Friday, August 31, 2018

Poetry Postscript

kw: continuation reviews, nonfiction, poems, poetry, reading

Speak of a mental block! In yesterday's review I utterly forgot to mention a most valuable bit of the author's advice. First among several points he makes is one I was taught when a child: Read a poem the first time, aloud, as if it were not a poem. Do not sing-song the rhythm, but read it sentence by sentence. Indeed, the author of How to Read Poetry Like a Professor (Thomas C. Foster) says in a few places that the unit of thought and feeling in a poem is not the line, but the sentence. For some poems, it can be hard to determine where a sentence ends, but it is usually no problem. Try it out with this, presented not in poetic lines, but as though it were prose:
If you must love me, let it be for nought except for love's sake only. Do not say, "I love her for her smile—her look—her way of speaking gently; for a trick of thought that falls in well with mine, and doubtless brought a sense of pleasant ease on such a day." For these things in themselves, Belovèd, may be changed, or change for you; and love, so wrought, may be unwrought so. Neither love me for your own dear pity's wiping my cheeks dry; a creature might forget to weep, who bore your comfort long, and lose your love thereby! But love me for love's sake, that evermore you may love on, through love's eternity.
There you go, five sentences, though if you replace the semicolons with full stops it comes to seven. I took slight liberties with this, to update certain grammar elements and punctuation marks, for the poet preferred a comma-dash (,—) to a semicolon, for example. Doing so, I did not disturb the meter.

Perhaps you know enough of poetry to recognize the meter when read aloud, that it is iambic pentameter, the rhythm de rigueur for sonnets. Can you then tease out the fourteen lines? Yet there are not fourteen thoughts here, just five. The discipline of putting such emotions into sonnet form induce the poet to compress the expression. Here is a scan of the page I 'translated':

A very few people might recognize this as one of the Sonnets From the Portuguese by Elizabeth Barrett Browning. The book is the 1902 edition. The 44 sonnets therein are among the great classics of English-language literature. I daresay, if you've never read them before, that reading this sonnet first in the sentence-by-sentence way, you will enjoy it more than you might have had you first read the scan, and you may find it enjoyable to get a copy of the book (it is still reprinted). Or, if you like lighter fare, perhaps you could instead get When We Were Very Young by A.A. Milne, who is best known for Winnie-The-Pooh. Milne wrote some of the most recitable poems I know (also still in print; my copy is the 1945 edition, my very first book).

Thursday, August 30, 2018

Making poetry accessible

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, poems, poetry, reading

While we lived in Oklahoma, from 1986 to 1995, we were members of the Stillwater Gem and Mineral Society. For part of 1994 I edited their monthly journal, The Rockhound Gazette. In the July 1994 issue I placed a little ditty I had written, shown here. About the end of the year, much to my surprise, the regular editor, Ruby Lingelbach, presented me with a plaque and award letter! She had entered the "poem" in some sort of contest at a conference of the Rocky Mountain Federation of Mineralogical Societies. It won first place.

So, can I call myself a "prize winning poet"? Just maybe!

For the aficionado, the meter is Trochaic Heptameter followed by an unaccented syllable, a 15-syllable line. That is rare for "ordinary" poetry, but is a meter useful in song. In fact, were I to add an appropriate chorus after the second and fourth verses, it could be sung to "O! Susanna".

You're not an aficionado? No worries. You can get a bit of grounding in such matters in How to Read Poetry Like a Professor: A Quippy and Sonorous Guide to Verse, by Thomas C. Foster.

Now, maybe you don't want to read poetry "like a professor". After all, when I read a poem, I don't really want it to be hanged, drawn and quartered and dragged to the four winds. I just want to enjoy it. I suspect most folks are the same.

Frequently, knowing a bit can help us enjoy a poem more. In this book, should it interest you, you can indeed learn a few things about drawing out more of the meaning the poet put in there. The author covers a lot of ground, from the way a poem strikes both eye and ear (much poetry is intended to be heard), to the various structures the poem or the lines might have – including whether there are rhymes; and the matters of symbols and symbolism. Although, on that latter point, it is well to remember what Sigmund Freud said about symbols in psychology, "Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar."

I am glad I had a few years of classical education before starting public school, even though the level of poetical understanding I got was rather basic. So I know that the word "iamb" is a trochee, and "trochee" is an iamb; that is, both are two-syllable "feet", but an iamb trips along with the emphasis on the second syllable while the trochee resembles a heartbeat, "LUB dub". The other two sorts of common poetic feet actually sound their meaning: "dactylic" is emphasized like "pówdery", while "anapest" is emphasized like "underfóot".

