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Does Science Intelligence Make People More Reasonable?

By Shlomo Maital

 The latest Scientific American (October 2017) has a short piece and accompanying diagram, reporting research on the key question:

Do people who have higher ‘science intelligence’ (i.e. knowledge and education in the realm of science) understand better the risks inherent in:   Global warming (climate change); private gun possession (the more guns, the more violent gun deaths), and fracking (causes environmental harm)?   

   The answer?   It depends. It depends on the political views of the ‘science-educated person’.   If you are liberal democrat, then – the answer is yes, science education makes you far more sensitive to the inherent risks, except for guns, where the perceived risk is seen as high regardless of science or no science.

   But if you are a conservative Republican? The more science you know, the less concerned you are about the risks.   Your political views color, in fact dominate,  your scientific awareness.

   I think this finding explains a great deal.   Research on guns will not help bring gun legislation. Research on global warming (or even, wildfires and hurricans) will not bring restrictions on emissions. Research on the risks of fracking will not bring any slowdown in fracking.   And the enormous fracture in dysfunctional American politics between Dems and Republications will not be repaired by evidence, facts and research.

      Why? Because, “I have a Ph.D. in geophysics, and by the way, don’t confuse me with      facts, my mind is made up.”

How the U.S. Govt. Helped Smash the Oil Cartel

By Shlomo Maital


With the price of oil below $50, and likely to remain low for quite some time, with $100 oil unlikely to return,  it is interesting to discover why.  The main reason?  America is now the world’s biggest oil producer, topping Saudi Arabia, because of fracking and frantic drilling – and the Saudis choose not to fall on their swords and slash their production.  

    But WHY has America been able to produce so much oil?  The answer is in Eduardo Porter’s piece in today’s Global New York Times (“Behind drop in oil prices, the hand of Washington”).  It is:   U.S. government policy and funding, dating back to Nixon, Reagan and the elder Bush.     “Facing years of a broad energy shortage, in the shadow of an embargo by Arab oil producers [in 1973], Nixon..and Congress laid the foundation of an industrial policy that over …four decades developed the technologies needed to unleash American shale oil and natural gas onto world markets”.    Porter cites a scholar who notes, “public investments in technology innovation [e.g. energy] can bring a huge benefit for both the economy and the environment”.

    Congress approved the Prudhoe pipeline from Alaska just weeks after the Arab embargo.   The 1974 Energy Act, creating the Dept. of Energy, kick-started a period of heavy government investment in R&D to recover gas from shale. This agency provided the funds to develop ‘horizontal drilling’ and polycrystalline diamond compact bits to cut through the shale, and performed the first big proof of concept hydraulic fracking, while Energy Dept. labs created a multi-well fracking site.  The inventor of shale fracking, George Mitchell, got a lot of help from the government.  And, the Reagan Administration, earlier, abolished price regulation, to remove a major barrier to unconventional development of gas deposits. 

    Of course, bold entrepreneurs who took risks and invested in fracking deserve credit.  But as in many new technologies, the hand of government, in regulation and investment, was highly visible. 

     A key point is that even if rock-bottom oil prices drive oil shale producers out of business for now,  the ability to quickly revive oil shale output will put a ceiling on oil prices that is far below the record $111 peak.    Saudi Arabia can produce oil at a marginal cost of $5 to $8 a barrel, enabling it to smash prices lower.  But America’s ability to produce virtually infinite amounts of fracked shale oil at a marginal cost of around $58 will help keep crude oil prices reasonable in the near future. 

     Let’s keep in mind, however, that persisting low oil prices will bankrupt countries like Russia, Iran, Venezuela, and others.  This may not be good news.  Russia is already looking for creative ways to make trouble for America, in Yemen and in Iran,  out of spite for America’s lead in imposing sanctions on Russia.  The world will remain unstable, despite low oil prices and in part because of them.


From Idea to Product: Crossing the Chasm

By Shlomo Maital


    When I teach entrepreneurship and innovation, I do a bit of theatre. I show my class a ‘matryoshka’ Russian nested doll set, and one by one assemble each doll, nested inside a larger one. I do this until I have 9 dolls on the table, down to the tiniest one. Then, I tell the story how one year, a sharp-eyed student asked, why nine? Instead of ten?, and I discovered a tenth tiny-tiny doll, much smaller than a pinky fingernail.

      I had been unaware of its existence, inside the 9th doll, for years.    See this? I hold it up to the students. This is the idea. This is the fun part. This is the easy part. The hard part? Implementing the idea. Building a business around it – the other 9 dolls. Without that, that tiny ‘idea doll’ is of no value.   

