Are we affected by the universe in our everyday lives?

“Oddly enough, it’s the scientists who had the most to do with redefining beauty.”
— author Paul Schullery

I watched parts of Ken Burns’s new documentary series “The National Parks: America’s Best Idea” on PBS. One part talked about George Melendez Wright, a biologist who through his tireless efforts got the national parks to change their policy towards wild animals in the 1930s. Park policy had been to treat them like zoo animals. Some were caged for public viewing, and feeding sites were set up to attract animals to strategic locations so that people could see them. Wright made the case against it, saying that this policy detracted from the beauty of the natural experience for visitors. Paul Schullery said the above quote in that segment, and I felt a tinge of anger. “Oddly??”, I thought. I felt disgusted. There’s nothing odd about it. It’s just that most Americans don’t recognize that science can open up a new perception to beauty. I’m using this post as an illustration of the beauty of science in an area I’ve been studying as a hobby.

I’ve been looking at the issue of climate change from a scientific perspective for several years now. When I was a kid I was very interested in severe weather phenomena: tornadoes and hurricanes. I wanted to be a meteorologist. Had I gone through with that I probably would’ve been one of those storm chasers. But then I found computers… Anyway, my interest in atmospheric science has remained.

I’ve looked at this subject long enough to know that just the study of what affects our climate is highly controversial within the field. Unfortunately, it has a significant amount of dogma in it, and any new theories that break with it have a hard time even being published. This is the main reason my interest in this area of research has been reinvigorated. There is legitimate climate research going on in the field, but I’ve had this increasing sense as I’ve kept track of it that the field is being used for non-scientific purposes, and at the expense of science. I’ll get into that in a future post.

A new theory, proposed by Danish scientist Henrik Svensmark, that’s been published just recently, proposes a radical idea: Our climate is under the influence of celestial phenomena. The theory is rather complex. Sometimes it’s portrayed as saying that our climate is influenced by the Sun, but that’s not the full story.

The theory contains three concepts:

  • The Sun’s magnetic field goes through active and dormant cycles.
  • The position of the solar system in the Milky Way changes with time. It has an orbit around the center of the galaxy (though our solar system is positioned near the edge of the galaxy). As it orbits, it sometimes goes through spiral arms, which contain many stars, some of which go nova. At other times it’s in between these arms, in relatively empty space.
  • Cosmic rays, which come from exploding stars, have a direct influence on the cloudiness of our atmosphere, and thereby heavily influence the cooling of our climate.

The third point is what’s most controversial about this theory. Svensmark claims that cosmic rays have a much greater influence on our climate than carbon dioxide (CO2).

The theory goes that there is an interaction between the three components. When the solar system is traveling through a spiral arm, there is more opportunity for cosmic rays to reach our atmosphere and create cloudiness. When it’s traveling in between arms, there are less cosmic rays. At the same time, when the Sun is in an active period, the solar wind diverts cosmic rays away from the Earth, creating less cloudiness, and a warmer climate. When it’s in a dormant period, cosmic rays reach the Earth more freely, creating cloudiness, and a cooler climate.

Svensmark claims that his theory can explain periods of climate that are evident in the geologic record, which go back hundreds of thousands of years, and the climate we experience in modern times.

This is a theory that still needs to go through the scientific process of rigorous review by other scientists. So at this point I’m going to consider it speculative, but worth considering.

I found the following video on “The Cloud Mystery.” It features other scientists who are supporting Svensmark’s work: Nir Shaviv, an astrophysicist at Hebrew University in Jerusalem; and Eugene Parker, a solar astrophysicist at the University of Chicago. Svensmark has also published a book, The Chilling StarsHere is an article on The Resilient Earth blog about this subject.

There’s a point of clarification I should make. Nir Shaviv talks about measuring Carbon-14 in sedimentary deposits. My understanding is that Carbon-14 can be used as a proxy for cosmic rays when looking at geologic records, since Carbon-14 is formed when nitrogen in the atmosphere is struck by cosmic rays. If you’re a science maven like I am, you often hear about Carbon-14 in relation to radiocarbon dating some organic material found at archaeological sites in order to date a find.

