Friday, March 28, 2008

Another Word on Climate Change

It was a pleasant surprise to see Physics Today feature an article1 questioning the consensus on global climate change. The piece is rather technical, but from what I can glean, it sounds like the authors are pointing to at least circumstantial evidence that the "majority" opinion is ignores some key information.

Earth's atmosphere, landmasses, and oceans absorb and redistribute the total solar irradiance (TSI) by means of coupled nonlinear hydrothermal, geochemical, and radiative dynamic processes that produce Earth's globally averaged temperature at a given time. Versions of those physical mechanisms are included in the GCMs [global climate models], but what is not addressed in the simulations are the statistics of the time series. Those series consist of the monthly values of temperature anomalies. The statistical variability in Earth's average temperature is interpreted as noise; the temperature fluctuations are thought to contain no useful information and are consequently smoothed to emphasize the presumably more important long-time changes in the average global temperature, typically on the order of years. According to the central limit theorem, the statistics of the fluctuations in such large-dimensional networks ought to be Gaussian. The fact that they are not remains unexplained.

In other words, the difference between global climate model predictions and the actual global temperatures (on short time scales) are supposed to be random in a normal sense ("Gaussian distribution"), but aren't. This fact implies that there is some sort of non-random dynamic at work. The models can't account for this dynamic. The authors however show that the statistics of the fluctuations are similar to the statistics for solar flares. While this isn't proof that the two are connected, it is at least circumstantial evidence. But it does clearly show that the majority consensus is insufficiently thorough and far from the certainty they tout.

The authors then go on to show the sensitivity of global temperature to the 11- and 22-year solar cycles. That global climate models reflect neither this long-time-scale sensitivity nor the short-term sensitivity shows that these models are underestimate the contribution of total solar irradiance (TSI) to Earth's temperature.

The nonequilibrium thermodynamic models we used suggest that the Sun is influencing climate significantly more than the IPCC report claims. If climate is as sensitive to solar changes as the above phenomenological findings suggest, the current anthropogenic contribution to global warming is significantly overestimated. We estimate that the Sun could account for as much as 69% of the increase in Earth's average temperature, depending on the TSI reconstruction used. Furthermore, if the Sun does cool off, as some solar forecasts predict will happen over the next few decades, that cooling could stabilize Earth's climate and avoid the catastrophic consequences predicted in the IPCC report.

It's a hopeful sign that Physics Today would publish this article. Still, I expect to read outraged responses in the letters section in coming months. People refuse to listen to an alternative point of view once their mind is made up. Kinda like refusing a prisoner a hearing to determine if he's a terrorist because you're already convinced he's a terrorist.


1. Featured as "opinion" probably because they fear the PC backlash.

Unfortunately all of these articles require subscription for access:

Nicola Scafetta and Bruce J. West, "Is climate sensitive to solar variability?," Physics Today 61:3 (March 2008), pp. 50-51.

N. Scafetta, B. J. West, "Solar Flare Intermittency and the Earth’s Temperature Anomalies," Phys. Rev. Lett. 90, 248701 (2003).

N. Scafetta, B. J. West, "Phenomenological reconstructions of the solar signature in the Northern Hemisphere surface temperature records since 1600," J. Geophys. Res. 112, D24S03 (2007).

Friday, March 21, 2008

Making Room for Light

Just wanted to offer something small for this Good Friday: a recollection of Pope Benedict of the celebrations of the Holy Triduum in his younger days:

For all of Holy Week, the windows of the church were covered by black coverings. Even in daytime, the church was shrouded in a darkness dense with mystery. But the instant the parish priest sang out the verse that announced "He is Risen!" the coverings were suddenly pulled back from the windows and a radiant light flooded into the entire church; it was the most impressive representation of the resurrection of Christ that I can imagine.

Darkness is certainly underutilized in today's liturgies, at least in the Roman Rite of the Catholic Church. It rather ruins any possibility for contrast with the rising light of the Risen Christ when the church is brightly lit from the moment one arrives.1

On similar themes:


1. Maybe pastors are afraid of liability if people stumble and fall? Maybe we should take a cue from the airlines and install aisle-path lighting.

Robert Moynihan, "The Pope's Plan," Columbia 87:4 (April 2007), 10-12 (12). See also Archived Online Chat with Robert Moynihan

Robert Moynihan, Let God's Light Shine Forth: The Spiritual Vision of Pope Benedict XVI (Doubleday, 2005)

Monday, March 17, 2008

ISN Summer Seminar

Work's kept me too busy to post lately, but I thought I'd let you know about this notice I received about the Institute for the Study of Nature's Summer Seminar this June 9-14 at MIT (Cambridge, Massachusetts):

Dear friend of the ISN:

The Institute for the Study of Nature is pleased to announce its second annual Summer Seminar and Conference to be held June 9-14 at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge , Massachusetts . The theme this year is “Who Won the Scientific Revolution?”.

