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“Go Educate Yourself”

How many Twitter exchanges, comment threads or even over the fence arguments ended with this phrase? There is something essentially American about this; somehow GG suspects that in some other parts of the world the response might be “you need to have a better education.” The difference between those two phrases represents a yawning chasm in understanding, one we need to bridge before we are so entombed in our comfy bubbles that no amount of reality can shake us to better know the world around us. Educating yourself means that you are intrinsically capable of identifying materials suitable for overcoming personal ignorance. Being educated implies the presence of an educator trained in getting people past their ignorance.

Right now, America stands naked to the world as a society utterly incapable of addressing a pandemic. Government officials often seem hellbent on ignoring public health experts. Armed crowds demand the elimination of public health orders even as sickness increases. In fact, it often seems like Americans are dedicated to seeing how rapidly they can spread the coronavirus, joining up by the tens of thousands in Sturgis or having massive house parties in Los Angeles. All while the U.S. has seen cases grow to 10 times that of the more populous European Union. So just where are folks educating themselves?

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Blowing Up Planets

OK, shouldn’t be news that the latest (last?) Star Wars film once again has given bad guys the means to blow up planets. While this is a very Star-Warsy thing to do, the notion kicks around from time to time (for instance, the Doomsday Machine of TOS Star Trek destroyed planets).  What would it take to blow up a planet?

Well, a quick approximation for the total potential energy of a uniform Earth is about – 2 x 10³² J (that is relative to everything being out at an infinite distance). To blow it up so all the pieces go far, far away would require roughly that amount of  energy (maybe more as you’d lose energy to phase transitions in the rock, lost energy to radiated light and heat, etc.). One way to do this might be to park a package of antimatter at the center and use E= mc², so m= 1.25 x 10^15 kg, or 1.25 teratons of antimatter (about 2 x 10^-8 percent of the mass of the Earth, or about 0.05% of the mass of the Death Star). That is a boat load of antimatter! Even allowing for just shattering the planet enough to make a pile of asteroids, you would need a whole lot of antimatter…

The Sun puts out about 3.8×10^26 watts continuously or about 1.4×10^30 J per hour, so to get to 2 x 10³² J of total energy we need to capture all the Sun’s output for about 100 hours. Hey, that feels more doable! Though tossing that blanket around the Sun would be a big ask…

While Star Trek went the antimatter route with its doomsday machine, Star Wars prefers big bright laser blasts.  But how does this work? The Physics of Star Wars took this pretty literally and imagined the laser igniting large oil deposits or, in the absence of that, melting the planet.  Frankly, neither of these seem likely (though some good news: melting the planet probably easier than blowing it up). As the book noted, to blow things up you’d need a mix of oxygen and volatile fuel, but such fuels are embedded in a reducing environment in the subsurface. So your odds of getting these to react in a proper ratio are about nil–you’d need space-based hydrofracking extraordinaire. And of course you’d have to hit such deposits where they are (most of the Earth’s crust lacks oil deposits). If Earth had perhaps 10,000 billion barrels of oil, burning it all might buy you about 6 x 10^22 J of energy–a mere factor of 10 billion too small to properly blow up our planet. So tossing in natural gas as well probably isn’t going to get us where we need to go.

Is there a way to make anything deeper become explosive? Frankly, it seems hard.  Our giant laser would bore a hole into the planet, probably vaporizing rock. The deeper this goes, the more pressure the rock is under and so volatilization could generate some pretty good forces, kind of like diatremes that erupt from the mantle at supersonic speeds. But that is mostly like opening a shaken can of soda: the forces developed are unlikely to really do much damage. Eventually the giant laser might go all the way through the planet. Conduction of heat from the big hole would be relatively slow, so even getting the planet to melt would probably not work well from this mode of attack; the greatest efficiency might well be flow of core material into the path of the laser. It seems implausible that this gas (well, plasma more likely) could exert an even greater force than the original metal core (more than likely, material would shoot back up the hole bored by the laser). Whether you could get stuff at those pressures to expand much at all (let alone go to gas) is problematic. So even if you hit the levels of being able to sink that kind of energy into a beam of energy, it is really hard to get your desired explosion.

