10 December 2009

What I saw at the Revolution

I have been very fortunate to be at the outskirts of two major revolutions in science while getting my Bachelor's degree. Each of them were very memorable as they showed a side of science that those outside of it do not see and often cannot fathom. Doing science from the inside is not what you see on the outside, and no program, no speech, no series of papers or even books can describe the actual living through of scientific revolutions. As it was in a period of a few years two major changes in geology and materials science would happen during a short span in the 1980's. What science is and how it works changed my perception of it during those few short years of undergraduate work and they remain with me to this day.

Heading towards a geology degree at that time meant I had started after the previous revolution had transformed the field: plate tectonics. Before plate tectonics there were static continents, raising and lowering of land forms that was not well understood, 'land bridges' to explain population distributions of species, and general patching up of the old concept of Uniformitarianism. By finding out that the continents did move, that they floated on the lower and more plastic mantle, and that had currents in it due to heat in the core... all of that wiped away the patches, the bailing wire and the 'we just don't know' of so much that it is hard to conceive of what the science looked like before the mid-1960's. With wartime geomagnetic data in the Atlantic and other places, a lot of unexplained phenomena showed up that needed research, and decade following WWII was a massive sea change for geology. So much was explained that it was thought that ALL the unexplainable would be given over to it for solution, and yet even once we understood what plate motion meant and how it changed our planet and effected life on it, there were STILL problems.

While the Permo-Triassic mass extinction seemed to have deep roots with plate motion, in particular the position of a single continent that was formed by the collision of all the continents and its direction thereafter, the Cretaceous-Tertiary (K-T) was helped very little by plate tectonics. The die-off of the Dinosaurs and much in the way of plant life, plus sea life still had no solution. The Deccan Traps, a large volcanic field in modern day India, had ongoing eruptions, but nothing that left a fingerprint of mass extinction. Our understanding and observation of different, yet highly related species, today saw little ability of any virus or bacteria to go against a whole array of species: being a species meant different genetic make-up while having many shared characteristics the differences meant differential immunity. As an example: West Nile virus is preferential to bird populations, but each bird species has a different level of immunity to it. There was ongoing climactic change, due to continental drift, yes, but the spread of species and the slowness of drift meant that Dinosaurs could be found from their arctic (about what we have on the coast of Washington State or Oregon) all the way to their tropics. Some uplift in the North American continent meant changes, yes, but species have demonstrated in the last million years to be very adaptable and that it was not expected that Dinosauria would have such a rigid environmental need that all would be wiped out. Finally the discovery that birds were, in fact, a type of Dinosaur, meant that they had not all died out. This question had been with geology for a century and looked to be with it for at least another fifty or so years.

I remember the day that our class' Paleontology Professor walked in and said:

"Today we get to do some REAL work."

The paper by Alvarez team had come out recently, a response to its critics, and the Professor had time to digest it and decided now was a perfect time to introduce us to the latest, greatest and, presumably, most likely to fail theory of the K-T Mass Extinction. Luis Alvarez and his son Walter Alvarez were known in the fields of science before their proposition, and Luis Alvarez was something of the 'Old Man' of particle physics who had also worked on RADAR and many other important technologies, and continued his work into the 1960's. His son was a respected geologist and field researcher, and established in the geological community. Their concept of a boloid impact causing the K-T event had raised an uproar in 1980 and a major response article with rebuttal had arrived by the time I was in University. These papers, though lesser known, were essential to geology as it gave the critics time to marshal a response and then get a rebut from the Alvarez's. Mostly Luis Alvarez, but by then he and his team were no longer alone in their stance on the topic. It would, sadly, be one of the last papers that would come out with him included.

Our Professor had told me, some time after, that what Luis Alvarez had done was send a shockwave through geology. Not a shockwave of 'truth' but the shockwave of a dinner gong. Here was a particle physicist coming to tell geologists what went on at the K-T event... and he had crossed all the various old battle lines of germs vs volcanic activity vs deadly gases vs climate vs lack of adaptability. He hadn't paid attention to ANY of that. Indeed that original paper went far, far beyond just the 'here is what we think based on these findings', which could easily turn into a kicked around football for a few decades. No Luis Alvarez was basically saying that the entire geological community had IGNORED the K-T boundary layer and that IT explained the extinction event, so you could easily check this out ON YOUR OWN and DISPROVE HIM if he was wrong. Essentially anywhere you had continuous deposition from the end of the Cretaceous to the beginning of the Tertiary you had the boundary layer. In fact many (if not most) geology labs, universities with geology departments, and museums had samples they could check immediately.

