Here and there. Now and then

April 21, 2019

Note: Reflecting on what matters to me most, I feel increasingly conscious that the only issue I care about deeply is Climate Change. In my mind, all other issues pale in comparison to the devastation to which we – you, reader and me – are condemning future generations because of our indifference and wilful ignorance.

But even so, I find it hard to know how to act…

On the one hand… 

It has been a beautiful April day.

On the other hand… 

Today, Sea Ice Extent in the Arctic is lower than it has ever been on this date since satellite measurements began in 1979. (Link)

Arctic Sea Ice Extent for March to May from every year since 1979.

Arctic Sea Ice Extent for March to May from every year since 1979.

On the one hand… 

I strongly support the aims of Climate protesters in London. I share their profound frustration.

On the other hand… 

I feel the protesters are not being honest about the impact of the actions they advocate.

For example, I think if their wishes were granted, we would all be obliged to use much less energy and I only know two ways to do that.

  • The first method is to increase the price of energy – famously not a route to popularity.
  • The second method is to ration energy which has not been attempted in the UK (that I can recall) since the 1974 Oil Crisis.

One could use some combination of these two methods, but I don’t know of any fundamentally different ways.

We are all in favour of ‘Saving the Planet’, but higher energy costs or rationing would be wildly unpopular. This would increase the cost of almost all products and services.

I would vote for climate action and an impoverishment of my life and my future in a heartbeat. But I am well off.

Unless other people are convinced, and until we find a way to address this problem which is acceptable to those who will be most hurt in the short term – poorer people –  it never actually happen. And all I care about is that it actually happens.

On the one hand… 

I strongly support the goal of a zero-carbon economy.

On the other hand… 

If the existing carbon-intensive economy reduces in scope too fast, then we will lack the resources to create the new economy.

On the one hand… 

David Attenborough spoke movingly on television this week about ‘Climate Change: the facts.

David Attenborough

David Attenborough

I watched his programme and while it’s not the story I would have told, it seemed to me to be a pretty straightforward and a fair presentation.

On the other hand… 

Not every one thought it fair. Here are specific comments (1, 2) or follow these links for torrents more similar stuff (Link#1, Link#2, Link#3). I disagree with these people, and their specific points are broadly irrelevant. But their votes are worth just as much as mine.

On the one hand… 

I am trying hard to lower the amount of energy I personally use.

I am measuring the energy use of appliances, reading my meters once a week and switching things off.

My aim is to reduce the electrical power being used by an average of more than 200 watts.

Over one year this will reduce my carbon dioxide emissions by around 0.35 tonnes. (Link).

On the other hand… 

Last year I was invited to give a keynote talk at a conference in New Zealand. I was honoured and said ‘Yes’.

This will cause an additional 7.4 tonnes of carbon dioxide to be emitted. (Link)

CO2 flight to New Zealand

Andrea Sella has written about this issue and perhaps we are at the end of the era of hypermobility.

On the one hand… 

I felt sad when I saw Notre Dame in flames.

On the other hand… 

I feel sad about droughts and floods and wild fires and destroyed livelihoods and brothers and sisters in poverty around the world.

If billions of euros can be found ‘in an instant’ for Notre Dame, why can’t we address these much more serious and urgent problems as dynamically?

And on this Easter day, I think:

What would Jesus do? 

 

I’m gonna sit right down and write myself a paper

April 9, 2019

 

I’m gonna sit right down and write myself a paper

(with apologies to Fats Waller)

I’m gonna sit right down and write myself a paper

And make believe that it’s all true

My Method’s technically sweet

with results to knock me off my feet.

Refer-en-ces at the bottom

I’ll be glad I got ’em

 

I’m gonna pick the best of my ‘typ-i-cal’ data

Make a table and a graph or two

I’ll do the theory section later

With my collaborator

We’ll add some x’s, y’s, and zee’s

To impress the referees.

 

I need more citations for that job at CalTech.

They won’t take me with a h-index of two

But if I can get this paper

Into ‘Science’, or to ‘Nature’

I’ll be on my way…

…to Cal-i-forn-i-a…

 

I’ll conclude and say that more work is required

And further funding should accrue…

I’m gonna sit right down and write myself a paper

And maybe I’ll acknowledge you.

 

Cloud in a bottle!

March 22, 2019

One of the best parts of the FREE! ‘Learn About Weather‘ course, was the chance to make a cloud in a bottle. Here’s my video!

The demonstration involves squeezing a bottle partly filled with water and then letting go. One can see a cloud form as one lets go, and then disappear again when one squeezes. Wow!

But there is a trick! You need to drop a burning match into the bottle first!

Heterogeneous versus homogeneous nucleation

How does the smoke make the trick work? It’s to do with the way droplets form – a process called nucleation.

There are two ways for droplets to nucleate. An easy way and a hard way. But those words are too short for scientists. Instead we call them heterogeneous and homogeneous nucleation!

  • Heterogeneous nucleation‘ means that the water droplets in a cloud form around dust or smoke particles. The ‘hetero-” prefix means ‘different’, because there is more than one type of entity involved in forming droplets – dust and water.
  • Homogeneous nucleation‘ means that the water droplets in a cloud form spontaneously without any other type of particle being present. The ‘homo-” prefix means ‘the same’, because there is just one substance present – water.

