An Astronomer’s Solution to Global Warming: The technology developed for telescopes, it turns out, can harness solar power
February 4, 2012
Roger Angel is an astronomer whose innovative designs for telescope mirrors have radically transformed the way we see the stars and galaxies. He developed lightweight, honeycombed mirrors for the world’s largest and most powerful telescopes, including the Large Binocular Telescope on Mount Graham in Arizona and the Giant Magellan Telescope currently under construction in Chile. He is a Regents Professor and head of the Steward Observatory Mirror Lab at the University of Arizona (UA), and a MacArthur “genius grant” Fellow. In 2010 he won the prestigious Kavli Prize for Astrophysics,. But lately he’s been thinking more about life on our own planet.
“I had been worrying about global warming,” Angel says, and he had begun contemplating solutions as audacious (and ultimately cost-prohibitive) as placing giant sun shades in space to cool the planet. But when his wife asked him, “Can’t you do something about global warming?” he got serious and began envisioning how his telescope mirrors could be used to generate clean energy. Now Angel has fashioned a system that utilizes mirrors with tiny solar cells to harness light and generate electricity, a system that has the potential to be more cost-effective than anything else on the market.
Trying to harness the power of the sun is nothing new; many companies and inventors have been analyzing the problem of how to most effectively collect, convert and use solar energy for decades. The technology of photovoltaic (PV) cells that capture the sun’s rays has improved over time, but there are still a few sticky pieces to the puzzle of producing solar electricity. Some of those issues include the amount of heat generated by existing techniques, the space needed for the solar cells and cost.
Angel is tackling a few of these problems with his new system. “It’s a complete self-contained unit that turns the light into energy and rejects the heat,” he says. Scattered around his Tucson lab are tools, scraps of metal, bits of PV cells and other pieces of the contraption. Put together, it will consist of several square mirrors attached to a large, lightweight steel frame that looks like a jungle gym. Each mirror reflects light into its own cube-shaped power conversion unit (PCU) installed above its center. The PCU is a small box with a fused silica ball on the end that faces the mirror. As the light from the sun hits the mirror, the mirror’s parabolic shape focuses the beam directly into the ball, which in turn focuses the light onto a curved matrix of 36 tiny PV cells. The cells are what convert the light into electricity.
“The cells turn about 40 percent of the light into electricity,” says Angel, noting this is highly efficient for a solar power system. His innovation also contains a cooling system using technology similar to that used for computer chips and automobile engines. “This allows the chips to stay remarkably cool: 20 degrees C above the ambient air temperature,” he says. The cooling system has the added benefit of not using any water, a resource especially precious in the deserts where many solar systems operate; recirculated coolant is used instead.
“No one has ever built a system that uses such an efficient, lightweight space frame structure to minimize the amount of steel and to hold the mirrors. Nobody’s made deeply dished glass mirrors that are practical and inexpensive like this, and nobody’s made a PCU like this,” says Angel.
Alex Cronin, a physicist at the University of Arizona who conducts research independent of Angel on PV solar cells, agrees. Angel “has optimized [this solar system] like a telescope,” Cronin says. “This is an example of stretching the envelope in a new direction. He designed it with the least amount of steel and iron. In the future we will see more of this. He’s leading the industry.”
Angel says his design has a “heritage from astronomy.” But telescopes in astronomy are used for concentrating very faint, distant light, while the mirrors here play a different role. “We’ve gone from the one extreme of making the most perfect mirrors you can think of, to the lowest-cost mirrors that are ‘good enough.’ ”…
February 4, 2012
Denver Broncos quarterback and outspoken man of faith Tim Tebow may have lost his chance for this year’s Super Bowl ring three weeks ago, but if you think that was a season-ender for the holier voices of football, brother, you don’t know this game. The Super Bowl is a hairsbreadth away from a pulpit sermon: the game in which Tony Dungy won XLI “the Lord’s way,” Most Valuable Player Drew “Breesus” Brees declared that “God is great” in XLIV, and the bookies had God as the 3/2 favorite to be thanked first by XLV’s MVP.
The Super Bowl is merely the sport’s high holiday. The entire season is filled with talk of the spirit. Some of the sport’s most electric non-Super Bowl moments have been christened “the Immaculate Reception,” “the Holy Roller,” and “the Music City Miracle.” And even regular season games often don’t end without one all-or-nothing “Hail Mary.”
