Sunday, December 09, 2018

Book review: The Great Way

The Way into Chaos
The Way into Magic
The Way into Darkness
By Harry Connolly

The Great Way is an epic Fantasy Trilogy by Harry Connolly. As the first two books end in cliffhangers, and the narrative immediately picks up afterwards, it is useful to look at them as volumes of a single story as opposed to related independent books. Luckily, the story is very good.

The story opens in the capital of an empire similar to Imperial Rome. Unlike the Romans, however, the Perdaini empire has a caste of scholars, whose sorcerous power is derived from ‘gifts’ brought by God-like- or alien-like beings. Once a generation, these beings visit, and this time, the visit goes terribly wrong.

A plague of ravenous beasts descends on the capitol, slaying the emperor and ravaging the city. The crown prince and a small portion of his entourage escape, including the two very different POV characters:  The first is Tejohn. An aging war hero who won fame and renown hunting down rouge scholars and quelling rebellion, he is the Prince’s bodyguard. The second is Cazia Freewell. The teenage daughter of a rebellious lord, she is kept in the imperial court as a hostage, where she is raised in the imperial culture and is studying to be a scholar. Despite their differences and hatred of each other, the POV characters are united in their desire to preserve the empire and protect the Prince, and they soon split up to run separate quests for him. As the plague spreads and the story progresses, however, the goal slips from maintaining the empire, to survival, of the characters, of civilization, and even of humanity itself.

As a fantasy adventure, this is a fast-paced, hard-hitting, and creative story. And I recommend it on that basis alone. But there are additional attractions that the story has to people of science.

One of the main thematic arcs is the position of scholars in society, and how their knowledge and power is handled and feared by society. This is seen through the viewpoint of Cazia, as she grows up and sees the wider world beyond the palace where he has been imprisoned, and also by Tejohn, who confronts his scars from fighting rogue sorcerers as he comes to the realization that they are needed in the fight to save humanity. Of course, this tale of an ancient fantasy empire is told by a modern American writer, and is prescient for scholars in the here and now. This becomes most clear in the third book, where Cazia experiences what modern scientists refer to as Cosmic Vertigo:

“I can look into the world.” The words barely made any sense, and she was the one saying them. “I can look into the world and see its parts.”

Just as clearly, she sees the fear, greed, and cunning that the rest of society feels when they realize she- like modern atomic scientists- can see and do things outside of the ordinary experience of most humans living their day to day lives. As the story takes place in a collapsing civilization, this is all the more important for all of us to appreciate.

Saturday, December 08, 2018

The Greenland impact crater

This is a brief note on the recent Science Advances paper on the Hiawatha Impact crater, a large, recent crater which lies under the Hiawatha glacier in extreme northern Greenland.

In the past, I have bagged out impact crater scientists and being alarmist and even dangerous. However, this discovery is the real deal. Similarly, I have occasionally criticized the “glamour-mag” approach to scientific publication, but in this instance, a big splash is appropriate, because it is a big deal, and the evidence is overwhelming.

The short version: Ice penetrating radar and analysis of glacial outwash sand show a large (31km diameter), recent impact crater under a Greenland glacier, complete with central peak. The outwash shows shocked quartz, probable melt glass, and PGE anomalies consistent with an iron (or stony iron) impactor. This is not one of those ancient, deformed, maybe-if-you-squint-you-can-see-a-circle crators, this is in your face and completely obvious to anyone who has studied even a little geology.

Like many short format papers, a lot of the details are in the supplementary materials.  For example:
This is a recent discovery because of global warming! Prior to 2012, the outlet glacer emptied into a lake. It is only ni the last 6 years that it has retreated onto land, so that the sediment they sampled and found the shocked quartz, impact glass, etc in was only exposed from beneath the melting ice sheet a few years ago.
They are planning on running conventional gravity surveys to look for rebound, but because all the ice is melting, the melt signal dominates the GRACE gravity signature.
No known impact ejecta is known from any of the North Greenland ice cores, making the crater likely to be older than the oldest of them (about 100ka). Ice cores are regularly checked for volcanic debris, and it is unlikely that they would miss something this large and close (quick math suggests the ejecta volume should be about 200-600 km3, making it a medium to large VEI-7 equivalent).

