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Steve Nahn | USLHC | USA

View Blog | Read Bio

Earth Day and Doomsday

Hi Folks-

In honor of Earth Day (and because I still retain my Badger Pride, in this case for Earth Day founder Gaylord Nelson) I ask you a question: which is more likely, that we will all be swallowed up at the turn on of the LHC, or that we will adiabatically ruin our planet to satiate our increased demands for convenience and “higher quality of life”. The Energy problem/Global Warming/choose your own name for it is getting more and more attention these days, for good reason, and so it has been on my mind. At MIT, we have an Energy Initiative where the Institute as a whole has taken up the energy challenge, and people like Governor Patrick are giving talks to highlight its importance. In the Physics Department, we focus more on technological solutions, but I am not convinced this is the way to go. My brother, who has been working for Wisconsin Energy Conservation Corporation for the last 10 years or so (it has been at this business for 25 years!) tells me that in we currently have the technology to dramatically reduce our energy consumption (working with energy providers, building developers, and ordinary consumers) which is more expensive up front, but in the end saves money as well as energy. It is just a matter of getting people to change their habits-but that is really hard.
My main example of this is during my daily commute. My vehicle of choice is:
My vehicle of choice

which I ride for 10 minutes mostly along a path to a subway (it’s called the “T” in Boston) which takes me to MIT. I ride all year long (thanks to my town of Arlington, which has decided to plow the bike path) except in really bad weather when I take a bus to the T. This has many advantages:

  • With gas at $3.70/gallon and parking at $500/semester it’s better economically (My T pass costs $37/month, subsidized by MIT). By the way, in Switzerland gas was something like $5.20/gal last year, so it is still cheap in the US. Parenthetically, I am continually chagrined by our current leader’s commitment to reduce US dependence on foreign oil – not oil in general, that would be detrimental to the US oil industry, with which the current administration shares some pretty cozy past history, no? OK, I’ll step off the soap box.
  • I get at least 20 minutes of exercise a day, whether I like it or not. I don’t have to set aside extra time for exercise, it is part of my daily routine, and 20 minutes a day, done regularly, goes a long way. And it is outside, fresh air, not cooped up in some health club (which again costs more money)
  • It is faster! Well, if there were no traffic, it might be slightly faster by car, but when in Boston is there no traffic? Actually the fastest way to get from my house to MIT is bike all the way, but the bike back in traffic is no fun (too many cars, too much pollution, too many drivers venting their stress with their driving tactics and their horn) so I usually take the T instead.
  • There is a certain satisfaction I get out of cruising through traffic like a hot knife through butter while everyone is stuck in gridlock.

I’ve been using my bike for commuting since college, except for a few stints here and there when I had to deal with the kids at the same time, and I have to say the driver’s attitudes are getting better. Whereas there was little respect for bikers back in the day, now for instance I cross one road on the path every morning (Lake St) and I’d say 90% of the time cars go out of their way to yield the right of way to me- kudos to Arlington!

Often I have ample opportunity to observe the car traffic flowing around me, so I play a little game. I try to see how high I can count consecutive cars with single occupants, until I see one with more than one occupant, upon which I reset the count to zero. I think the highest I’ve ever counted was around thirty, and it isn’t hard to get to 10 at all. Forget the bike, what if half of those ten people in their car all alone got into someone else’s car – what effect would that have on traffic accidents, length of commute, pollution, parking space, noise, energy consumption…at the cost of being able to come and go as one pleases (but not really, because they schedule around traffic, no?). So I think the real challenge is not necessarily getting the technology but changing the mind set – the arguments are convincing, if you can get people to listen. I have a dream about getting school kids walking to school or waiting for the bus to play this game, and report their maximum count, then chart it as a function of location and time to see which part of the US is the most carpool friendly, but that’s not my day job. Anyway, awareness is what Earth Day is all about, so thanks Governor Nelson

PS I know this isn’t about the LHC so much, but we physicists tend to think about all sorts of stuff…and for readers near Boston, get on your bike duringBay State Bike Week

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