Guided hurricanes

17/08/2010

Predictions revisited and Climate Change: News and Comments

Guided hurricanes

When speculating four decades ago about the military uses of geophysics, Gordon J.F. MacDonald of UCLA contemplated the triggering of earthquakes or tsunamis, or melting polar ice with nuclear weapons. And he didn’t overlook the idea of steering hurricanes to ravage the enemy’s coasts. Reminding me of that prediction is a report now in press in Geophysical Research Letters, about how natural variations in the colour of the sea help to guide cyclones in the Pacific. A cyclone, remember, is a loosely used generic term that includes the major storms called hurricanes (Atlantic), typhoons (Pacific) or tropical cyclones (Indian Ocean and Australia).

Contributing to Unless Peace Comes, (1968), in a chapter entitled “How to Wreck the Environment”, MacDonald wrote:

… preliminary experiments have been carried out on the seeding of hurricanes. The dynamics of hurricanes and the mechanism by which energy is transferred from the ocean into the atmosphere supporting the hurricane are poorly understood. Yet various schemes for both dissipation and steering can be imagined. Although hurricanes originate in tropical regions, they can travel into temperate latitudes, as the residents of New England know only too well. A controlled hurricane could be used as a weapon to terrorize opponents over substantial parts of the populated world.

Read the rest of this entry »


Wisdom of Kilgore Trout

25/06/2010

Predictions Revisited, Updating Magic Universe, and Climate Change: News & Comments

The Wisdom of Kilgore Trout

While checking a reference for yesterday’s posting I came across an epigram concerning human behaviour that I declared, back in 1983, should rank with Einstein’s E=mc2 in physics. I quoted it in 1984 and After, but it really ought to be written on every blackboard in the world.

Who said so? None other than Kilgore Trout, the imaginary science fiction writer invented by the real-life science fiction writer, Kurt Vonnegut. In Breakfast of Champions, Vonnegut re-caps a Trout story called Plague on Wheels.

A space traveller called Kago told the Earthlings about the self-reproducing automobiles on a dying planet named Lingo-Three.

Kago did not know that human beings could be as easily felled by a single idea as by cholera or the bubonic plague. There was no immunity to cuckoo ideas on Earth.” Within a century of Kago’s arrival the Earth was dying too, littered with the shells of automobiles.

Getting an interview with Vonnegut was never easy, but when I managed it my key question was whether Kilgore Trout’s epigram expressed his own opinion. He said, Yes it did.

Before this accidental prompt, I wasn’t going to bother to comment on a paper published this week in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, no less. Anderegg et al. claim that scientists convinced about man-made global warming are cleverer and better respected, as well as much more numerous, than scientists who are unconvinced.

Now I’ll say that it’s scary but not surprising that the National Academy of Sciences should permit a division of experts into an ingroup and an outgroup, and an evaluation of them by arbitrary tests that have nothing whatever to do with the inherent substance or merit of their research. Unsurprising because it accords with Kilgore Trout’s insight into human behaviour, which has been well verified in psychological experiments.

Alec Nisbett of BBC-TV filmed one experiment called Klee-Kandinsky, executed for real with unsuspecting schoolboys, for our documentary “The Human Conspiracy” (1975).  I also summarize the experiment in Magic Universe, in the story “Altruism and aggression: looking for the origins of those human alternatives”.

Read the rest of this entry »


What did Hawking discover?

04/06/2010

Updating Einstein’s Universe and Magic Universe

What did Stephen Hawking discover?

Stephen Hawking. Photo: Channel 4

We’re so used to it, we’re not surprised to see an elderly gentleman immobile in a wheelchair, his lips hardly moving, performing for most of this week as the host presenter of Channel 4 TV’s five-part history-of-science series “Genius of Britain”. Like the footballer David Beckham or the actress Joanna Lumley, the theoretical physicist Stephen Hawking is now a national treasure. And with his voice synthesiser he can seem like a visitor from outer space, setting us earthlings right about this and that.

But I’m irritated by the implication in the last programme, which I’ve just watched, that Hawking himself was a primary advocate of the Big Bang, in opposition to the great Fred Hoyle’s Steady State Theory. No mention of the l’atome primitif of the Belgian cosmologist Georges Lemaître in 1927, but he was a Catholic priest and perhaps inadmissible to Hawking’s co-presenter Richard Dawkins. No mention either of Martin Ryle, the Cambridge radio astronomer who first showed observational evidence that confounded Hoyle’s expectations.

Three decades ago, the BBC’s Alec Nisbett and I were the first to put Hawking on international television, in a two-hour blockbuster on particle physics, “The Key to the Universe”. At that time, his dreadful disease of nerve and muscle left his mumbles intelligible only those most familiar with him. We added a voice over, as if he were speaking a foreign language.

For Nisbett and me, Hawking was not only an up-and-coming physicist but an image of the frailty of Homo sapiens confronted by a confusing and often violent cosmos. After describing his then-recent suggestion that small black holes could explode, producing new particles, we incited Hawking to use stirring words to climax our show.