I have often said that a poem needs structure, and if it has "neither rhyme nor reason [rhythm]", it isn't poetry. The author shows how some "free verse" isn't as free as we might think, having structure just as rigid as a sonnet (with its 14 lines of 10 syllables in primarily iambic meter, in 8- and 6-line sections). However, he concedes that there is a huge amount of "bad" verse of any kind we might imagine, and for free verse in particular, it frequently differs from plain prose only in having the lines broken off short. So I continue in my belief that, if it can't be chanted or sung, it is probably not a poem.

However, read the book and judge for yourself. Perhaps if you tend to avoid poetry, you'll find it more enjoyable in the future. A fun read, this book!

Friday, August 24, 2018

Stories rocks tell

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, geology, geologists

I was in college 14 years, educated mainly in geology. Funny thing: graduate school ruined geology for me as a profession. So I returned to rockhounding as a hobby, and earned my keep by writing software for geologists and other sciences; I had enough classwork in the "hard" sciences to get majors or minors in them all. But reading the writing of Professor Donald R. Prothero made me nostalgic for what might have been. However, I judge that Dr. Prothero is quite a bit more talented than I in big-picture geology, and the long shelf of his books on the subject attests to that. The oldest book of his currently on sale, a major textbook, Interpreting the Stratigraphic Record, published in 1990, still sells for about $128.

Today's book, however, is much more accessible (and less costly!) than the text: The Story of the Earth in 25 Rocks: Tales of Important Geological Puzzles and the People Who Solved Them. (That's not the longest title I've seen, but it is close.) We can take the word "Rocks" in the title rather loosely, since one chapter is on the San Andreas Fault, all 800 miles of it, and another is the first stratigraphic sequence and the first geologic map, produced by William Smith in England in the early 1800's. However, actual rocks aplenty are dealt with, from tiny zircons used to determine the ages of ancient rocks to meteorites, coal and the tin oxide mineral Cassiterite that led to the "tin can" and "tinfoil", before aluminum (aluminium to the English) became cheap enough to replace tin.

This is the story of the earth, after all. The stories of the rocks are secondary to the earth processes they reveal. The San Andreas fault, seen here where it crosses Carrizo Plain National Monument about 100 miles north of Los Angeles, is flanked by rocks that can be matched up across it. Except "across" is a flexible term: the rocks found on the left (SW) side in this photo from Wikipedia match up with rocks found on the right (NE) side about 200 miles further south, northeast of San Diego. The chapter on transform faults, near the end of the book, which uses the San Andreas as its poster child, reveals how such faults fit into the puzzle of large-scale tectonic movements that we now call Plate Tectonics. Other chapters use other rocks and rock phenomena (such as magnetism) to bring together other pieces of this biggest of earthly puzzles.

Going to the opposite end of the size spectrum, the tiny crystals in this photomicrograph, of a field of view just 2 mm wide, are zircon crystals, extracted by dissolving a piece of granite pegmatite (granite with large crystals) with hydrofluoric acid. The image is from this publication by Thomas E. Krogh et. al. on ResearchGate.

Zircons are very valuable geologically because they often contain most of the uranium found in granite and similar igneous rocks, and their robust structure keeps all the daughter elements from uranium's breakdown, so that measurements of the ratio of uranium to lead can tell you the age of the zircon, and thus of the rock it came from. Beware, though: zircon crystals are also found in sedimentary rocks, and do not tell you the age of those rocks, but the age of the rocks in which they first formed. As long as you know this, they are still useful. You just need to know what you are doing.

Just by-the-by, the oldest piece of rock found on Earth is a tiny zircon crystal with an age of 4.4 billion years. The half-lives of U-238 and U-235 are 4.5 and 0.7 billion years, respectively. The final product of U-238 is Pb-206, and that of U-235 is Pb-207. Thus, since the time that ancient crystal was formed, nearly half its U-238 turned to Pb-206, and all but 1.3% of the U-235 turned to Pb-207. A zircon that contains more atoms of lead than of uranium is going to be very old.