The crater overprints pre-glacial river valleys, and this is (as the authors state) probably Pleistocene in age (10ka-2.5Ma).

The melt glass should be datable via Ar/Ar dating, but it is not clear if they have recovered a large enough volume of the material to date at this stage.

I would expect a tektite field from an impact this size, but it isn’t clear where those tektites would end up. If they fell on ice (By definition, the Arctic was mostly ice-covered during most of the Pleistocene), then they would get carried to a moraine (on land), or float around until the ice was exported through the Fram Strait and melted somewhere in the NE Atlantic Ocean.

There is a controversial Younger Dryas impact hypothesis, which basically calls for an Arctic impactor as a trigger for the Younger Dryas cooling and extinction of the Clovis culture in North America. I would be careful connecting this crater to that event, as the NEEM ice core, less than 400km away, doesn’t have any reported ejecta, as known tephra are mostly basaltic. 

Finally, they report carbon in the silicate impact melt. That seems odd to me, as neither crustal gneisses nor iron meteorites have much carbon.  they should do ion probe d13C to get the isotopic composition. Who knows, maybe the impactor hit a peat bog.

Sunday, December 02, 2018

Book review: Eaten by a Giant Clam: Great Adventures in Natural Science

By Joseph Cummins

This book combines the biographies of about two dozen natural scientists from the age of European colonialism. It describes their lives, how they got into natural science, and what contributions they made.

Individually, must of these stories are interesting. However, read as a book, there is very much a repetition of the following story: Wealth anti-social person who doesn’t fit into normal life uses their wealth to go to far flung corners of the world, and look at stuff.  While not every single story goes exactly like this, it is very much a pattern describing the 400 year history of the misfit natural scientist. I suppose that is useful to know that this is not a new phenomenon, and there are obvious questions to be asked about how this sort of culture clashes with modern professional science, but consideration of these issues does not show up in this book. In general, it started to drag fairly early and never picked up.

Sunday, November 25, 2018

Sierra Sequoias

On our most recent family holiday back in America, I wanted to take the kids to see the Giant Sequoias of the Southern Sierra Nevada. I hadn’t seen the enormous trees since I was a teenager visiting colleges at the end of high school. I’ve read a bit about how there is concern that these beautiful organisms may be susceptible to drought and climate change, so I figured better to squeeze them in than regret. We ended up going to Mineral King, a remote southern part of Sequoia National Park. Our main activity there was a hike up into the alpine lakes of the high country. However, we did manage a short walk through the big trees.

The forest had an overstory of sequoia and sugar pine, with some ponderosa (and/or Jeffry) pine and an understory of white fir and incense cedar. By early July the forest was already quite dry, and even at 7000 feet elevation, it was still warm. It was obvious that there had been fire come through some parts of the forest- many of the firs, and some pines and cedars had been singed.

The coexistence of the Sugar Pine and sequoia trees did surprise me a little bit. After all, both trees have evolved to tower over the canopy, survive fires, and reseed afterwards.  It seemed a bit odd that both species would be growing side by side. However, an unrelated article on droughtproofing Australian grazing land made me wonder.

Although the Sugar Pine and the Sequoia have similar above ground growth strategies, they are quite different below the surface. Sequoias have a very shallow root system, while sugar pines have a substantial taproot. And in the most severely fire damaged areas, it appeared that the Sequoias were re-establishing best in the gullies and drainages, while the pines (sugar and ponderosa) were doing better on the more exposed slopes. Either way, the sequoias seemed to be doing just fine- old growth, secondary post-logging regrowth and saplings all seemed to be healthy. If anything, the pines seemed to be suffering worse than the sequoias.

Thursday, November 15, 2018

Book Review: Sharp Ends, by Joe Abercrombie

Sharp Ends is a dozen short stories of the sword and sorcery variety (more sword, less sorcery), set in a bleak, dark ages type setting. The stories are bleak and brutal, but the writing is beautiful. I found, however, that the action generally unfolds very slowly. The scenes are painted exquisitely, but there is not a lot of urgency to the stories. This book was my first introduction to Abercrombie’s work; it may be that having read his novels would yield context that would make the stories more enjoyable. As a standalone work, some stories are tied together by the recurrence of several characters, the most memorable of which are Javre and Shev, a gritty modern feminist version of Fafhrd & the Gray Mouser.

