Another Way to Frame Climate Change

A few weekends ago, a local group I volunteer with had a “Science Pub Night” with Dr. Deborah Lawrence, a UVA professor of environmental science, about climate change. Dr. Lawrence studies the effects of deforestation on climate and has also worked extensively in the policy aspects of forest and climate science, and her talk was (mostly) about the importance of forests and land use to climate change. If you want to see more, I livetweeted it.

One thing I especially liked was a way she mentions she tries to better frame climate change to make it more relatable to people. It is (rightly) acknowledged that the Earth has seen larger temperature variations, but it is equally right to point out that those generally happen on longer time scales than we see now, or at least they do if they’re not also accompanied by mass extinction events. So Dr. Lawrence had a very human timescale to relate this change to. One of the most optimistic climate goals is to keep global warming to an average global temperature rise (compared to “preindustrial” temperatures, often early 1900s before extensive fossil fuel burning) of only 1 degree Celsius by 2100. 200 years for one degree might not sound bad to our scale, but Dr. Lawrence points out prior to the 20th century, ALL OF CIVILIZATION (e.g. let’s go with recorded history, so about 5000 years) had only seen the average global temperature only vary within a window of half a degree C*. So even our most hopeful plan essentially means adapting to a doubling of whatever variance any human society with large infrastructure has seen, and doing that in a time frame shorter than the building of some temples and cathedrals during the Middle Ages.

Another way she framed it was to more directly relate climate to weather, since most people don’t think in terms of average temperatures. (To prove this, Dr. Lawrence asked if anyone in the bar could say the average temperature for Charlottesville or wherever they were from off the top of their head, and no one could.) So instead, she has looked at models to see how a warming climate changes how often certain temperature thresholds are reached in different places. Dr. Lawrence has studied forests in Kenya, and one concern there is days of “debilitating heat”. This is when the temperature goes above 39 degrees C (102 degrees F!), and for people who generally live without air conditioning, the point where your body can basically only regulate your temperature if you don’t do much physical activity. Currently, Kenya has about 20 days of debilitating heat in a year, but in a world of 1 deg C warming, that goes to over 100 days per year! That would drastically change their lives. Even if you assume air conditioning becomes common, having AC and the electrical grid deal with over 100 degree temperatures for almost a third of the year becomes a great drain on infrastructure and communities will need to plan for that if they want to make sure their systems don’t overload.

*Edit to add: I may have misunderstood Dr. Lawrence or she may have mispoke in giving her value of “average temperature variance” across history, but I do want to point out that some temperature reconstructions of the Little Ice Age suggest that temperature went down more than 0.5 C from the pre-industrial norm, maybe up to 0.7-0.9 C. (The graph there compares temperatures to the 1950-1980s average.) Dr. Lawrence may also think those reconstructions are less reliable, but that was way outside the focus of her talk, so I don’t know why and didn’t get a chance to ask her. Those very deep decreases also quickly oscillate back to less extreme values, so the average may still work out to 0.5 C if you exclude short-term climate cycles.

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When Physics Became King – A Book Review (OK, Book Report), part 1

While picking up some books for my dissertation from the science and engineering library, I stumbled across an history book that sounded interesting: When Physics Became King. I enjoy it a lot so far, and hope to remember it, so writing about it seems useful. I also think it brings up some interesting ideas to relate to modern debates, so blogging about the book seems even more useful.

Some recaps and thoughts, roughly in the thematic order the book presents in the first three chapters:

