The Sun and auroras for beginners

22/01/2012

Pick of the pics

Our Explosive Sun by Pål Brekke

In “Our Explosive Sun”, the picture has this caption. “A unique image of the planets close to the Sun observed with the LASCO telescope on SOHO. An occulting disk inside the telescope blocks the bright light from the solar disk creating an artificial solar eclipse. Mercury, Venus, Jupiter, Saturn, and the Pleiades are visible. Just outside the occulting disk one can see enormous ejections of gas from the hidden Sun. The horizontal streaks from the planets are artifacts from the digital camera (ESA/NASA).”

It’s one of my favourite images from the Space Age. The Large Angle and Spectrometric Coronagraph (LASCO) took it on 15 May 2000. Four planets and the Pleiades star cluster were almost in line with the Sun – which chose this theatrical moment to blast off a huge puff of gas in a coronal mass ejection (CME). So I’m not surprised to find the picture in Our Explosive Sun by Pål Brekke, a colourful book that’s just been published by Springer.

Pål Brekke (NRS)

Pål (pronounced Paul) is a Norwegian solar physicist who worked in the SOHO team for more than a decade, latterly as Deputy Project Scientist. We’ve known each other well from the time when I was writing a lot for the European Space Agency. Pål’s now a Senior Advisor at the Norwegian Space Centre.

Let’s be clear that Our Explosive Sun is a book for beginners, be they amateur astronomers, aurora watchers, high school students, or interested non-experts of any description. There’s plenty of elementary information about our mother star and the Solar System, and about how to observe the Sun safely or photograph the Northern Lights. Making the book distinctive are a mass of extraordinarily vivid and up to date illustrations, plus the occasional insights you get only from a true expert.

For example, in warning of the dangers that solar explosions will pose to astronauts flying to the Moon or Mars, Pål reminds us that the lunar flights of Apollos 16 and 17, in April and December 1972, were lucky to miss a big burst of deadly solar protons in August of that year. And in explaining the distances of stars, he notes that in about 40 years time an astronomer with a supertelescope on a planet in the Pleiades star cluster might in principle see Galileo turning his own telescope on the Pleaides for the first time, from a distance of 440 light-years.

It’s a pity perhaps that Pål doesn’t mention cosmic rays, which provide one of the great markers of solar variations both currently and in the past. And his remarks on solar activity and climate change are brief and rather cautious, e.g.: One thousand years ago, it was warmer on Greenland than today. … Human-driven climate change will work in addition to natural climate variability mainly caused by the Sun.

References

Pål Brekke, Our Explosive Sun: A Visual Feast of Our Source of Light and Life, Springer 2012. [Hardcover]

Amazon UK: http://www.amazon.co.uk/Our-Explosive-Sun-Visual-Source/dp/146140570X


Utopia beats Dystopia

30/11/2011

Predictions Revisited

Let’s lay Malthus to Rest

After all that Halloween anguish about the global population reaching 7 billion, how refreshing to have an upbeat assessment of the world food situation! It comes from the retiring professor of sustainable development and food security at Wageningen University in the Netherlands. “Hindsights in Perspective” was the title of Rudy Rabbinge’s farewell address, and you can see a press release about it here http://www.wageningenuniversity.nl/UK/newsagenda/news/RR_UK111129.htm

Two hundred years ago, Malthus predicted that the world would be unable to feed the growing population. The fact that he was manifestly wrong is illustrated by the current situation in which the population has increased seven-fold, but there is now more food per head available than in 1800.”

Other points from Prof. Rabbinge:

 

Rudy Rabbinge. Photo Wageningen U.

