Dawn Patrol

March 30, 2012

Republican presidential Candidate Rick Santorum on climate change:

I believe the earth gets warmer and I also believe the earth gets cooler, and I think history points out that it does that and that the idea that man, through the production of CO2 — which is a trace gas in the atmosphere, and the manmade part of that trace gas is itself a trace gas — is somehow responsible for climate change is, I think, just patently absurd. [..]
To me this is an opportunity for the left to create — it’s really a beautifully concocted scheme because they know that the earth is gonna cool and warm. It’s been on a warming trend so they said, ‘Oh, let’s take advantage of that and say that we need the government to come in and regulate your life some more because it’s getting warmer.’ [..]
It’s just an excuse for more government control of your life and I’ve never been for any scheme or even accepted the junk science behind the whole narrative.

Megadeth front man Dave Mustaine on Rick Santorum:

You know, I think Santorum has some presidential qualities, and I’m hoping that if it does come down to it, we’ll see a Republican in the White House… and that it’s Rick Santorum.

and:

[Santorum] just looks like he could be a really cool president, kinda like a JFK type of guy.

Lyrics to Megadeth’s Dawn Patrol:

Thermal count is rising
In perpetual writhing
The primordial ooze
And the sanity they lose
Awakened in the morning
To more air pollution warnings
Still we sleepwalk off to work
While our nervous systems jerk
Pretending not to notice
How history had forebode us
With the green house in effect
Our environment was wrecked
Now I can only laugh
As I read our epitaph
We end our lives as moles
In the dark of dawn patrol

Dave… what gives?

 

[ Note that, as usual, I've added direct links to refutations of the scientifically wrong statements, thanks to Skeptical Science, where links to the scientific literature can be found as well. In their words: Climate reacts to whatever forces it to change at the time; humans are now the dominant forcing. The strong CO2 effect has been observed by many different measurements. The natural cycle adds and removes CO2 to keep a balance; humans add extra CO2 without removing any. ]


Peter Gleick, Another Green Hero

February 22, 2012

Tim DeChristopher

Remember Tim DeChristopher?

While Tim was taking his final exams at the University of Utah, advocates for Utah’s wilderness like Robert Redford and the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance were attempting to bring attention to a controversial auction of Utah public lands, orchestrated by the outgoing Bush Administration. The auction included parcels adjacent to cherished natural resources like Canyonlands National Park. SUWA and other regional advocates brought a lawsuit against the Bureau of Land Management in efforts to halt the auction pending further review and public comment. Through no fault of SUWA or their allies, the lawsuit could not settle the issue prior to the auction. On December 19th, Tim finished his last final exam and took TRAX to the protest that SUWA and others had organized outside of the auction. On arrival, Tim decided that the protest needed to be moved from outside of the auction to inside, where the action was happening. With no prior plan of action, Tim entered the building where the auction was held and approached the registration desk. When asked if he was there to bid, Tim made a quick decision. He registered as Bidder 70 and entered the auction

Without the legally required environmental reviews the auction itself was mostly illegal, which was obvious from the start and confirmed eventually (‘In the end, of the 116 leases, only 29 are found to be legal‘). For his succesfull effort in saving these lands, close to Arches and Canyonlands national parks, for future generations to enjoy and for succesfully preventing an illegal auction, Tim DeChristopher ended up in jail. At the time of writing, he is still imprisoned and serving a two year sentence for doing the right thing.

I was reminded of DeChristopher as I watched the unfolding of the recent events surrounding the public release of the internal documents of the nihilistic opinion mercenaries at Heartland Institute. As a parent, as a scientist and as a decent human being I stand in awe of Peter Gleick as I stood in awe of DeChristopher’s moral courage.

Peter Gleick

A quick recap: per his own words, Gleick received an anonymous document detailing the Heartland Institute’s climate program strategy and containing information about their funders and the Institute’s apparent efforts to muddy public understanding about climate science and policy. Intrigued (and realizing the obvious that he was never intended to see said document) he subsequently solicited and received additional materials directly from the Heartland Institute under someone else’s name. Gleick called his latter action a lapse of ethics -I don’t. I call it investigative journalism, something that a serious reporter on enviromental issues could have done a long time ago (like NY Times’ Andy Revkin… just kidding, the Heartland documents show that even they view him as a complete tool)

The leaked documents reveal a number of things:

  • Heartland claims the tax statust of a501(c)(3) non-profit organisation on its IRS forms, which forbids its from lobbying and attempting to influence legislation. However, they do just that, for example as part of what they call project angry badger

    Wisconsin was the focus of national attention due to recall campaigns waged in 2011, and campaigns are taking place in 2012 against Gov. Scott Walker, Lt. Gov. Rebecca Kleefisch and three Republican senators who voted for Act 10, the landmark collective bargaining reform legislation adopted in 2011. We have been following the Wisconsin debate closely, reporting on it in Budget & Tax News, commenting in op-eds and LTEs and on blogs, doing television and radio interviews, and sending research and commentary to elected officials in Wisconsin and nationally. [hello! IRS! That's lobbying right here!] [..] Heartland is the largest and most influential national free-market think tank in the Midwest, so we are in the right place and with the right resources to help defend and secure Wisconsin’s recent gains

  • Climate denialist bottom feeder Anthony Watts, who runs the website Watts up what that? has always claimed his work was a labor of love (see here for example, although Watts has a habit of altering his posts once they become inconvenient for him. He is a very busy man). In the words of Heartland:

    Anthony Watts proposes to create a new Web site devoted to accessing the new temperature data
    from NOAA’s web site and converting them into easy-to-understand graphs that can be easily found and understood by weathermen and the general interested public. Watts has deep expertise in Web site design generally and is well-known and highly regarded by weathermen and meteorologists everywhere [citation needed!]. The new site will be promoted heavily at WattsUpwithThat.com. Heartland has agreed to help Anthony raise $88,000 for the project in 2011. The Anonymous Donor has already pledged $44,000. We’ll seek to raise the balance.