  • It’s worth pointing out how deeply tied to politics natural philosophy/physics was as it developed into a scientific discipline in the 17th-19th centuries. We tend to think of “science policy” and the interplay between science and politics as a 20th century innovation, but the establishment of government-run or sponsored scientific societies was a big deal in early modern Europe. During the French Revolution, the Committee of Public Safety suppressed the old Royal Academy and the later establishment of the Institut Nationale was regarded as an important development for the new republic. Similarly, people’s conception of science was considered intrinsically linked to their political and often metaphysical views. (This always amuses me when people hope science communicators like Neil deGrasse Tyson or Bill Nye should shut up, since the idea of science as something that should influence our worldviews is basically as old as modern science.)
  • Similarly, science was considered intrinsically linked to commerce, and the desire was for new devices to better reflect the economy of nature by more efficiently converting energy between various forms. I also am greatly inspired by the work of Dr. Chanda Prescod-Weinstein, a theoretical physicist and historian of science and technology on this. One area that Morus doesn’t really get into is that the major impetus for astronomy during this time is improving celestial navigation, so ships can more efficiently move goods and enslaved persons between Europe and its colonies (Prescod-Weinstein discusses this in her introduction to her Decolonizing Science Reading List, which she perennially updates with new sources and links to other similar projects). This practical use of astronomy is lost to most of us in modern society and we now focus on spinoff technology when we want to sell space science to public, but it was very important to establishing astronomy as a science as astrology lost its luster. Dr. Prescod-Weinstein also brings up an interesting theoretical point I didn’t consider in her evaluation of the climate of cosmology, and even specifically references When Physics Became King. She notes that the driving force in institutional support of physics was new methods of generating energy and thus the establishment of energy as a foundational concept in physics (as opposed to Newton’s focus on force) may be influenced by early physics’ interactions with early capitalism.
  • The idea of universities as places where new knowledge is created was basically unheard of until late in the 1800s, and they were very reluctant to teach new ideas. In 1811, it was a group of students (including William Babbage and John Herschel) who essentially lead Cambridge to a move from Newtonian formulations of calculus to the French analytic formulation (which gives us the dy/dx notation), and this was considered revolutionary in both an intellectual and political sense. When Carl Gauss provided his thoughts on finding a new professor at the University of Gottingen, he actually suggested that highly regarded researchers and specialists might be inappropriate because he doubted their ability to teach broad audiences.
  • The importance of math in university education is interesting to compare to modern views. It wasn’t really assumed that future imperial administrators would use calculus, but that those who could learn it were probably the most fit to do the other intellectual tasks needed.
  • In the early 19th century, natural philosophy was the lowest regarded discipline in the philosophy faculties in Germany. It was actually Gauss who helped raise the discipline by stimulating research as a part of the role of the professor. The increasing importance of research also led to a disciplinary split between theoretical and experimental physics, and in the German states, being able to hire theoretical physicists at universities became a mark of distinction.
  • Some physicists were allied to Romanticism because the conversion of energy between various mechanical, chemical, thermal, and electrical forms was viewed as showing the unity of nature. Also, empiricism, particularly humans directly observing nature through experiments, was viewed as a means of investigating the mind and broadening experience.
  • The emergence of energy as the foundational concept of physics was controversial. One major complaint was that people have a less intuitive conception of energy than forces, which are considered a lot. Others objected that energy isn’t actually a physical property, but a useful calculational tool (and the question of what exactly energy is still pops up in modern philosophy of science, especially in how to best explain it). The development of theories of luminiferous (a)ether are linked a bit to this as an explanation of where electromagnetic energy is – ether theories suggested the ether stored the energy associated with waves and fields.

The Work of Dr. Wesley Harris

Dr. Wesley Harris was one of the first African-American students accepted to UVA and the first African-American member of the Jefferson Literary and Debating Society, a club I joined during my time in grad school. For Black History Month, I wanted to look up his work and share it with other people. I said this would be the engineering equivalent of our law students looking up the case history of our first woman member, Barbara Lynn.

Wesley Harris sitting behind a microphone

Wesley Harris was born in Richmond in 1941, and was interested in flight from a young age. As a child, he would make model airplanes out of balsa wood or plastic, and he even made self-powered ones that used rubber bands. By fourth grade, he wanted to be a test pilot. Harris was one of seven Black students first admitted to the University of Virginia in 1960. The students were only allowed to study within the School of Engineering and Applied Science. A friend who knew the history told me this was because “practical” engineering work was considered the only suitable field of study for these seven students, and they were barred from the “intellectual” College of Arts and Sciences and other units.