And really, why blow up the planet?  Even if you want to remove all life on the surface, it is a lot easier to fling huge quantities of dust or gravel into the atmosphere to produce a global microwave environment or toss a big boulder into oceans to create monster tsunamis and the like. You can come back later and reuse the planet for something else.  Wasting all your effort on a galactic firecracker seems unwise, not to mention undoable.

The Pessimists Have It

Story in the New York Times on how climate scientists blew it–that climate change is already much worse than expected.

This was inevitable for a couple of reasons.  First, it was obvious almost from the very start that the biggest effects were going to be in the high latitudes (when GG taught historical geology, this point was made by looking at paleotemperature in the Cretaceous, which were much higher at high latitudes while perhaps only slightly higher in the tropics). Most of the IPCC reports did not attempt to include increased melting of ice or releases from permafrost, in large part because efforts to include these elements were viewed as too speculative.  And this then points to the main reason why thing seem to be unravelling fast: there was (and is) tremendous pressure to focus on the minimal impacts of climate change, which we discussed once before.

So what were these forces for moderation? Start with the science itself. Science is astonishingly conservative. If you are showing that something will occur, you have to show that the low-end assumptions will yield a significant change compared to the status quo. So the focus is not on the worst case, it is on the best case.

Then there is science building on science. This is the same problem: if you are working on, say, glacial melting, you are taking results from some other studies (which, as noted above, are likely already conservative) and again, you are looking to show what the minimum impact might be. So if we were working at, say, the 95% limit in the first study, we could be at the 99.75% level if the second study.

Now, the scientists working on this were well aware that the published literature was decidedly focused on the most conservative possibilities; there was plenty of concern that things could be a lot worse than those papers were showing.  After all, forecasting has large uncertainties–if the conservative results were showing melting glaciers and acidifying oceans, the most radical results were daunting in the extreme.

This leads to the next pressure to minimize impacts: wanting to appear reasonable to policy makers. These scientists were very sensitive to assaults on them as being alarmists. The result was that the already conservative published literature was then presented as more likely than it probably was. This is especially true for the more derivative impacts of climate change: the amount of warming hasn’t been horribly misanticipated, but ice melting has.

Finally, of course, we have “both-side-ism,” which was rather cleverly attacked by John Oliver a few years back. Because media managers decided that this was something that was controversial, they would bring on “pro” and “con” speakers, disregarding expertise in the field. The result is that there remains a steady stream of op-eds and editorial cartoons that question whether the globe is warming–a stance that is clearly, uncontrovertibly wrong.

So, you might think, things like that NY Times piece mean this is all behind us, right? Wrong.  As the story mentions, we’ve discovered that there are some unanticipatedly large feedbacks. Surface melting on glaciers can accelerate their flow into the ocean. The Antarctic ice sheet has proven vulnerable in ways unanticipated two decades ago. Loss of sea ice might also reduce clouds, enhancing the albedo problems that the loss of sea ice alone represents. Marine clathrates are still not on the agenda for IPCC but could be a huge problem later in the century. And, of course, we have the most anti-science administration probably ever in the U.S. There are few encouraging signs: some species are proving somewhat more resilient than expected, for instance, but on balance the pessimists are proving to be more prescient.

In 1964, Kitty Genovese was murdered; the report at the time claimed that more than 30 New Yorkers failed to call the police. The line that stood out in the story was from one witness who said “I didn’t want to get involved”. For decades this story was used to encourage people to act instead of turn away when witnessing .

Today it is the planet itself under attack. We are all part of the attack, and we are all witnesses who can try to prevent it from being fatal. The victims are those young enough to bear the full brunt of our inaction. When we die, will we be apologizing to our heirs by uttering the line “I didn’t want to get involved?”

