Transcript: Podship Earth Episode 003: INFINITY & BEYOND
JARED BLUMENFELD: Hi, this is Jared Blumenfeld. Welcome to Podship Earth. This week, my cousin David and I went to a dog and pony show put on by the Pruitt Environmental Protection Agency, to take comments on Pruitt’s goal of eliminating the clean power plan that would have reduced greenhouse gas emissions from coal fired power plants. Later in the show we'll talk to Lord Martin Rees, the Astronomer Royal about infinity and beyond. So, David, this is your first political rally, right?
DAVID KAHN: That's correct.
JARED BLUMENFELD: That's amazing. Was there anything that kind of struck you?
DAVID KAHN: I mean the whole thing was pretty interesting. I like seeing that everybody was so organized, and they had things to say that they wanted to share. And there were kids lined up from schools that must have bussed them in.
JARED BLUMENFELD: It was quite a production.
DAVID KAHN: Yeah, and then there was a bunch of professional politicians or lobbyists that were also there. It was just an interesting mixture of folks.
JARED BLUMENFELD: Was there anything that confused you or bewildered you?
DAVID KAHN: I mean, I just didn't understand the whole thing about the record and why people had to get on the record, like, where does the record go?
JARED BLUMENFELD: Well, actually this was not really democracy in action. It was more like a show trial. I think Pruitt and Trump already made their minds up that they don't want the clean power plan, but our voices still are important. By people going and articulating their points and saying they're against what Pruitt's trying to do, it goes into the federal record and eventually there will probably be millions of more signatures and notes in the record that say Pruitt's plan sucks, so that's basically what this was all about.
DAVID KAHN: Interesting. Thank you.
JARED BLUMENFELD: Yeah, so let's take a listen to what some of the public had to say.
KARINA MARTIN: Good morning. My name is Karina Martin and I live here in San Francisco speaking today in my capacity as a human, in support of the clean power plan...
JARED BLUMENFELD: We then heard from California's top air regulator.
MARY NICHOLS: Good morning. My name is Mary Nichols. I'm the chair of the California Air Resources Board, a position to which I’ve been appointed to three times by Jerry Brown, and once by Arnold Schwarzenegger. The mission of the United States Environmental Protection Agency is to protect human health and the environment. The proposal to repeal the clean power plan does neither.
JARED BLUMENFELD: And, just to add a touch of ritziness, Tom Steyer, the billionaire eco-philanthropist and lead mover and shaker behind the efforts to impeach Trump showed up for a cameo.
TOM STEYER: Good morning, my name is Tom Steyer. It's hard to recall now, but it is important to remember, that the environmental protection agency was set up to protect our environment, and central to its mission today is promoting clean power and clean air.
JARED BLUMENFELD: After giving testimony, Tom Steyer went and spoke on the steps of San Francisco City Hall. Standing next to him was a lady dressed up in a polar bear outfit, holding a sign saying, “Pruitt, keep your hands off the clean power plan.”
DAVID KAHN: But she overheated, and she fell down on the steps right next to Tom.
JARED BLUMENFELD: It was terrifying. I mean, she just keeled over.
DAVID KAHN: Yeah, it was.
JARED BLUMENFELD: It was sad, and the fact that the polar bear overheated and fainted was bad. He didn't seem to react at all, which is also a little odd.
DAVID KAHN: Yeah, they just kept on going.
JARED BLUMENFELD: At that moment, I got an email from a friend saying that a Kentucky coal advocate was in town for the same EPA hearings and would like to talk with Podship Earth. I was intrigued. Tyler White was named as President of Kentucky Coal’s Association in 2016. He served in the US Marine Corps and was selected to
help develop a psychological operations capability for the marines. Tyler is nearing completion of his master's degree from the Harvard Extension School. So Tyler, you came to San Francisco today for this EPA hearing?
TYLER WHITE: Absolutely.
JARED BLUMENFELD: Where are you from? Tell us about yourself.
TYLER WHITE: I’m from Lexington, Kentucky. I'm the president of the Kentucky Coal Association, so we represent the coal producers in Kentucky as well as about 120 different companies that are involved with the coal industry.
JARED BLUMENFELD: And how big an industry is coal in Kentucky?