The experiment shows that hetero-gen-e-ous nucleation is dramatically easier than than homo-gen-e-ous nucleation. And in reality – in real clouds – practically all droplet formation is heterogeneous – involving dust particles.

The reason is easy to appreciate.

  • To form a tiny droplet by homogeneous nucleation requires a few water molecules to meet and stick together. It’s easy to imagine three or four molecules might do this, but as new molecules collide, some will have higher than average energy and tend to break the proto-droplet apart.
  • But a dust or smoke particle, though small by human standards (about 0.001 mm in diameter), is roughly 10,000 times larger than individual molecules. So its surface provides billions of locations for water molecules to stick. So when the average energy of the water molecules is at the appropriate level to form a liquid, the water molecules can quickly stick to the surface and cause a droplet to grow.

How big is the temperature change?

Squeezing the bottle compresses the air quickly (in much less than 1 second) and so (because the air is a poor conductor of heat), there is no time for the heat of compression to flow from the gas into the walls and the water (this takes a few seconds) and the air warms transiently.

I was curious about the size of the temperature change that brought about this cloud formation.

I calculated that if the air in the bottle changed volume by 5%, there should be a temperature change of around 6 °C – really quite large!

Squeezing the bottle warms the air rapidly – and then over a few seconds the temperature slowly returns to the temperature of the walls of the bottle and the water.

If one lets go at this point the volume increases by an equivalent amount and the temperature returns to ambient. It is this fall which is expected to precipitate the water droplets.

To get the biggest temperature change one needs a large fractional change in volume. I couldn’t do the calculation of the optimum filling fraction so I did an experiment instead.

I poked a thin thermocouple through a bottle top and made it air tight using lots of epoxy resin.

Bottle

I then squeezed the bottle and measured the maximum temperature rise. The results are shown below.

Delta T versus Filling Fraction

The results indicate that for a bottle filled to around three quarters with water, the temperature change is about 6 °C.

But as you can see in the video – it takes a few seconds to reach this maximum temperature, so I suspect the instantaneous change in air temperature is much larger, but that even this small thermocouple takes a couple of seconds to warm up.

Happy Experimenting

The Met office have more cloud forming tricks here.

 

 

 

Learning about weather

March 17, 2019

I have just completed a FREE! ‘Learn About Weather‘ course, and slightly to my surprise I think I have learned some things about the weather!

Learning

Being an autodidact in the fields of Weather and Climate, I have been taught by an idiot. So ‘attending’ online courses is a genuine pleasure.

All I have to do is to listen – and re-listen – and then answer the questionsSomeone else has selected the topics they feel are most important and determined the order of presentation.

Taking a course on-line allows me to expose my ignorance to no-one but myself and the course-bot. And in this low-stress environment it is possible to remember the sheer pleasure of just learning stuff.

Previously I have used the FutureLearn platform, for courses on Global WarmingSoil, and Programming in Python. These courses have been relatively non-technical and excellent introductions to subjects of which I have little knowledge. I have also used the Coursera platform for a much more thorough course on Global Warming.

So what did I learn? Well several things about about why Global Circulation Cells are the size they are, the names of the clouds, and how tornadoes start to spin. But perhaps the best bit was finally getting my head around ‘weather fronts’.

Fronts: Warm and Cold

I had never understood the terms ‘warm front’ and ‘cold front’ on weather forecasts. I had looked at the charts with the isobars and thought that somehow the presence or absence of ‘a front’ could be deduced by the shapes of the lines. I was wrong. Allow me to try to explain my new insight.

Air Mixing

Air in the atmosphere doesn’t mix like air in a room. Air in a room generally mixes quite thoroughly and quite quickly. If someone sprays perfume in one corner of the room, the perfume spreads through the air quickly.

But on a global scale, air doesn’t mix quickly. Air moves around as ‘big blobs’ and mixing takes place only where the blobs meet. These areas of mixing between air in different blobs are called ‘fronts’

Slide1

In the ‘mixing region’ between the two blobs, the warm – generally wet – air meets the cold air and the water vapour condenses to make clouds and rain. So fronts are rain-forming regions.

Type of front

However it is unusual for two blobs of air to sit still. In general one ‘blob’ of air is ‘advancing’ and the other is ‘retreating’.

This insight was achieved just after the First World War and so the interfaces between the blobs were referred to as ‘fronts’ after the name for the interface between fighting armies. 

  • If the warm air is advancing, then the front is called a warm front, and
  • if the cold air is advancing, then the front is called a cold front.

Surprisingly cold fronts and warm fronts are quite different in character.

Warm Fronts 

When a blob of warm air advances, because it tends to be less dense than the cold air, it rises above the cold air.

Thus the mixing region extends ahead of the location on the ground where the temperature of the air will change.

The course told me the slope of the mixing region was shallow, as low as 1 in 150. So as the warm air advances, there is a region of low, rain-forming cloud that can extend for hundreds of kilometres ahead of it.

Slide2

So on the ground, what we experience is hours of steady rain, and then the rain stops as the temperature rises.

Cold Fronts 

When a blob of cold air advances, because it tends to be more dense than the warm air, it slides below it. But sliding under an air mass is harder than gliding above it – I think this is because of friction with the ground.

As a result there is a steep mixing region which extends a little bit ahead, and a short distance behind the location on the ground where the temperature of the air changes.

Slide3

So as the cold air advances, there is a region of intense rain just before and for a short time after.

