Wednesday, 10 March 2010

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Johnald's Fantastical Daily Link Splurge

Bottled Wind Could Be as Constant as Coal

Posted: 09 Mar 2010 05:00 PM PST


Wind power has made incredible inroads into the U.S. energy system thanks to big, efficient machines standing hundreds of feet tall. But the future of wind power may be underground.

In the abandoned mines and sandstones of the Midwest, compressed-air storage ventures are trying to convert the intermittent motions of the air into the kind of steady power that could displace coal.

Compressed-air energy storage uses air compressors to store electricity generated when it's not needed. The air, stored in large underground formations, is like a spring that's been compressed and can deliver a large percentage of the energy that is transmitted to it, when it is needed.

The first and only such plant in the United States went online in 1991, and though the technology didn't take off, it did prove that it worked. And now, combining cheap wind energy and compressed-air storage could create a potent new force in the electricity markets.

"This is the first nonhydro renewables technology that can replace coal in the dispatch order," said David Marcus, co-founder of General Compression, a new company that received $16 million in funding from investors including the utility Duke Energy to build a full-scale prototype of their energy storage system, which would be deployed with arrays of wind turbines.

The dispatch order is how grid operators decide which power plants to switch on. They have to balance the amount of generation and consumption or they risk the grid's stability. The amount of power people use goes up and down, but it stays above a certain level all the time. To meet that need, utilities buy consistent always-on power from the large, cheap coal and nuclear power plants that are the backbone of the electric grid.

The electricity they need to meet the peaks in energy demand is generated by what are known as peaking plants, usually powered by natural gas. When the wind is blowing, it is usually the cheapest peaking power available, so it keeps the natural gas plants shut off. If they want to replace coal plants in the pecking order, though, they'll have to work all the time.

And to do that, they'll need a way to unlink themselves from the on-again, off-again nature of the wind.

"It's a fractal problem," said Marcus. "You have intermittency problems on every time scale."

That problem has brought compressed-air energy storage roaring back. Marcus' company has a long way to go before they can turn their prototype system into the kind of technology that can be deployed at the nation's vast wind farms. But compressed air storage of one type or another is on the verge of becoming a mainstream power technology.

The nation's largest energy storage option right now is pumped hydroelectricity. When excess electricity is present in a system, it can be used to pump water up to a reservoir. Then, when that power is needed, the water is sent through a turbine to generate electricity. The U.S. electric system has 2.5 gigawatts of pumped hydro storage capacity, but most of the good, cheap sites are already occupied, and creating new reservoirs is not environmentally benign.

While wind farmers say storage isn't technically necessary until the amount of wind power on the grid exceeds 20 or 30 percent of the electrical load, private analysts, the Electric Power Research Institute, and the Department of Energy have identified grid-scale storage as a key need for the rapidly diversifying electricity system.

And going forward, compressed-air energy storage looks like the cheapest option available. Independent analysts have come to similar conclusions.

"CAES is the least cost, utility-scale, bulk-storage system available. If other factors such as its low environmental impact and high reliability are considered, CAES has an overwhelming advantage," one Department of Homeland Security physicist concluded in a 2007 paper in the journal Energy (.pdf).

In the last four months, four projects have gotten new funding. In December, the rights to a long-awaited project in Norton, Ohio, were purchased by First Energy, a large utility in the area. The Norton project could store 2.7 gigawatts of power in an abandoned limestone mine.

In California, PG&E received a $24.9 million grant from the Energy Department to build a 300-megawatt plant in Kern County. New York State Electric and Gas received $29 million for a similar facility in the town of Reading, New York, using an existing salt cavern there. The Iowa Stored Energy Project received a $3.2 million forgivable loan from the state and will finish drilling its first research well in the next month. The plan is to attempt to store energy in porous sandstone, just like the 1.7 trillion cubic feet of natural gas that lie beneath the surface of the United States.

mcintosh_compressed_air_plantThe man behind the technology slated to be used in the two Energy Department-backed projects is engineer Michael Nakhamkin, founder of Energy Storage Power Corporation. He designed the only U.S. compressed air storage plant, in McIntosh, Alabama.

