Posted From Glass
Odd bits from a distracted scientist's brain
Posted From Glass
Musings on Deep Time Many of us have heard how old the Earth is, how old the solar system is, and perhaps even how old the universe itself is. Maybe you have even seen a timescale laid out, showing how if the age of the Earth was compared to one year, man and all his history wouldn't appear until December 31st. In fact, the other night, during the relaunch of the Cosmos television series made famous by Carl Sagan, the new host Neil DeGrasse Tyson did that, comparing the age of the universe to an Earth year. On that scale, everything we have ever done fit into the very last second of December 31st! In this same episode, DeGrasse Tyson gave a very brief description of the far future of the universe, and that got me thinking. I deal a lot with geological time in my job, so I'm used to thinking in tens of thousands of years, in millions of years, and occasionally in billions of years. Because of my past work with NASA and time at Caltech and MIT, I'm also interested in astronomical timescales, so even tens of billions of years are 'comfortable.' I was not prepared for the cosmological timescale. And neither are you. I guarantee it. 1. It's all about the fizz You have probably seen a timeline of the history of the universe that begins with the Big Bang, proceeds with all that star and galaxy formation stuff, and ends up with the large scale structures we see today. It struck me that these timelines always stop at the present. What about the next 20 billion years? What about the next 2,000 billion years? What do we think is going to happen? And so I went looking for papers on the subject. It turns out there aren't very many. Apparently such conjectures aren't good for publication records or tenure. And there's good reason for that - the various scenarios have large error bars, and depend on answers to questions we still haven't answered, like how long does matter last? How large can the universe get? How, exactly, do black holes die? How is mass related to gravity? What the heck is this 'dark matter' and 'dark energy' stuff? It turns out that those questions are much more complicated than we ever expected, and the answers (where we have any) are very weird. Anyhow. I shall sidestep all those complications, and cut to the chase. First: how long will the universe last? An unimaginably long time. Well, possibly even forever. But it's a forever I never want to see: it's very likely a very cold, very dark place. The only things in it are a few flecks of imperceptible light, so dim and weak that nothing could ever detect them. Every few duotrigintillion years (we'll get back to that) you might come across an electron. That's it. That's all. No trace of the Earth, the Sun, or of anything we ever did. No trace of any other civilization on any other star, on any other galaxy. Absolutely nothing. It will all be erased. The ultimate void. Perhaps Genesis had it backwards. Conclusion: very boring. Stultifying. So let's tell this story backwards, and find the very last 'really exciting' thing that happened. It turns out that label belongs to the disappearance of the last black hole. Yes, we think they disappear. They might be fearsome juggernauts in our universe right now, destroying entire stars, spinning whole galaxies, and fueling all kinds of science fiction nonsense, but in the end, they will simply fade out of existence. How the heck does that happen? Aren't they supposed to swallow everything forever? So here's the first little piece of weirdness I promised: black holes actually fizz. Stephen Hawking came up with this startling conclusion. I'll deal with the details somewhere else, but the essence of it is that at a very, very slow rate, black holes give off energy, and each time they do, they shrink a bit. If you wait long enough, even the biggest black hole imaginable will eventually evaporate. How long? A googol years. So there you go: you finally have a use for that word, googol. No, not Google. Googol. One duotrigintillion. A one followed by a hundred zeros: 10,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 years. How do we wrap our brains around a number like this? Here's a little taste of how hard that is: let's try the DeGrasse Tyson trick, and make January 1 be year 0, and midnight December 31st be a googol years later. Now we've got a scale for the 'exciting' portion of the universe's lifetime laid out before us. Let's find out where man sits! And… you can't find it. Every single day looks the same: fizzy black holes. They get bigger as you go backwards, but even there, on January 1, the very beginning of our universal timescale, the whole day seems to be full of really boring, gassy black holes! What about the first second of January 1? Same. What about the first millisecond? Same. And so on. Microseconds, nanoseconds, femtoseconds, attoseconds, yoctoseconds, and