    It is a delicious twist of irony that the one temperature data project Watts has actually contributed to (as n-th author on a peer-reviewed paper) ended up clearly debunking his thesis that temperature stations were unreliable

  • Speaking of Anonymous Donors, there apparently exists some obscenely rich lunatic who is willing to consistently provide the bulk of Heartland’s funding. His identity is still unclear (Voldemort? It is telling that even in internal memo’s and documents he was Not To Be Named), but his donations for the past few years have been as follows: $3,276,937 (2007), $4,600,000 (2008), $2,822,180 (2009), $1,664,150 (2010), $979,000 (2011), $1,250,000 (2012). Each year, the majority of the donation was used for `Global Warming Projects‘.
  • A Global Warming project of note is the preparation of additional material for K12-schools (get ‘em while they’re young):

    Many people lament the absence of educational material suitable for K-12 students on global warming that isn’t alarmist or overtly political. Heartland has tried to make material available to teachers, but has had only limited success. Principals and teachers are heavily biased toward the alarmist perspective. Moreover, material for classroom use must be carefully written to meet curriculum guidelines, and the amount of time teachers have for supplemental material is steadily shrinking due to the spread of standardized tests in K-12 education. [..]
    Dr. Wojick proposes to begin work on “modules” for grades 10-12 on climate change (“whether humans are changing the climate is a major scientific controversy”), climate models (“models are used to explore various hypotheses about how climate works. Their reliability is controversial”), and air pollution (“whether CO2 is a pollutant is controversial. It is the global food supply and natural emissions are 20 times higher than human emissions”).

    Note that all statements in quotes are factually wrong and I’ve turned them into to links where you can find clear debunkings with references to the scientific literature (thanks to Skeptical Science!). In the one document that Heartland claims is fake (although there is absolutely no reason to believe so, given its overall consistency with documents like the 2012 fund-raising plan that I have quoted from so far) they even seem to be aware of the fact that they’re selling plain lies to children:

    His effort will focus on providing curriculum that shows that the topic of climate change is controversial and uncertain – two key points that are effective at dissuading teachers from teaching science.

  • Heartland generously funds the usual professional liars with monthly stipends:

    Our current budget includes funding for high-profile individuals who regularly and publicly counter the alarmist AGW message. At the moment, this funding goes primarily to Craig Idso ($11,600 per month), Fred Singer ($5,000 per month, plus expenses), Robert Carter ($1,667 per month), and a number of other individuals [..]

    I’ve added links to Sourcewatch where you can find additional information on these characters. Earlier in his career, Fred Singer for example has been a mouthpiece for the tobacco industry and has argued that DDT is harmless. Complete bastards, all.

  • Finally, Heartlands take on the current media landscape and who they view as useful idiots for their cause:

    Efforts at places such as Forbes are especially important now that they have begun to allow high-profile climate scientists (such as Gleick) to post warmist science essays that counter our own. This influential audience has usually been reliably anti-climate and it is important to keep opposing voices out. Efforts might also include cultivating more neutral voices with big audiences (such as Revkin at DotEarth/NYTimes, who has a well-known antipathy for some of the more extreme AGW communicators such as Romm, Trenberth, and Hansen) or Curry (who has become popular with our supporters)

The fight about public understanding of global warming is a case of asymmetric warfare where one side can make up lies as they go along but scientists are bound to scientific fact, no matter how subtle, counter-intuitive or unwelcome. Given the above information about Heartland, Gleick made the morally right choice in making these documents public. You didn’t hear Heartland cry foul about climategate, the leak of personal e-mails from UK climate scientists. What made climategate so reprehensible in my view was not the act of hacking into e-mails (for what if there was a great conspiracy? The thought is ludicrous for anyone with at least a passing understanding of climate science and not in possession of a tinfoil hat, but let’s humour the seriously misguided souls for a moment), but the coordinated and wilful effort to data mine the e-mails and then releasing a minuscule fraction of them in terms of specific sentences that could be easily taken to mean something different when taken out of context (all spin has subsequently been debunked countless times). And all of that right before important climate negotiations, first in Cancun, then in Ireland.

Hats off to Peter Gleick, another green hero.


No global cooling in Cosmos

July 25, 2011

A while back I started watching the famous documentary series `Cosmos’ by Carl Sagan. The series is very good, although it might take you more than the first episode to appreciate that if you see it today -you’ll have to get past that voice, droning on like reverend Lovejoy from the Simpsons and that ridiculous spaceship that William Shatner wouldn’t be caught dead in. But after a while, Sagan’s voice-over improves and he all but abandons his spaceship to end up presenting a series of fascinating lectures, supported by (mostly) excellent multi-media support.

Global cooling?

Being an astrophysicist myself, most of the science isn’t new to me (some of it is even slightly outdated) and I enjoy the series mostly for the cultural references and historical context. But then something caught my eye in episode 4 when the discussion turned to climate change. You might remember the but in the seventies, it used to be global cooling! meme that has been spread vigorously by fossil-fuel industry funded stooges (e.g. here, unmasked here) or by pop science writers who are really not all that clever. The purpose of the meme is of course to obfuscate and to lead the non-expert to believe that scientific consensus on climate change has been swinging back and forth between wildly diverging opinions over the course of the past decades, thereby diminishing the impact of the current overwhelming consensus in the climate science community that global warming is real, occurring now and is man-made. The whole global cooling story has already been thoroughly debunked (e.g. here, here). Since Cosmos was originally broadcasted in 1980, closer to the global cooling craze than the global warming craze, had the former really existed, it is interesting to hear what Sagan has to tell us about global climate change, if only to as a reminder how scientific consensus actually did emerge over the past decades.

Cosmos, 1980

The destruction of trees and grasslands makes the surface of the Earth brighter. It reflects more sunlight back to space and cools our planet. After we discovered fire we began to incinerate forests intentionally to clear the land by a process called “slash and burn” agriculture. And today, forests and grasslands are being destroyed frivolously, carelessly by humans who are heedless of the beauty of our cousins the trees and ignorant of the possible climatic catastrophes which large-scale burning of forests may bring.

So is Sagan implying here that we should be afraid of global cooling? At least he gives us a concise description of the mechanism. (By the way, the reference to trees as cousins should not be read as some wishy-washy new-ageism, but as a reference to an earlier point in the series where the incredible similarities on chemical and DNA level across the different species were discussed).

