Tuesday, March 27, 2007

Such things are sent to try us

The magazine of our professional association, Chemistry in Australia, has just published an article by a creationist chemist, John Ashton. Perhaps this is an experiment to see how many people are actually reading the magazine. Well before the magazine appeared in my pigeonhole I was being cc'ed messages from fellow chemists who rightly saw this as a very dumb thing for Chemistry in Australia to do. The perilous aspect of this is not that we should be publishing unscientific articles that aren't at all about chemistry (though that bugs me) or that some chemists are silly (though hardly any, of course), but that getting non-refereed articles into publications with scientific-sounding names is apparently a favourite creationist tactic.

I am peeved by John Ashton's attempt to drag Francis Collins into the fray as a supporter. In an entirely sensible address on science and faith, the Christian director of the National Genome Project has this to say about creationist views:

'If the tenets of young-earth creationism were true, basically all the sciences of geology, cosmology, and biology would utterly collapse. It would be the same as saying 2 plus 2 is actually 5. The tragedy of young-earth creationism is that it takes a relatively recent and extreme view of Genesis, applies to it an unjustified scientific gloss, and then asks sincere and well-meaning seekers to swallow this whole, despite the massive discordance with decades of scientific evidence from multiple disciplines. Is it any wonder that many sadly turn away from faith concluding that they cannot believe in a God who calls for an abandonment of logic and reason?'

Sunday, March 25, 2007

Bearing fruit in keeping with repentance

I have confirmed that our Bachelor of Health Sciences (Homeoapthic Medicine) was discontinued last year, as I thought, and this link will soon be inactive. Hurrah!

The Funneled Web currently has an article about other universities that have not yet seen the error of their ways.

Friday, March 23, 2007

Delta T

I thought I should see if I could justify my Panglossian comment on Klaus Rohde’s blog that the Ganges Delta should be able to keep pace with sea level rise.

The historical vertical deposition rates quoted in this interesting paper of 5-8 mm/year seem adequate to keep pace to all but the most extreme rates of global warming-related sea level rise. This deposition rate should also increase with any increasing incursion of saline waters into the delta, since the stability of colloidal clay particles to aggregation is reduced markedly with increasing ionic strength of the solution.

However, I had not realised that the amount of sediment reaching the Ganges Delta has already been severely reduced by the construction of dams in India, and the effects of this on the western Ganges delta were already obvious by the time the paper was written at the end of the 1980s. Hopefully India will be moved to correct this problem out of self interest, as it puts many millions of its own citizens at risk.

It also appears that intensive human use of the most marginal coastal lands- where more than a million people died the day I was born, and where nobody ought to be living- contributes significant horizontal erosion, even if overall vertical deposition rates can keep up the level of the delta.

Monday, March 19, 2007

The Prolific Anonymous Writes:

What do you think about the de-alkalanisation of the oceans. Anything ruinously doom and gloom possible there? Is adaptation of water species quick enough by your reckoning?

It seems to me that the figure in this Wikipedia article on ocean acidification, the only evidence presented there for ocean acidification as a fact, cannot possibly be based on data. In fact, the citation is a computer simulation based on carbon dioxide transport across the air/water interface.

The vast majority of these simulations are based on incorrect physics. When I was in Sydney last year I went to a talk by a physical chemist from New Zealand who talked about how mass and heat transport are coupled: you can’t calculate the flux of carbon dioxide from water to atmosphere and vice versa just by looking at the concentrations, you need to know the relative temperatures too. I worked out his equations in Excel, and a gas will move against a pressure gradient if it is moving with a temperature gradient: i.e., if the air is hotter than the water, the concentration of carbon dioxide in the water will be higher than in the air.

This physical chemist wrote two papers on this in 1991-1992 in the climate scientists’ journal of record, Geophysical Research Letters (Phillips, Leon F.. Carbon dioxide transport at the air-sea interface: Effect of coupling of heat and matter fluxes. Geophysical Research Letters (1991), 18(7), 1221-4.; Phillips, L. F.. Carbon dioxide transport at the air-sea interface: numerical calculations for a surface renewal model with coupled fluxes. Geophysical Research Letters (1992), 19(16), 1667-70.) The papers have each been cited exactly four (4!) times. I found a paper from 2003 by a collection of climate scientist chaps from Princeton and other places, who estimated carbon uptake in various places and come to the conclusion: ‘there is more carbon dioxide uptake at low latitudes, and less at high latitudes, than the models predict.’ Well, this is because the physics in those models is wrong.

This coupling of heat and matter transport also means that there will be strong diurnal and seasonal variations in carbon dioxide transport across the air/sea interface, and local concentration of carbon dioxide very much higher than those in equilibrium with the atmospheric concentration as a whole (see some of the data in here): thus organisms in the surface water layer are regularly exposed to a pH range as great as that postulated for the 'gloom and doom' prognostications.

