Quantitative deep freeze

January 12, 2010

“I often say that when you can measure what you are speaking about, and express it in numbers, you know something about it; but when you cannot measure it, when you cannot express it in numbers, your knowledge is of a meagre and unsatisfactory kind; it may be the beginning of knowledge, but you have scarcely in your thoughts advanced to the state of Science, whatever the matter may be.”

William Thomson, created Lord Kelvin for his engineering work on transatlantic communications cables, had firm views on what was and was not scientific knowledge.  He was also interested in global temperature, but not they way we are today.  He put a monumental scare into Charles Darwin, whose ideas he did not accept, by calculating that the earth must be much younger than Darwin had believed it to be.  His conclusions were based on the rate at which the earth would cool from its initial molten state.  Since evolution takes a very long time, and Darwin knew that well, this was a serious blow to Darwin’s theory.  Eventually, Kelvin’s figures were shown to be wrong, and we now believe the earth is billions of years old, plenty for Darwin!

Kelvin also was interested in very low temperatures.  He created the temperature scale, now known as Kelvin, that has as its begining, Absolute Zero (no connection to the vodka) which is the point at which all molecular motion ceases – thermodynamic zero.

All this stuff about metrics and temperature got me thinking about the latest blast on global warming, this time related to a major IPCC scientist who has been quoted as implying that all the climate science of projected warming is wrong.  He writes that the warming in the recent decades, such as it is, is not the result of CO2, but of natural cycles.  The warming due to CO2 is now kicking in, and will continue unabated as long as we burn fossil fuel.  He laments that some journalists have “distorted” his views, describing him as a sort of crypto-denier, and asserts that “if my name was [sic] not Mojib Latif it would be global warming.”  Wow, there’s a believer!  (I guess he doesn’t believe in the subjunctive, but who does?)

I’m sure there have been reports in magazines and news shows that do distort Mr. Latif’s views – that’s to be expected in popular science journalism.  What is odd is that he doesn’t see that his views do contradict some of the AGW orthodoxy.  That is, a lot of people would deny that natural cycles have much, if anything, to do with the purported temperature rise over the last few decades.  They point to a clear “signal” of AGW.  His statements also raise the question of how he is so sure that the real AGW warming will begin soon – isn’t that just his … belief?  I mean, if it hasn’t been happening already, how can he be so sure?  Those computer models?

Finally, he weighs in with a strange observation about the ability of people to reason coherently:

 Nobody would discuss the problem of [Einstein’s theory of] relativity in the media. But because we all experience the weather, we all believe that we can assess the global warming problem.”

Actually, I have seen discussions of relativity in the media, and some of them were admirably clear.  They may be difficult to understand because the theory entails a profound challenge to our “common sense” notions, but that’s another story.  Latif seems to be claiming that only experts such as himself can assess AGW, presumably with the help of their digital crystal balls, but we can all assess the logic of their claims, and his seems rather tortured.

As Kelvin might have asked, let’s just look at the numbers…


Himalayan snowball fight

December 27, 2009

Is there anyone interested in the topic of climate change who is unaware of the recent flap over the glaciers of the Himalayas?  An ad showing an image similar to the one above was running on the New York Times Science page for some time during the recent conference in Copenhagen.  The image on the left is from 2007, while the one on the right is from 1921, clear evidence of melting, right?  So, we have this story, widely circulated in the media world (all emphasis added):

October 5, 2009 (CNN)The glaciers in the Himalayas are receding quicker than those in other parts of the world and could disappear altogether by 2035 according to the 2007 Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report.[link]

This follows on an earlier alarming report on CNN:

Glaciers a canary in the coal mine of global warming

August 8, 2009 (CNN) — U.S. scientists monitoring shrinking glaciers in Washington and Alaska reported this week that a major meltdown is under way.

A 50-year government study found that the world’s glaciers are melting at a rapid and alarming rate. The ongoing study is the latest in a series of reports that found glaciers worldwide are melting faster than anyone had predicted they would just a few years ago.