beyond. We keep trying to find Earth, even our Sun, our Galaxy, anything. But on this scale, the scale of black hole lifetimes, of a googol years, even something so unimaginably old as the Earth, the Sun or even the 'TODAY' mark--13.8 billion years from the start--is too close to the beginning to see. So, on our cosmic calendar, before we even had time to look at our watches, everything we have ever known about, even our Sun, and even the very last star ever to shine, is gone before we know it, and we still have 365 days of fizzing to go. Can't we try a different trick? How about laying out that same googol years in a line, from here out to where Voyager 1 is, about three times as far from the Sun as Pluto, or 20 billion kilometers? Now, surely we should be able to see something other than fizz? Nope. Even before you have moved along that line over the width of one atom, everything is all fizz! It turns out that on that incredibly long line marking out the time from the Big Bang to the evaporation of the last black hole, the little mark for 'TODAY' is only 1/60,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000th of the width of an atom from the start. A googol years is a very, very, very long time, and most of it is really, really, really boring. However, remember that even this was not as boring as the 'cold dark forever' I described previously, which might last a googol googol years! Next: we zoom in so we can finally see something, sixty orders of magnitude, to the end of normal matter, at one tredecillion years, or a one followed by forty-two zeros: only 1,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 years! After wrapping our brains almost around a googol, this ought to be easy. Right?
This has to be one of the most thoroughly--and deliberately--disinformed democracies the world has ever known. Sadly, both parties have made this into a class warfare election, with both candidates relying on demonstrably false data. I am disappointed that neither the liberal nor the conservative media have taken their candidates to task for this, as well as their opponent. It is simply disingenuous for the 'fourth estate' to pretend they are unbiased.
I have been reading/browsing/listening to a lot of stuff on science communication, and one thing that is coming through in spades is that we scientists are a bunch of rubes.
This is what happens when you write when you are mad.
John Coleman is the founder of the Weather Channel, so he does have good credentials. I do not know if he has a science background, but he may well have training in meteorology. He is a good contrarian and a worthy curmudgeon.
So, a comparison based on something I recently heard on the radio. A doctor tells you you have a rare form of cancer called "testaloma," and tells you you can only eat lettuce from now on, and then refers you to the Mayo Clinic. The Clinic concurs, and they convene a world-wide conference to discuss your symptoms, and several thousand of the world's leading experts in cancer agree that you have testaloma, and that lettuce is really the only thing they can think of. Do you take their advice?
In fact, they write a report that is reviewed by ten thousand more doctors, and all the NIH's in the world, and they agree you have testaloma as well, and that perhaps Bibb, Boston and Iceberg lettuce are all acceptable, but lettuce is all you get. Do you take their advice now?
But wait - there's a reporter in the crowd at the conference, who has been taught that she must give equal weight to opposing sides in order to be a good reporter. So she seeks out contrarian views, does her due diligence, and devotes an equal number of column inches to the few non-doctors who object and to the many non-doctors who are suspicious that doctors are all feathering their nests (some of them receive money from ChavezCorp lettuce harvesters), and other assorted anti-lettuce kooks. Her editor is delighted, because this is a "fight," and fight sells copy. Now who do you trust?
...and so it goes on and on.
Come on people! I'm a conservative somewhat to the right of Genghis Khan, have never voted for a pinko Democrat, but I KNOW MY SCIENCE. I have my doctorate in Geoscience, and I manage a large part of this great nation's investment in climate change science. I tell 90% of scientists asking me for money to go away, and some of them get fired because I said "no." Too bad. This is real, and we are avoiding this as assiduously as we are avoiding the fact that we have maxed out the national credit card, and no stupid "Stimulus Package" is going to address that. We all spend too much on consumer products instead of building value in our society and capital in our industries, and we spend far too much energy getting from here to there, and running all our little gadgets. I'm not concerned about the warming here, just the fact that we are exponentially increasing the use of a resource that is finite.
