Discount on Ebook

Discounted to 99c/99p from Oct 11 – 18: Legionis Legatus. Second in a series wherein Scaevola, on the verge of abandoning Athene’s quest, suddenly finds more of the prophecy coming true: Caligulae gives him the command of a legion; he suddenly sees why Aristotle was wrong when he proved the Earth could not go around the sun; and while doing so, he ignores the most beautiful woman he has seen, one of the only two prophesied to be in his life. Scaevola must recover from ignoring she who could be his wife, help thwart the Scribonianus coup against Claudius, and command legion XX Valeria for the invasion of Britain. A historical novel that also includes the answer to the scientific puzzle in Athene’s Prophecy: how to show why the earth has to go around the sun with the knowledge available at the time. http://www.amazon.com/dp/B00JRH83E2

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Science and Climate Change

In the previous post, I questioned whether science is being carried out properly. You may well wonder, then, when this week the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change issued a rather depressing report, and a rather awkward challenge: according to their report, the world needed to limit the temperature rise to 1.5 degrees C between now and 2050, and to do that, it needed to cut carbon emissions by 45% by 2030, and net zero by 2050. Even then significant amounts of carbon have to be removed from the atmosphere. The first question is, then, is this real, and if so, why has the IPCC suddenly reduced the tolerable emissions? If their scientists previously predicted seriously lower requirements, why should these be considered better? There are two simple answers. The first is the lesser requirements were based on the assumption that nations would promptly reduce emissions. Most actually increased them. The second is more complicated.

The physics have been verified many times. However, predicting the effects is another matter. The qualitative effects are easily predicted, but to put numbers on them requires very complicated modelling. The planet is not an ideal object, and the calculation is best thought of as an estimate. What has probably happened is their modelling made a projection of what would happen, and they did this long enough ago that now that they can compare prediction with where we are now. That tells them how good the various constants they put into the model were. Such a comparison is somewhat difficult, but there are clear signs in our observations, and things are worse than we might hope for.

So, what are we going to do? Nothing dramatic is going to happen on 2040, or 2050. Change will be gradual, but its progress will be unstoppable unless very dramatic changes in our behaviour are made. The technical challenges here are immense. However, there are a number of important decisions to be taken because we are running short of time due to previous inaction. Do we want to defend what we have? Do we want to attempt to do it through sacrificing our life style, or do we want to attempt a more aggressive approach? Can we get sufficient agreement that anything we try will be properly implemented? Worst of all, do we know what our options are? Of these questions, I am convinced that through inaction, and in part the structural defects of academic science, the answer to the last question is no.

The original factor of required emissions reduction was set at 1990 as a reference point. What eventuated was that very few countries actually reduced any emissions, and most increased them. The few that did reduce them did that by closing coal-fired electricity generation and opted for burning natural gas. This really achieves little, and would have happened anyway. Europe did that, although France is a notable exception to this in that it has had significant nuclear power for a long time. Nuclear power has its problems, but carbon emissions are not one of them. The countries of the Soviet Union have also actually had emission reductions, although this is as much as anything due to the collapse of their economies as they made the rather stupid attempt to convert to “free market economics” which permitted a small number of oligarchs to cream the economy, sell off what they could, use what was usable, pay negligible wages and export their profits so they could purchase foreign football clubs. That reduced carbon emissions, but it is hardly a model to follow.

There is worse news. Most people by now have recognized that Donald Trump and the Republican party do not believe in global warming, while a number of other countries that are only beginning to industrialize want the right to emit their share of CO2 and are on a path to burn coal. Some equatorial countries are hell-bent on tearing down their rain forest, while warming in Siberia will release huge amounts of methane, which is about thirty times more potent than CO2. Further, if we are to totally change our way of life, we shall have to dismantle the energy-related infrastructure from the last fifty years or so (earlier material has probably already been retired) and replace it, which, at the very least will require billions of tonnes of carbon to make the required metals.

There will be some fairly predictable cries. Vegetarians will tell everyone to give up meat. Cyclists will tell everyone they should stop driving cars. In short, everyone will have ideas where someone else gives up whatever. One problem is that people tend to want to go for “the magic bullet”, the one fix to fix them all. Thus everyone should switch to driving electric vehicles. In the long term, yes, but you cannot take all those current vehicles off the road, and despite what some say, heavy trucks, major farm and construction equipment, and aircraft are going to run on hydrocarbons for the foreseeable future. People talk about hydrogen, but hydrogen currently requires massive steel bottles (unless you are NASA, or unless you can get hydrides to act reversibly). And, of course, there is a shortage of material to make enough batteries. Yes, electric vehicles, cycling, public transport and being a vegetarian are all noble contributions, but they are just that. Wind and solar power, together with some other sources, are highly desirable, but I suspect that something else, such as nuclear power must be adopted more aggressively. In this context, Germany closing down such reactors is not helpful either.

