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Weathering Climate Change, by Dr. Hugh Ross

You all know how this game is played. A well known author comes out with book on a controversial, divisive, politically charged subject. For some, the only thing they want to know is whether it takes their side. Hopefully, many more harbor a genuine desire to understand the issue better. Climate debate has been polarized for quite some time. It is a complicated subject that involves scientific observations, attempts to model future climate, and costly public policy. Hugh Ross’s “Weathering Climate Change” is not a battle manual for political partisans. For everyone else, it’s a gem.

What qualifies Dr. Ross to speak on this topic? He is not, after all, a climatologist. An obvious question warrants an obvious answer. For billions of years, our climate has mostly been driven by the environment of space in which our planet spins – something astrophysicist Ross is particularly well-qualified to evaluate.

The book is broken into roughly three sections. The first four chapters survey the present state of public and scientific opinion on the matter of earth’s climate and how it might be affected by global carbon emissions. Ross shares recent polling data showing how concern over the issue varies markedly from nation to nation, and within nations according to political loyalties. No surprises there.

Ross detachedly summarizes the projections of most climatologists involved in this arena.

The picture they paint is bleak. In addition to food scarcity, floods, and droughts, global warming will likely give rise to disease epidemics and destructive swarms of pests and parasites. Marine and aquatic environments will experience toxic algae blooms, acidification, and deprivation of dissolved oxygen, with consequent drops in fish stocks. (p44)

However, Ross is mindful of the political partisanship and grandstanding attached to this issue. Things don’t have to be this way, Ross hopes. It hinges on whether we’re more interested in addressing the problem than defeating our political opponents:

Do win-win solutions exist? If they exist, can they be implemented quickly enough to avert disastrous consequences and avoid unintended ones? I’m convinced the answer to both questions may well be yes. However, they require interdisciplinary collaboration and international cooperation, and these require a dose of humility and civility that seem increasingly short in supply. (p 50)

The next and most comprehensive section guides the reader into the fascinating realm of paleoclimatology. Here, we are particularly concerned with the conditions and events that led to a series of ice ages and the remarkably stable climate of our current interglacial period. In these chapters, Ross leads us on an adventure back in time. Only then can we fully appreciate the moment in which we live.

Beginning 2.5 million years ago, the earth entered a period of advancing and retreating glaciation known collectively as the ice ages. Since that time, the higher latitudes and elevations have been under ice far more often than not. This strange new era in Earth’s climate history began with an extraordinary cosmic event, the crash of a giant asteroid off the tip of South American known as the Eltanin impact.

Since then, the earth has passed through a series of ice ages, coming and going according to a complex choreography of earth’s orbital eccentricity, the precession of its axis, and the oscillations in the axial tilt collectively known as the Milankovitch cycles. Earth’s orbit, in turn, is precisely modulated by gravitational effects from the larger outer planets, particularly Jupiter.

Now you might think ice ages would be hard on human civilization, and you’d be right – if we were in the middle of one! Yet, somehow civilization arose and prospered at the most perfect time possible. Since the end of the last glaciation, we have enjoyed a level of unprecedented climate stability unseen in earlier millennia. Thanks to those ancient ice ages, earth’s soil has been greatly enriched along with an abundant supply of fresh water both above and below the ground. These have enabled us to feed a world population of over seven billion.

This section is rich in detail on the wondrous “coincidences” that have led to our unique period of almost-perfect climate, far too many to summarize here. One of the most fascinating is the very recently discovered Hiawatha impact event in Greenland. This came at just the right point in our climate timeline to stabilize and prolong our current interglacial period, or today there might already be a mile of ice where Toronto now sits.

