23 December 2010

Kids are scientists

It's something of an article of faith in my family that children are natural scientists.  Yet another illustration is from a classroom of 8 year olds, who recently published in a professional scientific journal.  Yay!

In their case, it was a study of bees and how they identified food.  The full paper is here. A nice journalistic coverage is here.

They did have a professional scientist helping figure out things, and doing the writing, etc..  But the fundamental ideas came from the kids.

Off-blog and Happy New Year

I'm going to be (even more) off-blog into the New Year.  My apologies to William, who did have some good comments over in http://moregrumbinescience.blogspot.com/2010/11/verifying-forecasts-2.html that got hung up for a couple weeks as I hadn't been checking in, and hadn't told anybody about this.  I'll be checking in today for comments and to post them, but will be back to off-blog from the 24th through 3rd of January.

Not that this is major to anybody, but I'll mention that my cast came off 2 weeks ago and I've been doing physical therapy to rehabilitate the broken wrist.  Fingers are doing pretty well, the thumb is so so, and the wrist is awful -- compared to my hopes.  All are doing ok to pretty well compared to what you might expect for someone over 20 with this kind of break.  The therapy amounts to a second job -- about 2 hours a day, every day.  That's been one of the time sinks w.r.t. getting blogging.

I hope everybody is doing well, enjoying the season, and has a happy, healthy, 2011.

02 December 2010

Evolving Thoughts

For a more philosophical take on science, and leaning to biology rather than climate for examples, you should take a look at John Wilkins' Evolving Thoughts.  John's a philosopher of science.  We've known each other electronically for about 20 years.

Some posts which struck me at the time to save for later:
Sausages and science (the practice of science isn't as pretty as I tend to paint)
It was 150 years ago tomorrow on the 150th anniversary of the publication of Darwn's Origin.
Lazy Manager Theory (ok, aimed a bit older than I usually try, but having encountered managers, and now being one, sort of, I like this.)
Science eats its seed corn (I blog about the ideals of science; the realities are seldom as nice.)
Jorge Cham is following me (PhDcomics.com) Looks pretty much like my time line, though 350 messages in my in-box says 'weekend' more than 'vacation'.
Apes and evolution in the news
Linnaeus: The founder of databases
A code of conduct for effective rational discussion
Plagiarism, citations, and fact checking
John's own list of his better posts in 2009

01 December 2010

How to make sanity checks

In late September, I wrote a note on whether Lake Superior still remembers the last ice age.  The answer was no (read that post for why).  But along the way I illustrated a simple sanity check that would have given the author I was responding to a heads up that he was seriously wrong.

The check I used was to compare volumes.  If something the volume of Lake Superior remembered conditions for 10,000 years, then something with 100,000 times the volume would (could/should/...) take 100,000 times as long to adjust.  The ocean is that much bigger, so would take that much longer.  Yet we know (sanity) that the ocean's circulation time is only a few hundred to a few thousand years. 

This doesn't prove that the original 10,000 year estimate was wrong.  That's not the purpose of a sanity check.  Rather, the sanity check alerts us to examine the system more carefully.  Maybe there's something fundamentally wrong about using volume for comparison, maybe there's something fundamentally wrong about what lead that author to saying 10,000 year memory for Lake Superior.  As we found out, it is the original claim of 10,000 years that was severely wrong.  (Turned out to be about 6 months.)

In the comments, though, there were some noting that my approach to sanity check wasn't right.  Or at least that I could have made a better estimate than I did.  Since I take sanity checking to be a heads up process rather than a proof, I'm not very concerned with whether I chose the most accurate (I did choose one of the simplest) method.  But it is worth its own discussion how you might make better estimates.

29 November 2010

Verifying forecasts 2

As I said last week, verifying predictions is difficult, and was prompted in to looking again at the matter by someone doing it wrong.  Of course the standard of 'wrongness' involved is mine.  Forecast verification is something of an art as well as mathematics and science.  But some points I think I'll get little argument from Allan Murphy* and his intellectual colleagues and descendants for are:
  • You have to be clear what you're forecasting
    • what variable
    • at what time (or time span)
    • for what place or area
  • You have to be clear how the forecast is going to be evaluated
  • You should evaluate all forecasts
  • Forecast must be public
  • Forecasts must be verifiable
That last might seem a little strange.  I hope not.  Suppose I said next July 20th at 3:34 PM at Washington National Airport the official temperature would be hot.  Very specific about what I'm forecasting and what it will be evaluated against.  But what is 'hot'?  To me, anything over 80 F (27 C).  As such, it's a near certainty that my forecast will be correct.  It's also awfully easy for me, on July 21st, to say, regardless of the temperature, that it was 'hot'.  This is one reason that we prefer numbers in science.  You can, and we do, work with qualitative predictions.  But it takes more work, as you have to find some way of making 'hot' objective, so that we can all agree that such a forecast was correct or not.

In general, if not as universal, we add a couple more items, at least desirable if not mandatory:

24 November 2010

Verifying forecasts 1

I already discussed my earlier sea ice estimates and how they came out, but a few things have happened since then to occasion a two part look at forecast verification.  As usual, it's prompted by seeing someone do it wrong.

One of the errors, which I have to remedy on my own part, is that you should verify (compare to reality) all your forecasts.  I think that the end of May ice estimates are the most interesting and important, rather than later in the year.  Partly this is because of how I think the sea ice pack behaves.  Partly it is because the practical uses of sea ice information I know of require that kind of lead time.  It takes a long time to get a tanker up to Barrow from Seattle, for instance.

Xingren and I did submit a later estimate, for the August Sea ice outlook.  That estimated 4.60 million km^2 for the September average sea ice cover.  An excellent approximation to the NSIDC's reported minimum (4.60) but not as good compared to the observed average extent of 4.90.  Actually a touch worse than our May (30th, even though not reported by SEARCH until June) estimate of 5.13 from the model.  Both estimates were well within 1 standard deviation of the natural variability (errors of +0.23 and -0.30 for May and August's predictions, respectively, versus about 0.5 for the natural variability).  So, on the whole, pretty reasonable.  Just that we'd have expected better from the later estimate.   But ... there's more to that story ...

16 November 2010

Thanks Teachers!

Quoting one of my sisters' pages:

Tonight, a teacher somewhere in your community is preparing lessons to teach your children while you are watching television. In the minute it takes you to read this, teachers all over the world are sacrificing their own time and, more often than not, investing their own money for your child's literacy, prosperity, and future. Re-post if you are teacher, love a teacher, or appreciate a teacher!!!

As for most things, the most media coverage is of the bad performers of a profession. But I grew up seeing my grandmother (another teacher) doing exactly as described, and see my sisters doing so when I visit them.  And some of my teachers, my kids' teachers, and so on were/are obviously doing likewise. 

It's American Education week, so I'll invite folks to contribute their stories of favorite teachers this week.

11 November 2010

Vererans Day

Thank you to all veterans!

Happy Veterans day to all, my son included.

Sorry about the late word.

08 November 2010

Sea Ice Predictions vs Reality

Ok, I didn't jump on the end of the ice season.  But, the good thing about doing science is that being right or wrong, or learning from your mistakes (or learning from your right answers, even if that's harder to do) is not a matter of a 'news cycle' or what is currently 'hot' in the blogosphere.

The observed ice extent for September 2010, monthly average, from the National Snow and Ice Data Center was 4.90 million km^2.  One thing about making your predictions and deciding how well you did is that you also have do be specific about what you're going to compare against.  You'll find somewhat different figures if you look at other places. 

If you were dishonest, or just not careful, you might select whichever observation was closest to your  prediction.  The problem with that is that it then becomes easy to claim an accurate prediction -- with little regard for the quality of the prediction itself.  Just select the most favorable observation, or process the data yourself in your own way.  (By changing how you do your land masking, you can change your ice areas or extents by upwards of 1 million square km.  ... he said with no tinge of annoying experience.)

It turns out that my May predictions did pretty well. 

05 November 2010

Young scientists

In Knight anoles, you got to see part of the reason I made one of my goals for this blog to be inclusive of middle school students.  They can be quite interesting to listen to about science, and can learn quite a lot of it themselves.  Biased as I am in being a father and uncle, I still believe that kids other than mine can match, or at least approach :-) mine.