The Royal Society summary paper on ocean acidification does not produce any convincing evidence for an overall increase in ocean pH over the period of industrial civilisation. The 0.1 increase they cite is based on a combination of proxy data (deposits of other species correlated to pH)and simulations. I am inclined to take this value with a grain of salt (NaHCO3) and recommend that it not be used to influence policy!

Sunday, March 18, 2007

Intelligent Design

Here's a letter I sent to Alex Reisner of The Funnelled Web in October 2005:

Greetings Alex,

Everything we have discovered over the last 500 years has taken us further and further from the idea that the Earth is the centre of the Universe. We are nowhere special; why should life have happened to start here? There might be all sorts of chemistries that are not at all like the life we know that started out in environments not at all like the ones we know: you just need to get life started somewhere, sometime, and sooner or later it will come up with iPods and weird new organisms based on different chemistry than itself. Maybe it will even come to planets where life is already humming along nicely and play around with horizontal gene transfer. Given enough time, the probability of an alien mad scientist as in “Lilo and Stitch” might become significant...

Let's say that we keep probing the origins of life, and every possible mechanism for kicking the process off requires some fantastically entropically unfavourable combination of highly complicated molecules that we can easily produce in a test tube, but can't envision surviving long enough to reach the required concentrations in any plausible environment on the primitive earth.

Do we:

(a) Keep on asserting that this highly thermodynamically-disfavoured process must have happened, nevertheless, in some highly implausible and forever unobservable environment?

(b) Apply Ockham's Razor and say that if we can make life in a test tube, then, maybe, life as we know it was made in a test tube?

We know this is not what the Intelligent Design people *really* mean by Intelligent Design, but it is perfectly consistent with what they *say* they mean, so we shouldn't just jump up and down and say that Intelligent Design is pseudo-scientific rubbish. If you discard the supernatural component it is many orders of magnitude more scientific than homeopathy, which several blinkered, insane-with-greed Australian universities prostitute their good name to support.

This version of Intelligent Design is a perfectly valid scientific theory. We can think of things we could do to test it. For instance, we could search for the aliens' fossilised iPods...



Possible Intelligent Designer, Dr Jumba Jootika

Thursday, March 15, 2007

I want a shoehorn, the kind with teeth

The blogosphere is full of posts by reasonably intelligent people pooh-poohing anthropogenic global warming (AGW). They cite anecdotal evidence for local cooling and sea level stasis, every bit as relevant as the anecdotal evidence for local warming and sea level rise trotted out by the other side. They look askance at the admittedly scattered plot of temperature rise vs. time (Figure 1). The messianic fervour with which the AGW propagandists push totalitarian 'solutions' to the problem pushes them to deny that AGW exists, in the same way as William Jennings Bryan was pushed into denying evolution by the way it was abused to justify Prussian militarism and robber-baron capitalism.

Figure 1: HadCRUT3 Global Temperature Data Set

Why are scientists convinced, in the main, that the AGW hypothesis is correct? It is not because of some spotty y = mx + b fit to a curve of surface temperature vs. atmospheric [CO2](Figure 2). It is because there is a very clear mechanism by which increasing atmospheric carbon dioxide concentration should increase surface temperatures, as sure as eggs are eggs. This mechanism is dependent on fundamental physical laws that are as incontrovertible as anything can be in this crazy mixed up world of ours.

Figure 2: y = mx + b ono

In many ways AGW is the converse of continental drift. For hundreds of years, anyone with eyes could see, and say: 'Hey! This bulge in Brazil fits perfectly into the Bight of Benin!' But for hundreds of years, scientists quite properly pooh-poohed the idea of continents moving around. There was no plausible mechanism for this to happen. As soon as evidence for a mechanism arrived, so did continental drift as a reputable theory. With AGW, the lump in South America might not look very much like the dint in Africa, but the mechanism is so good that any claim that it isn't happening is bound to look like clutching as straws.

Here is the mechanism:

Energy cannot be created or destroyed. Therefore, the energy in the sunlight incident on the Earth has to be balanced by the energy in the light re-radiated by the Earth, or the temperature of the Earth will increase.

The sun sends all kinds of electromagnetic radiation out in all directions, some of which impacts the Earth, as shown in Figure 3.

Figure 3: Radiation Incident on the Earth

The difference between the upper dotted line (sunlight at the top of the atmosphere) and the lower solid line (sunlight at the bottom of the atmosphere) is the first lot of energy we need to worry about. Part of it looks like it is scattered back into space (the general fact that the solid line is lower than the dotted line) and part of it goes into increasing the kinetic energy of various molecules floating around in the air (those are all the little dimples in the solid line). These molecules (mostly water) can then knock into other molecules and increase the general kinetic energy- that is, the temperature- of the air. The more scatterers there are in the air- dust, soot, water droplets, etc.- the more energy will be scattered away, and the more water vapour (mostly) there is, the more the atmosphere will be heated directly. But on average, the solid line should not change much over time.

