26 October 2015

Been a while hasn't it

Didn't mean to disappear quite that long, 2.5 months it turns out.  Well, I'll be picking up my posting again.  In the interim, I've been on vacation in the Peruvian Amazon, picture below, been a manager at work, and generally running around.

You probably think of piranha when thinking about the Amazon river.   We were on a fishing expedition for piranha.  My wife, the pilot, and our guide all caught piranha -- mostly red bellied, but a couple white bellied.  Above is my one catch.  It is a sardine (about 10", 25 cm).  I'm amused, or puzzled, or something.  I'm happy about it.  It's a reminder of the fact that the world is more involved and weirder than you might think.  And a reminder than if there's weirdness to be found, I'll be the one to find it.

Managing, well, I'll go back to a story from college.  A friend of mine was a highly talented computer science major who went from starting his bachelor's degree to finishing his master's in 4 years.  While we were room mates, he did a group project with the other two top students in the class.  If technical skill were the only issue in doing a technical project, this group would have done by far the best.  Instead, it was a mediocre project.  That's when he, and I by contact, developed an appreciation for good managers.  One of their skills is to get the best out of a group of people.  So that's my aim.

23 July 2015

Data Horrors

"The great tragedy of science -- the slaying of a beautiful hypothesis by an ugly fact."  Thomas H. Huxley.

Sometimes, though, you have to pay attention to just how ugly the observation (fact) is.  And even more to how ugly a collection of observations is.  Science fair project I judged a couple of years ago, the student mentioned his methods for keeping the experiment, which had to be untouched while going, out of reach of his young brother.  This student has a firm grasp of the ugliness of data and trying to collect it.  I gave him high marks.

I also mentioned a story or two I knew of data collection challenges.  I'll share them and some others here, and invite you to add your own.

One family of ocean data comes from buoys floating on top of the ocean.  A lot of the ocean is far from land, therefore far from perches for birds.  Sea gulls and other birds are often grateful for the lovely perches we're putting out for them.  Unfortunately, it does not help the accuracy of your wind speed measurements to have a bird sitting on your gauge.  Birds sitting on the solar panel reduce your energy available/recharge rate, and thence maybe lead to data outages while waiting for recharging. Guano is great for fertilizer, but wrecks havoc on the accuracy of your temperature, pressure, and moisture readings.

Walrus don't mind taking a rest every now and then either.  They're not normally a threat to wind speed measurement (which is at the top of the buoy).  But we also want to get wave measurements -- how high are they, how fast are they, what direction are they going.  Having a walrus or two on your buoy slows its ability to respond, and may suppress the peaks of the measured waves.

On land, your instrument enclosures (the Stevenson Screen for instance) provide a nice place for bees, wasps, small birds to nest.  Squirrels like to play with them too.  A beehive next to your thermometer does not help its accuracy.

Back at sea, I once got a call about a problem buoy.  It was reporting extremely high temperatures near noon because the paint had been stripped during a storm, and the now-bare metal was reflecting sunlight onto the marine thermometer.

That should get you started for remembering your own horror stories about data collection.

Recently saw someone on the web taking the line that if data wasn't perfect, you should throw out everything from that instrument or site.  Well, no.  If you did that, you'd never have any data to work with.  For my examples, you mostly just ignore the data during the period you've got a walrus infestation.  But there are other kinds of things which affect your observing, and which you might be able to compensate for.

08 June 2015

Spectating on Science: Length of the Game

Science doesn't move as fast as basketball, so spectators need to adjust their expectations.  The 'game' plays out over a period of years.  The first play of the game is that someone publishes their work in the peer reviewed professional literature.  But that's something like the first pass in football/basketball/hockey -- it might _eventually_ turn in to a score.  But it isn't the score itself.

The short-hand for this is 'single study syndrome'.  All sorts of things show up in the media, or scientific literature, as being interesting and perhaps revolutionary.  But almost no revolutions follow from the very first study.  Few of the potentially interesting ideas, from the first publication, really hold up for any length of time.  Something worked out to be interesting _once_.  But, chances are good it won't hold up in the long run -- the previous consensus or state of knowledge is more likely correct than the new idea with just a single supporting piece of research.

For the spectator of science, which also includes me most of the time, we can, and have to, sit back a little and wait for the confirming evidence or studies.  One area which is an active area of discussion in science now is whether the recent US weather extremes (Eastern US has been far to the cold end of the historical distribution in winters of 2014 and 2015, but the Western US has been far to the hot end -- including setting several all time records) is due to the reduced Arctic sea ice pack.

