Krzysztof Strug
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Why Goodreads is bad for books

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On a typical day, a long-time user of Goodreads, the world’s largest community for reviewing and recommending books, will feel like they’re losing their mind. After numerous frustrated attempts to find a major new release, to like, comment on, or reply to messages and reviews, to add what they’ve read to their “shelf” or to discover new titles, users know they’ll be forced to give up, confronted with the fact that any basic, expected functionality will evade them. Sometimes even checking what they’ve already read will be next to impossible. Across a huge range of reading habits and preferences, this the one thing that unites millions of Goodreads users: that Goodreads sucks, and is just shy of unbearable.

There should be nothing in the world more benign than Goodreads, a website and app that 90 million people around the world use to find new books, track their reading, and attempt to meet people with similar tastes. For almost 15 years, it has been the dominant platform for readers to rate books and find recommendations. But many of the internet’s most dedicated readers now wish they could share their enthusiasm for books elsewhere. What should be a cosy, pleasant corner of the internet has become a monster. 

***

Goodreads started off the way you might think: two avid readers, in the mid-Noughties, wanting to build space online for people to track, share, and talk about books they were reading. Husband and wife Otis and Elizabeth Chandler say they initially launched the platform in 2007 to get recommendations from their literary friends. But it was something many others wanted, too: by 2013, the site had swelled to 15 million users. That year Goodreads it was bought by Amazon, an acquisition Wired magazine called “quaint”, given Amazon’s roots in bookselling before it became the store that sold everything. Even then, many Goodreads users already felt stung by the tech giant which had, a year earlier, changed the terms of its huge books dataset (which Goodreads used to identify titles). Goodreads had been forced to move to a different data source, called Ingram; the move caused users to lose large amounts of their reading records.

Most stuck with it, however – not because of the platform itself, but because of its community. Writing in the Atlantic in 2012, Sarah Fay called Goodreads “Facebook with books”, and argued that “if enough contributors set the bar high with creative, funny, and smart reviews it might become a force of its own”. While newspapers mourned the decline of reading and literature, Goodreads showed that a large and growing number of people still had a real passion for books and bookshops. Thirteen years after the first Kindle was sold, printed books have more than ten times the market share of ebooks, but talking about books happens much more online. But now, for many, the utopia Goodreads was founded to create has become closer to purgatory.

Goodreads today looks and works much as it did when it was launched. The design is like a teenager’s 2005 Myspace page: cluttered, random and unintuitive. Books fail to appear when searched for, messages fail to send, and users are flooded with updates in their timelines that have nothing to do with the books they want to read or have read. Many now use it purely to track their reading, rather than get recommendations or build a community. “It should be my favourite platform,” one user told me, “but it’s completely useless.”

Discovery is more of a problem for books than for other media, because they are so numerous: in 2018, there were 319 films produced in the UK and around 188,000 books. At the same time, however, sales are dominated by a handful of bestsellers: in 2018 crime thrillers accounted for the majority of fiction sales, with one book alone making up 30 per cent of the non-crime-fiction sales. The Chandlers envisioned Goodreads becoming a precise tool to solve this problem and encourage more diverse reading, with finely honed, specific recommendations based on books that similar users had read and discussed. But this is the least reliable and most complained-about aspect of what Goodreads claims to offer. Users are recommended books in genres they’ve never touched, sometimes simply because two books share a word in the title. 

With the vast amount of books and user data that Goodreads holds, it has the potential to create an algorithm so exact that it would be unstoppable, and it is hard to imagine anyone objecting to their data being used for such a purpose. Instead, it has stagnated: Amazon holds on to an effective monopoly on the discussion of new books – Goodreads is almost 40 times the size of the next biggest community, LibraryThing, which is also 40 per cent owned by Amazon – and it appears to be doing very little with it.

In an alternate universe, we could be living with a meticulous tool for finding books we would love to read, from a much wider diversity of authors. Instead we have a book tracker that, for many people, barely works.

All this makes Goodreads an obvious target for a competitor. However, it has huge advantages over any new contenders; its megalithic books library and its tens of millions of readers give it a very comfortable position. But the discontent is quietly reaching breaking point. 

***

Ten years ago, Tom Critchlow, an independent strategy consultant from the UK (now based in New York), mounted his own challenger to Goodreads: 7books, launched in 2010 and now offline, having peaked at 6,000 users. Since then, Critchlow has been analysing why Goodreads competitors tend not to work. Earlier this year, he published a blog post called “A Proposal for a Decentralized Goodreads”.  In it, he outlined the fundamental challenges behind creating a serious Goodreads competitor. 

“In my mind, there’s three core reasons that Goodreads remains dominant,” he tells me. “Firstly, they are the incumbent with a large user base.” Secondly, he explains, the sheer mass of books data Amazon holds is unparalleled. Goodreads and Amazon dominate web searches for books, which allows them to account for a large proportion of book-related internet traffic. While Amazon’s product API, which catalogues huge numbers of books, can be used by anyone, it is also the only repository of its kind, meaning any new competitor would almost certainly have to use the same tools Goodreads has been working with for many years. 

“Amazon,” Critchlow tells me, “has showed no mercy when dealing with competitors before.”

The final issue Critchlow cites is monetisation: margins on books are already “razor-thin”, and most demand goes via Amazon. “If you were to compete you would need significant scale,” he says, to make any money – and the most likely way to make money in the short term would be through affiliate links, which pay commission on sending readers to online stores – and one online store in particular. “Again,” notes Critchlow, ”you’d be dealing with Amazon directly.”

Critchlow believes all of this all contributes to Amazon doing next to nothing to improve Goodreads’s functionality. Amazon has very little incentive to improve Goodreads while no serious competitor exists and its “core experience” is good enough. “It sees no real threat, so it isn’t about to invest behind any major new development,” he tells me.

Alongside the lack of incentive, Critchlow also believes that Goodreads ultimately still serves the purpose most people use it for. “I think a ‘better Goodreads’ is alluring because reading books and sharing books is an incredibly emotional experience,” he says. “But… keeping a list of books you’ve read and want to read is actually served pretty well… Most of the imagined features and social ideas are not actually that useful.” 

Critchlow may be sceptical, but new competitors continue to enter the book-tech fray, and one in particular is beginning to make waves. 

***

When I tweeted about wanting to leave Goodreads, I received an avalanche of recommendations for The StoryGraph from people across the English-speaking world. Though still in development, it already has tens of thousands of members, attracted by the promise of a place beyond Goodreads. Users tell me this platform could be our way out.