  • The notion of a present or future shortage is a misunderstanding – this is not the case anywhere in the world, except in China.
  • We do not need extra agricultural land in order to feed the world population in the coming decades.
  • The damage caused to the environment by farming has dropped considerably.
  • Ineffective policy, unequal distribution of production and poor food distribution still leads to a billion people going hungry — a disgrace that warrants a world-wide reaction.
  • Science gives cause for utopian thinking with good prospects rather than anti-utopian (dystopian) defeatism; whilst naive optimism is dangerous, unfounded pessimism is discouraging and frustrating,

Back in 1967, in The Environment Game (Secker & Warburg) I visualized an implosion of food production into small, intensive operations, such that most land could be restored to nature. This is a theme at Wageningen too:

Rabbinge refers to the energy-producing greenhouse (which could be operational in the coming years), energy-neutral buildings, and small-scale power generation by means of bio-solar cells. If agricultural production is concentrated at the well-endowed locations, geared up to high production, the world will be in a position both to sustain agro-biodiversity (the combination of natural disease control and biological control mechanisms in the fields) and to release areas of agricultural land for nature. This will require more energy per unit of area but less per unit of product.

Postscript: Prof. Rabbinge feels more affinity with the Malthus’s French contemporary, the mathematician and philosopher Condorcet, who believed in dramatic change thanks to man´s ingenuity. You can see the Marquis de Condorcet’s book on Progress (1795, trs into English 1796) here http://oll.libertyfund.org/index.php?option=com_staticxt&staticfile=show.php%3Ftitle=1669&Itemid=27#toc_list Before getting too zealously utopian, please remember that Condorcet was a prominent supporter of the French Revolution but then died as one of its many victims. Failures are due to politics, not science and technology.

For earlier posts about Malthusian errors see: http://calderup.wordpress.com/2010/07/12/the-population-bomb/ and http://calderup.wordpress.com/2010/06/24/malthus-with-a-computer/


Royal Society Winton Book Prize

18/11/2011

Uncategorized

In Praise of Idleness

That was the title of a famous essay by Bertrand Russell. Being myself a lifelong victim of the protestant work ethic, I was impressed at the Royal Society last night when the prize for science books 2011, now sponsored by Winton Capital Management, went to Gavin Pretor-Pinney for The Wavewatcher’s Companion (Bloomsbury).

 

Gavin Pretor-Pinney

Although the book has a beach chair with sea waves on its cover (an icon of idleness) it covers waves of every kind you’d think of, and some you wouldn’t. Given the chance to read a passage from his book during the ceremonies, Pretor-Pinney chose the intricate waves of hungry amoebae. They assemble to make a slug-like object and then build a tower from which they send spores to look for happier hunting grounds.

Salutary point (1) This is only the second book that Pretor-Pinney has written. The previous one was The Cloudspotter’s Guide, which of course I have because of my interest in the Svensmark cloud-seeding connection.

Salutary point (2): Pretor-Pinney was a founder of The Idler magazine. http://idler.co.uk/

Perhaps my only claim to fruitful idleness is that a literary by-product of my family cruising under sail, The English Channel, won the Best Book of the Sea award at the London Boat Show.

Small world note: Gavin Pretor-Pinney also took part in the BBC-TV programme “The Secret Life of Waves”, which was made by David Malone, son of Adrian Malone who produced one of my BBC blockbusters “The Life Game” (1973). That programme took its title, and an important sequence, from a table game with nucleic acids played by biophysicists in Goettingen led by Manfred Eigen. Now Eigen has written the most interesting upcoming book that I know about just now. Due out soon from Oxford UP, it’s called From Strange Simplicity to Complex Familiarity. Oxford asked me for an endorsement and here’s what I’ve offered them.

What a splendid antidote to the swagger of physicists and biologists who think they already understand the living universe! Manfred Eigen pulls back the carpet like a careful housekeeper and brings to light mind-wrenching questions that most scientists brush out of sight. His search for the physical roots of the logic of life is not an easy path to follow, but Eigen helps us all he can with his polymathic skill and lucid style.

I fear it may be too mind-wrenching for the general readers targeted by the Royal Society Winton Prize for Science Books.