The overarching theme of the book is the gradual development of the foundational "sphere" of Earth System science (Geosphere, Hydrosphere, Atmosphere, Biosphere, in decreasing order of mass). When I was a child the development of mountain ranges was explained as the wrinkling of a thin "skin" (Earth's crust) as the planet shrank while it cooled. The analogy was made to an uneaten apple that gets wrinkly as it dries out. When I first took an Earth Science course in high school, there was talk of orogeny (mountain building) as being a side product of geosynclines, based primarily on vertical motions. I do recall someone remarking that the coastlines of Africa and South America seemed to match, and I first heard of "continental drift" at that time, maybe just before 1960. Only after I became a geology major (my third major) in 1970 did I learn of plate tectonics, in which the continents don't just "drift" but are moved along by a "conveyor belt" system, riding in the midst of enormous basaltic plates, driven by a combination of sea-floor spreading at diverging plate boundaries and subduction at converging plate boundaries. Now the analogy is a pot full of thick syrup with a sugary crust on top, heated from the bottom so it convects slowly, moving chunks of the crust about.

At one point or another, every chapter of this book ties back to the plate tectonic system. And why not? It is the whole-Earth process that literally creates geology. To see a planet without tectonic motions, look at Mars. The early loss of that planet's water and 99.4% of its atmosphere pretty much halted major erosion, so that we see a 3-4-billion-year-old landscape with two major kinds of features: one very big canyon (and a few smaller ones), formed as the last of the waters dried up, and a few enormous volcanoes, three times the height of Mount Everest. Oh, and there is a scattering of impact craters gathered over the past few billion years; though there are many, they are much less abundant than craters on the Moon, because Mars did have an eroding atmosphere and hydrosphere for its first billion years or so.

At present, back here on Earth, the Himalayas, the Sierras, the Andes and a few other ranges are growing, the Rockies and Urals are at a standstill, and other ranges such as the Appalachians are eroding away. New features replace old features. This will continue, though at a slightly decreased rate, until the Sun becomes a red giant, and perhaps longer. In another 4.5 billion years, half the present amount of uranium will be gone, and only 8% of the present amount of the radioactive isotope of potassium (K-40) will remain. Crank these figures backward, and we find that radiogenic heating was six times as great as it is now about 4 billion years ago (4Ga in geologist-speak). So plate tectonics rocked along quite a lot faster when Earth was young.

I was rather charmed to notice that most of the photos in the book are credited to Wikimedia Commons. It is now possible to write a book like this one without spending months writing letters to people who might have photos of things you want to illustrate, and permission to use them. However, there are a few other signs of rapid production that caused me a bit of concern. No author should be without a good copy editor, as these three examples (only a few of a dozen or so) attest:

  • Page 80, first paragraph: discussing Lord Kelvin's estimate of 100 million years as "the time since the Cambrian", it is stated that this is off by "a factor of almost 50". The Cambrian era began a little more than 500 million years ago, so a factor of 5 would then be the correct one. However, looking up what Kelvin actually wrote, I find that he considered 100 million years to be the age since the Earth cooled from a molten state. Here, the actual factor should indeed be something like 45. So the mention of the Cambrian is the actual error. One's copy editor must know something about the science, not just English usage.
  • Page 130, Figure 12.4, a photo of the 4.4 Ga zircon I mentioned above, called a "microphotograph." No, it is a photomicrograph. A microphotograph is what you find in microfilm, where a page of text is rendered to a size of about 1 cm, or even in a "spy dot", in which the page is reduced to 1 mm. A photograph of something through a microscope is a photomicrograph. The error is common, but should not be found in a book by a scientist of this stature.
  • Page 221, last paragraph: discussing the news reporter's adage, "If it bleeds, it leads", except in this instance, the word is spelled "ledes". That's one of several dramatic misspellings I found.

OK, I just had to scratch that itch.

Of most importance is the content. This book is a must-read by anyone with the slightest curiosity about the "solid" Earth, about rocks, about how mountains are formed, or about earthquakes. Dr. Prothero is an engaging writer, thoroughly fun to read, who imparts a great lot of information quite painlessly. We need more such teachers among us.

Saturday, August 18, 2018

A Spanish spider?

kw: blogs, blogging, spider scanning

Well, looky here! While I was writing the prior post, someone in Spain took a look at 116 pages in this blog, in just a few minutes:

The little one-page ticks—I see four—represent my "real" readership.

Time from some new angles

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, time, cultural history

I have thought and thought, and I just don't know how to approach Timekeepers by Simon Garfield. That is to say, I have no clever approach; no warm, fuzzy stories; no chuckle-inducing anecdotes.

