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Filed under: — stefan @ 4 May 2010

The new novel Solar by Ian McEwan, Britain’s “national author” (as many call him) tackles the issue of climate change. I should perhaps start my review with a disclosure: I’m a long-standing fan of McEwan and have read all of his novels, and I am also mentioned in the acknowledgements of Solar. I met McEwan in Potsdam and we had some correspondence while he wrote his novel. Our recent book The Climate Crisis quotes a page of McEwan as its Epilogue. And of course I’m not a literature critic but a scientist. So don’t expect a detached professional review.

In interviews McEwan describes his difficulties in approaching the topic of climate change: “I couldn’t quite see how a novel would work without falling flat with moral intent.”

One solution is that he makes his protagonist who tries to “save the world”, the Nobel laureate physicist Michael Beard, thoroughly pathetic and unlikeable. (Actually quite unlike any scientist I know, but certainly less boring than us at Realclimate.) The only redeeming feature of Beard is his sarcastic humor. When his business partner is worried that claims of global warming having stopped will ruin their grand solar energy scheme, Beard (after expertly refuting the “no warming since 1998” myth) retorts:

Here’s the good news. The UN estimates that already a third of a million people a year are dying from climate change. Even as we speak, the inhabitants of the island of Carteret in the South Pacific are being evacuated because the oceans are warming and expanding and rising. Malarial mosquitoes are advancing northwards across Europe… Toby, listen. It’s a catastrophe. Relax!

This is McEwan’s funniest book. The humour in it is another way around the moral gravity of the subject. In an interview he said:

The thing that would have killed the book for me, I’m sure, is if I’d taken up any sort of moral position, I needed a get-out clause. And the get-out clause is, this is an investigation of human nature, with some of the latitude thrown in by comedy.

Half-way through the novel Beard gives a riveting speech on climate change to an auditorium full of pension-fund managers (representing 400 billion dollars of investments) – a speech that I’d be almost tempted to steal and use verbatim myself at some occasion. But what could have been tedious – a whole lecture embedded in a novel – is turned into a hilarious scene where Beard is engaged in a losing battle with his bowels, trying to continue speaking while swallowing down “a fishy reflux rising from his gorge, like salted anchovies, with a dash of bile”.

McEwan showing off that he can write such a speech better than a scientist is reminiscent of his novel Enduring Love, to which he appended an entire scientific paper about a psychological disorder (De Clerambault’s Syndrome) that allegedly inspired the book. Later he admitted this “paper” was part of the fiction. He’d even submitted it to a journal, but one of the reviewers smelled a rat.

McEwan’s deep (and often playful) affinity to science is one of the hallmarks of his writing and of course one reason why I like his novels. The other is his stunning power of observation; he seems to be reading people’s minds, cutting right through their delusions to get to the deeper truths. In that, his analytic work as a writer resembles that of a scientist.

McEwan is a forceful rationalist and well-versed in science culture, and his witty observations on that are a big part of the fun of his books. In Solar, for example, he pokes some hilarious fun at the social constructivists. Beard chairs a government committee to bring more women into physics, and a social scientist on his committee introduces herself with a speech on how a particular gene is not discovered by scientists, but is rather a social construct.

Beard had heard rumours that strange ideas were commonplace among liberal arts departments. It was said that humanities students were routinely taught that science was just one more belief system, no more or less truthful than religion or astrology. He had always thought that this must be a slur against his colleagues on the arts side. The results surely spoke for themselves. Who was going to submit to a vaccine designed by a priest?

This develops into my favourite subplot. At a press conference of his committee, the journalists are “slumped over their recorders and notebooks” and “depressed by the seriousness of their assignment, its scandalous lack of controversy”, as “the whole project was lamentably worthy”. Beard makes some fairly harmless remarks about the efforts of bringing more women into physics perhaps reaching a ceiling one day, because they may have a preference for other branches of science. The social constructivist explodes (“Before I go outside to be sick, and I mean violently sick because of what I’ve just heard, I wish to announce my resignation from Professor Beard’s committee.”) Predictably, that makes the predatory journalists spring to life, and in the following McEwan spins a completely credible story how Beard’s remarks turn into a media storm where Beard’s love life is dragged into the tabloids and his “genetic determinist” views are linked to Third Reich race theories. One journalist, “more in the spirit of playful diary-page spite”, calls him a neo-Nazi.

No one took the charge seriously for a moment, but it became possible for other papers to take up the term even as they dismissed it, carefully bracketing and legalising the insult with quotation marks. Beard became the ‘neo-Nazi’ professor.