Nadia Odunayo is The StoryGraph’s founder. She tells me the inspiration for the platform came, unsurprisingly, from her frustration with Goodreads. Already a tech entrepreneur, she decided to drop everything in January 2019 to dedicate herself to making the idea work.

“For three months I didn’t build anything and I didn’t join in on anything, I just spoke to readers,” she tells me. “I spoke to Goodreads users, I spoke to book bloggers, I spoke to friends, and I just looked at a bunch of different people to try and find out: is there still an untapped reader out there?”

Odunayo didn’t want to simply create a rejigged version of Goodreads. Instead, she tried to find specific “pain points” where readers were truly desperate for something Goodreads didn’t offer them. “Through my research I essentially ended up on ‘choosing your next book to read’ and ‘finding persistently high-quality recommendations’ being the major pain points”. The StoryGraph has spent the past year fine-tuning an algorithm that throws up books its users will genuinely enjoy. 

The StoryGraph does this through a survey tool called Ordered For You. As each reader joins the platform they are prompted to choose from a detailed list of features, explaining what they do or don’t like. Genres, plot features, types of characters, turn-offs such as “flat characters”. Users can also fill in their own reading preferences (they give suggestions such as “family sagas” or “LGBTQ+ authors”). And Goodreads users can import their account data, so they can add all the books they’ve already read into their StoryGraph profile. 

From there, The StoryGraph recommends books, marked by thematic tags and length and accompanied by well-researched synopses. But beyond the design and descriptive tags, there is one major difference Goodreads users will notice: ratings are almost unnoticeable, deprioritised to the bottom of the page.

“At the end of the day, all of these star ratings are personal,” Odunayo says. “And each of our five-star books or four-star books probably got that rating for different reasons.”  So instead the StoryGraph looks at “different dimensions, like mood, and the pace”. She believes that rating these features will be the key to creating the best set of reader recommendations.

“If we get the mood right, the pace right, the topic and theme right, the type of author, the type of story you want to hear about – does it matter if the 100 people who read it before you rated it two stars? What if it’s actually a five-star read for you? And that’s what we’re trying to do,” she says, “uncover books for people, because we present them in a different way and show different information upfront.” 

Rather than just offering an explainer of a book’s plot, information such as “mood” and “pace” are voted on by The StoryGraph community. Next to descriptors such as “reflective” or “dark” are percentages of how many readers agree with these descriptions, along with votes on whether character development was strong or if the characters were loveable — and then, after all that, the star rating. 

Along with a detailed assessment of the effect a book has on its readers, Odunayo and her team also plan to implement trigger warnings. “You will be able to specify in your survey that you’re sensitive to certain triggers and we would be able to flag books with that content,” she explains.

The algorithm used to create The StoryGraph will learn and grow as its membership does. For example, when a book that is marked as “dark” gets a certain number of people voting that actually it was also funny, a new tag will be incorporated to create a more robust picture of the book. “We’re trying empower readers to say what they’re looking for, to talk to the recommendation system,” Odunayo says. “Almost like when you go into a bookshop or a library and you say ‘hey, this is what I’m feeling’. We’re trying to recreate that experience.”

***

Odunayo recognises the hurdles her start-up faces. The StoryGraph has used users’s uploaded Goodreads information to implement book information (such as page numbers and publication dates) onto its site, but Odunayo and her team have stopped this practice and meanwhile spent months manually adding books. At one point she spent 70 hours straight in a hotel room, uploading new titles and researching their moods and themes.

To test The StoryGraph for myself, I type in a relatively new and niche release, Holiday Heart (a translated Latin American novel by Margarita Garcia Robayo from Charco Press). On Goodreads, it was almost impossible to find: the first five suggestions were books that didn't even contain both words in their titles, despite the site having an entry for the book. On The StoryGraph, even with its comparatively tiny pool of readers, the book instantly pops up, with detailed descriptions already in place.

“Our system is not as unsubtle,” Odunayo argues, “it won’t say, ‘oh you’ve read this book, so we’re going to suddenly change all your recommendations to be books like this.’ We have a powerful search engine where you can put in exactly the type of authors you’re looking for, the type of themes you like, and we’ll find you books that exactly match that.”

But Tom Critchlow argues that a “better Goodreads”, with functionality such as The StoryGraph offers, must avoid falling for the “seductive and imaginary ideas about social networks” that doomed a long list of previous competitors, including his own. “So many people dream of disrupting Goodreads,” he says, “[but] focus on the wrong things, myself included.” 

The StoryGraph is nonetheless off to a good start, with 40,000 registered users, roughly 5,000 of which spend four to five minutes on the site a week, tracking their reading and picking out books. Odunayo says the backlash against Big Tech could help her site’s trajectory. “There are a lot more people who are looking for reasons to not just settle for Amazon products,” she says. She plans to launch The StoryGraph early next year, with a fully redesigned app. 

“We don’t just want to be a better Goodreads”, she says. For the company that takes Goodreads’ crown, “the possibilities are so much greater”. 

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strugk
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Mushroom Expert Merlin Sheldrake: "Fungi Can Teach Us a New Way of Looking at the World"

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Merlin Sheldrake, 32, earned his Ph.D. in tropical ecology at the University of Cambridge for his research into underground fungal networks in the tropical forests of Panama. Since then, he has not lost his fascination for them. He is the author of "Entangled Life: How Fungi Make Our Worlds, Change Our Minds and Shape Our Futures," which was published in early September.

DER SPIEGEL: Mr. Sheldrake, we are here in London's Hampstead Heath. This place, you write in your book, means more to you than any other. Why is that?

Sheldrake: I grew up here. This is where I learned to walk. Later, I climbed trees here, and still later, I had parties with friends. And my interest in nature has been incubated by this place.

DER SPIEGEL: Your interest in nature in general, or fungi in particular?

Sheldrake: Both. I've always been particularly interested in how things transform, how they grow and decompose. I was amazed how piles of leaves disappear over time. How did this transformation come about without me being able to see anything? Composting, I understood, is largely the work of fungi.

DER SPIEGEL: For most people, nature is primarily made up of plants and animals. What role do fungi play in between those two realms?

Sheldrake: Fungi are of enormous importance. They embody the principle of ecology. They convey the relationship between organisms and their habitat, thus embodying the principle of ecology.

DER SPIEGEL: If fungi are so important, why don’t we see them all over the place?

