A day in my life as a scientist – part 1.

I am a scientist. Specifically, I am a physicist, even more specifically a cosmologist. I consider myself incredibly lucky to be a scientist because I go through life understanding most of what is around me and I wouldn’t want to understand less. When I don’t understand something, I immediately feel the need to learn. And science is not the only way to know. Like we never cease to learn science, we never cease to learn about people either, for example. But this series of posts is there to describe what goes on in my head, as I go about my day.

One of the courses that taught me the most and shaped my thinking the most was the Statistical Physics course given by Prof. Christian Gruber at EPFL in my 3rd year undergraduate. This course was amazing because it taught me to think about systems, not just phenomena. Prof. Gruber started with the two fundamental principles of thermodynamics:

There is a strictly positive quantity, Energy, that is conserved in a system and in its surroundings.

and

There is a strictly positive quantity, Entropy, that increases in a system and in its surroundings.

The above are made with the assumption of time moving in only one direction (yup, we need to settle fundamental things like that to make sure we are all on the same page) and until now, there’s nothing to challenge that assumption (sorry, time travel enthusiasts). Also, as far as I can tell, the biggest system of all is the Universe and if we were able to calculate energy in the universe we would find that it is conserved and if we were able to calculate entropy in the universe, we would find that it increases with time. I am not here going to go into hypothetical theories of quantum and general relativistic effects that may challenge the notion of the universe being a closed system because it is not relevant in this context.

From those two principles, Prof. Gruber deduced classical mechanics, thermodynamics and electromagnetism, as well as basic chemistry. It was a beautiful and amazing intellectual journey with the rigour of mathematics, the depth of philosophy and it cemented in me a trust in science as more than a method, but as a solid foundation to approach thinking about all the aspects of the world around us. The course helped define systems, equilibrium, near equilibrium (where perturbation theory applies) and intractable aspects of a system out of equilibrium.

The reason I mention these two principles, is to give context what I describe below. I think of them and apply them all the time. Not by plugging numbers into a formula. These are principles. Much more fundamental than formulae.

So let’s start this day.

I usually wake up in the morning and I switch on the kettle to make myself a cup of tea. The water has come to us from the tap, the underground pipes, the water treatment plants, the dams. The dams are built structures around which the local ecosystem has had to adapt. The underground pipes are infrastructure that we know are ineffective. Water loss is considered inevitable and can reach up to 50% of water “produced” for consumption(*). In fact, there is a useful concept – that is non-revenue water, which is a measure of water lost to water “produced”. Water resources are replenished thanks to rain. Rain falls everywhere, not just above the dam. Building dams in catchment areas and piping systems to constructed structures is centralising water and re-distributing it while losing half of it. How is that efficient, since rain falls everywhere? Who do we need to first centralise, then re-distribute? Knowing that 2.5% of all water on the planet is fresh water, and only about 0.3% of all water on earth is available for use for humans, shouldn’t we re-think this system a bit? Re-thinking it means not just rethinking the infrastructure but also the economic model that sustains it. But that’s a whole other conversation.

Reflections – on the counter, on the roof, and the mirror mosaic

While the water is getting hot, I notice a beautiful archipelago of light on the counter and I smile. This mini galaxy comes from the reflection of a mirror-mosaic that I’ve strategically placed near the window and that projects lights onto the ceiling, which are reflected on the counter. As I admire it, I imagine the light rays coming from the sun, hitting the atmosphere of our small planet after speeding through space for 8 minutes. As it touches the atmosphere, the red light goes straighter through than the blue, which scatters and gives the sky its blue colour, and finally those rays of light come through the window of my humble kitchen where its path is slightly broken by the glass, before hitting the aluminium-coated bits of glass in the mirror mosaic, and hit the roof above my head and bringing a smile to my face. What a journey! There really are little bits of magic everywhere.

