Best. State of the Union. Ever.

January 26th, 2011

What a fantastic State of the Union address by the president.  In case you missed it, the word of the night was “innovation”.  You will recall that the word popped up repeatedly during our December roundtable on jobs and the future of chemistry.  It’s nice to hear the same sentiment rattling around the nerve center of our government.

When you are the economy in the lead, the only way to maintain your distance from the field is to continually develop new technology.  Doing so “grows the pie” such that you can sustain your own growth in the face of rising competition.  If we fail to grow the pie, other countries will eventually eat into our slice.

From the speech:

Half a century ago, when the Soviets beat us into space with the launch of a satellite called Sputnik¸ we had no idea how we’d beat them to the moon. The science wasn’t there yet. NASA didn’t even exist.  But after investing in better research and education, we didn’t just surpass the Soviets; we unleashed a wave of innovation that created new industries and millions of new jobs.

This is our generation’s Sputnik moment. Two years ago, I said that we needed to reach a level of research and development we haven’t seen since the height of the Space Race. In a few weeks, I will be sending a budget to Congress that helps us meet that goal.  We’ll invest in biomedical research, information technology, and especially clean energy technology – an investment that will strengthen our security, protect our planet, and create countless new jobs for our people.

While there is certainly an undertone of gloom in this passage, I’d probably have been more explicit.  The truth is that if the solution to cheap energy is not developed in the United States, we are going to have big problems in maintaining our world superiority.  Big problems.  To me, research on clean energy technology is every bit as much about national security as it is about helping our economy or the environment.

Of course, the hard part falls to us: the people in the trenches.  That’s an exciting (and humbling) responsibility.  Speaking of excitement, I nearly soiled my pants when a mere 15 minutes into his speech, Obama let loose with this:

That’s what Americans have done for over two hundred years: reinvented ourselves. And to spur on more success stories like the Allen Brothers, we’ve begun to reinvent our energy policy. We’re not just handing out money. We’re issuing a challenge.  We’re telling America’s scientists and engineers that if they assemble teams of the best minds in their fields, and focus on the hardest problems in clean energy, we’ll fund the Apollo Projects of our time.

At the California Institute of Technology, they’re developing a way to turn sunlight and water into fuel for our cars.

“Hooooooly Sh’t!!  That’s us!!”  Mom saw it and was pleased.  You can’t ask for much more than that.

41 Responses to “Best. State of the Union. Ever.”

  1. Neil Says:

    Ignoring any questions about the USA’s need to maintain ‘world superiority’, check out this post at the Scholarly Kitchen, which links out to a fantastic animated Flash ‘bubble plot’ showing GNI per capita against scholarly publications.


    (Is it me, or have they got the axes the wrong way round?)

  2. Paul Says:

    That plot would greatly benefit by including some metric for the quality of the papers.

    As China continues it’s meteoric rise, it’s going to be interesting to see how their scientific research progresses. Can it fluorish in an environment that stifles freedom of inquiry and doesn’t value intellectual property rights?

  3. Chemjobber Says:

    Re: pie, from the Wikileaks dump, a conversation between a US and a Chinese diplomat:

    “¶18. (S) The U.S.-China relationship was of crucial importance, said [Chinese diplomat] Dai. China would do its best to cooperate with the United States wherever possible. “If we expand the pie for the common interest, the pie will be larger and more delicious.”

    If you grow the pie, will it indeed also become tastier?

  4. Hap Says:

    I thought that the Republicans had alternative energy research in the sights as potential budget fodder, and all that money that people want to cut has to come from somewhere.

    If you don’t think AGW is happening or is not consequential, then you have lots of fuel sources to play with that limit your exposure to other countries and allow you to continue to produce goods – oil shale and coal, and nuclear if you could actually find a place to safely and securely store it. Of course, coal and oil shale are dirty and their mining is worse, but well, you have to break a few mountains….err, eggs, to make omelettes.

    Didn’t Russia manage OK with papers as long as the money was flowing?

  5. Matt Says:

    In re Caltech and the Republicans.
    I think that one of the reasons Obama brought that up is because he doesn’t want the republicans to cut the funding for the 4 DOE Hubs (one of which is at Caltech). Putting that in his speech gave it prominence and will make sure things stay on track.

    @Neil The hypernationalism is something that a lot of us worry about on this side of the Pond too. Whether or not you agree with that approach, it is good for rousing the masses.

  6. FH Says:

    A budget freeze for science does not portend well. The comments sound more like protecting the status quo of the elitists, e.g. Harvard and Cal tech, than a revolution in science and innovation.

