Adonis Diaries

Posts Tagged ‘worst case scenario

 

The Trouble With the Genetically Modified Future

Like many people, are you wondered about the safety of genetically modified organisms?

They’ve become so ubiquitous that they account for about 80% of the corn grown in the U.S., yet we know almost nothing about what damage might ensue if the transplanted genes spread through global ecosystems.

Mark Buchanan

this Nov 16, 2014

How can so many smart people, including many scientists, be so sure that there’s nothing to worry about?

Judging from a new paper by several researchers from New York University, including “The Black Swan” author Nassim Taleb, they can’t and shouldn’t.

The researchers focus on the risk of extremely unlikely but potentially devastating events.

They argue that there’s no easy way to decide whether such risks are worth taking — it all depends on the nature of the worst-case scenario.

Their approach helps explain why some technologies, such as nuclear energy, should give no cause for alarm, while innovations such as GMOs merit extreme caution.

The researchers fully recognize that fear of bad outcomes can lead to paralysis. Any human action, including inaction, entails risk. That said, the downside risks of some actions may be so hard to predict — and so potentially bad — that it is better to be safe than sorry.

The benefits, no matter how great, do not merit even a tiny chance of an irreversible, catastrophic outcome.

For most actions, there are identifiable limits on what can go wrong. Planning can reduce such risks to acceptable levels. When introducing a new medicine, for example, we can monitor the unintended effects and react if too many people fall ill or die.

Taleb and his colleagues argue that nuclear power is a similar case: Awful as the sudden meltdown of a large reactor might be, physics strongly suggests that it is exceedingly unlikely to have global and catastrophic consequences.

Not all risks are so easily defined.

In some cases, as Taleb explained in “The Black Swan,” experience and ordinary risk analysis are inadequate to understand the probability or scale of a devastating outcome.

GMOs are an excellent example. Despite all precautions, genes from modified organisms inevitably invade natural populations, and from there have the potential to spread uncontrollably through the genetic ecosystem.

There is no obvious mechanism to localize the damage.

Biologists still don’t understand how genes interact within a single organism, let alone how genes might spread among organisms in complex ecosystems. Only in the last 20 years have scientists realized how much bacteria rely on the so-called horizontal flow of genes — directly from one bacterium to another, without any reproduction taking place.

This seems to be one of the most effective ways that antibiotic resistance spreads among different species. Similar horizontal exchange might be hugely important for plants and animals. No one yet knows.

In other words, scientists are being irresponsibly short-sighted if they judge the safety of GMOs based on the scattered experience of the past couple decades. It’s akin to how, ahead of the 2008 financial crisis, analysts looked at 20 years of rising house prices and assumed they would always go up.

The honest approach would be to admit that we understand almost nothing about the safety of GMOs, except that whatever happens is pretty likely to spread.

Science is at its best when it acknowledges uncertainty and focuses on defining how much can be known. In the case of GMOs, we know far too little for our own good.

To contact the author on this story:
Mark Buchanan at mbuchanan32@bloomberg.net

 Note:

Arguing with biologists about risk is exactly like arguing with George W. Bush about algebraic geometry.
This is by Mark Buchanan, a physicist.
http://bv.ms/1vfU8oK

It is a fact: Major devastating solar winds in 2012; (Jan. 1st, 2010)

A nasty solar eruption (winds) is predicted on September 22, 2012 at midnight. Scientists at NASA published a report warning of high volume sun flare up.  This flare up is not your run of the mill gorgeous aurora borealis in the Arctic. The sun will eject one billion tons of plasma of particles (ions and electrons) that will grill all electrical infrastructure and electrical machines in the northern hemisphere, if no precautions are programmed.

When solar winds come in contact with earth magnetic field, a major catastrophe sets in.  This solar eruption will be witnessed around the equinoxes (periods when the center of the sun faces directly the equator). Mind you that the sun is far hotter and much more active than it was a million years ago.

At the onset of the solar wind, State governments will enjoy a window of opportunity to shut down all electrical power sources and facilities.  The main decision is to prepare for the worst case scenario: the winds might last for over two weeks and potable water should be available for the duration of the eruption.  People living in high-rise buildings should be accommodated in makeshift camps for the period of the cataclysm, because potable water cannot be pumped up electrically.

In case no emergency policies are planned then, what are the effects after electrical power goes dead? Potable water is the major immediate problem, since most potable water is purified electrically and distributed electrically in urban centers. Citizens will have to survive for at least a year, before electrical infrastructure and electrical equipments are renewed and fabricated.  Urban people will try to relocate to regions enjoying clean potable water sources (which are becoming rare almost anywhere, even in Africa).

This “Sun winds” phenomenon occurred in 1859 (Carrington eruption) and lasted for 8 days; telegraph services were disrupted.  Luckily, potable water and clean water sources were intact at the time.  Thus, no transport relying on electricity in any part of it will function.  Hospital will have to replace their generators after the solar wind episode; unless tight enclosures that are magnetic field proof are constructed.  Mostly, modern health providing facilities will be at an end.  Pharmaceutical industry will stop producing vital medicines for an entire year or as generators and infrastructure are renewed.

The most worrisome problem is nuclear power plants that are cooled by water.  If cooling water is not flowing adequately by other mechanisms than electricity then what could happen? A chain meltdown around the world.

Another problem is that the main decision makers might not be credible or considered legitimate enough; thus, waiting till the onset of the flare up may cause serious political difficulties in addition to technical difficulties that may prevent many States and private providers from shutting down in a timely manner. It would be much preferable to shut down power ahead of prediction and consider the order as an emergency exercise.

What do you think technology can offer to resolve the consequences of this solar wind hazard? In the meantime, diseases will spread; rats and roaches will invade urban centers in broad day light. Time to get used to eating rats, but how to finding potable water?

Best to be prepared for worst case scenarios since sun winds can be predicted ahead of time and start thinking of alternative technologies for pumping and purifying water.


adonis49

adonis49

adonis49

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