Unprepared…or uninterested?

Recently an interview with NASA chief scientist Jim Green by The Sunday Telegraph led to a number of stories with titles like “the world may not be ready for the discovery” or “world is ‘not prepared’” or “Humans aren’t ready to accept there’s life on Mars“.

Um, really? Exactly what preparation do these folks think we need? I mean, will there be panic in the streets? “OMG, there are MICROBES in ROCKS on another planet MILLIONS of miles away! Let’s riot!” Do we need to take remedial biology classes? Will the Pope abandon Christianity? Is it time to upgrade our planetary defense systems? Should Trump’s Space Force be put on high alert? What exactly does Dr. Green fear?

(Frankly, GG is not remotely as optimistic as Dr. Green; to say “where there is water there is life” is not even accurate on earth–there is water in magma, gang, and not much in the way of life in that molten rock–and previously optimistic outlooks such as accompanied the original Viking lander proved to be misplaced. But whatever, could happen).

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Why Alabama Matters

A week ago on Sept. 1, President Trump tweeted out what seemed, on the face of it, to be a pretty innocuous message: “In addition to Florida – South Carolina, North Carolina, Georgia, and Alabama, will most likely be hit (much) harder than anticipated. Looking like one of the largest hurricanes ever. Already category 5. BE CAREFUL! GOD BLESS EVERYONE!” Later, in a briefing on Dorian, he said “It may get a little piece of a great place — it’s called Alabama. And Alabama could even be in for at least some very strong winds and something more than that, it could be. This just came up, unfortunately.”

The National Weather Service in Birmingham 20 minutes after the tweet put out their own tweet that Alabama would not be seeing significant impacts of the storm–which proved to be correct. And here is the National Hurricane Center’s map from their 5 am 1 Sept. update on Dorian:


(You can see the full collection of graphics at the National Hurricane Center’s site). Now such plots are routinely misread (winds extend out tens of miles from the storm’s center, for instance, and tracks in days 4 and 5 are often missed about a third of the time), but the forecast probability for tropical storm force winds barely nicked Alabama, while showing a greater threat to Virginia, Maryland and Delaware:


What followed bordered on slap-stick comedy that echoed many other times when the administration’s message was misaligned with reality, such as his first encounter with misbehaving weather when he said it wasn’t raining at his inauguration when it was. But this time some things were different: Trump had potentially panicked people in Alabama, and his defense utterly muddled the ongoing warnings of the actual impact of Dorian on the southeast coast.

While this administration’s many U-turns in public pronouncements along with over the top grandstanding and “what-aboutisms” have long been fodder for political pundits, few if any of those pronouncements carried the weight of “this affects what you should be doing right now.” Of course the weather service in Alabama had to react when Trump said that emerging information indicated that Alabama was at risk when it wasn’t. People in Alabama needed the best information so they might prepare–or, in this case, not.

Had Trump simply said “sorry, misspoke thinking of some graphs I saw four days ago” nobody really would have thought much about this; the storm’s post-Bahamas track had been very troubling for forecasters and some confusion was understandable, if regrettable. But by instead insisting he had spoken correctly and showing a fairly old (and doctored) map of Dorian’s path just as Dorian was turning to chew up the Outer Banks of North Carolina, the President risked confusing residents of coastal areas about when and where the storm would strike.

The last straw for many was the attempt by NOAA to appease the President, claiming that graphics like those above that show he was right even though they rather clearly show he was wrong.

There can be a lot of disagreement about how a President should behave and what policies he should advocate, but inflicting worry and possible chaos in potentially life-threatening situations is outside those bounds. In a way, this seems like a continuation of the administration’s war on science. We need a President to help warning those who should be warned–or just staying out of the way–not bickering over an errant tweet. Especially when the sole purpose is to pretend that the President is always right.

Is J.J. Abrams Saving Science?