The water in the kettle is getting hot. The power that the kettle consumes comes mainly from coal. But how? Well, coal is burnt, the heat generated is typically used to boil water, the pressure of the steam is converted into a mechanical movement, which, using magnets, is turned into electric current, which is then sent out to the grid. The burning of coal releases greenhouse gases. The whole system is not very effective, less than 40% typically. It means that to raise the temperature of my 1/2 litre of water (because we all pour in more than just a cup water in the kettle) by one degree (1/2 kcal), it costs 1 1/4 kcal. So, if my water comes out of the tap at, say, 15 degrees and it boils at 100 degrees, that means that I am using up 85 * 1.25 kcal = 106.25 kcal. We can round this up to 120 kcal to account for inevitable some losses. This is equivalent to burning about 17g of coal, which emits a number of greenhouse gases, creates ash, contaminates water, all of it far from my kitchen and in someone else’s neighbourhood, in an ecosystem somewhere far from my kitchen. Is that really fair?

The tea bags come wrapped in plastic-lined aluminium bags (“to preserve the aroma”) that will only be used once, for 20 cups of tea. The box in which the wasteful pockets of tea bags are, is made of cardboard, but printed and probably bleached – with inks that may be toxic, and have had to have been manufactured somehow, and the box itself comes from the supermarket wrapped in plastic. This can’t be right and can’t possibly okay for the environment. Not far from where I live is a municipal dump. This stuff gets buried, for later generations to have to deal with. Yet, I make myself a cup of tea, feeling individually helpless, knowing that I am choosing comfort over the environment, but also because I may not be aware of alternatives or alternatives may not be implementable at an individual level if systems are not designed for it.

Choose your battles, they say. Others say technology will save us. But how crazy is it to rely on something that doesn’t yet exist, not even in people’s imagination, to solve a problem that is so real?

Water takes the colour of the sky – grey where it’s grey and blue where it’s blue.

I pour the water. From transparent it turns gold, then brown, as molecules giving taste and smell to the water are released from the dried tea leaves in the tea bag. We all learn that water is blue – but it isn’t, right? It’s transparent. It lets light go through, but some of it gets reflected. And the blue sky, that’s really what gives the water its blue colour. The surface of the water is like a continuous multi-faceted mirror, whose tiny waves gives us tiny little bits of reflections of blue sky and makes the whole ocean look blue, so many different shades of blue. I sigh in happiness to live close to the ocean. It is never the same, the landscape changes within minutes! Have you ever looked at the water with polarised sunglasses? Suddenly it doesn’t look blue anymore, you can see what lurks underneath. There’s a cool scientific explanation for that too, but I’ll leave that for another day. My brown tea water is now ready.

I hopefully put the plastics into the recycling bin, and my tea bag in the compost bin. I take a spoon of sugar that comes from vast fields of sugarcane monoculture in Kwa-Zulu Natal. The soil in KZN is incredibly rich and sugarcane is technically a grass so it grows fast and any time of the year, but it drains the soil like any monoculture. But the picture is always bigger than one thinks. Governments balance positives and negatives all the time, based on priority setting, based on ideologies and other beliefs, which they advertise and people vote for. When it comes to influencing complex systems, everything is always more complicated than it seems.

Then, I pour a bit of long-life milk into my cup of tea. The milk comes in a carton of cardboard, aluminium and plastic, with an awful single-use plastic pouring device, itself originally sealed with aluminium and plastic. I don’t know why we need these pouring devices. There is a very simple way of cutting a milk carton open so that it pours well. Milk cartons are only recyclable in South Africa since 2018. The cows that produce the milk are made to breed to set their milk-producing organs off. Over a century of selective breeding and industrialisation has been applied to cows. Their udders are massive, their offspring are taken away from them at birth, they are not fed grass because it doesn’t guarantee as much milk. That can’t be a nice life. I used to be a vegetarian because of the meat industry’s environmental impact. But I am in no position to evaluate the impact – environmental and other – of the jobs losses/differences of those employed in the meat industry and their dependents. If I thought that my entire capacity to make a living depended on people’s appetite for meat, I too would rather not be told about climate change. But the reality is that we all contribute to it, however green we try to be. It’s not an easy question.

