Wednesday, February 10, 2016

Who Will Win the Nobel Prize for Gravitational Waves?

When the announcement come of the direct detection of gravitational waves comes, probably tomorrow, should it win a Nobel Prize? 


This is very basic physics, core-of-the-Universe type stuff. Something that will be remembered and celebrated 50, 100, 500 years from now.

Clifford Burgess, a theoretical physicist at the Perimeter Institute for Theoretical Physics in Ontario, said:
"If this is true, then you have 90 percent odds that it will win the Nobel Prize in Physics this year. It's off-the-scale huge," Burgess told Science magazine.
So who should get the Nobel Prize?

I've always thought a nice Prize about black holes would be to jointly award it to Stephen Hawking, Kip Thorne, and Roger Penrose, all of whom made fundmental contributions to gravitation on the theoretical side, especially to the properties of black holes.

Kip Thorne in 1972
But of the three, only Kip Thorne would get a Nobel Prize for gravitational waves. There is a great passage in his book Black Holes and Time Warps (well worth reading, with more flavor than Hawking's books), where he writes about walking around Pasadena, California late one night in 1976, trying to decide if he should commit to building a gravitational wave detector and all the work, scientific, political and organizational, that would entail.

He did decide to go for it, so this discovery is his as much as anyone's. He worked hard at it for a long time, and LIGO would probably not have come about without him. So he definitely deserves a piece of the prize.

Who else? The Nobel Committee has always been reluctant to award the prize to an organization as a whole, without giving part of it to an individual who led the projects -- think Al Gore and the IPCC, or Carlo Rubbia and CERN -- but I think this should come to an end soon. Collaborations are just too important now, especially in experimental physics -- the projects are too big, and the influence of any one person too small -- for that award structure to continue.

So I'd like to see half the prize got to Kip Thorne, and half to the LIGO research and engineering team, both in Hanford and Louisiana, of course.

If LIGO announces a detection tomorrow morning, this prize could be awarded as soon as this fall, depending on what collaborating evidence might exist, from astronomers or other, smaller, less resolute gravitational detectors around the world. Though I doubt many physicists would immediately doubt the announcement of a detection.

Expected Tomorrow: Annoucement of Direct Detection of Gravitational Waves - What Does It Mean?

The LIGO Collaboration has called a press conference for tomorrow at 7:15 am PST, and everyone expects it is to announce the first ever direct detection of gravitational waves.

Otherwise, as Peter Woit says, there is going to be a lot of disappointment.

Assuming it is that announcement, what does it mean?

I think it means that detecting gravitational waves via Advanced LIGO is relatively easy. Advanced LIGO -- the last phase of the project that started early in the '00s -- only started up in September of 2015, and even then it was being phased in over a couple of months, I was told.

So they've really only had a month or two of quality observing time. So direct detection of gravitational waves seems relatively easy -- i.e. the machine is working as it was designed to do.

It does not mean that we now know gravitational waves exist. We've known that for a few decades, since the work of Joseph Taylor Jr and Joel Weisberg based on the pulsar discovery of Richard Hulse and Joseph Taylor, Jr.

But directly detecting them is crucial, because it opens up the universe -- we can now see it with new eyes.

And new eyes have always brought vast new insights into the physical nature of the universe, whether it was Newton's experiments with prisms that resolved white light into its constituent wavelengths, or Hertz's findings with electromagnetic waves, or Curie's discoveries about radioactivity. As I wrote in my September Physics World article:
Whatever its cosmic source, the first direct detection of a gravitational wave will be big news. It will confirm a prediction from general relativity, but more importantly it will also give astronomers, astrophysicists and gravity theorists entirely new information about the objects they study. Indeed, astrophysicists hope that gravitational-wave observatories will someday operate as routinely as optical telescopes do today. If that happens, gravitational waves could fundamentally alter our picture of the universe, just as radio-wave and X-ray astronomy altered it from the placid, silent galaxies Edwin Hubble observed at visible wavelengths to the raucous universe we know today, full of quasars and pulsars, black holes and neutron stars. At some point, it may even be possible to observe cosmic events such as supernovae with light-based telescopes, neutrino detectors and gravitational-wave observatories – a new type of science dubbed “multimessenger astronomy”.
We'll see. I don't expect the announcement to be disappointing.

Friday, February 05, 2016

Quote For the Day

“Some people don’t want to see GE (genetically engineered) anything. It’s an emotional response. It’s hard to reason people out of a decision they didn’t reason themselves into.”