02 June 2015

How to build a climate model?

How is it that we go about building climate models?  One thing is, that we would like to build our model to represent everything that we know happens.  If we could actually do so -- mainly meaning if the computers were fast enough -- life would be simple.  As usual, life is not simple.

I'll take one feature as a poster child.  We know the laws of motion pretty well.  I could write them down pretty easily and with only a moderate amount more effort write a computer program to solve them.  These are the Navier-Stokes equations.  On one hand, they're surprisingly complex (from them comes dynamical chaos), but on the other, they're no problem -- we know how to write the computer programs to do conservation of momentum.  Ok entire books have been written on even a single portion of the problem.  Still, the books have already been written.

The problem is, if you want to run your climate model using what we know is a representation sufficient to capture everything we need to do, in order to represent everything we know is going on, you need to have your grid points only 1 millimeter apart.  That's ok, but it means something like 10^30 times as much computing power as the world's most powerful computer today. (A million trillion trillion times as much computing power.)

What do we do in the mean time?

01 June 2015

What is a model?

In the blogospheric talk about climate change 'model' gets mentioned a lot.  Sometimes it's merely descriptive, and often it is perjorative.  But it is mostly never really defined.  Like or loath them, nobody says just what models are.  Except for me, here and now.  (And probably a number of other people at other times and places -- but still, few and far between. :-)

'Obviously' a model is a particularly attractive human.  Right?  I've actually received email at my workplace (a 'modelling branch') from people who were trying to advance the careers of their models, in this sense of model.  We don't deal with that kind of model.

'Obviously' a model is to take the original (the Apollo Saturn V rocket that took people to the moon, for example) and duplicate everything about it, but at 1/32 the original size  Right?  Perhaps.  I know people tho like this sort of thing.  But again that's not what we mean either if we are discussing climate (or atmosphere, ocean, sea ice, land, glacier, ...) models.

For my purposes, a model is an idealized, and/or simplified, representation of the real world.  When we are interested in something as big and complex as climate, or even just the Arctic sea ice pack, we really can't cope with the whole thing in all of its glorious complexity.  We have to simplify the reality somehow.  That simplification is the model.

In this sense of 'model', models are everywhere.  We use a model for human behavior when we decide what somebody else means when they raise their hand in a certain way.  (is it open hand, or a fist?  did they just say 'hello', or 'I'm going to kill you'.  and so on)  Weather has also been modelled by using 'dishpans' -- Raymond Hide and David Fultz being two of the best examples of people taking this approach*.

22 May 2015

Bad philosophy 1

Different people are good at different things, which is no real surprise; but one of the common situations where some people suddenly become blind to this is scientists regarding philosophy.  Plus, well, most non-philosophers regarding philosophy.  I've had the good fortune to know a couple of serious philosophers of science, enough to appreciate that they've developed some understandings more profoundly than I have.  And, I'm immodest enough to extend that to 'more profoundly than most non-philosophers'.

One path of bad philosophy, the one which causes this post, follows from mistakes on the matter of certainty.  Or, naming it by way of the error it leads to, intellectual nihilism.  Certainty is a problematic concept for science, and science versus philosophy.  Errors come from both sides, so beware of throwing rocks.  From my philosophical vantage point, science is intrinsically uncertain.  My scientific excuse for that philosophical assumption is to consider the Uncertainty Principle.  It's enough for here to understand that you cannot, simultaneously, observe everything about a complex system (like an electron, an atom, or the climate system) exactly.  You can do pretty well, but there's always some uncertainty in the observations.

A different line of philosophy regards how and how well you can consider yourself to know something (epistomology).  One view of this derives from Karl Popper, under the label 'falsification'.  For here, it's enough to note that one can really only be confident about your knowledge to the extent to which you've tested it.  (Do, of course read further!)  Since you can only be confident about your knowledge to the degree to which you've tested the idea/hypothesis/theory/..., and any test of an idea (etc.) is intrinsically uncertain (uncertainty principle again), you can never be entirely certain that you have the right answer, idea, hypothesis, theory.  So some humility is in order -- for everybody.

Enter the bad philosophy.