So I'll mention that if you're a teacher, parent, or a student yourself, and your kid/you write up a science essay, you're welcome to submit it here for consideration.  I'll look for the essay to teach me something about the science, and to show the love of learning about your topic that Kristen showed for hers.  As you might guess from my usual topics being climate and ice, but this note of Kristen's being lizards, you're not limited to my professional areas. 

There will be details to work out, maybe later we'd want to establish it independently of this blog.  But think of it as something in the vein of Journal of Young Scientists.  A chance to share your love of your topic with others.  You can send to me at bobg at radix dot net.  We'll play things by ear.  I've created the tag 'young scientists' and retro-applied it to Kristen's (first! :-) note.

04 November 2010

Knight anoles and science writing

What Are Knight Anoles?

By: Kristen Martinet
December 15, 2008
Liberty Middle School
Science/ Period 2

Knight anoles are very interesting lizards. They are the largest anoles in the world and have very distinct features such as their speckled backs and striped sides. These reptiles are an invasive species in Florida and originate from Cuba. People like to keep knight anoles as pets, but then release them into the wild without knowing the consequences for the lizard. This makes them more abundant in urban areas. They eat insects and other lizards in the wild and in captivity. When fighting off a predator, the lizard bluffs to scare it away. While fighting with other males, the anole bobs its head up and down and extends the dewlap to look tough.  In the summer, knight anoles breed to create at least eight new baby knight anoles in five-seven weeks.     Knight anoles (anolis equestris) are a very interesting species of lizard that are also called the Cuban anole. This reptile is part of the order squamata, the sub-order iguanidae, and the family polychroidae. The knight anole is part of the genus anolis, which has about 250 species (Crowther, 1999). A researcher from Centralpets.com stated that the common name “knight” is derived from the Latin species name “equestris” which is derived from “equester,” a Latin word for knight. The other common name, Cuban anole, is probably used because its first home is in Cuba.

02 November 2010

Election Day

US readers:
Vote today, Tuesday November 2nd.
If you're not registered, get registered.
If you do neither, but are eligible, you don't get to complain about the results.

23 October 2010

Hiatus to extend

Oh well.  I'd been blogging less (none) because I've been using that time to work out an idea for publication.  That is now finishing up ok.  But I went out for a run yesterday, to get away from my desk, get the blood flowing, and hope for some ideas to flow on how to handle the 'last' nagging issue on the paper (graphical, not scientific).  Instead, I took a pretty impressive fall and broke my wrist.  Since I'm left-handed, it had to be my left wrist.  This will crimp my blogging for a few weeks, as I can only type one-handed, which is about 20% the speed of my normal typing.  (and error rate is up about 5x as well).  Grr.

Still, I can hit the 'approve' button for comments, and there are several good topics which are getting comment.

And, by way of a chance for me to listen, this seems like a good time to open the floor for suggestions.  One commenter a while back mentioned a blog-usable LaTeX processor.  I'll look in to that.  Other ideas for the presentation?  Content you'd like to see?

It's been a recurring thought from readers that I really need a better way of organizing, or at least displaying the organization, the content here.  I agree with this.  The idea I've had regarding how to do it is either to test it out on a wiki, or to use the wiki as the main place.  I've set up one for experimentation.  If you're interested in the idea, please send me an email (bobg at radix dot net) and I'll add you to the list of editors (and tell you where it is).  That address gets a lot of spam, and I'm liable to be intermittent, so a follow-up message a couple days later won't be a bad idea.

28 September 2010

Does Lake Superior Remember the Last Ice Age?

I'm more than a little surprised by this post by Steven Goddard.  His answer to my title question is yes.  That he's wrong isn't very interesting.  We all make mistakes, and particularly so when speaking outside areas that we've studied.  The two main physical processes which show his error are interesting in their own right, and I'll take this chance to discuss them -- they are rivers (which say 200 years should be noticeable), and what happens to fresh water at 4 C (which says the memory is 1 year [oops, 6 months]).

First, I'll take a look at a less interesting error that minimal self-checking would have pointed to a difficulty.  But that introduces a useful tool -- the 'sanity check'.  Namely, he suggests that the reason Lake Superior is still cold is because it's so large that it is still adjusting to the end of the last ice age.  That's about 10,000 years ago.  Ok, suppose this line of reasoning is true.  While Superior is large, is it tiny compared to the oceans.  If Superior takes 10,000+ years to adjust, something 10 times bigger should take 100,000+ years to adjust.  The ocean is about 100,000 times larger (in volume) than Lake Superior.

27 September 2010

Science Cafe

This Thursday (September 30th) I'll be talking about ice, and, better, yet, answering questions about ice at the Annapolis Cafe Scientifique.  The time will be 6 PM instead of the usual 6:30.  Same location as usual -- Cafe 49 West.  Local folks are invited, and non-local are welcome to pose questions here.

24 September 2010

Kitchen experiments

Some simple, if possibly messy, fun.  Ingredients: Water and corn starch, baking powder and vinegar.

The baking powder and vinegar mix to release carbon dioxide gas.  If you put it inside something with a tight cap that can blow off, you've got a 'rocket'.  Just be sure to aim it away.  I don't really remember well, but I think equal vinegar and baking powder is the right recipe.  But it's something to experiment with.

Corn starch and water is a chance to explore the mechanical properties of matter.  (read: mess around while claiming to be doing science)  Ordinary fluids, like air or water, react straightforwardly to pushing on them.  If you push, they move out of the way.  Push harder, they move out of the way faster.  Corn starch and water (again, I think it's equal amounts, but experiment) are a different kind of thing.  Set a marble on top of the mixture and it will sink through.  Throw the marble at it, and it will bounce. !?  Experiment.  It makes a difference how fast you push.  Lots of room for experimentation.

Anyone else have comparably simple experiments?

20 September 2010

Unity of science and reaching decisons

The next two paragraphs were in a private email list where there was then a request that I make the comments public.  The situation was my response to another scientist, the topic at hand being the scope of the conspiracy that would be involved in pulling of a hoax that CO2 is a greenhouse gas, etc..  I also talked here a while back about the unity of science:

I think a crucial part of that error is a failure to understand how science works.  While you and I (and others) look at it and see masses of scientists from different areas and reach a conclusion, others don't.  The extra piece of knowledge we have is that science has to hang together as a coherent picture.  If climate people were seriously wrong about the radiative properties of CO2, then CO2 lasers would not work.  And so on through a very, very long list.  Conversely, if climate types were seriously wrong about CO2's radiative properties, laser specialists would look at the climate work and point to the errors and that'd be the end of the wrong climate CO2 work.

Instead, they take the view that science is story-telling.  Laser physicists go along with the climate people because the climate folks are telling a story that the laser folks like, not because there's any particular evidence in favor of it.  The "It's a liberal conspiracy", or "They only say this because they want to impose one world government" responses are part of this.  The he said -- she said journlistic line is exactly this, as the science is presented as two stories the reader is chosing between.  They think the scientists are doing the same thing.  (How would they know differently?)

Back to the present:
I'll also mention, in terms of how people could tell what scientists actually do, that John Wilkins is taking ideas on sources for describing how it is that scientists reach conclusions:
How Scientists Think: A Book Proposal
The Scientists Operating Manual
While I'm mentioning John, h/t also to this xkcd cartoon, which captures a certain crowd (an attitude I've occasionally borrowed at least part of) quite well:
xkcd physicists

10 September 2010

Scientists are real people

If you are accustomed to the media representation of scientists, my subject line is something of a shock.  What, do I mean scientists aren't all junior Dr. Spock's off Star Trek?!  Contrary to everything you've ever seen on TV and films?!  Well, yes.  We're human, no less than anyone else on the planet, and unlike fictional Vulcans.

That's relevant to the post, not so much for content, but at the reason that comments and posts have somewhat gotten away from me.  There were many good comments in the What is a good experiment? thread, and I haven't commented there myself.  (I'll encourage you to go have a look.).  And there have been good comments to later notes that I, again, haven't commented on (see the list of most recent comments that's, currently, buried way to the bottom of the page).  Not that my comments are required, or any such thing.  But, since I like conversation, it pains me to not be engaging the way I'd like to be.  (Don't worry, even if I'm not commenting, I am definitely reading.  I read far faster than I compose.)