Its taken GG quite awhile to figure out the game J.J. Abrams is playing, but with the last Star Wars trailer release, things are finally starting to clear up.  You see, he is really trying to save science from the clutches of the movies.

Now, GG has been a tad critical once or twice but now sees the light. All that disregard of, oh, time or space or energy or light speed or aerodynamics or, well, physics in general wasn’t ignorance.  No, seeing in the preview the wreckage of a Death Star plopped out at sea reminded GG of the big spaceships in The Force Awakens that somehow landed on a planet in more or less one piece–clearly implausible, but now, having dropped a bigger piece of Death Star structure into an ocean now clearly challenges basic engineering, both as the craft had become nothing more than little sparkles when last we saw it and also because in plummeting to ground it would have broken apart even further and then ended up facing real gravity in a strange direction that would have surely collapsed the thing. (Not to mention it probably would have rusted profoundly sitting in water).

No, this ever-increasing incredulity is Abrams clearly saying to us all: these are total and complete fantasies.  Nothing would ever look anything like this, not TIE fighters skimming along the ground, not energy blasts instantly visible from distant star systems, not blasters or laser swords or Force ghosts…. No matter how real filmmakers can make the impossible look, it remains impossible. Don’t learn your science here, young ones!

So J.J., we applaud your efforts to free the public from any illusion that fancy special effects reproduce reality in any way shape or form.  Bravo!

Space views

CNN ran a piece about a couple of men who hiked the whole length of the Grand Canyon–which is a pretty substantial achievement. But reading this, GG hit this quote and, well, got grumpy:

Being inside the only canyon on the planet that can be seen from space makes you feel miniscule.

Oh, come on! Didn’t this kind of ill-informed prose die out decades ago?

You really think Kings Canyon, Hells Canyon, any number of major Asian or Andean canyons, are somehow invisible from space?

This “seen from space” fallacy has been kicking around forever (at one time, it seemed like every tourist bureau had something that was the only one seen from space).  Wikipedia uses the definition of “seen from space” as something visible from low earth orbit without magnification (since, as most of us recognize these days, you can see pretty nearly everything from space that is outdoors with the proper optics). The Great Wall of China seems to have been the prototypical “thing uniquely visible from space,” but it turns out it is awfully hard to see from orbit.

You can see lots of stuff from low earth orbit. Reservoirs, for instance, are man made and easily visible.  Get the right light and you can see canals like the California Aqueduct glinting in the sunlight. The gray stain of urban areas is easy recognized. And pretty nearly any canyon you care to mention.

Now to be fair, the Grand Canyon is peculiarly visible because it is cut into strata with different colors within a smooth plateau with far more uniform (and bland) colors.  So it stands out more than, say, Kings Canyon, which is cut into granites lacking much color contrast and is surrounded by rugged topography. But only canyon visible from space? Puh-leeze.

Meme Shopping

10/26/18 update: Cohen is still fascinated by Nucla but does seem to have found a few more corners of Colorado to be fascinated with. So some of the criticism below might be overstated….

Arguably the sweetest job in America is to be an Op-Ed columnist for a major publication. Like everybody else in America, you have opinions you want to spout off on, but instead of lecturing from a barstool, standing on a street corner with a megaphone or writing an occasional letter to the editor, you get paid cash money! And a big audience! And what additional responsibility do you carry in exchange for this financial windfall? Frankly, it isn’t entirely clear there is any.  Imagine that you go visit friends while on vacation and they tell you how horrible the local government is.  You go home and write a column saying how horrible that local government is and isn’t it a shame that it isn’t better. Of course, that isn’t what columnists do, is it?

Well, try reading this column by Roger Cohen in the New York Times. Go ahead, we’ll wait…

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Geomovies 2018?

