In which I go back on my word and remember why I gave up science - Tactical Ninja
Jan. 10th, 2012
11:03 pm - In which I go back on my word and remember why I gave up science
This morning's lecture was on atmospheric chemistry. It was delivered by a scientist from Boulder, and she talked nineteen to the dozen in an accent very similar to tyellas's. This was her first lecture and she managed to go 10 minutes overtime even with the rushed pace, and it was all relevant. Yikes.
I did all three sciences in high school, right up to 7th form, at which point I realised that I wasn't really all that interested in science. It's weird because I'm curious about pretty much everything and like to find out how things work, but science just didn't really do it for me. It wasn't that I found it particularly hard, it just.. didn't grip me. I have always felt that was something of a failure on my part, as if I'd let the side down by conforming to the stereotype that girls don't like science.
Today while listening to this scientist talking about atmospheric chemistry, I had a revelation as to why I'm not that interested, particularly in chemistry. You see, there's a type of thinking involved in contemplating things at a molecular or atomic level, and it's very linear and in a lot of ways, formulaic. And for me, that led to a very fast realisation that if I understood the basic rules, I could just keep applying them to more and more complex problems, and the answers would pop out.
It's in my nature to be fascinated by how things work, but to lose interest if it's not a challenging problem. Now, don't get me wrong, I'm not saying here that I'm some kind of superbrain that thinks science is too easy - but the kind of thinking I found myself doing for the sciences (and again today to wrap my head around atmospheric chemistry topics) doesn't keep my attention for very long. I find it hard to maintain focus when I'm off contemplating ramifications and concepts and "What could I do if..?" and of course science requires you to be meticulous and focused.
The conclusion I came to is that while science tells you what things are made of and how they work, for me the really interesting thing is what people do with those understandings and the potential consequences and ramifications of that. I can stay focused on this constantly shifting, context-dependent, multifaceted topic because it requires the kind of thinking that keeps me interested. Which doesn't make me special in any way, but was an interesting insight into why while not failing at science all those years ago, I failed to maintain interest in it.
This is the cue for all the scientists to tell me that actually, sciences are constantly shifting, context-dependent and multifaceted and if I'd stuck with them I'd realise that. And you're probably right. ;-)
So anyway, what we learned this morning was what makes a gas a greenhouse gas in terms of reaction to light and energy absorption/reflection on the light spectrum, the reason that greenhouse gases are relevant to climate change, about radiation budgets, about the history of anthropogenic carbon dioxide research and the annual carbon cycle, human perturbation of the global carbon budget, about the way carbon dioxide cycles around the global system vs how long it actually exists before decaying, about what controls the ocean's uptake of carbon dioxide, about the various feedbacks resulting from temperature or greenhouse gas changes, and about ocean acidification.
It was pretty intense. I have 5 pages of notes. The tutorial was interesting in that we were handed pages of quotes from climate change skeptics and asked to give critique of their arguments based on what we'd learned in the morning. The catch was, all the skeptics were using factual information to make their points. For example, historical increases in atmospheric carbon dioxide have always followed an increase in land surface temperature. This is true. Our pet skeptic was saying that if this is the case, why should we believe that an increase in atmospheric carbon dioxide will lead to an increase in temperature? Seems reasonable, right? Of course, what he's failing to tell you is that historical increases in temperature have been related to solar influences, and these temperature increases have naturally increased the carbon dioxide in the atmosphere through a bunch of means (warmer = less CO2 absorption by oceans, drought = less tree growth = less CO2 absorption by plants etc). More CO2 acting as a greenhouse gas creates the feedback that increases the temperature and so on. What we don't have experience of is what happens when the process starts with CO2, but what we do know (and our skeptic isn't telling us) is that land surface temperature is beginning to increase already and that there is no solar influence to have kicked it off. And, of course, that CO2 is a greenhouse gas - greenhouse meaning 'has a heating effect when in quantities in the atmosphere'.
So yeah, that was interesting.
In the afternoon we had a talk from a petroleum geologist about dependence on fossil fuels, in which I learned:
1. Every calorie you eat represents 500 calories of energy used in its creation.
2. 2/3 of the people on the planet are being kept alive indirectly by fossil fuels.
3. Every lecturer has a different number for how much carbon we're putting into the atmosphere each year but it's measured in billions of tonnes.
4. In order for everyone on earth to achieve the quality of life we have in NZ, world energy output would have to increase by three times.
I'm aware that some of these figures probably sacrifice accuracy for illustrative value, but it's still pretty sobering. This lecturer was pretty sure that resource wars are in our relatively near future. He also talked some about a thing called Monte Carlo analysis in the context of looking for oil reserves, which he seemed to think involved the use of computer based neural networks. I figure someone here might be able to expand on this?
So yeah, another day of science. All interesting stuff, but I have to say that in this case while the science is quite fascinating, I reckon it's only useful insofar as it provides information about how things are. I'm more interested in what to do with that information. Luckily tomorrow's lectures are about NZ's specific vulnerabilities to climate change, and a potentially interesting one called "Providing Guidelines to Policy Makers" by someone called D. Wratt. Up my alley, I reckon.
And this evening instead of working, I had a lovely conversation with dreadbeard who neither died nor freaked out and ran away when I fed him food I had cooked. He's the first person outside family (where family includes Polly and Dr Wheel) that I've cooked for since maybe 2001? Yikes. Thank you for being my sacrificial guinea pig, Bunny. ;-) Hope you survive the night.