottom of the “flying saucer” sightings of the 1940s and 1950s, as the Americans developed designs of experimental German aircraft. No real evidence of this, but it keeps the UFO websites buzzing, especially after Nick Cook’s 2002 book on the subject.)

The Russians, in their technology grab, nabbed the Germans’ atomic research labs. Of course, they scored an even bigger coup when they received info from  spies in the labs of Los Alamos, where the first atomic bombs were built. Klaus Fuchs and Theodore Hall were two of the most helpful spies, though today the Rosenbergs receive the most attention. The espionage let the Soviet Union develop its atomic weapons sooner than it otherwise would have. But make no mistake, spies or no spies, it would have. The science was known, the process was unstoppable. Perhaps like the development of nuclear weapons in “rogue” nations today, unless somebody wants to start a major war to stop them.

Science and technology have always been part of war, from better arrowheads and swords to the efficacy of today’s remote-controlled drones in the Middle East and Central Asia. Learning from the enemy is always crucial too. The Japanese subs may seem like relics, but they are reminders that knowledge is a powerful and sometimes deadly weapon in human conflict.