The indiscriminate destruction of vegetation may alter the global climate in ways that no scientist can yet predict. It has already deadened large patches of the Earth’s life-supporting skin. And yet, we ravage the Earth at an accelerated pace as if it belonged to this one generation, as if it were ours to do with as we please. The Earth has mechanisms to cleanse itself, to neutralize the toxic substances in its system. But these mechanisms work|only up to a point. Beyond some critical threshold, they break down. The damage becomes irreversible. [..] The bright, sandy surface and dusty atmosphere of Mars reflect enough sunlight back to space to cool the planet freezing out all its water, locking it in a perpetual ice age.
Human activities brighten our landscape and our atmosphere.
Might this ultimately make an ice age here?

Although the specter of global cooling is indeed raised, so is the lack of scientific certainty and consensus… But what about the greenhouse effect and the state of climate science in 1980?

At the same time, we are releasing vast quantities of carbon dioxide, increasing the greenhouse effect. The Earth need not resemble Venus very closely for it to become barren and lifeless. It may not take much to destabilize the Earth’s climate to convert this heaven, our only home in the cosmos into a kind of hell. The study of the global climate, the sun’s influence, the comparison of the Earth with other worlds… These are subjects in their earliest stages of development. They are funded poorly and grudgingly. Meanwhile, we continue to load the Earth’s atmosphere with materials about whose long-term influence we are almost entirely ignorant.

As I said, no consensus. And rather than revile today’s state of climate science, for example as summarized in the IPCC reports, we should be impressed with how far we’ve come in only a few decades.

Cosmos, 1990

Already ten years after the first airing of Cosmos, climate science (as well as astronomy) had advanced considerably, and when the series was reissued in the early nineties, a brief update was appended to many episodes. Regarding climate change, a ten year older Carl Sagan now had the following to add:

Since this series was first broadcast the dangers of the increasing greenhouse effect have become much more clear. We burn fossil fuels, like coal and gas and petroleum, putting more carbon dioxide into the atmosphere and thereby heating the Earth. The hellish conditions on Venus are a reminder that this is serious business. Computer models that successfully explain the climates of other planets predict the deaths of forests, parched croplands, the flooding of coastal cities, environmental refugees, widespread disasters in the next century unless we change our ways.

Now

The surface of Venus (from Cosmos episode 4)

Just to dwell on the obvious… Sagan’s future is today’s now. We currently are experiencing many of the gloomy predictions from twenty years ago. I wrote this in NYC during a record shattering heat wave across the U.S. 71% of Texas suffers from exceptional drought, its driest period there since 1895, with heat waves raging through many southern states… The worst drought in Somalia in 60 years… One fifth of Pakistan flooded last year… Enormous floods in China and Australia as well… a monster heat wave in Russia… a drop in September arctic ice volume from 10,000 cubic km in 1980 to 4,000 cubic km now. The list goes on and on… Sagan wouldn’t mince words were he to provide another update to Cosmos!


What’s in it for me?

March 12, 2011

you maniacs!

Global temperature

The effects of global warming are visible all over the world, but not all evidently so. For example, the rise in global mean land-ocean surface temperature has been 0.6 degrees Celsius since 1980. But no one experiences the global average temperature directly -it is after all the average over a wide range of temperatures from cold Siberia to the Sahara desert, so in terms of personal experience this fact is meaningless.

One needs to know the context in order to understand what this means. This context is provided by facts such as that this change is roughly twice the global mean temperature change between 1880-1980, that the uncertainty estimate for recent data is 0.1 deg, that temperature reconstructions reveal the current temperature to be unprecedented over at least 1800 years, etc.

Single events

There already have been colossal changes and events in recent years with a clear and obvious impact. There is the incredible drop in arctic ice volume (11,000 cubic km since 1980, with only 4,000 cubic km left on average in sept. 2010, again context is needed). Or the recent flood in Pakistan that affected an area at least the size of England. And other floods, like the flash floods in North-West China (resulting in over a thousand deaths) or the big flood in Australia (which affected 200,000 people). But the link between events like floods and heat waves and global warming is a tricky one, just like the link between smoking and lung cancer in an individual patient: the increase in their occurrence is a solid prediction in a statistical sense, but the story for each individual case is complex. Last year’s heat wave in Russia is a case in point, and may to a large extent be attributable to a `normal’ weather extreme [update Mar 14, 2011: or global warming after all? See here for a compelling argument]. Besides, all this still doesn’t directly touch upon the lives of people here in America -who typically haven’t visited the Arctic recently, let alone twice and know in their hearts that countries like Pakistan don’t really exist. Even the rising global food prices, caused mainly by weather calamities and stirring up mass protests and revolt in the Arab world, such as the revolution in Egypt, have little impact in the U.S. as Americans spend a relatively small fraction of their income on food. Only when global warming and weather start to impact the rental prices here in New York I’m going to be seriously screwed.

Global warming predictions for New York

All this raises a question: what will we experience locally from the global climate change? The simple rule of thumb answer -expect more extreme weather events as the temperature erratically becomes higher and higher- is just that, a rule of thumb. It tells us that the U.S. snowstorms last winter are consistent with and expected from global warming, but the more local you look, to more complicated everything becomes. A very useful resource is the report Global Climate Change Impacts in the United States by the United States Global Change Research Program, available here.

Image from page 109 of "Global Climate Change Impacts in the United States"

When it comes to New York (or the North East coast in general), it tells us the following. First, the past:

Since 1970, the annual average temperature in the Northeast has increased by 2°F [=1.1 deg. Celsius], with winter temperatures rising twice this much. Warming has resulted in many other climate-related changes, including:

  • More frequent days with temperatures above 90°F
  • A longer growing season
  • Increased heavy precipitation
  • Less winter precipitation falling as snow and more as rain
  • Reduced snowpack
  • Earlier breakup of winter ice on lakes and rivers
  • Earlier spring snowmelt resulting in earlier peak river flows
  • Rising sea surface temperatures and sea level

Then, the future:

Over the next several decades, temperatures in the Northeast are projected to rise an additional 2.5 to 4°F in winter and 1.5 to 3.5°F in summer. By mid-century and beyond, however, today’s emissions choices would generate starkly different climate futures; the lower the emissions, the smaller the climatic changes and resulting impacts. By late this century, under a higher emissions scenario:

