Arm in arm through changing times

Arm in arm through changing times

November 1, 2005

“Good morning Discovery! We have a beautiful day in space for you today.”

The lyrical, softly accented voice of Canadian astronaut Julie Payette welcomes the crew of the space shuttle Discovery back to space. A Canadian is the lone voice from the ground because Canada played a vital role in America’s return to space following the Columbia disaster.

When NASA needed help to ensure the safety of its crew, they turned to Canada, and Canadian technology was there to lend a hand, or better yet, an arm or two.

It’s astonishing to realize that two years ago a suitcase-sized piece of lightweight foam brought down a billion dollar spaceship. And it appears that after a billion more dollars spent on modifications, the problem has not gone away. In a frightening déja-vu scenario, yet another large chunk of foam broke loose from Discovery’s fuel tank and narrowly missed punching a devastating hole in a wing. But this time the astronauts had Canadian eyes to check for damage.

The now famous Canadarm, modified to carry an extension boom as long as the arm itself, coupled with a laser camera mounted on the tip, enabled the astronauts to see sections of their ship inaccessible to the Columbia crew and breathe a sigh of relief that damage was minimal and they would make it home safely.

That’s what Canada does—quietly provides world-class science and technology to international partners without much fanfare.

The three largest scientific projects in Canada are largely invisible to most of the population. Yet internationally, our science is world renowned. Physicists come to Sudbury to don miners helmets, rubber boots and coveralls, then plunge 6,800 feet into a nickel mine to work with the unique Neutrino Observatory, a giant acrylic sphere filled with heavy water that captures ethereal particles produced at the centre of the sun. Go figure—we go underground to find out what makes the sun shine!

Astronomers climb 14,000 feet to the top of Mauna Kea, an extinct volcano in Hawaii that is home to the largest collection of telescopes in the world, two of them involving Canada. Both the Gemini and Canada-France-Hawaii telescopes are outfitted with ingenious vibrating mirror devices that take the twinkle out of stars. This Canadian development has improved the images so much they are beginning to rival those of the Hubble Space Telescope.

In the centre of our country lies our largest science experiment, the Canadian Light Source in Saskatoon. Two large rings of magnets the size of a hockey arena accelerate electrons close to the speed of light. It turns out that when electrons are forced to go around in a circle, they give off the most powerful light in the world, a million times brighter than the sun. Scientists from around the globe are lining up to tap into this light to look at everything from contaminated muck dug from the bottom of polluted lakes, to the molecular shape of drugs.

We don’t thump our chests over our science, but our reputation is solid where it counts. And that leaves us with a responsibility. Canadian brain-power is needed to tackle some of the serious international issues that face our civilization: issues of climate change, water quality, and energy.

The effects of global warming are real; they’re here now and nowhere are the effects more profound than in the high latitudes. The Canadian North is already feeling twice the average temperature rise as the rest of the planet. Researchers from Canada, along with other polar countries have been following these changes for decades and frankly, they’re scared.

If ever there was a ticking time bomb about to go off, it’s the disappearance of snow and ice in the Arctic. In 2004 an international Arctic Impact Assessment Study showed that the ice covering the Arctic Ocean has become thinner by up to 40 percent over the last three decades and about a million square kilometers of new open water has appeared in the summer months since the sixties. At that rate, the North Pole itself will be ice free during the summer within fifty years. This is a significant change for planet Earth.

When the top of the world changes from white ice to dark sea water, the heat balance for the whole planet will be altered. Astronomers call this "changing the albedo," or the amount of radiation from the sun that is absorbed by the surface compared to the amount reflected back into space. White ice reflects most of the sunlight that hits it. Dark water absorbs solar energy.

As permafrost melts—exposing ancient plant matter that begins to decay, releasing methane (another greenhouse gas)—this dramatic colour change in the Arctic will trigger a complex chain of events. This will involve ocean circulation, salinity, fish populations, migrating birds and animals, as well as the added effects on the surrounding land. And so it goes, spiraling higher and higher.

Of course this isn’t all bad news. Shipping companies will be delighted by the opening of a new northern shortcut between Atlantic and Pacific. Oil, natural gas, and diamonds all wait to be dug out of the ground up there, providing jobs and revenue for northern communities. But at the same time, the extraction of those resources comes with its own environmental cost.

So while Canadians stand to be affected most by climate change, we are also in a position to be a big part of the solution. If the first step is to reduce carbon emissions, we can start doing that today by example. We are the energy hogs of the world, using more per person than almost everyone else on the planet. Cutting that back by meeting our “One Tonne Challenge” is fairly easy. The bigger impact on the future will come from the fruits of our brain power.

There is a fear that the road to a clean future involves a revolution in society, throwing away everything bad and replacing it with something new. Revolutions are seldom pleasant. They happen quickly and people usually get hurt. We don’t want a revolution, we want an evolution, a gradual changeover to something better. We’ve been doing this all along with other technology. Consider listening to music. A hundred years ago you had to be in same room as the musicians. Then Edison developed the wax cylinder to record sound so it could be played back later at home. That evolved into a flat disc on a turntable, then reel to reel tape came along, followed by eight track cartridges for cars, then cassettes, CDs, and now mp3 players and iPods that can be taken anywhere. The technology has evolved, but the act of listening to music is still the same. Mozart is just as vibrant as a computer file as in a concert hall.

We embrace new technology every day in the electronics world yet there is resistance to change when it comes to energy and transportation. Perhaps part of the reason is that we can’t see how wasteful our energy converters are. Small cars with small engines that we label “fuel efficient” are in fact only using a small portion of the energy available in gasoline. Most of the energy is thrown away as waste heat. Of every dollar you pour into the tank, only about twenty cents is actually used to turn the wheels. That’s the nature of a standard, internal combustion engine, which by the way, is a design more than 150 years old. So isn’t it time to retire this old technology to museums and develop another way of turning wheels?

Vancouver based Ballard Power is already providing fuel cells for hydrogen cars of the future, but that’s just the beginning. What we need is a clean car challenge. A zero emission hot rod. A mean, clean car that can blow the doors off a big V-8 with the style to go with it. Power, speed, and sex have been selling cars all along—so let’s just change what’s under the hood. It’s a win-win situation for everyone if the new technology is sexy and it sells.

While we’re speaking of challenges, how about a clean water challenge? There’s another ticking time bomb waiting to go off as water quality and supply diminishes worldwide. Some predict that water will become the biggest issue of the 21st century, making the oil crisis look like a walk in the park. Again, Canada is in an interesting position—we waste more water than anyone, mainly because we have the bulk of it within our borders, but we also have some of the best technology to clean it up. Remember, it was a Canadian portable filtration system that was sent to Indonesia to provide clean drinking water for the victims of the tsunami.

The technology to achieve these challenges already exists, but it will take international co-operation to put them in place. Canada’s role is to continue to do what we do best, be the scientific eyes and provide innovative technology so we can go arm in arm with our international partners towards a cleaner and even more profitable future.

This can be done. It ain’t rocket science.

Bob McDonald is the Host of CBC Radio’s Quirks and Quarks.

The views and ideas expressed in this column do not necessarily reflect those of the Canada Foundation for Innovation or its Board Directors and Members.