Friday, March 26, 2010

Particle Physics, Climate Change, and Dinner With Vera Rubin, Part I: Interview with A Climate Scientist

Finally, my APS April Meeting article is done!

Read article full text on the SPS website.  

By far the biggest event in the avenue of energy and environment was the plenary talk by Naval Research Observatory scientist Dr. Judith Lean, entitled "Surface Temperature Responses to Natural and Anthropogenic Influences: Past, Present, and Future." In light of such recent events as the email hacking at the Climate Research Unit in East Anglia, and the APS's ongoing discussion on its official climate position, Dr. Lean's talk was destined to be a hot topic, and was well attended. In the talk, Dr. Lean presented climate data from the past 30 years, revealing the contributions of both natural and anthropogenic factors to global temperature changes.

"Surface temperature is the equilibrium of incoming and outgoing radiation, modulated by several processes," explained Dr. Lean. Although human additions to concentrations of so-called greenhouse gases, such as carbon dioxide and chlorofluorocarbons, have received much attention of late, many other natural processes have observable effects on global temperature. The presence or absence of an El Niño Southern Oscillation can create warming in equatorial oceans, aerosols from volcanic eruptions can block incoming sunlight and create periods of cooling, and the sun itself goes through cycles of increasing and decreasing irradiance. When these decoupled effects are looked at together, they explain some of the temperature patterns of the last 30 years, yet anthropogenic greenhouse gases are so far the only explanation for the background rise of global temperatures in the past two decades.

In other words, it does not take a steady increase in temperatures across the globe to indicate that humans have altered global temperatures. Rather, what we see is an upward trend that is modulated by natural processes. According to Dr. Lean, we can expect that upward trend to dominate in the long run.

A common critique of anthropogenic warming asserts that the global temperature changes can instead be accredited to the changing brightness of the sun. Dr. Lean admits that solar irradiance has been something of a wild card: direct measurement of irradiance only goes back to 1978, and even the IPCC models do not deal with variances in irradiance, because of the difficulty in modeling the changes in oceanic and meteorological processes that can be caused by a change in solar irradiance. Yet Dr. Lean's work for the NRO includes modeling the changing magnetic forces within the sun, in hopes of yielding a more long-term picture of the patterns of solar irradiance, so she is well qualified to speak to the variation in solar irradiance itself. For solar variation to account for the nearly 0.9 Kelvin change that has been observed over the past 150 years, says Dr. Lean, “you'd have to say that the sun has varied five times more than we think it has varied, and you'd have to say the earth is really sensitive to sun's variations but at the same time is insensitive to increasing greenhouse gasses." To that she adds that taking the anthropogenic and natural processes together gives a consistent picture of both the last 30 years and the last 150 years, something solar variation does not do.

Immediately after her presentation she was swamped with enthusiastic crowd members, eager to ask questions or obtain a copy of her slides. Those slides contained simple and informative graphs of the past three decades of climate data, information that Dr. Lean admitted to me that she and her colleague almost didn't bother publishing. "We really focused on the forecasting at first, because we didn't think there was enough science in just explaining the past 30 years," she told me. "We thought, 'everyone knows that', you know, here's an ENSO [El Niño], here's a volcano. But it turns out that nobody knows that!" When working to determine how much models can or cannot tell us about the future, we sometimes forget that there is much that direct observation from the past can say.

Dr. Lean and I discussed the importance of communicating climate science effectively. I asked her, as a climate scientist, what she wanted the public to know about climate change, and she reiterated the main points she'd made in her presentation. "The climate varies for lots of reasons, on different timescales, by different amounts, and due to different things," she reminds. "There's this expectation that if anthropogenic gasses are causing climate change, then as proof of that we'll see global temperatures going monotonically up and up. But just because you see ups and downs, doesn't mean that anthropogenic gasses aren't affecting the climate."

She adds that, "The sun actually does appear to have a role, but it's not a very dominant role."

I asked Dr. Lean how she would improve the current climate science study, if she had more resources. She laughed, and said she would put in place the best observing system that money could buy.

Stay tuned for excerpts from Part II and III over the next few days!

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Garbage In, Garbage Out

I've been away for a while, 'cause of trying to move, and other things.

What's on my mind lately is not science so much as this rock climbing mentor-ship program I'm doing with the local rape crisis center. At-risk teenage girls are challenging, but working with them has strengthened some things I already believed, even if I don' t know yet what to do about them.