Sausages without the pig

14/11/2011

Predictions revisited

Food production by tissue engineering

This drawing by Nik Spencer shows an as-yet unrealised concept of Morris Benjaminson at Touro College, New York, It introduces the theme, rather than illustrating the work in the Netherlands noted below. The source is an article by Nicola Jones in Nature 468, 752-753 (2010) and you can see a larger and more legible version here http://www.nature.com/news/2010/101208/full/468752a/box/1.html

I’d still like to trace just where the idea originated. I know that In 1967 I was predicting “beef-steak without a cow” in The Environment Game, a book that visualized the land areas needed for agriculture being greatly reduced. In 1983, my contribution to The Future of a Troubled World, pictured “endless sausages growing by tissue culture of pork muscle”. But now I learn that Winston Churchill was talking about “chicken breast without the chicken” back in 1931. Where did he get it from? I’ll go on checking.

The Churchill quote comes in a segment in “Brave New World with Stephen Hawking” on Channel 4 (14 November). It follows up stories of the past few years about developments, most notably in the Netherlands, that are gradually making it a reality.

Here’s what I wrote in 1967:

Tissue culture itself is one of the most attractive ideas for artificial food production. It is no longer far-fetched to think that we may learn how to grow beef-steak, for example, without a cow. Tissue culture, the technique for growing cells outside the organism from which they originated, is already used for special purposes in research and also for growing viruses in the manufacture of vaccine; the advent of polio vaccine depended on the successful cultivation of kidney cells. That in turn followed the introduction of antibiotics to preserve the cultures from the ravages of stray micro-organisms.

When cells are cultured by present techniques they tend to lose their specialized character. By deliberately letting specialized cells such as kidney or muscle revert to the undifferentiated nature of a newly fertilized egg, we can use them in a quite arbitrary way for a variety of synthetic purposes. If, on the other hand, we want to grow beef-steak we must simulate the conditions governing the growth and arrangement of the cells in the live animal, otherwise we shall finish up with something like finely divided mince.

The Netherlands launched a well-funded multi-university project in 2005, and in the Hawking show, Mark Evans visits Mark Post at Maastricht University who shows him muscle fibres forming artifically. Post has some commerical backing and declares himself “reasonably confident” that next year (2012) he’ll make a hamburger. But with a price tag on the burger at 250,000 euros it’s “still in the scientific phase”.

Besides reducing the land areas for meat production, eventual success with “in-vitro meat” will mean that astronauts bound for Mars can still have their burgers, sausages and chicken breast.

Added 15 November.

Suspecting that J.B.S. Haldane might have been an early predictor of synthetic food, I’ve dug out this 1923 lecture http://www.marxists.org/archive/haldane/works/1920s/daedalus.htm But he visualizes synthesis from scratch. “Many of our foodstuffs, including the proteins, we shall probably build up from simpler sources such as coal and atmospheric nitrogen.”

A step in the extrapolation to tissue culture seems to have come from Haldane’s evolutionist chum, Julian Huxley, in fictional form in a short story, “The Tissue-Culture King” (1927). There the tissue of an African ruler was proliferated in that way – but for power, not for food. So where did Churchill get his rather precise prediction from? En route I’ve found the Churchill source. In Fifty Years Hence, In Thoughts and Adventures, Thornton Butterworth (London) 1932, Winston wrote:

“Fifty years hence we shall escape the absurdity of growing a whole chicken in order to eat the breast or wing by growing these parts separately under a suitable medium.”

References

Nicola Jones, Nature, 468, 752-753, 2010

Nigel Calder, The Environment Game, Secker & Warburg (London) 1997

Ritchie Calder (ed), The Future of a Troubled World, Heinemann (London) 1983

Channel 4 (London), “Brave New World with Stephen Hawking,” Part 4, Environment, 14 November 2011. See http://www.channel4.com/programmes/brave-new-world-with-stephen-hawking/4od#3253407


Editors’ personal opinions

27/10/2011

Climate Change – News and Comments

Nature muddies the water

As a science writer I’m well used to picking my way through the minefield of embargoes on papers not yet published. I know, too, of possible risks to scientists as well as journalists, when quoting from preprints or even reporting results presented at a conference. Publication can be cancelled.