Sheldrake: Oh, fungi are everywhere. Just take this leaf: Dozens of more than 100 species of fungi live on and in it. No plant has ever been found in nature which does not have fungi in its leaves and in its shoots. Or take the roots of the grass we are walking on, the rotting twigs, the soil under our feet: There are fungi everywhere. You have yeast all over your body, in the lining of your ears, in your nostrils. Even in the air: At this moment, you are breathing fungi. Fifty million tons of fungal spores are floating in the atmosphere, the largest source of living particles in the air. And they change the weather by causing water droplets to form.

DER SPIEGEL: If fungi are so ubiquitous, why we know so little about them?

Sheldrake: There are many reasons. The most obvious one is access. The fungus we see is nothing more than the fruit of the organism itself. The mycelium network that belongs to it is buried in the ground. It is as if we only saw acorns for one moment every year, but we couldn't see the magnificent oak trees.

DER SPIEGEL: Do even scientists underestimate the importance of fungi?

Sheldrake: They did so for a long time, at least. Until the 1960s, fungi were thought to be plants. Only then did they gain taxonomical independence. Accordingly, there was no specialist discipline that specifically dealt with fungi. Only tThe new sequencing techniques have changed that. Today, we can read the DNA in every teaspoon of soil and find out who is there.

DER SPIEGEL: And? What does one find?

Sheldrake: The kingdom of fungi is vast. There are six times more species of fungi than of plants, and only 6 to 8 percent of them have even been described. We still know so little. ! Just one thing is clear: There are many ways to be a fungus.

DER SPIEGEL: Is perhaps the lack of appreciation for fungi because of the fact that they are not very nutritious and often even poisonous?

Sheldrake: Many people think like that. But in fact, many mushrooms contain important minerals and they have a high content of antioxidants. They produce an amazing variety of substances that affect cancer, viruses or our immune system. And some mushrooms are very nutritious too. Truffles, for example, are high in protein.And mushrooms are high in protein. Truffles are a good example of an edible fungus. In fact, they want to be eaten. Truffles sit deep in the ground where no wind can spread their spores. They attract animals with a very subtle mixture of odors, so that these animals then eat them and spread their spores.

DER SPIEGEL: Some mushrooms lure us with substances that have a direct effect on our consciousness ...

Sheldrake: Yes, about 200 fungal species contain psilocybin, a substance that people in many cultures have been interested in because of its strong psychedelic effects.

DER SPIEGEL: Such mushrooms cause hallucination and change the way we think. How do mushrooms benefit from making psychedelic drugs for humans?

Sheldrake: We don’t know. The first mushrooms to make psilocybin lived 75 million years ago, long before humans arose. But the receptors that this substance binds to can also be found in many animals. Does psilocybin change the behavior of certain insects in a way that induces them to spread fungal spores? Or do they change the behavior of insects in a way that deters them from eating the mushrooms?

DER SPIEGEL: Have you personally tried the effects of psychedelic mushrooms?

Sheldrake: Yes, under their influence I realized that most of my consciousness was unknown to me. It was as if I had spent my life in a garden until then, and now I suddenly discovered that this garden has a gate through which I can enter a strange and wonderful forest, that was largely unknown to me.

DER SPIEGEL: Does the gate disappear once the effects of psilocybin fade away?

Sheldrake: Not necessarily. Once you know that this forest exists, it is much easier to find your way into it.

DER SPIEGEL: You even took part in a scientific study.

Sheldrake: Yes, though it was LSD tested in that study. But both substances have similar effects. Among other things, it was to be examined whether LSD promotes creativity. Each participant had to name a problem they were currently working on and then were given pen and paper and, under the influence of LSD,  we were to try to solve that problem.

DER SPIEGEL: And?

Sheldrake:  I found the effects of LSD very helpful.  in allowing me to approach questions from new angles and imagine the relationships between plant and fungus from different points of viewTo better understand the relationship between plants and fungi, I put myself in the place of a fungus. Suddenly I found myself in a strange, underground world. It was like a dream with aliens doing weird things.

DER SPIEGEL: You attribute cognitive abilities to fungi. What makes you think so?

Sheldrake: I've been thinking about this for a while. I'm interested in the way fungi perceive their environment and how they react to it. Information is continuously flowing through their decentralized bodies.

DER SPIEGEL: What do fungi perceive?

Sheldrake: Most importantly, they have extremely diverse chemical sensors. A fungus can be seen as a large, chemically sensitive membrane, so to speak, as one big olfactory epithelium.  - a fungus is essentially a nose. But many mushrooms can also perceive light and they are sensitive to gravity, to changes in temperature and to changes in pressure.

DER SPIEGEL: So the fungi under our feet can sense that we are here?

Sheldrake: Oh yes, fungi are able to detect our stepsSome fungi would detect the pressure of our steps, yes. And now the question is, how do they process all this information without a brain and how do they translate it into behavior, into action?

DER SPIEGEL: Action? Behavior? What do fungi do?

Sheldrake: Fungi are quite active. Take hunting, for example.

DER SPIEGEL: Excuse me? Mushrooms can hunt?

Sheldrake: Yes. When food becomes scarce, they some fungi can switch to a hunting mode. They build traps consisting of sticky loops or poisonous droplets. And with special substances, they lure nematodes into these traps.

DER SPIEGEL: Is this really "behavior" of the kind we see in animals?

Sheldrake: Well, we can run away from danger, fungi have to face it. Therefore, they defend themselves with the help of chemicals, or they regenerate. But that doesn't change the fact that fungi do make decisions, just as we do.

DER SPIEGEL: What kind of decisions?

Sheldrake: Fungi have many options: where to grow, what to eat, what nutrients to transport, whether to withdraw and when to hunt nematodes. Each fungus forms thousands of so-called hyphae - tiny tubes that can either grow, divide or fuse.

DER SPIEGEL: If fungi make decisions, are they also capable of solving problems?

Sheldrake: Absolutely. For example, their growth follows very efficient navigation algorithms. There are various experiments in which fungi very rapidly found the shortest route through a maze.

DER SPIEGEL: If fungi are, as you claim, complex information processing networks, are they essentially a kind of brain?

Sheldrake: No, I wouldn’t say that. But you are right: Neurons are tip-growing, electrically excitable, network-forming cells. And so are fungal cells.

DER SPIEGEL: So mushrooms have a form of intelligence?

Sheldrake: It depends on your definition of "intelligence." In a broad sense, all organisms show intelligence, albeit to different degrees. The study of cognition and intelligence arose from the study of the human mind. This resulted in a very human- and brain-centered view. I find it refreshing to extend these considerations to organisms that do not have brains. We shouldn't use ourselves as the yardstick to judge everything else in this world.

DER SPIEGEL: Is there still a lot to discover in the field of fungi cognition?