It offers a clear indication of an accelerating climate change and warming earth, according to the authors. [link]

But not everyone agreed.  After the 2007 report of the IPCC came out, the Indian Ministry of Environment did its own research and published a report that concluded the melting of the glaciers was part of a natural cycle going on worldwide.  The response was quick and furious, a veritable snowball fusillade:

November 9, 2009 Guardian.UK:  India ‘arrogant’ to deny global warming link to melting glaciers

IPCC chairman Rajendra Pachauri accuses Indian environment ministry of ‘arrogance’ for its report claiming there is no evidence that climate change has shrunk Himalayan glaciers. [link]

…and…

November 16, 2009:  Indian Express – Pachauri rubbishes report on glaciers

Rubbishing the claim by a government-backed study that melting of glaciers was not due to climate change, leading environmentalist R K Pachauri on Sunday dubbed it as “totally unsubstantiated scientific opinion” and flayed Union Environment Minister Jairam Ramesh for endorsing it.

Pachauri, head of the Nobel prize winner Inter-governmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), said it was universally acknowledged that glaciers were melting because of climate change and the same applied to Indian glaciers.

“Everywhere in the world, glaciers are melting due to climate change, the Arctic is melting because of climate change. What is so special about Indian glaciers?” Pachauri said.

The study by former deputy director general of the Geological Survey of India V K Raina has claimed that while most glaciers are in the process of retreat, some Himalayan glaciers, such as the Siachen glacier, are actually advancing and some others, such as the Gangotri glacier, are retreating at a rate lower than before.[link]

As the snowballs flew to and fro, some people started to look into it:

December 1, 2009, BBC News:  Himalayan glaciers’ ‘mixed picture’

A scientific debate has been triggered over the state of glaciers in the Himalayas.

Some recent findings seem to contradict claims that the glaciers are retreating rapidly. Some glaciers are even said to be advancing.  There are clear signs of glacial retreat and ice melt from other parts of the world, but few field studies have been carried out in the Himalayas.

Its glaciers too were widely believed to be receding fast. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) had said that Himalayan glaciers were receding faster than in any other part of the world.

The panel observed: “If the present rate continues, the likelihood of them disappearing by 2035 and perhaps sooner is very high if the Earth keeps warming at the current rate.” [link]

Eventually, we heard from the Indian Minister of Environment in his own words:

NEW DELHI  December 2009 – Recession of Himalayan glaciers part of natural process:

Environment minister Jairam Ramesh said the recession of Himalayan glaciers was part of the natural cyclical process which could be attributed to various reasons, including global warming.  Replying to supplementaries during Question Hour, he said the melting of Arctic ice and Himalayan glaciers could not be compared as ecological conditions in each case were different.

According to the Fourth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the Himalayan Glaciers are receding faster than in any part of the world and if the present rate continues, there is a likelihood of their disappearing by 2035, he noted.

However, Ramesh said the studies carried out by the Geological Survey of India have revealed that majority of Himalayan glaciers are passing through a phase of recession, which is a worldwide phenomenon.

“The recession of glaciers is part of the natural cyclic process of changes in the size and other attributes of the glaciers. These changes could be attributed to various reasons including global warming,” he said…

He said long term studies are required to conclusively establish the causes and impacts of melting of Himalayan glaciers. [link]

Finally, alas, it all turns out to have been a little mistake:

December 5, 2009 – BBC News:  Himalayan glaciers melting deadline ‘a mistake’

The UN panel on climate change warning that Himalayan glaciers could melt to a fifth of current levels by 2035 is wildly inaccurate, an academic says.  J Graham Cogley, a professor at Ontario Trent University, says he believes the UN authors got the date from an earlier report wrong by more than 300 years.

He is astonished they “misread 2350 as 2035″. The authors deny the claims. 

When asked how this “error” could have happened, RK Pachauri, the Indian scientist who heads the IPCC, said: “I don’t have anything to add on glaciers.” [link]

You can read about the whole thing in more detail by following the links from this blog.


Sex in a tree…

October 24, 2009

chaucer portrait merchants tale

…how can that be?