-- entomologist Raymond St. Leger, distinguished university professor at the University of Maryland

From a Yale e360 article about genetically modifying mosquitos.

Wednesday, February 03, 2016

Those Arbitrary Changes to UAH's Model

Am I really the only one who is stunned by what Roy Spencer wrote on his blog yesterday?
"We had been concerned that the LT temperature trends over land were too warm compared to the ocean. One hint that something might be wrong was that the trends over very high elevation portions of the Greenland ice sheet and the Himalayas were much colder than the surrounding regions (see Fig. 4 here). Another was discontinuities in the trend patterns between land and ocean, especially in the tropics.

"We determined this is most likely due to a residual mismatch between the MSU channel 2 weighting function altitude on the early satellites versus the AMSU channel 5 weighting function altitude on the later satellites. We already knew AMSU5 peaks lower than MSU2, and had chosen Earth incidence angles in each to get a match based upon theory. But apparently the theory has some error, which we find equates to about 150 meters in altitude. This was enough to cause the issues we see….land too warm at low elevations, too cold for elevated ice surfaces.

“We therefore changed the AMSU5 reference Earth incidence angle (from 35.0 to 38.3 deg.) so that the trends over Greenland and the Himalayas were in much better agreement with the surrounding areas.”
(Emphasis mine.) Changing model parameters by hand to eyeball it towards a predetermined goal? What the hell....?

Landslides and Debris Flows

Some impressive videos, via AGU:

Tuesday, February 02, 2016

Earth’s energy imbalance | Climate Lab Book

Good reading:

The Ted Cruz Pause is On Life Support

The UAH anomaly for the lower troposphere for January is +0.54°C.

While this is greater than the threshold I gave a few weeks ago, where there would be no cherry picked starting point that would give a negative slope to the present, there were sufficient adjustments on the cool side to prevent that from happening.

In the coming days there will be some adjustments to the data before the latest 13 months that Roy Spencer gives on his post, but for now there is one and only one month which, if chosen as the starting point, gives a negative linear slope to January 2016: December 1997 (18.1 years ago), for which the slope is

and the R2 is a whopping 4.0e-11.

UAH made more adjustments to their version 6.0beta4. It's a good example of the complexity of their model, and of the open parameters they have to play with. Roy Spencer writes:
We determined this is most likely due to a residual mismatch between the MSU channel 2 weighting function altitude on the early satellites versus the AMSU channel 5 weighting function altitude on the later satellites. We already knew AMSU5 peaks lower than MSU2, and had chosen Earth incidence angles in each to get a match based upon theory. But apparently the theory has some error, which we find equates to about 150 meters in altitude. This was enough to cause the issues we see….land too warm at low elevations, too cold for elevated ice surfaces.

We therefore changed the AMSU5 reference Earth incidence angle (from 35.0 to 38.3 deg.) so that the trends over Greenland and the Himalayas were in much better agreement with the surrounding areas. We also find that the resulting LT trends over the U.S. and Australia are in better agreement with other sources of data.

The net result is to generally cool the land trends and warm the ocean trends. The global trends have almost no change from beta4; the change mostly affects how the average trend in 2.5 deg. latitude bands is ‘apportioned’ between land and ocean.

Sunday, January 31, 2016

The First Assessment Report's Projection for Sea Level Rise (pretty good)

A comment brought up the UNEP and United Nations University 2005 forecast that 50 million people could become environmental refugees by 2010.

I've never actually seen the real number, and the commenter didn't give one, but 50 million certainly seems likely to have been a vast overstatement.

But the actual science has been quite good. Consider this: the IPCC's First Assessment Report (1990) includes projections of sea level rise for the period 1985-2030 (Ch9 Table 9.10 pg 276):

(This looks like a digital scan of the all the original, and apparently the decimal points didn't cut it.)

How does this compare to reality? Well, it's not 2030 yet, but Aviso data on sea level show an average rate of (linear) change for the 22.8 years of their data (1993.00 to 10/25/15) is 3.34 mm/yr. So for the 45 years considered in the FAR above, that works out to a projection (if linear) of 15.0 cm.

Compare to their "best estimate" of 18.3 cm. Pretty damn good, especially when you consider that the scientific projections, which aren't linear as they include sea level rise acceleration, will likely be more than my number, so closer to the "Best Estimate" above, if not beyond it.

It's undoubtably very difficult to project what people will do in response to specific aspects of climate change -- there aren't many laws or equations in sociology. The UNEP and UNU were probably reckless in making such a projection, even over a short time period. It would be interesting to understand how they were so wrong, and der Spiegel does some of that here.

