Music of Science: on lasers
November 23, 2013, 11:27 am
Filed under: Published stuff

A new Music of Science column is up at Intelligent Life. In view of the column’s  title, I thought of starting it with that great riddle,

“‘Why is a laser beam like a goldfish?’

“‘Because neither of them can whistle'”

— but that seemed like too much work and too obscure a reference. So I started it like this:

It feels a bit like something that might have been issued by Q branch. In fact, it’s on sale at Boots the chemist. When you press a little gold button on the back, a prismatic pseudopod slides up behind the blades. From its top shines a tiny red eye of the sort you might have seen in “The Lord of the Rings” had it dealt with malevolent fruit flies rather than disembodied demigods. A perfect red line is projected across my cheekbone. My laser-guided beard trimmer is ready.

I notice that this is the second of these columns to have a Bond-based opener: coincidence, obviously, but if it happens again we’ll have to assume enemy action…

The rest of the Music of Science columns, with some annotations and second thoughts (including all the things other than goldfish that I left out of this one, like Paul Simon and sea bass) are available here.

Head count
October 20, 2013, 10:21 am
Filed under: Books, Media

Elizabeth Kolbert has an interesting book review on population, with a nitrogen lede, at The New Yorker. It mentions in passing an assessment that nitrogen fixation added two years to the length of the first world war. I’ve heard similar broad claims but would be interested in more detailed analysis; perhaps some is provided or referenced in Alan Weisman’s “Countdown” (Amazon UK|US), one of the books under review.

The review’s a  run through some current anti-natalism and pro-natalism books. The context is the twentieth-century population growth allowed by Haber-Bosch nitrogen fixation and its continuation, abatement or reversal, and the fight between malthusians and cornucopians, though she doesn’t really pick a side on that. She acknowledges that malthusianism ahas so far been wrong, but not that it has to be.

Weisman is the anti-natalist, and fits my general stereotyping by being a man in his sixties (rule of thumb: when in an environmental conversation that has previously not been about population someone declares that the fundamental problem is population, but no one wants to talk about it, that someone will be an older man). Apparently he thinks that about 2 billion might be a “natural” population level and that this century will determine an “optimal” level for population (which from the context might be the level supportable after a large scale die off). It sounds as though I should probably look at this book, though I doubt I am going to enjoy it.

A little nit-picking. For those of us with an interest in photosynthesis (and if you don’t have such an interest, I have a book to recommend to you….) the idea that, thanks to Haber-Bosch. you and I “are eating bread made of air, and so, in a sense, are made of air as well,” draws a smile. Where does she think the rest of the bread comes from, if not from the air? I also think it’s a trifle unfair to give the impression that William Crookes was a straightforward malthusian when he specifically noted that chemical technology could and should solve the crisis of fertiliser supply that he saw coming. And while it’s her call to quote E O Wilson calling human population growth as “more bacterial than primate” (a quote she’s used before) equating humans with pestilence in that way always sets my teeth on edge.

I also note that Jonathan Last, author of “What to expect when no-one’s expecting” (Amazon UK|US) has some issues with the way the review treats his arguments.

Update: In a curious anti-natalist synchronicity, “Don’t have any more Mrs Moore” came on the radio just as I posted this… (Courtesy of Jeremy Hutchinson on Desert Island Discs)

The IPCC and geoengineering
September 28, 2013, 3:18 pm
Filed under: Geoengineering, Interventions in the carbon/climate crisis

The Summary for Policymakers (SPM) just released by the IPCC’s Working Group 1 (pdf) ends with a para on geoengineering (p21), and this fact is receiving some play in media coverage. Not everyone is writing about it, and very few are putting it high up the story, but it’s there, and as various people have pointed out, last time WG1 reported, in 2007, it wasn’t.

Here’s the para is in full. I’ve annotated it to highlight changes made to the authors’ final draft, prepared after all the review stages of the document and thus forming the text that the governments attending the Stockholm plenary started from:

Methods that aim to deliberately alter the climate system to counter climate change, termed geoengineering, have been proposed. <Before Stockholm this was just “Methods to counter climate change, termed geoengineering, have been proposed” so some more definition has been added] Limited evidence precludes a comprehensive quantitative assessment of both Solar Radiation Management (SRM) and Carbon Dioxide Removal (CDR) and their impact on the climate system. <This was previously the last sentence; I’d assume moving it up is meant to let this point about nescience set the context for the subsequent sentences, rather than to seem to follow from them.] CDR methods have biogeochemical and technological limitations to their potential on a global scale. There is insufficient knowledge to quantify how much CO2 emissions could be partially offset by CDR on a century timescale. Modelling indicates that SRM methods, if realizable, have the potential to substantially offset a global temperature rise, but they would also modify the global water cycle, and would not reduce ocean acidification. <In draft, this sentence began “Modelling shows that some SRM methods have the potential…”: thus a slightly stronger statement about a subset of SRM has been weakened to include all SRM. ] If SRM were terminated for any reason, there is high confidence [emphasis in original] that global surface temperatures would rise very rapidly to values consistent with the greenhouse gas forcing. CDR and SRM methods carry side effects and long-term consequences on a global scale. <the draft said “unintended side effects” not just “side effects”. Piers Forster, one of the authors, tweeted me that “US wanted “unintentional” dropped in last [sentence]. We agreed – only change.”]