TYLER WHITE: It fluctuates, and of course it's gone down a lot over the past few years as we've seen our industry, and especially from a producer's standpoint, it’s just completely devastated. I think a lot of people look at this industry in kind of an archaic way where they envision a guy down in the coal mine with a shovel or pickax. That was kind of how it was during the industrial revolution. Now when you go down underground, there's a guy with a remote control box and he is driving a piece of heavy machinery from a remote control, called a continuous miner. We definitely don't need the same amount of people that we once had, but we still need people willing to go do that job that has been entrenched in communities, especially in Appalachia for generations for 100 plus years, one of the hardest working workforces that I've seen in America.
JARED BLUMENFELD: Why are you here today? Why are you're in San Francisco?
TYLER WHITE: So, one thing that I really felt was important is that we do have different ideas in the mix. I think that's important. I think that's one of the cool things about the fabric of our democracy in America. I thought, you know, what a great opportunity it is to come here and, and just inject maybe a different thought process in terms of how we view energy and especially production that energy.
JARED BLUMENFELD: So what will you be telling the panel, the EPA folks today?
TYLER WHITE: My biggest thing is that, number one, I don't think that the EPA should be in the business of picking power sources and that's essentially what the clean power plan did. The second is that, I believe that energy provides opportunity, and especially low-‐ cost energy. See, in Kentucky where we have fallen on hard economic times, and we are one of the poorer states in the nation, and one of the things that gives people opportunity is jobs. Well, we know how we create jobs in Kentucky is low affordable energy prices that allow manufacturing sectors to come in and create opportunity through jobs. But it starts with that low energy price. And in Kentucky, 83 percent of our energy is produced by coal. So we look at that resource as something that shouldn't be faded out, especially before its time.
JARED BLUMENFELD: So when you go to these communities that have been devastated and talk to them about their future, what is the hope there?
TYLER WHITE: So this is really good. This is a really good question. And I like it because I'm a younger guy, right? A younger guy in the coal industry in Appalachia. Are thousands of jobs going to come back to the coal industry in Appalachia? No, they're not. Do we need to put our miners back to work? Absolutely. We need to because you have this displaced workforce that I said is one of the hardest working workforces in America. So how do we do that? I'm a big believer, especially when we talk about Appalachia, in diversifying our economy because if you put everything into one thing, you see what happens. If it goes away, it becomes an extremely depressed state. And that's something that we don't, we don't want to see again.
JARED BLUMENFELD: It feels like, just from a national environmental perspective, I'm an environmentalist, it really feels like these are communities that had been left behind it. There's no transition plan to get them renewable energy and they just feel forgotten, like “where are the people that might be looking after us?” How can we turn that around to be a positive force?
TYLER WHITE: I think a lot of people felt left behind. I think a lot of people saw a lot of government policies come in, especially in these rural communities, and put a lot of people out of work. Natural gas was a contributor. It's a market force, but there are also a lot of non-‐market forces out there at play, forces like the clean power plan. So it's not through congress, not through their elected representatives, but through the administrative state. It wasn't like the government came in and said, yeah, but here's these other opportunities. Right? And I think you saw a lot of that manifest in the 2016 election, especially when you look at those different pockets.
JARED BLUMENFELD: Yeah. Because if people don't have jobs, they're going to be frustrated. If they're going to be frustrated, they're going to take that out on the ballot box.
TYLER WHITE: Not just the ballot box, but you know, you look at the opioid epidemic and look at the belt that it's hitting in our rural communities. You know, you talk about loss of jobs and then opioids, and it's just like this cocktail. It's very sad. And yeah, there needs to be more of a dialogue. So, it's kind of frustrating, especially as a young person that's in the fossil fuels industry. I mean, I get a lot of hate mail, right? Everything is so polarized, right? What happened to the time where, you know, you thought this way, I think this way, and we somehow come together.
JARED BLUMENFELD: It’s called Podship Earth.
TYLER WHITE: Where were we can work on it, right? We're human beings and I think we've kind of lost that in this fabric of everything that's going on. So, one thing I really take pride in is coming out here to places that are different, that aren't the same, talking with people that don't have the same ideas as me. And I've always said we're all human beings and we're all in this struggle of life together, right? It's time that everybody starts working a little bit better together. If you talk to coal miners, people don't think we care about the quality of water that is in our own communities or the air that our children breathe. We do care about it.