Sheldrake: Absolutely. Little is known about how fungi coordinate their behavior. We don't know the mechanisms by which they pass signals around. We don't even have a complete understand of the basic biology of mycelial growth.

DER SPIEGEL: But we do know a lot about the symbiotic relationship between mushrooms and plants …

Sheldrake: … exactly, via the mycorrhiza, through which the fungus supplies the plant with minerals such as nitrogen and phosphorus, and the plant in turn provides the fungus with energy-rich sugars.

DER SPIEGEL: How important is this symbiosis? If all fungi were wiped out in this forest floor, could the trees survive?

Sheldrake: No. They would be prone to disease, just as we would be if it weren't for the bacteria in our intestines. This microbiome keeps us healthy. In this sense, soil is sort of the gut of our planet.

DER SPIEGEL: Many ecologists are enthusiastic about the "Wood Wide Web," by which trees are mysteriously connected via the fungi in the soil and allegedly even communicate via this underground network.

Sheldrake: Yes, they actually do. There are experiments in which any direct communication between two plants - for example via gas exchange through the air - has been blocked, leaving the fungal mycelium as their only remaining connection. Then aphids were placed on one of the plants, which led the other to activate its defense mechanisms against predators.

DER SPIEGEL: Why should one tree warn the other?

Sheldrake: This only makes sense from the perspective of the fungus: It is dependent on its plant partners. If one of those partners perishes, it is in the fungus’ best interest that the other one survives. Think of the fungus as a kind of mediator that shapes the relationships between plants for his own benefit.

DER SPIEGEL: Aside from their important ecological function, what else are fungi good for?

Sheldrake: Using fungi as building material, for example, is an exciting new field. Mycelia can be grown on agricultural waste. It's fast and remarkably stable. Mycelium could replace polystyrene and fundamentally change the packaging industry. Leather can also be made with the help of fungi.

DER SPIEGEL: The next thing you'll tell us is that fungi can also save us from the coronavirus. 

Sheldrake: It's truepossible, fungi are great when it comes to chemical protection. They have to constantly defend themselves against bacteria and also against viruses. In the U.S., there is currently a research project underway that is screening fungal strains for their antiviral properties. They are also focusing on corona, of course, but it's too early to say whether it will work out. 

DER SPIEGEL: And climate change, too?

Sheldrake: Of course! Fungi help the soil store CO2 and thus remove it from the atmosphere. They nourish plants, which helps us save on energy-rich fertilizers. We can also save fossil fuels if we use mycelium as a plastic substitute. And there’s a lot of people working to produce protein-rich meat substitutes from mushrooms.

DER SPIEGEL: Merlin Sheldrake, the high priest of fungus!

Sheldrake: (laughs) I didn't want to come across as evangelical. Of course, fungi are not the solution to all problems. But they can teach us a new way of looking at the world. Gradually we become aware how all living things are dependent on microbes. We humans have a microbiome consisting of bacteria, which in turn harbor smaller bacteria in which viruses live, which carry still smaller viruses. When we see that all life is based on these intimate connections, then it becomes clear that we can't be regarded as individuals either. We are made up of millions of organisms that work together, cooperate, compete and fight one another.

DER SPIEGEL: We are ecosystems?

Sheldrake: Yes, very complex networks. This message from the world of fungi changes the entirety of biology.

DER SPIEGEL: Has it changed you too?

Sheldrake: Yes, I look at the world differently. I have realized that the idea of the individual as a biological unit is in question. The individual is not a clear, clean category. It's more of an assumption than a fact.

DER SPIEGEL: Thank you for speaking with us, Mr. Sheldrake.

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Why Canada’s geothermal industry is finally gaining ground

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One of the world’s most restless geological regions, the Pacific Ring of Fire is a horseshoe-shaped belt running up the west coast of South and North America and east coast of Asia and the South Pacific, triggering many of our planet’s earthquakes and volcanoes. Canada has long been the only country in this Ring of Fire to not take advantage of its energy potential by commercially generating electricity from the vast underground store of heat. 

And Canada’s geothermal resources are not limited to this dramatic hot zone. Radioactive decay of elements in the Earth’s crust generates heat, accessible anywhere that geological anomalies like faults and fractures create conduits for hot fluids to be accessed by drilling. Those hot fluids, pumped to the surface, can be used to drive turbines to create electricity. One such heat-transferring geological anomaly is the Western Canada Sedimentary Basin — a rock sandwich below much of Alberta, dipping into southwestern Manitoba, southern Saskatchewan, northeastern B.C. and southwestern Northwest Territories.

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Canada’s abundant and relatively low-cost natural resources of water, coal, oil and natural gas, combined with its highly dispersed population rarely clustered near geothermal sites, has long made geothermal electricity production too cost-prohibitive. For decades, geothermal interest and investment has waxed and waned, but largely failed to leave the starting gate as an electricity source. 

Now though, are we on the cusp of change?

Canada’s first commercial-scale geothermal electricity plant

Before leading Canada’s deepest geothermal project to date, geologist Kirsten Marcia worked in the mining and oil and gas sectors. A particularly challenging coal project led her to question “the treadmill of exploitation” — digging out resources and going back for more. Now she is redeploying her expertise in renewable energy as founder, president and CEO of DEEP, a project near Estevan, Sask., at the forefront of Canada’s new commercial-scale geothermal development.

With its first discovery well drilled in 2018, DEEP aims to complete feasibility studies in 2020 and send electrons to the grid by 2022. Poised to become Canada’s first commercial-scale geothermal electricity plant, there have been challenges, Marcia admits. 

“It hasn’t been cheap drilling,” she says, “and we’ve been very fortunate to have investors and federal funding support the project.”

DEEP’s long-term goal, beginning with this first drilling site, is to develop hundreds of megawatts of baseload power facilities from small, scalable, repeatable five to 20 MW power plants, each capable of powering up to 5,000 households.

DEEP geothermal drill rig. In December 2018, DEEP drilled the province’s deepest well, over 3,000 metres below the ground surface. Photo: DEEP

High up-front costs relative to wind and solar is a longstanding geothermal stumbling block. Compared with oil and gas wells, geothermal wells — in this sedimentary basin, at least — must be deeper and the well bore diameter needs to be wider to allow for a high flow rate of hot water pumped to the surface, explains geothermal geologist Catherine Hickson. 

Geothermal’s main advantage is that the Earth’s core heat will be available consistently for the next billion years, allowing it to be used as a source of baseload power to the electrical grid, unlike relying on when the wind blows and sun shines for intermittent power.