    And comments like ‘maintaining our world superiority” are hollow. In terms of employment and standard of living, we have already lost our superiority. Only politicians say otherwise.

  7. Curious Wavefunction Says:

    That sounds warm and fuzzy and it’s nice to be optimistic but I don’t know how exactly it’s going to pan out. It’s not like the NIH budget is going to grow by leaps and bounds, it’s not like companies are going to revert back to high-quality Bell-Labs/Merck era basic science research, and it’s not like the Republicans are going to slink back into their caves and start respecting funding for basic science.

    Also, economically, the Sputnik analogy doesn’t really hold up well since it came at a very different time in this country’s economic history, before so much international competition, before the Reagan-era initiated tax cuts and before two disastrous wars. Plus the Soviets gave Americans a bonafide enemy (at least on paper) to rally against on a unified front. I doubt if China can stand in for them. Finally, it’s also not like solar energy is suddenly going to solve our problems. In fact the emphasis on one or two such energy sources deflects attention from what should be a unified approach to the energy problem that encompasses other sources including nuclear.

  8. Matt Says:

    @CW The Caltech Hub is 1 of 4 renewable energy research sites. Currently these include the Caltech/Berkeley site, the site for research on efficient building, and the site for research on nuclear reactors. Web site here. I think that the 4th is still being decided upon. Caltech was put up by POTUS as publicity shot. It more easily captures the imagination. You are right in that we need a multilateral approach. That is what the DOE is going after.

    @FH While these are benefiting the elite (Caltech), this hub is all about application. It is not pure research. It is about finding a workable solution. This is much different from past research. And, while not the full answer to scientific funding that we all hope if coming in the future … seriously … it was the State of the Union. Just getting a mention is a BIG deal. Hopefully there will be momentum from the speech. From my limited understanding of DC, this is how things get done. POTUS says something in a talk. People clamor to flesh out the details.

  9. Dan Pine Says:

    Obama is a criminal for the financial elite. His speech was nonsense.

    Financial recklessness on Wall Street and trade/ currency issues got the country into this mess, NOT, a lack of competitiveness. This strategy is to essentially ‘blame US citizens’ for their leaders mistakes.

    Since his focus has been to protect his wall street buddies with diluted financial regulations and TBTF , I see no reason that America can recover under his pathetic leadership. We’re just waiting for the next Wall Street catalyzed implosion.

    His appointment of GEs Jeoffery Immelt to the Council on Jobs and Competitiveness is more insanity (take a look at the GE stock price since 2001 when he took over). Immelt was known as the executive who pioneered rapid outsourcing to China and India. His predecessor Jack Welch underfunded the GE pension and turned the company into an entity dependent on finance rather than science.

    I see little difference between Obama and GWB. Unfortunately most scientists have never taken any economics.

    We’re doomed! I suggest all able bodied scientists evacuate the country ASAP.

  10. lejuscara Says:

    Where does Dan suggest we go?

    In all seriousness, has funding been better in the Obama age? I think it has increased the physical sciences funding, and hopefully we will see that pay dividends.

    Also that moving chart was really interesting. The last few years have seen a great increase in publications, but a decrease in GNI per person. Wow the economy sucks.

  11. CR Says:

    Well, Dan Pine has a different take on things. I usually have CNBC on in the morning and the one issue they would disagree with Mr. Pine is President Obama “protecting his wall street buddies”. I think if President Obama is anything it is that he is not a friend to Wall Street. Read any business journal or tune into any business program and they will tell you how un-friendly the Obama administration has been to business and Wall Street. So, I’m not sure where Mr. Pine is coming from, other than to rant.

    Oh, and Dr. Bracher, are you in 3rd grade? Does a simple mention of the university that you work for get you that excited?

  12. Nick l Says:

    @CR- CNBC is not a credible organization for financial news. It is considered on par with C&E news in its warped description of reality. Most finance professionals use Bloomberg as a trusted source for tv news. CNBC is staged theatrics nothing more.

    I’d suggest for a good online source for what’s really going on.

  13. CR Says:

    Nick – CNBC is viewed because it’s on in front of the treadmill at the gym. The point is, very, very few (if any) business sources would claim that the Obama administration is pro-Wall Street.

  14. Paul Says:

    @CR: I think most people would get excited if their specific research group were mentioned in the president’s SOTU address. In fact, I bet a lot of people working in solar energy (anywhere) got excited by the shout-out.