JARED BLUMENFELD: Yeah. I think we're in a really dangerous time because we don't look at the human side of the person on the other side of the table. We just say, oh, they have different views than us. I'm going to ignore them. Tell us a little bit about the people that you represent, their daily lives, and what their aspirations and dreams are.
TYLER WHITE: These guys take great pride in their job, not just because they're providing for their families. I did my time in the Marine Corps and I'm telling you that I don't know how these guys do it. These guys, you know, when they're sitting around the table and they're talking about energy, there's a great pride that when you do turn on your light switch, or you plug in your iPhone, or your Tesla, that they're providing that energy source for millions of Americans, and billions of people around the world.
JARED BLUMENFELD: Do you feel like you have a friend in the White House? Does it feel like a big difference?
TYLER WHITE: It's absolutely a big difference. It’s a big difference, especially with the cabinet. We actually feel like we're being listened to. We’re not offering, you know, do this, do this, get them, get them here. I think that we are very thought out when we communicate that to administrator Pruitt and to the administration. And I think that that's very welcoming to our industry to have that type of communication.
JARED BLUMENFELD: And what did it feel like before?
TYLER WHITE: From what I've seen that communication didn't exist. In fact, with hearings with listening sessions about things like the clean power plan, they didn't come to coal country to see what people thought about that implementation.
JARED BLUMENFELD: What does the future of coal look like in the United States and in Kentucky, and just projected out – what’s the next 10 years look like, Tyler?
TYLER WHITE: It's here to stay for a long time, a lot longer than what you would read about.
JARED BLUMENFELD: So, coal is not dead.
TYLER WHITE: Coal is not dead. People have to remember this. You don't phase out 30 percent of the nation's energy overnight and it would be ill advised to do so.
JARED BLUMENFELD: We've been speaking to Tyler. Thank you so much. I really appreciate Tyler’s willingness to engage in this discussion. His humanity and receptivity to new ideas on ways of helping Kentucky's transition to a healthy economy was not at all what I expected. We both come from opposite sides of the debate around the future of coal. But in talking to Tyler, I felt a renewed optimism about the ability of environmentalists and coal miners getting on the same page. It was also amazing to me how Tyler's rhetoric as the head of the Kentucky Miner’s Association, was so much more measured and thoughtful than Scott Pruitt's, of the US Environmental Protection Agency.
DAVID: Jared, I'm glad that I got to sit in on your interview with Tyler. At the end, Tyler said the one thing that shocked him the most was the number of homeless people outside the EPA hearing in San Francisco.
JARED BLUMENFELD: Talking of rough neighborhoods, when I was studying law at UC Berkeley, Alex and I lived in the heart of East Oakland on 93rd and east 14th street, right where the Black Panthers were founded by Huey Newton and Bobby Seale in 1966. One enduring legacy of the Black Panther Movement, including the blockbuster movie currently in theaters which I can't wait to see, is the way images and design were used to portray the struggle. Here is Emory Douglas, the creative genius behind the Black Panther political movement, talking about the importance of design.
Emory Douglas: It has to be able to communicate, to be a reflection of their desires and their interests and concerns if you want to be relevant in relationship to change. It has to be a language that communicates with people, that people when they hear it or see it, they can get a sense of what was going on. It can reinforce maybe their feelings or thinking about ideals...
JARED BLUMENFELD: Lord Martin Rees has been The Astronomer Royal since 1995. He was the master of Trinity College Cambridge and held the presidency of the Royal Society. Lord Rees is the author of more than 500 research papers and he's part of the hundred-‐million dollar effort called Breakthrough Initiative, which has reinvigorated the search for extra-‐terrestrial life. Lord Rees is widely published and plays a critical role in captivating an ever-‐ larger audience interested in the universe and our place in it. Talking to one of the smartest people on the planet, I was nervous that I had transposed cosmetology for cosmology and astrology for astronomy, but somehow, I managed to keep them straight. I recorded this interview with Martin Rees in his home in Cambridge, England. Welcome Martin.
LORD MARTIN REES: It’s great to be talking with you, Jared.