For the subject at hand, the answers are entirely mundane -- 'real person' -- sorts of reasons.  I've been doing other things.  I'm a parent with 3 kids.  And they've been doing things over the last month.  Good things for them, and me (at least to spectate).  But they do tend to mean that I'm focusing some of my time, energy, and attention in places other than the blog.  Some (many) scientists are parents (and grandparents).  Many of us are very concerned about parenting well.  Or least are seriously interested in our kids.  Even with my youngest being 20, I still think there's room, and need, for a parent.  And they're great kids, so who wouldn't want to be involved?!  Or at least sitting in the back of the audience cheering.

I'm also a spouse.  My spouse and I have been doing things together in evenings and weekends which are very good and which we enjoy together -- visiting friends, having friends over, going places, and so forth.  Good, 'real person', things, but while I'm doing those, I'm not blogging.

And I have a day job different from the sorts of things that I write on the blog.  There's a small degree of transference.  I can point out to you that my May predictions of September's ice extent are looking to have bracketed the likely result pretty well.  The high (model-based) figure was 5.13 and the low (statistically-based) figure was 4.78.  We passed below 5 in the last few days.  Probably won't be as low for the monthly average as 4.78.  But the spread between the two forecasts was fairly small, and succeeding in bracketing reality with that narrow range is ... not bad.  I'll have more to say once we get to the end of the month and see what really happens.  The day job has been showing up interesting things, which turns around to mean more time at the office, and less time taken from my lunch hour to write on the blog.

The end of the month provides a chance for me to meet up with folks who are local.  I'll be speaking at the Annapolis Science Cafe, on Thursday, the 30th of September.  More about that to come.  It'll be about ice (you're shocked, I know).

Last night I earned 'Beastmaster' status.  My wife has two dogs.  (Her dogs -- she's had them longer than she's known me.  We've only been married a little over 4 years; newlyweds.)  Both are small dogs, of, as Dave Barry said, of the 'pillow' family.  The older one, Tater, is pushing 12 and has his hair growing over his eyes -- to the point that he often can't see what is around him, like walls.  One reason that hair grows so long is that he has traditionally (I'm told) reacted violently whenever anyone approached with scissors to trim off the overhang.  Last night I sat him down, solo, and trimmed his bangs.  No sedation or armies to hold him down.  He's doing better now.  Here's a picture of him during 'snowmageddon' last February (the snow is about 30 cm, 1 foot, next to him; double that farther away from the door).  He'd just had his hair trimmed (after sedation, at the veterinarian's).  He had far less vision last night before I started trimming.

In between all that, I've been nudging an idea towards being able to submit it for serious publication.  It's difficult doing that from home.  I'm used to publishable ideas being things I work on at work.  This one, however, is not related to what I do at work beyond the fact that it involves the earth.  Not really close enough to persuade the folks who sign my paycheck that I should be devoting work time to it.  Once I've sent it off for a round of preliminary review by friends who have some good general science knowledge (to see if I've made a generally well-formed argument), I'll be thinking more bloggy things.  Not least being various things to talk about here regarding doing science and some offshoots of interest.  The climate cycles 1 post is one such already.  There are more to come.  Not least, while that first climate cycles post talked about seasonal variations, we also should take a look at daily variations.  Same as we (middle and high-latitude residents) expect summer to be warmer than winter, we (all) expect daytime to be warmer than night time.  That expectation makes it climate.  Figuring out by just how much becomes science.

And there are the usual 'real life' sorts of things -- paying bills, getting my car fixed, trying to take care of an injured shoulder, blah, blah, and very blah.  Scientists are real people, with all the same issues as anybody else.  Irritates me that so many seem to think we're Vulcans.  Plus, of course, that we stand in closets in between times of saying something or other annoying and irrelevant to the human issues at hand.  We all have the usual problems, responsibilities and joys of being 'real people'.  Some of that affects the blog.  All of it is just the usual, for scientists, same as for anybody else.  I'll be getting back to more regular writing here in the near future, as this part of my regular life becomes more active.

01 September 2010

Constructing an analysis 1: Drop in a bucket

'Analysis' is what we call an attempt to represent the state of the atmosphere/ocean/sea ice/... given a set of observations. One such analysis is the global surface air temperature analysis. That, then, spawns efforts to find a global mean temperature, or global mean temperature trends, and so forth. Several of the recently-added blogs aim to study that, in one way or another. That particular one is not my interest in two different ways.

One is, I'm an oceanographer, so I'm more interested in a sea surface temperature (sst) analysis. The other is, most of the interest in the surface air temperature analysis seems to come from its role as a detector of climate change. On the scale of things, I consider this the second weakest climate change indicator. The only thing weaker, in my view, is the so-called 'Hockey Stick'. But enough raw opinion.

Regardless of what it is you're trying to analyze, and what your reason for doing so is, there are quite a few ways of setting about doing so objectively. The fact that there are many makes this the first of something like eight notes I'll be writing up on the idea. There turn out to be many different ways of making an analysis, each objective, each with strengths, each with weaknesses.

The simplest one, if not as simple as you might think, is the 'drop in a bucket' method.

31 August 2010

Sea ice on the blogs

Always a bit of a question whether I should comment elsewhere, or save my writing for here.  I've usually resolved that question in favor of making comments even though that does crimp my writing time for here.  Most recently, or at least most recently at length, I was visiting the Stoat's burrow.  The topic at hand is the Antarctic sea ice that I was writing about back in March WUWT trumpets result supporting climate modeling.

William has a follow up post today.  I'll probably be commenting there, or maybe taking up a point here soon.

No comment there from me, but also a recent post/show about Arctic sea ice cover Arctic Sea Ice is Just Fine.  Of course it isn't, and the author makes a nice presentation illustrating that it isn't.

30 August 2010

Blogroll news

The updated blogroll has been in action since Satruday, but here's the note describing the newcomers.  In some cases, I've been reading the blog itself for some time.  D'Oh!

Newcomers to the blogroll:

Main focus on climate science, or some part thereof:
The Science of Doom
Neven's Arctic Sea Ice Blog
Climate Change: The Next Generation
  Climate change: The Next Generation is a different sort of blog.  Most content is pointers to the scientific literature or to science press write ups of the scientific literature.  I think this is a good way for people, particularly those who don't have major research libraries handy, to get pointers to interesting parts of the literature.

Main focus on temperature reconstruction and analysis
Moyhu (Nick Stokes)
The Whiteboard (Ron Broberg) [Updated to include]
Clear Climate Code
  (This is aimed at being more general than just temperature reconstruction and analysis, eventually, but at the moment still seems to be mostly this.)

Main focus on the computer science of climate science
Serendipity (Steve Easterbrook)

Sui Generis
  The author, at least when she started, was a high school student taking an interest in learning about climate science.  If I remember correctly, she's starting university about now.  Articles tend to be about her wrestling to understand the science, and her wading through the nonscience to get there.

Suggestion that I'll invite further comment regarding:
The Green Grok
  This one didn't strike me as 'of course it should be here'.  It looks good, but the goals don't seem to align as well with mine.  I invite the comment (see also my response below to Carrot eater's previous comment) so you all can let me know why you do or don't think it would be a good addition here.  That's a different issue than whether it's a good blog.

Some comments to the previous note :

Carrot: If I ask an opinion question, then your opinion, and everyone else's, certainly does count.  It's also helpful to me to know why folks agree or disagree -- with me, or with each other.  I agree with you that irregular is fine for my blogroll, for the same reason you give.  Of course the final opinion that counts for making blunders in blog management here is mine.  Still, sometimes y'all can steer me away from some of the worst blunders.

S2: I've sent Fergus some email over the past year and heard nothing back.  Don't know if he's just left the blogosphere or what.  I do know that the author of evenmoregrumbinescience is ok, just doing other things.

M: There turn out to be multiple whiteboard blogs, and I'm not sure which one you mean.

25 August 2010

Were the 70s cold?

I was surprised to see that the 1970s weren't particularly cold.  My surprise is partly because where I lived (Chicago area) we were busy setting all-time records for cold, and that was true for much of the US and across to the UK. 

The other part of the surprise is that it's common to hear people (see them write) something on the lines of "Of course we're seeing a warming since the 70s; it was cold in the 70s!"  Surely someone along the way did their homework and checked out what the global temperatures were?

Fortunately, if we're looking at science, we don't have to assume that other people did their work, or did it correctly.  The alternate word for it is, skepticism.  Real skeptics don't make those assumptions, they do the work themselves.  The fact that it's work also explains why there are a lot of fake skeptics -- it's much easier to pick the answer you like and reject everything else.

So let's apply some real skepticism and ask what was really going on with temperatures in the 1970s.