Whether the world is warming or not I will leave until later. The scary part is that we will be in dire straits if our energy sources are restricted. This is fear that I sympathize with in the diatribe by Coleman and his conspiracy-mongering cadre. Our alternatives are very limited - most technologies are really in their infancy, and not ready to mainstream. The only thing on deck is coal, and my bet is that we and the Chinese will burn every ounce of coal we can dig up (and the two of us have the largest coal deposits on Earth). When that runs out, look out. Time to send the Marines to get it. Our societies can't change directions on a dime, and THAT is what concerns any President - Dubya or the current occupant, Obamarama. We are currently pouring our wealth into lovely places like the Middle East and Venezuela. Billions. Trillions. Folks who I am convinced will one day suffer regime change to even more virulent rulers, and who will gladly and blindly kill their golden-egg laying goose, and set off a nuclear weapon in the USA. THAT is what concerns the President, as he slowly absorbs his daily security briefs.
So, who paid for all this 'science' that tells us about the climate? Well, actually it is the Republican administrations, mostly. Strangely, science generally does better under the GOP. Democratic administrations love social issues, but social issues are expensive, so there's usually not much left when they get to science's level in the Federal money-barrel. Republicans like science, but for a very Washingtonian reason: it allows delay on difficult issues while "more study is done." Who put together the U.S. Global Change Research Program? George H.W. Bush. Who flattened the USGCRP budget? Clinton. Subsequent occupants had other things in the money barrel that were quite expensive, so neither social issues nor science stood much of a chance during the budget-sausage-making - it ended up being a wash. I'll be interested to see what the current President does.
Do scientists like money? Wait, wait... Do bears s#!t in the forest? Are they desperate for it? Of course. Say for instance that for your job, your career, you had to write about ten major essays every year and submit them to the government, manage an office, and continually hire employees. Your boss keeps yelling at you to sell product, which actually means writing several extra essays and sending them to magazines. Most of your essays get rejected. About 90% of them. But that's your only product, so you are desperate. Every two years or so, your boss puts you in front of a committee, and you are told you are not working hard enough, and are not smart enough to work at your company, so you have to resign and go find a lesser-ranked company that does not push so hard, and has lower quality employees. Welcome to academia for the vast majority of scientists. That's why they accept money from industry, and from people who have vested interests in the outcomes of their research, which can potentially later ruin their careers. Of course the smart ones build empires - they are ambitious as well as smart. It's the American thing to do.
OK, now that I have outgassed, on to global warming.
The main "greenhouse gases" water vapor, carbon dioxide, methane and nitrous oxide are present in the atmosphere in very small amounts (0.4% H2O, 0.035% CO2, 0.0001745% CH4, 0.00003% NO2). Yes, that's very small. So who says something has to be big to have an effect? If you don't believe it, I have a very small amount of Plutonium for you. Go on, swallow! It's less than 0.00003% of your weight!
We know these gases are increasing in concentration. We know they have been high in the past (much higher, in fact than they are now). However, from the isotope signatures in the current atmosphere, we can tell that this latest increase is in large part due to our activities (transport, construction and electric power generation are the main sources). If there are any left, any elementary school science teacher can give you a kindergarten-level demonstration involving breathing into empty 2 liter coke bottles, thermometers and a lightbulb that will show that CO2 absorbs more energy. The same experiment with CH4 and NO2 we leave for slightly higher levels of education. So, the sad truth is that most of this might actually be of our making. But is it bad? Can't we plant more stuff in Canada now? Yes, of course, there will be some winners in all of this. And some losers, like the American southwest, which is in for a drought that may last several centuries. We will have to adapt, because there is no other choice. Some adaptations will actually increase our wealth. That will be an interesting game which I am all for, because America is very good at that kind of game once we get in gear. The bad thing is that this is all very positive for the first few decades, even perhaps a century. After that, things look like they are really different. Different enough that we do not understand the fundamentals of the system.