18 May 2015

Playing With Numbers: Triangles and Squares

You can play with numbers; which will be a surprise to some and extremely obvious to others.  I'm writing for those who will be surprised.  Consider the picture of dots here:
* *

We've got a triangle, a small one.  It has 3 dots.  Now put another row of dots, keeping it a triangle:
* * *
 * *

There are 3 dots in the first triangle, 6 in the second.  Next triangle will have 10 (as we add in a row of 4). 

For gaming: What is the 20th triangle number?  Is there a way you can look at a number and tell whether it is triangular?

Or you can play with squares:

* *
* *

* * *
* * *
* * *

So the first three square numbers are 1, 4, 9.  Next, the 4th square number, will be 16.  These are actually simpler to game than the triangular numbers.  What's the 20th square number?

And of course we can make more interesting figures, like hexagons:
 * *
* * *
 * *

So the first hexagonal number is 7.  What's the second?  Can you predict the 3rd, the 20th?

On the one hand, we're just playing some games here.  On the other, there are also serious mathematical papers on hexagonal numbers, and triangular, octagonal, and so forth.

08 April 2015

Autism Awareness month 2015

A reminder that April is Autism Awareness month.  I can't say very much first hand, but won't let that stop me from writing.  (As usual.)

Couple notes.  One is, though I'm not autistic, I'm also not dead center 'normal' (whatever that is).  (what, you've noticed?).  I deviate from 'normal' in some directions that point in the direction of autism.  Not enough to be on the autism spectrum myself, but enough that my sister found me useful as a guidepost towards her autistic students.  Partly because of this, I am irritated by people who say 'everybody in science is autistic'.  

Another note is, I know a number of autistic people, at various places along the spectrum.  That's the other reason I'm irritated by such blanket generalizations.  I wouldn't be surprised to find that some working scientists/engineers/... are indeed autistic.  But it's neither necessary nor sufficient, nor does it really honestly connect to either the scientists (who may or may not be autistic) or autistic people (who may or may not be scientists).

The thing to do is, er, be aware of autism.  See also my sister's (same one) blog.  Autistic people are people.  Start, and finish.  As with any people, you get farther with understanding them as themselves rather than trying to fit them in to preconceptions you may have.

03 April 2015

Citizen Science Versus Science

It's impolitic to say so, but I dislike the term 'Citizen Science'.  Scientists are supposed to be embracing 'Citizen Science' and all that.  But I can't get rid of the feeling that it's a patronizing term.  Nor can I ignore the echo that scientists are something other than citizens.  Lose-lose.

The patronizing, maybe you don't see it.  But consider some other realms of activity.  I am, for instance, a runner.  Not a 'citizen runner', just a runner.  I have been in races with some people who were anywhere from slow beginners to world record holders.  In one race, I ran a 10 km against the (then) current men's marathon world record holder (Khalid Khannouchi) and the soon-to-be women's marathon world record holder (Catherine Ndereba).  No, I'm not great.  That's the point.  They ran their 10k, in about 28 and 30 minutes, respectively.  And I ran mine in about 45 minutes.  They were much better than I.  But we all (about 3000 of us) ran the same race, by the same rules, and were called the same thing -- runners.

Or consider music.  At one point, I played clarinet.  With tons of practice, I was able to get reasonably good results and sat near the top of my section in high school.  We were pretty good for a high school band, so maybe I was pretty good clarinetist back then.  The thing is, I know what seriously good musicians were like -- my sisters were both talented, one exceedingly so.  They were oboist and flautist.  The flautist might have been able to turn professional successfully.  Chose not to.  But you notice, again, same terms -- clarinetist, oboist, flautist -- used for us nonprofessionals as for the professionals. 

My take is, let's all go do science.  Not citizen science, just science, period.  Same as music or sports or anything else, some of us make a living at it, and many more will do it for the love of it.  But we're all engaging in the same activity, so let's also call it by the same name.  Same as we do for any other activity.

25 March 2015

How to pick cherries

The not-so fine art of contriving to support the conclusion you predetermined is cherry picking.  Really not a good thing for a scientist to do or condone, but pretty common in politics.  The latest example comes from politician (now presidential candidate) Ted Cruz, being condoned/defended (even praised) by scientist Judy Curry.

Suppose you're interested in global warming, just in understanding what's going on -- not in 'proving' that there is warming, or cooling, or that temperatures are unchanged.  You're an actual skeptic -- looking for evidence and where the evidence leads.  One thing you learn pretty quickly in your skeptical explorations is that you need 20-30 years of data to define a global climate temperature.  Shorter than that, and your answer depends sensitively on your averaging period.  As a skeptic, you don't want such unreliable methods.  Apply the 30 years to a number of data records (below), and you get the answer that climate has been warming, 1.3-1.7 K/century (2.3-3.1 F).