If Russian negotiators tried to strengthen the language on geoengineering at the Stockholm plenary, as The Guardian reported that they wanted to, they were singularly unsuccessful. Nevertheless, the inclusion of this quite anodyne paragraph seems to have significance, at least for some people. The ETC group put out a news release “Concern as IPCC bangs the drum for geoengineering“, though it noted that “the text approved in Stockholm fell far short of endorsing geoengineering”. If you’re puzzled about how it is possible to bang the drum for something you aren’t endorsing, ETC’s Jim Thomas, friend of this blog, makes the point more clearly: “We are beginning to hear a drumbeat where geoengineering advocates will use the IPCC’s reports to press for geoengineering experimentation and, eventually, deployment.” So it’s not the IPCC banging, then.

Jim is probably right that we will see some of this sort of thing, and it will be interesting to trace. But ETCs suggestion that talking about geoengineering in some way strays from the IPCC’s mandate to be policy relevant not policy prescriptive strikes me as quite a stretch; “policy relevant” surely includes “relevant to policy that ETC doesn’t support”. For example, the IPCC spends quite a lot of time on what will happen under business as usual. Should it not be doing this?

Jim’s main worry is that the IPCC even mentioned geoengineering, thus “lending legitimacy and respectability to a set of suggestions that were previously considered unacceptable and should remain so.” Jack Stilgoe takes a somewhat similar view about the “premature legitimacy” conferred by mention of geoengineering in the Working Group 1 SPM in an article for The Guardian:

To include mention of geoengineering, and its supporting “evidence” in a statement of scientific consensus, no matter how layered with caveats, is extraordinary.

It’s really not. To begin with, the IPCC was mandated to talk about geoengineering in this report. The scoping meeting which gave the panel its marching orders for the massive fifth assessment specified that all three working groups look at geoengineering (the first, this one, is on the state of play on climate change in the sciences-previously-known-as-natural; the second is on the impacts of climate change; the third is on responses). It’s worth noting that though a fair amount of geoengineering talk buys into the idea that geoengineering became a bigger part of the conversation after the Copenhagen climate summit, and this may be true, the scoping meeting took place before Copenhagen.

Having to look at geoengineering , though, does not mean having to include it in the highly visible SPM — it could have been left in the vastly longer main report. And it might have been. A leaked copy of the an earlier draft of the SPM had no geoengineering paragraph. According to Piers, the authors decided it was necessary because they were mandated to discuss RCP2.6. The RCPs are “representative concentration pathways” – pictures of how greenhouse gas concentrations in the decades to come. RCP 2.6 is a pathway in which it is unlikely for the temperature to rise two degrees over preindustrial, and in which it is possible for the temperature not to rise more than 1.5 degrees.

These numbers matter because the UNFCCC puts particular stock in the 2 degree limit, and IIRC is bound to consider whether the limit should be tightened to 1.5 degrees in 2015. As the concentration pathway that delivers this, RCP2.6 matters. And as the SPM says (p19) when asked to produce a scenario in which greenhouse gases follow the RCP2.6 pathway,

By the end of the 21st century, about half of the [Earth System Models] infer emissions slightly above zero, while the other half infer a net removal of CO2 from the atmosphere. {6.4}

If you have a situation where the scenarios being suggested for crucial policy-relevant outcomes seem likely to involve net removal of carbon from the atmosphere, it makes sense to talk about technologies for carbon-dioxide removal. Thus the geoengineering paragraph in the summary for policy makers. The link to RCP2.6 isn’t explicit, but it’s confirmed by Piers in a couple of tweets.

Govts asked for it at scoping. We had long discussions about raising it to SPM. Massive CDR in RCP2.6 clinched it

ie. RCP2.6 pathway looks attractive but is unattainable without huge unrealistic CDR with side effects etc.

I’m happy with this: as I have argued before, if you are going to talk seriously about the two degree limit intellectual honesty requires mentioning geoengineering. I’m a little surprised that Jack isn’t. His post shows him OK with, or at least resigned to, more extensive discussion of geoengineering in Working Group 2 and Working Group 3; it’s finding it in Working Group 1’s SPM that’s a problematic legitimisation, and especially in finding it at the very end of the summary, which he regards as a special position. I must say I don’t read the placing that way — it comes off more as a position where you put an afterthought, and Piers’s account of its moderately late addition seems to bear that out. Beyond that, saying it’s OK for WG2 and/or WG3 but not for WG1 seems to represent a privileging of the physical sciences that I wouldn’t expect from Jack. How can it be OK to talk about geoengineering in policy discussions but not in a discussion of the science? I’m not sure I’d go as far as Matt Watson does in an interesting post at The Reluctant Geoengineer:

It appears to me that Jack’s piece counters his position that rational debate is the most desirable outcome.