24 August 2010

Teacher preparing for new year

My wish for us this year: let's take care of each other so that we can take care of our students. I picture our jobs as a great big, wonderful tree house full of knowledge. Our students have to leave their life's baggage on the ground and as they climb up they realize the sky isn't all that far off. May we all remember the simple joy that comes from a fresh box of crayons and a friend to sit with at lunch. BAM!
Liz Martinet, teacher

20 August 2010

Bad Astronomy: The Wonders of the Universe

Somewhat in the vein of asking about links that you-all think might be good to add to the blogroll (I'll get there, honest!), I'll mention a blog that I read and isn't on the blogroll.
One such is Phil Plait's Bad Astronomy. Not that he needs the advertising, but I do read and enjoy his blog for reasons relevant to my own aims here. Namely, he regularly has articles (I'll list a few below; apparently 'dozen' should follow the 'few') that illustrate my own feeling -- that the universe is a wonderful and interesting place, and doing science is a way to embrace that wonder.

12 August 2010

Open Lab 2010 nominations

I have the logo on the right for nominating blog articles to the best of collection -- the Open Laboratory 2010. I'll suggest that you look back at the articles that you think are particularly good, here and elsewhere, and follow that link from the decorative logo, or this link to make your nominations. I was reminded of this because Bora Zivkovic, who does the 'Blog Around the Clock' (a title he perhaps is living out), is also the lead on that activity.

Note that, because of Bora's publication schedule, articles are eligible from December 2009 through November 2010.

11 August 2010

New locations for two from blogroll

Two blogs from the blogroll have moved -- A Blog Around the Clock and All My Faults are Stress-Related.

Are there other updates?  Blogs I should be adding to the roll?  Note that 'should' requires that the blog be substantially about science -- learning and doing it -- rather than ... well, quite a few other things that are otherwise.  I grant more leeway for blogs that link over here, figuring that reciprocity is good citizenship.

09 August 2010

Designing good experiments

This is another time I don't really have great answers, but a question over at the question place has me thinking about it.  Namely, what makes for a good experiment?  As far as the science goes, I'm comfortable about knowing the answer.  Or at least knowing enough of an answer. 

But for the purposes of you readers -- what makes for a good experiment that you could do yourself?  How big or small could it be?  How long should it take to run?  How much expense is ok?  Is following a circuit diagram to assemble test equipment something you're comfortable with?  Carpentry?   And so on. 

For the original question -- a tabletop demonstration of the greenhouse effect -- I might actually have an answer of sorts.  I went running shortly after first reading the question.  That's often a good time for ideas to come to me, and a few did.  But at the moment, they'd take a pretty big table (like, say, 10 feet), you'd have to get hold of a dry ice supply (for the CO2), and you'd have to assemble a fairly simple circuit.  A several Watt laser would also be a plus, but I'm going to try to make sure that the experiment will work without it.

Question place

Time to hang out the shingle for questions.  As always, response time will be variable, including that I may not be able to answer.  If so, maybe a reader can.  And maybe we can have some discussion about the question and how we might go about finding the answer.

05 August 2010

Climate -- cycles 1

One of the things we expect about the weather is that it will change.  Following the dictum, as I do, that climate is what you expect and weather is what you get, change is part of climate.  But what changes do we expect?  One sort of change we -- those of us living in middle or high latitudes (above, say, 30 N, or 30 S) -- expect is that winter will be colder than summer.  Namely, we expect an annual cycle to temperature.

As part of a different project, I've computed the size of the annual cycle in the 2 meter air temperature.  (When meteorologists talk about 'surface air temperature', it really means the air 2 meters above the ground). The scale is degrees Celsius for the amplitude -- the difference between the average temperature and the warmest, or between average and coldest. If you want the range between the warmest part of the annual cycle and coldest, double this number. If you want the amplitude in Fahrenheit, double it (well, multiply by 1.8).

This is a beautiful scientific picture. Why, may not be immediately obvious, and there is more to the story than the annual cycle. 

30 July 2010

The small world of science and internationality

Science is an international activity; it's also a rather small world.  I've mentioned both of those points before, I expect, but was a little surprised to be reminded of just how small a world it is.  I was in Russia for work recently, specifically St. Petersburg.  That's the story behind Dostoevsky being my summer reading.  At the meeting, of course, I met a number of Russian scientists in my area.  One of them being Dmitry Kiktev, deputy director of the Hydrometeorological Center.

Come ahead a little, and Michael Tobis (whom I know from some years of internet contact) posts a climate/weather news bit at In it for the Gold, regarding heat and fires in Russia.  The scientist quoted is ... Dmitry Kiktev.  In St. Petersburg, we experienced temperatures 20-25 F (10-12 C) above normal the whole week I was there (normal being 72-75 F, we had 95+).  The article is talking about Moscow, but to the same end -- extraordinary temperatures being observed.

A different thing which I'll get to is the Climate Doctrine of the Russian Federation, which I received a copy of when we visited the Main Geophysical Observatory in St. Petersburg.  One virtue it has (at least the English version; I don't speak or read Russian) is that it's short -- 22 pages of 5x8" (12x20 cm) text.  Not so much a story as points for discussion.  Different stories about the visit.

29 July 2010

Scientific spectating

The peculiar subject line is to introduce a new series of posts I'll be making -- scientific spectating.  My idea is that there is too much science in the universe for us (any of us) to be expert about all of it.  On the other hand, same as there are too many sports to be expert at doing them all, we can all learn to be good spectators.  And being an informed spectator is its own kind of rewarding activity. 

It can be helpful to keep Science Jabberwocky in mind.  Individual terms can be pretty mystifying, but it can be obvious that certain ones are important -- CCR5 means nothing to me directly, but I know that it has something or other to do with plague and partial resistance that some Europeans have towards AIDS.  In a similar vein, you can know that Shaquille O'Neal is a center, without knowing exactly what a basketball center does.  On the other hand, you will find it easier to follow basketball if you know that he is a center.  Knowing that, you can watch what he does, and what other centers do.  After some time of that, you can appreciate watching the game much more.

It was in this vein that I appreciated some papers and comments in the late 1990s and early 2000s, regarding the expansion of the universe.  The expansion of the universe (the 'toves') had been expected to be slowing ('slithy').  After all, gravity was pulling everything together.  But then there were some observations presented which said that the toves were not slithy after all (that the expansion of the universe was not slowing).  It turned out that the expansion of the universe looked to be accelerating (mimsy).  In terms of doing the science myself, it may as well have been Jabberwocky.  But I could spectate -- clearly there was a conflict between the expected slithy-ness and the newly-observed mimsy-ness. 

As a spectator, I knew to start looking for papers defending the slithy-ness of the toves, or attacking the claimed observations of the mimsy-ness, or both.  That, or even newer papers supporting the recently new claims of the mimsy-ness of the toves (er, accelerating expansion of the universe).  And I saw just that.  As it worked out, the papers supporting the mimsy-ness of the toves were stronger, and held the field.  I was able to watch and appreciate that much.  In the same vein, I can appreciate watching a college basketball game -- seeing one team take up a zone defense, and the other break the zone by feeding the ball to their excellent outside shooter, or fail in their attempt to do so.  As a spectator, I know that the offensive team has to do something to counter the zone defense, and look for it.

It is this that the series will attempt to do -- help educate readers in how to be good spectators of science.  A related point being, most of the best spectators of sports are people who love playing the game themselves (whatever the game is).  You may not be professional level, any more than I am at basketball (or any other sport!).  But it can be more fun to spectate when you play the game sometimes yourself.  To that end, see my 'project folder' links, and keep asking questions.

Since I like a conversational approach to blogging, I'll invite comments, questions, suggestions at this point as to how you'd like to see this series go, whether you think it can be useful (and how), and so forth.

28 July 2010

Revisiting a sea ice prediction

Regular readers will recall that in late March to early April, there was a fair amount of excitement in some parts of the web about the Arctic sea ice cover having reached almost to climatology.  That was rather exciting given that for much of the last several years the Arctic extent had been from moderately to extremely below climatology.  I wrote up my take in Arctic Sea Ice Updates.  Some of the excitable sources on the web were talking about sea ice recovering and the like. My comment back then (April 7, 2010) was:

So my guess for where we are in the Arctic: The ice formed by late season freezing and conveyor belt is thin.  There has not been time for it to freeze thickly, nor for it to get mechanically piled up to be thick.  The expansive winds that lead to the increase in extent also mean driving the ice towards warmer water.  If the current pattern of blowing the ice out towards the edge were to be sustained, it points to a temporary high value for extent, and then a rapid drop in extent as the ice melts, or as winds reverse and compact the ice pack.

