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.