When the topic of faith and football comes up, though, commentators admit that it seems a rather odd place for the gent from Galilee to show his face. After all, what does a violent, competitive, money-driven spectacle have to do with a man who talked meekness, peace, and poverty? That odd cultural mash-up seems to get thrown into sharp relief around this time every year, whether through a controversial Super Bowl ad, a new church promotional gimmick, or the very public faith and private foibles of a team, coach, or player.
But those who quibble with the national sacrament of football should simmer down. Big spectacle games are made for professions of faith, and holy language is exactly the right fit. The “sacred game” has been our earnest, mortal invitation to the divine since time immemorial. Though pigskin may not be kosher, reverence is certainly called for. Veteran sportswriter Robert Lipsyte had it right when he tried to squash our perennial ambivalence with a comforting dash of dogma:
Any Given Sunday is reserved for those who have been saved, who have accepted that so long as there is an American Empire, football will be its religion and the Super Bowl its Holy Day.Can I hear an Amen?
When fans praise the Lord at the game or when the quarterback sees God at work on the field, they have the anthropological record in their corner. Peoples across all times and cultures have reserved a space in the bleachers for the Almighty. Consider the sacred courts of the Aztecs and Mayans, where ulama was played with a ball symbolizing the sun and the players themselves represented the forces of life and death. For the year’s most important games, players were decapitated, their blood feeding the cosmic order and their skulls hung on ready-made courtside racks like championship banners. Or consider the sumo match: even as it’s practiced today, after thousands of years, the mat still calls for ritual sand purification and a ceremonial stomping to scare away ominous spirits. This is prayer-as-sport, according to historians, and was conducted for the amusement of the gods.
There are countless more examples. Why? For one thing, games are like rituals: they share a close structural kinship in elevating ordinary human activity to something cosmic and divine. Both add a mystical layer of meaning on an enclosed space: that little chalk line represents much more than ten yards anywhere else, in the same way that walking from your pew to the altar means far more than walking that same distance from the sofa to get another beer. Both games and ritual also demand that everyone pay a strict obedience to non-logical rules. Sociologist Roger Caillois argues that a game is basically an agreement to go from point A to point B in a way that vexes our sense of what’s easiest. (Anyone who has walked a labyrinth should see the parallels there.) And both games and religion, more often than not, pose mighty struggles with rewards that go beyond mere material enrichment. Whether it’s a win or eternal salvation, you can’t put the real prize in your pocket.
And football, like any well-designed game, is a profound metaphysical meditation exactly because it depends on a frustrating balance of skill and chance. A player can train until all the passes and plays become second nature, but in the end, some factors are just out of his hands. On game day, as in life, free will must cast its lot and see where destiny lets it fall. With the world watching, can you really put everything on the line without saying a little prayer?
The anthropological record, therefore, shows that sport for human beings just is religious practice. Rather than being shocked at the religiosity of the Super Bowl, we should rather see it as perfectly natural expression of our humanity.
Yet, we would be wrong to deny a tension between the brutal gridiron and Judeo-Christian values. How did a largely Christian America end up with football, of all sports, as its sacred game?
Maybe nations have a ludic religion, too, expressing how we play and what we celebrate while we’re on the field.
Therein lies a tale with more questions than answers. Ball games and the God of Abraham have a history fraught with distrust. As early as the third century, the Jerusalem Talmud stated that Mount Simeon was destroyed because the inhabitants used to play ball there. The specifics of that reasoning have caused two millennia of heated debate among rabbis. Is a shabbat ball game a violation of the melakha of carrying an object? Does a ball that bounces on the ground violate sabbath laws of cleanliness? (The latter is thirteenth century argument that modern scholar Saul Berman cheekily calls “an end run” around the issue.)
In fact, that early Jewish ambivalence may have had more to do with distancing themselves from the Greeks, who were religious sports fanatics. The Olympics and other Panhellenic games were high holy festivals where races figured prominently in ritual. (The lighting of the modern Olympic torch is the vestige of a running sacrifice to Pelops.) For the Greeks, who saw opposing forces as part of the divine scheme, the rowdy back-and-forth of sports and contests may have made for a very fitting holy rite.
