Can scientists speak truth to power when they aren’t in the business of “truth”?

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Can Science Speak Truth to Power?

For SIAM News:

Since the onset of COVID-19, government messaging has been scattershot at best. In the meantime, epidemiologists, public health experts, and other members of the scientific community have struggled to communicate accurate information to the public — sometimes without adequate data (see Figure 1). To further complicate matters, many of these same scientists are paid with public money in the form of grants or beholden to corporate funding. Additionally, the priorities of civil leaders do not always align with those of public health efforts, and scientists themselves are not apolitical machines and thus have their own biases.

These conflicts and confusions are particularly problematic during a global pandemic, but it doesn’t take a virus to reveal the presence of fissures in a world where people perform both science and public policy. Climate change, nuclear weapons, space exploration, deep-sea mining, endangered species protections, and garbage disposal are only a small sample of areas in which scientific issues overlap—or conflict—with governmental priorities.

“More scientists these days acknowledge that we are not those who are elected by the public,” Jim Al-Khalili of the University of Surrey said. “We understand that the policy decisions that politicians and governments make depend on more than just the scientific evidence that we present.”

Read the rest at SIAM News


Measuring the gravity of climate change

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Don’t be turned off by the name of the publication! This article for SPIE Photonics is meant for anyone, and describes a very sophisticated experiment that connects my area of expertise (gravitational physics) to the most pressing issue of our time: climate change.

The GRACE to tackle climate change

A pair of orbiting spacecraft use laser technology developed for detecting gravitational waves to measure melting ice in Greenland

For SPIE Photonics:

Climate change is the largest existential threat facing humanity. Melting ice in polar regions and in mountains contributes to rising ocean levels worldwide; warming air disrupts jet streams and precipitation patterns, making severe storms more likely. Tracking these disruptions is essential for understanding how rapidly climate change is happening. However, Earth is big and many of the important fluctuations can be hard to measure without intensive local observations year-round.

But Earth-observation satellites present another extremely effective way to track climate change. Since 2018, a pair of spacecraft has been recording data that allow scientists to measure the melting of polar ice and the depletion of water tables during droughts. The satellites, together known as the Gravity Recovery and Climate Experiment Follow-On (GRACE-FO), track small fluctuations in Earth’s gravity as water moves from place to place. As its name suggests, the joint project between the US and Germany succeeds the original 2002-2017 GRACE mission. Both have proven so successful that researchers are now planning a third mission.

[Read the rest at SPIE Photonics]

The danger of climate change may be its rate

As with many of my other contributions to SIAM News, the article “It’s Not the Heat, It’s the Rate: Rate-Inducted Tipping’s Relation to Climate Change” includes some mathematical equations, but I’ve tried to write the piece so you can understand it even if you gloss over that part. And this article in particular has some important concepts relating to the biggest issue facing humanity today: climate change.

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It’s Not the Heat, It’s the Rate

Rate-Inducted Tipping’s Relation to Climate Change

For SIAM News:

For many years, scientists have warned that the Atlantic meridional overturning circulation (AMOC)—the thermal cycle that drives currents in the Atlantic Ocean—is getting weaker [1]. Among other effects, the AMOC carries warm water to Ireland and the U.K. and returns cooler water from the north to southern regions. Instability in this circulation cycle could result in its complete collapse and cause widespread disruptions in temperature, changes in rain and snowfall patterns, and other natural disasters.

The potential loss of the AMOC represents a possible tipping point due to human-driven climate change. Global increases in temperature lead to warmer ocean water and melting polar ice, both of which decrease water density (see Figure 1). The subsequent lower-density water does not sink as much as it cools, thus disrupting the thermal cycle. When the AMOC collapsed in the prehistoric past, it jolted Earth’s climate and affected every ecosystem.

[Read the rest at SIAM News]

The science connecting extreme weather to climate change

The linked article is for SIAM News, the magazine for members of the Society for Industrial and Applied Mathematics (SIAM). The audience for this magazine, in other words, is professional mathematicians and related researchers working in a wide variety of fields. While this article contains (just a few simple) equations, I wrote it to be understandable even if you skip over the math.

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Linking Extreme Weather to Climate Change

For SIAM News:

As the world’s climate changes, the warming atmosphere and oceans produce heavier rainfalls and more hurricanes, snowstorms, and other instances of extreme weather. Climate models predict the change in frequency of these events as a result of human-driven global warming. However, scientists and non-scientists alike are interested in whether climate change is responsible for specific weather events — such as Hurricane Maria, which devastated Puerto Rico in 2017.

“The kosher answer to this used to be that we can never say that climate change causes a specific event,” statistician Claudia Tebaldi of the University of Maryland’s Joint Global Change Research Institute said. “This has actually changed over time, because a few recent events were so extreme that the probability of observing them without climate change would have been practically zero.”