It's now almost 4 months later.  What happened to the ice pack?  Did it continue to hang near climatology?  Go above climatology?  Or did it sink rather rapidly back below climatology, as I'd suggested it would?  The NSIDC report for July 6th notes that June saw the fastest recorded decline in June Arctic sea ice extent, and the lowest June Arctic sea ice extent. 

21 July 2010

I am John Abraham

Those of you of a certain age, or a certain other age, will remember the scene from the movie Spartacus where everyone steps forward and declares himself or herself to be Spartacus.  So it goes now.  Fortunately, it is only threats against jobs and not, yet, lives which are at hand. 

Still, someone's job is indeed being threatened, and the 'transgression' involved is to address the scientific content, or lack thereof, in the whiner's threatener's presentations.  That would be no matter for concern if the threatener were some nonentity.  But it is a person who has testified to the US Senate regarding the science of climate change.  That makes it rather a serious issue -- this is not a marginal person whining from the distant reaches of the auditorium.  This is a person with the ear of US Senators.

The person being threatened is John Abraham.  He's a scientist at a small university in Minnesota who took the time to address the scientific claims of the person who styles himself as Lord Monckton, and, among other things, who recently was invited to address the US Senate on climate change.  Abraham's response is at his University of St. Thomas web page.  I encourage you to view/listen to the presentation Abraham made.  And, of course, to examine yourself the original comments of Monckton's.  And then to hit the scientific literature yourself to see who represented the science most accurately.

I'll include a raft more links below the fold, as many comments are already out there.

The thing which has me writing is the fact that this is such an absurd response from Monckton -- if he were at all interested in the science.  That places this in to the 'weeding sources' category.  If you're interested in the science, you, first, try to get it right yourself.  Then, if someone else points to places where you might have gotten your science wrong (and, in fact, spectacularly wrong), your response is to correct your errors.  You don't have to like it.  Scientists are human, after all, and nobody likes to have it shown that they're wrong.  Still, you do it.  What you don't do is try to get fired the person who showed that you were wrong.  But Monckton indeed responds to correction by trying to get his corrector fired. 

So I encourage you to send your support to Abraham, by facebook group, to email his university, or the like (see, for instance, Hot Topic's petition to sign).  We need more people who are willing to address the scientific content of public statements about climate.  And they need to be reasonably confident that they're not going to lose their jobs for trying to speak honestly about the science.

20 July 2010

Catching up on comments

I'm on my way back from break and catching up in general, not just on comments. It looks like several species of bizarreness chose to break loose while I was taking my break, and it'll be a while to catch up to those too.

Several comments in on summer reading.  My current summer reading is The Karamazov Brothers, by Fyodor Dostoevsky.  It's the Wordsworth Classics edition, which I picked up for about $4.50 in St. Petersburg, Russia.  Yes, there's a story involved, and I'll get to that in a later note.  There might even be a picture or two.

Two more comments on When will the ice be gone?.  Ecologists are a good group to try to get ideas from (per Hank's comment about how to get an idea of what levels of ice loss are particularly meaningful).  And I see that Belette and I have an area of interesting agreement, [update, that's disagreement] which suggests a later post to be made.  Our point of broader agreement is that neither of us takes my estimate in that post terribly seriously.  My aim being more to illustrate a way to approach the question.  The exact answer ... not so important.

Crandles has some thoughts about Sea ice estimations.  One quick response I'll make is that a reason for some of the variation, or lack thereof, is that the curves are for 14 day averages.  Consequently, you won't see much happening at shorter time scales.

14 June 2010

Summer break

It'll be very quiet here for the next few weeks.  Even though I'm not in school, summer break is not a bad idea.

Not sure what I'll be doing for my break reading.  Thoughts about good summer reading, for me or others, welcome.

04 June 2010

Supporting some good work

Following April's mention of  world autism awareness day in April, I'll mention an effort to improve a school for special needs students.  It is for a school near my sister (see more of her comments about autistic kids at that awareness day note) that includes autistic children:

Create safe, sensory Environments for special needs school children

03 June 2010

When will Arctic ice be gone?

The short answer, before I give you all the qualifiers needed to make sense of it, is 2035, give or take 7 years.

The curve above will take some explaining. But first some other important clarifications:

Often, people don't distinguish between types of ice. So you'll hear them talk about 'ice is growing', when what they mean is the center of the Greenland ice cap, or Antarctic sea ice. My comment is specific to Arctic sea ice.

Another trap people fall in to is not paying attention to what sort of statement about ice is being made. There are two parts to this. I'm referring to sea ice extent, not area (well, at 0 extent you also have 0 area, but it's still something to keep in mind). Also, I'm referring to the monthly average for September. If some day showed zero ice cover before my 2035, give or take, that doesn't disprove the prediction. It takes a solid calendar month, September, of no ice to support or refute the prediction.

Then there's the fact that it's a probabilistic prediction.  2035 is the mid-point.  By my estimation method, there's about a 50% chance (54%) that 2035 or some year before that will show zero ice extent for September.  It's only 6% that we'd see zero ice in 2029 (or before) .  And rises to 96% that we'll see zero ice (for the month) in 2042 or before.  The 'or before' is important.

How I got to those predictions turns on the probability thing I mentioned in this year's sea ice estimation note, of it sometimes being easier to work with the probability of something not happening, than trying to figure out directly the chances of it happening.

01 June 2010

Sea Ice Estimations

It's time to start making our estimates of sea ice for September.  I'm submitting two this year to the Sea Ice Outlook, one based on a coupled air-sea-ice model, and one based on a more mature version of my statistical method from last year.  You can join the fun by submitting a guess in the poll I'll put at the bottom of the blog.  Remember, what we're trying to predict is the September monthly average extent.  This is not the minimum daily extent, nor is it the area of ice.  Keep your eye out for these details when comparing what different people say.

I'll start by summarizing predictors:
  • Climatology 1979-2000: 7.03 million km^2
  • Climatology 1979-2008: 6.67 million km^2
  • Linear Trend 1979-2009: 5.37 million km^2
  • Wu and Grumbine modeling: 5.13 million km^2
  • Grumbine and Wu statistical ensemble: 4.78 million km^2
  • Grumbine and Wu best fit statistical: 4.59 million km^2
In doing this year's estimates, I worked with Xingren Wu.  As usual, talking out ideas with somebody made them better.  That is part of why you see two statistical predictions.

The basis of the statistical prediction starts with my eyeball reaction to this figure (this particular copy is from Julienne Stroeve by way of the Weather Underground).  It is comparing IPCC model estimates of ice against observations:
My version for predictive purposes looks like this:
(vertical axis is September average extent in million km^2; the red/orange are observations, blue is the best fit curve.)

So what's going on?

17 May 2010

Science and health

Ordinarily a subject line like 'science and health' would be followed with a note about how science was doing good things for health, or how we understood more about health because of some recent research. Instead, it's time for some reflections about looking from a scientific perspective at health issues that you might have.  Two things prompt this.  One, you're unsurprised to hear, is that I'm having a nuisance that has contributed to not being here.  The other was email I received recently about running with diabetes.  On the latter, it's important to note that you can run with diabetes.  You have to be more thoughtful and attentive about it than the usual beginner.  But it can be done.  That article was written by a runner with diabetes (Rob Carr).  The diabetes prompting him to start the running.

Whatever is at hand, you rapidly get taken to a chance to think scientifically.  My take being, remember, that science is about understanding the natural world.  Your body is a pretty important part of your natural world.  A different aspect of the consideration is that I think science, and thinking scientifically, enrich your life.  At least it does mine, and I think it's for reasons you can share.

I confess at the moment one of the attractions of the science is distraction from my body.  What happened is that I caught something in my eye.  Blown hard enough that it scratched the cornea.  It turns out that a scratched cornea is very painful, so looking at the anatomy and physiology of the eye is helpful for distracting me from that.  (Seriously: One thing that helps with pain management is aiming your attention hard on something else -- reading books, knitting, your left big toe (assuming that the pain is somewhere else, maybe the right.))

