Morning. High tide. You can’t hear anything over the sound of the waves.
The hounds decide to take a walk. I follow, taking the opportunity to work out the kinks in my bones and muscles left by the night-time cold. The sky overhead is gray, thick with featureless clouds, and there’s a chill wind blowing in off the sea. The waves are active, thundering on the surf, the oily-looking water surging up the sand, leaving a dirty-brown line of foam behind to mark the limit of its reach.
Here and there a body has washed ashore, and the living clump about, attending to the deceased. Dark pup trots over to one assemblage, Li’l blonde pup in tow, sniffing things out, here and there, both being petted absently by the congregates. They tire of the routine quickly, the odor emanating from the bodies too much of a downer so early in the day. He knows the smell; it’s as old as the idea of him. The yellow pup, more animated of the two, lets lose a few barks, then quiets down, head hanging, looking sad. He knows there are endings everywhere this day; he prefers not to think about them.
We climb the sandstone cliffs to get away from the death, carefully picking our way along eroding paths, making our way to the top. Once there, I stop to catch my breath, gazing out over the turbulent surf. A couple of the unlucky ships are still visible, caught on rocks, their bottoms ripped out, their masts down, slowly disintegrating under the relentless pounding of the waves. I fancy I think I see some movement on one of the twisted hulks, survivors, still alive, or else ocean-born predators, feasting on the unfortunate. I look down to the dark pup, now squatting at my side, taking a dump. He looks back, his expression “Yeah, so what do you want me to do about it?” He finishes his business, sniffs things out, then moves off, chasing after the blonde pup.
“Nothing,” I whisper after him with a resigned smile.
“Throughout history, poverty is the normal condition of man. Advances which permit this norm to be exceeded – here and there, now and then – are all the work of an extremely small minority, frequently despised, often condemned, and almost always opposed by all right-thinking people. Whenever this tiny minority is kept from creating, or (as sometimes happens) is driven out of a society, the people then slip back into abject poverty.
“This is known as “bad luck”. “
– Robert A. Heinlein
Scientists are smart and clever people.
They have to be. Unlike almost any other profession you can name, if you are going to be a good scientist, you really can’t take any short cuts. This is particularly true of Physicists. As a lawyer of my acquaintance once remarked, physicists are the smartest guys in the room. They just are.
“Physics is the only real science. The rest are just stamp collecting.”
So where does that arrogant certitude come from?
Carl Sagan outlines what it takes to study quantum mechanics:
“Imagine you seriously want to understand what quantum mechanics is about. There are mathematical underpinnings that you must first acquire, mastery of each mathematical subdiscipline leading you to the threshold of the next. In turn you must learn arithmetic, Euclidian geometry, high school algebra, differential and integral calculus, ordinary and partial differential equations, vector calculus, certain special functions of mathematical physics, matrix algebra, and group theory. For most physics students, this might occupy them from, say, third grade to graduate school – roughly 15 years. Such a course of study does not involve learning any quantum mechanics, but merely establishing the mathematical framework required to approach it deeply.”
~Antiscience, from The Demon-Haunted World
Okay, so 15 years to get to the point where you start tackling quantum mechanics. 15 years to become a good enough physicist to tackle the heart of physics – quantum theory.
So why are we here, on the beach, talking physicists?
Let me explain.
Sagan again, discussing understanding Quantum Mechanics:
“The job of the popularizer of science, trying to get across the idea of quantum mechanics to a general audience that has not gone through these initiation rites, is daunting. Indeed, there are no successful popularizations of quantum mechanics in my opinion – partly for this reason. These mathematical complexities are compounded by the fact that quantum theory is so resolutely counterintuitive. Common sense is almost useless in approaching it. It’s no good, Richard Feynman once said, asking why it IS that way. No one knows why it is that way. That’s just the way it is.”
So how do we – you and me – confirm things?
“The answer is that even if we cannot understand it, we can verify that quantum mechanics works. We can compare the qualitative predictions of quantum theory with the measured wavelengths of spectral lines of the chemical elements, the behavior of semiconductors and liquid, microprocessors, which kinds of molecules form from their constituent atoms, the existence and properties of white dwarf stars, what happens in masers and lasers, and which materials are susceptible to which kinds of magnetism. We don’t have to understand the theory to see what it predicts. We don’t have to be accomplished physicists to read what the experiments reveal. In every one of these instances – and in many others – the predictions of quantum mechanics are strikingly, and to high accuracy, confirmed.”