Why was this a dinner gong?

YOU could take down one of the best known physicists of the era by simply demonstrating that the artifacts you found did NOT agree with what he proposed. That was a meal ticket unlike any other in science.

In fact he said you would find OTHER things in the layer that are contingent WITH an impact that you will NOT get with any known volcanic activity of that era.

This may not seem like much to those outside of the sciences, but the attractive target of a Nobel Winning Physicist sticking his neck out in geology and challenging the entire field to disprove him using not only his data but your own data which was IN your labs or specimen collections, changed how geologists viewed the field. Luis Alvarez wasn't alone and, from all accounts, was a rather congenial man. By putting that first paper out his team had taken the just settling field of geology, shook it up and took it out of academic papers and listless arguing and turned it into a full body contact sport. All you needed was good, hard data based on field specimens in which you described their in situ position and how you processed them and what you examined them with. The amazing turn-around time (a few years versus a decade or more) was due to the fact that nearly every lab, university and museum HAD samples and were sending people out to get more. And investigate other things that are associated with the K-T event.

Those papers were the norm in science, but the takedown of the critics by pure analysis and reason was something that was hard hitting.

The Alvarez team did NOT hide data, but welcomed it.

The Alvarez team did NOT engage in personal attacks, but examined the data and criticized it.

The Alvarez team did NOT attempt to suborn journals and periodicals or try to create an in-group that would just check each other.

They welcomed every critic with data, every analysis and proposed alternatives, they welcomed, and I suspect with glee, being able to respond to their critics openly in the forum of scientific investigation.

It was brutal.

I remember field camp the next year and running into an older geologist who was still clinging to the Deccan Traps and volcanic activity, along with poison gases and just refused to see that his theory had chemical fingerprints that would be obvious in the record. From 1980-1987 the entire concept of what happened on Earth had to expand to include what went on in our solar system, which included impact events far after the formation of the planet. In fact, down the road, that would receive a shake-up that would yield answers to how the Earth did form and how the Moon was formed... but that would be some years later. Just like the K-T event, the Alvarez's had brought in a change of perception based on physical data that could be found anywhere the K-T boundary layer could be examined. Since then the detritus of a large tsunami was found miles from the Cretaceous coast in Texas and the actual crater was found just off-shore of the Yucatan Peninsula, and further examination of the layer reveals other artifacts not only of the asteroid but a massive amount of soot put into the air by fires caused by the event.

The other event, and it was far outside of geology, happened in the materials sciences area in the staid and quite dull area of ceramics. What had happened was that researchers investigating the ways materials conducted at low temperatures had formed a rare earths laced ceramic that exhibited superconductivity at higher temps than the previously known metallic superconductors. Something that would be an insulator, or at best a semi-conductor, at normal temps superconducted at lower temps. Within a few weeks physics and materials science labs in universities and commercial labs were cooking up the material and doing desk-top demonstrations. I remember walking into a meeting hall that would hold 700 and found it packed, with all the floor and table space taken, and stood in the back watching the live video feed overhead of the ceramics just created the previous day as they brought them to superconducting temps.

Reports from physics and materials sciences meetings in the weeks following the announcement were ones of all-night discussions and proposals to see if anyone could figure out just HOW this was happening. As that was going on, other researchers were cooking up their own strange brews of ceramics and testing them, and other materials were found that also did this.

Here the physics is subtle and there was no 'proven' method to get superconductive material: it was 'by guess and by golly', with the physicists trying to figure out just how a given material superconducted. As this could be done so widely, at so many sites, the field was awash in tests and still is as refinements on theories start to narrow down just how and why certain materials do this. There is no magic 'key' to this, no specific way to do this, and materials sciences started to see an influx of interested students based on this work, alone.

In this area, which I was purely on the near-outside looking in, as it is an interesting topic, the field had to be open to the freedom of movement of data, materials combinations and techniques. You might not hold the right combo, the right technique nor even the right methodology, but someone else with other materials, techniques and methods might learn from yours and progress further towards a goal of higher superconductive temps. That open movement of data and knowledge shuns in-groups and cliques and 'controlling' journals: if you did that you would KILL the research and slow it to a snail's pace. The reason is that if you can get superconductivity close to room temps, say down to liquid air temps, then you have a way to revolutionize electrical energy storage and transmission, and forms of energy production that would be uneconomical with current technology would be feasible with higher temp superconductors.

The rough and tumble, here, is to not just get the material, but to find out how it does what it does.

It is still trial and error, with proposals going up and coming down as they are tested and proven or disproven by testing materials.

