Posted in Uncategorized on September 6, 2008 by matpaskins

One of the papers in the Royal Society Geoengineering special issue is by James Lovelock. The Guardian excerpted it on Monday to generally incoherent effect.

As far as I understand him Lovelock is saying that a) catastrophic disaster is pretty much inevitable b) some adaptation may well be the best we can hope for – and those places which are spared the coming disasters (like Britain) will need to make sure they continue to behave in a civilised way c) this will be a shame because in losing the human species earth will lose the planetary equivalent of a nervous system, the only way it might have of forestalling future calamitous change d) except that – errr – in fact we should maybe accept that we’re too incompetent to even attempt to enact any kind of engineering strategy although e) we have been involved in inadvertent geoengineering – changing the climate – ever since the first forest was lit. What he says about being trapped in a cycle where each solution we come up with creates additional problems – as a reason possibly not to even make the attempt – I don’t understand at all (the suggestion is that if we tried to use – say -stratospheric aerosols then we’ll end up acidifying the oceans and need a solution for that, an ingenuity trap without end) because that’s clearly the situation we are already in with, say, oil, which has solved all sorts of problems but which is causing quite a few as well.

The reason I find this last point so bewildering is that, in the full version of his paper, Lovelock actually says something a bit more interesting. He’s discussing an idea he and Chris Rapley had in 1997 of “a system of large pipes held verticaly in the ocean surface to draw up cooler nutrient-rich water from just below the thermocline.” (The thermocline being the part of a body of water which is transitional between the cooler deep water and the warmer surface water), The details of this proposal I’ll look at later. What interests me is something Lovelock says in passing about it:

“We do not know whether the proposed idea would help restore the climate, but the idea of improving surace waters by mixing cooler nutrient-rich water from below has a long history: indeed, it is at present used by the US firm Atmocean Inc. to improve the quality of ocean pastures.”

The apparently radical piece of geoengineering is really very close indeed to something which already routinely happens. (The same is true to some extent with cloud-seeding).

Now it’s a part of Lovelock’s rhetoric that we’ve ignored the systematic nature of the earth’s climate and disregarded the significance of his analogy between it and a sick living organism (The Earth’s “behaviour resembles more the physiology of a living organism than that of the equilibrium box models of the last century”, he says.) This is interesting, but for the purposes of evaluating those pipes is surely excessive, when what you’re talking about is a practice which is performed anyway, and which you want to adapt to a new strategic end. In other words, the desirable climatic effects is only radical and earth-shattering as long as the technology is regarded as earth-shattering and for that purpose alone. But if it isn’t, the carbon dioxide budgeting should (hopefully) just be a part of the way that its efficiency and risks are evaluated. I suspect this is true of a lot of what’s described as geoengineering – though of course the case needs to be made in detail. (It should also suggest that Greenpeace’s objections to the geoengineering research – that it’s a distraction from the real business of energy efficiency – may be slightly off-base).

But I certainly think there are strong reasons to be suspicious of the claim that all these proposed technologies are unprecedented, or that they’ll shatter the sky. All Lovelock’s “planetary medicine” is asking for is that we understand the effects of our practices, from mixing waters to setting fires, and prefer the ones with benign effects.  Which is enough of a challenge, even without the metaphors!



Posted in Uncategorized on September 3, 2008 by matpaskins

The guardian reported on Monday about a special edition of the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society about geoengineering: the sometimes strange ideas of physical or mechanical interventions which could be made to reduce the damage done by climate change.

There’s a lot of suspicion around geoengineering: it’s often felt to be a distraction from the main business of cutting emissions, or highly risky in itself (think of the unexpected consequences of biofuels as a comparison). The Royal Society are however launching a project to evaluate some of the geoengineers’ ideas – in the Guardian Article, Martin Rees, the president of the Royal Society, is quoted as saying that it’s an exercise in clarification.  Some of the scientists who argue in favour of geoengineering say that it gives us something to do in case of crisis – and some of the underlying ideas, such as artificially seeding clouds, are in fact already in relatively wide use (others are not of course).