My apologies to Dr. Seuss, but surely he wouldn’t have objected to being confused with Geoffrey Chaucer.   I’m thinking of  Hop on Pop’s line, “three fish in a tree?”  The Merchant’s Tale involves exactly that, in a tree. Sex, that is.

I haven’t read Chaucer since college, but I picked up a copy of The Canterbury Tales in a bookstore, and was enthralled.  The Middle English takes a while to get used to, you can’t get every word, and I don’t know how to pronounce it, but the rhythm of it carries you along nevertheless.  The edition I bought has the most obscure words glossed in the margin, and the hardest phrases explained at the page’s foot so you don’t have to be flipping to a glossary in the back all the time.  The link above is to an interlinear translation, but I find that annoying to read.

Oh yeah, back to the sex, er…the story.  The pilgrims tell stories to pass the time on the way to Canterbury.  The merchant tells one about a rich old man, January, who finally decides to get married.  Of course, he is set on marrying a young and pretty woman, and he takes the time to find just the right one, named May.  She consents – that’s the way things worked in those days.  It’s not all that clear just how well the old guy performs in bed with his well formed young wife.

Things being what they were, and are, she and a young man in the household develop some feeling for one another.  The old man goes blind, but he keeps up his favorite custom of making love to his wife al fresco in his walled garden with a gate.  Nobody there but the two of them,

And May his wyf, and no wight but they two;
And thynges whiche that were nat doon abedde,
He in the gardyn parfourned hem and spedde.

and they did things there that they didn’t do in bed.

The girl and her lover get a copy of the key to the garden, and the next time she goes there with the old man, the young one is waiting in the tree’s branches.  The tree is a fruit tree, a pear tree.  January, May.  A walled garden with a fruit tree, Eden and the apple (or was it a pear) tree?  A blind man, without knowledge of his wife’s adultery.  But they will eat of the tree.

The girl says she absolutely must have some pears, and the old man curses the absence of his servants to fetch her some.  She has an idea – he bends down and she steps on his back and climbs up into the branches to get the fruit.  Yes, she gets the fruit all right.  Up in the tree, her love is waiting, and he

Gan pullen up the smok, and in he throng.

In case you missed it, throng is the past participle of thrust. Once again, the tree of knowledge has brought its bitter fruit to bear on man.  I wonder also if this is an allusion to a famous passage in Augustine’s Confessions in which he recounts his youthful sin of stealing pears from a neighbors orchard.  And the image of a woman stepping on an old man’s back calls to mind another medieval image of man humiliated by woman.

Meanwhile, Pluto and Prosperine are observing the entire business from a corner of the garden.  Pluto vows that if May cheats on January, he will give the old man his sight back.  He wants men to be able to see the evil things woman do to them.  Prosperine, his wife, scoffs at his male chauvinist drivel, and sticks up for women.  If Pluto gives him his sight back, she will make sure that May can talk her way out the impasse.

January gets his sight – the scales drop from his eyes? – and he is infuriated.  May is ready with an answer.  You didn’t see what you think you saw.  After being blind for so long, it takes a while to get used to sight again.  You’re confused.  Really, you should thank me for being up here wrestling with this man – that’s what cured you!  I was told that is the way to restore your sight!

Nothing doing, cries January!

He swyved thee; I saugh it with myne yen,
And elles be I hanged by the hals!”
[He screwed thee; I saw it with my eyes
And else may I be hanged by the neck!]

May is a quick-witted girl.  She replies that if this is what he saw, then her cure wasn’t as good as she had thought.  Obviously, he still has vision problems.

So there we have it.  A little sex farce set in a modern (for then) Eden.  Woman tempts man again, the tree of kowledge brings sight, but having knowledge isn’t such a great thing all the time. Or do we really have the knowledge we think we do?


Cloud of (Un)knowing

August 16, 2009

UnionStationRoof

It’s rare that my quotidian work matches my philosophic preoccupations closely, but sometimes it happens.  The Union Station in Toronto has a train shed roof (above) that is a landmark.  The supporting framework (truss) is distinctive, and was a patented design, also used in Hoboken, NJ.