That people whose needs are met are not as likely to cause trouble. That engaging people as human beings, regardless of outward attitude or appearance, can by itself work to alleviate the constant things pushing them in not-so-healthy directions.

But, like any good challenge, I feel I've actually been doing a whole lot of failing at it. The engaging part, I see that it's important...but when every spare moment brings their heads together to talk of boys, fights, clothes, you hate to be the broken record who jumps in and says "talk about something else!" twenty times a night. Furthermore the point isn't to be constantly telling the girls what they should and shouldn't do or talk about, because they get enough of that from teachers and principals and parents. The point is to engage them, not by dictating, but by offering other options and letting the girls reach for themselves, by showing a different way, by facilitating, not advising, the girls through problems with boys or fights or drugs and sex or what have you.

Yet when you are sitting at a table next to two girls who are clearly talking about who is going out with whom and who is going to beat up whom, and yet you're goal isn't to tell them that talking about boys is bad, you do wonder, what am I supposed to say? How can I say anything that is interesting to a thirteen year old girl? And why is it, darn it, that I care so much about saying something they find interesting, or, heaven help me, cool?

I hear that parents go through this too. They don't want to constantly be telling their teenagers "no", "don't do that," "do this and this", etc. They want their kids to like them, to think they're cool too. It is in some sense hardwired in human nature. You even hear of parents buying their kids things that our parents would never have caved into buying us ( and our parents' parents would have thumped 'em for even asking), because the other kids' parents will inevitably get their son or daughter that ipod, that car, and nobody wants to be the uncool mom if everybody else's parents are going to be cool.

I would say to those parents, suck it up, for the sake of your child. I wish my parents had done so more, with me. But now that I've stared down the will of a thirteen-year-old, I understand somewhat more how hard it could be. If it wasn't just a girl I was supposed to be mentoring, but my child, the light of my world and all that.

So what's with the title, Garbage In, Garbage Out? Well, two things. One, I wish I was better at this, wish that instead of sitting there quietly and letting the girls' chatter pass me by, I had the courage to engage. All this self-conscious head-fluttering is what we're supposed to be helping the girls break free of, not deal with ourselves, and it really is just garbage anyway. Who cares if you don't know what to say?

Second, when debriefing all of this with a friend who is also in the program, she said, wisely, "Sometime you're just going to say things that are stupid. It's better to just accept that." And she's right.

This relates to my astronomy work in a way, too, because I spend a lot of time wondering and worrying if I know what's going on and if I've got it right. I'm trying to attack the data scientifically and intelligently, but I'm not a Ph.D. astronomer, so I'm just doing my best without the benefit of much experience. A lot of days, research goes that what you did the previous day is completely invalidated by something you just realized, especially if it's computational and you forgot to square a factor in your computer program, But whenever you make strides in understanding, you often realize that the way you were doing it was inefficient and not helpful. But that time's gone, so you've just go to move on.

So, Garbage In, Garbage Out. A lot of what goes through our heads, what we say, I'd say definitely half or more, is just trash. Just silliness, just worrying, just falsehood or logical fallacy or based on incomplete knowledge. Incomplete knowledge is always a limitation, whether it's in doing science or deciding the best thing to say to a thirteen-year-old. We're not always going to be on top of it, we're going to say stupid things sometimes, and yes, sometimes, we are going to try at something even thinking we know what we have to do to succeed, and we will fail.

But if we accept that, then we can get around to the, maybe as much as half, of what we say, think, or do, that isn't garbage, that might actually be on to something.

Saturday, March 13, 2010

Quantum Kitty

Last night I had a super nerdy dream.

My parents' cat is not allowed outside.  Usually she's not just gunning to go outside either, being, as cats go, a fairly timid creature, but every now and then she does look longingly out the window. I know it's against their nature and all that, take that rule up with my mom if you think locking her inside is cruel. At least the local bird, chipmunk, vole, mouse, squirrel population can be thankful for it.

In the dream, a door to a house that was definitely not my parents' house but nevermind that, opened, and my parents' cat rushed to it, eager to get out.  I tried to shut the door quickly, but the fuzzy dream events occurred in such a way that I could not tell if I was keeping the cat in or letting it slip out, my dream-brain ignoring the entirely-too-classical possibility that I ws shutting the door on the cat. 

In the end, it seemed like I had kept the cat inside. Yet as I watched, the cat walked through the solid door, and suddenly there were two cats, one inside, and one outside.

