Hello! This is John Baez’s new blog.
I’m a mathematical physicist. I teach at U.C. Riverside, but tonight my wife and I are flying to Singapore. For two years she’ll be teaching at the philosophy department of the National University of Singapore, and I’ll be working at the Centre for Quantum Technologies. This will be a good time to change gears and try something new. I’ve been working on n-categories and fundamental physics, but now I want to work on more practical things, too.
Why? I keep realizing more and more that the Earth is in serious trouble! The deep secrets of math and physics are endlessly engrossing — but they can wait, and other things can’t.
I hope we talk about many things here: from math to physics to earth science, biology, computer science, economics, and the technologies of today and tomorrow – but in general, centered around the theme of what scientists can do to help save the planet.
That sounds pretty ambitious, verging on pompous. Right now, though, it’s midnight and I’m sitting in the airport lounge in Los Angeles waiting for a 1:40 am flight to Hong Kong, and then a connection to Singapore. So, that’s all for now. I just felt like kicking off this new blog…
Good luck with your new job and your new project.
How we approach problems in science and on our planet (in real life) … is certainly connected. Rethinking on one side will have implications on the other. However, that the planet has to be saved is new to me. What do you mean by “scientists help to save the planet”? Environmental issues, collisions with asteriods …? All that? … or have you limited your scope somewhat.
Thanks for the good luck, Uwe. I’ll need it.
I don’t want to limit my scope prematurely, so I prefer starting with the vague and perhaps overblown phrase “save the planet” to a long list of specifics like “deal with overpopulation, human-caused global warming, ocean acidification, dead zones created by fertilizer runoff, overfishing, the extinction of species and destruction of wilderness, water shortages, the suboptimalities of political and economic systems that tend to cause all these problems, etc.” I hope to get into all these issues.
I’m not primarily focused on asteroid impacts. Though it might be interesting to talk about those too, someday! You can’t say they never happen.
Here’s to a long and fruitful endeavor!
Hi Mike! You wrote the first comment on this blog! You just won a free composting bin.
By saving the planet did you mean saving the plant from the effects of humans or from the planet itself? Humans are a natural (by-) product of this planet and they are where they are because of their natural evolution: this includes all their histories of science, engineering, art and the products of the civilizations seen so far. Things may change in future. We know that we can change: work in the environment instead of planning for brute force geo-engineering interventions.
I wonder about a lot of the Earth rescue topics that if they are knowingly admit the evolution of engineering that is here to serve the needs of a giant economic machine?
Our prominent engineering societies still place the welfare of humans as their first mission and vision manifesto. Until we have put into effects processes that consider the reciprocal perspectives of humans and the environment, we will continue to inflict damage on our planet. We suffer because of our blind spot(s).
Let me quote Arthur Iberall in his ‘Toward a General Science of Viable Systems’:
Creativity in a species may not be a desirable thing! It depends on the purpose that is served. Consider modalities. Creativity has to do with unexpected appearance of branching lines, where ever applicable and the richness of patterning that emerges as a result of these branchings. The richness may be adaptive to environmental changes that in turn direct motion of the system.
Saving the planet from the effects of humans, saving the planet from itself, saving humans from effects of the planet, saving humans from themselves… as you note, they’re all just different ways of analyzing the same issue. One might equally well describe it as “trying to become an intelligent species”.
We are in fact intelligent. We just lack sufficient sapience to not self-destruct.
Hi, Florifulgurator! Nice link! Before this, the only blogger I had read who intelligently examins the ‘decline of civilization as we know it’ scenario was John Michael Greer. There are certain ways in which George Mobus seems more clear-headed. For example, Greer seems to believe that electricity from solar or nuclear power is in principle, for thermodynamic reasons, unable to replace electricity from burning carbon. I think a smart doomster should instead emphasize the difficulty of making the switch in time, and without using up vast amounts of resources in the process.
Thanks for the links, one technical question and one suggestion:
Technical question: Is it possible to nest answers? It seems that I can only respond to first level posts, but not to an answer to a post…
Suggestion: WordPress seems to support categories, one category on Azimuth could be “alternative energy sources”. Is it possible to create subcategories? Judging from the John Micheal Greer piece a “thermodynamical foundations” subcategory could be useful :-)
There are currently two major projects under way in Europe that I could try to report on: offshore windmill parks in the north sea and Desertec (solar power plants in North Africa). The first one is in construction stage (the first windmill park is already operating), the second one is in the conceptual design stage.
It seems that some but not all blog comments here have a “Reply” button that allows for sub-comments – I haven’t figured out the pattern yet. I’ve already noticed how much I want a tree-like instead of linear comment structure, being used to the nCafé and its treelike format.
I was planning to create categories, and WordPress seems to allow subcategories.
However, I plan to put off some of these optimization issues until July 19th, when Andrew Stacey gets back from his vacation. He has offered to do some technical support for a version of Azimuth on a WordPress blog that supports math symbols nicely. He has also offered create wikis similar to the n-Forum and nLab, which are optimized for discussions and information storage, respectively.
(You know what I mean, of course – but others may not, so I provide links for people who don’t know the n-Forum or nLab.)
It’s possible that I shouldn’t even have posted a single blog entry until these technical upgrades were made. But I couldn’t resist posting one on the night I flew to Singapore! It somehow seemed symbolically appropriate.
I must admit that I worry slightly about having Andrew run all this stuff, because it makes me dependent on outside help. What if he gets tired of doing it? What if he dies before I do? But if Azimuth takes off as I hope it will, a good technical infrastructure will become important, and I can’t really do it all myself.
This is a very common situation for most companies that I know, one common analysis as an IT-consultant is “find all vital IT-systems where the count of knowledge holders is smaller than one”.
(Yes, that is funny, but it is not a joke).
But I think you will be able to find someone else, have a knowledge transfer from Andrew to her/him, and the project will go on (the more popular this blog becomes, the easier it will be to find a new administrator).
Okay, maybe I should proceed on that assumption. The nLab folks seem to have gone ahead and made Andrew essential without worrying too much about these issues.
Anyway: I would be very happy if you wait and provide useful information on Desertec and offshore windmill farms after I have a better system set up here. And similarly with everyone else: I have big ambitions for this blog, but not until its technical infrastructure is improved. One way or another, that will start happening sometime in the next month or two.
Right now my main blog-project is writing the last issue of This Week’s Finds in Mathematical Physics. I want to explain some really cool ideas about number theory, and also how loop groups can be applied to electrical circuits.
Have fun in Singapore, John.
We have good news from the NSF grant related to climate change education that we submitted a month ago (UCR + Smithsonian + ESRI etc). So hopefully we can include you in our big plans when you return to Riverside.
Hi, Maria! That’s great news! I’ll keep in touch to hear how the project develops. Maybe you could send me the NSF proposal in its final form, so I can see how it looks?
Today is my first full day in Singapore… I need to get the wireless in this temporary apartment working, go grocery shopping, go to the office and (I bet) fill out a lot of forms, and so on. It may be a while before I do anything interesting on this blog.
Thanks for starting this site. Obviously, many now are similarly worried.
On the other hand, the sheer scale of the current ecocatastrophe is such as to at first lead to the typical reactions we ascribe to grief, numbness, denial, wishing it would all be just a dream, etc. Then maybe bargaining, anger, depression, and finally some kind of working resolution. Further there are many good and rational reasons for an individual to continue to wait for someone else to take the lead.
So one idea is to consider including a subtopic or pointers to sites dealing with the psychological and other barriers people have to dealing with the ecocatastrophe altogether. I do not know of any such sites, which is why I suggest a subthread here.
Interesting comment, Seth! I’ve been through all the psychological stages you mention and will probably go through some of them again. Thinking seriously about the current mass extinction event should be a good way to gauge ones own current stage. It took me about a decade to get over despair and decide to really do something.
Here’s one realization that made a big difference to me: in a bottleneck like the one we are going through, even relatively small actions can have large irreversible consequences. For example: there’s a huge difference between all animals of some species dying out, and all but 100 dying out. The world has gone through about 5 mass extinction events before, and there are many cases of Lazarus taxa: species or larger groups that seem to disappear from the fossil record for a while, but then bounce back. It’s quite possible their numbers were simply driven way down – but not to zero.
Similarly, in human history, there’s a huge difference between all copies of a book being lost, and all but one. Consider the Archimedes Palimpsest.
So, even if disaster is inevitable, the actions we take will determine the precise extent of the disaster. We can’t simply throw up our hands and say “oh, it’s a disaster” and think that it doesn’t matter what we do.
However, to the point of your comment: I don’t know of resources dealing with the psychological aspects of the ecological catastrophe. Does someone out there know?
I suspect that as time goes on I will get hundreds of good questions like this, and I hope hundreds of good answers, too. I will try to organize this information in some setup that’s more easy to systematically access than a blog. Websites, wikis… I’ve already had some volunteers for technical support for this sort of thing. But we’ll see how it goes.
It’s not quite an answer to your question, but Auden Schendler and Mark Trexler have some interesting speculations on the coming climate panic. I would guess that governments are studying such scenarios in a more professional way even if their probability is low or uncertain. Maybe some folks at the new CIA Center on Climate Change and National Security are thinking about such things. But one would hope someone besides the CIA is thinking seriously about these psychological and social issues.
I don’t know if more people are going to start understanding what’s happening.
If people do, you can look to the ecologists who’ve known some of what’s happening for a long time to see how they handled what they learned.
“One of the penalties of an ecological education is that one lives alone in a world of wounds. Much of the damage inflicted on land is quite invisible to laymen. An ecologist must either harden his shell and make believe that the consequences of science are none of his business, or he must be the doctor who sees the marks of death in a community that believes itself well and does not want to be told otherwise.”
— Aldo Leopold
It’s a lot worse than Leopold could have known, as we’re beginning to find out; Jeremy Jackson has made very accessible videos on the state of the oceans, and on the losses to biodiversity that were already well underway before science started to be done; look up ‘shifting baselines’ for that.
David Brin came up with a talking point worth passing on to anyone who’s religious but hasn’t understood ecology (and to any taxonomist, of course):
Your own words above, Dr. Baez, already went into my collection of hopeful points to pass on to others: “even if disaster is inevitable, the actions we take will determine the precise extent …”
“resources dealing with the psychological aspects”
Judith Williamson studies mass culture, especially ads and films. Here she is talking about the way climate change is represented in popular culture. I think it is very interesting. Some of it echoes what Seth Goldberg says about grief. (Look for the audio podcast. She doesn’t start the talk until about 6 minutes in.)
all the best and good luck with this blog!
Environmental issues have been a hot topic in Germany for quite some time now, we even have a party devoted to this since 1979, the Green Party.
Since then no politician in Germany could have afforded to make a statement like George W. about the Kyoto protocol (“we won’t sign any contract that could harm our economy”). If you are interested in the political aspects of Azimuth’s topic then we could try to elucidate why there is such a political movement in Germany and none in the USA (is there none? I don’t know…).
I would like to minimize discussion of politics on this blog, since:
1) Politics is the mind-killer.
2) There are already many blogs devoted to explicitly political aspects of environmentalism, taking all possible sides on this issue. Whatever you believe, you can find one that agrees with you.