So on the ground what we experience are stronger, but much shorter, rain events at just about the same time as the temperature falls. There generally follows some clearer air – at least for a short while.

Data

I had assumed that because of the messy nature of reality compared to theory, real weather data would look nothing like what the simple models above might lead me to expect. I was wrong!

As I was learning about warm and cold fronts last weekend (10 March 2019) by chance I looked at my weather station data and there – in a single day – was evidence for what I was learning – a warm front passing over at about 6:00 a.m. and then a cold front passing over at about 7:00 p.m.

  • You can look at the data from March 10th and zoom in using this link to Weather Underground.

This is the general overview of the air temperature, humidity, wind speed, rainfall and air pressure data. The left-hand side represents midnight on Saturday/Sunday and the right-hand side represents midnight on Sunday/Monday.

Slide4

The warm front approaches overnight and reaches Teddington at around 6:00 a.m.:

  • Notice the steady rainfall from midnight onwards, and then as the rain eases off, the temperature rises by about 3 °C within half an hour.

The cold front reaches Teddington at around 7:00 p.m.:

  • There is no rain in advance of the front, but just as the rain falls – the temperature falls by an astonishing 5 °C!

Slide5

Of course there is a lot of other stuff going on. I don’t understand how these frontal changes relate to the pressure changes and the sudden rise and fall of the winds as the fronts pass.

But I do feel I have managed to link what I learned on the course to something I have seen in the real world. And that is always a good feeling.

P.S. Here’s what the Met Office have to say about fronts…

What can we do to stop Climate Change?

March 16, 2019

Note: Reflecting on what matters to me most, I feel increasingly conscious that the only issue I care about deeply is Climate Change. In my mind, all other issues pale in comparison to the devastation to which we – you, reader and me – are condemning future generations because of our indifference and wilful ignorance.

How do we stop Climate Change?

We can’t.

We can’t stop Climate Change because the process is already well underway. We are already experiencing human-induced Climate Change and we are committed to many decades more global warming, even in the most optimistic of scenarios.

Given this dismal reality, reducing the extent of the Climate Change to which we are committing ourselves and our children is, in my opinion, the greatest challenge facing humanity.

But I don’t know what to do other than two things: (a)Try to emit less carbon dioxide personally – a real challenge while living a ‘normal’ life. And (b) tell everyone I know that I think this is the greatest challenge facing humanity.

Who needs to act? 

Our schoolchildren are striking to try to force us ‘grown ups’ to do something. I support them. But perhaps we are ‘grown olds’ rather than ‘grown ups’.

‘Grown ups’ often look to serious-minded economists for guidance. Economics is seen – by the establishment at least – as a more sober and practical activity than science – less prone to doom-laden negativity. The 2006 Stern Review was a clear-headed and practical economic plan to address climate change. As far as I can tell, it has been ignored in practice.

The extent of the failure of Economics to address the challenge of Climate Change was made clear to me the other week reading The Economist’s Free Exchange column. Paraphrasing:

The implicit criticism of the economic approach to climate change is not that it is flawed or politically unrealistic, but that it is a category error, like trying to defeat Hitler with a fascism tax.

Might a fascism tax have worked? No, I don’t think so. Stopping Hitler required general mobilisation of the entire population. It involved commitment from all to a goal that made sense despite the hardship and sacrifice

But in fact economics is not just failing to provide a solution, or a mechanism for a solution, it is at the heart of the problem. It currently doesn’t make economic sense to do things which will minimise the global calamity. This is so at the grand scale – where Oil Companies are valued based on reserves which it would be insane to exploit – and on the micro-scale – where insulating a house requires investments that don’t pay back.

Economists would argue that what we need to make the price of emitting carbon dioxide reflect its true long-term cost via a carbon tax. Then the action of the market will efficiently find solutions. But I don’t think this will be any more effective than a fascism tax would have been against Hitler.

Rather, limiting Climate Change is  likely to require something akin to general mobilisation. The effort will require near universal commitment despite the detriment to almost  every facet of almost every activity in almost everybody’s life.

But as have seen in both the UK and France, at the moment people are not prepared to undergo even modest hardships.

  • The gilets jaunes in France were initially protesting about increases in the price of fuel aimed at reducing fuel use – a carbon tax.
  • In the UK, the Fuel Price Escalator was abandoned because increasing fuel prices, even modestly, is unpopular.

Weaning ourselves off carbon consumption is unpopular. People suffer. And as always, poor people suffer the most.

Why is it so hard?

Weaning ourselves off carbon is hard because burning fossil fuels is easy, cheap and brings immediately appreciable benefits to humanity. That is humanity in general, and also humanity’s individuals – you and me.

  • People love the freedom to move around cheaply. It allows them to earn money in new ways. It allows for the efficient concentration of manufacturing and distribution of goods that makes consumer goods cheap. We have no consciousness at all that for every 8000 km (5000 miles) we drive in a typical car – we emit (roughly) one tonne of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. Yes. A TONNE! This carbon dioxide will continue to warm the atmosphere for roughly one hundred years – long after the people who emitted it are dead.
  • People love cheap energy. Cheap electricity brings light and heat and gadgets to our homes and allows for low manufacturing costs. We have no consciousness at all that for every 4 units (kWh) of electricity we use (cost ~ £1) – we emit (roughly) one kilogram of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. In 2017 I used around 6000 units of electricity at home resulting in the emission of roughly 1.5 tonnes of carbon dioxide which will continue to warm the atmosphere for roughly one hundred years – long after my death.