And in the dream I exclaimed, "She just tunneled through the door!  She bifurcated!  Now there's two of her.  Mom, what do I do about it?"

Dream mom was unsure, looking to the physics major for answers.  "Don't you know how to fix it?" she asked.

"I don't know," I answered.  "I don't know how to put her wave-function back together." But I went outside and scooped outside-cat up, and brought her back in, next to inside-cat, hoping that, in the language of quantum mechanics, if they were together it would induce their wave-function to be an eigenstate of inside-cat only, rather than being a superposition of the eigenstates of inside-cat and outside-cat both.

Now, the quantum concepts I'm referring to are not exactly right, obviously because cats are well outside of the limit where quantum behavior comes into effect. Also, the phenomenon in the dream, wheras something that, faced with two possibilities, behaves as if it does both if you are not able to determine what happened, goes away as soon as you can determine it (although yes, it would not actually happen with a cat.)

If I couldn't tell what happened and so suddenly I saw two cats, maybe some other sense, like touch or sound, would have broken the time of no-information, so as soon as I picked up outside cat, inside cat should have gone away, or rather, the cat wave-function would stop being a superposition of outside cat and inside cat and start being just outside cat again.

Then again, it didn't exactly occur that way: I couldn't tell what happened while I was closing the door but afterwards I saw inside cat "tunnel" through the it, which is an incredibly improbable occurrence, but if it did happen would not have caused the two-cat problem. So my brain was just mixing up scattered and sensationalized quantum concepts.

I did do a lab experiment once which verified the photon-faced-with-two-options-behaves-as-if-it-takes-both-if-you-can't-tell phenomenon, but in general these concepts are all subtle and mathematical and obviously non-nonsensical when applied to our world.

But cats are pretty magical, after all.

Friday, March 12, 2010

an educational experience

The thought occurred to me as I was driving back from West Virginia, and smelled a lot of road-kill skunks.

Might one take the perspective that it might be worth it, maybe once only, in a person's life, to be skunked? 

Just to know what it's like, (which I'm sure is unpleasant), just to have the honest-to-god "country kitty" bragging rights. Live exists to live it, after all.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

the less fun side

So, five years ago now as a freshman in my "freshman colloquium" class, the as-boring-as-it-sounds-but-saved-by-an-amazing-professor "Structure of Scientific Revolutions"--I thought, you know, I might want to be an astrophysicist, really.

And now here I am, swiping my visitor card to get into authorized personnel buildings at the National Radio Observatory in Green Bank, diligently staring at graphs of temperature verses frequency, and pasting sets of one hundred and twenty nine output numbers into an array without the benefit of keyboard shortcuts.

Sitting in front of a computer and hearing, from the scientist I'm supposed to be working with, the difference between a B.S. degree and a doctorate plus years of experience,  seeing that difference as I try to make sense of ions and dust clouds, arrays and the default arguments for functions whose names are not self-explanatory, help-files that explain jargon with even more jargon.

There's a big difference between a B.S. and a doctorate, and yet there is a difference, too, between a professor and a national lab scientists, in terms of realizing that what you just said was in no way illuminating to someone who hasn't worked here for years.  There's also a difference between someone who is on top of her work, and someone who is too lost and too unwilling to admit she is lost to ask or even be able to form the necessary questions.

I don't actually want to be an astrophysicist, really.  I want to install solar panels, write books, and save the environment.  But I didn't get that job--though I did get a personal commendation and a promise to be considered for future employment--so for now I will keep swiping my magnetized keycard and pretending I'm a real scientist.

It's not so bad as that, I already know a lot more than I did.  I find myself wasting a lot of person-hours trying to get oriented in a whole host of details so alien to me I can't yet separate the ones that are important from the ones that aren't, and the specifics are where the work is.  It's a good thing I get financial compensation for person-hours, but I loathe not spending my person-hours efficiently.

What can I tell you about Green Bank?

It houses an unique instrument; the world's largest steerable radio telescope, with a feed (that's where the incoming radiation focuses, after reflecting off of the dish) that is off-set so as not to obstruct part of the dish, rather than centered as in conventional radio telescope construction.   It's surface consists of many small panels that can independently move to create the right reflection for a large range of radio frequencies.

The Bryd telescope was built to replace a former, 300 ft (that's diameter) radio telescope, which collapsed in 1988.  (See before and after pictures).  My advisor had a friend who was working there at the time, and, like a good natured astrophysicist, claims it fell because his friend broke it.