3) Since whatever reputation or authority I may have comes from my work in science, I think scientific rather than explicitly political issues should be my focus. I realize that this could be a dangerous limitation, but for now I think it’s the right thing.
So, let’s not talk about why the US doesn’t have a “Green Party” comparable in influence to that in Germany. Maybe you should ask someone in the Green Party, instead.
(This statement could become part of this blog’s policy rules).
Good luck on your new job and your new life in Singapore!
How do quantum technologies figure in solving the problems facing our planet?
I didn’t take a job at the CQT because I think quantum technologies are crucial to saving the planet. I took a job at the CQT because I needed a job in Singapore, and they were willing to hire me, and it seemed like an incredibly cool job where I could do almost anything I wanted.
But after I got the job offer, I decided that I should take it seriously: not just use it as a glorified sabbatical, but actually switch direction from working on pure math and highly theoretical physics to working on quantum technologies and other more ‘practical’ things. After all, my favorite subject – n-category theory – has caught on to the point where I’m scarcely needed anymore. So, why not try something new?
After thinking about this for about a year, it became clear that nothing was more practical than confronting the global ecological problems we face today. So, that’s what I decided to do. But how to do this as effectively as possible? There are already lots of people doing lots of things – what could I do that would be different? I decided that the best strategy would be to use This Week’s Finds to explore these problems publicly, and get more mathematicians and physicists interested in solving them. And then I realized that instead of merely trying to learn stuff and explain it, I should interview mathematicians, physicists and other people who are already tackling ecological problems, and can serve as role models. So that’s what I’m going to do.
But, to keep things from getting too narrowly focused, I also plan to talk about a wide variety of futuristic technologies that might (or might not) have a big effect on the world’s problems. And among these are the quantum technologies being studied here at the CQT. I also hope to interview some of the people who work here.
Dear John and all,
Caution – meta comment
I´ve been thinking about the technical organization of the cooperative project of somehow connecting our personal responses and technical expertise to the ongoing global ecocatastrophe, even beyond this blog, and have a suggestion. If we try to do too much here, there could be a problem. Instead, we might be a little more modest and also set up an overflow group, using stack exchange software. This could 1. help us formalize good and bad questions and suggestions 2. allow group moderation using earned reputation etc. 3. allow this blog to be more personal and John´s 4. Save time since many of us already know MathOverflow.
I was thinking of EcocatastropheOverflow as a tentative title. (Inspired, I might try this anyway)
Thanks, Seth! I think meta comments of this sort are what I need most, right now. As I mentioned to Tim van Beek, I’m waiting for Andrew Stacey to show up before I try to develop a setup that will allow people to 1) discuss lots of possible strategies for ‘saving the planet’, and 2) build a wiki full of useful information. So, instead of starting to actually do 1) and 2), right now it probably makes more sense to brainstorm about how to do 1) and 2).
A few comments:
1. Any system like this that shows signs of incipient success will probably be attacked by people of ill intent. There are strong forces working to maintain ‘business as usual’. This needs to be considered right from the start.
2. The distinction between people of ill intent and people of good intent who happen to disagree with what we think can be hard to determine. (Here “we” stands for any group of people who have come to some agreement about what’s good.) There is also the danger of groupthink.
3. A system like MathOverflow might indeed be good, to reduce the amount of time any one person needs to spend weeding out comments from people of ill intent. Of course it needs to start with some core of self-appointed “good people”. I am willing to decide who those are, being good myself.
4. Mathoverflow works pretty smoothly, I imagine, because math is not a highly controversial subject. Everything relating to climate change, economics and especially politics is highly controversial. So the dynamics will be different, and more difficult.
5. In my blog I’ve decided to tackle this difficulty in part by banning discussion of politics, at least in the sense of “partisan politics”. Some discussion of political theory, decision theory, ethics and the like may be necessary! I’m worried about where to draw the line, but the line basically gets drawn when people start fighting in the idiotic childish way that politics so often engenders.
6. Please, everyone, check out the n-Forum and compare it to MathOverflow. I think a setup like the n-Forum is better suited to conversations among people who basically agree on goals and are working on projects together. Mathoverflow seems to be optimized for people asking questions and getting answers. I bet we’ll eventually want both.
7. I hope that ultimately my blog will be just a small part of a big machine, my way of contributing material to a kind of repository of information and ideas on how to help ‘save the planet’. I hope that lots of people will join in and I can focus on doing the few things I’m good at.
8. Are we reinventing the wheel? How could we be the first people to think of starting an online forum for serious technical discussions on how to deal with global ecological problems? Maybe we’re just the first mathematicians and physicists to do it? Maybe there’s some pre-existing structure to latch onto.
How about a wiki in the style of polymath wiki’s (a la Tim Gowers)? As you said, MathOverflow is very much in the style of question-answer, but we’ve already seen that a polymath wiki can be used for massive collaboration on single issues.
I’ve never used the Polymath Wiki.
Can someone compare that to the nLab / nForum setup?
Polymath wiki is pretty close to a traditional wiki, where there’s edited text which can be presented in a hierarchical (“tree”) fashion, but it’s not obvious who’s doing the editing – you have to check the “History” page for that. It looks like it might be difficult to do a discussion-format sort of thing with Polymath-wiki. Polymath wiki would take a group of dedicated editors, and to preserve signal to noise ratio, you’d want to restrict contributions to those made by registered users who agree to abide by certain guidelines (no politics …). Pretty labor intensive, and would take a dedicated admin/moderator to run.
nForum is closer to a pure discussion forum, where there’s little if any edited content, and it’s all discussion between users. Probably not labor intensive at all, has registered users, but the content level can be pretty trivial, leading to potential waste of time sorting through the chaff to get to the wheat (Newspaper editor: one who sorts the wheat and the chaff, and prints the chaff… Ambrose Bierce, Devil’s Dictionary)
and nLab is between the two, with edited content, with discussions set off with a light green background and box. The edited content would require dedicated moderation, and a fair amount of work to produce good solid information-dense product; there could be less moderation for the discussions, mainly a skim-through to make sure that people don’t go off on weird tangents, violate guidelines, or whatever. Again, you’d want to have discussions contributed by registered users only… this isn’t wikileaks or anything like that.
I change my mind, a bit. I like the nLab format for the edited content with discussions interspersed – but I still like the polymath wiki look and feel, I’d just as soon have a “search box” as a “keyword cloud”, and I think the wiki look and feel would be far more approachable for most people who might be used to looking things up on wikipedia, for example.
In case it’s not obvious, the nForum exists solely as an adjunct to the nLab: people use the nForum to announce and discuss new articles that they’re writing on the nLab. So conversations on the nForum should probably seem quite boring unless you’re working on the nLab.
Right now it’s starting to seem unlikely that Andrew Stacey can run an nLab-like environment for me. So, I’m starting to want some sort of wiki that even people like me, with very little taste for computers, can run.
The idea of the wiki would, however, be a bit like that of the nLab. Namely, to compile information on specialized subjects. But related to ‘saving the planet’, rather than fancy math.
More meta, this time higher level.
Let’s make believe we are serious about this start with basics, i.e. people. One of the amazing things about MathOveflow is the true immensity of talent available. It’s like a math commons room at a top university, with the top people incredibly strong. Furthermore, you want more than this. In math, everyone knows everyone’s real reputation, so the system mostly works.
Suppose you/we/the community to come wanted to build a new (online) department or group to work on ecocatastrophe issues, which are very varied, at a top university. We would start with people, and ask about people who can reccommend others. Most of these people would definitely not be mathemeticians, but rather experts in various fields. So for example, for solar, we might attempt to recruit Nate Lewis, or at least a post doc from his lab, etc. (See e.g. http://online.kitp.ucsb.edu/online/colloq/lewis1/) for openers. Then if someone were to trivially misapply a misunderstood version of the 2nd law, it would be obvious from the outset.
In the same way, I feel you are going to have to start looking for top level moderators, who will act as the ultimate arbiters for the site. So your friends, your real world reputation, as well as those of people whose general scientific judgement and reputation is already directly or indirectly known to be strong is going to be important. Mere mathematicians will not be enough, in the same way that mere physicists were not savvy enough to debunk Uri Geller and spoon bending; it took professional magicians who were already familiar with the field Looking at legendary names from the past you want to recruit at least some very very strong people, the equivalent of I.I. Rabi, Alvarez, maybe even Fermi.
Then the site will really work and be very attractive and useful. Reputation software will be important, but it will not be the controlling factor for real success. In some sense it is your own real reputation, organizing, and people skills that are the initial bait here. If you are lucky, you will be able to recruit people who are as good in their own fields as you are in yours, and then hopefully something cooperative and good can happen.
PS For example, try asking Smale what he thinks.
I agree that if things get rolling nicely, we will need help from lots of good people. However, I believe in Linus Torvalds’ advice:
I also know that I’ve got the wrong personality for organizing groups of people. What I’m good at is explaining stuff. I would love it if this helped nucleate some sort of movement. But I hope other people – like you – chip in and do things that they’re good at, so I can enjoy myself and do what I’m good at.
For example, if you want to ask Smale what he thinks, that would be great! But I’m too shy (believe it or not). I don’t know him; to me he’s just a famous guy who I’d be scared to bother. I also probably wouldn’t want to do what he says. I already know what I want to do: I want to write This Week’s Finds. I think I can handle setting up a wiki or discussion group on ecological issues. But anything bigger than that, I’d prefer to be part of the rank and file, rather than a leader.
I hope it’s clear: I’m not trying to throw cold water on your ideas! I just don’t feel able to do something much bigger than what I already have planned.
You already have experience and a successful strategy to handle this situation, as Linus Torvalds says: Stick with this strategy and don’t think about alternatives until the project has reached a stage where it does not work anymore.
Mathematics is quite unique with respect to the speed in settling controversial questions – we cannot expect anything similar when talking about ecological issues… But one policy of this blog could be “report and explain, don’t try to convince”. Like in physics, you ideally try to report what you did, calculated and measured, and let others figure out what that means :-)
Maybe, I don’t know, but since many major projects with similar goals don’t have the kind of web presence that you envision, I doubt that.
Huh? There is not the kind of personality, you certainly have the right personality to organize groups of mathematicians and theoretical physicists :-)
(It takes widely different kinds of personalities to lead a group of mathematicians and a group of detainees in a maximum security prison, no one can do both. So much for universally applicable social skills :-)
I don’t actually feel that’s true, but maybe I succeed in giving that impression, which might be almost as good. Or better: why waste time organizing people if you can trick them into organizing themselves?
See, that’s exactly the kind of leadership that intellectuals need, the usual “top down approach” does not work for a group of highly individual academics.
It’s a great idea to ask others to do some interviews and publish them here, maybe we can get some real newspapers interested. On the other hand I would like to now more about the different technologies that are discussed by the Desertec people, and since their headquarters are in Germany, I could actually try to get an appointment – but as a Mr. nobody it’s not likely that I get one. But if I can use some names dropping…:-)
I’m really enjoying the interviews I’ve done so far – that’s not work I’m dying to pass on to others. These interviews are not something most newspapers would want to publish: they’re too technical. My plan is to surround the interviews with expository stuff that explains some of the technical terms.
But if other people wanted to do interviews too, that would be great! I think it’s a nice way to collect information and compare different intelligent views about big problems and how to solve them.