I am sure you appreciate how important it is to all human endeavors to think correctly about the natural world. Every day we read in the headlines of some new “revolutionary” finding of “science” that claims to throw into doubt some seemingly obvious facet of life, like the fact that we have free will or can know truth. Is scientific knowledge really capable of up-ending ideas that seem clear from everyday experience? Or are we really hearing as “scientific truths” various kinds of poor philosophical interpretations of scientific data? Is measurement the only valid road to reality?

As modern science continues to grow in influence and reach, it becomes increasingly critical to propose to young scholars important ideas about the natural world that fall outside today’s narrow-minded academic orthodoxy.

We ask your help in directing this information to anyone who might be interested, most especially graduate and advanced undergraduate students in the sciences and in engineering. Please consider forwarding to your contacts this note along with the attached PDF file [see website] describing this year’s seminar program. The document includes a tentative schedule of the curriculum, practical information about how to attend, and the application form. This information is also available on our website at

Thank you for your help in spreading word about the Institute for the Study of Nature’s Summer Seminar and Conference!


John W. Keck
Institute for the Study of Nature

(Dr. Keck's also apparently set up a Facebook event.)

If it's anything like last year's seminar, it's an occasion anyone with an interest in science or nature will regret missing.

Hope you're having a good Holy Week!

Friday, March 07, 2008

Galileo inside the Walls

The Times UK reports that the Vatican is planning a statue of Galileo Galilei for the gardens outside the apartment where he stayed while awaiting trial for heresy in 1633. (Next year is the 400th anniversary of Galileo's adoption/adaptation of the telescope for astronomy.)

Galileo being the poster-boy for secular humanists who want to humiliate the Roman Catholic Church for its putative opposition to science, one might be tempted to look at such a move as letting the wooden horse of scientism inside the walls: as the Vatican capitulating to science or some such nonsense.1

But Pope Benedict has been so insightful on questions of science and nature that I would be thunderstruck if he didn't know exactly the proper context to give to this gesture: that science is important but by no means has the final say on the meaning of life. For example, the Pope's latest encyclical included this excellent reminder that science will never definitively satisfy our desires and that Christians must beware of excessive modesty in the face of science:

Since man always remains free and since his freedom is always fragile, the kingdom of good will never be definitively established in this world. Anyone who promises the better world that is guaranteed to last for ever is making a false promise; he is overlooking human freedom. Freedom must constantly be won over for the cause of good. Free assent to the good never exists simply by itself. If there were structures which could irrevocably guarantee a determined—good—state of the world, man's freedom would be denied, and hence they would not be good structures at all.

What this means is that every generation has the task of engaging anew in the arduous search for the right way to order human affairs; this task is never simply completed. Yet every generation must also make its own contribution to establishing convincing structures of freedom and of good, which can help the following generation as a guideline for the proper use of human freedom; hence, always within human limits, they provide a certain guarantee also for the future. In other words: good structures help, but of themselves they are not enough. Man can never be redeemed simply from outside. Francis Bacon and those who followed in the intellectual current of modernity that he inspired were wrong to believe that man would be redeemed through science. Such an expectation asks too much of science; this kind of hope is deceptive. Science can contribute greatly to making the world and mankind more human. Yet it can also destroy mankind and the world unless it is steered by forces that lie outside it. On the other hand, we must also acknowledge that modern Christianity, faced with the successes of science in progressively structuring the world, has to a large extent restricted its attention to the individual and his salvation. In so doing it has limited the horizon of its hope and has failed to recognize sufficiently the greatness of its task—even if it has continued to achieve great things in the formation of man and in care for the weak and the suffering. (Spes Salvi, 24-25)

(I thought the last sentences deserved emphasizing: believers need to acknowledge their complicity in their own marginalization.)

And of course, we all remember that decisive line from his installation homily nearly three years ago: "We are not some casual and meaningless product of evolution. Each of us is the result of a thought of God. Each of us is willed, each of us is loved, each of us is necessary."2

Interestingly, I found the Galileo-statue story through Slashdot. The readers' comments on evolutionary topics are usually so dogmatic that I was surprised at their even-handedness on Galileo and the Church. It sounds like "Galileo as secular icon" has run its course, at least in this country.

Europe is a different matter. As shown by the cancellation of the Pope's planned visit to La Sapienza University in January because of protests over a remark about Galileo (taken out of context), Galileo is still a potent symbol in Italy. The Slashdot item also graciously mentions the Pope's cordial meeting with the rector of the University on February 21.

Another interesting item: The Times is also running a story on the possibility that Cardinal Newman will be canonized this year.


1. In truth, the Catholic Church has always been a big proponent of science (witness the widespread Church patronage of scientists through the ages, and the many famous scientists who were priests).

2. Need I hasten to add that he was not questioning the scientific theory of Darwinism here, but its needless philosophical extrapolation?

Richard Owen and Sarah Delaney, "Vatican recants with a statue of Galileo," The Times (March 4, 2008).

"Galileo statue to be placed on Vatican grounds" (4 March 2008).