That plant was built in the late 1980s by a very small southern utility, the Alabama Electric Cooperative. They had a unique problem, Nakhamkin said, in that their daytime load far exceeded their nighttime load, the opposite of the regular pattern.

The big coal plant they needed to meet the daytime demand made too much power at night. Turning down the plant at night wasn't a good solution because coal plants work most efficiently at full capacity, and turning them down makes them dirtier. And even with the plant at full power during the day, the utility still had to buy power from other companies to meet their peak daytime demand.

But with a storage plant, they could use the extra electricity made at night to satisfy their daytime peak demand.

Based on the first commercial plant (.pdf) ever built in Huntorf, Germany, the Electric Power Research Institute and Nakhamkin's engineering firm came up with a plan to store compressed air in a salt dome in Alabama. They created a geological pocket 900 feet long and up to 238 feet wide in the dome by pumping water into it to dissolve the rock salt. When the (briny) water was pumped back out, the salt resealed itself and they had an air-tight container: "The solution-mined cavern is a large subterranean pressure vessel," as an EPRI report explained.

During off-peak times, electricity runs a compressor which pumps the air down into the cavern. Then, when energy is needed, the air is released from the reserve to power a fairly standard turbine, with a little help from natural gas. The system has worked for more than 25 years.

In 1991, when the plant went online, there were high hopes that the technology might catch on among utilities.

'We expect the CAES plant technology pioneered in Alabama to lead to widespread application in this country," said Robert Schainker, the manager of the Electric Power Research Institute's Energy Storage Program in a press release announcing the plant's completion. 'Three fourths of the United States has geology suitable for underground air storage. At present, more than a dozen utilities are evaluating sites for CAES application."

But with low fossil fuel prices and little intermittent renewable energy on the grid, there wasn't much incentive for utilities to build the plants. The plant saved money for the Alabama Electric Cooperative, but it wasn't "critical savings" as Nakhamkin put it.

"Rich people don't talk about how to save five or 10 dollars," he said.

Planning for the Iowa Stored Energy Project began in 2001, but at the time, it just didn't make economic sense for the small municipal utilities involved.

"Without a lot of renewables, the business model for CAES is not that strong," Holst said. With wind sometimes producing as much as 15 percent of Iowa's electricity, the case for the business gets stronger every day.

Nakhamkin thinks the time has come for compressed air to take off, particularly with the new plant designs that incorporate the data from the McIntosh plant.

"We analyzed several years of plant operation and from this, we generated a second generation of CAES technology," he said. "It's much more reliable and much more adjustable for the smart grid, for solar energy and a variety of wind power plants."

Images: 1) Proposed Iowa compressed air plant./Iowa Stored Energy Project. 2) Compressed air plant in McIntosh, Alabama./Iowa Stored Energy Project.

See Also:

WiSci 2.0: Alexis Madrigal's Twitter, Tumblr, and green tech history research site; Wired Science on Twitter and Facebook.

Better Than Apollo: The Space Program We Almost Had

Posted: 09 Mar 2010 03:35 PM PST


SAN FRANCISCO — In the late 1950s, American space companies jumped into a headlong race to build an aerospace industry that could launch missiles across the world and rockets above it.

In her new book Another Science Fiction, archivist Megan Prelinger delves into the hyperbolic, whimsical world of the advertisements these early aerospace companies created to sell themselves.

Far from the dry, technical ads you might imagine, companies like Northrup, Ex-Cell-O, and National tried to lure the most talented young engineers into their cubicles by drawing on the mystique of science fiction. Ball-bearing, engine-part, and guidance-system companies didn't sell themselves, but rather the grand vision of space exploration as the next step in mankind's destiny.