What sort of work do you think you could do for Desertec?
What are some of the technologies you want to learn about?
Thought so, publishing an interview on this blog and supplement it with links to a nLab-like wiki that explains the technical terms…that’s what some newspapers already try to do on paper, but it will work better on the Internet with said infrastructure :-)
I don’t intend to get actively involved.
What kind of solar power plants are considered and what are the critical technical aspects? Another major problem is the energy transfer to Europe, or more generally to the remote locations where the power is needed (this is one of the major problems of Alpha Ventus too, the first offshore windmill parks, Europe is lacking the necessary infrastructure to collect and distribute the generated energy).
For the benefit of the African people Desertec is planning to supply the locals with power first, before the surplus energy is fed to Europe :-)
And they plan to combine power plants with desalination factories to supply locals with drinking water, and I would like to know that the current status of these plans are (both technical and political).
The fact that one of the major German power suppliers, RWE, is participating for economic reasons fills me with confidence :-).
I think you’re right about politics, it’s a good way to spin wheels, waste time, and generally get aggravated at other people. This goes especially for party politics, it’s a great way to talk about getting things done without actually doing anything or changing the status quo.
At the same time, you’re saying “I prefer starting with the vague and perhaps overblown phrase “save the planet” to a long list of specifics like “deal with overpopulation, … the suboptimalities of political and economic systems that tend to cause all these problems, etc.”
If you’re going to try to do *any* of that stuff, you’ll end up ensnared in politics. It looks like you’re proposing a top-down, elite-run solution, and what usually happens is that your proposal gets watered down and changed so as to preserve the status quo at all costs. I think you have to consider a different way of doing things, that is, empowering people at the local level to adapt to coming changes and giving them the technological ability to construct simple systems to do so.
A big part of this will be figuring out or inventing the simple systems which can be constructed from locally-available raw or recycled materials, and which aren’t dependent on raw materials or components which are only available from overseas. I think local self-reliance and local community is what’s going to “save the world”, because that’s the only way to get net energy use down to a sustainable level.
Be careful about experts, everybody has their own agenda, and they’re beholden to their own set of financial supporters. Top-down elitism may end up creating more problems than it solves.
OK, that’s it for now. BTW, I have no credentials of any sort, so you can take this all with a grain of salt. I enjoy reading your blog, but I’m certainly not part of the intelligentsia.
Despite my deliberately overblown war cry of ‘saving the planet’, I’m actually not proposing any sort of solution, much less a top-down one, for two reasons:
1) I don’t think it’s useful to talk about a ‘solution’ to the ecological problems we find ourselves in. Realistically, I think it’s too late for that. It’s probably better to think in terms of ‘struggling to minimize the damage’. A lot of irreversible damage has already occurred, and we can expect that politicians will only take serious action when things get much worse, in an irrefutably evident way.
2) I act like I have delusions of grandeur, but I’m still sufficiently sane to realize that anything I do will only make a small difference in the overall scheme of things. We need lots of people doing lots of different things. We need grass-roots organizers, big-name politicians, celebrities, peasants, you name it, all doing what they do best. My particular skill is explaining things to other scientists. So I think I can have the biggest effect by getting more scientists to tackle the ecological problems we face, even though this is a small part of the overall picture, and someone with a different personality could accomplish more by doing something else.
I completely agree that the ecological problems we face are largely political and economic in origin, and that reducing carbon dioxide emission will involve billions of people changing their habits, not just a few eggheads ‘saving the planet’.
I think the engineer Saul Griffith put it pretty well here:
I wish I could do the same.
Re 1) Yeah, looks like it is too late. Collapse will come – and it seems an evolutionary necessity for hominids to evolve into something more sapient. The outlooks are grim. Forget the few dozen millions killed in c20th. Now it’s about billions. Still, one can see this is optimistic, as James Lovelock explains e.g. here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dBUvZDSY2D0
Interviewer: “You are the first person I’ve ever met who at the same time believes in the most terrible scenario imaginable and at the same time is an optimist. Isn’t it possible?”. Lovelock: “It is. Because it’s a hell of a future”
Alas, there’s no guarantee that the bottleneck population will be better than us. This is what we must work on. “We should be the heart and the mind of the Earth, not a malady” — Lovelock.
(The stuff parroted in the quoted article about Al Gore’s house is a myth.)
I plan to investigate Lovelock’s estimates of how bad a disaster we are facing, and the effects of various decisions we might make. There’s obviously a vast amount of uncertainty in this sort of business, and a lot of disagreement, but it’s incredibly important — so we can’t just trust what someone says, we have to lay out the data and let people examine it and discuss it in some sort of public forum.
That’s nice to hear – but I don’t want to just substitute one myth for another, I want to see some data:
Al Gore is a scion of a filthy rich family from Tennessee, who grew up in Washington DC while his father was the US Senator from that state. He’s got to have a big house to provide accommodations for the retinue of servants, cooks, drivers and whatnot. He’s a multi-centi-millionaire, and he lives like one, and yes, he’s got a huge carbon footprint. Same case for Prince Charles – but both of them have really valid things to say about climate change. They’re just not the best spokesmen around when the economy is in a severe depression and the members of their class are reaping huge benefits while the middle and lower classes are being told to suck it.
We can change that step by step, during the past decades the influence of ecological issues on German politics have been steady and step by step successful, examples are:
– the water quality of the Rhine as improved over the last two decades so that people can swim in it again, which was discouraged before (the Rhine is a major water supply for many factories along the way)
– there are many recycling programs that collect and recycle several kinds of waste (Germans have at least three different rubbish bins, one for compostable stuff, one for plastic stuff that can be recycled, one for the rest, then there are special bins for glass (brown, white, green) and for special kinds of waste like batteries),
– and of course the “Abfrackprämie” encouraged people to dispose of old cars (high gas consumption and emissions) and buy new ones (low gas consumption, lower emissions due e.g. to better catalytic converters). Of course the “Abfrackprämie” was intended to help the automotive industry in the economic crisis in 2009, so it was sold to the public as “killing two birds with one stone”.
All of this was and is possible because the knowledge that something and what has to be done became popular enough :-)
BTW, John, you ask on your diary about the heat record this first half year:
I did. (Sorry, German only).
BTW 2: I really don’t intend to indulge in surreptitious advertising, but a company that I work for (actually they subcontract the company that I really work for) claims to have scored on the Dow Jones Sustainability Index. Until today I did not know that such a thing existed. Is this an appropriate topic for this blog?
Sure! What’s the Dow Jones Sustainability index? And more importantly: can I make money on it?
It seems sadly typical that you’d hear in German news, and I wouldn’t hear in American news, that the last 4 months were the hottest March, April, May, and June worldwide in the last 131 years.
I don’t know yet, but it has become fashionable in the finance industry – long before the latest financial crisis – to create funds that invest in “clean” companies only, companies that assume social and ecological responsibility. I did not care much about this before, because I don’t have any money that I could invest :-), but the sustainability index seems to fit this pattern.
As you can read in the sustainability brochure, BMW somehow monitors the amount of waste water needed to produce a car, it would be interesting to know how they do that :-)
(Maybe I can find someone who knows that, after all I spend 4 days a week at the “center of innovation and research” in Munich, the department that is responsible for this kind of research is probably located there).
This reminds me of a study about the amount of taxes paid by the rich in Germany: It said that one the one hand a lot of rich people invest a lot of money to find ways to avoid all taxes (some of the richest pay barely 2% income tax), but on the other hand there are people who deliberately pay 85% income tax out of a sense of responsibility (that’s the number of the study, I don’t know how one could end up paying such a fraction, probably some kind of double taxing).
In Singapore, you’d probably be more interested in air conditioning, especially a/c for hot and humid climates. I know I’m interested in air conditioning, especially tonight. Right now, it’s 4:00 a.m. and my house temp is 90F. My a/c is blowing an insipid stream of cool air, and I’m sitting in front of a fan drinking lots of cool water and sweating. Hopefully cleaning the condenser coils outside will make the system happy once again… but it still uses lots and lots of electrons.
Well, the National Renewable Energy Laboratory has come up with a new design for an air conditioner for hot and humid climates which doesn’t use Freon or ammonia for a refrigerant. It uses a 44% aqueous solution of calcium chloride (the stuff in the ‘instant cold’ packs you can get at a pharmacy) sandwiched between layers of a membrane through which water can pass (even though the membrane is hydrophobic – water beads on it). They’ve got a patent on it, and say that technology transfer for use in the consumer market is 5 years away, but that the new tech will save 50% to 90% of the cost of running conventional a/c. Here’s the NREL news release: http://www.nrel.gov/features/20100611_ac.html
At the same time it cools the air, it also takes out humidity, so you get cool, dry air. I’ll bet the thing uses the same kind of membrane that you find in a reverse-osmosis water filter, but I’ll check the patent and find out for sure… This is the kind of thing that needs to come out ASAP, not in 5 years.
Well, I think what scientists can do is to promote a scientific code of ethics which proscribes actions and research which harm, or have great potential to harm, the environment, tantamount to the prescription in the Hippocratic Oath: “First, do no harm.” Science is not an ethically-neutral profession; ideas, scientific knowledge, and ignorance of science have potentially life-threatening consequences.
In order to promote and preserve the capability of the planet to support human life, scientists should adopt an ethical code which puts weapons development research, and all research which deliberately poisons or otherwise irreparably (in terms of human life spans) harms the environment, out of bounds, as unthinkable and unacceptable as the research done by Mengele and his ilk. The same proscription should apply against research and development in which reckless disregard for the environment is explicit, or implicit. The result should be that while there may be huge sums of money available for such research, no ethical scientist would perform the work, and any scientist who took the least part in such work would become a pariah, consigned to the outer darkness.
How about that?
Sounds great. Let the engineers do all the dirty work!
Seriously, I think this would be a good thing. There are already initiatives of this sort – we just need to jump aboard:
turns out they’ve got oaths for engineers:
“I solemnly pledge myself to consecrate my life to the service of humanity. I will give to my teachers the respect and gratitude which is their due; I will be loyal to the profession of engineering and just and generous to its members; I will lead my life and practice my profession in uprightness and honor; whatever project I shall undertake, it shall be for the good of mankind to the utmost of my power; I will keep far away from wrong, from corruption, and from tempting others to vicious practice; I will exercise my profession solely for the benefit of humanity and perform no act for a criminal purpose, even if solicited, far less suggest it; I will speak out against evil and unjust practice wheresoever I encounter it; I will not permit considerations of religion, nationality, race, party politics, or social standing to intervene between my duty and my work; even under threat, I will not use my professional knowledge contrary to the laws of humanity; I will endeavour to avoid waste and the consumption of non-renewable resources. I make these promises solemnly, freely, and upon my honor.” (1973)
“As a Professional Engineer, I dedicate my professional knowledge and skill to the advancement and betterment of human welfare.
To give the utmost of performance;
To participate in none but honest enterprise;
To live and work according to the laws of man and the highest standards of professional conduct;
To place service before profit, the honor and standing of the profession before personal advantage, and the public welfare above all other considerations.
In humility and with need for Divine Guidance, I make this pledge.” (1954)
This latter creed (above) is the one used by the (U.S.) National Society for Professional Engineers
Okay, so we scientists can’t make the engineers do all our dirty work for us. Good!