Its been awhile since we looked at how earth science in doing in the cinema.  The short answer is, not much and not well. Superhero and space opera movies have so abandoned reality that it is essentially pointless to be critical. For instance, Star Wars originally had some concept of the scale of space, but that was entirely wiped out by absolutely everything about the Starkiller Base in Force Awakens: the impossibly high stresses needed to make a planetary ditch at least 100 km high to the staggering variations in air pressure this would entail to the ridiculous notion of sucking a star into some weapon chamber to the impossibility of watching this thing fire its weapon in real time from a distant star system. With fanboy-fav and science-oblivious director J.J. Abrams returning for the 9th installment, we can expect to see evermore spectacular violations of reality…

Anyways, the point being that arguing the characteristics of vibranium in Marvel movies is pointless, as is the Bifrost or Dr Strange’s little portals just as the aerodynamics of the Millennium Falcon or TIE fighters is beyond hope. This seems to leave us with the Jurassic World movies.

There is little point here in even criticizing the dinosaurs since they were made imperfectly from the start–differences with real dinosaurs is explained simply as a result of the approximations used in making modern dinosaurs.  This leaves us with Isla Nublar, supposedly off the Pacific coast of Costa Rica (Hawaii acts as a stand-in) and complete with a volcano. Unsurprisingly, there is no volcanic island off Costa Rica, but at least it is on the Pacific Ocean and has volcanoes….So as its been awhile since volcanoes were front and center–how does this one look?

Well we see a lot of smoke from the summit and a lot of lava flowing out the sides. Some of this lava is exceptionally fluid, sneaking through cracks in a building (good luck with that; there’s a lot of video now of how the fairly fluid east rift lavas on the Big Island of Hawaii behave when hitting buildings or cars and it isn’t that fluid). But of course we then get some explosions from the flanks of the mountain and what would seem to be pyroclastic flow coming from the same spot.  A very slow pyroclastic flow at that, for instead of the typical speeds in excess of 100 mph usually seen, this one barely catches up to our protagonists moving at a run. Later the mountain shifts to hurling flaming boulders at everybody before some strange volcanic cloud of doom settles over the remaining dinosaurs. While not as laugh-out-loud silly as the cracks that open and close in Volcano, this is a very Hollywood volcano.

Would the volcano cause everything on the island to die? (what the movie’s news reporters call an “extinction level event,” which is not how any earth scientist would call the obliteration of a small population of animals on one island; “extinction level events” actually refer to events that cause mass extinctions, such as the asteroid impact at the end of the Cretaceous.  Extinctions of a few geographically limited species can be caused far more prosaically–by draining a marsh or damming a river).  The closest thing in recent history would be the eruption of the Soufriere Hills volcano in Montserrat 21 years ago, which led to 2/3 of the population leaving and the abandonment of the capital of Plymouth.  Even here, though, the northern part of the island is largely unaffected and there remains large tracts of forest in the southern half of the island. So probably something would still be marching around on the island….

Overall not a lot of excitement geoscience-wise. GG avoided the train wreck of Geostorm and will need someday to see how the kaiju in Pacific Rim 2 were to “activate” the Pacific Rim of Fire (a callback to 1965’s Crack in the World?). We’ll have to wait and see how Alpha plays out (yes, more paleoanthropology than geoscience, but there has been speculation that human access to the New World required the domestication of wolves into dogs to be able to compete successfully with carnivores of the northern latitudes). Looks like the San Andreas sequel is stalled or dead, so maybe no more earthquakes or volcanoes coming up anytime soon.

Probably the most thorough examination of geology in the movies was put together in Earth magazine a few years ago. And GG has weighed in a few times before….

Climate Krugman?

A rather odd paper in the Journal of Technical Writing and Communication makes the case, in a way, that science needs a public intellectual writing like how Paul Krugman has for economics.  The paper tears apart the rhetoric of the NY Times columnist and seems to suggest that what is missing in public discourse is a scientist willing to mix it up with a similar degree of plain-spoken advocacy and truth-telling. The paper explicitly dismisses the kind of persona of stalwarts like Bill Nye the Science Guy, Neil DeGrasse Tyson, and Carl Sagan despite the very public denouncements from all about science denialism.