Jewish resistance to pagan sport probably has something to do with why the early Christians stayed clear of the holy games popular in their times. But Rome didn’t make things easier. The empire adopted the Greek love of games and transformed them into gruesome spectacles, with Christians becoming one of the attractions. For nearly two hundred years, they faced damnatio ad bestias—thrown into the arena with vicious animals, for the delight of a bloodthirsty crowd. According to Tertullian, his fellow Christians quickly began to avoid the arena—and sports as they knew them—entirely…
The Cynics at the Gates: You’re in Trouble When the Arab League Makes the Security Council Look Like a Joke
February 4, 2012
The world is more prepared to stop atrocities than ever before, but it is still unwilling — or unable — to actually bring those atrocities to an end.
Something big has happened in international diplomacy: The Arab League, a body which until just the other day defended the sovereignty of its members at all costs, is demanding that a skittish U.N. Security Council take forceful action to stop atrocities committed by Syria, one of its own members. The league’s call last year for a no-fly zone to protect civilians in Libya felt like an aberration, because Muammar al-Qaddafi had placed himself so far beyond the pale among his own neighbors. But Syria is a pillar of the organization, as central as France is to the EU. And so the spectacle of an Arab country — Morocco — introducing an Arab resolution to the Security Council earlier this weekdemanding that Syrian president Bashar al-Assad leave office was astonishing.
Arab authorship radically changes the politics surrounding the question of international action. Think, by contrast, of Darfur, where the United States and several European allies on the Security Council pushed resolutions threatening sanctions against Sudan for its campaign of mass killing and expulsion. Arab leaders defended their brother in Khartoum, President Omar al-Bashir, while the African Union repelled outside interference with its calls for “African solutions to African problems.” Much the same happened in the face of international outrage against the regimes in Zimbabwe and Myanmar. The perpetrator’s neighbors thus twist legitimate calls for action into a campaign of Western neo-colonialism, and reduce the universal principles behind norms like “the responsibility to protect” into a hobby-horse of Western elites.
China took the lead defending Sudan in the Security Council starting in 2004. Whatever pressure China had to ensure from Western governments and public opinion, it suffered no consequences at all in Africa, the Middle East, or throughout the developing world. And for years, Bashir was thus able to virtually dictate the terms of the international effort to stop his own killing spree, with a toothless peacekeeping force fielded by an overwhelmed and under-financed African Union. “African solutions to African problems” not only emboldened China, it also undermined the already shaky alliance seeking to stop Bashir. Who wants to stand up for a Western solution to Africa’s problems? And so the United States, Britain, and others often proved quite willing to dump the problem in Africa’s lap.
By all rights we should be in that place again, but somehow we’re not. Russia, which is performing the same services for Syria that China did for Sudan, is negotiating not only with the Western powers but with representatives of Morocco, Qatar, and the Arab League. Russia can not disguise its support for Syria as anti-neo-colonialism (even though it also has the support of India, long-time stalwart of the Non-Aligned Movement) The plain truth is that, just as China depended on Sudan as an oil supplier, Russia views Syria as a major client for its arms-export industry; and both China and Russia fear that any effort by the Security Council to stop atrocities could serve as a precedent for similar interventions in Chechnya, or Tibet. Moscow has hardly folded: by threatening a veto, it has already forced the resolution’s backers to strip out any explicit reference to Assad’s departure and has removed passages calling for an arms embargo and support for sanctions. But after blocking any Security Council action on Syria for months, Russia is now actively negotiating for language it can live with. Diplomats say that Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Russian foreign minister Sergey Lavrov may reach an agreement when they meet in Munich on Saturday.
The resolution, whatever form it takes, puts the Arab League in the lead. A senior State Department official I spoke to pointed out that — while in the case of Libya the Arab League had, in effect, authorized the West to act on its behalf — in the case of Syria it has asked the council to endorse an Arab bid to resolve the problem. “That’s important,” he said, “and it’s new.” It may be possible to speak of an “Arab solution to an Arab problem” without a cynical smirk.
The Arab League is not alone in its new spirit of activism: The Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), played a leading role in the campaign to depose Laurent Gbagbo, the president of Cote D’Ivoire, after he provoked a civil war rather than accept the results of an election he had lost. The heavy lifting in that operation was done by the U.N. and France; but, as in Libya, the regional body provided indispensable legitimacy for the international community. Sovereignty has begun to lose its magic even among the de-colonized nations which most zealously guard the principle. But Arab leaders also live in a new world. The Arab street has turned sharply against Assad; and the era when Arab leaders could afford to ignore public opinion is over. In that regard, the new tone of the Arab League is one of the early benefits of the Arab Spring…
February 4, 2012
This image has been posted with express written permission. This cartoon was originally published at Town Hall.