  • Winters in the Northeast are projected to be much shorter with fewer cold days and more precipitation.
  • The length of the winter snow season would be cut in half across northern New York, Vermont, New
    Hampshire, and Maine, and reduced to a week or two in southern parts of the region.
  • Cities that today experience few days above 100°F each summer would average 20 such days per summer, while certain cities, such as Hartford and Philadelphia, would average nearly 30 days over 100°F.
  • Short-term (one- to three-month) droughts are projected to occur as frequently as once each summer in
    the Catskill and Adirondack Mountains, and across the New England states.
  • Hot summer conditions would arrive three weeks earlier and last three weeks longer into the fall.
  • Sea level in this region is projected to rise more than the global average,

So, what’s in it for me? (sang the N.Y. Indie band the Walkmen in 2004). The bottom line, if you’re planning on doing business or living in NY, you’d better start paying attention:

The densely populated coasts of the Northeast face substantial increases in the extent and frequency of storm surge, coastal flooding, erosion, property damage, and loss of wetlands. New York state alone has more than $2.3 trillion in insured coastal property. Much of this coastline is exceptionally vulnerable to sea-level rise and related impacts. Some major insurers have withdrawn coverage from thousands of homeowners in coastal areas of the Northeast, including New York City.

Rising sea level is projected to increase the frequency and severity of damaging storm surges and flooding. Under a higher emissions scenario, what is now considered a once-in-a-century coastal flood in New York City is projected to occur at least twice as often by mid-century, and 10 times as often (or once per decade on average) by late this century. With a lower emissions scenario, today’s 100-year flood is projected to occur once every 22 years on average by late this century.


god-given units

October 9, 2010

A bigger Ben

Continuing the themes of religion and big construction works from the last post, a while ago the construction of a gargantuan clock in Mecca was reported in various news outlets (like here):

Saudi Arabia hopes the four faces of the new clock, which will loom over Mecca’s Grand Mosque from what is expected to be the world’s second tallest building, will establish Mecca as an alternate time standard to the Greenwich median.

This effort has been ridiculed (i.e. here, here) as a cargo-cultish attempt to steal away the reference point for global time keeping from Greenwich, just by building a bigger clock than the Big Ben in London. This may not be true, what I have read at least leaves open that it is perfectly understood in Mecca that the clock will have merely a powerful symbolic function… but on the other hand, what I have read about the local understanding of the earth magnetic field, isn’t exactly rational either:

According to Yusuf al-Qaradawi, an Egyptian cleric known around the Muslim world for his popular television show “Sharia and Life”, Mecca has a greater claim to being the prime meridian because it is “in perfect alignment with the magnetic north.”

This claim that the holy city is a “zero magnetism zone” has won support from some Arab scientists like Abdel-Baset al-Sayyed of the Egyptian National Research Centre who says that there is no magnetic force in Mecca.

“That’s why if someone travels to Mecca or lives there, he lives longer, is healthier and is less affected by the earth’s gravity,” he said. “You get charged with energy.”

Western scientists have challenged such assertions, noting that the Magnetic North Pole is in actual fact on a line of longitude that passes through Canada, the United States, Mexico and Antarctica.

Anyway, before I get sidetracked on magnetic fields, the topic I wish to discuss is that of the arbitrariness of how we measure universal quantities like space and time. Just how arbitrary is our time unit, for example? We have time zones related to Greenwich for purely historical reasons and measure the passage of time in minutes, hours and days that neatly divide up a single earth’s rotation. But if we were to encounter the proverbial alien species, would we be able to draw upon a system of units for time, energy, momentum, distance that makes equal sense to them as to us? The answer to this question turns out to be yes. And whether we should be surprised by this or not, is one of the deeper questions one can ask in physics.

Gravity

Part of the mystery is that the ingredients for a universal set of measurement units can be found at an even deeper level than, say, the rest mass of some particle, like the electron, which would still allow the freedom of choosing a different particle. We will take our ingredients from the very structure of the physical laws governing the interactions in the universe instead. And we’ll start with gravity’s constant G.

It is known since the days of Newton that all masses attract each other, and nowadays it probably takes a conscious effort to realize just how incredibly radical this idea was: that the motion of the sun, the moon and the stars is dictated by the same force (another concept that wasn’t even formalized before Newton) that makes sure an apple drops to the ground when we let go of it. Newton’s law of gravity is given by F = mMG / r^2, high school physics now. In other words, any massive object feels a force F from the massive objects around it, proportional to both their masses (m, M) and the square of their relative distance r. This square feels natural, it is after all also how the area on a sphere grows as we increase its radius (so any quantity on the surface of the sphere gets diluted in this fashion when the sphere expands). But don’t read to much into this, for there exist forces with different reach. For now, the element of interest in the equation is the gravitational constant G, which has a very specific value and dimension: G = 6.67428 x 10^11 m^3 kg^-1 s^-2. To the best of our knowledge (and confirmed observationally through a variety of means), this value holds true also at the other end of the universe. We’ll take it as the first building block when constructing our set of universal rulers. This one measures some combination of distance (m), mass (kg) and time (s).

The speed of light

It was only in college that I learned to appreciate just how phenomenal Newton’s insight into nature was. He realized for example something special about masses which completely passed us by in high school even though it was right in front of us on the blackboard: The mass that determines the strength of gravitational attraction doesn’t need to be the same as the mass that features in F = m a. The former kind of mass is akin to electric charge -but without the complication of pluses and minuses. It dictates how much a particular particle feel gravity, just as electric charge dictates how much a particle feels the electric force. The second kind of mass is more general. It tells us how much a particle will budge when a force, any force, is applied to it. When the forces F applied to them are equal, a very massive particle will only undergo a small acceleration a compared to a very light particle -which will accelerate a lot to compensate for its small mass in order to keep the product m and a equal to that of its big brother. Particles whose mass tends to zero will basically never sit still. This also applies when, say, electric force is applied instead of gravitational force, which is the reason I called the second kind of mass more general.