Is there any cause for hope?

… Hope means hoping when things are hopeless, or it is no virtue at all…

GK Chesterton

Personally, I don’t see any. I acknowledge that:

  • progress has been made already – we now emit less carbon dioxide for each unit of electricity delivered than we did even 10 years ago.
  • there are positive political developments. There is talk of Green Deals, political actions that will transform the economic landscape and drive a transition to a renewable energy economy.
  • the practical engineering solutions exist now which can take us from where we are to a post-carbon world a decade or two. No new technology is required.

But these solutions will generally involve people like me, in places like the UK, using less energy, travelling less, and consuming less. I’d vote for these this things in a heartbeat, and pay for these things, but I think I would be in a minority.

Unless people are convinced of the rationale for the changes – changes which will make life materially worse and bring them no benefit in their lifetime – they simply won’t entertain the inconvenience of any practical solution.

So hopeless as I feel, the best I can do is to explain as clearly as I can to everyone I know – and other people I don’t know – why I think that Climate Change is the greatest challenge facing humanity.

And as GK Chesterton also said,

If a thing’s worth doing, it’s worth doing badly.”.

Boltzmann’s Birthday

February 20, 2019

Ludwig Boltzmann, one the greatest scientists of the nineteenth century, was born on this day, 20th February, in 1844.

Boltzmann was a visionary who saw and clearly described the dynamic, atomic, view of the world that we now see as somehow ‘obvious’.

It is therefore puzzling in retrospect that at the age of 62, after a career of substantial achievement, this genius took his own life.

While on holiday at the breathtaking Castle Duino on the Adriatic, he hanged himself one afternoon, while his wife and daughter were out walking.

Of course, we can never know the reasons for his actions. But this tragedy can form a focus for reflections.

And the poem below, written by my brother, Sean, does just that.

Then and Now

My brother wrote the poem for me as a gift for my 59th birthday.

The subject matter – the suicide of a physicist just a few years older than myself – might seem odd to some.

And indeed, although I am no Boltzmann, I am sure the similarities of our situation were on my brother’s mind. We are men about sixty years of age, able to pass for ‘successful’, driven towards our studies but – euphemistically in both cases – ‘unhappy at work’.

But I do not consider the choice of topic odd or ill-judged. My brother simply recognises that although the canvas of my life is smaller than Boltzmann’s, the truths of physics and the pain of despair are both universal.

The poem is based around a structure of elegies written by Rainer Maria Rilke: the Duino Elegies, which he began while staying at the castle where Boltzmann later killed himself.

The poem reflects on the truth that awareness of the true nature of the world, does not of itself bring joy, and does not dispel inner desolation.

Now, as then, we still lack a theory of hope against despair.

I hope you enjoy the poem… It’s quite long, so take your time. Or if you prefer you can download it here (as a pdf) and read it off line.

Note: I hate to even mention this, but I am concerned that some kind friends reading this might worry for my state of mind. These last months have not been a happy time for me and I am indeed finding ‘things’ difficult. But please be assured I am a long way from Boltzmann’s plight.


Boltzmann at Duino – For Michael

By Sean de Podesta

22 December 2018

You hope for something non-theoretical,
Your daughter’s smile,
The sound of your wife’s voice,
Or how she would touch you affectionately
When you were younger;
But now no-one is with you.

On the parapet of a castle,
Atop a high cliff,
One can feel defended and secure –Secure enough to look out over the sea
And contemplate its near-infinity,
To celebrate the life-giving essence of the air
To speculate what forces move the wind;
You have done all these things.
You have contrived poetic expressions
Of your fine elevated feelings;
You have calculated experimentally verified equations

Or one can feel the vertiginous exhilaration
Of contemplating release.
You are an old man, but you could be leaping
Out, out there for a few seconds
(You can make the calculation in your head),
Experiencing the thrill of weightless flight,
Plummeting, Boltzmann, into the depths.
This is just one of many tantalizing
Reflections and temptations.

Like a harp tuned to the wind
Your intellect responds to every disturbance of the ether,
Alert to invisible undulations; you infer
The collisions of atoms and calculate
The long decay of the universe.
It is as if by discovering the laws
You are their creator
And the world is somehow yours.
A humorous conceit: If you were God, The Designer,
You would certainly have used these equations.

But, Boltzmann, this is too proud;
You value humility above pride.
You tune to the field, feel the interactions of atoms
Not out there but inside.
The tuning fork, the aerial, the physicists brain,
Are part of nature, points of awareness
In the universe of itself, and dispersing
(as the equations predict),
To some point of disappearance
With loss of awareness
That you are gone, in the act of thinking,
Till random processes lead to your re-emergence
At some point in eternity’s slow course.
Nature is true, but daunting.
You have studied philosophy
And have become stoic
Up to the limit of pain
And non-endurance

As a man, well-situated but
Suffering the pains of any sixty-year old,
You know that September is the sweetest month
To be on the coast.
Your hotel is comfortable.
You feel not an intellectual but an animal
And when you look over the glittering Adriatic
Under the pale azure sky,
The landscape, seascape, skyscape,
Are like a proxy for infinity
And you feel not just animal, but an animal with a soul.
And you want out of the numinous atmosphere
Something divine to coalesce –
Or semi-divine would suffice:
A beautiful youth who would steal the attention,
Not of your intellect but your heart.
Or better – an angel would emerge
From all the immanent potential in the air,
A guardian angel, who would touch your skin like the sun
Or the warm breeze in the evening, so tender
That you knew you were cherished
And that they were really there.
With an absolute certainty (though you had no equations to prove it).
You would know the universe was benign,
Like God, only requiring no worship,
Simply eliciting gratitude and appreciation.