Most people assume that the greatest long term threat is runaway heating from greenhouse gases. Not so, contends Dr. Ross. Granted, the climate isn’t going to stay like this forever. However, while most scientists and writers focus on the short-term effects of global warming, Dr. Ross takes the long term perspective. Ice ages come and go and come back again. Now, you might think global warming would be great if it delays the next ice age. However, the past record shows that every new glaciation event was preceded by a rise in atmospheric CO2. While the science is still preliminary, there is a growing body of evidence that human-caused CO2 release could actually accelerate the next ice age, possibly on timespans of less than a few hundred years. The tundras of North America and northern Eurasia are cold but extremely arid. Melting of the north polar ice cap should result in increased precipitation in those northern latitudes, leading to a progressive accumulation of snow and ice. By the time the cycle begins, it may be far too late to slow or stop. Much of the evidence for this hypothesis has only been published in the last 2 years.

In Chapter 20, Dr. Ross describes many of the proposals being floated for mitigation of the CO2 induced greenhouse effect, along with their pros and cons. He objectively evaluates many proposed strategies in the categories of geoengineering, resource management, technology, and power production, without shutting down the world economy in the process. Any number of them show great promise. Ross expresses a hope, which I wholly share, that people of good will can lay down their partisan swords and work together to preserve and protect the amazing world God has given us.

This is a delightful and fascinating tour through earth’s recent climate history. Believers will be filled with awe at the marvelous handiwork of the Creator, with each new year of scientific discovery unfolding still greater wonders. Unbelievers and skeptics may at least appreciate how fortunate we are to be living in these times and might be challenged to consider just how many coincidences can one tolerate before one begins to suspect the deck is stacked. Whether or not we agree on matters of faith, we can still work together to protect this glorious planet we all call home.

Lost in Math

October 30, 2018 | book reviews | No Comments

Lost in Math: How Beauty Leads Physics Astray 
by Sabine Hossenfelder. Basic Books, June 2018. Reviewed by Steven Willing, MD

“Physical laws should have mathematical beauty”. Paul Dirac, Nobel Laureate*
Way back in 1973, the world of theoretical physics reached a dead end. That year marked the last successful prediction of any elemental particles – the top and bottom quarks – which were experimentally verified in 1995 and 1977 respectively. (The Higgs boson, finally detected in 2012, had been predicted in the 1960’s). Since then, there has been no successful prediction that would supersede the standard model.

In the intervening decades, dozens of additional particles have been predicted; not one has been found. String theory evolved and gained wide acceptance, without a shred of experimental verification. Proton decay has been sought but never observed. Dark matter remains dark to our own investigations. The search for a grand unified theory, based on the the holy grail of supersymmetry, has gone nowhere. Eighty years of effort failed to combine general relativity with the standard model. More exotic concepts – the multiverse, wormholes, extra dimensions, mini black holes – have eluded observation and may never be testable. Some ideas are untestable, even in theory.  

Not that we are lacking in achievement. What physicists call the “standard model” – where all matter and forces except for gravity are accounted for by 25 elemental particles and forces – has been wildly successful both in experimental validation and its predictive power. The same is true of quantum theory. There’s only one problem. Physicists hate them both. Nature, it seems, is too unnatural for their tastes. 

The standard model has been denigrated as “ugly and contrived” (Michio Kaku), “ugly and ad hoc” (Stephen Hawking), “ugly and baroque” (Brian Greene), with “the air of unfinished business” (Paul Davies). What troubles them so? Fine-tuning. Too many improbable coincidences. Too hard to understand or explain. Quantum mechanics is “magic”.  Too many arbitrary constants. (In the standard model, there are at least 19 unique constants that cannot be predicted by the model. They can only be determined by scientific measurement).  

The mass of the Higgs boson serves as a case in point.   Its mass depends on the contribution from quantum fluctuations multiplied by the fermion/boson sum. Quantum fluctuations contribute an amount to the mass of the Higgs boson 1015 greater than what is measured. To achieve the measured mass, the quantum fluctuation effect must be perfectly offset by a factor of 10-15, with a precision extending to fourteen digits.   In the eyes of physicists, such fine-tuning is not “natural”. It is an improbable coincidence. Fine-tuning is “a badge of shame” (Lisa Randall), “a sickness” (Howard Baer). It seems to demand an explanation. It is “ugly”. There are other trouble spots of fine tuning: the cosmological constant, the “strong CP problem”, and the great disparity between gravity and other forces (the “hierarchy problem”).