And some materials that might not superconduct at one temp might superconduct at another... which really makes things interesting as researchers go through failed materials and give them a wider testing, often years later. Do you dare to throw away a material that just might be the one you are looking for, you just don't know it now?

This brings me to the recent activity in Climategate.

As a geologist, though not a current practicing one, I went through two Revolutions in the sciences: K-T Impact Theory and higher temperature superconductivity. Their hallmarks are touchstones in science as a whole, as they represent openness, welcoming of criticism (indeed even reveling in it), and the open by-play of scientists and labs as they work to see what is and is not there in the way of what can be found from examination and analysis of specimens. The data gathered is critical to how science works, and the open display of it and willingness to hand it over to critics is something you don't get from much of anywhere else in life.

The very first warning signs on Antrhopogenic Global Warming (AGW) and just plain old GW came from the paleoclimatologists who tried to run the models made for AGW/GW against known climates and what those models would predict for those climates. The models came through with junk, not even getting close to the actual climates they were tested against. When the paleoclimatologists asked for the datasets from those pushing AGW (mainly EA CRU, but elsewhere) they were stalled and rebuffed. Coming just after the K-T event and its aftermath, paleoclimatologists were not slow in criticizing the models, how they did not form into anything resembling known past climates nor did the models explain how those climates changed.

AGW/GW advocates refused to come out an play in the full contact body sport that was geology.

They retreated to the hothouse of academia, environmentalism and seeking to 'extract' government grants for their perfect theory of how bad man was to planet Earth. Apparently they couldn't model how nasty Earth was to life forms during the Permo-Triassic that saw over 95% of all species perish... but then geologists don't put an anthropomorphic form of the Earth on a pedestal and worship her. If you DID anthropomorphize the planet it would come out looking far worse than Pol Pot and all other mass murderers, combined, with just a hint of Charles Manson thrown in for fun. But then those seeking to castigate man don't bother to look at Earth's history, either.

There is no single good source of science nor bad source of science: there is only good science and bad science.

Lysenko convinced Stalin that there was a 'Bourgeois' Science, that was BAD, and a 'Communist Science', that was GOOD. That moving of science into political ideology set the USSR back decades in genetics research which, given what they got up to in their later years, we can all be thankful for. Yet that marriage of politics and science that is Lysenkoism now runs deep in the West: environmentalists are above suspicion because of good intents, and those working in the petroleum industry are evil and not to be believed. Which is Lysenkoism, at its heart.

Science is simply getting reproducible results given a set of circumstances.

You can be funded by the worst possible institutions and still perform science, although it might be immoral (such as the Nazi experiments on concentration camp prisoners) which leaves you with a hard problem of what to do with methodical and repeatable results garnered by horrific and immoral means. Saying that you will give blanket trust to one scientist over another based on who funds them, outside of the Nazi example, means you are acting with a faith that there is good and bad science by its source. And that is Lysenkoism.

Do I 'trust' work done by environmentalist groups?

Show me the data, tell me the parameters and I will test that against the knowns of science and see how it stacks up.

But then I do the EXACT SAME THING with research from ANY source be it government, private, commercial... I may read results for interest in them, but they need to be cross-compared to other work in the field. Yet when any field is being tampered with by researchers seeking to shut some researchers out and only 'allow' others to be published and then seek to 'punish' journals that don't follow their wishes, I have problems. And when the groups doing that are backed by governments and 'international' groups, those become extreme problems.

EA CRU refused to show their data for decades.

They didn't welcome criticism nor engage with critics and examine data outside their realm of knowledge.

They, and their associates, attempted to stifle private and government inquiry, beyond that of their scientific peers, and shut down the free-flow of information that, like in superconductive research, is the life blood of science.

When heads of government agency collude to stymie that free flow of information, as has happened with both NASA/Goddard and NOAA, you get a chilling effect on the free flow of information by the use of the threat of government power, even if there is no reality to it.

Is there 'global warming'?

I certainly hope so as there is a marked difference in global temps between now and 12,000 years ago at the end of the last ice age.

Is what we are seeing human caused?

So far as I can see by all data from previous inter-glacial periods: nothing we see now is out of the ordinary. That 'ordinary' typically sees rapid and sudden swings in global temps up and down and there is no good model for it. As no values of measured atmospherics or temps are outside of previous inter-glacial periods, I would say we are within all norms for such periods. If it is 'human caused' it is not outside of those norms. Get back to me when there is better data. EA CRU lost a lot of current stuff and it needs to be re-gathered. Ditto on our government agencies.

Are we a threat to all species?