What they’re saying is when matched up against the temperature record (through other proxies, though I’m less familiar with them), there seems to be a good match between the trends in Carbon-14 levels and temperature trends in the same time period.

The comment that Svensmark makes about the whiteness of the low clouds is significant. We experience full-spectrum light as white light. So the fact that the low clouds appear white means, as he says, that they are reflecting most of the Sun’s rays that hit them back out into space.

 

The one disappointing thing to me about this presentation is that the proponents of this theory sound as dogmatic about it as other scientists in this field are about CO2 affecting global warming. I much prefer the stance of, “Given our current level of ignorance, what we think we know is…”. Even so, I find this idea that there’s a unity between the universe and our Earth, and that it affects something we experience every day to be really beautiful. It makes sense to me, but I’m going to withhold belief, and let the scientific process vet it out.

Science can be beautiful. I think a lot of people miss that. They think that scientists live their lives in sterile labs in white coats, running experiments. Some do that sort of thing, but the exciting stuff in the natural sciences happens when people go out in nature and “get their hands in it.”

There’s a wonderful site I found recently called Symphony of Science that takes lyrical quotes from some prominent scientists, modifies them so they sound like they’re singing, and sets it to music. It sounds a bit alien, but beautiful at the same time. This article is my opinion alone, and I make no claim that the scientists portrayed in this video endorse this theory hypothesis. I thought this “song” would put a nice “exclamation mark” on the subject, though.

“We are all connected” from symphonyofscience.com

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4 thoughts on “Are we affected by the universe in our everyday lives?

  1. I am really concerned about the state of science when it comes to climate change, and its relationship to the non-scientific community as well. If the scientists who beleive that man-made causes are radically changes the planet’s climate are correct, then it will require a major correction in course to avert disaster, one with profound economic consequences. If they are wrong, we could potentially halt or even reverse the rate of development for much of the world for no reason.

    To make matters worse, climate change is, for better or for worse, a field in which it is *impossible* to apply “science” to for the most part. Sure, people can have theories. How are they going to *test* those theories? On computers, where the assumptions of the programmer can have such a profound change in the system? “In the wild” where it is impossible to control for everything (or even anything)? It’s a lot like nutrition science… there’s a reason why, every 10 years, there is a new diet which has a ton of scientific backing. It’s not because our bodies suddenly changed, it’s because there is a lot of new research which “suggests” certain foods “may” have some desirable effects. In the last 2 years that I have been studying nutrition, I’ve seen everything from high protein diets, high carb diets, and even diets where 50% of the calories are supposed to come from (good) fats, all of these diets have oodles of scientific research behind them.

    Climate research is a lot like psychology, where enough people with PhD’s are involved with enough journals and peer review to have all of the trappings of a “science” but none of the requisite rigor. It’s not a slam on the researchers. It’s the nature of the beast. The problem is (and here *is* the slam on the researchers) is that they get caught up in their own hype cycle, and actually beleive that they are conducting science. In reality, they are essentially pundits, taking a look at empirical evidence, constructing “just so stories” based on what they see (colored, of course, by their own personal biases), and confusing correlation with cause. And then those who don’t know any better (the typical person) are set up for the sucker punch by those who do (or should) know better and cynically use the “science” to justify their own non-scientific goals (politicians, large companies, etc.).

    Now… all of this being said…

    Climate change should be 100% irrelevant to political policy anyways. Why? Let’s take an honest look at the issue. *If* the researchers who beleive that man is causing climate change, the logic goes like this:

    1. Man’s activities pump a bunch of garbage in the air.
    2. That garbage causes climate change of some type.
    3. That climate change could greatly harm us all.