But your body’s overshadowed as the sun goes down
And for all the opening of your heart
No angel comes.
You know so much, but know nothing.
You intuit the whole arc of the universe
But feel just unworthiness and pain
(Why are you unworthy? You cannot explain.)
And there is this fathomless emptiness within.
You cannot hear your wife’s voice.
When you go to your room without a guardian angel or hope
You are the finite atoms in the infinite vacuum
Looking for something to serve as a rope.

We ask now, too late, what might have brought you comfort?
Did you even want comfort?
Was comfort even possible for you?
Maybe something in you weighed it all
And balanced Boltzmann the man
And what was still possible for him
Against Boltzmann the sum of his particles
And chose to let yourself flow with the entropic stream?

You intuit something
And you want what you intuit –
That’s part of the intuition –
But you don’t know what it is,
And in any case feel unworthy of it.
How is this possible?
It is the x in the equation,
The unknown, generalized,
So that the solution confirms
You are unworthy of everything,
Of anything.
You can claim nothing
In the domain of hope.

This is so unfair, Boltzmann.
Intuitions are true, or feel true
But we cannot quantify or predict them:
And when the reality is statistical,
What we expect may never happen
And seeming miracles can occur
Or, more likely, not occur.
And any particular thing does not matter.
So you feel the angel,
But the angel does not come.
That is what you deserve
Or what you don’t deserve.
In either case, it is certain
Desolation, and it hurts.

If only, Boltzmann, there were
Where things are so beautiful
A proper theory of hope against despair.

Global Oxygen Depletion

February 4, 2019

While browsing over at the two degrees institute, I came across this figure for atmospheric oxygen concentrations measured at a station at the South Pole.

Graph 1

The graph shows the change in:

  • the ratio of oxygen to nitrogen molecules in samples of air taken at a particular date

to

  • the ratio of oxygen to nitrogen molecules in samples of air taken in the 1980’s.

The sentence above is complicated, but it can be interpreted without too many caveats as simply the change in oxygen concentration in air measured at the South Pole.

We see an annual variation – the Earth ‘breathing’- but more worryingly we see that:

  • The amount of oxygen in the atmosphere is declining.

It’s a small effect, and will only reach a 0.1% decline – 1000 parts per million – in 2035 or so. So it won’t affect our ability to breathe. Phewww. But it is nonetheless interesting.

Averaging the data from the South pole over the years since 2010, the oxygen concentration appears to be declining at roughly 25 parts per million per year.

Why?

The reason for the decline in oxygen concentration is that we are burning carbon to make carbon dioxide…

C + O2 = CO2

…and as we burn carbon, we consume oxygen.

I wondered if I could use the measured rate of decline in oxygen concentration to estimate the rate of emission of carbon dioxide.

How much carbon is that?

First I needed to know how much oxygen there was in the atmosphere. I considered a number of ways to calculate that, but it being Sunday, I just looked it up in Wikipedia. There I learned that the atmosphere has a mass of about 5.15×1018 kg.

I also learned the molar fractional concentration of the key gases:

  • nitrogen (molecular weight 28): 78.08%
  • oxygen (molecular weight 32): 20.95%
  • argon (molecular weight 40):0.93%

From this I estimated that the mass of 1 mole of the atmosphere was 0.02896 kg/mol. And so the mass of the atmosphere corresponded to…

5.15×1018 /0.02896 = 1.78×1020

…moles of atmosphere. This would correspond to roughly…

1.78×1020 × 0.02095 =3.73×1019

…moles of oxygen molecules. This is the number that appears to be declining by 25 parts per million per year i.e.

3.73×1019× 0.000 025= 9.32×1014

…moles of oxygen molecules are being consumed per year. From the chemical equation, this must correspond to exactly the same number of moles of carbon: 9.32×1014. Since 1 mole of carbon weighs 12 g, this corresponds to…

  • 1.12×1016 g of C,
  • 1.12×1013 kg of C
  • 1.12×1010 tonnes of C
  • 11.2 gigatonnes (Gt) of C

Looking up the sources of sources, I obtained the following estimate for global carbon emissions which indicates that currently emissions are running at about 10 Gt of carbon per year

Carbon Emissions

Analysis

So Wikipedia tells me that humanity emits roughly 10 Gt of carbon per year, but based on measurements at the South pole, we infer that 11.2 Gt of carbon per year is being emitted and consuming the concomitant amount of oxygen. Mmmmm.

First of all, we notice that these figures actually agree within roughly 10%. Which is pleasing.

  • But what is the origin the disagreement?
  • Could it be that the data from the South Pole is not representative?

I downloaded data from the Scripps Institute for a number of sites and the graph below shows recent data from Barrow in Alaska alongside the South Pole data. These locations are roughly half a world – about 20,000 km – apart.