The Big Bang is like a black hole but on a much larger scale. By finding out how a black hole creates matter we may understand how the Big Bang created all the matter in the Universe. The singularity in the Big Bang seems to be a frontier beyond which we cannot go. Yet we can’t help asking what lies beyond the Big Bang. Why does the Universe exist at all?

My son Robert is always asking questions. Why this? Why that? Every child does. It is what raises us from being cavemen.

On one view, we are just weak, feeble creatures at the mercy of the forces of Nature. When we discover the laws that govern those forces we rise above them and become masters of the Universe.

Hawking then rose to stardom, taking up Newton’s chair as Lucasian Professor of Mathematics in Cambridge in 1979, and publishing the phenomenal best-seller A Brief History of Time in 1988. He has appeared frequently in “The Simpsons” as well as in scientific documentaries and docu-dramas. He made a sub-orbital spaceflight in 2007 at the age of 65 and during the weightless period he could move freely in his chair for the first time in four decades.

His courage, doggedness and success in the face of a crippling disease has been inspirational to paraplegics the world over. Concern for his predicament has also encouraged many people who might otherwise not have been interested in science to pay some attention to it.

In those respects I’m second to none in my admiration of Hawking. But we’re entitled to ask, as about any other scientist, what his enduring contribution to progress in research has been.

To try to get the tone right, I’ll begin by quoting an eminent but more reclusive theorist, Peter Higgs of Edinburgh, who saw the need for a particle that would give mass to matter, and how it might work. The race to find the Higgs particle, a.k.a the God particle, is now on, using the most powerful accelerators of our time.

But Higgs found himself in hot water during the Edinburgh Festival of 2002. He attended a dinner party celebrating a play based on the work of Paul Dirac, who predicted the existence of antimatter. It was not surprising that the conversation turned to why the public, who knew about Hawking, had never heard of the more important Dirac.

Thinking the dinner was private, Higgs commented about Hawking: “It is very difficult to engage him in discussion, and so he has got away with pronouncements that other people would not. His celebrity status gives him instant credibility that others do not have.”

Next morning Higgs found his remarks quoted in The Scotsman and repeated widely elsewhere. The shocked reaction confirmed Higgs’s point, that someone considered superlatively brilliant as well as handicapped was supposed to be exempt from the normal give and take with his fellow scientists.

Let’s check what I say about Hawking in Einstein’s Universe and Magic Universe and ask

  • Is it fair?
  • Does it need updating?

Read the rest of this entry »


Next ice age

14/05/2010

Climate Change – News and Comments

also Predictions Revisited

Prophet of the Next Ice Age

A hero from the glory days of discovery half a century ago, before the sophistry about man-made global warming invaded climate science, will be speaking at the Fourth International Conference on Climate Change in Chicago, 16-18 May 2010.

Kukla at work in Czechoslovakia, from The Weather Machine (book). Photo by courtesy of G. Kukla.

In the 1960s a respected geologist in his native Czechoslovakia, George Kukla, counted the layers of loess – windblown mineral dust ground by the glaciers and laid down in the region during recent ice ages. They were separated by darker material left over from warm interglacial periods. Kukla found too many layers of loess. Until then, almost everyone thought that there were just four recent glacial ages, with long interglacials between them. An exception was Cesare Emiliani, who in Chicago in 1955 had traced major variations in heavy oxygen in seabed fossils, and counted seven ice ages. Very few experts believed him until Kukla reported at least nine loess layers in the brickyards of Czechoslovakia.

Following the ill-fated bid for democracy in the “Prague Spring” of 1968 Kukla emerged from behind the Iron Curtain and found refuge at Columbia’s Lamont-Doherty Geological Observatory (now called the Earth Observatory) where he still works.

The observatory perches beside the former glacier valley of the Hudson River. And down at water level Alec Nisbett of BBC-TV filmed Kukla for our multinational TV blockbuster called “The Weather Machine”, broadcast in 1974. By then the count of ice ages had increased still further and the reasons for the comings-and-goings of the ice were better understood. And as you can view here (after a patch of narration read grandly by the actor Eric Porter) Kukla issued a warning. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=v-Vn5AStFWo

Added 16 May: The wonders of WordPress feedback tell me that only 10% of visitors to this story follow the YouTube link, so I’ll put in the transcript.

Narrator: Will a new ice age claim our lands and bury our northern cities? It’s buried Manhattan Island before, when great glaciers half a mile thick filled the valley of New York’s Hudson River. That’s what an ice age is all about. George Kukla is from Czechoslovakia, where he discovered signs that ice ages are far more frequent that most experts have supposed. Today he continues his work near New York City. For him, the next ice age is not at all remote.

George Kukla: Well almost all of us have been pretty sure that there were only four ice ages, separated by relatively long warm intervals. But now we know that there were twenty in the last two million years. And the warm periods are much shorter than we believed originally. They are something around 10,000 years long. and I’m sorry to say that the one we are living in now has just passed its 10,000 year birthday. That of course means that the ice age is due now any time.

In this post I’ll summarize what was going on in the mid-1970s, about ice age science and climate policy, before catching up with what Kukla thinks nowadays about the coming ice age.

Read the rest of this entry »