Hickson is leading another major geothermal project in northwest Alberta. The Alberta No. 1 project, located near Grande Prairie, aims to generate approximately 5 MW of power for the grid as well as provide heat to a nearby industrial park. 

“Work is underway right now on the final well design and discussions with our partners,” Hickson says. Drilling will begin as early as the fall. 

The $58 million project has received $25.45 million through Natural Resources Canada and is expected to employ nearly 200 workers through construction. 

Hickson’s own interest in geothermal got off to an explosive start when, as a UBC geology undergraduate student on a long weekend camping trip in May 1980, she witnessed, and survived, Mount Saint Helens blowing its top. That serendipitous event inspired Hickson to spend much of her career studying volcanoes before her segue to the geothermal industry — first within volcanic systems close to the Earth’s surface, like those in Iceland, and now harnessing the less volatile deep sedimentary heat sources underneath the Canadian Prairies.

The history of geothermal energy in Canada

The viability of geothermal electricity production, Hickson explains, has historically been tied to the price of crude oil. 

Optimism bubbled up for Canada’s geothermal advancement in the mid-1970s to 1980 during the energy crisis when oil prices rose dramatically. At that time, concern centred around an adequate national supply of energy. 

“It wasn’t so much renewables and green energy, it was just energy in general,” says Stephen Grasby, research scientist with the Geological Survey of Canada. 

Both Grasby and Hickson worked at the Geological Survey of Canada during what Grasby calls its geothermal “heyday.” From the mid-1970s to mid-1980s, the government agency hosted a large geothermal research program exploring Canada’s geothermal potential. That abruptly ended around 1985 as the low cost of oil tipped the balance toward geothermal being too expensive to pursue. 

Hickson eventually left for industry, while Grasby tried to revive what was left of their work, setting out to capture essential geothermal knowledge “before it got lost in people’s garages,” he says. Grasby is now president, with Hickson vice-president, of Geothermal Canada, a non-profit organization working to advance geothermal energy in Canada and beyond. 

Geothermal energy is taking off globally, so why not in Canada?

Since those heydays, they’ve watched the continued turbulence in the oil market and its subsequent effect on the ups and downs in geothermal interest. 

There was the late 1990s oil price crash that dashed Canada’s geothermal hopes for that era. Then in the 2000s, as crude prices increased, interest and investment in geothermal development surged. That ended with the economic crisis of 2008.

Over the last two years, interest in geothermal has separated from the price of hydrocarbons for the first time, Hickson says. Crude oil has gone down yet there is increased interest in geothermal as an opportunity to offset greenhouse gas emissions. In Alberta, where Hickson grew up, she says, “geothermal provides a great offset for coal-fired power.”

Across B.C. and Alberta, a handful of projects using geothermal energy to produce electricity are at varying stages of development.

Grasby, lead author on a 2012 Natural Resources report on Canada’s geothermal potential, highlights that, beyond its utility to produce electricity, geothermal could also supply some of Canada’s heating demand, which comprises 60 per cent of the country’s energy needs. Direct use of geothermal heat is already in place at some of Western Canada’s famous spas at hot springs, and also in places like Springhill, N.S., where heat from a shuttered coal mine is now used via a heat pump system by local homes and businesses. But this is the tip of the iceberg in terms of potential opportunity.   

With signs of broad change on Canada’s geothermal landscape, another question burns on the minds of many: could geothermal put unemployed oil and gas workers back to work?

Can a geothermal industry help unemployed oil and gas workers?

The geothermal industry “has laser sharp focus on what can Alberta do, and what can Canada do, to get drillers back working in our current economy?” Hickson says. Geothermal, with its need for well-drilling, “is a perfect fit.” She cautions that it will take time to scale up geothermal production, and it’s not a panacea for solving all of the oil industry’s problems.

Marcia is also cautiously optimistic. “The synergies are fantastic,” she says. 

There are differences in well-drilling, but the ability, expertise, geologists and geophysicists — all of those employment opportunities are the same in geothermal. But “I don’t want to oversell it,” she cautions. With thousands of oil rigs on the Canadian prairies, even if multiple geothermal companies advance, “it’s still going to be a drop in the bucket” she says, “and a great transition for [only] a percentage of those workers.”

But the oil and gas industry has more to offer geothermal than skilled workers. Geological datasets from thousands of Western Canadian oil and gas wells also provide clues to geothermal prospectors about where to drill. Clues, but not certainty. 

Geothermal energy Canada DEEP

Workers at the DEEP geothermal energy project site outside Estevan, Sask. Photo: DEEP

“Oil and gas resources are above us,” explains Marcia. Geothermal wells typically go 500 to 1,000 metres deeper. Since it’s not a core focus of oil and gas exploration, temperature at depth is not necessarily measured, and sometimes geothermal experts have to infer it from a series of data sources using oil and gas cores and cuttings, seismic survey, lidar and electromagnetic methods. 

“It’s a bit like putting a 3D puzzle together,” says geophysicist Jeff Witter, principal geoscientist of Innovate Geothermal in Vancouver. Geothermal drilling in Western Canada’s sedimentary basin is, at least initially, exploratory. The four new wells drilled for the DEEP project are the deepest ever drilled in Saskatchewan, reaching more than 3.5 kilometres below the earth’s surface.

As for Alberta, even though over 700,000 oil and gas wells have been drilled, few have drilled into deeper sections, explains Hickson. Deeper drilling comes with more sedimentation, harder rock and high quartz content that makes drilling slow. Drill bits quickly wear out.

To access the high volume of hot brine needed to generate electricity in the Western Canada Sedimentary Basin — a relatively low temperature system compared with volcanic systems like Iceland — the wellbore size needs to be bigger, usually at least twice the diameter of an oil or gas well. Aiming for water temperatures above 120 C, prospectors like Hickson seek a Goldilocks zone with a trifecta of conditions: just the right temperature, drilling depth and flow rate.

One project in the works through Razor Energy Corp. is looking at co-production of geothermal and oil and gas. The company is testing hot fluids pumped to the surface during oil and gas drilling to see whether they could be used for energy production.

As a rule of thumb, explains Katie Huang, geoscientist in training with the Alberta No. 1 project, temperature jumps approximately 30 C for each kilometre below the surface. After graduating from the University of British Columbia with a geology degree in 2015 during an economic downturn, Huang had to think outside the box about career options. She headed off to the University of Iceland for a Master’s in Geothermal Science. Back in Canada, she’s excited to be a part of this new wave of geothermal interest at home. 