Harris invited Martin Luther King Jr. to speak at UVA in 1963, which was considered momentous in the history of UVA and, to some, revitalized King’s momentum in the Birmingham campaign. The administration at the time did not really acknowledge the King visit and the then-president of the university did not meet with him. While walking with King and the professor hosting him, Harris heard a loud noise and tried to protect King thinking it was a gun shot, but it turned out to be car engine blowing out. Harris was inducted into Tau Beta Pi, the engineering honor society, and for his senior year (or if you insist on the UVA terminology, “fourth year”) was accepted to live on the Lawn of the Academical Village, the original part of the university grounds designed by Thomas Jefferson. For non-UVA people, living on the Lawn is a BIG deal and basically like an honor society of its own. Lots of people believe Harris was the first Black student to live on the Lawn, but Harris will be one of the first to say he was actually the second and point out that he came after Leroy Willis. Harris graduated with honors in aeronautical engineering in 1964.

Harris went on to graduate school at Princeton, where he earned a master’s and PhD in aerospace and mechanical sciences. He then went back to UVA as a professor, becoming the first African-American professor in the engineering school and the first to receive tenure at UVA. He taught at UVA for two years before moving to Southern University, a historically Black university in Louisiana, and then took a visiting professor position at MIT before joining the aeronautics and astronautics department there full-time.

Dr. Harris’ early research focused on fluid dynamics and the acoustic properties of rotor blades (like helicopter blades). He studied objects moving close to or above the speed of sound and the noise they generate. This is important because excessive noise represents lost efficiency in a rotor. Additionally, if high-speed supersonic/hypersonic vehicles are to become a reality, we need to reduce the noise they generate from shock waves (a common complaint about the Concorde when it used to fly). Dr. Harris worked to replace “semi-empirical” (a term in engineering that often means we’ve found a way to mathematically describe something, but don’t understand the principles well) models of shock waves from helicopter rotors with more theoretically-backed analytical models. This work on helicopters and high-speed air flows earned him a spot as a fellow of the American Institute for Aeronautics and Astronautics (AIAA). His work and service have also made him a fellow of the National Academy of Engineering. For professional researchers, becoming a fellow of a scientific society is basically the grown-up version of being in a high school or college honor society, and being a fellow of one of the National Academies is one of the highest honors you can get in STEM fields.

Since around 2000, Dr. Harris has studied the fluid dynamics of sickle cell disease. If you’re aware of sickle cell disease, you may generally think of the problem being the defective hemoglobin sickle cells have that is less efficient at carrying oxygen. However, another problem is that the strange shape of sickle cells can cause them to get stuck and accumulate in smaller blood vessels, causing a “sickle cell crisis”. Dr. Harris and his students have been developing models to better predict what causes the onset of crises, looking at both the movement of the blood cells and the chemical diffusion of oxygen during a crisis.

Like many other STEM professors who reach a certain age, Dr. Harris has also been very active in understanding and improving engineering education. In 1996, he wrote a paper for AIAA titled “Will the last aeronautical engineering turn out the light?”, looking at the evolution of aeronautical engineering curricula since WWII. In the article, he raises a concern that that newer changes are de-emphasizing engineering science fundamentals to focus on specific technology systems companies want students to know, but could quickly become outdated over the course of an engineer’s career.

in 2012, Dr. Harris co-authored “Opportunities and Challenges in Corrosion Education” with the current chair of the materials science department at UVA as part of a program for the National Research Council. The paper argued that knowledge of corrosion is informally handled in many engineering programs and often non-existent. At the undergraduate level, most schools without research faculty do not teach corrosion concepts, and if they do, the topic is rarely covered in required classes and is only given a lecture or two’s worth of time. (UVA gets a positive shout out here for the MSE department’s class on fuel cells, batteries, and corrosion that links them all through a focus on basic electrochemistry.) At the graduate level, the report expressed concern that research funding into corrosion is declining. I think this paper is particularly important in that it partially predicts the conversation developing in engineering circles after the Flint water crisis. Although even after reading through dozens of articles and engineering memos by contractors, I still don’t entirely understand the technical conversations that went on, I think the report’s fear that corrosion engineering wasn’t taught conceptually came into play here. If you were just going off something like a corrosion chart, you might not understand why highly chlorinated water poses a corrosion risk otherwise stable metals and alloys.