Graph 2

Fascinatingly, the ‘breathing’ parts of the data are out of phase! Presumably this arises from the phasing of summer and winter in the northern and southern hemispheres.

But significantly the slopes of the trend lines differ by only 1%.  So global variability doesn’t seem to able to explain the 10% difference between the rate of carbon burning predicted from the decline of atmospheric oxygen (11.2 Gt C per year) , and the number I got off Wikipedia (10 Gt C per year).

Wikipedia’s number was obtained from the Carbon Dioxide Information and Analysis Centre (CDIAC) which bases their estimate on statistics from countries around the world based on stated oil, gas and coal consumption.

My guess is that there is considerable uncertainty – on the order of a few percent –  on both the CDIAC estimate, and also on the Scripps Institute estimates. So agreement at the level of about 10% is actually – in the context of a blog article – acceptable.

Conclusions

My conclusion is that – as they say so clearly over at the two degrees project – we are in deep trouble. Oxygen depletion is actually just an interesting diversion.

The most troubling graph they present shows

  • the change in CO2 concentration over the last 800,000  years, shown against the left-hand axis,

alongside

  • the estimated change in Earth’s temperature over the last 800,000  years, shown  along the right-hand axis.

The correlation between the two quantities is staggering, and the conclusion is terrifying. chart

We’re cooked…

 

The Death Knell for SI Base Units?

January 30, 2019

I love the International System of Units – the SI. 

Rooted in humanity’s ubiquitous need to measure things, the SI represents a hugely successful global human enterprise – a triumph of cooperation over competition, and accord over discord.

Day-by-day it enables measurements made around the world to be meaningfully compared with low uncertainty. And by doing this it underpins all of the sciences, every branch of engineering, and trade.

But changes are coming to the SI, and even after having worked on these changes for the last 12 years or so, in my recent reflections I have been surprised at how profound the changes will be.

Let me explain…

The Foundations of the SI

The SI is built upon the concept of ‘base units’. Unit amounts of any quantity are defined in terms of combinations of unit quantities of just a few ‘base units’. For example:

  • The SI unit of speed is the ‘metre per second’, where one metre and one second are the base units of length and time respectively.
    • The ‘metre per second’ is called a derived unit.
  • The SI unit of acceleration is the ‘metre per second per second’
    • Notice how the same base units are combined differently to make this new derived unit.
  • The SI unit of force  is the ‘kilogram metre per second per second’.
    • This is such a complicated phrase that this derived unit is given a special name – newton. But notice that it is still a combination of base units.

And so on. All the SI units required for science and engineering can be derived from just seven base units: the kilogram, metre, second, ampere, kelvin, mole and candela.

So these seven base units in a very real sense form the foundations of the SI.

The seven base units of the SI

The seven base units of the SI

This Hierarchical Structure is Important.

Measurement is the quantitative comparison of a thing against a standard.

So, for example, when we measure a speed, we are comparing the unknown speed against our unit of speed which in the SI is the metre per second.

So a measurement of speed can never be more accurate than our ability to create a standard speed – a known number of ‘metres per second‘ – against which we can compare our unknown speed.

FOR EXAMPLE: Imagine calibrating a speedometer in a car. The only way we can know if it indicates correctly is if we can check the reading of the speedometer when the car is travelling at a known speed – which we would have to verify with measurements of distance (in metres) and time (in seconds).

To create a standard speed, we need to create known distances and known time intervals. So a speed never be more accurately known that our ability to create standard ‘metres‘ and ‘seconds‘.

So the importance of the base units is that the accuracy with which they can be created represents a limit to the accuracy with which we could conceivably measure anything! Or at least anything expressed as in terms of derived unit quantities in the SI

This fact has driven the evolution of the SI. Since its founding in 1960, the definitions of what we mean by ‘one’ of the base units has changed only rarely. And the aim has always been the same – to create definitions which will allow more accurate realisations of the base units. This improved accuracy would then automatically affect all the derived units in SI.

Changes are coming to the SI.

In my earlier articles (e.g. here) I have mentioned that on 20th May 2019 the definition of four of the base units will change. Four base units changing at the same time!? Radical.

Much has been made of the fact that the base units will now be defined in terms of constants of nature. And this is indeed significant.

But in fact I think the re-definitions will lead to a broader change in the structure of the SI.

Eventually, I think they will lead to the abandonment of the concept of a ‘base unit’, and the difference between ‘base‘ units and ‘derived‘ units will slowly disappear.

The ‘New’ SI.

si illustration only defining constants full colour

The seven defining constants of the ‘New’ SI.

In the ‘New’ SI, the values of seven natural constants have been defined to have exact values with no measurement uncertainty.

These are constants of nature that we had previously measured in terms of the SI base units. The choice to give them an exact value is based on the belief – backed up by experiments – that the constants are truly constant!

In fact, some of the constants appear to be the most unchanging features of the universe that we have ever encountered.

Here are four of the constants that will have fixed numerical values in the New SI:

  • the speed of light in a vacuum, conventionally given the symbol c,
  • the frequency of microwaves absorbed by a particular transition in Caesium, atoms conventionally given the symbol ΔνCs, (This funny vee-like symbol ν is the Greek letter ‘n’ pronounced as ‘nu’)
  • the Planck constant, conventionally given the symbol h,
  • the magnitude of the charge on the electron, conventionally given the symbol e.