JARED BLUMENFELD: Thank you. My daughter, Anya, is 16 and right now she is taking an astronomy class and she went to Yosemite and it wasn't a very large mirrored telescope, but she was able to see the rings around Saturn. And just the spark in her eye, literally, she just got back last weekend and was like, “Dad, this is the most amazing thing ever.” Just to realize that there is this incredible universe out there and we're such a small spec within it.
LORD MARTIN REES: Well, that's right, one of the most exciting discoveries in the last year or so, was a very faint star, which has seven planets
orbiting around it. It's admitted to solar system where the year on each of those planets would be only two days for the innermost ones, two weeks for the outermost of the seven planets, and that was discovered using a 22-‐inch diameter telescope.
JARED BLUMENFELD: So back when you started in the sixties and seventies, there was a astronomers and then there was science fiction and now they seem to nearly have blended together in the public consciousness.
LORD MARTIN REES: We know space technology has advanced hugely, but of course, science fiction has been a stimulus and I would tell my students, it's better to read first rate science fiction and secondary science. It's far more stimulating and no more likely to be wrong. My cousin David was just so excited that I was coming to talk to you. I mean, he talks about very little else other than life on other planets. The search for intelligent life habitable does not mean inhabited, but for most of us, that is the number one question.
Well the one thing we have learned is that there are in our galaxy probably a billion planets which are rather like the young earth in the sense that they are about the size of the earth and they're orbiting their parent star at a distance such that water could exist. Water doesn't boil away as it would if they were to close, nor does it stay frozen if they’re further away. So, they're in the so called, “habitable zone.” And we know that there are probably billions of such planets in our galaxy. But indeed, whether there is life on those, we still don't know. And that's because we don't actually know how life got started here on earth. Of course, we know that Darwinian selection has led from the simplest protozoa, which existed three or three and a half billion years ago, into the marvelous biosphere we have today and of which we are apart. We understand the process that led to that evolution of our natural selection. But the initial transition, the transition from complicated chemicals to the first metabolizing, replicating entity to be called alive, that is still not understood. Fortunately, people are now working on it. But, of course, the other thing we can now do is look for evidence for life elsewhere and that'll really pinch the case if we actually find it, and in our own solar system.
Lord Martin Rees Cont.: Of course, the centuries people have speculated about evidence for life. If you ask what's the most likely place where there could be life in our solar system, it's probably under the ice of Europa, which is a moon of Jupiter or Enceladus, which is a moon of Saturn. We don't know, but there could be something
swimming under that ice, and in 10 or 20 years we'll know. If we were to find evidence for life on Enceladus or Europa, that would be very important. Because that would immediately tell us that life was not a rare accident. Because if life had originated twice within a single planetary system, then it must have originated in a billion in other places. So long as we only know about one origin of life, we can't rule out the possibility that it is so rare, it only happened here, but if it's happened twice within one planetary system, then it must be existent everywhere and in billions of places. So that's hopeful, but no one expects any really advanced life anywhere else in our solar system apart from the Earth. But when we widen our horizons to the planet orbiting other stars, then of course the whole, possibility opens up hugely. And I think at the moment, we can't observe these other planets around other stars in enough detail to say much about them. But in 10 years we will able to do better. We will have the next generation of huge telescopes on the ground.
JARED BLUMENFELD: Where will they be, Martin?
LORD MARTIN REES: Well, the biggest is going to be in Chile. It's called the ELT, which
stands for extremely large telescope, and it's going to have a mirror 39 meters in diameter. Which is huge. Of course, not one sheet of glass, but a mosaic of about 800 pieces of glass.
JARED BLUMENFELD: Martin, what will these new, larger telescopes allow us to see?