The book is about the experience of time. Within, the author reacts to our steadily increasing overscheduling. He also journeys to some special places where time is perhaps a commodity, or contrariwise, something to be largely ignored.

The two chapters that most appealed to my inner geek were "Horology Part One: How to Make a Watch" and "Horology Part Two: How to Sell the Time". In the first, the author visited the one Swiss watch factory that allows you to do this: At IWC (formerly International Watch Company), for a (hefty) fee, you can remove a portion of an assembled watch, 17 parts, and then put them back in again. You are at a desk with an intimidating array of tools for handling the tiny parts such as screws about the size of a poppy seed. The portions you get to "play with" were originally assembled by a craftsman who routinely puts them in within a quarter of an hour or so. You are given about an hour. The author took longer.

In the second, back in his English home, the author ruminates on the rapturous language used to engage the interest of the sort of person who just might be in the market for a watch costing as much as a rather good auto. We are not talking about the TAG Heuer watches that are advertised in certain mens' magazines for a few thousand dollars (or pounds sterling). These are in the £20,000 and up class, topping out in the £200,000 range (in dollars, that's about $26,000 to $260,000). An example, from an email:
Franc Vila is pleased to present you the RV EVOS 18 Cobra Suspended Skeleton in texalium...
Yeah, I didn't know what texalium is either, so I had to look it up. It is a woven carbon fiber product, perhaps similar to the stuff they use to make high-end golf club shafts. The Franc Vila website is revealing…and contains lots of zeroes. Here is a picture of the watch in question. Would you pay $20,000+ for it?

But all this is just one aspect of time. There is a chapter on tempi (tempos for the non-musical). Beethoven had his own ideas about the meanings of words such as Lento, Adagio, Allegro and so forth. So, just how long "should" it take to perform the Ninth Symphony? Recent recordings, presumably being played at the speed they were recorded, mostly range from 62:30 to just under 70 minutes, and then there is the outlier: Leonard Bernstein conducting the Ninth at the Berlin Wall in 1989, in nearly 82 minutes. Would Beethoven have been happy with any of these? Possibly, but he was famously cantankerous and, given modern recording equipment (and a miraculous hearing aid), he just might insist on re-recording it "his" way.

Well, there are 15 chapters, including a long final one on a few time-involved sections of the British Museum. These days, museums, including the one I work at, tend to focus a lot on time sequences, particularly when geology is involved. After all, rocks range in age from almost-right-now, such as a recently crystallized mineral specimen from a briny lake, to just under 4.4 billion years ancient. Even an art museum will typically have the date a work was produce on a card nearby, and certain halls are arranged chronologically, particularly if a featured artist went through "periods".

Look at your wrist. Does time have a handcuff on you? The first wristwatch was produced in 1812. The first "affordable" watch came nearly 100 years later. Are we the better for it? Simon Garfield would say a definite "Maybe, maybe not." He did manage to find one culture, the Inuit, who have a language without "time" in it, and the people live by the skies and the seasons. Not bad work if you can get it.

Friday, August 10, 2018

Climate Change or Climate Forcing...redux

kw: musings, greenhouse effect, greenhouse warming, global warming, climate change, climatology, analysis

When I wrote a book review on the subject of climate change a few days ago, I had something in mind, but the review went in a different direction. The title actually didn't fit any more. Here are charts I made to illustrate my thinking on the terminology about "carbon pollution" and all the hype surrounding it, on both sides. Firstly, an nGram of the usage of three popular terms since 1970:

Although warming caused by the greenhouse effect, in particular that caused by carbon dioxide, was quantified by Svante Arrhenius in 1896, only after about 1970 was it brought to public attention. The great promotion of this issue really took off after 1985. This nGram shows that, in print at least, "Greenhouse Effect" was soon superseded by "Climate Change" and "Global Warning". But let's focus on a different term and its scientific synonym:

You can see from the upper chart that the term "Climate Forcing" has been scarcely a blip on the radar. But on the scale of the lower chart we see that about the time "Greenhouse Effect" peaked, "Climate Forcing" began to surge (relatively speaking), and shortly after that, "Anthropogenic Climate Change", a more scientific synonym, came along, but it is quite a mouthful.