Despite the excellent wordcraft, I did not find the plots particularly gripping, or the characters particularly compelling, or the fantasy particularly illuminating. Perhaps if I had read the novels first I would feel differently, but I’m not a huge grimdark fan to begin with, and without the supersonic pace of a Harry Connolly yarn or the grand vision of G.R.R. Martin I found the florid prose tended to drag.

Monday, November 05, 2018

After the Fires

Back in 2003, western Canberra was ravaged by bushfire. One of the most heavily damaged areas was the Mt. Stromlo observatory and surrounding pine plantations. The pines were mostly P. radiata, a coastal California species which grows very well in Australia- with 2 growth whorls per year, each up to a meter. A small corner of this plantation was P. ponderosa, however.  This Western US mountain species is a slower growing, longer lived species, and is better adapted to survive fire. The fire break provided by the Mt Stromlo access road allowed one stand of ponderosa to survive, and in the aftermath of the fire, the surviving ponderosas reseeded. That 15 year old regrowth has been putting on some extraordinary growth rates. Bike for scale.

Tuesday, October 16, 2018

Book Review: The 2020 Comission Report into the North Korean Nuclear Attacks...

Book review: The 2020 Commission Report into the North Korean Nuclear Attacks against the United States
By Dr. Jeffrey Lewis

This book is a speculative fiction story about the use of North Korean nuclear weapons in the near future- specifically early 2020. Speculative fiction is nothing new. But unlike Harry Turtledove or John Birmingham, Jeffrey Lewis is, in addition to being an author, a world expert in nuclear proliferation and arms control. The book’s format, closely paralleling the 9/11 report down to the opening paragraph, plays to this strength. However, despite the author’s academic and think tank background, this book is a gripping page-turner, make all the more compelling by its fact-based and thoroughly researched nature.

The book describes a possible scenario in which poor communications and saber rattling result in the DPRK shooting down a commercial airliner en route from the Republic of Korea to Mongolia, and the subsequent escalation and miscommunication that leads the North to launch a pre-emptive tactical nuclear strike, under the mistaken impression that it is under attack. This then escalates to an all-out war, with the DPRK’s long range missiles striking several US cities, with millions of casualties.

The book is a page turner. I read it in a single sitting the day after I got back from Korea. However, because Dr. Lewis is an arms control expert, and not a novelist, it also comes with 20 pages of references for the 270 page novel. As such, it is as much a report in narrative form (much like the actual 9/11 report) as a story in its own right. Except, of course, this book is a report on a disaster that has not (yet) happened.

Overall, it was a good read, both entertaining and educational. Dr. Lewis is obviously knowledgeable on nuclear weapons, their effects on human health, and the havoc they wreak on civilian infrastructure. And he uses his expertise to great effect. While reasonable people can argue about in what areas historical records are pertinent and in which areas technological change has made them obsolete, his well referenced arguments are an excellent place to start any discussion, whither you agree with his points or not.

I found a few things disappointing. The main thesis of the book is that the DPRK, if it believed it was under conventional, regime-changing attack, could use nuclear weapons tactically, (or at least locally) to give itself a chance. This hypothesis was never really investigated in any detail, however, which makes to difficult to judge how rational such a counter strike would be.

My main complaint, however, is that Dr’ Lewis cannot refrain from taking cheap shots at President Trump, when describing the American response. He does have some reasonable criticisms around issues like the President’s lack of appreciation for communications security and the difficulty in responding to a crisis from his various private properties. But he also takes generic liberal cheap shots, which don’t build his case and are distracting from his well researched work. More ominously, they risk politicizing nuclear war, an outcome which everyone should be trying to avoid. We all know what a debacle the polliticization of Global Warming has been; imagine how much worse things could be if the same thing happened with Nuclear War. In fact, while he doesn’t specifically mention this possibility, there are hints at how hyperpartisanship could risk nuclear stability. But that is another topic for another day.