“Physicists are the smartest guys in the room.”
I was waiting in line to see The Dark Knight a couple of years back in Union Station (Washington D.C.) with an intellectual property litigator I am acquainted with, a senior partner of a large, international law firm. We’d had dinner in the micro-brewery in the building adjacent to Union Station and after, with the taste of burgers and bitter ale still fresh, made out way into and down stairs to the underground movie complex. (So totally the cool place to see a Batman movie, underground, just a suggestion of dank and cool on the humid July day, rough rock walls with the dullest sheen of moisture adding to the ambiance, like really being in the Bat Cave to see the damn flick). Killing time as we waited, we chatted about this and that and the conversation wandered to science. We were discussing different science disciplines and when the subject of physics came up, he uttered those words with a tone of finality that made it clear there was no argument as far as he was concerned.
Suffice to say I agree.
Physicists ARE the smartest guys in the room.
When we think of physics, the likelihood is the first thing to come to mind are images of Einstein, the atomic bomb, the symbol for the atom, E=MC2. We think of astronomy (astrophysics), nuclear theory, relativity, the Big Bang …
But physics casts a much wider net.
More and more, you can’t do ANY science without at least a conversant grasp of physics. Why? Because no matter what field you can come up with in the sciences, physics have become an integral part of the research done to examine it. In paleontology or geology, for example, dating techniques grounded in physics are necessary to unlocking understandings of the age of things. Similarly, biophysics is the study of physics in living systems. Chaos theory, fluid dynamics, electronics, geophysics, acoustics, light, cosmology, cryophysics (low-temperature physics), crystallography, nanotechnology … it’s everywhere in science.
Here’s another field that relies heavily on the science of physics:
The study of climate.
Not the study of weather.
The study of climate, the thing that makes weather.
One of the more fallacious arguments promoted by Creationists and AGW Denialists (and there were MANY fallacious arguments) was that science gets things wrong all the time. To support this contention, they often cite examples like the Piltdown Man as “proof” … ignoring the fact that, in the end, it was scientists that exposed the frauds.
Science get things wrong, yes. But science also provides that best tool for correcting its own mistakes. There is nothing like scientific inquiry in human experience that comes close to its track record for getting things right.
So I want to take a moment to discuss something that serves as a classic example of science getting things wrong, and why this example underscores why science gets things right.
In the first chapter of “Big Bang: The Origin of the Universe”, Simon Singh does a bang-up job explaining the history of the science of astronomy. In particular, he very clearly explains how science works as an observational tool, the rules it adheres to, the dependence upon hard evidence and careful observation to validate or discard theories of the way things behave in nature. He discusses the scientific evidence that fueled the discussion and debates over whether the Steady State or the Big Bang model of the universe was the more valid theory, and as he does so, he walks you through the process of discovery.
For the purposes of this discussion, though, I’m going to concentrate on the other example he uses to discuss the operation of the scientific method – Geocentrism v. Heliocentrism
Singh lays out how the Heliocentric model evolved from hypothesis to theory, and illustrates why even though Copernicus’ model made excellent sense in terms of proposing a superior and simpler alternative to Geocentrism, Heliocentrism did not fully demonstrate it had replaced the previous model until long after Copernicus died because contemporary astronomers were unable to confirm certain aspects of Venus’ and Mercury’s orbits. Even though the idea of the Heliocentric cosmos seemed more straightforward and compelling, more correct, there were still missing final confirming proofs – because the instruments to get that proof didn’t yet exist. In short, there was room for doubt, but it is important to understand that doubt was largely academic – the theory had shown itself to have validity, enough so that those that followed increasingly worked from the assumption that a Heliocentric Cosmos was the most likely model, even though the inner planet observations had not been confirmed.