You’d expect clear guidance from leading journals on that subject. How bewildering then, to read an editorial “Scientific climate” in today’s Nature (vol. 478, p. 428). It’s on the subject of the Berkeley Earth / Richard Muller furore noted in my recent posts. The editorial’s sub-heading is:

Results confirming climate change are welcome, even when released before peer review.

… Where “climate change” is to be understood, I suppose, as “catastrophic manmade global warming”. Other points from the editorial are, as I construe them:

  • The welcome is the stronger because the Muller results can be used against the Republicans in the USA.
  • But Muller really should not have publicised his work as he did.
  • Muller is wrong to claim that Science and Nature forbid the discussion of unpublished results – Nature only opposes pre-publicity.
  • All that said, it was fine for physicists to give pre-publicity to apparent evidence of neutrinos travelling faster than light.

What on earth does all that mean, to scientists and journalists who are just trying to tell their stories promptly? Here are three extracts from Nature’s instructions to authors concerning embargoes, which can be seen in full here http://www.nature.com/authors/policies/embargo.html

Material submitted to Nature journals must not be discussed with the media, except in the case of accepted contributions, which can be discussed with the media no more than a week before the publication date under our embargo conditions. We reserve the right to halt the consideration or publication of a paper if this condition is broken.”

The benefits of peer review as a means of giving journalists confidence in new work published in journals are self-evident. Premature release to the media denies journalists that confidence. It also removes journalists’ ability to obtain informed reactions about the work from independent researchers in the field.”

… communicate with other researchers as much as you wish, whether on a recognised community preprint server, on Nature Precedings, by discussion at scientific meetings (publication of abstracts in conference proceedings is allowed), in an academic thesis, or by online collaborative sites such as wikis; but do not encourage premature publication by discussion with the press (beyond a formal presentation, if at a conference).”

What the new editorial means, in my opinion, is that the politicisation of science has now penetrated right through to the workaday rituals of publication. On no account must you publicise your new work prematurely, unless you do it to bash the climate sceptics or the Republican Party or supporters of Special Relativity or anyone else the editors happen to dislike today. In that case they’ll forgive you.


Hoodwinked by Berkeley Earth

22/10/2011

Climate Change – Notes and Comments

Propaganda Tito style

My previous post was too polite about Berkeley Earth. I’d not figured out Richard Muller’s game. The mainstream media have have portrayed him as a repentant climate sceptic who has wonderful new evidence confirming man-made global warming. To see how the story is playing, look for Richard Muller Berkeley on Google News (139 reports and counting).

Normally I try to stick to the science, without being naïve about the politics. Posted earlier on this blog is the text of a talk I gave called “Global Warming is Just Propaganda”, which you’ll find here http://calderup.wordpress.com/2010/06/07/tradecraft-of-propaganda/

Muller

Tito

It compares the behaviour of the warmists with the tradecraft of propaganda during the Second World War. And the latest bout from Berkeley and the media reminds me, belatedly, of a manipulation of British propaganda in the Balkans in the early 1940s. For global warming read Stalinism and (at the risk of grossly overstating his importance) for Richard Muller read Tito.

Hoodwinking Churchill: Tito’s Great Confidence Trick, by the TV producer and military historian Peter Batty, was published earlier this year. Helped by a Communist mole filtering messages in the British team in Cairo, Tito fooled the West into thinking that he was the hero of the fight against the Italian and German forces in Yugoslavia. In fact he was subverting other guerrilla bands, doing deals with the Germans, and keeping his forces safe for a postwar Communist takeover of Yugoslavia. As Batty relates, Tito secured his 35-year dictatorship by butchering the non-Communist guerrillas who had been the real fighters in the occupied Balkans.

When Richard Muller, leader of the Berkeley Earth Surface Temperatures (BEST) project, gave testimony to the US Congress back in March, he called for the creation of an ARPA-like agency for climate issues. ARPA, more correctly nowadays called DARPA, is the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, a mighty organization with a $3 billion budget. Climate ARPA (CARPA?) might offer a promising niche for a 67-year-old astrophysicist.

