Global warming doesn’t feel very warm

Scientists have announced that the world for the year 2015 was an average of 1 degree celsius (that’s about 2 degree fahrenheit) warmer than has ever occurred in recorded history.

But 1 degree?  That doesn’t sound like the potential catastrophe of droughts, floods, extinctions, starvation and global disease scientists say could occur if the planet warms more than just one more degree.

Is this serious or is it mere hysteria?

Nothing would please me more than to write that scientists are exaggerating the problem.

But let us put 1 degree celsius into context.  A decrease of just five degrees celsius would plunge the world into an ice age.  So a change of a mere five degrees can dramatically change our planet.  Unfortunately, it can do so in the opposite direction as well.

Global warming in the form of 2-3 degree celsius can be devastating.  The melting of glaciers could raise the oceans’ water level by as much as 6-8 feet.  Think of how many of the world’s greatest cities will be underwater, how many islands will disappear, how much land will be lost to the sea.  As sea water becomes increasingly acidic, much of sea life will be lost.

Extreme weather patterns, some of which we have already seen this year, will proliferate.  Floods will sweep entire towns, fields and farm land away.  Tornadoes, hurricanes, cyclones, and typhoons will flatten anything and anyone in its torrential path.

Electricity, communication media, and travel could be devastated, leaving survivors isolated.  Water supplies will be corrupted.

Fifteen years ago when I first read about global warming, I thought it sounded quite comfortable.  Some of us would perhaps have to sacrifice our winter snow and skiing vacations.  But our heating bills would be greatly reduced, and the growing season for our crops would be lengthened.

But that’s not what’s happening.  Environmental change, even environmental destruction, would be a much better term for what we call global warming.  Yes, the temperatures are increasing, but the effects on our mother earth are not benign.

Can we stop it?  Yes, I believe we can.  With research, with ingenuity, if governments, if businesses, if individuals are determined to save our planet we can do it.

But we can’t walk around and deny the problem.  Or count on somebody else to fix things.

We all have to do our part, no matter how small that might feel.




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Is anybody out there?

As the existence of alien life seems to becoming increasingly less fictional and more realistically possible, there is a group of scientists who want to send a series of powerful messages into outer space to any living organism that might be able to understand it.

Their thinking is that, just we have been searching the cosmos looking for life, and have set up listening posts in case some other life form might be trying to make contact, we too should be doing the same thing.  Their thinking, of course, is that any such meeting would be mutually welcoming and beneficial.

But would it?

The renowned Stephen Hawking strongly advises against voluntarily giving away the existence of our earthly home to outsiders.  His reasoning and that of those who agree with him, is that contact with alien life could be extremely dangerous, and could even result in mutual annihilation.

Even here on earth, responses to new life forms is one of suspicion.  The unknown is threatening and our first response is often to kill what we perceive as uninvited invaders – even when those invaders are members of our own species.  And as a matter of fact, this fear of the unknown is often a powerful survival mechanism with which we, and many other life forms which observe on our own planet, seem to be born.  Learning that the stranger may be a friend rather than a foe is the harder lesson to learn.

How to Create a Scientifically Plausible Alien Life Form

So what might be our response if we encountered alien life?  And alternatively, what might be the response of alien life forms to us?  Even if one side of the equation were friendly, would the other side respond in kind?

And what if one form of life was, without any intent, deadly for the other form?  the way the Ebola virus is deadly for us humans, for instance?

Do we want to give away our existence to the whole universe, and invite outsiders, perhaps, to stop by for a visit?

What do you think?


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What do mystics experience?

For thousands of years, there have been mystics who describe an experience of a transcendent reality that most humans beings do not have.  In different cultures and religions, this experience takes various forms, but they all seem to revolve around a loss of a sense of self accompanied by a sense of unity, sometimes with “God,” sometimes with the universe, sometimes even with a vast potential of “nothingness.”

Today there is a newly developing field of study called neurotheology which is trying to understand these mystical experiences more fully.  Using magnetic resonance imaging or MRI scans, some scientists are trying to identify which part of the brain is activated when a meditating person achieves such a state of mysticism.

This is a relatively new field with many fascinating questions yet to be explored.  But whether it is a Buddhist monk or Carmelite nun, the brains of mystics seem to be stimulated in the same way during meditations that lead to what are generally called transcendent experiences.  It is a non-analytical state in which a person’s sense of time and space are suspended for a period of time.

An interesting parallel finding suggests that non-believers by and large have brains in which the analytical centers are most active.  Richard Dawkins, the avowedly atheist biologist from Oxford University,  agreed to a test in which that part of his brain activated during mystical experiences was artificially stimulated.  He said he felt as if someone else was present, but did not experience “god,” or any other transcendent reality.