As a cherry-picker, committed to finding a particular answer, however, you go straight for the option of using short spans -- look for a record length that will give you the answer you want, then ignore the fact that your answer changes if a couple years are added or subtracted.

05 March 2015

Merchants of Doubt Movie

Do go see the Merchants of Doubt Movie.  Los Angeles and New York March 6 opening, Chicago, San Francisco, and Washington DC the 13th.  More widely starting the 20th of March.  The movie is inspired by the book of the same name, about how it is established industries can sell Doubt even in areas where the science is pretty well established.

The movie is not the book, nor does it make the mistake of trying to put the book on screen.  But it does pick up many of the threads, and, most importantly, shows well how the Merchants of Doubt ply their trade.  And it does so in an engaging way.  One element of that being the extended visual, and practical, illustration of close up magic.  Sleight of hand, misdirection, using shills (3 card monte was the example for this) all have their analogues for the Merchants of Doubt.

The phrase itself derives from the tobacco industry, PR firm, which concluded that doubt was their product -- they could not argue the science, but they could still cast doubt.  Decades later (not from the movie) this was echoed by Frank Luntz, who also observed "A compelling story, even if factually inaccurate, can be more emotionally compelling than a dry recitation of the truth," Mr Luntz notes in the memo.

We see this item primarily through the flame retardants theme in the move.  A doctor testifies to legislators about the harrowing death of a child, burned on the parts of its body that were on the non-flame-retardant pillow as opposed to the flame-retarded mattress.  Once the testimony is given, the bill to lift requirements for the chemicals is promptly defeated.  Except, it turns out, and the doctor confirms, that the events in his testimony never actually happened.  But his story was far more compelling that mere recitation of facts about the (in)effectiveness of the fire-retardants.  And that's the important part.  (? For the doctor, at least, and his funders.  See who that turns out to be.)

How did we get to fire retardants from tobacco?  Cancer is a long stretch from fire, after all.  But that's part of the tangled web of merchandising Doubt.  Burning cigarettes start fires.  Tobacco companies could have been told to develop cigarettes that didn't burn so long unattended.  Rather than do so (potentially expensive), they pushed the argument, successfully, that the problem was the couches/mattresses/pillows.  They shouldn't catch fire so easily; that was the real problem.  If you can convince people that it's the fault of couches for letting themselves be burned, rather than of the cigarettes for burning couches (thence homes and people), there are few limits to what you can convince people of.

That's one of the methods of the PR flacks, and those methods are what the movie explores in a number of difference stories and ways.  Climate looms large in the movie, larger than in the book.  That renders it a little hard for me to say much about -- I have too much first hand experience with the people and events.  What I can say from that first hand knowledge (or at worst second hand) is that it represents well how the people in the climate 'debate' actually talk.  And I can say with some confidence that it represents them fairly.  That's true whether it's Marc Morano (who's quite up front about the fact that he is attacking the scientists, not the science, and is pleased about the hate-mail that scientists get after he releases their email addresses) or Katharine Hayhoe (receiving end of some of that hate-mail, a scientist working on understanding climate who has been talking publicly to groups about creation care).  Katharine is also a conservative evangelical Christian.  One of the themes in the moving being about tribalism, so such identifiers sometimes are important.

I don't give away much, the meat is how you get to this point, in observing that I also like Producer/Director Robert Kenner's choice to end the movie with some optimism from Bob Inglis (6 time congressman elected from very conservative part of very conservative South Carolina) as to his belief that the problems of climate change are real (which got him massacred in his last primary) and can be addressed.  The Merchants of Doubt have their successes, as does the magician.  But, as more people see how the trick is done, the fewer who fall for it.  I hope.  See the movie and let me know in the comments what you think.

Since I was at a special preview, I'll write a separate note about that, and about some of the discussion we had with Kenner after the movie.

In the mean time, some potentially useful other links:
Movie's official web site with release dates
Rotten Tomatoes

02 March 2015

Better thoughts

During my weird week, I also had a couple signs of beauty.  Both from my nieces, and one in the midst of sadness.  If I haven't reminded you before: I've got great nieces!

