volcanoes are your solution to everything

September 30, 2009 at 5:04 pm | | science community, seminars, stupid technology

After John Deutch‘s talk this afternoon, one student asked three (!) questions. His third one was: “Why don’t we just take nuclear waste, seal it in some container, then put it at the bottom of the Mariana trench. That way, it would get sucked up into the center of the Earth and not be a problem.”

I’m serious. That was his question … his third question.

Deutch’s response was: “It’s probably not best if each person comes up with their own technological solutions to the energy problems.”

There needs to be a one-question-per-first-year rule.


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  1. No. First years should be allowed zero questions. Questions only expose their ignorance and potentially embarrass a department.

    Comment by Chemgeek — September 30, 2009 #

  2. …you go to Stanford, right? The school with the high academic standards and stuff? Okay, just checking.

    Comment by excimer — September 30, 2009 #

  3. Well… first years should ask questions and it is to be assumed that they’ll ask stupid questions because they’re first years. I’d commend the little shit for raising his hand, even if the questions weren’t particularly well thought out. Most people have a horrible aversion to asking questions – even particularly good ones.

    And I don’t think that a faculty’s opinion of a department is going to be influenced by the stupid questions they receive in seminar. Most likely, the stupid questions they receive while they are meeting with other faculty members would have done the department in well before that.

    Comment by Kyle Finchsigmate — October 1, 2009 #

  4. I would like to know why that’s not a good question.

    Comment by Curious — October 1, 2009 #

  5. I applaud the student for his courage, and I think Deutch’s reply should have been more encouraging. Nuclear waste is a complex problem and we are going to need lots of ideas to deal with it, some decidedly crazy. As Freeman Dyson says, it’s more important to be wrong than to be vague.

    I would be quite interested in knowing what the other two questions were.

    Comment by Wavefunction — October 1, 2009 #

  6. here’s one reason it’s not a great idea.

    Comment by sam — October 1, 2009 #

  7. Of course first years should have the right and the balls to ask a question after a talk. everyone should. but no one should be so inconsiderate as to ask three questions while other people have their hands up. Don’t waste everyone else’s time!

    Comment by sam — October 1, 2009 #

  8. I’m exaggerating Deutch’s response for comedic relief. He basically said (a) it’s currently illegal to dump nuclear waste in the ocean and (b) the politicians will ask, If you can’t figure out how to do it in Nevada, how are you going to deal with it at the bottom of the ocean?

    The first question was whether the 37% number for energy that goes to transportation includes industry or just cars. The second question I cannot remember, so it must have been mild. I promise you that it wasn’t worth it for the audience!

    Comment by sam — October 1, 2009 #

  9. seriously, though. it’s possible that melting nuclear waste into the core of the Earth might be a feasible approach in the far future. currently, though, i think it’s a very dangerous idea to put all our nuclear waste on the most active fault lines in the world. it’s not as if there’s a vacuum cleaner at the bottom of the ocean; there are two continental plates griding together very slowly, and there’s a huge potential that the earthquakes and grinding rocks will disperse the radioactive material throughout our oceans.

    it’s really close to the worst idea i can think of. (besides exploding it all over large cities.)

    Comment by sam — October 1, 2009 #

  10. Obviously, the real solution is to put it into outer space. But I wouldn’t expect a first year to think of that.

    Comment by Joel — October 1, 2009 #

  11. I actually have two questions related to this; firstly, assuming some of the radioactive material escapes, will it not be sufficiently diluted to pose very little harm? Usually the most harmful radioactive material is also rather short lived (strontium 90 and cesium 137 for instance). And secondly, what are the chances that it will not get thoroughly mixed with deep ocean sediments so that it won’t stay at the bottom for a very long time. I think these questions deserve some investigation. I really don’t think doing this would be as dangerous as exploding it over cities.

    Another option that comes to mind is to do what Superman did with the stockpile of nukes in Superman 4; dump it into the sun. I wonder if this possibility has been seriously investigated.

    Comment by Wavefunction — October 1, 2009 #

  12. Next time tell attendees to put their questions on notecards, collected immediately at the end of the seminar, and asked by a member of the staff/faculty/senior-class, who prioritize the cards at their discretion — with the understanding that unasked questions (presumably unasked because of time constraints) will be addressed by the seminar speaker(s) in a follow-up email (or other missive).

    Comment by jordan — October 1, 2009 #

  13. I can’t tell if you’re serious.

    In the unlikely case that your are being serious, I will answer seriously. Shooting nuclear waste into the sun is not a viable option for two reasons: (1) the carbon footprint of rocketing tons and tons of waste into orbit (and beyond) would probably cancel out the benefit of using nuclear, and (2) the danger of a Challenger-type explosion spreading radioactive material over the entire Earth.

    Comment by sam — October 1, 2009 #

  14. You may be right, but the idea is probably not as far fetched as it sounds. Given that there have been only two Challenger accidents the record of the space program has been pretty good. The carbon footprint point is valid, but nuclear inherently has very high energy efficiency so it may be a compensatory factor. And of course, if we are left with no other choice at all then even an expensive choice would be worth pursuing.

    Proposals for sending waste into space have been seriously considered. Not the sun per se but putting the waste in low orbit around the sun, the moon or in the Venusian orbit have been contemplated. Check out the following for instance:


    And we probably don’t have to worry about the creation of Nuclear Man (from Superman IV: The Quest for Peace) once the waste reaches the solar atmosphere.

    Comment by Wavefunction — October 1, 2009 #

  15. maybe with the space elevator. seriously.

    Comment by sam — October 1, 2009 #

  16. Feynman got invited to student parties quite often. Once he found himself in a company of a drunk dude (and also in the presence of a girl that the dude was trying to impress and take home) who kept on expounding on a completely hare-brained and poorly formulated revolutionary idea, the expose which he ended with “what do you think about all this, professor?” Feynman listened to it all very politely (with the beautiful girl in audience and all) and finally said: “If I were you I would not think that way’

    Comment by milkshake — October 3, 2009 #

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