Realistically, the paper misses the point.  Is Paul Krugman an effective communicator? Sure. But why does he have such a bully pulpit? It is not simply because of his communication skills (and this paper notably does not investigate how he came to write the way he does), it is because one of the most influential newspapers in the world decided to give him regular column space. And why did they do that? A big part is because economics is clearly tangled with politics: elections are often won or lost on the state of the economy.  But part of it is that New York is a center of financial activity: there was from the start a readership interested in opinions about economics. It didn’t hurt that he was local (so some columns have dealt with New York specific themes) and that he could write to a fixed space on a deadline.

Are there no voices like his out there in scienceland? Well, the blogosphere seems pretty loaded with scientists being pretty noisy about things (you could start at contributors to Real Climate and branch out from there to find some folks on the climate side of things just for starters).

So GG will argue that it isn’t the absence of equally robust voices in the scientific community that has prevented the emergence of some kind of equally influential science writer, it is the absence of an equivalent platform, one where such an individual can learn the ropes of effective public rhetoric. And where might such a platform emerge? Not New York or Washington DC; neither community really has enough of a science readership to make a publisher turn over space on a regular basis; those communities are far more fascinated with power and money. Probably the three most likely candidates are Boston, Denver, and San Francisco.  Boston has an enormous number of universities and some of the most capable scientists in the world.  Let the Boston Globe give Kerry Emanuel space a couple times and week and see what happens. Denver is home to one of the largest communities of earth scientists anywhere, plus a public that values the outdoors and so has more interest in the environment than many other markets; maybe the Denver Post should make inquiries. The San Francisco Bay Area is also home to a lot of earth scientists as well as a couple national labs and the tech industry; you’d think that the San Francisco Examiner or Chronicle might be willing to host some science column and encourage a political angle to it.

There are though a couple other barriers.  Krugman is a Nobel winning economist but also a reliably liberal voice; knowing about where he fits on a partisan scale probably makes it easier to rely on him as a columnist. Economists are much more political creatures than physical scientists. A scientist writing op-eds might anger the right one day in complaining about removing evolution and climate change from textbooks, and then piss off the left the next in pointing out the ridiculous claims of anti-vaxxers and GMO opponents. Its not clear how that might play (the closest Krugman seems to come to that is pointing out that restrictive growth regulations, like those in liberal cities like Boulder and San Francisco, make these communities too expensive and exclusive for their own good). Another barrier is the risk of weighing in strongly where you know little.  Linus Pauling was a two-time Nobel medalist who went far off the deep end in advocating for vitamin C as a kind of miracle drug; would he have made a good columnist? You need a generalist who can avoid falling into a trap of thinking they know more than they do while venturing into unfamiliar terrain from time to time. And frankly the broader community views “scientist” as one-size-fits-all, but there is a pretty wide gap between lab and field sciences in practice that has at times produced prominent intellectuals on one side saying pretty stupid things about what the other side does. A Nobel Prize in Physics might not make one a great commentator on earth science, for instance (and earth science lacks a Nobel; the closest is the Crafoord Prize). (GG recalls the naiveté of some physicists pursuing a fabled fourth force some time back, while physicists can ridicule how geologists thought the Earth was eternal back in the day).

Finally there is the pain barrier.  The paper mentions Micheal Mann as a possible candidate for such a public intellectual, but when you consider the kinds of attacks he has endured (some pretty powerful people threatening his job and credentials in court and in halls of government)–these are well beyond what most columnists have ever faced, and this is without him having regularly spoken on topics beyond climate change. Scientists generally do not go into science to be attacked in court or vilified in public. The ferocity around climate change dwarfs the typical economic arguments over business cycles and Federal reserve policy.

[And an aside.  Why does it seem that astronomers of all people end up as public celebrities? Are they viewed as more distant and so safe?]

So will voices emerge like those the author of the Krugman analysis paper desires? It seems profoundly unlikely, but not because of a rhetoric gap.