  15. CR Says:

    I guess…seems more like the concert goers getting excited when a band shouts their towns name…yeah!!! But I digress, good for you.

  16. Paul Says:

    Maybe I’m immature, because I do get that same type of feeling about this stuff as I did about new video games in 3rd grade. I get pumped when (almost) any chemical research hits the mainstream news.

    When that As-based life news came out, I dropped everything to watch it. I phoned friends to turn on the press conference, and my inbox was practically flooded too. Before that, it was antihydrogen. It happens to this degree maybe 5 times a year.

    Of course, there is also a dirty side to this happiness. I happen to believe that these DOE hubs are really good ideas. I think the sustained nature of my being pumped has a lot to do with being surprised that the government is actually doing something right for a change[/snark].

  17. Curious Wavefunction Says:

    -Read any business journal or tune into any business program and they will tell you how un-friendly the Obama administration has been to business and Wall Street

    Not true. Obama may not have been as Wall Street-friendly as W but the status quo is pretty much unchanged and all the villains got away. That Obama was not going to change anything was obvious the moment he appointed Summers and Geithner, people who were responsible for the very mess that the administration was supposed to clean up. The administration never made efforts to hire even as consultants, people like Nouriel Roubini or Nassim Taleb who warned about the crisis. Read the resumes of people in the Obama administration and you would find pretty much the same people as before, people who transferred from their offices in Wall Street to offices in Washington. Most importantly, there has not been a single high-level prosecution and indictment of any Wall Street CEO. People who got us into this quagmire escaped with their bonuses to their comfortable mansions. After this debacle Wall Street now knows with one-hundred percent certainty that it can get away scotch-free even in the worst possible scenario, and all the big investment banks are again hiring; at least three of my friends got high-paying jobs last year in hedge funds and investment houses.

    The most accurate indictment of the Obama administration’s failure to clean up Wall Street is the documentary “Inside Job”. It’s an absolute must-see; clear eyed, non-partisan and objective, a triumph of professional film-making by Charles Ferguson who made the devastatingly effective film “No End in Sight”. The Obama administration should be ashamed of itself for not snaring the big fish at the beginning, when it had a lot of public support and the opportunity. As the film shows, they could have secured several testimonies from subordinates which could have helped put people like Lloyd Blankfein behind bars. But they did none of this. I still like Barack Obama much more than I like almost any other politician, but the one thing his administration has signaled to Wall Street is “Don’t worry, continue with business as usual and don’t forget to collect your bonuses at the end of the day”.

    Read Frank Rich’s articulate op-ed for starters.

  18. excimer Says:

    I’m currently reading “Griftopia” by Matt Taibbi, which dives into the financial crisis and how the Obama administration is just as implicit in doling out bailout money to Wall Street as Bush was. And he does it in a way I can appreciate- with lots of potty-mouth language (as Paul would say)

  19. Curious Wavefunction Says:

    You might be interested in this email from Normal Matloff titled “Obama speech misses the mark on education and innovation”. It’s got some pretty thought-provoking points. Excimer, I would think “Griftopia” with its articulately barbed language is right up your alley!

  20. yonemoto Says:

    “At the California Institute of Technology, they’re developing a way to turn sunlight and water into fuel for our cars.”

    Sunlight: 1W per square meter (if you’re lucky)
    US transportation needs: 2.84×10^16 kJ/year. Do the math.

  21. yonemoto Says:

    Sorry, 1 kW/m^2

  22. yonemoto Says:

    “Financial recklessness on Wall Street and trade/ currency issues got the country into this mess”

    I think this was largely fueled by easy, expansionist money policy, more than any deregulation. To make matters worse (and probably of more interesting to the readership of this blog) what happened was there was a huge influx of people from the sciences into the financial sector. It’s really bad with physics. There was this general perception on Wall Street that people with physci backgrounds could really be an oracle for the future, and that brain power would translate into profits, hence the ascent of the quants. Of course, you can imagine what happens when people used to having excel spreadsheets mindlessly throw p values onto data get into the art of projecting the economy. Never mind that excel calculates p values based on normal distributions and economics probably runs on levy stable distributions, which, of course, has infinite variance and therefore a p value makes no sense.

  23. Paul Says:

    Nate Lewis makes what is perhaps the best argument for solar. This video is worth watching if you don’t want to read the papers:

  24. Dan Says:

    A good read for those of you who still believe that Obama is not a stooge fro Wall Street and the global corporate elite. “13 bankers” by Simon Johnson is a good read.

