Wednesday, 7 January 2015

Simply Complex ...

A recent copy of Scientific American contained an article concerning the latest astronomical research on the search for ‘habitable planets’ which might be suitable for ‘life’ or which might, some day, be an alternative home for humanity. It raised the point that our sun is already past ‘middle age’ for stars of its size and type, and entering (or perhaps already in) its first decay phase. Why is that of interest? After all, we are reasonably certain we have something like 7 or more billion years before it actually ‘dies’. 

Turns out, we may have a lot less than that. The problem is that, as it ages, the sun is getting hotter, which means that the ‘sweet zone’ in which our planet sits, is actually migrating outward toward Mars. Already our planet, once thought to be safely in the centre of that sweet zone, is perilously close to the inner edge of it. Which means, in a mere half million years, our oceans will have boiled away, life will be all but extinct in any present form, and the atmosphere will be largely acidic, toxic and probably hot enough to flash water to steam. 

Other articles discussing the drift of continents, volcanism, oceanic circulation, climate change (or not) and quantum physics all convince me that scientists seem to love to do their thing in splendid isolation and with complete disregard for anything in any other field which may impact on theirs. Thus, ‘Climate Scientists’ ignore geologists providing reliable and well proven data concerning historic warm and cold periods. Information from glaciologists is also ignored, unless it accords with the ‘warming’ narrative. As for anything the astronomers say, well that’s ignored as well. 

Into this rich mix of conflicting signals and messages - made even more complex by politicians running with the bits that suit their agendas, and the masses of terminally blinkered ‘laymen’ who refuse to see anything that counters, conflicts or refutes their favoured ideology/beliefs - the quantum physicists, anti-religionists and the media and you rapidly move to a situation where the last thing anyone listens to is ‘reason’. It becomes a scrum, a slanging match of competing ideas, evidence, and argument, and, as the Book of Common Prayer puts it so eloquently, ‘the truth is not in it’. Or perhaps it is, but it is neither as simple as each competing ‘science’ claims, nor as ‘logical’ as their various adherents think.

One of the great misconceptions in the ‘media’ and thus the wider public, is the difference between ‘theory’, ‘hypothesis’ and ‘reality’. A ‘theory’ is something that has been conclusively established, by observation, by hard evidence and by repeated re-examination, experiment and confirmation from numerous sources and vast amounts of research. Thus, the theory of Tectonics, is established by measurement, examination of rock samples, observation of subduction and eduction zones and by evidence gathered from analysis of the chemistry of rocks, gases from volcanoes and so on. Climate Change, on the other hand is still in the hypothesis category, simply because the ‘hard’ proof is proving elusive, and while there is historic and geological evidence to prove that climate changes, what is not ‘proved’ or agreed is what causes it. The media, and here I include the Internet, conflates everything, so any ‘new’ paper that catches the attention is trumpeted as ‘proof’ or ‘conclusive’ when often it is anything but.

And then there is astro-physics and quantum physics. Both branches of mathematics, and both heavily reliant on mathematical models to test and ‘prove’ their theories. Their ‘hard’ evidence comes from telescopes, satellites, photographs, the lander on Mars and now the ESA satellite and lander on a comet, and the Large Hadron Collider. These are the branches of science that always put me in mind of the Wizards in Sir Terry Pratchett’s books. More particularly in the group that inhabit the High Energy Magic building at Unseen University, and who probably wouldn’t recognise ‘reality’ if it attacked them. Thus one can marvel at the paper produced recently by a group of quantum physicists that ‘proved’ (using computer models) that out entire universe is a hologram. 

Quantum Physicists marvel at the fact that some of their (modelled) particles apparently defy Newtonian Physics, and some may even defy Einstein’s theory of Relativity. According to them our universe is a 3-D projection originating in a 4-D Universe, itself a projection from a 5-D Universe, etc., etc., and presumably ours ‘projects’ a 2-D Universe somewhere, and that … These are the guys who get super excited when they can smash an atom and find bits they’ve never seen, which cannot possibly be seen, and which can only exist independently for moments of time we can’t even begin to measure (though I’m sure someone has named them). Sometimes reading about the ‘latest’ revelation in this field, or in genetics and other ‘microscope’ or ‘modelling’ branches of science, one gets the impression that the writers are standing so close to their subject, and so focused on the minutiae, they cannot see the larger world, and sometimes the reality, around them. 

Science is exciting, it is informing us of wonders even our most recent forebears couldn’t have imagined, and it is both exciting and terrifying. Exciting because we are, to abuse a phrase from a more famous author, we are catching glimpses of the Divine, but it is terrifying for the same reason because some of what we are now seeing defies logic, or raises so many more questions we cannot yet answer it suggests we may be better off not poking a stick into these things.

Returning to the American Scientist article briefly, the finding that the sun has got hotter, and the ‘sweet zone’ is migrating past us, it raises a serious question about Climate Change. If, as is now predicted, in less than 500,000 years, we will be sitting on a nearly barren lump of rock being scorched by a slowly swelling and overheating sun, precisely how will we protect ourselves and maintain ‘life’? The answer in the article, is that our survival depends on migrating away from here before that date, yet it seems that no one is interested in that option. There does not seem to be a single body (and as far as I’m concerned the UN would be the worst possible body to do it) that is looking at anything longer than the next five, ten, fifty or hundred years, and all of them are doing so from purely the perspective of ‘how do we keep the voters sweet, the money flowing, and stay in control’.

As I said at the outset, none of the sciences seem to put their data together and see the bigger picture, or indeed, consider what another discipline can tell them that may mean adjusting their own hypotheses. The response when one suggests it (even as a lowly ‘fire investigator’ looking at a complex fire event with ‘specialists’ and ‘experts’ from other scientific disciplines) is, “Ah, outside my field. Not relevant.” So I read in various places that the Tera tons of ice covering the Antarctic continent ‘will be gone in less than a hundred years’ and that the Arctic will be ‘ice free’ within ten, twenty, … take your pick. All claims made by scientists and activists whose purview is restricted to the evidence of their own particular discipline/ideological beliefs and ignoring records from ice cores and geologists that there may be a cycle to this. There is outright denial in some quarters of the fact that in the period 900 - 1200 AD, the Greenland islanders kept cattle, something that is impossible today.

We are constantly told that storms and floods are a result of climate change, yet any engineer will argue that more paving, more roof surface and building in flood plains will all result in greater flow of water into rivers, faster, and more dangerously than even fifty years ago. We are told sea levels are ‘rising’ in places like Manhattan, yet a geologist will tell you that the weight of the buildings etc., on the island is depressing the crust beneath the island, so it is a moot point as to whether the sea level is rising, or the land sinking. We have the same effect in Southern Britain where the land is sinking and Scotland rising slowly as a result of the crust adjusting from no longer being covered by almost a mile thick ice sheet.

The one thing in the universe everyone seems to agree on (except perhaps the adherents to some of the new ‘religions’ of ‘science’ and ‘climate’ who are experts at neither) is that everything is in a constant state of change. Nothing is static, so instead of, as some campaign so passionately for, trying to arrest change, we need to find more efficient ways to adapt. We need to rein in our explosive expansion of the human population and stabilise it - something we can change - and we need to find more ways of co-operating instead of competing.

Isaac Asimov once declared that if humanity is to survive, and to expand into interstellar space successfully, all nations must pool their resources and their expertise. Only then can the full human potential be realised. Only then can we successfully escape the confines of a dying planet and, perhaps, the consequences of our present hubris.

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