Zero mass particles, like photons, don’t move infinitely fast, even though that is suggested by F = m a. It turns out that they move with a fixed speed. And when I say fixed, I really mean fixed. If you carry a flashlight, flip it on so that photons will start leaving the lamp with speed of light c and then decide to run after the emitted photons, the photons will still be moving with the speed of light with respect to you. Not just in a practical sense, although compared to the speed of light (299 792 458 m / s) you’re practically standing still when running at, say 10 m / s (assuming you’re Guinness book of records material). The speed of light with respect to a moving observer stays exactly c. Where normally you’d just subtract velocities (i.e. c minus 10 m / s) to get the relative velocity, this simple subtraction rule ceases to be valid when one of the velocities approaches the speed of light. Instead, it gets replaced by relativity theory. We will not go into that here, but just note that this aspect of nature yields us a second universal constant in the speed of light c

The quantum uncertainty

We now have G and c, both combinations in the dimensions of mass, length and time (although mass only occurs in G). A third constant would give us as many constants as dimensions (which will turn out to be just what we need). In quantum mechanics we can find our third ingredient, the uncertainty constant h. At 6.626068 × 10^-34 m^2 kg / s, this constant sets the uncertainty between a particles position and momentum, as well as the minimum energy for a photon. The former means that we can only measure a particle’s position at the cost of complete ignorance of its momentum and vice versa. The latter means that photons come in quanta, and indeed the development of theory of quantum mechanics was triggered by scientists discovering (almost accidentally) the existence of h. I discuss quantum uncertainty a little bit here as well. For now we have what we need in the existence of h.

God-given units

The set of G, c and h, provides us with what have been called god-given units, which must please Abdel-Baset al-Sayyed (or followers of other monotheistic religions), as long as they ignore that this is meant in the proverbial sense. Much like Einstein’s famous phrase God does not play dice is a statement about (assumed) aspects of the laws of nature, rather than an expression of religious sentiment.

So what then is a natural unit for time? Since G is m^3 kg^-1 s^-2, c is m / s and h is m^2 kg / s, it follows that the square root of h G / c^5 has the dimension of time. To be precise, we’d get:

1 natural time unit = sqrt(h G / c^5) = 1.35138 x 10^-32 seconds

Mass and distance units can be calculated in the same way. As can energy (for Joule is after all equivalent to kg m^2 / s^2, just think of kinetic energy from high-school physics, 1/2 m v^2) and momentum:

1 natural distance unit = sqrt( h G / c^3) = 4.05134 x 10^-24 meters
1 natural mass unit = sqrt( h c / G) = 5.45552 x 10^-19 kilogram
1 natural energy unit = sqrt( h c / G) x c^2 = 0.04903 Joule

The translations of these natural units into our own units is, of course, as arbitrary as our definition of what constitutes a meter or a kilogram. But that is not the point, which is rather that we now have a unique and universal way of expressing our arbitrary choices, even to aliens from beyond the galaxy. And one of the most profound questions about nature one can ask is, is there any reason for this system to exist?. Or in other words, knowing only about G and h, could we reasonably expect a third fundamental constant to exist in order that we can make combinations to express quantities we measure directly? Or, in yet other words, should we expect that the number of fundamental constants in nature equals the number of truly independent dimensions of measurement? Or is the whole thing just a trivial coincidence?


Another mosque in Manhattan

August 27, 2010

While back in the Netherlands the adults are busy negotiating a government coalition, PVV (‘Freedom Party’) political leader and big time winner at the latest Dutch elections Geert Wilders has been booking a trip to New York -To protest the mosque that is planned two blocks from ground zero and has become one of the most successful recent fabricated controversies. Although the PVV doesn’t do facts (see also my previous post on their proposed environmental policy), a lot of context has surfaced over the past weeks, for example in a number of excellent pieces in the New York Times.

The building

Park place, another busy street in lower Manhattan. On this picture some are protesting for freedom of religion immediately in front of nr. 51. Most people are on the picture coincidentally and going about their business. To the immediate left of the building is the Amish market, to the immediate right is a bar. Outside the picture, to the back of photographer are a church and a number of very tall buildings.

When you actually live in Manhattan like I do, it is easy to stroll downtown and see for yourself that, no, the building is not planned on ground zero, but two blocks away. At a planned 15 levels it will be about as high as its direct neighbours. The building between the planned center and the WTC site is at least as high, so the center will not overlook the site either. Only a few paces away, nearby buildings can be found that are a lot higher. Park 51 will not be conspicuous or stand out in any way. What’s more (NY times again):

There have been mosques in that part of Lower Manhattan for many years, one 12 blocks from the trade center, another a mere 4 blocks away. No one got in a lather over those places. Might, then, a four-block gap instead of a two-block gap be acceptable?

Calling it a mosque is also an oversimplification, it is envisioned as a center that includes a prayer room. From the Washington Post:

The stated goal behind building the Muslim center in lower Manhattan is to recapture the spirit of mutual respect between Judaism, Christianity and Islam that existed in Cordoba, Spain, from 700 – 1200 AD. While Europe was trapped in the Dark Ages, marked by bloody religious repression, Cordoba thrived as a commercial and cultural center with what was, for the time, a high level of religious freedom. For example, in the 10th Century, Cordoba became the intellectual capital for Jews worldwide. The stated point of the project is creating a world where Jews, Christians and Muslims connect again in a way that builds mutual understanding and respect.

This stated intent can be found on the website of the Park 51 project:

New York deserves its reputation as a peerless center of arts, culture and ideas. Park51 honors and furthers that tradition, envisioning a community center for all of us, bringing the best of the world to New York City, and New York City’s energy, diversity and aspirations to the world. Park51 will become a model for future institutions, with its inclusive focus, outstanding facilities and dedication to social needs. To realize this mission, Park51 will:

* Uphold respect for the diversity of expression and ideas between all people
* Cultivate and embrace neighborly relations between all New Yorkers, fostering a spirit of civic participation and an awareness of common needs and opportunities
* Encourage open discussion and dialogue on issues of relevance to New Yorkers, Americans and the international reality of our interconnected planet
* Revive the historic Muslim tradition of education, engagement and service, becoming a resource for empowerment and advancement
* Connect New York’s communities to global ideas and trends
* Commit to social justice, dignified human development and spiritual growth for all
* Pursue the development of American Muslim identities, engaging New York’s many and diverse Muslim communities and promoting empowerment and compassion for all
* Build partnerships and relationships with key actors and institutions who share our values, to address shared needs and solve common problems
* Establish a state-of-the-art green facility that will serve as a model and inspiration for sustainable space, helping to advance sustainable living in urban contexts
* Empower our communities with the skills and knowledge they need to advance in their various life stages
* Provide financial assistance for those in need, offering subsidies for our programming and scholarships to reach new audiences and further our vision