By the time I’m having my cup of tea, I have already polluted the planet big time. And that’s without counting the mining of the raw materials and the manufacturing energy, as well as the shipment on the global supply chain of the kettle, the tea bags, the spoon, the sugar, the milk and the cup, never mind their breaking down once broken or out of use, which will affect the next generation. Sure, I reuse the kettle, the cup and the spoon, but let me go back to the energy conservation principle. Of all the energy spent on mining, manufacturing, transporting, heating, etc. only a fraction goes into the end result (for example 40% of the energy contained in coal, becomes electricity). So where does the rest go? It doesn’t escape the planet, it stays there. Just in another form, slowly but surely changing the balance of many, intertwined energy cycles on Earth.

As I eat my breakfast slowly, I look at my phone. I check my social media. Immediately, a query is fired off from the app on my phone to power-hungry data centres, housing millions of computers (housing millions of copies of the same data) that need to be cooled, and powered, and the cooling of which also needs to be powered, only so that my personalised feed of arbitrary thoughts being broadcast by billions of people gets to me the fastest. Because we know that latency (i.e. slow response times) is unacceptable on social media. And there we go again. More power being used – but far away from me – for a convenience that I haven’t even asked for. And it has now become essential to our way of life. I couldn’t work without my email, zoom meetings, etc. But how many emails are unsollicited commercial attempts at selling me something? Estimates vary. But companies are quick to jump to the rescue, using machine learning to train their computers to hide the spam emails from your eyes. The thing is, though, with machine learning, is that it needs training to work well. And lots of it, and that means lots of data and lots of computing power, all of which needs both hardware and electricity, and cooling, and electricity for the cooling. So again, we throw more energy at a problem we created.

From the corner of my eye, I notice one of life’s greatest drama unfold in miniature: A house spider has caught a fly and is wrapping it in its silk for a yummy treat later. It’s a tale of David and Goliath. The fly is much bulkier than the spider, but the spider’s silk (one of many different silks it spins) has trapped it in its web. That silk is five times stronger than steel, and it’s because it’s essentially a nanotechnology rope! Nature is so way ahead of us. So this delicate silk, nearly invisible, but so strong, has caught in a deadly grip a much larger animal, itself a marvel of nature that probably does a lot of work on what I put in my compost, including the tea leaves I’ve just discarded.

A smart worker…

By the time I sat at my desk, I’ve already gone around the world with a scientific eye several times. And I am very aware of the energy I’ve already consumed even before I switch my computer on for the day. A common saying is that throwing money at a problem isn’t always the solution. I say that throwing energy at a problem isn’t always the solution. Work smarter, they say. I agree.

To conclude this post, I’d like to point out that all the above isn’t as depressing as it may seem. My scientist eyes see the issues, but also the beauty in everything around, and I wonder in awe in front of a humble housefly, and I trust nature is so much smarter than us. But we are not dumb either. In fact we can think about the big issues and the big problems we’re facing. Whether an energy crisis or a pandemic. That’s why I am so grateful for being a scientist. I can apply my mind to such things. At home and at work and at everything in between. Bit by bit, small step after small step.

Also, we need to see all of the above from the question of what really matters. We are told to live in the present. If only the present matters should we care? We are told that we need to think in the long term, but our democracies incentivise electoral-cycle thinking. “Save the planet” sounds like we’re aliens who are here on a mission. We are not – we are the planet. If we struggle to empathise with fellow humans, how are we to empathise with all forms of life, even those we can’t anthropomorphise, like spiders or flies? So many questions. So much science to be done. So much to apply humanity to; its good sides I mean.

This is how my day starts, and I am already amazed at the beauty of it all.

(*) The linked report talks about Central Europe, where infrastructure is usually considered to be n a good state. Yet worrying levels of water loss occur.


This post is also published on Medium.com