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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…

Read More…

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.

Book Knowledge

Well, its been several months since The Mountains that Remade America came out, and it feels like it is worth a moment to contemplate the process, particularly the surprises.  Just in case anybody else is interested.

Writing an academic trade book is kind of neither fish nor fowl.  A textbook is in some ways a glorified collection of lecture notes. Now you do have to go through and fix up things, and often you realize there are things you don’t teach that should be in the book, but this is material you are deeply familiar with.  Often the hardest part is coming up with exercises at the end of chapters that aren’t too bland and aren’t too hard.  Tedious, yes.  In some ways the oddest part about textbooks is that you don’t generally cite the source material the way you might in a journal article, which can be liberating.

A regular trade book (you know, like novels or anything without footnotes) is similarly liberating: maybe you sort of recall some piece of information, and you are pretty confident it is right, but you can’t lay your hands back on it, well, you can stick it in.  Now depending on the topic, a fact checker might be employed to look for mistakes, but that can be somebody else’s job.

No, an academic trade book rests on the author’s shoulders more squarely. Read More…

Climate Illiteracy

A National Review article recently crowed that Al Gore’s “Doomsday clock” had passed and things were OK. You’d think for a publication that for years had at least the reputation for being able to understand and properly use the English language that the Review could parse Gore’s statement properly; the article says: “Gore declared that unless we took “drastic measures” to reduce greenhouse gasses, the world would reach a “point of no return” in a mere ten years.” That was 10 years ago.

A “point of no return” is awfully different from an unbearable climate, and while that article uses more ridiculous (and also selectively quoted) materials to ridicule Gore, was he in fact right? What is a “point of no return?” It means that there is enough warming baked in, by heat stored in the oceans, CO2 already in the climate system, that harmful effects in the future are unavoidable.  The climate community pretty much believes we passed that point: significant warming in the latter part of the century is guaranteed, significant ice loss in Greenland will raise sea levels enough to force abandonment of very low lying areas. While the exact magnitudes of change will remain uncertain, bending the curve back to a natural state is beyond any mitigation we can plausibly deploy in the next few decades. If anything, most climate scientists would argue that Gore was an optimist: we probably passed a tipping point some time ago. The argument now is to try and limit the damage, because it can be much worse if we continue to do nothing.

So if crowing about your personal misunderstanding of climate statements passes as deep wisdom in the National Review, what does this tired chestnut of a cartoon tell you?


12/28/17 Michael Ramirez cartoon,

I mean, really?  Can Americans get their head around the idea that the East Coast is not the only thing that counts as “global”? Check out this global image from the same day as the cartoon (via WUndergrounds’s Category Six blog):


From wunderground post; their caption: Departure of surface temperature from average for December 28, 2017. Areas in red and orange are not necessarily warm, but they are above the average for this time of year at that location. While the Northeast U.S. was experiencing near-record cold, the globe as a whole was 0.5 °C above average, thanks to global warming. Image credit:, University of Maine Climate Change Institute.

How many times do some people have to be hit over the head to grasp the difference between an average and a distribution? Or to even have the most simple concept of geography?

We are doomed as a species if the opinion leaders we follow remain such doddering idiots.