First, from my niece Kristen, whom you've heard from before, an observation about science/scientists:
Somehow I was chosen as one of two students who got to share dinner at an excellent Cuban place (which the school paid for) with most of the chemistry professors and the person who gave a presentation to us tonight about his job as an environmental consultant. So much knowledge was tossed around at the dinner table oh my gosh I feel so lucky to be surrounded by such an interesting group of people. I also feel really proud to be going to a school where the professors and students can eat and be nerds together like one happy dork family :'D
Second, following the death of Leonard Nimoy (best known as Spock, from Star Trek), my other niece Madeline:
Losing our beloved Mr. Spock left me with an empty part of my heart, being that my best friend and I call each other Kirk and Spock. In the words of that same friend we must not think of the fact he is gone, but to remember all of the good times we had with him.

01 March 2015

A weird week

Between people denying that there is a correlation between CO2 and temperature and several other items, last week was just plain weird for me.  A few pieces of, I hope, some more general interest.

One is, of course, the reminder that CO2 is indeed correlated with temperature.  And, of course, since that original article is pushing 6 years old, I should make an update.  (Clue: The conclusions won't change much -- 6 years isn't large compared to the 50+ already used.)  But also the reminder that I really should write that note I've had in mind about just what correlation is.

Then there was the (different) anonymous also on twitter who seemed to think it was terrible that a comment was made equating people on 'the other side' were as bad or worse than the worst mass murderers.  I don't hold with such comments, and the blog in question was for a group that I'm a member of (National Center for Science Education.  But, by the time I saw the tweet from the anonymous the next morning the comment had been deleted.  I agree with the deletion -- if we are talking science, there's no need or point to equating others to mass murderers.  The anonymous was continuing to complain even after the comment was deleted, though.  Don't get that, nor the fact that a different (and higher profile) blog published a main article equating people in climate science to terrorists and mass murders, yet it (the anonymous) has no objection to that.  Nor, to be pragmatic, why it sent me the tweet rather than the owner of the blog.  I may wield awesome power, but that's mostly in my own mind -- not in every organization that I happen to be a member of.

In the midst of those, there was an idiot congressman (Grijalva, D-AZ) deciding to launch a fishing expedition on people, whose testimony he didn't like, got their funding from.  I'm all in favor of disclosure of all funding by people who testify to congress.  But not such selective application of the principle.As it stands, only government funding need be disclosed.  That strikes me as a problem  If you're happy with oil company funding not being disclosed, though, how happy are you that Greenpeace/Earth First!/... funding also doesn't need to be disclosed?  And vice versa if you're not fine with business disclosure.  For the same reasons, I also opposed the fishing expeditions of Joe Barton (R-TX) against Mann, Bradley, and Hughes (2005). 

I suppose there's a certain theatrical interest in what will follow now.  Republicans have officially decried (James Inhofe, R-OK, chair, Senate Environment and Public Works Committee) such fishing expeditions.  But Republican Lamar Smith (R-TX), chair of the House Science, Space, and Technology Committee, is pursuing his own fishing expedition against the National Science Foundation for funding proposals on, for instance, internet security and fraud detection.  Myself, I'm in favor of internet security and fraud detection. 

And then there's been the recent fishing expedition announced by Dana Rohrabacher (R-CA) against NASA for its temperature record analysis.  The analysis that agrees extremely well with results from NOAA, the Japanese Meteorological Agency, the Berkeley effort at re-analyzing all data from ground zero and re-inventing all wheels, .... 

Oh well.  Then there were the llamas, and much to-do about someone's dress?  A weird week.

Next post will be about a couple more substantive, and constructive, aspects to the week.

26 February 2015

Question place 2015

Time to hang out the shingle again for questions.  What would you like to know about?

In the mean time -- See Dr. Kate Marvel's distressingly accurate description of the peer review process.  Fortunately it isn't always like that.  Unfortunately, it sometimes is, or at least is close.  While you're at it, add her to your regular reading.  See her also at @DrKateMarvel on twitter.

Also, If you need your fellow scientists to be dry & stern & aloof in order to take their work seriously, you are a terrible scientist. @AstroKatie  Scientists are usually passionate about their science.  How that gets expressed, varies.  Some like the dry+stern+aloof approach.  Some like the yippee! approach.  As she also said, versus the dull and inaccurate 'scientists mystified by X' headlines: All headlines about unexplained phenomena should read "Scientists Super Excited to Find New Juicy Juicy Mystery to Gleefully Obsess Over"

19 February 2015

Forecast Evaluation

Boy, blow one historic blizzard forecast and people get all cranky*.  Except, as H. Michael Mogil discusses, it was an almost perfect forecast.  For the specifics of that storm and its forecast, I refer you to Mogil's article.

