January 29th, 2009

Ian Edmonds, an Australian engineer from Brisbane, has a new idea for renewable energy.

balloon 8.preview.JPG

Photo credit here.

He proposes to fill hot-air balloons with air heated by solar panels on the ground, attach them to winches, and let them generate power as they rise. Technical paper here. Selling-point: unlike wind turbines, a ferme montgolfière works best on a still hot day, when demand for air-conditioning is at its peak.

Kitegen is an underfunded Italian project to generate wind power from similarly tethered kites. (The EU money has gone to the more advanced ship propulsion kites.) Technical paper here. Massimo Ippoliti has got a little further than Edmonds – he has a flown a prototype to 800m. His vision is of carousels of a dozen of the things.


People who find wind turbines visually disturbing will not think a power kite carousel an improvement. The optimum flight path, giving the minimum energy for the retrieval stroke, is a controlled figure-of-eight. Since the kites will presumably be huge affairs in dayglo colours to warn aircraft, the effect will be scaled-up Chinese kite fighting on speed.

Meanwhile, back in Cambridge, British efforts are going into nanotube cable for a space elevator. Alan Windle, unlike Edmonds and Ippoliti, is an established professor who chairs a rated materials science department, and the space elevator angle is basically clever PR. NASA’s $4m prize for the space elevator isn’t sufficient incentive to carry out work like this, and I expect it’s actually funded by people who want superstrong materials for body armour and aircraft parts. The newspaper article mentions ribbon, but Windle’s department have a nice photograph of buckystring:


The string is about 3 µm (millionths of a meter) wide, similar to spider silk. Human hair is one to two orders of magnitude thicker: 17 to 181 µm. Materials scientists have beaten their attic spiders already on tensile strength, if not elasticity.

Now tell me: why do we find these funny? Don’t we need all the informed creativity we can get to head off environmental catastrophe? Laughter is a social weapon: it reinforces Us and puts down Them. So what’s the point in laughing at potential lifelines?

My scientists are not of course “mad”. The convention is a baseless slur. Psychosis makes most kinds of work impossible; psychopaths prefer professions like medicine, management and politics that put others in their power. A few noted scientists like Newton may have suffered from Asperger’s Syndrome (mild autism). Excessive self-belief is just a precondition for achievement in any field, and anyway it’s a personality trait not a pathology. Unless I see hard evidence to the contrary, I’ll assume that scientists and other creative people are as sane or neurotic as everybody else. What they do strongly exhibit is neoteny: they preserve into adult life, to an exceptional extent, the juvenile traits of curiosity and adventurousness.

Nature does make juvenile mammals of many species curious. Perhaps it’s more efficient to let them learn things on their own, subject to adult repression when they go too far, rather than have the adults show them everything. Perhaps curiosity is an insurance policy for orphans, who will probably die without adult protectors if they are curious and adventurous but will surely die if they are not.

Whatever, for most of human history and prehistory, innovation was actively dangerous. Eating unknown mushrooms? Planting new crops? Reckless, crazy. The curiosity and experimentation of the young had to be contained by their caregivers. Tradition was the best guide to survival, and laughter is an enforcer of tradition. Creativity is a fragile flower, and flourishes in microclimates only where our group reflex of rube jeering is suspended: environments that provide a welcoming culture for off-the-wall ideas, and tolerance for failure.

It is then no surprise that historically creativity has tended to cluster strongly in particular and exceptional times and places: the Athens of Pericles, Medici Florence, London around 1600, Amsterdam a little later, Göttingen in the 1920s, Silicon Valley in the 1960s. Manhattan today offers an example of a culture that rewards misplaced creativity in finance – banking should be a boring public utility, as John Quiggin says. Some cultures have welcomed innovation only in certain fields – Baroque Germany in music and architecture, but scarcely in theatre and politics. Since the number of individuals with superior natural talents is unlikely to vary very much, the secret lies in cultural complexes that unlock them with apprenticeship, patronage, a circle of fellow practitioners, and an audience receptive to innovation.

Silicon Valley is famous as such a creative complex in information technology, with an army of Dilberts making pitches to venture capitalists in upmarket bars and cafés. Many cities have spent fortunes trying to emulate it, with little success. But I wonder: is the model obsolete? Think of the few technologies that have emerged more recently: biotechnology, renewable energy, robotics, nanotechnology. None of them has a Silicon Valley concentration. The startups do hang out near research universities, but these are dispersed – the diseconomies of scale and ego clashes in academic life usually prevent monopolies. Though I did hear once that the Technical University of Delft had to explain to government quality auditors why the Department of Water Engineering had a miserable record of publications in foreign journals: it has no competitors.

The obvious explanation for the change is the Internet. The face-to-face social networking offered by Silicon Valley and Manhattan, relics of a bygone age, has been largely replaced for newer sectors at far lower cost by electronic communications. If a Chinese factory owner in Chongqing can find customers for widgets over the Internet armed with little more than a pocket English dictionary, does his neighbour, a better-educated solar panel engineer, need to move from home? I have never met my fellow RBC bloggers, or even visited California (hint hint).

If I’m right, this is very good news: since it means that far more people are now able to release their creative bent. We can expect new ideas to germinate and spread faster, as long as obsolete IP laws do not get in the way. The effect will parallel the well-known changes wrought by Gutenberg’s printing, and the less remarked effects of Rowland Hill’s reliable postal service, which allowed Charles Darwin’s correspondence with Newcastle pigeon-fanciers and that great collective monument of the English Victorian gentry, the Wikipedia of its day, the Oxford English Dictionary.

By the way, I have put Ian Edmonds of the balloons in touch with Massimo Ippoliti of the kites. You can fly kites on windy days and balloons on still ones, from the same winches … or have balloons that morph into kites when the wind gets up … or launch the kites with balloons … and why not set the movements to music?

Igor, I theenk zees chust MIGHT vork….

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