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Interviewing Skills

So I'm going over the interview I had with climate scientists Judith Lean, who spoke at the APS 2010 Meeting on surface temperature responses to anthropogenic gases AND other factors.  Her point was that a) natural processees affect climate too, even variations in solar irradiance, yet b) anthropogenic gases are still the only explanation for the background rise in temperatures.  She didn't use models, so much as data from the past 30 years (quoth Shakespeare: Using Past as Prologue) where the signal from say, an El Nino can be teased out, cooling from volcanoes can be teased out, even solar variations can be teased out, and the upward trend remains.

It was my first attempt at a journalistic interview, and I think it went amazingly well.  I had a very personable, intelligent, and passionate subject, who loved talking to me and talking about her work, and it helped that we had ties to Australia in common.   There's a heck of a lot of great science and science-for-the-public material to glean.  I would post the clip if I could, though it's more than half an hour long.

I did make a few interviewer mistakes.  Like saying "yeah" a lot as she went on, instead of just letting her talk.  Rather than asking questions that were leading, which I really tried not to do, I think I might have left some of them too open-ended, and then thrown my own thoughts in with hers as a matter of having a conversation, rather than conducting an interview.  I spoke too fast, though I must admit when I listen to myself I realize that I do speak rather intelligently. 

I have a southern accent, and I stumble over myself sometimes.

But still, pretty good.  It was a few days before I could work myself up to listen to myself again, which is something a journalist needs to get over very quickly.

So I'll be trying to finish that APS article up soon. 

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Caught in the Act

Man, waking up to NPR in the morning sure is enhancing my education about dinosaurs.

First there was the discovery, by looking hard through a microscope at the shape of the pigments in fossilized dinosaur feathers, that we can compare those shapes to bird feathers today and guess at colors. Some dinosaurs were apparently a colorful lot. I hadn't previously realized that we knew dinosaurs had feathers.

Then this morning there was the exiting new pre-historic scene caught in the fossil record. A baby sauropod hatches amid a field of other sauropod eggs in what is now India, to find itself regarded by a gigantic, coiled, and hungry snake. Bummer. Good thing in that moment sand or snow or whatever it was buried the whole thing, allowing it to avoid one certain death by abruptly experiencing another.

Monday, March 1, 2010

Don't Be Sorry

One time in 6th grade, my friend commented that I sure said "sorry" a whole lot.

To which I said, (because I was worried that was annoying, and not because I was trying to be witty) "sorry."

It's been a long time since 6th grade, but I am participating in a mentorship program for only-slightly-older 7th and 8th grade girls, hoping to use weekly sessions at the climbing gym, open dialogue on at-risk teen-girl issues, and positive interaction with successful adult women (oh crap, that's supposed to be me) to allow these girls to understand and perhaps start to build their own unique voice. The social science on generalized girls in US society post-age- twelve shows a dismal loss of confidence and willingness to speak up for oneself, exacerbated by media portrayals of the sexualized, silent and submissive feminine. I figure, I'd done three years at a boy scout camp with (slightly older, what a difference that makes) teenage boys, it was time to turn my attention to my own gender. Boys may in many ways be a lot easier to deal with.

So as successful adult women mentors, we're not supposed to do things like feel like we should apologize for ourselves over all the things that people, especially women, apologize for. Women generally do this more than men, because women are in general either more socialized to care, care more naturally, or both, about relationships and interacting positively with others. I hadn't really thought about it before, but when the program director brought up "sorry" as one of her pet peeves, I begun to see what she means.

It's good to apologize for things, certainly. But sometimes we apologize the hell out of ourselves for things we don't really need to, have no control over anyway, don't actually feel sorry for but think it good to say because of that compulsion toward no outward negativity in a people-interaction. There is a difference between a person who is expressing an honest regret and goodwill warranted by a situation, and a person who is insecure and doesn't want to say or do anything that might make others think less of her. That kind of person is using "sorry" to drown out her honest voice.

The program director told me about her friend, who noticed she was saying sorry too much, in too many situations where it wasn't necessary. So that friend challenged herself, to say "I'm not sorry" every time she would reactively want to say sorry. Imagine, being in a social situation where you want to smooth things over (that don't really need smoothing, it just makes you feel better) but you force yourself to tell people you're not sorry instead.

That nipped the habit in the bud pretty quick.