    Reasonable, and the only question mark in on step #2. So, those who do not want to regulate Man’s activities dispute #2. Again, reasonable. But, let’s put forth another chain of logic, whoch *no one* disputes:

    1. Man’s activities pump a bunch of garbage in the air.
    2. That garbage not only *potentially* causes climate change, *definitely* causes a whole host of other problems, including poisoning lakes, ponds, streams, rivers, etc. with mercury, creating smog which has prodound economic effects on some parts of the country, pumping known, proven carcinogens into the air, etc. etc. etc.

    In other words, the provability of climate change is 100% *irrelevant* to the emmisions/pollution issue, but *both sides* of the debate forget this. They all act like if climate change can be proved, we need to stop pumping garbage into the air, but if it is disproved, that behavior is A-OK. WRONG! If climate change is disproved, that is just one more reason to stop pumping garbage into the air.

    I am not Mr. Evironment. Yes, I recycle, and I recycle quite rigorously (2/3rds of the bulk on the side of the road each week waiting for pickup is in recylcling bins, not bad for a family with a child). Yes, I try to not be wasteful. But environmental decisions do not drive my behavior. I turn the water off while brushing my teeth because I pay the water bill, not because I love the Earth. At the same time, though, I recognize the found that aside from the climate change issue, Man’s activities are having a profoundly detrimental effect on the planet and Man’s well being, and those activities need to change. Whether or not that produces a positive effect regarding climate change… well, that would just be an added bonus.

    Our politicians need to stop worrying about “climate change” and start worrying about “why are we pumping the atmosphere with poison?”

    J.Ja

  2. You and I are in agreement, Justin. I have the same concerns as you. There are real environmental problems that can be studied much more easily by science. The remedies are not any easier than they used to be, though.

    I think it is possible to carry out science regarding the climate. It’s just that it’s like eating an elephant. The right way to do it is little bits at a time.

    There are scientists who have done direct measurements of things like CO2 levels, and temperatures at various altitudes, taking a look at how much radiation is “venting” out into space vs. how much the Earth is receiving, etc. All of the evidence I’ve seen from these studies shows that the alarmist assertions are wrong. I’ve tried to listen to what I consider to be good science on this issue. As far as what’s caused the rise in temperature from 1980 up until 2000, most scientists who have really looked at the evidence and are being honest will tell you they don’t know why that happened, and that’s a perfectly acceptable answer in science. Until the evidence is found, the best default position is “I don’t know”. There was a paper published just recently, based on direct observations that attempts to explain the warming that happened, but it’s so new (it still needs to be rigorously tested) that at best it should be considered speculative at this point.

    The people who think they know the answer now (that humans are causing it) want the answer too soon! They’re jumping to a conclusion without really interrogating nature.

    I am deeply troubled by the way in which computer models are being used to promote this idea. Alan Kay said it best (though he was not referring specifically to this issue), “You cannot do science on a computer. … No language system that we have knows what reality is like. That’s why we have to go out and negotiate with reality by doing experiments.” He said the correct way to use computers in science is to go out and do observations, try to form a model, and compare the model to your observations. He thinks of it as a study activity. The idea is the act of building the model will teach you new things about what you observed. That’s very different from how models are being used around the issue of global warming.

    I’ve had the opportunity to talk to a climate modeler online, who really does believe humans are causing it, and he made me feel like I had entered “bizarro world”. He literally told me “We don’t have a ‘control’ for the Earth. How else would we be able to carry out experiments if not for models?” He made the same point about repeatability. I had another tell me, “This is how science is done with regard to complex systems now.” They mistake theory for nature. The assumptions they used just blew my mind away. They think that by taking a model and tweaking it to the point where it appears to match actual data that it means “Oh, we’ve replicated nature!” I felt like reaching through the internet, grabbing them and shaking them sometimes, yelling in their face, “Do you realize how stupid you’re being?!”