I'm going to take up the more narrow topic of forecast evaluation.  (Disclosure: I do work for NOAA/NWS, but, as always, this blog presents my thoughts alone.  Not least here, because I agree more with Mogil than the head of the NWS, Louis Uccellinni, about this forecast.)  One school of forecast (or model) evaluation looks at computing large scale statistics.  The most famous one for global atmospheric models is the 5 day, 500 millibar (halfway up the atmosphere), wave number 1-20 (large scale patterns), anomaly correlation.  When people refer to the ECMWF model (or 'Euro') being better than the NWS's model (GFS), this is usually the number that is being compared.  But I don't live halfway up the atmosphere, nor do most of you.  We're somewhere near the bottom of the atmosphere.  And there is much more of interest than just average temperature through a layer of the atmosphere.  So there are many other scores (dozens of them) -- See http://www.emc.ncep.noaa.gov/gmb/STATS_vsdb/ for some examples and discussion of what the scores mean.

Most of those scores, though, don't get to my personal -- weather forecast consumer -- interest.  Namely, I'm trying to make a decision of some kind.  NYC, which heard a forecast of 24" (60 cm) but got 9" (22 cm), presumably made decisions that they wouldn't have if they'd heard the perfect forecast that hindsight now provides.  It's here, I think, that we get to the meat of forecast evaluation.  Had this same error been made over the ocean, rather than over the most populated city in the US, with the rest being as it happened, the NWS would be getting praised for their great forecast.  The important part was not difference between reality and forecast, but number of people who made the wrong (in hindsight) decisions.

So let's explore evaluating forecasts by way of our decisions.  I don't make decisions for major metropolitan areas, and not about street plowing and so forth, so will leave that aside.  One realm of weather-affected decisions is in my running.  Let's ignore summer decisions (I'd as soon avoid thinking about what summers are like here) and go with the path as temperatures drop.  Normal gear -- in pleasant weather conditions, is t-shirt and shorts.  Once it cools below 60 F (16 C), I pull on a pair of gloves for my run.

17 February 2015

Chandler and the Chandler Wobble

The fact that the earth wobbles was expected/predicted long before it was observed, which makes for a couple stories about the nature of science and the people who do it.  The story of the Chandler wobble starts up almost a century before Chandler was born.  In 1765, the Swiss mathematician Leonhard Euler, whose name appears throughout mathematics and physics, was examining the mathematics for conservation of angular momentum on a rotating spheroid -- i.e., something like the earth.  It turned out that such a body could have a wobble on top of its regular rotation.  Given what was known about the shape of the earth then, Euler predicted a period for his wobble of about 305 days.  (Modern information doesn't change this number much.)

The magnitude of such a wobble could also be estimated from the law of conservation of angular momentum, and was somewhere around 0.1 seconds of arc.  That made for a difficult observation in 1765, and it wasn't until 1841 that astronomers started trying to observe this 10 month (305 day) wobble.  Given data analysis methods of the day -- pencil and paper -- analyses were done looking to see if there was a signal with a 10 month period.  No such signal was found, even though several people looked.  Side note being that one of the astronomers who looked in to this was Friedrich Bessel, who was the first person to measure the parallax (thence distance) to a star.  Quality of observing skill was not an issue in his failure to detect the wobble. 

Enter, then, in the late 1880s the next start of our story, and some options of how to tell it.  I could tell the story about a 'lone genius, toiling in obscurity until his great moment'.  It would be doing some fair amount of violence to reality, but that hasn't stopped all story tellers.  Chandler was indeed not being paid to do science.  He made his living as a merchant.  But keep in mind, though, that in the 1800s, 'scientist' even as a label was fairly new, and very few people who were scientists, or rather, who were doing science, did it full time.  Many were men of independent means who used their free time to try to understand the world.

Chandler was one such, but his roots in astronomy extended far back -- to high school.

16 February 2015

New blog -- Philosophically Purple

Very different topics than here, very different writing style, but one similarity -- a love of the universe.  Secondary similarity is that the author is my sister. 

Philosophically Purple

From the close of her first note:

You will have to forgive what I can assure you will be phrasing and punctuating that lives outside the happy boundaries of the Chicago Manual of Style. I am aware of punctuation, I just reserve the right to use it — and word choice — as I see fit. Yep, control issues all over the place here.