The papers make interesting reading. Some of the projects are still very much in the conceptual stages, others have undiscussed assumptions, and others have been researched for some years. At least one gives a co-starring role to the  Amateur Yacht Research Society which pleased at least one person (me).

I’m going to be blogging about the papers and proposals – aspects which seem to me striking or dubious. I’m certainly far from being a specialist but it’s amazing how far you can get with a scientific paper, the internet, and an overlong attention span a bit of determination. To kick off, here’s a splendid Discovery Channel VIdeo, in which two of the contributors to the journal, Stephen Salter and John Latham, describe their idea:

Cosmic Ray Balloon Experiments

Posted in Uncategorized on March 31, 2008 by matpaskins

Wagner, the guy that’s suing CERNE, claims to have a slight claim to fame from having done some Cosmic Ray balloon experiments. When I asked a physicist what would happen if there wasn’t access to big particle colliders any more, he said they’d just look more at cosmic rays.

 Bristol University have a nice page about affordable particle detector, with a good chronology:

1910: Wulf carried his home-made electroscope to the top of the Eiffel Tower and observed that the rate of change of discharge was not as slow as expected. (It had been assumed that the radiation was emitted by the Earth and would therefore decrease at height).

1912: Victor Hess and two assistants flew in a balloon to an altitude of 16,000 ft and discovered evidence of a very penetrating radiation (cosmic rays) coming from outside our atmosphere.

1932: Robert Millikan carried out a series of tests on the intensity of cosmic rays at various altitudes in a Condor bomber plane.

1935: Explorer II, rubberized helium balloon ascended to 22,066 ft collecting cosmic ray data.

1940: A Beechcraft AD-17 biplane flown at 21,050 ft took cosmic rays data.

1950: A US Naval Research Lab Viking research rocket was fired to collect cosmic ray data. 1952-57: The “Rockoon” balloon-launched rocket carried out high latitude and high altitude cosmic ray research.

1959: Explorer VII was launched into an Earth orbit revealing information about cosmic rays near Earth.

1969: Apollo II astronauts deployed a cosmic ray experiment.

1972: Apollo 17 carried a lunar surface cosmic ray experiment.

1975: The Geostationary Orbiting Environmental Satellite was launched.

1975 – Present Day: Nearly every space craft launched carries cosmic ray experiments. The 2002 Nobel Prize was awarded in part for research into cosmic rays.

Why Should We Accept the Risk of Parallel Universism?

Posted in Uncategorized on March 30, 2008 by matpaskins

    Thanks, boingboing.

What the original story also makes giddily clear is the glorious hustle of the guy who is suing CERNE because of the risk of ripping open a parallel universe, or releasing a cloud of strangelets –

A lawsuit has been filed in Hawaii in an attempt to hold up the start of operations by the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) atom-smasher on the French-Swiss border.

A colourful American botanist, teacher, former biologist and sometime physicist says (in outline) that the LHC may rip a hole in the fabric of the space-time continuum and so destroy the Earth. He wants the US government to act now and delay the LHC’s startup while a new safety review is carried out.

A related worry is that overly vigorous particle-punishing tomfoolery at the LHC could produce “magnetic monopoles”, which are dicey freaks of nature. Monopoles could trigger a runaway reaction not unlike the quark-strangelet scenario, in which everything gets changed into something else. This could lead to a turn-up for the books, in which the Moon remained made of moon but the Earth was abruptly converted into cheese.

Curiously, Wagner has claimed in the past that he has already personally discovered a magnetic monopole, though in that case it didn’t destroy the Earth. Appearing last year on paranormal-matters talkshow Coast to Coast (“America’s most fascinating overnight radio program”) alongside a time-machine professor, Wagner gave a potted bio in which he says he “discovered a novel particle in a balloon-borne cosmic ray detector, initially identified as a magnetic monopole”.