Finally, Dr. Harris has been incredibly active in serving the broader scientific and engineering communities. He was dean of the School of Engineering at the University Connecticut from 1985 to 1990 and a member of Princeton’s Board of Trustees from  2001 to 2005.  He chaired the National Research Council’s Committee to Assess NASA’s Aeronautic Flight Research capabilities, which concluded that NASA should enhance its research into Earth-based flight in the 2010s in a way to enable a boom similar to how NASA’s work in the 90s enabled modern commercial and military use of drones. In particular, the committee said NASA should test more environmentally friendly aircraft and supersonic passenger aircraft to spur on those fields. At the National Academy of Engineering, Dr. Harris serves on the Committee on Grand Challenges for Engineering, defining important issues for engineering to solve. It seems incredibly appropriate that this trailblazing figure for engineering and society in the 20th century now works to identify the challenges we will face in the 21st century. And of course, this was only a summary of what Dr. Harris has done. If you want to see more, you can start at his MIT faculty page.

Galileo Did Do Experiments

After finding an old book of mine, The Ten Most Beautiful Experiments, over winter break, I wanted to follow up on my last post. I’ll say that this post is based almost entirely on that book’s chapter on Galileo, but since I don’t see it summarized in many places, I thought it was worth writing up. It is somewhat in vogue to claim that Galileo didn’t actually perform his experiments on falling bodies, and his writings just describe thought experiments. However, this actually confuses two different experiments attributed to Galileo. Most historians do believe stories of Galileo dropping weights from the Leaning Tower of Pisa are apocryphal and come from people confusing what is a thought experiment that Salviati, one of the fictional conversationalists in Two New Sciences, describes doing there, or a relatively unsourced claim by Galileo’s secretary in a biography after his death.

However, Salviati also describes an experiment that Galileo is recognized as having done: measuring the descent of balls of different weights down ramps, which also follow the same basic equation as bodies in free fall, but modified by the angle of slope. I think a few people may doubt Galileo actually completed the ramp experiment, based on criticisms by Alexandre Koyré in the 1950s that Galileo’s methods seemed too vague or imprecise to measure the acceleration. However, many researchers (like the Rice team in an above link) have found it possible to get data close to Galileo’s using the method Salviati describes. Additionally, another historian, Stillman Drake, who had access to more of Galileo’s manuscripts found what appears to be records of raw experimental data that show reasonable error. Drake also suggests that Galileo may have originally kept time through the use of musical tempo before moving on the water clock. Wikipedia (I know, but I don’t have much to go on) also suggests Drake does believe in the Leaning Tower of Pisa experiment. While he may not have done it at that tower, evidently Galileo’s accounts include a description that corresponds to an observed tic that happens if people try to freely drop objects of different sizes at the same time, which suggest he tried free fall somewhere.

What to do if you’re inside a scientific revolution

A LesserWrong user (LesserWrong-er?) has a thought-provoking post on The Copernican Revolution from the Inside, with two questions in mind: (1) if you lived in 17th century Europe, would you have accepted heliocentrism on an epistemic level, and (2) how do you become the kind of person who would say yes to question 1? It’s interesting in the sense the often-asked question of  “What would you be doing during the Civil Rights Movement/Holocaust/Other Time of Great Societal Change” is, in that most people realize they probably would not be a great crusader against the norm of another time. But as someone in Charlottesville in the year 2017, asking about what you’d be doing in scientific arguments is less terrifying relevant than asking people about how they’d deal with Nazism, so we’ll just focus on that.

Cover of Kuhn's The Structure of Scientific Revolutions showing a whirlpool behind the title text.

Look, you’re probably in at least one.