Tuesday, October 09, 2018

IPCC 1.5 degrees of obfuscation

So, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change released an important document today, allegedly demonstrating that 1.5 degrees of warming is preferable to 2 degrees, and that with an enormous about of effort, we might actually be able to achieve it. I, an Earth Scientist with a PhD and 17 years of professional experience, tried to read it, because it is important, and good scientist citizens ought to at least try to do the right thing.

Unfortunately, the report, as I found it on the IPCC website, is an incomprehensible tangle of bureaucratese and parenthetical rabbit holes. For example:

Warming greater than the global annual average is being experienced in many land regions  and seasons, including two to three times higher in the Arctic. Warming is generally higher over  land than over the ocean. ( high confidence) {1.2.1, 1.2.2, Figure 1.1, Figure 1.3, 3.3.1, 3.3.2}
Trends in intensity and frequency of some climate and weather extremes have been detected  over time spans during which about 0.5 ° C of global warming occurred (medium confidence). This  assessment is based on several lines of evidence, including attribution studies for changes in  extremes since 1950. {3.3.1, 3.3.2, 3.3.3}
A.2. Warming from anthropogenic emissions from the pre -industrial period to the present  will persist for centuries to millennia and will continue to cause further long-term changes in  the climate system, such as sea level rise, with associated impacts (high confidence), but these  emissions alone are  unlikely to cause global warming of 1.5°C (medium confidence ) {1.2, 3.3,
Figure 1.5, Figure SPM.1}
 It has all of the pitfalls the 9/11 report managed to avoid, in terms of failing to ensure accessability, readability, and currency to your average human being. In fact, it comes across as a fantasy edict beamed down by aliens, which is probably not too bad a description of Ivory Tower science these days. For example, It spends lots- perhaps most (I've pretty much glazed over a third of the way through the Summary for Policy Makers- you know, the part that should be clear and simple for non-specialists) of the time describing the benefits of aiming for a 1.5C warming target instead of a 2 degree target.

Of course, we aren't on course to hit a 2 degree target. We are on course for a 3 or 4 degree target. So the relevance of the report is completely at odds with the reality of the world we live in. Now, there are technical reasons why it is hard to write a report describing the difference between 4 degrees and 3.5 degrees. It has been tens of millions of years since the world was that warm, so reconstructing that climate is much more difficult than a 1 or 2 degree warmer world, which we had an order of magnitude more recently. So explaining where we are going is actually quite hard. But they don't even try, or acknowledge this. Instead they are off in this fantasy land where we all have ponies, and they want to sell us on the benefits of unicorn horns and sparkles in the manes.

However, this may be more of a dark fantasy than a rainbow pony fantasy. The "target" CO2 emission reductions curves (Figure SPM.3a) they show have no rollover or transition period, but drop precipitously from the present day at a rate comparable only with that seen in the collapse of the USSR. They don't explicitly talk about this, but there is a blathering world government waffling towards the end that goes:
Cooperation on strengthened accountable multilevel governance that includes non-
state actors such as industry, civil society and scientific institutions, coordinated sectoral and cross-
sectoral policies at various governance levels, gender-sensitive policies, finance including innovative
financing and cooperation on technology development and transfer can ensure participation,
transparency, capacity building, and learning among different players (high confidence). {2.5.2,
4.2.2, 4.4.1, 4.4.2, 4.4.3, 4.4.4, 4.5.3, Cross-Chapter Box 9 in Chapter 4, 5.3.1, 4.4.5, 5.5.3, Cross-Chapter Box 13 in Chapter 5, 5.6.1, 5.6.3}

In otherwords, the governments of the world, which are currently assassinating skeptical journalists,. locking up children, and dropping trillions of dollars of bombs in proxy wars which endanger millions of people,  all just have to join together and sing kum-by-yah while dismantling their transportation and industrial facilities, and we'll all be fine. Frankly, I suspect we're more likely to solve global warming with nuclear winter at this point, at the IPCC report gives me no hope that they have a more reasonable or concrete plan.

In summary, the world experts on climate got together and wrote an unreadable report.  If you piece the bits and pieces that might mean something together, it awkwardly hints that saving the planet is completely possible if the entirely of human nature and politics is magically transformed in the next year.

In other words we, every one of the 7.8 billion of us, is totally, completely, and thoroughly fucked.