“I know that there are a lot of people in the oil and gas industry hoping to transition over,” Huang says. “And I hope this project can help.”

The future of geothermal in Canada

DEEP and Alberta No. 1 have both recently received significant investment from Natural Resources Canada’s Emerging Renewable Power Program. Advancing multiple forms of renewable energy, including wind, solar and tidal, the program is part of the Pan-Canadian Framework on Clean Growth and Climate Change announced in 2017, explains André Bernier, senior director at Natural Resources Canada’s Renewable and Electrical Energy Division. 

About a quarter of the funding announced by the program thus far — $51 million — has been allocated to geothermal, says his colleague Zoë Beaulac, senior program officer in the same division at Natural Resources Canada. Additional geothermal project funding, Bernier hints, may soon be announced.  

Smaller projects and pilot studies in Alberta, Saskatchewan and B.C. are heating up too. The Clarke Lake Geothermal Project in Fort Nelson, B.C., for example, has raised 93 per cent of the funding needed to launch. With hundreds of gas wells in the area already providing relevant data on where to drill for heat, John Ebell, project manager for the Fort Nelson First Nation’s project, says they are ready to drill a full-scale production well that could serve the region’s complete electrical needs. 

Clarke Lake Geothermal Map

Map of the Clarke Lake geothermal study area. BC Hydro transmission lines are shown in yellow. Map: Geoscience BC

This would replace existing gas-fired reliance with clean energy, power an industrial greenhouse development, and create jobs and energy sovereignty for a region that is economically depressed in part due to downturns in the gas and forestry industries.  

“This project would produce 10,000 worker days worth of work, and the majority of those would go to oil and gas sector expertise,” says Ebell, adding the project would “seriously invigorate the economy in the region.”

Fort Nelson First Nation lands permit to transform aging gas field into geothermal energy project

To decarbonize the power sector, it’s helpful to have a combination of different renewables, including geothermal, explains Sara Hastings-Simon, senior researcher at the Colorado School of Mines, formerly with the University of Calgary and Pembina Institute, who now works remotely from her home base in Calgary. She was part of a team that studied the complementary relationship between geothermal and the oil and gas sector in Alberta, and whether the oil and gas industry can enable geothermal advancement. She and colleagues highlighted that benefits can flow both ways, with geothermal deployed to reduce emissions in the oilsands. The birth of the oilsands industry, Hastings-Simon points out, involved government leading the way, taking on some of the early stage risk by proving the technology out. Now, when it comes to geothermal, the need for government investment is no different, she says. 

“We need government investment to unlock that market.”

Until recently, “there was no way you could get a geothermal [project] off the ground in Canada, unless you were talking about a spa around an existing geothermal hot spring,” Hickson says. 

Now, significant federal investment is critically important, she explains. “Suddenly, we have a game changer.” 

The geothermal energy that's been tapped in Iceland, pictured here, hasn't had equal uptake in Canada — but that could be on the cusp of change. Photo: Lydur Skulason / Flickr

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OceanTherm thinks it can stop hurricanes with underwater pipes

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That’s the theory behind the still-unproven tech from a Norwegian startup called OceanTherm. In hurricane season, ships would deploy large pipes with holes deep under water, where the water is colder, and then pump in air, which would push cold water bubbles up to the surface. As a storm passed over the cooler water, the change in temperature could prevent a more intense storm.

CEO Olav Hollingsaeter, a retired submarine officer in the Norwegian Navy, started thinking about the concept after seeing the devastation from Hurricane Katrina. That storm gained strength “due to the very hot sea surface temperature before it made landfall,” he says. “I’m an old submariner and knew that the water is colder deeper down in the ocean. So my thought was, Why don’t we use this cold water in the deep sea mixed with the surface water and thereby reduce the sea surface temperature?” In the more recent case of Hurricane Laura, as another example, the storm traveled over water with a surface temperature of 87 degrees. “If you can manage to bring that sea surface temperature below 80 Fahrenheit, then you trip off the energy source for the hurricane,” Hollingsaeter says. “That’s the theory.”

Others have considered similar ideas, including Bill Gates and Stanford climate scientist Ken Caldeira, who filed a patent in 2009 for a system that would both push warm water down from the surface and pull cooler water up (that device doesn’t seem to have moved forward). And many experts are skeptical that the technology will necessarily have its intended effect, in part because of multiple factors that affect how storms grow, not just water temperature. “It’s missing half the problem,” Frank Marks, director of NOAA’s Atlantic Hurricane Research Division, told the Tampa Bay Times when asked about the idea. Changing the ocean temperature at the scale necessary to impact a massive storm could also potentially have unintended consequences, such as causing a drought or another storm elsewhere.

Still, the startup argues that the concept needs more study before it can be dismissed. It plans to begin a two-year pilot with both computer modeling and real-world tests in the Gulf of Mexico. In early tests in cold waters off Norway, the startup demonstrated that it was possible to cool the surface temperature by approximately four degrees Celsius. In Norway, submerged pipes have used bubbles for the opposite purpose for decades—pushing warmer water to the surface to prevent ice.

The pilot will help the company better understand how large this type of system would have to be to work (and what effects it might have on marine life). One version could be permanently installed in a key location, such as between Cuba and Mexico or Cuba and Florida; the startup estimates that it would cost around $500 million to build, and between $80 million to $100 million a year to run. Another version would be mobile, deployed by ships during hurricane season, with lower capital costs but an operating budget of $100 million to $300 million a year. It’s a huge cost, but far lower than the damage that can be wreaked by massive storms. The Congressional Budget Office estimates that hurricane winds, storm surges, and heavy rain cause losses of around $54 billion a year.

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Should Google’s Ad Market Be Regulated Like the Stock Market?

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The days of suit-clad men shouting out orders on the bustling floors of stock exchanges are mostly gone, replaced by windowless rooms full of servers, but the stock market is still a busy place. On the 13 US stock exchanges combined, around 50 million trades happen every day. And yet there’s another digital marketplace out there that processes tens of billions of transactions daily, one whose complexity makes the NASDAQ look like a lemonade stand: online advertising.

It may sound odd to refer to advertising as a market, but that’s what it is. The industry’s own terminology provides a hint: Publishers selling ad space, and advertisers buying it, do business on so-called “ad exchanges”; one of the biggest companies involved is called the Trade Desk. Whenever you load a web page, advertisers compete in an automated process called real-time bidding to show you their ad. Multiply that by billions of internet users around the world, loading many different pages and apps per day, and you can start to appreciate the scope. As antitrust scholar Dina Srinivasan puts it in a forthcoming paper, online advertising “is likely the most sophisticated of all electronic trading markets.” And yet, despite the market’s size and complexity—and unlike other markets—online advertising is almost completely unregulated.