But I am left unsure how Jack differentiates between venues where that debate is good and where it is “premature legitimisation”.

Update: Jack and Matt continue their discussion in the comments at The Reluctant Geoengineer. More from Jim Thomas in the comments here.

Cosmic rays, cancer and Iain Banks
September 11, 2013, 3:13 pm
Filed under: Published stuff, Science fiction

My Intelligent Life column on Iain’s fateful cosmic context is up here. Excerpt

Iain Banks lived for 21,662 days—the only number in any of this of which we can be certain. There are a good 10 trillion cells in a human body, maybe more. The number of times his DNA was damaged was thus in the same ballpark as the number of grains of sand on all the beaches of the Earth. It’s a number that outdoes the number of stars in the galaxy by a factor of a billion.

More of my “Music of Science” columns can be found here. And here is me on Iain in a previous century.

And here are some other pieces on Banks, in the contexts of religion, writing and science fiction, by friends of his and mine: Francis Spufford in The New Humanist ; Simon Ings at ArcKen Macleod in The Guardian.

Oscars 2014: Metaprediction
August 23, 2013, 12:49 pm
Filed under: film, Media

I notice that the Oscar prediction season has started. I can understand why this is of no interest to many sane people, but I quite enjoy it. And I may enjoy it even more this year (though that will depend to a certain extent on the movies…) This is because last year, as I blogged, the excellent Kris Tapley told his podcast sparring-partner Anne Thompson that “There’s no way to Nate Silver this kind of thing” — and this year Nate Silver plans to Nate Silver not just this kind of thing, but the thing itself.

His track record is held by some to suggest that he won’t do very well. But it seems to me that the way to measure his predictions is not against the outcome per se, but against other people making predictions, such as those pooled together at the Gurus o’ Gold site. Last year the statistical model put together by Ben Zauzmer did better than half the gurus and not as well as the other half, though this was because he felt there was insufficient data to call some of the races: on the races he called, Ben did as well as one of the better gurus. I suspect that, with more experience, more resources and quite a strong incentive to shine Nate Silver may do better than Ben.

So my metaprediction is that, if Silver chooses to predict all of the races, or a large majority of them, he will beat most of the gurus, but not all of them; the best of the gurus will do better. My further prediction is that if he keeps it up over five years, no single human predictor will beat him continuously.

And while I am at it, I predict that the predictinator will predict that Gravity will win the special effects oscar — and that it will be right.


Monocosms. They’re a thing now, apparently
August 21, 2013, 8:00 pm
Filed under: Books, Science fiction

A colleague asked me today if there was a word for planets that only have one landscape — places like Trantor, the city-planet that ruled Isaac Asimov’s Galactic Empire, or Arrakis, the desert-planet of Dune. These are a very widespread feature of science fiction, and frequently look like symptoms of limited imaginative investment: planets as a single type of place photocopied many times over and pasted onto the face of a very large sphere. In other hands, though, they can work rather well; the fact that all of Arrakis is a desert, one richly imagined, actually adds a great deal to the atmosphere of Dune, even if the ecosystem is a little hard to take seriously.

Thinking about it, I realised that, as far as I could tell, there wasn’t. Tvtropes offers “single-biome planet“, but that doesn’t have quite the right feel for a term of art to be used by fans and critics alike. So I asked a few friends by twitter, and the magnificent Roz Kaveney came up trumps with the word “monocosm”.  A monocosm is any big, free-standing thing — often a planet, but possibly something else — based on a single idea or effect. Trantor and Arrakis are planetary monocosms in the most obvious way. See also Hoth and Tatooine.

More subtly (though this may be the only way in which it is subtle), Pyrrus, in Harry Harrison’s Deathworld, is a monocosm of affect rather than landscape, being a planet of danger. The Space Merchants is a monocosm of consumerism. Part of the success of Avatar 2 may lie in the degree to which Pandora is revealed not to be a monocosm. Is Escher’s Print gallery a monocosm? And so on.

It seems to me that this is a word that does something which other words have not, so far, been doing, and thus adds to our abilities to express ourselves. So there it is, a gift to the world, for use in criticism, essays and discussion in convention bars: the monocosm, a Kaveneologism.

The Deeply Summery
August 18, 2013, 7:28 pm
Filed under: Uncategorized

One and half shots of Pincer botanical vodka

Shot of fresh lime juice

Half shot of St Germain

Half shot of Gomme Syrup

Dash of pastis (I used Henri Bardouin)

Shake over ice, pour into a large wine glass with a few ice cubes, add prosecco.

I don’t often note down a cocktail I have busked, but this (obviously in the Southside Fizz/French 75 family) really wowed me.

In general, I heartily recommend Pincer. I’ve had it neat and in a variety of off-dry martinis where it has excelled. A sugar cube soaked with Peychaud’s bitters and a shot of Pincers is a very good basis for a champagne cocktail. My only problem with Pincers is that the bottle is sillily dark and stops me from seeing how much I have left.

Update: I always meant to call this cocktail the Deeply Summery, but for some reason this post originally called in merely Deep. It is actually fully adverbially Deeply


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