Electrical Units in the ‘Old’ SI and the ‘New’ SI.

In the Old SI the base unit referring to electrical quantities was the ampere.

If one were to make a measurement of a voltage (in the derived unit volt) or electrical resistance (in the derived unit ohm), then one would have to establish a sequence of comparisons that would eventually refer to combinations of base units. So:

  • one volt was equal to one kg m2 s-3 A-1 (or one watt per ampere)
  • one ohm was equal to one kg m2 s-3 A-2 (or one volt per ampere)

Please don’t be distracted by this odd combination of seconds, metres and kilograms. The important thing is that in the Old SI, volts and ohms were derived units with special names.

To make ‘one volt’ one needed experiments that combined the base units for the ampere, the kilogram, the second and the metre in a clever way to create a voltage known in terms of the base units.

But in the New SI things are different.

  • We can use an experiment to create volts directly in terms of the exactly-known constants ΔνCs×h/e.
  • And similarly we can create resistances directly in terms of the exactly-known constants e2/h

Since h and e and ΔνCs have exact values in the New SI, we can now create volts and ohms without any reference to amperes or any other base units.

This change is not just a detail. In an SI based on physical constants with exactly-known values, the ability to create accurate realisations of units no longer discriminates between base units and derived units – they all have the same status.

It’s not just electrical units

Consider the measurement of speed that I discussed earlier.

In the Old SI we would measure speed in derived units of metres per second i.e. in terms of the base units the metre and the second. And so we could never measure a speed with a lower fractional uncertainty than we could realise the composite base units, the metre or the second.

But in the New SI,

  • one metre can be realised in terms of the exactly-known constants c /ΔνCs
  • one second can be realised in terms of the exactly-known constant ΔνCs

So as a consequence,

  • one metre per second can be realised in terms of the exactly-known constant c

Since these constants are all exactly known, there is no reason why speeds in metres per second cannot be measured with an uncertainty which is lower than or equal to the uncertainty with which we can measure distances (in metres) or times (in seconds).

This doesn’t mean that it is currently technically possible to measure speeds with lower uncertainty than distances or times. What it means is that there is now nothing in the structure of the SI that would stop that being the case at some point in the future.

Is this good or bad?

So in the new SI, any unit – a derived unit or a base unit – can be expressed in terms of  exactly-known constants. So there will no longer be any intrinsic hierarchy of uncertainty in the SI.

On 20th May 2019 as the new system comes into force, nothing will initially change. We will still talk about base units and derived units.

But as measurement science evolves, I expect that – as is already the case for electrical units – the distinction between base units and derived units will slowly disappear.

And although I feel slightly surprised by this conclusion, and slightly shocked, it seems to be only a good thing – making the lowest uncertainty measurements available in the widest possible range of physical quantities.

Weather Station Comparison

January 7, 2019
img_7898

My new weather station is on the top left of the picture. The old weather station is in the middle of the picture on the right.

Back in October 2015 I installed a weather station at the end of my back garden and wrote about my adventures at length (Article 1 and Article 2)

Despite costing only £89, it was wirelessly linked to a computer in the house which uploaded data to weather aggregation sites run by the Met Office and Weather Underground. Using these sites, I could compare my readings with stations nearby.

I soon noticed that my weather station seemed to report temperatures which tended to be slightly higher than other local stations. Additionally, I noticed that as sunshine first struck the station in the morning, the reported temperature seemed to rise suddenly, indicating that the thermometer was being directly heated by the sunlight rather than sensing the air temperature.

So I began to think that the reported temperatures might sometimes be in error. Of course, I couldn’t prove that because I didn’t have a trusted weather station that I could place next to it.

So in October 2018 I ordered a new Youshiko Model YC9390 weather station, costing a rather extravagant £250.

Youshiko YC9390

The new station is – unsurprisingly – rather better constructed than the old one. It has a bigger, brighter, internal display and it links directly to Weather Underground via my home WI-FI and so does not require a PC. Happily it is possible to retrieve the data from Weather Underground.

The two weather stations are positioned about 3 metres apart and at slightly different heights, but in broad terms, their siting is similar.

Over the last few days of the New Year break, and the first few days of my three-day week, I took a look at how the two stations compared. And I was right! The old station is affected by sunshine, but the effect was significantly larger than I suspected.

Comparison 

I compared the temperature readings of the two stations over the period January 4th, 5th and 6th. The fourth was a bright almost cloudless, cold, winter day. The other two days were duller, but warmer, and all three days were almost windless.

The graphs below (all drawn to the same scale) show the data from each station versus time-of-day with readings to be compared against the left-hand axis.

Let’s look at the data from the 4th January 2019

4th January 2019

Data from the 4th January 2019. The red curve shows air temperature data from the old station and the blue curve shows data from the new station. Also shown in yellow is data showing the intensity of sunshine (to be read from the right-hand axis) taken from a station located 1 km away.

Two things struck me about this graph:

  • Firstly I was surprised by the agreement between the two stations during the night. Typically the readings are within ±0.2 °C and with no obvious offset.
  • Secondly I was shocked by the extent the over-reading. At approximately 10 a.m. the old station was over-reading by more than 4 °C!

To check that this was indeed a solar effect I downloaded data from a weather station used for site monitoring at NPL – just over a kilometre away from my back garden.