It is a pity that Google stopped scanning books in 2008. I'd like to see how these words have fared in these past ten years. Nonetheless, I did a Google search for all these terms and a few others I've thought of in the past day or two (put in quotes to force literal searching), setting the search time to the past year, here is how they score:

  • 7 - Anthropogenic Climate (allows "change" or other following words): 488,000
  • 8 - Anthropogenic Climate Change: 478,000
  • 6 - Carbon Pollution: 523,000
  • 1 - Climate Change: 147,000,000
  • 9 - Climate Forcing: 366,000
  • 4 - Climate Science: 2,310,000
  • 5 - Climate Warming: 975,000
  • 2 - Global Warming: 56,600,000
  • 3 - Greenhouse Effect: 4,360,000
  • 10 - Greenhouse Warming: 295,000

The number preceding each term is its rank in this alphabetized list.

Why do people use the words they use? Impact. "Climate Change" and "Global Warming" get the public's attention. But the actual debate is not really about whether climate is changing or the globe (i.e. its atmosphere) is warming. It is about the extent that human civilization contributes to the change or the warming. However, "Anthropo..whatever" is too much of a mouthful, and "Climate Forcing" doesn't have quite the ring of the more popular terms.

But: Climate Forcing is really the best term about which to have a policy debate. The atmospheric climate will change gradually over time, whether the human race is highly civilized or goes extinct. Prior to 1975, the big worry about "Climate Change" was about "Global Cooling". A cooling trend highlighted by the first 15-18 years of weather satellite measurements triggered fears of a new ice age. And we find that the recent Solar Maximum had lower sunspot activity than most prior cycles. Based on historical records, this could indicate a cooling trend because lower solar activity heats the Earth's atmosphere less than average. Sunspot numbers are an indicator (not a cause) of the number of flares and other phenomena that send extra energy our way.

So, how big a factor is Climate Forcing? Let's call the Climate Forcing Factor the CFF. The way the media report things, one group called "climate deniers" would say the CFF is close to zero. In the same media, a group called "established science" claims the CFF is "most" or "nearly all" of the difference, in the range 50%-90%. Putting aside my conviction that the media are rather incredibly biased, we can instead identify the poles of the debate as "Large CFF" and "Small CFF" factions. Who is right? Do we have a way to know?

We don't, actually! But we can dig out an indication or two.

This article in ScienceDirect states that variations in sunspot activity account for about 40% of long term temperature rise in Norway over the past century, with a probable range of 25-56%. For a different portion of the North Atlantic, the range is 63-72%. This ought to please the Large CFF folks.

Remember the ozone hole? Starting about 30 years ago colleagues of mine at DuPont determined the great amount of damage being caused to the ozone layer some 15 miles (~25 km) overhead, and this triggered research efforts at DuPont and other chemical companies to find new refrigerants for air conditioners and new propellants for aerosol cans. The ozone "hole" was a dramatic thinning of this layer mainly over Antarctica, but spreading halfway to the equator, and there was a similar, but smaller thinning over the Arctic. But we need to be clear: the "ozone layer" isn't pure ozone; it is where ozone is concentrated to a level of about one part in 100,000 (0.001%); it is still mostly nitrogen. Ozone at sea level is around 1/30th of this, about 1/3,000,000th. Chlorine from refrigerants and propellants in use before 1980 had reduced the level of ozone over the poles by about 2/3, and elsewhere by about 20%. "Ozone hole" is the dramatic term that refers to the reduction of ozone from 1/100,000 to 1/300,000 over Antarctica during the southern summer.

Ozone is funny stuff. It is created from oxygen by ultraviolet light (UV), and then it absorbs UV, which heats it up. So the more ozone, the more the atmosphere is heated from the top. Specifically, at subtropical latitudes, surface temperature averages about 300K (27°C or 81°F), while 15 km (9½ mi) above, air temperature has fallen to about 200K (-73°C or -100°F). Ozone and other stratospheric gases absorb UV and some IR to raise the temperature back to 300K by about 50 km (30 mi) altitude. This warm gas in the mid- to upper stratosphere emits thermal radiation (longwave infrared) both upwards and downwards, which heats the air below a little. The gradual increase in stratospheric ozone levels over the past 30 years have contributed a little heating, but I have not found a rigorous analysis of the matter. "About a degree" is a general statement I have read. This is a factor that tends to please the Small CFF folks.