Your assessment would be extremely interesting. “Physics meets natural philosophy at the Gaia scale” :)
For your interviews, here’s top of my wishlist: 1) Tim Lenton 2) James Lovelock (in that order).
Alas I’m just a spare-time natural philosopher, so I better spare us elaborate ruminations why I trust Lovelock’s insights and why I regard his Gaia theory as hard science:
In short :) it looks like a mirror image to constitutive reductionism. The “simplistic models” of Gaia theory are what makes it indeed an exact qualitative science, for they consistently exhibit emergent phenomena like planetary self-regulation – independent of much detail. (E.g. the funny Daisyworld model was what convinced evolutionary biologists, cf. e.g. Lovelock: The living Earth, Nature 426 769-770.) A great readable paper on models is Lenton & Williams: Gaia and Evolution http://researchpages.net/media/resources/2009/11/18/LentonWilliamsCh05.pdf
Who is Tim Lenton? I know, I could look him up…
I was never fond of the Daisyworld model until my friend Bruce Smith improved the theory behind it.
In case someone hasn’t heard of this model: the idea is that you’ve got a planet covered with two kinds of flowers: light-colored ones and dark-colored ones. Suppose that the light-colored ones happen to grow better when it’s hot, and the dark-colored ones happen to grow better when it’s cold. Then when the planet gets hot, more light-colored flowers grow, and they reflect more sunlight, which cools the planet down. When it gets cold, more dark-colored flowers grow, which absorb more sunlight, which heats the planet up. Presto: the planet regulates its own temperature!
This is supposed to be a simplistic model of a self-regulating planet, and thus some sort of rough outline of how Lovelock’s Gaia Hypothesis could work.
Can someone guess what always annoyed me about this model? It’s not all the oversimplifications involved…
What annoyed you?
The google brought me to your Dec. 2006 diary (no longer remembered by the forgetful Florifunctor)… It’s that assumption (yours) methinks – but methinks it’s quite trivial that white (resp. black) organisms do better when warm (resp. cold), not vice versa, in such simplified scenario. Then, what’s so surprising about the simulation’s outcome? In the short Nature paper I mentioned, Lovelock writes:
(Cheats were introduced in a later variant.)
Review of Daisyworld and refinements: Lenton, “Gaia and natural selection”, Nature 394 (1998) 439-447 http://adi-38.bio.ib.usp.br/0440041/2006/lenton1998.pdf
Latest modelling: See Lenton et al. linked above.
Who is Timothy Lenton?
Young coworker and friend of Lovelock, starting with Daisyworld. Coauthor of the important papers http://researchpages.net/media/resources/2008/02/08/Tipping_elements.pdf (on tipping elements) and http://www.ecologyandsociety.org/vol14/iss2/art32/ES-2009-3180.pdf (on planetary boundaries)
In Nov. 2009 Financial Times has him on list of top 10 climate scientists (but needs to mention Lindzen as 11th…).
Short scientific biography: http://www.uea.ac.uk/env/people/facstaff/lentont
Other homepage with publications to download: http://researchpages.net/ESMG/people/tim-lenton/
So, I guess he could tell a lot of interseting things in a scientific interview.
Oh, you cheated! It should have been possible to solve this by pure logic.
Okay. To expand on that a bit: Lovelock assumed that the light-colored daisies happen to grow better when it’s hot, and the dark ones happen to grow better when it’s cold. He gets a planet with a ‘built-in thermostat’: a natural tendency to maintain a stable equilibrium temperature. Great!
But as far as I can tell, he doesn’t discuss the opposite scenario, where dark-colored daisies grow better when it’s hot, and light ones grow better when it’s cold. This would produce the opposite effect: runaway positive feedback!
So I never found his story very convincing. He shows that it’s possible for the Earth to regulate its own temperature (or other parameters), but not any argument for why organisms would tend to do things that help the Earth do this. That’s not very satisfying.
One really wants some sort of evolutionary mechanism that leads organisms to act in a way that favors homeostasis for the whole planet.
Of course the whole planet might die out if it doesn’t maintain some sort of homeostasis. Maybe that’s what happened to Venus, for example! So there could be natural selection at the scale of planets – the ultimate in group selection. Only the fittest planets survive!
And indeed, there obviously is some sort of natural selection at work at the interplanetary scale… but that doesn’t seem to be what the Gaia Hypothesis was supposed to be about. (It’s also not very reassuring to us, since we may one of the losers.)
So it would be much better to discover a reason why it’s more likely for light-colored daisies to do well when it’s hot, and dark-colored ones to do well when it’s cold.
Now, you seem to think this is quite trivial. Which must mean you’re smart, because I’ve never heard anyone except my friend Bruce Smith tackle this issue, and he’s definitely smart.
So, could you explain this? Or even better: let someone else take a crack at it… it makes a good puzzle. No cheating with Google!
And if anyone needs a little help: just think about why polar bears and arctic hares are dark-colored, while bears and rabbits that live in the tropics are white.
I suppose it assumes some sort of intent, that the planet has some sort of volition, to make things go one way in preference to some other way.
Lovelock also assumes that the flower is the whole of the plant rather than the “tip of the iceberg”, so to speak. The trouble, of course, is that the flowers don’t have anything to do with the amount of sunlight which comes in – they don’t regulate solar output. Moreover, they don’t affect the heating of the atmosphere, which exchanges energy with the surface of the planet.
So you could have an increase in white daisies, reflecting more heat into the atmosphere, which heats up, which favors the creation of more white daisies, which heats up perhaps more to a limiting state in which no more black daisies occur.
It would seem to me that the natural state of the system would be for black daisies to become extinct in short order – the only way for this not to occur would be in a case where the planet were in vacuum. It wouldn’t even work then, because if you had an ecosystem of totally white “100% reflector” plants and totally black “100% absorber” plants in a vacuum (no atmosphere to exchange heat with the surface), where on a surface temperature increase the white plants would reproduce and black plants die, and on a surface temperature decrease the black plants would reproduce and white plants would die, the surface below the white plants would remain cold, and the surface below the black plants would remain hot, assuming 100% heat transfer between plant and surface… so neither kind of plant would tend to reproduce, they’d die out over time, leaving no plants at all.
Am I missing something here?
By the way, from natural secletion theory, the reason that animals appear in colors which blend in with the local environment is not that they think, aha!, in order to survive, we’d better not stick out, it’s that in the case of non-white-furred polar bears, their prey will see them coming and they’ll starve – so the white fur was probably a productive mutation – white furred bears ate better and had a better chance of surviving to reproduce. In the case of bears and rabbits living in the tropics, they aren’t white, their coloration allows them to blend in with surroundings. Coloration has nothing to do with temperature regulation in these species (or, for that matter, in humans – Africans and Australian aborigines and people in the Indian subcontinent have really dark skins and live in places where the average temp is quite hot; Northern Europeans have very light skins, but their average temp is quite cold. Both of these are anti-intuitive if skin coloration were related to temperature regulation.)
major whoopsie here:
I state “Moreover, they don’t affect the heating of the atmosphere”
I mean “Moreover, *Lovelock must assume that* they don’t affect the heating of the atmosphere.
btw, I like the PolymathWiki formulation better than the nLab or nForum versions, mostly because the Wiki is more in general use, and also because it seems easier to organize thoughts and ideas in a hierarchical framework. I’d be in favor of requiring editors/contributors to register and identify their work
Good luck to you. I do think that scientists can save our earth. They do have to stick out their neck more, to speak out earlier about the danger of environmental devastation. If we wait until iron clad evidence is gathered it will likely to be too late. Also I am not sure if there will ever be enough proof for the average men on the street, since the one billion dollar disinformation campaign footed by Big Oil is very loud.
For me technical wise, I am interested in liquid thorium nuclear reactors, whether they can be developed enough to replace coal.
I think scientists can help save our Earth.
Indeed. But I found this editorial somewhat heart-warming. It suggests that reality is gradually becoming visible. The question is just whether it will become visible to enough people soon enough.
I definitely plan to talk about nuclear power. I am somewhat confused by how seemingly intelligent and well-meaning people hold such diametrically opposed views regarding it. There are the issues concerning safety, which I sort of feel I roughly understand – but more puzzling to me is the question of whether enough nuclear power can be developed soon enough to make a real difference.
For example, Joe Romm lays out the following plan for what we need to achieve by 2050 for the world to stabilize at 350-450 parts per million of CO2 in the atmosphere. Nuclear plays a fairly small role, because according to him it takes too long to approve nuclear power plants.
Each “wedge” here is a way of reducing carbon emissions by 1 billion metric tons per year:
Electric and hybrid cars sound great as a solution, but if we somehow require everyone to have an electric or hybrid car, we take the middle and lower/working class off the road. Electric/hybrids are *expensive*, starting at $50,000 each. Working class people usually have 20-year-old cars, and they’re not in good repair, they’ve got worn-out engines and so forth. If there were some sort of national subsidy for people to trade out of their old car and into a new “green” car, then there might be a chance that the further stratification of society could be avoided. Trouble with that is, is that the US national debt is $13.5 trillion and growing by $1.5 trillion/year, so by 2014 it’ll be really close to $20 trillion – at which point the entitlement programs (Social Security and Medicare) are going to have to be radically revised if not cancelled outright.
Wind power is a great idea, too, but try convincing the Kansas Legislature about that. A bunch of people did try, and what we got was the biggest coal-fired power plant west of the Missisippi – approved by a Democratic governor, no less. BTW, the unlined ash pit rests on permeable sand directly above the Oglalla aquifer… sure hope Jesus comes again soon…
Finally, the author proposes geothermal, which sounds great, but for residential use is prohibitively expensive and really doesn’t work that well, you’ve still got to have an electric or gas furnace to take up the slack on cold winter days.
What do I think is going to happen? I think we’ll see lots more natural gas and coal-fired electric generation plants, few if any new nuclear plants, and a small renewable energy sector devoted mostly to off-grid locations. People don’t take this environmental stuff seriously until there’s a real disaster happening – but then it’s too late to do anything about it. It’s the same thing that happened with peak oil back in 2008, the oil price shot up, there was lots of interest in conservation and suchlike, and then the price of oil cratered, and so did interest in peak oil, “energy descent”, and other such un-American ideas…
I know I should not talk about politics, but let me just mention that the green party in Germany was not a simple “left” or “liberal” movement, but had at least as many supporters from the “conservatives” as from other parties.
(I don’t think that these simplistic terms, “left”, “right”, “conservative”, are of any use anymore for the description of the political landscape in Europe.)
Yes, doh! Some people are even planning to ban any research about nuclear power or using nuclear power, which is something I simply have to oppose as a physicist :-)
The Germans plan to get at least 50% of the power supply from renewable sources like wind and solar power by 2050. Nuclear power does not play any role in the plans because it is too expensive, if you include the costs of the disposal of nuclear waste and the plants themselves.
No choice there, sooner or later there will be no oil left. But I do expect that these cars become vastly more cheap than they are now.
BTW, it is possible in certain regions of the world to live without a car.
I don’t own one, I never did. I use public transportation :-)
(If you ever visit Germany you will find that public transportation is both very reliable and comfortable here, and quicker for certain travel destiantions, too, you can’t get faster from Hannover to Berlin than by train).
