Friday, July 26, 2013

Tuesday, July 23, 2013

"Science is not philosophers sitting in clouds"

This is good. It's from Lee Smolin's book The Trouble With Physics (2006). Smolin works in quantum gravity and is writing about superstrings (the chapter this excerpt is taken from is titled "What is Science?"), but most of it applies to all science, including climate science, and how science really works and how certain ideas prevail.
When I entered graduate school at Harvard in 1976, I was a naïve student from a small college. I was in awe of Einstein, Bohr, Heisenberg, and Schrôdinger and how they had changed physics through the force of their radical thinking. I dreamed, as young people do, of being one of them. I now found myself at the center of particle physics, surrounded by the leaders in the field — people like Sidney Coleman, Sheldon Glashow, and Steven Weinberg. These people were incredibly smart, but they were nothing like my heroes. In lectures, I never heard them talk about the nature of space and time or issues in the foundations of quantum mechanics. Neither did I meet many students with these interests.

This led me to a personal crisis. I was certainly not as well prepared as students from the great universities, but I had done research as an undergraduate, which most of my peers had not, and I knew I was a quick study. So I was confident that I could do the work. But I also had a very particular idea of what a great theoretical physicist should be. The great theoretical physicists I was rubbing shoulders with at Harvard were rather different from that. The atmosphere was not philosophical; it was harsh and aggressive, dominated by people who were brash, cocky, confident, and in some cases insulting to people who disagreed with them.

During this time, I made friends with a young philosopher of science named Amelia Rechel-Cohn. Through her, I came to know people who, like me, were interested in the deep philosophical and foundational issues in physics. But this only made matters worse. They were nicer than the theoretical physicists, but they seemed happy just to analyze precise logical issues in the foundations of special relativity or ordinary quantum physics. I had little patience for such talk; I wanted to invent theories, not criticize them, and I was sure that — as unreflective as the originators of the standard model seemed — they knew the things I needed to know if I was to get anywhere.

Just as I started to think seriously about quitting, Amelia gave me a book by the philosopher Paul Feyerabend. It was called Against Method and it spoke to me — but what it had to say was not very encouraging. It was a blow to my naïveté and self-absorption.

What Feyerabend's book said to me was: Look, kid, stop dreaming! Science is not philosophers sitting in clouds. It is a human activity, as complex and problematic as any other. There is no single method to science and no single criterion for who is a good scientist. Good science is whatever works at a particular moment of history to advance our knowledge. And don't bother me with how to define progress — define it any way you like and this is still true.

From Feyerabend, I learned that progress sometimes requires deep philosophical thinking, but most often it does not. It is mostly furthered by opportunistic people who cut corners, exaggerating what they know and have accomplished. Galileo was one of these; many of his arguments were wrong, and his opponents — the well-educated, philosophically reflective Jesuit astronomers of the time — easily punched holes in his thinking. Nevertheless, he was right and they were wrong.

What I also learned from Feyerabend is that no a priori argument can tell us what will work in all circumstances. What works to advance science at one moment will be wrong at another. And I learned one more thing from his stories of Galileo: You have to fight for what you believe.

Feyerabend's message was a none too timely wake-up call. If I wanted to do good science, I had to recognize that the people I was lucky enough to be studying with were indeed the great scientists of the day. Like all great scientists, they had succeeded because their ideas were right and they had fought for them. If your ideas are right and you fight for them, you'll accomplish something. Don't waste time feeling sorry for yourself or waxing nostalgic about Einstein and Bohr. No one but you can develop your ideas, and no one but you will fight for them.

Monday, July 22, 2013

Earth, from Saturn

Earth and its Moon, as seen by the Cassini spacecraft orbiting Saturn:

One Special Day in the Life of Planet Earth


The Day the Earth Smiled: Sneak Preview

Here is what purports to be a live view of the position of the planets; Earth and Saturn are relatively close at the moment.

Was The Economist Irresponsible?

I just can't agree that The Economist did anything "irresponsible" by publishing their article about a possible lower climate sensitivity in (leaked) draft reports of the IPCC 5AR.

The Economist's allegiance is to journalism and their readers, not to the IPCC. If indeed the IPCC is near concluding that equilibirum climate sensitivity -- or the transient climate response, the warming at the time of doubled atmospheric -- is lower than thought, as the recent paper by Otto et al suggested (for TCR, not ECS), that is indeed a huge deal, and no one can be blamed for reading every tea leaf they can find. The Economist gave plenty of appropriate caveats that put the information in the appropriate context.

It's a big deal because if the world has an extra 15 or 30 years to reach a given level of warming, then it has more time to develop/perfect alternative energy producing technologies -- and they are the real solution to the carbon problem, because CO2 emissions cannot be cut nearly enough without them.

Given the cost curve it's been on, large-scale solar energy could well be much cheaper then, cheaper even than fossil fuels. And it gives more time to buld up wind and nuclear, and maybe even see real advances in wave power or fusion.

The IPCC has made a fetish of secrecy, and I don't think it accomplishes much of anything. Sure, these documents are drafts and they may well change. But their final conclusions aren't holy writ, independent of how they got there. Given the publication of Otto et al and recent thinking like it, a final IPCC 5AR that had identical conclusions to the 4AR wouldn't be believable anyway. So what if the world knows the 5AR is leaning in a slightly different direction? I don't see that that information harms anyone, and it may well be useful for planning (to the extent anyone is planning, anyway).

Sunday, July 21, 2013

"Market forces have victims?"