These things indicate that the CFF is unlikely to be greater than 50%, and is probably closer to 25% or less. I would not say, "close to zero", so I am not in the extreme Small CFF crowd, but neither do I favor Large CFF. As I have stated elsewhere, I learned that if we were to raise carbon dioxide levels to, say, ten times their present level, the amount of greenhouse heating would not exceed 4°C or about 7°F. That is quite significant. Is it enough to end civilization? I don't think so, but it will definitely change it. We are unlikely to find out, though. If we were to burn all the fossil fuels that we currently know about, it would no more than double the amount of carbon dioxide that we have already emitted. That's another way of saying that we have already burned about half the global reserve of fossil fuels. In rough terms, it means we have so far doubled atmospheric carbon dioxide, from around 200 ppm to around 400 ppm. Once we run out of natural gas, oil and coal—should we continue freely burning them—the level could become around 600 ppm. I don't think we have enough fossil fuel available to push that to 1,000 ppm, where some people begin to feel the effects.

For all that, we must continue to find other sources of energy, on all fronts. No source of energy is perfect. Wind farms (currently 4% of global electricity generation) disturb wind patterns, heat the air that passes through the fan blades, and kill migrating birds; solar panels turn about 15-20% of sunlight into solar energy and the rest is turned into heat, and much of this would be in desert areas where the sand usually reflects 75% of the light right back out into space; geothermal energy is "clean" from a heat perspective, because the heat will emerge from the earth anyway, but using geothermal energy causes pollution of surface water and ground water, a whole lot of pollution; and so forth. The more we learn about all these things, the better we can select energy generation methods that cause the least harm. That, and that alone, will reduce the CFF. It will probably never be zero, until human population is zero.

Postscript: Do you know what the global average temperature is? I am a geophysicist. Including the whole planet, the average temperature is about 4,000K (over 7,000°F). We need a different term for "global average atmospheric temperature", and we need to always specify at what elevation; is it surface, or at the average elevation of continental plains (about half or 2/3 a kilometer), or some other "standard" height?

Wednesday, August 08, 2018

Climate change or climate forcing?

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, astronomy, astrobiology, exoplanets, climatology, climate change, global warming

Do we need to save the planet? It doesn't need it. Do we need to save the biosphere? We don't yet have the power to end it. Do we need to save civilization? Probably. This last is the question taken up by Adam Frank in Light of the Stars: Alien Worlds and the Fate of the Earth. He takes a new approach, you could say a Galactic approach, even a Universal approach, to setting parameters around the future of human civilization.

Dr. Frank uses a quieter tone than the noisy polemicists in the toils of public debate. He is nonetheless speaking as a prophet, warning us all of the consequences of the greatest of human endeavors, "the project of civilization." I found it notable that he never mentions the IPCC Reports. This is not to say that he doesn't give them any credence, but he is preaching to the unconverted: I learned long ago, in Christian evangelism, it does no good to quote Bible verses to someone who doesn't believe the Bible. Similarly, the content and methods behind the IPCC's work are challenged at every point by "climate deniers", so it is no use appealing to those reports.

In this book the author begins with Carl Sagan's metaphor of Western civilization as a teenager, grown up in body but not in judgement. Here in the US at least, we give 15- or 16-year-olds licenses, and the keys, to drive automobiles, knowing full well that their minds won't mature, and they will have very poor impulse control, for at least ten more years. So, at the very least, we in the First World are like a teenager with the keys to the energy sources of Planet Earth, and we have shown an utterly insatiable appetite for more and more energy use. This chart is instructive:

This shows energy use per person (credit: Our Finite World). The technology to mine and use coal jump-started the nascent Industrial Revolution in about 1850. Petroleum and Natural Gas triggered a further jump beginning right after World War I, which was stalled by the Depression, and then re-invigorated by World War II. The "flat spot" from about 1970-2000 is the effect of the Arab Oil Embargo. I suspect the development of Fracking to rejuvenate oil production in non-Arab nations is responsible for the jump after 2000.

So now we use four times as much energy per person as someone in 1820. That is a global average. Per-person use in the First World is in the 250-300 GJ/yr range, or 3-4 times the global average. So that is our "car". It has a lot of horsepower.

The question Sagan asked, based on figures from the 1960's, is, "Can the Earth provide the needs of human civilization, forever?" To abolish poverty worldwide, we'd need to roughly triple global resource use, particularly energy use. But we are seeing "cracks in the wall" already. Someone once said, to raise the entire population to the American level would require four more Earths.