The book is lovingly crafted and exhaustively researched. Unlike so many "big idea" tomes that skip over the details to deliver the PowerPoint version of reality, Another Science Fiction glories in the details, providing a complex portrait of the nation's spacefaring ambitions. Prelinger's analysis reaches outside the narrow confines of space boosterism to reveal the neural connections in the American psyche between the final frontier, the Soviet menace, and good, old industrial engineering.

We caught up with Prelinger at the wonderfully strange library she runs with her husband, Rick, to ogle old space stuff and discuss countercultural space utopias, alternatives to Apollo, and her hopes for a human spaceflight renaissance.

Image: Willi Baum.

library_f Your book focuses on your amazing collection of space ephemera, particularly the advertisements of the aerospace companies that eagerly lapped up NASA cash. It's kind of strange: what were they advertising for? And what tropes and themes did they tend to use?

Megan Prelinger: The companies were mostly advertising for recruitment. They were in a position of being funded to develop a civil space program that would be a nearly a whole new industry — from scratch. As well as responding to a steeply escalating Cold War that "demanded" massive missile proliferation. The companies needed to hire thousands of engineers to develop bids for NASA and DOD contracts, and hundreds of thousands of workers to build the new machines. They needed to hire those people in just a few years. And they did.

They tended to use tropes borrowed from science fiction and from mid-century modern design to convey a sense of fantasy and possibility around the process of technological emergence that was erupting. Imagery that was culturally associated with space exploration dominated, as the civil space program was the leading public face of rocket-and-missile work. Weapons development was more tacitly than explicitly expressed in the tropes and themes. The companies and NASA both wanted to inspire people, and they used whatever visual language they could to achieve that goal. Motifs of sci-fi influenced space exploration were prevalent, but also the trope of "space will be our new home," is expressed in a lot of ways. Mostly through images of the human body in space, but also in imagery that frames outer space as an extension of the domestic environment, and a zone for new architectural invention. What attracted you to this particular set of artifacts? Were you looking for stories of rocket advertisements past?

Prelinger: I'm a citizen-interpreter of the American West, a landscape aficionado, and a Cold War history buff. I was originally geopolitically awakened and politicized by the early-1980s crises in nuclear politics. When I first picked up these magazines and started to read them, I was looking for untold stories of the militarized American west and untold stories of our atomic nightmare. I thought there might be material in these magazines that would point to other interesting areas of research. I have also always been very interested in space exploration and its history, but at the time I thought I mostly knew the outline of the history of NASA. I didn't expect to be surprised in that area.

Every discovery I made in the magazines that went into the book was an utter serendipity. I am not a terribly visual person and I wasn't looking for the ads. I just happened upon them while reading the articles. As I gained momentum in reading the magazines, it hit me in a "Eureka!" moment: that the ads formed a visual language of their own that spoke to all the historical, ideological, and technological complexities that were embedded in the massive changes of the era in history. THAT was the story. The visual language. The idea framework for the book emerged almost overnight, an abrupt serendipity. Your book seems fundamentally about the space race as an industrial opportunity. The space race here is individual and much more about career advancement than human advancement. How did companies adapt and borrow the grand themes of human advancement to support their own far more limited aims?

Prelinger: Human spaceflight is a cultural project; the mechanics to get us there are an industrial project. The ads represent the convergence of these two aims. At the baseline of course the companies were motivated by profit; at the same time the people working within industry were largely genuinely driven by a sense of contributing to an exciting period of emerging technology. I think the same can be said of our Silicon Valley giants of today. How can you separate career advancement from human advancement among the people giving their lives to Big Tech today? beauty of the ads and the grandeur of space provided cover for the many military projects that aerospace companies undertook during this Cold War period. If you had to say, do you think the dual military/civilian nature of space technologies hurt the long-range prospects of spacefaring or helped?