The imam

The imam in the middle of the muslim center furor, has been heavily criticized for the following statement he made during an interview in Sept. 2001, shortly after the twin towers were struck:

I wouldn’t say that the United States deserved what happened, but the United States policies were an accessory to the crime that happened,

But for those with an outside view and sober understanding of 20th century American foreign policy (which I am neither condemning nor endorsing here) this is merely stating the obvious. I don’t personally recall similar statements generating much outrage in Europe, at least, and in the rest of the interview Abdul Faisel Rauf actually provides a thoughtful analysis about what happened:

MR. BRADLEY (voiceover): And throughout the Muslim world, there is also strong opposition to America’s foreign policy, particularly in the Middle East, because of its support of Israel and economic sanctions against Iraq.

MR. ABDUL RAUF: It is a reaction against the policies of the U.S. government, politically, where we espouse principles of democracy and human rights and where we ally ourselves with oppressive regimes in many of these countries.

MR. BRADLEY: Are — are — are you in any way suggesting that we in the United States deserved what happened?

MR. ABDUL RAUF: I wouldn’t say that the United States deserved what happened, but the United States policies were an accessory to the crime that happened.

MR. BRADLEY: O.K. You say that we’re an accessory?

MR. ABDUL RAUF: Yes.

MR. BRADLEY: How?

MR. ABDUL RAUF: Because we have been an accessory to a lot of — of innocent lives dying in the world. In fact, it — in the most direct sense, Osama bin Laden is made in the U.S.A.

To which I would like to add the neutral observation that an act of terrorism is also the only war strategy available to a side that does not have the resources to buy their own Daisy Cutters or MOAB’s. Ugly and despicable, yes, but it is a collective failure of humanity that in the 21st century the world still is ugly and despicable.

The two links provided in the beginning of this section provide a lot of information about imam Rauf and his all-American personal history. Ironically, at the moment Rauf is away on a trip to Bahrain with the explicit intent to improve cross-cultural relations and understanding. And not for the first time either:

If one were to hearken back to the halcyon days of the Bush Administration, one would remember that, when Bush adviser Karen Hughes was appointed Undersecretary of State for Public Diplomacy, the Bush Administration saw improving America’s standing among Muslims abroad as a part of its national security strategy. And, as such, Hughes set up listening tours, attended meetings and worked with interfaith groups that — shocking, by today’s Republican standards — included actual Muslims.
One of those people was Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf.

And finally, according to the State Department:

His work on tolerance and religious diversity is well-known and he brings a moderate perspective to foreign audiences on what it’s like to be a practicing Muslim in the United States,” State Department spokesman P. J. Crowley said Tuesday. He added that the department’s public-diplomacy offices “have a long-term relationship with” Rauf – including during the past Bush administration, when the religious leader undertook a similar speaking tour.

The Koran

If you’re interested in (having an opinion about) the Islam you could of course always read the Koran. It’s just a click away because it’s available for free from project Gutenberg in various translations. A search for the word “kill” in one of the Gutenberg texts then yields, for example, among other (more neutral) passages, the following:

And fight for the cause of God against those who fight against you: but commit not the injustice of attacking them first: God loveth not such injustice: And kill them wherever ye shall find them, and eject them from whatever place
they have ejected you; for civil discord is worse than carnage: yet attack them not at the sacred Mosque, unless they attack you therein; but if they attack you, slay them. Such the reward of the infidels.

But if they desist, then verily God is Gracious, Merciful. Fight therefore against them until there be no more civil discord, and the only worship be that of God: but if they desist, then let there be no hostility, save against the wicked.

That doesn’t appear to allow for a first strike against the infidels. That is nice. In Sura VIII.-THE SPOILS1 [XCV.], we find

And call to mind when the unbelievers plotted against thee, to detain thee prisoner, or to kill thee, or to banish thee: They plotted-but God plotted: and of plotters is God the best!

which seems to state that the actual killing is best left to God. And earlier in the same Sura it can be read that God has a mob of bloodthirsty angels on hand, whom he has instructed to

Strike off their heads then, and strike off from them every finger-tip.

So by not striking first and by staying clear of wrathful angels, bloodshed can be avoided? Alas, there is no such luck, for according to Sura IX.1-IMMUNITY [CXIII.]:

Make war upon such of those to whom the Scriptures have been given as believe not in God, or in the last day, and who forbid not that which God and His Apostle have forbidden, and who profess not the profession of the truth, until they pay tribute out of hand, and they be humbled. The Jews say, “Ezra (Ozair) is a son of God”; and the Christians say, “The Messiah is a son of God.” Such the sayings in their mouths! They resemble the saying of the Infidels of old! God do battle with them! How are they misguided!
[..]
Believers! wage war against such of the infidels as are your neighbours, and let them find you rigorous: and know that God is with those who fear him.

It’s a no-win situation. Keeping the zealots out of the city by denying them their center will only add fuel to the fire, for it is also written

But into whatsoever city ye enter, and they receive you not, go your ways out into the streets of the same, and say, Even the very dust of your city, which cleaveth on us, we do wipe off against you: notwithstanding be ye sure of this, that the kingdom of God is come nigh unto you. But I say unto you, that it shall be more tolerable in that day for Sodom, than for that city.

Whoops… That one is actually Jesus sending forth his followers in Luke 10:10-12. It is easy to confuse such passages in the Koran and the new testament (or the old testament, which is even more violent), such as this new testament passage from John 15:6 suggesting infidels be burned:

If a man abide not in me, he is cast forth as a branch, and is withered; and men gather them, and cast them into the fire, and they are burned.

There’s even a similarly scary mob of homicidal angels (Thessalonians 1:7-9):

And to you who are troubled rest with us, when the Lord Jesus shall be revealed from heaven with his mighty angels, In flaming fire taking vengeance on them that know not God, and that obey not the gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ: Who shall be punished with everlasting destruction from the presence of the Lord, and from the glory of his power;

and ambiguous mixed messages, like those found in Luke 9:54-56, closely before the quoted Luke 10 passage, where Jesus disappoints his followers who are eager for destruction.