In other words, scientists and science communicators are growing increasingly confident about linking specific weather to global changes, a subfield of climate science and meteorology known as “event attribution.” Researchers calculate the probability of a particular event’s occurrence with or without climate change by considering a combination of factors, including human activity and variations that are independent of human contribution. Event attribution is a relatively recent discipline; scientists first used it to link climate change to the 2003 European heat wave [4], which killed thousands of people.

[Read the rest at SIAM News…]

Gravitational waves and climate change

Since early 2018, I’ve contributed multiple articles to Mercury, the membership magazine for the Astronomical Society of the Pacific (ASP). These articles are only available in full to members of ASP, but recently Mercury has put extensive previews for certain articles up on the website as enticement to join. One of those articles is my piece about the GRACE Follow-On mission, which is simultaneously a project that measures the effects of climate change and is a testbed for the upcoming LISA gravitational-wave observatory.

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The Gravity of Climate Change

For Mercury:

Orbiting spacecraft are an essential tool for mapping worlds in the Solar System, providing information about everything from landforms to magnetic fields. Repeated monitoring helps scientists measure variations in a planet as the seasons change. That’s particularly true for the planet we know best, and one that is experiencing the biggest variations of all the worlds in the Solar System: Earth.

The Gravity Recovery and Climate Experiment Follow-On (GRACE-FO) mission consists of twin space probes designed to measure Earth’s gravity to high resolution. That measurement is important for geology—seismic activity and other substantial shifts in Earth’s crust—but also for tracking shifts in water and ice around the world. Those variations help researchers measure the melting of polar ice, along with more subtle phenomena like the depletion of aquifers in western North America and India, for example.

In addition to its essential work measuring ice melting and climate change, GRACE-FO will test a vital component of the Laser Interferometer Space Antenna (LISA), the planned space-based gravitational wave observatory that will continue the work of LIGO and its Earth-based observatories.

[Read the rest of the preview in Mercury]

When physicists go bad

My latest comic with Maki Naro addresses the instances where certain physicists abandon scientific ethics to promote dubious causes: eugenics, climate change denial, and so forth. Since this issue is a bit fraught, I’ve included notes and references at the end of this post. Journalism, y’know?

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When Good Scientists Go Bad

Science doesn’t make you magically objective, and it’s not separate from the rest of human experience.

Albert Einstein wearing a "Black Lives Matter" shirt next to William Shockley carrying a tiki torch

Albert Einstein obviously died many years before the Black Lives Matters movement, but he was a strong anti-lynching advocate. William Shockley similarly never waved a tiki torch at a neofascist rally, but he did hang out with Ku Klux Klan financiers. [Credit: Maki Naro (art)/moi (words)]

There’s a common myth that scientists are objective participants in the world, applying the same rigorous standards to life outside the lab as they do within it. However, everyone’s biases affect our interactions with the world (and the practice of science itself is less objective than many people would like to believe). In some instances, when scientists leave the world of research, they still pretend that’s not the case, using scientific credentials to make statements beyond their expertise. In this new comic with Maki Naro, we looked at a few cases where right-leaning physicists endorsed outright pseudoscience: eugenics, questionable weaponry, and — most prominently today — climate change “skepticism”.

References for the comic:

  1. Elizabeth Catte. What You Are Getting Wrong About Appalachia (Belt, 2018). This book is where I first found out about William Shockley’s attempt to implement IQ-based eugenics in Appalachia, and the original inspiration for this comic. It’s also a well-sourced and -researched antidote to Hillbilly Elegy by J.D. Vance.
  2. For more on the meeting between Shockley, Harry Caudill, and KKK financier J. W. Kirkpatrick, see this excellent report from the Lexington Herald Leader. Kirkpatrick was (among other things) involved in an attempted white supremacist coup to overthrow the government of the Dominican Republic.
  3. Naomi Orekes and Erik M. Conway. Merchants of Doubt (Bloomsbury, 2010). Oreskes and Conway provide a detailed exposé of scientists (not just physicists) involved in anti-environmentalist and pro-corporate activities from the mid-20th century up to today. The “Rogues Gallery” in the comic is derived from this book. (There’s also a documentary, but I haven’t watched it.)
  4. The quote from William Happer comparing carbon dioxide to Holocaust victims was widely reported; see this MediaMatters summary and his profile on DeSmog Blog. DeSmog Blog is also the source of the information about Willie Soon.
  5. I wrote about Einstein’s antiracist and anti-lynching work for Smithsonian, which contains its own sources and notes. (I also wrote in Forbes about Einstein’s own racism about Asian people.)