Prelinger: Oh, that's complicated. The military complex enabled a lot of technological transformations that wouldn't have happened — or would have taken much, much longer– in a peaceful environment. So in a basic technological sense, the military enabled spacefaring. We wouldn't have had rockets powerful enough to launch satellites into orbit if we had not been developing intercontinental ballistic missiles. The rockets were a side project and a surplus of the missile research. It would be nice to imagine that we could've/would've funded the development of orbit-capable launch vehicles without the stimulus of the Cold War, but it's unrealistic.

At the same time, the militarized nature of the early space program hurt it tremendously (tremendously!) by costing it a lot of its legitimacy as a civil-scientific enterprise. Viz. the conversation with Willi Baum that is quoted at the end of the book. Willi has said to me, "I'm a leftist! Of course there is no such thing as the space program!" That's what he believes. He doesn't understand how I can be a naturalist and wildlife rehabilitator and a space advocate at the same time. A lot of people think as he does — that the whole civil space program is just a fig leaf for our hyper-nationalist and hyper-militarized technological will to power. I see that it is more than that, but among the social justice community it's very hard to convince people that there really is a hugely important civil-scientific aspect of space exploration (climate science research, anyone?). As a member of the social and ecological justice communities it's sometimes hard for me to be "out" as a space fan. All because of this intense confusion/conflation and commingling of resources between military and civil space. That part is very regrettable.

library_fd The space race was intimately tied to the military ambitions of the Cold War superpowers, but you uncover and describe several more human alternatives, a kind of countercultural space program. Perhaps you can tell us what people like Stewart Brand and Princeton physicists Gerard O'Neill were up to?

Prelinger: The migration of space into the counterculture is a big story. You might be interested in Robert Poole's book Earthrise, which is a cultural history of the image of earth from space. Stewart Brand was responsible for the integration of space themed visual imagery (the earthrise photo) into the counterculture. But back in the 1970s, through his initiative in developing the California Water Atlas, he led the cultural turn from space back toward Earth. He was really the first to notice and develop the fact that earthrise was more than a pretty picture: it stood for the emerging truth that our journey into space really made more meaning for us out of Planet Earth than it did out of space itself. He befriended astronaut Rusty Schweikart and integrated discussions about space exploration into the everyday discourse of the CoEvolution Quarterly, his post-Whole Earth Catalog magazine. Those discussions really seem pot-infused and diffuse to me. But they definitely express a perspective that space exploration is a natural and desirable expression of a combined techno-power and woo-woo state of things. Those conversations are heavily marked as countercultural in a number of ways.

At the same time Gerard O'Neill was coming from a different place and a different perspective. As a physics professor at Princeton he was much more Eastern Establishment and institutional than Brand. But his studies of physics convinced him that human beings could, and should, colonize space in huge numbers. He believed it was technologically and economically feasible to build huge orbital floating terraria that would be hyper-verdant and would house and feed thousands of people. He formed his own node of the counterculture just by being so extreme in his views. He was well-connected enough to gain an appointment at NASA, and NASA sponsored one of his studies and published it as a government document. That document is one of my favorite pieces of space ephemera. O'Neill also popularized his vision through the book The High Frontier; the book's ideas were so far outside most peoples' frame of reference that they represented a countercultural ideal. It's important to also notice that his ideas weren't utterly different from those espoused by the ex-Nazi hyper-militarized space visionary Wernher von Braun in the 1950s. von Braun's ideas were assimilable in American culture because they were military themed. O'Neill's peace-and-trees version of that vision was associated (I think) with the counterculture as much just by virtue of its pacifism as by anything else.

library_fe In reading about the 70s space utopias, I couldn't help thinking back to the 1840s, when railroads started to open up the West, by which I mean the area beyond the Appalachians, and all that land seemed like a great place to test out all the philosophical ideas about the way to live that were bubbling out of the industrializing cities. You draw a lot of parallels between how people thought about frontiers ("The Final Frontier") and space. How was exploring space different from exploring, say, Arizona or the Antarctic?