Which is it going to be? Don’t start fighting unless in defence, or kill all infidels? Both Koran and new testament are schizophrenic on this account, although the aforementioned Geert Wilders has made up his mind. After all, he only saw fit to compare the former book to Mein Kampf, and not the latter.

[update Oct 6, 2010 Some architect's renderings of the planned building have become available here, see also the picture below:

It may turn out that I was wrong when I stated Park 51 will not be conspicuous or stand out in any way, although (depending on your taste in architecture) this looks an improvement over my expectations. The building is now scheduled to have sixteen floors, not fifteen, and judging from the image it will probably be slightly larger than the building opposite it. Also from the article:

The largest part of the building -- four of 16 floors -- would be taken up by a sports, fitness and swimming center. Another full floor would be occupied by a child care center and playground. Much of the rest of the building would be occupied by a restaurant, culinary school, artist studios, exhibition space and an auditorium for cultural events. El-Gamal said the idea was to build a facility that will attract neighborhood residents looking for a place to work out, as well as suburban Muslim couples spending "date night" in the city.

And the mosque part?

The building's prayer space for Muslims -- the part of the center that has caused some critics to derisively brand the center the "ground zero mega mosque" -- would be located on two levels in the basement.

]


The PVV (Dutch ‘Freedom Party’): Destroying our children’s future

July 30, 2010

General elections were recently held in the Netherlands and the winners are currently negotiating a new government coalition. I didn’t vote, so according to the bumper sticker I don’t get to complain. My poor excuse is that I currently live abroad and tried to sign up five weeks before election day instead of the required six. I will complain anyway.

There is much to complain about. The big winner of the elections is the newly formed PVV (‘Partij Voor de Vrijheid’ or ‘Freedom Party’), although it didn’t surpass the long established right wing VVD (‘Volkspartij voor Vrijheid en Democratie’ or ‘People’s Party for Freedom and Democracy’). Now, to put things into perspective, compared to say the Republican Party here in the US, the VVD are nearly a bunch of hippies. But the PVV, they might give the Oklahoman chapter of the GOP a run for their money.

The PVV rose to prominence on a loud and angry anti-muslim platform. (PVV leader Wilders has become an internationally known figure who has collaborated a lot in the past in Dutch parliament with Ayaan Hirshi Ali of ‘Infidel’ fame. He is under heavy surveillance due to numerous death threats.) But forget about the muslims for now, their take on environmental issues will prevail long after Osama and his Jihad have gone the way of the Inquisition. The following comes straight out of their Policy Document .pdf on their website:

“De gesubsidieerde milieubeweging moet steeds nieuwe zaken verzinnen om ons bang te maken om zo hun subsidiestroom in stand te houden. Daarbij worden ze steeds geholpen door hun trawanten bij de staatsomroep. Zo hobbelen we van ‘zure regen’, ‘gat in de ozonlaag’ naar de Brent Spar-affaire. De laatste hype heet global warming.

Het klimaat verandert, natuurlijk, maar dat doet het altijd. De mens kan de temperatuur op aarde niet een paar graden warmer of kouder zetten. Bovendien daalt de mondiale temperatuur al sinds 1998. Ondertussen grijpen socialisten de klimaattheorieën aan om te doen wat ze altijd willen: hogere belastingen, schuldgevoel en veel regels, terwijl van alle CO2-uitstoot slechts 3 tot 4 procent veroorzaakt wordt door de mens. De rest wordt door de natuur (vulkanen, oceanen en moerassen) zelf geproduceerd. We moeten stoppen met paniek over de opwarming van de aarde en stoppen met het geven van geld aan een onbewezen klimaathype. Van Europese klimaatverplichtingen moeten we uiteindelijk af. We zijn tegen ondergrondse CO2-opslag.”

Or, in English:

The subsidized Green movement has to come up with new issues all the time in order to maintain the flow of subsidies. Everytime they are helped in this by their henchmen at the public broadcasting organisation. Thus we bounce from ‘acid rain’ to ‘hole in the ozone layer’ to the Brent Spar affair. The latest hype is called global warming

The climate is changing, of course, but it always does. Man cannot set the earth’s temperature any higher or lower. What’s more, the global temperature has been declining since 1998. Meanwhile socialists employ these climate theories to do what they always want: higher taxes, feelings of guilt and a lot of regulation -while only 3 to 4 percent of all CO2 emission is produced by man. The rest is produced by nature itself (volcano’s, oceans and swamps). We have to stop panicking about the earth warming and we have to stop giving money to an unproven climate hype. Eventually we should get rid of European climate commitments. We are against capturing and storing CO2 underground.

The ‘Freedom’ in Freedom Party entails a lot of freedom indeed. Freedom from scientific inquiry, freedom from reality -but not from anger, apparently. There are so many disingenuous statements and plain out lies in those few sentences that it is sickening. Let’s have yet another look at the text (I know, for Dutch speakers that’s the third already and I sympathize).

Acid rain and the Ozone layer

The subsidized Green movement has to come up with new issues all the time in order to maintain the flow of subsidies…[]..Thus we bounce from ‘acid rain’ to ‘hole in the ozon layer’ to the Brent Spar affair. The latest hype is called global warming

If we manage to successfully avert catastrophe due to global warming, it will undoubtedly suffer the same fate as its cousins acid rain and ozone layer depletion: deal with a problem and the accusation emerges that the problem wasn’t there in the first place! Both acid rain and ozone depletion are still serious problems, of course, although they have been mitigated to a bearable extent largely due to the US Clean Air Act Amendments of 1990. This is illustrated by the following plot (from NASA’s Total Ozone Mass Spectrometer website, not hard to find if you can find wikipedia):

A detailed EPA assessment of the policy response is provided by this document. Both acid rain and ozone layer depletion are very real, as the PVV should know -or worse, damn well knows. The remark about the environmental movement is straight out of the skeptic’s playbook.

Changing climate

The climate is changing, of course, but it always does. Man cannot set the earth’s temperature any higher or lower.