Now, what happens to the solid line when it reaches the earth’s surface? Either it will be reflected, and zip back off into space, or it will be adsorbed. This will be very variable indeed, and will depend on where the clouds are (they count as surface), and where the snow is, etc. Nobody is at all sure how this balance between reflection and adsorption will respond to an increase in global temperature, but a reasonable guess might be that it is likely to stay about the same.

The adsorbed energy heats the Earth’s surface. But because the whole thing has to balance to keep the Earth’s temperature the same, it has to go somewhere: and where it goes is the energy radiated by a black body heated to a not-terribly-high temperature, as shown in Figure 4.

Figure 4: Heat radiated by Earth cf. Black Body curve

The heavy green line is the theoretical curve for a black body at 255 K, and the narrower green line is observational data from an area of the Pacific ocean at about 290 K. Now you can see the bending signal of carbon dioxide! This is the big dip in the middle of the Pacific ocean curve. This dip is the rational basis for being fretty about carbon dioxide. If the dip caused by carbon dioxide gets bigger, the total area of the curve has to increase to balance the average energy coming in with the energy being radiated out. Let’s say the dip increases to where it takes up an extra 10% of the total area under the curve: the surface temperature then has to increase by a factor of approximately the fourth root of 1.1, an increase of about 6 K. 10% is of course a ruinously gloom and doom eyeballing estimate by me that probably requires a quintupling of carbon dioxide concentration, so people are worried about an increase rather less than that.

Those who are concerned about the big government, anti-Third-World-economic-development prescriptions for slowing global warming should abandon the indefensible trenches and fall back to the more defensible ones. Nobody has demonstrated conclusively that a warmer Earth will be a bad thing. A warmer Earth ought to be better for biodiversity. If some regions become unviable for human settlement, they will be regions that were marginal and dangerous for human settlement anyway. Nobody ought to live on a table-flat coast where five metre storm surges are possible, or in a fragile semi-arid region where every decade brings a drought that kills all your stock. Evidence to date is that global warming is much stronger in high latitudes, where it will improve human health, reduce energy consumption, and be an enabler of economic development. Adapting to global warming is a challenge and an opportunity. Stopping global warming is an impossible dream.

[Memo to self: remember to add citations for the images...]

Monday, March 12, 2007

XTC vs Adam Ant

Richard Feynman, ‘The Feynman Lectures on Physics’:

If, in some cataclysm, all of scientific knowledge were to be destroyed, and
only one sentence passed on to the next generations of creatures, what statement
would contain the most information in the fewest words? I believe it is the
atomic hypothesis (or the atomic fact, or whatever you wish to call it) that all
things are made of atoms- little particles that move around in perpetual motion,
attracting each other when they are a little distance apart, but repelling upon
being squeezed into one another. In that one sentence, you will see, there is an
enormous amount of information about the world, if just a little imagination and
thinking are applied.

It is this fundamental principle of science that is assaulted by homeopathy. Homeopathy claims that you can dilute a substance to such an extent that there are no molecules of that substance left in the solution, and the dilution will be a pharmacologically-active product. (The homeopaths have attempted to avoid assaulting the atomic hypothesis head on by postulating ‘molecular memory’. It is true that when something is dissolved in water, for instance, it imposes structure on the water, but there is no reason for this imposed structure to remain. Remember, water molecules are in perpetual motion. Weak bonds between water molecules are continuously being formed and unformed, and only interactions that require much more energy than the thermal background energy to break will remain for any length of time. The order imposed by the presence of a solute involves energies of much lower energy than background thermal energy.) Essentially, however, homeopathy is incompatible with the atomic hypothesis.

Intelligent design postulates one or more momentary suspensions of the scientific laws we know at some indeterminate time in the past. It does not claim that those laws are false. Homeopathy requires the fundamental principle of chemistry to be false.

Intelligent design makes postulates about essentially unobservable events with little relevance to daily life. This makes it relatively harmless and excusable. We would still have a functioning technological civilisation if everyone believed in intelligent design. Homeopathy make postulates about events that are easily amenable to experiment and are observed countless times every day, events that are essential to countless processes impacting on everyone’s daily lives. This makes it dangerous and inexcusable. We would not have a functioning technological civilisation if everyone believed in homeopathy.

Intelligent design has never killed anyone. Homeopathic medicine kills people all the time.

Sunday, March 11, 2007

Who am I?

I am a mostly harmless chemist at a University that, as Stitch of Lilo and Stitch says of his family, is 'small, but good.' I have foolishly stuck my neck out and made the first comment on the blog of Klaus Rohde, one of my colleagues, so now I thought I may as well go ahead and create the science blog I have been meaning to create for some time.

I am most interested in free radical polymerisation, though my research covers a much broader area and my teaching covers a much, much broader area. I expect the first things I will do here will be to:

(1) Explain why homeopathy is even less scientific than 'intelligent design',

(2) Explain in physical chemist's language exactly how this global warming thing works, and

(3) Work in some more extended Lilo and Stitch references.