McEwan knows what he is writing about: he became subject to a media storm about his Islam-critical views a few years ago. I read Solar in February (thanks to an advance copy that the author had sent me), in parallel with the unfolding surreal, but real-world media campaign against IPCC, and found that McEwan dissects the mechanisms beautifully.

McEwan says that the idea to make a Nobel laureate the main character of his new book came to him in Potsdam, when attending the Nobel Cause Symposium organised by our institute in October 2007 (and on page 179 his hero Beard returns from a conference in Potsdam). At the time I discussed with him whether this wouldn’t be a good topic for a novel: humanity facing an existential threat that is well-understood by its scientists, but largely ignored by a population who prefers to delude itself in creative ways about the gradually unfolding disaster. McEwan responded: everything there is to say about this situation has already been said by Thomas Mann in his novel Death in Venice.

I’m glad he tackled the topic of climate change nevertheless. It’s McEwan at his best. Intelligent, funny, and full of insights. Read for yourself!

Link: Here is McEwan speaking about Solar (and about his views on climate change) in a TV interview.

726 Responses to “Solar”

  1. 51
    Frank Giger says:

    Thanks for the review of the book; the key to all science based fiction is to have the science right, or at least very close.

    On “science as just another belief system,” my friends I will bear witness that I heard that more than once from Liberal Arts majors when I was going to college (and I was in the Chemistry department).

    The more woo-woo New Age one gets (homeopathy, aromatherapy, aura clensing, and yes, even phrenology, etc.) the more often one hears that rubbish as a defense against clear proof none of it works. Carrot juice over chemotherapy because “medicine (science) is just one worldview out of many.”

    The flip side is laymen grabbing on to a static bit of scientific finding and treating it as dogma, refusing to accept any new information that might mitigate or completely change it or the context in which it should be viewed.

    Columbus knew the world was round, and discovered the route to the Far East by sailing west from Europe. His math was a bit wrong, of course, but he held onto that idea until his death, unwilling to accept an idea that was so very contrary to what he knew was truth. Facts rarely defend truth, after all, which is why most people avoid them.

    Or become universal contrarians, because all the really smart people in history questioned the current ideas on how things work. There are folks who seriously question Bernoulli and his German lacky Munk for their crazy theory of why an airfoil creates lift when Newton had a perfect answer all on his own that was much simpler.

  2. 52
    CM says:

    Doug #48, it’s an very good drum to beat, and even on topic!

  3. 53
    Kevin Stanley says:

    @ SecularAnimist: Buddhism is what sprang to mind immediately for me as well, at least Buddhism as I know it…but I’m aware that there are many Buddhists who treat it (at least in part) as a devotional practice, with worship and prayer and the like.

  4. 54
    Jeffrey Davis says:

    Never argue with a reductionist. Equating Science with a belief system is as reductionist as equating a baseball with a bird because both fly.

  5. 55
    ZZT says:

    Climate progress:- Ray made a prediction.

  6. 56
    Completely Fed Up says:

    “Columbus knew the world was round,… unwilling to accept an idea that was so very contrary to what he knew was truth.”

    Lots of people knew the world was round.

    It’s why the hulls of sail ships leaving harbour disappear hull first.

  7. 57
    GFW says:

    Doug, on the solar domestic hot water issue … how do you retrofit that onto an existing finished home in say, Seattle’s climate?

    I figure you’d need a pipe from the main home intake (i.e. where the existing HW heater is) up to the roof to a nice black tank, then another pipe back down to the existing heater … and a way to switch between “on” and “off” from there. “Off” is cold weather mode where you bypass the roof tank and presumably let it drain so the pipes don’t explode.

    I can’t see a way to do this without some bizarre external piping that would make the system less efficient, or tearing some major walls open.

  8. 58
    J Bowers says:

    Alastair McDonald says: “But the point I am trying to make is that scientists believe that science is not, and in fact is better than, a belief system. This handicaps them in two ways. First they feel superior to ordinary mortals. Second, they think that they can win arguments with logic. Until it is realised that it is a matter of altering the belief systems of the public, rather than just giving them the facts, then there is little hope of getting the public to push the politicians into action.

    But it will take more than a few lines on a blog from me to change your belief that science is not just another belief system.”

    Isn’t science a belief system only insofar as it uses “belief revision”? We cannot directly observe electrons so there is an element of “belief” that they exist and explain a certain phenomenon, but should a better explanation come along for the phenomenon that electrons currently explain then the belief can be revised. This is in stark contrast with religious belief, for instance, where the conditions for belief are dictated and to revise those beliefs is a much more difficult undertaking, if even possible, especially given that it requires no actual evidence. It is far easier and more credible to explain natural phenomena through the scientific method, even when they cannot be observed and some belief must be used, than it is to explain and rationalise the supernatural such as angels and demons.