It turns out that there is very little guidance on exercising with diabetes.  So you have to do your own experimentation to understand what's going on and what you need to do, what you can get away with doing, and what you definitely cannot do.  It's imperative because exercise is an important part of managing diabetes, particularly adult-onset diabetes.

07 May 2010

Still kicking

Didn't mean to disappear and no, no problems were involved.  Just doing other things and didn't realize how much time was passing here.  One of those other things was making progress on my running.  Last week I reached 30 minutes straight running, having started with 1 minute run 1 minute walk in February.  Well, starting with physical therapy in January.

There are quite a few comments in the queue.  If you haven't seen yours, it should be coming up soon(ish).  Keep an eye at the 'most recent comments' section at the bottom. 

One of the things that brought my attention back to the blogosphere was an email from Coby Beck, who had mentioned my Does CO2 correlate with temperature?.  There was an interesting (to me at least) question from 'maxwell' which gave me the opportunity to mention a blog post a commentor to my article had made, and a professional article: David J. Thomson's Dependence of global temperatures on atmospheric CO2 and solar irradiance, PNAS, 94, 8370-8377, 1997.  My examination was intentionally pretty simple.  See Thomson for what it looks like when done professionally.  You might enjoy some of the comments in the thread at Coby's.  And, if you haven't already been doing so, take a look at his blog.

16 April 2010

Solar Science and Solar Cycle 24

Time for the sun!  Coincidence had a question about solar cycle 24 (what is it, how long are they) hitting my email box the day before I ran in to an astronomer friend who is working with the recently-launched solar dynamics observatory.

For the first, the obvious answer is the correct -- this is the 24th time since records started that the solar cycle has been on the increase.  'solar cycle increase' meaning, in part, the sunspot counts are increasing.  But the sun does a lot more than just get spots.  The Space Weather Prediction Center keeps an eye on the sun, including these other things (go have a look, see the sun as if you had x-ray vision!).  And, naturally, tries to predict things that are influenced by solar activity.  The cycles average something like 11 years, but vary greatly from cycle to cycle (8-15 years).  The activity minimum we are now leaving was unusually deep and unusually long.

On the second, I'll mention that he (William Bridgman) blogs at Dealing with creationism in astronomy.  An article that I'll be taking a look at, and encourage the more technical readers to do likewise, is his The Cosmos in Your Pocket: How Cosmological Science Became Earth Technology. I 
Here's his abstract:
Astronomy provides a laboratory for extreme physics, a window into environments at extremes of distance, temperature and density that often can't be reproduced in Earth laboratories, or at least not right away. A surprising amount of the science we understand today started out as solutions to problems in astronomy. Some of this science was key in the development of many technologies which we enjoy today. This paper describes some of these connections between astronomy and technology and their history.

12 April 2010

If I were in charge?

Carrot eater asked me to consider what I would do if I were in charge of climate research.  I assume that he wasn't going for answers like 'find a different job promptly', which does make the question a little more theoretical.  Although I do have the copy of Nature that prompted his question, I've not read that article.  So these are my own thoughts.

My first thought is the least creative -- pretty much what is already being done in pretty much the proportions it is already being done.  No doubt that I would like to make some adjustments, say more for ice-related work.  But the main lines have gotten to be the main lines because they consistently show up as areas that deliver improvement to our understanding (satellites, paleoclimate) or they consistently show up as areas hampering our understanding (clouds).  Some areas probably get more funding than ideal, or less than ideal, because humans are involved and a particularly good, or bad, field leader can have effects beyond just writing good papers and proposals.

The two that I like for creative work should start as minor niches.  If my intuition is right, they'll grow markedly, at least for a time.  Because if my intuition is right, there's a lot to be learned from here that would be useful.  But it is pretty much just my intuition, so the starting investment shouldn't be huge.

The less exciting already has some work being done, at least in related fields.  Namely, 'no approximations' modeling.  We do know the equations that describe how fluids move, for instance.  We can write programs that carry out those equations accurately.  But once you're examining a volume of fluid larger than a moderately large fish tank (call it 50 gallons, 200 liters), you have to make approximations.  Computers can't deal with the full dynamics for a larger volume than that.  Nevertheless, in the 1950s and 1960s especially, quite a lot was learned about the general circulation of the atmosphere by doing 'dishpan' experiments.  Dishpans can be set back up, and the computers given accurate representations of them.  And then we can see how close the models come to the observations. 

More about the dishpans in a later post; they were a very clever way of approaching the atmosphere.  But here's a modern version's photo:
  and see also the original press release about the memorial lab, from which I got that picture.  I was among the last students Fultz fired up his working lab for.

The more exciting, to me, notion turns on an observation that I find very striking, and very few others in the field find at all interesting.  Makes it a high risk idea -- those other people are awfully smart, good chance they're seeing a flaw that I'm not.  I'll have a little explaining to do, but the short form of the observation is: for something like the global climate surface temperature field, you only need something like 12 numbers.

08 April 2010

But is it science?

My wife, a writer, and I have a fair number of discussions about the creative process.  For all that science and literature are 'supposed' to be opposites, dislike each other, and so on, we find that there's a tremendous similarity.  Regardless of which you are pursuing, an important question to ask yourself is "Do I have something good?"  Are your characters interesting?  Have you covered every loophole that could take down your hypothesis?  More generally, "Is it art?", "Is it science?".

One of my feelings is that science is about trying to understand the world around us.  In particular, since I'm a physical scientist, to understand the natural, physical world around us.  One sort of question we could ask about the natural world is "What have global mean surface temperatures been like for the last 100 years?"  As you all know, there are controversies about that.

What strikes me, though, is that most of the controversy I encounter in the media, in the blogosphere, or elsewhere, is not about the science.

07 April 2010

Arctic Sea Ice Updates

Seems unfair for everybody else to have all the fun, so here are a few thoughts about the Arctic sea ice. This is partly prompted by Hank Roberts question about the ice.

The starting point in data is the observation that for the first time in many years, the sea ice extent for the Arctic was recently close to the climatology.  Even spending most of the last 4-6 weeks less than 2 standard deviations below climatology.  On the scale of observations, this is hardly terribly exciting -- a few days that were close to what had been the norm, and a month that was not drastically below normal (2 standard deviations below normal means below 98% of all observations).  March, for the month, nevertheless, was below normal:
NSIDC trend line for March.

So how do we reconcile the two observations -- one of a few days being near normal and the other of a monthly trend continuing, and monthly average being below normal?

01 April 2010

Autism Awareness Day

April 2nd is Autism Awareness Day.  To get information about autism, see Autism Speaks. This site was recommended to me by someone who is very knowledgeable about autism, both personally and professionally. Update: And now, a few words from her:

April is Autism Awareness Month

I’m using quality blog space on my brother’s site (and he’ll have to do the retyping) to address what autism awareness means to the families and friends of people with autism.

Current statistics cite that 1 in 110 people has some form of autism (CDC, 2010); of that 110, 70 are boys. As a very basic definition, autism is a neurological disorder (notice I don’t say disease) that affects a person’s communication, social/emotional skills and behavior throughout the course of that person’s life. There is no cure, though people respond to a smorgasbord of interventions that can include behavioral therapy, speech/language therapy and communication systems, occupational and/or physical therapy, changes in diet, and my personal favorites – social skills training and play therapy.

Even though they may fall under the umbrella of Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASDs), people with autism are as individual as snowflakes. One of my friends with autism has an encyclopedic knowledge of dinosaurs; another will only eat crunchy foods due to sensory needs. A third sounds like a robot when she talks. The lives of those we love who have autism are endlessly fascinating and sometimes just plain old quirky. But if we look at ourselves through their eyes, we’re strange, weird creatures ourselves. For example, why can’t we just say what we mean? Why does it bother you if I stand nose-to-nose with you when we’re talking? Why can’t we all just talk about dinosaurs all day long? Why do I have to have my smushy foods on the same plate as my crunchy foods and why do you do that thing where you put two arms around me and squeeze me?

My job as an advocate for people with autism is to remind us all that we don’t get to measure the quality of someone else’s life simply by the alphabet soup that surrounds their name. Maybe Shaniqua has PDD-NOS and John has Asperger’s Syndrome and Stephanie has classic ASD and Ezekiel has Fragile-X (all of these are types of autism) – but last time I checked, these are people who have favorite movies and favorite foods and who love to laugh with friends and avoid chores like the rest of us.