Some people believe that this research, if it holds up under the pressure of further study, demonstrates that “God” is nothing more than brain waves.  But scientific method does not support this conclusion.  Everything we experience is mediated by the activity of the brain.  Some of our experiences we believe have no objective reality, like our dreams or hallucinations caused by drugs or psychosis.  Other things we experience during our waking hours we believe have an objective reality independent of whether we sense them or not.  Mostly, we take it for granted that the voices we hear, the food we taste, the objects our eyes perceive are real.

Sometimes, though, we have experiences we’re not sure about.  “Did you hear that sound?”  “Did we go there last year together?”  “Did I dream that or did it really happen?” are the kind of question most of us have asked at least once in our lives.  We ask others if their experience matches ours.

The scientific method uses this same method to check on the validity of scientific findings.  If a finding or piece of evidence can’t be replicated by other scientists, the scientific community assumes that there may have been a mistake or even a deliberate lie, but that in any case, the evidence cannot be relied on.

That is why science cannot study those things which cannot be observed by more than a single individual.  There are individuals, for instance, who sincerely believe that they were kidnapped by aliens and then released.  The problem is that no one else can replicate an experience like this.  The “Loch Ness monster,” which some people believe they have seen remains unproven for the same reason.  Despite great efforts to find it, other people cannot find the monster or anything that might resemble it.  We just don’t know.

And so it is with mystical experiences.  It may be that the human brain is capable of experiencing some transcendent reality such as “god.”  The scientific method simply cannot know whether there is an objective reality corresponding to the mystic’s experience.  It is not something which science can prove either way.  We can see a parallel between reports of apparently mystical experiences and what is happening in the brain.  What we can’t know is whether the apparent object of this experience has an objective reality outside the person’s consciousness.  Is it comparable to a hallucination or a dream?  Or is it more like the rare experience of an astronaut looking down at the very real planet earth orbiting miles below?



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Was this winter’s weather due to climate change?

Scientists have agreed that, unusual as some weather event may be, a single event cannot by itself be clearly linked to the climate change they are predicting is going to occur as a result of the greenhouse gases we humans are sending into space.

What they have said is that climate change will result in more extreme weather events like unusual floods, and bitter cold and banks of snow that has swept across the American and European continents this winter.

So do we need to wait until we have an indisputable pattern stretching over ten or twenty years before we can assess whether climate change is occurring?

Although it is not possible to say events like unusual summer heat waves or this winter’s disastrous floods are definitively caused by climate change, it is possible, with sufficient computer power, to estimate the probability that this weather has or has not been caused by climate change.  A probability of 5% might lead most of us to conclude that this was just a freak winter.  A probability of 50% would be much more convincing that climate change was a major factor.  It would be similar to saying, for instance, that if one tossed a coin 100 times, and if it came up heads 85% of the time, the probability is that the coin is not evenly balanced.  It could be due tochance,but one would not want to bet one’s house on it.

Oxford University has announced a “citizen-science project” in which they hope to utilize enough computer power from volunteers to estimate just how likely it is that the unprecedented floods in Ireland and Britain in the last three months were caused by mere chance versus caused specifically by climate change.  They hope to be able to announce this probability within a month.

If you are interested in understanding how computer simulations can help us understand what is happening, the Guardian newspaper has a good explanation that most non-specialists can understand.

And if you are interested in participating in the research, send an email to weather@home project.  The Oxford team will be delighted to hear from you.

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How could global warming make our winters colder?

It seems pretty obvious to most people living in northern Europe, and both northern and southern states in America this winter that global warming is certainly not happening to them.  Yes, it’s warmer in Alaska than usual, but banks of snow further south are as high as 20 feet, a shaft of bitterly cold air called a polar vortex has arrived from the arctic, and even southern states are experiencing unusually frosty temperatures.  Forecasters are warning that this winter weather could go on through March.  Nobody but an idiot snowman would call this global warming, would they?

As a matter of fact, harsher winters in the north, both more droughts and floods in farmlands, and more extreme weather events like tornadoes and hurricanes are what climatologists have predicted would be likely outcomes of global warming.  The surprise for the climatologists is that these effects might be happening sooner than almost any one predicted.

How might global warming give millions of us colder winters?  The explanation is in the jet stream.  It forms when the cold air of the Arctic bashes into the warmer air arriving from the south.  The bigger the temperature differences between the two air masses, the faster the resulting weather passes on.  But in recent decades, while the air from both the north and south has been getting warmer, the northern arctic air has been getting warmer 2-3 times faster than its southern counterpart.