Do you remember doing titrations in high-school chemistry? Waiting for that very last drop to change the color of the solution? Do you remember that the pH changed very suddenly when you reached that last drop? Do you remember that this was actually an experiment in a 'buffered system' where you could add a lot of acid to the solution and not really affect the pH very much? Most of the Earth's chemical cycles are buffered, and they can take a lot of change before 'changing color.' Thank goodness, because we keep getting hit by meteors, volcanoes pour out magma and all sorts of gases, and oceans keep getting created and closed by plate tectonics. This means that all the inputs and drains for the various chemicals in the system keep getting turned on or off, and the system still stays relatively stable, most of the time. The problem occurs when you get to that last drop, that tipping point. Then you get a shift to some other semi-stable configuration, and it might or might not be friendly to trilobites, to dinosaurs, or... to society as it runs today. We simply do not know what kind of system will result. Worse, we have no idea where that point is. It could be 500 years from now. It could be a within our lifetime. This is typical behavior for a chaotic system. I am fully confident that humans will survive, but just as certain that it will not be all of us, and we will not be able to live the way we do today.
I knew Roger Revelle, and I have met David Keeling, Hans Dieter Suess, Fred Singer, and Maurice Strong. I have no desire to meet Gore, and I don't know Chauncey Starr. I do not get invited to the Bohemian Grove gatherings, and I am a proud member of the hoi-pelloi. Coleman's logic is a personal insult to all of them, and could be compared to a childish attack on Coleman for daring to have such a blatantly pro-energy surname.
My conclusion: Coleman is an ostrich. A respected ostrich.
In December of 1996 I travelled to Termas de Chillán, Chile for a meeting as part of the work I was doing at the time for the National Science Foundation. I flew to Santiago, and then took a flight on LanChile to Concepción, where I got a rental car for the drive to Chillán. The drive was quite long, several hours, but it was through country that was beautiful -- Chile always reminds me so much of Colombia that I never mind driving there.
From CBC Radio's "Quirks and Quarks" podcast:
A THEORY OF THE PLANETARY EVOLUTION OF THE EARTH WITH AN EMPHASIS ON ANTARCTICA FOR A GRANT
This is what happens when you screen share from one machine, and then screen share back to the original:
Not an e-mail you want to receive:
Dear Mr. Fulano,
As you may have seen in the Director General’s May 27, 2008 ALDAC “Announcing the 2009 Iraq/Afghanistan Cycle (State 056058)” and in the Secretary’s personal message to the field (link below), the Department has begun recruiting for summer 2009 openings in Iraq. I am writing to inform you that the Department considers you among those particularly well qualified for the key positions listed below and is asking you to seriously consider volunteering for an opportunity to tackle our nation’s top foreign policy priority.
20700000 ECON Officer (ESTH) FS-03
You are considered well qualified because your record of achievement indicates that you have the skills and experience, as defined by Embassy Baghdad, to be successful in these positions. Information about the Embassy’s criteria as well as the position descriptions for these and other jobs in Iraq can be found on the following website:
HR/CDA and others will soon be contacting you to discuss further your interest in these positions.
The Director General is confident that with your help, and that of others who step forward, we will staff Iraq with volunteers as we have in the past. As noted in the cable, however, the Director General will assess at an appropriate time how best to complete the cycle. If positions remain unfilled, you would be among the pool of qualified individuals potentially subject to identification for one of these positions.[Italics added] In the interest of fairness and transparency, this is something we wanted to communicate to you at the earliest possible point in the assignments process. Again, our goal is 100% volunteers.
I will give you a call next week (June 2-6) to discuss more in depth what this might mean for you, but please feel free to contact me sooner if you wish. In the meantime, I urge you to take another look at the ALDAC referenced in paragraph one for details on the Iraq-Afghanistan cycle and the overall timeline for 2009 assignments. If you will be in Washington, I also urge you to attend the upcoming Iraq brown bag event on June 3 and to watch for the upcoming Iraq/Afghanistan Open House as well as other events, including DVCs with selected posts. We will be announcing details about these events soon.
I look forward to working with you as you consider stepping forward for one of these critical assignments.
Your Career Development Officer
Link to the Secretary’s message:
In accordance with the policies and procedures outlined in Executive Order 12958, this e-mail is UNCLASSIFIED.
Labels: Washington DC
We saw our first hummingbird of the year today.