    I’m not at all convinced that what you say about scientists saying there is no such thing as belief within science is actually the case.

    I went out on a limb there as I’m no scientist. Feel free to correct me.

  9. 59
    SecularAnimist says:

    J Bowers wrote: “We cannot directly observe electrons so there is an element of ‘belief’ that they exist and explain a certain phenomenon …”

    The Copenhagen interpretation of quantum physics, in a nutshell:

    Q: What IS an electron, really?
    A: A measurement.

  10. 60
    flxible says:

    GFW – Solar water heating isn’t all that complex – see some about it here – and freezing isn’t really a giant worry in the PNW for rooftop installations. My opinion is it should be combined with a demand water heater for the best efficiency improvement over the usual water heating tanks that use most energy just keeping lots of water hot till you happen to want another gallon or 2.

  11. 61
    Hank Roberts says:

    GFW, look for specifics in your own area, and your local zoning/building office will know what’s appropriate. It’s straightforward; lots of ways; depends on roof structure, gas or electric hot water, etc. etc.

  12. 62
    Jeffrey Davis says:

    You can’t make a prediction from a belief system. For example, if you believe God made the universe in 7 days, you can’t then turnaround and predict that it would take Him 2 minutes to make a small moon.

    At a certain point, such statements merely reflect the limitations of language rather than a statement of fact. The people who make them still have bank accounts and (often) tenure. Their utterances about “belief systems” rarely show up in actions of consequence.

  13. 63
    Jim Eager says:

    GWF (57), you might try checking out how local contractors actually install SHW in existing homes in Seattle. There are literally dozens of retrofit SHW installations within a few blocks of my house here in Toronto. Most have combined SHW with on-demand gas-fired hot water systems for top-up.

  14. 64

    Science must be “a belief system” at least insofar as it logically requires some assumptions–such as the existence of an objective reality. (I’d speculate (not particularly knowledgeably) that Einstein’s well-known discomfort with the Uncertainty Principle stemmed at least partly from a feeling that it was skating pretty close to undercutting objective reality.)

    Ain’t no solipsists in the scientific foxholes.

    That said, I’d say it’s a belief system with a track record.

  15. 65
    Doug Bostrom says:

    GFW, you’ve captured the basics and as you say, adding pipe to an existing home is potentially messy.

    Having a plumbing chase leading from the vicinity of the water heater to the vicinity of the roof in place makes things easier. Strangely enough, not only is the local (ultraconservative) builder’s association here in Washington resisting a requirement to add necessary chases (not a full build, just chases) to new homes but so are local architects. Weird; a few dollars are all it take to make a home ready for easy completion but I suppose extracting the last dime or final iota of feng shui are of paramount important for all projects when those matters are all one thinks about.

    In our case we recently did a remodel and I added the necessary chases at a cost that was invisible in the total plumbing bill.

    Appearance and efficiency of piping for retrofits are not really a huge issue in my humble opinion.

    As an example regarding appearances, bizarrely enough many of us have overhead wires attached to our homes leading from utility poles and apparently don’t find this feature too outlandish. Most existing homes offer some relatively discreet areas to run an external chase, for instance alongside a downspout. And again, for a new build w/chases you end up with what looks like a skylight on the roof. No big deal.

    Meanwhile the efficiency (heat loss) of the pipe is easy to control. More importantly, evaluating these systems from an efficiency standpoint rarely makes complete sense because a lack of efficiency in such an arrangement essentially means you’re not getting a little bit of something for free that you’ve been totally passing up in the past. Why obsess about efficiency unless you have a very, very tiny roof (like, less than 10m2)? Inefficiency is usually significant only if you don’t use the resource, leading to 100% inefficiency.

    My preference is a drainback system w/a moderator tank inserted ahead of the conventional tank. This is simple, requiring either one or two moving parts depending on local code and maximizes the opportunity for the system to gain energy.

    This PDF has a nice diagram of a drainback system. It uses a single tank for storage and capture which will reduce total gain but still has the marvelous advantage of existence:

    Drainback Solar Water Heater

    Ask a plumber: Does this look too complicated?

  16. 66
    Doug Bostrom says:

    flxible says: 5 May 2010 at 1:54 PM

    For what it’s worth, I took some measurements on our (electric) conventional tank and found that it uses an extraordinarily small amount of juice when idle. I concluded that payoff for a demand heater replacing an electric storage tank is beyond the kin of people who must choose how dollars are spent, which includes most of us. Open flue gas heaters are of course a different story, a complete shambles.