Prelinger: I'd love to have time to write an essay-length reply to this question. I did try to address this question in Chapter Four by making the point that we tried to make it like exploring Arizona, but it wasn't. And that's why a lot of our dreams and initiatives failed to reach fruition. We imagined we could colonize space as easily as the Europeans moved in to North America. — perhaps even easier, because there wouldn't be pre-existing sapiens cultures to push out. Almost as if forgetting that we can't breathe or eat or live or build in space. The "science fiction" aspect of future visualizations grossly overstepped reality by too swiftly suggesting a land-based model of colonization where such a model just could not operate.

It would have been better if space had been conceptualized more like Antarctica; a place where survival was really unlikely for early explorers, and would never be anything other than extraordinarily difficult for those who would follow them. NASA maintains research stations in Antarctica devoted not only to polar studies of planetary science, but also research into living in extreme environments. Human beings will have to adapt into extremophiles in order to live on the Moon or Mars. At one point you write that "The twelve-year race between the United States and the USSR to reach the Moon was simple compared to the battle for satellite supremacy," you write. That's a fascinating statement because it goes against the entrenched idea that it was Apollo which formed the core of the American space program.

Prelinger: As soon as satellite launch technology was proven, many countries and many companies wanted to have a presence in the satellite sky. Competition was swift and multilateral. The binary nationalist "Moon-or-bust" competition between the US and the USSR was not really attainable by other countries, much less by companies. So it remained a simple binary for a long time. But the satellite sky was (and is) a much more accessible forum for crowding and competition. Apollo may have been the public face of the American space program, but we have always had a lot more going on with robotics than with human spaceflight. From a structural and functional perspective, satellites are the core of the American space program. Have been since 1958. I think most people see NASA (and the American space program) as basically Vanguard to Apollo to the Shuttle. Maybe they throw Hubble in there. But you recover a huge chunk of space history where the moon shot was by no means assured and where human spaceflight seems as if it could have gone many places. Maybe not just or never to the moon. You make the argument that Apollo caused a kind of public amnesia about the competing alternative space programs that might have been. Can you describe the criticisms of and alternatives to Apollo in the scientific community and the media?

Prelinger: The criticisms of Apollo were comparable to the criticisms of human spaceflight today. The criticisms are based on a schism between space for science, by scientists, and space for exploration, by explorers. It is true now as it was then that robotic spaceflight is vastly less expensive and technologically difficult, and yields tangible scientific rewards. Scientists mocked the Apollo program because the life support system had to dominate the payload of the spacecraft to such an extent that only a few pounds of scientific equipment — sensors and sample collectors — could be included. That schism still exists, though within NASA great steps have been taken to resolve it as an internal contradiction.

Ambitious non-Apollo plans that were regrettably un-funded included a plan for a multi-planet flyby by a space probe in the 1970s. There was an alignment of the planets in the 1970s that meant a multi-planet probe could go on a "grand tour" and get a lot more bang for its buck than at any time in the late 20th or 21st centuries. Hey look, this idea has a wiki entry: Planetary Grand Tour.

Some people think that the emphasis on human spaceflight overshadowed what could have been public and political support for this Grand Tour. Other people think that it would have been canceled in the 1970s anyway, just because of the economic contraction. For the same reasons Apollo was canceled.

library_fb You write in your book, "With fifty years' hindsight the tone of the popular press stories of the late 1950s criticizing human spaceflight seems cartoonishly overblown." Is that really fair? It seems to me that the criticisms of the manned spaceflight program were pretty robust, the Apollo landing notwithstanding. What do you think the best argument for human spaceflight is? And do you think we should be attempting to send humans into space now?