Space Wombats and Penguin Poop: Spying on Animals from Orbit

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Penguin Spotting, and Other Cool Satellite Tricks

You’d be surprised what you can see from 300 miles up

For Smithsonian Air & Space Magazine:

At first glance the picture might be an abstract oil painting or, less artistically, poppy seeds scattered on cream cheese. The “cheese” in this case is a field of ice off the coast of Antarctica, and the black seeds are emperor penguins. The photo was taken from space, and is a good example of how satellite imagery is helping biologists study wildlife populations in new ways. No scientist needed to set foot near the penguin colony or fly an airplane overhead: High-resolution images from an orbiting QuickBird satellite were good enough to monitor the colony’s health over time.

“The advent of remote sensing allows us basically to see some of these areas that you physically cannot get to, no matter how hard you try,” says Michelle LaRue of the University of Minnesota. She and her colleagues use high-resolution images purchased from DigitalGlobe, Inc., one of a few private companies that license satellite imagery to governments and academic researchers. Other scientists use free satellite images from Landsat and other government-run programs. Although those tend to be lower in resolution, they demonstrate how remote sensing is important for the literal big picture: The huge areas of land surveyed by satellite make possible research that couldn’t be done otherwise. That’s true whether the location is (like Antarctica) hard to get to, in a conflict zone, heavily populated, or just too darn big.

[Read the rest at Smithsonian Air & Space Magazine…]

The building materials of the future might be mushrooms and bacteria

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The Cities of the Future Could Be Built From Mushrooms

A block made out of decomposed straw fused together with mycelium: the rootlike tendrils of mushrooms. [Credit: moi]

For Earther:

Nearly everything about the small block says “wood”: its texture, appearance, sturdiness, and color are like an especially high-quality piece of particle board. But it’s just a bit too dense for wood, which gives it away. The block is made of straw bound together by mycelium, the root-like tendrils of mushrooms.

While many types of fungi would serve, this block was produced using edible mushrooms as a proof-of-principle experiment by architect Chris Maurer and his collaborators at Redhouse Architecture in Cleveland, Ohio. They envision building whole communities from mushroom “wood” and its byproducts, providing housing, food security, and even water filtration for regions destabilized by climate change-related disasters.

[read the rest at Earther…]

Carl Sagan, nuclear winter, and the “climate wars”

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When Carl Sagan Warned the World About Nuclear Winter

Before the official report came out, the popular scientist took to the presses to paint a dire picture of what nuclear war might look like

For Smithsonian Magazine:

If you were one of the more than 10 million Americans receiving Parade magazine on October 30, 1983, you would have been confronted with a harrowing scenario. The Sunday news supplement’s front cover featured an image of the world half-covered in gray shadows, dotted with white snow. Alongside this scene of devastation were the words: “Would nuclear war be the end of the world?”

This article marked the public’s introduction to a concept that would drastically change the debate over nuclear war: “nuclear winter.” The story detailed the previously unexpected consequences of nuclear war: prolonged dust and smoke, a precipitous drop in Earth’s temperatures and widespread failure of crops, leading to deadly famine. “In a nuclear ‘exchange,’ more than a billion people would instantly be killed,” read the cover. “But the long-term consequences could be much worse…”

According to the article, it wouldn’t take both major nuclear powers firing all their weapons to create a nuclear winter. Even a smaller-scale war could destroy humanity as we know it. “We have placed our civilization and our species in jeopardy,” the author concluded. “Fortunately, it is not yet too late. We can safeguard the planetary civilization and the human family if we so choose. There is no more important or more urgent issue.”

The article was frightening enough. But it was the author who brought authority and seriousness to the doomsday scenario: Carl Sagan.

Read the rest at…

City ant, country ant, and climate change

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Acorn ants as seen through a microscope. [Credit: moi]

I know, I know: it’s been a long time since I last had something published. This is largely because I took a little time off to finish my novel. With the first draft done, I needed to catch up. As a result, I have six or seven (depending on how you count) articles that are finished, but which won’t be published immediately. Anyway, here’s the first of those, published today:

What City Ants Can Teach Us About Species Evolution And Climate Change

Is the rapid evolution of a certain ant species to urban environments a preview of life on a warming planet? Some researchers are trying to find out.

For Undark Magazine:

Acorn ants are tiny. They’re not the ants you’d notice marching across your kitchen or swarming around sidewalk cracks, but the species is common across eastern North America. In particular, acorn ants live anywhere you find oak or hickory trees: both in forests and in the hearts of cities.

That’s why they’re so interesting to Sarah Diamond, a biology professor at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland. “We’re comparing this little forest island within a city to traditional forest habitats,” she says. Specifically, she and her colleagues are looking at how well city ants can tolerate higher temperatures compared to their rural cousins. The experiment is made possible by what’s known as the urban heat island effect, which describes the tendency of the built-up infrastructure of cities — think heat-absorbing concrete and asphalt, for example — to create a hotter environment than less developed areas. [read the rest at Undark Magazine]