But the science here looks quite impressive.

Friday, January 29, 2016

Your Body Is Not as Disgusting as You Thought

How many microbes inhabit our body on a regular basis? For the last few decades, the most commonly accepted estimate in the scientific world puts that number at around ten times as many bacterial as human cells. In research published today in the journal Cell, a recalculation of that number by Weizmann Institute of Science researchers reveals that the average adult has just under 40 trillion bacterial cells and about 30 trillion human ones, making the ratio much closer to 1:1.
This new calculation was done for a book called Cell Biology by the Numbers,which looks really interesting and right up a physics student's alley. Unfortunately, just the paperback version is $49.95 at Amazon.

Thursday, January 28, 2016

Marco Rubio: For Cap-and-Trade Before He Was Against It

Marco Rubio just lied in tonight's Republican debate, saying "I've never supported cap-and-trade."

He did. It's so easy to find, it's amazing (and disappointing) he would ever try to deny it:

Added: Slate found another Rubio lie flip-flop lie.

Subsidies for Wind and Solar Power

Someone on a discussion forum I was reading wrote that solar power is subsidized by 96 cents per kilowatt-hour. (By comparion, the average US price for electricity is 12-13 cents/kWh.) That seemed unbelievable to me, so I thought I'd check it out. More or less, it's true.

Here are some numbers -- some recent subsidies for fuels that generate electricity, and electricity generation by source back to 1973.

So the subsidies for solar are indeed very high, and for wind they're about 25%.

Is this a problem? I don't think so. The negative externalities of wind and solar -- what they cost that doesn't show up in consumer's monthly bills -- are huge, especially for coal. Mercury emissions that poison streams and can have neurological impacts on infants, SO2 emissions that create acid rain, contributions to ground-level ozone, particulate matter that gets in lungs, and so on. And that's not to mention the damage to miners themselves -- coal miners suffer more fatal injuries than any profession in America. Nor does it include the devastation of mountaintops in eastern coal mining states like West Virginia.

The public pays almost of these costs, while coal companies keep the profits -- a nice form of socialism for them, or as I once put it, from each according to their smokestack, to each according to their lungs.

The report

“Hidden Costs of Energy: Unpriced Consequences of Energy Production and Use” 
National Research Council, 2010

found the cost from damages due to fossil fuel use to be $120B for 2005 (in 2007 dollars), a number that does not include climate change and that the study’s authors considered a “substantial underestimate.” For electricity generation by coal the external cost was 3.2 cents/kWh, with damages due to climate change adding another 3 cents/kWh (for CO2e priced at $30/tonne). Transportation costs were a minimum of 1.2 cents/vehicle-mile, with at least another 0.5 cents/VM for climate change. Heat produced by natural gas caused damages calculated to be 11 cents/thousand cubic feet, with $2.10/Kcf in damages to the climate. They found essentially no damage costs from renewables. (Yes, some bird deaths – but fossil fuels kill far more birds than do wind turbines.)

This is money we’re all paying in medical costs (and compromised health), and US governments now pay about half of all medical costs. 

Generating power with coal and oil creates more damage than value-added, according to a 2011 paper, with William Nordhaus (once the economist of choice for contrarians) one of the co-authors: 

"Environmental Accounting for Pollution in the United States Economy," Nicholas Z. Muller, Robert Mendelsohn, and William Nordhaus, American Economic Review, 101(5): 1649–75 (2011).

Summarizing that paper's findings: for every $1 in value that comes from coal-generated electricity, it creates $2.20 in damages. Total damages: $70 billion per year (in 2012 dollars).

Petroleum-generated electricity is even worse: $5.13 in damages for $1 in value.

In other words, according to this study, generating power with coal or oil actually sends the economy backwards.

In view of damage costs from fossil fuels of at least $120 B/yr -- which was for 2005, and I haven't tried to update it -- do subsidies for wind and solar pay off?

The numbers say it would now pay off for wind, but not for solar:

So the US could save ~ several tens of billions of dollars a year by generating all our power with wind, even when subsidized.

But good luck explaining this to people who object to renewables on the grounds that "the poor can't afford it" (like Roy Spencer is fond of doing). Well, we could subsidize the bills of the poor, but that's no excuse for you or me or someone with a nice professor's salary like Roy Spencer not to pay for clean electricity. I buy 100% green offsets from my power company, Pacific General Electric, at a cost of $0.008/kWh. It costs me about $2.20/month, or an extra 5%.