Oh, and in the foreseeable future, all new buildings will have to be zero energy buildings in Germany… (I don’t know if these need the rather mild climatic conditions in central Europe to function, or if it is possible to construct buildings that are habitable in, say, the Nevada deserts).
The last two times my wife visited Germany, she roasted in stuffy buildings while giving talks during heat waves. She felt the Germans – or at least the ones she met! – hadn’t absorbed the fact of climate change, and didn’t do obvious things to keep it cooler. They opened the windows in the middle of the day, the hottest time of day… and they had people give talks on the top floor, when there were cooler rooms below.
I’m wondering what you think of this.
It’s certainly possible to keep cool with little energy in deserts like Nevada (or Riverside, where I live!) because it tends to get quite cool at night in the desert.
It seems considerably harder in humid climates like Singapore, where the water vapor keeps heat from re-radiating at night.
Laughing my head off :-)
The reason for this is that Germans simply are not used to heat waves or any kind of hot weather, because it rarely gets hotter than 30 degrees (Celsius). That’s why many buildings don’t have any cooling mechanisms, including the office building that I spent the last days of the recent heat wave, roasting :-) Germans think only about heating, not cooling, and a “zero energy building” means one that does not need any heating mechanisms that consumes fossil fuels.
Believe me, that’s an instinct – they simply don’t know that it could happen that the outside temperature is higher than the inside. If a German (or anyone from northern Europe) visits you in Riverside and you go and visit some hot desert, say, you’ll have to tell them to go slow during the hottest times of the day, to wear some kind of hat for protection from the sun, to drink enough water etc. They simply don’t know better.
I bet the room was reserved several weeks in advance. If you anticipate this situation, you’ll have to announce at least two days in advance that “in case of high outside temperatures we will move to room 1.0.3′ instead” – Germans seem to be unable to make a change of plans on the fly :-)
Did you travel by train using the InterCity Express? You can’t open the windows, because this train is supposed to run with a speed of at least 200 km/h, but in the last days the air-conditioning system of several trains failed – turns out that happened because it was designed to operate to a maximal outside temperature of 32 degrees! (In the last days the maximal measured outside temperature was 37 degrees). Since it’s a hermetically closed can in the sun without air conditioning, the temperature in some trains raised above 70 degrees which made several travelers collapse…
That’s what Lisa and her colleagues from southern Europe thought. They were pretty annoyed…
Oh, okay. Well, please inform the government that with this definition, they can easily achieve their goal of switching to “all zero energy buildings”. Just do nothing and wait until CO2 goes up to >1000 ppm and fossil fuels run out.
By the way, I made a silly mistake of the opposite sort when you mentioned the deserts in Nevada. Being from Riverside, I was thinking only about keeping buildings cool, but Nevada has cold winters in addition to hot summers.
Heating is done using fossil fuels, of course, gas, oil, coal – no heating, less fossil fuels burnt :-)
People living in zero energy buildings say that the climate inside the building is comfortable both in winter and in the summer, that is the houses tend to be cooler in the summer than others, but they refer both to mild summers and buildings without air conditioning in comparison, of course, which made me ask if this would still work in a more extreme climate.
Zero energy buildings are more expensive to build than conventional ones, but since gas, oil and coal needed for heating are pretty expensive, this investment pays of within a couple of years.
Non-fossil fuel heating is in fact possible – this guy in Montana heats his off-grid house (2300 sf) with a solar hot-water system: http://www.builditsolar.com/Projects/SpaceHeating/SolarShed/solarshed.htm
It does get pretty cold in Montana in winter, sometimes -30F … here are some performance figures: http://www.builditsolar.com/Projects/SpaceHeating/SolarShed/Performance.htm
Actually, the whole site has lots of useful information on passive solar heating, not only theory, but also information from in-use systems: http://www.builditsolar.com/Projects/Projects.htm
@John: “more puzzling to me is the question of whether enough nuclear power can be developed soon enough to make a real difference.”
It shouldn’t be difficult to develop more nuclear power plants, and quickly, like say within three to five years, but only if we do it a certain way:
France generates 80% of its electric power using nuclear reactors. They’ve been doing this for almost 30 years, I believe. They’ve *never* had a serious accident, and all French reactors are of the exact same design.
So now there’s a well-characterized safe design for a nuclear reactor, tested and developed and optimized over a 30 year period, which can be used to generate electricity.
The answer to our problem is to adopt, *and mandate*, the use of the French design, down to the last nut and bolt. We should be able to mass-produce the components, and build the reactors and get them running in short order, and they’ll be standardized, so that maintenance, repair, and safety concerns will be a lot easier to deal with.
Reply to John’s reply, on Daisyworld:
( Technically (IQ 108) I’m definitely not über smart :-) My trick is to avoid wasting IQ, e.g. I try hard to avoid feeding it to the Ego :-) )
The whole thing is about plants (negligible internal heat production) not animals (who need to radiate internal heat). (Not to speak of other factors like camouflage.) So, the albedo (daisy color) plus environment heat completely determine how warm it gets inside a daisy: The white ones would want a bit warmer environment, for they don’t get as much additional heat from absorbing sunlight as the black ones get. This still seems quite trivial to me.
What puzzles me more is the purported surprise of the result, global temperature regulation. But then, the wild fluctuations of the Volterra-Lotka system (predator-prey equations) might also seem counter-intuitive. A more intelligent thinker might perhaps expect a Daisyworld where one sort of daisy draws short term benefits from the other (black “preying” on white and vice versa) — and resulting population fluctuations and instabilities.
I’m sure you are much smarter than your IQ (I’m constantly outsmarting mine, too), but I have to agree with JB that the prevalence of a negative feedback loop is fed into the model as the one basic assumption, while the crucial problem of real climatic models is to figure out in what situations you get a negative feedback loop and in what situations you get a positive feedback loop.
The daisy toy model dodges this problem and therefore provides little insight. :-)
Have you watched the movie “the day after tomorrow”? It mentions the positive feedback loop of increased albedo after a large part of the planet has been covered with ice. :-)
…and if you ask me why these techniques have not caught on in Europe I’ll have to admit that I have no idea, but they are not completely unknown here. I really don’t know, but I guess that the traumatic experience of many people freezing to death in the harsh winters after WW II may have an influence here, in the sense that people are very conservative with respect to heating technologies (“a ton of oil in the cellar will keep us safe, God knows what these solar things are good for”).
That’s unfortunate. The software used by wikipedia is MediaWiki, to get it run you’ll need a webserver (like Apache), a “webframework” (like PHP, which is not really a framework but a scripting language to manage dynamic web content) and a relational database (like MySQL).
It is possible to get all of this software via XAMPP, which bundles it into a standalone installer.
Of course, the real problem is to find a host for this and someone to take care of it (keep it running etc.). This problem is such a common one that a whole new paradigm has developed to take care of it, namely cloud computing.
I wish I could point you to a location that offers hosting and administration of a personal instance of Wikipedia for free, but I can’t. But I could ask around in my organization for suggestions.
That’s enough buzzwords for one post, I guess, just pick the first one you would like to know more about to decide what your next step should be :-)
Just trying out the latex support in comments:
Woot! Seems to work fine.
Cool! What Mike did, by the way, is write a dollar sign, then the word ‘latex’, then a = b, and then a dollar sign:
$ latex a = b $
Whoops! There needs to be no space between the first dollar sign and the word ‘latex’. Then I get
Tim van Beek made the following comment on my plans to set up a wiki associated to this blog. For some reason it got lost in the aether, so he emailed it to me.
That’s unfortunate. The software used by wikipedia is MediaWiki, to get it run you’ll need a webserver (like Apache), a “webframework” (like PHP, which is not really a framework but a scripting language to manage dynamic web content) and a relational database (like MySQL). It is possible to get all of this software via XAMPP, which bundles it into a standalone installer.
Of course, the real problem is to find a host for this and someone to take care of it (keep it running etc.). This problem is such a common one that a whole new paradigm has developed to take care of it, namely cloud computing.
I wish I could point you to a location that offers hosting and administration of a personal instance of Wikipedia for free, but I can’t. But I could ask around in my organization for suggestions.
That’s enough buzzwords for one post, I guess, just pick the first one you would like to know more about to decide what your next step should be :-)
Vosao is a free content management system (a generic term encompassing static websites, blogs, forums and wikis) meant to run on Google App Engine, which is a free application hosting service. It’s quite impressive; check out the sites using it listed on the source code page:
For a video tour and tutorials on how to set it up, see the site’s homepage, which runs on the software:
I don’t really want to know more about any of them. Do I need to? I’ve heard of them, but I’ve made it happily to the ripe old age of 48 without really understanding them, and I was hoping for another 48 years in this condition.
I think it would be nice if you could tell me minimal set of resources that I need to give someone to let them set up a wiki. If the wiki thrives, I can probably even get grant money to help support it.
there’s a pretty wide universe of wiki software available: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_wiki_software
Here’s a bit of software people might find to be of interest:
and here’s a site which uses the software: http://xbeta.org/wiki/show/About
and a list of sites which use instiki is here: http://www.instiki.org/show/RealWorldUsage
and a page showing the things instiki is capable of doing: http://www.lounge.se/wiki2/show/InstikiPlayground
I assume someone has a static IP available; if so, if you’re running a windoze, mac, or linux box, you can run instiki, all you have to have is ruby 1.8.4 : http://www.instiki.org/show/HomePage
you can do math in instiki, and you can have a tree structure for entries: http://xbeta.org/wiki/show/Mathematics
and that’s just one piece of wiki software available…
Of course, someone, or a group of someones, will have to take responsibility for the thing, and it might be good to have a hacker on call for security issues, spam elimination, and so on, but this kind of person should be easy to find in a university environment.
I tend to favor ruby-based software because it’s a lot less complicated and rather more accessible to people who spend most of their time doing something else.
The nLab uses Instiki. When we were trying to get the nLab started, I asked the computer support people at UC Riverside to set up Instiki. It took them a month to get around to it, and then they set it up wrong, so it didn’t really work.
At that point Andrew Stacey stepped in and saved the day.
I have a website at UCR, which I assume implies that I have a static IP. It’s running on a UNIX system. I can probably get someone an account on that system, but I probably can’t get them root access (since I don’t have it myself).
What’s your prognosis?
once the proof of concept is successful (getting it running locally), the next step is to get your system administrator at UCR to download it and get it running on your machine, or to find someone who can do that. I’d be available, if necessary. The next thing to do is to get a group of people appointed as moderators to run the thing, at least one of whom should have experience in system security/anti-spam areas. I’m open to a certain degree of altruism, btw, and I’m sure others are as well, so I think this is doable. So that’s my prognosis.
If you want to continue talking about setting up a wiki for Azimuth, please go to Technology for Azimuth.
Good luck with saving the Earth.
I would like to know however what makes you so sure that humans are really responsible for recent climate changes. As far as I can tell it is only a plausible hypothesis.
It was warmer during past interglacials as you can see here for example:
There is also absolutely no reason to expect the climate to be stable, it was always changing in the past and it will likely keep changing forever. So our current warming is neither unprecedented nor unexpected, in fact looking at past climate we should expect the climate to keep warming until the onset of the next glaciacion.