That’s what theories come down to: the most likely answer based on the data available. And when better, verifiable answers come along, the previous answers are tossed on the scrap heap of science. This is how physics works, how biology works, how any science works. Theories are never 100% perfect – there are gaps, problems with getting data and observations. These “problems” are often latched onto by opponents to an idea out of context and proportion to their actual import, like the Piltdown Man example noted above. The exposure of that error did nothing to invalidate the Theory of Evolution – it simply eliminated an area of inquiry. The theory remains the most powerful (and only) real explanation of the progress of life through time. It is such a powerful idea that most legitimate tests of its predictions lead to a strengthening of the overall theory, contributing new understandings. It serves as the foundation of modern biology, of modern medicine and medical research. Whenever you are treated as a patient, the fact of evolution informs to some degree your treatment. But the Theory of Evolution hasn’t answered all of the questions it poses, and may never be able to to the satisfaction of its detractors in the Creationist community, not because the science is wrong, but because it undermines the dogma that informs what Creationists want to believe.
But we’ll get into this curious disconnect with more detail later; we’re wandering in different, if related, territory …
I am reminded of a story – possibly apocryphal, though it is supposed to originate with Robert McNamara – relating to the Cuban Missile Crisis. It is said that the Joint Chiefs of Staff approached President Kennedy with a proposal (amongst several) to detonate a couple of nuclear warheads on or above the island of Cuba in order to quickly end the standoff, reassuring him that the CIA was positive that the Russians had not placed any nuclear warheads in Cuba yet. But when the Soviet State collapsed and we were allowed access to the Soviet archives from that era it was discovered that the Russians in fact had somewhere in the neighborhood of 150 warheads in-country, some or all targeted on major cities in the U.S. The scary part is Kennedy gave the proposal to nuke Cuba serious consideration. Needless to say, had he followed through, the thing he longed to prevent – a nuclear exchange that would have been unstoppable once started – would probably have occurred, and with it, the nuclear winter that would have settled upon the planet.
Nuclear Winter. Now there’s a wild theory – who’d a’thunk it? Heck, it wasn’t a hypothesis in the 60s – it was something that came up decades later. Even then, it met with resistance. The discussion on how scientifically “valid” the nuclear winter hypothesis is can be likened to the dairy farmer worrying how he’s going to get the next morning’s shipment to market if the barn containing his milk cows has burned down, killing the livestock. As we’re learning, even a nuclear exchange of the limited magnitude expected could do such significant damage to the biosphere that it really wouldn’t matter a great deal if the climate would have somehow remained unaffected.
The danger isn’t limited to nuclear-induced climate change; there’s also the potential damage a handful of modern cities might cause with all their stored toxins in the form of plastics and chemicals and so forth, burning unchecked into the atmosphere, combined with the radiation that would accompany these poisons on the winds. It’s the potential of millions of dead and decaying corpses breeding fresh plagues. It is the instant famine that will grip regions of the planet and the likely secondary wars over what is left of resources. The effect on our world would be both immediate and long-term, making the burning of Kuwait’s oil fields look like a campfire by comparison.
The Four Horseman would have a field day beyond comprehension.
The true value of the Nuclear Winter hypothesis in terms of public policy – regardless of its long-term viability as science – may be that it opened a lot of eyes and got people to think about the implications of a nuclear exchange in a way other arguments against nuclear war seemingly did not. Then again, maybe not: there was no significant change in nuclear policy. But it shook the public out of a complacency that had settled in its collective consciousness after the stressed-out duck-and-cover 50s and early 60s
Perhaps it comes down to perspective; armchair disagreements of what really would have happened in the aftermath when the actual event would have been so obviously apocalyptic can only make me wonder if people who do discuss this stuff grasp on a visceral level what the heck they think they are talking about. In short, had the nuclear exchange happened, the climate six months down the road would have probably been extremely low on one’s list of priorities – were an individual unfortunate enough to have survived.
Science is a wonderful tool for analyzing and understanding a problem, for explaining how things work; but while it is full of gee-whiz-bang excitement that makes laymen such as myself sit up and pay attention, too many of its proponents get so caught up with nitpicking the details that they lose sight of communicating the bigger picture. Bluntly put, you miss the understanding that sometimes you need to reach out and grab hold of the public by its collective short hairs and give a serious tug to get their attention.
Maybe this is our biggest impediment to working up AGW responses (in addition to addressing the obfuscators, neo-skeptics and denialists): there is no immediacy to this threat, no sense of our being intimately involved in a way that will have a short-term world-changing effect (because this isn’t about short-term problems), no ability to see things from a global perspective, no way to imagine or communicate the idea that every time you start your car’s engine or run the air conditioner you are taking aim at your future with growing detrimental – and quite possible mortal – consequences.
Coming up: Dark Puppy agendas …