What is Adam Frank's line of analysis? He continues with the Drake Equation, formulated in 1961,
that uses several factors to estimate the number of alien civilizations we might find using efforts such as SETI, the Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence, which uses radio frequency reception, in hopes of overhearing the alien version of "I Love Lucy". He dissects this for us and then presents the uses of a method developed by Svante Arrhenius, 122 years ago, to determine how much the earth will warm based on how much extra carbon dioxide gets into the atmosphere. "Climate science" is not new stuff, folks!

The Arrhenius method doesn't just work on Earth. It was used to understand what happened to Venus, to raise its temperature to 600°F, and why Mars is a bit warmer than it would be without any atmosphere, though daytime highs in its "Tropics" range around -10°F. Mars and Venus both have an atmosphere containing 95% carbon dioxide. Venus has a very, very heavy atmosphere while the air on Mars is very thin, about 1% of Earth-normal. But our air contains, at present, 400 ppm CO2, or 0.04%. Martian air with enough nitrogen added to have the density of Earthly air would still have 0.95% CO2, nearly 24 times as much! So the temperature range on, for example, airless Phobos, compared to that on Mars, validates the Arrhenius analysis for a CO2-induced greenhouse effect (yes, Phobos is colder).

After presenting the history of exoplanet discoveries—a few thousand are now known—the author turns the Drake Equation on its head, to determine the "Pessimism Line". That is his term for how pessimistic you need to be to say we are surely alone in the Universe: Knowing that the stars in all the galaxies range in age up to 10+ billion years, and that there are about 100 billion stars in each of 100 billion galaxies (or perhaps even more) in the visible Universe, how pessimistic do you have to be to strongly aver that our Human civilization is the first and (so far) only civilization to have arisen in the Universe?

In 1961 the only factor of 7 in the Drake Equation that was known was the rate of star formation in the Milky Way Galaxy, about one per year. All the other terms were speculative, and all possible values of, for example, the chance that a planet will be at a "just right" distance from its star (in the habitable zone), were strongly supported by various people. You could find someone who'd argue that the probability was close to zero; someone else who'd argue that any star that had planets probably had at least one in the habitable zone. Now, with a few thousand known exoplanets, we know that nearly every star has multiple planets, and about 40% of those have at least one planet in the habitable zone. So the unknown terms are:
  • Can life form easily, or not?
  • Once formed, can life develop "intelligent" species easily, or is it very hard?
  • Is the likelihood that an intelligent species will form a global civilization large, or small? and 
  • Once formed, how long will such a civilization continue?
By turning all this around backwards, the combination of these "biological" and "sociological" terms needed to make it very unlikely that more than one civilization has ever been formed, was found to be 10-22. That is one in ten billion trillion. This is a quantitative estimate of how hostile the Universe must be to civilization, for us to be alone in all space and time (to date). Effectively, this analysis presents you with a pile of sand, a trillion tons of it, containing ten billion trillion grains, and asks, "Knowing that at least one sand grain represents a civilization in the Universe, how likely is it that no other grain of sand represents a planet with a civilization? Not one single one?"

For most of us, the thought that civilization arose only once in ten billion trillion attempts is rather ludicrous. Even Peter Ward with his Rare Earth analysis, is probably not that pessimistic!

Dr. Frank then goes further, asking, "What does it take for a civilization to be sustainable, very long-term?" Numerous isolated and semi-isolated civilizations on Earth have risen and fallen. It seems even Earth, so hospitable to life of many kinds, can he hostile to civilizations…or, at least, unforgiving of egregious errors. Further, civilizations that fell, did so quickly. The environmental disasters, caused by the Easter Islanders and the Mayans all doing what people do to have a thriving society, reduced populations to about one tenth of what had once been in just one or two generations. Even today, there are fewer Mayans than there were in 1200 AD. These are two examples of civilizations that fell not because of conquest by someone else, but at their own hand. Two cases of a teenager driving right off a cliff.

The book closes with an appeal to wake up and grow up. It would be well to heed it. To my understanding, no civilization yet produced on Earth has figured out the trick to sustaining itself without perpetual growth. In the US, a growing GDP is required for a "robust" economy. The US government recently announced a 4.1% annual growth rate (that really means 0.335% growth for that particular month). It is good in a way. But if it keeps up, we can project it into the future: In just 17 years, GDP would double, and it would keep doubling again every 17 years. By 2100 AD the US GDB would be 27 times what it is today. What chance is there of that happening? Hmmm??

