Tuesday, May 29, 2012

The real cause of global warming

There is an inordinate amount of conjecture, commotion and crap spread about global warming on the internet.  If you read the duller corners of the internet, you might find a bunch of boring old scientists droning on about CO2 equivalents, and radiative forcing, and statistical gibberish.  But in the more colorful parts of the web, there are at least as many conspiracy nutter web-narcissists claiming that it is the sun shining out of Al Gore’s ass that is to blame.  Well, to save you a lot of web surfing and wondering about this issue, let me fill you all in.  Global warming isn’t caused by burning coal, or farting cows, or fuzzy little seals insulating the arctic ice floes.  Global warming is caused by me.

That’s right, I did it.  Hurricane Katrina?  Easy.  I don’t like jazz.  The melting arctic ice?  Well how else are we supposed to kill seal pups now that we can’t club them any more?  The droughts and floods and bathwater oceans?  I did those as well. Want to know why it started taking off in the mid-80’s?  That was me growing up and hitting puberty.  You see, it is all my fault.  Every last thousandth of a degree.

Back in college, a friend of mine, who is now a prominent environmentalist, showed me that the easiest way to defuse an argument- any argument- is to take personal responsibility for the problem.  It’s a great strategy.  Cuts off all sorts of kvetching at the heels.  So that’s where I’m going with climate change. I did it.  So stop arguing.  Take down all those websites "debating the unsettled issues" and use the server space for videos of anthropogenicized cats instead.  Because the debate is now over.  The global warming is mine.

And now that I have taken ownership of the problem, please don’t call it “anthropogenic” any more.  Call it “Lemmingogenic” instead.  But since LGW doesn’t spell anything, let’s all call it “Lemmingogenic Atmospheric Baking”.  LAB.  Because I am the LAB Lemming.

Of course, if there is one common theme from humanity’s response over the past decade to the problem I caused, it is that all the effort involved in mitigating the damage must be bourne by someone other that the person at fault.  So go ahead, folks.  Clean up my mess, while I lounge around and start sinking Pacific atolls between sixpacks. Lounging is what I do.  Especially here.  Sure, it’s my fault.  But it’s Bangladesh’s problem.  Tough luck guys.  Or as the googlefish says:
  আপনার ক্ষতি

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

The Deprofessionalization of Science

About a year ago, before Chris Mooney left science blogging for politics, he and his guest bloggers were framing the rift between scientists and conservatives as a rejection of science by conservative leaders.  Even if one accepts his thesis, that there is a disconnect between modern mainstream conservatives and the scientific community, his interpretation assumes that it is the conservative movement that has moved.  An alternative explanation is that science has moved to the left, and abandoned conservatives.

At the risk of disappointing and conspiracy nutters out there, I am not going to suggest that this is some fiendish plot.  Rather, I will suggest three unrelated factors that have had the side effect of moving the practice of science from a mainstream all-American profession to an ivory tower extravagance.  40 years ago, conservatives could mingle with scientists and understands their views simply by talking down the pew, or chatting at the school fete.  But in the last 30 years, scientists have, in many cases, disappeared from suburban middle class life, allowing a disconnect to form.

The first, and most direct effect was the Bayh-Dole act, passed by congress in 1980.  This law basically allowed non-profit organizations who received federal funding to patent the results of research funded by the government.  In practice, it meant that scientific research could be outsourced to universities, which could then subsidize it with federal funding and achieve greater productivity by employing grad students and technicians for salaries much lower than were found in the private sector.  As a result, R&D started moving out of the (generally conservative) private sector and into (liberal) academia.

The second effect was the financial deregulation and associated wave of mergers and acquisitions that characterized the 1980’s.  When two companies, each with a professional R&D lab,, merged, more often than not one of the labs was closed- or drastically downsized- resulting in job losses at that site. Once again, middle-class, professional scientist positions disappeared.

