May 27, 2019

Ep 170: Bill Foster - United States Representative, US Congress

United States Representative
US Congress
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Show notes

Background in Business and Physics
Are you the only scientist in Congress?

Bill Foster, a Congressman from the 11th District in Illinois, was, for many years, the only PhD scientist in Congress. Foster started out his undergraduate studies at the age of 16 at the University of Wisconsin majoring in physics. When he was 18, Foster worked with his brother to invent a system using the newly invented microprocessor to control stage lighting. His brother’s expertise in technical theater, coupled with Foster’s experience working with computer chips, brought the product together and they identified a need in the market. They originally marketed their product through pre-established main players in theatrical lighting. The company Foster helped start now manufactures about 70% of all the theatrical lighting in the U.S. After serving as president of the company for a decade, Bill Foster returned to school to pursue a PhD in physics. His PhD thesis was on the search for proton decay.

Discovery Made During the Search for Proton Decay
How could the Office of Science at the Department of Energy afford your research on proton decay?

Bill Foster’s program had letters from Nobel Laureates supporting the importance of his research on proton decay, which was funded by the Office of Science at the Department of Energy. Foster learned that, in fact, the proton did not decay. He did, however, make the discovery that 167,000 years ago a star blew up in the greater Magellanic cloud, bringing a flash of light and a burst of neutrinos that was visible in Earth's underground detector in 1987. After finishing his graduate degree, Foster spent most of his career at Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory (Fermilab) outside of Chicago. For the first ten years at Fermilab, Foster designed and analyzed data from experiments, such as smashing protons and antiprotons together. The discovery of the top quark was achieved during this experiment.

Field Theory
How do quarks make up an atom?

The field theory is an operator function of space-time, an infinite dimensional matrix at every point in space-time. Particle physics sees great advances and qualitative new discoveries when more powerful accelerators are created. This pattern also exists with the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) which was able to detect the Higgs particle. Nuclear energy is the most recent direct commercial application of subatomic physics. There are many spinoff technologies, such as superconducting cable used by MRI’s, which was a product of an attempt to discover the top quark. Foster’s first ten years at Fermilab was spent designing experiments and analyzing data, followed by ten years of designing and building the actual particle accelerators. Bill Foster invented the last of the antiproton recycler ring built at Fermilab and led the team that built the magnets for it.

Physics in Congress
How did you turn from physics to a political career?

Bill Foster’s father was also a scientist who gave up his career to become a civil rights lawyer and wrote much of the enforcement language behind the Civil Rights Act of 1964. After putting his technical skills to use for the Navy during World War II and seeing the damage his work was doing, Foster’s father returned home. Foster's father saw civil rights as the great moral challenge of his generation. In the back of Foster’s mind was a feeling that he ought to spend part of his life trying to make the world a better place. Almost every issue discussed in Congress has a technological component. Foster's scientific expertise has been a valuable asset many times while serving in Congress. In 2008, right when the economy was collapsing, Foster first took office and understood the technical and mathematical aspects of structured financial products. Another example is the Iran Nuclear Deal, which had extensive technical mandates for reactor core specifications that would limit the functionality of Iran’s heavy water reactor for production of large amounts of weapons grade plutonium. A one year breakout time was part of the Deal, which allowed Foster to brainstorm different pathways to creating bomb materials and verify whether the one year breakout was a valid limitation.

Office of Technology Assessment
Is Congress fundamentally set up to be handling extremely technically challenging topics?

Bill Foster sees the defunding of the Office of Technology Assessment (OTA) as a recent tragedy that happened when Newt Gingrich and Republicans took over Congress in an effort to downsize Government. OTA was a group of very highly trained scientists, mostly academic, with direct connections to true subject matter experts that can provide highly qualified, technical advice to Congress. Foster participated in a long crusade to restore OTA's funding and recently achieved this through the Appropriations Committee budget proposal out of the U.S. House, which is now awaiting Senate approval. This would be a historic reversal of the office defunding.

Climate Change Solutions
What’s your take on climate change?

Bill Foster sees two major problems facing climate change: decarbonizating the U.S. and decarbonizating the rest of the developing world. The U.S. has enough money, looking at household net worth, to decarbonize the economy. The cost to decarbonize in the U.S. is significantly less than the household net worth. If technical solutions are used that are too expensive to be adapted in India or Africa, then only 5% of the problem will have been solved. Research for developing low cost techniques of decarbonizing an energy intensive economy should be prioritized. Carbon dioxide extraction techniques do exist, but are expensive, and geoengineering is also in consideration. These technologies work decently well in simulation, but could have unintended side effects. One possibility to remove existing carbon from the atmosphere is aggressively developing bioengineered plants that are much more effective at sinking carbon. Emissions have to be reduced, which could be avoidable with things like efficiency and nuclear energy.

Economics of Decarbonization
Why can’t we first invent technology to remove carbon from the atmosphere and eventually use it to solve new emissions?

The McKinsey curve looks at technologies in which carbon emissions can be reduced or eliminated and identifies limits that exist for each technology. Each technology has a total amount of carbon that can be averted and a total cost. The curve shows which technology avoids the most carbon per dollar and identifies which technologies should be pursued. Nuclear is more complicated and has failure modes that can’t happen at other power plants; it costs money to ensure those events are unlikely to happen at a level that is socially acceptable. Some advanced nuclear techniques are walkaway safe and are attractive economically since they don’t need the same level of safety systems. However, people are nervous about things they cannot see, since they cannot conceptualize its level of danger. Due to a lack of detailed understanding, the public demands a higher level of safety.

Accelerator-Driven Nuclear Energy
What do we do to get ourselves out of this [advanced nuclear] situation?

Bill Foster is trying to push aggressively in Congress to get a handful of advanced nuclear systems prototyped. Foster is enthusiastic about the accelerator-driven systems in which a target gets hit by a particle beam creating a cascade of neutrons, and liberating the energy that would come from a nuclear reactor, but itself is not a reactor. These designs have a natural off-switch which can be multiplied by other safety systems. This technology is not only intrinsically safe, but also has the ability to burn the waste very deeply to decrease the amount of nuclear waste that is left over. To get a bill passed to enable this kind of technology, there are two relevant Congressional Committees: one committee, the appropriators, splits up the pie, and the other committee, authorizes the spending. This system is in place to have multiple sets of eyes, just as the Senate and House work together.

Strategy for Passing Laws in Congress
What does it take to round up the support to get funding for a project?

An individualized strategy is needed for each project to be considered, to serve allies and opponents in order to get committal. A large number of projects may be ready to move the ball forward at any given time, waiting for the political stars to line up. The Stock Act was a ban on insider trading by members of Congress, since the members get market moving information on a confidential basis as part of their hearing. In the past, this inside information had been used to make money on the stock market and it had never been illegal for this to happen. During the depths of the financial crisis, “60 Minutes” did a story on insider trading and began talking to members of Congress, leading to a law against insider trading. Foster’s father talked about a similar struggle with the Civil Rights Act and how great things can happen when the political stars line up.

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