For once on the internet, I recommend reading the comments, in that I think they help flesh out the argument a lot more and correct some strawmanning of the heliocentrists by the OP. Interestingly, OP actually says he thinks

In fact, one my key motivations for writing it — and a point where I strongly disagree with people like Kuhn and Feyerabend — is that I think heliocentrism was more plausible during that time. It’s not that Copernicus, Kepler Descartes and Galileo were lucky enough to be overconfident in the right direction, and really should just have remained undecided. Rather, I think they did something very right (and very Bayesian). And I want to know what that was.

and seems surprised that commenters think he went too pro-geocentrist. I recommend the following if you want the detailed correction, but I’ll also summarize the main points so you don’t have to:

  • Thomas Kehrenberg’s comment as it corrects factual errors in the OP regarding sunspots and Jupiter’s moon
  • MakerOfErrors for suggesting the methodological point should be that both geo- and heliocentric systems should have been treated with more uncertainty around the time of Galileo until more evidence came in
  • Douglas_Knight for pointing out a factual error regarding Venus and an argument I’m sympathetic to regarding the Coriolis effect but evidently am wrong on, which I’ll get to below. I do think it’s important to acknowledge that Galilean relativity is a thing, though, and that reduces the potential error a lot.
  • Ilverin for sort of continuing MakerOfError’s point and suggesting the true rationalist lesson should be looking at how do you deal with competing theories that both have high uncertainties

It’s also worth pointing out that even the Tychonic system didn’t resolve Galileo’s argument for heliocentrism based on sun spots. (A modification to Tycho’s system by one of his students that allows for the rotation of the Earth supposedly resolves the sunspot issue, but I haven’t heard many people mention it yet.)

Also, knowing that we didn’t have a good understanding of the Coriolis effect until, well, Coriolis in the 1800s (though there are some mathematical descriptions in the 1700s), I was curious to what extent people made this objection during the time of Galileo. It turns out Galileo also predicted it as a consequence of a rotating earth. Giovanni Riccioli, a Jesuit scientist, seems to have made the most rigorous qualitative argument against heliocentrism because cannon fire and falling objects are not notably deflected from straight line paths. I want to point out that Riccioli does virtually no math in his argument on the Coriolis effect (unless there’s a lot in the original text that I don’t see in the summary of his Almagestum Novum). This isn’t uncommon pre-Newton, and no one would have the exact tools to deal with Coriolis forces for almost 200 years. But one could reasonably try to make a scaling argument about whether or not the Coriolis effect matters based only on the length scale you’re measuring and the rotation speed of the Earth (which would literally just be taking the inverse of a day) and see that that heliocentrists aren’t insane.

It’s not a sexy answer to the second question, but I think “patience for new data” goes a long way towards making you the kind of person who can say yes to the first question. You hear the term “Copernican revolution” thrown around like a very specific event, and I think it’s pretty easy to forget the relative timeframes of major players unless this is your bread and butter. Copernicus’ De revolutionibus came out in 1543. Newton’s Principia came out in 1687, which gives a physical explanation for Kepler’s empirical laws and results in them becoming more greatly accepted, and so can be considered a decent (if oversimplified) endpoint for the debate. Galileo began to get vocal about heliocentrism in the early 1610s. The Almagestum Novum came out in 1651. For over a century, people on both sides were gathering and interpreting new data and refining their theories.

I also like this article for a related point, albeit one a bit removed from the author’s thesis. In considering the question of how should accept new theories, we see the historical development of one theory overtaking another as “scientific consensus”. Earlier this year, rationalist Scott Alexander in a post on Learning to Love Scientific Consensus concisely summarized why the typical “consensus is meaningless” trope of just listing times consensus has turned out to be wrong isn’t particularly useful in understanding science:

I knew some criticisms of a scientific paradigm. They seemed right. I concluded that scientists weren’t very smart and maybe I was smarter. I should have concluded that some cutting-edge scientists were making good criticisms of an old paradigm. I can still flatter myself by saying that it’s no small achievement to recognize a new paradigm early and bet on the winning horse. But the pattern I was seeing was part of the process of science, not a condemnation of it.