What? Market forces have victims? Of course they do. After all, free-market enthusiasts love to quote Joseph Schumpeter about the inevitability of “creative destruction” — but they and their audiences invariably picture themselves as being the creative destroyers, not the creatively destroyed. Well, guess what: Someone always ends up being the modern equivalent of a buggy-whip producer, and it might be you.

Sometimes the losers from economic change are individuals whose skills have become redundant; sometimes they’re companies, serving a market niche that no longer exists; and sometimes they’re whole cities that lose their place in the economic ecosystem. Decline happens.

-- Paul Krugman, "Detroit, the New Greece," NY Times, 7/22/13

Saturday, July 20, 2013

Peak Global Sea Ice is Lowest in the Satellite Era

Update 7/21: This post is incorrect. Global sea ice extent has two peaks in a year, one around June/July and a higher one in November. My figure confused the two, and actually this June's local maximum is higher than in most recent years. Here's the plot from Cryosphere Today.

This year's first peak in SIE was 14th lowest out of 35 years. (2011 is lowest, and 2012 next lowest.) For the annual maximum that occurs late in the year, 2012 was the lowest so far, with 2011 second-lowest.

Global sea ice extent has maxed out for the year at 25.30 million square kilometers (on June 26th), it's lowest value ever in the satellite era:

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Why Don't Farmers Believe in Climate Change?

David Biello has a piece in Slate asking "Why Don't Farmers Believe in Climate Change?"

He doesn't really come up with an answer, and I'm not sure there is one. Frankly, if I were a farmer, I suspect climate change would be very far down the list of my worries.

Because first you need to replace the spark plugs in your tractor, and there are rats in the corn crib, and if it rains tonight that hay you just cut that is laying in your far field might be ruined by Friday.

Farmers have always lived on the edge of disaster. So what's one more of them, 30 years out?

I have to admit I don't know any farmers right now, so I might be wrong. But growing up in rural Pennsylvania I knew a lot of them, including my grandfather who, before he retired, worked as a machinest during the day and an 80-acre farmer the rest of the time.

I was his oldest male grandchild (that seemed to matter, unbeknowst to me), and he took me everywhere. I helped him clean off the afterbirth from cows who had given birth, mucked out the pens of bulls pissed off by their very existence, and broke the ice in the outdoor bathtub so the horses would have water.

On summer days I got to ride up high on the wagons pulled behind the hay baling machines, but also had to pick rocks out of his 7-acre fields for maybe $2 an hour (and my grandmother's lunch). I hitched a dragging chain around more small trees than I can remember, worried every time (thanks, Mom) that I might lose a finger or a thumb.

I rode with him down across the state line to Maryland, with a cow or two in the back of his small pickup truck, boards penning them up on the side. We'd back into the meat plant, unload the cows, wait an hour or two, and haul the meat back home in the back of his truck.

That night we would wrap meat in a frenzy. I was always the one to label the wrapped packages, with a black magic marker on white butcher paper, since I had the best handwriting, even at 9-years old. That was how we got our meat, a half-cow at a time.

I once spent the evening with my dad up the road at a neighbors, while we killed a pig with a pistol and my job was to grind up the meat in a hand-turned sausage machine. One winter our pipes froze and we had to haul water from a roadside spring. We never had a proper bathroom, just a toilet in the space under the stairs, and a rusty shower down in the cold, dirty cellar beside the wash tubs and the coal bin.

This was all normal stuff where I grew up. It's strange to think about.

My point is that farmers are hard-working stubborn old coots. They don't care what obstacle is in their way -- they find a way through it. It can be 10 degrees out and they just pounded a nail through their hand (my uncle once did this, somehow), but they wipe the blood off and keep working. There is stuff to get done.

They had nicknames like Pappy and Boots and Old Man Stairs, and they didn't watch the news and they didn't give a toss what anyone said, let alone some fancy scientists up at Harvard or Yale or even Penn State. Because tomorrow they needed to rake their hay, and god damned if the weatherman wasn't calling for rain, and hopefully the slice across their palm wouldn't be infected by morning.

Because if it was they were out of gauze and out of tape, and the truck was about out of gas anyway.

Tuesday, July 16, 2013

When Not to Argue

"I’ve learned not to argue too long with people who do not “believe in” human-made climate change. I figure it’s impossible to reason someone out of a position that they didn’t reason themselves into."

-- Mary Pipher, We Are All Climate Change Deniers; Almost all of us minimize or normalize our enormous global


Funny Somewhat Topical Ecard: At least living in Florida will be some form of punishment for Zimmerman. 
Via Someecards.

David Simon, creator of The Wire:
"You can stand your ground if you’re white, and you can use a gun to do it. But if you stand your ground with your fists and you’re black, you’re dead."

Sunday, July 07, 2013

North Umpqua River

Just got back from several days staying at a cabin on the North Umpqua River in southern Oregon.

It is one of the most beautiful rivers I have ever seen, with salmon and beaver and ducks, tumbling steadily out of the Cascade mountains on its way to the Pacific Ocean.

We went to Crater Lake, which is the only place, besides the Grand Canyon, that was inconceivable to me until I actually go the edge and take it in with my own eyes. It is that spectacular. No picture can do it justice.

And, of course, my 8-year old nephew and my 5-year old niece are more amazing than ever, smart and clever. Still a bit bratty, but my niece is a real cutup, who already has a great sense of humor and who clearly enjoys making people laugh and having them laugh at her.

We were explaining the North Umpqua River to her, and then she asked, "what about he South Umpqua River?" and later when we crossed that she said, "All Umpqua are connected," which really floored me, and still does.

Scary clever. She's already one of the most interesting people I know.