As a result,  the cold Arctic weather dips further south than it used to, resulting in that polar vortex causing unaccustomed havoc so far south.  Then when the two masses of air do clash, their temperature differences are less extreme than they used to be and the storms of snow or rain resulting from the clashes tend to pass on more slowly.  Instead, storms tend to stick around.

If this change in the jet stream continues, whatever may be causing it, the changes on agriculture could be dire.  It is not so much the average temperature change that will affect crop and animal production, but the temperature and weather extremes that tend to do the damage.

But a single winter, no matter how many weather records may be broken, are not a certain sign that it is a result of global warming.  To achieve reasonable certainty, climate change will have had to produce a pattern of several decades – by which time we won’t need the scientists to tell us what’s happened.

Unfortunately, the only chance we have of avoiding the destructive effects of global warming is to prevent it from happening in the first place.  Once it’s established, we are unlikely to be able to reverse it.

Why that is so is the subject for a future post.

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The BBC is hosting a stargazing programme asking amateur astronomers to find galaxies in far outer space.  An engineer living in England, Zbigniew ‘Zbish’ Chetnik, has an observatory in his garden at home, and was the first person to spot a galaxy 10 billion light years away.  Our universe is 13 billion years old, so the galaxy is quite close to the beginning of the universe, and one of the oldest galaxies we have ever seen.

The galaxy has been named “9Spitch” after Mr. Chetnik.  When the BBC television producer asked him for his nickname, he misunderstood what he said, thinking it was “Spitch” rather than “Zbish.”  Mr. Chetnik thinks this is fortuitous.  “It’s lucky in a way,” he said.  “It’s much more snappier than Zbish.”

It’s also luckier too, that Mr. Chetnik found the galaxy in the 21st century.  When Galileo published the results of what he had seen through his telescope in the 17th century, he was threatened by Rome who with torture if he did not recant.  God, the Roman Catholic authorities argued, created Earth at the centre of His universe.  Galileo, who disagreed but nonetheless recanted under threat of being stretched on the rack, was condemned for heresy and sentenced to house arrest for the rest of his life.

These days there are still many who believe that religious authorities can legitimately over-ride the findings of science.  But in the Western world, religious institutions no longer have the secular power to punish and imprison those who disagree with them.

In our globalized world, in which many religions preach different doctrines, it is something for which we can be grateful – whatever side of the arguments we may find ourselves.

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The human construct of time

By the time most of us have learned to read a clock, we have come to understand time as objective.  It might feel like a long time to Christmas or summer vacation, or a long time until we finally get to where we are going, but we do know that five minutes is five minutes, 351 days is 351 days, and we can’t stretch it out or squash it down.

But time as we in the modern world think of it is quite different from the way our ancestors thought of it.  We look at our watches and our calendars to measure time for us.  We don’t look at the temperature outside or the spring bulbs pushing through the warming earth.  If it’s unusually cold for July, or the spring bulbs begin to appear in January, we don’t turn the pages of our calendars to adjust to what we see.  Time ticks relentlessly on whatever we feel.

But it hasn’t always been like that.  In fact, for most of the time homo sapiens has been on this earth, our concept of time has not been based on a clock or calendar, but on the changing seasons.    We were much more like the bees that will start taking the nectar from the flowers whenever they appear, more like the birds that will fly south when the temperature turns, or the herds of deer moving north as winter recedes.

Gradually, people learned to predict the seasons by following the waxing and waning of the moon.  But the problem is that the 13 months of the lunar year gradually moves further and further away from an accurate prediction of the seasons.   

Hunter-gatherers in Scotland were sophisticated enough to construct an actual lunar calendar with a built-in seasonal corrector, and they may have been the first people in the world to do so.  The oldest calendar found anywhere in the world thus far was discovered in Aberdeenshire, Scotland and was constructed about 10,000 years ago, nearly 5,000 years before the first formal calendars discovered in the Near East and at least 5,000 years before Stonehenge. 

An illustration of how the pits would have workedThese were not the kind of paper calendars we have today, of course, which we hang with a string on the wall.  The first calendar consisted of 12 pits to track lunar months.  But, critically, the pit alignment also aligns on the Midwinter sunrise which provided an annual astronomic correction to the drifting predictions of the lunar year.  That made it possible to predict with greater enduring accuracy when it was time to move on to the next field, when to expect the weather to turn, and so to be caught less often without food to gather or animals to hunt.

Like our watches and time tables today, even this calendar may have separated people just a little from their intuitive sense of time.

But in another sense, it was a great leap forward, certainly as great a leap as any of our clocks and time tables today.


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