Most people understand this intuitively about past paradigm shifts. When a creationist says that we can’t trust science because it used to believe in phlogiston and now it believes in combustion, we correctly respond that this is exactly why we can trust science. But this lesson doesn’t always generalize when you’re in the middle of a paradigm shift right now and having trouble seeing the other side.

The notion of “trusting” scientific consensus I think gets to a larger point. There are way more non-scientists than scientists, so most people aren’t in a place to rigorously evaluate contemporary analogues to the Copernican revolution, so you often have to trust consensus at least a little. Also scientists aren’t scientists of every field, so even they can’t evaluate all disputes and will rely on the work of their colleagues in other departments. And given how many fields of science there are, there’s always probably at least one scientific revolution going on in your lifetime, if not several. Fortunately they don’t all take 150 years to resolve. (Though major cosmological ones can take a long time when we need new instruments and new data that can take a long time to acquire.)

But if you want to be the kind of person who can evaluate revolutions (or maybe attempts at revolutions), and I hope you are, then here’s a bit more advice for the second question à la Kuhn: try to understand the structure of competing theories. This doesn’t mean a detailed understanding of every equation or concept, but realize some things are more much important to how a theory functions than others, and some predictions are relatively minor (see point 4 below for an application to something that I thing pretty clearly doesn’t fall into a revolution today). To pure geocentrists, the phases of Venus were theory-breaking because geocentrism doesn’t allow mechanisms for a full range of phases for only some planets, and so they had to move to Tycho’s model. To both groups writ large, it didn’t break the scientific theories if orbits weren’t perfectly circular (partly that was because there wasn’t really a force driving motion in either theory until Kepler and he wasn’t sure what actually provided it, so we see how several scientific revolutions later, it gets hard to evaluate their theories 100% within the language of our current concepts), though people held on because of other attachments. Which leads to a second suggestion: be open-minded about theories and hypotheses, while still critical based on the structure. (And I think it’s pretty reasonable to argue that the Catholic Church was not open-minded in that sense, as De revolutionibus was restricted and Galileo published his future works in  Protestant jurisdictions.) In revolutions in progress, being open-minded means allowing for reasonable revision of competing theories (per the structure point) to accommodate new data and almost maybe more importantly allows for generating new predictions from these theories to guide more experiment and observation to determine what data needs to be gathered to finally declare a winning horse.