    A friend of a friend, a scientist who’s studied ocean temperatures for more than 20 years went by the climate modeling unit at NCAR (the National Center for Atmospheric Research) a while back. She looked at one of the models they were using and she couldn’t believe it. In order to get the model to match the actual temperature record they had fudged one of the parameters REALLY badly, saying that the Earth had ZERO ground vegetation! I mean, come on! That’s just shameless.

    Just from what I know about computer science I am doubtful that anyone will be able to come up with a computer climate model of what they are observing that accurately reflects what’s going on, given the current technology. The climate is a coupled, chaotic, non-linear system. Computer scientists know (or should know) that it’s almost impossible to create a model of a chaotic, non-linear system on today’s technology that will produce results of acceptable accuracy. I was thinking that what’s needed for this sort of thing is a “quantum computer”, one that is designed for chaotic systems, and would explore all possible outcomes of the interactions. The problem becomes, though, picking out which outcome path is most likely. I don’t think our current scientific knowledge allows us to do that.

    The whole idea that government policy can solve the “problem” makes me think of “Schrodinger’s Cat”. You shoot into the box, but you don’t know if you’ve hit the cat, missed the cat, or if the cat was in the box in the first place.

    I live in a town that has implemented a carbon tax on electricity. It’s had widespread support. It had support from environmental groups because it was thought that the money would be used to promote energy efficiency. It’s been earmarked for that. Last year we find out that two-thirds of the revenue is going towards administrative costs! It’s just what the opponents of the tax (though they’ve been in the minority) predicted would happen. Some environmentalists have now come out in opposition to the tax, because they consider it a waste. I didn’t see the point of it. Our energy company was already providing incentives to customers to be more energy efficient.

    Just recently the city raised the tax. I have a suspicion that most of the politicians going along with this agenda don’t really believe any of this. It gives them an excuse to raise revenue from a willing public. That’s what they care about.

    I also agree with you about some parts of biological science. I’ve been hearing about the state of the study of drugs that affect the brain. It sounds like it’s right out of the Dark Ages. Basically, a lot of the anti-psychotics and such were found by accident. Since no direct testing is allowed (so I’ve heard) all the information that the medical field follows has come from anecdotal evidence. They’ll give a drug for a known ailment, and it turns out the patient also has some psychological issues that seem to get better after they’ve taken it. This is noted and the psychiatric community starts using it for that psychological issue. They have a lot of side-effects, as do many prescription drugs. Doctors tend to not treat causes, just symptoms. So prescription drugs can be a pathway to hell. You have to watch for that. You take one drug. It helps the problem, but then it causes side-effects. You complain to your doctor about the side-effects, and he/she prescribes more meds to deal with the side-effects. But those drugs have effects of their own. If you let it go on, your body basically gets owned by the drugs. It’s no longer in control of its own functions. And from what I’ve seen the drugs are like sledgehammers. They’re not precise tools. They may solve your problem, but they can cause others. Sometimes the “cure” is worse than the problem, and it’s better to just do without the meds.

    Case in point 🙂 :

  3. Pingback: The dangerous brew of politics, religion, technology, and the good name of science « Tekkie

  4. The computer models attempting to simulate climate change failed (among other reasons) because of the built-in assumption that CO2 was driving temperature. In any event computer model predictions are not “evidence” of real world events. Neither is it unusual for a model to successfully predict past events because computer models rarely graduate from the testing phase until they have been sufficiently reworked (“tweaked”) to match historical data. Arguing that the models are reliable because they perfectly reflect historical activity is ludicrous. Not only that, attempting to predict results 100 years into the future by simulating both a very complex and poorly understood climate along with the impact on it due to changing world economics is a guaranteed exercise in futility. Finally, temperatures at most points on the earth vary during one day by more than 20 degrees, and over an annual period by more than 100 degrees, so any projection resulting in a fraction of a degree of overall change per century must be taken with a grain of salt (to put it politely).

    http://docs.google.com/Doc?docid=0AVVg_WszLj_-ZGRyajlqanNfMGZzdjhuOWd3&hl=en

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