But the biggest problem with the anthropogenic global warming is that since we cannot perform an experiment in which we rerun the past century without man-made emissions the only way to test the hypothesis that those emissions significantly impact global climate is by modeling global climate with and without those emissions and comparing the results.
Unfortunately that requires reliable global climate models which are simply not available. Not a single climate model has been proven to be reliable in predicting global climate on the timescale of decades, not a single climate model managed to correctly postdict the climate of the past century, not a single climate model managed to predict almost zero warming in the last decade.
Without satisfactory global climate models science cannot decide the issue.
Unfortunately it many people seem to forget that the power of science derives solely from the scientific method which in turn relies on experiments. What this means is that the reliability of any scientific field is directly proportional to the ease of performing and interpreting experiments in that field. This is why fields like classical physics, chemistry and biology are much more reliable then fields like psychology, sociology or economy.
Unfortunately in climate science experiments are very hard to perform and to interpret which makes climatology one of the least reliable scientific disciplines, the fact that it is also very young only compounds this problem.
All this means that climate science deserves a significant dose of skepticism in general, but in the case of AGW when you add clear conflicts of interests, politicization, stifling of dissent and withholding of scientific data I find it very hard to justify any other stance then skepticism.
It’s plausible, and I’d have to say that at this stage it’s more than merely “plausible”. There’s been a huge amount of study of this issue over the last few decades, and I’ve spent some time reviewing it. I will probably spend a lot of time in future This Week’s Finds discussing this subject. So, I don’t want to get into that discussion here — I’ll just say a few words.
Actually the natural temperature maximum was the Holocene climatic optimum, which occurred roughly between 9,000 and 5,000 years ago. Since then the trend had been down — until the industrial revolution came along:
You’ll notice that the industrial revolution is visible on this graph only as the tip of the arrow labelled “2004” — the recent temperature rise has been so rapid that it appears vertical on this graph. We’ve now matched the Holocene climatic optimum. With one more degree Celsius of warming it’ll be the hottest it’s been in the last 1,350,000 years or so, before the glacial cycles got so intense.
Since the industrial revolution, atmospheric carbon dioxide concentrations have also shot up beyond anything we’ve seen since the really serious glacial cycles began. In the last 800,000 years the highest it had been was about 300 parts per million — but in the last hundred years it shot up to 390 ppm. It is more than merely plausible that these phenomena are linked.
Actually the evidence is pretty simple and robust; we don’t need to trust a complicated computer program to see that starting around the late 1800s, emissions of greenhouse gases have skyrocketed, and that by now they deliver a radiative forcing of about 1.5 watts per square meter of solar energy, which is about right to explain the rapid rise in temperatures that we see.
Clearly there are many things one can wonder about, and we can discuss those in the proper place. I’ll have issues of This Week’s Finds devoted to the evidence for human-caused climate change, and I expect those will lead to lively arguments. Indeed I may need to work a bit to keep every blog entry — for example this one — from devolving into a debate about this particular subject. I don’t want that to happen, because there are already many places where that debate is happening.
Indeed it’s my skepticism and distrust of politicization that make me raise my eyebrows when people throw around vague charges like this instead of focusing on the science: the data, the models, the details and numbers. Here on Azimuth, I plan to focus on science.
Thanks for the reply.
John: “Actually the natural temperature maximum was the Holocene climatic optimum…”
Well that already assumes current changes are not natural and the term “climate optimum” is highly loaded and suspect – whether a particular average temperature is optimal critically depends on the criteria used to measure optimality and other factors like geography, types and distribution of species and humans, available technology and so on.
John: “You’ll notice that the industrial revolution is visible on this graph only as the tip of the arrow labelled “2004″ — the recent temperature rise has been so rapid that it appears vertical on this graph. We’ve now matched the Holocene climatic optimum. With one more degree Celsius of warming it’ll be the hottest it’s been in the last 1,350,000 years or so, before the glacial cycles got so intense.”
But there were many rapid natural temperature changes and they are clearly visible in the non-zoomed portion of the graph so rapidity is not a proof of the changes are not natural.
Also if we were to experience the hottest global climate since 1,350,000 or even 100,000,000 years it would still not prove that the changes are not natural.
John: “Since the industrial revolution, atmospheric carbon dioxide concentrations have also shot up beyond anything we’ve seen since the really serious glacial cycles began. In the last 800,000 years the highest it had been was about 300 parts per million — but in the last hundred years it shot up to 390 ppm. It is more than merely plausible that these phenomena are linked.”
But it’s only your subjective opinion that it’s more then plausible, it’s certainly not proven that they are linked.
John: “Actually the evidence is pretty simple and robust; we don’t need to trust a complicated computer program to see that starting around the late 1800s, emissions of greenhouse gases have skyrocketed, and that by now they deliver a radiative forcing of about 1.5 watts per square meter of solar energy, which is about right to explain the rapid rise in temperatures that we see.”
Yes, I agree that since 1800s emissions of greenhouse gases significantly increased, and I agree that it leads to an increase in forcing, but increase in forcing is just one input to an incredibly complex system called global climate and biosphere and so far we are not even close to accurately modeling this system so we cannot prove that this increase in forcing is significant and responsible for recent changes in global temperature. Again I agree it’s plausible but it is not proven.
Anyway I look forward to your more detailed posts on this subject and hope you will try to stay objective and don’t let the usual propaganda trump reality.
“It’s your own subjective opinion” is a rhetorical statement, it’s not science, and the fact is, is that anthropogenic global warming is not just John’s conclusion from the data, but is the conclusion made by the very great majority of scientists in the fields of climatology, geology and the like, see
• Wikipedia, Scientific opinion on climate change.
This Wikipedia article cites numerous review papers, amongst them one by Doran and Kendall Zimmerman written in 2009:
“A poll performed by Peter Doran and Maggie Kendall Zimmerman at Earth and Environmental Sciences, University of Illinois at Chicago received replies from 3,146 of the 10,257 polled Earth scientists. Results were analyzed globally and by specialization. 76 out of 79 climatologists who “listed climate science as their area of expertise and who also have published more than 50% of their recent peer-reviewed papers on the subject of climate change” believe that mean global temperatures have risen compared to pre-1800s levels, and 75 out of 77 believe that human activity is a significant factor in changing mean global temperatures. Among all respondents, 90% agreed that temperatures have risen compared to pre-1800 levels, and 82% agreed that humans significantly influence the global temperature. Economic geologists and meteorologists were among the biggest doubters, with only 47 percent and 64 percent, respectively, believing in significant human involvement. A summary from the survey states that:
It seems that the debate on the authenticity of global warming and the role played by human activity is largely nonexistent among those who understand the nuances and scientific basis of long-term climate processes.”
• Doran, Peter T.; Maggie Kendall Zimmerman (January 20, 2009). Examining the Scientific Consensus on Climate Change. EOS 90 (3): 22–23. doi:10.1029/2009EO030002.
There’s no real debate here at all, the only propaganda out there is the nonsense spewed out by the oil companies and others who will lose big time if people stop buying their products and find alternate ways of producing and conserving useful energy.
I’ll delete further comments on this topic here. As I said:
Good luck with everything!
Thanks, Bee! I’m hoping that someday there may be some nontrivial intersection between what we do here on Azimuth and your work on improving the practice of science. I guess time will tell. At least I’m starting to do some practical stuff…
Of course epistemology is a broad topic with many controversies, but I think it’s safe to say that there is not the scientific method, and that it is possible to do science without designing and executing experiments in a laboratory. It’s impossible to do experiments of that sort in astronomy, too, for example.
I don’t understand this discussion, whether or not global warming is man made, we all know that the supply of oil is finite and probably won’t last longer than a few decades, isn’t that enough to look for alternatives with the utmost priority? I know that every president of the USA starting with Nixon had the unfortunate dependency on oil on the agenda, though for different – political – reasons.
What is the current prognosis: How long could we keep burning oil at the current rate until we run out of it?
@Dr Soong: We probably won’t run completely out of oil for a couple of centuries. What we will run out of is economically-extractible oil, and the kind of oil that you can convert a large percentage of into gasoline.
You can’t pour oil into a car or truck and expect it to run. You have to use a product distilled from oil to do that. Gasoline is one such petroleum distillate.
There are two general types of oil, light sweet crude and heavy sour crude. Light sweet crude contains about 50% gasoline with very little or no sulfur content; heavy sour crude contains about 10% gasoline with high sulfur content. Heavy crude is called that because it’s like tar; it’s difficult to refine and distill out the gasoline fraction. Light crude is the opposite.
Most Saudi Arabian/Iraqi/Iranian and Indonesian oils are light sweet crude, and these fields are within 10 years of depletion. Most of these fields are on secondary recovery, where salt water is pumped into the wells to force the oil out, and where the oil has to be de-watered before it gets to a refinery. At the Al Ghawar field in Saudi, the percentage of water is estimated to be currently 80%; when this percentage gets to 90%, it’s no longer energetically feasible to do this kind of recovery because it costs more in energy to extract a barrel of oil than is contained in that barrel of oil. Both the North Sea and Petroleos Mexicanos (PEMEX) fields are in rapid decline, and should be pretty much economically depleted in five years or so. The Venezuelan oil fields produce heavy sour crude, as do the Canadian tar sands. I think the Petrobras play off of the coast of Brazil is light sweet crude, but it’s under about 35,000 feet of water, and the newly-discovered Jack field in the Gulf of Mexico is also light sweet crude. Both the Petrobras and Jack fields have enough light sweet crude to satisfy world demand for light sweet crude for about 10 years at present rate of consumption, but they’re deep-sea wells, and if there are blowouts, it’s really hard to deal with them, as we’ve seen in the BP Deepwater Horizon blowout.
Right now, it’s thought that we are at peak production/extraction of light sweet crude oil, and that we’ll stay in this plateau for about five more years (2015) before production begins to decline.
The trouble is, is that population, and demand driven by population increase, is rising. Not only do we use gasoline in cars, but mechanized agriculture expends 10 kcal in petroleum energy for every 1 kcal in food energy produced. Production of petroleum will not increase to meet this demand; it is in a plateau, and will soon decline, beginning in about five years or so. The consequences will be catastrophic, especially in developing nations with expanding populations.
There are a few web sites which talk about this problem:
1. http://www.theoildrum.com/ See especially http://www.theoildrum.com/node/5969 and http://www.theoildrum.com/node/6041
2. http://www.energybulletin.net/ See especially
3. http://peakenergy.blogspot.com/ a peak oil site based in Australia
Dr. Soong writes:
We certainly do need to look for fuels other than oil. But unfortunately the issue of human-caused global warming really does matter, because carbon dioxide, once brought into the ecosystem, leaves very slowly — it takes thousands of years. Things don’t get better just because we stop burning oil.
And let us not forget that oil is just a small portion of the available fossil fuels!
See for example the three scenarios in the new National Academy of Sciences report:
Note that stabilizing at 550 parts per million, as in the best of these three scenarios, is not a very nice outcome. But even this requires drastic reductions in our carbon dioxide output. It’s not enough to just wait for oil to run out.