Removing CO2 from the atmosphere is not that easy either. There have been proposals to absorb it from the effluent gases of coal-fired power stations. Such scrubbing is not 100% efficient, but even if it were, it is not dealing with what is already there. My guess is, that can only be managed by plants in sufficient scale. While not extremely efficient, once going they look after themselves. Eventually you have to do something with the biomass, but restoring all the tropical rain forests would achieve something in the short term. My personal view is the best chances are to grow algae. The sea has a huge area and while we still have to learn how to do it, it is plausible, and the resultant biomass could be used to make biofuel.

No, it is not going to be easy. The real question is, can we be bothered trying to save what we have?

Is science being carried out properly?

How do scientists carry out science, and how should they? These are questions that have been raised by reviewers in a recent edition of Science magazine, one of the leading science journals. One of the telling quotes is “resources (that) influence the course of science are still more rooted in traditions and intuitions than in evidence.” What does that mean? In my opinion, it is along the lines, for those who have, much will be given. “Much” here refers to much of what is available. Government funding can be tight. And in fairness, those who provide funds want to see something for their efforts, and they are more likely to see something from someone who has produced results consistently in the past. The problem is, the bureaucrats responsible for providing the finds have no idea of the quality of what is produced, so they tend to count scientific papers. This favours the production of fairly ordinary stuff, or even rubbish. Newbies are given a chance, but there is a price: they cannot afford to produce nothing. So what tends to happen is that funds are driven towards something that is difficult to fail, except maybe for some very large projects, like the large hadron collider. The most important thing required is that something is measured, and that something is more or less understandable and acceptable by a scientific journal, for that is a successful result. In some cases, the question, “Why was that measured?” would best be answered, “Because it was easy.” Even the large hadron collider fell into that zone. Scientists wanted to find the Higgs boson, and supersymmetry particles. They found the first, and I suppose when the question of building the collider, the reference (totally not apt) to the “God Particle” did not hurt.

However, while getting research funding for things to be measured is difficult, getting money for analyzing what we know, or for developing theories (other than doing applied mathematics on existing theories), is virtually impossible. I believe this is a problem, and particularly for analyzing what we know. We are in this quite strange position that while in principle we have acquired a huge amount of data, we are not always sure of what we know. To add to our problems, anything found more than twenty years ago is as likely as not to be forgotten.

Theory is thus stagnating. With the exception of cosmic inflation, there have been no new major theories that have taken hold since about 1970. Yet far more scientists have been working during this period than in all of previous history. Of course this may merely be due to the fact that new theories have been proposed, but nobody has accepted them. A quote from Max Planck, who effectively started quantum mechanics may show light on this: “A new scientific truth does not triumph
by convincing its opponents and making them see the light, but rather because its opponents eventually die.” Not very encouraging. Another reason may be that it failed to draw attention to itself. No scientist these days can read more than an extremely tiny fraction of what is written, as there are tens of millions of scientific papers in chemistry alone. Computer searching helps, but only for well-defined problems, such as a property of some material. How can you define carefully what you do not know exists?

Further information from this Science article provided some interest. An investigation led to what then non-scientists might consider a highly odd result, namely for scientific papers to be a hit, it was found that usually at least 90 per cent of what is written is well established. Novelty might be prized, but unless well mixed with the familiar, nobody will read it, or even worse, it will not be published. That, perforce, means that in general there will be no extremely novel approach, but rather anything new will be a tweak on what is established. To add to this, a study of “star” scientists who had premature deaths led to an interesting observation: the output of their collaborators fell away, which indicates that only the “star” was contributing much intellectual effort, and probably actively squashing dissenting views, whereas new entrants to the field who were starting to shine tended not to have done much in that field before the “star” died.

A different reviewer noticed that many scientists put in very little effort to cite past discoveries, and when citing literature, the most important is about five years old. There will be exceptions, usually through citing papers by the very famous, but I rather suspect in most cases these are cited more to show the authors in a good light than for any subject illumination. Another reviewer noted that scientists appeared to be narrowly channeled in their research by the need to get recognition, which requires work familiar to the readers, and reviewers, particularly those that review funding applications. The important thing is to keep up an output of “good work”, and that tends to mean only too many go after something that they more or less already now the answer. Yes, new facts are reported, but what do they mean? This, of course, fits in well with Thomas Kuhn’s picture of science, where the new activities are generally puzzles that are to be solved, but not puzzles that will be exceedingly difficult to solve. What all this appears to mean is that science is becoming very good at confirming that which would have been easily guessed, but not so good at coming up with the radically new. Actually, there is worse, but that is for the next post.