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A former digital advertising executive, Srinivasan gained attention last year for her paper “The Antitrust Case Against Facebook,” which laid out a novel theory of why Facebook’s market dominance can be bad for users even as it offers a free product. Now she aims to do something similar for Google—specifically, for the sprawling advertising empire that accounts for the vast majority of the company’s revenue. In her new paper, which will be published in the Stanford Technology Law Review, Srinivasan takes a deep dive into the inner workings of the digital ad market. The details are astoundingly complex, but the broad argument is straightforward. When you see an ad online, the odds are very high that the advertiser used Google to buy it, the website used Google to put the space up for sale, and Google’s exchange matched them together. In other words, Google both runs the largest exchange and competes as the biggest buyer and seller on that exchange. On top of that, it also owns YouTube, one of the biggest suppliers of ad inventory, meaning it competes against publishers on its own platform. And yet there are no laws governing any of it.

That regulatory vacuum, Srinivasan argues, has allowed Google to dominate the industry by doing things that are prohibited in other parts of the economy. “In the market for electronically traded equities, we require exchanges to provide traders with fair access to data and speed, we identify and manage intermediary conflicts of interest, and we require trading disclosures to help police the market,” she writes. Her proposal flows naturally from that observation: Apply those regulatory principles to digital advertising.

The resemblance between securities and ad markets first occurred to Srinivasan back in 2014. That’s when Michael Lewis published Flash Boys, which documented the extensive mischief created by high-frequency trading and other modern tricks of the digital securities market—and which helped spur a wave of investigations, fines, and regulatory action. At the time, Srinivasan saw similar issues arising in her own industry.

“When Flash Boys came out, it was comical. That book was being passed from executive to executive,” she said in an interview. “People would laugh about how there were operatives who were arbitraging between ad exchanges too. People were just laughing at the parallels.”

Over the past year, as she researched the paper, Srinivasan realized that the resemblance went even further than she thought, sometimes uncannily so. Lewis describes high-frequency traders seeking an edge by placing their computers as physically close as possible to the stock exchange servers to shave microseconds off trade times. Srinivasan relays a similar anecdote from the world of ad tech: Last year, OpenX, one of the largest non-Google ad tech companies, announced a five-year, $110 million deal to move its exchange to Google Cloud. OpenX was open about the fact that being on Google’s servers would give it a speed edge. “You have to operate at speed, efficiency, closeness to the publisher and the demand side of Google,” one executive said. It’s almost an exact copy of high-speed traders’ tactics. The difference, Srinivasan notes, is that “in financial markets, co-location practices are tightly regulated” to make sure everyone has equal access to speed. In advertising, they aren’t.

Speed is crucial in online advertising because the auctions occur in milliseconds. If an ad buying platform submits its bid too slowly, the exchange might exclude it from the auction entirely. This gives a leg up to a platform that shares infrastructure with the exchange—in other words, to Google. Google advertises this fact. “Since Google Ads and Display & Video 360 run on servers in the same data centers as Ad Exchange, they can respond faster to Ad Exchange bid requests compared to other exchange requests,” says a Google help page. “There are no network latency or timeout issues between either Google Ads or Display & Video 360 and Ad Exchange.” When the buying platform isn’t the same as the exchange, on the other hand, latency issues “can prevent buyers from successfully submitting a bid on up to 25% of bid requests.”

Srinivasan also explores the way Google benefits from unequal access to information. Modern digital advertising is all about being able to target users with the most precision. When someone arrives on a website using Google’s DoubleClick ad server, Google’s exchange “hashes” the ID, passing a different one along to the ad buying platforms. Those buyers then must match their ID with the hashed one to make sure they’re targeting the right person—a process called “cookie syncing.” But cookie syncing, Srinivasan writes, “is inherently inefficient.” Some percent of the time, the platform will fail to match the user. In those situations, she writes, advertisers aren’t willing to pay as much, or anything, because they aren’t guaranteed to reach the right audience.

Google doesn’t have this problem, because it allows its own exchange, and its own ad buying platform, to see the DoubleClick ID. That means it automatically knows who the user is. Google says it shares the DoubleClick ID only with its own platforms to protect user privacy. But another result is to put a thumb on the scale of Google’s own properties: If you want to make sure you’re targeting the right user, you have an extra incentive to buy ads using Google. Google advertises this advantage as well.

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While securities law has its share of problems, it does broadly curtail the kind of flagrant information and speed imbalances that Srinivasan describes in the ad market. Indeed, the contrast between the digital advertising regulatory vacuum and the world of financial markets is striking.

“It’s a highly, highly regulated system,” said Kevin Haeberle, a professor at William & Mary Law School who specializes in securities law. Only registered brokers are allowed to execute trades, and those brokers must register with the Securities and Exchange Commission. “You’ve got to take tests, you’ve got to be registered, you have to be supervised in certain ways, you’ve got to pay into various insurance mechanisms to make sure the trades actually do settle.” He added, “There’s this whole regulatory regime, it’s very complex, and it applies to regulating these exchanges that run this important market for our society. In the ad market, we don’t have that.”

Why does that matter? At the broadest level, when one entity is allowed to both run a market and participate in it, and when there are no rules requiring it to let everyone else participate on equal terms, there’s nothing stopping it from enriching itself at the expense of the other buyers and sellers. In digital advertising, that means Google could be inflating prices advertisers pay, or depressing the amount of money publishers receive, or both. Google, of course, denies this characterization. It says its ad tools benefit both advertisers and publishers, no regulation necessary. To Srinivasan, believing that claim would be like trusting J.P.Morgan to run the New York Stock Exchange.

Srinivasan is particularly worried about the publishers who rely on digital advertising for revenue. “From a very big-picture perspective, we are a democracy and we want a healthy and robust economy of news,” Srinivasan said. “We want the news business as a sector in our economy, we want to make sure that it works. And so we should make sure that the market is not rigged for the middleman, so that entrepreneurs are encouraged to enter the business of news.” (In the paper, she discloses that she is “advising and consulting on antitrust matters, including for news publishers whose interests are in conflict with Google’s.”)

Her argument may be catching on. At the tech CEO hearing held by the House antitrust subcommittee in July, Pramila Jayapal, a Democratic congresswoman from Washington state, cited Srinivasan’s paper directly as part of her questioning of Google CEO Sundar Pichai.