Look carefully at this graph (click on it) and you’ll see many different opinions:
Note that all of these scenarios give us enough oil to cause global warming far worse than what we observe now. And oil is just a small portion of the carbon we can burn: there’s coal, and tar sands, and methane hydrates…
• Oil, including as-yet-undiscovered reserves (EIA estimate):
3 trillion barrels
• Natural gas: 1.1 trillion barrels
• Coal: 4.5 trillion barrels
• Tar sands: 4.3 trillion barrels
• Methane hydrates: 72,000 trillion barrels
So the discussion about whether our carbon emissions are causing global warming was an important one. Burn stuff until there’s nothing left to burn, or stop as soon as possible?
But now that discussion is essentially over — among scientists, that is. Now it’s a question of how to stop as soon as possible.
That’s exactly my point, these are the alternatives. From what I hear about this discussion I got the impression that some people think that “global warming advocates” criticize capitalism, or the American way of life, or intend to destroy a flourishing industry with a promising future, capable to bring the same wealth to all the world, including China – while the fate of an economy based on fossil fuels is sealed anyway, and the world won’t sustain 7 billion people with the same average resource consumption of people in Europe or the USA. It’s not that the slogan “stop burning fossil fuels” is depriving nations like China of a glorious future, is it?
But do you think if Chinese people still live like this, there will be no future?
I suspect we’re arguing at cross-purposes, Tim, but I’ll try to clarify my earlier comment. I think that it’s very important to know whether global warming is man-made or not. On the other hand, your comment:
seems to say that the right answer to this question is not very important: either way, we should do the same thing.
Well, that’s a good example: China is currently busy building coal furnaces and figuring out ways to mine methane hydrates. If human-caused global warming weren’t a problem, this might be a sensible way to bridge the gap between an oil economy and a future post-fossil-fuel economy. But as I’ve tried to explain, if global warming is a problem, this could have disastrous effects for a millennium to come! The problem is that carbon dioxide sticks around.
In short: if man-made global warming is a nonissue, maybe it’s okay if China keeps up this trend for the next few decades:
But if man-made global warming is a serious threat, this could be devastating!
If anyone wants to continue talking about setting up a wiki for Azimuth, please go to Technology for Azimuth.
I’d formulate it more positive and say these are “complementary aspects” – but anyway, thanks for the explanation .-)
> Daisyworld … global temperature regulation….
> He shows that it’s possible … but not any
> argument for why organisms would tend to do
> things that help the Earth do this.
No ‘why’ beyond natural selection, isn’t it? Daisyworld happened to work out, so did Earth (so far, so good) — unless Peter Ward is right in his Medea Hypothesis.
Hi, John Baez!
I know you are doing the great thing for human.
Being a Chinese young people, I am really sure that the Chinese governments and some citizens are definitely doing the wrong thing. Recently, the oil was poured into the sea near Dalian and there were flood in south and northeast of China after the drouth disaster in spring. And it even snowed last month in Xinjiang Province.
When I was a kid, there were many swallows, frogs and snakes living in the suburb and even around some old buildings in the city. But what our governments know is the GDP, they destroyed some old houses and built a huge amounts of new buildings to sell to others but only few people are able to buy. As a result, those animals died because they lost their home. I just came back from my university in south China,while I found that the most common animals in my hometown are people’s pets and mosquitoes.
In the past few years our governments have made some lakes and rivers and they have planted many trees in the city and suburb to pretend that they care about the environment and they are really making the true ‘rivers’ and ‘forest’. But what the ‘rivers’ bring to us are mosquitoes! I guess the rivers will become stinking at last.
Last year, I was shocked that my little cousin had only saw swallows and frogs from his book and TV!
The unnatural disasters occur one by one in China in recent years,but our government are still boasting their GDP.
My hometown-Yinchuan is really a small city, we actually do not need private vehicles to go to work.
Before my freshman year, my hometown is a city of bikes. Because of the economic crisis in the last year, our governments developed the car industry and some companies even made it a rule that every employee should drive his/her car to the office. What a foolish rule!
The traffic became really terrible here! And the air is really bad. It’s funny that most citizens do not feel uncomfortable and they do not see the crisis.
There are some families that have more than one cars! I really cannot understand them.
I think Chinese should have more responsibilities for the global warming because we-1.3 billion people are using the source and producing CO2 and SO2.
I guess Chinese people will be guilty in the future if they still live like this.
[…] usage: US and India By Hutom I found, via comments on this blog,that the average US household uses 10656 kiloWatt-hours (kWh) per year according to the US Dept. of […]
It’s nice to see you here — I’m glad you’re not only interested in differential geometry and physics, though that’s great stuff.
I love China, having spent two summers there, and I don’t think they are making many mistakes that the West hasn’t already made. As I mentioned earlier, citizens of the US were already in 1800 using an amount of power equal to the average amount people around the world are using today! We helped lead the world down a dangerous road. So, in a sense it is unfair for Americans to criticize the Chinese. However, it’s a simple fact that there are a lot more people in China and India, so if people in these countries copy America’s mistakes, it is likely to be disastrous.
The only hope I see is for educated people like you to start talking about this issue and start doing something about it.
Some good news: China is getting into solar power. China is the world leader in producing photovoltaics (solar panels). Production has increased so much that this year the price of solar power may have dropped below the price of nuclear power!
From New York Times:
So, I think China has the potential to do great things… but only if the Chinese push in the right direction!
Hello John Baez!
Yes. Indeed I saw some solar power instruments near Yinchuan.
But the majority of energy still comes from oil and coal. And the most dangerous thing is that some people here regard cars and big houses as their dream or ambition of life. I tried to persuade my family not to buy a car,but I failed. I found most people really do not care about this planet no matter what I told to them. Some of them think that the crisis is a ‘legend’,which is too far from them and their generations.
In my opinion, currently, the most important thing is not to tell others the way they should live, but to find a technique of cheaper and environmentally friendly cars so that the traditional cars will be eliminated soon in the market.
Sometimes I think people in the modern industry and economy are like gamblers. The only key to stop them is not from the education about our planet. It’s from the market its self.
On the other hand, physics tell me that the efficiency of ideal engine is always less than 1/3, no matter what kind of energy we use, isn’t it?
And my classmate told me that people must use a kind of Silicon minerals to produce solar power battery. I guess the minerals will be less and less and we will finally use up.
According to some reports,the global warming will be continue even if we all use the environmentally friendly energy from now on.
My GR lecturer told me the efficiency of energy from gravity and nuclear fusion are very high. But I think they are too far from us.
Do you have any good idea?
I wish you will find a way to a better future.
But, frankly speaking, I do not hold out much hope after watching the film ‘The Day After Tomorrow’ :(
OH MY GOD.
I typed the wrong stuff.
I mean less than 1.
it should be 1- T2/T1.
A very serious book on this topic is Ed Wilson’s new novel Anthill.
The point is that physicists who want to “save the world” have much to learn from ecologists who have worked at it for many decades.
• Edward O. Wilson, Anthill: a Novel, W.W. Norton & Co., New York, 2010.
“Raff lived by three maxims. Fortune favors the prepared mind. People follow someone who knows where he’s going. And control the middle, because that’s where the extremes eventually have to meet.”
I think that you have to be careful precisely what the “target” is. Ecologists are probably the best people to understand what actions to perform to “preserve the viability of species/ecosystems”. However, there are a lot of people who are trying to figure out/make actions with the targets like “reducing carbon emissions”, “acheiving energy independence”, “long-term sustainable lifestyles”, etc. A lot of these are using scientific/technological ideas and means, and in this respect a wide array of scientists can have useful inputs about the distribution of likely future outcomes. For example, I discuss a lot about whether “peak oil is now”, and one of the things that’s really disturbing is the number of people who’ll pick one experiment in a carefully controlled lab about “technology X” that gives a theoretical efficiency of, say, 85 percent and come up with plans for huge scale national roll-out planning assuming that real-world deployments will inevitably achieve these efficiencies within a decade or so. Scientists, particularly those with experiences in those fields, can help to inform those kind of discussions with a realistic spectrum of what might be achieved in the future. (As you can probably tell, I’m strongly of the opinion that this endeavour has to be pursued in a decision theoretic way that accepts that, at a given point in time at which decisions need to be made, the best interpretation of the evidence may not have reduced things to a either “completely proved” or “completely proven false”, rather than “purely scientific” problems where a scientist would reasonably say “no comment until after more experiments”.)
I think the best that basic science can really do is to continue to elucidate how the Universe works, to continue to push their models to make predictions about various sorts of physical phenomena. It’s up to applied scientists to take those ideas and predictions and use them to make proof-of-concept devices, and it’s up to engineers to make production-level devices and overcome the inevitable problems in scaling things up from micro-scale to macro-scale.
Ecologists can tell us where our whole systems are at currently, and game out various results for future states of the systems, so policy can be set so as to avoid catastrophe (see http://climateprogress.org/2010/07/29/nature-decline-ocean-phytoplankton-global-warming-boris-worm/)
Basic scientists can have an indirect effect most of the time (however discoveries do come out of basic science from time to time, like the photoelectric effect, which was instrumental in the creation of photovoltaic cells). It’s in figuring out room-temperature superconductivity, for example, where the phenomena predicted and modeled by basic science can be used in applied science and engineering to provide a cheap, non-CO2 producing, alternative to transport powered by internal combustion engines – in this case, by maglev trains and monorails and suchlike. It’s an indirect thing, for the most part, but sometimes there’s an aha!-experience as well.
The point I was making was more that there are more “tasks” than just direct species/ecology tasks.
In a lot of areas the distinction between “basic scientists” and “applied scientists” is very indistinct: high temperature superconductivity is a typical example in physics — my limited understanding is that the fact that the theoretical BCS superconductivity mechanism couldn’t apply to newly discovered higher-temperature superconductors led to a search for more possible theoretical superconductivity mechanisms.
The interplay of scientists is all fine. What unfortunately sometimes happens is that people — sometimes with the power to make things happen, sometimes not — will hear one isolated report of a lab scale experiment and assume that this is guaranteed to be representative. One of the important services scientists can perform is to make clear the degrees of uncertainty about work in their field, so that disproportionate funds and other resources are allocated to plans based on them. For example this article
contains the phrase “I have estimated that 10 square meters per person of diatom solar panels may suffice”. I’ve already seen some people wondering how to manage the logistics of a distributed 60 billion square metres of diatom solar panels. Diatoms may work out exactly as planned, but I think it would be a valuable service for scientists to point out where statements do not make clear the uncertainties about how a science/technology will develop.
It’s part and parcel of the way science is taught in schools, often by less than competent teachers armed with only a degree in education and precious little knowledge or education in the real processes of science. People see science as absolute truth, with no equivocation or uncertainty. That’s the way it gets taught, because then the teacher isn’t confronted with questions he or she couldn’t answer. When people see or hear scientists saying that a result is unsure, that more research needs doing to further figure out what’s going on, people feel let down and disappointed, and they’ll call their representative or senator and complain about good money being poured down ratholes while their children get the short end of the stick in school. Newspapers and the media in general will ridicule the effort on the same lines, so potentially good research might get its funding cut for no very good reason, just an emotional response.