High Altitude Parachuting

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , on March 10, 2008 by matpaskins

What you’ve been waiting for.

Chicks dig scars:

 From an experience standpoint, the 14 jumpers concerned had amassed over 6,400 jumps of every nature; sport, test, “Halo,” from piston and jet aircraft and from bombays to ejection seats. From a physical and physiological point of view, the individuals selected to participate were definitely not the cream of the corp. Laden with pins, screws, trick shoulders and knees, all in all an orthopedic surgeon’s nightmare, they set their optimistic sights toward the blue sky overlooking the Imperial Valley.

Posted in Uncategorized on March 4, 2008 by matpaskins

l0023780.jpeSurfing the Wellcome Trust catalogue, I was delighted to find this picture: (reproduced here according to their creative commons attribution licence). The catalogue contains the following information about its designer, Abram Games:

“Games’s own posters were inspired by the Beveridge Reports’s recently published blueprint for a welfare state. His three designs juxtaposed pre-war squalor with modern images of state-funded health centres, housing and schools. “It was strictly non-political,” he claims, but we had to ask ourselves, “Why are we doing this? What kind of Britain are we fighting for?”. Winston Churchill saw it differently …Even now the suppression of the posters that Games regards as some of his best work still raises his hackles. “Churchill may have been a great wartime leader but he’d never visited a slum. I saw the war as a catalyst for achieving the things that Britain needed, but I think he saw those who supported the welfare state as communists.” ” (interview with Abram Games published in an article in The Sunday telegraph, 3 July 1994).

Another image of Kensal house (the image busting through the tenament) can be found here, in a nice article for archinet about British utopian modernism.

  Bit of a different view of affordable housing, innit?

Don’t Kiss Me: I am in Training

Posted in Art, Jersey, Resistance, Uncategorized on December 7, 2007 by matpaskins

Terry Castle has a nice review of a (now year-old) biography of Claude Cahun in the LRB:

 In October 1940 Cahun quietly ignored an order that all Jewish residents on Jersey register with the German Kommandatur. Over the succeeding months, convinced that most of the young German soldiers they met were not Nazis and could be persuaded to rebel against their officers, she and Moore began a DIY subversion campaign of quite startling temerity and panache. Moore knew German well enough to write it almost like a native speaker, so the two women began producing hundreds of clandestine broadsheets, handwritten or typed in German, purportedly by an anti-Nazi German officer – ‘der Soldat ohne Namen’ – stationed on the island. The ‘anonymous officer’ passed on Allied news and propaganda – Cahun and Moore had a contraband radio and surreptitiously transcribed BBC broadcasts – and exhorted his fellow soldiers to mutiny. Cahun and Moore then left these subversive ‘newspapers’ all over the island, in cafés, shops, unoccupied German staff cars – wherever the opportunity presented itself. Many missives were secreted in cigarette packets; others placed in the coat pockets of unsuspecting soldiers in St Helier.

Incredible as such activities may seem – the two women also regularly smuggled bundles of food to the Eastern European slave workers in a Nazi camp – the couple’s sex, age, reclusiveness and lack of close acquaintance on the island made it possible for them to operate without eliciting suspicion. They took alarming chances nonetheless: on one occasion they dropped ‘newspapers’ into the cars of German officers attending the funeral of a comrade in the cemetery next to their house; on another, in a gesture oddly reminiscent of some of their quasi-Dadaist exploits of the 1920s, they propped on one of the German graves a bizarre rickety cross they had made and inscribed with the words ‘Für sie ist der Krieg zu Ende’ in Gothic script.

Almost my favourite part of the story is that all this took place on the Isle of Jersey. The Isle of Jersey is clearly proud of this link and includes a picture of Cahun on  a page dedicated to Fame and Infamy.

Other Famous, Infamous residents of Jersey include: Lillie Langtry, the Jersey Cow, Albert Bedane Who Did Not Collaborate With The Nazis, Alexandrienne Baudains Who Did, and Charles the Second.