Wishful thinking Czech style

23/07/2010

Predictions Revisited

Wishful thinking, Czech style

Every since Thomas More invented the term, utopias have cast futures in a “normative” manner, saying here’s how the world ought to be. Such wishful thinking is political. The Marxist vision of a better world of true Communism, “from each according to his ability, to each according to his needs,” led huge sections of the human species into the long dark tunnels of Stalinism and Maoism, where utopia was deferred indefinitely.

A memorable episode more than 40 years ago was an attempt in Czechoslovakia to outwit the thought police and modernize Communism by highly organized speculations about the future. Unusually for a science writer I found myself on the inside track of political news, when routeing myself home from Moscow via Prague. It was Christmastime in Wenceslas Square – just three weeks before Alexander Dubček came to power and began trying to throw off Soviet shackles in the “Prague Spring”.

The mathematician Jaroslav Kozešnik, vice-president of the Academy of Sciences, briefed me about what was in the wind. And in August 1968, when the Soviet bloc was closing in on its dissident member, I wrote about it in the London magazine New Statesman, as follows.

Czech Crisis: The Czechnocrats’ Key Role

If the writers were the shock troops of the movement that overthrew the residual Stalinists in Czechoslovakia, the heavy armour was provided by the Academy of Sciences. Ideas emanating from years of officially-sponsored reformist studies are much less stoppable than Soviet tanks. Even if they were to be extinguished or compromised by present events, they would reappear elsewhere. Nor do I mean only in Moscow or Warsaw; in London and Paris, New York and New Delhi, we all have a lot to learn from the Czechs. Starting from a higher political level they have thought more deeply than any other nation about the impact of current science and technology on everyday life. They have sought to re-invent democracy in modern form.

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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.

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