    It’s my belief based on squinting really hard at the numbers that wringing the last few percent of efficiency out of proposed solar-augmented DHW systems is exactly what ensures they stay unaffordable for most people and remain largely in the realm of hobbyists. We refuse all benefit because we’re so keen on perfection.

  17. 67
    Alastair McDonald says:


    The High Priests who built Stonehenge were able to predict eclipses, and the best time to sow spring seeds. So everything else they said was believed too. It is the same with scientists, who are also able to predict eclipses amongst many other things. Now they expect people to believe everything they say.

    They have not performed most of the experiments on which they base their science. They just believe that they have been done correctly, which in most cases they have. But they are still believing, not proving.

    Gordon Cutler suggests that I engage with the ‘Intelligent’ Design or Young Earth crowds. I have argued with climate sceptics and got nowhere, so I have no wish to waste my time with worse – bigots? However, I did think that scientists might argue rationally. But no. They are just as bound up in their belief system as anyone else.

    Cheers, Alastair.

  18. 68
    Mal Adapted says:


    However, I did think that scientists might argue rationally. But no. They are just as bound up in their belief system as anyone else.

    Project much, Alastair?

  19. 69
    SecularAnimist says:

    Kevin McKinney wrote: “Science must be ‘a belief system’ at least insofar as it logically requires some assumptions–such as the existence of an objective reality.”

    I don’t agree that science requires the assumption of an “objective reality”.

    The idea of an “objective reality” that exists independently of any observer, and of an “observer” who “observes” or “measures” that reality “as it is”, is itself a model of experience.

    Both quantum physics and relativity have demonstrated the limitations of that model. Like classical Newtonian physics, it is good as far as it goes, but beyond that, it breaks down, and it becomes necessary to model experience as an undivided whole.

    So what does science “require”?

    In the words of Niels Bohr, “it is sufficient that we can unambiguously communicate the results of our observations”.

  20. 70
    Lee says:

    Doug Bostrom: “it’s incredibly irritating seeing PV panels being put on houses here in Seattle w/no solar hot water panels in sight.”

    Your probably right about what your seeing, but not necessarily. The SunDrum Solar hybrid system captures the waste heat off the PV panels for solar hot water. It looks like any other PV system. As an extra benefit the PV are slightly more efficient because your removing the waste heat and keeping them cooler.

  21. 71
    SecularAnimist says:

    Alastair McDonald wrote: “It is the same with scientists, who are also able to predict eclipses amongst many other things. Now they expect people to believe everything they say.”

    I must admit that I don’t know all that many scientists.

    But of those I have met either in person or online, not a single one of them has “expected me to believe everything they say”.

  22. 72

    FG 51,

    Every educated person in Columbus’s day knew the world was round. That had been accepted since Eratosthenes measured its circumference c. 300 BC. Columbus was, in fact, a pseudoscientist who thought the world was only 5,700 miles in diameter (rather than 8000). He went to his grave believing he had landed on the east coast of India. Why do you think native Americans were called “Indians?”

  23. 73

    KS 53,

    That’s certainly how I’d read the Lotus Sutra. A book about gods and the afterlife doesn’t strike me as not being part of a belief system.

  24. 74
    David B. Benson says:

    Alastair McDonald (35) — Even very ordinary mortals become scientists. As for how to conduct oneself as a scientist, the
    suffices and no special training is required (although it often helps).

    There are plenty of amateur astronomers, palentologists and so on.

  25. 75
    Phil Scadden says:

    Alastair, science might include a belief system (that an objective reality exists etc), but I would reject completely the idea of “a belief system like any other”. The uniqueness of science is checking of logic extension against observations. Now you can go into all kinds of philosophical diversions concerning the importance of schemata filtering observations and the limitations of human to human communication of ideas etc. but while all true, and important, it doesn’t stop the fact that science is better at constructing models of reality than any other system of explication of the natural world.

    The theory of climate from which AGW is a prediction, is completely falsifiable and its predictions will impact everyone whatever their belief systems. The no. one problem is this debate is not the science but the disinformation tossed in which seeks to misrepresent the theory or which makes demonstrably false claims about observation of the climate system.

  26. 76
    SecularAnimist says:

    BPL wrote: “That’s certainly how I’d read the Lotus Sutra. A book about gods and the afterlife doesn’t strike me as not being part of a belief system.”

    The Lotus Sutra is not really “about” gods and the afterlife although it is ornamented with such images.

    I would commend to your attention Thich Nhat Hanh’s translation and commentary, “Opening the Heart of the Cosmos”.