Engineers like to work from plans, drawings, diagrams, like the one below.  Clean, precise, accurate.  Unambiguous…we think.  Problem was, there were no such drawings in existence.  To create them from hand measurements – a huge and expensive task.  Enter the laser scanner. Millions of points, all with (x,y,z) coordinates.  We call them point clouds.  Clouds of knowing (cf. Dionysius the Pseudo-Areopagite on the cloud), points of certainty.  This is there! Information, data, rich enough to make these precise drawings.

cloud4

What is the grain of knowledge?  How granular is reality?  What is?

cloud1

cloud2

Zoom in far enough, and there is only empty space.  As it is inside us, and outside us.

cloud3


Doubt in Eden

May 11, 2009

from Genesis

1 Now the serpent was more subtil than any beast of the field which the LORD God had made. And he said unto the woman, Yea, hath God said, Ye shall not eat of every tree of the garden?
2 And the woman said unto the serpent, We may eat of the fruit of the trees of the garden:
3 But of the fruit of the tree which is in the midst of the garden, God hath said, Ye shall not eat of it, neither shall ye touch it, lest ye die.
4 And the serpent said unto the woman, Ye shall not surely die:
5
For God doth know that in the day ye eat thereof, then your eyes shall be opened, and ye shall be as gods, knowing good and evil.

Now, did the serpent mean: It is certain that you will not die? Or did he mean: It is not certain that you will die? Is this a purposeful ambiguity? Funny that there should be this element of doubt right at the beginning, when knowledge is given to man. Skepticism is at the root, shall we say.

Is the serpent inviting Eve into a structured risky venture, this knowlege business? An invitation to risk assessment? Perhaps she did a quick cost-benefit analysis, and it came out positive for benefit.


The eternal subjectivity

May 9, 2009
subjectivity

Logo as colorblindness test

This is a new shirt of mine.  It’s from a line called ‘Penguin.’  That’s the logo, there on the front.  Can you see it?  Clearly?  As a colorblind person, this shirt appealed to me so much, I put aside my usual prohibition of wearing clothes with designer logos on them.subjectivity_det

I can make it out, barely, but then I know what to look for.  I don’t know if it’s a real colorblindness test chart:  Real ones don’t have dots that are clearly divided into different colors – see the little image here.  Dvided dots make the edges of the figure easier to see.

I show it to people, and they say they can make it out perfectly.  A strong pattern.  Are they messing with me?  Do they really see it differently?  How would I know?   Are we even speaking the same language about color?  Are we speaking the same language at all?  How can I, could I, ever know…anything?

Tear-jerking Episodes from
the
Life of a Young Philosopher

Kindergarten Teacher: Why have you colored the water with silver and white crayon?  Water is blue.
Me: Not when it comes out of the faucet.

Mother: What time does the clock say?
Me:I don’t know.
Mother: Look at the clock!
Me: But it’s always a little bit before or a little bit after whatever time I say it is.  Even if it’s exactly noon, it’s never really noon.  It’s a itty bitty second before or after…
Mother: Oh you…..!

Me: Yeah, so I see colors better in strong light. Everyone does. The less light we have, the less color there is. So if there’s almost no light, there’s almost no color. SO, in the dark, everything must be without color. Everything is colorless. Everything is clear, transparent!!
Sixth Grade Teacher and ClassmatesUproarous and derisive laughter. In the background, a few students are heard to start up a chorus of stamping feet and the shout of “Bovary, Bo-va-ry, Bo-VA-ry!”


Night thoughts

May 8, 2009

“Hence, so far as their form is concerned, much can be said a priori about these objects, but nothing can ever be said about the thing in itself which may underlie these appearances”

Immanuel Kant, General Observations on the Transcendental Aesthetic

Didn’t Heinrich von Kleist remark, after reading Kant, that he was “disgusted by all that we call knowledge?”

night_5 night_3

night_2 night_4

night_1 night_7

night_6


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