The first sentence is true but misleading, for it already implies (‘but’) what is spelled out in the sentence directly after. Which is, to be crude but accurate, bullshit. First of all, the current situation really is unprecedented over the past millennia, as shown below in a plot from this paper from Reviews of Geophysics:

The red line is the instrumental record, the blue line the combination of proxy reconstructions. (If you’re in denial about the famous hockey stick curve from 1998 because you’ve been misled by hacked e-mails quoted of out context, ‘auditing’ sessions on the statistics by complete amateurs etc. etc., here is a pristine hockey stick from 2008 to feast your eyes on, improving incrementally on a result that was robust in the first place.)

Second, not only is the current situation special, it is purely man-made. It’s not the sun. If it were up to the sun, we’d be in a phase of global cooling, for the sun has been extraordinary quiescent of late. Besides, that the sun’s contribution can only account for a fraction of the warming is old news (and by the sun’s contribution to warming I mean of course changes in the solar forcing with respect to its average value. If there were no sun, we’d be frozen solid even if we were up to our nose in pure CO2. The sun is central in all of climate science, but that’s trivial). More information for the layman on what drives climate can be found here. For example: The time scale for full glacial-to-interglacial climate changes is millennia. However, this millennial time scale reflects the time scale of the slow weak climate forcing due to Earth orbital changes, not an inherent climate response time.

Temperature is not declining

What’s more, the global temperature has been declining since 1998

Chutzpah or pathetic, given that we are currently experiencing the hottest year on record? This plot shows satellite (UAH) temperature data for this year:

Here, lower troposphere temperatures for 2010 are shown in green, the average temperature is shown in blue and record temperatures since 1979 are shown in purple (so that last one is supposed to lie high, it represents the hottest moments from many years). The UAH results are confirmed by NOAA. Now a single record doesn’t mean all that much. It’s when you’re getting record numbers of records that you need to start worrying. In the US, for example, we’re getting more and more record highs and less record lows:

But even if we ignore today, the 1998 argument is bogus. The year 1998 was a very hot year (as were all years following 1998), and by taking it as a starting point using surface temperatures based on the HadCRUT data, and by connecting peaks in the noise, you can try to fool people into believing the earth is again cooling. But, looking at a more complete picture by looking at land, atmospheric and ocean heating together, something far scarier emerges:

Actually, even if we stick to land temperatures (and ignore today’s temperatures, etc.), the claim that the earth is cooling since 1998 is unwarranted, for it confuses noise with data. In order to discern a trend from the noise, a sufficiently long time period needs to be considered. If you pick your time period too short, the error bars on your trend become so large that the trend itself becomes meaningless -the error bars still allow for both positive and negative trend (there has been a tremendous trend towards cooling in the US since the sun set a few hours ago today). Take 1999 as the starting point, and the temperature trends for the different satellites are upward:

Nevertheless, the plot above is not all that interesting, for the noise vs data reason. You’ll need a period of approximately 15 years to get a clear and unambiguous trend. Needless to say, any correct trend calculated over an appropriately long time interval that includes 1998 is up.

Mankind’s tiny CO2 contribution

only 3 to 4 percent of all CO2 emission is produced by man. The rest is produced by nature itself (volcano’s, oceans and swamps).

Yes but that is not really the point, is it? Again, a highly misleading representation of what is going on. Think of a bath tub that is full of water. Now at the same time we remove the plug and we open the faucet. If we open the faucet just far enough, the level of water in the bath tub remains constant. If I now start pissing in the tub, the tub will overflow. Something similar is going on with CO2 emission:

There is only enough capacity to absorb 40 percent of CO2 emitted by man, and as a consequence of this, atmospheric CO2 is at its highest level in 15 to 20 million years. The past few hundred thousand years or so are also shown in the following plot:

The reality-based community

Reporting for The New York Times magazine reporter Ron Suskind famously described a meeting with a Bush aide in 2002:

The aide said that guys like me were “in what we call the reality-based community” which he defined as people who “believe that solutions emerge from your judicious study of discernible reality”. I nodded and murmured something about enlightenment principles and empiricism. He cut me off. “That’s not the way the world really works anymore,” he continued. “We’re an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while your studying that reality -judiciously, as you will- we’ll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that’s how things will sort out. We’re history’s actors… and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do

Make no mistake, this mission statement in its sublime lunacy applies to today’s PVV as well. I can only conclude that the PVV are actively and willfully spreading lies about the current state of the global climate and that in their aggressive paranoia they are smearing not only those concerned about the environment, but also climate scientists and science as a whole. These people are about to become part of the Dutch government. They are enabled by a large mob of scared, angry and bloody ignorant voters. This is not the country I left, it is not the country I hope to return to someday.

There is a silver lining to this cloud. It turns out that the scientific bureaus of all other Dutch political parties remain rooted in the reality based community. They have started an initiative for a cleaner future (a ‘burgerinitiatief” by which a group of civilians can formally force an item on the political agenda if they find enough people to support their cause), see here. People with the Dutch nationality can participate, others can show support.

[Update: on Climate Progress there is an essential post on subsidies for renewables vs. fossil fuel subsidies, that fits right in our deconstruction of PVV's global warming policy...

The subsidized Green movement has to come up with new issues all the time in order to maintain the flow of subsidies.

We've already dealt with the nonsense in the first part of this sentence. Let's take a closer look at who currently benefits most from subsidies, the renewable energy industry or the fossil fuel industry. According to a report on a recent study:

Global subsidies for fossil fuels dwarf support given to renewable energy sources such as wind and solar power and biofuels, Bloomberg New Energy Finance said.

Governments last year gave $43 billion to $46 billion of support to renewable energy through tax credits, guaranteed electricity prices known as feed-in tariffs and alternative energy credits, the London-based research group said today in a statement. That compares with the $557 billion that the International Energy Agency last month said was spent to subsidize fossil fuels in 2008.

The difference is a factor 12! If the PVV wants to dam the flow of subsidies, they have their work cut out for them. It should prove far more lucrative than rallying against European climate commitments.]

[Update: Added link to NOAA that confirms 2010 shaping up as hottest year on record.]

[Update Aug 5, 2010: Added source for Bush aide quote.]


Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.