    In my view the most important teaching of the Buddha regarding “belief systems” is the Kalama Sutra, in which the Buddha embraces and encourages empiricism, free inquiry and, indeed, skepticism — even of his own teachings.

  27. 77
    J Bowers says:

    Alastair McDonald says: “It is the same with scientists, who are also able to predict eclipses amongst many other things. Now they expect people to believe everything they say.”

    If only more had listened to Dr Smith Dharmasaroja.

    Can someone arrange a meeting between him and Roger Pielke Jr?

  28. 78

    #56 Completely Fed Up

    As a follow on to your post. My understanding is that Columbus kept getting turned down for funding for his voyage because all the scientific bodies he approached knew the world was round, and that his calculations were bad for the voyage, so they must have figured he was incompetent and did not give him funding.

    He eventually found a Spanish gal to help him out. It took a couple of years to convince her apparently

    A Climate Minute The Greenhouse EffectHistory of Climate ScienceArctic Ice Melt

    ‘Fee & Dividend’ Our best chance for a better future –
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  29. 79
    Alastair McDonald says:

    “Even very ordinary mortals become scientists.”

    Agreed, but even after they become scientists they are still ordinary mortals, each with his own set of beliefs.

  30. 80
    David B. Benson says:

    Alastair McDonald (79) — The amazing thing about the scientific method is that it provides relaible knowledge irrespective of an individual’s beliefs so long as they follow the method.

  31. 81
    J Bowers says:

    Alastair McDonald says: “Agreed, but even after they become scientists they are still ordinary mortals, each with his own set of beliefs.”

    Beliefs, which are regularly tested by knowledgeable peers, and torn asunder when found baseless.

  32. 82
    Stephen Baines says:

    Alastaur #69 “However, I did think that scientists might argue rationally. But no. They are just as bound up in their belief system as anyone else.”

    Science is not akin to a belief system except in the most ridiculously trivial sense — that scientific endeavor posits that an objectively reality might exist and that such an objectively reality can be independently observed by more than one person. Scientists try to make sense of this posited objective reality by linking shared experiences through conceptual or mathematical models that in turn make predictions that can be tested by peers. There are no limitations about what those models of reality look like, except that they yield clear repeatable predictions that others can confirm or contradict through their own experience. So there are no constraints on belief, although there are experiences and models that cannot be examined scientifically (like intelligent design).

    The existence of objective reality is not so much presumed by science as indicated by the power of scientific models to makes successful predictions.

    So what is science if not a belief system? This is where I think the confusion arises. Science is more of a social endeavor with specific rules (e.g., scientific method) that relate to verifying shared experience and testing model predictions. Interactions with scientists must be understood with that in mind. Individual scientists can certainly have strong personal beliefs. However, those beliefs don’t become incorporated into received scientific wisdom until others become convinced as well. In science, those “others” often have a self-interest in disproving the theory and are therefore skeptical – although they must also avoid making unprovable claims themselves.

    It is true that once consensus develops, scientists are very unwilling to let go of it. That’s because the consensus has usually been hard won through generations of work. We are not going to reinvent it. It also forms the basis of future progress, so it should not be set aside lightly. It takes forever to learn all that accumulated knowledge that’s relevant to one’s field – thus the need for expertise. It is ultimately always under fire from within when it doesn’t adhere to shared objective experience, as the cases of relativity and quantum mechanics show, so there are no true priests spouting unassailable truth. However, while they still seem to hold those theories are the best we have, so why not use them?

  33. 83
    greyfox says:

    Non-apropos of the above article (my bad)…but, can someone illuminate me about the upcoming Finnish academy article claiming to radically demote CO2 as a greenhouse gas? Thanks…I’m sure I’m not the only layman wondering what the heck is going on.

  34. 84
    Ray Ladbury says:

    Alastair McDonald et al.,

    First, science is not a belief system as it is a methodology for validating beliefs (e.g. hypotheses). Yes, there are underlying assumptions–that is inevitable in any logical structure as complicated or moreso than arithmetic, as Godel showed. However, each time we carry out a scientific investigation, we implicitly test those assumptions.

    Among the implicit assumptions
    1)repeatability–that performing the same measurement on the same system in the same state will yield the same result (or distribution of results).

    2)empiricism–that empirical investigation of the system will yield more reliable answers than other forms of investigation (e.g. rationalization).

    3)self-consistency–that the answers we get should be explainable by a logically self-consistent theory that itself yields testable predictions.

    4)physical reality–that there is some underlying reality that ensures this self-consistency. This is true, even for quantum mechanics (See Folse’s excellent monograph: The Philosophy of Niels Bohr.)