“The problem is that Google controls all of these entities,” she said. “So it’s running the marketplace, it’s acting on the buy side, and it’s acting on the sell side at the same time, which is a major conflict of interest. It allows you to set rates very low as a buyer of ad space for newspapers, depriving them of their ad revenue, and then also to sell high to small businesses who are very dependent on advertising on your platform. It sounds a bit like the stock market. Except, unlike the stock market, there’s no regulation on your ad exchange market.”

In an interview after the hearing, Jayapal said she was looking into developing legislation that would address that regulation gap. She suggested that the underlying principles of any regulation would be straightforward. “It seems to me that the simplest thing to do is say, you can’t control the market and engage as a buyer and seller. Those two things have to be separated. And then, if you’re buying and selling, then you’re regulated by insider trading rules.” She added, “I think it's just an unregulated marketplace that should be relatively easy to do something about.”

Updated 8-31-2020, 4:15 pm EDT: An earlier version of this story misstated the name of a digital ad company. It is the Trade Desk, not the Trading Desk.


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Why Are Plants Green? To Reduce the Noise in Photosynthesis.

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From large trees in the Amazon jungle to houseplants to seaweed in the ocean, green is the color that reigns over the plant kingdom. Why green, and not blue or magenta or gray? The simple answer is that although plants absorb almost all the photons in the red and blue regions of the light spectrum, they absorb only about 90% of the green photons. If they absorbed more, they would look black to our eyes. Plants are green because the small amount of light they reflect is that color.

But that seems unsatisfyingly wasteful because most of the energy that the sun radiates is in the green part of the spectrum. When pressed to explain further, biologists have sometimes suggested that the green light might be too powerful for plants to use without harm, but the reason why hasn’t been clear. Even after decades of molecular research on the light-harvesting machinery in plants, scientists could not establish a detailed rationale for plants’ color.

Recently, however, in the pages of Science, scientists finally provided a more complete answer. They built a model to explain why the photosynthetic machinery of plants wastes green light. What they did not expect was that their model would also explain the colors of other photosynthetic forms of life too. Their findings point to an evolutionary principle governing light-harvesting organisms that might apply throughout the universe. They also offer a lesson that — at least sometimes — evolution cares less about making biological systems efficient than about keeping them stable.

The mystery of the color of plants is one that Nathaniel Gabor, a physicist at the University of California, Riverside, stumbled into years ago while completing his doctorate. Extrapolating from his work on light absorption by carbon nanotubes, he started thinking of what the ideal solar collector would look like, one that absorbed the peak energy from the solar spectrum. “You should have this narrow device getting the most power to green light,” he said. “And then it immediately occurred to me that plants are doing the opposite: They’re spitting out green light.”

In 2016, Gabor and his colleagues modeled the best conditions for a photoelectric cell that regulates energy flow. But to learn why plants reflect green light, Gabor and a team that included Richard Cogdell, a botanist at the University of Glasgow, looked more closely at what happens during photosynthesis as a problem in network theory.

The first step of photosynthesis happens in a light-harvesting complex, a mesh of proteins in which pigments are embedded, forming an antenna. The pigments — chlorophylls, in green plants — absorb light and transfer the energy to a reaction center, where the production of chemical energy for the cell’s use is initiated. The efficiency of this quantum mechanical first stage of photosynthesis is nearly perfect — almost all the absorbed light is converted into electrons the system can use.

But this antenna complex inside cells is constantly moving. “It’s like Jell-O,” Gabor said. “Those movements affect how the energy flows through the pigments” and bring noise and inefficiency into the system. Quick fluctuations in the intensity of light falling on plants — from changes in the amount of shade, for example — also make the input noisy. For the cell, a steady input of electrical energy coupled to a steady output of chemical energy is best: Too few electrons reaching the reaction center can cause an energy failure, while “too much energy will cause free radicals and all sorts of overcharging effects” that damage tissues, Gabor said.

Gabor and his team developed a model for the light-harvesting systems of plants and applied it to the solar spectrum measured below a canopy of leaves. Their work made it clear why what works for nanotube solar cells doesn’t work for plants: It might be highly efficient to specialize in collecting just the peak energy in green light, but that would be detrimental for plants because, when the sunlight flickered, the noise from the input signal would fluctuate too wildly for the complex to regulate the energy flow.

Instead, for a safe, steady energy output, the pigments of the photosystem had to be very finely tuned in a certain way. The pigments needed to absorb light at similar wavelengths to reduce the internal noise. But they also needed to absorb light at different rates to buffer against the external noise caused by swings in light intensity. The best light for the pigments to absorb, then, was in the steepest parts of the intensity curve for the solar spectrum — the red and blue parts of the spectrum.

The model’s predictions matched the absorption peaks of chlorophyll a and b, which green plants use to harvest red and blue light. It appears that the photosynthesis machinery evolved not for maximum efficiency but rather for an optimally smooth and reliable output.

Cogdell wasn’t fully convinced at first that this approach would hold up for other photosynthetic organisms, such as the purple bacteria and green sulfur bacteria that live underwater and are named for the colors their pigments reflect. Applying the model to the sunlight available where those bacteria live, the researchers predicted what the optimal absorption peaks should be. Once again, their predictions matched the activity of the cells’ pigments.

“When I realized how fundamental this was, I found myself looking in the mirror and thinking: How could I be so dumb not to think about this before?” Cogdell said.

(There are plants that don’t appear green, like the copper beech, because they contain pigments like carotenoids. But those pigments are not photosynthetic: They typically protect the plants like sunscreen, buffering against slow changes in their light exposure.)

“It was extraordinarily impressive, I think, to explain a pattern in biology with an incredibly simple physical model,” said Christopher Duffy, a biophysicist at Queen Mary University of London, who wrote an accompanying commentary on the model for Science. “It was nice to see a theoretically led work that understands and promotes the idea that it is robustness of the system that seems to be the evolutionary driving force.”

Researchers hope the model can be used to aid in the design of better solar panels and other solar devices. Although the efficiency of photovoltaic technology has advanced considerably, “I would say it’s not a solved problem in terms of robustness and scalability, which is something that plants have solved,” said Gabriela Schlau-Cohen, a  physical chemist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Gabor has also set his mind on someday applying the model to life beyond Earth. “If I had another planet and I knew what its star was like, could I guess what photosynthetic life might look like?” he asked. In the code of his model — which is publicly available — there is an option to do exactly that with any selected spectrum. For now, the exercise is purely hypothetical. “In the next 20 years, we probably will have enough data on an exoplanet to be able to [answer] that question,” Gabor said.

This article was reprinted on Wired.com.

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