LORD MARTIN REES: This will have the ability to actually image a planet orbiting another star. But the way I like to put it is, suppose that some alien astronomers were looking at our solar system. Then they’d see the sun as an ordinary star. They'd see the earth as in Carl Sagan’s nice phrase, “a pale blue dot” very close in the sky to its star, our sun, but a billion times fainter. But if the aliens watch this carefully, they could learn a bit about it. They could learn that the shade of blue is slightly different, sometimes compared to others, depending on where the Pacific Ocean was placing them or the land mass of Asia, so they could learn the constellations and oceans. They could earn the length of the day. They could learn something of the climate and the seasons and by analyzing the lights, they could learn if there was oxygen, or ozone in the atmosphere. Now, those are just the kinds of inferences that in a decade or two, we'll be able to draw about some of these earth-‐like planets around other stars and this will be, of course, a huge breakthrough and this will address the question of whether any of them have biospheres, life or vegetation. Now, of course, the question of whether they have the kind of aliens with intelligence or technology, that's a separate one. That's a higher risk one, but I think we will know whether life is widespread within 10 or 20 years.
JARED BLUMENFELD: In the last 30 years, we’ve been able to understand the molecular and cellular granularity of life at the same time that we've been able to understand the vastness of space.
LORD MARTIN REES: Well, that's right. And there's even more intimate connection because when the earth formed, it's already had complex geology and chemistry. It contained lots of carbon, oxygen, phosphorus, and all the chemical elements which are crucial for the emergence of life. And they were present when the solar system formed and we would like to know where they came from. Stars are nuclear fusion reactors. They derive the energy to keep them shining by fusing hydrogen to helium and helium into carbon up the periodic table as far as iron. There's a recycling process going on where stars are dying all the time. They're forming all the time. All the carbon, oxygen, et cetera, was forged in ancient stars which lived and died probably at least 5 billion years ago before the solar system formed.
JARED BLUMENFELD: So we've been recycled, Martin?
LORD MARTIN REES: We are recycled materials. So, we are literally the ashes from long dead stars, in a less romantic way, the nuclear waste from the fuel that made stars shine. So, we are intimately linked to the cosmos. We are midway between atoms and stars in scale, um, geometric mean of the mass of a proton. And the mass of the sun is about 50 kilograms, which is not far from the mass of the average human being. So, it would take about as many human bodies to make up the sun for atoms in each of us. So, we are midway between the very small and the very large.
JARED BLUMENFELD: As you say, “our big bang may not have been the only one. Separate universes may have cooled down differently, ending up governed by different levels and defined by different numbers. This opens up a new vision of our universe, which would be just one atom selected from an infinite multiverse.”
LORD MARTIN REES: Yes, I should say, this is still speculation, but in fact many theorists do a suspect that that is the case. And if we did get evidence that we are in this kind of multiverse, it will be a sort of fourth Copernican revolution. So, this means that physical reality is vastly more complex and intricate than what we see. What we are now becoming aware of is that the observable universe may be only a tiny part of physical reality.
JARED BLUMENFELD: One of the areas that the laws of Newtonian and Einstein's physics may not apply are black holes, where you describe them as a remarkable theoretical construct, but more than that, evidence that they actually exist is now compelling. Well, what are black holes and how do they bend time and space and light?
LORD MARTIN REES: Well, they are objects where gravity is so strong, not even light can escape from them. From the 1960’s onwards, theorists agree, myself speculated that they would exist, so black holes as such are quite well understood. And what we observe are objects where gas is swirling down into this gravitational pit where it’s getting very hot, and we can actually understand this. But deep inside a black hole which we can't observe, there is probably a mystery because inside the black hole, there's the so -‐called singularity where things go infinite, etc. And that's a signal that some new physics must come in and this is one instance where we know that the physics of the 20th century is incomplete. We've got a very good physics in micro-‐world, which is quantum theory. We have a very good theory of gravity, Einstein's theory, but those two separate theories aren't linked together. Einstein's theory doesn't have a quantum dimension to it and quantum theory doesn’t mention gravity. But, if you really want to understand what happens deep inside a black hole, and more importantly, if we want to understand what happened right at the beginning of the big bang, then we need this theory because if we extrapolate back to the very earliest days of the big bang, we infer a universe of microscopic size. Unifying the very large and the very small, is a challenge for 21st century physics. I like to say that even the smallest insect is far more complicated than a star, because an insect has layer upon layer of structure, whereas a star is basically one big ball of hot gas.
JARED BLUMENFELD: And as you quote E.O. Wilson and your own observations on the sixth great extinction, we're losing so much every day in terms of things that we could be learning about, whether it's an insect or even more microscopic species that we’ll never know existed.