My ponderings tend to run along the themes of living life well, kids, being a lifelong student, and friendship. If that has value to you, then come on over to this blog as often as you like. I’ll have a plate of metaphorical cookies at the ready.


09 February 2015

The earth wobbles

The earth wobbles about in its rotation.  This was predicted long before it was observed, which is a story itself that I'll tell later.  For now, consider the earth and its rotation.  The north pole of the earth points towards the north star, and rotates once per day.  Open your right hand.  Your thumb points north, and when you close your fingers, they are moving in the direction of the earth's rotation.  With your arm making a right angle at the elbow, hand aiming away from your torso, you have an x-y coordinate system.  When you rotate your forearm, that moves your thumb in the x direction (positive or negative), when swing your arm forward/backward, that's the y direction.

The thing is, the earth (your thumb) doesn't always point in exactly the same direction.  There's a small bit of variation.  That's the wobble.  Since astronomers make their observations from the earth, it's very important to know exactly where the earth is pointing at any instant.  This lead (over 100 years ago) to the foundation of the IERS -- International Earth Rotation and Reference Systems Service.  Daily data from 1 January 1962 to (very nearly) the present are available at http://datacenter.iers.org/eop/-/somos/5Rgv/getTX/213/eopc04_08.62-now
Two things stand out to me in looking at this: There's a very slow tendency to increase x and y over time (increasing movement of the north rotational pole away from the original 0 point), and the more dramatic periodic variation.  The business of having slowly varying amplitude (size of the up and down) for the fast variations suggests a 'beat' is going on.  Namely, there are two different periodic variations going on.  When they're both at maximum, you get a large amplitude.  When they're at minimum, you've got a small amplitude.

22 January 2015

Amateurs on climate

Amateurs are the people who do something for the love of it, without getting paid for it.  I get paid for doing what I love, so don't get to be called an amateur*.  One of my favorite amateurs on climate is Jan Schloerer.  He was active in the Usenet group Sci.environment in the 1990s, and wrote a number of articles on climate for nonprofessionals.  A number of excellent articles.  He ok'd my posting them to my personal web site (I used to be on radix.net) and I'm now, finally, moving my personal site to www.grumbinescience.org.

Two of the great things about Jan as an amateur writer on climate was that he wrote for other people who also were not professionals, and that he paid a lot of attention to what was in the scientific literature, citing thoroughly where data and conclusions came from.  Therefore, even though it's 15-20 years since he wrote the articles, they remain relevant and correct as far as they go.  Good job Jan!

On a different side, Jan is (was?  nobody I know has heard from him in years) a very caring person.  When the US government shut down in the 1990s, he knew that I was working for it, so not being paid.  He offered to help me out financially if needed.  Fortunately it wasn't.  But he is/was the kind of person who speedily thought about the possibility that I could be in some difficulty, and offered help immediately if it might be needed.

Jan's articles (I'm not sure I have the most recent versions, so any errors are mine, not his, and the formatting is all my fault -- to be fixed Real Soon Now; updates will be coming):
Climate Basics
How we know humans are the source of the CO2 increase
Readings on climate change
CLIMAP -- the climate mapping project (1970s-early 1980s)

* Well, on my oceanography/glaciology/... work.  On other things I am indeed an amateur.  I hope in my amateur activities to approach Jan's level. 

19 January 2015

Martin Luther King Jr. Day

I share the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s dream.  Among other things, for people to be judged by the content of their character rather than the color of their skin.  It is an ideal.  Since that dream has still not been achieved more than 50 years after he gave the speech, it's apparently a challenging ideal.  Given events of the last few years, I'm not confident that we're closer to it than we were 20 years ago.  Maybe I was just that naive 20 years ago, maybe I just hear about more than I used to.  And maybe we as a nation have ceased the effort towards that ideal.  In many respects, though, it doesn't matter.  Something is only an ideal if you are approaching it ever more closely through time.  And that's not where we are.  It's only an ideal if, indeed, people actually agree that it is an ideal to strive for.

I also encourage all to read his letter from a Birmingham jail.  Not only is it a fine piece of writing, it mentions many specifics of our (USA) failure to live to our ideals as expressed in the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence.  The preamble to the constitution reads:
We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.
  It is not justice for the law to be applied differently based on the color of someone's skin, rather than the content of their character.  It does not ensure domestic Tranquility to make police forces comparable to occupying military forces.  Nor can the Blessings of Liberty be secured by treating part of your citizenry like 'other' -- not truly citizens, not really deserving of the Blessings of Liberty, or Justice.