There’s a reason the national symbol for autism awareness is a puzzle piece. On the one hand, autism is confusing: a puzzle with multiple pieces that requires lots of us working together to understand. On the other hand, and this is my own analogy, people with autism are the puzzle pieces: necessary to completing the picture that is our humanity. They fit within our lives and they certainly fit within our hearts. And thank goodness for it.

19 March 2010

Movie time sort of

There's a movie site that decided that it would be a good idea to interview non-movie people about their tastes in movies.  I kind of liked the idea, since I'm often disagreeing with movie industry folks about movies.  So when I was invited to answer some movie questions, I did so.  You can see the result at
Robert Grumbine – Movies and the Masses.

I'm kind of impressed at the author's skill there -- finding what must be about the only two scientist characters from movies that I look better than.  (My wife would say that the list is much longer, and maybe she's right.  Just in case, I'm still not taking her in to get her eyes checked.)

But the 'masses' bit, and another part of the article bring up an interesting point about science and scientists, or at least about how I think about it, and that is the role of 'smartness'.

18 March 2010

Climate in many languages

Science is so much an international activity, I tend not to think about where exactly people are from. For that matter, many are 'from' parts of the world that they're not working in. Prompted by a recent email, I've added the language that blogs on my blogroll are in, so that you're not surprised to see Swedish when you go to Emretsson.net, for instance. In that vein, please let me know what language Stig's Klimablogg is in.

While I'm thinking about it, let me also invite your suggestions as to good science, particularly climate-connected, blogs outside of English. Please mention the language and what makes it good.

12 March 2010

Lake Erie Ice

My friends at the Great Lakes Environmental Research Lab sent me word of their nice video of ice on Lake Erie. There was an unusually long cloud-free (or at least little cloud) period, so you can actually see some ice and its motion.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IwW56v1Jt0U for the video.

Something for you to look at while I'm off-net for a few days.

When I'm back on line, I'll be answering some of the questions that are still outstanding. New questions and comments can still come in, just be aware that the moderation delay will be longer than usual. questions here. I'll also be looking in to adding a widget that will let you see the most recent comments. Since the blog is conversational, if a slow conversation, I do take them as an important part of what goes on here. (Or you can subscribe to the comment feed, icon over on the right hand column.)

WUWT trumpets result supporting climate modelling

The recent article at WUWT
NSIDC Reports That Antarctica is Cooling and Sea Ice is Increasing trumpets the observation that Antarctic sea ice is increasing.  This is expected from climate modeling.  Nice to see someone else is picking up on this interesting confirmation of our scientific expectation.

The prediction is old.  In 1992 Manabe and coworkers, in running a changing CO2 experiment, noticed that the Antarctic sea ice cover increased with increasing CO2.  They traced this to increased fresh water on the Antarctic ocean, which derived from increased precipitation -- snow.  They also observed in their model that the Arctic ocean sea ice experienced a marked decline in thickness, and major loss of extent in the summer, but not so large a decrease in the winter.  At the time they wrote, it was still being debated whether there were trends in the Arctic or Antarctic sea ice covers.

The trend in Antarctic ice cover managed to be statistically significant by about 1997, as documented in

D. Cavalieri, P. Gloersen, C. L. Parkinson, J. C. Comiso, H. J. Zwally,
"Observed Hemispheric Asymmetry in Global Sea ice Changes", Science,
278, pp 1104-1106, 1997.  And it was indeed the expected (by Manabe and coworkers) increase.  As well as the expected decrease in the Arctic.

That left the question of the mechanism.  Did Manabe and coworkers identify the correct reason for the sea ice expansion?  Increased snowfall on Antarctic sea ice was documented in 2006 --

Markus, T., and Cavalieri, D. J., "Interannual and regional variability
of Southern Ocean snow on sea ice", Annals of Glaciology, 44, pp 53-57, 2006. (sorry, paywall here).

Since I'm a modeller, I focus on the modelling aspect.  Skeptical science (recently added to blogroll) has a different take about Antarctic sea ice, looking more at atmospheric and ocean temperatures
Watts Up With That's ignorance regarding Antarctic sea ice, with more to come.

11 March 2010

How can annual average temperatures be so precise?

The comments on what should be reproducible raise the subject's question -- since a given thermometer reading is only within, say, 0.8 degrees, how can we claim to know the annual average temperature to 0.01 degrees for the globe?

One thing to remember is that the 0.8 is not the size of the error on every single observation.  Some will be extremely close to correct, and some will be 0.4 off -- large, but not the 0.8.  The 0.8 error is the range that we expect to see 95% of the observations be better than.  Still, with errors that large, how can we get a global average that's within 0.01?

I hit on an experimental way to demonstrate this, without requiring you all to set up thousands of meteorological stations around the world and then collect observations for a year.  Namely, get yourself 8 coins.  If you prefer making computers do things, a spread sheet will work as well, or you can write the program from scratch.

09 March 2010

Technological regress

If you've been reading for a while, you might want to swallow and put down the coffee cup.  I've posted several times about technological progress and have been favorable to it.  And it's correct to think that I'm favorable to technological improvements and expect more to come. 

But not all uses of technology represent progress.  And not all things can be cured by technology. 

07 March 2010

What should be reproducible?

I'll make the assumption that astrophysics is science.  That shouldn't be terribly surprising, given both that folks tend to talk about it as being science, often as being a particularly beautiful branch of science, and that I've studied it myself.  But starting from that assumption suggests that either astrophysics is not science after all, or that many of the complaints about climatology are ill-founded.  At least in the sense that if they should be taken seriously (speakers rejecting the idea that climatology is science) then astrophysics, and quite a lot of other sciences, should be rejected as well.  Now I do know some folks who do reject astrophysics and some other sciences, so some people probably do mean that.

But let's think a bit more about what reproducibility means.  I took it up lightly earlier, regarding pretty much just climate data set reproducibility.  Please excuse the narrow focus as just attention to my own area.  I'll broaden scope some here.

On one extreme end of notions of reproducibility is the idea that anybody, anywhere, should be able to reproduce your results -- or else you aren't doing science.  I don't think that's actually been held to be a requirement for science at any time in history, so such folks are arguing for a change in how science is done.  Maybe they're right; let's think about it.  As with many ponderings, this goes for a while ....

04 March 2010

How to handle personal attacks

It's always a pleasure, in part because of how rare and difficult it is, to see someone respond well to a host of personal attacks.  One of those exceptional, and funny, responses is from Rebecca Watson, the 'skepchick'.  Apparently quite a few folks have decided that rather than respond to the content of her arguments, they'll comment about her eyebrows and other such irrelevancies. 

Follow through to the end of the video to her exactly correct conclusion about such arguments.

h/t Pharyngula

03 March 2010

Why is the ocean cold?

Folks reading headlines about record warm oceans might be surprised by this question. But it's a real question, if perhaps from a different viewpoint than you might think.

If we look at the surface of the ocean, we see that most of the ocean is warm. The presentation at the link over-emphasizes the polar regions -- they're actually much less of the earth's area. Even so, over half the ocean -- surface -- is warmer than 20 C.

So you might figure that the volume of the ocean would also be some moderately warm figure, maybe a bit colder since cold water sinks, but still fairly warm. Surely over 10? In fact, the volume of the ocean -- average up every blob of water there is -- averages 3.5 C. Go back to the surface map and take a look at how much of the ocean is that cold. Answer: Not much. Even less when you allow for the fact that the map is exaggerating how big the polar regions are (I get about 14% of the ocean surface was at least that cold on February 26th). The importance of those small areas of cold water is that there is no refrigerator in the ocean. Once water leaves the surface of the ocean (except for one even smaller exception I'll get to), there's no way to make the water any colder. So if you see water that's -1.0 C in the ocean, you know it came from somewhere that had water at least as cold as -1.0 C. It could have been even colder -- the original cold blob might have mixed with a warmer blob of water.

Some of you might have objected up there when I mentioned that the average ocean temperature is 3.5. There's a fairly popular error that says the deep ocean has to be 4 C. It runs this way: Water is densest at 4 C, so as you cool a body of water, once it reaches 4 C all this cold water sinks to the deeps. As you cool the surface further, the water is less dense, so it quits sinking. That leaves you with 4 C water in the deep.

02 March 2010

Coping with Math

I confess that for the most part, math has been something that I enjoy and have fun with.  'Coping' hasn't so much been my experience; but I have known plenty of people for whom it was more difficult, and even highly unpleasant, activity.  Since it sometimes turns in to an obstacle that scares people away from doing science, and I like science as well as the math, I do keep an eye out for books that might help people past that obstacle.