***
Stray thoughts

  1. Let me explain  how I corrected my view on the Coriolis effect. We mainly think of it as applying to motion parallel to the surface of the Earth, but on further thought, I realized it does also apply to vertical motion (something further from the center of the Earth is moving at a faster rotational velocity than something closer, though they do have the same angular velocity). Christopher Graney, a physics and astronomy professor at Jefferson Community and Technical College who I will now probably academically stalk to keep in mind for jobs back home, has a good summary of Riccioli’s arguments from the Almagestum Novum in an article on arXiv and also what looks like a good book that I’m adding to my history/philosophy of science wishlist on Amazon. The Coriolis effect arguments are Anti-Copernican Arguments III-VI, X-XXII, and XXVII-XXXIII. Riccioli also addresses the sunspots in Pro-Copernican Argument XLIII, though the argument is basically philosophical in determining what kind of motion is more sensible. It’s worth pointing out that in the Almagestum, Riccioli is collecting almost all arguments used on both sides in the mid-17th century, and he even points out which ones are wrong on both sides. This has led some historians to call it what Galileo’s Dialogue should have been, as Galileo pretty clearly favored heliocentrism in Dialogue but Riccioli remains relatively neutral in Almagestum.
  2. I’m concerned someone might play the annoying pedant by saying a) “But we know the sun isn’t the center of the Universe!” or b) “But relativity says you could think of the Earth as the center of the Universe!”. To a), well yeah, but it’s really hard to get to that point without thinking of us living in a solar system and thinking of other stars as like our sun. To b), look, you can totally shift the frames, but you’re basically changing the game at that point since no frame is special. Also, separate from that, if you’re really cranking out the general relativity equations, I still think you see more space-time deformation from the sun (unless something very weird happens in the non-inertial frame transform) so it still “dominates” the solar system, not the Earth.
  3. For a good example of the “consensus is dumb” listing of consensuses of the past, look at Michael Crichton’s rant from his “Aliens Cause Global Warming” 2003 Michelin Lecture at CalTech beginning around “In science consensus is irrelevant. What is relevant is reproducible results.” Crichton gets close to acknowledging that consensus does in fact seem to accommodate evidence in the plate tectonics example, but he writes it off. And to get to Crichton’s motivating point about climate science, it’s not like climate science always assumed man had a significant impact. The evolution of global warming theory goes back to Arrhenius who hypothesized around 1900 that the release of CO2 from coal burning might have an effect after studying CO2’s infrared spectrum, and it wasn’t until the 60s and 70s that people thought it might outweigh other human contributions (hence the oft-misunderstood “global cooling” stories about reports from the mid-20th century).
  4. Or to sum up something that a certain class of people would love to make a scientific revolution but isn’t, consider anthropogenic climate change. Honestly, specific local temperature predictions being wrong generally isn’t a big deal unless say most of them can’t be explained by other co-occurring phenomena (e.g. the oceans seem to have absorbed most of the heat instead of it leading to rising surface temperatures), since the central part of the theory is that emission of CO2 and certain other human-produced gases has a pretty effect due to radiative forcing which traps more heat in. Show that radiative forcing is wrong or significantly different from the current values, and that’s a really big deal. Or come up with evidence of something that might counter radiative forcing’s effect on temperature at almost the same scale, and while the concern would go away, I think it’s worth pointing out it wouldn’t actually mean research on greenhouse gases was wrong. I would also argue that you do open-mindedness in climate science, since people do still pursue the “iris hypothesis” and there are actually almost always studies on solar variability if you search NASA and NSF grants. 

Thinking of the Urban as Natural

Image result for urban ecology

“Name everything you can think of that is alive.” This was the prompt given to three different groups of children: the Wichi, an indigenous tribe in the Gran Chaco forest, and rural and urban Spanish-speakers in Argentina. It might not surprise you to know that the indigenous children who directly interact with wildlife often named the most plants and animals that lived nearby and were native to the region, and they often gave very specific names. The rural children named a mixture of both native Argentinian wildlife and animals associated with farming. But the urban children were very different from the others. They would name only a few animals in Argentina. Instead, they named significantly more “exotic” animals from forests and jungles in other countries and continents. This result has been replicated in multiple studies on child development. But we shouldn’t be so hard on the urban children.

This reflects a somewhat uncomfortable truth about how we learn. If you live in a city, you mainly learn about nature indirectly, through pop culture and formal science education. In both contexts, it is much easier to find information about “exotic” animals like lions or tigers instead of most of the organisms that make a home in the city. I think this is a symptom of a deeper cultural notion: that somehow cities are “fake” environments divorced from nature. I will argue that this distinction between the urban and natural is not only wrong, but also harmful to our society.

First, we should consider that this notion really only makes sense relatively recently in history. Cities are young in a geological and even anthropological sense, but since we’ve been making them as a species, they have been influenced by nature. We talk about “cradles of civilization” because they were places where the natural environment was well-suited to supporting early, complex social systems and their infrastructure. To use the literal Ur-example, consider the Fertile Crescent region, the convergence of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers. This provided lush soil at several elevations, which supported the growth of a variety of crops and helped with irrigation. And many modern cities can still be traced back to earlier environmental decisions. I am from Louisville, a city by a part of the Ohio River that could not be crossed by boat until the building of locks in the 1830s. The city was founded as a natural stopping point for people before they would go on to the Mississippi River.

Second, it seems incredibly alienating to argue most of humanity is “unnatural”. Since 2008, the majority of humans have lived in cities. By 2050, 70% of the global population will live in urban areas. We should not discourage the growth of cities or devalue them, when their more efficient use of resources and infrastructure is necessary to keep projected population growth sustainable. The smart development of cities recognizes they can help preserve other environments.