    Alastair, you are just flat wrong that scientists take their theories on faith. You simply cannot do that and develop any truly meaningful understanding of the system under study. It is true that not every scientist is going to go out and make measurements of the IR absorption spectrum of CO2. However, if they are using this data, they will look for self-consistency–for anything that stands out as “odd”. Because it’s the oddities that win you tenure, fame and glory and Nobel Prizes.

    And why should people listen to the results of scientific inquiry? Because it works. It produces understanding of the subjects studied more reliable than any other human enterprise–and it does so even when practiced by fallible humans, each with his own beliefs and foibles.

    Humans have an unfortunate tendency toward self delusion. However, they also have demonstrated sufficient intelligence to separate truth from such delusions–science. What remains to be seen is whether self-delusion or intelligence will be our dominant trait.

  35. 85
    Ray Ladbury says:

    It’s bunk. It was debunked a couple of weeks ago. Basically, another professor emeritus embarking on a study well outside his expertise. If you’ll remind me of the gentleman’s name, maybe I can find the discussion.

  36. 86
    MartinJB says:

    Alistair (67): “The High Priests who built Stonehenge were able to predict eclipses, and the best time to sow spring seeds. So everything else they said was believed too. It is the same with scientists, who are also able to predict eclipses amongst many other things. Now they expect people to believe everything they say. ”

    That is utter dross. What scientists do (to oversimplify) is develop a theory to explain orbital dynamics, demonstrate that is effective by doing things like predicting eclipses, and then go on to say that since it works for these phenomena, it can also be useful for predicting other aspects of orbital dynamics. Do you see the distinction?


  37. 87
    Actually Thoughtful says:

    Solar thermal is indeed a more efficient technology than PV. It can, in fact, be used to heat your home as well (fantastic with radiant floors).

    As to the issue of tankless – they are better from a straight efficiency point of view. Your tanked water heater, if it is less than 10 years old, is going to lose ~1/2 degree F/hour. 12F degrees per day. Your tankless losses approach zero. However, adding solar to the mix makes the tank losses *almost* irrelevant. A properly sized system (ie two 4X10 panels) will add ~100F degrees to an 120 gallon tank per sunny day. That will handle a typical 2-4 person household.

    So while the ideal is a super-insulated 120 gallon tank that goes to a tankless for top-off (if necessary) – you can save ~$2,500 and get very similar results with a straight solar water heater (which will pay for itself over time).

    And the idea that you should somehow only preheat your water is just wrong. The bulk of the expense is the labor to create the system. The marginal cost of adding a solar panel is minimal. Rather it is getting that pipe to and from the roof, wiring up the controls, setting the tank and mixing valve, piping in the drain back tank, etc. You get to amortize your fixed costs over a larger production square footage.

    Finally – for those of you considering this – do it! Two 4X10s in drainback configuration (or two 30 evacuated tube panels, also drainback for cloudy areas) will pay for itself in 10-14 years (a famous quote – “hire the contractor who charges the most and claims it will take the longest – they actually know what they are doing). Unless you live in a no freeze ever climate – the $5,000 figure that somehow entered the popular psyche is bogus. Double it and you have enough money to do the project correctly.

  38. 88
    Thomas says:

    John @30, I don’t find your comment convincing. The issue is one of scale. Clearly run of the mill small oil slicks such as you witnessed won’t have a big enough effect. The startling thing about oil on water, is how little you need to cover it. The claim (in archaic units) is 25gallons can cover a square mile. So clearly the volume being spewed by the DeepWater accident is more than sufficient. Of course those numbers are for light oil on a calm water surface. The current spill/Gulf is neither. And supposedly the oil is an emulsion with water, so perhaps it is incapable of covering a large area (or inhibiting evaporation even if it does)? But, the issue requires a bit of quantitative analysis, and some data. I’m not personally feeling angst. But, I did get the particular meme started. If it is invalid I’d like to be armoured with whatever knowledge it takes to refute it.

    I do think science does incorporate a belief system. That system is a belief that the method is a very powerful way to determine the truth about nature. But, this belief is about the efficacy of a process, not about specific results of that process.

  39. 89
    mircea says:

    The consensus is that indeed science is a faith based construct. The argumentation is as follows:
    Science is based on rationality and rational discourse. But believing in rationality vs irrationality is a faith based choice. Unless one believes in rationality there is no rational argument that can be used to justify the choice between rationality and irrationality. QED

  40. 90
    Stephen Baines says:

    Maybe scientists believe science is powerful precisely because it has allowed us to improve crop yields, build cars, cure diseases, go to the moon and, yes, understand climate (not so sure about understanding the economy, though). The belief in science is a product of success, not a requirement for scientific endeavor.