Suppose we finally get the analysis right, and find out that, for human civilization on Earth to be sustainable for 100, or 1,000, or 10,000 years, we would have to reduce our population to at most two billion, and the general lifestyle and level of energy expenditure (both personal and corporate) would need to match that of Peru (about ¼ of what us Americans are used to)? Then what? I'll tell you what: whatever the actual level of lifestyle really is, in time the biosphere will enforce it.

We are not divorced from Earth. We cannot act as though we were not part of nature. Nature can get along without us. We cannot get along without nature. Civilization is an experiment. It may be one that eventually fails. The Pessimism Line only tells us how unlikely it is that we are on the only planet to develop civilizations. It doesn't tell us how long they last. That part of the Drake Equation is still entirely unknown.

I would put it this way: If there is any chance for a global civilization to develop and thrive, and properly care for all its members, without constant growth in both population and standard of living, we need to figure that out right away. Or we, too, will crash, just a bigger version of the Mayans or Easter Island.

Thursday, August 02, 2018

Librarians with superpowers

kw: book reviews, fantasy, mysteries, librarians, dragons, fairies

Genevieve Cogman's fourth novel of the Invisible Library series, The Lost Plot, introduced me to her writing. She knows how to write a page-turner. I wasn't sure when I checked the book out whether it was SciFi or Fantasy—the local library doesn't differentiate; they tag both genres with a "fantasy" logo, which I consider a bit snobbish. It soon became clear; however, the author's worlds have consistent rules, making this a lot more satisfying to a logical mind than most fantasy.

The Invisible Library (IL) seems to be located in a realm between worlds, in a kind of multiverse. Worlds such as ours have little or no magic, others have more, and some are "too magical", being chaotic. The IL operates portals between worlds, or portals between the Library and all worlds. The portals have at least some time-shifting abilities also. A Librarian can traverse the portals, and indeed, create a portal when surrounded by a large enough number of books. I gather that the Librarians are in the business of gathering the best literature from all worlds, and cross-pollinating. They also act as a buffer between the Dragons and the Fae (presumably a less fraught word than "Fairy" in the current sociopolitical climate), powerful and opposed forces, that control numerous worlds of their own, and can move between them more freely than humans.

Both Dragons and Fae are shapeshifters. I am not sure why either a Dragon or a Fae would take human form. It makes writing about them easier, I suppose. Their rivalry is strong and bitter, yet they seem to "play fair", according to rules only dimly revealed in the book. Each player, Dragon, Fae, and Human, has powers they can wield. One Human power is the language called Librarian. It evokes magic in any world, and is most effective in worlds with little or none of their own, such as ours. Some of the thrill points of the book focus on efforts by one or another Dragon or Fae to keep Irene silent so she can't speak Librarian to do such things as escape capture or injure opponents.

The book's plot (not the "lost" one), revolves around two high-ranking Dragons who, faced with a quest that can make or break their clans, begin to flout the rules. This can damage whole worlds, and also imperils the IL, which alarms the ruling Dragons and Fae both…once they find out about it.

Making the transgressions known to a particular Dragon Queen becomes the onus of Irene Winters, the heroine of the story, and a Dragon named Kai, her apprentice (although no Dragon takes the Librarians' Oath to become a full Librarian).

The flow of the plot reminds me of the Perils of Pauline books and similar stories, with one cliff-hanger after another. It is basically a series of exercises in keeping unbearable forces in (or near) balance. The writing is so entertaining that I recognized the transparency only in hindsight. And, by the way, I never figured out what Plot had been Lost. Considering that both terms have multiple meanings, perhaps that's for the best. Now, if only I can figure out how to get superpowers from being surrounded by books, as I am at this desk!

Spiders on both sides

kw: blogs, blogging, spider scanning

Just a couple of days ago I noticed a new set of spidering hits. This stat summary taken shortly after 5:00 pm Eastern time shows it was just getting started. 588 hits in a single day (and today may be greater; it isn't over yet) is about 15x my usual traffic. This is a one week view, as the top image was on the prior post. (and see below)

This time I checked the specialty panes for the past week rather than the past day. Although the week's traffic is just slightly U.S. heavy, the prior day's traffic is perhaps 60% Russia. I'm showing the tech panes also. I haven't heard of "Headless Chrome" before. It seems to be a preferred mode for automated browsing, but clearly not the only one. Oh, well, on to the book review I came in here to write…