My favorite book in that realm is Sheila Tobias' Overcoming Math Anxiety.  Her story was being one of those people who had been scared out of math and science.  Later, she decided that she liked physics and would slog through the math she had to, that was preventing her from doing the science she liked.  Along the way, she discovered many myths that she had bought in to, things that produced anxiety in her when math was mentioned.  Hence the title. 

In talking with people, anxiety stands out as a major barrier.  One of the myths I'll mention here is that some people just have some magical 'math gene' that makes it easy for them, and nobody else can do any math.  But it's only math that needs this magical gene.  Nobody says "I can't play basketball, I don't have the magic gene for it."  Basketball, we all know, you can play regardless.  If you practice more, you'll get better.  If you want to play professionally, then, yes, you need good genes.  And that's probably also true for mathematics.  But you don't need to be a professional level basketball player to enjoy playing the game.  And you don't need to be a professional level mathematician to do science.

01 March 2010

Science humor

No, I won't inflict any mathematician/engineer/scientist jokes on you.  (Not that I couldn't ....)  I've been reminded recently of some good science humor cartooning.

Online, you might enjoy:
PHD Comics

A science cartoonist I've enjoyed for years and recently reread his collections Einstein Simplified and Einstein Atomized is Sidney Harris.  You can get an online taste here

And, though it was never really a science cartoon, Gary Larson's Far Side is a favorite of mine, and was quite popular among scientists.

27 February 2010

Pacific Ocean Tsunami Warning

There has been a massive earthquake in Chile, magnitude 8.8.  It has resulted in a tsunami warning from the Pacific Tsunami Warning Center  for the entire Pacific ocean basin.  As I write, it is 1910 UTC on the 27th, past initial arrival time for many locations.  But not past first arrival for many.  The predicted arrival times are also available (keep an eye on the site for updated information!).  Tsunami can be dangerous for hours after first arrival time as different waves arrive.  Tsunami does not necessarily equate to disaster, some of the wave heights being observed are less than 1 meter (3 feet).  But if you're near the Pacific Ocean, it is definitely time to get informed and take appropriate action.

h/t Phil Plait

See All of My Faults Are Stress-Related: How big was that EQ? Magnitude vs intensity in Chile and Haiti Kim Hannula's blog, shearsensibility, for informed discussion of what magnitude means. 8.8 is far bigger a quake than the 7.0 that hit Haiti.

What is training?

It's easy, but wrong, to think that training is what you're doing when you're working out in the gym, or running outside, and so on.  That misses some important parts of what your body is doing -- normally, during exercise, and following exercise.  I've constructed a casual sort of diagram to illustrate what happens:
If you do nothing, your fitness declines over time.  (At least for those of you over about 30-35.)  What's happening is that your body has very strong 'use it or lose it' tendencies.  It is always tearing down muscle and bone, for instance.  It is always, also, building muscle and bone.  As you get older, though, the 'build' tendency declines, and the tear down takes over.  For some good descriptions of the processes, and places to read deeper, see Younger Next Year, by Chris Crowley and Henry S. Lodge, MD.

The main signal to your body that it needs to do more building is to use it.

22 February 2010

Dare to ask a question!

I sometimes browse the referrals to my site, and was surprised to see someone commenting that they 'dare not' post here.  Most peculiar.  Unless the author of that comment is incapable of writing without profanity, or can't staying on topic (and his comment there showed no such signs), they certainly may 'dare' to post here.  At least as far as I'm concerned.  If there are employer-based reasons, well, that's out of my hands.

It's a while since I've put up a 'question place' note, so here's one for current questions.  Be daring, ask a question!

Which sources to trust?

Weeding sources is my tag for articles about deciding which sources to trust.  I'm far from the only person who considers this an important topic, of course.  The articles I prefer are, like mine, ones where there's some detailed effort to look at what a source doing and what is dishonest.

Lately Tim Lambert at Deltoid has been taking up the question of a journalist -- Jonathan Leake -- and paper (The Times, in the UK) and their reporting on climate.  The Rabett has written up a nice summary of Tim's posts on this theme.  The upshot being, Leake and The Times are unreliable sources, both for making up things and for not correcting their errors.  But see Tim's researches that establish those points.  Much more work there than Leake is putting in to his artifices.

20 February 2010

Setting goals for your workouts

One of the more important things coaches do is set goals for their athletes.  If the coach is more of my type, it's a matter of helping the athlete choose good goals.  I'm writing here on the principle that you're your own coach. 

Good goals are opportunities for successes.  Each success helps invigorate you, and encourage you towards your next goal.  This gives us some guidance on how to select goals.  One part is, there should be a progression of goals.  Rather than have one major goal, for instance 'run a marathon', you should have a number of goals that build towards the bigger one.  In this case, it could be something like 'run a 5k', 'run a 10k', 'run a 15k', 'run a half-marathon', and then, finally 'run a marathon'.  (I strongly recommend this if you're contemplating the 'run a marathon'.)  Break down the big goal in to a series of stepping stones.  That gives you successes along the way, and some positive feedback to encourage you.

A second aspect comes from considering the 'opportunity for success'.  When I was racing regularly a few years ago, I ran the mile in 5:51.  I was both happy and sad, mostly happy, with that time.  The reason being, I had multiple goals for my time that day.  The optimistic goal, which was probably achievable if I had paced myself better and not gotten some bad personal news a few minutes before the race, was 5:40.  My realistic goal, something that I figured I should be able to reach if I didn't race particularly stupidly or get particularly tangled up in a pack, was 6:00.  And my conservative goal, which should have been hard for me not to reach even if I had run stupidly and did tangle in a pack, was 6:10.  Ok, I didn't get the optimistic goal (which was probably too optimistic, given the others).  But I did beat the conservative and reasonable goals, so a success.  And some feedback on how to race the mile better.  That was my first mile race in over 20 years.

Results, though, are a little dicy as goals.

16 February 2010

Do I have to be good in math to be good at science?

The short answer: No.  Before the longer answer, here's the full comment/question from the teacher:

Question:  Do I have to be good in math to be good at science?

The reason I ask this is that many scientifically inclined students I know are not going to pursue science as they get older because they perceive themselves to be less than stellar in math. This is a shame. And a waste.  Please stress to the young, hormonally-infused people who read your blog (not the adults-one hopes they've figured it out already) that science is a process, just like running, and eating and IMing on the phone. And math is a tool -- a really great, useful tool -- that's part of the process.

Splitting hairs? I don't think so. I've got a few 5th graders who I've shared your blog with, and they were enjoying themselves until they hit the math and freaked out. Nooooooo, I say, fear not the many zeros and exponents. It all makes sense as you practice it (even I can say that).

So ... address my question. My 5th graders will thank you. And, of course, so will I!

I whole-heartedly second everything the teacher said.  The 'enjoying themselves until they hit the math and freaked out' is also not limited to the 5th graders. I've heard from some distinctly older folks about this too.  It's why I'll be making some changes to my posting practices.

For the students, there are two different questions to think about.  One is, what does it mean to be 'good at math', and the other is 'what am I doing when I'm doing science?'.  I'll share some of my thoughts and invite students and teachers to share theirs as well.  Questions, as always, welcome.

A short introduction to the metric system

We do use the metric system, or, more specifically, the Systeme Internationale, in doing science.  This causes no grief for any countries outside the US.  But about half my readers are in the US, so there is a constant issue about using the scientific units to talk about scientific topics.  (I'm sufficiently native that when discussing non-scientific topics, I do normally use feet/fathoms/rods/miles/....)

For the use of readers who tend to freeze when seeing metric units, here is a quick and dirty guide.  Emphasis on quick and dirty.  It will not be accurate, but it will give you the right general sense.  Good enough, at least, for Science Jabberwocky purposes.  It should also do for the non-US readers who are baffled when I use only the Imperial units.  (I try to avoid that, but probably lapse.)

15 February 2010

iPhone climate app

A site I haven't listed yet, but should, is Skepticalscience.  They've now made a iPhone app from their web site materials.  App is at:


Their introduction of the app is here:


Main page is, naturally  http://www.skepticalscience.com

If anyone is an iPhone user and gets the app, let us know what you think.  I have heard good things already, but I don't think from the local readers.

 This reminds me of a couple things ...