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