Theoretical physicist Sabine Hossenfelder suggests one reason physicists have hit a wall: in their philosophical quest for “Beauty” the world of theoretical physics has gotten “Lost in Math”. The popular perception of a scientist is that of one driven by cold, hard, objective, unswerving logic. Despite the stereotype, the theoretical physicists interviewed and cited  by Hossenfelder – all leaders in their field – seek, hope for, even insist upon solutions that are aesthetically satisfying.  To them, the ultimate explanation for everything should reveal elegance,  naturalness,  symmetry – all shrouded in mathematical beauty. Yet, there is a danger in this approach. If our present laws of nature were not beautiful, would we ever have found them?  Surely an ugly explanation beats no explanation at all. If a more fundamental theory is not “beautiful”, will we fail to find it? Or even look for it? What if ultimate reality is “ugly”? 

There are other barriers to progress. As high energy experiments from the Large Hadron Collider eliminate from consideration various testable hypotheses, successive hypotheses must assume even higher energy levels which may not be testable, ever: 

If we wanted to directly reach Planckian  energies, we’d need a particle collider about the size of the Milky Way. Or if we wanted to measure a quantum of the gravitational field – a graviton – the detector would have to be the size of Jupiter….Clearly, these aren’t experiments we’ll get funded anytime soon. 

To escape the current predicament, there are calls to abandon the scientific method by eliminating the requirement of experimental verification.  Physicist, philosopher, and string theory proponent Richard Dawid is advocating “non-empirical theory assessment”. With declining prospects of empirical validation, Dawid concludes that “the scientific method must be amended so that hypotheses can be evaluated on purely theoretical grounds.” But “if we can’t test it, is it science?” asks Hossenfelder. 

Hossenfelder is at various times lively, comic, and probing. She quips “Theoretical physicists used to explain what was observed. Now they try to explain why they can’t explain what was not observed…There are many ways to not explain something”.  

In her journey through the rarified world of particle physicists and cosmologists, Hossenfelder voices concern for how hostility to the idea of a God on the part of some harms the public image of science. In the course of their conversation, cosmologist George Ellis recalls his review of a book by Victor Stenger claiming that science disproves the existence of God: 

“I opened this book with great anticipation, waiting to see what was the experimental apparatus that gave the result and what did the data points look like and was it a three-sigma or five-sigma result? Of course, there is no such experiment. These are scientists who haven’t understood basic philosophy.” (God, the Failed Hypothesis, by Victor Stenger, reviewed by George Ellis in Physics World

“Lost in Math” portrays a community of researchers in philosophical crisis. The esteemed physicists interviewed in this book and its impressive author are to be congratulated on their efforts and their honesty. The genuine achievements of science are acknowledged and celebrated, while the limitations of science and of scientists are admitted frankly. Scientists are human, after all. 

Naturalness, beauty, simplicity are aesthetic and philosophical concepts, not scientific ones. While aggressive proponents of secularism accuse believers of irrationality for believing in a God that – they claim – cannot be proven, their rear guard is crumbling. The field of theoretical physics faces a headwall where empirical validation of foundational theories may no longer be possible. More foundational theories may ultimately be embraced on faith alone – so long as the mathematics is beautiful! 

In the world of physics, we find fine-tuning and mystery from the subatomic to the cosmic scale with rapidly diminishing prospects of natural explanation. It is possible we may never see deeper than we are currently able, that we have reached our limit of comprehension regarding the essence of underlying reality. Meanwhile, what can be proven is distressingly improbable. God must be smiling.

*In her biography of Paul Dirac, historian Helge Kragh noted that in the last 49 years of his life Dirac “largely failed to produce physics of lasting value”.