See the Permo-Triassic above? Earth is a threat to all species. Stop idolizing Mother Earth and demonizing humans as you are doing yourself no good running into the arms of a killer and away from those offering a chance at a better life. I trust Mother Earth to pay ZERO attention to mankind and continue on her normal state of affairs which includes a number of large scale disasters that WILL happen with or without us hanging around, and a few of them just might be OUR silver bullet with OUR name on it. I would like to get out of the clutches of Mother Earth, thanks. The planet needs no saving.

But isn't it right to assume that the Earth is warming?

Show me the data. EA CRU in their own files admit they can no longer: 1) Produce uncorrupted data sets, 2) repeat previous runs on data to get reproducible results, 3) have cherry picked data sets to get certain results. They now have papers with no underlying data, no way to reproduce the results and with artifacts of selectively chosen data sets that are not representative of larger data sets. That is not a good thing to base an assumption upon as it is indicative of fraud, not openness of scientific research. When fraud takes place you default to the last known good state prior to the fraud if you can. Here that means relegating a raft of papers to limbo until they can be re-analyzed. Anything based on the corrupted EA CRU, GISS or NOAA data sets past 1960 are now suspect and not to be considered valid until they are thoroughly re-analyzed in light of current findings. Papers without data, without backing and that cannot be repeated to get valid results are not papers that can be considered doing science. Science is a full contact body sport, no handicapping allowed. No padding either. The Alvarez team is one that I admire deeply as they waded right into the fray and defended themselves in the open process of science, and didn't resort to popular TV to make their case, nor to politicians, nor to issue advocacy groups. The Alvarez team did SCIENCE and joyously. Too bad the AGW/GW advocates can't do that and wish to stifle the free flow of information. That gets you where the USSR is today.

And that is not a good place.


Unknown said...

Climate is not the pressing issue. The earth has always been subject to climate change. For another take on modern man's predicament, also from a geologist, see:


A Jacksonian said...

I can easily name five more pressing issues than AGW, and all of them a dead certainty to happen. And we are doing something to prepare for one of them in a serious manner and another in an unserious manner, thus leaving three major problems unaddressed. But that is just on the geology side of things...

Broadsword said...

I do not remember the film but after remarks from a scientist, a Nazi said, "Yes, but is this German science, or Jewish science?"

A Jacksonian said...

Broadsword - That is a form of Lysenkoism, the belief that science varies by its source.

It does tend to get into socialists of all stripes to justify what they are doing to society, and it never, ever, ends well.

benning said...

Excellent post! Some a bit over my feeble head, but I stayed with it to the end.

I agree with your conclusions. Besides, here in Florida, it's cool - as it is most winters - not unusually hot. Climate change is normal.

We can cause much damage, but I'm reminded of reading about the clean-up efforts following the Exxon-Valdez spill. It seems that the areas that were not inundated by human efforts to clean up the spill were in better shape than those that were. Nature having cleaned things up just fine.

Humans should be careful. But nature has a way of fixing things we mortals foul up.

A Jacksonian said...

benning - We put aerosols, dust and other contaminants into the air that could cause warming and cooling, both. Yet we cannot answer the basic question of the heat budget of the oceans and atmosphere. And so many forget that glaciers can recede for many reasons, and Kilimanjaro was ice free 12k years ago while much of Europe, Canada and Siberia were not. A reading for a few years does not a trend make, and if we cannot discern our influence from background normal variation between glacial periods, then we should be, perhaps, a bit more humble in saying we have any net effect on things.

The rough and tumble of science requires it to be open, honest and a hard contact sport requiring solid data. Science is never 'settled': Newton has not lasted, Einstein was fraying at the edges within his own life yet so much was explained and not explained together, and today we are at cross-roads needing to patch up basic physics again due to things we find and do not understand. If we can't settle physics then geology just might take a bit longer... never know when some subtle influence in physicals will change our view of chemistry, planetary sciences and, thusly, the Earth. Anyone saying otherwise is participating in self-delusion, at best, and a fraud, at worse.

Papa Ray said...

"Anyone saying otherwise is participating in self-delusion, at best, and a fraud, at worse."

I think you just defined politics.

Papa Ray
West Texas

A Jacksonian said...

Papa Ray - I think that Lee Harris has it right in the term fantasy ideology, when one uses fantasy to try and act within the actual, real world. Such self-delusion can be deadly for oneself and others... or fatal.

M. Simon said...

You got a nice mention at Talk Polywell for this.

A Jacksonian said...

Simon - My thanks for the heads up!

Must be a slow period for someone to actually read this stuff...