The third effect was the end of the cold war around 1990.  The cold war employed thousands of engineers, scientists, and technicians to conceptualize, design, and build the weapons necessary to keep the USSR at bay.  It was these educated, technological conservatives who kept California reliably republican throughout the cold war.  But when the Soviet Union fell apart, the USA also demilitarized, and conservative, military-related science and technology jobs were hardest hit.

Note that none of these events was designed to sever the link between science and conservatism.  It was an unintended consequence.  But the growth of academic science at the expense of professional science has resulted in the problem of scientists being less available outside the liberal enclaves of research universities and federal research labs. 

Saturday, May 19, 2012

NIMBY’s just might get what they deserve

A story here, that I first picked up in the paper version of the Canberra Times, states that a number of farmers are outraged- OUTRAGED!- that their land has had an exploration license taken out on it. One might think that, perhaps, these people are environmentalists who oppose the extraction on non-renewable resources. Except that, just 6 years ago, they were fighting tooth-and-nail to stop wind turbines from being installed.

“Hall district beef producers Phil and Jan Peelgrane, who farm just over the northern border of the ACT, said they would ''lock the gate'' to keep out the mineral explorers, saying they didn't have the energy to mount another campaign against another company. The pair were among those who successfully fought against wind turbines proposed for the area by ActewAGL and later Japanese interests.”

I hope they do lock the gate. Science would provide their comeuppance.

When exploring for gold and copper in a new area, the first step is generally to look for electrically conductive minerals. Chalopyrite (CuFeS2, the main copper ore) and pyrite (FeS2, which is often associated with gold mineralization) are both electrical conductors (if you don’t believe this, take a multi-meter to your nearest museum gift shop or gem&mineral show and check for yourself on any ‘fool’s gold” on offer). While gold is, of course, an even better conductor, there is generally only a few parts-per-million of gold in gold ore, so the gold itself is hard to detect. But the sulfides can be quite abundant- several percent. And there are a variety of electromagnetic techniques that can be used to detect the presence of conductive minerals in the subsurface.

There are two main classes of electromagnetic surveys. Ground-based, and air-based. If these NIMBY farmers “lock the gates”, then instead of driving around in their paddocks and hammering electrodes into the ground, the exploration team will have to use an airborne survey instead.

And this is where karma comes into it. You can’t fly EM surveys through wind turbines (think gigantic propellers vs. helicopter-borne spiderweb-shaped antennae- not to mention the electromagnetic interference). So if the NIMBYs had embraced wind energy 6 years ago, then they would have been able to keep their skies free now. Instead, by locking the gates to this company, all they can guarantee themselves is having parallel 200 meter-spaced lines flown by really large, slow, low-flying helicopters. Not in their backyard, of course. Just a very small distance above it.

Wednesday, May 09, 2012

Geologist defeats incumbent in Indiana Senate primary

Indiana state treasurer Richard Mourdock, who worked as a professional coal, oil, and environmental geologist for 30 years before entering politics, has defeated incumbent Richard Lugar as the Republican nominee for Indiana’s Senate seat.  He will face the current democratic representative for Indiana’s 2nd congressional district, former lawyer and small businessman Joe Donnelly, in the general election in November.

What are isotopes, and how do we measure them?

Over at Highly Allochthonous, Anne has posted a wonderful interview with a former mentor.  While it was enjoyable to read, they did manage to slip into technical isotope nerd jargon speech at one point, with the question:

I’ve got a new-fangled cavity ringdown spectrometer (CRDS) for analyzing water isotopes, and it is so much cheaper and easier to use than a traditional mass spectrometer. But I’m also limited to a just hydrogen and oxygen in water, unlike the versatility of a mass spec, so that’s a big downside. Do you care to say what you think the future of stable isotope spectrometry will be? Will the CRDS systems displace the old-school mass spec or am I buying into a passing fad?

Let me translate that for humans:

Isotopes are atom or ions with the same number of protons but different numbers of neutrons.  Because they have the same proton number, they are all the same element, so they have similar chemical behavior.  However, because they have different neutron numbers, processes which are mass dependent can treat them differently. 

