29-TRIPPING POINTS - John Wawrzonek

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Tripping Points (sic)

WHERE ARE THE ENGINEERS WHEN WE NEED THEM

I am an engineer (MIT SB 1963, SM 1965, EE 1967). My major (if you haven't guessed was electrical engineering) and the EE is also known as an ABD (I would be a PhD or ScD but for the dissertation.)

My mentor had been Prof. Amar Bose because I was interested in acoustics and was hunting for a thesis topic in psychoacoustics when I realized that I had been (can't think of quite the right word) treading, walking, plodding, racing the Infinite Corridor for eight years (including one employed as a research associate) and my hard driving papa (the first of two; Dr. Bose was the second) overdid things a bit and an ephiny: at least two more years! And so I became the fifth (yes, it was a very small company) employee of Bose Corporation. They handed me a NASA contract all my own and put me in charge of loudspeaker engineering. I stayed for 23 years but kept my relationship with Dr. Bose for a total of about 50 years.

My apologies for the long story but if you had knowmy father and Dr. Bose you would have an idea of why I am doing this website. At age 77 I am putting 10-12 hours or more a day into this web site.

Really messy scientific problems like climate change can cause scientists to fall into two traps (engineers have their own), and that is the absolute necessity to be "right." (Read Gravity's Kiss about gravity wave detection and you will learn what science is.) With something as ridiculously complex as the Earth's climate that is impossible, and that's where it is worth listening to an engineer or two. They may or may not be right, but engineers are, I think, a little more comfortable with intuition.

To be "right" (and MIT engineers do lots of "science/got to be right problems") usually means simplification. You can only handle so many variables at one time until you have a few decades of experience on something complicated (say quantum mechanics for example) before you can work on a problem and be pretty certain you have everything under control.

The climate is likely a century away from that.

There is something that is hard to explain about engineering and that is when you are working on a problem like thermal run-away, having it happen before your eyes, smelling the smoke, seeing a few flickers of flame (etc.) changes you, and I mean this very seriously. It is like all parts of life that become far more real (like raising a child) than a hundred books and hundreds of hours of stories from your family.

So engineers working on power circuits (pretty small, about 10,000 watts) for NASA have their most important instrument always with them: their nose. A happy circuit has one set of smells (new components like a new car) and an unhappy circuit has a whole different set, well before you see smoke. One whif of this second set and off goes the power switch and it is time to trouble shoot before something serious happens (like a $1000 semiconductor going poof).

So when I read my first story about the climate and there was the mention of positive feedback which reinforces whatever is going on and in this case it was methane from melting tundra, you remember the wiffs of smoke and say (in my case) "we're screwed." Excuse the language, but I was right and stayed ahead of the scientists for about five years until things started to really get out of control and the predictions of the scientists, being always a bit optimistic, became bad enough to beat my pessimism, which is hard to do.

So I read this in the NY Times: "The problem is, what works for me will very likely not work for you. So by focusing on environmental limits instead of on the social strategies that enable better environmental and social outcomes, we fail to engage the only force of nature that can help us: human aspirations for a better future." There is a grain of truth in this but on August 12, 2018 this is (excuse the language) bullshit.

The whole purpose of this website is that (see the references in section xx) we are at a point where if we don't get really, really, serious (which we are not), we might not have an Earth to live on. And I don't care if your calculations say that that there is only a 1% chance, not having a planet is a problem. So an engineer, looking at all the science reports, the physical things that have already happened (insane wildfires, deadly temperatures, five feet of rain in a storm, 200 mph hurricanes) says there are really two problems to be worked on and social adjustments be danmed, they are get the emissions down really fast (because they are still going up) and, hopeless as it may seem, throw everything you can spare into a practical system of negative emissions, which means takeing carbon dioxide back out of the atmosphere and stashing it. And if it costs 100 trillion dollars it will be cheap at the price. Without this, all social anything comes to a halt.

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