Part of the way to remedy this is to provide science (and math) courses for media people, to get them up to speed enough so they can do a good job of reporting what’s really going on. Another part of the remedy is to require that all teachers of science have a BSc degree in the branch of science (or math) which they wish to teach, said requirements for such degree to be set by the respective professional body for each science (APS for physics, ACS for chemistry, and so on). I wouldn’t allow “grandfathering” given the immediacy of the problem. Finally, I’d set requirements for graduation such that students have sufficient scientific literacy to be able to evaluate claims made by scientists and makers of products, and also have sufficient mathematical literacy so as not to be fooled by statistics or faulty logic. These are just a few ways of starting to deal with this problem of unreasonable expectations vis-a-vis the scientific process.
One thing that scientists should definitely be doing is talking about the environmental impact of certain lines of scientific research. Biofuels are still burned, producing CO2 in the process, so it might not be a good idea in terms of AGW to bring more carboniferous fuels to the marketplace. We should be concentrating on burning *less* carboniferous fuels, not more, and we should be concerned about producing *less* of these fuels.
Btw, the article wasn’t about producing solar electricity, it was about using bio-panels to produce bio-fuels, namely oil. The bio-panels contain diatoms which could be “milked” for biofuel production, which could be presumably refined like oil. The authors state that 60 billion m2 would be enough to produce 60 billion gallons, or roughly 1.3 billion barrels of oil. Right now, world consumption of crude oil per year is about 7.2 billion barrels, so this would add 1.3 billion barrels to the supply, allowing population to expand to consume (and burn) the additional oil…
It seems to me that Joe Kaplinsky must be right when he said elsewhere that carboniferous fuels don’t increase the net CO2 in the atmosphere if all the carbon they contain is taken from the atmosphere, and no extra CO2 is released in the manufacturing process.
Unfortunately the latter condition is not met for real-world biofuels! Currently, fossil fuels are used to help manufacture biofuels. Also, forests and grasslands are being torn down to grow biofuels, and this releases sequestered carbon.
I wrote a longer comment about this in the relevant blog entry.
See, we’re already building up enough stored knowledge that a wiki would be a useful addition to Azimuth!
BTW, a back-of-the-envelope calculation gives a figure of a square 150 miles on each side to produce the 60 billion gallons of oil. http://www.theoildrum.com has an interesting article on algae oil: http://www.theoildrum.com/node/2531
(This is the closest post with a reply button; hopefully it’ll thread OK.)
Just to clarify: the 60 billion square metre figure just came from a misremembered world population of 6 billion by the quoted “10 square metres per person should be sufficient”. Checking, it looks like the world population is about 6.7 billion now. (Incidentally I thought the world’s supplying about 71 million barrels per day of “all liquids derived from some kind of oil”, which looks like that gives about 26 billion barrels used per year [plus obviously whatever other liquid fuel sources currently provide], but I might be making a mistake somewhere.)
Secondly, the part of the concern about peak oil is that almost all of our current mining and construction machinery (and to a lesser extent the general economy which “funds” things like “renewables roll-out”) is heavily dependent on oil. So even if we can find viable machines for extracting energy from renewable sources, it might well be that substantial amounts of high energy liquid fuel are needed to get to the point where enough renewable infrastructure has been built/converted to be “self-sustaining”. http://www.theoildrum.com is indeed an informative site, not least because it frequently discusses what how current infrastructure unfortunately proscribes what might be done on a national/worldwide scale in the short-term future. (I frequently post there under a different pseudonym.)
Bane says: “I’m strongly of the opinion that this endeavour has to be pursued in a decision theoretic way…”
Bane, if you read Wilson’s Anthill you will find that the fate Wilson reserves for irreconcilables is anything *but* decision theoretic … it’s instead (and perhaps by Wilson’s conscious intent?) the converse of primatologist Dian Fossey’s fate.
I’m trying to avoid buying any non-used books at the moment (for a tangentially environmentalist reason), but I’ll try and get a copy from the library. However, just in case I wasn’t clear: for me a purely scientific problem is one where one can say “experiments to date do not support theory X sufficiently unambiguously, so X is unproven, but after more experiments…”. Theories about the environmental world are often such that they may suggest action is required at a point before they could be said to completely proven at the certitude of a scientific problem. As such, one’s actions should be based consideration of which actions are appropriate if the theory is accurate in advance of the point at which almost all experts agree with it, and the best term I know for acting even in the presence of uncertainty is decision theory.
A brief internet plot search suggests that Wilson’s novel is focusing on lack of resolution even after the evidence is quite decisive, which is probably often true. I’m just arguing that action often deserves to be attempted even before this point.
It’s interesting that mathematicians often talk about “pure math”, scientists sometimes talk about “pure science”, but physicians almost *never* talk about “pure medicine.”
Rather, the foundational medical principle for 2,000 years has been Hippocrates’ Ars longa, vita brevis, occasio praeceps, experimentum periculosum, iudicium difficile … The art (of Medicine) is long, life is short, opportunity fleeting, experiment dangerous, judgment difficult.
In this sense, the problems our planet faces are more nearly medical, than they are mathematical or scientific. Wilson’s novel Anthill tackles this sobering reality head-on.
I completely agree. I should emphasize that the reason I’m trying to get mathematicians and physicists involved in saving the planet is not because I think they can do a better job than other people, but merely because 1) that’s what I am, 2) everyone has their own particular way they can help out, and 3) I think I can figure out some ways for people like me to help out.
Congrats on the new gig. One of the best things may be the chance to work more closely with Artur Ekert, who along with David Detusch, was one of the early adopters. Have fun.
From a different part of the universe, one of the old and few wise men (whom I admire) working in the finance industry chimed in on the subject recently:
• Grantham: Everything You Need to Know About Global Warming in 5 Minutes.
Hi! Thanks, this gives a simple clear explanation of why global warming is a serious threat, which may ironically command greater respect in certain circles because Jeremy Grantham is not a climate scientist but instead runs an asset management fund worth $107 billion as of December 2009, and apparently foresaw a number of bubbles.
(By the way, my picture appears on your comment because I took the liberty of moving it from “How Hot is Too Hot?” to a more relevant thread. I don’t know why it had that effect or how to fix it.)
[…] the intro post by John Baez in his new […]
Will you be blogging about endangered species within the borders of America? A very deep and important issue. On this issue,there is a very deep interacton between science and deep philosophy questions-in the realm of moral philosophy(meta-ethical and normative- ethical issues).
I think you should read philosopher Bryan Norton’s book Why Preserve Natural Variety?
Someone raised the question about whether or not Americans care. They will certainty care when the natural beauty is gone. I suppose this is the problem at hand. They do seem to care a lot about their favorite sports team.
There have been very interesting debates about the morality of saving the snail darter and other obscure endangered endemic species.
I would like to write about endangered species, but not necessarily from an American-centered viewpoint. I’m living in Singapore, a small island where the forest has been reduced to 4% of its original size, and more than half the native freshwater fish, one-third of the birds and a quarter of the seed plants and mamrnals are now extinct. Right next door is Borneo, an incredibly rich ecosystem that’s suffering from rapid deforestation:
A half-hour drive up north will take me to the now decimated mangrove swamps of Malaysia… and so on. I’d like to visit some of these places and report on them.
But I’m interested in America too.
Sounds good. I definitely want to talk about the virtues of preserving biodiversity. Any interest in writing a guest post?
Global warming makes for unhappy times for lizards.
I’ll just note that bound up in why one might want to “preserve species”, there’s also the question of how to apportion the work (whether that’s physical effort, money, political capital, etc). Can current science “determine”, with high probability, which species are beyond effective saving? This wikipedia entry suggests that Asiatic cheetahs, and to a lesser extent general cheetahs, went through a “population minimum” 12,000 years ago that means they likely have insufficient genetic diversity to breed effectively and to survive environmental stressors.
As unpalatable as it may be, one of the important tasks in coming years may be determining which species would benefit from conservation efforts.
Start with Norton’s book. I think it’s published by Princeton University Press. Bryan Norton teaches environmental ethics at Georgia Tech. You will find references for the classic papers that have been written on the topic of “Why Preserve Natural Variety”. Also, check out the Journal of Environmental Ethics.
Terrfying thought: the rapidly growing city of Las Vegas is very eager to get its hands on the large aquifer underneath Death Valley. This aquifer is the only home of a gentle little fish species that is minding its own business bothering no one – of course, this already makes it guilty of a great crime against humanity in Sean Hannity’s “moral” world view.
In a completely different matter. I am a marine ecologist at the University of Gothenburg preparing a lecture on the “big five” disasters in geological time and about how it affects marine life. You made a very good and enjoyable review on this matter in 2006. THANKS!!! I laughed…
About sustainable development in Singapore: My husband and I passed Singapore after our wedding in 1981 – huu – long time ago. Together with a botanist of the Botanical garden we passed the last mangrove of Singapore island which should be turned into an airport. With the bulldozers in my heels, and the mudskippers looking curiously on me, I secured a Euphorbiacea plant part that I still have. This was before the era of sustainable thinking. We still have the plant growing tall in our bathroom. If they want it back :-)
Hello – nice to meet you! If you ever want to tell us about marine ecology, just let me know. I’m doing email interviews of scientists who work in areas related to ecology, climate change, new technologies, and so on.
I have a euphorbia in my back yard in Riverside, thanks to a friend who collects them, along with cacti. So I tend to think of them as desert plants. But apparently they’re incredibly diverse. Even the drought-tolerant species range in appearance dramatically! My friend has a whole greenhouse full of them.
Here in Singapore I recently went to the botanic garden. You can see some pictures in my diary. Here are a few that didn’t make it into there. A tree with epiphytes:
They have lots of orchids:
Also some nice pitcher plants:
How’s the weather in Singapore now? Getting rains?
The weather in Singapore is famously constant. Here are average low and high temperatures in Celsius, percent humidity in the am and pm, millimeters of rain per month, and number of days where it rains more than .25 millimeters:
As you can see, it’s rainiest in November-January, and hottest in May. But it’s always rainy and it’s always hot.
So yeah, it’s been rainy and hot.
Half a month before I arrived, there was an unusually big flood on Orchard Road, which had people wondering about climate change — though certainly part of the problem was that someone forgot to clean out a drain pipe! More recently, strong winds blew down a tree, killing someone. It’s a small and orderly country, so such events count as big news.
Conservation biologists just might be able to predict inevitable extinction. I think there might even be a mathematical formula for it. It has something to do with something called the island effect(I think). I not exactly sure what the critcal number is..500?…100?… members of a species.It has something to do with why there really is no Nessie in Loch Ness and no dinos roaming around deep in the Congo…you can rule them out for mathematical reasons. A Conservation Biologist could explain it much better than I can. But since it’s probably just a calculus level mathematics problem, John could easily explain it to us after a little bit of reading of the conservation biology literature.
[…] Strive to work for things likely to have a positive impact on humanity. The idea is to have a good endgame in mind, so that, hopefully, your net impact will be more positive than negative. However, for the same reason pointed out above, this is hard unless you happen to work quite close to applications.Nonetheless, I find it a good exercise to try to see in the distant future and look at what your work is doing (a kind of ‘where do you see yourself in 10 years?’ question). Moreover, you have the power to frame your work in a specific narrative and that can be extremely effective to steer the people engaging with it in the right direction, or even to just attract the ‘right’ people and repel the ‘wrong’ ones. A great example of this, in my opinion, is John Baez’s Azimuth. […]