  41. 91

    Lee @ 70:

    I looked at data out of IBM/Tokyo dealing with this same thing and thought they had to be wrong, so I set up a solar array and tried to prove that what SunDrum does doesn’t work. What I concluded was that … what SunDrum does doesn’t work.

    The reason is that you need a source of “cold” in order to get the -0.3% / *C thermal coefficient back. Any heat-exchanger based cooling solution is only going to be as good as the “cold” that it brings. In the case of the SunDrum solution, they are circulating the working fluid through a pre-heater tank. When that tank reaches its working temperature, you now have a source of plenty of heat with a high thermal mass right next to the panels. Which is a bad idea. You could use some form of radiator to cool the water, but finding a place to get rid of the heat is hard.

    Another problem is that cooling the BACK of the panels doesn’t do much, unless the panel backing has high thermal conductivity, which it doesn’t. I’ve measured front-of-glass and back-of-glass temperatures and front-of-glass is MUCH higher. I use ambi-ent plus 30*C for temperature corrected voltages and it seems to work fairly well (assuming still air). I was underneath a 40KW DC array yesterday and by noon time I was miserable.

    Finally, the amount of energy needed to circulate the water, and the amount of energy lost due to hotter panels, usually exceeds the value of the heat extracted.

  42. 92
    NeilT says:

    #11, yes trying to write a book which creates a sitire on the situation today winds up being depressing and makes you a prime target in the firing line. In the end it just winds up being all part of the background noise of a family squabble.

    However I prefer a slightly different approach for a book.

    It’s 2050, the Denialists have won and the last 40 years have been “pedal to the metal” on fossil fuels with the explosion of warming that this engenders. The Climate impacts of 2100 have already been seen and passed, the North pole is long ice free in summer and little ice is generated in winter. Greenland has destabilised and is breaking up. Hundreds of millions are dying, there isn’t enough food, civil unrest has caused Martial law in most countries in the world. Several limited nuclear conflicts are already ongoing and war is at risk of running out of control. Western nations can’t produce enough food for themselves, let alone the 3rd world.

    We’re in the Hague at the International court of Justice. There is a case going on with hundreds of defendants. The defendants are having their papers and projections scrutinised by climate scientists, line by line, equation by equation. Particular note is made of any work which has been determined as “politically biased” rather than “Scientifically biased”.

    It is all very serious and the defendants are kept under heavy guard. Because they are charged with varying degrees of conspiracy to commit mass murder……….

    Now that’s the kind of book I’d like to see floating about. It is quite likely to be the kind of backlash that the people, who ignore good solid scientific advice today, will want to be taken when it all goes horribly wrong.

  43. 93
    Thomas says:

    Furry @91. So panels usually have poor backside thermal conductivity? I would think you could get a decent performance boost by allowing more heat to escape underneath. Modern mounts have roughly an 8-10 cm air gap between the panel and the roof, and presumably the air flow under the panels aids in cooling them. My Suntech data sheet reports a sensitivity of -.49%/C. That would tell me that better cooling could pay handsomely.

    I’m one of those people with PV, but not solar hot water. With our gas fired water heater and relatively low usage, our water heating bill is only about $10 a month, so it is hard to imagine a solar water heater ever paying off. Even in our mild climate (N California) occasional frosts/freezes means solar water heaters must be able to withstand the occasional freeze. Supposedly this adds substantially to system cost. I think they end up with a working fliud with a low freezing point, plus heat exchanger. I don’t know if there are any plumbing solutions that can handle the occasional freeze without damage. At least in California if one had such a system, the lost capacity due to not being able to heat during subfreezing weather would reduce output by well under a percent. So if anyone has a good engineering solution for freeze tolerant pipes, it could be a good market.

  44. 94
    Doug Bostrom says:

    Actually Thoughtful says: 5 May 2010 at 8:54 PM

    Unless you live in a no freeze ever climate – the $5,000 figure that somehow entered the popular psyche is bogus. Double it and you have enough money to do the project correctly.

    Surely I misunderstand in taking your meaning to be that a solar DHW system must cost $10,000? What, do the parts have to sent into orbit?

    What is the point of drainback, other than to eliminate cost and complication in climates with freezing issues? Actually, none; a tradeoff in efficiency is made in deference to intractable cost and maintenance problems in practice with alternatives, the sort of problems that not only help produce $10k systems but also make sure they do not actually function except for devoted hobbyists or those with an annual maintenance contract from an eager vendor of unnecessary complication.