Figure 1.  Isotopes of hydrogen.  Note that the heavy isotopes of hydrogen are the only isotopes which regularly use gang affiliations instead of standard chemical notation (“D” and “T”, instead of 2H and 3H)

Geology is all about deciphering the past story of the natural world.  In order to pin down the story, we like to find modern clues that are affected by just one process.  That way, if we see the clue, we know the process occurred. In reality, there is generally more than one possible process, but the nice thing about isotopes is that because they have similar chemical behavior, we can generally rule out a lot of processes that rely on chemical differences in the ancient earth, so that the isotopic signal suggest only a few (or if we are lucky, one) process was at work in the past.

Figure 2.  Isotopes of helium.  Helium, being a noble gas, is too prideful for ganster symbols.

An additional benefit of isotopes is that because they have similar chemical behaviors, their chemistry doesn’t separate them in our measurement device.  As a result, isotopic ratios can be measured much more precisely than chemical ratios can be measured.

So how do we measure them?

Traditionally, we use a mass spectrometer.  This is a device that turns the atoms (or molecules) of interest into ions by either removing or adding electrons.  The ions are then accelerated (using an electric field) through a magnet, which deflects them based on their mass (assuming a constant energy).  The individual ions (or the electrical current generated by their arrival) are then measured on collectors positioned where the magnet deflects the ions.

Figure 3.  Sketch of hydrogen isotopes being separated in a mass spectrometer.

Mass spectrometry is useful because there are lots of different ways to create ions.  With SIMS, TIMS, ICPMS, SSMS, the letters preceding MS all refer to the type of source.  Depending on the source type, isotopes of just about any element can be analysed, and the different sources allow a wide variety of types of materials to be sampled: solids, liquids, gasses, solutes in liquids, etc.  The trouble is that mass spectrometers are expensive, and generally need very secure, stable operating conditions.

Mass spectrometers have been around for 100 years.   More recently, isotope measurements have been done using optical adsorption spectrometry.  As is shown in figure 4, gas molecules (in this case hydrogen gas) contain covalent bonds, and these bonds vibrate at a specific frequency.  Photons (light) with a similar frequency are easily adsorbed by these bonds.  However, the vibrational frequency is, in part, dependent on the mass of the atoms in the bonds.  So a change in the isotope at one (or both) ends of a bond will change the frequency of the bond, and that in turn will change the frequency of the light (usually infra-red) that the bond absorbs.

Figure 4. Vibrational frequencies are dependent on isotopes.

This technique was originally used by astronomers to determine isotopic abundances of gas clouds and galaxies and other far away stuff.  However, in recent decades, advances is solid state technology has allowed for the production of cheap, flexible lasers.  These are used in a variety of optical systems which use some sort of resonator to amplify the absorption signal, and CRDS (Cavity RingDown Spectroscopy) is one such system that is commercially available.

Optical systems like this are limited, in that they can only measure polyatomic gas molecules.  They can’t measure rocks, or helium, as neither has covalent bonds in gas molecules.  They do have some advantages, though.  They are generally cheaper than mass spectrometers, and they can measure differences in molecular structure.  For example, in the molecule N2O, 14N15N16O and 15N14N16O have identical masses, so can’t be distinguished in mass spectrometry.  But their adsorption spectra are different, so spectroscopic system can differentiate them.

Sunday, May 06, 2012

Who still believes in global warming?

So I was blissfully snoozing away in my ex-blogging slumber, when a sudden ruckus on the internet woke me up. Evidently some anti-science thinktank in the US has been putting billboards up featuring pictures of people who refuse to reject reality. I don’t really see why anyone would want to do this, other than perhaps an open invitation to be mocked by the entire internet, but I’m not complaining. After all, it is a free country.
What I don’t understand, however, is the associated backlash. What is is about the following billboard that everyone finds so offensive?