I've seen some bizarre interpretations of the Constitution.  For some, since the constitution was written by slaveowners, slaves and their descendants are not included as part of 'We the People'.  Other absurdities on par with that abound.  But, if one wants to tread that route, be sure that all of your ancestors signed the Declaration.  None of mine did, so I incline to the interpretation that it is a) people and b) of the United States -- all citizens -- who should be (ideals again) included.  Even though for more than four score and seven years we treated part of our population as property.  The step forward in ideals is to include all our people.

About a century before letter from a Birmingham jail was Civil Disobedience, by Henry David Thoreau.  He was in jail, on grounds of his protest of his taxes going to support slavery.  For both men, there was this consistency, often lost by current people: They knew full well that in breaking unjust laws, they would likely go to jail for it.  That is part of engaging in civil disobedience.  When a friend visited Thoreau in jail, the friend asked "How can you be here?" (in jail).  Thoreau answered "How can you not be?"  A couple years ago, I testified in favor of giving civil protections to a class of people who were being discriminated against, not for reasons of their character.  I was astonished by one of the people testifying against the nondiscrimination law.  Not, sadly, because she was opposed, but because of her panic reaction to a later person noting that our names would be recorded and history would judge us.  If you argue that public law should be one way or the other, you should certainly be willing to be known for it!  Not even a threat of jail time.  Ideals mean little if you are not even willing to be known to hold them.

I don't have answers, but this year I'll be doing more towards achieving those, and below, ideals.

07 January 2015

Edging towards a climatology

I say edging towards climatology because the process of going from here, a state of not really knowing what the climatology is, to there, a state of having pretty solid knowledge, isn't one I like to take in a single jump.  Even if scientists in professional journals present their work as if we did it in one jump, we seldom do it this way.  Plus, for our purposes here, it's more meaningful to proceed in successive approximations

For data, I'm going to use the Climate Forecast System Reanalysis (v2).  I'll also be using the high resolution, in time and space, versions of the data.  This leads to some pretty big files (unpacked, it is about 2 Gb per month, and remember there'll be 360 months for a 30 year climatology).  So you might want to go with the lower resolution for your own initial exploration.

To start with, let's look at the 2 meter air temperature, where I've converted temperatures to Celsius (from Kelvin).  30 C = 86 F, 0 C = 32 F.  The total planetary range is a bit over 70 C from the very coldest areas (Antarctic Plateau -- below -40 C) to the warmest (pretty much the whole tropics).

02 January 2015

Happy Perihelion 2015!

I was late to with you a happy New Year for 2015, so hope the perihelion (our closest approach to the sun each year, typically January 3rd) passes well for everyone and kicks off a year of good events and health.

Year turnovers are good opportunities to look back at what I did the previous year (some good, some not so good, and not much blogging) and ponder what to do in the coming year (more good, less not so good, and more blogging).  In the blogging side of the coming year, I plan to be more regular in posting.  Part of that will be that I'll be less restrictive about scaring people with math.  I'll at least hide the scarier stuff at the bottom and give fair warning :-)

Two strains of posts will be new this year.  One will be, let's call it "Journal of Spectral Climatology".  Obviously not a peer-reviewed journal, but I'll be taking a whack at looking at climate not so much in terms of 'today's expected high temperature is ...' as 'in this part of the world, you expect summer to be this much warmer than winter'.  Or ditto for day versus night.  And then ... we'll see. For data source, I'm going to pound on the NCEP Climate Forecast System Reanalysis.  (that's where to get the data, for description of the sources, see Saha, Suranjana, and Coauthors, 2010: The NCEP Climate Forecast System Reanalysis. Bull. Amer. Meteor. Soc., 91, 1015.1057. doi: 10.1175/2010BAMS3001.1)

The second, call it "Journal of Hypothetical Climatology".  Two sides to this.  One is, I at least used to read a lot of science fiction, and there are many candidate places to ponder what climate would be like.  Mission of Gravity by Hal Clement is one I particularly like.  Rendezvous with Rama by Arthur C. Clark is another good candidate.  The other side is, getting an exact solution for the real earth's climate is impossible.  But there may be some hypothetical earths for which we can get exact answers.