Prelinger: I am a supporter of human spaceflight. I want to see it happen, and I will do what I can to promote it as a cultural enterprise. But it needs to be re-framed as a cultural enterprise. Our human spaceflight program was a civil public institution. Its primary functions were symbolic, inspirational, and cultural. It was a positive, non-destructive expression of the urge to explore and to "conquer" (space is un-conquerable, so space exploration de-fangs the conquering impulse). It was a positive, non-destructive expression of technological upsmanship. It was a positive, non-destructive expression of the human impulse to continuously expand our sense of territoriality. It can be those things again in the future, and I'd like to see that happen. Its most important job was to inspire young people to see themselves as junior members of an advanced, highly-accomplished society, and to identify positively and peacefully with technology. In its early years, that effect was worldwide. Space exploration has the potential to transcend nationalism. I have no doubt that the Apollo program inspired many young people to think higher than they would have without its symbolism in front of them, and I'd like to see that inspiration come back.

That being said, the Apollo program in particular was an artifact of a major post-war economic and technological surplus. We no longer have that surplus, we have spent it. I have to agree on a practical level with the cancellation of the Constellation programs. NASA's robotic programs are the ones that bring home the bacon, in terms of new knowledge and important scientific discoveries. I'm sorry that we are losing it as a public program, but it will be reborn as some kind of hybrid public-private partnership. Private "new space" enterprise is hard at work developing human spaceflight alternatives, but it will be really hard for them to do that without some technology transfer from NASA. I see public-private partnerships as the way of the future.

I'm of two minds about the privatization of human spaceflight. On the one hand, I hate to see it lost as a public, democratic institution. On the other hand, the expense and the risk are utterly enormous. It seems more appropriate to me for private companies to take the risk and make the expense, rather than our heavily stressed taxpayer base. And it's not as much of a dichotomy as it seems on the surface because even when human spaceflight was a "public, democratic" institution, the profits from it still all went to private industry. One interesting argument you make is that the selection of a design for the Apollo rocketry and system actually stopped a lot of the more futuristic design proposals out there. Do you think the lack of a program of record now that NASA has effectively cancelled Constellation will re-open people's minds and allow them to imagine new paths for NASA?

Prelinger: I was just discussing this question with a NASA staffer at the SpaceUp conference in San Diego this past weekend. NASA is definitely at a bit of an identity crisis. At least the parts of NASA dedicated to human spaceflight are at an identity crisis. The cancellation of Constellation will result in a huge infusion of moneys into the "new space" companies that are developing non-NASA rocket systems. Those systems are going to be bound to the same rules of physics as NASA rockets, yet they will innovate in design and function to some extent.

As for new paths for NASA well, that's a big subject. What NASA does best and most importantly is robotic planetary science. No one in the world does that as well as NASA. Exploring Mars, bringing back samples of Martian soil — and using knowledge about Martian planetary science to help Earth sciences people understand our own planet's evolutionary history — THAT's what NASA does best. Increasing public awareness and appreciation about this really important, urgent, and fascinating work is NASA's biggest hurdle.

I'd of course love to see the breakdown of existing structures lead to a creative eruption in design and technology. That could be visually as well as technologically interesting and exciting. It remains to be seen though, how "different" spacecraft can look, now that the limiting factors of design, materials, and physics are much better known than they were in the 1950s. Science fiction, the entertainment not the advertisements, seems to thread its way through your narrative as in the hilariously titled sci-fi magazine, Satellite Science Fiction, which you note "published articles about science fact alongside fiction." What was the relationship between science and science fiction in the late 50s and has it changed over the last 50 years?

Prelinger: In the 1950s, science and science fiction were close mutual contextualizers. The magazine Analog ran half science / half fiction articles in its table of contents every issue. The science fiction writer Fritz Leiber was commissioned to write a story — or a story of his was appropriated — by Los Alamos National Laboratory for an advertisement. The advertisement was actually just a block of copy from the story, with the Laboratory's logo at the bottom. Also, writers such as Arthur C. Clarke wrote fiction that was directly based on working plans for emerging technologies, such as "The Wind from the Sun" about a solar wind ship. The relationship between science and sci-fi did not get much closer than it was during those years.