    Prof. Daniel Nocera, Harvard University, is an example. He has developed an artificial leaf. It’s an invention that generates energy the way a tree or a plant does. “Light strikes a container of water, and out bubbles hydrogen, an energy source, as the light breaks H2O into hydrogen and oxygen.” How does this work? Writes Jack Hittmarch (NYT March 29): “A silicon strip coated with catalysts breaks down the water molecule [using sunlight].”      Wow! Hydrogen! You could use all that hydrogen to power fuel cells, which are devices that convert the chemical energy from a fuel into electricity through a chemical reaction with oxygen or another oxidizing agent. Hydrogen is the most common ‘fuel’ for fuel cells.   

    Big wow! But the discovery was made years ago. Nocera says his system is very safe. “My system is based on water, so if there was a catastrophe we’d just need a mop.”   However, hydrogen is highly flammable, and highly explosive.    So turning the Artificial Leaf into usable energy means surmounting many obstacles. Create viable fuel cell technology. Solve safety issues, in storing hydrogen. Get consumers accustomed to using fuel cells. There are many cheap reliable nonpolluting energy sources. The issue, it seems, is not the invention. It’s how to make it desirable and usable for consumers. And THAT is a huge problem.   

   Nocera says that fracking and cheap natural gas is “killing” his artificial leaf invention.   But one day fracking may actually help. Fracking can produce hydrogen, at a cost of carbon dioxide. If such hydrogen production becomes widespread, so will the infrastructure to use it. And then, Nocera’s artificial leaf will be popular, because it can produce hydrogen (to feed the infrastructure) without generating carbon dioxide. It will defeat fracking.    To sum up: There are loads of great new technologies that ‘solve’ our problems. But there is a lack of wise capable entrepreneurs who know how to commercialize them fast, cheap, good, friendly, easy…. And governments willing to supply the needed infrastructure.  

    Innovators should bone up on these technologies and invest creativity not in new ideas but in how to implement old ones and diffuse them widely.    Long ago, Geoffrey Moore taught us how important it is to ‘cross the chasm’ between early adopters of innovation and mass-market buyers. There is a different chasm, equally hard to cross – the chasm between a great idea based on sound technology, and a widespread commercial product or service used and loved by all. There is as much or more need for creativity in crossing this chasm as there is in inventing new technologies.

Governments DO do good things!

By Shlomo Maital     


 American Republicans would have us believe that nothing, nothing about government is any good.  We need less government, maybe even (if you’re a Tea Party fan) NO government, they say. 

  But Clyde Prestowitz (Reagan’s trade advisor), in his latest Foreign Policy blog, says otherwise. 

     “… the truth is that virtually none of America’s great inventors and entrepreneurs did it on their own. In the overwhelming majority of cases, they received taxpayer supported federal help along the way.   For example, sometimes I ask audiences if any of them know who invented the Internet.  Answer: the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) which was the real inventor and developer of the basic Internet technology.   Nor does anyone ever mention the National Science Foundation’s long years of nurturing the Internet before it became commercially viable.  

   Shale gas, too, could not have happened without government help, as Prestowitz shows.

     “… the U.S. government spent billions over three decades to make shale gas and oil a reality. The effort began in the 1970s as a somewhat quixotic, patriotic undertaking by the government’s energy agencies and then the Department of Energy to respond to the oil crises of the time and to prevent the United States from becoming dependent on imported energy. Long known as lacking in innovation, the private companies of the energy industry showed little or no interest when the feds showed up offering them funds for joint research and development. Mostly, the oil and gas companies turned it down and told the feds to get lost.   [The Government played a key role, providing:  *The Eastern Gas Shales Project, a series of public-private shale drilling demonstration projects in the early 1970s in response to the energy crisis;  * Collaboration  with the Gas Research Institute (GRI), an industry research consortia that received partial funding and R&D oversight from the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission;  * Early shale fracturing and directional drilling technologies developed by the Energy Research and Development Administration (ERDA, later the Department of Energy), the Bureau of Mines, and the Morgantown Energy Research Center (later the National Energy Technology Laboratory); *  The Section 29 tax credit for unconventional gas production, in effect from 1980-2002;  *  Public subsidization and cost-sharing for demonstration projects, including the first successful multi-fracture horizontal drilling play 1986 and Mitchell Energy’s first horizontal well in 1991; *   Three-dimensional microseismic imaging, a geologic mapping technology developed by Sandia National Laboratories.

    Prestowitz reminds us to  pause for a moment to thank our great bureaucrats,  as well as  of course the late George Mitchell,  the entrepreneur whose passion created the natural gas generated by ‘fracking’ in America. 


Blog entries written by Prof. Shlomo Maital

Shlomo Maital