This station is situated on top of the NPL building and the intensity of sunlight there will not be directly applicable to the intensity of sunshine in my back garden. But hopefully, it is indicative.

The solar intensity reached just over 200 watts per square metre, about 20% of the solar intensity on a clear midsummer day. And it clearly correlated with the magnitude of the excess heating.

Let’s look at the data from the 5th January 2019

slide2

Data from 5th January 2019. See previous graph and text for key.

The night-time 5th January data also shows agreement between the two stations as was seen on the 4th January.

However I was surprised to see that even on this dismally dull January day – with insolation failing to reach even 100 watts per square metre – that there was a noticeable warming of the old station – amounting to typically 0.2 °C.

The timing of this weak warming again correlated with the recorded sunlight.

Finally let’s look at data from 6th January 2019

slide3

Data from 6th January 2019. See previous graph and text for key.

Once again the pleasing night-time agreement between the two station readings is striking.

And with an intermediate level of solar intensity the over-reading of the old station is less than on the 4th, but more than on the 5th.

Wind.

I chose these dates for a comparison because on all three days wind speeds were low. This exacerbates the solar heating effect and makes it easier to detect.

The figures below show the same temperature data as in the graphs above, but now with the wind speed data plotted in green against the right-hand axis.

Almost every wind speed reading is 0 kilometres per hour, and during the nights there were only occasional flurries.  However during the day, there were slightly more frequent flurries, but as a pedestrian, the day seemed windless.

slide4

Data from 4th of January 2019 now showing wind speed on the right-hand axis.

slide5

Data from 5th of January 2019 now showing wind speed on the right-hand axis.

slide6

Data from the 6th January 2019 showing wind speed against the right-hand axis.

Conclusions 

My conclusion is that the new weather station shows a much smaller solar-heating effect than the old one.

It is unlikely that the new station is itself perfect. In fact there is no accepted procedure for determining what the ‘right answer’ is in a meteorological setting!

The optimal air temperature measurement strategy is usually to use a fan to suck air across a temperature sensor at a steady speed of around 5 metres per second – roughly 18 kilometres per hour! But stations that employ such arrangements are generally quite expensive.

Anyway, it is pleasing to have resolved this long-standing question.

Where to see station data

On Weather Underground the station ID is ITEDDING4 and its readings can be monitored using this link.

The Weather Underground ‘Wundermap’ showing world wide stations can be found here. On a large scale the map shows local averages of station data, but  as you zoom in, you can see teh individual reporting stations.

The Met Office WOW site is here. Search on ‘Teddington’ if you would like to view the station data.

Getting off our eggs!

January 5, 2019

While listening to the radio last week, I heard a description of an astonishing experiment, apparently well known since the 1930’s, but new to me.

Niko Tinbergen conducted experiments in which he replaced birds’ eggs with replicas and then studied how the birds responded to differently-sized replicas with modified markings.

Diedre Barrett describes the results in her book Supernormal Stimuli

Song birds abandoned their pale blue eggs dappled with grey to hop on black polka-dot day-glo blue dummies so large that the birds constantly slid off and had to climb back on.

Hearing this for the first time, I was shocked. But the explanation is simple enough.

The birds are hard-wired to respond to egg-like objects with specific patterns, and Tinbergen’s modified replicas triggered the nesting response more strongly than the bird’s own eggs.

Tinbergen coined the term ‘super-normal stimulus’ to describe stimuli that exceeded anything conceivable in the natural world.

Diedre Barrett uses this shocking experimental result to reflect on some human responses to what are effectively super-normal stimuli in the world around us.

Using this insight, she points out that many of our responses are as simple and self-harming as the birds’ responses to the replica eggs.

The Book

In her short book Barrett writes clearly, makes her point, and then stops. It was a pleasure to read.

I will not attempt to replicate her exposition, but I was powerfully struck by the sad image of a bird condemned to waste its reproductive energy on a plaster egg, when its own eggs lay quietly in view.

I found it easy to find analogous instinctive self-harming patterns in my own life. Surely we all can.

But Barrett does not rant. She is not saying that we are all going to hell in a handcart.

She makes the point that super-normal stimuli are not necessarily negative. The visual arts, dance, music, theatre and literature can all be viewed as tricks/skills to elicit powerful and even life-changing responses to non-existent events.

In discussing television, her point is not that television is ‘bad’ per se, but that the intensity and availability of vicarious experiences exceeds anything a normal person is likely to encounter in real life.

If watching television enhances, educates and inspires, then great. But frequently we respond to the stimuli by just seeking more. In the UK on average we watch more than four hours of television per day.

Four HoursSuch a massive expenditure of time is surely the equivalent to sitting on a giant plaster egg.

Barrett’s key point is the ubiquity of these super-normal stimuli in modern life – stimuli with which our instincts are ill-equipped to cope with.

A rational response feels ‘un-natural’ because it requires conscious thought and reflection. For example, rather than just feeling that an image is ‘cute, are we able to notice our own response and ask why someone might use caricatures which elicit a ‘cute’ response?

Barrett ends by pointing out that we humans are the only animals that can notice that we are sitting on metaphorical polka-dotted plaster eggs.

Even in adult life, having sat on polka-dotted plaster eggs for many years, we can come to an understanding that will allow us to get off the egg, reflect on the experience, and get on with something more meaningful.

I am clambering off some eggs as I write.


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