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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

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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.

Comments:

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From:ferrouswheel
Date:January 10th, 2012 12:07 pm (UTC)
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Monte Carlo is another one of those terms like "Bayesian" that I think is used just to sound fancy. Basically it's using multiple runs of a computer simulation that relies on random variables to compute an outcome (essentially what I did for my PhD, except I never really called it that). The wikipedia page is pretty informative though http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Monte_Carlo_method

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From:tatjna
Date:January 10th, 2012 05:53 pm (UTC)
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OK that's nothing like what he described. Mind you, he was one of those "They do something with computers" *handwave* people - it always weirds me out when people treat this kind of thing as if it's magic.
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From:ferrouswheel
Date:January 10th, 2012 11:55 pm (UTC)
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Well, it took me a long time of working with computers to prove to myself that it wasn't. And really, I'm still not sure! Once you get down to the complexity of hardware (some of it designed by evolutionary algorithms), concurrency, and electrical interference at the scale of atoms it definitely feels like magic. ;-)
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From:tatjna
Date:January 11th, 2012 04:04 am (UTC)
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Weirdly, once I understood how computers turn people-language into computer-language using physical processes, I was much less "OMG MAGIC" about them.
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From:adam_0oo
Date:January 10th, 2012 04:06 pm (UTC)
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Sounds like a fascinating series of lectures.
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From:tatjna
Date:January 10th, 2012 07:05 pm (UTC)
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Yeah, he did talk about wastage and his view was that people-fallibility has to be factored in because people are not particularly rational (otherwise SUVs wouldn't exist) and are actually wasters who make mistakes.

Which is why, incidentally, we need the social sciences - because the evidence suggests that just whacking people over the head with scientific evidence doesn't actually change their mind about stuff. Witness: drug policy. So persuasion to change needs another approach which requires acknowledgement that folks are not rational, and possibly a bit of manipulation. Which social scientists are much better at.

{edit]I should add that he (he being John Collen) didn't seem to think that wastage accounted for the entire difference between energy use/quality of life measures globally.

Edited at 2012-01-10 07:06 pm (UTC)
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From:tatjna
Date:January 10th, 2012 09:33 pm (UTC)
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Useful, but not particularly effective in terms of causing people to stop buying SUVs, eh? Maybe for that we need the marketing people?

Or, as someone suggested yesterday, a law that requires all convicted child molesters to drive SUVs.

More sensibly, who developed the multipronged anti-smoking campaign, which has been pretty bloody successful. Because those people seem to have some clues - I'm curious what model of humans they are using.
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From:ferrouswheel
Date:January 10th, 2012 11:53 pm (UTC)
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Ah, but people are not rational and are not good at judging what makes them happy. For them, their subjective view on quality of life could involve buying an SUV to demonstrate their wealth to society, along with the ability to protect their family on the road at the expense of endangering other road users and energy wastage. People are also optimists in how they'll spend their time, and probably lots of SUV owners think "hey, I want to go into the wilderness and drive offroad and explore NZ!" while in reality driving it in cities 99% of the time.

On that thought, is it more wasteful to own two cars? Using one for recreation but very rarely, and one that's economical for commuting?
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From:tatjna
Date:January 11th, 2012 04:03 am (UTC)
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You get points for saying 'hoonmobile'.
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From:dreadbeard
Date:January 11th, 2012 03:14 am (UTC)
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"Yup, people, they are inconveniently complicated."

:)
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From:pombagira
Date:January 11th, 2012 12:22 am (UTC)
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your cooking is all fine lovely.. not to mention noms.. *glee*

*coughgrandmasaysocough*

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From:dreadbeard
Date:January 11th, 2012 03:15 am (UTC)
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Russian fudge is maybe my version of turkish delight ;)
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From:tatjna
Date:January 11th, 2012 03:53 am (UTC)
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I am pleased to note your continued corporeal existence. ;-)

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