    No wonder nobody’s buying. Look, this is plumbing. It ain’t rocket science, it’s nothing that should have a slew of business plans (consultants, strangely expensive ultra-low production quantity parts etc.) attached to it. It’s a slightly fancy version of a mud puddle warming up in the sun combined with a tank of water. Where DHW goes off the cost rails is when we try to force it to do things its not good at, such as consistently producing complete requirements for finished hot water over the entire range of the continental US.

    Once we recognize that insisting on producing finished hot water from solar energy is the errand of a hobbyist or a contractor bearing a cost plus agreement we can figure out something more pragmatic. A practical system needs to have the possibility of capturing an amount of energy that will make it economic and it especially needs to demand only such capitalization as is affordable for normal people, the way $10,000 is not.

    Pragmatism is what makes systems w/preheat (or moderation) tanks attractive. As far as preheating water goes, there’s no difference in terms of money otherwise laid out for purchasing energy from an external source or offset whether I heat water from 60 degrees to 100 degees or from 100 degrees to 140 degrees, the same amount of energy has been captured and cost thereby avoided. However, it happens that it’s easier, less capital intensive and perhaps most importantly more likely to go from 60 degree to 100 degrees.

    Today I took in about 3kWh from the system here in spite of the fact it was cloudy and never rose above 50 degrees. Given the number of gallons of water into which that energy was dispersed it’s rather pointless from the standpoint of having a nice hot shower. Yet with the cost of the system and average results I’m headed for payoff in about 7 years and the apparatus will still save an impressive amount of energy consumption over its lifespan. Best of all, I could afford it, not with taxation hocus-pocus optimistically combined with assuming I’ll still be alive in 15 years plus hoping nothing in $10k of over-complication will break while simultaneously ignoring that $10k in an index fund would see me in way better shape anyway.

    Solar DHW has got to be affordable first and foremost or it’s going to remain a hobby in the U.S. And it can be affordable, if we don’t succumb to neurotic perfectionism and if we avoid inventing too many new business plans to supply what at the end of the day is very low-tech equipment. Sometimes I think the “green” building arena in the U.S. is saturated with parasites who are seriously impeding progress because they confine the market for things such as solar DHW to a tiny niche. That seems the only explanation for why something so simple as solar DHW can be made so expensive.

  45. 95
    Jaime Frontero says:

    Top notch troll, that Alastair fellow. Approaches the art in an almost… scientific… fashion.

    In the meantime, I note that Lord Monckton (Lord! Monckton?) has been selected by the Republicans in the U.S. House as “…their sole witness at tomorrow’s hearing in front of the Select Committee on Energy Independence and Global Warming.”

    Because… well… you know – they could? *sigh*

  46. 96
    Completely Fed Up says:

    “But believing in rationality vs irrationality is a faith based choice.”

    Nope, it isn’t.

    It DOES however, show why you’re getting the result wrong: your axioms are incorrect.

    Believing that tiger is go

  47. 97
    Completely Fed Up says:

    “But believing in rationality vs irrationality is a faith based choice.”

    Nope, it isn’t.

    It DOES however, show why you’re getting the result wrong: your axioms are incorrect.

    Believing that tiger is going to eat you is not a faith choice. Believing that it isn’t going to eat you because God Loves You is. The faith there is not the tiger not eating but the reason for it: it is unreasonable.

    Rational choices are reasoned or reasonable choices.

    Faith is ignoring rationality.

    This doesn’t mean it’s BAD to have faith, because intuition is ignoring rationality, and that’s a good thing.

  48. 98
    Completely Fed Up says:

    thomas et al, the ONLY “belief” in the science system is the belief that the universe is understandable.

    That’s all.

    The ONLY axiom.

    It’s worked well, though.

    This is no more a belief than a belief that you are alive and that you really exist.

    But for some of you, I guess that that belief is unfounded therefore you don’t exist.

  49. 99
    Completely Fed Up says:

    “in which the Buddha embraces and encourages empiricism, free inquiry and, indeed, skepticism — even of his own teachings.”

    One translation/interpretation of which was basically boiled down to:

    This is how I achieved enlightenment. You must find your own enlightenment, since my path may not be the true one.

    Although when talking about Bhuddism there are many sects some of which are far more proselytizing than what is normally considered Bhuddism and others far more dogmatic.

    A result of the basic learnings be “find your own path” which lets people find a path that says “find MY PATH or FACE ETERNAL PUNISHMENT” and pass it on to others who prefer to be told what’s going on than look for themselves.



  50. 100
    Completely Fed Up says:

    “we cannot directly observe electrons so there is an element of “belief” that they exist”

    We can’t directly observe an itch.

    We do know it exists when it happens.

    (an example courtesy of Calvin and Hobbes)

    in the case of an electron, we don’t know what one IS, but we know the effect it has