But if that’s the aim, catastrophic man-made global warming must stay high on the political agenda. How better to go about making sure about that than to call yourself a sceptic, just as Tito pretended to be on Winston Churchill’s side. When the time came to show himself in his true colours Tito was celebrated in the Communist world. Similarly Muller has become an instant hero for the warmists.

Scientifically grotesque was the blurring in the Berkeley press release, as well as in the media, of the meaning of Muller’s main graph, shown in my previous post. Invited to comment by New Scientist, I said:

What do they mean by ‘global warming is real’? The graph of global land temperature changes associated with BEST’s announcement neatly confirms by their independent method that the warming stopped about 15 years ago. The Sun’s recent laziness has apparently cancelled any effect of ever-increasing man-made greenhouse gases.”

The interviewer commented:

I take your point about the reduced warming trend over the last 15 years, but this study is focused on the long-term warming trend which covers a century. How do you account for this long-term warming trend?”

My reply (which wasn’t reported by New Scientist) was:

Increased activity of the Sun, of course, from 1950 to the early 1990s as signalled most strikingly by the decline in ionizing cosmic rays at the Earth’s surface. See the red curve (ion chamber) in the attached figure.”

This is a coloured version of a graph in Henrik Svensmark, Physical Review Letters, 81, 5027-30,1998.

The message about Muller in the media, that “the science is settled (again)”, is completely at odds with the evidence.

Reference

Hoodwinking Churchill: Tito’s Great Confidence Trick, by Peter Batty, Shepheard Walwyn (London) 2011.


The long pause in warming confirmed

20/10/2011

Climate Change – News and Comments

Nice research, curious rhetoric

Just dis-embargoed at noon PST (8 pm BST) on 20 October are a press release and associated papers from the Berkeley Earth Surface Temperatures (BEST) project. A team led by Richard A. Muller has been asking whether the histories of land surface temperatures from the likes of NOAA, NASA and the Hadley Centre are to be trusted. Clever statistics glean and process raw data from 39,000 weather stations world wide – more than five times as many as used by other analysts.

The short answer is that the other histories are broadly validated, as seen in this graph from one of the new papers.

If your eye can trace the black line of the BEST study, based on a random selection of weather stations, you’ll see that the average temperatures of the land correspond quite well with the other series.

What’s very odd is the rhetoric of the press release. It begins:

Global warming is real, according to a major study released today. Despite issues raised by climate change skeptics, the Berkeley Earth Surface Temperature study finds reliable evidence of a rise in the average world land temperature of approximately 1°C since the mid-1950s.

Global warming real? Not recently, folks. The black curve in the graph confirms what experts have known for years, that warming stopped in the mid-1990s, when the Sun was switching from a manic to a depressive phase.

Elsewhere the press release first begs the question by calling the past 50 years “the period during which the human effect on temperatures is discernible” and then contradicts this by saying, What Berkeley Earth has not done is make an independent assessment of how much of the observed warming is due to human actions, Richard Muller acknowledged.”

Let me say there is interesting stuff in the material released today, particularly in the paper on Decadal Variations, tracing links with El Niño and other regional temperature oscillations” — a subject I may return to when I have more time.

It hasn’t escaped my attention that BEST is today gunning mainly for Anthony Watts and his Surface Stations project in the USA, but he’s well capable of answering for himself. See wattsupwiththat.com/2011/10/20/the-berkeley-earth-surface-temperature-project-puts-pr-before-peer-review/

Added 21 October: See this rather uneasy comment from Judith Curry, a member of the Berkeley teamhttp://judithcurry.com/2011/10/20/berkeley-surface-temperatures-released/

And later: New Scientist quotes me saying something similar to what’s above – followed of course by the usual grossly biased and poorly informed attempt at a put-down http://www.newscientist.com/article/dn21074-sceptical-climate-scientists-concede-earth-has-warmed.html

References

The BEST home page, with downloadable press release and papers, is here www.BerkeleyEarth.org

The graph shown above is Fig. 1 in “Decadal Variations in the Global Atmospheric Land Temperatures,” Richard A. Muller et al., unpublished


Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 151 other followers