Today I think that relationship is a bit more diffuse. It has moved on to the realm of computers. The relationship between the world created by Neal Stephenson in Snow Crash and Second Life is pretty close, but not as close as the examples above from the 1950s. And of course the relationship between sci-fi literature and the real stories of technological emergence vary quite a bit with media type. Narrative film has always been more adventure-oriented than technology-oriented. In the 1950s that relationship was probably closer than it is today — the ships themselves were part of the adventure. In contemporary sci-fi narrative film I think I see evidence that we as an audience have become desensitized to the various promises offered by advanced spacefaring technology. For instance in District 9, the spaceship is very much in the background. Though to really use District 9 as an example we'd have to also look at the centrality of the "gene therapy" theme in the story which is very much out of today's science news headlines.

In sum I'd say that the relationship is not quite as close-seeming as it was back then, but it's still there. The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction runs occasional columns by scientists working at the Exploratorium. But that's less than five percent of the magazine's content.


Images: Jim Merithew/

WiSci 2.0: Alexis Madrigal's Twitter, Tumblr, and green tech history research site; Wired Science on Twitter and Facebook.

Your Computer Really Is a Part of You

Posted: 09 Mar 2010 01:37 PM PST


An empirical test of ideas proposed by Martin Heidegger shows the great German philosopher to be correct: Everyday tools really do become part of ourselves.

The findings come from a deceptively simple study of people using a computer mouse rigged to malfunction. The resulting disruption in attention wasn't superficial. It seemingly extended to the very roots of cognition.

"The person and the various parts of their brain and the mouse and the monitor are so tightly intertwined that they're just one thing," said Anthony Chemero, a cognitive scientist at Franklin & Marshall College. "The tool isn't separate from you. It's part of you."

Chemero's experiment, published March 9 in Public Library of Science, was designed to test one of Heidegger's fundamental concepts: that people don't notice familiar, functional tools, but instead "see through" them to a task at hand, for precisely the same reasons that one doesn't think of one's fingers while tying shoelaces. The tools are us.

This idea, called "ready-to-hand," has influenced artificial intelligence and cognitive science research, but without being directly tested.

In the new study, Chemero tracked the hand movements of people using a mouse to guide a cursor during a series of motor tests. Part way through the tests, the cursor lagged behind the mouse. After a few seconds, it worked again. When Chemero's team analyzed how people moved the mouse, they found profound differences between patterns produced during mouse function and malfunction.

When the mouse worked, hand motions followed a mathematical form known as "one over frequency," or pink noise. It's a pattern that pops up repeatedly in the natural world, from universal electromagnetic wave fluctuations to tidal flows to DNA sequences. Scientists don't fully understand pink noise, but there's evidence that our cognitive processes are naturally attuned to it.

But when Chemero's mouse malfunctioned, the pink noise vanished. Computer malfunction made test subjects aware of it —what Heidegger called "unreadiness-at-hand" — and the computer was no longer part of their cognition. Only when the mouse started working again did cognition return to normal. (One assumes, though the researchers didn't test the proposition, that cognition would also have returned to normal had test subjects stood up and stopped using the computer.)

The results demonstrate how people fuse with their tools, said Chemero.

"The thing that does the thinking is bigger than your biological body," he said. "You're so tightly coupled to the tools you use that they're literally part of you as a thinking, behaving thing."

Asked whether computer malfunction — say, the iPhone's notorious keyboard lag — could thusly be viewed as a discontinuity in our selves, Chemero said, "Yes, that's exactly what it is."

Image: At left, Martin Heidegger/WikiMedia Commons; at right, a schematic of the systemic interactions experienced while using (a) a functional tool and (b) a malfunctioning tool/PLoS ONE.

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Citation: "A Demonstration of the Transition from Ready-to-Hand to Unready-to-Hand." By Dobromir G. Dotov, Lin Nie, Anthony Chemero. PLoS ONE, Vol. 5 No. 3, March 9, 2010.

Brandon Keim's Twitter stream and reportorial outtakes; Wired Science on Twitter. Brandon is currently working on a book about ecological tipping points.