Finally, this urban-natural distinction distorts our understanding of the environmental and ecological processes that affect cities and even our broader understanding of the environment. A recent study showed that insects help reduce food waste just as much as rodents in New York City – for every memeable “pizza rat” there’s an army of “pizza ants” getting rid of rotting food. Despite their importance, in New York’s American Museum of Natural History renowned insect collection, they have almost no species native to the city. And since many city-dwellers like the Argentinian children only know about exotic species, it affects animal conservation efforts. Well-known “charismatic” species like pandas or rhinos have support all over the world. Few people are aware of endangered species in urban areas And sometimes scientists don’t even know. For instance, relating to the above, 40% of insect species are endangered, but we don’t know if that number is different in cities.

Instead of rejecting the last few thousand years of our society’s development, we should (re)embrace cities as part of the broader natural world. Recognizing that cities can have their own rich ecological and environmental interactions can help us build urban spaces that are better for us humans, other city-dwelling creatures, and the rest of the world.

(Note: This post is based on a speech I gave as part of a contest at UVA, the Moomaw Oratorical Contest. And this year I won!)

I Have a Hard Time Summing Up My Science and Politics Beliefs Into a Slogan

From a half-joking, half-serious post of my own on Facebook:

“SCIENCE IS POLITICAL BECAUSE THERE’S LOT OF INFLUENCE BY POLITICAL AND POWERFUL CULTURAL INSTITUTIONS, BUT NOT PARTISAN. AND ALSO THAT SCIENTIFIC RESULTS AFFECT MORE OF OURS LIVES. BUT LIKE MAN, WE REALLY SHOULDN’T DO THE WHOLE TECHNOCRACY THING. BUT LIKE EVIDENCE SHOULD MATTER. BUT ALSO VALUES MATTER WHEN EVALUATING STUFF. IT’S COMPLICATED. HAS ANYONE READ LATOUR? OR FEYERABEND? CAN SOMEONE EXPLAIN FEYERABEND TO ME? DOES ANYONE WANT TO GET DRINKS AND TALK AFTER THIS?”

the_end_is_not_for_a_while

Evidently, I am the alt-text from this comic.

“HERE ARE SOME GOOD ARTICLES ABOUT PHILOSOPHY AND SOCIOLOGY OF SCIENCE” (I didn’t actually give a list, since I knew I would never really be able to put that on a poster, but some suggested readings if you’re interested: the Decolonizing Science Reading List curated by astrophysicist Chanda Prescod-Weinstein, a recent article from The Atlantic about the March for Science, a perspective on Doing Science While Black, the history of genes as an example of the evolution of scientific ideas, honestly there’s a lot here, and this is just stuff I shared on my Facebook page over the last few months.)
“LIKE HOLY SHIT Y’ALL EUGENICS HAPPENED”
“LIKE, MAN, WE STERILIZED A LOT OF PEOPLE. ALSO, EVEN BASIC RESEARCH CAN BE MESSED UP. LIKE TUSKEGEE. OR LITERALLY INJECTING CANCER INTO PEOPLE TO SEE WHAT HAPPENS. OR CRISPR. LIKE, JEEZ, WHAT ARE WE GOING TO DO WITH THAT ONE? SOCIETY HELPS DETERMINE WHAT IS APPROPRIATE.”
“I FEEL LIKE I’M GOING OFF MESSAGE. BUT LIKE WHAT EXACTLY IS THE MESSAGE HERE”
“I DON’T KNOW WHAT THE MESSAGE IS, BUT THESE ARE PROBABLY GOOD TO DO. ESPECIALLY IF THEY INSPIRE CONVERSATIONS LIKE THIS.”
“ALSO, DID YOU KNOW THAT MULTICELLULAR LIFE INDEPENDENTLY EVOLVED AT LEAST 10 TIMES ON EARTH? I’M NOT GOING ANYWHERE WITH THAT, I JUST THINK IT’S NEAT AND WE DON’T TYPICALLY HEAR THAT IN INTRO BIO.”