How is knowledge lost?

At some point in the 1950’s the physics of the Greenhouse Effect was so uncontroversial in the United States that it was the subject of a children’s song. A really great song.

WARNING: This song contains a BANJO accompanimentWARNING

The song is on the You Tube link above and the lyrics are at the end of this article.

Written by folk-singer Tom Glazer, the lyrics show an excellent appreciation of the physics of the greenhouse effect.

After first describing how a greenhouse works, the song describes how the Earth is warmed by solar radiation

The atmosphere is like a greenhouse too
It lets most of the solar rays through
The surface of the Earth absorbs these rays
And re-radiates them as long heat rays

And then, in very sophisticated terms it describes the role of water vapour in the atmosphere

There’s vapour in the air, What does it do?
It doesn’t let the long heat rays pass through
Trapped by the vapour they bounce back and forth,
Re-radiated and re-absorbed

Did you read that?

re-radiated and re-absorbed

Tom Glazer is describing the basic physics of the MODTRAN model of atmospheric transmission! (Link).

Can you imagine a world where it is OK to say “re-radiated and re-absorbed” to primary school children?

Children who learned this song would have a better operational understanding of the physics of the greenhouse effect and global warming than a fair fraction of the population of this country or the USA!

But the terrible truth is that 60 years after it was written, this song and the knowledge it embodies has been lost to popular culture and become – apparently – controversial.

How did we lose this collective knowledge?

Lyrics

What does the glass of a Greenhouse do?
It lets the short solar rays pass through
The objects in the house absorb these rays
And re-radiate them as long heat rays

What does the glass of a Greenhouse do?
It doesn’t let the long heat rays pass through
Trapped by the glass they bounce back and forth,
Re-radiated and re-absorbed

Stay Stay, you long heat rays, Warm up the house on cold cold days
Stay Stay, you long heat rays, Warm up the house on coooooold cold days

The atmosphere is like a greenhouse too
It lets most of the solar rays through
The surface of the Earth absorbs these rays
And re-radiates them as long heat rays

There’s vapour in the air, What does it do?
It doesn’t let the long heat rays pass through
Trapped by the vapour they bounce back and forth,
Re-radiated and re-absorbed

Stay Stay, you long heat rays, Warm up the house on cold cold days
Stay Stay, you long heat rays, Warm up the Earth on cooooooold cold days

Weather Songs

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