  25. Alec Says:

    At the risk of a math error causing eternal internet shame, here’s some math on solar energy:

    US Transportation Needs:
    2.84×10^16 kJ/year = 0.9 TW (9e11 W)

    1e3 W/m^2 –> 1e9 W/km^2
    (9e11 W) / (1e9 W/km^2) = 900 km^2 necessary

    (30 km x 30 km) = 900 km^2

    So if we collected all the solar energy found in a 30km x 30km square in the desert, we could meet our transportation needs. (Area of the mojave desert is ~65,000 km^2). Of course, this would assume 100% conversion of solar energy to fuel, which won’t be the case. Assuming we get only get up to 10-20% efficiency, it still sounds like a bargain.

  26. yonemoto Says:

    I’m beginning to think that number was per day… The infographic I got it from didn’t label the per units, and I assumed it was per year.

  27. yonemoto Says:

    no never mind, It’s per year, I’ve seen it done out and it wound up being the size of vermont.

  28. Paul Says:

    At the 44:30 mark in the video above:

    “More energy from the Sun hits the Earth in one hour than all the energy consumed on our planet in an entire year.”

  29. yonemoto Says:

    …you will get about max 1% efficiency (maybe… photosynthesis is theoretically limited to 10% and biochemical/extraction inefficiencies are probably around 10%) if you use biofuels, and maybe (again at a near-theoretical limit) 25% at source-efficiency direct to photovoltaic, not counting transportation/transmission inefficiencies (huge) for both.

  30. yonemoto Says:

    “More energy from the Sun hits the Earth in one hour than all the energy consumed on our planet in an entire year.”

    Yes but the earth is not a black hole. Hits != hits and is absorbed, plus you must remember carnot’s theorem.

  31. yonemoto Says:

    “More energy from the Sun hits the Earth in one hour than all the energy consumed on our planet in an entire year.”

    So… 30% of the earth being the ocean and 1% average energy capture capability, and 50% transmission efficiency and 50% use efficiency (all optimistic) and were’ down to “more energy from the sun hits the earth in one hour than all the energy consumed on our planet in a quarter of a day”.

  32. Alec Says:

    Using the math you’re giving (land area 30%, 1% efficiency — use and transmission efficiency are already built into world energy demand, since we still have to use and transport energy from any source), solar energy still strikes just the land on Earth at a rate 26x greater than the rate we consume. This would require solar capture over 3% of land area. A large area certainly, but 1% capture ability is a gross underestimate. Solar capture and energy conversion is a constantly developing field. Current commercial photovoltaics operate at 12-18% and are constantly improving.

    The bottom line is that solar energy easily has the potential to fulfill our energy needs.

  33. yonemoto Says:

    1% includes the fact that we need solar for other stuff, too, like food, or that some thing will probably not be able to be used for solar power capture.

    “Current commercial photovoltaics operate at 12-18% and are constantly improving.”

    25% is a well-accepted soft upper limit on the efficiency of photovoltaics.

  34. yonemoto Says:

    oh shit, I keep getting the photosynthesis limit confused with the photovoltaics limit, the photovoltaic limit is higher (33% or so) although some people are claiming PVs at 50%. I think there’s something they’re not saying, like ‘over a limited spectrum range’ or something.

  35. bad wolf Says:

    You know, you can also think about things for a minute, consolidate your thoughts and then post them, or you can just give us a running commentary of what’s inside your head. either way i guess.

  36. yonemoto Says:

    look at the timestamps. More than a minute. Sorry, I usually read this blog while I’m at work, so I’ll set up an experiment, and while I’m waiting for results to come in I’ll be thinking about what i just posted.

  37. Wolfie Says:

    I can only say, Obama once praised “this great country that invented the automobile”. The occasion was that GM just appeared to go down the drain.

    Don’t know exactly whom he meant by that country (oouchhc, how old is the joke).

    One of the museums for the invention of the first automobile is in Ladenburg, Germany, close the “Bertha Benz route”.

    Who were Mr. Daimler, Otto, Diesel, Benz, and all others ?

    We, honestly, felt humiliated.

    It is being said that Mr. Bloomberg once played golf with Mr. Obama and afterwards told Mr. Murdoch that this was the most arrogant person he’d ever met.

    I, honestly swear that I was never an adherent of Harvard University, altough my mother swore she’d have me sent there, had she had enough money.

    @ bad wolf : a good chemist always does what you suggest and then checks back the results with reality. Otherwise, it is alchemy.

  38. Aspirin Says:

    Soiled yourself? Grow up dude

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