LORD MARTIN REES: What is happening now, which has never happened before in the 45 million centuries of history, is that one species, maybe ours, can determine the future of the planet and that's because within the last century, our numbers have grown. We're more empowered by technology and we are transforming the planet.
JARED BLUMENFELD: In our final hour, you, you gave us a 50/50 chance of surviving the century.
LORD MARTIN REES: It’s unlikely we’d wipe ourselves out completely, but I think it's likely we will have a very bumpy ride through this century. I would certainly say that there's a 50 percent chance of having a very severe setback to our civilization caused by some environmental crisis, or possibly some a runaway cyber crisis or pandemic or something like that.
JARED BLUMENFELD: Do you ever think that we're in a computer simulation that this is just all too perfect, an infinitesimally dense atom that expands 14 billion years ago into an expanding universe and you have to have these, you know, very precise six variables in very precise numbers to create life on earth... maybe is that a possibility?
LORD MARTIN REES: We definitely find ourselves in one where the shooting was adequate, but as regards to whether we're in a simulation, this is an idea which some of us have speculated about. It's not absolutely crazy, but I wouldn't bet much on it. The idea would then be that there has to be some even more complex entities, which would underline the simulation. So, it's not absurd to speculate that what we regard as reality is not in practice the deepest level of reality. It’s not a crazy concept, but I think it's rather unlikely.
JARED BLUMENFELD: 20 years from now when we have those telescopes in Chile will also have video games that people will be putting virtual reality headsets on.
LORD MARTIN REES: Absolutely. It just depends on the extent to which Moore's law can be extended. It probably involves going into three dimensional chips, et cetera. But, of course, the other, the other point which is relevant, is that the cost of gene sequencing has fallen even more steeply than Moore's law because the human genome first draft was at the beginning of this century, cost three billion dollars, whereas now for less than a thousand dollars, you can get sequencing of the human genome. It will have huge benefits for personalized medicine, but also it will allow these designer creatures in a way that was not possible in the past.
JARED BLUMENFELD: We've been talking to Martin Rees, the Royal Astronomer, thank you so much for your time. It's been fascinating.
LORD MARTIN REES: Very good to have the chance to chat with you, Jared.
JARED BLUMENFELD: Excellent. Thank you. I want to thank Martin for expanding my mind to the point where I feel less significant and yet more unique at the same time. Inspired by Martin Rees, Brenna, who also hiked the Pacific Crest Trail from Mexico to Canada, and I were talking this week about sleeping under the stars.
BRENNA SHELDON: Yes. I slept in a tent the first five nights and then did not sleep in a tent until the last three days when it rained. I had spectacular weather and just slept on the ground cloth every single night. There was never a time where I was taking it for granted. I mean, like every night it’s amazing to look up at the stars. Right?
JARED BLUMENFELD: It's incredible. I mean just visually spectacular. I mean there's so much movement and you feel so connected to it. I mean there's this incredible connection between me lying looking up at the stars and those stars that I'd never felt.
BRENNA SHELDON: Yeah, you get to know them. There is a certain constellation
that we look for every night and we’d be like, we're in the right place, and just that was kind of the takeaway. Every day you're in exactly the right place and you're very connected to the sun setting and the rhythm of the day, but yeah, laying down on the ground and looking up at the stars every night before bed was the best.
JARED BLUMENFELD: Thanks Brenna. One way to connect with the stars is to visit and even join your local astronomy club. They're a great resource and they can get you started on your own amazing journey. The best I found is Go-‐astronomy.com. Thanks to Tyler White for giving us a sense of the struggles faced by Kentucky coal miners and how that is shaping the current climate change debate. I want to thank each of you that has either gone to an EPA hearing or let them know the importance of keeping the clean power plan by providing comments on the EPA website. If you haven't done it yet, the deadline is April 26.
Next week we'll talk to Dr. Musa Mhlanga from Cape Town, South Africa, about how his city is about to run out of water and to Lisa Gautier about how the hair from Michael Phelps and thousands of salons helped clean up oil from the BP Deepwater Horizon Spill. Thank you so much for being part of the Podship Earth journey. From the entire Podship Earth crew, editor Rob Spate, producer Nancy Ferranti, executive producer, David Kahn and me, Jared Blumenfeld, have a fabulous week.